Collect

Collect for Purity (said at every Mass)

Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Thirteen Terrors

By necessity practical and by philosophy stern, these folks were not beautiful in their sins. Erring as all mortals must, they were forced by their rigid code to seek concealment above all else; so that they came to use less and less taste in what they concealed. Only the silent, sleepy, staring houses in the back-woods can tell all that has lain hidden since the early days, and they are not communicative, being loath to shake off the drowsiness which helps them forget. Sometimes one feels that it would be merciful to tear down these houses, for they must often dream.

—H. P. Lovecraft, The Picture in the House

✠     ✠     ✠

I am a fan as well as an author of horror, and I’m correspondingly picky about what things give me that delicious, skin-crawling sensation that we seek from horror. Jump scares, carnivorous aliens, and common murderers don’t do much for me: anybody can write that. What I for one want out of a horror movie is a sense that the range of possible experience has been enlarged; it isn’t mere nervous shock, but imaginative enrichment in the realm of the terrible, that makes really good horror. For those who share that taste, I offer thirteen suggestions for an eerie Halloween this year.


13. The Stress of Her Regard, written by Tim Powers. This brilliant reinvention of the vampire novel which blends its traditional undead antagonists with the Gorgons and the Muses, is a wonderfully persuasive piece of writing. I prefer the romantic yet depraved monsters of Anne Rice (or even Bram Stoker) to the recent flush of merely sentimental vampires that people like Stephenie Meyer have given us, but I prefer Powers’ bizarre, inhuman creations to either. The novel drags in places, but it’s a lavishly constructed world and the characters are beautifully painted.

12. Pan’s Labyrinth, directed by Guillermo del Toro. With this film and the book beneath, I was half-tempted not to count them, since they’re more dark fantasy than horror proper. Then I decided that was stupid because nobody cares, and besides, I recommend them both. Pan’s Labyrinth is a wonderful modern fairy-tale, and, like many good fairy-tales, also contains one of the most terrifying monsters I’ve ever seen, the Pale Man. With del Toro’s trademark effects and perfect sensibility for Faërie, this is not a film to miss if you have the slightest taste for fantasy, foreign film, movies with ambiguous endings, or just great storytelling.

11. Octavia, written by Melinda Selmys. Her short-story collection Against Nature is horror in a stricter sense (and contains some truly chilling stories, particularly ‘Catastrophic Beauty,’ ‘Rite of Atonement,’ and ‘Mother R’lyeh’), whereas Octavia is more along the lines of ‘hard fantasy,’ i.e. that kind of fantasy that is imagined as consistently as good sci-fi, of which Tolkien is the most famous example. The exploration of time, memory, secrecy, and causation in Octavia, and the dark mirror that it gives of the sacrament of Confession was creepy and fascinating to me. There were parts of it I found confusing, but the world and the people that Selmys imagines are captivating.

10. IT: Chapter One, directed by Andy Muschietti. Now, fair dues, I haven’t read the book and I only just saw the film this weekend, but I watched with a critical eye. I give the film a B+, maybe an A-: there were moments that were just a little too stereotyped to be convincing, including a few plot puzzles, although do look at this episode of Film Theory on that subject. But overall it was fantastic—the acting was superb (even though nearly all the principal characters were children), the effects were excellent without descending into mere showing off even once (such a common vice!), and the picture that it gave of the culture of childhood was remarkably good. So many books and movies try to depict children and betray only that the writers haven’t got the faintest recollection of what it was like to be a child, but IT beautifully captured the mixture of innocence, boldness, fear, sin, and that curiously rigid social code that characterize school age.


9. V/H/S, produced by Brad Miska. V/H/S is really a collection of stories within a frame, à la Boccaccio or Chaucer, rather than a single narrative; and not all of those stories are quite as good as the best of them (which, to my mind, are the first sub-frame story, ‘Amateur Night,’ and the fourth, ‘The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger’). The short films are by no means cohesive, so if you don’t like anthologies then this movie is not for you; however, each of the short films is in my opinion creepy as hell in its own right, and if what you’re after is that peculiar shudder, I recommend it.

8. All Hallows’ Eve, written by Charles Williams. A unique book, penned by a devout Christian who knew a great deal more about the theory of ceremonial magic than most people do, All Hallows’ Eve depicts spiritual corruption through sorcery in a way I’ve never seen done elsewhere—plenty of people can write a morally evil character, but a character who is genuinely spiritually evil is beyond the ken of most. Williams is also rare in his power to make the reader feel that they’re dealing with unexplained but powerful realities, as opposed to the much commoner effect of making the reader feel they’re dealing with a villain whose powers the author hasn’t adequately thought out. War in Heaven, Descent Into Hell, and Many Dimensions have similar qualities, but Hallows is, narrowly, my favorite.


7. Nosferatu, directed by F. W. Murnau. This was the first vampire film, and one of the earliest surviving films, a silent movie released in 1922. Rather loosely based on Stoker’s Dracula, it retains the capacity to frighten even a modern viewer, not least because of Max Schreck’s ghastly appearance and manner as the titular vampire: no Lestat or Claudia or Armand, Nosferatu’s Count von Orlok is as visibly animal as he is practically cunning, and the blending of that human, cruel intelligence with the powers of the undead in this movie rivals anything that its modern successors have to offer.

6. Todd and the Book of Pure Evil, created by Charles Picco, Craig David Wallace, and Anthony Leo. Based on a short film of the same name, Todd is a horror-comedy set in a high school, sort of like if Buffy the Vampire Slayer were much more laden with sex jokes, poop jokes, loving tributes to death metal, and were Canadian. I tried Todd and the Book of Pure Evil more or less at random as a Netflix suggestion, and in so doing discovered one of my all-time favorite TV shows. It’s a typical monster-of-the-week format, but with writing so delightful and characters so convincing—even, a mythology so solid, for all its flippancy on the surface—that it blows most of its ostensible parallels out of the water. Not unlike Rick and Morty, one of my favorite things about it is its willingness and power to combine profoundly emotional moments and profoundly stupid (but funny!) jokes in a single episode or even a single scene.


5. The VVitch, directed by Robert Eggers. I must admit, I thought the music for The VVitch was stereotypical and overdone. On the other hand, I thought every other thing about it was just about perfect, so I’m prepared to overlook the music. The acting, the script, the periodicity, the pacing, everything was spot-on; and, most importantly, the titular witch was treated seriously: not as a pretext to critique Christianity (an intrinsically valid but all too often artistically boring pursuit) or to assert some kind of feminine spirituality, nor as a mere delusion—unless the majority of the film’s events were delusions, which is a possible and fittingly terrifying interpretation, though I don’t accept it myself—but as a real and active malice, operative both through temptation to luxury and indulgence and through temptation to paranoia and hatred, just as real evil spirits operate. (See also Eve Tushnet's review of the film in The American Conservative.)

4. Stranger Things, created by Matt and Russ Duffer. Once again this isn’t strictly horror; it’s mixed with period piece (though, the period being the eighties, the periodicity isn’t overstated, which if anything makes it better) and adventure in a rather Spielbergian vein. I’ve only just started season two, but I can definitely testify that season one, while packed with homages to older films and shows, plays with its sources and the tropes they use in a magnificently independent way. The Duffer brothers give their name the lie: practically every detail of Stranger Things is a delight of smart filmmaking.

3. The Invitation, directed by Karyn Kusama. I must also credit Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, the writers of this film, for its brilliance. I grew up in the world of the Waco siege, the Heaven’s Gate suicides, and the scandals of the Church of Scientology, and even (or especially) as a religious person I’m sensitive to the dangers that lurk in the religious and philosophical impulses of man. The Invitation exemplifies those dangers with a realism I’ve never seen anywhere else; it freaked me out about as much as any other movie I have ever watched, with the possible exception of The Blair Witch Project—though since I do not believe in the Blair Witch but do believe in cults, I have to give this movie precedence in terms of pants-staining excellence.

2. This Book Is Full of Spiders, written by David Wong. This novel, the second in the Undisclosed trilogy, surpassed its outstanding predecessor by leaps and bounds. The peculiar brilliance of this novel is the skill Wong displays in juxtaposing the danger of the actual monsters with the danger of fear and hysteria, without minimizing either one. Many authors are all too apt to reduce or eliminate one of these dangers in the name of accenting the other; Wong, properly confident in the world he’s built and his own power as an author, follows each to its logical end in the framework of the universe he’s built, and thus he earns every victory and every horror his book contains. (Note that Spiders is better, but not at all incomprehensible, if you’ve already read the first book in the trilogy, John Dies at the End.)


1. The Babadook, directed by Jennifer Kent. In my experience, this is quite simply the best horror film that has yet been made. The script, directing, and cinematography are superb; the special effects are spot-on; the story has a wonderful balance of the primal fears of childhood and the psycho-social fears of adulthood; and the acting is, in every case, quite simply perfect. I cannot recommend this movie highly enough, and I look forward to literally anything else Kent does.

I’d also like to give an honorable, if fundamentally different, mention to my friend Eve Tushnet’s talk at the recent Doxacon gathering on The Humiliation of Authority in Horror Films, which is illuminating and engaging; I can also recommend Leah Libresco’s Wizardry and the Wounds of the World.

✠     ✠     ✠

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Courtesy of Deep Heaven, Part VI: Largesse

‘Would I push my burden on to anybody else?’
‘Not if you insist on making a universe for yourself,’ he answered. ‘If you want to disobey and refuse the laws that are common to us all, if you want to live in pride and division and anger, you can. But if you will be part of the best of us, and live and laugh and be ashamed with us, then you must be content to be helped. You must give your burden up to someone else, and you must carry someone else’s burden. I haven’t made the universe and it isn’t my fault. But I’m sure that this is a law of the universe, and not to give up your parcel is as much to rebel as not to carry another’s. You’ll find it quite easy if you let yourself do it.’
‘And what of my self-respect?’ she said.
He laughed at her with a tender mockery. ‘O, if we are of that kind!’ he exclaimed. ‘If you want to respect yourself, if to respect yourself you must go clean against the nature of things, if you must refuse the Omnipotence in order to respect yourself, though why you should want so extremely to respect yourself is more than I can guess, why, go on and respect.’

—Charles Williams, Descent Into Hell

✠     ✠     ✠

I pass now to the next aspect of the Anglican patrimony of courtesy, to a quality that I have called Largesse. I might, following my master Williams, have called it Exchange, and in general I think that is the better name. However, I chose the other term for two reasons. One is that exchange, in American English, is (to my ears anyway) a rather businesslike word: economical, impersonal, a little cold. Nothing could be further from what Williams meant by the word; another of its synonyms in his terminology is the practice of Substituted Love. This leads me into my second reason for using the word largesse: exchange, in Williams’ writings, could go very far indeed—he thought it possible, ordinary even, that any two souls could, under God, make an agreement that one would accept the pain of worry or fear or even physical suffering of the other, and the burden of those experiences would really be transferred. I can make little comment on this, since my only experience with such substitution is of that kind realized by the Incarnation and the Crucifixion, which, while glorious, shine with a light that dazzles the everyday intellect.


Beata Beatrix, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1870

But by largesse I mean something broader and simpler than any such mystical intercommunion of experiences. It’s something that we generally describe as generosity, but that doesn’t quite capture the spirit of the thing. For generosity only really covers one ‘side,’ that of the person giving; but the gratitude of the recipient is part of the same movement, as the humility of the penitent is part of the same movement of forgiveness as the pardon of the absolver.1 Likewise, the quality of largesse is not flat; it is fully three-dimensional; it is a whole attitude to giving, whatever is given—be it money or advice or forgiveness or a mother’s milk or a martyr’s blood—that is applied to each instance of gift, without any self-consciousness about the role one assumes. Though he was talking about something else entirely, C. S. Lewis gave a wonderful description of the lightheartedness that largesse implies.

If you devoted every moment of your whole life exclusively to His service you could not give Him anything that was not in a sense His own already. So that when we talk of a man doing anything for God or giving anything to God, I will tell you what it is really like. It is like a small child going to its father and saying, ‘Daddy, give me sixpence to buy you a birthday present.’ Of course, the father does, and he is pleased with the child’s present. It is all very nice and proper, but only an idiot would think that the father is sixpence to the good on the transaction.2

The long-faced ostentation of sacrifice evinced by some virtuous persons is the exact antithesis of the playfulness that characterizes largesse. This isn’t to say that we can always smile while we give of ourselves: sometimes we can’t, and that must be admitted honestly rather than covered up, which would transgress against the quality of precision. But the baseline, the center from which our generosities and gratitudes flow, should be one of joy, laughter, rapidity. The hesitation to accept someone else’s gift that comes from shyness can be appropriate and endearing, but the hesitations that come from guilt and pride are altogether alien to Christ and to the right-minded Christian.3

One of the marks of largesse is to be found in the fact that it regularly exceeds what may be asked of it, for the mere pleasure of giving to and delighting someone else. The prototypical example is that of our Lord changing water into wine at the wedding at Cana; based on how much the evangelist tells us the stone jars of water held, the amount of wine produced by Jesus here was around a hundred and fifty gallons.4 And not just a hundred and fifty gallons of wine, but a hundred and fifty gallons of a vintage that people could tell was top shelf stuff, even when they’d already been partying long enough that the wine they originally had was all gone.

In other words, the gestures of largesse have no concern with justice or need or anything of that kind; the delight of giving is at its heart, both enjoying it oneself, and having the humility to allow others to enjoy it, too. More, delight in the superfluous is at its heart. Largesse values what it gives and does not waste it, since giving what has no value isn’t much of a gift; but it is not cautious or austere. It is a divine prodigality.


This can be contrasted with the temper of other Catholic traditions, which of course have the same doctrine of generosity and mercy but display it with a different style. The character of the Roman Rite proper, for instance, is a magnificence of law: not law as a system of punishment or a substitute for grace (though those are its perennial temptations), but as a system of order, exactitude, clarity, rationality; it is, as it were, Baroque where the Anglican patrimony is Gothic. The generosity of the Roman spirit is, accordingly, expressed much more in a style of cancelled debts and effectual decrees than in terms of kingliness and largesse. What the Roman tradition expresses by declaration, the English tradition expresses by tact.

The contraries of largesse—waste, stinginess, greed, and (we are too susceptible to this) being too proud to receive from others—require little comment. There are a hundred different ways to refuse gift, and they’re all alike: boring.

✠     ✠     ✠

1I specify absolver here because forgiveness can of course occur outside the sacrament of Confession, but the operative principle of forgiveness is the same.
2Mere Christianity, Book III, Chapter 21: Faith.
3Nothing, maybe, is more unlike largesse than that part of Aristotle’s concept of μεγαλοψυχία (megalopsuchia: ‘greatness of soul, proper pride, magnanimity, grandeur’) which makes the man who is both great and virtuous reluctant to accept things from others. Insofar as it means only an unwillingness to impose on others, there is much to be said for it, but the Nichomachean Ethics seems definitely to suggest that a generalized aversion to being a recipient is part of this proper pride that he called the crown of the virtues. The truth is that this disguises a vice which may or may not have been at work in Aristotle, though it definitely seems characteristic of ancient Greek culture: an inability to endure being less than others, a jealousy of one’s dignity, a determination not to be vulnerable or receptive or in need, that is utterly incompatible with Christian religion. Even apart from the economy of forgiveness, the fact that no creature could deserve to participate in the divine nature makes ‘proper pride’ a very petty refusal of God.
4Or around 570 liters, if you’re some kind of socialist.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Courtesy of Deep Heaven, Part V: The City

And thys shewyng I toke singularly to myselfe. But be al the gracious comforte that folowyth, as ye shal seen, I was leryd to take it to al my even Cristen, al in general and nothing in special. Thowe our Lord showid me I should synne, by me alone is understood al. And in this I concyvid a soft drede; and to this our Lord answerid: I kepe the ful sekirly. This word was seid with more love and sekirness and gostly kepyng than I can or may telle. For as it was shewid that I should synne, ryth so was the comforte shewid, sekirness and kepying for al myn even Cristen. What may make me more to love my evyn Cristen than to seen in God that He lovyth all that shal be savid as it wer al on soule?1

—Lady Julian of Norwich, Revelation of Love, The Thirteenth Showing

✠     ✠     ✠

Hierarchy is, for most people today, a much less intuitive idea than republic, i.e. the notion that every human being is equal, in dignity and rights, to every other. Obviously histories, talents, and circumstances differ dramatically from one man to the next, but when the Declaration of Independence, for example, said it was self-evident that all men are created equal, they were talking about the intangible nature of humanity. And at any rate in the Euro-American West, that does seem self-evident. At least, it’s hard to come up with another reason for thinking it’s true than ‘Well, uh … ’cause.’


'Yeah. This is gonna go great.'
'Well, if anybody gets nosy, just, you know, shoot 'em.'
'Shoot 'em?'
'Politely.'

For the Christian, this vague sentiment is crystallized into a serious conviction by two beliefs: first, the doctrine that man is made in the image of God—man, just as such, without any qualifications of age, sex, ethnicity, intellect, goodness, or anything else; and second, the doctrine of the Incarnation, which posits a New Adam who is God as well as man, and through whom, or in whom, or with reference to whom, all men must now be known—he is the metaphysical center of humanity.

This makes republic a very serious business, and indeed, the demands made on us by a serious belief in the equality of men are much bolder than we usually realize. What would our lives be like if we seriously treated the adolescent waiter, the homeless woman, the screaming toddler, the friendly cashier, and the neighbor with the bad BO as our equals? as people with exactly the same importance and worth that we have to ourselves?

Combining hierarchy with republic sounds like a serious difficulty on the surface of it, but actually it can be surprisingly easy. The maxim that governs their interrelation is one given in Downton Abbey, one I quoted in my previous post: We all have different parts to play, and we must all be allowed to play them. Why should there be any indignity in obeying, or any embarrassment in directing, if that is our part to play?—for the word play should be given its full force. The commander does not command because he is better (he rarely is) but because it is his role, and he must say his lines like the rest; if he loses touch with that truth by paying attention to himself, whether in shyness or arrogance, he risks spoiling the play. The equalities of the republic are distributed among the asymmetries of the hierarchy because they allow for beauties to exist that would have no place otherwise: loyalty, devotion, discipline, generosity, protection, awe, adoration. There is nothing democratic in obstructing the role that someone else has been appointed to, any more than there is anything artistic in Hamlet killing all the other characters in the first act. For the point of hierarchy is that it is a diversity of function, not a diversity of importance. And if we seriously believe that differences in purpose or calling are not differences in individual worth, then the mechanic, the housewife, the President, the parish priest, and the screenwriter are genuine equals, even if the social honor that we pay their functions varies. For all those honors are paid with a smile, of irony as well as of delight.


The English, at their best, seem to have a peculiar talent for this double vision—better to say, binocular vision. The famously misinterpreted Magna Charta asserted the rights of the nobles against the king, and the famous misinterpretation that made it an assertion of the rights of the common man against the state was nevertheless in keeping with the democratic spirit of England; yet at the same time, the United Kingdom remains precisely a kingdom to this day, and the mythical glory of the monarchy has been retained, despite the habit of tactfully ignoring the practical power associated with it.

This interplay of republic and hierarchy is a favorite theme in Charles Williams, and its delicate mutual courtesies are often called by him ‘the acts of the City,’ or simply ‘the City.’

What is the characteristic of any City? Exchange between citizens. What is the fact common to both sterile communication and vital communication? A mode of exchange. What is the fundamental fact of men in their natural lives? The necessity of exchange. What is the highest level of Christian dogma? Exchange between men and God, by virtue of the union of Man and God in the single Person, who is, by virtue again of that Manhood, itself the City, the foundation and the enclosure. … This office of substitution did not need Christendom to exhibit it, nor to show of what hostility as well as of what devotion it might be the cause. Christendom declared something more; it declared that this principle of substitution was at the root of supernatural, of universal life, as well as of natural. … If the City exists in our blood as well as in our desires, then we precisely must live from, and be nourished by, those whom we most wholly dislike and disapprove. Even the Church, forgetting that sacred title given to Mary, anthropotokos,2 has too often spoken as if it existed by its own separate life. So, no doubt, sacramentally and supernaturally, it does; but so, by the very bones and blood of its natural members, it very much does not.3

Or, more compactly:

Lancelot came to the Canon; my household stood
around me, bearers of the banners, bounteous in blood;
each at the earthen footpace ordained to be blessed and to bless,
each than I and than all lordlier and less.

Over the altar, flame of anatomized fire,
the High Prince stood, gyre in burning gyre;
day level before him, night massed behind;
the Table ascended; the glories intertwined.

The Table ascended; each in turn lordliest and least—
slave and squire, woman and wizard, poet and priest;
interchanged adoration, interdispersed prayer,
the ruddy pillar of the Infant was the passage of the porphyry stair.4


The Golden Tree and the Achievement of the Grail, Edwin Austin Abbey, 1895

✠     ✠     ✠

1‘And this showing, I took to be true of myself in particular. But by all the grace-filled strengthening that follows, as you will see, I was taught to take it true of all my fellow Christians in general, not of any one alone. Though our Lord showed me that I would sin, by me is to be understood all. And in this I conceived a soft dread; and to this our Lord answered: I keep you, full surely. This word was said with more love and surety and spiritual protection than I can or may tell. For as it was shown that I would sin, just so was the strength shown, surety and keeping for all my fellow Christians. What could make me love my fellow Christians more, than to see in God that He loves all that will be saved as if they were one soul?’
One of the aggravating things about all translation, including translation from Middle to Modern English, is that it’s nearly impossible to get the feel of any specific word exactly right from the source text to the rendering. (Oddly enough, I’ve found this to be truer if the languages are related, since the history of a word is so intimately connected with its meaning.) For instance, I’ve translated the word even in the Middle English here as fellow; but equal, like, impartial, and level would all be equally good translations in differing contexts, as would the modern word even itself; and I find that Lady Julian’s language when left un- or half-translated has a curious charm, so that when certain authors quote her as speaking of her ‘even Christians’ it always makes me smile. One reason I sometimes quote Middle English passages in the epigraphs here, and only translate them in footnotes, is because I’d love for more people to be acquainted with the language, because it’s just so delightful.
2‘Mother of man.’ This corresponds to the other ancient title applied to the Virgin Mary in devotion, Theotokos, ‘Mother of God.’
3Charles Williams, The Image of the City, ‘Anthropotokos,’ pp. 112-113.
4From Williams’ poem ‘Taliessin at Lancelot’s Mass’ in Taliessin Through Logres. The High Prince and the Infant are references to Galahad, who is one of just three knights to achieve the Holy Graal, and was assumed into its resting place (the other two were Percivale, who died in the achievement, and Bors, who alone returned to Camelot). His supernatural purity make him a messianic figure: the word Infant is doubtless a deliberate pun, since on the one hand Galahad has been called the ‘Alchemical Infant’ by Williams in an earlier poem, a symbol of the process of procuring both gold and everlasting life; and on the other, the infant Christ as well as the crucified are regularly associated with the Graal and the Eucharist in Arthurian legend. The porphyry stair is an allusion to the throne room of the Emperor at Byzantium, porphyry being a deep crimson-purple stone used in its construction; meeting the Emperor, in Taliessin, symbolizes the vision of God and of creation’s existence in God.