Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Updike Remembered

Here are a few of my favorite tributes to the man:

Michiko Kakutani had some harsh words to say about Updike while he was alive, but in this piece she takes a more balanced view. In an interview with Sam Tanenhaus of the Times last October, Updike had a few laughs about the chilly reception he received from Kakutani, so it's nice to see her give him the credit he's due, while not glossing over his faults.

As I mentioned before, I am not wild about readings that equate Updike with Rabbit Angstrom, but the Guardian does so gently and with appropriate reservations.

Unsurprisingly, the New Yorker has a nice tribute to their most famous contributor of the last five decades. I'm expecting a large section on him in a forthcoming print edition, but who knows if that's going to happen.

James K.A. Smith responds to Updike's death with characteristic intelligence and sensitivity.

I was surprised how thorough and beautiful this AP writeup is. I especially appreciate the quote on Updike's inability to accept atheism, as I identify with it quite strongly.

This is my favorite of the blog tributes to Updike. I'm highly skeptical of any reading of his work that is not informed by theology, and Ben Myers gets it right.

* * * * * * *

As for me, I'll leave you with my (possibly apocryphal) favorite Updike story.

Updike and his publisher, Knopf, expected Rabbit, Run to be brought up on pornography charges, so Knopf went ahead and hired a lawyer, who called Updike at home in Ipswich, Massachusetts, to set up a meeting with him.

"Well," Updike is said to have remarked, "I can't be there this week. I'm teaching Vacation Bible School."

That about sums it up.

Updike at Rest

John Updike died this morning of lung cancer. He was 76.

I'm as much an expert on Updike as anyone I know, but that being said, it's very difficult to be an expert on Updike. He put out at least one book (and often several) almost every year since 1959. These books stretch across almost every genre--he has poems and short stories and novels and memoirs and even a play. I've read maybe a third of his work, so I'm not sure how qualified I am to talk about him.

He was most famous, of course, for his Rabbit series of novels, which deal with a rather unremarkable man from Brewer, Pennsylvania, and the various women he sleeps with and abuses. Rabbit is often identified with Updike himself, but this comparison has always seemed lazy and unfair to me. Updike is no athlete, for example, while Rabbit played high-school basketball and can't get over it. Rabbit is fiercely unintellectual and lives mostly according to instinct. Updike is one of the great thinkers and talkers of his generation. And so forth.

And it's an important point. My Google alert for "John Updike" brings to my inbox every day a blog or two by an angry feminist who thinks that the author absolutely must approve of his character's behavior. I don't think he does. When he received the Campion Medal, Updike said that he always conceived of his characters as object lessons from Kierkegaard and Barth--Rabbit may attract us with his personal charm, but he should disgust us with his refusal to put aside his own instincts and see the world and God as it is. Updike was, best I can tell, the only major American fiction writer to take religion seriously, and if his critics don't, they won't understand him.

Then there's the sex. Updike's work is famously dirty--its sex scenes are graphic, frequently, and (to be frank) disgusting. He won a lifetime achievement award for Bad Sex last year, and it was mostly deserved. But all that flesh served a purpose. Updike's art was fundamentally incarnational, and in presenting the what and how of sex in graphic terms, he, I think, saw himself as presenting some vision of the grace of God. Also, he was kind of a pervert. Did he go too far? Sure, especially in 1968's Couples, which has not aged well, to put it mildly.

That being said, Updike's best work still hits hard. I begin my Comp II classes with "A&P," a story from 1961's Pigeon Feathers, and this semester, the kids have really responded well to it; nearly half of them have written their first paper on the story. (And Updike died on the day I'm conferencing them about these papers, so that my grief is refreshed and renewed every fifteen minutes.) His talent for fiction declined as time went by, and I don't think he wrote a good novel after 1996's In the Beauty of the Lilies, but his criticism was strong right up until what I think was his last published nonfiction piece, a review of Toni Morrison's latest.

Sometime soon I will discuss a nonfiction piece from Updike's most recent/final collection, Due Considerations, one that feels especially poignant today, one that deals with faith's survival into the modern world. Until then, I'll suggest that his critical and academic reputation will outlast those of the people who hated him, who called him a self-indulgent racist (he wasn't) and sexist (he was, kind of).

The world's loss, perhaps, is heaven's gain, although I'm sure Updike would confess that he had no idea if that's true or not.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Know Thyself, Pt. 2

Part One

It's been awhile since my last post, so I apologize in advance for any discrepancies in tone or content.

As I mentioned last time, Reinhold Niebuhr suggests that the classical and biblical worldviews are necessarily distinct but brought together on the issue of man's contingency. Man is subject to the world around him; really this is to say that he is the object of the world around him, that things happen to him beyond his control and his understanding.

The Jewish tradition differs from the Greek, of course, in its monotheism, from which most of the other differences spring. Suddenly we are presented with a singular God, rather than the capricious and contradictory pantheon of the Greeks--and while there's an argument to made that the God of the Hebrews is capricious and bloodthirsty, He enters into a covenant relationship with Noah, then Abraham, then Isaac, then Jacob, and down through the line. He seeks a relationship with mankind, and if it comes primarily through the nation of Israel, there are at least glimpses in the Hebrew Bible that He wishes to extend it to humanity as a whole. (See, for example, the Book of Jonah, my favorite part of the Hebrew Bible, in which God reveals not only His sense of humor but His concern for those outside of the fold.)

But God's covenant with the Jews does not result in freedom from contingency. It may change man's place in the universe but it certainly does not change the fact that he has one and that it is inescapable. Man's place becomes less fragile but more defined:
"Come now, and let us reason together,"
Says the Lord.
"Though your sins are as scarlet,
They will be as white as snow;
Though they are red like crimson,
They will be like wool.
If you consent and obey,
You will eat the best of the land;
But if you refuse and rebel,
You will be devoured by the sword." (Isaiah 1:18-20, NAS)
This is the message we get over and over again from the prophets: Do what God requires of you, and He will bless you; refuse to do so, and He will cripple you. There's little room in this for self-made morality or for choice as choice. If you submit, you will receive what is coming to you; if you don't--well, you'll also receive what's coming to you, although you may not like it. Either way, God sets the terms of the covenant and the penalties for breaking it.

Note that there is no theodicy in this covenant. God, as far as I can tell, does not promise understanding of the way He works. Nowhere is this more clear than the Book of Job, in which God makes a deal with the devil that he may destroy a righteous man's life. Job keeps his cool for thirty excruciating chapters, at the end of which he finally questions his lot in life. He is innocent, he claims; he has kept the Law of God; he has done what is right, even through the extreme trials he's suffered:
Have I not wept for the one whose life is hard?
Was not my soul grieved for the needy?
When I expected good, then evil came;
When I waited for light, then darkness came.
I am seething within, and cannot relax;
Days of affliction confront me . . .
Have I covered my transgressions like Adam,
By hiding my iniquity in my bosom,
Because I feared the great multitude,
And the contempt of families terrified me,
And kept silent and did not go out of doors?
Oh, that I had one to hear me!
Behold, here is my signature;
Let the Almighty answer me! (Job 30:25-27, 31:33-35)
This is not a harsh statement, exactly; Job does not curse God, as his wife tells him to. He merely asks questions, questions we've probably all asked at some point. But God doesn't explain. He gets angry (and sarcastic--I love it when God gets sarcastic):
Who is this that darkens counsel
By words without knowledge?
Now gird up your loins like a man,
And I will ask you, and you instruct Me!
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth!
Tell Me, if you have understanding,
Who set its measurements, since you know?
Or who stretched the line on it? (38:2-5)
He continues in this vein for two entire chapters, until Job collapses under the weight of his own questions. The moral is clear here--man is what he is, and he can neither understand nor question God's decisions about the operation of the universe. He can only accept it.

The New Testament extends more or less logically from the Old, but it also has the advantage of showing up after Plato and Aristotle had already set the rules for philosophy. As such, St. Paul's admonitions to the Church sometimes read like a combination of Hebrew theology and Platonic philosophy. Nowhere is that more clear than in 1 Corinthians. (I shamefully admit that I shamelessly stole this analysis from Nathan Gilmour, great or otherwise.):
Now you are Christ's body, and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues. All are not apostles, are they? All are not prophets, are they? All are not teachers, are they? All are not workers of miracles, are they? All do not have gifts of healings, do they? All do not speak with tongues, do they? All do not interpret, do they? But earnestly desire the greater gifts. (1 Corinthians 12:27-31)
The echoes of The Republic should be clear--each has his place in life and in the life of the Church, and one must act within one's place. (Paul leaves open a desire for greater gifts but leaves it at desire--you can't make those happen; they must come from God, if they come at all.) Further, that your station depends on gifts rather than merit suggests there's not a whole lot you can do about it. You are what you are, and you have to operate as such.

Christian theologians through the years have softened these hard truths, for better or for worse. This post is already getting long, so I'm not going to go through a lot of them, but I do want to address John Calvin's view on contingency, both because I'm a Presbyterian and because I'm reading through The Institutes right now. Calvin expands and explicates the Book of Job on understanding God. Calvin's God is more understandable than Job's, it is true, but the end result is essentially the same:
Our knowledge should serve first to teach us fear and reverence; secondly, with it as our guide and teacher, we should learn to seek every good from him, and, having received it, to credit it to his account. For how can the thought of God penetrate your mind without your realizing immediately that, since you are his handiwork, you have been made over and bound to his command by right of creation, that you owe your life to him?--that whatever you undertake, whatever you do, ought to be ascribed to him? (Institutes I.ii.2).
Calvin thus collapses knowledge about God into submission to Him; in the end, knowledge and submission become the same thing, since knowledge without submission gets corrupted due to human stupidity--which "is caused not only by vain curiosity but by an inordinate desire to know more than is fitting" (I.iv.1). True knowledge, true wisdom, and true submission are thus all the same thing, all bound up in what Calvin calls piety. To know anything requires a recognition of one's place in the universe and a submission to it.

Next time: Where it all went wrong, at least in America.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Know Thyself, Pt. 1

This post is to a large extent informed by multiple conversations with the Great Nathan Gilmour, who consistently expands and corrects my understanding of Plato (and everything else).

As time and my academic career have progressed, I've moved further and further away from the poststructuralism that I embraced in the late years of my undergraduate education, a philosophy that I think is ultimately nihilistic. My Great Books project has instead made me into a humanist (although I'm a humanist heavily informed by Existentialism, a philosophy that is at its base considerably less nihilistic, despite the nihilism of some of its practitioners). I believe in literature and in its power to change both the individual and society. I believe the canon has something to teach us, despite its much-criticized exclusion of women and racial minorities; and I sometimes wonder what critical and cultural theorists think the purpose of literature is.

The most important lesson we can learn from the humanities, as best I can tell, involves man's contingency, our position somewhere other than the center of the universe. This is the great lesson of the Greeks, of course, particularly the playwrights. It goes without saying that terrible things happen to tragic heroes, things beyond human control, things inflicted upon us by the capricious gods who stand in for a cold and uncaring natural world. Sometimes, as is the case in Oedipus Rex, these things happen as a sort of punishment. But often they happen for no real reason. Such is the case in many or most of Euripides' plays. Heracles kills his family even though he is a national hero, and he does so because Zeus cheated on Hera. Hippolytus may have strayed from the Golden Mean in terms of abstinence, but he probably doesn't deserve to die; he dies because of the actions of his stepmother, and there's no bringing him back from the dead.

Where the playwrights are negative, Plato is more positive. His Republic is a detailed breakdown of how society should work (although he recognizes that it's never actually going to work that way). The Republic is built upon a very detailed system of social strata. Famously, everyone's talents and abilities will be clearly delineated sometime in early childhood, and every citizen will be assigned a particular role, be it Guardian or Gold or Silver or whatnot. The important thing here is not which group you're put in; it's your ability to accept your lot in life:
We said that if any child of a Guardian is a poor specimen, it must be degraded to the other classes, while any child in the other classes who is worth it must be promoted to the rank of Guardian. By this it was implied that all the other citizens ought individually to devote their full energy to the one particular job for which they are naturally suited. In that way the integrity and unity both of the individual and the state will be preserved. (423d)
Plato is often misunderstood. He is a tyrant, it is true, and his Republic is essentially a caste system with little (but not zero) chance for advancement. But he posits such a system not merely out of nationalism. The State is probably more important than the individual, but The Republic's caste system is meant to benefit the individual as well. When a citizen submits to his role in the State, he makes himself whole somehow. And his role is not arbitrarily assigned. It is based on his talents and abilities--it is presumably decided based on what will be best for both the individual and the State.

Aristotle suggests something similar in On Rhetoric. Happiness--which does not carry the modern connotation of emotional fulfillment, but rather the Good or the True--is to a large extent dependent upon contingencies. He makes a list of the components of happiness:
good birth, numerous friendships, worthy friendships, wealth, good children, numerous children, a good old age, as well as the virtues of the body (such as health, beauty, strength, physical stature, athletic prowess), reputation, honor, good luck, virtue. (I.v.4, 1360b)
Some of these components, it is true, are in our control; but many of them are not. If happiness is at least partially and perhaps largely out of our hands, we must recognize this fact. And recognition of one's relatively helplessness is submission to it.

In his wonderful The Nature and Destiny of Man, Reinhold Niebuhr sets forth two guiding philosophies of the Western world: the Christian and the Classical. He suggests that they are at least partially incompatible but they were merged in the Medieval Church and in the secular and religious Renaissance. The point of this merger is the mutual recognition of
The obvious fact . . . that man is a child of nature, subject to its vicissitudes, compelled by its necessities, driven by its impulses, and confined within the brevity of the years which nature permits its aried organic form, allowing them some, but too much latitude. The other less obvious fact is that man is a spirit who stands outside of nature, life, himself, his reason and the world.
Even man's transcendence, however, involves contingency to some extent because it involves alienation, the essential characteristic of man and one that sets him apart from God, the world, other men, and himself. What could better demonstrate man's subjugation to his fate?

In the second post of this series, I will examine the biblical attitude toward man's position in the universe; in the third, I will examine where we went wrong. Stay tuned.

Friday, January 9, 2009


When a great writer dies, I usually try to read his books, especially if I haven't read anything by him before. Such is the case with the death late last year of Conor Cruise O'Brien, an Irish writer, statesman, and contributing editor to the Atlantic. I'd never even heard of O'Brien, which was my loss, I suppose, as I'm about halfway through 1994's On the Eve of the Millennium: The Future of Democracy Through an Age of Unreason and really enjoying it.

O'Brien's big idea is that the concepts of liberalism and liberty formulated during the 18th-century Enlightenment are worth holding onto and protecting against their fundamentalist opponents, particularly the Catholic Church and Muslim radicals. But O'Brien is no starry-eyed Rationalist, and he's no particular opponent of religion or even Catholicism itself. His call is for a different kind of reason:
The Enlightenment we need is one that is aware of the dark, especially the dark in ourselves. An Enlightenment that is on guard against hubris. An Enlightenment that is aware that there is far more evidence extant in favour of the Christian doctrine of Original Sin than of Rousseau's doctrine of Original Virtue. An Enlightenment that respects the religious imagination, but not the claim of some religious to know what God wants from us and to have the duty to enforce that knowledge.
I don't think I agree with his next to last assertion; to take away religion's right "to know what God wants from us" is to remove its teeth and to render it harmless--even if such claims need to kept separate from the secular state by and large. And I don't agree with his distaste for the former Pope ("I frankly abhor John Paul II," O'Brien says), who, despite his opposition to birth control was a great humanitarian who did as much as anyone to cause the collapse of the Soviet Union. But O'Brien gets it right here for the most part--Western culture and Enlightenment values are worth defending, but not if they don't take into account how supremely messed up we are as a human race.

The second chapter of On the Eve of the Millennium is essentially a history of the American presidency, an office in which O'Brien is interested (for obvious reasons) but for which he holds little respect. The problem with democracy in general and the American sort in particular--even though it's the best system we've come up with--is that there's an inevitable and unfortunate conflation of democracy and popularity. That conflation results in politicians who don't make teleological decisions for the state and instead do what they do because it'll win them votes.

The last fifty years of the American presidency have been marked by this phenomenon. It's O'Brien's assertion that no president since Eisenhower has made major decisions based on anything other than an appeal to popularity. (He has high praise for Eisenhower because of his unpopular condemnation of Israel's 1956 invasion of Egypt, an invasion which took place just before the U.S. presidential election and for which the president risked his re-election.) But lest we think we have fallen from some sort of Golden Age, O'Brien voices this kind of respect for only three other U.S. presidents: Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt, all of whom went against their personal interests for the interests of the country. And he has particular disdain for Thomas Jefferson, whom he calls "a brilliant manipulator of the media, as befitted a dedicated and successful seeker after popularity . . . A different kind of genius: more disturbing, but not less interesting. A genius, after all, in the moulding of public opinion."

Jefferson, of course, championed freedom--even, it must be noted, freedom for African Americans--and owned more than hundred slaves. When my fifth-grade teacher told us all of this disconnect in his life, she made reference to history's flesh and blood, to the contradictions in all of us that are even more glaring and obvious in great men. But this explanation assumes Jefferson's greatness, and even more it assumes his honesty. O'Brien casts those assumptions into doubt, and his is a convincing argument, even if I'm not enough of a historical scholar to say if he is correct or not.

On the Eve of the Millennium was written during the early years of Bill Clinton's administration, but nothing that happened after 1994 was likely enough to change O'Brien's impression that Clinton was in the Jeffersonian mold, much more interested in popularity than in America. But I found myself thinking about Clinton's successor, George W. Bush, whose approval rating has hung below 40 percent for some time now.

I'm no particular fan of Bush, I must note, but he might break the American mold in ways O'Brien had not anticipated. It's difficult to say, for example, that his refusal to pull troops out of Iraq is based on a desire for popularity. If the war began that way--and I'm not saying it did--it certainly isn't anymore. And while it's not the same thing as rejecting popularity, Bush has repeatedly attempted to buck the Republican party line on issues like illegal immigration (an issue, however, on which he later reversed his opinion) and economic bailout, though he had little choice on this last one.

O'Brien's recognition of original sin is particularly useful here, however. One need not be a Catholic or a Calvinist to have a dim view of human nature. In the Republic, Plato disapproved of democracy because the masses are fundamentally stupid. Let's change that a bit: People, in all social strata, powerful and weak, are stupid, which is exactly why democracy is important--if we get a stupid leader, we can toss him out (unless, that is, we're faced with an even worse option, which I believe was the case in 2004).

So merely going against the tide of popularity is not enough. To be great the way Washington, Lincoln, FDR, and Eisenhower were great is to buck the masses and to do the right thing. Bush might have been a great president if he'd been a maverick (in the parlance of our times) in a smarter way--if he had picked his battles more successfully, if he'd have sought wiser counsel instead of always listening to the voice of his heart.

After all, it's a heart of darkness we all have, the darkness that O'Brien describes and warns us about--the real darkness we need an Enlightenment not to eliminate (for it is something integral to our humanity) but merely to recognize. And that George W. Bush followed it ensures a negative legacy for him. I do not think he's worst president ever or even of the post-Eisenhower era. (That dubious honor surely goes to LBJ, a master kowtower of the highest breed whose Great Society made him popular in the North but set race relations back 75 years.) But I do not believe, as does Karl Rove, that history will vindicate him and set him in the pantheon. If anything, he will become a cautionary example of Bishop Wilson's great lesson, memorably quoted by Matthew Arnold in Culture and Anarchy: "Firstly, never go against the best light you have; secondly, take care that your light be not darkness."

Monday, January 5, 2009

The New Old Testament

In his quiet way, Martin Buber might be the most important figure in 20th-century philosophy and theology. If existentialism killed the louse of logical positivism (and I believe it did for the most part, although positivism still exists to some extent in scientific communities), and if existentialism sowed the seeds for structuralism and poststructuralism (and that case can be made, even if I'd be embarrassed to call myself an existentialist after you made it), then credit must be given where it is due, and Buber should get a large bronze statue in Paris or wherever else you want to put the capital of philosophy.

Buber wrote his classic I and Thou in 1923, four years before his fellow German Martin Heidegger coughed out his nearly comprehensible but nevertheless brilliant Being and Time, which takes a good deal of theory about Being and Existence (and curiosity, and angst!) from Buber's book. From Heidegger sprung Sartre, and from Sartre sprung...well, basically everyone else. And so Buber is as important as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche for the development of Existentialism--and he's more important than Edmund Husserl. And yet to some extent he stands on the outskirts of the movement.

Perhaps it's because his concern is not an abstract notion of Being but with Ultimate Being, or God. In this, it is true, he has more in common with the Christian existential theologians--Karl Barth and Paul Tillich and a host of less important figures. Indeed, it is sometimes hinted (as it was in a class I took at my religious college, in which we received a very brief and simplified version of the I and the Thou) that Buber is some kind of closet Christian--a Jew, certainly, but one who was a Christian at his core.

Walter Kaufman bemoans such a viewpoint in his wonderfully poetic introduction to the book. For one thing, he points out, I and Thou is fundamentally anti-theological, leveling all notions of God and starting from scratch, and if that scratch references the New Testament, it spends just as much time in Eastern texts and in daily life. For another--and it's here Kaufman and I part philosophical ways--Christianity based more on Greek culture than on Judaism, and as Buber was profoundly Jewish (he repopularized Hasidism, for example), he could not have been a closet Christian. And in fact, he viewed Christianity as an objectification of God and the Eucharist as a symbol of that objectification. And so Kaufman is baffled that Christian theologians have so latched on to I and Thou.

The reason for that, I suspect, is similar to the reason that the early Church latched on to the Hebrew Bible. The early Church, of course, was composed to a very large extent of cultural and religious Jews, and for the most part the existentialist theologians lack this background in Jewish culture--but their attitudes toward the Old Testament and toward Buber are similar in that the Christian groups saw their philosophy as a fulfillment of the older one.

I and Thou is a wonderful book in many ways. It's mystic yet grounded in reality, and its author's prose is more poetic and beautiful than any other 20th-century existentialist. (The century qualification is important, since Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are both beautiful writers.) And the ideas speak truthfully, as well, even if they are frequently oversimplified.

Here's my oversimplification--and I'll let you find the echo in Heidegger and Sartre and everyone else. We can look at the world one of two ways, either I-It or I-You. The first treats the Other as an object, the second as a subject. The difference between these two is the difference between experience and relation; it is the difference between alienation and wholeness; it is the difference between fantasy and reality. And when we treat any individual as a You, we necessarily treat God as a You.

There is much more to it than this brief paragraph, of course--Buber speaks for more than 150 pages, and each page is important. But one thing he does not provide us with is a guide for entering into the world of the I-You relation, a path out of the world of the I-It experience. Indeed, he tells us, such a guide is self-negating: "Going forth is unteachable in the sense of prescriptions. It can only be indicated--by drawing a circle that excludes everything else. Then the one thing needful becomes visible: the total acceptance of the present." This is a frustrating answer, of course, because we want an answer from Buber. We have sought the sage on the mountaintop, and all he can do is tell us what is wrong rather than giving us a way to fix it.

In fact, we must confront the You as a person, but the You of Buber's God is intangible, even if He is present everywhere. God reveals Himself to us directly, he says; He reveals Himself to us as a person rather than as a collection of knowledge.

All of this relates so closely to Christ that I cannot believe Buber did not see it. He must have seen it. If God confronts us personally--and if flesh is not evil, as Buber repeatedly claims it is not--then the logical thing would be for God to confront us in the flesh of a person. This is, of course, where the Christian theologians pick up Buber's thread. God confronts us directly in the person of Christ.

Buber disagrees, however. God presents us personally and yet vaguely as the Foundation of All Being, the You behind all other Yous. Remember, if we address any particular being as You, we are addressing Being Itself, i.e., God, as You. So we end up with a paradox, with a God who addresses us directly but indirectly, as a person but through all things.

The Christian theologians, I suspect, would say that we're too stupid or too fallen to deal with this paradox. Karl Barth, for example, would tell us that our capacity for making Towers of Babel out of religious figures means that faced with this system, we will take the I-You world and adapt it into idolatry. We will take something meant to end our alienation--relationship--and run it into the ground.

Buber hints at the solution; indeed, he nearly spells it out: "Whoever would settle the conflict between antinomies by some means short of his own life transgresses against the sense of the situation." The Christian posits, then, that Christ's death on the cross settled the conflict between antimonies with His own life, thus providing a specific end to alienation that nevertheless results in a redemption of the world itself, in the form of the doctrine of the Incarnation.

Christian existentialists, then, would see their work as building off of Buber the way the New Testament builds off of the Old, clarifying and satisfying it. (Such an attitude, I understand, is offensive to the Jewish faith, and I do not mean for it to be so. But there's no way around the Christian assertion that Christianity fulfills and thus outdoes Judaism.) But the difference is here: the Christian Bible takes a revelation that is fundamentally limited (God has chosen the Hebrew people for His glory) and expands it (the Gospel is now open to all people everywhere). But Buber's Christian glossers take a universal message (return to the sphere of the I-You is possible for all people everywhere at all times) and make it narrow (that's true--but only through Christ). It's no wonder Walter Kaufman was disgusted.

Has violence been done to Buber in this translation of his ideas into Christian thought? Probably some. But as Kaufman acknowledges in his notes on his linguistic translation of Buber, it's hard to change languages without doing some violence.

Old 97's, "Color of a Lonely Heart Is Blue" (#1)

"Color of a Lonely Heart Is Blue"
(Ken Bethea/Murry Hammond/Rhett Miller/Philip Peeples)
Old 97's
Blame It on Gravity

Rhett Miller gets most of the press--what little press the Old 97's get, that is, since you rarely hear about them in magazines or the blogosphere. But Murry Hammond, the band's oldest member and bass player extraordinaire, has been quietly writing increasingly amazing songs over the past decade. He's got some classics; "Valentine" is a fan favorite, and "Up the Devil's Pay" is a rollicking good time.

But "Color of a Lonely Heart Is Blue" is the first time that he's ever bested Miller at his own game. Lacking his bandmate's androgynous good looks and swaggering heartbreak, Hammond has to rely instead on a sweet melancholy, something that's sad but not really all that sad.

He's usually fairly straightforward, but "Color" is all texture, with no plot to speak of--at least not a decipherable one. In its way, it fits in with his classic theme, which is of the family man who hops a train and regrets it. (I wonder what his wife, voice actor Grey DeLisle, thinks of all those songs.) But the regret is soft and hazy, as if the narrator can't even remember why he feels it.

So Hammond gives us some of his very best lyrics ("Stars go off like flashpot dots / They sparkle under candle, power, and stop" is one of my favorites) and a subtle and understated vocal performance (you must get this song from iTunes, if only to hear the way he sings "young and foolish days" in the first chorus). The rest of the band stays quiet for the most part--they're all playing but none of them demand the spotlight at all. This is Hammond's show, and the most any of them are willing to intrude is the guitar noise Bethea softly showers over everything like an ocean mist.

The first time I heard this song, I listened to it five times in a row. Then I called my (then-future-) fiancee on the phone and made her listen to it twice. It still feels new. It's a deep black hole that you didn't realize was in your soul and that you don't particularly want to fill.

A note: Doing 25 individual posts has been both pretentious and unbelievably tiring for me. Rest assured that next year I will do only a few posts, perhaps five songs at a time, with briefer write-ups on each one. God bless those of you who actually read all of these. I hope they inspired you to check out something you hadn't checked out before.

Seriously, by the way, download "Color of a Lonely Heart."

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Hold Steady, "Sequestered in Memphis" (#2)

"Sequestered in Memphis"
(Craig Finn)
The Hold Steady
Stay Positive

Enough critical ink has been spilled about how The Hold Steady are the rightful heirs to Bruce Springsteen's working-man throne but how they twist his songs about losers and redemption into something truly horrifying. You don't need me to add to that.

But "Sequestered in Memphis" isn't a metaphorical title. It's not about being grilled by some cut-rate magazine and not being able to get away (even though Craig Finn says "I'm getting pretty sick of this interview"). No, the song is achingly literal: Finn slept with this girl, see, and she turned up in dead, and now the police want to know every last detail--which he, of course, cannot provide.

And yet somehow the cocaine-high music takes that story and turns it into something beautiful. "Yeah, sure, I'll tell my story again," he sings, and even though the cops have obviously asked him to do that so they can check for discrepancies, it turns into an act of self-assertion. And he even redeems the girl: "In the barlight she looked all right / In the daylight she looked desperate / That's all right, I was desperate too." They weren't making love, but maybe it was something nice if not redemptive.

But mostly you'll just want to sing along.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Gary Louris, "Vagabonds" (#3)

(Gary Louris)
Gary Louris

The title track to Gary Louris' first solo record, Vagabonds, is the perfect song for the perfect moment--that evening spot in mid-May, after classes have finished but before the cruel heat of summer has really kicked in. It's the moment of pure possibility, the moment when the world opens itself up to you and waits for you to engage it.

Louris possesses what is likely the best voice in rock and country music--it floats and quivers and somehow carries just the right amount of twang, and then it soars and surprises you with how substantial it is. I could, as the cliche says, listen to him sing the telephone book. Thankfully, he doesn't make me do that and instead writes some of the best songs I've ever heard, for the Jayhawks and Golden Smog, for the Dixie Chicks and Nickel Creek (even though he doesn't sing those), and now for this solo record.

"Vagabonds" has to be in my top 10 Louris songs ever--behind "The Man Who Loved Life" and "Until You Came Along" but just ahead of "I'd Run Away" and "Big Star." The verses are nice, a series of impressionist vignettes that are mostly image and little story. But it's the chorus that hits you over the head: "Carry on, you vagabonds / Everyone's gone away." These are simple words, maybe too simple--but Louris carries them with his voice, carries them into the stratosphere, into something more beautiful than I think I can understand. The choir that backs him up may be too much--I wouldn't mind hearing Louris sing it on his own.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Conor Oberst, "Milk Thistle" (#4)

"Milk Thistle"
(Conor Oberst)
Conor Oberst
Conor Oberst

For the most part, Conor Oberst's self-titled third solo album shows an artistic progression, the shedding of the art-rock pretenses of his work under the Bright Eyes moniker. So if you hate Oberst because of his experiments with sound collages and his grandiosity, you might find a warmer embrace in this record.

"Milk Thistle" closes the record with a whisper, just Oberst and an acoustic guitar. He doesn't bleat like a billy goat here, nor does he quote Beethoven. There are no distractions, nothing to keep the words from hitting their targets, which they do quietly but painfully.

The title refers to a plant used to treat liver disease but can also cause suicidal depression. Thus here we have Oberst, post-rehab, getting better but not sure that he wants to. He's in Mexico City, having escaped the murderous roar of New York City but not quite able to escape the roar inside his own head. Will he or won't he go through with it? I've got no idea. But he makes suicide sound like a lullaby, and I must have listened to the song fifteen times (mostly first thing in the morning) before I realized what he was talking about