Lent and Pasolini

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If I may rehash a film cliche: what can a gay Marxist atheist anticlerical football fan teach us about Lent? Well, quite a lot actually.

I have to admire Pier Paolo Pasolini whose range of subjects is pretty remarkable. His so called ‘Trilogy of Life’ is near the knuckle but amazingly evocative of those ages and places that it wishes to depict: medieval England and Italy and the timeless exoticism of Arabia. His gross and grotesque Salo is in its deeply unpleasant way a serious film. Given its inspiration and setting, if it was remade today it would be called Raqqa.

The man had a distinctive cinematic style, and like his fellow Italian Sergio Leone, he was an absolute master of the human face. The most ordinary of people become gripping subjects instantly. Emotion is routinely underplayed, and is the more powerful because of it.

When it comes to Lent, the key is his remarkably pure and beautiful Gospel According to St Matthew (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). At a stroke Pasolini went from being in trouble with the Church and others for Accatone and Ro.Go.Pa.G to being justifiably feted by the Vatican for this movie, described in 2014 by L’Osservatore Romano as “…the best work about Jesus in the history of cinema”, although when it came out 50 years earlier, some of the church old guard had struggled with the idea that Pasolini could do this in all sincerity. But he did.

Why specifically Lent, given that the movie tells the story of the whole of St Matthew’s Gospel? The answer lies in Jesus’ 40 days in the desert, praying and fasting, which is the most recent and most striking of the various allusions in scripture to Lent as we know it today. There he is tempted by Satan, and dismisses him with pointed references to the Old Testament.

In this film Pasolini typically used a lot of locals with no acting pedigree. He scattered in various acquaintances from his intellectual salon, and also his own mother. The locals are from Crotone, Matera, and Massafra, which is that primitive part of Southern Italy that stands in for ancient Palestine – totally convincingly. However, the desert sequence was filmed on Mount Etna, and it works brilliantly. The emptiness interrupted by the distant figure of Satan, walking purposefully towards Jesus, the dust billowing in his wake resembling, possibly intentionally,  sulphurous fumes. Satan himself is startling and charismatic, portrayed in the most understated way yet brimming with both evil and, one senses, confusion. Weirdly, this is the one main actor in the film who goes uncredited, as far as I can ascertain.

Other people find other scenes more compelling, but this desert sequence does it for me. Pasolini moved on to other things, some mentioned at the start, and got himself disapproved of again. However, he never disavowed his fascination with Christ and his teaching, seeing it in terms of its superficial similarities to socialism and more convincingly,  Jesus as a revolutionary, of a unique kind. He often mused on this paradox: “I am anticlerical (I’m not afraid to say it!)… but it would be insane on my part to deny the powerful influence religion has exerted on me”….“I do not believe that Christ was the Son of God, because I am not a believer—at least not consciously.”

Which is fair enough. But this man of contradictions was also anti-drugs, anti-establishment and remarkably, completely anti-abortion. This is from when he opposed the legalisation of abortion in Italy in 1975: “I am however shocked at the idea of legalizing abortion, because, as many others, I consider it a legalization of homicide. In my dreams and in my everyday behaviour – an attitude common to all human beings – I live my prenatal life, my being happily immersed in the waters: I know that I existed then. I will stop here, because I have more urgent things to say on abortion. That life is sacred is an obvious thing: it is a principle even stronger than any principle of democracy, and it is useless to repeat it.”

He also portrayed the actuality of hell in one scene from The Canterbury Tales, in a mind blowing mix of Hieronymus Bosch, the Carry On movies and Dante’s Inferno. One thing he gets right, based on the popular imagination, is the deafening, screeching noise of hell.

Having said that, the real Satan, who affects us all, is the one in the desert.

Christmas

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What I love about this fantastic miniature is – apart from the extraordinary skill and aesthetic sensitivity – the fact that the scene it depicts, a Christmas mass is essentially the same, 700 years later, as is happening right now, all over the planet. Technically it’s a different form, in the 14th century it would have been the pre-Tridentine Roman rite, but it’s basically the same, in all honesty.

This part of Les Tres Riches Heures is regarded as definitely being by the Limbourg Brothers. The delicate tracery and expressions on the faces fit with that – there’s a bit of chat and consternation in the congregation. Followed by a great version of In The Bleak Midwinter (genuinely)

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Obama and the Book of Judges

When the famed English wit (I suppose) James Delingpole wrote his meisterwerkWelcome to Obamaland: I’ve Seen Your Future, and it Doesn’t Work, he couldn’t have quite realised how accurate he would be in his lucid comparison of Blair and Obama. Set aside the vanity, the glib speechifying,  the certainty in one’s own views irrespective of the evidence, the spendthrift economy and the foreign policy disasters. The extraordinary feature of both men is their remarkable electoral popularity, and the almost criminal lack of lasting benefit accrued to the voters who put them up there. 

The upshot of all this is both men have almost no substantial positive legacy. I know a lot has been claimed, but I mean real achievements for world peace, national infrastructure, the economy, employment – all that tiresome stuff that actually matters.

I lost my residual affection or respect for Obama back in 2012, when his vindictive nun bullying began on the back of the now doomed Obamacare requirements. A year later when he was doubling down on the Catholics. I wrote then .... Obama may stagger through the next three years, working on his scorched earth tactics . That three years will almost certainly be a mess on numerous levels. Whatever the polls say, I very much doubt that Hillary Clinton will be the next president. I also quoted Peggy Noonan on his aggressive stance to the Church: There was nothing for the president to gain, except, perhaps, the pleasure of making a great church bow to him. Enjoy it while you can. You have awakened a sleeping giant.

Looks like this last 6 weeks’ results have been a few years in the making. Some of it recalls Harold Macmillan’s (or was it Baldwin?) quotation: “There are three bodies no sensible man directly challenges: the Roman Catholic Church, the Brigade of Guards and the National Union of Mineworkers”.

Anyway, the long and short of all this is to ask the question: what is his true legacy? To which I would identify three areas. The first black president, agreed. Secondly, in policy terms the facts are very clear. Try Victor Davis Hanson’s detailed and sharp analysis, judged by Barack’s own criteria. Pretty painful.

The third category is a more existential one. Just as Tony Blair roams the world seeking a role and a little respect, like the Wandering Jew observed through the prism of the Love Actually zeitgeist, so might Obama end up just a little bit lost. This is the theme of a quite magnificent bit of writing by a Philadelphia lawyer – not a professional journalist – Martin Karo over at Powerline:

He will drive (well, be driven) a few scant miles to a house in the Kalorama neighborhood of Washington, where he can watch at close range as his legacy is revealed not to be one. From his front-row seat, he will watch his eponymous healthcare plan be gutted, watch his foreign policy be repudiated, watch his bureaucratic overreaches be reeled in (please God!), watch conservative judges take the bench, watch his immigration policy melt, watch the military cheer his successor as they never cheered him, watch infrastructure funds build highways and bridges (that will not be named after him) instead of disappearing into the pockets of government union members, watch the American energy revival kick into high gear.

As he watches all this, one wonders whether Obama will appreciate the curious posture he has imposed on the Democratic Party. It is too much to expect Obama to blame himself for the decline in the Party’s presence, at every level of government; but unless he is delusional, he must at least see it.

But there’s more:

The other curious thing about Obama’s remaining on the scene is that he has no visible friends on it, despite his dominance of his party. He has many toadies. He has his entourage. He even has many sincere admirers. But friends? Name three. Name one….

….Obama is staying in Washington for two reasons: because he doesn’t truly have friends elsewhere, or any other place he considers home; and because if he doesn’t stay in DC he descends into obscurity. The latter is a struggle he is likely to lose anyway; if ever there were a personality suited to dominate the stage and put his predecessor in the shade, it is Trump.

I have no idea who Obama’s real buddies are (if any), but it’s a compelling picture that Karo paints. He draws two comparisons (not Blair this time): Richard Nixon and Milton’s Samson Agonistes. You probably do have to be a little remote, a little different, to achieve the highest office, and I have no issue with that, but to ultimately achieve so little of substance is tragic.

Samson of course brought the roof of the mighty temple building down with his residual strength, killing himself and the elite of the Philistine tribe by whom he’d been captured.

Not a bad parallel.

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The Democratic Party at the end of 2016

The Secretly Pleased Voters

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A typical SPV in Waitrose

2016 has been quite a year: memorable deaths from Bowie to Castro (so far), undoubtedly the year of Bad Losers (General Election, Brexit, US Election), and I would now offer, the ascendancy of the SPV, the secretly pleased voter.

Let me explain. Everyone would like the Johnson option of having cake and eating it, but it’s simply not possible for everyone. That large silent mass of voters has to do the unpopular heavy lifting of actually voting for change. When change duly rolls along, in the form of a moribund Labour Party, Brexit, and Donald Trump, the vocal minority, whose judgement, like their predictive powers is reliably garbage,  get to have their say. It goes roughly like this, you know the tune: don’t blame us; that ghastly man; racist/misogynistic/homophobic blah blah blah; isn’t Europe wonderful, I did French O level; mass migration is the only humane option etc etc etc etc. We all know the rules and the lines employed….

…BUT….

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..not middle class enough

….those same people are delighted that the votes went the way they did. Not uniformly delighted, there will be a few genuine holdouts who actually really thought Hillary or Ed would be good at it, but in my view, very very few. I almost respect such people. It’s the frenzied middle class (always middle class), many of whom are in my family and social circles who want to yell injustice and still reap the benefits. They don’t want migrants in their area, they absolutely don’t want to pay more tax, they will still travel to wherever they please regardless of the potential changes in visas, they will retain numerous prejudices of which they will hardly be aware, they will be quietly satisfied that the US is now developing a backbone again, and they will enjoy for a long time the truly delicious fun of slagging off the victors and the voters who put them there.

And as we’ve already seen with Brexit (1,2,3), even if all their lousy predictions of doom, disaster etc are totally disproven, there will not be at any point an ounce of admission that they were utterly wrong, gullible and stupid. It’s the Waitrose Generation’s version of never retract, never explain, never apologise.

And in the century of the annoying acronym, it should be noted that the crossover between SPV’s and SJW’s (1,2) is virtually 100%.

It’s tough for us good guys, whose predictions are by and large accurate, and who can see the big picture, but we dig deep. Somebody’s got to do it.

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SPV’s getting angry about something. Because climate change. Whatevs

The End of History, again

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Yikes

The temptation to pontificate and publicly philosophise is one any sane person should avoid. You just end up producing stuff that looks pretty stupid/conceited within a short space of time. Everyone cites Fukuyama’s hubristically titled The End of History as an example of this. They’re right. A 2016 snapshot suggests that while Western-style liberal democracy produces societies that are nice to live in, imposing Western-style liberal democracy on, to pick an example at random, anywhere in the Middle East, tends not to be a success. Possibly the opposite.

So with 3 days till a very very significant US election, and with Brexit being possibly undermined by the kind of people a majority in the nation has had enough of, it’s worth considering – with humility – what our ‘society’ is all about – how did it develop, how it could crash and burn.

There are two themes that I want to emphasise. Two out of many I know, but this is big ticket stuff. First up is morality. Yup. How unfashionable.

If there is no objective standard of morality, then the universe is simply a vast empty wasteland. It does not determine what our values ought to be; rather, we project our values onto it. These values would then not be derived from Nature or Nature’s God. Instead, they would originate with us. But exactly which part of us would tell us what to value? Not reason, since reason (on this account) does not apprehend anything objectively good in the world. No, it would simply be our base wants and desires, which are arbitrarily shaped by our environment. Ethics would be a hopelessly subjective enterprise, driven ultimately by emotion rather than reason. This kind of moral subjectivism often appears, on the surface, to be every bit as dogmatic as the old moralism, but it has a crucial difference: Subjective moral norms are impenetrable to rational scrutiny or argumentation. In a culture that has imbibed this philosophy, public shaming is a more powerful tool than debate, and it is more powerful still to combine shaming with a harsh curtailment of free speech. In many ways, we are seeing this logic play out in our culture in real time.

That was Justin Dyer in a highly intelligent piece in National Review Online, applying the thinking of CS Lewis, specifically from The Abolition of Man. Lewis famously said of universal principles that apply to man:

These then are the two points that I wanted to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in

Do we, in this 21st century, still have “have this curious idea that we ought to behave in a certain way**”. I think we do. We certainly adhere to the follow on in that we “do not in fact behave in that way”. Apply these formulae to the current presidential race, it’s all there.

The whole issue of absolute v relative morality was a specialty of one of the heroes of The Knife, the chain smoking, practical anti apartheid, fervent Catholic, hyperintelligent Fellow of All Souls,  Sir Michael Dummett. He summed it up beautifully in his description of the moral relativism that surrounds us:  “it will bring down a curse upon us worse than that which God called down on the builders of Babel; rather than our speaking different languages, not to be speaking a genuine language at all.”

That Babel fits perfectly with the current hypocrisy of the campaign. It’s quite breathtaking. Dyer continues in his Lewis article with the pay off: One of Lewis’ main contentions in Abolition is that moral subjectivism ultimately undermines the key concepts at the base of all of our political institutions. Natural rights, the value of the individual, the common good, human dignity, and social justice are meaningful only in light of what Lewis called the “human tradition of value”

Serious stuff. So from where did we derive “the key concepts at the base of all of our political institutions”? Which brings me to my second topic, nothing big, just Western Civilization.

I live in the middle of Western Civilization, metaphorically if not geographically. I agree entirely with George Neumayr‘s brilliantly concise take on Europe in 2016: Postmodern high culture’s insouciance about the intellectual and moral foundations of the West has magnified a crisis of civilizational confidence throughout Europe. The false claim that the roots of democracy run no deeper in the cultural subsoil of Europe than the Enlightenment has hollowed out Europe’s understanding of its own worth, by ignoring the contributions made to the modern freedom project by Biblical religion, the ancient Greek confidence in reason, and the classical Roman conviction that the rule of law is superior to the rule of coercive force. A Europe unwilling or unable to give an account of why its idea of the human person and human community is superior to others on offer in the 21st-century world is unlikely to be able to defend itself against external threats, or to cope with those once-external threats that have become internal threats.

You may not like that view, but it’s based on facts, of the kind which are becoming unpopular. Neumayr invokes the Böckenförde dilemma to describe the potential catastrophe which is leading to the populist wave across Europe (and the US). Not that I have a problem with populism, far from it, although it can certainly have unsavoury manifestations: The modern, secular liberal-democratic state rests on a foundation of moral and cultural premises — on a fund of social capital — that it cannot itself generate. Put another way, it takes a certain kind of people, living certain virtues, to make the machinery of democratic self-governance work. So if Europe is suffering from various forms of a democracy deficit, that might well be because it is suffering from a more fundamental social-capital deficit, which is to say, from a moral-cultural deficit. The rest of the West, including the United States, is most certainly not immune to this deficit. But it seems more advanced in Europe, with more immediately visible consequences.

The Böckenförde dilemma is well described as:

..the existential dilemma of liberal democracy, which on one hand contradicts its principles if it does not guarantee the freedom also of those wishing to destroy it, and on the other cannot allow that this destruction be implemented.

Sound familiar?

I don’t want to conflate morality with religion, they’re separate, however intimately connected. Given next week’s events though, it’s worth noting that back in 1796, in his Farewell Address,  George Washington had no such qualms:

Let it simply be asked, where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

So, there you have it. The Knife’s prescription for cultural survival: acknowledge the existence of absolute morality, and understand where we come from. 

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Galactus visits Europe

 

**If this sounds a bit like ‘conscience’, then maybe it is. For an analysis of conscience v the unconsciousness beloved of Freudians, try the awesome Fulton Sheen, in Peace of Soul

How to write about music: Bach’s Chaconne

I was at a funeral last week, and the music in the crematorium as we filed out at the end, was Morecambe and Wise’s Bring Me Sunshine, which although appropriate to the deceased, was another example of the sometimes irritating quirkiness in the current vogue of remembering our recently departed. I’ve heard Queen’s I Want to Break Free more than once. The relevance is that for a good while I’ve thought that I’d like to have the mourners at my own send off have to sit through the entirety of Bach’s Chaconne for solo violin, which usually comes in somewhere between 14 and 15 minutes.

This is not some sort of revenge fantasy, but rather a reflection on the fact that I do not think that there exists, in the entire canon of Western music, a piece that contains within it so much of what is to be human. It’s all there: Shakespeare’s seven ages of man, War and Peace, and the Judaeo-Christian belief system. If that sounds like hyperbole, it’s not intended to be, it genuinely does seem to me to contain all human experience, particularly all that is noble and good. Sorry if that sounds pretentious, but it’s true.

The trouble is, I cannot say why it seems to contain all that. It just does. My earlier post on this theme applying skills in one discipline (writing) to an entirely different one (music), was about Beethoven’s string quartets, emphasising the brilliance and verve of Roger Fiske’s prose, in conjuring up what made Beethoven’s Op18 no 1 so special. Here all I can offer is an entirely different take,  which is the veteran violinist Kyung Wha Chung providing a technical analysis of the Chaconne, interspersed her expert enthusiasms (taken from Gramophone magazine, September 2016. Click on each picture).

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My feelings on this are not remotely original. It’s probably the most famous solo violin piece of them all. Many people will already know that it’s really just the final movement of BWV 1004, Bach’s remarkable Partita no 2 for solo violin. There are literally hundreds of recordings, but my favourite is still the first I heard, by Nathan Milstein. The almost equally profound piano arrangement (by Busoni) is similarly ubiquitous, and again my first recording, by English gentleman Ronald Smith, is still my go to option. To close with, and see if any newcomer can see what I mean, here is the unique Gidon Kremer, a Jew, playing this truly universal  masterpiece by Bach, a Lutheran, in a Catholic church, as recommended to you all by The Knife (a Catholic).

Spain, cultura and me

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If you want to read wondrous, effortlessly descriptive prose, then try Laurie Lee. School children often get Cider With Rosie as a set text (and enjoy it). I’ve just read, for the first time, the magical As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, and in terms of evocative writing it is sensationally good. The subject is Spain, and if there is a country that lends itself to vivid writing, this is it. That in itself probably made Lee’s task a little easier. It’s entirely understandable that he wrote it more than 30 years after the events in the book – a walk through Spain from Vigo to Andalucia, in 1934. Spain stays locked in your head.

The Knife spent 4 weeks in Andalucia in the summer of 1982, teaching English in a school on a mountain top in the Sierra Blanca. The best World Cup of them all (1,2) had just finished, with tattered posters for the Mundial everywhere. The next year I spent another 4 weeks on the train around the Iberian peninsula. 3rd class carriages with no windows and wooden bench seats, remote spaghetti western towns, terrible sanitation if you could actually find los lavabos (I once had to go under a tree on a roundabout in Granada), but still wonderful. I’ve been back lots of times since then. If anyone’s interested, the best meal I’ve ever had was in the Asador Donostiarra in Madrid, and the best breakfast in the charming Venta el Buscon, also Madrid.

1983 was the year I was ‘rescued’ in Algeciras, a grubby town which judging by Laurie Lee’s affectionate description, had suffered a bit in the interim 50 years. In the early 80’s Franco (died in 1975) still cast a long shadow in Spain. Despite what you will be told these days, rightly or wrongly, plenty of people mourned his departure. That whole secular/Catholic, left/right wing, Spaniards/separatists  set of dichotomies is still a key part of understanding this country. Beevor’s book on the civil war is pretty balanced, in the way that many of them are not. If you want to really understand the unique nature of that conflict and its aftermath, Javier Cercas’ mesmerising novel  Soldiers of Salamis is a nuanced and compelling tale. The fact that the Valle de los Caidos is still there (12 a fascinating piece), still getting many, many visitors gives a  clue as to how schizophrenic Spain remains on this topic**.

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…in Valencia

That said there are plenty of standard travelogues about, but quite a few tend to fall short in some way. The highly regarded Jan Morris’ Spain is chock full of adjectives but in the end, it’s a bit dull. Older writers like the admirable and prescient Halliday Sutherland (here) and the…er…controversial  HV Morton (here) do a better job in summoning up the uniqueness of the place. In the modern age Christopher Howse (1,2) with an enthusiasm for remote monasteries, back roads and railways does the best job. He completely gets the enduring religiosity which you can still see in places like Valencia’s cathedral, where pregnant women (who often seem to be with their mothers) do 9 circuits before praying at the statue of the Virgen del Buen Parto.

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Roy’s autograph from 1930

Which emphasises just how key the whole Spanish Catholic intensity is in understanding the place and the people. That holds today, where the counterpoint of this intensity is a suffocating and aggressive secularism. The civil war all over again.  So you need to experience Zurbaran, St John of the Cross, and St Teresa of Avila (a proto-feminist, believe it or not). If you sample the origins of the much maligned Opus Dei you’ll get an idea of the rooted nature of Spanish Catholicism. In fact, if you seek the best translation of the poems of St John of the Cross, by that remarkable man of action Roy Campbell, you will be back in Laurie Lee territory, as the young writer stayed with the older man in Toledo, as the civil war was beginning to rumble, in which Campbell played a valorous role.

There are lots more: Goya, Don Quixote of course (it’s not boring), George Orwell, even the tiresome Hemingway. The latter claimed that “For one person who likes Spain there are a dozen who prefer books on her”. If he’s right, then I hope this post gives some pointers. A better quote is from the tragic Lorca, which captures that uneasy feeling you get as you descend  the stairway  to the royal tombs  and el pudridero in the mighty Escorial:

In Spain, the dead are more alive than the dead of any other country in the world.

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**when I first wrote this, I neglected to mention the great  Stanley Payne, a true historian of Spain in every era, and an expert on the whole Franco/Civil War thing (1,2)

The thrill has gone – advice from 1600 years ago

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4th century dudes

Illicit pleasures, whatever they are – drugs, sex, you name it – pall rapidly, but they often continue for extended periods, even lifetimes, because of the difficulties of physical, mental and emotional addiction, and sometimes the sheer logistics of breaking free.

Licit pleasures though, can fade too, becoming drab and humdrum, sometimes more quickly than with forbidden fruit: music, for example. When I first heard Beethoven’s astounding Emperor Concerto, I played it again and again and again. I couldn’t get enough of it. That was years ago. In this consumer driven world I have to admit that I probably have about 15 different recordings of it, impelled partly by an urge to recreate that original buzz from back in 1984. I never have. I can still enjoy it, but the thrill is gone.

We’ve probably all experienced that ennui or hollowness in relation to something we previously couldn’t get enough of.

What is that about? Is it really just the old cliche that ‘familiarity breeds contempt’? Actually, it’s not that I no longer admire/respect/love the work, it’s more that it no longer satisfies. Consumers – myself included – spend a lot of time and money on trying to recreate that initial feeling.

…let it not cleave too close in love to things through the senses of the body. For they go their way and are no more; and they rend the soul with desires that can destroy it, for it longs to be one with the things it loves and to repose in them. But in them is no place of repose, because they do not abide, they pass, and who can follow them with any bodily sense? Or who can grasp them firm even while they are still here?

Our  fleshly sense is slow because it is fleshly sense: and that is the limit of its being. It can do what it was made to do; but it has no power to hold things transient as they run their course from their due beginning to their due end.

That was St Augustine, the most modern of the ancient writers, in his Confessions (Sheed translationrecommended) who would I think completely understand the vicissitudes encouraged by  technology and easy access to all sorts of media and entertainment in the 21st century. He was in part referring to his failure to cope after the unexpected death of his closest friend, but he applies it equally to our material treats and desires.

You might think, being a saint, that he automatically turned to God and religion. Not so, he held off for as long as he could (hence his most famous saying), and he describes it with a degree of reflection and wit that means, like Beethoven, he’s one of those figures from the past who is ‘contemporary forever’.