Sunday/triduum

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Fra Angelico, Noli me Tangere, 1440, San Marco, Florence.

 

Fra Angelico was one of the very earliest truly great painters. For a discussion of this masterly and blissful gem, see here and here. His genius transcends both the centuries and the artistic niches: “the great American artist Mark Rothko had been struck by the incredible light in Angelico’s works: an “inner” light that is stronger than the opacity that is intrinsic in the fresco technique.” And Rothko – talented though he was – was a very different sort of artist. He nevertheless identified something both real, and rare.

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Saturday/interlude

This is a blog favourite (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), albeit regarding a very enigmatic subject

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Jacob Isaaczs van Swanenburg (who taught Rembrandt) – The Harrowing of Hell, early 17th century. Look at the bottom left

….if you want to know more about this most mysterious day in the calendar, go here, and here

Something strange is happening—there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. 

 

Ash Wednesday

I usually blog on this with a painting – Goya, Bruegel, Spitzweg (genius) and more. I was prompted today to look at Rembrandt’s** late work, The Return of the Prodigal Son, which, if you know the parable, is highly apposite for Lent. Wikipedia is good on this. Kenneth Clark called it “a picture which those who have seen the original in St. Petersburg may be forgiven for claiming as the greatest picture ever painted” –  a fairly high bar, I’d say.

Henri Nouwen had a more overtly human and religious take on it, expressed very poetically: “Rembrandt is as much the elder son of the parable as he is the younger. When, during the last years of his life, he painted both sons in Return of the Prodigal Son, he had lived a life in which neither the lostness of the younger son nor the lostness of the elder son was alien to him. Both needed healing and forgiveness. Both needed to come home. Both needed the embrace of a forgiving father. But from the story itself, as well as from Rembrandt’s painting, it is clear that the hardest conversion to go through is the conversion of the one who stayed home”

We’ve all been there, and we will be again.

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Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1668. The Hermitage, St Petersburg

 

**The Knife is in awe of a few painters, Rembrandt is one of them: 1, 2, 3, 4

“Brava, la Fallaci. Brava.”

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…she even made selfies look cool…

Eight years ago, in one of the earliest pieces in this blog, I wrote what was effectively a fan’s homage to one of the great women of our time, writer and journalist, Oriana Fallaci. I think it still reads well. Fallaci was something of a prophetess, of an uncompromising and ballsy kind, who could write and argue with great vigour and effect. She was a populist in the tackling of difficult (and dangerous) issues, such as Islamic terrorism. Here is Christopher Hitchens’ profile of her, in some ways a kindred spirit.

She died of cancer in 2006, happily dismissive to the end, of some early social justice warriors who were trying to get her prosecuted.

The people who use the word ‘populist’ in a contemptuous way now, would likely hold Fallaci in contempt too. I doubt though, that they would express it to her face.

All this is a preamble to an excellent piece by the Fallaci of our time (sort of), the tireless Douglas Murray, in the enduringly excellent magazine for the brainiacs of Western Civilization, Standpoint. Feel free to read my blog post too, but here, describing one of her most famous encounters, is Murray:

In the early 1970s she had conducted an interview with the Shah of Iran, in which he discussed the visions he believed he had received. The resulting piece was so damaging that when Ayatollah Khomeini came to power he granted Fallaci the only interview that any Western journalist would ever get with him. They met in Qom in 1979, where the Ayatollah discovered that just because Fallaci disliked your enemies it did not follow that she would like you. When the Ayatollah claimed that the Iranian revolution which he was heading was animated by love she replied, “Love or fascism, Imam? It seems like fanaticism to me, the most dangerous kind: the fascist kind.”

The full version of the Khomeini interview remains one of the greatest pieces of reportage of the 20th century. Not just for the scoop, or the intricately revealing lead-up to the encounter, but for what Fallaci did during it. Forced into a chador in order to enter the Ayatollah’s presence, she ended up in a row about why women should be forced to wear such a garment, and became so enraged that she stood up and ripped off “this stupid medieval rag”, letting it fall to the floor “in an obscene black puddle”. At which “like the shadow of a cat . . . he rose so quickly, so suddenly, that for a moment I thought I had just been struck with a gust of wind. Then with a jump that was still very feline, he stepped over the chador and he disappeared.”

It should be noted though, that the newly labelled fascist fanatic Khomeini later reappeared and finished the interview.

She certainly had something.

Christmas, again

There are so many great takes on Christmas carols and related songs. Here are a few that cropped up in the past year.

The wrecked hedonist chic of English maverick Peter Perrett meets Silent Night:

…and the ragged genius of Tom Waits does the same:

…Ed Harcourt’s unique and awesome take on In The Bleak Midwinter:

Happy** Christmas!!

Here is the favourite Christmas image of the estimable @BeardyHowse – Joseph minding the baby while Mary reads in bed

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Fitzwilliam collection, 15th century

 

**…although if you’re from the Guardian…

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That’s the true spirit of Christmas

Nuns

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Homeless in Manhattan

Today being Sunday it seems reasonable to post some pretty basic upfront religious stuff. The sort of thing that makes people uncomfortable, allegedly, although I’m not convinced of that.

Nuns get a mixed press, ranging from pity through bafflement to admiration. I understand all three on different levels, but the reality is that they vary hugely in the nature of their work and vocations, and they are certainly not wimps. They’ve chosen a tough path in life. It was typical of Obama that he completely failed to understand this particular group of voters, and assumed that they would be easy targets. How wrong he was (1, 2, 3).

Here is an extract from a book by the well known Cardinal Dolan (one of the many societal differences between here and the US, he doesn’t shy away from getting stuck in), courtesy of Kathryn Jean Lopez. If you’ve spent time with the wretched, the incurably ill, the violent drug addicts and the dying, you’ll see that this rings entirely true. He was visiting the Missionaries of Charity on Good Friday – Mother Teresa’s order – in New York, where I think their base is up by Harlem:

As I went from bed to bed, I noticed one emaciated man in the corner who seemed agitated, and kept beckoning to me to come to him. As I began in turn to approach his bed, the sister halted me, warning that this man was unusually violent, hateful to all, and had actually attempted to bite the attending sisters a number of times. Of course, you realize the consequences being bitten by one with AIDS. However, the poor man kept signaling for me to come near. What was I to do? What would any priest do? Slowly, cautiously, I approached, and carefully extended the crucifix, which he grasped and kissed — not the feet, I remember so vividly — but the crucified Lord. He then lay back down, exhausted. The next day, Holy Saturday, the sisters called to tell me that the same man had asked to see me. I went, and, again, in company with two of the sisters as “bodyguards,” approached him. As I got nearer he whispered, “I want to be baptized!” I moved a few inches closer, and expressing satisfaction, asked if he could explain to me why he desired to enter the Church. “I know nothing about Christianity or the Catholic Church,” he said, with the little bit of strength he had left. “In fact, I have hated religion all my life. All I do know is that for three months I have been here dying. These sisters are always happy! When I curse them, they look at me with compassion in their eyes. All I know is that they have joy and I don’t. When I ask them in desperation why they are so happy, all they answer is ‘Jesus.’ I want this Jesus. Baptize me and give me this Jesus! Give me joy!” Never as a priest has it brought me more satisfaction to baptize, anoint, and give first Holy Communion to someone. He died at 3:15 on Easter morning. It’s sanctity that that man saw in the sisters. They radiated holy joy.

He has a point

Poetry Corner: Robert Lowell

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I live near an old whaling port, and the air I breathe is usually sea air.  Having grown up in a city far from the coast I can tell you that it’s very different.  However, by some distance, the most nautical, seafaring, ocean-soaked environment that I’ve ever been to is Cape Cod.  The Perfect Storm is not a great movie, but it does capture something of this essence – life on the edge of a vast and dangerous ocean. Another poet who had a remarkable gift of evoking the sea was Orcadian George Mackay Brown, from another community where the sea, with its gifts and snares, permeates daily life. Interestingly, Lowell visited the rarely travelled Brown in Orkney – see this great little memoir. The only other writing that I’ve come across that’s comparable when it comes to conjuring up images of man and the sea is Masefield’s short and brilliant Cargoes.

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Nantucket

But back to Lowell. A manic depressive New Englander who died aged only 60, in 1977, he was highly successful in his lifetime, albeit life was never smooth for him. Oddly, like Mackay Brown, he was a convert to Catholicism.

This poem is longish, but worth it.  The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket (1946. Try this very brief interpretation)

[FOR WARREN WINSLOW, DEAD AT SEA]
Let man have dominion over the fishes of the sea and the fowls of the air and the beasts of the whole earth, and every creeping creature that moveth upon the earth. 

I 
A brackish reach of shoal off Madaket— 
The sea was still breaking violently and night   
Had steamed into our North Atlantic Fleet, 
When the drowned sailor clutched the drag-net. Light   
Flashed from his matted head and marble feet,   
He grappled at the net 
With the coiled, hurdling muscles of his thighs: 
The corpse was bloodless, a botch of reds and whites,   
Its open, staring eyes 
Were lustreless dead-lights 
Or cabin-windows on a stranded hulk   
Heavy with sand. We weight the body, close   
Its eyes and heave it seaward whence it came,   
Where the heel-headed dogfish barks its nose   
On Ahab’s void and forehead; and the name   
Is blocked in yellow chalk. 
Sailors, who pitch this portent at the sea   
Where dreadnaughts shall confess 
Its hell-bent deity, 
When you are powerless 
To sand-bag this Atlantic bulwark, faced 
By the earth-shaker, green, unwearied, chaste   
In his steel scales: ask for no Orphean lute 
To pluck life back. The guns of the steeled fleet   
Recoil and then repeat 
The hoarse salute. 
II 
Whenever winds are moving and their breath   
Heaves at the roped-in bulwarks of this pier,   
The terns and sea-gulls tremble at your death   
In these home waters. Sailor, can you hear   
The Pequod’s sea wings, beating landward, fall   
Headlong and break on our Atlantic wall   
Off ’Sconset, where the yawing S-boats splash   
The bellbuoy, with ballooning spinnakers,   
As the entangled, screeching mainsheet clears   
The blocks: off Madaket, where lubbers lash   
The heavy surf and throw their long lead squids   
For blue-fish? Sea-gulls blink their heavy lids   
Seaward. The winds’ wings beat upon the stones,   
Cousin, and scream for you and the claws rush   
At the sea’s throat and wring it in the slush   
Of this old Quaker graveyard where the bones   
Cry out in the long night for the hurt beast   
Bobbing by Ahab’s whaleboats in the East. 
III 
All you recovered from Poseidon died 
With you, my cousin, and the harrowed brine   
Is fruitless on the blue beard of the god,   
Stretching beyond us to the castles in Spain,   
Nantucket’s westward haven. To Cape Cod   
Guns, cradled on the tide, 
Blast the eelgrass about a waterclock 
Of bilge and backwash, roil the salt and sand   
Lashing earth’s scaffold, rock 
Our warships in the hand 
Of the great God, where time’s contrition blues   
Whatever it was these Quaker sailors lost 
In the mad scramble of their lives. They died   
When time was open-eyed, 
Wooden and childish; only bones abide 
There, in the nowhere, where their boats were tossed   
Sky-high, where mariners had fabled news   
Of IS, the whited monster. What it cost   
Them is their secret. In the sperm-whale’s slick   
I see the Quakers drown and hear their cry:   
“If God himself had not been on our side,   
If God himself had not been on our side,   
When the Atlantic rose against us, why,   
Then it had swallowed us up quick.” 
IV 
This is the end of the whaleroad and the whale 
Who spewed Nantucket bones on the thrashed swell   
And stirred the troubled waters to whirlpools   
To send the Pequod packing off to hell:   
This is the end of them, three-quarters fools,   
Snatching at straws to sail 
Seaward and seaward on the turntail whale,   
Spouting out blood and water as it rolls,   
Sick as a dog to these Atlantic shoals: 
Clamavimus, O depths. Let the sea-gulls wail 
For water, for the deep where the high tide   
Mutters to its hurt self, mutters and ebbs.   
Waves wallow in their wash, go out and out,   
Leave only the death-rattle of the crabs,   
The beach increasing, its enormous snout   
Sucking the ocean’s side. 
This is the end of running on the waves; 
We are poured out like water. Who will dance 
The mast-lashed master of Leviathans 
Up from this field of Quakers in their unstoned graves? 
V 
When the whale’s viscera go and the roll   
Of its corruption overruns this world 
Beyond tree-swept Nantucket and Woods Hole   
And Martha’s Vineyard, Sailor, will your sword   
Whistle and fall and sink into the fat? 
In the great ash-pit of Jehoshaphat 
The bones cry for the blood of the white whale,   
The fat flukes arch and whack about its ears,   
The death-lance churns into the sanctuary, tears   
The gun-blue swingle, heaving like a flail, 
And hacks the coiling life out: it works and drags   
And rips the sperm-whale’s midriff into rags,   
Gobbets of blubber spill to wind and weather,   
Sailor, and gulls go round the stoven timbers   
Where the morning stars sing out together 
And thunder shakes the white surf and dismembers   
The red flag hammered in the mast-head. Hide   
Our steel, Jonas Messias, in Thy side. 
VI 
OUR LADY OF WALSINGHAM 
There once the penitents took off their shoes   
And then walked barefoot the remaining mile;   
And the small trees, a stream and hedgerows file   
Slowly along the munching English lane,   
Like cows to the old shrine, until you lose   
Track of your dragging pain. 
The stream flows down under the druid tree,   
Shiloah’s whirlpools gurgle and make glad   
The castle of God. Sailor, you were glad   
And whistled Sion by that stream. But see: 
Our Lady, too small for her canopy, 
Sits near the altar. There’s no comeliness   
At all or charm in that expressionless 
Face with its heavy eyelids. As before, 
This face, for centuries a memory, 
Non est species, neque decor, 
Expressionless, expresses God: it goes 
Past castled Sion. She knows what God knows,   
Not Calvary’s Cross nor crib at Bethlehem   
Now, and the world shall come to Walsingham. 
VII 
The empty winds are creaking and the oak   
Splatters and splatters on the cenotaph,   
The boughs are trembling and a gaff   
Bobs on the untimely stroke 
Of the greased wash exploding on a shoal-bell   
In the old mouth of the Atlantic. It’s well;   
Atlantic, you are fouled with the blue sailors,   
Sea-monsters, upward angel, downward fish:   
Unmarried and corroding, spare of flesh   
Mart once of supercilious, wing’d clippers,   
Atlantic, where your bell-trap guts its spoil   
You could cut the brackish winds with a knife   
Here in Nantucket, and cast up the time 
When the Lord God formed man from the sea’s slime   
And breathed into his face the breath of life,   
And blue-lung’d combers lumbered to the kill.   

The Lord survives the rainbow of His will.

 

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Anne Frank in 2017

Amsterdam is good in parts, as the saying goes. The red light area is appallingly exploitative and not remotely OK, and the oddly named coffee shops are exactly what you’d expect from a bunch of well paid decadent stoners. Fun for 10 minutes and that’s it.

The touristy stuff is good,no doubt, but like many middle class travellers, my slightly snobby instinct is to avoid the obvious tourist traps. If I’d done this in Amsterdam, and missed out on the Anne Frank House I would have made a very big mistake. The best time to go is not long before it shuts, when the queue has died down.

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I won’t provide a review, just a few observations. Three in fact.

  • Anne herself, despite the diary, is not the main focus. She is a sweet normal girl, but hard to know – something of a cipher
  • The ‘star’ – if you can use the word for such a grim background – is Anne’s father, Otto. Everything about him seems admirable, far-sighted, brave, noble. A suitable figure to invoke on Father’s Day. The famous picture of him staring into space in the house, long after the war, is pinned to my office wall. The house only stands now thanks to him. The Dutch government would have let it be demolished. He was an exceptionally canny reader of people.
  • Anne would have survived the war had they not been betrayed by the locals. Not enough people realise this. Like in so much of wartime Europe antisemitism was never far away, with some notable exceptions. Betraying the Jews could be very advantageous. Lots of countries’ citizens were complicit, with history repeating itself. The Dutch resistance was a sporadic affair – despite its typically Verhoeven over the top production, the film Black Book makes some good points on this.

Why does this matter? Well, antisemitism is now ingrained in the ‘most popular politician in Britain’ – Mr Corbyn – and his wretched schizophrenic Labour Party. He did of course lose the election, despite the hype, but he got a lot of votes. Apart from the demerits of his other exotic policies and affiliations, what this means is that a very large swathe of the British electorate is effectively indifferent to antisemitism. If you ask them, they’re probably against it in a sort of vague it’s-not-a-priority way. That’s not good enough. Particularly in a Western European scene riven by overtly Jew-hating Islamic fundamentalists.

The civilised Dutch could morally atrophy so quickly that they could send a young girl to certain death for short term gain. The Guardian’s Nick Cohen has written numerous powerful pieces on this (1, 2, 3), over a long period. He’s watched the problem grow and grow, in his own political group. As he says: If it is incredible that we have reached this pass, it is also intolerable. However hard the effort to overthrow it, the status quo cannot stand.

It should make us all think.

**two hours after I wrote this, this appeared on my Twitter:

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Golden rule: for ‘Zionists’ read ‘Jews’