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Archive for February, 2013

Has the nimbus been tarnished?

Thursday, 28 February, 2013 1 Comment

There is a nimbus about the Papacy, bound up with the history of the office that makes it unlike anything else on Earth. That being the case, one could view the decision by Pope Benedict XVI to resign as very damaging to the ancient aura he inherited. By doing something as normal as what’s being termed “retiring” he is making the mysterious very mortal. And therein lies a danger. The other-worldliness of the Papacy, its claim to divine selection, has enabled the Catholic Church to act as a bulwark against secularization in all its forms, be it the evil of communism or the sterility of consumerism. And when some new cultish belief system like warmism emerges, the historical example of the Vatican helps puts it in perspective and in its place. If the Papacy is to be “humanized”, will the forces and the fanaticisms that it has traditionally neutralized feel emboldened to stake their claim for legitimacy, now that they feel a mere man stands in their way?

Sede vacante

Thursday, 28 February, 2013 0 Comments

“From a distance, the skullcaps of a knot of cardinals looked like fuchsias,” writes Christopher Howse in the Telegraph. Getting into his stride, he adds: “The people spilt out of the Vatican state, with concentrations like iron filings round screens in the Via della Conciliazione that runs towards the kaolin-grey Tiber. The silence that fell during readings from Scripture was like walking from a noisy pub into an empty street.” One of the finest pieces written about yesterday’s events in Rome is titled “In The world bids farewell to Pope Benedict XVI.”

Christopher Howse brings his readers back to 2005 and the Mass at the opening of the conclave that elected the then-Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope: “Buildings do not last, or books. After a certain time, more or less long, all this disappears,” said the celebrant. And that’s what will happen tonight when Pope Benedict XVI retires from public life. The chair of Peter will be empty. Sede vacante. That, the Latin scholar Howse points out is the Latin ablative absolute for “the chair being empty.” Now is not a moment for grief, however:

“But I think we should not underestimate the hard-bitten ability of Catholics to distinguish between the holiness of the Church and the sinfulness of its members. Jesus Christ, they were taught from childhood, is the head of the Church, not the Pope. There may be crises in the Church, but the Church is not in crisis. It is growing.”

Sede Vacante

The undead returns to Europe

Wednesday, 27 February, 2013 0 Comments

The undead Just as F. Scott Fitzgerald toyed with Trimalchio as a possible title for The Great Gatsby, Bram Stoker considered using the title The Un-Dead for his novel Dracula. In both cases, we should be eternally grateful for what finally appeared on the cover as Gatsby and Dracula have become metaphors for hosts of phenomena, ranging from plutocracy to lack of proper dental care.

Roger Corman and lots of other makers of Hollywood B movies are in the debt of Bram Stoker as well because his use of “undead” is responsible for the modern horror sense of the word. Neologism note: The word undead does not appear in English before Stoker. Definition: “The term undead describes beings in mythology, legend or fiction that are deceased yet behave as if alive. A common example is a corpse re-animated by supernatural forces by the application of the deceased’s own life force or that of another being.”

Following the inconclusive Italian election at the weekend, the undead euro has returned to haunt its crazed creators. Today, Italy will attempt to sell between €3 billion and €4 billion of a new 10-year bond and between €1.75 billion and €2.5 billion of five-year paper. Observer should keep a close eye on two-year Italian yields for signs that the market is worried the political paralysis has voided the protection offered by the European Central Bank’s bond-buying pledge.

“Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make.” Dracula

“I want to thank Canada,” Mr. Affleck said

Tuesday, 26 February, 2013 0 Comments

Back when we tipped it to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, we wrote: “Sure, there’s a lot of alcoholic beverage knocked back in Argo, but the booze acts as an expression of civilization and an antidote to the emerging barbarism of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Ben Affleck stars in and directs a film that’s funny, clever, taut and a necessary reminder of the threat that faces us. Argo deserves the Best Film Oscar, and the ‘Best Supporting Actor’ award should go to Alan Arkin as Lester Siegel, a producer so cynical that the knows the price and the value of everyone in Hollywood.”

Well, Alan Arkin didn’t quite get the gong, but he did play a key role in an excellent film and that’s another milestone in an acting and directing career that stretches back over 50 years. By the way, the Argo screenplay by Chris Terrio, based on the May 2007 Wired magazine article The Great Escape by Joshuah Bearman, and chapter nine of The Master of Disguise by Antonio Mendez, is available here (PDF) for all those who would like to study Hollywood tradecraft. And congratulations to Ben Affleck for turning the script into a film that has finally pleased the Canadians. Not an easy thing to do, that.

Trouble of the most sweet and tender kind

Monday, 25 February, 2013 0 Comments

Proust family The Irish writer Colm Toibin went to an exhibition in the Morgan Library in New York City that celebrates the 1913 publication of Swann’s Way, the first of the seven volumes in Marcel Proust’s monumental À la recherche du temps perdu. Upon seeing a photo of the novelist’s mother, he developed a certain sympathy for her situation:

“Mme Proust is seated, looking to the left, while her sons, young men in their twenties, stand on either side of her. They are beautifully dressed and have a look in their eyes that suggests the boulevard and the salon. There is something feline and sleek about the pair of them. It is easy to imagine why maman is so dour-looking and disapproving, her mouth firmly closed, her eyes fixed on the ground. She is a woman who knows what trouble looks like, and these boys are ready for trouble of the most sweet and tender and pleasurable kind.”

From The Sweet Troubles of Proust in the New York Review of Books blog.

The Most Successful Institution

Monday, 25 February, 2013 0 Comments

“The proudest royal houses are but of yesterday, when compared with the line of the Supreme Pontiffs. That line we trace back in an unbroken series, from the Pope who crowned Napoleon in the nineteenth century to the Pope who crowned Pepin in the eighth; and far beyond the time of Pepin the august dynasty extends, till it is lost in the twilight of fable.”

So wrote Thomas Babington Macaulay, one of Britain’s greatest historians, in an 1840 review of Leopold von Ranke’s History of the Popes. Macaulay continued:

“The republic of Venice came next in antiquity. But the republic of Venice was modern when compared with the Papacy; and the republic of Venice is gone, and the Papacy remains. The Papacy remains, not in decay, not a mere antique, but full of life and youthful vigour.”

And he finished the review, titled “The Roman Catholic Church as the Most Successful Institution that Has Ever Existed“, with a glorious flourish:

She was great and respected before the Saxon had set foot on Britain, before the Frank had passed the Rhine, when Grecian eloquence still flourished at Antioch, when idols were still worshipped in the temple of Mecca. And she may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s.

Macaulay understood the value of taking the long view. Sic transit gloria mundi he would have warned His Eminence Cardinal Keith Patrick O’Brien.

February chameleon bike

Sunday, 24 February, 2013 0 Comments
February chameleon bike

“It is all kind of lovely that I know what I attend here now the maturity of snow has settled around forming a sort of time pushing that other over either horizon and all is mine in any colors to be chosen and everything is cold and nothing is totally frozen.” February by Jack Collom

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New fangled folk by Local Natives

Saturday, 23 February, 2013 0 Comments

In attempting to come up with a fitting definition for the sound created by the Los Angeles-based Local Natives, the independent media group, Clash Music, described their style as “psych folk” and “new fangled folk.” Writing about the band’s new album, Pitchfork, had this to say: “With Hummingbird, Local Natives have made a thoughtful, lovely album with small gestures that provide great rewards.” The mother of lead vocalist Kelcey Ayer died last summer and he addresses her movingly in the album’s penultimate song, Colombia: “If you never felt all of my love/ I pray now you do.”

Zen and the art of being Italian

Friday, 22 February, 2013 0 Comments

We round out our week of all things Italian here with a recommendation: Zen. No, not the school of Mahayana Buddhism that originated in China during the 6th century and which became famous in the 1970s when it was briefly associated with motorcycle maintenance. Rather, our Zen is Aurelio Zen, a fictional Italian detective created by the late, lamented crime writer Michael Dibdin.

Although your blogger has been a long-time admirer of Italy and has visited the country many times, it was only through reading of Dibdin’s murder mysteries that the true nature of contemporary Italian society became clear. The books are filled with vice, la dolce vita, politics, passion, omerta, commerce, history, humanity, food, wine and love of place. Zen teaches the reader that Italy is not a modern nation-state, but a set of city-states living in constant familial rivalry with each other. But despite the fragmentation, the sum of the parts is still a force to be reckoned with. Reuters headline this morning: “Global shares, euro tumble on economic concerns, Italy vote.”

BBC Scotland and Left Bank Pictures produced three dramas based on the Dibdin books. Shot in Rome, they starred English actor Rufus Sewell as Aurelio Zen, and Italian actress Caterina Murino is Tania Moretti, his colleague. Eccellente!

Dan Brown aids ailing Italy

Thursday, 21 February, 2013 0 Comments
Dan Brown aids ailing Italy

“Bestselling-author Dan Brown sat down to a simple Tuscan meal of tomato stew followed by steak in a family-run trattoria.” Back in November 2004, Geoffrey Pullum revealed to readers of Language Log that when Dan Brown constructs his formulaic opening sentence “an occupational term is used with no determiner as a bare role NP premodifier […]

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Girlfriend in a Coma

Wednesday, 20 February, 2013 0 Comments

“Our aims are to build awareness in Italy and around the world of the true nature and severity of the decline of this once-great western democracy, to warn other countries that a similar destiny could await them, and to serve as a call to action, at all levels of society.” So say Italian journalist Annalisa Piras and Bill Emmott, former editor of The Economist. Between them, they have made of Girlfriend in a Coma, a declaration of love and apprehension about the object of their passion: Repubblica italiana.

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Bill Emmott kindly took some time from his busy schedule to take part in a Q&A with Rainy Day. Here goes:

Eamonn Fitzgerald: Girlfriend in a Coma, Italy and its Discontents by Paul Ginsborg, The Dark Heart of Italy by Tobias Jones… There’s no shortage of concern for the state of Italy by British intellectuals. But why Italy, and not, say, Germany or Spain? How do you explain this British anxiety about Italy?

Bill Emmott: Our extra interest in Italy goes back centuries: we see Italy as the font of western civilisation, a sort of lesson in how to be cultured. But also now there is a kind of horrified fascination: at the danger Italy might bring down the euro, at the way Berlusconi has become the anti-culture symbol, but also at fear that some Italian trends might might precursors of what might befall us too, if we are not careful.

Eamonn Fitzgerald: Italy has lurched from crisis to crisis over the past six decades, but life goes on and the Italians seem to have developed the ability to cope. Why do you think that the current crisis is more serious than the preceding ones?

Bill Emmott: This crisis is genuinely worse. Incomes are falling, private savings have halved, and the young are living off the pensions of their grandparents. It cannot go on like this. As Sergio Marchionne of FIAT says in our film, Italy is on “l’ultima spiaggia“, the last beach.

Eamonn Fitzgerald: In his 2004 thriller, Medusa, the late Michael Dibdin has his protagonist, Aurelio Zen, describe the everyday reality of corruption, intrigue and distrust as “Italia Lite”. It is, says Zen, “the new culture of empty slogans, insincere smiles and hollow promises overlaying the authentic adversarial asperity of public life.” Did Dibdin, the novelist, get it right?

Bill Emmott: A principle of journalism, espoused even by a predecessor of mine as editor of The Economist, is that we “simplify, then exaggerate”. So did Dibdin. But his books contained a lot of truth.

Eamonn Fitzgerald: This question is related to the previous one in that it deals with matters cultural. How come Italian artists, filmmakers especially, have created nothing extraordinary about the current state of Italy? What’s happened to that famed creativity? Where’s the Pasolini, were’s the Sciascia in this time of need?

Bill Emmott: Domination of the media, of film distribution by a few hands, combined with the politicisation of so much of the cultural industry, have combined to stultify creativity. Not entirely, of course, but substantially.

Eamonn Fitzgerald: The international press depicts Berlusconi as a gangster, a buffoon or a Casanova, but in-depth analysis of his popularity is rare or non-existent. Is this because the international media is unwilling to confront the fact that many Italians have very different values to the Tuscany set, as I call liberal/leftist international commentariat?

Bill Emmott: No, I think the Italian media makes the same mistake too. They love his showmanship, so they amplify it and connive in his use of it to cover up his real aims.

Eamonn Fitzgerald: How will Beppe Grillo and his Five Star Movement fare in the coming election?

Bill Emmott: Quite well. They are the only really new force, and feed off anger and despair. They will be a big force in the next parliament.

Eamonn Fitzgerald: Final question: Is Italy doomed, or do you see light at the end of the tunnel?

Bill Emmott: There will be light when Italians really face up to the reality of their situation.

Thank you, Bill. And now, over to The Smiths: “Girlfriend in a coma, I know. I know — it’s serious.”