Saturday, December 31, 2005
New York Times
January 1, 2006
Paradise Found, Limbo Lost
By HAROLD BLOOM
I feel both personal and literary regrets that, if Pope Benedict XVI gets his way, in perhaps a year or so Limbo will be in limbo (as it were). The issue spurs a reminiscence. Walking down Broadway on a chilly Upper West Side morning in 1972, I bumped into my good acquaintance, the novelist Anthony Burgess, and at his request I resigned to him the bottle of Fundador I had just purchased at a nearby liquor store. Standing in a tattered robe and blinking in the sun, after a night devoted to composition, Burgess required immediate medication.
Besides, he had introduced me to this invigorating Spanish brandy only a few weeks before, so I urged him to retain the bottle after he had absorbed two prodigious swigs outdoors. As I wended back to the liquor shop, he called out after me: "The debt shall be paid, Bloom! When you arrive in Limbo, I will await you there with a bottle of Fundador."
A lapsed Roman Catholic (like his idol, James Joyce), Burgess was being unduly optimistic about our reunion on the Other Shore, since neither of us qualified for Limbo, a state that the church, largely at the prodding of Thomas Aquinas, designated for unbaptized babies and the Hebrew patriarchs who preceded Jesus.
Dante, of course, in Canto IV of "The Inferno," went beyond Aquinas, and thronged Limbo with the philosophers and poets of the ancient world; primarily his beloved guide, Virgil, but also Homer, Horace, Ovid and others, and even literary characters like Hector and Aeneas. Rather surprisingly, Dante also admitted three Muslims: the warrior Saladin and the philosophers Avicenna and Averroes.
Limbo has a rich literary history, in honor of which I hope the pope and his International Theological Commission will refrain from exiling this amiably ambiguous realm. Hell, Purgatory and Heaven may seem rather strictly demarcated and limited destinations, without Limbo as an interesting outrider. In the Italian Renaissance poet Luduvico Ariosto's "Orlando Furioso," the knight Astolfo visits the moon's Limbo and discovers there all of earth's wastages: talents locked up in named vases, bribes hanging on gold hooks, and much besides.
In "Henry VIII," Shakespeare uses the "Limbo of the Fathers" as a synonym for prison, while John Milton in "Paradise Lost" gives us the Paradise of Fools as a "limbo large and broad," where winds blow about Roman Catholic cowls, hoods, habits, relics, beads, indulgences, pardons and Papal Bulls.
The 18th-century satirical poet Alexander Pope expands on Ariosto and Milton in "The Rape of the Lock," where the lunar Limbo contains "the smiles of harlots and the tears of heirs." Much more somber is the "Limbo" of the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, most famous for "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and "Kubla Khan." Coleridge's Limbo is not on the moon, nor on Hell's borders, but on the phantasmagoric line between what is and what is not, the waking nightmares of an opium addict: "The sole true Something - This! In Limbo's Den/It frightens Ghosts, as here Ghosts frighten men."
The Vatican's motives for changing its theology doubtless are benign: worried African and Asian converts whose babies die before baptism will be reassured that Paradise, not Limbo, awaits the lost infants. And in any case, non-Catholics like myself need not mix in matters relevant only to the faithful. Still, a few days ago I received an anonymous phone call from a woman who assured me that my most recent book certainly would send me to Hell. I would prefer Limbo, if only to share Fundador again with Anthony Burgess.
Harold Bloom is the author, most recently, of "Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine."
I am reading Rocco Buttiglione's interesting and insightful book, Karol Wojtyla: The Thought of the Man Who Became Paul John Paul II. I thought I’d share one paragraph that caught my attention this morning.
“After the Communists came to power, [Cardinal} Sapieha realized immediately that culture would be the decisive battleground between them. … From the beginning, the Polish bishops decided not to petition on their own behalf against the regime which violated their ancient rights… They chose instead to take a position in support of fundamental human and national rights, renouncing any particular reclamation which would have indicated that they made a distinction, not to say a contradistinction, between human rights and religious rights, between the inspiration of the nation and that of the Church.”
It seems to me that their decision was not only a correct one for them (as history seems to have confirmed) but provides powerful insight for our own time. What do others think?
I'm not sure whether a private school in California will be held liable under state discrimination laws for kicking out two girls who confessed having "lesbian" feelings for each other (HT: ACS), but I'm fairly confident that the following argument offered by the girls' attorney is not going to carry the day:
"There's a lot of hypocrisy going on here," [the attorney] said. "The school is claiming the girls were expelled because their conduct wasn't within the Christian code. But at the same time, (the school) has students who aren't Christians and are even Jewish."
The New York Times often gives the impression that seriously religious folks, especially evangelical Christians, are three-horned creatures that just dropped in from outer space. I initially wondered why the paper was giving such prominent coverage yesterday to a new study's fairly ho-hum findings that four percent of American teenagers attend youth group at a church different than the one their families attend. The significance of the study, I soon learned, is that it gave the Times a chance to talk about just how creepy those youth group activities are. The thesis is evident in the article's conclusion:
The band played a simple rock song, and everybody shouted the lyrics over and over: "Bless the Lord with all that's in me. Bless the Lord. May kingdoms fall and rulers crawl before your throne."
Emily threw her head back and sang and sang. Then she fell to her knees. Bent forward at the waist, rocking, she sang into her curled body what others shouted to the rafters: "I want to give you all of me. I'm giving you all of me."
The conclusion has nothing to do with the study or its findings, of course. But readers are now on notice that the three-horned creatures are targeting our teenagers.
Friday, December 30, 2005
Here's an essay -- now more than ten years old -- by friend-of-MOJ and Notre Dame professor Philip Bess, called "A Dutch Master and the Good Life." The piece is a reflection on Jan Van Eyck's painting, completed in 1432, "The Mystic Adoration of the Lamb." The essay is too rich to capture here, but anyone interested in the discussion we've been having, off and on, about urbanism, planning, architecture, sprawl, and human flourishing will want to read it. Here's a taste:
[The painting] is on the one hand a specifically Christian representation of the good life, but is also on the other hand-in its portrayal of the context of the good life as both city and garden-a representation of the good life with rational appeal across a variety of human cultures, and one specifically understandable in terms of the philosophical tradition of natural law theory.
The nature of the good life for human beings is a perennial concern of natural law thinkers. But where modern consumer culture would have us consider the good life in terms of personal freedom and creativity, the possession of wealth, power, fame, health, sexual vitality-not to mention cars, gym shoes, and beer-many if not most variants of the natural law tradition would view all of these admitted goods as less important to the good life than moral virtue (character habits of temperance, courage, justice, prudence, friendship, magnanimity, steadfastness, etc.) and intellectual virtue (habits of mind appropriate to particular practical arts and/or theoretical sciences) exercised in projects engaged in with others, and most especially in a city. In natural law theory, in other words, the good life for human beings is the life of virtue lived in community.
A few months ago, I linked to a paper, "Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Social Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularity in the Prosperous Democracies," published in the Journal of Religion and Society," which concluded that (among other things), "[i]n general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies." Also: "The widely held fear that a Godless citizenry must experience societal disaster is therefore refuted. Contradicting these conclusions requires demonstrating a positive link between theism and societal conditions in the first world with a similarly large body of data - a doubtful possibility in view of the observable trends."
Professor Friedman links to some press releases commenting on the recently passed Defense Appropriations bill, which includes "tuition reimbursement up to $6,000 per student ($7,500 for special education students) for public or private schools that provided educational refuge" to students displaced by Katrina.
Bioethicist Wesley Smith writes, over at National Review Online, that a laudatory biopic is in the works about Jack "Dr. Death" Kevorkian. In do doing, Smith reminds us why even those who support (and I do not) a legal or moral right to assisted suicide should regard Kevorkian as a ghoul.
Thursday, December 29, 2005
Here, courtesy of Professor Friedman's invaluable Religion Clause blog, are the "top ten" church-state / free exercise developments:
1. Supreme Court rules on 10 Commandments displays.
2. Intelligent Design is at center of public controversy.
3. Supreme Court nominees are scrutinized over their 1st Amendment religion views.
4. The "Christmas wars" heat up-- "holiday" vs. "Christmas".
5. Government funding of faith-based organizations remains controversial.
6. Proselytization at the Air force Academy creates controversy.
7. RLUIPA is upheld as constitutional by Supreme Court and lower courts.
8. Courts strike down sectarian legislative prayers.
9. Christian student groups demand university recognition: non-discrimination vs. free exercise.
10. Accommodation of Muslim religious beliefs and practices increases.
I would add, "Catholic clergy-sex-abuse scandal prompts various interferences, or proposed interferences, with the Church's independence."
I've just started (what I think will be) a fascinating book: "Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment," by former Time managing editor, James Gaines. (Here is a review -- one of the few I've been able to find -- in the Guardian; and here is a discussion on the radio program, "On Point.") I am not far enough in to provide a good review, but here is a "taste" from the publisher:
One Sunday evening in the spring of his seventh year as king, as his musicians were gathering for the evening concert, a courtier brought Frederick the Great his usual list of arrivals at the town gate. As he looked down the list of names, he gave a start.
"Gentlemen," he said, "old Bach is here." Those who heard him said there was "a kind of agitation" in his voice.
So begins James R. Gaines's Evening in the Palace of Reason, setting up what seems to be the ultimate mismatch: a young, glamorously triumphant warrior-king, heralded by Voltaire as the very It Boy of the Enlightenment, pitted against a devout, bad-tempered composer of "outdated" music, a scorned genius in his last years, symbol of a bygone world. The sparks from their brief conflict illuminate a pivotal moment in history.
Behind the pomp and flash, Prussia's Frederick the Great was a tormented man. His father, Frederick William I, was most likely mad; he had been known to chase frightened subjects down the street, brandishing a cane and roaring, "Love me, scum!" Frederick adored playing his flute as much as his father despised him for it, and he was beaten mercilessly for this and other perceived flaws. After an unsuccessful attempt to escape, Frederick was forced to watch as his best friend and coconspirator was brutally executed.
Twenty years later, Frederick's personality having congealed into a love of war and a taste for manhandling the great and near-great, he worked hard and long to draw "old Bach" into his celebrity menagerie. He was aided by the composer's own son, C. P. E. Bach, chief keyboardist in the king's private chamber music group. The king had prepared a cruel practical joke for his honored guest, asking him to improvise a six-part fugue on a theme so fiendishly difficult some believe only Bach's son could have devised it. Bach left the court fuming. In a fever of composition, he used the coded, alchemical language of counterpoint to write A Musical Offering in response. A stirring declaration of everything Bach had stood for all his life, it represented "as stark a rebuke of his beliefs and worldview as an absolute monarch has ever received." It is also one of the great works of art in the history of music.
Set at the tipping point between the ancient and the modern world, the triumphant story of Bach's victory expands to take in the tumult of the eighteenth century: the legacy of the Reformation, wars and conquest, and the birth of the Enlightenment. Most important, it tells the story of that historic moment when Belief -- the quintessentially human conviction that behind mundane appearances lies something mysterious and awesome -- came face to face with the cold certainty of Reason. Brimming with originality and wit, Evening in the Palace of Reason is history of the best kind, intimate in scale and broad in its vision.