Questions for St. Augustine

The key passage:

To your grace and to your mercy I ascribe it that you have dissolved my sins as if they were ice. To your grace I ascribe also whatsoever evils I have not done…. Who is the man who will reflect on his weakness, and yet dare to credit his chastity and innocence to his own powers, so that he loves you the less, as if he had little need for that mercy by which you forgive sins to those who turn to you. There may be someone who has been called by you, and has heeded your voice, and has shunned those deeds which he now hears me recalling and confessing of myself. Let him not laugh to scorn a sick man who has been healed by that same physician who gave him such aid that he did not fall ill, or rather that he had only a lesser ill. Let him therefore love you just as much, nay even more. For he sees that I have been rescued from such depths of sinful disease by him who, as he also sees, has preserved him from the same maladies.

Confessions, II/7/15

*****

They kept me far from you, those fair things which, if they were not in you, would not exist at all.

— X/27/38

So that which is of God both keeps us from and calls us to him?

*****

Joys that I should bewail contend with sorrows at which I should rejoice, but on which side victory may rest I do not know…. You are the physician; I am a sick man. You are merciful; I am in need of mercy.

— X/28/39

God is the Composer, and his symphony contains both dissonance and consonance, the former to resolve into the latter?

Passages: From Closely Watched Trains, by Bohumil Hrabal

My great-grandfather was born in the year eighteen thirty, and in eighteen forty-eight he was a drummer in the army, and as a drummer boy he took part in the fighting on Charles Bridge. The students dug out cobble-stones from the paving there to throw at the soldiers, and they hit Great-grandfather on the knee and crippled him for life. From that time on he was granted this disability pension, one gold piece every day, and every day he spent it on a bottle of rum and two packets of tobacco, but instead of sitting quietly at home to do his drinking and smoking, he went off limping about the streets and the field paths, taking a special delight in turning up wherever there were people slaving away at some hard labor. And there he’d grin and gloat over those workers, and drink this rum of his, and smoke his tobacco, and what with one thing and another, never a year passed without Great-grandfather Luke getting beaten up somewhere, and Grandfather having to wheel him home in the wheelbarrow.

But Great-grandfather only bobbed up as fresh as ever and soon was off again bragging about who was the better off everywhere he went, until somebody beat him up again in the same unchristian way. Until the fall of Austria put a stop to this disability pension he’d been drawing for seventy years. Until his allowance under the republic dwindled so much that it wouldn’t run to his bottle of rum and his two packets of tobacco any longer.

But even then, never a year passed without somebody beating Great-grandfather Luke unconscious, because he still went on dragging himself around the district flaunting those seventy years when he’d had his bottle of rum and his tobacco every day. Until the year nineteen thirty-five Great-grandfather did his bragging in front of some quarrymen whose stone quarry had just been closed down on them, and they beat him up so badly that he died. The doctor said he might very well have been with us a good twenty years yet. That was why there was no other family that stuck in the town’s gullet like ours did.

*****

The station-master rode away on his horse, accompanied by the groom. He crossed the tracks, and the two white horses trotted along the hard field-path; you could hear the ring of their hooves, but their whiteness merged into the whiteness of the snowy plane, and all that was to be seen was an absurd rear view of the station-master and the groom, those dark clothes and splayed figures sitting, as it were, on empty air.

*****

“Viktoria Freie.” She bowed and held out her hand.

“Viktoria Freie?” repeated Hubička in wonder.

Passages: From The Pendragon Legend, by Antal Szerb

“Your way of life isn’t compatible with premeditated murder. I don’t think you’d even pick a flower, you have such a horror of any form of violence. I don’t intend any praise by this. You are neither a good man nor a bad man: the intellectual type cannot be forced into either category. You could be capable, out of selfishness or love of comfort, of omitting to do things which any decent man would do for his fellow creatures. But you would be incapable of doing anything which might deliberately hurt another. You’re too passive for that.”

*****

For two days she might be seen with a Chinese engineer, then for a week with a Canadian farmer, who made way for a French gigolo, who would himself be replaced by an aging German classical philologist on tour and a Polish ping-pong champion simultaneously. And all these lovers, and myself, would be told about all the other lovers, in hair-raising detail and with a total absence of emotion, though she did make occasional reference to das Moralische, which versteht sich von selbst (I never quite discovered where the self-knowledge came in) – but it was all perfectly objective, quite terrifyingly objective.

*****

At that moment, in that spontaneous outburst of unguarded arrogance, I suddenly understood him. Just minutes before, he had said that what distinguished man from the animals was the capacity to see beyond appearances. The animal sees his mate as simply another animal, but man views his as more than human.

And for a proud man no error can be more painful than to admit that in this regard he has blundered; that the woman he has chosen is not what he thought her. For a truly proud man the worst horror of disappointment in love is not the slight he has received: far, far worse is the failure of judgement that led him to construct a myth with no basis in reality. And a man as supremely proud as the Earl of Gwynedd has thereafter to maintain the illusion, in the face of every contradictory circumstance, lest he be forced to admit to himself that he has blundered.

That was why, for all his self-control, he gave way to superhuman rage when anyone attacked the Eileen myth.

*****

It was dark by the time we reached the car and got in. The wind searched impatiently among the trees in the woods beside the road, and every so often the bloodshot face of the full moon lit up the clouds, as they chased each other eastwards in a wild, silent ecstasy.

*****

“You speak like someone who has no ideals.”

“True. I am a neo-frivolist.”

“And how does that differ from old-fashioned frivolity?”

“Mostly in the ‘neo’ prefix. It makes it more interesting.”

Reflections on Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove (2009)

A recent ‘History versus Hollywood’ event was a double feature of Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. I had decided on this pairing, believing that the similarity of subject matter – accidental nuclear war – would accentuate the differences in how the subject was treated. I had grown up on Strangelove and was looking forward, with much presumption, to ‘turning on a new generation.’ Fail-Safe I had never seen before and assumed to be inferior in fame and in quality to Kubrick’s masterpiece. I actually showed Fail-Safe first, intending it as a sort of warm-up act.

Fail-Safe, of course, turned out to be extremely intense and disturbing. The horrifying ending left the audience aghast and silent. The last thing I wanted to hear in the heavy aftermath was the sound of my own voice saying something like, ‘And now for something completely different,’ as I introduced Strangelove – the funny film about nuclear war – but of course I had no choice; and naturally, Strangelove’s humor fell flat. (I could almost hear Lenny Bruce saying, ‘Go ahead, follow that on,’ in his skit about a comedian whose routine is sabotaged by the previous performer’s impromptu tribute to ‘the loved ones we lost in the war.’) After Fail-Safe, Strangelove just bombed. Since ninth grade, I’d regarded it as the best and the funniest film ever made, but now, I just didn’t like it any more.

During my mental post mortem on the evening, I realized that there was more to Strangelove’s bombing than my poor decision to show it after Fail-Safe. In fact, the films represent two conflicting cultures, separated by a great geographical (and perhaps a generational) rift. The most important difference between them, in my view, is one of characterization. In Fail-Safe, the characters, both political and military, are basically honorable people, and even the callous Walter Matthau role is rational and well-meaning in his own way. In Strangelove, everyone in the film is sexually perverted and bat-shit crazy, with the implication that the political and military professions are uniquely well-suited for such people. While Stanley Kubrick and scriptwriter Terry Southern were no doubt inventing grotesques to make their satire effective, the Northern sophisticate, who relies on art to help him appreciate reality, sometimes conflates the two; and up North, in the 1980s, we took it as a given that our leaders were sickos straight from the Strangelove set. In that milieu, then, Strangelove essentially preaches to the choir. The Southerner, of course, forms very strong opinions about politicians and military people, but he is not simply amused by them, as the over-educated Northerner is. The blasé detachment afforded by Yankee schooling is the chief prerequisite for enjoying a film like Strangelove. Without it, both because Fail-Safe stripped it away and because of the Mobile, Alabama venue, our Friday double feature didn’t work.

The Last Eatery in Japan

This is the last photo I took in Japan. I turned around and snapped a picture of the FaSoLa Cafe, just before going through Gate ?? at Narita Airport, down the jetway, and onto my plane.

There is something fascinating about the FaSoLa. You experience Japan as an apparently endless succession of restaurants, cafes, bistros, snack bars, patisseries, and ice cream stands — but actually it isn’t endless, and the little cafe at Narita (the FaSoLa, in this case), just yards from your gate, is the Last Station. Here you can park your carry-on bag and sit down at a clean table for one last aloe-laden grape drink and yakisoba, while the last few minutes of Japanese television you are apt to see for a while provides the backdrop. Then, you wipe your mouth, take your tray to the collection counter, make sure the table is tidy for the next guest — and leave a spiritual imprint of yourself there, while picking up a little memory in return. You walk just a few steps, through the gate, down the jetway, and through the main hatch.

The next time you walk through it, as you deplane, the FaSoLa won’t be there anymore. It will have transformed into a bank of Burger Kings, Jamba Juices, and Quiznos.’ You’ll be in America, as if you never left — except for the little bit of yourself that you gave to the FaSoLa and the little bit of it that you brought with you.