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Of blood and song

Sunday, April 10th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — what carves memory? blood is spilled, song carries grief and anger across centuries ]
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One hundred years ago, Irish blood was spilled in the Easter Uprising of 1916, as Sinéad O’Connor & The Chieftains call us to remember in The Foggy Dew:

As down the glen one Easter morn to a city fair rode I
There armed lines of marching men in squadrons passed me by
No pipe did hum no battle drum did sound it’s loud tattoo
But the Angelus bell o’er the Liffey swell rang out through the foggy dew

The bravest fell, and the Requiem bell rang mournfully and clear
For those who died that Easter-tide in the spring of the year
While the world did gaze in deep amaze at those fearless men but few
Who bore the fight that freedom’s light might shine through the foggy dew

While some may see in the Uprising a merely political fight, in song the religious element — Easter morn, the Angelus bell, the Requiem bell — add Catholic poignancy to memory.

**

One hundred years.

Memory can linger long past a hundred years, as we in our rush to be the first into the future may forget. Let the Chieftains again remind us, with O’Sullivan’s March:

Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare marched in 1602 — as Shakespeare was penning All’s Well That Ends Well and Othello?

A doff of the cap is due here to blog-friend Pundita , who pointed me in the direction of this post with her own Don’t ask me why, because..:

**

Ah, but Pundita also deerves a bow for her most recent post, Can the griots lead us home? — wherein she pointed me to a music of great joy, that of Oumou Sangaré:

If you watch enough videos of Oumou singing (there must be a zillion of them posted to YouTube) you’ll see that in many of her performances she has a highly conversational way of singing. You feel as if she’s talking directly to you. Sometimes it’s as if she’s talking to you in the manner of a defense attorney making an argument to a judge; others as if she’s chatting about something over lunch with you.

Here is a hunting song:

Pundita notes:

I think the ability to set up a very personal communication through song is the mark of a real griot, although after watching about 50 of her videos I think Oumou represents a tradition that I suspect goes back much earlier even than the griot clans — to a time when certain people in a tribe were interlocutors between humans and natural forces and helped settle disputes between members of tribes, and did so through the power of their voices to project a wide range of emotions.

Mali, at a time of violent upheaval — yet such joy in dance and song:

**

We have statistics for which nations suffer the most losses in war and terror, which export the most weapons, which nations invade, and which are invaded — but what of joy?

Years ago, in a book that sank like a stone, I suggested the concept of a Subtle National Product. King Jigme Singye Wangchuck of Bhutan apparently beat me to it, when he declared in the 1970s:

Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.

His Majesty came up with the idea first, I now see and gladly admit — but I still prefer my own pohrasing!

Joy, it seems to me, isn;t easily quantified, although Bhutan does have an Index:

Bhiutan Gross Natiuonal Happiness

Here are some conparative stats across nations, ethnicities and faiths I’d be interested in:

  • deaths in warfare, civilian, irregular, and military
  • numbers of children pressed into war
  • numbers of those maimed, displaced and or grossly mentally disturbed by war
  • depth of grief, as meaaured in forms of keening and ululation
  • degree of exuberance, as found in music and dance, popular and professional
  • ritual solemnity and grandeur, on religious and state occasions
  • quantity of written poetry bought or borrowed from libraries
  • size of audiences for spoken poetry readings
  • number of poets (in particular) imprisoned for their writings
  • Qualitative equivalents of these values would also be of interest, though even harder to obtain and verify in any objective manner..

    Two profound instances of ceremonial (liturgical) impact

    Thursday, February 18th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — a follow up to my post on the Vespers liturgy at Hampton Court Palace ]
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    Boring as hell or blissful as paradise? Religious worship can be either one.

    I know that when I was at Wellington College I must have sat through dozens of sermons in which one or another scriptural passage was read in that droning pastoral voice which Alan Bennett so skilfully skewered in his Beyond the Fringe satirical sermon on the text of Genesis 27.11, “Behold, Esau my brother is a hairy man, and I am a smooth man”:

    I was a deeply religious kid, but verses like I Samuel 15.3, “Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass” went right past me. I had no qualms back then about Old Testament genocides, pretty much because I didn’t notice them — these were just sacred words, intoned, a strange blend of heaven, lullaby and snooze.

    In my piece on the Hampton Court Vespers, I tried to give readers a sense of how things look from a perspective where liturgy and rites and rituals more generally need not be viewed as dry relics of a past best forgotten, but as well-springs of deep personal, interpersonal and transcendent inspiration and communion.

    **

    Here, I’d like to supplement my attempt with two “cases” that I hope will illustrate the power of liturgy.

    the first I found a few days back in Peter Berger‘s essay, Eastern Orthodox Cacophony in America:

    When the service began late on Saturday evening the cathedral was dimly lit, all the hangings and the altar cover were black in the color of Good Friday. Then the entire congregation went out into the street and marched slowly around the block. It was very cold. When we returned the cathedral was brilliantly lit and the color of everything was very bright. Easter had arrived.

    So — somebody turned the lights on.

    But no, it’s more than that, it’s the utter darkness of Christ’s descent from the cross and burial, it is grief physically imposed by that very cold pilgrimage around the block — and it’s the shock, the palpable beauty of the Resurrection dawn.

    **

    Going back yet a day further, from Good Friday to the Maundy Thursday which in the church’s calendar porecedes it, we can see the similarly profound impact of a simple gesture as my old mentor, Fr. Trevor Huddleston, washes the feet of his students in Sophiatown, the Johannesberg shanty-town where for years he taught and preached. In his own words, drawn from his book Naught for Your Comfort, we read:

    On Maundy Thursday, in the Liturgy of the Catholic Church, when the Mass of the day is ended, the priest takes a towel and girds himself with it; he takes a basin in his hands, and kneeling in front of those who have been chosen, he washes their feet and wipes them, kissing them also one by one. So he takes, momentarily, the place of his Master. The centuries are swept away, the Upper Room in the stillness of the night is all around him: “If I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye ought also to wash one another’s feet.” I have knelt in the sanctuary of our lovely church in Rosettenville and washed the feet of African students, stooping to kiss them. In this also I have known the meaning of identification. The difficulty is to carry the truth out into Johannesberg, into South Africa, into the world.

    That world, for Fr Trevor, was the world of South African apartheid. He carried that truth out into Johannesberg and the world in his book, and as President of the Anti-Apartheid Movement — and with what impact! He lived to see apartheid gone.

    **

    In closing, let me quote TS Eliot who wrote, in his Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry:

    I say that the consummation of the drama, the perfect and ideal drama, is to be found in the ceremony of the Mass. … And the only dramatic satisfaction that I find now is in a High Mass well performed. Have you not there everything necessary? And indeed, if you consider the ritual of the Church during the cycle of the year, you have the complete drama represented. The Mass is a small drama, having all the unities; but in the Church year you have represented the full drama of creation.

    Surprise, surprise, surprise

    Monday, November 9th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — astronaut in a cathedral, nuclear reactor in Gabon ]
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    I enjoy scoping and snoping out strange claims, and had to check out possible anachronicities not once but twice today — first, to verify the presence of an astronaut in Salamanca’s seventeenth-century (1513-1733 to be more precise) “New Cathedral”:

    SPEC DQ cathedral astronaut african reactor

    and then, of a nuclear reactor from two billion years ago in Gabon, West Africa.

    **

    Neither one turned out to be von Däniken fool’s gold, but both certainly glisten enough to be worth a mention.

    The Salamanca cathedral astronaut is there, carved in stone, all right — but as part of a 1992 renovation. And what’s most interesting to me is that it’s entirely in conformity with tradition for an artist working today on such a restoration to “sign” his work with a contemporary flourish of this sort. It is thus faithful to what Benedict XVI would call the hermeneutic of continuity.

    And 2 billion year old nuclear reactor?

    It’s not as old as the sun, of course, by about 3.6 billion years, nor as close to us, nor as vast — but it’s there, it’s there.

    Hat tips:

  • for the astronaut, Jeff DeMarco
  • for the reactor, Cheryl Rofer
  • Christianity, culture, compassion, camels — and their shadows too

    Saturday, August 22nd, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — by way of TS Eliot, Mario Vargas Llosa and others, and leading to a post on camels and their shadows ]
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    limits of compassion

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    In the year I was born, 1943, TS Eliot published a series of essays titled Notes Toward the Definition of Culture in the New English Weekly. Mario Vargas Llosa supposedly references Eliot’s essays in his own Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society — which Joshua Cohen then distills into this paragraph:

    Eliot defines culture as existing in, and through, three different spheres: that of the individual, the group or class, and the entire rest of society. Individuals’ sensibilities affiliate them with a group or class, which doesn’t have to be the one they’re born into. That group or class proceeds to exercise its idea of culture on society as a whole, with the elites — the educated and artists, in Eliot’s ideal arrangement — ­leveraging their access to the media and academia to influence the tastes of the average citizen, and of the next ­generation too. As for what forms the individual, it’s the family, and the family, in turn, is formed by the church: “It is in Christianity that our arts have developed,” Eliot writes; “it is in Christianity that the laws of Europe have — until recently — been rooted.”

    I’m not sure of the bibliographic details here, but you’ll note the similarity of Eliot’s claim in quote marks above to certain claims made concerning America in recent years — and indeed, to others in Anders Breivik‘s Manifesto.

    It’s the concept of culture as comprised of the sensibilities of individuals, groups and society that first and most interests me here, though — and the significance of family, and I’m hoping Michael Lotus will have something to say about that.

    **

    Here’s more from Eliot:

    It is in Christianity that our arts have developed; it is in Christianity that the laws of Europe — until recently — have been rooted. It is against a background of Christianity that all of our thought has significance. An individual European may not believe that the Christian faith is true, and yet what he says, and makes, and does will all spring out of his heritage of Christian culture and depend upon that culture for its meaning .. I do not believe that culture of Europe could survive the complete disappearance of the Christian faith. And I am convinced of that, not merely because I am a Christian myself, but as a student of social biology. If Christianity goes, the whole culture goes.

    **

    Now take a cool sip of water to cleanse the palate..

    **

    This may nor may not seem to resonate with Eliot’s ideas:

    Slovakia prefers its desperate refugees to be Christians, please

    Slovakia would prefer to accept Christian refugees under a European plan to resettle people who have fled from wars and poverty in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, the Interior Ministry said on Thursday.

    The Central European country will take 100 people from refugee camps in Turkey and 100 people from Italy, preferably Christians, a ministry spokesman said.

    “We want to choose people who really want to start a new life in Slovakia. Slovakia as a Christian country can really help Christians from Syria to find new home in Slovakia,” spokesman Ivan Netik said.

    “For most migrants we are only a transit country. In Slovakia we have really tiny community of Muslims. We even dont have mosques.”

    If Muslim asylum-seekers chose Slovakia, they would not be discriminated against, he said. But Slovakia would not take in refugees who did not want to stay in the country but intended to move on.

    “We do not discriminate against any religion, but it would be a false, insincere solidarity if we took people .. who dont want to live in Slovakia,” he said.

    That. btw, is the most nuanced version of the Slovakian response to the refugees I’ve seen.

    Comnpassion? A conceptual radius of compassion?

    Are there, should there be, limits to compassion?

    **

    In an upcoming post on the shadows of camels, I’ll explain my overall intent in posting such items as this one — and it is not to suggest that Breivik is the same as Slovakia, or Eliot the same as Breivik, or Christianity across Europe equivalent to camels or the shadows of camels across the desert.. nor that compassion should or should not have a radius, conceptual or otherwise.

    On confusing Liberty with Queen Victoria and the Blessed Virgin

    Friday, June 5th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — ’tis but a short skip from iconography to iconoclasm ]
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    Apparently it happens:

    SPEC DQ VR BVM

    In the case of Nairobi (upper panel), it is Queen Victoria who is mistaken for the Virgin Mary. In the case of Pretoria (lower panel), Justice is mistaken, variously, for both Her Majesty and Our Lady.

    **

    Is it any wonder people get agitated about graven images?


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