"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, December 31, 2022

When Christ Disappears From Christmas–America Becomes Spiritless And Desperately Secular

There are those on the political Left who suggest that Christmas is an oppressive irrelevance in the new age of secular multiculturalism.  America may still be a country demographically Christian, but those numbers mean nothing as the nation becomes more aware of Christianity’s false promises and institutional abuse of power. A supposedly generous faith of forgiveness, reconciliation, and redemption, Christianity , they say, has been nothing more than a historical marauder, murdering infidels, providing a spiritual cover for Western empires to consign and condemn the world’s unfortunate into lives of feudalism and slavery, to perpetuate a hegemony of white, patriarchal men, and to create vast stores of wealth to perpetuate a slavish fealty to a church created to rule.

The Nativity and the Adoration of the Magi – NCMALearn

These progressives contend that the church hasn’t changed in centuries and is still residing on a philosophy and political policy of control and enduring power.  Pope Francis may have shed some of his predecessor’s harsh conservativism, but he is still a Christian monarch dedicated to the preservation of the faith and its expansion.  There may be some hope, some critics said, in the liberal edicts and proclamations of Francis. His encyclical on the sanctity of life included for the first time a reference to the environment.  If one values human life so little, he said, then how could any other life be considered valuable and sacred?

Nonsense, said most others.  Francis was simply sugarcoating the Church’s misogynist, retrograde view of women.  The cult of Mary has been perpetuated by the Church for centuries to foist a feminine cast on the teachings of the Church when in fact it has been the most obdurate in its restrictions on female participation in offices of its sacred rituals as any religion.

The systemic abuse of children by pedophile priests numbering in the thousands, is according to progressives, perhaps the last and most telling reason to abandon the Church and rid America of its pernicious, criminal, psychotic sexual corruption.  This, added to the shame of the Irish laundries when single mothers were enslaved in barbaric conditions as penalty and penance for their sexual transgressions, deprives the Church of any moral stature.

When faithful Catholics are asked why they still believe in the Church, they reply that the sophistication of Christian doctrine, so laboriously and logically parsed and analyzed by early Church theologians and finally made canon at the Council of Nicaea is far more important than the dissolute and reprehensible behavior of priests who are, after all, the same sinning men as those in the secular world.  Yes, they especially sinned against God because they were ordained and received a holy sacrament which anointed them and placed them in an ineradicable lineage to Christ himself, but even these heinous sins should not destroy, reject, or erode the beauty of the mysteries of the faith.

How St. Augustine Got Its Name | Visit St. Augustine

There is something to faith after all, perhaps the most common of all human expressions; something which enables people to understand the spiritual complexity and hopefulness of religion while accepting the ineradicable nature of human sin even or especially within the deacons, priests, and archbishops of their faiths.

The mystery of the Trinity, the divine and human nature of Christ, and the particular, resonant message of forgiveness in a hateful, contentious, and often vile world mean more than any failing of any socially-mediated priest.  It was the deformed interpretation of the Church after Nicaea – celibacy and an all male clergy – which contributed to male pedophilia within the Church, not the Gospels, the readings of Aquinas, Athanasius, or Augustine.

All religions are based on demanding theology.  Hinduism with its complex structure of atavistic gods and goddesses within a pan-universal deity is mystical yet immediate.  Islam with its far simpler doctrines of absolute obedience and prostration before one all-powerful God is complex in its own way; and the murderous exploits of Islamic organizations like al-Qaeda, al-Shabab, and ISIS should not be conflated within the religion itself.

symbols hindu lord shiva dancing - shiva nataraja PNG image with  transparent background | TOPpng

Judaism stands alone in its self-assured, historical monotheism.  The Jewish kingdoms of Saul and David were true theocracies, never intent on conquest or tyranny.  It was enough to have been chosen by God.

The current progressive, multicultural view of religion in America denies both the spiritual and the secular.  In this view not only is the Christian doctrine of faith only a fanciful dream of idealistic myth makers, its secular applications have been ruinous.  The creation of the Catholic hierarchy resembling that of the Roman Empire was designed to rule, and it, as a geopolitical institution cannot be forgiven for using faith and Jesus Christ as its justification on periodic and continual wars and pillaging.  Everything the Church says and does is antithetical to the progress essential to reaching a secular Utopia.

Yet, depriving the nation of religion on this basis is anti-historical, short-sighted, transparently political, and wrong.  Even if one does not profess faith in Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, the presence of these faiths raises all social interests out of the drudgingly expected, temporal, and political.  When there is religion and believers everywhere, the sense that there indeed might be something other than persistently political, commercial perpetuity cannot be ignored.  Religion, faith, and belief are part of an American ethos derived from the foundational principles of the nation, based in part on secularism and personal freedom – after all the new immigrants to America came because of religious persecution – but also based on the principles of the Enlightenment where logical inquiry was not practiced for its own sake but to better understand the nature of God.

How We Read John Locke: City Talk | City Journal

While the piety and devotion of the nation’s early years may have dissipated in a modern world where enterprise, advancement, purchase, and financial success have taken much of the space where religion resided, religious sentiment has not disappeared.  Lapsed Catholics, occasional Protestants, cultural Jews and Muslims have not given up on the religions of their childhoods.  They may not be practicing, but find it hard to advocate or avow atheism or even agnosticism.

Christians cannot forget the consequences of immoral behavior.  They may not think of it in strictly religious terms – Purgatory and Hell – they cannot ignore the lessons taught in the Bible and during the two thousand years of spiritual teaching.  Jews take Atonement seriously, and even those who have left the faith for more secular homes, can never forget the lessons of right and wrong and the need to account for them.

Yet for many children of Christian parents, Christmas is a celebration of Santa Claus, Christmas trees, presents, and holiday dinners.  Advent, the 24 days before the birth of Christ is marked by themes of self-reflection, anticipation, hope, and, ultimately, joyful celebration. Advent calendars for children were important reminders of the spiritual nature of Christmas and the birth of Christ.  Again, even if the households in which children open the windows of the calendar to witness images of the Nativity or Biblical verses about Christ’s coming are not devout Christians, the mythical, spiritual, mysteries of Christ’s coming are important cultural references. The Advent calendar is much like the Stations of the Cross, on which Christians before Easter follow the path of Christ to Jerusalem and his death on the cross.

These images are significant but not unique reminders of the central nature of Christianity to America and Europe.  The Medieval and Renaissance periods of art celebrate the many stories of Christ and his meaning.  Without these representations, the many expressions of Christianity would be unknown.  While they are now consigned to museums, their place in the story of Christianity is central.  Children never exposed to Advent calendars, the Stations of the Cross or the work of the artists of the past are consigned to a world without the myths, epic poetry, and mystery of faith. 

Irrelevant, say secular progressives who have always seen religion as an obstacle in the way of secular progress.  It is not God but Man who is responsible for his destiny.  Having the false gods of religion before the secularist can only divert him from his goal.

The Founding Fathers never intended the idea of the separation of church and state to mean the demise of religion.  It only referred to religious freedom, and that no one should impose his religious beliefs on any other.  Religion should be everywhere not only as a profession of faith but as expression of higher, untouchable ideals, something the country cannot and should not do without.

Thursday, December 29, 2022

Two Old Maids–When Sex Fails

Joanna Parsons and Esther Pilchman had been friends for over fifty years.  They grew up together, went to grade school and high school together, moved to the same town after college and were inseparable, an example of the durability of friendship. 

Image result for photos old main spinsters 19th century

Joanna was the more attractive of the two – her face, despite a longish, Breughel nose, had a pleasant symmetry which only in early middle age began to lose its tenor.  There was a noticeable sag to her eyes, her lips had thinned out to a spinsterish narrowness, and her skin had a sallow touch to it.  She, however, had learned cosmetics from her mother, always carried a travelling make-up kit with her, and was able to put off the inevitable well beyond the expected years.

She had only one serious relationship which ended badly to an engineer from Chillicothe who had tempted her with a sexual interest which she was unused to.  Well into her 40s she had lost all sense of courtship, and took her suitor’s attention for serious love when in fact he was simply looking for wealthy company in an interim period in his life.  He had been married twice before and would undoubtedly marry again, and Joanna was a pleasant, inoffensive stop along the way.  Their relationship lasted two years when he announced hat he had had enough and was off to Atlanta  to complete a liaison which had begun right under Joanna’s nose.  To add insult to injury he had finagled the finances she had entrusted to him and walked off with a good piece of her savings leaving her with only a small pension and a few thousand dollars in inheritance.   Alone again, she regretted her mistake, and sought other recourse.

Esther Pilchman was the daughter of a modestly well-off family from Far Rockaway, Queens which at the time was solidly Jewish.  So Jewish in fact, that only when she went to college did she know any Christians who, despite early attempts to be friendly and inclusive, had this thing about Jews, not anti-Semitism really, but a kind of dismissive stereotypical reaction to her nose, her New York accent, and her huge shock of untamable hair.  Crying and disconsolate after her freshman year, she asked her parents for cosmetic surgery and after a painful but not entirely unpleasant summer at a hospital-cum-spa in Bangor, she returned to school a different girl.  

Image result for Images new yorkJewish family Mid 20th Century

The nose of course didn’t change much other than get a few catty remarks from the big men on campus.  It wasn’t the sexual draw she thought it would be, and she spent the rest of her time alone and celibate.  The school, like many other small liberal arts colleges, had a definite liberal tilt, and she found solace and camaraderie in the academic chapter of The Young Socialists of America.  There she was among her own kind – Jewish, New York, and deeply committed to the legacy of Samuel Gompers, unionism, and anti-capitalism.  Of course this was all psychological window dressing.  Socialism was a dalliance, a legacy of her parents’ activism, and what she thought would be a means to an end – boys.  Yet the boys as a lot were unattractive, dull, and uninspiring on all fronts.

She drifted between academic options until Junior year when she declared a Psychology major.  She saw herself as a female Freud, tapping into her Talmudic roots, using menscheit and acquired Christian severity to cure the mentally ill.  She dived into her studies with vigor and enthusiasm and graduated Summa Cum Laude.  She was accepted into graduate school, and her career was launched.

Joanna Parsons had lost touch with Esther during their college years.  Joanna had gone to small, unassuming Catholic college in Maryland while Esther was making her way at one of the East Coast’s premier institutions.  Joanna graduated in the bottom third of her class, untouched by the either the Aquinian logic of her professors or the religious vocation of her classmates.  She was indifferent to religion, and went to St. Anne’s because it was one of the few which accepted her without question.  She drifted intellectually and emotionally, and graduated with little idea of what to do next; took a number of low-paying secretarial and administrative jobs, was taken in by the Chillicothe engineer, left on the curb more desperate than ever, at which time she contacted her old friend, Esther who was delighted to hear from her, invited her to stay with her in New York until the dust settled and she was back on her feet.

Saint Thomas Aquinas - My Catholic Life!

Both girls were delighted with the arrangement.  The rediscovered each other and concluded that if you become friends with someone at the age of twelve, the friendship – established before the set-in of concerns for social status and personal worth – would last a lifetime.

It is here that the real story begins.  The renewed friendship, rather than what ordinarily would have been a relationship peripheral to husband, children, and family, became the be-all and end-all of the young women’s lives.  They were too squeamish to have a lesbian relationship, but by this time they had lost interest in sex, period, and were happy enough to be in a caring, sharing accommodation.

There is something about emotional recourse – in this case the friendship of two women who had been sexually ignored and knocked about – that ends up drawn in caricature.  Joanna and Esther as time went on became old maids,, spinsterish, often bitter women.  They fussed in the apartment, moving tchotchkes and bibelots at a whim without consultation (“My dear, could you please replace that Austrian shepherd?”), listened to Brahmas by the fire, and took high tea every Sunday at four.

Not surprisingly Esther took her spinsterish ways to her clinic (by now she had become an East Side psychologist) and over the years drifted far from the Freudian straight and narrow.  She took out her resentment at ‘the male’ to personal extremes, and treated her patients with condescension and a bit of a dismissive reluctance.  Men kept coming to her, surprisingly, despite what had become an exaggerated self-serving treatment, so her practice did well if not  thrived.

Meanwhile Joanna found a job as a junior editor of a small literary journal based in Greenwich Village. Its readership, although small, was discerning and demanding, and the Editor-in-Chief came to rely on Joanna’s judgment and literary insights.  She felt comfortable in her eyeshade and tube lighted  desk, never complained about her insignificant salary, and was delighted to meet the authors who came to make a personal appeal for publication.  There was no Updike, Mailer, Roth, or Cheever among them, but she had grown accustomed to the genteel mediocrity of these Midwestern hopefuls.  She fussed with her papers, bookends, and office accoutrements just like the curios in her apartment, creating and recreating what she thought was an appropriate literary space.

John Updike on Writing and Death – The Marginalian

People said that Joanna and Esther were beginning to resemble each other the longer they lived together; and it was true that they began to share the same taste in frocks, hairdos, and shoes.  Both wore no jewelry – too forward for two now quite mature women – and seemed to be one thing, not two as they walked down the street.

They both were dutiful aunts, especially Esther who found in her brother’s children just the right surrogate family – easily kept at a distance but showered with candies, cards, and forget-me-nots on holidays. She cared little for the brother who did well at yeshiva but at nothing else, and even less for his dowdy, simpering wife; but family is family after all especially if life has not given you one of your own.

Joanna followed in the same path but had become a bit of a nuisance with her hovering insistence on ‘helping’.  Her cousin’s husband had made it clear that he was getting very tired of her importunity – she had no idea that she was loving a bit too much – but she soon got the picture and spent even more time closeted with Esther who had been read to from the same missal.

The two women spent their final days in a nursing home in Bayside as close as ever, never noticing the absence of visitors or mail.  They ended up as they had lived – alone together, fussy and spinsterish, but happy in a funny kind of way.

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

The Best Of Times, The Worst Of Times–Families, The Crucibles Of Immaturity

Edward Albee once said that families were the crucibles of maturity.  Despite their jealousies, rivalries, plots, and resentments, we would never grow up, never outgrow our childish demands, adolescent rebellion, and lifelong dependencies without them.  

In perhaps his best-known play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf George and Martha ‘flay each other to the bone’ laying bare layer after layer of suspicion, sexual insecurity, personal fantasy, and desperation.  At the end of the play, exhausted, spent, and without the will to continue, they agree to go on together.  They have done and seen the worst, have so exposed each other there can be no more deception or duplicity.

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It is as happy an ending as Albee can imagine, but one wonders if such brutality, such emotional savagery cannot but take an irremediable toll.  Their drunken perverse bacchanal may have been the only way for George and Martha to face the truth about their marriage and each other, but on the morning after they would still be the same old George and Martha, faced with the same bitterness and hatred as before.

So the more reasonable lesson to be drawn from the play is not that marriage and families are the crucibles of maturity, they are just the opposite – crucibles of immaturity, confines of intolerance and innate, permanent passions of intended destruction.

‘Hell is other people’, Sartre says in No Exit.  His characters are as confined by circumstance as George and Martha.  There is no way out of a situation in which they must deal with each other.  There is no room for understanding, compassion, or just getting along.  Human nature – aggressive, territorial, defensive, and willful – cannot be ignored.  In all its raw, survivalist mode, it is shown for what it is, a destructive force.  It might be the engine for opportunity, empire, and civilization when expressed by thousands of emperors, kings, and shoguns, but when it is confined it can only result in irreparable harm.

No Exit" (Jean-Paul Sartre) – Stadttheater Gie├čen 1998 - Helmut Barz -  Communications Worker

Tennessee Williams’ character Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof expresses hopefulness after a round of deception, futility, and fantasy have left him and his wife Maggie as flayed and exposed as George and Martha.  She has been immoral, deceitful, and emotionally murderous; and he, crippled by guilt has lost his will; and both are caught up in the power politics of a rich Mississippi grandee.  If it could only be so, Brick says in the last lines of the play, expressing the idea that Maggie actually does love him and that they have a happy future.  The playgoer knows differently,  There is no way that such an epiphany can either be true or lasting.  On the morning after, nothing will have changed.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – Golden Age Cinema and Bar

Lillian Hellman’s Little Foxes is a play about family greed, ambition, and rivalry.  It is an unalloyed portrayal of the selfish, self-destructive nature of families.  A familiar story, painful in its brutal honesty, and a cautionary tale for all.

Tolstoy said, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, and went on in Anna Karenina to chronicle what readers know to be the truth – the variations of family unhappiness are limitless, but there is a consistency to the unhappiness, the fundamental suspicions, deceit, and duplicity that never change or disappear.

So it is no surprise that the Fletcher family came apart despite decades of seeming harmony and an uncommon mutual respect.  The brothers and sisters loved their parents and would do anything for them.  The parents were their idols, perfect in every way – dutiful, responsible, caring, and fair disciplinarians.  

Arnold was a successful professor of classics at a small New England college, Betty was an amateur artist, respected and admired for her pluck if not talent.  The children not surprisingly grew up to be successful in business, medicine, and law.  They saw each other often, travelling from Boston and New York to the family homestead to be together as a family.

The Fletchers gave everyone hope.  Albee, Williams, Sartre, and Tolstoy were simply fabulists, picking on the worst of human behavior to make a point. Marriages, given the Fletcher example, could be happy, loving affairs far removed from the emotional villainy of fiction.  If there were such families as the Fletchers, then all families had the same seeds of love and moderation within them.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a relative” goes the old vaudevillian line.  Death has a way of upsetting all apple carts in the most devilish ways.  Cecelia Grant was the eldest daughter of the Philadelphia Grants, a family of inherited wealth and position.  Like many families living high on private incomes, the Grants were not one of rectitude or model behavior, but it still was a surprise how Cecelia coddled up to her dying uncle, convinced him to change his will, giving her millions and the proprietorship of his Main Line estate, encouraged his suicide and stood elegantly in black, tearful behind a Victorian veil at his graveside.

The Blacks were a working class family living in a small, Appalachian steel town in eastern Ohio.  Johnny Black worked in the mill all his life, made little but was able to provide for his wife and three children.  He played no favorites and helped them all to college.  They were moderately successful, never wealthy or socially prominent, married within the same lower middle class society from which they came, and led reasonable although uninstructive lives.  

The middle child, Alva, lived close to her parents, and saw to it that they were never alone on Thanksgiving and had enough coal for the furnace.  As she saw her father declining after a punishing stroke, she upped her efforts and was at the house most days.  Her father, by this time far gone, still had enough thought and energy to reward his daughter.  She convinced him to change his will, giving her everything and cutting her two siblings completely out of the picture.

Image result for images old chilicothe ohio steel mill

In one fell swoop, what had been a reasonably intact, caring family, was broken apart.  It wasn’t so much the money – the Blacks had but a pittance compared to the Grants– but the principle of the thing.  How could she have duped their father and cheated them so rudely?

The same scenario had been written for the Fletchers.  Annie was the closest to her parents, continuing and nurturing a dependency which continued well into middle age.  Her siblings were still attached to the parents, but had struck out on their own very early in life.  They were solicitous and attentive, but distant. Annie could never cut the childhood ties which so bound to her parents, and in their old age she became even more dependent on them.

Although they came to depend on her for managing the house, the finances, and the help, it was she who was dependent.  She would be totally and irremediably alone when they died.

When the second parent died and the will was read, all went to the eldest sister.  In a far-reaching power of attorney, she was responsible for the old folks’ investments, their house in eastern Connecticut and their cottage on Cape Cod.  She consulted her accountant, financial advisor, and real estate agent, and sold all holdings, properties, and equities.  

She was careful to assure a fair and equitable distribution of profits among the siblings, and no one was to be favored; but for her sister it was an irresponsible fire sale, a betrayal of trust, and a scattering of all the treasured memories of her past.  Well into old age she refused any reconciliation with her siblings, and even breathing her last in a nursing home, never once mentioned them.

The story of the Fletchers, like those families in the plays of Albee, Williams, and Sartre, is about dependency and the hermetic nature of families which either nurtures it or provokes a violent reaction against it.

Maggie the Cat sought dependency and shelter in the shadow of Big Daddy, but in a venal, self-serving way.  Brick was dependent on Maggie and her fierce resolution, but resentful of it.  Tolstoy introduced sex into the mix and guaranteed a familiar melodrama of jealousy, deceit, and a playing out of the most fundamental impulses of human nature. 

George and Martha were inextricably tied to each other and wouldn’t unleash themselves even if they could.  Their emotional dependency, as destructive and corrosive as it was, was fundamental to their relationship, and in the mind of Albee, all relationships.

Image result for images big daddy pollitt can on a hot tin

Both Williams and Albee expressed hope at the end of their plays. If it only were so, says Brick.  Let’s begin again, says George.  Yet these endings were almost inevitable Hollywood scenarios (both plays were turned into successful movies).  It is hard to believe that either couple would become Romeo and Juliet.

Shakespeare of course was no fan of marriage, and only The Taming of the Shrew was a depiction of a good, balanced, and loving relationship.

Perhaps Albee was right in one respect – marriage and families show us the worst that human nature has to offer, and we are better off understanding its ineluctable role in human behavior before it is too late.