Daily Office:
Friday, 20 August 2010


¶ Colm Tóibín’s review of The Pope Is Not Gay is an eloquent discussion of the Church’s problem, not so much with pedophilia as with power as well as with homosexuality. As we read it, we began to think that the scandal of priestly abuse is coming to light now, and not at some other time, because it has only just ceased to be a double crime. If homosexual acts as such are no longer condemned by society, then that exposes the other half of the act — forcing minors to engage in them — as a crime with only one perpetrator, not two. As always, Mr Tóibín writes with wry generosity of spirit. (LRB)

It seemed interesting that Kevin Dowd felt as free as Bill Donohue and Tarcisio Bertone to mention the existence of homosexual priests and seminarians as a problem for the Catholic Church. And interesting too that, as quoted approvingly by his sister, he wanted a return to the time before the ‘takeover’ of seminaries by homosexuals; that he deplored the ‘shrinking’ of the ‘priest pool’ that had allowed ‘men confused about their sexuality’ to become priests. It seemed odd that he believed there really was a time when ‘men confused about their sexuality’ did not become priests, when other sorts of men, men not confused in this way, were ordained. He was filled with nostalgia for an earlier Church: ‘The Church I grew up in,’ he wrote, ‘was black and white, no greys. That’s why my father, an Irish immigrant, liked it so much. The chaplain of the Police and Fire Departments told me once: “Your father was a fierce Catholic, very fierce.”’

The issue of homosexuality and the Catholic Church about which Donohue, Cardinal Bertone and Maureen Dowd’s ‘conservative and devout’ brother seem so concerned is not likely to go away in the near future. For the many gay priests in the Church it is deeply disturbing and indeed frightening that their sexuality can be so easily associated with rape, sexual cruelty and the abuse of minors, and that there is a view that somehow before they came along the Church was just fine, and, indeed, if they could be rooted out, and the Church could go back to the ‘black and white’ days of Dowd père, then the problems would all dissolve.

There are very good reasons why homosexuals have been traditionally attracted to the priesthood. I know these reasons because I, as someone ‘confused about my sexuality’, had to confront and entertain the idea that I should join the priesthood. In 1971, aged 16, I gave up my Easter break so I could attend a workshop for boys who believed they had a vocation.


¶ Peter Campbell writes about the portrait art of Alice Neel so eloquently that we may just buy the catalogue of the exhibition at London’s Whitechapel Gallery. (LRB)

Andrew Neel, talking about his grandmother’s situation, says that ‘working on something which is unfashionable is hell.’ Those New York painters she spent time with who became successful in the 1940s and 1950s were mostly abstract expressionists. She was known, but not much shown. Later, she made an effort to do something about it: in the exhibition, the 1960 portrait of Frank O’Hara is evidence of that – he was a curator at the Museum of Modern Art as well as a poet – but he never helped her get shown or wrote about her. It wasn’t until the 1970s, when the rise of feminism led to revaluations of women who had been overshadowed in a male-dominated art world, that her profile rose. Her portrait of Kate Millett was on the cover of a ‘Politics of Sex’ issue of Time in 1970 and there was a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1974.

In her best pictures faces are loaded with information about attitudes and emotions. They address you, the viewer (who stands where the painter did), and demand that you understand how they feel. Much of the time you confront trouble or anxiety. The 1966 portrait of her son Hartley shows him, hands joined over his head, looking straight at you while sitting slumped back in a chair. He had started medical school and had told Neel at the time she was painting it that he could not bear dissecting a corpse and would have to give it up. In the end he got his degree, but the sense of crisis is powerful. You wouldn’t be surprised if you were told he had been crying. The 1958 portrait of his father, Sam Brody, was painted in the year he and Neel ended a long, sporadic relationship. Arms crossed, eyes not meeting yours (hers), a strong crease created between frowning eyebrows: you read a troubled man who could also be trouble.


¶ The most obvious way in which the government can ease unemployment is to facilitate small-business credit with grants to banks that then make loans that, at first blush, sound vaguely sub-prime, but that wind up in paychecks, not worthless assets. Sounds great all round, and there’s a generous piece of legislation in the Congress. Whose against it? Big Oil. The money to fund the grants will come from the repeal of a discreditable tax boondoggle. Shamelessly, Big Oil has found cerebral prostitutes to argue plausibly that the repeal with “cost jobs.” Felix Salmon attacks.

Finally, the report’s intrepid author, Andrew Chamberlain, decides that for every $54,881 in reduced household earnings, a job magically disappears. It’s not remotely clear where that number comes from, but using it, Chamberlain manages to conclude that the $35 billion in reduced earnings means that total employment would shrink by 637,195 jobs.

All of this is profoundly silly. The report doesn’t even make an attempt to work through the effects of higher corporate taxes on oil-industry employment: instead, it basically assumes its conclusion, by starting from the assumption that there’s a simple and direct correlation between any kind of oil-industry tax hike, on the one hand, and job losses, on the other. Is there any particular reason to believe that repealing Section 199 “would trigger nationwide job loss of 637,000 workers”? Of course not. There is good reason to believe, however, that passing the Small Business Jobs and Credit Act would help create millions of jobs.

So let’s not let Big Oil, or anybody else, try to get away with saying that passing this act would cost jobs rather than save them. It’s a ridiculous argument, which deserves to go nowhere.


¶ At Science Not Fiction, Kyle Munkittrick retails the colorful analogy that Johns Hopkins neuroscientist David Linden spins, between the layered history of our brains’ origins and an ice cream cone with three scoops. Lest this comparison sounds appetizingly luxurious, Professor Linden reminds us that evolution is “the ultimate tinkerer and cheapskate.” That ice cream has been previously owned — by lizards, mice, and apes. The cone? It’s a jellyfish. As the ancient philosophers understood so well, we fall in love because our brains are poorly designed.

According to Linden, the key separation between humans and apes isn’t brain type but size – Humans just got a super-duper-sized third scoop. Start with a jellyfish cone, add scoops of lizard and mouse, then a gigantic ape scoop, throw on some sprinkles for culture, and you’ve got the human brain. Most astounding, however, is not our closeness to animals, nor that the good-enough-for-now parts evolution decided to preserve hinder us from becoming hyper-logical super beings, but that our most human behaviors come from all our brains working together. Linden asserts that love – a mental state that requires instinctual emotion, higher understanding, and logical reasoning while simultaneously transcending all three – would not be present in human beings if our brains were not so poorly engineered by evolution.


¶ The sixteenth edition of Chicago Manual of Style is out, and principal reviser Russell David Harper talks about it with Carol Saller at her blog, The Subversive Copy Editor. One nugget shone particularly brightly for us, because it seems to glint with a new understanding of authority.

And finally, I worked hard for this edition to pare down our advice wherever practical in favor of single recommendations rather than a host of options and exceptions. Our readers have let it be known since the last edition that they are perfectly able to decide for themselves when it’s best to bend or break a rule. Most come to the Manual to find out what we would prefer rather than merely what we might allow.


¶ At the NYRBlog, Ahmed Rashid raises the topic that has worried us most about the aftermath of the flooding in Pakistan: the creation of ideal conditions for a fundamental Islamist takeover of significant parts of the country — if, indeed, not the whole. (More than religion would be at stake; a new regime would almost certainly dissolve the extensive feudal holdings of farmland.) We agree that, without super-fast responses by the West and the government that it supports, Pakistan as we know it is doomed.

In Balochistan, the large province in southwestern Pakistan that skirts Afghanistan’s southern border, the floods have deepened an already existing crisis. The country’s poorest region, Balochistan, has long hosted a separatist insurgency as well as Afghan Taliban bases (Quetta, the provincial capital, has been a haven for a number of senior Taliban leaders). Now, flash floods have destroyed infrastructure and what little was working in the region’s below-subsistence economy; the state’s fragile control of the region has become even more tenuous, as Baloch separatists, blaming the government for poor relief efforts, are urging a stepped up struggle for independence. (The last time such major floods hit the country in the late 1960s, the inadequacy of the government’s response led in part to the secession of east Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh.)

Meanwhile, the floods have had little effect on the rampant violence by extremists and other groups that has been occurring across the country. The Pakistani Taliban continue to carry out suicide bombings and have vowed to wipe out the country’s government leaders while in Karachi, inter-ethnic violence between political parties representing the Pashtun, Sindhi and Urdu speaking communities has resulted in some 100 deaths in the past four weeks. Since the flooding began, the Taliban have also been seeking to prevent Pakistani non-governmental organizations from carrying out relief work by threatening their workers, while encouraging militant groups who have set up their own relief camps to expand.


¶ How richly just it will be if David Markson’s place in the literary firmament is nailed by the dispersal of his personal library at the Strand, a posthumous wake-up call unlike any other. Colin Marshall, already an admirer, takes us through Markson’s work as it progresses from ostensible (but intelligent) pulp to anti-fiction, and makes it clear that, while it is easy to read, it is easy to read only for erudite readers. It seems that the reading of all those books at the Strand was composted into the writing.

Whether you think Markson’s novels — “novels” — of the nineties and 2000s are his best or worst books, you’re right. You’d be forgiven for not being readily able to tell them apart. You can call them cranky if you like. Granted, few come crankier; if I never have to hear Markson’s ever-less-oblique inveighing against Tom Wolfe, Julian Schnabel, or “critics” again, would I really die unsatisfied? Certainly they’re both accessible and inaccessible; accessible always and everywhere as easily digestible, potato-chippy lists of fascinating facts — in this sense, they’re the finest example of plotless “page turners” — inaccessible without Western-canon grounding and the payment of supremely close attention on at their richest levels of pattern and allusion.

What’s not so up for dispute is that Markson accomplished what, by all rights, should be a literary impossibility. Novels not “about” anything precisely definable. Novels without more than one consciousness inhabiting them, if that. Novels without narrative. Novels built of seemingly unrelated snippets of information about coincidence, connection, poverty, probability, ignominy, ignorance, excretion, expiration. Novels that, over a four-decade career, approach nothing less than the purest time spent in the brain of another found on any page. What a shame David Markson never got to write, file, shuffle, meticulously order, and manually type a line about the death of David Markson.

Not to mention the ongoing library saga.


¶ We figured that Maud Newton was taking a summer break, but, no: her father-in-law, with whom she was close despite many ideological differences, died in June, a few chapters short of completing a book on Macbeth. Never have we read an “I’m back” blog entry that opened so many windows. It’s not long, either.

When your spouse’s parent dies, grieving is complicated. There is the grief you feel for yourself, for the loss of a person you (if you’re lucky) loved, and there is the grief you feel at seeing the person closest to you dealing with a nearly unfathomable loss. At times the sorrow is literally almost suffocating. These are clichés, but they are also realities, as is the fact that the passing of someone important to you causes you to think about the way you’re spending your own life.

Almost two months after Larry’s death, it’s still very hard to write about him. (Or to think about his book, which Max, Joseph, and I promised him we would finish. We have a lot of reading to do.) And it’s impossible to imagine ever returning to a life in which I treat my writing like a frivolous hobby or prioritize writing about other people’s novels over working on my own.

Have a Look

¶ $500,000 will buy you the world’s largest record collection. The seller, 88 year-old Murray Gershenz, wants to go into character acting full-time. (LA Times; via MetaFilter)

¶ Ryan Freitas’s 35 Life Lessons. (via  The Morning News)