Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Catholic Church Does the Canonization Two-Step, Or "Two, Four, Six, Eight: Time to Transubstantiate!"

The best definition is still John Donne's in his poem, "The Canonization," Donne being after all Catholic (although a reluctant Anglican priest) plus great-great nephew of the Catholic martyr Thomas More.  For Donne, a canonization is all about love, and he means a love that is passionate, sexual, and loyal:

FOR God's sake hold your tongue, and let me love ;
    Or chide my palsy, or my gout ;
    My five gray hairs, or ruin'd fortune flout ;
With wealth your state, your mind with arts improve ;
        Take you a course, get you a place,
        Observe his Honour, or his Grace ;
Or the king's real, or his stamp'd face
    Contemplate ; what you will, approve,
    So you will let me love. 

Alas ! alas ! who's injured by my love?
    What merchant's ships have my sighs drown'd?
    Who says my tears have overflow'd his ground?
When did my colds a forward spring remove?
        When did the heats which my veins fill
        Add one more to the plaguy bill?
Soldiers find wars, and lawyers find out still
    Litigious men, which quarrels move,
    Though she and I do love. 

Call us what you will, we are made such by love ;
    Call her one, me another fly,
    We're tapers too, and at our own cost die,
And we in us find th' eagle and the dove.
        The phoenix riddle hath more wit
        By us ; we two being one, are it ;
So, to one neutral thing both sexes fit.
    We die and rise the same, and prove
    Mysterious by this love. 

We can die by it, if not live by love,
    And if unfit for tomb or hearse
    Our legend be, it will be fit for verse ;
And if no piece of chronicle we prove,
        We'll build in sonnets pretty rooms ;
        As well a well-wrought urn becomes
The greatest ashes, as half-acre tombs,
    And by these hymns, all shall approve
    Us canonized for love ; 

And thus invoke us, "You, whom reverend love
    Made one another's hermitage ;
    You, to whom love was peace, that now is rage ;
Who did the whole world's soul contract, and drove
        Into the glasses of your eyes ;
        So made such mirrors, and such spies,
That they did all to you epitomize—
    Countries, towns, courts beg from above
    A pattern of your love."

This remains one of the best defenses of canonization against that devil's trident of privilege, power and politics--the mainstays of the Catholic hierarchy of bishops and pope.  Donne advocated "true religion," by which he meant what you know in your heart and conscience to be right.  The next-to-last verse spells out that a terrific orgasm ("We can die by it, if not live by love," the term "die" meaning what the French call "petit mort," or the really great feeling of passing out after a climax) is what "canonizes" you for love.  We can take any big bang of inspired enthusiasm as part of Donne's definition of canonization.
In a way, this is an American point of view, America being a land in which the big bang of 17th century Protestant reformation galvanized the Scots and Ulster Covenanters who landed in Virginia and Pennsylvania with Presbyterians and other non-conformists. Their ways--self-denying, hard-working, extreme in feeling, impulsive--fueled the Declaration of Independence as well as the Civil War.  Along with them came the various religious revivals--the First Great Awakening, Puritan preachers like Jonathan Edwards discarding empty ritual in favor of deep anxiety about personal salvation--the Second Great Awakening, the Third, the Fourth (one loses track of them after a while, but they all involve an imagination for hellfire, an idea of Jesus as a personal savior, and a suspicion of any rote elements in religious ritual).  The mood of these movements invariably involves inspiration and innovation over rote ritual--the ossified ritual of some Catholicisms.
One of America's greatest satirists,  Tom Lehrer, makes a similar point in his rollicking attack on hypocrisy, "The Vatican Rag".

Vatican II was all about commercializing the church, selling it to more people, making it accessible, appealing, even fun.   Which is like today's one-two punch.  It's a bargain.  Buy one, get one free!  Not just John XXIII but John Paul II as well.  

Eamon Duffy, a professor of the history of Christianity at the University of Cambridge, characterizes the two wryly as "The man who took the lid off and the man who tried to put it back on."  To have a canonization you've got to have a saint (or even two) and by John Donne's standards, neither of these dudes cuts it.  John XXIII Vatican-Twoed the church and whether that meant a move in the right direction or just a solid business judgement only his own conscious could reveal, so I'll take Tom Lehrer's version of events.  John Paul's spin doctor, JoaquĆ­n Navarro-Valls, claims that the “purity of his thought” made it difficult for the pontiff to accept that priests could abuse children.  Please.  The pure in thought don't become popes--and our text for today is George Bernard Shaw.
In his Preface to St. Joan (1924) Shaw remarked, 
At best very few popes have been canonized, or could be without letting down the standard of sanctity set by the self-elected saints.
No other result could have been reasonably expected; for it is not possible that an official organization of the spiritual needs of millions of men and women, mostly poor and ignorant, should compete successfully in the selection of its principals with the direct choice of the Holy Ghost as it flashes with unerring aim upon the individual. Nor can any College of Cardinals pray effectively that its choice may be inspired . . . The saints and prophets, though they may be accidentally in this or that official position or rank, are always really self-selected, like Joan. 

But now, thanks to Francis, saints will be equivalent to bureaucrats in the church, wrote one of my favorite commentators on the New York Times article about the canonizations.
Shaw knew that the bureaucrats win in any business--and that true religion is always deemed heresy by those who can't make money out of it, or who find it shocking.  
Notice how the New York Times shrewdly uses the language of business to describe these "canonizations" that remain business deals, two-pronged efforts to galvanize the faithful with yet another tired serving of miracles plus some nicely-sauced saints on the side.  The Times observes that John Paul "streamlined the canonization process," and Francis "waived the requirement" for evidence of two whole miracles. Like any good businessman, he realizes people are getting harder to fool and some other tack had best be taken (Don Draper, please call home). Francis is the folksy pope but he's still a businessman canonizing other businessmen. A saint would purge the pedophiles. A saint would let priests get married. A saint would bring in women priests and prepare the way for a woman pope. A saint would hold gay weddings in St. Peter's. A saint would hand out communion wafers with a smile to divorced Catholics who want to remarry within the church. And a saint would  smile like St. Sebastian, turning every other cheek, when the bad guys who have no imagination come after him.   A saint would go the roots of the church, to the meaning of "Catholicism" as "all-embracing."  

Let Oscar Wilde have the last word: "The only difference between a saint and a sinner is that every saint has a past and every sinner has a future."

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Oscar Pistorius as South Africa's Rorschach Test

What do Jani Allan and Gerrie Nel have in common, besides both being South African?  They both project their fantasies onto Oscar Pistorius.  Jani Allan, a flamboyant borderline personality and South African journalist who apparently had a series of sexual encounters with Eugene Terre'blanche, thinks he's just like Oscar Pistorius.  She thinks they both cried crocodile tears, and insists Pistorius took acting lessons.
Could any two men be more different?  Terre'blanche's very name, "white world," proclaims his political position--a white supremacist politician* who drank hard, believed in violence to maintain white minority rule, waved a flag with a version of a swastika on it (he called it a triskelion, but no, it does not look like the one on the Isle of Man flag) and got hacked to death on his farm by a black man.  In looks, you might compare him to Santa Claus, but with a malevolent expression.
Now, Oscar Pistorius is, first of all, young.  He is not known for possessing opinions, political or otherwise.  And I would wager that If the kid took acting lessons, he's got an enormous amount of talent that never showed before.  
I think we can cross the slightest suspicion that he did so off our list.  But let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that he took them.   Or deportment lessons.  Does anyone really think he could be trained to remember to keep his hands from fidgeting, or his nose from running--or even coached to spout not just tears, but floods of them?
Then there's the prosecution, Gerrie Nel.  When I heard him say it was unbelievably unlikely that Pistorius could not have known his girlfriend was in the bathroom, I wondered if Nel had ever slept in the same bed as another human being.  Now, the record shows that Nel has fathered children.  I suppose that his having done so need not have entailed any act of slumber after the fact, with or without a partner.  He might even have achieved fatherhood in a vertical position.  But for your information, Mr. Nel, I have, on many an occasion, and not even in a pitch-black room, slept through my husband getting up and going to the bathroom.  And woken up to find the bed empty and thought, "Gee, is he downstairs having coffee already?"
A little alcohol, a few horizontal gymnastics, and you tend to sleep like the dead.  But even if all you've been doing is running as fast as Pistorius every day, you do tend to sleep hard.  
So I look at Pistorius and ask myself, not for the first time, what's going on.  Was it an accident, and if it wasn't, was it a murder?  Or an impetuous rage fueled by sudden taunting from a beloved woman?  Now comes my own personal projection:  Pistorius makes me think of the North Carolina ballad, "Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley," about a crime of passion, in which a young man stabs his beloved to death because she refuses to become his wife:

Hang down your head, Tom Dooley,
Hang down your head and cry,
Hang down your head, Tom Dooley,
Poor boy, you're going to die.

Met her in the morning,
Said she'd be my wife
But the gal deceived me,
So I stabbed her with my knife.

Hang down your head, Tom Dooley . . .

My father hailed from North Carolina, and sang such ballads, and knew the impetuous, hot-tempered ways of a self-denying, hyper-religious folk.  My hunch is that Pistorius is guilty after the fashion of Tom Dooley; he barely knew what he was doing and he could not honestly tell anyone.  I think it possible he didn't know he was shooting her and I think it possible he fired knowing she was right in front of him but not being able to take in the fact that she would die.  Flip a coin.  The poor boy regrets it, but he's not lying.  The poor girl's mother is lately quoted as saying he "smirked."   If he did, I think William Blake has an explanation for that:

Excess of sorrow laughs.

*He said "separatist" and believed that was different.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Race, Gender, Love, and Oscar Pistorius

 O.J. Simpson's defense attorney, Robert Shapiro, has already weighed in with two comments:  That he withholds judgement (withholding judgement while watching a trial is the way to get to the truth) and that he never hesitates to ask a client whether he or she actually committed the crime or not.  Shapiro offers no opinion on the guilt or innocence of Oscar Pistorius.  And his advice for the downfallen South African "blade runner?"  It is what he tells any accused celebrity:  "To keep his mouth shut."
"You talk, I walk," is what he'd do if it were all up to him.  
Pistorius has motor-mouthed his way through most of the trial.
I'll take Shapiro's advice and withhold judgement on whether Pistorius's  killing of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp was premeditated or not.  I've seen enough to believe that Pistorius feels horrified and sickened by what he did, that he profoundly regrets it--weeping until he chokes and veins bulge, sweating through his shirt, leaking tears and snot, vomiting copiously.  But I'm not convinced that he'd be able to restrain his impulse to shoot again if he got angry and had a handgun.  

The facts I keep shaking around in my head, and rolling out in front of myself like so many dice, are these:

•Pistorius has had a number of violent encounters with his own impulses, including falling asleep at the wheel on a rampaging drive to settle an argument with a girlfriend.

•Pistorius threatened a former athlete, Marc Bachelor, that he'd "break your legs!" and the incident involved a woman.

•Pistorius, like many South Africans, sleeps with a gun under his bed, because he is terrified of an intruder, and more terrified when his prostheses are off, as they are when he goes to bed at night.

•Pistorius lived in a fortress-like gated community with an almost spotless security record, but such communities are never immune to violence, especially in South Africa, where gruesomely violent rapes, dismemberments, decapitations, are reported daily.  There are at least fifty murders per day in the country.

•Pistorius's mother used to tell him daily, "your brother puts on his shoes, and you put on your legs!" and he feels she was wise, gently pushing him to do his best.  She told him, "train, but don't strain."  Did she push too much? Any mother will tell you this is the hardest question to answer, or to answer honestly.

•Pistorius was "besotted" with his girlfriend of three months, Reeva Steenkamp.  

•She expressed fear of his jealousy, and wanted protection, not jealousy, from him.

•It was Valentine's Day.  

•An experienced, 67-year-old black, female judge will decide the fate of a young white man in South Africa

•Reeva Steenkamp's mother says she cannot tell whether Pistorius is lying.  She sits behind him and watches him in the courtroom every day.

•The neighbors insist that they heard a woman's high-pitched screams around the time of the gunshots, and believe that they were Reeva Steenkamp's screams, and that he knew he was shooting his girlfriend.

•Margie Orford, an award-winning, white South African crime writer, says Pistorius's defense relies on the idea of a "third body," by which she means "the imagined figure of a threatening black stranger that has driven many South Africans into fortress-like housing estates."  She sees middle-class whites carrying guns and panic buttons as being trapped in trauma, the "pernicious" apartheid narrative of "swart gevaar" (the black peril), as justification for extreme violence.
She says it recalls the old macho attitude of "it's either us or them".

•It's not easy to get statistics on race and crime in South Africa.  Google that phrase, and you get Oscar Pistorius.

The more I roll out these dice, the less they add up, so I try to imagine scenarios that seem likely to me.  Pistorius's threat to Marc Bachelor ("I'll break your legs!") and his own lack of legs, and fear that he cannot protect himself or a girlfriend without them, might have been enough to fuel an intentional murder if Ms. Steenkamp had been provoked enough by his jealous rages to have snapped, "I'd rather have a man with real legs!"  or something of that sort.  

Alternatively, what if those high-pitched screams came from Pistorius himself, not Reeva?  What if he really didn't know she was in that bathroom?  What if the moment he realized what he'd done, he howled? He does say that's what happened.  At the extremes of human experience, vocal ranges are also extreme, so that it can be hard to tell whether a man or a woman is screaming.  The greater the anguish, the higher--or the lower--the pitch of the voice.  It would not surprise me if a neighbor, hearing a man shriek in horror, thought that the screaming voice belonged to a woman.

But no matter what the judge decides, we'll probably never really know.  To me, the O.J. Simpson case was much clearer--so clear, that after he got off scot-free, New York magazine boasted a cover with him smiling and waving bloody hands. 

No one will smile when Pistorius is judged, whether he gets off or not. I can't now think of a job I'd envy less than that of Judge Thokozile Masipais.  No matter how much she has seen, and thought, and done in her life, no matter how carefully she deliberates, no matter what she decides--she cannot emerge untormented from this case.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Critical Mom Goes to Rome

It all started with Ryanair, which offered a flight under a hundred euros, round trip, so long as I kept my check-in bag under 15 kilos, something I could manage for a three-day trip.  The airline did not try to charge people a whole British pound to use the toilet ($1.66, about 40 cents less in euros)--the notion that this is one of Ryanair's usual charges having been allegedly aired by management on the theory that negative publicity brings in customers.  But halfway through the two-hour flight, the stewardess announced that the toilets were "blocked" and asked that passengers please not use them.  I was glad we landed on time and the Ciampino airport proved a mere half-hour bus ride to Rome's version of Times Square, namely, the Termini.  Named after the Baths of Diocletian, it looked Grand-Central-Stationish, and a comfortably hectic air reminded me of that very much missed icon of New York as I stood online for a taxi.  There the resemblance to my favorite city ended, for the driver spoke no word of any language that I could manage, including English, and demonstrated--by waving around an actual paper map--that he remained clueless about the address to which I had to repair posthaste.
"Uh, do you speak English?"
"Eee-talia!" he said. "Leetle bit, okay!"
Once he'd studied his map, he got me there after a ride no more wild nor wooly than that of your average New York cabbie, and seemed ecstatic, practically falling at my feet, when I rewarded him with a tip of one euro.  
I was visiting a dear old friend and her lovely new husband, and we enjoyed a delicious meal of Cacio e Pepe, pasta with a whole lot of melted butter, pecorino romano, and coarsely grated salt and pepper.  That hit the spot, as did the wine.  Rome is, like Paris, once of those places where it's almost impossible to get a bad meal--you have to try really hard, and I didn't try at all, so ate very well indeed.
First stop the next morning was the Colosseum, that ancient ampitheater  where gladiators fought to the death and became freemen if they survived a certain number of rounds.  Centurions paced the grounds, charging to be photographed with tourists and checking their cell phones.  Many hidden catacombs followed--some formerly secret training grounds of gladiators, and then the Basilica of San Clemente, a mosaiced wonder with a second century Mithraic temple beneath it.  Layers upon layers of civilizations interlard Rome, just like the layers of olive oil and cheese in most of the delicious food.  
We spent some time seeking the exact spot on which Julius Caesar was stabbed to death, a grassy hill plastered with homeless men.  We shopped--oh, what a paradise for leather and linens!  A gorgeous briefcase, complete with butter-soft leather and piping, was found for my friend's husband, and I almost bought a lovely red leather knapsack that continues to haunt me.  
We visited Villa Torlonia, on the scale of New York's Frick, which was rented by none other than Mussolini from an eccentric banker for one lira per year.  Frescoes of mythological figures--including a Leda who could never have inspired Yeats, since she's got the swan firmly tucked under her elbow, and his beak, at the end of a weak, skinny neck, seems in a desultory way to be pecking as if for a single grain at the corner of her mouth.  An "avian dildo," is how a visiting professor acquaintance described the poor bird.  The walls featured photos of Il Duce himself fencing--going by his size, he sure needed the exercise!   Art exhibits of Italian painters from the nineteen-forties and earlier graced the upper storey.  The Casina delle Civette, or Owl House, a 19th-century Swiss chalet on the grounds, included William-Morris-like wallpaper, stained glass that looked very Tiffany, and a host of increasingly odd and delightful rooms.  There is no escape like Rome, the city of ruins and hidden beauties--and my kids loved the bobble-headed Caesar and mini-models of all the ruins I hadn't managed to see.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Critical Mom and the Chinese President's Wife

For weeks, my husband and I looked forward to a performance.  It was important enough to be on our calendar along with reminders to remember it--because the Chinese President's wife was coming to our boys' school.  A superstar singer of treacly hits who, according to my smart fifteen-year old, dared to trill,  "Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead," right after Mao Zedong died, she's now trying to make sure Chinese girls in villages get an education.  And our boys are getting a model education, she believes, along with many girls in their school, which went co-ed not too long ago. 

But we weren't going to hear her sing.   We were going to hear our boys sing to her in Chinese, and the elder was going to narrate a play in Chinese, plus play Chinese songs on his clarinet.  

Alas, we didn't get to go!  Less than a week before the event for which we'd cleared our calendar, we learned that a mere seventy policemen could be assigned to the event, since the lady had no official security clearance, and all students would have to empty their pockets, open their musical instrument cases, answer questions (No jokes! I told the smart fifteen-year-old, who was brimming over with wisecrack answers to security questions).

The kid has been learning Chinese all year, and speaks it fluently enough so that I believe he'll be able to understand waiters at the Columbia Cottage restaurant we like to visit on trips to New York.  I told him he should tell his Chinese teacher about the Chinese guys who deliver take-out on bikes, and who know one word to blurt into the intercom, "Food-ee!"  The kid does not think his teacher would appreciate this anecdote, and it has occurred to me that had the kid been educated in the Chinese style, he would not disagree with me so much.

China is building bridges with the U.S.A and Angela Merkel is trying to build them too, but she couldn't get Ai WeiWei a passport three years ago.  At the moment, his exhibition, "The Evidence," is at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin, one that I bet the singer would love to visit.

A Chinese friend who studied in Germany made the mistake most Chinese students I teach make:  he memorized everything he read for his oral exam, and when the examiners asked what he thought about a particular text, he began reciting.

"No, what do you think?"  they asked.  "Not the critics you read.  YOU!"

Confusion.  "Ahh, uh, ahh . . . "  

I know this confusion.  I ask my university students, not only Chinese students, for their own thoughts.  And they answer, "You mean what I think?  You mean, really, my opinion?"  They seem astonished.  The worse the German high school they attended, the less they've been asked to have an opinion and to express it.  But students raised anywhere in Asia, especially Chinese students, have usually been taught to parrot the opinions of others, or of their teacher, or to determine the opinion of the group, or to make sure that the group has one unified opinion, and to express that opinion with as little individuality as possible.

The friend all but failed his oral exam.  Next time around, he criticized the teacher and got an A.

I'm imagining the school visit the way it should have been.  Not kids getting frisked and security forces guarding the doors.  Just parents coming to see their kids, and the lovely, relaxed atmosphere of other concerts we've attended--which are so good that even folks who don't have kids at the school attend them.  Mom-baked muffins and sandwiches and quiche for sale with wine in the intermissions.  And a conversation with Peng Liyuan, the wife, in which I ask:  "How are you?  And do you like Ai WeiWei?  Do you hate him?  Why?"  And in my dreams, she would have a very clear opinion of her own, the opinion of a girl who had been educated in the Western style, with exactly the type of education she is promoting right now for girls, the kind in which the teacher asks you for your opinion, and you actually have a very clear, considered opinion, and you articulate it.