by Paul Elie
from Georgetown University

In July, an End to the Summer


I took my last nightfall bike ride of the summer the other night – up Willoughby, across Franklin in the still-new bike lane, under the El and up still-bustling Fulton, and back through the brownstone-and-rowhouse acreage of Bedford-Stuyvesant — which has something like 8,800 buildings built before 1900, “perhaps the largest collection of intact and largely untouched Victorian architecture in the country.”

This past week I’ve been doing a lot of things for the last time this summer.  There’s a simple reason.  Tomorrow I am going with family to South Africa for a trip of three and a half weeks.  When we return, the end of summer will be on us: the beginning of school and sports seasons, Labor Day, and so on.

There’s also a more complicated reason.  In South Africa — in the Southern Hemisphere — it is winter.  And although winter is a pleasant time of year in South Africa – dry and temperate in Johannesburg; variable in Cape Town, where morning rain is burned off by sunshine at midday – and although friends in Cape Town say that this winter has been dry and lovely, it is winter there even so, with the sun setting around six p.m.

The knowledge that we’ll be traveling from summer to winter – leaving summer behind — has shaped my anticipation of the trip more than I could have expected and in ways I don’t quite understand.  To the sense of a beginning that is wound into a long trip to a distant place is added the sense of an ending; and this sense of an ending is compounded by the fact – radiant all around – that, weather-wise this has been the loveliest New York summer in memory, with temperatures peaking in the eighties, and by the knowledge that for us, in a few days this particular summer will end abruptly.  I feel we are flying against nature, courting jet lag writ large.

And after nearly a year of posting pieces daily to this site — 400-plus so far — I’ll be posting intermittently, breaking a rhythm I feel I’d only just found.   

Who knows what the New York summer will be like when we return, or what there will be to write about it: but officially, after all, I am telling myself, there will be a month of it left — time for plenty of night biking in Brooklyn.

Our Kind of Spirituals, No. 44: Stevie Wonder, “Master Blaster (Jammin’)”

Stevie Wonder released “Master Blaster” in 1980 – the year of this video – after his band and Bob Marley’s had spent some time touring together, and the Marley influence couldn’t be any more obvious.   It took on the sound of a tribute after Marley’s death in 1981.

In later concerts Wonder followed it with “Higher Ground,” which is a spiritual in its own right; but “Master Blaster” makes a higher ground of the park and streetcorner where the Wailers are pumping their sound out of a boom box.  

“They want us to join their fighting / But our answer today / Is to let all our worries / Like the breeze through our fingers slip away …”

Elvis Costello – fending off charges of racism he’d brought on himself with drunken trash-talk – played a version with the Attractions in dozens of shows in 1980 and 1981. 

Seems to me there’s a straight line from this to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.

Hotter than July, truly.   

Lost and Found: 13,000 Waltzes

A friend is trying to identify “things lost to history” – “ancient texts, extinct species, artworks, cities, medieval manuscripts … ” – and his query has churned in my mind for a couple of weeks now.  Not that the topic isn’t on the brain all the time: so much of what we call culture-making is driven by the wish to make sure that things we treasure aren’t lost to history or the attempt to recover things that have been.

Lost to history?  The music of Bach comes to mind.  At least two full-length sacred passions, dozens of cantatas, and something like a quarter of the organ music is lost – was lost when Bach’s manuscripts were scattered among his heirs after his death.  Because Bach is the very image of the complete artist, whose work exists in great variety and abundance – superabundance, as I put it in Reinventing Bach — all that lost work challenges our very sense of abundance, like a great cache of buried treasure submerged offshore.

Set against the idea of “things lost to history” is the great cache of 13,000 concert videos uploaded to YouTube by Wolfgang’s Vault earlier this month.  I’ve subscribed to the service for a while now – and have celebrated Thanksgiving several years running by listening to all four hours of the Band’s “Last Waltz” at the Winterland in San Francisco – and just when I thought I’d worked though most of the concert audio recordings I wanted to hear, all of a sudden here are complete concert videos: the Who, Bruce Springsteen, the Clash, Lou Reed, Wilco, and on and on.  And that’s just the full-length shows.

It’s striking to read an article about a long-lost vintage Telecaster of Jackson Browne’s and then call up a 1976 concert where the guitar is leaned casually alongside the piano.  It’s striking to see that Last Waltz concert, familiar from the odd camera angles Martin Scorsese worked out obsessively for the concert film, now in a steady black-and-white middle-distance shot probably used by the sound-and-lighting technicians.  It’s even more striking to see a full Band show from six months earlier – to see that the Band, supposedly burned out, at each other’s throats, working through an unglamorous gig in Asbury Park, playing with as much guts and ardor as they do in their Winterland farewell gig.

(Footnote for Band fans: it’s striking to see that, Levon’s cutting wisecrack to the contrary, Robbie’s haircut for the San Francisco show Scorsese filmed is no fancier than the one he has in Asbury Park.)

But what’s really striking is how much of it there is – and the feeling this superabundance produces.  Conventional wisdom would suggest that, because there’s no much of it, I wouldn’t hesitate to dive in, knowing that this particular vault is bottomless, inexhaustible.  But I feel the opposite.  I am reluctant to dive in.  It’s not that I’m afraid I’ll get lost in there.  It’s not that I’m afraid of having illusions shattered, legends brought to earth.  

It’s just that I’d like all that live music to be lost to history a little longer.   

Moral Revulsion Alert: Execution Described in Grisly Detail Here

“The curtains opened,” reports Mauricio Martin, who was there.

It was not a play, or a concert, or a magic show.  It was an execution: the execution of convicted murder Joseph Wood in Arizona.

“The medical staff checked the man’s veins. He said his last words – `God forgive you all’ – and the lethal drugs began to flow, at 1.52pm. James Wood appeared to fall asleep, albeit strapped down to a table, and he looked straight ahead at the wall. The first 10 minutes went according to plan.

“Then, a hard gulp. I looked over to my left: the priest praying the rosary. To my right: the family watching on. Then dead ahead: the side of Wood’s stomach appeared to move, even after the Arizona state prison’s medical staff had announced he was sedated.

“I saw a man who was supposed to be dead, coughing – or choking, possibly even gasping for air. I knew this because Wood’s stomach moved at the same time, just like it would if you were lying down and trying to breathe. Then another of those gulps – those gasps for air, movements just from the throat area and sometimes from the stomach, too.

“I started looking at the priest’s watch to keep track of time. Five, 10, 20 minutes … an hour had passed. I started to wonder: Will this get called off? Will this ever stop?

“I continued to scribble on my state-issued notepad, counting the gulps and gasps of the man on the gurney. I counted 660. This went on for over an hour and a half.

“During that time, medical staff checked Wood six times in total, looking at his eyes, feeling for a pulse on his neck, informing us over the loud speaker that he was still sedated. His eyes were still closed.

“My eyes turned to Wood’s attorney, Dale Baich, as he handed a lady a note and she left the witness chamber. I wondered what the lawyer had written, and as the door opened, it let in a bright light, for just a quick moment.

“What seemed like an eternity passed – 20, 30, 45 minutes more, looking straight ahead – and finally the gulps and gasps started to slow, from about every five seconds or so, to about one per minute. Finally, the gulps and gasps stopped. A few minutes more went by. At last, the killing had stopped, too. A medical staff member checked Wood again one last time. Another few minutes still, and the warden pronounced the killer dead, at 3.49 pm, one hour and 57 minutes after the execution had began.”

The full story – as if it could be any fuller than that – is on the Guardian's website.  The AP’s story includes this remark by the brother-in-law of one of the murder victims: “`This man conducted a horrifying murder and you guys are going, “let’s worry about the drugs,”’ said Richard Brown. `Why didn’t they give him a bullet? Why didn’t we give him Drano?’”

Why not?  Because that would be cruel and unusual, and the distinction between cruel and unusual acts as crimes and cruel and unusual acts as a form of putative state justice is a distinction worth making.

Mario Marazziti can explain this better than I can.  With the Community of Sant’Egidio, he has led the challenge to government acquisition of the lethal drugs used in executions.  His book Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Death Penalty will be published soon.   

Meanwhile, there are 2347 comments on the Guardian site.  Things are changing with the death penalty in the U.S.  It will be history soon enough.  

Catherine Lacey in the New York Times: “Speedboat” for Millennials?

Book reviewers, aware of the power of the copy-and-paste function to spread their work, make comparisons more elliptically than they once did.

Dwight Garner of the Times does, at any rate.  Reviewing Catherine Lacey’s first novel, Nobody Is Ever Missing, he considers it in the context of Renata Adler’s minor classic Speedboat.  But instead of comparing novel to novel, or author to author, he begins his review with an essay brève about the earlier novel, an aperçu peeled and sliced:

Renata Adler’s cult novel “Speedboat” (1976) was reissued last year and has caught on among a new generation of readers. It’s having a long, largely deserved moment. The best thing I’ve read about Ms. Adler’s novel came from Katie Roiphe, writing in Slate. She carefully tucked “Speedboat” alongside Joan Didion’s “Play It as It Lays” and Elizabeth Hardwick’s “Sleepless Nights” as a sleek ’70s-era example of the “Smart Women Adrift” genre, narratives filled with “pretty yet melancholy vignettes of the state of being lost.” Ms. Adler condensed her theme in “Speedboat” this way: “I think when you are truly stuck, when you have stood still in the same spot for too long, you throw a grenade in exactly the spot you were standing in, and jump, and pray. It is the momentum of last resort.”

He then goes on to review Nobody Is Ever Missing on its own terms, but in light of his insights about Speedboat. The only time he compares the new book to the earlier one, it’s to say this:

One salient thing about “Nobody Is Ever Missing” is that Elly, even at 28, is so much more girl than woman. The heroines of “Speedboat,” “Play It as It Lays” and “Sleepless Nights” would consume her like an oyster.

Artful juxtaposition of this kind is a reviewer’s way of avoiding the sort of obvious likening – say, “a Speedboat for pierced-and-dyed millennial Brooklyn” – that would be turned into a piece of marketing in a flash and would precede the book through the doors to the pitchrooms of Hollywood.

Of course, the copying and recopying of the best bits of reviews is nothing new.  The jacket of David Plante’s latest book – the first volume of his journals – carries comments, made about his early work, that it seems to me have been affixed to one book after another of his for thirty years.

Catherine Lacey was a student in several classes I taught in the graduate writing program at Columbia — she wrote a memorable short piece about Fitzgerald — and Nobody Is Ever Missing is getting outstanding reviews.  

Backlash to come. 

As With the Essay, So With the Story?


America's website features an interview about the American Pilgrimage Project, our Georgetown partnership with StoryCorps. What are we trying to do with it? Here’s what:

In American society today, we hear a great deal about the religious habits of Americans from statisticians and demographers. You know how it goes: a study comes out reporting that 90 percent of people believe in this or that, or that the number of Americans with no religion has tripled, or whatever. We also hear American leaders making broad assertions about religious doctrines and their bearing on public life. But the actual experience of ordinary people is scanted or overlooked.   I hope the American Pilgrimage Project will help in some small way to correct that.   What do people actually believe? How do their beliefs bear on their daily lives?  Those are perennial questions, needless to say.  Typically to answer them we look to literature, we look to history, we look to journalism, and the mass media.  Now the hope is that we’ll be able to turn to the American Pilgrimage Project archive as well.  It will help to broaden and complicate the narrative.

StoryCorps is known for its radio broadcasts, but founder Dave Isay’s four StoryCorps books are bestsellers.  My hope is that the American Pilgrimage Project will follow naturally on the approach I’ve taken in my own books and articles, which I think of as “narrative portraiture.” To draw out the connection, America’s Sean Salai SJ let me smuggle in a brief exegesis of my most recent Atlantic article:

We’re so used to news reports that depict Catholic leaders as managers, or strategists, or people with the “leadership gene.”  Well, I try to depict them as Catholics, as religious believers first of all.   In my Atlantic portrait of Benedict in the time of Francis, for example, I took up the theme of renunciation and wound it deep into the structure of the piece, with the aim of showing how Benedict’s renunciation of the papacy has led him to the more complex act of renunciation involved in largely keeping his silence as Francis has led the church in a different direction and with a notably different style.  Instead of just drawing a contrast between Francis and Benedict or making a big deal of the phenomenon of a living ex-pope, I drew on the three books of interviews Benedict gave when he was Cardinal Ratzinger in order to dramatize the life he is living now, which is principally the interior life.    

A few days ago Salai interviewed just-retired Georgetown political philosophy professor James V. Schall SJ, who is a devoted reader and writer of essays.  Fr. Schall – in the essayist’s way – quoted another essayist:

Josef Pieper, that most insightful man, in commenting on Aquinas, once compared the essay form to the “article” form of St. Thomas. He pointed out that a good short essay and an article in the Summa were about the same length, three or four pages. The article set about to answer a question and give reasons for it, and to come to a conclusion. The essay, the “effort” in French, was looser. It could range widely over its subject matter. It did not have to be tightly argued. Yet, without the article, the essay is in danger of being fuzzy and frivolous, whereas, at its best, the essay contains genuine truths and deep feelings about human things, yes, even divine things.

Range in pursuit of truth: that, Father Schall suggests, is “the genius of the essay.”  Now to figure out “the genius of the story.”  

The image is the title page of Einstein’s 1930 essay “Religion and Science.”

Hudson River Cleanup, David Carr Style

There’s so much that’s striking in David Carr’s current Media Equation column that I don’t know where to begin.  It’s striking that Carr sees the acquisition of one legacy media company by another — one run by an octoganerian billionaire — as the future of media rather than the pickling of media’s past.  It’s striking that he depicts the present of media as epitomized by the scene he witnessed at CNN (he was scheduled to be a guest) the moment that news of the downing of the Malaysia airliner came in.  “You could see the entire apparatus come roaring to life, getting everything in place to cover the kind of story — big stakes, scary pictures and international consequences — that a 24-hour news channel was made for” – yes, territory that CNN was made for thirty years ago and (as Carr has pointed out in the past) has struggled for the last dozen years to reclaim.  It’s striking to see that Carr has found the existentialist point columnists aspire to – where he at once reports the story, comments on it, and personifies it through his own behavior and outlook.

It’s this last – the columnist as personification of the zeitgeist – that is especially striking.  To wrap up the column, Carr describes his attempt to turn a train ride from New York to Albany or thereabouts into a sabbatical from the Internet, a veritable feast of print:

I read New York magazine’s delicious profile of the journalist Kara Swisher of Recode, took in a long interview that the Virginia Quarterly Review conducted with one of the world’s leading origami makers and stared at an exquisite photo essay in The Pitchfork Review. I grazed the sassy delights of The Hollywood Reporter, and in Fast Company, I learned how Mark Zuckerberg wants to own our (increasingly) mobile lives.

Purposefully, but not in a hurry, I caught up on the remarkable television and film writing in The New Yorker and contemplated interesting, different versions of being a male in GQ and Esquire.

I was having a moment, one without informational angst or FOMO (fear of missing out). And when I finished something, I spent time staring out the window at the unspeakably pretty Hudson River. I came to rest.

Truly, this is remarkable.  He takes a hiatus from the electronic media, only to read print articles about the electronic media.  He takes a break from the now, only to read magazines about the now.   He gorges on print — but  seems not even to consider the compact, inexpensive and easy-to-use print format known as a book.   

Columnist, can you spare a few hours?  If so, you might  consider reading a book – say, Norman Rush’s Mating, published twenty-three years ago and still on the cusp of the long now that is literature.

The photograph is on the castle on Bannerman Island, which you can see from the Amtrak train as it runs north along the Hudson.    

Our Kind of Spirituals, No. 43: Arthur Blythe Quartet, “Jitterbug Waltz”

The first time I went to the Village Vanguard – in the late summer of 1985 – McCoy Tyner canceled at the last minute and was replaced by a saxophonist and bandleader I didn’t know much about.

It was Arthur Blythe, who came out with his quartet, took up the soprano sax, and played six or eight minutes of the most complex and involving joy I’d ever heard.

I never knew for sure what song it was, but it was so distinctive, and its effect so powerful, that when I heard Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” – fifteen years later – I said to myself, “That’s it!  That’s the song Arthur Blythe opened with at the Vanguard!”

This is it.   A few years ago I found a German-issued CD of Arthur Blythe’s music with “Jitterbug Waltz” on it deep in the racks at J&R Music near City Hall, but I foolishly didn’t buy it.  J&R closed a few months ago, and it’s as if some teeth have been knocked out of downtown.   

But as you can see, one month ago Erlendur Svavarsson uploaded Arthur Blythe’s “Jitterbug Waltz” to YouTube – so I am hearing it just now for the first time since that night at the Vanguard in 1985.

It sounds as boundlessly good as I remember.  This is the sound of complex joy.   

Elaine Stritch: Flannery O’Connor’s Long-Lost Almost Second Cousin

July is the cruellest month: in the past couple weeks, I’ve found myself posting a number of pieces prompted by decease: the deaths of Teeny Hodges, Charlie Haden, and Nadine Gordimer.   And now Elaine Stritch, the actress renowned for her one-woman shows, who “has died” (as the English papers put it) at age 89.

I don’t know Stritch’s work at all.  What I do know is that she was a niece of Samuel Stritch, cardinal archbishop of Chicago in the Fifties, and that this made her practically next of kin to Flannery O’Connor.   Here’s how.  

Beginning in 1955 O’Connor traveled regularly from her home in Georgia to college campuses in the South and Midwest, giving the lectures – “these stinking talks,” she called them – later collected in Mystery and Manners. During a visit to the University of Notre Dame, she met Thomas Stritch, a professor of American studies, ten years older than she was – and a nephew of Cardinal Samuel Stritch.

Over time she developed what she called an “inordinate fondness” for him. Together they were fond of Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and motor races such as the Indianapolis 500. He spent most of a week with her at Andalusia in August 1963, and she planned to dedicate a book to him.

Her fondness comes through in her letters to him. While he was traveling in Europe in 1962, she wrote:

I hope you are having a good time and are not becoming converted to culture or anything. Dr. Crane, with whom I am in daily telepathic communication, says to tell you that the American traveler abroad is a salesman of the USA and that in Europe the Sincere Compliment is an important part of our foreign policy. Don’t hesitate, he says, to use the same sincere compliment any number of times as sincerity is always fresh and useful.

She had gotten an honorary degree at Notre Dame, and so went on:

My degree hasn’t done a thing for me so far, hasn’t increased my self-confidence or improved my personality or anything I expected it to do. The local wags have already got tired of calling me `Doctor.’ Regina wrapped the hood up in newspaper and put it away and unless I wear it Halloween, I guess it’ll stay there …

Two years later – greatly diminished by lupus – she wrote to him with undiminished humor:

Here I am yours truly on the electric typewriter and I feel more or less like folks … I do what amounts to two hours of work a day and that is about as good as I ever did anyway. I asked the doctor if I could sit up at the electric typewriter and work. You can work, says he, but you can’t exert yourself. I haven’t quite figured this out yet; anyway I am confined to these two rooms and the porch so far and ain’t allowed to wash the dishes. I guess that is exerting yourself where writing officially is not.

It’s a shame nobody ever thought to get Elaine Stritch to star in a one-woman show devoted to Flannery O’Connor.

Thomas Stritch spent his whole career at Notre Dame, where he “lived on campus in Lyons Hall as one of the University’s `bachelor dons,’ a unique group of faculty members he himself once described as `youth-devoted teachers who never married, or postponed marriage till late in life.” He died in 2004.

Ramadan Rookies — and Veterans

Just past the halfway point of Ramadan,  and the Times has a gallery of photographs of Muslims in New York observing the fast, taken by 26-year-old Philip Montgomery — photographs of “Ghanaians, Yemenis, people from Mali, Palestinians, and Americans … It was really a New York cross-pollination.”

In this photograph a man prays in a disused Burger King. 

My friend Rollo Romig — a convert from Catholicism to Islam — wrote a powerful essay about observing Ramadan in New York in high summer.   It starts with a strong headline — “Confessions of a Ramadan Rookie” —and gets stronger from there: 

By Day Ten, the month was, incredibly, passing too quickly. The fast had become much easier; it’s remarkable how the body can adjust to a new pattern. Some days I felt almost disappointingly normal. Fasting is an essentially solitary act; it’s said that it’s the only Islamic practice that’s invisible to an observer. Only God knows if you’re actually sticking with it. But Ramadan is also supposed to be a highly social time: breaking fast with friends and neighbors, and communal prayers, for those who can manage it, deep into the night. With a toddler whose bedtime coincides uncannily with the fast-breaking hour, it was tough for us to join that party more than a handful of times. But we had plenty of communal feeling right at home. Most mornings, fortified by hearty food and the only coffee of the day, my wife and I fell into electric sunrise conversations, talking about the experience of the fast and anything else that came to mind as the light grew outside the window next to the breakfast table, while the infidels slept. (Just teasing, infidels.)

The season runs through July 28.