The Use of Talking

There is no end of things in the heart.

Archive for August 2013


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The Gospel at mass last Sunday was Luke 13:22–30. Here’s the Revised Standard Version translation of it:

He went on his way through towns and villages, teaching, and journeying toward Jerusalem. And some one said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, “Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the householder has risen up and shut the door, you will begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us.’ He will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from; depart from me, all you workers of iniquity!’ There you will weep and gnash your teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God and you yourselves thrust out. And men will come from east and west, and from north and south, and sit at table in the kingdom of God. And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”

This is not one of the warm and fuzzy passages in the Gospels. It’s not “inclusive;” it doesn’t “celebrate diversity.” It doesn’t tell us that God is going to save everyone, no matter what. I squirm a bit when I hear this Gospel. Sure, I recite the creed every Sunday, I read the Bible, I pray (not as much as I ought to), I go to confession (ditto). But  where is my heart truly? Where are my treasures? Do l give my life, or at least some appreciable portion of it, to God, to my loved ones, to my neighbors. In my thoughts, words, and deeds, am I as Luther, following Augustine, says, curvatus in se, turned in on my self? The answers to those questions are not comforting. 

I love the 22nd chapter of the Revelation to John. Verse 17 reads (in the Authorized Version):

And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoeverwill, let him take the water of life freely.

Whosoever will.  What do I will? What is it I really want? Under all the selfishness, the self-deception, the sin, who is it I truly love?

LORD, how I am all ague, when I seek
What I have treasur’d in my memorie !
Since, if my soul make even with the week,
Each seventh note by right is due to thee.
I finde there quarries of pil’d vanities,
But shreds of holinesse, that dare not venture
To shew their face, since crosse to thy decrees :
There the circumference earth is, heav’n the centre.
In so much dregs the quintessence is small :
The spirit and good extract of my heart
Comes to about the many hundredth part.
Yet, Lord, restore thine image, heare my call :
And though my hard heart scarce to thee can grone,
Remember that thou once didst write in stone.

George Herbert, “The Sinner”


Written by hans castorp

August 28, 2013 at 5:56 pm

Posted in Faith

Bibliomania 101: Sailing toward Bankruptcy

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Book collecting—and I’m not talking about first editions— is an expensive hobby, more expensive with each passing year. The price of books has risen drastically over the years. What was once the price of a hardcover is now the price of a paperback, and what used to be the price of a trade paperback is now the price of a mass-market one.

And that’s only trade books (the ones that get on the bestseller lists and make the tables at Barnes & Noble or the home page at Amazon. I usually buy academic books, and the prices for those are stratospheric. Hardcovers from Oxford or Cambridge often go for more than a hundred dollars; paperbacks from the university presses or a specialty publisher like Eerdmans seem to start at fifty. (Okay, $49.95. I’m not fooled.) I understand the exigencies of academic publishing; I’ve worked for a university press. Personnel, paper, and manufacturing costs go up while library budgets go down. In order to break even, prices have to be high. What’s really galling, are the high prices for academic e-books. Take one of the books in the post above, Daphne Hampson’s Christian Contradictions, published by Cambridge University Press: the hardcover retails for $104.00, the paperback for $43.00, and $34.00 for a zero-manufacturing-cost PDF!  I try really hard to be understanding, but my bibliomaniac’s heart quails.

Yes, sometimes I do pony up the $49.95, or wait for a birthday or Christmas to let someone else do it. If I’m really lucky, I’ll snag a half-price copy at a used-book store. I don’t have access to a university library or hundreds of dollars lying around to get it. At the public library, most academic books don’t circulate. If you want to read them, you have to sit in the library for as long as it takes.(Yes, I have done this.) Inter-library loan is slow and troublesome. My only hope is that the public library will digitize everything and make it all available to cardholders. Not that the publishers are likely to let them.

I’m a law-abiding fellow. I don’t litter or play loud radios on the subway or remove the Do Not Remove tags from pillows. But these days I have a certain sympathy for pirates.

Written by hans castorp

August 23, 2013 at 9:07 am

Posted in Bibliomania

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Bibliomania 101: The Scattershot Reader

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There must be some people out there who read books straight through, one at a time. I’m not one of them. At the moment I’ve got these books going:

  • Allen Nevins, The Ordeal of the  Union, volume 2
  • Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, volume 1 part 2
  • Balzac, The Ball at Sceaux 
  • Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions
  • Hegel, Phenomenology of the Spirit (This is my second attempt. I’m barely into it.)
  • Zechariah Sitchen, The Twelfth Planet (I hate to admit I’m reading this one, but I have an almost bottomless appetite for wacko stuff.)
  • Joseph Farrell, The Nazi International (Ditto.)
  • Daphne Hampson, Christian Contradictions

Now, I’m not saying this to brag about my intellectual ambitions or how much I read—at least not entirely. No, I mean it as a self rebuke. Of these seven, how many will languish at various stages of reading? How many will I persevere with, and how many will be pushed out by some new temporary enthusiasm? I have another, longer list of books that haven’t looked at for months, yet haven’t given up on. The trouble with this is that, if it’s fiction, I have to skim through to refresh my memory of what’s going on. If it’s demanding nonfiction, I sometimes have to start from the beginning to try and puzzle it out. There’s one book of German philosophy (no, not Hegel) that I’ve begun at least three times, only to bog down a chapter or two farther than when I last picked it up.

Every New Year’s Day I resolve to reform my reading habits, to stop acquiring books until I’m through with the bunch I’m reading now (plus the ones I got for Christmas). But long about the middle of January, some new title beckons. Oh, I tell myself I’ll just slip that in and then go back to my current list, but rarely happens; one or two or three or four titles slide into forgetfulness as I surrender to the seductions of publishers’ catalogs and internet reviews.

One of the consequences of my inconstancy is a sore point in my marriage. Mrs. C thinks we have at least twice as many books as we need, and frequently tells me that if we have to move, I’ll have to get rid of half the library. (The very thought gives me the vapors.) Lucky for our marriage (and for the apartment) that our budget is limited.

Written by hans castorp

August 21, 2013 at 3:04 pm

Posted in Bibliomania, Books

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I’ve always thought of myself as a semi-Luddite in the matter of reading. I don’t want to smash everyone else’s reading machines, but I certainly wouldn’t want one of my own. I’m a forty-year veteran of the publishing industry; I go back to the days when postmen and messengers trafficked galleys from editor to author to compositor, when pagnook hd+es were made up and pasted by hand. What could replace the experience of holding a new book, the new-book smell, the texture of the paper, the design, the typography, the heft of a book in the hands? Certainly not a piece of plastic.

But recently I switched iPods with my middle daughter: my Classic for her and her Touch for me. She had dropped the Touch,  leaving a spiderweb of cracks on the lower right. It was unsightly, but still operable. I had intended to use it just for listening, but on impulse I downloaded the Kindle app and a ridiculously inexpensive edition of the complete works of Henry James. reading Roderick Hudson on the absurdly small screen and trying to guess the words that hid behind the cracks.To my surprise, the text outside the cracks was quite readable, and it didn’t take me long to finish the book. The experience wasn’t the same as reading a physical book, but the words seemed to slip easily from the screen into my head. While I ‘d still rather read academic books o paper, fiction reads very well on-screen; and you can’t beat the portability.

Then her generous grandparents gave that same middle daughter a Nook HD+ for her birthday. I was consumed with envy. (Now, it’s a humiliating thing to be jealous of one’s daughter, and you should give me some credit for admitting to it.) Books aside, I’m not a particularly covetous guy, but one of the few things (books aside)


I’ve ever really wanted is an iPad. When all the vice-presidents at the company I used to work for were given them, some ostentatiously using them during during meetings, my envy was kindled. Now, the Nook is an Android tablet, not an iPad, but I thought that, all things considered, it would suit me very well. I was even more covetous when I tried reading on it, a great step up from the iPod. My mind was alive with schemes for coming up with the money, which, given our financial predicament, came down to selling more physical books. I’d sold quite a few over the last six months, though, and my supply of salable ones had diminished greatly.

By now my fever has abated somewhat, but my change of heart remains: there’s much more to be said about e-reading than I’d been able to imagine. I’m now ready to charge full-speed ahead to 2007—or 2010, if anyone wants to send me an iPad.

ADDENDUM: One of the attraction of e-books is the amount of space they don’t take up.

Written by hans castorp

August 20, 2013 at 4:53 pm

Posted in Autobiography, Books, Technology

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Papist Musings

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Coat of arms of Pope FrancisA couple of days ago I wrote a post about Pope Francis that, luckily, I decided not to post. It was a rather curmudgeonly list of the things about the pope that displease me. It was not only curmudgeonly, it was ungenerous and presumptuous. So here’s a replacement for it.

I loved (and love) Benedict XVI. I loved his theological depth, his humility, and his focus on the liturgy. Pope Francis is a different kettle of fish entirely.

But here’s the thing(s): the First World’s loss of faith is snowballing, and among those who believe, in the U.S. at least, the Evangelical churches are filled with cradle Catholics.; even in the former Second World, faith seems to be receding (think Poland), while in Russia Orthodoxy seems to be returning to its traditional function as a department of the state. While Christian faith seems alive and growing, it often isn’t the Catholic faith. Evangelicals, Pentecostals, and sects like the Seventh-Day Adventists are flourishing. Why is that?

I think a good deal of the problem stems from the direction the church has been going in over the last fifty years, the shift away from the nub of faith to at best peripheral things: politics, self-help, a focus on subjectivity. If the First and Second Worlds as a whole are moving toward, those Evangelical ex-Catholics and Third World converts are looking for something more. They’re looking for Christ. But  many—so many—are looking to know that God in Christ loves them and died for them and has the power to transform their lives.

I realize that in the Third World things are more complicated. The poor are looking to escape from their poverty, and the middle-class values of the Evangelicals (not to mention the attempt to make everyone an American by the Mormons) and the prosperity gospel of the Pentecostals seem to offer a way out. And in the latter case, it doesn’t hurt that the spiritual gifts Pentecostal exercise are reminiscent of the possession experiences of sects such as Candomblé and Santeria

In my almost thirty years as a Catholic, I’ve sat through sermons that reduced the gospel to being kind to your neighbors or having dinner with your family or realizing what a wonderful person you are or, what’s worse, demythologizing the gospel and correcting St. Paul. (I have to admit that the situation, at least at my parish, has been steadily improving). It’s always astounded me that such banality (or worse) could be inserted between the
Word of God and the consecration..

So now I think I understand Pope Francis better. Like his namesake, he points to Christ in the poor and in the sacraments. Jesuit that he is, he proclaims the mercy of God. And he keeps  it simple: three points per sermon, in which Christ is at the center, preached in a way that all can understand.

The church exists to bring us to the Father through the Son and in the Holy Spirit. If Francis helps her to do that, the all my cavils—and my snobbery—belong in the trash.

Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us.

Written by hans castorp

August 17, 2013 at 2:48 pm

Posted in Catholicism, Faith

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De Occulta Philosophia

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macroanthropos tree of lifeAs you might have guessed by now (see here), I’ve always been fascinated by the strange, the unusual, and the bizarre. During my teenage years I went to an orthodontist in midtown Manhattan and as a reward for enduring the pain, I’d visit the Marboro bookshop a few yards down the block. For those of you younger than I am, Marboro specialized in remainders, publishers’ overstock with substantial markdowns. And almost always on the remainder tables were titles published by Lyle Stuart’s University Books, reprints of long-out-of-print occult titles: A.E. Waite on ceremonial magic, tarot, Rosicrucianism, and the Holy Grail; Montague Summers on vampires; Frank Podmore and F.W. H. Myers on spiritualism; Theodore Besterman on crystals, κτλ.  When, as a college freshman, I discovered Samuel Weiser’s bookshop south of Union Square, I was hooked.

My interest in all this was never practical (well, hardly ever). I had (and have) no belief in the efficacy of the occult arts. But I became increasingly fascinated with the history of occult groups and practices, the impact or non-impact of occult ideas on politics, philosophy, literature and art, the lives of occult practitioners from Dr. John Dee to Aleister Crowley, and the system(s) of correspondences that esotericists use to understand the putative connections between the inner and outer, human and natural  worlds—microcosm and macrocosm—together. 

Occultism has always been a stew of obsolete (scientists say discredited) sciences and philosophies with a long pedigree (/Hermeticism, gnosticism, astrology, geomancy, alchemy, practical and theoretical Kabbalah, scrying, theurgy, and their like), fairly recent additions: Rosicrucianism (a post-Reformation invention) the occult Tarot (a post-Enlightenment production), Freemasonry, spiritualism, and a variety of oriental systems and practices such as yoga (tantric and otherwise). In its present form, it was cooked up mostly in the nineteenth century, by a former seminarian who went by the name of Eliphas Levi (nothing more kabbalistically impressive than a Hebrew name), a Russian-American-Indian-English adventuress named Helena Blavatsky, and Samuel Liddell Macgregor Mathers, a Scots pseudo-aristocrat and psychopomp of the Order of the Golden Dawn. And its capacious arms have opened to welcome extraterrestrials, ancient and otherwise, pyramidology, pseudophysics alternative archaeology, Jungian psychology (which many would say was occult to begin with) and a wide selection of conspiracy theories. All of it, you might say is dross, but it does contain some wonderfully imaginative (and even beautiful) nuggets.

What have I gotten out of all this? Well, not much (my wife would say nothing) that’s of any real use; maybe a certain sensitivity to real or factitious connections But it continues to fascinate (that’s an occult word) me, and I continue to read about it. And in our digital world there’s a lot to read. And a lot to write about, even by a cynical unbeliever. It poses some very interesting questions: Why does its popularity wax and wane from one period to another? Why is do self-professed agnostics and atheists believe parts of it? How has it influenced the development of mainstream philosophy and literature? Why do so many people invest so much time and money in pursuing it?  If you’ve got answers to any of these questions, please let me know.

Written by hans castorp

August 17, 2013 at 12:36 pm

As I Was(n’t) Saying . . .

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One of the reasons (and there are more than a few) why I’m such a sporadic blogger is my inability to remember all the brilliant insights that come to me in subway stations or strolls down the street. I’d really like to write about that, I think, and I continue on convinced that at last I’ve found something worthwhile to say. As soon as I get home I’m going to open the laptop and get it down in pixels.

But by the time I get home, reality intervenes. The open computer is too seductive, beckoning me to take a long and exhausting sprint from blog to blog and message board to message board. Too tired to do anything, I promise myself to get to it first thing in the morning, but by the time morning comes, I’ve forgotten about it entirely.

I had a thought in the subway station last night on the way home from mass. I know it was something about faith; it struck me as a good way to get to some of the issues that have preoccupied me lately. If it comes back to me, I’ll let you know.

Written by hans castorp

August 16, 2013 at 7:14 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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