An Hour Upon the Stage

Among the variety of strange notions that we get into our heads, one of the most common is the sensation that we’re being watched. For no apparent reason, we begin to glance around us, not really expecting to find anything, and yet compelled to look anyway.

“It’s nothing,” we say, and turn our attentions back to the task at hand.

It’s also one of the tell tale signs of a transient madness, to believe that something is stalking us—lurking near, slipping from tree to tree. When we’re upstairs, we hear footsteps downstairs. Even the not-so-mad have bouts of paranoia, suspecting that we’re being talked about, that others have some secret agenda that bodes us ill, or possess some furtively-gained knowledge that they have no business knowing.

The shades go down further, out of a fear that at some vulnerable moment, we have left them up too far—that in a careless bit of morning, or a negligent trace of night, we have left ourselves exposed, not for long, but for long enough. The guilty soul cowers at the unspoken, unspeaking threat of an apocalypse that will reveal it for what it truly is.

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Beauty’s Victory

I go on binges. For days, weeks, months—well, usually not months—but days and weeks anyhow, I get taken by something and it will be all that interests me for a while. I’ll plunge into Faulkner for a time, then breach, crest, and fall into Graham Greene.

Things don’t stay all that highbrow, either; I’m as apt to watch Duck Dynasty marathons as I am to read books. Then again, I might forswear all such pursuits and go into serious training to beat the last five folks who’ve registered their bragging rights on the gym treadmill.

I was well into an Anthony Burgess tear not long back before I got pulled off on another line. This time it was Nabokov. It started around Christmas and picked up when the holidays were over.

After Lolita (and the movie version), Pale Fire, The Defense (that movie version too—called The Luzhin Defence) and Pnin—which you have to re-read and ask yourself why you didn’t see X before, or notice Y—I stumbled upon an essay in the March 2014 edition of First Things by David Bentley Hart, entitled Nabokov’s Supernatural Secret.

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Memory: Jubilee and Knell

A friend mentioned a line from Hannah and Her Sisters the other day: “But in the morning, I forgot that I was happy.” That might not be the exact quote; it might not even be the right movie; but the line goes something to that effect. At any rate, we both laughed; the wit needs little explanation, which is the definition of that device. The quality of poignancy lies in a thing’s ability to be absorbed; poignancy can be understood as aptness to such a great degree that it has seeped through to touch the heart.

Still, while I know what it means, I believe the sentiment has more than one application. For example, I myself work the other way around. Rightly or wrongly, for good or ill, I have a constitution that rallies when the day breaks. My spirits rise with the sun. Night is the time in which it does not pay for me to think too much. I am a restless, imperfect sleeper, and prone to spectral thoughts as I toss to and fro. Let the day come, and I can leave them with the bedclothes.

But the line speaks to more than days and nights, happiness and unhappiness, and the variations of quixotic moods. The operative word is “forget.” That’s the part that translates to all occasions. Whoever we are, whatever we are up to, we cannot remember.

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You Could Be a Winner

I just entered the Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes. I’ve never done anything like that before. I’m sure it signifies some ominous line that I’ve crossed, some dubious group that I’ve joined (namely: “the time’s running out and I’m not rich” crowd). But I’m going to postpone any philosophical musings for the time being. I just hope like hell that I win.

If you’ve ever actually torn open one of those envelopes—and I’m sure that few people who read a blog such as this one actually have—high-minded folks who’re interested in the arts and faith and the cross-section betwixt them—then let me tell you what it’s like (I’ll relate this in the fashion of a ten year-old boy who accidentally walked into the girl’s bathroom—a high school girl’s bathroom—and comes out with eyes full of stars and a heart full of tales from the undiscovered country from which he returns).

It’s not as easy as you think—to become a winner, that is. Sure, you can just return your entry in the enclosed envelope and be done with it. But there are all kinds of bonus prizes and award enhancements. If you find the place to put a series of stickers—on one of the twenty-five slips of paper that accompany the ballot—and if you play all the scratch-off games and tick-tack-toe games and assorted treasure hunt puzzles—you increase your chances to win five, ten, sometimes twenty-fold. This is serious business. The loaves and fishes are multiplied. Who can turn down a chance to maximize his winnings like that? It would be downright wrong.

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The Parent State

A few years back, I watched an interview with a middle-aged woman who was educated, attractive, and well-spoken. She was also in jail—had been for thirty years and would be until the day she died. In her youth, as part of a drugged-out cult, she’d stabbed a young mother to death, slit her husband’s throat, and helped chase down and eviscerate a pregnant girl. She was penitent in the interview, but admitted that she was not particularly remorseful during her trial or for a long time thereafter.

The most chilling thing she said was in response to the reporter’s comment that he would never have thought her capable of such a thing. The inmate replied: “I would never have thought that either; I sometimes have a hard time thinking it now; but I was; I am.”

Why that reverberated so strongly with me was because I have often wondered what all I’m capable of—for both good and ill; I’m much more humble about that than I used to be.

When pressed too far, when down too low, when too far along a ruinous path—whether led astray by others or of our own volition—who knows what we might do. So best to hold tightly to that which orders the appetites; best to make virtue a habit, as Aquinas counseled.

By the same token, but at a greater level of abstraction, when discussing current affairs I’ve recently heard boasts along the following lines: “Yes, but that kind of thing could never happen here.” It will be said in reference to some late atrocity in a foreign land, and supported by arguments resting in our common history, secular institutions, and set of basic human virtues. These things will insulate us from the fate of the less enlightened parts of the globe, it’s suggested.

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