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Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Fabulous conversation between Jane Clare Jones, and Helen Joyce, the author of Trans reviewed here.

Jones is the author of a darkly humorous, but essentially accurate mock dialogue I’ve linked to before called The Annals of the TERF Wars.

It seems that I link to “must-reads” regularly, so perhaps the impact has been dissipated, but yeah, this is a must-read – if you want a relatively succinct look at the current conversation on this issue. Of course, you’d want to read the book – or one of several others out there – but if you don’t have time, this is a decent introduction – with the added value of Joyce explaining how she got interested in the issue, which includes the trajectory many of us have traveled – from puzzlement to sputtering rage at the stupidity of it all.

Helen: When I started writing the book, I could imagine that the words ‘man’ and ‘woman’ meant something that’s not quite the same as ‘adult human female’ and ‘adult human male.’ But you can’t do that with ‘male’ and ‘female.’ They have really very specific meanings which are by no means just human meanings. When you say that a male person can be female, you can get to literally anything from that, because that’s like ‘zero equals one.’ During the research I was reading philosophy papers, and I remember [in] one paper I got to page 20 or something, and then there was a sentence: “I take it as axiomatic that trans women are women.” I actually shouted out loud, “For fuck’s sake!” How can you do that? That’s just like saying, ‘I take it as axiomatic that zero equals one.’ You’d have to do a lot of work, at the very least, to say that trans women are women. When I started writing the book, I thought that I was going to have to put in an entire appendix on arguments [that] ‘trans women are women’ and why they don’t work. And in the end, I just thought: “You know what, these are so shit.” These people are not debating, they’re not talking about their ideas; they’re just putting it out there. And people aren’t saying anything, because they’re afraid they’ll say something wrong. So unsurprisingly, this is the most pathetically weak, appalling, stupid body of work I’ve ever seen. You know that I’m not an academic philosopher, I’m not a philosopher at all, and I can look at this, and say, “Oh, that’s where you went wrong. That’s where you said zero equals one.”

So the intellectual reason was just how appalling this stuff was. It actually intellectually offended me. And then the personal reason was seeing these girls. That night after the Detransition Advocacy Network, I sat there and I couldn’t sleep and I just thought, “Yeah, I’ve got to write the book.” Suddenly there were no more questions. It was very straightforward: “They are sterilizing gay kids. And if I write this book, they might sterilize fewer gay kids.” So that’s simple.

Jane: My perception is that the trans rights project isn’t being driven primarily by pharmaceutical interests, but rather by the desire for validation. But by this point these interests have very strongly attached themselves to it, because of the money in it.

Helen: Of course; that’s the way they work. The two biggest lobby groups in America are hospitals and pharma companies, so of course they’re lobbying on this now. But that’s opportunistic. They come in afterwards. The first impulse is definitely middle-aged men whose desire for validation as women is greater than anything else; that’s the ‘zero equals one.’ They’re the people who insist that you say that they’re women. And once you say that lie, everything else follows.

Jane: Yeah, everything else is collateral damage. I mean, I think women’s spaces are a prime target, because they serve this validation function … but the kids are collateral damage, because they serve as evidence for the notion that gender identity is an essence.

……

Jane: Maybe this is a good place to end, because I think this is one of the great accomplishments of your book. As you say, one of the ways that this entire thing has been enabled is because what they’re trying to do is so bonkers that it’s taken us a very long time to convince people that they are actually trying to do what we say they are. It’s very easy to just go, ‘Oh, those are crazy women, they’re screaming about nothing. They’re hysterical. They just hate trans people.’ And one of the great achievements of your book is that you’ve managed to document this movement and its objectives, and you’ve done it with such lucidity and grace that it’s very compelling, and convincing, and it doesn’t sound like it’s you being the bonkers one.

Helen: Yeah, and on the other side as well, it’s very hard for a woman to decide, *deep sigh,* ‘I’m now going to dedicate two years of my life to something that’s mad.’ I know you can sympathize because you’ve done it too, but can [the] general [public] sympathize with somebody who has a million better things to be doing with their time and actually has to spend time writing down why we shouldn’t be putting rapists in women’s prisons?

Jane: That’s what makes me so angry, that we have to spend all this energy explaining …

Helen: I. Have. Better. Things. To. Do. With. My. Life.

The maddest bit of the whole book – there were many mad bits, but the maddest bit was saying, ‘Darwin actually worked out why there are two sexes.’ Sexual selection caused there to be two reproductive strategies, two reproductive pathways, bodies shaped by and directed towards two types of reproductive strategies. That’s it. There’s no other definition. It’s the same definition right across the animal and plant kingdom. That’s that. And I think that saved me a lot of time and stupid effort, although, God knows, I had to put a lot of time and stupid effort into this book. I mean, in a way, it’s been intellectually very interesting. But it’s also been ridiculous. And quite a lot of people in journalism have said to me, ‘Look, this is all so stupid, why are you wasting your time on it? Is this what you want to be known for?’ But the thing is, it’s all very well to think that this is so mad that someone will stop it. Well, someone has to be the someone.

There are also interesting observations about how American culture and feminism have contributed to this movement.

Of course, I don’t agree with every iota of every point, and you know that I’d say there are dots that are not being connected in ways that would clarify a lot – but that’s the case with any discussion of any issue, isn’t it?

More of my posts on this here.

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Over the weekend, I read Trans by Helen Joyce. I wasn’t planning to read it because I thought – well, I’ve been immersed in these issues for a while and there’s probably little new in it to me. But then all the mess with the American Bookseller’s Association came down last week – in which including a sample of Abigail Shrier’s Irreversible Damage was met with weeping and gnashing of teeth by bookseller recipients and followed by an abject apology for the “violence” by the ABA, I decided to go ahead and spend some money to support these purveyors of violence.

And no, there’s not a ton new to me in the book, but it’s good to run through it presented in a cohesive manner, so here’s the thing – if this is an issue you’re in the least interested in or – especially – if you are involved in an organization or institution that is confronting these issues – including the Church – it’s an excellent book to read and pass on to others. Joyce – a writer for the Economist– goes through the history of this movement from the early 20th century to the present, and most importantly explains how the thinking about this matter has changed, accelerated greatly in recent years, from an idealistic conviction that by doing surgeries a man could “become” a woman to the current iteration – that “gender identity” is an almost spiritual reality unrelated to material reality of the body, and that if a person with male genitalia wants to be called and treated as a woman, society and the legal system must treat him as such.

Pretty crazy.

And as I keep saying – if you’re going to deal with these issues, you must understand this – that gender self-identity is the goal of this movement.

She touches on it all – the history, the wealth pushing this, the focus on children – all of it. It’s a good primer.

A few quotes then some comments:

Take, for example, an article for Therapy Route, an American website, by Mx Van Levy, a non-binary therapist, entitled ‘Why the term transition is transphobic’. The reason presented is that the word ‘transition’ is ‘based on the idea that gender looks a certain way and that people need to change from looking/sounding/acting/and more, a certain way for their identity to be respected . . . The reality is, we are who we are, and our outside appearance does not change who we are on the inside . . . The term transition implies that we were one gender and are now another. But that is not the case. We are and always have been our gender . . . changing how we look on the outside is not a transition.’

In this, as in much else, the activists do not by any means speak for all trans people. But it is the activists’ version of the ideology that is in the ascendant, and that is being codified into laws.

And that’s what I keep telling you. This is not a niche issue. When local, state and federal jurisdictions declare, under pressure and lobbying, that one’s self-declared gender identity trumps biological sex in access to accommodations, and your daughter’s school, in an effort to just avoid lawsuits, declares all restrooms and changing rooms unisex …..you’ll see.

Democrat-controlled states and cities, however, continued to write self-ID into laws and regulations, both in schools and elsewhere. To give a typical example, an anti-discrimination law passed in New York City in 2019 defines sex as ‘a combination of chromosomes, hormones, internal and external reproductive organs, facial hair, vocal pitch, development of breasts, gender identity, and other characteristics’. When these do not align, it says, ‘gender identity is the primary determinant of a person’s sex.’

Such goals are worthy ones, but they are not what mainstream transactivism is about. What campaigners mean by ‘trans rights’ is gender self-identification: that trans people be treated in every circumstance as members of the sex they identify with, rather than the sex they actually are……

This is not a human right at all. It is a demand that everyone else lose their rights to single-sex spaces, services and activities. And in its requirement that everyone else accept trans people’s subjective beliefs as objective reality, it is akin to a new state religion….

But mainstream transactivism does none of this. It works largely towards two ends: ensuring that male people can access female spaces; and removing barriers to cross-sex hormones and surgeries, even in childhood. These are not the needs of people on low incomes at risk of poor health. They are the desires of rich, powerful males who want to be classed as women. Everything I have written about – the harm to children’s bodies; the loss of women’s privacy; the destruction of women’s sports; and the perversion of language – is collateral damage.

One business sector, in particular, has benefited from transactivism: health care. Helping gender-dysphoric people feel comfortable in their bodies makes no one much money; turning them into lifelong patients is highly profitable.

Now a couple of comments:

First, Joyce makes the decision to use preferred-gender pronouns in this book, which I suppose I understand. The book will be controversial and cancel-able enough without Joyce being accused of murdering trans people by using their dead pronouns or whatever.

Secondly, on matters of more substance.

Joyce’s understanding of the foundation and motivation behind the trans movement reflects, of course, her own worldview. How can it be any different? But as such, it’s lacking a certain philosophical weight. That is, an honest confrontation with the changes in sexuality in general over the past century – most specifically the development and universal use of artificial contraception – the stripping of function from the reproductive system, which leaves us – human beings – in a performative space and not much more.

She inches close at times, but still is pretty far away:

Someone who rarely engages with nature or exerts themselves physically will be predisposed towards body-denialism. And if you spend a lot of time playing computer games, you will have become accustomed to identifying with avatars who can be altered on a whim…

Absolutely. But there’s more, isn’t there?

As I wrote – gee, two years ago tomorrow (odd) in a post:

Right before I wrote all those posts in February, I read this obscure sociological study of an early 20th century Quebec community called St. Denis. I wrote about it here, and had intended to bounce some gender stuff off what I read there, but it slipped on by, and here we are.

So as I read about this community, which, like most traditional communities, there were some sex-related roles and functions – most related to childbearing, child-care and general strength –  and many duties shared across both sexes – running farms, homes and businesses – I contemplated how the question of figuring out if you were male or female would fly in that culture.

Hahahaha.

Just, maybe, look down? Bien sur?

Oh, sure, there are always edges and odd places where people who don’t feel quite right, who can’t feel as if they fit – live and breathe and struggle. Sure. Always and everywhere. But in general, the question is not fraught. Why? Because you can’t strip your body of its natural reproductive functions, and while people certainly were normal and did what they could and what they believed was licit to engage their sexuality without conceiving (or confessed when they tripped up) – you can see that in a community where people have to work dawn to dusk in order to survive, where much of that work is physical, where people are always having babies and those babies need care, including nourishment from female breasts, where physical strength and endurance is needed for all sorts of work that sustains the community –

there’s no time or space for someone to stare at the moon and think….wow…I feel so girlish this evening. I do think I might have a Lady-Brain in this boy body I was assigned at birth.

So – part one. Affluence, privilege and procreation-free sexuality.

Finally:

What Joyce – and other feminist thinkers opposing the trans movement – are unable to confront is the relationship of this nonsense, on a deep level, to abortion.

Because of course, opposing transactivism is about continually bringing out the facts of material, biological reality and emphasizing the point that no matter what you think or desire – you are who you are. A castrated man with breast implants and an electrolysized face is still a man. Our opinions and desires don’t determine reality.

And nor do our opinions change the reality of a person’s race or ethnicity. Nor do our opinions change the reality of a person’s age. Nor do our opinions change the reality of the rights due to a human being, no matter what age, and no matter where they reside – outside the womb – or deep inside.

So there’s a certain amount of frantic flailing that runs, as an undercurrent, in the work of anti-transactivists. It’s almost as if they can’t understand how this is happening – when from another perspective, it’s very clear: in culture in which sexuality has become performative and preborn human beings are treated as diseased organs, well yes – it becomes quite possible to enshrine, in law, the notion that whatever you think you are – you just are.

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A lot of us know the feeling. We’ve had it since girlhood, and for many of us, it’s never gone away.

Not like other girls.

I wasn’t a so-called “tomboy” as a girl, and as I’ve written before, growing up in the 60’s-70’s – well, the so-called “gender divide” wasn’t actually that wide for kids. I just don’t recall a whole lot of pink or sparkly stuff in anyone’s childhood back then. As I’ve said before, my main memory is of brown-backgrounded plaids, turtlenecks, and bikes.

I was also raised an only child in an academic household. Not hippie liberal, but, at least at the beginning, solid Kennedy Democrats (who, like many, as time went on, transitioned into Reagan democrats and who know what they’d be now if they were alive, which they haven’t been, for a while.) who raised me mostly to be able to articulate my opinions and live a life of the mind. My mother would have termed herself an old-school feminist: think Amelia Earhart and Rosalind Russell. But, then, that’s a repeat.

But growing up, what’s also true is that when it came to feelings of “fitting in” – while I did have close female friends and a female bestie at every stage – in terms of groups – group talk, group thinking, group interests – I never did fit in with the girls. I was always more comfortable with the boys. I’ve thought a lot about this over the years, and I think much of it has to do with the ways girls are socialized, which perhaps reflects most girl’s instinctive interests. I don’t want to dive too deeply into this, but to consider, reflect on the traditional boys’ and girls’ toys – girls’ toys tend to be related to life in the home and boys’ toys tend to be related to life outside the home.

And so it was with conversation and the wisecracks that’s a part of pre-teen and teen life in school. I wasn’t interested in talking about boyfriends or clothes or makeup (not that that was much of a thing in the 70’s) or social life. But the boys? The boys I hung out with – most of us worked on the school newspaper, and that was our main hang-out time – talked politics and issues – probably not very intelligently, and no, this was no Agora and who knows what they talked about when I wasn’t around – it was probably disgusting – but honestly, it was all just so more interesting with the boys than it was with the girls. An argument, in a way, for single-sex schools, where no doubt, if I’d worked on the school newspaper, I would have been with like-minded young women who were deep into arguing about the ERA and Jimmy Carter, too.

And I had short hair!

Gee. Was I trans?

This is a big topic of conversation in gender critical circles. Women my age down to the mid-20’s musing how as girls we didn’t feel “like other girls” and never felt quite a part of intensive Girl World Life – maybe even excluded. For various reasons, of course. Some, like me just had no interest in what the girls in our lives were fixated on – others were “tomboys,” others athletic, others bullied by Mean Girls, and so on.

What would culture say about us today? What would we be pressured to feel and do?

Because, guess what? It wasn’t great. Yes, I did feel left out. Yes, I was resentful at times. Yes, I did wonder if there was something “off” about me as a female. I didn’t wish to be other than what I was, though. I was content with my interests. But still. In that context – small Catholic high school of mostly white Catholics in the South in the 70’s – I didn’t feel completely comfortable.

But did anyone? Does anyone who’s 15 feel at ease, comfortable and “themselves?”

It seems that of late, the most popular way of signaling I’m not like other girls is to declare oneself non-binary. Every day a new celebrity takes to Instagram to change pronouns. The latest, today, is Emma Corin, a British actress who plays Princess Diana in The Crown. (I don’t watch it, sorry.)

A couple of days ago, she posted an image of herself in a makeshift binder, but in the text, tags a company that makes binders – an account with almost 200K followers.

What’s a binder? It’s a wrap to compress breasts. To nothing, preferably.

“Designed with the true you in mind.”

It’s more than a bit ironic that Corin plays Diana, who lived her adult life in a subculture of high intensity and expectations, some of which was related to her sex. It’s almost a natural progression.

I saw this on Twitter the other day, and though it was apt:

Not like other girls.

So many of us have felt this. In the present moment, it’s a feeling that’s deepened and exacerbated by a culture in which the value of the individual is tied to appearance, and for females, the value of that appearance is linked to implied sexual interest and availability, and all of it – every bit of it – is woven through with pornography.

Who wouldn’t want to check out of that culture and what it demands and expects of females, especially young females?

Who wouldn’t want to say – no, not me. I’m not like that. Not like other girls. Let me the heck out.

Which is really, in this context, a cry from a sea filled with the drowning.

So, I will run with this internalized misogyny – for that’s what it is, full stop – to the nearest “gender-affirming” clinic that will suppress my estrogen, give me testosterone instead, I’ll research mastectomies and hysterectomies and set up a Go Fund Me for it all.

But even if I don’t want to go that far, I’ll still want the world to know that no, I’m not like other girls, so I will ….cut my hair (cut my hair? Really?) and then maybe I will wrap my breasts tightly – so tightly I’m at risk of hurting my lungs – and press, press, press down so that these things on my chest – these things that apparently stand between me and being treated as just – a person – will be gone. Just gone.

Do you want to have evidence of the failure of 2nd and 3rd wave feminism? This. That this – young women by the thousands in the West seeking to suppress and amputate the visible signs of their sex, and saying I’m not a “she” anymore …Just “they.” I’m “they” – not “she” – please not “she” – isn’t seen as the crisis that it is.

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I read two novels this week – in print! Thank you, libraries!

The first, Blackwood , by Michael Farris Smith, is a Southern Gothic type novel that didn’t quite work for me.  The central, driving tension did: how we cope with what we have done and what we have failed to do – and what has been done to us. Basically (and I’ll say it outright, since it’s the opening scene of the book) – a man, who, as a boy, witnessed his father’s last moments of life, a suicide. (But I’ll hold something back here, since its reveal is a good, jolting shock) – He spends his life wondering about his own role and bearing wounds of childhood trauma that even precedes his father’s death.

And I’ll say, that the way in which all of this circles around at the end is, indeed, grace-filled and redemptive, and even surprisingly so.

But the other part of the story is gothic, haunted, creepy, with kudzu as the metaphor and strange, damaged, damaging people doing strange deeds under the vines. Life is being choked out, the doings are hidden, and, it seems, nothing short of burning it all down will rid the world of the evil.

I mean, okay. And it was pretty readable, albeit sad, but the Gothic-ness was a little labored for me.

So let’s move on to Followers, which was more interesting, but flawed as well.

amy_welbornHere, we jump between time zones, so to speak: the recent past (2015/6) and the future (2051). In the recent past, we focus on Orla and Floss – one aspiring writer, stuck on a celebrity blog who believes she can and will do better and more, and the other an aspiring celebrity with all of the self-regard and conniving that aspiring celebrities generally have. And so, they join forces in order to reach those planets of fame and fortune.

In the future, we have Marlow, who has been raised in a place called Constellation, which is essentially a 24-hour Land of Social Media, where everyone’s lives are lived online, so to speak, in front of millions of followers.

Somewhere in between the two eras was a mysterious (for most of the book) disaster referred to as “The Spill” – which seemed to have wiped out the internet and the means of communication and information sharing that we know today, and the reaction to which scared everyone off the Internet,  which then allowed the government to step in and take control of it all. The Spill and the aftermath also made devices as we know them today, obsolete – replacing them with “Devices” that are implanted in the wrist and feed everything – thoughts, information, images – directly to the brain, confusing the individual as to what he or she is generating and what’s coming from outside.

Pretty complicated, but it mostly works, although I felt it was a bit long. Author Megan Angelo casts a healthy critical eye over the power of social media and the Internet, and what it does to us as individuals and the kind of culture it builds and supports.

Ellis thought so, too. “Hold on!” he said, waving his hands. “Save it, Mar. This is your authentic reaction to becoming a mother. You’ve gotta share it with your followers.” He opened the bathroom door and prodded her out, to where she could be seen. 

It’s about the hunger to influence, to matter in a big way, to feel important, and to do so by getting people interested in you or your narrative. I think the novel does a good job of exploring this in an imaginative way, skewering what highly merits being skewered, but there’s a missing piece. The focus is on characters who hunger for the influence –  but just as interesting to me is what makes that possible: the hunger to be influenced. What drives, not just those who want followers, but the followers themselves. That’s the other part of the dynamic and it could use some skewering, too.

But for the most part, Followers is a pretty entertaining, sharp look at the power of the Internet and social media, and how stupid it all is, and how, in the end, it distances us from the Real – as in this really quite beautiful and true passage:

Where could Marlow possibly be, besides, where she’d been told to go?

Here. Here, cutting through choppy, silt-filled water, away from all of them and closer to the truth. Marlow had been taught that being watched put food on the table, that there wasn’t a better way to live. But she had seen, on the sidewalks of New York, all the happy nobodies — people whose days weren’t built around lengthening the trail of attention spans floating behind them. They were paunchy and muttering and somehow more alive, and they made Marlow feel sorry for Floss and Ellis, with their endless performing, and Honey, with her army of dark-hearted disciples. They might have had all the followers, but they were never finished chasing.

Marlow was done being looked at. Now she was doing the looking, and finally seeing things differently. She found, in the sunrise, all the colors the pills had kept from her for years: a shade of orange she loved. A yellow that reminded her of when it was her favorite. A pink that might have been fine after all. She was hearing something, too, in the space her device used to fill: a brand-new voice inside her head, telling her to keep going. 

She leaned over the boat’s railing, into the spray, and listened to the voice. She was almost positive it sounded like herself. 

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The introvert is recovering from over a week of not-solitude. I’ll get there.

MondayLast week was spring break in these parts, and we stuck around. Our one adventure was a day trip to Cheaha State Park, chronicled here. It was fine. Older son worked, younger son got a lot of music in, we had some family visitors. Nothing wrong with staying home and not spending a lot of money.

We have a great deal of travel coming up – still trying to figure out the parameters of Spain in June – and of course, there’s next year Roadschooling, so yeah.

Anyway, to a digest.

Watching: Lots of basketball, of course. People around here are ecstatic about Auburn, but the Vol and Gator in this house keep their distance.

We did watch the film Inception – which I’d never seen. I hadn’t intended to watch it, either, partly because I don’t like Leo, but also because I was convinced that I would end up simply letting confusing images wash over me for two hours. But I ended up sitting there, anyway, and mostly understood it, but it also left me mostly indifferent to the characters’ fates – I mean…they were in mental spaces, right?  

It was mildly thought-provoking on the subject of the power of ideas, which was, I suppose, the intention. The youngest came into my room some time after the movie was over, puzzling over one aspect of it, and said, I just can’t stop thinking about it…

To which, of course, I had to respond…So..it’s like someone implanted it in your brain???

In this category, I suppose I’ll put the two minutes it took to watch the trailer to the new Mary Magdalene movie. Here it is.

Just FYI, this movie has been out for a year in other countries, so reviews are easy to find. Here’s one from the Australian Catholic Conference and here’s one from an independent Catholic website.

My take, just from the trailer? I’m up for Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus, but I’d also probably watch Joaquin Phoenix as  Queen Elizabeth, so take that into consideration. But of course, from the trailer and the reviews, the movie seems to get a zillion things wrong or weirdly interpreted. The effect of this seems to be, as it so often is, the ironic outcome of trying to be more contemporary, less traditional and straying from the narrative as we have it is a flattening of the story that buries the truly radical nature of both Jesus’ treatment of women and his message in general.

It’s an interesting take – Luke tells us that MM was possessed by seven demons (the number seven being, in part, symbolic of completeness). Jesus freed her from those demons and in response, she followed him – but not alone. In Luke 8, she’s described as being a part of a group of women who became disciples. The movie renders this “possession” as a social construct: MM doesn’t want to follow traditional female norms, so, of course, everyone thinks she’s crazy.

As I said – sticking with the Scriptures would seem to me to be far more compelling.

Hey! Here’s a book on Mary Magdalene!

Cooking: Since we didn’t travel for spring break, we traveled through area restaurants. I didn’t cook much, but the kitchen is seeing life again today.  For some reason, I keep thinking I’m out of celery when I go to the grocery store, but I never am, so one of the goals for today is Use All the Celery.

A thrilling prospect for my customers, I’m sure.

Reading: 

My son on some weird movie. 

It’s almost like there is a lesson, and that there is evil in the world that can’t be accommodated. Invite the evil in, treat it kindly, and it will still have no objective other than to destroy you. The only thing to do is to prevent evil from coming into your house.

Over the weekend, I read the novel Talk to Me by John Kenney. Why this? The usual – I was in the “new books” section of the library, read the description and the blurbs, and felt it might be worth a look. It was – a very quick read that I finished in the space of twenty-four hours and enjoyed quite a bit.

The plot: A nationally-known and beloved television news anchorman is recorded doing something bad just before a broadcast. Nothing sexual, just – very abusive and hurtful. Of course, it goes viral, and the book is about contemporary internet culture and society through the prism of that fallout. It’s complicated and enriched by family matters – the anchor’s adult daughter works for a Buzzfeed – type outfit and has her own deep issues with her father. If the plot only existed on the level of viral video, memes and comments sections, we wouldn’t have much here. But the family and relational elements give it a necessary and even moving depth and raise questions quite fundamental to this whole wretched scene – as in: why can’t we just live in privacy and peace….well…why don’t we live like this? Why do we choose to subject ourselves to the online life and how does it change us?

The book is easy and amusing and, as I said, even moving at points. What interested me, as it would, is that ONCE AGAIN, a fictional protagonist accesses hints of a way forward in this terrible situation via the sounds, symbols and just simple existence of Catholic things. It’s not ham-handed or painfully direct, but it’s definitely there. His thoughts about seeking forgiveness coalesce as he stumbles into a church, and then a sense of his unity with struggling, weak humanity comes to him as he’s walking around the city, observing people…with Gregorian chant playing in his earbuds.

Trust it. Trust that faith we’ve been given, try to live it and let it live in the world. People are looking for it.

Writing: 

Back to work. I have Living Faith stuff due this week. 

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EPSON MFP image

Hey there – thanks for the good comments. Let’s all gather round in our earth-tone plaids and do Spirograph and eat Burger Chef, shall we?

In a gender-neutral kind of way?

****

You can probably tell where I’m going, but it’s going to take me a couple more days, simply because there are a few stages I have to work through to get to the point at which I can effectively articulate what is, quite frankly, something close to rage.

****

If we’re going to think about sex and gender, I suppose we should talk about them. About men and women.

Remember one of the motivations here: Genesis 1-2, forming the first readings this week at Mass. 

I hope this post won’t be as windy as the last one.

So, here we go:

I’ve been married twice, have four sons and a daughter and have taught hundreds of adolescents, male and female, have a mother and a father, have many friends and acquaintances of both sexes, and here’s what I think the differences between men and women are:

Women are always cold.

That’s really it. I can’t pin it down any more than that.

Because in every classroom, every office situation and in my home, that’s the crucial, unmoving divide: the guys always want the air conditioning turned way, way down, and the ladies are always freezing. (Including me.)

Just last evening, I went to the Piggly-Wiggly. Called “The Pig” in these parts. I walked down one aisle, and there was a woman about ten feet ahead of me. Another woman was headed our way in the opposite direction. As she passed the first woman, they exchanged words, and the subject was clear. One of them responded to the other saying something like “So cold.” And, joined with them and to the cycles of the moon, probably, I immediately glommed onto the meaning and added my two cents, “Always. Coldest store in town.” And we all smirked in agreement.

And beyond that – I got nothing.

It’s a joke, yes, but it’s not. Because this is what I know: Men and women are certainly different. Clearly, obviously. But to delineate those differences and try to figure out how?

Go for it. Good luck.

And really, I’m okay with that. I’ve read extensively, thought about it, lived it, and concluded – the mystery is okay.

We can – and do- say various things about these differences. We say that women are more emotionally attuned and nurturing, that men are able to distance themselves from emotions, etc. Women listen, men state things, want to fix things, and on and on and on.

Perhaps – maybe –  most of that is true for most men and women, but you know what? The other truth is that whenever you try to abstract from that or categorize actual human beings according to those traits you immediately run into exceptions and outliers.

And since books have been written about the subject, I’m certainly not going to attempt to summarize hundreds of years of thinking on it in a blog post.  So I’ll try to be brief about the particular angles on this that will pertain to my bigger point – coming in a day or two.

  • Male and female persons are different.
  • Why is this? Nature? Nurture? Socialization? Well, like everything about human life, the best we can say is: both.
  • Sex and gender are different things. Every human being is either male or female. That’s our sex. The way we live that out – the dispositions and expressions associated with that are gender. What we refer to, in part, in our binary way as feminine and masculine traits or expressions. Gender, rooted in sex, is certainly culturally and socially reinforced and conditioned.

There is, of course, no lack of discussion and teaching on this score in Catholic tradition. But here’s the funny thing.

Catholic reflection and teaching on sex and gender affirms difference. It has a very developed understanding of the relationship of body/soul/sex (more on that tomorrow). Catholic reflection on human anthropology also affirms what Genesis implies: some sort of male-female complementarity.

But what – aside from sex – defines or describes “man” or “woman” – what is “masculinity” or “femininity?” 

Contrary to what you might assume, Catholic tradition doesn’t dogmatically decree on the matter. Certainly Catholic thinkers and theologians with great authority have explored the matter and Catholic institutions and traditions have expressed various perspectives, usually managing to both reflect and challenge the social structures in which the Church is existing in that particular culture.

But for the most part, when it comes to the core of Catholic teaching, the mystery is allowed to be a mystery.

Looking at the Catholic landscape of the past few decades, you might not know that. Pope John Paul II wrote quite a bit about sexuality and the family, and many have found his teaching helpful – and it’s become the center of formation efforts and movements. John Paul II did reflect on male and female identity, elevating the idea of complentarianism and specifically the “feminine genius.”

His apostolic letter on women would be a place to explore this and, in a shorter form, his 1995 “Letter to Women.” 

His thinking has been quite influential. What does John Paul II suggest the “feminine genius” is about? Basically, a stance of receptivity, acceptance, sensitivity and generosity. You can read all about it in the links above. Maybe you’re really into it and you can teach the rest of us about it.

For my part…I’m just not a fan. Again, if it helps you, great. I’m just way too attuned to the outliers of any abstraction or generalization to climb completely on board. I also experience extended, anxious, deeply-felt attempts to assure me of my full humanity as, in the end, condescending.

Are we again, back to the personal context? Perhaps. Perhaps being raised in a family by an  emotionally distant mother and a warm, friendly approachable dad has given me a healthy hermeneutic of suspicion when it comes to generalizations about “femininity” and “masculinity.”

As, perhaps, did my own childhood and adolescence of feeling not quite attuned to girls as a group. I certainly had female friends – some of my best friends were girls!  – but you know what? When it came to high school, I was always the girl who drifted towards sitting with the smart, issue-minded boys, because none of the girls in my (admittedly small) class had any interest in issues outside of school or their social circle or personal concerns.

When I was a freshman in college, I, as many good Catholic girls did and do, consider religious life. I was guided towards an order that, I was assured, was “the female Jesuits.”  I visited a convent in Washington – this would have been 1979. There were a few aspects of the short visit that revealed to me that perhaps this was not my vocation, but the most vivid emotion I experienced, sitting there at lunch with these very nice women was a reality, descending like a bolt: If I join, that means the rest of my life  and my identity will be centered on a group of…women. 

The idea of that – the prospect of it, was, not to put it too strongly, almost repellent to me.

(Which is pretty much the opposite reaction my daughter had in college when she joined a sorority. It struck me as a bizarre, out-of-character choice, but I finally understood it when – this young woman, the only sister in a family with four brothers – posted on Facebook after she was accepted: At last! I have sisters! )

But did any of this ever make me question my femaleness? Nope.

The Catholic world has met contemporary gender questions and turmoil with its own set of movements and gathering spaces, where feminine and masculine virtues are celebrated and reinforced. Fantastic. One of my own sons has benefited greatly from one of these groups, and I’m deeply grateful.

But to recognize the risks with all that. There’s no Catholic doctrine or dogmatic teaching anywhere that insists on a particular set of “feminine” or “masculine” virtues or even characteristics. Yes, dive into JPII’s Theology of the Body and extrapolate from that and find benefit in it, but – deep breath – the insights of the TOB on this score are not dogmatic. They are rooted in dogmatic truth – the creation of man and woman as male and female by God’s will and the role of the family in the created order – but the notion that “femininity = innate receptivity,” for example,  while helpful, is not anything that anyone is required center their thinking on  – about women in general or themselves in particular.

So, if you are a woman who looks at the current feminine-genius-you’re-beautiful-every-woman-is-a-mother-in-some-way-love-Jesus-love-makeup-too landscape and thinks….not me. 

You’re fine.

We’re fine. 

And we’re still women.

Dig back into Dorothy Day, Teresa of Avila, Hildegard, Flannery, and all the other quirky Catholic women and feel right at home again.

We have to be so, so careful, in our determination to fight what’s wrong in the culture and celebrate the truth of the beauty of the human person, male and female, to not communicate a whole other set of expectations and assumptions that might, indeed, have some foundation in authentic Catholic thinking, but aren’t actually normative for every single person.

“The Real Catholic Woman” can be a mother of ten or none. She can be really interested in fashion or absolutely, totally indifferent to it. She can be hoping for a spouse or she can be fully content without one. “The Real Catholic Woman” can find “beauty” a helpful personal and spiritual concept – or not. “The Real Catholic Woman” can be ambitious and entrepreneurial or she can live more quietly, oriented to serving those around her in simple, ordinary ways.   “The Real Catholic Woman” can find deep connection and nourishment from being with other women – or she can find that from hanging out with the guys, or professional colleagues or in her garden or heck, with her cats. I guess. “The Real Catholic Woman” can be deeply into Church-y things – or she can hit Mass once a week, say her prayers and do her best in life.

***

Now you know what?

I’m going to swing right around again. I’m going to come full circle to the beginning of this post, and hopefully not into total incoherence.

Sex is binary.

Sex differences are real.

Gender is real and the result of both nature and nurture. Masculinity and femininity are complementary. I do think that there are qualities more associated with men than women, and vice versa. Defining them too specifically, however, is a minefield, fraught with exceptions and the risk of unjust judgment.

And finally –  the only – the only – logical and authentic way to understand gender is rooted in the roles of male and female in reproduction. It remains a deep mystery (see above), but any other foundation is arbitrary and ultimately oppressive and destructive.

So what’s our conclusion?

When you separate sexuality from procreation, you do, indeed, lose your definitions. 

When you sterilize a culture, gender does, indeed become a game of appearances and affectations.

Incoherence? Mystery? It all, as usual, depends on where you start.

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Welp, so much for the “week” thing. Also, apologies for those who either read the unfinished post earlier after I accidentally scheduled it, or came here looking for it. Here it is. 

I’m going to talk about gender this week. Probably not every day. Because every time I do that I end up either getting caught up in something else and breaking my promise or…keeping my promise and letting it take over my life.

So why this week?

Well, these are notions and thoughts that have been peculating for a while. As is the case with almost everything these days, there’s just so much – it’s paralyzing for those who want to write or talk about such things. You think you get a grasp on one aspect of it, you settle on an angle – and thirty minutes later, some other news story or perspective pops up and blows it all to hell. Again.

But as I looked at the Mass readings for this week, I was struck by the fact that this week – this fifth week of Ordinary Time – we’re starting, with our first readings, with Genesis 1.

(And Mark 7 in the Gospels.)

So, it seemed to fit.

But don’t come here looking for restatements of takes you’ve read elsewhere. I have my idiosyncratic way into these issues. You won’t find hardcore social analysis here.

For sure you’re not going to read rhapsodic celebrations of complementary natures or the feminine genius. If that’s your thing, go for it. It’s just not my thing – it’s not the way I think or experience being a person.

I’m puzzling through some things and trying to say some things out loud that I’m not hearing many other people say.

So we’ll begin, as one does, with the personal angle.

Where I’m coming from. 

I want to talk about gender (and sexuality) because it’s an issue that’s fracturing our culture and fracturing social and political movements – which is rather entertaining to watch. My reasons have nothing to do with any sort of personal, passionate interest in gender issues or investment or attachment to a cause.

Briefly:

I’m 58, going to be 59 this summer. That means I was born in 1960 and grew to adulthood in the 1960’s and 70’s. I’m an only child of academically-minded parents. My mother almost got a M.S. in Library Science and my dad was a Ph.D. in political science. I grew up in college towns from Bloomington to Lubbock to DeKalb to Lawrence to Knoxville. Small families on both sides, mostly educators and business people on both sides, male and female, father’s side southern minimally-practicing Methodists, mother’s side French-Canadian Catholics, mother specifically very sour on post-Conciliar Catholicism by the early 70’s, stopped going to Mass. Highly intelligent parents, politically and socially middle-of-the-road, constant conversations about issues in the home, exposure to the life of the mind, etc. , etc…..

Why is that relevant?

I think because, as I reflect on how I think of myself as “a woman” that background might go some distance in explaining why I have a hard time doing just that –  thinking of myself in terms of  “a woman” who’s part of this group called “women” that is supposed to have particular interests and characteristics. Or at least – defining myself primarily in terms of “womanhood.”

I just…can’t.  I don’t even know what that means, really. I’ve never had any driving desire to attach myself to other “women” in women’s groups because we’re women and that’s what women do. I suppose in part it’s because I’m not a joiner, period, but I do sometimes wonder if it’s because I was raised in this household where a) I didn’t have a brother for comparison – either by my parents or myself, and so my existence wasn’t delineated against any male family member peer and b) the expectations my parents had for me and their sense of who I was had nothing to do with being female – it was all about learning and ideas and accomplishment (to some degree) and living a decent life as a person in a family and in society. No one ever talked much about being female or male or what that meant or what was right or appropriate. I was just a person.

I went to a small Catholic high school in the South in the 70’s, so consciousness-raising was really not on the menu. I mean – no one cared. When I got to college – in 1978 – at UT, I did venture to the Woman’s Center. I was a politically minded person, but I’m really not sure what I thought I was going to find or why I was going – I do know that one of the musicians in the folk group at the Catholic student center was a part of it. Perhaps she invited me? Well, for whatever reason, I went to some meeting, and heard, right away, a focus on abortion. It was the center of the conversation. So I stepped away and didn’t return.

Later on, I did get involved in the national organization Feminists for Life – at a pre-internet era when involvement in national groups was a lot more challenging than it is now. But I did, and knew all of the leadership at the time and their writings and the writings they promoted were very important to me.

Every few years, it seems, people rediscover the possibility of progressive/liberal prolife views – it’s good that it gets rediscovered, but also puzzling to me how short our attention spans are now. Every time someone raises a proverbial fist on Instagram and proclaims in wonderment, “Yo! I’m pro-life and – ” wait for it, you’ll be shocked and amazed – “a feminist!” – aren’t you amazed? I just feel old and grumpy. More so than usual.

Okay, let’s look at that word: feminist. It’s not a big deal to me. You want to call yourself a feminist? Sure. You want to avoid the term? Sure. I don’t care. You want to write for pages or talk for hours about why you do or don’t call yourself a feminist? Then I’ll probably find something else to do.

Once, probably in the early to mid-70’s, my mother, who was born in 1924, went on a rant about feminism. She said something like, “Sure, I’m a feminist. I’m an old-school Amelia Earhart, Rosalind Russel, Katharine Hepburn feminist. We all were.”

 

 

EPSON MFP image

 

And if there were any late 20th century feminists who had any role in my intellectual formation it was first, Germaine Greer, and later, Camille Paglia – although Paglia is not as serious a thinker as Greer. Reading The Female Eunuch and Sex and Destiny blew my mind in my late 20’s and early 30’s. That as well as pro-life feminism, and various feminist critiques of developing reproductive technologies – critiques which were standard and pervasive – provided the framework for any most of my political and social framing of women’s issues.

So that’s the essence of my growing-up-as-a-female: Raised playing in neighborhoods with boys and girls, mostly outside, reading whatever I felt like reading, all of us wearing shorts and t-shirts and jeans and tennis shoes, my toys a jumble of Barbies, games, a dollhouse, contraptions like Spirographs and this Fun Flower Thingmaker, a firetruck, a dump truck and lots of Matchbox cars. Expectations? Mostly that I’d be a professional of some sort, probably an academic. And that I’d try to live a good life.  I wasn’t raised in a household that articulated or even assumed any particular female-identified choices or behavior.

Was that strange or unusual? I honestly don’t think so. The girls and women I grew up with – we didn’t feel any particular need to assert any roles that we felt denied.

Nor – and this is my focus right now – did we feel any pressure to dress or comport ourselves in a “feminine” kind of way.

Perhaps others have different experiences. No doubt they have. But that’s just mine.

Discrimination, exploitation and worse exists and always has. The powerful use and repress the less-powerful, and this happens in a web of racial, sexual, socio-economic and cultural identities. Ask any woman or minority group member trying, say, to work in predominantly white male environments in the past or in the present. It’s real. The harsh, contemptuous, lurid male gaze cast upon women is real, something most young women can tell you about in distressing detail.

But what this rambling post is about is not that. It’s not about workplace discrimination or social exploitation. I’ll get to that in a couple of days.

No, what this is about is simply setting the stage for my …confusion and puzzlement about how we got from there to here, particularly in regard to gender “roles” as expressed culturally and socially.

Quite often those kinds of questions are posed by older folks looking back and wondering how a seemingly more restrained past became so loose. My observation takes me in the opposite direction.

And really – honestly – I’m angry.

I reflect back on the 60’s and 70’s and I see a casual, relaxed landscape in which kids and young people are exploring and figuring things out,  and it seems, everyone is wearing earth-toned plaids.

And at some point – I don’t know when – the pink and blue shelves sprung up. Sprung up, exploded and closed us in.

You know what I mean, right? How you go into a toy store or even the toy section of a department store, and you can tell the “girl toys” from the “boy toys” simply by color? The girl section is all – all – pink and the boy section is, if not baby blue, dark blue and black?

For contrast, take a look at vintage Christmas catalogs – here’s a great collection that will definitely take you down some rabbit trails. I looked at a few from the 50’s and 60’s and the FAO Schwarz 1967 catalog.

Yes, toys are, to some extent “gendered.” But perhaps partly because they catalogs aren’t in full color cover to cover and employ fewer human models, you don’t have your oppressively pink-and-blue division. In fact most of the toys and games are just that – toys and games for kids. There’s an acknowledgment of realities – no matter their source in nature or nurture  – that more girls than boys like dolls and household-related toys while more boys than girls lean to toys that echo life outside the home. But it doesn’t strike me – nor did it growing up in it – as oppressive or restrictive. As I said – I had a lot of cars and trucks and science kits and yeah, I think I had a cowboy gun and holster

Even the kids’s clothes are – yes, obviously made for female and male tastes – are for the most part, simple and straightforward. And, yeah, plaid. Not super gendered either in the direction of Girl Power or Tough Guy!

Oh look, – here we go. No more words necessary. I was probably four years old here and look what I got for Christmas: a fire truck. A baby doll carriage. And a freaking punching ball. 

EPSON MFP image

 

Chaser – 3rd birthday. Look at my big present.

EPSON MFP image

And guys, this wasn’t a political statement. This was 1963, pre-second-wave feminism, which my family didn’t get into anyway, despite being academics. My parents were, at the time, good Kennedy Democrats, and this was the Durant, Oklahoma home of my conservative Southern Methodist grandparents. It was just not a big deal. 

****

As I said, this is an intro.

My typical, discursive, wandering intro to get my brain to a more focused place.

And that place is, quite simply, wondering how we – to use a common phrase – transitioned  – from:

…a landscape in which expressions of “gender” were downplayed or even discouraged as stereotypical and limiting

to..

..a landscape in which “feminine” and “masculine” stereotypical preferences and expressions have become pathologized.

Where little girls who like short hair and to play outside in the mud or tween girls who are uncomfortable with their changing bodies are being told that this is clearly a sign that they aren’t a “real girl” and then shot through with puberty blockers and given mastectomies and then boys who don’t like sports and present effeminately are being told they are obviously really girls– because, you know…

you can always tell a girl by how much she likes girly things.  

OHLT

****

Come back for more.

I’m already thinking it’s the Reformation’s fault.

But you predicted that, didn’t you?

 

 

 

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amy_welbornWell, good morning. I’m going to have a couple of other posts up this morning, so this truly will be a digest without rabbit trails. I’ll force the rabbit trails onto the other posts.

Let’s start with:

Writing: I put the finishing touches on a longish short story called The Absence of War that I’ve posted for sale as an Amazon Kindle ebook – it clocks in at 7000 words or so, so you might get your .99 worth! 

Steve McEvoy has kindly reviewed it here. Go to Steve’s site and enjoy his many many reviews of books. It’s an invaluable site.

What touched me most, and to be honest will have a lasting impact is the sense of other. Or to be more specific the recognition of other, not our impression, and kindle covermemories, but a true encounter. It is not said, but what it reminds me of is the passage ‘Lord open my eyes to see.’. And that is what the story has done, helped me to see differently. 

An excellent story. More than worth the price and time to read. And I can only hope that Mrs. Welborn decides to share more of her fiction with us, If it is as good as this it will be a treat indeed!

Thanks, Steve!

(Steve has also reviewed my son’s short story collections and novel here.)

Over the next week, I’m probably going to put up a novel I wrote a few years back. I’ve gone back and forth about what to do with this book. I actually had an agent agree to represent it and she worked hard to sell it, but obviously without success. But why not just self-published and get it, too, out of my brain and into yours?

I’m also working on another short story. And I have a project due in early January that I finished a solid first draft of mid-summer that it’s time to pick up and revise- that’s what I told myself I’d spend December doing, and wow…it’s almost here.

Reading:  Besides post-election and USCCB stuff, mostly J.F. Powers short fiction, and re-reading for the fifth time or so David Lodge’s Souls and Bodies. Read all the bloggers you want, if you really want to even begin to understand the Church (in the U.S. and England at least…) over the past fifty or sixty years and didn’t live through it yourself, these two are really the way to go.

(Along with Frank Sheed’s The Church and I.)

Oh, also reading TripAdvisor forums on a destination to which we’re traveling this weekend. It will just be for the weekend, and we’ll be in town most of Thanksgiving break, but I’m taking advantage of new direct fares from a discount airline to a place we’ve never been – it will be a quick trip, but, since it will be new to all of us and cheap, hopefully worth the time and money spent! Check out Instagram this weekend for the updates on that. 

Watching: Almost halfway through the last season of Breaking Bad with the guys. Not anything besides that for me.

Listening: Since last we spoke, the daily watch/listening of We are the World has continued apace for some reason, along with other random 70’s and 80’s music videos.

I listened to my son play his Beethoven at his recital – Instagram selection here – and listen to practice organ at various churches around town (we’re up to three different practice venues now – 2 Catholic and 1 Methodist) and to him play with his jazz assignments on his keyboard.

Kind of boring, but it’s 7:21 and so thanks for participating in my early-morning writing exercises….

 

 

 

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— 1 —

It’s the Feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran.

Here’s my now-17 year old on the steps back in 2006.

I have a few memories of this Basilica:

  • Our first visit, back in 2006, the stop at St. John Lateran was part of a day led for us by then-seminarian and anonymous blogger Zadok. Remember at the time, my now-almost-13-year old was a bit over a year and was being transported everywhere one someone’s back. We traded him off.  It was a great day, but exhausting as we walked and walked – and if you have been to Rome, you know that the walk between St. John Lateran and St. Mary Major is uphill…way…uphill.
  • I have often referred to the enormous statuary inside St. John Lateran, in which each of the apostles are represented, as is traditional, with the instruments of their martyrdom, St. Bartholomew depicted holding his own skin, as he is traditionaly remembered as having been flayed.
  • As interesting as the church itself is the baptistry, which is enormous.
  • We were in Rome right around Ash Wednesday, and the day we were at St. John Lateran was a Sunday, so the plaza around the church – the area around the obelisk (the oldest  Egyptian obelisk in Rome) – was filled with children dressed in costumes playing games at booths and so on – the Bishop of Rome’s church just like any other parish church during this carnevale
  • We ended up at St. Mary Major during Vespers, and there in a side chapel was Cardinal Law.
  • Back in 2012, the boys and I returned to Rome – in late November as a matter of fact.  My main memory from that trip’s visit to St. John Lateran was a rather aggressive beggar inside the church who was approaching visitors and berating them when they didn’t give – he ended up being driven out rather forcefully by security.

— 2 —

From 2008, Pope Benedict XVI:

The beauty and the harmony of churches, destined to render praise to God, invites us human beings too, though limited and sinful, to convert ourselves to form a “cosmos”, a well-ordered construction, in close communion with Jesus, who is the true Holy of Holies. This reaches its culmination in the Eucharistic liturgy, in which the “ecclesia” that is, the community of baptized finds itself again united to listen to the Word of God and nourish itself on the Body and Blood of Christ. Gathered around this twofold table, the Church of living stones builds herself up in truth and in love and is moulded interiorly by the Holy Spirit, transforming herself into what she receives, conforming herself ever more to her Lord Jesus Christ. She herself, if she lives in sincere and fraternal unity, thus becomes a spiritual sacrifice pleasing to God.

Dear friends, today’s feast celebrates an ever current mystery: that God desires to build himself a spiritual temple in the world, a community that adores him in spirit and truth (cf. Jn 4: 23-24). But this occasion reminds us also of the importance of the concrete buildings in which the community gathers together to celebrate God’s praises. Every community therefore has the duty to carefully guard their holy structures, which constitute a precious religious and historical patrimony. For this we invoke the intercession of Mary Most Holy, so that she might help us to become, like her, a “house of God”, living temple of his love.

— 3 —

Tomorrow is feastday of St. Leo the Great.  Here’s a good introduction to this pope from Mike Aquilina.

The Tome of Leo on the nature of Christ.

He’s in The Loyola Catholic Book of Saintsunder “Saints are People who are Strong Leaders.”

amy-welborn2

— 4 —

From the Catholic Herald – “A visit that confirmed all my prejudices about England’s protestant revolution:”

Norfolk, I discovered, is full of suppressed Catholicism; every field seems to contain a ruined abbey, every house a priest hole. The most impressive hideout is in Oxburgh Hall, home to the recusant Bedingfields. It’s an assault course: you have to lower yourself down a trapdoor right onto your bottom, slide along the floor beneath a sunken wall and then pull yourself up the other side into a tiny cell with a wooden bench.

Coming out again, backwards, is even harder. How many arthritic clerics went down that hole and never returned? As I squeezed myself into the cell, I imagined finding there a couple of priests from the 1500s, covered in cobwebs, drinking tea. “Is the Reformation over yet?” they ask.

Sometimes it amazes me that English Catholics don’t get angrier about all of this: the desecration of the faith was appalling. What remains of Castle Acre Priory gives visitors an impression of what was lost. A giant Norman religious establishment that housed perhaps 30 Cluniac monks, its enormous west front still stands in tall weeds, almost intact, and the foundational outline of the rest is clear enough that you can trace the nighttime run from dormitory to latrine.

— 5 —

From Crisis: “Recognition for a Much-Neglected English Catholic Artist:”

Dilworth maintains David Jones was a British original: sui generis. Perhaps that is why Jones is also neglected today. Even those interested in English poetry of the twentieth century will have rarely read his work—at best a cult figure for a few. And yet Dilworth argues that Jones’s place is with the greatest literary exponents of the modern era—Joyce, Eliot and Pound. Dilworth concludes his biography claiming that Jones “may be the foremost British [literary] modernist” and that his “creative life is probably the greatest existential achievement of international modernism.” These claims are especially interesting given Jones’s heartfelt and overt Catholicism, a trait clearly evident throughout his work, and, thanks to this biography, no doubt one that will be investigated further in the years to come.

— 6 —

If you do Twitter, check out the account and the hashtag: Before Sharia Spoiled Everything. 

— 7 —

And well…this is actually happening:

 It appears that there will be a Breaking Bad movie, but it is unclear what role that the one who knocks will have in it, according to the man himself.

Bryan Cranston, who claimed four Emmys for his performance as chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-lord Walter White in AMC’s critically worshipped drama, has confirmed that a Breaking Bad movie is happening, though he revealed that even he was in the dark about the details.

“Yes, there appears to be a movie version of Breaking Bad, but honestly I have not even read the script,” Cranston told Dan Patrick on The Dan Patrick Show. “I have not gotten the script, I have not read the script. And so, there’s the question of whether or not we’ll even see Walter White in this movie. Ohhhhh! Think about that one.”

I trust Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould to do right by this. There is no way they’d tackle it if they didn’t have a clear vision.  People had doubts about a BB spin-off, but Better Call Saul is quite a different show from Breaking Bad and just as good, in its own way (and some say – even better.)

I say….

Gus-Fring-Wants-You-To-Do-It-On-Breaking-Bad

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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Sorry for the initial mis-dating. I started this yesterday…

Good morning. Of course lots has happened since we last met, all of which I spent much time following and thinking about, but for today I’ll stick mostly to my formula in this digest. Maybe another post in a bit on something else.

Watching: As I do every two years, I watched some cable news on election night. You Thursdayknow, when you only see a group of people once every 700 days or so, you can really track the aging process and note how everyone just gets….older and fatter. Except Wolf Blitzer, who hasn’t changed in decades. And Laura Ingraham? What is the deal there? If I had the sound turned off, I would have thought, Huh, another cable news blonde. I didn’t  recognized her at all until she started speaking. What has she had done with her face? I spent the whole time she was on camera, every time, trying to figure it out  – lips? Eyes? General facelift? We’re almost the same age…uh…amazing.

Listening: The Edith Wharton episode of In Our Time. An interesting discussion in which the fraught and shifting views on Wharton as a female writer – feminist or no? – were fairly covered.

The thread that was introduced but not really tied up, though, involved an aspect of her background I’d not known about. She was tutor and self-educated (coming from a wealthy family) and when asked about her reading, one of the panelists emphasized the importance of the works of evolutionists from Spencer to Darwin and others. A few minutes later, as they discussed her predominant themes, they sketched a picture of a changing world, yes, but also a deeply hierarchical world in which the “lower” classes and non-Europeans were given scant attention and that, mostly dismissive. That is to say – a world very reflective of social Darwinism, although no one ever explicitly made that link.

Someone dropped a comment during the discussion about Catholicism, though, that sent me on a rabbit trail, which transitions us to….

Reading:  Aside from the very hot stream of  Super Hot Takes on the election, a close read of the great J. F. Powers story, “The Lord’s Day” – this was about all I managed:

So, as I mentioned, one of the In Our Time scholars mentioned that the Church had condemned or at least criticized Wharton’s work. The impression I got from the discussion was that any Church criticism must have had to do with sexually-scandalous material.

Well, the rabbit trails indicated that was only partly so.

The main critique is related to a poem Wharton wrote on Margaret of Cortona. You can read it here, along with an accompanying Howard Pyle illustration.

Reminder: Margaret of Cortona lived with a man outside of wedlock for nine years and bore him a child. The man was murdered, and upon discovering his body, she converted to a life of penance and charity, eventually becoming a Franciscan tertiary.

In Wharton’s poem, published in Harper’s Monthly in 1901, we meet Margaret on her deathbed, confessing to a friar – is it her son? I don’t know.

The gist of the poem, and what got Catholic readers up in arms,  is that Margaret is torn between her love of Christ and her love of her dead lover – and perhaps even not so torn, since she makes it clear that what she had found with the earthly lover seemed pretty close to heaven. Here on her deathbed, she has prayed and prayed, but has been met with silence, while she knows that if her lover were alive, at least he would respond to her.

I have lain here, these many empty days
I thought to pack with Credos and Hail Marys
So close that not a fear should force the door –
But still, between the blessed syllables
That taper up like blazing angel heads,
Praise over praise, to the Unutterable,
Strange questions clutch me, thrusting fiery arms,
As though, athwart the close-meshed litanies,
My dead should pluck at me from hell, with eyes
Alive in their obliterated faces!…
I have tried the saints’ names and our blessed Mother’s
Fra Paolo, I have tried them o’er and o’er,
And like a blade bent backward at first thrust
They yield and fail me—and the questions stay.
And so I thought, into some human heart,
Pure, and yet foot-worn with the tread of sin,
If only I might creep for sanctuary,
It might be that those eyes would let me rest…

You can see how this would make people unhappy. From an article on “The Catholic in Fiction” from a secular journal called The Reader:

It is incredible that a writer of Mrs. Wharton’s refinement and ability should have taken a canonized saint as the subject on which to exercise such an unseemly flight of fancy….Mrs. Wharton makes this holy woman, after years of repentance, avow on her death-bed a preference for her lover’s caresses and the comfort his impassioned ardor, to the divine love of the crucified Lord whom she had so diligently served for years. Mrs. Wharton is entitled to no consideration for this affront, unless on the ignoble ground of ignorance.

Of course, I understand this objection, but I did read the poem from a slightly different angle as well.  The contrast between Christ and the earthly lover is certainly the major theme – in which Christ comes out less favorably – but there’s also, it seems, some grappling with an irony of the spiritual life which must strike any thinking person: you might even call it the irony of conversion. She’s asking: if I hadn’t been living a sinful life, would I have met Christ?

As well as, in a general way, the questions all of us have about the direction our life has taken as we look back on it:

 

Ah, that black night he left me, that dead dawn 
I found him lying in the woods, alive 
To gasp my name out and his life-blood with it, 
As though the murderer’s knife had probed for me 
In his hacked breast and found me in each wound… 
Well, it was there Christ came to me, you know, 
And led me home—just as that other led me. 
(Just as that other? Father, bear with me!) 
My lover’s death, they tell me, saved my soul, 
And I have lived to be a light to men. 
And gather sinners to the knees of grace. 
All this, you say, the Bishop’s signet covers. 
But stay! Suppose my lover had not died? 
(At last my question! Father, help me face it.) 
I say: Suppose my lover had not died – 
Think you I ever would have left him living, 
Even to be Christ’s blessed Margaret? 
– We lived in sin? Why, to the sin I died to 
That other was as Paradise, when God 
Walks there at eventide, the air pure gold, 
And angels treading all the grass to flowers! 
He was my Christ—he led me out of hell – 
He died to save me (so your casuists say!) – 
Could Christ do more? Your Christ out-pity mine? 

No, the poem is not anything great, and I certainly understand the reaction against it, but still. There’s a glimmer of truth in there.

I just spent a lot of time on that, but, of course, it wasn’t my intention when I began writing this to go as much into the poem as into the reaction to her novel The Valley of Decision. This was Wharton’s first published novel: a historical novel of 18th century Italy that, it seems from plot summaries, positions free-thinkers against Church and tradition, etc. I have zero interest in reading it, but when I searched for “Edith Wharton” and Catholic Church condemned – this was, besides from the poem, what popped up.

So initially I thought, “Oh the early 20th century American church criticized this content for sexual-related content it deemed immoral, obviously.” But..maybe not?

What I found was, of course, no “official” condemnation, but a strong critique published in Catholic World, which, in turn, reprints a critique from the Chicago Chronicle.

And what’s the basis of the critique?

The answer will surprise you!

The focus is the treatment of the primary female character, Fulvia, and specifically the role of education in her life. The critique takes on Wharton for, the author claims, indicating that higher education corrupts a woman’s character.  I’m going to reproduce this section at length, because I want you to participate in one of my favorite activities: Dispel myths about the past.

In this case, the myths are: No one believed that women should be educated before 1970 or so. In particular, the Catholic Church was opposed to women’s intellectual development.

Not to mention that this contemporary critique adds to the discussion about Wharton. It may or may not be an accurate read of her character, but the fact is that in this case, her narrative was received as anti-woman’s education and moralistic. Interesting.

The severest blow dealt against the higher education of women has been delivered by one of themselves, the author of The Valley of Decision, a somewhat tedious two-volume novel of the spurious “historical” variety.

It has been claimed by the opponents of equal education for men and women that whatever the intellectual results of the attempt, the moral result would be injurious to the family and society. It has been specifically urged that the tendency of the higher education would be to draw women more and more toward the laxer social standards of men, and to make women impatient of those restraints which until now have constituted the bulwarks of the home.

The Valley of Decision supports this theory. The heroine around whom the sympathy of the story is concentrated enjoys from early youth the advantages which other women, at least in the United States, must acquire, if at all, by long years of labor through primary and secondary schools into colleges and universities. A name of evil omen, whether in Roman history or in Ben Jonson’s “Catiline,” Fulvia starts the heroine out on a path of aspiration, independence, erudition, and ruin.

Her learning fails to develop moral or spiritual growth. In full womanhood, having had abundant experience enabling her to see the evils of society in the fullest glare of their malignity, Fulvia voluntarily accepts an unlawful and immoral social status from which all right-minded women instinctively recoil. She becomes the willing victim of a profligate weakling on a petty ducal throne, and feels neither shame nor remorse in her degradation.

The malign influence of such a novel upon the aspirations of American women for university privileges is made by the author the more certain and the more emphatic because the scene of the sinister fiction is laid in the country which was the first to open university doors to women. The poet Alfieri is dragged into the story to heighten the proportions of its all-pervading moral squalor. Sneering at the idea of a woman taking the degree of doctor of philosophy, the poet is made to say: “Oh, she’s one of your prodigies of female learning, such as our topsy-turvy land produces; an incipient Laura Bassi or Gaetana Agnesi, to name the most distinguished of their tribe; though I believe that hitherto her father’s good sense or her own has kept her from aspiring to academic honors. The beautiful Fulvia is a good daughter and devotes herself, I am told, to helping Vivaldi in his work, a far more becoming employment for one of her age and sex than defending Latin theses before a crew of ribald students.”

But Fulvia’s father was a sympathizer with his daughter’s tastes, which he habitually promoted. To make the lesson of the moral failure of the higher education of women still more convincing, the author of The Valley of Decision reserves the bestowal of her final degree upon Fulvia until after the university and the whole town are familiar with her adoption of a shameless life and her open rejection of religious or conventional standards.

In Italy the universities were open to women soon after their foundation in the Middle Ages. At Bologna, which for centuries was one of the greatest universities in Europe, a number of women justly attained distinction as professors of the sciences, languages, and law. Laura Bassi was of a comparatively late time. So great was her reputation for learning, but also for virtue, that her doctorate was conferred under circumstances of civic and academic pomp. She married happily and became the mother of fourteen children.

Two sisters Agnesi were distinguished in Italian higher education. One, Maria Gaetana Agnesi, was an eminent professor and author in the exact sciences during the eighteenth century, and lived to be upward of eighty years of age. A younger sister was distinguished as a pianist and composer. Upon the entire array of the learned women of Italy whose careers have been historically noted there was never a breath of moral reproach.

The injury which The Valley of Decision inflicts upon the contemporary higher education of women is shrewdly designed in the contrast which this repulsive novel makes in its alienation of the higher education from religious and moral control.

The atmosphere which is created for the reader of The Valley of Decision is the most repulsive ever introduced into an American literary production. In the large company constituting the chief participants in a story projected along hackneyed guide-book information there is not from the first cover of the first volume to the last of the second one honest man or virtuous woman.

The moral squalor of J he Valley of Decision is the more surprising because the scene is laid in the land which has given to literature and life the paramount group of ideal womanhood, Dante’s Beatrice, Petrarch’s Laura, Michael Angelo’s Vittoria Colonna; and to Shakspere his two most engaging characters, blending in their mutual devotion of a noble womanhood erudition and chastity, Portia and Nerissa.

The womanhood of the United States may justly deplore that such a volume as The Valley of Decision should have its origin in the United States, in which the experiment of the higher education of women has thus far been courageously carried to an advancement which few of the universities have been able to withstand.

 

And if you’re interested, go to p. 596 in the same volume of the 1902 Catholic World and read an article about Bologna called “A City of Learned Women.”

The universal spread of knowledge and literary culture among women is no doubt one of the boasts of modern civilization. We point to it with pride as emphasizing the superiority of this age over its predecessors; exemplified by the thorough training of mind and body considered equally necessary nowadays for girls as well as boys. Nevertheless, if we go a little more deeply into the matter, we shall find once more at the bottom of all our researches the most discouraging but true old adage embodying the world-weariness of the wisest king of old: “There is nothing new under the sun.”

It is a shock at first to realize that our progress is not so wonderful as we imagined; and that, instead of inventors, we are only “revivalists”; perfecting perhaps what has gone before, with the help of added centuries of experience and science; but still only reviving things dormant, or at best forgotten. In an atmosphere of self-congratulation upon Women’s Colleges and Universities and the Higher Education of Women, can it come as anything but a revelation to find one’s self face to face with a city of learned women of long centuries past, who spread the light of their knowledge through a land which bowed before their intellect while reverencing their true womanhood?

Such was the revelation which disturbed my new-world complacency one bright morning in the ancient city of Bologna, in this year of the twentieth century; wandering through stately halls of learning where for centuries women had held intellectual sway. No fair girl-graduates were these, drinking their first draught at the fountain of mighty knowledge; but women whose powers of intellect had placed them in the professorial chair, instructing on equal terms with the men-professors the students who flocked around them.

I keep saying it, in one way or another: My Hot Take on 20th century feminism is that it happened because the Protestant Reformation, secular intellectual currents and the industrial revolution pushed Western women into the confined, defining space of a domestic sphere that didn’t exist in a holistic Catholic context.

There. 

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