Hardcore for Nerds

"Why sneer at the intellectuals?"*
punk music, left politics, and cultural history - previously found here.
contact: gabbaweeks[at]gmail.com (sorry, no promos/submissions, thanks) or ask
Dublin/Galway, Ireland. 27, history graduate & human rights student
HFN | Best New Punk | HFN 2012 2011 2010 2009 | HRO 2k9 | Hoover Genealogy Project | @HC4N
*from the title of a review of Arthur Koestler's Arrival and Departure by Michael Foot, Evening Standard, Nov. 26, 1943.
Nov 18
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Fashionable Sin - Vintage Values

“Vintage Values – this is the title given to the just-published collection of 100 striking covers from a series of pamphlets published by the Catholic Truth Society (CTS) between the 1920s and 1970s.
They really don’t make them like this any more, but then again, it is unlikely there’s much of a market for parents seeking pamphlets called Shall My Daughter Be a Nun? or for the general public, wondering Does Communism Threaten Christianity?”
Catholic pamphlets from 1920s to 1970s on view - Irish Times

Hopefully might catch this exhibition in Dublin this weekend before it closes, because it looks amazing.

Fashionable Sin - Vintage Values

Vintage Values – this is the title given to the just-published collection of 100 striking covers from a series of pamphlets published by the Catholic Truth Society (CTS) between the 1920s and 1970s.

They really don’t make them like this any more, but then again, it is unlikely there’s much of a market for parents seeking pamphlets called Shall My Daughter Be a Nun? or for the general public, wondering Does Communism Threaten Christianity?

Catholic pamphlets from 1920s to 1970s on view - Irish Times

Hopefully might catch this exhibition in Dublin this weekend before it closes, because it looks amazing.

irish art religion catholicism
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Oct 14
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Blaise Pascal says not to look to ourselves for the cure to misfortunes, but to God whose Providence is a foreordained thing in Eternity; that the foreordainment was that our lives be but sacrifices leading to that purity in the after-existence in Heaven as souls disinvested of that rapish, rotten, carnal body - O the sweet beloved bodies so insulted everywhere for millions of years on this strange planet. Lacrimae rerum. I don’t get it because I look into myself for the answers. And my body is so thick and carnal! I cant penetrate into the souls of others equally entrap’t in trembling weak flesh, let alone penetrate into an understanding of HOW I can turn to God with effect. The situation is pronounced hopeless in the very veins of our hands, and our hands are useless in Eternity since nothing they do, even clasp, can last.

Jack Kerouac, The Vanity of Duluoz

Started reading this recently - picked it up basically because I’m running out of Kerouac to read (or re-read, in the case of a few) but it is really rather good - a more explicitly autobiographical than usual account of Kerouac’s youth playing college football and joining the Merchant Marine in WWII (though at the same time the very explicitness of the autobiography - aside from ‘Kerouac’ becoming ‘Duluoz’ - makes me more suspicious of its total veracity). There are more affectations of his later style (he wrote it in 1967*) and diversionary passages - including a juvenile copy of the opening scene of Ulysses, transferred into his life and dialect - but quite a few standout parts like the above. Which, again, jumps back to this. The final line also brings to mind this picture by Durer. It’s pessimistic but in a very Kerouac kind of way, a tortured humanist. Of course, you could write an essay on his use of the term ‘penetrate’, and the phrase ‘rapish’ definitely jars, but that’s kinda what you get when reading dead guys from the 60s (or live ones from the 00s, frequently). In fact, I think the recent On The Road movie did a good job of putting some flesh on the Kerouac story, and elucidating the character relationships that are in many ways subservient to the prose of the book itself.

*complete with frequent conversational references to “wifey” and a fantastic grumpy-old-man passage at the start which I had been thinking of posting up as well, where he complains of no-one telling the truth any more and blaming this, in large part, on ‘Marxian Dialectal propaganda’ (cf.). 

kerouac books buddhism religion
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Oct 09
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Iconoclasm! 
Lynch’s Window Tomb, St. Nicholas’ Collegiate Church, Galway - according to the guide the statue was defaced by Cromwellian forces in 1652.
I really enjoyed going around this church this afternoon. It had more of a ‘High Church’ Anglican feel than my home parish, but a lot of that I suppose comes from it originally predating the Reformation, being built “c. 1320 on the site of an earlier chapel”*. For example, over the belfry door there is a (barely discernible) carving described as the medieval scene of ‘the hound of heaven chasing the hare of the soul across the bridge of eternity’ (imagine a curved door arch with a figure at each end) which, jeez.
*it is dedicated to St. Nicholas of Myra, i.e. the original Santa Claus but also (appropriately for Galway) the patron saint of sailors; and it’s also used by modern-day Romanian and Russian Orthodox communities, some of whose icons were hanging in the south transept, which gives the church a further ecumenical feeling.

Iconoclasm! 

Lynch’s Window Tomb, St. Nicholas’ Collegiate Church, Galway - according to the guide the statue was defaced by Cromwellian forces in 1652.

I really enjoyed going around this church this afternoon. It had more of a ‘High Church’ Anglican feel than my home parish, but a lot of that I suppose comes from it originally predating the Reformation, being built “c. 1320 on the site of an earlier chapel”*. For example, over the belfry door there is a (barely discernible) carving described as the medieval scene of ‘the hound of heaven chasing the hare of the soul across the bridge of eternity’ (imagine a curved door arch with a figure at each end) which, jeez.

*it is dedicated to St. Nicholas of Myra, i.e. the original Santa Claus but also (appropriately for Galway) the patron saint of sailors; and it’s also used by modern-day Romanian and Russian Orthodox communities, some of whose icons were hanging in the south transept, which gives the church a further ecumenical feeling.

irish galway history religion
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Mar 29
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i feel weird about goyim who eat matzo “just because they like it”

velveteenrabbit:

cream-and-stars:

“this is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in egypt”

i mean

it’s a symbol

not a cracker

it is supposed to remind us of being enslaved, of the long jewish memory and our resultant commitment to resist poverty and injustice everywhere

it ties us to our ancestors, the whole point is we are eating what they are said to have eaten. “they fled in haste and their bread was but an unleavened cake” and we eat the unleavened cake like thousands of years of jews before us and remember their story

i don’t go around noshing on communion wafers

i think i am a bad jew because i legit like matzo and eat it year round.

it’s just so frigging good with cheese of all kinds.

also, fully legit when mixed into eggs and cream.

Communion wafers are slightly different in that when they’re consecrated they’re considered to be the body of Christ.

I’ve never eaten a Catholic communion wafer (cos, well, I can’t) but by all accounts they’re not very appetising.

The Communion bread in the (Anglican) Church of Ireland is just sliced white pan cut up into little bits, however. So technically you’d also eat it in an everyday sandwich, only it won’t have been blessed.

Religion and food are an odd mix.

religion
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Mar 23
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“If it is you tell me to come to you on the water” Peter says, and Jesus replies “come”. History does not relate what the disciples thought about getting out of a perfectly serviceable boat, but Peter was right, and they were wrong. The utterly absurd is completely reasonable when Jesus is the one who is calling. […] Peter ventures out in fear and trembling (as you may imagine I relate to him at this point).

'Out of our own traditions, and into the waves': the Archbishop of Canterbury's inaugural sermon

I finished reading the excerpts from Kierkegaard’s ‘Fear and Trembling’ in Basic Writings of Existentialism, so I was happy to recognise the phrase here (it’s a biblical reference, naturally). The first part of this quote seems to echo what Kierkegaard was saying about Abraham and Isaac, although missing the point (as I understood it). The absurd is always absurd, although walking out onto water is different to sacrificing your own son (less Old Testament-y, and significantly less in contradiction to any universal set of ethics) - it doesn’t become any more reasonable, in the eyes of others, just because ‘Jesus said to’. 

It remains a paradox: in the phrase of Kierkegaard’s (which he is fond of repeating), there is the paradox of faith “or else faith has never existed simply because it has always existed, or else Abraham is lost”. There’s a wonderful Germanic ring to the last option, but I’d rather take the middle one. I have no faith, in the personal sense, nor do I wish to take the leap towards it; but since even the Archbishop of Canterbury fails to recognise the paradox of the absurd in faith, the church remains as inauthentic as it ever was, and I’m still an Anglican.

religion anglicanism kierkegaard
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Mar 22
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Archbishop of Canterbury enthronement - in pictures | guardian.co.uk
Here’s some religious pomp and circumstance I can (I think) get behind:

"Once the new archbishop had been installed on the marble chair of St Augustine, signalling his appointment as head of the Church of England and also representing his inauguration as spiritual leader of the global Anglican communion, C of E tradition gave way to a more personal and international celebration.
The inclusion of a Punjabi hymn, however, may have been a step too far for some of the worshippers.
Confronted with the overwhelming otherness of its refrain of saranam, saranam, saranam – meaning my refuge – the congregation treated it as if it were an overly spiced dish: they picked at it gingerly, politely and, above all, Englishly.
"Appropriating other people’s liturgies," whispered one wry cleric, "does bring certain difficulties."
But the Punjabi melody was as nothing in comparison with the African dancers, whose booming drums, chanting and energetic dancing elicited a grin from the archbishop – a reminder, perhaps, of his time as a peace negotiator in the continent.
Gleefully aware of the disconnect between the sober surroundings and the vitality of the dancers, he kicked off his sermon with a joke. “It’s got a good reverberation, this cathedral,” he noted, to much laughter.
The rest of the sermon, though, was deliberately short on gags. As befitted the leader of the C of E, Welby insisted on the primacy of his church’s position in the nation’s past and its future – and its absolute right to have its say in an increasingly secular society.
"For more than 1,000 years this country has to one degree or another sought to recognise that Jesus is the son of God; by the ordering of its society, by its laws, by its sense of community," he said.
"Sometimes we have done better, sometimes worse. When we do better we make space for our own courage to be liberated, for God to act among us and for human beings to flourish.
"Slaves were freed, Factory Acts passed and the NHS and social care established through Christ-liberated courage." 
Justin Welby enthroned as new archbishop of Canterbury | UK news | The Guardian

The Guardian also has an editorial comparing the new Archbishop with the new Pope - both doctrinal conservatives (although Anglicanism is almost by definition more liberal on sexual issues) with social consciences: 

"Their message may be doctrinally conservative but it has the potential to be socially radical: both of the new leaders of the two biggest Christian communities in the world are deeply preoccupied with poverty and injustice. And although neither of them would allow that the secular world has the answer, their moral presence has the power to influence those of us who believe it should."

I wrote before as to why I’m sceptical about that in regard to Pope Francis (or at least his likely impact on the world), and I guess the same should apply to an Archbishop Welby - who’s apparently an Old Etonian and former oil executive? - aside from perhaps the connection with British liberalism and vague social democracy. “Today we may properly differ on the degrees of state and private responsibility in a healthy society” is pretty milquetoast as far as social radicalism goes, but I suppose it’s better than ‘capitalism is bad because it regards society as a materialist structure’. Pope Francis wants world leaders to protect the poor and the environment, but his primary aim is to bring people into a closer relationship with God; Welby, unsurprisingly, is the same:

"But if we sever our roots in Christ we abandon the stability which enables good decision-making. There can be no final justice or security or love or hope in our society if it is not finally based on rootedness in Christ."

The thing is, I just like Anglicanism more - it was the faith that I was brought up in/exposed to as a child, and in a self-consciously Irish way I’ve always compared Catholicism negatively to it. With obvious historical precedent - there was a reason there Reformation happened, after all - but without the Protestant excesses of other, stricter denominations; I prefer the near-atheist character of the established church. To me, “rootedness in Christ” is such an abstract phrase that it lacks the fundamentalism of Catholicism or evangelical Christianity each urging you into a personal relationship with Jesus: Anglicanism is about a community that ‘accepts Jesus’ as some kind of metaphysical glue, whereas the others seem to use their communities to force a personal acceptance. And in its culture there’s a middle ground between austerity and opulence that I rather like, too.

Archbishop of Canterbury enthronement - in pictures | guardian.co.uk

Here’s some religious pomp and circumstance I can (I think) get behind:

"Once the new archbishop had been installed on the marble chair of St Augustine, signalling his appointment as head of the Church of England and also representing his inauguration as spiritual leader of the global Anglican communion, C of E tradition gave way to a more personal and international celebration.

The inclusion of a Punjabi hymn, however, may have been a step too far for some of the worshippers.

Confronted with the overwhelming otherness of its refrain of saranam, saranam, saranam – meaning my refuge – the congregation treated it as if it were an overly spiced dish: they picked at it gingerly, politely and, above all, Englishly.

"Appropriating other people’s liturgies," whispered one wry cleric, "does bring certain difficulties."

But the Punjabi melody was as nothing in comparison with the African dancers, whose booming drums, chanting and energetic dancing elicited a grin from the archbishop – a reminder, perhaps, of his time as a peace negotiator in the continent.

Gleefully aware of the disconnect between the sober surroundings and the vitality of the dancers, he kicked off his sermon with a joke. “It’s got a good reverberation, this cathedral,” he noted, to much laughter.

The rest of the sermon, though, was deliberately short on gags. As befitted the leader of the C of E, Welby insisted on the primacy of his church’s position in the nation’s past and its future – and its absolute right to have its say in an increasingly secular society.

"For more than 1,000 years this country has to one degree or another sought to recognise that Jesus is the son of God; by the ordering of its society, by its laws, by its sense of community," he said.

"Sometimes we have done better, sometimes worse. When we do better we make space for our own courage to be liberated, for God to act among us and for human beings to flourish.

"Slaves were freed, Factory Acts passed and the NHS and social care established through Christ-liberated courage." 

Justin Welby enthroned as new archbishop of Canterbury | UK news | The Guardian

The Guardian also has an editorial comparing the new Archbishop with the new Pope - both doctrinal conservatives (although Anglicanism is almost by definition more liberal on sexual issues) with social consciences: 

"Their message may be doctrinally conservative but it has the potential to be socially radical: both of the new leaders of the two biggest Christian communities in the world are deeply preoccupied with poverty and injustice. And although neither of them would allow that the secular world has the answer, their moral presence has the power to influence those of us who believe it should."

I wrote before as to why I’m sceptical about that in regard to Pope Francis (or at least his likely impact on the world), and I guess the same should apply to an Archbishop Welby - who’s apparently an Old Etonian and former oil executive? - aside from perhaps the connection with British liberalism and vague social democracy. “Today we may properly differ on the degrees of state and private responsibility in a healthy society” is pretty milquetoast as far as social radicalism goes, but I suppose it’s better than ‘capitalism is bad because it regards society as a materialist structure’. Pope Francis wants world leaders to protect the poor and the environment, but his primary aim is to bring people into a closer relationship with God; Welby, unsurprisingly, is the same:

"But if we sever our roots in Christ we abandon the stability which enables good decision-making. There can be no final justice or security or love or hope in our society if it is not finally based on rootedness in Christ."

The thing is, I just like Anglicanism more - it was the faith that I was brought up in/exposed to as a child, and in a self-consciously Irish way I’ve always compared Catholicism negatively to it. With obvious historical precedent - there was a reason there Reformation happened, after all - but without the Protestant excesses of other, stricter denominations; I prefer the near-atheist character of the established church. To me, “rootedness in Christ” is such an abstract phrase that it lacks the fundamentalism of Catholicism or evangelical Christianity each urging you into a personal relationship with Jesus: Anglicanism is about a community that ‘accepts Jesus’ as some kind of metaphysical glue, whereas the others seem to use their communities to force a personal acceptance. And in its culture there’s a middle ground between austerity and opulence that I rather like, too.

religion uk
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Mar 14
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His counting poverty as a social ill should not be misconstrued as sympathy for statist solutions to it or, indeed, as support for any determinate political program.

A Francis for Our Time - The Editors - National Review Online

I kinda want to say “give the pope a chance” (and not just cos it’s a mediocre pun) in response to some of the more cynical commentary, but there’s something about a lot of the optimism that I find false as well. I’m not a Catholic, never have been, but I watched the saturation coverage on the Irish news with some interest - mostly because it’s spectacle, of course, although an anachronistic one what with the chemically-enhanced smoke - and I could share some of the feelings of hope at the announcement of a new Pope with the name of Francis.

In my household the immediate discussion was over whether the name was from St. Francis of Assisi (officially and understandably so) or St. Francis Xavier, the co-founder of the Jesuits (which as Bergoglio is one, also makes sense). There’s no obvious contradiction, but perhaps it’s an initial sign that double rhetoric - in a certain Jesuitical sense - will be a hallmark of his papacy. Humble and smart, is the given profile, and many expectations go along with it - so much so that I’ve already heard the cautionary Obama comparison made (again, the coverage echoed a lot of that election, only with less democracy and more pomp).

It has an extra resonance in that this guy is also more conservative in his political principles - or doctrine - than liberals or progressives might like. Yet that really falls under the ‘is the Pope a Catholic?’ category: of course he espouses ideas that are homophobic and misogynist, that goes with the territory - best to hope that this pope is sensible enough not to air them too dogmatically (unless they really are dogma, in which case he’s just being honest). No, what worries me is that the whole ‘friend of the poor’ image might be - as seen above - rather too acceptable to the secular, capitalist world.

The irony is that Benedict - representing a long-established theological tradition, it must be said, and as was is wont - also opposed capitalism (and by name), but wrapped it up with opposition to materialism in general and modernity and ‘relativism’ in particular; so that the perspective wasn’t of much use to anyone not deeply involved in the kind of religiosity without much relevance or connection to the modern world. It’d be nice if, in this age of crisis, a Pope Francis led the charge against economic inequality, ascendant neoliberalism and unsustainable consumerism: but as an effective route it’s a political impossibility, not least because we rightly don’t allow popes to direct crusades any more. 

It’s also not going to happen because any central Catholic critique of economic society is either premised on such an abstract, disconnected morality that it is as insubstantial as smoke, or - as I fear is the case with Francis - constructed so that it is non-threatening to the material and political bases of capitalism. It’s quasi-liberation theology that obviously survived the centralised repression of Catholic conservatism (and more problematically, survived and potentially colluded with the repression of a South American right-wing dictatorship) and projects an image of humbleness which, while challenging the sated aristocracy of (clerical) Rome, hardly does anything to threaten the power and political justification of our secular Rome. Hasn’t that long been the grand bargain between spiritual and temporal power in the Christian West; that for a certain degree of influence in moral matters the former allows the latter to pursue its economic freedoms? 

***

In his first mass, the new Pope is already stated as saying:

"If we do not confess to Christ, what would we be?

"We would end up a compassionate NGO. What would happen would be like when children make sand castles and then it all falls down."

The clear point is that the Church is primarily a religious organisation, not a social one. Obviously so, but it’s easy to forget that Christianity and Catholicism is increasingly built on an all-consuming fear of secularism. As an atheist, I’m not really supposed to have a problem with people having religious beliefs (and as a bona fide secularist, that’s not even an issue, as long as there’s a distinction between private and public spheres) but philosophically speaking, I do. As much as religions declare that spirituality is a fundamental and necessary part of human life, I’d like the space to state that belief in an immaterial world is superfluous to human existence and discourse. So I object to spirituality as a starting point for ethical discussion, although as a pluralist I have to admit that many genuinely disagree and it’s not an objection or condition that can be imposed on them.

I have some qualified respect for the Habermasian idea that religion in its ‘semantic potentials’ can play a part in liberal and humanistic politics, and that somehow it should be squared with (or separated from) its theologically-derived morality that is repugnant to liberal freedoms. In its popular form this tends to take the form of a liberal optimism, as in this recent interview with former Irish President Mary Robinson:

”[…] And I said: I don’t need to go to mass every Sunday and feel guilty if I don’t. I don’t feel compelled to do it every Sunday or in a sort of strictly paid-up way, because I disagree with so much of what the church stands for, particularly in reproductive health.

HEADLEE: So does that mean that you don’t follow the trial and tribulation of the Catholic Church, that you don’t have any emotional investment in who might be the next pope or what’s been going on?

ROBINSON: I think I’m more interested in the religions of the world giving us a kind of global, ethical standard, you know? And I like the work of Hans Kung who’s being - looking at a global ethic. And I know him, and we’ve talked about this quite a bit. And I think we do need the spirituality of the great religions of the world. And it is important for human rights and human dignity.”

As a non-Catholic Irish person, I still detest much of the Catholic Church’s ideology, teaching and areas of historical influence; but I don’t have the bitterness or resentment of the lapsed or former Catholic (I was never schooled through the faith, either) while I do respect those intelligent people I do know who remain within the faith, either by birth or choice. If there’s something Pope Francis can do - other than saving the poor or overturning the Catholic Church’s institutional sexism - it’s to show through his purported humility and intellectual acuity what exactly the value of Catholic spirituality is to the modern world. (At least that kind of public reform seems potentially politically achievable, even if I remain philosophically dubious.)

religion catholicism pope francis
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Feb 26
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I have seen a photograph of the huge reclining buddha who waits for death with a smile on his face. His tranquil expression touched me more than the tortured look I have seen on images of Christ. Buddhism teaches man to transcend the material world and view life and death as trivial. Christianity urges man to cherish life and fear death.

Ma Jian, Red Dust

This book (a semi-fictional autobiography, from what I gather) about a dissident Chinese artist who absconds from Beijing to travel in western China is very interesting, and reminds me of Kerouac in more than one way. Here, he has taken lay Buddhist vows and journeyed to the Mogao caves to see the murals and statues. Unlike Kerouac, he is doing so in a genuinely totalitarian country. But there’s a similar kind of wide-eyed idealism, a bit more philosophical wisdom (at least of the kind sharpened against real oppression), tempered against practical failure (he doesn’t get to see the statues, after entering on a Chinese tourist ticket).

The religious critique, while perhaps unfair to Christianity, reminds me of the criticism of The Fountain and its quasi-Buddhist attitude to death. Death is never trivial, but perhaps human conceptions around it are? It also reminds me of a distinction I’ve long had in my mind, probably cribbed and distorted from some other writers’ bon mots, between Catholicism and Protestantism (of the Anglican/Episcopalian form I grew up with, not the Evangelical or Presbyterian kind): the former condemns much of the pleasure of life as sin, but tacitly encourages as long as people are suitably repentant (or ‘guilty’ in the common psychological parlance) and fear its consequences in death; whereas the latter draws a practical line between responsible living (the famed ‘work ethic’) and sinful behaviour (which can be nearly every bit as socially oppressive in its promulgation, but not quite as totalising) in which death doesn’t seem to enter so prominently.

Certainly the first is used to explain general Irish attitudes to sex and alcohol - sex of course being far more sinful, but the lengths that were gone to in repressing it belay the fear that life will out - while my absence from the usual structures of confession, repentance through repeated prayer, and so on, have left me a little mystified about that part of Irish moral life. The broad cultural popularity of Lenten fasting - by way of giving something up for a month, that is probably both bad for you and pleasurable for the other 11 months of the year - is another continuing legacy of Irish Catholicism; not that it’s actually absent from Protestantism, but it seems a lot more sensible to live in moderation for 12 months of the year. Which is where I part company with upwards of 85% of my compatriots, unfortunately.

books buddhism religion
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Feb 04
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The Holy Trinity of mbv

(with apologies to all good Catholics - and Protestants)

Even though blasphemy is illegal in Ireland, I’m going to use what Jurgen Habermas calls the semantic potential of religion to construct a hermeneutics of the new My Bloody Valentine album, based on its square of trinities. Enjoy this novena of shoegaze:

m - The Father

'she found you' - 'only tomorrow' - 'who sees you'

These three songs are the Abrahamic heritage of Loveless, the result of 22 years wandering in the desert. The towering and majestic rhythms of ‘only tomorrow’, the enveloping haze of ‘who sees you’, the clanging genesis of ‘she found you’ are the achievement of the Creator, Kevin Shields.

b - The Son (or The Daughter, perhaps)

'is this and yes' - 'if i am' - 'new you'

It pays to switch from speakers to headphones for this part of the album, which is an abrupt change from the monumental to the minimal. Find the almost imperceptible pulse of percussion behind ‘is this and yes’, before slipping into the almost heady sensuality (and funky wah-wah guitar) of ‘if i am’ - the Word made Flesh. A brief pause, and then the resurrection of ‘new you’ with its contemporary-for-the-90s drums.

v - The Holy Ghost

'in another way' - 'nothing is' - 'wonder 2'

Here’s where it gets a little weird. Are those strings or just transcendent guitar on ‘in another way’? Yet ‘nothing is’ is pure pneuma, pumping away vitally. Meanwhile the eternal mystery of MBV remains in the swirling, booming roar of ‘wonder 2’, “a sound from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind”.

My Bloody Valentine mbv shoegaze religion hyperbole irony
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Jan 31
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"Then after lunch Kevin is kneeling there on his favored straw-weaved rug unfolding a delicate record from its onion-papered delicateness in a white album, the most Hindu-perfect little guy in the world, as Raphael directs him, they’re also going to play the Gregorian Chants - It’s a bunch of priests and brothers singing beautifully and formally and strangely together to old music older than stones - Raphael is very fond of music especially Renaissance music - and Wagner, the first time I met him in New York in 1952 he’d yelled "Nothing matters but Wagner, I want to drink wine and trample on your hair!" (to girl’d Josephine) - "Balls on that jazz!" - tho he’s a regular little hepcat and should like jazz and in fact his rhythm comes from jazz tho he doesn’t know it - but there’s a little Italian bird in his makeup has nothing to do with modern cacophonic crashbeats - Judge him for yourself"

Jack Kerouac, Desolation Angels, §81

I love Kerouac’s description of the “onion-papered delicateness” of the record sleeve and nearly as much as anything in the rest of the passage it inspired to go and listen to some Gregorian Chant. I’m not sure what he would have been listening to in America in the 1950s, but according to Wikipedia the abbey in Solesmes was one of the early sources of recordings (as well as the modern tradition in itself). I also found a series of articles on the semiology of Gregorian chant which are surprisingly interesting - particularly from a historiographical perspective - even if the musicological detail goes well over my head.

Whether this music is authentic to the literary events, to the original tradition or (a new one to the debate) to the theological intent of prayer, doesn’t particularly matter to me. It’s an intriguing - if relatively commonplace - idea that what we perceive as aesthetic value often runs counter to original formal or philosophical intentions. Would I even like this as much if I could understand the Latin words? Probably not, as the religious wording of Anglican hymns frequently turns me off them even though I like the music. Which in turn is perhaps as it should be - if the point of hymns is to foster and cement belief, for an atheist they lose that functionality. Of course some transcend that barrier through wider cultural resonances, sheer beauty or, in this case, native incomprehensibility.

In part that is why I would be reluctant to attach to this beautiful, calming music any particular ‘spiritual’ quality, other than the beauty inherent in both it and in our experience of the universe in general (I don’t think I could create a more banal description of spirituality if I tried, but that is genuinely a positive conception for me). Perhaps Christians get a deeper, more profound value from it - more likely so if they understand the words, I think; I can see that while the disappearance of Gregorian Chant in the post-Vatican II liturgy in favour of vernacular worship was a cultural loss, from a religious point of view the loss was mainly one of obscurantism. For me, “a bunch of priests and brothers singing beautifully and formally and strangely together” is a more than adequate description, without even the part about “old music older than stones”.

* * *

I’ve listened to the new The Knife single three times so far. The first time was the night before I was due to go into hospital for a (relatively minor) operation, the second time I was coming down off my codeine dosage, and both times I found it almost unbearably anxiety-inducing. The third time (today) I listened to it, I’d taken another codeine tablet which probably helped, and I could actually appreciate it as a song - but it still seems terrifying. “The fever pitch the track establishes and never releases” is far too real a description. I don’t think there’s much to worry about poptimist debates - if there ever was in relation to the Knife - because this track fundamentally lacks the signal quality of hedonism.

I should say that I don’t suffer from anxiety - thankfully - in any clinical sense or even I think in any significant sub-clinical sense either. But it made me think about how one of the main reasons we like listening to particular kinds of music is often simply perhaps because it reflects the extremes of our mental and emotional moods. Depression’s always been my thing, not anxiety, and through listening to ‘emo’ I developed a strong interest in catharsis. Yet it’s not that I use the music in the moment - depression for me always brings on a significant element of anhedonia, a revulsion from the pleasures of almost any music. At other times, music like the above is reflective of the ecstasy of calm contentment.

(Source: Spotify)

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