A Symposium on The Cure: Prog or Something Else?

Readers of Spirit of Cecilia, we have a special treat for you: not a dialogue, but a full-fledged, three-way symposium! The topic: Is the Cure a prog band or not? Join Editor-in-Chief Brad Birzer, Tad Wert, and the brilliant Kevin McCormick to learn what they concluded.

Brad: Tad and Kevin, I’m in the mood to talk about The Cure!  Granted, in the middle of the COVID crisis, “The Cure” could mean a lot of things, not all of them pleasant.  But, I mean specifically the English rock band, led by everyone’s favorite mischievous trickster, Robert Smith.  That guy with huge teased hair, smeared lipstick, and boot-like tennis shoes.

Though identified and remembered mostly as a Goth and a post-punk New Wave group, The Cure always employed progressive rock elements rather effectively in many of their songs and, sometimes, throughout the entirety of some of their albums.  Some of this prog influence, of course, came from the band’s love of minimalism, drone/wall of sound, and Eric Satie. 

Admittedly, because of my prog obsession, I want The Cure to be proggish!  So, I might be reaching here.  But, it’s really hard for me to listen to album such as their 1989 masterpiece, Disintegration, and not think prog.

If pushed, I would happily rank that album in my top 10 albums of all time, sitting near Spirit of Eden, Laughing Stock, Moving Pictures, Songs from the Big Chair, Skylarking, Selling England By the Pound, and Close To the Edge. Every song on Disintegration fits perfectly with every other song on the album, and it makes for a wildly effective album in its consistency, art, and beauty.

In hindsight, Smith has claimed Disintegration to be the middle of a trilogy, beginning with 1982’s Pornography and ending with 2000’s Bloodflowers. If a trilogy isn’t proggy, nothing is!

Of course, much of The Cure is really clever pop as well.  In fact, despite having a distinctive sound, The Cure are about as diverse–when it comes to style–as any band over the past fifty years.

Tad: Okay, Brad, I’ll tentatively  accept your assertion that The Cure are prog, even though it never occurred to me until you and I made each other’s acquaintance! Even though I was a huge British music fan in the ‘80s, I was a little late to the Cure party. I think it was because my first exposure to them was hearing “The Lovecats” on the radio and I took an immediate dislike to that song (I still think it is too cute for its own good). However, while working in a record store in 1985, a coworker was a Cure nut and he played The Head On The Door instore repeatedly. I liked that album, and they earned my grudging respect.

That said, THOTD was the only Cure album in my collection for many years until I heard “Why Can’t I Be You?” on the radio, and I realized there was a gaping hole in my musical knowledge. So I embarked on an exploration of Cure music via some shady file-sharing software (this was in the ‘00s, before streaming!) and discovered how terrific Seventeen Seconds, Faith, Disintegration, and Wish were. 

When most people think “prog”, they think of extraordinary technical proficiency on musical instruments, shifting and odd time signatures, long song lengths, and lyrics that deal with deep subjects. While The Cure fail to check the boxes on the first three criteria, they often hit the jackpot on the fourth. And I would argue even their early work – Seventeen Seconds and Faith – have a proggy sensibility to them. Both of those albums (particularly the latter) set up and carefully maintain a consistent atmosphere throughout their entire length. They aren’t mere collections of unrelated songs, but song suites whose impact is far greater than the sum of their parts. As far as later works, I think “From The Edge Of The Deep Green Sea” off of Wish is about as proggy as you can get. I’m holding off on sharing my thoughts on Disintegration until we hear from Mr. McCormick!

[To keep reading, please scroll down a bit . . .]

Continue reading A Symposium on The Cure: Prog or Something Else?

Henri de Lubac’s Criticism of Indirect Power – The Regensburg Forum

In my previous post, I discussed theologians who offered interpretations of the doctrine of the two swords before the Second Vatican Council. While some hierocrats believed that the pope’s two swords made him lord of the world, Vitoria, Bellarmine, and Suarez argued that popes had indirect power in temporal matters. Papal power was only indirect because temporal rulers were “supreme in their own order.” These theologians also believed that temporal rulers derived their authority from the political community, not from the pope. Nonetheless, for spiritual ends, the pope could use temporal authority, even to the point of deposing rulers in certain circumstances. (I mentioned the deposing power in the section on Suarez. Perhaps I could have mentioned it a few more times as a way of clarifying the extent of this “indirect power” in the thought of Vitoria, Bellarmine, and Suarez, even though I was focused on what they said about the “two swords.”)

While some seventeenth-century contemporaries of Bellarmine and Suarez and modern scholars see the controversy between the hierocratic position and this idea of “indirect power” as a distinction without a difference, Bellarmine faced opposition from some in the Roman Curia for his idea. So, the debate certainly mattered at that time.

We should not ignore this seventeenth-century debate. While my previous post indicated that the “two swords” doctrine was interpreted in different ways long before Vatican II, we should not forget that twentieth-century challenges to the temporal power of the papacy (whether direct or indirect) saw Bellarmine (and not the hierocrats) as the major challenge. My goal here is not to oppose (or defend) Bellarmine, nor is it to endorse (or challenge) the twentieth-century arguments that follow. I hope that these passages might be of interest and useful for future discussion.
— Read on regensburgforum.com/2018/02/02/henri-de-lubacs-criticism-of-indirect-power/

Reflecting on Solzhenitsyn

“Shut your eyes, reader.  Do you hear the thundering of wheels?  Those are the Stolypin cars rolling on and on.  Those are the red cows rolling.  Every minute of the day.  And every day of the year.  And you can hear the water gurgling—those are prisoners’ barges moving on and on.  And the motors of the Black Marias roar.  They are arresting someone all the time, cramming him in somewhere, moving him about.  And what is that hum you hear?  The overcrowded cells of the transit prisons.  And that cry?  The complains of those who have been plundered, raped, beaten to with an inch of their lives.  We have reviewed and considered all the methods of delivering prisoners, and we have found that they are all. . . worse.  We have examined the transit prisons, but we have not found any that were good.  And even the last human hope that there is something better ahead, that it will be better in camp, is a false hope.  In camp it will be . . . worse.”—End of Volume 1 of the Gulag.

Solzhenitsyn knew of that which he wrote in his appropriately subtitled “An Experiment in Literary Investigation.”

“And where among all the preceding qualities was there any place left for kindheartedness?  How could one possibility preserve one’s kindness while pushing away the hands of those who were drowning?  Once you have been steeped in blood, you can only become more cruel,” Solzhenitsyn knew.  “And when you add that kindness was ridiculed, that pity was ridiculed, that mercy was ridiculed—you’d never be able to chain all those who were drunk on blood.”  

More than any other work, the Gulag forced western journalists and academics to confront the monstrous realities of the Soviet Union, not just under Stalin’s Cult of Personality dictatorship, but under the wretched evil that pervaded the entire system.  Indeed, the Soviet Union ran on the blood of those who deviated from its vision of harmony and perfection.  From the very beginning of the Soviet takeover of Russia, Solzhenitsyn noted, the revolutionaries established the ideologically-driven police, militia, army, courts, and jails.  Even the labor camps—the Gulag—began in embryo form only a month into the revolution. The parasitic Soviets craved blood from 1917 to 1991; such bloodletting was an inherent part of the system.  Solzhenitsyn claims that the Gulag state murdered 66 million just between 1917 and 1956.

The ideological system created distrust. “This universal mutual mistrust had the effect of deepening the mass-grave pit of slavery.  The moment someone began to speak up frankly, everyone stepped back and shunned him: ‘A provocation!’  And therefore anyone who burst out with a sincere protest was predestined to loneliness and alienation.”

It also, Solzhenitsyn understood, established a permanent lie.  “The permanent lie becomes the only safe form of existence, in the same way as betrayal.  Every wag of the tongue can be overheard by someone, every facial expression observed by someone.  Therefore every word, if it does not have to be a direct lie, is nonetheless obliged not to contradict the general, common lie.  There exists a collection of ready-made phrases, of labels, a selection of ready-made lies.”

Ultimately, those who died immediately had the best of it, the Russian prophet knew.  To survive meant not merely to lose the body at some point, but almost certainly the soul as well.

No mere anti-communist, Solzhenitsyn attacked not just the ideological regimes of Russia and its former communist allies in Eastern Europe, but he challenged all of modernity—in the East and the West.  Western consumerism, he warned, will destroy the West by mechanizing its citizens in a more efficient and attractive manner than communism could.  “Dragged along the whole of the Western bourgeois-industrial and Marxist path,” Solzhenitsyn stated,

A dozen maggots can’t go on and on gnawing the same apple forever; that if the earth is a finite object, then its expanses and resources are finite also, and the endless, infinite progress dinned into our heads by the dreamers of the Enlightenment cannot be accomplished on it . . . All that ‘endless progress’ turned out to be an insane, ill-considered, furious dash into a blind alley.  A civilization greedy for ‘perpetual progress’ has now choked and is on its last legs.

Only by embracing a transcendent order and the true Creator, Solzhenitsyn argued, can mankind save itself from the follies and murders of the ideologues.  In his 1983 Templeton address, he took his arguments against modernity even further.

Our life consists not in the pursuit of material success but in the quest of worthy spiritual growth.  Our entire earthly existence is but a transition stage in the movement toward something higher, and we must not stumble or fall, nor must be linger fruitless on one rung of the ladder . . . The laws of physics and physiology will never reveal the indisputable manner in which the Creator constantly, day in and day out, participates in the life of each of us, unfailingly granting us the energy of existence; when the assistance leaves us, we die.  In the life of our entire planet, the Divine Spirit moves with no less force: this we must grasp in our dark and terrible hour.

In his commentary on Solzhenitsyn’s address, Russell Kirk argued that the above passage “expressed with high feeling [ ] the conservative impulse.” Certainly, Kirk and Solzhenitsyn were kindred spirits. 

Importantly, one should never underestimate the importance of Solzhenitsyn’s moral imagination.  As one of the leading Solzhenitsyn scholars, Edward E. Ericson, Jr., has argued: “I would say that One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich put the first crack into the Berlin Wall and The Gulag Archipelago was an irresistible blow to the very foundations of the Soviet edifice.”

The prophet is dead.  The priest (John Paul II) and the king (Ronald Reagan) went before him. 

Roosevelt’s Folly: Robert Nisbet’s Second World War ~ The Imaginative Conservative

World War II—especially the European theatre—intrigued Robert A. Nisbet (1913-1996) throughout his life. A staff sergeant in the Pacific Theatre during the Second World War, 1943-1945, he desired to understand the Cold War and how it had come about. After writing an article for a conservative academic journal, Modern Age, in 1986, on the friendship of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Josef Stalin, he decided to write a book exploring the topic. The result, Roosevelt and Stalin: The Failed Courtship, offered a penetrating examination of a dark period in world history. For Nisbet, America went from isolationist to accommodationist almost entirely because of Roosevelt’s wrong-headedness and misunderstanding. Though he never accuses Roosevelt of homosexual feelings for Stalin, he does accuse him of treating the Soviet dictator as a lover and himself, at times, as the spurned lover. Certainly, from the beginning of their friendship, Roosevelt could not see Stalin as anything other than an ally, an anti-imperialist and proto-democrat.
— Read on theimaginativeconservative.org/2021/01/roosevelt-folly-robert-nisbet-second-world-war-bradley-birzer.html

Nietzsche: A Primer

I suppose we all have guilty pleasures. 

One of mine (one of several, actually) is reading the works of Friedrich Nietzsche.   I can pretty much sit down, day or night, with any one of his works and be rather—at least intellectually, if not spiritually—a happy man.

Yes, I very much know he was somewhat crazy, descending into a greater and greater madness until his death, so symbolically in the last year of the nineteenth century, 1900.  I also know how much he loathed republicanism, liberalism, Stoicism, and Christianity (well, really just Catholicism) and things that matter most to me.  Still. . . .

In many ways, though, he was the greatest of all nineteenth-century men.  Think about his competition for even a moment or two.  Of the five most influential thinkers of the western world in the nineteenth century—Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Herbert Spencer, Sigmund Freud, and Nietzsche—he was the most interesting, the most-well rounded, and the one with the most depth. 

Certainly, some of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century—such as Paul Elmer More, Eric Voegelin, and Henri de Lubac—respected and feared the ideas of Nietzsche, recognizing their significance for the modern and post-modern world.

He also, for better or worse, will continue to influence cultures, individuals, and peoples for centuries to come, in ways the other important thinkers of the nineteenth century probably will not.  In many ways, the entire modern and post-modern obsession with power comes from Nietzsche, whether those tools who espouse theories of power (race, class, gender) realize this or not.

For the purposes of this post, here are three of Nietzsche’s most important ideas.

First, the mad philosopher claimed that all modern drama in western civilization stemmed from the conflict found in the mythology of Apollo (order) and Dionysius (chaos).

We shall have gained much for the science of aesthetics were we have succeeded in perceiving directly, and not only through logical reasoning, that art derives its continuous development from the duality of the Apolline and Dionysiac; just as the reproduction of species depends on the duality of the sexes, with its constant conflicts and only periodically intervening reconciliations. These terms are borrowed from the Greeks, who revealed the profound mysteries of their artistic doctrines to the discerning mind, not in concepts but in the vividly clear forms of their deities. To the two gods of art, Apollo and Dionysus, we owe our recognition that in the Greek world there is a tremendous opposition, as regards both origins and aims, between the Apollo arts of the sculptor and the non-visual Dionysius art of music. These two very different tendencies walk side-by-side, usually in violent opposition to one another, inciting one another to ever more powerful birds, perpetuating the struggle of the opposition only apparently bridged by the word “art”; until, finally, by a metaphysical miracle of the Hellenic “will” will, the two seem to be coupled. [Source: Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy]

While this is too extreme and Manichean, Nietzsche makes a fine point, and it’s difficult to dismiss our own modern Hollywood culture without, at least to some degree, realizing that he understood a fundamental aspect of who and what we were to become in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Second, Nietzsche considered Catholicism to be the greatest enemy yet invented and imposed upon the nobility of man.  It’s most important representative, he feared, was Pascal.

Faith, as early Christianity desired, and not infrequently achieved in the midst of a skeptical and southerly free–spirit world, which had centuries of struggle between philosophical schools behind it and in it, counting besides the education intolerance for which the imperium Romanum—this faith is not that sincere, austere slave–faith by which perhaps a Luther or a Cromwell, or some other northern barbarian of the spirit remained attached to his God and Christianity; it is much rather the faith of Pascal, which resembles in a terrible manner a continuous suicide of reason—eight to half, long–lived, wormlike reason, which is not to be slain at once and with a single blow. The Christian faith from the beginning, is sacrifice: the sacrifice of all freedom, all pride, all self–confidence of spirit; it is at the same time’s objection, self–derision, and self–mutilation. [Source: Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil]

His father had been a Lutheran pastor, but Friedrich had rejected not only the faith of his father, but he also rejected all Protestantism because it was insufficiently pagan.  Catholicism, he believed, represented the only true Christianity.  Lutheranism and Protestantism were merely halfway houses between Catholicism and full-blown paganism. 

At one very powerful point in Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche imagines what an Epicurean god might do if he gazed long enough upon 1,900 years of Catholicism.

If one could observe the strangely painful, equally course and refined comedy of European Christianity with the derisive and impartial eye of an Epicurean god, I should think one would never cease marveling and laughing; does it not actually seem that some single will has ruled over Europe for eighteen centuries in order to make a sublime abortion of man?  He, however, who, with opposite requirements (no longer Epicurean) and with some divine hammer in his hand, could approach this almost voluntary degeneration and stunting of mankind, as exemplified in the European Christian (Pascal, for instance), would he not have to cry aloud with rage, pity, and horror: ‘Oh, you bunglers, presumptuous pitiful bunglers, what have you done!  Was that a work for your hands?  How you have hacked and botched my finest stone!  What have you presumed to do!’ –I should say that Christianity has hitherto been the most portentous of presumptions.  Men, not great enough, not hard enough, to be entitled as artists to take part in fashioning man; men, not sufficiently strong and far-sighted to allow, with sublime self-constraint, the obvious law of the thousandfold failures and perishings to prevail; men, not sufficiently noble to see the radically different grades of rank and intervals of rank that separate man from man:–such men, with their ‘equality before God,’ have hitherto swayed the destiny of Europe; until at least a dwarfed, almost ludicrous species has been produced, a gregarious animal, something obliging, sickly, mediocre, the European of the present day.

Finally, Nietzsche himself believed that his ideas had taken him, mystically, into another universe or plane of existence, confirmed later, at least as he believed it, by a vision of Zarathustra, a pre-Christian Persian priest and prophet, within and next to him.  Henri de Lubac has done the best job of exploring this side of Nietzsche in his Drama of Atheist Humanism.  And though he despised Catholicism, Nietzsche even believed his collected writings to be a fifth Gospel, obviating those of Sts. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  He, Nietzsche, then, believed he would serve as a “rival and successor to Jesus,” espousing the myth of the Overman, and transcending the limitations of good and evil.

Well, nobody’s perfect. . . .

Friendship and Star Trek

As young children, my older brother and I watched the original Star Trek series on Saturday mornings.  We weren’t big TV watchers as a family, but Star Trek was special.  To make it even better, it was the local PBS that aired Star Trek, presenting it free of all commercials. 

Every Saturday, Todd and I awoke very early and watched the rerun for that week.  This would have been around 1975, almost a decade after the show first aired.  After each episode, Todd and I would talk, always mesmerized by the possibilities of space, life, and a billion other things.  How much of the galaxy had this crew explored?  Were they the modern Lewis & Clark?  What happened when someone transported from one place to another?  How smart were the computers?  Were the Klingons the Soviets and the Romulans the Chinese?  Or, maybe the other way around?  Why did we only see the military aspects of Starfleet?  What about the colonists, the pioneers?  How did time travel work?  If the Enterprise found itself sent back to Earth, why did it happen to arrive the same year the show was being filmed.

Pretty serious stuff for an eight year old sitting with his much admired thirteen year old brother. 

I had no idea at the time, but the show’s founder and creator, Gene Roddenberry had actually described Star Trek as a “wagon train to the stars” when he first shopped it to studios.  It would be set, though, on the space equivalent of an aircraft carrier, a mobile community as diverse as Gunsmoke’s Dodge City, he continued in his show treatment.  The crew, roughly 203 of them, would be as diverse as possible, asserting that racial prejudice and ethnic strife would be things of the past in the non-specified time of Star Trek.  Only later did the show writers decide it took place in the 2260s.  From its beginning, however, Roddenberry’s Star Trek represented a brash Kennedy-esque liberalism, a confidence that America could teach the world the principles of civilization, tolerance, and dignity.  [Sources: Whitfield and Roddenberry, THE MAKING OF STAR TREK (1968); and Paul Cantor, Gilligan Unbound (2003) and The Invisible Hand of Popular Culture (2012)]

And yet, this wouldn’t be merely a western in space.  Roddenberry recruited some of the finest science fiction and horror talent available in the 1960s including D.C. Fontana; David Gerrold; Robert Bloch; Samuel Peeples; Richard Matheson; Theodore Sturgeon; and Harlan Ellison. 

Though much of Star Trek now appears campy, especially with its poor attempts at humor and terrible costumes (especially for the aliens), there’s no doubt the team making the show took science fiction and its ideas very seriously.  Themes of natural rights, equality, imperialism, personality, racism, religion, history, culture, and much else important in life appeared throughout the original 79 episodes.  It must be noted, though, that I don’t remember my young self thinking poorly of the special effects. 

Sharing my favorite scene—Kirk fighting a gorn—proved way too much for my kids.  Dad, my oldest daughter asked, “why is Captain Kirk fighting a guy in a rubber suit?”

And, of course, my brother and I loved all of the fight scenes.  Who wouldn’t want to follow Kirk into battle?  The guy was made for serious leadership.  Plus, the over the top fight music was simply incredible.  I can still recall the entire theme instantly, while poorly visualizing the yellow-shirted Kirk kicking, punch, and rolling.  I’m really not sure how many times I tried to perfect Kirk’s jump kick maneuver as a child.  It’s amazing I’m not more damaged than I am.  Thank the good lord I only tried it upon invisible and imagined foes.  I wasn’t so fortunate when it came to the Vulcan nerve pinch.  Practice with this—especially after sneaking up on members of my family and trying it—really only resulted in sore muscles and hurt feelings.

When it came down to the quick of it all, though, it was the interaction of the personalities—the characters of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Scotty, especially—on the show that meant so much to us. 

Star Trek demonstrated, over and over, I think, that real heroism comes not from individualism, but from friendship.  These guys on that little screen not only loved one another, but they each bettered the other.  Spock needed Kirk, and Kirk needed McCoy.  McCoy needed. . . well, everyone.

When Star Wars came out in 1977, I loved it.  But, in no way did it compare to Star Trek, at least to my way of thinking.  I knew that Star Wars was essentially science fantasy, while Trek was real science fiction.  Again, as my young mind saw it.  Luke Skywalker and Han Solo were great, but for real fantasy, I turned to Tolkien.  For sci-fi, I wanted Kirk and Spock and a whole host of science fiction authors from Asimov to Clarke.

When Star Trek: The Motion Picture came out, my mom took me to an opening show in Kansas City—then, the major metropolis in my life.  We saw it right before Christmas, 1979, and I was completely blown away.  The scale of it reminded me of 2001, and the return of NASA’s Voyager spacecraft for a science loving kid was a dream come true.  To top it off, the movie ended with the creation of an entirely new form of life, an incarnation of man and machine.  What wasn’t to love?  This seemed so much better than the blowing up of a Death Star!

Rewatching it quite recently, it hit me what a beautiful movie it is.  Many critics have complained that it simply failed to have enough action, that it demanded too much of the viewer.  This is all probably true, and these are also the reasons I like the movie so much, even as a 12 year old.  Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a film that allows one to consider possibilities, to realize the immensity of the unknown, and to contemplate the potential dangers of space travel.  The movie demands immersion.

Nothing prepared me, though, for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  I saw it only days after my eighth-grade year ended.  It hit me hard, very hard.  The film is the best of the best when it comes to Star Trek.  Shakespearean acting flies freely, dialogue from Melville comes equally fast, and the plot moves as dramatically as the best war movies made prior to Apocalypse Now.  Realizing how quickly they’re aging, the crew encounters a late twentieth-century genetically created superman, a Nietzschean tyrant bent on absolute revenge for Kirk’s actions in the original episode, Space Seed. 

Unlike every one of the later movies, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan avoids camp, managing to tell a story as serious as Star Trek The Motion Picture but with immense humanity of friendship, community, and sacrifice.  Shatner is especially at his best.  The scene where he allows his arrogance to bring death upon his crew and the scene in which he realizes Spock has sacrificed himself for their mission are two very scenes.  For better or worse, I’m sure I have watched The Wrath of Khan more times than any other movie in my 46 years.  I have it memorized—dialogue, scenes, and music.  Still, the movie has never become so familiar to me that these two scenes just described don’t fail to move me to tears.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock had some fine moments, but it’s clear that the crew would never again reach the heights of Wrath of Khan.  Star Trek IV returns to sap and camp, and the movies really become uneven from that point forward.  Yet, no one could deny its popularity and money-making ability.  Thus far, there have been a total of five live-action television series, one animated series, and ten movies set in the original universe.  Two additional movies—though essentially action films in the vein of Star Wars—have appeared in the rebooted time line.  One can also find Star Trek toys, comics, and books everywhere and anywhere.

Star Trek has permeated our consciousness as much or more than any other manifestation of pop culture.

Why?  Several reasons, but only two need be mentioned here. 

First, I’m convinced its timing was most fortuitous, coming as an optimistic Kennedy-esque frontier vision just as the 1960s soured into the imperial horrors of our policy in southeast Asia and with the subsequent dramatic loss of American confidence. 

Second, and more importantly, the show was about friendship, community, and sacrifice.  Art, drama, and theater might very well mock or forget such themes in cynical and decadent ages, but such ideals can never be utterly destroyed. 

Kirk needed Spock, and Spock needed Kirk.  The same was just as true for Scotty and McCoy.  Individually, they succumbed to terrors, errors, and arrogance.  As a group of friends, playing off of and leavening the strengths of the other, they were unstoppable.

These are not just good lessons, they are western and, even better, transcendent ones. 

My Freewrite and Me

[This piece first appeared four years ago. I love my Freewrite (and the Traveler) even more than I did then.]

As far back as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a writer.  Professionally. 

Much of this desire came from my mom (an extremely well-read and gifted person, now age 80), but it also came from several different authors who inspired me.  Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, J.R.R. Tolkien.  These three moved me beyond–ironically–mere words. 

It wasn’t until I read some political and social criticism in 9th grade, however, that I realized that as much as I liked writing fiction, I absolutely loved writing non-fiction.  As early as fifth grade, I had actually begged my teacher to let me write a research paper.  I don’t remember a year of my life after that (up to my current age, 49) during which I didn’t write a research paper or papers or the equivalent.  Weird, I know.

I forced myself to learn typing on my maternal grandfather’s typewriter sometime in the eighth grade.  Then, when in high school, I took typing.  Weirdly enough, this might have been the single most important class I took prior to college!  Almost immediately after learning how to type on manual and electric typewriters, I learned how to type on my Commodore 64 and, then, in 1984, on my Mac.

A month or so ago–after agonizing over the price–I decided to take the plunge and order the Astrohaus FREEWRITE.

I had read all the reviews I could find on the internet, and, while generally positive, a few were downright hostile and mocking.  According to one review, I might actually be a “hipster” for purchasing the FREEWRITE.  If a hipster can have 7 kids, go to Sunday Mass, obsess over progressive rock, and have grey hair, then I’m a hipster.

For those of you who have yet to see a picture of the FREEWRITE, it is a thing of intense beauty.  From its weight to its feel to its lines to its keyboard to its screen to its off/on switch, this is simply a piece of humane and perfectly crafted technology.

The great German-Italian philosopher and man of letters, Romano Guardini, argued that technology could always be judged by one question and one standard.  Does the technology make us more or make us less human?

After using the FREEWRITE for a month, I can state that it makes us more human and grandly so.  I actually look forward to using it.  Not only does it feel great, but I can type much faster on it than I can with my Mac keyboard and, even my specialized DAS KEYBOARD.

For those of you who have yet to see it, the FREEWRITE is only a keyboard and screen.  It has internet capabilities, but only to send things to the cloud, not to receive them.  Thus, it’s 100% distraction free.  The company calls it a “smart typewriter,” and this seems to me more than good marketing.  It seems quite accurate.  There’s no Facebook, no twitter, no anger, no hatred, no politics, no trolls, and no spewing of the spleen–just a human (in this case, the 49-year old variety), a keyboard, and a screen.

Imagination, fly, be free!

I only have one complaint with my FREEWRITE, and it’s a minor complaint.  When I hit the space bar, there’s a strange echo and reverb as if a spring is about to give.  Should this actually happen in the realm beyond the realm of sound, I assume that Astrohaus will fix it.  The keyboard itself isn’t quiet, but the space key has its own unique and weird sound, quite different from the other keys.  Overall, though, I love the keyboard–its feel as well as its sound.  It’s not quiet, but it is satisfying. 

Very satisfying.

I realize that for many writers out there, the ca. $500 price tag will serve as a preventative.  Let me assure you, though, given the quality of the FREEWRITE as well as the distraction-free aspects of it, it’s more than worth the price.  Far more than worth it.  I was able to recoup my costs in just a few weeks of blog submissions.  Granted, I could’ve spent that money in other ways, but I can’t think of any other ways that would’ve increased both my creativity and my (much) freer imagination than the FREEWRITE.

Unfold the Future by The Flower Kings

Highest Prog Fantasy: Unfold The Future by the Flower Kings

[Originally published in 2017]

A review The Flower Kings, UNFOLD THE FUTURE (2002; remastered and reissued, 2017). Tracks: The Truth Will Set You Free; Monkey Business; Black and White; Christianopel; Silent Inferno; The Navigator; Vox Humana; Genie in a Bottle; Fast Lane; Grand Old World; Soul Vortex; Rollin’ the Dice; The Devil’s Schooldance; Man Overboard; Solitary Shell; Devil’s Playground; and Too Late for Tomatos

Grade: A+.  Glorious.  Full.  Enchanting.  Mesmerizing.

The Flower Kings released its first boxset, A KINGDOM OF COLOURS (Insideout Music), in very late 2017.  Granted, we’re more than a bit late coming to the news, and I (Brad) only realized that the boxset had come out when seeing an advertisement for the forthcoming second boxset.

This set—a gorgeously packaged one at that—is part 1 of 2, re-releasing the band’s first official seven studio albums.  Missing are any b-sides, extra tracks, live releases, and the album that started it all, Stolt’s 1994 solo album, THE FLOWER KING.  But, these absences are certainly fine, as the boxset is what it is.  The next set, according to Insideout, will have three full disks of new or previously unreleased material.  Additionally and spectacularly, of those original albums re-released for A KINGDOM OF COLOURS, the final one, 2002’s UNFOLD THE FUTURE, has been completely remastered by the Flower King himself, Mr. Roine Stolt.

Despite being a life-long prog fan, I didn’t come to The Flower Kings until the band released its 1999 album, FLOWER POWER.  When it came out, one of my best students (now, amazingly enough, a beloved colleague) lent it to me, knowing my love of all things prog.  Not only did FLOWER POWER floor me, but I had to purchase it and everything the band had done to that point.  To say I became a MASSIVE fan of the band in 1999 would be pure understatement.  My love of the music produced by Stolt and co. was tangible, and I simply couldn’t get enough.  Of those first seven studio albums, my favorite—to this day—is SPACE REVOLVER (2000).  Yet, there’s nothing the band has done that I don’t love. 

When UNFOLD THE FUTURE came out in November, 2002, I was just completely my first book (on Tolkien) and starting my second (on Christopher Dawson).  It was a heady time in my professional life, and The Flower Kings served as a thrilling and inspirational soundtrack.  To me, the band was making not just prog, but mythic prog.  Not just prog, but actual high fantasy.  Indeed, unlike almost any other band in rock, The Flower Kings alone were defining and making albums as manifestations of fantastic moods or states of being.  BACK IN THE WORLD OF ADVENTURES was explorative; RETROPOLIS was playful; STARDUST WE ARE was redemptive.  Of those first seven studio albums, though, the seventh, UNFOLD THE FUTURE, was boldly confident and righteous.  Not pretentious, but definitely righteous.

Even more than the previous releases, the band embraced every form of musical expression for UNFOLD THE FUTURE: everything from Genesis-like symphonic prog to Metheny and Brubeck-like jazz to tiddly-winks and novelty music.  It was all there.  All there.  Everything.  Nothing absent.  Yet, it all came together in some appreciative whirligig of cohesive and thunderous reality. 

Additionally, while the themes of earlier albums, such as FLOWER POWER, were overtly pagan, the themes of UNFOLD THE FUTURE are subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) Christian.  But, they’re mythically Christian rather than pietistically Christian.  At center stage in the drama of UNFOLD THE FUTURE stand two mighty figures: the devil and the Holy Mother.  Whether Stolt means the Holy Mother to be the white goddess who appeared to Socrates, the White Buffalo woman who appeared to the original Sioux, the Lady of the Lake who appeared to Arthur, or the Virgin Mary, it probably matters not.  She’s the Holy Mother, and she hates the devil.

The three central tracks of the album are 1) The Truth Will Set You Free; 5) Silent Inferno; and 16) Devil’s Playground.

The opening track, “The Truth Will Set Us Free,” not surprisingly, takes us to the beginning—allowing us to imagine the first rainfall on the earth and the incomprehensibly huge heart and grace that allowed it all to come into being.  The second main track, “Silent Inferno,” is tenebrous, and the world slides easily into the twilight realm of existence, a haunting and foreboding hovering over all humanity.  The final track, though, “Devil’s Playground,” pits the two giants against one another, the force of Hell and the Holy Mother.  Though the song ends on a nebulous note, it’s hard not to believe that the Holy Mother has not emerged victorious.  After all, how could the album—or the band—ever promote the transcendence of the human person (as seen on the cover of the album) without a victory against the forces of evil.

Well, maybe it’s just wishful thinking on my part.  Still, let me just state: I’ve been listening to UNFOLD THE FUTURE for sixteen years now, and it never gets old.  That Stolt has remastered the entire album is just an added blessing and grace.  Perfecting that which is already perfect. 

At least perfect as understood in this world of sorrows.

The Gray Eminence of Christopher Dawson

To put it simply (and perhaps a bit “simplistically”—but I prefer to think of it as putting it “with fervor”), Christopher Dawson was one of the greatest historians of the twentieth century, certainly one of its greatest men of letters, and perhaps one of the most respected Catholic scholars in the English speaking world.  I’ve have had the opportunity and privilege to argue this elsewhere, including here at the majestic The Imaginative Conservative.  I would even go so far as to claim that Dawson was THE historian of the past 100 years.

Without going deeply into Dawson’s thought—or any aspect of it—in this post, it is worthwhile cataloguing how many of his contemporaries claimed him important and his scholarship and ideas for their own.  This means, consequently, that while most Americans—Catholic or otherwise—no longer remember Christopher Dawson, they do often remember affectionately those he profoundly (one might even state indelibly) influenced.  The list includes well known personalities such as T.S. Eliot, Thomas Merton, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis. 

In the world of humane learning and scholarship in the twentieth century, Dawson was a sort of John Coltrane.  Just as few non musicians listen to Coltrane, but EVERY serious musician does, the same was essentially true of Dawson.  And, yet, as with Coltrane, Dawson did enjoy long periods of widespread popularity and support in his own lifetime.

“For Dawson is more like a movement than a man,” his publisher and friend, Frank Sheed, wrote of him in 1938. “His influence with the non-Catholic world is of a kind that no modern Catholic has yet had, both for the great number of fields in which it is felt and for the intellectual quality of those who feel it.”[1]  As evidence, Sheed could cite much.  By the early 1930s, while Dawson was still in his early 40s,  American Catholic colleges began teaching courses on his thought, tying him to the larger Catholic literary movement of the day.[2]  In 1933, the American Catholic journal Commonweal stated that “the writings of Christopher Dawson demand the thoughtful attention of all educated men.”[3]  Six years later, the Jesuit journal, The Month, claimed that to “commend Mr. Dawson’s work is unnecessary; nothing that he writes could be unimportant.”[4]  In 1949, Waldemar Gurian, a refugee from the Nazis and a professor at the University of Notre Dame, wrote, Dawson’s “very ability to make brilliant understatements and to display without pride, as something self-evident, his extraordinary broad knowledge make his synthesis particularly impressive.”[5]  In 1950, the English Dominican journal, Blackfriars, claimed “that Mr. Dawson is an educator; perhaps the greatest that Heaven has sent us English Catholics since Newman.”[6]

Maisie Ward, the famous biographer and co-founder of the Sheed and Ward publishing house, admitted to Dawson in 1961, “You were, as I said on Sunday, truly the spear-head of our publishing venture.”[7]  Ward put it into greater context in her autobiography, Unfinished Business.  “Looking back at the beginnings of such intellectual life as I have had, I feel indebted to three men of genius: Browning, Newman, and Chesterton,” she admitted.  “But in my middle age, while we owed much as publishers to many men and women, foreign and English, the most powerful influence on the thinking of both myself and my husband was certainly Christopher Dawson.”[8]  Even among the clergy, none held the reputation that Dawson did by the 1950s.  Again, as Ward noted rather bluntly in a letter to Dawson, “There is no question in my mind that no priest exists at the moment whose name carries anything like the weight in or outside the church that yours does.”[9]  This is an impressive claim, especially when one recalls the intellect and influence of a Martin D’Arcy, a John Courtney Murray, or a J. Fulton Sheen, all eminent priests.

Neo-Thomist historian and philosopher Etienne Gilson also acknowledged his profound admiration for Dawson in a 1950 letter to Frank Sheed.  Gilson especially appreciated Dawson’s Making of Europe (1932) and Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (1950).[10]  The latter “provided me with what I had needed during forty years without being able to find it anywhere: an intelligent and reliable background for a history of mediaeval philosophy,” Gilson admitted.  “Had I been fortunate in having such a book before writing my [Spirit of the Middle Ages,] my own work would have been other and better than it is.”[11]  High praise, indeed.

American Trappist Monk and author Thomas Merton claimed to have found his purpose in life while reading Dawson’s 1952 book, Understanding Europe.  “Whether or not [Dawson] came too late, who can say?” Merton worried.  “In any case I have a clear obligation to participate, as long as I can, and to the extent of my abilities, in every effort to help a spiritual and cultural renewal of our time.  This is the task  that has been given me, and hitherto I have not been clear about it, in all its aspects and dimensions.”[12]

As Eliot’s best biographer, Russell Kirk, wrote, “Of social thinkers in his own time, none influenced Eliot more than Dawson.”[13]  For three decades, Eliot was quite taken with Dawson’s views, and it would be difficult if not impossible to find a scholar who influenced Eliot more.  In the early 1930s, Eliot told an American audience that Dawson was the foremost thinker of his generation in England.[14]  He explicitly acknowledged his debt to Dawson in the introductions to his two most politically- and culturally-oriented books, The Idea of a Christian Society and Notes Towards the Definition of Culture.[15]  One can also find Dawson’s influence in two of Eliot’s most important writings of the moral imagination, “Murder in the Cathedral” and “The Four Quartets.”[16]  Eliot continued to acknowledge a debt to Dawson after World War II.  In a speech to the London Conservative Union in 1955, Eliot told his fellow conservatives that they should understand conservatism as Dawson does, not as political, but as ante-political and anti-ideological.  Only then, Eliot argued, could English conservatives truly and effectively shape society.[17]

One cannot imagine C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man without Dawson’s scholarship in his 1929 book, Progress and Religion.  The same is true of J.R.R. Tolkien’s best academic essay, “On Fairie-Stories,” delivered at the University of St. Andrews in 1939.  While the essay in its thought is purely Tolkienian, the English philologist and fantasist relies on the scholarship of Dawson very openly.  All three knew each other well, and Tolkien and Dawson even attended the same parish in Oxford.

There are so many lessons to be learned from all of this.  First, we should never take the influence of Christopher Dawson for granted.  Second, it should also give each person hope.  We should, of course, do our best in whatever we do.  What others do with it is beyond our will, but we put it out there, nonetheless, and we hope.  Dawson’s story—at least this aspect of it—makes us realize that we can play a vital role in the times, even if our own individual ego has not been soothed.

[1] F.J. Sheed, “Christopher Dawson,” The Sign (June 1938), 661.

[2] Arnold Sparr, To Promote, Defend, and Redeem: The Catholic Literary Revival and the Cultural Transformation of American Catholicism, 1920-1960 (New York: Greenwood Press, 1990), 24, 103

[3] T. Lawrason Riggs, “A Voice of Power,” Commonweal (August 4, 1933), 330.

[4] Thomas Corbishly, “Our Present Discontents,” The Month 173 (1939): 440.

[5] Waldemar Gurian, “Dawson’s Leitmotif,” Commonweal (June 3, 1949).

[6] Kenelm Foster, O.P., “Mr Dawson and Chistendom,” Blackfriars 31 (1950): 423.

[7] Maisie Ward, New York, to Dawson, Harvard, 1961, in the Christopher H. Dawson Collection, Box 11, Folder 25, “Frank Sheed 1960,” Department of Special Collections, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minnesota (hereafter UST/CDC)

[8] Maisie Ward, Unfinished Business (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1964), 117.

[9] Maisie Sheed, London, to Dawson, October 1953, Box 11, Folder 18, “Frank Sheed 1953” in UST/CDC.

[10] Sheed to Dawson, 1936, in Box 11 (Sheed and Ward Papers), Folder 2, “Frank Sheed, 1936”, in UST/CDC.

[11] Etienne Gilson to Frank Sheed, 22 August 1950, in Box 11, Folder 16 “Frank Sheed 1950”, in UST/CDC.

[12] Thomas Merton, journal entry for August 22, 1961, Turning Toward the World: The Pivotal Year, ed. by Victor A. Kramer (San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), 155.  See also Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (New York: Image Books, 1966), 55, 194-94; and Patrick Hart and Jonathan Montaldo, eds., The Intimate Merton: His Life from His Journals (San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999), 190.

[13] Russell Kirk, Eliot and His Age: T.S. Eliot’s Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century (Peru, Ill.: Sherwood Sugden, 1988), 300.  On Dawson’s influence on Eliot, see also Bernard Wall, “Giant Individualists and Orthodoxy,” Twentieth Century (January 1954): 59.

[14] Christina Scott, A Historian and His World, 210.

[15] The two have been republished together as T.S. Eliot, Christianity and Culture (San Diego, Calif.: Harvest, 1967).

[16] Kirk, Eliot and His Age, 231-2, 299-300; and Joseph Schwartz, “The Theology of History in T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets,” Logos 2 (Winter 1999): 34.

[17] T.S. Eliot, “The Literature of Politics,” Time and Tide (23 April 1955), 524.

Podcast: The Return of the King

Our three-part series on The Lord of the Rings comes, sadly, to an end. A huge thanks to John J. Miller for bringing me onto his excellent show and allowing me to talk and talk and talk about some of the things I love most in this crazy whirligig of a world. A true and meaningful honor.

Here is part III: