Wiseblood Books

Winners of the J.F. Powers Prize Announced

Our panel of judges—Matthew Lickona, Andrew McNabb, and Eve Tushnet—have announced their selections the first annual J.F. Powers Prize for Short Fiction. One winner and nine honorable mentions were selected from a pool of 400 candidates. And the winners are . . . (click here to find out)

Why the Church Is Dying in Latin America

Among the many materialist fallacies of our time, there is one that manages to be at the same time popular and elitist: the degrading idea that the poor have no use for things like beauty. You never see it so boldly stated, but you find it in an attitude that treats the poor as so many stomachs to be filled, as underutilized resources to be harnessed or tangles of social pathologies to be straightened out. It’s a view incapable of seeing the needy as real people—people like you—people who fall in love, who choose daily between good and evil, who make mistakes, and fix them, and feel shame or pride or boredom, who cry when they hear a song and look up with fear and wonder at the lightning.

Catedral Primada, Bogota, Colombia

When applied to religion, this is the attitude that looks at a glowing gilded altar and calls it hypocrisy—and then looks at a gilded shopping mall and calls it progress. That the Church’s artistic treasures, which are currently enjoyed freely by worshippers and visitors throughout the world, would end up, if sold, in private mansions, select museums, and fancy hotels for the enjoyment of rich patrons doesn’t seem to bother these would-be champions of the needy. And while the Church itself—seeing in each person an immortal mystery in whom dwells a reflection of the face of God—has ever been a bulwark against this error, you can still find this tendency among many of its members, including its clergy. It’s an un-Catholic disposition to see beauty as superfluous, as something that may be well and good in the pope’s Masses, but irrelevant to the life of parishes in the inner city or the developing world. As if bodily hunger somehow quenched the hunger of our spirit. As if a life starved of beauty wouldn’t smother our human dignity as surely as anything else. As if we could love a God who we didn’t first think beautiful.

I bring all of this up because during a recent trip to my native Colombia, I became convinced that the Church in Latin America is dying for lack of beauty. In fact, unless things change drastically in the near future, it’s no exaggeration to say that this part of the world, which is now rejoicing to see the first of its sons seated on the throne of Peter, will find itself by the end of the 21st century—if not much sooner—in the same sad state of dechristianization we now see in Europe. The problem is not a lack of solidarity in terms of what you would usually associate with service to the poor—indeed the Latin American Church has a proud social justice tradition, and in this sense Pope Francis is no exception. Neither is the famous Archbishop Romero alone among Latin American clergy in his example of extraordinary courage, a passion for social justice, and a willingness to serve even at the cost of his life; my own former archbishop, Monseñor Isaias Duarte Cancino, was gunned down at the door of a church for daring to speak against the drug cartels that used to run the city. Such heroic witness has not been without its fruit, and yet our people are starving—starving spiritually—because the primary point of contact between most believers and the Church—the Mass—has been so gutted of transcendence that it reminds the average person of Heaven about as much as reading through an accounting textbook. The chance someone who is not already devout will ever sense a hint of the sublime at one of our Masses is practically null. And sure, North Americans love to complain about the liturgy too, but the problem in Latin America is not so much poorly celebrated liturgies or liturgical abuses, as liturgies that are simply dead. So will be the Church be, unless it can rediscover the beauty of its worship.

Considered from this point of view, the struggles of the Church in Latin America during recent decades become not only understandable, but predictable. Optimistic commentators often talk about a Christian boom in the “Global South,” and for all I know their analysis may be true for places like Africa and parts of Asia. Latin America, though, is another matter. During my teenage years in Colombia, a rushing tide of evangelicalism seemed to be the biggest challenger to the Catholic faith. The sheer dullness—sometimes silliness—of the liturgy, coupled with a not-unrelated ignorance about Catholic teaching, caused millions to leave for new Protestant congregations whose services, however lacking in real beauty, at least made an effort to give people an emotional experience. Non-Catholic Christians may well consider that good news, but the underlying weaknesses that exposed the Catholic Church to evangelicalism have left these once solidly Catholic countries wide open to an even stronger onslaught of secularism. And unfortunately evangelicalism—or at least the brand of evangelicalism that exists in Latin America today—simply doesn’t have the cultural and intellectual wherewithal to stem the tide. Indeed, evangelicalism was not enough to tackle even a lukewarm attachment to Catholicism—in Colombia, for example, its rate of growth has subsided significantly. The fact is that, fairly or not, the average Colombian tended to see evangelicals as fanatical, and so for a while it was easier to stay with nominal Catholicism as a default position.

That has changed. With a rising tide of secularism and controversial moral issues dominating the headlines, nominal Catholicism for many is no longer the path of least resistance. Growing up, I was rare among my peers—with the exception of the few evangelicals there were—for wanting to go to Church, though most stuck around anyway.[1] Now, however, I’m not rare just for wanting to go, but for going at all, and this among a population of Catholic children who all received First Communion and Confirmation. A main cause is ignorance of Catholic theology and philosophy, which has left even faithful Latin American Catholics intellectually unprepared for the challenges of secularism, but even here the liturgy is a major issue. One of my cousins recently returned to belief after decades of atheism, but he has given up trying to attend Mass with his young daughters, as he feels that the more he takes them, the more the banality of the worship alienates them from the Church. Unfortunately, like in many other parts of the world, many have tried to deal with this problem by making the Mass “fun,” playing songs that try to mimic what one hears on the radio—except with lyrics that are even more syrupy—with the predictable result of making the Mass ridiculous. What we fail to realize is that Mass shouldn’t be fun, it should be glorious.

Catholics in the United States have long been generous givers to the Church’s efforts in favor of the needy throughout the world, supporting organizations like Catholic Relief Services or religious orders like Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity. The value of this work cannot be overstated—in Africa, for example, the Church reportedly cares for 50% of all AIDS/HIV patients, and as I learned while interning at the UNHCR during college, in the United States about 50% of refugee resettlement cases are handled by Catholic institutions. However, strange as it may sound to many who bewail the quality of the Mass in the typical American parish, the Church in the United States possesses a comparative wealth in its liturgy that it has not even realized, a wealth that ought to be shared.

What is to be done? It is hard to see where a turnaround for Latin America could even start, thought I am encouraged to see that Corpus Christi Watershed has begun work on producing a Spanish hymnal, which, if their work in English is anything to go by, should be a wonderful resource. I am also pleased to see that they are not merely adapting English hymns for export to Latin America, but working with Hispanic Catholics to produce something rich and authentic from within our own history. This is a great first step, but much more is needed. Imagine, for example, the positive impact that American liturgical choirs could have if they partnered with Latin American parishes for what one might call a Liturgical Mission Trip. As is typical with Catholic mission trips, groups could spend a couple of weeks abroad doing social service work, but then in addition to this, they would sing during Masses at their host parish. Listening to the foreign choir would no doubt serve as an opportunity for local parish priests to draw bigger crowds to church, while at the same time whetting the appetites of those who attend. The groups could then develop longer-term relationships, serving as a resource to clergy and lay ministers interested in creating or improving local choirs (and please let me place the emphasis on creating, as choirs are rare, the music usually being provided by one or two people singing, perhaps accompanied by a guitar or keyboard). If one picked the right parishes and cities, word of this work could easily spread, leading other parishes to follow suit, developing a sustainable culture of beauty in liturgical practice.

These are just a couple of examples or ideas off the top of my head. My point is simply to raise awareness about the need there is in this area, and hopefully to spark a conversation. Our failure to act is already having disastrous consequences on the Church’s health in this important region of the world. The liturgy, of course, is only one aspect among the many challenges the Church faces there, but it is a vital and sorely neglected aspect. We need to realize that beauty is essential to any true notion of progress and human development. Once we understand that it is not a luxury but a human need, we must conclude that beauty is a blessing the Church ought to make all the more available to its neediest members—to those who need not only “practical” support such as food or education or healthcare, but the hope that comes with being able to catch a glimpse beyond the mundane and feel the joy of awe before the presence of God.

[1] As an aside, my desire to attend Mass persisted very much despite the music (if there was any) and I always felt a deep sense of embarrassment about singing in public. I always thought the embarrassment came from my being ashamed to show I cared about my faith—until I came to the US and, for the first time, had the opportunity to sing a hymn that hadn’t been written for three year-olds. I suddenly found that every trace of embarrassment was gone.

On Art and Necessity

I once asked my old art professor why she was a painter. After stumbling around for a while, she said something like, “the process of painting teaches you how to live.”

I’ve been thinking about this response for a few years now. It’s a statement I believe in wholeheartedly, but I also stumble around before ever repeating it. In the studio, I often feel like I’m reaching in the dark, but I rarely feel like I am being taught.

Five weeks ago my wife and I had our first daughter. She came five weeks early. Twelve days in the NICU completely reoriented my priorities. The second Augusta was sent down the hall for breathing issues, my wife and I clicked into survival mode. Nothing else mattered besides caring and advocating for our daughter in the NICU. Now that we’re back home, I’ve haven’t clicked out of that mode. The impulse to create, replaced by the impulse to survive, now seems ridiculous. How could anything be less urgent than smudging oil and pigment around on a flat surface?

Obama shared my sentiments lately. A few weeks ago he was criticized for his thoughts on the art history degree:

“I promise you, folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.” [sic][laughter]

This doesn’t seem unreasonable to me. Skilled manufacturing is so much more urgent, so much more relevant than discussing the well-smeared paste of artists long past. Who has time for that? I’d rather feed my family, or fix the problem in Syria.

The College Art Association responded to Obama’s remarks. If we do away with such degrees, “America’s future generations will be discouraged from taking advantage of the values, critical and decisive thinking and creative problem solving offered by the humanities.”

But art making never seems so urgent as saving future generations. When so much of what we encounter on a daily basis offers an escape from reality, isn’t art just another way out? So many paintings offer pastoral windows into other worlds. These pleasant getaways rarely challenge our beliefs or craft our values.

Of course such paintings have their place, but I really believe that art was born out of a much more urgent necessity. The Chauvet Cave drawings, some of the earliest known, are anything but decorative. Painted in the far recesses of a cave, most of the drawings feature predatory animals or buffalos or horses in states of movement. There is a palpable searching in these drawings, an urgency, a need to really figure something out. One drawing features a combined female and bison figure. Here two fabrics of life are awkwardly knit together in charcoal. Sustenance and generation, death and life so intertwined, it only makes sense to draw them as one.

The Chauvet Cave Drawings, photo from the Bradshaw Foundation

Such images often express what words cannot. More recently, drawings have been used in refugee camps as a successful way for children to express their thoughts and feelings. With a simple drawing, they can express what they could not put into words. The process of drawing accesses a different part of the psyche. It is a process of seeking, digging, carving until you get somewhere. You only need to keep your hand moving. Art does not offer a way out, it offers a way in. Born out of necessity, art making unfolds new topographies, new ways of charting. A drawing or painting becomes an extension of seeing, and even when it’s not necessary, we still turn to these mediums to know deeper.

Even still, art seems like an extra-thing, a we-could-get-by-without-it thing. But I think we can say its superfluousness is only matched by its necessity.

J.F. Powers Prize Winners to be Announced February 28

As many readers will recall, late last year Dappled Things began receiving submissions for its first fiction contest, the J.F. Powers Prize for Short Fiction. The prize will pay $500 to the winner, plus publication in the journal for nine additional honorable mentions.

We were extremely pleased with the response from authors, having received around 400 submissions total (which was quite a challenge to comb through!). Our three judges, Eve Tushnet, Matthew Lickona, and Andrew McNabb, are now in the process of finalizing their decisions, and they will announce the winners on our website on February 28. We are excited to learn the results, and encouraged by the quantity and quality of material we received. Please check back in a few days to learn more about the contest winners, who will be published during the coming year, starting with the winning story in the Easter 2014 edition.

Also, we are pleased to report that thanks to the excellent results of our Christmas fundraising campaign (after a worryingly slow start, we must admit, but with tremendous results by the end), we will be introducing a non-fiction prize this year. The details are still being hammered out, but we’ll let you know all about it once we’ve figured it all out.

Thanks to all who submitted their work to this year’s prize. It has been a wonderful experience having the chance to read through such excellent work, and we look forward to publishing the winners soon.

Sleuthing Out the Decidedly Odd Books of William Byrd:

When I heard Duke Musicology Professor Kerry Robin McCarthy’s talk “From the library of a Renaissance composer,” I was fascinated. The talk was delivered at a lecture given to the Sarum Seminar, which is put on by a group of medieval studies enthusiasts in the San Francisco Bay Area. In her talk, McCarthy recounted a series of happy discoveries she made as she began to track down what turned out to be a decidedly odd collection of books from the library of William Byrd.

Byrd, as you may know, was a brilliant Catholic composer of the Renaissance in England whose music is still performed today. Even the little choir I belong to sings his Mass for Three Voices frequently and his Ave Verum Corpus motet, among others of his works.

Byrd’s life was full of paradoxes. He worked for Queen Elizabeth as a court musician and was prominent among Elizabeth’s Protestant courtiers, but he also composed music that he and his harried Catholic co-religionists would sing at Masses, which they were forced to celebrate in secret, in fear of a knock at the door.

Portrait commonly (but mistakenly) believed to be of Byrd. According to McCarthy, "There is no evidence that the well-known engraved portrait of Byrd is anything but a fanciful eighteenth-century artist’s rendition of an Elizabethan gentleman." This engraving by Gerard van der Guch, after a drawing by Nicola Francesco Haym, c.1729, is in the British Museum.

Portrait commonly (but mistakenly) believed to be of Byrd. According to McCarthy, “There is no evidence that the well-known engraved portrait of Byrd is anything but a fanciful eighteenth-century artist’s rendition of an Elizabethan gentleman.” This engraving by Gerard van der Guch, after a drawing by Nicola Francesco Haym, c.1729, is in the British Museum.

Kerry McCarthy fell in love with Byrd while singing the composer’s music in a chorus when she was a freshman at Reed. She switched majors from history to music, and she went on to earn a PhD in music from Stanford. McCarthy has been teaching and singing music at Duke for about 10 years now, and she is so well known for her Byrd scholarship that she was chosen by Oxford University Press to write a biography of Byrd for their Master Musicians series.
Byrd, by Kerry McCarthy, from the Oxford University Master Musicians Series

Byrd, by Kerry McCarthy, from the Oxford University Master Musicians Series

Professor McCarthy is a witty writer and raconteur. I became acquainted with her when I sang Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony with the St. Ann choir at a Palo Alto, CA church for several years under the direction of Stanford Professor William Mahrt, who is also president of the Church Music Association of America and editor of the journal, “Sacred Music.” While McCarthy was working on her PhD, she sang – she has a striking voice — in Mahrt’s choir. As part of her graduate work, she directed the choir in singing through the Propers of all the works of Byrd for the main feasts of the liturgical year from his Gradualia, sung where the music is meant to be sung, in the Mass. Now she often returns to Palo Alto and sings with choir while on breaks from her Duke teaching duties.

(For more about the achievements of the St. Ann choir, see “How The St. Ann Choir Kept Chant and Polyphony Alive for 50 Years”, and for more about Byrd’s double life, see “William Byrd’s Secret Catholic Masterpieces”, which is based on Professor McCarthy’s biography.)

When I ran into McCarthy some time after the Sarum Seminar, at the home of mutual friends, I asked her for a copy of her talk. I also told her that what she described that day reminded me of a certain type of nonfiction book I’m quite fond of, the kind that is a combination of history, culture, and detective story. The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece came to mind, because it is a book about the search for a long lost Caravaggio painting by a persistent young scholar of art history. While The Lost Painting is about art detection, Kerry McCarthy’s talk could be said to be about book detection.

McCarthy remarked that what she did was only a slight thing compared to seeking a lost Caravaggio, and I agreed, but I said I enjoyed it like an intellectual mystery story nonetheless. “It’s just one of the little talks I give, just incidental.” “Incidental?” I asked, and then answered my own question. “Oh, you mean because it only describes the process by which you did the research, and not the end result.” “Yes,” she agreed, that was what she meant.

Incidental or not, I think the process itself is as fascinating as the contribution to Byrd scholarship that resulted.

The way McCarthy tells it, it’s a suspenseful but not at all boastful tale, in which she ferrets out and follows one clue after another — until she is finally able to compile the largest extant collection of books from any one Renaissance composer’s library.

First: she finds a reference to a book signed by William Byrd in a Victorian journal

“So how did this whole project start?” McCarthy said. It started “while I was browsing through old magazines looking for something else.” McCarthy was looking through issues of a 19th-century journal called Notes and Queries, which is, she said, “more or less the low-tech equivalent to an internet discussion group: people send in hundreds of short posts every month, asking obscure questions (those are the Queries) or offering unusual bits of information (those are the Notes). . . .

“90% of the stuff in any issue will be totally irrelevant to any single reader; 10% will be interesting or at least thought-provoking; and once in a long while, there will be the piece of information you’ve been looking for all your life.”

The once in a long while entry that caught McCarthy’s eye was made in 1867 by a music collector and antiquarian named Edward Rimbault, who wrote: “I have a curious little volume in my library, with the autograph signature of ‘Wm. Byrd’ on the title-page. It is a violent attack on the Roman Catholic religion by one ‘J. Hull’. What was Byrd’s reason for possessing this volume, and furthermore identifying it with himself by his signature on the title-page? I suspect it was to blind those who came to search among his papers.”

Scholars, according to McCarthy, are familiar with this Rimbault as “something of a forger and a liar,” among Victorian Tudor-music revival circles, “but this seemed worth following up on.”

Second, she makes a trip to Princeton to see it for herself

McCarthy went on, “The ‘curious little volume’ Rimbault described was a book called The Unmasking of the Politike Atheist, published in 1602. . . . 1602 was certainly a plausible date for a book owned by Byrd.” Six copies of the book survived, and McCarthy was able to locate the copy that had the Byrd signature at the Princeton Theological Seminary. So she got on a commuter plane to Princeton.

Byrd's signature from one of the books he owned, titled The Unmasking of the Politike Atheist

Byrd’s signature from one of the books he owned, titled The Unmasking of the Politike Atheist

“It wasn’t all that rare for Renaissance people to write their names on title pages, and there was nothing to say we had the right Byrd. There was also the annoying fact that 18th and 19th-century scholars did a lot of faking, forging, and stretching of facts to suit their purposes.” Contributing to her skepticism was the fact that the book supposedly owned by Byrd was “a violent attack on the Catholic religion,” which would make it quite a curious book for a staunch Catholic like Byrd to own.

“I went to the Theological Seminary and looked at the signature on the title page. Then I compared it with a couple of Byrd’s authentic signatures from a legal document he wrote out in 1598, just a few years before this book came out.” She continued, “They’re more or less the same. These signatures from 1598 weren’t even discovered until the 20th century, so there’s no way Rimbault or his friends in the book trade could have copied them. So what we have here is a book signed by our composer.”

McCarthy discussed some of the speculations about why Byrd would have a book like that at all, and then said, “The most plausible conclusion may be a simpler one: he was caught up in the religious controversies of his time, just as so many other people were, and he was prepared to read even violent attacks on his own beliefs and practices.”

This virulently anti-Catholic image, which is subtitled “against the wicked governance of papal dignity,” shows a “seven-headed and goat-legged decidedly female monster shitting out a pope.” It is from The New Arrival of the Three Graces into Anglia, one of the anti-Catholic books from Byrd’s library

Third, she begins to trace a paper trail through book dealers and auction houses

McCarthy said that she’d figured she’d just chanced upon a nice piece of Byrd-related trivia and filed it away. “Then two things happened. The first thing: I found an entry in an old Victorian auction catalog describing precisely this book, ‘Byrd’ signature and all. . . .All of a sudden I realized what would be the key to the rest of this project: almost any Elizabethan book that hadn’t been burned or used for fishwrap would have belonged to a whole string of people over the centuries, and it would probably have left a paper trail through various book dealers and auction houses. . . . Not too much later, the second thing happened. I got an email from someone in an archive in London, with an image attached. . . . It was the title page of another book, with another signature in the same handwriting and exactly the same format: ‘William’ to the left of the printer’s ornament, ‘Byrd’ to the right.”

Realizing that there were more books out there from Byrd’s library that she could probably locate by poring over records of book dealers and catalogs from auctions, McCarthy began her Byrd library project in earnest.

“The next year or so was certainly an interesting one. I went through more Victorian auction catalogs than I want to think about, and wrote an appalling number of unsolicited letters to librarians and archivists. The signed books and pamphlets started showing up, sometimes in the most unlikely places. At one point I was so amazed that I dropped my laptop on a concrete floor.”

Fourth, the jigsaw puzzle pieces start to take shape

McCarthy found even more hints to the extent of Byrd’s library. Byrd inscribed other clues on the title pages in addition to his signature. “Sometimes he wrote exact dates. . . . All the books published between 1588 and 1590 also come with something even more helpful. . . . Each of the books from that period have a letter of the alphabet hand-written at the bottom of the title page . . . . Even more helpfully, all these lettered books have handwritten page numbers in the upper right-hand corners.

“The book labeled A starts with page number 1. The page numbers are continuous from one book to the next, and they strictly follow the alphabetical order of the letters: the last page of A is page 14, and the first page of B is page 15. The only gaps in the numbers occur where letters of the alphabet — that is, one or more books — have gone missing.”

She realized that “All these books were bound together into a single large volume at some point, which is something Renaissance book collectors liked to do: you have to remember that even big 16th- century books were generally sold in unbound form, more like modern pamphlets than anything, and it was the owner’s responsibility to get them into some sort of durable cover. Every one of these books has a set of needle holes in the inner margins, and they’re always the same distance apart. The group of books was eventually broken up and sold separately, which is why they ended up all over the English-speaking world.”

Because she realized that the books were all bound together, that the books are labeled, each with an alphabetical letter, and that all the books are numbered consecutively in sequence, McCarthy now knows the size of some of the books that have not yet been found and can make an educated guess about when the missing books were purchased. “Just to give one quick example: the title page with the letter H is missing, but we know that H was a pamphlet exactly 16 pages long, which he almost certainly bought in 1589. It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle with some pieces missing. You don’t have all the pieces yet, but at least you know where the missing ones go in the picture, and whether they’re likely to be sky or grass or building or something else.”

And last year she found out that there are lots more books that she first thought. “There’s one signed volume I knew existed from reading about it in catalogs, but it only showed up last year . . .. This book turns out to be labeled with the letter Q and given page numbers 469 through 498. Nice high numbers, and the letter Q is well along in the alphabet. This is good news. It means there are even more pieces in the jigsaw puzzle than I’d thought.”

What were those additional books she’s managed to locate? Some are anti-Catholic books and pamphlets similar to The Unmasking of the Politike Atheist. “As they kept showing up, I realized that the little volume about The Unmasking of the Politike Atheist wasn’t as strange as I’d thought. Byrd had plenty of other books and pamphlets just like it. Most of the things he signed were works of political or religious controversy. All of those books take the Protestant and Northern European side, although some of them do it with a bit less vehemence. This doesn’t add up with any of the received wisdom about Byrd. Was it all some kind of decoy? Did he have over-eager Protestant friends and family who were slipping him tracts: Here — you might be interested in reading this?”

Fifth, and finally, we try to understand why in the world Byrd owned these books and why he doesn’t have the books we’d expect him to have

The topics of some of the other books in the Byrd library are quite varied. According to McCarthy, “Quite a few of the books have to do with the wars of religion in France . . .. A couple of things from Byrd’s collection have to do with Spain rather than France. . . . Byrd was also interested in books describing the problems at home in England.” He was apparently an armchair traveler, since he owned “a sixteenth-century guide for the traveller to Europe,” although he was never known to venture outside his home country. True to his reputation as a litigious man (which is a whole other story), he also owned a handbook of English law. But in general, these are not the books we would expect him to have.

McCarthy said, “I’ve managed to find a dozen books owned by Byrd, and indirect evidence of what seem to be six or seven more. I’m never sure what will show up next, but given what we have now, almost nothing would surprise me. They’re not the books we might want an English composer to have signed. There’s no Shakespeare; there’s no King James Bible; even more annoyingly, there’s not even any music yet, although some of the books talk about music in passing. This particular collection of books shows a quite different side of the composer’s personality.”

“So that’s a glimpse into Byrd’s library. Of course all this is only a footnote to his musical career — but it’s an important footnote, and it’s surprising how it colors our view of his work once we start reflecting on it a bit.” Why did Byrd buy these books? “Unless some spectacular new source shows up, we can only guess about this. There is a certain kind of person who’s most inspired by listening to the opposition, by reading or hearing opinions they don’t like. It’s not hard to imagine him fueling his extraordinary creativity with these angry rants against many of the things he held dear. Every one of us knows someone like that. If Byrd were alive now, I can guarantee you he’d be a great reader of political blogs. I consider myself extremely lucky to have stumbled onto the 16th-century equivalent.”

Professor Kerry Robin McCarthy

Kerry Robin McCarthy, Professor, Byrd Scholar, and Sleuth

First page of the Kyrie from the Cantus part book, which McCarthy directly copied from the second edition of Byrd’s Mass for 3 Voices 1599-1600.

First page of the Kyrie from the Cantus part book, which McCarthy copied directly from the second edition of Byrd’s Mass for 3 Voices 1599-1600.

The Millennial Little Women

I watched Little Women with one of my roommates last night. Both of us are at the point where we’ve seen it so many times that it’s difficult not to recite it as we watch it, and bits and pieces of the script come up in every day conversation on an alarmingly regular basis. This is the roommate with whom, in college, I watched this whole movie in ten minute segments on YouTube on her phone. I’ve been told this means we’re addicts; I prefer to think of us as budget-restricted devotees.

It had been a while, though, since the last time I saw it, so of course lines that I thought I knew suddenly made new sense; I heard different things than I’ve heard before. One of the parts that struck me is when she’s talking with her mother after telling her dearest friend that no, she doesn’t want to marry him. She’s fretful and unhappy and feeling lost and confused, and it doesn’t help matters that her aunt has taken her little sister to Europe instead of taking her:

“Of course Aunt March prefers Amy over me. Why shouldn’t she? I’m ugly and awkward, and I always say the wrong thing. I fly around, throwing away perfectly good marriage proposals! I love our home, but I’m just so fitful that I can’t stand being here! I’m sorry—I’m sorry, Marmee—there’s just something really wrong with me. I want to change, but I can’t . . . and I just know I’ll never fit in anywhere.”

“Jo. You have so many extraordinary gifts! How can you expect to lead an ordinary life? You’re ready to go out and find a good use for your talent. Although, I don’t know what I shall do without my Jo. Go, and embrace your liberty, and see what wonderful things come of it.”

Okay, I know this is a sentimental movie. But is it just me, or is this the eternal story of that flustered 20-something? It’s not news that every generation has their own challenges, and that they think that their set of challenges is bigger and more monumental than the challenges any other generation has faced before. Ever. And this is what I keep hearing about my own generation, those of us who have been dubbed, “The Millennials.” We’re hopelessly floundering around our 20′s, with little direction, mediocre accomplishments and nothing to be proud of or to hold on to. And no one has ever been so lost as we are now, right?

Well, not exactly.

If I had twelve sons, I might name every one of them Augustine. (Kidding. Maybe.) Born in 354, he didn’t figure out his life till he was 32. In his own words, with my emphasis added,

Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you. You were within, but I outside, seeking there for you, and upon the shapely things you have made, I rushed headlong, I, misshapen. . . . source

Fast forward almost 900 years. In 1181, a cloth merchant’s wife gives birth to a boy whom he names Francesco. He’s fairly well spoiled, likes throwing crazy parties as much as Augustine did, and wants adventure in the great world. His big turn around happened gradually during his mid-twenties, and what a turn around it was. Luckily for Francis of Assisi, he didn’t end up living too long; he did a good job of making an ascetically penitential life for himself, and earned, as far as I can tell, an early retirement.

Go another 500 years. A wild Spanish knight named Ignatius is wounded in battle, and has to lie in bed for months waiting for his leg to heal up. Bored out of his mind, the 31 year old picks up the book someone left on his nightstand. Thus, in 1521, were the Jesuits born, totally kick-ass missionaries of Christ imbued with a soldier’s love of discipline and order. Have you seen The Mission, starring Robert De Niro, Liam Neeson, and Jeremy Irons? Go watch it, and thank Ignatius of Loyola for what he started. (And maybe ask him to help get the Jesuits back to their former glory; they’ve hit a bit of a rough patch.)

So, I have two things to say to you, my fellow millennials.

First, get over yourself. Your challenges are really nothing special in terms of the scope of the universe and all the people who have lived here and what they’ve had to deal with and figure out. Everybody has to fight against something to know his own place. If we didn’t, why then how weary, stale, flat and unprofitable would seem to us all the uses of this world (name that play!). Warning: sometimes they (those uses) will seem that way anyway. For example, bear in mind that figuring it out might take being imprisoned (St. Francis) or getting your leg mauled and lying on your back for a year (St. Ignatius). Get used to the idea, and buck up.

Second, you yourself are actually something pretty special. God never made anybody with the thought, “Now I will create a thoroughly mediocre individual whose highest possible level of accomplishment is unenthralled complacency.” If you are anything like the rest of us, which you are, you’ll hit that moment of crisis comparable to Jo’s. A good life was offered to her, but she knew it wasn’t right, somehow. She didn’t know what was; all she knew was that she was fitful and felt awkward and ugly and out of place and had to do something not that. Luckily for Jo, she had a wonderful mother who told her the right thing. She was meant for extraordinary things. She had talent, she had desire, she had passion, and she had an intellect. She didn’t take the first thing that was offered simply because it was offered and seemed like a “good enough” idea. She went out to test herself and to make her fortune in the world—and that is a story as old and lasting as the hills.

Millennials, your existential crises are nothing more or less than the eternal plight of the human condition. You have a multitude of comrades in the battle. Rise to meet it, revel in it, and be something extraordinary.

This post appeared previously on Taking Back Our Brave New World.

If Games Were Beautiful

downloadIn keeping up with the faith-in-fiction conversation (here, here, here, and here, in case you’d like to catch up on it all at your leisure), I sometimes find myself thinking of the media that have grown at literature’s expense: television and gaming. I say “at literature’s expense” not because I want to start another jeremiad on how shallow these forms of entertainment are, but simply because of the serious time commitment required to keep up with them: we all have limits on our leisure time, and following a show or trying to beat a game is going to take a slice of it that could been spent differently. TV has become more sophisticated since Ray Bradbury’s apocalyptic take on it in Fahrenheit 451, and more of us book-lovers believe it is worth looking for good programming rather than rejecting the medium altogether.

Video games are even younger than television, and the question of whether they can be anything deeper than pure entertainment is just beginning to be asked. Being married to a game designer who majored in English has gotten me to ask that question: Sean takes the element of story in games very seriously, and he got very excited two years ago when Journey was released. We both played through it, and I can only say that it is the first game I’ve played that I’ve pushed other people to play, for the same reasons I push them to read a great book or see a classic film. (It’s only for PlayStation, though, so that is an unfortunate limitation.) The following trailer will give you a taste of its beauty:

In Journey, you are a red-cloaked pilgrim striving to reach a brilliant light on a mountaintop. You slide down dunes of hypnotically silken sand, explore ocher ruins, and acquire the power to fly short–and then longer–distances from jumping into flocks of flying carpet scraps. You kneel at certain points and receive visions of the road ahead or the history of the ruins from a glowing, nun-like figure I nicknamed “iMary.” And I don’t want to ruin the experience by revealing more of the “plot,” such as it is, but at the end of the game I felt that a crust of cynicism I hadn’t even noticed accumulating had been scraped from my mind. It was the sort of catharsis you get from a favorite novel. One of the game’s creators mentioned in an interview her inspiration for the game:

There was a lunch conversation Jenova and I had at a USC event, where we met a spacecraft pilot who had been on three missions to the moon, piloting the space ships. He spoke to his experience, which was that every mission specialist, the people who get out and walk on the moon, was atheist or agnostic when they went on the mission, but when they came back, sometimes immediately and sometimes not ’til months after, they would suddenly be filled with a sense of spirituality. Jenova’s takeaway from that conversation was that… When you are on the moon, looking back at that blue ball, you’re filled with a sense of awe and wonder, and that sense of awe and wonder, because of all of the resources and technology we have available to us today… We don’t have as much access to it. And maybe that’s a fundamental human experience. Could we provide that experience, give people that opportunity to just have a moment where you feel small?

Not only does Journey make you feel small, it makes you feel small alongside another person. The game is so moving because it is a simple, symbolic experience of human companionship: on your journey, you acquire a fellow wayfarer, who is actually a real player paired up with you over the internet. Interactions on online games can be cooperative and friendly or crass and destructive, but Journey brings out the better angels of the gamer’s nature. You can only communicate with the other player by chiming musical notes at them, and in the snow you have to huddle against them for warmth. If you are a new player, you feel tremendous gratitude when a more experienced player (some of them sporting shining white robes) shows the way and waits patiently for you to catch up–and the reward for completing the game multiple times is to become a guide for newbies, who have shorter scarves and can’t fly as far. And–spoiler?–when you finally walk into the light together, you really feel as though you’ve completed a small pilgrimage. How amazing, that a game can reorient us for a few hours, reminding us that we are wayfarers searching for something transcendent, that the help we give each other is critically important, and that we don’t make the journey on our own steam, but only with many helpful graces. I hope to see more small games like this, and I hope that large games will learn from its virtues. There are more forms of art and entertainment competing for our attention than ever, but my hours with Journey were a rewarding date with beauty.

Singing Goodbye to the Alleluia

Posted Septuagesima Sunday February 16, 2014
I began thinking about Septuagesima yesterday because I was a little surprised that this pre-Lenten season is upon us already. Blogger Veronica Brandt drew my attention to this imminent change of seasons by posting a little video yesterday on “Farewell to Alleluia” on the Views from the Choir Loft blog, which showed some of her five children using puppets to sing Alleluias as a way to say “goodbye to the Alleluia.” She wrote, “In the Extraordinary Form tomorrow is Septuagesima, or (roughly) the 70th day before Easter, where all alleluias are suddenly taken away.” You may be wondering, “What does that mean, that all Alleluias are suddenly taken away? And what’s this about singing goodbye to the Alleluia?”

In 1969, the Septuagesima season was removed from the liturgical calendar and its the three Sundays and two days were absorbed into Ordinary time. Even though I was raised a Catholic and attended Mass for years before the liturgical calendar was changed, I only heard about Septuagesima maybe six years ago, and I’m still finding out what it means. For me, as I’m sure is true for others, writing about a subject is the best way to learn about it. It’s a rich topic, and I can just barely scratch the surface, but here goes with a little introduction to Septuagesima, for those who live in an ordinary time world or those who, like me, worship according to the traditional calendar, but just haven’t been paying attention.

For help with understanding what this season means, perhaps the greatest resource is the great 19th century abbot of Solesmes Benedictine monastery, Dom Prosper Guéranger, OSB. Dom Guéranger, abbot of Solesmes from 1837-1875, was “one of the leading monastics and liturgists of his generation, and his writings were highly influential both in France and abroad. He is perhaps best known today through the pages of his L’Année LiturgiqueThe Liturgical Year - which he began in 1841 in order to make the riches of the liturgy more widely known by the faithful.” (From the “Introduction” to The Liturgical Year).

Dom Guéranger devoted a whole volume of The Liturgical Year to “Septuagesima,” which you can find at Amazon or online. In his “Preface,” Dom Guéranger referred to Septuagesima as a season of “transition, inasmuch as it includes the period between two important Seasons, – Christmas and Lent.”


In the Gospel of Septuagesima Sunday, the master invites workers into his vineyard, and he pays the ones who came last the same as the ones who worked all day in the heat of the sun. “The last shall be first, the first shall be last.”

In the chapter titled “The History of Septuagesima,” Dom Guéranger added, “The Church, therefore, has instituted a preparation for the holy time of Lent. She gives us the three weeks of Septuagesima, during which she withdraws us, as much as may be, from the noisy distractions of the world, in order that our hearts may be the more readily impressed by the solemn warning she is to give us, at the commencement of Lent, by marking our foreheads with ashes.”

Septuagesima Sunday is the ninth Sunday before Lent, and it is the day on which the Septuagesima season of preparation for Lent has begun for more than 1,000 years in the traditional calendar. The Septuagesima season is made up of three Sundays: Septuagesima (which means seventieth), Sexagesima (which means sixtieth), and Quinquagesima (which means fiftieth), and it extends until Ash Wednesday.

Quadragesima is the name given in most languages to the season of Lent that starts on Ash Wednesday. For a few examples, in Spanish the name is cuaresma, in Portuguese quaresma, in French carême, and in Italian quaresima. In English, in contrast, the word for spring, lent, was used, which derives from the German word for long, because at this time of year the days get longer.

Also in “The History of Septuagesima,” Dom Guéranger explained that the names of the Sundays in Septuagesima are in reference to Quadragesima, “The first Sunday of Lent being called Quadragesima (Forty), each of the three previous Sundays has a name expressive of an additional ten: the nearest to Lent being called Quinquagesima (Fifty); the middle one, Sexagesima (Sixty); the third, Septuagesima (Seventy). He wrote: “The words Quinquagesima, Sexagesima, and Septuagesima, tell us of the same great Solemnity as looming in the distance, and as being the great object towards which the Church would have us now begin to turn all our thoughts, and desires, and devotion.”

So it is obvious that in this season as in all aspects of the Catholic faith, numbers are always highly weighted with symbolism but they often are not used literally. For more examples, although Quinquagesima means fiftieth, it is actually forty-nine days before Easter. It is fifty days before Easter only if you include the day of Easter itself. (Similarly, Pentecost is supposed to be fifty days after Easter, but that is true only if you count Easter and Pentecost in the numbers of days.) The numbering of the Sundays in Septuagesima get more approximate the further back each Sunday is from Quinquagesima. Sexagesima, which means sixtieth, is actually fifty-six days before Easter, and Septuagesima (seventieth) is actually sixty-three days.

And as Dom Guéranger explained, the mysteries of this Septuagesima “season of holy mourning” are based on the number seven, which is one of the most significant of all the numbers associated with the doctrine of the Catholic faith. In one way, the season of Septuagesima can also be seen as embracing the whole time between now and Easter. “The season upon which we are now entering is expressive of several profound mysteries. But these mysteries belong not only to the three weeks which are preparatory to Lent: they continue throughout the whole period of time which separates us from the great feast of Easter. … The people of Israel, whose whole history is but one great type of the human race, was banished from Jerusalem and kept in bondage in Babylon. 

Now, this captivity, which kept the Israelites exiles from Sion, lasted seventy years; and it is to express this mystery, as Alcuin, Amalarius, Ivo of Chartres, and all the great liturgists tell us, that the Church fixed the number of seventy for the days of expiation. It is true, there are but sixty-three days between Septuagesima and Easter; but the Church, according to the style so continually used in the sacred Scriptures, uses the round number instead of the literal and precise one.”

How the Church Keeps Septuagesima

Beginning with Compline (Night Prayer) on the Saturday before Septuagesima Sunday the Alleluia, Gloria, and Te Deum are not said any more until Easter. Two extra Alleluias are said at Vespers on that Saturday. In some places charming ceremonies have been practiced in which an Alleluia is put in a little coffin and buried, to be resurrected again only on Easter Sunday. Throughout Septuagesima, violet vestments are worn, except on feasts observed during weekday.

Following is Dom Guéranger’s much more thorough and lyrical way of explaining these differences during this penitential season from his chapter “The Mystery of Septuagesima.”

“The leading feature, then, of Septuagesima is the total suspension of the Alleluia, which is not to be again heard upon the earth, until the arrival of that happy day, when, having suffered death with our Jesus, and having been buried together with him, we shall rise again with him to a new life [Coloss. ii. 12].

“The sweet Hymn of the Angels, Gloria in excelsis Deo, which we have sung every Sunday since the Birth of our Saviour in Bethlehem, is also taken from us; it is only on the Feasts of the Saints, which may be kept during the week, that we shall be allowed to repeat it. The night Office of the Sunday is to lose, also, from now till Easter, its magnificent Ambrosian Hymn, the Te Deum . . ..

“After the Gradual of the Mass, instead of the thrice repeated Alleluia, which prepared our hearts to listen to the voice of God in the Holy Gospel, we shall hear but a mournful and protracted chant, called, on that account, the Tract.

“That the eye, too, may teach us, that the Season we are entering on, is one of mourning, the Church will vest her Ministers, (both on Sundays and the days during the week, which are not Feasts of Saints,) in the sombre Purple.”

The prayers and readings in the Mass and in the Divine Office take up the season’s refrain of holy mourning too, as part of preparing our minds and hearts for the remembrance of Lent and of the Passion to come.

Here is a link to “Circumdederunt Me,” which is the Introit for Septuagesima Sunday and is a fitting introduction to this season of holy mourning. It was sung in Bologna by the Schola Gregoriana Benedetto XVI. “The sorrows of death surrounded me, the sorrows of hell encompassed me; and in my affliction I called upon the Lord, and He heard my voice from His holy temple. — (Ps.17. 2, 3). I will love Thee, O Lord, my strength: the Lord is my firmament, my refuge, and my deliverer. “

How Are We to Keep Septuagesima?

Dom Guéranger also tells us how we are supposed to keep Septuagesima:
• By entering into the spirit of the Church in sober, mournful, preparation for the penitence of Lent
• By growing in holy fear of God
• By considering what original sin and our own sins have done to deserve God’s judgments
• By rising up from indifference
• By realizing our need for the saving sacrifice of Christ that we will remember in great detail during Lent

“After having spent the three weeks of Septuagesima in meditating upon our spiritual infirmities, and upon the wounds caused in us by sin, – we should be ready to enter upon the penitential season, which the Church has now begun. We have now a clearer knowledge of the justice and holiness of God, and of the dangers that await an impenitent soul; and, that our repentance might be earnest and lasting, we have bade farewell to the vain joys and baubles of the world. Our pride has been humbled by the prophecy, that these bodies would soon be like the ashes that wrote the memento of death upon our foreheads.” – Dom Guéranger in “The Practice of Lent” in The Liturgical Year.

Love at First Sight:

duke“No doubt you saw the whole pretty picture in detail. The young prince bowing to the assembly. Suddenly, he stops. He looks up. For lo… there she stands. The girl of his dreams. Who she is or whence she came, he knows not, nor does he care, for his heart tells him that here, here is the maid predestined to be his bride. A pretty plot for fairy tales, Sire. But in real life, oh, no. No, it was foredoomed to failure.”

So sayeth the Grand Duke in Disney’s Cinderella.  As he is speaking, the very event he declares to be “foredoomed” unfolds on the dance floor below him.

“Wait,” I can hear you saying to yourself.  “She’s not really going to defend the idea of love according to Walt Disney?”  To which I say: It’s Valentine’s Day.  Of course I am.

What happened to Cinderella and Prince Charming is something Malcolm Gladwell calls “mind-reading.”  In his fascinating and insightful book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, he asserts, “We can all mind-read effortlessly and automatically because the clues we need to make sense of someone or some social situation are right there on the faces of those in front of us.”  This is only one of many types of unconscious decision-making Gladwell deals with in Blink, but for the moment the most relevant.  He details the universality of facial expressions, the ways in which mind-reading happens, and the reasons it does not always work.  Even if you have not read his very lucid account of these phenomena, you know he is right: you can tell what other people are thinking or feeling… just not always.

Which is why most of us scoff at the concept of love at first sight.  Something instinctive tells us it’s possible–why else would Cinderella hold such ubiquitous, ageless appeal?–but it’s too scary to act on.  After all, what if you took that leap, and it turned out you were wrong?

I wonder if that thought went through the minds of Peter, Andrew, James, and John the day they left their fishing boats “at once” to follow Jesus (Matthew 4:18-22).  They glimpsed him upon the shore; he gave a single-sentence invitation; and that was that.  You see, the problem with the Cinderella story is not that it’s fancifully improbable.  (It is, but that’s not the problem.)  The problem is that it has cast love at first sight so completely into the realm of romance, our culture has forgotten that there could be other kinds.  In fact, when I did a Google search for “love at first sight,” I found a lot of genetic, evolutionary, socio-economic explanations of how we analyze potential mates, but not a single mention of anything other than romantic love (unless you want to count an advertisement for a puppy and kitten adoption center.)  Come on, world.  Do you know any parents who didn’t fall in love the moment they laid eyes on their newborn child?  When the newly-elected Pope Francis first set foot on the balcony in St. Peter’s Square and asked the crowds to pray for him, half the world fell head-over-heels–most of us via satellite–and no one tried to rationalize it away.

Love at first sight is not only possible; it’s scriptural, and more common than we’d like to admit.  We accept snap judgments about love without question when they require little overt commitment (like loving Pope Francis) or when the commitment has already been made (like loving a child).  But romance is trickier.  How can you tell you’re not being duped by lust or mere fantasy?

Blink is helpful here, too.  “When our powers of rapid cognition go awry, they go awry for a very specific and consistent set of reasons, and those reasons can be identified and understood.”  The reasons include unconscious cultural bias and having too much information, but the most surprising is that being asked to explain why we reached a particular snap decision turns most of us into morons.  One example Gladwell uses is a jam taste-testing.  When asked, “Which one do you prefer?,” people chose the same brand of jam as professional food experts 55% of the time.  When asked, “Why do you prefer it?,” they changed their minds, and correlation to expert opinion dropped to just 11%.  “By making people think about jam, Wilson and Schooler [who conducted the study] turned them into jam idiots.”

Scary, isn’t it?  All that justifying we’re supposed to do for Mom and Dad on behalf of the new boyfriend might actually be the reason the relationship is wrong.

Here’s the good news: the jam experts–people who had learned to taste the difference between fruit juice, cane sugar, and high-fructose corn syrup, for example–could justify their opinions without breaking a sweat.  Turns out, if you want to make a good choice and have solid reasoning behind it, you’d better start honing your taste buds.  So, how do you acquire a taste for true love?

It really should be easy.  Child development experts will tell you we have all been studying love in every relationship we have encountered since the moment we were born.  Unfortunately, forces of evolution and culture often combine to train us to look for the outward trappings of love instead of the thing itself.  Good looks, good voice, good hygiene, similar education and social class, similar values–these are the traits the studies in my Google search named as important to our love at first sight decisions, and all of them really are helpful in sparking that elusive “chemistry.”  Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure the definition of “love” goes more like this:

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Love never fails.”  (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)

Here is why I think Cinderella made a good choice: studies show that the one thing we’re most attracted to in others is a reflection of ourselves, and Cinderella was patient.  She was kind, never envious or proud.  She never tried to take revenge on her stepmother, and she never gave up hope.  Anyone her instincts singled out to love probably possessed the same qualities.  I also suspect that Peter, Andrew, James, and John were not afraid to throw aside their entire livelihood to follow an itinerant preacher because they already embodied many (if not all) of love’s virtues.  We have no account of the apostles’ characters before they were called, but certainly they exhibited heroic acts of love in later life.  Like Cinderella, I think they knew love when they saw it because they had cultivated it within themselves.Cinderella

I should tell you that Blink never deals explicitly with the question of love at first sight, nor does Malcom Gladwell reach the conclusion that we should always act on our snap decisions.  Blink is about the role snap decisions can play in improving our judgment, but judgment itself is a complicated, multifaceted thing.  That’s why I am not suggesting couples should run off to Vegas the first night they lay eyes on each other, nor that people should drop everything to join a charismatic religious leader, à la Peter and Andrew.  It’s still a good idea to take a sober look at things before you make life-altering choices.  I also do not think “first sight” is the only way love happens; far be it from an ever-loving God to limit Himself to a single method of revelation.  However, I do believe there is a dangerous tendency in this age of information to dismiss intuition as unprovable and mysterious, and thereby cloud the natural process of good judgment.  Love is a mystery, and gut instinct–especially if it has been formed by the habitual practice of virtue–can and should play an important role in calling us toward any of love’s vocations.  If you want to find love, be love, and then do not be afraid to follow where it leads.

A Waste of Shame

What are the thoughts that run through our heads when we eat at a small-town restaurant? Do we look past the crappy bowl of soup in front of us to the hobbled steps that brought it to our table? What is our honest opinion of the kitchen staff we may catch a glimpse of? Are they too lazy to go out and get real jobs, or might there be more complicated factors at work?

A Waste of ShameLife is hard, period, but it is especially difficult in the poverty-stricken foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. In Geoffrey Smagacz’s, A Waste of Shame (from the forthcoming, A Waste of Shame and Other Sad Tales of the Appalachian Foothills [Wiseblood Books]), we follow a small group of young adults as they sometimes confront, but more often than not attempt to avoid, the facts of life and the repercussions of their choices. As we watch this new generation make decisions that lock themselves and those around them into the cycle of poverty and pain, we may be left wondering if it is even possible for these young people to break out of it at all. Woven into this fabric we find an excellent study of character, and a writer’s engagement with the contemporary milieu in which he writes.

A Waste of Shame, gives us a wonderful illustration of just how powerful Minimalism can be when invoking character, especially in its volcanic first chapter. By chapter’s end, we have been presented with very few concrete details about our protagonist, Kevin, but we feel pretty confident that we know who he is and what his relationships are with the people around him. It is a wonderful evocation of the timeless nature of frustrated, unbridled youth, and it is immediately apparent why this chapter has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

The placement of the entirety of Shakespeare’s, Sonnet 129, in the prologue is a curious move, one which begs our careful consideration. Sonnet 129, is basically an extended rant on the dangers of unbridled lust, and our early inclination may be to assume that it points towards interpreting this story as a condemnation of the young men who abandon their wives and children for the pursuit of base pleasures. This interpretation ties in nicely with the way that Kevin is shocked to learn that Jim is cheating on his pregnant girlfriend, and how he is outraged when he learns that Jim has continued the affair after his marriage, but at times Kevin also seems to be complicit, almost jealous of Jim’s affair. The more we learn about Kevin, the more we wonder if he isn’t just angry that he’s not the one getting laid.

As our understanding of Kevin continues to expand, we begin to suspect that maybe he’s a better explanation for the presence of the sonnet (this is a brilliant character study, after all). Once again, we find this cannot be a simple application of condemnation. Not only is there an anger and frustration to Kevin, but there’s also the effects of a crippling bout of depression; a fact that he can’t see and, given the first-person narration, it takes us a bit longer to realize is there.

So what are we to make of the sonnet in the prologue? Can we find a better fit for it?  While it may contain a good deal of insight into human nature, you might start to wonder how much attention the average contemporary reader will be willing to give it. Many readers may just skip over it.  It sounds too harsh to our contemporary ears: too Elizabethan, too poetic, too moralizing. Don’t we prefer our characters more like Kevin?

The answer lies in the brilliance of this book; what it has to add to the conversation. We begin by acknowledging the fact that the old rules regarding character have changed. There was a time, not long ago, when writers simply needed to leave the stagnant harbors of the bourgeois and nobility for the safer shores of the peasantry and other fringe groups of society; but, this is the age of soap operas and syndicated tabloid talk shows. Consider for a moment how readers might react to characters such as those we find in, A Waste of Shame, after they’ve had such a prodigious helping of Jerry Springer. Will readers still be able to find in these characters the epitome of the human condition, or will they just see a bunch of hillbillies who need to stop drinking, smoking, and cheating on their wives? Will they still sympathize with our narrator, Kevin, or will they just want him to get off his ass and go back to college and get a real job?

These are questions that Smagacz openly wrestles with, and there are moments where the thoughts of Kevin seem to be overtaken by those of the author: “I must have heaved several sighs, but who could hear over mom’s soap opera? Sappy strings tried to direct her to feel trepidation over some immanent doom.” Later at a party, we find that, “the song Don played was kind of rock and roll and kind of twangy at the same time, a tune with a sappy story. “ Upon hearing this song, one listener seems to voice the consensus of those around him (and potentially us) when he asks, “What is this shit?”

There is more to this than just the standard, post-modern questioning of plot. This goes much deeper, to the many debates recently regarding the authenticity of character in fiction; of what exactly is believable and what is worthy of our sympathy. Here is a well written text that is both believable and full of characters that more than deserve our sympathy, and it dares to ask us what we make of it. Do we really know ourselves well enough to answer, and are we honest enough to admit our judgment? Perhaps the crisis is not in literature, it is in us.

There is much more to be found in this and the other short stories that are included in this volume. Don’t let the cover fool you; “literary fiction that scrupulously avoids being literary,” does not mean that it is short on themes, conflicts, and many of the other literary elements that make fiction worth reading. There is plenty here to satisfy readers with both contemporary and more traditional literary interpretations (know of any other young men in Shakespeare who were unable to summon themselves to action?).

The late James Laughlin’s publishing house, New Directions, is the standard at the moment for contemporary fiction. When you see ND on the spine, you know that you’re getting a solid work that is actively engaged with contemporary literary concerns. It is still too early to tell what will become of the upstart Wiseblood Books, but such a strong entry as this early on is a sign that it is heading in the right direction.