Speaker John Boehner: "Last night I started thinking about this, and I woke up. I said my prayers as I always do, and I decided, you know, today’s the day I’m going to do this. As simple as that," Boehner said [of stepping down as Speaker of the House and resigning his seat].
In a sprawling forty-five-minute address to the United Nations this morning, Pope Francis again urged world leaders to take practical measures to protect the environment, avoid armed conflict, and protect the most vulnerable.
After “reaffirming the importance” of the UN in working to promote justice and human rights,” the pope prodded the assembly to pay attention to the “victims of power badly exercised”: the environment and the “ranks of the excluded.” He warned against “false rights” presented by “the world”—and then he asserted a new one: “a true ‘right of the environment’ [derecho del ambiente, in the original Spanish] does exist,” Francis said. That is a very big deal.
Before the publication of Laudato si’, there had been some speculation about whether the encyclical would speak of the environment itself as having rights. After Francis told journalists that human beings had lorded their power over nature Robin Darling Young asked:
Was he really implying that created nature—the environment—has rights of its own? Such a view on the part of the pope would be a significant development in Catholic thinking about the inherent worth of creation apart from the humans who dominate it. We shall soon find out if he meant it.
It sounds like he did.Read more
Volkswagen’s installation of software for circumventing emissions standards in at least 11 million cars worldwide is just the kind of thing that makes people think of “business ethics” as a contradiction in terms. It doesn’t help that the auto industry as a whole has a long and tarnished history of such behavior. From the hard-to-handle Corvairs that helped launch Ralph Nader to fame, to the exploding Pintos of the 1970s, to more recent examples involving ignition cutoffs, unintended acceleration, and malfunctioning airbags—defects their respective manufacturers often knew about but kept secret—sneaking substandard, potentially dangerous products into showrooms seems as much a part of the deal as offering undercoating. Not every recall notice is compelled by a government agency’s post-sale discovery of a sometimes deadly defect. But enough are to remind us why regulations and regulatory agencies are needed. Is this also the place to bemoan the rarity of severe and enforceable punishment, including damaging fines and criminal penalties?
A few things stand out about the Volkswagen revelation. First, it seems to many a kind of personal betrayal: Why did they do it? Timmons Roberts at the Brookings Institute gets to this, writing about his “long love affair” with VWs dating back to childhood, a love affair now soured. Anyone who grew up in or around families (or had college friends) with VW buses, or learned how to drive stick-shift in an old Beetle, would probably understand.Read more
A quick follow-up to my two earlier posts on political correctness and speech codes on campus. Several respondents to those posts expressed uncertainty about what, exactly, those who complain about political correctness are complaining about. An article in this morning’s Hartford Courant, my hometown paper, illuminates an exemplary case.
Ten days ago a politically conservative 30-year-old Wesleyan University student (and Iraq war veteran) named Bryan Stascavage contributed an op-ed piece, titled “Why Black Lives Matter Isn’t What You Think,” to the student paper, the Wesleyan Argus. In it he questioned the effectiveness, and to some extent the intentions, of those rallying for justice under the BLM banner, asking: “is the movement itself actually achieving anything positive? Does it have the potential for positive change?”
The op-ed asserted that the protests have impugned the great majority of police who perform their jobs creditably, and argued that BLM may have made their job more difficult and dangerous, citing “a big spike in murders” in Baltimore after the riots; “good officers,” Stascavage wrote, “go to work every day even more worried that they won’t come home.” While he acknowledged that the looters, rioters and police killers he castigates are not Black Lives Matter protestors, he called it “plausible that Black Lives Matter has created the conditions for these individuals to exploit for their own personal gain.”Read more
Now up on our homepage is an essay by Rowan Williams about Pope Francis's recent encyclical, Laudato si'. Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbuy, draws attention to the sources of Francis's social teaching, including the work of his predecessor. Williams writes:
Perhaps the first thing that needs to be said about Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment is that it is an entirely natural development not only of the theology of Evangelii gaudium but also—as the extensive citations show—of the theology of Pope Benedict, especially as found in Caritas in veritate. Both the pope’s critics and his supporters have often missed the point: Benedict’s Christian humanism, his consistent theology of the dignity of the human person, his concern for a culture in which there is no longer a viable understanding of any given order independent of human will—all this is reiterated with force and clarity by Pope Francis. This encyclical is emphatically not charting a new course in papal theology, and those who speak as if this were the case have not been reading either pope with attention. What is uncomfortable for some is that a number of points clearly but briefly made by the previous pontiff have been drawn out in unmistakable terms. The fact that we live in a culture tone-deaf to any sense of natural law is here starkly illustrated by the persistent tendency of modern human agents to act as though the naked fact of personal desire for unlimited acquisition were the only “given” in the universe, so that ordinary calculations of prudence must be ignored. Measureless acquisition, consumption, or economic growth in a finite environment is a literally nonsensical idea; yet the imperative of growth remains unassailable, as though we did not really inhabit a material world.
Read the rest here.
This morning Pope Francis delivered a stirring address to the U.S. Congress—the first of its kind—in which he carefully, but firmly urged legislators to draw on the rich history of this nation to build up the common good. Largely avoiding the harsh rhetoric he cautioned bishops against yesterday, he prodded America to remember what has made it great: welcoming the stranger, cooperating with those of diverse commitments, working toward the common good. Ensuring the commonweal “is the chief aim of all politics,” according to Francis, who once weighed a career in political life. He acknowledged that defending the dignity of all, working to ensure the well-being of all citizens, especially “the most vulnerable,” is not an easy task. Yet, he continued, that is the responsibility, indeed the vocation, to which every lawmaker is called. This was a speech of fundamental ideas—of political theory, of anthropology, of theology. But it was anything but airy. Francis talked in specifics. He talked immigration, he talked capital punishment, he talked arms control, he talked climate change.
The pope’s audience, however, was not limited to those in the room. He characterized his message as an invitation to enter into a dialogue with all Americans: the elderly who, while retired, “keep working to build up this land”; the young, who strive to “realize their great and noble aspirations” yet face “difficult situations”; and everyday workers, who labor not simply “to pay their taxes,” but “in their own quiet way…generate solidarity.”
Francis used the stories of four great Americans to drive home his message of solidarity with the planet and all its people: Abraham Lincoln, who defended liberty; Martin Luther King (who featured in Francis’s address at the White House), who sought to ensure the “full rights for all [our] brothers and sisters”; Dorothy Day, who devoted her life toward “the cause of the oppressed”; and Thomas Merton, who serves as an example of our “capacity for dialogue and the United States.”Read more
Just posted to the website, Robert Mickens's Letter from Rome—from Washington, D.C.. He reports on how the American media has responded so far to the pope's arrival in the capital (something "to be welcomed"), and how Cardinal Timothy Dolan anticipates the pope will respond to the $177 million restorations made to St. Patrick's cathedral when he arrives in New York Thursday:
“He’s going to drive up to it, and I hope he’s going to say, like more and more New Yorkers are saying, ‘Wow,’ when he sees the splendor and the radiance of this magnificent structure,” said the gregarious cardinal.
Mickens also points out an ideological shift in political criticism of Francis: from a fear that the pontiff would be too conservative at the onset of his papacy to the fear now he may be a Marxist. What does the pope think?
On his plane from Havana to Washington on Tuesday, Francis said: “Maybe there’s an impression I’m a little bit more leftie, but I haven’t said a single thing that’s not in the social doctrine of the church.”
Also on the website, the editors write on why American workers should be relieved to see Scott Walker, who is notorious for his vicious campaign against unions in his home state of Wisconsin, drop out of the GOP presidential race:
Empowering people, in Walker’s view, would mean abolishing the National Labor Relations Board, rewriting federal law to make Right to Work “the default position for all private, state, and public-sector workers,” replacing overtime pay with unpaid time off, and stripping employees of their ability to bargain collectively.
But voters shouldn't be relaxed. Walker's plan didn't die with his candidacy; its spirit is very much alive among many in the GOP. And so it's important to take seriously the findings of Harvard economists Richard B. Freedman and James L. Medoff: organized labor served as a positive force in the American economy in the twentieth century, and “a society genuinely concerned about increasing productivity would encourage, not disparage, a strong labor movement.” In other words:
Productivity and the dignity of workers can and often do go hand in hand. Given what has transpired in the past thirty years, those genuinely concerned about the nation’s economic health would now seem obligated to encourage a strong labor movement. Support for such a position is grounded in Catholic social teaching beginning with Rerum novarum (1891), in which Pope Leo XIII both declared the moral necessity of doing one’s job responsibly with an eye toward the common good, and insisted on the right of workers to form unions to protect their interests.
In addition to Peter Steinfels' essay urging us to be careful not to weaponize Pope Francis' message, which Kaitlin Campbell helpfully points us to, Politico also has a piece by Paul Vallely that paints a bit more confrontational picture of Francis' relationship to the American status quo. After recounting some of the more challenging things that Francis has said about the problems with the prevailing predatory capitalism and "throwaway culture" of a "globalization of exclusion and indifference," Vallely sums up the spin put on these prophetic statements by Francis' so-called "supporters":
Francis’ supporters argue that he is not advocating a specific political program; rather than taking political sides, he is trying to open people’s minds to the generosity, openness and inclusiveness of the gospel. “It’s not Marxism,” one cardinal told me. “It’s classic Catholic social teaching, as developed by previous popes.” What, after all, is Francis’ joyful embrace of the poor and the rejected—kissing a man with a terrible skin disease, visiting thousands of African migrants washed up on Europe’s shores in Lampedusa, Italy—but an echo of Jesus of Nazareth?
As touching as the gestures that Vallely mentions are, it is difficult to see how things could get more specific or closer to Marxism than what Francis had to say in July when he spoke at The Second World Meeting of Popular Movements in Boliva. There he did not just talk about extending a hand to particular individuals in need. However important this sort of "charity à la carte," as he called it in Evangelii Gaudium, may be (and no one, I think, would doubt that it is), Francis is urging us to adopt a more comprehensive program of systemic change.Read more
On the eve of Pope Francis’s visit, there is much speculation about what he will say and to whom. One thing is sure: he will be talking about the importance of protecting the planet. And Francis’s bully pulpit on this issue is valuable. In the most recent New York Review of Books, perhaps the leading climate economist, William Nordhaus at Yale, has an extended piece analyzing the pope’s encyclical Laudato si’. And just today, Senate Democrats have unveiled an aggressive plan to address climate change that they hope will shape the debate of the 2016 election.
But what should be done? Amidst all the hoopla, I stopped yesterday evening to fill up my Honda Civic and paid $2.10 for a gallon of gas. I’m also flying home to Chicago during my fall break for $49. These low prices, even more than the papal visit, indicate that it’s time for a direct discussion of a carbon tax.
Comparing Nordhaus’s analysis of Laudato si’ and the Senate Democrat’s plan, what we see is the extent to which we avoid moving on this obvious solution. Nordhaus’s article is appreciative of the pope’s attention to the issue, but he suggests that the pope “does not recognize the fact that environmental problems are caused by market distortions rather than by markets per se.” The fundamental problem is that we are able to emit carbon into the atmospheric commons for free. If we don’t change this fact, Nordhaus argues, the pope’s “eloquent description of the natural world and its relationship to human socieities” may remain just that: beautiful words on a page. It seems that the pope’s preferred mode of action – individual rejection of an economy based on excessive consumption – simply won’t get us where we need to go.Read more
Everyone's got a hot take on the Pope this week. The Washington Post's George Will went full Thomas Nast in fearful preparation for Francis's arrival. ("Francis's seeming sympathy for medieval stasis...against modernity, rationality, science.") All he needed was a cartoon with mitres shaped like alligator heads attacking financiers on Wall Street.
By contrast, the New York Times's David Gelles offered a playful, well-reported piece on the front page of the business section (!) about the sharkskin-suit-wearing concert producer behind the scenes of the big show. ("The bishops," the producer said, "aren't showbiz guys.")
What's a scholar to do? What's my take?
I scooped them all.
In an article for Yahoo's page about the papal visit, I explain the "breaking news" about the Pope's concluding Mass in Philadelphia.
Detailed study of an advance, partial script of the worship service shows that the theme of income inequality will be dramatically emphasized.
With rhetorical flourish and prophetic fervor, the Mass will call for the “rich” to “weep and wail” over “impending miseries.” More specifically, the issue of wages will be explicitly addressed: “Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers” are “crying aloud.” The plight of migrant “harvesters,” undercompensated by absentee landlords, will feature as an example.
Did I use my Jesuit connections to secure an advance copy of the Pope's remarks? I wish. No collar, no embargoed remarks.
Instead, I checked the lectionary. It turns out that some of the strongest language in the Bible against income inequality (James 5:1-6) happens to appear in this Sunday's Mass. Pope Francis's emphasis on systematic exploitation of workers and migrants is, as Bible-readers know, deeply biblical. On Sunday this theme will be on display for all, and I imagine Pope Francis will take the opportunity to preach on it.
It remains to be seen whether and how he incorporates this reading with the Gospel for the day. But thanks to the lectionary, millions of people will at least hear how central to the scriptures is the cry of the poor.
(You can read the rest right here.)
Over at Politico magazine, Peter Steinfels has written a frank, thoughtful, and (for liberal Catholics especially) challenging take on the pope's upcoming visit. He cautions against frenzied papal-centrism and the temptation to use the "banner of papal authority" in political arguments.
Christian faith has political implications. But you can’t go directly from breaking bread with the homeless to a public housing program anymore than you can go from affirming the humanity of the unborn to particular laws restricting abortion. If in our enthusiasm for Francis’ emphasis on poverty, immigrants and climate change, liberal Catholics fail to acknowledge this, if, for example, we dismiss reasonable questions about the pope’s economics, we will be undermining our own political consistency as well as Francis’ attempt to assure room for disagreement within the Church.
Steinfels reminds us that the Catholic Church is not a "kind of religious Marine Corps that barks orders from the top for its well-drilled troops to follow blindly"—a common misunderstanding in the United States, where
the image of the church as an unquestioning, dutiful force bending to the pope’s will is deeply engrained. The “Catholic vote” is still discussed as a monolithic whole. [And] Polls detecting disagreement among Catholics over church teaching are treated like the discovery of new planets.
And, Pope Francis himself has long been opposed to the "over-centralization of church decision-making in Rome." When Francis was Archbishop of Buenos Aires he referred to his trips to Rome there as “penances,” and as pope, he has
acted to renew the periodic synods of bishops from around the world as occasions for genuinely free discussion. Vatican officials have previously controlled them with a heavy-hand. Francis recently delegated oversight of marriage annulments to local bishops rather than a Vatican office. He has put lay people in key positions in the Vatican. Francis, too, doesn’t want the church to be all about him.
So, how can we re-organize the story of Catholicism so that it isn't centered on the pope? That's a good question, and now is a good time to mull it over.
There is nothing like a good obituary; great ones are hard to come by.
Today (Tuesday), we have one. Daniel Thompson died at aged 94 in Rancho Mirage, California. Mr. Thompson invented the bagel machine allowing its mass production. As the obit makes clear this loss for the Jewish community of a smallish, dense, chewy, delicious, round of dough with a circle in the middle (signifying the circle of life) has been a boon for the rest of us. The obit celebrates both the loss of the real thing and the blessing of the not-so-great replacement. (Now available in our neighborhood at Thai Bagels.)
In a bagel hole summary: "Mr. Thompson’s machine proved to be a mirror of midcentury American history. For bound up in the story of its introduction is the story of Jewish assimilation, gastronomic homogenization, the decline of trade unionism, the rise of franchise retailing and the perennial tension between tradition and innovation."
Mr. Thompson's father was a bagel maker emigrated from England to Canada to the U.S. Mr. Thompson's machine was an improvment on one his father had devised that was unsuccessful (more 20th century history). Young Mr. Thompson also invented the wheeled, collapsible ping pong table said to have graced the basements of mid-century homes. What a guy.
Unfortunately no mention of bialys. But read Margalit Fox's brilliant obit.
George Will really needs to look in a mirror. In a screed worthy of Fox News, he denigrates Pope Francis for proposing policy prescriptions that would “devastate the poor on whose behalf he purports to speak”. Yet while Will accuses the pope of being “fact free”, Will is the one who gets his facts wrong. Will is the one who seems completely out of touch with recent trends in the global economy.
For a piece centered on Pope Francis’s policy prescriptions, Will really doesn’t discuss them. So let me help him out. If we want to lay out the broad economic prescriptions associated with Pope Francis, we might point to: a fairer distribution of the earth’s resources and the fruits of human labor, the inclusion of everyone in development, the prioritization of employment, investment in sustainability and ceasing to harm the planet, and a financial sector that serves rather than rules the real economy.
It might surprise Will to learn that these prescriptions are not exactly controversial, and actually improve human welfare and the resilience of the global economy. They do good, not harm—especially for the poor and the excluded. In each of these cases, the moral choice is also the economically viable choice. Let’s explore this.Read more
Part of what I love about Catholicism is that it’s a world church.
In a recent post at Pray Tell, guest blogger Frank Klose noted the number and kind of choirs that will sing at the papal Mass for the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. One of the choirs is Vietnamese.Read more
Once he arrives in Washington D.C. tomorrow, Pope Francis’s itinerary includes the canonization Mass for Junípero Serra, a White House visit, and his address to Congress. What else is on his schedule? What Twitter hashtag you should use for the visit? Find out here.
In Washington, Francis will step into the political fray. How will his message be received by Republicans and Democrats? From the New York Times:
Even the pope is not immune to America’s divisions. While he has not changed fundamental Catholic doctrines, Francis has stressed the parts focusing on serving the poor and de-emphasized those reproaching abortion and homosexuality — what his biographer John L. Allen calls “his insistence on the primacy of compassion over judgment.”
Don't worry, I won't be parsing the latest opinion polls, or riffing on the recent outpouring of Francis-related commentary. (For those who might have missed them, see Grant Gallicho's round-up of examples of Francis Derangement Sydrome; you also should read Paul Baumann's thankfully sober-minded preview of the pope's visit.) Though I couldn't resist checking in on Pope Francis's arrival in Cuba, I found myself avoiding the news as much as possible and turning to a previous Catholic visitor to our land, the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville.
Readers of Tocqueville's Democracy in America will know that text is divided into two volumes. The first resembles travel writing in some ways; while much more than that, you get a feel for some of what Tocqueville saw here. He and his travel partner Gustave de Beaumont spent nine months in America in 1831, and in the first part of Democracy Tocqueville proceeds as an amateur sociologist of sorts. Tocqueville observes townhall meetings, talks to leading citizens, muses on our system of government, and praises our instinct for associations. He also seems fascinated by how Roman Catholics were faring here.
Among many other things, he notices that there were more than a million Roman Catholics in the United States when he arrived (about fifty years before his visit, he writes, the Irish "began to pour a Catholic population" into this country) and that, contrary to expectations, they formed "the most republican and democratic of all classes in the United States." At least in this country, Tocqueville observed, Catholics were a poor minority – but that turned them into believers in equality. Catholics understood that if rights started to be enforced selectively, they would be on the losing end of any such arrangement. Tocqueville tactfully notes that the experience of arriving here as vulnerable immigrants meant that Catholics were "led, perhaps in spite of themselves, toward political doctrines which, maybe, they would adopt with less zeal were they rich and predominant."
In other words, Tocqueville asked, why was a religion so identified with the Old World succeeding in the New? Why was the equality-loving United States a place where a "hierarchical" religion flourished? Weren't we, to borrow Jefferson's biting phrase, a place consciously founded on the rejection of "monkish superstition"?
Here's one reason Tocqueville saw Catholicism as a friend to democracy, and why it was thriving in America:Read more
A few weeks ago, James Blake, a retired tennis star was tackled and hand cuffed by NYPD officers in the course of investigating credit card fraud at a local hotel. The officers claimed he looked like one of the fraudsters they were after. Mr. Blake vigorously objected—rightly so—and the officer who arrested him has been suspended. The police officer is white, Blake biracial. This has been treated by the media—and almost everyone else—as a racist incident.
But was it? "Scientists, pointing to decades of research, believe something else was at work. They call it the “other-race effect,” a cognitive phenomenon that makes it harder for people of one race to readily recognize or identify individuals of another." A phenomenon called by researchers, "They all look alike to me."
Here is a fascinating article by Rachel Swarms NYTimes reporter interviewing "they all look alike" mistakes and researchers who have studied it. The explanation can seem obvious and the remedies as well. What is your experience? Either as mistaker or mistakee.
P.S. This post is for those who want a moment's respite from the Francis Fracas.
UPDATE: James Blake had a meeting with Mayor de Blasio and Chief Bratton on Monday urging them to institute greater accountability in the police department. In a press conference after, Blake praised the mayor's efforts and denied that his case was one of racial profiling. The story also reported that the officer had been previously accused of assault.
Pope Francis’s much-heralded first trip to the United States begins Tuesday, after what some consider a mischievous stop in the Castros’ Cuba. Francis’s distrust of U.S. economic and military hegemony is no secret. His condemnation of the first-world’s “throwaway” consumer culture has plenty of biblical warrant, but may not register with most American Catholics, who are doing quite well, thank you. Nevertheless, it is likely that Francis’s remarkable warmth and candor will succeed in charming his hosts, just as it has won the affection of just about everyone except bureaucrats in the Vatican and an outspoken group of self-styled “orthodox” Catholics who fear this pope is trying to impose a radical agenda on the church.
Francis will be stopping in Washington, New York, and Philadelphia. In Washington he will canonize Junipero Serra, a Spanish Franciscan who founded many of California’s missions in the eighteenth century. Like most of the things this Argentinian Jesuit does, Serra’s canonization is controversial. Native American groups accuse the missionary of complicity in the genocide of California Indians. As Gregory Orfalea wrote recently in Commonweal, while denouncing the crimes of colonialism, Francis believes the historical record shows that Serra was a defender, not a persecutor, of the native population. He also wants to direct the church’s attention away from Rome to the “peripheries,” and making his first canonization that of a Hispanic from the American West fits the bill. At the invitation of House Speaker John Boehner, a Catholic, the pope will then speak to a joint session of Congress. No canonizations are expected to be made there now or in the near future.
In New York, Francis will address the UN, which is standard fare for popes. No doubt he will call for sheltering refugees and greater peacekeeping efforts from the international community. Much to the annoyance of some, the church has long been an advocate of international institutions. He will also decry climate change and the globalized economy’s impact on the poor, as he did in his recent environmental encyclical, Laudato si’. There will be a visit with the homeless and a Mass at Madison Square Garden. After that it is on to Philadelphia to help close the World Meeting on the Family, a kind of very chaste, very buttoned-upped Catholic Woodstock. Given the conservative bent of the American hierarchy, the meeting’s presentations and workshops are heavily stacked with advocates for the church’s prohibitions against contraception, abortion, civil divorce and remarriage, and same-sex marriage. The meeting’s agenda is no surprise. Philadelphia’s archbishop, Charles Chaput, is among the most dedicated culture warriors. He has confessed perplexity over Francis’s initiatives when it comes to marriage and the family.
If Francis remains true to form when it comes to Catholicism’s moral teachings, he will make a point of softening the tone with which the church interacts with the larger secular culture and with disaffected Catholics.Read more
Have you heard? This has made George Will go the full ad hominem:
Francis’s fact-free flamboyance reduces him to a shepherd whose selectively reverent flock, genuflecting only at green altars, is tiny relative to the publicity it receives from media otherwise disdainful of his church. Secular people with anti-Catholic agendas drain his prestige, a dwindling asset, into promotion of policies inimical to the most vulnerable people and unrelated to what once was the papacy’s very different salvific mission.
He stands against modernity, rationality, science and, ultimately, the spontaneous creativity of open societies in which people and their desires are not problems but precious resources. Americans cannot simultaneously honor him and celebrate their nation’s premises.
It's made Will's employer repeat the thinly sourced claim that the Obama administration somehow insulted the Holy See by daring to invite a diverse crowd to the pope's reception at the White House. (David Gibson's sources say that's simply not the case.)
It's made that same paper publish R. R. Reno's purported review of Paul Vallely's updated biography of Francis, which is really a review of the pope, in which the editor of First Things floats the idea that "it's best to think of the Catholic Church as enduring pope Francis," whose "verbal extremism" he finds rather "exhausting."
It's made a U.S. Representative, a Catholic even, decide to boycott Francis's address to Congress, convinced that the pope will not address his preferred concerns. (I don't know anyone who has seen a copy of that text.)
But it's also brought smart commentary from, for example, my friend Bene Cipolla, who writes in today's New York Times about her father, a married Catholic priest.
And of course the pope isn't even here yet. He's in Cuba. Which you can read all about here and here and here (our curtain-raiser, by Tom Quigley). Washington is waiting. New York is Waiting. Philly is waiting. I recommend resting up. Could be exhausting.
True personality floats beneath surface consciousness, obscured by the fog of dementia or the fog of war. To meet what one is can affirm or destroy. This theme works its way ever so deftly through the parallel developments of two characters in Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations. Anne Quirk resides in a care home on the Scottish cost, west of Glasgow. Luke Campbell, her grandson, soldiers for a Scottish regiment in Afghanistan. Their self-recognition, respectively and jointly, is the climax of the novel’s plot; hence the novel’s title, the grand lighting-up of the English seaside resort of Blackpool.
O’Hagan is a writer of many voices: he impersonates Marilyn Monroe’s dog in his earlier Life and Opinions of Maf, The Dog, and a pederast priest in Be Near Me. [The latter a work of insight and justice.] His third person narrations in The Illuminations offer us the surface life of the failing Anne through fragmented speech in dialogue and in carefully observed gesture or facial movement. In effect, O’Hagan takes on the fears so many of us have – the blank of demented senescence. He offers a conditional hope mediated by great respect. His male protagonist is a soldier, an officer, committed to his men, if not to his mission. Certainly his fractured self is alive in marvelously sustained dialogue, the “slagging” vulgarity which constitutes the verbal shield under which his squad operates amid the ambushes, the haze of marihuana, and the deceits of the Afghan war. The novel alternates its scenes between Lochranza Court, Anne’s care home, and a mountain road in Afghanistan where Luke and his men are in convoy on a so-say humanitarian mission. The venture ends in massacre and disgrace – the ignominious fall of Luke’s mentor, Major Scullion, and Luke’s own disillusionment.Read more