Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.
By this author
How should one approach Shadows in the Night, the new Bob Dylan collection of American standards once sung by Frank Sinatra? With curiosity, of course, or curiosity tinged with dread, or a roll of the eyes at the adoption of this latest persona. Or, if you're among the legions of indefatigable disciples and completists, with advance purchase and ravenous consumption. After a critic friend warned me a couple of months ago the disc would include "Some Enchanted Evening" from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific, we traded emails trying to one-up each other with versions of the lyric "once you have found her never let her go" in imagined Dylanese (his winning entry: "Once yubba fondue Lehigh Lego glue"). Thus add ridicule to one of the possible prejudgments, though both of us should have known better than to underestimate Dylan.
Which isn't to say Shadows in the Night is a great record. Everyone has accepted that a new Blood on the Tracks or Desire, to say nothing of Blonde on Blonde or Highway 61 Revisited, is not in the cards. But of the studio recordings it's no Infidels or Knocked Out Loaded or Shot of Love; four listens in, I can say easily and with relief that it's not an embarrassment. It's definitely weird; it may even be good.
Critic James Wood once said about John Updike that “all of his books suggest a belief that life will go on, that it will be thickly unvaried, that things will not come to a stop." The "very form" of the Rabbit series, according to Wood, "incarnates a belief that stories can be continued.”
I wasn’t sure I wanted to post on Andrew Sullivan’s announced retirement from blogging until it became clear whether the Daily Dish would go on without him. Today the answer came: It won’t. Sullivan this morning announced that Friday will be the Dish’s last day.
There’s been a number of encomia to Sullivan and his blog written since last week. His announcement has also elicited critiques and rehashes of previous critiques on his writing career (going back decades) and his editorial decision-making. It’s ground worth covering but also well-covered and won’t get more coverage in this post – though there may be some who have a thing or two to say.
I came around to regular reading of Sullivan’s blog about the time he was rethinking his position on the war in Iraq. Hard to say exactly what it was that made his site the first one I checked every day, or the one I soon began to check most often. But I do recall finding his site much less shrill (believe it or not) and somewhat more reasoned than those then breaking through on the left-leaning side of the blogosphere. (I’d count Matthew Yglesias as another who at the time was reliably providing a safe place of sensible commentary.) I liked that he posted on a range of serious matters and a number of others that were less so. I liked how he said what he had to say on same-sex marriage, torture, Abu Ghraib, and Dick Cheney, Michael Moore, and the Clintons. I was willing to give him even more leeway on his obsession with the story of Trig Palin’s birth and the woman who could have been vice president. I thought he captured and in some ways reflected what at the time was being characterized as the Obama phenomenon. I was also interested in his public Catholicism, and in his public hashing out of where his pronouncements and positions might put him in opposition to its tenets or most vocal adherents, or in line with them.
“It is trying on liberals in Dilton,” reads the first line of Flannery O’Connor’s story “The Barber,” which could with tweaking aptly apply to the unfolding 2016 presidential campaign season for those maybe uninclined to vote for one of the score or so of potential Republican candidates. The GOP’s field of declared and undeclared are riding the usual hobby horses--Obamacare, “big government,” Obamacare, public schools, moral collapse, Obamacare—with some already honing their grievances into slogans, sound bites, and hashtags. Does “Bubble-ville vs. Bubba-ville” work for you?
Best-selling author Mike Huckabee thinks it will. Well, maybe not for you, but hopefully for the fractious choir he’s preaching to with his newest book, God, Guns, Grits and Gravy. “Bubble-ville” describes the population of Americans associated with the iniquitous and elite “nerve centers” of Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C.; “Bubba-ville,” everywhere else—“the flyover country” that “more often than not votes red instead of blue, roots for the Cowboys in the NFL and the Cardinals in the National League, and has three or more bibles in every house.” (The characterization invites debate, but, to use a construction for which Huckabee shows fondness: I digress.)
GGG&G, in short, makes use of a simple construct to capitalize on resentments by reaffirming the preconceptions and prejudices of its intended audience. Neither polemic nor screed, it’s mainly a book-length unspooling of commentary that’s also needlessly broken into chapters, though if it weren’t, then readers would be deprived of nominally edifying (if not necessarily organizing) headings like “The New American Outcasts: People Who Put Faith and Family First” and “Bend Over and Take It Like a Prisoner!” (this following one bemoaning “The Culture of Crude”). His musings are at times entertainingly wrought. In places he risks naughty ethno-religious offense: “I can see the look of horror on the faces of friends of mine who have spent their lives in New York City when I talk about owning a wide variety of firearms: It’s the look one would get announcing in a synagogue that one owns a bacon factory” (it’s an image he uses more than once). In places he’s more plainly insulting, as when contending that Beyoncé is unwittingly allowing herself to be pimped out by her husband, Jay-Z. Sometimes he’s hilarious:
The announcement Friday that 2014 was Earth's warmest year on record prompted responses from some who accept the scientific evidence of climate change that this should finally convince those who don't.
Many readers have probably experienced a feeling of communion when engaging closely with a work of literature, even if they're not apt to put it that way. Interviewed in the current issue of the Paris Review, Vivian Gornick speaks briefly but movingly about the time her elderly mother was nearing the end of an autobiography by a relatively unknown British writer. It was though the author were “right in the room with me," Gornick recalls her mother saying; "I’m going to feel lonely when I finish this book.” What more, Gornick concludes, could any writer want from a reader, than to be part of such a connection?
“Who is the third who always walks beside you?" begins the "third man" section of Eliot's “The Waste Land.” "When I walk there are only you and I together/But when I look ahead up the white road /There is always another one walking beside you.” In an essay recently featured in the Boston College alumni magazine, Alice McDermott borrows another line from Eliot in expanding the connection to include not just author and reader but the narrator (or voice) of the work itself. "We had the experience but missed the meaning," she says she sometimes tells her students when discussing a piece of writing, but in fact, she writes, that singular search for meaning can also get in the way of a truer experiencing of the work. “The wonder of the literary arts,” she writes, “of the way a novel ‘happens,’ lies first and foremost for me in its ability to make us look together, writer/narrator/reader, to see, together, what is there. …"
McDermott's essay is written with characteristic humility and acknowledgment of uncertainty, which has a way, as can be the case with her fiction, of making it all the more persuasive. Its title ("Astonished by Love") and stated topic (“storytelling and the sacramental imagination”) might not have initially drawn me to it; I'd probably head first for a Mary Karr essay with the title “How to Read 'The Waste Land' So It Alters Your Soul Rather Than Just Addling Your Head.” But McDermott is straightforward about where she's coming from.
The funeral for Mario Cuomo was held today at New York’s Church of St. Ignatius Loyola. In addition to inspiring tributes and remembrances, his death has also prompted archive searches for items like this: A 1990 letter in which the governor took up Commonweal’s invitation to join in a reasoned debate on abortion. “Perhaps the best I can do right now,” Cuomo wrote to the editors, “is to reflect on some of Commonweal’s commentary of the past six or seven months,” which he proceeded to do, at length, using bullet points and providing detailed citations [.pdf].
Much of the recent commentary, at Commonweal and elsewhere, has focused on Cuomo’s position on abortion and whether he’d given “intellectual cover” to Catholic politicians personally opposed but not inclined to act politically against it (the editors write about this and other aspects of Cuomo’s legacy in “Mario Cuomo, Politician,” just posted on our homepage). Or, if not that, his keynote speech at the 1984 Democratic Convention, which to those then longing for someone to speak truth to the heartless power of Reagan and sense to his legions of heedless followers was (and remains) a galvanizing event.
I still have the copy of that speech that was handed to me some months later, on my first day at my first real job in New York City, as a college intern in the press office of Governor Mario Cuomo. Since I’m now also at the age where I can say things like, “this was before the internet, so getting a printed copy was a big deal,” I will: It was. Few of my friends or classmates seemed to care, most having happily—with their first-ever presidential ballot—participated in the landslide re-election of Reagan, while some of my family members liked to dismiss my new “boss” as “your friend Mario Cuomo,” when they weren’t calling him “the most dangerous man in America.”
I had exactly one personal encounter with Mario Cuomo, when during my internship I was told to write a public service announcement for him to record: Two hundred words or so on the importance of protecting Adirondack rivers and streams. “The waterways of the Adirondacks are among our state’s most precious resources,” it began. No pretentions about it rivaling a stump speech much less a keynote, but then, I had not yet heard it in Cuomo’s voice.
Autumn Jones’s current piece on Jesuit colleges at the Atlantic (“Teaching God in Jesuit Universities”) bears a hompage teaser that poses the perhaps inevitable question: “Can mainstream institutions of higher ed also follow the teachings of the Catholic church?” The inside headline: “The New Brand of Jesuit Universities.”