Dilettante's Diary

July 31/09

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The date above is the date on which the page was started. Reviews added later will appear at the top of the page, while the less recent reviews will move further down.

Reviewed here: Humpday (Movie); Summer Hours (Movie); Primates and Philosophers (Science); One Soldier's War (Memoir); The Christian World (History)

Humpday (Movie) written and directed by Lynn Shelton; starring Mark Duplass, Joshua Leonard, Alycia Delmore, Lynn Shelton

The previews and the advertisements make this comedy’s premise perfectly clear: two straight guys decide to make a porn movie of themselves having sex with each other. Confronted with such an implausible setup, you gotta wonder how they could turn it into a credible movie.

Very well, it turns out.

To begin with, we’re in Seattle. Ben and his wife have settled into their cute little home. Ben's wild and crazy college buddy, Andrew, arrives on their doorstop one night. Next day, Andrew drags Ben off to a freaky party where they hear about a contest for five-minute porn films sponsored by The Stranger (a counter-culture Seattle newspaper). In their stoned state, it seems like a great idea that they should submit a film of themselves boning each other.

In the sober light of the next day, Andrew keeps trying to apologize for getting Ben involved. But Ben takes offence. Does Andrew think Ben is so totally conventional that he would never dare do anything outrageous? It becomes a contest over their respective senses of themselves. As Ben puts it to his pal, "I’m not as white-picket-fence as you think and you’re not as Kerouac as you think." Add to that challenge the fact that this looks like the one project Andy might finish in a lifetime of aborted artistic efforts – and the film deal is back on.

What follows is a wondrous study of many aspects of the phenomenon of being human: how and why people do the things they do; the lies they tell themselves and other people; the ways they try to justify their motives and explain them to other people; the brinkmanship whereby two people force each other into situations that neither of them wants to be in.

All of this conveyed with a delicious attention to the comic details of character.

None of it would work, of course, if you didn’t have the right actors in the parts. Mark Duplass (Ben) and Joshua Leonard (Andy) do the buddy thing perfectly. It probably helps that, not being big-name actors, they come without any of the baggage of previous associations from other roles. The movie probably wouldn’t be nearly as much fun with Seth Rogen and some of that crowd in these parts. You totally buy the rapport between these guys. Andrew may be the less responsible of the two, but Ben still has the ability to slip off the rails of serious adulthood into boyish silliness.

The many scenes in which they toss the idea of the porn movie back and forth – constantly stepping up to the brink, then pulling back again – are marvels of acting. I kept thinking of the actor’s concept that you need goals in every situation and obstacles that prevent you from reaching them. Nearly every scene in this movie is loaded with those kinds of land mines. And yet, you never know where the utterly naturalistic dialogue is going to end up. It almost looks as though the actors don’t either. An improvised feel adds authenticity. You sense that you’re looking at a genuine manifestations of the ambiguities and complexities of people in awkward situations.

And this one has its unique awkwardness. As one of the guys observes, the proposed project is trickier than bungee jumping. In that case, you just have to walk to the edge of the cliff and jump. You don’t have to have a hardon.

By way of further complications, there is the matter of Ben’s sweet-natured wife (Alycia Delmore). Her approval must be sought, of course. That leads to some comedy comparable to Shakespeare’s best in that genre: you get two people talking about something at cross-purposes, both thinking the other knows that they’re talking about but each having something quite different in mind.

Comedy isn’t all that’s on offer, though. There are scenes where you get significant communication on a deep level between the two guys. In one case, Ben has been banished from the marital bed and is forced to spend the night in the basement with Andy. A long quiet scene involves the telling of a poignant story that ends in a beautiful way you’re not expecting.

And what of the end of the movie itself? You’ve gotta admit that this movie has one of the best hooks of all time: are they gonna do it or not? Through all the shenanigans, that question is never far from your mind. So there’s no way we’re gonna give you the answer. All we’ll say is that we think the ending is reasonable. Along the way, there may have been a couple of slightly contrived turns and twists but, for the most part, the movie reflects human nature – especially the male version – very accurately.

Which is all the more reason to salute director/writer Lynn Shelton (who also appears on screen as a luscious lesbian). It may sound sexist to say this, but here goes: it’s remarkable that a woman writer can show such a full understanding of the male psyche, especially on certain touchy issues: the vanity, the insecurity, the bravado, even the peculiarly male brand of affection and love for another man. My guess is that this example of Ms. Shelton’s work is a very low-budget effort – it’s a long while since I’ve seen a movie with some shots unintentionally out-of-focus, as in this one – but Ms Shelton has a very clear fix on the art of making movies with strong plots and good characters.

Rating: B (i.e. "Better than most" – provided you’re not grossed-out by the theme.)

 

Summer Hours (L’heure d’t) (Movie) written and directed by Olivier Assayas; starring Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling, Jrmie Renier, Edith Scob, Dominique Reymond, Valrie Bonneton, Isabelle Sadoyan.

Maman has died. Her three adult children must decide what to do about her country house just an hour from Paris. It’s filled with beautiful Art Nouveau furniture bought in the early part of the 20th century by maman’s uncle, a famous painter. Will the Muse d’Orsay follow up on an earlier expression of interest in the stuff? Will the two sons and the daughter be able to keep the house or will they have to sell it to meet their own financial needs?

It’s a situation confronting many a North American family these days (excepting, perhaps, the museum quality furniture): what are we going to do with the family cottage/farm now that Mom and Dad have gone? Can the progeny share it without squabbling? Will they be able to afford the taxes?

Moving from such mundane concerns to great art, you can’t help thinking of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. Except that this movie doesn’t quite reach the sublime heights of the Russian master’s work. You don’t have the poetry. Nor do you have any great emotional engagement. Here, it’s all rather under-stated. There’s some mild conflict among the siblings (Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling, Jrmie Renier) but that’s settled pretty easily. A hint of forbidden love between the deceased maman (Edith Scob) and her uncle doesn’t amount to much.

So you might, at times, wonder what’s keeping you watching. After all, the business of selling a house and disposing of an estate isn’t, in itself, so very gripping. But maybe the flatness of it all is the point: for most of life, there is no big drama. Instead, quiet moments acquire impact in a contemplative way: a man sitting alone in a car by the side of the road, weeping; a daughter coming out of the room where she has just seen her mother’s corpse; a stolid housekeeper looking through the windows of the abandoned house where she spent so many years.

Although the overall tone is somewhat elegiac, humour rises to the surface every now and then. The housekeeper finally consents to take as a keepsake what she considers a very "ordinary" little vase but it happens to be one of the priceless originals by a 20th century master. And middle-aged parents who are suffering through the usual hassles with teen-age kids can end up laughing about it all.

Speaking of those parents, one of the best things about the movie is the fact that all of the actors look like real people, not movie stars. Even Juliette Binoche. If this woman were sitting next to you on a plane in her track suit, with her pale, stringy hair – which is her look through most of the movie – it would never occur to you that she might be a celeb. I especially liked the wives of the two bereaved sons (Dominique Reymond and Valrie Reymond): middle-aged women who manage to look very normal and yet interesting. Isabelle Sadoyan, in the role of the implacable housekeeper, deserves a prize for the most unflappable performance in recent memory.

Ultimately, the movie seems to be about questions like: how long can you hang on to the past? can treasured objects do it for you in the long run? The message that comes through is that families have their life cycles like everything else, things change, you gotta move on, c’est la vie.

And maybe the most striking note on that theme is one that doesn’t hit you until hours after you’ve seen the movie. Two of the deceased woman’s children happened to mention that they weren't going to have much use for her country home in the future because their lives aren’t based in France any more and they don’t expect to return often. The implication is that France, after all, is not such a huge deal. As far as I know, no French movie has ever dared utter such heterodoxy.

Rating: C (as in "Certainly worth seeing")

 

Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved (Science) by Frans de Waal, 2006

What a pleasure to read clear, logical scientific thinking expressed in beautifully lucid prose.

The heart of this book is an essay in which primatologist Frans de Waal expresses his belief, based primarily on his studies of chimpanzees: because primates other than humans exhibit behaviour that indicates a sense of morality, i.e. right and wrong, our own sense of morality has evolved from that of our non-human ancestors. In four follow-up essays, three philosophers and one science writer respond to Professor de Waal, mostly agreeing with him as to the general thrust of his argument but proposing some corrections and modifications. In a final essay, Professor de Waal sums up his thoughts.

I’m almost ashamed to admit that this is my first exposure to the work of Professor de Waal, an illustrious member of the faculty of Emory University. He has apparently written several very popular books on primatology and, judging by his writing in this one, they must make for excellent reading. His insights gained from studying our closest primate relatives are fascinating. Especially his accounts of many incidents indicating that chimpanzees are clearly capable of thoughtful, altruistic behaviour. Scientifically, the important point is that these aren’t just anecdotes about random happenings. They’re culled from years of careful study of patterns of behaviour.

One of the key elements of Professor de Waal’s argument is the observation that emotions clearly figure more importantly than reason in our moral decisions. Suppose, for instance, an alien instructed us to kill everybody afflicted with a certain kind of flu. By doing so, we would save a lot more people who would have died of the flu if it had been allowed to spread. Makes perfect sense in a rational way, doesn’t it? Yet we recoil from such a scheme. That, the professor points out, "is because human morality is firmly anchored in the social emotions, with empathy at its core." And other primates, as their behaviour shows, clearly have these social emotions.

One of the writer’s main objectives is to demolish what he calls the "Veneer Theory" of human morality: the belief that our moral sense is just a thin layer of decency grafted onto our raging, animalistic impulse for self-gratification. Along the way, Professor de Waal takes a shot – a relatively polite one – at Richard Dawkins. Professor Dawkins was most famous for his "selfish gene" theory until his recent attacks on religion made him one of the headliners in a current controversy over the existence of God. As Professor de Waal sees it, Dawkins is claiming that our moral orientation requires us to rise above or to conquer the selfish orientation of our Darwinian evolution, i.e. the fact that each gene’s drive to replicate itself is what propels evolution. As Professor de Waal sees it, Thomas Huxley, one of Charles Dawin’s most vigorous defenders, held a similar view of human moral development. But Professor de Waal points out that "selfish" can only be used metaphorically in terms of genes; since genes lack conscious intentions, they cannot be said to be selfish in the usual sense of the term.

Furthermore, while the process of natural selection can be seen to be cruel and "selfish", the end result isn’t necessarily so. To think that the ruthless process of elimination can only have produced pitiless creatures is to make what Professor de Waal calls the "Beethoven error": to fail to appreciate that the great composer could produce some of the finest, most beautiful musical compositions in Western culture while working from one of the most disorderly and dirty apartments of 19th century Vienna. In the same way that there is a disconnect between Beethoven’s output and his surroundings, de Waal says, "...there is not much of a connection between the process of natural selection and its many products".

He sums up his argument:

Natural selection has the capacity of producing an incredible range of organisms, from the most asocial and competitive to the kindest and gentlest. The same process may not have specified our moral rules and values, but it has provided us with the psychological makeup, tendencies, and abilities to develop a compass for life’s choices that takes the interests of the entire community into account, which is the essence of human morality.

The commentaries on the professor’s essay are offered by Robert Wright, Christine M. Korsgaard, Philip Kitcher and Peter Singer. Here too, the writing is marvellously succinct and cogent. For the most part, these writers are very gracious towards Professor de Waal, although they all cite some problems with his theory. Their main complaint seems to be that human morality requires a level of reflection, reasoning and self-consciousness that non-human primates do not appear to have access to. The moral decisions of non-human primates – peace-making after fights, standing up for the underdog, etc – appear to be more spontaneous and impromptu, a gut reaction, you might say. As far as I can tell, though, the various writers’ comments do not refute Professor de Waal’s basic premise: that the essence of our morality derives from our pre-human origins. As he himself says, his discussion of human morality emphasizes the continuity of the moral development from pre-human to human, while other thinkers choose to emphasize the dis-continuity. But neither point of view negates the other.

In his wrap-up essay, Professor de Waal doesn’t take much notice of his critics; there’s very little reference, in his essay, to theirs. He simply re-casts his main points in new ways and that, perhaps in its implicit way, is the only acknowledgment that he has read his critics. The impression of lofty disdain is almost comic. Except that he writes, again, in such unfussy, accessible prose that you can’t accuse him of sounding haughty or pedantic. It’s just that, from his years of experience and study, he’s so sure about his points that he doesn’t need to get hot and bothered about defending them.

One point that raised my eyebrows was his matter-of-fact statement that morality applies only to groups. "A solitary person would have no need for morality, nor would a person who lives with others without mutual dependency. Under such circumstances, each individual can just go its own way. There would be no pressure to evolve social constraints or moral tendencies." When you try to see it from the point of view of an evolutionary scientist or philosopher, I suppose the point is obvious and irrefutable. Still, it does sound a bit startling to those of us who grew up with idea of moral laws drilled into our hearts by a supreme moral authority. If wrong-doing only concerns your involvement with other people, what on earth are all of us good Catholics boys going to do with all that guilt we’ve been harbouring these many years as a result of that heinous "solitary sin"?

 

One Soldier’s War (Memoir) Arkady Babchenko, 2006, English Translation by Nick Allen, 2007

The whole point of reading books about brutal conditions, terrible deprivation and extreme violence is to fantasize about whether or not you’d be tough enough to take it. From the sounds of what this author went through, I might have survived it for about ten minutes

Arkady Babchenko served with the Russian army twice in the Chechen wars, first in 1995 and then in 1999. First time he was a conscript; second time he was a contract soldier. The brutality he describes in the conflict with the Chechens is bad enough but it’s the mayhem in the barracks that floors me. Night after night, the conscripts who are still in training are roused out of their sleep to have the shit kicked out of them by the older soldiers. All of it, of course, fuelled by vodka. Occasionally, a superior officer puts in an appearance and grumbles ineffectually about the bullying. But usually there isn’t much supervision from the higher-ups because they’re off in Chechnya.

You wonder how anybody could have endured one night of the onslaught from the goons, let alone weeks of it. In fact, it got so bad that I began to wonder if Mr. Babchenko’s account could be true. No human being that I’ve ever met could endure the punishment he describes. Brings to mind all the fuss about the famous autobiography Papillon back in the late 1960s. Everybody was enthralled with this memoir by the hardened French criminal who made several daring escapes from the infamous Devil’s Island. But then word started to leak out that a lot of it was embroidered, that author Henri Charrire didn’t actually endure everything that he claimed. Well, I began to wonder if we’re someday going to hear similar things about Mr. Babchenko’s story.

In the meantime, we’ll have to take his report at face value. You could hardly get a book that’s more vivid and compelling in the blood-and-guts department. This is a soldier’s view from mud level. That’s both the strength and the weakness of the book, to my mind. While you get an indelible impression of the soldier’s daily grind – fear, hunger, thirst, lice, suppurating wounds – you don’t always have a very clear sense of the overall picture. Maybe the assumption is that readers are supposed to know more about the strategies and the background of the conflict than we do. Admittedly, though, war literature isn’t our speciality here at Dilettante’s Diary.

Still, you do get some very well-written evocations of the experience. Like this passage where the author is lying awake at night:

The minutes stretched into years. The silence and the night smothered everything; time that wasn’t measured with cigarettes had lost all meaning....Everything had died. Only we soldiers were still a little alive, despite being rooted in the cold. Like sunken submarines we lay on a shelf, our iron sides nestling closely to one another under water as we cooled off motionlessly, huddled in a pile to preserve warmth....the darkness poured inside and filled our hull compartment, leaving alive only a drop of energy somewhere in our very core. And not another sign of life around, not a single soul, only the dead.

Author Babchenko also offers up some surprising reflections. For instance, his contradiction of what is surely a pretty universal impression of war. "It turns out that there is nothing out of the ordinary about war," he says. "It’s still just ordinary life, only taking place in very tough conditions with the constant knowledge that people are trying to kill you....Nothing changes when someone dies." There may be a bombardment during the night, the author says, but the rest of the night passes as usual. "In the morning life begins anew. The water truck arrives and we take containers and go and steal water, and in the kitchen we get our ears boxed. And that’s all there is to it."

Another insightful passage starts with the author’s glimpse of a photo of a Chechen boy, about seven years old. He’s toting a rifle and his mom is beaming proudly at his side. The writer goes on to speculate, in very convincing detail, how the kid will become a full-blown terrorist until, around age twenty-five, he’ll be gunned down and will "lie in a puddle and stare at the sky with half-open, lifeless eyes, now nothing more than an object of disgust as lice crawl in his beard."

As these quotes illustrate, the translation by Nick Allen works very well. The English is contemporary, colloquial and beautifully phrased. Only the occasional blip like the use of "and nor" and "but nor" makes an incongruously British sound to a North American reader.

Given the difficulty of sorting out the battle scenes, one of the best sections comes when the author describes a period of rest in an abandoned warehouse near the end of the fighting. For a few days, at least, we become oriented to the scene and can follow everything that’s going on. This is the section where one of the few tender moments occurs. The soldiers are very touched by a kindly woman who brings them gifts (cookies, candies, etc) on behalf of the mothers of Russia.

Unlike that woman, most of the author's cohorts don't come through clearly as personalities. This could be due, partly, to the fact that Russian characters, la War and Peace, each have about ten different versions of their names. No problem for a Russian reader, of course, but it makes it hard for an English reader to keep track of the players.

Still, you get a very clear impression of them as a group. The author makes the point that there aren’t any handsome or smart boys in the ranks. The rich daddies bought their sons' way out of the war. These, then, are the likes of the soldiers: "Shorn-headed boys, sometimes morose, sometimes laughing, beaten up in our barracks, with broken jaws and ruptured lungs, we were herded into this war and killed by the hundred. We didn’t even know how to shoot; we couldn’t kill anyone, we didn’t know how. All that we were capable of was crying and dying. And die we did."

During his second tour of duty, he says, "This is not an army but a herd drawn from the dregs of the criminal masses, lawless apart from the dictates of the jackals that run it." As for the latter, they "cannot string two words together and know only how to smash in the teeth of some young kid. They make their way up the career ladder not because they are the best, but because there is no one else." Not surprisingly, then, the prevailing ethos isn't exactly that of a finishing school. "A male collective in a confined space inevitably assumes a prison’s model of existence."

Which is not to say that there aren’t moments of comic relief. Some of the most effective passages in the book portray the guys sitting around in their long underwear, speculating on the politics of the war. As they try to figure it all out, their wry wit and their down-to-earth sense of things make them sound like Shakespeare’s rustics. "You could say a soldier is the simplest creature in the universe. When we are terrified we are afraid, when we are sad we mope, when something’s funny we laugh." I felt like cheering at their suggestion that the politicians who cause the wars should be invited to step out and settle the disputes in hand-to-hand combat with each other. Having been informed that the supply officer sells off the good stuff to keep himself in vodka, you can’t help admiring the keystone cops episode where the soldiers stage a mock attack on the camp as a distraction so that they can raid the food trailer. After they've gorged themselves, the explosive, messy results of dysentery bring on riotous hilarity among the sufferers.

At nearly 400 pages, however, the book’s too long by about one-quarter and it’s not well structured. A foreword note seems to indicate that some of the sections were written as separate magazine articles. Towards the end, the inclusion of disparate pieces creates the effect of too much wrapping-up. I think the whole thing would be more effective if the separate pieces had been merged into one cohesive whole.

Then there’s the question of the style. To enjoy it, you have to be willing to accept a kind of overblown, passionate writing. This I take to be a characteristic of the Russian temperament. Mindful of that, you can’t expect the author to be perfectly cogent at all times. Sometimes the emotional range of his comments swings wildly. Describing soldiers returned home, he says they believe "in nothing except death." On the next page, though, he says they’re "still waiting for something all these years." And yet, they realize that they "should not have returned from the war." But one maimed vet is filled with cynicism and nihilism. The world is full of pointless people, this wreck says, and every one of them is "my personal enemy". At the end of the passage, though, this guy’s hatred suddenly abates and his eyes "recede once again behind a film of indifference."

That kind of emotional vacillation may explain the greatest mystery of all: why did author Babchenko, having acquired a law degree, return to the war voluntarily, given that he knew first-hand how horrible it was? During his second term of service in Chechyna, he delivers this credo to a pal who's fantasizing about going home:

Home, beer, women, peace....It’s not real. The only thing that’s real is the war and this field....I’m free here, I don’t have any obligations, I don’t have to take care of anybody or be responsible for anyone....I live and die the way I want. I’ll never be this free again in my life. Trust me, I already came home from the war once. Right now you desperately want to go home, but once you’re there you’ll only feel down. Everyone is so petty there, so uninteresting. They think they’re living, but they don’t know shit about life. They’re puppets.

 

The Christian World (History) by Martin Marty, 2007

We at Dilettante’s Diary jump at any work that helps to explain one of the greatest mysteries of civilization: how did we start with an obscure, folksy rabbi in ancient Palestine and arrive at this enormously powerful organization that spans the globe? So this book about the spread of Christianity through the world was a welcome addition to our pile of must-reads.

In a way, the book does give some insight into the above-cited mystery. But the most enigmatic parts of the puzzle remain pretty obscure. It’s still not clear to me how that humble rabbi got transmogrified into the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. We know Paul had a lot to do with it but the process still seems pretty elusive to me.

While there isn’t a lot of new insight here on that, some interesting details do emerge. For instance, the fact that some early Christians tried to follow the Jewish law for a century and more. It surprised me to hear Professor Marty say that the letters written in the name of Peter tend to be "somewhat dismissive of Paul, even when they congratulate him." I had thought the animosity was pretty well patched over in the official documents but maybe a closer reading would reveal the barbs Professor Marty’s talking about.

About those documents, though – Professor Marty, a world-renowned expert on religion and a distinguished member of the faculty of the University of Chicago for thirty-five years, appears to take the New Testament gospels and epistles at face value. He never seems to question their authenticity or their reliability as historical documents. As far as I can tell, this book shows no awareness of the many emerging theories to the effect that the gospels are largely based on literary and mythical precedents, possibly having little to do with any historical facts or events. Maybe that’s because Professor Marty believes it’s his job as a historian not to investigate the validity of the scriptures but to trace how they influenced subsequent events.

Which raises the question of whether Professor Marty is a believer, in the Christian sense. One can’t help suspecting that he is. Otherwise, why would a person spend so much time and effort in a study of this subject? If he is a believer, though, he’s careful, as an academic, not to tip his hand. When he’s talking, for instance, about so-called miracles, he says, "...the people were awed by some apparent signs of divine favor." Speaking of the different images Latin Americans have of the Blessed Virgin, he says: "She was also characteristically seen in local and intimate settings, thanks to an apparition, as the Virgin of Guadalupe." No hint of his opinion on the authenticity of the apparition. About Pentecostalists, he says, they "cultivate the practice of ‘speaking in tongues,’ unintelligible syllabic sequences which they believe are prompted by the Holy Spirit." Does he think they are so prompted? He’s not saying. Of the same group, he says later that many of them "experienced and claimed miraculous healing." The "miraculous" quality of the experiences is credited simply to the experience of those affected.

Since my knowledge of the broad sweep of Christianity through history falls far short of scholarly, I found lots of fascinating details cropping up at various stages of the book. A couple of references to Saint Augustine, in particular. Given that many people today blame Augustine for much of the Church’s repressive attitude to sexuality, it’s good to note a couple of points in Augustine's favour: seems he railed against the oppression of the masses by the mighty and powerful; and he warned against literalist interpretations of the bible. Then there’s the note that St. Martin of Tours (circa 316-400) was probably the first Christian of the Western Church to be recognized as a saint without having to get himself martyred. We hear so much about the Church’s disastrous attitude to Jews that it’s good to hear that the Lateran Council IV (1215) proclaimed that Jews were under papal protection, meaning that no one could attack them or their property. Admittedly, they had to wear an identifying badge but this was so that Christians wouldn’t look on them as marriage prospects; Muslims had to wear a badge for the same reason.

Various illuminating details help to modify common perceptions about Catholicism and other religions. We were always taught that Jesus told his followers to spread the faith to the whole world, but it was the Jesuits, founded by Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), who were the first to formulate a truly global vision and mission. It was at the time of the Council of Trent (1545-1563) that the Catholic Church was first called "Roman". As recently as 1864, the Vatican’s Syllabus of Errors was condemning such transgressions as democracy and the separation of church and state. The term "Fundamentalism" comes from the publication, early in the 20th century, of The Fundamentals, a series of booklets  sponsored by wealthy businessmen worried that modern scriptural criticism could undermine the authority of the Bible.

From a certain perspective, this book could be said to be a history of the world, given that there is hardly a corner of the planet that Christianity has not attempted to reach. One of the sobering facts that you’re reminded of is that very often politics is theology and theology is politics -- particularly in the early years when the Church was struggling for survival. As for the later stages, if you ever thought evangelization was purely about spirituality and the saving of souls, this book will disabuse you of that notion. It’s shocking to be reminded of the ruthless venality with which the Conquistadores raped Latin America – with the full backing of the papacy and ostensibly in the cause of religion – but mostly for commercial gain. The "religious" justification for it all was the claim that it was patterned after the Jewish people’s conquest of Canaan as described in the Old Testament.

Still, Professor Marty takes pains to point out that many Christian missionaries were truly concerned about the eternal salvation of the natives they hoped to evangelize. Bartolom de Las Casas (1484-1566) stands out in this regard. His tireless campaigning for a better deal for the Indians of Latin America earned him a saintly reputation, only somewhat tarnished by his belief that it was ok to have black slaves, a position taken presumably because he, like most people in those times, couldn’t imagine a New World economy functioning without slaves. In many cases, benevolent missionaries like de Las Casas were responsible for tremendous advances in terms of literacy, health and general human values in the countries where they preached. Which is not to say that there weren’t often very thorny problems about the extent to which Christianity could incorporate aspects of native cultures. All those controversies get full recognition here.

Professor Marty seems to get quite revved up with his observation that, in terms of Christian vitality, Africa and Asia are where the action is now. He seems to believe that it has stagnated in North America and is pretty well dead in Europe. The former claim is arguably on target but I’m wondering if the latter one would be greeted with acquiescent nods by the vast numbers of bishops and cardinals in the Old World. Granted, their churches may not be full on Sundays but lots of Europeans are still getting kids baptized. And don’t forget all those thriving monasteries and convents tucked away in the mountains and river valleys.

If Professor Marty is, as discussed above, a believer, it seems, on the evidence of the writing, that he can’t be of the Catholic persuasion. In one statement, he makes an error very annoying to Catholics who have any understanding at all of their faith. Latin America, he says, was a place "where devotion to Jesus Christ was complemented by adoration of the Virgin of Guadalupe, or of myriad saints." Catholics are taught from their Mother Superior's knees that their veneration of the Blessed Virgin does not amount to adoration; that would be idolatry. Only the three persons of the Blessed Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Ghost – can be adored. To outsiders, the devotion to Mary and other saints may look like adoration but if you mistake it for that you clearly are identifying yourself as an outsider.*

Another of Professor Marty’s points about Catholicism struck me as even more problematic. The author says that the White Fathers, members a religious order created specifically to serve in Africa, "did not take a vow to be celibate". It seems that the professor doesn’t understand what he’s saying here. Celibacy among catholic clergy is not a matter of a vow. No priests take a vow of celibacy. The discipline of celibacy is a law imposed by the Vatican on priests. However, priests who belong to religious orders do (usually) take a vow of "chastity". That is a much broader issue, involving all kinds of values, including celibacy. Does Professor Marty mean that the White Fathers did not take any such vow? Fine. They would still be subject to the law of celibacy. Or does he mean that, for some reason, Rome has exempted them from the law and that they are free to marry? That strikes me as unlikely.

One of the limitations of the book, and an inescapable one given the book’s scope, is that there isn’t much room for detail and elaboration. It’s so packed with information that it isn’t what you’d call a fun read. It’s more like a reference book, one that you would like to have handy to check on certain major developments and milestones. Then you’d look to other sources for more detail about the subjects that particularly interest you.

A flaw that might, however, have been avoidable concerns the writing style. Some sentences can be hard to decipher. Professor Marty often has a way of wording things that seems, shall we say, counter-intuitive. You often have to stop and mull over a sentence to get its meaning. Not that the writing is prolix or structurally complex. It’s more a question of odd word choices and word orders.

Among other examples of this kind of thing, Professor Marty cites a certain phrase as an "abrupt colloquial question that can well serve to encounter those who wrestle with the concept and reality of global Christianity." What does he mean by can well serve to encounter....? Wouldn’t the meaning have been better served simply by "can occur to" or something of the kind? A sentence on Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) reads: "A reflective thologian, he posed a question that reflected twenty centuries of pondering and answers which inspired action: ‘Who is Jesus Christ for us today?’" I suggest that it’s almost impossible to unpack the syntax of that sentence. How does "answers" fit grammatically? Is the writer saying that Bonhoeffer "posed" answers as well as questions? We don’t usually speak of "posing" answers. Another sentence reads: "In 843 a synod condemned the iconoclasts, but icons continued to draw the support of the faithful in the Eastern churches." I ain't no distinguished perfessor, but it seems to me that the conjunction between the two clauses should be "and" not "but."

One of the wonkiest passages involves a statement about events in Latin America: "Napoleon’s armies forced the Brazilian royal family into exile in Brazil, and when it returned, left one of its sons in position as King Pedro I." As it reads, the subject of the verb "left" is "Napoleon’s armies". I’m guessing, though, that it was the royal family that left one of its sons, in which case the word "it" should appear just before the verb "left". And what’s with the designation of the royal family as "Brazilian"? Surely, it’s the Portugese royal family we’re talking about. This is probably just a typo or a minor oversight and would be forgivable as such, but you’re encountering so much obfuscation by this point that you have to wonder.

Professor Marty also has what appears to be an idiosyncratic understanding of the practice regarding pronouns and their antecedents. In nearly everything I read these days, the working understanding is that the antecedent of the pronoun is the most likely noun that precedes it. Professor Marty, however, doesn’t observe this custom. In his work, you sometimes have to go several sentences back to find the correct antecedent, often skipping other possible candidates along the way. This can make for very real confusion.

In one passage, he’s been talking about Constantine’s relationships with bishops. Then comes the sentence: "He and his successors saw to it that little coming from them could counter the imperial, which means his own power." You’d think the antecedent to "them" would be "his successors" but that makes gibberish of the sentence. So you have to go back to the previous sentence to find that "them" refers to the bishops.

In a section on the Eucharist, he says "priests feared that they might spill the wine that through their prayers and words and God’s action had become the blood of Christ...." Here you have two uses of the third person plural pronoun. In the reference to "their prayers", clearly the antecedent is "priests". According to normal grammatical usage, then, the antecedent of "they" (the potential spillers) would also be "priests" but the meaning can’t be that the priests were afraid that they themselves might spill the wine. So you have to back up a bit and you find that the "they" referred to here must be "the faithful" in the last sentence of the previous paragraph.

Time and again, the bewilderment created by grammatical carelessness gives the impression that the professor is standing in front of a class, reeling out his thoughts, without close attention to precision. As to his exact meaning, I guess the students' attitude is: like, you you just gotta sorta know what he means, man! I mean we all dig the professor, we all get his shtick, how can there be any question about the antecedents of his pronouns? Maybe a lift of the eyebrows or a flick of a finger, possibly even a vocal modulation, clarifies everything.

When it comes to committing his thoughts to writing, the professor sits back and lets it rip in the style that suits him. He hands the completed manuscript to a graduate student or to his wife to check for obvious typos or bloopers. Then it goes off to the publisher where it receives scant copy editing because, as we all know, publishers these days can't afford much of that kind of thing. So the book appears to great acclaim and nobody has the temerity to point out that the great man is not communicating as clearly as he should.

Why do I rant about such flaws in books? It’s a matter of readers’ rights. It’s getting to the point that you encounter so much disregard for the reader that you feel you’re being jerked around. Either that, or you think you’re losing your mind. Here you have this great professor’s work, which – you assume – must be very intelligent and coherent. And yet you keep stumbling over iffy passages. So who’s losing it: you or the professor? You begin to feel that maybe you don’t need this kind of aggravation of an evening. Which may be where tv comes in.

* I find now that the professor is an ordained minister of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com