But if this man has a son who sees all the sins that his father has done, considers, and does not do likewise, who does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife, does not wrong anyone, exacts no pledge, commits no robbery, but gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, withholds his hand from iniquity, takes no advance or accrued interest, observes my ordinances, and follows my statutes; he shall not die for his father’s iniquity; he shall surely live. As for his father, because he practiced extortion, robbed his brother, and did what is not good among his people, he dies for his iniquity.
Yet you say, ‘Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?’ When the son has done what is lawful and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. The person who sins shall die. A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child; the righteousness of the righteous shall be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be his own.
In stories, as I have said before, the substance – the events of the story – is the payload, and style is the rocket that delivers it to its target. The same is true, mutatis mutandis, in the other arts. More than fifty years ago, Clint Ballard Jr. created a payload that is still hitting targets today: a three-minute poison-pen letter in rhythm & blues form, called ‘You’re No Good’. It was recorded in a fairly pedestrian R & B style by Dee Dee Warwick, the younger and lesser-known sister of Dionne Warwick, and subsequently by Betty Everett, the Swinging Blue Jeans, and divers other artistes.
But it was Linda Ronstadt who built the rocket that was truly fit to put it in orbit and rain its astringent soul upon the world. Ronstadt belonged firmly to the singer-songwriter tradition that was strongly en vogue in the 1970s, and her version is fuelled by, well, Linda Ronstadt. Her vocal performance delivers the raw emotion that the song demands, refined through the filter of her great musical skill and showmanship. Others before her had sung the song; Ronstadt sold it.
But there is more than one way to build a rocket. Twenty years later, Aswad, a British reggae band heavily influenced by American soul music, recorded their own version of ‘You’re No Good’. I happened to hear it for the first time last night, and was struck by the unexpected power of the recording. The sound is as lush as a Turkish bordello; about fifteen layers of flavoured syrup poured over a base of crystallized honey. It ought to be unbearably cloying. But it is all done in the service of the song; the rocket is built precisely for its payload. Where Ronstadt gave us a show of emotional sincerity, Aswad’s vocalists deliver the words with authority and gravitas, with thick layers of musicianship to make the bitter pill palatable.
When you hear Linda Ronstadt sing ‘You’re No Good’, you feel that you have been told off. When you hear Aswad, you have simply been told: not with bitterness or rancour, but with the finality of a magistrate passing sentence. That, at any rate, was my reaction. I encourage you to judge for yourself:
But there is something rather odd in being told with magisterial finality that you are no good. It may be utterly sincere, but it is not true. This is a point that I should like to go into, for it is a matter of unexpected controversy.
My essai for the first anniversary of L. Jagi Lamplighter’s Superversive blog is now up in full:
Go, read, and I hope you enjoy.
In other news, I shall not be writing this week, as I have finally enlisted some help to do a top-to-bottom cleaning of my flat, which is many months overdue. The accumulation of books and papers was making it impossible for me to hoover up the dust, and the dust was making it difficult to do anything else. I have been living largely on a diet of antihistamines and facial tissue. Enough of that!
The Bible tells us to love our neighbours, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people.
—G. K. Chesterton, The Uses of Diversity
In an age like our own, when the artist is an altogether exceptional person, he must be allowed a certain amount of irresponsibility, just as a pregnant woman is. Still, no one would say that a pregnant woman should be allowed to commit murder, nor would anyone make such a claim for the artist, however gifted. If Shakespeare returned to the earth to-morrow, and if it were found that his favourite recreation was raping little girls in railway carriages, we should not tell him to go ahead with it on the ground that he might write another King Lear.
And, after all, the worst crimes are not always the punishable ones. By encouraging necrophilic reveries one probably does quite as much harm as by, say, picking pockets at the races. One ought to be able to hold in one’s head simultaneously the two facts that Dali is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being. The one does not invalidate or, in a sense, affect the other.
The first thing that we demand of a wall is that it shall stand up. If it stands up, it is a good wall, and the question of what purpose it serves is separable from that. And yet even the best wall in the world deserves to be pulled down if it surrounds a concentration camp. In the same way it should be possible to say, ‘This is a good book or a good picture, and it ought to be burned by the public hangman.’ Unless one can say that, at least in imagination, one is shirking the implications of the fact that an artist is also a citizen and a human being.
—George Orwell, ‘Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dalí’
(Paragraph breaks and boldface added.)
And yet here we are, less than a hundred years later, and the Hollywood elite lionizes and defends the likes of Roman Polanski, who did not quite stoop to raping little girls in railway carriages, but is no Shakespeare, either. I will say it plainly: We live in disgusting times.
Two sayings that, at this moment, are particularly worth bearing in mind:
It needs but one foe to breed a war, not two. And those who have not swords can still die upon them.
—J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King
To survive you often have to fight, and to fight you have to dirty yourself. War is evil, and it is often the lesser evil. Those who take the sword perish by the sword, and those who don’t take the sword perish by smelly diseases.
—George Orwell, ‘Looking Back on the Spanish War’
May God be with the Christians of Nigeria in their hour of tribulation, and may He confound Boko Haram and all their evil works. And may the dead of Charlie Hebdo find mercy, and the survivors seek truth.
A follow-up to my recent squib, ‘A case of vengeance’:
No doubt one reason why Flyspeck Flivverpuff was so happy to hear suicide recommended as a sure ticket to Hell was that, in fact, this was a lie. It may be – it probably is – that anyone who is absolutely Hell-bent on going to Hell will find a way to get there; and the Spanish swordsman of the story probably got what he had coming to him. But it is not, in fact, and never has been the teaching of the Church, (that is, of the Ordinary Magisterium), that suicides go to Hell automatically. The unnamed interloper was badly misrepresenting the teaching of the Church, as you would expect from someone that Flivverpuff himself suspected of having had words put in his mouth by one of his fellow devils.
Paragraph 2283 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.
Paragraph 2281 makes it clear that suicide is a grave sin, and indeed combines several sins in one:
Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.
But this does not make it unforgivable or beyond the range of God’s mercy. Jimmy Akin, the well-known Catholic apologist, speaks eloquently on the issue in this video:
(Why Salazar went to Hell, on the other hand, we shall probably never know. We may suspect that it had little to do with whatever offence caused the swordsman to seek infinitely repeated revenge upon him. So extreme and disordered a desire is not usually bestowed upon an appropriate object. Of course, if Salazar had not been in Hell, Flivverpuff’s ‘customer’ would have had an entirely different punishment laid out for him: the doom of knowing that he had made an irreparable blunder, and his quarry was beyond his grasp for ever.)
Hope that helps. A merry Third Day of Christmas to all.
It is said by some, that men will think and act for themselves; that none will disuse spirits or anything else, merely because his neighbors do; and that moral influence is not that powerful engine contended for. Let us examine this. Let me ask the man who would maintain this position most stiffly, what compensation he will accept to go to church some Sunday and sit during the sermon with his wife’s bonnet upon his head? Not a trifle, I’ll venture. And why not? There would be nothing irreligious in it: nothing immoral, nothing uncomfortable. Then why not? It is not because there would be something egregiously unfashionable in it? Then it is the influence of fashion; and what is the influence of fashion, but the influence that other people’s actions have?
—Abraham Lincoln: Address delivered before the Springfield Washington Temperance Society, 1842. Collected Works, vol. I, p. 277.
Fiction can educate intellectually, but that is not its main purpose, which is to educate and regulate the sentiments. If you can wiggle it in, an argument that shows that courage is good is good, but first and foremost, what a work of fiction should do is show that courage is admirable.