Sunday, October 24, 2021

The Five Porticoes of our Common Home

From 1921 through 1969, today (October 24) was observed the the Roman calendar as the feast of the Archangel Saint Raphael, whose name means "God has healed."  He lived up to his name in his main biblical appearance, in the Book of Tobit, where he healed Tobit of his blindness and healed Tobit's daughter-in-law Sarah of the demon that had afflicted her. Later Jewish tradition made him one of the three angels (along with Michael and Gabriel) who appeared to Abraham and then sent to Sodom to save Lot. Although unnamed in the New Testament, Christian tradition has likewise identified him with healing and as the angel who periodically stirred the  water in the five-porticoed pool of Bethsaida (Bethesda) in John 5. Current lectionaries now routinely omit the former verse 4: an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred up the water; whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was made well from whatever disease that person had. (Whatever the origin of that verse, without it the whole context of the story of the grumpy man, sick for 38 years, who could never make it into the water in time to get healed whenever the water was stirred, is missing.) 

In John, Jesus healed the man himself (apparently purposely performing a miracle on the sabbath). So Raphael and the stirred water were not needed. But, besides the grumpy (and as it turned out ungrateful) miraculously healed man, there were also, according to John, many blind, lame, and paralyzed - presumably waiting an opportunity to avail themselves of the water's healing power. No miracles for them - just the ordinary means of healing generally available in that time and place!

Miracles continue to occur according to the mysteries of God's providence. (They play an essential part in Church's process for recognizing - "canonizing" - saints.) Still, for most of us, most of the time, it is the ordinary means of healing that are available to us in our time and place that we must rely upon. Luckily, we live in an era of enormous medical and scientific progress and hence have many more means of preserving and restoring health available to us than the five-porticoed pool.

In particular, we have vaccines - against smallpox and polio and countless others ancient afflictions, as well as the latest vaccine developed just one year ago against the great scourge of our time and place, Covid-19. The gospel's many blind, lame, and paralyzed knew what to do, in terms of what was available to them in their time and place. Like them, we too need to recognize what to do and avail ourselves of the amazingly stirred water of vaccination - now increasingly available to more and more people, soon including children.

Of course, there are many who, like the miraculously healed man in the gospel, do not have easy access, for any number of reasons. Instead of populating five porticoes, they populate all five continents. Like the the miraculously healed man before Jesus healed him, access for many is dependent on others - others to put them into the pool when the water is stirred up.

Clearly, it is the first responsibility of national leaders to get as many as possible of their own citizens vaccinated - and then be the helpers the paralyzed man in the gospel lacked to aid everyone enter the stirred water of a vaccinated world. Here in the U.S., the first task is proving to be much more difficult than it was expected to be, much more so than it would have been had so many Republican politicians not made it their perverse mission to hurt their own constituents! Whether for their fellow citizens in our society or for fellow dwellers on the planet that is our common home, the challenge for all of us in these crowded five porticoes is to alleviate the congestion and help one another to get into the pool that is the means of healing together.

(Image: Painting The Pool of Bethesda, 1977, by Robert Bateman)

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Blessed Kaiser Karl - 100 Years Later

Almost 100 years ago, on April 1, 1922, Austrian Kaiser Karl I (Emperor Charles I, who was also King Charles IV of Hungary) died - largely unappreciated and unlamented in his post-war exile in Madeira. His body still rests there, in exile, even though both his wife, Empress Zita, and his son, Archduke Otto, have since been interred, with the traditional Hapsburg ceremonial, in Vienna's Kapuzinergruft. His commemoration in the liturgical calendar occurs today, the 110th anniversary of his wedding to Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma in 2011, prior to which the then Archduke Karl said to Zita, "Now we must help each other to get to heaven."

In his homily at Blessed Kaiser Karl's beatification on October 3, 2004, Pope Saint John Paul II, who had himself been named after the last Hapsburg Emperor by his father, who had served in the imperial army in World War I, said: 

The decisive task of Christians consists in seeking, recognizing and following God's will in all things. The Christian statesman, Charles of Austria, confronted this challenge every day. To his eyes, war appeared as "something appalling". Amid the tumult of the First World War, he strove to promote the peace initiative of my Predecessor, Benedict XV. 

From the beginning, the Emperor Charles conceived of his office as a holy service to his people. His chief concern was to follow the Christian vocation to holiness also in his political actions. For this reason, his thoughts turned to social assistance. May he be an example for all of us, especially for those who have political responsibilities in Europe today!

Descendants of the Swiss Count Rudolf of Habsburg, Karl's family famously acquired many lands in middle and eastern Europe by marriage. The dynasty eventually assumed, among their many titles, that of Archduke of Austria and was often referred to as the House of Austria (as in Charles V's famous son, the victor at Lepanto, Don John of Austria). Importantly, the Hapsburgs also held the elected office of Holy Roman Emperor most of the time from 1440 until the Empire's abolition by Napoleon in 1806. (After the marriage of Maria Theresa to the Duke of Lorraine, the family's official name became "Hapsburg-Lorraine," von Habsburg-Lothringen.) The highpoint of the family's power was, of course, the reign of Emperor Charles V, after whom the dynasty divided into two branches - the Spanish branch, supplanted by the Bourbons in the 18th century, and the Austrian branch, which ruled in Vienna until 1918.

When I was a college undegrad in the late 1960s, my International Relations professor (who was an exiled Czech, and so knew something of which he spoke) speculated whether his part of Europe might have fared better had the Hapsburg Empire not been destroyed in 1918. Nor was this the idle speculation of one isolated academic. No less an author than Tony Judt wrote in The New Republic in 1998: "I would go so far as to say that the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 was perhaps the worst thing that could have happened to almost all of its lands and citizens."

It is a sad historical fact that the post World War I destruction of the old polyglot, multi-ethnic (what we would now call "multicultural") empire into small, nation-states, all containing discontented minorities, proved unsurprisingly unstable and was tragically followed, first by German conquest before and during World War II, and then by Soviet conquest and domination during the decades that followed that war. Then, after the collapse of communism, came the break-up of Yugoslavia, one of the old empire's "successor states" and a brutal war, the likes of which Europe had not seen since 1945. The "successor states" are now at peace, but imperilled in so many ways - not least by the perennial prospects of neo-fascist dictatorship within and Russian meddling without.

Born August 17, 1887, Blessed Kaiser Karl succeeded his ancient great-uncle Franz Josef I in November 1916, by which time, more than midway through World War I, the Hapsburg empire appeared increasingly weak, on the way to losing the war it had foolishly started. Stepping into the shoes of his legendary predecessor probably would have been difficult at any time, but that was probably the worst time for the pious young Austrian Emperor and King of Hungary to ascend the throne. Nonetheless, he did attempt to repair the damage which that pointlessly destructive conflict had already caused and would continue to cause. His well intentioned but poorly executed peace initiative - the so-called "Sixtus Affair" (named after his brother-in-law Prince Sixtus on Bourbon Parma, who served as intermediary) - ignominiously failed, further limiting Karl's freedom of action and discrediting both him and any remaining efforts to negotiate an end the war which Pope Benedict XV correctly called the "suicide of civilized Europe." 

Both in his peace initiatives and in his efforts in April and October 1921 (100 years ago today) to regain his Hungarian crown, Karl was a complete failure in worldly terms. Exiled with his wife and children to the Portuguese island of Madeira, Karl lived out the remaining few months of his mortal life. As he sickened, he invited his 9-year old heir, Archduke Otto, to witness his final anointing, in order for him "to know how one conducts oneself at times like this - as a Catholic and as an Emperor."

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Moving Jefferson

This week, New York City Council officials unanimously voted to remove the 7-foot statue of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and the third President of the United States, from the City Council Chamber. The statue - commissioned in 1833 by Uriah P. Levy, the first Jewish commodore in the United States Navy, to commemorate Jefferson’s advocacy of religious freedom in the armed forces - is a plaster model of the bronze statue of Jefferson by the celebrated French artist Pierre-Jean David d’Angers which stands in the United States Capitol Rotunda in Washington. It has been at City Hall since 1834. (At first, Levy charged admission to view his statue and used the proceeds to feed the poor.) It has graced the NYC Council chamber since the 1910s.

The desecration and removal of statues (preferable to the execution of actual people practiced, for example, by the French Revolution which Jefferson so enthusiastically welcomed) is a peculiar contemporary example of symbolic expressive politics, which can generate lots of attention and anger on all sides, while conveniently accomplishing nothing positive for anyone in any actual need. This is to be distinguished, obviously, from the justified efforts to purify our country of monuments to Civil War traitors. (Jefferson was, of course, also a traitor - but to the Kingdom of Great Britain, as it was then known. so one should not expect a statue of Jefferson in Westminster Hall or at Windsor Castle. On the other hand, there is a statue of Jefferson in Paris, the capital of Britain's traditional enemy and the Americans' main ally in their war for independence)

Apart from the special case of the Confederate traitors, I am no great fan of eradicating the public honor accorded to historical figures whose accomplishments are deserving of our memory. I include Jefferson in this, although he was far from my favorite among the Founding Fathers. In the great rivalry between Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, I remain completely on Hamilton's side. His was a far better image of what America could become and a more realistic expectation of what it would become. The Broadway play Hamilton is no substitute for reading and studying The Federalist Papers, but - in this age of massive historical ignorance and unprincipled political posturing - it is an excellent introduction to Hamilton's heroic life and stellar achievements.

If statues  and other expressions of public art are going to be continually controversial, perhaps we should eliminate all public art and render our public spaces naked of all artistic expression (not unlike some modern churches). That would be aesthetically disastrous and soul-destroying, but maybe more honest than the selective reimagining of a history which must inevitably be different from however we imagine the present.  As L.P. Hartley famously said, "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."

It is the task of history to examine and illuminate the past in all its difference and complexity. It is the task of politics, educated and informed by history, to resolve conflicts and allocate and mobilize power in the present (and in the process become the history for the future to learn from in turn).

"These judicious reflections contain a lesson of moderation to all sincere lovers of the union, and ought to put them upon their guard against hazarding anarchy, civil war, a perpetual alienation of the states from each other, and perhaps the military despotism of a victorious demagogue, in the pursuit of what they are not likely to obtain, but from TIME and EXPERIENCE." (Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist, 85).

(PhotoThe statue of Thomas Jefferson in New York’s City Hall,  a model of the bronze statue that sits in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington. Dave Sanders for The New York Times.)

Credit.Dave Sanders for The New York Times 

Monday, October 18, 2021

Going "Full Beast" - Succession (Season 3)

Season 2 of HBO's Succession ended two years ago with Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) - instead of accepting his appointed role as designated fall guy for the scandal in the family business - finally going public with what every viewer of the series has known from the very first episode of season one: "The truth is that my father is a malignant presence, a bully, and a liar, and he was fully personally aware of these events for many years, and made efforts to hide and cover up."

Kendall's father Logan Roy (played in fully malevolent mode by Brian Cox) is, of course, the very malignant boss (as in "crime boss") of a toxic media empire, ("Waystar Royco") a billionaire who has been forever poisoning society - and more immediately and poignantly poisoning his family, especially his four super-rich, ostentatiously entitled, morally vacuous adult children - for a generation. (Sound familiar?) They - having lived the entirety of their scandalously privileged existences in their father's shadow - are simultaneously fellow victims of his tyranny and competitors for his favor (and the succession) and also utterly bereft apart from him, so totally has he controlled and dominated them and their entire world.

Logan, meanwhile, like any number of other aging public figures, can't/won't let go of his power, refusing to retire and let one or more of his scheming and utterly unworthy heirs assume the authority and power he has wielded for so long. Yet, although the show's creator is British, this is not the stuff of Shakespearian tragedy. The characters are larger-than-life in one respect only - their excessive wealth. Nothing else about them is impressive, let alone attractive or likable. And that is what makes the show so spectacular - in addition to its immediate cultural-political salience - the sheer horribleness of it all. 

I would willingly concede that, unlike the four adult Roy children, a character like cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) can come across, in contrast, as marginally likable. I think that is largely because he is really on the margin of the family and so all his self-serving scheming seems reprehensible in perhaps more normal ways, which more normally situated people can somehow relate to. His relative marginality also serves as well as a vehicle for us to get inside the family's pathological dynamics. Meanwhile, the other marginal relative, Shiv's husband Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) remains simultaneously both monstrously contemptible and personally trivial. Parenthetically, it is also nice to see Kendall's ex-wife, Rava (Natalie Gold), reappear after her absence from season 2. 

Not being a reviewer with access to episodes in advance, I do not know for certain what increasing evils season 3 will explore. Already in the first episode, everyone is obviously under pressure to choose sides in this spectacular family squabble with billion-dollar implications, complicated  by the constant need (now out in the open) to keep covering up evidence of past corporate crimes. At this point, it's all about “I need to know where everyone is and what they’re doing” What is simultaneously a bitter corporate battle and a family civil war exacerbates the basic tension which has always been at the heart of the series: what happens after Logan? 

Friday, October 15, 2021

I Love Lucy at 70


Some 20 or so years ago, my sister, her family, and I had occasion to watch some old I Love Lucy episodes. I, of course, could remember watching I Love Lucy episodes as a child. What struck me so strongly, however, was how my nieces, who were growing up in a very different world, were as amused as I was by a black-and-white TV sitcom from the 1950s. What better evidence for how universally and perennially and authentically funny Lucy was!

I Love Lucy made its debut on CBS 70 years ago on October 15, 1951. The series ran on Monday nights for six seasons - 180 half-hour episodes - until May 6, 1957. The show starred Lucille Ball and her real-life husband Desi Arnaz as Lucy and (Cuban-American bandleader) Ricky Ricardo, with co-stars Vivian Vance and William Frawley as neighbors, Ethel and Fred Mertz. During the second season, on January 19, 1953, Lucy famously gave birth to a son, "Little Ricky," in an episode entitled "Lucy Goes to the Hospital," timed to coincide with Lucille Ball's real-time birth of her and Desi's son Desi Arnaz, Jr. After the series ended in 1957, The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show continued for three more seasons as 13 one-hour specials.

The show, was filmed in front of a studio audience, won five Emmy Awards and in 2012 was voted the 'Best TV Show of All Time' in a survey conducted ABC News and People Magazine. It influence even extended to the invention of the summer rerun tradition! 

I don't remember at what point I started watching I Love Lucy.  Whether I actually first saw "Lucy Goes to the Hospital" live, or in the series' summer reruns, I don't know, but Ido remember watching it and laughing. In those days, there were limited TV options (although we had many more stations to choose from in New York City than in many other locations). And, of course, there was only one TV. So whatever was on was watched by all. 

Lucy wasn't the only sitcom, of course. In my family, we watched Father Knows Best and Ozzie and Harriet and I Remember Mama among early TV classics, but they were more like light dramas, whereas Lucy was unambiguously all about being funny in a classically clownish kind of way. And it was wonderful. And we all loved it! 

And, while the society and style of family life Lucy presumed and portrayed, seems anachronistic today, the comedy is still funny.  Somehow Lucy tapped into something universal in her humor, in a way few comedy acts can. 

It is also a reminder t hat there was once a time - in living memory - when life could be funny.