Monthly Archives: November 2008

I have had several requests to provide a recipe for the apricot brandy with mulled cider that I have now mentioned twice.  The problem is that I rarely have recipes as such.  I have ingredients, and I have ways of preparing them, but I do not really measure anything, and I seldom make the same thing twice, so it is not always easy to describe exactly how I have made something.  Here, however, is my best approximation of a recipe, along with similar approximations for two other hot drinks that I like to make.

Mulled Apple Cider and Apricot Brandy
Pour apple cider into a pot.  Make certain that it is real apple cider, not the unreasonable facsimile of apple cider that is most often available through the supermarket.  If you can see through it, if it does not have sediment on the bottom of the bottle, if it is made any further distant than a hundred miles from you, or if it has preservatives of any kind, it is not apple cider.  Find a farmer’s market.  Find a local farmer.  Buy good cider.  It will be worth the effort.

Add cinnamon sticks, whole cloves, and roughly cracked whole nutmeg.  The fresher the spices, the better.  This means that they need to have been shipped well.  Look for a reputable dealer.  Try not to buy the little bags from the chain grocery stores.  These spices usually taste like they are older than you are.

Bring the cider to just short of a boil and simmer until the taste is as strong as you like it.  Remove it from the heat.  Add apricot brandy until it bites back a little.  I am no expert on brandies.  I just use what I find in my local liquor store.  If someone knows better, feel free to educate me.

Hot Chocolate
I include hot chocolate for the simple reason that I am so horrified by the canned stuff that I am on something of a crusade to convert people to the homemade varieties.  I am not sharing a recipe.  I am proselytizing.

Pour milk into a pot and bring it to just below a boil.  It should go without saying that it be whole milk, but I will say it anyway.  Make it organic if you can.

You have two options at this point.  Either grate unsweetened chocolate or add cocoa into the milk. In either case, make sure the chocolate is very good quality.  There are few products where there is a greater difference between high quality and low.  The milk should now be a nice brown colour and thicker in texture.  It should also taste strongly and bitterly of chocolate.

Add confectioner’s sugar to taste.  Resist the culturally inculcated tendency to add too much.  The goal is not to make it sweet.  The goal is to make it slightly less bitter.  The chocolate taste should not just predominate, it should entirely dominate.  You are making hot chocolate, not hot sugar.

Those who are a little adventurous can add crushed red chilies at this point. I think the chilies taste fabulous, but not everyone agrees with me.  Be warned.

Hot Milk Toddy
Pour milk into a pot and bring it to just below a boil, like the hot chocolate.

Add the same spices as the mulled cider and simmer.

When the spices have steeped, add rum or whiskey, whatever your preference.  It may seem a waste, but do use something reasonably good.  The rum will give a warmer, sweeter taste, the whisky a drier, sharper one.  If you are using whisky, avoid any of the seaside single malts.  The salty, medicinal taste does not mix well with the milk.  Choose something with a more balanced flavour.  I like the 15 year Dalwhinnie, but I have also used more standard selections like Glenlivet and Glenfiddich.

If you have trouble with any of the instructions, you can always come by for some personal instruction.  I will be more than happy to accommodate.

The Long Road Home is the second in a series of graphic novels that tell the story of Roland Deschain, The Gunslinger, the hero of Steven King’s Dark Tower novels.  Unfortunately, my response to it requires a little history, so bear with me.

I had never read a Steven King book that I liked until about three years ago.  The horror genre in general is entirely uninteresting to me, and I found King’s prose, which seems to value length over sound editing practise, horrific for all the wrong reasons.  I enjoyed the first part of The Stand, but it lost me in the interminable journey that comprises the middle section.  I also enjoyed King’s children’s novel, The Eyes of the Dragon, a readable and entertaining if mostly unremarkable fantasy.  I found everything else almost unreadable.

A few years ago, however, a new friend of mine recommended King’s The Dark Tower series, persistently.  He insisted that it was not a typical horror novel, not horror at all, in fact, more post-apocalyptic-western-fantasy, if I knew what he meant, which I was not sure that I did.  It is a principle of mine, however, to take serious recommendations seriously, so I sat down with the first book in the series, The Gunslinger.

The Gunslinger is a marvellous book.  The story is very simple, and this simplicity is emphasized by a prose that, by King’s standards at least, is sparse and direct.  The writing is imagistic rather than realistic, schematic rather than detailed.  It has clearly been pared and polished, worried and sifted.  It is King’s best writing by far, and its stylistic simplicity permits other forms of complexity to emerge.  The story is highly allusive to various stories and myths, particularly to Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” and to the biblical account of Abraham and his son Isaac.  There is also a thematic complexity that draws from various contemporary American mythologies in ways that make the characters almost archetypal. The story and the characters seem less to tell a story than to create a myth of which they are mere instances.  They form a unique and haunting novel, and I do not think it is coincidental that, though it is one of King’s shorter novels, it took him the better part of thirteen years to complete it.

Unfortunately, the Dark Tower series does not maintain this creative level.  It is, as I always admit when I am recommending it, quite unevenly written.  While the first book has serious literary value, the second, third, and seventh are only good.  The fourth, fifth and sixth, even parts of the seventh, are not even very good, though they are still entertaining in their way.  As the series progresses, the novels get steadily longer and less precise, steadily more like the writing of the generic horror novels that King produces at such an alarming rate.  Though they are still good stories, and though they are still quite imaginative, they lack what thirteen odd years of polish and revision brought to the first text.

The fourth, Wizard and Glass, is probably the low point of the series.  Not only is it too long and too ungainly, but it is comprised of a single long flashback episode to Rowland’s youth, an episode that certainly provides some context for Rowland’s character as an older man, but that nevertheless feels entirely out of place in the larger sequence of novels.  The whole book is a frustrating disruption to the larger narrative, to the point where I skipped it entirely when I went to reread the series this past year.  I have even suggested this approach to others when I have recommended the series to them, explaining that only the beginning and ending of this book are really necessary to the story, and that it is perhaps better read later as a separate novel.

This is why I was disappointed when the first graphic novel, The Gunslinger Born, began the story with the events of the fourth novel.  Assuming that the writers intended to produce graphic novel versions of the whole Dark Tower series, I felt that they had done the series a disservice by not beginning with the book that made it worth reading in the first place.  I understood the logic that would put the books in chronological order, but I thought this logic grossly insufficient to warrant beginning the narrative with anything other than the figure of Rowland walking across the desert in pursuit of the dark man.

All of this is to explain why I was pleasantly surprised by the second graphic novel in the series.  It does not, as I assumed it would, return to the first of King’s novels, but relates the previously untold story that spans the time between the events of the fourth novel and those of the first.  Not only does this project explain much more satisfactorily why the first graphic novel began where it did, but it means that the rest of the original novels will probably not be rendered in graphic novel form, an undertaking that I always thought a bit suspicious.  Rather than attempting to produce what could only be inferior versions of the original novels, the graphic novel series instead expands on the very minimal information that King includes about the young Rowland to produce entirely new episodes. I am much more satisfied with this approach, and it makes the new graphic novel much more worth reading.

I held a miniature Pare Lorentz film festival this past weekend for those of us who were gathered at my Mother’s place on Manitoulin Island.  On Friday night, while drinking the previously mentioned concoction of mulled apple cider and apricot brandy, we watched The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936).  Saturday night, while drinking a beautiful 18 year old scotch, we watched The River (1938).  Both films are on a 2007 Naxos DVD release that includes a new recording of the original Virgil Thompson scores.

Having read about both films for my teaching, I came to them with an intellectual awareness of their significance to the development of both documentary film and orchestral music in the United States.  Both works were commissioned by the departments of the United States government in support of President Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, and both faced significant opposition because of this propagandist element in their creation.  Nevertheless, both were also fairly well received by audiences and by critics, receiving several awards, not just for their value as documentaries, but also for their musical scores and for their free-verse scripts.  They introduced several innovative elements in all of these areas, influencing people as diverse as composer Aaron Copeland and novelist John Steinbeck.

Ironically, considering the purpose for which they were commissioned and the reasons for which they were controversial, neither film would appear terribly propagandistic to current viewers.  While they are certainly critical of past farming and settlement practices, and while The River also advocates for an approach to these issues that accords with New Deal policies, there are no explicit political references of any kind in either film.  Both seem far more preoccupied with the land and the river themselves, as natural elements that have been destroyed by the practises of the settlers.  Their argument seems far more environmental then political, even if the politics of this environmentalism can never be ignored.  They lack the kind of visual rhetoric that usually characterizes propaganda films, like Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935), for example, which was released just before The River, or like Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series (1943-1945), which would be the United States’ next serious foray into producing propaganda films.  There are certainly some scenes in The Plow that Broke The Plains that are evocative of Riefenstahl, intercutting images of tanks and tractors along with scenes of people cheering soldiers as they parade, but the narration ironizes these scenes even as they are being played, and the narrative of the film soon does the same, as the tractors are next shown broken and half-covered in drifting sand.

This collection of facts about the films does not, of course, convey a real sense of the vision that Lorentz expresses through them.  What is most remarkable about them is the way that the cinematography and the music and the poetry come together to form a unified whole.  There is in The Plow that Broke the Plains, for example, a beautiful shot of a train running along the very bottom of the screen, its plume of smoke rising to parallel the clouds that dominate the rest of shot.  These kinds of images are overlayed by Thompson’s simple, emotional score and by the narrative that repeats throughout the film, “High winds and sun, high winds and sun, a country without rivers, without streams, and with little rain,” combining to create an argument that is less comprehended than experienced.

These combinatory effects are the strength of the films, what allows them to transcend the merely propoganstic purposes for which they were funded and to remain appealing long after those purposes have become obsolete.  They permit the films, not to ignore the politics that commissioned them, but to be more or less unconcerned with them.  They do not try to escape the political necessities that give them their context.  They merely show that they have other concerns as well, other concerns that are perhaps more significant, concerns with an aesthetics and an ethics that the political is unable or unwilling to comprehend.  This is why, eighty years later, they remain compelling, because their ethics and their aesthetics have remained relevant, even if their politics have not.

There are times that I feel acutely the lack of something for the simple reason that I am lacking so little else.

I am currently at my Mother’s place on Manitoulin Island.  I have had for dinner a very nice roast beef and several bottles of very nice wine.  I have had a bonfire with my eldest son, where I toasted marshmallows that he smeared all over his gloves.  Now that he is asleep, I am drinking hot, mulled apple cider that has been cut amply with apricot brandy, and I am settling into the silence.

I want my pipe.

Jean-Luc Marion, in God Without Being, says that one must “obtain forgiveness for every essay in theology,” a remark that I have quoted more than once.  The theologian requires this forgiveness, according to Marion, because “theology consists precisely in saying that for which only another can answer.”  For this reason, and for others, I need forgiveness for what I am about to write.  If there is one who can answer for it, I am certainly not that one, but I will write it nevertheless.

What I will write is that I am confronted by something that I might call the unrecognizability of God, by which I mean, not the nonapperance of God, for I will unjustifiably assume this appearance in advance, but the impossibility of recognizing the God who appears.  This God, the God who appears, the God who is revealed, the God who would in Christian terms be called the Christ, is unrecognizable because he must always appear according to the measure of human understanding.  To whatever degree the Christ might be said to be the appearance of God, a degree that is traditionally held to be absolute, he must still appear only in the limited ways that the human mind can comprehend.  To appear in other ways would be not to appear at all, at least not to human minds.  Yet, by appearing only according to the limits of human understanding, the Christ can never be recognized definitively and unmistakably as God.  The Christ can only appear as human, never as God.

This is why even John the Baptist, the one who prophesied that the Christ was soon to come, the one who baptised him, the one who witnessed the Holy Spirit descend on him, the one who heard a voice from heaven affirming him as the son of God, sends disciples to Jesus to ask if he is really the Christ or if they should expect another.  This is why Mary Magdalene sees and speaks with Jesus when he approaches her as she mourns at his apparently empty tomb, but does not know him until he calls her name.  This is why the two disciples on the road to Emmaus walk with Jesus for hours, speak with him about the scriptures, and invite him into their home, but do not recognize him until he breaks bread for them.  This is why the eleven remaining disciples, those who were closest to Jesus, see him on the beach, speak with him, obey him when he tells them to drop their nets in the other side of the boat, but do not know him until their nets are miraculously filled.

Again and again, those who would most be expected to recognize Jesus as the Christ fail even to recognize him as the Jesus they have followed and served.  It is as if there is some quality in him, or some quality in his appearing, that hides him from them.  Though they see him, and though they speak to him, they fail to know him for what he is, and even when they do finally recognize him, it does not seem to be through any act of their own.  Christ speaks their names or breaks their bread or fills their nets, and they, quite apart from their own will and activity, find that Christ has become recognized in them, as if according to a will and an act that is not their own.

It is in this way that Anna and Simeon recognize the infant Christ.  They do nothing to effect this recognition.  They simply see him and know him according to a sight and a knowledge that is not their own.  They receive this recognition.  They do not accomplish it.

This is also the case, and more explicitly, when Jesus, many years later, asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”  Though the disciples initially defer the responsibility of this question, choosing instead to offer the opinions of other people, Jesus is insistent, and it is finally Peter who says, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.”  It is then that Christ makes clear that it is not Peter who has in fact recognized him for the Christ.  “Flesh and blood have not revealed this to you,” he tells Peter, “but my Father who is in heaven.”

When the Christ is recognized, therefore, it is not a recognition of God by the human.  It is a recognition of God by God that merely takes place in and through the human.  Peter does not himself recognize the Christ, does not recognize the appearance of God as such.  It is God who recognizes God in and through Peter.  The movement is entirely distinct from Peter, occurring through him rather than by him.  The recognition of Jesus as the Christ occurs apart from any act of Peter’s own.

Of course, it may be argued, and with some justice, that the Christ is recognized through Peter because Peter has actively pursued this recognition, actively made himself open to it, actively sought so that he might find it.  I will not deny this.  I will only insist that, however good and right these activities might be, whatever role they might play in determining whether God will indeed perform this recognition in Peter, none of them are capable of accomplishing the recognition of the Christ as such.  Only God accomplishes this recognition in him.  Only God recognizes God.  Peter can merely ask that this recognition might occur in him.

I think that this structure of recognition is essential, not essential to God, surely, for nothing can be said about the essence of God, but essential to how God appears to us: it is not sufficient that God appear to us, because we can never recognize God for what God is.  It is always necessary also that God recognize God through us and in us, for only God can accomplish this recognition.

This means, of course, that any recognition of God will be radically without guarantee, since no logic and no proof will suffice to effect this recognition or to demonstrate it, even to myself.  This is why the recognition of the Christ can never become a knowledge.  If it is a knowing, it is a knowing that is otherwise than knowledge, a knowing that might be called better, if still inadequately, a faith.

When I say, therefore, “This is the Christ, the son of the living God,” this confession can never justify a coercive or militant religiosity.  It can only be a cry or an exclamation, like a gasp of pain or pleasure.  It must only be my own recognition, always inadequate, of what has been recognized in and through me, always without guarantee.

There is a perfect love, and it casts out fear, not because it is the opposite of fear, driving it out as the light drives out the darkness, but because it is the master of fear, casting it out like a demon is cast from the possessed.

If I fear, it is because I do not know truly that I am loved.  If I knew truly, if I knew perfectly, how perfectly I am loved, I would never fear.  To take courage is only to trust in perfect love, though I can can never know it perfectly.  It is to seek perfect love, to find it out, to dwell in it, and fear will find itself cast away, because it cannot abide where love abides.

This voice, a remnant and a harbinger,
Orphaned doubly, by its lineage
And by its inheritance, speaks nothing,
Nothing to be owned or guaranteed,
Assured or underwritten.  It is adrift
Between times, between unapproachable ends
And unrecoverable beginnings.

I am always confronted with the limit of my being, of my language, and of my responsibility that is posed by my death. I am confronted as if by a door and a threshold, and my passing of this door always remains a necessary impossibility. It will always remain necessary for me to pass this threshold that is my death, and it will never be possible for me to survive the passage of this limit, and yet this threshold and this limit remain determinative. To attend to the limit, therefore, to attend to what lies beyond the limit, is to to die constantly, is to constantly accept my own extinction, even as I recognize that this death and this extinction always remain to come.

This preoccupation is experienced as a kind of agony, because it always falls short of its intention until the moment when it can no longer be preoccupied at all. It will never succeed in crossing the threshold, never succeed in broaching the limit, for when the moment of death arrives, it is always too short, too prolonged, too sudden, too delayed, too sharp, too dull to be recognized for what it is, and so my preoccupation will always fail to know the moment of my death, no matter how attentive it is, no matter how watchful. The only death which my preoccupation will discover is a death that I have survived, and therefore not my death at all. Any limit that it can surpass will have left my limit intact.

If I persist, then, in a preoccupation with the limit and with the beyond of the limit, it will always be the case that I will need to occupy the moment of death repeatedly, not to cross it, which will always remain impossible until the moment when it becomes unrepresentable, but to survive it in the expectation that there will come a death which I will not survive. I cross the limit of the threshold, not expecting to find its beyond, which will forever remain inaccessible to me, but in order to inhabit the threshold as a kind of waiting for the threshold that remains to be crossed. Thus, a concern for the limit and its beyond is experienced as the agony of a death that does not kill, the agony of threshold that opens only onto another threshold. Any attempt to avoid this pain and this agony, this repetition, would necessarily abandon the limit and its beyond.

This last Sunday fell very close to Remembrance Day, which is celebrated on November 11th here in Canada, so I decided to show the Senior High class Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog, one of the great holocaust films, and one that would raise some of the larger issues that I have with the ways that we tend to remember.

The film’s strength is the tone that it is able to maintain.  Most holocaust films, and most films dealing with similarly horrific events, tend to rely for their effect on the kind of emotional responses that people have to the shocking images.  They are less aesthetic objects with their own aesthetic sensibility, then they are an exploitation of an object of horror to provoke emotions in the viewer.  As a response to this approach, other films have attempted to remain rigorously factual, presenting the objects of horror with an attitude of detachment, which is equally misrepresentative of its subject.

Night and Fog, however, avoids both of these extremes.  While it does present much disturbing archival material, and while it does include much information about the holocaust, it does so in a way that is less concerned with these things than in creating an aesthetic object that would do justice to these things.  In juxtaposition to the archival footage, it presents long and continuous shots of the Nazi death camps more than a decade after they were captured by the allies.  The camps are eerily empty, overgrown with vegetation, littered with the implements of their former occupants.  It is easy to imagine that ghostly hands still wield the machinery of death, that spectral prisoners in their multitudes are still herded into the death chambers and fed into the ovens.

The effect of the archival images and Resnais’ new shots together is a violent disjunction.  The lived horror of the one is brutally opposed to the ghostly tranquillity of the other, and the relationship between them is reduced to an always inadequate memorial of the one by the other.  The juxtaposition says, in effect, that it is impossible to recapture the events of the holocaust, that it is only possible to remember them in one fashion or another, and also that our forms of memory have been and continue to be implicated in the kinds of violence that is being remembered.  The narrator himself makes this argument as the film closes, noting that the memory of the holocaust has not prevented the occurrence of similar atrocities since, a fact that our forms of memorial fail to remember.

It is this occluded memory that I find so difficult in the celebration of Remembrance Day, and it is this occluded memory that I tried to explain to my class on Sunday.  I certainly do recognize the importance of remembering the things that we remember, but I am disturbed that our remembrance of these things is too often a refusal to remember the many other things that similarly need a memorial, a refusal to remember our own participation in these other things, a refusal to remember that these things are occurring even now and that we are even now implicated in them.  For many years there was a slogan attached to Remembrance day: “Never Again”.  We repeated these words to each other, year after year, comfortably separated by time and geography from the events that we were remembering, and failing absolutely to recognize that what we were remembering was happening again and again, continually.

To the extent, therefore, that Remembrance Day is a call to remember particular wars in particular places, I would say that it can only prevent us from truly remembering.  In order for it to produce in us a true memorial, it must always also be a recollection of ongoing war and violence and atrocity, a refusal to ignore the fact of these things in our past and in our present.

The Dinner and a Doc group met on Saturday night to watch The Real Dirt on Famer John, which is directed by Taggart Siegel.  We accompanied it with homemade mushroom soup, with a beautiful sourdough bread that I bought from a new vendor at the market, with apple cider from a farmer for whom I used to work, and with some desserts that people brought despite my explicit instructions that they bring nothing at all.

This was the first time I have screened a film that I have never seen before.  I chose it because it connects well with the discussion group that my wife will be running in a few weeks, because it has been recommended to me by many people, and because I wanted to see it myself.  I had intended to preview it so that I would have some idea of what I was going to inflict on people, but, as is usually the case, other things were more pressing.  So, as we sat down to watch, I was truly in the position of a viewer, as I very seldom am any more, and enjoyed the experience very much.

Among other things, I began to realize the amount of knowledge that has been lost, not only the general population’s loss of knowledge about working the earth in any way, but the farm community’s loss of knowledge about how to work the earth apart from the chemical and industrial techniques that are gradually destroying the earth itself.  Though he was a farmer all of his life, John had to relearn almost everything in order to begin farming organically.  So completely had the previous generations accepted the superiority of chemical farming that they had not modeled any other approach to working the earth, leaving their descendants almost completely ignorant of the farming practices that had been universal only several generations before them.

It seems to me that this same loss of knowledge is a fundamental problem facing many of those who would seek to live differently in their homes and their communities.  It is not only a matter of identifying the areas where we would like to live differently, and it is not only a matter of finding the will and the resources to make real changes in these areas, but it is also a matter of recovering knowledge that would have been commonplace to our great-grandparents but that is almost completely lost to us now.  I have not the least idea of how to grow an organic backyard vegetable garden, for example.  I am beyond my expertise at every step, relying on books, on friends, on google, and often, when these things fail, on my own experimentation.  This knowledge is no longer commonplace, and there is much else that has similarly passed from the common knowledge of our communities, to their detriment.

The second idea that I appreciated in the film was its insistence on the role of the dirt, of the land, of the earth itself.  In the initial few scenes of the film, Farmer John takes a handful of dirt, eats a sizable mouthful, and declares, “The earth is good today.”  John is obviously playing to the camera, as he loves to do, but the gesture reminds me of my own impulse to do just that while planting my apple trees.  The words ‘good’ and ‘earth’ in such close conjunction also remind me of a book I have just read, Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth, which represents the earth in ways that are often similar to the film.  This second connection was further reinforced by a later scene, where John’s elderly uncle approaches tears as he describes how the new housing developments have “poured concrete over all that good earth.”

It occurs to me, watching these moments in the context of my own recent experience and reading, that our culture has lost, and has long been losing, this almost spiritual sense of the earth.  Distanced as we are from working the soil, manic as we are about cleanliness, we are unable to conceive of soil as something living, as something that we might put into our mouths and eat, as something good and wholesome and even spiritual.  In The Good Earth, Buck several times depicts the earth as healing farmer Wang emotionally and psychologically.  Whether he is suffering from the lust for a woman or from the anxieties of his family, the remedy is always to walk barefoot behind his plow, to turn the earth in his hands, to lie along the freshly plowed furrows and sleep in the sun.  He is always cleansed by this connection with the land.

It is not, as the examples of both farmer Wang and farmer John show clearly, that this connection with the earth is easy, for working the land is always a great and never ending labour.  It is only that this labour is wholesome and good in a way that cannot be replicated in any other way.  There is no substitute for real dirt, for real labour in the earth.  Not that this precludes other sorts of labour, of course, but that the other labours need to reconnect themselves to the labour of the land.

I am reminded of C. S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy, when he is staying with a tutor, preparing for his university entrance examinations.  Lewis relates how he would go to his tutor in the garden and how his tutor would take the book in his dirt covered hands and guide Lewis through whatever difficulty he was having.  Lewis is horrified at this disrespect of his books, buti I always saw something apt in this story.  The intellectual, at least in this instance and in my ideal, is not someone whose hands stay clean, literally or figuratively, but someone whose hands are as used to working with earth or with food or with wood as they are used to working with the word.  If our books are too clean, our hands are probably too clean also, and we have failed to make our thinking a real part of our living.