Sunday, December 29, 2013

Winter Music

It’s been a grand season of music, this year more than ever before. I can’t explain why. Darkened evenings, sitting in front of a fire with the stereo going. And more than that.

It got off to a good start early in December, when Hilary’s parents took us to a concert of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos performed by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. We’ve been listening to these chestnuts for forty years and more now, but not very often. Hearing them live, new voices sing out, the atmosphere is supercharged and their “classic” stature is reaffirmed. Snow had arrived and the bustle of people coming and going in the wintery night in front of Temple Israel lent an additional touch of magic sparkle to the evening.

The next day, as we prepared a Chocolate and Cranberry Layer Cake with White Chocolate Truffle Glaze for an upcoming party, we listened to the concertos again and moved on from there to some of Bach’s cantatas. I’m sure I’m not the first to observe that there’s something joyous, clear, and even-tempered about much of Bach’s music. Never dull, but seldom tortured either.

At the party the next day, while the final touches were being put on the roast pork and the smoked trout-mixed greens-apple salad with horseradish dressing, we played a game in which a series of tunes were played one after another and we had to guess who’d brought each of them. I would never have remembered them all but I still have the ballot. The entries were: “Ant’s Marching” (Dave Mathews Band); Stravinsky’s Pastorale for violin and woodwinds; “Crazy Race” by jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove’s funk band, The RH Factor; A tender piano ballad, “Don’t Ever Leave Me,” by Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden; a jazzy “H.C.R. Strut” (Django Reinhardt); “Per Elena” by Italian film-composer Ennio Morricone; “Lascia ch’io pianga” from Handel’s opera Rinaldo; a segment from a Tchaikovsky concerto played with raucous force by the Stan Kenton Orchestra; the sweet “Teach Your Children Well” by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; and “Ukelele Lady” performed as a folk-song by someone whose name I’ve forgotten.

Later in the evening we sang a few carols around the piano. Sheila, a professional musician, tried to keep everyone in line while seated at the piano but a few obstreperous tenors in the back of the room (I’m not naming names....) simply would not behave.

Perhaps inspired by this event, Hilary and I went downtown the following evening in the dark to sing Handel’s Messiah in the midst of seven hundred other enthusiastic choristers, with the help of a few soloists and the entire Minnesota Chorale. Sections of St. Olaf Catholic Church had been designated for the various parts, and the resultant harmonies were powerful.

Hilary and I didn’t sing too loud—we don’t really know our parts—but we enjoyed it all the same. And when we got home we immediately put a CD of Handel’s oratorio Deborah on the stereo to sustain the mood.

In the days that followed, we found ourselves sitting in front of the fire repeatedly listening to vocal and choral music. Boccherini’s Stabat Mater was a big hit, for some reason, and one night we listened to Brahms’ Requiem, and enjoyed it so much we immediately put it on again.

When the booming choirs got to be too much, I found myself turning to Handel’s keyboard sonatas, played in pesky style by Glenn Gould—on the harpsichord, no less.

On Wednesday evening we trundled ourselve up to the Brookdale Regal Cinema to catch a simulcast performance of Verdi’s Falstaff. I’ve never see it before, and with Jame Levine at the podium and Ambrogio Maestri in the title role, it seems like a performance not to miss. The tale is feather-light and the arias are few and far between, but the entire three-and-a-half hour production bubbled with good cheer.

And no Christmas season would be complete without a dark, solitary evening in the company of Arvo Pärt. One night when Hilary was working late I listened to his album Alina twice over. It contains the composition “Für Alina,” which marked the composer’s break in 1976 from serialism to the “tintinnabulist” style that made him famous. Pärt’s tempo markings are suggestive—calm, exalted, listening to one’s inner self. For the album, pianist Alexander Malter improvised on the piece for several hours, and Part himself chose two ten-minute excerpts to include, along with other interpretations by minimalist string ensembles. This music goes nowhere. Rather, it burrows deep into the hollows of the soul, probing, echoing, and shining, all at the same time.

In recent days we’ve been pulling out of this long musical exaltation—but not much. Chet Baker’s late album Silence fits the mood of the hour: just look at the tunes. “My Funny Valentine,” “Round About Midnight,” Charlie Haden’s “Silence.” Recorded six months before Baker’s death, it exudes a sad, patient lyricism that’s seldom dull, and the contributions of Italian pianist Enrico Pieranunzi are consistently thoughtful. The rendition of “Round About Midnight” runs to more than twelve minutes.

But in the end, what can you say about music? I was reading The Frontiers of Meaning: Three Informal Lectures on Music by Charles Rosen the other day, and I came upon this passage:

A few experiences of listening to a symphony or nocturne are worth more than any essay or analysis. The work of art teaches us how to understand it, and makes the critic not only parasitical but strictly supefluous.

I don’t believe that, though it’s true that music is devilishly hard to write about in a meaningful way. The music itself can never be captured in words.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Nebraska - The Film

…is an elegy for small-town America, as lovingly rendered as possible, I suppose, given director Alexander Payne’s warts-and-all approach and choice of black-and-white film stock. But it must be pointed out that we’re dealing here with “small” small towns, of the type that lost their vitality several generations ago, when railroads gave way to highways, local creameries folded in the face of refrigerated trucking, and weekend trips to Wal-Mart became the rural norm.

The action begins in a medium-sized city—Billings, Montana—and it ends in a small big-city—Lincoln, Nebraska (the Athens of the Midwest)—but it mostly takes place in Hawthorn, Nebraska, which has a main street three blocks long and seems to be populated largely by farmers, retired farmers, bartenders, and their families. The fact that Hawthorn still has a local newspaper is nothing short of a miracle.

Nebraska is a slow, slightly arty movie, reminiscent at times of such films as  King’s of the Road (Wim Wenders) or The Last Picture Show. More often director Alexander Payne seems to be channeling the spirit of Frederico Fellini, as, for example, when he plays with lights and shadows to chisel the features on a row of almost-grotesque faces at a bar or sitting around a farmhouse table, or lounging in a big, silent group in front of a TV set.

The rolling, wide-open spaces of Montana and Wyoming, and the somewhat flatter terrain of Northern Nebraska, also get a good deal of loving attention.

The entire script, single-spaced, would probably fit on a few sheets of typing paper.

The first twenty minutes of Nebraska seem slightly contrived, as if Payne had spent so much time getting the lighting right that he forgot to maintain the rhythms of the dialog. (The same could be said of the opening scenes of Sideways, the first half of About Schmitt, and almost the entirety of The Descendants, especially when George Clooney is on screen.) 

But the film finds its groove soon enough, as an old, more-than-slightly demented man and his son set out on a two-day road trip to Lincoln to cash in the man’s “winning” ticket in the Publishers Sweepstakes. (These things actually happen. My great–aunt, an otherwise astute woman of eighty-five, could not be disabused of the delusion that she had won that same contest. Fortunately she had no desire to drive from Crookston to Lincoln to find out.)

But the meat of the tale involves various interactions that take place in the town where the old man grew up. Most of Woody Grant’s high school friends have died or moved, though there are plenty left to provide his son David with a far more vivid picture of his father’s early years, teen romances, war experience, family life, early drinking habits, and adult behavior than he otherwise would have gotten. The impressions and recollections don’t always match up, of course, which gives the film a vaguely Rashamon-esque flavor.

Comic touches also abound, though the overriding atmosphere remains one of bewilderment, frustration, and loss.

Bruce Dern won the Best Actor Award at Cannes for his portrayal of Woody Grant, and Stacy Keach brings an element of braggadocio and menace to his rendering of Grant’s old business partner. Will Forte is less convincing as Woody’s son, though the character itself is bland and slightly confused to begin with, and he grows on you. Watching him, I was reminded of Tim Holt in Treasure of Sierra Madre, trying to hold his own in the company of Bogart and Walter Huston.

Perhaps the moral center of the film lies in the heart of Peg Nagy (played by Angela McEwan), the owner of the local newspaper who dated Woody in high school but lost him to David’s mother Kate. “I knew I didn’t have a chance,” she tells David in her sweet, soft voice, thinking back maybe fifty years with a wistful smile, “I wouldn’t let him run the bases with me.”
The graveyard and the old farm-stead, now long-abandoned; the divisions between Catholics and Lutherans; the juvenile delinquency. Scenes from Nebraska stick in memory like a dream or an ancestral memory. (Lots of my relatives come from Nebraska; many still live there.) With Nebraska Payne has crafted a low-key classic, elevating a fairly dismal swatch of American life to the level of art by exposing the all-too-human impulses that keep it moving…and sometimes ennoble it.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Terry Eagleton Christmas

To call Terry Eagleton a critic or even a Theorist (note the capital T) is really to damn him with faint praise. The man is uncommonly erudite and he writes with singular panache—so much so that when reading him we’re reminded of philosophers and social critics on the order of Voltaire and Nietzsche, with touches of Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis thrown in for good measure. 

Like those brilliant and scurrilous gadflies, Eagleton is a counterpuncher who feigns and jabs, often hitting his mark, while seldom planting his feet on the mat long enough for us to figure out where he really stands.

But perhaps this is a false impression, based on the fact that I’ve read only a few of the essays collected in his book Figures of Dissent: Critical Essays on Fish, Spivak, Žižek and Others. (I’m so out of touch, I thought  Spivak and Žižek were the same person!) 

My favorite line from that book: “For postmodern thought the normative is inherently oppressive, as though there was something darkly autocratic about civil rights legislation or not spitting in the milk jug.”

That remark strikes me as both true and funny.

I recently stumbled upon Eagleton’s book, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. Reading the first chapter, “The Scum of the Earth,” I was impressed by his grasp of Jesus’s mission, Aquinas’s analysis of first causes, and so on. He’s well aware, as few thinkers are today, that we live in the midst of entirely different categories of being and often partake of several simultaneously.

A few Eagleton sallies:

In Nietzsche’s view, the death of God must also spell the death of Man—that is to say, the end of a certain overweening humanism—if absolute power is not simply to be transplanted from the one to the other. Otherwise, humanism will always be secretly theological. It will be a continuation of God by other means. God will simply live a shadowy afterlife in the form of respectable suburban morality, as indeed he does today.

He responds to Christopher Hitchens assertion that “thanks to the telescope and the microscope, [religion] no longer offers an explanation of any­thing important” as follows:

But Christianity was never meant to the an explanation of anything in the first place. It is rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.

Pursuing the issue of God as creator, Eagleton continues:

God for Christian theology is not a mega-manufacturer. He is rather what sustains all things in being by his love, and would still be this even if the world had no beginning. Cre­ation is not about getting things off the ground. Rather, God is the reason why there is something rather than nothing, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever. Not being any sort of entity himself, however, he is not to be reckoned up alongside these things, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.

In case we haven’t quite wrapped our heads around this concept, Eagleton lays it on a little thicker, jumping from point to point as if he’s afraid our attention might be wandering.

God and the universe do not make two. In an act of Judaic iconoclasm, we are forbidden to make graven images of this nonentity because the only image of him is human beings. There is a document that records Gods endless, dispiriting struggle with organized religion, known as the Bible. God the Creator is not a celestial engineer at work on a superbly rational design that will impress his research grant body no end, but an artist, and an aesthete to boot, who made the world with no functional end in view but simply for the love and delight of it.

Or, as one might say in more theological language, for the hell of it. He made it as gift, superfluity, and gratuitous gesture—out of nothing, rather than out of grim necessity. In fact, for Christian theology there is no necessity to the world at all, and God may have long ago bitterly regretted succumb­ing to the sentimental impulse which inspired him to throw it off in the first place. He created it out of love, not need. There was nothing in it for him. The Creation is the original acte gratuit.

The danger implicit in this position is that morality relinquishes pride of place to delight. But where’s the danger?

If we are God’s creatures, it is in the first place because, like him, we exist (or should exist) purely for the pleasure of it.

And where does Jesus fit into all of this? The radical Romanti­cs (according to Eagleton) including Marx, find in Jesus a character who fully grasped this radical disjunct between instrumental reason and the ontological freefall we actually live.

 Jesus, unlike most responsible American citizens, appears to do no work, and is accused of being a glutton and a drunkard. He is presented as homeless, propertyless, celibate, peripatetic, socially marginal, disdain­ful of kinsfolk, without a trade, a friend of outcasts and pa­riahs, averse to material possessions, without fear for his own safety, careless about purity regulations, critical of traditional authority, a thorn in the side of the Establishment, and a scourge of the rich and powerful. Though he was no revolu­tionary in the modern sense of the term, he has something of the lifestyle of one. He sounds like a cross between a hippie and a guerilla fighter.

Food for thought, on these, the shortest days of the year.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Northern Lights, the Moral Sense, and Form

In "Looking into the Black Box,"  (New York Times, 11/24/13) Michael Strevens raises an  interesting question.

Do we understand something if we know its causes? He gives an example:

To understand the northern lights, for example, is to understand how charged particles in the solar wind are guided to the earth’s magnetic poles, where colliding energetically with oxygen and nitrogen molecules they cause ionization that results in the emission of light. The guiding, the colliding, the ionizing, the emission are all causal processes; to see how these processes unfold is to understand the aurora.

Is this really true? I don’t think so. For one thing, I don’t think we really understand light at all? We’ve been able to devise increasingly elaborate descriptions of it, using terms from the realm of physics that we don’t really understand either. This type of analysis has its uses. But isn’t it annoying to stand on a deathly quiet, snow-covered lake next to an icy know-it-all who informs us that “those ghostly bands of green and white above our heads are merely an emission of light caused by collisions of ionized particles in the solar wind”? Something is missing here.  

Without quite answering the initial question, Strevens brings up a second one that’s no less interesting: is causality itself a valid principle or merely a useful way of codifying relations between things so we can predict their behavior? These reflections lead him to an implicit admission that “understanding,” whatever it may be, must take us beyond the realm of causal links. Yet he never abandons the idea that to understand something is to break it into parts and figure out how it works.    

It might be more illuminating, I think, to leave the Northern Lights aside for a bit and examine something with which we have greater intuitive affinity. How about Bach’s Art of Fugue, which I’m listening to right now. 

Bach was a master of counterpoint, and a popular exercise among composition teachers is to require that their students analyze a section of this magisterial work, pinpointing how the themes and inversions, the canons and stretta passages, fit together. In doing so, the students are supposed to come to a better understanding of counterpoint, and also of what remarkable things can be created following a fairly strict set of rules and a small collection of motifs. And I suspect they often do.

Once again, we’re examining how the parts of a thing work. But do we thereby arrive at a better understanding of The Art of Fugue itself? Once again, I think not.
We understand The Art of Fugue not by taking the pieces apart, but by putting them together—inside our heads. It’s an act, not of analysis, but of synthesis. And also of appreciation.

I have sat through more than a few pre-concert lectures during which I’ve been told that if I would only cast aside my hidebound prejudices and remained non-judgmental, if I patiently studied the score in an attempt to grasp the clever things an Elliot Carter, say, was doing in the third movement of his quartet, I’d come to recognize its worth. This isn’t true. I might develop a heightened appreciation for Carter’s cleverness…but the worth of music lies entirely in its sounds. If the sounds don’t come together in a pleasing way,  intuitively, inside our heads, the music is worthless—at least to us.

No doubt there are plenty of compositions that I lack the sensitivity to appreciate. And there are ways of sounding “pleasing” that will appeal to us only rarely, depending on the mood. The other day I was listening to György Kurtág’s  Kafka-Fragmente, and enjoying it. Soprano and violin fighting it out. In the liner notes I read:

Sudden, broken, the fragment is completed not only by its companions sounding around it but by us in silence. We see ourselves, too, in these shivers of mirror, in their sharp but uncertain edges; between humor and anxiety, between withdrawal and explosion, between assertion and indecision.

It’s a lovely partnership, though I wouldn’t want to go there again anytime soon. The author of the commentary, in comparing the piece to various emotions, probably leads us closer to understanding it that any technical analysis could.

There is no need to downplay the importance of analysis, of “tasking things apart,” in our quest for understanding. But in the end it means little if we can’t also put things together and feel them at work inside us. Such a feat come naturally to some, though it requires not only analysis and intuition, but also judgment. And if this in true in the realm of art, where the artifacts in question have been created  intentionally, it’s even more so in the realm of history more broadly conceived, where many events take place as a result of fortuitous interactions.  

The New York Times released its annual list of the ten best books of the year yesterday. I found several of the descriptions interesting in themselves. For example, here is how the editors described The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark:

Clark manages in a single volume to provide a comprehensive, highly readable survey of the events leading up to World War I. He avoids singling out any one nation or leader as the guilty party. “The outbreak of war,” he writes, “is not an Agatha Christie drama at the end of which we will discover the culprit standing over a corpse.” The participants were, in his term, “sleepwalkers,” not fanatics or murderers, and the war itself was a tragedy, not a crime.

And here is how they describe After the Music Stopped: The Financial Crisis, the Response, and the Work Ahead by Alan S. Blinder.

Blinder’s terrific book on the financial meltdown of 2008 argues that it happened because of a “perfect storm,” in which many unfortunate events occurred simultaneously, producing a far worse outcome than would have resulted from just a single cause. Blinder criticizes both the Bush and Obama administrations, especially for letting Lehman Brothers fail, but he also praises them for taking steps to save the country from falling into a serious depression. Their response to the near disaster, Blinder says, was far better than the public realizes.

Here we see scholars at work, taking things apart but also exercising their judgment; looking for causes, but only sometimes finding them. Readers like me can usually do no better than to single out a few pithy one-liners to remember, but these scholars, who understand their chosen subjects far better than we do, would probably agree that the greater truth lies in the music of the narrative itself.

You may object that there is nothing very scientific about my description of understanding. But the association of “science” with “understanding” is merely one of the odd prejudices of our time. Recent studies have underscored the fact that scientific research is far more likely to produce spurious results than accurate ones. (See Economist, Oct. 19, p. 26-30 for an overview).

 The type of understanding I’m describing here also has a long history, though it’s now largely forgotten. For example, in 1821 William von Humboldt gave a lecture to the Prussian Academy of Science, “On the Historian’s Task,” which became a landmark in the field. Here von Humboldt asserts that “an event…is only partially visible in the world of the senses; the rest has to be added by intuition, inference, and guesswork.” He compares the historian to the poet, then draws an important distinction between them: “The crucial difference, which removes all potential dangers, lies in the fact that the historian subordinates his imagination to experience and the investigation of reality…the imagination does not act as pure fancy and is, therefore,  more properly called the  intuitive faculty or connective ability.”

If you read on in the essay, you’ll come upon expressions such as “inner necessity” and “the breath of life in the whole and  the inner character which speaks through it…” It would almost seem that the historian is being called upon to fashion a work of art from events, in the same way that Bach fashioned The Art of Fugue from a few select motifs. 

Von Humboldt would probably agree. At one point he writes: “Hence, the historian, in order to perform the task of his profession, has to compose the narrative of events in such a way that the reader’s emotions will be stirred by it as if by reality itself.”

A good deal more could be said on this subject, but I’d like to add just one more piece of the story. I’d like to take us back yet another century to 1711, the publication date of Shaftesbury’s Characteristics. In this collection of essays (specifically the essay titled “An Inquiry Concerning Virtue, or Merit”) Lord Shaftesbury introduces the notion of moral sense, a faculty he compares to aesthetic sense. The basic point is that there is no way for us to develop  a sense of right and wrong via logic or reasoning, if we don’t already possess a fundamental humaneness or benevolence or sense of justice.

This may seem obvious, but there are many who would challenge the theory, and even call it “dangerous.” On the other hand, the historian Ernst Cassirer has described Shaftesbury’s theory, and its overarching significance, in the following terms:

[Shaftesbury] founds a philosophy in which aesthetics not only represents a systematic province but occupies the central position of the whole intellectual structure. According to Shaftesbury, the question of the nature of truth is inseparable from that of the nature of beauty, for the two questions agree both in their grounds and in their ultimate principle. All beauty is truth, just as all truth can be understood basically only through the meaning of form, that is, the meaning of beauty. That everything real partakes of form, that it is no chaotic amorphous mass, but possesses rather an inner proportion and evidences in its nature a certain structure, and in its development and motion a rhythmic order and rule: this is the fundamental phenomenon in which the purely intellectual, the super­sensible origin of the real manifests itself.

There are echoes of Plato in Shaftesbury’s emphasis on form, and anticipations of Hegel in his rarefied idea of “the real,” but we don’t have time to explore those connections now. We can only note that Shaftesbury  is wrong to equate form with beauty outright; the suggestion that everything in history is beautiful is simply outrageous. But in the same way that an artist brings form to his or her materials, making them beautiful, the historian uncovers the form of events, which is their truth. It isn’t the aesthetic faculty at work in this case, however, but the moral faculty. And when the historian stirs a reader’s emotions (to return to von Humboldt’s remark above), it’s the moral sense that’s being engaged and uplifted.

Where does causality fit into all of this? Nowhere, as far as I can see. A fan of The Art of Fugue might suggest that every note is perfect and necessary—nothing is gratuitous or out of place. Yet few would suggest, I think, that one note or phrase “caused” the next, because Bach’s creative genius is present in every line. 

The same can be said about history. There is little point in considering “what ifs” except as an imaginative—that is to say, a poetic—exercise. But poetry isn’t history. History is the study of what actually happened. And the radical force careening through history, defying merely causal forces at every turn of the path, is the creative spirit of the individual agents involved in it. Where such a force is not involved, there is nothing “real” to be found. We might as well be admiring charged particles in the solar wind colliding with oxygen and nitrogen molecules in the upper atmosphere.

It’s a nice show, but it doesn’t engage our moral sense, and therefore, there isn’t much truth to be found in it.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Capitalism and the Pope

Recent remarks by Pope Francis have revived an age-old discussion about capitalism: what it is, how it works, the role it plays in our lives and the role it ought to play. I’ve read quite a few of these op-ed-type pieces, and it seems to me they all have one thing in common. They all misconstrue what capitalism is, and therefore misjudge its value.

It’s common to associate “capitalist” with words such as greedy, rapacious, and ruthless. None of these qualities are intrinsic to capitalism, of course. A capitalist enterprise is one in which individuals finance an activity through which they hope to profit in the future. Many things can go wrong with such an arrangement, of course—as Antonio in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice finds out, to take an example at random.

Investors can be swindled, ships can sink, a market can evaporate, anticipated profits might not pan out. The future is always uncertain, which suggests that two qualities intrinsic to capitalism are faith and trust.

I love capitalism, and I marvel at it sometimes when watching a freight train boom across the countryside (building a network of rail lines isn’t cheap or easy) or reflecting on a medical device that required years of expensive research but, once perfected, now saves the lives of many. Though our notions of capitalism, both good and bad, tend to focus on the industrial age in which we live, we shouldn’t forget that the silk merchants we read about in the Arabian Nights were also capitalists.

I would even go so far as to suggest that all economic activity is capitalistic. Even a homesteader needs capital in the form of land, seeds, and livestock, in order to prosper. And this farmer, like any capitalist, needs to increase his capital—he needs to have something left over—because that’s what he and his family are going to be living on.

But there’s a lot more to life than economics. And capitalist enterprises tend to disproportionally benefit those who already have quite a bit of capital. This may have been what Pope Francis was talking about when he remarked recently: “Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacra­lized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

Religious institutions have traditionally made an attempt to redress the balance. In modern times this same role has largely been taken up by government agencies. And more power to them.

I love big government. Call me a socialist if you want, why not? But it seems to me that in the same way all economic life is capitalistic, all government functions are socialistic. The local fire department is financed by the entire community, after all, though only a few households benefit. Come to think of it, Hilary and I have been financing the local schools for decades though we don’t have kids. That’s how government is supposed to work and I’m all in favor of it.

Another thing government does, or is supposed to do, is regulate economic activity in an effort to minimize fraud, reckless leveraging of assets, exploitative labor practices, and environmental degradation. They should do more. Their efforts are blunted somewhat by the fact that the interests they’re fighting against have loads of cash and an individualistic, “me first” ideology that appeals to many voters. 

But when Pope Francis casts aspersions on “the prevailing economic system,” it makes me nervous. Foremost in his mind, I imagine, are the staggering levels of youth unemployment in Europe today. But surely capitalism itself isn’t at fault. The economic system of which the Pope speaks is shaped by laws and institutions that have failed to live up to their regulatory duties, blinded by glib economists and fearful of precipitating a “slow-down.”

I suppose it's a little more complicated than that. Meanwhile, there’s a lot to be said for stepping off the consumerist merry-go-round of snowmobiles and personal devices altogether. The romance of the next new product leads nowhere in the end...

It’s snowing. Time to get out those cross-country skis! And tonight?  How about streaming Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons in The Merchant of Venice?