Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Pray for the Synod

I know there has been a lot of cynicism about the Synod on Synodality, and I'd be lying if I said that I've been terribly enthusiastic about it myself.

I went to one of the consultations in my local parish. There were two, but I had Covid when the second one came along. The one I attended wasn't terribly inspiring, but there was nothing objectionable about it either. It felt like a bit of a non-event, more than anything else.

Of course, I understand the anxiety that this process is being controlled by sinister forces in the Church. But ultimately, the Holy Spirit is in charge. There's a danger of becoming completely soaked in negativity.

In any case, nothing can be lost by praying for the Synod, as our bishops have urged us to do.

Friday, September 22, 2023

Eternity or Five Years: The Threat of a Digital Dark Age

This was my entry to the 2023 CONUL Library Assistant Blog Post Competition. (CONUL is the Consortium of National and University Libraries in Ireland.) I've just heard that it came nowhere. The competition is held every two years; I've entered four times and come in third place once, four years ago.

I'm quite despondent about this as I'd hoped to be placed this year. It wasn't to be. Anyway, here is the blog post.

On the 22 May 2013, the National Public Radio website published an article headlined: “The First Web Page, Amazingly, Is Lost.” It described the creation of the very first webpage, which occurred at CERN laboratories in 1991. Perhaps no event in recent history has had a greater effect on our everday lives. This historic web page, however, has been lost.

As the article explains: “Berners-Lee and his colleagues were so busy trying to convince people to buy into the concept, they didn't keep track of their early Web pages, says Dan Noyes [CERN’s web manager]. "I mean the team at the time didn't know how special this was, so they didn't think to keep copies, right?"

This is a familiar pattern from media history. Dan Hofstede, a television historian, put it like this: “Would you like Johnny Carson’s first Tonight Show? Or perhaps the first Super Bowl? Well, you’d better settle for a Perfect Strangers return, because to the best of our knowledge those events no longer exist. Sure, somebody taped them when they happened, but some time later, whether it was weeks or months or years, the tapes were either thrown away or used again, and as a result what would now be considered historic broadcasts have most likely disappeared forever.”

Another example is the 1984 Domesday Project by the BBC, recording the geography and social life of Britain 900 years after the original Domesday Book. The information was recorded on LaserDisc and the project cost twenty-five million pounds. However, in 2002, the Observer newspaper announced: “Digital Domesday Book Lasts Fifteen Years Not 1000”. It explained: “The special computers developed to play the 12-inch video discs of text, photographs, maps and archive footage of British life are– quite simply– obsolete. As a result, no one can access the reams of project information - equivalent to several sets of encyclopaedias - that were assembled about the state of the nation in 1986.” Thankfully, software was later developed which could retrieve the information.

Although it predates digitization, the phenomenon has been dubbed “The Digital Dark Age”. Jeff Rothenberg, a prominent advocate for digital preservation, expressed it wittily when he said: “Digital objects last forever– or five years, whichever comes first.”

The term “Digital Dark Age” may well have been first used by Terry Kuny, then a consultant to the National Library of Canada, at the 63rd IFLA conference in Copenhagen in 1997. There, he said: “As we move into the electronic era of digital objects, it is important to know that there are new barbarians at the gate and that we are moving into an eara where much of what we know today, much of what is coded electronically, will be lost forever. We are, to my mind, living in the midst of digital Dark Ages; consequently, much as monks of times past, it falls to librarians and archivists to hold to the tradition which reveres history and the published heritage of our times.”

Terry Kuny

It’s not only changing technologies or indifference which leads to the loss of digital records. Copyright and licensing are also a major factor. As Kuny put it in the same talk: “Increasingly restrictive intellectual property and licensing regimes will ensure that many materials never make it into library collections for preservation. These will be corporate assets and will not be deposited into public collections without substantive financial and licensing arrangements that few libraries will be able to afford.”

In his book The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation (2018), Trevor Owens of the Library of Congress puts forward sixteen guiding digital preservation axioms, which include:

* Nothing has been preserved, there are only things being preserved: “Preservation is the ongoing work of people and commitments of resources. The work is never finished.”

* The answer to nearly all digital preservations is “it depends”: “Deciding what matters about an object or a set of objects is largely contingent on what their future might be.”

* Accept and embrace the archival sliver: “We’ve never saved everything. We’ve never saved most things… The ideology of “the digital” makes it seem like we could or should attempt to save everything. However, this comes from the mistake of thinking that digital preservation is primarily a technical challenge instead of a social and ethical one.”

Perhaps an image we could turn to for inspiration is the White Horse of Uffington, a chalk figure in Oxfordshire, England. Although it dates back to prehistory, the figure has been “scoured” and remade countless times over the generations. The task of preservation is never over, and the task is inherently a collaborative one.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

J.R.R. Tolkien and the Evangelization of the Imagination

 Many thanks to Dominic N for alerting me to this excellent article, "Tolkien: Fifty Years On"

There's many points of interest in it. I had to smile at the sentence: "There is even, improbably, an ongoing attempt to make the poor man a saint, which one can only hope goes nowhere." That's putting it a little strongly, but calls for Tolkien's canonization do seem a little batty.

More seriously, there is this passage: "The often ferocious response of many critics perhaps stemmed from the apparent anachronism of the book, combined with its massive popularity. It was published in 1954, at a time when literary modernism was dominant and pervading the academy. Modernist writers were obsessed with interiority, broke with prior literary convention, and traded in irony, ambiguity and convoluted psychology. Literary critics of the time were taking up the “New Criticism”, which dispensed not only with the previous generation’s fascination with historical context in favour of close reading, but also with the traditionalist concerns for beauty and moral improvement, which were regarded as subjective and emotionally driven. Spare, complex prose, focused on the darker side of society, was in vogue. Into this context dropped 1,200 pages of dwarves, elves and hobbits in a grand battle of good and evil. They were greeted with the sort of enthusiasm one can imagine."

G.K. Chesterton received (and receives) the same kind of patronising response, as does Tolkien's contemporary C.S. Lewis. (I often ponder how surprised a patron or barman of the Eagle and Child might be if they realized that the two unremarkable-looking gentlemen sinking beers in the corner would eventually sell hundreds of millions of books between them.) They're all right in their way, but they're so naive and child-like, there's nothing complicated or ambiguous about them.

Of course, the accusation that Tolkien was a crude proponent of black and white morality is untrue. There are morally ambiguous characters in Lord of the Rings: Boromir, for instance. The difference with fashionable highbrow literature is that good and evil themselves are relatively straightforward concepts in the book-- as indeed, they are in real life.

It seems to be a constant in the history of literature that, every once in a while, a writer comes along who is sublimely indifferent to the literary developments of his (or her) time, is very successful, and is despised for it. A.E. Housman is a good example when it comes to poetry: Housman didn't so much react against the poetic modernism of his time as completely ignore it.

Interestingly, Tolkien is said to have enjoyed the writings of Isaac Asimov, a science fiction writer whose views could hardly have been further from his own. Asimov was an atheist, a humanist, a progressive, and an apostle of technological progress (even if he sometimes expressed disquiet about aspects of it). But he had as little time for literary experimentation as Tolkien. (Conversely, some of the most enthusiastic champions and practitioners of artistic experimentation, like Ezra Pound or D.H. Lawrence, were self-professed conservatives.)

Thursday, September 14, 2023

Happy Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross!

 A good day for quoting the opening lines from The Dream of the Rood, the great Anglo-Saxon poem ("rood" means "cross"):

Listen! I will speak of the sweetest dream,
what came to me in the middle of the night,
when speech-bearers slept in their rest.
It seemed that I saw a most wondrous tree
raised on high, wound round with light,
the brightest of beams. All that beacon was
covered in gold; gems stood
fair at the earth’s corners, and there were five
up on the cross-beam. All the angels of the Lord looked on;
fair through all eternity; that was no felon’s gallows,
but holy spirits beheld him there,
men over the earth and all this glorious creation.

A Medley of Miscellaneous Musings

Pretty much every day, I post stuff on Facebook. Thoughts about this, that and the other. I've done this for at least seven years.

Sometimes my posts are just one-liners or throwaway comments, but sometimes they are little meditations or even little essays.

Every day, Facebook throws up "memories" of what I wrote on that same calendar day all through the previous years. Recently, I've been thinking it's a shame to let all these musings go to waste, since (if nothing else) I put a lot of thought to them. So I've been copying and pasting the (arguably) more interesting ones into a file.

The file so far might make a reasonable blog post. Here it is.

I found myself thinking about Lord Alfred Tennyson this morning. He is probably my favourite poet after W.B. Yeats. He's never fallen out of the front rank of English poets but he's been distinctly unfashionable for a long, long time now. There is an oft-quoted passage from Samuel Butler's diary in which he wrote: " Talking it over, we agreed that Blake was no good because he learnt Italian at sixty in order to study Dante, and we knew Dante was no good because he was so fond of Virgil, and Virgil was no good because Tennyson ran him, and as for Tennyson—well, Tennyson goes without saying." Obviously, there's an element of self-satire in that, but it reflects a very real prejudice. (I read The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler in my twenties. It was very dull.) Then there is Joyce's frequently quoted: "Lawn Tennyson, gentleman poet". 

But the caricature of Tennyson as the bearded patriarchal Eminent Victorian is completely wrong, or completely right in the sense that Victorian England was a battleground of very contrasting beliefs and ideals. Like Yeats Tennyson is always writing from different viewpoints, arguing with himself, dwelling on ambiguities, etc.

I was thinking especially of one my favourite poems of all time, the blank verse "Ulysses", which I believe will be remembered long after James Joyce's novel has become a period piece and a curiosity.

What amazes me about this poem is how such simple language and simple thought manages to be so unforgettable. And it IS unforgettable, since it's constantly quoted and alluded to. Take these lines, for instance:

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy'd
Greatly, have suffer'd greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when
Thro' scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour'd of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.

There are no great fireworks of linguistic virtuosity here. The language is about as simple and plain as it could get. There are hardly any similes or metaphors and those that are there are very commonplace, other than the great symbol of the arch. There is nothing in this passage that might not have been said by anybody. And yet it's one of the greatest flights of poetry in the English language. It defies analysis. I've especially always found the line: "Manners, climates, councils, governments" to be electrifying. But it's just a string of nouns! (The same could be said of Milton's "Thrones, dominations, princedoms, virtues, powers," or-- a less famous example-- "WIne and oil and honey and milk" from "The Wanderings of Oisin" by Yeats.)

I was looking through a catalogue of movies and I was depressed at how many centre on violence. I think it's fair to say that most films have violence or crime as central themes.

Don't get me wrong. I love Quentin Tarantino. I love horror films, which often feature violence. I have no problem with violence in stories per se. I'm not talking about graphic violence here, just violence as a plot device.

It just seems like a failure of human imagination. Is life so boring to us, as a species, that most of our stories have to involve the destruction or threatened destruction of human life?

This is why I have such a high regard for situation comedies, which are generally about ordinary life-- the broad sweep of daily life with its routines and variety. I would like to think that ordinary life is worth living, and worth celebrating. That it's not only the extremes of life that are interesting.

This is why Groundhog Day is my favourite film. It has a supernatural plot but it's all about the beauty of ordinary life.

For a long time I've been a ferocious critic of political correctness. I imagine people who see me in the street think: "There goes Maolsheachlann Ó Ceallaigh, the ferocious critic of political correctness." However, more recently I've been troubled by a kind of contradiction in my own Thought.

This is it: I tend to believe that taboo, reverence, and piety are good things in themselves. Don't get me wrong, I wish all those things were directed towards their proper objects, but even IN THEMSELVES they seem admirable to me.

And all those things are abundantly present in political correctness. People who trip themselves up constantly trying to use the correct epithets are, in a sense, showing a sort of piety, a sort of reverence. It's misdirected but it's real. And I don't have the slightest problem against censorship on the grounds of public morals; I think Mary Whitehouse was a hero. But isn't this just what the PC brigade are pushing for, according to their own lights?

My gorge still rises at political correctness, don't get me wrong. And I still consider it a mortal enemy. But there is a little part of my mind that asks: "Are you being completely consistent here? Shouldn't you acknowledge a healthy impulse even in your enemy, "to honour as you strike him down' "? Perhaps Nietzsche was onto something when he said "you may have enemies you hate, but not enemies you despise."

(I would like to think this is the most pompous Facebook post ever.)

For a long time I've pondered the problem of clichés. It seems unreasonable that a happy turn of phrase should become shopworn after a certain amount of time. Why should proverbs be cherished when "clichés" are scorned? I love turns of phrase like "a walk down memory lane" or "in the cold light of day" and see no reason why they shouldn't be used again and again. I see no reason why language should be constantly mown like a lawn.

I was listening to someone talking the other day and she used such a phrase--I forgot what-- but I noticed how listlessly she used it. She drawled it out. Perhaps that's the difference? Perhaps clichés become lifeless because we use them lifelessly, or apologetically, or half-heartedly? Perhaps "clichés" remain fresh if we use them with as much relish as they were used when they were coined?

I like to fantasize about imaginary places. Recently I've been daydreaming about a gigantic indoor space, made mostly of glass, with winding spiral escalators taking people up and down. This space has many swimming pools layered one on top of the other, each one glass-bottomed, the water a delicious blue green. There are also powerful fountains on each level. The air is full of echoes, voices and splashes.

There are other features, although I hadn't thought of them. I guess restaurants, saunas, indoor soccer courts, plazas, that kind of thing.

I don't know if such a place is even possible. I did read that spiral escalators are real. Mitsubishi are the only company that make them.

Do other people daydream about imaginary places? I do this quite a lot.

Here's an interesting thing. Grafton Street is Dublin city centre's "showcase" street and it's pedestrianized. A few weeks ago I was taken aback when I realized the paving stones on Grafton Street are grey, rather than the pinky-red I'd always seen in my mind. In fact, they have been grey since 2015. But I've mentioned this to a couple of other people (both Dubliners) and they both said: "What, they're not red? I thought they were." As Sherlock Holmes would say, we see but we do not observe. Certainly I don't! But I'm even more surprised when it's others, too.

I watched all the series of the "reimagined" Battlestar Galactica a few years ago, back to back. On the whole I found it poor. It was the anti-Star Trek and I much prefer Star Trek's idealism to Battlestar's cynicism. But some scenes have really stuck in my memory. Spoilers ahead...

First off, the sequence at the very beginning when the Cylons are attacking Galactica, wave after wave, relentlessly, and the Viper pilots are at breaking point trying to ward them off incessantly. This often comes into my mind when I feel overwhelmed.

Then there was the episode where Baltar was vindicated for cooperating with the Cylons under the occupation, since resisting would have caused much more loss of life. I'm generally on the pragmatic side of such questions, rather than the "liberty or death" side.

The scene where they discover Kolob is a post-atomic wasteland. Gut-wrenching.

And having some Luddite tendencies I loved the way it ended, when they decided to discard all their technology.

I thought the original BSG was the business as a kid. I watched it again recently and realized it was dire! Even if Dirk Benedict is always awesome.

Recently I watched a deacon bowing before a priest, who blessed him before he read the Gospel passage. I thought of what a beautiful gesture of humility it was, and how sad it is that egalitarianism is so often pitted against hierarchy. I do believe in egalitarianism, in several senses-- most importantly, that I don't think anybody is of inherently less dignity than anybody else. And I generally prefer everything that pertains to the common herd as opposed to elites of any kind-- cuturally and socially. But how can we do without hierarchy, not just as a necessary evil but as an opportunity for humility, reverence, chivalry etc? Why should we let a silly resentment take away the beauty of a layman kissing a bishop's ring, a commoner using a special form of address for an aristocrat, men showing chivalrous courtesies to women, the young respecting the old, etc? It's not about inferiority or superiority at all, and it seems to me that such ceremonial forms are a kind of 'brake' against seeing life in those terms. Once you see everything in terms of power or a competitive pecking order, you are using the logic of Hell-- whether that is understood in religious or secular terms.

Here's something odd. I've mentioned before my terrible sense of geography, all geography-- world, European, Ireland, Dublin, my own immediate environment.

But allied to this is a deep fascination with the concept of place which occasionally makes me want to get a better grasp. Not just place, but time. Those two things never cease to fascinate me. In particular, special times and places, and liminal times and places. The word "lobby" gives me endless delight.

We have to keep a log of all the questions we get asked in the library. There are different categories. Two are "Directional-- library" and "Directional-- campus". So if somebody asks about something that's JUST outside the library, literally a few paces (for instance, the Access and Life-Long Learning centre, in the same building) it's "Directional-- campus" instead of "Directional-- library". And every time I do this I feel a delicious frisson at that distinction.

 When I was about eleven, my class went to Ennis to participate in the Slógadh, an Irish-language festival of culture. (We won our category, incidentally-- we were an overperforming working-class school that put massive practice into such things.) Anyway, I remember we were sitting in the lobby (!) of a hotel past midnight, and I made a reference to tomorrow. "It is tomorrow", another kid said. And that sentence gave me so much delight I still remember it. Part of my mind sees time and space as this chaotic jumble, and another part is constantly delighted and amazed that it's not.

You wouldn't be up to me.

Do you have any examples of great final sentences/passages from books? They don't have to be novels.

What put this in my head are the last lines of Foundation and Earth by Isaac Asimov, which I must have read more than thirty years ago, but which have stuck in my mind all that time:

' "After all", and here Trevize felt a sudden twinge of trouble, which he forced himself to disregard, "it is not as though we had the enemy already here and among us."

And he did not look down to meet the brooding eyes of Fallom--hermaphroditic, transductive, different--as they rested, unfathomably, on him.' 

When I think of what I believe in, aside from the obvious answer: "Catholicism", it often comes down to the concept, "the preservation of differences."

It came into my mind just now as I was thinking of the preservation of the public and the private. There have been times in history when the public swallowed up the private.

Totalitarianism, for instance. Or you even see it today with people for whom EVERYTHING is political and who can't understand that some things should be kept free from politics. But, on the whole, I think our time is one where the private has swallowed up the public. People lives their lives with little sense of a greater whole-- I don't mean in a political sense (there is that, as the lockdowns showed, however ill-advised they were) but in a cultural, spiritual sense.

We also live in a time when the universal is threatening to swallow up the particular-- as though we didn't need both.

There seems to be a constant battle to preserve the different sides of man's existence. Discovery and tradition. Individuality and community. Equality and the need for hierarchy. So many others. (Of course, some people are fighting a battle to collapse man's many-sidedness.)

I always love it when someone says something like: "I learned my logic in a hard school", or "I was always taught to break things down into their simplest elements", or anything that harkens back to their training, formation, induction, etc. It can be anything; someone talking about a knack their parents showed them in the kitchen, or a professor saying, "As my old professor always used say..." I suppose at that moment I get an image of skills and habits and traditions being handed down from person to person, down a long tunnel of time. Or maybe it shows the human side to the academic, or the technical, or the professional, or whatever type the skill is. Or maybe it's that you realise that, even in something very demanding and precise, there is still room for personality and rapport. Well, I suppose it's all these things.

This is why I love movies and books about pupil-mentor relationships like The Karate Kid or Dead Poets' Society.

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

My Article on Wacky Pastimes, and Fr. James Russell


The September special of Ireland's Own features a two-page article on strange and quirky pastimes, and opens with a quotation from G.K. Chesterton.

It also features my article on Fr. James Russell, a "healing priest" who was most associated with the parish of Kilcommon in Tipperary, and who died in 1957. People are still reporting favours from his intercession, and his memorial Mass is well-attended every year.

Friday, September 1, 2023

The End of Summer

There is something very bittersweet about the end of summer. For me it's imbued with the atmosphere of God-knows-how-many coming-of-age books and films. For instance, Goodnight Mr. Tom and The Way Way Back. They are often set in summer or else the climax is at the end of summer. Usually the protagonist has achieved some breakthrough or insight which gives them new enthusiasm for the future, but they know are leaving an enchanted interlude behind.

The end of The Tempest (my favourite Shakespeare play) is rather similar.

I also associate it with my childhood summer holidays on my aunt's farm in Limerick. As the holiday ended I knew it was the return to Dublin, school and growing up. (And the British soccer season resuming, which was important to me back then.) There was excitement but also regret, mingled into one emotion. I especially think of dusk and looking at bats flutter against the twilight. This to me has become a symbol of all these things.

I'm beginning to think one secret of happiness in life is always to focus on new beginnings, however old you are.