Monthly Archives: November 2003

Ancient Chinese Secret

One of the best kept secrets in the historical mystery genre is the Judge Dee series by Robert Van Gulik. I first ran across them in a little illustrated book from Scholastic, which I think came out in the sixties or seventies. (IIRC, it was in the collection of my sixth grade teacher Mrs. Romano. Which is also where I discovered Dorothy L. Sayers through a mystery collection including that Ali Baba story, but I digress.) I believe they’d extracted and/or expurgated the more child-friendly short stories from Van Gulik’s collection Judge Dee at Work. For example, one of the stories had Judge Dee investigating a small mystery discovered by one of his sons. It was a good collection. I remembered it for years, my memory jogged every once in a while by a reference to the series in a book on mysteries. But it wasn’t until I was out of college that I discovered the University of Chicago Press’ reprints of the books, and only then because the inestimable Barry Hughart credited Van Gulik as one of his predecessors.

Robert H. Van Gulik was a diplomat by trade. Like Cordwainer Smith (aka Felix Linebarger), he was more or less born into a fascination with Asia which never left him. He was also a mystery fan, and was delighted to discover that old Chinese popular literature was full of casebooks and stories of various diabolical cases solved by magistrates who were pattern cards of Confucian virtue. (Unlike the ones in martial arts novels/movies, who are always as corrupt as the Sheriff of Nottingham.) He translated one of them, Dee Goong An, as The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee, and later translated another book of cases called T’ang-yin-pi-shih as Parallel Cases from under the Pear Tree: a 13th century manual of Jurisprudence and Detection. He was hoping to unleash a wave of new Chinese and Japanese mystery novels based on the indigenous tradition, but apparently got no takers. So he decided to write a Judge Dee mystery himself. The first one was apparently published first in Japanese, but the others were in English. He continued to do diplomacy and write little papers every once in a while, but the Judge Dee mystery series made Van Gulik famous. Check out the length of this bibliography.

Judge Dee still has quite a number of fans, in a quiet way. This is a pretty good explanation why. There is definitely something to be said for good mysteries based in China’s complicated and fascinating culture. Even better, the characters are actually allowed to think and act like people of their own time. Van Gulik is also not afraid to include the occasional ghost or supernatural occurrence, without either making it either violate the confines of fantasy-mystery fair play or giving a guarantee of a Scooby Doo ending. Strange things happen in Van Gulik’s China, that’s all.

This is a good page on Di Renjie, Robert Van Gulik, and Judge Dee. Here’s a good paper considering the Judge Dee stories as science fiction. Also, here’s a good biography of Van Gulik. There are also a few gamers doing a Judge Dee campaign, as well as another group dealing with a similar but original character. (This one involved James Nicoll, which must have made it both more interesting and prone to dangerous accident.)

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Advent Begins

It’s the first Sunday of Advent. The apocalyptic readings of the last month or so start to lead into the prophesies of the coming of the Messiah, as we are reminded that we are supposed to be getting ready for the Messiah to come again.

As usual, I am appalled to see what a state my life’s gotten into since Easter. I need a better prayer life, a better work life, and just a more productive and honest life in general. I don’t even know what I’m getting most of my relatives for Christmas, much less what I can do with my life. Time to put some thought into it.

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Why Ritual Is Useful

I was reading my dad’s Civil War Times Illustrated the other day. It’s an excellent magazine that’s been around just about forever, and suits both scholarly and amateur tastes. They usually include excerpts from at least one Civil War diary every issue. In the issue I was reading, they had the journal of a Chicago minister. He seemed like a pretty good guy, but I don’t know why he visited other churches. He never liked them. Some were laughably emotional, some were too serious, and the Catholic Church he went to was full of empty ritual and had nothing of God. (Though he was apparently okay with the music, which took hits in most of his church service reviews.)

When you’re Catholic, you hear this criticism a lot: we are a church of empty ritual and tradition that keeps people from achieving a one-on-one relationship with God. The problem is that this is a fundamental misunderstanding of what’s going on. You can literally hear the swoosh as the whole Mass goes right over the outsider’s head. To be fair, though, there are a lot of Catholics who miss this too, since it often seems so obvious to teachers and parents that nobody really explains it out loud. Since this assumption often makes the unclued turn into ex-Catholics and prevents non-Catholics from seeing the Church as it is, I really think more needs to be said.

First off, when it comes to worship or any kind of public business, I have to say I’m in favor of as much of that supposedly “empty” ritual as possible. It’s annoying when people make up something new every week, because you end up paying attention to the good and bad bits of the framework rather than what’s actually going on. Like most kids who went through the boredom of ever-changing liturgy in the name of Vatican II, I appreciate the virtues of finding something that works and sticking to it.

(In my opinion, ritual should be just absorbing enough to draw people in and keep the kids quiet, without being so overwhelming as to demand catharsis every week. I am suspicious of continual catharsis and emotionalism. It suggests that there’s no place in religion for brainwork. Moreover, it turns off the half of the audience that doesn’t see the world solely through their emotions. (And no, this isn’t a male/female thing. There are plenty of emotional guys and intellectual women, thank you.) I am equally suspicious of getting rid of all emotion, since we aren’t computers. Whenever people fool around with the liturgy or any normal ritual, they’re usually turning up the dials on one while ignoring the other. This is always painfully lame. When I add that new speeches and responses designed to be fresh and free of cliche always are beyond their freshness date by that very intention, you may begin to realize why my opinion of these needless innovations usually is not high.)

The purpose of ritual of any kind is to give people a script, draw them together into a common framework, and thus free their minds from outside distractions. Wipe your shoes off at the front door, take said shoes off, hug the relatives inside, and you are home. The rest of the world is outside the ritual; you need only pay attention to what’s inside it. Do you really care that the hugs are much the same as all the hugs you’ve given those relatives before? No, of course not. If you want, you can make minor variations — squeezing harder, kissing cheeks, telling kids how much they’ve grown. But the basic script is the same. It will be slightly different in every family on the block — maybe a lot different in families with a different ethnic background from mine. But within each family, it will be the more or less the same from year to year. Over long spans of time – say, fifty or a hundred years — the tiny cumulative changes may cause large differences. But everybody involved will still know the script. The only time things become really original is when the family is joined by members with very different family customs (in which case they usually try their best to follow others’ lead), or when the family suffers a feud or breakdown so harsh that the normal script is ignored. Even then, most people feel that they can at least follow the script at the beginning. It may seem hypocritical, but not following the script is often seen as a worse and more deliberate offense than whatever has folks torqued off in the first place. People need that continuity of family identity encapsulated in the script, especially when grief or anger is tearing the family apart. To reject the script is to reject the family itself.

So tampering with any ritual too violently is pretty much bound to torque many people off, and even more so when it comes to religious rituals. There are a zillion versions of the Rosary and all Catholics have free choice to pray one or not. It’s just one way to pray privately. But when the Pope announced his support of a fourth set of Rosary mysteries (events in the lives of Jesus, Mary and the Church upon which one meditates while saying the Rosary prayers), I was just one of the many who became upset. It wasn’t a bad idea to have more overtly Christ-centered mysteries; a lot of folks had proposed similar things, and the “Luminous Mysteries” the Pope instituted had been tried and tested for many years. But it was tampering with a dozen other things. I can remember when I was tiny that my mother showed me the sets of rosary beads that would belong to my brothers and I when we were old enough, as she talked wistfully of Sister Mary Herman who’d made them — the dead great-aunt I’d never met. I remember kneeling in childhood at my bedside, and staying up all night as a teenager in frantic pleas to escape the suicidal darkness in my soul. The instinctive response when someone suggests a change to something already working fine for you, with a hundred good associations for you, is that you feel the person’s saying all of those memories and prayers and help from God weren’t good enough. It wasn’t what the Pope was saying, of course, and his well-known love of the Rosary was the impetus for the change. So people dealt with it, and some folks are getting very attached to the Luminous Mysteries. But nobody can get attached to something that changes all the time.

So what was I doing when I prayed the Rosary, anyway? If you were watching me, maybe you’d think I was just mouthing and mumbling empty strings of Hail Marys, with an occasional Our Father and Glory Be thrown in to escape the tedium. But what I was really doing was using those strings of prayers known by heart and repeated over and over to stop my thoughts from rattling along their normal rut. With my body bent in prayer, my fingers occupied with beads, and my lips moving in a task not requiring much conscious direction, I could finally pay attention to God.

But there are always times when you can’t concentrate on prayer. When that happens, I can use ritual as a crutch until I’m in a better frame of mind. If I can’t think of my own words, at least I’ve got the old familiar ones to fall back on. If all I accomplish while saying the Rosary is to say so many Our Fathers, Hail Marys and Glory Bes…well, at least I’ve done that. It shows willing, as they say.

So if a Catholic can get so much out of a little popular devotion like the Rosary, imagine the riches to be found in the Jesus-instituted ritual of the Mass! There are small changes for each liturgical season and for certain other occasions, and a different set of readings for every day in the year — three years’ worth, in fact. There is a different homily, of course, and different hymns too. But these variations are designed simply to point up the inexhaustible wealth of meaning and grace in the Eucharist itself. The massgoer who is paying attention finds God speaking in painfully personal ways through the impersonal words of ritual. Common gestures, responses and body movements invite individual meditation. Common gestures, responses and body movements invite individual meditation on God’s Word and one’s own life. Then each person individually is called to the foot of the altar, not just to see God face to face but to take Him in!

If this is empty ritual, how can mere humans bear what is full?

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Mass Construction

While we’re talking about music, it occurs to me that the most popular and most audience-concerned classical composers today are the people who compose film music. Why don’t folks with moolah find some Catholic film composers and commission some Masses?

Moreover, if the composer is young enough, he or she will still be used to arranging music for the instruments available.

The only hitch is that I don’t really know what religion my favorite film composers are. Not really a factor until now….

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Los Angeles Political Correctness

There’s a very simple piece of computer terminology involved here. The control computer of a network is called the “master”, and a subordinate computer is called a “slave”. Well, not anymore. Not in Los Angeles County. Never mind if the terms have been used since the midmorning of computing or if it will require rewriting a lot of code and fiddling with a lot of hardware. Never mind the inconvenience to vendors and users alike. Never mind the expense to taxpayers, either. Because the PC will be served.

*F/X: head banging against brick wall*

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Adventures in Hymnwriting

Or, more songs nobody else will ever sing! Mwahaha!

I got the idea for this one from the brilliant post on the Bethlehem code on Annunciations. Reading it was one of those “doh!” moments for me. I mean, how many times have I heard “lying in a manger”? Thus the hymn.

In a Manger
Lyrics and Music: Maureen S. O’Brien, 11/25/03

They laid Him in a manger, in a town called House of Bread.
They laid Him in a manger, though He was the one they fed.
They laid Him in a manger, as if harvest time were done
And in the place of grain, they placed our God’s own Son.

They found Him in a manger, the poor folk and the proud.
They found Him in a manger, wrapped up as in a shroud.
They found Him in a manger, where the creatures came to eat,
And they knelt, all openmouthed, before the Baby’s feet.

Oh praise Him in the manger, laid as on an altarstone.
Oh praise Him in the manger, for He chose this on His throne.
Oh praise Him in the manger, for today the great I Am
Starts in this barn to be our sacrificial Lamb.


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St. John the Bishonen

Amy Welborn pointed me to Akma’s random thought on debunking The DaVinci Code. Apparently, St. John the Evangelist’s long flowing hair and youthful beardless appearance in Western art are being used by That Stupid Book as “proof” that St. John is actually St. Mary Magdalene. Er. Whatever. I guess that means all those bishonen Japanese men in the manga and anime are all women, too. Heh. Oh, and God forbid that artists should ever want to portray male beauty of any kind on a saint. (Female beauty is apparently the only thing okay….)
Also, this code thing is so important that artistic taste and what will sell to women has no effect whatsoever on subject matter. Suuuuuure.

Okay, so now the frivolous question: which is more bishy, St. John or the guys from Japan? I’m thinkin’ the Evangelist is also a contenda. Take a look and see if you agree!


The Master of the Franciscan Crucifix’s St. John

Martini’s angsty St. John

Through Akma, Vanucci’s St. John and St. Augustine

Van Eyck’s St. John

El Greco’s St. John (yow!)

An anonymous German Gothic sculptor’s St. John

Barocci’s CLAMP-like swirly St. John

Look here for lots of links to St. John pictures.

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Happy Anniversary, Doctor!

On this day in 1963, Doctor Who first aired. On the previous day, C.S. Lewis had died.

You win some, you lose some.

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Anime/Blogosphere Synchronicity

Okay, this is getting spooky. Warning: Big spoiler for the series .hack//SIGN.

As the series has progressed, it has become increasingly clear that the character Tsukasa, who mysteriously cannot log off an online game and instead lives within it, is actually a comatose patient in a hospital. In the episode run tonight on Cartoon Network, we finally learned that the patient was brought in bearing the signs of abuse. The patient’s father tried to persuade the doctors to kill her, then broke in at night to try his hand at it. Fortunately, his attempt did not succeed.

This show gets more and more interesting. Tsukasa is constantly being tempted to give up and give in, to run away, to stay uninvolved, and to forget about the world outside. This is reinforced by a modern update of the Japanese folklore device of an unhappy ghost trying to drag the living after it. Meanwhile, Tsukasa and his very existence challenge other people to try to justify their own lives, the validity of their relationships, and the imperfect real world. If you like a show with lots of pictures and conversations, .hack//SIGN is for you.

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The Brits: Threat or Menace?

No, this has nothing to do with President Bush’s awesome speech in the UK this week. This is going back to 1805 and Master and Commander.

Bill Cork opined as how it was hard to cheer for Lucky Jack, given that the English were the bad guys. He enlarged upon this by pointing out that the French were our allies back then, as well as the obvious lessons of Irish and Acadian history. (These may succinctly be boiled down to the old joke: Why did the sun never set on the British Empire? Because God didn’t trust those people in the dark!) Meanwhile, his brother Jim championed the British, even to the point of claiming the American Revolution didn’t qualify as a “just war”.

You know, if history didn’t exist as a discussion topic, we’d have to invent it.

Well, look. My dad wrote his master’s thesis on the Corn Laws, which is certainly enough to turn anyone with the last name of O’Brien into an Anglophobe, even if his great-great-grandfather hadn’t been driven out of Ireland by fear of the Brits and the Famine. The village Cornelius (Connie) and his seven brothers emigrated from doesn’t even exist anymore. So, sure, I know what Bill Cork is talking about.

However, I also know what Jim Cork is talking about. The French were never great friends of the Irish, though occasionally it suited their schemes to “help”. Lafayette was a friend of America, and Ben Franklin found others as well. But the majority of his diplomacy consisted not in manipulating public opinion (or rather, the aristocracy’s opinion), but in convincing French statesmen that helping the US would help their schemes. Moreover, France was not always America’s ally from 1776-1812; in point of fact, Talleyrand and his crew got up to some pretty shameful stuff. McCullough’s biography of John Adams gives the fullest explanation of the XYZ Affair I’ve ever heard. After learning what that vague reference in my history book had really been all about, I was ready to string up quite a few dead French politicians, let me tell you. The whole episode led to an undeclared naval war between France and the US, which is not exactly happy friendly ally bunnies from most points of view. (Here’s Adams’ speech to Congress about our new ambassador to France getting thrown out of the country, btw.) I should probably also mention the fun and games with Citizen Genet. The whole question of relations between France, Britain, and the US was obviously tied to party — Jefferson’s friends were Francophiles, while Federalists tended toward notions of an Anglosphere — but it’s a cold truth that any small nation with lots of resources is bound to have trouble with superpowers. We were in that position. By acting friendly to everyone but very jealous of our rights, we managed to survive.

As for the justness of the War of 1812…had it been solely a naval war and untainted by hopes of conquering Canada, I think it would have been entirely just, as pressing crewmen was as wrong as it was common. (And note that the movie did not shy from having a pressed American as part of the Acheron‘s crew, or later on, pressing the whaler’s crew. The moviemakers weren’t condoning it, but the writers weren’t shy of including real history there.) However, having unleashed the British lion onto our shores, the war became an entirely just one of survival and freedom. The odds were uneven, but as usual, American ingenuity (superior American shipbuilding, Perry building ships in Put-In Bay, Jackson’s incredible tactics) managed to pull us out of the situation that stupid American politics had gotten us into.

But the American Revolution was just. Read the Declaration of Independence. Granted, there were other considerations…but there always are, in the course of human events. We had a good chance of winning and achieving our just goals, and we did. But I’m not going to argue about this, frankly. Like most Americans, I see the hand of God in the American Revolution. As messy and imperfect as America was and is, its creation and continued existence is a challenge to the world. If it had not existed, I suspect the twenty-first century would either not be all that different from the sixteenth, or that totalitarian nationalism would have swallowed the world. Democracy’s existence as a practical alternative was a near-run thing.

All that said, however, England has its place in history, too. France is a grand and glorious nation, but like Germany and Spain, it has this sad tendency to try to take over all of Europe. From medieval times onward, England basically acted against that tendency on everybody else’s part. Obviously, this was a matter of self-interest; but it still worked. I don’t really defend England’s empire; but everybody else in Europe was doing it. England just tended to hold onto its empire more effectively. Finally, we are indebted to England for spreading the common law and a certain style of administration and order around the world. The way they spread it was appalling, but the existence of an Anglosphere is not.

So here’s the point. My dad, who’s been known to give dire warnings against Anglophilia, who loves America with all his heart, loves Patrick O’Brian’s books. (Even though he wasn’t really an O’Brien or even Irish. Heck, if he wanted to be an O’Brian that much, he should count as self-adopted!) O’Brian didn’t shy away from the moral problems of being an English captain; by making his POV character, Maturin, an Irish Catholic revolutionary, he was confronting them head on. My dad loved the movie, too.

There’s a difference between making someone a hero of a story and glorifying his point of view. It was right that Jack Aubrey should be the kind of guy who’s sure of his own cause. It’s also right that the novels (and the movie, too) continually point out — obliquely, or through Maturin — the flaws in it, as well as what he gets right. So O’Brian was not afraid to take on the War of 1812 and let his characters feel toward it as a person of their time and background would. We Americans get to read in horror as, just as in history, the wrong (ie, English) side wins in the battle between the Chesapeake and Shannon, and Aubrey rejoices. I didn’t like him just then. But then, Aubrey could also commend the courage and skill of the dead American captain, Lawrence. It’s a hard scene for an American to read, but it’s a hard scene for an English person to read, too.

So yes, Jack Aubrey works for the Admiralty, and they don’t have most of my ancestors’ best interests at heart. Some of his men are the next best things to prisoners, and all of them live under nasty conditions. But that doesn’t mean I can’t cheer for their courage and cleverness, or wish them well. That certainly doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the deep friendship between guys as different as Aubrey and Maturin. And if I met Jack Aubrey back in the day, I’d undoubtedly like him (as long as I wasn’t in his way), though I’d undoubtedly get along better with geeky Stephen Maturin.

Welcome to history, which is to say, life. It doesn’t come in neat labeled bundles with everyone wearing labels of Good and Evil. A historical novel should not have that luxury, either.

Btw, if you’d like a little more historical distance in your male bonding, try Harry Turtledove’s ancient Greek version of Aubrey and Maturin in Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea and The Gryphon’s Skull. Two cousins as different as day and night set out together to make money as traders and find a lot of trouble. (The books are written under his historical novel brandname, H.N. Turteltaub.) For a further twist, read David Drake’s Cinnabar Royal Navy series, which throws things into the far future and has a lot of fun. If you buy the 3rd volume, The Far Side of the Stars, you’ll get a free CD which includes, among other Drake books, the first and second volumes, With the Lightnings and Lt. Leary, Commanding. Dang, I do love Daniel and Adele!

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Grand Unified Theory of Harry Potter

Maybe not that broad…but almost. Presenting Lycoris’ chess theory.

What is the sound of several million hands slapping (their foreheads)?

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Visiting Hell! (and Purgatory/Heaven)

We hear a lot about how school was better in the old days, particularly Catholic schools. I’m not so sure. Last night I was talking with two intelligent, well-educated Catholics who were both unaware that a) Dante’s Inferno was a poem, not prose; and b) the poem continued into Purgatory and Heaven. Of course, I distinguished myself by a horribly wrong explanation of terza rima, so I can’t really talk….

What led me to this was recommending that, as preparation for reading Dante, their teenage sons read Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Inferno, which is a prose sequel to Dante. Even though large segments of the work consist of trying to figure out sf explanations for Hell and gleefully sending annoying bits of the seventies and eighties to it, it does have serious religious content. Niven and Pournelle deal with the morality or lack of their own jobs as science fiction writers (I did mention that was their protagonist’s profession?). Beyond that, they also make their protagonist confront the mystery that is God — not just someone with more advanced knowledge and power than us — a sort of super-alien — but Someone infinitely better who loves us still.

But anyway. If you’ve never read Dante, you should. Naturally it would be better to read him in Italian, but probably most of us don’t. (Me, neither.) There are apparently a lot of good translations out right now, both old and new, rhyming and not. I’m very fond of Dorothy L. Sayers’ version, but then, I’m very fond of Sayers period. I didn’t know that Longfellow had translated Dante, but his prose version is online, side by side with the Italian. This will at least give us non-Italian speakers more of an idea — and a better explanation of that terza rima rhyme scheme than I could give!

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Quote of the Day

“I am a storyteller with delusions of necromancy, which is to say an historian.”
– naomichana of baraita.net.

I love the way this woman thinks, and have since I first encountered her. If I were a scholar, I would pray to be like her. Here she is on History of Magic as taught at Hogwarts, if you haven’t seen it already.

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Good Things Come in Threes, Too

You already know about the offer to send me free books. (Yay!)

Then I went down and got the mail. I found my contributor’s copy of Why Can’t Penguins Filk?: Songs from FilKONtario 7. Track 12, “The Dead Woman’s Son” is my first song and performance to appear on an album. (Though technically, I can be heard in the background audience chorus on quite a few live recordings….)

It’s weird to hear a slice of my life from back in 1997. It seems a million years ago now. It’s especially weird since…um…due to lack of sleep and (then) relatively recent composition, the tune on the CD keeps changing as I sing it. Um. I _sound_ good, more or less, but…um…it’s kinda the quantum flux version of the tune. On the other hand, it’s nice to know what key I originally sung the tune in, because it does sound better up there. And on the gripping hand, it does sound kinda like the filk version of a field recording, which must count for some kind of trad. cred….

But I can’t help feeling happy! I’m on an album! It’s so cool! (Now, I only have to get cracking on my album….)

Finally, about that hymn for St. Albert the Great’s feastday. I decided to submit it to the new music director and see if it interested him. (The previous music directors were very nice about my hymns but also pretty unencouraging. Heh. With reason in some cases.)

And you know, he did actually seem to think it was pretty good. He got interested in how he’d want to arrange it to be sung and everything! Furthermore, he mused aloud that next year he could do a full four-part arrangement for the choir and put copies of the lyrics in the pews for the congregation…well, assuming a bit of money to me for royalties. (And with the royalty rates, believe me, I’d be lucky to be able to buy a cup of coffee at the gas station with that bit. Obviously not a major consideration. Still, it was cool that he thought to mention that to me.) So we’ll have to see if anything materializes, as the feast is next Sunday. But it’s definitely something. (And I guess my project wasn’t all that quixotic, after all.)

So I’m in a ver’ happy mood today. Happy founding of St. John Lateran’s, everyone!

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