American Christianity II

January 21, 2022

I stopped posting in March of 2019, when covid-19 became a grim fact of life that dictated a spell — whose length was unknown — of confinement at home. I took advantage of it to complete a project that had been on my mind for years: a sort of memoir telling my story of, among other things, surviving ghettos in Poland and concentration camps in Germany. I finally did so at the end of last year, and self-published the book through Amazon Kindle. It as available as an e-book here, and as a paperback here.

Despite several relaxations of the isolation imposed by the pandemic, we’re not really out if it, especially since omicron became the most cited Greek-letter name. So I’m back to blogging, and I would like to start by continuing a post on American Christianity that I published on November 14, 2018.

Aside from the chemistry grad student that I wrote about, I knew of only one other student in my days at Caltech who was a committed Christian, a classmate of mine who was a fellow civil-engineering major (there were not many of us). I didn’t live on campus, so I didn’t know the Sunday-morning habits of the students — they might have been attending some of the Pasadena’s many conventional churches, including one where the Los Angeles Rams’ star “Deacon” Dan Towler served as pastor — but it wasn’t something that was talked about on campus.

Based on my life in postwar Germany until 1950, my life in America after that and my visits back to Europe starting in 1958, my impression was that in the 50s and 60s the United States was not significantly more religious than Europe, and considerably less so than such (at the time) ultra-Christian countries as Ireland, Italy, Spain and Greece. (The last two were, along with Portugal, right-wing dictatorships in which the Church played along with the regime). True, in 1954 “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, and in 1956 “In God We Trust” was made the national motto, but then Britain had (and still has) Dieu et mon droit as its royal motto, and Denmark has Gud, konge og fædreland as its national one.

But drastic changes began to happen in Western societies in the 1960s, and intensified in the 1970s. There was the abolition of the death penalty (temporary in the US, permanent elsewhere). There was the liberalization of private, especially sexual, conduct — the legalization of abortion and homosexuality, the destigmatization of extramarital cohabitation and childbirth. There was civil-rights legislation — the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in the US, the Race Relations Act of 1968 in the UK, and so on. There was a relaxation of blue laws in the US and some European countries.

These changes were, by and large, embraced by most of the countries’ populations. In Europe they led to further changes: the overthrow of the three remaining dictatorship in southern Europe, and a gradual turning away from religion. The Quiet Revolution in Quebec led the way for similar changes in Canada.

In the US this acceptance was largely confined to the larger metropolitan areas, while they were viewed with hostility elsewhere, especially in rural areas. And because some of these changes, especially the loosening of strictures on sexual behavior, ran counter to traditional church teachings, many of those opposed to them took refuge in “conservative” religion as a shield.

It must be pointed out that the rural-urban divide plays out differently in the US and Europe. European rural folk, for the most part, live in villages, but these are clustered densely around a smaller or larger city that serves as a district capital, and in Europe relatively small cities (with a population range of, say 10,000 to 25,000) are distinctively more urban than their counterparts in the US. Often such a city has a history as a feudal or ecclesiastical center, with a castle, cathedral, abbey or the like, and has a dense urban core that differs only in size from one in a large city, with a main square (often the site of a market) and surrounding business streets that are home to varied stores, restaurants, banks, professional offices and the like. It also serves as a focal point for many activities for the surrounding villages, with it is typically connected by public transport: it’s where the secondary (and possibly post-secondary) schools are located, as well as sports clubs (for both participatory and spectator sports), police headquarters, and so on. (Those who watch Midsomer Murders may recognize the fictitious Causton — represented on television by the real towns of Thame and Wallingford, both with populations around 12,000 — as just such a city.) Village dwellers may work in the city, or else they visit it frequently.  As a result of this contact, the cultural divide between rural and urban people is blurred. Far more important than such a divide are the cultural differences among regions, as well as socioeconomic differences between the “provinces” (which may include fully urbanized areas) and the large metropolitan areas, as may be gleaned from the gilets jaunes movement in France.

By contrast, a “rural” American typically lives in or near a typical American small town, represented in fiction by Sinclair Lewis’s Gopher Prairie and Elk Mills, Thornton Wilder’s Grover’s Corners or Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, and in reality by thousands of actual places. The main characteristic distinguishing such a town from a European village is its self-sufficiency. Even a fairly small town, with a population not much over a thousand or two, is likely to have its own high school and library, its own police force if it is incorporated (or a sheriff’s department if it is a county seat, which many such places are), a limited set of its own businesses (typically located on a short stretch of Main Street) and industrial establishments, and a full complement of churches appealing to numerous denominations, some of them invariably of an evangelical nature.

It is this last feature that, for the inhabitants of such a town, becomes an identifying symbol distinguishing them from people they think of as urban, often decried as liberal Godless urban elites (or some combination of these epithets). I am not aware of any indication that the practice of Christian virtues — chastity, temperance, kindness and the like — is any more widespread in rural towns than in cities, and the massive embrace of a figure like Donald Trump by rural America shows that such virtues are not really considered as important as the use of Christianity as an identity marker.

To be continued.

Jews etc.

March 7, 2019

By a curious coincidence, both of last Tuesday’s matches in the UEFA Champions League round of sixteen (or eighth-finals, as other languages have it) featured teams that have traditional connections with Jews: Ajax Amsterdam and Tottenham Hotspur. (It’s one of the reasons I am a Spurs gan.) It so happens that both teams won their matches and on aggregate, and both will proceed to the quarterfinals. In the case of Spurs, they added to their 3-0 first-leg win over Borussia Dortmund. But Ajax overcame a 2-1 home loss in the first leg, beating Real Madrid 4-1 and so making (recent)  history: it was the first time since 2010 that Real were eliminated at this stage.

What’s more, if Ajax make it to the semifinals, they will be — as I wrote last year — the first team from outside the Big Five to do so since 2005.

They may be joined in this distinction by Porto, who the next day also came from behind to beat Roma. At the same time Manchester United overcame their first-leg loss to Paris Saint-Germain and won on away goals. Three come-from-behind victories in four matches — a good week for soccer fans.

In the aforementioned post I also wrote about Gianluigi Buffon, referring to “what was probably his last appearance on a global stage”. I was wrong — at age 41 he is still PSG’s number-one goalkeeper. Whether he should be is another matter: Of United’s three goals, the two by Lukaku were clearly the result of Gigi’s mistakes, and the third was his failure to stop Marcus Rashford’s not-too-hard penalty kick.

I am looking forward to next week’s matches.


Mystery Spanish

January 21, 2019

I have previously commented (here and here) on the difficulty that American and British writers of mystery novels have with getting matters relating to the Spanish language or Hispanic culture, even writers — such as Tony Hillerman and Michael Connelly — who have lived in places rife with Hispanic people, culture and history (New Mexico and Southern California, respectively).

Recently Connelly introduced a new detective, a female Mexican-American named Bella Lourdes. He seems to have seen Lourdes as a part of Hispanic women’s names, specifically as a second name (e.g. María Lourdes or Ana Lourdes) and assumed that it was a family name, as though a Marian apparition that happened in France in the 19th century could have given rise to a Spanish surname.

But I have also discovered that the ignorance of Hispanic matters is not limited to anglophone writers. I recently read the Olof Palme trilogy by Leif GW Persson, and found that when, in the third volume (Falling Freely, as if in a Dream), the Swedish detective goes to Majorca, Persson gets several things wrong.

1. He confuses the Spanish (Castilian) and Catalan (Majorcan) toponyms, referring to Cala Sant Vicente, which is actually either San Vicente (Spanish) or Sant Vicenç (Catalan).

2. He refers to the Guardia Civil as “the Spanish national police” while it’s actually one of the Spanish national police forces, the other being the Policía Nacional, though the case at hand, being an offshore disappearance, is in fact under the purview of the former.

3. One of the Spanish policemen is nicknamed El Pastor, ostensibly because of his clergyman-like character. While pastor can, in context, denote a protestant minister, such a context is too improbable to be the source of a nickname in Spain. The ordinary meaning of pastor is ‘shepherd’, and any hispanophone, when hearing such a nickname, would think of it as describing a shepherd-like quality, whatever that might mean.


American Christianity

November 14, 2018

I have just read an article by Amanda Marcotte in Salon, titled “White evangelicals will never dump Trump — but those who leave the churches will”.

It brought me back to the mid-1950s, when I was an undergraduate at Caltech. At the time the campus had a facility for listening to classical music, called the Musicale, comprising a small room with up-to-date (I don’t think “state-of-the-art” was in use yet) hi-fi equipment for playing LP records in stereo (recent innovations at the time). There were very few of us who used the facility — typically for eating our bag lunches — and those few became friends.

One member of our group, with whom I became close, was a graduate student in chemistry, who turned out to be an evangelical Christian, affiliated with the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. He believed in a personal god and a personal devil — beliefs that did not diminish his dedication to science. (He has, I have discovered, remained faithful to both — in his fashion — having written a book criticizing “intelligent design“.)

When the 1956 presidential election came upon us, he surprised me by saying that he would vote for Stevenson. The reason, he said, was that “to vote for Eisenhower is to vote for Nixon, and Nixon is evil.” This was a decade and a half before Watergate.

In don’t know how my friend’s politics have evolved since our student days (he long ago moved to Canada), but it was only a few years later that the “evil” Nixon got the wholehearted support of Billy Graham. And the political evolution of evangelical Christianity in America has followed a straight line from that to its present-day embrace of Donald Trump.


Enemy of the people

November 12, 2018

Illiterate as he is, Donald Trump almost certainly has no idea that the phrase “enemy of the people” with which he likes to label the media strikes most literate people as ironic, since it evokes Ibsen’s play, in which the title character is actually the hero. (This resembles the common pejorative use of “ugly American” which ignores the fact that the title character of the novel so titled is the good guy.)

But, just as a stopped clock is right twice a day, so Donald Trump may accidentally hit on the truth. And in at least one respect the American mainstream media really have been inimical to the interests of the people: by creating the media phenomenon of “Donald Trump” (which is all that he is). The disgraced (for other reasons) former head of CBS, Leslie Moonves, said so explicitly, referring to Trump’s presidential candidacy: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

“The money’s rolling in and this is fun,” Moonves went on. “I’ve never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”1

Other media executives may not have been quite so explicit, but they were all complicit.

Good Night

November 12, 2018

Theodore Baker (1851–1934) was a noted American musicologist who, among other things, was the first to write about the music of indigenous Americans, and was for many years the in-house translator for the music-publishing house G. Schirmer, Inc.

Baker’s translations are what appears above the German text of the Schubert volume I mentioned in my last post. His style is what passed as “poetic” in the Victorian era: the first lines of Gute Nacht, “Fremd bin ich eingekommen, fremd zieh’ ich wieder aus” — quite ordinary colloquial German — are rendered as “A stranger I came hither, a stranger hence I go”. I can’t imagine anyone nowadays being caught dead singing lines like these.

Around the turn of the millennium I developed another hobby, that of translating songs. By this I mean translating them into modern English, keeping the meaning as close as possible to the original but also keeping its rhythm and rhyme.

My first effort dealt with a set of three Catalan art songs by the 20th-century composer Federico Mompou. Since then, however, I have avoided art songs and focused primarily on popular songs and secondarily on opera numbers. But I’ve always kept Gute Nacht in the back of my mind. But, because I love the song so much, I wanted it to be just right.

Since I’ve resumed singing I have taken another stab at it. Here is my latest attempt. It definitely isn’t final.

Gute Nacht

November 5, 2018

I recently underwent a course of speech therapy, consisting of various vocal exercises, because of some hoarseness that had crept into my speaking voice over the past year. In the course of doing the exercises I realized that I hadn’t done any singing in a long time.

Singing was one of my chief hobbies for many years, beginning in my thirties. In public it meant being in a chorus, at various times the University Chorus at UC Berkeley and the Berkeley Community Chorus. In private I sang classical lieder and opera arias while banging on the piano and Spanish-language songs of various kinds while plucking on the guitar.

But over the last five or ten years this activity somehow petered out of my life, leading to a certain atrophy of my vocal cords (helped along by aging). Hence the hoarseness and the need for speech therapy, prescribed by my ear-nose-throat specialist.

The treatment seems to have been effective, and once I felt vocally strong enough I looked at my music bookshelf and, almost unconsciously, homed in the Schirmer volume of Schubert songs for low voice, which I took out, put on the piano and opened to the page featuring Schubert’s Gute Nacht, the first song in the cycle Die Winterreise (set to poems by Wilhelm Müller).

For most of my life — since the age of ten, to be exact — I have felt that this is the most beautiful song ever composed.

in the winter of 1945–46 — the first winter after the war — my mother and I spent a few days in the resort town of Bad Harzburg, at the foot of the Harz Mountains in north central Germany (a place where later I lived and went to high school). Bad Harzburg does not have the aristocratic cachet of spas like Baden-Baden with its luxurious Kurhaus, including its famous casino (Kur, meaning ‘cure’, is often prefixed to various institutions in German spa resorts), but it appeals to the bourgeoisie of Northern Germany and is therefore also a middlebrow cultural center. (It is also where, in 1931, the Nazi party conspired with other right-wing groups to put an end to the Weimar Republic.) When I was there, a full-time chamber orchestra (strictly speaking a “salon orchestra” called Kurorchester) played afternoon concerts of light classical music almost daily in the Kurpark, and weekly evening concerts of standard classics in the Kursaal.

On occasion, some touring musicians gave concerts or recitals. During that winter stay, on a cold day, it happened to be the baritone Heinrich Schlusnus, performing Die Winterreise in the unheated Kursaal. At the time I was rather new to classical music,both as a listener and a piano student. The effect of that short piano introduction and then the magnificent intonation of Fremd bin ich eingezogen… was magical. I forgot the cold air around me and felt enveloped in the music. The memory of that sensation has never gone away.




October 24, 2018

I don’t mean to write about any actual person lying under oath, such as Brett Kavanaugh. The title of this post is just the translation of that of a novel by Petra Hammesfahr (the author of The Sinner), Meineid.

I have a quirk about reading. If a book is written in a language of which I have a reading knowledge (with the occasional help of a dictionary, if necessary), then I feel compelled to read it in the original. I won’t try to justify this compulsion — translation is a noble enterprise that I myself have engaged in — but I can’t deny it.

And so, when I found out that the first season of the TV series The Sinner was based on Die Sünderin, I made an effort to get it, assuming that my ever-reliable university library would have it. To my surprise, it doesn’t — no branch has anything other than the English version. Eager to get to know her work, I checked out one of the two German books of hers that I found to be available, the aforementioned Meineid, published in 1991, two years — and six books! — after Die Sünderin.

Like the last-named, Meineid is a murder mystery, and I don’t wish to tell the plot. But the basic story is that of two women of modest family background who are each other’s best friends from the first day of elementary school. Both are brilliant students, but only one of them goes on to university and to a successful professional career, while the other, who grows into a great beauty, drops out and supports herself with odd jobs.

There’s something familiar about this background story, isn’t there? Of course: it’s the basis of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, published between 2012 and 2015. A coincidence? Possibly. Meineid does not seem to have been translated into Italian (at least it isn’t listed as such in the Italian Wikipedia page for Petra Hammesfahr). And since nothing is publicly known about Elena Ferrante, there is no way of finding out whether she reads German (unless the hypothesis that she is actually Anita Raja, who is a translator from German to Italian, is valid). This is quite different from the many coincidental points that I found between Ian Rankin’s The Naming of the Dead and Philippe Djian’s Ça, c’est un baiser. But one never knows, does one?

The Sinners

October 9, 2018

As I mentioned at the end of my last post, I would like to discuss The Sinner. Actually, The Sinners, since seasons 1 and 2 of the TV series, and the novel that season 1 is based on, are three different beasts.

I first found out about it from my favorite TV critic, Melanie McFarland. It was shortly after the first episode of season 2 had run, and it was from her that I also first learned about the first season, despite the splash that it was said to have made last year. Fortunately, the USA Network makes previously aired (cabled?) episodes (or “parts”, as they are called in this case) available for recording, while our local library happened to have the entire recorded first season on the shelf. So my wife and I binge-watched it in the course of a week, and then began playing the new season.

But to call this series a second season, as though it were a continuation of the first, is a stretch. There is no connection between the plots, and the only continuity in the show itself (as distinct from the production staff) is the character the detective, Harry Ambrose, played by Bill Pullman.

But both the professional and personal aspects of this character are quite different in the two series. In the first he is the lead detective investigating a case in his department’s jurisdiction, and his private life centers on his complicated relationships with his ex-wife and his mistress. None of this is alluded to in the second  “season”; he is invited as a consultant by another detective in what happens to be his hometown, and what we see of his inner life are flashbacks to his traumatic childhood.

Even using the same title is a bit disingenuous. The original series is based on a novel titled Die Sünderin (feminine!) by Petra Hammesfahr, the title character being Cora Bender, who murders a man called (but not actually named) Frankie. In the TV adaptation Cora gets to retain her first name, as do (more or less) her mother (Elsbeth → Elizabeth) and her aunt (Margret → Margaret), while Frankie becomes her victim’s actual name. All the other characters’ names (and all surnames, of course) are changed significantly. Cora’s sister Magdalena (a highly symbolic name in view of the plot’s religious undertones) becomes Phoebe, while Harry Ambrose’s prototype is Rudolf Grovian, an altogether different character — conventionally and faithfully married, with a daughter and grandson about the same age as Cora and her son. And in the second series it is not at all clear who the titular sinner is meant to be.

Another difference between novel and adaptation has to do with space and time. The novel takes place in precise locations in and around Cologne and Hamburg, and, while it was first published in 1999, its action is earlier in that decade. We know this because Freddie Mercury is dead, so it must be later than 1991, while Cora’s mother Elsbeth (who is now 65) had, as a young girl, a pregnancy-producing fling with a British soldier after World War II. If she was 18 in 1945, that would put us in 1992; if a year or two younger, then in 1993 or 1994, but no later. The TV series, on the other hand, takes place vaguely in the present (all the technology is up to date, but the are no references to contemporaneous events) and in fictitious places in upstate New York.

Each of the three is an excellent work, worthy of enjoyment on its own.



September 30, 2018

I am a big fan of Marina Hyde. Of Marine Le Pen, not so much.

I have known, or heard of, a fair number of women named Marina, and a few named Marine. But I only know of one named Marin: the conductor Marin Alsop, whose forename is, according to Wikipedia, stressed on the first syllable, unlike the homographic county in California, stressed on the second.

Oddly enough, two TV series that recently concluded their American runs had female characters named Marin. One was the BBC series The Miniaturist, where all but one of the characters (including Marin) are Dutch, and Marin is paroxytone (/’mærən/, rhyming with Darrin). The other was the  second season of USA’s The Sinner, in which Marin was pronounced like the county: /məˈrɪn/.

The BBC’s version is to be expected, since the British in general have an aversion to oxytones. Even French names like François or Monet are most likely to be heard in Britain as FRAHN-swah or MOH-nay. Here, of course, Marin is supposed to be a Dutch woman’s name, and by Dutch rules it would also be paroxytone, but as [‘ma:rin]. But the series makes no effort to pronounce Dutch names with anything but their English reading pronunciation, and the word schout /sxɑu̯t/ is pronounced like shoot.

It isn’t just the pronunciation, by the way. As is quite common in British shows taking place in other European countries, the characters behave in a thoroughly English fashion (for a recent example, see this movie review).

In any case, Marin is extremely rare as a Dutch woman’s name, and according to the relevant database it is not found before 1960 (the series takes place in the 1680s), and then often among those born in Turkey. I have no idea how Jessie Burton, the author of the novel on which the series is based, came up with it.

I similarly have no idea how Derek Simonds, the showrunner and writer of The Sinner, came up with the same name for a girl in a small town in upstate New York. As regards its pronunciation, it’s most likely due to the fact that, while he is originally from Connecticut, he moved to Los Angeles in 1994 and he was thus exposed to the California county name.

That name in turn comes from that of an indigenous Californian known in English as Chief Marin, though his entire life (c. 1781–1839) was spent under Spanish and Mexican rule, and he was named Marino, the Spanish name of two saints known in English by their Latin name, Marinus. The English form, with its oxytone accent, seems to be due to the Spanish-speaking General Mariano Vallejo, who may have modeled it on the not unusual Spanish surname Marín (which in turn may come from the Galician town of that name).

But then again, when it comes to two-syllable words ending in a consonant other than a simple s, Americans in general prefer, when in doubt, to stress them on the last syllable. The contrast with the British preference can be seen in common words such as harass, and such names as Bernard, Maurice, Barnett or Parnell. (This is not to say that the opposite does not occur in some well-known words.)

But with words ending in n the situation is not clear. Names ending in –in that are known to be Russian (Lenin, Stalin, Putin…) are stressed on the first syllable, but Yitzhak Rabin’s surname was usually stressed on the last (as in formal Hebrew). On the other hand, an anglophone surnamed Rabin will most likely have his name pronounced RAY-bin (/’rsbɪn/. Similarly Carl Sagan’s surname is sounded /ˈsɡən/, but Peter Sagan (/’sagan/ in Slovak) is usually referred to as /səɡɑːn/.  Irish surnames ending in –an usually stressed on the first syllable (Dolan, Dugan, Nolan…), as they are in the British Isles, but for some reason Doran and Moran are not. Could the intervocalic r be a factor? That would help explain the seeming naturalness of Marin.

By the way, I’ll have more to write about The Sinner.