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A good day begins with the NYTimes, NPR, Arts & Letters Daily, Sacred Space & good coffee; it ends with a Grand Marnier. A brilliant day would be spent in London, New York or San Francisco -- although Sydney would be right up there. Unwinding in Carmel or Antibbes. Daytime spent in library (the Morgan, LOC or Widener) or museum (the Frick, the Louvre, British) with a healthy walk (around Lake Annecey); evening -- theatre (West End), or music (Carnegie Hall). A nice last meal: Perhaps the French Laundry or Fredy Giardet or Quennelles de Brochet from Taillevent, Cassoulet from Cafe des Artistes, Peking Duck from le Tsé-Fung, Lobster Savannah from Locke-Ober, Sacher Torte from Demel and Café Brulot from Antoine. Sazerac as an apéritif, Le Môntrachet in the beginning, Stag's Leap Cabernet in the middle, Veuve Cliqûot to conclude. Desert Island: Imac, Ipod, (I know, generator and dish necessary) Johnnie Walker Blue Label, wife & Adler's Great Books.



How to Write a Letter

Max Beerbohm
In the middle of a house-move I came across many books I didn’t know I had, among them pamphlets that I had picked up for their curiosity value as long as twenty years ago, and tucked out of sight among the overpowering hardbacks. Busy as I was, now, in the turmoil, I couldn’t resist sitting down among the packing-cases to read How to Write a Good Letter: A Complete Guide to the Correct Manner of Letter Writing by John Barter, F.S.Sc., Revised and Enlarged by Gilbert Foyle (London, W. & G. Foyle, 135 Charing Cross Road, W.C., 1912).
At the time I picked up this treasure, I was reminded of Max Beerbohm’s essay of 1910, “How Shall I Word It?,” he having come across a complete letter-writing manual at a railway bookstall; I feel it was rather more old-fashioned than mine. In Max’s booklet a young man writes to “Father of Girl he wishes to Marry.” In mine, the young man may alternatively write to the girl herself, but not, be it noted, addressing her by her first name.
The ever-incomparable Max, in his essay, was led on to compose some “model” letters of his own, such as Letter from Poor Man to Obtain Money from Rich One and Letter to Thank Author for Inscribed Copy of Book, each with its Beerbohmesque sardonic twist.
Max Beerbohm
In my case, my novelist’s imagination takes over. For example, “Leslie Dale of 328 Brondesbury Road, Kilburn N.W.” writes the following Proposal of Marriage.
5th April 1907
Dear Miss Hall
As I take my pen in my hand, I am wondering if you will think this letter rather premature, but the gist of the matter is that you and you alone are the one ideal woman in all the world for me. My mind is in a chaos as to whether your sentiments are the same concerning myself, and I cannot rest until you send me your answer to this question. Are you willing to share my lot?
…I will try my utmost to do all that is in my power to make your life happy and free from care, that there may never occur one moment of regret in taking the step I wish. You are to me my guiding star. Now please tell me whether you are going to make me the happiest or most miserable man on earth. Do as your heart dictates.
Awaiting with impatience your reply.
Yours hopefully,
Leslie Dale.
It does not take a great deal of novelist’s imagination to conceive that Miss Hall is mightily thrilled by this fairly passionless missive, and loses no time to take it along to show her bosom friend, Miss Bellamy. She finds the latter lady, however, in a state of acute palpitation, having herself just received a Proposal of Marriage from her admirer, Herbert Clark. With trembling hands the girls exchange letters, only to find, on perusal, exactly the same wording, their suitors having both had recourse to the model letter in Messrs. Foyles’ popular publication. Naturally, they decline their respective proposals. An example of the most dignified wording for that occasion is ready to hand in the manual:
I am truly sorry if my letter causes you pain, but through circumstances over which I have no control, I am obliged to decline the great honour you offer me…
We do have a Reply of a Gentleman in Explanation of his Conduct, but it does not apply to Miss Hall’s young man:
26 Albert Square,
London, N.W.
13th August, 1907.
My own Darling,
For so I must still address you, has cruelty entered into your tender nature, or has some designing wretch imposed on your credulity? My Dear, I am neither false nor perjured. My sole reason for walking with Miss Brown was that I had been on a visit to her brother, who you know is my Solicitor. And was it any harm to take a walk in the fields along with him and his sister? Surely no; in you are centred all my hopes of happiness; my affections never so much as wander from the dear object of my love. Do not entertain for a moment these groundless jealousies against one who loves you in a manner superior to the whole of your sex; let me beg of you an answer by return, as I will be most miserable until I hear from you.
Yours, for ever,
In an aside, our Gentleman is warned never to write “My Dearest Katie,” lest the loved one be moved to reply “Am I to understand that you have other Katies?”
Edward Gorey Charitable Trust
Drawing by Edward Gorey
Although the Love and Matrimony section is crowned by a charming letter from Napoleon to Josephine, 1796, other headings are well represented. There are business letters such as that concerning “the machinery that you made for our grinding department twelve months ago” which makes one go into a dream of wonder over grinding departments. There are specimen letters “Requesting Payment of an Account,” and a “Reply to an Advertisement for a Governess,” which are the soul of tact and good breeding.
We are a long way from the twelfth-century father of epistolary rhetoric Boncompagno da Signa, and further still from that immortal letter-writer, Paul of Tarsus. We are in the more modest daily lives of our great-grandfathers, grandfathers or even our fathers as the case may be. Our handbook has something for everybody, the stationer, the railway company; and if you should chance to be the Queen of England at a loss how to frame a letter to the President of the United States, this is what you write:
Buckingham Palace,
22nd June 1860.
My good Friend,
I have been much gratified at the feelings which prompted you to write to me, inviting the Prince of Wales to come to Washington. He intends to return from Canada through the United States, and it will give him great pleasure to have an opportunity of testifying to you in person that these feelings are fully reciprocated by him. He will thus be able, at the same time, to remark the respect which he entertains for the Chief Magistrate of a great and friendly State and kindred nation.
The Prince of Wales will drop all Royal State on leaving my dominions, and travel under the name of Lord Renfrew, as he has done when travelling on the Continent of Europe.
The Prince Consort wishes to be kindly remembered to you.
I remain ever, your good friend
Victoria R.

The Good Old CCCP

In the course of three days in August 1991, during the failed putsch against Gorbachev, the decaying Soviet empire tottered and began to collapse. Some friends and I found ourselves on Lubianskaya Square, across from the headquarters of the fearsome, mighty KGB. A huge crowd was preparing to topple the symbol of that sinister institution—the statue of its founder, Dzerzhinsky, “Iron Felix” as his Bolshevik comrades-in-arms called him. A few daredevils had scaled the monument and wrapped cables around its neck, and a group was pulling on them to ever louder shouts and cries from the assembled throng.
Suddenly, a Yeltsin associate with a megaphone appeared out of the blue and directed everyone to hold off, because, he said, when the bronze statue fell, “its head might crash through the pavement and damage important underground communications.” The man said that a crane was already on its way to remove Dzerzhinsky from the pedestal without any damaging side effects. The revolutionary crowd waited for this crane a good two hours, keeping its spirits up with shouts of “Down with the KGB!”
Doubts about the success of the coming anti-Soviet revolution first stirred in me during those two hours. I tried to imagine the Parisian crowd, on May 16, 1871, waiting politely for an architect and workers to remove the Vendôme Column. And I laughed. The crane finally arrived; Dzerzhinsky was taken down, placed on a truck, and driven away. People ran alongside and spat on him. Since then he has been on view in the park of dismantled Soviet monuments next to the New Tretiakov Gallery. Not long ago, a member of the Duma presented a resolution to return the monument to its former location. Given events currently taking place in our country, it’s quite likely that this symbol of Bolshevik terror will return to Lubianskaya Square.
The swift dismantling of remaining Soviet monuments recently in Ukraine caused me to remember the Dzerzhinsky episode. Dozens of statues of Lenin fell in Ukrainian cities; no one in the opposition asked people to treat them “in a civilized manner,” because in this case a “polite” dismantling could mean only one thing—conserving a potent symbol of Soviet power. “Dzhugashvili [Stalin] is there, preserved in a jar,” as the poet Joseph Brodsky wrote in 1968. This jar is the people’s memory, its collective unconscious.
In 2014, Lenins were felled in Ukraine and were allowed to collapse. No one tried to preserve them. This “Leninfall” took place during the brutal confrontation on Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), when Viktor Yanukovych’s power also collapsed, demonstrating that a genuine anti-Soviet revolution had finally occurred in Ukraine. No real revolution has happened in Russia. Lenin, Stalin, and their bloody associates still repose on Red Square, and hundreds of statues still stand, not only on Russia’s squares and plazas, but in the minds of its citizens.
The fury of our politicians’ and bureaucrats’ response to the mass destruction of Soviet idols in Ukraine is revealing. You might think, why pity symbols of the past? But Russian bureaucrats understand that their beloved Homo sovieticuscrumbled along with Lenin. “They are destroying monuments to Lenin because he personifies Russia!” one politician exclaimed. Yes: Soviet Russia and the USSR, the ruthless empire, built by Stalin, that enslaved whole peoples, created a devastating famine in Ukraine, and carried out purges and mass repressions. The recent Ukrainian revolution was indeed directed against the heirs of that empire—Putin and Yanukovych. It is telling that pro-Russian demonstrations in Crimea and eastern parts of Ukraine invariably took place next to statues of Lenin.
Unfortunately, what happened in recent weeks in Ukraine did not happen in Russia in 1991. Yeltsin’s revolution ended up being “velvet”: it did not bury the Soviet past and did not pass judgment on its crimes, as was the case in Germany after World War II. All those Party functionaries who became instant “democrats” simply shoved the Soviet corpse into a corner and covered it with sawdust. “It will rot on its own!” they said.
Alas, it didn’t. In recent opinion polls, almost half of those surveyed consider Stalin to have been a “good leader.” In the new interpretation of history, Stalin is seen as an “effective manager,” and the purges are characterized as a rotation of cadres necessary for the modernization of the USSR. The Soviet Union may have collapsed geographically and economically, but ideologically it survives in the hearts of millions of Homo sovieticus. The Soviet mentality turned out to be tenacious; it adapted to the wild capitalism of the 1990s and began to mutate in the post-Soviet state. That tenacity is what preserved a pyramidal system of power that goes back as far as Ivan the Terrible and was strengthened by Stalin.
Yeltsin, who was tired after climbing to the top of the pyramid, left the structure completely undisturbed, but brought an heir along with him: Putin, who immediately informed the population that he viewed the collapse of the USSR as a geopolitical catastrophe. He also quoted the conservative Alexander III, who believed that Russia had only two allies: the army and the navy. The machine of the Russian state moved backward, into the past, becoming more and more Soviet every year.
Catharine Nepomnyashchy
Vladimir Sorokin and Jamey Gambrell at the time of the failed putsch against Mikhail Gorbachev, Moscow, August 1991. Behind them is the statue of the former Soviet security chief Felix Dzerzhinsky. The word ‘executioner’ is written toward the bottom of the statue.
In my view, this fifteen-year journey back to the USSR under the leadership of a former KGB lieutenant colonel has shown the world the vicious nature and archaic underpinnings of the Russian state’s “vertical power” structure, more than any “great and terrible” Putin. With a monarchical structure such as this, the country automatically becomes hostage to the psychosomatic quirks of its leader. All of his fears, passions, weaknesses, and complexes become state policy. If he is paranoid, the whole country must fear enemies and spies; if he has insomnia, all the ministries must work at night; if he’s a teetotaler, everyone must stop drinking; if he’s a drunk—everyone should booze it up; if he doesn’t like America, which his beloved KGB fought against, the whole population must dislike the United States. A country such as this cannot have a predictable, stable future; gradual development is extraordinarily difficult.
Unpredictability has always been Russia’s calling card, but since the Ukrainian events, it has grown to unprecedented levels: no one knows what will happen to our country in a month, in a week, or the day after tomorrow. I think that even Putin doesn’t know; he is now hostage to his own strategy of playing “bad guy” to the West. The wheel of unpredictability has been spun; the rules of the game have been set. The trump card of Putin’s first decade was stability, which he used to destroy opposition and drive it underground. Now he’s playing the capricious, unpredictable Queen of Spades. This card will beat any ace.
The phrase “Russia in the Shadows,” as H.G. Wells titled his book on Bolshevik Russia, has been on the minds of many Russian citizens lately. One hears things like “The ground trembled beneath us!” all the time now. The huge iceberg Russia, frozen by the Putin regime, cracked after the events in Crimea; it has split from the European world, and sailed off into the unknown. No one knows what will happen to the country now, into which seas or swamps it will drift. At such times, it’s better to rely on intuition than common sense. My most perceptive compatriots feel that when Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine, it bit off more than it will be able to chew or digest. The state’s teeth are not what they were, and for that matter, its stomach doesn’t work as it once did.
If you compare the post-Soviet bear to the Soviet one, the only thing they have in common is the imperial roar. However, the post-Soviet bear is teeming with corrupt parasites that infected it during the 1990s, and have multiplied exponentially in the last decade. They are consuming the bear from within. Some might mistake their fevered movement under the bear’s hide for the working of powerful muscles. But in truth, it’s an illusion. There are no muscles, the bear’s teeth have worn down, and its brain is buffeted by the random firing of contradictory neurological impulses: “Get rich!” “Modernize!” “Steal!” “Pray!” “Build Great Mother Russia!” “Resurrect the USSR!” “Beware of the West!” “Invest in Western real estate!” “Keep your savings in dollars and euros!” “Vacation in Courchevel!” “Be patriotic!” “Search and destroy the enemies within!”
On the subject of enemies within… In his speech about the accession of Crimea to Russia, President Putin mentioned a “fifth column” and “national traitors” who are supposedly preventing Russia from moving victoriously forward. As many have already remarked, the expression “national traitor” comes from Mein Kampf. These words, spoken by the head of state, caused a great deal of alarm in many Russian citizens. The intelligentsia went into shock. The Russian intelligentsia, it should be said, is now especially alarmed. While the people shout “Crimea is ours!” at government demonstrations, our intelligentsia carries on its usual defeatist conversations:
“There will be purges, like in ’37…”
“He won’t stop at Ukraine…”
“Looks like it’s time to leave the country…”
“You just can’t watch TV anymore—all they show is propaganda…”
“The West will turn its back on us…”
“Russia will be a pariah…”
“It’s all making me really depressed…”
“Samizdat and the underground will be back again…”
I confess that conversations like these make me sicker than the annexation of Crimea. I want to say to my fellowintelligenty: “Friends, over the last fifteen years comrade Putin has become what he is now only because of our own weakness.”
Ukraine has taught Russia a lesson in loving freedom and refusing to tolerate a base, thieving regime. Ukraine found the strength to break away from the post-Soviet iceberg and sail toward Europe. Maidan—Independence Square—showed the world what a people can accomplish when it so desires. But when I watched the reports from Kiev, I could not imagine anything similar in today’s Moscow. It is difficult to imagine Muscovites fighting the OMON special forces day and night on Red Square and facing snipers’ bullets with wooden shields. For that to happen, something must change not only in the surrounding environment, but in people’s heads. Will it?
We shouldn’t have waited for the crane to arrive at Lubianskaya Square in August 1991. We should have toppled the iron idol even if its head did crash through the pavement and damage “important underground communications.”
We would live in a different country now.
How important it is, as it turns out, to let the past collapse at the right time…

The Five Lessons of Good Friday | Rev. James Martin, S.J.

The Five Lessons of Good Friday | Rev. James Martin, S.J.

Where did that word come from? – quiz

Where did that word come from? – quiz | Education | theguardian.com


The High-Tech, High-Touch Economy

LONDON – A recent report revealed that the five richest families in Britain are worth more than the country’s poorest 20% combined. Some of the wealth comes from new business ventures; but two of the five are a duke and an earl whose ancestors owned the fields across which London expanded in the nineteenth century.
Urban land wealth is not just a London phenomenon. As Thomas Piketty’s recent book Capital in the Twenty-First Century shows, accumulated wealth has grown rapidly relative to income across the advanced economies over the last 40 years. In many countries, the majority of that wealth – and the lion’s share of the increase – is accounted for by housing and commercial real estate, and most of that wealth resides not in the value of the buildings, but in the value of the urban land on which it sits.
That might seem odd. Though we live in the hi-tech virtual world of the Internet, the value of the most physical thing – land – is rising relentlessly. But there is no contradiction: The price of land is rising because of rapid technological progress. In an age of information and communication technology (ICT), it is inevitable that we value what an ICT-intensive economy cannot create.
ICT has already delivered remarkable new products and services; but, as MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argue persuasively in their recent book The Second Machine Age, the really dramatic changes are yet to come, with robots and software bound to automate out of existence a huge number of jobs.
One consequence is the striking phenomenon of huge wealth creation with very little labor input. Facebook has an equity valuation of $170 billion but employs only around 6,000 people. The investment that went into building the software that runs it entailed no more than around 5,000 software engineer man-years.
This remarkable technology has helped to deliver increasing average incomes and will continue to do so. But the distribution of that bounty has been very unequal. The lion’s share of the growth has gone to the top half, the top 10%, or even the top 1% of the population.
As the better off become richer, however, much of their rising income will not be spent on ICT-intensive goods and services. There is a limit to how many iPads and smart phones one can need, and their price continues to plummet.
Instead, an increasing share of consumer expenditure is devoted to buying goods and services that are rich in fashion, design, and subjective brand values, and to competing for ownership of location-specific real estate. But if the land on which the desired houses and apartments sit is in limited supply, the inevitable consequence is rising prices.
Urban land is therefore rising in value – in London, New York, Shanghai, and many other cities – partly because of consumer demand. But its rising value also makes it an attractive asset class for investors, because further price increases are expected. Moreover, returns on real estate have been swollen by the dramatic fall in interest rates over the last 25 years, a decline that was far advanced even before the 2008 financial crisis.
The cause of those low interest rates is debated; but one probable factor is the reduced cost of business investment in hardware and software-based “machines.” If you can build a $170 billion company with just 5,000 software engineer man-years, you don’t need to borrow much money.
The fact that technology is so powerful not only makes physical land more valuable; it also means that future employment growth will be concentrated among the jobs that cannot be automated, particularly in services, which have to be delivered physically. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that among the most rapidly growing occupational categories over the next ten years will be “healthcare support occupations” (nursing aides, orderlies, and attendants) and “food preparation and serving workers” – that is, overwhelmingly low-wage jobs.
In short, ICT creates an economy that is both “hi-tech” and “hi-touch” – a world of robots and apps, but also of fashion, design, land, and face-to-face services. This economy is the result of our remarkable ability to solve the problem of production and automate away the need for continual labor.
But it is an economy that is likely to suffer two adverse side effects. First, it may be inherently unstable, because the more that wealth resides in real estate, the more the financial system will provide leverage to support real-estate speculation, which has been at the heart of all of the world’s worst financial crises. Major changes in financial and monetary policy, going far beyond those introduced in response to the 2008 crisis, are required to contain this danger.
Second, unless we deliberately design policies that encourage and sustain inclusive growth, a highly unequal society is virtually inevitable, with rising land values and wealth magnifying the effects of the unequal income distribution that ICT produces directly. Indeed, the modern economy may resemble that of the eighteenth century, when the land owned by the Duke of Westminster and the Earl of Cadogan was still just fields to the west of London, more than the middle-class societies in which most developed countries’ citizens’ grew up.

Read more at http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/adair-turner-explains-how-a-fresh-wave-of-automation-is-transforming-employment-and-much-else#Uo962otPdx5JYFqw.99

Thinking Anglicans: Understanding Good Friday

Thinking Anglicans: Understanding Good Friday

Matisse's Vivid Cut-Outs: Now in London, Soon New York -

Matisse's Vivid Cut-Outs: Now in London, Soon New York - WSJ.com

Matters Literary

Tweet dreams.
Tweet dreams: since its emergence, writers have grappled with the implications of social media. Image: Kelly Dyson.
I recently put down my Kindle, on which I was reading The Circle by Dave Eggers, to check my email on my smartphone. I had a message from Amazon, asking me whether I was enjoying – you guessed it – The Circle by Dave Eggers.
One of that novel’s principal targets is precisely this kind of social consumerism. Was Amazon’s algorithm displaying an unlikely sense of humour? I shouldn’t have felt disconcerted – I don’t, for example, rear up in surprise if Marks & Spencer tells me it is having a sale while I am wearing a pair of its knickers – but I was already defaulting to Eggers’s world-view, in which my every preference, no matter how lightly held or provisional, has a value and the social membrane (between me and somebody selling me something or becoming my friend or arresting me or asking me to vote for them) has become irreversibly porous.
The future conjured in The Circle – its title alludes to a vast company that is at once Google, Facebook, Twitter, PayPal and Instagram – is one of constant ratings. Life proceeds by the “smiles” or “frowns” you bestow on every experience, product or person you encounter; you are granted membership of this society only if your “participation ranking” holds up. To withhold information of even the most trivial variety is to be selfish; ultimately, it is to wish for the destruction of society.
The lens through which we view this newly forged marriage of technology and narcissism is Mae, a young woman who has just got a job at the Circle and whose loyalty, already strong, is further secured by the company’s protective embrace: soon, her ill father no longer has to battle daily with insurance companies; she has no need for her rancid flat when the luxurious anonymity of a company dorm room beckons.
Refuseniks are rare. One of the few is Mae’s ex-boyfriend Mercer, a regular sort of guy who makes chandeliers out of salvaged antlers. When she tells him he should get online for the sake of his work, he replies:
I know I’m successful if I sell chandeliers. If people order them, then I make them, and they pay me money for them. If they have something to say afterward, they can call me or write me. I mean, all this stuff you’re involved in, it’s all gossip. It’s people talking about each other behind their backs. That’s the vast majority of this social media, all these reviews, all these comments. Your tools have elevated gossip, hearsay and conjecture to the level of valid, mainstream communication. And besides that, it’s fucking dorky.
He’s not wrong. But this fucking dorkiness, based on what Mercer calls the manufacturing of “unnaturally extreme social needs”, presents novelists of the contemporary world with an arrestingly altered proposition: a social landscape that is changing so much and so rapidly that it seems to defy representation. It’s not merely the speed of change but its Hydra-headedness: its effect on our relationships with people we both know and don’t know; with the inanimate hardware and sometimes frighteningly animate software that become more and more embedded in our daily lives; and in its effect on how we interact with our environment, with the body politic and our own bodies. Behind all of this is a half-articulated sense that what must be chronicled is not simply a changing interface between us and the outside world but a more fundamental shift in ourselves.
We are wary, these days, of concepts such as the essential self. We have learned to think of ourselves, perhaps not always that comfortably, as more fluid products of social and environmental construction. But we have yet to write off the idea of subjectivity, our unique way of experiencing the world and of describing it to ourselves and others. We know that our apprehension of things isn’t inherently stable – consider the way time seems to speed at some points and drag at others, for example, or how our emotions can suddenly flip-flop – but we hold to the idea that there are as many ways of processing the world as there are people in it and that our subjectivity is what separates us from one another. On one side of that subjectivity are the societal norms that we have agreed on in order to be able to live together, themselves subject to frequent dispute and recasting. On the other is the imperfect language we have at our disposal to communicate with each other about both what is inside us and what is outside.
It is foolhardy to define the purpose of the novel or the job of novelists or, more accurately, to suggest what the novel and novelists have, so far, been like. Yet a rough attempt might suggest that a novelist will try to trace the invisible threads that link these three poles – ourselves, our society, our language – and to listen to the vibrations they produce. What happens if the poles get uprooted, knocked over, repositioned?
At first, one might have thought about social media as another technological advance to be dutifully shoehorned into the creative record; something that would be jarringly noticeable at first and later entirely natural. It would be like the first time someone made a telephone call or downloaded an email in a novel. (A digression about attention spans in the internet age: I attempted to find out when this occurred by googling, of course. My search results were so heavily dominated by a novel by Mitch Albom called The First Phone Call from Heaven that I gave up.)
The earliest memorable use of social media in a fictional work was Patrick Marber’s play Closer (1997), in which two men have internet sex in a chat room (one is impersonating a woman); a giant screen on the National Theatre’s Cottesloe stage projected the profanities in real time. It was a clever, witty trick but it now feels indicative of a time when the internet was something to joke about, a twilight zone occupied by porn addicts, nerdy early adopters and disaffected teens.
The all-encompassing “age of social”, though, is having a more profound effect on creative endeavour and the novel is no exception. It might surface in the form of an obstacle for a hapless character to overcome – often comically, as in the case of the middle-aged Bridget Jones waiting forlornly for anyone to notice that she has joined Twitter – or as a vital part of plot and setting.
A telling example of the latter is Lottie Moggach’s Kiss Me First, published last year following a bidding war between 11 publishers (not a run-of-the-mill response to a debut novel). The set-up is as follows: a socially inept young woman, bereaved and isolated, becomes drawn into an online forum devoted to discussing philosophical and ethical dilemmas. By a curious and sinister chain of events, she is persuaded to “help” someone she has never met, a far more superficially desirable woman who wants to commit suicide but wishes her family and friends to believe that she has gone to make a new life somewhere else. The conceit is this: is it possible to mimic another person simply by absorbing the details of their life and continuing it online, to the point of convincing those intimately connected to them?
It is a clever idea and neatly executed. Perhaps most interesting is the bullish way it confronts the idea of online identity creation, exploring how we manipulate what people know about our lives and how it simultaneously reveals so much and so little of the “real” us. If much of our apprehension of other people is a matter of wish fulfilment, corroborated by incidental details they let fall into our path, how much more smoothly our relationships will progress if we’re not confronted by the inconvenient reality of their actual person.
The performative nature of our lives online presents the novelist with rich territory, not least because it creates a new shared language, often compressed by the speedy exchanges of social media. “THIS,” people write in their retweets to express approbation of an idea. Further elaboration is deemed extraneous. Although it seems self-effacing – “What could I possibly add to this perfectly expressed thought?” – it is in fact a tiny piece of rhetorical coercion. It means: “Think THIS because I do, because it is the right thing to think and I don’t even need to explain why.”
Catchphrases, jokes and expressions of outrage spring up, gain currency and become outmoded in the blink of an eye. How can a novelist capture a conversation that moves so fast, that seems to boast almost superfluous linguistic versatility? How can fiction reflect the subtle hierarchies and allegiances of the constantly mutating online crowd?
There have been literal attempts to adapt fiction to the constraints of social media. Soon after Twitter was launched in 2006, its users realised that the 140-character limit was a good format for very short stories. The Times ran a micro-story competition in 2009 (sample entry: “Once upon a time there was a beautiful Princess. Something morally relevant happened. Then Disney f***ed it up to sell toys. The End”); in 2012, the Guardian asked writers to try their hand (Anne Enright: “The internet ate my novel, but this is much more fun #careerchange #nolookingback oh but #worldsosilentnow Hey!”). This is nothing new. The bar for micro-fiction was long ago set with a six-word story (often attributed, apparently without proof, to Hemingway) that read: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
Others have taken part in more intriguing Twitter experiments. Jennifer Egan, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad, wrote a short story entitled “Black Box” for the New Yorker’s science-fiction issue. In May 2012, @NYerFiction released the story over a period of ten days in a series of tweets. They came one a minute, for an hour each day; a precise timetable of drip-feeding that would appear differently in the context of each individual timeline.
In an accompanying interview, Egan revealed that the story was a result of two creative experiments rolled into one. She had been wondering what would happen if she took a character from one kind of book and transplanted them into another genre altogether; in this case, a character from Goon Squad found herself in a futuristic spy thriller. And, she said, “I’d also been wondering about how to write fiction whose structure would lend itself to serialisation on Twitter. This is not a new idea, of course, but it’s a rich one – because of the intimacy of reaching people through their phones, and because of the odd poetry that can happen in 140 characters.”
The physical construction of the story was strikingly unlike its mode of delivery. Egan didn’t tap the whole story out in a series of tweets, ready for posting; she wrote it by hand in a Japanese notebook in which each page consisted of eight rectangles. (The analogy between Japanese haiku and tweets is an obvious one: in 2009, Rick Moody, the author of the 1994 novel The Ice Storm, composed a short story in 153 tweets, inspired by the haiku-like “merciless brevity”of the form.) It took her a year.
A story that not only appeared by way of a modern miracle but also took it as a theme – Egan’s spy has espionage technology implanted into her body – and that inevitably conjures an atmosphere of instan­taneity, of creative facility and an easy, readily available stream of words, was anything but. It was minutely crafted without recourse to new technology over months and then pinged into the social media maelstrom.
Lulu, the unnamed spy in “Black Box”, was pictured towards the end of Goon Squad as a tech-savvy twentysomething, “a living embodiment of the new ‘handset employee’ ”. So at home is she with her machinery that she finds having a one-to-one conversation trying. “There are so many ways to go wrong,” she says, in the course of an exchange with a more old-fashioned character called Alex. “All we’ve got are metaphors, and they’re never exactly right. You can’t ever just Say. The. Thing.” Her response is to continue their dialogue by electronic means, even though remaining physically proximate with Alex.
“Can I just T you?” Lulu asked.
“You mean –”
“Now. Can I T you now.” The question was a formality; she was already working her handset. An instant later, Alex’s own vibrated in his pants pocket; he had to jostle Cara-Ann to remove it.
U hav sum nAms 4 me? he read on the screen.
hEr thA r, Alex typed, and flushed the list of fifty contacts, along with notes, tips on angles of approach, and individual no-nos, into Lulu’s handset.
GrAt. Il gt 2 wrk.
They looked up at each other. “That was easy,” Alex said.
I know,” Lulu said. She looked almost sleepy with relief. “It’s pure – no philosophy, no metaphors, no judgements.”
Using the dislocation of remote, electronic conversation to achieve clarity and directness is a technique also employed by Ben Lerner in his novel Leaving the Atocha Station (2011), in which the story’s most dramatic moment (a swimmer drowning in a river) is related over instant messenger.
Yet what kind of novel works without philosophy, metaphors or judgements, however affectless its surface? Another character in Egan’s novel is making an
academic career on the back of studying newly redundant words: “English was full of these empty words – ‘friend’ and ‘real’ and ‘story’ and ‘change’ – words that had been shucked of their meanings and reduced to husks. Some, like ‘identity’, ‘search’, and ‘cloud’, had clearly been drained of life by their Web usage.”
The idea that words do not merely change meaning but are somehow annihilated by their new online connotations is significant. It also seems pessimistic. The notion of the quest or “search” underpins much of world literature but must we assume that it is “drained of life” if it comes to denote a computer process? The kinds of searching that we are able to undertake now bewilder us because we can’t even guess at their limits. They dispense with the classical unities of time, place and action. A cloud is not merely a scudding rain-receptacle above our heads but the holder of unfathomable amounts of information.
What could provide greater possibilities for the novel, the form that encompasses the picaresque, the fantastical, the realist, the tragic and the comic? Time, then, not for reinvention but for reimagining. Just as the trauma of the First World War produced the fragmentary streams of consciousness of modernism, perhaps the age of social will produce a new literary movement to capture its reshaping of reality.
Cultural Jeremiahs have tended to see that reshaping as a threat to the novel. Yet we have not ceased to produce stories; we have yet to dispense with metaphor and make-believe to explore what can’t be encompassed by straightforward documentary record. The novel of the future will be different from the novel of the past but the same heart will beat behind the screen.


British Airways first class: then and now

British Airways first class: then and now - Telegraph


The Pope in the Attic: Benedict in the Time of Francis

What’s it like for the first living ex-pope in 600 years to watch from up close as the successor he enabled dismantles his legacy? 
Señor Salme
These days, he is an autoclaustrato, a self-cloistered contemplative in an order with a membership of one.
His name is still Benedict, 15 months after he renounced the papacy. His clothes are still white, the papal vestments sans cape and sash. His home is now the Mater Ecclesiae, a monastery up on the hill behind St. Peter’s Basilica, erected by John Paul II as a house of prayer near the Apostolic Palace, the site of the papal apartments.
Pope Francis lives only a few hundred meters down the hill, in the Casa Santa Marta: the guesthouse where the cardinals stay while electing a new pope. He arrived there for the conclave of 2013 as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Jesuit cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires. After his election, he surprised everyone by taking the name of Francis, the saint of radical simplicity—and then by refusing to move into the palace, and staying on at the guesthouse instead. All the world acclaimed the act as if he had pitched a pup tent in St. Peter’s Square.
Benedict was as surprised as anybody. In a stroke, the Argentine had outdone him in simplicity. Benedict had retired to the summer palace in Gandolfo while the monastery was being renovated, and all at once his retirement appeared to be a life of luxury. When the renovations were complete, he returned to the Sacred City—by helicopter, the way he had departed—and settled himself at the monastery for good.
And so it has come to pass that, in his 88th year, he is living at the Mater Ecclesiae, served by four consecrated laywomen and his priest-secretary, with a piano and a passel of books to keep him occupied. Here he watches the Argentine, prays for him, and keeps silence—a hard discipline for a man who spent his public life defining the nature of God and man, truth and falsehood.
It’s odd enough that there are two living popes. It’s odder still that they live in such proximity. But what’s most odd is that the two popes are these two popes, and that the one who spent a third of a century erecting a Catholic edifice of firm doctrine and strict prohibition now must look on at close range as the other cheerfully dismantles it in the service of a more open, flexible Church.
Outwardly, the arrangement works. Francis is acting freely, uninhibited by the fact that Benedict is looking over his shoulder. Benedict is doing what he said he would do: living a quiet life of prayer after 23 years as John Paul’s consigliere capped by eight difficult and divisive years as pope. For the record, he has no regrets. But he is now in a cell of his own making, committed not to travel and pledged not to speak out against his successor. In February of this year, when Francis invited him to take part in a consistory, a Mass in which new cardinals are appointed, the two popes decided together that (as Francis put it about Benedict) “it would be better if he saw people, got out and participated in the life of the Church.” He did take part in the consistory. And yet getting out is no substitute for speaking out, not for the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who corrected even John Paul.
With the press transfixed by Francis, I went to Rome to talk about Benedict. Invariably, the conversations wound up being about both of them. Priests, Church officials, and Vatican insiders told me that the differences between the two men come down to personality, not principle, and that Benedict is delighted with the goodwill the world is showing Francis. He probably is. Yet when he was the arbiter of Church doctrine, he never missed a chance to declare that the Church was founded on revealed truth rather than personality, and that the world’s goodwill isn’t worth having except on the Church’s terms. “Who am I to judge?”—Francis’s remark about gay people—was a sharp turn away from Benedict’s view that the role of the Church is to render judgment in a world in thrall to “a dictatorship of relativism.” Francis’s offhand statements and openness to new approaches make clear that he is a very different pope—and unless Benedict has lost his mind, he cannot be altogether happy about it.
Every Wednesday, the day of his weekly general audience, Pope Francis starts his morning in private prayer and then celebrates Mass in the guesthouse chapel with visiting congregants. After a light breakfast, often with the visitors, he goes to his office, in the Apostolic Palace, not far from the now-vacant papal apartments. For all his simplicity, he is part bureaucrat, an executive at a desk with a computer and a telephone and an aide—Georg Gänswein, the priest whose services he shares with Benedict. There is plenty of paperwork to get through before the audience, which begins at 10:30. “The irony,” a well-placed Jesuit at the Vatican told me, “is that this pope, great agent of decentralization in the Church, is personally the most centralized pope since Pius the Ninth. Everything has to cross his desk.”
Beginning at dawn each Wednesday, tens of thousands of pilgrims gather in St. Peter’s Square, triple the number who used to come to see and hear Benedict. Francis goes to the piazza as early as 9:45, to take a long, slow loop around and through the crowd in the Popemobile. He smiles and waves, clasps hands, and pauses to hug the occasional pilgrim, such as the man, grossly deformed of head and neck, whose embrace with Francis, last November, went viral, a biblical embrace for a digital age.
Francis is acting freely. Benedict is now in a cell of his own making.
He clambers out of the Popemobile and lopes up the broad steps in front of the basilica. The ceremony follows: opening prayer, greetings to pilgrims in half a dozen languages, scripture reading, homily, Our Father, benediction over the pilgrims, and individual greetings for guests in choice seats. The day I was there, a hard rain was falling, but after the audience, Francis took another loop around the crowd in the Popemobile and then alighted under an arch to bless people with disabilities.
Up on the hill, Benedict follows a much lighter regimen. He lives in a bedroom, study, and sitting room on the ground floor of the monastery. He rises at 5:30, half an hour later than he did when he was pope, and begins the day with prayer. He is helped into the white pontifical outfit and handed his cane for the short walk to the chapel. There, at 6, he says Mass for the household: the four consecrated laywomen (Carmela, Rossella, Loredana, and Cristina, middle-aged, in plain skirts and sweaters) and Gänswein, who concelebrates, the first of many times throughout the day when he will place himself at the ex-pope’s side. The chapel might be the chapel at a Catholic high school in Yonkers: beige brick walls, plank pews, standard-issue wooden crucifix. The reforms of Vatican II detached the altar from the back wall in Catholic churches and turned it around so that the priest at Mass faces the people, rather than facing away, as if toward God on their behalf. But here the lace-dressed altar is pushed nearly to the wall, the old-fashioned way. The women, on their knees, contemplate the old man’s back.
Breakfast follows in the refectory: bread, jam, fruit, and juice, the women bustling reverently around him. John Paul had a Clinton-style appetite for groups of people with himself at the center, and during his pontificate, his priest-secretary arranged for guests as a matter of course. “Benedict cut that right off,” a Vatican insider told me. “He was taking his meals more or less alone even when he was pope—when he was the pope.”
He goes to his study, reads the morning papers, writes a letter or two. He is retired from authorship—too old, Gänswein has said, to write a whole book. Some people say that his retirement began when he was elected pope. As early as 1985, while serving as prefect, he told an interviewer that “if Providence will some day free me of my obligations,” he would devote himself to a scholarly book about original sin. Twice he submitted his resignation; twice John Paul refused it. In 2000, with the pope’s health failing, he stepped in, running the Church from his desk in the Sacred Palace and insisting that John Paul would never resign. He was elected dean of the College of Cardinals in 2002, and three years later he oversaw John Paul’s funeral and the subsequent conclave, where he was elected pope. He was exhausted when he took office. A joke making the rounds in Rome these days goes like this: Question: Is Benedict interfering in Church governance? Answer: Are you kidding? He didn’t interfere even when he was pope!
When he was a cardinal, Benedict envisioned a smaller, more cohesive Church. At the monastery, he has his wish. Churchmen and devotees make their way up the hill in twos and threes. Cardinal Müller comes, walking over from the Sacred Palace, where he runs the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. So does Cardinal Meisner, just retired from his post in Cologne. So does Manuel Herder, the publisher of Benedict’s collected works in Freiburg. So does Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna, who once brought the other bishops of Austria with him. German is spoken. New books from the homeland are presented. Noon prayers are said. Lunch is served, and il Papa emerito is left to nap.
Some people at the Vatican pity Benedict, the scholar whose lot it was to fall between the rock stars John Paul and Francis. But he has never sought worldly renown. He envisions a different legacy. “He’d like to be a Doctor of the Church,” a chronicler of Benedict’s papacy told me, “with Augustine and Aquinas, Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross.” With that in mind, he spends part of the day buffing his collected writings, which will run to 16 volumes. That he has written so much works against his hope to be read in the future. “Ratzinger’s natural form is the essay, not the book,” the well-placed Jesuit said. The nearest thing to a Ratzinger classic is Introduction to Christianity, which he published in 1968, before the events of the late ’60s sent him round the neotraditionalist bend. Benedict broke his self-imposed silence last year to defend his book, and his reputation, after an Italian mathematician and outspoken atheist, Piergiorgio Odifreddi, in 2011 addressed a short book to him (Dear Pope, I’m Writing to You) and used examples from Introduction to Christianity to argue that religion is just “science fiction.” Benedict read the book and took up his pen. “Distinguished Professor,” he began, and went on for 11 pages, challenging Odifreddi’s account of theology, evolution, Richard Dawkins’s work, and much else. “My criticism of your book is, in part, tough,” he concluded. “However, frankness is part of a dialogue … You have been very frank and so you will accept that I am, too.”
Odifreddi sought Benedict’s permission to publish excerpts in La Repubblica, one of Rome’s daily papers. Benedict asked Francis—who said sure, fine. “He’s ever the efficient scholar, getting that corrective letter out,” says Robert Mickens, who covers the Vatican for The Tablet, a Catholic weekly. “But breaking his silence to defend a book he wrote 50 years ago? That’s rich.”
Pope Emeritus Benedict during a consistory at St. Peter's this past February. "It would be better," Francis has said, "if he saw people, got out and participated in the life of the Church." (Allesandra Tarantino/AP)
One afternoon not long ago, as Rome opened again after the midday pause, Benedict received a visitor. It was Francis. They embraced. They knelt together in the chapel, two old men in white robes. They sat and talked, attended by Gänswein.
Benedict: “Now I am a claustrato”—a cloistered one.
Gänswein: “You’re an autoclaustrato.
Francis: “But you can go out if you want to.”
The Vatican press office releases photographs of their encounters, intending to show that Benedict and Francis get on, but the pictures have the effect of suggesting something else: that the two popes’ coming together is a special occasion. In a way, it is. Last summer, an American scholar was part of a delegation going to meet Francis when word came for the group to halt: theother pope was in the palace.
Most afternoons, Benedict passes the hours at the monastery. He turns the pages of L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper. He sits at the piano and plays a little Mozart. If he’s feeling strong, he gets suited up (white quilted down jacket, white baseball cap, cane) and walks gingerly through the gardens to the grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes. Gänswein protects him from the elements, as needed, with a giant white umbrella. When Pius XII was pope, in the mid-20th century, the men who tended the Vatican gardens were told to hide behind a bush if they saw him approaching during his strolls. Benedict’s need for solitude is not so great, but Gänswein is on the lookout for paparazzi who might be trying to get a shot of the enfeebled ex-pope.
Often, there is music: on the piano, on the stereo, or played by musicians brought in for a command performance. One day, a pair of German pianists came and played works for four hands. Another time, Gänswein arranged a chamber-music recital in the Collegio Teutonico, down the hill, where Ratzinger used to celebrate Mass with students. Last year, when Benedict’s older brother, Monsignor Georg Ratzinger, a church music director in Regensburg, was approaching 90, colleagues planned a birthday concert there. Then Benedict renounced the papacy, and the concert was moved to the Sacred City. At a Vatican Radio studio near the monastery, the two brothers (the elder, wearing black, in a wheelchair; the younger, wearing white, stooped in his seat) heard the Fox News religion correspondent Lauren Green, a trained classical pianist, play Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” Liszt’s “Sposalizio,” and an intermezzo by Brahms. “I was speechless,” Green said. “I prayed at the grotto beforehand.”
Supper is light, generally soup and a side dish. Ever since he was a cardinal, Benedict has watched the nightly news at 8, and some say the anguish of seeing the telegiornale reports of a leak of documents by his butler spurred him to resign. His resignation in turn led to reports that he had been forced to step down by hard-charging cardinals who were threatening to reveal backstairs sexcapades in the palace. These days, though, the news from the Vatican is all Francis.
At 10, the ex-pope is undressed. Before retiring, he prays—and so the day ends in the way it began, with the old man of faith placing himself before God and asking for guidance.
Benedict knows that his renunciation of the papacy is what made Francis’s judgment-averse pontificate possible.
John Paul and Benedict led the Church for 35 years. Decade after decade, they opposed the currents in modern life that they felt progressive Catholics were falsely identifying with the “spirit of Vatican II”: movements in favor of women’s rights, gay rights, and heterodox family arrangements, and against religious freedom and robust religion in public life. They appointed the cardinals who would elect their successors. All their striving seemed to work: By the time Benedict became pope, progressive Catholics were cowering. The truths of orthodoxy and the findings of sociology had converged; the religious bodies that espoused the firmest doctrines and made the strictest demands on their adherents were those that gained the most followers.
Carlo Maria Martini saw things differently. A Jesuit priest and a biblical scholar, Martini was an outlier, even after John Paul appointed him as the archbishop of Milan. When in Rome, he worked with the poor and celebrated Mass on the city’s outskirts. He published a dialogue with Umberto Eco (identified as an “urbane ex‑Catholic”). He sought ways to address such matters as premarital sex and divorce. At the 2005 conclave that elected Joseph Ratzinger as pope, Martini got nine votes on the first ballot, or scrutiny, behind Ratzinger (who got 47) and the Argentine Jesuit Jorge Mario Bergoglio (10). In the second scrutiny, after a night of politicking at the Casa Santa Marta, Martini’s votes all passed to Bergoglio.
Like John Paul, Martini suffered from Parkinson’s disease. Shortly before he died, in 2012, at the age of 85, he gave an interview to a fellow Jesuit. “The Church is tired, worn out in bourgeois Europe and America,” he said. “Our culture has aged, our churches and monasteries are big and empty, the Church bureaucracy is bloated, our rites and vestments are pompous … Prosperity drags us down.” He called for “the pope and the bishops to seek out 12 people from outside the system for administrative positions, people … who will try new things.” He called on the Church to open itself to nontraditional families and poor people. He took the long view. “The Church,” he said, “is 200 years behind the times.”
At the conclave of 2013, Bergoglio was elected pope—and if his pontificate has an agenda, it is the one Martini spelled out from his deathbed. Did Benedict see this coming? Assuredly not. In 2005, Martini, at 78, was considered too old to be elected. It would follow that in 2013, Bergoglio, at 76, should have also been considered too old. But Benedict’s renunciation changed the calculus. Now no older man can be ruled out. Now an older man can be elected pope and work hard for a few years, knowing he is free to resign when his energy flags or when he reckons that he has done all he can.
That’s what Francis is doing—and Benedict knows, better than anybody, that his renunciation of the papacy is what made Francis’s freestyle, judgment-averse pontificate possible. The thought is enough to keep him awake at night. For it is his firm belief that the willingness to suspend judgment is the core of the dictatorship of relativism.
Cardinal Walter Kasper—short, sturdy, 81—lives at No. 1 Piazza della Città Leonina, a brick apartment building near the old Vatican walls, steps from the papal apartments. The building is populated by cardinals and archbishops, a celibates’ fraternity house.
Kasper is a theologian from Germany who, in Rome, led the Catholic Church’s efforts toward unity with other Christian Churches and amity with Judaism. The press calls him “Kasper the Friendly Cardinal,” and when he smiles from behind rimless glasses, you can see why. His apartment is simple but comfortable, Upper West Side bourgeois: leather furniture, framed art, a stereo, a laptop open on a side table, and two full walls of shelved books.
When he was a cardinal, Ratzinger lived in a similar apartment directly above (and disturbed the peace with his piano). Now Cardinal Kasper is having the retirement that Cardinal Ratzinger, pre-papacy, yearned to have. He makes his own schedule. He reads and writes. He goes to receptions and other events around Rome. He travels to Germany and America. He meets the press whenever he likes; he speaks his mind.
I asked Kasper about his old neighbor. “It’s difficult to be a retired professor,” he said, “and more difficult in his way. He cannot do the normal things. He cannot take a walk. He cannot publish a book. He must be very discreet.”
What about Benedict and Francis? Did he see Rolling Stone’s cover story about Francis, in which Benedict was caricatured as a maniac torturing young people with “knife-fingered gloves”? “Everyone wants to say how different Francis is,” Kasper said, sighing, and then went on to make the familiar point about the two men’s temperaments. But the difference between the two popes has to do with doctrine as well as temperament—especially one doctrine that Kasper, in a very visible dispute with Ratzinger, spelled out better than anybody else. It concerned what exactly the pope is. Kasper argued that the pope is chiefly the bishop of Rome: eminent, yes, but one bishop among many. Ratzinger argued that the pope is a super-bishop of sorts, whom the other bishops must follow as a sign of Church unity.
Before the conclave of 2005, Kasper, speaking at the ancient basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, called for a new pope who would not be leery of the world. People took this as a warning against Ratzinger. The next day Ratzinger gave his speech to the cardinals about the dictatorship of relativism. He was elected pope. The super-bishop had won, or so it seemed. But Pope Francis has taken Kasper’s side in the dispute. He has appointed a group of eight cardinal advisers; the bishop of Rome now consults with his fellow bishops from around the world. And by making clear that the Church—and the papacy—must change with the times, he is putting a stop to John Paul and Benedict’s long effort to make Church doctrine an adamantine bulwark against relativism. When some 200 cardinals came to Rome for the February consistory, he chose Kasper to preach the keynote homily to them.
In our interview, Kasper spoke at length about the two popes. “There are real convergences between them,” he said. “Benedict sought to reform the Curia, and now Francis seeks to reform the Curia. But certainly there is more collegiality under Francis, more emphasis on the local church. And other changes. The red slippers: ridiculous, ridiculous! Now all of the cardinals are wearing simple crosses. These changes are irreversible.” He went on: “They have different ways of reading the signs of the times. Benedict is good with ideas, but he had poor judgment of people. Francis knows people, how they think. He took the city bus in Buenos Aires. He calls people on the phone. He uses the computer. But Benedict, he doesn’t drive”—here the Friendly Cardinal grasped an imaginary steering wheel. “He doesn’t do Internet”—here he pointed at his laptop. “He is not … normal! Francis, he is normal!”
Francis and Benedict exchange Christmas greetings at the Vatican this past December. The two live only a few hundred meters apart: Francis at the Casa Santa Marta, a Vatican guesthouse, and Benedict at the Mater Ecclesiae, a monastery up on the hill behind St. Peter's Basilica. (L'Osservatore Romano/AP)
The autoclaustrato is not a simple man of prayer any more than he is a simple retiree. Certain Catholics who object to the direction in which Francis is taking the Church now look to Benedict, the pope on the hill, as their standard-bearer. They are the seminarians with crew cuts striding in groups around Rome, cassocks swishing at their ankles. They are the devotees of the Latin Mass and the advocates of reunion with the fascist-friendly schismatics of the Society of St. Pius X. They are the followers of Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia—a conservative who, as a rule, speaks warmly about Francis, but who said that “the right wing … generally have not been really happy” with Francis and that “we should look at him after a year,” which his followers have interpreted as signs that there is daylight between Francis and a silent majority in the hierarchy. They are the free-market evangelists who champion the pope as an agent of “evangelical Catholic reform” but dismiss his comments about income inequality as a Latin American cliché.
For the past 35 years, progressive Catholics have felt thwarted. Now it’s the traditionalists’ turn. “Benedict was like a father to them,” the well-placed Jesuit at the Vatican told me. “No, he was a father to them. Now they are fatherless.” Benedict’s courageous act of renunciation, they feel, wasn’t supposed to turn out this way—not when the fight for the Church had finally been won. They are vexed by the thought that the change is irreversible, that the doors John Paul and Benedict strove to push closed—on sexuality, the ordination of women, the authority of the pope—will now stay open.
A woman in Rome told me about a dinner party shortly after Francis’s election, where she was seated next to Cardinal Raymond Burke, the American archconservative who is the prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican’s supreme court. Her husband was gravely ill, and she told Burke so, expecting consolation. She got something else. “These are difficult times for all of us in the Church right now,” he said.
Vatican insiders tell the story of an Italian vaticanista, or full-time Vatican correspondent, who is still agitated over Francis’s behavior at a papal audience with several thousand members of the international press shortly after he was elected. Acknowledging that many of the men and women at the event were not Catholics, Francis gave a blessing “respecting the conscience of each one of you, but knowing that each one of you is a child of God.” The vaticanista took that to mean that what a person believes doesn’t really matter. “What kind of fucking apostolic blessing is that?” she said, according to another vaticanista, who summed up the objection this way: “If this pope gives a blessing like that, he’s not taking the papacy seriously. So we’re not going to take him seriously.”
The traditionalists have had enough, it is said, and they’re going to press their case. But there’s no sign that Francis will accommodate them. “Francis knows exactly how power is spelled,” says Bernd Hagenkord, a Jesuit who is in charge of German programming for Vatican Radio. “He’s a communicator in the league with Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama. They say he’s being unclear, but we know exactly what he means.”
On Friday nights, the Vatican is the loneliest place in Rome. The basilica is closed. The museum is closed. The pilgrim houses on the periphery of the Sacred City have shut their doors and served their suppers. The staff has gone home, save a few Swiss guards and sleepy porters. It feels like the Notre Dame campus during winter break, when the Golden Domers have left Indiana and scattered to the ends of the Earth.
That’s how it felt one Friday night, at any rate, when a Vatican official took me on a quick drive-by tour of the restricted territory behind St. Peter’s, where two popes now live. We rode past the Sacred Palace and the Collegio Teutonico. The Casa Santa Marta was lit up, for reasons of prestige or security or both. It wasn’t hard to picture Pope Francis inside, drowsing before the Blessed Sacrament, as he is wont to do. For all his vitality, he is neither fit nor young.
A guard waved us past the palace known as the Governorato, the seat of the Vatican City State, and we drove alongside the gardens to the monastery up on the hill, where, it was easy to imagine, the ex-pope was absorbed in prayer, asking God whether resigning had been the right thing to do.
What are you doing with me? So runs his prayer as he turns to God, as he has turned to God in the night ever since his boyhood in Bavaria—and God always wants more, asks more. God asks, and Benedict answers, the way he has done in three book-length interviews he has granted to friendly journalists over the years. God asked him to serve 23 years in the doctrinal office, and he served. God asked him to be pope, and he became pope, making the ruby slippers fit. God asked him to resign, and he resigned, risky as it was. Now God is asking him for more once again—is asking him to be forbearing with this man whose path to the papacy he made possible. He likes Bergoglio. Daily his appreciation for the Argentine grows. What the man can do with a smile, a gesture; what he is doing to put the name of the Lord on the lips of the peoples of the world: all remarkable. Truly, the Spirit is in him. How else could he be so simple in Peter’s shoes? And yet the Argentine’s simplicity will not be easy to sustain. In the high noon of the new man’s pontificate, the difficulties will come to light. Reform of the Curia: God knows, he sought it himself. May Bergoglio succeed where he did not, but true reform is never easy or popular. The situation of the person who has rejected God: certainly, God is present in that person, as Bergoglio says, but if God is fully present in such a person, where is the need for the redemption that God became man to achieve? What about the teachings entrusted to the Church regarding the sanctity of marriage? Certainly the Church should not speak of such matters obsessively, as Bergoglio says—but is it not the world that is obsessed, granting to people who are not made for each other a simulacrum of true marriage? And carnal relations among people of the same sex: that these are disordered is a judgment as old as the papacy. “Who am I to judge?” Who, indeed? It is not a simple matter; it cannot be. In the end there is a need to judge and be judged, is there not? We are, he and I, successors to Peter, keeper of the keys to the kingdom. Who will judge, if not us?
On April 27, a different pair of popes will be canonized in a grand Mass in Rome: John XXIII, the simple and crafty “good Pope John,” who convened the Second Vatican Council, and John Paul II, who sought at once to fulfill the council’s message of global brotherhood through his travels and to stifle the changes it set in motion. Several million people will converge on Rome, and the two living popes are expected to concelebrate the Mass in St. Peter’s Square. It is likely to be a day of solemn religious spectacle surpassing any since the funeral for John Paul, in 2005, which was overseen by Cardinal Ratzinger, soon to be Pope Benedict; and it is likely to be a day of spectacle such as Benedict will not see again.
Unless he is called out of the Mater Ecclesiae to preside over another funeral for a pope. What if, in a Church with two popes, the one in the Casa Santa Marta dies first? When John Paul’s health was waning, people would ask him how they could carry on his legacy. “How do you know that I will die first?,” the old warrior would jibe. Sure enough, John Paul outlasted friend and foe, mindful that it was the sudden death of a pope—John Paul I, who died after a month in office in 1978—that led to his own election, and mindful that he had lived out his marathon papacy only after surviving an assassin’s bullet, in 1981. A third of a century after the death of the first John Paul, people in Rome still bat around the notion that he was done in—poisoned—by enemies of reform. It is never far from the thoughts of the people who look after Francis that his openness to the world—the embraces, the selfies, the spontaneous encounters with ordinary people—makes him a target.
Francis seems untroubled by this prospect. He is spurred to act boldly in part by the prospect of his