Christmastide is upon us again. Actually, it isn’t since, as those of us who follow the liturgical calendar will attest, we’re actually in the second week of Advent, with Christmastide, all twelve days, just under three weeks away.
But preparation is everything, and no one but a masochist wants to do all of his shopping on Christmas Eve. The time to make a list is now—or, to be perfectly honest—to make two lists: one for what I want and one for the people I love. What I want is not the business at hand; it’s what to get others that concerns me now. And with the hope that these gifts may bring joy not only to my loved ones but to my readers, here are my Christmas 2016 recommendations.
People love getting baskets for Christmas: a little fruitcake here, some sausage there, an assortment of cheese for good measure. But for this year’s festivities how about “a basket of deplorables”—you know, a rant about racists, sexists, homophobes, xenophobes, Islamaphobes? No takers? Count me out too. But you may be interested in knowing exactly how such tiresome and omnipresent little tags became the go-to mantras of the Left, automatic curses to brand opponents (regardless of their level of education and skill) instant outcasts. There’s no better place to look than Roger Scruton’s Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left, a thoroughly worthy book although not for the faint-hearted.
More in-depth than Michael Walsh’s fine The Devil’s Pleasure Palace, Scruton analyzes in some depth the more or less loose band of Marxists, anarchists, Critical Theorists, and deconstructionists who have all but debased higher education in Britain, the continent, and our own country. The names are lamentably familiar: Hobsbawn, Dworkin, Sartre, Foucault, Habermas, Lacan, Said, Žižek. These men, who hated the West, made it their business to create hopelessly convoluted systems of thought. They used, in some cases their own “scientific” vocabulary, designed to amaze, befuddle, and ultimately seduce young men and women excited at the prospect of joining some inner, revolutionary ring into rejecting the institutions—free enterprise, representative government, freedom of speech, the Christian faith—that have made Western civilization great and their own lives richer.
Scruton carefully dissects each “school” of thought, displaying its weaknesses and follies, underscoring the common totalitarian impulse these “thinkers” have in common, which has goaded them to action, even as they have enjoyed the pampered life of the Western academic. Moreover, like Dostoevsky, he lays bare their contempt for a world that will not conform to their mad systems. The book is dense in the best sense of the word, fully deserving of a slow, careful read and a deliberate re-reading. Highly recommended.
As for movies, the Criterion Collection has done itself proud again by making available Orson Welles’ magnificent “Chimes at Midnight,” his take on Shakespeare’s Henry IV, parts 1 and 2 (with a nod to Henry V). The 1966 film, for years a bone of contention among litigants claiming rights to it, has never gotten the treatment it deserves—until now with Criterion’s high-definition, digital restoration.
Elsewhere I’ve written at length about my disagreement with Welles’ understanding of Falstaff. I see Shakespeare’s fat knight as a defective and dangerous soul that saw appetite as the very law of nature and therefore conduct and, hence, an anticipation of modernity. Welles declared him a “completely good man,” the incarnation of a “Merrie England” about to pass way. But, disagreements aside, “Chimes” is a stunning film, with Welles himself in the starring role, ably supported by Keith Baxter (Hal), John Gielgud (Henry IV), and Ralph Richardson (an unseen Chorus). The Battle of Shrewsbury sequence is a dizzying, violent spectacle that has inspired subsequent filmmakers, almost assuredly Mel Gibson in “Braveheart.” Welles’ chosen medium was always black and white, so don’t expect lush Technicolor; but if you love film, you not only won’t miss it, and you’ll revel in Welles’ skillful and sometimes harsh chiaroscuro.
Christmas is a time of and for sacred music. Few groups perform the carols of the holy season better than the English ensemble Stile Antico. “A Wondrous Mystery” is not their first Christmas recording; their earlier “Puer Natus Est” is still available and equally worthy of purchase. The former includes carols by continental composers of the 16th and 17th centuries, the likes of Praetorius (Michael and Hieronymus), Eccard, and Hassler, to name a few. “Puer Natus Est” focuses on the English Renaissance with works by Tallis, Taverner, Byrd, White, and Sheppard. Each cd is guaranteed to please—and purchasing both won’t ruin anyone’s budget.
And that completes my recommendations for Christmas 2016 for film, print, and sound—and, if I do say so myself, not an item of the lot that any sane person would deem deplorable.