In lieu of new blurbs for PZ’s Podcast (two new episodes went up last week!), we are privileged to bring you an appreciation of and introduction to this truly one-of-a-kind project, courtesy of Fred Rogers. We’ve tried to link to all the casts that are referenced – a few are not currently available.
Followers of Mockingbird will be acquainted, at least by title, with episodes in Paul Zahl’s podcast series. Perhaps you’ve had a listen or two; possibly you have become a subscriber through iTunes and make a habit of dialing them up. I hope so — if it’s too much to say they’ll change your life, they will at least give you an acutely different way of looking at it.
Maybe you are perplexed by some of what you’ve heard, or are daunted by the more than sixty recorded hours (and counting) of these eclectic, mesmerizing, often transcendent talks. And, further, you may wonder: What’s this all about, anyway?
In seeking to encourage Mbird readers to become PZ listeners, I initially thought I could write up a top-ten list of must-hear casts. But after bending a careful ear, I realized that such a gambit would be antithetical to Paul himself, and to the spirit of what he is endeavoring to do. A core premise of his work is meeting you where you are, as you are — if he meets you at all. This isn’t a popularity contest; as Paul observes, he never knows whether he is speaking to five listeners or five thousand. And besides, he deplores ten-point plans.
So I’ve decided simply to try throwing open the gate to this psychological garden plot, inviting you in to view and evaluate the plantings for yourself.
I myself stumbled on the podcast in medias res, first landing on Köchel listing #34, “Cosmo and The King’s Speech.” I had just seen the film; it seemed worth a try. After some random further selections, I decided to take it from the top, listening sequentially and in earnest, pulled forcibly along by the strange, magnetic undertow that aficionados of Paul’s preaching will recognize immediately.
One thing to know: with the exception of the two-parters, and really not even then, PZ’s Podcast is not, nor is intended to be, a linear experience. Though a story arc does emerge for the committed listener, this production is a hop-on, hop-off trolley. So climb on where you will and consider, as I have done, alighting at some of the stops more than once.
Like other Mbirders, I had heard recordings of Paul’s sermons. I had read his writings. I knew about his superior power to communicate, and I knew of his ability to broadcast on different frequencies of popular culture — film, literature, music — in putting his message across. The podcast, however, has unshackled him to explore an even wider spectrum on longer wavelengths.
Not bound by the conventions of print or pulpit, Paul roams freely here: across media, across themes, across centuries, and up and down the registers of spoken communication, from serious and scholarly (#14-15, “Paris When It Sizzles” and “Hot August Night,” a two-pack on Jansenism); to whimsical and nostalgic (#8, “Giant Crab Movies” and #22, “Journey” — both now iconic performances in this Zahlian opus); and not omitting the profoundly moving (#84, “Yvette Vickers” — a tragic life touchingly and astonishingly revalorized — or #86, “Supermarionation II,” at the end of which Paul to his own surprise movingly recites the second verse of Bishop Paul Moore’s favorite hymn, “In Christ There Is No East or West”).
But what exactly is the message here, and how does Paul’s singular method of delivery make these casts so affecting and perdurable that they bear repeated listening and reflection? And why all the rock ’n’ roll and Frankenstein movies? (For a good answer to that, you need to understand PZ’s articulation of the “pop moment” in its relation to Jack Kerouac, the art of communication, and even the Sermon on the Mount, available at #91, “Sequels.”)
After listening to the podcast end-to-end (twice), I came to see that defining the podcast for myself, much less anyone else, is an exercise in pinning the butterfly. It’s impossible to throw a net around something that is free and protean and shape-shifting with every hearing. There’s plenty here to study and critique, but being too analytical mars the gilded beauty of this boundary-stretching theater of the mind.
Always the systematician, I struggle against my instinct to create a magisterial concordance of topics, people, allusions and bons mots. (The film references alone could fill a book; the literary citations are a college education in the humanities; and the fine wit here is worthy of Mark Twain, or Punch magazine. The pop discography merits its own catalogue.) I’m a fan of director-commentary dubs on DVDs, so I’ve even imagined a similar arrangement for the podcast in which someone — not Paul — might offer reflections on what was just said, indicate allusions to other casts, and even do set-ups (“Get ready for the giant metaphor he’s about to drop!”) But that would not be true to Paul.
He has said (#66, “Altars by the Roadside”) that “Often people will parrot back things to me that I don’t remember even saying.” When I heard that, I winced, for I am always writing him with, “I loved it when….” I’ve since realized we are in the presence of the purest oral tradition, parabolic and in-the-moment, best heard and inwardly digested in real time, but never — killingly — codified (as I am absurdly trying to do here).
Still, I long for some convenient way to get back to striking phrases or images (e.g., the indelible invocation of the Battle of the Ice in the film “Alexander Nevsky” at 14:36 in #60, “From a Whisper to a Scream”); or the brilliant metaphor of romantic love as two people gesturing to each other through window panes (at 14:40 in #105, “Fraulein Doktor”); or the stark image of the aluminum tailfin we all have sticking out of us, the marker of the much larger spacecraft of the Atonement buried deep within (at 14:16 in #114, “A Slight Shiver”; television reference: Stephen King’s “Tommyknockers”).
Although I believe PZ’s Podcast, taken in its totality, represents an oeuvre of lasting significance, Paul isn’t looking to build an edifice, much less a “legacy,” and he is certainly not trying to create a new scripture. Rather, each week he simply seeks to fill his and our “truth tanks,” most often — on Simeon Zahl’s “Nazareth principle” — by means of out-of-the-way, overlooked and under-appreciated artists and their productions. Although Paul disclaims the idea that what he is doing is art (and some might disagree with him on this), the podcast is fundamentally all about art: art of all kinds — high, low and middle — as the core expression of the religious impulse to distill that which is universal in life from the variegated particulars of lived experience.
In this way I suggest that PZ’s Podcast, in its frequent moments of sublimity, is really the portrait of the artist himself.
And while the podcast has been a spiritual filling station for me, it’s not by reason of the material’s volume — though there is plenty of that. (“So many words, Paul …,” his wife, Mary, is reported to have said when ambushed with the verbal farrago of a podcast’s dry run over breakfast.) For sure there are lots of words: richly allusive and authoritatively delivered (without notes, I gather), drawing on an endless and often arresting stock of illustrative images and anecdotes. (I can say with confidence that in 121 casts he has never used the same device twice.)
To learn, for example, how a Waffle House in Dallas might help you recover your own version of temps perdu, go to #114, “The Lost Continent.” To understand how an encounter with a drive-through bank attendant or the cashier at a grocery store can signal a shift in the entire popular zeitgeist in America, hear #94, “My New Program.”
I have written Paul several times about my experience of finding a “crystalline three minutes” in each and every cast, no matter the topic. It’s when the material, the metaphor, and Paul’s energy, enthusiasm, humor, emotion, and fearlessly excavated archaeology-of-the-self come together to form, for me, a perfect conceptual mind-module. And it happens for me every time.
These climactic moments come vacuum-packed, by the way. Once opened, they inflate to fill your mind in the same manner that art expands in the reception, as T. S. Eliot noted — or as a car airbag inflates on impact. (If you wish to cherry-pick — and you’ll miss a lot of other things if you choose to do it this way — these moments of thematic fruition seem to occur reliably at about the halfway point, as in the timed examples I gave above, or in the final, emotionally crescendoing minutes of each cast.)
Many times, of course, there is much, much more to behold. I suggest that the biographical casts are especially engaging right the way through, from beginning to end. (Try, for example, #12, “The Life of James Gould Cozzens”; #16, “Irvin S. Cobb”; #51, “William Inge”; #56, “Lord Buckley”; the astonishingly detailed and homage-paying #99.6, “Previously Unreleased: Joe Meek”; or #107-108, “Bishop Ryle” and “J. C. Ryle Considered.”) These are compact, jewel-like treatments of lives of often hidden or popularly unrecognized consequence.
If the podcast is anything, it’s a river, emblematic of the Heraclitean flux of life Paul frequently and approvingly invokes. It’s also a kaleidoscope, bringing light to life’s unexplored corners with bright, ever-changing colors. And, as with a river, you can — as I did — step in at any point and be refreshed. You can, as I have, listen to many of these casts repeatedly and come away with something new each time. As a result, you may find yourself newly energized, and turning inquisitively to the works of Mark Rutherford or Algernon Blackwood, or having a sudden desire to listen to the Yardbirds or — dare I say it? — Journey. All right, I’ve got to say it. Go listen to #22. Listen to “Journey.” There you will find Paul at his boyish, enthusiastic best, as well as his quite sincere answer to the question, on awakening him at 3:00 a.m., of who he would most like to be.
But despite the podcast’s vastness of content and scope, and despite its themes that are consistently if not systematically propounded, this isn’t a magisterium. This isn’t his legacy. So what is it?
The introduction to an edition of Paul’s beloved and oft-mentioned text, Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, describes that work as “a new kind of book: simultaneously factual and fictional, serious and satirical, speculative and historical.” I’d suggest that PZ’s Podcast is created in a similar novel vein: it’s a new creation that, like harmonic dissonance, often brings together opposing tones in an unstable combination that demands from the listener the search for resolution that is, and can perhaps never be, fully achieved.
In just about every cast, Paul manages to produce a restiveness wonderfully articulated by Jimmy Durante in — if I may be permitted an allusion that Paul himself might enjoy — The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942): “Did you ever have the feeling that you wanted to go, and still have the feeling that you wanted to stay?”
I began by saying I believe the podcast might alter your perspective. It has for me. It has helped me reflect on my life, to lay my burden down and accept it as My Life (a big PZ theme), with mercy and without recrimination. Although I demur from singling out one personal favorite, I do urge readers/listeners to consider #54 “My Sharona.” Here you will find, I think, the conspectus, if such a thing there can be, of Paul’s project. For that reason, I find it particularly “stunning.” (For an explanation of those quotation marks, go to #64, “My New Law Firm.”)
Here’s what “I Learned to Yodel” (#20). We must detach completely from what we desire to control and what controls us. God is the eternal “divine love-action of the universe.” The only healthy and constructive response to negativity and defeat in life (the “rage, pain and fear” of #115, “In the event of”) is to run to meet and merge with them. To find ourselves, we must enter the world of the child — our inner ten-year-old — where may be discovered our most absurd and ridiculous dimensions, which are God-given and therefore wonderful, enduring and truth-telling about some of our deepest motivations.
In these matters of religious psychology, Paul does create dissonance, and the tension of his own struggle is often palpable. Life is a Heraclitean flux, but human nature is unchanging. In the pursuit of journey’s end, our sought-after “America” (cf. Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship in #59, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”) is “here or nowhere.” That’s good enough for me, but Paul is not so sure that, in the end, it’s really “here” in front of us after all.
God may be our True Self (a phrase you’ll have to listen to the cast to get a sense of), but God is really only “That Which is Not You” (#120, “Over the River II”). Finally, there’s the perennial alternative of “up and doing” or simply being. Paul on many occasions evinces the urge to retreat into silence and meditation (and I want to go with him), yet he can’t keep himself from engaging with the world and, fortunately, from producing these très riches heures of excavating podcasts.
In the end, it’s up to us, “the living,” to interpret Paul’s message for ourselves and for our own lives. With his help, I may be a bit more comprehending than I was a year ago, but like Paul and because of him, I see that I’ve got but a “toe on the road” in the quest to discover my authentic self (#104, “What does it take (to win your love)?”).
There are countless other things Paul has said that, if they should be written, this blog itself could not contain. But I hope that the cuttings from the garden of PZ’s Podcast I’ve left here might take root in your own soil and soul, and flower for you as abundantly as they have done for me.