Adam Joyce

Adam Joyce is a Duke Divinity graduate who lives and works in Chicago. Allergic to lists of hobbies and areas of ideological interest, he included none. You can follow him on Twitter @Adam_C_Joyce

Small Gifts: A Sort of Review of The Little Magazine in Contemporary America

“[Little magazines] are snickered at and snubbed, sometimes deservedly, and no one would venture to say in a precise way just what effect they have—except that they keep the new talents warm until the commercial publisher with his customary air of noble resolution is ready to take his chance, except that they make the official representatives of literature a little uneasy, except that they keep a countercurrent moving which perhaps no one will be fully aware of until it ceases to move.” – Lionel Trilling

The little magazine is a relatively recent invention. Pierre Bayle’s publication of the Nouvelles de la Republique des Lettres in the 1680s, essentially a book review, is typically seen as the first little magazine. Yet not until the late 19th and early 20th century did the world of the little magazine get crowded. Blast, Poetry, The Kenyon Review, Partisan Review, and Times Literary Supplement all launched during this time. Then the field explodes in the mid-20th century, with the creation of magazines like Paris Review, Ploughshares, Tin House, and Granta. According to the most recent Community of Literary Magazines and Presses directory, there are now over 1,300 little magazines in the United States.

There are number of ways to tell the story of the non-commercial, small circulation magazine over the last century. Technologically—through the successive eras of the mimeograph machine, photocopier, and then the internet. Institutionally—little magazines have been connected with universities, small presses, or simply formed around specific groups of friends. Ideologically—political movements and aesthetic schools have often driven the work of different magazines.

Every thirty years or so there has been a comprehensive attempt to explain what the institution of the little magazine is—a communal reflection on its role and meaning. In 1946 The Little Magazine: A History and Bibliography was published. In 1978 there was the hefty volume, The Little Magazine in America, edited by Elliot Anderson and Mary Kinzie. Last year, a sequel to Anderson and Kinzie’s large volume was published, The Little Magazine in Contemporary America, edited by Ian Morris and Joanne Diaz. Volumes like this exist because editors and institutions need to remind themselves what they are doing. Why a piece deserves another reread, an author another email, another explanation of what semi-colons are really for. Little magazines and those who run them feel the need to justify themselves.

Like its predecessor, Diaz and Morris’ book invites a range of editors to reflect on the work of their magazines. The editors of n+1, Bitch, BOMB, Callaloo, Poetry, McSweeney’s, and many others contribute. These pieces take the form of interviews, share stories of each magazine’s birth and even a few deaths, and reflect on what running them has involved. And like its predecessor, this volume is a work of pointillism. Through each editor’s story and comments, a larger picture emerges. The recurring themes across their pieces—concerns regarding money, anxiety over the shift online, how they define success, and lists of authors published—reveals the state of the little magazine.

While little magazines don’t seek money, they do seek influence, often aiming to guide a conversation, maybe even form or even reform a community. Many of them emerge from a cloud of dissatisfaction, reacting to a perceived cultural deficiency or a failure of the larger artistic community. These commonalities between their genesis stories sets little magazines up to continually claim the avant-garde. As Diaz and Morris write, “a primary contention of this book is that the role of the little magazine is to promote the avant-garde—that is, little magazines function as a ‘front-guard’ that anticipates the newest movements in literature, politics, and art.”[2]

little magazine

Many of the editors in The Little Magazine in Contemporary America agree. Talking about McSweeney’s, Dave Eggers states: “Art is made by anarchists and sorted by bureaucrats.”[3] Or Gerald Maa and Lawrence-Minh Bui Davis, editors of The Asian American Literary Review, claim: “We could take an ironic or perhaps politicized joy in marginalization, in our role as marginalia-provider, as ostensible decenterer, or attempted decenter, anyway.” In a review of Diaz and Morris’ book in the New Yorker, Stephen Burt says of success for little magazines: “But all of these kinds of success come down to whether your journal brings something new to its scene.”

This avant-garde longing seems to be coded into the DNA of little magazines, and looking beyond Morris and Diaz’s work confirms this. Across the editorial mission statements of little American art magazines throughout the 20th century, words like experimental, new, new talent, critical, discover, and evolve fill the word cloud. This emphasis on being new, isn’t new. Little magazines have long been little anti-institutional institutions.

These avant-garde dreams are best embodied in a magazine that Diaz and Morris highlight, Edward Sanders’ Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts. Almost more a zine than a magazine, Fuck You ran from 1962-1965, was part of the mimeo revolution, made of construction paper, hand drawn, held together with staples, and published writers and artists such as W.H. Auden, Ezra Pound, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, Frank O’Hara, Andy Warhol, and Gary Snyder—the impressive list could go on. Alongside Fuck You, Sanders also ran Fuck You Press, publishing collected poems and short stories, mostly by Sanders himself.

The magazine was pure, uncut counter-culture, fully embodying an “outlaw aesthetic.”[4] The copyright page in Fuck You’s books read, “Fuck You / press | ejaculation” and stated the publication was “printed, published, and zapped at a secret location in the lower east side, new york city [sp].” Typically, below this, there was a small picture of a penis ejaculating. A tagline printed across some of the magazine issues and Fuck You Press publications read: “TOTAL ASSAULT ON THE CULTURE!”

Like go-go boots and tie-dye shirts, Fuck You is firmly in step with its era. While not nearly as antagonistic, many little magazines are animated by similar desires, hoping to remove themselves from and critique stagnant cultural pools, striking out on a path to the artistic future. The evolution of art requires severing the umbilical cord connected to other ages; with such a break, art can advance.

This isn’t sheer delusion. Historically, little magazines helped anticipate what is to come, providing a space for new forms of an art, especially literature, to grow. James Joyce’s Ulysses first appeared serially in The Little Review. Later in its life, The Dial published T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land in the United States (The Criterion published it in England). After being censored by the University of Chicago, the first issue of The Big Table published William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. In India during the 1950s, a huge change in Marathi poetry—its shift into a more modernist form—was started and sustained by a proliferation of little magazines.

Yet dedicating this institutional space solely to the singular pursuit and support of the avant-garde seems off. Like a weightlifter who only works out one muscle, there is an oddity, a grotesque forgetfulness to being dedicated to sheer experimentation in art. Saying that the role of the little magazine is to promote experimentation is wrong, misguided.

This single-minded sort of goal for little magazines plays itself out differently in different contexts, but Jerry Saltz’s article on Zombie Formalism in painting is helpful:

“I like Dropcloth Abstraction, and especially the term coined by the artist-critic Walter Robinson: Zombie Formalism. Galleries everywhere are awash in these brand-name reductivist canvases, all more or less handsome, harmless, supposedly metacritical, and just ‘new’ or ‘dangerous’-looking enough not to violate anyone’s sense of what ‘new’ or ‘dangerous’ really is, all of it impersonal, mimicking a set of preapproved influences. (It’s also a global presence: I saw scads of it in Berlin a few weeks back, and art fairs are inundated.) These artists are acting like industrious junior post­modernist worker bees, trying to crawl into the body of and imitate the good old days of abstraction…

Saltz, while talking about painting, is in a space where the experimentation becomes boring and cookie-cutter-esque, stale. While there are economic reasons for this, there are ideological and technological ones as well, and little magazines with their emphasis on the idea of being avant-garde are just as susceptible to their own form of Zombie Formalism.

In Morris and Diaz’s volume, many of the editors mistakenly equate being odd and small with being avant-garde. Just because a magazine is non-commercial with a smaller readership doesn’t make it avant-garde. Would their work still matter if it wasn’t part of the breaking wave of the new? What if a little magazine wasn’t fighting on the front lines, but keeping the cultural supply lines open, or watering the roots of a living tradition? What if a little magazine simply hoped to ensure a communal conversation continued, grew, was fed by different voices and healing resources? This singular quest for the avant-garde forgets the particular gifts that come with being small.

The structural habits present in the history of little magazines provide The Curator with something to embrace and something to resist. We want to resist how little magazines can treat their readers. Operating with such a restricted sense of what you are for, provocation and experimentation, can lead to work that seems like nothing but a middle finger to most of humanity.

While avoiding this myopic concentration on experimentation, The Curator hopes to embrace how little magazines tend to treat their writers. Little magazines aren’t just an experimental playground removed from the larger culture, but can operate as a writerly gym, a place to train a writer’s artistic and critical muscles. As Michael Anania, former editor of Audit/Poetry and director of the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines, has said:

“Little magazines have always functioned primarily for writers. Readers are desirable, sometimes even actively sought out, but the impulse behind most magazines is the writer-editor’s conviction that there are writers who are not being served by existing publications. At their best, little magazines draw together groups of writers and, however marginally, find them an audience.[5]

Being small, The Curator can care about its writers, serve them, stretch them, train them, receive gifts from them—provide a community to work on how you work with words. Every little magazine hopes to publish the best of what it can, but small magazines like us have the capacity to say: Give us your poor, your tired, your hungry, your zombie-ish words. Let’s work on them. Let’s see if they can be resurrected.

Big, commercial publishing lends itself to different priorities, successes, pressures, failures, and forms of risk. Due to its institutional structure, commercial writing, and the type of editing it encourages, is more beholden to advertisers and audience. The Curator is partially buffered (but not immune) from the perennial questions of monetization. The only people who are paid anything are our writers, and while this isn’t ideal, it is what currently makes The Curator possible. This isn’t to claim that our rags stand as an indication of our holiness, but that it allows us to concentrate on different things.[6] There is no money here, but there are gifts.

This rejection of commercial pressures allows for a different relationship between time and editing. Big is increasingly synonymous with fast. Being large and commercial, especially within publishing, ends up involving you in the eternal now. This is where an economics of surplus becomes oddly interwoven with an economics of scarcity. The surplus of writing leads to a scarcity of time. The sheer crush of lukewarm and hot takes can lend writing, editing, and reading a necessary speed. Comparatively, the non-commercial pressures of little magazines can allow for a slower movement—a more gradual stewardship—with others’ words.

“So our task to be stewards of words begins and ends with love. Loving language means cherishing it for its beauty, precision, power to enhance understanding, power to name, power to heal. And it means using words as instruments of love.[7]

For words to become instruments of healing, beauty, precision, and love involves work and time. Becoming a faithful steward of words requires a long-arc, full of little deaths and resurrections. Readers matter, commercial success matters, but so does helping form those who are writing public words about art. To put it in theological terms, The Curator is a little magazine invested in the sanctification of words and the discipleship of writers—writer-care and word-care.

In his seminal work, The Gift, Lewis Hyde discusses how gifts have a momentum to them—gifts are meant to stay on the move. The Curator hopefully lives with the centrifugal energy of a gift economy.[8] If we are helping writers to write more beautiful and true words—providing small editorial gifts—we don’t want them to stick around. Writers write for us for a time, and then move on. We have no delusions that we are changing the world or helping an art form evolve. Our editing and publishing is about the slow activity of stewardship, allowing for small salubrious shifts in how writers use words.

It’s an embarrassingly earnest mission. Yet there are gifts here, and gifts are meant to be given away.



The Little Magazine in Contemporary America, edited by Ian Morris and Joanne Diaz, is published by the University of Chicago Press.

[1] Lionel Trilling, “The Function of the Little Magazine,” in The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society, 97.

[2] Ian Morris and Joanne Diaz, “Preface,” The Little Magazine in Contemporary America, xv.

[3] There is an humorous wrinkle in this claim regarding the avant-garde role of little magazines. Through the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a cultural advocacy organization active from the 1950s to early 1960s, the CIA provided support for a host of literary magazines—such as The Kenyon Review, Partisan Review, Sewanee Review, and the English magazine, Encounter.

[4] Ian Morris and Joanne Diaz, “Preface,” The Little Magazine in Contemporary America, xii.

[5] Michael Anania, “Of Living Belfry and Rampart: On American Literary Magazines Since 1950,” in The Little Magazine in America: A Modern Documentary History, 10.

[6] Michael Anania, “Of Living Belfry and Rampart: On American Literary Magazines Since 1950,” in The Little Magazine in America: A Modern Documentary History, 21.

[7] Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, 23.

[8] See also, Bruce Andrews, “L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E,” in The Little Magazine in Contemporary America, 115.

The Well Said Yes

The world of art magazines is crowded—not because there are so many, but because the space itself is small. Like sharks thrashing about in a swimming pool, they carve out audiences and niches, corners of toothy opinion, critique, and praise.

In this space, with its essays, reviews, poetry, and interviews, The Curator is a magazine of art and art criticism. We live in an “age of opinion” where the cultural place of art and art criticism can be a mess–and that’s okay. However, even with the cultural disorder of the art world, the practice of criticism is everywhere. My dog’s unwillingness to eat my leftovers confirms that indeed, everyone is a critic.

“Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them. It is a fuckload of work to be open-minded and generous and understanding and forgiving and accepting, but Christ, that is what matters. What matters is saying yes. –Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers wants you to stuff your bags with all the truth and beauty that you can grab and flee from the house of criticism. Recognize the warped despot at the keyboard for what he or she is. Your soul will thank you later.

Our hope is that the art and art criticism at The Curator is about the ‘yes.’ When we say ‘no’ we point to the yes and sharpen it. No becomes the fallout of our yeses. If we have the courage to say, “we don’t know,” it adds fitting question marks to our yeses. We will argue about the yes, deepen the humility of the yes. We will say yes to good sentences, to well shot scenes, to the unsettling dissonance of a song, to the splinters of art stuck under your skin. Like Molly Bloom at the end of Ulysses, our hearts will be mad with the unbroken sentence of the yes. Through the well said yes, we move toward “the world that ought to be.”

When I’m not with people, I’m with words, papered and screened, penned and keyboarded. It is a long and sometimes tedious, but enjoyable friendship. I’m honored that this friendship with words now includes working as Editor-in-Chief of The Curator.

A little about me: I’m a Christian. A few years ago I graduated from Duke Divinity School and since then have edited for publishers and Christian non-profits. If I am from anywhere, it is Washington, D.C., but now live near Chicago. Once, a Phillies fan punched me. I collect dictionaries.

The Curator loves its writers and is always looking for new ones. The Curator loves good writing, but is also looking for more than writers. If you are a filmmaker, painter, musician, game programmer, photographer, or any type of artist, I encourage you to reach out to us. We are looking for new ways to share and reflect on the work of art, to thoughtfully engage our shared passions and questions. This is an invitation: write for us, read us, critique us, converse with us, and most importantly, refine your yeses with us.

FROM THE ARCHIVE: Renewing the Dialect of the Tribe

This piece was originally published last June.


A writer and professor of medical humanities at UC Berkeley, Marilyn Chandler McEntyre has authored numerous works—including Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies and What’s in a Phrase? —on what it means to steward language well, for our words to act as instruments of truth and life. More recently she has written a pair of books on the words and practices involved in the act of dying faithfully, the first being A Faithful Farwell. The Curator talked with Marilyn Chandler McEntyre about her writing, both old and new, the responsibilities of writers, fidelity to communal conversations, and how we talk about death. This interview has been edited for publication.



Adam Joyce: Why did you write Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies?

Marilyn Chandler McEntyre: Part of it came out of my own response to the intensified rhetoric after 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, and the Patriot Act. Corporations and government were justifying all kinds of new unfoldings in the process, which made it difficult to feel that one could trust the integrity of public argument, debate, and persuasion.

The work also came out of a really positive vocational sense of being called, both inside and outside the classroom, to deal with words. I had the positive desire to reflect on my own vocation and the negative motivation was sorrow and anxiety about the discursive environment that students and children are growing up in.

AJ: Amidst these problematic cultural habits and practices of language, what is the writer’s responsibility when it comes to words? Also, what about the essayist—what is his or her responsibility?

MCM: There is a lot of slippage and erosion in how our culture uses language, yet the processes of degradation aren’t always entirely conscious on the part of people who contribute to them. In the book I make a comparison between our treatment of language and the environment. Look at what is happening to the environment by virtue of industrial food processes, farming methods, factory farms, and so on, yet not everybody who eats meat thinks about factory farms. In the same way, not everybody who uses language considers how we have been acculturated to accept abstractions, imprecisions, forms of vagueness or half truths, and empty rhetoric, in political, media, and commercial processes.

The vocation of any writer is to be on the front line of people who are willing to spend mental energy, spiritual energy, cultural capital, and time crafting words, reflecting on them, and renewing them in the sense T.S. Elliot talked about. Borrowing from Mallarmé, he said that the task of the poet is to “renew the dialect of the tribe.”

Part of renewal in a poem or an essay involves recontextualizing words in such a way that people see them again, and say, “Oh yeah, I hadn’t thought of that word in that way.” The task of the essayist is first of all clarity. Clarity is a gift and entails things like precision, careful development, and examples.

AJ: In Caring for Words it seems like the concepts of stewardship and fidelity are interwoven, almost inseparable from one another. And that any sort of healthy “caring for words,” which goes beyond your own inner life and is rightly connected with a community and their words, requires fidelity. Does fidelity allow for us to talk about what good and careful conversation looks like differently than stewardship does?

MCM: I’m a great fan of Wendell Berry. I’ve recently been teaching his book, Fidelity: Five Stories, which complicates and opens up the definition of fidelity. After you have read those stories and his poem, “The Dance,” which says, “Love changes, and in change is true,” you can’t think about what it means to be faithful in quite the same way.

What it means to be faithful has to move from a simplistic idea of steadfastness, to a more fluid and nuanced notion of staying in relationship—helping people to step back from words by foregrounding them, and saying, “What do you think about this word again?” That is one of the ways a writer can pull words up out of the dust, polish them off, and give them new life.

In a class one time I put a list of values on the board that are attached to good writing, including: clarity, liveliness, persuasiveness, interest value, and others. It was a long list. I asked the students to pick five, rank them, and tell me what they really wanted to work toward in their own writing. A lovely student from the Czech Republic, who had just recently come to the United States, was staring at the list with some interest. When he saw me write down lively, he said, “That is it! I want all my writing to be lively.”

This moment goes to my heart because I think of the phrase the “Living Word” that is applied to Scripture. This is a deep idea that can be imported into writing that has integrity, authenticity, and comes from reflective living. We can ask of any writing: “What is it that makes this a living word or a life-giving sentence?”

“What is this writer being faithful to?” is a question I’ve often asked in literature classes. Any writer has to be faithful to certain things, and telling the truth is something that needs a lot of parsing. You tell the truth in different ways if you are writing fiction or non-fiction.

I’m teaching Moby Dick right now and Melville’s all over the place. Often you don’t even know who is narrating particular chapters. So Melville is not being faithful to a particular set of expected conventions—something that might irritate a lot of readers. It might appear to be infidelity. Yet Melville is being faithful to his purposes, which one can infer.

Then there is also a fidelity to the history of words, which Wendell Berry models so beautifully. He uses words that echo the English of the King James Bible. I never see him use clinical words like depression, but he does use words like sorrow. I feel as though he is being faithful to this language not for the sake of “going back to the good old days” but to retrieve something that has been splintered into multiple disciplinary discourses.

We have a calling to do a certain amount of the archaeological digging beneath the language we use, reach back into the etymologies of words, and to pay attention to the nuances of one word choice over another. We need to trust that those subtle differences make a difference.

AJ: And to trust the time it takes to make those choices well also matters?

MCM: It is really easy as you are sitting at your desk and have a deadline in front of you to think: “Life is short; why am I spending most of my afternoon tinkering with sentences?” But if this is what is given to me to do, why is it any less important than what the plumber does or what anyone does on the floor of Congress? The truth is that none of us gets to assess the ultimate difference our work makes. We don’t get to judge. To be faithful to what is given to you, to write, isn’t to judge whether what you are writing is drivel compared to what Wendell Berry is writing about.

Writing doesn’t start with ideas. It starts with your experience, even if you think it’s not of great public interest. Often it happens that if you are faithful to something that is burdening you, it turns out it does matter.

I wrote a little piece one time called “In Praise of Incompletion” It is about how too high a premium is placed upon coverage and completion in things from curricula to cleaning your plate—finishing a task becomes a virtue. I tell my students about the need to read a long novel slowly enough to understand how the writer is working, to be an apprentice, stand at the writer’s elbow, and see what is going on a in a paragraph. And if that means you don’t turn every page, then don’t turn every page. But come to class ready to reflect on what you have read, having noticed matters of technique that will help you listen more attentively to language and to read better.

After this piece was published I got letters from people who said this permission was such a relief.

AJ: There is a lot more to be faithful to in a conversation than just the people who you are talking with.

MCM: You are participating in a much larger process. It is very easy to imagine you are working on this alone, but every time something comes to the point of publication I realize it is simply something that I get to midwife out of an ongoing conversation, to bring it to fruition in a particular way.

I was in my 20s when a mentor said to me: “Pay a little more attention to the call of the moment and then the longer story will unfold as you continue.” That phrase, “the call of the moment,” has really been a watchword for me. To be faithful to your vocation is to recognize that at different seasons of life you are called to very different things. If you stay in a prayerful relationship with the Spirit, even if that looks like it is leading you on a zigzagging course, that may be what fidelity looks like in to the call of the moment.

AJ: So fidelity requires recognizing where you are, and what that place requires of you? And these levels of faithfulness are what help you know how to engage and use your writerly tools at different moments in those different places?

MCM: My husband is a pastor. One of the phrases that one hears in Presbyterian circles is “equipping the saints.” It is a quaint term, but that is what we do in community; we equip one another. Think of how often we borrow words from somebody, or somebody puts something a certain way, and you say: “Yes, I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it is a beautiful phrase.” You then proceed to steal it, in the way that Eliot means when he says: “Good poets borrow, great poets steal.”

So many lines and phrases I’ve received with gratitude from poets and writers. They have provided me with what Kenneth Burke, the literary critic, calls “equipment for living.”

AJ: So Kenneth Burke says literature, and maybe art in general, provides “equipment for living,” but in light of your recent writing, could you also talk about how it provides equipment for dying?

MCM: Over the last couple of years I have been working as a hospice volunteer—work that I really love—and have seen several family members through the last weeks of life. It is very demanding, heart-opening, and grace-filled work. It has always felt like a real privilege to be at the bedside of someone who is coming face-to-face with the thing we will all experience and find ways to be companionable as you walk with them.

One of the particular tasks I was given in hospice was to work with people who wanted help telling their stories for their families, to leave a story legacy. Autobiography is an interesting genre because you can tell your story with many purposes. There isn’t any required starting point, but you do have to decide if you are going to speak about intimate things and how to organize in such a way as to tell the parts of it that matter.

I worked with a 102-year-old woman who was remarkable. She had many funny sweet engaging stories to tell, but after I had been there two or three times she began to tell me about some very difficult things that had happened to her as a young girl. Her family said, “Let’s not talk about this.” Yet she needed to tell that story. My job there wasn’t to cheer that woman up, but to allow the stories that needed to be told to be told.

Part of caring for words is listening to other people’s words and listening for the story that is finding its way to the surface. It is a challenging task to find ways to talk about dying that navigate around the clichés on the one side and social stumblings on the other side—to offer people a language for death that is both frank and gentle.

A Faithful Farewell is one of a pair of books. Eerdmans, the publisher, asked me to write one book for people who were dying and then another one for their caregivers. But finding a point of view for people who were dying was really hard. Eerdmans ended up encouraging me to write it in the first person, which was a challenging assignment. Based upon a lot of visiting with those who are dying, I tried to articulate the paradoxes, the surprising moments, the boredom, the tedium, the irritation with caregivers who mean well, the moments of laughter when things are hard and nobody else feels like laughing, and the moments of gratitude and prayer. There are just lots of things that can happen if you have a gradual going.

AJ: This act of writing A Faithful Farewell in the first person, it reminds me of Christian Wiman’s phrase, “pain islands you.” When we are talking about our bodies, especially bodies in pain, the role of words is complex. We often ask what language “does” in that space, how it functions. The idea of writing a book about dying in the first person seems, in some way, an attempt to “de-island” that space.

MCM: It is certainly trying to, with a very overt and declared fictive device. I am not writing as a person who is in fact dying, but I’m creating and imagining a point of view to try to give a voice to those whom are dying.

I did this with some trepidation. I don’t want it to seem presumptuous, but part of what writers do in fiction is to create narrative persona to serve a particular purpose. To write from the vantage point of someone who is dying is like if I were to assume a persona from a different cultural background. I want to respect that I’m not that person. Tolstoy created women characters that were magnificent and Faulkner created Dilsey, who is one of the memorable African-American women in American fiction. But crossing those lines is always tricky. So entering into the perspective of someone who knows they are dying and saying what it could look like was a challenge.

It was also illuminating. It helped me find a deepened sense of peace with the reality of my own mortality. I’ve never been a person who is terribly afraid of dying, but I am afraid of pain. The fact we will die is a truth that we have to live into as our life continues.

AJ: What sort of space did writing about hospice and the final chapter of life provide for your other thoughts on language and word care? Did it send you back into your larger reflections on language?

MCM: I think working on that book, being in conversation with people who are dying, and every birthday I have makes me aware how precious the time we have here. The journey metaphor is a common metaphor for life. Yet it is important to think of life not only as a journey but also as a conversation. I try to open myself up in morning prayer and to whoever I encounter each day. It has put a heightened premium on encounter, conversation, and especially silence.

AJ: I read numerous times that a lot of hospice is learning what not to say.

MCM: That is for sure. When my mother was dying I was very impatient with people who came in, who needed to be chatty and cheerful. One of her friends, speaking of someone else said, “Well I like her but she is just terminally cheerful.” We need to learn to sit with someone and be comfortable enough in silence, to allow the conversation to find its slow rhythm. It does slow down simply because people have less energy.

This gets to a musical dimension of what happens in conversation. It is a jazz composition where you don’t exactly know what is coming next, you are listening to the cues, and you want there to be some pauses and rests in this collaboration. Rhythm is important.

AJ: Maybe, in its own way, cheerfulness islands you as well.

MCM: People are afraid of death and some compensate when they have to be in the presence of dying. They fill the space to protect themselves. We all struggle with fears, but if you say too much you cover up the things that really would be the gems you have to offer people, by burying them in sand.

AJ: Words can bury other words.

MCM: My book What’s in a Phrase is about unearthing those little phrases that might get buried in long sentences if you didn’t just stop and notice them—like finding opals in that brown earthly rock that they develop in.

AJ: Thank you so much for your time.

MCM: It was a pleasure.

photo by:

A Beautiful, Terrible Sound

The creak of a floorboard; the swift whispering shssh shssh of Victorian dresses; the slow scrape of a spoon over the edge of a cup; the indeterminate groan of a ghost. In Guillermo del Toro’s latest film, Crimson Peak, both the terror and the truth are in the sounds.

At its heart, Crimson Peak is a gothic romance that happens to have ghosts in it. Edith Cushing (played by Mia Wasikowska) is a wealthy, coming-of-age, American living in upstate New York. Her father is protective and caring, as his wife died when Edith was young. Independent and a writer, Edith admires Mary Shelly over Jane Austen. This is no surprise, as she receives periodic visits from the smoky wraith of her deceased mother, who cryptically warns her of Crimson Peak.

In this story, ghosts don’t want your fear; they want your attention, your ear. More part of the background than drivers of this film, specters only haunt when they have a truth to tell us. The dead warn us of the living.

Edith and her father’s happy Victorian existence is interrupted by Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his sister (Jessica Chastain). Sharpe, a penniless British baronet and inventor, is looking for investors. He has invented a machine to extract the rich red clay from under their dilapidated family mansion, and Mr. Cushing is a possible financier. As Thomas courts Edith and her father’s money, Mr. Cushing dies in bewildering circumstances. Amidst the depths of her grief, Edith and Thomas marry, and head off to his English estate. Throughout this early portion, the movie itself seems to be waiting for the story to start, for Edith to finally arrive at the Sharpe mansion.


The mansion, almost as Gothic sensibilities incarnate, is the movie’s most compelling character. Leaves or snow are always drifting down into the expansive main foyer through a massive hole in the roof. The manor is sinking into the estate’s blood-red clay, which leaches through the floorboards and seems to ooze from the walls. Similar to Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, the environment reflects the state of its inhabitants.

As winter comes, and Edith gets to know her husband and sister-in-law better, the snow is stained red by the estate’s clay, and the mansion’s ghosts refuse to go away. Appropriately, the ghosts of Crimson Peak take their form and color from the clay, because the land itself provides the material for the deceased’s anger. Grief and betrayal are the potter’s hands. Like the Scriptural story of Cain and Abel, the earth, heavy with blood, cries out. The land is bleeding out, because something is not right; nature opposes humanity’s unnatural acts.

It is impossible to miss the obvious visual feasts of del Toro’s cinematic worlds, yet we can overlook the sonic ones. The slow terror of Crimson Peak is not primarily built with dialogue or even the visuals, but with the acoustic background of the mansion itself. Periodically, a roaring wind blows through, making it seem as if the house is drawing a rasping breath—alive, yet dying. Characters’ ears are frequently pressed to doors, trying to decipher the something that a sound is coming from. Scratchy phonograph cylinders start to pull back the veil on the truth of Crimson Peak. Eventually sound provides the breadcrumbs that lead to the plot’s primary revelations—Edith hears the truth of the Sharpe siblings’ relationship before she sees it. Instead of simply being used to reinforce the jump scare, the sounds of Crimson Peak transform unassuming events into ones full of terror and make a crumbling mansion a loud cemetery full of shallow graves.

The story takes unsurprising and ghastly turns as Edith discovers the true nature of the Sharpe siblings’ relationship. The film clearly hopes to make some of this a shock, but like poker players who show you their hand, Crimson Peak cannot resist tipping its cards over and over, each time forgetting that it is still holding the same cards. For all the film’s beauty, the plot is a simple pastiche of Gothic narrative clichés.

Sometimes, it seems as if del Toro is a production designer at heart, for that is where most of the precision and elegance exists within his films. As he said in an interview with the New Yorker: “I love the creation of these things—I love the sculpting, I love the coloring. Half the joy is fabricating the world, the creatures.” It is easier to imagine him adjusting a painting in the background of a shot rather than editing his script again. You can see the love that went into the Sharpe mansion. When you move into a new room in the house, you have to get your bearings—in both a visual and auditory sense—and take in the surroundings. He is a stronger scene-maker than storyteller, and as many critics have observed, the care for style seems to trump concern for the story.

Film is a deeply visual and auditory medium for del Toro, but not irreducibly a narrative one. Even though Crimson Peak draws deeply from gothic literature, its dread and terror is primarily a result of visual flourishes and the film’s soundscape, rather than its story. Fear arises through environmental and atmospheric immersion instead of narrative progression.[1] Talking about his filmic aesthetic, del Toro said the following:

“Some of my favorite horror is silent because it has strength of composition and it has a very strong visual streak.

The way you evaluated silent film I think changed when sound arrived. I think that film is a visual & audio medium and it should be judged in the same way that you judge a painting or a visual art in terms of strokes, colors and shapes.

That sort of abstraction was very much how we read film in the silent era. When the forefront became the lines of dialogue, plot and other things like that…kind of diluted the power of it as a visual creation.

Here is where del Toro’s aesthetic begins to eat itself. While he critiques the shifts that the advent of sound brought about, he embraces its cinematic results. He hopes to paint, but he paints with both visuals and sound, using the modern form of film, yet longing for a previous era’s way of evaluating it.

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French film critic, Andre Bazin, while discussing what the inclusion of sound meant for film and its evolution as an art form, said:

“Today we can say that at last the director writes in film. The image—its plastic composition and the way it is set in time, because it is founded on a much higher degree of realism—has at its disposal more means of manipulating reality and modifying it from within. The film-maker is no longer the competitor of the painter and the playwright, he is, at last, the equal of the novelist.

Sound—and what it meant for how a director could edit and arrange a movie—changed film’s kindred art form from painting to the novel. Yet the aesthetic shift that comes with this filmic evolution is part of what del Toro hopes to resist.

In his 2006 film, Pan’s Labyrinth, the fantastical world filled with fairies, fauns, and monsters that Ofelia (the young girl protagonist) interacts with is sometimes heard, but never seen by the adults around her. Adult eyes may be blind to the truth of this enchanted world, but ears can never be fully deaf to it. Sound alone is capable of slipping through the thin boundaries of imagination, the false distinctions between reality and fantasy. Here, del Toro’s characters provide a clue for how to appreciate his films. There is a horrible beauty in del Toro’s cinematic paintings, we just have to remember to listen, as well as look.



[1] Two very different and recent movies that creatively engage sound’s role in creating an atmosphere of horror are Pontypool and Berberian Sound Studio.

A Note from Our Editor

The Curator is where I started.

I wrote my first essay for The Curator almost three years ago. This was the first time I had written something other than a school paper, the first time I was published and when non-professorial eyeballs read my words. The publication was a gift, but so was the process that went into it—the editing, the conversation before and after publication. This initial experience still forms how I think about writing and editing.

The Curator is where a lot of others have started as well. As an organization we pride ourselves as being a gym for writers and editors, a launching pad to other communities and conversations. Authors stay for a while and have their voices crafted and enlarged. Critical lenses are refined.

In October of last year, for my inaugural editor-in-chief piece, I stated The Curator is about the “well-said yes.” As a magazine we hope to interact with art and culture from a posture of generosity, criticism, careful attention to the particular. Ultimately, we are looking for life, the beautiful and the true, and cast a wide net looking for it.

There are no doubt moments when we have failed when fishing for beauty. The essayist Charles D’Ambrosio, commenting on a piece of art outside a courthouse, said the following:

“Looking at it you feel less in the elevated presence of art than hammered over the head by a governmental or bureaucratic intention, and the effect is of Sovietized realism, of culture that’s policed, official, approved, frozen, clichéd, one-note, panderly, in other words, everything that art is not.

Magazines always have to avoid the danger this art fell into, for conversations about art and culture can exhibit the same undesirable qualities—they can be joyless, didactic, self-congratulatory, and injudicious. Good conversations take work, “unhurried intimacies,” forms of friendship.

The Curator, is about the “well said yes” because, in the words of our original mission statement, we are about helping create “the world that ought to be.” Since 2008,  we’ve try to publish the words and cultivate the conversation that this hoped for world deserves.

In the past year we’ve published wonderful pieces. Words on singer Tom Waits, Shirley Jackson and the ordinariness of evil, the Psalms for Ferguson series, on It Follows and original sin, and voice and intimacy in Marilynne Robinson’s Lila. We are excited about publishing more.

Right now, we are surviving, yet we want to do more than survive. We want to grow. We want to pay our authors more than the equivalent of a few lattes. But we want to grow not just by doing more of the same, but also by trying something different. In the coming months, we are hoping to launch both writer-in-residence program and institutional partnerships. These changes are about giving more writers and editors “starts” at The Curator, about continuing a life-giving community and conversation, and finding new ways of saying an old sort of yes.

Would you consider contributing to our Patreon campaign? This contribution is about paying our contributors and making sure the magazine continues, but it is also about helping us take this next big step.

On Advantageous

Many of the standard traits of a dystopian vision are in Jennifer Phang’s Advantageous. Set in a future, unnamed megacity, water is scarce, surveillance and shadowy corporations are plentiful, and terrorists intermittently set off bombs. Like a sparser, filmic mixture of Children of Men, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaiden’s Tale, and Blade Runner, the city’s dark corners are packed with barely hidden suffering—homeless sleep under well-trimmed bushes, young girls work as silver-masked prostitutes. Similar to its science fiction forbearers, Advantageous is as concerned about us as it is about the future.

Neither a space opera nor a dystopian battle tale, and shot on a slim budget, saving the world isn’t part of Phang’s second feature. A relationship provides its driving drama, a mother and daughter and the question of who they are together. The mother, Gwen, (played by Jacqueline Kim) hopes to secure a stable life for her gifted daughter, Jules (Samantha Kim). Gwen works as a marketing spokeswoman for the Center for Advanced Health and Living, an eerie company about to launch a procedure that allows for the transfer of a consciousness from an old body to a young one. However, Gwen is too old for their new target audience, and is let go.

Jacqueline and Samantha Kim, even with their sparse lines and short conversations, inhabit the screen with a well-acted intimacy: singing on the piano, eating pecan pie together on the floor, and they only touch one another. This intimacy isolates them, provides small bits of comfort in a city that is slowly breaking apart.

Backgrounds in science fiction films do more work than in your standard fictional story, for settings and sounds provide indirect exposition about the history and state of their alternate world. Even though the visual effects for the city skyline with its vast glass and grey skyscrapers are well done, the sound mixing provides the most impressive aspect of the film’s backdrop. Most of the time this city is deathly quiet. As Gwen walks on sidewalks it sounds like she is always in an empty hallway, for you can always hear her heels. This absence of urban white noise makes the repression even more ominous, as if the city eats people and sound.

The silent grey city contrasts with the music of their apartment. Music binds Gwen and Kim together, providing a balm for their wounds. When Jules hears her mother crying in the other room, she turns on a piano sonata. After learning of Gwen’s rejected application from an elite prep school, they listen to music on the couch. Through music, even more so than words, they know and can comfort each other. This is the only relationship that you feel like you know what it is—its motivations are not masked in lifeless speech, and it is not another attempt to grab more in a world marked by silent scarcity.

Issues of gender, class, revolution, race, reproductive rights, concerns about technology, and identity all compose the atmosphere and story of Phang’s film. Gwen needs a job and money, but due to some sort of post-feminist backlash, the elite are recommending that women stay at home. A wealthy socialite club invites Gwen to discuss her daughter joining their “bonding camp,” a matchmaking group for elite children. When they learn Jules’ father is not in the picture, the group’s leader ends the conversation with an arctic, “That is a wild card.” News stations drone with zombie-ish bureaucratic language about their city and its “bright future.” The clutter of societal problems manages to make the point: this world is the wedge, pulling Jules and Gwen apart.


Science fiction writer Frank Herbert supposedly said, “The function of science fiction is not always to predict the future but sometimes to prevent it.” Yet the choice to include so many issues lends the impression that Phang is more concerned with critiquing the present. This critical purpose leads to a crowded story, for ultimately, there are too many ideas in the film. One after another, societal problems are introduced and dropped. These missteps in the script create forced conversations that don’t have anything to do with the characters, but are clearly about introducing one more way in which this world is warped. For example, in four brief lines we learn that most women are infertile by the time they are twenty. It seems as if Phang didn’t trust the indirect exposition of her well-done background enough, leading her to shove in more direct commentary than necessary.

One of the movie’s best scenes demonstrates what Phang is capable of when she trusts her background. Gwen is sitting a park, talking with her mother on the phone and asking for money. Late sun slants through the trees. A child prostitute takes off her shoes and mask in the background, and Gwen refuses to allow her parents to meet Jules. As her mother growls Gwen’s name, an explosion rocks a skyscraper in the distance. The mother’s voice shifts again, and she begins praying for Gwen, who tearfully hangs up. Even with its odd editing, here the foreground of fractured relationships and the background of the disintegrating city perfectly balance one another. Past sins and future fears implode in the present with a fatalistic horror—everything is, and will remain broken.

Jobless, without family support, and driven by a concern for Jules’ future, Gwen desperately returns to the Center. She offers to undergo the procedure and have her consciousness transferred to a new body, selling her rehiring with how satisfied customers are the best promoters. This decision, and the rupture it creates, marks the rest of the film.

The Center’s advertising tagline is “Be the you you were meant to be.” Within it is the main question of the film: What makes you, you? Is it your choices, your body, your relationships, your purpose? There are always societal forces and systems that want to answer the question of identity for you, to determine your desires, to draw you in and form you with the force of their gravity.

In the brokenness of the end, Gwen 2.0 tells her daughter: “You’re alive because of energy and empathy.” And together, in the park, with one hand raised to the heavens and one pointing to the earth, Jules and Gwen spin like whirling dervishes. They spin, with directed energy, chosen speed, together, moving with the peace available to them, possibly salvaging their own gravity.

Editor’s Note: Advantageous is now streaming on Netflix.

Guy In Your MFA

One pretentious, mansplaining, literary tweet at a time, Guy In Your MFA has become an internet phenomenon. Run by Dana Schwartz, since its inception last year the Twitter parody account has been named one of Paste’s  75 Best Twitter Accounts of 2014 and has garnered over 50,000 followers. Dana talked with The Curator about comedy, Twitter, and the literary jerks we all love to hate. This conversation has been edited for publication.


Adam Joyce: What do you do officially?

Dana Schwartz: I’m a student at Brown. So officially what I do on a daily basis is try to make it to graduation without failing out. I study public policy, and I was actually pre-med for a majority of my time at Brown. I made it through organic chemistry, physiology, everything, until last summer when I had my internship at Conan in Los Angeles.

I just fell in love; it was really a round peg-round hole scenario. I had been going full speed ahead with medical school without realizing that what I really loved to do was write, be funny, and try to make things to put out to the world. And I’m really happy that I have a physical project going. So that sort of changed my path – it was a fun conversation to have with my parents.

AJ: Were your parents supportive of the shift? Or was there a long arc to convincing them?

DS: My parents were actually ridiculously supportive, almost ludicrously supportive, especially because they don’t think I’m very funny. So they don’t understand what I do at all. They don’t understand Twitter and I don’t think my humor is their cup of tea. The fact they are still supporting and have faith in my abilities sort of makes it even nicer.

AJ: Are you planning on doing an MFA? Is that the trajectory at this point?

DS: I was planning on it. I took a lot of fiction writing classes. I love writing fiction. Guy In Your MFA (Guy) was born out of a big stack of pieces I needed to critique for the next day and my frustration with this whole culture of pseudo-pretentious literary works, both in myself and in my colleagues.

I had also been researching MFA programs, reading a ton of the journals they put out, reading a lot of very MFA stories, which are their own sort of subgenre. That is sort of how I educated myself into this world. But, actually, at the moment I am not planning on getting one. But I didn’t talk myself out of it through Twitter.

AJ: So it’s not like you mocked your way out of wanting to do an MFA?

DS: I wear the hat that is used in Guy’s image. I have it and I wear it all the time.

AJ: Are you hoping the Twitter personality accomplishes anything? It came out of a humorous venting about this space, but has clearly touched a nerve. Do you have hopes for what it means beyond the venting?

DS: It has already accomplished an incredible amount for me personally. It got me attention from the literary world, an agent, and put me in touch with editors and publishers. And it helped me establish that comedy was something that I was actually capable of doing.

I’ve used it as a starting off point. I started a second parody Twitter account, which was basically to avoid doing real schoolwork. It’s called DystopianYA and is another twist on a genre type. It has been fun for me to practice recognizing and twisting tropes, and whether anything comes directly of those projects or whatever the next step might be, the really important thing is that it has set me up skill-wise and with contacts. So I can work hard and make something really cool for my next project.

AJ: So are there any categories you are hoping to tackle next? Are there any tropes in the on deck circle for mockery?

DS: I wish. I think I have to give up the trope Twitter account though. Or else that will become my “thing,” and I’m hoping to branch out from 140 characters.

AJ: That could become another trope to critique at some point.

DS: Right! You become the girl that spends too much time on Twitter, and that is its own embarrassing sub-genre.

AJ: The infinite regress of Twitter parody accounts that come out of it?

DS: You keep going too deep and looking from mirror to mirror to mirror.

AJ: Have you ever received any pushback over the character?

DS: The good news is not too much. Most people recognize it is a loving parody and that it doesn’t come from an antagonistic or vindictive place. I am a fiction writer; it is something I love to do. Part of the reason I can get into Guy’s head so well is because I have some of that in me. I think all writers kind of do. Whether you grew out of it at 16 or you think you did, we all sort of have that deep down idea that our thoughts matter more than everyone else’s. Or that maybe we understand “Howl” just a little better than Allen Ginsberg.

So no, there has not been a lot of pushback, which makes me very happy. I’ve never hoped to make comedy just for the sake of offending people. I hope people recognize it comes from a place of love. Although the pushback I do get is hilarious and is only from people who don’t understand what it is. For example, I’ll have Guy say something moderately racist or incredibly Texan and some people are flabbergasted at how terrible a human being I am.

My favorite story is about one conversation with a man in real life. There was an article about Guy on my campus, and I was talking about it, and he clearly didn’t know I wrote Guy In Your MFA. He said, “Oh yeah, Guy In Your MFA, I feel like you can only understand it if you are a male writer. It’s talking to a really masculine sensibility.” And he went on to say: “It’s funny for everyone, but it really captures something for male writers to especially relate to.” And I was like, this is so great, almost what I had always wanted. I’ve made it if a man is explaining what I’ve made to me. This is the peak.

AJ: There is always a lot of talk about the cultural consequences of comedy. But this is a moment, where at least people are responding to what Guy exposes and agreeing that this pretentious little voice inside needs to be mocked.

DS: I think part of the power of that literary guy is that he is really intimidating a lot of the time. His goal is to make the people around him feel intellectually insecure. So I think there is power of being able to put into the world the idea how, “Ugh this guy is so frustrating and ridiculous.” And to have a chorus of people come back and say, “Yes, we know,” as opposed to sitting in the corner of your workshop being nervous because he made a snide comment about how you didn’t read Dostoevsky in the original Russian.

Which I did, I should make very clear…

Yeah no, I actually barely read it in English.

In terms of the cultural consequence of comedy I love someone like John Oliver, who can use humor to draw attention to something really important and call it out in a really visible way. One thing I struggled with when I went from pre-med student to comedy writer was whether I was still doing “capital-G good” in the world anymore. And so it became important to me find places where I could still feel good about what I was doing and feel I was having an impact on the world. At the moment that means calling out things that annoy me and things that should change, like how women are treated in comedy.

I was at Conan for an entire summer, and there was not a single sketch with a female character. That bummed me out. Even really modern places like ClickHole, which I adore, has no female staff writers. Or someone as prolific and as incredible as Jerry Seinfeld says something ignorantly dismissive like, “It doesn’t matter where comedy comes from whether it is a man, a woman, or a man of color.” And this was after he got pushback for only having white male comedians on his show for the first season. It made me angry, because there is absolutely a difference in terms of how comedy is perceived coming from a female mouth versus coming from a male mouth, and that is absolutely what I want to draw attention to and try to change.

AJ: So Guy In Your MFA is like a painful medicine?

DS: Yes, some conversations are hard to have but that doesn’t mean they are any less important. It probably means they are more important.

AJ: And humor is a way to make those conversations, not necessarily less painful, but maybe a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down? Yet Disney might not be the best place to go for a philosophy of comedy.

DS: But Disney is a whole other realm of horrible stereotypes and tropes.

I do wonder if Guy In Your MFA comes off as some crazy feminist man hater trying to make all literary white men look bad. When the fact that matters is that Guy just happens to be an identity that is most often put on by straight white males. It’s like when people got mad at Lena Dunham when she wrote that piece about her Jewish boyfriend, because she’s not obviously Jewish. It’s like I’m not allowed to make fun of men because I’m not a man.

AJ: The odd idea that you are only allowed to make fun of those you are exactly like?

DS: Which is why I’m merciless when it comes to my family.

AJ: Maybe that is why they don’t think you are funny?

DS: Probably because I’m not very fair to them.

AJ: If we could switch gears, I’d like to ask you a few questions in character if possible.

DS: Let’s do it. Let me quick put on a hat and some fake glasses to get in character. I don’t wear glasses, but I feel like it would be “on brand” for me.

AJ: So if you could travel back in time and share a whiskey with one writer, who would it be and why?

Guy in Your MFA: Ernest Hemingway. Because I feel that the gritty experience of war cannot be accurately conveyed through literature. His thoughts are only fully experienced in conversation. We could share a drink and stories of love lost.

AJ: So this links up great with the next question. When I read Ernest Hemingway, for some reason I always want to drink red wine. What does reading Hemingway make you want to do?

Guy in Your MFA: Well obviously I know why it makes you want to drink red wine. That is a pretty pedestrian reading of what I assume to be The Sun Also Rises in which he goes to Spain. It is a simple jump from Spain to red wine, so I can’t quite fault you there. However, it makes me want to get out and experience war, to kill large animals for sport in order to reaffirm what it means to be a man. It makes me want to hold a woman, travel the world, and get drunk. But more than that it makes me want to write.

AJ: Do you have any advice for young white writerly males?

Guy in Your MFA: I would assume if you need advice then you are not a real writer. Real writers are always writing, it is not something they work at or seek to achieve, it is something they are burdened with. The ability to write is a gift. Not all possess it, but those who do would never need advice from a fellow weaver of words.


Noteworthy: On Selma

As I’m sure you remember, yesterday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The domestication of memory that comes with an official holiday is sometimes startling. Certain communities boil a life down to selected quotes, prooftexts, to be used and mobilized for a range of agendas. It is common in American culture for our acts of remembering to operate as moments of deep forgetting. However, thankfully, there are ways to resist such acts, and one of them is in the recently released film, Selma.

Film critic Scott Tobias recently wrote in the Dissolve:

But Selma’s true success is as a chamber piece, not a thundering historical epic. DuVernay, who did an uncredited overhaul on Paul Webb’s original script, excels at imagining intimate scenes of great importance, like King’s dealings with LBJ in the Oval Office, the oft-contentious strategy meetings within his inner circles, and his private troubles with Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), who confronts him about his infidelity. All these scenes inform and enrich the action once it moves to the public stage, like all the contentious rewrites and rehearsals that make a première possible.

Selma is an important film for many reasons, but it thankfully it avoids the pitfalls of the epic and draws our attention to what is frequently forgotten. It is about more than just the words of the Civil Rights movement, but what it meant and required of the bodies of those involved. It resists the easy and abstract mythology of Martin Luther King Jr., instead engaging the exhaustion, the doubts, and the threat and reality of systemic violence. So, indeed, today is just as good a day to remember as any.

Drawing Credit: 05slheas

The Discovery Itself Calls forth Further Quests

“Around the throne of God, where all the angels read perfectly, there are no critics—there is no need for them.” ­–Randall Jarrell

American culture tends to harbor little love for the critic. For them, every day is the Day of Judgment. They are vampiric leeches on the life of art. The critic’s role, at best, is to help direct money and time toward more desirable places—a cog in the industry of culture, a modest contributor to sales figures.

So what is criticism? Simply put, criticism is the practice of reflecting on art in public. Most of my “criticism” happens between the end credits of a movie and the theater’s front doors. Just because the movie is over does not mean you are finished. Standing outside the bathroom, waiting with others for others, a shared pile of enjoyments, dislikes, and interpretations quickly accumulate. The experience leads to shared words.

If you Rip van Winkled your way from the 1960s to now, a lot would be the same. As a community and a practice, criticism is obsessed with the terms of its conversation, resulting in a continual re-visitation of its societal purpose. In its short history, crisis is routine for criticism. Where does it belong? The academy? Popular magazines? Your blog? Cave scrawlings of genius hermits? Who is it for? The rich? The amassing poor? The bore? Who does it better? A.O. Scott or Terry Eagleton? Men who eat chocolate or women who skydive? Each answer is part of an unending obsession with the partially secure definition.

Often, discussions of criticism act as an extended answer to the question: are things getting better or worse? The meditations on the status of and responsibilities of criticism pull from the critic’s emotional state—whether apocalyptic, favorable, or Eeyore-esque—with general declarations providing the theoretical foundation. Like generational-based thinking, narratives of decline or ascent are simple ways to mistake your own emotional outlook for the prevailing narrative itself.

But what are words of criticism for? What is their purpose?

Criticism often starts as a form of narrative truth telling. While specifically talking about fiction in her essay Fine Writing, Cranks, and the New Morality: Prose Styles, Annie Dillard says fine writing is:

not a mirror, not a window, not a document, not a surgical tool. It is an artifact and an achievement; it is at once an exploratory craft and the planet it attains; it is a testimony to the possibility of beauty and penetration of written language.

To borrow from this helpful metaphorical winnowing: if fine writing is the exploratory craft, then fine criticism is the bright atmospheric reentry, the conversation afterward where you share your findings with those back on Earth. Most criticism is like a travel memoir, reportage on the far country, the return after the encounter, the interpretive event after the reading, watching, or listening—“When someone goes on a trip, he has something to talk about.”[1] It is narrating and reflecting on the form and course of your specific subjective encounter.

However, the question remains: what is the purpose of the narrative truths of this travel memoir?

Truth, like Guinness, often does not travel well—there are better and worse ways of transport. Problematically, I have a disposition towards the universal, a predilection toward authoritarian uses of “the.” Truth is especially dangerous in the hands of Christians (like myself), for when Christians start talking about truth, it is often because they want the conversation to end. The will to truth is often the will to power. But the truth is not the end.[2] Truth telling is where criticism starts but it is not where criticism, specifically good criticism, ends. Ending a conversation with an assertion of “truth” is the equivalent of buying lumber at Home Depot, and thinking you’ve built a house. The question always becomes what one does with truth.

A helpful way for figuring out the value of something is by figuring out its costs when done poorly. What is the cost of bad criticism? At what expense is bad criticism—hideously wrong engagements with art—written and published and read? Bad criticism threatens to make those who ingest it worse readers, viewers, and listeners of art. The modestly immodest intention of criticism’s narrative truths is to make you a better reader, viewer, listener. As poet and critic Randall Jarrell states, “What is a critic, anyway? So far as I can see, he is an extremely good reader—one who has learned to show to others what he saw in what he read.”

While the seduction of the pulpit is strong, critics aren’t primarily there to get you to agree with them (though sometimes, even often, that seems to be the animating hope) but to enact, to model a well-done reflective act. In “The Function of Criticism,” T.S. Eliot quotes Clutton Brock: ”The law of art…is all case law.” Other experiences with art become a model, and provide a form of wisdom for our own artistic engagements. The faint pedagogy of criticism is in its work as testimony.[3] It is a travel memoir that teaches us how to travel.

Walter Benjamin writes on this relationship between truth, narrative, and wisdom:

All this points to the nature of every real story. It contains, openly or covertly, something useful. The usefulness may, in one case, consist in a moral; in another, in some practical advice; in a third, in a proverb or maxim. In ever case the storyteller is a man who has counsel for his readers. But if today ‘having counsel’ is beginning to have an old-fashioned right, this is because the communicability of experience is decreasing. In consequence we have no counsel for ourselves or for others. After all, counsel is less an answer to a question than a proposal concerning the continuation of a story which is just unfolding. To seek this counsel one would first have to be able to tell the story (Quite apart from the fact that a man is receptive to counsel only to the extent that he allows his situation to speak.) Counsel woven into the fabric of real life is wisdom. The art of storytelling is reaching its end because the epic side of truth, wisdom, is dying out. This, however, is a process that had been going on for a long time.

The truth of criticism is about having counsel. Typically counsel is in the content. X leads to y. Character is destiny. Eat your vegetables. With criticism, counsel is in its form. Think about watching this way, listening this way, enjoying it this way. Someone else’s experience contains wisdom for your experience. There is an analogy of experience, we can learn from the artistic encounters of others. This is criticism is at its most useful, when its bossiness is a little more indirect.

Lurking in the background of this idea of criticism as a testimony, a travel memoir full of narrative truth, is the idea that consumption of good art isn’t good enough. Simply watching movies doesn’t necessarily train you to watch movies better (nor does watching good movies make you a good person). It tends to just train you to watch more movies. In the land of life, liberty, and entertainment, the ideal human is the ideal consumer, one who consumes and disposes with nothing in between—life as a bed-bound Netflix binge—your soul nothing but the pattern of your purchases. This version of the human reduces us to organs of appetite, a mouth attached to an ass—consumption and disposal become indistinguishable acts. What is absent is digestion, time in between. In the act of encountering art, criticism is the time between.

But currently, “Speed is God, and time is the devil.” Ultimately this version of the human and artistic consumption reveals our diseased relationship with time, what Sven Birkerts calls “time sickness.” Happiness and speed become synonyms. We dream of forms of agency and action that are not available to us. To riff on Mr. Churchill, we shape our time and then our time shapes us.

“I have never found anywhere, in the domain of art, that you don’t have to walk to. (There is quite an array of jets, buses, and hacks which you can ride to Success; but that is a different destination.)” –Robin Scott Wilson

Encounters with criticism entail a small alteration in the relationship between time and engaging a work of art. To frame it through the Christian calendar, criticism can be the Advent of the art world. Engaging criticism requires that you look back, that you remember, assimilate, digest, and wait. The simple fact of reflecting adds time to my encounter (and is a small act of faith, and a demand, that the art means). This time is about refining the activity of attention through the activity of reflection. We might see through a glass darkly, but some glasses are darker than others.

Near the end of college, I became obsessed with John Updike. It started with Roger’s Version, and quickly gained momentum. Luckily, every used bookstore has at least one shelf segment of Updike books, so my newfound addiction was inexpensive. My reading of the seventh Harry Potter novel was put off for months due to The Centaur, Poorhouse Fair, In the Beauty of the Lilies, Pigeon Feathers, The Bech books, and a vast sea of criticism, etc.

Damn, that man could write a sentence. If Shakespeare was English at its most agile, then Updike was English alive with simple delights—a particular blend of enchantment and attentiveness to the anatomy of the American routine. I loved the moments when his writing was like a camera stuck in a close up. There is no forest, no trees, nothing but this single leaf and Updike’s encyclopedic words of prose and praise. There was something approximately scriptural about it.

Then came the criticism. I read Sven Birkets’ article, “Running Out of Gas,”

“The self, however grandiose, is finite; the wells do dry up.”[4]

I read Wallace’s “John Updike, Champion Literary Phallocrat, Drops One; Is This Finally the End for Magnificent Narcissists?”

“Mr. Updike’s big preoccupations have always been with death and sex (not necessarily in that order), and the fact that the mood of his books has gotten more wintery in recent years is understandable-Mr. Updike has always written largely about himself, and since the surprisingly moving Rabbit at Rest he’s been exploring, more and more overtly, the apocalyptic prospect of his own death.”

Then, I read Nicolas Baker’s U and I.

“He teaches even in his transgressions.”

After each engagement with this winding road of criticism, patterns became apparent—the use and abuse of female bodies stood out. His “reflexive contempt” as gatekeeper for the realm of literary fiction led to frequent uncharitable critical missteps. My ear picked up the Updike auto-tune. How all of his characters spoke with a homogenous polished tone. Updike was the singular ousia manifest in infinite hypostases.

Finally, I read Month of Sundays, Updike’s novel about a philandering minister. And if I compare these marginalia to my initial Updikean encounter, the underlines are less frequent; the question marks are larger, bolder—with some sticking out of the text like a line of Loch Ness monsters. This marginalia differs remarkably from my notes in In the Beauty of the Lilies, with its flurry of arrows that are afraid to touch the hallowed text itself. My criticisms had congealed; my loves were sculpted down to their dense cores.

photo (56)





Criticism can provide a possible structure (a posture of approach) to and for the artistic experience. This is the common project, the shared mission of this space. As philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty states, “the discovery itself calls forth further quests.” Criticism is wisdom for the “further quests.” With each return, our means of travel, the nature of our experience, are shared, refined, critiqued. Criticism is there to help train your senses, the artistic hungers, and your reflective capacities.

If life is a problem, then art is not a very effective solution. If art is a question, criticism is not its answer. Don’t read criticism looking for answers; be on the hunt for forms of engagement.



[1] Walter Benjamin quoting a German saying.

[2] However, if I am to be honest with myself here, and if one were to press me on it, any discussion of the truth would involve me invoking Christ, because Christ is not a footnote, until he is.

[3] This understanding of testimony is heavily indebted to Alan Jacobs’ Looking Before and After: Testimony and the Christian Life.

[4] On an odd note of recent literary criticism history, this essay was published the same day, in a different magazine, as Wallace’s strikingly similar article.

Noteworthy: Is Art Up to the Task?

This is the inaugural post of what will become a consistent part of The Curator’s content. In addition to our normal offerings,  we are going to begin publishing short reflective links, basically reblogging. One of the primary hopes of The Curator is to foster conversation, and so much good work and good discussion is happening elsewhere—we feel The Curator should highlight, extend, and ruminate upon this content in a helpful way. We hope you enjoy this new aspect of the magazine. 

This past week in the New York Times A.O. Scott and other artists had a panel discussion on the question: “Is our Art Equal to the Challenges of Our Times?” With the financial crisis and Ferguson in mind, A.O. Scott says: “But we are in the midst of hard times now, and it feels as if art is failing us.”

The thoughts provided by the wide range of panelists are imprecise, human, and needed.

But they also raised a host of further questions for me. What is art and what is its responsibility? Is it an antibiotic? An escape? Is it the answer or the question? If art has failed, what sort of failure is it? Has the world outpaced art, or has art’s social muscles atrophied?

Justin Simien, director of Dear White People, says the following when asked if artists have a responsibility to engage social issues like race and class:

“The best stories hold a clean mirror up. They take the chaos in our experiences, strain them through the point of view of a storyteller, and give context and insight to our lives. Race and class issues especially need this mirror, as more and more of culture seems reticent to even admit these issues still exist, let alone address them.”

Read the rest of the discussion here. Read our review of Dear White People here.

I Know What You Read this Summer

If you have them, your tan lines are starting to solidify. Your primary fruit intake? The quarter-moon of ragged lime you ram into your Corona. Shark Week is over. Your body lets you know it’s tired of the heat when dreams of autumn begin loitering at the edges of your sleep. Summer is coming to an end. But summer has only truly ended when websites and magazines stop publishing their summer reading lists.

Nothing is more constant during summer than reading lists. These literary ten commandments are rarely timid, with critics and curators inviting you to partake of their garbage casserole of praise—promising enjoyment, increased empathetic abilities, readerly enrichment, and topical conversation on something new. It’s like Iron Chef, or even better yet, some sort of bodybuilding contest. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, “My one hope is to be endorsed by the intellectually elite & thus be forced onto people as [Joseph] Conrad has.” The current literary world: a labyrinthine stage, filled to the bursting with flexed, oiled, and elitist muscle.

But these muscles flex for a purpose, a noble cause, right? Depressing statistics about American book reading are evidence of wisdom’s gradual apocalypse, a sluggish decline and ADD self-lobotomization wrought by Netflix, email, the latest Call of Duty, maybe even the failure to floss. Lists, syringes filled with the life-giving serum of the micro-orthodoxies of taste, let the people know, guiding them toward the wise and the fun and the cultured. How, then, can the people speak of what they have not read? How can they read that which they have not heard? How can they hear without someone preaching to them?

The world does not need another religious document dripping with inky superlatives, alliteration, and metaphors. Buzzfeed has taught us, often, lists are nothing more than chum in the cultural waters. They are buckets of blood, providing impressions of learning and life, but not the thing itself. In an interview with Der Spiegel about his Louvre exhibition on lists, Umberto Eco said, “We like lists because we don’t want to die.” But this is an emphasis from the wrong end, a philosopher practiced at giving the same answer to different questions. For sharks, the blood indicates life, something living or almost living to be consumed. Humans are sharks, with click bait lists drawing us near with the promise of life. In return, we provide clicks.

“We like lists because we don’t want to die.” ~ Umberto Eco

Like chum, lists, in their own way, are liars. Most literary lists have an anatomy to them, a consistent pattern of promotion and taste—an impression of life. The repetitious anatomy of these lists is comfortably predictable from year to year, institution to institution (NYT, TED, NPR, Buzzfeed, etc.). So here is a dissection of the anatomy of curatorial intention that seems to animate so many of the recommended summer and end-of-year lists—to invert Wordsworth’s classic dictum, we dissect in order to murder the desire to click.

  • A character discovers their sexuality. “Coming-of-age” occurs no less than five times in the blurbs for the book.
  • This book was thick, hence it’s “Dickensian” and “ground-breaking.”
  • This book is thin. This means it’s “haunting” because we [the list curators] don’t even know where that plot could have gone.
  • On a road trip, a troubled past follows the female protagonist like a bloodhound. Can’t we relate?
  • We agree with this author’s political views so that means his/her fiction book is “timely” and “compelling.”
  • Something by that international author that no one in his/her home country knows of, but we do. An “authentic” read.
  • Small desires, mistaken for large ones, remain unfulfilled. Suburbia is hell.
  • A bonfire of pathos, this tale of acerbic love, sardonic betrayal, and lively death—ultimately, a hopeful work.
  • NY author. Do not let the overuse of the verb “woven” in the review fool you, the author is not a seamstress.
  • The author, born in Georgia, lived in NY, and now lives in Georgia again. We included it, because it is commendable as a consciously provincial work.
  • A romance. But don’t let the sitcomish premise fool you; this book is Shakespearian in its profundity.
  • This book got censored somewhere. Was it in China? Or was it Iran? Yeah, we think it was China. If it got censored it deserves inclusion.
  • The author assures us this isn’t autobiographical. Look, see, he/she has assured us of this in at least two interviews. Fake fiction at its finest.
  • My God—it’s full of words! Words we have read.
  • That book about those guys in World War II. A meditation on the memory of men who smoke while doing manly things.
  • Event, event description, date of event. Details forthcoming.
  • A book so grippingly boring that you will mistake boredom for increasing intelligence.
  • A surprising and unlikely friendship between these two historical figures.
  • A riveting genealogy of a mundane object, like a sofa, cubical, or salt. We say “absorbing” and “unearthing” so many times in the review, you will think it’s about an archeological dig for a roll of Bounty paper towels.
  • A reconsideration of a life that has been considered many times. We called this biography “fresh.”
  • Young author essay collection. Since they are young we called this “prodigiously provocative.”
  • Contrarian words from a tenured professor.
  • 50% gossip, 50% ghostwriter, 100% behind the scenes.
  • The story of this horse. People love horses. Roughly centered on horses.
  • A book—a voluminous single volume—about cutting-edge Neurobioelectrosurgery and what it means for humanity. The editor couldn’t finish this, but, science.
  • An oddity of history narrated pensively. Title typically involves: “How the [Blank] behind the [Blank] became a/an [Blank].”
  • Minimalist cover, minimalist argument.
  • From a few anecdotes this public intellectual creates theory about everything—Malcolm Gladwellish or David Brooks-esque.
  • Anxiety memoir with happy ending. Writer drinks vodka.
  • Anxiety memoir with sad ending. Writer drinks bourbon. We called it “sobering.”

This isn’t an argument against lists in general,[1] or against public expressions of readerly love and pleasure, rather it’s an argument against using lists to express that love and pleasure. There are books and authors I love, that if asked about at a party I would gush and praise, eventually forcing you to make eyes at your significant other—like a shot from a flare gun of a shipwrecked crew—to ask for a rescue. But salvation takes many forms, and knowing what to steer clear of is its own form of rescue. Reader, rescue yourself—don’t click on the lists.


[1] The genealogies in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures are examples of lists that are full of life.

“Whatever is said, the past remains”

(At Left) Cotton candy clouds, warm sunlight dancing with dust motes, trees and flowers stretching skyward as if about to break out into song, all trademarks of the deceased Painter of Light™, Thomas Kinkade. (At Right) Saloons and shooting rainbows of blood, continuous trains of entendres and and one-liners, every scene a homage, every human limb a trunk to be sawed off, all trademarks of the living Director of Blood, Quentin Tarantino.

Some supposed real estate wisdom holds that when putting your house on the market, you should take down any pictures of your family to help prospective buyers envision themselves within the space. Thomas Kinkade’s paintings operate by this principle, for most of the landscapes he paints are human-free. The absence of people is how Kinkade sells what he paints—the lack of others permitting a frictionless imaginative exercise that the locales in his paintings are yours.

Even after his death Kinkade functions as a preferred punching bag of the faith and arts conversation, and rightly so. Kinkade used light to re-create creation. In his own words: “I love to create beautiful worlds where light dances and peace reigns. I like to portray a world without the Fall.”[2] Light imposes his Edenic edits upon the world. The soft glows, the pastel sunsets, the sun softly kissing thatched roofs and moderately unkempt forests; light is his means of sentimentality. Through light Kinkade censors the world, the brush strokes forming an unearthly creation and inviting the viewer to forget the Fall. For all of this criticism and mockery Kinkade is our Dante, providing an innovative picture of what hell looks like—empty cottages by the sea.

However, the faith and art conversation doesn’t need another Kinkade–bash. Instead, I want to turn from the Painter of Light to the Director of Blood, Quentin Tarantino.

At present Tarantino is two films into his “rewritten history” trilogy. The first, Inglourious Basterds, turns Hitler into a bullet-riddled pile of putty. His corpse is then blown up and burned, enacting what has been called a “counter-Holocaust.” In Django Unchained slave-owners are shot through the heart; slave traders get their heads blown to bits; armies of plantation goons are cut down.

The reasons for this violent re-writing of history? Tarantino said in an interview with NPR:

“I do think it’s a cultural catharsis, and it’s a cinematic catharsis. Even — it can even be good for the soul, actually. I mean, not to sound like a brute, but one of the things though that I actually think can be a drag for a whole lot of people about watching a movie about, either dealing with slavery or dealing with the Holocaust, is just, it’s just going to be pain, pain and more pain. And at some point, all those Holocaust TV movies — it’s like, ‘God, I just can’t watch another one of these.’ But to actually take an action story and put it in that kind of backdrop where slavery or the pain of World War II is the backdrop of an exciting adventure story — that can be something else. And then in my adventure story, I can have the people who are historically portrayed as the victims be the victors and the avengers.”

Do viewers of the Shoah yawn? Or maybe a reader of Night by Elie Wiesel intersperses the story with viewings of online cat videos? It’s troubling that the horrors of the past might be boring, in need of an injection of action to maintain our attention. Tarantino’s understanding of his revenge fantasies sounds similar to Psalm 137, “Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks”—a cathartic prayer of vengeance expressing the Jewish communal anger over the injustice of the Babylonian exile. Echoes aside, there are deep differences between Tarantino’s films and this Jewish prayer. Psalm 137 has a purpose to its catharsis. Instead of being consumed by or acting on the anger, this psalm believes it is better to give your thirst for vengeance and violence to God. Instead of waging war against their oppressors in the physical streets of Babylon, the Jewish community met them on the battlefield of prayer.

Tarantino’s films are more like Memento, Christopher Nolan’s film about an amnesiac, Leonard, who seeks revenge on a man named John G. for the murder of his wife. Because of his memory problems, Leonard forgets that he has already killed John G. So Leonard is always on the search for the next John G., the next body to enact his revenge upon. The process of revenge, not its satisfaction, is what Leonard lives for. This is Tarantino’s filmic career. Pull it all away: the great scenes and the poorly executed stories, the solipsism of filmic self-reference, the excellent actors, the one liners—all you have is the feeling of revenge, an endless loop of spilt blood and broken bone. Like Leonard, these films live for the kinetic feeling of revenge, not for the resolution of horrific memories.

For films containing wars worth of violence and bloodshed, there is an odd rarity of corpses in Tarantino films. His films are awash with the dying yet scarcely show the dead.[3]  At first it seems that the heroes don’t have time to deal with the corpses—they’re always on their way to the next killing—but this dearth of the dead gets even odder in Django, given that the title character and Dr. Schultz are bounty hunters who supposedly transport the bodies of their victims back to the court for a reward. In this long blood-fest we never once see them handling or transporting a corpse. Even the famous “Oh man, I just shot Marvin in the face” scene from Pulp Fiction, an almost 17-minute scene about disposing a body, only contains a brief one-second shot of the corpse. These films are comfortable with violence but not with death. When it comes to dealing with death, these films are prudish. They live according to the Memento principle: revenge is an infinite dish, best served again and again and again.

In Tarantino’s films every human is an ocean of red, the skin a thin dam waiting to burst, to spray, to gush, to spout and cover the world in its brilliant color. Tarantino’s blood functions like Kinkade’s light. This is how the world is re-born and re-recreated—censored through light and blood. The paintings of Kinkade hate the world as it is and the films of Tarantino hate the world they have inherited. Through farcical violence the rough draft of the past is re-written; history is taken by the throat and throttled until it retells its tale.

Ultimately though, while Django and Basterds are mindful of the history of film it’s a mistake to think these films are mindful of history. Violence is fun and history provides bodies for the cinematic meat grinder. No one mourns slaughtered Nazis and slave-owners.

Through comedic bloodshed Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds forget the tragic dimensions of history—watching them feels like viewing a production of King Lear where the only voice you can hear is that of the fool, with the pain and the tragedy fading into the background. Tarantino and his films use blood to sentimentalize rage and, by extension, the activities of revenge. The Holocaust and slavery provide an opportunity for humor-laced rage, for emotions without a telos, killing without bodies, indulgent revenge without any self-wounding. The comedic violence rejects the difficulty of the past, making it safe again by overlaying the cries of memory with a laugh track. There is no truth to this remembering because these films do not want to remember at all, for: “A man who makes a religion out of the comic is unable to face suffering.”[4] If blood is Tarantino’s cathartic laugh track, then it is the laugh track of our forgetting, a euphoric communal lobotomy. It is possible that stories without hope, pure nihilistic tragedy, are better, truer than the hope of Django and Basterds. These films are animated by warped hopes and failures of memory—hoping to balance the debts of the past by denying their existence. Sort of like painting a world without the Fall.

In their own way, the works of Kinkade and Tarantino long for the redemption of the past. Instead of inviting grief or confession, they hope to undo the broken reality of what was and what is. But we cannot ban tragedy, and neither can we forget it. The past is not ours to redeem; it is ours to remember.



[1] Rowan Williams, Lost Icons.

[2] “The Kinkade Crusade,” Christianity Today.

[3] The three notable exceptions to this are the two bloodbaths in Kill Bill, and one in Django Unchained, when the bodies become props amidst the continued killing.

[4] W.H. Auden

A Review of “Unapologetic: Why Christianity Makes Surprising Emotional Sense”

“Christians have given atheists less and less in which to disbelieve” –Alasdair MacIntyre

Western Christianity received the atheists it deserved. Better yet, Britain has the atheists American Christianity earned: Those for whom Christianity is a cloud of illusion composed of the collective rituals and fears of humanity’s childish past. Those meteorologists hope for a strong rational wind to clear our minds and lives. They are critics who only speak the language of caricature.

I’ve tried to avoid this conversation for the most part. Both sides seem invested in a project of systematic confusion. Then, from the clouds of the Internet comes a distant thunder. There is a book, and it is good. You see it excerpted on someone’s Tumblr. It slides by on your Amazon “Customers Who Bought This Also Bought” scroll. Next you see it on a friend’s bookshelf, and then someone praises it in a conversation. It announces its arrival with a thud at your front door, and you read it. This book is Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic: Why Christianity Makes Surprising Emotional Sense, set to come out in the US this autumn.

More narrative than argument, Spufford’s account reflects its author’s lack of interest in tossing another stick into the standard anti-New Atheist bonfire. He uses their collective brood to establish the climate to which he writes, but then spends little time with their ideas. Instead of arguing the history, brandishing the philosophy or defending the ideas of Christianity, Spufford defends Christian emotions. The danger for such a book, as Wordsworth expressed it, is that, “we murder to dissect.” Spend an entire book on emotional navel-gazing and your feelings might lie cold and dead on the page, chopped to bits by over-analysis. Spufford’s emotions avoid such a fate. Think of Unapologetic as a virtual reality tour of the pathways of a heart, a guided exploration of his emotive geography—like explaining Christianity by starting with the Psalms. What does it feel like to trust, to forgive, to cry, to screw up, to hope, to love when one believes the God of Everything interrupted death and is mending the world in this flesh and blood man, Jesus Christ? Spufford invites the reader into the emotional language and landscape of Christianity, overthrowing the mini-tyrannies and traditions of the Christian/atheist “mud-wrestling match” in the process. [1]

The human race has come up with plenty of myths that are the theological equivalent of pornography, stories following the directorial instructions of wish fulfillment. The story of Christ—his ministry, death, resurrection—has become familiar in all the wrong ways, morphing into a clone of our petty and parasitic prejudices. For Christians, Spufford’s writing makes the familiar strange; for others it can make the strange intelligible. Humanity is an infinite onion of self-deception and distortion—or, as Spufford shorthands it, sin is the “human propensity to fuck things up,” or HPtFtU. Christianity is the “League of the Guilty” and Jesus is Yeshua. In this context Unapologetic includes perhaps the greatest midrash (a creative retelling that is also a commentary) on the gospel stories that I have ever encountered: stripping away the false layers of suburban sensibility, Spufford channels the directed lunacy of Christianity’s founder.

His retelling makes the story of Christ peculiar for the right reasons—its foolish generosity, unsettling judgment of self-righteousness, the seemingly naïve and insane proclamation that, even though the world is mangled, there is no limit to what can be repaired. Spufford reminds us that the Christian God is the God who spent more time in gutters than he did in palaces.

The Christian community is just as subject to HPtFtU as the rest of humanity. Still, Spufford wisely sidesteps the kind of quantitative misery-counts we hear too often from evangelicals that sound something like “Christianity has caused less suffering than your worldview.” “The bad stuff,” says Spufford, “cannot be averaged. It can only be confessed.” [2] Truthful human self-narration only occurs in this context. God’s grace provides a painful reorientation, not a simple run through the divine dishwasher. Grace makes us “better readers of each other,” shaping and changing us, not necessarily into lives of virtue, but a sense of healing and forgiveness. [3]

Spufford’s experience and his Christianity prevent an easy satisfaction with easy answers and by the end he has outpaced his New Atheist opponents not through arguments but the telling of a story. The narrative of Christ is its own apologetic. No system of theodicy can withstand an honest look at the world. The sharp and spinning gears of history grind up every justification and explanation. We have no answer but “God with us.” Spufford is right: we don’t have a solution, we have a story and a person.

Spufford writes within earshot of both the cry of Calvary and the music of Mozart—recognizing that a Christianity that fails to “take suffering seriously” or fails to mourn is a Christianity without hope.[4] Scripture tells the story of a God whose arms are wide enough to embrace both. The world is more than tragic and to say otherwise is just self-deception. The world is hopelessly broken…and yet. I am hopelessly broken…and yet.[5]  The cross was our violence in response to God’s presence, to hearing the truth about ourselves…and yet. HPtFtU is the truth, but not the final truth. The cross is a sign and promise of God’s faithfulness amidst our failure, our HPtFtU. God does not ration forgiveness. Through Jesus, God loves us so we become God’s again. Jesus is the Triune God’s “and yet.” Christ is the conjunction that makes sure that death is not the final word of creation. He is the “and” that replaces the small dot following “death.”

Though Spufford writes with over-caffeinated agitation, his prose is hypnotic, full of stinging wit and perfect metaphors. It’s impressive that such a book emerges amidst the New Atheist gladiatorial clamor, taking a lead pipe to the theological and rhetorical knees of the current conversation. One could quibble with a number of passages—how Spufford lumps Islam and Judaism together, or the string of assertions that populate certain segments. But that would miss the point. The more I read, the more most theology books seem the equivalent of a police officer handing out parking tickets in the middle of a riot, or a professor giving a lecture after the class has left. Spufford stands apart: think the Psalms, think Augustine’s Confessions, think Edward’s Religious Affections. Francis Spufford has given us a gift, or better yet a counter-gift. The gift is his narrative; the gift of Christ’s story retold. It’s not a perfect gift, but it certainly is the right one. Christianity will be the better for it, and so will atheism.



[1] Francis Spufford, Unapologetic, somewhere.

[2] Ibid., 169.

[3] Ibid., 203.

[4] Ibid., 164. Also, this statement draws from a similar statement by Jurgen Moltmann.

[5] Ibid., 207.

Art in the Ruins

Recently my girlfriend and I went to the river arts district in Asheville, NC. The final brewery we wanted to visit was closed, so we turned to art. Mostly empty, one of the buildings was a mixture of studios and galleries. We looked at pottery, asked the artists some questions, and descended into the basement gallery. The gallery rested in a repurposed fall-out shelter—the modern equivalent of the Neolithic cave. It was primal, dank, providing a sense that we were not the only living things present. As we entered, a teddy-bear-esque humanoid hanging by a noose greeted us. The first painting held former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke celebrating with the CEOs of Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo, and my own Bank of America in some palatial hall. Their eyes were cowish—wide and wet—with clawed hands holding bursting bags of cash. In another psychedelic painting machine-guns emerged from politicians’ mouths spraying bullets and a set of otherwise traditional portraits featured drones zooming overhead. Grenades with locks rested atop display stands and a large oil painting of a wild-eyed child eating dog food hung in the corner. There was also a half empty bottle of wine and a glass with a broken stem, but this was not part of the official display.

These pieces attempted to pry open the face of our political clockwork and unveil the gears of greed and avarice pumping and steaming underneath. Here was the full fury of didactic, pedantic, finger-wagging art. At the very least it sought to incite a response, a visceral reaction. If Ben Bernanke sleeps the sleep of the just, maybe I should toss and turn with the restlessness of truth. And while I agree with what those fingers were wagging at, I hated this art. In this repurposed fall-out shelter, political commentary became its own form of kitsch.[1] Any level of complexity or variation in mood would have suffocated this art’s explicit message and straightforward emotional agenda. Through political argumentation these pieces covered up the humanity of others, each brush stroke composed of equal parts paint and op-ed. Overall, my dislike of it boiled down to a cliché; we stood amidst art that was all telling and no showing. Like mimes on their day off, the pieces just wouldn’t shut up. Am I unfair? No doubt.

Uncharitable interpretations have a way of generating more questions than answers. This one raises the expected question; how does one define art, especially good art? I’ve been told good art is, and is for, many things: self-expression; making the world strange; becoming a better person; transcendence; a conduit for the sublime; beauty; the infinite; justice; catharsis; instruction; entertainment; life; death; power; love; truth; gift; story; meaning; excess of meaning; exodus from reality; forming the slow speed of empathy; aristocratic self-aggrandizement; art is useful, art is useless; art is art, art gives us, us; art is a mirror; art is spectacles; art is a window; an axe to break up the frozen sea within us; art is dead.

If it’s dead, can I poke at it with a stick?

For me good art is an image, song, sentence or structure that causes me to read, look, or listen at least twice. There are many reasons that I’ve engaged something twice. Sometimes it’s because I enjoyed it or because my teacher assigned it or because I disagreed with it or because my church reveres it. However, I tend to return to a work of art because it contains some subtlety or provides pleasure. I felt love or meaning, and my senses invited me to “spend a little more time.” I return to the work with a reason, asking “How much of the world is it showing me?” or just wanting to experience it again. The art and I strike up a relationship, sometimes even a friendship.

Oddly enough, for all of the time I spend with it, (esp. novels and film) art has played a humble role in my life. If I ever find myself at a psychological precipice, I doubt art will be the one to talk me down.[2] This is a boring confession, but art has never saved my life. What would that even mean, how would that happen? There I am, my heart flat-lining with despair or anguish and Samuel Beckett runs in, gives me CPR, and restarts its pumping? This is not to make light of these things. Art has saved people, just not me.

Even though art hasn’t “saved” me, amidst its twiceness art has changed me, formed me, even seduced me. I read Ender’s Game over and over because I want to make sure I’m nothing like the Napoleonic protagonist, Ender. I read Gilead over and over because my idea of grace needs to be sanctified, stripped down to the essentials. I watch Life of Brian because I want to laugh. I pray the Psalms because they give language to my grief. I see the Broadway production of Lion King over and over because my sister wants to. With others, I kneel before the cross because it stands as sign that God “takes the existence of suffering seriously.”[3] My twiceness hopefully relates to acts of repetition residing in the creation of the art. The photographer snaps one more picture for the love of it, the dancer jumps back onto floor for the fun of it, the drummer strikes the drum again for the fullness of it, the author writes another draft for the truth of it—each concerned with the good of what they’re making. And I return for different reasons, some good some bad, all of them human—a desirable déjà vu, a willingly Sisyphean act. In each encounter the cup of my senses overflows, spilling into my incomplete perception, mixing measures of love into loneliness, diluting falsity with truth, dissolving small hard bits of ugliness and ignorance.

Return with me to the fall-out shelter—my brain floating in beer amidst this violent art: the drones, the politicians, the grenades, the noosed teddy bear. The drone peels itself off from the portrait, flies to D.C. seeking the destruction of Ben Bernanke’s moneyed bacchanalia. The grenades undo their safety pins; rolling into the nearest bank vault; the teddy bear remains still as ever; the art, an AI becoming self-aware, the human creation decides it doesn’t want humanity anymore. These machines of oil and ink and papier-mâché determine that humanity is the excess, the virus requiring elimination. Each piece longed to turn perpetrators into victims, imitating the violence it sought to critique. This art made people engaged in dehumanizing activities, inhuman—attempting to take away any twiceness for flesh and blood. It elects to make evil free of ambiguity, one-dimensional, the work of individual and indisputable devils.

I’ve heard that survivalists secretly wish for the apocalypse. As we walked around the bunker, these pieces screamed that everyone outside was already dead, already lost, already infected by the plague. The apocalypse was now. The only way to survive was to stay, locked up, never breaching the world again. But this bunker art got the world inside out—inviting us to break out the bubbly at a funeral and bring ashes to a birthday. Each piece is an answer that forgot the question; their vision of survival was actually a form of death. Here, ploughshares were beaten back into swords.

What did I do?

I walked upstairs and bought some pottery.

[1] I imagine this art’s ideal American government is something akin to 1920s Paris ex-pat community. Congress split between the parties of poetry, painting, writing, and music—you walk into the U.S. Capital’s rotunda filled with the in-use painting easels of Senators. The sound of jamming cover bands leaks under the doors of congressional offices. This is just a guess though.

[2] As I say this, a library copy of David Shields’s How Literature Saved my Life, the kindle edition of Gregory Wolfe’s Beauty Will Save The World, and Francis Spufford’s The Child That Books Built are all judging me.

[3] Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity can still make Surprising Emotional Sense, 164.

Whither Trickster?

“Alas,” said the mouse, “the whole world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into.”

“You only need to change your direction,” said the cat, and ate it up.

A Little Parable by Franz Kafka


The insights of Kafka’s parables sneak up from behind, whisper “Guess who?” and leave before revealing themselves. Fate provides the DNA for his myths—mad dreams we can’t explain, but resonate with, as Joyce Carol Oates said, “feelingly.”  Kafka’s universe is not evil. Its better nature has dozed off, or is catching up on a bunch of paperwork. But these fatalistic feelings so personal to Kafka’s sense of his own life describe modern life well, too. If a cosmic history book exists, the 20th century was recorded in Kafka’s handwriting.

The U.S.A.—the odd place where people happily buy and choose away their freedom—exists inside Kafka’s myth. Fate is the fog that enshrouds it. Life is one big trap, a labyrinth we forgot we’ve built, the spell we forget we cast. Every choice is a guess, every moment a lottery.  How do we spring the trap, kill the cat and tear down the walls that channel us to the last chamber?

It’s impossible to repeal a myth with rational arguments or statistics. Facts are fickle things, able to serve any story. Trying to defeat a myth with serious speeches and weighty sermons is like trying to arm-wrestle an elephant—it just doesn’t make sense. Our concepts won’t save us. Only myths can fight myths. We need a myth to go toe-to-toe with Kafka’s bind—one light on its feet, with a good left hook, a chiseled jaw line, etc. The answer may lie in the trickster.  

In a foreign land under a starry, dark sky a god is born. He is surrounded by animals, loved by his mother, and wrapped in swaddling clothes. His father is king of the cosmos, and his name is Jesus Hermes. This Greek god’s birth narrative includes the stealing of Apollo’s cattle and inventing the lyre. Hermes enshrines himself as a part of Olympus through humorous lying. Hermes is a trickster, the incarnation of ambiguity and change.[1]

In Greek mythology Olympus represents order, the proper ways of the world. Hermes exists to unsettle and confuse those ways. He is but one member of the trickster pantheon, along with Anansi, the spinner of webs and catcher of flies, the Norse Loki, the South African Eshu, Indian Krishna, the Native American coyote and even Br’er Rabbit. Each is a shifty thief who lives at the threshold, lord of the in-between, god of the hinge. The world is filled with hungry powers—traps and cats—and the trickster survives by outwitting them. They are liars, they are thieves, the weavers of false charms that every culture needs for its survival.According to scholar Lewis Hyde,

[Humanity] constantly distinguish[es]—right and wrong, sacred and profane, clean and dirty, male and female, young and old, living and dead—and in every case trickster will cross the line and confuse the distinction…the trickster is a boundary crosser…[2]

Tricksters violate life in order to maintain it, redraw social boundaries by crossing them, slip our orderly traps through humor and creative intelligence. Tricksters are the chiropractors of the communal imagination, loosening joints stiff with cultural arthritis. They exist as mockers who attack all mockers, archetypes that assault other archetypes; their lies lead to fresh truths, their thefts actually gifts. Hyde, again:

[The trickster] resolves [dilemmas] with a theft that confuses the definition of theft, with lies that muddy the truth, with speech that shifts the thresholds of shame, with chance operations that dissolve hierarchy—and with a musical tongue that cast new spells even as the old ones are undone.[3]

Every community has its Cheshire cat and needs its trickster, a character whose jokes inspire laughter that leave us with ideological vertigo. Their humorous message tunnels underneath the illusion that we are free from illusion. Not all illusions are evil and insidious. Fantasies, myths and stories are all part of what keeps human life human. Communal illusions rarely collapse under direct assault, but they do fall to a comic Trojan horse filled with truth. The best tricksters find and pierce the joints in institutional armor, unveiling the law itself as unlawful, toppling mini-North Koreas of the mind. Through the trickster, comedy’s cup overflows—our laughter means something—delivers us by undoing us. The trickster is the myth that shepherds us to a better reality. By disrupting the old spells and myths, the trickster creates new meanings, new boundaries, new futures.

Many artists claim something akin to tricksterdom. It’s easy to mistake oneself for a cultural prophet when one is actually just a contrarian asshole. Simply because what we say is right doesn’t mean we speak truth, just as being a fool doesn’t make us a holy fool. Much of art’s countercultural posture merely creates a more spacious and gaudy cultural cage. Those who claim to think outside of the box often live inside a slightly bigger box. Their idea of escape is part of the prison itself.

It might be helpful to point to someone who naturally appears as a trickster: Stephen Colbert. He resonates with parts of the mythology. He’s an equal opportunity mocker, politically androgynous, is probably the most feared interviewer in America and uses irony in service of political discourse. But his disruptions are domesticated. He is a fire contained, one that singes but never burns. Contra the trickster, Colbert’s irony never leaves the interplay of opposites. His irony only begets more irony. In a frank interview on Meet the Press in 2007 about the character “Stephen Colbert,” he says the following:

Tim Russert: But it is interesting in your program you’re not afraid to take on the press corps, the president, issues. I mean you do it in a humorous way…

Stephen Colbert: But there are no consequences.[4]

Tim Russert: But you’re still informing and educating and entertaining people.

It’s indicative that there has never been a real controversy or outrage over something Colbert has said, and ruffling Bill O’Reilly’s or President Bush’s feathers don’t count.  In good Mary Poppins fashion Colbert has remarked: “Jokes makes things palatable….Comedy just helps an idea go down.”[5] But Colbert’s irony is all sugar and no medicine—I think it’s called a placebo. To play with a line from The Dark Knight, Colbert is the hero we want, not the hero we need.  Have you heard that explosion of applause at the beginning of the show? Instead, the trickster lives by Christopher Hitchens’ maxim:

A rule of thumb with humor; if you worry that you might be going too far, you have already not gone far enough. If everybody laughs, you have failed.[6]

The trickster’s jokes—all the best jokes—remain about other people for around ten seconds. They wipe the smile off our faces with laughter. The trickster’s irony accomplishes something—it doesn’t co-exist with smug self-approval, but reveals that we don’t know what we thought we knew. The irony that acts as a restraining order on meaning, the “I-don’t-mean-what-I-say-irony” rhetorical device is an irony that isn’t really Irony, It never gives birth to more than words, never discovers the “acres of ignorance” within us.[7] Colbert’s irony is as predictable as a pop song and comfortably slips into bed with what we already knew all along: American politics and news can be absurd. The resultant knowing smiles and laughter frees [AJ1] you from having to do anything about what it mocks—making laughter itself problematic, unhumorous. In other words, Colbert is funny as hell, he’s truthy, the trickster myth courses in his veins—but he’s not a trickster.

If you are looking for a trickster, look to the margins. People tend to become tricksters when society gives them no other choice. Take, for example, Zora Neale Hurston. Her fiction, her autobiography (Dust Tracks on the Road) and her life move with a trickster’s agility—filled with witty lies that defrost the stiff hierarchies and boundaries of race, gender and class. Like one of her fictional characters, High John de Conquer, through her writing she “made a road where there was no road,” a road paved by laughter “that gushes up to retrieve sanity.”[8]

Cultures are healthier and more hospitable when they find themselves periodically disarmed of domesticated shalom. This is why Microsoft and Apple hire hackers to test their software—they reveal the glitches, the holes, the unknown. The trickster does something similar. In his hands, the truth becomes a lock-pick for stealing things that should be stolen. Every community needs a place for those who subvert that place. The trickster, with humor and irony, reveals the world as porous and comes as the ambassador of a better culture.

Every bit of seriousness, every household god and every sacred cow are ripe for mockery and theft by the trickster. Humor, funnily enough, is a seriously moral business. The road to truth is paved with balderdash. There is only one way to escape Kafka’s fatalistic parable, to undo the cruel joke we authored. We need a new joke—a joke so funny the cat can’t laugh.

[1] Anything good or interesting about the trickster in this segment comes from Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes this World.

[2] Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes this World, 7.

[3] Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes this World, 219.

[4] This point becomes even more pointed and problematic with one of John Stewart’s final statements at the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. He said: “If you want to know why I’m here and what I want from you, I can only assure you this: you have already given it to me. Your presence was what I wanted.” He and Colbert want viewers, nothing more.

[5] Stephen Colbert, on “Meet the Press,” October 14 2012.

[6] Christopher Hitchens, Letters to a Young Contrarian, 122.

[7] Guy Davenport, “The Scholar as Critic,” 95.

[8] Alice Walker, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston.”


The Devil has All the Best Films

If your walls start bleeding and screaming, call a priest. If you see a man in a hockey mask, run. Divide and conquer—also known as “let’s split up”—is inadvisable. If you wake up in a hospital and the nurse doesn’t answer your buzzes—welcome to the zombie apocalypse.

Horror movies have much to teach us: How we portray the inhuman tells us how we perceive the human. Monster stories emerge from dark and sewered portions of the communal imagination, oozing with meaning.

Take, for example, the zombie. In the 1930s and 40s the zombie was personified as a racialized voodoo slave (White Zombie and I Walked With a Zombie). In the Cold War/Space Race era, radiation zombies were the product of global nuclear disasters (Night of the Living Dead). Then during the early 2000s amidst fears of biological warfare, viral “zombies” made an appearance (28 Days Later). The zombie has evolved and mutated with us, reflecting our fears, our pathologies, our hopes, our outcasts—a generational Rorschach test.

One can summarize this as the “our monsters, ourselves” reading—the call to recognize the vampire, the zombie, the werewolf, the monster within us. Monsters provide a mirror for portions of ourselves we would rather forget. However, through the grotesque horror can “wake us up,” interrupt the communal lullaby. The cultural closet is packed to bursting with skeletons—horror opens the door and turns on the light. At its best, horror can startle us into true forms of humanity—providing a revelatory confrontation, an exorcism of idols, a cultural scarecrow for the common good. Watch Walking Dead, and behold the way of all flesh.

Historians know, in a different sense, that the dead walk among us. So the idea that horror films teach us something about who we are shouldn’t come as a surprise. But most such films are poor teachers. Sex-ed instructors don’t screen Friday the 13th to warn about the dangers of pre-marital sex, but any good sex-ed teacher (like Jason Voorhees) knows the only way to guarantee teenager abstinence is to kill them. And it’s not often we hear:

Q: “What happened to your homophobia, bro?”

A: “Well, I saw Nosferatu, and realized how my fear of death and cultural construct of masculinity lead me to scapegoat homosexuals.”

Highlighting monsters as social and historical metaphors might be the quickest way to make the horror genre even more predictable than it is—a cyclopean view that lacks depth perception. Social commentary isn’t what makes horror enjoyable, watchable, or even scary. Whenever I read this take on horror (especially in Christian circles) it tastes of the “it-turns-out-chocolate-is-good-for-our-hearts” sort of justification. Monsters are not baptized so easily. Zombies are scary not because they signify unthinking consumption or fascism, but because they are disgusting and are out to kill. To reduce our monster stories to the unveiling of human monstrosity—the warped collective unconscious—is to ram every horror movie into Pogo’s observation: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

This interpretation makes horror a mirror; I want to use it as a lens. Horror films make us better readers of Scripture; they can teach us something about God. But this is not an entirely new claim, either. Christianity has done theology in the catacombs before. Great horrors and darkness reveal how humans live with one another; reality resists our most reasonable theologies. What hath God to do with our monsters, our real-life horrors? In the novel Fourth Mansion by the forgotten novelist R.A. Lafferty, the character Patrick Croll says this:

“There is a holiness in a whole person or a whole world…The veriest monsters inside us may be sanctified. They were put there by Him who is “Father of Monsters” also. What right have we to cut them out of us? Who are we to edit God?…We cannot live without monsters’ blood coursing through us. Only to the whole person is life worth living and death worth dying…We must be whole or we must be nothing.”

The truly monstrous is always human. Even as the primary creators of the world’s horrors, humanity’s evil is still hieroglyphic—a darkness seen through a glass darkly. Mysteries to ourselves, real horrors unsettle our rational and tidy patterns for life. The monstrosities of life ensure coherence and wholeness is never a human creation. This is a real fear, that wholeness and meaning lay slain by the monsters of our own making and the faceless horrors of darkness. We give birth to monsters, but we can’t make sense of them and rarely can kill them. It’s like many horror movies, when the protagonists don’t know what the monster really is, let alone how to defeat it. All they can do is run, maybe survive.

This fear is human, even biblical. For example, Job stumbles into what looks like an existential dungeon run by God. In the pit of loss and darkness, Job invokes monsters—primordial agents of chaos—against Yahweh, the God who seemingly abandoned him (see Job 3). This is Job’s “I wish I was never born” moment, his It’s a Wonderful Life with a twist. He wants the monsters to destroy meaning; to make his life simply disappear. In the midst of this horror God speaks and “out-monsters” Job, his friends, and Job’s monsters.[1] It turns out that human wisdom was out of its weight-class.  God scares Job out of his fear; God says “boo.” Those who thought they understood God and how God works find their theologies repudiated by the creator, by the sacred terror of God’s revelatory presence.

When we fashion God into a familiar simulation, the guarantor of our status quo or desires—that is when we are at our most monstrous. It is scary to have your identity threatened; it is horrifying to have your understanding of God threatened by God himself. In most horror movies monsters signal a human transgression. Desecrate a Native American gravesite and you get ghosts. Dump toxic waste and you get a ravenous monster. Chant a forbidden incantation, and you get ancient evil. Move to the suburbs and become a zombie. Monsters appear in response to human evil, and so does God. Horror teaches us about how God works. God looks like a monster while defeating our monsters. God’s undoing of us can look like a horror movie where the monster wins. In the whirlwind, God becomes strange and terrifying: fracturing our distortions, defeating our monsters, and we find our confusion and fury heard, held, transformed. God says “boo” to the beloved—attacking and undoing the nightmares of humanity’s own making.

Good horror doesn’t necessarily make us more socially aware; it makes us afraid and gives us nightmares. A horror film succeeds when our pupils dilate, our hearts quicken, we run home quicker, and the monsters meet us when we close our eyes. Horror makes reality strange, a little terrifying—unearthing buried primal fears, the anxiety about the gap between how we perceive life, and life itself.

Horrors’ frequent conceit: civilization is the mask and monstrosity is the reality. Monstrosity is the virus we forget we have. Colson Whitehead says about his zombie book, Zone One: “I tried to capture this elemental terror, of the familiar turned homicidal. A monster is a person who has stopped pretending.” Order is merely when evil is overlooked. This is why the documentary Gimme Shelter—not Night of the Living Dead—is the best horror movie of the 1960s. As Pat Oswald says: “The whole movie is shot inside the belly of a quivering, invisible demon—the 1960s, rotting in the sunshine of idealism and about to burst with flies.” The Rolling Stones concert at the Altamont Speedway in California—the sequel to Woodstock—is where the 60’s crawled off to die. A free concert convened in the name of “love, peace, and rock n’ roll” became an operatic bloodbath conducted by Mick Jagger and the Hell’s Angels.

These are the monsters that God defeats—our supposed order, our “gods-in-a-box,” the self-indulgent theologies, when we mistake cruel fantasies for love. R.A. Lafferty’s short story “Name of the Snake” tells the story of a Catholic priest who encounters an alien culture called the Analoi, a species claiming they are without sin. The priest discovers this:

There are the evil who are evil openly. There are the evil who hide their evil and deny that they are venomous. There are the ultimate evil who keep venom and change the Name of the Snake…The Analoi weren’t quite what they seemed. They had hid from themselves, and dealt in shadows…They had even changed the name of their nature…but they hadn’t changed their nature.

We are powerless before these self-made monsters. When God defeats idols, God’s love looks unfamiliar—a monstrous sort of grace. The monstrosity of humanity is overcome only through the shocking monstrosity of Christ on the cross.  The light of Christ becomes a “ray of darkness,” the disruptive presence who reveals our controlling visions for the impoverished deceptions they are. God becomes unknown, so we may know him better, so we are free for a life of truth and love.

Film is the greatest monument America will ever build. Horror exists as part of that monument, the embodiment of our fears in high definition. Horror films can lead us to submit to fear rather than conquering or confronting it. The zombies’ decomposing flesh can help us forget and bury death just as much as they remind us of it. Watching horror will not make us better people, but it might make us better theologians. Horror re-imagines our monsters with more humanity, and our humanity with more of the monstrous. Just like Abel’s blood, they cry out, speaking truth. We learn that the defeat of real monsters takes more than awareness and that revelation is never liberating in and of itself. Only the uncontrollable God can put our monsters in their right place, because simply shining a light on something doesn’t make it go away.

[1] From Religion and Its Monsters by Timothy K. Beal. 

The Physics of Worship, w/r/t DFW

To put my literary cards on the table: I am a rabid acolyte for David Foster Wallace (hereafter DFW), his personality, and work. Cult leaders dream of disciples with my dedication and single-mindedness. Wounded by the failed cultural terrorism of older avant-garde fiction, I found DFW. Or more precisely I received him about a decade after his mid-90s fame—stumbled upon stories bursting with irony, meta-irony, grad-school immaturity, damaged people, and deep faith. But fear not; I’m no evangelist, and this is not a spittle-flecked sermon of the Good News of the Church of DFW.[1] From him I received tiny but dense truths: that we are lonely, that this world makes us feel lonely, that we don’t want to feel lonely. The continual reading and re-reading of Infinite Jest became a spiritual practice, a literary S&M, or perhaps my personal form of faux-monastic self-flagellation. In him I found myself, or at least what I like to think of myself. He wrote how I wish I thought, with a smart and funny Heisenbergian brain. Infinite Jest was his fractal Summa on anxiety and addiction, where the jest is infinite because our desires are bottomless.

Amidst charting the mini-monstrosities of the protean collective consciousness, Infinite Jest is about worship. To be human is to worship. Every heart bows before something: a feeling, an activity, a calling, a vision of itself. And Americans are good at super-sized worship. Rome’s got nothing on our bacchanalia; we put the excess in excess. And to a certain point we are proud of it, relishing our materialism, flaunting it. America stands as both the architect and victim of affluence and endless entertainment. It doesn’t require a DFW-sized intelligence to see that Hell is cool, flat, crowded, and so is Wal-Mart: both sell happiness. Simply put, as a nation of addicts we are a nation of worshipers; and most of the time we worship ourselves. As DFW said in an 1996 interview:

“[D]rug addiction is really a form of religion, albeit a bent one. An addict gives himself away to his substance utterly. He believes in it and trusts it, and his love for it is more important than his place in the community, his job, his friends.”

Here is the blurry cultural edge, where excess becomes addiction, where what you consume begins to consume you. The opened door locks behind you. Desires don’t fight fair, their gravity warps you, coiling you around yourself. Interventions, groups with “Anonymous” in the title, self-hatred, confusion, fraudulence, love of suffering, paralysis, bright nights and dark days appear like animate pre-prom pimples. In these dark times, addiction’s friends—boredom, loneliness, fragmentation—are the cultural forces from which DFW’s fiction draws its own physics, computing the large arcs and subtle distortions of American life. Infinite Jest provides a diagnosis of this communal dark while pointing to the fires of humanity amidst the cold. He portrays how humanity lives, rejoices, and even loves amidst the addiction, the movements of entertaining materialism. If Infinite Jest gives the diagnosis, the 2006 Kenyon Commencement speech opens a window into his prescription; a distillation of what worshipping well might look like. He says:

“Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation…The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”

What we worship gives our heart objectives, our imagination form, and our mind geography. How we worship—the habits, liturgies, and set of activities—form the way we live and move and are in this world, how we inhabit time. The Kenyon address advocates a type of being, an everyday mindfulness, a spirituality of attention—as though he saw the true form of life in Simone Weil’s maxim, “attention is the highest form of prayer” and ultimately, true love. In The Pale King, DFW’s unfinished novel, the character Chris Fogel says that with “simple attention, awareness…stay[ing] awake off speed” everyday humanity “blaze[s] in an almost sacred way.” In his fiction, DFW made the leap of faith into redemptive relationality—creating stories that ask you to sacrifice your attachment to yourself, to fall into the fullness of other-centered empathy. Tragically, what this careful awareness entailed escaped him, for in 2008 he committed suicide. DFW, self-described as a “black hole with teeth,” was eluded by the physics of mental peace. His advice at Kenyon, it would appear, did not determine his course of action, but rather reflected what he observed, what he longed for. Can we trust the addict, the one who committed suicide, a person who wandered into the wilderness and never returned? Can the lost guide? DFW was certainly no saint, but lives of truth take many forms.

Consider Parisian curate Abbé Marie-Joseph Huvelin, an avowed spiritual director from the 19th century. Throughout much of his life he ministered amidst chronic sickness, able to provide nourishing guidance and a spiritual home for many. Years later, his private journals revealed he experienced severe depression and persistent thoughts of suicide. An 11-page segment of his notebook contains his name written over and over with “He does not exist” and “I used to be” scratched across it. Out of this complexity Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams invokes the category of the “holy neurotic,” arguing that Huvelin reveals the freedom of love to work through a life marked by cavernous guilt and self-hatred. DFW’s fiction is analogous to Huvelin’s spiritual directorship. Amidst the howling self-conscious tornado of prose, bloated details with no plots, characters that are sacks of naked self-knowledge without selves, and the footnotes (Oh Dear God the footnotes), I was evangelized, invited into an act of faith. That which pained me also ended up sustaining me. The faith DFW advocates focus on a state of being, rather than faith in the one who gives humanity being. Humanity doesn’t necessarily have a God-shaped hole in its heart, but a worship-sized one. DFW educates us in the form and rhythm of faith, reminding us of its cost. This form of worship, of living, is summarized by Madeleine L’Engle:

 “We live under the illusion that if we can acquire complete control, we can understand God, or we can write the Great American novel. But the only way we can brush against the hem of the Lord, or hope to be part of the creative process, is to have the courage, the faith, to abandon control. For the opposite of sin is faith, and never virtue, and we live in a world which believes that self-control can make us virtuous. But that’s not how it works.”

The search for mental and emotional health in the modern world may ring Pelagian, but this is not altogether inappropriate. DFW’s writing can save us from the everyday idolatry of the default setting, the cultural autopilot of excess and addiction precisely because his fiction is a gym for the moral imagination. He shows that the daily commitment of faith is hard (or should be) when your eyes are breathing in the miasma of the 3000th daily advertisement. Because whether you recognize it or not, you are being invited to worship. Hell, you (and I) are worshiping. Regardless, humanity can’t control or consume its way out of this omnipresent idolatry into health and holiness. An act of the will, the sheer force of self-control, is not the key to making head and heart habitable. The calculus of control or even choice is exactly what addiction and worship do not provide. I believe that, in the light of Christ’s work, worship is where God promises to save us from ourselves, the event in which we find ourselves uncoiled from our addiction to self-worship. This is not a trite cliché, but a common truth—an irreducible inevitability of what it means to be human, to be a creature. Good worship—worship that seeps into your cells and atoms—is just as much a form of rest as it is a form of activity. DFW was a man who rarely found rest, and never found Sabbath. This is the physics of worship.  Sabbath is the “womb with a view” where awareness is remade and life’s choreography redone. The Sabbath, the communal time where we are unmixed from our daily addictions. The physics of faithful worship—embodied liturgies of motion and rest—resist the atomistic and addictive energies of the culture, integrating us with what some theologians call “the grain of the universe.” Good physics of worship are not something one accomplishes, but something one receives as a gift. Some of the greatest gifts are to be re-given again and again and again—every Sunday, in fact.

A more religious man than he is given credit (his favorite book was The Screwtape Letters), DFW loved Brian Moore’s Catholics, the story of an abbot incapable of prayer. Any prayer was pure fraudulence for him; mass was not a miracle, but a pious ritual. Yet the story ends with the “faithless” abbot kneeling with his broken community, and praying the Lord’s Prayer. Here, beyond the point of choosing to believe, beyond the point of control the faithless pray, the anxious rest, and the lonely are known.



[1] This is not entirely true.