Humanity

The Genus and Species of Writing

 

We moved into our house late enough last fall that I didn’t pay attention to the leaves on the large tree in our backyard. I had appreciated its shade, especially during those warm days of Indian summer, but I didn’t give a thought to its genus or species.

The following May, when the green and orange buds began to bloom, our family was gathered on the patio for a birthday party. “Well, that’s a tulip poplar,” my dad pronounced.

“It’s the state tree, isn’t it?” I asked. I knew those leaves looked familiar.

“Yeah,” he said, finishing a bite of his grilled burger. “It’s the state tree.”

Did it matter what kind of tree provided the morning shade to our backyard and the pollen to our local bees for honey? Maybe not. But knowing what kind of tree it was, knowing that this was our state tree, even, made me feel more rooted to this little plot of land where we find ourselves. Knowing how our tulip poplar fits into the landscape and culture around us helps me fit a little better myself.

As with trees, so with many areas of my life. Categories matter.

When people find out I’m a writer, they have one question. What do I write? They’re unhappy when I don’t have a simple answer. Impatient is the word. Why shouldn’t I be able to tell them?

Part of the problem is that I don’t write just one thing. Occasionally, I write poetry and short stories. I’ve written a play or two in the past. I am a blogger, but I’ve also written a book. So I’m part of the problem, but the rest of the problem is literary genres. They feel either too limiting or too expansive. Take the phrase “creative nonfiction,” the genre I would most closely identify with. Author Scott Russell Sanders explains his own malaise with that term:

“I suppose we do have to use labels, but I don’t find “creative nonfiction” to be an especially useful one, even though I’ve won prizes and taught workshops bearing that title. “Nonfiction” itself is an exceedingly vague term, taking in everything from telephone books to Walden, and it’s negative, implying that fiction is the norm against which everything else must be measured. It’s as though, instead of calling an apple a fruit, we called it a non-meat. Sticking “creative” in front of “nonfiction” doesn’t clarify matters much, and it’s pretentious to boot, since it implies that other forms of nonfiction—Plato’s Republic, Ellman’s Joyce, Hawking’s A Brief History of Time—are not creative works of intellect and imagination.

For Sanders, and for me, another term works better: essayist. “It’s a term with a venerable tradition, and it preserves Montaigne’s emphasis on essay-ing—on making a trial, an experiment, an effort of understanding,” Sanders says. “Essay” captures the depth of the thinking and breadth of exploration I seek when I write. For others, though, the word brings back academic nightmares. Themes, five paragraphs, thesis statements, proofs, proper citations: most people would rather read anything than an essay. It’s usefulness as a category for non-essayists is clearly in question.

In fact, the usefulness of all genres may be in question. In the recent New York Times Sunday Book Review article “Do Genre Labels Matter Anymore?,” authors Dana Stevens and Leslie Jamison offer two perspectives on the ongoing usefulness of categorizing literary works.

According to Stevens, genre labels have been distorted to the point of outliving their helpfulness. “The role of genre on the cultural marketplace too often seems dictated by trends, either in fashion (zombies are in, vampires are out) or in finance (superhero movies usually do big box office; movies with heroines, super or not, generally don’t),” she wrote. As such, Stevens believes literary works are embraced or dismissed not according to quality or literary merit, but simply by their genre.

Jamison, on the other hand, says that these genre labels are still helpful because they express intent. “Do genre labels matter? Sure they do,” Jamison wrote.

“Not as rigid categorical descriptions but as illuminations of desire. It’s futile and misguided to insist on their absolute boundaries (‘All great works of literature establish a genre or dissolve one,’ Walter Benjamin said), but they do offer a set of crude terms we use to articulate hungers for which we haven’t found or wrought a more precise vocabulary …. That wanting is the molten core—for truth or beauty or resonance—and the texts are just the cooling lava formations that form across the crust, the byproducts of craving. There are important differences between fiction and nonfiction—and I believe in the ethical necessity of fact-checking, which viewed rightly can become its own sort of generative formal constraint—but our uninterrogated absolute distinctions leave much middle ground unspoken for.

Assuming genre labels are preserved for now, maybe a better question is whom do they matter to? Publishers certainly like them—even require them—as a way to plan for, market, and sell books. Readers rely on genre labels as a kind of social contract. These labels help them know what to expect. “When I write what we’re calling creative nonfiction, I feel bound by an implicit contract with the reader: I don’t invent episodes, don’t introduce characters who were not actually present, don’t deliberately change circumstances,” writes Sanders. “So when I sit down to write about actual events and places and people, I don’t imagine that I can give a flawless transcript, but I do feel an obligation to be faithful to what I’ve witnessed and what I recall. In writing nonfiction, I feel an obligation to a reality outside the text; in writing fiction, I feel no such obligation.”

As such, writers themselves often must think in terms of genre labels, too. At the very least, genre often plays a role in submission requirements. For instance, writers have to know whether or not they have written a poem in order to submit to a poetry-only journal. Beyond that, genres also provide boundaries for writers. Like Sanders, as an essayist, I don’t make up scenes. My dad was really in the backyard eating a burger. If I invented that scene, it would be fiction.

Not all writers, though, find that their work fits so neatly into categories. Consider the work of Rebecca Solnit. Her book The Faraway Nearby was labeled by her publisher as both Memoir and Anti-Memoir. Another of her books, Wanderlust, covers topics as wide-ranging as anatomy, anthropology, architecture, gardening, geography, political and cultural history, literature, sexuality, and religious studies. And generally, much of her work could be called memoir, journalism, personal essay, travel writing, art critique, nature writing, and more—all at the same time. “I have a very clear sense of what I am here to do and what its internal coherence is,” she said in an interview with Benjamin Cohen for The Believer,

“but it doesn’t fit into the way that ideas and continuities are chopped up into fields or labeled. People want to call you something, and saying you’re just a writer is not enough. Not that I’m comparing myself to them, but Orwell wrote memoir, fiction, polemics, beautiful essays, reviews, ruminations, and tirades; Sontag wrote mostly essays, a few at length, some dealing with broader ideas and genres, some dealing with politics and ethics—and then there are her novels. I love best the nonfiction of a lot of people celebrated mostly for their fiction, from Virginia Woolf to Jamaica Kincaid.

Which raises several questions: are publishers limiting the scope and quality of writers’ work when they force them into strict categories or refuse to publish what doesn’t fit? Also, are they limiting readers’ experiences with other great writing because it is categorized so narrowly? And does the social contract between writers and readers even extend beyond high level genres like non-fiction and fiction? The lower we go into subgenres, the more debatable the definitions. For instance, young adult is not actually a genre, according to the Literary Genre Wikipedia page. It’s an age category. And graphic novel, likewise, is not a genre. It’s a format. Assuming a western romance young adult graphic novel were written, it would exist as such a categorical Frankenstein that the contract between author and reader would be all but destroyed.

I don’t want to live in a world where books and articles and other forms of writing don’t fit if they don’t fit neatly. And I certainly don’t want to write in such a world, where the limitations I face have less to do with the quality of my work and more to do with the shelf space at Barnes & Noble. But I don’t think that world is going to exist much longer. With an enormous virtual bookstore at our fingertips, with searches by keyword that extend beyond labels printed on the backs of books, with print-on-demand technology no longer dependent on shelf space or floor space, with a growing market for mashup genres like steampunk romance and classic literature zombie fan fiction, maybe there is hope for writers. And for readers, too.

At some point, the publisher’s marketing plans no longer matter. The reader’s journey toward finding the book fades. The writer’s intention transcends vague universal labels, taking its place in the work itself. And the contract between all writers and all readers is narrowed to one writer and one reader.

Ultimately, it’s not the labels that connect us. It’s the words.

I think again of the tree in my backyard. Eventually, I did check out its entire scientific classification (Plantae, Angiosperms, Magnoliids, Magnoliales, Magnoliacaea, Liriodendron tulipifera). Not much of it made sense except for “Magnoliales.” My tulip poplar is related to the magnolia tree.

Ultimately, though, it wasn’t the category of my tulip poplar that resonated with me the most. It was the personal connections I made with it: the memory of mimeographed coloring sheets filled with tulip poplar leaves in fourth grade, my Dad marveling at its exotic-looking buds, my husband pruning it with long-handled sheers, and the way the air cools when I stand beneath its branches.

Noteworthy: Banksy’s Dismaland

Banksy’s Dismaland opened August 22. A pop-up art exhibition in the small English seaside town of Weston-super-Mare, Dismaland is a dingy, irreverent take on Walt’s theme park. Billed a “bemusement park”, its attractions are often amusing. The iconic symbol of Disneyland, Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, is falling apart, and the Grim Reaper rides around on a bumper car. There is also one of those stands where artists draw guests’ portraits, only Dismaland’s portraits are all of the backs of heads.

Dismaland is a subversion of Disneyland, and Banksy points, like a good postmodern, to the artificiality and consumerism of society. A painting depicts a mother and child with sunscreen and beach gear, oblivious to the tsunami wave about to overtake them. Inside the castle, Cinderella’s pumpkin coach has crashed, the horses killed, her corpse hanging out the window. Paparazzi surround the wreckage and visitors are encouraged to take pictures in front of it. In Banksy’s Dismaland, consumerism blocks people from reality. Brendan O’Neil from Spiked describes Dismaland as a joke, and if it’s a joke, it’s the kind where there’s nothing much to do except keep laughing at yourself.

The guests taking photos of the wreckage are part of the consumerism, and Banksy is part of it as well. In his interview with The Guardian, Banksy describes his park as “A place where you can get your counterculture easily available over the counter. A theme park for the disenfranchised, with franchises available.” Dismaland comments on consumerism by being consumerist itself. Tickets are hard to get, spray paint is not allowed in the park, and the fake security guards at the gate are followed by the real guards they parody. According to Guardian reporter Jonathan Jones, the show is more photo opportunity than amusement park. Jones says, “It is just a media phenomenon, something that looks much better in photos than it feels to be here.” Banksy is using his show, which comments on consumerism by being consumerist, to further his own brand. Perhaps that is part of the point as well.

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But there is a richer kind of subversion than all these levels of irony that implicate the artist himself. Postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard (who also found Disneyland problematic) thinks everything artificial in a culture eventually overtakes reality until there is nothing real at all. If this is the case, then of course Banksy will be consumerist, and the best he can do is point out that his park, his park’s guests, and he himself are all irretrievably consumerist. But if we can escape consumerism, there is something lacking in Dismaland’s attractions. Jones, who experienced Dismaland as actually dismal and depressing, says, “In reality the crazy fairgrounds and dance tents at rock festivals are far more subversive – because they are joyous.” Joy is the real subversion, the real wild escape from consumerism. If there are still real, true things we can get to, then the most meaningful kind of subversion turns over everything in its way to reach them.

Saint Oliver: Remembering a Secular Spirituality

Oliver Sacks has died at eighty-two of the cancer he knew would end his life. Many have offered apt and moving remembrances—my own feels little and late. But like the others who knew him better and have more to say, I mourn deeply the passing of someone who lived a truly remarkable life and left a lasting body of work.

He is one of a handful of writers who were, to me, a life-changing discovery. I first encountered his writing at a roadside gift shop on some long family car trip of my childhood. I remember there was a model train, that it was Christmas time. I also remember picking up what I think must have been The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. I had pretensions to understand more than I did, but his clear, vivid writing on obscure and astonishing neurological cases had me hooked.

I didn’t buy the book then, but it stuck in my mind. A few years later I tapped out various search combinations into our dial-up Internet–The Man Who Married a Couch, things like that. Through the miracle of search algorithms, I discovered the name of the man who wrote something I couldn’t shake, and ordered an intimidating stack of his books, which have kept me good company over the years.

If you’re new to Oliver Sacks, there are a few places you might begin your acquaintance with him. The Atlantic has put together a list of his shorter pieces. He published in the New Yorker for many years. For full-length works, I recommend beginning with something episodic, like An Anthropologist on Mars.

In the titular essay of that collection, Sacks speaks to Dr. Temple Grandin, the now well-known autism activist, as well as revolutionary animal scientist who has worked to make the beef industry more humane. Sacks’s piece brought her into the public eye, discussing her life with Asperger’s which she described as being like “an anthropologist on mars” in dealing with “more complex emotions and the games people play.” Sacks, too, granted us the scientific nuance to see with fresh eyes the many absurdities and joys of human life.

The clarity with which Oliver Sacks wrote about complex and rare conditions is matched only by the great compassion that radiates from his work. In less capable hands, writing about the severely Parkinsonian or the Tourretic or child savants could be exploitative. Sacks’s work is anything but. Instead, he sought out and dignified those often marginalized because of the ways they vary from standard human behavior and experience. He offered them care and attention as a physician, but also as someone invested in discovering potential where others see none.

Neurobiological difference has always been, well, different, but we are at a cultural moment where neurological variance is particularly pathologized–reduced to a condition, a disease, a course of treatment. Sacks, an atheist and deeply committed to scientific investigation and discovery, managed not to lose sight of his subjects as whole people, worthy of respect and interest. He demonstrated deep humanism–deep humanity–in his attentive record of the existential, as well as biological, realities of his patients.

One instance, highlighted in his moving last interview with the podcast Radiolab, where Sacks was a frequent guest, comes to mind. An elderly patient of his suffered from musical hallucinations: she suddenly and continuously heard a woman’s voice singing very loudly. The patient was worried for her sanity and was bothered by the constant barrage of music. Sacks discovered that the voice was, in fact, an after-effect of a small stroke. But he also took the time to find out that the songs were Irish ballads, popular during the time of her very young childhood in Ireland–a childhood spent with parents she had lost early and could not remember.

He suggested to her that the music might offer a connection to her mother, echoes of lullabies she couldn’t consciously recall. This reframing of a troubling hallucination allowed her to feel, at the end of her life, a strong connection to early love, and she found herself missing them as they faded. This is only a small instance of what Sacks could do, for his patients and readers alike: through conscientious and sustained attention, he demonstrated a new way of seeing value in what we otherwise might fear.

Friends of mine who are not spiritual come close to venerating Oliver Sacks–as do I. He reminds me of what another polymath, Simone Weil, wrote in her notebooks, “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.” Although the theological nuances of this need teasing out (I have occasionally prayed to a cheese platter, given Weil’s definition), the impulse to equate close loving attention to something like worship resonates with me.

He speaks in his memoir with immense fondness and respect for the community of the Little Sisters of the Poor, a religious order with whom he worked, who provide dignity, community, and unstinting love to those they take into their care. His resonance with this religious order makes sense: their work is closely aligned with Sacks’s own legacy, of lifting to our attention the rich variety of human experience and the startling resilience with which his patients so often overcame and adapted to severe challenges.

It is clear to me that Oliver Sacks played the role for many of a “secular saint.” One thing saints have done throughout history is model a kind of insight that most of us don’t achieve. In Jewish tradition, saintliness has as one of its characteristics “wide learning” (the Oxford-educated Dr. Sacks was no intellectual slouch), but also wisdom in how to apply that learning. The saintly often approach wisdom through contemplation and through a rare dedication to calling. Sacks was someone who devoted himself, with staggering effort, often amid very real opposition and isolation, to seeing the world in a fresh way, and to communicating that vision to others.

Although Sacks never tried to erase himself from his writings, and, in fact, wrote about himself as patient in A Leg to Stand Onand a test subject in Hallucinations, the last book published during his lifetime is his remarkable memoir, On the Move. In it, he offers the most complete picture of a compelling and varied life. The powerful beam of his engaging literary prose swings back in this last book to search the life of the writer, and his incisive gaze doesn’t diminish by turning inward. He speaks frankly, for the first time, of how his mother’s rejection of his homosexuality helped alienate him from his family’s Orthodox-leaning Judaism, and how he found love and companionship late in a life often devoted solely to his work.

Of course, along with teaching us how to live, saints also show us how to die. We commemorate martyrs in our religious traditions, because they live out our closely held values in their last moments on earth. Sacks gave his readers unusual access to his diminishment over the course of months, primarily through articles in The New York Times. His latest and last published article, “Sabbath, turns on memories from his childhood observance of Shabbos. Sacks describes how, later in his 82 years, he found welcome and love from the Jewish faith community that he had, at other times, felt distanced from.

His attention in dying, as it was in living, was “not on the spiritual or supernatural, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life” and on “achieving a sense of peace within myself,” echoing a detachment many holy people have sought. Ultimately, however, Oliver Sacks did not shy away from the religious language and imagery of his childhood. Toward the end, he found his thoughts “drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”

Noteworthy: Realise Minas Tirith

“Pippin cried aloud, for the Tower of Ecthelion, standing high within the topmost walls, shone out against the sky, glimmering like a spike of pearl and silver.”

For the equivalent of 2.9 billion US dollars, the shining city J.R.R. Tolkien wrote about in Return of the King could become a real-life city in southern England.  A group of British architects headed by Jonathan Wilson have started a crowdfunding campaign, “Realise Minas Tirith,” to build a fully-functional replica of the city that would be “not only the most remarkable tourist attraction on the planet, but also a wonderfully unique place to live and work.”

Wilson recognizes that his project is a long shot. Although the campaign has already raised an impressive $128,000, the project is still 0% funded with 39 days left. Wilson says, “this project is a light-hearted venture with virtually no chance of succeeding.”

Light-hearted or not, the desire to build a fantasy city, to make it real, is an interesting one. Many people have been so taken by the houses pictured in books or movies that they create replicas to live in themselves. But bringing fantasy worlds into our world robs them of much of their charm. In general these worlds are desirable because they seem better or more beautiful than our own, or because of the story they are a part of. Translated to planet Earth, Minas Tirith would still have all the everyday annoyances of our own world, and none of the world-saving quests of the other. It would still be our world, just a piece of Tolkien would be a part of it. Ultimately, we don’t want shining white cities; we want a better world, or a different grand story for it all.

 

And for all the orc-fans out there, there’s another crowdfunding campaign, “Destroy Minas Tirith,” so that you can stick the “fleshy humans” with “many pointy and shiny things.”

The Apocalypse of Seveneves

At a Douglas Adams book talk I attended near the end of the last century, someone asked the author what advice he had for writers. Adams’s first bit of advice was this: Don’t start a book by blowing up the Earth, which is of course how Adams’ started The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Neal Stephenson begins his latest novel, Seveneves, by blowing up the moon.[1] The destruction of the Earth follows, but Stephenson gives his large cast of characters a couple of years and hundreds of pages to figure out how they are going to survive this apocalyptic event. Since Stephenson has called for a return to inspiring overarching narratives in science fiction, and his title (“seven Eves”) refers to a symbolically full number of Eves, one should approach this book as one would an ancient apocalypse: with an incredible hope for a beginning in an end.

To escape the coming deluge of fire—the “Hard Rain” caused by the break-up of the moon’s remains—the governments of the world collaborate to build a space ark. Unlike its biblical predecessor, filled with representatives “of every living thing of all flesh,” this “Cloud Ark” will preserve select humans and a comprehensive digital repository of Earth’s genetic and cultural heritage. Instead of forty days, this new ark must transcend any “traditional legacy-passing schemes” and preserve humankind and culture for five millennia until a new Earth can be created. This epic endeavor to extend human life in space and time involves creative and ambitious uses of technologies, which raise questions about the role of technology in human development. How will technology triumph in the struggle against nature? How will human nature evolve outside of its natural or original habitat? What will a substantial dependence on technological expertise and tools, such as robots and computerized control systems, mean for human culture? In such a highly technological culture, what are the inherent or properly imposed limits of technology? Finally, will technology create a new and better Earth?

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Taken at Crater Lake

The hard news about the end of the world as we know it is shared with humanity at Crater Lake, Oregon, where natural and human history reveal a prophetic message “for anyone who wanted to read it”: “Between six and eight thousand years ago, an unimaginable catastrophe had befallen this place…surviving humans had kept the story alive in legends of an apocalyptic struggle between the gods of the sky and of the underworld.” The first sign of hope for humanity in Seveneves is seen in the response of the last generation during what is called the Age of the One Moon, who collectively engage in their own apocalyptic struggle by building out the International Space Station, digitizing everything from genetic sequences to family records, and launching as many people and as much stuff as possible into space. Although only a portion of humanity will survive, everyone is invited to contribute content to “a literary, artistic, and spiritual legacy that would outlive them.” Like members of the childless generation in P. D. James’s apocalyptic novel The Children of Men, many transfer their hope in the future to a record that will survive them. But unlike Michel Faber’s apocalyptic novel The Book of Strange New Things, there is not a total fall into chaos. This reader was comforted to learn that in the latter days “most of the people of Seattle were still obeying [parking] rules.”

Stephenson’s vision of the future, both near and distant mixes continuity and discontinuity. Ancient patterns of human nature, both glorious and inglorious, are present in the struggle for survival. Social media wars continue in space, via Spacebook and Scape; new forms of “techno-mystical ideation” emerge; fights for control of diminishing spheres of influence become increasingly savage; and perplexing records are created for later generations to sort out, reflect on, and interpret. But we also witness the innovation and ambition Stephenson would like to see in our pre-apocalyptic world: “The imperative to develop new technologies and implement them on a heroic scale … to escape from [our] current predicaments.”[2]

Five thousand years into the future, when the descendants of the Seven Eves are ready to return to a remade Earth, humans have evolved to thrive in highly technological environments. And yet, with the accumulated knowledge of Old Earth, and all that has been added to it through millennia of progress and regress, people are still debating the appropriate integration of technology in human life. The term “Amistics,” referring to Amish scruples about certain technologies, is used to describe “choices that different cultures made as to which technologies they would, and would not, make part of their lives.” Among the descendants of the Seven Eves, two distinct cultures exist: one, called “Red,” is “enthusiastic about personal technological enhancement.” The other, called “Blue,” views technological aids “with some ambivalence.” For Blues, “Each enhancement is an amputation.”

Looking backward, Blue culture critiques Old Earthers for focusing “their intelligence on the small and the soft, not the big and the hard” and for building “a civilization that was puny and crumbling where physical infrastructure was concerned, but astonishingly sophisticated when it came to networked communications and software.” At a fundamental and individual level, they observed a common tendency to let personal technologies get in the way of higher faculties and distract from greater achievements. In the canonical video record of the events leading up to and following the end of Old Earth, called “the Epic,” the historical figure who embodied this behavior was Tavistock Prowse. Prowse, who had been sent up to hold the Cloud Ark community together with his social media skills, ended up fueling a rebellion through his blog. When his recorded activities were scrutinized by later generations—“how he had divided his time between playing games, texting friends, browsing Spacebook, watching pornography, eating, drinking, and actually writing his blog”—statistical analysis “tended not to paint a very flattering picture” and Prowse became a cautionary figure:

“Prowse had been squarely in the middle of the normal range, as far as his social media habits and attention span had been concerned. But nevertheless, Blues called it Tav’s Mistake. They didn’t want to make it again. Any efforts made by modern consumer-goods manufacturers to produce the kinds of devices and apps that had disordered the brain of Tav were met with the same instinctive pushback as Victorian clergy might have directed against the inventor of a masturbation machine. To the extent that Blue’s engineers could build electronics of comparable sophistication to those that Tav had used, they tended to put them into devices such as robots.

Stephenson thus presents a future in which new genetically engineered human races live within a sophisticated technological infrastructure above the Earth’s surface, but have not yet matched the storage and network capabilities of five-thousand-year-old smartphones, tablets, and laptops. This vision of technological progress includes technological restraint: old technologies, such as paper books, persist; automation is complemented by human intervention and enhancement; and physical skills are still cultivated and valued. When the action shifts to the surface of New Earth, we discover other Amistic alternatives: those from the sky are not the only ones who have adapted, naturally and technologically. The selections made above, represented in and through the massive digital library and archives in the sky, have terrestrial counterparts below.

Near the end of the book, as histories and narratives collide and the origin story of New Earth takes form, another type of ark appears off a beach. The name of this “complex mechanical” vehicle, Ark Darwin, represents human as well as natural selection and adaption. In On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin used Francis Bacon as epigraphical cover for his exploration of natural causes to explain natural phenomena. Bacon claimed that one cannot “search too far or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works.”[3] Bacon valued both divine and natural revelation, and was among the first modern natural philosophers to bring scientific discovery and technological work together, making the latter the natural application of the former. Both, Bacon argued, had critical roles in restoring what had been lost in a primordial fall from the original creation. Although Stephenson’s New Earth is rather different from Bacon’s utopian New Atlantis, the two works share a largely optimistic appraisal of scientific and technological dominion over nature.

Like Dave Eggers’s novel The Circle, which says more about “the small and the soft” ends of our personal technologies, Seveneves is hard to classify as utopian or dystopian. The near technological future that Eggers creates is ostensibly utopian (“the dawn of the Second Enlightenment”), but it is far from an ideal place. And although Stephenson’s near and far technological futures could be described as dystopian (with the destruction of the Earth and all), they are not without idealistic characteristics. Both, however, are apocalyptic: not only because they deal with cataclysmic disruptions, but because they open up our perceptions of knowledge, time, space, and community to uncover and reveal something deeper about the ends of these fundamental dimensions of experience. While The Circle remains a work of apocalyptic realism staying close to a material reality familiar to us, Seveneves more radically addresses apocalyptic questions of human understanding, nature, and destiny—and the dependencies of these on technology.

For Bacon, the future redemption of the world depends on much more than human agency aided by science and technology. Without referring to divine revelation, Stephenson also suggests something more. The final scene of Seveneves occurs in an improvised refectory on Ark Darwin, with a discussion of an agency beyond Darwinian natural selection and human technological intervention called “the Purpose.” According to the guesses of a leading character closest to the answer, the Purpose concerns the purpose to the universe. In the millennia-long struggle for life after the moon blew up, he says to new friends with whom he is sharing a meal, there “was surprisingly little thinking about the Agent”—the name given to the unknown cause—“Where it came from. Whether it was natural or artificial, or even divine.” “The Purpose,” he continues, is a way “of saying there’s something bigger than this crap we’ve spent the last week of our lives dealing with.” “I like the feeling of that,” he concludes; “People who claim they are motivated by the Purpose end up behaving differently—and generally better—than people who serve other masters.” Political tensions persist outside Ark Darwin, with armed forces facing off, but at this table an ancient and familiar form of fellowship suggests hope for something greater than an old or new Earth.

 

Citations

[1] Neal Stephenson, Seveneves (New York: William Morrow, 2015). All quotes are from the EPub Edition.

[2] Neal Stephenson, “Innovation Starvation,” available from http://www.worldpolicy.org/journal/fall2011/innovation-starvation.

[3]Francis Bacon, quoted opposite the title page of Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection: Or the Preservation of Advanced Races in the Struggle for Life (London: John Murray, 1859).

The Literature of Witness

In a recent article for The Hedgehog Review, Alan Jacobs reflects on a strange experience. Years ago at Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Writing, he spent an afternoon in an interview room with Frederick Buechner, watching strangers praise the novelist as essential to their Christian lives. “Your writing has meant everything to my faith,” they all seemed to be saying, “I don’t think I could be a Christian without your books.” The force of their compliments leads Jacobs to ask how writers could have become so essential to the development of a community’s faith. As a scholar of literary history, he understands that this role of spiritual mentor used to be played by very different cultural figures—notably theologians, logicians, even scientists. “It seemed to me,” Jacobs observes, “that such radical dependence on literary experience would have been…impossible even a century earlier.”

The inquiry propels him into a history of Christian humanism, beginning with Renaissance Italian poets, and ending (as too many Christian histories of literature seem to end) with C.S. Lewis, whose “baptism” into the faith was at the hands of the Victorian novelist George MacDonald. At a stage when Lewis knew nothing about Christianity, MacDonald’s fiction initiated him “into habits of aesthetic experience that would later make him receptive [to faith] for reasons he could not then have stated…” So Jacobs arrives at the now classic notion of “pre-evangelism,” which Lewis and his great friend Tolkien often advanced in their mature essays.

The “Witness of Literature,” as Jacobs calls it in his article’s title, derives from its capacity to prime our imaginations to comprehend spiritual reality. Just as Lewis was inadvertently prepared to accept God’s existence by MacDonald’s fantastical novels, many a Christian can remember feeling affection for Aslan before they believed in Christ. The lion often hinted to the Pevensies that he had “other names,” one of which, we’re left in little doubt, gets whispered from the altar where as adults we take communion. “All those,” Jacobs concludes, “who are led to and strengthened in religious faith by writers must believe that writers have, at the very least, superior powers of perception enabled by superior imagination.” It is these superior powers of imagination that make authors the “best new arbiters” of spiritual wisdom in our century, infusing literature with the power to witness.

Yet this language of witness has been, as Jacobs certainly knows, picked up by other writers to describe literature’s potency. Famously, the Polish-speaking Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz used it in his book-length lecture series The Witness of Poetry. Here, “witness” is used not in the evangelical sense, but in that of the courtroom. “I have titled this book The Witness of Poetry,” Milosz writes, “not because we witness it, but because it witnesses us.”

But what has poetry witnessed us doing? As a young Lithuanian who migrated to Poland in the thirties, Milosz was present for many of the twentieth century’s most notable bloodbaths: the Warsaw Uprising, the Nazi occupation, and the equally horrible advent of Communism. Each event diminished his circle of literary contemporaries, until they were but a handful of exiles across the globe. In California for much of his adult life, Milosz was able to lucidly recall the moment when, clutching a copy of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland under his arm, he realized that “we were going to need a different kind of poetry:”

“A man is lying under machine-gun fire on a street in an embattled city. He looks at the pavement and sees a very amusing sight: the cobblestones are standing upright like the quills of a porcupine. The bullets hitting against their edges displace and tilt them. Such moments in the consciousness of a man judge all poets and philosophers…The vision of the cobblestones is unquestionably real, and poetry based on an equally naked experience could survive triumphantly that judgment day of man’s illusions.[1]

The man under the machine gun was of course Milosz, and from that judgement seat (who could question his place there?), he condemned any poetry that did not deal in “naked experience.” By this, he meant that poetry, and by inference all of literature, needed to pay unflinching witness to the very worst realities if it was to stay relevant in a war-rocked world.

To Jacobs, the idea that literature is essential to spiritual development seems historically unprecedented. Milosz, too, was facing an unprecedented historical situation–that of genocide in the heart of modern Europe–and searching for a literature that was adequate to it. In fact “adequate” became a vital word for twentieth-century Nobel authors, whose claims about literature’s powers were dulled, yet hardened, by repeated coatings of blood. Seamus Heaney, who lost many relatives and friends to the diffused terror of Northern Ireland’s “troubles,” said that he became a poet when his “roots crossed his reading,” a process that energized his search for “images and symbols adequate to our predicament.”[2] That predicament was violence perpetuated by the deadly mixture of conflicting ideologies and a shrinking world: the recipe that produced the bitter concoction of our global political landscape.

Such a political landscape tended to leave the literal one dotted with burnt-out buildings. Milosz had seen plenty of these in Krakow. And knowing from such tumultuous political experiences that “What surrounds us here and now is not guaranteed,” Milosz insisted in The Witness of Poetry that we must construct literature “out of the remnants found in ruins.” Imaginative writing was his way to redeem culture destroyed–intentionally or unintentionally–during conflict. By his lights, the “witness” of poetry is its bracing power–not the power of pre-evangelism, but of preservation and reconstruction.

But Milosz’s imagination was, as he confirmed in an interview for The Paris Review, both Christian and Catholic. Though he sometimes wandered the fringes of orthodoxy: his confessor Pope John Paul II once told him that in terms of belief, his poems seemed to “make one step forward, one step back,” to which Milosz answered: “Holy Father, how in the twentieth century can one write religious poetry differently?”[3] It therefore seems possible that at their roots, Jacobs’s idea of literature’s witness and Milosz’s might cross, or even be one and the same.

After all, the Christianese language of “witnessing” is simply a slang corruption of “witness” in the same judicial sense Milosz proposes–to Paul, the act of evangelism is firstly an act of reportage: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance” he writes to the Corinthians, “that Christ died for our sins…that he was raised…and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.”[4] So from the start, to bring others into belief was to testify with reference to reliable observers. The Bible, a piece of literature as rich at it is confusing, gets much of its energy from claiming to be fact. It can only “witness” to us in Jacobs’s sense because it has first witnessed us in Milosz’s.

“It is far too easy,” Jacobs writes, echoing the fourteenth-century French humanist Jean Gerson, “for the point of…discourse to be lost in the apparatus.” This is precisely the danger Milosz hoped to avoid by emphasizing literature’s duty to record “naked reality.” The point, as Jacobs and Milosz both seem to understand, is that imaginative literature is essential to our spiritual development. The practice of writing, reading, and appreciating it is inseparable from our pursuit of truth, because its prime effect is to heighten perception. Sensitive readers of books make shrewd students of reality. “How did literary writers come to be seen by many as the best custodians and advocates of Christian faith?” Jacobs asks. The answer might be that they always were, but that it took the nightmares of the twentieth century to wake us up to their importance.

 

Citations

[1] Czesław Miłosz, The Captive Mind, 41.

[2] Seamus Heaney, “Feeling into Words,” Preoccupations 56

[3] Czeslaw Milosz, The Art of Poetry No. 70. Interviewed by Robert Faggen. http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/1721/the-art-of-poetry-no-70-czeslaw-milosz

[4] 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, 5b, & 6. NIV

Noteworthy: On James Tate

“And who // really cares about such special days, they / are not what we live for.” James Tate was an American poet and winner of the Pulitzer Prize who passed away on July 8th. He wasn’t interested in the once-in-a-lifetime “special” days, like the wedding referenced in this poem. Like many poets, he was after the mystery in the ordinary. “The challenge is always to find the ultimate in the ordinary horseshit,” he said in his poem called “South End,” and in his interview with poet Charles Simic for The Paris Review. In his poems, the ultimate is often found by a transformation of the ordinary into the bizarre.

His poem, A Glowworm, a Lemur, and Some Women, begins,

A Glowworm drove by
on its way to a Philosophy Department meeting.
It was in a very large car,
and the radio was playing loudly.
Two nude women were praying at the stoplight.
A lemur hopped onto the hood
and asked directions to the nearest gorse bush.

Oddity and surprise marks this strange world. Tate creates a situation, or a set of characters, and then follows them to their conclusion. In The Paris Review, Tate says,

“The hardest work for me is creating the situation, this new reality. Once that’s done I can work within it, follow the implications. I take a step, I see what the new implications are, I take another step, I see what the next implications are—and I just proceed like that.

Humor lurks in these strange worlds. As the story of the glowworm, the lemur, and the women progresses, the familiar becomes odd, comical. In his poem, How the Pope is ChosenTate imagines the pope as a dog and describes him as a judge might describe a show dog.

But these humorous situations often become tragic or serious. Tate tells Simic that the comedic and tragic can’t be separated, and the one leads into the other in much of his work. After saying that the popes chew up crosses and have mouths covered in black flies, he ends the poem, “Eyebrows are a protection / when the pope must plunge through dense underbrush // in search of a sheep.” This image can go two different ways, either suggesting how the pope, is like Jesus the Good Shepherd, the good sheepdog, hoping to protect his flock, or it can suggest a more predatory one. Peering from the underbrush, the pope is a wild dog in search of prey.

Tate follows implications through to surprising conclusions, turning humor into critique and tragedy, mystery into revelation. 

Untrending

Modernist poets had typewriters and smoke-filled coffee shops. Their observations, however quotidian, sparkled on the page. Their schools and movements existed in relative secrecy. Myths surrounded them.

Nowadays, coffee shops are smoke-free, and there are no secrets. Every whisper of a literary movement has its own Wikipedia page. Before a book is written, parts of it are posted online. Before it’s published, it’s promoted on social media. And, after it’s published, every review, every mincing spit in its direction, is shared globally. Pricewaterhouse Coopers has projected electronic book sales will overtake physical book sales by 2017.

Yet we continue to print warehouses full of new books. This could be due to the “power of a bookbook” as the viral Ikea video explains it. Could be digital natives’ apparent preference for print. Or it could be the result of nostalgia, that particularly nauseating, impossible nostalgia felt only by people who have access to everything. Maybe the more we leave the library and bookstore, the more keenly we feel the absence of those archaic delivery mechanisms. Libraries smell like reading.

In April, publisher and bookaholic Hugh McGuire published an essay that begins, “Last year, I read four books.” He goes on to confess that, upon opening a book, he discovers he needs “just a little something else. Something to tide me over. Something to scratch that little itch at the back of my mind— just a quick look at email on my iPhone; to write, and erase, a response to a funny Tweet from William Gibson.”

Poets of the new millennium face a compound dilemma. Not only are we distracted as readers, we’re flighty and prone to overshare as writers. Where once was a stable narrative center of desk, writing instrument, and ream of bond now proliferate laptop, tablet, smartphone, and flat panel display. Even cable and satellite programming are being supplanted by devices like Roku and Apple TV that offer streaming media subscriptions.

This isn’t a new world of too much going on; it’s a world of too much information and control. Too few accidents.

This used to be a world of a couple of strange coincidences a month. Sometimes a wild juxtaposition. One noticed them as one walked the neighborhood or sat in a public place. Now there are endless weird connections (wait, three people named Richard Clark have birthdays today?), countless micro-coincidences, and there’s nothing much to say about them but to turn them off. Close the browser window. Put the phone back in the pocket.

The same, shall we say, user experience affects poets—possibly even more acutely. It once was our job to weave symbolism into our texts. We were asked to make connections between fragile, temporary human life and transcendent realities. We were to discuss love—neither too enthusiastically nor too wearily, but in a way that summoned hope. We were advised not to turn sentimental or flowery. We were charged with being inventive and real. I’m recalling actual advice from Philip Levine, Galway Kinnell, and other midcentury writers.

Now all of that seems as superfluous as a top hat and silk cravat, and not in a quaint way. Because where there is a proliferation of options, and options about options, there’s an absence of authentic experience. Where everything’s available, nothing’s necessary. Where there’s an overabundance of information, none of it is relevant, and nationally recognized poets teach courses titled “Wasting Time on the Internet.”

Imagine how valuable poetry would be if it were necessary, if its existence were tethered to purpose. If you were trapped in a burning building, and a book of poems explained how to escape, you’d read it. If you were serving a prison sentence, and poetry kept your soul alive, you’d read poetry. We also write from necessity. However surreal or froufrou poems might seem, if they’re rereadable, they were born of necessity. Part of their value is that they exist for a reason.

Maria Popova in her speech at last year’s Future of Storytelling conference argues that, in the new millennium, we have come to rely on “fragmentary bits of information and superficial impressions rather than true understanding. ‘Knowledge,’ Emerson wrote, ‘is the knowing that we can not know.’” Popova sees the role of storyteller (or as Plato and I would say, poet) as expanding, not diminishing, since people need guides to “information worth remembering and knowledge that matters—to understanding not only how the world works, but how it should work. And that requires a moral framework.”

I agree with Popova, but I think the role she’s identifying would require a kind of patience and discernment I once had but have lost due to immersion in interactive media. My first effort to regain it has included deleting Tumblr and Facebook, taking a step back from Twitter. These outlets, to me, feel like wraiths that suck out my secrets, my lies, my wit, and with all that my sense of what ought to be. Without those things, I can’t hope to produce authentic poems.

Maybe none of this is a big a deal. Honestly, I estimate only 3-5% of my poems to be “authentic”; and I don’t want to go back to libraries and bookmobiles. I do, however, want to be less sad about the way hyperconnectedness and ubiquitext have flattened form and all but deleted poetry—or at least poetry’s social value, since “poetry,” its advocates keep saying, has never been more abundant. My question for myself is, what practical steps can I take to be less sad?

I’ve discovered I can’t turn off the internet. Don’t even want to: Hyperconnectedness has an upside for writers, allowing book promotion, tour arrangement, and fundraising for various projects. But I can keep it in check, at least in terms of how I, personally, use it. Now, more than ever, I have to get hold of that old-fashioned Thoreauvian deliberateness. I need to mark out the hours of my day to reduce information-creep when information isn’t helpful. There should be space for lying on my back and looking at the ceiling, walking my dog, blowing the steam from a cup of coffee before taking a sip.

Speaking of Thoreau, I guess he felt a similar social and economic busyness, because he ended up at Walden Pond. So maybe none of this is even new. As humans we’re perennially challenged to live within limit, maintain moderate intake and modest output. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be enslaved by anything.”

A therapist in L.A. once said to me, “Aaron, you don’t have a psychological problem. You have a moral problem. Try reading Kierkegaard.”  Those words were an epiphany, suggesting I take ownership of my life rather than moving from diagnosis to diagnosis. They apply here just as well. Maybe it is my—or shall I say, our—failure to establish limits that is to blame for info-creep and flattened Netflix days. A power outage is always nice, but, speaking for myself, I won’t leave this to an act of God. And I won’t be threatened by the fact that “put down your phone” has become an annoying cliché.

I’ll put down my entire connection and resurface from time to time.

Photo Credit: Pedro Ribeiro Simões

 

Noteworthy: Freeways as Cathedrals

I grew up with the Southern California freeways. Coming back from a long trip and leaving the placeless airport, the freeways were always the first part of home I encountered. They are dirty and congested, but I always picture them white and lined with palm trees.

Los Angeles was formed around its roads and cars, both physically and culturally. The city grew up at the center of dirt trails, often made by the Spanish or Native Americans, that were covered by railroads and then freeways. The cultural influence of the automobile on the city includes the Los Angeles-based art movement called Finish Fetish. Characterized by vivid colors and highly polished surfaces, Finish Fetish employed the methods and technology of car customization in its art.

Christopher Knight, art critic for the Los Angeles Times, wrote an article in 1984, “The Automotive Basilica,” about the freeways. He describes the freeways as Los Angeles’ version of a cathedral. Cathedrals can be considered public art not because they were the work of a single artist, but because they embody the values of an entire culture. Knight writes, “The freeway is a work of public art that has arisen out of a collective faith in the value of freedom to be independent, coupled with the corollary freedom to be alone.”

Cathedrals were once a place of communion for a whole city; freeways are where all of Los Angeles’ residents converge. Car travel is one of the few means of transportation that is usually solitary, and a daily commute might be the longest time of privacy and solitude a person experiences. This is a distinctly American form of solitude.

Freeways are less about being alone, and more about being independent, because they allow for mobility. Residents can cross huge distances every day, going where they want when they want. Even things as mundane as freeways reflect the values of the society that created them. We don’t just want mobility, we worship it.

 

Featured Image: The Harbor Freeway through Downtown L.A., 1964 in a photograph by “Dick” Whittington. No copyright.

The Keurig Invasion

On the morning that I started my first office job, a coworker walked me to the kitchen and pointed to a sleek looking appliance on the countertop. This was a response to my question about the “coffee situation” in the office. Apparently this machine was the answer.

Realizing that I was uninitiated, my new coworker selected a small plastic pod from a variety in the cupboard, inserted it into the machine, and pressed brew. Sixty seconds later I had a mug full of coffee. The quality was passable. There was no mess. It was simple, clean, automated.

This Jetsonian convenience is the Keurig’s pitch to the coffee drinking public, and judging by the nearly $5 billion in revenue that Keurig Green Mountain, the maker of the Keurig system, pulled in last year, that pitch is working. What does it mean that the Keurig system and its colorful little coffee pods are so popular?

Like many workplace technologies before it, the Keurig has successfully migrated to domestic life, bringing with it the sterility and efficiency that make the system so popular. But it’s hard to argue that the actual coffee is better, unless maybe you’re comparing it to something instant and stirred. Rather, what Keurig has done is streamlined the production of a single cup of coffee. You can have whatever type of hot drink you’d like, and so can your friend.

But there is a shared cost to this individual convenience. In case the #killthekcup campaign did not reach your corner of the internet, those little plastic pods, called K-cups, are not recyclable, reusable, or compostable. They will inevitably join the collective time capsule found in our landfills.

While many coffee drinkers now prefer more labor intensive, hand-crafted methods, like hand-grinding and pour over, the Keurig is an example of total defiance, like the Hummer in the age of the hybrid. Broth-making and home canning are growing in popularity, and yet making coffee is too much work? Even the Keurig’s creator, John Sylvan, recognizes the product’s failure. During an interview with The Atlantic earlier this year, he referred to it as “a cigarette for coffee, a single-serve delivery mechanism for an addictive substance.” Even so, the system’s revenue numbers offer a compelling counterargument: $5 billion speaks for itself.

K-cups are made of #7 plastic, a category for mixed layers of plastic and other materials, which prevents it from being melted down into a reusable medium. For a sense of scale on the waste bomb that this creates, an article last year in Mother Jones offers that if all 8.3 million of the K-cups discarded in 2013 were laid end to end they would wrap around the earth 10.5 times.

Let that image sink in: all those mini junk pods orbiting the Earth, surrounding us, almost a dozen times over. Now turn up the horribleness a couple of notches, if you can bear it. Keurig Green Mountain’s stated corporate mission is to place “a Keurig System on every counter,” a depressing thought for anyone who cares about the environment, that sterilized euphemism for the Earth, our home, the single planet on which human life exists. How many times can our discarded K-cups circle the Earth before it’s too many?

What about our own small environments at home or work? For many of us, the routine of making and drinking a cup of coffee in the morning may offer the best chance for reflection and peace, done in the quiet moments before commuting or before our phones begin delivering the urgency of work, news, and social media. Reducing the craft of coffee-making to vending machine convenience seems to miss the point. Must we apply the logic of the electric toothbrush to our coffee routine?

Strip away the branding and the pretentions of method, and coffee is simply water, heat, and beans. That’s a rather simple recipe. Wrapping it in #7 plastic and sticking it into a countertop robot seems like a strange way to enjoy something as wonderful as coffee. Unlike more labor-intensive processes, the Keurig is a highly inorganic process where you never actually lays eyes on the organic good, the coffee, until it is ready to drink. It may as well be neon green slime in the K-cups. The word perversion comes to mind, as does one of Michael Pollan’s helpful food rules: “Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”

K-cups look less like food than carefully measured doses of something medicinal, like pediatric vitamins made to look like gummy bears. But with coffee another comparison comes to mind. There is an old (and incredibly tired) tradition of joking about coffee as “fuel” for humans, in part because it is a stimulant and can make you feel more alert and energized, and in part because of its color. But that joke feels increasingly uncomfortable as our food technologies encourage us to behave more like the machines that fossil fuels power. What is a fast food drive-thru if not the human imitation of a vehicle pulling up to a gas station? The very existence of the energy drink, which tends to be chugged, suggests that our relationship to food has been fundamentally corrupted by the way that we see ourselves.

There are times when I do indeed feel like a machine—a broken down and clunky one, in need of nourishment and repair. But perhaps I’m misinterpreting these symptoms. The body is not the only thing that requires nourishment. The soul, that thing in your self-consciousness that oscillates between dormancy and moments of blossom, needs your attention as well. Nourishing your soul can take time, quiet, and a bit of wandering. It’s a very inefficient process. Perhaps the next time I’m feeling like a human-bot in need of fuel, I’ll put down my iPhone and walk away from the screens and sensors and automated efficiencies of modern life, even if it’s just long enough to make a good cup of coffee.

On God and Education

It is no secret that higher education is in crisis. Costs are outpacing inflation by a wide margin. More students than ever question the value of their studies. And the sheer amount of free information has caused many to question just what is worth studying–and why.

There are more options than ever before in American higher education. Students and prospective students can choose among public and private, sacred and secular schools. There are two-year degrees, four-year degrees, countless combinations of majors and minors, and programs for both residential and distance learners. Probably not a week goes by without another article on the death of higher education, or the decline of the humanities.

The traditional assumptions about university education are being questioned; while a four-year degree in any subject was the norm in past decades, now its price tag must be thoroughly justified.

In addition to the pressing concerns raised by the costs of higher education, there is the more specific concern about the fate of the humanities. Stanley Fish, currently the Floerscheimer Distinguished Professor of Law at Cardozo Law School, has been one of the most perceptive public defenders of the humanities in recent years. Fish sees the place of the humanities, and the more recent rejection of them in this way:

“[The study of the humanities existed] as a cloistered and separate area in which inquiry is engaged in for its own sake and not because it yields useful results. It is the rejection of this contemplative ideal in favor of various forms of instrumentalism that underlies the turn away from the humanist curriculum.”[1]

For Fish, the value of the humanities lies precisely in their lack of immediate utility. This he contrasts with other defenses of the humanities, which highlight their usefulness in a complex, multicultural society.

Several months ago, I received a copy of the 1541 edition of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, newly translated from French. Since I was primarily familiar with the Latin edition of 1559, I was curious to see for myself if the initial impressions I received were dramatically different between the two. I knew the basic differences from scholarly analyses, but I wanted to observe them for myself.

I was struck by something that hadn’t changed among all the editions. Calvin’s well-known opening lines are essentially the same. They are profound and sweeping. From the 1559 edition: “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom,” he writes, “consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”

For Calvin, the knowledge of God and knowledge of oneself are clearly linked together. You cannot possess one without the other. And he makes it clear that God has spoken to us in God’s word, the Bible. Taken seriously, this means that that source for nearly all true wisdom we possess – to use Calvin’s formulation – comes from God’s own self-revelation in scripture. If these things are true, then what bearing does this have on our understanding of higher education today, which, in the United States, is characterized by both a deep crisis and a plethora of options?

While Fish proposes the value of non-technical education, Calvin’s formulation on knowledge seems to point in a different direction than Fish or his opponents. On the one hand, with Fish, Calvin believes studying the subjects of God and man–today, broadly termed “the humanities”–is a worthy pursuit; but contra Fish, Calvin also sees immediate relevance, even urgency, in this kind of study.The humanities need not be relegated to the realm of study for its own sake.

For Calvin, the fundamental question is this: “Has God truly spoken?” Has he told us about Himself, about ourselves, about life in general? Has He given us something which we must study?

Calvin has a definitive answer. Yes, God has spoken and is emphatically not silent. God has spoken through the prophets in the Old Testament and apostles in the New; most importantly, God has spoken through His Son, Jesus Christ. All of His words that we need – the words of the prophets, the apostles, and the Son – are contained for us in the Bible. This is Calvin’s contention, at least. But what difference might this make for higher education? If God has spoken through the scriptures then higher education which explicitly acknowledges biblical revelation (I’ll call it “theo-centric education”) would be committed to being different from other educational alternatives in at least two specific ways. Broadly speaking, there would be a commitment to a particular type of study and a specific way of studying. Together, these commitments would make for a distinctive university education. This education would be generally centered on the concerns and methods of the humanities, but would contain an urgency–a sense of direct personal applicability–throughout.

Because God has spoken truly in His word, the content of education would be different. A theo-centric higher education would have a heavy emphasis on Bible and theology at its core. If the sovereign God, Creator and Savior, has actually spoken to His creatures, then surely this message would be significant. It is not something that could be relegated to one or two minor courses in four years of intensive coursework. If God has truly spoken, a thorough university-level education would need to devote more than just a few hours in one or two semesters to the study of this revelation. And an education that ignores the authoritative word of God entirely is at best incomplete; at worst, utterly misleading.

If God has spoken truly in His word, this education must also be integrated. God’s word does not simply address personal spiritual concerns; it addresses many aspects of life, both public and private. It presents an understanding of God, of ourselves, and of the world in which we live. Isolating biblical teaching sells it short; in fact, to isolate the Bible would be to misunderstand it entirely. This means that the theo-centric model is not content with simply requiring a large core of Bible and theology courses. Biblical teaching must be integrated into the entire curriculum.

There is no easy formula for such integration. Many of the seemingly simple solutions actually make biblical teaching less integrated into the subject matter, not more. Simply adding a Bible verse onto a string of scientific, mathematical, or historical concepts reinforces the notion that the words of God are merely private and personal, needing to be tacked on to the real stuff of life. True biblical integration would mean that the core teachings of the Bible about God, humanity, sin, and salvation would need to be understood thoroughly by each professor, whatever its subject matter. But this is merely a starting point. Biblical cohesion in the classroom requires individual teachers who are an embodiment of biblical integrity, cohesion, and wholeness. Because the curriculum needs to be integrated, teachers would need to fully and deeply understand their personal field of expertise and the teaching of God’s word. If God has spoken, as Calvin maintains, we as His creatures must understand everything in light of that teaching.

The fullest education would necessarily take place within a community. There are several reasons for saying this. First, Calvin argues that God’s word is never just about one individual. In creation, God made both male and female; Israel is chosen as a nation to bless the world; the church is an assembly, one body with many parts. Biblical faith is always lived and learned with others. This principle may even reflect something about the very nature of God as revealed in the Christian scriptures. He is one God in three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Though the analogy is inexact, we could say that God Himself exists in a kind of community.

But beyond this, the scriptures point to the idea that the object of life is love. Its understanding of the human person goes beyond seeing humans as merely well-functioning machines or completely autonomous individuals. In the theo-centric model human beings are understood to find their fullest expression in life when they are loving God with their whole heart, and soul, and mind, and loving their neighbors as themselves. St. Paul states it concisely: “If I have not love, I am nothing.” Calvin would agree.

So if we are going to learn the things that God intends in the way He intends, and if we are to live out those commands in the way He commands, then a community of love is essential. It’s true that students can receive an education without this type of community, but if God has spoken, then a fully theo-centric education demands a community in which to learn.

There is an enduring, and even revolutionary, power of our great thinkers and great texts–even if they are as far removed from us as 16th century Geneva. If Calvin is right, then the scope of his words goes well beyond the form the humanities take. Wisdom applies to all of life, and the search for a knowledge of God and of ourselves–the search for wisdom–carries with it a range of applications far broader than just those that apply to teaching. The crisis in higher education represents a small aspect of the larger questions of meaning and purpose and value. To Calvin, there was a path forward amidst these questions, a path illumined by an eternal God and the wisdom of the Word.

 

Citations

[1]Stanley Fish, “A Case for the Humanities Not Made” New York Times, July 24, 2013.

Editing Suburbia

“This is, mind you, suburbia.” Annie Dillard, “Living Like Weasels”

I do a lot of walking in the suburbs of Katy, Texas, where I live, just west of Houston. I walk to see whatever there is to see, including the grand Texas sky with its impressive cloudscapes, which we Houstonians claim as our mountains, and birds and various critters among the other natural sights. On a disciplined day, I wake early and walk a mile or two around the retention pond in our neighborhood. On a less disciplined day, I walk our dog along one of the streets near our house. On an extra special day, my husband and I walk the trail at a local park, usually seeking out a favorite, quiet stretch of asphalt flanked by particularly tall pine trees whose scent conjures the tonic mountain air of our beloved Colorado. This spot on the trail is also where we saw a deer up close, and I guess too personal, for it scampered back into the woods.

I love my husband’s company, but every once in awhile, I wish I could walk the park’s trails alone, if they were not scattered with suspicious men sitting on top of picnic tables. My introverted personality craves the solitude of the sun-streaked woods and the sweet little creek that bends its will only when it encounters oak tree roots lodged in the soil, then continues on its merry way. This solo-rustic desire was planted within me a long time ago, during seven-mile hikes with my dad and brother in Colorado during my childhood, when my love for that state was born, all the while eating ostrich eggs for breakfast, or being chased down a mountain by lightning.

My love for the natural world grew to maturation when I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard in my early, infant 20s, in my tiny studio apartment in Houston. This beloved book is as old as I am, both of us existing since 1974. I thought I understood this paper-paged friend fairly well. I described my adoration for Pilgrim here on The Curator in 2009 — how I learned to see properly and poetically thanks to Dillard’s writing. And loving and rereading this book all of these years has reaffirmed aspects of who I am that will never change: I love books, I love to read, I love nature, I love solitude, I love writing.

So when I came across an article in The Atlantic, “The Thoreau of the Suburbs” by Diana Saverin, where she divulged revealing details about Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Annie Dillard’s writing process, I was ecstatic. Saverin’s piece blew my mind and left me wide-eyed, but not from bedazzlement or writerly bliss and inspiration — more like shock and disillusionment. Saverin writes, “[S]he wasn’t even living alone. She was residing in an ordinary house with her husband—her former college poetry professor, Richard Dillard. Before she published her book, she scribbled in her journal, wondering who would take her book seriously if its author was a ‘Virginia housewife named Annie.’ She couldn’t change the fact that she lived in Virginia or was a housewife named Annie, but in the end, it didn’t matter. Her husband never made it into the book.”

* * *

In my previous Curator piece, “On Learning to See,” I almost seemed apologetic that I live in suburbia instead of Annie Dillard’s supposed exotic surroundings. But I wouldn’t have been apologetic if I had known that Dillard herself was a housewife living in and walking around suburbia, beautifully and poetically describing the natural world of her domestic surroundings. I always conjured a dreamy fantasy when reading Pilgrim, one of solitude and beauty and wandering and philosophical epiphanies.

After reading Saverin’s Atlantic piece, I don’t love Pilgrim at Tinker Creek any less—it is still some of the most beautiful writing I’ve ever read—but I do look at the book differently. Now I know that part of Dillard’s story is missing. It would be more compelling to know that a housewife wrote such a phenomenal book, admitting her suburban reality instead of the typical dismissal of suburbia, deeming such a common life boring or uncool.

* * *

I pulled into the driveway after church one day, talking on the phone with my mom, to find a hawk sitting in the epicenter of a small white bird’s carnage on our side lawn, the feathers spread out like a small, gentle explosion. The hawk’s eyes were wide and steadied on me. I trailed off mid-sentence, my eyes wide too, both enchanted and horrified by the beautiful, bitter, inevitable tragedy of violence in nature. That hawk and I stared at each other for a good few minutes; then it soared gracefully and powerfully away to nestle in a pine tree down the street. The circumference of white feathers remained on our lawn for a few days like a piece of installation art symbolizing the delicate reality of death.

Yesterday as I tended to our breakfast dishes, a tiny snail sidled up our kitchen sink window, a rivulet of slime trailing below its ecru body, its tiny eye-tipped tentacles bending back and forth, assessing the strange transparent terrain, and perhaps assessing the giant human face peering so closely with no respect for a snail’s personal space. I wondered if it was a baby snail. I stepped away for a moment, and when I returned I was surprised to see how fast that snail had booked it up our window, almost out of sight.

One morning, very early, I lugged my weary body out of bed, determined to exercise. I stepped out our back door and inhaled fresh air; I caught the scent of pine high above me. I crossed the street, turned the corner, and reckoned with the oval-shaped path around the pond. Sometimes I see whimsical faces in the long, spindly streaks of tar mending ruts in the asphalt, but that day the faces were inexpressive, impassive — quite frankly, they were bored. The sky was a major disappointment of gray, but I trekked onward with a miraculous determination, seeing as this was pre-coffee. I passed fledgling cypress and oak trees growing alongside each other. A few mockingbirds flitted about silently, not in the mood for mimicry. The typically vibrant colors of neighbors’ flowers spilling over their fences were mute and dull. I felt the groaning of creation mentioned in Romans 8 in my bones and in every living thing around me. On the last stretch of the path, a slender cruciform of white glided through the air in my peripheral vision. I looked upward and to the left to see a great egret swooping low overhead. I could see the fringe of its stately wings, and the narrow point of its beak. That elegant white bird felt like a royal visitation, come down out of the silent sky to speak peace and joy and reviving over me. I wanted to grow small and spry enough that I could jump and grab hold of its legs, climb gently on its back, and fly in tandem wherever we pleased.

* * *

“We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here.” Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

* * *

In light of Dillard’s omissions of suburbia and domesticity, I’ve been wondering about the term “creative nonfiction.” Shouldn’t I write as truthfully as I do creatively? Can’t I do both? If I were to write a memoir about walking in my neighborhood and what I observe, should I delete all details of the suburbs of Houston where I reside? Should I edit out the word “retention” in my great egret account and merely write “pond”? Should I omit my drummer husband and our mundane, peaceful working-from-home life? Should I make my book a strictly Thoreau-esque affair to appeal to the nature-loving masses? And what exactly would such an account be? Saverin also divulged in her Atlantic piece that Dillard was hip to the fact “that there had always been a certain amount of delusion involved in the lone-man-in-the-wilderness narrative.” Thoreau’s cabin sat on land owned by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, within walking distance of Concord, and it was rumored that Thoreau’s mom did his laundry. He was no doubt a great observer of the natural world, but again, the truth was made to seem optional and unappealing.

Perhaps I struggle with this impulse, too. Writing requires faith, and part of faith is seeing what is true and not turning away from it, nor hiding it. Perhaps above I should have written that along with an idyllic, gurgling creek in the heart of Cullen Park, trash sits on some of those oak tree roots, also diverting the path of the water. Or that the men atop picnic tables laughed and reeked of marijuana, maybe not so much enjoying it as selling it. Or that we have often walked on what seemed like a secluded part of the trail to the sound of children’s parties blasting celebratory Tejano music through the pines. Perhaps we all struggle with Dillard’s type of writerly omissions, such as many other writers have done before and after the publication of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek — to include what we like and delete what we don’t. We probably do this in other aspects of our lives as well, especially in this day and age saturated with social media — the name Facebook even having literary connotations — where we can easily present an image of our lives that we like, and a flattering angle of our appearance with a selfie. But our unfaithful omissions in writing and in life do not reflect reality.

As writers, we need to be honest, which is another component of faith. But this honesty is not so much about describing every single thing I’ve seen in our local park or in my suburban neighborhood, but of giving you a well-rounded mental photograph of my place, my reality. This recalls some of my favorite lines from the novel Peace Like a River:

Is there a single person on whom I can press belief?

No sir.

All I can do is say, Here’s how it went. Here’s what I saw.

I’ve been there and am going back.

Make of it what you will.

This is my writer’s declaration. In order for your reader’s imagination to make of things what it will, I have to give you the materials with which to make, to create. If I omit that I live in suburbia, but describe other waterbirds such as a blue heron we saw in the park, that doesn’t give you a true glimpse of things. You might think I live in a coastland area outside of Houston, living in a simple beach cottage.

Part of the glory of my great egret sighting was that it soared above my head in the mundanity of suburbia. Annie Dillard taught me to perpetually notice: What is happening when I’m not looking, when I’m not seeing? But after digesting Dillard’s decision to edit out the suburban and domestic aspects of her existence, I don’t believe that she taught me how to be authentic in my writing, at least not in this instance. I feel disillusioned by her lone-woman-by-the-creek narrative. I believe that Dillard really did see all of the natural wonders she described in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, but the omissions of her suburban neighborhood and her college professor husband fall short of truthful. Aren’t writers witnesses to the good, the true, the beautiful, the banal — all of it? Isn’t that part of the art of seeing that I learned from Dillard long ago?

Part of the glory of nature in the suburbs is that it happens in suburbia, in a place you might least expect to behold beauty. But whether I write that book about walking or not, and no matter what I write, I am a writer. I am a suburban housewife, a resident of Katy, Texas. I live in a two-story brick house with my drummer husband, two cats, and one dog. I plan to write a great many things during my life that have nothing to do with the suburbs, but my place shapes me. I do understand Dillard’s poetic habit of seeing, and I also believe we writers should undertake that artful practice of observation. But the poetic is more powerful if it is rooted in the truthful — what is really “going on here.” I have seen the poetic, transcendent glory in my neighborhood, and I am here to write, my feet grounded in suburban soil.

True Eccentricity

In Pilates and various meditative disciplines, I’m told to look inward and focus my being—to “center” myself. While this works on a physical level, helping to tame breathing and related symptoms, it doesn’t work for my soul. When I look inward, the magnificent bastion of self I’m supposed to find simply isn’t there. I get nothing but a void.

When in pursuit of the elusive self, the cross-country road trip, the career switch, the sudden taking up of painting, all get invoked. But what is the self? I’m not even sure it exists outside our neurochemical construction of it. Perhaps it’s nothing but an accumulation of remembered attitudes toward remembered things. Memories slip. Language, the building block of memory, stumbles under the burden of nailing down meaning. Hence, “each moment is a new and shocking valuation of all we have been,” as T. S. Eliot writes in Four Quartets. As the self seeks to know itself better, it can study nothing but its own reflexive construction of what it thinks it is. The very words it uses are, at each moment, its own words.

Our generation often shatters on the rocks of this search. Driving forward under waves of find yourself, find yourself, people of our generation lose more and more of their vitality and peace in the frantic search for vitality and peace. Isadore the Priest spoke to our generation when he supposedly said, “of all evil suggestions, the most terrible is the prompting to follow your own heart.” And yet the endless breeding of new blogs and tumblrs and iPhone covers declares that the only way forward is increasing differentiation and uniqueness. But as the media phenomena through which our generation seeks uniqueness reveal more and more of their self-construction, the burden to make the self falls entirely on the self. Only you can build your personal brand, and only machine-enabled experiences can tell you how to do it. You inform machine processes, and they inform your self-construction.

So the self grows with the machines it creates (which also recreate it). The question of this generation is, what kind of self will emerge from an increasingly symbiotic relationship with increasingly powerful and amorphous machines? We are already beginning to see an answer: a mindset of networked simultaneity has begun to displace the sequential approach to activity which the modern era curated (and which curated the modern era). The modern self worked in discrete processes and in environments with clear limits. It orbited goals with clear courses and gravities. In other words, the modern self was centered. The hypermodern self, today’s self, works with fluid processes in unbounded environments, uncovering and continually adapting. In other words, the hypermodern self is decentered.

Like the technological relationships which engender it, the decentered self is amorphous. It is ready to switch media at a moment’s notice, following the latest notification. It does not categorize things as clearly as the centered self did because it has no need to. Relational technology performs the categorization and determines what to present and when to present it. The de-centered self is totally networked, perpetually enervated, participating in this emergent common mind that is larger and louder than any one of us. The decentered self googles everything and uses apps to get its chores done.

In something like a perpetual panic attack, the decentered self lives an amped life, staying on top of the ever-evolving sum of popular knowledge, culture, and technology, predicating its sense of legitimacy on its alignment with the ever-expanding latest and greatest. The newest operating system, newest iPhone or Apple gadget, it has to have them all. Without them, the decentered self is simply a castoff piece of debris from the mad hayride of technological advance. It fears this fall on stony ground more than anything else: to be lost and disoriented, dis-networked and dis-mediated, unseated from the careening carriage of change.

These two selves exist easily inside us because we live in a transition between two great ages of history. We are abolishing the centered self, but it is not yet abolished. Some of us are still trying to achieve the American Dream, and though the true promise of the Dream was always dead, this strain of meaning-making has hardly disappeared from the collective psyche. But the discovery of “meaning” within personal wealth and disregard for the community is fundamentally modern. Like all things modern, it values certain separations: nation from nation, public from private, middle-class castle from middle-class castle. Because this narrative relies heavily on these separations, it will not survive the transition; for the technology of the transition, our enervation by the internet, obliterates separations of this nature while introducing new separations.

The disintegration of all psychological barriers, the networking of all physical and psychological realities, means the decentered self coexists with the centered self. The decentered self emerges naturally in reaction to the failure of the narrative that created the centered self. Sensitive to the boundaries which the modern age enforced, the decentered self  experiences those boundaries like a cultural punch in the face. The decentered self seeks solace from the terror of modern boundaries in endlessly branching connections across discourse spaces. Where the centered self sought a localized heaven on earth through personal advance within capitalism, the decentered self seeks heaven across network in a growing resume of connective technological experiences.

In his brilliant essay “Buffered and Porous Selves,” Charles Taylor describes the pre-modern consciousness as “porous.” He means that the pre-modern self believed that its experience flowed into and out of it. This stands in stark contrast to the modern self, which Taylor calls “buffered.” In this terminology, he captures the ubiquitous sense of separation which characterizes the modern self.

His idea of the porous self relates in two ways to the decentered self. First, Taylor’s porous self—a self at one with the phenomena around it—is that which the decentered self seeks to become in its search for heaven-across-network. Yet since the decentered self seeks this experience through a fundamentally buffering phenomenon (personal connective technology), it will never achieve the return to human connective roots that it desires without eroding the meaning of connective experience in the process.

Second, I believe Taylor’s porous self is what we should strive for—a consciousness that participates in the world processes around it and even participates in the Divine. Owen Barfield addresses this idea of participation in his brilliant book Saving The Appearances. He writes, “Participation is the extra-sensory relation between man and the phenomena… actual participation is… as much a fact in our case as in that of primitive man. But we have also seen that we are unaware, whereas the primitive mind is aware of it.” [1] For Barfield, participation is that which Taylor’s porous self practiced in the pre-modern era. Participation was the flowing-into-and-out-of which the premodern self saw occurring between itself and its world. In an essay with the Other Journal, I discussed the connection of Barfield’s idea of participation through participatory technology—devices and platforms claiming to connect us with friends and family. In truth, these technological phenomena quietly buffer our experience of other humans at a financial gain for the corporation disseminating the technology. While the decentered self rightly seeks the participation which the modern era lacked, it defeats its search by seeking this participation in technology that encourages the spatial isolation of users.

Modernity has taught us that separation is hell. We have begun to long for a breakdown of separations, and now we seek that breakdown in decentered connective technology. In phenomena as diverse as Facebook, Uber, and Skype, we grope back towards a participatory, porous sense of self. But what does this return entail? And is it authentic? I believe it is not what we’re looking for. The true object of our desire is far more radical. We live in a war zone between centered and decentered value systems. In this cultural climate, the intentional construction of a porous self with many branching online connections is not radical. However, the intentional creation of a non-technologically mediated porous self is radical. This choice means seeking connectivity not in technologically networked experience, but with people, in person, and in relationship to the Divine. One can only make this move after recognizing the failure of both the centered and decentered models of self, and this double failure leaves the constructed self with a deep and overwhelming sadness. This radical connectivity is grace. It is the only solution.

The arts are always the front lines of cultural development, and grace has begun to emerge there. As Piet Mondrian said it in another context in the 20th century, “art had to find a solution.” Art is still finding solutions. Makoto Fujimura’s paintings rest in a static, transcendent place of grace. Forest Management’s ambient drone enables peace and real downtime. Matthew Anderson’s newest record fuses sorrow and beauty relentlessly. All these artists grope for true participation. Their works lack personal rage and political agendas. In place of “words, words… led out to battle against other words,” [2] these artworks proclaim something from beyond the constructing self.

To gaze on this something other is to be truly ex-centered—truly eccentric. One is centered not inwardly on one’s private fortress, not outwardly on expanding noise, but on a singular moment of grace. The true eccentric need not flesh out a full theology of who and what this grace implies, for she understands that if it is grace, if it is extrinsically sourced by no effort of hers, it will defy her ready-made cognitive boxes anyway. Grace manifests in art that’s content with the incongruities, the uncertainties, and the dissonant implications of the numinous. These things drive so many people away from the arts and from faith, yet they suggest to the true eccentric that she has found the interwoven pain and beauty of real truth. No longer looking inward to emptiness nor outward along networked, self-augmenting noise, the true eccentric fixes her gaze, as best she can, on grace—on something wholly other—on the numinous. Where logic breaks down, grace begins. Though every one of us needs grace, none of us can demand it; we can only give it.

 

 

[1] Barfield, Owen. Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry (New York, NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975), 40.

[2] Lewis, C. S. Till We Have Faces. (New York, NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985), 308.

 

Featured Image:  Untitled, from the series Protest, Tokyo, by Shōmei Tōmatsu, 1969, printed later, photograph | gelatin silver print

Source: http://www.sfmoma.org/explore/collection/artwork/29652#ixzz3fWLTQEGl
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

 

Noteworthy: Appropriation and Donald Featherstone’s Pink Flamingo

Donald Featherstone, creator of the iconic pink flamingo lawn ornament, died on June 22nd at the age of 79. Featherstone created numerous bird and animal sculptures throughout his career, but his flamingo lawn ornament took on a life of its own, becoming an icon of American kitsch and appropriated by numerous subcultures throughout its almost sixty-year history.

When it was first designed in 1957, the flamingo was not an icon of kitsch. As Jennifer Price recounts in her essay “The Plastic Pink Flamingo,” plastic was new and pink wasn’t tacky – appliances were “passion pink” or “sunset pink,” and Elvis bought a pink car. The flamingo was marketed primarily to working class families who could personalize their uniform suburban lawns with the decoration. Featherstone describes the appeal of his creation, saying: “A woman could pick up a flamingo at the store and come home with a piece of tropical elegance under her arm to change her humdrum house.”

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But the flamingo didn’t remain a symbol of elegance. Pink Flamingos was a film by John Waters about a 300-pound drag queen living in a trailer park trying to be the “filthiest person alive.” The flamingo became a symbol of gay culture, but the pink flamingo became equated with tackiness, and was picked up by middle class families who displayed the flamingos ironically. The irony was sometimes at the expense of the less cultured. Waters says that to “understand bad taste one has to have very good taste.” In the eighties, yuppies would push the boundaries of their affluent upbringings with symbols of low or pop culture, such as the flamingo. Price writes, “The crossing of boundaries remained a badge of identity, but it was now safer, and very often a matter of style.” Good taste was defined by knowing what to mock, the pink flamingo included.

This was a great departure from the pink flamingo Featherstone made to brighten the yards of hardworking housewives in the fifties. Price describes his creation’s history as baffling to him. People responded in a similar way to the matching handmade outfits he and his wife wore everyday without fail for 35 years. Nancy Featherstone tells the Guardian that people wanted to psychoanalyze the way they dressed and suggest dependency issues. “All it is,” she says, “is a positive reflection of the nature of our relationship. We’re a matched set.”

Price suggests that the power of the pink flamingo might reside in its unfinished nature, how it was less realistic than Featherstone’s other bird sculptures. Featherstone did not entirely finalize what the pink flamingo was, and perhaps this allowed it to suggest so many meanings for so many different groups of people. Whether clothes or flamingos, one never knows what your creation might end up meaning.

Reckoning with the Past

In his farewell address at Duke Divinity School, recently adapted into an essay for Christianity Today, professor Grant Wacker articulated his understanding of what it means to be a Christian historian. He argues that historians who are Christian, and who study history in a Christian institution, have an additional obligation beyond their usual professional requirements: to articulate the work of the hand of God in history. Historians will all see God’s presence differently, Wacker says, but the church has a responsibility to look backward as well as forward.

Wacker says, “Honesty means we admit up front, without hedging, that Christianity, like all cultural artifacts, has been embedded in time and place and change. Every shred of Christian doctrine and practice has been mediated to us through mundane experience.” Christianity is never delivered to people without context. The Bible itself has to be interpreted to be understood, and interpretations will be informed by a person’s religious background, race, gender, financial status, and country of origin.

Having an eye for context is all the more important in light of ways in which information, histories, and narratives are shared in our present time. We live in an era where social media facilitates self-expression, as well as an inclination towards succinct, easily sharable ideas. Quotations on the internet, for example, often take on a life of their own, becoming attributed to people who never said them, or transformed into pithy statements that are an inadequate reflection of the author’s intent. Ripped from their contexts, these quotations become interesting and illustrative examples of how statements that seem clear on their face can be adapted and changed as their cultural environment changes. Likewise, a quotation that resonates with a diverse spectrum of Christians will demonstrate the changes that have taken place in American Christianity over the last hundred years.

One such quotation has been attributed to G.K. Chesterton, Joyce Meyer, Laurence J. Peter, Billy Sunday, and, with some tweaks, Keith Green: “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car!” With some minor Googling adjustments, you also can learn that going to church does not make you a Christian any more than going to McDonald’s makes you a hamburger, a pizza joint makes you a pizza, a farm makes you a cow, or a rodeo makes you a cowboy.

In his seminal 1989 historical study of British evangelicalism, historian David Bebbington attempted to define one of the more nebulous of Christian terms: evangelical. His model has subsequently been used in the United States as well. He identified four qualities that characterized British evangelicalism: activism, typically missionary activity and acts of service; biblicism, which he termed “a particular regard for the Bible;” crucicentrism, an emphasis on the atoning death of Christ on the cross; and, finally, conversionism.

It is the last of these four that is relevant when examining the quotation above. This element of the quadrilateral is also particularly tricky, given that the conversionism Bebbington refers to is not simply the conversion moment, or justification, but in fact the lifelong process that Christians refer to as sanctification. Evangelicals are interested in experiencing some sort of personal conversion moment, followed by lifelong transformation that proves the genuine nature of the initial conversion. If standing in your garage does not make you a car, why not? The evangelical reply would likely be that you have not been converted, or transformed, into a car, and that the mere act of standing there seems reasonably unlikely to make that happen.

When trying to track down the origin of this misattributed quotation, it is easy to dismiss at least one of the attributions immediately. A passing familiarity with G.K. Chesterton’s prose should make you suspicious that this quotation is attributed to him: it is more sincere than witty. Basic understanding of the use of the word “garage” in British English makes it implausible.

The earliest source of this quotation appears to be Billy Sunday, the storied, and controversial revivalist and evangelist who reached the height of his fame around the turn of the 20th century. He is famous for his preaching style and for his support of prohibition. He preached a tough kind of evangelical Christianity that called for firm adherence in the traditional beliefs of the church (the virgin birth and resurrection, for example) at a time when higher criticism and skepticism towards the miraculous were on the rise.

 

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In a sermon entitled “Old Time Religion,” Sunday says the following:

“A man isn’t a soldier because he wears a uniform, or carries a gun, or carries a canteen. He is a soldier when he makes a definite enlistment. All of the others can be bought without enlisting. When a man becomes a soldier he goes out on muster day and takes an oath to defend his country. It’s the oath that makes him a soldier. Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you an automobile, but public definite enlistment for Christ makes you a Christian.

Simply going to church cannot make you a Christian, Sunday argues, because the step that brings you from damned to saved is the public declaration of your faith. Soldiers become soldiers when they take an oath to defend their country. Likewise, a person becomes a Christian when they commit themselves to Christ. The pithy quotation that makes its way through evangelical self-help literature, sermons, and Facebook lacks the militaristic tones of the paragraph above, but preserves the gist of Sunday’s argument: some kind of public avowal is necessary.

The reason this avowal is necessary, Sunday claims in the same sermon, is because “M-o-u-t-h doesn’t spell intellect. It spells mouth and you must confess with your mouth. The mouth is the biggest part about most people, anyhow.” Conversion is not an intellectual process, and so the evangelical emphasis on conversionism, as Sunday understands it, is that a public declaration of your belief in the atoning nature of Jesus on the cross leads to true possibility for sanctification.

The transformation that this quotation has taken since the beginning of the 1900s is striking. There is the linguistic shift from “automobile” to “car,” indicating the increased informality of American speech. Further, the proliferation of variations – cowboys, pizza, hamburgers – points to changes in popular culture. Naked quotations flourish because they appeal to the people who share them with their friends or on their blogs, so the analogy must carry some emotional weight.

For example, Keith Green, a Christian singer and evangelist who died in a tragic plane crash in 1982, used almost the exact same formulation as Sunday: “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to McDonald’s makes you a hamburger.” In his only biography written to date, his widow credits this line of thinking to his study of Charles Finney, an influential evangelist in the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century. The use of a popular fast-food chain updates the quotation to be immediately familiar to Green’s audience.

One of the earliest success stories in Christian Contemporary Music (CCM), Green practiced a form of concert-evangelism that should be familiar to anyone raised in an evangelical home. Green’s songs tended to be simple, easy for audiences to learn and sing along to. In between songs, he would pray, or offer mini-sermons, usually on the topics of sin and redemption. You can hear him say the hamburger line on his Greatest Hits album, at the end of Jesus Commands Us to Go, a song urging a renewed evangelical focus on missionary activity, as part of a correct understanding of the nature of conversion.

What role, then, does making a habit of regular church attendance play in the life of a Christian? The popularity of this quotation could indicate one of two trends. People might be taking the analogy in the spirit in which Sunday clearly intended it and emphasize the importance of internal change instead of a set of approved behaviors. On the other hand, the growing trend towards spirituality and away from organized religion appears to suggest an increased emphasis on the individual as the arbiter of belief, rather than the Christian community.

On the surface, stripping quotations from the people who said them and situating them in a new context seems like a natural and largely harmless act. Does one quotation posted on someone’s Tumblr blog or Facebook profile really have overtly negative consequences? In the grand scheme of things, it does not – except that Christians have a responsibility to narrate themselves and their faith through the larger historical context of their religion. Christianity in the 21st century – indeed, Christianity in every century – is mediated through the experience and history of its followers.

Dr. Wacker’s farewell address interrogates the phrase “reckoning with the past,” particularly the three dimensions of reckoning: counting, interpreting, and evaluating. Counting simply refers to the ‘facts’ of history, the raw data of the past. These historical details are then interpreted by historians, who extract relevant details to answer particular historical questions. The final element of reckoning is the act of evaluating, hearing the voices of the past with humility and charity.

Reckoning  necessitates listening well and understanding the complexity of history, both of which are challenging acts. Christians are not alone in the need to listen well, to wrestle with the question of how to understand the past. It is often easier to cite nuggets of historical wisdom than to do the critical work necessary to engage with the darker parts of American history. Not everyone is called to be a historian, but being members of a community, whether in the United States or a Christian context, requires that people be honest about the past, and engage seriously with voices from history.

Photo Credit: Cliff (of Bill Woodrow, Listening to History, 1995)

Noteworthy: Constellation at Bannerman Castle

This past Sunday, artist Melissa McGill’s new project, Constellation, appeared in the sky over the Bannerman castle ruin. The historied castle is located on an island in the Hudson River, and McGill has placed luminous globes on tall poles above the ruin, giving the effect of a new constellation in the night sky. After flickering on for the first time, the lights will remain on for two hours each night for the next two years.

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McGill is influenced by Land art, an art that is often ephemeral, as it is left for nature to take back or erode. Constellation suggests this ephemerality in the limits placed on its duration – two hours, two years.

But Constellation is also a project on the way things last, and the presence of the past with us. A book will be published in conjunction with the installation, and will include writings and poetry, some created especially for the project. One of the poems, “My God, It’s Full of Stars” by Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy K. Smith, speaks of the connection of the past to our present lives, and the communion with others that is part of it. The poem’s third section begins, “Perhaps the great error is believing we’re alone, / That the others have come and gone–a momentary blip– / When all along, space might be choc-full of traffic, / Bursting at the seams with energy we neither feel / Nor see.” Smith suggests we are surrounded by the life of other galaxies, and the past of our own world. She ends the section with the presence of her father, writing “I might be sitting now beside my father / As he raises a lit match to the bowl of his pipe / For the first time in the winter of 1959.”

Like Smith’s poem, the lights above Bannerman castle are a reminder that we are not alone and that the past is not just a “momentary blip.” The lights suggest the outline of the castle before it deteriorated, positioned where the top of the castle once stood. Also, the lights recall the belief of the Lanape Indians, (natives of the Hudson River area), in Opi Tamakan, or the Milky Way as the “White Road,” a road from this world to the spiritual one beyond. McGill’s Constellation presents us with both the past of the castle and the past of the area’s natives, and reminds us that the passing of time does not mean that we are isolated from what has come before.

For more images of “Constellation, ” check out the project’s Instagram feed.

The Wikipedian Harp

Like wood fire or the tide coming in, Hatnote’s Listen to Wikipedia website is a process you could watch forever. Using a musical scale that seems lifted from ancient China, it translates Wikipedia edits into sound. Whenever a user tweaks an article, the site plucks a twangy note, varying in pitch depending on the change’s size. Whenever a new user joins, a chord swells in the background. The effect is meditative and strangely stirring, accompanied by visuals like rippling water. Watching the articles and usernames pop up creates the sense of harmonious human activity surrounding you. Never mind that each edit is as likely to decrease the store of human knowledge as it is to increase it; the site’s design is to inspire. And it does. It is a contraption to marvel at.

Without any context, I showed Listen to Wikipedia to my high school students. Pleased by its sound, they listened and worked for several minutes before asking what it was. The explanation produced boggled faces without exception. It was the same thrill, I explained to them, that the British Romantics felt when they discovered the Eolian Harp.

Listen to Wikipedia is the perfect analogue to that piece of eighteenth-century kitsch that Shelley and Coleridge found so inspiring. When the wind hit it at the proper speed and angle, an Eolian Harp made music, just as this website made songs from Wikipedia revisions. The translation of natural force into harmonious art was a Romantic ideal. This made Listen to Wikipedia a handy object lesson. But I ran into trouble when I realized that for these tenth graders, there was no hesitation to label the Internet a natural force.

I had gained some ground with this analogy between the Harp and Listen to Wikipedia, but it was more or less impossible to communicate their differences. And these differences are fundamental. While Listen to Wikipedia elevates an internet archive into a piece of music, the Romantics looked beyond human ingenuity for their inspiration. While this difference may not seem troubling at first, what inspires our music should matter to us, and no artist makes that claim more convincingly than Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Coleridge is often written off by readers as a pudgy let-down. Shoved next to Wordsworth in all the anthologies, he seems condemned to live in the older poet’s wiry shadow. His reputation as a scholar depends on his Biographia Literaria, a book both tedious and plagiarized. As a poet, his fame rests on a modest number of pieces which, despite their complexity and age, are still well known in the classroom. “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” has been confusing English-speaking schoolchildren for two centuries. Though it can be difficult to untangle its twisted syntax, the poem is always dazzling. The general consensus is that after his early effervescence, Coleridge fizzled. Eclipsed by his friend Wordsworth, he retired to a life of closeted scholarship and self-pitying odes.

It is true that Coleridge lacked Wordsworth’s knack for sustained eloquence. He also suffered from a debilitating addiction to laudanum–a dangerous but commonly prescribed concoction of opium dissolved in alcohol. But he had an unequaled talent for finding concrete symbols for philosophical ideas. In “Kubla Kahn,” Xanadu represented the dizzying heights of luxury and power. In “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” the waterfall, subtle as inspiration, stirred the leaves of trees. And most famous, “The Eolian Harp” gives us the preeminent Romantic symbol for the poetic process.

The poem is set in a garden around sunset, where Coleridge is cuddling his lover Sara, and listening to the sea. Mingled with that sound is the music of the Harp, to which Coleridge directs his poetic attention. At first, there is an associative blur between the feelings stirred in him by Sara, and those the Harp evokes. He tells her to note:

“How by the desultory breeze caressed,
Like some coy maid half yielding to her lover,
It pours such sweet upbraiding, as must needs
Tempt to repeat the wrong!

The metaphor is apt and sexy, evoking the pulses of the breeze as it makes music through the instrument. But Coleridge’s consideration of the Harp soon becomes more philosophical. “Where the breeze warbles,” he writes, “…the mute still air | Is Music slumbering on her instrument.” The air has shifted roles, from an insistent lover to Music itself. From this metaphor scholars extrapolate Coleridge’s whole conception of art.

If the air is Music, then Coleridge must see nature as the source and soul of art. The poet’s role, like the Harp’s, is to orient himself toward nature to best translate its power. If the poet is the Harp catching the wind, his poetry is the music the wind makes through the harp. It is a beautiful metaphor which allows Coleridge to envision poetry as a process fueled by nature.

Shelley picked up this metaphor in his later work, and his “Ode to the West Wind” hinges on similar images. These poems show that if British Romanticism is a cathedral, Nature is what was worshipped there. Nature was their model, fuel, and inspiration; the cornerstone of the whole movement.

The difference between “The Eolian Harp” and Listen to Wikipedia is their source of artistic inspiration and sustenance. The secret of the Harp’s thrill is that it translates a natural phenomenon, a movement we don’t control, into spontaneous art. This is precisely what the Romantics hoped to do in poetry. Yet Listen to Wikipedia translates the Internet into song. Both the inspiration and the song are man-made. This difference is profound. It indicates a transition from a culture inspired by otherness to a culture inspired by its own ingenuity.

There is a Pygmalion gravitas to watching students gape in awe of the Internet. Of course, the British Romantics were no strangers to the self-aggrandizing tendencies of art. Like us, they loved to elevate the makers of culture above culture itself, and our obsession with the artist-celebrity is arguably part of our inheritance from this era.

If Brad Pitt had a clubfoot, a pension for forbidden men as much as forbidden women, and had died in a Greek rebellion, he’d be Lord Byron. Byron pioneered our modern conception of the artistic celebrity: the turning of boldness, talent, and sexuality into mass-marketable products. Along with his incredible gift for intricate plots and the enjambed line, they made him famous. But he, too, was a student of Nature. “She Walks in Beauty” is one of the best love poems in English, and it praises its dark subject by calling her a cloudless night.

It is quite a different thing to praise the Internet by means of the Internet, to take our inspiration from a source of our own making. This is precisely what Listen to Wikipedia does, because it serves no purpose but to translate a digital archive into art. Both pieces of culture turn raw force into refined art, and while the Harp shares a sense of spontaneity with poems like Coleridge’s, Listen to Wikipedia does not carry the same sense of transcendence, because it translates a weaker force. The most enduring message of the Romantics is to look for inspiration outside of human industry. Though they were fascinated by culture and conscious of their contribution to it, they sought transcendence in nature because it is ultimately eludes human comprehension and control.

Public contributions to the Wikipedia, it’s true, are potentially endless. Furthermore, a large portion of the edits the website tracks are actually made by automated bots, which might inspire some to consider the archive a kind of self-governing natural force. But automation is not autonomy. Wikipedia’s growing complexity only means the jack-in-the-box we’re winding is getting larger and more complicated. Its power to surprise us is increasing. But it can never transcend us (in the philosophical sense) in the way the Romantics believed nature did.

To say the Romantics were smarter or more moral because they were inspired by nature would be both bad history and misguided chronological snobbery. But Listen to Wikipedia is a small sign that ours might be an age of dwindling aesthetics. There is elegance in Wikipedia’s construction, but to elevate that structure into music shows that we are satisfied with an intellectual culture that is increasingly about itself.  Flawed as they were, it would be worthy of us to reclaim the best parts of our inheritance from the Romantics along with the worst. For their poems are reminders that without true otherness, there can be no transcendence.

Meet Ello.

What began as a private social network for a group of seven artists and developers who wanted a way to connect as friends is now a public benefit corporation boasting millions of followers while still in beta.

Meet Ello. Its founders call it “a revolutionary social network that is transforming how people connect.” Committed to being ad-free and to never collecting or selling user data, Ello was built to be different. Chronology, not algorithms, determine what content you see from the pages you follow, and in true Internet form, you can be whomever you want. Ello doesn’t require you to use your real name or disclose any information about yourself other than an email address that remains private and a user name of your choice.

I recently talked with one of the founding members, Paul Budnitz, who now serves as its chief executive officer. Budnitz also owns and runs Budnitz Bicycles, a luxury bicycle company, and is well known as the founder of Kidrobot, the world’s premier creator of art toys, fashion apparel, and accessories. Budnitz is also an author of several books, exhibits as a photographer and filmmaker, and has founded more than a dozen companies.

The interview has been edited for publication.

 

Charity Singleton Craig: What is your elevator pitch for Ello?

Paul Budnitz: Ello is a revolutionary social network. We’re highly content-oriented, so we are about finding people who create stuff. We’re also ad-free; we value quality and beauty and positivity over advertising, manipulation, and exploitation, which is a lot of what we see in other networks. And we let people be whoever they want to be; you don’t have to use your real name because we don’t track data or any of that kind of stuff.

We are creating a really high-quality place to spend time, and that’s what’s important to us. Ello is a public benefit corporation. Legally we are a company with a mission, and the mission can supersede how we make money. Our mission is that we will never sell ads and never sell data and never sell our company to anyone that would do those two things. A lot of people in Silicon Valley hate us because we spend a lot of time pointing out the contradictions in what they do.

CSC: In the Ello manifesto, you say, “We believe a social network can be a tool for empowerment. Not a tool to deceive, coerce and manipulate—but a place to connect, create and celebrate life.” What was the model for creating Ello? Is there anyone else out there who is doing it right?

PB: We really like Medium because of their focus on long-form content. We think that’s really cool. Besides that, the answer is no, or we would never have gotten to where we are in building this thing.

We like Medium, but we really don’t know their long-term business plan about user data, ownership of things you post, and those kinds of things. I think we are the only social network that has legally [committed] that we won’t do any of that stuff. The thing about advertising and data collection is not really about advertising and data collection because you might not necessarily care whether you see a few ads or whether or not someone’s collecting your data because you can think, “Oh well, I don’t have anything to hide.” That’s actually really true for a lot of people. But I think that a lot of the negativity that you experience on other networks—that feeling that a network is not fun to use—comes actually from what’s beneath the surface.

There are other companies that are doing great things, but not in our space.

CSC: Is there still a private version of Ello that the original users are still involved with?

PB: No. It morphed into what Ello is. All the original users—all the founders, the seven of us—are superactive. What’s interesting is that we’re quite selfishly making this entire company for us to use. Everything we do is geared toward what people like, but it’s also what we like.

CSC: Then how do you scale it? How do you grow Ello without losing the specific culture of Ello that made it so appealing to begin with?

PB: It scales itself. We can’t censor people, so we can’t control what people post, right? We also can’t control some people who come on our network and do things that aren’t super fun or nice. Although we do have rules. So we have a crew of people that keep an eye on people who are doing things they shouldn’t. The reality is it remains super positive. It is so incredibly positive that every time I say this in an interview, I think I’m baiting someone, and I’ll get in trouble for this. But I have somewhere near 300,000 followers on Ello—because I’m just one of the founders. In the history of the company, I’ve probably deleted five comments on my posts that were negative or weird. I’m not talking about people who disagree with what I say but people who are actually doing weird stuff. It’s so bizarre. I keep waiting for some weirdo to come on and do mean stuff, but it doesn’t actually happen.

I know partially one of the reasons why. See, what happens is if you have a social network or a network like ours with a lot of beautiful stuff and then there are ads sort of in between it, there’s this sense that you’ve been violated. Over time there’s this kind of negativity [that builds] because that’s essentially an attempt at manipulation, right? It’s not like something that we’ve asked for. So whether or not you think the ads are fine or good or whatever, they still pop up. I think that that creates an environment over time that just feels wrong. And I think it actually affects how people behave and feel they have a license to behave. Ello is totally self-policing. If the community sees someone doing something really negative, they can report it, and then we take a look. If the person is actually breaking our rules, then we will give them a warning or eventually even shut their account down if they are doing something fairly aggressive. But a lot of times we just ask people to stop doing things, and then they stop.

So it’s working out. It’s an interesting thing. I can’t completely explain it. Except to say if you create a nice place then people like to keep it clean.

CSC: Is there an ideal Ello user?

PB: No. One of the things we like to say is that Ello isn’t for everybody, but everybody is welcome. I’ve had a lot of interviews where people are like, “Facebook has said they want to sign up everybody in the world—is that your mission?” And then our answer is no. It’s not our mission at all. Emphatically not. The deal is that Ello has purposefully a more limited feature set. In fact, we don’t even have a mobile app. Our mobile app comes out  this month. It’s web only right now. And we’ve been pretty slow to release new things because we’ve recognized that every time we create a new feature—let’s say reposting, which we added a month ago or so—it widens the circle of users and the types of people who will be interested in Ello.

We were very cautious that we had enough original content on the site before we put out reposting. When we did put out reposting, a lot of new users came on, and it was really positive. And so as we roll out new features like private messaging and private accounts and loves, which is sort of a bookmarking function, it changes things. Even on Ello right now, we’ve held off on content search because when you add content search, you add micro communities, and micro communities could grow up, and we didn’t want big insular communities early on.

The bottom line is everyone’s welcome on Ello. Ello is highly weighted toward creative people, creative curators, people who are interested in creative people, people who just like discussion—because we have a lot of really great discussion. That’s where Ello is now, but what’s interesting is that as, say, [the feature] “Loves” come out, it becomes a great way to collect stuff that you love. Then when private messaging comes out, it’s a little easier to actually use with your friends. Then when the mobile app comes out, it will probably be ten times the size. So it’s a steady progression. Who Ello is for today and who Ello is in three weeks is going to be different, and it will be different three weeks after that, too.

CSC: What issues, problems, or challenges does Ello address in artistic or curatorial communities? Is there something about Ello that adds to or solves a problem for those kinds of communities that are both creating and curating?

PB: I think it solves two massive problems. The first one is that it’s beautiful and full screen. So if you want to curate things, Ello was built to be browsed full screen with gigantic images and with no ads and no interruptions. It’s one of the reasons there are so many visual artists on Ello; it’s just beautiful. And I don’t think there’s anything else like it. I know there isn’t where you actually have a robust social network combined with the ability to put up beautiful stuff and where you’re not interrupted by ads and lots of clunky stuff.

I’ll actually give you three reasons. The second is that Ello doesn’t own your content, and it has no right to do anything with it. In fact, if you post original content on somewhere like Facebook, they can actually use it in advertisements, and they have and they do. So [on Ello] you have control over what you put up.

But the third one, which I think is actually the biggest one, is that … and you probably know this … if you have a Facebook page that’s not a personal Facebook page … let’s say you’re a business or you’re a blog or you’re a musician or you’re an artist or a small-business owner or a craftsperson … and let’s say you work hard and you get 10,000 or 20,000 or 100,000 followers. Every time you post, only 1 to 2 percent of the people who follow you will see your posts. Unless you pay for ads.

And that’s happening and transitioning on all the big social networks. Whether it’s Tumblr or Pinterest, even Twitter now, it’s starting to change so that you can pay—you’re forced to pay—so that the people who follow you see what you post. That’s the business model. The people who are hurt most by that model are the curators, especially, and the people who create content and small-business people and small creators because they don’t have marketing budgets. Where if you’re a gigantic corporation, it’s much easier to pay for reach than to have to create something interesting so that people will actually want to follow you.

Ello doesn’t have anything like that. If you get 10,000 people on Ello to follow you, which is not terribly hard right now, all 10,000 of those people will see everything that you post. It’s just chronologic; there’s no algorithm. And if I follow you, I will see everything that you post back, so it makes it a really fun place to follow people because nothing’s ever hidden from you, either.

That’s actually the biggest one because on Ello the social network is actually really free, which is not true on the other networks. And the way we are eventually going to begin making money is a business model that is so different and also really in alignment with what users want, especially curators.

CSC: So how will Ello eventually make money?

PB: The way we think of Ello is that we want to always be in alignment with the people who use Ello, the community. Starting in 2016 we’re going to offer services and special features that people can pay for. So one example is social commerce. Let’s say you are an artist and you want to be able to sell your paintings to the people who follow you. You’ll be able to put a For Sale sign on any of your posts so people can click on it and buy it. So that’s in alignment, right? If I’m choosing to follow you and you’re my favorite illustrator, I might want to buy one of your posters. So that’s a really good thing. And that will have a store connected to it. And you’ll be able to search for things. You’ll be able to type in the word “poster” or “bicycle” or anything you want, and you’ll be able to find people who are selling things like that. And then Ello is going to take a very small transaction cut.

The other thing we’re going to do is charge for really advanced features. So if you want to manage multiple accounts simultaneously, that’s something we’d probably charge a dollar or two every time you add an account. So you can have one for your trip to Europe and one for your pet dog and one for your work. And each time you want to set up a new one, we may charge you a couple bucks to do that, which we think is a pretty fair deal. It’s not something that prevents you from using the network; it’s just something that only some people will want.

We polled a lot of people, and we actually think it’s going to be very profitable.

CSC: In your manifesto, you say, “We believe in beauty, simplicity and transparency. We believe that the people who make things and the people who use them should be in partnership.” How specifically does Ello attempt to connect creators and consumers? Does the system fail if there are not both creators and consumers? What happens if the balance between the two shifts?

PB: So, creators need an audience. It’s just something that all of us who make stuff love, right? But it’s not a black and white thing. I’m not only someone who creates things; I’m also someone who often wants to go and consume things, and wants to go find awesome things to look at and people to talk to. So it’s not just one thing or the other. It’s both things at the same time, and because of that, you can have a creative community that works well.

Originally for us, there were seven artists, then there were 100 artists, then there were many more that all talking to each other. You can also have a lot of people on there who are talking to those creative people. And you can just have a lot of people talking. And in my experience, looking at how Ello’s grown, I don’t think there’s anybody who doesn’t have something interesting about them. Maybe that’s just my faith in people, but it is my experience with people on Ello.

There’s a thing going on on Ello right now called Poetry Friday, and someone started it and there are now thousands of people writing poems—can you believe poems? I just keep watching this, and it’s totally organically happening. And it keeps spreading out, and there are just people writing poems, and some of the poems are brilliant, and some of them, well, I don’t think they’re brilliant, and I haven’t seen anyone be anything but supportive the whole time. So now we’ve got people writing poetry, and I can’t remember anywhere else in the last fifteen years where I’ve seen just regular people writing poems.

CSC: Shihoko Iida said, “Curators should be attentive to what is going on around the world, as art is part of our society and our lives, not something isolated and exclusive. Curators of contemporary art in particular should take responsibility for contextualizing the artists of our time, engaging with society and its various communities.”  How does Ello fit within that framework?

PB: To me, Ello is anything but separate and exclusive. Ello encourages people to discover new things and also forces us—creative people or curators—to respond to people who we may or may not have expected in our “gallery.” You know, I think if you have a physical, land-based gallery, and you placed it on West 22nd Street in New York City, you’re pretty certain who’s going to show up. And the same thing for streets in Milan and everywhere else. But the Internet’s a different place. The nice thing about Ello is who you end up with is the community of people who organically become interested in whatever it is you’ve put up. And that at times is different, really different, than the people you might expect.

We can’t control our audience, and I think it’s a really great thing to lose that control, to be forced to talk to whoever happens to show up.

Remembering, Divisions, and Dust

Fenced by rusty Victorian iron-work, the bluestone buildings and deciduous trees of the Melbourne General Cemetery are well-kept relics of nineteenth-century Melbourne. The grieving and the curious enter through stately gates. Smooth paths veer to the left and right, inviting all into a vast expanse, a necropolis of graves and memorials of every size and stature, squares of stone divided into neat sections.

What do the sections mean? Are the graves separated according to age, divided by decades? No. As I traverse the avenue, the distinct identities of different groups become apparent.

In one section, smooth stones have been artfully assembled upon the flat plane of each tomb. Above the stones, each tombstone features succinct rows of gleaming rectangular letters, like the sun’s radiance upon a gray plane. The heaviness of stone upon stone makes these graves seem still, restful. The stones link the deceased to their father, Jacob, who gathered stones and named them Galeed, meaning “the heap of witness.”

In contrast, the next set of tombs is noisy with lengthy text and inscriptions and abundant vivid flowers, artificial and real. Marble edifices are ubiquitous, along with twin graves of husband and wife united beyond death. Spousal portraits on headstones turn toward one another. Vibrant toys are scattered about by visiting grandchildren, an invitation to Yia Yia and Papou to join in a game.

Thus belief differences outlive bodies. Religious affiliation separates them from their contemporaries, neat pavement delineating diversity, the cemetery’s site plan reflecting Australia’s migration policies.

The cemetery’s topography also varies. Some memorials have many towers and statues, stretching higher and higher above each other, pale edifices competing for the sun. Others are more circumspect. Inconspicuous iron frames, mere centimeters from the ground, envelope discrete rectangles of grass, demarcating each resting place. The rising turrets convey respect for the deceased, yes, but also possibly a desire for family notoriety by the still-living installers. Or if planned by the departed, perhaps the extensive marble structure was designed as permanent home and aid to memory in a time-shifting world. These robust structures protest against the notion of mortals as like grass/they flourish like a flower of the field/the wind blows over it and it is gone/and its place remembers it no more. The wind will bluster against the stone, but cannot blow it away.

The cemetery also houses an imposing granite mausoleum. Vases of flowers lie behind its locked gates; some fresh and flourishing, others ravished by the harsh Australian sun. One hot summer’s day, a black BMW pulls up to it. An elegantly-dressed woman, perhaps in her mid-forties, swiftly exits the car. The gates are quickly opened, the flowers swapped. The gates are re-locked and the car glides away.

Later, when the smell of the exhaust subsides, I glance through the bars to the photos and tributes inside. Row after row of faces beam, a family wall declaring their past and future unity. Their collective rest suggests lives lived as an ensemble, a flock, a company.

The sustained effort of remembering is facilitated not only by graves, plaques, statues and memorials, but also by rituals of time and space. The flowers and their vitality keep alive a life completed. Other deceased lives are sustained through the burning light of a candle, prayers that transcend the living/dead disjunction, songs that voice the departed’s living, present, presence.

Photo courtesy of the author

Photo courtesy of the author

In The End of Memory, Miroslav Volf notes the importance of memory in contemporary western societies. He observes that our fast-paced lives make it easy to forget, saying, “As the media nail us to a narrow strip of the extended present…the past seems like a landscape viewed from a fast-moving train – a blur that quickly fades to black.” He also notes that while we frenetically gaze ahead, we are simultaneously obsessed with memorializing, “to counter the slipping of the past into oblivion.” We are terrified of the past being forgotten, lost, annihilated.

And yet even photos, acts of remembrance, and the iron and stone of giant family edifices will not evade the weathering effects that weakened the bodies beneath them. When the mourner herself passes away, who will sustain the rituals of remembering her beloved in the mausoleum? In the cemetery grounds, weeds encroach over some of the tombstones; the place starts to remember them no more. Slowly, the wind erodes epitaphs. The carefully chiseled descriptions become illegible, and their referents anonymous. Precipitation and the transient earth shift even the heaviest granite grave lids, undermining the seemingly enduring stone. The movement tears the lids apart, as if the corpses have escaped their stone enclosures, deciding that six feet under was not their final dwelling place. Perhaps they too wanted to stroll around the cemetery in step with the living.

To dust we are/and to dust we shall return. Despite the best efforts of site planners, even the corporeal belief-based separations may cease. For the dust of the departed breaks free from their cracked tombs, intermingling in the air swirling the grounds, happily transcending the paved divisions.

Whether one is not going gentle into that good night or content to slip away quietly, graves speak of their owner’s beliefs about ephemerality and eternality, notoriety and anonymity. All endeavor to keep the dead alive, introducing them to each future generation. But the transiency of the tombs themselves suggests that a life rises, breaks, then fades away; significant but unable to be immortalized in stone, brick and iron.

But, in the meantime, I am particularly captured by one grave. Tucked at the end of a long row, a single, crumbling tombstone reads: Mary, my beloved wife. 1910. Unextravagant, the antithesis of a Taj Mahal. A love excessive in non-opulence. Until silenced by erosion and decay, it quietly declares its abundance to anyone willing to listen.

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.

 

Forgetting Tomorrow

“This land doesn’t look like tomorrow.”

That was my six-year-old daughter Mae’s comment when we walked over the bridge into Disney World’s Tomorrowland, with all of its planetary balls attached to sleek metal contoured structures. Synthesized sounds and neon-colored geometric shapes enveloped us as we moved forward, debating our daughters’ readiness for rides with names like Astro Orbiter and Space Mountain. Turns out they were ill-prepared for this future, but before calling it a day, we did take multiple rides on The Peoplemover, a slow, train-like ride from which we could preview all the possibilities available to us in Tomorrowland.

We concluded our time in this land of the future with a familiar meal of cheeseburgers and fries at Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Café, and friends from our grad school years who we bumped into at Disney’s character parade earlier that afternoon joined us. Our collected children chomped down on their food at the table next to us. Their faces were glued to the window as they watched a light show outside transform Cinderella’s castle into a crystal ice palace. We adults poked at our small, crunchy ice cubes in our strong plastic cups with our weak plastic straws, while discussing our futures and making endless jabs at “Tomorrowland,” all varieties of the same basic fact–Tomorrowland is simply one big compilation of sci-fi visions from the sixties.

Sans titre-9

But my daughter Mae didn’t have that arsenal of pop culture references as she absorbed this idea of Tomorrowland. To her, if this land was to be an accurate depiction of tomorrow, it would have to transform into The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the park we were headed to the next day, which, ironically, looks like 14th century England. But even that idea evolved throughout the day as she wove in and out of “futuristic” structures while aboard The Peoplemover. She realized that her vision of tomorrow was specific only to her and was not the tomorrow of everyone else currently packed into and moving about in this supposedly prophetic land. If it were to accurately be each person’s tomorrow, no experience within this space would be shared in the present, we’d have to pass through each other, all visualizing different things, making today’s land completely obsolete.

A few tomorrows after our trip to Tomorrowland, we were walking through the Charleston City Market in South Carolina. My girls had some Christmas money they wanted to spend. Mae had already purchased a stuffed sea turtle at a gift shop, but my older daughter Olivia wanted to be more selective with her choice. She and I separated from the rest of the family and were making our way through the crowded market at a leisurely pace. We settled into a spot by a vendor’s table where a fellow was demonstrating how to open his collection of wooden puzzle boxes. We played with a few of them, trying to crack their magnetic codes, and then moved on to his wooden fortune telling boxes. Words like “yes,” “no,” “maybe,” and “undecided,” were carved on the top of each box, and above them hovered a pendulum. We took turns asking a question, swinging the pendulum, and then waiting for it to stop, suspended at odd angles above one of the words. Magnets were making this magic.

Olivia, “Will I advance in gymnastics?”

Box, “yes.”

Me, “Will I get more work published this year?”

Box, “maybe.”

Olivia, “Will I get the flu this year?”

Box, “no.”

Me, “Will we stay in Ohio forever?”

Box, “undecided.”

Thanks for nothing, box. Moving on.

More tomorrows have passed, and I now find myself in todayland. The real deal, Ohio. Four inches of snow fell overnight, leaving a beautiful covering outside for me to find when I woke up early and made my way down to this desk in the basement to write more words. For me, this is probably what tomorrowland will look like as well, though I might need to borrow a different word to describe the day-old snow. I might need to steal a term from Ursula K. LeGuin’s 1969 sci-fi novel, Left Hand of Darkness, where the people of Karhid have over sixty-two words for the different types and states of snow. In my tomorrowland this snow will be moved about, tire tracks and boot imprints slightly altering its current pristine state.

lefthandofdarkness

LeGuin’s novel also includes an interesting perspective on the future—one held by a group of people named The Foretellers. These people, who strive to avoid answers, unlearn things, and live in ignorance, have perfected the art of foretelling, their primary motive being, “to exhibit the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question.”

What if we could know what tomorrow was going to look like? What if we did know where we would be in a decade? What if we were given glimpses of our future successes or failures? Would that vision alter the way we’re living our lives today? Aren’t we trying our hardest already? In certain ways I feel my uncertainties keep me sincere, and, though sometimes maddening, there’s a great satisfaction in the day-to-day work of striving.

The lead Foreteller in LeGuin’s book concludes his explanation about the uselessness of foretelling by stating, “The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.” To me, this line speaks of the future with more accuracy than Walt Disney’s visions of tomorrow or a wooden box with magic magnets.

I hope to witness many more tomorrows, and I hope they contain answers to questions I cannot even know to formulate today. And as an accumulated whole, I hope they far surpass my imagination.

Noteworthy: “Wasting Time on The Internet”

This spring, poet Kenneth Goldsmith has been teaching a class called “Wasting Time on the Internet.” Listed as a creative writing course at the University of Pennsylvania, the class has been a subject of contention since it was announced. Sitting in on a class session, journalist Katy Waldman described her experience for Slate.

Among other things, the class seems to be an experiment in the construction and perception of meaning. Meant to resuscitate the boredom-driven practice of Internet surfing, students were to use the ephemera of the Internet as writing material. Waldman writes that in concept the students would “go home and transform their Facebook reveries into poetry and memoir, like Walter Benjamin delicately descending from a hashish high in order to produce works of surreal and trancelike beauty.” This is an exciting idea, creating trancelike beauty from ephemera. As web surfing occupies more and more of our time, hoping to find meaning in the mindless is a compelling quest.

Goldsmith’s best-known works make use of ephemera in meaningful ways. “The Day”–his reappropriation of everything published in the New York Times on September 11, 2001–draws attention to how context influences the readings of words. Even weather reports become charged, menacing, within the context of the attacks.

But the students of “Wasting Time” haven’t created trancelike beauty yet. After seeing that no one was writing anything worthwhile, Goldsmith cut the class’ writing requirement. Instead, the class performs bizarre social experiments with their always-turned-on technology.  Students type a daisy chain poem with their arms linked. They text instructions to Goldsmith that he must perform. “Go to the business school. Skip down the stairs,” they write. There are hints of meaning everywhere, but the students mostly can’t articulate them.

What then is the meaning of all the time spent on the Internet?  For Goldsmith the answer seems to be the ephemera itself. He tells Waldman:

“What we create together is so much more exciting than any physical artifact we might take from it or produce afterward. Sometimes I don’t even remember what we’ve done that day—that’s how strange, how ephemeral it is.

Goldsmith is doing away with the privileging of production over presence, of achievement over the thing that doesn’t seem to get you anywhere. But this does not appear to satisfy the students. They still want to understand what has happened in a way they can talk about, and they want more than quirky performances using internet ephemera. Whether or not this desire is too production-focused, it seems that meaning doesn’t simply emerge through one’s immersion in the odd and endless internet.

 

 

Featured image is a screenshot of the internet portfolio of Ben DuVall artist, designer and cultural researcher.

A Meditation on Dirt

Since its beginning in 2008, The Curator has sought to celebrate cultural artifacts and inspire its readers to engage deeply with–and ultimately create–culture which enriches life and broadens experience. In keeping with our belief that a multitude of voices are necessary for conversations about art and humanity to flourish, The Curator and Christians in the Visual Arts are excited to announce a publishing partnership.

Founded in 1979, CIVA’s longstanding vision is to help artists, collectors, critics, professors, historians, pastors and arts professionals explore the profound relationship between art and faith. From this beginning, CIVA’s broad range of conferences, exhibits, programs, and publications exist to help the art and faith movement flourish both in the Church and in culture.

Emerging from an institutional friendship and resonant missions, both organizations present a unique voice and shared commitment to the conversation between faith and the arts. Among other initiatives, the partnership will include sharing essays from CIVA’s SEEN Journal, conference talks, and other network-serving original content created specifically for The Curator.

 

Elisha died, and they buried him. Now the bands of the Moabites would invade the land in the spring of the year. As they were burying a man, behold, they saw a marauding band; and they cast the man into the grave of Elisha. And when the man touched the bones of Elisha he revived and stood up on his feet (2 Kings 13:20—21, NASB).

A woman who had had a hemorrhage for twelve years, and had endured much at the hands of many physicians, and had spent all that she had and was not helped at all, but rather had grown worse—after hearing about Jesus, she came up in the crowd behind Him and touched His cloak. For she thought, “If I just touch His garments, I will get well.” Immediately the flow of her blood was dried up; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her affliction (Mark 5:25—29, NASB).

As He passed by, He saw a man blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him. We must work the works of Him who sent Me as long as it is day; night is coming when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the Light of the world.” When He had said this, He spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle, and applied the clay to his eyes, and said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which is translated, Sent). So he went away and washed, and came back seeing (John 9:1-7, NASB).

God was performing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that handkerchiefs or aprons were even carried from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out (Acts 19:11—12, NASB).

 

Making things from dirt, from mud or clay is the most ancient human art form—and the first human himself was made from mud, from dirt—adamah, Adam—the Hebrew word for earth, for dirt. It’s interesting that the word “human” also shares a common root with “humus” (dung or earth), as does the word “humility” (lowly, earthy), and the Old English word for human was guman—surviving only in hidden form in the word bridegroom—another of the names for Christ, who is the “second” Adam. Whereas the first Adam disobeyed, subjecting the whole earth to futility, the “second Adam” in his humility was obedient to the point of death, even the most ignominious death, reserved for the lowest of criminals. By dying and being buried—again in the dirt—the second Adam has redeemed the earth, the adamah—and our fallen race, the children of the earth.

The redemption of dirt has a nice ring to it, I think. The 2011 CIVA conference considered the value of matter, of physicality in a potentially de-materialized age. This was good place to start.

Redemption of earth…

In his book Surprised by Hope, theologian N. T. Wright speaks about the misunderstanding of our ultimate destiny by so many Christians and by so much of Christian tradition. The idea that when we die we “go to heaven” has smuggled its way into hymns and into our common way of talking about the loss of loved ones. Think about it: we almost always consider death as the time when we “go to heaven.” But there is, according to Wright, no real scriptural basis for this idea. What we hear about in the Bible is that heaven is God’s throne—his “control room,” as Wright suggests—and we hear that, ultimately, heaven is coming to us—not the other way ‘round. The Bride (earth) is adorned for her husband (heaven) and the Bridegroom (the new human) is coming—the New Jerusalem descends to earth and things are set right.

Redemption of dirt…of earth…

The whole point of Wright’s book is that our own role in this redemption is not to build the city of God on earth—the coming Kingdom—but rather to build for the kingdom. We are not “going to heaven,” we await its coming on earth and in the meantime we are stewards with high-stakes responsibilities to prepare for the Bridegroom’s return. This is not a passive waiting—it is also not an escape route. We’re staying put and preparing for the coming of heaven on earth.

Redemption of dirt…

One of the most surprising aspects of the scriptures cited at the beginning of this meditation is their frequent reference to some physical object—a dead man’s bones, the hem of a garment, spit and dirt, a handkerchief—a physical object can be imbued with spiritual force for healing. Without getting into the controversy over religious relics or magic amulets or other notions about special spiritually-charged objects, I’d like to end this brief meditation with a thought: making art is the redemption of dirt, and it can have healing power. Taking the raw materials of ground mineral pigments, wood, stone, fabric, celluloid, video pixels, computer screens, silicon . . . Taking raw materials (dirt) and loving them into new life . . . Breathing life into them as the Lord did in Genesis 1 or in John 20 when Jesus breathed on the disciples . . . Taking the raw dirt and breathing life into it will bring healing and hope if our focus is on that hope, and not on our artistic reputation. My prayer  is that we become available to breathe new life into our artistic communities by letting go of our usual expectations and fears, our clinging to status or name or position. May we, instead, assume the posture of the earth, humus, adamah, the horizontal.

In this posture and from this horizontal vantage point we can see through others’ eyes. By redeeming dirt, by willingly remaining “horizontal”—wherein veteran artists place themselves on the same plane as newcomers and younger artists—we can, as T. S. Eliot says in the Four Quartets, “arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.”

A Prayer

Oh God, Who spread out the heavens and hovered over the chaos of raw materials—water and dirt—making new life bloom into a lovely cosmos, we ask that you open again our memory, our imagination, our eyes and ears and hearts to be refreshed by the breathing in of your Spirit, that we might be available for any and all. Increase, we pray, our sensitivity to your presence in the interruptions and inconveniences and failures as much as in the inspiring moments of our art-making. Help us to embrace our earthiness—our mud and mess and weakness—that we might witness afresh your strength made perfect in that weakness and earthiness. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Thistledown

Cursed is the ground because of you;
In pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
Thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
And you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
You shall eat bread.

If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

The thistle bothered me all summer. The cows had eaten the timothy and the other good grasses around it so that it stood lordly and alone in that part of the pasture. On my daily walks past it to feed the hogs, I’d always commit to some action against it. But I was always carrying buckets. Or pushing a wheelbarrow. Never a shovel or pair of snips or even a glove to seize it. Then I’d return to the house or some other task and forget about it. It bloomed brilliant and purple for two weeks in July, and as summer dragged long and hot into August, the flowers molted into five sprays of downy seeds. One hot day, shoving the wheelbarrow past, I eyed that thistledown. Nothing more than a breeze or a passing animal would jostle it loose into the pasture. Then how many more thistles next summer? A shovel, dammit, I resolved: I’d just go get one, then and there. Sweat beaded in my eyebrows and ran down my face. By the time I got back to the house, thirst overwhelmed the work and I made for the kitchen sink. There I drained a jar of cold water and excused myself from going back out into the heat.

There was a small Red Angus heifer, six months old in September, scarcely any bigger than the May day on which we had bought her. Blossom. A slow, sweet-tempered creature. Shaggy auburn coat. Far more interested in having her neck rubbed than in eating or gaining weight. Her shoulder was barely as high as my hip.

She had no ambition. In the mornings, Marigold, a brown Jersey, would come galloping up the hill as we carried grain in buckets to the chickens. Cocoa, her black calf, trailed her. Blossom ambled up after them, indolent, lackadaisical. The Jersey would lunge at the spilled grain, brushing it into her mouth with greedy sweeps of her head, chewing near the ground, poising her mouth over the next bites. But the little heifer would dip her head as if with a shrug to browse the barley, eating it, seemingly, one grain at a time.

At a month old, Cocoa could dance circles around Blossom. By two months of age, sturdy and arrogant and full of his mother’s milk, he stood eight inches taller than her. One morning he butted Blossom in the neck and took over her grain spill. She backed up a few paces and watched him eat. There were five porcupine quills stuck in her nose like darts around a bullseye. Scratching her cheek, I plucked them one by one, zebra-striped shafts disappearing into a fine, painful point. She seemed to not notice when I pulled them out. I wondered how many days they might have been stuck there, me not noticing. And I wondered what was wrong with this cow that would not grow.

Summer gave way to autumn. Autumn ceded to winter. Frost blanched the fields brown and lifeless. We started feeding hay to the cows. Cocoa moved to a neighbor’s farm to wean him off Marigold. The Jersey and Blossom would sleep in the warm piles of uneaten alfalfa. We could watch them from the window above the kitchen sink. At 8 o’clock one January morning I filled the kettle with water and saw Blossom nested in the hay. Fog hid the mountain. Hoarfrost gilded the pines on the hillside. It traced the fence posts and barbed wire and anything that stood above the ground that did not move. At ten I washed a glass and saw through the window that she still lay where she’d been. I pulled on my boots and dashed out.

She lay on her side. Her eyes were warm and pathetic. I slid my hands underneath her and tried to sit her up. She flopped back down.

A vet friend came out in a couple hours. He felt along her back, the loin muscles on either side of her spine. “How old is she?” he asked, “Three months?”

“Um, eight, actually.”

My daughter brought me a calf bottle filled with warm water. Blossom sucked it down. Halfway through the bottle, she sat upright. The vet said that something was making her dehydrated and that, not being a large animal vet, but rather a specialist in dogs and cats and the like, he’d have to get back to me about underlying causes.

“For now, though, B vitamins, probiotics. As soon as you can, warm water with electrolytes. She needs all of that.”

I returned in an hour with the electrolytes. Halfway through it she stood up on her own, and regained her normal, dopey self as she finished. In the last light of the day I looked out the kitchen window and saw her browsing the field for the short green shoots amidst the brown stubble. I determined that I’d give her a couple bottles of the electrolytes every day until the packets ran out—about a week’s worth. In that time I’d figure out how to feed her the probiotics and summon the nerve to stick her with the horse needle full of B vitamins.

As my head hit the pillow the next night I realized that I’d forgotten to give Blossom her water bottles that day. Sleep was overtaking me. I found it simple to tell myself that she could coast for the day and that I’d resume her bottles first thing the next morning. The bedroom window was cracked an inch. I fell asleep listening to the distant yaps of coyotes.

At eight I filled the kettle and looked out the kitchen window. She was curled up in the hay. I sent my daughter out with a warm bottle.

She was back at the door in two minutes asking me to come outside.

I knelt by Blossom. Hoarfrost was on her face. Her eyes were open, soft and black, serene, asking for nothing. Something in them had closed and was no longer seeing. I ran my hand from her cheek along her neck to her shoulder. Her body was beginning to stiffen. Something passed in the air above me. A crow circled and landed on the branch of a nearby willow. It cawed and was answered by other crows I could not see. They would go for her eyes first, and then likely to a spot of thin skin on her back where their beaks could easily pierce her hide and find her flesh.

The ground was frozen. I could not dig a hole for her myself. After a few phone calls I learned none of my friends could help me until a couple days hence. By that time every scavenger a mile around would have scattered her all over the field. Procrastination was not an option. Neither, it seemed, was anything else. How do you get rid of a dead cow in the middle of winter?

Up the hill past the barn I glimpsed the burn pile. Twisted lumber. Rotted fence posts. Brush. Pallets. Work not worth keeping. A blaze hot enough to turn Blossom to ashes. I only had to get her up there.

I fetched the wheelbarrow. But how to get her in it without help? Perhaps I could lever her up with two-by-fours. To gauge what I’d need for the task, I grabbed her four legs and tried her weight.

I picked her right up.

It was like she was half filled with nothing, her belly cavity empty of innards, her bones hollow like a bird’s. A pig her size would weigh 300 pounds. She weighed scarcely 100. I dropped her into the wheelbarrow. Her hooves stuck over one side. Her head flopped over the front. As I started to push it uphill a tall weed caught my eye. The thistle. Every thorn on it still intact. The involucres of the five flowers empty of thistledown. The whole thing gray-brown and frost-brittle, its outline traced in hoarfrost. My hand wrapped up in my coat cuff, I pulled the thistle and placed it on the side of my little dead cow.

The fire lashed through the still, cold air, its fierce heat as hot as thirst. Blossom lay atop three stacked pallets. Her hooves were consumed. Flames raced over her auburn hair. The thistle turned to smoke. The heat was a presence, searing and steady. I looked at her face for the last time, fire licking out from between her teeth, her nostrils flaring as their flesh burned away, the flames revealing my work, burning it up, saving me.

photo by:

Iteration

Years ago I enrolled in my first graduate class: an overview of literary criticism by the chairman of the English department. For many of my classmates with B.A.s in English, the course served as a refresher. They already knew about deconstruction and close reading and Marxist interpretations. They understood reader-response criticism, and they could write one-thousand-word critiques of poems.

I, on the other hand, graduated with a mass communications degree. I had worked as a journalist after college. I wrote in inches and structured my articles according to an inverted pyramid. I was putting a single space between sentences before it was cool, and I never restated something after I quoted it. That was a waste of space.

My degree in communications did not prepare me for the work of literary criticism that I was assigned early in the course. In my critique of Joseph Brodsky’s “The Star of the Nativity,” I poured my heart out trying to find my way into the poem, but I didn’t know what I was doing. When my professor handed back my paper with no grade—he wasn’t grading anything until the end of the semester when we would submit a portfolio of all our work—he simply wrote, “This is a wonderful reading of the poem, but you need to start your analysis from here,” directly after my last sentence. He had underlined “start”; he was asking me to start over.

After I spent that night’s class choking back tears, I went home and began again. With a few other notes my professor had written in the margins and the instructions he had given to the class as a whole, I went back into my paper and rewrote it. But not from scratch. The version I turned in next contains traces of the original. Most of the introduction was lifted straight from the first draft. Many of the same words, sentences, and observations are included in both. But the next draft read differently; it was a completely different analysis that elicited a completely different response from my professor: “You’ve done a wonderful job with this poem. You’ve got the central idea of what’s supposed to happen with a critical analysis.”

He also offered more suggestions, and I worked on it at least one more time before submitting my final piece in the portfolio. On that last version, he penned the name of a publication that might be willing to publish it with just a little more work.

Somewhere along the way, I lost the official letter my professor wrote about my coursework, but I still have the handwritten note he included when he handed back my portfolio in class. Even though he said I had “already earned an A,” he made a few more suggestions for improving the work. “Making the changes would make already fine work better,” he wrote. And then he invited me to schedule a meeting to talk about it.

I was happy for the A, of course. What student wouldn’t be? But it was a different A than I had ever earned before. In the past, I had been rewarded for my writing, but rarely for my rewriting, for my work of revision. In the meeting I eventually had with the professor, he said it was my work ethic that actually had earned me the grade, and by that he meant my willingness to go back again and again. Honestly, I think it was the first time I had been given the opportunity.

A recent Quartz article examines what happened during—not just as a result of—the revision process when one author wrote his latest novel using GitHub, a version management and file hosting website normally reserved for writing computer code. Author Gregory Mazurek, whose pen name is Gregory Gershwin, uses GitHub in his day job as a software designer. But when he was looking for a platform for his next book that would easily convert his work into an EPUB version, he realized GitHub would do the trick. Knowing that GitHub also would create a new copy of his novel each time a change was made—a function important to software designers—hadn’t really seemed important at first.

“Once his book, Benjamin Buckingham And The Nightmare’s Nightmare, was finished, Mazurek publicly shared the GitHub project so anyone could see the changes he made to the story along the way,” Mike Murphy explained in the Quartz article. “Mazurek said that he originally hadn’t intended to make the project public, that he had just used GitHub as a way of keeping track of his thoughts and making sure he could access his work from multiple computers. But after he showed the project to his friends, they convinced him that there was artistic value in sharing the changes made along the way, as well as the novel itself.”

Exactly what is the artistic value of iteration, of seeing each version of a manuscript from first draft to desired finished copy?

Some changes to Mazurek’s novel were nothing more than correcting a misspelling or grammatical error; others created a key change in the plot or moved the reader more logically through the setting. The artistry from one version to the next was difficult for me to evaluate. Was the story better in the final version? I think so. The changes Mazurek made seemed to enhance the plot and tighten the language. Though I didn’t read each change, I saw the story grow, develop, and evolve. The movement of the writer’s work, the movement in the writer himself—these were where the magic happened. Unfortunately, it’s the kind of literary magic we rarely get to see.

In her Atlantic essay “Why Writers Are the Worst Procrastinators in the World,” author Megan McArdle suggests that part of the reason some writers struggle to sit down and do the work of writing is because they overvalue the idea that natural talent is all that is needed for great writing. And when they aren’t sure whether they themselves possess such talent, they worry that they will never really be great writers. This creativity-devastating thought cycle, says McArdle, can be traced back to high school and college English classes.

“Think about how a typical English class works,” McArdle writes:

“You read a “great work” by a famous author, discussing what the messages are, and how the author uses language, structure, and imagery to convey them. You memorize particularly pithy quotes to be regurgitated on the exam, and perhaps later on second dates. Students are rarely encouraged to peek at early drafts of those works. All they see is the final product, lovingly polished by both writer and editor to a very high shine. When the teacher asks, “What is the author saying here?” no one ever suggests that the answer might be “He didn’t quite know” or “That sentence was part of a key scene in an earlier draft, and he forgot to take it out in revision.

In fact, the iterative process of art in general is a hidden gem waiting for the right technology to reveal its magic. In a Matisse exhibit at the Indianapolis Museum of Art a couple of years ago, among Matisse’s work was a collection of photographs that revealed the various “drafts” of his painting Large Reclining Nude (The Pink Nude) on loan from the Baltimore Museum of Art. Not only do they  show the progression of the work to the final iconic version, they also show Matisse doing what Matisse is known for: moving from the concrete to the abstract, rearranging toward harmony in his work, experiencing and then capturing the essence of the truth he was trying to communicate.

Finished art inspires us to write and create better; it gives us models of excellence to aim for and achieve. Studying the iterations of finished pieces—seeing errors identified and corrected, observing style choices made and executed, watching content develop and clarify—reminds us that “better” takes work—it’s a process.

Maybe this was why my graduate school professor could tell this aspiring writer that I was already the writer I wanted to be. Not because I was producing perfectly crafted first drafts, but because I had learned the value of revising and was willing to do the work to get there.

Carrie & Lowell & Me

I married into a dysfunctional family. My own tribe has their problems, naturally; but I was raised in a pack of females—strong, emotional, spiritual, and confident that our bonds and good hearts would carry us through the world. So when I met my new family, the ones who had somehow produced the world’s kindest, whimsical, resilient, bearded boy I had ever met, I was surprised. They were closed and guarded. I whirled into the family, confident that I would be anyone’s dream daughter-in-law. I let my heart roll out of my mouth with every sentence. And when I received, in turn, scorn and dismissal, I was shocked into silence.

And silence turned out to be the end game, as it is for so many families where abuse happens. Secrets abound even in the best-intentioned: this is what Christ promised to us, that there would always be darkness within. The only cure, of course, is the light—the continually dragging out into the open those things we almost unconsciously bury. The floorboards need to be pried up. The stink and decay of the rot inside of ourselves, the secrets we have hid, are bleached clean. We become like white bones before the Lord, and then, only then, can the flesh miraculously be restored. I knew this, even then. But for awhile, I was silent.

“Tuesday night at Bible Study/We lift our hands and pray over your body/But nothing ever happens.”

When I was young and in Bible college, right before I met my husband, I saw Sufjan Stevens perform for the first time on his Illinois tour. I sat, wide-eyed and rapt, while girls in cheerleader uniforms performed behind the quiet, brown-haired boy who knew that whispers were often more powerful than shouts. I strained to catch his meaning, but nothing stuck. I cried when I heard “Casimir Pulaski Day” because I, like the people in Sufjan’s songs, read my Bible every morning, and journaled dutifully my dull and eager-to-be-right thoughts. In the morning I tried to quiet myself, tried to get right with God. Instead it had become an exercise in proving myself, to repeat what I knew I was supposed to say, to earn points and collect sound theologies, to store up enough of God so I could go out and convince others to give him a try. I was only just starting to realize that this wasn’t what I wanted my life to be. I was growing weary of trying to decide who was right and who was wrong.

When I was around my husband’s family I felt constantly off-balance. I did not trust myself, my guts or my words. I was quiet, and therefore good, for many years. But the secrets grew and transformed and reached out to others. Abuse thrives in the dark and the damp and the suffocating allure of momentary peace. As an outsider grafted in, my place was never sure, so I allowed myself to be carried for far too long in the already established patterns. Eventually, for both my husband and I, it became clear we would need to swim away. We were the rats, fleeing a sinking ship; we were the ones ruining the mirage that we were all OK. And as we started to swim with all of our might, my silence turned into something more. It began to turn into anger.

Follow those created deaths/Fortune save me from his wrath/Spaceship out the house at night/Prophet speak what’s on your mind/You know you really gotta get right with the Lord

The second time I saw Sufjan, it was two months after both my daughter and I almost died in childbirth. It was the first time my husband and I left the house together since that momentous event, our first attempt at sticking a toe back into the normal world. It did not go well. It was the Age of Adz tour, and there was a packed amphitheater of pretty, healthy young people; there were video projections with people dancing in disjointed, jerky ways; there was a lot of neon. I couldn’t stand to look at Sufjan, his tattered costumes, the bedraggled duct-tape wings, the headdresses, the falseness I felt everywhere. I wanted to shake him: just tell me what it all means. 

I looked around and thought bitter thoughts. None of these people have ever gone what I had gone through. I almost died! My body had turned on me, had decided the baby inside was a threat, and shut down everything I needed to survive: my liver, my ventricles, my heart. So two months early, our daughter was born into a world which was much too big and advanced for her. I looked around the room at people caught up in the rapture of the bizarre songs, the reverence of the fringe, outsider artists, the mashing of spiritual and secular and the unwell of mind. I thought: sure, celebrate the outsider art all you want. But that is the kind of art which comes from one solitary place, deep within. The thread of commonality among so-called outsider artists is that they never progress. They never change. They just keep producing, until the day they die, the same kind of message. A compulsion without growth. We in the audience, and even those on the stage, all seemed a little confused. Are we celebrating revelation or madness? Do we want to be in love with our own sense of righteousness?

The ship continued to go down, but it went slower than I would have liked. We watched from afar, and I would have liked to see it wrecked upon the rocks of life; I would have liked to see it splinter and burn, the book of Revelation come to life. I would have liked a little justice. My husband, now a counselor, listens to other people as they talk about their horrific pasts. He listens to the sick and the sad and the oppressed of the world. He operates in an alternate America, where pains are named and laments are voiced, where the Christ we studied for so many years is living. We found Christ, we found him, and we cannot let him go. When we go back to the places we were told he would always be we find nothing but silence; after all, he said he never came for those who thought they were well.

“Lord come with fire/Lord come with fire/Everyone’s wasting their life/Storing up treasure in vain/Trusting the pleasure it gives here on earth.

My daughter was three, safely tucked into bed with a babysitter, when we went to see the Christmas show. It was beautiful and chaotic, it was an absolute mess of the holy and commercialized. Sufjan’s dad was in the audience. He was older, gray-haired, and waved when Sufjan dedicated a song to him. My husband and I sang along to every word, every song. We sang of jingle bells and hymns older than our souls and it all felt like it meant something. Everyone around us was still young and beautiful and they all had drinks in their hand. But I did not judge them for it anymore. We celebrated everything, and underneath it all our hearts ached. The light had come into the world, and the darkness had not overcome it. But why does the darkness so outnumber the light?

… 

I waken in the middle of the night. God is talking to me. God asks me if I am ready to forgive. I tell him I am not, and roll over to go back to sleep. But a small part of me is pleased. Pleased that he would even ask.

Our Christmas with my husband’s family was spent at a discount Chinese restaurant, presents exchanged across a large round table filled with soy sauce and cheap wooden chopsticks. Conversation was stilted, hyperaware. My daughter opened her gifts and in her wide-open way flirted and chatted up these people who obviously wanted her to like them. A few blunt conversations were had; a thick, controlling silence was employed. We drove away from the restaurant and felt we could breathe again. It was all so depressing, but it was closer to the truth. It felt good, in that way.

Sometimes I still read my Bible in the mornings. The Scriptures no longer tell me how to live right, how to be right. They tell me how to be unwell. They tell me that my own lack of forgiveness is a sin, a dark animal clawing up my mind, producing the same art in my life day after day. Now I am old enough and broken enough to see it—but what comes next? In the middle of the night, I hear it. Are you ready to forgive? But I can’t, not yet, because to forgive would mean that the silence wins.

“I forgive you, mother, I can hear you/And I long to be near you/But every road leads to an end/Yes, every road leads to an end.

I listen to Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan’s latest album, with tears in my eyes. Reckoning with forgiveness, it is laid bare before me. Everything has already happened; the unbearable weight of acknowledging is already here. The only thing left to do is give up on myself as high priest and high judge. Everyone who ever hurt us, shamed us, abused us, could be dead for thirty years and not know the sting of bitterness we still carry in our hearts. We forgive for ourselves. We face how unwell we have become, and we realize we might want to move on. There are other themes to explore in this life, other dimensions to add to our understanding of ourselves, our families, of God. Sufjan sings about his mother, he goes back to his guitar and his whispered voice makes us all lean in closer.

Maybe every time he plays he will get closer, closer to doing what Jesus asked of us, the most unimaginable thing of all. Maybe Sufjan will continue to feel forgiven as well, as his own fingers strum and pluck and eventually lose their grip on all the hurt that was done to him, his mother dead and buried, her sins still alive and well.

From the Archives: Dust with Jeans On

This year for Lent, I am considering wearing some variation of the same outfit from Ash Wednesday to Easter. I am probably not brave enough to do this alone, though, so here’s a dare for you: join me.

1.     Choose one outfit to wear this Lent.

2.     Don’t buy any new clothes for seven weeks.

3.     Be creative. Prepare for resurrection.

This experiment with dressing simply is an attempt to live toward Christianity’s highest feast, the feast of Easter. It is an attempt to begin to pay gracious attention – to ourselves, our bodies, to others and their bodies, and to Creation. It’s not about heroics; it is about receiving the graciousness and generosity of God, the way the dust and mud of Eden received God’s breath, and the way a tree on a riverbank receives water and light and bears fruit. What would it look like to live in the generosity of God rather than in the guilt of our own failure? What would it mean to be free to notice that God is making the world new and that joining in that newness is a gift, and not a crushing burden?

Lent is seven weeks. The “one outfit” recommendation is flexible – this is a creative challenge. Perhaps wear the same pants and same shirt, or the same dress, but different scarves. What about jackets? Hats? Shoes? I’m not proposing no laundry for seven weeks; wash the clothes. I’m also not proposing that you go the gym in dress shoes, or sleep in jeans, or that you freeze during cold snaps and sweat through your shirt when it’s warm. What I am proposing is that we keep some significant part of our clothing stable in a way we wouldn’t normally. And then – from there – we can improvise. Maybe we can follow in the high Church tradition, in which Sundays don’t count as part of Lent. Sundays are the Lord’s Day and therefore they are always feast days, never fast days. Maybe we can wear one basic outfit, like a canvas, as a stable backdrop for a whole variety of appearances. Or maybe we keep one striking item constant, and let the rest of our clothing move around that fixed center.

Editor, philosopher, and teacher Gideon Strauss once said that clothing is an act of generosity toward other people. For him, I think this means sometimes wearing colors other than black. As I think of my own clothes-wearing practices, I wonder: have I ever considered my clothing in terms of generosity? What would that even mean? Clothes have had a lot of meanings for me. Over the years, the decision of what to wear has centered around my fear, around self-expression, hiding, guilt, or my desire to fit in. The labels in my shirts name me as a hopelessly privileged person – as an oppressor. Jeans sizes have at times felt like existential labels; the cut of them, or the brands, have been about proving I’m not one of those people, or that I am; clothes have been about proving that I know who I am, and that who I am is different but not freakish. Any part of embodied existence can become a physical language through which I must prove that I deserve to be alive.

What if, in wearing clothing, I were free to be generous? Generous to myself, to my own body, and free to begin uncoiling from my self-obsession? What if I were free not to think of what it says about me that my clothes were made in sweatshops, but instead to begin to think about the hands that made them, and consider the bodies and souls that go with those hands?

Jeff McSwain, who founded the Reality Center in downtown Durham, North Carolina, recently told me about his understanding of the difference between cooperation with God and participation. Cooperation, for him, means that God has done the lion’s share of the work, but that the tiny fragment we have to do is necessary; if we don’t do it, the world will be incomplete. No matter how small our part is, we can still fail horribly by not doing it. Participation, by contrast, means that we are invited to be involved with a God who makes space for us and for our creativity, but does not existentially depend on us. God is inviting us to work within the already-accomplished reality of creation and re-creation. We can be a meaningful part of the triumph, but we are incapable of causing ultimate failure. The Kingdom of God has come, and we live in it or deny it, but we can’t wreck it.

This is a claim that comes out of a deep, gracious theology of what it means for us to live in God’s creation and to work with God in restoring the world. Our work is real, and yet it is work within a reality that God has already brought into being. Participating with God is not about constructing new realities; it is about giving up on our denial of what is most deeply true. Participating with God does not mean inventing the kingdom of God. It means listening, and paying attention, and realizing that the kingdom of God is here, that it is real, that it is a place we can live, right now. God has made the world new in Christ. God has made us new. It is finished, and it will be completed.

And so this one-outfit idea is about giving in to reality. It is, for me, about reading the tags in my clothing rather than trying to forget that they say, Made in ChinaIndonesia, or the Philippines. It is about making a beginning with honesty, and trusting that God can show up. No: even more, it is about trusting that God has shown up.

Poet Mark Strand begins his poem “Keeping Things Whole” with the lines, “In a field / I am the absence / of field.” The poem follows the speaker moving through the world, understanding himself always as a negative, displacing presence. Everywhere, he is the absence of whatever was seamless until he came. The poem ends with the line, “I move / to keep things whole.”

This Lent, stop moving to keep things whole. Early in his Institutes, Calvin writes that the Spirit with “tender care supported the confused matter of heaven and earth until beauty and order were added” (1.13.22). Either that is what the Spirit is still doing, as God makes the broken world new in Christ, or we are desolate and beyond hope. In either case, we are not the ones making anything whole. Not by our pretense, our heroics, or anything we’ve ever done or ever will do.

In colder climates, Lent is the time of year when the bare ground slowly wakes up.  This is the premise, I think, of the “fasts” the church calendar encourages us to practice during the days of Lent. Fasting is not negation; it is the space of new green shoots, the bare ground unfreezing and growing fertile again. Luther, in writing of our life in Christ, draws on the biblical image of a tree. What we do in God, he says in “On the Freedom of the Christian,” is like the growth of a tree. And what we do without God is, by implication, as useless as trying to build a tree out of scrapwood. Another image Luther uses is of dry ground waiting for rain. We are like that ground: we can no more produce life than cracked mud can produce plants. But once the rain comes, all sorts of new life is possible.

So what if it’s true? What if God’s tenderness, drawing the tips of plants up out of the ground, is the deepest source of reality? What if that tenderness is where all true beauty and order have their source? Then we can pray for Egypt and Libya. We can pray for Iraq and Afghanistan and the United States and Mexico. We can pray for the L.A. police force. For AIDS victims in Uganda. We can pray for downtown Durham. We can go to these places, in thought, in spirit, in tears, in laughter, and in body. We can pray for ourselves, our families and churches, and the friendships and communities where much has died and is dying. We can pray in spite of words we can’t take back. We can pray in spite of cancer, in spite of divorce. We can live. We can die (protesting nonviolently among bombs, or sleeping in beds in a neighborhood from which you can’t hear bombs). We can die the small deaths of the everyday as well as the physical death of which Lent reminds us – a death that goes through the Cross, into the ground, and rises into a life that is truly life.

Wearing one outfit all of Lent is not going to answer all my questions about what I mean in this body, what this body means in the world, or how I might begin living faithfully toward other bodies. But this Lent, as I consider my wardrobe, I am going to practice living on the premise that when God looked at creation and said, “this is good,” that meant me too. It means me, and you, and billions of yous whose names I don’t know. I can groan with the waiting creation, rather than plugging my ears because that groaning makes me feel so guilty. God has something more to say to me than that I’ve failed, again, at living this resurrected life.

Let’s think of our one outfit as the garment in which Christ clothes us, our humanity made whole again. Then it can help us remember that we are free to stop pretending that we are anything other than dust held together by the breath of God.


Credit where it’s due: This idea was partly inspired by a story told of a woman at Ched Meyers’ Sabbath Economics conference last fall, who only buys one dress every twelve months, and partly by Gideon Strauss’s daughters Hannah and Tala, who, every October, “along with several hundred of their closest friends,” choose one dress and wear it for the month, for the sheer fun of it, a project previously chronicled in The Curator.

The Liquidation of Language

“The great enemy of clear language,” wrote George Orwell in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” “is insincerity.” Language is being liquidated, sold off piece by piece, its assets turned over and redistributed for other purposes. “Language,” he wrote, “is in a bad way.” (Orwell’s essay was published in 1946, three years before he wrote about Syme and the Newspeak dictionary in his classic dystopia 1984.)

To be sincere is to be clear. Readers and listeners sense that they are being lied to when the message is buried beneath jargon, euphemism or cliché. One may escape the reaches of Wi-Fi, but one cannot escape communication. It is the way humans connect, the way they express themselves, and the way they progress civilization. Ask anyone who has had to learn a new language in a foreign country: he was instantly brought low—the inability to communicate left him as a toddler. Language is not simply a tool, with its uses determining whether it is good or bad. Nothing is simply a tool. But even tools shape who we are by offering us choices that we previously did not have. Language is thus a moral consideration.

This is the case Marilyn McEntyre makes in her book Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies. Like Orwell, she believes language is in a bad way. She observes how “many newspapers write to a fourth-grade level and so train readers to expect nothing more challenging.” Or this: “Forty-four percent of all American adults do not read a single book in the course of a year.” Young people are brought up in a culture of public discourse saturated with political smearing and accusations, advertising’s lies and slogans, and television’s hyperbole and over-generalizations meant for mass consumption. This isn’t young people’s fault, of course. They have been the “target market” their whole lives, “literally victims of corporate forces so large, relentless and skillfully camouflaged” that they don’t even know they’re being attacked. They’re taught in classrooms “to be critical of empty rhetoric,” but all they see from adults in their lives, in print and on TV is gossip, ad hominem attacks, hyperbole and lies, so is it any wonder they don’t want to listen? In short, “they need our help.”

In order to think clearly, humans must speak clearly. So then, “the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.” In the classical sense, this sort of education was the most prized form. Classical curriculum in the old Latin schools was the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music), which dominated schooling for over a thousand years, but then started to recede in the nineteenth century. Recovering this ancient tradition may perhaps revitalize our current state of apathy and misuse. But in order to get there, we must understand what language is and what it is not.

Some say the purpose of language is to assert or deny ideas. Some say the exact opposite, that language is used to disguise meaning, like a soldier saying he “reduced the element” rather than he killed a person; politicians employ this use of language daily. Orwell said much when he wrote, “Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.” And still others argue, “language exists to communicate whatever it can communicate.” But I say that language is like a liquid. It’s hard to set down hard rules on it. What was once considered The Rule fifty years ago is now no longer a rule.

For example, in their essays “Grammar Puss” and “Tense Present,” authors Steven Pinker and David Foster Wallace, respectively, trace where the “Do not split infinitives” rule came from, going back to Latin and eighteenth-century grammar textbooks. “Julius Caesar could not have split an infinitive if he had wanted to. In Latin the infinitive is a single word such as ‘facere,’” but English has two-word infinitives; so grammatically there is no reason English can’t split infinitives. Further, language changes almost too quickly to record: dictionaries and Bibles must be updated with each generation. But these prescriptive rules “serve as shibboleths, differentiating the elite from the rabble.” Or let Stephen Fry convince you of the silliness of many grammar rules.

Like liquids, language has immense power. A small stream can move massive amounts of dirt, and a little flood can destroy a town. Who has not been moved by a line of verse? Who has not altered heaps of her life due to a single quote? Who can forget what that one person said to you in a fit of anger, or that small criticism of your personality? A single word has more power than a thousand missiles. Caring for words is one of the most important activities a person can do.

Thinking in this way, and attempting to use language with precision and care comes with a risk. For choosing “to go beyond the adequate is sometimes to risk the look of elitism, the accusation of pretentiousness or pedantry.” Or, as Wallace labels them, “Grammar Nazis, Usage Nerds, Syntax Snobs, Language Police,” in a word, “snoot.” This is the case with every discipline: writing, art, design, whatever. Some people will always snarl at you for wanting to be better. The irony is that in wanting to be a better thinker, writer, or theologian, one desires to be clearer and simpler, thus desiring to be less pedantic, not more.

You see, this clarity and precision is actually meant to care more for people. McEntyre writes,

“Precision is, after all, not only a form of responsibility and a kind of pleasure, but an instrument of compassion. To be precise requires care, time, and attention to the person, place, or process being described.”

Imprecision is apathy and laziness. It has damaging returns, especially for people of faith. God created language, and thus people of God ought to (are commanded to) care immensely about the words they use. Again, language, especially for people of faith, is a moral consideration, and its proper care requires a liberal amount of humility. Think for a moment about the humility of God in giving his word over to humans to be translated, or preaching that word through a translator; even with our most precise humans we are still falling short, and God shows compassion.

Instead of saying they’re “hanging out with friends,” Christians say they’re “fellowshipping in community.” Instead of “I think,” it’s “I feel called.” This may perhaps, like academic jargon, give an air of spiritual superiority. But more than that: it separates who is “in” and who is not, separating believers from unbelievers. One knows that the other is in the Christian club when he or she says, “We’re being intentional about doing life together,” rather than, “We’re going to eat a cheeseburger at a restaurant.” Instead of saying, “I like being nice to people,” Christians say, “I like coming alongside and loving on people.” This sort of Christian cliché is the opposite of inclusion, and is thus a subtle rejection of the gospel they proclaim; a subtle rejection that can be avoided by thinking more sharply and reading more widely, or relating more broadly.To non-Christians these phrases will immediately sound like tunes on a cracked tea kettle. What would “I’m just washed in the blood” sound like to someone who has never gone to church?

The irony here is that Christians spend their time (or should spend their time) studying the greatest literary work in human civilization, higher than even Shakespeare or Milton. The “legacy of the English Bible alone is at least equivalent to owning all the oil in the Middle East… it gives its readers unequaled access to and control over the shaping of public discourse.” Go to the book of Proverbs, for example, and underline every reference to the tongue, lips, the mouth, or words, and you will have underlined well over one hundred times. Yet the brilliance of the Bible is whittled down and repeated so often that its phrases have little originality anymore. As Orwell wrote, “Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style.”

Some will argue that rather than pretense, jargon or exclusion, Christian English is only a different dialect of American English shared between a common group or Discourse Community, a term known as code switching. We all do it. Parents talk in one way to each other and another to their kids; this is true also of bosses and employees, coaches and players, scholars and laity, and within various schools or organizations. David Foster Wallace says that everyone knows this. But what everyone doesn’t know is that these dialects “have their own highly developed and internally consistent grammars” that are “nearly incomprehensible to anyone who isn’t inside their very tight and specific Discourse Community.” The purpose of code switching is to conceal meaning rather than reveal it. That is, again, a subtle form of exclusion. (Though it’s also the case in each time period in history. Wallace argues that modern English speakers say, “I was attacked by a bear!” but two hundred years ago we might have said, “That ursine juggernaut bethought to sup upon my person!”)

Language may be in a bad way, and people may think that we are so far down the road that turning back now is pointless. We might as well go on to the next town and gather supplies there. But I hope that we try to slow it down, to recover the lost art of listening, speaking and reading well, that our fellow primates may, at the very least, enjoy some of the words we speak and write.

Saving language is effectually saving people. It would seem not at all unjustifiable in view of these assertions to proceed and replicate these principles to persons in various and sundry geographic regions.

In other words, go therefore and make disciples of all nations.

Art as Hospitality

Since its beginning in 2008, The Curator has sought to celebrate cultural artifacts and inspire its readers to engage deeply with–and ultimately create–culture which enriches life and broadens experience. In keeping with our belief that a multitude of voices are necessary for conversations about art and humanity to flourish, The Curator and Christians in the Visual Arts are excited to announce a publishing partnership. 

Founded in 1979, CIVA’s longstanding vision is to help artists, collectors, critics, professors, historians, pastors and arts professionals explore the profound relationship between art and faith. From this beginning, CIVA’s broad range of conferences, exhibits, programs, and publications exist to help the art and faith movement flourish both in the Church and in culture. 

Emerging from an institutional friendship and resonant missions, both organizations present a unique voice and shared commitment to the conversation between faith and the arts. Among other initiatives, the partnership will include sharing essays from CIVA’s SEEN Journal, conference talks, and other network-serving original content created specifically for The Curator.

This article is part of the publishing partnership between The Curator and Christians in the Visual Arts. It originally appeared in SEEN Journal.

 

Harrell Fletcher founded and continues to direct the art and social practice emphasis in the M.F.A. program at Portland State University.

Leah Samuelson oversees the community art program at Wheaton College. We posed three questions to them regarding the future of socially engaged art.

CIVA: What are the inhospitable conditions of academia and the artworld that help artists decide to turn to social practice as some kind of solution? As an option or cluster of options among many, many more in the artworld, why are some artists—you two in particular—drawn to socially engaged art?

HARRELL FLETCHER: The academic part is a bit inexplicable to me. Why it’s happening now I don’t really understand, but there seems to be an interest in community engagement. Social media plays some sort of role, and the realization that the art market only works for a small number of people adds to it. But honestly, I am not totally sure.

Personally, I am drawn to socially engaged art because it allows me to learn about and connect with people and subjects and places that are outside of my little life. I’m very familiar with spending time by myself and I have plenty of that (and love it), but I want to use my work to do something that I don’t do in my normal life. Also, I found showing my own “art work” to be sort of embarrassing. It’s much easier to promote and ask people to appreciate someone else and their interests than it is for me to do that for myself, though of course I see the work I do as my “art work.” But this is a little more comfortably distanced than studio style weird object work.

LEAH SAMUELSON: At a recent School of the Art Institute of Chicago dialogue event, hosting critic and historian Claire Bishop and curator Claire Doherty, an astute audience member posed a question about whose values system guides interpretation and analysis when community art projects center around persons outside the artworld (e.g., young, single mothers?). Bishop replied on behalf of her discipline. That got me thinking about what kinds of art and occasions make artists accountable to the people about whom their art makes claims.

I wonder if socially engaged art brings opportunity for hospitable treatment of the world because art that engages society directly—or through prophetic advocacy—makes artists accountable. Maybe we like accountability. Recently one morning while on the train, a colleague asked me why people stifle their creativity. That got me thinking about how busy members of my “professional” culture back away from responsibility (e.g., for our use of human labor, waste, and other labors of nature). When we depart from our physical life mediums do we forego connection to our conceptual media such as story, values, and art (art as the common element of what is material and what is meaning)? Maybe hospitality, accountability, and creativity come bundled together, and academia and the artworld can put the squeeze on any one of these.

Sandra Bowden, Elements, 2008, encaustic, 11 x 38 inches (diptych).

Sandra Bowden, Elements, 2008, encaustic, 11 x 38 inches (diptych).

CIVA: In conversation with Michael Rakowitz for the Between Artists publication, Harrell identified two kinds of failures with students: “successful failures” and “real failures.” When is excellence the wrong idea or goal for students? How much is teaching really about sharing the ability to trust others?

HF: Good questions. I don’t even recall saying that, but I like the idea anyway. Excellence is subjective, as are so many things in life and art, so really it’s about recalibrating our sense of excellence. Failure doesn’t really have to be a failure, but apathy is a real problem and so is a lack of risk-taking. Some things are hard to get wrong. For instance, getting students to talk to people outside of their own sphere, learning to be a learner, engaging with the world, and realizing your agency are all good things.

For me, teaching is a lot about trusting others. Collaboration is hard for artists. We have been trained to really value originality, signature styles, newness, and “mastery.” But all of that sometimes gets in the way of just being human, and seeing the beauty of working together.

LS: Okay, it’s becoming clear to me that everything I learn comes from what people say, because last year I heard filmmaker Earnest M. Whitman III ask why people trust the voice of an expert (even foreign expert) above the voice of experience. The tragically funny thing was no one in the room could even digest the question, but we picked the message apart with critical questions from our own disciplines that would have earned us smarty points in most other academic settings. I agree with Harrell that the power to define excellence is clasped in the fists of experts but life is better lived with standards set by a wide range of experiences, which means by a wide range of people.

While students feel as though they are not going to the head of the class in any particular skill set, it may seem to them that the definition of success is too narrow for them to achieve it. If we want students to trust us and trust each other, we might have to start by demonstrating our commitment to a broader range of definitions for excellence.

CIVA: How would each of you envision art “getting through” to people from a broader audience, especially folks outside the art-critical discourse? Is this something you’re dedicated to? If so, what are the best instances of this in your experience?

HF: It’s really not that hard: if you make work that is with and about people who are not normally included in the art world dialogue, then they may take an interest and become invested. But doing that really well can be surprisingly tricky. Mostly, I think it is about unlearning what we have been conditioned into by society, education, capitalism, etc. Think about how easy it is for a baby or young child to create a connection with someone from any demographic, sometimes just with a smile and by showing interest. Adults can learn a lot from this. We need to just chill out, find simple ways to relate, and then the shared complexity can happen.

LS: More than other types of projects, social practices highlight (alternating) roles for collaborators as guests and hosts of projects, processes, and materials. Well-acted guest and host roles are not intellectually difficult, but are hard for our wills, and these alternating roles connect us to each other. So if the power of hosting can roughly be described as choice, and the power of guesting can roughly be described as judgment, then artists can play guest more often than we do in order to “get through” to a broader audience. I like Harrell’s advice to just chill out. I can’t describe any best instances of this, because you have to have been there; but we do need more education in this area at liberal arts colleges and art schools.

CIVA: Thank you for both for your thoughtful responses to these questions. We’re glad to have a few moments of collaboration and shared complexity here.

Noteworthy: Live Long and Prosper

“We are assembled here today to pay final respects to our honored dead. And yet it should be noted, in the midst of our sorrow, this death takes place in the shadow of new life, the sunrise of a new world; a world that our beloved comrade gave his life to protect and nourish. He did not feel this sacrifice a vain or empty one, and we will not debate his profound wisdom at these proceedings. Of my friend, I can only say this: Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most…. human.

Leonard Nimoy was many things in life: Actor, poet, writer, director, musician, photographer, Vulcan, and icon. He was Spock, and he was not Spock. Ultimately though, Leonard Nimoy was a demonstration of what it looked like to live long and prosper.

A struggling actor who broke through playing second banana to William Shatner’s Captain Kirk, Nimoy brought a level of acting legitimacy to Star Trek that helped propel it well beyond it’s three year television run. There was never truly a post-Trek existence for Nimoy, but he expanded his artistic vision in a way that allowed him to express himself, push boundaries, and momentarily escape the shadow of the pointed ears.

But perhaps above all, he will be remembered for giving us this: the Ballad of Bilbo Baggins.  Live long and prosper.

Scottsdale: Memory

A writer walks through a suburb of a desert city. He finds that art, souvenirs, tradition, memory, and dam-building and citrus trees have something to do with each other. This is the fourth of five essays. 

The earthquake recorded closest to Scottsdale was within thirty miles, and was only 2.5-scale (on a 100 scale metric). The city lies in the areas with the lowest chance of hurricane, tornado, blizzard, and quake. For this reason, fifty miles away is a nuclear facility. Geographically, the valley is at rest.

This town is not only claims to be the most western but, on the merits of its food, comfort, culture, domestic and natural safety, is the most livable. In 1993 the Conference of Mayors proclaimed Scottsdale the “most livable city.” It’s motto, “The West’s most western town,” is stamped onto it’s city emblem, around the image of a cowboy riding on a wild stallion, hat in his balance-hand. It has hotels, restaurants, festivals to celebrate cultural cuisines and local farms, sport-bars, little golf-carts that function as in-town taxicabs. During the summer, the water-misters are turned on. During the winter months (December and January), heaters are brought out. Every place has outside seating. The sunsets are unlike anywhere else. Camelback mountain, just west of the city, turns a royal purple near dusk. The orange dust is swept up by wind and the helicopters that hover around the mountain (this happens weekly, for rescuing hikers). Particles and gravity bend the setting light toward the slower wavelength spectra – luminal low tide. The desert is safe, its danger a memory.

Usually, when an event or a person becomes a memory, this is the first step towards loss. A person moves from the present, being physically before us, to a memory, an image. We must exercise that image or else it fades. Soon, the voice of lost loved ones vanish. We forget what they look like, forgetting from the first moment they left. If all memories are statues (souvenirs), we need to remember that statues do not always become clearer through time.

For instance, consider Michelangelo’s first of three pietas – known as the Pieta – which lies in the Vatican. Christ lies in his mother’s arms. Together they compose a Trinitarian form, the mother looking down, hands sown wide with the motion of “behold the lamb who takes away,” the son made utterly without life, stunned in a puzzlement which only Hans Holbein’s canvas depicts more disturbingly, according to Dostoevsky, the painting that would make a man lose his faith. The Pieta is similar, excepting the terror. Michelangelo’s craft perfected itself here, and would not deny any detail. The sculpture is almost too ornate for its subject.

Michelangelo returned to the theme twice more. The middle draft, called the Florentine Pieta, trades the triangular for a tilting, spear-like form. Here Christ’s misery twists his joints, his knees and arm to just before snapping. The twist is almost physically untenable. The form itself of the sculpture is in-confidence, unsound-ness, feebleness. Structure – especially the most stone-like structure, the bone structure, of the Christ – is in danger of snapping in half and falling to the ground.

Rondanini Pietà Artist: Michelangelo Location: Sforza Castle Created: 1552–1564 Media: Marble

Rondanini Pietà
Artist: Michelangelo
Location: Sforza Castle
Created: 1552–1564
Media: Marble

The third pieta, the Rondanini Pieta, Michelangelo never finished. And  even though it was among other projects that remain unfinished by his  death, it was not necessarily incomplete because of his death. While the other two took six years to complete, The Rondanini Pieta took more  than ten years; and two times Michelangelo greatly reworked the design.  Something about the form he couldn’t decide on. For an artist who knew  human form, this piece loses all physiology. The body of Christ is fused  impossibly into the Virgin’s body (the theme of which other artists have  taken up, as Gregory Wolfe has spoken about). And in a reverse of the  second pieta, the Rondanini’s Christ is buoyant, even as his head wilts  against the breast of his mother. They seem to emerge from the stone  enmeshed together. It is hard to miss that it is unfinished. The artist  pulling the form free from the stone, and stone sucking it back to the aboriginal womb.

The narrative of the pietas reveal a battle between Michelangelo and the marble for the form, which Michelangelo’s death and timidity left in the material’s advantage. The pietas digressed, returning into the marble’s mouth from which he tried to form them. The mountain reclaimed itself from Michelangelo’s work.

The souvenirs and tourism of Scottsdale are no different. They also risk losing all their significance. They, too, can lose their proportion, becoming monstrosities of our remembering.

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It is hard not to mention the culture of the souvenir and place without thinking of the work of Thomas Kinkade. His paintings are, according to art reviews, possibly hanging in one of twenty of American Homes. My friend’s home has a print of a cabin in the woods. His themes include the home with golden light blazing from windows of houses, churches, or other destinations, which always face at a slight angle away from the viewer, the roads always as if the viewer were walking on them – his paintings are brilliant, that is, fluorescent. Light casts no shadow and shines without blinding. In his sunsets and sunrises, not all the light can be explained by the sun, the light travels from too many angles. The place is heavily dusted with light.

It’s hard to believe that someone’s memory of home sweet home could not be identified with a Kinkade canvas. Next to it, the true memory of their wood-and-nail home seems an ungrateful dysphemism. Say what we will about Kinkade’s form, that it is repulsive; it is still repulsively reminiscent. He works with memory then emphasizes the warmth. His paintings are an extreme form of embellishment, the fishing trip that made the 8-inch bass into a 5-foot salmon into Job’s Leviathan. It takes advantage of the mathematical principle that form remains itself at any scale.

Memories are like fractals. They are the same thing, at all proportions, all sizes. We don’t need to see a picture of someone at the same scale as the person to remember. Most family pictures are going to be several scales down. So too, souvenirs, which alter whatever they mean to be the smaller version of. Their first and primary alteration is size. They are all caricatures, but not always or necessarily for humor’s sake. They caricature in size because the real thing isn’t mobile in its original size. Places and monuments don’t fit in a carry-on. It’s often just a matter of miniaturizing, albeit a few details are missed. The structure is faithful to the significance. Using the phrase, “making mountains out of molehills” to say that something has been made too important, ultimately has it backwards. Memories are smaller. Memories fit. All molehills are created from mountains.

Someone can paint from life and know he gets the real form, size and all. This is not true of the reverse. Someone cannot look at a painting and derive the real size of the thing portrayed. You cannot know the real magnitude of a mountain from a postcard. Which raises a question. Given the sum of Scottsdale so far – art, souvenir, history, tourism, et al.: does the memory of Scottsdale have a real reference, or is it all based, say, on a mental postcard?

Oddly enough, Scottsdale is a city built from false memories. These memories have made wilderness comfortable, the past perfected, the desert, forgotten. It’s as if a mountain has been remembered but has never been seen. This remembered mountain could have a complete and thorough past known by a whole community. Its color, climate, fauna could all be recalled in minute detail. But even though they could draw the mountain and could tell infinite reams about adventures on it, no one ever climbed its rocky side. This mountain is memory without a source. Where is it? What’s its the real size?

What’s the true scale of anything that’s only remembered? What’s the true size of a mountain we only have molehills of? What’s the status of a city only remembered? What does it mean to forget one is in a desert?

Scottsdale: Tradition

A writer walks through a suburb of a desert city. He finds that art, souvenirs, tradition , memory, and dam-building and citrus trees have something to do with each other. This is the third of five essays. 

Everything about the history of Scottsdale fits in its motto, which it chose in 1950: “The west’s most western town.”

The Winfield brothers came to the area around 1890. They and others slowly began the markets that Scottsdale and the larger Phoenix area would be known for: copper, cattle, cotton, and citrus. It’s population increased from 2,000 people in 1951 to 68,000 in 1968 to 202,000 in 2000. As it grew, it needed more space. Space was made. The town grew outward. It is today a lucrative, well-thought-out, 65 year-old city. Many factors, those changing or unforeseen motivations, persons coming to and fro, and often murder, make a town. The mailman was the first to shoot someone.

Old Downtown is striking for the western-ness of it. There are posts for horses, tin roofs and tumbleweeds. The streets are made of cobblestone with distant vanishing points. In cowboy movies, instead of making the entire buildings, they often just put up the storefronts. There was nothing to walk into and the front of a general store or the sheriff’s office was simply the background for the camera following the new character into town. Had the camera floated up, all there’d be to see is buttressed walls. The stores here looked like that western. The city council, as tourism became a prospect, intentionally gave this facade to the town. It has an annual tourism population of 6 million and an economy of a few billion (much of it from art and souvenir sales). The city is clean, dustless.

Scottsdale wants to incarnate “westernness.” It calls itself the superlative of all places western, “the west’s most western town,” a self-proclaimed archetype of the pre-Civil War to late 1800’s expansion, even though the land was bought in 1900, not recognized as a city until 1950, and intentionally makes itself “appear” western. It has enjoyed financial success from this enterprise: superlatives are curiosities.

People from the past look historical, either from how they smile or look into the camera lens, even their physical features. In the 1800s, towns were often built near railroads. People left their homes, a time of Manifest Destiny, Civil War, gold rushes, cattle wrangling. Pilgrims, cowboys, and free-landers needed supplies. Railroads were the veins of westward-reaching arms. Photography was just beginning then, black and white and out of focus. Pictures from that time have an almost magical chemical-ness feel to them. The clothes look like costumes. No one dresses that way except at custom parties and renaissance festivals. This history seems itchy, untouchable.

Homesteader_NE_1866

Enough time makes a thing seem to have happened elsewhere. Russian philosopher and literary critic, Mikhail Bakhtain writing about the epic genre of literature states: “as the specific genre known to us today, [epic literature] has been from the beginning a poem about the past, and the authorial position immanent in the epic and constitutive for it … is the environment of a man speaking about a past that is to him inaccessible, the reverent point of view of a descent … epic discourse is infinitely far removed from discourse of a contemporary.”

The epic does not look for perfection in the present or the future. Instead, it claims there was a golden age, a time that has gained that otherworldly texture to it. Through its telling, the past becomes exotic, extraterrestrial. The past is an ancestor so genealogically ancient that he looks nothing like his children. Back then, men fought with true virtue, the nation was at peace, the knights defeated the dragons, all lived happily ever after. This time exists safely and securely on the other side of some unbridgeable canyon: fantasy, myth, legend, history, recovered from fragments of parchment and the walls of caves.

Alternatively, perfection might lie in the future. Imagine ideas quarreling then combining with each other, over and over, until they mix their differences into an equalized ideal. Our belief in progress is to hope that all disagreements and difficulties will be solved in time. It’s all a math problem that’s taking a frustratingly long time to figure.

In either case, the contemporary is not the site of perfection but of departure. There’s the land we’re trying to return to, finally arrive at, or recapture in memoria, that, apart from brief visitations, we never really get to. The goal lies always across the way, and we like rocks skipping across a river are not yet at rest.

All the speculation as to where perfection lies, Scottsdale forgoes. Instead, it simply gives us souvenirs and tourism. Town’s don’t give themselves mottos to attract tourism or fashion souvenirs just because they like visitors and paraphernalia. In the case of souvenirs and tourism, both walking around a place and taking back a piece from that place encapsulates a memory that, by any other means, remains untouchable. What else could be meant by its assertion – “the west’s most western town” – than that the Ideal exists in the contemporary, today? Scottsdale tells us that the past it touchable. We have the longed-for object at last.

Valley Ho 029

And what if, as Scottsdale claims, the ideal is realizable; what if it’s unattainability, it’s absolute alienation, is false? Tourism and souvenirs incorporate what remembering is a vague representation of.

In so many ways, Scottsdale is not connected to the spirit of the West, its history, its troubles, its films. Scottsdale became a city after Westward Ho with John Wayne, and a slew of other movies made in the 1930s. Scottsdale claims to be the most western town, even when it became a town after the West existed. Who expected the spirit to appear when the West had passed? But it claims to be it nonetheless, when every other place sighs and tries to remember.

Scottdale’s motto refuses to privilege any notion of perfection . It steals perfection from the past, presumes it from the future, captures it despite its alterity. Wherever the ideal is made to dangle, Scottsdale plucks it off. It’s odd, as if the archetype of ancient Rome was born yesterday, or the best play of Shakespearean English written in 1990.

There’s something good, even possible, about this. That whatever a period hundreds or thousands of years ago was trying to be should appear in a different period asks if we would think of time differently. Memory is not an uncross-able distance, but the completion of history and the perfection of the future and the ideal – all at once made present. Perfection does not lie in the epic past, but the ordinary present.

There’s a funny paradox when memory becomes present to us, like recalling someone who is standing next to you, or being forgiven before you’ve repented, or knowing a future event like it happened yesterday. A tension releases before it had time to wind up, music plays from instruments still locked in their cases.

Scottsdale: Souvenirs

A writer walks through a suburb of a desert city. He finds that art,souvenirs , tradition, memory, and dam-building and citrus trees have something to do with each other. This is the second of five essays. 

The city of Phoenix is a grid, like New York, within a mountain-rimming bowl—the valley of the sun. Here, one block is a square mile. The road I’m on splits into Scottsdale Boulevard and Drinkwater Boulevard. Drinkwater was the real, and as best as I can tell, original last name of the once-mayor of Scottsdale, Herb Drinkwater. There is a statue of him in Scottsdale near the Civic Center, with a dog at his side, wagging his brass tail. The mayor wears a Stetson, bow tie, and a big smile. It’s the best job in the world to serve the people of Scottsdale, the monument says.

Scottsdale Blvd., running north-south, divides art and craft. No art shops there, no souvenir shops here. Crossing over, I took out a cigarillo – it seemed the right western thing to do – and haunted the souvenir side of town. At an un-manned covered wagon I find pamphlets about nightlife and informationals about the best burgers, all sorts of maps. I stuffed these into my satchel.

With over one hundred art galleries and over sixty shops, I wondered if there were as many stores so densely put in a New York street and I had never noticed it before. In Midtown, for instance, there are souvenir shops but they are cushioned by the more numerous brand name shops. Carrying across the U.S. to Scottsdale, every souvenir shop invariably has this aesthetic. You notice the lights inside the shop first. It didn’t matter if it was sunny outside. From vaulted ceilings, the light didn’t shine, it weightlessly fell. The light has to be described that way. To shine the light needs direction, velocity, linearity. But the light was diffuse, massless, coating things like an invisible fog.

In New York I once watched a family walk into one of these stores. The first thing they see are racks, with t-shirts and other apparel, arranged to make deep trails. The father is looking for something to commemorate their trip to the southwest. The kids look at what’s at eye-level: snow globes, shot glasses with funny quotes, mugs, miniature Statue-of-Libertys, postcards. The mother wants to get a tiny token to send to their parents. The kids like stuffed animals. The father settles on a key-chain, a stuffed-python the kids will fight over in the backseat, an oversized t-shirt, and a little Empire State Building as a gift for the in-laws.

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This same experience transposes onto every shop in Scottsdale, using this simple function: mugs laminated with names w/ [insert Scottsdale scenic shot] + shot glasses laminated or decorated with [insert cacti or local pun] + t-shirts laminated with [insert date: time: event/place] + click pens with [insert local motto or slogan] + … + 1n-1 + 1n. The very same souvenirs found in New York were here. The only difference was the plastic mold used to make them. Gift shops carried Scottsdale-specific t-shirts. Different in font, color, and slightly in wording, but they all said the same thing, to the algorithmic product.

In one jewelry shop window is a necklace I had seen in a previous shop, the same peculiar design of a dancing man playing a flute. There were loads of pretty turquoise necklaces—albeit, the designs did repeat after a while, like a suburban neighborhood. Some were hand made. Others were genuine. Others still were antique or traditional. None were unprofessional or shabby.

The figure I kept seeing was, I later found out, called the Kokopelli. Some date his beginnings at 700 A.D., carved onto mountain faces and inside caves. For the Hopi, a southwestern tribe, and a few others, the Kokopelli is the demiurge of fertility and harvest. He plays the flute, has spiked, long hair, a skinny figure wearing a robe. I saw his figure engraved into pendants, necklaces, every species of jewelry. One version of his history holds that strangers would walk into tribes, playing the flute and dancing, and by this the tribe knew that the Kokopelli had come to tell tales, trade, and speak prophecy and prayers over their crops. This wasn’t the only symbol on necklaces. There were others, all drawing their meaning from near-ancient sources.

The pamphlets gave recommendations for those who want authentic Indian art, recommending buyers ask for a certificate to prove that the piece was made by the Navajo or whichever tribe. The pieces tend to be expensive. That’s part of their authenticity, being craft not product. Especially the rings and bracelets; the hammer work shows its telltale in-congruency.

Untitled3

The Navajo wore jewelry less than all this makes believe. The tables and the shops, lined with sterling silver jewelry, give an image that the Navajo wore an excessive amount of jewelry. But historically, jewelry was rare and ceremonial and pottery was mundanely practical. Making so much, and so much of, the jewelry and pottery gives the wrong impression. This jewelry is made by the Navajo, but not for the Navajo. More people want Navajo jewelry than the Navajo did.

These souvenirs provided the sense that they were for those just passing through, like when visiting a mountain you leave with a rock to show you were there. This is the transformation from museum piece to souvenir. Museums take artifacts and instead of using them, use them to reveal the past to us. But those artifacts – pottery, ceremonial necklaces, dream-catchers, pipes, baskets – were made, originally, to be used. That’s what makes them real. But when they’re made for the museum of your home (i.e., not used) they’re no longer museum pieces; something is absent.

So too the blanket that is hard to sleep in because of the monogrammed “Grand Canyon, 1999” thickly sewn on it’s corner and the equally uncomfortable pillow with “Appalachian Trail, 1997” in wild-west font; the millions of monuments minimized into miniatures. The grandeur, spontaneity, indescribability “you had to be there” of a place, of a history, of Michelangelo’s David, is reduced to something you can pack away and then put on a shelf. It appears that nothing cannot be shrunk—the miniaturized Pieta, the Ecstasy of St. Teresa, every bit of national architecture. Monuments and histories are taken to foreign countries, unknown coffee tables and kitchens, set next to a dozen other statues and mountains. The monumental is made a mantelpiece, mutatis mutandis. The mountain’s timelessness is taken rock by rock by those who want a part of its grandeur. Like Moses taking tablets from the mountain, they are tangible testaments of a place, a terra. Nothing can be taken too seriously that fits in a pocket.

Camelback_Mountain_2

“Souvenir” can refer to many things, and I was having trouble, walking around at 8:30, to decide on what it meant in Scottsdale’s case. The souvenirs were forces of unseriousness yet nonetheless carried the power of what they were formed after. This other part was, after thinking a little longer, the more obvious point: they’re for remembering. “The mountain was made of this,” one says, holding up a piece of shale.

Scottsdale: Art District

A writer walks through a suburb of a desert city. He finds that art, souvenirs, tradition, memory, and dam-building and citrus trees have something to do with each other. This is the first of five essays. 

 

I left at dusk. My bag was packed with a few cigarillos, a small notebook, and my denim jacket. It was finally cool in the evenings. I had once before walked parts of downtown Scottsdale, a northeastern suburb of Phoenix, AZ. But I had been sick, and it was distractingly hot then. Tonight I had the whole evening if I wanted it, work the next morning notwithstanding.

There are a few districts to Old Downtown, est. 1894, named after an Army Chaplain, Winfield Scott. First is the Art district, less than a third of a New York City avenue block. Scottsdale Blvd runs north/south; Main St. runs east/west, cutting Scottsdale into quadrants. The art district lay mostly on Main St. on the west side of Scottsdale Blvd.

By the evening’s end I had written down fifty-eight individual art galleries on Main St. alone. There are over one hundred. These galleries were like brownstones in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, representing about as many unique characters. At Esse Objects de Art everything was made of the same material: a fade-gold metallic. If it had a smell, it would be whatever golden mold smells like. On a victorian table sat a sci-fi motorcycle, all luscious curves, a massive wheel on the back, low handlebars, and a woman clad in nothing, exaggerating herself on the seat. Further down were the Shorr Gallery, Romanov Fine Jewelry, and Gallery Russia, which displayed a 6’x8’ canvas titled, In the South, by Renat Ramazanov.

Why this boon of art?

Scottsdale is next to Los Angeles and New York in art sales, and while it is the wealthiest part of AZ, that can’t be a sufficient enough reason. While the prospect of money is a reason to paint, it’s not a reason for painting any particular painting. Commissions bought Michelangelo’s marble, it didn’t inspire David.

Let the wealthy desire all the status, sophistication, and expression art can give, and you’ll have indiscriminate buyers. But here there were genres, styles, communities of artists and galleries, some of which weren’t getting enough interest to justify their remaining. Emerging from half-complete sculptures were ravenous, desirous feminine shapes. There were the self-titled Southwestern artists whose work caught the burning orange, pristinely wild, leathery understanding of the west, all triggers for a memory that no one looking at them could have had personally—all of Proust’s madeleine without the narrator’s recollection.

One artist had labeled their art as, “art that embraces awareness”. I never had to ask the question, “what’s it trying to say?” The art was straightforward. Each painting was given in hand to be received and enjoyed. It was, and perhaps the context of the town helped, perfectly apparent what the meaning of the art was. Artistic style did not vary the message. The abstract was knowably abstract, the impressionistic was knowably impressionistic. This was art of near-perfect disclosure. You have to taste the fruit to know, but there was no need for analysis, no reason for study. It was all of it memory, established.

Here in Scottsdale, between art and the viewer, there was still the moment when the viewer (granted a very wealthy viewer) saw something desirable for and in itself.

One gallery gave art classes. As I passed by, twenty or so adults listened to an indefinite classical-piano piece were told how to get orange from a red/yellow mix. In front of them, at about the same stage of completion as theirs, was an impressionist canvas of some clouds or fire mixed together, which the teacher was painting. In front of all of them was the finished canvas they were replicating. Stacks of previous canvases laid behind them.

It’s difficult to know when to continue performing something. In February 2014, New York, on a rainy evening—when the snow was undecidedly melting then turning back into ice, then returning back to slush—I went to see the Britten Opera, Billy Budd, at the Brooklyn Art Museum (BAM). The London Philharmonic played the score. The Glyndebourne cast took the stage. They had returned to this opera, last played in 2010.

One of the few written in English, Billy Budd has more human (as opposed to stultifyingly social) moments than most operas. The purest of souls (Billy Budd) is unjustly punished for justly killing a man. At the penultimate moment, as Melville’s short story puts it, Billy Budd shouts out the words “God Bless Starry Vere!” This shocks the crew, and it shocked the audience at the BAM theater. Jacques Imbrailo who played Billy, as the noose fell on his neck, tensed his veins with the vibrato. He sung those words with desperation, with the sudden, bursting syllables –“God bless you!”–that the viewer cannot believe (one expected “Farewell!” or “Down with the tyrant!” or “Freedom!”).

The opera begins and ends with Captain Vere. He opens the story with a monologue addressed to the audience, “I am an old man,” and concludes the opera on the same dark stage. Lit at his sides so to provide the illusion of floating—like his own luminescent, flickering memory—he recalls that fateful year full of mutiny and fated angels. Delivering the last lines, he says, “I, Farfaix Vere, commanded the Indomitable,” and after a good silence, roaring applause. That’s how the iTunes soundtrack ends.

That night, however, the actors and the London Philharmonic would put a close to a performing tour in New York and would return to the UK. This was their last performance, and in it a moment not found in the iTunes version of the opera. It ended with John Ainsley, who played Vere, delivering the lines, “I, Fairfax Vere, commanded the Indomitable.” The lights went out. The audience applauded.

But in the moment before the lights went out, he drew breath, as if to go on. There were no more lines to speak. But there was one more in his mind. He let out that half sound of someone who wants to say more–but thinks better of it at the last second – a perfect aposiopesis, a stutter. The audience, who before this had remained silent, attentive, let out a small whimper—the exclamatory “oh” of a mother who’d seen a child fall and scratch their knee outside the window. We all wanted to know what he would have said. But it would remain unspoken.

The performance, and with them the performances, were ended. It could not be done again. Only recordings remained, which one could play over and over. On iTunes, all one buys is a recording of an event which was itself a repeated performance. No one plays that violin again, no tenor sings that note again. And it seems that at some point a performance becomes a recording, not a contribution to the work of art. Something about one piece of art refuses to pass itself on with reoccurrences. The store of meaning is exhausted. Still the song plays on.

The art class back in Scottsdale was called “A Splash of Merlot.” They splashed paint onto their canvases with a canvas of Pollock’s to inspire and guide them, but without the hesitation and anxiety that Pollock suffered over.  The point that night was to paint. There was not a question of whether or not. There was no time to stop painting. Pigment was mixed. Brushes were dipped. Canvases were dabbed.

They work with the strokes, hues, and medium of Cezzane, perhaps one of his still-lifes, but without taking the hours it took him to add one stroke to the canvas. Has the art troubled them? Has the work taken them to mental and physical extremes? And what about the 20 canvases afterword? When they had dried, where do they go?

The painting isn’t deepened by being reproduced. A sentence is recited long after it’s lost its breath. A statue is chipped at after it is complete. At some point, what was craft becomes erosion.

There was in one of hundreds of Scottsdale art galleries, Bishop Gallery for Arts and Antiques, piles to the ceiling of furniture and Catholico-esque shrines. Much of it was made of wood and plaster. There was very little metal, very little shine. Near the door stood a statuette, about four feet tall. It was made of wood, and a little cracking on the top: two men, naked; one had wings folded up on his back. Their posture was as though at the beginning of a professional grappling contest, hands on shoulders, both bowing their heads together in the seriousness of “let us pray.” They weren’t proportional. They had thick limbs and small hairless heads. Their posture said men; their size said children. There was no label, no price tag. Was it a scene from Jacob’s wrestling with the Angel?  It appeared to be. If it was the angel’ hand should be touching the man’s hip, but instead the man’s hand was extended to the angel’s waist. There was, as good sculpture can do, the sense of frozen motion, not just the absence of it. The two men were waiting for the wood to give way. They were drawn toward each other with locked grips, and skin slippery with sweat, whether to wrestle or to embrace. The sadness of their expressions together kept the possibility of their coming together for reconciliation. The statuette’s form hesitated precisely before being violent or resolved. I couldn’t wait to see which the men would give in to.

Noteworthy: Diane Severin on Tinker Creek

“I live by a creek, Tinker Creek, in a valley in Virginia’s Blue Ridge,” Annie Dillard wrote in her luminous Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

“An anchorite’s hermitage is called an anchor-hold; some anchor-holds were simple sheds clamped to the side of a church like a barnacle to a rock. I think of this house clamped to the side of Tinker Creek as an anchor-hold. . . . The creeks are the world with all its stimulus and beauty; I live there. But the mountains are home.”

The reader would be forgiven for thinking that Dillard was indeed living alone in the wilderness by Tinker Creek, an anchoress living deliberately, determined to live amidst “the mystery of continuous creation,” and to, Thoreau-like, “front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Dillard meant to write in the tradition of Thoreau and other writers — Edward Abbey, Aldo Leopold, John Muir — who lived alone in the wild. But, like Thoreau, she wasn’t quite alone. Diane Saverin writes in The Atlantic:

“Dillard knew that being a graduate student, or a professor’s wife living in the suburbs, wasn’t as exciting as, say, living alone in Arches National Park, as Abbey did. In Desert Solitaire, he describes the gopher snake he befriended to keep rattlesnakes away from his trailer. The gopher sometimes wrapped around his waist, inside his shirt, and rested on his belt. (“I’m a humanist,” he writes, “I’d rather kill a man than a snake.”) Such a narrator embodied all the right American ideals: the mythic frontiersman, the wild man, the true hermit.

But to write in the tradition of lone-man-in-the-wilderness, Dillard had to find a way out of the facts that (a) she wasn’t a man and (b) she wasn’t living alone in the wilderness. Reading through the journals and notecards Dillard kept while writing Tinker Creek, Saverin finds Dillard wrestling with the manuscript and trying to reconcile her writing with the unmentioned parts of her life (“The husband she lives with, the friends she lunches with, and the people she plays softball with are all conspicuously missing.”) Dillard even considered making Tinker Creek a novel before deciding to write a novelized book of nonfiction. “I didn’t obscure anything, I just left it out,” Dillard tells Saverin.

Saverin’s whole essay is worth the read. And then also worth the read is what Dillard left in Tinker Creek: her razor-keen eye and her exuberant reception of the world’s mystery:

When her doctor took her bandages off and led her into the garden, the girl who was no longer blind saw “the tree with the lights in it.” It was for this tree I searched through the peach orchards of summer, in the forests of fall and down winter and spring for years. Then one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked  breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I’m still spending the power. Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck. I have since only very rarely seen the tree with the lights in it. The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.

May we who find ourselves in the suburbs live so deliberately.

* The featured image is of a handwritten draft with Dillard’s whimsical doodles in the margins (Annie Dillard/Beinecke Library/Diana Saverin).

You Are What You Watch

In a YouTubers React to Web Culture episode released earlier this month, a host of YouTube vloggers (syndicated web television personalities) share a range of thoughts on the cultural role of the world’s most popular video website:

“Why is so hard for people to understand that YouTube is vast and different types of content exist there?

“[Older generations] don’t understand why it works. And because it is this huge ecosystem, they don’t know where to start.”

“YouTube struggles to shake its reputation for…simpleton content partly because it has not risen to the level of Netflix or Amazon Prime.”

“Why judge? Honestly make any content you want. Do what works. But the ones that are innovative are the ones that are going to last and break through and those people will be remembered forever.

While only a few pieces of the larger Internet puzzle, this clearly displays an awareness of the social implications of the world of online video. And yet a quick look at the “Popular Right Now” section on YouTube scarcely betrays any patterns: an epic movie trailer with tens of millions of views rubs shoulders with a homemade video of an emotional grandfather; a dizzyingly neon K-pop music video shares the spotlight with a smoky makeup tutorial. As one video after another goes viral, it pours into the confusing stew of popular culture. If these were fossils uncovered thousands of years later, they would make a delightfully peculiar portrait of a generation—or, considering the indiscriminate diversity, a lack of character. 

In a world saturated with social media and instant video, discernment is relative and discretion is optional. The only clear desires are for fame and more content. Is this a birthplace of an impassioned passivity of sorts—a place for being passionate about our passivity, a bipolar world made of people too entertained to care?

As an activity, viewing is less passive than it seems. Each action is an external manifestation of a choice and therefore helps define and form the person who makes it. In “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” Nicholas Carr’s 2008 article for The Atlantic, Carr discusses the work of Marshall McLuhan, a media theorist from the 1960s, who stressed that “media are not just passive channels of information” but “supply the stuff of thought” and “shape the process of thought.” While Carr’s article focuses on online reading rather than viewing experience, his discussion of the dynamics of passive consumption seems to apply to the larger online experience. Every choice prompts a micro-formation, either positive or negative. Yet in an all-encompassing environment where choices are many and guidelines are few, the content which defines online video not only grabs your attention, but can genuinely confuse your identity.

Take, for example, female body image. Current approaches and treatments of the topic vary as much as online content itself. If I want to encounter a natural, unaltered, makeup-free body, Colbie Caillat’s “Try” is a click away. On the other hand, if I want to engage where women showcase their bodies as forms of expression or conformation, manipulation or assertion, numerous videos of Valeria Lukyanova (better known as “the human Barbie”) or fashion show highlights will perfectly suit my taste. With so many options and no definite answers, the viewer—a teenager or an elder, a woman or a man—becomes the singular judge, choosing and consuming based on personal preference or conviction.

Yet herein lies the flaw: although individual choices characterize personality, these arbitrary decisions do not ultimately draw our attention to what truly matters. Taste and truth are not synonyms. Although body image does depend on unique standards, emotions, and experiences, each personal opinion contributes to the collective psyche, fueling further development of popular culture. A thirty-second viral video of a puppy on a treadmill with over five million views receives widespread (however transient) recognition more so than a well-crafted, yet lengthier, online documentary on such serious societal issues as human trafficking or domestic abuse.

Shane Dawson, one of the most successful vloggers on YouTube, comments on the importance of a clip’s length for its viral success, regardless of its content. Rolling his eyes, Dawson muses,

“People have no attention span. So they see a video, and the time is, like, two seconds, and they’re like, ‘Oh, I can work that in.’ If they see a video that’s, like, two minutes, they’re like, ‘Ugh, that’s too much work!'”

The relationship between video’s length and popularity, while certainly subjective, nevertheless points to a larger implication. No matter the individual opinion, the view count—the act of watching itself—carves the path for upcoming trends and further development of popular culture. For if one short clip has gone viral, others will try their best to imitate it, regardless of the original content, in order to boost the view count.

If these ten or twenty-second videos on the “Popular Right Now” list consistently capture and hold our attention, how does it affect our ability to recognize what truly matters? If I watch a whole litany of snippet videos with unconnected messages, once I leave the online threshing floor, I cannot help but realize how this cacophony has contributed nothing, neither to me nor to the larger circle of net-denizens. I have done nothing but consume a cacophony.

If collective action helps define our culture, then an individual act of viewing means something, however small. So, before I click on a video’s thumbnail to “see more,” I as a net-denizen need to ask myself two questions. First, does this define who I am or aspire to be? Or, phrased differently, am I going to erase this from my watch history right afterwards? And second, do I realize that, despite no personal contribution, pointing my eyeballs towards this screen actively supports certain entities within our popular culture?

So the next time I look at a screen for whatever reason, I need to remember that the simple act of observing is no longer a passive act. I love YouTube, but I have to keep in mind how, on the Internet, you are what you watch. In the end, viewer discretion is highly advised.

The Cathedral of Junk

We parked across the street from 4422 Lareina Drive, wondering what we were getting ourselves into.

“I think I see something,” I announced to my friends, craning my neck to see the enormous sculpture behind the house. A canopy of trees and a privacy fence made seeing the Cathedral of Junk from the street almost impossible. Good thing we had an appointment.

As we approached the house, the “Do not knock, baby sleeping” sign forced us around to the side where we entered the backyard through a chain-link fence. The owner Vince Hannemann,  a small, unassuming man, met us at the gate along with his dog, a part-Australian shepherd named Smoky. My friend slid a $10 bill into Vince’s hand while I reached down to scratch Smoky’s ears. The smell of a campfire hung low in the cool Austin air. It was November, but unseasonably cold.

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After a few simple instructions (“Feel free to climb on it,” “there are stairs in the back,” “take your time”), we walked past the wooden welcome shack, past the warmth of the slow-burning campfire we had smelled earlier, straight into the belly of the Cathedral of Junk, rising three stories from the grass-bare lawn.

The structure, which Hannemann began working on back in 1989 when he did seasonal construction work as his full-time job, was too much to take in all at once. Everywhere, recognizable bits of plastic, metal, rubber, and stone were pieced together with wire and rebar and concrete. A “Welcome to Fabulous *Trash* Vegas, Texas” sign welcomed us as we entered, along with a stone cherub face, a plastic rocking horse, a tin woman, and a knight’s mask and shield.

Vince Hanneman

Vince Hanneman

Though the structure was made entirely of garbage, the carefully assembled cathedral boasted rooms and sitting nooks, staircases and balconies, play areas and patios. As we explored each section, we began to see that this was not a trash heap, nor was it just thrown together. Rather, the refuse of decades was carefully collected, arranged, and repurposed into something new. The Cathedral of Junk felt like a shrine to ephemera, the excesses of our throwaway culture staring us right in the face.

“The very notion of ephemera is curious: objects of little value that weren’t meant to be preserved but whose vulnerability, I imagine, appealed to someone,” writes Nicole Rudick, in her Paris Review Paper Trail.” “Political buttons, business cards, seed packets, and train timetables—scrappy artifacts that otherwise would have been lost to the dustheap.”

While the materials comprising the cathedral are not technically ephemera—the hubcaps and ceramic tiles and metal box springs were created to last a few years, at least—nothing is safe from our changing whims and evolving tastes these days. Since everything is disposable now, everything has become curiously collectible. The difference: stamps and theater tickets and grammar school report cards would eventually—even quickly—disintegrate and disappear if not collected and protected. But the old bicycle tires and rotary telephones and glass bricks so popular in the last century are strangely enduring.

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That was the eeriest part of my tour of the cathedral. Not only had the legions of junk been collected and preserved, but the structure they created was solid and sturdy. I expect with just a little effort, it will be around for my grandchildren and their grandchildren, if they made the trip to Austin.

Hannemann didn’t start out to make a lasting structure in honor of the passing whims of his culture. In fact, he just started by hanging hubcaps along the fence in his backyard. As he had time, he expanded his creation, watching his art grow in the privacy of his own backyard. Eventually, though, when his home became a stop for tour buses and neighbors started to complain, the city got involved. Hannemann and a cadre of volunteers removed four tons of the recyclable junk. Several sections of the sculpture had to be dismantled and reassembled. Restrictions were added: the structure cannot exceed 32 feet in height, and it must remain at least five feet away from the fence. He hired two different engineers to sign off on the safety of the structure.

“And they told me, ‘no more articles in the Wall Street Journal,’” Hanneman recounted during our visit.

He continues to add to the Cathedral of Junk; it’s his full-time job now. He charges $10 per group to visit the cathedral, and people bring or send him junk to add to the collection. And though the structure currently boasts a small slide for children made out of tile, he has plans to build a larger slide for adults.

“Will you have to have the structure re-inspected when you add to it?” I asked.

“The city of Austin has never said that to me,” Hanneman replied. “My attorney said ‘go for it.’”

It seems haphazard, but he has a plan.

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I think of Hanneman’s cathedral now and then as I cart home new clothes and kitchen utensils and books and furniture. We try to buy only what we need and will use, but still, we always seem to be finding a place for or putting away our stuff.

“Goods and chattels seek a man out; they find him even though his guard is up,” writes author E.B. White in “Good-bye to Forty-eighth Street.” He was reflecting on the ephemera and excesses of his own life as he prepared to move from his New York City apartment:

“Books and oddities arrive in the mail. Gifts arrive on anniversaries and fete days. Veterans send ballpoint pens. Banks send memo books. If you happen to be a writer, readers send whatever may be cluttering up their own lives; I had a man once send me a chip of wood that showed the marks of beaver’s teeth. Someone dies, and a little trickle of indestructible keepsakes appears, to swell the flood.”

To be fair, we try to get rid of things, too. Our basement serves as a staging area to organize the outgoing stuff: a box for donations, a bin for recyclables. While even this small rotation of our ephemera could produce its own monument to junk, the real problem for us, and for White, is that what comes in is not balanced by what goes out.

“Under ordinary circumstances, the only stuff that leaves a home is paper trash and garbage; everything else stays on and digs in,” White writes.

The result? If we are not careful, the Cathedral of Junk is not just a nice place to visit. It becomes our home, three stories of junk carefully and elaborately assembled within wood and metal and stone.

I don’t know which is worse: buying and discarding an excess of stuff, or buying and keeping the excess. The simple answer, it seems, is just to avoid the excess. And maybe that’s one lesson Hanneman is trying to teach us all. But walking in and among the beauty created from rubbish, I don’t think that’s the only lesson.

I think the unassuming man in Austin would be more likely to caution us to be careful what we build in the first place, because in the end, those things last longer and draw a bigger audience than we would ever expect.

Paint Louis

Late every summer, a graffiti event takes place along St. Louis’ lengthy Mississippi River flood walls. Dubbed Paint Louis, the volunteer-led effort brings artists from around the Midwest to St. Louis, where they’re given a weekend pass to do as they please on short, defined stretches of those well marked walls. Last summer, though, something extra special occurred when monks touring in support of the Drepung Gomang Monastery arrived at the walls late one afternoon. Handling paint cans for the first time, the group assessed a short empty stretch assigned to another group, who’d finished for the day.

Sketching out the space with tentative streaks, two of the free-spirited and artistically inclined monks, Gyatso Thiksay and Jinpa Gyatso, painted a Tibetan flag on this rare, blank canvas of Paint Louis, as onlookers gathered. The pair gained confidence, it seemed, with each new can and color. Walking along the wall from hundreds of feet away, young people were amazed at the sight. One asked them, with both enthusiasm and complete seriousness, “Are you graffiti monks?”

In a move that neatly symbolized the impermanence of their sand mandala creations, the flood wall piece was painted over by the next morning, by graffiti writers who’d been previously granted that section of wall. If that buffing seemed bittersweet, it also symbolized the group’s gifts to St. Louisans over those two weeks. Their visit was transient, sometimes moving quickly from location to location, yet these small doses—both the planned and the spontaneous—brought their own inspirations.

Annually, rotating groups of Tibetan monks depart their in-exile monasteries, leaving their Indian homes to crisscross the United States with a small handful of goals. Most importantly, perhaps, they’re in the U.S. to spread the message of compassion and other tenets of their Buddhist faith. Key, too, is the need to raise money for their home bases in India, where their monasteries have resided since China’s takeover of Tibet in the 1950s. In the case of Drepung Gomang’s traveling monks, that means fundraising for a 3,000-person monastery, a heavy responsibility, but one that they bear with patience and grace, if limited English. 

The Drepung Gomang monks visiting the United States on that year-long Sacred Arts Tour were split into two traveling parties. With their U.S. efforts centrally based in Louisville, Ky., one group traveled the Western states, with the other, eight-man group tackling the East. Each group’s itinerary is ambitious, with individual cities visited for as little as a few days or as long as two weeks. St. Louis was a stopping point for the six monks tackling the Western portion of the U.S. The group fills almost every day with public appearances, with just scraps of time left over for personal (if collectively undertaken) exploration of the city.

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Headed up by their amiable leader, Geshi Tsewang Thinley, the six, along with an ever-present driver, undertook a variety of activities in St. Louis, while communally living in the home of a devoted Tibet supporter, Patty Maher. Over the course of their two-week stay, the group worked in a lot of contexts that are familiar to them, including the construction of two sand mandalas, which were each ritualistically swept apart after days of painstaking construction. For these public works, the monks displayed their skill at a pair of sympathetic homes: the Healing Arts Center, a hub of natural medicine practices and yoga, and Saint Louis University’s new home for international education, the Center for Global Citizenship.

At each location, the monks took turns working on the intricate peace mandalas, in between public lectures and gatherings. During those periods of intense, artistic effort, onlookers watched casually or observed intently, took photos and videos, and chatted with one another and with the monks during moments of rest. As is the custom, each mandala was destroyed by hand brooms and then taken to nearby water, featuring ceremonies enriched by chanting, horns and percussion. It’s hard to attend a sand mandala’s end without a touch of emotion, the message of life’s impermanence translated beautifully into this centuries-old artistic practice.

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In many cities, the monks are hosted by peaceniks who involve them in a relatively narrow set of experiences. In St. Louis, though, the group was surrounded by some freewheeling supporters, which led to a few moments of interesting blending with local communities.

They went to the St. Louis Zoo. They canoed the Mississippi River. They sang and chanted at the massive Festival of Nations, while also exploring the urban wonderland of the City Museum, a sprawling former shoe factory that’s been transformed into the area’s most lauded tourist attraction. They caught a Cardinals baseball game at Busch Stadium. And in their last public appearance in St. Louis, after a cooking workshop in the basement of a South St. Louis church, they opened a set for the city’s popular Grateful Dead tribute act, The Schwag, in front of that group’s hundreds of surprised, ultimately supportive fans. By the time the group left town, my own role in their visit had changed from observer to participant, helping them secure a few of the more freewheeling experiences.

In offering many different looks to the St. Louis community that housed, fed and supported them, they provided a glimpse into their own humanity. In their matching robes and with limited English-language skills, it takes a while to determine the individual personalities of the traveling party. But over time, small cracks in that first impression of unanimity arrive, as personalities emerge and the monks’ own curiosities begin to shine, their humanity more apparent with each day. It was clear in those who attacked the flood walls with paint cans and those who watched and cheered them on.

Safe as Houses

When I was young, I buried myself deep in the attic corner, huddled under layers of quilts beneath dusty rafters bowing to midnight winds. After a while, I would creep downstairs for a cup of hot cocoa and a tomato sandwich, worrying about hurricanes. Later, a strange woman clad in sodden boots and layers of endless scarves would blow through the door. Was she a tramp? Was she a witch? I wouldn’t know until the end of the book.

C.S. Lewis says that his childhood house is “almost a major character” in his life’s story. He is a product of its “long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude”—and also “of endless books” (Surprised 7). My childhood was full of roomy suburban houses with fluffy cream carpets and fresh new furniture. Am I a product of that comfy environment? Certainly. But I have also spent time in countless rooms inside books: Cynthia Voight’s bayside, marsh-lined farm in Homecoming and Diceys Song; Susan Cooper’s Grey House in Over Sea and Under Stone; Madeline L’Engle’s two-hundred-year-old New England farmhouse on the hill in the Time Quartet (including A Wrinkle in Time, in which young Meg Murry escapes her wind-torn attic for a kitchen sandwich, only to meet with the strange Mrs. Whatsit). Growing up, my imagination passed into these houses again and again.

In his book A Place of My Own, Michael Pollan describes a response to houses and buildings that is more than just intellectual appreciation of architecture. He talks about our “unconscious experiences of space,” our “immediate, poetic responses to place” that make us want to be in one particular building and not in another (74).

I’ve gone from 1970s ranch house to mid-‘80s new construction to college apartment (and apartment, and yet another apartment) to mountain Arts and Crafts bungalows to quaint 1940s post-war development…and now back to 1970s ranch house. Our current rental echoes the floor plan from the first ten years of my life: the paneled front living room with dining and kitchen to the back, the straight-shot hallway and its arsenal of doors. But the walls in this house are thin as cardboard and the wallpaper is weird. The tile upgrade on the kitchen floor is nice; the lavender paint choice overwhelms the senses.

It strikes me that most of the houses I imagine out of books—Meg’s attic-topped home, Dicey’s clapboard farmhouse, Howl’s moving castle—morph on the indoors into this familiar floor plan, wood paneling and all. The doorway from living room to kitchen is always in the same spot. Meg’s mother stands there to call her family to dinner. When something extra is needed, like Mrs. Murry’s science lab, it gets tacked onto the back kitchen door.

It seems my imagination will not bend far past the walls—both fictional and actual—between which it grew up. My thought-life is as firmly rooted as any old oak. What if, I wonder, the actual walls that housed my imagination’s first forays into such a specific spot of ground—one I didn’t and couldn’t choose for myself—were any different? What if they changed from year to year? I wonder this in fear as we move our daughter from house to apartment to rental home in the first three years of her life. Or what if, much the worse, they were tattered-down walls, worse than lavender, cracked and crumbled from the bad foundation of, say, a broken family or a cruel moment in history or a hungry bank account? What if, more awful still, there had been no walls at all? What then?

Fiction can only go so far in its cover for fact.

In his book The Gates of November, Chaim Potok and his wife meet a stranger outside a Moscow Metro station on a Friday evening “in the first week of January 1985” and follow him through dark, snowy streets (3). The Potoks have traveled to this city, through bitter cold and in careful silence, to visit a man they have never met.

The Potoks arrive at this man’s apartment building, and the stairwell has “the air of an old New York tenement, but with no vivid sounds of life drifting out from behind closed doors. Here you wanted to walk on tiptoe, expecting a sudden leap out of the violet shadows by figures demanding to know what you were doing there” (5). This is Soviet Russia. But then the Potoks enter the apartment:

“It was a fair-sized room that served as both a living room and a dining room, the air warm and stuffy, the floor covered by a rug, the slightly shabby genteel look not unlike that of the rooms in which I grew up in middle-class neighborhoods of New York. In front of the couch stood a table with seven place settings (6).

The book is nonfiction, but the same space is echoed time and again in Potok’s fiction: Davitas Harp, My Name Is Asher Lev, The Chosen. In his imagination, generations of Jews live in these apartment spaces, and it is in these homes that they gather, rest, worry, pray, debate, fear, and observe Shabbat. And welcome guests.

The family the Potoks have met are the Slepaks, heroes in Jewish circles for resisting the oppressive Soviet regime during the 1970s and ‘80s. The Potoks are in Moscow to meet with and encourage the many Jews who are risking their lives. And they have made this trek on this particular night in order to say, “We Jews in America have not forgotten you or what you have done.” Who would travel such a long way and through danger just to tell strangers, “We know you are here. You are not forgotten”?

The Potoks stay only for the evening. It is a visit rich in conversation, and together the families share a Shabbat dinner. Though Potok recalls that a “consuming desolation lay upon the room,” in the same space a “warm intimacy settle[s] upon” the gathering, “a quality of familiarity and closeness brought on by a shared table” (10). Potok recounts a piece of advice he once heard. He says the “only true question we ought to ask one another is: ‘What are you going through?’” (6). This question could be asked anywhere. It could be asked in a faded, desolate Russian apartment across the effort of a language barrier, or on a front porch with peeling paint and rotted steps. It can be asked in any room in which people sit together and remind one other: “I know you are here. You are not forgotten.” How much does it really matter what color the walls are, or what square footage the floor plan?

Today, my husband and I are painting over the lavender walls of our rental house to try to make it look more like home. I feel desperate for a home of my own, one whose freshly-minted green kitchen paint won’t get passed on to a stranger after the lease is up next summer. What is it I’m actually wanting in my desperation to own a house? Am I looking for something that is okay to desire on this side of eternity? I hear an old pastor of mine gently admonish: “Of course you don’t feel at home here. No place on this earth is going to be home.” Am I looking for safety and security? I think of Dicey in Voight’s Homecoming as she sits at her grandmother’s long farmhouse table: “‘How do I know you’re not going to rob me?’ her grandmother said. How could she know? Dicey thought. The people in the houses were in just as much danger as the people outside the houses” (251). A house in and of itself is not the answer.

I hear Dicey’s revelation, and I hear my pastor’s admonition, but that doesn’t mean I like it. What is the point of yearning for a home if some piece of eternity can’t break into this present reality and illuminate ordinary days with a sense of belonging, of comfort, of peace, of history, of safety, of meaning, of home in all its best iterations? I read too much into my pastor’s words. He only meant for me not to look for perfection in my communities. Dicey and Potok get even more to the point.

I return to the architecture-scapes of my imaginative youth. At the center of them is Bag End. In Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo and company are far from his cozy hobbit hole (“Home is behind, the world ahead”), and oh, how they miss it. They sing songs of perseverance: “apple, thorn, and nut and sloe, / Let them go! let them go!” (107, 106). They are indeed sojourners, and so am I. Will it yet happen that I arrive at the place Bilbo discovered when he finally returned home and “was quite content”? It sounds glorious: “the sound of the kettle on his hearth was ever after more musical than it had been even in the quiet days before the Unexpected Party” (Hobbit 271). Perhaps I will. Perhaps I won’t. But it is guaranteed that one day, if not in this brief moment of earthly life, then on the other side, “We’ll wander back” (or will it be for the first time?) “to home and bed” (Fellowship 107).

Till then, in the words of poet Carl Dennis, I’ll remind myself, as I’ve had to before, that “whatever [I] might do elsewhere, / In the time remaining, [I] might do here.” Wherever “here” is, whatever the walls that house me, whether they be lavender, green, or otherwise, I resolve to pay attention to the person nearest me. I will turn to him and ask, “What are you going through?”

 

 

Lewis, C.S. Surprised by Joy. Surprised by Joy. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 2002.

Pollan, Michael. A Place of My Own. Dell Publishing, New York: 1997.

Potok, Chaim. The Gates of November: Chronicles of the Slepak Family. Alfred A. Knopf, New York: 1996.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring. Ballantine Books, New York: 1993.

The Hobbit. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York: 1997.

Voight, Cynthia. Homecoming. Fawcett Juniper, New York: 1992.

Plato at the Googleplex

A favorite thought experiment of mine is to imagine a famous individual from history resurrected and interacting with aspects of our contemporary society. What aspects of our culture would fascinate him or her, and which ones would be completely misunderstood? Would Ben Franklin be more intrigued by email or a ballpoint pen? What reality TV show would Voltaire want to be on? Would Moses use a GPS to re-navigate the wilderness? For my money, the answers would be: Ballpoint Pen, Dancing with the Stars, and I’m pretty sure that 21st century Moses would prefer staying at home in Jerusalem to another foray through the Negev.

A similar dynamic is found in Rebecca Goldstein’s newest offering—Plato at the Googleplex. She imagines the great Greek philosopher (last seen in 4th century BC Athens) making his way through contemporary United States. It’s a fantastic premise; dust off the world’s best dialectician and let him match wits with the ideas and pseudo-ideas of our culture. He tangles with cable news hosts, subs as an advice columnist and debates tiger moms. As should be expected, Plato is a quick study. He immediately becomes a big fan of the Internet and never goes anywhere without his laptop. He is unfazed by cognitive research and brain scans, and even volunteers to undergo an MRI as a research subject.

A project this ambitious could be doomed to failure when attempted by an over-matched author, but Goldstein has the credentials to pull it off. A former “genius grant” recipient, she has a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Princeton and is married to Harvard cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker. In addition to her philosophical chops, Goldstein is a legitimate novelist who excels at blending academic issues with real human concerns. Her latest novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, demonstrates her proficiency at characterization and dialogue, as well.

 …

Plato at the Googleplex is really two works, set in alternating chapters—a rather standard introduction to Plato’s thought, and the imaginative exercise of placing Plato into various aspects of contemporary society. There is much to commend in the expositional chapters, but Plato’s new dialogues are what leap off the page. Goldstein does an amazing job of mining Plato’s actual writings for these imagined conversations. Her Plato is not stiff or boring, and her application of Platonic thinking to the issues and circumstances of present life is illuminating and provocative. The most arresting of them all is Plato’s visit to the Googleplex. The biggest difference between our world and the original Plato’s is, of course, technology. We are still the same species, perplexed by the same philosophical, theological and ethical questions, which is why we still read Jesus and Moses, Confucius and Buddha, Aristotle and Plato. It is, however, our cars and computers, our phones and planes that make things different. Thus, Plato’s visit to the mecca of our Technological Age—Silicon Valley—is fairly pivotal.

Plato is eager to investigate the Google search engine, informed that it is our most powerful tool to acquire knowledge. He is quite intrigued when he learns all this knowledge is accessed from the “cloud” (there is a Realm of the Forms after all!), but brought back to earth when he learns that few of us know how the Google search engine really works. He notes, “If we don’t understand our tools, then there is a danger that we will become the tools of our tools.”

Eventually, a Google engineer named Marcus explains to him the Google algorithm that ranks web pages based on the number of people who use them. The best information comes to the top via this crowd-sourcing calculation. All the millions of Google-users accessing information prove to be a better determiner of truth and knowledge than a single individual, a contention that is squarely at odds with the Platonic belief that the appropriate experts (the philosopher-kings, ideally) can best determine what is good for the masses.

Marcus challenges Plato on his own terms—the Myth of the Cave. He tells Plato,

The point you’re making is that it’s only superior reason that can get a person out of the cave. But what you don’t consider is that the only way out of the cave is to crowd-source, which is the only way of canceling out the peculiarities of the individual members, the way they’re skewed toward their own vantage points, including the smart guy who thinks his smarts are all that matters. There’s some ideal algorithm for working it out, for assigning weights to different opinions.”

Marcus proposes that this model would be the best way to decide moral dilemmas. “My ethical search engine can do a better job than any one person in arriving at ethical answers. There’s no one I would trust more—not even myself—than I would my Ethical Answers Search Engine, or EASE.” The benefit of EASE is that it would refute those who have bad moral sense—“the best kind of life is simply to party and drink all the time”—while avoiding the pitfall of following some expert who authoritatively announces what everyone should or should not do—“the best kind of life is to follow these rules.”

The trick is to find moral guidance that doesn’t come from those who live life badly, or from those who appoint themselves as moral bosses.

Marcus believes that EASE fits the bill. Plato quickly but gently points out the flaw in Marcus’ EASE. The algorithm will have to weight some answers as more valuable than others, since a purely democratic, who-has-the-most-votes approach reveals nothing of substance. But weighting some of the answers relies on a built-in presupposition that ultimately makes EASE nothing more than another version of the moral expert solution. This realization leaves everyone in the conversation is a bit disappointed, but a strange thing has happened—each one has been profoundly moved by the whole experience. The conversation provided no answers, but it wasn’t a waste of time. Rather than becoming cynical, the interlocutors are energized. The process didn’t fail—it just isn’t finished yet.

Goldstein reproduced the same effect as Plato’s original dialogues. Rarely do they result in resolution, and yet progress has been made.

In true Platonic form, the whole episode is told by an observer, a woman named Cheryl, to her friend Rhonda. At this point, Rhonda lamented that nothing was settled. Cheryl replied,

That’s an understatement. Everything was unsettled, most of all me. I just kept thinking about how everything had been left open in a way that just really galls me. It’s like when I open the refrigerator door, and I see that all the tops of the jars haven’t been screwed on, the mayo and the mustard and the pickles with their lids just carelessly perched on their tops, ready to slide off. I just wanted to shout at Plato: Will you screw the frigging tops back on!”

However, the unsettled state was not the end. Cheryl and Rhonda had a long conversation about real moral wrongs, like slavery and child abuse, and whether the nature of moral thinking might be objective after all. Without realizing it, they were in pursuit of genuine wisdom, something that happens when humans created in the image of God think hard about what is real, true and good. It is not the product of crowd-sourced algorithms or computer-generated data. No, genuine wisdom comes from courageous and thoughtful people wrestling with the truths handed down by the prophets and philosophers of earlier generations in an effort to come closer to the genuine ideal.

Are we just spinning our wheels on an ethical patch of ice?

Of course, many individuals in our world are very skeptical about achieving genuine moral knowledge or making moral progress. Relativists eschew the notion of moral facts in favor of a shifting morality that depends on one’s cultural context (when in Rome, or Beijing, or Moscow, or Delhi—you know the rest). Skeptics are doubtful that we will ever reach a settled judgment on the unsettling issues of our time, whether it’s homosexuality or abortion or reality TV. Are we just spinning our wheels on an ethical patch of ice? Here is where Goldstein’s reinjection of Plato is helpful, supplemented with a short voyage into our recent past. We have made moral progress. We now affirm certain moral truths: slavery is wrong, child abuse is wrong, racism is wrong. Some earlier generations didn’t realize these truths, but they were in place, even if hidden. The job of the philosopher is to help all of us reach them.

Goldstein’s point is that philosophy is still valuable and necessary in our contemporary world. There are answers, and some of them remain to be discovered. Sometimes it takes one exceedingly bright or courageous individual to help us see what is right there in front of our nose, whether it is Plato or Wilberforce or Martin Luther King or someone waiting in the wings of 21st century history. Progress takes philosophical hard work and moral courage. Goldstein’s Plato reminds us that these truths won’t be reached with ease (or EASE).

The Word Is Changing with Its World

The word is changing with its world. With it goes our thought and the formation of our worlds. Our very being leaps from this notion of world-building: the quick text, the smile gifted to the passing acquaintance, the momentary valuation of time spent in petty communication. Not now, not now, I’ll text her back when I get inside. I’ll text her back at a red light. The thoughts light up and disappear like notifications we’ve attended to. Life, thought, world, word—they all orbit and spring from and return to the iPhone.

The iPhone teaches us efficiency. Offers of efficiency set off the vague notions of personal ascent which capitalist life has branded into us. Jay-Z said, “I’m a business, man.” Aren’t we all. If I can text her back hands-free while cutting someone off on the freeway, I’ve maximized the value of my time while still delivering to her, my emotional customer. This means more for my bottom line, emotionally, psychosocially. This means getting ahead.

Word makes world, and world makes word. To say that a truism is a truism is, itself, a truism. There is no escape from the loop of perceptual creation. Dom Cobb illustrated this beautifully with his little drawing for Ariadne in the dreamspace of Inception. We live that reality, and to write or read that we live it is to further strengthen and illuminate it. This is completely acceptable. It means we’re alive.

Technology has always driven the creation of word and world. Conversely, it has always been driven by them, by the best that our reference-frames could imagine into being. Writing systems, oral tradition, literacy, myth structure—the comparative rationality and scientific precision of cultural narrative are a direct function of technological advance. What Owen Barfield calls “the rational principle” is the driving force behind technological advance. It is both the motivation of advance, and advance’s augmented byproduct: rationality begets technology, which amplifies rationality.

In his brilliant book Poetic Diction, Barfield discusses what he considers an original fusion between abstract categories and concrete phenomena as organized in perception and expressed by language. Then he says,

Afterwards, in the development of language and thought, these single meanings split up into contrasted pairs—abstract and concrete, particular and general, objective and subjective. And the poesy felt by us to reside in ancient language consists just in this, that, out of our later, analytic, ‘subjective’ consciousness, a consciousness which has been brought about along with, and partly because of, this splitting up of meaning, we are led back to the original unity.[1]

Writing in the early 20th century, Barfield had witnessed only the first leg of the exponential curve that describes the increase of technological complexity. He writes in static language because his experience of linguistic change in his own time was slow enough to appear static—grounds enough for a sort of chrono-centrism implicit in the above passage.

Living as we do now—at a much steeper point in the exponential curve—we see that the fragmentation of meanings into abstract and concrete divisions, and the emergence of new fused metaphors for further fragmentation, has not only accelerated with technological advance, it has even begun to operate under new, non-monolithic rules. Unique terms govern every technological subculture.

For Snapchatters, “snap” as a verb has a specific, crystallized meaning divorced from its general, abstract use. iPhone users laugh at the dirty fantasies of the autocorrect algorithm—though “autocorrect” is so old in 2015 that it has already bridged its original subculture-specific context and is now widely understood. These are only two examples. Examination of any emerging personal media experience reveals more.

Where Barfield tracked changes in language and thought over centuries, today’s scholar of the word must tune herself to every new wave, every new communal mode of being which technology creates for us. Here, fragmentation occurs on a higher level, a plane of sociolinguistic divorce which Barfield couldn’t have imagined: forms of personalized media breed faster than bunnies, creating smaller and smaller subcultures of particular technological configuration. From the mainstream, homogenous culture abolished in the twentieth century, we may be moving towards an ultimate crystallization of the individual—a unique subculture and language known only to each person and his personal software augmentation—a total breakdown in communal relations, the ultimate triumph of the divine will at Babel.

Alarmism aside, language change does imply many things about psychosocial unity. The Norman invasion of England saddled upper-class English with a glut of aristocratic French words. The prestige of the new pidgin sent native Anglo-Saxon skulking into the shadows to live only in dialectal and nautical usage.

And this is only one historical division. The emergence of the technocracy today, and their division from the rabble who buy into their apps and data mining, and the rabble’s dividing into different camps, between Android and iPhone, Snapchat and Skype, for example, exerts a powerful fragmenting force on language. These changes are so new, we have not yet even begun to track them. They are happening so fast, we may never begin. Babel may attain first.

Agreement on the terms of our arguments is the only place where argument really occurs. The abortion debate is not about abortion, but about what fetus means. All arguments are fought over meaning. All arguments are fought for the right to unilaterally occupy a meaning-space of critical ideological weight. Only definite, crystalized meaning can maintain any claim to a contested meaning space. Argument, like science, demands the shattering of metaphor and the freezing of its fragments. A fetus is human; a fetus is not human. But just as language crystallization makes and cements our worlds, the emergence of a new metaphor—in which abstract and concrete have not yet fragmented—unmakes our worlds and breathes life into the fragments. This is the function of art, of poetry broadly defined, of the Word itself.

The Word has undergone its own terrifying fusion and fragmentation of natures. Made flesh, misunderstood, blown apart into dead body and pure abstraction, fused again in flabbergasting resurrection, the Word is both microcosm and macrocosm of the history of our words and thought-worlds. The Word displays the terrible justice of Babel, the rightness of technology’s inexorable shattering of community. The Word reminds us that our own words will never approach its concision and grace. The Word reminds us that it abolished all rational argument in its triumphant emergence as Poetry, as finally fused metaphor. The Word invites us to copy itself, to plagiarize the only artwork that transcends the psychosis of ideology. The Word is licensed under Creative Commons because it knows that copyright and originality are constructs of argument bent on attaining godhead. The Word reminds us to love, to die for others, and thus to live in new metaphor every day as words and thought-systems calcify and shatter all around us.

[1] Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction, 3rd edition. Wesleyan University Press, 1973, 85-86.

photo by:

The Space Between

Amsterdam

Amsterdam

Amsterdam Centraal, Spring 2012

The two of us race through Amsterdam Centraal in an attempt to catch the evening train to Uitgeest, zigzagging through the crowds and barreling over tulip stands, arriving in time to touch the just closed doors of the train car. My friend and I resign ourselves to a few more hours in Amsterdam without much fuss. As we leave the train station, I look back to see the electronic schedule wiped of information. Peak traffic comes an eerie halt.

Relatively unconcerned, the two of us take off for the most authentic Malaysian food we can find in the Northern Hemisphere. I don’t know, can’t know, that a high-speed train crushed the aforementioned commuter train, our train, like an accordion. As I’m living a bohemian, phone-less existence, I don’t know that the wreck is on the French news, sending my family and friends into a frenzy. I can’t know that it will take me two buses, a wait in a pub, an attempt at balancing on the back of a bike, and a lengthy walk to return to Uitgeest.

Instead, I’m concerned about my friendship. We are irritated with each other; best friends who sometimes push each other’s buttons. Our defenses break down somewhere between satay and green tea. We speak candidly about the challenges of living alone abroad. We talk about topics we’ve been avoiding, questions and fears we didn’t want to face, people we don’t want to lose. The interruption of my travel plans creates space that bridges the momentary interruption of a friendship, and the night ends with a long walk filled with laughter.

baltimore2

Baltimore

Baltimore Washington International Airport, Winter 2013

Shuffling through the airport exhausted, I stop for a highly caffeinated black tea in an attempt to forcibly prop my eyelids open. I sit with my bags in front of the gate, thinking that if I fall asleep, surely someone will jostle me as they get on the plane. The next sound I hear is the final slam of the plane door that reopens for no one. Panic ensues. I’m traveling solo, I’ve fallen asleep, and I have missed my flight across the country. With only late evening flights left in the day, I opt for an inconvenient flight that at least lands me in Texas.

A longtime friend rescues me from an uncomfortable night in the Houston airport. I stood by her as she married her husband six months ago, and I am their first, if unexpected, houseguest. The hyper vigilance and adrenaline that accompany me as I travel segues into an attention to and awareness of Meaghan’s hospitality. I remember the hand-crocheted afghan, the careful cultivation of her library, the squawk of her adopted pet bird. I find myself grateful at the chance to witness the beginning of the home they are building together.

Hawaii (pre long haul)

Hawaii (pre long haul)

Dallas Fort Worth International Airport, Winter 2015

After a long haul flight with my two sisters, the last obstacle between a warm shower and me is a one-hour flight from Dallas Fort Worth to the West Texas town I call home. The plane circles above the airport, and I can see the flat, dusty ground, strangely frosted. After 30 minutes of circling, the pilot announces it’s too icy to land. Low on fuel, we divert to San Angelo, to the bewilderment of the Chicago-based flight crew. After a tarmac wait with drafts of chilled recycled air, we return to DFW, nine hours of travel to nowhere.

We taxi to our grandparents, toting the grime and exhaustion that mark twenty-three hours of travel. My grandmother ushers us in. I would not have chosen to be here; courses to prep, an apartment to tidy, and an inbox to clean tug at me, but I turn to watch my little sister and my grandmother. My sister balancing the hand mixer to make meringue, my grandmother methodically slicing bananas, both of them artfully arranging Nilla Wafers in a green ceramic dish. While washing dishes, I spontaneously fling my sudsy arms around my grandmother. Later, I watch from the stairs as my grandfather pulls blankets toward the couch to make me a pallet. Something about this love and hospitality makes me want to weep.

Grace found me in the liminal space created in the wake of travel delays.

The Pacific North Wet

Tonight I am thinking about the endless sticky heat of Chicago summers. The best part of the day, back then, was the moment it finally relented, and you could breathe again. Late in the day at some backyard barbeque, the sun would finally dip below the neighbor’s roofline, and everyone relaxed. The basketball game found new life in the shade, the ball bouncing and thudding off the rim on the garage. The last swimmers flopped into the pool, horseshoes clanged in the sand pit, the coals in the grill glowed seething red. Everything of the slow-burn afternoon dimmed and faded — except the basketball that kept skipping and swishing and singing.

And something else happened too:

The yard lit up.

Flicks of bright neon green appeared for a few seconds above the pool. They drifted in the oak trees. They landed on pop cans. Tiny bellies lit up and glowed around the yard, slow-drifting radiant insects. We caught them and held them in our palms.

There are no fireflies here in the Pacific North Wet. Tonight there is hardly any light at all in this gray-green soggy corner of creation. Despite living here for several years now, despite having walked beneath a thousand rain clouds, I still haven’t learned to wear the right effing shoes. So tonight I’m trudging in soggy sneakers on a wet beach. I might as well thrash in the surf for all the good they do me, sand working its way into my socks, water pooling at my toes.

Even though it’s August, there is no summer warmth on this sodden beach. The sun here lacks the fortitude to send heat through the fog. Instead we’ve got the eleventy-billionth consecutive day of drizzle falling on the sea, falling on the forest, falling on this small island we chose for our vacation. My companions are silenced in their tents in the forest, behind a wall of wet branches. Whorls and swirls of mist slide across the beach, proof the great mysterious Creator has never ceased inventing new kinds of wet.

We could have vacationed back in the land of sunshine and backyard swimming pools. We could have lounged with our families on a warm Lake Michigan beach. But no, we ventured further into the fringe of the continent, deeper into this drippy murky climate, for three days of camping in the rain.

As I trudge along, the fog transforms the forest from a fixed place into a catlike shadow. Everything slides and swirls. Salty waves lap and retreat. Even the rain-pocked beach appears and disappears under the drift of mist. I begin to wonder where it’s safe to stand, where solid earth lies.

I wonder if my family back in the Midwest will ever understand why we moved out to this chilly hinterland. I wonder if our new friends in the tents are ever going to feel like family. I wonder if my feeble writing on behalf of this great wounded planet is ever going to make a damn bit of difference. I wonder about my wife, who grew up in many places, and finds home here as much as anywhere. Will she ever understand the claim that Midwestern summers hold on me? I wonder if she’s any less confused, reading in the tent while I shuffle in the rain.

I pick up a stone, water-smooth and reassuringly heavy. I fling it toward the sea, sending it arcing from behind my imaginary three-point line.

The stone falls into the water — and then something happens:

The sea lights up.

I do not mean this metaphorically. I mean the water turns electric yellow for a moment. The rock’s splash creates a flash of light in the water. Neon circles ripple outward, fading as the water settles. I throw another stone: more eerie circles. Each splash disturbs invisible microorganisms swimming in the murk. Disrupted, they set themselves aglow.

These invisible creatures, I learn, are dinoflagellates, named for the whip-like tails they use to propel themselves. No one knows why they are bioluminescent — why they create their own light. Approaching predators set them aglow, so the light may serve to attract larger predators — the enemies of their enemies. The light may signal their distastefulness or poisonousness. It may attract prey. Or it may form a language — songs and prayers and complaints and commerce and flirtation and praise for the wet world.

Beats me. I watch these microscopic creatures shine for a moment and fade, my mind growing still as they disappear. Then I reach for every stone and pebble I can find. I heave great handfuls into the darkness, watching them splash in a great tiny chaos of light. The sound on the Sound attracts my companions from their tents. From this point I’m not alone. We splash up all the brightness we can manage, an even larger chaos of light in the water.

I still don’t know where I’m supposed to live. I still expend too much energy thinking about the past. I am trying to trust that flashes of light might appear anywhere. I am trying to learn to stop worrying and keep my eyes open. If light doesn’t appear on the backs of insects, it will arise from the unimaginably simple bodies of single-celled creatures. Propelled by their long tails, they thrash through the surf, oblivious to the worries of ponderous multi-celled organisms on the beach.

I take comfort in that.

 

A Good Deed is a Naughty Word

In November, the Chinese State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television issued an official statement banning public wordplay – a gesture to which the western world has responded with puns blazing. Rightly so: when a government, even one as comically demonstrative as China’s, attempts to restrict discourse at such a fundamental level, it betrays motivations that must seem either ludicrous or malevolent. Though the West has reacted to the ban with irreverent hilarity, the laughter is partly nervous, because behind such restrictions is a search for national identity that all nations share.

The SAPPRFT, as the Chinese media watchdog is ponderously abbreviated, began the announcement with an explanation that it has been working for years to “clean up and rectify non-standard language usage in radio and television broadcasts,” noting that it has “achieved noticeable results in restricting the deliberate imitation of local dialect pronunciation and the indiscriminate use of foreign loan words and Internet slang.”[1] In these sentences, most reporters have smelled a whiff of something sinister and Orwellian, particularly in the targeting of “local dialects” and “foreign loan words.”

But the reporters may be slightly off their scent: national language regulation is neither a new, nor an originally Chinese practice. France’s Académie française has now released its ninth edition of a dictionary which is explicitly calibrated to root out “familiar, popular, vulgar, trivial, slang,” and to provide a corrective force against “the faults, [and] the ridiculous language tics most commonly observed in contemporary French.”[2] Though the Dictionary of the French Academy purportedly welcomes “some foreign terms,” it only does so only “provided they meet a genuine need, they are well rooted in use and do not already have an equivalent in French realizing the same reality.” The ultimate goal, their website insists, is to make the adoption of foreign terms into French “safer,” a sentiment that reeks of petty nationalism like over-aged rochefort.

Closer to home, many U.S. cities with large Spanish-speaking populations have resisted the official adoption of that language. As the Huffington Post reported in February of 2013, the Mayor of Doral, Florida, was “rebuffed by every council member and numerous constituents” when he attempted to make Spanish the city’s official second language.[3] But it would be unjust to condemn those constituents as proto-conservative hard-noses or petty nationalists, because the majority of them were Spanish-speaking immigrants. Councilwoman Ana Maria Rodriguez, speaking to the Huffpost, commented that “Our parents and some of us that are up here came from Latin America and other countries knowing that the United States has English as the language…We came here knowing we had to adapt to the language of this country.”[4] In other words, the immigrant population rejected the public adoption of Spanish as an act of solidarity with their adopted country. To be American, in their view, partly meant speaking English, and they identified as Americans.

Circumstances like these reveal just how fraught the debate over government language regulation truly is, how many cross-currents meet in those waters. Those who would encourage Spanish-speaking U.S. citizens to retain their language as an act of loyalty to their culture might well be met with a blank stare and an uncomfortable question: “What culture are you talking about, and why do you assume it is foreign to yours?” Doral’s rejection of government sponsorship for Spanish proves that the conservation of borrowed language can be used to exclude others just as effectively as its eradication. What matters is not the language a people chooses to use, but that they have the power to choose it.

Of course, a perfect version of any language does not and cannot exist. The pursuit of such a thing is always evidence of foolery or foul play. Hard as the Dictionary of the French Academy may try to be prescriptive, all records of public communication are necessarily descriptive, especially dictionaries. As the Académie knows full well, its attempt to conserve and purify spoken French is an act of sentimental idealism, and one that it must work hard to distinguish from openly racist attempts to exclude second-language French citizens from the public discourse. More viable and more horrifying is the notion of an official state version of a language. Such a language is an act of oppression, and has always gone hand-in-hand with totalitarianism.

As Clive James notes in his essay collection Cultural Amnesia, Albert Camus can be credited with probably the best quotation ever written about state language: “Tyrants conduct monologues above a million solitudes.” By this he means that, to quote Clive James, “The tyrant’s monologue doesn’t want to be interesting, and that’s the point.”[5] The million solitudes that a totalitarian governor talks over aren’t just ignored by his monologue, they are created by it. The freedom to talk endlessly, without being interesting, original, or entertaining, can only be exercised by a government whose audience has no power to react or escape. Stalin proved this principle with the interminable speeches he delivered at the height of his power. The famous anecdote about them is that those listening had to applaud until their hands ached, afraid that if they were the first to stop, they would be noticed by the S.S. and never make it home.

The report issued by the SAPPRFT certainly has the feel of a tyrant’s monologue. It is written by a hand free from the need to be compelling, or even comprehensible. Here is one sample of it; a droning run-on that could’ve come straight out of Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language,” which quotes several equivalently sterile passages from the contemporary English press:

“The importance of regulating the use of the national common language and scripts must be fully realized. Utilizing radio and television to popularize and standardize the use of the national common language and scripts is a strategic requirement for transmitting outstanding Chinese traditional culture and enhancing national cultural power…[6]

If the SAPPRFT aims to enhance “national cultural power,” it will certainly not be doing so by the force of its literature. This deeply ironic situation, in which an autocratic government exhorts its citizens to make great art while forcing that art to remain innocuous, would be hilarious if those citizens weren’t being spoken to at gunpoint. The reason for these new regulations, according to the report, is to reduce the media’s potential to “mislead the public, especially minors,” who deserve to be exposed only to the most “outstanding traditional Chinese culture.”[7]

It need hardly be said that like all great languages, Chinese operates using a wealth of idioms and enjoys a rich exchange of puns and word-games, some of which operate between dialects. The SAPPRFT report casts these as insidious and degrading. Yet it is difficult to understand what the alternative is supposed to be, apart from a language that is entirely “safe.” That is, a language which can convey nothing subversive to the party line. “That’s the most ridiculous part of this,” David Moser, academic director for CET Chinese studies at Beijing Capital Normal University, told the Guardian, “[wordplay] is so much part and parcel of Chinese heritage.”[8]

Of course, it is part and parcel of the heritages of all languages, and of all the people who use them, especially in those fortunate nations where many languages happen to meet. In its quest to strengthen China’s national identity, then, the Chinese government has laid an axe to its roots. What motivates such gestures is fear, the fear that haunts all totally centralized governments, of the power and flexibility of freely used language, which though it can be dressed up and manicured and punished, will always be a bastard. It is prodigal by nature, and it always returns wealthier than it left.

 

 

[1] “Language Log,” http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=16197.

[2] “Academie Francais,” http://www.academie-francaise.fr/le-dictionnaire/la-9e-edition.

[3] Christine Amario, “City Of Doral Votes Against Spanish As Official Second Language,” Huffington Post, February 14, 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/14/fla-mayors-push-for-bilin_n_2689292.html.

[4] ibid.

[5] Clive James, Cultural Amnesia (New York: Norton, 2007), 88-89.

[6] “Language Log,” http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=16197.

[7] ibid.

[8] Tania Branigan, “China bans wordplay in an attempt at pun control,” The Guardian, November 28, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/nov/28/china-media-watchdog-bans-wordplay-puns.

Another Hemisphere’s Stars

Growing up my heroes were martial. Flying aces, squadron commanders, generals, fighter pilots. Sergeant York, General Patton, Ulysses S. Grant, Hannibal of Carthage, Sun Tzu. The ones I dreamed about most flew planes, steely-eyed men wedded to sleek flying machines dealing death from the air. I had a profusion of inner effigies, models of me at war, reflected back by the pictures in books about dog-fights and bombing runs.

I was in the woods when we declared war on Iraq. Two days later my rain-sodden Boy Scout troop emerged for Pepsi and sandwiches and we saw the announcement in the papers. I was psyched. It seemed like history was finally happening to me, something important enough to be in the books I read.

Because we had war we had heroes, we had pageantry, we had symbols and songs. We had courage to celebrate, and cowardice to disdain. We had what we needed to feel like a nation. I’m not sure even now I can entirely do without my war-like heroes. We all need other faces, other lives to throw ourselves into.

Adam Hochschild wants to give us an alternative heroism. His book To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion celebrates those in Britain who opposed WWI, even in the face of national war-fever. The men and women he depicts are heroes of another kind, like constellations in another hemisphere’s stars.

Sylvia Pankhurst endured imprisonment, hunger strikes and forced feeding protesting for women’s suffrage. When the war came she opposed it and was disowned by her suffragette activist mother.

Charlotte Despard formed one of the first aid societies for workers in the London slums, then defied her own brother—none other than Sir John French, commander of the British Army—to become a noted pacifist.

Emily Hobhouse traveled to South Africa to uncover concentration camps established by the British during the Boer War, then continued her career in international activism by making herself the sole British citizen to advance terms of peace to Germany. While neither side took her back-channel negotiations seriously, she was the only one who even tried to seek peace.

Bert Brocklesby, a conscientious objector, was arrested and shipped to the front with a group of other protesters, where under military law they could be summarily executed. Through a letter thrown out of a train car their supporters at home learned of their plight and petitioned for clemency. Their death sentences were commuted on the day of the execution.

Stephen Hobhouse, Emily’s brother, spent most of the war in prison, writing an underground pacifist newspaper on pieces of toilet paper.

Bertrand Russell, the renowned philosopher, lost his seat at Cambridge and was imprisoned for his objections to conscription.

These are Adam Hochschild’s heroes. They join such figures as Roger Casement and E.D. Morel, whose investigations into conditions in the Belgian Congo Hochschild narrated in King Leopold’s Ghost. For Hochschild pacifists and human rights activists are in a higher firmament than generals.

We need more of these heroes. We need more names like Martin Luther King Jr., names that mean peace through justice. And we need the unnamed: the countless Danish patriots who proved that pacifism’s great counter-example, the Nazi’s, could be stymied, delayed and defeated by nonviolent means. The anonymous Russians who danced arm-in-arm with the enemy, their own truce declared before the Tsar’s. The soldiers in the trenches, during the unofficial Christmas truce, playing soccer with the other side. Would such figures have appealed to my 15-year-old self, my imagination brimming with war machines?

When asked whether boys should be allowed to hunt, Thoreau answered yes, “make them hunters, though sportsmen only at first, if possible, mighty hunters at last, so that they shall not find game large enough for them in this or any vegetable wilderness—hunters as well as fishers of men.” Thoreau’s humans pass through stages, and it wouldn’t do to skip a step from hunting animals to the soul’s hunger.

Do nations pass through stages like Thoreau’s hunters? Is there still more day to dawn on the nation-state? Perhaps our national rush of emotions, the us-ness, the great we together, could one day find itself mirrored in the stories of conscientious objectors, conscription resisters, Quakers, Ghandians, Mennonites, Tolstoyans, Anti-Stalinists, community organizers, civil rights leaders, peacemakers and diplomats.

Perhaps a new kind of hero demands a new kind of nation to recognize it. If that nation is ever to be, Adam Hochschild might be its bard. But I must admit, it is hard to imagine. Nations were born of violence, forged for mutual defense. And they’ve since spent an astonishing amount of creative effort gilding their swords with poetry and myth.

It’s hard to break oneself of myth. Sometimes, if I’m walking alone, I begin to sing to myself in the street. Then, when another person rounds the corner I stop, and the song hangs between us awkwardly, like a broken promise. The shabby street in winter and the uncaring stranger make my singing absurd. My old war-like patriotism feels like that hopeful, embarrassing moment—a feeling ill-fit the world that is.

Part of me is ashamed of my younger self. But I can’t yet wish away his martial hero worship. I’m only now beginning to find something to replace it with. With the help of Hochschild and others, I’m hunting for game large enough. After reading To End All Wars, I’m beginning to think that the quarry is in reach.

The Formula in our Stories

Most successful authors have a blog or landing page to promote their work, keep fans updated, and share recent musings. Donald Miller, the Christian author who became the unlikely poster child of millennial Christianity with his book Blue Like Jazz has something a little different. Instead of a donaldmiller.com there is storylineblog.com. Storyline has blog posts with short, easily digestible Christian advice from Miller and a lineup of other prominent figures. But Storyline is more than a hub of Christian-slanting advice. It is also a business.

The “Start Here” link of Storyline describes three products readers can purchase in order to “live a better story,” the mission behind the business. There is a workbook that helps you break your life goals down into steps, in order to gain clarity and concrete purpose. The book claims, “You never have to wake up in a fog again.” There is an online video course, where Donald walks a fellow author through his process. “Thousands have already gone through the course and found clarity, direction and a better life. Join us!” the description reads. Lastly, one can attend a Storyline conference, a three-day weekend of motivational speakers, Christian musicians, and break-out discussion groups. At the conference, you can create your life plan with one-on one-guidance and the support of a community.

As a consistent follower of Miller’s work over the years, none of this struck me as bad or wrong, per se, but it is a far cry from the words of Blue Like Jazz. Personal truths have become a product to be sold. I had no way of knowing if I was the only member of Miller’s fan base who felt this way, until, that is, Miller published a blog post titled, “I’m Glad I’m Not the Same Guy Who Wrote Blue Like Jazz”. He writes about how healthier he is now—emotionally and physically—than when he wrote his breakout book. The comments section is speckled with mixed points of view about the new Donald. There are those who wholeheartedly agree with comments like “Your transformation gives me hope,” and “Don, if you weren’t changing, you wouldn’t be living a story. At least not a good one, anyway.” And then there are the dissenters. A reader going only by the name “Seeker” wrote a particularly compelling response: “If you’re interested in a ‘constructive’ opinion about what I miss about the old Don and maybe could even be incorporated with the new/future Don, here it is: the thing that makes me feel sad sometimes is that it seems like sometimes the ‘new’ Don takes the answer that has worked for him and truly believes it will work for everyone else too.”

“Formula” seems to be the word on the tip of Seeker’s typing fingers. Fans of the old Don do not like that he now applies formulas to life.Oddly enough, a warning against applying formulas to life is central to Miller’s third book, Searching for God Knows What. If anyone needs concrete evidence as to Donald’s shift as an author, they only need to read the first chapter of this book. It is eerie in its prescience.

The book opens with Miller attending a Christian writers’ conference, where speakers promise to reveal the secrets of writing a best-selling book. They offer two feasible formulas for such a book. The second is as follows:

You must paint a picture of great personal misery. You must tell the reader of a time when you failed at something, when you had no control over a situation or a dynamic. Second, you must talk about where you are now, and how you have control over that situation or dynamic, and how wonderful and fulfilling it is to have control. Third, you must give the reader a three-to four-step plan for getting from the misery and lack of control to the joy and control you currently have.

After sitting through day one of the conference, Miller returns to his hotel room, eager to find where these formulas are in the Bible, but he cannot find them. He writes,

 And it really got me thinking that, perhaps, formula books, by that I mean books that take you through a series of steps, may not be all that compatible with the Bible…it makes me wonder if secretly we don’t wish God were a genie who could deliver a few wishes here and there. And that makes me wonder if what we really want from the formulas are the wishes, not God. It makes me wonder if what we really want is control, not a relationship.

Miller’s antidote to formula is the notion of story, that instead of living a formula, you should live a great story. The trouble comes when fitting one’s life into a story becomes a formula. If you treat all stories as essentially the same (the protagonist has a goal, works hard, meets opposition, and ultimately, against the odds, is able to achieve the goal) then you’ve distilled it down into a formula. All stories are not the same.

Formulas are seductive because they work well for surface-level pursuits. You absolutely will lose weight if you exercise more and eat less. You will make better grades if you study longer. It’s easy to get addicted to the results and start worshipping the formulas. Maybe this is where the wrong track begins. When you think these rules can be applied to the deeper things, like art, love, and self-acceptance.

If we can’t pursue those ends in and of themselves, what, then, are we left with? The opposite of living in formula is not to live in a ready-made story, but to live in patient waiting, to be okay with the unknown. The unknown is essentially what we try to eradicate with formulas. You don’t have to wait for the answer because the answer is the same every time. 2 + 2 always equals 4. In waiting, we don’t know what hand will be dealt. In waiting, we live in the present more than the future because the present is all we have.

Poet Rainer Marie Rilke once penned this profound piece of advice on the necessity of waiting:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

Our entire lives can be broken down into periods of waiting—to graduate, to land the dream job, to find The One. Rilke is right. You haven’t graduated yet because you’re not ready for college. You haven’t gotten the dream job because you wouldn’t fully appreciate it. The One hasn’t made his or her way into your life because you need to learn to be okay without them. You don’t have the answers now because you would not be able to live them.

We had better learn to wait well because it is the same as learning to live well. Waiting well involves working towards goals, which might have some formulas involved. But as for pursuing the deeper, more important aspects of life, for that there is no formula; there is no equation. In fact, trying to force a formula onto one of these goals can only make matters worse. I find that when we learn to just be, when we stop straining our necks to see as far into the future as possible, life tends to come our way. Though I, of course, can’t say it works every time.

Photo Credit: Umjanedoan

Psalms for Ferguson | The Wise

Innocent question

Where is the child?

Poor dumb wise

Your innocence is painful

In a land of violence

You cannot see

The obvious

Child perceived as threat, real danger

Surrounded by fear of a takeover

Yet you talk in blissful naivety

“Show us where to find the child.”

What child?

You mean the unborn child, the theoretical child, right?
The one that is not a threat, not born of our enemy
The one that we imagine looks like us and will become us, right?

We love the unborn

We really care for those who are not here

They do not scare us. They will never be our undoing.

Where is the child?

Poor dumb wise
Wandering through a story you should know

Clumsy steps in your own history

Right in the left
Left in the right

Untied strings dragging through time

You ask too much and see too little

Those with weapons are way ahead of you

Calculating, while you are asking

They make the wise their tools

“Yes,” they say, “If only we could find that child, the one we all want to see,
the one we can galvanize support for…

….the future we all want to see.”

While we wait for that future, they will clear the streets,

CLEAR THE STREETS!

take away the unwanted dark litter

Wanted only in the cries of their mom-kin-folk

Where is my child?

Where is MY child?

The wise with their resources

Gifts to be given

Must be kept from power’s deception

Until the child appears to them and becomes their wisdom

Psalms for Ferguson| Lauryn Hill’s “Black Rage”

Lauryn Hill’s “Black Rage” is a profoundly haunting song that resonates with our current “Ferguson/Marissa/Rice/Garner/____” moment of unrest. It functions as an artistic interpretation of a real anger that many would rather dismiss than look squarely at. To face the roots of this rage is to uproot cherished notions of law and order in which many find comfort and safety.

Originally a 2012 single, Ms. Lauryn Hill released a “living room sketch” version of Black Rage in August 2014, after the killing of Michael Brown, and dedicated it to Ferguson. Set to a darker rendition of the much fluffier classic tune of “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music, the song explores the suffering and injustice that constitutes the foundation of black rage. This leads to jarring juxtapositions. For example:

“My Favorite Things”

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens
Brown paper packages tied up with strings
These are a few of my favorite things…

“Black Rage”

Black Rage is founded on two-thirds a person
Rapings and beatings and suffering that worsens
Black human packages tied up in strings
Black Rage can come from all these kinds of things…

In the 1965 film of Sound of Music, Mary sings “My Favorite Things” around children, within a setting of playful innocence. Lauryn Hill’s living room sketch is also sung around children (whose voices can be heard in the background), except in this case the setting contains a loss of innocence through a recounting of violence and exploitation.

Significantly, “Black Rage” is not the first song to twist and darken the melody of “My Favorite Things.” John Coltrane, the legendary Jazz saxophonist, played a unique rendition of “My Favorite Things” back in the 1960s. As theologian Brian Bantum has written, “Coltrane’s ‘My Favorite Things’ takes place not upon the placid hills of a neutral borderland, but within the torment of a violent America, and his own tortured soul.” In light of this, Lauryn Hill creatively extends Coltrane, providing a tragic rendition that still rings true today in Ferguson, in New York, and our entire country.

“Black rage is made by ungodly control,” sings Lauryn Hill in the full version of “Black Rage”. There is a theological thread running through this song. Police brutality is merely a symptom to a much deeper problem that is lodged within the construction of our social life itself. At another point, she sings: “who fed us self-hatred, lies and abuse, while we waited and waited? Spiritual treason, this grid and its cages.” The control and regulation of black life under the guise of law, order, and commerce is unmasked as idolatry. People who are not God have acted as if they were the gods of black bodies.

If “Black Rage” unsettles the tranquility of “My Favorite Things,” it is not unlike the protesters who recently attempted to disrupt the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting ceremony in New York City after the non-indictment of the officer who killed Eric Garner. Who wants to have a gloomy Christmas? Isn’t this meant to be a peaceful time for family fun? Nevertheless, the protests disturb the “tranquility” which is not true peace but a turning away, a refusal to hear the blood crying out, a dismissal of anger as simple “complaining, complaining.” The twisting, dark tune of unrest reveals the heartlessness behind those who are more concerned about the interruption of a ceremony than the blatant injustice that had just occurred.

Perhaps our picture of Christmas and the Advent season is too easily sanitized. Behind the warm, idyllic Nativity scene and Christmas carols is a harrowing story of a young mother trying to protect her child from state violence. According to the biblical story told in Matthew chapter 2, Mary and Joseph are forced to escape with baby Jesus to Egypt because King Herod hopes to kill the child (echoing back to baby Moses’ escape from Pharaoh in Exodus 1-2). After realizing his plans have failed, Herod decides to murder all of the children under two years old in Bethlehem, a slaughter that is known as the Massacre of the Innocents (Matthew 2:16-18). The Gospel writer then recounts a fulfilled prophecy about Rachel’s inconsolable weeping:

 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” (NIV)

In the slaughter of the innocents, we are confronted by Rachel’s rage. In a sense, Lauryn Hill can been seen as creating a contemporary psalm of lament that confronts us with the black rage arising from the slaughter of America’s innocents. Will we listen to the psalm of black rage?

 

What We Loved in 2014: Part II

This is part two of our editors and staff writers sharing the books, movies, or music they loved in 2014. What they contributed didn’t have to be from 2014. And so here we have a personal mix of beloved cultural artifacts (a lot of which are books). This piece was illustrated by Milwaukee artist Adam Stoner.

Part I can be read here.

Curator Reading List Medians #1

Alex Miller

“In the forty years it took me to write this book,” the essayist, poet, and translator Clive James writes at the beginning of Cultural Amnesia, “I only gradually realized that the finished work, if it were going to be true to the pattern of my experience, would have no pattern.” Like many celebrated contemporary authors (one thinks of the novelist David Mitchell, or the poet Robert Hass), James wants to salvage a meaningful pattern from the ruins of the conflicted twentieth century. With magnetic wit and cold skepticism, he makes the attempt in an alphabetically-organized collection of biographical essays, and as he discusses the life and work of figures as widely dispersed as Duke Ellington, Coco Chanel, Egon Friedell and Josef Goebbels, his axiomatic style and compassionate humanism make every salvaged memory exhilarating for the reader. Published in 2006, this is James’s masterpiece, a collection that elevates the cultural essay to a form of high literature, and hopes to show us that in spite of our horrendous inhumanity, history might be what Hegel thought it was: “liberty becoming conscious of itself.”

Curator Reading List Medians #2

Julie Hamilton

For me, this year has been about watching auteur writer/director Woody Allen’s minor works, the pieces he made between his beloved academy award-winning Annie Hall and Manhattan, as well as ones no one ever watches. As a contemplative comedian-turned-filmmaker, his “routines” of approximately 90 minutes often recycle characters in their philosophical questions through re-imagined scenarios. Making on average a film a year, he has an extensive oeuvre. Three of my favorite underappreciated Woody Allen films are Alice, Interiors and The Purple Rose of Cairo.

Alice is his 1990s spin on Alice and Wonderland, where a pampered Upper East Side, Escada-wearing mom seeks help for her ailing back from a Chinatown medicine man, and through psychoanalyses uncovers her unhappy marriage instead. A dark comedy and commentary on social class.

Interiors is Allen’s tribute to filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, a psychological drama of a New York family dealing with their mother’s mental illness. The interiors of Allen’s characters and the spaces they dwell within are a haunting nod to Bergman’s Kierkegaardian existentialism.

The Purple Rose of Cairo is about a woman’s escape from reality by daily frequenting the cinema, in the vein of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. When the main character (Jeff Daniels) of the film she watches exits his film into the world of the audience (Allen’s film), Allen’s sophisticated yet subtle play on film theory considers the relationship of the audience to the work of art.

Curator Reading List Medians (#3)

Amy Wilson Sheldon

I’m not Irish, but I live in Ireland. So when I talk to Irish writers – which I have the great fortune of doing once in a while – I often ask them if they consider themselves “Irish writers” or their books to be indicative of “Irish literature.” I’m mostly met with chuckles—“that’s such an American question”—or annoyance at the notion. But as an outsider looking in, there are three books I read this year that have helped me understand this place. What Are You Like? by Anne Enright is essentially a book about twins separated at birth, yet, at its core, delves into the different ways we sense things, particularly given our surroundings and the settings.

In 2014, I also re-read The Commitments by Roddy Doyle. You want a glimpse into working-class Dublin? Sure, you can watch the movie or listen to the soundtrack again, but read the book and really savor the dialogue that Doyle has put forth. You may need a glossary, though.

And then there’s Donal Ryan, author of The Thing About December (as well as the acclaimed The Spinning Heart). It was another Irish writer who at a recent event said this about Ryan: “He just can’t construct a bad sentence.” ‘Tis true. I’ve always thought that Irish authors should be proud of their “Irishness,” for despite the lack of leprechauns and fairies, these books encompass the kinds of magical writing that put a definitive passport stamp on our psyches.

Curator Reading List Medians (5)

Jenni Simmons

This year, I devoured beautiful poetry — What the Light was Like by Luci Shaw and Blue Horses by Mary Oliver, both of which helped to heal and reset my brain. These sages reminded me of the art of seeing. As Mary Oliver said in her poem “Good Morning” — “It must be a great disappointment to God if we are not dazzled at least ten times a day.

I read A Prayer Journal by Flannery O’Connor, which was brilliant in that stark, sarcastic, reverent/irreverent way she had with words. I prayed a few of her prayers myself, “Dear God please help me to be an artist, please let it lead to You.” I felt guilty as I laughed during a few of her prayer entries, but hilarity was in her bones.

I tried to finish the last half of The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison, but I couldn’t process anything that brilliant during the stressful, exhausting two weeks when my mom was waiting to have unexpected heart surgery. I enjoyed The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. But I spent most of the hospital time reading the Divergent series by Veronica Roth — easy, mindless, and enjoyable reads.

The book I most anticipated this year was Lila by Marilynne Robinson. I realize she has not written a trilogy per se, but Lila contains such satisfying continuity from Gilead and Home by way of truly exquisite writing. I confess that I’m a romantic, and the sweet, awkward conversations between the old preacher and Lila made me swoon. The hardships and shame of Lila’s early life made me wince. Her baptism made me cry.

I love how Marilynne Robinson pulled Rev. Ames and Lila out from behind the epistolary narration in Gilead and enfleshed their unlikely courtship, marriage, and parenthood onto the pages of Lila. I savored the story, reading slowly as if I were meandering Lila’s complicated and redemptive life alongside her. I only hurried a bit toward the end to verify that it was my favorite book of 2014 and indeed it was.

Curator Reading List Medians (7)

Meaghan Ritchey

Music from the 95 Corridor

Starting from the south: Releasing solo records from Howard Ivans of The Rosebuds and also one from Megafaun’s Joe Westerlund under the AliasGrandma Sparrow & His Piddletractor Orchestra,  I’m grateful and glad for what Matthew E. White is doing in Richmond VA with Spacebomb Records.  Wye Oak (Shriek) and Future Islands (Singles), both from Baltimore, released the albums I danced with a hairbrush microphone to, and at SXSW I thought their shows were the most fun by far. Baltimore Bonus: Dean Deacon‘s newest will be released in Feb 2015. I also found myself listening to The War on Drugs’ new album Lost in the Dream more often than not. Not off I-95, but still, Nashville let William Tyler rise to the top (for me at least) with his full-instrumental release Impossible Truth which I started to listening last autumn and never stopped.

Curator Reading List Medians (8)

Laura Brown

I wouldn’t have found poet Kevin Young’s Book of Hours if a friend hadn’t invited me to read it with her. Many of the poems deal with the death of his father; others reflect on the birth of his son. We read a poem a day, almost, and took turns being the one to initiate the nearly daily email discussing them. The book itself is a marvelous collection, a mix of loss and reckoning and humor, with the rhythms of jazz throughout. But the experience of working through it with a friend is one of the things I loved most in 2014. I can recommend that, too, with any book of poetry that both agree on.

I don’t own a TV and I seldom watch Netflix, but I got hooked on Breaking Bad. Anyone who’s seen it knows it’s a fascinating story arc, with top-notch acting and a textured range of suspense and drama and humor. As the story got darker and harder to watch, the thing that kept me tuning in was Aaron Paul’s character, Jesse Pinkman, who, I’d argue, is easily the most moral character in the show.

My rule for Christmas music is “not until after Thanksgiving.” I broke it when the New York Times’ Press Play streamed Over the Rhine’s latest, Blood Oranges in the Snow, their third CD in the genre they call “reality Christmas.” This is a crappy season for a lot of people, and even the strongest adult sense of wonder is like a Crayola 24-pack compared to the 96-box-with-sharpener of childhood. This music acknowledges the tarnish and still finds the wonder.

Wonder infuses and animates the essay collection Things That Are by Amy Leach. They’re divided into “Things of Earth” (like trees and sound and sea cucumbers) and “Things of Heaven” (like moons and stars). She’s like the kid at the science fair who has studied her thing obsessively and has all kinds of fascinating things to tell you about it, except all grown up, so winsome in her writing style and so full of unusual questions and packing all kinds of things into each essay and somehow they fit. I’d read anything she writes. I haven’t yet finished Loitering, New & Collected Essays by Charles D’Ambrosio, but I’m nuts about his writing, too — distinctive voice, engaging personality, precise vocabulary along with an appealing sort of rumpledness. Both of them have minds it’s fascinating to be inside. Both of them make me wish I could write like that.

What We Loved in 2014: Part I

Instead of a “best of” list we asked our editors and staff writers to share the books, movies, or music they loved in 2014. What they contributed didn’t have to be from 2014. And so here we have a personal mix of beloved cultural artifacts (a lot of which are books). Part II will be published tomorrow, and this piece was illustrated by Milwaukee artist Adam Stoner.

Curator Reading List Medians #1

Carolyn Givens

There’s a moment, at the very, very end of Andrew Peterson’s The Warden and the Wolf King that you suddenly realize what might happen, and what incredible joy that “might” would bring. It’s basically the final sentence of the book, but your heart leaps for what’s next. Peterson’s brother, A.S. “Pete” Peterson, also an author, once spoke about authors who leave a signpost on their final page, as if saying, “The story goes on…that way.” Even if the book had been dull (it wasn’t) or hadn’t finished out The Wingfeather Saga well (it does), I think it might have been worth the read just for that one moment of hope and joy.

I’ve been meaning to read Unbroken for about four years now. I loved Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit and knew she could do justice to a true tale. But with the movie looming on the horizon, reading Unbroken became an urgent matter. I needed to get the story straight in my head before I saw it acted out before me. Hillenbrand manages again to bring to vivid life a decades-old story.

I’d only read Jonathan Rogers’ short fiction before picking up The Charlatan’s Boy this spring. But I knew I was in for a treat. Rogers can spin a tale—full of feechies and swamps and the lovely lilt of his dialogue. Grady is an orphan boy looking for the truth of who he is and where he came from, and his guardian is, in Grady’s own words “a liar and a fraud.” Grady’s adventure is full of fun, full of heart, and a balm for anyone who has ever searched for where they belong.

Curator Reading List Medians #2

Trevor Logan

The poetry of Toby Martinez de las Rivas has been my gold among the dross this year. His recent collection Terror will stay close by for what I hope is foreverThere is something eternal about his poetry. And then there’s Oliver Ready’s wonderful translation of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment; Ready’s rendition of Raskolnikov’s stochastic moods is as raw as ever, and now perpetually lodged in my consciousness. Lastly, David Marquand’s Mammon’s Kingdom: An Essay on Britain, Now is necessary reading for anyone concerned with how we became such strong votaries of Mammon’s “melancholy creed,” as Thomas Carlyle put it.

Curator Reading List Medians (#3)

Tessa Carman

Each essay in Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams could be described as a carefully woven elaboration upon Terence’s assertion that “nothing human is alien to me” (the book’s epigraph). It’s a book that deserves a slow, attentive read, but is also incredibly hard to put down.

William Gaunt’s novelistic The Pre-Raphaelite Dream is a lovingly crafted and tragic account of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood: the lives, loves, and losses of Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Morris, Holman Hunt, and others. Their quixotic dreams are still relevant and relatable, it seems to me, and that is perhaps part of the tragedy of their tale.

The theme of home—homemaking, leaving home, homecoming—came up a lot in my reading this year: Rod Dreher’s The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping and Home, Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood, Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs. Looking back, I realize this may have been (subconsciously) intentional, since the question of home-creating became especially meaningful for me this year.

Curator Reading List Medians (5)

Charity Singleton Craig

“Are we missing our lives by obsessing over our souls?” So wrote Jess Mesman Griffith in a letter to Amy Andrews in the epistolary memoir, Love & Salt: A Spiritual Friendship Shared in Letters. After strong recommendations from several friends, I wasn’t sure a book of letters about faith, marriage, and career by two graduate students could live up to its hype. But in the process of reading letter after letter— first exchanged daily each year during Lent, but then crossing seasons and years, chronicling births and deaths, unearthing the past and hoping for the future—Amy and Jess became my friends. Their letters to each other became a note written to include me, as well.

If you know E.B. White only as the author of the children’s favorite, Charlotte’s Web, then get to know the rest of the man through his Essays of E.B. White. The chapter called, “Geese,” is worth the price of his book. “Winter is a time of waiting, for man and goose,” he writes as he plots to comfort his grieving gander. In the end, his tinkering has created a greater sadness for the gander, a sadness White feels acutely himself. “I don’t know anything sadder than a summer’s day,” he writes.

Curator Reading List Medians (7)

Laura Tokie

I read The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford by Ron Hansen for the first time this fall. Published in 1983, Hansen tells a 100+ year old story of these two complicated men, their associates, and their families. It took me several pages to adjust to the pace of the detail-rich narrative, but once I settled into it, themes including celebrity worship and image manipulation seemed both timeless and timely.

In nonfiction, I recommend The Good Funeral: Death, Grief, and the Community of Care by Thomas G. Long and Thomas Lynch. While some of this work is geared for funeral directors and clergy (and I am neither), I found it touching, moving, and troubling in the best way: stirring thoughts about honoring life and acknowledging death physically. I read it in June. A month later, the ideas in it brought shape and comfort to a blurred summer of grief.

Curator Reading List Medians (8)

Andy Scott

Tales about prodigals returning home are as old as the Bible. What is remarkable about Teju Cole’s Every Day is for the Thief is that the story feels genuinely new. Written from a semi-autobiographical perspective, Every Day is for the Thief is a captivating series of short excerpts about life vis-a-vis a man’s re-entry into Nigeria after 15 years. Tired as the genre may be, Cole gives a startling new breath to an examination of existence through concise, poignant narration. Chapters are never more than a few pages, and offer only snapshots of the simultaneous disorientation and joy of rediscovering home.

I finally got around to reading George Saunders’ Civilwarland in Bad Decline. Being somewhat familiar with his style, this was something I had looked forward to, and spent many days reading. Saunders carries the ability to inject the absurd with a dose of humanity with such accuracy that you forget Downtrodden Mary is fictional. While his writing is a dark shade of humorous, it’s also rooted in a deep understanding of what drives humanity to those dark yet funny places. Civilwarland in Bad Decline is at once who we are and who we might very well become.

Icelandic post-rock is great. It could merely be a symptom of my stunted musical development, but Sigur Rós is still the reigning champion of my iTunes account. There is a new contender from the tundra now. Ásgeir, who I’d describe as the Icelandinc Bon Iver, was a welcome addition to my collection and has been playing on repeat from many months. He brings a depth of sound and melody that pairs well with lyrics written by his father. If I were Icelandic I’d be accused of bandwagoning– the album is now the best-selling album of all time– but I’m not, so do yourself a favor and check it out.