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 Wisdom of The Circle

In his early modern utopian vision the New Atlantis, Francis Bacon imagined a proto-scientific and technological society fully dedicated to the liberating power of knowledge. Natural and divine revelation would be united “to restore and exalt the power and dominion … of the human race over the universe.” Technological advances such as the printing press, gunpowder, and the compass, Bacon argued, had made possible a new age of learning, peace, and exploration. Humans were “perhaps more ready to contemplate the power, wisdom, and goodness of God in His works.”[1] On the other side of modernity, viewed through Michel Foucault’s dystopian panopticism, scientific and technological knowledge is oppressive power: institutions such as the prison, factory, and school design comprehensive organizational and surveillance systems to control freedom and difference. For Foucault, utopia closes in on itself to become not a technologically empowered house of wisdom but a technologically determined “house of certainty.”[2]

The archive of utopian and dystopian expectations runs deep and grows daily, with visions of our current technological society ranging from digitally enhanced posthumanism to digitally enabled panopticism. The most intense expressions of these hopes and fears are apocalyptic, which is an ancient poetic form for exploring the deepest revelations about knowledge, space, time, and the common good.[3] Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle is an exemplar of the apocalyptic imagination that productively challenges us to think about the nature of wisdom in the digital age. Through apocalyptic realism, Eggers reveals how present technological advances might be used in efforts to transcend current limits of what we know, what we hope for, what we must do, and what it means to be a human being.

Within the book’s first couple dozen pages, the classic apocalyptic dimensions of time, space, knowledge, and community are opened up in this technological morality tale. An epigraph from East of Eden invokes an unlimited future. The first sentences proclaim the Circle Corporation’s heavenly campus and its paradisiacal vastness. Avatars of the company’s leaders, the “Three Wise Men”—a trinity of personalities including “boy-wonder visionary,” “Capitalist Prime,” and a beloved and benevolent “uncle”—appear early. And the novel’s protagonist Mae Holland, the newest member of this elect community, is transported out of the “chaotic mess” of the ordinary world: “The best people had made the best systems and the best systems had reaped funds, unlimited funds, that made possible this, the best place to work.”[4]

The Circle has superseded Facebook, Twitter, Google, and all near-future equivalents by ending anonymity and unifying the online experience: “one account, one identity, one password, one payment system … everything tied together and trackable and simple.” But those leading the Circle seek more—more knowledge and more engagement—for and from its members and users. “We’re at the dawn of the Second Enlightenment,” announces the benevolent Wise Man; “all that happens must be known.” Participation, up to its ultimate form of total transparency, is pressed on Mae, her colleagues, politicians, and the world. Initially Mae is troubled when her preferences are publically exposed, believing she is more than a “matrix of preferences.” Mae also knows that she is, secretly, a troubled person full of anxiety and despair about what she does not know, especially “when and by whom [she] would be touched a certain way.” Fleeing this inner turmoil, Mae becomes absorbed by the demands of Circle, including multiple work-related screens and relationships, and ultimately her “Conversion Rate”—evidence that she is “a crucial and measurable driver of world commerce.”[5]

Before she decides to live an open and digitally streamed life, Mae enjoys a moment of rest—unplugged and drifting alone on a kayak at night—and is content to be open to an unknown future and to know little about the world around her. This liberating moment, however, is one of trespass. The kayak was stolen, a theft caught on camera; but the greater sin is that most of her private adventure was not recorded and shared through social media. The benevolent Wise Man confronts her about her violation of the new Enlightenment creed that “everyone should have a right to know everything, and should have the tools to know anything … any information that eludes us, anything that’s not accessible, prevents us from being perfect.” With an end to the “hoarding of information and knowledge,” he concludes, “we would finally be compelled to be our best selves … we don’t have to be tempted by darkness anymore.” Convinced and converted, Mae publically repents and confesses that “secrets are lies,” “sharing is caring,” and “privacy is theft.” Then she commits herself to transparency and to sharing the Circle’s tools through her streamed life.[6]

Following a presentation about the Circle’s increasingly comprehensive digital archive, Mae is confronted by a divinity school dropout who praises the apotheotic work of the Circle:

You found a way to save all the souls … You’re gonna get everyone in one place, you’re gonna teach them all the same things. There can be one morality, one set of rules. … Now all humans will have the eyes of God. … Now we’re all God. Every one of us will soon be able to see, and cast judgment upon, every other. We’ll see what He sees. We’ll articulate His judgment. We’ll channel His wrath and deliver His forgiveness. On a constant and global level. All religion has been waiting for this, when every human is a direct and immediate messenger of God’s will.[7]

Not everyone is thrilled with the godlike ambitions of the Circle. Mae’s new commitments alienate her from family and friends, and one internal skeptic warns her about her role in creating “a very hungry, very evil empire.”[8] When she discovers that three percent of her colleagues do not find her awesome, Mae experiences a brief and “blasphemous” moment of doubt:

the volume of information, of data, of judgments, of measurements, was too much, and there were too many people, and too many desires of too many people, and too many opinions of too many people, and too much pain from too many people, and having all of it constantly collated, collected, added and aggregated, and presented to her as if that all made it tidier and more manageable—it was too much.[9]

This moment of doubt is replaced with work. When a friend who brought her into the Circle, and whose parents’ sins are being revealed through the Circle’s growing historical archive, sends out a “very strange message” that reads, “Actually, I don’t know if we should know everything, ” Mae is shocked. (Someone else later redacts the message to read, “We shouldn’t know everything—without the proper storage ready. You don’t want to lose it!”)[10]

Mae concludes that not knowing “who would love her and for how long” is the ultimate cause of anxiety and despair: “It was not knowing that was the seed of madness, loneliness, suspicion, fear.” Living transparently, she believes, made her “knowable to the world,” better, and “brought her close, she hoped, to perfection.” The world would follow; “Full transparency would bring full access, and there would be no more not-knowing.”[11] When Mae is presented with a final opportunity to stop what is happening to her and with the Circle, she rejects it:

I want to be seen. I want proof I existed…Most people do. Most people would trade everything they know, everyone they know—they’d trade it all to know they’ve been seen, and acknowledged, that they might even be remembered. We all know we die. We all know the world is too big for us to be significant. So all we have is the hope of being seen, or heard, even for a moment.”[12]

Mae trades the lives of people she knows to save the Circle and avert the “apocalypse” she fears. We are left, with her, contemplating “a world where everyone could know each other truly and wholly, without secrets, without shame.” No corner or moment of life will be hidden in the “new and glorious openness” of the coming world, “a world of perpetual light.”[13]

Mae tries to trade her fear of finitude for the promise of technologically extended knowledge, presence, and power. But the ambition to complete the Circle—a sign of perfection, eternity, God, and infinite meaning—stretches credibility. One is reminded of Dostoevsky’s underground man, who warned the enlightened thinkers of his industrial age that even if they reasoned out and published everything they would not explain the whole of life. Technological advances undoubtedly improve our lives, but the ways they can tempt us toward omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence is comedic as well as tragic. The Circle uncovers both dimensions of a technologically inspired hubris that extends back to the primeval city established east of Eden.

In the wisdom book of Job, as the eponymous protagonist waits in the ashes for God to reveal the reason for his suffering, he reviews the many ways humans have discovered knowledge, including mining the depths of the earth to bring hidden things into the light. Human knowledge is limited, he confesses, and true wisdom remains hidden. Only “God understands the way to it, / and … understands its place,” Job concludes, therefore wisdom is fearing God and turning away from evil—or, to put it another way, loving God and others.[14] What Mae misses, and what an apocalyptic work such as The Circle helps uncover, is the extent to which human knowledge is limited and corruptible. Bacon hoped technology and science could reverse the effects of the primordial sin—the desire to be wise like God that led to fear and death—but Foucault saw its effects darkly in our most advanced structures and systems. Moreover, as we pursue our ambitions to extend our attentions and intentions we may, like Mae, miss the communication, community, and communion—the koinonia[15]—that is present and near to us in space and time.



[1] Francis Bacon, “On the Idols, the Scientific Study of Nature, and the Reformation of Education,” in Philosophy of Technology: The Technological Condition, ed. Robert C. Scharff and Val Dusek (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2014), 34, 36.

[2] Michel Foucault, “Panopticism,” Philosophy of Technology, 657.

[3] In ancient apocalyptic literature, epistemological, spatial, temporal, and moral realities are uncovered by collapsing divine-human dualisms: divine and human knowledge, heavenly and earthly realms, eternity and time, and good and evil powers and communities. See John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature (Grand Rapid, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 1ff.

[4] Dave Eggers, The Circle (San Francisco, Calif.: McSweeney’s Books, 2013), 19ff., 30.

[5] Ibid., 21, 67, 125, 195, 250ff.

[6] Ibid., 286ff.

[7] Ibid., 395.

[8] Ibid., 401.

[9] Ibid., 410.

[10] Ibid., 435.

[11] Ibid., 465.

[12] Ibid., 485.

[13] Ibid., 489ff.

[14] See Job 28.23 (ESV).

[15] Brent Waters, Christian Moral Theology in the Emerging Technoculture: From Posthuman Back to Human (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014), 234.

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.

Mad Men, Snickering and Sobbing

What sort of man kisses a secretary at an office party and expects his wife to praise him for going no further? What sort of man quits an affair because it’s too much hassle? What sort of man begs his wife to deliver setup lines at cocktail parties to tee up his pre-planned punch lines? What sort of man attempts to declare moral bankruptcy to escape his obligations, pledging to be half the friend he was, half the husband, half the father?

A character in a Peter De Vries story, that’s who. The 20th-century New Yorker writer created a parade of shabby husbands and fathers who fail their families in hilarious fashion, offering a rich portrait of male vanity and insecurity. His heroes, almost to a man, are white-collar stiffs with jobs in Manhattan and comfortable homes in suburban Westport, Connecticut. Their concerns are the aggravations of timeworn marriages, the politics of dinner party invitations, and the quality of their highball cocktails. Borne aloft on the greatest rise of middle-class affluence the world had ever known, they eye each other’s wife and obsess over what college sweethearts think of them twenty years later.

A trio of long out-of-print books, republished this fall by the University of Chicago Press, underscores the satirical brilliance of a mostly forgotten humorist. De Vries skewered a distinctly male form of idiocy, demonstrated by characters who are witty, well-spoken, and lacking what a later generation would call emotional intelligence. We get a slew of such heroes in Without a Stitch in Time, a collection of short stories reissued in November.

“When a man can no longer discharge his financial obligations, we let him off the hook,” says one character. “Why not when he can no longer meet his ethical ones? I have too many emotional creditors hounding me … Everybody keeps talking about moral bankruptcy, but nobody does anything about it. Well, I’m going to. I’m going to declare it.”

“In other words,” his companion says, “you want to tell your wife about us.”

“Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.”

De Vries’s name has nearly vanished since his death in 1993, but for decades he was a mainstay of the East Coast literary establishment. He spent forty-three years as an editor at The New Yorker, contributing stories and assisting with cartoons. He published twenty-three books, to moderate commercial success. Proficient in one-liners, he coined phrases such as “Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be,” and “Deep down, he’s shallow.”

Peter DeVries

Peter DeVries

I’ve been mildly obsessed with De Vries, who shares my religious-ethnic roots in the Dutch Calvinists of Chicago. Born in 1910, he belonged to my grandparents’ generation, growing up among devout immigrant families who went to church twice on Sunday, forbade dancing and moviegoing, and cast a wary eye on the world beyond their South Side neighborhoods. In religious schools De Vries learned the doctrine of total depravity: our lives might be redeemed by grace, but they’re also marred by sin as pervasive as oxygen. For Calvinists, sinfulness includes more than specific lapses such as lying to your parents about skipping youth group for the pool hall. Total depravity means sin is a cancer that corrupts every cell of our God-created selves. Little wonder De Vries craved the levity of humor. He strained against the pieties of his family, mocking religion, especially the smug brand of Calvinists who believed their God had sorted the world into the elect and the damned—and they could discern who was who.

De Vries decamped from his working-class roots to the refined world of New York publishing, establishing a suburban commuter’s life in Westport presumably much like those of his characters. That Mad Men setting of martini lunches, commuter trains and the giddy newness of suburbia provided the most fertile ground for his satire. Several of his best novels explore that territory or launch from it, including Tunnel of Love (reissued this year), The Cat’s Pajamas & Witch’s Milk (1968), and the dark masterpiece The Blood of the Lamb (1961, republished in 2005).

There’s no doubt his work has aged unevenly. Reading De Vries requires a certain patience for wordplay, and later novels rely too much on farcical gags. Some of the parodies gathered up in the anthology Without a Stitch in Time are aimed at long-outdated targets. But that book, which draws mostly on his New Yorker stories, also contains some of De Vries’s finest stories. Those deserve a closer look.

In “The Flesh and the Devil,” we meet one prototypical schlub at the boozy end of an office Christmas party. Frisbie finds himself with an empty stomach and a friendly temp secretary. They leave together for a bar, after which she invites him to her apartment. He kisses her, remembers his wife and excuses himself. He congratulates himself, thinking of all his colleagues who might not have showed such marital loyalty: “The more he thought of it the more gratifying his conduct seemed, and, presently, the more his satisfaction struck him as worth sharing with his wife, not for the light the incident put him in but as a certification of their bond.”

Not surprisingly, his wife reacts differently than he expects.

“Where?” she asks. “Where didn’t you sleep with her.”

Frisbie stumbles forward like a man “having stepped out on a high wire on which going ahead might be difficult but turning around impossible.”

“You’re not looking at this thing right,” he protests.

Such emotional cluelessness surfaces throughout the collection. De Vries’s men are fluent in Freudian psychology and deeply analytical about their own lives. About their partners, they are considerably less perceptive.

De Vries’s women are rarely fully drawn characters—one of his chief limitations as a writer. But they are often capable sparring partners who expose their partners’ blind spots. In “A Crying Need,” a film critic for a community newspaper brings dates to watch screenings with him. One girl takes him to task for his pretentious criticism: “You could be too clever for your own good, you know. Your stuff is brilliant…but I wonder if life can always be lived on that plane.”

That’s a bit of self-criticism from De Vries, whose pun-loving mind was always running out ahead of him. He can’t seem to resist a well-turned quip. At times that serves him well, such as in “Compulsion,” about a compulsive punner whose incessant wordplay drives away companions. But some of the weaker pieces in Without a Stitch seem to be stories in service of a punch line, rather than the other way around.

When his humor works, though, it works. In “The Last of the Bluenoses,” the narrator whines that his dreams have not kept pace with the sexual revolution. While the broader culture flings off Victorian mores in favor of miniskirts and free-love credos, he complains that the orchestrator of his dreams provides nothing more risqué than a bare ankle: “Ankles! Can’t he get his mind on higher things?”

One of the things I appreciate most about these stories is the way they show how humor is a double-edged sword. It can cut through trivial cocktail-party banter to reveal the heart of things, like the jester who’s the only person in the medieval court allowed to mock the pompous king. But it can also be a weapon a speaker wields to keep others away, forming a protective distance of irony. De Vries grasps both possibilities.

The punner in “Compulsion” visits a therapist who tells him, “You are fundamentally afraid of people. This habit of yours was a way of mutilating conversation…you do so in order to escape the risks of engaging in it on an adult level.”

The characters in Without a Stitch begin to run together, which is sort of the point. The stories function as a cycle about the anxieties of the middle-class man at mid-century. Over and over, they invent crises: starting affairs, confessing to non-affairs, picking fights with dinner-party rivals. One adolescent sweating over his girlfriend’s possible pregnancy delivers a line that could be the book’s theme: “We pay for security with boredom, for adventure with bother.”

I found myself wondering which is the core problem for these men, anxiety or boredom? Or if it’s both, which causes the other?

That got me thinking about what’s missing from these stories. Except for showing up at their nondescript office jobs, these characters have few obligations beyond themselves. They have wives and children but seem to take them for granted. They don’t seem to be from the bedroom community of Westport, but they don’t seem to have roots elsewhere, or obligations to extended families or aging parents. (I say “seem” a lot because these brief stories leave much unstated.) With few exceptions, these men are not involved in churches, civic groups, PTAs, little-league coaching or other roles that weave a person into the fabric of community. One man is told by a doctor that he needs a hobby other than pouring himself highballs. He buys a model airplane and tries to fly it in his yard, a decidedly individualistic activity.

Lurking beneath these humorous flights is a void these characters do their best to ignore. It goes unspoken, but it shows up in their vanities and their all-too-relatable attempts to be the smartest person in his room. If life is nothing more than a popularity contest, you’d better be damned sure you’re popular.

The narrator in “The Irony of It All” chokes down a cocktail as the host of a party, a novelist he can’t stand, reads a maudlin passage from his latest project. At an especially bad line, the man says, “A snicker escaped me at the same time that a sob caught in my throat.”

De Vries adds a hiccup to the man’s troubles and plays the scene for laughs. But the snicker and the sob—rising up together—encapsulate his characters’ condition. They snicker so they do not sob. For his characters, success seems to roll in on the breeze, fickle and arbitrary. But failure arises from something broken deep inside them. De Vries rejected the religion of his youth, but he never shook the Calvinist understanding that our best efforts still bend toward brokenness. That sense of total depravity stayed with him. It appeared in the guise of humor, and it charged his light-hearted stories with surprising depth.

Welcome to Trace Italian

When I was young, I’d sometimes come home from school on the cusp of tears—the memory of however I’d been mistreated that day still fresh like black paint. My parents did their best to console me, but mine were not superficial anxieties; my social dread would hum at roughly Lovecraftian levels, and that was just my emotional baseline.

Still, my parents did their best. They constantly reminded me of their love and that was often enough to help me forget. I was in the depths one day when my father tried to reason me out of my sadness. “They only say those things to you,” he said, “because they are afraid of you.” Of course, I was not a scary guy—grass blade thin, wore clothes like a pole wears a tent, athletic like a sloth trying to get away from a fire—but I immediately understood what he meant. He elaborated: “They are afraid of you because they do not understand you. You’re different from them.”

Regardless of whether this was true in my case, a bolt of truth hit me as my father spoke: It’s easy to fear what you don’t understand, what doesn’t offer itself up for interpretation according to your categories.

John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van is a book about a person my father might have tried to encourage in a similar way. The novel’s narrator and protagonist is a young man who lives in seclusion because of his severely disfigured face. Unable to enter into the ongoing flow of society around him, Sean operates mail-in adventure games out of his apartment. Trace Italian, Sean’s most famous creation, operates like a classic choose-your-own-adventure text-based computer game but with one essential difference: instead of interacting with a computer, players write out their moves and send them by mail to Sean, who interprets their choice of action and sends back a scenario predicated upon it. Keeping maps and notes, players roam over the wasteland of a post-apocalyptic America, seeking out a star-shaped tower that rises out of the distant and irradiated Kansas plains. The games exist in a shared world of reciprocal imaginings, with Sean occasionally leaving notes for his players on the scenarios he sends them.

When the novel opens, we find that Sean is involved in a legal imbroglio over his culpability in the death of a young player and the maiming of her boyfriend. A tragedy occurred when the pair acted out their next game move in the non-imaginary world instead of through the mail, and the girl’s parents are unsuccessfully attempting to pin her death on Sean.

From this point, the novel moves in chronological reverse, carrying us from Sean’s present legal issues back to the zero hour of his brutal head injury at age 17. The vehicle for the story is Sean’s continuous stream of recollections.

The game, we find, exerts a strange power over the lives of many of its players. Sean tells us that one committed in-game suicide to keep his real self from falling in too deep. A partial explanation for this power would appeal to the circumstances of the game’s creation. Not only is Trace Italian Sean’s most famous mail-in game: it was also his first. “There is something fierce and starved about first ideas,” he tells us. It’s particularly true of this idea, which bloomed in Sean’s mind as he lay in a hospital bed recovering from the self-inflicted gunshot wound that obliterated his face.

* * *

From its first pages, Wolf in White Van evinces the same qualities that have earned Darnielle praise and recognition for his songwriting with The Mountain Goats. A knack for scene-painting is one of Darnielle’s many strengths. The broken, searching, and desperate characters that live in his music share moments with one another that Darnielle brings to realization in fine shades of desire and emotion. These qualities carry over into Wolf in White Van.

When Sean is in the hospital after his injury, he receives visits from Kimmy, a friend who seems able to see him in spite of his open head wound. The love and gratitude that well up in him under the gauze come out in gurgles and animal sounds, the only signs he can offer to reciprocate her treating him as a person. Kimmy continues to visit Sean, at least for a time. One day, he tells us, “she didn’t feel like visiting anymore, and then she stopped.” Kimmy has not diminished through this; if anything, she becomes more fully human for having a life that carries on even though her friend’s has become fixed.

Interactions between Sean and his parents evoke the complicated mixtures of feelings that develop naturally in the context of relationships with long histories. His mother is constantly unable to say what she means; his father gets the words out in the wrong way, often for trying to practice his ideas in advance of saying them out loud, a protective habit developed after communication with Sean became impossibly fraught with hazards. His missteps are frequent and sometimes disastrous, but he remains committed to his son. Sean’s mute anger over being asked not to attend the funeral of his grandmother gives way inside of two pages to pity for this man, his broken father, who tells him over the phone, “Your grandmother . . . that was my mother.” Sean is filled with sympathy, and the weight of it settles in alongside his outrage. His love and anger intertwine and saturate each other.

But even for all its emotional subtlety and power, the prose Darnielle uses to capture Sean’s alienation is frequently cool, crystalline, and epiphanic. Darnielle observes without judging, and conveys passion and feeling without creating intimacy. His characters are distant from one another and from the reader. The distance is thick like a layer of cotton bandages, but this insulation somehow muffles nothing. We see and understand the figures that live in this story like ice carvings, intricately drawn and remote.

Wolf in White Van also brings us repeatedly to the point at which seeing and understanding end. Sean’s parents want to understand the meaning of Sean’s actions and the tragedy that changed his life, but Sean sees himself in a way that precludes understanding. At one point he remembers calling in to the Trinity Broadcasting Network and acting possessed by the devil, but in his telling it’s clear he didn’t pick up the phone with malicious intentions. The scene simply played out the way that it did; he was just along for the ride. This memory leads the adult Sean to a realization about himself:

“I know a secret about young Sean, I guess, that he kind of ends up telling the world: nothing makes him tick. It just happens all by itself, tick tick tick tick tick, without any proximal cause, with nothing underneath it.”

In a newspaper or courtroom Sean’s injury might be described as a failed suicide, but Darnielle told NPR in an interview about the book that he sees Sean as having experienced an accident in a true sense. In Darnielle’s terms, Sean is “caught up in a sequence” that results in his shooting himself in the face with his father’s rifle. Sean demonstrates a sure-footedness in going about the act, but the resolve seems to come from without: he experiences the episode like a demoniac would, and keeps ticking.

There are many literary antecedents for Sean, characters who remain blind to the sources of their own actions even as they wreak destruction. Shirley Jackson gives us one such character in her book The Road Through the Wall:

“Tod Donald rarely did anything voluntarily, or with planning, or even with intent acknowledged to himself; he found himself doing one thing, and then he found himself doing another, and that, as he saw it, was the way one lived along, never deciding, never helping.”

Tod goes on to bash in a toddler’s head and hang himself out of fear after being caught. Meursault from The Stranger is another figure in this line; he shoots an Arab man on a beach because the sun is too bright on his face, and no real reason besides. Then, too, there’s Enoch Emery, thinking vainly that he has a chance of opposing the inscrutable will of his blood as it directs him inside a theater in Flannery O’Connor’s novella Wise Blood.

Sean seems to triangulate somewhere between these three, and it is as much a product of the book’s form and style as the content of Sean’s actions. The alienation that Sean the character experiences begins at the prose level; the mutilation that separates him from the world only reifies the loneliness and isolation he has experienced since before making his childhood phone call to the Christian television station, and this sense of being apart—different, misunderstood, unwanted—is an organic product of the voice of the novel’s narrator, at heart a sensitive and intelligent person at grips with a cold, stupid world.

The intertwining themes of meaning and choice grow out of this voice as well. Not suited to the society that opens wide, paved paths to him, Sean strikes out on his own. After his blank procession of acts results in his near death, he builds an imaginary world of meaning to contain varieties of possible choices that ramify without end, and invites others into it. It’s all a fiction, but an essential prop for the expression of his life, and an act of resistance against the abyss that once almost swallowed him.

Wolf in White Van dispenses its existentialism in small but clearly marked doses. Sean observes his father “looking for meaning where there wasn’t any,” and engineers Trace Italian so that there is no chance that a player can achieve a final victory: there will always be another dungeon, always another scenario in which destruction hangs out in the wings. The Trace itself may be many things, one of which is the fixed identity of bad faith, the impossible point of final arrival for personality—which final arrival would mean death for the individual. Arrival at the Trace isn’t the point. The ongoing, terrifying journey through fields rife with mutant cannibals is the point. Life itself is the point. We must imagine Sisyphus happy.

The name of the destination is massively suggestive in another way, too: a trace of home, of safety, of the past, of peace. It’s a sign of the sort of nostalgia that directs a person to something that has always already happened. The Trace might beckon us towards an impossibly static identity, but it also promises a respite that is unattainable in this life. It is fit for an afterlife—either restoration to the power that set us into being, or a reabsorption into the constant play of forces that comprise the material universe.

Though the Trace is inaccessible to Sean’s players—“Technically, it’s possible to get to the last room in the final chamber of the Trace Italian, but no one will ever do it. No one will ever live that long.”—its gravity exerts a pull on them that is inescapable. We may not ever arrive at a perfect verbal meaning, a consummate version of ourselves, or a total sense of peace, but the pull of these ironic hopes never wanes. It is the sum of human vocation to pursue them until we exhaust ourselves, and arrive.

David Foster Wallace: In His Own Words

David Foster Wallace was somehow able to crawl into the synapses of the American psyche. 

And, terrifyingly, he was able to write about it. No one of his generation was more able to blend tenderness of heart, and the deep moral preoccupations and confusions of a nation, with such impeccable prose and philosophical insight—and just plain, raw humanity—than Wallace. He was, perhaps, the closest thing America has come in the last half-century to their own Dostoevsky. And before his young death at 46, if his publications are to be faithful signs, he was only getting better: Backbone, All That and Good People just to name a few (this last story, which also appears in The Pale King, is a story only Wallace could pull off).

Alas, what we have of Wallace is what we have, and though his work is certainly more sparse than we’d like, gratitude is the only proper response. Something, at least in this case, is infinitely better than nothing. But fans will be happy to know that Little, Brown Publishers has recently put together an audiobook, David Foster Wallace: In His Own Words, featuring nearly 9 hours of interviews and readings that Wallace gave over the course of his career. There are, as is to be expected in the internet age, some (though not all) recordings which can be downloaded for free with a simple web search. Nevertheless, it is nice to have the formatting perks of a proper audiobook.

Two samples:


Stepping Outside

“Genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will.” —Baudelaire 

In his essay “Exiles,” Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño writes, “All literature carries exiles within it, whether the writer has had to pack and go at the age of twenty or has never left home.” In the (often self-imposed) exile of the young writer, few wellsprings are as welcome as Bolaño’s fiction. His stories contain life.

Beginning to read Bolaño requires a certain posture; it is like being in a country, city or room where you do not speak the common language. His stories are littered with characters displaced from their origins: a Chilean detective in Italy, a Russian porn-star in America, a Chilean student in Mexico. Characters are placed in the unknown where the unfamiliar landscape naturally creates tension. Bolaño explains, “Sometimes exile simply means that Chileans tell me I talk like a Spaniard. Mexicans tell me I talk like a Chilean, and Spaniards tell me I talk like an Argentine: it’s a question of accents.” In these kinds of moments, exile encompasses external as well as internal landscapes. Not only can we not recognize the faces around us, but the very mind inside our skull seems strange and extraterrestrial. The foreign mirror of exile reflects the question: Who am I?

Bolaño’s fiction packs a peculiar jab, creating what Francine Prose defined as “microclimates” that obliterate everything outside the narrative. He crafts a universe fogged with the mysteries and paradoxes of a detective novel using deceptively simple prose. Bolaño’s stories are an expanse of complexities against an entrancing atmosphere, with sinister forms of evil casting shadows behind every sentence. Reading Bolaño, we become exiles in his universe.

Bolaño’s stories are an expanse of complexities against an entrancing atmosphere, with sinister forms of evil casting shadows behind every sentence. Reading Bolaño, we become exiles in his universe.

Bolaño’s fiction often focuses on youth, not just physical or temporal development, but an intellectual and spiritual coming-of-age. Youthful openness in Bolaño’s characters does not simply mean readiness for amoral promiscuity. Parties, sex and drugs happen as a part of youth, but these experiences are neither the heart of the matter nor merely outliers. They just are: experiences free of the over-interpretation that torments many of Bolaño’s characters, and many writers during the editing process. Herein lies an eerie paradox: Bolaño promotes openness that is both active and passive. Characters must be open to ethical demands, like a rescue or a courageous brawl, but that openness to act requires the contemplative stillness of a detective. Through the haze of eroticism, Bolaño promotes the kind of openness—both destructive and worthwhile—that so often thrives in youth but barely survives adulthood.

This particular openness contrasts with social aging: the slow, peer-encouraged disenchantment with one’s youthful aspirations. More often than not, fear dries up dreams. For a young writer (or any writer) failure is a guarantee. For the character in The Savage Detectives who claims, “Youth is a scam,” maturing means failing less and less often; it means giving up writing—the youthful mirage—for a more certain future with fewer mishaps. In comparison, Arturo Belano, even in his forties, could be described as immature. He has cut his hair but he is still immature. He has a son but is still immature. He has grown up but is still immature. Adulthood proves a difficult task: How does the writer converse with a childlike imagination continually while actively resisting the illusions there?

True artists in Bolaño’s fiction exhibit a childlike seriousness of play but still pause at the terror of uncertainties. Giving up a promising future for the writing life takes a kind of confidence and courage Bolaño maintained his entire life despite mounting hardship. What really matters for the writer, according to Bolaño scholar and translator Chris Andrews, is “to lose oneself more fully in the construction of an imaginary world, as children often do in play, while using the written word to stabilize that construction over time.”

Loss of self is key to genius: children are at their most creative in the self-forgetfulness of play, complete with frights, and it is this forgoing of self that is frequently lost after the coming-of-age. We become caught in a kind of voyeurism, watching ourselves from a removed, safe distance, addicted to over-interpreting details that push us further from ourselves with every thought. Bolaño thinks that we must become exiles of our own head, like children, to truly create. And herein lies the genius of his fiction: we leave the home of our head.

Therefore, confidence for Bolaño is not synonymous with self-assurance. Confidence is not the certainty of achievement, nor the denial of fears. Consider Ulises Lima in The Savage Detectives, who, along with Arturo Belano, leads a revival of the “visceral-realist” movement among Mexico’s young poets: When a fictional Octavio Paz asks his secretary to compile a list of the most important visceral-realists, even among the hundreds of names, Ulises Lima is not included. Lima is a failure if recognition equals success. True success, for Lima and Bolaño, is a deep, concentrated effort to exile the writer’s mind, to disappear from the anxiety of success.

True success, for Lima and Bolaño, is a deep, concentrated effort to exile the writer’s mind, to disappear from the anxiety of success.

In the end, Bolaño employs fear, failure and exile together with his subtle admiration of life. He encourages artists to return to a child’s unfettered imagination. As he writes in his iconic novel 2666, “The truth is we never stop being children, terrible children covered with sores and knotty veins and tumors and age spots, but ultimately children, in other words we never stop clinging to life because we are life.”


Be sure to read this piece alongside Trevor Logan’s review of Monica Maristain’s new book Bolaño: A Biography in Conversations, published on Monday.

Roberto Bolaño: Never Kill a Child

“To be brave, knowing beforehand that youll be defeated, and to go out and fight: thats literature.” —Roberto Bolaño

Some years ago, while flipping through a British literary magazine, I did a double take at a visage that looked too much like my father’s. Have you ever lost someone whose image is so ingrained in your own mind that Mnemosyne, regardless of will and desire, is powerless to recall past time satisfyingly (being too near, that is, to ever gain the distance reflective memory requires), causing a kind of delirious self-doubt of self-and-other identity? Who were they? Who am I?

What I find happens in very rare moments is that a stranger, like a cosmic mirror or benign familial Platonic form, brings some obscure mannerism—glance of eye, facial contour or contortion, or, one could even say, spirit—of the lost one to the present and one simultaneously feels joy in the fragments of presence, sorrow in their absence (the phenomena, sadly, being only ever partial disclosures). Something like this happened as I flipped back to the photo of a worn and sick man in that literary magazine: it was a photograph of the great Latin American writer, Roberto Bolaño, with a cigarette wedged between thought and an index and middle finger, who seemed, at least in the first glimpse of the eye, to be my father.

The immediate intimacy the photo roused led me not initially to his fiction but to his interviews, which was probably a mistake: his thoughts, too, were strangely much like my father’s. Here are a couple excerpts from my favorite Bolaño interview given for Playboy Mexico with Monica Maristain:

MM: What is your motherland?

RB: I regret having to give a pretentious response. My children, Lautaro and Alexandra, are my only motherland. And perhaps, in the background, certain moments, certain streets, certain faces or scenes or books that are inside me and that some day I will forget—that is the best one can do for a motherland.


MM: Whom would you like to encounter in the hereafter? 

RB: I don’t believe in the hereafter. Were it to exist, I’d be surprised. I’d enroll immediately in some course Pascal would be teaching.

Personally, I have a difficult time not admiring a writer who, despite his atheism, had a great love for the luminescent genius of mathematician and Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal, placing the Pensées in his list of all-time favorite works. Take, for instance, this Pascal epigram from Bolaño’s Antwerp, which if ever there was a nutshell to contain the ambient feel of Bolaño’s works, this would be it:

“When I consider the brief span of my life absorbed into the eternity which precedes and will succeed it—memoria hospitis unius diei praetereuntis (remembrance of a guest who tarried but a day)—the small space I occupy and which I see swallowed up in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I know nothing and which know nothing of me, I take fright and am amazed to see myself here rather than there: there is no reason for me to be here rather than there, now rather than then. Who put me here? By whose command and act were this place and time allotted to me?

“Who put me here? By whose command and act were this place and time allotted to me?” Is this not the question an author’s creations pose back to their author? Is this not the very definition of great fiction: a writer being rewritten by those he writes into existence? A great writer erases the commonly accepted contradiction between reality and fiction, and suspends readers above the abyss of their own consciousness, both individual and collective—she disorientates to re-orientate anew. Reality is fiction being written by an other both intimately ourselves and not. That is, reality is manifested not simply as an objective representation of an external fact, nor is it merely a subjective web casting itself over an impenetrable external world; rather reality arises when subjective awareness touches the world of experience and transforms it into the reality of fiction. Fiction is the dithyramb of reality in our consciousness, it happens both passively to us and is simultaneously created by us. “Metaphors,” a character from his book 2666 says, “are our way of losing ourselves in semblances or treading water in a sea of seeming. In that sense a metaphor is like a life jacket.”

Bolaño’s characters are swallowed up in Pascal’s infinite spaces, both frightened and filled with wonder, searching to find the rhyme or reason they happen to be in this place rather than that place, learning to accept the chaos and pain from which they are conceived. Morini, in a Pascalian flourish from 2666:

“The pain, or the memory of pain, that here was literally sucked away by something nameless until only a void was left. The knowledge that this question was possible: pain that finally turns into emptiness. The knowledge that the same equation applied to everything, more or less.

Life, and the pain that weaves it: but the remembrance of a guest who tarried but a day. O fortuna! Her malfeasant respect for no one, her chaotic devotion to time and chance, convulsing misfortune upon us all, if not now and always, then, well, now and always. (The event of pain has a viral effect upon the past and future, a way of making it seem as if one has, and always will be, as Emily Dickinson said, in pain).

MM: What makes your jaw hurt laughing?

RB: The misfortunes of myself and others.

MM: What things make you cry?

RB: The same: the misfortunes of myself and others. 

Roberto Bolaño, most known for his two masterpieces, The Savage Detectives and 2666, received news at the age of 38 that he had an immune disorder that would quickly damage his liver beyond repair. He died on July 15, 2003, at the age of fifty, with his name in the two-spot for a liver transplant.

The last interview Bolaño ever gave was the one mentioned above in Playboy of July 2003 with Monica Maristain. Over a brief span of time, Maristain had struck up a friendship with Bolaño through correspondence and has recently published Bolaño: A Biography in Conversations, an interweaving of biographical narrative and numerous interviews with those who knew Bolaño in some fashion or another. One of the virtues of the book is that it very easily could have spawned hagiography, but it is more often tempered by interviews with those quite ambivalent about Bolaño, and even those who clearly loved Bolaño seem utterly honest with their memories and judgments of him. The result is a unique, mosaic biography of Bolaño: a man of contradictions, both farouche and loving.

One thing about Bolaño to which nearly everyone attested was his desire to push the novel into unprecedented directions. In the aftermath of his fame it’s easy to forget the pains that accompany anyone striving to do something great. They are generally laughed at and ridiculed for attempting something not easily fitted into the criteria of establishment critics. Whenever one breaks molds, Bolanõ noted in Playboy, one often breaks power structures as well:

“Those who have power—even for a short time—know nothing about literature; they are solely interested in power. I can be a clown to my readers, if I damn well please, but never to the powerful. It sounds a bit melodramatic. It sounds like the statement of an honest whore. But in short, that’s how it is.

Bolaño was willing to risk being a “wild writer” (too much energy and too many allusions, “all at constant peak,” as one critic said) if it meant he didn’t have to play “scribbler’s” games. “Scribblers,” as Felipe Rios Baeza, a professor at the Universidad de Puebla, describes:

“…any reader with a passing knowledge of Roberto Bolaño’s work can see a fundamental aspect of it: his great ethical and aesthetic sense of the office of writing. Ethical because on several occasions he said that any contact with political and economic power makes an apprentice writer a courtesan. Aesthetic, because he argued that legibility—the books you take to the beach, books that are easy to understand and have no critical or artistic depth—was something that helped to finance publishers but offered little critical meaning to readers…In summary, readability and prostitution produce hacks, simple receptacles for conventional techniques and subjects with which publishers attract mass readerships …[A] scribbler is someone who doesn’t take aesthetic risks, they repeat well-worn tropes… (Bolaño: A Biography in Conversations)

Such a comment may cause many to condemn Bolaño as an elitist. And here is the great paradox of our age: writers like Bolaño who don’t occupy the higher economic echelons of the culturati are generally possessed with—out of a certain kind of necessity—a stubborn and rigorous originality that is confused with elitism. (Historically, elitists have always expressed suspicion of genius arising from the lower, less formally educated classes. Take the suspicion of Shakespeare, as a general example.) Bolaño, though not deadbeat poor, certainly wasn’t afforded anything resembling the luxury of bourgeois social connections and capital; he simply wasn’t a member of the writerly class for whom success was a guarantee for the mere negative quality of being a not-bad writer. (Walk into most bookstores and you’ll find that many of the books published are by writers who are merely not bad. Their success is due to the elite social and economic class they happen to belong to.) Bolaño had to be great, there was no other way to survive as a writer. As a natural consequence Bolaño was laughed at and mocked for trying to be original. The elite didn’t understand him; he was too strange and not immediately categorizable. Adam Kirsch, describing Bolaño’s 2666, touches nicely upon this quality of Bolaño’s work:

“According to Proust, one proof that we are reading a major new writer is that his writing immediately strikes us as ugly. Only minor writers write beautifully, since they simply reflect back to us our preconceived notion of what beauty is; we have no problem understanding what they are up to, since we have seen it many times before. When a writer is truly original, his failure to be conventionally beautiful makes us see him, initially, as shapeless, awkward, or perverse. Only once we have learned how to read him do we realize that this ugliness is really a new, totally unexpected kind of beauty and that what seemed wrong in his writing is exactly what makes him great.

One inescapable and admirable fact revealed in Maristain’s book is Bolaño’s unequivocal love for children. For all the blood, sex, sweat, wickedness and violence redolent in Bolaño’s work, there is one deadly sin he refused to commit: killing off children.”The only thing that Roberto ever wanted to know about an unpublished book,” one friend says, “was whether a child died in it or not. He used to say that a writer should never kill a child in their book.” I credit this characteristic to some adamantine tenderness and love at the very heart of Bolaño, a quality that underlies everything in his work. Everything else is an accident (in the philosophical sense of not being its essence).

A central characteristic of Bolaño’s wisdom is to know the right people to chafe and the right people to love. Many great authors screw this up: they piss off those they ought to love and love those they ought to piss off. How many writers spent or spend their entire lives neglecting their children to gain the wily fleeting accolades of critics? As a father with two sons, and a son of a father who drank himself to death at a cruel 46 years, Bolaño sums up my fatherly soul:

“[O]ne could talk for hours about the relationship between a father and a son. The only clear thing is that a father has to be willing to be spat upon by his son as many times as the son wishes to do it. Even still the father will not have paid a tenth of what he owes because the son never asked to be born. If you brought him into this world, the least you can do is put up with whatever insult he wants to offer.

Bolaño, along with his fictional world, knew of only one great truth: Love conquers a multitude of sins. And it sufficed for his greatness.

MM: Have you ever believed you were going crazy? 

RB: Of course, but I was always saved by my sense of humor. I’d tell myself stories that made me crazy with laughter. Or I’d remember situations that made me roll on the ground laughing.

MM: Madness, death and love. Which of these three things have you had more of in your life?

RB: I hope with all of my heart that it was love. (Playboy)


Additional Links:

Visit the site Wednesday for Layne Hilyer’s reflection’s on the works of Roberto Bolaño as well.


I Know What You Read this Summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God

“What is in your mind?”~ C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces

On some ancient and melancholy eve in Athens, as the pomegranate sun began its ritual descent into the briny old sea of Mediterranean myth, a frail but strong wiry figure, bearing deep fault-lines upon his leathered forehead, climbed the steps of the Areios Pagus, Ares Rock. Here, in that tangerine ambience so peculiar to our star’s golden hour—that brief portent before twilight—he walked among altars to manifold gods when, with subtle pause and twinkling glance, his eye descried an altar engraved: “TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.” At the time no soul upon that lonely hill, the same hill Phryne’s beauty once outshone the world’s judgement, recognized the figure’s face. He was a mere shadow of a man, a shadow of things yet to come. Hence, initially, he made very little sense to his confused conversants. In hindsight, however, his unusually oracular words upon the rock of war have proven perhaps the most brilliant and influential articulation on the difference between God and the gods in all of history. The man was St. Paul.

Notice that Paul (see Acts 17) calls this unknown God of the philosophers neither idolatrous nor false. In fact, it is only the “known”gods, the purely immanent and finite deities, that Paul claims idolatrous to worship. The unknown God is true in the sense that it cannot be conceived merely as another finite god among gods; it cannot, in other words, be parsed out among the taxonomy of merely finite things nor circumscribed before the gaze of consciousness as either a subjective or objective reality. Rather the unknown God is the pure actuality of reality itself, neither a subjective nor objective phenomena but the very condition of their distinction.

Thus there is no “knowledge,” in the very narrow and modern sense of the word, of the unknown God. And neither does this God have existence in either the ideal or empirical sense of modern philosophy; that is, God is neither a regulatory hypothesis nor an empirical fact, a thing among things. Instead, this God is knowledge and existence itself, that which all finite knowledge and becoming lives and moves and has its being in. As Augustine put it in the Confessions: God is nearer and more intimate to myself than I am to myself while also infinitely beyond and qualitatively other than me. Hence the unknown God is unknown not only because God is qualitatively and absolutely transcendent of all finitude, but unknown precisely because God is so very near and intimately known in our every act of being and our consciousness of it—preventing us from bracketing it out of our experience, since it is the very possibility for experience and knowledge. It is too known to be known.

Indeed, the unknown God that Paul proclaims is known so well that we have all forgotten his most penetrating activity in all our experience. This characteristic—God’s infinite, unknowable mystery, and his infinite nearness to our each and every breath—accounts for both the feeling of his utter absence in one moment and his ever-present nearness in another. It is this double experience of God-forsakeness and presence that, according to Paul, opens the interval of creaturely freedom and divine providence so that we may freely seek the Lord, feel after him, and find him. Whether in dereliction or despair, or in the ecstasy and presence of his love—in either our atheism or in our faith—we inevitably, necessarily, experience the unknown God.

Philosophical introduction aside, Paul knew that any future articulation of Christ to the world would ultimately prove futile if first he did not speak of the unknown God. For Christ is the image and logic of the perfect harmony between infinite transcendence and infinite nearness, so unknown as to be fully God and so deeply known as to be the very face of our neighbor, the poor, the prostituted. Christ awakens the slumbering, unknown divine presence and spirit that sleeps in each man, each woman—as Terrence Malick so beautifully put it in To the Wonder. Christ, in other words, is the concrete experience of God in each and every act of humanity’s being, consciousness, and bliss. As Christian Wiman’s beautiful Into the Instants Bliss goes (a loose translation of a portion of Dante’s Paradiso):

Into the instant’s bliss never came one soul
Whose soul was not possessed by Christ,
Even in the eons Christ was not.

And still: some who cry the name of Christ
Live more remote from love
Than some who cry to the void they cannot name.

While David Bentley Hart’s newest book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, is not to be taken as an explicit work of Christology, it is a robust and stylistically scintillating footnote to St. Paul on the Areopagus; a paean to “the void they cannot name”, the experience of God that is—to borrow from Hopkin’s As Kingfishers Catch Fire“Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his.” Hart writes,

“Evidence for or against God, if it is there, saturates every moment of the experience of existence, every employment of reason, every act of consciousness, every encounter with the world around us.

Throughout the book Hart weaves in and out of the concepts of God articulated in the major religions of the world, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity. All of these traditions, Hart maintains, have an altar to the unknown God. Unfortunately, at least if one pays attention to the modern debates among fundamentalists of various stripes (including the new atheists), the traditional concept of God has been nearly forgotten. The result has been a circus of seemingly willful misunderstandings by all parties. All the while the really significant question of God is completely evaded by puerile caricatures of a subject that ought to demand our deepest reflections.

Much of the reason moderns can no longer take the question of God seriously is that we can no longer take the question of ourselves seriously.

Much of the reason moderns can no longer take the question of God seriously is that we can no longer take the question of ourselves seriously. Materialism’s arbitrary mantra of “just matter” blinds us to those strange epiphanies felt at the simple glimpse of our reflection in a mirror. Those moments when we realize that fairies and gods and monsters are no more difficult to believe in than the imaginations and consciousnesses that have invented them; the same imaginations, by the way, that have invented the mythology and criteria of what we consider to be “just matter.” Perhaps at times we even create these fabulously imaginary creatures—such as Materialists or Atheists—to evade the mystery of the most fabulous and imaginary creatures of all: ourselves. Or perhaps the greater truth is that we create, and are created by, mysterious mythologies as ways to remember the most splendorous mystery of all: the drama of human experience. The mirroring of being to consciousness and consciousness to being, the pas de deux of all human experience, is no longer intimately aware of its own abiding unities, abysses and mysteries. It is the contemporary oubliettes of being and consciousness, both guarded and imprisoned by the watchful dragons of a banal materialism, that Hart seeks to lead us beyond.

In those moments when we are most attuned and awake to the world, we become (as Wittgenstein liked to say) like the child who scribbles on a page with a pencil and turns to an adult and asks: What does this mean? The child intuitively presupposes the unity of being and consciousness. The child understands that all acts of consciousness are acts of intention in an infinite ocean of both actual and potential meaning. The scribbles and words are certainly not the same, but the child rightly sees the world as having a meaning to disclose; that even if aspects of the world may seem unintelligible, such a verdict can be reached only by assuming a more primordial backdrop of intelligibility manifest in the native ligature of being and consciousness.

The world, in its being perceived as a coherent world at all, is always and already intelligible and pregnant with a telos—even if that telos escapes one’s determinate knowledge of it.

The world, in its being perceived as a coherent world at all, is always and already intelligible and pregnant with a telos—even if that telos escapes one’s determinate knowledge of it. And so the child, when she looks at the world, assumes that she also sees with a world. Hart asks us: What is the nature of the world we see with? And does this world dance upon the threshold of time and eternity, opening upon horizons unfathomably infinite and blossoming within labyrinths of our everyday experience? The modern adult, intoxicated with the alchemy of turning signs into blind objects for manipulation, has forsaken the child’s ontology of art and replaced it with the banal egoisms of epistemological constructivism, relativism, and materialism. Thus Hart writes:

“I start from the conviction that many of the most important things we know are things we know before we can speak them; indeed, we know them—though with very little in the way of concepts to make them intelligible to us—even as children, and see them with the greatest immediacy when we look at them with the eyes of innocence.”

There are, Hart seems to say, harmonious penetralia structuring our conscious experience, myriad thresholds where familiar forms of both the material and psychical relations of our world cease to hold (as George MacDonald’s Lilith put it), forms shifting and turning inside-out our normal criteria of inside and out, giving glimpses into the infinite penumbra that is neither strictly material nor psychical but the conditional interval making possible consciousness’s distinction between the two at all. These conditions, however, cannot be known in and by themselves, they are like a face that never looks into a mirror, is never able to gain the distance detached observation requires. Regardless of how hard one tries to create that distance through self-conscious reflection, one is always departing from that same unknown abyss—the window of experience that can only look out but never in. And so we are tempted to disbelieve the face exists because we can never rip out our eyes and look upon it as a scientific object; or maybe we are simply frightened that behind the veiled abyss our consciousness departs from rests a Face not wholly our own. A Face untamable.

It may seem as if I’m painting Hart as what has traditionally been termed a philosophical idealist. But this would be far too easy and naive a label. For example, Jane Smiley, in her review of Hart’s book in Harpers, seems to interpret Hart as pitting matter against consciousness, accusing Hart of playing the God-of-the-gaps card in light of neuroscience’s current inability to explain consciousness:

“He [Hart] seems to believe consciousness is his ace in the hole—unexplainable by neuroscience. Subjectivity, he states, ‘cannot be denied without a swift descent into nonsense.’ I was reminded repeatedly of Werner Loewenstein’s Physics of the Mind, a persuasive model of how consciousness might have evolved in the quantum universe and a powerful argument against Hart’s assertion that ‘materialists’ cannot explain what he calls ‘subjective awareness.’

Dishearteningly, this isn’t the only hackneyed misapprehension Smiley peddles; nearly the entire review is an experiment in missing the point, a smorgasbord of confused concepts and inattention to subtleties and distinctions. The problem arises from the apparent fact that Smiley is a member of a certain community where doctrinal commitment to only one modality of causality—namely material—is a central and inflexible dogmatic article of faith; and therefore she can only conceive of one kind of explanation: the material. Once this article of faith has been accepted as the only criteria needed for explanation, and once material explanation has been presumed to be the only explanation required to fulfill the concept of explanation, well then, one has essentially a materialism-of-the-gaps: all evidence—subjective or objective—will be cleverly formed to fit within the structure of the reigning ideology.

Over a period of time this way of seeing things solidifies into an obstinate fossil and one becomes incapable of imagining the world otherwise. Its effect is akin to the fate of the concept of color should ever some calamitous biological mutation occur which entirely wiped out the human specie’s visual capabilities to recognize color, becoming capable of seeing only in black and white from here on out. As the generations waned, fierce debate would spawn about the legitimacy of those naive and mystical and irrational ancients who invented colors like they invented fairy tales and the supernatural.

Perhaps it’s even fair to say that Richard Dawkins would heroically step to the fore in such a world and write The Blue Delusion in response to William Gass’s On Being Blue: A Philosophical Enquiry. And the “blue” in Shakespeare’s “The lights burn blue. It is now dead midnight. Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh…” would be interpreted as some kind of outdated and unscientific and supernatural imputation on light. And whenever some poor irrational soul hinted at an experience of what he or she calls “blue,” or any other mysterious name for “color,” society would hiss and howl with charges of insanity. And then, in the twilight of a rational world, belief in color would be deemed culturally malign—a virus of the mind—a dangerous and inarticulate idea. Perusals of ancient literature would divulge myriad combinations of “red” with “bloody” and “blue” with “melancholy”, which would lead the a-colorists to the belief that “red” and “blue” cause violence and oppressive sadness. The analogy I’m trying to make, however imperfect, is that other modes of causality—such as Aristotle’s—have by no means been disproven by modern science, rather they’ve simply been forgotten, and, therefore, lost and foreign to our current conceptual grammar of experience.

Hart’s arguments and aperçu throughout his book are very much akin to Wittgenstein’s comment in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that “even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched.”

Hart’s arguments and aperçu throughout his book are very much akin to Wittgenstein’s comment in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that“even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched.” That is, just because some phenomena, such as subjective awareness, can be shown to be causally dependent in one mode and conception of causality—namely material—doesn’t logically entail that it is dependent in all other possible modes of causality as well. Unless one merely assumes, contrary to all experience, that there is only one mode of causality in the world. For example, Bach’s Goldberg Variations are certainly dependent upon the physics of sound and space and so on…but explaining the physics explains absolutely nothing about the intentionality—the subjective awareness itself—that actually created this masterpiece. And this is not because intentionality is any less real than the decidedly material, but perhaps because it is the very fulcrum our experience rests upon. This is why the age old skeptical question, “Can our minds know reality?,” is a kind of bewitchment. The question always and already assumes the affirmative. We simply assume that we would know what reality should and would look like if we so happened to stumble upon it, if we didn’t assume intentionality’s natural comportment to reality the question would be utterly meaningless.

The category and criteria of the real must be just as real as that which is said to fall within the criteria’s domain; and the seat of these criteria—its origin in our experience of existence—is in intentionality, the directedness of subjective awareness. Our subjective awareness itself can never merely be an object open for scientific investigation, rather it is the condition for our being able to investigate anything at all, scientific or otherwise. Let me purloin from Wittgenstein (if only to show that Hart is in a long line of great thinkers) again to illuminate the nature of intentional consciousness that Hart explores.

“Why can’t you be certain that someone is not pretending? — ‘because one cannot look into him.’— But if you could, what would you see there? —‘his secret thoughts.’ — But if he only utters them in Chinese — where do you look then? — ‘But I cannot be certain that he is uttering them truthfully!’ — But where do you have to look to find out whether he is uttering them truthfully? Even if I were now to hear everything that he is saying to himself, I would know as little what his words were referring to as if I read one sentence in the middle of a story. Even if I knew everything now going on within him, I still wouldn’t know, for example, to whom the names and images in his thought related…It’s only in particular cases that the inner is hidden from me, and in those cases it is not hidden because it is inner.”

Smiley seems to think that what Hart means by consciousness—his “ace in the hole”—is merely “inner”, and therefore hidden, in the sense of being tentatively resistant to scientific explanation because, like some mysterious subatomic particle, science has yet to gain access into its hidden and inner material depths. She doesn’t understand that consciousness’s intentionality is not hidden merely because it is inner in some spatio-temporal sense, but qualitatively different and hidden from anything science could ever possibly hope to explain.

The germination of our entire experience of existence arises from the soil of human intentionality, the soil wherein reality is primordially given, recollected and transformed. Hart is not far here from articulating what is meant in Soren Kierkegaaard’s metaphysics by “repetition”: “When ideality and reality touch each other, then repetition occurs.” Instead of the terms “ideality” and “reality” (which are somewhat misleading) Hart uses “consciousness” and “being.” Being is manifested through its repetition in consciousness, consciousness manifested through its repetition in being; the double movement of each into the other constitutes the event of their unity, the movement of intentionally.

Hart eloquently writes that,

“Being is transparent to mind; mind transparent to being; each is ‘fitted’ to the other, open to the other, at once containing and contained by the other. Each the mysterious glass in which the other shines, revealed not in itself but only in reflecting and being reflected by the other.”

All that Hart is saying is that when the major religions talk about the experience of God they mean something like the experience of the Real mentioned above, a necessary attunement to the very condition and possibility of any experience of existence at all. As the great Italian writer, Roberto Calasso, said in a Paris Review interview: “…we partake of something, which is the divine. The divine is that mysterious thing that you can totally ignore or that can more or less lead your life—what Plato called auto to theion. The gods come afterward.”

Years later, after stepping forth from the philosopher’s hill, Paul, with weary eyes and starved body, languishing in a Roman prison, wrote affectionately to his friends in Ephesus: “Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.” Prefacing each of the three parts of Hart’s book is the on-going story of a slumberer caught in the serpentine interims between sleeping and waking, illusion and reality. Its quality is Jorge Luis Borges meets St. Paul. At the moment, I’m at a loss for the right words to do it justice, so I’m going to pawn the task off to an old friend that Hart has written about elsewhere, Johann Georg Hamann (see Hart’s wonderful little essay The Laughter of the Philosophers):

“A man who lives in God stands, therefore, in the same relation to the ‘natural man’ as a waking man does to one who is snoring in a profound slumber—to a dreamer, a sleep walker…. A dreamer may have images more vivid than a man who is awake, may see more, hear and think more than he, may be conscious of himself, dream with more orderliness than a waking man thinks, may be the creator of new objects, of great events. Everything is true for him, and yet everything an illusion…. The question is whether it might in any way be possible for a waking man to convince a sleeper (so long as he sleeps) of the fact that he is asleep. No—even if God Himself would speak to him, He is obliged to dispatch in advance the authoritative word and bring it to pass: Awake, thou that sleepest!”

Between the sleeper and the awake, illusion and reality, — the interval that determines and differentiates one state of consciousness from another — lay the threshold of will and desire, the soul’s horizon: the place from which we chose the direction of our experience within experience, the route and root of our intentionality. Will we attend only to the oneiric objects of a fettered consciousness, the solitary prison of an illusory trick-of-the-light ego, the votary of the dreamy and dreary gods of materialism? Or should we attend to attending itself (with its infinite manifolds of act and potency), swim consciousness’s undercurrents, open and curious and honest to whatever may be discovered there, even if the nature of that discovery should happen to descry the surprise that in and beyond every act of our discovering we have always and already been discovered in the infinite, resounding song: “Awake, thou that sleepest”?


Featured image: Jean-Léon Gérôme, Phryne revealed before the Areopagus (1861)

Bearing New Images

Hayao Miyazaki’s films are some of the most charming in the short history of cinema. The heroes of his animated tales—Pazu in Castle in the Sky, Ashitaka in Princess Mononoke, and Princess Nausicaä in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind—adventure through richly imagined worlds, amongst spirits and gods, where the stakes are very high: love is tested by hate, good by evil, life by death. And despite their many obstacles and inner temptations, Miyazaki’s heroes choose rightly: Pazu embraces love, Ashitaka stands with good, and Nausicaä dies for life.

Turning Point is the second in a pair of memoirs by the author. More can be learnt about Starting Point 1979-1996 by following this link.

Through their triumphs, Miyazaki’s heroes are liberated. They soar—literally. All but two of his ten written and directed films feature an extended scene in which our heroes take flight, weave through the clouds, and ride the wind across a lush acrylic sky. One feels free when watching his films.

But Miyazaki himself is weighed down, overburdened and in despair. That’s the principal lesson of Turning Point: 1997-2008, a collection of translated interviews, public statements, essays, and panels on which Miyazaki sat, compiled from the years he directed Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Howl’s Moving Castle. The book offers “lessons” rather than “themes,” because there is a distinct lack of about-ness to it. Miyazaki’s public voice, chronologically ordered, roams to and fro and very far from his films. Even at events convened to explore them, he moves quickly to other subjects, often timely matters of public concern, and those subjects slide to talk of Japan’s cultural troubles. Eleven years of free-roaming conversation will reveal the bent of a man’s thoughts; the conversations collected in Turning Point capture Miyazaki deflecting talk of his films and hurrying to speak of Japan’s imminent demise.

Dimming the Children

While the troubles named are many, for Miyazaki, the greatest threat to Japan’s future is the systemic dulling of Japanese children. Their fate, Miyazaki avers, is to be made into “normal, boring adults.” But he means far more than “boring.” He fears Japanese children are dimmed by a culture of overconsumption, overprotection, utilitarian education, careerism, techno-industrialism, and a secularism that is swallowing Japan’s native animism. The play, imagination, and moral formation of children have been ceded to the sedations of digital gadgetry and—surprisingly, in light of his own profession—animation. Japanese children are formed in the womb of technology, says Miyazaki, and raised on the easy pleasures of Japanese comics and animated films:

“I’m part of a subculture that makes animated films. What we have done is to narrow down the world of children and fill that narrow sliver with this subculture. The television stays on all day long even in rural homes [just as in urban homes]. People’s lives have become filled with this subculture.

“This,” he adds, “is the source of the downfall of a people.” This is not hyperbole; seventy pages earlier, Miyazaki lamented that manga—Japanese comic books and graphic novels—have become the “common denominator” of the Japanese people. This is “the peril faced by Japanese culture.”

Spirited Away

Spirited Away

Downfall at the hands of cartoons and television seems alarmist, curmudgeonly, and, in light of Miyazaki’s own profession, self-centered. However strange this may be, on one point he is surely, but sadly, right: Japan is in peril. Indeed, it’s dying. In its 2013 survey of the sexual habits of Japanese, the Japan Family Planning Association (JFPA) discovered that a catastrophic number of Japanese teens and young adults, aged 16-24, have lost the desire for sex. A quarter of Japanese young men were “not interested in or despised sexual contact”; 45 percent of women reported the same. Not surprisingly, in 2012, fewer Japanese babies were born than in any other recorded year. The consequences are clear: JFPA director Dr. Kunio Kitamura warns that Japan will “perish into extinction.”

A Crisis of Desire

Japan’s crisis is perplexing. Countless explanations have been put forward—mostly economic, many social, none which fully satisfy. All agree, however, that “hopelessness” has extinguished the erotic drive of many young Japanese. The root of this hopelessness, observers frequently assert, is ongoing economic stagnation. Miyazaki does not address the erotic conditions of young Japanese directly in Turning Point, but he concerns himself with Japan’s interior life time and again, especially with how the imagery of Japanese pop culture and technological gadgets affects desire and disaffects Japanese from the world and one another. Where Miyazaki parts from his contemporaries is that his exploration does not give economics pride of place, even though he treats it with great seriousness. For Miyazaki, despite the 25 years of economic decline, the “critical” issue Japanese face is their passionate need of the synthetic and digital. This, he says, “is a bigger problem than all the economic chaos.”

According to Miyazaki, Japanese children lack a taste for the real and human and know little of the natural beauties of the world. He said:

“This was fated from the time when television, or manga, or video games, or even photo print clubs came to fill in something children had lost [a less restricted life, close to nature in the pre-war economy] and became more exciting than reality.

The desires of many—if not most or even all—Japanese children, Miyazaki believes, have been hollowed, stretched, inflated for the false, and, thus, deflated for the true. The beauty of woman for man and man for woman, especially, has been supplanted by the cartoonish, pornographic, robotic, and monstrous. This is what he meant when he called animated films “the source of the downfall of a people.”


According to Web Japan, a Japanese information website, manga accounts for “36% of the volume of all books and magazines sold in Japan,” an astronomically high share of the market. And their stylings have stretched far into other mediums, deeply influencing even the content of novels, making manga, as Miyazaki put it, “no longer a subculture,” but, rather, “the originator of culture.” In Japan, manga imagery is ubiquitous—advertising, television, social media, toys, public festivals, conventions, and social groups—and travels with you via smart phones, tablets, handheld videogames, and countless other portable gadgets. “Everything,” Miyazaki said, “has become insubstantial and mangalike.”

Hoping for Reality

Miyazaki recounts this to his own great shame. An extraordinary 96 percent of Japanese have seen one of his films. His fear is that he is greatly responsible for the fantasia of Japanese life. His hope, on the other hand, is that his films illuminate what others make dark. Miyazaki’s ambition is to make realist films that urge children toward reality. He, for instance, described his film Spirited Away—about a ten-year-old Japanese girl, whose quest is to land a job from a witch who owns a bathhouse for tired spirits—as an attempt to “trace the reality in which ten-year-old girls live.” But with all the frog people, sentient soot, and ten-foot babies, what could such a reality be?

Much as it appears. Miyazaki is an animistic pagan living among a world of spiritual essences—beasts, insects, plants, trees, rocks, and the wind are ensouled—where the forest groves and deep waters are home to the gods. At least, that’s how he styles himself.

His animism may explain the content of his films, but not necessarily his approach to film craft. His criticisms of Japanese culture and the manga industry offer a better starting point. The largest problem facing the manga industry is that the people running it are anime fanatics, known as otaku in Japan. These “sickly otaku types,” as Miyazaki called them, were reared on manga and Japanimation, and developed an inordinate desire for them—their shape, scale, motion, symbols, and narrative tropes. Such children, “locked in [manga’s] own enclosed world,” became illustrators themselves, reinforcing the enclosure. With their arrival in the industry, characters became boxier, eyes ballooned, and, to be frank, breasts grew larger. The expressiveness of the manga industry was further attenuated, a cycle that cheapens and thins the general taste of Japanese society. These otaku, “raised amidst the clamor,” Miyazaki said, “probably can’t be the flag bearers for new images.”

Bearing New Images

To bear “new images,” to make films that liberate, the filmmaker must himself be liberated, free of the customs of the genre. That’s why Miyazaki frequently stresses that he does not “watch film at all” and describes his own career as an ongoing effort to escape the yoke of his great forebear, Osamu Tezuka, the father of manga, creator of Astro Boy, and Miyazaki’s greatest influence. That’s also why he strongly urges that, if an illustrator is to spur audiences to seek and love the world, he must himself be filled with its riches. That is, he must gain an intelligent understanding of it by cultivating “a constant interest in customs, history, architecture, and all sorts of things.” Otherwise, he “can’t direct.” And if he doesn’t have time to study, he must “look carefully at what is right in front of [him].” If he fails to do so, no matter what he makes, “it turns out to be a film we’ve seen somewhere, or something we’ve seen in manga.”

That’s also why he strongly urges that, if an illustrator is to spur audiences to seek and love the world, he must himself be filled with its riches.

Unlike most of today’s major directors, there is nothing counterfeit about Miyazaki’s work. His films have an inner clarity and beauty that few others achieve. Yet they are frequently wrapped in mystery, ambiguity, and confusion. And purposely so. Miyazaki not only fills his films with the treasures of intellectual study, he also refuses to over-clarify them. As he said of his epic Princess Mononoke, “I made this film fully realizing that it was complex…If one depicts the world so that it can be figured out or understood, the world becomes small and shabby.” To truly mirror the world, he makes his films difficult to understand, because “there are so many things in the world that we don’t understand.” If a film answers all the questions it raises, after all, one need not search beyond it. Miyazaki’s films stretch into the world and require things of it for their completion, say, a conversation with friends, a hike through the woods, a fear of the gods, or even a childlike innocence.

“If one depicts the world so that it can be figured out or understood, the world becomes small and shabby.”

When reading Turning Point, the burden of synthesis lies with the reader. For that reason, despite its evident charms, I cannot recommend it, except to would-be biographers or critics. As much as one can glean from the book about Miyazaki’s craft (and much more can be mined from it than I have), his thoughts move most naturally towards Japan. That, the book makes clear, is where his heart is—and not with his films. This, paradoxically, is one of the keys to their greatness. His films are not about his ego or even the art of film. They climb for far higher reaches.

What becomes of Japan, only time will tell. But I hope along with Miyazaki that his films do spur Japanese children to seek a better, realer happiness. As Miyazaki said, “All I can do is to create films that help children feel glad they have been born.” That is all his films ever do. And that is no small thing.


Christ the Whore


“What the hell am I thinking about?”—Raskolnikov, Crime and Punishment 

I’ve been reading through Oliver Ready’s new translation of Dostoyevsky’s classic Crime and Punishment. Usually I’m a bit skeptical of the marketing campaigns accompanying new translations, which are often “new” only in the sense of piquing our constant infatuation with novelty rather than “new” in any actual quality of the translation. But Ready’s work is of substantial and superb quality, especially when it comes to capturing Dostoevsky’s shrewd metaphors for the structure of human consciousness: its dark, coffin-shaped garrets, its many rooms and streets and thresholds, each holding out different avenues and possibilities for action, often contradictory in nature. Take Ready’s rendition of the book’s first sentence: “In early July, in exceptional heat, towards evening, a young man left the garret he was renting in S——-y lane, stepped outside, and slowly, as if in two minds, set off towards K——-n Bridge.” Compare Ready’s “as if in two minds” with Peaver and Volokhonsky’s “as if indecisively”; or Constance Garnett’s “as though in hesitation”. Ready’s version portrays more viscerally and vividly the contradictory nature of Raskolnikov’s consciousness. A man lives and moves not in one unified mind experiencing hesitation and indecision, but rather in two contradictory and warring minds. With this simple subtlety Ready evokes the crux of Crime and Punishment with more power than the previous translators have, maintaining this quality throughout the novel with an enviably raw economy of prose.

I could go on tediously comparing and contrasting, but I won’t. And a traditional didactic review of the story makes little sense for a novel so old and widely read. Instead I’ll offer a reflection, a brief Dostoevskian pensee.

I was struck, frightened, by Raskolnikov’s serpentine movements of thought, how two contrary movements collide head-on at unnerving speed from two equally mysterious abysses of unknown motives, his world defined by the cocktail of their collision. How prescient this young man is for us today, how deeply he resides in my very own heart. He bears the despair and claustrophobia and bewilderment of being unable to act meaningfully in the world, due in part to the perpetual anxiety caused by destitution and loneliness and loss of faith. It is chilling to think of the desperate acts we’ll succumb to for the faintest succor when all social and metaphysical reservoirs for virtuous action have been drained away, leaving only desperate assays of proof we can still act at all. We must prove to the “system” that oppresses us that we are free human beings—even if that proof manifests itself in the bare minimum of human intentionality—as opposed to merely cogs in the mechanistic mammon machine of capitalism.

How these desperate acts to validate our existence play out in our societies are myriad: drugs, prostitution, theft, violence and so on. The quixotic display of “will to power” or the slow suicides of drug and alcohol and sexual abuse. In Crime and Punishment, Marmelodov drinks life away, while Sonya gets a “yellow ticket” (a license for prostitution in 20th century Russia) to support her family. Raskolnikov choses the wily will to power to prove he can act, affect reality, by murder. Raskolnikov proves he is alive through the power to take life away: Will I really—I mean, really—actually take an axe, start bashing her on the head, smash her skull to pieces? Will I really slip in sticky, warm blood, force the lock, steal, tremble, hide, all soaked in blood…axe in hand? Lord, will I really? The desperate act of murder is for Raskolnikov the only way to partake in the real — hence the repetition of “really”.

But, of course, the psychological genius of Dostoyevsky is that murder only plunges Raskolnikov further into the realm of unreality and illusion to the point where he seems (very much like Kit in Terrence Malick’s masterful Badlands) as if he never acted out the murder to begin with, as if now there were no longer even such mysterious things as people to murder in the first place: “Oblivion had come over him”.

Contrary to Raskolnikov’s violence, with its consequence of solipsistic unreality, is the faith and self-emptying humility of the prostitute Sonya Semyonovna—a name derived from Sophia, which means, fittingly and significantly, Divine Wisdom—that brings him to the really Real of the divine and human Christ. As philosopher David Bentley Hart (ventriloquizing Charles Baudelaire) put it:

“…when social order is the regime of mechanism, of bodies without souls, of the market, of materialist prudence—when this is decency, is respectability—then transgression becomes a necessary piety. And, in such a world, it is the prostitute—the rejected and reviled, the suffering servant of an age that knows no sin and seeks no expiation—who corrupts the logic of acquisition and consumption with the subversive possibility of a tenderness that exceeds the price remitted; thereby she becomes the emblem of the holy, the sign of love’s patient vulnerability. How often I was considered most blasphemous when, in truth, I could scarcely have been more devout…But you must see that God himself is the most prostituted of us all, since he is the highest friend of all, the most shared in common, the inexhaustible reservoir of love. Here, where all is sold and nothing given, love can find us only by the supreme condescension of selling itself, of divesting itself of its glory and descending into the brothels of our hearts, where all our loves are purchased loves, thus taking us unawares precisely where our lust reigns supreme. Christ kept company with harlots out of the abundance of his compassion, yes, but also perhaps because he found them holier—more blameless—than the righteous. And was not the dereliction of the cross like the self-abnegation of a lupanar? Was it not there that God gave himself—sold himself cheaply—to those who could not hope to win his love, requiring nothing in return but the paltriest pittance of their faith?”

These themes permeate much of Dostoevsky’s work, but they find their most potent expression in Crime and Punishments Sonya, who is, perhaps, the strongest Christ-like figure in Dostoevsky’s oeuvre.

But of course Dostoevsky is elaborating upon a long Christian tradition. Whether it be the harlot Rahab honored for her faith, or Hosea’s love and union with the whore Gomer, or Christ’s tenderness with the women caught in adultery, there is a deep reckoning with the perennial human desire to give oneself up completely to something that promises, however misguided, to bring comfort to a life filled with sorrow. Christianity recognizes the search to be saved as a fundamental virtue, regardless if at the moment it involves sin, simply because it involves a fundamental religious sensibility that one’s existence is not wholly self-sufficient but in need of some unmerited gift or grace.

It was this whoring essence of Christianity that Nietzsche, Dostoevsky’s malignant double, despised. Its obsession with the poor and oppressed, ‘the least of these’, instead of the greatest, the strong Greek hero. Its ridiculous rejection of fate, Nietzsche’s amor fati, for the virtue of hope. Its licentious forgiveness of all and everything, the perverse maxim that love covers a multitude of sins… But most monstrous of all Christianity’s transgressions against everything great in man is its abhorrent doctrine of the incarnation, the fully God and fully man Jesus.

Nietzsche’s revulsion has little to do with the idea of God become man. (This is, after all, basically what Nietzsche’s Übermensch, along with the modern secular humanist, is trying to fabricate.) Rather it was who it was that Christianity claimed to be God that earned his repugnance. Namely, a poor and weak Jewish outcast: God come in the form of a slave, dying a criminal’s death, carouser with whores and drunkards. (Dostoevsky wrestles with this doctrine for his whole life, both as a skeptic and believer; it is also the cause behind his later infatuation with Holbein’s painting, The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, which inspired both intense doubt and awe.) In a world that worships money and power and fame, it is very difficult to take serious a doctrine that identifies God himself not with society’s affluent, but as a poor, wandering, homeless lamb; a “man of sorrows”, despised and fattened for the slaughter-house power structures of each and every age.


That the most powerful Being beyond all beings—God, the Creator of all—found his image most perfectly expressed in the form of a slave, the weakest in society, is already hard enough to accept; but the doctrine that the rejection of the poor and the hungry and imprisoned in our midst is akin to rejecting God, one’s very Maker himself? Why is it that when Christ speaks of hell, the context is a rich man who neglected the weak, a rich man who made hell on earth for the poor? “What is hell?”, Dostoevsky writes in the Brothers Karamazov, “I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.”

How could such an idea ever appeal to a world enthralled with the idea of the divinity of Mammon? Thankfully, Dostoevsky thought otherwise. And what a pleasure it is to see Oliver Ready’s new translation bring renewed power to one of the world’s greatest works of fiction.

Second Chances: Part Two

The first portion of this review was published on Monday, June 2.

With all due respect to the strengths of Patricia Smith’s Teahouse of the Almighty, Blood Dazzler exists on a different plane. Encountering it, it felt less like a collection of poems and some instantly authoritative monument of heartache and fortitude. I still cannot believe I forgot it three years ago. Smith dedicates her book to family members and also to “the people of the Gulf Coast, who redefined faith.” The arc of the volume is chronological. The first poem’s title is like a dateline, “5 p.m., Tuesday, August 23, 2005,” which features an epigraph of the National Hurricane Center’s first description of the “broad low pressure area over the southeastern Bahamas,” the tropical depression that would eventually become Katrina. Right away, we have a sense of excruciating hours and days passing under sentence and governed by a dark providence, as in Thomas Hardy’s great Titanic poem, “The Convergence of the Twain.”

That said, to put it more precisely, there is a sense in which time ends when Katrina moves ashore―the dated titles cease after “10:30 a.m., Sunday, August 28, 2005,” a third of the way through the book. Still, that move from anticipation and anxiety into the destruction of the storm and the dystopian aftermath, in New Orleans particularly, makes Smith’s book akin to documentaries such as Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, or Tia Lessin’s less known but powerful Trouble the Water. Lee’s film features the numerous visual indictments you would expect, both symbolic and grimly material―images of tattered American flags, bodies floating face down in the water. One body lies just outside of the Superdome, and remains there days later. Yet this film’s less expected power resides in some of its details: the operator telling residents that 911 was “not taking any calls.”

Smith’s Blood Dazzler is full of those kinds of details, the lived-through things happening in the shadow of the televised villain-boobs (Michael Brown) and the instant icons (the Superdome and the vile conditions there). She renders the small, horrid images as well: “‘H-E-L-p’ in an oak tree, knifed in fever” or “Some mamma’s body, gaseous, a dimming star splayed / and so gently spinning, . . . collides sloppily with mattresses, power lines.” That said, the dramas of voices are more memorable. “What to Tweak,” for example, opens with an email from a FEMA employee in New Orleans to Brown, the employee’s boss and FEMA’s head: Sir, I know that you know that the situation is past critical. Here are some things you might not know.

The poet then provides a harrowing list:

“The word river doesn’t know edges. . . . There’s a Chevy growing in that tree. . . . So many people are thirsty . . . A kid breathes wet against my thigh. / He calls me father.” The list soon turns to “solutions” or “advice” in a more satirical mode: “consider detention, / throw them some cash from a bag . . . Try not to breathe them, fan them with cardboard, / say that their houses will rise. . . .  Say help is coming, say help is coming / then say that help’s running late.”

The poem’s last line is Brown’s reply: Anything specific I need to do / or tweak? The following short poem, “Michael Brown,” is a portrait of tragic veneer, transforming the director into a Gulf-Coast Pontius Pilate.

Smith first gives a poet’s assessment of the blunt fact of nature that is a hurricane. In various poems she personifies Katrina (“Every woman harbors a chaos”), and focuses on its name―how the “hard K” steels the storm, or in the hurricane’s own words, “how suddenly and surely it grants me / pulse, petulance.” Good writers in any discipline will give attention to this dimension, the language and wording of our catastrophes. Douglas Brinkley, in his important, historian’s first-go, The Great Deluge, explains how he and his family found themselves witnessing from a high-rise that the “whitecapped Mississippi River was roaring backward” on August 29, 2005. They would have fled, Brinkley muses, if the hurricane had had a name more menacing than Katrina, which brought to his mind “whimsical images of a Gaelic ballad or a Vegas cocktail waitress.” He had a friend named Katrina, and so, “There was no menace in the echo.”

Other poems by Smith give voice to those, like Brinkley, about to confront the hurricane, as in “Man on TV Say”: “Go. He say it simple, gray eyes straight on and watered, /… / Get on out. Can’t he see that our bodies / are just our bodies, tied to what we know?” It may seem like an easy decision, seen from a TV in Chicago, but it was not simple, having to leave “my grandfather’s house,” or “my thin wood, spidered pane.” We meet the recurring character of Luther B, a dog tied to a cypress. There is something here like the neglected hound Argos in Homer’s Odyssey. A sense of an author knowing full well the sentimental risks―“I know this is a sad-dog story, but I’m still going to make you face it, and it’s going to ruin you.” It should be said, too, lest I mislead, that the Luther B poems, or ones featuring Miss Thang or other speakers, also capture to great effect the gaudy energy of New Orleans, even one convulsing under storm siege and its attendant destructions. These voices conjure a glorious, indecorous past, the New Orleans of Lulu White the Queen of Storyville, the Fair Pay Saloon, Big Casino, Martha Clark, Queen Emmette, Josephine Ice Box, Minnie Ha-Ha, anything decadent or “Parisian.” Smith may not mention these illicit personalities by name, but their ghostly defiance is palpable throughout the book.

This defiance often finds its sharpest articulation in the politically denunciatory poems here, as in the “Michael Brown” portrait above. These poems are not hot-headed or ireful, but rather quiet, calculated, emotionally opaque. And in that distance, they are the more condemning. In “Gettin’ His Twang On,” President George W. Bush plays guitar with a country singer on the afternoon of August 30, 2005. He appears to have one of those stiff, alien-possessed bodies that clump around in Men in Black: “his stance ossifying, his dead eyes fixed / on the numb escaping chord.” He inhabits what seems a country-western opium den, slow motion and full of flash-bulbs and spurious laughter, “And in the Ninth, a choking woman wails / Looks like this country done left me for dead.”

The most striking of these poems, “The President Flies Over,” is spoken by the Commander in Chief, in an emotionally uncomprehending voice, at every turn revealing the distance and privilege by which he governs. “Aloft between heaven and them,” the poem begins with its terrible antithesis. He views Katrina’s destruction from the air, and declares, “This is my / country as it was gifted me— victimless, vast.” Bush is, finally, untouchable, and profoundly untouched by events: “I don’t ever have to come down. / I can stay hooked to heaven, / dictating this blandness.” Echoing Brown’s voice above, that casual tone of total disconnect, the poem ends, “I understand that somewhere it has rained.” George W. Bush recalls Katrina in his memoir Decision Points: “Five years later, I can barely write those words without feeling disgust,” speaking of insinuations that the government was negligent because the majority of citizens in distress were black. Some will hear a Freudian slip in the choice of phrasing there, and the author of “The President Flies Over” most certainly would redirect that sense of disgust. Elsewhere Smith finds an epigraph in a comment by the President’s mother Barbara Bush, herself a former First Lady: “And so many of the people here in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway,” she says of Katrina refugees in Houston, “so this—this is working very well for them.”

Other government officials, Michael Chertoff, escape Smith’s lyrical comeuppance. Poems such as these, and having to reencounter Katrina in any form, prevent us from forming our own diving bells of isolation or sliding into the emotional distance and narrowness of the sky ride. And what is unbearable for the storm’s victims to face may be something the rest of us cannot afford to overlook. As Smith writes in a late poem in Blood Dazzler, about the “diversions” of skirts and work shirts and decapitated dolls in the water, “You will lock your fractured heart upon them, / because what you will see next / will hurt you long and aloud.”

Smith shows a technical daring throughout Blood Dazzler, striking lineation here, a ghazal form there, or “Ethel’s Sestina,” spoken by an elderly woman whose son was forced to leave her to die at the New Orleans Convention Center. (She sat for days there, still in her wheelchair.) More ambitiously, “34” provides a section for each of the thirty-four nursing-home residents found drowned in one facility in St Bernard’s Parish. Flood waters reached the roof of that home on August 29. “Wait with me. / Watch me sleep in this room / that looks so much like night.” It is as if the poet’s diverse tools are being flung wide to try to capture better a piece of this huge thing. Some poems recount the breaking of the levees in New Orleans with apocalyptic edge― “heaven’s seam splitting” ―and some describe evacuations with brutal, phrase-fused breathlessness: “Water the dark hue of anger now laps at the feet you can’t stand on.” Following poems describe looting, voodoo chants or the trials at the Superdome, conveyed in the voice of that stadium: “I was never their church, although I disguised myself as shelter / and relentlessly tested their faith.”

Smith continues to be a powerful advocate on behalf of the country’s forgotten or downtrodden voices, no matter the genre: Check out, for example, her harrowing narrative in a Best American Essays volume a few years ago. The last poems in Blood Dazzler follow survivors in their displacement: an instantly recognizable “Katrina girl” with “her donated denims too snug / too not-hers” for example, and maybe these are the book’s most important poems, insofar as they remind us of lasting consequences or give a human scale (if not with justice’s scales) to disproportionate aid or lack of assistance for or attention to the Gulf Coast, to New Orleans’ dramatic decrease in population―29 percent overall, and especially so in the Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East.

Other Katrina-related books now deserve mentioning―Cynthia Hogue’s interview-poems in When the Water Came: Evacuees of Hurricane Katrina, Tom Piazza’s Why New Orleans Matters, Keith Spera’s Groove Interrupted: Loss, Renewal, and the Music of New Orleans―and other titles have now appeared since I first encountered and remembered these. It is the writer’s duty to give expression to and render judgment upon events of our history, whether remote or recent. Their work contributes to the making of something graspable, retrievable, for personal and national memory. To fulfill this duty is to render a gift, too, either of healing or understanding, for those who endured a historic storm such as Katrina and its nearly inconceivable aftermath, and for those who were not there, but who in certain fundamental ways need to think and act as if they were. Poetry, in its tiny ways, can sometimes make such solidarity possible.

Second Chances

Many pleasures accompany book reviewing, but occasionally some heartaches arise as well, even if relatively small ones. For example, at the end of the year, three years ago, I was invited to write a short feature on some memorable poets and poetry titles of 2010. Discussing recent writing on Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast, I singled out the Pulitzer-winning poet Natasha Tretheway’s prose meditation on the region of her youth, and a powerful collection of poems by Martha Serpas. I had another book vaguely in the back of my mind, but I never quite identified it, and so left it out. Then, eventually, I remembered . . . and I felt DUMB for having overlooked it in the first place, or worse, for knowing I was overlooking something and never overcoming the overlooking, despite the painful cognition that I was doing so. You following me so far?

So I would like to use this essay and this forum to correct that oversight, first of all. The book is by Patricia Smith, whose latest poetry collection, Shoulda Been Jimmi Savannah, was published last year. The earlier book now firmly in my mind, however, is the 2008 National Book Award-finalist Blood Dazzler. Its cover features a giant Doppler-radar image of the category-five hurricane making landfall at New Orleans. It is a collection still worth knowing of and encountering, even if this reviewer missed his chance to say so the first time. Second of all, it is such a powerfully political collection of poems, among other things, that it may help us think more sensitively about this kind of poem, and to appreciate better poems that combine, in ways only poems can, the political or even prophetic mode with the attentive eye to natural details and human conditions— suffering, endurance, fury, joy. Poetry is hardly the first medium people think of when they think of political will, or power, but the awareness that certain poems impart to us is unique, and can be uniquely forceful as cultural expression―as a record for the time, or reckoning of the times.

Let me tell you how I finally came to remember Smith’s great book. I guess I cannot in good faith call it “unforgettable,” in my personal case, but it deserves to be described as such, a book reviewer’s limitations and imperfections notwithstanding. Blood Dazzler returned to me, instantly, as soon as I was experiencing Chicago’s own version of weather weirdness and storm anticipation three winters ago, just before we experienced what would soon be known as The Blizzard of ’11. I quickly wish to clarify that I intend no comparisons between these phenomena, between the blizzard here and the hurricane of August 2005, which created conditions that caused almost unfathomable loss of life, and levels of destruction and experiences of deprivation or dehumanization likewise hard to fathom.

Here’s the difference: when the snow began to fall heavily, I retreated home and waited out the snowfall, and the resulting stasis, and confusion, and shutdown, in comfort and even with a welcomed sort of excitement. I remember the onset of the storm vividly. On that Tuesday morning, I said farewell to a friend who was driving down to St. Louis to catch a flight back to sunny LA. “You better hurry,” I said, “or you’ll be stuck for a few days.” I spent the afternoon grading papers in a nearby public library, and by then the snow was really beginning to fall. Before I left the library, my friend called to say he’d made it home smoothly; he was currently standing at the Burbank Airport, at the outdoor baggage carousel. How different his location was from here! And how different were Chicago’s sunny, late-August days six years ago, compared with the Gulf Coast’s storm horrors. America’s regions, its very neighborhoods, are different universes.

Yet as I packed up, fearing the roads might already be turning treacherous, I was getting some glimpse, feeling a twitch, of an experience fortunately foreign to me. I had a strong impression of this huge, sustained force outside and all around me, revving up and rolling in to our region. I pictured it, even as the snow fell downward with increasing intensity, as a huge, slowly-moving avalanche, rumbling across the plains and about to bury Chicagoland. Like the Doppler image on Smith’s book. A white hurricane. That feeling of expectation, and inevitability, was intense too. I thought of Christian Wiman’s line in a poem in Every Riven Thing: “A cellular stillness, as of some huge attention / bearing down.” And yes, with an instant recall and clarity, I connected that current feeling with the effect that Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler had previously had upon me, when confronted with a lyrical testimony, or even with the thing itself, encountered in that vicarious way (yet genuinely) that makes the reading of strong writing so magical.

But first, let me finish my comparison, which ultimately needs to be a contrast. On the night of the Chicago Blizzard, I and my family enjoyed a “novelty” evening of everyone remaining inside together―no practices, no scout meetings, no trips to the store or office. I started a fire, and the snow, falling furiously by dinnertime, looked beautiful in the porch light. I don’t want to minimize the storm’s hostilities, and even its fatalities. Several Chicagoans were killed in the storm, either involved in weather-related traffic accidents, or dying the next day from heart attacks while shoveling massive pile-ups of snow from driveways. Lake Shore Drive, that iconic stretch of road between the city’s skyline and Lake Michigan, in particular looked apocalyptically forlorn, like something out of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Traffic that night was moving so slowly, and the snow drifted so quickly, pushed around by 70-mph gusts, that motorists had to abandon their vehicles and seek roadside emergency assistance. That major highway became a car sepulcher. “It was brutally cold, the wind was terrifying and it was still dark,” recalled one Chicago Tribune photographer.

People were running out of gas. Some worried about freezing―here in the heart of Chicago. There were some scenes of derring-do and good will: Groups of passengers helped to push stuck or abandoned cars from exit ramps, while someone living in a nearby high-rise brought Gatorade and cereal bars. The scene was like a bleak winter rapture. In the end, the ’11 blizzard threw more than twenty inches of snow on Chicago, just shy of the 1967 record of 23 inches.

Nevertheless, let’s keep things in perspective. A blizzard can be severe, but a hurricane’s energy equates with a ten-megaton nuclear bomb exploding―one every twenty minutes. It’s true, Chicagoans have a habit of being insensitive to weather elsewhere, and that’s putting it lightly. (Fans at Soldier Field, when the Chicago Bears played the New Orleans Saints in a conference championship game in 2007, held up signs like “Bears Finishing What Katrina Started.”) Therefore I mean only the remotest of comparisons. What I mean is, unmistakably there arose a sense of a similar feeling, a sympathy sharpened by a swiftly developing, unavoidable weather event that brought back Smith’s poems into my ken.

Well, let me at last say a little about Smith, who is also an author of children’s books and four-time national poetry slam champion, besides being an increasingly prominent American poet in general. Her earlier book, Teahouse of the Almighty, prepared me for some of the strategies and themes of Blood Dazzler. There we find poems that face the world and demand to answer back―one about an Iraq-war widow, ones featuring Chilean political dissenters, or Nigerian women protesting against Texaco. Various poems begin with epigraphs taken from AP stories, and another, which may helpfully frame Smith’s own compulsion of compassionate attention, introduces the invisible or hostile figures in her poems with Mother Teresa’s words: “Every day I see Jesus Christ in all His distressing disguises.” There is also present an affection for a region and its people, one that would soon be devastated: “delta teach me fatback, / skillet bread, hogshead, / alaga, drive me crazy with / warm grease, fatten me up” . . . The book’s line that most points to her coming Hurricane Katrina testament invokes one of her great predecessors among social-protest poets: “Gwen Brooks hissed Follow. We had no choice.”


Please come back Wednesday for the second-half of this review. 

On Wallace Stegner’s Advice and the Blogosphere

I signed up for a book proposal workshop at the recent Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College. I’ve been working on an idea for a couple of years now. I thought I was “this close” (fingers pinched closely together) to delivering a little piece of me to agents and editors. The workshop would be a final bit of encouragement.

After the two-hour session, though, I realized I am “this far” (hands stretched widely apart) from not just submitting a proposal but actually writing it. I wasn’t worried about sample chapters, and I’ve been doing research on other books covering the same topics. I even have a short list of potential agents and editors to contact. I’m stuck on the one section of the proposal that I don’t have an answer to. Audience.

I have no idea who I am writing for.

“Your kind of writer has never spoken to a large audience except over a long stretch of time, and I would not advise you to pin too much hope even on posterity,” wrote the great writer of the American West, Wallace Stegner, in a November 1, 1959, Atlantic Monthly essay, “To a Young Writer.”

Stegner wrote the letter responding to a former student, answering the “practical matters” about which the student wrote, and addressing the student’s apparent purpose, “a need for reassurance.”

While Stegner had no trouble affirming to the writer that “you indeed are good,” his greater goal seems to be a warning. To Stegner, pursuing an audience and the rewards of authorship—security, fame, confidence, and so many others—threatens the writing.

“The moment you start consciously writing for an audience you begin wondering if you are saying what the audience wants or expects,” Stegner says. He distinguishes between the solitary reader, who sits alone relishing the words, and an audience, operating en masse and demanding things like “sensationalism, violence, shock, sentiment, sex, or Great Issues.”

A mass audience may eschew writing that doesn’t satisfy its desires, bypassing some work in favor of others. Not the solitary reader: “the peculiar virtue of this audience is that it leaves up to you what should be said,” Stegner writes.

“Except for vaguely imagining him and hoping he is there, ignore [the reader], do not write what you think he would like. Write what you like,” Stegner implores.

“When your book is published you will have a letter from at least one of him, perhaps from as many as twenty or thirty of him. With luck, as other books come on his numbers will grow. But to you he will always be a solitary reader, an ear, not an audience.”

But who is this solitary reader for whom we write? Do we owe him nothing more than being true to ourselves?

At another Festival session, a panel of writers, editors, publishers, and agents talked about the current state of the publishing industry. One of the panel members strongly appealed to the audience to buy books and review the work of other authors for the good of the entire word industry. Another panel member, an editor and poet, suggested that every audience member should subscribe to a literary journal. The other panel members agreed.

Later, an audience member responded by asking whether this type of thinking created a kind of inbred system where writers write only for themselves.

Their answer amounted to a firm maybe. The panel members were resigned to the idea that if writers don’t buy published or printed works, if they don’t commit their own money to books and journals and magazines, how could they expect anyone else to?

I left the session wondering: is that who I write for? Myself? Not just me, in a self-revelatory, self-discovery kind of way, but me over and over again in all the ways that people like me — writers — are in fact just like me?

Later that day, I attended an interview with popular Christian blogger and author Rachel Held Evans. Responding to a question about audience, she described her readers as her “boss,” a great departure from the earlier session’s question of inbreeding. While she certainly is not employed by the thousands of book buyers who propelled The Year of Biblical Womanhood to the New York Times Best Seller List in November 2012, neither was she pandering to her fan base when she made the comment. She explained that she often crowdsources ideas on her blog or social media pages as she is writing, and in The Year of Biblical Womanhood, she adjusted content based on comments and suggestions.

While these are not “choose your own adventure” books, Evans definitely has gone against Stegner’s advice and is “consciously writing for an audience.” But Stegner’s “young writer” was not a “popular blogger.” We learn in the letter that this serious wordsmith wrote fiction, what we might now label “literary fiction,” not trade paperbacks for the Christian Living section at Barnes and Noble. But in the interview, Evans said she, too, would like to be considered a “literary” writer, though she shrugged off suggestions that she currently is.

If such a writer is being true to herself and her readers, would Stegner protest?

Writers of all genres and subjects seem to wonder “who are we writing for?” And indirectly, what does my audience say about me as a writer?

In a recent Curator interview with Image Journal founder and editor Greg Wolfe, Brett Beasley asks how a journal with lofty literary ambition became sustainable in the marketplace. Are they writing for enough people to remain financially viable?

“We have gone on faith that the artistic languages we speak—and those spoken in the journal—continue to have relevance,” Wolfe said.

“Even when they’re competing in a marketplace with languages that are much more easily spoken and often seem more enjoyable and consumable than long short stories, complicated, multifaceted essays, or layered, nuanced paintings full of allusions and historical references. So, we’ve always braced ourselves for accusations of elitism. But that’s always been the case with high art.

On the other end of the spectrum are those who lob the label of elitism because they themselves feel excluded: genre writers who feel they’ve been banished for writing to too low or too large an audience.

In a 2008 blog post titled “The Literary Ghetto”, horror writer Gary A. Braunbeck tells the story of a book reviewer who seemed surprised that a work of horror fiction was actually “serious” and “literate.”

“I have seen countless instances of others—readers and reviewers alike—who dismiss science fiction, mysteries, and fantasy on the same grounds: that genre fiction is somehow not ‘real’ literature,” Braunbeck writes. “And so writers and readers of genre fiction get shoved off into their own literary ghetto, where ‘discerning’ readers of lit-rah-chure deign not tread.”

The question becomes even more difficult when the audience is not just someone who buys books, but anyone anywhere who may stumble onto a website. Science blogger Emily Anthes, in her PLOS post, “As Science Bloggers, Who Are We Really Writing For?” writes,

“How much are we really sparking a wider discussion about science in society and how much are we just talking to each other? I know that I’m thrilled when science bloggers that I respect notice my work, compliment it, and retweet it. And it’s exciting to watch science bloggers debate the finer points of science with one another. But who are we really writing for? Is it just for each other? Are the debates we’re having really reaching a wider audience?

In asking who we are writing for, we often come back around to asking why are we writing in the first place. Why would we even want an audience? When it comes to identifying our solitary reader, perhaps why is the better question.

“Why bother to make contact with kindred spirits you never see and may never hear from, who perhaps do not even exist except in your hopes?” Stegner asks the young writer. “Why spend ten years in an apprenticeship to fiction only to discover that this society so little values what you do that it won’t pay you a living wage for it?”

His answer propels us past the target audience of a book proposal, beyond the accusations of elitism or ghetto writing, even further than the reader as boss.

“You have nothing to gain and nothing to give except as you distill and purify ephemeral experience into quiet, searching, touching little stories like the one you have just finished,” Stegner writes. “And so give your uncommon readers a chance to join you in the solidarity of pain and love and the vision of human possibility.”

My proposal is tabled for now, and so is the matter of audience. I am content to sit with why? When I find the answer, or even a hint of an answer, I have a feeling the book proposal will follow close behind.

photo by: electricnerve

On Doyle’s Dialogue

“I see people in terms of dialogue and I believe that people are their talk.”  — Roddy Doyle

Over the years, my family has developed its own code, its own unifying language. We don’t need hashtags to convey the humor or irony in a situation; we do it through speaking. As teenagers, my brother and I would often mutter an “I dunno” or “hmph” when our mom would query about school or particular events that we attended. These were simple exchanges between an attentive mother and two good kids who were just too caught up in teenage moodiness (or just really tired) to answer properly—and the same type of dialogue is unfolding every day, everywhere. In an effort to pull more information from her offspring and hopefully engage in actual conversation, Mom would continue: “Name five people who were there!” And we’d either dutifully reply in sarcastic tones or acknowledge the phrase with an eye roll and a “Mo-oooooom!” Twenty years later, “name five” has earned a respectful place in our family language, for now it is used by any of us—including my husband, who has entered the fold—as a reply when someone is relentlessly chatty or clamoring for non-existent facts or information. Me to my brother: “When will you know if you can get the time off? Have you bought your tickets? Will she be coming with you? When will you know? Have you bought all your Christmas gifts yet?” His reply, in a sing-songy voice: “Naaaaame fiiiiiiiive…” You could say that “name five” has morphed into my family’s own version of a verbal hashtag—it adds color, meaning, tone and history to the preceding statement or question.

Communication reaches beyond spoken words, of course—body language and the choices we make send a message to anyone within reach. But our words, so easily searchable and defined in a dictionary, come layered with background meaning and context. Effective dialogue—both written and spoken—relies on shared experience to sustain it beyond the black-and-white dictionary definitions.

Successful authors know this. Dave Eggers has said about one acknowledged king of the craft: “I don’t think there’s anybody alive that’s better at dialogue than Roddy Doyle.” Doyle’s dialogue is essentially the main ingredient in his first book, the one that put his name on the map: The Commitments. If one does a quick scan of the book’s pages, the sheer volume of em-dashes—how the author introduces dialogue—jumps out so dramatically, as if one is looking at a page of binary computer code. There is very little narration, as dialogue moves the plot forward.

What makes Doyle’s dialogue so smart is that the words and turns of phrases are specific to a distinct group: the Northsiders of Dublin, traditionally working class. There’s a lot of profanity and “slagging,” but instead of being offended, the reader feels drawn into what is, in a sense, a family. We are given a glimpse into the shared family language of, first, a broad community, and, more precisely, the group of individuals who comprise The Commitments, the band formed by Jimmy Rabbitte that reworks American soul classics.

And if one has any familiarity with the book (or, more realistically, the 1991 movie version, which was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe), the fact that song lyrics—their own form of dialogue—take up a great portion of speech demonstrates that something can be communicated outside of a “let’s sit down and talk” setting. When manager Jimmy reworks a version of the soul classic Night Train to include references to Dublin, a shared language comes into being. “We’ll change the words a bit to make it—more Dubliny, yeh know,” says Jimmy. The band’s first gig, where “Dublin soul was about to be born,” is a success, for after their soulful rendition of Night Train—where they’re “Startin’ off in Connolly…Movin’ on ou’ to Killester…Harmonstown Raheny…an’ don’t forget Kilbarrack…the home of the blues…Then on ou’ to Sutton where the rich folks live…Oh yeah…Nigh’ Train”“the cheering went on for minutes.” A new sort of family is created between the performers and the listeners, and this is how they communicate.

The two following books in The Barrytown Trilogy—The Snapper and The Van—continue in this quick-witted and fast-paced vein. The latter two focus on Jimmy, the brain behind The Commitments, and his family: his Da, Mam and raucous group of siblings. The rapid verbal transactions between Jimmy’s family members pepper these books with just enough flavor for the reader to feel welcome in their bantering community, but also—if not a Dubliner—to feel enough of an outsider to understand that this is their own vernacular, their own community. This special language acts as an entry into a group—a group open to newcomers, but one with specific boundaries nonetheless. Non-Irish readers get an exceedingly detailed peek into this group, but infiltrating it and truly understanding it are nearly impossible.

Doyle’s latest novel about Jimmy Rabbitte and the Barrytown characters, The Guts, was released late January in the United States. Jimmy is now 47 and dealing with a bowel cancer diagnosis. What should be an extension of the previous trilogy feels a bit like a tacked-on afterthought, much like when the cast of a beloved television show reunites for a special twenty years after they first went off the air. That’s not to say that The Guts isn’t good. Doyle is a prolific writer—in addition to the previously noted books, he is the author of six novels, three novellas, two short-story collections as well as seven books for children—and The Guts is a well-crafted novel. Given the subject matter, the novel deftly straddles the line between boisterous craic (an Irish term meaning a good time, particularly one that involves spirited banter and conversation) and thoughtful introspection. The novel follows the arc of Ireland over the past ten or so years: the glorious rise in the economy—referred to as the Celtic Tiger, when Ireland finally felt like a force to be reckoned with, when luxury cars dotted the new motorways and mansions obscured thatched cottages—and then its disastrous fall, when a fifty percent plunge in housing prices followed the big burst.

What also happened in the last ten years was a tremendous uptick in the number of people using social media, as well as a rapid upswing in the creation of new platforms to communicate. And this change, of course, is hardly specific to Ireland. The Guts opens with Jimmy’s father, Jimmy Sr., asking his son, “D’yeh do the Facebook thing?” There are a lot of texting mishaps—sending texts to the wrong people, regretting a fired-off message—as well as a YouTube phenomenon, a music company built from a sort of online encyclopedia of Commitments-era Irish musicians, and numerous mentions of Xboxes, GPS systems and smartphones. The Guts is a novel set in a post-2010 world. And despite the “Irishness” of the novel, it boasts a universal tone. Who hasn’t accidentally sent a text to the wrong person? Aren’t Xbox gaming systems and GPS systems ubiquitous in nearly every modern culture? We live in an era where a large percentage of our thoughts are digitally communicated, and where emoji and hashtags help to add a little zing to our online comments and text messages.

I enjoyed this foray into the world of the Rabbitte family almost as much as when I first read Doyle’s books. But Jimmy’s world doesn’t seem as foreign to me as it once did. The easy explanation is that because I’ve lived in Dublin for three years, it’s not as foreign to me. But I think it’s more than that: Our communication is becoming more universal. After all, we live in a world where the “Gangnam Style” dance is a unanimous response at the first sound of those electronic beats.

What, then, makes our communication unique or specific to our own community? Everyone has the same access to these communication tools—or at the very least, the ability to view them. If Jimmy, who travels to the Electric Picnic, an annual music festival in Ireland, sends out a text to his old band buddies about joining him, would he leave a trail of icons—thumbs up, then the anxious” face and lastly a microphone surrounded by music notes—to indicate that he secured the tickets, but they’re a little nervous because they’ll be a good deal older than the typical attendees, but hey, it’s all about the music? Maybe he would (if he could figure out how to use emoji). And, unfortunately, those little icons would convey the same meaning in Ireland as they would elsewhere in the world. They add a little flair to his message, but the tone and humor can be interpreted by anyone. What happened to our shared languages between families, between small and defined groups of people?

I think a shrugging emoticon would be an appropriate answer.

Lawrence Krauss, Our Hollywood Hulga

“They also say, gentlemen, that the bird flies to the fowler. That’s true, and I’m ready to agree: but who is the fowler here, and who is the bird? That’s still a question, gentlemen!” — Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Double

I’m just going to admit it from the get go: I like Lawrence Krauss. I can’t put my finger on what exactly it is I like about him, but if raddled memory obeys, he reminds me of my erstwhile thirteen year-old self thundering through our trailer park home with all the delicacy of a rhino, slamming those hollow schlocky doors (already donning a fist-hole smashed in it from some other previous owner’s tantrum), screaming banshee style “IT’S NOT FAIR!” at decibels detrimental and down-right dangerous to my very own ear drums let alone my poor step-mom’s. Beneath the surface of seemingly everything Krauss writes or talks about these days is a simmering adolescent fury that the world just so stupidly doesn’t think and see the world in exactly the same way he does. This is, truly, very profoundly unfair, an experience I thoroughly understand and fully commiserate with.

Lawrence Krauss is particularly furious in  “Why Hollywood Thinks Atheism is Bad for Business” at The New Yorker. With his all seeing eyes he has stared down and nailed upon a cross the recondite religious agenda of (gasp) Hollywood. Yes, cries Krauss from the wilderness, it turns out that Hollywood is discriminating against atheists by the films they decide to fund and distribute. Now, never mind that probably less than five percent of Hollywood films per annum could even remotely be considered religious (whatever “religious” means); it’s still blatantly not fair, because, in Krauss’s eyes, anything more than zero percent glaringly reveals religion’s foothold on the dull imaginations of the American people (which is clearly disgusting). And, of course, never mind that Krauss’s fetish for trivial vapidities would be like writing a diatribe about The New Yorker because they recently published selections of Flannery O’Connor’s Prayer Journal. (Clearly they must have been bullied into this by the Catholic mafia, perhaps even at gun point.)

The raison d’être behind Krauss’s “not fair” campaign: the crestfallen story of his very own kickshaw documentary—a rodomontade on celebrity atheism, The Unbelievers—not getting the proper theatrical release it most assuredly deserved. And he’s right. I mean, who would not want to pay 8 virescent American dollars to be evangelized by a group of officiously powerful, white, rich men on a screen so gargantuan you can detect puberty zit scars etched in their mugs? Goddammit! What’s wrong with the world? To Krauss’s further bewilderment is the pure fact that his docudrama features the “world’s most famous atheist, Richard Dawkins” (sic). Someone as pretty and smart as Dawkins should have been a Hollywood nimbus. I know…this is flabbergastingly unfair. Turning down Dawkins on the big screen? Might as well decline a nude photo shoot with Miley Cyrus.

Mostly, though, Krauss expresses how his feelings have been hurt. Hurt. Hurt because he is sick and tired of atheists being considered second rate citizens. Americans are afraid of atheists, thinks Krauss; and this, again, is simply not fair. Krauss and his doughty garrison are, for god’s sake, good country people, too! And often a whole lot more ethically superior than these religious right Bible salesmen in Hollywood, not to mention those directors like Darren Aronofsky bent on making violent, barbaric biblical films. (That Krauss would even think about comparing the fate of his insanely puerile documentary with any work by the brilliant auteur Aronofsky must be taken as some sign of delusions of grandeur. Krauss’s article is nothing but a sales pitch for his kitsch.) And maybe Krauss has a point here; even if only the size of nothing. Here I can’t help thinking of Flannery O’Connor’s brilliant short story Good Country People.

You ought to stop reading this and pick up the story for yourself to see how prescient O’Connor is, to see how her story might help us navigate our strange culture wars, but let me crudely run you through it. Hulga is a very proud atheist who happens to have a wooden leg from a childhood accident. She took a PhD in philosophy and devours books on science; she sees the truth of things, things as they really are; she doesn’t “have illusions,” she says, but is “one of those people who sees through to nothing.” On the other hand is Manley Pointer, the good ol’ country boy supposedly with high morals who sells Bibles to those needing the word of God. On the surface the two could not be more dissimilar. But, as Mrs. Hopewell, Hulga’s mother, notices quite quickly: Hulga and Manley have “the same condition!”, a serious condition of the heart, a physical ailment that mirrors a deeper, spiritual sickness unto death. Eventually, to Mrs. Hopewell’s baffled surprise, Manley and Hulga wander off for a pleasant picnic together. Wending through woods, “[o]’er the hills and far away,” Hulga arrogantly thinks she is seducing the poor, simple fundamentalist with her avant-garde progressive atheism, but the truth is that she is being psychologically worked over by the Bible salesman, the much more logically consistent and rigorous atheist and wit of the two.

In the end, the Bible salesman, with a clowning Mephistophelean curiosity, seduces Hulga into unscrewing her artificial leg, an artifact she holds so dear as to be her very soul. He takes it and runs, leaving her helpless and soulless and screaming …. “You’re a Christian!…You’re a fine Christian! You’re just like them all—say one thing and do another. You’re a perfect Christian, you’re…” In a lofty and indignant tone the Bible salesman replies, “I hope you don’t think that I believe in that crap! I may sell Bibles but I know which end is up and I wasn’t born yesterday and I know where I’m going!” “Give me my leg!” Hulga screams. She wants her soul back, I suppose. But the Bible man, in a wonderful turning of the tables, says, “…you ain’t so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!”

I’d like to think Krauss is a little Hulga while the religious right, and the sorry and bizarre antics they too often pull—which Krauss’s article rightly criticizes—reeks of O’Connor’s famous Bible salesman, Manley Pointer. The irony, as hinted above, is that both Hulga and Manley swing inside the same heartbeat, as if agitated in a great empty drum of flesh (I purloined this line, with slight variation, from O’Connor’s Revelation). Krauss seems to be doing nothing more than fighting against the more profoundly logical atheisms of the pseudo-religious. His black and white intelligence, so characteristic of incurious philistines, cannot see the pseudo-religious for what they are: his Janus-faced soul-mates, imbibers of the same desire for Hollywood accolades. Both Krauss and the religious right look upon the absurdity of the world—its nothingness, if you will, with the inevitable rotting away of ourselves in some hole in the ground—and think: Why not use the most powerful name of all—“God”, or for Krauss, “Science”—to gain more power and more mammon and more fame? (Remember that somewhat popular story about a first-century Jew murdered by the machinations of both the religious and the irreligious? Lust for power brings foes together.) But, thank God, the world needs all sorts of people and opinions, especially good country people who, like Krauss, can see through to nothing, and still be good, even if this goodness is nothing but an artificial leg…awaiting the worms of the grave.


photo by: zooterkin

Right Ho, Wodehouse

There is an author who might be described as the literary equivalent of Mark Twain’s British cousin. You will not find this author on the “Classics” shelf of your local Barnes and Noble, even though he was one of the most influential voices in 20th century literature and the most popular humorist writer of the 1920s and 1930s. And you may never have heard of him, even though he is included in the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame for his work on Broadway, and forty years after his death, his written works (over 200 novels and short stories) are still being adapted for television and cinema. He stands in the line of British comic writers starting with Chaucer and leading us to Monty Python, Eddie Izzard, and Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg. This man is P.G. Wodehouse, the most delightful author you’ve likely never read.

Wodehouse’s most popular set of works are the Jeeves-Wooster series of novels and short stories. These tales follow the doings of Bertram Wooster, a member of the British upper-class in Edwardian England. In the opinion of his Aunt Dahlia, Bertie is somewhere between “Attila the Hun,” and “just an ordinary sort of amiable idiot.” He makes it successfully through the day only by the saving grace of his butler, Jeeves.


Wodehouse’s humor operates on many levels. Consider the following from Right Ho, Jeeves, as Bertram narrates the process of drinking a “pick-me-up” Jeeves has prepared for dealing with a hangover:

“For perhaps the split part of a second nothing happens. It is as though all Nature waited breathless. Then, suddenly, it is as if the Last Trump had sounded and Judgment Day set in with unusual severity. Bonfires burst out in all parts of the frame. The abdomen becomes heavily charged with molten lava. A great wind seems to blow through the world, and the subject is aware of something resembling a steam hammer striking the back of the head…And then, just as you are feeling that you ought to ring up your lawyer and see that your affairs are in order before it is too late, the whole situation seems to clarify. The wind drops. The ears cease to ring…The sun comes up over the horizon with a jerk.”

Not only does Wodehouse describe the Last Judgment and the New Earth in the form of a “pick-me-up,” he does it flawlessly. It isn’t just hyperbolic or ironic. It isn’t just humorous conceit. The wording mixes common terms with poetic ones, Biblical allusions with estate law. The act of reading Wodehouse requires the reader to be as clever in reading as the author was in writing.

And Wodehouse’s dialogue is no less clever. Even where it fails, it does so intentionally. The baseline is set by Jeeves’s subservient “Yes sir,” and “Indeed sir,” and underscored by Bertram’s delusional self-aggrandizement. Then the punchline: when Jeeves says anything more substantial, he reveals the subtle intellect that has been carefully noting Bertram’s every infantile move, and calculating how to save Bertram from himself.

For example (spoiler alert), returning to Right Ho, Jeeves, Bertram ignores Jeeves’s advice with unexpectedly dramatic results. Bertram becomes engaged to one Gussie Fink-Nottle’s beloved, and inadvertently causes Gussie to become engaged to another’s fiancée. He ruins a prize-giving at the Market Snodsbury Grammar School, and almost causes a magazine to go under. In the novel’s crescendo, Jeeves manipulates Wooster into sounding a fire alarm, arousing everyone from the house where they are staying. Jeeves then locks the doors and sends Wooster on a wild-goose chase by bicycle through the countryside to get the key, which Jeeves already has. By the time Bertram returns, as Jeeves explains:

“After your departure on the bicycle, the various estranged parties agreed so heartily in their abuse of you that the ice, if I may use the expression, was broken…”

The only necessity for the novel’s happy ending was for Bertram Wooster, its protagonist, to temporarily exit stage left. This sort of ending is not the painfully sweet gumdrop tosh that we have come to expect from lesser literature. It is a beautifully crafted plot. It arches with a narrative suspense that induces both cringing and laughter. It soars in the typical way for a Wodehouse tale.

Why, then, if these stories are so well written, is Wodehouse not standard reading, somewhere after F. Scott Fitzgerald, in our collection of 20th century masters? The answer is a drama in absurd scope only comparable to the plot of one of Wodehouse’s own stories.

In 1939 Pelham and Ethel Wodehouse were living in France to avoid double taxation by the Americans and British. “Oh, everything happened so suddenly,” Wodehouse would later state. “Until the Germans arrived there didn’t seem to be any danger at all.” Unable to bring their two dogs to England, the Wodehouses opted to stay in France during the German invasion, and suddenly found themselves sentenced to two years in a Nazi internment camp. Offered an early release by the Germans if he would be willing to broadcast from Berlin, Wodehouse agreed to do a short series discussing his life at the camp.

Although there were no specifically political references made during the broadcasts, the backlash against this decision nearly cost him his career. P.G. Wodehouse was accused of collaborating with the enemy, and though the British government’s inquiry into his wartime actions found him not guilty, he was disgraced. His books had already been pulled from many library shelves, and, as The Daily Mirror wrote at the time, “Wodehouse was funny no longer.” He never returned to Britain, and lived out his days in Long Island, continuing to write. It was not until shortly before his death that the British government offered a pseudo-apology in the form of a knighthood.

But through it all, Wodehouse remained the same. It isn’t that he doesn’t have time in his writing for existential brooding, death, violence, or sex—staples one and all of contemporary fiction—but rather that he did not regard these elements of life as important as taking life itself lightly.  Wodehouse’s stories are written as he lived, which he summed up saying, “I really don’t worry about anything much. I can adjust myself to things pretty well.”

And this is our modern problem with Wodehouse, our third reason for not reading him. We don’t want in our books that which we can acquire from Netflix. We only have so much time to devote to our fiction. Happy, unquestioning tales feel like denial, and can be relayed to us by simple osmosis, living in a culture of the omnipresent sitcom. If we are looking for the unique issues that literature can address, spending our time reading Wodehouse feels like we might as well have chosen to watch television.

Actually watching Wodehouse’s adapted works on television shows us the flaw in this reasoning. While the characters and plot may be the same, the resemblance of any Wodehouse adaptation to its original text is along the lines of a can of tuna to the former fish.

For example, although the Jeeves and Wooster television series (starred by Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie) carried enough ballast to float on the open comic seas, it does not do justice to the book’s well-layered humor. It isn’t yet another case of “the book was better.” The double entendres, the delusional first-person narration, the manipulation of form, the juxtaposition of absurd analogy with classical references and slang—in short, every element of Wodehouse’s writing that lends nuanced brilliance to his otherwise situational and slapstick British humor—is removed in the process of cinematic production. We are left with dialogue that occasionally falls flat and a plot about an idiot and his omniscient butler.

Although these books do not brood in any way, they do gently lure us into the uniquely literary act of self-examination. By reading the “I” of the character-narrator, we are forced to partake in Bertie’s antics, his own self-delusion. We may see it for what it is, but we are also “on the in,” poking fun, by proxy, at ourselves. And that is why we feel ridiculous analyzing and interpreting Wodehouse as we would other authors. It isn’t because the content isn’t present. It’s just that if you have to analyze it, you’ve already missed the point.

These works are the un-ironic, non-cynical counterbalance our canon of classics needs to find. Reading Wodehouse isn’t escapism any more than reading a story about an old man catching a fish written entirely in short sentences is realism. Of course there is death and sadness in the world; the man who was interned by Nazis surely saw it. But Wodehouse wrote to remind us that there is also love and rubber ducks and that even if an “intellectually negligible” character is the one walking in the garden or playing in the tub, we all should notice and delight in these things. The sun, in Wodehouse’s works, will always come up over the horizon with a jerk. And that is why his stories are not simply endearing; they are enduring, and worth reading today.



Clarke, Gerald. “P.G. Wodehouse, The Art of Fiction No. 60.” The Paris Review, n.d. Web. 02 Apr. 2014.

Wodehouse, P. G. Right Ho, Jeeves. Project Gutenburg. Web. 02 Apr. 2014.

Wodehouse, P. G. The Man with Two Left Feet and Other Stories. Project Gutenburg. Web. 02 Apr. 2014.

A Living Essay

Before the sun rose over the fallow field across from our home this morning, I picked up the book I’ve been reading since last June, back when the days were longer and darkness was just a brief period before bedtime. It’s not like me to take so long on one book. And it’s not like I haven’t read dozens of books in the meantime: novels, nonfiction, poetry, how-to. But with this book of essays, it hasn’t been the normal speed-read to the end. I pick it up in the summer mornings. I read one essay or part of one essay in the early darkness of late autumn evenings. I put it down after a quick read at lunch, the sky gray even though it is mid-day. The seasons change, the days lengthen and shorten, and over and over for the past nine months I read from this one book.

I bought the book, Earth Works, when I heard the author, Scott Russell Sanders, speak at a library event in a suburban community near the city where I lived at the time. A friend and I scarfed down dinner and drove through rush-hour traffic to sit among a sparse crowd of senior citizens. Obviously the community didn’t know who had come to visit.

Remembering that evening–the readings, the question and answer session, the visit with the author afterward–I feel the exhilaration again. Sanders, who has written fiction, memoir, even children’s picture books, will always be first and foremost an essayist to me. I first met Sanders at a Wendell Berry reading at Indiana University, where Sanders taught literature for more than three decades. But I came to know him in his essays, in his weighing out of life’s mysteries paragraph by paragraph. His literary give-and-take helped solidify my own love of the form, and I am hard-pressed to write an essay without turning my thoughts to Sanders.

But in the past nine months, it’s not just a matter of getting through the density of Sanders’ most recent essay collection. Without pre-planning or subjecting myself to a stunt, I have been living out his essays one by one.

I read Sanders’ essay “Singular First Person” and find an answer to my own writing insecurity. Often I wonder how many people could be interested in the life of a woman who grew up on a farm, survived cancer, never had children, and married late in life only to become a step-mom to three sons. There couldn’t be many. So why write from “I”?

“I choose to write about my experience not because it is mine,” Sanders said, “but because it seems to me a door through which others might pass” (8).

And so I pass through the door he has opened, and prop open a door of my own.

“The Inheritance of Tools” reminds me of the barn full of wrenches and hammers and tractors I said goodbye to last fall, when my step-dad passed away. Although I didn’t claim the tools, I understand Sanders’ idea of the “double inheritance” that comes with items left behind by a loved one. The volumes of The Old Farmer’s Almanac that sit on my bookshelf, the small notebooks with my step-dad’s handwriting, even his padded vest now hanging in my husband’s closet: they all come “wrapped in a cloud of knowing,” as Sanders describes it (54).

And there’s more, each essay cracking open the door a little wider. The fear that my faith may somehow be destroyed by too much scientific curiosity is bolstered by Sanders’ own claim to have “surrendered” his faith “under the assault of science” (238). My love of Wendell Berry is explained to me in detail through Sanders’ own introduction and appreciation of Berry’s work, what he calls the “confidence, clarity, high aspirations, and moral passion of the voice on the page” (272). My struggle to find my way as a writer is matched by Sanders’ long journey in the same direction, both his stubbornness and the “pleasure of living among words” (150). Even my questions about writing a memoir are not answered in Sanders’ own memoir, but in his essay describing his foray into the genre and his wrangling with truth-telling, where he exhorts writers to “abide by the promise implied in the nonfiction label” (288).

I could go on.

What I will miss the most when I finish this collection is the grounding I have found. Though my life changes and my career shifts, as my family undulates in death and marriage and birth and separation, as the days grow longer, then shorter, then longer again, I find myself increasingly drawn to the earth beneath my feet and to the minutes I inhabit, even as they pass away, to what Sanders calls “Staying Put.” We all have a choice, Sanders says,

“whether to go or stay, whether to move to a situation that is safer, richer, easier, more attractive, or to stick where we are and make what we can of it. If the shine goes off our marriage, our house, our car, do we trade it for a new one? If the fertility leaches out of our soil, the creativity out of our job, the money out of our pocket, do we start over somewhere else? There are voices enough, both inner and outer, urging us to deal with difficulties by pulling up stakes and heading for new territory. I know them well, for they have been calling to me all my days” (115).

Strangely, this essay found me after a major shift in location and situation. I married and moved miles away. My old house sat empty and for sale. My new house felt unfamiliar and uncertain. I wasn’t tied to either place, and I felt adrift. Because of my new commitment, I couldn’t–didn’t want to–stay put in the old place. Yet I didn’t have the vision for what it means to put down roots in a new place. Sanders’ words gave me that vision.

“It has taken me half a lifetime of searching to realize that the likeliest path to the ultimate ground leads through my local ground. I mean the land itself, with its creeks and rivers, its weather, seasons, stone outcroppings, and all the plants and animals that share it. I cannot have a spiritual center without having a geographical one; I cannot live a grounded life without being grounded in a place” (126).

So, as Sanders said, I have a choice to make, but mine isn’t about staying or going. I made that choice when I said “I do.” I have to decide where I will be. I could live stranded between two places, or I could accept that I am here now. It means I have had to let go of old habits, old communities, old work. I have to develop a taste for well water and remember to add salt to the softener; I must learn to navigate the narrow, ice-covered country roads in the winter; I have to welcome the deer and rabbits and squirrels into our lawn as they walk between food sources; and I must quit calling the creek running behind the baseball diamond a “river,” like a city girl.

I have only 47 pages left of the book. Were it a novel, I would have to stop even now and finish. Plots and characters demand resolution. Were it a poem, 47-pages-to-go would have kept me from ever picking it up in the first place. And had it been a self-help manual, I would have long since sought its answers.

But since this is a book of essays, I won’t rush to the end nor will I avoid it. I will allow its questions and answers–Sanders’ own examination of meaning and love and history and ecology–to lead me in my reading as in my living.

And when I am finished, I will leave the door propped open for those who follow behind.

Need Art Ask Permission?

It was Milan Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion that first disturbed me, in the real sense of being unsettled. It took me out of a place I knew and loved into a place of unknowing, and I sensed that somehow my ignorance was being exploited. It is a lovely book, quite easy to fall into, but I was taken out of it when the two main characters sit naked on the floor, leaning against the wall, the light coming from a sleepy fireplace. I jolted into consciousness. I stared, bewildered. I saw that they were naked, and then I saw something forbidden, something I did not want to see. I saw them have sex.

This, for me, was a problem. It came largely from a tradition I grew up in, which taught that you were only to see one person naked, your spouse. To see anyone else, even if it was not pornographic, was nonetheless disloyal. A wandering eye ushers in comparisons, expectations, and unfaithful desires—things that should have no part in the marriage bed. Depictions of sex in literature might inject others into those thoughts that should only be of your spouse. In the imagination, the borders of art and reality are permeable. Sex is attractive, and incorrigible, so it’s best that you be attracted to one person in that respect, not others, not even fictional others. I was taught that sex was set apart, sacred.

I thought of sex as holy.

And so I questioned my professor. Should she have given us the book to read? Should the author have written that scene, albeit small? The professor replied that Ondaatje, a veteran novelist, knew what he was doing. The scene was for the sake of the art he was creating. It was necessary to develop the characters; it was precisely what the art demanded. I nodded, but wrestled ad nauseam in my mind if the scene was actually worth it.

This disturbance resurfaced when recently I read Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. It’s the story of a modern family of three kids, a manipulative mother, and a father with Parkinson’s who try (or try not) to get together for Christmas. In the first hundred or so pages, we follow Chip, the middle child of Enid and Alfred Lambert. Chip is consciously and repetitively self-destructive, so much that I wanted to turn away from what seemed like unnecessary, childish acts. Hadn’t he heard of moderation or prudence? Had he one disciplined or admirable bone? We read about Chip’s ogling obsession, which is perhaps linked to his insatiable sexual appetite. We see Chip having sex with his girlfriend, and with the boss’s wife, and even with one of his students. When his French pornographic VHS gets put in the dishwasher, he takes it back out, “in case he needed it later.”

It was a challenge. While I could appreciate innuendo, maybe one or two scenes, the sexual catalogue of The Corrections was exhaustive. While other characters are more reserved, hesitant, restrained, or repressed than Chip, they share with him the eventual surrender toward what they do not want to become. After reading about some of these other characters, I almost wished to go back to Chip. I read about the loss of virginity, the verge of marital rape, sex between unmarried and married women. I had seizures of conscience. I put the book down for weeks. There are scenes I want to forget. Near the middle of the story, we follow Denise, the daughter of Enid and Alfred, up into her room, with an old, war-veteran co-worker. First he loves her, then he abuses her. Denise hides her stained sheets in the closet.

Somehow, I finished the book. In part, Franzen writes with such brilliance that I couldn’t look away. Every piece was thought out. Every sentence, clause, and word was situated in the whole. The book was artfully, compellingly crafted. Franzen is casual in his prose, but the word-play is wonderful. You misread the book if without laughter. Was it possible that, if Franzen had done this on a literary level, he had also done so with the narrative? Perhaps the story’s explicit content was as intentional as the words.

After some distance between myself and the book, I saw it clearly. And with no little frustration, I realized that I had terribly misread The Corrections. I had stopped Franzen, and myself, with “but is this ethical?” and “do I need to see this?” and “how was that scene really necessary to develop the character?” But these were the wrong questions, or rather they were asked of the wrong thing. Prior to those questions was something larger, which I had not asked, and Franzen had been answering the whole time. It’s best to show it by a parallel.

Consider this scene between Denise and her employer Brian. Brian has come into some money, and is building a restaurant where Denise will be the head-chef. The two take a culinary trip to Europe, which turns from business to something more. Franzen writes:

[Denise] hated [Brian’s wife] Robin for having a husband she could trust. … Two nights before they left [Europe] … He pulled her into his room and kissed her. He’d given no warning of his change of heart. … She was beautifully, avidly adulterous and she knew it. … until there began to swell inside her, hardly noticeable and then suddenly distinct, and then not merely distinct but increasingly painful in its pressure on her peritoneum and eyeballs and arteries and meninges, a body-sized, Robin-faced balloon of wrongness. … She clarified by rolling out of bed and crouching in a corner of the hotel room. She said she couldn’t. … She apologized to him. “No, you’re right,” Brian said. … “I feel terrible. I’ve never done anything like this before.” “See, I have,” she said. … “More than once. And I don’t want to anymore.”

No one in the book wants to do what they’ve been doing anymore; they want their lives corrected. The present is so vicious, and the chance of resolution so incredible, that Franzen seems ruthless with his characters. They are not safe; they will see the worst. (Denise eventually sleeps with Brian’s wife, Robin, and destroys the marriage.) But it is not destruction that moves the book. It’s the characters’ struggle to correct what has been destroyed. And that is a motivation born of virtue, even love.

Consider, now, this parallel from Paradise Lost. This is the scene after Adam decides to take the fruit because of his love for Eve, who has already taken from the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil:

[N]ever did thy Beauty since the day

I saw thee first and wedded thee, adorn’d

… so inflamed my sense

With ardor to enjoy thee …

So he said and forbore not glance or toy

Of amorous intent, well understood

Of Eve, whose Eye darted contagious Fire

Her hand he seiz’d, and to a shady bank

He led her nothing loath; Flow’rs were the Couch,

Pansies, and Violets, and Asphodel,

And Hyacinth, Earth’s freshest softest lap.

There they their fill of Love and Love’s disport

Took largely, of their mutual guilt the Seal,

The solace of their sin, till dewy sleep

oppress’d them, weaired with their amorous play.

Soon found their Eyes how op’n’d, and their minds

How dark’n’d; innocence, that as a veil

Had shadow’d them from knowing ill, was gone.

The disturbing aspect of art is not in showing nudity or sex, not violence or obscenity. Those are accouterments. That is why my questions were asked too early. I had not seen the reality to which all these elements point. They depict man as he reacts to his sin. They display man as he surely dies. The question I should have been asking is whether art has the permission, even obligation, to act out the death which approaches us, which we willingly walk, and sometimes run, towards.

And with what more convicting image can art show this than with the primary relationship of marriage atrophied by neglect; the first mandate to procreate becoming shame; the beginning (and continuing) genealogy of mankind made clandestine and suspect; the act by which two become one becoming the very act that splits them in two? It almost becomes essential, whenever the extent of sin, disorder, and in-correction is presented, to begin where man begins. Procreation thus signals at once the beginning of life and a re-instantiation of life’s brokenness. Sex is hope and confusion.  Every person—hence every family, every marriage—emerges from that “contagious Fire.” With this knowledge, to write about sex is to write about fallen man. The ethics of showing nakedness now becomes the ethics of showing decay.

The last thing we want to remember is that sin is contemporary. In one sense, it’s easy to read Milton. He wrote hundreds of years ago. He wrote so long ago that the problems he wrote about also seem far off. But we don’t want a living author showing us that the very same thing is still going on. It’s just a sad story, that once upon a time man lost paradise. But there’s an urgency about man still losing it. Franzen was hard to read because he took me out of history and bluntly depicted the incompleteness and incorrectness of the present.

We all long for life, until we discover what life must undergo. At that point, we go through the event of hope, or despair. And we are good to recall Milton’s other work. Franzen has written a modern simulacrum to Milton’s Paradise Lost, but we wait to see if he writes with respect to Milton’s Paradise Regained. And there is a glimpse of this. Chip, the character whose destruction was so disheartening to watch and who, in the political metalepsis of the novel, represents our generation, is the one character whose life in the end actually finds some correction. He finds someone to love. They have kids. It’s the one time in the book that Chip’s love for another is described in terms of what it created, not what it destroyed.

The Ethics of Translation

It would be difficult to find two less kindred twentieth-century cultural figures than Roland Barthes and Czesław Milosz. The first, a cigar-clutching Frenchmen for whom his own country’s literature was the center of the intellectual universe, shared the better part of a lifetime with the Polish-speaking Lithuanian for whom nearly all of experience was an act of translation. Barthes was killed by a laundry truck on the streets of his beloved Paris, neither physically nor theoretically far from where he began his popular career as a critic. Milosz did not die in his bed in Krakow until he had completed a tour of the globe that included stops at the epicenters of nearly every western Western cultural crisis in the 1900s, from the German invasion of Poland to the free love movement in Berkley, California in the ’60s. Yet though the two were divided by their heritage, experience, and attitudes, they shared a compulsion to identify the role of the author in a century whose violent conflicts had spilled confusion and fragmentation into its literature. While Milosz restlessly engaged these issues from the inside, writing poetry and teaching Slavic Literature in California, Barthes solidified his early career as a literary critic with the compact treatise Writing Degree Zero, which ambitiously attempted to map the writer’s relationship to history in two hundred words or less.

Writing Degree Zero defines the author’s identity using three sweeping categories. The first two, language and style, were by no means revolutionary. The last term, écriture, is difficult to translate properly into English, but in it lies the meat of his critique. The question Barthes sought to answer in his book is demoralizingly simple: Can an author exercise any meaningful influence on history? Cautiously, the essay hopes to venture a yes, but not before Barthes thoroughly defines his terms. Yet at precisely the moment when those terms seem to usefully describe an author’s role, they devalue something that, for Milosz, is close to the soul of the author’s role: choice of language.

“A language and a style are objects;” Barthes writes, “[while] a mode of writing [écriture] is a function…[it is] form considered as a human intention and thus linked to the great crisis of History.” Barthes posits that an author does not start to exercise historical influence until she, taking language and style for granted as her playing field and physique, develops a strategy with which to play the game. This strategy is her écriture, or “mode of writing,” the outworking of her intentions in literature. A particular language and style have come to the writer by nature. It is how she chooses to wield them in her own historical situation that determines her historical efficacy. Écriture, then, is Barthes’s name for the influence, no matter how frail or robust, a writer can exercise with her art on the lived-in world.

Barthes’s terminology is theoretical in the extreme, but it provided contemporary writers with a way of describing their relationship to the historical situation they inhabited. Recalling the bombed-out streets of Warsaw and the sound of the blitz over central Europe, Milosz would probably shrug his shoulders at the chilly aestheticism that Barthes’s level of abstraction implies. Fully capable of splicing literary theories with the best minds in Europe, Milosz would be dumbfounded with Barthes for expending so much ink and air to articulate a historical theory of literature which evidenced such a dim concept of what history feels like when you’re living through it. Barthes is trying to describe what great writers do. Milosz would say that such a description is impossible if we assume that language is nothing but a playing field. For Milosz, it is the battleground, still littered with casualties.

To Milosz’s eyes, the choice of what language to write in is a choice between histories with a lowercase h. History is never actually experienced as a monolithic Hegelian force, but rather as an intimate atmosphere. While Barthes assumes that language “functions negatively,” that it does nothing but set the limits of what a writer might possibly say, Milosz knows that a history can be lost, if the people who remember it are scattered or their language silenced. Each country has its own linguistic “texture;” every subculture, niche, and village conducts each linguistic exchange in a unique historical context, and those contexts can be murdered. This is exactly the crisis which Milosz feels he has survived in Poland. The circle of poets and writers he frequented as a teenager in Wilno was reduced by the Nazi occupation and the Warsaw uprising to a handful of refugees, who began to see their literary role less in terms of interpretation or beautification than of testimony. Many of these poets, even after their readership became predominantly English-speaking, continued to write in Polish, enduring the isolation of the linguistic refugee in the name loyalty. To the uninformed, this decision might seem hubristic, but for Milosz and his peers, the stakes could not have been higher: if Barthes’s theories were to be accepted, then in historical terms the almost total loss of Polish-speaking writers in the middle of the twentieth century didn’t matter much. Language being neutral, we have lost only those writers’ écritures. But to the few Polish poets who survived the near-eradication of their entire literary context, language itself is the last and best witness to a lost world.

In his late career essay “Who Was I?” Milosz reflected on this ethical quality of language choice while pondering the writer he once was:

As a young man I was struck by the magnitude of what was occurring in my century, a magnitude equaling, perhaps even surpassing the decline and fall of antiquity…How, then, at a later date, as a witness to what was underway, could I seriously pursue a literary career…as if nothing had happened? To whom, about what, was I to speak?

The “about what?” was to become increasingly clear to Milosz as his own, remarkably optimistic, poetic form was refined: His poetry would take its own isolation, as well as the transient nature of all human culture, as its subject. It is full of the haunting observations of a literary refugee, as in “On Pilgrimage,” one of the many highly reflective poems from his years as a professor of Slavic Literatures at UC Berkeley:

May the gentle mountains and the bells of the flocks
Remind us of everything we have lost,
For we have seen on our way and fallen in love
With the world that will pass in a twinkling.

Such poems grew gradually into an answer for the young Milosz’s “about what?” but the “to whom?” elicited a far readier response. “I belong,” he wrote  only a few lines later in his essay, “to the estate of Polish literature and no other,” and to belong to the estate of Polish literature meant loyalty to the Polish language. To guarantee his poetry’s historical witness, Milosz sentenced his work to a lifetime of translation. Only a strict ethic could move a writer to such a troublesome aesthetic decision, but this was the ground on which Milosz built his oeuvre; a territory where the heady, self-congratulating concept of the écriture was swapped for the patient isolation of the archeologist, digging up the ruins of dead cities, and demanding that we value what was lost, and what remains.




photo by: Arek Olek

For the Good of the Colony

As the nation considers the merits of the present incarnation of “comprehensive immigration reform” currently being dragged through the pitiful mire that is the 113th U.S. Congress, the mythology that undergirds American ideas about immigration frequently rises to the surface. Much of this mythology comes from the history of American immigration, especially from two periods: the early settlements in New England and the late nineteenth-century flood during the Industrial Revolution. Powerful images come into play here: the Mayflower and Thanksgiving in the first instance; in the second, the stifling European slum, the crowded steamship in New York harbor, the railroad running unendingly west, the virgin prairie furrowed by the plow. When Americans are at their most romantic, this is how they tend to think about immigration.

And when Americans turn these images into stories, they describe the way that immigrants arriving in the New World found renewal or liberation in their confrontation with the forces of the land “vaguely realizing westward” (in Robert Frost’s beautiful phrase from “The Gift Outright”). The myth of nature remaking the immigrant into a new kind of human who is healthy, democratic, and free is deep in the American unconscious, and politicians across the spectrum deploy it, sometimes to make surprising arguments. But these stories we tell about immigration constrain how we think about the subject. Could we gain from finding different stories to tell about patterns of settlement in this hemisphere? Would they free us to see our own past differently?

Suzanne Desrochers’s historical novel Bride of New France (appearing in paperback this month in the U.S.) tells a story about the founding of Canada that is instructive to all North Americans. It is less about the settler’s encounter with the natural forces of the frontier and more about the persistence of Old World power relations in the North American colonies, the systems of surveillance and control created by the expanding territorial states of early modern Europe that find their apotheosis in contemporary border fences, detention centers, and biometrics (not to mention PRISM).

Bride of New France is the story of Laure Beausejour, a young woman from the streets of Paris brought to the fledgling colony of New France (present-day Quebec) as a part of a seventeenth-century French program to provide brides for the male colonists there. Soon after her arrival in the colony, she begrudgingly marries a portly former soldier and moves to his shoddy frontier cabin in the tiny settlement of Pointe-aux-Trembles (today a borough of Montreal). But when Laure’s first winter on the frontier sets in, her new husband leaves her to fend for herself and treks west up the Ottawa River to get the jump on the spring fur trade. While her neighbors are mostly indifferent to her hardship, Laure survives by cultivating an illicit relationship with an Algonquin man. The novel is not the story of a European choosing to leave home to pursue the opportunities of the New World. Instead, it is the story of a young woman thrust onto the frontier by forces beyond her control.

Bride of New France is not a work of devastating literary greatness: its plot plods along diffidently until it picks up slightly in the final third of the book, its style is repetitive and stilted, and its inconsistencies of narrative perspective are occasionally jarring. But the great value of the book is the way that Desrochers shows how the settlement of New France was the product of an Old World power, a brutal authority acting mercilessly on the bodies of the poor. In Laure Beausejour’s day, these bodies overwhelmed the French state’s prisons and reformatories, but they were desperately needed in New France, where a half-century of indirect colonization through the trade monopoly of the Company of the Hundred Associates had failed to produce a viable, self-sufficient colony. In 1663 Louis XIV took direct control over the colony and appointed an intendant to administer the colony in his name.

The office of the intendant was part of the growing system that centralized power in the hands of the king by working around the parlements and local nobles that previously stood between the monarch and his provinces. Jean Talon, the first resident indendant of New France, arrived in 1665 with a mandate to aggressively reorganize and expand the colony. From the start he energetically pursued new initiatives to encourage the clearing of land, the construction of roads, and the establishment of new industries. Above all, Talon understood that the colony’s population needed to grow, so he concerned himself with increasing the colony’s population through immigration and incentives such as cash rewards for large families and early marriages. But the colony’s massive gender imbalance was the major obstacle to his plans. Other than the brave nuns like those of the Société Notre Dame who founded the city of Montreal and dedicated themselves to the instruction of aboriginal converts, there were few women in New France.

In response to his pleas for more female settlers, Talon’s superior Jean-Baptiste Colbert developed a plan to extract young women from French poor houses, orphanages and hospitals, and send them to populate the New France. Over a thousand of these women, called filles du roi (“daughters of the king”) arrived in New France in the 1660s and 1670s. Desrochers’s book emphasizes the central role played by a single Paris institution in the provision of a large number of the brides for the colony. The Hospice de la Salpêtrière served as a hospital and a reform house for the urban poor. City authorities placed hundreds of homeless, prostitutes, mentally ill, and other poor undesirables in the institution against their will where most lived in miserable dorms or languished in dungeons. A small number, however, were taught skills thought to be useful by the state. In Bride of New France, we learn that Laure Beausejour, after being taken from her street performer parents, was trained to be a seamstress as part of a state scheme to substitute imported Italian fineries like lace with domestically produced goods. The young women taken from the Salpêtrière were given a modest dowry and a chest of household goods and shipped off to Quebec. Along with Jean Talon’s other policies to encourage immigration and reproduction, the transportation of the filles du roi more than doubled the population of the colony in less than a decade.

But the women did not escape the systems of control that existed in the Old World upon their arrival in Canada. Instead, they became part of a new regime of control over the body. On the one hand, they were brought for the primary purpose of bearing children for King Louis. On the other, they played a crucial role in controlling the men who were already in the New World. Many settlers had ignored the settlement plans of the authorities and become coureur des bois (“runners of the woods”), illicit fur traders who circumvented the colonial system of regulated trade and ventured far into the interior to seek out furs nearer their source. Rogues like Laure’s absentee husband hurt the mercantilist system designed to control and tax the fur trade through the use of aboriginal allies and traders carrying the proper permits (congés). If these men would stay home and settle the land, they would produce useful exports for the homecountry instead of flooding the fur market, endangering French missionary efforts among the Indians by their illegal dealings in brandy, and living and mating with Indian women outside the bounds of the colony and European morality. The filles du roi were sent to tame the men, as well as bear their children.

The perspective of Laure Beausejour lets us understand the horror of this system as experienced by someone caught up in it. Taken out of the strictly disciplined Salpêtrière, sent to a foreign, wild land, and thrust into a marriage with a stranger, Laure feels the pressures to regulate her body in the interest of the imperial economy even stronger in the New World than in Paris. Although Desrochers gives Laure the skills and the courage to resist these forces in limited ways, Bride of New France makes it clear that the lives of the founding mothers of Quebec were often just as dismal as those of the women left behind in the Salpêtrière.

Stories like Bride of New France make us rethink the romantic myths that Americans tell each other about immigration. After all, it’s not just a Canadian story. There is a history of similar institutions in America: the plantations, the reservations, the internment camps. And today we need to recognize the broken immigration system for what it is: a means of sustaining a large force of precarious, undocumented labor to do the tasks that Americans refuse to do without the inconveniences of labor laws, unions, or safety measures. It’s no longer babies that we need from immigrants. We need them to bone our chicken, mow our lawns, roof our houses, and, above all, not make much of a fuss: it’s for the good of the colony.


#GrowCurator Campaign: Introduction


Lovely readers,

I’ll be straight: the budget under which The Curator has been working for the last five years is…jaw-dropping. That is, for those of you who know anything about what it’s like to publish a consistent and relevant journal in the world today, you’ll know that ~$3,000/annum is, uh, beyond meager.

We aren’t complaining, though. Heck, we love what we do; for us, The Curator is one of those rare places Frederick Buechner talks about where our “deep gladness” continues to meet “the world’s deep hunger.” That being said, we’ve decided The Curator deserves a better version of itself, for everyone’s sake. Our writers and editors deserve better care and compensation. (Side note: I myself have not received a penny in a year’s work). Our readers deserve more and better content and an expanded vision. Even beyond that, we’re utterly convinced there are artists and geniuses out there scheming to astonish the rest of us, just for the pleasure of it, and they deserve more and better attention. With your help, we can continue celebrating them. And, by golly, there’s some really cool stuff you will get in return! Check out our INDIEGOGO CAMPAIGN for the special perks you’ll receive for donating, and stay tuned for updates!

Zach Terrell,
Asst. Editor


King Arthur was an Elf!

The recent publication of The Fall of Arthur, an unfinished poem by J.R.R. Tolkien, should rock the literary world. It should knock the socks off its readers half way through.

But I doubt that it will.

Why should it? And why won’t it?

Your hair should stand on end when you read The Fall of Arthur because it adds a startling extra layer to Tolkien’s legendarium. If he had finished it, it could have connected many aspects of his elvish mythology with English history, Arthurian literature and the fantasy worlds of his friends C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams. In fact, if the Inklings had put all their Arthurian ideas together, they could have produced the kind of totalizing English mythology that Tolkien attempted, but abandoned.

Here is the key: Lancelot is Eärendel.

If you aren’t a Tolkien geek, don’t worry if that doesn’t mean anything. I’ll explain.

When Tolkien was quite young, he read an Old English poem with these lines:

Hail Éarendel, brightest of angels,

above the middle-earth sent unto men,

and true radiance of the sun,

bright above the stars…

The name Éarendel lodged in his memory, and he resolved to make up the back-story that would explain how Éarendel could be both an angel and a star. This decision catalyzed his great work of inventing elvish languages, legends and history, which eventually led to The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion and the unfinished histories of Middle Earth.

In Tolkien’s story, Eärendel is a half-elf, half-human hero who sails into the West, seeking a lost paradise. You can read his story here. He becomes a legendary ancestor, like Aeneas, Remus and Romulus or Siegfried.

The Fall of Arthur is also about a legendary hero. In this poetic fragment, King Arthur leaves his kingdom under Mordred’s care (really bad idea) and sets off to Europe to beat up the Saxons in their homeland. He has already beaten them off of his island. Now he wants to make sure they never come back, and he also wants to defend Rome against the pagans who keep trying to sack her. But while he marches across Germanic lands, Mordred takes over the kingdom and threatens Guinevere with forced marriage. She flees into the wild. As she lingers (like Arwen) in the gray ruins of her father’s abandoned realm, Arthur heads home to fight Mordred, and the narrator recalls Lancelot and Guinevere’s treasonous love. The poem ends with Arthur’s first victory over Mordred, at sea, and uncertainty as Arthur plans to face his nemesis on their final battlefield.

That is all he wrote. But J.R.R. Tolkien did leave notes about how the story would have continued, and Christopher Tolkien includes them in his editorial matter. In the final confrontation, Mordred would fatally wound Arthur, Arthur would kill Mordred and Arthur would be carried away to the West for healing. Lancelot, arriving too late, would set sail into the West, searching for his king, never to return.

Sail away West—just like Eärendel the Mariner. And just like Eärendel the Mariner, Lancelot would seek paradise: Avalon, Tol Eressëa or the Land of Faery.

Do you see how that rocks the world? If Tolkien had finished this poem, he could have woven it together with The Silmarillion in such a way that his elvish history directly matched up with the legends of Arthur, forming the mythological and linguistic foundation on which “real” English history and language were based.

And then he could have gotten together with Lewis and Williams and worked his Arthurian legend into theirs. In Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, the Pendragon is taken up to Venus to “Where Arthur is…. In the Third Heaven, in Perelandra. In Aphallin.” In Williams’ Taliessin Through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars, three knights achieve the Holy Grail and sail with it West, off the map, to a sacred land called Sarras. In all three writers’ worlds, evil is in the East; this is not surprising in an England threatened by Nazi Germany. God’s country is in the opposite direction, across the sea, connected with ancient legends about Hesperus, the evening star, Venus, the light in the West.

The theological, literary, historical and linguistic implications of this are too numerous to tackle here. Perhaps I should get a bunch of scholars together and compile a book on The Inklings and Arthur. Until I do, I hope the blogosphere goes wild with the significance of The Fall of Arthur.

But even if the fan-sites take up this idea and run with it, I doubt that The Fall of Arthur will make much noise elsewhere.

Why not?

First, because it’s a poem.

Poetry is more difficult than prose. The Fall of Arthur is not a beach novel. It is lively, readable poetry, but it has a strong rhythm (the meter of Beowulf), lofty diction and unusual word-order. Tolkien frequently employs inverted syntax—non-standard arrangement of parts of speech—in order to suit the meter. Here is an example, the opening lines:

Arthur eastward                                 in arms purposed

his war to wage                                  on the wild marches,

over seas sailing                                to Saxon lands,

from the Roman realm                     ruin defending.


Here is a prosy re-arrangement:

Arthur purposed to wage his war eastward, on the wild marches, sailing in arms over seas to Saxon lands, defending the Roman realm from ruin.

You see that I have added, changed and deleted nothing. I have only put the words into a different order, and the meaning becomes much clearer. So reading the poetry can be tiring, even though this is excellent poetry, and that difficulty will prevent this book from having as many readers as it would have if it were a novel.

The second reason this book won’t make too many waves is that the shocking information about Lancelot and Eärendel is buried in the middle of the book, mired in Christopher Tolkien’s slow-and-subtle prose commentary. He gives an intelligent, complicated survey of previous writers on King Arthur to show what his father took from his sources and what he changed or made up. This is followed by an excellent essay on poetic meter, surrounded by textual notes and other semi-scholarly additions.

If Christopher Tolkien had wanted this book to astonish the world, he could have marketed it with tabloid-style headlines, such as:




or, for nerds:


or how about:


But he didn’t do that. He presented the poem in its beautiful, tragic, melancholy, unfinished state, printed with admirable clarity and aesthetic appeal. Then he padded the volume with quasi-academic apparatus, but did not include an index or a bibliography, as a truly scholarly work would.

And so this book runs the risk of being overlooked.

As I wrote in my pre-review, Tolkien scholar John Garth wrote in an article in The Guardian that “Any addition to the Arthurian tradition by a major author is welcome; this one is also exciting because of what it adds to our picture of a great modern imagination.” I had no idea just how much it would add to that picture—not only of one great modern imagination, but to the collective modern imagination. Do read it. And do spread the word.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



[1] Francis Spufford, Unapologetic, somewhere.

[2] Ibid., 169.

[3] Ibid., 203.

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

[5] Ibid., 207.

The Principle of Volubility

In the United States, few poets have endured the kind of censure that Ted Hughes has experienced since the death of Sylvia Plath. Hughes’ role in the weird melodrama which led to Plath’s suicide has been processed so thoroughly by the criticism that it seemed inseparable from an aesthetic consideration of his work, but at fifty years’ distance, we are better situated to do so: Emory, an American university, keeps the archive of Hughes’ manuscripts and personal papers, and the feminist reading of both Plath and Hughes has matured enough to admit character flaws on both sides of that dark marriage.

This critical liberation comes at a timely moment. The monstrous Collected Poems of Ted Hughes isn’t quite ten years old, and has given a freshened generation of critics the chance to evaluate his poetry by some means other than the biographical. But the results were disappointing. Case in point: Paul Batchelor’s 2005 review of Collected Poems in Tower Poetry, which divides Hughes’ work into various roles or personas, “The Nature Poet,” “The Mythographer,” etc., leveraging the convenience of those categories to organize its tepid distaste for Hughes’ style. In the “Nature Poet” section, Batchelor makes the excellent point that Hughes’s reiterative descriptions of his subjects “outstrip most people’s experience,” noting that through the overlapping phrases of poems like “Sketch of a Goddess,” which describes two orchids, we are made to feel the inadequacy of language:


That one’s past it. But this one’s in her prime.
She utters herself
Utterly into appeal. A surrender
Of torn mucous membranes, veined and purpled,
A translucence of internal organs
In a frisson,
Torn open,
The core debauched,
All loosely dangling helplessness
And enfolding claspers –


His apparent failure to settle on the right phrase for the orchids, to Hughes’ fans, is the fresh expression of an old and delicious problem: Romantic Irony, the brilliance of a physical world that both compels us to describe it and defies description. There’s a good argument to be made that this dilemma is at the core of poetry’s efficacy; that English poetry has always been playing this game that it can’t win, and always pleasing us as it does so. But Batchelor attacks Hughes precisely for his expression of that problem, arguing that in the famous collection Crow, the backload “ …of such descriptions is immediately rubbish when you look up and see the crow flying,” and concluding that Hughes “…appears to have exhausted nature as a means of negotiating his experience.”

But Batchelor’s analysis flips Hughes’ real dilemma on its head: With his long descriptive lists and huge volume of published work, Hughes wasn’t belaboring a natural world he had exhausted, but celebrating a beauty he couldn’t exhaust. What Batchelor really takes umption with isn’t Hughes’ subject, or style, but his volume. “Hughes was prolific,” he writes, but this does not work out to a compliment: “There are many weak, and some positively bad poems in Collected Poems…” the implication is that Hughes should have either curbed the writing impulse, or curated his collections better.

It is revealing to contrast this critical reaction to those of Elizabeth Bishop’s reviewers. In terms of volume, Bishop is Hughes’s opposite (her life’s work included only 101 published poems). The Poetry Foundation, with audible gaspiness, describes Bishop as “…a perfectionist who did not write prolifically, preferring instead to spend long periods of time polishing her work.” “Perfect” is an adjective that circles Bishop’s work like a moth, and for all her lack of volume, she frequently rivals or outperforms Hughes in anthologies. Ernie Hilbert, reviewing her volume Bold Type, wrote that Bishop’s is distinguished by “craft-like accuracy” and “a miniaturist’s discretion and attention” He celebrated her poems as “…balanced like Alexander Calder mobiles…every element…poised flawlessly against the next.” It is difficult to find a review which doesn’t share Hilbert’s awe. But are brevity and balance really such reliable aesthetic standards?

Education is preceded by canonization. The anthology is its roadmap, and the excerpt, as much teachers hate to admit it, is its currency. Our generation, whose scholars have been brow-beaten by political discourse into an ideological obsession with inclusiveness, has done a fervent job rewriting the book on who should be included in those anthologies and excerpts. But the nastier question has to do with what should be included. The what question is not solvable, because it is predicated on the notion that we can comb through and extract an author’s “representative works,” which are actually mythological beasts, about as discoverable as griffins.

With poets like Bishop, this dilemma seems easier to untangle, given her concentrated output. But with voluble poets, such as Hughes or Walt Whitman, the difficulty is compounded. Someone once wrote of Whitman that “only a genius could have made his mistakes,” and that aphorism sums up the anthologist’s, and ultimately our culture’s, dilemma as we attempt to convey Whitman’s importance: Even his mistakes are genius, so how can decide what is most brilliant, moving, worth discoursing about? We can’t, but critics like Bachelor reveal that smart people are still allowing the anthologist’s impulse to steer their aesthetic judgement. Bachelor dislikes Hughes not because what he wrote wasn’t poetic, but because he wrote too much of it.

Yet volume can be just as profitable as refinement. The endurance of writers like Whitman and Hughes is undeniable, but we’ll be forced to deny it if we accept Paul Batchelor’s critical criteria. To an artistic mind that is already well-trained, expansion can be a form of revision: Left together on the page, multiple phrasings can assume an atmospheric weight equivalent to one of Basho’s Haikus, which get their gravity from brevity. Poems like Hughes’ “Bride and Groom Lie Hidden for Three Days,” which are flooded with descriptive language, might lose their power if the author had scratched all the repetitious phrasings. In this poem, economy would be a vice:


…And now he connects her throat, her breasts and the pit of her stomach

With a single wire

She gives him his teeth, tying the the roots to the centrepin of his body

He sets the little circlets on her fingertips

She stiches his body here and there with steely purple silk

He oils the delicate cogs of her mouth

She inlays with deep cut scrolls the nape of his neck

He sinks into place the inside of her thighs

So, gasping with joy, with cries of wonderment…

They bring each other to perfection.


There is certainly an infinite care in even Hughes’ most apparently off-hand poems, a fact which reveals one last truth about the dilemma between concentrated and voluble poetry: It dissolves under examination. Bishop’s perfection is as voluble in its depth as Whitman’s is in its breadth, just as Hughes’ descriptive panegyrics are every bit as crafted as Stephen Spender’s shoe-polished stanzas. Our preference for one over the other is not a question of quality, but of stylistic preference; a preference we should never make into a principle. The flaw that causes college reading packets to favor Bishop is systemic: A consequence of our need to anthologize. The virtue that will save Hughes from undeserved anonymity must be begun in the criticism. Experience, poetry’s subject, is not exhaustible, and we should not accuse the poets who attempt to emphasize this inexhaustibly of absurdity. In fact, the apparent looseness of voluble poetry accounts for that expansive quality taken on by the examined life. Fitting easily into the museum is an excellent criterion for the curator, but a poisonous one for the artist, and Hughes, who was a genius, should be allowed to make his genius mistakes. The delight of his sort of poetry is that it lies close to life, which cannot be summed properly up any more then he can be satisfyingly anthologized.

A Review of Christian Wiman’s “My Bright Abyss”

 “When I woke, the ground was moist about me, and my track to the grave was growing a quicksand.” — George MacDonald, Lilith

Why does the poet suffer? Watch, look, see her longwinded thoughts transform into laconic, saturated fragments of earth and sky. The elements of wonder can so easily transform themselves into the elements of pain. Is that opal hanging majestically in the night sky a friend, a portent of the daylight? Or is that crescent dagger a Cheshire Cat smile, appearing and disappearing into a deeper—the deepest—night? Either way the poet must shape the silences one gives and the other takes away. The silence of light and the silence of night; these are the elements that make up the kaleidoscope of Christian Wiman’s newest book, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer.

Like Augustine’s Confessions, Abyss isn’t really “about” anything so much as it is “to” everything: God, family, self, humanity, all of creation. It belongs to those kinds of books that are movements of life, tideways of prayer. “A confession,” Wittgenstein wrote, “must be part of your new life.” And like Dante’s La Vita Nuova, Wiman begins within the book of his memory, writing of his conversion in youth: “Maybe it happened—and goes on happening—at the cellular level and means not nothing but everything to me. Maybe, like an atavistic impulse, I don’t remember it, but it remembers me.”

If there is a form to Wiman’s fragments, it is the dance of call and response as they spiral and twist and torque into the crevices of “every riven thing” that blossoms in existence. He begins with a tenebrous call of dereliction:

My God my bright abyss
into which all my longing will not go
once more I come to the edge of all I know
and believing nothing believe in this:

Significantly, in the spirit of Kierkegaard’s “repetition” within a different disposition, the book ends with the same stanza. The only difference is that the last line ends with a period rather than a colon:

and believing nothing believe in this.

Wiman begins like Job, the dark terrors of silence and absence are responded to in the open lostness, the waiting, that the colon evokes. He begins in a Dantean dark wood, the selva oscura, knowing only one thing: the journey to and through the land of God-forsakenness has become a necessity.

But the colon mark takes part in a metamorphosis, it becomes a period. This period, however, is not a triumphal faith, a “full stop” of certainty. It is, rather, a movement from the thorn of silence into its rose. It is the eventide absence of God transformed into the whirlwind morning of God, both equally mysterious yet so infinitely different as to separate light from darkness. Wiman dwells neither in pure darkness nor in pure light; he sees through a glass darkly. Yet he does see, somewhere within the abyssal interval between Christ’s call “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” and the empty sepulcher of paschal beauty.

I even wonder if, in this subtle movement of punctuation, Wiman has not created a cryptic punctuation of Christ. A recurring line throughout the book is “Christ is contingency.” Christ roams the earth as a man of sorrows; he who is the pure joy of existence itself becomes existence groaning, as St. Paul described it. Christ is open, like the colon mark, to the fleeting winds of time as they give, without rhyme or reason, the tragedies and joys of this life. Wiman writes, “No. Life is not an error, even when it is.” There is a prodigality of life that inheres in the colon that is mirrored in Christ. One could even say that Christ embodies the word “colon” in a double sense, as the punctuation of contingency and as the scatological “shit” or “scum” of the world. St. Paul wrote that “we have become, and still are, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.” Yet what follows the colon of Christ’s being forsaken is the cry, the “period,” of Christ’s “it is finished” from the cross. This is the period as portent; the period that is already-but-not-yet; it bespeaks of the whirlwind in Job becoming the grammar of resurrection, the grammar of Christ.

Within the abyss, the interval, between broken images and resurrection, rests, in restlessness, the movement of faith. Faith burgeons within “sorrow’s flower,” “Experience lives in the transitions” and “We feel ourselves alive in the anxiety of being alive. We feel God in the coming and going of God—or no, the coming and going of consciousness (God is constant).” What is faith? What is love? They come and go, ebb and flow, upon eventides of days gone by. What is this love that sustains us? That knits these frangible petals of our existence together like some cosmic warp and woof?

Wiman gives one of the most beautiful responses to the question of faith I’ve ever heard:

“What does faith mean, finally, at this last date? I often feel that it means no more than, and no less than, faith in life—in the ongoingness of it, the indestructibility, some atom-by-atom intelligence that is and isn’t us, some day-by-day and death-by-death persistence insisting on a more-than-human hope, some tender and terrible energy that is, for those with eyes to see it, love.”

Faith is faith in life. St. Augustine called it the vita vitae in the Confessions, the Life of life. And what moves our lives within this infinite, life giving Life, is love. For Wiman, like the Bishop of Hippo, his love is his weight; it is the love that is moved by the Love that moves. This is the heart, the cosmic axis, of Christian faith: you shall love; which for the Christian also means: you shall exist.

But a nasty little virus has crept into the synapses of our modern psyches. We have turned faith and its reflection, love, into a soporific and ideal fideism cut off from the strong wine of doubt. Doubt, contrary to popular culture, is not the antithesis of faith (the antithesis is arrogant egoism), rather, doubt is faith’s lover in a quarrel, a wrestling with an angel. This is what the Scottish mystic, George MacDonald, meant by saying that “Doubts are the messengers of the Living One to the honest.” Similarly Wiman writes that “no matter how severe its [faith’s] draught, how thoroughly your skepticism seems to have salted the ground of your soul, faith, durable faith, is steadily taking root.” Faith and doubt are the sun and moon, the latter a portent of the former: “Sometimes God calls a person to unbelief in order that faith may take new forms.” Doubts may look as if they burn us in a fiery furnace. Yet there is one that looks as if he were the son of God in the Babylonian furnace, too. The Christian God is, after all, both a consuming fire and a fountain.

Life is a fugue, and faith its intervals, its transitions. There is always some counterpoint of dissonance straining our existence toward the future, giving us the nacre of the present from the past. The theme of life is a primordial wonder that anything, rather than simply nothing, should exist at all. It consists of elated fragments of awe, that we are here, now. And how rapturously strange that being has made some secret, subtle ligature and covenant with the abyss within the doors of our perception, our consciousness. Yet dissonance arises within the awareness of our fleeting contingency—memento mori—here today, gone tomorrow. As children of dust we return to our mother, the soil, the seed. The movement of these elations, wonders and sorrows, temper and define our experience of time. Time is defined by the sound of our lives, the crescendo of which is our love. This sound is our memory, the mother of our muses.

Sometime before the German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a heavy influence on Wiman), was murdered at the hands of the Nazis, he admonished his people to remember Jacob’s fearful awe when reunited face to face with his brother, Esau, years after the fateful birthright deception took place, Jacob says: “for therefore I have seen thy face, as though I had seen the face of God.” To see our brother and sister—the one we’ve all deceived—is akin to seeing the face of God. Every human is an icon of the face of God. “Unto the least of these, you did it unto me,” a first century Jew is known to have said.

This theme, God’s face in our neighbor—the world seen, one could say, through the prism of Andrei Rublev’s Angels at Mamre icon—is the heart of Wiman’s book; it is what makes writing the book possible.

Somewhere along the corridors of life, Wiman fell in love with a girl. And joy’s face was mirrored back into his own. He prays with her, prays to the Face in every face. There is no other way to begin to pray but to pray to a human face; this is what it means to believe in Christ, to look into the eyes of a love that never changes in every contingent leaf of existence. Without this necessary dimension of Christian faith Wiman writes that “one’s solitary experiences of God wither into a form of withholding, spiritual stinginess, the light of Christ growing ever fainter in the glooms of self.” A potent sense of this truth is found, he relates, in Bonhoeffer’s insight that Christ is always stronger in our brother’s heart than in our own.

One of my favorite chapters of the book (no doubt because I’m fated with the nerves of William Cowper) is “Hive of Nerves.” The epigraph, from Paul Celan, goes like this: “It is time that the stone grew accustomed to blooming, / That unrest formed a heart.” If Augustine’s heart was restless in the fourth century, how much so ours? Ours is the age of distracted anxiety, the worst kind of anxiety I can imagine. Wiman writes, “And thus a whole country can be organized toward some collective insanity because there is no space for individuals to think.” How to slow down? No, slow…down. Slow. Down. To weep by the waters of Babylon, or Leman (nod to Eliot); to rejoice in the flow of the Jordan; to see with the eyes that are the lamp of the body; to stop long enough to find one’s self under the Rose of Dante’s Paradiso, or in the ichor of Angelus Silesius’s rose, the rose that “is without why, it blooms because it blooms, it pays no attention to itself, asks not whether it is seen.” There is a happy forgetfulness in attending to the world, an attention to the other that gives the self back to itself in truth, in love. We give the world presence, and thereby receive the gift of being present ourselves. Amidst the flickering screens that makeup our wastelands, we are called, Wiman seems to say, to form a heart.

If one has ever watched Robert Bresson’s magisterial film, Diary of a Country Priest—or read the classic novel it portrays by Georges Bernanos—the end of Wiman’s book will seem strangely familiar. They both culminate, in a somewhat melancholy adagio of expectation, in the kairos and fecundity of all Christian thought: Grace. All is Grace, that mysterious orchid of God’s mind that gives birth to the world. In the midst of being hellishly flayed by stomach cancer, the young country priest of Abricourt offers his last words: “It doesn’t matter. Grace is everywhere.” It doesn’t matter that Christian Wiman believes in nothing, so long as he believes in this: Grace is everywhere.

Reading Kierkegaard in the Age of MOOCs

Although he was born frail and sickly, in 42 years  he left behind a bafflingly insightful and beautiful body of work. His writings appeared under the names of nearly a dozen pseudonyms. He has been called philosopher, theologian, preacher and even poet, yet he said, “My existence itself is really the deepest irony.”  In the 200th year since his birth, Søren Kierkegaard still possesses the coyness of the Cheshire Cat, disappearing at will, leaving only his grin behind. But behind the tricks, disguises and illusions is the Kierkegaard the 21st century urgently needs: Kierkegaard the educator.

Kierkegaard preferred to use the term “upbringing” rather than “education.” Upbringing encompasses the growth of the whole human person—not just the mind. For Kierkegaard meaningful education does not end in knowledge, but in the realization of knowledge. An upbringing is not complete until learning influences the life of the student. A teacher cannot bring up a student by teaching abstract theories like Kant’s “categorical imperative,” nor can a student be brought up with so-called “practical” learning—how to build a bench, interview for a job or input a VLOOKUP formula in Microsoft Excel. Kierkegaard believed that overly practical education—education only concerned with how questions—would create what he called “fractional” human beings: people who are trained to do a particular task rather than to strive for personal transformation.

Kierkegaard’s revolutionary insights about the nature of upbringing led him to question the value of information itself. In Kierkegaard’s age new printing technologies allowed newspapers and journals to reach a mass audience with much greater speed than ever before. Kierkegaard sensed that these new developments led his contemporaries to the faulty assumption that the “knowledge” produced by information was an end in itself. He even pointed out that information can get in the way of authentic living, complaining that “the whole mob of publishers, book-sellers, journalists, authors” distract from the truth that “relatively little knowledge is needed to be truly human.” The new technologies and trends emphasized extensive knowledge to the exclusion of intensive knowledge, the knowledge that affects us personally and intimately, and alters our way of living. Kierkegaard insisted that without real upbringing, information is meaningless.

As an example, Kierkegaard tells the following story:

A sergeant in the National Guard says to a recruit, “You, there, stand up straight.”

Recruit: “Sure enough.”

Sergeant: “Yes, and don’t talk during the drill.”

Recruit: “Alright, I won’t if you’ll just tell me.”

Sergeant: “What the devil! You are not supposed to talk during the drill!”

Recruit: “Well, don’t get so mad. If I know I’m not supposed to, I’ll quit talking during the drill.”


In this story the recruit is able to receive the necessary knowledge from the sergeant and yet the knowledge doesn’t alter his actions or his attitude. The recruit fails to see that the sergeant does not aim to simply inform him, but to transform him into a soldier. The sergeant, Kierkegaard explains, will have to use indirect communication like drills, challenges and exercises to shock, startle and shake up the recruit. He will have to communicate not only to the recruit’s mind, but to his will, desires, goals and his life project. This shows why, as Kierkegaard also wrote, “to bring up human beings is a very rare gift.”

Today’s nearly instant communication and vast stores of online information make the technology of Kierkegaard’s age look primitive. We are more fast-paced, more analysis-driven and more practically minded in our education than any society early 19th century Denmark could have imagined. We pride ourselves on outsourcing thinking to software and memory to “the cloud.”  Perhaps most tellingly, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are quickly becoming the new paradigm for “progressive” education. MOOCs are enormous—courses reach tens of thousands of students at a time. Widely available and often at very low cost, MOOCS involve a minimal commitment from students, making it easier than ever to confuse a wealth of information with total education or upbringing that Kierkegaard reminds us to strive for.

The kind of teaching that Kierkegaard wrote about is not so much under threat as it is forgotten. This March, announcing that he would leave the teaching profession after over forty years of service, Gerald Conti wrote that his “total immersion” approach to teaching is “not only devalued, but denigrated and perhaps, in some quarters despised” in favor of a “data-driven” approach. He concluded his resignation by stating,

“I am not leaving my profession, in truth, it has left me. It no longer exists. I feel as though I have played some game halfway through its fourth quarter, a timeout has been called, my teammates’ hands have all been tied, the goal posts moved, all previously scored points and honors expunged and all of the rules altered.”

Countless teachers like Gerald Conti are struggling to make their voices heard, insisting that the art of teaching is not scalable, marketable or packageable and that it does not lend itself to our demands for efficiency, predictability, calculability and control. Teachers insist that they are more than knowledge transfer technicians who streamline and facilitate a download of information into their students’ heads. Their job is not always to make things easier, but sometimes to make things difficult. They don’t simply grease the wheels of the educational machine; they provoke, prod, challenge and upset, doing whatever it takes to break through the passive consumerist mentality that makes us receivers of knowledge and not active participants. Put simply, they remind us that, unlike MOOCs, upbringing always costs something. It demands pain, time, energy, focus, passion and diligence.

If upbringers want to make an impact on the 21st century, they will have to be more elusive, more artful, more sly and more creative than ever. And when they’re ready to learn they can look to Kierkegaard the educator, the master magician with the Cheshire Cat grin.



[i] Kierkegaard, Søren.  Søren Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers. Edited and translated by Howard V. and Edna H. Hong

In Praise of Nursery Tale Anthropomorphism

Animal stories are the stuff of an imaginative child’s delight: Kenneth Grahame’s Ratty and Mole, C.S. Lewis’s beaver family, Beatrix Potter’s Benjamin Bunny. In these stories, impossibility is key. “Lucie opened the door: and what do you think there was inside the hill? – a nice clean kitchen with a flagged floor and wooden beams – just like any other farm kitchen” . . . only suspiciously smaller. In fact, everything in Beatrix Potter’s Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle is suspiciously small, including the washerwoman herself, who has other strange features: a nose that goes “sniffle, sniffle, snuffle” and prickles rather than pincurls under her cap. But none of her animal-like qualities stops Tiggy-Winkle from living a very person-like existence, wearing a print gown and apron while she irons out her neighbors’ waistcoats. This is a common animal story conceit: away from the familiarity of home, a child encounters fantastical creatures, the impossible nature of which she only slowly registers. (Tiggy-Winkle is a hedgehog!) At which point, the child seems to awaken; perhaps it was all a dream. But was it? The evidence points in both directions, a la Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

Not too far afield, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows asks the same question – person or animal? – but the evidence is more complicated. The story of Mole and Water Rat begins with characters that are clearly animal, and it only slowly dawns upon the reader that it’s the other way around. The animals here are stand-ins for people, and very recognizable people, at that. Otter is the scrappy, cockney city chap; Badger your introverted, gruff old country fellow; Toad the landed gentry whose money has gone to his indulgent head. And Mole lives in his under-hill home, which is no muddy animal lodging, but instead a tidy, thoughtfully-decorated . . . well, let’s be honest: hobbit hole. And to the same extent that Bilbo Baggins is actually a landed English gentleman, mole is also an ordinary fellow; he is not very “animal” at all. (It is interesting to think that The Wind in the Willows was written three decades before The Hobbit, and that Tolkien had read and liked it.) Unlike the Tiggy-Winkle tale, there is no dream here to wake up from. Whether we notice it or not, we readers perceive the actions of Mole and Ratty as those of humans – albeit quirky humans with rather furry paws.

So what rescues Grahame’s tale from being the sort of anthropomorphic animal story C.S. Lewis called “astonishingly prosaic”?[i] Lewis talks critically about animal stories that directly substitute possum for person, in which the central character might be a human knight just as easily as a field mouse. (Brian Jacques’s recent Redwall series exemplifies the substitution effect of animals-as-people. Lewis would have recognized – and, I think, enjoyed – Jacques’s woodland characters for what they are: people walking around in mice’s clothing.) Regarding Willows, Lewis admits that the animal-person “disguise is very thin”[ii] – but it’s not completely transparent. Willows stands apart because it leaves room for some uncertainty in the details. As in Tiggy-Winkle, the evidence points in conflicting directions: Are these actually animals, or are they people?

The way Grahame asks the question is the same thing for which Willows catches some negative criticism. In the story, the human interplay with the animal characters is inconsistent, at best. We read along for some pages, often forgetting the protagonists are animals – they seem so people-like, living in their comfortably-appointed parlors with fully-stocked kitchens and cleanly-swept entry halls – when suddenly Grahame introduces the idea of humans inhabiting the same world as Ratty and Mole. Bam! The fantasy we’ve been receiving as reality reels on its own axis for a moment. How could Badger, so seemingly-human himself, inhabit rebuilt ruins left over from England’s very historical and real Roman occupation? How could Toad inhabit the same living space as the human Gaoler’s daughter, and, even more bizarrely, entertain the possibility that she might fall in love with him, a toad? Ratty and Mole walk down lane and through village like any other human biped, but on the very next page, they respond to that purely animal instinct that sends them scrabbling across long distances toward home. These are jarringly incongruous moments.

The Wind in the Willows is stronger for them. Incongruity is actually a crucial part of Grahame’s imaginative magic. When, upon reflection, we realize we’ve been picturing Mr. Toad with human arms and legs (After all, how else could he don his motor-clothes? Or drive a car? Or comb his hair?), and when he comes up against a group of truly human travelers on the open road, the impossibility of a frog so easily convincing a crowd of people that he’s human is part of the enjoyment. It’s also part of the book’s deeper resonance. With Beatrix Potter, the Person-or-Hedgehog question is straightforward. With Grahame, it’s more convoluted, and the book is a funny, wild ride, not despite, but because of all the clashing uncertainties. Two decades later, A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories playfully intertwined similar uncertainties, creating a study in reflexive text pervaded by the old Velveteen Rabbit question, “Is Pooh stuffed? Or is he a real bear?” The answer for Pooh is “both.” Or perhaps the answer actually is, “Does it matter?” Likewise, though The Wind and the Willows never overtly asks “What’s really going on here?” the reader is forced to consider the possibilities again and again. And, as in Tiggy-Winkle, as in Pooh, there’s no clear answer.

At the end of Potter’s Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, Lucie holds the cleaned and pressed bundle of lost handkerchiefs in her hand – who but Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle could have put them there? And yet she also spies Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, small and prickly, unclad, dashing away on all fours – “nothing but a hedgehog.” Did Lucie, like Carroll’s Alice, merely fall asleep in the grass and dream the washerwoman? Or did she, like Alice in Through the Looking Glass, actually see the other side of reality? The best of these children’s animal stories charmingly, cleverly know that the value isn’t in the answer, but in the question (Is it dream or is it reality?), and in the deeper questions that initial question unsettles and shakes free. This is the child’s version of a tactic as old as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, as recent as Postmodern thought and as exciting as the drama in grownup tales like Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception. (I know which way I wanted that spinning top to fall. But did it or didn’t it?)

The initial question matters because, at the end of it, we arrive not at the answer, but at something more personally challenging. In this animal-peopled world of children’s lit, we are forced to engage a more bracing imagination that considers unfamiliar possibilities. And this is good, because we’ve got to get outside the norm in order to see both ourselves and others more clearly. As G.K. Chesterton says, when familiarity breeds contempt, “We must invoke the most wild and soaring sort of imagination; the imagination that can see what is there.”[iii] Marilynne Robinson further suggests that imagination is essential in loving and identifying with others – especially others who differ from ourselves.[iv] Of Kenneth Grahame’s narcissistic Mr. Toad, C.S. Lewis explains that the unnatural combination of human traits and froggy features lead to not only an “amusement in,” but also an actual “kindness towards a certain kind of vanity in real life.”[v] We’ve got to get outside our world in order to live better in it. The likes of Grahame and Potter and Milne offer a way out.

So, in the end of Potter’s story, Lucie’s initial, astonished response is wrong. Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle “nothing but a hedgehog?” No. Here in Animal Land, it is everything-and. The incongruities are the gateway to both the dream and the reality, where we can imaginatively engage impossibilities in order to see what’s really true.


[i] Lewis, C.S. Surprised by Joy.

[ii] Lewis, C.S. On Stories and Other Essays on Literature. “On Stories.”

[iii] Chesterton, G.K. The Everlasting Man.

[iv] Robinson, Marilynne. When I Was a Child I Read Books. “Imagination and Community.”

[v]On Stories.”

“Anna Karenina” and the Enchantment of the Ordinary

 “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” – Annie Dillard 

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I was on a family vacation the first time I read this strange syllogism that famously begins Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Seventeen years old, laying out on the deck of a cruise ship, I witnessed Anna’s life unravel. Had you asked me to sum up its eight hundred and seventeen pages then, I would have told you that it’s a book about Anna, an unhappy woman and thus, according to Tolstoy’s opening line, a unique woman. A woman worth reading about. And there is this other character named Konstantin Levin, less unhappy and more boring. I breezed through Levin’s life, desperate to know Anna’s fate. Of those two protagonists, Levin and Anna, she was my protagonist. She was my friend. Perhaps the greatest testament I can give to Tolstoy’s genius is that he can make a teenager girl sailing around the Caribbean empathize with a suicidal Russian woman. He’s that good.

It’s funny how you the reader shape the books you read; how as you change, your reading of the book changes too. This spring I gave Anna a second go. Now a quarter way through the journey that is my life, I’ve come to the conclusion that Anna Karenina isn’t about Anna Karenina at all. I think it is a book about Konstantin Levin. (Next time I read it, I will probably think the main character is Laska the dog. Seriously though, has to be one of literature’s great dogs). When I read Anna this time, her plot lured me like a siren song, only to find Tolstoy saying that the passionate, violent, tragic weight of Anna’s story does not testify to the entirety of the human experience. For Tolstoy, what is important in history and in an individual life is what goes unnoticed. In the seemingly insignificant moments of our lives, we live. Critic Gary Saul Morson says it another way, speaking of Anna: “If we live only for critical moments and regard ordinary ones as mere intervals, we are sure to live badly.” (35). Perhaps his comment applies as well to reading as to living. To read for the big moments is to read badly. I’m learning to read Anna Karenina for Levin.

Levin is one of the most likable characters you’ll ever meet. Stubborn and self-conscious, sheepish around women but hopelessly in love with Kitty Oblonsky. A man with mistakes in his past and lofty dreams of book writing and family in his sights for the future. We watch Levin get uncomfortable at nice parties, argue with his brothers, mow grass, pet his dog. When Levin returns home, reeling from the sting of Kitty’s rejection, he goes to his study. With his dreams dashed and the hope sucked out of him, Levin suddenly feels like all of his familiar possessions—books, ashtray, sofa—are whispering mockeries: “You’ll be the same as you were: with doubts, an eternal dissatisfaction with yourself, vain attempts to improve, and failures, and an eternal expectation of happiness that has eluded you and is not possible for you.” But another voice inside Levin insists that no, his dreams must not die, “it was possible to do anything with oneself.” In turmoil between the two voices, Levin does something so normal: he grabs two dumbbells out of the corner of his study and begins to lift them. How ordinary it is: taking out some dissatisfaction with yourself in desperate exercise. Trying to do something, anything, to bridge the gap between who you are and who you want to be.

Life does have extraordinary moments, and Levin experiences them: birth, love, marriage, and death. When Levin reflects on the eerie similarity between his feelings about his brother’s death and his feelings at the birth of his first child, he thinks: “But that grief and this joy were equally outside all ordinary circumstances of life, were like holes in this ordinary life, through which something higher showed” (713). Such grief and joy come in life’s extraordinary moments, but they are not the norm. From such holes, Levin returns to the cohesive fabric of his existence. Levin, a totally hopeless romantic, finds that married life is not the breakfast in bed dream he thought it would be. “At every step it was not what he had imagined,” yet we read, “At every step he found disenchantment with his old dream and a new unexpected enchantment” (479). Levin, like Tolstoy, becomes enamored with seeing life’s ordinariness over its extraordinariness. That normal marriage, within his normal life, arrests him with its happiness.

In the novel’s final lines we see Levin’s sublimation of the extraordinary into the ordinary, his sense that his largest belief infiltrates even his smallest activities, his missteps, the things he does that he wishes he didn’t do:

“I’ll get angry in the same way with the coachman Ivan, argue in the same way, speak my mind inappropriately, there will be the same wall between my soul’s holy of holies and other people, even my wife, I’ll accuse her in the same way of my own fear and then regret it, I’ll fail in the same way to understand with my reason why I pray, and yet I will pray—but my life now, my whole life, regardless of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only not meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which it is in my power to put into it.”

Wendell Berry writes in Jayber Crow: “The world doesn’t stop because you are in love or in mourning or in need of time to think. And so when I have thought I was in my story or in charge of it, I really have only been on the edge of it.” Story has the power to show us that we are much less important than we realize, as well as more important than we ever dreamed. Tolstoy’s novel acts like a microscope and a panorama; its pages elevate the most realistic, relatable details of our thoughts and emotions, while also placing such personal turmoil in a grander scheme. At least on this read, I see Anna Karenina in its panorama, its ability to subjugate an individual’s story into a broader one, as life itself does.

The book is about Anna, of course. I know that. Her experiences, albeit heartbreaking, are real. We bear witness to her journey towards death, a death born of the “eternal error” every single one of us makes in “imagining that happiness is the realization of desires” (465). Poor Anna, what begins as a manipulative “weapon,” the threat of self-destruction whispered to her lover, becomes a weapon outside her capacity to control. With nothing larger than herself to bear her up, the book of her life must end.

The thought of death many times threatens to consume Levin, too. But the real gift of Levin’s faith in the end is his sense of a “master,” an author larger than himself that offers to gracefully submerge his story and thus make sense of it all—the sweat, regret, fights, tears, the holes in the fabric but the fabric too. Thankfully, the book is not about Anna. Elusive happiness, faithfulness, and clarity can come to us, but only within this ironic way of reading: your story is not about you either, thank God. You are on the edge of something much larger.

DBH’s “The Devil and Pierre Gernet”: A Pendulation of Spirit

“He can make the proudest spirits stoop, and cry out with Julian the Apostate, Vicisti, Galilcœe; or with Apollo’s priest in Chrysostom, O cœlum! O terra! unde hostis hic?

-Robert Burton,  Anatomy of Melancholy

Should you ever be athirst in the great American desert, try this experiment: read David Bentley Hart’s The Devil and Pierre Gernet: Stories, if for no other reason than that it’s a caravan supplied with a metaphysical professor. Granted, sadly, this may be precisely the reason why no one will read it; that is, professors given up to the whims of hyperborean winds are just as unlikely to find literary welcome as Melville’s Ishmael a warm cot at the Spouter Inn. On the other hand, this may be exactly the reason why it must be sought and read.

The stories are like a labyrinthine pomegranate with many seeds. And they have that Borgesian quality of the clinched fist about them, the number of Hart’s pages seem no more or less than infinite: none is the first page, none is the last. This is not, of course, to persuade one that there is little by way of reading ease and pleasure—there certainly is—but only to concede that these stories are comprised of that lost art of fiction of ideas in its highest order.

Thus the stories emerge from a particular movement of spirit that is so indigenous to Hart’s narrative voice that it is difficult at times to grasp, like an undercurrent you can feel but cannot see. This is not due especially to any peculiar conceptual difficulty inherent in the ideas expressed in the stories but more so because they deal with ideas and patterns of thought which have been slowly vanishing from the horizon of our cultural consciousness, like an event so strange we have chosen to forget it. Hart’s stories seem intent on emitting brief flickers of light in order to awaken a more primordial and elemental astonishment at existence; the mystery of being at all refracted upon the surface of all things.

But it’s not just any form of existence that may manifest itself in the corridors of time with which Hart seems preoccupied. It is not a purely mystical comportment to existence that is being summoned upon in the stories but what I would like to call, borrowing from Erich Auerbach’s classic work, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, a certain “pendulation” of spirit; a temporal pendulation moving within an eternal amplitude. A pendulation of spirit that is best expressed within the character of Hart’s Pierre Gernet.

This pendulum sways to and fro, like a restless Persephone, throughout the entire collection. Its defining characteristic is a movement through the most profound depths of tragic despair and sorrow to a promise that erupts and expands upon the surface of a vernal expectation. It is what Auerbach refers to as the dynamic movement and metamorphosis of cultural consciousness that broke through St. Peter’s dolorous dialectic of cock-crows upon his discovery of the empty sepulcher; a revolution in the experience of existence that set, as Auerbach writes, “man’s whole world astir.”

The stories, then, lay within the matrices of a certain interim of spirit that hints at an eternal ripening of mirth beneath the harrowing and tragic shifts of time’s disorientating quakes of violence. It is a movement through what Virgil called the lacrymae rerum, the tears in things. It is a sight that only makes sense in light of the darkly tears of Pierre’s life; a life that is narrated through the devil’s dialectic of occult powers and principalities; a dialectic that Pierre would call the play of Apollo and Dionysus, the circumscribing logic of Everything and Nothing upon the sea of being’s chaotic frisson.

But there is a deeper magic—a magical movement of redemption—at work within Pierre’s tears that shatter the mirror of time’s captivity to the image of death. And it is here, as I warned in the beginning of this review with a transposition of the words of Melville, that we are dealing with a metaphysical professor whose caravan of fiction is a kaleidoscope of time’s surfaces being shook-foiled (to borrow Hopkins) with eternity’s light. And it is here where the reader catches glimpse of that Spirit which is more intimately interior to ourselves than we are to ourselves, precisely in being infinitely other and superior to ourselves.

And it is perhaps here, also, where we wait—within the interval of the twinkling of an eye, between the flutters of an Ulysses butterfly—with the protagonist in Hart’s last story, The Other, for the lost time when “there was such a magic hanging about the place, and I heard you and almost saw you—almost. Something of your form seemed to steal through the light, as part of it, or behind it—I don’t know”. Hart’s venturing questions to his readers seem to be these: “What’s your memory like? What have you forgotten?”

In a recent New York Times essay, “Has Fiction Lost its Faith”, author Paul Elie laments the current lack of first-rate fiction portraying what Flannery O’Connor called “believable belief”. There is little doubt that Hart’s collection is first-rate intellectual and spiritual fiction, but I’m afraid that Elie’s point “that Graham Greene and J.R.R. Tolkien were considered baffling in their time” will ultimately prove true of Hart. (This, as should be obvious, certainly isn’t always a bad thing.) And, of course, it doesn’t help that Hart’s publisher is not only very small but has virtually no reputation for works of fiction. One simply wonders how it would be received if it had, say, FSG printed on the spine and critics were actually aware of its existence.

Whatever its fate may be, The Devil and Pierre Gernet is a pure joy to read. There are no marionette characters of ideas despite its being in the genre of fiction of ideas. And the prose is mellifluously sculpted and tight, pregnant with polyphony. Indeed, it could scarcely be said (excepting, perhaps, the likes of Marilynne Robinson) that there is a more versatile, learned, and gifted prose stylist spanning the worlds of both fiction and non-fiction writing in America today than David Bentley Hart.

photo by: stevendepolo

Arthur, Adapted

This article should be illegal.

In That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis, a sociologist agrees to write newspaper articles on a riot that has not yet happened, but which his bosses have engineered to occur next day. Mark’s job is interpretation of the future: placing his criminal bosses in the best light so they will benefit from the very chaos they have manufactured.

What I propose to do here is not quite so nefarious. I propose to review a book that has not yet been released and which I have not yet read. The book is The Fall of Arthur by J.R.R. Tolkien, scheduled for release from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on May 23rd, 2013. You can pre-order it on Amazon.

But before I launch into my highly questionable pre-review (preview?), let me justify this course of action by means of a little bit of literary history and a little bit of literary analysis—fancy shenanigans of the English-teacher type. (By the way, I am not the only thought criminal in this regard; read this excellent pre-review, for instance).

The story of King Arthur is among the most adapted stories of all time. A quick list at the democratizing modern research archive, Wikipedia, reveals 92 films based on Arthurian legend and 392 books about King Arthur. These lists are incomplete and do not include works that reference the Arthurian story obliquely or draw on its imagery and symbolism.

These Arthurian works change the story wildly over the ages. Characters are added or deleted. (Lancelot didn’t appear until some 700 years into the tradition.) Villains evolve into heroes and vice versa. (Morgan le Fay is notorious for changing sides.) Events are invented or erased; the Quest for the Holy Grail, for instance, was a twelfth-century addition. Happy endings become tragedies or the other way round. (In some, Arthur dies at the end; in others, he is taken to Avalon for healing and eternal life.) The time period shifts: You’ll find stories set anywhere from the 400s to last Tuesday. The geographical locations move all over the British Isles and even into fairyland. In short, the whole story is tailored to suit the times.

Each new storyteller uses Arthur & Co. as a vehicle for political, religious, economic or other messages. They might use it to condemn non-Christians or promote syncretism. They might alter it to bolster patriotism or argue against nationalism. They might shape it in support of the monarchy or to undermine the government. They might fashion it as a hymn of praise for virginity or a shout of radical feminism.

But that can’t be right, can it? I mean, think how angry we get when we go to see a movie that is an awful adaptation of a beloved book. How could all these authors and movie-makers take the “real” King Arthur story and mutilate it so it is unrecognizable when compared to the original?

The answer to that question is astonishing and liberating:

There is no original.

This is why the King Arthur legends are perennially popular: There is no urtext. Oral traditions predate written works. Indeed, the legend has two divergent parents: the Welsh tales, in which dark magical forces such as Merlin are operative; and the French Romance tradition, which added knights, chivalry, Lancelot and the Grail.

Since there is no “right” story that we can point to as “the book” on which the movie, painting or other book is based, none of the adaptations can be “wrong.”

Furthermore, the whole idea of adaptation needs constant renewal. Of course, we know that we should not judge adaptations by their supposed fidelity to the source text—and there is no source text in this case anyway—but there is more. Each adaptation, no matter what it alters, should be evaluated on its own aesthetic terms. There has been a lot of intelligent talk about this in the past years, especially as some great literary works have been making their way onto the screen in new ways for new times.

And there’s at least one more reason that Arthurian adaptations proliferate without restraint. The story—whichever stories you choose as prior—is enormous, many-limbed and lithe with variety. It is packed with enough characters, events, images and emblems to fit anybody’s preference. There is always someone in it who is you.

For all these reasons, then, King Arthur and his entourage map onto each generation—and for all these reasons, we can predict a lot about the forthcoming Tolkien book before we read it. So this is not so much a pre-review as a prophecy. Of course, there is also plenty of chatter in the news, on Tolkien sites, on fan sites, in the blogosphere and elsewhere online where the savvy Googler can pick up tips.

Here, then, are some semi-oracular statements:

The Fall of Arthur will be a thoroughly twentieth-century work, tinged with Tolkien’s particular kind of re-imagined Medievalism and Northerness. This is obvious, both because of the flexibility of the story itself and because of Tolkien’s literary taste and style. But more specifically: I predict that there will be echoes of the First World War in the battle scenes and the general kappa element (tone, feeling or atmosphere) relating to military action. War is an ugly beast in Tolkien’s works. This is not lessened by the glory he gives to warriors. I think, then, that there will be a feeling of hopelessness in the Battle of Camlann, counteracted by the individual heroism of ordinary people. The little knight whose name has been forgotten will do deeds to rival those of Gawain, Lancelot and Arthur himself.

If The Fall of Arthur contains a description of what T.S. Eliot called “The Wasteland,” the land around the Castle of the Hallows that was made desolate by the Dolorous Stroke, I predict that it will be seen through Tolkien’s radical environmental vision. Malcolm Guite has explained how the Inklings were not backwards-looking dinosaurs, but forward-thinking prophets in their own time. One of Tolkien’s most enduring themes is his love of the environment, his stewardship of the land and his bleak vision of what happens when we loot and scar the earth with industry. In The Lord of the Rings, this is seen most clearly in Saruman’s depredations of the forest of Fangorn. In The Fall of Arthur, there is a chance for it to be shown in the lands around Carbonek, or at least as a context for war.

In contrast to Tolkien’s modern vision of earth care, there will be quite backwards, “Victorian” depictions of stylized women, if women appear at all. While Tolkien’s women can be powerful and active, he nearly always idealizes them out of reality onto a plane of semi-divinity. It could be argued that such a depiction is “timeless,” rather than “old-fashioned,” and that it is informed by his theological system of thought, but it certainly doesn’t go down well with the modern feminist.

Another old-fashioned idea of Tolkien’s will also be operative in this work. This is his concept of absolutism in language. Unlike Derrida and Foucault, about a generation younger than he, Tolkien believed that words had essential relationships to the things they named. Even more: Words expressed something essential about the things they named. That is why the very words themselves can be evil or good in his Legendarium. While I doubt that he will talk about this in The Fall of Arthur, this concept will have guided his choice of each word.

This leads me quite naturally into a discussion of the poetry of The Fall of Arthur. Is it any good? Well, Ruth Lacon and Alex Lewis believe that “The Fall of Arthur has an excellent chance of being a good poem.” The very brief selections provided suggest that it will be a good poem, with a lively meter, vivid imagery and beautiful sounds. But I doubt that it will be a great poem.

Like his fellow Inklings, who aspired to be great poets, Tolkien’s intellectual understanding and aesthetic appreciation of poetry surpassed his ability to write it. Lewis, Tolkien, Williams and Barfield were decent, reliable craftsmen of verse. Williams was the greatest poet of the quartet. But none of them soared to the heights of some of their contemporaries (Eliot and Auden come to mind) or their models (Milton, Dante, the Beowulf poet). This was partly due to their habit of leaving unfinished works, partly due to their mad multitasking skills and partly due to some undefined quality in their verse that leaves it just a shade below the truly great.

Yet great poetry is not all that matters in a great poem, surprisingly. C. S. Lewis wrote about what else matters. He was describing George MacDonald, but he could have said much the same about Tolkien. He wrote:

“In poetry the words are the body and the “theme” or “content” is the soul. But in myth the imagined events are the body and something inexpressible is the soul…. MacDonald is the greatest genius of this kind whom I know. But I do not know how to classify such genius. To call it literary genius seems unsatisfactory since it can coexist with great inferiority in the art of words—nay, since its connection with words at all turns out to be merely external and, in a sense, accidental…. It was in this mythopoeic art that MacDonald excelled.”

Lewis wrote this in 1946; perhaps a decade later he would have said that Tolkien was the greatest mythopoeic genius he knew. For Tolkien’s genius goes beyond the mere choosing of each word (though he was obsessed with that, and made up his own words and whole languages when English and the dozen or so other languages he knew would not suffice). It moves into world-building.

Why, then, did Tolkien abandon this story? Wasn’t it the ideal vehicle for his holistic, theological vision of a universe of order, meaning, suffering and redemption? Perhaps not. Humphrey Carpenter wrote in his biography: “Arthurian stories were also unsatisfactory to him as myth in that they explicitly contained the Christian religion.” Tolkien wanted to refigure the mythic power of the Christian religion. It wasn’t enough to tell the Gospel; he had to rewrite it in an entirely new universe of his own creation.

A Tolkien scholar named John Garth has written (in this article in The Guardian) that “Any addition to the Arthurian tradition by a major author is welcome; this one is also exciting because of what it adds to our picture of a great modern imagination.” This has always been true. Each addition to the Arthurian tradition adds to our picture of that author’s imagination and to our understanding of the time period in which he or she lives. King Arthur always provides a story for our times, no matter what time it is told and retold. Tolkien’s work, then, will be no exception.

Judging from His Verse

Judging from his verse* of disgust for unwanted phone calls and visitors, is it safe to say that Charles Bukoswki would welcome email, text, tweeting, blogging and other networks were he alive in 2013?

Documented, too, is his love/hate relationship with the mailbox and the postal service, but imagine his status updates: “outside, it is the same: the devils drink from the breasts of stunned maids; it is beginning to rain: fleck, fleck, fleck, the dirty drops of tulip wine.”** Or texts and tweets such as, “the ass is the face of the soul of sex,” or “God is a lonely place without steak.”*** Alas, such succulent nuggets can only be e-delivered secondhand these days.

Backtrack to a 2001 publication, Beerspit Night And Cursing: The Correspondence of Charles Bukowski and Sherri Martinelli, 1960-1967 (Black Sparrow Press) for an in-depth look at his correspondence via letters with Sheri Martinelli, a 42-year-old doyenne of artistic luminaries that included past acquaintances: Anais Nin, Charlie Parker and Ezra Pound.. In 1960, Bukowski was a 39-year-old writer living alone in Los Angeles busily writing and submitting poetry to magazines, betting on horses and drinking–despite a near-death trip to the hospital for a bleeding ulcer in 1955. He was first published in STORY in 1944 and made appearances sixty times in various publications throughout the 40s and 50s, but had yet to achieve fame. He was also beginning a decade in which he was a prolific letter writer and, through his job at the post office, letter sorter.

That same year, he sent off some of his poems to Anagogic & Paideumic Review, a San Francisco literary and arts magazine run by Martinelli. Though several of them were published in issues number five and six of the “little” mimeographed magazine, something in Martinelli’s presumptuous dismissal of Bukowski’s style piqued the poet’s interest and kicked off the correspondence.

In many ways, Beerspit breaks new ground in understanding Bukowski and his art–during what was for him a chaotic, yet productive time. (He was published nearly forty times in 1960, alone). Though Martinelli is alluded to in his poetry (see “he wrote in lonely blood” in Mockingbird Wish Me Luck, Black Sparrow, 1973), she is not mentioned in Howard Sounes’ excellent Bukowski biography, Charles Bukowski: Locled in the Arms of a Crazy Life  (1998, Grove Press) or Hank: The Life of Charles Bukowski (1991, Random House) by Neeli Cherkovski, so Beerspit reintroduces Martinelli to the world from which she left relatively unnoticed.

Editor Steven Moore points out a previous reference to her in a letter to the poet, Jory Sherman, from another Black Sparrow edition of Bukowski letters from the 60’s Screams from the Balcony (1993, Edited by Seamus Cooney). In the August 17, 1960 letter, Bukowski recalls, “Martinelli…called me a ‘prick’, said I built ‘ass-hole palaces’…I can’t be bothered with gash trying to realign my outlook…The last thing I wanna see is more gash and more people.” Screams readers will recognize the Bukowski style, finding more letters in which the poet moans, kicks and whines about the trials and tribulations of the writer in search of publication.

Beerspit reveals a deeper understanding between Bukowski and Martinelli, however. The entirely-epistolary relationship between the two oscillated wildly between artistic braggadocio and tenderness. Martinelli was a one-time acolyte of Pound (who penned an introduction to a book of her paintings) when he was incarcerated in St.Elizabeths Federal Hospital for the Insane after WWII. Bukowski’s admiration for Pound is documented elsewhere, and Martinelli’s ties to Pound and her able discussion of literature and pursuit of a stalwart life of artistic endeavor attracted Bukowski.

There is a feral and reckless quality to these letters, and the prose of both correspondents is rife with abbreviations, misspellings, dialectical play, poor typing and deliberate misuse of grammar and punctuation, left mostly untouched by Moore and which some may find tiresome to navigate. The liberties of those qualities are suggestive of the book’s title and the days and nights during which they were typed.

Via post and poetry, Martinelli did seem to have a fix on Bukowski’s foibles. In one letter of January 13, 1961, she harped on the poet, writing,

If you think that all a poet must do on earth is fuck women and squeel in his poetry on their most secret conversations & call it art…or drink himself to death…then you think that…I KNOW differently/I don’t give a hoot in hell wot the monkey minds say/you are not yet a poet & if you dare sit on that soft pillow & belch and fart away…you’ll lose yr soul.

Their differing views on poetry are pointed out clearly in Moore’s introduction:

For Bukowski, it was solely a means of self-expression and followed no rules but his own, while for Martinelli poetry was a guide to civilized behavior and a vehicle for the exploration of spiritual truths, with a long tradition to be respected and followed. It’s the romantic outlook versus the classical: the difference between Keats and Pope, Whitman and Eliot, or–to use the authors championed by Bukowski and Martinelli–between Robinson Jeffers and H.D. Sheri accused Bukowski…of wallowing in the mud rather than turning his mind to higher matters…The only writer they admired in common was Ezra Pound, though for different reasons.

Bukowski was often blunt and even belligerent in his hubris. “There are only 2 contemporaries I look up to–Pound and Jeffers, and as the days go on, it is almost becoming a level stare,” Bukowski wrote. His criticism of contemporary poets follows throughout, even if they happened to be friends of Martinelli, as was Allen Ginsberg. Bukowski’s displeasure with Martinelli’s beloved Beats included Kerouac, Corso and Ferlinghetti, causing Bukowski to write in July, 1960: “When (Robert Penn) Warren puts them to shame, old as he is, it is time to tighten ranks. Pound and Jeffers never weakened.”

In other passages, Bukowski’s obvious respect and compassion for the older woman is apparent:

If you were a male, Sheri, you would be famous. Womanhood is always held against one like a gun. You are in the minaret but they will bring u down won weigh or another


There certainly will not be any more Sheri M’s. You have completely astounded me and resounted me, and you are the only person…I have learned anything from…You know what gets me, Sheri, love, when I find someone else in the world as alive as I am.

Perhaps the Bukowski-Martinelli correspondence ended much as many of his relationships did: with the other party offended by being referred to unkindly or unexpectedly in his poetry. Moore cites a “stupid accusation” in Bukowski’s final “rather impersonal letter mentioning that a new acquaintance of his…claimed Sheri couldn’t have known Pound at St. Elizabeth’s.”

Beerspit unearths a previously, little-known connection between two bravely independent and often misunderstood people in which they connected and sometimes misunderstood each other. Evidently, the pair never shared a telephone conversation, and opportunities to meet were mutually decided against several times, as if Bukowski respected the correspondence enough and lacked trust in himself and his relationship to women to insist on a liaison.

The relationship might not have survived a single night had the two met together in a booze-stocked room free of a chaperone or bouncer. For readers’ sake, theirs was a relationship best carried out on paper via mail delivery, instead of the common mediums of many others documented during Bukowski’s life: wine, flesh, bone, blood, screaming and broken glass. Here in 380 pages, Bukowski fans gain a welcome chapter and the world of letters gains insight to a woman who lived a spirited, artistic life and inspired many artists and writers in the process.

* See “The Telephone” from The Last Night Of The Earth Poems
** See “dinner, pain and transport” from Open All Night
*** Both from Notes of a Dirty Old Man

Like See-Through Birds

Five times that I can remember I’ve fallen for a novel so hard I’ve inadvertently prayed for its characters. The first was T.H. White’s sprawling, maudlin Arthurian epic The Once and Future King.

The next two were both Tolstoy: War and Peace and Anna Karenina—whose final scene, where Anna enters the train station, I still associate with the sharp sinking feeling of watching a child sucked over a waterfall.

Then came Rohinton Mistry’s A Difficult Balance, which in its own final scene pays near-explicit homage to Anna.

The fifth and most recent novel to make me feel this strongly was Wieslaw Mysliwski’s Stone Upon Stone.

I began reading Stone Upon Stone in early 2012. I’ve moved twice since then, picking it up first in Florida, next in Oklahoma, chopping the narrative into segments; then finally finishing it a month ago in Thailand, the final chapters flying by in the kind of excitement I last experienced when a budding flirtation bloomed into hesitant love.

Stone Upon Stone is a glorious thing of language, a fountain of stream-of-consciousness speech, its formal playfulness comparable to James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, but in a resolutely agrarian setting.

It inhabits the mind and manners of Szymek Pietruzka, a Polish resistance hero, marriage registrar, barber, farmer, and possessor of a truly prodigious gift of gab. The book that pours out of this character’s voice may well be the best post-war agrarian novel available in English (it was capably translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston in 2010), and strangely enough, it bears significant resemblance in plot and themes to another contender for that title, Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow. Both novels observe a rural town from the years preceding World War II up to the present through the eyes of an aging narrator irresistibly drawn back to his home-place. Both narrators are barbers. Both comment extensively on the transformative power of roads, the temptation of cash crops, and the dislocation associated with extensive urbanization. Both experience unfulfilled romance. The two books cover much of the same thematic ground as well, with mortality and the land central to both author’s preoccupations. But, despite the esteem in which I hold Wendell Berry, I am convinced that Mysliwski’s is by far the better novel.

From the very first chapter, Stone Upon Stone achieves with a flourish what few novels are capable of: a flawlessly embodied voice. Szymek begins and ends his narration with his tomb—a topic on which he holds forth with equal parts gallows humor and raconteur’s relish. The book begins: “Having a tomb built. It’s easy enough to say. But if you’ve never done it, you have no idea how much one of those things costs.” So Szymek embarks on his rambling, circular tale, which meanders, in the course of one chapter, through the pros and cons of growing flax, the benefits of heifer ownership, the advantages of thatched roofing, his grandfather’s lost land title, and the perils of a soldier’s untimely itch while hiding from the Nazis in an empty mausoleum.

Every chapter is like this, treading lightly around a central theme, with the totality of Szymek’s life available as material for rabbit trails. Or almost the totality. There are certain things that Szymek’s narration takes in peripherally, but never stares at. The source of his brother Michal’s unbreakable silence, for example—a mystery which the novel leaves unexplained.

The chapters chart their elliptical courses through Szymek’s life, with titles like “The Cemetery,” “Brothers,” and “Weeping,” until the end when the thematic conceits are driven home in Szymek’s final monologue, where death and the land are joined by the other underlying theme central to the novel: words, their power and necessity. Words for Szymek are sacred. They impart, if not create, individuality. “God tells us to pray in words because without words he wouldn’t know one person from the next,” he says. In Szymek’s insistence on the centrality of words Mysliwski the novelist can be heard talking up his own art. And he’s got a point. Novels are about human nature in a way no other art form is. They depict the human as a singular being in a way no art form did before the novel’s invention, and they watch this being change. To read a novel is to experience another entity, unitary but diverse over time, driven by desire (after all plot is just desire plus time). When we’ve gone through a novel we’ve admitted that others have the same nature we claim for ourselves—and the same right to change, reinvent, love, pursue, despair, triumph. This admission begins the moment we open a book’s cover, that act itself offering to the other the most potent of rights: the right to use words. In Stone Upon Stone, Michal’s refusal to exercise this right is an affront to Szymek’s infinite volubility. Szymek berates his brother’s silence, exhorting him to begin with the most basic words: “Mother, home, earth…You know what earth is. Where do you spit?” he says.

This is the novel at its best. Affecting because it is unsentimental. It is a work of love where other books with agrarian concerns like Jayber Crow are works of nostalgia. Wendell Berry’s characters too often seem to have sprung from the womb endowed with preternatural amounts of integrity and common sense. Jayber at least gets to wander a bit in his youth, but he too is given a voice with little opportunity to err. He is not full and fleshy enough. When he is angry, it is righteous; when he is sad, it is somber and befitting. Szymek on the other hand, is one of us mortals. He’s a drunken oaf one minute, boasting of his martial and sexual conquests, then next minute he’s weeping in his cup. And there is desperation in his final speech, spoken under the shadow of 500 pages worth of poverty, world war, dictatorship, dead parents, lost love, and broken faith. Szymek seems to be angrily fighting off the idea that Michal’s silence may really be the best response to the world’s dirty face. But he doesn’t stop talking. “Words don’t know death,” he says, “they’re like see-through birds, once they’ve spoken they circle over us forever.”

And the book keeps circling too. It ends where it began, with the half-built tomb. Like Finnegan’s Wake, it invites the reader to keep the words flowing, to read and re-read and never stop reading, to rebuild the Polish village that is the novel’s world over and over again—this is the work that author and reader accomplish together. As with many challenging works of literature, it can be taxing work indeed. But it is a labor leavened by delight.

And yes, mid-way through the novel, in a half-conscious movement of empathy, I prayed for Szymek. God bless him and his endless chatter. If Stone Upon Stone gains the reputation it deserves maybe he’ll never have to stop.


The Poem As Lifehack

The Thracian women who dismembered Orpheus in a fit of rage—the original desperate housewives—did so, Ovid tells us, because Orpheus scorned them. So bereft at the loss of his beloved Eurydice, wandering the countryside wailing his dirge, forsaking food and the love of women, Orpheus dared to sink himself entirely, utterly, into his heartbreak and his song. This killing offense condemned not just Orpheus; an oft-forgotten fact of the story is that the pack of bacchae also slaughtered those who had gathered to listen, his audience: “the countless birds, the serpents, and the throng / of savage beasts.” Some versions say his separated head continued to sing, even as it floated down the river and as his unsinkable lyre played on.

It’s hard to resist reading Orpheus’ story as a fable of the lyric’s worldly fate. We are so accustomed to the poet’s estrangement, to feeling an antipathy between the lyrical virtues of beauty and the conventional values represented by this dionysian mob, we hardly shutter at the conflict. Thanks in part to Eliot’s version of the lyrical voice as the poet “talking to himself—or to nobody,” we are comfortable with lyric being alienated from common discourse. Coupled with the poet-artist-hero’s principled isolation, arrayed against the stultifying forces of mass society, no wonder that authority has traditionally accrued through this struggle. The figure of Orpheus embodies the mythic pattern of artistic passion—love and devotion unto suffering and death—that remains as alluring today as ever: sales of Rilke remain strong. Yet a poet is as likely to be found yawping on Twitter or Facebook as from the world’s lonely rooftops.

We are, no doubt less and less alone. Once considered a necessary school (if not lifestyle) for any poet, solitude—considered by solitaries as coterminous with the mystery of being and thus the sources of lyric poetry—is increasingly difficult to achieve. Busyness, connectedness: these sap the person of any possibility of inwardness, much less stillness. Technology provides a steady river of ephemeral information and constant sociability, a virtual panopticon that threatens to critically distract us from, if not mortally enervate, the motive force to write a poem where a text message will do. If one is always in touch, from what wilderness will one call out? And who will hear over the din we already filter, if the poet’s voice is just one bit of a live feed refreshing into eternity?

Perhaps the poem, at its best a concentrate of attention, will evolve to survive in an age bereft of attention and concentration. Perhaps the lifestyle once thought to be most conducive to writing—a room of one’s own, space for contemplation—will be revised. But there is a reason that scientists studying the phenomenon of attention frequent Buddhist monasteries. We fight distraction even as we encourage it, and many of us hold (if not fetishize) simplicity as an ideal of sanity; in principle if not practice we concur with Kierkegaard that purity of heart is to will one thing. As Elizabeth Bishop suggestively said to Robert Lowell, “Being a poet is one of the unhealthier jobs—no regular hours—so many temptations!”

Although distraction was once a synonym for insanity, we should probably be skeptical of eradicating our hard-won complexity. Inspiration was once considered a form of divine madness, and we might want to preserve room for that experience. Already we treat melancholy, an artist’s natural humor by medieval reckoning, as a psychiatric illness. In pastoral myths, the Muses chose as theie vessels shepherds who were, while good shepherds, inefficient workers: prone to sleep, song, and restlessness. To-Do-List-oriented poets are the exception; our work depends upon not Getting Things Done™. What poet or writer doesn’t depend upon the serendipitous word, the random association, the sudden revelation, events nowadays often seeded by hyperlinks and tabbed browsers? Imaginative catalysis occurs when the executive function is relaxed, when multiple pathways of the mind are open to non-obvious connections and unlooked-for suggestions: attentive distraction, distracted attention.

If any organism can prove adaptive to this environment, it might just be the chameleon poet. Maybe. Is it possible to think, much less pluck a lyre, much less preserve authentic personhood in such an ever-humming hive? As technologies move from novelties to embedded use-objects, we’ll see whether loafing and soul-inviting can occur within a data stream, amid the raft of friends, followers, and inboxes ever-updating and clamoring for updates. Cue neuroplasticity. The lyric is poetic precisely because it makes dynamic what is prone to becoming static, and if the poet succumbs, becomes too much a part of the herd, then artistic doom is probably at hand. My complete assimilation, despite undue attachment to my iPhone, is mitigated against by pre-existing analog conditions and a recurrent desire to own a bee farm. I am relieved not to be the forerunner. So while I may be divvied up into so many pieces by the demon scourge of my social network when I cancel the internet subscription, my faith in the orphic impulse assures me that a surviving remnant, gifted to sing while multitasking, will stay the wolves despite their sheep suits.

Try Again: On Follow-up Attempts

When J.K. Rowling published her latest novel, The Casual Vacancy, back in September, many of her devoted readers wanted to know where the magic—overt or otherwise—had gone. The expectation was understandable. She had done Middle Grades fantasy so well before. Why wouldn’t she produce the same again? We had been told she was working on something substantially different from the Potter series this time. Followers anticipated her efforts and worried, “What if it’s not as good?” Our imaginations had been taken captive by the Hogwarts story, and as generous as we might intend to be, devoted readers are not actually very generous. We tend to want the same thing again and again. In this case, we wanted the same narrative excitement, the same wild creativity. We were operating from the idea that J.K. Rowling owed it to us.

Indeed, we readers tend to think writers, in general, owe it to us. We may concede the right—nay, the duty (dangerous word)—of the creator to push herself, test new ground, blaze new artistic trails. But the reality is that, having done something well once, the writer must do the same again. We expect that he do it over and over and over. Writers must keep writing. If books aren’t forthcoming, it isn’t only disappointing; it is downright strange. Harper Lee committed the greatest authorial sin: She only wrote once—one novel, that is. There are essays and articles and whole sections of books dedicated to the question “Why?” Why did she stop after To Kill a Mockingbird? Why didn’t she give us more? The silent conclusion is that something must have gone very wrong.

Charles Dickens, on the other end of the spectrum, wrote and wrote and wrote. He wrote what he knew would sell: close to 20 novels published as serial fiction to satisfy the reading masses. And he wrote cultural articles for various periodicals because he knew that they would be read more immediately. But he also wrote about what interested him, including essays that weren’t all that well done or well received, because he cared to experiment with his craft. The reading public held expectations of him, and only sometimes did he answer those expectations with his ever-scribbling pen. There’s a reason we only read a select few of his books in high school and college. A number of them were a critical bust. (Martin Chuzzlewit, anyone?)

This nonconformity in writerly habit, whether it’s one exemplary novel in a lifetime or many books with varying reception, stymies us. Our criticism is implicit in the seeming oddity of Marilynne Robinson’s long pause between writing the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Housekeeping and the winning Gilead: “The book became a classic, and Robinson was hailed as one of the defining American writers of our time. Yet it would be more than twenty years before she wrote another novel.” We are befuddled by why E.M. Forster “stopped writing fiction at the age of 45. He lived quietly for another 46 years and continued to write essays, short biographies and literary journalism—but no more novels.” As if the essays, biographies, and other pieces—not to mention the novels he’d already done –were not work enough. And of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and his writing that has been stopped by the cruel hand of dementia: “García Márquez now lives in Mexico and has not written anything since his last novel.” It seems García Márquez has given us plenty; he’s given us enough. And I wish we could think of something more compassionate to say about him right now than that there will be no more novels.

I’m tempted to claim I don’t know much about these things since I am an essayist. But every few months, I pull out my own fiction piece and work at it, imagining, typing, crafting, deleting, writing some more. My fiction story may or may not ever see the light of day (or bookstore fluorescents or e-reader lamp). Still, the work of crafting it over the months and years has molded me. The project has tightened up my nonfiction storytelling, it has taught me that success in writing doesn’t necessarily have to do with immediate readership and it has given me a deeper understanding of and appreciation for writers who do get their fiction in front of the public. Developing narrative, structuring plot, crafting characters, creating dialogue: this is hard work. In my reckoning, Harper Lee is a blazing success. I hold her one piece of fiction prose in my hands, and I am grateful.

But back to those writers who keep at it with varied results. An astute response, this time about George Eliot and her little-known, admittedly-flawed novel Romola:

Only one masterpiece? Not a very impressive record, it seems . . . . But consistency in perfection is a lot to expect of any artist, and especially of an artist working in a medium as fluid and methodless as fiction. And does it in fact, make Eliot a lesser novelist that most of her novels are thus imperfect? My answer, as you probably expect, is no.

Experimenting with form and content, pushing ourselves outside the comfort of predictable perfection in order to create new and maybe—hopefully—better art: Is this not what we, as creative people, do?

Fortunately, some of Rowling’s reviewers get this, too: “The Casual Vacancy is no masterpiece, but it’s not bad at all: intelligent, workmanlike, and often funny. I could imagine it doing well without any association to the Rowling brand . . . ” Let’s disassociate it, then, and perhaps give Rowling a hearty congratulations, too, not only for her work at crafting another story, but also for pushing herself to branch out, with all the risks and imperfections involved in attempting something new.

Nothing Unplaced

“It seems to me there is no more fascinating subject in the world than the influence of surroundings on human character.” –Ruth Merton

. . .

“I opened New Seeds of Contemplation for the first time,” wrote Sue Monk Kidd in her preface to the Trappist monk’s masterpiece, “during the winter of 1988 while visiting Thomas Merton’s hermitage in the Kentucky woods about a mile from the Abbey of Gethsemani.”

She had visited the monastery several times, but this was the first occasion in which the 39-year-old was given the opportunity to see the small, cinder-block house in which the book’s author spent the last few years of his life.

She, the nurse and mother of two, who was about to publish her first book—a memoir. He, the cloistered logophile, who, by the time he had died 20 years earlier, had authored some seventy volumes of varying lengths. Sharing a space two decades divided.

“I doubt there could be a more ideal location in which to read Merton’s masterpiece on the contemplative life.”

With those words in mind, I turned into the narrow lane that lead to the retreat center where Henri Nouwen spent some of the last years of his life. The house sits across the street from L’Arche Daybreak, which, founded by the Canadian philosopher Jean Vanier, exists as a place where men and women with intellectual disabilities live together in community.

I, the seminary student, worn thin from my work and from writing. He, the late Dutch priest, who held prestigious positions at the likes of Yale, Harvard, and Notre Dame, who quietly stepped away from his teaching career into life with that obscure little community north of Toronto. Sharing a space two decades divided.

The architecture, while beautiful in its simplicity, was of course entirely commonplace. As was, if I am honest, most of my stay. My times there, I believe, in as much as they were motivated by a fascination with Nouwen, were not so much an attempt to make some sort of pilgrimage but rather – along with my struggle to find a measure of rest and spiritual solitude – served as an experiment in reading the world in which a few of the books I had read were written.

I had Can You Drink the Cup? with me. The book, which was the last to be published before Nouwen’s death, is a deeply personal reflection on the question which Jesus asked the brothers James and John, and was assigned as required reading for one of the classes I was taking. There are, to be clear, many ways in which my understandings of theology, ethics and practice differ from that of Nouwen (as well as Merton, Vanier and Kidd for that matter, I am sure), but the depth of his simple insights regarding cost and calling struck me in a particularly moving way when I read them that weekend, knowing that this was one of the places in which they were worked out.

Every book is birthed from a particular landscape. Maybe we’ve forgotten that. Maybe, being able to access the text of nearly any book we can imagine within a few seconds’ time, we have lost the sense in which those words were the product of an author who lived in a particular place at a particular time, whose writing was shaped by a unique geography and community. Literature, in an era when nearly everything is, on a certain level, made immediately proximate by means of an ever-expanding digital universe, has  lost part of its distinctive connection to place.

For Merton, it was a childhood in France, England, Rome, a small cinder-block hermitage in Kentucky, and, eventually, Thailand. For Nouwen, a family dinner in Holland, an exchange with someone begging for money on Yonge Street, a season spent in Guatemala. The same, of course, could be said of any author, be it Dostoyevsky, Austen, Steinbeck, or John of Patmos. Every book is birthed out of a particular landscape, and to see those places, though veiled by the centuries that have since passed, is to see something of that world.

Kidd was right: “I am pretty sure I could have read the book on a bench in a shopping mall and it would have affected me similarly.” There is something universally accessible and affective about good writing, regardless of where it was written. There is also, however, something particularly beautiful about reading a book in the place it was written, if ever the opportunity is allowed. It could mean a trip to California or Jerusalem, yes, or to a Kentucky monastery, but it could simply involve reading something that was written in the place that you live now—or writing something in that place and sharing it.



Photo by:  John Cremons

The Trueness of Beauty

Neither audience nor artist should approach art as self-expression. To do so robs art of its universal applicability. If James Joyce had written strictly to see himself on paper, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man would not express me; yet it does. And if it does, whatever Joyce tapped into in the book must be something from beyond the self who was James Joyce.

Recognition of the universal in other people’s art does not necessarily give the artist a similarly open conduit to universality. How easy it is to say, “Joyce wrote about a sensitive, rebellious young artist discovering himself; I could do likewise,” and thus to produce a work imitative of Joyce in form yet devoid of the function that Joyce’s book performs.

The question of form and function in art is too often overlooked. In our age, creativity divides squarely along lines of familiar genre pieces and incomprehensible highbrow art. The idea of an artwork having a “function” or a purpose is a bit of a plebeian notion to both sides. Tools have purposes; but we can’t even talk about functionality in high art (since the artist declares what art is), nor in genre art, since that’s a comfortable product for a specific audience’s consumption. The function of the one is inward-focused, while the function of the other is financially focused. Neither is truly other-focused.

Yet Joyce’s book accomplishes something in me. It meshes with something in me that was just waiting to receive it. It closes some sort of open system. It just might be a functional work of art.

Somewhere in the many stages between draft and publication, Joyce must have set himself aside and set his audience aside and just listened. Walking the minefield of that distinction is the artist’s lifelong battle. The perils gather close on either side: a focus on the self, producing audience-experience-by-force; and a focus on audience, producing product-for-consumption. Strictly followed, neither of these approaches to creativity can produce functional art.

Joyce’s protagonist Stephen Dedalus says:

I mean that the tragic emotion is static. […] The feelings excited by improper art are kinetic, desire or loathing. Desire urges us to possess, to go to something; loathing urges us to abandon, to go from something. These are kinetic emotions. The arts which excite them, pornographical or didactic, are therefore improper arts. The esthetic emotion … is therefore static. The mind is arrested and raised above desire and loathing. [1]

Joyce’s framing of the improper arts illumines the dreadful confusion of artistic form and function that we see all around us. While complaints concerning pornographical versus didactic and genre versus highbrow are not exactly analogous, each demonstrates the catastrophic divide on either side of the summit of true art; and each complaint calls us to set aside consideration of our own taste and audience taste so we can listen to something bigger.

If there is truth in the world, it must be waiting just around the corner. Perhaps this, then, is that universality that Joyce hit upon: the trueness of beauty. No, I’m not talking about prettiness. Prettiness is a description of form, but beauty is a description of function.

So what is the function of art? It’s to heal. And such is also the function of love.

Astoundingly, the analogy carries. In personal relationships, blind self-expression (read narcissism or didactic art) attacks the bond of love. Likewise, insecure pandering to the other person’s assumed desires (read kissing up or pornographical art) attacks the bond of love. The motivation of both approaches is the same: to prevent rejection.

So how should we talk to each other?

Of course, this whole discussion is a bit disembodied. In the real world, form and function are inseparable properties of artworks and loveworks. But this view of the approach can help us realize what’s wrong when art and love aren’t working.

Form grounds people and gives them a sense of belonging. It’s the vehicle through which they experience the function of love. Just as we read genres in literature, we read genres in acts of love. Some people read romance. Others prefer literary fiction. Some people feel loved when you take out the trash for them. Others need tender words.

When love isn’t working, there are two things to check: actions and heart—form and function. You can’t repair a bad heart on your own, but you can at least choose the right action. You can at least write in the correct genre while you wait for your heart, for the trueness of beauty, to come back.

But you can’t stay there. Execution of familiar forms is the laziest, most dangerous place for an artist or a lover to be. If you practice a form long enough, you’ll start believing that there’s intrinsic function within the forms that are familiar to you; and your heart, your muse, will atrophy. You will lose your awestruck gaze on the trueness of beauty.

Again, Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus:

—[My mother] wishes me to make my easter duty.

—And will you?

—I will not, Stephen said.

—Why not? Cranly said.

—I will not serve, answered Stephen.


—Do as she wishes you to do. What is it to you? You disbelieve in it. It is a form: nothing else. And you will set her mind at rest. [2]

You can’t make yourself desire the trueness of beauty. As visual artist John Baldessari has said, “you have to be possessed, which you can’t will.” [3] The statement holds across art and love. But the funny thing is that in love, if you keep trying, the possession will start to come upon you; and what a victory that is, as form finally fills out with function.



[1] Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Penguin Books, 1976. p. 205

[2]  ibid., p. 239, 241

[3] Video: A Brief History of John Baldessari

Stories for Social Change in “Flight Behavior” & “The Line”

In early October, on the eve of the first Presidential debate, the social justice-focused Sojourners presented a documentary it had produced about poverty in America. The Line—the title a nod to both the statistical marker of “official” poverty, as well as the invisible fences between the “haves” and “have nots”—profiled four Americans who help to comprise the approximately 46 million people who live below the poverty line. The producer, Linda Midgett, is a friend of mine, and a few weeks ago we talked about the project, as well as the way that Sojourners hoped to present it: The Line first aired in Washington, D.C., with a panel discussion following the screening. From there, Sojourners aimed to equip individuals, churches, and organizations to host their own screenings and use the documentary as a springboard to facilitate discussions. Much like the marketing of “Race to Nowhere,” Sojourners hoped to provide information to propel a conversation forward.

The documentary had an estimated audience of 125,000 online viewers in October alone. It was created not necessarily to get a particular candidate or party elected, but simply to put American poverty into people’s psyches and range of visions. However viewers decided to vote was up to them. But the people behind The Line would like to see this issue become one that is talked about with greater frequency. In its simplest form, the film is a transfer of information, from sources to viewers.

And what do we do when information—facts, stories, evidence, and data—is put in our lap? More importantly, where does this information come from? One can argue that solitary “information” doesn’t pose a benefit unless it’s applied toward an outcome. Otherwise, facts and figures and even anecdotes sit in the belly of our being, only exhumed in Alex Trebek fashion at dinner parties or job interviews. While it’s not a surprise that every person filters even the most concrete of fact through her own schema, we must acknowledge that these schemas are also informed by the communities where an individual spends the majority of her time. In fact, Marshall McLuhan, grandfather of modern media theory, wrote, 40 years ago:

Our Western values, built on the written word, have already been considerably affected by the electronic media of telephone, radio, and TV. Perhaps that is the reason why many highly literate people in our time find it difficult to examine this question without getting into a moral panic.

Issues often become framed as “right” or “wrong” due to community input. However, despite the undercurrent of “liberalism” at Sojourners, one has to assume that some viewers would walk away from watching The Line steadfast Republicans while others cling to their Democrat ideals (not to mention all the “undecideds” and third-party supporters). The point of the film is not specifically to help elect a particular candidate, but instead is two-fold: It presents straight-up information, and it gives a voice to those whose desires, struggles and needs are often voiced through well-intentioned, but one-step-removed, third-party organizations and agencies. The goal of The Line is simply to make people and candidates aware. (Pre-election, a “tell your candidate about this issue” button appeared on the project’s website.) “We were conscious of not employing narration,” explained Linda. “I don’t want to add to their story. I just want to tell it well.”

And when we have people’s stories—their information—what do we do with it?

“Information is all we have,” writes Barbara Kingsolver in her new novel, Flight Behavior. Following small-town Tennessean Dellarobia Turnbow and her discovery of a multitude of migrating monarch butterflies that have roosted in the trees on her husband’s family’s land, Flight Behavior plays with the intersection of media and one’s reality and how to decipher the information provided by both. As she did with her previous novels, most notably in 2000’s Prodigal Summer, Kingsolver uses environmental issues to point out the conflicts between the unintended consequences of technological advancement and the immediate needs of those who rely on jobs or technologies that can also be called damaging. Protagonist Dellarobia, a young mother wondering how she never managed to escape small-town Feathertown, finds herself somehow straddling the two camps, as her world begins to open up and new knowledge is presented before her. Despite her unhappiness in her marriage to Cub, she tries to keep him happy and live the life she thinks she’s destined to: “She took this vow as regularly as she breathed, and reliably it was punctured by some needling idea that she was cut out for something more.” In typical Kingsolver fashion, a sophisticated and educated character (in this case, an entomologist named Dr. Ovid Byron) bombards a small town, and his scientific career as well as his passion for understanding—and slowing down—climate change, mark him as a know-it-all outsider.

The people of Feathertown live in a ubiquitous bubble: a place where everyone knows everyone else’s business and no one seems to leave, except perhaps to Cleary, a somewhat larger town 15 miles away. In a community where the high school football coach also teaches math, and outsiders—particularly from other parts of the country—are viewed as suspicious interlopers, Dr. Byron’s presence ripples through the community. He punctures the bubble and allows confusing—and therefore unwanted—information and attention to seep in.

How easy, therefore, it is for the reader to assume that it is Feathertown—and Dellarobia—alone that should be stretched out of a bubble. For the people of Feathertown, a ruptured bubble means facing politics they don’t agree with, engaging with people from different ethnic backgrounds, and interpreting the unspoken code of people who are more “educated.” Raised in rural Kentucky, Kingsolver knows better than to dumb down an entire community whose gifts, although perhaps not a result of an expensive university, are just as worthy. The author gives Dr. Byron and others like him their own fair share of bubble-worthy moments, such as when Dellarobia deftly repairs a zipper on a researcher’s name-brand jacket that would have been otherwise thrown out. Instead, the book’s ire is directed toward mass media—particularly television and the internet—and the farcical way Dellarobia’s discovery of the butterflies is twisted and convoluted using sly editing and the manipulative tools of the internet.

Kingsolver doesn’t necessarily condemn bubbles—these communities that we are often born into and have the power to inform its members about anything and sometimes everything. But do we have a obligation to seek information from atypical sources, such as directly from people themselves? When Dellarobia begins to understand that she belongs to a community—Southern, poor, and rural—that is often poked fun of in the media, she also resigns herself to the fact that changing people’s opinions is difficult. The comedians who laugh at people like her “would never come see what Tennessee was like, any more than she would get a degree in science and figure out the climate things Dr. Byron described. Nobody truly decided for themselves. There was too much information. What they actually did was scope around, decide who was looking out for their clan, and sign on for the memos on a wide array of topics.” Dellarobia’s understanding of how humans filter information heightens when she meets her son Preston’s classmate and her family. Josefina and her parents have migrated to Feathertown from Michoacán, Mexico, which is where the monarch butterflies originate from. Their arrival in Feathertown follows a devastating flood that destroys their entire town. Dellarobia soon recognizes that “You could feel more decent watching [television news] when the victims weren’t sitting on your sofa.”

So in order to invoke change—in whatever form—is it more important for an entire community bubble to transform or break, or should we perhaps just be paying attention to our individual bubbles? Who do we let in? For all of our emphasis on the good qualities that come along with community, maybe it’s not such a bad idea to consider how an individual’s acquisition of information—in other words, puncturing one’s own bubble—might eventually benefit an entire community. In Flight Behavior, as far as the reader knows, an entire community doesn’t transform. Rather, Dellarobia allows her own bubble to be infiltrated by other’s stories and being open to the possibility that other perspectives can co-exist with hers.

And what about real-life issues that people attempt to tackle outside the pages of a novel? Although The Line profiles—using their own words—four Americans living in poverty, the film also includes one more subject: Rev. Julian DeShazier (or J.Kwest, as he’s known when he raps). Part of his ministry is working with youths who have dropped out of high school and “adding creativity to their lives—creativity and dignity,” as well as the requisite practical help in obtaining a GED and other skills. He explains how he addresses the people he ministers to: “You have a story to tell. You’ve seen something. And what I want to do is help you tell that story. We want to help you tell that story because once you can tell that story, you can own your life. You own your identity.”

There are a lot of big issues in this world. How do we hope to address them all? Perhaps we can start by listening to a story from an actual person.

This Baffled Dance: Amy Leach’s “Things That Are”

“Things That Are” by Amy Leach.
Buy it on Amazon.

A natural history museum doles out a thick dose of awe. The Texas horned lizard shoots blood from its eyes! There are deer as tiny as terriers! And who would have guessed at so many variations of horns? Swirling and branching and ridging and spiking and looping… mahogany, gold, white, freckled, variegated! Seeing animals all together—the twist and freckle and sinew and beak of them all, the whimsy and boldness and joy of them—glory becomes a weight and a befuddlement. The breadth and pattern of nature engulfs you.

“We baffled creatures,” Marilynne Robinson once wrote, “are immersed in an overwhelming truth. What is plainly before our eyes we know only in glimpses and through disciplined attention.” This baffled dance within overwhelming reality is the experience of the museum visitor beside mounted grizzly bears, the experience of the zoologist or  botanist who intently studies her corner of wonder, and the experience of the reader who picks up a copy of the new essay collection Things That Are, a debut from award-winning essayist Amy Leach.

In this series of short essays accompanied by Nate Christopherson‘s whimsical black ink illustrations, Leach unhinges and unsettles the natural world just enough so her readers will discipline their attention. It’s not an easy book because it doesn’t easily reveal how a reader might decipher its meaning; it whirls up and down registers, jokes and teases, and demands that the reader keep up. That’s part of the fun.

At first, the natural world as Leach describes it is hard to recognize. She inspects pandas, peas, goats, and galaxies so closely that the effect is like macro photography. Looking at the familiar up close destabilizes it. Leach begins an essay on jellyfish and sea cucumbers not by describing a jellyfish or the pain of its sting, but by looking closely at bones: their usefulness, the burden of responsibility borne by skeletal creatures, and concludes, “even great paroxysms of responsibility have little effect when you are made of mucus.” Thus, with one attribute of the creature (its lack of bones) examined closely, the jellyfish shines newer.

As she explores each newly magical piece of earth and heaven, Leach reaches for sources beyond science and into mythology, archaic taxonomy, biblical imagery, and philosophy. Part of the fun here is that she entertains each source with equal credulity. In her essay on Sirens, the mythical creatures are as real as the Fry County Emergency Warning sirens that also figure in the essay:

“Contemplating the sandy bones of their latest audience, the sirens would vow to sing less devastatingly next time… but as soon as they sensed someone sailing by, their vows evaporated: they would start feeling ecstatic; their voices would swell, and deepen, and soar, and then it was all over. They sang deliriously, mercilessly, driving the hearers wild, drawing their haunted hearts into the sea.”

The rule seems to be that if a mythological character gets pulled into this book’s orbit, it becomes, like lilies and warblers, simply one of the things that are. And her believing tone draws our heads into a confused sea, creating the child’s insecurity about the lines between when something’s true and when the adults are only joshing you. Leach’s credulity embraces the mystery of existence, and humans’ ways of making sense of it, and deepens our childlike wonder at the world.

But all is not well in this world of wonder. At the natural history museum, you may be dismayed to think of the great safaris of the past that felled the rhinos and gazelles now locked behind glass, and may find troubling photos of birds whose bellies are full of wires they thought were worms. In Things That Are, likewise, there are essays that change from wonder to worry, as in the satirical “Memorandum to the Animals.” Here, Leach imagines that the animals, who know that their ancestors boarded Noah’s ark to to escape the flood, need to hear the message that “that was a sentimental era and God was a sentimental fellow,” and, “this time around we are in charge:  producing our own cataclysm, designing our own boat, making our own guest list, which does not include Every Living Thing.” Mentioning environmental crisis, this staple of political debate, could have drowned this book; Leach’s imagination and subtlety, however, guide her deftly past the propaganda. Leach’s book becomes an ark where she gathers living things to celebrate, at least, if not to save.

She gathers them because she believes the living things have something to teach us. Wendell Berry once watched a heron somersault in mid-air and took it as evidence that the world is brim-full of joy; he wrote that we need to “know the world… learn what is good for it…cooperate in its process, and yield to its limits.”  Leach’s gripping picture of what it means to know the world presents earth as an oracle, able to teach:

“The earth itself may be our authority, what communications we receive from it as cryptic and ravishing as the ravings of Pythia: a frog or a fox flying by, Texas mud babies in the bog, Chinese lantern plants, chrome yellow foam resembling scrambled eggs but itinerant and not good with toast.  Who needs a priestess with the divinity at hand?”

Whether she means that earth reveals the divine or embodies its own divinity, it’s clear Leach sets herself up as a kind of priestess.  Her study of nature yields lessons about our hearts, our relationships, and ourselves. She does this subtly, bringing to mind Fabio Morabito’s essay collection Toolbox. Both Leach and Morabito use description to build their lessons. Morabito, for instance, describes file and sandpaper as metaphors for the way people either grate on each other or sand down each others’ rough edges; Leach examines the difference between dust on earth and dust in space, concluding that space flatters “faint diffuse spreading things” while earth’s light flatters organized and sculpted things—a metaphor for the creative process.

The creative process that shaped Things That Are has left us with a book that invites us to take a wilderness hike in its poetic pages.  It’s a steep climb, with a guide who wittingly disorients you, and is more interested in the pudgy caterpillars than the view from the pinnacle.  Steady yourself as you begin, for the world may not look the same to your eager eyes afterward.

Things That Are.  Milkweed Editions.

Shire Reckonings

“What fun! What fun to be off again, off on the road with dwarves! This is what I have been really longing for, for years! Goodbye!’ he said, looking at his old home and bowing to the door.” ~ Bilbo Baggins in The Fellowship of the Ring

There was a time I enjoyed road trips. When I began college, I landed in a group of friends who jumped in the car on a whim and freely drove here, there, anywhere. Freedom. Community. Fun. The open road. These carefree folk indulged in gleeful midnight drives and weekend jaunts: I joined in with abandon. The mountains! The beach! The hills of North Georgia! The Hard Rock Café in downtown Atlanta in the middle of the night. The hot, flat center of Nowhere, Alabama to visit a friend of someone’s friend. But somewhere along the decade between going to grad school and staying home with a toddler, my traveling tendencies have grown fewer, my goals for the road smaller, more planned, more manageable. Precise. It seems I prefer predictability. Really, I prefer home.

I suspect that’s partly because, in recent years, I’ve exchanged the footloose and fancy free road trip for actual life-hauling moves. Our family moves a lot. After an eighteen year childhood stretch set firmly in one city, I have been repeatedly carried away to new places. I haven’t always liked it. “You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”[i] Yes, Bilbo. Agreed. College was the beginning of that road, and town after city after town has followed.

The most recent move has been particularly difficult. Two weeks after leaving our house in Blacksburg, Virginia, we traveled back for a day of cleaning and grabbing up odds and ends. We unlocked the kitchen door and looked around. The first home we’d ever owned stood empty save for the dust in the corners. Potential buyers came to look with high hopes but decided it wasn’t the place for them, after all. “It needs a lot of work,” my husband heard the woman say. I found myself sitting on the sole remaining piece of furniture—a piano bench—in tears. The small space was surprisingly empty, even of memories. How could this be?

I read The Lord of the Rings trilogy most years, usually in the fall. In the beginning of Fellowship, I’m always a little pained by Frodo’s newly-bought house at Crickhollow. How can any house—any house—replace Bag End? Impossible. In the end, of course, it doesn’t have to; Frodo gets to go back home. Still, in those moments before Frodo and Company must continue so quickly on their tri-book journey, Frodo looks around at Bilbo’s familiar furniture arranged in an unfamiliar place, and tries to convince himself that Crickhollow could be home: “‘It’s delightful!’ he said with an effort. ‘I hardly feel that I have moved at all.’”[ii] I don’t believe him.

With each year’s reread, I end up getting through less of the series. I think it’s because each year I need less—less adventure, less wizardry, less epic battle, less grandeur. Two falls ago, The Fellowship of the Ring sufficed. Last September, I was satisfied to read the hobbits safely from Bag End to the house of Tom Bombadil. This year I took the first book off the shelf a few months early. Something in this upheaved summer told me I’d need it. I cracked the covers that will soon fall completely apart and found myself slowed down by that first chapter or two. I pored over and over certain paragraphs and phrases: “For some years he was quite happy and did not worry much about the future.”[iii] I couldn’t move beyond Frodo’s slow, pleasant early years at home in Bag End. And, of course, those moments when Frodo can’t make himself go:

To tell the truth, he was very reluctant to start, now that it had come to the point. Bag End seemed a more desirable residence than it had for years, and he wanted to savor as much as he could of his last summer in the Shire.[iv]

Even on the day of departure, Frodo wanders the darkened rooms of Bag End; he walks to the bottom of the garden path; he must drag himself away. When he and Pippin do finally go, he pauses yet one more time: “‘Goodbye!’ said Frodo, looking at the dark blank windows” and waving his hand.[v] It is a long goodbye when heart takes leave of home.

Undoubtedly, I remained in this segment because I was looking around my own home, cleaned, then boxed, then emptied. How could I leave this place where I had cooked meals, made new friends, brought home a baby? To add insult to injury, Frodo’s move follows on the heels of the pleasantest weather in memory: “The Shire had seldom seen so fair a summer, or so rich an autumn.”[vi] It was, indeed, a particularly, painfully lovely spring this year in Southwest Virginia. The trees were a healthy, non-drought green, the lilies flourished, and there were, for the first time, cherries to pick. Our backyard had never looked better. This, I realize, is often the way of things: When life is normal, I see all the flaws—the chipped paint, the uneven ceiling; when normal life is lost, the familiar glows bright before my eyes. The birds sing louder, and I want to stay forever. When I read those opening pages of Fellowship back in June, I could only laugh for trying not to cry.

Frodo willingly marches into misery, danger, and despair to save everyone but himself, so far as he knows. But that is not the full extent of his sacrifice. Till this year’s reading I had never realized the depths of what slows Frodo as he heads out on his journey. His deep desire is to stay not merely in comfort but in a sense of place, history, memory, family. Yes, he is supposed to go out and do this grand thing. But his dragging feet are caught on the threshold of his love for home, that very place he most wants to save. And so, this year, I had no need to travel the Old Forest, go through Bree or visit Rivendell. I remained where Frodo and Sam wished they could: The Shire. If they couldn’t keep watch over home themselves, I’d do it in their stead. If I can’t stay in the home we spent three years imbuing with memory, love, and meaning—if home must be, for now, a row of townhouse rentals set down in yards of pavement in a new city—then I won’t read past page 142. I’ll find solace in Bilbo’s garden.

Like Frodo on that first and only night in his Crickhollow house, I look around this temporary place and say with some effort, “This does look like home.”[vii] I try to mean it. That won’t stop me from hoping we’ll have a place of our own again someday, one in which we can truly settle. Fewer road trips for me, and hopefully no more moves—just a backyard window view, one with daylilies and cherry trees.


[i] Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring. Ballantine Books, New York: 1993. (102)

[ii] (133)

[iii] (66)

[iv] (92)

[v] (98)

[vi] (95)

[vii] (133)

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Real Life in Mumbai: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

If I want to make an argument, a cogent argument, what do I need? A position. Data. Facts and figures. Hard evidence, to speak to the head. Soft evidence, to affect the heart. I will assemble these things and build a fortress around my position. I will state my case. I will strive to convince and persuade, eliminating that which does not support my point, polishing that which does.

This type of rhetoric floods our contemporary communications. Some go further still, expressing their political and religious positions in the new media of visual memes, a shorthand able to stir praise from those who agree, derision from those who do not.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo
Random House, 2012, 288 pgs
Purchase at Amazon

How refreshing, then, to come in contact with a living story, not an deadening argument, one that illuminates the complexity of an issue. Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo could be said to be about economic inequality, but that would be an unfair reduction. She chooses not the path of rhetoric, but rather the path of story, and the result is more than a book about social justice. It forces the reader into a discomfort that only comes as we walk in other people’s lives, imagining their cooking fires, smelling the sewage, sorting trash.

The title comes from the barrier between the seen and unseen parts of Mumbai. A wall divides them. One side of the wall faces Annawadi, a slum near the airport. The other side faces the overcity, and is covered in an advertisement selling flooring. The ad papers the wall, repeatedly using the phrase “beautiful forever.”

The book satisfies the nonfiction reader’s needs for facts: the origins of the people in Annawadi, the history of the place, the lives of the current dwellers, the struggles they face, how they intersect with the surrounding city and the authorities. She does this through the work of a reporter, but with the voice of a storyteller, delivering three years of journalistic exploration scene by scene and life by life, telling of three families who live behind the wall, with plots and subplots and a style that echos a novel.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers submerges its reader in Annawadi. The setting and statistics become the ecology, a context of which the people, and by extension the reader, are a part. When the book is finished, reality has been enhanced, challenged, changed. The reader has worn someone else’s skin, and it’s uncomfortable.

Discomfort starts as we move beyond statistics. Numbers give us a sense of scope but also provide us with distance and excuses. Three thousand residents and only six people with jobs sounds like a big problem, bigger than I. It would be easy to breeze past that sort of statistic in a straight news piece. On the other hand, Abdul and his efforts give me as a reader a way to empathize. He is one of the many who is not traditionally employed, yet finds ways to care for his family. This takes him off of a graph and puts him in my mind—a person kind of like me.

Discomfort continues as “the poor” are named and have successes and failures, both economic and moral. The aforementioned Abdul, along with Asha and Kalu and Zehrunisia and Fatima and others, are not representative of the poor or symbols of economic disparity. If they were, they might be easier to dismiss. Instead, their specific desires and heartaches allow us to consider that both systemic and individual ways can be corrupted. With full story, rather than glossy anecdote, the reader can no longer see the residents of Annawadi as merely oppressed or merely foolish. This opens a door that a chart cannot, an invitation to see ourselves, our systems, our motives for what they are.

A quick survey of responses to this book suggests that most reviewers were moved. It’s difficult to find naysayers, but their words are intriguing. One feels the book is good but not great, as it does not explore larger forces in play, the stories of the overcity. Is the author’s work lessened because she chooses to tell the story of a few people in Annawadi and not the story of those in charge? A second reviewer expresses concern that the narrative style might diminish the plight of the slumdwellers. Does an absence of forcefully expressed hard facts, combined with a compelling tale, lighten the weight of suffering for the reader?

Boo allows the people to stand with limited quantification, their morals unpolished; she shapes the story without fortifying the possible rhetoric. This is the final discomfort. When a story reveals systemic injustice and also broken people, will we act anyway, or do we champion justice only on behalf of innocents? Can we find the humility and mercy to enact justice even though we are broken people in a broken world?

Desire: The Drive & Death of Surrealism

Philippe Soupault by Béatrice Mousli
Flammarion, 2010, 473 pgs
Purchase at Amazon

Philippe Soupault is no longer a well-known writer on this side of the Atlantic, although his work was very well-known in the 1920s and 1930s, the period during which he co-founded the Surrealist movement with André Breton.

In 1926 Soupault was ejected from the movement for a variety of peccadillos including his rejection of the Surrealist movement’s newfound Marxism. Soupault had been a member of the haute bourgeoisie of Paris by birth. As a young man he had run the French Atlantic petroleum fleet. He also later edited books for Bernard Grasset, ran Radio France in Tunis during World War II, and worked for UNESCO as a globe-trotting executive, as well as working as a journalist for a variety of French dailies and monthlies for decades. Soupault’s journalism was sometimes artistic, but he also covered French elections and followed various candidates, as well as reporting from the United States, Russia, Germany and many other countries.

Soupault’s energy and enthusiasm, as well as his multidimensional talents, enabled him to publish at least a dozen novels, at least again as many critical studies, some twenty volumes of poetry, a half dozen mémoires—to note only a few of the genres in which he worked. When Soupault was excommunicated from Surrealism the movement lost one of its most talented contributors, and it could be said that after his departure in 1926 the movement collapsed into various kinds of stasis and never really regained form.

Beatrice Mousli’s biography of Philippe Soupault (Flammarion, 2010, 473 pages) is a massive undertaking. I’ve read 35 or so volumes of Soupault’s work, but always found it difficult to understand the gaps between the words and the life, particularly in terms of his romantic escapades. Soupault himself said that in his Mémoires he would not attempt to give details about his romantic life, only his public life. He claimed this was a question of discretion (or perhaps it was the indiscretions). I never understood what happened between the first, second, third and fourth wives.

Muriel Reed, his lover and former student, was never an actual wife, but by American standards she would have been a common-law wife. Reed lived with Soupault in Paris after the Second World War and committed suicide from the balcony of their apartment. The few fugitive references to this woman were scarce in the literature until now. In the timeline that Soupault’s French editor Lydie Lachenal offers, she refers with one sentence to Reed’s fate: “Suicide de Muriel: un soir comme les autres elle se précipite par le fenêtre, du cinquième étage” (Chronologie 15). There is no motivation given in the Lachenal timeline.

In the Mousli biography much of the context surrounding Reed is reconstructed. We discover that she (who had lived with Soupault for twenty years outside of wedlock) was depressed and working on a story about depression. She had traveled in Russia, Albania, the United States, and to the island of Mauritius as a journalist for the magazine Réalities. In the winter of 1965, a few days after her 45th birthday, Reed killed herself. Getting more of the story of Muriel Reed helps give context to this period of Soupault’s life. Perhaps she was upset that he was so thoroughly unfaithful to her?

Soupault was also seeing a Surrealist woman named Nelly Kaplan, whom he dated several times a week (he shared Nelly with Abel Gance and André Breton). Soupault met Kaplan in 1954, and their relationship lasted until 1964, “…déjeuners et diners en ville les reunissant plusieurs fois par semaine” (421) a fact he didn’t hide. Soupault was still married to his wife, Re, during that time. The story of Soupault’s myriad, overlapping amours (only the official ones are sketched out, as there were prostitutes mixed in too) is evidenced in the testimonial Derniers Nuits de Paris.

The Surrealists had read Freud and took him to mean that the freeing of the id would result in a better society, in which alienation was no longer present as one could find immediate satisfaction and the result would be happiness. (Freud never actually said this, but most of the Surrealists had not read him very carefully.) Soupault had been raised Catholic but had discarded this tradition in favor of the notion that the Father and the Ten Commandments should be dismissed in order to free desire. Desire became the elixir of Surrealism, the gasoline that drove the movement: but it was also a Pandora’s box.

If desire became the goddess of the Surrealists, and if they sought to link erotic dreams to life, they created nightmares for the actual women in their lives. Only the toughest survived. Some ended up in mental hospitals, others killed themselves. The story of Reed is just one small part of Soupault’s life, but it is also important as he had put his apartment (and thus all his cash) in her name. When her well-connected American family arrived to clean up after her death they confiscated everything in the apartment including the paintings and pushed Soupault out. He never published much again, although he lived another twenty five years. Soupault’s race through life came to an abrupt halt.

If Mousli’s book gives us new information about Soupault’s women (information heretofore unavailable to all but the inner circle), it also gives new and precise information about the friendship that Soupault shared with Breton and many other Surrealists and members of the Parisian elite. While this information was covered to some extent in Bernard Morlino’s biography of 1986 and in Soupault’s own memoirs, much new information has been collected. Mousli gives us insight into Soupault’s writing career (including the mountains of journalism that has never been collected) and into his continuous travels on four continents to support his work for magazines and for UNESCO.

Much remains to be understood about Soupault’s intimate life, including the quality of his relationships. He appears to have put his sexual well-being first, and then his social prestige, but although he had time for many flings and impromptu relationships he did not take good care of his health. He smoked throughout his life, was hospitalized in his twenties for nervous exhaustion, incarcerated and given electro-shock therapy by the Vichy government in World War II, and was punched by Breton, among others in various misunderstandings, but still lived to be 93. It has long been thought that Breton was the adventurer in the sexual realm and that Soupault had been more or less a different species of fish.

This biography undoes that myth and reveals that Soupault and Breton were more similar than previously thought, and that long after they had parted company as founders of Surrealism they remained in touch. Mousli’s work breaks new ground and opens whole new areas for investigation while remaining fast-paced and illuminating.


Lachenal, Lydie. Philippe Soupault Chronologie. (Paris: Lachenal & Ritter, 1997).


The Physics of Worship, w/r/t DFW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



[1] This is not entirely true.


Stories That Tell Themselves

I have written in the past—for instance, here, herehere —about theology embodied in a work of art. Embodied Theology occurs when a religiously devout writer, composer, or artist incarnates faith in the very form and fabric of his or her work. Literature, for instance, can be about some doctrine or belief; it can also enact it. The simplest examples are “redemptive” storylines (think Les Mis), or Christ-like protagonists (think Harry Potter). Yet it can be far more subtle than this. Perhaps a Christian interprets the entire concept of narrative—rising action, climax, falling action—as a version of the great Creation-Fall-Redemption story, then writes a fantasy to bring that narrative to life. It could be argued that Tolkien did this in Lord of the Rings. Or, in contrast, perhaps a “tragic sense of life” cuts short that satisfying trajectory, ending a tale in the horror and meaningless of sinful temporality. Flannery O’Connor does this in many of her stories.

Embodied Theology is an implicit, rather than an explicit, expression of belief. It is subtle and integral. It moves deeper than symbolism, allegory, or allusion. It shapes the work along every step from the choice of genre to use of technical elements, not merely in plot or theme. Dante’s cosmic faith came to life in the numerology of  terza rima and in the inhabited spheres of his astronomy. Milton’s guided the character development of his humanized Messiah and his epic structure. C. S. Lewis’s shaped the seven-fold metaphor of his Narnia books.

This concept of embodiment is not limited to a profound expression of theology. Any deeply-held convictions can serve as the mold for art: political, social, ethical, or philosophical. Until recently, however, I did not pause to think about how literary theories could function in this way. I had, of course, thought quite a bit about how the study of literary theory could stifle creativity and spoil the poetic voice. What English major doesn’t worry that analyzing poems will kill them, or that reading Derrida will implant a permanent deconstructionist as internal narrator?

But the academic study of literature will not kill a really robust talent. In fact, truly elastic genius can turn abstraction into story. There are, I discovered, ways of creating Embodied Literary Theory.

I recently read four novels that each brought to life a particular literary theory. They were simultaneously works of literature and works about literature. They transformed my perspective, giving me an optimism about the simultaneous co-habitation of the Ivory Tower and the Attic Studio. These four novels were not of equal value, however, and did not achieve that dual purpose equally well, reminding me yet again that the talent must be robust and flexible to absorb higher learning and still produce compelling fiction.

The first two books are both by Jeffrey Eugenides: Middlesex (2002) and The Marriage Plot (2011).  Middlesex engages with ideas about the social formation of gender identity, debates about nature vs. nurture, concepts of self-determination, and what is known in the academy as “queer theory.” It puts these ideas, quite literally, into the fictional body of the main character; the protagonist, Cal, is hermaphroditic. Eugenides also plays with a century’s worth of theorizing about narrative, using this to shape the circularity of the persona’s tale. Yet not for one page does Cal seem to be a walking personification: he is a three-dimensional character whose life and storytelling—amoral and disturbing as they are—emerge organically and persuasively from his evolving identity.

 The Marriage Plot  wears its theory on its face. The story is about literary theory: the main female character is an English major, studying the historical development and eventual death of “the marriage plot” in British novels. And the book also does literary theory: at the very end, the pessimism about the death of marriage proves true. The whole novel, in retrospect, appears to have been designed to make one ending, about the endings of novels, possible. Here, the theory is less implicit and more explicit, which makes it (arguably) less persuasive as theory and less successful as literature.

My next example takes a different approach altogether. Rather than driving towards a pre-determined ending, The Handmaid’s Tale by  Margaret Atwood ends in indeterminacy. That move itself is a sweet bit of  poststructuralism. But what happens after the ending is even more interesting. At the risk of “spoiling” one surprise, I will reveal that the epilogue to this terrifying dystopic tale is a mock-scholarly talk at a fictional conference. A scholar gets up to discuss his “discovery” of the “manuscript” of the entire preceding book, turning a chilling novel into a commentary on questions of narrative reliability, interpretive reading, and the very nature of truth. It is a brilliant move.

Finally, let me indulge my admiration for the most admirable work of Embodied Literary Theory I have ever encountered. I wouldn’t be surprised if it is the most skillful example of this type of writing to date. It is Possession by A. S. Byatt. From beginning to end, through each twist of this nerd’s mystery adventure, Byatt packs in the academic content. I could detect traces of her high school English classes on literary terms, undergrad literature courses on devices and analysis, and rigorous grad school examinations of the novel’s modernist permutations and anxieties of influence. On fire with a passion for beautiful words, conflicted by pedantry, driven by an isolating ambition, eaten up by sexual confusion, compelled towards narrative closure: this describes the characters and the book itself. It is masterful. It is beautiful on many levels, and it shows just how perfectly a writer/professor can unify her two vocations. It is a novel about how stories are told, and it is a novel in which the story is told in just those ways it examines. It is all the more complex because the characters themselves realize that they are in a story with a certain shape, and they accept the narrative inevitability of their final acts—in this tale—with a scholar’s delight in accuracy.

So for those who worry that studying the material you love will strip it of its pleasure, take heart! If it is indeed the field for you—and if you are for it—its pleasures are endless. From the panic of youthful encounters to the intellectual joys of mastery, the material you love will reward you. You can consume it or create it—or both, at once.

Other Wizards, Many Worlds

We all know which child wizard first grabbed his Elementary Spells textbook and walked the castle hallways to Magical History 101, right?

Not necessarily. Decades before J.K. Rowling put Harry and Ron in a flying Ford Anglia on their way to Hogwarts, Diana Wynne Jones sent a young enchanter named Cat Chant crashing into the local post office on a contraption of enchanted bicycles and magicked flying furniture – after, of course, he had completed his magical education classes for the day.

When Jones passed away in March 2011, the New York Times detailed her long life, her recent death, and her proliferation of kids’ fantasy literature. I probably wasn’t alone in wondering who she was. To the library I went. Not surprisingly, the selection was meager this side of The Pond. I pulled down the tallest of the six plastic-covered hardbacks, wondering what a character named “Chrestomanci” might be like. The book title was The Lives of Christopher Chant. A good choice, as it turned out.

And in the end, that’s what these stories are: fun.

Diana Wynne Jones is a good choice overall for anyone who’s steeped themselves in the likes of J.K. Rowling or Phillip Pullman in recent decades, or, further back, Susan Cooper. Americans may, like me, draw a blank, but most bookwormish British schoolchildren know the enchanter Chrestomanci, even if they don’t yet know that Diana Wynne Jones falls plum in the middle of Britain’s rich children’s fantasy heritage.

In that first book I brought home from the library, Jones’s Christopher Chant steps “around the corner of the night nursery wall”[i] and confidently into this very tradition. Ah, Christopher: a young boy, lonely, all but orphaned, who discovers the tear in the magical fabric of his world, carefully peels it aside, and walks through. (I’m lookin’ at you, Phillip Pullman.) I was charmed from the start. I didn’t skip a beat till I’d read to the end of the six Chrestomanci books, scouring two library systems and back-ordering the rest.

It’s rare at my age to be drawn into another world as wholly as I am by Jones’s stories. How does she do it? Believable, sympathetic characters combined with straightforward, unabashed magic. Don’t get me wrong; her books are no wild ride. Jones paces her stories moderately, meaning they move a good bit slower than Harry Potter. This works just fine for me, having developed my readerly imagination on the 1970’s likes of Cynthia Voight and Madeleine L’Engle. But Jones’s energetically resolved endings always make up for her easy pacing in a satisfyingly accelerated final rush. And all along, there is the awareness, the curiosity, the mystery, the suspense of alternate worlds to our own.

Which is the concept that works so well for Jones. And she’s got tons of worlds up her sleeve and around the corner. We catch a glimpse of them in the refractively mind-bending conclusion to Witch Week, a tale that’s almost too slowly paced. But the payoff, after making it to the end, is an exciting and thorough resolution, wherein worlds connect with worlds in one huge, kaleidoscopic “Aha!” moment:

“It was as if the world had turned into a vast curtain, hanging in folds, with every fold in it rippling in and out. The ripples ran through desks, windows, walls, and people alike. Each person was rippled through. They were tugged, and rippled again, until everyone felt they were coming to pieces. By then, the ripples were so strong and steep that everyone could see right down in to the folds. For just a moment, on the outside of each fold, was the classroom everyone knew, with the inquisitor and his huge men on the same fold as Miss Cadwallader, and Chrestmanci on another fold beside them. The inner parts of the folds were all different places.”[ii]

But Christopher Chant is the character who throws this other-worlds element into sharpest relief. At nighttime, he journeys out of his bed, around the nursery fireplace, and into The Place Between: a rocky valley that offers entrances into worlds – no, whole series of worlds! – in vaster numbers than Christopher can count.

“He set off sliding, scrambling, edging across bulging wet rock, and climbing up or down, until he found another valley and another path. There were hundreds of them. He called them the Anywheres.”[iii]

We know this other-worlds idea didn’t begin in Jones’s imagination. Two decades before the first Chrestomanci book appeared in print, a quartet of siblings walked through the back of a wardrobe into a land called Narnia. Nearly a century before that, a lesser-known fantasy character – the creation of Victorian novelist George MacDonald – entered another realm through (appropriately) a library. In MacDonald’s book Lilith, the librarian explains what it is that Lewis, Jones, Pullman, and countless others have since envisioned: “I tell you there are more worlds, and more doors to them, than you will think of in many years!”[iv]

These days, the concept of alternate worlds runs rampant on the middle grades and young adult library shelves (not to mention on prime time television). Of course, all fiction books, even the most realistic of fiction pieces, are themselves other worlds in that they are imagined renderings, recreated places. But what Jones and many of these others do differently is layer the concept, starting with the world as we know it and then working out the idea of imagined experience by giving their characters entrance from a recognizable “here” to a somehow different “there.”

Surprisingly, perhaps the most striking element of Jones’s worlds, besides the vibrantly rendered magical details they’re chock-full of, is the sheer normalcy of the characters’ experience. In Charmed Life, we read about Cat Chant’s inner dilemma, torn between brotherly loyalty and a moral obligation to tell the truth. We almost forget we’re dealing with multi-lived enchanters and magical matchsticks, because we’re caught up in recognizing how Cat feels: agonized, like a normal, conflicted eleven-year-old boy. His equivocal decisions are decisions we know; his dialogue and responses ring true. We feel empathy for Cat and, perhaps, for the part of ourselves that is so similar to him. It’s just as reading should be: entrance into a deeper Real. A deeper real, that is, and a whole lot of fun.

And in the end, that’s what these stories are: fun. The more fun, I’d say, for their being so artfully crafted. With a nonchalant tone and a steady pace, with an effective honesty toward her readers and uniquely imagined moments, with playful good humor and a hint of darkness just troubling enough to be delicious, Jones’s hand wields fantasy adventure story with skill. Even we American readers who have never read her benefit from the many worlds she conceived. As we stay up too late reading The Golden Compass or The Dark is Rising (or, in the adult lit realm, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell), as we watch and rewatch the Harry Potter films, we participate in the narrative legacy Diana Wynne Jones has left behind.

At the end of Witch Week, the young character Nan, a budding writer, makes the discovery that storytelling is “as good as witchcraft, any day.”[v] Later, a friend confides in her:

“Do you know what I think?” she whispered. “When you grow up to be an author and write books, you’ll think you’re making the books up, but they’ll all really be true, somewhere.”[vi]

A world where books come true? Well, that may be a stretch. But fortunately for those of us who are into this middle grades fantasy kind of thing, that didn’t hold Diana Wynne Jones back. Who needs other worlds? Not when the likes of Diana Wynne Jones waits on the library bookshelf, teeming with enchanters and griffins, witches and warlocks, schoolgirl authors, flying furniture, wild woodlands, and much more, besides.


[i] The Lives of Christopher Chant, The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Volume I. HarperCollins Publishers, New York: 2001. p.271

[ii] Witch Week, The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Volume II. HarperCollins Publishers, New York: 2001. p. 540-1

[iii] Lives, p.271-2

[iv] Lilith. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids: 1996. p.40

[v] Witch, p.540

[vi] Witch, p.547

On Publication

Just as lawyers are asked legal advice over dinner and doctors are asked to diagnose conditions over cocktails, so writers are regularly asked to give free consultations on How To Get Published. Much more rarely are writers asked How To Write Well. The second is a lifetime’s vocation; the first should be the natural result of that lifetime’s vocation, but is more often seen as a quick route to affirmation, wealth, confidence, and a host of other impossibilities it rarely produces.

Because I have frequently been asked How To Get Published, I have developed some points of advice through teaching classes, browsing books on publication, conversing with other published writers, taking and leading workshops, and engaging in good old trial-and-error.

 1. Read

First of all, read the great classic masterpieces in your chosen genre. If you are a poet, read through the “canon” of great poetry in English starting with Beowulf and working your way through. You can really start almost anywhere except with the 20th century; if you start there, it will take longer to develop a sense of the rhythms of English. Learn from their eyes, ears, and ideas. Learn what works (and what doesn’t), train your ear, gain a knowledge of quality and tradition. If you are a novelist, read the great classic novels of the 19th centuries (not the popular novels of today; they’ll spoil your syntax and sense of narrative subtlety). If you write biography, memoir, or history, read the stock works in these genres from the past few centuries. Don’t read only what’s being written now, because that is often based on fads that will not last.

 2. Study

Next (and at the same time as #1), study the techniques and methods of your chosen genre. Learn all the literary terms that apply. Learn all the forms. Learn about the skills, patterns, and tools used. Take literature classes, read textbooks, browse anthologies, study literary theory, and look through literary dictionaries. You need to develop your “palette.” You need to have all the colors of paint before you can paint a masterpiece; you need to know all the rules of the game before you can be a winning athlete. So, too, you need to know all the nuts and bolts of writing. Increase your vocabulary; learn the history of words; become familiar with the denotations and connotations of words; master the forms of figurative language. This is true whether you’re writing newspaper articles or epics.

3. Practice

Start by imitating the masters. Set yourself exercises in which you take a little bit of their writing (the rhyme scheme, meter, first sentence of each paragraph, plot structure, a character, etc.) and then try to write something like theirs. Set yourself tasks that force you to try out various forms, techniques, and methods. Practice hard, every day, for at least a few years.

4. Repeat steps 1-3 for several years

Seriously. If you are writing just to get published—well, that’s a kind of mental prostitution. Of course, there are many careers in which frequent publication is required—academia, journalism, etc.—but one must be a student before becoming a master. So be in a hurry to write, but not in a hurry to publish.

5. Establish Writing Partnerships

A good writing partner is as hard to find as a good spouse! If you find one, “grapple them to thee with hoops of steel.” Meet and exchange work, critique each other’s work, act like English teachers marking up papers with red ink. Share ideas. It’s great if you can get published writers for critics, too, as long as their work is masterful and not merely popular.

6. Revise

Once you’ve written works of which you’re proud, put them away for a while. Then take them out and rewrite them. Then send them to your writing partners and rewrite them. Take them to workshops and conferences and let a group of strangers rip them apart. Then rewrite them again.

7. Attend Workshops

Find out what other people are writing in your genre. Attend their workshops, talk to them, listen to their writing, listen to lectures on the craft of writing. However, a caveat here: Beware The Workshop Poem. Workshops tend to have a kind of cookie-cutter effect on participants, causing them to churn out sound-alike poems (or stories, or plays, and so forth). Don’t attend the same workshop more than once. Find leaders who vary wildly. And never use workshops as a replacement for studying the classics.

8.       Attend Conferences

Now we’re starting to move towards the actual answer to the publication question, assuming that you have learned how to write really well. Find out what the newest books are in and about your kind of writing, meet or at least listen to the masters, get inspired, compare your work to others, and start to learn who the publishers are in your field. These are good places to meet agents, as well, which will be of great practical help—so I have heard, although I have never used an agent myself.

9.       Submit to Magazines/Journals

Once you know that your writing is skillful, relevant, and polished, you can start sending it out into the world little by little. Start with submitting short pieces (poems, articles, chapters, short stories) to periodicals. Here you’ll need a good resource like Writer’s Market or Poet’s Market. These books list the periodicals that accept submissions of work, and say what genres each likes, whether they’ll take work from beginners, whether you need to write a query letter first, and so on. People at workshops and conferences can direct you to other resources for your genre. You’ll usually need to spend a few years getting little pieces published and getting your name known before submitting a full-length work for publication. Here you will also need to learn how to write cover letters, format your work for each submission, and generally follow the ettiquette of the World of the Literary Journal.

 10.     Submit to Contests

Contests are a great way to get your work published without having to hire an agent. Just read all the contest guidelines, including deadlines and number of pieces/pages to submit, and voila! Most contests will charge an entrance fee to cover their costs, so try to choose contests that you think you have a chance of winning. Look at the work of past winners, if possible.

 11.     Try a Small Press

Very small, family-run publishing companies are more likely to take work from beginning writers than the big-name presses. This is a good place to send your first full-length MS. However, they often operate through contests, so look there first.

12. Get an Agent

While books of poetry, short story collections, and first novels of a more high-brow sort can often see the light via contests and small presses, you really do need an agent if you want to land a valuable contract or launch a best-seller. I have a poet friend who has an agent to organize everything for him. Twice a year the agent writes and says, “OK, send me X number of new poems” and then the agent does all the work of formatting MSS, choosing the periodicals, writing the cover letters, sending out the work, and keeping track of acceptances and rejections. That leaves you more time for simply writing—if you can afford it. For novels, nonfiction, and most other prose, you just really need an agent. Most publishers simply won’t look at work that doesn’t come from an agent. You can often meet a potential agent at a writer’s conference, or through a writing partner who has been published.

13. Finally, send out a “real” book to a “real” press!

So, years will go by before you send a full-length book to a reputable publishing company. That’s the way it should be. After you’ve spent years writing just for the sake of writing and after you’ve honed and developed your craft, maybe you can send out your masterpiece.

One more piece of advice: don’t self-publish. If you can’t get your book out there any other way, well, stop and consider why it’s getting rejected all the time. Maybe you just haven’t found the right niche; maybe it isn’t as good as you think it is. Stop and compare it to Shakespeare, Hopkins, Dickens. For real. But never, never pay money to get your book published. You may have to pay entrance fees to contests or a percentage of royalties to an agent, but you should never pay for the actual publication of your book. Again, that is a kind of artistic prostitution. If your book really is good and no one appreciates it, write another. The first one will keep.

Creative Historical Memoir Fiction

About seven years ago, I decided to write a novel about my grandfather’s experience in World War Two. I knew a very little bit about it: only that he’d been a prisoner of war, and that he’d escaped the Germans by jumping off a train somewhere in northern Italy. I’d also been told that he was shot (which I later learned was actually a shrapnel wound), but that was about it.

When I finally asked my grandmother if she could tell me anything about it (my grandfather passed away before I was old enough to care), I learned that his story was a great deal more interesting than I’d ever realized. She gave me a brief summary that had been submitted to the Army, detailing his experience. I took those eight pages and embarked on the monumental task of piecing the entirety of the story back together in novel form.

Earlier this year, I submitted an excerpt of my novel to a local writing group I’d been a part of, dubbing it “historical fiction.” Since starting the book, I’d used the term “historical fiction” to identify the genre, not really knowing how else it might be classified. But when I submitted the piece to the writing group, one of my cohorts suggested that the book was not, in fact, historical fiction, but creative non-fiction, or narrative non-fiction. I’d heard of creative non-fiction before, but the truth is that I didn’t really know what it was. It had always seemed to me that creative non-fiction was more applicable to stories that didn’t take place at a significant time in history, that for something to be creative non-fiction, one simply had to take actual events and characters and embellish a bit on the action and dialogue. Of course, that was exactly what I’d done with my own story except that mine did take place during a significant historical event, yet the historical aspect didn’t seem as important to my friend when she was considering the genre.

“But then, what is historical fiction?” I asked.

I don’t remember her answer, except that I knew I didn’t fully understand it. But since she was more of an expert than I was, I thought I should go with her guidance. I began to refer to my work as creative non-fiction.

In mid-July, I attended my first creative writing residency in pursuit of an M.F.A. I used excerpts from the novel as my workshop samples, eagerly awaiting the feedback I’d receive that would no doubt make the piece much better than I could have done on my own.

When I arrived, my new friends and colleagues had a tendency to identify each other by the pieces we’d submitted, since that was the only familiarity we had with each other at the time. I summarized my work to someone, and when she realized which piece it was, she said, “Oh, right! That was the historical fiction piece.”

“Yeah,” I said, suddenly confused, but wanting to sound like I knew what I was talking about. “It’s more like a creative non-fiction piece, but that’s the one.”

“Creative non-fiction?” she said. “Interesting. Why do you call it that? I really thought it was historical fiction.”

Me, too, I thought. My attempt to cover up my ignorance had failed, and I was forced to explain that it had been suggested to me by a trusted friend in the industry, but that I didn’t really understand the difference.

Similar variations of this conversation took place throughout the first part of the week, until I was thoroughly confused, frustrated, and a bit concerned that I didn’t know the genre of my novel. How would I ever choose the right agents or publishers to send the manuscript to if I didn’t even know how to market the piece by its genre? Would my novel be doomed to unclassifiable purgatory?

Fortunately, or so I thought, there was a workshop later in the week having to do with the fictionalization of actual events. We were given examples to read, primarily by Joyce Carol Oates and John Shepard. They were stories about not unfamiliar events – the Chappaquidick incident involving Ted Kennedy, and the Chernobyl disaster. The stories told the lives of real people, but the names were changed and some of the event details ever so slightly altered for obvious legal reasons.

“So would these be classified as historical fiction or creative non-fiction?” someone asked.

“Well,” said the facilitator, “it depends. They could be either.”

“Depends on what?”

The facilitator went on to hem and haw about the nuanced differences between these two genres, but in the end, there was no definitive answer. I was somewhat devastated. That seminar had been my glimmering light of hope at the end of the uncertain tunnel down which I’d been charging aimlessly for too long. How could this be? Did no one know the difference between historical fiction and creative non-fiction?

“I think what you really have,” someone else suggested, “is a memoir.”

Photo by Mary Pelletier

Great. Now I have historical fiction, narrative non-fiction, and a memoir all rolled into one. As if writing the book wasn’t hard enough, now I had to figure this out. It was enough to make me want to give up. But as a writer, I get that feeling a lot, and I’ve grown used to overcoming it.

As I let the story stew for a few days, I began to explore the question of genre in general. Once upon a time – and it wasn’t that long ago – there were only a few ways that books might be categorized. There was romance, horror, sci-fi/fantasy, literary fiction, among others. If someone said the genre of a particular book, most people would understand how they meant to categorize it.

But since then, and I suspect largely because so many of these genres have been given bad names by terrible stories published within them, a number of subgenres have sprung up, making the jobs of publishers and agents slightly easier while giving new writers just one more thing to agonize over.

Another example is my first book, Dark Island. To sum it up, the novel is basically a ghost story. But the term “ghost story” more than likely gives people the wrong idea. While the first draft ten years ago may have been only a ghost story, the book has evolved to be much more about human struggles and the metaphorical prisons that we sometimes find ourselves in without ever having realized that we were headed down the wrong path. This is not a ghost story, yet the existence of the ghost in the story, and the significant role it plays, weakens its contention for simply being literary fiction. Some might say that it falls under the category of “fabulism”, a category so new that no one has even bothered to make a Wikipedia entry about it. Others still want to put it into sci-fi/fantasy, even though the only thing fantastical about the story is the ghost. Still others want to put it under a label with the supernatural, which wouldn’t be altogether inaccurate, but it would ultimately miss the point, especially when querying agents.

The young adult genre is also going through a major evolution, which has most writers and probably most readers a bit confused. Are YA books something that must include magical realism, fabulism, or science-fiction? Are they really targeting the ages of seventeen to twenty-two, or is the net cast much wider than that? Publishers, of course, want YA novels that will start with young adults but eventually appeal to (regular?)adults, but there are many YA readers who are much younger than seventeen, primarily because the language of YA has come to be a bit less sophisticated. Sophisticated language, then, can separate a novel out of the YA category, even though that is where it actually belongs. (It’s also worth noting that YA novels have tragically become something that the intellectual world of writers tends to shun– something that wasn’t always the case when the writing wasn’t so juvenile.)

So what is one to do? How can a writer be comfortable classifying his or her work? There aren’t any good answers to this. The first is simply to pick a genre that feels right to you, and stick with it. You may make an erroneous query here or there because of it, but if you’ve polished a novel enough to send queries, you ought to know it pretty well. Trust your instincts.

Second, find a mentor or trusted colleague who can help you to evaluate your own work. Then find another. Get as many industry people to read your work as possible, and take their feedback. Some of them will offer genre advice and some of them won’t, but simply hearing their thoughts and criticisms will help you to understand where your work belongs.

Finally, don’t stress about it more than you have to. Unfortunately, writers need to be marketers these days, but don’t ever forget that marketing is your second job, not your first. If an agent reads your manuscript and thinks it’s marketable enough to take on, he/she is not likely going to simply turn you away because you’ve mislabeled the genre in a query letter. If the agent really doesn’t dabble in the actual genre of your book, they will tell you where your work belongs and some of the more helpful ones may even give you further direction on better venues to which you might send your query.

Ultimately, I’ve decided to go back to my original classification of historical fiction for the piece about my grandfather. I chose this primarily because the characters are becoming more and more fictionalized, having only eight pages and an emotionally-reserved primary source to work from, and because the places involved are long gone now, with no pictures or descriptions to provide me context. I’m sure some will still say that what I’ve got is creative non-fiction or a memoir, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about being a writer, it’s that everyone’s a critic. Some people will tell me that I have something other than what I have. Some people will tell me that I’ve written a fantastic piece while others will call that same piece atrocious. There can be very little objectivity with the creatively-written word, and so when push comes to shove, the only thing a writer can really do is to follow his heart. After all, that’s usually what brings us to fill in so many blank pages in the first place.


And more on publication next week from Sorina Higgins

Same Old Story

This article originally appeared in The Curator January 9, 2009.

The third or fourth time he spoke to me, my husband laughed aloud at the mild exasperation that must have shown in my eyes. “You really want to read that book you’ve read a hundred times, don’t you?” I had Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban open across my lap, and his conversation, albeit welcome, was interrupting the flow of the story. He laughed again, knowing the answer before I gave it to him, and he let me go back to my reading.

All my life I have been a re-reader. My worn old Little House on the Prairieseries sits directly below my equally battered Chronicles of Narnia on one of the living-room shelves. I remember reading Dodie Smith’s 101 Dalmatians again and again, consecutively; from there I progressed to Where the Red Fern Growsby Wilson Rawls and then Johanna Spyri’s Heidi, and those books were the primary objects of my sixth-grade study hall periods. Nowadays, other material has formed similar rotations: Jane Austen’s novels and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, the works of J.K. Rowling, Orson Scott Card, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and others.

Photo by flickr user Ben Oh.

In case it isn’t obvious, I’m not just talking about the occasional re-perusal. I’m talking about five cover-to-cover trips through Rowling’s 759-page Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows within fourteen months of its publication, two trips through Card’sSpeaker for the Dead in one month, Pride and Prejudice at least once a year. And whole reads are only half the fun; I’ve spent weeks going over the same few chapters of Austen’s Emma, dwelt in various sections of Elizabeth Goudge’s Little White Horse,and even for the superordinate class to which belong Harry Potter, Pride and Prejudice, That Hideous Strength, etc., partial re-reads are more common than cover-to-cover.

It’s a very idiosyncratic thing, this compulsion to revisit a story so often in close succession. It isn’t systematic, it’s the impelling of magnetic force – a desire, almost a need, to imprint the very words into my mind, absorbing their content into heart and being. And it seems inconsistent. I love and admire both Austen and Dickens, but Jane gets many more re-reads than Charles. It might be comprehensible to most that Spyri’s Heidi would still draw me back occasionally after all these years, but then, so does everybody’s favorite book to hate: Pollyanna, by Eleanor H. Porter.

And it’s hard to isolate a cause. Part of it comes from being a writer myself; getting saturated with an author’s flow of thought and word is crucial in training myself to write well and in shaping my own style. Another part comes from the fact that many stories, especially suspenseful ones or ones utilizing older or different forms of English, are much better the second time around. Almost all good stories improve with multiple readings, anyway.

Yet another part draws from the power of certain stories to speak to me at certain times. Despite (or perhaps because of) J.K. Rowling’s admitted struggles with doubt, her stories spoke into my struggle with agnosticism and belief, and separated light from darkness, good from evil in my mind. As clichéd as it might sound, they helped me find courage to trust in the power of self-sacrificial love over death.

Austen’s Emma – and Emma’s Mr. Knightley – give me real delight through reinforcing my appreciation of being loved and chosen by a man of character. My husband is not unlike Mr. Knightley. I never fully understood why Emma loved Mr. Knightley instead of Frank Churchill until I met my husband, and at the end of the book, her joy is mine.

My favorite stories will show me compassion without leading me to despair, foster belief through imagination, and even when I disagree with an idea, give me something real to think about.

A good book is a transformational experience. A bad book may be too, which is why it is important both to read good material and to be a good reader. Reading can satisfy the soul with truth. But truths, especially important ones, are easy to forget, so I rarely resist the urge to re-read.

I do look for new material, now and again. A trip to a library or bookstore carries a sense of perilous adventure – I never know exactly where an unread book will take me. When luck hits, I will probably travel through the new book at least twice before looking elsewhere. A book like that almost always becomes part of the rotation.

But whatever the thrills or disappointments of a new book, the regulars continually reach out from the grand old shelves, ready to bring me back to the known that never seems to grow too familiar. I hear their rustlings now, even with a bookmark in Dante and one each in two non-fiction works. Austen’s Persuasion wants a turn, and even Pride and Prejudice thinks itself about due. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet wants to remind me of its alchemical backstory to Perelandra and That Hideous Strength.Dickens’ Christmas Carol keeps hinting about the time of year, and Shannon Hale’s Princess Academy vies with Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix for attention.

One at a time, I have to say; but they’ll probably all get their chance. I don’t see re-reading as obsession or time-wasting. It’s restful, therapeutic, exhortative, inspiring, encouraging, anything but a loss. And I’ve learned that I’m not alone: re-reading appears to be at least somewhat commonplace among the writing sort. Lewis and Rowling have both admitted to it. If it helps me write half as well as either of them, someday, re-reading will have been one of my greatest investments.

Apple Orchard’s and Hemingway’s Cottage

The true artist works alone, many say, and who am I to argue? Famous men from President Kennedy to Steve Wozniak spoke of this, as did Ernest Hemingway when he accepted the Nobel Prize:

“Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.”

Creation, in this image of the artist, becomes a a guarded space, a time when no one is allowed inside. Sometimes the artist struggles, but it is internal, a personal storm. Keeping others out is a way to allow the work to grow its own way, unaffected by others, shielded from the harsh weather of the critic. He is strong already, the critic within; what artist would open the gates and offer him reinforcements?

An apple blossom. Photo by flickr user andrew dowsett.

I discipline myself as a writer to rarely grant access to my work in its early, formative stages. I want to know what I want to say before you tell me what you think of it. I keep the door to my ideas shut, the way Windemere, Hemingway’s cottage in northern lower Michigan, is generally closed to the public. An heir lives there, and preserves it from the crowds.

I learned of Hemingway’s cottage while at the Bear River Writer’s Conference (BRWC). The cottage and the conference share Walloon Lake, but that might be all they have in common.

I appreciate Hemingway’s perspective. BRWC offers a different one. I find room for both. While I wouldn’t endorse the early exposure of a creative work as a new best practice, there are some benefits to cross-pollination.


Growing up, my room faced west. Its only natural light came from a window, maybe 18 inches wide and three feet high.  We had obscured the view with bunk beds. The wooden slats rubbed against the sill, but I found a way to curve up and through the frame, pressing my face into the screen, breathing in all that was outside. The glow of a near night sky might draw me, but certainly a warm spring day would find me there. That second story window offered the best view of the apple blossoms.

I have no idea how old our small orchard was. The house was built in the thirties, and I imagine the trees were planted then. This would’ve made the trees 40 years old. Most of them, anyway.

There was one little tree, tucked underneath the MacIntosh or Red Delicious. It was probably a volunteer, sprouted from a dropped seed. It grew, and one year, it not only flowered, but the fruit set.

As its apples formed and turned, they looked nothing like the others in the orchard. The ripe fruit was almost pink.

Where that tree came from, and how it grew such unusual fruit, was a mystery to me for quite a while.

What I learned later is that many apple trees require another type of apple tree, in bloom at the same time, in order to produce. These trees are called self-unfruitful. The fruit of some types of trees only set when the blossoms are cross-pollinated. The seeds produced from this process are therefore made of more than one type of apple, and there’s no guarantee what sort of fruit you’re going to get.

It’s funny. Even the few apple varieties that are self-fruitful benefit from cross-pollination. It increases their yield.


When artists get to it, when they go to work, how do they go from the flowering of an idea to a fruitful project? What if you let someone into it early? What might become of your vision? I imagine it could be like a frost. Some people take questions hard, some people give answers harder. The bloom might fall, and the joy of this creation will never get past the early stage of idea.

I realize my process and preconceptions will be tested on the very first day at BRWC. We are here to generate new material; we need to do it in less than 24 hours; I have not pondered my ideas prior to my arrival.

At one time in my writing life, I would have been able to produce something brief, coherent, and safe, but not now. I have taken to the Anne Lamott method of a true first draft. She discusses it as a slightly different discharge, but I view it as catastrophic hurl, where I force myself to just vomit words on the page, knowing I can clean it up later. To have strangers examine my puke, this is not anything I want, but I’m here to take some risks, be generative, write something new.

The beginnings of a piece hit the page. I let the process stand. I run it through the printer and bring it the next day. The other workshop participants share their experiences that connect, and it is nothing like frost. They ask good questions and give genuine insight. Our leader highlights two sentences and calls them out as my voice. I am prodded to write more like that. The fruit sets, and my second draft is incomplete, but transformed.

As I work and take in the setting and the people, other ideas form too, lists of them, mounds of them. Interacting with poets and fiction writers over meals, hearing authors read their work, walking from building to building in days of rain and moments of sun, I see more possibilities, more stories to tell and ideas to explore.

Later I wonder what would have become of the workshop piece had I continued alone. Would it have revealed a different voice, a different form? Perhaps, but now it will bear an image shaped by the group and her leader, the lake and the weather, and in the shadow of Windemere, I will enjoy it for what it is.