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Alice McDermott on Rules that ‘Subvert Compassion and Common Sense’

The New Yorker is currently featuring a new short story from Alice McDermott, “These Short, Dark Days.” The protagonist of the piece, set in Brooklyn in the early 1900s, is a nun named Sister St. Savior who endeavors to effect the burial in a Catholic cemetery of a young husband who has asphyxiated himself. In those days, recall, it was just as one character puts it: If word of suicide gets out, “there’s not a Catholic cemetery that will have him.”

The story exhibits a bit more in the way of traditional narrative drive than I’ve come to expect from McDermott’s short fiction, and it hits on familiar themes in the usual compelling fashion: certainty vs. uncertainty in belief (“There were moments when his faith fell out from under him like a trapdoor,” one character thinks); awareness of sin; the reality of human suffering; the limits of compassion. And, importantly, the limits placed on compassion. It’s this last that McDermott confronts in a fairly explicit way, by noting how the burdens of compassion have typically fallen to women (of the church and not), even as men (of the church and not) seem to have been bent on making its expression more difficult:

In her forty-seven years of living in this city, Sister had collected any number of acquaintances who could help surmount the many rules and regulations—Church rules and city rules and what Sister Miriam called the rules of polite society—that complicated the lives of women: Catholic women in particular, and poor women in general.

But this all takes place more than a century ago, doesn’t it? Yes, but that doesn’t make it history. Lest anyone doubt McDermott’s intent, she makes it clear in an interview that accompanies the story.

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New issue, now live

Our full August 14 issue is now up on the website.

Among the highlights, Cathy Kaveny explains how secular law can teach the church something about mercy for divorced and remarried Catholics that it already knows:

No legal provision is self-interpreting; each law must be understood and applied with reference to the good of the community it purports to serve, and Jesus regularly reminds us that the commands and prohibitions of the Torah must be situated in a broader context.... Catholicism viewed marriage as a symbol of the unbreakable union of Christ with the church—like the union of a bishop with his diocese. But from the beginning of church history, the symbolic value of both sorts of unions had always been balanced against other values.

Read all of 'Mercy for the Remarried' here.

Jo McGowan questions why the debate over same-sex marriage can cause rage:

Religious teaching reinforces that disgust with frequent reminders that gay sexuality is sinful and inherently disordered, subtly making it acceptable to discriminate against LGBT persons and adding to a climate in which outright persecution is also acceptable. There is no such hysteria about other “sins.” Greed, for example, robs the poor of a just wage, legitimizes mindless consumption, and destroys the natural environment. But while we may disapprove of it, we don’t isolate or target all those greedy people.

Read all of 'The More You Know' here.

Also in this issue: Fr. Nonomen's advises on how to do a funeral (step one: keep your glasses off the coffin...); Bethe Dufresne reflects on her experience standing between two confederate flags; Anthony Domestico reviews new, important books from Claudia Rankine and Jeffery Renard Allen about living with racism in the United States; and Jean Hughes Raber reviews Laura Swan's new history of a forgotten women's medieval movement .

See the full table of contents for August 14 here:

Summer Reading

Maybe no scene from a television series speaks so perfectly to my life as this one from season two of Gilmore Girls:

Like Rory, I spend far too much time debating which books I should bring with me when I leave the house. And like Rory, I always decide that loading up is the safer option than winnowing down. Just last week, I went to the doctor’s office and, before leaving my apartment, convinced myself that I needed to bring a book of poetry (Marie Ponsot’s Springing), a work of nonfiction (Clifford Thompson’s Twin of Blackness), and a novel (Octavia Butler’s Dawn). Rationally, I know that this kind of overpacking is unnecessary, even neurotic; emotionally, I’m panicked if I’m not carrying a library with me.

(For the record, I didn’t end up reading any of the above books in my five minutes in the waiting room. I found another novel, Adam Thirlwell’s Lurid & Cute, in the car and read that instead.)

This tendency to overpack causes a real problem when I go away for vacation. If I need three books for a trip to the doctor, how many do I need for a week away from home? In the hopes of helping out others out who suffer from this very particular literary problem, I’ll list five books that I’ve read so far this year that would be worth the precious space in your suitcase:

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Literary Links

Claudia Rankine, author of Citizen: An American Lyric, has a piece in the New York Times Magazine about Charleston, race, and the problem with white liberalism:

The truth, as I see it, is that if black men and women, black boys and girls, mattered, if we were seen as living, we would not be dying simply because whites don’t like us. Our deaths inside a system of racism existed before we were born. The legacy of black bodies as property and subsequently three-fifths human continues to pollute the white imagination. To inhabit our citizenry fully, we have to not only understand this, but also grasp it. In the words of playwright Lorraine Hansberry, “The problem is we have to find some way with these dialogues to show and to encourage the white liberal to stop being a liberal and become an American radical.” And, as my friend the critic and poet Fred Moten has written: “I believe in the world and want to be in it. I want to be in it all the way to the end of it because I believe in another world and I want to be in that.” This other world, that world, would presumably be one where black living matters. But we can’t get there without fully recognizing what is here.

William Giraldi, whose work has been reviewed on this blog before, writes on the figure of the Catholic novelist:

If my being a Catholic must be predicated on the belief that the God of the Israelites decided to inseminate a peasant woman in the Levant in order to birth a human sacrifice who would rise from the dead and redeem the world, and whose resurrection would then inspire an apostolic company who could interpret the sacred while taking my money and demanding my servitude, then you’ll forgive me, but I can’t call myself a Catholic. In Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, Mary McCarthy admits: “I am not sorry to have been a Catholic”—“this sensuous life,” she calls it, and like Percy and O’Connor she speaks of “the sense of mystery and wonder,” of how in certain “exalted moments of altruism the soul was fired with reverence.” I’d like to second that: I am not sorry to have been a Catholic. An upbringing in the Church has, I suspect and hope, outfitted me well as a storyteller.

James Salter died last Friday. Here is Nick Paumgarten on his life and work:

He was modest yet certain about his talents, anxious yet cool about his reputation, and somehow both demure and effusive about his influences. When I asked him where he thought his style came from, he replied, “Who knows.” And yet, he loved to talk about his favorite writers and what he had learned from them. Still, a knack is a knack. “In a way, it’s the way certain people can keep a tune and others can’t keep a tune,” he said. “Certain people can keep a word tune, so to speak, and certain people cannot. And, above all, certain people can tell a story, and other people can’t. They don’t hear that point where something else has to come. This is an ordinary talent you can hear in any barroom. You’re sitting there listening, and it’s a terrific story that you just told, or that he’s just told. And somebody else is telling one and your mind is wandering. You’re waiting to interrupt. What is that? They don’t mean not to be interesting. It’s not a gene or anything. It’s just that little thing, like keeping a tune.”

How to Worry about Selfie Sticks

There is a passage by Iris Murdoch from The Sovereignty of Good where she describes joy in teaching herself the Russian language. “Attention is rewarded by a knowledge of reality,” she writes. “Love of Russian leads me away from myself towards something alien to me, something which my consciousness cannot take over, swallow up, deny or make unreal.” Because the rules of Russian grammar are difficult to master, learning the language pushes Murdoch’s full attention into a humble posture. She’s describing devotional attention, in other words, and its devotional character is what’s most true about it because it makes one’s body and mind confront something you’re not meant to just use, but see. 

Matthew Crawford uses Murdoch’s lines in both his books, Shopclass as Soul Craft, and his latest The World Beyond Your Head (reviewed here in Commonweal) where he takes up the issue of “distraction.” His broader argument hinges on this idea that how we train—or don’t train—our focus, even more than what we set it on, shapes whether or not we become the kind of people who can make free and meaningful choices. It’s a philosophical stab at a moral, social, and economic problem: How can we be more than consumers, but free individuals? We can’t, really, if we hand over our focus to whoever and whatever wants it.

Attention, reality, consumerism—worrying about these things now means thinking about digital technology, especially since a lot of us carry a small machine seductively designed for infinite distraction in our pocket. Rand Richards Cooper recently wrote on how Smartphones allow us to check out from where we’re standing. He writes, “Technology is a majestic human story, and the benefits we’ve gotten from farming out our tasks to machines are incalculable. But what happens when what we’re farming out is consciousness itself—the ability to be ourselves, with ourselves, amid the glories of creation?”

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To Skip a 'Mockingbird'

It can be trying these days for those not among the legions who hold Harper Lee in such high esteem. That’s not to say she doesn’t deserve her acclaim, resurgent in anticipation of a newly discovered and soon-to-be-published work. It’s just that I have nothing to base an opinion on. I’ve never read To Kill a Mockingbird.

It feels good to confess that. I’ve been carrying the secret around for years, since not having been assigned to read it in high school, and then not reading it on my own during college. Of course, the longer things went, the harder it got – job, marriage, family, you know – each passing year making it less likely I’d start a book everyone else seemed to have long since finished, and in adolescence at that. If I’d picked it up in 1999 when it was named “Best Novel of the Century” by Library Journal, it would have looked as if I was just latching on to an annoying retro trend. And now? The Guardian refers to it as a children’s book, so, not likely. At best it would invite well-meaning but embarrassed (and embarrassing) concern; at worst, ridicule. I’ve already been down that road, accosted at my previous job by a co-worker who saw me with a copy of The Great Gatsby (a novel I’ve read many times over, I just want to point out). “What are you,” he asked incredulously, “in high school?

Also, I have not seen the 1962 movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird, though that seems the more venial of the sins.

I can’t really hide the truth anymore. It’s too hard when a friend makes thoughtful, earnest reference to Atticus Finch, or an old classmate expresses tender, unfading fondness for Boo Radley, or a neighbor brings their son/daughter Scout to a birthday party (“Guess who he/she’s named after! Go ahead! Guess!”). I know the names of the characters; I know their general relationships to one another. I know the main parts of the plot. But do I know the book? No. Because I have never read it.

Though if I didn’t know any better, there seem to be forces at work to get me to.

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Mailer, Buckley & My Alma Mater

I recently went to a memorial service at my hopelessly politically correct alma mater for a former mentor and dear friend. He had died last November at 89, after a half-dozen torturous years in a nursing home. The son of a Methodist minister, he had been a commanding presence on campus, with a voice that was made for the unamplified lectern, if not the pulpit. His interest in churchgoing had atrophied many years before I knew him, or so I understood. Melville seemed to have replaced Scripture, although Wordsworth took on much of that burden as well. The service was well attended, and I had an opportunity to say hello to several former teachers. On such an occasion one is uncomfortably reminded that the college teachers who seemed to possess so much gravitas at the time were much younger than I am now. Where have all the years gone? The answer is both obvious and yet often hard to grasp.

Several of my mentor’s academic colleagues as well as a former student of his spoke. The former student had been a leader of the African American community and quite a fire-brand. I remember an inflammatory speech he gave one night when the campus gathered to debate joining the national student strike. It was the spring of 1970. Nixon had invaded Cambodia and the Ohio National Guard had killed four student protesters at Kent State. A tense time. This was also the heyday of the Black Panthers, and racial tension was pervasive on campus. There were several violent incidents. This former “revolutionary” is now the pastor of a non-denominational church, and speaks with a modest, self-deprecating sense of humor. How crazy, in retrospect, things were back then.

When I arrived at my small liberal arts college/university in the fall of 1969, all students and faculty were asked to read Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night, about the 1967 antiwar march on the Pentagon, and Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Momentous things appeared to be in the offing, and events surrounding the student strike seemed to confirm that suspicion, at least to some of us eighteen-year-olds. Richard Wilbur, the university’s poet in residence, felt called upon to issue a note of caution. In his poem “For the Student Strikers,” he wrote: “It is not yet time for the rock, the bullet, the blunt/Slogan that fuddles the mind toward force.” Blunt slogans were hard to avoid.

Remarkably, Mailer turned up on campus during the student strike. Blunt he could be, but slogans were not high on his list of rhetorical tools.

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New issue, new stories

Featured right now on the website, the latest from E.J. Dionne Jr., as well as our June 12 issue, just posted today.

In writing on the presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders, E.J. discusses "The Two Santa Claus Theory" put forth by supply-siders in the 1970s and says that Sanders may be tapping into something:

The senator from Vermont has little chance of defeating Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. But he is reminding his party of something it often forgets: Government was once popular because it provided tangible benefits to large numbers of Americans...

Read all of "The New St. Nick" here.

And, among the highlights from our new issue is Robert Gascoigne writing on the affinities between Christians and the "secularists" who "share with Christians many of the key ethical values that can motivate and energize democratic political life."

[The] significant commonality of ethical and political ideals between secular humanism and the contemporary Catholic Church has a complex and turbulent historical background. The litany of suffering of members of the church at the hands of revolutionary political movements is a long and terrible one. Yet the relationship between the Catholic Church and movements for democratic change and social justice has happily, and surprisingly to many, developed into a shared commitment to defending human rights.

Read all of "Shared Commitments" here.

And, Rand Richards Cooper pens a Last Word on the troubling ubiquity of smartphones and the baffling "universal desire to be connected everywhere and all the time":

[T]hat’s America these days: people everywhere with their heads bent, fingertips flicking at their screens. Couples in restaurants, silently flicking. A schoolbus full of teenagers, heads bent as if in prayer.... But what happens when what we’re farming out is consciousness itself—the ability to be ourselves, with ourselves, amid the glories of creation?

Read all of "Flick, Flick" here, and see the full table of contents for the June 12 issue here.

Now on the homepage

We've just posted three new stories to the homepage.

1. In his latest Letter from Rome, Robert Mickens suggests the possible reasons behind the Vatican Secretary of State's "apocolyptic assesment of the the Irish referendum" is culture, "particularly Italian culture," because Italy is "the most conservative country in all of Europe when it comes to social conventions and customs," especially concerning the family.

Mickens also reveals who exactly has been holding "secretive meetings and initiatives" in the run-up to October's Synod on the Family that deal with "some of the more thorny issues" the bishops will be debating, including the Kasper proposal.

Read the full Letter from Rome here, and if you need to catch up, here's all of them.

2. The Editors present reasons, if the Amtrak derailment isn't enough of one, for why the U.S. government’s failure to invest in infrastructure must change:

The United States now spends less than 2 percent of its GDP on infrastructure, less than half of what Europe spends—and less than half of what we were spending in the 1960s....The American Society of Civil Engineers gave [the nation's infrastructure] a grade of D+... [and] noted that the average age of the country’s 84,000 dams is fifty-two, and that one in nine of its bridges is considered structurally deficient. Every few years one of these bridges collapses, occasioning a brief outburst of bipartisan concern on Capitol Hill. Then nothing changes.

Read all of 'Signal Failure.'

3. George Dennis O'Brien, pondering the future direction of Catholic education, looks backward:

The dominant style of higher education in the ancient world was not academic but humanistic, directed at educating future political leaders who needed to learn the art of persuasion.... [T]he humanistic “classical curriculum” dominated American colleges from colonial times until the end of the nineteenth century.

Are Catholic institutions replacing the humanistic style with the "academic style of close argument and verifiable truths"?

Read all of 'Incarnation U,' and if you want more of the higher education debate, read Jackson Lears's excellent review of William Deresiewicz's Excellent Sheep.

New issue is live

We’ve just posted our June 1 issue to the website. Among the highlights:

Amanda Erickson describes the struggle of a Catholic parish community in Freddie Gray's Baltimore neighborhood to respond adequately, in the wake of the riots, to the root causes of hopelessness there:

The life expectancy of those born in Sandtown-Winchester is thirteen years shorter than the national average. Those are problems that can’t be fixed by one man, or in one morning. So instead, Rev. Bomberger grabbed a broom and headed across the street.

Andrew Bacevich reviews Andrew Cockburn’s “imperfect but exceedingly useful book,Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins, about the motives behind and justifications for targeted assassinations and drone warfare—now common practices in U.S. foreign policy. 

Cockburn quotes one U.S. Air Force general bragging, “We can now hit any target anywhere in the world, any time, any weather, day or night.” Yet why bother with bombing bridges, power plants, or communications facilities, when taking out Mr. Big himself provides the definitive shortcut to victory? Here was the ultimate critical node: Decapitate the regime. As an approach to waging war, what could be more humane, not to mention efficient?

Plus: New poetry from Marie Ponsot, Celia Wren explains why the once-promising plotlines of Mad Men hit a dead end, Paul Johnston reviews the latest from Reading Lolita in Tehran author Azar Nafisi, Molly Farneth reviews the latest, uncomprehensive but newly non-Eurocentric Norton Anthology of World Religionsand Charles Morris reveals the dirty little secret of major-league banking bankers don't want to believe. 

See the full table of contents here.

New issue, new stories

On the website now, our May 15 issue. Here are some of the highlights:

Jo McGowan examines the effects violence against children has on society at large—effects so drastic it is being treated as an "any other epidemic," “says forensic psychologist Karen McCluckey:

Isolate the contagion. Prevent transmission. Treat outbreaks instantly and aggressively.

Jerry Ryan reflects on his struggle to discover "what the person of Jesus means" to him, spiritually and theologically:

Classical theology has the angels deciding their destiny in a single, unalterable choice. I sometimes dream of being able to imitate such an act, one that would free me from all my ambiguities and contradictions, my half-hearted aspirations and ineffectual resolutions. This is not the way things work, however...

Read all of "Knowing Jesus" here.

Eve Tushnet reviews an exhibit produced by over 40 artists at the National Museum of African Art that recreates Dante's Divine Comedy on three floors:

I’m sitting in hell with a couple of little boys, who are trying to prove they’re not scared. We’re watching a cloth-wrapped figure prostrate itself and bang its fists against the floor, as sobs and wordless singing give way to a howled “I, I, I surrender!”

Read about the beautiful, horrific, beatific and redemptive show here.

Also in the May 15 issue: James Sheehan on how Greece and Ukraine are "testing Europe"; reviews of books about abortion, the short history of the black vote, a young Lawrence of Arabia, and secular humanism—plus poetry from Michael Cadnum, Thomas Lynch, and Peter Cooley; and Elizabeth Kirkland Cahill reflects on bodily decrepitude and wisdom.

Also featured on the site now, the latest from E.J. Dionne Jr., who writes about a senator's sensible stance on faith and secularism. Read the whole thing here.

Trollope's Perspicacity

I have a good friend who religiously reads or re-reads a Trollope novel every summer. Sluggard that I am, I have not read one since pre-pre-Kindle college days. That may now change thanks to a splendid and nuanced essay on the English novelist by Adam Gopnik in the current New Yorker. I resonated in a particular way to this reflection:

It’s a sign of Trollope’s gift for imagining the internal politics of large, self-approving bureaucracies that every one of his Barsetshire character types can be found in any American university. Trollope’s Low Church Bishop Proudie would today be a newly appointed university president, eager for online courses and increased enrollment; the High Church party of the Arabins would be found in the humanities faculty, distraught at having to prove that esoteric comp-lit studies are in any sense “profitable.” The Reverend Dr. Stanhope, the clergyman called back from a long holiday in Italy, is a professor summoned from a sabbatical at the American Academy in Rome and ordered to start teaching freshmen again. Even the condition of Trollope’s curates, like poor Mr. Quiverful, is exactly reproduced by those long-term adjuncts who teach semester to semester and live contract to contract.

Presumably, emeriti/ae are spared, being only destined to fade away, or as a recent Commonweal piece unsentimentally put it: "fall apart."

Deciding not to have children

How to read a collection of essays on the “childless by choice” called Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed? You could take the title as an accurate indicator of what’s inside, your assumption reinforced by the book’s subtitle: “Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids.” It’s bad enough getting unsolicited, aggrieved explanations for a life-defining decision without getting them from a bunch of people who provide their unsolicited thoughts for a living.

Of course, that’s the anticipatory response editor Meghan Daum meant to provoke in selecting those words for the cover in the first place. I can’t speak for every mother and father, but there comes a point in the slog of child-rearing when a parent looks enviously (murderously?) on those who’ve opted out of procreation and issues – silently, or not so – just that verdict. Most of the contributors here report having been condemned in similar fashion, the opprobrium overt and subtle, coming from family, friends, and strangers, from quarters low, high, and in between. Pope Francis himself, in declaring early this year that “life rejuvenates and acquires energy when it multiplies,” said explicitly that choosing not to have children is “selfish,” which in spite of the slightly more nuanced context of his larger remarks won’t endear him to those who feel they have good reasons for not participating in the “valiant attempt to ensure the survival of our endangered species and fill up this vast and underpopulated planet.”

That line comes courtesy of Geoff Dyer, one of three men represented in Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed. I dispense with him early because he, along with contributor Tim Kreider, has the relative luxury, I think, of deploying humor in his effort to explain (Kreider: “Whenever someone asks me whether I’d like to hold the baby, I always say ‘No thanks.’ I have been advised this is an impolitic response”). This has the effect of distancing its user from the matter at hand: As men, even men who’ve thought about it carefully, they can afford to joke about it, and they seem to know it. The more sober assessments come from those representing the other half of humanity, whom the question concerns in a significantly more encompassing way.

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James Wood, Religion, and the Novel

This Sunday, the Guardian published a fascinating profile of the New Yorker's James Wood. In it, we learn that:

  • Wood has a new book, The Nearest Thing to Life, coming out later this month. In it, he worries over the God-like omniscience that novelists claim to have over their characters.
  • He believes that many--most?--great works of literature can't really be appreciated by younger readers: “It’s very difficult explaining The Portrait of a Lady to 20-year-olds, because it’s about choices and consequences, about the realisation that the world is smaller than it seems. Understanding novels requires wisdom, which it takes decades of living to acquire."
  • Wood's two children have become "totally American" and don't appear to love reading as much as he did at their age.

Of most interest to readers of this blog, though, might be Wood's comments on the difficulty, perhaps the impossibility, of writing a great Christian novel:

I can only think of bad Christian novels, like Graham Greene’s. There are mystical novels – To the Lighthouse, Mrs Dalloway – and in The Brothers Karamazov you have something like the iconostasis in a Russian Orthodox cathedral: certain panels, like those about Father Zossima or the parable of the grand inquisitor, uphold the faith that Dostoevsky undermines elsewhere. Maybe Moby-Dick qualifies too, though at the cost of being undramatic or essayistic or poetic. Perhaps narrative is inherently secular. It corrugates things, bends them too much to stay religious, as Dostoevsky wisely feared. Among contemporaries, Marilynne Robinson comes closest in Gilead, which is about a Congregationalist pastor in Iowa who’s dying – though she has to sacrifice a lot of the novel’s innate comedy and dynamism on the altar of high thought. The novel is a comic form, because it’s about our absurdities and failings. We’re told that Jesus wept, but never that he laughed.

I'd be interested to hear what other readers of Robinson think of Wood's characterization here. I, for one, think Gilead is a deeply if quietly funny novel. Think of the scene with the horse in the ditch, for instance, or the baptism of the kittens (which is, of course, also very serious). If you've ever had the pleasure of hearing Robinson read/speak in person, you know that she has a great, great chuckle, and her novels elicit that same quiet, forgiving kind of laughter.  

Let's hear it for Fanny Howe's nomination

This week, the Man Booker International Prize announced their shortlist for the £60,000 award, and the only American who made the cut was the poet, novelist and essayist Fanny Howe. Howe was nominated for her sixteenth book of poetry, Second Childhood, released by Graywolf press. As if we needed another reason to be curious about it, it also made Anthony Domestico's list of the Best Books of 2014,

Howe is a Catholic writer. She encountered the faith through her second husband's mother, and converted after they had divorced. Adding any adjective before "writer" can be dangerous, as though it classifies the work in a pre-determined way, but be assured Howe's poems, essays and fiction don't tip the scales into annoying piety, and it is the opposite of didactic. Suggesting that she's a writer who happens to be Catholic would ignore how faith shapes her work's subject and its form. Liberation theology presses on her imagination (in one of her novels especially, appropriately titled Saving History). In her poetry, her sense of time is especially distinctive. In her essay, "Footsteps Over Ground," she writes:

The calendar year for daily working life is the same for all of us, but there is a second calendar: the church calendar that refers to the birth, murder, and resurrection of Jesus, which is an absolutely archetypal story, a poetic rendition of any human life. The Mass, with its readings from the Gospel stories, and the the Eucharistic rite, repeated for centuries, is an account of the cooperation of transcendence with the ordinary. If it is an opiate, all the better.

In the liturgy's repetition, Howe finds a place to return to outside chronological time. Time is not a straight line or a circle, as we often hear, but a spiral. She writes what she calls spiral or series poems that return to the same place from another direction, as though the reader and the speaker were disoriented in a forest. In her essay "Bewilderment" she explains that these poems come from "my experience of non-sequential, but intensely connected, time-periods and the way they impact on each other, but lead nowhere."

Her poem "A Hymn" is an example, beginning with an epigraph by Dostoevsky that sets the tone for the bewilderment Howe is interested in. 

When I fall into the abyss, I go straight into it, head down and heels up, and I'm even pleased that I'm falling in just such a humiliating position, and for me I find it beautiful. And so in that very shame I suddenly begin a hymn.
          —Fyodor Dostoevsky

I traveled to the page where scripture meets fiction.
The paper slept but the night in me woke up.

Black letters were now alive
and collectible in a material crawl.

I could not decipher their intentions anymore.
To what end did their shapes come forth?

Read the rest of the poem at The Poetry Foundation.  It will be worth your (strange, out of sequence) time.

The Never-Receding Past

Critic James Wood once said about John Updike that “all of his books suggest a belief that life will go on, that it will be thickly unvaried, that things will not come to a stop." The "very form" of the Rabbit series, according to Wood, "incarnates a belief that stories can be continued.”

My colleague Kaitlin Campbell recently wrote on the topic of Facebook from the perspective of those introduced to it as teenagers. Those whose adulthoods compelled adoption – whether for social, recreational, or, in my case, occupational reasons – have probably experienced it differently. Back when I first had to set up an account for my job, plans for my twenty-fifth high school reunion were underway, unknown to me. But not for long: Within hours I was discovered by people I hadn’t been in touch with for decades asking if I'd be in attendance.

Reunions figure in Updike's work from the outset to the end, with "The Happiest I've Been" (1959) among the first to "The Walk With Elizanne" -- sexagenarian characters gather for a fiftieth high school reunion with few hatchets to bury or scars to heal but still holding a stubborn candle or two -- among the last, appearing in 2003 (life goes on…). I was much younger than Updike’s alumni. But I wondered whether my reunion – graduates of a regional high school in semi-rural western New Jersey that in (perhaps embroidered) memory shared similarities with Updike’s evocations of midcentury, small-town America – would be marked by similarly softened attitudes. After some indecisiveness, I went. Seven years later, it can feel like I never came back.

Facebook has kept in the here and now the past I assumed would return to its proper, designated place. The charitable view has it that being linked to people from all parts of your life creates the desirable illusion of having never left your idyllic hometown, even if it never existed -- a place where everyone knows everyone and the whole community comes out to celebrate a birthday or wedding or job promotion. That might appeal to some. I’d always anticipated leaving such a place, looking forward to wondering whatever became of a classmate with the assurance that no answer would be forthcoming. I could hold on to selected images from the actual past, but I could also conjure my own unfolding versions of unknown lives or allow mutable, perishable memory to do its thing. My choice, because a place and past left behind were supposed to stay there. It was part of growing up and getting older, then older still. Stories end: Part of what always made anecdotes from aging relatives enjoyable was the mystery that came in not knowing what actually came after.

This isn't happening. An infrequent Facebook user, I'm nonetheless current on the marital situations, career trajectories, workout regimens, familial relations, and hospitalizations of numerous former classmates I didn't know all that well in the first place. The gym-class bully posts photos of sunsets and spiked marlins and sometimes of himself, now with a kind smile and a pretty nice boat from the looks of it. The quiet girl from history class happily and regularly reports on milestones in her children’s lives. Some seem to have gotten religion, old-time and otherwise, with others carrying on elaborate and at times esoteric conversations about Obama, security software, or rare musical instruments. There are also those who upload photos of their homes and yards and cars or the homes and property and cars they’re thinking of buying, of the fun they're having here and abroad. Laying across it all is that quality of "unvaried thickness," with little sign of the narrative coming to a stop.

Could it be read as a sign of optimism, or of something else? Of course, what people share is the result of more-or-less considered thought: As Wood says about realistic fiction, "a certain level of well-selected detail [is needed to keep] the balloon of verisimilitude afloat.” How real the stories on display really are can be debated. Yet the stories continue, with details sufficient to ensure that, unlike Updike's protagonist nobly struggling to name the unrecognizable classmate brought before him, the pleasure and the occasional necessity of not knowing cannot be felt.

A Brief Theory about Marilynne Robinson

“I have scoured the Internet,” a friend emailed me when Marilynne Robinson’s Lila had just been released, “and found not one critical or negative review of Marilynne Robinson.” Linda McCullough Moore's review in Books and Culture was a mild exception to that rule, while noting how rare qualms with Robinson’s work really are. With the subtitle “A Dissenting View,” the review begins, “One almost requires a handwritten invitation to take issue with the work of Marilynne Robinson.” Though it lost out on a National Book Award to Phil Kay's Redeployment, Robinson's novel was recently nominated for a National Books Critics Circle award.

Beyond her formidable literary talent (of which there is much to say, and I don't intend to detract from attention to it), I think there is another reason Robinson is so revered. In short: She refuses the categories which characterize how we publically interpret experiences, and it’s a breath of fresh air for everyone who is looking for wisdom on that score. There was a moment during the question period of Marilynne Robinson’s lecture at Yale Divinity School this winter that illustrated this well.

Robinson’s dense and subtle lecture was an argument against scientific positivism which reduces emotions and affective states to merely something you can quantify—just areas of brain activity lighting up on scans. This interest has animated her projects all long; she’s written about it in many essays, and in the pages of Commonweal. This has obvious implications for understanding how faith works, but it’s a bigger statement about relating to the self, our affective states, and our ability to see these states as distinct from other modes of understanding.

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Eamon Duffy on Francis

In the new issue of the New York Review of Books, church historian and sometime Commonweal contributor Eamon Duffy has an excellent review-essay on three books about Pope Francis. I don’t think anything Duffy writes will come as news to most Commonweal readers, but he does cover a lot of territory with his usual nuanced approach to Catholic issues, in his customary elegant prose.

Duffy is perhaps best known for Saints and Sinners, a comprehensive but accessible history of the papacy. He made his academic reputation with The Stripping of the Altars, a study of pre-Reformation Catholicism in England, a book that changed our understanding of the often misunderstood upheavals of that period by documenting the popularity and vitality of traditional Catholic practice and belief. A favorite Duffy book of mine is Faith of Our Fathers: Reflections on Catholic Tradition, a collection of essays that strikes the right balance between the inevitability of change in the church and the even greater need to rely on the resources of the tradition to guide those developments. “Faithfulness to that tradition is not a matter of uncritical obedience to authority; it is a shared labor of learning, in which we work together to draw new and surprising growth from the old soil,” he wrote. Tradition is “the trace of a complex shared life, rather than a clear-cut compendium of answers.”

In his NYRB piece, Duffy emphasizes the fact that Francis is the first pope to have been ordained after the Second Vatican Council. He does not pine for some allegedly lost, golden age when the church claimed to be a perfect society. Francis’s “commitment to conciliar values is instinctive, strong, and different in kind from that of either of his immediate predecessors,” Duffy writes.

I think that gets at what is perhaps the most obvious nature of the change in tone and focus coming from the Vatican, and that instinctive commitment to the council goes hand in hand with Francis’s determination to encourage debate among the bishops and his sure-to-be-contested push to return real decision-making authority to the local church. Duffy also notes how different Francis’s idea of priesthood is from “the exalted doctrine of priesthood that has been in favor during the last two pontificates.” He cautions that, although those in the pews are cheering on these developments, many of those ordained during the past thirty-five years are likely to have a difficult time adjusting to Francis’s often blunt critique of clericalism. Divisions within the church are deep and not easily bridged.

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Missing a Vocabulary of the Moral Middle

Finally free of the imperative of manuscript editing, I actually am reading. Nicholas Carr’s new book, The Glass Cage, is a worthy sequel to The Shallows. The earlier book was a brilliant telling of the neuroscience of our brains in using the internet…. As opposed to, say, reading. (yes, this is a blog post, blah blah…) The current book is an exploration of the automation of processes of all sorts, from factory processes to self-driving cars to decision-support software employed by doctors and lawyers.

Carr’s books are attractive because he avoids turning them into a polemic on one side or the other of these questions. He doesn’t think automation is inherently bad (Frankenstein) or inherently good (the techno-futurists); indeed, he gives a nice history which shows that excitement about machines and anxiety about them have gone hand in hand from their inception. His books are really more about understanding something thoroughly.

But with two lessons. One, Carr is adept at noting how “this time it’s different.” In The Shallows, he persuasively makes the case that the internet is not just another in a string of “media” advances, from writing to the printing press to the telegraph to the radio. The combination of the actual processes (and limits) involved in use and the physical capacities (and limits) of the human person shape what a given media technology can mean and be for us. The internet combines a pace of extraordinarily rapid inflow and a virtually-unlimited storage capacity. This differs from reading. In The Glass Cage, he is out to show that the current wave of automation is different because of its capacity to mimic not just human physical processes, but human thought processes. One of the key claims of the book is that the ability to mimic processes is not the same as replicating the processes themselves – Watson doesn’t answer a Jeopardy question the same way a human does, nor does “Doctor Algorithm” go about diagnoses in the same way a doctor does. In some ways, the ability to process massive amounts of data via algorithms and probabilities is great; in other ways, it is very different from human thought and action, and introduces a different set of “errors.”

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Mike Huckabee, bard of 'Bubba-ville'

“It is trying on liberals in Dilton,” reads the first line of Flannery O’Connor’s story “The Barber,” which could with tweaking aptly apply to the unfolding 2016 presidential campaign season for those maybe uninclined to vote for one of the score or so of potential Republican candidates. The GOP’s field of declared and undeclared are riding the usual hobby horses--Obamacare, “big government,” Obamacare, public schools, moral collapse, Obamacare—with some already honing their grievances into slogans, sound bites, and hashtags. Does “Bubble-ville vs. Bubba-ville” work for you?

Best-selling author Mike Huckabee thinks it will. Well, maybe not for you, but hopefully for the fractious choir he’s preaching to with his newest book, God, Guns, Grits and Gravy. “Bubble-ville” describes the population of Americans associated with the iniquitous and elite “nerve centers” of Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C.; “Bubba-ville,” everywhere else—“the flyover country” that “more often than not votes red instead of blue, roots for the Cowboys in the NFL and the Cardinals in the National League, and has three or more bibles in every house.” (The characterization invites debate, but, to use a construction for which Huckabee shows fondness: I digress.)

GGG&G, in short, makes use of a simple construct to capitalize on resentments by reaffirming the preconceptions and prejudices of its intended audience. Neither polemic nor screed, it’s mainly a book-length unspooling of commentary that’s also needlessly broken into chapters, though if it weren’t, then readers would be deprived of nominally edifying (if not necessarily organizing) headings like “The New American Outcasts: People Who Put Faith and Family First” and “Bend Over and Take It Like a Prisoner!” (this following one bemoaning “The Culture of Crude”). His musings are at times entertainingly wrought. In places he risks naughty ethno-religious offense: “I can see the look of horror on the faces of friends of mine who have spent their lives in New York City when I talk about owning a wide variety of firearms: It’s the look one would get announcing in a synagogue that one owns a bacon factory” (it’s an image he uses more than once). In places he’s more plainly insulting, as when contending that Beyoncé is unwittingly allowing herself to be pimped out by her husband, Jay-Z. Sometimes he’s hilarious:

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