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A Visit to The Museum of Feelings

Two blocks from the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan on a plaza facing the East River, behind a gleaming mall, sits a temporary museum. Or that is what Glade, a brand of SC Johnson, is calling it. The Museum of Feelings is housed in a small building with shifting colored lights projected on its white walls. Tuesday night, its opening night, a young man in black clothes ushers confused people inside or makes them wait at the door when it becomes too crowded.

The subway advertisements for the Museum promise only a URL, a street address, and the dates the exhibit is open. If your curiosity is sufficiently piqued by these ads or the Facebook event and you visit, the first thing you are cued to do is to create a MoodLens — a “living, emotional portrait that changes to reflect feelings,” the page explains. If you click “Get Started,” your computer’s built-in camera will photograph your face and with another click, your computer’s microphone can pick up your voice. This data is collected along with the weather in your current location and the “general feelings on social media in your region” to calculate your mood.

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Can Faith be Notable?

Last Sunday the front page of the New York Times Book Review carried a thoughtful review by Mark Lilla of a new book on Saint Augustine.  Congratulations to the editors, as well as to Lilla.  No good deed goes unpunished, however, something Augustine probably explained somewhere; and the Book Review’s good deed made me wonder, somewhat skeptically, if 2015 might be the year when its annual “Holiday Books” issue would break precedent and actually give some notice to serious books about religion. 

I am hardly the first to roll my eyes about the oddity of the “Holiday Books” almost ostentatious neglect of religion.  It’s long been an annual joke among many people who believe that religion deserves thoughtful, knowledgeable explorations beyond the usual pressure points where it intersects with (a) violence; (b) sex; (c) politics; (d) celebrity; and (e) greed.  Oh, and did I mention violence, sex, and politics?  

Granted, the “Holiday Books” issue is essentially a cash-cow, chockfull of ads and reviews for gifty-ish books in categories like Travel, Photography, Pop Music, Humor, Cooking, Gardening, and Hollywood.  “Holiday,” in effect, means hobby, avocation, entertainment, recreation, and so on.  It certainly doesn’t mean anything to do with the beliefs and sentiments that gave birth to these holidays.  Don’t imagine that anyone celebrating those holidays might be grateful for books addressing those very beliefs and sentiments.  And might shell out good money for them. 

There’s no war against Christmas here.  “Holiday Books” is just a seasonal expression of the Book Review’s normal practice. Which is to feature every commercial press’s Washington memoir or big-name fiction while ignoring any university (or especially religious) press’s significant probing into the relationship of faith and reason.  Last Sunday’s front-page review, I’m afraid, was the exception proving the rule.   

The “Holiday Books” issue is not all gifties, however.  It usually lists “100 Notable Books,” of the year, half from Fiction and Poetry, half from Nonfiction. Profound religious and spiritual questions always run like seams of rich ore through that Fiction and Poetry—and through some of the Nonfiction, too.  Such is the human condition. 

But in 2014 was there one book, one single book, of theology, or of philosophy of religion, or of religious history, sociology, biography, or art, worthy, in the eyes of the Book Review’s editors, to be listed among those fifty Nonfiction notables?  


Maybe 2015 will be different.  This is the season of hope.


What Makes These Writers 'Unprofessionals'?

Moby-Dick sold all of two copies in the United States in 1876, and a total of 3,180 by the time it went out of print in 1887, a tally of futility that in the words of James Wood soon “narrowed Herman Melville into bitterness and savage daily obedience as a New York customs inspector.”

Melville--along with custodian/postal worker William Faulkner, insurance lawyer Wallace Stevens, editor-teacher-single-mother Toni Morrison--came to mind when reading the table of contents and introduction to The Unprofessionals, a new anthology of pieces that originally appeared in The Paris Review. Editor Lorin Stein sets up a superfluous distinction between “professional” writers and those who appear in these pages. The latter are apparently unconcerned with commercial riches--as evidenced by their commitment to short forms of fiction, essay, and poetry--unlike the many MFA students whose idea of success is to “leave school with a six-figure advance.” By this criterion, they’re unprofessionals--never mind their awards, their novels and book-length collections, or their masthead positions at well-known literary magazines. I’d wager that Melville--to say nothing of the many lesser-known and anonymous adjuncts, high school teachers, working mothers, service-industry employees, and others who struggle nobly to place work in respectable but low- or non-paying publications--would welcome so modest a designation if it came with the chance to appear alongside fellow scribblers Ben Lerner, John Jeremiah Sullivan, and Zadie Smith, to name a few. They could also reasonably wonder whether being published by The Paris Review in the first place makes one a professional .

In any case, don’t blame the writers featured here. The work is almost uniformly excellent.

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Paul Baumann on 'St. Paul'

Featured at the Washington Post is Commonweal editor Paul Baumann’s review of St. Paul, the new book from the “popular and prolific authority on religion,” Karen Armstrong. Armstrong, according to Paul (Baumann),

wants to rescue Saint Paul from the reputation he has acquired as an authoritarian and misogynist. According to her, such accusations are the result of misreadings or tampering by later, less egalitarian-minded editors with Paul’s “authentic” New Testament writings. Instead of the often oblique and even inscrutable Paul we find in scripture, Armstrong’s apostle is a kind of gloried community activist, or a first-century Bernie Sanders.

But the “famously inept equestrian,” Paul notes, was “a far stranger and more elusive character than Armstrong imagines, and his legacy more paradoxical still.” The headline of the review, courtesy of the Post: “Was Saint Paul Really Such a Jerk?” Read the whole thing here.

Two New Books on Catholic Social Teaching

Just to a quick note to mention two interesting new books on Catholic social teaching on the shelves. The first is by Daniel Schwindt, and is titled Catholic Social Teaching: A New Synthesis - the subtitle is “Rerum Novarum to Laudato Si’.” I believe Daniel’s is the first attempt to incorporate Pope Francis’s vital contribution into a general treatise on the social doctrine—the publication date was June 19, a day after the encyclical was published! (Full disclosure: Daniel edited a book earlier this year called Radically Catholic in the Age of Francis; an Anthology of Visions for the Future, and I contribute a chapter.)

The second book to cross my desk is the latest by Angus Sibley, entitled Catholic Economics: Alternatives to the Jungle. It was published too late to include insights from Laudato Si’, but Sibley is always worth reading. I especially enjoyed his last book: The Poisoned Spring of Economic Libertarianism.

Bravo to both authors, and let’s hope we are entering a new springtime for authentic Catholic social teaching!

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.