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Talking about love (Home pp 106-230)

The characters in Home always talk about love without ever explicitly talking about love.

If you were a graduate student in theology in the nineties or early aughts, you almost certainly spent some time discussing negative theology. This classical Christian idea holds that any discussion of God must be apophatically, that we cannot say “God is good,” for example, without at the same time recognizing that God’s goodness is far beyond our own understanding of goodness. Isaiah’s words that God’s ways are not our ways and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts are important here, as are Paul’s words that we know in part and prophecy in part. Some of the most important theologians in this tradition are Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine of Hippo, and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. In the eighties and nineties and aughts, Christian theologians and scholars in religious studies saw affinities between Jacques Derrida’s deconstructive method of reading texts and this tradition in theology. (For some excellent studies, see Jean-Luc Marion’s God without Being, Kevin Hart’s The Trespass of the Sign, and Mark C. Taylor’s Nots and About Religion.)

The first letter of God tells us that God is love, agape, not eros or philia. The love that God is is self-giving and self-emptying. And so if God escapes our language, we should not be surprised that love does as well. We must always talk about love, around it, obliquely, knowing that we can never talk about love, concerning it, capturing what it truly is. The God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob rebuffs human attempts to comprehend him, as we see in the burning bush of Exodus, the storm of Job, and on the cross of Christ.

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Amis's Zone

I read Martin Amis’s new novel, The Zone of Interest, twice; the first time to flush away the effects of a belittling review in the LRB (some enemies there) and then to appreciate Amis’s second fictional attempt (the first was Time’s Arrow) to approach the Holocaust. This is a serious and mature work. The Acknowledgements and Afterward indicate the focus Amis has brought to bear. His approach to the Shoah and his conclusions, if we trust the tale, are worthy of note.

Amis has us imagine the machinery of the Auschwitz death camp: to see the arrivals of the trains and the unloading of the box cars of prisoners, the band playing  to mask the intent of the selection, and then the movement of Jews to the gas chambers or to the work camp. The perspective he give us is that of those whose job it is to manage the camp, and to profit from it. How do the managers think and respond? What do they make of the killing they control, but from which they shield their families? And how do those Jewish prisoners who have been suborned to remove the corpses, to harvest the treasures of tooth and hair, live with themselves? What becomes of them all when they look into the mirror of genocide?

Amis has as his ostensible aim the answers to these questions.

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God's Glory (Home pp. 1-105)

First of all, let me offer an apology for taking so long to post this. I last posted on Monday, November 10, and since then three things have kept me busy. First, I helped run a great conference at Villanova University (where I also gave a paper). Second, my first quarter teaching at DePaul University ended. And third, I’ve just finished the grading for my classes. Thus, my schedule for posting had to change, and I’m sorry to those who have begun Home and have been waiting for me to write about it here.

There is something fitting for me to write about Home as my first quarter at DePaul ends. In May 2009, I was finishing up my first year of teaching at Villanova University. There I taught the Augustine and Culture Seminar, a two-term “great books” course for first-year students. Many of the books the students and I read that year — The Odyssey, Genesis, The Tempest— had to do with coming home or finding a new home. I thought this was a fitting topic for first-year students, and so we ended the second term by reading and discussing Robinson’s novel. I’m sorry to say that my (many and various) teaching missteps stick with me far more than my (relatively few) teaching triumphs, and I fear that I didn’t do a good job teaching Home. Part of the problem was that even though Robinson was one of the two living authors we read that year, Glory Boughton seemed the most foreign character my students encountered. After a year reading about Odysseus and Abraham and Jesus and Augustine and Dante and Prospero as well as Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith and Nietzsche’s Superman, here was a protagonist who didn’t seem to do anything. Here’s a book where not much happened.

Home is a story about family, which is to say a story about ordinary things: preparing meals and doing work around the yard; sibling rivalry; intergenerational misunderstanding; and most importantly love and indifference and the very difficult work of forgiveness. In his review of Robinson’s work, Anthony Domestico puts this particularly well,

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Monstrous Prodigies

I finished Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke a few months ago; he rushed me to a conclusion that tidied the plot strands but left one bulbous character knot: the Colonel. Johnson had created a mythic figure, one whose power seemed to defy the rather conventional death that common sense dictated to surviving characters. Where in the jungles of Southeast Asia was he? And what exactly was he conspiring to do? Johnson’s latest novel, The Laughing Monsters, deals with baser stuff, at least as far as character is concerned; but in Michael Adriko Johnson manages to present venal vision aggrandized. We see him through the eyes of his fellow rogue Nair, a spy and adventurer who has a history with Michael. The African, of uncertain political allegiance and violent career, is on his way to his jungle home to wed a beautiful African American woman. In the course of this abortive wedding odyssey, Michael offers Nair a chance to make huge sums of money, perhaps by brokering a deal that involves uranium, but certainly by exploiting the need for intelligence information by  interested parties. The plot twists, the rogues suffer and Nair betrays his NATO masters. Michael however seems to ride above this in his very audacity; he is reckless, that is he does not reckon as normal souls do. His over-reaching finds its source in greed; his courage in the limits of his conscience.  But his charisma, woeful word, leaves us with the same problem posed by the colonel: what do these fictions mean to us? What do they point to beyond their affront to the reader’s sheltered life?

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John Ames, prophet (Gilead pp. 173 - 247)

I’m deeply indebted to the people who have commented on my posts thus far. In what I took to be a helpful exchange, Chris and Mark L brought up the topic of memory. Memory is central to who we are (see of course Augustine’s exploration of the topic in Confessions Book X), but memory can also get in the way of forgiveness (it’s hard to forgive precisely because we remember how much the other person hurt us).

The discussion of memory reminded me of the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures. All too often, I think, we associate the prophets with the future of what will happen, as if they had some kind of crystal ball. What the prophets in the Scriptures actually do, though, is remind the Israelites of their covenant with God. It is only by looking back to their foundation as a people that the Israelites can look forward to their future as a people. Their goal – and Ames’s goal – is to remind their listeners to remain faithful to a vision that precedes them and forms them.

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Mission in the Far Country (Gilead pp. 86 - 173)

If the mouth and the tongue and lips of man become the instruments by which God and His truth and righteousness and glory are praised, and His Word is proclaimed, then, according to the Holy Scriptures, this is never a self-evident occurrence, or a success which man may attribute to himself. For first of all there has taken place at God’s hand the overcoming in relation to which the man who uses these instruments, and is himself the instrument, always stands as an awed spectator conscious of his own failure. — Karl Barth Church Dogmatics II.1, p 221

John Ames’s grandfather must be correct: without vision the people perish. But this vision itself needs careful tending. And the surest way – perhaps the only way – that such tending can occur is if the community is founded on forgiveness. That forgiveness is hard to come by.

I begin with Karl Barth here because Ames often mentions him, and Ames’s words recalled a passage I happened to remember from Barth’s Church Dogmatics.* Part of the beauty of Ames’s words to his son is his recognition of the fragility of his own advice. He writes to pass on a vision of a life lived in God’s love, but he knows too well that he often fails to live up to that love. In one of my favorite passges in the book, Ames writes,

This is an important thing, which I have told many people, and which my father told me, and which his father told him. When you encounter another person, when you have  dealings with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must think, What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation? If you confront insult or antagonism, your first impulse will be to respond in kind. But if you think, as it were, This is an emissary sent from the Lord, and some benefit is intended for me, first of all the occasion to demonstrate my faithfulness, the chance to show that I do in some small degree participate in the grace that saved me, you are free to act otherwise than as circumstances would seem to dictate. You are free to act by your own lights. You are freed at the same time of the impulse to hate or resent that person. He would probably laugh at the thought that the Lord sent him to you for your benefit (and his), but that is the perfection of the disguise, his own ignorance of it.
I am reminded of this precious instruction by my own failure to live up to it recently.(124)

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Christianity and Criticism and Culture and ...

Readers of dotCommonweal might be interested in a conference that is taking place at Villanova on November 13 and 14. The conference is titled "Christianity and Criticism and Culture and ..." and it will consider how the Christian intellectual tradition might help us to better understand the culture we live in.

The list of speakers is varied--scholars, journalists, poets, and novelists will all be in attendance--as is the list of topics: the fiction of David Foster Wallace and Alice McDermott, the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz and Amy Clampitt, the art of Marc Chagall, even the HBO series True Detective. Readers of Commonweal will be familiar with many of the presenters, including Paul Elie (a contributor to the magazine), William Giraldi (who has been written about here), Kaya Oakes (another contributor), Matthew Boudway, Scott Moringiello, and myself.

The conference is free and open to the public. For more information, visit the conference website:

Biggest literary influence on The Boss? Flannery O'Connor.

When we talk about the American "Catholic Imagination" in literature and the arts, the work of Flannery O'Connor is a sine qua non. Teaching on this subject, I often surprise people by juxtaposing her fiction writing not with Graham Greene or another great Catholic novelist, but rather with the songwriting of Bruce Springsteen.

Considering The Boss's oeuvre in this light is neither flight of fancy nor mere excuse to play music in class. The topic has been covered in the pages of Commonweal, the man effusively praised on the blog, and his stature confirmed back in 1998 by none less than Andrew Greeley, the scholar perhaps most associated with the analysis of the Catholic imagination.

Now it's true that Springsteen has cited Flannery O'Connor before, but I have not seen a quote as exquisite and evocative as this, from an interview in this weekend's New York Times. The reporter asks:

If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?

And then Springsteen, who had earlier in the interview already cited O'Connor as the first author to influence his career as a songwriter, offers this assessment of his top literary influence:

One would be difficult, but the short stories of Flannery O’Connor landed hard on me. You could feel within them the unknowability of God, the intangible mysteries of life that confounded her characters, and which I find by my side every day. They contained the dark Gothicness of my childhood and yet made me feel fortunate to sit at the center of this swirling black puzzle, stars reeling overhead, the earth barely beneath us.

Perhaps he has the final scenes of the short story "Revelation" in mind, but really the quote encapsulates so much of what haunts O'Connor's world -- and thereby the American Catholic imagination writ large.

It is the mystery that does not confuse but halts through wonder; the experience of all life as both suffering and glory; the stubborn refusal to separate nature and grace.


Citizen Snowden, the movie

Citizenfour is the new documentary about Edward Snowden, who in 2013 disclosed the existence of a secret NSA mass surveillance program. In its subject and production it looks and feels a bit like those conspiracy movies from the 1970s—Three Days of the Condor, Marathon Man, or All the President’s Men. There’s the unwitting protagonist, the chance at heroism not sought but thrust upon him; the outsized, amorphous antagonist, the extent of its reach and capacity for treachery heretofore unimaginable; and the paranoia informing and infusing the story, heightened by ominous music and weirdly ominous shots of ordinary buildings, streets, and rooms. I say “a bit,” because Citizenfour is a documentary and not a dramatization—but also because that even as a documentary, it seems second-hand and overdone in comparison to fictional treatments.

How can that be? Shouldn’t access to the figure at the center of the story make for riveting work? In fact, the issue might be Snowden himself, whose presence dominates the long middle section of the movie, filmed over eight days in the Hong Kong hotel room he absconded to. The fear accompanying the growing awareness of what their characters have stumbled into—and the growing danger it puts them in—seems less manufactured in the acting of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman than in the actual speech and behavior of Snowden, hiding out from U.S. authorities. True, the key revelations and developments aren’t coming in the “real time” of the narrative, but it’s precisely that Snowden’s actions were undertaken prior to this moment that the tension should be higher. It’s understood he’s in danger, so when and how it will it arrive? He professes to feel anxiety, and he exhibits the classic tendencies of the paranoiac—convinced that he’s being watched because, of course, everyone is after him. But he’s also aware of being watched being watched: It’s a virtual performance in the role he may have been destined to play.

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I believe so that I may see (Gilead pp. 1-86)

Each morning, my wife and I get up between 5:15 and 5:30. We hope to be at our desks by 5:45 so that we can spend some time writing before our son wakes up.  There’s something about writing in those wee hours that allows me to be more productive in 75 minutes than I often am for the rest of the day, even when that productivity just means a lot of thinking and a lot of staring at a blank notebook page. Around 7:00 each morning I close the notebook because I hear,  “Babbo! I wake up! I wake up, Babbo.” I know it’s time to get my son out of his crib, get his milk and oatmeal ready and make sure Mamma can keep at work for another hour or so. As you can imagine I enjoy being the first person my son sees in the morning more than I enjoy the tranquility of pre-dawn Chicago.

I’ve read Gilead three or four times. I read it when it was first published in 2004, when I was a graduate student in theology, reading Augustine and Calvin and Barth in the Midwest, subsisting on simple grad student-friendly meals, and wishing I were watching more baseball. I could relate to John Ames. But this is the first time I’ve read the book as a father, and I have to admit some trepidation when I picked up the book again. I was a little worried, to be honest, that the book would hit too close to home. Now that I’ve begun my latest rereading, I won’t say that my fear was unfounded, but I can say that it was exaggerated. I’m struck in a way I wasn’t before at how good and devoted a father John Ames is. What I’ve noticed this time is how in his letters Ames hopes to help his son see. It’s surely no accident that John is named after the Evangelist who noted that Jesus was the light of the world, a light that darkness could not overcome.

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Missing Sacramentality

Last Sunday, I was in New York to participate in the Mass celebrating the one hundreth anniversary of the founding of Regis High School. Since the Mass was celebrated at the church of Saint Ignatius Loyola, I decided to arrive early to see the Cubism exhibition at the nearby Metropolitan Museum of Art. The show featured works by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Though fascinated by the artists' bravura technique, I left yearning for the sacramental presence I would experience at the Mass.

By chance, yesterday's Times featured on the front page Holland Cotter's review of the re-opening of Paris' Picasso Museum. Towards the end of the article I found expressed the misgivings I had experienced two days earlier at the Met's exhibition. Cotter writes:

All together, you can learn a tremendous amount about Picasso in the Picasso Museum show, not least that he could be a truly terrible artist. Maybe the biggest revelation, though, comes on the top floor, when you catch your first glimpse of a Cézanne landscape Picasso once owned, and instantly sense what’s been missing from the two floors below: focus, concentration, a point of repose, warmth like a light in a tunnel, a fire in a hearth, a vigil lamp in a church.

Might one say in sum: sacramentality.


I had just finished Marilynne Robinson’s new novel, Lila, when The London Review of Books arrived with a piece by Colm Toibin on that novel and a larger comment on the treatment of religion in fiction. Tobin writes with appreciation, a novelist’s perspective, and an acuteness which is humbling. He manages to place Lila in perspective, pointing to the development of the trilogy, out of its predecessors Gilead and Home. Tobin’s piece is one to read carefully, as is the book he reviews.

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Is Joan Didion a "moral" writer?

A fundraising campaign and trailer of sorts for a new documentary about Joan Didion has hit the internet, engineered by her nephew Griffin Dunne. For someone with such a distinct place in American letters — her seminal subjects, her cool tone, those sunglasses — it’s surprising that no such documentary already exists.

What was surprising, however, was Dunne’s confident, repeated description of Didion as a “moral voice.” I say this as a great fan (I came this-close to getting a tattoo of her prose a few years back): it never occurred to me to read her as someone with a particular moral vision of the world. Despite the fact that for young, writerly women of a certain disposition Didion is practically a saint, that was never part of her appeal. She has a clear vision, surely. Even an incisive and necessary one. But in what sense is Didion’s work concerned with morality?

Early in her career, she actually wrote a piece called “On Morality,” in which she lays out her concern with the way we use the term. Writing from Death Valley — a name she milks for its metaphor — she sees morality as the practical value we place on helping each other survive, on not leaving the wounded to the wild. “I am talking, you want to say, about a ‘morality’ so primitive that it scarcely deserves the name, a code that has as its point only survival, not the attainment of the ideal good. Exactly.”

Didion has no time for transcendent virtues; it’s socially negotiated promises all the way down. Morality is fundamentally a community’s habit, and “the good” does not exist independently of how we apply it. Her essay elegantly conveys the desperate chaos of the surrounding culture (she compares it to a Hieronymus Bosch painting, and the whole piece is filled with subtle and layered images that make you believe her). She hopes this view will steer society away from the absolutist banners of “right” and “wrong” that politicians and fanatics use to do foolish or unjust things:

’I followed my own conscience.’ ‘I did what I thought was right.’ How many madmen have said it and meant it? Klaus Fuchs said it, and the men who committed the Mountain Meadows Massacre said it, and Alfred Rosenberg said it. And, as we are rotely and rather presumptuously reminded by those who would say it now, Jesus said it. Maybe we have all said it, and maybe we have been wrong. Except on the most primitive level –our loyalties to those we love–what could be more arrogant than to claim the primacy of personal conscience?

Of course, it’s news to no one that people claim moral imperatives for acts that are plainly wrong. It also probably doesn’t need to be pointed out that even the great villains of history could show loyalty to people they already liked. Yet for all of Didion’s concern about survival, I suspect she does have some notion of what is “wrong” outside her own description, even something beyond loyalty to those she already loves. It raises the question: where did this idea of loyalty or justice come from in the first place?

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Reading the Gilead trilogy, an update

The synod in Rome understandably has the attention of the dotCom community. But I have gotten some questions about reading Marilynne Robinson's Gilead trilogy, so I wanted to offer a quick update and general "schedule." (I use "schedule" loosely, hence the quotation marks.) More after the jump.

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Reading Lila with Scott

In case you all needed further reason to join Scott Moringiello in reading Marilynne Robinson's new novel, it has just been announced that Lila made the short list for the National Book Award. The other nominees include Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven, Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See, Rabih Alameddine's An Unnecessary Woman, and Phil Klay's Redeployment.

But top priority should be given to Robinson. Lila is as good as anything she's written before, and it's very different, stylistically, from the other two Gilead novels. Happy reading, everyone.

John and Glory and Lila

"Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things."

As usual, Paul is onto something. We should all spend more time thinking about things that are true and honorable and lovely and gracious and excellent and praiseworthy. I'm sure you all know by now that Marilynne Robinson's new novel Lila comes out tomorrow. The New York Times ran a Sunday magazine piece on Robinson yesterday, and the paper did a review of the novel in the Book Review section. The New York Review of Books has its review in the latest issue. There was also a piece in the Atlantic. Commonweal will soon be running a review by Paul Elie, as well as an essay about Robinson and her work by Anthony Domestico.

Lila is Robinson's third novel set in Gilead, Iowa in the middle of the 20th Century. The title character is the wife of the Rev. John Ames, a Congregationalist pastor, whom we met as the protagonist in Robinson's Gilead. Robinson's Home focuses on Glory Boughton, the daughter of the Rev. Robert Boughton, a Presbyterian pastor, who is John Ames's best friend. Gilead and Home have quickly and rightly become American classics. (I would argue Gilead, along with Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian is one of the two best American novels in the last 25 years or so.) Even though I haven't read --and don't plan on reading -- reviews of Lila until after I read it (Tony's piece will be an exception), I have no doubt Lila will be just as good as the previous two.

The official publication date is tomorrow, and although I'm not sure I'll be able to get to a bookstore tomorrow, I plan on reading the novel soon. (For my own dotCommonweal posts on Robinson, see here and here.) And I'm wondering if the dotCom community would like to join me in reading all three novels.

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Seeing with Amy Clampitt

Few modern poets loved the world so fiercely, or looked at it so closely, as Amy Clampitt. Her best poems express an ecstatic delight in perception, giving the sense that the world is more than we thought it was—more beautiful and more terrifying, more astounding in its intricacy and more startling in its sublimity.

Clampitt comes in the line of writers like John Keats (one of her favorites), Emily Dickinson (another favorite), and Marilynne Robinson. All of these writers are both visionary and realist: in fact, their sense of the visionary—that which exceeds the everyday—is arrived at by way of the realistic, through a commitment to seeing the world in its absolute and wondrous particularity.

Here, for instance, is “The Sun Underfoot Among the Sundews,” which appeared in Clampitt’s 1983 debut collection The Kingfisher:

An ingenuity too astonishing

to be quite fortuitous is

this bog full of sundews, sphagnum-

lined and shaped like a teacup.

                                                   A step.

Down and you’re into it; a

Wilderness swallows you up:

ankle-, then knee-, then midriff-

to-shoulder-deep in wetfooted

understory, an overhead

spruce-tamarack horizon hinting

you’ll never get out of here.

                                                  But the sun

among the sundews, down there,

is so bright, an underfoot

webwork of carnivorous rubies,

a star-swarm thick as the gnats

they’re set to catch, delectable

double-faced cockleburs, each

hair-tip a sticky mirror

afire with sunlight, a million

of them and again a million,

each mirror a trap set to

unhand unbelieving,

                                                  that either

a First Cause said once, “Let there

be sundew,” and there were, or they’ve

made their way here unaided

other than by that backhand, round-

about refusal to assume responsibility

known as Natural Selection.

                                                  But the sun

underfoot is so dazzling

down there among the sundews,

there is so much light

in the cup that, looking,

you start to fall upward.

The poem is about a plant that is both lovely (see the accompanying image) and violent (the carnivorous sundew lives in part by luring and feasting upon unsuspecting insects), and Clampitt refuses to look away either from the loveliness or the violence. The sundews are both trap and miracle, threat and wonder, a “sticky mirror / afire with sunlight,” a “webwork of carnivorous rubies.” To look at the natural world with real attention, Clampitt suggests, is to find it “astonishing,” “delectable,” and “dazzling”—in short, it is to be reminded that the world exceeds our best efforts to understand it. To really look is to “start to fall upward.”

Clampitt isn't read nearly as much as she should be. Here is a link with some other poems, all worth reading.

Making others less alone

Friday's PBS Newshour featured a segment with the poet Gregory Orr, who discussed the accidental shooting by a nine-year-old girl--with an Uzi submachine gun--of her instructor at an Arizona gun range August 25. He wasn't there to talk about the root causes of the tragedy (political, sociological, cultural), but rather its aftermath and potential effect on the child at the center of it. When he was twelve, Orr himself accidentally killed his younger brother in a hunting accident, an incident he documented in his 2002 memoir The Blessing and which has figured prominently in his poetry over the course of a dozen or so collections, having in large part led him to writing in the first place, in which he has since found solace. "Because poems are meanings," he has said, "even the saddest poem I write is proof that I want to survive. And therefore it represents an affirmation of life in all its complexities and contradictions."

On Newshour, Orr reads his poem "A Litany" (go to the 38-minute-mark in the video below), which deals explicitly with the day he and his father and three brothers went out hunting. It opens with Orr's recalling "the dark stain seeping" across his brother's parka hood and includes the image of the deer "we had killed just before I shot my brother" hanging near the barn, as seen by Orr from the bedroom he'd retreated to on returning home. It's a haunting reading, the look in Orr's eyes and the sound of his voice adding something more to what is already pretty powerful on the page.

Orr, when asked, also talks about what should and shouldn't be done for children who have witnessed or been the cause of a death, warning specifically against "premature consolation," or the tendency of well-meaning adults to tell a child that it was "all a part of God's plan"--words that he, as a twelve-year-old, found "more terrifying" than reassuring. He had written more at length about this a week earlier in the New York Times:

[W]hen I try to think of what I might say to that girl, I think also of the danger of words used as premature consolation and explanation. I lost a (naïve and conventional) religious faith the day of my brother’s death, because a well-meaning adult assured me that my dead brother was already, at that very moment, sitting down in heaven to feast with Jesus. How could I tell her that my brother was still near me, still horribly close to me — that every time I squeezed shut my eyes to keep out the world, I saw him lying lifeless at my feet?

But even worse, Orr says, is not to speak of it at all: "Silence quickly transforms guilt into shame, and shame builds walls of isolation that can be almost impossible to breach." That, he has said, is what happened inside his own family. He offers very basic counsel: "Hold the child, and make her feel safe." And that simplicity of gesture, of giving oneself to another, seems in keeping with what Orr has suggested might be the larger purpose of the kind of lonely work he has dedicated himself to:

[T]he lyric (poem or memoir) is committed to the notion that the self telling and dramatizing its own truth can be an important human act. Not just for the self but for others also. My teacher Stanley Kunitz has a line where he speaks about “the voice of the solitary who makes others less alone.” That’s a social contribution out of a situation of lyric solitude.

Peter Mathiessen's 'In Paradise'

Half-way through Peter Mathiessen’s final novel, In Paradise, the chief character, Olin, tells what he says is an alternate version of the crucifixion story to Catherine, a young novice soon to take her religious vows. The good thief makes his request that Jesus take him to Paradise. Jesus responds, not by saying “Thou shalt be with me this day in Paradise,” but rather, “No, friend, we are in Paradise right now ”

The virtual blasphemy points at the crucial conflict of the novel, called of course In Paradise: overwhelming bleakness of death and yet redemptive transcendence. The physical “paradise” is the Auschwitz Concentration camp. The plot involves a retreat of one hundred participants fifty years after the liberation of the camps. The intent of the retreat is to allow those involved to come to terms with the death camp: they are survivors, bystanders, family members of those killed and of those who killed, some are local residents; but the majority come from many nations and represent different faiths.

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Literary Links

There's a long tradition of poets annotating their own work: think of T. S. Eliot's notes on The Waste Land, or Amy Clampitt's notes on The Kingfisher. Joshua Mehigan, whose new book, Accepting the Disaster, I'll be reviewing in an upcoming issue, has just provided annotations for "The Cement Plant," one of his collection's many poems about work. Here is his explanation of the phrase "killed some of them":

As far as I know, there were surprisingly few accidental deaths at Blue Circle. One I remember was the result of an explosion when the kiln backfired and the doors blew off. Another occurred when a man fell into a screw conveyor. Of course the environment in the plant is not especially conducive to life, either, and it seems fairly certain that the plant causes plenty of less-obvious death and terminal disease. It might be useful for someone to perform a study comparing cement-plant employees with the general population for lung cancer, COPD, asthma, blood levels of numerous poisons, neurological function, life expectancy, etc. Death aside, men were of course maimed from time to time. Mostly they lost fingers, or maybe a hand. My father knew a guy who had his finger pulled off inside his glove when it got caught in a transport barge’s mooring rope! I knew an old belt operator who’d lost a few fingers on different occasions. More mundane injuries—such as dislocated shoulders, cuts, burns—occurred more often. As in many other factories, there was a large scoreboard in the shop that listed the number of days since the most recent “lost time” injury.

Rebecca Mead, whose My Life in Middlemarch Mollie Wilson O'Reilly recently reviewed in the magazine, has an interesting post on reading lists and the nature of "guilty pleasure" books:

We have become accustomed to hearing commercial novelists express frustration with the ways in which their books are taken less seriously than ones that are deemed literary: book reviewers don’t pay them enough attention, while publishers give their works safe, predictable cover treatments. In this debate, academic arguments that have been conducted for more than a generation, about the validity or otherwise of a literary canon, meet the marketplace. The debate has its merits, but less discussed has been the converse consequence of the popular-literary distinction: that literary works, especially those not written last year, are placed at the opposite pole to fun.

Tim Parks on whether reading Fifty Shades of Grey will lead you to try more difficult books:

What no one wants to accept—and no doubt there is an element of class prejudice at work here too—is that there are many ways to live a full, responsible, and even wise life that do not pass through reading literary fiction. And that consequently those of us who do pursue this habit, who feel that it enriches and illuminates us, are not in possession of an essential tool for self-realization or the key to protecting civilization from decadence and collapse. We are just a bunch of folks who for reasons of history and social conditioning have been blessed with a wonderful pursuit. Others may or may not be enticed toward it, but I seriously doubt if E.L. James is the first step toward Shakespeare. Better to start with Romeo and Juliet