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Mental Loops

The vivid expression “earworm” suggests a voice, perhaps a song, or some phrase or fragment, that plays unwanted in a continuous mental loop. Subliminal sometimes it may be, but persistent, even distracting, as we might wish to concentrate all our attention on a problem or text. I think that times of stress brings the voice on. I have heard inside my head my voice audibly repeating the short prayers that the nuns in grade school would unselfconsciously tell us were "ejaculations." Those moments when anxiety threatens to screech its nails down fearful chalk boards – then I am likely to repeat as litany Domine adjuvanda me festina.

I have lately been reading through three of Philip Roth’s novels from the eighties and nineties, The Counterlife, American Pastoral, and I Married a Communist. Each has its striking virtuosity of voice and of perception. The energy of the prose and dynamism of the plotting and the voices (heteroglossia of the first order) can sweep a reader along. I had to stop, however, over a passage near the conclusion of I Married a Communist. The chief narrator Murray records  experiencing an ear-worm like obsession in a moment of great anxiety. Murray has just left his brother Ira in his rustic shack in Pennsylvania. Ira is despondent, angry, homicidal. Murray knows how violent Ira can be, and he fears that his brother will soon attempt to kill his estranged wife. On the drive back to his home, unconvinced that he has dissuaded his brother despite taking his knives and pistol, Murray recounts his inner turmoil. He maintains his stability, more or less, by repeating a quotation from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. They are Feste’s words at the conclusion of the play: “And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.” Now you must know that Murray is an English teacher and an acutely sensitive reader. He is relating this experience to Nathan Zuckerman, his former student and now an accomplished novelist. Murray considers what his mind was doing with Feste’s words.

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The New Detectives: Dazed or Crazed?

We don't watch TV shows; we watch DVDs of TV shows on TV. As a result, we are working our way belatedly through a mess/mass of mystery/crime shows with detectives that are...that seem either dazed or crazed.

Last night it was "The Bridge," a girl detective in the El Paso police department is definitely dazed and obsessive (aspergers?). Finished with "Homeland" (season 3) where our heroine is crazed (bi-polar). Before that, puzzled over "True Detective's" "hero," an alcoholic with intuitions; more dazed than crazed.

Since our chronology is not "real-time" watching, are the dazed and crazed copy-cat portrayals? Or is this a trend?

UPDATE: Alessandra Stanley has something to say on this subject. See Comment @10:21, 1/22

Writing Atrocity

In Thirty Girls, the novelist Susan Minot has set herself several tasks, all of them difficult. First, she wants to imagine the seemingly unimaginable: what it must feel like for a young girl to be abducted and effectively enslaved in the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. Second, she wants to lay bare the problems that confront the writer—and all of us—when faced with such atrocities. And third, she wants to dramatize both barbarism and our responses to it through the lens of a love story—the kind of fevered, haunting affair that readers of Minot’s previous novel, Rapture, will be familiar with.

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Robert Stone, 1937-2015

Robert Stone, author of Dog Soldiers and A Flag for Sunrise, among other novels, died on Saturday at the age of 77. William Giradli has written that "a lapsed Catholic is the most devout Catholic of all," and Stone, who spent his early childhood in a Catholic orphanage, proved the truth of this claim. His work was religiously inflected, politically serious, and stylistically adventurous. He will be missed.

Commonweal has featured writing on Stone on various occasions. Here are some highlights: Paul Lakeland on his last novel, Death of the Black-Haired Girl, published in 2013; R. Clifton Spargo on Stone's memoir of the 1960s; and Dominic Preziosi on Stone, violence, and political conflict by way of Oakley Hall's Warlock.

New Year's Day Morning

Whether or not you celebrate New Year's Eve, and whether or not you have recovered, turn on your local public radio station and listen to the Vienna Philharmonic's New Year's Day Concert live from, well Vienna!

Last year, you may recall, Nicholas Clifford gave a head's up about it. The concert ends with the Radeztky March. That is also the title of Joseph Roth's melancholy novel of pre-WWI Austria (which was much larger than it is now). A volume of the Letters of Joseph Roth was in my Christmas stocking reminding me of the gap between Roth's story and the merry waltzes and high-stepping marches of Austria in the days of the Hapsburg Empire's dying grandeur.

This is the link to the local NYC announcement of the concert: 11 AM here; 8 AM in Arizona.

Cradle Taboo

“Cradle Catholic” has a muscular connotation for me - the learned response to the stimulus of the Holy Name. I nod my head down in a perfunctory bow. Half-conscious, almost automatic gestures are part of a legacy, and so are profound orientations, habits of mind. We don’t choose these ways of thought and action; sometimes they grab us and point a way.

Dennis Lehane has used his Irish Catholic background in very successful detective fiction set in the Boston underworld. He writes spare, realistic dialogue and his books translate easily to the Big and Small Screens. (Mystic River, Shutter Island, episodes of The Wire and Boardwalk Empire) Characterization is always strong; it appears that his understanding of motivation draws easily on the “Cradle Catholic” mentality of his saints and sinners.

The Drop, his latest novel and screen play, is a case in point. The anti-hero, Bob, is an observant church goer, a loyal parishioner of St. Dominic’s, soon to be closed in a diocese-wide consolidation of poorly attended churches. Bob seems at first a suffering-servant, the bar-tender helper of his wise-mouth, lowering Cousin Marv, who is indeed Bob’s cousin. He is the apparent owner of the bar called after him. Bob is a dog’s-body, almost obsequious in has toleration of Marv’s barbed put-downs. Bob has no friends, no girl, and despite his ability to negotiate the Mean Streets, he is honest and thoughtful. His quiet strength will show itself in ways that puts him at odds with his church-going self. As we discover, Bob and Marv have a history barely hinted at but finally revealed. The plot winds its way through a long-discussed disappearance of a patron, a Chechen Mafia threat, the rescue of a Pit Bull and romance for Bob and Nadia, whose concern for the dog set them at odds with a psychopath. But the plot of the story turns on a revelation by way of a Cradle Catholic habit of mind.

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Buffoonery Security Threat UPDATE

The nation's hairs on fire. Sony Pictures cancelled the release of "The Interview" after every movie chain in the country cancelled its opening on Christmas Day (talk about "for chrissake"!).

Hackers said to be North Korean apparatchaks invaded Sony computers and released gossipy e-mails, future movies, new songs, and lunch orders from famous people. They then threatened to blow up any theater showing the movie. The two buffoons who made the movie seem amazed that the assassination of NK's Kim-Jong Un, by blowing off his head, should cause such a stir (it's only a joke); so too are movie critics, pundits, and the president of the United States. Those North Koreans have no sense of humor! Guess not.

I have been waiting for someone to write, "And while I am all for bold creative choices, was it really important that the head being blown up in a comedy about bungling assassins be that of an actual sitting ruler of a sovereign state?" David Carr (NYTimes) finally did along with a long analysis that brings me to conclude that these buffoons along with many other Hollywoodites are as much a national security threat as North Korea. North Korea scares us but the buffoons make us stupid.

UPDATE: "CloudFlare, an Internet company based in San Francisco, confirmed Monday that North Korea’s Internet access was “toast.”  Retaliation? More buffoonery? Battery shortage? Toaster overheated? Story here.

Teaching, by the book (and movie)

It was only after finishing The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie this fall that I realized it was the third straight work of fiction I'd read in which teachers and teaching figured prominently. (There was a similarly themed documentary film in there too -- see below.) I didn't consciously set out to sample the offerings; maybe headlines around that time like "Why Is American Teaching So Bad?" and "Rotten Apples: It's Nearly Impossible to Fire a Bad Teacher" drove me to spend some hours with the profession's beleaguered practitioners, or maybe I wanted new insights into my own experiences at the front of a classroom. Never mind that none of the three books is about American teachers, or that none was published in 2014. What all reconfirmed is that there's inherently more (sometimes much more) to the teacher-student relationship than pedagogy, even if those doing the teaching are sometimes not inclined to act only in the interests of their students.
 
That's certainly true of in the case of Muriel Spark's best known work, with which Commonweal readers are probably familiar, and which doesn't necessarily do the teaching vocation any special favors--even if the title character's students learn a thing or two.
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Best Books of 2014 (Part 2)

Mark Logsdon, who has been an essential part of our conversation of the Marilynne Robinson novels, suggested that we take a bit of a break before our discussion of Lila. I’m reading the novel for the first time now, and I’ve come to realize that it was, in the words of Rev. Ames, presumptuous of me to think I would have anything intelligent to say about the novel during a first reading. I’m also realizing that I should reread the Book of Ezekiel, and probably Calvin’s commentary on Ezekiel, before I tackle blogging about Lila. So I’ll start up again in the new year.

In lieu of a discussion of Lila, I wanted to take up a suggestion that Dominic Preziosi made to dotCommonweal bloggers to list our favorite books of the year. Anthony Domestico has already taken him up on it, and I thought I would add some recommendations as well. (Rumor has it that your name does not have to end in a vowel in order to chime in. But maybe it helps.)

Fiction
1. Zia Haider Rahman, In the Light of What We Know. Not only was this the best novel I read in 2014, but it's the best novel I've read in quite some time. Unfortunately, apart from a glowing review by James Wood in the New Yorker, this novel has gotten very little attention. Rahman tells the story of two Oxford-educated friends whose families both hail from South Asia but who are otherwise worlds apart. The novel addresses the global financial crisis, the war in Afghanistan, philosophy, law, class, and the academy. Ultimately, though, the novel addresses central issues such as friendship and faith. Rahman’s erudition sparkles on each page, and, months after reading it, I can recall some sentences word for word.I look forward to reading the novel again.

2. Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers. Officially this came out in 2013, but there was a paperback edition in 2014.  Kushner’s novel addresses the New York City art world of the 1970s, Italian manufacturing, motorcycles, and revolutionary politics. The novel asks us what happens in the name of love when the personal and the political collide.

3. Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch. Like The Flamethrowers, this novel came out at the end of 2013. Be sure to read Anthony Domestico’s review of The Goldfinch in that latest print issue of Commonweal. Of course, I agree with everything Tony writes there, and I would only add that besides being a fairy tale, the Goldfinch (much like The Flamethrowers) asks us to consider the relationship between art and truth. (In this way, its true precursor is William Gaddis’s The Recognitions.)

4. William Giraldi, Hold the Dark. Dominic Preziosi has already reviewed Hold the Dark on this site. It is a superb and terrifying read. Be sure to check out Giraldi’s, Busy Monsters as well. That novel is as funny as Hold the Dark is terrifying. I got some strange looks on the CTA for laughing out loud while reading Busy Monsters.

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The Secret Place

Anyone who has taught in high school realizes that instruction runs a tough second (or third or fourth) place to adolescent relationships. Hormones, evolving identities, developing sexuality, and competitive self-assertion – being “bloody minded” as the English say - make the years emotionally fraught. Friends are everything. To be “in” or to be excluded often appears a matter of life and death. Tana French, the Irish author who has had great success with who-done-its?  such as Broken Harbor and In The Woods, uses the antipathy and idealism of teenage friendship-groups to ground her latest thriller, The Secret Place. Ms. French has an unerring ear for dialogue, of teenagers in sulks or power displays, or raw Dublin detectives bantering with each other in deadly earnest. The characterization by voice is remarkable.

The story is set in St. Kilda’s, an exclusive Dublin girls’ boarding school. A student from the neighboring St. Colm’s School for Boys has been killed, his murder unsolved for over a year. A  new piece of evidence suddenly triggers Detective Stephen Moran’s reopening of the case. Moran also has to prove himself to a tough woman homicide detective, Antoinette Conway – a lady who has felt the full sting of male prejudice. She also was in charge of the investigation that earlier failed to find the killer. Egos are on the line for the adults as well as the children.

The plot unfolds through exhausting interviews of eight girls in the course of one day’s investigation. The eight form two rival groups of four who spar with each other and the detectives in the give-and-take that eventually exposes the murderer. One of the eight is the only one who could be responsible for the picture of the murdered lad with the legend, “I know who did it.” that has appeared on the The Secret Place, a Kilda’s bulletin board that gives the novel its title.

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"Dear God in heaven, help him. Dear God in heaven, protect him" (Home pp 230-325)

Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day. The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard “delay,” but he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar and the elements will be dissolved by fire, and the earth and everything done on it will be found out.

Since everything is to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be, conducting yourselves in holiness and devotion, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved in flames and the elements melted by fire. But according to his promise we await new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.Therefore, beloved, since you await these things, be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace. 2 Pt 3:8-14

Faith, hope, and love. These three. We’re told that love is the greatest, and that it alone will abide. Even on this side of the eschaton, everyone has faith in something and everyone loves something. Hope, though: that one is difficult. How do we distinguish it from optimism? What can we hope in? Now, I’m no optimist. I’m always wary of talk of progress. The news of last few weeks should temper anyone’s optimism and make anyone question “progress.” Captive Israel can’t be ransomed again soon enough. But I try to remain full of hope. Rereading Home during Advent has helped.  In this space we’ve talked about faith and love, and our discussions have helped me realize that Home is a profound meditation on Christian hope.

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Commonweal & the New Republic

The big news in the world of opinion journalism—where Commonweal swims unobtrusively alongside much bigger fish (or sharks)—is last week’s mass resignations at the New Republic, long the flagship intellectual journal of American liberalism. First the editor, Franklin Foer, and TNR’s longtime literary editor Leon Wieseltier, resigned. The next day, in a very impressive act of suttee, most of the senior editorial staff and virtually all of the magazine’s well-known contributing editors threw themselves onto the pyre. I’ve been a journalist for more than thirty years, and that sort of personal and professional loyalty (Commonweal excepted!) is about as common as a typo-free newspaper (or magazine). Or a money-making journal of opinion.  

Foer obviously was a much beloved and respected boss, and Wieseltier, who had edited the back of the book for more than thirty years, was an intimidating figure, a notorious champion of both critical seriousness and critical severity when it came to book reviewing and literary journalism. He is also a terrific writer, and a fierce polemicist, in his own right. I, for one, have always felt compelled to read just about anything he writes, especially if I’m inclined to disagree with him. In recent years he has written scathingly about the shallow and trivial nature of much of the “journalism” found online, and about the dangers the relentless demand for “content” presents to reasoned political debate, literary standards, and our public culture. Amen, I say.    

So it is not much of a surprise to learn that the implosion of the New Republic was caused by a fundamental disagreement over the digital direction in which the magazine’s new owner, multi-millionaire Chris Hughes, was taking the venerable magazine. A little surprising is that the upheaval occurred just a few weeks after TNR celebrated its hundredth birthday with a big gala in Washington, D.C. The principal speaker was Bill Clinton. (He’s no George Mitchell, but still a pretty big deal.) News reports suggest that the antagonism between ownership and editorial staff was barely concealed during the dinner. Ouch. How awkward to announce a divorce right after an anniversary party.

The thirty-one-year-old Hughes, who made his fortune as a college roommate of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, bought the magazine in 2012, and has spent millions upgrading its digital presence and reorienting and redesigning the print magazine. One of his first steps was to do away with editorials, which should have sent a clear signal about the value the new owner placed on the historical weight of the New Republic’s “voice.” More recently, it was announced that the magazine would cut the number of issues from twenty to ten a year, and that TNR was no longer a magazine, but a “vertically integrated digital media company.” At the same time, Hughes hired a more web savvy replacement for Foer. He did not tell Foer he was being ousted. Whatever an integrated digital media company is, it does not appear to be very good at actual communication.

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Best Books of 2014

Last week, Marilynne Robinson delivered a lecture at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. In his introductory remarks, the poet Christian Wiman declared that reading Robinson's Housekeeping was, for him, a soul-shattering experience, one of those reading experiences that gives you faith in the power of a book to reveal something absolutely true and beautiful about the world and about yourself.

I didn’t quite have one of those reading experiences in 2014. (The last one for me happened in late 2013 with Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower.) But it’s been a very good year for books and a very good year for reading. Here is a short list of some of my favorite books of the year:

Fiction

Jeff Vandermeer, Annihilation. I read this book, the first in Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, while staying by myself in a big, empty house in Chicago this summer, and I was scared out of my mind. Vandermeer is an accomplished writer of “weird fiction”—a generic term used to describe works that blend, among other things, tropes from horror and science fiction—and Annihilation is weird in all the right ways. The whole series deserves to be gulped down (I’ve passed along my copies to three different friends already, and all of whom loved it), but Annihilation stands apart.

Ben Lerner, 10:04. Lerner’s second novel is a singular work, and this despite the fact that it displays so many characteristics—a Brooklyn setting, a writer as protagonist, a comic scene set at a sperm bank—that we have encountered before. Many times before, in fact. 10:04, which centers on a Ben Lerner-like narrator’s journey from irony towards sincerity, is deeply intelligent, just as deeply funny, and ultimately quite moving. Plus, it’s the only novel this year to talk about Back to the Future AND Walter Benjamin with equal insight.

Elena Ferrante, The Neapolitan Novels. I’d read some of Ferrante’s earlier, slimmer works before, but this was the year that I cracked the longer novels in the Neapolitan series: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. These books follow the lives of two girls, Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo, both born in Naples in the 1950s, both brilliant, both trying to find a world that is bigger and better than their own cramped and poor city.

Marilynne Robinson, Lila. Any year in which Robinson publishes something new is a great year, and this novel lived up to the achievements of Gilead and Home, complicating these earlier novels in meaningful ways.

Jeffery Renard Allen, Song of the Shank. This novel deserved more attention. Allen tells the story of Tom Wiggins, a blind, young slave and musical prodigy who became world famous in the years before the Civil War. Put out in a typically lovely edition by Graywolf, Song of the Shank contains intoxicating prose that at times recalls Faulkner.

Novels that were published in 2014 that I can’t wait to read: Sarah Waters, The Paying Guests; David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks; Lars Iyer’s Wittgenstein Jr.

Poetry

Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric. I have a column featuring this book coming out in the new year, so I won’t say much. Rankine’s book mixes styles (lyric poetry, prose-poetry, cultural criticism) and media (text, photographs, paintings), all in the service of a devastating analysis of race in contemporary America. It might be the best book I read all year, period.

Spencer Reece, The Road to Emmaus. I wrote on this collection, which beautifully describes a life of religious vocation and many other things, here.   

Joshua Mehigan, Accepting the Disaster. Likewise, I wrote about this collection for the magazine. At times, Mehigan reads like Robert Frost; at other times, he reads like Elizabeth Bishop. But throughout, his poetry displays incredible formal skill and a patient exploration of what it is like to live and work in the twenty-first century.

Books of poetry that were published in 2014 that I can’t wait to read: Fanny Howe’s Second Childhood; Mark Ford’s Selected Poems; Les Murray’s New Selected Poems; Christian Wiman’s Once in the West.

Non-Fiction

David Bromwich, The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke. Bromwich is a true public intellectual, someone who is worth reading not just on literature (he’s a professor of English and a wonderful critic of modern poetry) but on politics, culture, and history. This biography of Burke displays Bromwich’s many virtues: a lucid style, a generous mind, a deep familiarity with the archive, and a clear sense of the broader contours of intellectual history. Conservatives regularly cite Burke as a kind of patron saint. Bromwich shows that this philosopher and political theorist was much more interesting—and much more complex—than such ideological deployment suggests.

Rebecca Mead, My Life in Middlemarch. I taught Eliot’s Middlemarch for the first time this fall, and so it was delightful to read Mead, a writer for the New Yorker, on how much Eliot’s masterpiece has meant to her. This smart, lucid book is a fantastic entry into the world of Eliot and the world of her novel. (Mollie Wilson O’Reilly wrote on the book here.)

Hermione Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life. To my mind, Lee is our best living literary biographer, and her treatment of Fitzgerald was typically brilliant. As a bonus, the publication has caused a rebirth of interest in Fitzgerald’s work, which is much to the good.

Hilton Als, White Girls. Als has an omnivorous imagination, and the braided essays in this book touch on Richard Pryor and Eminem, Flannery O’Connor and Michael Jackson, Truman Capote and Malcom X, gay experience and black experience and American experience. Als has the essayist’s most important gift: the ability to surprise, to have a piece or paragraph or sentence begin in one direction only to veer, unexpectedly and delightfully, in another. (This technically came out at the end of 2014, but I'm including it anyway.)

Books of non-fiction that were published in 2014 that I can’t wait to read: Kevin Birmingham’s The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses; Charles D’Ambrosio’s Loitering: New and Collected Essays.

Best Books That I Read for the First Time This Year That Weren’t Published in 2014

Everything by Amy Clampitt; Millicent Bell’s Meaning in Henry James; Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword; Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories; Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Word for World Is Forest; Dinaw Mengestu’s The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears.

 

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: http://www1.villanova.edu/villanova/artsci/vcle/newsevents.html.