Edward T. Wheeler
Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.
By this author
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?
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.
Rev. Bruce Shipman, the Episcopal priest and former Chaplain at Yale, lives in a neighboring town. The controversy that surrounded his letter to the New York Times (August 21. 2014) concerning the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe caused his resignation from the Yale chaplaincy—and much by way of accusation and defense.
Stephen Webb makes a startling claim at the close of his First Things article on the U.S. penal system: “Revival will come to America when Christians begin doing justice to the American prison system.” He speaks from his experience in prison ministry and by analogy argues to substantiate his remarkable claim. We have to ask: What is the fundamental link between prison reform and national spiritual revival?
Frankly, when I read his piece for the first time, I felt myself uneasy, sensing that something was wrong. Part of this unease came from an assertion, almost a plea, that I have heard in one form or another for the two and a half years I have worked as a prison volunteer: “We need a voice.” This from a man all too aware of his crimes and his powerlessness within the system (yes, he is a felon), but more directly, his woeful prospects once he finishes his sentence. Stephen Webb’s article is not that voice, I reckon.
This is not a denial of the three telling assertions that Webb makes. Quite the contrary, I can’t but agree with his analysis. He sees the common human condition, bondage to sin in a fallen world, as most clearly exemplified in the life of prisoners. He calls for a re-examination of notions of justice in terms of the traditional teaching about Purgatory. Divine justice is restorative, and prison reform should follow from or reflect this model. We need to see rehabilitation not punishment as the end of correction. Finally he points to the paradox of modern conceptions of heaven – shall we say caricatures that pass for concepts. For too many, heaven appears as eternal imprisonment among the unbearably devout. Re-envisioning the ends of the criminal justice system and its practice points directly to a profound engagement with Christian life: faith, contrition, penance, amendment, the just life and the afterlife. We have to see ourselves in those who live behind bars and revive our Christian commitment.
I think, “What would the inmate who asked ‘for a voice’ say to Stephen Webb?”
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.
I had a nine hour train journey and a Kindle with the complete works of George Eliot ($.99). The upshot? I had not read The Mill on the Floss and so I began. If you recall Maggie Tulliver, the heroine of the novel, faces unaccountable hardship. Her creator has the adolescent Maggie turn to Thomas a Kempis (The Imitation of Christ) to find the spirit of renunciation and acceptance to bear with the troubles that afflict her. So effective are a Kempis’s words that Maggie finds herself in conflict with her admirer Phillip Waken because she rejects the claims of the self and refuses to strike out to find her own happiness. Maggie’s self-denial, her rejection of self-love, underlies the moral courage that ultimately costs her her life in heroic self-sacrifice. The ways of the world, the temptations of self-indulgence, simply cannot break the integrity that is Maggie’s armor against moral failure. Her tutor in this, The Imitation of Christ, evokes this testimony from the narrator:
it is the chronicle of a solitary, hidden anguish, struggle, trust, and triumph, not written on velvet cushions to teach endurance to those who are treading with bleeding feet on the stones. And so it remains to all time a lasting record of human needs and human consolations; the voice of a brother who, ages ago, felt and suffered and renounced
I found an odd joy reading the passage Eliot quotes from The Imitation, as I traveled at seventy miles an hour on the train south. There was an unnerving and excited recognition of a voice very familiar and now strange, stranger sill for speaking out of a Victorian novel written by a very “advanced” religious and social thinker a hundred and fifty years ago. Written in the fifteenth century, The Imitation enjoyed on-going admiration among both Catholics and Protestants, and clearly affect the young Mary Ann Evans. I recalled that my copy of a Kempis’s book (I had to have been given it in my Jesuit high school) was yellow paged, printed in gothic script, and resonated with the word “compunction” which I dutifully looked up and attempted to feel. In the imagination it bore for me, as it must have for fictional Maggie, a sense of the sacred.
Kate Atkinson’s novel Life after Life comes as something of a surprise. Her earlier books featuring a feckless Scottish detective, Jackson Brodie, were inventive in plot and quirky in characterization. There was little to suggest the rather heavy themes signaled in the epigraphs from Nietzsche and Plato that appear in Life after Life; they focus, appropriately enough, on reincarnation. The plan of the novel is simple: follow a character, Ursula Todd, through her lives. The plural, “lives,” offers the plot mechanism: Ursula is born once, but her days follow multiple sequences, the first being her still born birth. She survives more successfully in following permutations. We return to her birthday in February 1910 and accompany her as she, after two fatal sidesteps, finally arrives at adulthood and again we experience her different life courses. Chance, yes, is the impartial determiner.
The novel is a fictional experiment of sorts: how consistent is Ursula’s character when subjected to various conflicts? And indeed what are the responses of her family as she challenges them with different life experiences? There is the close sister Pammy, the cherished younger brother Teddie, the risqué and sophisticated Aunt Izzy, and a host of boyfriends, suitors, husbands and lovers. Ursula is consistently “rather pretty,” but various in her sexual precocity and fidelity. She is well-read enough to quote appropriately from the classics and to correct the pretentious in their misquotations.
A friend reminded me of the artistry of Middlemarch when he mentioned how much he enjoyed listening to an audio book of the novel on his way to work. I had to reflect that I had read Eliot first fifty years ago, under a magnolia tree in Fordham’s Rose Hill in the Bronx, caught up in Dorothea’s story but equally aware that I had yet another novel to read that week for Dr. Santaniello’s English Fiction course. So taking up the book again, I was surprised and humbled by the number of times I had to read the following passage, Edward Casaubon’s proposal of marriage (in letter form) to Dorothea.
I am not, I trust, mistaken in the recognition of some deeper correspondence than that of date in the fact that a consciousness of need in my own life had arisen contemporaneously with the possibility of my becoming acquainted with you. For in the first hour of meeting you, I had an impression of your eminent and perhaps exclusive fitness to supply that need (connected, I may say, with such activity of the affections as even the preoccupations of a work too special to be abdicated could not uninterruptedly dissimulate); and each succeeding opportunity for observation has given the impression an added depth by convincing me more emphatically of that fitness which I had preconceived, and thus evoking more decisively those affections to which I have but now referred.
The knottiness of this passage, reminiscent of the frustrating Latin of Cicero, whose periods made me weep in the frustration of incomprehension, works in veritable counterpoint to the fluency of composition – and the ease of the prose rhythms. Casaubon’s self-regard, rendered in the subordination of the clauses and in the parenthetical notes to his own assertions are all too great warnings against the very proposal that Dorothea accepts. The weight of the words simply and ironically crushes any hope of realizing the “affections” that he mentions but are somehow buried in the qualifications that he has laid out earlier.
Perhaps it is too easy to comment that novelists do not write like this anymore. But I have to ask if that also means that our contemporaries do not make the demands upon us that the great Victorian writers did?
As we were tidying away the Christmas decorations, marking Twelfth Night in this somewhat tedious, somewhat reflective manner, I could not put by for the season the poem that follows. Southwell, as you probably are aware, was an English Jesuit Martyr, executed in 1595 as a traitor for his missionary work among English Catholics in the reign of Elizabeth I. How the times seem to frame the meaning of the Incarnation.
THE BURNING BABE.
By Robert Southwell
The setting of Robert Stone’s new book, Death of the Black-Haired Girl, is the vale of tears. This campus novel transcends genre largely through the psychological effect of place. Not so much as a New England college town but as the trial ground where acts of faith, betrayal, retributive justice, and redemption take place, and where, of course, evil constantly threatens.
The plot centers on the adulterous affair that Professor Steven Brookman has with his beautiful, brilliant and possessive student, Maud Stack. The title leaves no doubt as to the outcome of the affair. Vehicular homicide ends their parting quarrel. Her death is at the center of Stone’s meditations on love, the sanctity of life, abortion, vengeance, and fate – providence if you will, in the Divine Economy. Some critics have mentioned that they find the central relationship between Brookman and Maud insufficiently developed. But frankly I found myself too bound up in the peripheral characters who form a virtual chorus of speculation and assertion on deep matters of conscience, to be too concerned with the affair. The moral geography of the novel is never less than that of a battlefield, with real weapons and fatal or near fatal encounters.
The sense that the horizontal events of earthly life intersect with the verticals of the spiritual radiates throughout the book.