Oct 5 2015

Beyond Flimsy; Beyond Fundamentalism

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Today at The American Conservative, Rod Dreher gives readers a pop quiz:

How do we find the middle path between these two extremes? The Benedict Option is, of course, in part a reaction against loosey-goosey Christianity, so I don’t have a big worry that versions of the Ben Op would be at risk of being too lax and liberal. The real concern I have is that we would go too far, and create institutions or communities that would be too controlling or otherwise unhealthy. A secondary, lesser concern is that fear of fundamentalism would be so overwhelming that the nascent Ben Op community would fail to create the practices and structures that would be effective in accomplishing what the Ben Op is supposed to do.

He then issues a call for ideas and suggestions. My response is that perhaps consulting Chaim Potok’s novel “The Chosen” (1967) would provide some understanding of the balance necessary for the BenOp. The book, and later a terrific movie (1981) adaptation, show the balancing act of friendship between two boys, one Orthodox Jewish, the other a Hassidic. Various cultural conflicts and misunderstandings between the more “liberal” Orthodox way of life and the more”fundamentalist” way of the Hassidim are explored and explained.

 

Actual Jewish readers and filmgoers may rightly criticize Poktok’s art as utterly middlebrow and overly sentimental–but for a post-churchgoing millennial from rural Central Texas, I found much to learn and think about in Potok’s book and the movie based upon it.

 


Aug 14 2015

Requiem for Chivalry

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Chivalry didn’t die in France–like Burke bemoaned–because chivalry had been dead for well over a hundred years prior to the Revolution. If chivalry hadn’t died, Cervantes could not have written Don Quixote (1605). But hundreds of years after Cervantes and Burke, people are still chasing windmills. Over at The American Conservative, Gracey Olmsted writes:

This is what the “spirit of the gentleman” used to provide: a reasoned, courteous atmosphere in which public discourse could take place—where opinions could be stated without savagery, and received without rancor. The problem is that gentlemen are out of popularity on left and right—for reasons [Mark] Mitchell makes clear in another FPR post.

The gentleman is unpopular with the left and “PC” crowd because, in Mitchell’s words, he “is one who is willing and able to judge well. He is discriminating in his judgments and does not shy away from making hard distinctions even when they cause him discomfort and even when he is forced to stand alone [emphasis added].” Such discriminatory value judgments will not be honored on the modern university campus, nor even in the larger political world.

I suppose a rather ungentlemanly act would be to point at that last line from Olmsted–“Such discriminatory value judgments will not be honored on the modern university campus, nor even in the larger political world“–and say, yes, that may be true, but that is also a very narrow and reductive Weltanschauung. There is plenty more to life than universities and politics, particularly if you’re too poor and/or live under a gerrymandered regime.

Plenty of Americans live their day-to-day lives in a brave new world beyond the constraints of chivalry and bureaucracy.


Jul 31 2015

The Benedict Option: Cheerleading from the Sideline

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Over at The American Conservative Rod Dreher, who has previously written how the upcoming generations have lost faith and trust in all institutions, has now written a post showing that some inside the clergy and clerisy can properly diagnose their own symptoms, so perhaps the Benedict Option is the proper remedy for cleaning house.

As part of the under-40 crowd, I confess to being completely weary of all bureaucracy, a weariness I suspect comes from being institutionalized in childhood by small town Texas teachers, preachers, and coaches.

The feeling of graduating university made me understand the lines from the old time hymn “like a bird from prison bars has flown, I’ll fly away”—it was (and remains) particularly refreshing to be able to read books of one’s own choosing—at one’s own pace––rather than being assigned a text on the whims of a bureaucrat and having to rush through it.

Now as an adult (or at least one in disguise) I choose to opt out of the idolatry of religion (in its old, etymological sense of “binding” as well as its modern meanings of “just another bureaucracy” and “authority-for-authority’s-sake”) and am attempting to opt in to authentic encounters in the I-You mode of discourse used by individuals while, at the same time, attempting to resist the I-It mode of “discord” practiced by all modern institutions (schools, religions, hospitals, sports, national media).

The BenOp may not be for me, but from the sidelines I’m willing to cheer for anything that actively deconstructs any kind of bureaucracy in its resistance to that bureaucracy.


Jul 16 2015

5 Benedict Options for Single Folk: an Open Reply to Rod Dreher

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Rod Dreher of The American Conservative has tirelessly been exploring for himself and imploring other orthodox (or authentic?) American Christians to consider the Benedict Option–yet for all his efforts he continues to be hounded by friendly and hostile readers to explain, explain, explain what such an Option might mean.

 

Dreher keeping writing and writing; yet among him and his scattered supporters, scant attention has been directed toward what a Benedict Option might mean for single folks in America. In the optimistic-secularist spirit of David Hume, I offer five suggestions that I have been trying to implement in my own life for the past several years:

 

  1. Opting out of the idolatry of all pet husbandry, adoption, and ownership and opting in for compassion and caretaking for stray and needy human beings in my community.

 

  1. Opting out of the idolatry of professional, collegiate, and local sports; opting in to binge-reading and other library labors.

 

  1. Opting out of the idolatry of religion (in its old, etymological sense of “binding” as well as its modern meanings of “just another bureaucracy” and “authority-for-authority’s-sake”) and opting in to authentic encounters in the I-You mode of discourse used by individuals while resisting the I-It mode of “discord” practiced by all modern institutions.

 

  1. Opting out of the idolatry of the telescopic view of national politics and celebrity (and media thereof) and opting in toward a radical, microscopic focus on politics, law, and arts-&-entertainment strictly at state and local levels.

 

  1. Opting out of being a proactive consumer of Big Pharma and Big Farming and Big Business Dieting; opting in for cooking my own food when I can; fasting when I should; and giving radically generous gratuities when eating out.

 

While man cannot live in a continual Sabbath, he should not resign himself to a flat two-dimensional life from which he escapes on rare occasions. The place of the sacred is not a house of God, nor church, synagogue, or seminary, nor one day in seven, and the span of the sacred is much shorter than twenty-four hours. The Sabbath is every day, several times a day.

–Walter Kaufmann, “Prologue to I and Thou p. 30.

 


Apr 1 2014

Nabokov’s “Lolita” (a second reading)

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I read Lolita for the first time about five years ago and was overwhelmed by the style but thought it lacked substance in terms of plot and character. Upon a second reading I would concede the book has substance, and my initial sense of something lacking was really a reflection of my belief that the novel contains no likeable characters. I find nothing to like or sympathize in Humbert, Lolita, or Quilty.

Lolita’s name is Dolores—“pain” in Spanish––Lolita is a “pain” and painful for Humbert.

The book is setup as a confession: Humbert is definitely no St. Augustine, though he may have read some Rousseau. I have not read Rousseau’s Confessions (1782), but as a reader, I find the company of the literary children of James Joyce more tolerable than that of their father. In other words, the linguistic acrobatics of Nabokov’s Lolita, as well as Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962), work in ways Joyce never mastered. The Irish Oscar Wilde taught art-for-art’s-sake, and later Irish James Joyce believed in style-for-style’s-sake—but Nabokov and Burgess both know that the best formula is style-for-story’s-sake.

It’s quite a writer’s trick for Nabokov to make the narrator a professor of French poetry. Throughout my reading this trick made it difficult for me not to confuse Nabokov-the-author-poet for Humbert-the narrator-poet.

Early on Humbert confesses: “I knew I had fallen in love with Lolita forever; but I also knew she would not be forever Lolita,” (Part I, Ch. 15). This line might be compared to a reflection made by the character of Thomas Buddenbrook:

“I know that the external, visible, tangible tokens and symbols of happiness and success first appear only after things have in reality gone into decline already.” (Buddenbrooks, VII, vi, 378–79)

Later Humbert dreams of eventually impregnating Lolita (Part II, Ch. 3), so that he can have a second Lolita, somewhat like the character of Manfred in Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764), P. B. Shelley’s remark that incest is the most poetic of all circumstances, and sentiments of the villain Noah Cross at the climax of the film Chinatown (1974). Nabokov’s line “my impossible daughter” (Part I, Ch. 29) is brimming with multiple meanings and interpretations.

I remain ambivalent but more accepting of Lolita after this second reading, but Nabokov has thought about the idea of re-reading, as found in his lectures on literature:

“I use the word reader very loosely. Curiously enough, one cannot read a book:  one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.” (“Good Readers and Good Writers,” 3)

For Nabokov, a writer is a storyteller, a teacher, and an enchanter:

“There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three—storyteller, teacher, enchanter—but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer…. The three facets of the great writer—magic, story, lesson—are prone to blend in one impression of unified and unique radiance, since the magic of art may be present in the very bones of the story, in the very marrow of thought.” (“Good Readers and Good Writers,” 5–6)

Finally, here’s Nabokov on artists and morality:

“I never could admit that a writer’s job was to improve the morals of his country, and point out lofty ideals from the tremendous height of a soapbox, and administer first aid by dashing off second-rate books. The writer’s pulpit is dangerously close to the pulp romance, and what reviewers call a strong novel is generally a precarious heap of platitudes or a sand castle on a populated beach, and there are few things sadder than to see its muddy mat dissolve when the holiday makers are gone and the cold mousy waves are nibbling at the solitary sands.” (“The Art of Literature and Commonsense” 376)

 

NOTES

Mann, Thomas Buddenbrooks, Verfall einer Familie. Berlin: S. Fischer. 1901. Translation by John E. Woods published as Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family, 1993.

Nabokov, Lectures on Literature, New York, NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1982.


Oct 11 2010

What drew me to Harold Bloom

I never knew until now just what it was that drew me towards Bloom. But after reading his 1991 interview with the Paris Review I think I know why:

INTERVIEWER

Are there [literary, fictional] characters you would like to have known?

BLOOM

No, no. The only person I would like to have known, whom I have never known, but it’s just as well, is Sophia Loren. I have been in love with Sophia Loren for at least a third of a century. But undoubtedly it would be better never to meet her. I’m not sure I ever shall, though my late friend Bart Giamatti had breakfast with her. Judging by photographs and recent film appearances, she has held up quite well, though a little too slender now—no longer the same gorgeous Neapolitan beauty, now a much more sleek beauty.


Oct 8 2010

Paradise Lost in His Head (First Thoughts)

Paradise Lost in His Head » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog.


Sep 10 2010

“The Philosophers Song” (Monty Python)

Monty Python’s  “The Philosophers Song”:


Jun 30 2010

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, & What It Isn’t (Allen Barra – WSJ.com)

Harper Lee’s contemporary and fellow Southerner Flannery O’Connor (and a far worthier subject for high-school reading lists) once made a killing observation about “To Kill a Mockingbird”: “It’s interesting that all the folks that are buying it don’t know they are reading a children’s book.”

Harper Lees To Kill a Mockingbird, and What It Isnt | By Allen Barra – WSJ.com.


Jun 8 2010

One Possible Cause of Readicide…. (The Nation)

John Palattella of The Nation writes:

The book beat has been gutted primarily by cultural forces, not economic ones, and the most implacable of those forces lies within rather than outside the newsroom. It is not iPads or the Internet but the anti-intellectual ethos of newspapers themselves….

Carlin Romano, then the books critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer, who was scolded by an editor for running as the cover story of his section a review of a new translation of Tirant Lo Blanc, a Catalan epic beloved by Cervantes. “Have you gone crazy?” the editor asked. “Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Americas newspapers in the 1990s,” Romano reflected, “is their hostility to reading in all forms.”

via The Death and Life of the Book Review | The Nation.