Jan 8 2016

5 Books by 4 Authors to be reviewed in 2016

bookbread pencil shavings

As a freshman at the University of Texas at Austin in the fall of 1999, I acquired and have since retained a chip on my shoulder: that I will forever be an under-read individual. It’s silly how often I’ve imagined myself: as a Texan I’m less read than most Americans from other states; as an American I’m less literary compared to most Europeans. It’s all very neurotic—as if I could somehow read a bunch of books, “play catch up,” and become a better writer. Ha!

Made As and Bs in middle and high school, but when I got accepted to Longhorn Land––an acceptance probably based on socio-economic grounds, for I was neither in the top ten percent of my class nor an ethnic minority––I was soon stung by the realization of my lack of acquired mental rigor. ‘Twas only later that I learned that, although I was homeschooled for third and fourth grades, such a feeling of the absence of knowledge is a common part of being a product of the Texas public education system.

Though an arbitrary measurement (because page count varies wildly), these days I read about a hundred books a year (87 in 2015), take notes, and try to continually study them. But this chip on my shoulder––this thorn in my side––refuses to leave. Moreover, whenever I discuss something I’ve read, I tend to over-cite and elaborately quote it chapter and verse, and this, I suspect, seems to have given some of my writings a pseudo-medieval flavor which modern readers generally detest.

Nonetheless, 2016 is a new year for book blogging…. so Bookbread begins with some meditations on:

While it seems a little clumsy (if not quite naive) the way the young Count Tolstoy once said he wanted Truth to be the hero of his written sketches of Sebastopol (1855), today in 2016 I too aim for truth to be the leading character on this blog; although, the requirements for achieving that aim will be, in Dreher’s words, “hard, big, real, and dirty.” [1]

What kind of book is Dreher’s Little Way of Ruthie Leming? It’s a memorial biography of Dreher’s dying sister; a portrait of an ideal community (of the author’s home town) in the American South experienced from a Christian perspective. The book also functions as a requiem, a dirge on the life of the title character. As I told some family members after giving them copies of the book last Christmas, “it’s like Steel Magnolias (1989), but with spiritual grit.”

What kind of book is How Dante Can Save Your Life? In addition to being a sequel to the above work, this is a how-to book, a spiritual confessional, and a portrait of a flawed individual (as are we all), who is part of a normal, white, middleclass family living in a perceived (at least by the author) ideal, small community in the American South. Themes include fitting in (or not) and forgiving others (or not) in that small community. The book is also a work of reader-response criticism as the author describes how reading a particular book revolutionized both his outlook and insight on life. Both of Dreher’s books include bildung: spiritual journeys, coming-of-age narratives.

What kind of book is the Divine Comedy?

Each shade displayed no less astonishment
or less confusion than a mountaineer,
who, even as he stares about, falls silent
when, rough and rustic, he comes to the city

––Purgatorio XXVI, 67–69 [2]

I fear I have nothing meaningful to say about La Divina Comedia. Nonetheless: if the text is an Everest—I feel, now as a reader of Dante, like one of those perfectly preserved, frozen bodies splayed about Everest’s mountainside—although mine is the body of one who reached the summit before dying on the way back down. Plato affirms it’s more difficult to reenter the cave than initially exiting it, and why should mountain climbing for Beatrice in Dante be any easier than spelunking for Sophia in Plato? [3] But no doubt after a first reading of Dante I now feel as exasperated as the dying Ivan Ilyich:

It is as if I had been going downhill while I imagined I was going up. And that is really what it was. I was going up in public opinion, but to the same extent life was ebbing away from me. And now it is all done and there is only death. [4]

What kind of book is Why Place Matters? This is an academic anthology that includes various essays on the concept of place and community in present-day America—it covers many perspectives and topics and (often conflicting) suggestions and solutions to an agreed upon premise: that the importance of Place has waned in modern American life.

 What kind of book is Elmer Gantry? It’s a novel set at the turn of the twentieth-century in the American Midwest; it too is a coming-of-age tale, but also a tale about a spiritually aloof Protestant, evangelical American minister. Elmer is a rambler, he never settles, not even in the fictitious Midwestern metropolis of Zenith. The Midwest is in fact emphasized throughout the novel as a place. The book also satirizes a good ole boy who chose Christian ministry as a career because he found it the best way to attain power, attention, and influence. Elmer is not so much a charlatan seeking material riches but a football player who wants to be Christ’s number one cheerleader.

Why did you read these books? I read these books initially because they had to do with topics I am experienced and interested in such as: small town life, the dynamics of modern Christian belief, Southern communities (and escape and exile from them)—but also because, even though I often disagree with his premises and conclusions, Dreher is a particularly a good writer, a deep thinker, someone who writes honestly—which is the most difficult thing a writer can achieve. I identify and empathize with him when he writes things like:

And there it was. We would be held responsible for doing more and more to win the Leming children’s love, though it would be impossible to do so because of our original sin: being unlike my father, my sister, and the rest. [5]

The theme of being different versus fitting in was one of the central socio-psychological dilemmas C. S. Lewis faced in adult life. [6]

 

And throughout the upcoming explorations of these texts, I will try to keep the below maxims in mind as I ask the following questions:

Part of any spiritual discipline, however, is discovering—repeatedly—that one had it all wrong. You both knew and did not know.

––Gregory Bateson [7]

Religion, whatever it is, is a man’s total reaction upon life, so why not say that any total reaction upon life is a religion?

––William James [8]

We must avail ourselves of every means in our power to see the situation exactly as it is. What, in short, is the real strength of religion in the community? And here we have a right to look for assistance to the psychology of religion. As yet, indeed, but little has been done toward answering this question; but the task of feeling the pulse of the religious community and investigating the real nature and strength of its religious belief naturally belongs to religious psychology, and, though vast, is well worth its while.

––James Bissett Pratt [9]

wood-h-small

NOTES

[1] Dreher, Rod. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. NY: Grand Central Publishing. 2013. p.  216; Tolstoy,  Sebastopol, last lines of Section II.

[2]Alighieri, Dante. La Divina Comedia. (The Divine Comedy.) Translated by Allen Mandelbaum. Introduction by Eugenio Montale. Notes by Peter Armour. NY: Everyman’s Library. 1995.

[3] Plato, Republic, VII 517C–519C.

[4] Tolstoy, Leo. The Death of Ivan Ilyich. (1886.) Translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude. “Chapter 09.” But compare also another passage from this story:

Suddenly some force struck him in the chest and side, making it still harder to breathe, and he fell through the hole and there at the bottom was a light. What had happened to him was like the sensation one sometimes experiences in a railway carriage when one thinks one is going backwards while one is really going forwards and suddenly becomes aware of the real direction. (“Chapter 12”)

[5] Dreher, How Dante Can Save Your Life: the Life-Changing Wisdom of Historys Greatest Poem. NY: Regan Arts. 2015. p. 32.

[6] Lewis, Clive Stapes. “The Inner Ring.” They Asked for a Paper: Papers and Addresses. London: G. Bles. 1962. Lewis’ essay should be compared alongside Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Circles,” for there is much overlap among them.

[7] Bateson, Gregory and Mary Catherine Bateson. Angels Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press Inc. 2005.  pp. 105–06.

[8] James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. 1902. NY: Modern Library Classics. 2002. “Lecture II,” p. 40.

[9] Pratt, The Psychology of Religion.” Harvard Theological Review. Vol. 1. No. 4. (October 1908.) pp. 435–54 at 448–49.

 

 

 


Oct 13 2015

Intricacies of Bureaucracy & Images of the Body: Rereading “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”

bookbread Canterbury

Two passages particularly struck me when rereading Ilyich. The first has to do with the way healthcare workers tend to cross examine the bodies of patients, like lawyers cross-examining the mind of a witness or police interrogating a suspect. Amid an illness, particularly chronic illness, the patient is always on trial:

Ivan Ilyich knows quite well and definitely that all this is nonsense and pure deception, but when the doctor, getting down on his knee, leans over him, putting his ear first higher then lower, and performs various gymnastic movements over him with a significant expression on his face, Ivan Ilyich submits to it all as he used to submit to the speeches of the lawyers, though he knew very well that they were all lying and why they were lying. (Ivan Ilyich, “Chapter 08”)

It is almost as if Ivan Ilyich––a bureaucrat and son of a bureaucrat, see “Chapters 02 & 03”––suspects he may die by the bureaucratic ways and means of his doctor. Recently, I had my own health scare, and while everything turned out to be alright, there were nevertheless forms to fill out and receipts to file away. It is not just 21st century Obamacare or British healthcare or Canadian healthcare that piles on the paperwork—Tolstoy had the intuition, imagination, and foresight to see that healthcare and bureaucracy are intimately intertwined, and have been so since at least the middle of the nineteenth century.

And after all the paperwork has been completed, the tests run, and the doctors have finished updating the diagnoses for their patients—after all these barriers of bureaucracy are crossed, the ill individual looks in the nearest mirror and does not recognize the stranger reflecting back:

And Ivan Ilyich began to wash. With pauses for rest, he washed his hands and then his face, cleaned his teeth, brushed his hair, looked in the glass. He was terrified by what he saw, especially by the limp way in which his hair clung to his pallid forehead. (Ivan Ilyich, “Chapter 08”)

Intricacies of bureaucracy and images of the body—these are what moderns like us, like Tolstoy, and like those around us must deal with when confronted with a crisis of healthcare. But do we Westerners tend to focus more on the image of the body because of two millennia of Christian culture? The American philosopher James Bissett Pratt (1875–1944) seemed to think so when he observed in an essay written thirty years after Tolstoy’s story:

I think, however, there are several additional factors which give Hinduism a certain advantage over Christianity in nourishing a strong belief in immortality. One of them is connected with the question of the imagination already discussed. The Hindu finds no difficulty whatever in imagining the next life, for his belief in reincarnation teaches him that it will be just this life over again, though possibly at a slightly different social level. I am inclined to think, moreover, that the Christian and the Hindu customs of disposing of the dead body may have something to do with this contrast in the strength of their beliefs. Is it not possible that the perpetual presence of the graves of our dead tends to make Christians implicitly identify the lost friend with his body, and hence fall into the objective, external form of imagination about death that so weakens belief in the continued life of the soul? [Bookbread’s emphasis] We do not teach this view to our children in words, but we often do indirectly and unintentionally by our acts. The body––which was the visible man – is put visibly into the grave and the child knows it is there; and at stated intervals we put flowers on the grave – an act which the child can hardly interpret otherwise than under the category of giving a present to the dead one. And so it comes about that while he is not at all sure just where Grandpa is, he is inclined to think that he is up in the cemetery. Much of our feeling and of our really practical and vital beliefs on this subject, as on most others, is of course derived from our childhood impressions.

(“Some Psychological Aspects of the Belief in Immortality” Harvard Theological Review. Vol. 12. No. 3. (July 1919.) 294–314 at 308.)