Jan 15 2016

A SECOND LOOK AT FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Reviewing 5 Books by 4 Authors

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

––Gregory Bateson [1]

The anthropologist Bateson, an avowed atheist, was fond for chiding that supernatural things and miracles are but “a materialist’s attempt to escape from his materialism.” [2] I’m not sophisticated enough to argue for or against that last statement, but the above quotation gives the book reviewer an apt starting point because one can apply Bateson’s words to the act of reading. Let us ask, for each of the five books under review: as a reader what did I get wrong––what did I wrongly assume to be true going into the initial reading?

 

What did Bookbread originally get wrong about The Little Way of Ruthie Leming? I assumed there would be some everyday-life sentimentality––I did not expect to encounter mysticism—and when I did I found it difficult to hold my attention. I struggled to empathize with experiences of the numinous recounted in this book, such as dreaming of conversing with ghosts. For I’ve never had a mystical moment—as occurs sometimes in this and in Dreher’s other work How Dante as well as (in passing) in the angelology and demonology of Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim. Even when I was a regular churchgoer, neither in the loud churches nor quiet churches, neither in the black churches, white churches, or Latin American churches I visited—some of which were full of people with spasms, the shakes, speaking in tongues, shouting out loud like Paul Stanley, some bellowing with Bach from an organ, some full of smoke from incense and candles, I never experienced the coincidence-that-wasn’t-really-a-coincidence like Dreher relates:

Despite these very different approaches to faith, we had independently developed interest in the patterns that God uses when He communicates to us. We both believed strongly in meaningful coincidences, which the psychiatrist Carl Jung called “synchronicities.” Ruthie called them “seven-oh-nines,” after a remarkable set of coincidences that happened to her after [her husband] Mike went off to war an event that tested Ruthie faith. [3]

Yes, I am usually interested in what Jung, the godfather of Neognosticism, has to say, and I’ve listened to the Sting and the Police and still dig that tune, but on the other hand, I cannot ignore Emerson’s words:

Here is the difference betwixt the poet and the mystic, that the last nails a symbol to one sense, which was a true sense for a moment, but soon becomes old and false…. Mysticism consists in the mistake of an accidental and individual symbol for an universal one … And the mystic must be steadily told, — All that you say is just as true without the tedious use of that symbol as with it. [4]

I can confess to experiencing moments where I felt like was in the right place doing the right thing at the right time, but there was nothing transcendental about it—and I certainly feel I’d be lying if I labeled those experiences as mystical.

 

What did Bookbread originally get wrong about How Dante Can Save Your Life? While not quite anticipating Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans (1922) or C. S. Lewis’ A Preface to Paradise Lost (1941), I mistakenly expected to encounter the same kind of rigorous writing style I’ve found on Dreher’s blog these past few years. There were no berserking blitzkrieg of quotations accompanied by Rod’s infamous “read the whole thing” blurb. Instead, I found in How Dante a restrained and simplified style––one not dumbed down, but distilled.

 

What did Bookbread originally get wrong about La Divina Comedia? If you start to read commentary on Dante you’ll soon get engulfed by diagrams and charts and maps of the Afterlife. So what surprised me on first read was the dreamy ease of it. Much like Proust, the places and transitions from one place to another did not feel to this reader like the rigid levels, the strict layers, the definite hierarchies and inked schemata from centuries of scholars. Nor did reading the Comedia and imagining the visuals the poet supplies feel like playing a video game with stringent leveling of worlds and platforms, nor the way the audience encounters the station stopping “blocks” in Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real (1953) (a fellow Louisianian author of Dreher’s) even if Dante has rendered a systematized thought behind it all.

La Divina Comedia is, however, the first epic I’m aware of to be told entirely as a dream, which was a common medium for storytelling and poetry in the Middle Ages. In Dante there are seemless fade ins and fade outs from one place to another, but these moments are not quite as lacking in transitions as, say, Yellow Submarine (1968), or even the radical, random juxtaposition found in the work of David Lynch––Dante was certainly not a Dadaist.

Structurally, I see Dicken’s Christmas Carol (1843) as an inverted Divine Comedy: the Ghost of Christmas Past represents Paradiso, the Ghost of the Christmas Present represents Purgatorio, The Ghost of Christmas Future, Inferno—a Christian theme, a Christian dream, all told in one night.

 

What did Bookbread originally get wrong about Why Place Matters? I expected more references to contemporary politics as well as the application of specific and emerging technologies. Overall this anthology is very studied and astute—but it contains no author imagining or proposing radical change, no deeply inspiring vision like a venture capitalist from Silicon Valley might expect to be pitched. In that sense, the book is very conservative. Most of Why Place Matters involves case histories and diagnoses for the increasing lack of relevance of place in American culture, but few (if any) prescriptions are proposed. This remains a banal charge against many modern nonfiction books. Probably the most blatant example in Why Place Matters of this pattern of theory overriding practice can be found in Mark T. Mitchell’s essay “Marking Places: The Cosmopolitan Temptation.”

 

What did Bookbread originally get wrong about Elmer Gantry? I got two things wrong: (1) I was mistaken that Gantry has no adversaries when his co-minister Sharon Falconer does in fact function somewhat as his antagonist. He doesn’t know what motivates her. He seems to shake off or ignore her proclamations about being Joan of Arc reincarnated because he stays prostrate, in ardent awe of her. So Sharon is Elmer’s Beatrice: “Always, in every high-colored mood, she was his religion and his reason for being.”[5]

(2) I thought Elmer Gantry, as the character of the evangelical minister, wanted––as he does in the 1960 movie based on the book––a rock-n-roll lifestyle of women and whisky, but Elmer only wants the attention and influence that comes from making people feel good.

Finally, I really identified how he can’t wrap his mind around the necessity in Christian ministry for a minimal amount of mysticism. After Elmer had successfully lay-preached, and is soon to graduate from seminary, he is informed that he still needs a Call:

He saw himself as a white-browed and star-eyed young evangel, wearing a new frock coat, standing up in a pulpit and causing hundreds of beautiful women to weep with conviction and rush down to clasp his hand.

But there was one barrier, extremely serious. They all informed him that select though he was as sacred material, before he decided he must have a mystic experience known as a Call. God himself must appear and call him to service, and conscious though Elmer was now of his own powers and the excellence of the church, he saw no more of God about the place than in his worst days of unregeneracy.

He asked the president and the dean if they had had a Call. Oh, yes, certainly; but they were vague about practical tips as to how to invite a Call and recognize it when it came. He was reluctant to ask Eddie––Eddie would be only too profuse with tips, and want to kneel down and pray with him, and generally be rather damp and excitable and messy.

The Call did not come, not for weeks, with Easter past and no decision as to what he was going to do next year. [6]

Later in the chapter, Elmer has deacons and elders circle around and pray for him to have the Call. But nothing happens. So Elmer sneaks off and gets “only a very little bit drunk” before deciding himself that he’s been called to the ministry.

 

 To be continued….

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NOTES

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

[2] Nachmanovitch Stephen. “Gregory Bateson: Old Men Ought to be Explorers.” Leonardo, Vol. 17. No. 2. (1984.) 113–118 at 117.

[3] Dreher, Rod. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life. NY: Grand Central Publishing. 2013. 72.

[4] Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The Poet.” Essays Second Series. 1844.

[5] Lewis, Sinclair. Elmer Gantry. NY: Harcourt, Brace & Co. 1927. “Chapter XIII,” 190.

[6] Ibid, “Chapter IV,” 62-66.

 


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]

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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.