Oct 31 2016

More Money = More Theology

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Recall some maxims from William James:

Religion basically means something solemn or serious.[i]

Spiritual ideas are based on instincts, not intelligence.[ii]

We adopt creeds only when they make us feel happy.[iii]

Today at The American Conservative, Rod Dreher writes:

At the present moment, the literature professor, Dante scholar, and orthodox Catholic Anthony Esolen is under severe attack at his own institution, Providence College, for having recently written a couple of essays criticizing the present conception of “diversity” on his Catholic campus, and reflecting on the persecutorial phase of our culture (here’s one, and here’s the other)….

But where would he go? I can think of a few colleges that would love to have him on faculty. Ten years from now, will they? Besides, what about the younger orthodox Christian scholars who, unlike Tony Esolen and James Davison Hunter, don’t have tenure?

Do oRTHODOX Christian plumbers, truck-drivers, oil rig workers, insurance salesmen, and bank tellers, feel the same urgency?

Or is this only a worry for Christians affluent enough to attend universities in the first place?

Do the forgotten citizens of New Orleans’ Ninth Ward or Houston’s Fifth Ward really feel the same threat from Social Justice Warriors and Moral Therapeutic Deists as those who live in the Woodlands and send their sons and daughters to private universities like Baylor?

It is an unfair simplification to be sure, but, as an outsider to most things theological, it often seems like in America, the more complex and rigid the theology one believes, the more money one’s got in their wallet.

Let us return to some words from William James:

We despise any one who elects to be poor in order to simplify and save his inner life.[iv]

NOTES

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[i] James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience, “Lecture II,” 1902. NY: Modern Library Classics. 2002. p. 44.

[ii] James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, “Lecture III,” p. 85.

[iii] James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, “Lectures IV & V,” pp. 90–91.

Following the thought of Gregory Bateson, I abide that explorations are self-validating, and therefore, nearly always successful. Or in Bateson’s words, explanation is “the mapping of description onto tautology,” and this is probably what Thoreau was getting at when he remarked, “whether we travel fast or flow, the track is laid for us.” (Bateson, Mind and Nature 139; Bateson, “Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia.” 82; Thoreau, Walden, “Chapter I: On Economy.”)

[iv] James, Varieties of Religious Experience, “Lectures XIV and XV – The Value of Saintliness” 401.

 


Aug 2 2016

Questions and Comments for Folks Who Like to Read

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The eighth-century monk Bede charitably advises “good luck” to his readers,[1]  and twentieth-century bard Bruce sings that tramps are born to run: some sprinters, others marathon runners, but in all ages, the writer is a tramp who begs readers for charity. Yet what, exactly, is a charitable reader? How do readers convey caritas? And how do they express their gratitude toward writers who help them? Do readers feel in debt to such writers? Do they owe them something? Is this what Rod Dreher felt when he wrote How Dante Can Save Your Life (2015)? Is this what I do when I blog about Dreher’s work? Is that how Dante felt about Boethius’s Consolation (523 AD)?—and Boethius had felt about Plato?

How, for example, did someone like Martin Buber want to be read? And how did he read Torah and Talmud? It is an exaggeration, though only a slight one, to say that Buber begged for Jewish readers but received only Christian charity. Buber’s translator Walter Kaufmann once complained that Buber indulged in much unnecessary wordplay,[2] but do we not play and joke (most frivolously, most unnecessarily) with our intimates rather than strangers?

My collective answer to these questions is that the mind of the active reader renders an alternative present time to encounter an imitative presence of the writer.[3]

When I read Buber, a self-described philosophic anthropologist, I understand him (I think) because he was a writer who tried engaging in an I–You mode of discourse with his potential readers. It is all quite mundane and requiring nothing supernatural to understand a text as, to a certain extent, imitating the writer who wrote it—that it contains the spirit of the writer. For even an adamant atheist like Gregory Bateson (a scientific anthropologist) could admit that his thoughts would exist after death:

When you’re dead you’re dead, living on only in the sense that your molecules recycle to the maintenance of the biosphere and your ideas recycle to the maintenance of evolution. The supernatural and miracles, [Bateson] liked to say, “are a materialist’s attempt to escape from his materialism.”[4]

Now Kafka was a writer who never begged a reader for anything. One can say that in his works he essentially communicated in an I–I mode of discourse. Nonetheless, he remains insightful, as when his character of Raban discusses the frame of mind of the reader:

Books are useful in every sense and quite especially in respects in which one would not expect it. For when one is about to embark on some enterprise, it is precisely the books whose contents have nothing at all in common with the enterprise that are the most useful. For the reader who does after all intend to embark on that enterprise, that is to say, who has somehow become enthusiastic (and even if, as it were, the effect of the book can penetrate only so far as that enthusiasm), will be stimulated by the book to all kinds of thoughts concerning his enterprise. Now, however, since the contents of the book are precisely something of utter indifference, the reader is not at all impeded in those thoughts, and he passes through the midst of the book with them, as once the Jews passed through the Red Sea, that’s how I should like to put it.[5]

Compare Emerson:

A page which is tedious to me today, tomorrow becomes precious because I read in a book that it is precious to another man… You do not doubt that the same book, the same history yields different light to a boy & to a man. Last year you were a boy[;] now you are a man. Again; today you are a boy, & next year you shall be a man.[6]

Chosen by fortune, thrown by fate, the elect reader of Kafka and Emerson passes through with ease while the others left behind—the unchosen, illiterate Egyptians in pursuit of escaped slaves––are to be engulfed in the oceania of biblioteca, falling off the cliffs of Parnassus, to be, in Bateson’s terminology, “recycled.”

I have written more than I planned, though not more than I wished.

­­––Alcuin of York (735–804 AD)[7]

NOTES

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[1] Bede, Venerabilis. “Table of Contents for Books II and V” Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum. (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People.) Translated by Roger Collins. Edited by Collins and Judith McClure. NY: Oxford UP. 1994. p. 64.

[2] Kaufmann, Walter. “Prologue to I and Thou,” Ich und Du. (I and Thou.) By Martin Buber. 1923. Translated by Kaufmann. Scribner: NY. 1970. p. 19.

[3] For Buber:

What is essential is lived in the present, [dead] objects in the past…. Presence is not what is evanescent [vaporous] and passes but what confronts us, waiting and enduring. And the object is not duration but standing still, ceasing, breaking off, becoming rigid, standing out, the lack of relation, the lack of presence….(Ich und Du, I § 17)

Creation is the origin, redemption is the goal; but revelation is not a datable, determinate point poised between them. The center is not the revelation at Sinai but the continual possibility of receiving it. That is why a psalm or a prophecy is not less “Torah,” teaching, than is the story of the exodus from Egypt. (“People Today and the Jewish Bible: from a Lecture Series.” Die Schrift und das Wort. (Scripture and Translation.) By Buber and Franz Rosenzweig. Translated by Lawrence Rosewald with Everett Fox. Indiana UP: Indianapolis, IN. 1994. p. 8)

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

[5] Kafka, Franz. “Hochzeitsvorbereitungen Auf Dem Lande.” (“Wedding Preparations in the Country.”) Translated by Tania and James Stern. Franz Kafka: The Complete Short Stories. Edited by Nahum N. Glatzer. NY: Schocken. 1971. 74–75.

[6] Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Vol. V. 1835–1838. Edited by Merton M. Sealts, Jr. 1965. Belknap Press, Harvard UP. November 24, 1837, Journal C, p. 435 and December 3, 1837, p. 440.

[7] Alcuin of York, “Letter 126,” Alcuin of York: His Life and Letters. Edited and Translated by Stephen Allott. York, England: William Sessions Limited. 1974. p. 133.


Jul 27 2016

Rereading Ruthie Leming – Part II: Beyond Democracy Lies Caritas’cracy

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(Piazza Navona, Rome)

Theory of Caritas

The will of a community reflects the collective intentionality of its members.[1]

The will of a community is often, but not always, expressed in the language of the community.[2]

Through language, a community treats its members sometimes as individuals, sometimes as objects.[3]

An institution is realized when a community uses language in an organized pattern with precedence (such as an established tradition) to achieve, express, and reflect the will of the community.[4]

When a community, through its language, treats its members as individuals (as with memorializing veterans, first-responders,[5] and athletes, or raising money for a kid with cancer), the community practices an I–You mode of discourse and establishes an institution that treats its members as individuals.

When a community, through its language, treats its members as objects (as with voting lists and tax rolls and redlining), the community practices the I­–It mode of discourse and establishes an institution that treats its members as objects.

A community needs institutions that both treat its members as individuals and treats them as objects.

Practice of Caritas

In The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (2014), Rod Dreher writes about a conversation with his brother-in-law where they discussed the community institution of caritas, the caritas demonstrated by Dreher’s parents:

“Your mom and dad never meet a stranger,” [Mike Leming] said. “Once they get to know you, you become family right off, especially if you help them with something. Whatever’s theirs is yours.”[6]

For the Drehers, the charity received from a stranger grants that stranger automatic entry into the Drehers’ community—so that the stranger becomes no longer a stranger but a familiar. The cost of entry into this community is neither an indulgence to pay for prior debts, nor a bribe to pay for present greed, nor a desert to satisfy modern members of the meritocracy. Perhaps the institution of the Drehers caritas could be called a caritascracy.

This institutional mechanism of caritas’cracy functions in the I–You mode of language. It is achieved when one individual charitably encounters another. It occurs when we speak and listen to each other rather than over or at each other.

No matter the neologism, the institution of the Drehers charity (and their response to the charity of others), confronts one of principle anxieties of C. S. Lewis’s life: the resentment that comes with any in-group/out-group dynamic. As Lewis lectured his students:

When you had climbed up to somewhere near it by the end of your second year, perhaps you discovered that within the Ring there was a Ring yet more inner, which in its turn was the fringe of the great school Ring to which the house Rings were only satellites. It is even possible that the School Ring was almost in touch with a Masters’ Ring. You were beginning, in fact, to pierce through the skins of the onion….

One of the most dominant elements [of Life] is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside…. This desire is one of the great permanent mainsprings of human action…. [But] As long as you are governed by that desire you will never get what you want. You are trying to peel an onion: if you succeed there will be nothing left….

You were not looking for virtue or kindness or loyalty or humour or learning or wit or any of the things that can be really enjoyed. You merely wanted to be “in”. And that is a pleasure than [sic., that] cannot last. As soon as your new associates have been stalled to you by custom, you will be looking for another Ring. The rainbow’s end will still be ahead of you. The old Ring will now be only the drab background for your endeavour to enter the new one.[7]

When the Dreher’s daughter Ruthie dies, the wonderful life she lived as an individual made her death from terminal illness all the more meaningful to the community:

It was an evening of beer drinking, country dancing, and merrymaking, the likes of which there had been far too little of since that awful day in February. For Ruthie this was an It’s a Wonderful Life moment as the people of the parish took the opportunity to show her and tell her what a difference she had made in their lives. At the end of the evening, over a thousand people had come through the gates, and the people of our little country parish had raised forty-three thousand dollars for Ruthie Leming. “This is how it’s supposed to be,” an old friend said to me that night, looking out over the crowd. “This is what folk are supposed to do for each other.”[8]

This is what Buber was getting at when he realized the common joy of the soul is the foundation of genuine community.[9]

How must a community thrive if it must use institutions to achieve its intentions—when to use institutions means encountering and engaging with the inherent resentment of all in-group/out-group dynamics? As Dreher reminds us, we cannot recreate Eden,[10] but the caritas’cracy of the elder Drehers may point us the way forward.

NOTES

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[1] For philosopher John Searle, meaning is derived intentionality (Freedom and Neurobiology NY: Columbia UP. 2007. p. 8). And: “Intentionality essentially involves the representation of conditions of satisfaction,” (“Language and Social Ontology,” Theory and Society. Vol. 37. No. 5. (October 2008.) 443–59 at 445).

[2] See Peirce:

Finally, as what anything really is, is what it may finally come to be known to be in the ideal state of complete information, so that reality depends on the ultimate decision of the community; so thought is what it is, only by virtue of its addressing a future thought which is in its value as thought identical with it, though more developed. In this way, the existence of thought now depends on what is to be hereafter; so that it has only a potential existence, dependent on the future thought of the community. (“Some Consequences of Four Incapacities.” Journal of Speculative Philosophy. Vol. 2. 1868. 140–157. (http://www.peirce.org/writings/p27.html.))

Compare de Saussure:

The signal, in relation to the idea it represents, may seem to be freely chosen. However, from the point of view of the linguistic community, the signal is imposed rather than freely chosen. Speakers are not consulted about its choice. Once the language has selected a signal, it cannot be freely replaced by any other. There appears to be something rather contradictory about this. It is a kind of linguistic Hobson’s choice. What can be chosen is already determined in advance. No individual is able, even if he wished, to modify in any way a choice already established in the language. Nor can the linguistic community exercise its authority to change even a single word. The community, as much as the individual, is bound in its language. (Course in General Linguistics. edited by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye with the collaboration of Albert Riedlinger; translated and annotated by Roy Harris. London: G. Duckworth. 1983. p. 71.)

And compare Searle:

A way to come to see this point is to ask oneself, what is the difference between regarding an object as an instance of linguistic communication and not so regarding it? One crucial difference is this. When I take a noise or a mark on a piece of paper to be an instance of linguistic communication, as a message, one of the things I must assume is that the noise or mark as a natural phenomenon like the wind in the trees or a stain on the paper, I exclude it from the class of linguistic communication, even though the noise or mark may be indistinguishable from spoken or written words. Furthermore, not only must I assume the noise or mark to have been produced as a result of intentional behavior, but I must also assume that the intentions are of a very special kind peculiar to speech acts. (Speech Acts: an Essay in the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge UP. 1969§ 1.4, pp. 16–17.)

[3] Based on the work of Martin Buber. Buber’s I–You and I–It modes of linguistic discourse are two examples of collective intentionality. According to Buber, the world itself is not twofold but the human world is twofold for humans. Con artists hook their victims by speaking to the mark as if in I–You mode, when all along they were playing the language game of the I–It mode on the victim (Ich und Du. (I and Thou.) 1923. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. Scribner: NY. 1970. I § 1).

The I–You mode of discourse marks a relation between two humans being; this mode expresses the ratio between two individuals. One human does not divide the other, but the two humans stand in dynamic reciprocity to one another (I and Thou I § 5).

Genuine conversation, and therefore every actual fulfillment of relation between men, means acceptance of otherness (Buber, The Knowledge of Man: a Philosophy of the Interhuman. Translated by Maurice Friedman and Ronald Gregor Smith. Harper & Row: NY. 1966. p. 69). Buber points out how we speak over each other rather than to each other—we must practice directness rather than “speechifying” and placating to “a fictitious court of appeal,” (Knowledge of Man 78–79). Moreover:

Man exists anthropologically not in his isolation, but in the completeness of the relation between man and man; what humanity is can be properly grasped only in vital reciprocity. (Knowledge of Man 84)

A person becomes an I through the You mode of discourse (I and Thou I § 28). Or as Gregory Bateson once put it, “It takes two to know one,” (Nachmanovitch, Stephen. “Gregory Bateson: Old Men Ought to be Explorers.” Leonardo, Vol. 17. No. 2. (1984.) 113–118 at 113).

[4] Compare Searle:

Institutions always consist in constitutive rules (practices, procedures) that have the form X counts as Y in context C… The Y term imposes a new status on the phenomenon named by the X term, and the new status carries with it a function that cannot be performed just by virtue of the intrinsic physical features named by the X term. The function requires the status in order that it be performed, and the status requires collective intentionality, including a continued acceptance of the status with its corresponding function. (The Construction of Social Reality. NY: Simon and Schuster. 1995. p. 114).

Compare Searle critic Philia Mfundo Msimang:

Whereas singular intentionality is generally construed as a unidirectional force from the agent to the world (viz., imposing one’s will on a state of affairs), collective intentionality is a bidirectional force from the point of view of any participating agent because it both guides and restricts each agent’s action while, at the same time, being bolstered and influenced by each respective agent’s own actions. In this context, individual intentionality is derivative of the group or collective intentionality….

All social institutions are founded on a symmetrical agreement (by which I mean mutual recognition), and this entails not only that people have to hold the same intentionality but that they must hold this intentionality fundamentally in relation to one another’s intentionality. What I mean by this is that there is no sense to collective intentionality outside its relation to, and satisfaction by, another individual’s intentionality. Collective intentionality cannot be satisfied by respective individual intentionalities but has its conditions of satisfaction defined by a symmetrical relationship between intentionalities. (“Living in One World: Searle’s Social Ontology and Semiotics.” Signs and Society. Vol. 2. No. 2. (Fall 2014.) 173–202 at 181–82.)

[5] Dreher, Rod. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life. NY: Grand Central Publishing. 2013.p. 45.

[6] Dreher, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming p. 47.

[7] Lewis, C.S. “The Inner Ring – Memorial oration at King’s College, London, 1944.” They Asked for a Paper. London: G. Bles. 1962.” pp. 141–142, 145, 147, and 148.

[8] Dreher, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming p. 135. See also later (200–03) when Ruthie’s piety prevented her funeral from becoming a dreary affair and instead rendered it into a celebration.

[9] Buber, Meetings: Martin Buber. Edited by Maurice Friedman. La Salle, IL: Open Court Publishing Co. 1973. p. 39.

[10] Dreher, How Dante Can Save Your Life: the Life-Changing Wisdom of Historys Greatest Poem. NY: Regan Arts. 2015. p. 265.


Jul 21 2016

Rereading Ruthie Leming – Part I: Tattoos & Taboos

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Just yesterday in trendy-all-too-trendy Austin, Texas lived and labored the world’s greatest tattoo artist: Homer Milton. He was as blind as the bats reverse-perched under the downtown bridge, but his work was known throughout the world, even among Japan’s Yakuza.

One day Milton could hear cane taps and paw patter outside the store door. A client entered the tattoo parlor covered from top to toe in ink and design. In one hand was a retractable cane; the other, the leash to a docile Rottweiler. His name was Dick McKeon and he was as blind as the mice in Longhorn Cavern. He was a white man who no longer looked white because of the overlap and intricacies and intersections of symbols, numbers, icons, and forms sprawled over his skin. It was as though he were permanently clothed in every tattoo conceivable, where the diversity of one only dithered another.

McKeon: Sir, today I wish to inquire about acquiring a new tattoo. Something to remind me of the joy of good old days.

Milton: I remember someone reading to me a long time ago that the common joy of the soul is the foundation of genuine community.[1]

McKeon: Right, I want a tattoo that will remind me of the common joy created when cheering for local sports teams––cheering for victory!

Milton: You remind me of when and why I quit baseball as a child. It wasn’t because of the winning or the losing or the cheating or the bruising. It was because of everyone else’s parents, the mob rule of the crowd. I remember I quit baseball because I’d rather have gone fishing and taken a dip in the river than deal with the rabble.

McKeon: Well, it sounds like you tried to escape both the conformity of childhood teamwork as well as the herd mentality of the helicopter parents of your fellow players.

Milton. I tried to escape, but successfully failed. For, “wherever a man goes, men will pursue and paw him with their dirty institutions.” [2]

McKeon: I’m impressed with your quotation but regret its lack of trendiness. You should be reading newer works that express the old ideas. Like the other day I was listening to this book called The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (2013). Ruthie’s friends would go to the river to escape from small-town parentage:

During her junior year Ruthie’s crowd began hanging out at the river, where they could build bonfires and drink beer without adults hassling them.[3]

The river at Starhill was (and probably still is) a place to congregate, a place of sociological sifting of wheat from chaff.

Milton: I know what you mean. As Americans we know this scene inside and out. It’s well portrayed in films like American Graffiti (1973) and Austin’s own Dazed and Confused (1993). We know it not because it’s cliché but because it’s so essential to our own understanding of ourselves within our own culture.

McKeon: While Ruthie’s friends tried to temporarily escape from their parents, her brother Rod tried to permanently escape the entire town:

The intolerance, the social conformity, the cliquishness, the bullying. At sixteen this is what I thought small-town life was and always would be. There, on the far side of the river, was the rest of my life, straight ahead. I had no intention of looking back.[4]

Milton: Yeah, but every army needs a system of rank and can’t survive without one. But you’re right. Rod tried, but we suffer no escape. None for me with baseball back then. None for Rod or Ruthie or her friends. None even for small town folks of last century. They could not escape the in-group/out-group resentment inherent to our anthropology. Take for instance the psychology of a small southern town found in Carson McCuller’s novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940):

The place was still now crowded—it was the hour when men who have been up all night meet those who are freshly wakened and ready to start a new day. The sleepy waitress was serving both beer and coffee. There was no noise or conversation, for each person seemed to be alone. The mutual distrust between the men who were just awakened and those who were ending a long night gave everybody a feeling of estrangement…. They shortened their thoughts so that they would not wander out into the darkness beyond tomorrow.[5]

McKeon: So whether at a river or in a café, we sell ourselves this idea that our collective feeling of shared estrangement within our communities is a new, unique twenty-first century problem. We say all the billions of people for millions of years have been inescapably trapped in history, but we in century twenty-one are exceptional because we are aware of, and attentive to, the trap itself.

Milton: But it’s unique to no one but us. Everyone from the past would find no difference between now and then.

McKeon: But difference is the key to it all.

Milton: How so?

McKeon: Well, take Dreher’s sequel to Little Way, How Dante Can Save Your Live (2015), where he talks about in the world of––indeed, the anthropology of––his small Louisiana town of Starhill, a place where anything different made for a severe taboo:

As I reported the book [Little Way], I learned from questioning my sister’s friends, her husband, and my parents more about why Ruthie held me in such disdain. It had to do with my moving away to the city; Mike said that she always felt that I belonged in Starhill, and that she took my leaving as a personal rejection. It had to do with my having tastes and beliefs she didn’t understand; for Ruthie, as for Daddy, “different” was a bad word. It had to do with her believing that I was getting away with something, being paid to write for a living instead of doing honest work. And it had to do with, well, me; even her best friend, Abby, said that she couldn’t fathom why Ruthie’s patience with everyone else was endless, but she could barely tolerate me for a moment….

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….

A thick iron gate slammed shut within me, and from behind it I regarded my father with cold contempt. He had struck me where he could do the most damage: my sense of manhood. I followed him and my sister out of the field, my face on fire, this time not with shame but with wrath. And from that moment on, I saw him not as my champion. I saw him as my adversary. [6]

Milton: You should compare Hillary Jordan’s novel Mudbound (2008) whose story is set in the same Mississippi delta region as Dreher, but about 100 years prior. In Mudbound “lend” is a taboo four-letter word.[7]

McKeon: It’s because difference is a debt owed to the community. For community equals conformity and both make up a system of checks and balances that is intolerant toward debt.

Milton: And difference is the key. The atheist anthropologist Gregory Bateson once explained why all information, including cultural information, is binary. Bateson holds that facts—in any context––are but “effective differences,” and “information consists of differences that make a difference.” The human mind “is an aggregate of interacting parts or components,” and the interaction between parts of mind is triggered by difference, and difference is a nonsubstantial phenomenon not located in space or time.”[8]

McKeon: A––“nonsubstantial phenomenon not located in time or space”––and you say the guy was an atheist?

Thus the blind tattooed the blind—both knowing exactly what they wanted—both of whose origins and orientations toward the world were completely incompatible in comparison to the other.

NOTES

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[1] Buber, Martin. Meetings: Martin Buber. Edited by Maurice Friedman. La Salle, IL: Open Court Publishing Co. 1973. p. 39.

[2] Thoreau, Henry David. Walden: or, Life in the Woods. Boston: Ticknor & Fields. 1854. “Ch. VIII – The Village.”

[3] Dreher, Rod. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life. NY: Grand Central Publishing. 2013. p. 28.

[4] Dreher, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming p. 19.

[5] McCullers, Carson. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. 1940. Modern Library. 1993. I, ii, p. 36; II, vii, p. 238.

[6] Dreher, Rod. How Dante Can Save Your Life: the Life-Changing Wisdom of Historys Greatest Poem. NY: Regan Arts. 2015. pp. 26, 32, 11.

[7] Jordan, Hillary. Mudbound. Algonquin Books: Chapel Hill, NC. 2008. p. 117.

[8] Bateson, Gregory. Mind and Nature. NY: E. P. Dutton. 1979. pp. 61, 81, 92, 99. Cf. Plato, Republic 521c–523b, 524e, 525a–526d.


Jun 10 2016

But Myths Are Contagious

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Consider some unthing truly believed—I mean a myth. Consider how the consequences of one individual believing in a myth affect everyone else who happens to encounter that believing individual.

Then think about how everyone else’s awareness of that individual’s belief in the myth further perpetuates, spreads the myth.

Even for nonbelievers, myths are contagious––because nonbelievers remain susceptible to encountering knowledge of, attention to, awareness of myths they don’t believe in.

Now consider the myth of nostalgia: “the ole time religion,” Springsteen’s “glory days,” the search for lost time. Yet one can argue against all that crap, as a character does in a scene from Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons (1918):

“My Lord!” Kinney groaned, half in earnest. “Old times starting all over again! My Lord!”

“Old times?” Morgan laughed gaily from the doorway. “Not a bit! There aren’t any old times. When times are gone they’re not old, they’re dead! There aren’t any times but new times!”

And he vanished in such a manner that he seemed already to have begun dancing.[i]

Yes, the old times are no more. Times and habits change so fast, and we adapt so quickly to them, that we forget all that went on before—even though some of what went on before still goes on now. For old habits leave traces of themselves behind. They leave skidmarks and footprints of previous passages.[ii]

While the old habit said: “To protect the weak, we must first enslave them,”[iii] and the new diagnosis for overcoming the old habit is: “When we should still be growing children, we are already little men,”[iv] some, nonetheless, say humans are beasts; and children, insects. Now folks have trained many beasts of pleasure and disciplined many children of burden, but whoever dared to condition an insect?[v]

To pursue only your own interest is to be a beast.  To pursue only the interest of others is to be an insect, to be a hive-minded colonist.[vi] You may fight to survive and serve for leisure,[vii] yet only the acknowledgement of the absolute unknown (or what used to be called “kneeling before religion”) can put you on an even keel.[viii]

NOTES

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[i] Tarkington, The Magnificent Ambersons VI, 98. See also Paul Valéry:

For every man, and from the same materials, several ‘personalities’ are possible. Sometimes coexisting, more or less equally.––Sometimes a childish personality re-emerges during one’s forties. You think you’re the same. There is no same.

We believe that we might, from childhood, have become a different person, lived a different life––We picture ourself being quite different. But the possibility of re-grouping the same elements in several different ways still remains––this calls into question how we see time. There’s no lost, past time, as long as these other persons are possible. (Valéry, Paul. Cahiers = Notebooks. Vol. I. Translated by Paul Gifford et al. Edited by Brian Stimpson. Based on the French Cahiers edited by Judith Robinson-Valéry. (1913. N 13, V, 92.) [p. 329].)

[ii] Bateson, Gregory. Mind and Nature. NY: E. P. Dutton. 1979. p. 98; Vico, Giambattista. Vico: the First New Science. 1725. Translated by Leon Pompa. Cambridge UP. 2002. II, viii, [¶ 90] p. 66.

[iii] Fitzhugh, George. “Southern Thought (cont’d).” De Bows Review. November 1857.

[iv] Thoreau, Henry. Walking – Lecture at the Concord Lyceum on April 23, 1851.”

[v] Anderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio. 1919. “Introduction,” by Malcom Cowley. NY: Viking. 1960. “[II] Hands” 12; Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. 1931. NY: Harper Collins – First Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition. 2006. I, p. 16.

[vi] Vico, New Science: Principles of the New Science Concerning the Common Nature of Nations. Third Edition. Translated by David Marsh. NY: Penguin. 1999. “Idea of the Work” [¶ 2] 2.

[vii] Vico, The Third New Science, I, § 2, xciv, [¶ 290], p. 109. Compare Henry Miller:

It’s hard to know, when you’re in such a jam, which is worse—not having a place to sleep or not having a place to work. Even if it’s not a masterpiece you’re doing. Even a bad novel requires a chair to sit on and a bit of privacy. (Tropic of Cancer. 1934. NY: Grove Press. 1961. II, p. 32.)

And compare Anthony Burgess:

Party names mean nothing. The tradition of liberty means all. The common people will let it go, oh yes. They will sell liberty for a quieter life. That is why they must be prodded, prodded––. (A Clockwork Orange. London: William Heinemann. 1962. III, v.)

[viii] Vico, The Third New Science, I, § 2, xxxi, [¶ 177], p. 87. See also Lewis’s Elmer Gantry:

There was no really good unctuous violence to be had except by turning champion of religion. The packed crowd excited him, and the pressure of rough bodies, the smell of wet overcoats, the rumble of mob voices. It was like a football line-up. (Elmer Gantry. NY: Harcourt, Brace & Co. 1927. I, p. 17.)


May 2 2016

MISREADING & MISTRANSLATING: Between Boredom & Bombast

bookbread Canterbury

The books which once we valued more than the apple of the eye, we have quite exhausted. What is that but saying, that we have come up with the point of view which the universal mind took through the eyes of one scribe; we have been that man, and have passed on.

––Emerson[1]

Undoubtedly the very tedium and ennui which presume to have exhausted the variety and the joys of life are as old as Adam.

––Thoreau[2]

A philistine is habitually bored and looks for things that won’t bore him. An artist finds things boring, but is never bored.

––Kraus[3]

“You don’t impress me at all,” she said, “Everything you say is boring and incomprehensible, but that alone doesn’t make it true. What I really think, sir––why do you always call me dear Fräulein?––is that you can’t be bothered with the truth simply because it’s too tiring.”

––Kafka[4]

Reading Theory I: Somewhere in After Babel (1975) George Steiner writes that there is no such thing as proper translation—there are only mistranslations (some better than others), and that creative mistranslation is the job of the interpretant.

Reading Practice I: A few weeks ago in Al Cantion, a seafood restaurant in Comacchio, northeast Italy––with the icon of Sophia Loren centered high on one of the walls, beaming, bearing down on all the restaurant’s patrons––I, Bookbread, and my company Cosimo and Chiara and Scott were eating some delicious seafood when someone at our table mentioned the name Alessandro Manzoni in passing.

Because Bookbread cannot tell a lie under Sophia’s watchful eye, I confessed to my company that I Promessi sposi (Betrothed) (1827) was, for me, a boring read, hadn’t been that bored reading since a tenth grade assignment covering Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter (1836).

But Italian natives Cosimo and Chiara (both university educated, the former from the rustic south, the latter from urban Rome) thought Manzoni boring also, and couldn’t understand why he continues to be so revered by educators of Italian Literature, when even the Cambridge Companion to the Italian Novel (2003) informs us:

I promessi sposi was a required text in schools. Up to a generation or so ago, it was not unusual to find Italians able to recite from memory long passages from the most famous pages of the novel.[5]

Bookbread remembered to thank Sophia how Manzoni could, occasionally, offer moments of slight self-depreciation in a tongue-in-cheek style:

The reader should know that among the common people in Milan, and even more in the country, the word ‘poet’ does not mean what it means among all respectable folk—a sacred genius, an inhabitant of Pindus, a votary of the Muses: it means a peculiar person who’s a bit crazy, and talks and behaves with more wit and oddity than sense. What an impertinent habit this is of the common people’s manhandling words and making them say things so very far from their legitimate meaning! For what, I ask you, has writing poetry got to do with being a bit crazy?[6]

Reading Theory II: Somewhere in The Anxiety of Influence (1973) Harold Bloom writes that there is no such thing as properly reading a poem––there are only misreadings (some better than others), and that creative misreading is the job of the literary critic.

Reading Practice II: A week after Comacchio, in the shadow of the Texas Capitol, a fellow writer and brother-in-law of Bookbread’s called Brick Made, invited me to the Chili Parlor because he was curious about Bookbread’s recent trip to Italia.

Memories of Bookbread’s visit through Emilia-Romagna were soon imparted to Brick Made. Later in the conversation I mentioned, without hesitation or criticism, that Bookbread didn’t understand Brick Made’s latest published short story about baseball. Ten years ago, when face to face with a writer, Bookbread would have told that person, “I liked it” whatever it was I just read of theirs, whether I truly did or not. Now too much truth spills out, and I think I’ve made a mess at the chili parlor.

“Oh, there’s nothing to get,” says Brick Made. “It was literary clickbait, an exercise in the gonzo-esque, trolling for what counts as trendy.”

“Well, trolling can be good. The random can be good. The story was really random. Bateson says somewhere that ‘without the random, there can be no new thing.’ ”[7]

“Yea, I carpet-bombed them with Dadaism. I wrote it to purposely make no sense—as randomly as possible––that’s what the mag wanted.”

“Benevolent blitzkrieg. But we’re in election season, so perhaps it’s appropriate.”

“Egg and face and all that. But they paid me. And published me. So I’m happy. Joke’s on them.”

(Another example of trolling the trendy: Edward Snowden/Scissorhands on CNN )

NOTES

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[1] Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The American Scholar: Oration delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society, at Cambridge, Massachusetts, August 31, 1837.”

[2] Thoreau, Henry David. Walden: or, Life in the Woods. Boston, MA: Ticknor & Fields. 1854. “Economy.”

[3] Kraus, Karl. Halftruths & oneandahalf truths: selected aphorisms. Edited and Translated by Harry Zohn. Engendra Press: Montreal. Reprint Chicago UP. 1976. p. 52.

[4] Kafka, Franz. “Beschreibung Eines Kampfes.” (“Description of a Struggle.”) Translated by Tania and James Stern. Franz Kafka: The Complete Short Stories. Edited by Nahum N. Glatzer. NY: Schocken. 1971. p. 37.

[5] Ragusa, Olga. “Alessandro Manzoni and developments in the historical novel.” The Cambridge Companion to the Italian Novel. Eds. Peter Bondanella and Andrea Ciccarelli. Cambridge UP. 2003. p. 43.

[6] Manzoni, Alessandro. I Promessi Sposi. (Betrothed.) 1840. Translated by Fr Kenelm Foster. 1964. Edited by David Forgacs and Matthew Reynolds. London, UK: J. M. Dent. 1997. XIV, pp. 204–05.

[7] Bateson, Gregory. Mind and Nature. NY: E. P. Dutton. 1979. p. 147.

 


Jan 19 2016

WINNING THE GAME ISN’T THE SAME AS RECEIVING THE TROPHY

bookbread Canterbury

FIRST THOUGHTS:

Both of Rod Dreher’s books The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (2013) and How Dante Can Save Your Life (2015) deal with, in his words: “my disordered relationship with family and place,” or, as he tells a new friend upon his arrival to their rural Louisiana community:

“Yea, it’s like the family and place thing cast a spell over all of us,” I said. “It’s helpful for me to see them as good people who are just as captive to that false image as I was…. The real religion of our parish is ancestor worship.” [1]

Things like having a family, maintaining sacredness of a local place, even being a secular fan who has a favorite sports team are all means to various ends. Now folks can argue which ends should be prioritized over others like: the Platonic good, self-examined life, or the Christian holy, sanctified life, or the secular American Dream of a house and healthcare insurance, or the quaint life of liberation from illusions. But whatever the end is, it cannot be achieved by substituting the means toward that end for that end. In other words, winning the game isn’t the same as receiving the trophy.

Mistaking means for ends is like mixing up the difference between icons and idols. Whenever means to ends are mistaken for the ends themselves, those means corrupt the progress and corrode access to the particular ends sought. Dreher quotes from Dante translator Andrew Frisardi, who explains the distinction between icons and idols:

[Frisardi writes:] An icon is an image for contemplating a reality that transcends the specific image; the image leads the mind, through the senses, to direct communion with the unintelligibles. An idol is an image to which we are attached for the sake of the image per se. Obviously one and the same object can be an idol or an icon—our approach to it is what makes the difference.

Then Dreher adds:

This insight had clarified earlier to me the nature of my disordered relationship with family and place. Now it expanded my understanding of my basic condition. It wasn’t simply that I saw a family, place, and religion as idols—that is, as ends in themselves—but that my distorted vision prevented me from seeing them as they really were: as icons, damaged, though they may be, through which the light of God shone. They were not ends, but imperfect means to the perfect end: God. [2]

This distinction between idols and icons may sound a bit too abstract to the ears of the non-religious. Another way to think of it is:

The map is not the territory it marks. [3]

Whether secular or religious, mistaking the map for the land it represents is quite common in twenty-first century America. This is why it’s easier to cheer for a football match from afar than to play the game on a field.

 

But the act of mistaking the map for the territory it marks is not limited to contemporary Christian contexts. In his Autobiography the Jewish thinker Salomon Maimon (1753–1800) explained how many Jewish traditions, particularly Kabbalah—originally just a word for “tradition”—were just as susceptible to corruption.

As Maimon puts it:

Originally the Cabbalah was nothing but psychology, physics, morals, politics, and such sciences, represented by means of symbols and hieroglyphs in fables and allegories, the occult meaning of which was disclosed only to those who were competent to understand it. By and by, however, perhaps as the result of many revolutions, this occult meaning was lost, and the signs were taken for the things signified. But as it was easy to perceive that these signs necessarily had meant something, it was left to the imagination to invent an occult meaning which had long been lost. The remotest analogies between signs and things were seized, till at last the Cabbalah degenerated into an art of madness according to method, or a systematic science resting on conceits. [4]

I wonder about the significance of Maimon pointing out that the result of the corruption of Kabballah in eighteenth century rural Poland occurred, in his view, “as the result of many revolutions”—not just a single, drastic change, not an isolated pogrom—implying it takes more than a single catastrophe for a community to forget its sacred stories [5] and thereafter begin mistaking idols for icons and means for ends.

FINAL THOUGHTS

  • An icon is like a map, and idolatry is like mistaking the map for the territory it marks.
  • No doubt folks, whether religious or otherwise, sometimes need maps and icons.
  • Whether one believes they are lost or not, maps offer possibilities—they let us go to new places and become more familiar with places we already know.
  • I know some folks who use maps, some who know the way without a map, some content with being lost, and some content with never knowing they were lost.
  • “Possibility is the deconstruction of contentment.” ––Elizabeth Anscombe [6]
  • Dreher mentions damaged icons—but a damaged treasure map is much more mysterious than one in mint condition.
  • It is a very different experience reading or using a map when one has already visited a territory and reading/using a map when one has never before visited a particular place.
  • A map never contains 100% information.

(To be continued….)

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NOTES

[1] Dreher, Rod. How Dante Can Save Your Life: the Life-Changing Wisdom of Historys Greatest Poem. NY: Regan Arts. 2015. pp. 172, 200.

[2] Ibid, 175–76.

[3] Bateson, Gregory and Mary Catherine Bateson. Angels Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press Inc. 2005. p.  21; Capra, Fritijof. The Tao of Physics. Boston: Shambhala. Third Edition. 1991. p. 28; Korzybski, Alfred. “A Non-Aristotelian System and its Necessity for Rigour in Mathematics and Physics”, paper presented before the American Mathematical Society at the New Orleans, Louisiana, meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, December 28, 1931. Reprinted in Science and Sanity. 1933. pp. 747–61.

[4] Maimon, Solomon. Autobiography. Translated from the German, with Additions and Notes, by J. Clark Murray. Boston: Cupples & Hurd. 1888. p. 94.

[5] As Dreher puts it:

When a community loses its memory, its member no longer know one another,” writes the agrarian essayist Wendell Berry. “How can they know one another if they have forgotten or have never learned one another’s stories? If they do not know one another’s stories, how can they now whether or not to trust one another? People who do not trust one another do not help one another, and moreover they fear one another. And this is our predicament now.” (The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life. NY: Grand Central Publishing. 2013. p. 208)

[6] Anscombe, G.E.M. “You Can have Sex without Children: Christianity and the New Offer.” From Renewal of Religious Structures: Proceedings of the Canadian Centenary Theological Congress. Toronto. 1968. The Collected Philosophical Papers of G. E. M. Anscombe. Vol. III: Ethics, Religion and Politics. Oxford UP. 1982. p. 82.

 


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

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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.

 

 

 


Aug 17 2015

Muddling through Books with Dreher, Bateson, and Sontag

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Muddling through Books with Dreher, Bateson, and Sontag

Over at The American Conservative Rod Dreher writes:

The older I get, the more appreciation I have for Just Muddling Through as the only realistic solution to anything. It’s not a “solution” at all, but in the absence of a solution, it’s usually the best we can do. Every solution comes with a new set of problems.

I think this is what anthropologist Gregory Bateson was getting at when he said that explorations are self-validating, and therefore, nearly always successful. Or in Bateson’s words, explanation is “the mapping of description onto tautology”–and this is probably also what Thoreau was getting at when he remarked, “whether we travel fast or slow, the track is laid for us.”[1]

But while explorations may be self-validating, our biases, whether in life or art, protect us. As Susan Sontag reminds us:

It will be seen that stylistic decisions, by focusing our attention on some things, are also a narrowing of our attention, a refusal to allow us to see others. But the greater interestingness of one work of art over another does not rest on the greater number of things the stylistic decisions in that work allow us to attend to, but rather on the intensity and authority and wisdom of that attention, however narrow its focus.[2]

 

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[1] Bateson, Mind and NatureA Necessary Unity. NY: Bantam. 1980. p. 139; Bateson, Don D. Jackson, Jay Haley, and John Weakland. “Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia.” Theories of Schizophrenia. Edited by Arnold H. Buss and Edith H. Buss. NY: Atherton Press. 1969. p. 82; Thoreau, Henry David.  Walden: Or Life in the Woods. Boston: Ticknor & Fields. 1854. “Chapter I: On Economy.”

[2] Sontag, “On Style” (1965) in Against Interpretation. NY: Dell. 1969. p. 36; see also Tuan, Yi-Fu. “Place/Space, Ethnicity/Cosmos: How to Be More Fully Human.” Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America. Edited by Wilfred M. McClay and Ted V. McAllister. NY: New Atlantis Books. 2014. pp. 102–19 at 111.