Jul 22 2016

Big Philanthropy and Small Towns

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Big Philanthropy and Small Towns

Gracy Olmstead wrote the other day about rebuilding post-industrial towns and concluded:

There are other ways we can consider saving America’s towns. One I have been mulling over lately is the role wealthy individuals can play by boosting local commerce via their patronage (providing microloans, sponsoring vocational programs, providing grants and endowments, et cetera).

Recently, I’ve been reading New Harmony, Indiana: Like a River, Not a Lake (2015), a memoir by the late philanthropist Jane Blaffer Owen (1915–2010), someone whom I think somewhat fits the criteria Olmstead has been mulling over.

Like the famous architect, in terms of landscape planning, urban design, and cultural influence, Mrs. Blaffer Owen might very well be considered the Frederick Law Olmsted of New Harmony. Originally from Houston and the daughter of two oil heirs—her maternal family included founders of Texaco, her paternal, Exxon––Jane Blaffer studied under Paul Tillich and later married one of the great-great grandsons of utopist Robert Owen (1771–1858). They then moved to Owen’s home in New Harmony which she helped revitalize and preserve by starting things like the Robert Lee Blaffer Foundation, whose mission continues “to preserve, promote and support, financially, and otherwise, the various historic and educational attributes of New Harmony.”

Mrs. Blaffer Owen also oversaw building a Roofless Church for her adopted Indiana community as well as commissioning various sculptures around town which can be seen in the photographs and illustrations on nearly every other page of New Harmony––one of the most beautifully crafted modern books I’ve ever handled––right up there with Jung’s Red Book and Umberto Eco’s Book of Legendary Lands (2013).

So, for its aesthetics, Indiana University Press should be commended.  Yet the text, at times, lacks organization. If readers prior to opening this book have never heard of New Harmony, Indiana or its founder––the Welsh social reformer Robert Owen––they might feel as I did: like they’ve eavesdropped upon the middle of an ongoing conversation without ever having been invited.

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But I read New Harmony because it was a gift from my grandmother after its editor Nancy Mangum McCaslin came to a reading and signing in Lampasas, Texas, the hometown of Mrs. Blaffer Owen’s mother. And I too spent the first seventeen years of life in this small central Texas town of nearly 7,000. (The second seventeen years have been spent sixty miles south in wyrd Austin.) I too still have family back home and maintain minimum ties and tabs there—just as Rod Dreher now roves between Starhill and Baton Rouge.

Lampasas is a land of springs lying on the edge of a desert. Once dubbed “the Saratoga of the South,” it has withstood Comanche attacks, biblical floods, and even a visit from gunfighter John Wesley Hardin. And in 2016 the town seems to still be striving––yet still surviving––with or without buckets of philanthropic oil money. Since I left in 1999, the population remains about the same. Its public school population, however, has gone down. The sports teams used to compete with the bigger city schools from Waco, Killeen, and Austin, but now the schools they play against are mostly smaller, rural, and geographically closer.

Although it took me seven years to earn a bachelor’s degree, perhaps, because I remained in Austin after attending university, I too am modestly guilty for some of the “brain drain” from Lampasas. And I often wonder if the town compensated for these changes by making itself a more accommodating place for people to retire to, or tour through, rather than grow up in.

But the citizens of Lampasas are bettering the cultural health of their community, with neither my aid nor that of an oil baroness like Mrs. Blaffer Owen. For example, the Perception Creative Art School was founded in March of 2009. In 2005 an unused lot of land owned by the city was transformed into the Hanna Springs Sculpture Garden. Since 2008, Vision Lampasas has commissioned nine murals on what were once blank walls scattered around town.

One mural, “Small Town…. Big Sound,” displays a panorama of local musicians spanning generations and genres, including songwriters, gospel groups (both black and white), rock bands, country artists and their Tejano counterparts. I’ve known some of these musicians or their relatives, some now dead, others still alive. The conservative in me loves this mural for its community-memory-building capabilities; and the liberal in me loves the true diversity of musical talent acknowledged and celebrated in a single work of art.

But another mural, “Patriot,” makes for a hodgepodge of Trumpesque clichés. It’s just a bunch of eagles and flags all coated in crimson, gold, ermine and azure. While the winner of the mural design contest should be commended for donating their financial award to a charity for veterans––and they can further be applauded for not adding any stars-and-bars to the mix––the content of “Patriot” remains utterly anti-creative. It looks like the generic template that an artist would be given when commissioned to paint a patriotic mural, but nothing more.

Yet confirming patriotic imagery is not the same as affirming actual patriotism, and while Oscar Wilde got it right when he said, “all bad poetry springs from genuine feeling,” I still try to remember that the perfect must not be made the enemy of the good.


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.