Jan 27 2016

GERMANS, JEWS, & SOUTHERNERS: Knowing Your Place & Knowing Your Purpose

bookbread Canterbury

In both The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (2013) and How Dante Can Save Your Life (2015) Rod Dreher writes about experiencing exile from his Louisianan hometown, an exile that had been imposed upon him. Yet, perhaps some of that exile was self-imposed, for Dreher is not a prophet:[1]

For the first time in all my life I was going home and [my sister] Ruthie would not be there. Ruthie, the anchor, the fastness, the tower and the ark that would carry our West Feliciana family into another generation. Long ago I accepted that I would never settle there, and I always felt ever more free to roam the world over, knowing that Ruthie would always be present on the ridge in Starhill…. There has never been a time in my life when I have not acutely felt that I was disappointing my father…. The cold war between my father and me.[2]

These feelings Dreher shares––“the cold war between my father and me”––compare well to an early conversation in Chaim Potok’s novel The Chosen (1967) where two high school boys discuss the relationship one of boys, Daniel, has with his father Reb Saunders, the chief tsaddik (or righteous man) in their Polish-Hasidic-American community:

“My father doesn’t write,” Danny said. “He reads a lot, but he never writes. He says that words distort what a person really feels in his heart. He doesn’t like to talk too much, either. Oh, he talks plenty when we’re studying Talmud together. But otherwise he doesn’t say much. He told me once he wishes everyone could talk in silence.”

“Talk in silence?”

“I don’t understand it, either,” Danny said, shrugging. “But that’s what he said.”

“Your father must be a quiet man.” [3]

Both Potok’s fiction and Dreher’s nonfiction use the conflict between family members—particularly the angst between fathers and sons––to illustrate a  cultural severance experienced between silence and space, a spiritual chasm between purpose and place larger than just their individual experiences. And the notion of speaking in silence reminds me of a dictum from Gershom Scholem: “teaching is transmitted in silence—not by silence”[4] as well as Oscar Wilde’s just observation:

Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.[5]

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This disjunction between an individual’s place to live and that individual’s purpose for living isn’t just a problem that emerged in the middle of the twentieth and early twenty-first century America. The conflict of family and place may not be anthropologically universal, but it can easily be found when kicking over stones and thumbing through books.

It can, for example, be found in late nineteenth-century Northern Germany, as in Thomas Mann’s novel Buddenbrooks: the Decline of a Family (1901) where the character of Toni Buddenbrook and her choice of an unsuitable fiancé––unsuitable in terms of the community and culture of Lübeck and its old family of the Buddenbrooks––leads to a letter containing a tender rebuke from her father the Consul:

We are not born, my dear daughter, to pursue our own small personal happiness, for we are not separate, independent, self-subsisting individuals, but links in a chain; and it is inconceivable that we would be what we are without those who have preceded us and shown us the path that they themselves have scrupulously trod, looking neither to the left nor to the right, but, rather, following a venerable and trustworthy tradition.[6]

The point of view of Consul Buddenbrook is of a successful mercantile capitalist and statesman, and no doubt his particular brand of nineteenth century German conservatism tolerates far less individuality expressed by cheerleaders of American conservatism in the twenty-first century. The Consul expresses a faith in tradition-for-tradition’s sake based on an even deeper faith in the totality of good intentions of his own ancestors, the sound examples of his fellow citizens of Lübeck, as well as the experiences of all of that community’s past ancestors.

While the example from Thomas Mann offers a reply from the father, Franz Kafka, in his Letter to My Father (1919) replies as a son. Kafka uses an image of two ladder-climbers to illustrate the non-relationship shared between his father Hermann (a middleclass merchant businessman of Prague) and himself:

It is as if one person [you my father] had to climb five low steps and another person [myself] only one step, but one that is, at least for him, as high as all the other five put together; the first person will not only manage the five, but hundreds and thousands more as well, he will have led a great and very strenuous life, but none of the steps he has climbed will have been of such importance to him as for the second person that one, firstly high step, that step which it is impossible for him to climb even by exerting all his strength, that step which he cannot get up on and which he naturally cannot get past either.[7]

Both Kafka as the nonfictionalized writing-son and Mann as the fictionalized writing-father (Buddenbrook) act as teachers trying to impart lessons to students where the student-reader plays counterpart to the teacher-writer. Herr Buddenbrook knows his place as Consul of Lübeck. Kafka knows his place in relation to his father––perhaps he also perceives his own position (or imposition) within his immediate Jewish community––and Kafka knows he is confined to a low altitude, stuck looking upward at an unreachable rung on a ladder that progresses ever onward.

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If you don’t know your place, you’re agnostic about your environment. But for some, like Wilfred M. McClay in his introductory essay for Why Place Matters (2015), the knowledge and awareness in the United States of our past problems of conceptualizing and altering Place aren’t relevant to modern times:

Many of us can still remember when the idea of “knowing your place” was used to promote racial segregation and the social and legal subordination of women. But very little of that is relevant anymore, and it would be a grave error to think that the problems of the past are the same as those today.[8]

As demonstrated by Dreher’s cold war, Potok’s talking in silence, Mann’s trustworthy tradition, and Kafka’s unreachable ladder, today’s problems, while certainly not the same, most definitely share a family resemblance to problems of yore.[9] For when it comes to things like the lingering aftereffects of redlining districts by race––particularly in my own community of Austin, Texas[10]––unlike McClay, I don’t see how even old ideas about “knowing your place” cannot be relevant. (And no, “relevant” isn’t a code word meaning “successful” or “worthy” or “meeting my approval.”)

“The past,” said Faulkner, “isn’t the past; it’s not even over.” For the individual today in Texas in 2016 both a knowledge and awareness of the place where one lives emerge as  inescapable tropes that might best be rendered: if we don’t know our place, then we certainly know our placelessness. Yes, Bard Willie, we are all “on the road again,” but this time (as in all times) we don’t know where we’re going:

 

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NOTES

[1] Mark 6:4: “But Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.”

[2] 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. 176–77; How Dante Can Save Your Life: the LifeChanging Wisdom of Historys Greatest Poem. NY: Regan Arts. 2015. 7, 11.

[3] Potok, Chaim. The Chosen. NY: Simon and Schuster. 1967. Fawcett Crest Book reprint. June 1968. 72.

[4] Weidner, Daniel. “Reading Gershom Scholem.” The Jewish Quarterly Review. Vol. 96. No. 2. (Spring 2006.) 203–31 at 208–09.

[5] Wilde, Oscar. “The Critic as Artist: Parts I.” Intentions. London: Osgood, McIlvaine. 1891.

[6] Mann, Thomas. Buddenbrooks: the Decline of a Family. (Buddenbrooks: Verfall einer Familie.) Berlin: S. Fischer. 1901. Translation by John E. Woods. NY: Knopf. 1993. III, x, 130–31.

[7] Kafka, Franz. Letter to his Father. (Brief An Den Vater.) Translated by Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins. NY: Schocken. 1971. 99.

[8] McClay, Wilfred M. “Introduction: Why Place Matters.” Why Place Matters. Edited by McClay and Ted V. McAllister. NY: New Atlantis Books. 2014. 6.

[9] Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Translated by G.E.M. Anscombe. Oxford: Blackwells. 1953. I, 66, 67.

[10] See the recent series from the Austin Chronicle:

 

 

 

 


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.