Jul 21 2017

I’d Rather Have Role Models Than Leaders

portico in Bologna, Italia

At the moment our democracy is in disarray, at least according to the Apocalypse of Saint Snowden. As recent writers have shown, what once constituted the legalities of Leviathan has now mutated into the bureaucracies of Behemoth (a.k.a. Big Brother’s Deep State), a beast set to steal all sorts of liberties from citizens:

Modern democracy does not, on its own, encourage a political life and therefore does not encourage people to think of themselves as citizens…. The well-functioning administration (local, state, and federal) liberates them [its citizen-clients] from mutual dependence and thereby robs them of township freedom….[1]

The neighborhood will come; for here, residents are treated as fellow citizens by leaders they know well, rather than as clients by professionals who drop into the community from nine to five….[2]

Every time we blame government for our public problems without contemplating our own role in their solution—from public safety to public works—we view ourselves as “customers rather than citizens….[3]

The mind of Technological Man cannot resist his heart’s desires, because he has been trained by his culture not to question them. Technological Man comes to believe that the limits on what he can do to nature lie primarily in his capacity to subdue it to his will. The Christian must rebel against this. [4]

We are not hermits who happened to have bumped into each other amid our individual isolations. No, we remain a community, and a community must embrace some minimum dependency upon a guide.[5] Yes, much as I hate to admit it, leadership remains a “necessary evil” for human society. Winning teams don’t coach themselves. Yet I’m not infatuated with leadership per se. I’m not interested in being a dog who wants only to lick the palm of its master. There are some who seek to lead, and there are some who need to always be in need––a need usually satisfied by following a leader. But neither role works for me.

Instead, I usually feel things like: I need to be led, but I don’t want to be led, and I believe such confused feelings come about by mistaking the term “leadership” for the term “role model.” For every leader may be a role model, though not every role model is a leader. Perhaps every leader is a potential role model but not vice versa.

There is a lack of dependency, or a sharp difference in degrees of dependency, between an individual’s (as well as a community’s) need for a role model and that individual’s (and that community’s) need for leadership.

When it comes to writers, I look for role models, contemporary ones like Rod Dreher and Alan Jacobs, as well as prior ones like Jonathan Swift and Mary Shelley.[6] But as a reader trying to become a writer, I don’t look for “leadership” from other writers. I don’t want to be collared or muzzled or leashed or (God forbid) crated by penmen and typewomen while they go on vacation.

I imagine my writerly role models reading my work, and such imagining seems to skirt into the cult of celebrity and its transcendental experience of being “star struck” when in the presence of one of these highly regarded role models. But that kind of seizure of nerves leads only to obsession, addiction, and idolatry. For obsession, addiction, and idolatry are structured around mistaking things as needful that aren’t actually necessary. To be in need is to expose and confess one’s dependency, and the concept of dependency returns us to the question of (and need for) leadership. ’Tis a vicious cycle.

Coaches like to tell the team: “never be satisfied.” But if we follow the coach’s lead and logic too closely, soon enough we will not be satisfied with the coach’s leadership. In order for her to remain the leader, we must not follow what she says too literally, too absolutely. In other words, we must not let a leader lead us too far, that is, if we desire to attain the things we are being led toward.

But such a path of independent thinking has its own obstacles. Once we have pushed the leadership of the coach aside, and approach the void of choice ourselves, there nonetheless remains an apparent need not to trust ourselves too much––at least if we wish to remain consistent. Because if we don’t trust the leadership of others, why should we bother trusting any leadership from ourselves? None are without sin, all are fallible, and Acton’s dictum remains ever-true.[7]

Even stranger is the behavioral pattern where, once the game has ended, a coach comes quite close to disavowing her leadership. Once the results are in, a coach never says to the team: “I lost the game” or “I won the game,” but something like: “we lost” or “we won” or, sometimes, “you lost.” When coaches reflect on their results, they detach themselves from their team’s dependency on the very leadership those coaches provide.

As Boethius proclaimed from his prison: “A free mind cannot be commanded.”[8] Who here is interested in propagating “a rhetoric of pure authority?” [9] Not me. Freedom in shackles is what Southern slaveowners told their slaves they had. As sociologist George Fitzhugh (1806–1881) wrote in November 1857:

It is the duty of society to protect all its members, and it can only do so by subjecting each to that degree of government constraint or slavery, which will best advance the good of each and of the whole…. To protect the weak, we must first enslave them.[10]

So I am understandably wary when Rod Dreher stresses a contemporary need for leadership, which might mean actively seeking a leader (perhaps as the Hebrews did for King Saul):

During Benedict’s three years in the cave, a monk named Romanus, from a nearby monastery, brought him food. By the time Benedict emerged from the cave, he had a reputation for sanctity and was invited by a monastic community to be their abbot. Eventually Benedict founded twelve monasteries of his own in the region. His twin sister, Scholastica, followed in his footsteps, beginning her own community of nuns. To guide the monks and nuns in the living simple, orderly lives consecrated to Christ, Benedict wrote a slim book, now known as the Rule of Saint Benedict…. [11]

As we await a new Saint Benedict to appear in our quite different time and place and teach us how to reweave the tapestry of our Christian lives…. [12] not for the second coming of Ronald Reagan or for a would-be political savior, but for a new—and quite different—Saint Benedict…. [13]

If we are the abbot and abbess of our domestic monastery, we will see to it that our family’s life is structured in such a way as to make the mission of knowing and serving God clear to all its members. That means maintaining regular times of family prayer. That means regular readings of Scripture and stories from the lives of saints—Christian heroes and heroines from ages past. “Christian kids need Christian heroes,” says Marco Sermarini, a lay Catholic community leader in Italy. “They need to know that following Jesus radically is not an impossible dream.” [14]

Clearly Sermarini is a “community leader” stressing the need for role models, but concerning Dreher’s other comments I’m not so sure such a distinction is made––particularly the way he pairs a secular politician with a saintly monk—it sounds like the seeking of leadership by those who need to be in need of leadership.

But perhaps Dreher is thinking more along the lines of role models instead of leaders. Take this passage:

The politics of the Benedict Option assume that the disorder in American public life derives from disorder within the American soul. Benedict Option politics start with the proposition that the most important political work of our time is the restoration of inner order, harmonizing with the will of God—the same telos as life in the monastic community. Everything else follows naturally from that. [15]

That doesn’t sound like the Benedict Option is a proposal for its followers to start looking for leaders, but rather a call to turn inward and let their eyes lead them toward some worthy role models. In this context, it is somewhat ironic to observe that Nietzsche too sought high quality role models for how to live, but he didn’t suggest they should lead us via the typical tactics of leaders (lies, threats, and coercion):

Thus another point of Nietzsche’s early philosophy is re-enforced: namely, the view of nature as purposive but inefficient…. [16]

The place Nietzsche would assign to natural selection deserves special mention. He grants that natural selection takes place, but he denies that it operates for “progress.” Mediocrity seems more apt to survive than “the single higher specimens”––“that which is more unusual, more powerful, more complicated.” Hence natural selection will not generate bigger and better philosophers, artists, or saints, but only bigger and better brutes…. [17]

Empirical facts do not seem to him to warrant the belief that history is a story of progress, that ever greater values are developed, and that whatever is later in the evolutionary scale is also eo ipso more valuable. “The goal of humanity cannot lie in the end but only in its highest specimens.” Perhaps there is no more basic statement of Nietzsche’s philosophy in all his writings than this sentence. Here is the most crucial point of his philosophy of history and theory of values—no less than the clue to his “aristocratic” ethics and his opposition to socialism and democracy.[18]

NOTES

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[1] McAllister, Ted V. “Making American Places: Civic Engagement Rightly Understood.” Why Place Matters. Edited by Wilfred M. McClay and McAllister. NY: New Atlantis Books. 2014. pp. 194, 199.

[2] Scruton, Roger. “A Plea for Beauty: a Manifesto for a New Urbanism.” Why Place Matters 168.

[3] Peterson, Pete. “Place as Pragmatic Policy.” Why Place Matters 214.

[4] Dreher, Rod. The Benedict Option: a Strategy for Christian in a Post-Christian Nation. NY: Sentinel. 2017. p. 234.

[5] Even when we don’t realize it, we depend on others. Yet to be dependent is to be limited, and to be limited is to be unfree. (I use “dependence” in Schleiermacher’s sense.) As the aristocrat Consul Buddenbrook warns his daughter before she decides to marry someone beneath her class, no human is isolated in his or her individuality:

I would like you to recall, however, something that I have impressed upon you often enough in conversation, and which the present occasion allows me to repeat in writing. For, although the words we speak are more vivid and immediate, the written word has the advantage of having been chosen with great care and is fixed in a form that its author has weighed and considered, so that it may be read again and again to cumulative effect. 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. (Mann, Thomas. Buddenbrooks, 1922. Translated by John E. Woods. NY: Knopf. 1993. III, x, 130–31.)

[6] There are also things like counter-role models. I once worked for a veterinarian who put it this way: “You can always learn something from anybody, even if it’s what not to do.” To observe someone and learn what not to do would be an example of them serving as a counter-role model. MTV’s Jackass was a television show starring lots of counter-role models because they did lots of things their audience would not do, and were warned in a legal disclaimer not to.

[7] As Walter Jackson Bate put it:

How do we proceed? When we are actually confronted with specific answers, we soon complain of being suffocated or inhibited, of being denied the opportunity to contribute “creatively” and “freely” on our own; and we at once begin—usually with some success—to pick holes in what has been presented us. But as soon as we feel we have pushed all this aside, and at last stand free and ready to make our own contribution, the human heart shrinks at its new nakedness and its new gift of what Santayana calls “vacant liberty.” We start once again to crave specific direction, and turn reproachfully, notebook in hand, on those who are now exhorting [strongly urging] us—in the very spirit we had before demanded—to “go and do likewise….” (The Burden of the Past. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP. 1970. p. 56)

The channeling effort toward achievement, in other words, constitutes a certain limitation: to be one thing is, by definition, not to be another. It is limitation, at least, when compared with what Santayana calls ‘vacant liberty,’ even though this blank liberty to drift without purpose in the dark is meaningless until it is again channeled into specific aims and renewed efforts. The history of human achievement is strewn with compulsive by-products—and with by-products that become, if not more pronounced, at least more striking, in proportion to the degree of concentration on the end desired. Too often, of course, we find a tendency to interpret the achievement as either the flowering or else the compensation of the secondary traces that accompany it, putting the hoof-prints before the horse, and regarding them as a pre-determined path. We are never unwilling to ‘lessen our disparity.’ We all feel disturbing psychological quirks in ourselves; and it is not unpleasing to imagine that if we allowed them to be a little more pressing, the achievement we are interpreting could be our own. (The Achievement of Samuel Johnson. NY: Oxford UP. 1956. p. 155.)

[8] Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus. The Consolation of Philosophy 524 A.D. Translated by David R. Slavitt. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP. 2008. II, vi, prose, p. 50.

[9] Jacobs, Alan. “When Character No Longer Counts.” National Affairs. No. 32 (Spring 2017.)

[10] Fitzhugh, George. “Southern Thought (cont’d).” De Bows Review. November 1857. pp. 450, 454.

[11] Dreher 14–15.

[12] Dreher 47.

[13] Dreher 91.

[14] Dreher 125.

[15] Dreher 96.

[16] Kaufmann, Walter. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP. 1950. Revised Fourth Edition. 1974. p. 235.

[17] Kaufmann 174.

[18] Kaufmann 149.


Oct 12 2016

Why We Retell Stories

bookbread Canterbury

The sentiment is probably assignable to the deep and aged roots which my family has struck into the soil…. It still haunts me, and induces a sort of home-feeling with the past, which I scarcely claim in reference to the present phase of the town.

–Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter [1]

I. The Place

Often while traveling down a road–one familiar though not taken weekly, or even monthly––I and members of my family have retold stories to ourselves. Indeed, as if unconsciously hypnotized by a mantra, we “sit indulgent” and “partake rural repast” by these retellings.[2] We partake in tales involving particular places along the way to wherever we’re going. Often they can’t even be categorized as stories, at least not in the sense of possessing a beginning, middle, and end. Instead they are but blots of memory and splotches of myth.

One of the stories that comes up while traveling in northern Williamson County, Texas along Highway 183 where it meets County Road 121 tells how in the early 1900s, my grandad’s grandad’s uncle Cyrus planted a tree. It was a tree that could be seen about a hundred yards away from the east side of the highway, and it was a tree that was seen for about hundred years until it fell over around 2010. It’s absurd that we know neither why he planted it nor what species eventually grew alone in a field on the edge of Shin Oak Ridge and Briggs Prairie, but because Cyrus’s older brother Livy operated nurseries and orchards throughout his life, I suppose it was some kind of fruit tree. The tree was always short, and the only explanation to which we could satisfy ourselves was that Uncle Cyrus perhaps planted it in soil rocky enough to stunt the tree’s growth.

But why did we repeat this vignette whenever we passed by the tree, or repeat it nowadays while driving past where it once stood? It’s because we seek stability while traveling and retell a tale to remind us so. Something in the subconscious says: “See that! Something happened there. Today I call attention to the place, and by telling you about it, that spot further becomes a part of me, and also now a part of you the listener.”[3] Just as in Edith Wharton’s novel The Custom of the Country (1913), the mother of the main character, a New York transplant from the Midwest, resorts to retelling:

Mrs. Spragg liked to repeat her stories. To do so gave her almost her sole sense of permanence among the shifting scenes of life.[4]

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II. The Placeless

On the other hand, I wonder which stories get told only once. I bet it’s those that are quite forgettable. I further wonder: do the stories that get told only once evoke in their readers and listeners a sense of placelessness?—perhaps even a sense of instability? Are some stories too unstable to be retold? Perhaps that speculation works for stories, perhaps not, but on the other hand a poem can certainly evoke placelessness and at the same time be good enough to qualify as unforgettable. Consider the twenty-eighth sonnet of Shakespeare, where readers encounter a wanderer who asks:

How can I then return in happy plight,
That am debarred the benefit of rest?
When day’s oppression is not eased by night,
But day by night, and night by day, oppressed?
And each, though enemies to either’s reign,
Do in consent shake hands to torture me,
The one by toil the other to complain
How far I toil, still farther off from thee.
I tell the day, to please him thou art bright,
And dost him grace when clouds do blot the heaven.
So flatter I the swart-complexioned night;
When sparkling stars twire not thou gild’st the even.
But day doth daily draw my sorrows longer,
And night doth nightly make grief’s strength seem stronger.

The speaker wishes without hope––an individual stuck between twinkling night and radiant morn.

Or is the speaker free rather than trapped? Has the poet captured the psychology of one coursing through a place of non-existence just as the clouds course through the air? While the speaker tells the day and flatters the night, unlike Mrs. Spragg, this particular poet doesn’t retell a tale in an attempt to craft a place of permanence. Is this because Shakespeare wasn’t an American?

We should seek to discover how, given the American people as they are, and American economic and social life as it now exists—and not as those things can be imagined to be—we can find means of resisting the steady homogenization of the world. This means cultivating a strong sense of place wherever we find it—and thereby cultivating the human goods that depend upon an enduring sense of place and are impossible without it.[5]

NOTES

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[1] Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. 1850. “The Custom-House.”

[2] Milton, Paradise Lost, IX, 3–4.

[3] Compare Job 38:4–7: “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding….”

[4] Wharton, Edith. The Custom of the Country.  NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1909. I, vi, p. 79.

[5] McClay, Wilfred M. “Introduction.” Why Place Matters. Edited by McClay and Ted V. McAllister. NY: New Atlantis Books. 2014. p. 7.


Feb 3 2016

American Phones, American Cars

bookbread Canterbury

Over at The American Conservative, Rod Dreher responds to the horrors of Virginia with a discussion of how he hasn’t yet let his children have cell phones–which is fine–I wasn’t allowed to watch R-rated movies till high school. Dreher writes:

I don’t have the time or the skills to monitor everything my kids would get into on their smartphones, if they had them, and access to social media. But you know what? Why should I. They are nine and 12 years old. They have no business with smartphones, Instagram accounts, Facebook, Snapchat, and all the rest. They are not ready for those things. I certainly would not have been at that age. You give your kids a smartphone with access to the Internet and social media, you are handing them grenades.

I am curious what sorts of things Dreher’s parents, and people of my grandparents’ generation, would have or actually did ban/abstain/limit/withhold/censor from their own children? Was it the keys to the car? As geographer Yi-Fu Tuan has recently pointed out in Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America (2014):

The closest thing Americans have to an identity card is their driver’s license—a card that gives them license to drive into the blue yonder and there discover who they are and can be.[1]

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NOTES

[1] Tuan, “Place/Space, Ethnicity/Cosmos: How to be More Fully Human” Why Place Matters. Edited by Wilfred M. McClay and Ted V. McAllister. NY: New Atlantis Books. 2014.  p. 115.


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

bookbread typewriter

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.

 


Oct 7 2015

Communities Who Bring about Suffering & Loss Will Bear Suffering & Loss

bookbread typewriterSome new notes from Rod Dreher:

Whatever Benedict Option communities end up being as we pass through all this, they are going to have to bear witness to suffering and loss, in a way we [in the West] have not had to do for a great long time.

This may well be true, but it seems to skirt around the possibility that plenty of late 20 and early 21st century Americans were born into religious communities, bore witness to suffering and loss, and endured their own sufferings and losses brought on by that very community, and are now no longer interested in living in or perpetuating that kind of community.

Communities who bring about suffering and loss will bear suffering and loss. In other words, it takes one to know one. Communities are made of individuals who know each other; communitas reaches beyond known individuals, as geographer Yi-Fu Tuan has recently pointed out:

Anthropologist Victor Turner notes a common type of movement in pre-modern times, which he says is from “community” to “communitas.” The movement occurs periodically in response to the needs of economic exchange, but not only that. It is also prompted by the desire of the people in a local community—say, a village—for a larger sense of who they are. That larger sense of self villagers find in the market town—the “communitas” of acquaintances and strangers.*

*“Place/Space, Ethnicity/Cosmos: How to be More Fully Human” in Why Place Matters. Edited by Wilfred M. McClay and Ted V. McAllister. NY: New Atlantis Books. 2014. p. 106

 

 


Aug 17 2015

Muddling through Books with Dreher, Bateson, and Sontag

bookbread Canterbury

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.