Louise Erdrich and my prayers

`Louise Erdrich constantly indicts the Lord for His “silence”.   As if the expected next sound, after her line, would be God talking back.   And I agree.  Repeatedly expecting and then missing His approval is the ache in the core.   This hunger is not chosen.  It afflicts.

She would be happier if she could walk in the woods or see the daisies and not move instantly to dialogue with their maker.  But that would be weird:  you can’t have intact retinae and not want to talk with the maker of colors.  Our affection toward God happens prior to thought until it is forcibly suppressed, by the cruelty of parents, the horrors of history, or years of practiced numbness in the service of certain sophistications.

I sympathize.  And in Erdrich I’m thrilled to have another psalmist complaining that God is silent.  It’s useful employment for the poetic craft.  My complaints need better words.

If biblical psalms are anything they are complaints.  And we pray better as we let ourselves hear the expert unpracticed complainers.  Not complaints about other people (we lack standing), or toward “nature” or “life” (we lack jurisdiction), but complaints toward the Judge of all the earth.

Our complaint is not that He is unjust (we lack knowledge), but that He is not here, with me.   Here, complain; complain where complaint is valid, from the lonely heart.   That’s a complaint that holds standing, jurisdiction and knowledge and worth taking up into a chant at matins, with directions for the choirs-master.

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I accept that complaining to You is an insult and sometimes angers You.  But I have nowhere else to go, and Your angry voice would be meat for starvation.  The creeds I believe.  The story makes sense, I buy it all: creation, fall, and how You came back from heaven to find us and take us home.

But I still feel like the child whose father read him a sweet story from the other end of the house but never came to say goodnight and kiss my forehead.

 

Walter Isaacson on Leonardo’s “sharpness of eye”

His curiosity was aided by the sharpness of his eye, which focused
on things that the rest of us glance over.   One night he saw lightning
flash behind some buildings, and for that instant they looked smaller,
so he launched a series of experiments and controlled observations to
verify that objects look smaller when surrounded by light and look
larger in the mist or dark.”  When he looked at things with one eye
closed, he noticed that they appeared less round than when seen with
both eyes, so he went on to explore the reasons why.

Kenneth Clark referred to Leonardo’s “inhumanly sharp eye.” It’s
a nice phrase, but misleading.  Leonardo was human.  The acuteness
of his observational skill was not some superpower he possessed. In-
stead, it was a product of his own effort.  That’s important, because it
means that we can, if we wish, not just marvel at him but try to learn
from him by pushing ourselves to look at things more curiously and
intensely.

In his notebook, he described his method almost like a trick
for closely observing a scene or object: look carefully and separately at
each detail.  He compared it to looking at the page of a book, which is
meaningless when taken in as a whole and instead needs to be looked
at word by word. Deep observation must be done in steps: “If you
wish to have a sound knowledge of the forms of objects, begin with
the details of them, and do not go on to the second step until you
have the first well Fixed in memory.”

Another gambit he recommended for “giving your eye good practice” at observations was to play this game with friends: one person draws a line on a wall, and the others stand a distance away and try to cut a blade of straw to the exact length of the line. “He who has come nearest with his measure to the length of the pattern is the winner.” 

Leonardo’s eye was especially sharp when it came to observing motion. “‘the dragonfly flies with four wings, and when those in front are raised those behind are lowered,” he found. Imagine the effort it took to watch a dragonfly carefully enough to notice this.

–    Walter Isaacson. Leonardo DaVinci. Simon and Schuster, 2017. Page 179.

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Spend a few hours trying to draw something accurately from life and Leonardo’s comments about seeing the details will ring true to you.   Sketching used to be one of the practices of a well-rounded education.  That seems a century ago; it isn’t any longer.   So when you walk by someone in the park who is sitting with a sketchbook, looking intently at a tree or a stream, your modern sensibility interprets that as an effort to render an exact likeness…your thoughts might be “oh, I could never do that, to get something on the page to look like something in life, I so admire that effort.”  Then you pass by.

But the sketcher knows that a realistic image is not the point.  (Though accuracy matters.)  The point, what is actually happening when a sketcher is working in his book, is he is trying to see.   Drawing is a mode of seeing.  You actually see more because of the need to reproduce what you see, and the experience of seeing more and more and more feels like an awakening.

“More and more and more…” – again, the modern sensibility, reading these words, interprets them as an experience of finer and finer analysis.   ‘More” means more granular, more information about smaller and smaller parts.   This is partly true (and no doubt some of what Leonardo was saying), but the experience we have while sketching is an awakening vision in multiple directions at once, not just toward the smaller detail, but also color, angles, large shapes of light and dark (“value”), and the unique gesture of the object as a whole.   And more.  It is an experience of analytical honing and of wholistic expansion, together.

All this is what I mean by:  “Drawing is a mode of seeing.”

Charles Taylor: St. Francis and the Particular

“So it is not altogether surprising that this attempt to bring Christ to the world, the lay world, the previously unhallowed world, should inspire a new focus on this world. On one side, this involved a new vision of nature, as we see in the rich Franciscan spirituality of the life of God in the animate and inanimate things which surround us; on another it brought ordinary people into focus.

And we might add, ordinary people in their individuality. Because another important facet of Franciscan spirituality was its intense focus on the person of Jesus Christ. This devotion, as Louis Dupré argues, ends up opening “a new perspective on the unique particularity of the person.” On the intellectual level, this takes time to work its way out, in the writings of the great Franciscan thinkers, Bonaventure, Duns Scotus, Qccam, but it ends up giving a new status to the particular, as something more than a mere instantiation of the universal. Perfect knowledge will mean now grasping the “individual form”, the haecceitas, in Scotus’ language.”

Though it couldn’t be clear at the time, we with hindsight can recognize this as a major turning point in the history of Western civilization, an important step towards that primacy of the individual which defines our culture. But of course, it could only have this significance because it was more than a mere intellectual shift, reflected in the invention of new unpronounceable scholastic terms. It was primarily a revolution in devotion, in the focus of prayer and love: the paradigm human individual, the God-Man, in relation to whom alone the humanity of all the others can be truly known, begins to emerge more into the light.

And so it seems to be no coincidence that one of the First reflections of this focus in painting should have been Giotto’s murals in the church at Assisi. This interest in the variety and detailed features of real contemporary people did not arise alongside and extrinsic to the religious point of the painting; it was intrinsic to the new spiritual stance to the world.”

– A Secular Age, p. 94

And on, to the Bill of Rights?

Paul Elie, on Thomas Merton, on Conversation

“…Here was a book that achieved the kind of dialogue to which he had aspired ever since reading I and Thou:  not reformulated thought, but the “spontaneous elucidation of what we do not yet know” ; not thought about what is already known, but “what will come to be known in our saying it to someone who will reply”.   “

from “The Life You Save May Be Your Own:  An American Pilgrimage”, by Paul Elie.   Farrar, Straus, Giroux, NY.   2013.  page 357.

This is Paul Elie talking about Merton’s reaction to Walker Percy’s novel “The Moviegoer”….but now that we’ve mapped out all the literary references, the money phrase is “what will come to be known in our saying it to someone who will reply”.   The remote cause of the insight is Martin Buber, “I and Thou”.

 Great description of what happens in what I’m calling, in this blog, Conversation. Capital C.

“My Bright Abyss”, Christian Wiman

You’d see many scribbled arguments in the margins of my copy, but in spite of that I do like the book and think him wise and honest.  What maddens me is a certain pattern of thought, one that is emblematically modern, that goes like this:

1. Thought A

2.  Recognition of something unproven  about thought A

3.   Cancellation of Thought A.

So this mind never builds.  He says “A”, then “not-A”, “B”, then “not B”, and so on, forever.  At the end of a chapter of this sort of thing, we haven’t gotten anywhere.   The writer is so afraid of not being honest he cannot assert.  This radical uncertainty is loved by the 2013 sophisticate.  You can soliloquize for years on whether you should be, or not to be, without ever committing to being anything in particular.   I’d like Christian Wiman to decide if he is a believer or not.

As Wiman flirts with saying something explicitly Christian  you can appreciate how I’d perk up.  Then, the recoil:   “no, let me just undo that thought a bit” — I feel like I’m watching a tease show.   What hooks the audience as an introduction goes on to exhaust them if it runs on as the entire plot.

Such embarassment at having a worldview is the characteristic simpering tone of modernity.  I just want somebody to have the guts to stand on the table at the cocktail party and declaim a creed.  Nothing is as boring as standing around the bar chatting about nothing.

I wonder if it just an addiction to epistemological certainty.   All insight fades, as a natural characteristic of light, and intellectual vision is the same.   No perception endures so bright as at the instant it appeared, but this does not mean it was false.  In fact, it means nothing.   We see something bright in the universe or in our hearts, but then when we look back at that moment of sight, now mostly in memory, it has faded, and these modern hamlets simply toss it aside and assert something new from whatever is visible at the present moment– but why is the second perception more true than the first?  What logic tells you that the present perception is exactly true just because it is clearest, when Occam’s Razor concludes it is clearest just because it is present?

“My Bright Abyss” is an honest thinker, trying to admit that he needs Christ and that Christ might be true.   It is worth reading.

Tolkien: Start with the eagles

I love Tolkein.  But the unavoidable conclusion of both The Hobbit and the LOTR series, according to the movies, is “just go ahead and start with the eagles and save yourselves a dozen near-death experiences.”

Also:  the parallels between LOTR and Europe in the 1930’s and 40’s have been widely noted.  Do both stories simply end with Dunkirk?  Or, is it, rather, that air power (the eagles) is superior in the end?

 

Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal died.

Witty bitter is not more interesting than plain bitter. Intelligence and talent with words only makes the condition of the heart contagious, and a sick heart should be sequestered, not broadcast.

What makes one heart bitter but the next, equally bruised, gentle and joyous? Isn’t it the sense of injustice in the bitter? Doesn’t the bitter heart feel like the heart deserves not to be bruised? The heart DESERVES? Goodness, what a word.

So then how can an atheist be bitter? What justice emanates from the laws of physics? How do you hold simultaneously the thought that you have no meaning and the thought that you have been mis-treated? How can you be a product of material laws and deserve anything other than what those same laws have given you? How can the ones who hurt you be anything other than products of the same impersonal laws?

Vidal seemed to me to always sneer. He always seemed to be thinking about how stupid someone else was. And he was probably right. But there’s not much as superficial as that sneer. I don’t know what personal pain he went through to get there. I wonder if he knew.

Bitter enjoys bitter. The audience who is angry will applaud an angry voice. The echo chamber will feed the performer, who may not realize he did not need to be intelligent to get that applause.

I wonder if he knew. How does the materialist with a world-class I.Q. interpret his own bitterness, or his own joy? Does he find it interesting that something closer to himself than his art came to him from the shape of a 13 billion year old explosion, and he likes (or dislikes) it?

What could be a more important use of verbal facility than to explain your own soul?

Book: “Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing”, by Frederick Franck

For me, the value of the book is new, useful terms:

  • “myo” = the mystery of each art-form  (Japanese
  • “Tat Twam Asi” = “That Art Thou” (from Upanishad) …. is this the long-lost source for Charles Williams’ “This also is Thou”?  (The companion saying is “Neither is This Thou”.)  Williams understands better than most the synergy between the Image and the Denial of the Image,  the Way of Negation and the Way of Affirmation, the romantic and ascetic impulses..
  • “Kami-sabi” = a sacred presence in all things

 

“The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America”, Bill Bryson

Don’t you have to like something? Why travel? Why write about it? You should find something to like if you are going to bother to leave home. Mr. Bryson is amusing and witty in his disgust with large stretches of America. It’s probably easier to be funny than to be lyrical, but wit in the sole service of disgust wears thin. I can enjoy a page on Iowa’s desolation, and another page or two on the shades of beige that is Nebraska. But eventually I’d like you to like something somewhere — because I’m traveling with you, and I could have just as easily stayed home.

It’s not that he finds zero of interest; it’s just a matter of balance.
The book feels out of balance. You need to buy your right to be disgusted by showing us (show, don’t tell) that exquisite taste of yours which is so easily offended. Your exquisite taste, I say, which is observable in the act of loving the good, or the true, or beautiful. Your taste which brought you thousands of miles to see the green mountains of Vermont because you love the beauty of specific places more than most men do. Because: travel writer. You need to buy the seat of the aesthete before you perch in it.

I don’t think Bryson buys it.

On finishing the Mataxas Bonhoeffer Biography

The Nazis hung him this time, again, just like the first time I read his story. I was so-o-o longing for a different end. Two weeks before Hitler killed himself, three weeks before the end of the war, that paperhanger SOB had to have all remaining conspirators hung in spite, even though his fate was long decided.
When I think of the word “integrity” I see Bonhoeffer’s picture. It’s not a picture of stubbornness but more a calm dead center reckoning on God’s personal word.

I hate the jibberjawing about his “decision” to join the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. This is the sort of abstract ethical hand-wringing that he put behind him in his Ethics…abstract for us, but not for him. At this historical distance, at our leisure, it seems frivolous to accuse him. Being a Christian in Nazi Germany was so much at the extreme of ethical conflict that you’d have to have been there for me to listen to your criticism of Bonhoeffer.
I’m much more a pacifist than he wanted to be, but even I would have pulled the trigger on Hitler’s bemouthed revolver, myself.

David Foster Wallace

I’m reading Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace.

When maturity is defined by a highly individualistic culture, your very development progressively disconnects you from tradition or community. So for the modern artist, the more you find your own voice the more alone you are. Many writers never quite see this dual development ahead of them. But the more perceptive artist sees it coming, and it looks simultaneously like fulfillment and estrangement. It is reasonable to wonder if this can possibly be the way the universe is built, or if at least one major premise of your worldview is pathological.

Or, perhaps it is all just chemistry. In that case, what would a writer write about? And that’s the problem.

Guns, Germs, and Steel: Jared Diamond

He makes the “nature” explanation for the shape of culture, against the “nurture” case we are more used to from historians, economists, and social scientists of all types.   Good insights which are new to me, such as the role of the north-south continental axis in slowing down the propogation of domesticated plants.   But there is a hundred pages at least of redundancy here, and I notice many of the chapters originally appeared as articles in journals.   I wish he had edited harder.  

I have one nitpick:  he glides over political distinctions.   This passage, for example: 

Guns, Germs, and Steel (Jared Diamond)
Kindle Loc. 4786-89

We consider George Washington a statesman because he spent tax money on widely admired programs and did not enrich himself as president.  Nevertheless, George Washington was born into wealth, which is much more unequally distributed in the United States than in New Guinea villages. For any ranked society, whether a chiefdom or a state, one thus has to ask: why do the commoners tolerate the transfer of the fruits of their hard labor to kleptocrats? …
==========

…in the entire book, as far as I can tell, he recognizes no distinction between taxes, by consent, and tribute, which is forced taxation without consent.   It all just results in some equation of poverty and wealth and that end result seems to be the only moral dimension he cares about.   This blindness makes me nervous about his arguments in areas I am not competent to judge.  

 

 

 

 

 

“My Antonia”, Willa Cather

My Antonia (Willa Cather)
– Kindle Loc. 218-27

I sat down in the middle of the garden, where snakes could scarcely approach unseen, and leaned my back against a warm yellow pumpkin. There were some ground-cherry bushes growing along the furrows, full of fruit. I turned back the papery triangular sheaths that protected the berries and ate a few. All about me giant grasshoppers, twice as big as any I had ever seen, were doing acrobatic feats among the dried vines. The gophers scurried up and down the ploughed ground. There in the sheltered draw-bottom the wind did not blow very hard, but I could hear it singing its humming tune up on the level, and I could see the tall grasses wave. The earth was warm under me, and warm as I crumbled it through my fingers. Queer little red bugs came out and moved in slow squadrons around me. Their backs were polished vermilion, with black spots. I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.

Feel that affection for a moment, a physical spot, one moment and one spot out of all of them under heaven.   I want to read writers who love something, and Cather loves the prairie.   We all learn in high school English that “the moor” is a character in Wuthering Heights, and what that means is that Bronte loves the moor.   I found this same love in Pasternak, a love for the Russian countryside.

Have you ever been 200 pages into a novel and looked up to ask yourself if this writer even gives a hoot about anyone or any place in this world they’ve created?    Why do you write if you don’t love?   Maybe that is the essence of modernist fiction:  a creator who is not a lover.

Douglas Wilson: on what “Twilight” says about love.

If a man treats you terribly, it is all because he loves you. If a man confesses he might kill you, you should just stay with him forever and a day. If a man abandons you without explanation, it is because he loves you so much. If your lover needs to be changed, it must be possible for you to change him. And anyways, after that doesn’t work out, it would be better to be swallowed up by his problems than to be without him. Anything but going without him.

via Twilight #6.

“The DaVinci Code”, Dan Brown

There is an unmistakable logic pattern in conspiracy theory.

The sane and normal pattern in evaluating evidence is to speculate one level, but then test that first  speculation for veracity before building a second-order speculation on top of it.   The conspiracy thinker is simply someone who can’t think clearly enough to distinguish between his own first-order speculation and established facts, so he piles speculation on top of speculation, thinking they are summing up cumulatively — not remembering that 10 times zero is still zero.   When the crank recites 10,000 speculations, he thinks he has just pointed to the number 10,000 instead of the number 0.

Your main conclusion from reading something like The Davinci Code should be that Lee Harvey Oswald shot Kennedy, acting alone.

Marilynn Robinson: Paris Review interview, quotes

I read “Housekeeping” years ago, and knew I was in the hands of a great writer.  Since I’ve learned you can be a great artist yet an execrable person, in my cynicism I didn’t form an interest in her on account of just one brilliant book.

Now comes this interview, with the comment in the preface that she is a “Christian”.  In this day and age that tells us little about her actual dogmatics,  and the interview doesn’t help us much on that score, but she is a factory of contemplation-inducing quotes.

The Paris Review – The Art of Fiction No. 198

I  don’t like categories like religious and not religious. As soon as religion draws a line around itself it becomes falsified. It seems to me that anything that is written compassionately and perceptively probably satisfies every definition of religious whether a writer intends it to be religious or not.

You have to have a certain detachment in order to see beauty for yourself rather than something that has been put in quotation marks to be understood as “beauty.” Think about Dutch painting, where sunlight is falling on a basin of water and a woman is standing there in the clothes that she would wear when she wakes up in the morning—that beauty is a casual glimpse of something very ordinary. Or a painting like Rembrandt’s Carcass of Beef, where a simple piece of meat caught his eye because there was something mysterious about it. You also get that in Edward Hopper: Look at the sunlight! or Look at the human being! These are instances of genius. Cultures cherish artists because they are people who can say, Look at that. And it’s not Versailles. It’s a brick wall with a ray of sunlight falling on it.

 

There was a time when people felt as if structure in most forms were a constraint and they attacked it, which in a culture is like an autoimmune problem: the organism is not allowing itself the conditions of its own existence. We’re cultural creatures and meaning doesn’t simply generate itself out of thin air; it’s sustained by a cultural framework. It’s like deciding how much more interesting it would be if you had no skeleton: you could just slide under the door.

The New Atheist types, like Dawkins, act as if science had revealed the world as a closed system. That simply is not what contemporary science is about. A lot of scientists are atheists, but they don’t talk about reality in the same way that Dawkins does. And they would not assume that there is a simple-as-that kind of response to everything in question. Certainly not on the grounds of anything that science has discovered in the last hundred years.

As an achievement, science is itself a spectacular argument for the singularity of human beings among all things that exist. It has a prestige that comes with unambiguous changes in people’s experience—space travel, immunizations. It has an authority that’s based on its demonstrable power. But in discussions of human beings it tends to compare downwards: we’re intelligent because hyenas are intelligent and we just took a few more leaps.

The first obligation of religion is to maintain the sense of the value of human beings. If you had to summarize the Old Testament, the summary would be: stop doing this to yourselves. But it is not in our nature to stop harming ourselves. We don’t behave consistently with our own dignity or with the dignity of other people. The Bible reiterates this endlessly.

…a mystical experience would be wasted on me. Ordinary things have always seemed numinous to me. One Calvinist notion deeply implanted in me is that there are two sides to your encounter with the world. You don’t simply perceive something that is statically present, but in fact there is a visionary quality to all experience. It means something because it is addressed to you. This is the individualism that you find in Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. You can draw from perception the same way a mystic would draw from a vision.

I don’t try to teach technique, because frankly most technical problems go away when a writer realizes where the life of a story lies. I don’t see any reason in fine-tuning something that’s essentially not going anywhere anyway. What they have to do first is interact in a serious way with what they’re putting on a page. When people are fully engaged with what they’re writing, a striking change occurs, a discipline of language and imagination.

Notes from Neil Postman: “Amusing Ourselves To Death”

The Typographic Mind:  “…the capacity to comprehend lengthy and complex sentences aurally.”

The Peek-A-Boo World:  The invention of the telegraph made possible, for the first time, people to get lots of information every day which they need do nothing about. This is Postman’s central, most useful concept, what he calls the “information-action ratio”.   The information revolution  began in the 1840’s then, because the new medium was suited to breaking up exposition into factoids.   Most of his subsequent criticism of our television culture is simply an extension of this observation about a tipping point in a ratio — not in a supposed antinomy between pictures and words, which is what Postman spends the rest of the book embroiled in.

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“Although one would not know it from consulting varous recent proposals on how to mend the educational system, this point – that reading books and watching television differ entirely in what they imply about learning – is the primary educational issue in America today.”

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Three education crises in the history of the world:  5th century BC, when Athens transitioned from oral to written culture (to understand it, read Plato); 16th century AD, when Europe invented the printing press (to understand it, read John Locke); and now, centered in America, and the question of television.

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Postman:  Orwell predicted the end of thought through an imposition from an oppressive external power.  Thought will die from constraint of truth.   Huxley predicted the opposite; thought will die in an environment where truth is not constrained at all.  Postman says Huxley, not Orwell, got it right:  Big Brother will not watch us; we will watch him, voluntarily.