There are very few moments in a man’s existence when he experiences so much ludicrous distress, or meets with so little charitable commiseration, as when he is in pursuit of his own hat. A vast deal of coolness, and a peculiar degree of judgment, are requisite in catching a hat. A man must not be percipitate, or he runs over it: he must not rush into the opposite extreme or he loses it altogether. The best way is, to keep gently up with the object of pursuit, to be wary and cautious, to watch your opportunity well, get gradually before it, then make a rapid dive, seize it by the crown, and stick it firmly on your head: smiling pleasantly all the time, as if you thought it as good a joke as anybody else.

Dickens, The Pickwick Papers


Notes on Blindness

I opened the front door, and rain was falling. I stood for a few minutes, lost in the beauty of it. Rain has a way of bringing out the contours of everything; it throws a coloured blanket over previously invisible things; instead of an intermittent and thus fragmented world, the steadily falling rain creates continuity of acoustic experience …

This is an experience of great beauty. I feel as if the world, which is veiled until I touch it, has suddenly disclosed itself to me. I feel that the rain is gracious, that it has granted a gift to me, the gift of the world. I am no longer isolated, preoccupied with my thoughts, concentrating upon what I must do next. Instead of having to worry about where my body will be and what it will meet, I am presented with a totality, a world which speaks to me.

This description of rain falling in a garden is from John Hull’s fascinating book, Notes on Blindness (originally published as Touching the Rock). I searched out Hull’s book after stumbling across a reference in Melissa Harrison’s Rain: Four Walks in English Weather (and this is how I frequently figure out what to read – reading begets reading).

Notes on Blindness is a book that is all about paying attention – paying attention to the lived experience of blindness, but also paying attention to the world. It is part memoir, part philosophical investigation, part poetry (along with good amount of dream interpretation – the least successful part of the book, I think, but understandable given the importance of particularly vivid dreams in Hull’s experience of blindness). Hull’s meandering reflections (the book was originally a set of cassette tapes on which he recorded his thoughts over three years after finally losing his sight entirely) are beautiful, poignant, precise, strange. There is something of a narrative thread through the book as Hull moves from frustration to acceptance of the “dark, paradoxical gift” of blindness, but this is not a neatly packaged “triumph of the human spirit” sort of story (although Hull’s courage and sensitivity clearly comes through). It is more a series of discrete investigations as Hull runs his fingers over his emotions, thoughts and experiences, exploring the rough and smooth surfaces, the shape of life as a man gone blind in middle age. These investigations range from the mundane struggle of trying to change conversation partners during a church meeting coffee break, to moving reflections on losing the visual memory of faces (of his wife and children, eventually even his own), of feeling remote as a father of children he’s never seen and children whose appearance he can longer reliably remember. Or, here is Hull describing his changing experience of time:

Sighted people can bend time. For sighted people, time is sometimes slow, and sometimes rapid. They can make up for being lazy by rushing later on. Things can be gathered up quickly in a few minutes. … Time, for sighted people, is that against which they fight. For me, as a blind person, time is simply the medium of my activities. It is that inexorable context within which I do what must be done. … the reasons why I do not seem to be in a hurry as I go around the building is not that I have less to do than my colleagues, but I am simply unable to hurry. It takes me almost exactly twenty-two minutes to walk from my front door to my office. I cannot do it in fifteen minutes, and if I tried to take thirty minutes over it, I would probably get lost, because knowledge of the route depends, to some extent upon maintaining the same speed. …

… [For the blind person] you are no longer fighting against the clock but against the task. You no longer think of the time it takes. You only think of what you have to do. It cannot be done any faster. Time, against which you previously fought, becomes simply the stream  of consciousness within which you act. For the deaf-blind person, space is confined to his body, but he has lots of time.

This is a good example of what I mean when I describe the book as an account of paying attention to the world, of “looking” at things carefully (and yes, Hull spends time talking about the tendency to use visual metaphors for understanding). After reading this passage I reflected that the sighted person really can’t bend time, her sightedness only gives her the illusion that she can (cf. Mary Oliver: “Things take the time they take”). To try and “bend” time is like a fish trying to bend the course of the river it swims in. Hull, as a blind person, demonstrates a better grasp of what the world is actually like – the blind perspective challenging the illusions of the sighted.

I listened to the book as an audiobook from the library, which seemed appropriate (Hull discusses listening to books on tape – he was a professor of religious education, although the book seldom ranges into explicit theology). At times, while I was doing the dishes, I would find myself closing my eyes while standing at the sink, listening. When I first searched for the book, I found a moving documentary short (embedded below) based on Hull’s material. Apparently the short has since been expanded to a full-length film, which looks amazing (and if anyone knows how I can easily watch it in the US, let me know). If nothing else, the video is worth your time:

“Cynicism is not the cure for sentimentality”

I love things [movies, books etc.] that are brave enough to be nakedly about what our lives are actually built of, when you’re wild about someone, or you love something, or you’re a fool, or you embarrass yourself. And I don’t think the answer is cynicism. Cynicism is not the cure for sentimentality. Cynicism is its own form of sentimentality. … Life is not bad, and it doesn’t look more real if it’s ugly or it’s gritty. Think of your own life. Most of what’s in your own life, hopefully, is exactly that. Friendship and love and passion for movies and cartoons and comic books, whatever it is that you love. Most of the way we live our lives involves looking for pleasure and beauty and happiness and affection. Real artists don’t use reflexive clichés about things. It’s about honoring the reality of people’s lives, which defies conventions and clichés and expectations. People are interesting, period.

Daniel Mendelsohn (from this interview). Co-sign. There is a certain article/essay/lecture that comes around periodically in the evangelical sub-culture about “Christian” fiction (note: Daniel Mendelsohn, not commenting on this phenomenon). A phrase like “recognizing the reality of a fallen world” is used. More grit is requested. The popularity of the “Amish romance” sub-genre is referenced. Flannery O’Connor appears in some form or another (always Flannery O’Connor! Enough with the Flannery O’Connor!).  It’s a lazy, rote argument at this point, and frequently it falls into the trap Mendelsohn describes: prescribing cynicism to combat (an often accurately identified) sentimentality.  More arguments for “Christian” fiction (whatever that term means) that dares to “be nakedly about what our lives are actually built of,” please.

Starting from where you are

When you pray, consider what you want and need and never mind how vulgar or childish it might appear. If you want very much to pass that exam or get to know that girl or boy better, that is what you should pray for. You could let world peace rest for a while. You may not be ready yet to want that passionately. When you pray you must come before God as honestly as you can. There is no point in pretending to him. One of the great human values of prayer is that you face the facts about yourself and admit to what you want; and you know you can talk about this to God because he is totally loving and accepting. In true prayer you must meet God and meet yourself where you really are, for it is just by this that God will move you on from where you really are. For prayer is a bit of a risk. If you pray and acknowledge your most infantile desires, there is every danger you may grow up a bit, that God will grow you up. When (as honestly as you can) you speak to God of your desires, very gently and tactfully he will often reveal to you that in fact you have deeper and more mature desires. But there is only one way to find this out: to start from where you are. It is no good pretending to yourself that you are full of high-minded aspirations. You have to wait until you are. If a child is treated as though she were already an adult, she will never become an adult. Prayer is the way in which our Father in heaven leads each of us by different paths to be saints, that is to say, with him.

Herbert McCabe on prayer in God, Christ and Us.

Rereading The Brothers Karamazov

When I was young, the best book I had ever read was Where the Red Fern Grows. I remember asking our school librarian about her favorite book (fully expecting that she would share my fanatical enthusiasm for the ballad of Old Dan and Little Ann), and when she waffled with “oh, I have too many favorites to choose just one” my eight-year-old face must have registered my disgust. This person, whom I had previously held in such high esteem (since, as far as I knew, librarians just read books all day, and what could be better?), clearly did not view literature with an appropriate seriousness. She couldn’t even name a favorite book! The book (Where the Red Fern Grows, obviously) that was better than all other books!

While Red Fern held the throne, I loved plenty of other books (the Narnia stories were probably the primary competitor), but it was the book that was mine when I was eight in a way that other books were not. It got under my skin and sent me off in search of other books that could provide at least a taste of whatever it was that happened when I lost myself in its pages. As the years went by, there were other books (I have not read Where the Red Fern Grows in many, many years and don’t know when I’ll return to it – probably with my kids when they’re old enough), favorite books, books I loved, books that were secretly and particularly mine. There still are, I suppose, although I don’t fall in love with the intensity of that eight-year-old fighting back the tears through the final pages of Where the Red Fern Grows, or the ten-year-old terrified by the journey through the mines of Moria, or the teenager absorbed in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, or the college student studying Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. I still find authors I love, books that sound some chord that harmonizes with something fundamental in me – I seem to remain more willing to fall in love with a book than many – but you can only read Where the Red Fern Grows for the first time that first time.

I’m writing about my mildly embarrassing love for a tale of a boy and his hunting dogs, because I’ve been trying to figure out why I’ve taken so long to reread The Brothers Karamazov, one of those books that I claimed as mine (along with all the other pretentious, self-serious, theologically-inclined college students who “just want to know what it’s all about, man”) when I first read it. It became the book when I first read it, the best novel ever written, the book that I wanted to wrestle with, to champion, to hold as mine. But, it was more than a decade before I picked it up again. Part of it is just that Dostoevsky is (in my experience) always a challenge to reread. “You can’t read Dostoevsky over and over” Hemingway says in A Moveable Feast, “How can a man write so badly, so unbelievably badly, and make you feel so deeply?” It’s the depth, that ability to make the reader feel like they are risking a case of brain fever (a real medical diagnosis in the 19th century, I’ve discovered), that makes rereading difficult (and perhaps, the “badness” plays a role too – although what actually constitutes Dostoevsky’s “badness” is a matter for debate). His books often leave me feeling exhausted in a way that Tolstoy or Eliot or Dickens do not. Dostoevsky (at least in the “big four” – Crime & Punishment, Demons, The Idiot and Brothers Karamazov) wants the reader to a wrestle with questions of ultimate meaning, and that takes energy (and maybe some sort of courage). And, I do think this sort of thing is easier for a young reader: the questions feel slightly more alive and open. Or, maybe it’s just that when I was young I had more of the resilience (and ignorance) needed to probe deeply into the “meaning of life.” It’s not that getting older means I have discovered settled answers to every metaphysical or existential dilemma, it’s more that I have built up my armor and evasive tactics over time and more often deal with these things at a glancing angle rather than head on. That’s the theory, anyway – I still feel like I get walloped with existential haymakers with uncomfortable frequency.

So, that’s part of it, but part of it is also the whole you-can-only-read-Where-the-Red-Fern-Grows-for-the-first-time-that-first-time thing. What if I reread it, and didn’t like it? What if it wasn’t mine any longer, but some stranger’s (the stranger, in this case, being my younger self)? Or, alternatively, what if I’ve already so built the book into my personal mythology that I can’t encounter it any longer as a book, but can only see it as I made use of it in the past?

But, I did reread it. And I thought it was great: it remains one of my favorite novels. It was a different book from the book I read years ago, at least as far as I am a different person after a decade – not better or worse, just different. For example, this time around I realized that I really did not understand the idea of “polyphony,” which many readers, following Mikhail Bakhtin, describe as a central strength of Dostoevsky’s novels (and if the reference to Bakhtin makes you think I know what I’m talking about … uh, no. I’m only familiar with Bakhtin at second-hand – although I’ve recently embarked on an attempt to remedy this, and yes, I would like that gold star sticker, thank you very much). I had always thought polyphony could be described as allowing for a variety of different viewpoints/voices within the world of the novel without allowing any one to dominate. So, you have characters who represent faithful belief (Alyosha/Zosima), the atheists (Ivan/Smerdyakov), the sensualists  (Mitya/Fyodor Pavlovich) etc., and Dostoevsky puts the different characters into dialogue with each other without giving an authorial endorsement to one over the other. This is partly true in a summary sort of way, but not quite the full picture. Dostoevsky actually seems to poke fun at this way of conceiving the novel with the prosecutor’s speech at the end of the book, where the prosecutor describes each brother as representative of a different aspect of contemporary Russian society (I’m not quite sure what all is going on in the lawyers’ [painfully repetitive and long-winded] final speeches: they seem like they’re supposed to be funny, but I feel like I need some footnotes to explain the jokes).

This time around it seemed clearer that the polyphonic effect is not achieved just be setting up competing voices and making sure there are “representatives” for this or that ideology and then trying to be “fair” to each. Rather, Dostoevsky achieves polyphony by introducing just enough ambiguity and conflict within each character to complicate their status as a “representative” for this or that point-of-view. It is the little twists, the underlying ambiguities in characterization, that make the different voices come alive as real voices. So, Ivan is an atheist, sure, but he’s also in many ways the most God-obsessed character in the book outside of Zosima (including Alyosha, arguably, which is one of the interesting points of tension in the book). Or, Smerdyakov kills Fyodor Pavlovich because he has swallowed Ivan’s atheism whole and “everything is permitted” – and so functions as the “representative” of the logical conclusion of Ivan’s nihilism – but he also kills for less abstract reasons: because he is a mistreated and ignored bastard, nursing resentment against the father who will not acknowledge him. It is the internal conflict, the multiple explanations of motivation, the self-deception, the many voices within a character, that make the novel polyphonic.

I’m not sure why this struck me so forcefully this time around. Part of it is the result of having read more Dostoevsky in the intervening years and realizing to what extent this sort of internal conflict and ambiguity is a central theme in his work (after reading Notes from Underground or Demons I’m not sure why anyone would take the initial “Author’s Note” at face value). I suppose also that as a young reader I was hungry for answers and Dostoevsky was a sage who seemed like he might be eager to provide them, and so it was easy to read the book as a conflict between competing visions of reality (and again, this is at least partly what the book is about). But, reading Dostoevsky’s novels narrowly as only philosophical/ideological treatises actually misses one of the main pleasures of his work: his vivid characterization. I also think moving out of young-adulthood to not-so-young-adulthood which, among many other things, has forced me to confront some of my own internal contradictions and self-deceptions, allowed me to better see the characters as actual human beings, conflicted and strange in the ways human beings often are.

There were a variety of other things that stood out to me on rereading – the importance in the book of children/childhood/youth perhaps most of all – although I’ll save that for some other time. I suppose I’m just happy to announce (again, I’ll take all your gold stars) that I was able to reread the book, able to be affected by it in some way again, and able, again, to put it on that internal shelf labelled, mine.

Easter Morning

But he arose from the dead and mounted up to the heights of heaven. When the Lord had clothed himself with humanity, and had suffered for the sake of the sufferer, and had been bound for the sake of the imprisoned, and had been judged for the sake of the condemned, and buried for the sake of the one who was buried, he rose up from the dead, and cried aloud with this voice: Who is he who contends with me? Let him stand in opposition to me. I set the condemned man free; I gave the dead man life; I raised up the one who had been entombed.

Who is my opponent? I, he says, am the Christ. I am the one who destroyed death, and triumphed over the enemy, and trampled Hades under foot, and bound the strong one, and carried off man to the heights of heaven, I, he says, am the Christ.

Therefore, come, all families of men, you who have been befouled with sins, and receive forgiveness for your sins. I am your forgiveness, I am the passover of your salvation, I am the lamb which was sacrificed for you, I am your ransom, I am your light, I am your saviour, I am your resurrection, I am your king, I am leading you up to the heights of heaven, I will show you the eternal Father, I will raise you up by my right hand.

This is the one who made the heavens and the earth, and who in the beginning created man, who was proclaimed through the law and prophets, who became human via the virgin, who was hanged upon a tree, who was buried in the earth, who was resurrected from the dead, and who ascended to the heights of heaven, who sits at the right hand of the Father, who has authority to judge and to save everything, through whom the Father created everything from the beginning of the world to the end of the age.

This is the alpha and the omega. This is the beginning and the end–an indescribable beginning and an incomprehensible end. This is the Christ. This is the king. This is Jesus. This is the general. This is the Lord. This is the one who rose up from the dead. This is the one who sits at the right hand of the Father. He bears the Father and is borne by the Father, to whom be the glory and the power forever. Amen

The conclusion of On the Passover, Melito of Sardis (2nd century) – discovered via Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion.