“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.

Seveneves (Goodreads Notes)

SevenevesSeveneves by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In a different mood, I wouldn’t have made it past the first 100 pages. But, after my recent reading in the compressed tragi-comedies of Penelope Fitzgerald and the metaphysical heaviness of Dostoevsky, long, detailed (we’re talking pages and pages at a time) descriptions of orbital mechanics were apparently just what the doctor ordered. Good fun (unfortunately, it falters in the final far-future section).

View all my reviews

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.

LOL, with comps. of A. Mulliner

To seize this child by the hand and drag him to the nearest confectioner and baker was with Archibald Mulliner the work of a moment. He pulled out his note-case and was soon in possession of a fine quartern loaf. He thrust it into the child’s hands.

“Bread,” he said, cordially.

The child recoiled. The look of pain on his face had deepened.

“It’s all right,” Archibald assured him. “Nothing to pay. This is on me. A free gift. One loaf, with comps. of A. Mulliner.”

Gently patting the stripling’s head he turned away, modestly anxious to be spared any tearful gratitude, and he had hardly gone a couple of steps when something solid struck a violent blow on the nape of the neck. For an instant, he thought of thunderbolts, falling roofs, and explosions which kill ten. Then, looking down, he perceived the quartern loaf rolling away along the gutter.

The fact was, the child had been a little vexed. At first, when Archibald had started steering him towards the shop, he had supposed my nephew unbalanced. Then, observing that among the objects for sale at the emporium were chocolate bars, jujubes, and all-day suckers, he had brightened a little. Still dubious as to his companion’s sanity, he had told himself that an all-day sucker tastes just as good, even if it proceeds from a dotty donor. And then, just as hope had begun to rise high, this man had fobbed him off with a loaf of bread.

Little wonder that he had chafed. His mood was bitter. And when moods are bitter in Bottleton East direct action follows automatically.

Well, Archibald did what he could. Stooping and picking up the loaf, he darted after the child with bared teeth and flaming eyes. It was his intention to overtake him and fill him up with bread, regardless of his struggles and protests. The thing seemed to him a straight issue. The child needed bread, and he was jolly well going to get it – even if it meant holding him down with one hand and shoving the stuff down his throat with the other. In all the history of social work in London’s East End there can seldom have been an instance of one of the philanthropic rich being more firmly bent on doing good and giving of his abundance.

His efforts, however, were fruitless.

“Archibald and the Masses” in Young Men in Spats