Ursula K. Le Guin, 1929-2018

This confirms my sense that I have been allowed to use my life well, in work that was worth the time spent on it. Many people might see my two principal occupations as incompatible: being a middle-class American intellectual/wife/housewife/mother of three children, and being a writer. I won’t say that doing both jobs at once was easy, but I can report, from very late in the life in question, that I found some inevitable conflict but no incompatibility between the two. Little abnegation was demanded, and no sacrifice of life for art or art for life. On the contrary, each nourished and supported the other so deeply that, looking back, they all seem one thing to me.

Sad to hear of Ursula Le Guin’s passing – for my money the best contemporary American novelist around. The above is from her introduction to the essay collection, Words are my Matter.

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Give me the same chance you would an olive

I merely say ‘Think it over.’ It is nothing to cause you mental distress. Other men love you. Freddie Threepwood loves you. Just add me to that list. That is all I ask. Muse on me from time to time. Reflect that I may be an acquired taste. You probably did not like olives the first time you tasted them. Now you probably do. Give me the same chance you would an olive.

Psmith, proposing, in P. G. Wodehouse’s Leave it to Psmith

Strangeness and Familiarity

At the beginning of Mark Noll’s America’s God, which I recently started, he states the following:

… my hope for [America’s God] is that it might approach the ideal expressed by Caroline Walker Bynum in her remarkable study of the meaning of food for religious women in the Middle Ages. Bynum’s Holy Feast and Holy Fast is, she wrote, “about then, not about now…. My commitment, vision, and method are historical; I intend to reveal the past in its strangeness as well as its familiarity. My point is to argue that women’s behavior and women’s writing must be understood in the context of social, economic, and ecclesiastical structures, theological and devotional traditions, very different from our own. If readers leave this book simply condemning the past as peculiar, I shall have failed. But I shall have failed just as profoundly if readers draw direct answers to modern problems from the lives I chronicle.”

I think threading this needle – of avoiding the temptation of “simply condemning the past as peculiar” or alternatively “drawing direct answers to modern problems” – is the key to good historical writing (whether it is straight history, or biography of historical figures, or historical fiction or whatever). My complaint with Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo biography is that he drew too direct of a line between Leonardo and the white collar worker (me) listening to the audiobook on my commute to my cubicle. Alternatively, a large part of my appreciation of Penelope Fitzgerald’s historical novels is that she achieves this balance with such economy and grace. The two temptations Bynum mentions often work in tandem: to draw a direct lesson to our current moment frequently requires that anything that doesn’t “fit” gets condemned as impossibly peculiar (or ignored as irrelevant). It’s hard to hold the whole in mind. Of course, maintaining an alertness to both strangeness and familiarity is the key not just to good historical writing, but to being a good reader of history as well. Although really, a certain attentiveness to others, an attempt to keep the whole in mind,  is just good life advice, irrespective of its importance for writing and reading.

F

The lights in the subway shrink, become a single patch, then disappear. Beauty has no need of art, it has no need of us, either, it has no need of witnesses, quite the opposite. Gaping observers detract from it, it blazes most brightly where no one can see it: broad landscapes devoid of houses, the changing shapes of clouds in the early evening, the washed-out grayish red of old brick walls, bare trees in winter mists, cathedrals, the reflection of the sun in a puddle of oil, the mirrored skyscrapers of Manhattan, the view out an airplane window right after it’s climbed through the layer of clouds, old people’s hands, the sea at any time of day, and empty subway stations like this one—the yellow light, the haphazard pattern of cigarette butts on the ground, the peeling advertisements, still fluttering in the slipstream of the train, although the train itself has just disappeared.

From Daniel Kehlmann’s fragmented, clever, challenging F. In a book stocked with Karamazov-ian echoes (distorted and playful as they are), Kehlmann makes Ivan Friedland his “Alyosha” (i.e. an attempt to write a fundamentally good character) – and in the process gives his Rubik’s cube of a novel a beating heart.

Advent Reading

Here comes the winter night. If we were our oldest ancestors, tucked into draughty recesses of caves with blue hands hugged around us as we slept, we’d be dreaming of summer: we’d be using our human freedom to step away from circumstances to wish that all mornings were June mornings, all noons burned yellow in the sky, all days ended in easy heat under green trees. But for us the night laps comfortably around warm houses. From within our walls the cold seems something to relish. The sharp air outdoors drives the blood from the surface of our fingers only so the soft air inside can return it, tingling. The darkness beyond the window glass gives us the black outer frame for winter comforts like a still-life. Red curtains, green leeks chopped for soup, oranges in a bowl. All glow more because they stand out from a border of shadow.

The opening of “Winter Night”  in Francis Spufford’s essay collection, True Stories & Other Essays (which is as good as one might expect). I don’t have any new recommendations to add to my previous Advent reading ideas (which I still think aren’t too bad). It’s not that there isn’t other stuff out there, I just haven’t really had time to search out new texts for the season.

A lot of my reading this time of year is now taken over with toddlers’ picture books about Christmas and Advent, and I have to say that most of them are pretty bad (ranging from the foolishly sentimental to what can only be described as crass money-grab schemes by publishers trying to cash in on Christmas consumerism). A notable exception is Song of the Stars, written by Sally Lloyd-Jones and illustrated by Alison Jay (and I’m sure there are others out there that I’m forgetting or haven’t found yet) which captures the links between the doctrines of creation and incarnation. The book illustrates well the idea that in the incarnation the Creator has come to his own creation – as Athanasius … or Irenaeus … or Gregory Nazianzen (one of those old, bearded guys, anyway) says – and they’re really just echoing John 1 – which should get more Advent season airplay in our contemporary moment. So there you go, I’ve given you an Advent reading recommendation after all.

Oliver O’Donovan on Pride

But when we are simply ‘proud,’ we have not kept our satisfaction focused on the concrete object, just one accomplishment among many accomplishments, but have taken it into our moral self-consciousness. The achievement drops out of sight; what remains is the standing that it leaves us with. This halts in its tracks the dynamic progress of practical reason from one provisional end to the next, from faith to love to hope and back to love again, keeping faith and hope in play until the final end is reached. Pride thus makes absolute the sins against self, world, and time. Agency is re-founded on what we have made of ourselves, instead of being received afresh in faith as God’s gift. The social world becomes our prey, raw material for our self-valuation. Time is seized and over-mastered, since it cannot be endured. The proud individual, people, or civilization no longer learns or does, for it is always having to maintain its position, scanning the world of appearances for proof of its power, technique, or wealth. At the root of its impotence is a moral vacuum, an intolerable doubt as to the point of existence, an inability to live without a surrogate for the meaning it has lost sight of.

Oliver O’Donovan, Entering into Rest

Ellen Ullman in 1998

I fear for the world the Internet is creating. Before the advent of the web, if you wanted to sustain a belief in far-fetched ideas, you had to go out into the desert, or live on a compound in the mountains, or move from one badly furnished room to another in a series of safe houses. Physical reality—the discomfort and difficulty of abandoning one’s normal life—put a natural break on the formation of cults, separatist colonies, underground groups, apocalyptic churches, and extreme political parties.

But now, without leaving home, from the comfort of your easy chair, you can divorce yourself from the consensus on what constitutes “truth.” Each person can live in a private thought bubble, reading only those websites that reinforce his or her desired beliefs, joining only those online groups that give sustenance when the believer’s courage flags.

Ellen Ullman, Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology, in an essay from 1998 titled “Museum of Me.”