Friday, July 6, 2018

Roth, Tolstoi, and the Meaning of Life

The recent death of Philip Roth has led me to read more of his fiction in an attempt to see why many have called him America's greatest writer.   Indignation and the short novel Everyman show him to be a masterful storyteller who is able to combine humor with pathos; the latter work has an amazing narrative economy, giving us a life story of its nameless protagonist in 180 pages.

But this late fiction is grim, not merely because it shows that "old age is a massacre," a depressing battle zone of pain, medication, and suffering. But because of its bleak view of life as essentially pointless.

Fiction, it is often said, reveals the truth in profound, human terms beyond the ability of philosophers. And what truth, what insight comes to Roth's alter-ego, his aging protagonist as he reviews his troubled life and looks toward death? Gazing at the ocean he has always loved, the narrator is depressed, thinking that life "has been given to him, as to all, randomly, fortuitously, and but once, and for no known or knowable reason."

He is unable to feel gratitude for this unique, random gift of life--and for all the good things in the present moment. Beyond the ongoing, ceaseless misery of life, he is unable to see any value and beauty in each day or in the people in his life.

As I completed Everyman, I thought of another similar but much greater novella: "The Death of Ivan Ilych" by Tolstoi, in which the dying main character moves from a self-directed darkness of despair to the light of gratitude.  He sees in loving, in being loved and cared for, enough reason for his existence.   As Ivan's body dies, his soul comes alive in a mysterious way, and he is no longer tormented by the nihilism that dominates Roth's character.

Human life, Tolstoi suggests, is not pointless after all, even amid the bitterness of isolation and the pain and suffering because Ivan has at last found a "knowable reason" for having lived. The tragedy is that this insight comes so late; but for Tolstoi, and the reader, the point is that the redemptive insight has come. Ivan does not go grimly, hopelessly into the oblivion of death.  He has known love.

You might think that Tolstoi has written a religious story with Christian overtones. Perhaps.  The author's intentions here are not that simple. But there is a depth--call it spirituality if you wish--and a mystery to his dying character that Roth's strictly materialistic character lacks. To me, at least, his story remains ordinary, rooted in postmodern pessimism, whereas Tolstoi's "everyman" story remains profound and profoundly moving.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Heavenly Community

"No one can possibly go to heaven alone--or it would not be heaven."

So concludes a paragraph from one of the Daily Meditations by Richard Rohr, Franciscan author and speaker. He does not explain. And he sounds very certain.

Of course he expects the reader to figure it out by considering the overall reflection:  that the spiritual journey is from isolation to connectedness. Every relationship with people, animals, other cultures, and God is a manifestation of love.

But what about heaven?  We may die alone, I think Rohr is saying, but to enter heaven is to be part of a community of souls who experience a fullness of joy because they are unconditionally loved.  Those who have read beyond the Inferno of Dante know that the poet shows the souls in Purgatory working and singing together on their way to Paradise--in marked contrast to the isolated souls in Hell--and that once there, they are "seated" in a vast, circular  amphitheater, united in their relation to God, whose love they reflect.

So however we imagine heaven to be, it is not a place of loneliness and isolation. Sartre in "No Exit" famously suggested that Hell is other people. In fact, Hell means being cut off from others, from love; and it seems to me that quite often such a hell is experienced on earth. We imagine heaven as something totally different.

To paraphrase St. John of the Cross: I don't know what it will be like there; I only know a great love awaits me.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Being a Magpie, Proudly

Writers are invariably magpies, it seems to me, or at least the ones I admire are: they collect things--quotes, facts, ideas--and put them to new uses in their writing. Without feeling guilty.

I don't feel guilty about saving articles and ideas and borrowing them, as I did today when I found a valuable statement by the late poet J. D. McClatchey on "desire" that I used in completing the preface to a little forthcoming collection of my stories, called "Departures and Desires."  If I had not come upon the McClatchey piece, I would not have thought of the many implications of desire and their relevance to my stories. I am grateful to him just as he would be glad to know his readers are influenced by his words.

Writers must take whatever bits of inspiration they can find. Often, the results are worth publishing.  When I began a comic story called "Losing It" five years ago, I was conscious of following a plot device used by James Thurber--and I hoped readers would see my indebtedness and not accuse me of plagiarism or, more likely, weak imitation.

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I gather ideas from others and comment on them, trying always to give credit, building something new from the scraps: this is the kind of literary magpie made famous by T. S. Eliot in his "The Waste Land."  I  believe Eliot said something like,  "All writers borrow; good writers steal."

Anyone who studies Shakespeare knows how he borrowed lines and ideas from the books he found and, with his lively imagination, turned these borrowings into his memorable verse plays, which are utterly original even in their indebtedness to other works.  This was the traditional way of doing things and still is for many authors.  Yet some writers of fiction assume that creativity means starting from scratch and inventing everything, as if divorced from literary tradition. No wonder they experience writer's block.

Harold Bloom addressed this issue in his book "The Anxiety of Influence."

When we consider our debt to our language and to all we have read, such a notion of total originality is na├»ve. Every fiction writer, no matter how many rules and structures he changes or invents, is making use of what I call creative borrowing, the appropriation and transformation of what we have absorbed in reading. 

I, for one, owe a great debt to the community of writers, living and dead, who continue to feed us.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Black and white fear in America

Brennan Walker, 14, was luckier than many black teenagers in white neighborhoods.  He escaped unhurt when a homeowner, full of the old white fear of the black male, shot at him.

The story is told in today's New York Times and elsewhere:  Walker missed his bus and so decided to walk to high school this week but got lost in a Detroit suburb.  When he knocked on a door to ask directions, the woman who answered the door yelled in panic, assuming the kid was breaking into her house.  (Do burglars knock, usually?)

Her husband picked up immediately on the hysteria and without thinking, grabbed his shotgun and fired at the fleeing youth. Luckily the police did the right thing and arrested the man with the gun.

Much will be written about this story in relation to guns, police, and the law. What hits me is the same type of racist terror that elected Donald Trump--if you accept the plausible theory that white Americans, angry at our two-term black president who was supposed to be followed in office by an equally progressive woman, took out their rage in the election, putting into office a corrupt, incompetent demagogue who appealed to their primitive (anti-immigrant, anti-minority) attitudes.

So it was fear that struck me as the lesson in this case: white fear of black power; and of course, the black fear of the ruling majority.

If only our racism could be eradicated, but that would mean the impossible task of wiping clean the sad history of racial hatred in America and, with it, fear of the "other."

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The scientist as mystic

The novelist David Foster Wallace is quoted as saying, in everyday life, "there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships."  Most of the things we worship, he continues, eat us alive.

He means our ego, our power, our possessions or beauty or intellect; if we put these at the center of our lives, we feel ultimately unsatisfied. We are not the center of the universe, after all, if we look at the Big Picture. People have often thought over the centuries that the natural world belonged to us; we are now beginning to see that we belong to it.

This insight is part of a revealing excerpt from Alan Lightman's book about the scientist as mystic: "Searching for Stars on the Island in Maine."
I am indebted to Maria Popova's recent Brain Pickings newsletter for the excerpt.

The supposed wall of separation between science and religion or spirituality has long been crumbling as more and more scientists embrace mystery and the infinite and actually say, as Lightman does, that "the infinite is not just a lot more of the finite."  He would agree with Carl Sagan, who long ago stated, "The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both."

Lightman, without espousing religion and while remaining an experimental scientist, goes further by saying that nature "tempts us to believe in the supernatural," that we have a natural human longing for absolutes in a world of relative, changeable things.  For this MIT scientist, humanist and writer, the link between science and religion is embedded deep in human nature itself.

In a world of impermanence and imperfection, Lightman, while remaining committed to his work in natural science, also sees the power of the unchangeable, the eternal, the sacred.  He sees these Absolutes--immortality, the soul, even God--as enduring concepts that can anchor and guide us through our temporary lives. He writes lyrically of his transcendent experience one night on the ocean.

Lightman is one of many thinkers who can be at home in both worlds: that of reason and experimentation and that of the unprovable, but nevertheless real, realm of the spirit. I think of the Jesuit scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who is remembered today more as a mystic than as a paleontologist. And reading his dense (translated) prose is a challenge in a way that reading Lightman is not.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Supporting a Corrupt Charlatan

A friend recently asked me, "Why is it that so many people still support Donald Trump, knowing what they know?"

My friend, a progressive, widely read white male, was looking for a logical answer, and I struggled to provide a response that might make sense in a crazy world.

I began with the anti-Obama white working-class men, especially, and some in the financial field who overlook Trump's apparent association with Stormy Daniels and his loose association with the truth.  These voters seem to value, I suggested, Trump's spontaneity and lack of political correctness. As for evangelicals who should be turned off by the White House resident (I refuse to call him the President) and his corruption, his foul mouth, etc., I suggested that anyone for these right-wing voters is better than a progressive Democrat because of the right-wing agenda.

In the final analysis, though, I suggested that the reason is more emotional than rational: Trump appeals to those who feel threatened---fearful--of change, of immigration, of minority advances (gays, women, blacks, Hispanics).  This fear leads to anger and hatred, and no number of inaccuracies, inconsistencies, and outright lies, no amount of incompetence can shake their devotion to the GOP leader.

It's hard to explain to explain to my friend and others the various factors involved, especially the deep-seated resentment that built up, first during the Clinton years, then surged during the Obama years, blinding many on the right to the dangerous character who's now in charge,  a man recently called by former CIA director John Brennan "a disgraced demagogue [whose place is] in the dustbin of history."

In several studies by experts in the American presidency, Trump was ranked last, beating even Warren Harding and James Buchanan as the worst inhabitants of the White House.  They now look like saints compared to this crooked, lazy, ill-informed, impulsive, incoherent, inarticulate scum-bag, whose tenure so far has put the U.S. on a dangerous course.

Trump, as several foreign policy experts have said, keeps creating problems in the world rather than solving those we already have.  Why? He says he like conflict and chaos; he really likes attention and will do and say anything, however reckless, to put himself upfront in the media.   He alarms knowledgeable, sensible people like David Miliband, former British Foreign Secretary, who says we are now at a "most dangerous moment" in world affairs because of the Trump administration.  Trump has made the U.S. something of a rogue state, as unpredictable and dangerous as Russia,  sowing discord with friends with policies on trade that change as fast as you can tweet. Richard Haass calls it a government in disarray.

As Peter Baker of the NYTimes points out (3-18-18), full-time fact-checkers struggle to keep up with Trump's distorted claims. Polls indicate that most Americans see him as dishonest. "While most presidents lie at times, Mr. Trump’s speeches and Twitter posts are embedded with so many false, distorted, misleading or unsubstantiated claims that he has tested even the normally low standards of American politics."
As the media work overtime trying to keep up with the ongoing catastrophe being daily created by Donald Trump, people like my friend, looking for a rational explanation for what support he has, come up short. The answers, as much psychological as political, are rooted in the recent history of this country and in its worship of the entertainment media as a source of power. Where, after all, would Trump be without Fox News to beat the drum for mendacity and madness at the center of our government?

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Making Friends with Death

Today, on a beautiful spring day, when I visited my favorite lakeside park, where snowy egrets were nesting above flowering azalea bushes, where boats with happy passengers glided by on deep blue waters and people were picnicking, why was I thinking of death? 

The reason, as several friends know, is that I have, crazy as it may seem, committed myself to do a talk with discussion at my church in a few weeks in a Lenten program called Making Friends with Death. It is a topic I have long postponed exploring, much less sharing with others.

I begin with the usual fears we have about death even though we know that trees shed their leaves, and animals and people die every day. The people are the only ones who object, calling it an outrage, the ultimate horror and enemy that cancels all we have been.

In a recent article in Commonweal, the Irish literary theorist Terry Eagleton has some suggestive, although incomplete, things to say on the topic of how to think about death.  As soon as one reaches a certain age, it seems inevitable that death and dying should become not merely something that happens to other people but an ever-present reality for each of us.

A friend recently wrote to me: "Now that I am 65, death seems friendlier."
I wish I had that optimism, for I have long had a terror, mainly about the how and the when my life would end, and with it my memories, my voice, my personality, my consciousness, all that is my self.

What will remain?  We don't know. I quote the great mystic and poet John of the Cross: "What will take place on the other side, when everything for me will be changed into eternity, I do not know: I only know that a great love awaits me."

It's impossible to fathom what existing outside of space and time, in a bodiless dimension, might mean. Dante and other poets give us metaphoric interpretations of the afterlife, but it is ultimately a great mystery: believers trust that they will be with God while others see nothing but an endless sleep, a total annihilation of the individual.

So it is a great challenge for a person of faith to look at the New Testament, at Christian tradition, and at his or her own experience and feel confident that when we die we do not end anything, as the Trappist Thomas Keating says, but experience "the final completion of the process of surrender into God." 

Christians, as Eagleton says, believe in the power of the resurrected Christ, which means that death is redeemed; yet at the same time, we see the physical process of death and decay as an abomination, our enemy, since it involves such an irreparable loss.   Death may be natural, but we don't like it or want to be around when it happens to us.

So my presentation will be provocative, daring, and difficult but I hope illuminating, at least for me, as I complete my thoughts on the great mystery that awaits us all.