Saturday, May 31, 2014

Sentences to Die For

This post has nothing to do with capital punishment (death sentences!) but with those gems of prose style that I collect and savor, often wishing I had written them.

I do so in part because reading good prose--the kind that is carefully, creatively constructed--is what keeps me fresh as a writer.

And I am a connoisseur of sentences because, again this summer, I will be teaching a writing workshop (at the Winter Park Public Library from June 26-July 31).  I want my students to see how many sentence patterns there are, many worthy of imitation, and what options they have as writers. Of course, I will stress the importance of one overriding fact: the key to good writing is wide, careful reading in which we pay attention to the style of sentences, whether the author is writing fiction or non-fiction.

A number of good writers have emphasized the sentence as the key area of writing (and revision), the unit to focus on. Kathryn Schulz in a recent web post singles out Geoff Dyer, an English writer, for his mastery of non-fiction sentences that catch her eye and ear. She finds that Dyer (author of The Color of Memory) reaches new heights in extending the possibilities of the individual sentence.

For example, on a saxophone solo by John Coltrane Dyer writes, "It's pretty and then dangerous as he reaches so high the sky blues into the darkness of space before reentering, everything burning up around him."

Like Coltrane's music, Dyer reaches, as he does with the daring use of "blues": it serves, as Schulz points out, as verb, noun and adjective at the same time, making it seem "like the solo is still rising and what's falling is the sky."

This is poetic prose, highly calculated to dazzle. And it can be found in many places.  I don't know if I would be able to tolerate too many sentences like the one by Dyer; but one is all I need.

I often find in the New Yorker examples of less fancy but clever sentences that exemplify the left-handed (or periodic) pattern that is worth emulating, in which the modifiers pile up ahead of the main clause, as in this opening sentence by Anthony Lane, reviewing a current movie:

"Wrinkled and crinkled, huge in Japan, heroically reluctant to give up, and forever touring the world on a mission to make us scream, Godzilla is the Mick Jagger of giant amphibians."

I love this sentence not just because of the witty Jagger-Godzilla analogy, which I would never have thought of, but because the main clause--about Godzilla-- comes as a delightful surprise after the calculated opening.  Lane has the ability to make reviewing a Hollywood film into something of a work of art--delightful to readers with no interest in such movies.

I will, no doubt, as the summer progresses, share more sentences and commentary about the importance of the well-crafted sentence as the essence of good writing.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Science, faith and oversimplifying

Many thinking people have various objections to religious belief, many coming from the head rather than the heart. One of these is that, while we long for a comprehensive view of the world, faith oversimplifies the complexities of reality and conflicts with what reason tells us.

Damon Linker made this point last month on the web. He goes on:  "The tendency to oversimplification is a perennial temptation for all forms of human thinking, but it's especially acute in matters of religion. . . .There is a whole, and it can be grasped. But it is a complex whole.  A pluralistic whole."

My recent research on Jesuit scientists in history came to mind as I read that statement. I was reminded of my own education by men of faith who were also scholars; they did not see any necessary conflict between science and the life of the mind, on the one hand, and religious belief on the other. They gave us who were their students a sense that every difficult question should be looked at in the broadest possible context.

A principal example of this approach is the Jesuit scientist Teilhard de Chardin, a distinguished geologist who was also a mystic and philosopher, a passionate intellectual who died in 1955 (under Vatican censure because of his then-radical views of evolution that are now accepted). He did not oversimplify but sought to make connections that he perceived in the natural world he studied.

Teilhard's writing is difficult--full of general assertions that are often unclear--and I have been wrestling with understanding him for some years. Lately, I have returned to him, reading two books that help clarify the essential points where his stance as a scientist and his Christian faith come together in a holistic vision.

Like many Jesuits, Teilhard remains on the edge--or at the point of intersection between the world and God. He went further than most with a comprehensive view of life that is seen from the evolutionary as well as the spiritual perspective.

He came to see evolution as more than physical: it is also, he insists, psychological and spiritual--and sacred. Because of the Incarnation, he sees the presence of God in all things, even in the unfolding over time of the evolutionary process through what he calls the energy of love.

Dante speaks of love as the divine energy that moves the planets--a mystical and poetic medieval idea that Teilhard, with his deep understanding of the physical world, advances in daring ways.  Ilia Delio has written several books on the relation between science and religion from the perspective of Teilhard, and her explanation of what love means in his writing is the first one that makes sense to me.

In stating that the "physical structure of the universe is love," that love is the building power even in molecules, Teilhard seems to mean love is that which unites. The inherent tendency to unite--even at the molecular level, says Delio--means that "to be" means "to be united."  Being is relational and exists for the sake of giving. "I do not exist," she writes, "in order that I may possess; I exist in order that I may give of myself."  (emphasis added)
(Teilhard has invented a whole new metaphysics, it seems.)

Cosmic life is essentially communal, and the energy of love is not a romantic cliché but a principle (for Teilhard) that involves giving and sharing; being comes from union, and "union is always toward more being."
If this makes sense, as it is starting to for me, we can see what Delio, along with Ursula King and others, mean when they say that Teilhard's vision is a way out of materialism; reality is not only that which can be known empirically.

Rationalists would say that love is secondary to knowledge; mystics like Teilhard would put love first: they add a whole new dimension to the understanding of reality by insisting that love is the goal and purpose of all knowledge, that is, the love-energy that drives the evolutionary process toward an fulfillment in the cosmic Christ.  (It seems that Dante in 1321 was on to something!)

And you thought, maybe, that science and religion were inevitably opposed?

There is in Teilhard's vision, however difficult it may be to articulate, an underlying optimism, rooted in faith and in the conviction that all things in their relatedness, their love, are leading human nature through evolution to a final fulfillment at the end of time that is positive. How could love not be positive, hopeful, and optimistic?

If you want to learn more about Teilhard, see Ursula King's biography Spirit of Fire (I found it moving) and Delio's The Unbearable Wholenss of Being, a challenging read that might serve as an introduction to Teilhard's own books, The Phenomenon of Man and The Divine Milieu.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The power of memory

Yesterday I gave a lecture on the amazing Jesuit who brought Western science to China in the early 17th century, Matteo Ricci.  One of the most dazzling of his achievements was his prodigious memory. He found the Chinese language perfectly adapted to his system, called a memory palace, of associating letters or words with images.

As a result, he could memorize an entire Chinese text and recite it to the Mandarin scholars in Beijing, then recite the whole thing backwards, to everyone's amazement. This was part of his being accepted in an alien culture hostile to foreigners. Jonathan Spence, in "The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci," explains the complex process by which he did so.

In today's New York Times, I happened to see an article by Benedict Carey about an international Extreme Memory Tournament in which contestants do much the same thing as Ricci and his Jesuit colleagues did in the Renaissance.  Ricci's name is (surprisingly) not mentioned, even though the term "memory palace," popularized by Spence's book, should have made Ricci  familiar enough to warrant a mention.

At any event, as I told my audience yesterday, in earlier, oral cultures, with fewer texts available, the memory skills of people were stretched in ways that we can barely imagine.  Ricci, thirty years after finishing his education in classics in Italy, could recall entire passages of poetry or prose from his youth and quote them verbatim, before translating them into Chinese, in the many books he wrote during his 27 years in the Middle Kingdom, where he is still honored as a cultural ambassador.

In today's world of memory athletes, neuroscientists are interested in testing how contestants from Germany, a leader in such work, and other countries can associate words or numbers already memorized with places, such as with scenes from a movie. Or the rooms in a house or palace.

It takes them many, many hours of concentrated effort to achieve what Ricci and his contemporaries 400 years ago were able to do with seemingly effortless ease.  Perhaps one day we will understand how they did so as we learn more and more about the brain and the human memory.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Praying in Public

The recent Supreme Court case involving the town of Greece, NY and the "issue" of prayer in public meetings has prompted much attention, none of it as valuable, for my money, than the blog post of Morgan Guyton, "Would Jesus Pray at a City Council Meeting?"

Guyton brings me back to my old topic of contemplative prayer and the need to create a monastery within where we rest in God. Silence and solitude are required. I have published several articles on such themes as well as numerous posts.

So I was pleased to see Mr. Guyton refer to prayer as creating a monastery "where we can sit and enjoy the presence of God." He thinks of praying as going to one's inner room, as Jesus did, and praying to the Father in secret. The result is an intimacy that is clearly incompatible with public meetings.

  How can we have an intimate conversation with God if prayer becomes "a public performance and an inner farce," as implied in the arguments presented to the court?

  I don't think Guyton wishes to rule out the validity of community prayer or the church as a praying community, but his emphasis on the private, personal nature of prayer as an intimate connection with the divine is important.

"No inner monastery is created by a prayer that has been clipped onto the beginning of a secular meeting," Guyton writes. And I say 'Amen.'

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Reading is Creative

We all know that writing is a creative act, but many of us overlook the fact that reading, which is such an inseparable part of writing, also involves the reader's imagination in ways that literary theorists and neurobiologists have been studying for some time.

I was reminded of the work of Norman Holland of the University of Florida and others when I encountered a blog by Nicholas Carr a few months back. He writes about how narrative literature "takes hold of the brain in curious and powerful ways."

It seems that, as we read a story, our own experiences and knowledge join with the narrative to create something like a dream of the work we read, and we inhabit that dream as if it were an actual place, Carr says.

You might be thinking, "Of course, I know that reading, like immersion in a film, is emotionally engaging and absorbing, that we lose ourselves."  But did you know that experiencing strong feelings from a fictional work can cause alterations in brain functions?  I don't know how the reactions a reader has can ever be measured in a laboratory, but the mounting evidence from various researchers about the social and psychological implications of reading is impressive.

Quoting Keith Oatley as well as Holland, Carr says that "a book is rewritten in the mind of every reader, and the book rewrites the reader's mind in a unique way, too."  An astounding statement.

Does reading literature make us more attentive to the real-life feelings of others around us? Do we become more empathetic?  Such are some of the imponderables as we consider what happens when the reader withdraws from his or her own world into a fictive world, which can be a way to connect more deeply into the inner lives of ourselves and "others"--even if these others are imagined characters.

If reading fiction can alter the reader's personality in various ways, imagine what happens cognitively to the writer, who both creates alternate worlds and, in revising his work, becomes the first reader of this work--and is changed in ways yet to be determined.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Joy of Anxiety (?)

There is little pleasure and no joy in living in that heightened state of fearful apprehension known as anxiety. Yet we know that the imagination, spurred by fears of what might happens, can thrive on anxiety, which T. S. Eliot called the handmaiden of creativity.

This is the basis for an odd little essay by Katie Roiphe, "The Joy of Stress," which tends to equate stress with anxiety and which shows little inside understanding of the subject. No surprise: the author, with a Ph.D. in English, has a reputation as noted feminist and like many younger academics today, seems to have avoided conventional literary scholarship for cultural studies and journalism.

As such she can pontificate about anxiety as if she knows something about it.  Roiphe seems to associate anxiety with the high generated by an extra shot of caffeine.  Her suggestions:  calmness is not as attractive (exciting) as anxiety, which gives a crisp focus to our days. The result is a kind of perversely pleasurable sensation. In fact, "if you are safe and secure, you are bored. If you feel comfortable, you lack desire."

She intends to raise provocative questions but ends up making empty statements, even for a journalist tackling a topic in the social sciences that it too much for her.  For example, "some. . .widespread anxiety may be clinical. But much of it is surely a cast of mind, an atmosphere, a style."

Oh? It's something we can adopt or drop at will?  And if we want to live on the edge and be creative, we might consider maintaining the vitality of anxiety?

Perhaps there are times when people thrive on being anxious and enjoy the rush, but, for me, there is little joy in living on a high wire.