Sunday, October 30, 2011

How Past is the Past?

"The past is never dead," William Faulkner famously wrote. "It's not even past."

You don't have to know anything about Faulkner's fiction, steeped in the history of the American South, or about T. S. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent," to appreciate the presence of the past in and around us.* What is true of writing and language, where our most innovative fiction is determined by literary precedents going back many centuries, is more concretely evident from the perspective of science.

Some of this was brought home in a memorable documentary from Chile, "Nostalgia for the Light," by Patricio Guzman, who is concerned with two discrete but related activities in the Atacama Desert: archeologists and concerned relatives searching for human remains while astronomers using this unique, humid-free lunar-like landscape to study distant stars.

The result is not always as coherent or clear as it might be, but this film about remembering is totally original and provocative. I recommend it--despite subtitles that should be yellow instead of white for greater legibility.

Not only are people looking for pre-Columbian artifacts in the Chilean desert, but women, whose men disappeared during the 1973 regime of Pinochet search--seemingly in vain--for shards of their bones. They gain some comfort from the presence of astronomers, who are able to put the pain of loss in the cosmic context of the life cycle: the calcium in our bones was there from the beginning, from the Big Bang; and we learn, too, that the same calcium the stars are made of is in us--and of course in the bones being dug up by the grieving women.

The astronomers are searching for the ultimate past, the origin of the universe. And their search finds a perfect home in this desert, where the women and others are searching for the more immediate past, whose energy in terms of light years affects all life on earth.

(If only Shakespeare knew this he could have written: "we are such stuff as stars are made on.")

What emerges in this film is a meditation on time and the unity of creation. The present, we are reminded,is only a construct of the mind; the mind gives us the only absolute present we know. Even the image we see now before us is delayed by the speed of light reaching the earth and so we live "behind the times."

If all this sounds confusing, it can be, but I am grateful that Guzman has made this important film. It reminds me of the impossibility of separating the past from the present, or from the future, which is just the past getting younger (as my wife, Lynn, likes to say).

*I cited Eliot's essay because I remembered him making a memorable remark about culture in the "bones," and this is now, thanks to Guzman's film, apparent to me on the genetic level: The poet must live in the "present moment of the past" and write "not merely with his own generation in his bones but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe" is present, in a historical sense, whereby the "timeless and the temporal" together make a writer traditional. (I never thought I could capture the main idea that essay in one sentence, if I have.)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Vatican Gets One Right

After missing the mark for years on many aspects of sexual morality, after disgracefully mishandling the sexual abuse crisis in the church, the Vatican has spoken on the right side of history on the current Occupy Wall Street issue in a statement yesterday that got less attention in the mainstream media than it deserved.

In keeping with statements by modern popes going back to Leo XIII, the Catholic Church sided with the protesters around the world demanding more economic equality. It advocated an overhaul of the world's economic system in the context of the universal common good rather than the individualized greed that has dominated Wall Street and its counterparts elsewhere.

In a powerful statement attacking what it calls the "idolotry of the market," the Vatican Council for Justice and Peace sent the world's leaders a much-needed message insisting that prudent regulation of the financial system is a moral priority.

I hope the various Catholic Republican leaders in the U.S. Congress, who are happy when the church takes stances on life issues in keeping with the conservative agenda, pay attention to this statement and realize that the issue of justice involved in this movement transcends politics. If they are to remain Catholics, they have to do more than defend the life of the unborn. What about justice for those who are born into an unjust society?

To those in the media who seem surprised that the Vatican would be on the progressive/liberal side, I can only say, look at what the popes from 1880 or so on have said about social justice and the rights of individuals. Their critique of uncontrolled capitalism has now been articulated in stronger language than before. And it is most welcome.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Loving those we dislike

"Love thy neighbor as thyself." When I reflected on these words today, after hearing them read in church for the millionth time, I began to think how impossible the whole idea is: how can I love others (except in general) when I dislike so many of them?

I hate to admit it, but I am a highly critical person who must work hard to overcome a tendency to find fault in others and not accept them as they are. I have truly loved only a handful of people in my life.

Yet the word "love" in English is inadequate to express the meaning of "love thy neighbor." Jesus probably means--unless he was using hyperbole to challenge his audience, knowing full well that it's nearly impossible to have the same feelings for people we hardly know as we do for ourselves--to care for those who need help. In other words, agape or selfless, spiritual love.

Love is essentially an act of the will, not a surge of happy feelings. That's eros or romantic love, which is different from the love for friends, to mention the more obvious types of loving.

Countless books have been written on all this, of course. Erich Fromm's The Art of Loving always seemed one of the best and clearest. Rollo May's Love and Will makes some good basic distinctions between romance and selfless love, which is what the Gospel message is all about. Both books are classics, for good reason.

Selfless love involves choosing to put aside my own comforts and help someone in need, or simply care enough about them to be compassionate, to pray for them. Even if I don't want to spend more than five minutes in their company.

Since I do some of this routinely, I guess I am not as self-centered as I thought; and I think I understand more of what "love thy neighbor" means, even if it seems at times like an impossible challenge.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

What is Style?

Listening to Tony Bennett, singing with various luminaries on his "Duets" album this week, I am not aware that I am listening to an 80-year-old legend (now 85 or so) who outshines most of his singing partners. I hear only the familiar voice of a master vocalist, and I appreciate him now more than I did 40-plus years ago.

He's a master stylist, especially in the way he, k.d.lang and a great jazz trumpeter turn the old song "Because of You" into something memorable. In part because it is slow and you savor every word, every note. Something ordinary is turned into the extraordinary. Bennett expresses great feeling, an intelligent, mellow feeling and a sound that's ageless.

That's, I suppose, what style is: something indefinable, something to do with feelings truly felt and expressed artfully, perfectly, uniquely. It's not something you can learn.

I heard it again this week in one of Don McLean's old songs, "Crying," a Ray Orbison classic that McLean turns into an unforgettable aria.

As I think about style in general, about writing style, which I aim to teach each year, I realize again how impossible it is to explain; it is there to be experienced. Some analysis of sentence structure and word choice are important in any discussion of prose style, but the overall tone is unique to each individual who writes. Some have a keen ear for language and rhythm, just as some develop an ear for music; with practice, they can display their own style. A few will become masters.

Tony Bennett and Don McLean are masters. I am grateful to have re-discovered their art and their ability to slow down the pace of my life with their songs.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Death of the Footnote

A recent NYTimes piece by Alexandra Horowitz on the lowly, often-derided footnote is really an essay about change: from the printed book, where scholars can wage a war--or at least a battle or two with opponents--at the bottom of the page, to the e-book, set up without conventional pages. If e-books are not killing ordinary books, they are apparently killing the page as we know it, i.e., a unit of text with a top and a bottom.

I lament the death of the page, and of the book (which I believe will survive) but not the footnote.

As a teacher, I generally required endnotes rather than footnotes from my students in their research papers and theses. As a student, I hated doing footnotes because I had to leave adequate space at the bottom of the page while typing; but such, I learned, was the life of a beginning scholar, who establishes his or her reputation by citing authorities. I came to enjoy reading many a long footnote for the role it played in academic skirmishes but never tried to emulate this use of the note.

The reality is that both footnotes and endnotes tend to go unread by most readers, even in academic work, and they are routinely dismissed as a nuisance, an interruption, by general readers. It's possible that the scholarly footnote might be seen as a sign of insecurity on the part of the young scholar, eager to establish his or her authority. And it can be tempting to put controversial ideas in the footnote rather than in the text of a chapter or article, where they would have to be fully developed. I have seen a few footnotes that were misleading in this way, like throw-away lines that call for more explanation. So footnotes will not be missed.

But Anthony Grafton in his History of the Footnote insists that the footnote is essential; it offers the needed proof that the scholar has consulted the appropriate archives; thus the footnote, much preferable to the easily overlooked endnote, is a badge of legitimacy. There is nothing anachronistic about the footnote, says he, concerned as he is with professional historians like himself.

"Like the high whine of the dentist's drill, the low rumble of the footnote on the historian's page reassures: the tedium it inflicts, like the pain inflicted by the drill, is not random but directed, part of the cost that the benefits of modern science and technology exact."

I quote this sentence in part because I admire its elegance; Grafton is a fine stylist. And because it shows, as does the whole discussion, that any topic, however lowly or dull, can be turned into something interesting, even witty, in the right hands. Such is good writing.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Being Ayn Rand

I could never understand the appeal of Ayn Rand or see why otherwise intelligent folk, even big shots like Alan Greenspan, were/are devoted fans.

After seeing an excellent Showtime movie starring Helen Mirren, "The Passion of Ayn Rand," the appeal becomes more understandable. The movie reveals the emptiness of this Russian-born novelist's ideas and her own absurdity. An opening scene reveals much: she has died, and cult-like followers are lined up to see the corpse, which is situated beneath a gold statue of the dollar sign.

So it's capitalism, ruthless individualism, and selfishness presented with impressive-sounding jargon like "social metaphysics" that would appeal to some right-wing types even today, 29 years after her death. This movie, which deals chiefly with Rand's unorthodox sex life, also reveals the truth of her "philosophy," which has duped many readers for the past fifty years. It is wonderful to see Rand contradict herself in scene after scene. Extolling the virtue of reason, she is, in the deft hands of Mirren, a passionate advocate of herself at all cost.

Who cares if others are hurt badly by her actions? Who cares if she laughs at altruism ("the cowardice of self-sacrifice") and claims that every emotion can be controlled by logic and reason, even when the story of her life as a adulteress reveals just the opposite?
Everyone else, as she says, is a "lesser person" incapable of understanding her genius. She is portrayed as a person tragically incapable of love.

The life of Ayn Rand, it seems, is a study in the dubious appeal of self-interest, which is at the root of most evil and as appealing as evil can be. It demonstrates how easily many people are taken in by simple answers to complex issues.

Just before viewing this movie, I read several articles on evil as seen by neuroscientists, who are claiming these days to have the key to all wisdom. One promiment neuroscientist, Steven Pinker, uses data to support his dubious contention that people are becoming less violent, with each passing century. Others ask whether science has finally destroyed evil, or disproved it, as they claim to disprove free will.

As Will Wilkinson points out in a recent blog, the existence of evil can't be proved or disproved by looking at human brains since evil is not a neurological reality. Anyone who doubts the existence of evil is "just confused." And what about people who are apparently normal (not lacking empathy, not being psychopathological) and still do awful things?

I would send anyone interested in exploring evil today, not to neuroscience but to Terry Eagleton's recent book On Evil. He may be a Marxist, but his view of the subject is essentially in keeping with the mainstream Christian tradition going back to Augustine.

As one who used to teach courses in evil, I am glad to see the topic re-surface regularly in the secular sphere. As for the possibility that there is less violence, hatred, and attendant evils than in the past, I can only think of otherwise intelligent people like Ayn Rand, who scoffed at the very things the world needs more of if it is to "overcome" evil: empathy and altruism and love.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Managing Pain

Lately, while dealing with my own minor muscular pains, I have been mindful of three friends with much more serious, chronic pain. One of the women is dying of cancer; the other two have tried various treatments with no success. I hope my prayers for them do some good.

I am reminded of the saying: Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional. Viktor Frankl in his classic book, Man's Search for Meaning, is emphatic in saying that is that our ultimate freedom is to "choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances." He believes, based on his experience as a young man dealing with the Holocaust, that a positive attitude toward pain can circumvent suffering. If we have a reason to live, if we choose to focus on love or a positive goal, we can overcome any temporary pain.

But so much depends on the individual's sensitivity and tolerance for physical pain. As Joan Halifax points out in an important chapter in her book Being with Dying, suffering is the story we tell ourselves about the pain we feel. If suffering is an attitude we choose, can we rise above it, putting even the pain in its place?

As an experienced caregiver, Halifax has some valuable insights. While believing that pain medication is often necessary, she suggests that pain can teach us various lessons (about compassion, patience) if we don't let our fear overwhelm us.

Why do we fear pain? Do we fear that we will become its victim as it grows worse and worse? We become afraid it will devour us. "But when the pain is really great, we might feel so desperate to deal with it that our desperation generates the courage we need to meet it."

I am reminded of Tolstoi's great classic, "The Death of Ivan Ilych," in which the dying man, after great agony, finally--at the very end of his suffering--lets go and is somehow able to distance himself from his body and its pain. His soul comes alive, as his body dies, and he begins to ask the ultimate question, What is it all about? Why have I not lived the right kind of life? Somehow, Tolstoi has convincingly dramatized the reality of suffering giving way to release, taking us closer to this fictional character than we are ever likely to get to a real person.

Halifax says that some patients are able to focus their attention away from the pain to something pleasant or healing; distraction can be helpful. Sometimes, being fully present to our own pain can decrease its negative experience.

Each person's experience in dealing with pain, as Halifax wisely shows, tends to be different. But it's clear that the tendency many of us have to obsess about our condition, to allow our fears to build, makes matters worse and can be changed. Having the caring presence of another is very helpful, but even when we are alone, as we ultimately are in such cases, we need not despair. Pain does not last forever. "Even great pain is impermanent. More importantly, it is not who we really are." Thank you, Joan Halifax, for this and for helping me think about the fear associated with pain.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Why do we love to hate?

Andy Borowitz, in his frequent, sends out faux news bulletins that are often fine (and funny) examples of satire, in contrast to much of the cynical humor that passes for satire in the media. I recommend him to anyone unfamiliar with his work.

In his post for Oct. 8, Borowitz announces a "poll" showing that the possibility of a race between a black man and a Mormon for president in 2012 poses a dilemma for that part of the voting public who hate both groups. Their only source of relief: no woman is in the race, or so it seems at this still early date.

We may smile or laugh at such a bit of "news," but the truth is that hatred, which usually goes by some other name, comes naturally to many people. Perhaps that's why the Christian principle of "love thy neighbor" is often impossible for many to follow.

Early on, we learn to put others down in an effort to mask our own insecurities and feel (however briefly) more powerful. There is always some group--those different from us--who can be condescendingly accepted or rather--because more fun--castigated as inferior, unworthy, etc. In short, we love to hate, and history is replete with examples of one group hating others enough to kill them.

I recall the chilling short story by Shirley Jackson, "The Lottery," which seems to suggest that traditions in general are to blame, though the story is open to many and varied interpretations. Her fable takes place in a small, all-American town where the annual custom is for the townsfolk to select a lottery "winner" to be stoned to death by everyone else. The elders warn that breaking this ancient custom is wrong, but the younger generations do not protest; they carry on this horrifying ritual, perhaps because they need an outlet for their fears.

I see fear as the greatest threat to everyday happiness and civilization. Fear (of the stranger) can quickly turn to anger, which turns to hate and often to violence: this is the pattern found in racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of hatred, each of which gives the hater a reason for living. The white supremacist has learned that hatred can be a kind of energy, a source of fufillment.

At least such racists tend to be open about their feelings, unlike so many in the voting population today, who are full of a resentment that they cloak in patriotic or Christian garb. They end up hating in the name of religion or ideology and as such end up repeating some of the worst lessons, which they never learned, from the past.

The study of hatred shows how much harder loving is than hating. Hating others, as any schoolboy bully knows, requires little effort. Teaching one another how to respect, accept, and love one another more fully is what education and religion should be about.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Searching for God

In a new book, The Quest for God and the Good, which I have only read excerpts of, Diana Lobel uses the word "God" to mean the ultimate principle of the universe, the source of all existence, knowledge and value. She says (in an interview) that the divine or absolute is what's at the heart of reality, is what assures our existence and gives life meaning.

So far so good: a possible response to the spate of new atheists with best-sellers in recent years (Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris)?

I'm not sure. The philosophical God searched for here is closer to Plato's idea of the Good. There is no personal divinity with a will who creates and sustains life. There is no "personhood" involved, as theologians would say.

Still, it's important that a contemporary thinker and academic would put God in the title of a book and consider the name coterminous with the mystery of life and existence. It's refreshing to find a serious secular writer today claim that when we look at the world, we see significance, that if anything in the world has value it is "because there is an ultimate source or principle of worth." Does this make Lobel a theist?

If not, she is at least moving in a positive direction. But I still want to hear something a little warmer, some definition that includes love as the divine energy propelling the universe. When contemplatives like Thomas Merton confronted an unknown God in the solitude and silence of their hearts, did they find a principle?

Monday, October 3, 2011

Our Interconnections

Two events recently converged to remind me of the way people, often isolated, are really related. The first has to do with the often-neglected practice of expressing gratitude to those who have influenced us: teachers and writers, among others.

A perfect "stranger" wrote to my wife Lynn, author of a book of poetry, Planting the Voice, published 22 years ago and, while not forgotten,has been mainly overlooked as she has moved on to other types of writing. A fellow-poet, who has admired Lynn's poems for years, somehow found our e-mail address and expressed with elegance and sincerity his appreciation of her work and its influence on him over the years. Wow.

Such things are rare. In publishing a few articles last year, one or two "fans" contacted me, and once in a while a former student will write to say how much my classes meant to him or her. Mostly, however, people are too busy or too shy. Or they just don't realize how important expressions of gratitude are, how much every one of my readers, every one of my students, has acquired some insight from me, just as I continue to reflect gratefully on my teachers in St. Louis and elsewhere who introduced me to the study of language and literature--and all I have learned from reading, which is not an isolating activity.

We don't need Harold Bloom to remind us (in The Anxiety of Influence)that writers cannot exist in a vacuum but are constantly indebted to the web of the sources they have stepped into. What is true for writers is also true in other areas.

I was reminded of this yesterday in reading some of Joan Halifax's Being with Dying, where she talks with honesty and eloquence about suffering and the importance of being a companion to those who are ill or near death.

"Life connects us to one another," she writes, "as do suffering, joy, death and enlightenment." She goes on to say she cannot separate herself from a dying person, even if she must struggle to understand his or her needs and the mystery of dying.

Thomas Merton has written about how he feels connected to unseen people in the midst of his solitude and silence: it is a community of prayer. "No man is an island." Yet, for anyone who works alone, it is easy to feel isolated, neglected, unaware of the debt we owe to many, both living and dead, who have made possible the human community that sustains us all. On the political level, this is a lesson many have long forgotten, especially given the tradition of American individualism.

I am grateful to Lynn's poet-friend for not taking this for granted (and to the Internet for making such communion possible in new ways).

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Hatred and Ignorance

Some things, like hatred of others and ignorance, never change. Just a few well-known examples from the recent news:

1. At the last GOP debate among the various contenders for the presidential nomination, a serviceman serving in Iraq, Stephen Hill, identified himself as gay; the audience booed. None of the contenders condemned the booing or recognized the dedication and service of this soldier.

2. At a previous GOP convocation, Gov. Rick Perry was asked about his record number of death sentences--234--in Texas, and this time the audience applauded. Again, none of the contenders condemned the applause or even commented on it. They knew Perry was proud of his record as a tough law-and-order guy.

3. Thirty percent of Republicans polled last week indicated that they still believe Barack Obama is a Muslim, and 36% believe he is foreign born. No amount of media attention to the truth seems to change this type of belief, based, presumably, on the deep-seated feeling that Obama is "not one of us" and never will be.

4. A teenager, Jamey Rodemayer, 14, committed suicide after being bullied foir being gay. Even after his death, many kids chanted, "We're glad you're dead." Again, the origins of this hatred run very deep. And I wonder, having taught courses in hatred and evil, whether education is really the answer to reducing this type of evil since many people have closed minds.

When the ideology of ignorance, combined with self-righteous anger, triumphs over truth, we are in trouble. More and more, this country seems to be divided into two warring camps of the enlightened and the ignorant. My main remedy: turn off cable news and other news media as much as possible. Read alternative sources of information and keep thinking.