Thursday, December 27, 2012

Finding Yourself as a Writer

"How do you expect to arrive at the end of your own journey," Thomas Merton asked, "if you take the road to another man's city?  How do you expect to reach your own perfection by leading someone else's life?"

In his finest book, New Seeds of Contemplation, the source of these arresting questions, Merton the monk is very much, as always, Merton the writer and the individual finding his own existential path to God, even though he lived within the confines of an ancient monastic tradition.

What do his questions say to writers? That no matter how much we owe to others, how much we read and absorb, we must to our own selves be true, following our own individual path.  Style, as I discover each time I try to teach it, is a unique reflection of each writer. It emerges out of the material of life deeply lived. It is a matter of the heart as well as the head. Like our lives, it is not about imitating others but making our own choices.

One contemporary poet and memoirist, Mary Karr, has found a singular voice, even though anyone reading her amazing 2009 book, Lit--an account of her progress from "blackbelt sinner" to Catholic convert--can see her indebtedness to those who have gone before her.

In a style that is smart, funny, profane, and intense, Karr describes leaving home (with its violence, abuse, alcoholism, drugs) and her mother to find a new home. Her memoir is about overcoming a life of terror and gradually discovering a community of prayer--and she does it her way.  The past becomes vividly present and alive, even though the reader can tell that something positive will come out of the gritty horror of her narrative.

Karr has discovered her own path from the harrowing darkness of alcoholism and rage to a realization that "nothing we truly love is ever lost." To feel (not just think) such a truth after much pain is, I think, a key spiritual insight. That she has found prayer as a source of power does not meant that the demons of the past are forgotten.

They are very much alive in this memoir, which manages to take street talk to a lyrical level.  Much of this book is not for the squeamish, but its unique style reflects Karr's journey, the hard choices she has made not only as a writer but as a woman of intelligence and strength who has moved beyond living someone else's life. It is good to know that, in her new life as a professor of English and acclaimed author, she is far from the end of her journey, which is very much her own.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Savoring Christmas

I have always been a celebrator, especially when it comes to Christmas, even though this often surprises some of my friends (mainly men).

I don't think it is merely the religious event itself but the way this event was, in my youth, overlaid with festivity that carries on from year to year as I have grown older.  Family parties were lively, both on the eve of and the day of Christmas, and memories of them rich.  Gifts and lights and midnight Mass, with me in the choir or serving as altar boy, were part of a month long celebration, complete with Midwestern snow and a vacation from school.

It was a magical time, even as I grew up and learned where to go to buy the best German baked goods in St. Louis, the finest eggnog, the trimmings for the tree, which for my German-American father meant wiring two trees together for the fullest possible and most ornately decorated tree imaginable.  He insisted we keep it up until the end of January (to my great embarrassment).

In Florida, I continue to delight in seeing palm trees wrapped elegantly in white lights, I savor the many ornaments I have kept from my childhood, I welcome as many guests as we can accommodate for lunches and dinners, and I have several decorated trees in our house with lights and garlands.

I cannot get enough of the music of this season, both popular and classical; and I tend to overeat.  The combination of all these sensory delights--smells of cooking and pine, candles and lights, music and cards and gifts and above all smiling friends (in the absence of family)--makes our Christmas festive.  We don't have children, yet my wife and I become kids again, in a sense, as we find time to prepare in Advent for the great day.

I think sadly of those who are alone, wishing this day were over, and of those who are turned off by the material side of Christmas, which for me complements the spiritual meaning of light coming into the darkness of winter, of love being born again, and of the hope for peace.

Merry Christmas and happy new year!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Does Happiness Exist?

One thing can be said about all the studies of happiness, which have grown exponentially since 2000, is that the topic is highly subjective and complex. So as I send friends and family members cards and messages with wishes for Happy Holidays, my mind returns to this elusive subject, which for many has economic implications.

The feeling of well-being often relates to being well-off, or so the economic studies indicate: people who say they are happy tend to be financially secure, healthy, married, religious, and engaged in purposeful work.

Yet no matter how healthy, wealthy or wise we are, we are also, inevitably, aware of evil in the world: who is untouched by disease, pain, injustice and loss?  It is this awareness of evil that leads the political philosopher Leszek Kolakowski (who died three years ago) to question whether happiness exists.

Like every thinker, he raises important (often unanswerable) questions: does a person in the state of Nirvana, which seems to involve the happiness of self-detachment, have an awareness of the world? If not, what kind of reality is he part of?  If he or she is aware of the human life-world, he must also be aware of suffering and evil. "Is it possible to be aware of evil and suffering and still be perfectly happy?" (A singular question.)

The article from which I quote in the Dec. 20 issue of The New York Review of Books is entitled, 'Is God Happy?'  After all, to consider a Nirvana-like state is to imagine, in the West, what the souls in heaven presumably experience.  Are they aware of our lives on earth, as most Christians believe? And if they are, how can they be happy in their eternal state, knowing about our unhappiness?

If God is perfectly immutable, He cannot be upset by the misery of those on earth, so He is indifferent; but He is called a loving father (by Christians), so He cannot be indifferent. So, of course, we cannot understand the divine, and all Kolakowski can finally say is "God is not happy in any sense we can understand."

He concludes that happiness is not applicable to God nor to human beings--happiness defined as an ongoing condition of serenity and well-being. This, he says, can only be imagined, not experienced.

So the message here is not too cheery this holiday season. The only way to be happy is to be unaware of the misery in the world. I could live a contemplative life as a monk or hermit and tune out the world, but wouldn't I still be restless and unhappy much of the time?  Mystics seem to experience prolonged states of bliss before they are returned to ordinary reality.

I suppose we must be grateful for what Wordsworth called "spots of time" in which we feel temporarily uplifted out of ourselves; but these experiences of timeless bliss occur mainly in early childhood.  Adults can be happy by experiencing moments of wonder and pleasure, and as long as we love others, we can feel satisfied much of the time--if we don't think too deeply or read the daily news.

If our Polish philosopher is right, the idea of happiness as an immutable condition is beyond us. So what it is that we seek--and wish each other when we say Happy New Year or Merry Christmas?  A brief respite of good fortune amid life's turmoil?  Pleasure? Prosperity? No one knows what happiness really is.

Presumably Thomas Jefferson had prosperity in mind in his famous phrase "the pursuit of happiness." The history of happiness shows that in earlier times, happiness went along with luck. The Greeks said that no man can be judged happy until he is dead (only then it is clear he has been fortunate).  Today we tend to define happiness as personal well-being.  We never think of earthly happiness as enduring, do we?

Happiness may be indefinable and subjective; yet questioning the very thing we desire and pursue makes sense. In general, raising questions can be more important than providing answers. "Never forget," wrote Kolakowski in another piece of work, "that there are questions that lie beyond the legitimate horizon of science and are crucially important to the survival of humanity as we know it."

In this season devoted to wonder, I am happy to say that my life has generally been happy: I know and have known love. Love exists, if happiness eludes us. This--and the peace that comes from loving and being loved--is what I wish for others now and in the new year.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Writing and Being Still

A recent piece in the New York Times, "The Art of Being Still," by novelist Silas House caught my eye. Especially his comment, "too many writers today are afraid to be still."

Or they are unable to unwilling to be quiet with their busy lives in which writing time is sandwiched in between parenting, earning money, maintaining a home, etc. House does not mean that writers have to sit still in a lonely garret. He means their minds have to be quiet.

His piece includes much sensible advice, especially for emerging writers who spend a lot of time talking about or planning to write or reading about writing or attending conferences. His advice, like mine, is to do the reading and networking in a limited way to keep your mind open.

How do we become still so that we "achieve the sort of stillness that allows our senses to become heightened"? In writing extensively about silence, I have talked about the need to slow down and find spots of contemplative time.  House is practical in recommending that writers use every moment they have to think about the story or article they are working on. And nothing else.

The issue is not, How many hours a day must I write?  But: How can I use my driving, shopping, chore time to reflect on one thing (my writing) only, without distractions?  He recommends what my wife, Lynn, has always done: writing constantly in her head.  In her periods of silence, she is actively thinking about her characters and what she wants them to say or do.  Little of this is written down in the initial stages.

Writers can go for weeks without putting words onto paper, but, if they follow House and many, many other authors, "they write every waking minute."  They do so by cultivating an inner silence that blocks interference (cell phones, etc. off) and opens the channels of observation.  The quiet mind comes when we turn off our overly busy thought patterns and remain quiet, open to what may come as we focus on living in the present moment.

Silence and writing seem to be opposed; yet silence and stillness are more than the absence of words and activity. They relate to a disciplined habit of listening to and observing what the universe has to reveal. And it can be done amid all the no-mind duties we must daily perform.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Do People Enjoy Boredom?

It sounded like something cooked up by the Onion, the satirical magazine: a conference on boring topics. What began as something as a joke has caught on, according to a piece in, in England, where people have a distinctly different sense of humor than here in the U.S.

Mark O'Connell in his Slate article on Boring 2012 says that the young people who attended the recent London conference on such things as toast, supermarket self-service checkouts, and letterboxes, among other banal topics--presented in pedantic detail and dead seriousnes--became enjoyable, showing that people really like what is boring.

But it seems to me that what they like is a chance to laugh at the absurdity of scholarly presentations on mundane things from mustard to coffee mugs. At least I would, having sat through countless MLA presentations of abstract, jargon-filled papers that in their pomposity often put me to sleep. A paper on letterboxes might be preferable to one on Lacan.

Of course, good writers are taught that every topic is dull until someone finds the clever angle, the amusing or original perspective to use in developing the topic: this is the writer's or speaker's job--along with avoiding jargon and pretentious language.  So perhaps a long discourse on toast, complete with pictures of various degrees of toasted bread from the virtually untoasted to the mostly burned, might turn out to be interesting.

The conference was conceived by James Ward in 2010; he maintains a blog, "I Like Boring Things."  I'll have to check it out since I find the topic of boredom interesting psychologically and also find myself looking from time to time into certain obscure historical details.  This week I have been searching for the symbolic meaning of chairs. 

Maybe I will get invited to London to talk about what I discover. It actually sounds too interesting and not at all amusing--at least to me.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

When the Writer's Well Runs Dry

I have been unable to write much of anything lately.  Blame the busyness of the coming holidays and the lack of quiet time. Or it may be just the necessary fallow period that many writers go through. It's not a matter of concern.

Sometimes they call it writer's block, but I see these dry periods when nothing quite interests me enough to focus on it as opportunities to observe. And wait.

Today I observed wintry trees--maples and sycamores--reminiscent of my northern youth. I keep reminding myself that we in central Florida do indeed have four seasons, as the cool weather and scattered yellow leaves attest.

What happened after this observing, other than memories of my St. Louis growing up? Not much.  Then I connected it with gratitude. I was grateful to the universe for these beautiful trees.  When all else fails, I can fall back on being grateful for more things than I care to enumerate.

I like the idea (advanced by David Steindl-Rast and others) that gratitude is the heart of prayer.  True prayer for me is not asking for favors but affirming that life is good despite all the problems and realizing how fortunate or blessed my life has been.  Usually this is done without words.

What else can writers do when the well runs dry? Invariably, in my case, reading some the vast material on the Internet will get me started reacting to something, or I will have a nagging question from a movie or book.  Questions themselves can get writers moving, too.

I thought of this as I watched again Terence Malick's remarkable film,
The Tree of Life. I recommend using subtitles since the narrative is whispered, like a prayer. 

There are many questions about memory and time, death and love, loss and hope in this richly imagistic film. What other movie, I asked myself, poses so many major questions about the meaning of life or presents its narrative and images in a cosmic context of time and eternity? 

The film, like everything, has its flaws, but I am grateful to have seen it and to have had the leisure to see it again. I am grateful for the odd or imperfect things in nature, as G. M. Hopkins says in his poem "Pied Beauty."

When my friend John lent me last week the new collection of poems by Mary Oliver, A Thousand Mornings, I was struck by their bold clarity and colloquial directness.  I was reminded at times of Rumi, yet the voice of this American poet (new to me) is original. I wanted to write about the poems, but what response can I there to such memorable pieces of art?  And: how did these poems emerge? What is the creative process that leads some people inward and then outward into verse?

All I can say is that I am grateful to have questions to think about, even if I don't feel moved to write. The well is never really dry; it just seems that way.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Is E-reading really Reading?

There have been, and will no doubt continue to be, hundreds of books and articles on the decline of print, the value of traditional books, and the advantages and disadvantages of reading electronically, especially on Kindle and other book-like devices for e-reading.

The latest to catch my eye is an excerpt in of a new book by Andrew Piper, who says that e-reading is not really reading.  What does he mean, you might ask, by reading?

It is not, he tries to show, merely a matter of brain and intellect and eyes but of touch: reading is a physical, tactile activity. "It is something with do with our bodies" but especially our hands, he says, since at least the time of St. Augustine in the 4th century, who recounts in a famous passage of his autobiography how he opened the codex before him (not a scroll) and, after reading a biblical passage, saw that he needed to read no more. He turned the page in his life, finding answers to his doubts about Christianity in what he had read. He was converted.

Ever since, Piper argues, books held in the hand and turned by the hand have shaped our reading and our self-perception.  He does not develop the idea explored by others that private reading "turned readers into individuals"--a huge claim--but the interiority of the reading act is widely known. As are the private spaces people in Western society eventually created so that they could be alone, silently reading.

The book as a graspable thing, in a material as well as spiritual sense, has given it great power over the centuries. In taking hold of a book, in Augustine's sense, we are taken hold of by books, in Piper's words.

But not by e-books, whose digital contours are hard to determine: there is always something "out of touch" about the digital book. Such a text, he says, can't be grasped as a totality.  Where exactly digital texts are, in a physical sense, is vague, complex, even forbidden: we cannot see, let alone touch, the source of the screen's letters, Piper writes.  If the touch of the page brings us into the world, the screen keeps us out.

And yet, of course, touch is involved in new ways in digital reading (touch screens, etc.) as the industry keeps downsizing the computer--from large rooms to a desk to our hands. The computer world has been trying to insert the tactile back into the digital, but with mixed results.

Since there are no pages to turn in the old sense, e-books may try to look like printed ones but the differences are important.  Pressing buttons repetitively is quite different from slowly turning pages.

My summary of some of Piper's main points in the excerpt reinforces my own objections to digital reading. To do much of this kind of reading is bad for my neck, and every period spent facing a screen has to be punctuated with periods of stretching and moving.  This type of physical activity in reading is not, in my case, healthy.  The main point is that e-reading does not afford me the type of reflective, inward escape into another world that a printed book, held in the hand, does; and this is the main purpose of my reading.

E-reading is (I would say) a way of reading but not in the full, historical sense that Piper has explored. Just as I believe in the physicality of writing, it is good to be remind of reading as a physical act--and to think seriously about what occurs in reading and how mysterious the process ultimately is.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

What's in a Title?

I have been thinking lately of book titles, looking over a little collection of memorable ones and wondering how important a great title is for a book.

This topic has a connection with something that writers often fear, at least unconsciously (I know I used to): How can I possibly say anything original?

It's true that most of the great themes--love and war and jealousy and greed--have been well mined over the centuries; yet each writer of fiction brings his or her own experience and perspective and style to the subject.  As Tolstoy said in the famous opening of "Anna Karenina":  every family is unhappy in its own way.

There are endless permutations of unhappiness, alas, and so material to keep fiction writers free of the worry that there is nothing new under the sun. And as for my area, non-fiction, the Internet is a daily demonstration of the infinite variety of topics that the layperson can learn about and address.  This blog, in fact, is mainly a series of reactions to things I have been reading. Most writing of this type is a creative exchange and borrowing. ("Good writers borrow, great writers steal.")

Back to titles: many great works have plain, ordinary titles that end up capturing the essence of a book: Great Expectations, for example, or Middlemarch (a pedestrian title for a great novel). Shakespeare put little imagination into his titles, which, except for Much Ado about Nothing and maybe one or two others, are unexciting.  So if we can't judge a book by its
cover, we can't predict too much from a title.  Great titles can promise much more than they deliver. Others are just right. I have been skimming a new novel by Amor Towles, Rules of Civility, which perfectly suits his unique story of Manhattan cafe society in 1938.

So my advice to writers: Don't worry about the title of your story, novel or article or whatever: it will emerge, often as you complete the text. Or your editor or publisher will suggest one. Often I have seen in films a struggling author sitting at an old typewriter and beginning with the title and his name; afterwards he is stuck and angrily begins again. This is not how writers work!

As for great titles that are memorable, some are poetic (From Here to Eternity, Gone with the Wind, For Whom the Bell Tolls, etc.), some clever, offbeat, or wacky. Here is my list of favorites:

1. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
2. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat
3. Vile Bodies
4. Flaubert's Parrot
5. Where the Wild Things Are
6. Paradise Lost
7. The Sound and the Fury
8. Welcome to the Monkey House
9. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men
10. The Kalahari Typing School for Men
11. Tears of the Giraffe
12. Reusing Old Graves
13. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones
14. A History of Lesbian Hair
15. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

This last one, simple but just right, is not clever or poetic or whimsical, just a memorably concise indicator of Gibbon's history. Much the same for Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky.

One of my all-time favorites is a little-known import from the U.K. by Alan Coren, GOLFING WITH CATS, which has nothing to do with either golf or cats but, as the author indicates in his Preface, these subjects attract book buyers, so he put them, along with a swastica, on the cover.  (Cats, as I learned with my Writing with Cats, sell books.)  This is a good example of a title being greater than the book, which was not a bestseller.

What makes a bestseller? A lot more than the title. But I can't resist the joke about how, in non-fiction, an ideal title would be: "How to Lose Weight, Get Rich, and Find God." If only I could work cats into that one....

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The church is not my religion

A good friend, who happens not to be a Catholic, expressed surprise that I have been openly critical of the church in some of my posts, even though he knows that I remain a faithful Catholic.

I recalled at once the words of Mario Cuomo:  "If the church were my religion, I'd had given it up a long time ago. Christianity is my religion, the church is not."

It takes someone with a broad view of history and the reality of church politics, perhaps, to make this important distinction, which many Catholics do not make.  If they remain active in the church, they may disagree with or ignore the statements that come from the Vatican or the American bishops, especially when it comes to moral and social issues.  They may seek advice from their confessors on such topics as contraception or follow their own conscience.

We who remember the spirit of the Second Vatican Council know that the church as a human institution should be the object of criticism, and, as Cardinal Newman said more than a century ago, the laity have a responsibility to play a role in the ongoing reform and renewal of the church. The Council also reaffirmed the primacy of conscience for all who constitute the church.

People like me, who have read a great deal over the years and have a critical view of clerical power, need an awareness that "Rome has spoken" is not necessarily the final word.  I think of the crisis in the priesthood, as an obvious example, and the large defections by angry ex-Catholics weary of official teachings on sexual morality that do not conform to the reality of people's lives.

I do not attend Mass because of church doctrine or theology or because of what priests say or do as men but because of my spiritual needs, which are fed by the Eucharist and the word of God. I need to be part of a community of prayer, preferably one with deep roots.

I know that, when the faithful disagree with a teaching of the church (such as the ordination of married men or women), we who are the church have an obligation in conscience to respectfully disagree. Don't patriotic Americans have an obligation to critique unjust laws and corrupt government practice?

Hence the recent tours by "nuns on the bus," who challenged the bishops in some of their appeals to the conservative cause, by emphasizing the needs of the poor and hence the need for Obamacare, among other things during the recent election campaign.  Many of us who consider ourselves liberal Catholics cheered these nuns and their long record of courageous service.

One of them, Sister Margaret Farley, a theologian censured by Rome, asked a telling question this past summer:  :"Is it a contradiction [in our Catholic tradition] to have power settle questions of truth? Or to say we know all we can know?"  A bold and important question.  History is replete with thinkers who have been unjustly silenced by the teaching authority of the hierarchy, only to have their views later validated by history.

Hence someone like Garry Wills, a Catholic intellectual whose historical books and articles reach a wide audience, is among those faithful to Catholic tradition who look critically at what the official church says--not in matters of settled dogma but in those moral issues on which there is divided opinion.

The church has, in a sense, been kept alive, theologically, by discussion and even dissent, by critical inquiry--at least among the elite. Now that lay people have become as well educated as priests, they can look, as I try to do, with a broad historical view at the church and can, as mature Catholics, respectfully agree to disagree with certain practices and teachings. Thus I can make a distinction between  my faith, a personal matter, and my adherence to the church, whose efforts in many areas I support, especially outreach to the needy.

I have chosen to remain within the troubled institution of the Roman Catholic Church, aware of its imperfections and sins, yet mindful of what is more important: the tradition of public prayer, the liturgy that enables the religion itself, not the institution, to survive and flourish.

Recently, the retiring Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams made one of his many astute observations that is relevent here: "Christianity is not essentially a big idea we must try to spread by arguing the truth, but a cultural tradition, centered on the church's ritual."  In this cultural tradition, he goes on, supreme authority belongs to the cross and resurrection, which the church performs in the Eucharist.

So the church is an essential vehicle for communicating something more important than the institution itself: the life of faith, sacraments, and prayer through an ancient and ongoing tradition of practice. My religion is not about theology or philosophical arguments.  As the old saying has it, what we believe is secondary to how we pray and what we do, the cultural language we speak.

I choose to remain faithful to the cultural language made possible by the church in which I was raised, mindful that "church" means much more than the men who run it.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Lessons from the Election

It's a great relief that the election--the most expensive in history at something like $4 billion in campaign funding--is at last over. 

There are several lessons to be learned. Among them:

1. Americans are not stupid or lazy or apathetic. The majority are progressive and think about the future. Millions vote, even if the lines are long. And they are not greatly influenced by all the money-driven ads and negative campaigning.

2. The campaign season is obscenely long and costly and should be changed. The big bucks of PACs organized by Karl Rove and others are wasted.  Why not use this money to help where it's really needed?

3.  The right-wing take-over of the Republican Party must give way to reality. We are not a nation of 1950s white Americans who think like Mitt Romney. The majority of the country is diverse, ever-changing, ever-creative.

4. The Catholic bishops should stop their politicizing. The faithful do not listen to them on topics relating to women and marriage. They voted heavily for Obama; they know that gay people are here to stay--traditional marriage is not threatened by gay marriages--and that the church should focus on social justice issues. The alliance between right-wing politics and religion has done great harm and has now become an embarrassment.  Let us move from moral battles to social reality, finding ways to heal divisions and develop new jobs.

5. The superb Obama campaign would be nothing without the unusual man who deservedly got re-elected--not merely because he should finish what he boldly began four years ago but because he has been a steady, intelligent, widely respected world leader. I admire a man who listens to the voice of history, who reads widely and writes much of his own material, and who thinks before he speaks.

As one of my GOP friends said on election day, "May the best man win."  He did. It is hard for many white men of my generation to admit that an African-American is not only gifted but worthy of re-election.

Obama was a classy candidate who now needs the prayers and support of the country.  He leads a deeply divided America, polarized by the very political system he has mastered.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

What is history?

Somewhere in my reading, I encountered a statement by Robert Kaplan: History has its basis in geography. It's about places, he says.

As a non-historian who spends much time thinking about the past, I can understand this point of view: the waterways give way to trade and to towns and cities and thus to capital and thus to possible fighting over land.

But I have always agreed with Thomas Carlyle's statement, no doubt simplistic, that history is essentially biography.  It is the written record of human events, of what singular individuals say and do.

As I have been reading in recent months about 13th century Italy, what strikes me, as with the later Renaissance, is the role of the individual: rulers like Frederick II, inventors, early architects, philosophers (Thomas Aquinas), and writers (Dante, Chaucer) who shaped a culture and the languages they used. In every period, society is changed (and history made) by what certain people do.

However history is defined, whether as human story of people or as a chronicle of economic and social forces, it is more complex than any single formulation. But I would still say its most fundamental basis is the person.

As I write this, millions of my fellow Americans are standing in line to vote for the next president, an individual whose personality and decisions will shape the future. Future historians are watching and waiting.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Do we stay the same person?

William Boyd, whose novel Waiting for Sunrise I enjoyed for its style, is an accomplished English writer.  This week, I watched a film adaptation of another of his works, Any Human Heart (not my favorite title), and I was sorry to see that Boyd wrote the screenplay (not usually a good idea).

The result is a 6-hour TV movie involving three separate actors playing the central character, Logan, shown in his 80s looking back on the remembered fragments of his colorful (sexually active) life. In the process, the narrative voice, more than once, comments about how we never stay the same person. The central lesson of his life is that the things that happen to a person makes him or her a different person.  Is this true?

Logan, like the protagonist of the Boyd novel I read, is a passive pawn of fate and his active libido (over which his will has little control). The narrative tells us that we can't do much about what happens. The screenplay makes this explicit several times (in case we miss the point) that life is nothing but luck.

I beg to differ with this simplistic idea.  Of course, luck or chance determines many aspects of our lives, but so do our choices. We shape our own destinies; and as we change by a combination of biology, time, circumstances, and experience, we retain our core selves. We are not totally transformed, like a character in the Metaphorphoses, losing our essential identity or personhood.

This, at least, is what I have learned from years of reading the major writers from Augustine and Boethius, who wrestled with issues of freedom and fate 2,000 years ago, to more modern thinkers. To me, the freedom of the will is basic to morality, and the true self, as Thomas Merton called it, remains constant: he said it was the self impermanent to time, the self as seen by God.

Others (mystics in various traditions) have called it the center or ground of our being.  Some call it the soul.

Isabel Dalhousie, the philosophizing Edinburgh sleuth in the novels of Alexander McCall Smith, is open-minded enough (says the author of The Lost Art of Gratitude) to recognize that the self, or the soul, might just survive death, as she says.  "The rigid exclusion of that possibility could be seen as much a statement of faith as its rigid assertion," she tells herself, keeping her options open in a postmodern world.

The creator of Isabel Dalhousie may be less highly regarded than William Boyd in today's literary scene, but her reflections here are more valuable than the philosophy underlying much contemporary fiction, which, like Boyd's, has a pessimism rooted in a totally materialist notion of life. This means that even the possibility of something permanent in ourselves existing, and surviving us, is not seen as possible or worth discussing.

Merton may have a hard time spelling out what the "true self" is (James Finley does a fine job articulating this in a book on the subject), but at least he believes, as I do, in the self, that mysterious inner core of our being that G. M. Hopkins called the "selfless self of self, most strange, most still." 

Saturday, November 3, 2012

A Priest Confronts Same-Sex Marriage

Like Obama and many others, my acceptance of the idea of marriage as applied to two people of the same sex has been evolving. If opinion polls and the media are right, Americans' attitudes toward this reality have been changing. This does not mean an automatic decline in homophobia but a greater acceptance of gay couples in society.

Attitudes in the Catholic hierarchy move with exceeeding slowness. Lately, they seem to be going back rather than forward. So, when the Archbishop of Baltimore recently asked that a letter be read in all churches urging the faithful to vote against a civil marriage protection amendment, one man, Richard T. Lawrence, was emboldened to speak his own mind.

As pastor of St. Vincent's church in Baltimore for 39 years, according to National Catholic Reporter, Father Lawrence gave his own respectful and carefully worded response. He is to be applauded for his courage.  No doubt his Archbishop is not pleased.

Here is what Fr. Lawrence had to say (I summarize the account in NCR):  I am in awe of parents and of all couples whose faithfulness to one another, in good times and bad, is a sacrament, a sign of God's faithfulness to all.

Clearly one of the Vatican II priests of the John XXIII era who are becoming more and more scarce, Lawrence cites that landmark council as signaling an eventual change in church teaching whereby we could recognize "the total, exclusive and permanent union of gay and lesbian couples as part of the sacrament of matrimony." Wow!

He cites the line from Genesis: "It is not good for man to be alone. I will make a suitable partner for him." So what if a guy's suitable partner is another guy?

Citing the church practice of marrying couples beyond the age of childbearing who pledge to devote themselves to each other, he asks, How can it be sacramental to bless the union of an elderly couple (straight) and not a gay couple? "Neither," he said. "will procreate but both can be sacraments of God's faithfulness..." 

Lawrence, a pastor who obviously has learned a lot about human needs in his long ministry and who values experience as well as doctrine, believes this is a line of future development in theology and perhaps even in church teaching. But if this is not even a possibility, can we not at least say that the civil marriage of gay and lesbian couples should be allowed by the state, if not the church?

Neither I nor Fr. Lawrence will live to see any change in the sacrament of marriage to include same sex couples, but I hope to see a change of heart, a more pastoral and caring openness--the type bravely displayed by Fr. Lawrence--on the part of bishops and others in authority toward homosexual unions.  Civil unions, apparently, do not suffice in most states, especially when a same-sex couple is raising children, as many do.

I don't see why we can't bless such unions and so honor the love they represent rather than add to the hatred and bigotry so often directed to homosexual people. (I say "we" because we who are Catholics are the church, as those in Rome tend to forget.)

The growing change in my attitude to this topic is far from unique and reflects human reality in the 21st century. Still, it's hard to use "marriage" and not mean a man and a woman. We are a church of tradition, yet this is a living, and lived, human tradition.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The value of writing

Andrew Sullivan's blog "The Daily Dish" has an amazing diversity of links, making it an ideal internet site. Today, readers are directed to a brief but very valuable bit of advice on writing by James Somers.

He says, in no uncertain terms, that more people should write. Like me, he has friends who are thoughtful and intelligent, who read a good bit, but tend to keep their ideas to themselves.  Somers' thesis is that "you will live more curiously if you write." 

You will be more open to nature, people, and the world around you. You will pay closer attention and also remember what you observe. I might add that the writer cultivates an interior life, a kind of spirituality that many of us unknowingly long for.

He reminds us, as I always do to my students feeling nervous about committing anything to full sentences, that writing need not be formal; you can "just talk onto the page."  If you can talk, you can write. The rest is revising and editing. Don't be crippled by old fears of not knowing "the rules" or of remembering your high school English teacher's red marks.

As Somers says in his post, writing emails in which we share our thoughts and feelings with others might draw out from them a similar type of thoughtfulness and interiority.  I find talking on the phone personal and immediate, but I would rather engage with my far-flung classmates and old friends in writing emails since it is in this medium that I can explore my thoughts more thoroughly and express them more clearly.

So I am grateful to Mr. Somers ( blog) for this fresh bit of encouragement to the many people who want to write but are reluctant to do so.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Letters and Longhand

The mail carrier brings a daily deposit of disappointment: amid the bills and ads and other junk mail, rarely is there a hand-written letter or card.  Except for birthdays and holidays, there is seldom a touch of the personal. Letter-size envelopes sometimes look promising until I see they are marked "Occupant" or something equally disspiriting.

All this came to mind as I read the book Script & Scribble by Kitty Burns Florey, who is literate, witty and informative as she makes a plea for the hand-written word, which seems about to go the way of the dodo.

It shouldn't be: as she notes, TV didn't kill off radio, cars did not displace bicycles, yet the prevalence of email, along with cheaper long distance calling, has made the art of letter writing extinct.

Of course, as etiquette experts Amy Vanderbilt and others remind us, thank-you and sympathy cards have to be in longhand; even Etiquette for Dummies insists on hand-written notes on quality stationery for such occasions.

But many people I know use the informal email to thank us for cards and gifts: it's cheap and fast. Who, Florey asks, needs elegant handwriting today, the kind the nuns taught her (and me)--except cake decorators?

The underlying educational implications of students who never learn to write but only print, the subject of a previous post, is a more serious and bothersome issue. The day may already be here when youngsters cannot even read longhand, much less write it.  Instead, they must always be dependent on an external power source.  Even in classes or at meetings where jotting down notes rapidly requires the speed of longhand.

As Florey and others remind us of the many authors who, even in today's world, write by hand, we realize how much is lost by the refusal of teachers to teach penmanship or cursive writing.  Even a mixture of the two, as I sometimes find myself doing for the sake of legibility--half-printing, half-writing--is better than no cursive writing at all.

Having puzzled over far too many illegible student essay exams over the years, I know how difficult some handwriting can be to read; but that is no reason to abandon it. 

Florey's solution to the classrooom problem is to teach kids "one good, plain, solid, simple, easy, basic, legible, attractive--and fast--method" from the beginning, rather than teaching printing, then (in many cases) moving on to cursive.

Like me, she is concerned not only with efficiency but with aesthetics. Her elegant book is filled with examples of beautiful handwriting, with information on italic writing, pens, calligraphy and a fine discussion of those many authors, including J. K. Rowling, William Boyd, Martin Amis and John Updike, who have insisted on longhand in the digital age.

For years, I have begun most of my essays and other works on a legal pad, with a ball-point pen (the kind frowned on by our teachers in the 1950s: too messy). Revising, of course, is made pleasant and even enjoyable on the word processor, but nothing can replace the look and feel of my own handwriting: I am inscribing on paper a part of myself. It is a physical act and it focuses my attention on the words as they tumble out of my mind in a personal, intimate way that machines (whether typewriters or computers) cannot match.

So I am glad to read in this book about studies--and teachers who agree with these studies--that good handwriting can influence academic performance for the better; they insist that our advances in technology do not eliminate the need for the teaching of handwriting. We remember what we commit to paper, by hand.

Since writing this (10-27-12), I have discovered news about Philip Hensher's recent book, The Missing Ink, which poses the question: As handwriting disappears, will "some part of our humanity disappear as well?"  According to the reviews, his book is a personal response to this question.

I am glad to see him making his point that handwriting reveals individuality in an age of text messaging and other electronic forms of typing.  (update 1-23-13).

Sunday, October 21, 2012

American Exceptionalism

In an interesting article in the NYTimes, Scott Shane (10-19-12) posed a question: what if presidential and other leading political candidates told the full truth? What if they emphasized problems that need addressing and embarrassing facts that detract from the myth that we are No. 1 in the world in all things?

He mentions our being no. 1 in obesity and in energy use per person; he cites figures on child proverty (we rank 34th, near the bottom of advanced economies), infant mortality (where we rank near the bottom), and education (we rank 14th in the number of 25-to-34-year-olds with a university degree).

The point is not whether these statistics are correct--some facts can rapidly change--but whether most people in America want to be reminded, as Obama sometimes does, of our problems and failures, or whether we need to be comforted with reassurances that our country and its achievement are extraordinary.

Of course, candidates can talk about problems--but only if they mention concrete solutions in the same sentence; they cannot dwell on chronic problems, like crime in inner cities, without being attacked as unpatriotic.

In wanting our president to be a cheerleader, ever-optimisitic, I wonder if we remain--a glittering generality is being unleashed--immature, naive or romantic in our devotion to our special place in history.  In my study of English history, I know that, in the 17th century, whenever the King or Oliver Cromwell spoke of the turbulent revolution they were part of in overthrowing the monarchy, they not only invoked God's will but reassured their audience (non-voting) that England was destined by God as a special place superior to other nations.  Political myths about being exceptional are nothing new.

Perhaps it is part of the myth of the modern nation-state that its citizens must be told of the glories and unique status of their inherited land. But nothing is gained by being simplistic, and much damage is done if political leaders, in refusing to face problems, avoid solving them.  As Allan Lichtman of American University is quoted as saying, there is more avoidance of wrestling with real problems now than in the past. "It has a pernicious effect on our politics and our governing because, to govern, you need a mandate. And you don't get a mandate if you don't say what you going to do."

Does this sound familiar in the exchanges between Romney and Obama, each accusing the other of not being specific?  Yet the people are thought to want what Ronald Reagan gave them: soaring rhetoric about a city on a hill, a new morning for America, after the humiliation of our hostages in Iran (1979). So Jimmy Carter was seen as a one-term failure who talked soberly of an American malaise, to the horror of the politicians, and Obama is attacked for not being sufficiently optimistic about the greatness of America.

No wonder people get tired of these much-too-long campaigns; it is not only the negative ads but, for the intelligent voter, the avoidance of real issues, the emphasis on superficial debates and poll numbers and donations along with political slogans, at the expense of an honest, serious examination of the many problems we face and what can be done so that the great American experiment can always move toward being more perfect.

We are not perfect, never have been and never will be since human nature is imperfect. Where in history is there a perfect society? Why do we want to be flattered about our greatness when the business of politics is to make improvements so that we become a more just society?

I can be proud of my country and its achievements without claiming its exceptional status, beyond criticism. We criticize what we love and want to improve.

Perhaps many Americans agree with T. S. Eliot's dictum, even if they never heard of him: "Humankind cannot bear too much reality." It is easier and safer to escape into a fantasy relationship with politicians and the political process, to simplify issues into black and white, pro or con, and to go on the attack.  It is easier to lie and demonize one's opponent than to raise questions that seem to deny the pre-eminence of our country in all things.

But then, as George Orwell wrote in 1946, politics is a mass of lies. A lot of people like living with them, it seems.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Who(m) do you trust?

To keep my mind off last night's sprightly debate, and the coming election, I am focusing on grammar today. Or rather usage.

"Whom is not a real word," a 4-year-old told her mother when she had used "whom" correctly in a sentence. Kids are sharp; they know that language has to sound idiomatic. (This comes from a piece in The Economist.)

Years ago, when Johnny Carson was getting started on TV, he hosted a show called, "Who Do You Trust?"  There was a mild uproar in the media, with grammarians complaining shrilly that who should be whom (the direct object of the verb), as most of us over 35 were taught.  Just recently, when VP Joe Biden asked, in his debate with Mr. Ryan, "Who do you trust?" nobody, as far as I know, paid any attention to the normal/informal usage.

WHOM has mostly disappeared, except in formal usage.  Most users of English, says Geoffrey Pullum, using Normal English, steer clear of WHOM. Kids are rarely exposed to Formal English (found in books and highbrow journals) and so have never heard the word.  "Whom did you invite?" sounds stuffy; so today WHO is a standard way to start certain sentences, as in "Who are you talking about?" (or to introduce a relative clause: "Marge is the neighbor who rings my doorbell each afternoon").

The former example involving WHO is an interesting example of language change, of the way usage alters grammar. It takes place slowly.

We live in a culture that prizes spontaneity and ordinary, everyday talk, over the polished and old-fashioned. Who can blame them?  The problem is that, when people write, they carry over the highly informal style of speech they are accustomed to into their academic work, making it sound awkward, immature, or trivial. "History is not much of a turn on," one of my students wrote.

Many would say that the use of WHOM over WHO makes people uneasy, and so they avoid the standard form. Some misuse it when striking a formal prose, as in "He's the candidate WHOM I hope will win the election."  Here the "I hope" does not make WHOM an object; the clause (modifying "candidate") is "who will win the election." The "I hope" is merely inserted, an interpolation.

WHOM will probably remain with us in print, not in speech, where it has been slowly dying. No great loss. More problematic, as in the above election example, is the over-correctness of some people, leading them to make the non-standard grammatical choice.

A friend often says, "Mom gave Judy and I a Caribbean cruise," when he means "me" (the indirect object of gave: she gave to Judy and me). Even worse are the college students who develop the habit, uncorrected at home or school, of saying (and even writing), "Me and Judy are going on a cruise."

First, as I tell them, be polite and put yourself second; then think about the subject of the sentence:  I, not Me is used in the subject spot: It's "Judy and I."

Why, as Henry Higgins famously asked, don't the English learn to speak? Why are we so careless about our valuable inheritance, the rich English language? If we are to communicate effectively, we must listen carefully to the way words are used both in educated speech and in writing.

Tomorrow I am giving a talk, "Fractured English," on the many ways people can stumble in our complex language: the results are often unintentionally humorous, even hilarious.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Boredom and Prayer

I have always been intrigued by the meaning of boredom.  Kathleen Norris a few years ago, in a book on acedia, seemed to connect it with mild depression.

For me, I think of the fear of running out of things to do, as experienced by many kids facing a long summer; or the fear that the present event (a dull talk) will never end. It has to do with time and so we cannot say that our pets are bored (in the way we are) since they lack an awareness of time.

Noah Millman in a recent post (Oct. 8) in the American Conservative gives his own take on the subject: boredom is "a painfully acute awareness of time passing without being filled."  He connects this with his personal reflection on the prayer experience he has had in synogogues, where the long, repetitive chant seems almost unbearable.

But it isn't really boring, he says, if it is done well; attempts to enliven the traditional prayers make the service truly boring. What he finds in the liturgically structured prayers of the synagogue is a "quasi-meditative mental state that really isn't on the boredom-excitement spectrum."  There is comfortable familiarity in the repetition, leading to a trance-like state.

Many say such ritual praying is merely mouthing words and going through the motions of prayer, with the mind elsewhere. And that, says Millman, is just what he wants--not to think about what he is saying; if he did, he would be bored out of his mind.

Whatever intellectual or emotional experience he has happens "on a level of consciousness somewhat removed from the activity of prayer."  Now and then words hit you with their meaning, but by and large, the mindless repetition allows you to float above yourself. It takes you out of the usual pattern of time. So the prayer itself is a means to an end.

This familiar pattern--so familiar it requires no mind--reminds me of what I know of Buddhist chant and, to a lesser extent, of the Catholic rosary: it takes a certain amount of boring practice to get to the point of transcendent meditation where we are no longer aware of ourselves and focus our attention on a scene from the Bible.

When I think of the monastic tradition of contemplative prayer, the use of repeated Psalms that leads sometimes to silence, I wonder: are the Catholic monks who pray this way five or more times each day, every day, paying attention to the words (as I assume they are) or have they become so accustomed to the daily practice that they are in a no-mind state that takes them beyond time and place to union with God? That would seem to be the goal, albeit seldom realized.

If so, there might be a connection between Jewish, Buddhist and Catholic chant and meditative practice; but this may be too simplistic. My liturgy friend Ned might comment on this: do we in the Chrisitian world use the repeated words of the Psalms to move beyond verbal prayer? When we pray the rosary, do we ignore the words of the repeated prayers? Or do we remain conscious, while meditating on the glorious or sorrowful mysteries, of the meaning of what we say? Are we in two places at once--here and "there"? Is that why it is so hard?

I agree with Millman that we must go through the often boring practice of repetitive prayer to move to a higher level so that the concept of boredom becomes irrelevant. And I am grateful that his brief post provoked so much reflection on prayer, the subject of an ongoing struggle on my part.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The new anti-Semitism

A friend shocked me last night when she said that a third of British Jews have left England for other places (Israel, USA) because of growing anti-Semitism in Europe.

My friend said her rabbi, just returned from a three-month sabbatical in Europe, is telling his congregation that Jews should leave Europe. This is a chilling statement, recalling the horrors of the 1930s, as if history is repeating itself.

I did a quick Internet check today to see if what the rabbi calls the most under-reported issue of our time is accurate.  What I have learned so far is that in France, Germany and Sweden, as well as Austria, a marked increase in anti-Jewish graffiti, verbal attacks and crimes have been occurring, mainly due to radical Islamic immigrants, since 2000.

In March of this year, in Toulouse, France, four Jews were senselessly killed by a Muslim who was proud of what he had done.  When a teacher in the town asked for a minute of silence to honor the dead, some students walked out, saying the victims deserved to die.

One news story from Israel contained a photo of Muslims with a banner: "God Bless Hitler."

Stories of the desecration of Jewish cemeteries or synagogues sometimes get mentioned in our newspapers along with other laws in France and elsewhere restricing certain religious practices by both Muslim and Jews.  Tensions in the Middle East are blamed as young disaffected Muslims take to the streets. But I can see why my friend calls this an under-reported story.

Many of the figures I found--from Holland, Hungary, Poland, Sweden, Germany and Austria as well as France--were from 2006.  If any of my readers knows more about this alarming situation, or has recent evidence to suggest that my friend's rabbi is exaggerating the facts, I would appreciate a message:

It is very easy for extremism on both sides to escalate; it is also easy for old fears and prejudices to turn into angry hatred and violence. But the lessons of the Holocaust, so well known, must not go unheeded.  As a Christian with no personal involvement in what happened seventy years ago in Europe, I nevertheless have always felt very keenly the horror of those events.

All I can say now is the familiar warning: Never again!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The future of handwriting

As I have watched the progress of the young man I tutor, now 16, I continue to be amazed that he still prints.  He says his teachers haven't the time (or interest?) to teach cursive writing. His sister, graduating from college soon, also never learned to write cursively.   I find this amazing.

I recall some of the exams from my university teaching days, not long ago, and how many of the male students, it seemed, printed everything. I was glad to be able to read their work, but I would think the demands of time would force them to write.  I never investigated the issue or thought much about handwriting until recently.

I can remember clearly moving from the infantile printing stage to cursive, then at age 12 or so, my efforts to improve my handwriting and make it more sophisticated: a statement of my unique self. I continued practicing in high school until I got the form I now use, which is legible, if not elegant.  I can't imagine taking notes in class without knowing how to write cursively.

A recent article by Philip Hensher in the Guardian, based on his new book, The Missing Ink, brought all this to my attention.  He  does not mention this shortcoming in American education, which I gather is widespread over here; instead he focuses on what he calls the vanishing practicing of handwriting in an age of texting and email, when nearly everyone types.  He laments the slow death of the personal, the idiosyncratic, the sensuously rounded shapes of writing by pen; in short, the personal element.

Hensher, who teaches at the Univ. of Exeter, laments the omnipresence of cell phones and other gadgets that make communication less human and personal, more mechanical, than the traditional method of writing with ink.

It is true, of course, that sloppy handwriting has cost business millions, as countless pieces of mail get returned each year by the postal service because they are illegible (not to mention doctors' prescriptions that are indecipherable).  If it's bad for business, I guess, the message filters down to the educational establishment that teaching cursive writing, at least in this country, is one of those frills we can dispense with.

Writing mechanically as I am now enjoying doing is faster, and speed is important in modern society. So is clarity. But, as Hensher points out, what about slowing down a bit and being thoughtful as we write?  What about our writing as an expression of the individual's inner self, his or her personality?  Nothing can replace for me the first handwritten draft of an article, with all of its cross-outs and erasures; it is an artifact, a tangible sign that, like my ancestors, I have inscribed something onto paper.  The physicality of writing is a hard thing to dispose of. Unnatural.

Typing on the word processor is wonderful, but are we to write sympathy notes, greeting cards, and thank-you messages electronically?  If someone fills out a lengthy application in a medical office, must he print it laboriously, like a third grader?

Handwriting used to be essential in communication; now it is becoming marginalized. This is not a major tragedy, just another sign of depersonalization.  In the U.K, apparently, at least half of the teachers still devote some time to teaching handwriting (according to a study cited by Hensher).

Prof. Hensher would be appalled at the printing that the students I have encountered call writing.  If he revises his book, he might want to include a look at classrooms on this side of the Atlantic. I hope I am wrong--that some American students are being taught to write in that flowing, mature, possibly elegant thing called cursive.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Changing Names

A recent online article caught my attention: Nicknames are declining since fewer parents are relying on Biblical and saints' names for kids or on old family names, as when Roscoe Fiddleworth III names his first-born son Roscoe IV. (My own name, Gerald, was chosen as a proper saint's name at the time of my christening, at the urging of the parish priest, since my parents named me Jerry, as I am always called.)

"Fiddleworth" is borrowed from P. G. Wodehouse, whose Bertie Wooster has friends with wonderful nicknames like Tuppy, Bunky, and Catsmeat--prep school monikers, presumably, that live on in the perpetual adolescence of their owners.  On this side of the Atlantic, we have Scooter, Dot, Skip and other friendly tags I will miss if nicknames gradually disappear.  This is hardly a tragic occurrence, but I lament the loss nevertheless, like the option of calling an Edward "Ted" or "Eddie" or "Teddy," or all three.

There is something warm and homespun about such nicknames, but we are in an age of trendiness and tattoos.  Tradition is in decline.

I grew up with a lot of kids named Mary Ann, Judy, Bob, John and Dave. These are being replaced by an exotic selection of names of questionable taste, as in the pervasive Brittany and Tiffany that I noticed in my classes a few years ago. I know a young man named Bristol, which I had early associated with Sarah Palin's daughter, so unisex names are in.

This could not happen in France, which tries, through the Academie Francaise, to regulate the language, and apparently local officials there will not approve birth certificates using certain creative names that here, in the land of the free, include such bizarre choices as the following names that have burdened some recently born infants whom I pity:

     Aria, Lyric, Shadow, Trinity, Genesis, Sparrow, Sunday, Apple, Goodluck  and, in my own classes, students named Sky Rocket and Forrest Stump. I have seen the name Storey Book as well as Stormee Skye and Dwain Pipe. If I had such a name, I would grow tired of being laughed at and have to spend money to have it changed.

With such names as Apple, Sparrow, and Sky, who needs a nickname?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Francis and Frederick

I am thinking today, on his feast day, of one of the most remarkable men in Christian history, St. Francis of Assisi, in part because of a solid new biography of the saint by Augustine Thompson, who tries to find the real man beneath the legends that have surrounded him.

Francis, a troubled man who changed history, presumably met Frederick II Hohenstaufen, Holy Roman Emperor, before the saint's death in 1226. Whether or not this encounter between two radically different men occurred, it is interesting, as Richard Bressler notes in his recent biography of Frederick, that the worldly emperor, with his love of Eastern (Muslim) customs and language, saw in Francis a condemnation of the worldly corruption, power and wealth of the Catholic hierarchy of the thirteenth century.  Although we can say little with absolute certainty about a man of those times, Frederick believed that a church closer to the simple Franciscan model was necessary.

One point in comparing these two divergent figures is that being a Catholic is, and never has been, as monolithic and uniform as it is often portrayed, as I, in fact, was educated to believe--not even in the Middle Ages.  The diversity and independence of each of these men, combined with their respect for the spiritual power of the pope and the church, makes them important representatives of an important era in the church's emergence as a world power.

Frederick, called in his time a heretic, even the Antichrist, for oppposing several popes, nevertheless remained a faithful Catholic Christian. At his death, he wore the habit of a Cistercian monk, renouncing the wordly glory he had pursued.   What emerges from the books I have read about Frederick, called in his time the Wonder of the World, was that he was a highly energetic and independent thinker, interested in languages, science, poetry, law, and kingship and open to both the Jewish and Islamic worlds as he encountered them in the cultivated kingdom of Sicily, which he inherited in 1197.

In believing that the spiritual aspect of Christendom should be in the hands of the papacy, but that the church should not be about land, money and power politics, he may be seen as a forerunner of the Reformation. Francis, too, disturbed by the worldly excesses of the church but always respectful of its spiritual authority, is an interesting counterpart to his contemporary, the emperor.  I would like to think they met and respected each other.

I am glad that both men, revered for many reasons by many people, have found biographers able to sift through the myths of the centuries to try to find out what they really were like. In doing so, we find some amazing correspondences between Francis, the least aggressive reformer of all times, and Frederick, who fought the church for the sake of an empire that never succeeded yet who is valued nevertheless for his tolerance of non-Christian cultures.  Both were sons of the church, which like all vast institutions, needs criticism and ongoing reform.

I am glad that I happened to discover books about them at the same time.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Waking Up Dead

In preparing for two comedy presentations in October, I find that I am laughing out loud, even at material I have read before--a healthy thing to do. I hope our audience is equally amused. . . .Especially by the program called "Fractured English," a collection of amazing, often hilarious blunders and bloopers from students and many others: sign makers, printers of menus, hotel owners, newspaper editors, and more. . . . Even from the medical world, reminding me of Mark Twain's quip: Be careful of a book giving health advice. You might die of a misprint. . . . Thanks to Richard Lederer and his great books (Anguished English), as well as the internet, I have unearthed a few bloopers from the medical profession. My favorites from doctors' files: "The patient refused an autopsy." Another(from coroner's report): "Patient went to bed well but woke up dead. Cause of death unknown, had never been fatally ill before.". . . . I don't think such things can be fabricated. . . . Like everyone else, I have made many typos (not, as one student wrote in a recent email, "Type-O's") but none are funny enough to share. . . .In the days I had many papers to grade, I would be grateful for any glimmer of humor in a student essay or exam....Like the student (not mine) who thought Michelangelo had painted sixteen chapels in the Vatican; as if lying on his back for years to paint the Sistine Chapel was not enough! . . . . A Facebook group, formed by Sharon Nichols, has many followers, I am glad to say, concerned enough about careless editing to take pictures of signs and other public displays of mistaken English: my favorite sign from this group: "Please knock. Buzzard is not working.".....If I start listing the bloopers made by politicians in the past 50 years, I will be writing all night......Suffice it to say that our language easily lends itself to errors and that we can get a much-needed laugh from the innocent errors of others without ridiculing the person. "To err is human..." Of course, I could connect this to the point of a recent post: hurrying is the cause of much carelessness and confusion.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The past is not past.

"The past is not past," James Joyce wrote. It is present here and now." The truth of this often comes home to me in unexpected ways, as when a St. Louis classmate yesterday forwarded a picture of me and a few fellow high school students from 50 years ago. . . .At once, I was there, in that place and time, remembering their faces and personalities as if time had stopped; in fact, to realize that one of these men is now gone and the others are grandfathers is so startling as to be unreal. The past events seem more real. . . . I found myself thinking excessively about the photo and what it evoked and decided that the best thing to do was not save it and spend the weekend in the vividness of my memories but to return to the present. . . . I felt the immediacy of what is past as a timeless moment, frozen in my memory. I have often associated my longing for the past with the fact that my mother told me stories of her family early on and so I became connected to her earlier life. Then came my Catholic education, with its traditions and reverence for the past, and then my love of history. . . .Joyce, I gather, had similar experiences. But from what I have read in the excellent new biography of Joyce by Gordon Bowker, there was a powerful socioeconomic factor: young Jim's father was a spendthrift who plunged the once-prosperous family into poverty; they moved frequently from one Dublin house to another, the dreary streets finding their way into the elegiac stories of "Dubliners." . . . .Young Joyce turned to his ancestral roots and to family lore about a more dignified past; he escaped from the grim reality of the present by imagination, which, says Bowker, was haunted by ghosts. For the young Joyce, the past was more immediate than the present. . . .This can certainly be helpful for a poet and writer, but most of us are content--and better off--with momentary epiphanies, glimpses of the past that live on into the present. . . .I remember William Faulkner's statement, based on his connection to the American South: "The past isn't dead and buried. In fact, it isn't even past." What is the past but our remembering/imagining of earlier events in the present?

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Problem with Hurrying

Having been without internet connection this week for a few days has allowed me the freedom to slow down and do other things, like listen to music and read a few things that had been piling up on my desk. . . . There is something about electronic reading, and writing, that tells me unconsciously to hurry up. I am participating in a rapidly moving world where messages require prompt responses and news flashes are updated often. The internet is not a contemplative tool. . . .The truly cultured Chinese, I am told, never hurry to accomplish things since, according to Confucius, things done in haste cannot be done well. I suspect that today's Chinese take this old wisdom with a large dose of MSG. . . .It's no wonder then that hurrying is OK only in Hell; I refer to the advice Virgil gives to Dante in "Inferno": do not spend too much time talking with or looking at the damned souls in Hell. To do so is to pay them respect, so hurrying along with that crowded realm is wise. Speed in the lower depths is also motivated by fear. . . Fear governs the life of so many people in the real world today, including nearly all of my students, who learned early on to be terrified of grades and criticism by teachers. The high school boy I tutor, who is hyperactive, worries excessively about failure and parental criticism, and so turns to me for calming advice. He knows that he can breathe deeply three times and bring himself a modicum of peace, of what I would call mindfulness: being fully present to each assignment he has and doing one at at time, without worrying about the number of upcoming tests or papers due. . . .I find fear and speed everywhere: in the speech patterns of many people I encounter, professional people who talk so rapidly that they slur their words. I am amazed that a few TV anchors, including Anderson Cooper, never seemed to have studied that old-fashioned thing called elocution. I cannot expect people in the media to slow down, but they must be fully intelligible, especially if they are earning millions of dollars a year. . . .All of which brings to me a book recommended by a friend, a book I have not yet located, by the jazz pianist Kenny Werner, Effortless Mastery, which has to do with mindfulness. The lesson here, says my friend, is to slow down the body and the mind, be fully in the present, and enjoy (if you are prayerful) what Brother Lawrence, a humble worker in a French monastery kitchen in the 17th century, called the "sacrament of the present moment." Lawrence had little education and found that the formal prayers of the monks were not enough: why not, he thought, find God in the little things of a noisy kitchen, honoring the routine tasks we perform there?.....This reminds me of an article by Dr. Jan Chozen Bays, author of Mindful Eating. She recounts eating a lemon tart and savoring fully the flavor, then getting into conversation and losing touch with what she was eating; finally, returning to the tart, she is able to focus on the smell and flavor and textures in her mouth. She has slowed down the thinking function of the mind so as to access the awareness. Whether she considers this attention prayer, it is, at least for me, closely allied with the idea of the present moment as sacred since it alone is real even in its evanescence. Bays's advice: eat slowly, with long pauses between bites. If you do anything else while eating, even think, the flavor diminishes or disappears. She doesn't mention the obvious: digestion is improved....For me, preparing food can be a meditation practice as I clear my mind of everything except the task before me; and I try to do the same when I eat dinner at home, even though I feel obligated to talk, to avoid feeling that the silence my wife and I experience is awkward or unnatural. A meal, I tell myself, is a social occasion; I cannot be expected to eat like a Trappist or Buddhist monk....And so the challenge goes on in fast-paced world where most of us enjoy human company and find it stimulating while at the same time knowing that there is a time for silence, for slowing down, for eating alone, mindfully. . . .The point is that we have to fight for every opportunity to slow down how we talk, how we eat, how we interact with others, so we can really listen and fully savor the gift of the present moment. ...As I notice the tension of others, the anxiety that tends to rule the world, I catch myself in my own anxious patterns and re-learn the ancient wisdom of slowing down. If all the media and the internet were shut down for a week, I suspect the world would be more peaceful.

Friday, September 21, 2012

A True Gentleman

Timothy Egan in today's NYTimes pays fine tribute to a noted editor, Ash Green, calling him a true gentleman. We are told he never complained....This strikes me as a limited idea of what a gentleman is and an utterly wrong-headed notion of masculinity: the stoic man who neither brags about himself nor whines is a man in trouble....I am glad that Egan knew Mr. Green and was able to honor him at the time of his passing but wonder how healthy it is for men to have old stereotypes of manhood reinforced, especially about keeping feelings to yourself. Psychologically dangerous, I would think....But I applaud Egan for using the occasion to ask the question, Where do we go today to find a gentleman? What sort of mentoring do young men have in the popular culture (see my above comment) or in churches or community? There is no clear answer to such major questions. (I find the new format of these blogspots confusing; it does not allow for paragraph breaks, at least as far as I have yet been able to determine, so I will go back and at least add ellipses to indicate pauses in my last post. It was not intended to be an unbroken blob of print.)

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Where are the Gentlemen?

A recent article on the death of the English gentleman (as an ideal) by Andrew Gimson raised a question for me: what do we mean by a gentleman in the US today? Is the idea obsolete?....... In a sense, yes, since the Victorian idea, based on a romanticized view of the medieval knight, insisted that a true gentleman is strong--both morally and physically--respectful of ladies and the elderly, polished and refined, never lies or uses bad language, is loyal, honest, and honorable. Such a man, John Ruskin wrote, should be "perfectly bred": Does this mean he had to be nobly born?.... Not necessarily. As long as he had a good education--Cardinal Newman's Idea of a University insists the a liberal education produces the true gentleman--and speaks well, dresses and acts well, he can pass as a gentleman. Even Pip in Great Expectations can learn to establish himself as a London man of respectability--the key Victorian virtue.... Much of this began, for the Victorians, with Dr. Thomas Arnold at the Rugby School who, between 1828 and 1841, sought to instill gentlemanly conduct along with other criteria at his famous "public" school. A gentleman did things because he instinctively knew they were the right thing to do. He acted with honor (whatever that meant). . . . Of course, such an idea is as impossible to define as it is to live. One advantage of the traditional gentleman was that it could be defined in a way to include yourself. You could behave like a gentleman without having a coat of arms, as in the original idea of the gentry. It was obvious then, as it was for Chaucer, that well-born men did often not behave in a "gentlemanly" way. . . . Actually, the history of the gentleman is more interesting and complex: the English courtesy books of the Renaissance were influenced by the Book of the Courtier by Castiglione, one of those amazing Italians who could do almost anything with a nonchalance he called "sprezzatura," an effortless ease, whether a man was functioning as a soldier, athlete, poet, lover, musician, or scholar. Castiglione, drawing on the chivalric ideal, created in a sense the modern idea of a gentleman, which dominated European thinking until at least World War II. . . . In recent decades, it seems, even if one learned to speak English with an Oxbridge accent, Englishmen, like men in the rest of the world, seem to value money, power, sexual success and all those other assets of the popular culture that are miles away from the noble Victorian notion of impeccable taste and courtesy in the conduct of life, the product of a classical education. . . . In this country, although English ideas of the gentleman had some sway, it is not easy to find the gentlemanly ideal in the popular culture. Our boys are raised on a diet of media warriors, rock stars, drug-enhanced athletes and pitiful politicians; and they certainly cannot learn much about gentle masculinity from their friends. . . . If you pick up a copy of GQ (once known as Gentleman's Quarterly), you are more likely to find images of tough and cool models with designer stubble, mixed in with a few andogynous models from Milan (or perhaps computer-generated). And the articles in the Advice to Men columns, as with Esquire and other such men's magazines, are about how to attract women, what to do with them in bed, how to make big bucks, how to look cool while intoxicated, how to have perfect abs, etc. . . . As I thought about gentlemen in America, I thought for some reason of the old chivalric South in Gone with the Wind, where Ashley Wilkes is a gentleman and Rhett Butler is definitely not, just as Scarlett is no lady: the artificial notions of the lady, proper and prim, seem as out of date, as those of the gentleman in the true sense. . . . So what is the true sense? I asked several friends. Having once taught a course on Masculinity in Literature, I remember how rigid the unwritten code of modern manhood can be, on the streets, in the classroom, at the workplace. The sociologist who designed and taught the course with me writes that there is always, in the idea of a gentleman, a mix of toughness and aggression along with the gentler aspects of manhood. He reminded me that the masculine ideal promoted in our culture does not havae much to say about ideal man, who, in my way of thinking, is strong in character but gentle in spirit. . . . He is not only polite but caring and helpful; education and status have less to do with the contemporary American gentleman than in the past. I have known more than a few professional men--lawyers, doctors, academics--who were well read and knowledgeable but morally unsound and boorish in behavior. . . . Another friend helped me sort out where young men growing up learn gentlemanly arts in today's society. He wrote: "my mother taught me to be a gentleman." And this means for him respecting one's elders, showing good manners, speaking when spoken to, opening doors for ladies and the elderly, standing up when ladies enter, carrying their heavy packages. It is a series of lessons learned in the home, probably with a little help from the nuns who taught him and from Emily Post. This resembles my own growing up. . . . I suspect that Emily Post, inheriting a tradition of etiquette from earlier times,codified the notion of what a lady is, and this trickled down to include her male counterpart--except taht it is more complicated than this. The fear that men have about all the refinement is found in much literature: think of Tom Sawyer and other pieces by Mark Twain, who wants little to do with educational and religious polishing during his rebellious youth. . . . At Rugby School as in Renaissance Italy, the gentleman has to be an athlete, implying competition and physical prowess, yet he must appear in society to be tamed, less the violent warrior of the playing field (or killing field) than the responsible, confident, reliable, knowledgeable, hardworking, steady and of course handsome partner for any girl (do we still call them ladies?). No wonder gentlemen are so hard to find. . . . As in the past, the ideal is impossible to realize, but the educational effort to refine the wild boy into something resembling the well-mannered gentleman goes on. . . . . I would welcome comments on this topic as I prepare to continue the discussion:

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Slow Reading

"I am the slowest reader you will ever meet," writes novelist Benjamin Percy in a recent issue of The Rumpus.

"After taking in a paragraph, I might pause and stare into space for fifteen minutes." He goes on to say that he will read it again, maybe two or three times, if it's good, examining its construction with his legal pad handy. It might take Percy two to four weeks to complete a novel, but the time is well used. He knows it completely, the way readers in earlier times, having few books to choose from, read and re-read and re-read the classics again, making these texts part of themselves.

Percy is not only a writer but a teacher of writing who believes, as I do, that good writing begins with reading. He has no patience with aspiring writers who say they have no time for reading or don't want to be influenced by another's style because they want to find their own voice.

You find your voice, first, by immersing yourself in Flannery O'Connor, as Percy did, or Hemingway, then writing a short story imitating the pattern and style of the original. You are trying out various voices, Percy says, until you find your own.

You will never find it in isolation.

This is refeshing for me to hear. In my own workshops, students, overly anxious to become published before they know their craft, look puzzled when I emphasize reading and paying careful attention to other stylists. They are unaware that all of us write in the company of other writers, past and present, whose web of influence is essential if you are to develop an ear for what works in dialogue or description or structure.

Do they think you can make a film without having seen and studied thousands of classic movies?

Underlying this advice is the more general need to slow down and remind ourselves to be patient, both with ourselves and with our craft. I have written about the slow movement in food and other areas before, along with the problems that come with the face pace of everyday life in which reflection becomes impossible. Reading, I have said, is a spiritual act, type of prayer; and writing, too, can be contemplative.

I am always learning more about slowing down--and more about writing, having been at it for more than 50 years; I am always finding stylists that entertain, impress or delight me, whose work becomes part of the well I dip into. I am grateful to Mr. Percy for coming my way and sharing his experience of slow reading.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Where is Civilization Going?

Roger Kimball is a thoughtful conservative, author of Tenured Radicals and most recently The Fortunes of Permanence. I have read an article summarizing this new book, which sounds a bit like Alan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind.

As such, it should appeal to anyone concerned about the trendy nature of much academic work, about who is teaching what at universities and how this affects education as a whole.

Scholars in my field of English literature and language have been, for at least thirty years, preoccupied with theory (gender, cultural, political, colonial) as it illuminates the writing of the past, which they don't see as containing necessarily permanent values. Reading fiction or poetry of the past, then, is for them (not for Kimball or me) chiefly a means of understanding the treatment of women and minorities or the oppression of third-world cultures.

While such new approaches have produced some revealing studies, Kimball is right to be concerned that so much of the world of academia and art are biased in favor of what's new and opposed to traditional values, including cultivating students' minds in what we used to call the humanist tradition.

My own teaching emphasis on Milton and the 17th century, as well as Dante and Shakespeare, was in large part an effort to understand the best that has been passed down over the generations, even if the voices of women. It is no surprise that no one in my old department of English has taken up the courses I taught prior to my retirement.

While I do not share all of Kimball's ideological biases, I am glad this often scathing critic (who edits The New Criterion) maintains his stance vs. the academy since, as a New York Times reviewer stated, his tirades are usually justified and he is intellectually rigorous.

Yet Kimball, like most polemicists, overstates things, as when he insists that contemporary scholars see the past as support for the "superiority and self-satisfaction" of today's readers and students. We neglect today, he says, the deep wisdom of tradition with its "answers to the human predicament."

In evoking the Judaeo-Christian tradition, as it was often called, Kimball is insisting on permanment values, including ideas of good and evil that do not change, and answers to often unanswerable questions. Yet our understanding of these values must develop and grow; we cannot fear change or the knowledge that continues to double every few years, often jarring our settled ideas about everything from the mind to the universe.

I share Kimball's concern about relativism, about a curriculum that emphasizes innovation and theory rather than the core of Western civilization. Yet I also share the more optimistic stance of Walter J. Ong, my Jesuit professor at St. Louis University, who had one solid foot in the past, the other grounded in the present as he looked forward with excitement, like Teilhard de Chardin, to an unfolding future of new knowledge and understanding.

In other words, humanists of the 21st century must have open minds, be interested in everything, fear nothing, yet be able to separate the trendy from the traditional and always value those thinkers who have made Western civilization what it is.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Understanding Barack Obama

People we know well often remain mysteries to us, just as we can sometimes be mysteries to ourselves. So it is not surprising that complex public figures we think we know are (and may remain) enigmas.

So it is with Barack Obama. All the photos and interviews and press conferences and speeches in the world only give us facets of this unusual man.

I notice that Maureen Dowd in the NYTimes, along with many other pundits and politicians who are able to observe the president up close, have been trying for the past four years to psychoanalyze him or understand what makes him tick. Dowd found the Bushes easy to skewer with that father-son rivalry, but Obama is a frustrating puzzle for her, elusive, hard to satirize because he is not simple.

Without analyzing Obama's policies, I decided to sort out for myself how I understand this complex man because I see history as a record of people and how they have shaped events, rather than of economic forces or military decisions. What is history but the human story?

Obama first impressed me as an Un-politician back in 2008 as he thoughtfully responded to interviewers' questions with an intelligence rarely found in pols. So I became intrigued with the man, his books, his family, the way his bi-racial past made him the cautious, cool outsider even while functioning as the ultimate insider.

In reading a recent piece in The New Yorker by Jane Mayer on Obama's distaste for fundraising and the belief of those around him that "big money is corrupt," a light bulb went on for me: he started to make sense. Obama is wary of the strings attached to big donations and keeps his distance from big donors, even at the risk of insulting them. I applaud his ethical standards, even though he knows he has to attend a Beverly Hills or Park Avenue bash and play the game he finds morally tainted. But he won't have his picture taken with the big donors, won't send thank you notes to them or invite them over. His parameters are clear just as his private time is private. Good for him.

The insight I had into the real Obama, as far as this can be discerned, comes from David Maraniss in his recent biography; he describes Obama as a man "with a moviegoer's or writer's sensibility, where he is both participating and observing himself participating": he sees much of the political circus that surrounds him as ridiculous, even as he is deep in the center of it.

What interests me is the ambivalence of such a man and the kinship I can identify with as a writer and teacher (as he was), one who likes the life of the mind probably as much as his family. I am intrigued by his ability to distance himself from his own life.

This will make him a superb future autobiographer, after all the hoopla is over, as he looks back on what he has achieved. Whether it will translate into political success with a hostile Congress is quite another matter. Somehow I think his eye is really on what history will say about him.

I think it will say he was a highly disciplined man who, without much background as a leader, has done fairly well in uncommonly difficult times because he pays meticulous attention to details; this often results in delays in announcing decisions that have disappointed many, but it also results in an almost gaffe-free spoken record. Contrast this with his VP.

Obama has a quality I greatly admire: he is a patient listener who can skillfully think through complex issues as well as a speaker who can rise to great oratorical heights because, I think, he is, as Maraniss says, a writer (and reader) at heart, with a respect for language, thought and precision.

To his liberal supporters and many others, he has proven himself a disappointment because he has never fully revealed how essentially conservative he is at heart, which means in today's world of extremes that he is what moderate Republicans once were. With a touch of intellectual arrogance, he has not fully explained his policies as he should nor defended them with the vigor that comes with old-style politics.

But he has the historical good sense to know something important: that the founding fathers cared as much about discussing ways to advance the common good as they did about ensuring freedom. This concern with the common good, which he shares with the Catholic tradition of social teaching, says that we measure our success in the public sphere by how the working class and the poor are doing. This means that the government must in some ways be caring; Obama understands this and often references this. His policies may be called liberal, but his philosophy is more traditional and more difficult to categorize.

Obama is the postmodern politician, wary of the very process he has tried to re-fashion, as he re-defines his role as a national and world leader while also responding to the daily crises that arise. He has done so with admirable poise and dignity, much to the dismay of his many critics, even though he has made mistakes; at the same time he has raised many unanswerable questions about who he really is.

As frustrating as it may be to the pundits, he will doubtless remain, as all complex personalities are, forever interesting in his ambivalent responses to a world that is not (and never has been) black and white.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Violet Hour

Much has been written about the various meanings of the color blue, none as memorable as the recent introduction to the book Blue Nights. There Joan Didion has a lyrical two-page reflection on expectation and anticipation, a kind of timeless waiting, during certain evenings of the year when "you think the end of day will never come."

In certain latitudes, she says, there is a span of time in late May when the long twilight turns blue. The French call it 'l'heure bleue,' the name of my mother's favorite perfume. Didion has seen the blue hour in New York; I can't recall experiencing any such intensely blue twilight. I remember the singer Sissel in her video "Northern Lights" referring to the magical blue hour in Norway, but this seemed to describe something quite different, a winter spectacle of the northern lights.

All of this suggests something a bit mysterious and romantic, a state of mind as much as an actual light. I recall the "violet hour" of T. S. Eliot, which to me means
a time of anxiety, anticipation, even suffering as night brings its terrors to those in the Wasteland of modern civilization. It's the dying of the light and the arrival, finally, of dreaded darkness.

Didion often analyzes anxiety and finds the blue night a useful metaphor for her memoir about the "dwindling of the days" and other recollections of sad beauty.

I was reminded of the blue hour again last night when watching a fine sleeper of a movie by Terence Davies, The Deep Blue Sea, set in foggy London town in 1950when literal blue nights would be impossible. But the somber atmosphere and slow pace of this film capture a sense of dread and depression that is turned into art. It unfolds in soft-focus episodes like impressionist paintings.

Rachel Weisz is the superbly rendered main character in this adaptation of a Terence Rattigan play on an old theme, older than Anna Karenina: a beautiful married woman finds doomed love with a younger man; but in this case, he is immature and incapable of giving her the full love she longs for. Her intense feelings, restricted by social custom in 1950s England, and by her class, take us almost into the realm of melodrama except that the emotions are convincingly real.

The film moves slowly backward and forward in time, aided by the intense violin concerto of Samuel Barber, as an otherwise predictable story becomes an original look at romantic despair. Like the blue hour that almost never seems to end, leading finally to the dying of the light, we watch the drama unfold, knowing that the darkness will eventually descend, the couple must part, and her life will somehow go on even as we are reluctant to have the movie end.

Such works of art interest me because in them we seem to experience moments "in and out of time," in Eliot's words. In reading or watching such fiction, we are aware of the unreality of the artifice but become totally engaged with the story, as our own intense feelings become one with those of the characters. In such cases, we as readers or viewers can enter a timeless present that lasts briefly, then vanishes as soon as the story ends. This, for me, is a spiritual dimension in art that is hard to articulate, and we have to be grateful to gifted filmmakers like Davies for allowing us to experience it.