Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Kid with a Bike

My wife and I went to bed last night thinking of the amazing DVD we had just seen, a 2011 French-language movie, The Kid with a Bike.

Its appeal is not easy to explain since its themes of seeking a father, home, and love are universal; yet the stunning impact of an 11-year-old boy riding his bike feverishly in search of meaning, away from his foster home in search of a dad who doesn't want him, is unforgettable and original. Moving without being sentimental.

The young actor is remarkable in conveying with fierce determination the human need for connection.

At times, as we watch him riding along, a strain of Beethoven is heard, just a few bars, as if to highlight the general absence of music and the quiet tone of this film.  The boy, rejected, falls literally into the arms of a good woman, a hairdresser, who has the patience to deal with his anger and frustration. He later falls from a tree and, though thought dead, is alive.

The filmmakers, two brothers named Dardenne, often put religious themes--here resurrection, compassion, redemption--into secular terms: a wise thing to do. Their film is memorable in doing what filmmakers can uniquely do: suggest the presence of hope in an apparently bleak world.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

More about Pope Benedict

There has been a rich assortment of reflections about the papal resignation, many of them echoing my own initial reaction: that this is the most significant thing Benedict XVI has done for the future of the church.

I was particularly struck by a Commonweal post by Joseph A. Komonchak (2-19-13), "Benedict's Act of Humility."  The humility and courage of B-16, as they call him in the social media (or Benny), is that he has subordinated the person to the office: it is not the man, often seen as a kind of god-king, who is above and beyond the church (and criticism), but the office he holds that matters. That, too, is a human institution in need of change.

In resigning, Pope Benedict has brought the papacy down to earth, according to Komonchak and others) just as his decision humanizes him.

After all, the church is not the pope, and the pope is not the church. The church is not the hierarchy, the institution in Rome. We who try to be faithful Catholics do not look to Rome for spiritual nourishment but to our local parish; there we find the community of believers who are the church.
The church is not our religion; our religion is Christianity. Such insights have come through in many of the articles reacting to the pope's decision.

So this historic resignation is a sign of some creeping (dare I say it?) democracy. Yet, ironically, at the same time, the media's glare on his possible successor and the coming conclave once again suggests the old, inflated notion that the Bishop of Rome is of such supreme importance that the existence of the church, its future, depends on the man elected.

So it is hard to leave the mystique of the papacy behind. It does not help that popes continue to live in the gilded splendor of a Renaissance palace, dressed as if part of an ancient culture rather than as part of the 21st century. (Surely an Italian tailor could come up with a sharp white suit, with pants, for the pope.)

The pope is important as a symbolic source of unity, as Bishop of Rome, but he must also be human, accessible, perhaps (like John XXIII) a man of humor and common sense. A man who knows something of family life and human struggles. A man who can listen as well as teach.

Benedict XVI, for all his missteps, moved us closer, I think, to shifting the papacy from its lofty isolation to the real world. The church--the faithful--are open to change. Now is the time for its leaders to follow, in humility, and for the pope to be the Servant of the Servants of God (one of his many titles worth retaining).

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

In defense of puns

Puns are often considered the lowest form of humor, but anyone reading John Pollack' engaging book, The Pun Also Rises, as I have just done, would have to argue with this oversimplification.

If you have a hard time imagining an entire book of 200-plus pages about puns, imagine instead an enjoyable tour through linguistic history in which the work of scholars and experts is presented with down-to-earth, often amusing clarity.  This is not a book of puns.

Pollack shows that for thousands of years, the pun enjoyed a privileged place in Western history, art and religion: the Bible uses puns (lost to us in translation; Jesus used them to make a point, not to be funny). Cicero and the ancients valued them, Chaucer and Shakespeare had great fun with them.

So what happened? The so-called Enlightenment, the age of reason in which ambiguity, that playful awareness of multiple meanings, was frowned on and the pun was considered silly, at least in English literary circles. But in the new U.S.,  Ben Franklin and other founding fathers did not have such a bias against the venerable play on words. The very fact that the British at the time considered punning low humor made it all the more delightful for the rebellious colonists over here.

And so it goes in this enlightening overview of language and the importance of ambiguity. Without puns, how would advertisers, crossword puzzle makers, some songwriters and pundits like Maureen Dowd, greeting card creators, and headline editors get along?  They provide smiles at least, if not belly laughs.  We enjoy wordplay more than we let on.

And as to the groans that puns often seem to elicit, Pollack has sensible things to say.  We react to puns and other types of wordplay with a variety of responses since simple puns make complex demands on the brain. Pollack has done his homework in cognitive linguistics.

Every language, he says, seems to have had a place for wordplay, even the ancient Egyptians. This raises the key question: is there something about punning that is basic to language itself?

Pollack believes that intentional punning "laid the foundation for alphabetic writing as we know it." This in turn made possible the accumulation of knowledge and the modern world: wow!  It all began with a pun!

His reasoning: the human capacity to connect widely divergent ideas (two words having similar sounds, for example, but totally different meanings) enabled people over thousands of generations to construct systems of language that enabled man to move from the cave and the drum to the telegraph and the iPhone.  Sound too simple?  See what he says for yourself.

This is a wonderful book, full of humor and insight, making complex issues accessible to the general reader, and raising questions about the mind, about the human need to remain alert and nimble in an ever-changing world. That, in a word, is the function of the not-so-simple pun.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Pope's Decision

The stunning news today that Benedict XVI is abdicating his office as pope is probably the most enlightened and important thing he has done since taking office; it is, sadly, the thing for which he will be remembered.

His election in 2005 struck me as unwise and unimaginative: a shy intellectual and theologian who wanted to retire to Germany to write was instead installed as the head of a vast institution that required the leadership of someone younger, stronger, and more enlightened,who could begin to streamline its royal trappings and elaborate bureaucracy and continue the work of the Second Vatican Council.

That council and the events that followed in 1968 seemed to frighten Cardinal Ratzinger, as he was then known; he retreated into conservative mindset that did not serve the church well.  He must have watched in horror as his predecessor grew older and more infirm, refusing to resign even when everyone could see his inability to function. I suspect his alarm was increased by the sexual scandals of the past two decades and the official cover-up in which he was involved. He felt embarrassed by various mis-steps during his pontificate that suggested that the job was too big for his frail shoulders. Resigning was, no doubt, a great relief.

What effect this decision, and he, will have on his successor remains to be seen. Things change with uncommon slowness in the gilded world of the Vatican, so we cannot expect some of the changes I would like to see in the priesthood and in the role of women in the church.

But at least Pope Benedict ended on a positive, realistic note. That itself is a change.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Being Religious

What does it mean to be religious?  Many people would probably think of church (or temple) attendance along with adherence to a specific set of beliefs.  But the term is much broader, having something to do with the role of the sacred in human life.

I have known many people who, like my father, attended no church, knew little about any particular denomination, yet had a religious perspective, an awe at the beauty of creation and the value of love. They honor and respect sacred places and holy traditions, perhaps sensing in them something ancient and profound. You might prefer the word 'spiritual,' yet that word, for me, suggests the cultivated inner life and a sense of the transcendent in the ordinary that 'religious' does not.

Joseph Mitchell (1908-1996), a North Carolina native who moved to New York in 1929 and began to write about the city, left an unfinished memoir, part of which is published, in all its copious detail, in the current New Yorker.  He lists, with apparent delight, the sights and sounds of the faces and places of the huge metropolis as only an outsider can.  Reading it, I was reminded of Whitman in his all-embracing catalog of life.

Mitchell captures something of the religious sensibility I am trying to define. Although a member of no church, he found himself attracted to churches, especially Catholic ones. Sometimes he went to several Masses in a single day, at different places, with different accents (Polish, Italian, etc.) and, having read a good bit, reflects on the religious impact his experiences had on him.  The following passage is worth quoting in detail:

"One dimly remembered observation about the ancientness of the Mass--that it and its antecedents go farther back into the human past than any other existing ceremony--began to haunt me. I began to feel that the Mass gave me a living connection with my ancestors in England and Scotland before the Reformation and with other ancestors thousands of years earlier than that in the woods and in the caves and on the mudflats of Europe. It put me in communion, so to speak, with these ancestors, no matter how ghostly or hypothetical they might be." ("Street Life," New Yorker, Feb. 11 & 18, 2013, p. 68).

He goes on to say how deeply satisfying this was because it was like finding a "tiny crack in the wall" through which he could look into his unconscious. As a result, he developed a respect for the Mass that had nothing to do with his beliefs about organized religion. It had a lot to do with the past and its presence in the liturgy.

I wonder how many people today are drawn to churches and other places of worship not merely because of the architecture but because they need, in a way impossible to articulate, to be part of a community that carries on a tradition of prayer. They need to be connected to a history wider and deeper than their own lives.

I know that, whenever I grow restless or distracted or bored at Mass, I will recall Mitchell's words and remind myself of what being religious in its broadest sense means and why it is important for me to be fully present there.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

A culture of coarseness

As a long-time reader of The New Yorker, I remain surprised that conservative editing prevails in certain minor matters of style (punctuation, the spelling out of numbers, for example) while the writing itself can sometimes be as crude as the popular culture seems to demand.

In this week's issue, the magazine's editor, Adam Gopnik, reviews several books on Galileo in an intelligent, in-depth article which nevertheless has a colloquial, irreverent tone that seems designed to appeal to undergraduates and other immature readers: I refer to the use of "crap" and "bullshit," as if the article would be dull and off-putting if it didn't contain the standard amount of cool talk.

So too the Jon Stewart show, which drops the f-bomb regularly, to the delight of the studio audience, which howls with delight, as if this much-overused obscenity were a clever surprise. It is almost de rigueur on the Comedy channel, on Bill Maher's Real Time (where being real often means being crude), and others like it.

I don't why the coarse language bothers me: is it because it shows a lack of imagination and maturity?  Maybe it's because it seems like pandering to the prolonged adolescence of so many in the audience, who expect, along with dumbing-down, a regular dose of vulgarity.

I was reminded of this recently in Stephen Miller's book Conversation, a history of the (almost) lost art of civilized discourse, in which he quotes a Washington Post article on the view of many teachers: that students are using inappropriate language more than ever. "Not only is it coarsening the school climate and social discourse.....it is evidence of a decline in language skills. Popular culture has made ugly language acceptable and hip."

Since language is always a mirror of our thinking and culture, it is not implausible to see some connection between the ugly violence of so much of society and its ugly speech.  In a world where texting, sexting, phone sex,  and virtual girlfriends erect barriers between people who seek genuine intimacy, it is not surprising to find a lack of authentic communication. Or to see ads proclaiming: "The Ipod is your best friend."

When parents and teachers do not insist that young people use mature English, when they are allowed to be impolite, the result, it seems to me, is a hardening of the bond that should exist between people, who search desperately for something personal, cordial, and authentically human in their relations with others. Instead, they are met by violence in the media, both in language and action, and a general decline in good manners.

I don't oppose the use of vulgar and obscene and profane words--all appropriate in some circumstances. I just oppose their obligatory use and the resulting coarseness that can harden our hearts.

Since writing this, I have seen two movies that, in their absence of sexual explicitness and street talk, are all the more remarkable: a droll comedy, Two Brothers and a Bride, about farm boys who go off to Russia in search of a wife; and The Kid with a Bike, which I write about separately. Of course, the latter is in French and so I might have missed a few verbal bombs. (3-26-13).

Friday, February 1, 2013

Suffering and Meaning

It is always good to encounter a good new writer. Christian Wiman, past editor of Poetry magazine, is not new to many people, but excerpts from his new book Ambition and Survival indicate a writer of subtlety and skill. His prose is packed with dense, unwinding sentences that capture his careful approach to faith as it coexists with doubt.

"At times I have experienced in the writing of a poem some access to a power that feels greater than I am," he writes. He is unwilling to call this merely the unconscious. Rather a constant presence in his poems is God--or the absence of God.  His sense of God while writing is akin to a famous (more positive) statement by Thomas Merton, which I have often quoted, about how he felt especially close to God in the act of writing, which was for him often prayerful.

Wiman goes on to make an important statement about seeing life as a whole; it is not only the insight of a man who has come through a cancer scare and a tentative return to churchgoing but one who has read and thought widely and deeply. There is wisdom in "learning to see our moments of necessity and glory and tragedy not as disparate experiences but as facets of the single experience that is life."

And, having read Simone Weil, he shares her view that suffering is at the center of our lives. Without dealing with pain and suffering, we do not deal with human reality. In an eloquent passage about making a truce with pain, he brings to mind (at least for me) the horrors of recent events, especially the killing of twenty children in Newtown and other horrors that live on in our collective psyche, especially when the news brings us stories of more school shootings.

There are, he writes, wounds we never completely get over. "Yet I have come to believe...that pain may be its own reprieve, that the violence that is latent is us may be...rendered into an energy that need not be inflicted on others or ourselves...that there is hope for what Freud called 'normal unhappiness,' [giving] our lives a coherence" as we learn to live with our painful memories, and ourselves, "amid a truce that is not peace."  (This is part of one long, complex sentence.)

Having dealt with the death of two neighbors this week, I have been thinking of how grief in families often goes on and on, sometimes for years; it is not something to which we can easily apply "closure."  Christian Wiman deals with this reality with memorable wisdom.