Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Respecting others' beliefs

I was surprised to see in another of his amazing interviews that Pope Francis listed ten steps to happiness, one of which begins: "Don't proselytize."  We should, he said, inspire others by our example, by dialogue, not by using pressure or persuasion. "The worst thing of all is religious proselytizing. . ."  Wow.

This is refreshing to hear. It reminds me of the approach used 400 years ago in China by the Jesuit scientist Matteo Ricci, who felt (despite the wishes of Rome at the time) that heavy-handed missionary preaching was not the way to attract people to Christianity.  As a result, his mission was a modest success, but his work as a cultural ambassador is honored in China, even today.

I gave a talk on Ricci in May and wish that I had been able to include the Pope's statement since I sensed that my largely secular audience was not entirely comfortable hearing about a Jesuit from Italy who went as a missionary to the East. In fact, Ricci and his companions were, unlike many missionaries then and since, interested in learning from their hosts and, in this case, in contributing to Chinese knowledge. They were sensitive enough to their host culture not to impose Christian teaching on the natives.

Ricci was a prodigious translator of basic Western texts into Mandarin and gradually became recognized, even by the last Ming Emperor, whom he never saw, for his scientific achievements.  Ricci's heroic life one day might lead to his canonization--he is now on the track to sainthood--and his work is in keeping with the approach of his fellow Jesuit today, Pope Francis, who has learned in Argentina some invaluable lessons about how to deal with people.

If only some of the leaders today in the Mideast and other hot spots could learn the lesson of dialogue and mutual respect. . . .

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Evil and the Will

In the back of my mind recently, when I wrote about a strong-willing Irish friend, was the more serious, eternally mysterious question of human evil and to what extent it results from our free will.

Of course, Hitler comes to mind. Just recently, I found an article by Ron Rosenbaum, author of a new edition of Explaining Hitler.  Having studied his subject more thoroughly than most people, Rosenbaum concludes that what made Hitler want to do what he did remains ultimately unclear.

Will power he had in abundance, and hatred. Some (Alice Miller, the Swiss psychoanalyst, among others) have argued that young Adolf's upbringing--being beaten by his father--led to violent hatred and shame, compounded by the defeat of Germany in World War I.  Others have seen Hitler as a demon or monster or madman who ultimately wanted to destroy himself and ruin his beloved Fatherland.

It is interesting for me, having taught a course in evil that put emphasis on the choices we make, to find Rosenbaum concluding that it wasn't a combination of external forces that led Hitler to become Hitler: "it required him to choose evil. It required free will."

The full source of the "continuous series of choices" that Hitler made in his life may never be understood. The author says we may never know what effect an alleged hypnotist had on Hitler after the first war. So rather than indulge in endless speculation, Rosenbaum, lacking definitive proof of the potent combination of personal and social forces that drove him to annihilate millions, concludes that "we may never know with certainty what made Hitler Hitler."

This means that some basic issues about the war and the Holocaust remain uncertain since Hitler's racial war was unlike any other. Hitler arrived on the world scene at just the right moment, in a country eager for authoritarian control and willing to participate in his evil monstrosity.

And yet the greatest evil of the modern era remains, like so much human evil, a mystery.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The power of the will

Never underestimate the power of the human will.  I was reminded of this recently when our Irish-born friend Mary turned 93.  She celebrated with her family on Long Island, then returned home to Central Florida last week.

We called her to invite her to a birthday lunch.  "Oh, no, thank you," Mary said. "But I want you to come to a little dinner party I am having this weekend. And don't say it's too much trouble."

And so we went, and so, as usual, Mary did all the work, even refusing to have us help with any of the food or clean-up.  She was determined, apparently, to prove to the world, and herself, that she could triumph over pain (arthritic and otherwise) and continue to entertain as she always has.

Last year, Mary fell twice and was briefly hospitalized; but, having survived the London Blitz and raised four daughters while working hard in England and New York, she is tough; and she has little use for doctors.

She is, at 93, planning a redecoration of her condo before more family members come to visit her.  She was born to be a generous hostess, but she was also born with, or developed, a strong will that almost nothing seems able to defeat.

If I should live to be 93, I hope I carry on with the spirit of Mary.  When I have pains and aches, I always think of this inspiring, determined woman, being grateful to be among her many friends.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Being Published

For every writer, news of an acceptance is a major event. To be published after months of labor, usually alone and without any recognition, is a welcome and necessary validation for any writer, who now becomes an author, given the authorization of publication.

No matter how much I have published over the years--from short reviews and articles to books--I still get a special thrill when a publisher says, "Yes." Or as happened yesterday, when the editor of the Provo Canyon Review wrote to me, "we love your story and would be very pleased to publish it in our next issue."

If they are pleased, I am very pleased because I am new to fiction writing, and the story in question, "Losing It," is a comic piece loosely modeled on the work of James Thurber. It concerns an absent-minded high school history teacher, who has a conflict with his principal--and by extension the state of education in America today. I never knew, even from the three seasoned readers who critiqued it, if it was really good, genuinely amusing and believable.

Now the self-doubt can fade and I can happily anticipate seeing the article appear in the Review, probably next week online at

Yet, for me, getting the acceptance is what matters, the actual publication being almost secondary. Almost.

Here, to whet your appetite, is the opening sentence, which I worked on for some time (maybe it will motivate you to look up the Provo Canyon Review and read the whole story and have some laughs):

    On a  sparkling Florida afternoon in winter, as George Eliot Craine was stirring his spaghetti sauce, with his back to the open window over the kitchen sink, his pants fell down, along with his shorts, and it took it took him a full minute to put down his wooden spoon, wipe his hands, and retrieve his clothes from the floor--time enough for his wife, Martha, who was unloading groceries from the car, to see, beneath his apron strings, his naked butt.


Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Fussing with Sentences

As I teach my summer writing workshop while working on a piece of fiction, I continue to think about style and the way fussing with sentences is at the heart of prose style.

Four years ago, I would tell my students that my experience has convinced me that I am strictly a writer of non-fiction, having published various books, articles, reviews, etc., some academic, many not.

Now I can say that I am having fun as a fiction writer. But I am learning that my enthusiasm for long, cumulative, rolling sentences that have the elegance, surprise and wit that people like Gay Talese bring to them does not always apply to fiction as it does to literary non-fiction.

At least, not when the point of view is first person. In my present draft of a novel, as in my first published story, I have my narrator-protagonist talk directly to the reader, and only rarely can he use the kind of sentences I admire. They are too artful, too literary.

My second story, however, told from an omniscient point of view, can put such sentences to good use, but still sparingly.  I found that the following sentence about an obnoxious high school principal named Mrs. Wicker (who is challenged by a veteran teacher named Crane) should be broken into three sentences.

I wrote: Mrs. Wicker, her mouth flung open, her penciled eyebrows lost in the furrows of her wrinkled forehead, was rendered speechless by Mr. Crane's finest hour.  I was pleased with that sentence until I listened to it.

My revision:  Mrs. Wicker gaped, her penciled eyebrows disappearing into the furrows of her wrinkled forehead.  She was rendered speechless. This was Mr. Crane's finest hour.

I like the force of the opening verb 'gaped' and the punch given to the second and third sentences.

Sometimes three sentences have more emphasis than one elaborate one. It took me five or more rewrites to get this sentence to sound right. Now, you might ask, is all this bother worthwhile?

If you are a writer, you would never ask such a question. When he was asked what problem caused him to revise the ending to A Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times, Hemingway said simply, "Getting the words right." He knew that fussing with words is what writing is all about.