Friday, January 30, 2015

When old answers don't suffice

Today, on the 100th anniversary of Thomas Merton's birth, I quote a fragment of one of his poems:

Each one who is born
Comes into the world as a question
For which old answers
Are not sufficient.

It so happens that this idea applies to what I wrote today in an Op-Ed piece for the Orlando Sentinel ( "The Catholic Church needs a kick in the pants."

The essay was occasioned by the recent ordination of an Orlando woman, Rita Lucey, to the priesthood. This is not something I would usually go out of my way to applaud, but it struck me as an important symbolic gesture, a wake-up call about what is deeply wrong with the present all-male, all-celibate clerical world.

So I tried to argue--not easy, given the word limit of under 400 words--that the priesthood needs to be opened up: it is on life support, with U.S. parishes either closing or coping without resident priests.  "The sheep look up and are not fed," as Milton said of the Anglican clergy of his time.

I believe the laity in the Catholic church must not act like sheep. They should speak up if they feel, as I do, that open and honest discussion must take place about making celibacy optional for men, not mandatory. Pope Francis is the kind of man who can make such a change and also do something about including women in a decision-making role in the church. If this means ordination to the diaconate, great: a first step toward priesthood in the future.

If Merton were alive, I believe he would be in the front ranks calling for ongoing clerical reform since he knew that the old ways, the old answers, are not always enough.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Death and nature

It is hard to say anything new about death, yet the NYTimes piece this week by Margo Rabb (1-26-15) caught my attention.

Her basic point, which hit home for me, was the difference in compassion between how doctors treated her at the time of her parents' deaths--coldly, impersonally--and her more recent experience at the vet, when her cat, Sophie, had to be euthanized.

I have often noticed how loving and sweet the staff are with my nervous cat and her owners, how impersonal medical personnel can often be with me.  I sometimes wish I could be taken to the vet.

But what I found arresting in Rabb's op-ed piece was her statement about how the death of an animal can be different from a human death: it is felt as an inevitable part of natural change: the cycle of life and death, the seasons and the years.  She says the death of her parents was for her unbearable and inhumane because human beings spend so much of their lives "railing against the idea of dying, or pretending that it doesn't exist, or dreaming of eternal youth, or wishing to prolong our lives. . . ."

By contrast, the death of her cat seemed natural and "exceptionally human." 

Rabb's article is a good example of the way in which the personal can become the universal.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Flash Fiction

Today I took the plunge into Flash Fiction, the new genre of stories so short they appeal to people with short attention spans. They also appeal to writers who, like me recently, have only a slice of life or little anecdote to write about.

Flash fiction, which offers many online publishing opportunities, is usually defined as anything between 500-1,000 words.  Some people and journals specialize in 100-word stories.  So far, I have been unable to think of anything worth saying in such minimalist terms as that, except in a non-fiction medium such as this blog.

Fiction for me usually involves not only a governing idea or insight but the characters, dialogue and detail to express this idea, experience, or insight. So the appeal of doing anything as constrained as under 1,000 words has been, until now, minimal.

Yet there is always something about the challenge of a contest or word limit to spur a bit of creativity--like the poet who wants to try his or her hand at the sonnet or any other fixed form.

And so I expanded a bit of chit-chat about a couple who refused to turn up the heat during a cold winter because of their two dogs, never mind the comfort or health of the people involved. When I heard about this from a friend, I was, like her, outraged at the selfishness of the couple involved.

But when I turned it into a little story, I found myself taking a humorous bent. I also found myself using many short sentences, limiting my dialogue and description, and needing only 500 words--for the first draft.  Then, with each revision stretching over 8-10 hours, I ended up with 882 words.  It took discipline as well as time to limit the focus and the length to meet the flash fiction rubric.

I sent the result, "The Way It Is," to a journal that seemed promising. If it's published, I will be pleased. If not, I am glad I took up the challenge of trying something new and proving to myself that I can now write not only a novel (soon to be published), two short stories (published) but a piece of flash fiction, which, like all writing, takes much more time than its length might indicate to the reader.

I doubt if I will become a master of flash fiction, but there are times when small is beautiful, when a tiny episode of a life becomes worth sharing, when the broader range of longer fiction won't do.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Ignorance and absurd overconfidence

A recent statement by Steven Pinker caught my attention at a time when I have been  thinking about some of the reactions I have seen online about Islam in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris.

What's intriguing is how Pinker uses a line from Shakespeare (Measure for Measure)--"most ignorant of what he's most assured"--to connect what psychologists have been discovering: "that human beings are absurdly overconfident in their own knowledge, wisdom, and rectitude.  Everyone thinks that he or she is in the right, and that the people they disagree with are stupid, stubborn or ignorant. People rightly overestimate their own knowledge and misjudge their own accuracy at making predictions." (emphasis added)

It's intriguing to find a connection with an insight by Shakespeare and the conclusions, 400 years later, of social scientists.

I hope there are exceptions to Pinker's generalization, but I know in academia, it is commonplace to be surrounded by know-it-alls, experts in history or science who think they understand religion, for example, or politics, and betray in their opinions their own ignorance.  Or people in the media who argue about beliefs, always convinced that they are right. They don't try to find the gray area between the extremes of black and white that too often are at the root of racism and bigotry, whether in Ferguson, Mo or France or the Mideast. They don't make the effort to understand those with whom they disagree.

A little humility goes a long way. I have always thought that, the more I know, the less I really understand; yet I am sure, in this blog, I have, by the very nature of the beast, been encouraged to pontificate about matters in which I have little expertise. I trust the effects are harmless.

When people attack another religion, Islam or Christianity, especially, they are prone to the arrogance of rectitude because they fail to take in the big picture of human nature and history.  They fail to look at the other faith from within, knowledgeably, and so resort to dangerous oversimplifications, as Bill Maher did on TV a few months ago.

And when arrogance leads to bigotry and violence, I am reminded of why Plato said that the greatest evil is ignorance.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Farewell to two good men

I read some obituaries with great interest. Recently, the deaths of two unrelated men, Mario Cuomo and Edward Herrmann, moved me in different ways even though I did not know either man or know a great deal about them.

About Cuomo, I felt some sadness that this two-term Governor of New York, called by Peter Steinfels "thoughtful, brilliant, and gifted" with great skills in building consensus, did not serve his country more broadly.  I remember him from two key speeches he made in 1984: one to the Democratic national convention, the other at Notre Dame, in which he called for some ways for Catholics divided over the abortion issue to find common ground.

In articulating a defense of his controversial pro-abortion rights view, Cuomo tried to find, in the words of E. J. Dionne, some basic agreement with those with whom he disagreed. The sadness is that he did not follow through on the conversation he called for on the relation of public and private morality in American society. So, too, in politics, he could have done more to avoid polarization in the Democratic party and, if he had been less "difficult," he apparently could have served nobly on the Supreme Court, going head-to-head with Antonin Scalia.

But, like a blazing comet, Cuomo the public intellectual faded from public view, retiring to a life of writing.  Who today can express as he could the complexity of the Catholic tradition in U.S. society?  Still, I am grateful for his life, for the many good things he did.

Cuomo was 82. The actor Edward Herrmann was only 71. I remember his portrayal of FDR and other notable figures, admiring his patrician air and his versatility as an actor. I would have ignored his obituary except for a telling quote about the relation between his art and his faith (he was a Catholic convert). I will save this whenever I encounter an argument about the existence of God.

He was writing here about acting and other arts, but the statement applies to the art of living.  "We don't begin with reason, we begin with feeling and insight.  All of life is 99 percent irrational. Reason is nothing compared to God's love. That's what makes us who we are. Reason is the first thing that should be dropped when you start exploring the spirit. . . ."

Words worth remembering.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

My Japanese Novel

Before mentioning my take on the first Japanese novel I have attempted to read (in a fine translation by Jay Rubin), I should mention that my habit of reading is not always conducive to  fiction. I tend to have two or three books going at the same time and dip into each of them for an hour or two, as the mood strikes.

When faced with a 600-page novel, as is the case with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, I must ask myself, What does it take to get me to complete this lengthy piece of fiction, an amusing, original concoction whose plot seems to go nowhere and whose characters talk a lot, at great length?

It takes, I find, the ability to sit still for long periods (which is not always easy). That is my function. The author's function, which in this case is mainly successful, is to stimulate and maintain my interest to forge ahead with a narrative that moves quickly but whose overall significance remains, at the half way point, unclear. It has to be more than about the search for a lost cat, which ostensibly occupies much of the initial action.

Strange, supernatural events occur here, a la magic realism, and neither the narrator nor the author seem to care whether they are real or imagined.  The narrator is a not uncommon postmodern creation: a thirty-something young man, passive and a bit lazy, a stay-at-home suburban Tokyo husband and unemployed lawyer who encounters a series of wacky, assertive females, most of whom assault him with a volley of words that seems unending, with descriptions that can be at times annoyingly repetitious, at times hilarious. One of them asks him, "tell me, have you got guts?"

"No, I was never one for guts. Not likely to change either."

Do I want to follow such a character through several dozen more escapades and exchanges, knowing he will remain, at the end of his urban odyssey, the same rootless young man we encounter on the first page when he is at home cooking spaghetti and listening to Rossini?

The first thing that struck me about the narrator and his world is how Westernized (Americanized) his Tokyo is, with its Dairy Queen hamburgers and a virtual absence of Japanese cultural references. I gather that Mr. Murakami is gently satirizing the loss of native culture in post-war Japan, where a certain bland boredom coexists with an unpredictability that the Coen brothers would appreciate.

The novelist has had many successes; and this book, from 1997, is his attempt at a "big novel," full of important ideas, yet the emphasis is on the mundane details that make up the world of Toru, his wife, her missing cat, and his weird female companions. Whether this Proustian attention to detail adds up to something significant depends on my ability to finish it.

So far, the main idea I have noticed is the difficulty, often the impossibility, of knowing one another. Love, as Flannery O'Connor once said, is the effort to understand the mysterious fellow creatures we encounter. Life is full of mysteries.

What else? What is real in the narrative, and what is imagined? Are the voices Toru hears on the radio real?  What do we make of the fantastic stories of World War II, as told by an amusing fortune teller: did they happen or are they fairy tales? More important is whether Toru, the passive narrator, will be able to understand his troubled wife and the other women who confront him as he drifts through Tokyo.

Do we, the readers, care?  The experience of reading a long novel has to involve more than being intrigued by a series of quirky characters.

I hope Toru meets a few shy people who, instead of being compulsive talkers, listen to him. I suspect I will not learn a great deal about Japan from him in the second half of the novel and that the missing cat will never be found. But then I could be in for another surprise in this novel of surprises.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Big, bold ideas

I am glad to see that the "history of ideas" lives on in several important new books, one of which I received for Christmas: Divine Fury, a study of genius by Darrin McMahon, whose book on happiness a few years ago I greatly enjoyed.

If happiness is an impossibly vast topic to explore, genius is a bit more limited in scope. McMahon shows, with his usual clarity and thoroughness, how the idea has widely had a religious meaning, now lost: for the ancients, one's genius was his or her personal life force, protector and connection to the divine; everyone had a genius. Only later, after the 18th century, did "genius" come to mean originality, brilliance, and rare creativity.  Even the origins of our birthday celebrations (cake and candles) can be traced to ancient ideas of "genius."

If academics have tended to shun the "history of ideas" approach to interdisciplinary studies in recent decades, McMahon and others have given this area new life.  I look forward to finishing his latest book.

The other book that caught my eye (from a review) is Peter Toohey's study of jealousy, which, like the same author's earlier book on boredom, opens up huge psychological areas that can't possibly be studied in a single book. Still, it is valuable to have a thinker explore what can be said about the roots and effects of jealousy and envy.

Toohey, according to a review by Diane Johnson, sees jealousy as an innate instinct, a normal part of human development based on fear of being excluded; but there's good news: fear of exclusion from the inner circle of acceptance can prompt us to cooperation and growth.  A positive side to jealousy?

"Jealousy" may be too limited a term to encompass the whole range of fears and disappointments people (and animals) feel when life becomes unfair--and the sometimes violent consequences that ensue. But I applaud writers like Toohey and McMahon not only because they allow the reader to examine classic works of literature and philosophy, from Aristotle and Shakespeare to Tolstoi, but because they boldly undertake what seems to be an impossible subject and carry it off with what the Italians call (thanks to Castiglione) sprezzatura (effortless ease).