Slow, immediate

FullSizeRenderOver break I filled my
green, mechanical pencil with
lead.

What else. Alone

it represents
nothing, is indicative of
nothing, suggests,
intimates,
prefigures,
symbolizes
nothing that I am immediately aware of.

It counterposes, offsets, analogizes, compares with, offsets, is juxtaposed with, supports, qualifies, contrasts with, is inimical to, controverts, contends with, counters, challenges, counteracts, oppugns, parallels, withstands, matches, relates to, is set off against, and is weighed in the balance with nothing.

Nothing, after all, I can be only immediately aware of.

In fact, this lack of awareness
equates with, or at least is indicative of,
the immediate.

(You see, then, how I’ve spoiled
everything. I should’ve kept quiet.)

“Immediate” means, first of all, “acting or being without the intervention of another object, cause, or agency” (Merriam-Webster). Immediate, then, means slow, not fast.

We are the immediate, the mediators between perception and meaning. We have to find ourselves there before we learn anything else.

Most classes use the present to understand the past or to build a future. Eternity, if it exists, comes later. But I want to put my class, as much as I can and should, on a quixotic journey to find the present.

Ye who teach that eternity defies explanation,
go back and learn that explanation defies eternity.

The immediate is the calm inside the confusion before a comparison comes to mind, before the elemental lead is compounded with — as (God!) I just did here — or similized or metaphorized with — something prior or employed to foreshadow something coming. It is the slow, dumb present.

My dream Job

3PictureBookScheindlinJobJob is like Lear. The curtain opens on a fairy tale. In it, the play’s chief authority, God (or King Lear in Lear), cuts a dubious deal, relinquishes authority and, in the process, does his most loyal subject a bad turn. When the fairy tale fades, the dialog develops between the newly minted sufferer and his newly dubious friends. This conversation dominates both plays.

And, like Lear, Job is theater. It’s mostly dialog, of course, and the absence of a setting (unless you know where Uz is) puts us all on stage, like any good play. Job refers to “east . . . west . . . north . . . south,” but Jewish Theological Seminary Professor Raymond Scheindlin prefers translations that have Job refer in chapter 23 to what Scheindlin calls a “smaller compass” – to “forward . . . backward . . . left . . . right” (197). Job’s left is our north; Job’s stage is our world, firmly founded on the primeval waters that separate it from Sheol (201).

The idea of Job as theater recurs while reading Scheindlin’s The Book of Job. Scheindlin, for instance, discovers a number of what he calls “buried stage directions”:

But you, all three, return! – Come back! –
Not one wise man do I find among you.
You turn the night to day,
……pretend that light is closer than the face of darkness. (17:10, 12)

Marvin Pope describes the stage directions in his Anchor Job a generation before Scheindlin’s 1998 translation, but Pope doesn’t sharpen them the way Scheindlin does. Scheindlin’s translation also emphasizes how Job’s words feed off those of his friends, an essential component of theater or even plain, old argument. The above lines leave out verse 11, for instance, because Scheindlin flips verses 11 and 12, the latter verse being, as Pope says in the Anchor translation, “quite incompatible with the context.” Scheindlin’s move sharpens the dialogue.

I’ve had the feeling, reading the usual English Bible translations, that the swords between Job and his friends clash only when some ancient, unfathomable convention permits, that Job and his friends are delivering set pieces, speeches that require all parties to chiefly parrot the Bible’s party line. Scheindlin doesn’t find this approach in the original. For instance, Job isn’t going along with his friends’ reliance on discernment and on the ancients’ wisdom in chapter 12, as the King James and its progeny suggest. As a good rhetorician, Job simply restates his opponents’ position before challenging it:

“The ear,” they say, “is the best judge of speech,
……the palate knows what food is tasty.”
“Wisdom,” they say, “belongs to elders;
……length of years makes a man perspicacious.”
He has wisdom and power;
……He has counsel and insight. (12:11 – 13)

Prof. Raymond P. Scheindlin, The Jewish Theological Seminary
Prof. Raymond P. Scheindlin, The Jewish Theological Seminary

(Emphasis Scheindlin’s.) By restating his friends’ positions, then, Job isn’t assenting to them. Instead, by setting God’s omnipotence above aphorisms championing human discernment and the ancients’ wisdom, Job anticipates Elihu’s argument, and even God’s, towards the end of the play.

Turning to a bigger swath of text, Scheindlin resolves the problem of chapter 27 by emphasizing Job’s mockery of his friends through his close adherence to their argument structure. Some scholars read this last response to Job’s friends as Zophar’s missing third speech because it seems to take up the friends’ argument. Here Scheindlin, unlike other translators, doesn’t move a line but sharpens the focus as far as the text allows to take “Job’s imprecations as ironic.” Job repeats his friends’ insinuations that laden their talk about the wicked’s fate, but he makes it into a curse against his friends for their own unproven wickedness.

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Enjambed

DearMeFrontCover“Enjambed” sounds like “jammed,” as when I jam my toe. And there is the feeling, in enjambment, of a sentence smashed into verse, scrunched against an arbitrary margin, particularly if that margin, as in much free verse, has no rhyme scheme or meter to make itself more visible or justifiable.

But enjambment can bring to sight other sounds concealed in a sentence. It can spot consonance and assonance hunched behind a rhyme’s garish robes. It can hear some rhythms that don’t want to make it to meter.

And enjambment stretches as much as it squeezes.

I’ve had, lately, in the back of my mind, something I wrote a dozen years ago, a paragraph from a short devotional that helped me get through an identity crisis. I wrote it out in longhand again this morning. Then I slowed it down some more by writing it as verse.

You had a mental
image of God
in a storage room, looking
for a vessel.
He found you
in a corner, piled up
with a lot of other
stuff, and you

were covered
with moss and grime.
God said, “How
about this one? He
has always wanted me
to use him.” And he

began to clean
you for his
service. You became
thankful.

I found parallel participial phrases, one beginning with “looking” and the other with “piled.” Enjambment’s part and parcel is the premium real estate available just before a line break. At some level, a line’s last word gets the last word.

That last word is where enjambment’s pull counters its push. Consider the split I made in the noun phrase “other stuff.” For a hair second, “other” becomes a noun, a more philosophical, metaphysical being. And, further down, “became,” for a moment, becomes its own object. But we read on because our ears can’t believe their eyes. “Other” resolves into an adjective again, “became” into a linking verb again. But “became” — the unlinked “became” — was the point of my book, and of my identity crisis, too.

We read on also because our elementary teachers told us not to pause at enjambments, but to read for syntax only. And I suppose that’s good advice. But just as ears have eyes, so eyes have ears, big as an elephant’s, that never forget those hair seconds.

Not presentable

Thy will be done

Woke up from a dream that caused me to wonder, right off:

Have I done
a single
will

?

Will I have

?
done

° ° °

A white policeman shot an unarmed black man, triggering the 1943 Harlem race riot. Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son – sweet, somehow raw essays with seemingly simple rhetorical movements.

The Americans in Baldwin’s Paris, the “little band of bohemians” who share “a total confusion about the nature of experience.” They discount the power of society because they can’t believe “that time [i.e., a society’s powerful history] is real.” Without society they are rootless, unable to find themselves. With society they are trapped, because “society is never anything less than a perfect labyrinth of limitations.”

Experience, if permitted, leads to untenable associations. Experience will always teach me that I killed the Christ.

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Invincibly impersonal

3PictureJamesBaldwinI read a scene tonight towards the end of Another Country that got me thinking about self-government. James Baldwin’s 1961 novel, I acknowledge, has nothing directly to do with government  or politics of any kind. But any novel portraying great anguish well and offering a glimmer of hope is a paean to self-government. It answers “maybe” or even “yes” to Alexander Hamilton’s question at the outset of the Federalist Papers: Can people govern themselves?

Self-government’s survival, in other words, depends on whether I’m willing to live out some anguish and accept my humanity.

In the scene, a character, with a friend in an art gallery, comes to realize that she has helped to create the husband she has grown to despise.

“And I saw that I’d loved him like that, like a child, and now the bill for all that dreaming had come in. How can one have dreamed so long? And I thought it was real. Now I don’t know what’s real.” (404)

I’ll quote from the characters’ more theoretical observations and reflect on self-government.

“You think that there isn’t any hope for us?”

“Hope?” The word seemed to bang from wall to wall. “Hope? No, I don’t think there’s any hope. We’re too empty here”— her eyes took in the Sunday crowd — “too empty — here.” She touched her heart. “This isn’t a country at all, it’s a collection of football players and Eagle Scouts. Cowards. We think we’re happy. We’re not. We’re doomed.” (406)

Government is messy because humanity is messy. There are two ways out. One is to escape from being human, to be transformed into something better – a saint, perhaps, or a god. The other is to redefine humanity to exclude the messy elements — that is, to define certain groups — groups to which I happily don’t belong — as subhuman.

No matter which of these two ways out I choose, I am drawn to one of two approaches to government. As the god superior to man or as the man superior to beasts, I and my fellow superiors can govern to enforce the gulf that separates us from the inferiors for the good of society. Or I can, perhaps in disgust, disclaim any role in governing.

Neither approach to government is self-government. Self-government requires my involvement and my humanity.

Self-government is personal. It’s not enough to espouse equality. It’s not enough to vote. Self-government insists that I become human. And to become human, I must own up to my part in humanity’s problems.

“You said once,” he said, “that you wanted to grow. Isn’t that always frightening? Doesn’t it always hurt?”

It was a question he was asking himself — of course; she turned toward him with a small, grateful smile, then turned to the painting again.

“I’m beginning to think,” she said, “that growing just means learning more and more about anguish. That poison becomes your diet — you drink a little of it every day. Once you’ve seen it, you can’t stop seeing it — that’s the trouble. And it can, it can” — she passed her hand wearily over her brow again — “drive you mad.” (405)

Self-government isn’t possible without personal growth, and growth isn’t possible without anguish and hope. Hope without anguish is immature hope – perhaps a necessary starting point, but untested and, if it stays untested for too long, dangerous. But anguish without hope leads to madness.

“You begin to see that you yourself, innocent, upright you, have contributed and do contribute to the misery of the world. Which will never end because we’re what we are.” (Id.)

Equality is hard work. It’s easy to espouse in theory but hard to admit in practice, when my equality with others includes aspects of humanity that offend me.

He watched her face from which the youth was now, before his eyes, departing; her girlhood, at last, was falling away from her. Yet, her face did not seem precisely faded, or, for that matter, old. It looked scoured, there was something invincibly impersonal in it. (405 – 406)

Public life is impersonal, and that impersonality can be either bad or good. Self-righteousness is impersonal because it treats the other as less than a person. But self-government is impersonal because it transcends personality. Self-government is based on a sacred truth, as the Declaration’s first draft puts it, that all men are created equal. Our essential equality, deeper than personality, is the basis for celebrating our diverse personalities and cultures – and for celebrating, ultimately, our common failings.

Only my personal anguish – only our collective personal anguish – can lead to the invincible, impersonal equality that makes self-government possible.

Self-government, then, doesn’t have much of a chance. But the stakes are too high for me not to take it personally.

Photo is of James Baldwin, 1924 – 1987.

By the book

A book’s a funny place to look for answers. If customer support took that long to answer my question, I’d hang up.

Some books make the Bible into an answer book. On supermarket displays back by the butcher’s and druggist’s counters, you may pick up books of Bible verses, helpfully categorized by issues. Spin the display, and the cookbooks appear.

When I was younger, many of my Jesus friends made decisions by closing their eyes, opening the Bible, and pointing to a verse. They honed their prophetic sense by learning how to read the sometimes-opaque tea leaves.

I’m not reading much differently if I’m still reading just for answers. I’m not living by the book; I’m limiting my reading to my narrow questions. Michael Casey puts it better:

Anything that feeds into our current concerns is accepted as relevant; everything else is dismissed as of lesser importance. . . . As a result, we do not build the infrastructure on which “relevant” insights will depend.

My reading must, at least, broaden an issue until the original question becomes, in retrospect, a fillip, and now an afterthought – maybe even irrelevant (ironically). But I must not set out on my more important reading to find anything relevant to the day’s exigencies. Casey:

Not everything is immediately relevant. Sometimes we have to juggle two apparently divergent themes in our minds until some sort of connectedness links them.

Living by the book means, in part, carrying the word around and watching it shape life. Casey:

Perhaps we hear the word and understand it intellectually. Because we do not carry it around, bridges are not built between the text and daily life.

Seek wisdom, the Bible says. But wisdom may not have answers.1 Maybe wisdom isn’t even only the expansion of a question into a broader, more comprehensive issue, though that’s often important. Maybe wisdom is God’s fellowship.2

Answers are overrated.

Am I like Saul, going to the prophet Samuel to find my donkeys?3 “Blah, blah, blah, and your donkeys have been found.” I won’t find the “blah, blah, blah” on supermarket carousels.

Reflections on reading “Irrelevance,” a paragraph on page 74 of Michael Casey’s Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina.

  1. Maybe a “word of wisdom” redirects my inquiry – points me to a better path.
  2. Or maybe God himself. The book of Proverbs personifies wisdom as a woman (chapter 9). And Paul says, with little explanation, that Jesus is our wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:30).
  3. 1 Samuel 9 & 10.

Psalm 39: next to nothing

3PictureJobByzantineManuscriptRobert Alter finds a neat way to end Psalm 39, the psalm that most focuses, in semantics and structure, on man’s evanescence.

Alter’s notes for Psalm 39 demonstrate (1) the predominance of “breath” (e.g., “Mere breath is each man standing”), (2) the echoes from Job (e.g., “You . . . melt like the moth his treasure”), and (3) the contrast between the psalm’s triadic lines (psychological tension) and dyadic lines (symmetry). Alter’s last verse confronts these components.

I’m used to the psalm ending on something like the Revised English Bible’s simpering:

Frown on me no more; let me look cheerful
before I depart and cease to be.

But Alter likes how Raymond Scheindlin translates Job’s end for its chapter 10, rendering the “disputed verb avligah” as “catch my breath”:

Let me alone so I may catch my breath

before I go on my way, not to return
into a land of darkness and deathgloom

Psalm 39’s final verse uses the same verb. Alter adopts Scheindlin’s strategy, giving the last verse’s dyadic structure something of the roundedness of the previous triadic lines:

Look away from me, that I may catch my breath
before I depart and am not.

Based on these lines alone, I just ordered a copy of Scheindlin’s Job – a used, hardcover copy for next to nothing.

The illustration is from a Byzantine manuscript in Rome’s Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana. You have to love how it depicts who I guess are Job’s friends: all mouth.

Lectio: snuggling inside a phrase

3PictureIlluminatedRicePsalterI’ve been reading Robert Alter’s The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary at about a psalm-every-two-days clip, and I’ve had to balance my excitement of reading an accurate and startlingly fresh translation with my goal of getting back into lectio divina. When the new translation’s freshness or the commentary’s new information unexpectedly leads me into lectio, as it did this morning, my usual balance board acts more like a launch pad.

Today is the first day of Psalm 26. Here are Alter’s versions of verses 2 and 3:

2 Test me, O LORD, and try me.
Burn pure my conscience and my heart.
3 For Your kindness is before my eyes
and I shall walk in Your truth.

Here’s part of his commentary regarding verse 3:

This is a clear instance of what some biblical scholars call a breakup pattern. The phrase “kindness and truth” esed-weemet, meaning something like “steadfast kindness,” is split between the two versets, standing as bookends at the beginning and end of the line. (Kindle Locations 2526-2529)

The psalmist seems to sandwich verse 3 between the two concepts the phrase esed-weemet holds together. Verse 3, then, can be read as an examination of the phrase. He suggests from it, I think, that the Lord’s kindness he insists on keeping before him is the only means of walking in the Lord’s truth (or, as the Revised English Bible and the margin note to the New American Standard have it, his “faithfulness”).

But it’s a personal examination, too, a prayerful consideration of himself inside the phrase. His amplification inserts himself between the phrase’s two meanings like a kid who snuggles between her parents in their bed. It’s the “prayerful reading” that “is the first moment of lectio divina” (Michael Casey, Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina, 61). It shows a ready and imaginative heart, one willing to pry with prayer into a single phrase’s meaning, willing to section a phrase’s fruit and eat its sections one at a time with slow attention.

(The illustration is a detail from the Rice Psalter.)

Speak of the Devil: an Easter homily

3PictureThreeBearsThree bears talk about someone over three bowls, three chairs, and three beds, and the perpetrator herself shows up in the last bed. This dramatic irony, along with the literary rule of three, seems to hold the many iterations of the famous fairy tale together. So far, so good. But after the bears discover the girl (or in some versions, the old woman) in the third bed, the iterations go their separate ways. She runs through the woods, gets rescued by her mom, or gets impaled on a steeple. She could fly to the moon, for all we care. Ultimately, it’s the irony that counts – the discovery of the anecdote’s subject in bed mid-anecdote. The Three Bears demonstrates that reality intrudes on anecdote or, conversely, that anecdote invokes reality.

The idiom “speak of the Devil” speaks of the former, I think. A friend walks in while we’re talking about him: reality intrudes on anecdote. It’s one of life’s stock ironies. But in the past, “speak of the Devil” spoke of the latter. Our current idiom is short for the medieval adage “speak of the Devil, and he shall appear.” Because anecdote can invoke reality, adherents of this superstition tried not to mention you-know-who.

Three witches, courtesy of you-know-who, invoke Macbeth much as the bears’ conversation invokes Goldilocks. They even employ the three bears’ three-times-three:

Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine
And thrice again, to make up nine.
Peace, the charm’s wound up. (1.3.33 – 35)

This “wound up,” or fully prepared, charm bears out our adage more than our idiom since the charm purports to summon its object. As soon as the witches say it, in walks Macbeth for the first time. The witches seem to have anticipated even Macbeth’s first words, which reflect the witches’ earlier “foul is fair” irony: “So foul and fair a day I have not seen” (1.3.36).

At least three Bible stories feature someone walking in on an anecdote about him or her. (I’m using “anecdote” not only in the sense of a story but also in the sense of a story in a story, such as Pilar’s anecdotes in For Whom the Bell Tolls or Ivan’s Grand Inquisitor parable in The Brothers Karamazov.) The least complicated of the three may be the first in time: Elisha’s servant is regaling the king with stories about his master’s exploits, one of which involves a woman whose young son the prophet has raised from the dead. In the middle of his anecdote, she and her son walk in. Speak of the Devil. Based on this irony, presumably, the king grants the woman’s request to have her land restored (2 Kings 8:1 – 8). Even a king will honor irony’s authority.

The second story, from the book of Esther, is juicier because the irony’s doubled, maybe tripled. Haman walks in on a conversation between the king and his attendant, who have been discussing whether any honor has been done to Mordecai, the Jew, who stopped an assassination attempt on the king. None, O king.

The king asks Haman what should be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor. Haman, thinking he has interrupted a conversation about himself, suggests that the king have a high official lead the honoree over the capital’s streets. Haman has come to the king for permission to hang Mordecai, but he ends up lugging Mordecai around the city instead. And that rule of three again: Mordecai is wearing the king’s robe, riding the king’s horse, and is crowned with the king’s diadem (Esther 6:1 – 11).

From Haman’s perspective, fair is foul and foul is fair.

Anecdotes, then, can turn out to be examinations of how they may involve the reader or hearer. Haman’s ironic misreading reminds one of Carly Simon’s telescoping refrain: “You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you.” The subject of You’re So Vain is, and is not, its subject. A story about reality intruding on a story can, perhaps, have it both ways. Certainly a story about reality intruding on a story suggests that a “real reality” may come tearing through the paper at any moment.

And maybe the invocatory power of narrative explains the universality of the “speak of the Devil, and he shall appear” adage. Heinz-like, Wikipedia lists fifty-seven varieties of the adage. Each variety is from a different culture and in a different language or dialect. In these adages, the Devil isn’t always the Devil; he might be a donkey or a wolf or even a child, acknowledged now to be legitimate thanks to her incursion into her own story’s telling.

My favorite’s the Yiddish, the last language of this alphabetized list. I like how the Yiddish version combines irony with Esther-like disparagement. It’s best introduced here with a phony anecdote about an anecdote. Imagine Ida and Martin Morgenstern of The Mary Tyler Moore Show fame discussing their daughter Rhoda. In walks Rhoda. Her parents, seated, turn their heads to her, and then back to each other. Ida says, “Eh, it’s a shame we weren’t talking about the Messiah.”

Which brings me to my third, and last, subject-bites-story Bible story. On the day Jesus rose from the dead, two men walk seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus. They are Jesus’ disciples, and they are sad. He was crucified. He failed to liberate Israel. Their women said they saw a vision of angels, who had said he was alive.

As they talk about this, Jesus joins them, but they don’t know it’s Jesus. They catch him up on their conversation.

“How dull you are!” he answers. “Was not the Messiah bound to suffer in this way before entering into his glory?” (Luke 24:25 – 26, REB).

So foul and fair a day they have not seen.

For the remaining miles, he talks about the scriptures that refer to him. They reach Emmaus, he makes as if to go on, but they beg him to stick around for supper. He breaks the bread, blesses it, and they finally recognize him. He immediately disappears, and they immediately return to Jerusalem.

But wait: this subject-bites-story story morphs into a subject-bites-the-subject-bites-story story. Back in Jerusalem, the two men tell the other disciples about how Jesus “had made himself known to them in the breaking of the bread.” As they do, “there he was, standing among them” (Luke 24:35 – 36). Jesus walks in on a story about Jesus walking in on a story about Jesus.

This kind of insistence on the present is the message of Easter. The gospel’s implied third interruption is always now. Anecdote invokes reality, and reality intrudes on anecdote.

When we break bread together, Jesus walks in on our anecdote. Here’s Jesus’ own version of the “speak of the Devil” adage: “For where two or three meet together in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20, REB).

Indeed, it’s a shame we weren’t talking about the Messiah.

Easter is many Christians’ second Passover – the Last Supper was a Passover Seder, after all – during which they prepare a place at the table for Elijah, just in case this year he comes.

Who’s at the door?

Couldn’t resist. Happy Easter.

3PictureCaravaggioEmmaus

The illustration is by Peter Newell and is found in Favorite Fairy Tales: The Childhood Choice of Representative Men and Women. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1907. The painting is Caravaggio’s Cena in Emmaus.

The children’s apocalypse

3PictureBethany01

Last month at Kenyon’s Gund Gallery, Victoria and I moved among Bethany’s hundred-and-forty-odd, glowing and pulsing sculptures. As our eyes adjusted to the dark, we found that we were becoming part of the installation. It was ourselves, and not the sculptures, that we began to see and understand.

This secret knowledge hid us from later visitors, at least from those who didn’t stay long enough to discover that the sculptures’ lights weren’t static. The lights pulsed neither in unison nor in disregard for one another. I sat under them to see how they got along, much as I spent long stretches on beds of pine needles as a kid wondering how the trees got along.

I’ve been reading G. K. Chesterton this week, particularly his short essay “In Defence of Baby-Worship.” Here’s one excerpt from it; a second I’ve inserted at the end.

The two facts which attract almost every normal person to children are, first, that they are very serious, and, secondly, that they are in consequence very happy. They are jolly with the completeness which is possible only in the absence of humour. The most unfathomable schools and sages have never attained to the gravity which dwells in the eyes of a baby of three months old. It is the gravity of astonishment at the universe, and astonishment at the universe is not mysticism, but a transcendent common sense. The fascination of children lies in this: that with each of them all things are remade, and the universe is put again upon its trial. As we walk the streets and see below us those delightful bulbous heads, three times too big for the body, which mark these human mushrooms, we ought always primarily to remember that within every one of these heads there is a new universe, as new as it was on the seventh day of creation. In each of those orbs there is a new system of stars, new grass, new cities, a new sea.

3PictureWarren01

My video below is only from one static point looking at one part of Bethany’s installation, just as a telescope might stand at one place on earth and train on one sector of sky. To walk among the silent shapes was, for a little while, anyway, to slip the surly bonds of earth.

Bethany’s into craft, and she’s learning how to defend it from some art critics. Separated from the crafts’ beauty and utility, a piece of visual art these days too often seems to expire after delivering up its ironic or recondite message. Craft art, on the other hand, “has a special magic created by a union of the beautiful, the spiritual, the conceptual, and the useful through the conjunction of the visual and the tactile,” according to artist and art critic John Perreault.

Bethany’s work sometimes seems like an abstract celebration of craft and, consequently, of life. In the statement outside her installation, she describes how she worked with the translucent polymer clay to form the shapes:

After kneading and flatting the clay, it is pure improvisation. I follow automatic decisions made at the fingertip level, occasional vague ideas, and the clay itself as it tears, droops, or supports itself in various ways. I have begun to think of it as a dance between my fingers and the clay.

Each of her shapes slowly pulsing in the dark room was a joint creation of the creator and the created, much as we are. Walking among Bethany’s stars or microbes or sea creatures reset my spirit, much as another piece she had made about ten years earlier had. For me, wonder is a fresh improvisation with some common, diaphanous material: we’re all both creators and creatures, both apart and a part, both verse and the keenest lacunae.

3PictureBethany02
More Chesterton:

There is always in the healthy mind an obscure prompting that religion teaches us rather to dig than to climb; that if we could once understand the common clay of earth we should understand everything. Similarly, we have the sentiment that if we could destroy custom at a blow and see the stars as a child sees them, we should need no other apocalypse. This is the great truth which has always lain at the back of baby-worship, and which will support it to the end. Maturity, with its endless energies and aspirations, may easily be convinced that it will find new things to appreciate; but it will never be convinced, at bottom, that it has properly appreciated what it has got. We may scale the heavens and find new stars innumerable, but there is still the new star we have not found — that on which we were born.

3PictureBethany03

Photos are of Bethany and Warren as children. (I’m still trying to learn how to focus a camera.) The two excerpts from Chesterton’s “In Defence of Baby-Worship,” along with the entire essay and his 1911 book, In Defense of Nonsense, and other Essays, that contains the “Baby-Worship” essay are found here. Bethany’s installation’s web page on the Gund Gallery’s site is here.