Displacement

We may be dreaming of great acts of displacement while failing to notice in the displacements of our own lives the first indications of God’s presence.

– Henri Nouwen

When I woke up day after Helsinki, I wanted to act. So I made a sign and took it to the White House.

There I met two women who had woken up the same way. They had met as I met them: their signs had served as signals. The three of us became a fast people.

We would separate, walking along the fences, and return. When things were quieter, we told one another something of our stories. We were heckled a little, not much. Many tourists, mostly from overseas, took pictures of their families standing with us. After a couple of hours, when it started to rain, we turned again to one another. “I’m coming tonight. Are you?” And we left.

I thought of the big tree in whose branches refugees from the town found one another in Capote’s The Grass Harp. I thought of Henri Nouwen: “Displacement is not primarily something to do or to accomplish, but something to recognize.”1 And Hannah Arendt’s concept of freedom in action separated, ultimately, from its consequences.2 And Rosa Parks, and all the Rosa Parks before and after her who were stoned and sawn asunder.

We didn’t see one another at the big rally that night. The big rally was kind of like a big rally. An overseas media outlet interviewed me. There were television cameras, a short speech, chants, a longer talk that, with its pacifying drone, frustrated the crowd. The rally was purposeful and strategic, as necessary in its way as the senseless act of faith.

Then I waited for the train home. Another woman sat beside me on a concrete bench and put her own sign at her feet. When the train came, we walked into separate cars.

  1. Nouwen, Henri. Seeds of Hope: A Henri Nouwen Reader, p. 145.
  2. Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future, pp. 166 – 167.

Jesus on reading

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I have two shelves of devotional books, plus lots of other books – books of poems, writing instruction, history, and even political science – that often seem to act on me like devotionals. More than enough devotionals. When I’ve lost my way, as I have again now, I sometimes go back and read parts of a few of my earliest devotionals, works by Nouwen, Merton, and Steere. My heart doesn’t know or care if it’s a first or twentieth read, after all. My heart knows only if it’s being fed. Sometimes it takes a lot of rumination – years of it – to digest some short but vital writing I feel drawn to. Sometimes it takes a lot of rumination to rediscover the heart in its feeding again.

We have record of Jesus referring to reading six times. On each occasion, he asks his audience – always Pharisees, chief priests, elders, Sadducees, or scribes – if they have read some bit of scripture. (Matthew 12:3 & 5; 19:4; 21:16 & 42; 22:31.) He asks ironically, of course, knowing that they have indeed read the text he refers to. But his irony suggests that his audience hasn’t read or thought about the text sufficiently.

Jesus therefore counsels second or multiple readings – fresh reflections on texts that acknowledge the gentle way in which our hearts feed. Lectio Divina, the Jesus Prayer, and the like, perhaps. He suggests, I think, that we revere the Scripture so much as to disclaim our deeper understanding of it, because for Westerners, to understand words is often to exhaust and dismiss them and to starve the heart.

But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. (Matthew 9:13, KJV)

I’m going with the Pharisees for another read.

Paul Ryan & the missing commandment

Yesterday’s devotional puts it another way. Why is Paul Ryan’s idea of the idea America was founded on inadequate? During his first speech as the presumptive Republican nominee for vice president, Paul Ryan stated that America was founded on an idea:

But America is more than just a place…it’s an idea.  It’s the only country founded on an idea.  Our rights come from nature and God, not government.

The inadequacy is reflected in the August 15 entry in Henri Nouwen’s Bread for the Journey:

The two most important ways to protect our hiddenness are found in solitude and poverty. Solitude allows us to be alone with God. There we experience that we belong not to people, not even to those who love us and care for us, but to God and God alone.

Nouwen’s solitude and Locke’s state of nature are founded on the same idea: we are ourselves before God prior to becoming someone else’s someone — someone’s nephew, someone’s consumer, someone’s constituency, someone’s enemy, someone’s lifeline. Because the idea of unalienable rights comes from this existential notion, Ryan is on firm ground asserting that our rights come from God and not government.

But Locke’s state of nature is a necessary but not sufficient philosophical foundation for America. Nouwen’s entry continues:

Poverty is where we experience our own and other people’s weaknesses, limitations, and need for support. To be poor is to be without success, without fame, and without power. But there God chooses to show us God’s love.

Both solitude and poverty protect the hiddenness of our lives.

If solitude is akin to Locke’s state of nature, then poverty is akin to Jefferson and Lincoln’s notion that all men are created equal. The work of poverty, in whatever form it takes, brings us into solidarity with our neighbors. If we are not weak, we cannot relate to the weakness of others, and community is not possible.

Continue reading

Of time and the river

Book reviews are only about books.  I want to write reading reviews.  Could Twitter help?

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I shoot long shots because I want to photograph a river one day.  Not the mouth without the source or the source alone but the whole meander and rush and sail.  I can’t crop worth a crap.

If Thomas Wolfe had been a photographer, he would’ve shot pictures like me.  He couldn’t bear to edit, you know.  He’d have forced his editor, Max Perkins, to learn Photoshop.

People Twitter all kinds of stuff that unfolds – baseball games, political conventions, boat trips – and then, even when the event lies unfolded, people still go back and read the unfolding, if it were good enough – the unfolding, that is, not the event unfolded – though maybe seeing all of those Tweets in reverse chronological order – and why does what makes a river not enter it by its mouth?  Does a river just perpetually throw up? – makes the unfolded less than the unfolding, makes Twitter web pages not as good as getting Tweets piecemeal on Twitter clients.  (Twitter’s all about immediacy, right?)

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But books unfold, or at least their plots do.  Books proper bristle open and thunk shut and sleep shut, really, but they don’t unfold like maps or trips or meetings or news stories or even newspapers.  Besides, how can I Twitter a book if I can read it anytime and anywhere?  Is a book an event if I have that much control?  Sitting on my porch and watching the morning unfold is more of an event than reading a book, perhaps.  (Though one may quite effectively Twitter a book, too.)

Can I Twitter the act of reading a book?  Even with all of the control we have over our reading, the experience of reading can sometimes feel more “eventful” than almost anything.  Here is some Twittering from my reading of Mark McGurl’s The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, a book you should read because I’m your friend.  (If you must have a book review (and I do love book reviews, really), The New Yorker earlier this month published a great article on the program era that amounts to a review of McGurl’s book.)

(I’m not really going to do this on Twitter.  I don’t want the character limit.  I want just the immediacy.  Thomas Wolfe, remember?)

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Page 147. O’Connor to her friend who pointed out how similar O’Connor and her character Hulga were to each other: “Now I understand that something of oneself gets through and often something that one is not conscious of.  Also to have sympathy for any character, you have to put a good deal of yourself in him.  But to say that any complete denudation of the writer occurs in the successful work is, according to me, a romantic exaggeration.  A great part of the art of it is precisely in seeing that this does not happen. . . . Those elements of the personality that don’t bear on the subject at hand are excluded.  Stories don’t lie when left to themselves.  Everything has to be subordinated to a whole which is not you.  Any story I reveal myself completely in will be a bad story.”  “Stories don’t lie”: great sentence, but what does it mean?  (I lied.  I was going to type this Tweet for another reason, but then I got stuck on that sentence while I was typing it and forgot my initial reaction.  No real time – sorry.)

Page 147. “As a minor term in a dialectical binary, ‘self-expression’ lies in wait, ready to reassert itself not as a contributory feature of the literary work but as the end-point of it all.  It was already doing so in the Beat movement in the 1950s and would soon do so on an even larger scale in the progressive educational revival of the 1960s, which saw the emergence of the now ubiquitous pedagogical imperative to ‘find your voice.’”  Sin lieth at the door!

Page 146. O’Connor would agree with Cassill: “’The writer of an original story begins to shape his material by accepting an emotional commitment to it – very much as if he himself were the first character to appear in the story to be.’  This ‘scaffolding’ is then ‘totally replaced by structural elements of the story itself before the story is done.’”  Wolfe would disagree.

Page 146. “. . . however heavy the scare quotes we might wish to put around the relevant terms.”  So there’s a name for that: “scare quotes.”  “’Scare quotes.’”

Page 145.  This still isn’t real time.

Page 144. He doesn’t pretend to be above New Criticism or even over it yet.  I guess we’re all too freshly widowed to have healthy marriages.

Page 137. “As [O’Connor] put it in a panel discussion held at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia . . .”  What research!  Probably made his grad students do it all.

Page 137. “. . . is left to crumb the table . . .”  I love that verb.  When did crumb become a verb?  Too lazy to consult OED.

Page 137.  What was on page 136 that made me think of that?  Who cares.  Stay immediate.

Page 136.  I can’t talk about literature in social settings.  Names and books don’t come to mind.  Feelings, or the memory of feelings, do.  It’s like writing a poem at a party (though I admit I’ve never tried it).  That professor I had, the first day of class: “I am your enemy” to those of us who wanted a smattering of literature for the cocktail circuit.  What was his name?  Big beard.  He knew nothing about kids.  Just loved to hear himself talk.  Probably great at parties.  But, see, I can’t even come up with names, even of acquaintances I’ve known for years.  No wonder I hate parties.

Page 134-35.  What a great paragraph on O’Connor!  . . . . “’For the reading of literature ever to become a habit and a pleasure,’ she wrote, ‘it must first be a discipline.’  And ‘if the student finds that his is not to his taste?  Well, that is regrettable.  Most regrettable.  His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed.’  For O’Connor, a devout Catholic who made something of a show of her obedience to the institutional authority of the Church, not only was religion understood as a kind of discipline, a willed acceptance of human ‘limitation’ before an Almighty God; but so was discipline itself a kind of religion, an article of faith arguably as basic to her thinking and writing as her specifically theological commitments.  Discipline meant obedience to rules, and rules were established and maintained by institutions; and to submit to the authority of these institutions, while painful, was also a source of great potential pleasure, aesthetic and otherwise.  Not that O’Connor’s sense of institutions was either monolithic or simplistic.  Seen in the light of her devotion to the church, the authority of worldly liberal institutions like universities was certainly questionable, and subject to her usually humorous derision.  And yet the habit of obedience to the one was obviously transportable, under the right conditions, to the other, where what Sarah Gordon has called her ‘obedient imagination’ could be cultivated as a specifically literary resource.”  She died at 39?  People lived full lives back then. (Also not real time: I’d love to say that to my charges: “Your taste should not be consulted.  It is being formed.”  Wouldn’t the principal love the phone calls!)

Page 133.  Brooks and Warren’s Understanding Fiction “confirms how much the discipline of creative writing as we know it owes to the large-scale intrusion of practitioner-critics like Warren himself into the domain of literary scholars, beginning in the lat 1930s.  The New Criticism put the point of view of the artist at the very center of postwar literary studies . . .”  Unstinted praise for Warren!  Francine Prose may be hard on New Criticism, but she owes her Reading Like a Writer to them.

Page 122. My butt hurts.

Page 99.  DeVoto in 1936 on Wolfe’s work: “long, whirling discharges of words, unabsorbed in the novel, unrelated to the proper business of fiction, badly if not altogether unacceptably written, raw gobs of emotion, aimless and quite meaningless jabber, claptrap, belches, grunts.”  And the reviews have gone downhill from there.  I’ll have to remember that, though: “words unabsorbed in the novel.”

Page 99.  Wolfe defends himself to Fitzgerald by pointing to Don Quxiote and Tristram Shandy.  To hell with “the aesthetic benefits of subtraction,” he says.  Meantime, Henry James’s “show don’t tell” evolves from 1930s forward into “a more general understanding of good fiction as founded on discipline, restraint, and the impersonal exercise of hard-won technique.”  Now you can’t say “show don’t tell.”  But I do.  To ninth graders, granted.

Pages 97-98.  So the guy who coined “writer’s workshop” was the real-life version of Professor Hatcher in Of Time and the River.  Who knew?

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If I wrote you a book review or report, it would only foreshorten the book, creating waterfalls in the navigable, tidal river.  Besides, even if I wrote the best book review, it would only stand on its own, pour itself into only its own river, so – best case – I’m no longer reading with you when you read it.  I want you to read with me.  We’d feed off of each other’s reactions, but even that’s not enough, ultimately.  You have to read the book with my reactions and associations, and I have to read it with yours.  So you have to read it with me, maybe as me, and maybe me as you, or maybe in heaven one day.

Religion is affection, Jonathan Edwards wrote.  So is writing, I think.  All writing is travel writing.  Henri Nouwen (Bread for the Journey) writes about the traveler’s affection:

Traveling – seeing new sights, hearing new music, and meeting new people – is exciting and exhilarating.  But when we have no home to return to where someone will ask us, “How was your trip?” we might be less eager to go.  Traveling is joyful when we travel with the eyes and ears of those who love us, who want to see our slides and hear our stories.

This is what life is about.  It is being sent on a trip by a loving God, who is waiting at home for our return and is eager to watch the slides we took and hear about the friends we made.  When we travel with the eyes and ears of the God who sent us, we will see wonderful sights, hear wonderful sounds, meet wonderful people . . . and be happy to return home.

In a way, the only writing genre is the postcard.  There’s something both kind and callous about sending one.  All writing may rise and foreshorten to “Having a great time; wish you were here.” I want you here and not just here but behind my eyes to see what I think and know and feel, we have to share the eyes so at least tell me what you see, the binoculars’ timer sounds inexorable as a stream there’s only thirteen seconds left on my last quarter I dropped into the binoculars before we go dark

(The photos are from our recent hike on Mount Weather.)