The essay is a slippery thing, both as an art form and a writing market. It is difficult to figure out if the essay is the hot commodity or the neglected unjustly ignored stepchild of the literary world. I’ve read both claims recently. My subjective non-scientific instinct is that essays are hot and fashionable right now in the sense that small artsy boutiques are hot and fashionable. Creative non-fiction has its very enthusiastic devotees and the current market seems reasonably niche-friendly.

The form certainly appeals to me as one of those perennially novel things, like newly discovered classics or personalized customer service, ever-retro. As an art the essay goes back several centuries, with the 16th century eccentric Michel de Montaigne widely considered to be the pioneer of the form. But I would have to say essays go back long before the 16th century. What, for example, is this?

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the water.

Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. So the evening and the morning were the first day.

Then God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.” Thus God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. So the evening and the morning were the second day.

Then God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear”; and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth, and the gathering together of the waters He called Seas. And God saw that it was good.

Then God said, “Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb that yields seed, and the fruit tree that yields fruit according to its kind, whose seed is in itself, on the earth”; and it was so. And the earth brought forth grass, the herb that yields seed according to its kind, and the tree that yields fruit, whose seed is in itself according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. So the evening and the morning were the third day.” Genesis 1:1-13

Some say this is fiction, some say non-fiction, some say poetry; my best guess is creative non-fiction.

The Best American Essays 2013

The Best American Essays 2013

As with trendy intellectual pursuits and other things that sound attractive in theory but take effort to actually do, when it comes to reading essays I suspect there may be more talking of the talk than walking of the walk. Essays, when I get around to reading them, are fun and interesting, but maybe I don’t get around to reading them as often as I’d like. So in the interest of walking the walk I recently decided to take a couple of steps:

a) I subscribed to three literary journals: Rattle, New Letters, and The Sun. These subscriptions can be a bit pricey but as my budget allows I plan to increase my collection of literary periodicals and actually read them. I also plan, carefully and in the course of time, to submit my own work. I like the online versions too but I find the tactile object encourages me read them with more pleasure and attention.

b) I purchased The Best American Essays 2013 for Kindle and am in the process of reading every essay in it. So far I have read the first six and have found the writing stunning, even if the stories are often scary, even chilling. The editor, Cheryl Strayed, seems to have favored harrowing personal memoirs for this collection.

Personal memoir can make great reading but I also enjoy other kinds of essays. For example I have liked the spiritual explorations of Philip Yancey and Anne Lamott as well as the works of Philip Lopate, Annie Dillard, Joan Didion, Albert Jay Nock, G.K. Chesterton, Henry David Thoreau, George Orwell, and James Thurber. I haven’t even started on David Sedaris yet; in fact, there are essayists lined up patiently holding their books as far down the road as I can see.

New light on ordinary things. Photo by Aaron Apple, Oct. 2014

A good essay, even when the writer is relating a personal story, needs to go beyond the facts that happened and point you to a place of new perspective and the best essays will point you to a new perspective on a universal theme. So far the essays of Best American Essays 2013 do this masterfully. I look forward to reviewing this collection once I finish all of them in a way that will encourage others to read these and other essays for the maximum benefit. What are the benefits of reading a good literary essay? For me there are several including these:

1. The soul pleasure of reading truly excellent writing.
2. Seeing something true for the first time in a new way. This ploughs the fields of my mind and keeps the seeds of thoughts from falling into ruts.
3. Inspiration and encouragement for my own writing.
4. The satisfaction and community of knowing there are still living people in the world able to write this well.

I am sure there are many other benefits to reading essays. If you think of any I did not list feel free to add them in a comment!

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Sales chick

Today I indulged in one of my favorite small pleasures. I visited Jerry’s Artarama, walked through every single aisle, touched paper for the textural pleasure, picked up colored pencils, sampled ink pens, and priced the easels. The sales girl asked me more than once if she could help me find anything and if I was finding everything okay. Doesn’t anyone else just wonder around the store for the sheer pleasure of it? I don’t need a lot of art supplies at the moment but I selected a few things anyway – some Fabriano art journals because the paper is luxuriously smooth, soft, and white, some gummy erasers, and several nice technical pens. As soon as I got back in the car I sat there and drew some pictures in one of the journals with the pens to try them out.

When I was a child and people asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always answered, “An artist.” Unfortunately I had no idea how long it would take me to grow up. I suppose I had the idea that when I was 20 or so I would be a grown-up and an artist, whatever that was.  I think I thought it meant I wouldn’t have to go to school anymore and could spend all day drawing pictures. I did not know that all kinds of ideas, insecurities, discouragements, and economic realities would stand between me and this simple vision.

Well here I am,  just recently having completed the raising of two sons all the way to adulthood – at least in the strictly legal sense. My youngest son is now 18 so if he ended  up in the newspaper  they would refer to him as a “man”. What a thought. Anyway now I do have this little dividend of mental real estate that I did not have until recently and my intention has always been that when that real estate became available I would use it for my creative activities. Back in January, I made a New Year’s resolution to take my art skills to a higher level in 2014 –  I would really pay attention to technique, spend dedicated time in art study and art practice.

I tried to do this. I read art books, signed up for online art classes, and spent time just practicing even though it meant I didn’t produce as many finished pieces. I have perhaps even marginally improved my art skills. But as my art improvement year progressed into October  I began to feel  overwhelmed and discouraged. I am trying to improve in both traditional and digital art skills and I cannot concentrate on just one or the other. If I ever want to do art commercially on any level I have to be able to produce illustrations digitally and I do sort of want to do art commercially. Also I really do enjoy working with drawing and painting software. But oh how I also love the smooth texture of Bristol board, the flow of ink, and the scratch of graphite! Besides, the natural way for me to work is to combine traditional and digital techniques.

A few months back I began collecting graphic art tutorials on Pinterest and am continually astounded by the sheer magnitude of art technology and the unlimited possibilities it opens up: layers, custom brushes with jitters and spacing settings, degrees of transparency, textures, lighting effects – the list goes on and on. I have been using Gimp, a free application comparable to Photoshop, for several years, but looking at a these tutorials made me realize that I have been using only a small portion of Gimp’s capability.

A few weeks ago I downloaded Adobe Illustrator onto my trusty Toshiba laptop for the 30-day free trial, intending to bite the bullet and start paying the $19.99 monthly fee for the use of this mega-program once the trial period ended. Then one of those disasters occurred that turn out to be a good thing. Usually when these kinds of  blessing-in-disguise disasters occur my eldest son is somehow involved. This time the disaster was that my trusty four-year-old Toshiba crashed and died, and this time instead of being the cause  of the disaster my eldest son turned out to be the hero. First he produced, from the chaos of his bedroom/laboratory, a used laptop onto which I was able to transfer the contents of the old hard drive. Then he built me a “Hackintosh” – a home-built computer that runs IOS operating software. This wonderful machine enabled me to avoid having to pay Adobe $19.99 a month for Illustrator because I was now able to download a Mac-only alternative vector program called IDraw for $24.99 that I only have to pay once. IDraw seems to do most of what I need to do with vector graphics for the time being.

Anyway, this morning I was looking at tutorials and feeling futile and overwhelmed, like an explorer who has climbed to the top of a mountain only to see a range of more mountains that stretches as far as she can see. After some Starbucks and a long walk I decided I am destined to be forever a student and just accept the sorts of joys the life of a perpetual student offers. I move too slowly, am too easily distracted, have too many interests,  am spread too thin ever to achieve mastery in any one thing. There are worse fates.

flower girl1Let’s say I spend another year brushing up my skills and building an illustration portfolio. Is it possible for someone at my stage of life to break into a new career in illustration? The rational side of me says no. The competition is robust and the talent of hoards of young people coming out of art school is  tremendous. Also I  have a style that might have been  marketable around say, 1904, but perhaps not so much in this century.

However, the non-rational side me does care  beans about being marketable or even pecuniary success. Most of what I have done most of my life has been dictated by either economic necessity or the needs of the children or somebody else’s expectations, and the non-rational side of me has lost patience with all that. It tells me that when it comes to pursuing creative paths, I am going to do exactly what I want to do. My non-rational to rational ratio is about 60/40, so non-rational wins, at least when it comes to doing art.

Besides, other than writing, there isn’t much I’d rather do. What else would I do? Spend the rest of my life on the sofa obsessing over the lives of my kids or a TV series? Go around attending the concerts of aging performers from my generation? Exercise? Well I do that but only because I want my body to continue to be functional for its entire span of life. Travel? Yes, I do hope to do some of that. But even travelling wouldn’t have much appeal if I were not writing or drawing while doing it. Perhaps I could volunteer to help people in need – soup kitchen, free tutoring, painting porches, etc. Maybe I will but something tells me if I am going to help people it will have to involve doing what I like to do. I have a couple ideas brewing about how I might do that but so far they don’t involve ladling soup.

 

House of 7 gables coverThe House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne is one of those old American chestnuts I ought to have read in high school or at least, as an English major no less, in college.

The House of the Seven Gables in Salem. Date between 1910 and 1920

The House of the Seven Gables in Salem. Date between 1910 and 1920

The book even has its very own historic landmark, a 17th century house in Salem, Massachusetts that Hawthorne is supposed to have used as the model for his titular house. Although I cannot say I fell in love with this book the way I did with say, Les Miserables or any of Dickens’ novels, I was awed by the elegant beauty of the richly symbolic writing.

The novel, or rather, as Hawthorne calls it in the Preface, the Romance, is most fascinating to me because of the way everything in it is multi-layered. There is the surface layer: the creaky old house, the clink and clank of coin in the Hepzibah’s shop, the wooden chair in which the Puritan ancestor died — but this layer is transparent, like a tissue paper topper. There is always something deeper running beneath, spiritual, psychological, and symbolic. A Romance, according to Hawthorne, while it must maintain a strict sense of integrity in portraying the truth of human heart, has greater latitude in how that truth is presented than does an ordinary novel, which must stick not only to a possible course of events, but to a probable one. (Obviously Hawthorne never read A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.) Now please indulge me as I interrupt this review for an English 101 moment.

English 101 Moment

A Romance in 1851 was a work written in the spirit of the Romantic Movement, a sweeping reaction to the rationalism of the 18th-century Enlightenment thought. Romanticism encompassed the philosophy, the arts, and literature of the western world and eventually made its way into politics and government. Romanticism sought to reaffirm and express such non-rational values as appreciation of natural beauty, emotion, and spirit. It was not a girl meets boy love story written for today’s popularly marketable genre.

A sub-genre of Romantic literature called Dark Romanticism seems to have been invented especially for Hawthorne, along with Edgar Allen Poe and Herman Melville. Dark Romanticism was all about the spirit of things, but the spirit was not necessarily a good thing. Dark Romantic literature acknowledged and dealt with personal sin and inherited evil and could include such supernatural elements as ghosts and curses. This sub-genre is so closely aligned with Gothic literature that sometimes the two are indistinguishable, but Dark Romanticism seems to have been specifically American while Gothic originated in Europe and dealt more often with actual monsters and other weird creatures. Dracula and Frankenstein are two prominent examples.

Okay, back to The House of the Seven Gables….. The story begins with some history of Colonel Pyncheon, the original Puritan ancestor, and the way he acquired the property

1875 illustration of Clifford Pyncheon, John Dalziel

1875 illustration of Clifford Pyncheon, John Dalziel

on which the old house stands. Between fact, legend, and rumor, there is enough information to figure out that the hard-hearted old Puritan desired the property owned by a farmer named Matthew Maule, and after being unable to force the stubborn settler off of it, had him arrested for witchcraft and hanged. With the noose around his neck, Maule curses the Colonel and all his progeny. Whether the curse is real or self-fulfilling prophecy, it becomes the warped foundation on which both house and the story is built.

I was especially drawn in by the uniquely American historical aspect of the story, which is really a spiritual history rather than the factual variety, dealing with how the darker side of Puritanism haunts succeeding generations like a ghostly stain passed down soul to soul. The author’s great-great-great-grandfather, William Hathorne, was a stern judge in the Salem witch trials, and unlike many of his fellow judges, never repented of his part in the infamous madness. I can see clearly how this book came from a place of generational haunting in Hawthorne’s mind, how the act of writing it might have been a purging of ghosts. It is known that Hawthorne added the “W” to his surname in an attempt to distance himself from what he considered a shameful part of his family history.

Of the cast of characters I suppose I enjoyed Hepzibah Pyncheon the most. She is quite an unusual protagonist – an older woman and not attractive, a fixed scowl being her most marked physical characteristic. She is both strong and timid, showing both backbone and kindness. Her brother Clifford is a complex character as Hawthorne shows what he should have been had he been allowed to take his natural course to maturity and the damaged creature he has become as a result of 30 years of imprisonment on false charges. Holgrave, the young lodger and daguerreotypist, lends stability and perspective to the story. The teenaged cousin Phoebe Pyncheon is delightful if a little over-perfect, almost like Dickens’ Little Nell, but not quite so saccharine, even though she constantly brings fresh air and sunshine to the disturbed inhabitants of the moldy house, even singing as she works. I suppose she with all her musical cheerfulness is needed to balance out the heavy gloom. You can almost believe a person like Phoebe could exist, and after all this is a Romance. You have to allow a little latitude when it comes to its portrayal of reality in a Romance.

Major Characters in The House of the Seven Gables

The named characters are relatively few although there is a multitude of extras: mostly townsfolk walking by, patronizing the shop, and gossiping about the crazy Pyncheons.

Current (that is current around 1850 or so)

  • Hepzibah Pyncheon: Reclusive old maid about 60 years of age; good-hearted; stalwart but timid.

    Hepzibah Pyncheon. Illustration by Helen mason Grose.

    Hepzibah Pyncheon. Illustration by Helen mason Grose.

  • Clifford Pyncheon: Hepzibah’s brother; tragically condemned as a young man to spend most of his life in prison. A lover of beauty and pleasure, Clifford is not the type who becomes stronger and better by suffering. He emerges from his prison tomb a seriously damaged old man, both in mind and character.
  • Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon: The antagonist and personification of the evil that has followed the family through the generations. Judge Pyncheon is a hypocrite whose bad character keeps showing through his well-practiced false joviality. He does not have the best interests of his cousins Hepzibah and Clifford at heart.
  • Mr. Holgrave: A young deguerreotypist who is lodging in one of the gables of the house. He seems a kind decent fellow but seems to have some mysterious interest in the members of the Pyncheon family and their history.
  • Phoebe Pyncheon: A young relative who arrives from the country for a visit and ends up staying to help Hepzibah tend the shop and tend to the recently released Clifford. Phoebe is cheerful, practical, and physically lovely. She becomes a badly needed breath of fresh air and ray of sunshine to the gloomy household.
  • Uncle Venner: Very old handyman who wanders around the town preaching his homespun philosophy to anyone who will listen. Friend to all the residents of the house.

Historical

  • Colonel Pyncheon: Mean heartless old Puritan who build the house and whose evil actions originated the family curse. A painting of the man hangs prominently on the wall, disturbing the residents and haunting the house.
  • Matthew Maule: The 17th century farmer who originally owned the land on which the house is built. Curses the Pyncheon family just before being hanged for witchcraft.
  • Gervayse Pyncheon: Grandson of Colonel Pyncheon who, as a small child, found the old man dead in a chair.
  • Alice Pyncheon: Daughter of Gervayse Pyncheon, said to have been beautiful and talented, and whose flowers still grow around the house. Died tragically after being hypnotized by the grandson of Matthew Maule. Her ghost haunts the house.

Today I would like to share this poem by Emily Dickinson:

To fight aloud, is very brave -
But gallanter, I know
Who charge within the bosom
The Calvary of Wo -
Who win, and nations do not see -
Who fall – and none observe -
Whose dying eyes, no Country
Regards with patriot love -
We trust, in plumed procession
For such, the Angels go -
Rank after Rank, with even feet -
And Uniforms of snow.
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A family I know has a three-year-old child with cerebral palsy. She must be carried or wheeled everywhere and needs special equipment to eat and just to live. With the help of her teenaged sister, parents, and therapist, this little girl battles every day of her life for mastery of every tiny movement of her body. Her parents have devoted their lives to her life and welfare, loving her, pulling for her, never losing faith even when, as a premature infant with serious health issues, the doctors doubted she would live.  There are thousands and millions of people with similar or other struggles: addictions, mental illness, poverty, imprisonment – false or otherwise, cancer, war injuries, the list goes on and on and on, all fighting their battles to the utmost to the best of their abilities.

We glorify a pantheon of celebrities and a few war heroes, giving little conscious thought to the hundreds of people we pass every day on the streets, bravely confronting, fighting, and often losing their own battles. We recognize that some people deserve honor and credit for their notable efforts in the arts, sciences, or industries, for doing extraordinary work in the helping professions, or for showing courage in war, but our minds can only process so much information and there are just so many of us, each person containing endless potential for story and struggle. So we select some individuals as symbols for the many: some real leaders and heroes, some actors who can play leaders and heroes in the movies, some musicians or other artists who can make us feel loving or heroic, some for their athletic ability, and some simply for their beauty or charisma. The guy standing by his overheated heap on the side of highway may have more character, courage, and fortitude than anyone in People Magazine or on talk shows. Who we select for admiration or fascination has more to do what we want to be, what we desire, and what we feel guilty about than it does with the relative value of the selected one.

I don’t know why it is, but this week every time I read an Emily Dickinson poem I think of George Orwell. Today’s poem makes me think of the 1939 essay “Marrakech,” in which Orwell describes his observations during a trip to Morocco, where he spent several months after fighting in the Spanish Civil War. The essay is about the vast numbers of individuals he observed during this trip – Jews, Arabs, and Africans – spending their lives doing backbreaking labor and living in unthinkable poverty, how the sheer numbers of the poor makes it difficult for him think of them as individual humans. He gives several examples that vividly illustrate levels of  poverty that are simply outside of his (and my) realm of experience. In two cases Orwell catches himself valuing animals more that the humans he sees. He ponders why he feels more sympathy for an overworked and overburdened donkey than the multitudes of overworked overburdened elderly women who pass outside his window every day. In one incident he is feeding bread to a gazelle when a hungry Arab laborer approaches and shyly suggests he too could stand to eat a bit of that bread.

This essay is painful to read – not  because of the writing style, which is superb, but because of the content.  Better than anything I have ever read, “Marrakech” paints a vivid picture of the way huge populations of human beings are not valued, at least by the classes in power.  Among themselves they may value each other greatly; but in Orwell’s eyes, their approach to death and funerals seems to indicate otherwise. In one funeral he witnessed, the corpse is wrapped only in a ragged shroud and buried in a shallow unmarked grave in a mass burial ground. This seems to be the usual method. Within a few months even the person’s relatives have no idea where it was buried. “They rise out of the earth, they sweat and starve for a few years, and then they sink back into the nameless mounds of the graveyard and nobody notices they are gone. And even the graves themselves soon fade back into the soil. Sometimes, out for a walk, as you break your way through the prickly pear, you notice that is rather bumpy underfoot, and only a certain regularity in the bumps tells you that you are walking over skeletons.” (From “Marrakech” by George Orwell – 1939). The medieval notion that we should live not for this world but for the next has been much maligned during the past couple of centuries, but even today, for much of the world’s population, this approach to life is not only a comfort but perhaps the only comfort.

 

heroes for saleOrwell’s essay captures the exact reason I do not read horror stories or watch horror films. I find reality provides more than enough material to supply all my horror needs. Speaking of films, if you want to see an incredible movie about the forgotten hero, the good man who will never get his reward in this life, I highly recommend the 1933 film Heroes for Sale. It’s about a guy who acts with selfless courage in war, works hard all his life for the good of others, and always tries according to the highest principles – and gets screwed for it every time. It’s a heartbreaking story but an excellent film. It’s also the story of an awful lot of the world’s population. I think that somehow, in the 1930s, Hollywood sometimes really touched on some hard truths.

 

In a world like this it is not surprising that so many give up even trying to lives of integrity and just decide to do whatever they can to get a few crumbs of the spoils. You begin to realize the true goodness is when you live in this world and are able to remain true to principles such as kindness, honesty, and putting others before self. If we can finish out this life with your integrity in tact, we will truly deserve that parade of angels.

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Sometimes you just stumble onto a book that is not on any of your lists, not on any agenda. That I have the time to give time and attention to such books that come my way is one of the reasons I am thankful my time right now is not all scheduled up. No school, no classes, no lesson planning – just learning in the direction the Spirit leads. This may be my best September ever.

The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American PilgrimageThe Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie was not on my reading list. In fact until I stumbled upon a review of the audio book last week, I had never heard of it. Yet the summary compelled me enough that five minutes later I was listening and kept on listening, sometimes re-listening, until I listened to all 22 hours of the audio text. The book, its title taken from a short story by Flannery O’Connor, tells the story of four 20th-century writers: O’Connor, Walker Percy, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton, each of who followed a unique path to truth through reading classic literature as well as through their own writing, all under the big umbrella of Catholicism. None of these authors were on my reading list when I started the book, but you can bet I added several books before I finished. All but O’Connor were converts to the faith, and Dorothy Day is currently going through the process leading to canonization at the Vatican.

The Life You Save is quite an unusual book, a skillful interweaving of cultural history, biography, literary criticism, and an examination of the role of faith in all of these areas. The attraction to Catholicism is the force that unifies these four very different writers and is the unifying force of the book. None of their lives followed anything like a stereotypical or conventional pattern, so one thing I took away is that, far from being a rigid straightjacket kind of religion, Catholicism is able to accommodate a wide range of ideas and life choices.

O’Connor was a “cradle Catholic”, apparently somewhat unusual in early 20th-century Georgia, who remained solidly faithful to church doctrine throughout her life, but she filtered this doctrine in highly creative ways through stories uniquely adapted to the culture of the Bible Belt American south. Thomas Merton was a convert who became a Trappist monk and also quite the celebrity. Walker Percy, scion of an old southern family, became a doctor but had to quit practicing early after contracting tuberculosis. He then converted to Catholicism and spent the rest of his years, which turned out to be many, writing philosophic existential catholic essays and novels.

An avid reader from childhood, Dorothy Day started her adult life as a free-spirit Bohemian but felt attracted to Catholicism which she learned about entirely through books. In fact several years after converting she did not really know any actual Catholic people. Her faith was all a matter of mind and imagination and she longed for a way to act it out in the real world among real people. In 1932, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington DC, she prayed fervently for God to show her a way to serve Him. Upon her return she found the fervent social activist Peter Maurin waiting for her at her home. Together they founded The Catholic Worker, a newspaper and organization dedicated to helping the poor, and an anarchist group in the sense that it had no formal government structure of its own and avoided any connection with U.S. or state government, refusing even tax-exempt status.

Elie does an admirable job of showing the connections between the four writers including their letters to each other, and how their work came to recognized as sort of loose literary movement, a something that Caroline Gordon , a mutual writer/editor friend envisioned as “The School of the Holy Ghost.” But there was never any formal meeting or club or organization. It was all a spontaneous mutual pilgrimage starting from different places but converging at the same destination.

I found the whole story fascinating – their lives and struggles, the changing culture of the mid-20th century, the colorful history – but what really attracted me to this book and kept me enthralled all the way through is the way these people used literature as their guideposts through life, repeatedly citing Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Dickens, Hawthorne, and many others as the messengers who lit their souls on fire with desire for truth and meaning. I have always found books to be my guideposts through life and there is nothing like getting that warm feeling of validation, 22 hours worth, finding out that rather than just being weird, you are in the best company.

View all my reviews

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The edition I listened to: Elie, Paul. The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage. Narrated by Lloyd James. Published 2006 by Blackstone Audio.

For the rest of September I will be featuring my favorite poet, or at least, somehow working one of her poems into my posts. This is not difficult to do because this poet seems to have covered pretty much everything of importance in her 1700 plus poems. My excuse is that The Classics Club is hosting an event called Romantic Literature in September, but I hardly need an excuse to share the poetry of Emily Dickinson and love to do so whenever I get the opportunity. Once upon a time in a little colonial town called Williamsburg, Virginia, I was a student in the Masters program in Literature at The College of William and Mary. I completed all the classwork with a 3.8 GPA but then life started moving fast and I never did complete my thesis on Emily Dickinson. But who knows? Maybe, post by post, one of these days I will still finish that thesis.

* * * * * * * *

Back in my grad school days, before Age of the Internet (BI), I used to gracefully accept my ignorance. If I came across something I did not understand, I accepted in faith that in the fullness of time the mystery would come clear and would proceed peacefully to take in what I could understand. Later I would go to the card catalog and spend hours searching voluminous volumes of journals for enlightenment. But now in the Internet Era (IE) I read or hear and see on social media and immediately go rushing to Wikipedia as fast as my fingers can click. If the internet is down when I want to look something up I feel edgy and impatient. Gone is the humble patient faith that all will become clear in the natural course of things. I want that background knowledge and I want it now! Such is one sad example of how the internet can rewire a person’s character.

Sometimes the trail of clicks from one article to another leads me to a place I almost wish I had not gone. While reading Penguin Island by Anatole France I discovered the maddening details of the Dreyfuss Affair, and in reading a book about World War I followed a Wikipedia trail until I learned about the genocides in Greece and Armenia in the early years of the 20th century. This sort of thing leave me in a no man’s land where I am stuck between embarrassment that I did not know about the murder of millions so recently in history and regret that now I do know about it. I can’t absorb the reality of it and am not sure how productive it would be to do so. The earth is soaked in the blood of past horrors and perhaps the only way new generations can live reasonably happy lives is to mulch over the dirt, grow flowers, and not look back. I get the idea this was pretty much the working philosophy of many of the World War II veterans who returned from the horrors of war, got married, and never talked to their children about what they experienced during the war, and while I can completely understand that approach, I am not at all sure it is the right way to go. I think it would more painful but more healthy in the long run to go to some of these places of horror, meditate on the worst of human evil, and then think long and hard about how to personally avoid participating in any more of it.

A couple of days ago I saw on the Humans of New York (HONY) blog a picture of a young Tibetan monk living in exile in Dharamshala, India. Off I went to Wikipedia to brush up on what exactly happened in Tibet. I knew Tibet used to be this beautiful mountain place where they practiced Buddhism and lived in peace under the wisdom of the Dali Llama and that at some point the Chinese invaded the country, killed people, and destroyed thousands of monasteries, although I don’t even remember where I acquired even that much information.

So I Googled “Tibet” and read up about it on Wikipedia. The article has this picture of a woman bent over between two soldiers with a heavy sign around her neck. I had to click. The link led to a an article about struggle sessions, a practice straight out of Orwell’s 1984, and among the most horrible things I have ever heard of. I don’t want to post the pictures. You can click the link and look if you like. I don’t want to write about it either. I’ll just say it is about subjecting people to public humiliation in the worst possible way to get them to publicly renounce their lifestyles, thoughts, beliefs – basically their individuality and dignity – and say they are whatever the State says they are. Then some of them are executed. It was done as a spectacle that attracts thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of spectators, who get to participate in the procedure. Supposedly it was done a lot during the reign of Mao Zedong and is not done anymore. I hope not.

emily-dickinson-200x325Anyway, in choosing an Emily Dickinson poem to share today, I came across this one and immediately thought of struggle sessions and the woman in that picture. How a sheltered 19th-century lady living in Amherst Massachusetts could have known about struggle sessions I don’t know, but such is the power of a poet who can tap into the universal truth of things.

* * * * * * * *

MUCH madness is divinest sense
To a discerning eye;
Much sense the starkest madness.
’T is the majority
In this, as all, prevails.
Assent, and you are sane;
Demur,—you ’re straightway dangerous,
And handled with a chain.

What a strange September. The only September stranger than this was the September of 2001, that surreal September when my youngest son started kindergarten. This one is the first in 16 years that has not involved back-to-school rituals since the youngest son graduated in June from high school and has chosen not to start college this semester, preferring to work on his various enterprises and the older son found his dream job this summer and has sort of forgotten all about college.

This time last year I was embarking on a strenuous year of senior year homeschooling and now by contrast I find myself with stretches of time that seem to be all mine,– though like a blind person who doesn’t quite believe he sees and continues to tap his cane as he walks, I hesitate to believe it. I can do all the writing and artwork I used to lament I had no time to do. So what did I do this weekend? Some observers I know would say “nothing”, but I would disagree with that assessment.

Here’s what I did with that 48 hours:

1) Did some quality writing though what I will do with this writing I don’t know.

2) Thought about what to do with the kind of writing I am doing, how it might fit various forms.

3) Thought about this while shopping. A quick trip to the mall to see my son’s new store turned into an intense five-hour shopping excursion. I sort of got involved, something I don’t do often.

4) Listened to several hours of The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie. It’s a bit of cultural history about a group of mid-century Catholic writers – Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton. I don’t know if everybody would love this book but I feel like it is speaking specifically to me, because I have been thinking about going back to Catholicism for a couple of years now and have been through a lot of the same thought processes and read many of the same books that influenced the subjects of this book.

5) Made a decision about my church and choir involvement. I decided that after Christmas I will give notice that I will leave Baptist Church where I am currently a member. I am giving them three months notice because I am one of two sopranos in the choir and they depend on me. But I have felt Catholicism pulling me back for a long time and the pull is not going way.

6)  Went to church where I sang “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace”, the hymn that sets to music “The Prayer of St. Francis.”

7) Did yoga. Took a two-mile walk.

8) Cleaned house. Pulled some weeds.

9) Cooked a reasonably edible meal for myself and my sons. Gluten-free spaghetti and sauce with sautéed zucchini.

So I made no progress of writing a great book per se and no progress on my artwork, not even per se. But I did not do nothing. Between the Book of Psalms and Emily Dickinson I can pretty much find the perfect expression for every mood, circumstance, and world event. Sure enough, I ran across this gem by Emily D. today. It supports my idea that heaping achievements into your resume is not what really is important:

IF I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.
Emily Dickinson

Over at The Classics Club they have designated September as Romantic Literature month, and since they list Emily Dickinson as one of the romantic poets, I will take that excuse to feature some of her poems here for the rest of this very unusual September. I have read a lot of Emily Dickinson because had I finished my Masters thesis it was going to be about her work.

 

After my foray into the roots of western civilization (The Republic by Plato) I decided I needed a break in my usual reading patterns – something entirely different. So I swooped from ancient Greece all the way to outer space and went with the 1961 science fiction classic Solaris by Stanislaw Lem. I have little experience with the science fiction genre so I thought it would be good to go with a well-known classic. Also, both the fact that the author was Polish and the year of its publication intrigued me. I am part Polish and have not read a lot of Polish lit and 1961 seems to me sort of the height of modern scientific arrogance. But that’s only my fanciful theory. Perhaps we are still climbing toward that height.

I listened to the audio book Solaris: The Definitive Version, which is beautifully narrated by Allessandro Juliani. My Goodreads review graphic apparently shows a version published in conjunction with the  2002 film of this book with George Clooney and Natascha McElhone. From what I have read this film version does not give much attention to the philosophical themes of the book. In fact I read this funny quote from the author himself (who died in 2006) on Wikipedia:

“…to my best knowledge, the book was not dedicated to erotic problems of people in outer space… As Solaris’ author I shall allow myself to repeat that I only wanted to create a vision of a human encounter with something that certainly exists, in a mighty manner perhaps, but cannot be reduced to human concepts, ideas or images. This is why the book was entitled “Solaris” and not “Love in Outer Space”.

SolarisSolaris by Stanisław Lem

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have to say up front that I am not an aficionado of science fiction. My science fiction reading is limited to C.S. Lewis space trilogy and this book, although I have watched some Star Trek and Star Wars movies. Those movies plus the snatches I’ve caught on the sci-fi channel always seem ludicrous to me because it seems no matter how many light years away humans travel they not only always run into human-like creatures with a head and four limbs, but the aliens usually speak English. Well Solaris blows that problem out of the water — or in the world of this book, out of the plasma. The theme is the futility of trying to make contact with a non-human intelligence.

The story begins with the arrival of Dr. Kris Kelvin to a research station that is orbiting Solaris. Expecting to be welcomed by his colleagues Kelvin finds that one of the scientists, his mentor, has just killed himself and the other two are acting secretive and fearful and sometimes outright insane. Somehow the intelligent ocean has figured out how to tap into the memories of humans and produce in human form their greatest shame. Kelvin meets his “visitor” upon waking after his first night in the space station in the form of a beautiful young woman who killed herself years ago after he broke off a love relationship with her.

The planet Solaris orbits two suns and is entirely covered by an ocean-like substance made of some kind of plasma. This giant plasma thing is able to build out of itself various types of formations that Earth scientists have trouble even describing and even more trouble classifying. One formation for example is an intricate colossus that is sort of like a machine and sort of like an organism, but really fits neither category as we think of these things on earth. Once a formation appears it is destroyed, usually with horrible sounds and great violence, by the ocean.

The ocean will sometimes respond to the presence of humans and sometimes will not and scientists have not been able to find a pattern in its response behavior. Yet it is almost impossible not to anthropomorphize the ocean – try to figure out its motivations, whether it friendly, unfriendly, or indifferent to humans. Despite a multitude of theories, no one really knows that it “feels” or “thinks” or is even “alive” in the way humans understand these concepts. The reader gets an overview of the decades of scientific “Solaric” research as the main character Kelvin scours the library in hopes of finding a clue to solving his immediate problems. As Kelvin reviews the voluminous literature on the various theories and schools of thought on Solaris we get a healthy dose of satire about the arrogance and politics of human science.

I liked the fact that this book brings up lots of questions about the limits of human ability to understand existence outside of our human frame of reference and also questions whether we ought to be looking for intelligent life in outer space when we have such an inadequate understanding of our own species. C.S. Lewis trilogy brings up similar questions but assumes that all life in the universe has a common creator. Mr. Lem does not assume a creator at all, although in the end he has Dr. Kelvin theorize a bit about the existence and possible nature of God, wondering if there might be a God who is prone to error.

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The RepublicBefore I get into the delicious details of The Republic by Plato (my pick for The Classics Club Spin #7 event) I must stop to wonder at two things. First I have to wonder at how long this work has been kicking around in the libraries and minds of the human race. Plato wrote in around 380 BC. It would have been classic literature for Paul of Tarsus, and I am pretty sure I detected several foreshadowings of the words he wrote in his New Testament letters. Surely someone has done a comparative analysis between Plato and Paul and I will looking for that analysis. Second, I wonder that it has taken me until middle age to get around to reading it.  As I finished my reading I saw my 18-year-old son squeezing grapes for juice in the kitchen and urged him to read the book as soon as possible. Surely between his organic food activism and reggae band photography he can fit in a little Plato. As with many classics, this is better read when one is young.  Still, as with all classics, better late than never.

The translation I read was one by Benjamin Jowett and published by Coyote Canyon Press. I would love to read it in the original Greek but unfortunately my ancient Greek studies are in the rudimentary stage – one more reason I really need to have an eternal life. But I found the translation to be clear, cogent, and pleasant to read. As C.S. Lewis says, “The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism.” (From his essay “On the Reading of Old Books”.) How true. I am the simplest of students and I found this dialogue to be perfectly comprehensible.

In this dialogue Plato, in the persona of the philosopher Socrates, conducts an inquiry into the nature of justice, whether justice or injustice makes a person happier and why, and the nature and development of the ideal state, defined as the kind of state that would facilitate the happiness of the greatest number of its citizens. I cannot deny that this is some high-quality reasoning and the step-by-step arguments are easy to follow. However, I do not like some of Plato’s conclusions – for example the idea that children should be raised and educated by the state rather than by their individual parents – but although I may not be Plato’s equal in intellectual intelligence, I do have the advantage of looking back on 2394 more years of civilization, religious and political upheavals, and social experimentation than Plato had the opportunity to observe.

But my gosh – the things that man was able to work out with only the power on his highly educated power of reason are astounding! You can easily recognize the foundations of various schools of thinking and theory throughout the ages. Let me summarize just a few of the compelling ideas discussed in The Republic:

  • The soul is an entity separate from the body. As disease is to the body, evil is to the soul. However, while disease eventually kills the body, evil, while it affects the character of the soul, does not kill it. This is because the soul is eternal. You can chop up the body but the soul will not be affected in the least because the soul is a different thing.
  • Not all minds/souls are equal. A few are capable of apprehending pure truth while most are only capable of attaining the middle or grey level – the level at which all variations, derivative expressions of the ideal truth exist. Plato calls those persons bestowed with the character and mind to know pure truth philosophers.
  • There are different levels of relationship a human mind might have to the truth. there is practical knowledge (it is true because it works), there is understanding (the ability to reason enough to see why an idea might be true), and then there is pure knowledge (the ability to encounter truth directly). This could be the basis of our ideas about occupational training vs. classical education, although our modern universities currently mix these concepts to the point of absurdity.
  • Although Plato refers to the “gods” he reasons that there must be a God behind the gods, an origin of all things including the diverse nature gods. He also reasons that the Homeric stories of the gods scheming, forming factions, and warring with each other are mythological because a real God must be both unchangeable and good. Monotheism was already long-established among the Hebrews (Exodus is thought to have been written in the 6th century BC) but Plato reached this conclusion by reasoning while the Hebrews reached it by revelation.
  • The arts including theater, painting, and especially poetry, are corrosive to young minds and do not contribute to the wellbeing of the State. The reason is that not only is art not truth, it is a copy of a copy. The things it portrays, whether beds or bodies, are only copies of their ideal form which exists in heaven or perhaps in the mind of God. And if that isn’t bad enough, the arts tend to cater to the changing sensual tastes of the masses and not to reason. This is one of Plato’s conclusions that doesn’t sit well with me. Toward the end of the dialogue, however, he partially relents and allows poetry back into the State, but with conditions. She must present a poem defending her value.
  • Plato describes the good and bad characteristics of five types of states: aristocracy, , oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny. He does not include socialism in his types but interestingly, his conception of democracy seems very like our modern concept of socialism – equality for all – and his democracy leads to tyranny very like Friedrich Hayek (The Road to Serfdom) says our socialism leads to totalitarianism. I think Plato’s analysis of the types of government is quite brilliant. Since all of these forms carry within themselves the seeds of their own destruction, Plato’s ideal state would emphasize the need to identify and raise pure and wise leaders from early childhood and instill safeguard to ensure that its leaders come only from this class.
  • The ideal leader is pure in character and has that rare ability to see pure truth. He is a true philosopher and not one of those false imitative pretending Sophists. Nor is he the popular wise guru whose wisdom consists in his observations in what works – what actions or methods are most likely to result in wealth and happiness for his particular class. This type may know what works but he neither knows nor cares why it works. He has observed the variables but has not seen the truth behind the variables, and is therefore subject to the winds of change and not worthy to lead the ideal Republic.

I found that the dialogue style presentation of this material made these and all the other ideas enjoyable to read and absorb. The tone is one of pleasant, friendly conversation with the implied freedom to agree or disagree, a tone that in our current politically hyper-charged climate of colliding ideologies I found to be delightfully refreshing. If you, like me, are an “idea” person you will find the The Republic to be a mental feast. And the best thing is, there are plenty of other dialogues by Plato that I can now look forward to feasting on.