Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Unexpected Parallel: Fowles and Melville

In chapter 14 of Herman Melville's The Confidence-Man, the narrator intrudes to tell the readers not to blame the author for creating an inconsistent character, for in the real world, most people are inconsistent. The narrator then shares some reflections on human nature and on characters, in fiction and reality.

And in chapter 13 of John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman, the narrator intrudes to admit he doesn't know what his characters are thinking and that he can't fully control them. He then shares some reflections on writing, reading, and human beings in fiction and reality.

It's rather clear that metafiction is not any post-modern development, even if it is post-modern writers who relish in it. The seeds can be traced far back, at least to Cervantes in the novel. And so too have many novelists swung it back to blur the lines between fiction and reality. I leave you with a wonderful passage from Fowles' 13th chapter:

"But this is preposterous? A character is either 'real' or 'imaginary'? If you think that, hypocrite lecteur, I can only smile. You do not even think of your own past as quite real; you dress it up, you gild it or blacken it, censor it, tinker with it...fictionalize it, in a word, and put it away on a shelf--your book, your romanced autobiography. We are all in flight from the real reality. That is a basic definition of Homo sapiens."

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Reading Yeats

I've been reading some scattered poems of W.B. Yeats this weekend, and I've sensed repeated motifs of birth ("The Second Coming," "The Mother of God"), rebirth ("Sailing to Byzantium"), and movement or travel ("Sailing to Byzantium," "The Lake Isle of Innisfree"). It's not surprising, then, that with such a motif of change and renewal, several of the poems I've read end with questions ("The Second Coming," "The Mother of God," "The Wild Swans at Coole"). The poet seems to sense a transformation, but of course cannot know precisely what that transformation will be.

Friday, June 20, 2008

"The only way to end war is to cease to fight"

We have our greatest confirmation of Orwell yet. When an adamant supporter of a particular war, whose policy plan is to continue a particular war, ends a commercial with "Reform. Prosperity. Peace" (emphasis mine), there is no more intellectual honesty, and politicians can use words to mean whatever they wish them to mean.

This same politician says in another commercial, "I hate war" (I believe this is quoted on Franlin Roosevelt's monument, by the way). Of course we all should hate war: the debate isn't between people who love and hate war, but between people who disagree about whether war is moral, effective, or necessary.

But in an upcoming election, the politician who has adamently supported a current war, whose intention is to continue the war, is campaigning with the word "Peace" and saying "I hate war."

(The title of this post is a quote from "Peace Is the Will of God" by Historic Peace Churches and International Fellowship of Reconciliation Committee, 1953).

Thursday, June 19, 2008


Wicked is coming to Minneapolis in November, and my wife got us two tickets. We're thrilled.

Gregory Maguire's novel is one of my favorites. Once he had the idea, he could have written an easy book. Instead he wrote a novel rich in complexities, mysteries, and ambiguities.

We've been listening to the music for the musical for two years now. It'll be great fun seeing the stage show and knowing all the music (that's how I prefer to watch musicals live).

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Life in Ideas: Seeking a Peace Church

I am a Christian Pacifist, but I'm also Lutheran, which has in its doctrines acceptance of Just War Theory. This does not mean that all Lutheran congregations support war in general or particular wars in particular, but simply that it can, and some do. The church I attend (because it is my wife's church) is rather pro-war, in my opinion.

But I've been loathe to leave Lutheranism because of my understanding of the sacraments: I share with Lutherans (though not Lutherans exclusively) similar belief of the meaning and understanding of Baptism and Communion. The historic peace churches have a different theological belief. And the sacraments are for me very important.

But I feel I may be reaching a point that Christ's message of peace transcends for me the meaning of the sacraments. I don't want to be a part of a church where it is open for debate whether one should support a war or not. I want to be a part of a church which proclaims a message of peace, and a part of a group that takes action for peace.

In my ideal, I'll become half-Lutheran, half-Quaker. My wife and child (and future children) would be members of a Lutheran congregation, and I could still attend with them part of the time to receive the sacrament. But I would attend Quaker meetings, and participate in Quaker actions. I'm not sure that's entirely possible.

I'm sharing this as a part of life in ideas. In "Human Morality and Animal Research: Confessions and Quandaries," Harold Herzog refers to animal rights activists as "people who change their lives because of an idea." I am one of those people: I have changed my life for an idea, becoming a vegetarian. Because of an idea, there are concrete changes in my daily meals, my social interactions, and my purchasing decisions. Ideas are for me not abstract concepts: they are guiding forces in concrete, real behavior (which might be why I am drawn to Dostoevsky, whose characters are so radically motivated by ideas).

And now an idea, an understanding of Christ's peace message, has been guiding another change in my life. For me, Christian pacifism needs to go beyond merely saying "I am a pacifist," for in day to day life in middle America, the pacifist and non-pacifist may not behave terribly differently (though I've tried to take pacifism deeper than opposition to violence, and into forgiveness of trespasses, respect for the dignity of all creatures in other ways, and avoidance of conflict). I want to join a peace church, and be a part of a peace community that proclaims peace to the world.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

"creator and receiver both"

In The Prelude, William Wordsworth refers to a child as

"creator and receiver both,
Working but in alliance with the works
Which it beholds."

This passage works as a summary for my conception of reading. When I read, I am receiving something that is created by the writer. But if I am fully engaged with the text, then I am also creating something. As a reader, I create (or, if you prefer, re-create) characters, scenes, settings, events, images, meaning, ideas. I am working in alliance with the work itself to create meaning.

Is there a distinction between creation and simply perception? Perhaps, as in a different context of The Prelude, Wordsworth does distinguish between the two (in a passage that seems aware of Kant):

"Deem that our puny boundaries are things
That we perceive, and not that we have made."

In perception, we merely bring out what is already there, while in creation, we make something, "working but in alliance" with what is already there to create ourselves. I do think reading is creation. The work itself doesn't exist outside the mind of the reader: only when the reader engages in the text (in any way: reading it, discussing it, writing about it, remembering it) does the text have any power at all.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Reading: context and memory

Near the end of McCarthy's Blood Meridian, a dancing bear gets shot--it is but one more act of violence in a book full of senseless, meaningless violence. As I read the incident, I couldn't help but recall Hawthorne's "The May-Pole of Merry Mount," when Endicott orders a bear that was dancing with people to be shot.

Near the beginning of Shaw's Man and Superman, Ramsden tries to console Octavius over Whitefield's death by telling him "it's the common lot." Reading this, it is hard not to recall Gertrude's admonition to Hamlet that "Thou know'st 'tis common; all that live must die/ Passing through nature to eternity" (Hamlet dismisses her with "Ay, madam, it is common"; no matter how true it is, it is pretty shoddy consolation to tell a mourner that death is the common lot).

I don't know that either McCarthy or Shaw intended an allusion (though the parallel in the death of the dancing bear in Blood Meridian and "The May-Pole of Merry Mount" offers intriguing symbolic meaning). What's more, it doesn't matter if these parallels were intentional. As a reader, the connection has been made in my head. As I am reading, I can't ignore my memories of earlier works I've read: the parallels pop into my brain whether I seek them out or not. These parallels may mean much, or they may mean little and I might pass over them quickly.

But while reading one work, I have the memory of everything else I've ever read (or at least, everything that I remember of everything else I've ever read). As I'm fully engaged with a text, that text may remind me of other things I've read. It may provoke me to stop and consider the texts.

For reading, that means at least two things, I suppose. It means we rarely read in a vacuum: we bring ourselves and our memories of past reading to the reading experience. It also means that finishing a book does not truly mean finishing a book: that book could come back to you at a future moment, in unexpected context.

Stupid Summer Project: The Wizard

Morty: Pinko Commie Rag!

Elaine: Who are they running against?
Jerry: Common sense and a guy in a wheelchair.

Comment: On Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David often explores the anxiety of white people fearful of being perceived as racist. On this episode of Seinfeld (from after David left), such an issue is being explored, too. Several times when discussing whether or not Elaine's new boyfriend is black, the characters get nervous and suggest they're not supposed to be talking about it. At one point a black waitress comes to their table, and Jerry, Elaine, and even George quickly reach into their pockets to leave a really big tip.

George has a stellar plot line in this episode: he lies to the Rosses about owning a place in the Hamptons, they find out it is a lie, they let him continue to lie about it, he finds out they know he's lying, and he's angry that they are letting him continue to lie. His massive game of chicken with the Rosses (his imaginary horses are named "Snoopy and Prickly Pete"!) is just a wonderful plot line for the inveterate liar George Costanza. George has some other great moments during this episode (telling Mrs. Ross he's "Susan's...friend," talking to the hot dog vendor). A really fun time.

Here are some of the smaller headlines of the newspapers: "Larry David gets a Hole in One!," "Larry David hurts elbow," and "Larry David never to play golf again."

By the way, this seems like a fair place to mention that I enjoyed Bee Movie and I don't think Jerry Seinfeld or Larry David will ever disappoint me.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Treasures of the Twilight Zone

"Where is Everybody?"
An artistic episode, with motifs like imprisonment (a landscape scan from behind a chain fence, getting stuck in a phone booth, and finally visiting a jail cell) and mirrors. Good episodes of The Twilight Zone have spectacular, memorable endings; mediocre episodes have disappointing endings. Though this episode is the latter, I suppose for folks in 1959 watching the show for the first time, this was wild stuff.

"An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge"
Excellent. Few words, obvious feeling.

"The Encounter"
An extremely tense episode. Themes such as the racism of war, the trauma and guilt of war, atrocities of war, and the way the horror of war doesn't just stop at the end of it.

Tolstoy's "What is Art?": some additional thoughts and my own views

My initial summary and commentary on Tolstoy's What is Art? is below, but I wanted to add a few more comments on my own views in relation to Tolstoy's views in this text.

I share much of Tolstoy's religious belief. I believe in the Christ that commanded us to love, bless, and forgive our enemies. The most authentic religious experience of my life occurred when I looked around at some of my fellow human beings, and felt a connection and an understanding--I saw them in a new way (or perhaps, I saw God in them). So I am standing with Tolstoy when he speaks of the "brotherly union of men," of "that feeling of brotherhood and love for one's neighbor," of "the reverence for the dignity of every man and for the life of every animal," and I believe art can foster this. I would diverge with Tolstoy in his insistence that art should or must foster this progress for humankind. Art can be many things and can convey many things--I don't insist that art convey my or anyone else's own religious beliefs and ethics.

I also disagree with Tolstoy's insistence that true art must be universal. I'm extremely doubtful there is any truly universal work of art (perhaps art that deals with death, one of the few universal truths we all must confront), and I certainly encounter great art that moves me that would not move others. And if you are moved by a work of art that does not move me, I would not deny your authentic experience.

Tolstoy also shows an apparent disgust of sexuality and the female body in his book.

I do not share Tolstoy's absolute requirements of art--what I share with him, I would instead identify as possibilities. I recognize the possibility of the moral thrust of art, the possibility of art encouraging unity of people, the possibility of art to connect us, and thus to change how we engage with each other.