Friday, June 29, 2012

After Such Knowledge

After such knowledge, what forgiveness?

I have mentioned here several times in the past the amazing pair of books by Jean Hatzfeld about the Rwandan genocide.  If you still haven't read Machete Season and Life Laid Bare, you should.  The first explores the genocide through a series of conversations with the murderers; the second looks at the same events through interviews with the survivors.  They are brutal books.  Tales of nice normal people picking up machetes and hunting through swamps looking for their former neighbors in order to hack them to death.  Day after day after day.  It is hard to decide whether the accounts are more chilling when told by those who survived or those who spent a month killing their neighbors.

Hatzfeld has a third book.  The Antelope’s Strategy. The subtitle: Living in Rwanda after the Genocide.  The book picks up after an amazing turn of events.  The genocide ended when the government fell.  Not surprisingly, the killers are imprisoned.  (Well, maybe it is surprising that they were imprisoned rather than executed.)   But then, seven years later, with the agricultural fields throughout the country lying fallow, and a need for workers to grow food, the government announced that the killers would be released.  They returned to their old homes, suddenly living side by side again with the very people they had formerly tried to murder.

So, imagine you live in a Rwandan Village.  Take you pick: which is the harder situation?
1) You survived the genocide by hiding in the swamps, evading the butchers and now the very people who used to hunt you live next door—not just people like the people who hunted you, but the very same people;
2) You spent some time running through the swamps trying to kill people, and now you suddenly find yourself living next to someone whose family you hacked up with a machete and who only lives now because he evaded you.

Rwanda is full of people in both those situations.  Hatzfeld interviews them.  And the big question:

Can you forgive?

Is it even humanly possible to forgive in this situation?  Is it humanly possible to love your neighbor as yourself in this situation?  This is a gut-wrenching book in a very differ manner than the previous books by Hatzfeld.  In those books, the reader is faced with the depths of the depravity of Man.  In this book, we are faced with the limits of the ability of man to be good.  It is Right and Good to forgive.  God forgives; we should forgive.  (Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us—it’s the Lord’s Prayer, after all.)  Not only is there depravity at the heart of man, but man has no ability, literally no ability, to be this forgiving. 

But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Who then can be saved?

Friday, June 22, 2012

In the High Castle

Can Science Fiction ever merit the title of Great Literature?  Sure.  To date, has any work of science fiction Merited that Moniker?  Therein lies a tale.

As I have noted often, the Library of America is doing an invaluable service in putting out volumes of the Great Books of America in editions which generate genuine tactile pleasure when being read.  They recently put out their first science fiction set: the collected novels of Philip K Dick.  If you just asked “Who?,” you are not alone.

Dick’s claim to Mainstream Fame?  He wrote the novel on which the movie Blade Runner was based.  Blade Runner starred Harrison Ford.  A big movie.  Also, an incoherent movie.  The theatrical release was followed by a director’s release and an extended release, all in some attempt to provide some coherence to the movie.

Beyond that novel (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), Dick wrote many other novels, of which, unless you are an aficionado, you have never heard. Yet, here they are in a three (3!) volume boxed (boxed!) set put out by that Grand Arbiter of Taste, the Library of America.

Now, I like Science Fiction—one of my earliest literary loves—and I like Great Books—a later developed literary love—so this here is what you might call a match made in heaven.  Yet, I have read three Dick novels before now, and was rather underwhelmed.  So, imagine my surprise when Dick got the LOA treatment.  Naturally, I bought the set.

I read the first book: The Man in the High Castle.  I had never heard of this book before, yet here it is, in my Great Book set.  And…

Well, it’s an alternative history (the Axis Powers won WWII) in which an alternative history (about the Axis Powers Losing WWII (but, not the history of the world in which the Reader lives)) plays a role.  The book screams, “Look!  I am being Doubly Clever!”  A book I am reading in the real world about an alternative history in which yet another alternative history plays a role.  At this point, you say, “Wow!  Deep, Man.  Deep.”  Then, as an added bonus, you get lots and lots of references to the I Ching (the novel is in Japanese-occupied California—so obviously we need a role for that Great Book of…China?  (yeah, I know, Japan, China...what’s the difference?)), so the novel has this whole ersatz Eastern Religion feel.  (You will be surprised to learn that the book was published in 1962.)  Then the titular character wanders in at the end of the novel in order to be there when the I Ching reveals that the alternative history is true.  So, in the alternative history I am reading, the alternative history in the alternative history is really true, which then means that maybe the world in which I am reading this book is not the real world, but the alternative history I am reading is really true.  All together now:  ‘Whoa!  This is mind-blowing!”   

The novel never really goes anywhere.  Lots of story lines start, wander along, and then wander off, but Dick writes well enough that the journey is a painless stroll.  Now after reading four of his novels, I am convinced that he is one of those authors who writes books which are really groovy when you are on an LSD trip.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Autobiographical Ruminations

More from Dorothy Sayers’ The Mind of the Maker:
“But the writing of autobiography is a dangerous business; it is a mark either of great insensitiveness to danger or of an almost supernatural courage.  Nobody but a god can pass unscathed through the searching ordeal of incarnation.”

[Background:  Sayers is using that observation as the conclusion of a chapter discussing of the writing of autobiography, a particular form of art which has obvious relevance to a rather noteworthy Creative Act of God.  What follows is not directly related to what Sayers is arguing, so I suppose this isn’t really background after all.  Relabel it as: Pointless Digression.]

After reading Sayers’ chapter on autobiography, I got to ruminating about my own life (shocking) and once again faced the realization that a biography of my life would be pretty dull stuff.  When I have said this to people in the past, there is almost always an immediate objection.  It seems that saying one’s life would make a dull biography is taken as a strong version of self-deprecation.  There is apparently rampant confusion of the two sentences: 1) “My biography would be dull” and 2) “My life is worthless.”  But, those two sentences are not even remotely the same.  My life is not worthless, yet I have a hard time imagining anyone wanting to read a book-length treatment of it.  I was born, grew up, went to school, got married, got a job, had kids.  Nothing exciting there.  So, I cannot even imagine writing an autobiography, which made me wonder about whether Sayers’ remarks quoted above were accurate or not.  How would I know?

Then it hit me.  I’ve been writing this here blog for a few years now.  This blog has no real content other than a Faithful Record of My Thoughts over Time.  Which strangely sounds a lot like autobiography.  Have I been writing an autobiography for the last few years without even knowing it?  The mind reels.

If so, which is it:  do I have an insensitivity (Sayers’ “insensitiveness” is a rather ugly word, no?) to danger or a supernatural courage?  Clearly the former—despite all evidence to the contrary, I still write up these ruminations with pretense that nobody is actually reading this blog.  Then again, there really isn’t much of a danger here—after all, I am a tenured professor.  (Janet is constantly worried that my blog will somehow lead to some dire result, but when pressed, she can never actually figure out what could actually happen to me if someone (who?) took offense.  Janet has neither an insensitivity to danger nor supernatural courage—and perhaps not coincidentally, she doesn’t write autobiography.  More from Janet anon.)

Pursuing the Blog as Autobiography line a bit further:  is this blog an honest autobiography?  As Sayers notes, no autobiography can be the whole of the author, it is inherently a partial revelation due to the limitation of the form.  Obviously I am more than my blog (and as Hannah constantly reminds me, I am certainly more than the title of my blog).  But, if we imagine handing the last few years of blog entries to a person who knew nothing about me, would the impression formed from nothing other than what was written in this place bear any resemblance to Reality?  What strange creature would be conjured up by the contents herein?  That is one of those questions which would generate an answer which it is probably better not to know.  Yet , it is also one of those questions that once asked, makes one wonder.

And then:  if this blog is a form of autobiography, then perhaps my autobiography isn’t as dull as I would have thought.  (Please, Dear Reader, bear with the line of reasoning a bit and avoid the Obvious Retort.)  While my conventional biography would be quite dull, I have read some Great Books and had some Great Conversations over the years, and a record of those books and conversations is potentially not Without Interest.  (Again, Dear Reader, imagine a Competent Scribe and you can at least imagine the possibility.)  And suddenly I realized that the most famous biography of all time details a life in which absolutely nothing happens—one reads Boswell to see Johnson’s wit, not his activities.

At this stage in my ruminations, I broached the subject at the dinner table last night.  Lo and behold, Janet was channeling Samuel Johnson.  She quickly concluded that blogs were akin to autobiography.  However she added that blogs were much worse than autobiography.  Traditional autobiography required that the contents pass muster with an editor before they were broadcast to the world.  Blogs have no such editor.  These days, anybody can feel free to broadcast his life and thoughts to the world, whether such writing is worthy of attention or not (and for some reason, Janet looked at Your Humble Narrator with a knowing glance when mentioning the latter option).  Insensitive to the danger (see above), I then asked why people would feel the need to write an autobiography.  “Narcissism.”  Janet didn’t miss a beat in giving that answer.  Blogging is the ultimate form of narcissism, concluded Janet.  One assumes that  one’s every thought is worthy of attention and so one blogs.  Moreover, my Long-Suffering Wife added, to write with a complete lack of concern for the Reader, to write simply for one’s own amusement and yet post such writings in a public forum, is the Supreme Form of Narcissism. 

Apparently my wife thinks I am a Narcissist.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


In My Life as a Reader, I have stumbled onto books, both good and ill, in a multitude of ways (indeed, a history of how I came to read all the books I have ever read could potentially be an interesting thing to read (well, interesting to me...perhaps…though the longer I toy with this idea, the more I think it might be a rather dull catalogue in the end)), but I cannot recall an example as circuitous as the Story of How I came to Read the Book at Hand.

Last year, I was the outside reader on a thesis in Studio Art.  (For those unacquainted with the details of Mount Holyoke College Faculty Legislation: 1) Why have you not yet read this fine publication? (you can read it here), and, more to the point, 2) part of the senior thesis process at Mount Holyoke is a thesis defense which requires at least one of the examiners to be from outside the department in which the thesis is being done.)  (And, by the way, the thesis, which is not the subject of this here rumination, was good—some rather interesting Art (with a capital A).)  I was talking with the student doing the thesis (Ashley), and she mentioned that she was extraordinarily interested in the idea of the Trinity; that paradox was much like the way she thought about her Art; in fact she was puzzling out how to express the Trinity in art.  (And lest the Reader get the wrong idea, for Ashley, not exactly a devout Christian, this was a matter of art, not religious devotion.)  Her remarks immediately triggered in the recesses of my mind a hazy memory:  Augustine, in one of his myriad works had some sort of thing where he compared the Trinity to the process of making art, or something like that, but it the whole memory was pretty fuzzy since I never actually read this bit in Augustine, I just remember reading about how he wrote about it, but I couldn’t remember where I read that fact, so rather than send Ashley off to the library with that sort of vague mandate to find a work I could only vaguely remember, I promised to look it up for her.  After she left, I started pulling my volumes of Augustine off the shelf looking for the passage about which I had that dim memory of having once seen mentioned.  It wasn’t in The Trinity, nor in any other book of his I had.   So, I puzzled.  Then it hit me—it wasn’t Augustine, it was Dorothy Sayers.  The Mind of the Maker.  Augustine: Sayers…memory is a fickle beast.  (Augustine had something to say about that, but I digress.)

I subsequently recommended Sayers’ book to Ashley.  She came in a few days later telling me how amazing the book was.  I was, to be honest, a bit surprised.  I’d never read the book (obviously) because the idea of explaining the Trinity by talking about artists struck me as an intellectual dead end, the sort of thing someone grasping at straws would throw together in an off-hand way in the vain hope that maybe it just might work.  Yet here was this thoroughly secular student telling me how amazing this work of Christian theology was.  Obviously, I needed to read the book.

I did.  It is amazing.  It can be read as an attempt to explain the Trinity, I suppose, but it is much better read as an attempt to explain the artist.  As Sayers argues:  God created us in His image and thus God is a creator, so if we are created in His image, then that means, in part, that we are created as creators.  An utterly absorbing idea, that.  Our urge to create is the very spark of divinity.

To be a good creator is thus to have all three of the aspects of the Godhead.  We need the controlling idea, the means to cause the idea to become incarnate and the power to enable the creation to work in the world.  Artists fail when they are either too driven by one part of that trinity or when one of the parts atrophies.  Indeed, Sayers notes the distinction between the Father Driven artists, possessed of an intellectual idea with no means of expressing it; the Son Driven  artists with the tools to express, but nothing to be expressed; and the Spirit driven artists who imagine they can work their Power on the world with neither Idea not a means to express an idea.  (Undergraduate artists are almost always that last group—nothing to say, and no skill at saying it, yet they spew their emotions onto the page.)  (And just for the record, Ashley was not Spirit driven; if I had to say, I think she is Father Driven in Sayers’ framework.  Interesting art.  You just might hear about her someday.)

The summary does not even begin to capture the feel of the book, however.   Writing this review feels like trying to express an Idea with shabby equipment, rapidly decaying.  So, I’ll change the question:  for what audience is this book intended?  Before reading it, I assumed it was a work of Christian apologetics, belonging, as I noted above, in the (rather large) set of futile attempts to explain the Trinity to Human minds. Said attempts are an exemplar of an impossible task.  But, Sayers’ book isn’t in that set at all.  To be sure, one learns a great deal about the Trinity from reading this book, but it doesn’t attempt to explain the Trinity.  Indeed, I’m not convinced that the Trinity is really what this book is best at explaining.  I think it is much better seen as an exploration of the human artist.  At that task, it is an utterly brilliant book.  And, I suspect a terribly neglected book by the very people who would most profit from reading it.  The neglect comes from the general aversion to all things religious.  Imagine a book explaining artists which takes as a given that we can gain a better understanding of the artistic mind by thinking about the mind of the Maker of the maker.  Now imagine the hurdle which will have to be overcome to convince an artist who denies the existence of the Prime Maker to read a book showing how the mind of that maker explains the artist’s mind. 

It’s too bad.  Many a secular artists would enjoy this book a great deal.  Many a Christian would also enjoy this book, but will be put off by the realization that it is about artists.  Christian Artists?  Well,  sadly, there are far too few of them (well, there are too few of them with enough talent to merit the title of Artist, as opposed to ones who fancy themselves artists) to know what they would make of this book.     

Monday, June 18, 2012

Leaving Kilroy

Last night I returned from Halifax (Nova Scotia (Canada (Earth—well, I guess I am still on Earth (come to think of it, why do we say we are on Earth, but in Canada; after all, my physical relationship to Canada is (or more properly, was) the same as my physical relationship to Earth)))).   I was at a conference there—mirabile dictu, a good conference. 

At the hotel bar one evening, one of the participants noted that the first incarnation of this particular conference in 2004 was the first time he had been the senior member at a conference.  I knew exactly what he meant.  Somewhere along the line, I moved from being one of the young folk to being one of the old folk at a few conferences.  (Now since I am just 45, this surely says something about the kind of conferences to which I get invited, but I am not sure what.)  I’ve noticed this at the last few conferences—while sitting around talking about the academy (an occupational hazard for professors), I’m the one giving advice to assistant professors.  I don’t know when this transition happened.

Which is exactly the theme of the second volume of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time.  In volume 2, A Buyer’s Market, our narrator notes:
Certain stages of experience might be compared with the game of Russian billiards, played (as I used to play with Jean, when the time came) on those small green tables, within the secret recesses of which, at the termination of a given passage of time—a quarter of an hour, I think—the hidden gate goes down; after the descent of which, the coloured balls return no longer to the slot to be replayed; and all scoring is doubled. This is perhaps an image of how we live. For reasons not always at the time explicable, there are specific occasions when events begin suddenly to take on a significance previously unsuspected; so that, before we really know where we are, life seems to have begun in earnest at last, and we ourselves, scarcely aware that any change has taken place, are careering uncontrollably down the slippery avenues of eternity.
This volume certainly has a different tone than the first—for one thing it is a much more compressed period than the leisurely descriptions of school in volume 1.  The Buyer’s Market in the title is, I assume, the marriage market—but this is never made really clear.  Our narrator grows up in this novel; one senses that while the first novel is the story of a kid, future novels will be about an adult.  Cleverly, the novel doesn’t really have a striking break point—it isn’t really clear when the change even happens here.  We can see it most clearly in the narrator’s relationship with women—at the beginning we still have the crushes of a kid; by the end, we have someone sliding into a meaningless tryst with a loose woman to whom he feels no genuine attachment.

So, if I think about my own life, when did I grow up?  I used to think this song was musical brilliance.  Now?  Well…it’s still not bad playing in the background, but, I suspect, only because it reminds me of my youth.  When did any of us grow up? 

(The Wee Reader may translate this thought experiment to some future time, project backwards and imagine a time when the current manifestation of the Wee Reader is now a Past and manifestly Younger version of the Aged Reader and thus the change under discussion will have Come True.  In said thought Experiment, no fair crafting a Future Defining Event to mark the Change.)