My children are both at peak fairy tale age—four and two—so I have been studying up on the classics: Grimms, Andersen, MacDonald. But I’ve noticed something I never saw before: in fairy tales, the mother is almost always absent. Sometimes she’s dead, as in “Beauty and the Beast” or “The Little Mermaid”; sometimes there is a wicked stepmother like in “Cinderella” or “Hansel and Gretel.” But even when she is physically present, she’s often emotionally absent.
I don’t think I memorized those opening lines of Edwin Muir’s “The Annunciation” chiefly because of their prosody. What would have caught my attention is the emphasis on the earth and embodiment. I am if anything more committed now to these themes than I was as a young graduate student who was increasingly mortified by what seemed the disembodied and even (as I would now say) the anti-incarnational mental acrobatics of contemporary intellectual culture.
How do we render onto paper not what we hear but what we cannot hear? What is the story for what we do not know? I believe we look for it in doubt, fear, and uncertainty.
I believe we experience that mystery in the questions, and not the answers, the silence and not the noise.
“With training,” teaches Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, “it’s possible to become aware of the space in-between—the space in-between our thoughts, our moods, our perceptions, and our breaths.” There, emptiness. Not terrifying. Rather, liberating: “a fleeting moment of naked awareness, a split-second opening that introduces us to our original mind…
Part of what is so fascinating about Vivian Suter is that she doesn’t seem to care about her canvases all that much and so you can pack a smallish palace with hundreds of them, hanging all over the place, lying in piles, whatever, some of them covered in dirt and other detritus and a couple of them marked with what seems to be the footprints of dogs, pawprints I guess.
It was the disaster in Ukraine that moved me to pull Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie from my shelf. Not having read it since graduate school days decades ago, I recalled nothing about it except its gloom. But that was enough to make it an appropriate companion for current events. Not that Sister Carrie is about war. But it is about violence: the violence with which society oppresses and even destroys individuals. The novel’s dominant color is dark.
A couple months ago I received a group text from a friend asking if we had seen the Maggie Gyllenhaal-directed film The Lost Daughter and saying how disturbed she was by its portrayal of motherhood. This friend is both a mother and a philosophy professor; the other two friends on the thread besides me are a writer and the vice president of government relations for a pharmaceutical firm. All of us are mothers. All of us were pretty disturbed/annoyed by The Lost Daughter.
Paul Farmer died in his sleep Monday, February 21, and we will not see his like again soon. Dr. Farmer, a physician, medical anthropologist, author, and tireless champion of the world’s poor had been working in Butaro, Rwanda, at a hospital he helped build. For someone who was never quite comfortable anywhere but among fellow human beings in urgent need, it was a fitting place to end an astonishingly fruitful life.
I picked a hell of a time to try to write about a Russian author. As I type this, the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine has been going on for a few days. I was going to write about a man named Vladimir Soloukhin, in particular about his fascinating book Searching for Icons in Russia. But I don’t have the heart to write what I had been planning to write.
Recently, in the midst of my groping to understand what I was learning from art critic Michael Fried and philosopher Stanley Cavell about “absorption,” I stumbled upon a poem by C. K. Williams that has thrown light on the question for me. The poem is entitled “Self-Portrait with Rembrandt Self-Portrait.”
Several years ago, stretching a lunch break from my office in a courthouse downtown, I happened upon the full text of Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel lecture in a favorite used-book shop down the street. A beat-up little booklet, Russian and English on facing pages, our burly author on the front, staring into the camera with what I’m willing to suppose is inimitable frankness.
One day, I will lose my early morning low-tide walk on Isle of Palms, South Carolina. I will lose my annotated copy of Man’s Quest for God: Studies in Prayer and Symbolism by Abraham Joshua Heschel. I will lose my popcorn, and my jealousies (their house, their travels), and my wife’s smile that loosens knots in the chest…
Lately I’ve been interrogating some of the hundreds of books on my shelves. To ones I haven’t read in decades — or ever — I ask: Why do I keep you? This was my question to H. L. Mencken’s classic, The American Language. Mencken, a Baltimore journalist, published his first edition of this tome in 1919.
Lewis the Apologist has never interested me.… Lewis the Storyteller is another matter. His Space Trilogy is excellent and haunting. I would sooner re-read Perelandra than its model, Paradise Lost. The final book of the trilogy, That Hideous Strength, only seems more prescient as we slouch further toward a posthuman future. It is also one of the most unique and ambitious modern contributions to the Arthurian tradition.
The great voluntary silences in literature baffle me. Some really did just give this art up. For Gerard Manley Hopkins, burning his poems put away childish things so he could focus on the priesthood. Philip Larkin felt the Muse had moved on and didn’t write for the last ten years of his life.
What really engages Rowan Williams in the three short plays included in Shakeshafte & Other Plays is the costly dynamic of artistic expression— a cost paid dearly by the artists represented in those three plays: by Shakespeare (in the first of the plays, Shakeshafte), by David Jones (in the second, The Flat Roof of the World), and by Jesus (in the third, Lazarus).
I was watching Oneohtrix Point Never trying to figure out just what the heck exactly it is about The Weeknd, who released his most recent album, Dawn FM, a couple of weeks ago, and I have never quite been able to understand why I am both attracted to and repelled by everything that is The Weeknd.
Death is death. Death is also part of a larger story. I’m part of that story. I’m no longer hiding. No longer withholding. Since my father’s death, thousands of words. I’m living, yes, living with my father in the land of the dead.
A couple of weeks ago, as we staggered into 2022, I made a New Year’s Resolution of such modesty, so incredibly pathetic, that it is almost embarrassing to admit here: I was not going to check Twitter on Sundays. I say “almost” pathetic, because you would think it ought to be pretty easy to avoid checking Twitter on Sundays.
A common feature of these two highly recommended books is their representation of religious faith in a medium – the novel – that has of late had little good to say about religion. Perhaps they point toward something analogous to the Bechdel Test, in which characters who happen to be religious are presented unironically as full, if flawed, persons who act upon and talk about their convictions without collapsing into the stereotyped roles of hypocrite, fanatic, or repressive killjoy.