Saturday, December 31, 2011

P. D. James Cracks Open Austen's World

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice owes at least a portion of its charm to its self-contained world.  P. D. James's homage to Austen, Death Comes to Pemberley, owes a great deal to our affection for Austen's world, and our pain at seeing its end.  

In Austen, we see soldiers, but no one mentions war; we hear of the Court, but not of government;  concern for steady income underlays the romance, but being forced to economize is not the abject poverty we know from cartoons by Austen's contemporary Hogarth.  Death comes no nearer than a bad cold.   Characters attend church and suffer the Reverend Collins, but God stands back in the manner of the servants, waiting on the other side of a closed door should He be called.  Reverend Collins is concerned only with cultivating plants and the prestige that comes from having tea with Lady Catherine.

Within that world, Austen focuses us on affairs of the heart.  Major events include a young man's smile, an invitation to dance, and all the things left unsaid during polite conversation.  One adolescent girl, having visited Lady Catherine's manor nine times for dinner and twice for tea, exclaims, "How much will I have to tell!" while Elizabeth thinks, "How much will I have to conceal!"

For a few dozen pages, P. D. James sustains us in that world.  But she throws down a gauntlet at the end of "Book One" (James 48-49).  Napoleonic wars threaten.  And as a frightful wind howls with "malevolent force" as if trying to find a way into the manor house, Elizabeth thinks...
Here we are at the beginning of a new century, citizens of the most civilized country in Europe, surrounded by the splendour of its craftsmanship... while outside there is another world which wealth and education and privilege can keep from us, a world in which men are as violent and destructive as is the animal world.  Perhaps even the most fortunate of us will not be able to ignore it and keep it at bay for ever.
That scene and the ones immediately following it are the most vivid and breathtaking in the novel.

A century later, around 1914, another generation would feel the same sense of a world's ending, barbarians at the gates ( a theme I've considered before on this blog).

P. D. James has done a wonderful job of imagining how Austen's crystalline world cracks when that "other world" intrudes, but I rather wish she hadn't.

[I wrote about the pleasures of Pride and Prejudice in one of my first blog posts.]

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Conversations with the Dead

"Conversations with the dead are never satisfactory.  The dead are not very interested in what you tell them and usually don't have much to say."

When I first read that passage back around 1986, I was 27, and there were no dead in my life.  Shortly thereafter, leukemia took Chris, a fourteen-year-old student of mine; my Grandmother Thelma would soon begin to recede from us into a world of ghosts, reaching a day five years later when she didn't recognize me or my mother, but she spoke to my Dad by name about all the others present to her in the empty room -- her late mother, and some little girls..  Twenty years after that, one year after Dad's unexpected death, all the grownups of my childhood are gone except for Mom and her brother-in-law, my Uncle Jack.

Back then, I was reading Frederick Buechner's four novels collected as a tetralogy called THE BOOK OF BEBB  (Atheneum 1984). It nominally concerns a preacher named Leo Bebb, but really its concern is everything there is. I kid you not.  This morning, haunted by a dream of Dad, leafing through just four pages of the novel as I tried to locate this passage, my eyes ran across evocative references to Christmas Eve, aliens, adultery, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and the Wolfman, Native American mythology, cheap motels, Episcopal funeral rites ("Lord, [make it so] that the bones that you have broken may rejoice"), Noel Coward comedies,  blacks in the South, the coming of the Kingdom, King Lear, and opera.  Oh, yeah:  yoga, gin, and mistakes in child-rearing.

So now that I read Buechner with some experience, it's still true.  The passage continues,
Death is apparently as much of a rat race as life is, and they've got other things on their minds.  I don't picture them sitting around in chairs like the cemetery scene in Our Town or cooling their heels in God's outer office singing Bach.  As much as I can picture them at all, I picture them hurrying someplace like the White Rabbit in Alice.  They don't even stop when you speak to them, just look back at you over their shoulders maybe.  I could dimly picture [my sister] Miriam looking back at me as I spoke.  (p. 188)
So, in my dream, Dad takes a seat on a picnic table up the street from our old family house, and he's watching my mother working alone in our old front yard.  His eyes meet mine, he knows I can see him, and I know that she cannot.  He carries a box of Dunkin' Donuts, and he raises a half-eaten donut to acknowledge my presence, but that's all he does.   I tell him she needs him, and he just waves away the comment as superfluous and kind of annoying.  He doesn't move or draw her attention, and now I'm the one who's kind of annoyed.  I tell her he's there, and she calls out, and she approaches the picnic table, but she can't see him.  He doesn't move.  So I tell her, "He's always with you, on the inside."

The dream, as Buechner suggests, blurs the boundaries between this world and one that we don't normally perceive.  It's all part of continuum, death being only one landmark on the way.  Though we can support each other, we all travel alone. 

This brings to mind a spectacle in the same novel, one of several examples of what would be called a "set piece" in a play or movie -- kind of like the Cyd Charisse fantasy number that interrupts Singing in the Rain for ten minutes.  Here it's the story of what happens to a wizened old wealthy Indian named Herman Redpath when he wakes up from death to find himself young again, and vigorous, but also alone on the edge of a vast plain.  Naked, except for items thrown in his coffin at the funeral, Redpath must travel to the horizon.  We're told the story in a letter left by Lucille Bebb, who is relaying what her husband Leo told her (pp. 219-227).

No message, here, except that the Book of Bebb should be added on to the Bible after the Book of Revelation. (For my more extensive reflection on Buechner, go to "Comedy, Fairy Tale, Tragedy: My Favorite Fiction")

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Fundamentalist - Sports Complex

President Eisenhower warned the USA of a "military-industrial complex," Pentagon entangled with lawmakers and corporations that supplied the military its machines.  These parties reinforced each others' beliefs and policy decisions, supported each others' interests, and insulated each other from alternative views.

What I detect today is more widespread, less selfish, yet maybe more corrosive to our Republic. 

It starts with confusion between "faith" and "belief." Thomas Aquinas long ago described faith as a way of knowing the world; an instrument, together with sense and reason, for an open mind to interpret both Scripture and experience.

"Belief" is, normally, a tentative intellectual acceptance of a provisional statement.  For the fundamentalist, there is nothing tentative or provisional about it.  If eternal life depends on "belief" that Jesus was Son of God, then it had better be a "certainty."  To allow for some of Scripture to be folk wisdom or poetic imagery is to put the rest of Scripture in doubt.  That's how a spokesman for the Southern Baptist convention could insist on NPR recently that belief in historical Adam and Eve is "central" to Christianity: in his mind, it's the first link in a chain that leads to Jesus.  

When that outlook is applied to policy, we get "belief" in "conservatism."  That used to mean agreement on certain principles that could be applied variously to different policy choices, allowing for weighing pros and cons.  Thus, Ronald Reagan advocated "amnesty," his own word, for illegal immigrants, because they, in their hard work and selfless sacrifice for their families, exemplified conservative values.  But Newt Gingrich's standing among conservatives in South Carolina has fallen since an ad played a clip of Newt's echoing Reagan on immigration, advocating a way for all Americans to afford health care, and acknowledging that human activity has something to do with climate change.  That's three wrong answers, and Newt suddenly isn't conservative enough for respondents to polls in South Carolina.

But there's a third element, here, made especially visible by the ascent of Tim Tebow.  With "John 3:16" inscribed in his eye-shadow, he draws attention to the fundamentalist fan base for football.  Being "for" a team means buying branded merchandise and deploring opponents.  Because it's just sports, there's license for vicious expressions in the sports arena.

I sense a confusion among these three belief systems:   We're "for" Christianity, "for" conservative values, and "for" our favorite team.  "For" shouldn't mean the same thing in all three contexts, but that's what I hear in public discourse, along with a long list of all the things we're "against."  As in sports, it's zero-sum:  a point on one side must hurt the other side. 

So Reagan's era of conservative principles and principled compromise has degenerated to an era of fundamentalist politics where denying any kind of victory to the other side is more important than, say, extending jobless benefits that all sides agree should be extended, remunerating doctors who treat Medicare patients in a way that all sides admit to be fair, or finding a way to pay for our wars that may involve taxation.  

It's nothing new for American partisans to ridicule compromise as "flip-flopping."  Horace Greeley launched his abolitionist newspaper with the printed boast that he would not compromise.   He opposed Lincoln, who eloquently defended compromise on the grounds that rule by a minority is unacceptable, and chaos is not an option. For Lincoln, that leaves one just and fair way to go:  rule by a majority enjoined by limits to respect the rights of the minority -- i.e., by negotiation and compromise.

The difference that I observe between then and now is only in the superficiality in expressions of this hot "no compromise" feeling.   Think of the big applause we heard in a roomful of Republicans when Governor Perry was asked about his state's record number executions:  Conservatives are "for" capital punishment, so, some in the crowd cheered their side's racking up points -- by putting someone to death.

So-called "conservatives" who claim to be "for" the Constitution and "against" compromise with the other party don't know their Constitution.  Built into the Constitution on a number of levels is the idea that truth and justice are arrived at only in the give and take of debate and negotiation.  That's the essential principle of the Constitution, expressed in the balance of Representatives and Senators, Congress and President, Federal Government and States, and a federal judiciary.

Daily I hear news clips of politicians who won't allow for compromise on policy or respect for opponents in politics:  how scary is that?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Dog in Winter

l-r:  Luis, age 9, and Bo, age 14, following an hour's walk at Kennesaw Mountain's Battlefield Park today.
This may be Bo's last winter.  I've thought that before, but now he's deaf, unable to jump up into the back of the wagon, apt to backslide down the stairs, and painstakingly slow to lower his hindquarters when he wants to rest.  Sitting must be painful, because he simply dips his head when I command him to "sit" for his supper, though he still looks to me for the command before he digs in.   Besides, he has lumps growing and hardening on his shoulders and flank.  A surgeon removed one the size of a golf ball that turned out to be benign, but any one of these could turn out to be the One.

Yet after I lift him into my bed at night, he tosses my pillows with his head, tail wagging.  He luxuriates in his morning rub down as if he'd paid for the massage.  When I pull on my trousers, he jumps out of bed and wraps a trouser leg around his head, delighted to begin one more day, with all its favorite morning rituals:  stepping out front to nose around bushes, drinking water, and digging into his dish.  He also enjoys a game that he plays with his younger adopted brother Luis, in which each tries to sneak mouths full of the other's food.

So long as Bo wants things with such eagerness, I'd say there's still life in him... or, better, he's still "in" his life.

I reflect on what's left in my life that I want so acutely.   While Bo lopes from one anticipated pleasure to another, I feel like I just meet deadlines, and what I want mostly is to put the next thing behind me. 

There's a religious reflection in here, somewhere.  Ecclesiastes resonates.   A meditation in this season's Forward Day by Day suggests that Jesus identified with children because, like them, he was good at living in the moment, spontaneous in his pleasures, unburdened by his past, unworried about his future.  Sounds like Bo to me: an old dog, enjoying the start of his fifteenth year as completely as he has enjoyed every other moment of his life.

The American: Henry James Lite

A scene from Exxon Masterpiece Theatre production in 2000.

(reflection on THE AMERICAN by Henry James, re-read on a Kindle. Page references are meaningless.)

Thirty-two years ago, Henry James's novel THE AMERICAN was about 100 years old, and I devoured it as an appetizer. The main course was to be one of the fictions from Henry James's late period, because I'd been bowled over by the intensity, not to mention the density, of "The Beast in the Jungle" and the novel THE WINGS OF THE DOVE. But Professor Edwin Cady, who directed my independent study, drew up a list of some thirty books to read first. Re-reading early James, I find the same themes and situations that animate the later works, without the same richly layered texture. I have to admit that Henry James Lite has little more to recommend it than skim creme fraiche, or a zero-proof martini.

That's not entirely fair to James. The story is a sturdy one: self-confident and successful Christopher Newman comes to Europe to see the best of everything, women included. He wants a wife. Not two chapters later, he has found a woman not only attractive but worthy of worship, a young widow named Claire de Cintre, nee Bellegarde. The courtship unfolds as comedy of manners, as good-hearted American patiently negotiates European social customs to win her love. More difficult to attain is the approval of her family, the Bellegardes. With the friendship and guidance of Claire's younger brother Valentin, Newman comes close to succeeding. But always, from the very beginning, there are warnings to Newman that he should not trust to appearances.

James' tells the story through the eyes of a friendly narrator who refers to Newman as "our hero" and "our friend," and who occasionally suggests that "our friend" has missed something. The dialogue is always amusing, as we perceive that Newman's interlocutors are usually holding back something. On the other hand, once we grasp that, the reiteration of such dialogue becomes tedious.

Not that the book needs more "action" : When the "action" really starts, involving gunfire, murder most foul, and blackmail, the fun stops. We learn of the Bellegarde's family secret in page after page of narration by Mrs. Bread, every bit as humble and bland as her name suggests. I almost put the book down then.

I'm glad I persevered. Though high comedy ended and melodrama took over, James's real interest lies in Newman's moral choice where all the "action" ends. Here, the resolutely secular James, son of a famous theologian and brother of the philosopher who wrote THE VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE, presents his "Christ - New - Man" as a venerable moral hero. Newman's epiphany occurs in a vast cathedral where, in despair, he rests his arm and head on the back of a chair. (Personal aside: I've had the same experience, same setting!)

Re-reading my notes on a Kindle is an annoying thing, because it's such a pain in the neck to browse, it's impossible to cluster the notes, and it's hard to view the marked passages in larger context. But I did find a reminder that Newman's epiphany is a bookend: He tells early in the book of a sickness that overcame him when he was about to get revenge on a client who cheated him. It was that sickness about his business life that sent him to Europe, and a deeper version of that sends him back home.

Years later, James would write THE AMBASSADORS, which also concerns a self-confident and morally solid American man whose sojourn in Paris shakes his world. In THE AMERICAN, James sets scenes as if we were in a theatre, telling us of the pauses and gestures that accompany scintillating dialogues. In the later works, we perceive the scenes through one actor's uncertain perceptions, and physical objects often melt into metaphor as James's "central consciousness" finds inner significance in them. In those late works, it's almost a law that "always" will be followed lines later by "never," as James consistently undercuts certainty, creating a space in which to explore ambivalent feelings and ambiguous signs.   In the AMERICAN, this time, I noticed instances of both techniques. For example, early on, a gossipy American expat named Mrs. Tristram says, "Ugly, my dear sir? It is magnificent." The response? "That is the same thing."

Now, that's the James I love!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Biblical Revenge Fantasies

(This is a meditation on one of the Scripture passages assigned for today by the Episcopal Church's lectionary.  I wrote it for a booklet published by St. James' Episcopal Church, Marietta, GA)

Psalm 55. 12-13 It is not an enemy who taunts me – then I could bear it – but it is you…my familiar friend.
Remember that time when everyone stopped talking the moment they saw you? Then you passed them, and someone murmured behind your back, and everyone laughed?
That’s when you turned on them, stretched out your hands, and said, “Lord! Show them Your righteous power!” You laughed as invisible fingers choked them, and the one who cracked the joke swelled up like a balloon and floated away.
Maybe your inner adolescent’s fantasies are less Harry Potter and more Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, so you picture yourself saying righteous things that teach those hypocrites a lesson.
We all have felt betrayed by friends, and I imagine that I’m not the only one at St. James’ to have fantasies of revenge. In fact, the readings today are full of such fantasies. The psalmist calls for the ground to open up and swallow his enemy; Matthew tells how Jesus will get even with the bad ones. Revelation cheers first-century Christians with the vision of four horsemen who will torment their oppressors.
Indulging such self-righteous fantasies is always fun, for a little while, and always a mistake. They get my heart rate up and fill me with adrenaline, as much as a real confrontation would do. They increase the resentment and add to the loathing I feel. But Jesus commands us, “Love your enemies,” and he tells us that to hate is the same as to murder.
Let’s return to the scene imagined at the head of this meditation. When everyone’s laughing, the victim can do little to save face. But imagine if someone in the crowd steps forward, gently chides the others, and starts a friendly conversation with the hurt one.
I like to think that we at St. James' bring our own church’s wise, un-self-righteous, moderating spirit to situations like this. I like to think that we impress others by how we diffuse cliques and deflect gossip.
In this season of office parties and family gatherings, let us go in peace to love and serve the Lord!
Other readings assigned for the day:  Psalm 55. . .138,139.1-17(18-23). . .Zech. 8.9-17. . .Rev. 6.1-17. . .Matt. 25.31-46