Quotes that Say Something

"Please, dad, get down and look. I think there's some kind of monster under my bed."

Life when seen in close-up often seems tragic, but in wide-angle it often seems comic. -- Charlie Chaplin

"And when the cloudbursts thunder in your ear, you shout, but no one's there to hear. And if the band you're in starts playing different tunes, I'll see you on the dark side of the moon." -- Roger Waters, "Brain Damage"

May 23, 2013

Church and World: Viva la Paradox?

      I don't write often on this blog about things overtly or institutionally religious. My stories sometimes touch on this -- but not the news-y and nonfictional. Yet an article about the newness of and the 'paradox of Pope Francis,' by the revered German theologian, Hans Kung, caught my eye yesterday.

      Intuitively, the challenge and the paradigmatic spiritual model that Francis (formerly Jorge Bergoglio, a Cardinal archbishop from Buenos Aires, in South America) has suddenly presented to the church and world is at once both ancient and refreshingly inspirational. One need not be a Catholic, or even Christian or a religious person, to find a sense of fresh uplift and spirit in what the new pope, in his simple all-white outfits, is trying to say via his symbolic actions, his non-verbal gestures, and sometimes actual words. PF1's emerging example reminds me of a maxim that an another revered reformer of the 13th century, Francis of Assisi, once addressed to all who would hear: 

              'Through your life, spread the good news without
                ceasing, use words if they become necessary.'


     'To conclude . . .  what is to be done if our expectations of reform are quashed from above? In any case, the time is past when pope and bishops could reckon with the obedience of the faithful. The 11th-century Gregorian Reform also introduced a certain mysticism of obedience: Obeying God means obeying the church and that means obeying the pope. Since that time, it has been drummed into Catholics that the obedience of all Christians to the pope is a cardinal virtue; commanding and enforcing obedience -- by whatever means -- has become the Roman style. But the medieval equation, “Obedience to God equals obedience to the church equals obedience to the pope,” patently contradicts the word of the apostle before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem: “Man must obey God rather than other men.”

'We should then in no way fall into resignation; instead, faced with a lack of impulse toward reform from the top down, from the hierarchy, we must take the offensive, pushing for reform from the bottom up. If Pope Francis tackles reforms, he will find he has the wide approval of people far beyond the Catholic church.

      'However, if he just lets things continue as they are, without clearing the logjam of reforms as now in the case of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, then the call of “Time for outrage! Indignez-vous!” will ring out more and more in the Catholic church, provoking reforms from the bottom up that will be implemented without the approval of the hierarchy and frequently even in spite of the hierarchy’s attempts at circumvention. In the worst case -- as I already wrote before this papal election -- the Catholic church will experience a new ice age instead of a spring and run the risk of dwindling into a barely relevant large sect.'


                                                                                                -- Rev. Hans Küng
                                                                                                    Tübingen, Germany
                                                                                                    May 21, 2013

Bottoms up! What an unusual and never complacent time to be alive.

May 14, 2013

Writing -- Is It Torture or What?

                        'You don’t enter into it because it’s a great lifestyle decision -- it
                        isn't -- you do it because, for whatever reason, you believe in it,
                        and you believe in it because, for whatever reason, you need to.'

Is Writing Torture?

Are writers happy they became writers? Until someone conducts a survey—and I hope they will—it remains an open question. At the moment, it is at the heart of a quarrel between Elizabeth Gilbert and (indirectly) Philip Roth.

It all started a few months ago, on the Paris Review Daily, when one Julian Tepper published a piece describing an encounter with Roth at an Upper West Side deli. Waiting on his hero’s table, Tepper tremulously presented Roth with “Balls,” his first novel. Roth warmly congratulated him, and then offered: “I would quit while you’re ahead. Really. It’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and you write, and you have to throw almost all of it away because it’s not any good. I would say just stop now. You don’t want to do this to yourself. That’s my advice to you.”

Soon after this exchange, Roth announced that he’d quit writing. Apparently, he’s never been happier. Affronted by Roth’s advice to Tepper, Gilbert launched an earnest defense of the scribbling life, declaring that writing is a “. . . great” job. This is a classified piece of information, she claims, kept secret by vain, jealous older writers.

Some readers will share Gilbert’s distaste for Roth’s peevishness: Why would a writer as dedicated to literature and as accomplished as Roth speak so bitterly? Why must he insist on being so uninspiring, so ungenerous? Why must he damn the young? There may well have been something dodgy in Roth’s naysaying, something potentially strategic, some sly counter-Oedipal scheme by an elder of American literature set on sabotaging any and all whippersnappers-in-waiting. It seems perfectly likely that Roth felt threatened by a younger writer whose first novel is called “Balls” (Roth told Tepper that he was surprised he hadn’t thought of the title himself). Or maybe Roth sized up this waiter-writer as someone who might publish a creepily detailed account of his breakfast order on the blog of the Paris Review, as he indeed did. Roth was being cagey with the guy. Gilbert was right about that.

Still, it’s hard not to be skeptical about Gilbert’s optimism. Yes, she’s got a quite a talent for optimism—she is, if you haven’t heard, the author of the wildly best-selling memoir of self-discovery “Eat, Pray, Love.” But let’s get real: writing is not a great job. It does not attract happy people, nor does it make its unhappy practitioners any less unhappy. God knows this is a well-documented phenomenon—and one that Gilbert herself talks about. For writers who have found neither inner peace nor boatloads of cash, and certainly not both at once, for those just trying to get health insurance and scrape together some hope for the future, it feels somewhat inaccurate to hear the writing life described as having “everything to recommend it over real work.” And if telling stories is, as she puts it, “marvelously pointless”—a description that her own earnest readers would certainly deny—why does it matter whether or not a young writer is encouraged to keep at it? Go be a professional snowboarder—that’s also marvelously pointless, and the parties are better.

I’m trying to agree with Gilbert when she celebrates writing for the way it allows you “get to live within the realm of your own mind.” But I know plenty of writers for whom living in their own mind is a far from pleasant experience. Writers are very often miserable people: some thrive on unhappiness, others don’t. But few are immune from feelings of deep and avid dissatisfaction. We write because we are constantly discontented with almost everything, and need to use words to rearrange it, all of it, and set the record straight. That is why, for instance, Elizabeth Gilbert herself sat down to write her Roth call-out, and it’s why I’m writing this. It’s why the author of “Balls” wrote Roth a desperate apology letter in the Daily Beast. These are not the acts of contentment. And it’s why Roth, like a recovering addict, is taking it day by day, trying hard not to write anything at all. Like Saul Bellow’s Herzog—reclining on a couch at the end of that book, finally recovering from his fiendish letter-writing addiction—Roth has “no messages for anyone.”
Except that he does. His newest message, we are told, is: “Don’t write. Get out while you can.” But what did he really mean by it?

My guess is that he was joking. Which isn’t to say that he wasn’t serious. It was a serious joke. Roth’s cranky advice for the young writer is an old Jewish chestnut. The sages of the Talmud offered the same piece of advice to anyone who wanted to join the faith: don’t do it, it’s seriously not worth it, it’s just an objectively bad idea. The ancient rabbis suggest that you ask a potential convert, “Are you not aware that today the people of Israel are wretched, driven about, exiled and in constant suffering?” It’s a rhetorical question. But if the person replies that he or she indeed embraces wretchedness and constant suffering, you explain to him or her how taxing it is to practice the religion. You mention the gruesome punishments for breaking the Sabbath and other laws. You try very hard to dissuade any would-be applicants. You mess with them—and that is how you welcome them. Joining, in other words, happens through a process of opposition, irony, and dissent. If you’re going to join a messed-up club, you have to pass the messed-up entrance exam. You enter into the sect only when you push back, when you finally say, Listen, I don’t care what you tell me. I know it’s a bad idea, but I’m determined to do it, and I will do it.

That’s the kind of a person it takes to be a writer: someone who’s zealous and ready to argue, someone who has Philip Roth tell him, “It’s torture, don’t do it,” and replies, “You had me at torture.” You don’t enter into it because it’s a great lifestyle decision—it isn’t—you do it because, for whatever reason, you believe in it, and you believe in it because, for whatever reason, you need to believe in it. Roth was messing with Tepper; he was testing his faith and strengthening it. He wanted the guy to earn the title: author of the novel “Balls.”

My guess is that Tepper was heartened to discover that even the great Roth, it turns out, hates his life. For struggling writers, wretches that they are, that is inspiring.

Read more: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2013/02/elizabeth-gilbert-versus-philip-roth-is-writing-torture.html#ixzz2Kt6Vdm8z

May 3, 2013

Endurance -- Beyond the Sunset

     I feel guilty when I stray away from this quiet, little blog for such a long time. Guilty even when I am working on something purposeful elsewhere. Like writing original material for some other audience.

     But I'm back to say that the best advice that I have ever been given -- about sitting down to write something new  -- is simple. The advice was two syllables, one word:  finish.

     A new book of stories which I have been piecing together has proved to have an elusive closure point. It's ironic that the newest piece that I am working on is a story -- with a protagonist named Butterman stuck in the midst of the detainees' hunger strike at the Guantanamo naval base -- tentatively titled "Endurance." My plan was to have the whole project wrapped up and bound for e-book land before Easter. But the best laid plans . . .

      Fortunately, I just had a surprise distraction amidst my (in)action, an office drop-in dragging in a whacky business idea. This has lent me an excuse to draft this blog note.

     The surprising (and loopy) proposal that she was pitching caught me off-guard. But it spurred me to give my visitor that absolutely withering, wordless, I don't think so gaze that has terrorized hordes -- for many years -- of staff members, employees, co-writers, teammates, trolls, and children. This is that look that my visitor csaptured. Do I seem pleased? No, I do not.

"No, I don't think so!  Just come back
with when you have a really good idea."

     Endurance. While I have been constructing this unmolded story I've been thinking about Tennyson's work -- and curiously about those folks who were badly injured in the recent bombings in Boston. Challenging it can be to stay on the right path -- especially when something like a bang and a flash hurls one suddenly right off of it. In particular, I've been studying again the poem "Ulysses" with it's emotional closing -- relating to an aging but idle Adventurer looking to 'leave it all behind' by launching anew into some great unknown, but probably fairly happy just to hang out quietly in his Grecian barcalounger, watching his worker-bee scepter bearing kid, Telemachus, do much of the unpleasant lifting on their weathered isle. It's a story told often before.

      But, now, I see it's time to go back to my immediate task. Endurance. Completion. On to the finish! No time to yield. (But wait, maybe I'll grab lunch first. Then pick a Kentucky Derby horse to bet on tomorrow. Look around for some lingering list of B-level priorities to address. It just may be that ItsMyLuckyDay.)  


        --  Alfred Lord Tennyson

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match'd with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and
sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from
travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoy'd
Greatly, have suffer'd greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Thro' scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour'd of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!
As tho' to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge, like a sinking
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle--
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro' soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.
There lies the port: the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil'd and wrought, and thought with me--
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads--you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all; but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow
moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.                                        

Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by
time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.