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Monday, July 22, 2013

Prophecy, 1834

Heinrich Heine is the German poet who, in 1821, penned the words: "Dort, wo man B├╝cher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen"; "Where books are burned, they will, in the end, burn people, too." 

Thirteen years later, in speaking of the character of the German people and the gentling influence that Christianity had had on their formerly harshly pagan culture, he wrote:
Christianity--and that is its greatest merit--has somewhat mitigated that brutal German love of war, but it could not destroy it. Should that subduing talisman, the cross, be shattered, the frenzied madness of the ancient warriors, that insane Berserk rage of which Nordic bards have spoken and sung so often, will once more burst into flame. This talisman is fragile, and the day will come when it will collapse miserably. Then the ancient stony gods will rise from the forgotten debris and rub the dust of a thousand years from their eyes, and finally Thor with his giant hammer will jump up and smash the Gothic cathedrals. . . . Thought precedes action as lightning precedes thunder. . . . [W]hen you hear a crashing such as never before has been heard in the world's history, then you know that the German thunderbolt has fallen at last. At that uproar the eagles of the air will drop dead, and lions in the remotest deserts of Africa will hide in their royal dens. A play will be performed in Germany which will make the French Revolution look like an innocent idyll. 
Berlin Cathedral, view obstructed by swastika banners and a pagan Maypole, c. 1935

100 years later, Nazi leader Alfred Rosenberg drafted a thirty point program for the Nationale Reichskirche:
19. On the altars there must be nothing but Mein Kampf (to the German nation and therefore to God the most sacred book) and to the left of the altar a sword.
30. On the day of its foundation, the Christian Cross must be removed from all churches, cathedrals and chapels. . . and it must be superseded by the only unconquerable symbol, the swastika.
Listen to your poets. They know.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Fitzgerald's Advice on Writing

One of my roommates shared this page with me earlier this week. It takes selections from two letters that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, one in response to a friend who had sent him a fresh story and was looking for critical advice, and the other to his daughter, Scottie. You should read them both. It won't take you more than a few minutes.

I like what he says, but with reservations, which I explained to my roommate as follows (Read the letters before you read my response! Form your own opinions before you take mine into consideration.):
Thanks, Mary! I've recently had a breakthrough with Fitzgerald (I think, although, I wonder if it's possible to think you've had a breakthrough, or, if it's a genuine breakthrough, you just know it) where I realized where he goes wrong, or perhaps I should say doesn't go far enough, even though he's going right. My hypothesis is that Evelyn Waugh is the answer to Fitzgerald's hopelessness. Same struggles, same lost hopelessness and yearning in the characters, but somehow Waugh's figure it out, even if they're miserable along the way. Now, all of that being said, I suspect that the reason I don't want to swallow this Fitzgerald advice whole is that it isn't whole. I like what he says, and I agree with it , but I think it's only part of the truth; he doesn't go quite far enough, even though he's going right. What I'm driving at is that he's missing the necessary emphasis on the reasonable aspect of writing; he circumlocutionally implies its eventual presence in his talk of the style and technique that come with time, but the heavy emphasis that he puts on the heartfelt, heartrending, heartaching heartbreak aspect, which is necessary, lacks the tempering that it needs. Or perhaps, not tempering, because if you temper it it loses what makes it it, but maybe addition.
Yes, I just quoted myself. I hope you're okay with that. I'm wondering what your thoughts are on his advice, and on my reaction to it. All writers have an opinion on the writing process. Please, do tell.

Photo Courtesy of Margaret Antunes
N.B. Regarding the adverb circumlocutionally: it took four editors in my office putting our heads together to come up with the proper adverbial form of circumlocution. I was really hoping it would be circumlocutorily, but apparently that's incorrect. It's little things like this that are the best part of my job. I mean, really, where else can I get encouragement and company in geeking out over obscure adverbs?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Two Books, One Not to Read (?)

I've recommended Patrick deWitt's The Sisters Brothers to a number of you thus far; I stand by said recommendation. However, I found myself sadly disappointed by his other book, Ablutions. The prose is colorful in a good way, the descriptions are vivid, the character sketches clear, but despite the slim size of the volume, I returned it to the library before finishing it. And it wasn't even due back yet. If any of you out there have read it, and think it worth the finishing, I'd be interested to hear. But, as far as I could tell, it was dark dark dark, without a single redeeming character, and a lot of dirt and ugliness and sadness. Did I give up too soon? I'd be happy to be wrong.

In the meantime, I've been listening to Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale in the car; it's delightful. I'm withholding final judgement, as I have a bit to go on it yet, and, of course, I'm sure I'm missing all kinds of important things as I am frequently distracted by the horribly lackadaisical driving style of these DC types. Move, people! Anyway, if you want to get a taste for it, there are a lot of good quotations from it on this page. Or, if you want an even briefer taste for the feel of his writing, this is the line that caught me so much that I wrote it on my hand as I was driving. Shhh. I'm a good driver:

"Peter Lake had no illusions about mortality. He knew that it made everyone perfectly equal, and that the treasures of the earth were movement, courage, laughter, and love. The wealthy could not buy these things. On the contrary, they were for the taking."

He talks a lot about the necessity of freedom for movement in a person's life, an idea that rings comfortingly true to my chronically restless self. Also, it starts with the description of a brilliant white horse who has escaped the milkman's stable and is gleefully pleased with himself. It'll grab you right off.

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Problem With Being Friendly

As my classmates and I were preparing for our study abroad in Rome, we had one professor tell us ladies in particular that we had to wipe those happy American smiles off our faces and proceed to greet the opportunistic foreign types with "looks of unmitigated hostility." Americans are often known for being friendly happy sorts (remember the American soldier at the end of Life Is Beautiful?), and therefore present themselves as unsuspecting victims to certain unwelcome wiles. After one of my roommates had an overly-friendly man cat-call across the street at her, "Hey! Cali-fornia!" she started wearing a huge ring on her left finger in an attempt to ward off the creepers. Cue American Girl in Italy, a portrait personally and infamously known to myself and many of my classmates:

Bonhoeffer, as the reserved German Lutheran theologian that he was, found himself a little in awe of this American friendliness during the year he spent studying in the States:
Living together day by day produces a strong spirit of comradeship, of a mutual readiness to help. The thousandfold "hullo" which sounds through the corridors of the hostel in the course of the days and which is not omitted even when someone is rushing past is not as meaningless as one might suppose. . . . No one remains alone in the dormitory. The unreservedness of life together makes one person open to another. . . . One says nothing against another member of the dormitory as long as he is a "good fellow." (104)
Beyond this genial good nature that existed in the hallways, he also noticed a great tendency towards generosity in his American classmates, a generosity in national character that did great things for all of Europe in the years following World War II (see the Marshall Plan):
The student body of Union Theological seminary has, over the winter, continually provided food and lodging for thirty unemployed -- among them three Germans [Remember, this is in 1931. Memories of the Kaiser and hatred of the German nation were fresh and real in much of America]. . . . This has led to considerable personal sacrifice of time and money. (105)
Americans are friendly, he says. They're generous. They're kind and giving. They speak well of their comrades, and take care of people who need help. Aren't we great? He even goes so far as to note that "in the conflict between determination for truth with all of its consequences and the will for community, the latter prevails" (104). Spectacular! We care so much about getting along with each other that we sacrifice truth! Wait. Hold up. Something is very wrong here.

Bonhoeffer was a clear, very rational, logical and dispassionate thinker. In an earlier passage of this book, his biographer speaks of the withering eyebrow raise of Herr Bonhoeffer, used to full effect when any of his children uttered an opinion that was ill-founded or irrational, teaching them with gentle exactitude the necessity of tight thought processes. And so, in his observations of American students, Bonhoeffer is happy to see their good qualities, but, as always, looks at the circumstances of their affability from all points of view, and thus comes to the sound conclusion that there is something rotten within; there is an unintended and thus devious result of their focus on social needs. The great thinkers of America had come down from the mountain of intellectual stimulation and achievement to be with the people, but in doing so had forgotten the vital importance of intellectual discipline, learned on those heights, and so had forgotten their principles, all for the sake of being friendly. Being friendly and generous is good, of course. But if it comes at the expense and to the exclusion of the reasons behind it, you better watch out. This is when something unsavory hits the fan.
American theological students knew more about "everyday matters" than their German counterparts and were more concerned with the practical outworking of their theology, but "a predominant group [at Union] sees it in exclusively social needs." He said "the intellectual preparation for the ministry is extraordinarily thin. . . . the theological education of this group is virtually nil, and the self-assurance which lightly makes mock of any specifically theological question is unwarranted and naive." His conclusion was withering: "I am in fact of the opinion that one can learn extraordinarily little over there . . . but it seems to me that one also gains quiet insights . . . where one sees chiefly the threat which American signifies for us. (105-106)
Worrying about the needs of society is, obviously, not something that can be shunted aside. Of course we need to worry about them, and, more importantly, we need to do something about them. But without a solid philosophy and well thought out understanding of why we should worry about our fellow man, and a rationally arrived at conclusion of how we ought best to help the physically, emotionally, intellectually or spiritually suffering individuals around us, we are going to make some big mistakes. In other words, our love, which is a good thing, will be confused, misguided, and ultimately not accomplish as much as it might in its finest form.

Anecdote: I took an elective course in Child Growth and Development when I was in college. In one exercise, the professor asked us each to draw a picture of a man behind a house. Suffice it to say, I am no artist with a mechanical pencil, nor have I ever taken a proper studio arts class. Quickly sketching a box house with a chimney, two windows and a door, I then drew a stick figure man, circled him, and drew an arrow pointing behind the house. Thinking myself very clever, and a little bemused at the exercise, I waited fifteen or twenty minutes while my classmates were hard at work. As our teacher finally collected the drawings, she shuffled them so that neither she nor any of us would know who had drawn each one, then proceeded to the front of the room to analyze each picture for the class. Apparently, this is one way to judge the developmental stage of children; the more detailed their picture, the greater their development. When she got to mine, she said, "The person who has drawn this is at the same developmental stage as an average 8 year old." Well, a little chagrined, but laughing just the same, I claimed my picture and offered my lack of training in the fundamentals of drawing as an excuse for my poor performance.

Do you hear what I'm saying? Do you hear what Bonhoeffer is saying? What exactly is that "threat which America signifies"? It is that self-assurance making a mockery of specifically theological matters and proceeding to social exercises without the proper training in the fundamentals. Remember, again, he is writing this in 1930, over eighty years ago. He was diagnosing a lack of intellectual rigor in Americas universities as a serious threat to social well-being, a threat which, "The enlightened American, rather than viewing . . . with skepticism, instead welcomes . . . as an example of progress" (106). 

And now look where we are. Bonhoeffer's biographer calls him a prophet. The threat which he spoke of has, in our day and age, come to fruition. And why? Because we're all so damned friendly all the time. We're freakishly, progressively, nonjudgmental. We'd rather just get along than dig in our heels and have an uncomfortable conversation about real truth. And what is the result of that? Everybody has their own truth which they are rarely called to defend or examine because any questioning of it is offensive and therefore not socially acceptable.

I'm an American. Guess what that means? I like smiling. I like being friendly. I like getting along with people. I like feeding people. It bothers me, a lot, when there's somebody who for some reason doesn't seem to like me, and I find myself agonizing over what I might have done to upset them. I like the idea of winning people by love, rather than with intellectual proofs. (And yes, part of that is the whole "cunning as serpents, gentle as doves" line -- as in "You don't realize it, because I'm being so nice and friendly, but I'm getting you closer and closer to my side!" Now my secret is out.)

I'm an American. Guess what else that means? I have a tendency to let things slide that, thanks to the education my parents gave me, I know I should object to. I have a self-cosseted naivete that likes to believe that everyone is "a good fellow," that each person is doing the best they know how, and that I have no legs to stand on to tell them, however kindly, to shape up and start living up to their full potential. Thanks to poor sots like myself, we find ourselves in this cesspit of relativistic confusion where each person, in his misguided and poorly founded pursuit of love and happiness, to which the laws of nature entitle him (here in America, we're really good at talking about our individual liberties), has become a god unto himself. We are ready to follow emotion rather than reason, and to reject a call to cold and unimpassioned examination of facts. Such a course of action would undoubtedly lead to all kinds of unpleasantness, after all. It's much nicer to let people who maybe don't know any better do irreparable damage to themselves, their children, and the people they love, than it is to convince them that they might have made a mistake. It's easier, too. Believe it or not, I don't exactly fancy someone spitting on me and throwing lit cigarettes at me.

So, what will it be, friends? Comfort, or truth?