Sunday, May 27, 2007

Paul Elie's "The Life You Save May Be Your Own": Book Review

"Predicament Shared in Common"

Paul Elie's “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” combines the lives of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy into “An American Pilgrimage.”

He examines these luminaries of literary and social culture in postwar, mid-century, pre-and post Vatican II Catholicism. He's an editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, the publishers responsible for so much of the cultural and literary leaven of the middle of last century. I did expect more about his own publishers' relationships with the authors from his access to FSG archives, but perhaps by now with the fame of the writers and the diligence of the scholars combing papers scattered about university vaults by now, the publishers themselves have no secrets left. Inevitably, the attempt to merge four writers into one narrative that reviews their correspondence, books, essays, pronouncements, talks, and travels makes for an uneven journey. Percy’s Christian existentialism by contrast with his determinedly contrary if congenitally eccentric fellow Southerner O’Connor’s keen eye and bitter comedy comes off as aloof, bookish, and not that interesting if by no fault of his own. His novels nearly all pale by comparison with her best fiction, and Elie has difficulty making some of his lesser novels even minimally engaging.

Day, by contrast with Merton, herself suffers from asceticism! While the two converts and one-time near counterparts in NYC progressive political and au courant literati circles in the years between the wars (albeit at some remove from each other’s direct influence and circles of friends) share roots in what we’d call the typical avant-garde movements of Modernism and experimentation that generally any bright young thing in an urban East Coast environment has wandered into over our past decades, Day comes across as markedly more inflexible, so as to anchor her pacifist and anarchist commitment to individual choice to live the Gospel as “fools for Christ” must. Merton learns by contrast to adjust whether to his moral shifts before he entered the Trappists, his infatuation with the Abbey of Gethsemani and his sudden fame after he wrote his memoir, his diagnosis by a shrink as a “narcissist hermit,” and his love affair with a nurse in the mid-1960s just as so many of his clerical colleagues were reneging on their vows and falling in love themselves with women rather than, or as well as, their calling to separate themselves from the ties that bind most of us, or used to.

Elie makes the best out of the enormous secondary criticism that has accrued around O’Connor, and of the correspondence and previously censored material now available to Merton scholars. He gives instructive close readings of “Wise Blood” and “Everything that Rises Must Converge” as well as contrasting the letters to Elizabeth Hester that show her public manner as preserved for posterity vs. hints of a more combative and much less PC Jim Crow-era attitude in her letters to Maryat Lee. The hints of what happened to Robert Lowell as a result of his manic visions of God and Caroline Gordon’s own descent into a rigid form of Catholic scrupulosity needed more detail, however. Also, we have almost no sense of what Flannery did in college or during her MFA years in Iowa City, not to mention her own NYC stint prior to her diagnosis for lupus. I wanted more connection of her own urban flourishing to tie in to Merton’s previous trajectory there, and Day’s own movement away from the secular boho to the Catholic boho contigent, but perhaps such tracks remain too vague for serious biographers to retrace or imagine.

An aside, a correction. Elie: "J.F. Powers had stopped writing." (453) He had not, circa the 1980 death of Dorothy Day when Elie makes this claim, Powers, although very much below the cultural radar admittedly post-Vatican II, had kept working on his fiction, albeit in his very slow and careful manner. After publishing his third collection of stories, "Look How the Fish Live" (1975) Powers prepared on his last novel, "Wheat That Springeth Green," published in 1988. Admittedly, with only two novels and thirty stories anthologized, Powers preferred quality to quantity. I am not sure if Powers after the death of his wife kept writing after 1988. Few writers, possibly O'Connor herself would serve as an analogy in her fiction if not her voluminous correspondence from a life less than half that of Powers, achieved so much with so brief a volume of stories. And, you have to admit that Powers did not have his juvenile efforts memorialized in his 2001 NY Review Press story collection (unlike as Elie points out the willy-nilly lack of editing that dumped Flannery's grad-school exercises next to her finest tales in the Collected Stories FS&G fat volume) that select only to reprint those three slim story collections assembled from the mid-1940s until near his death in 1999.

Back to Elie. Great photos, for once, in "The Life You Save" enliven some familiar faces. A happy young Percy strolling a German farm trail, carefully fenced with twigs. Flannery's radiant as she holds her first novel at a party for the publication of "Wise Blood." Dorothy Day, in the Bob Fitch snapshot shown here, arrested at a UFW protest in Fresno. My favorite is a Merton glancing sideways, eyes and brows mischievous, straw hat atop his habit as he slouches happily by some rustic bench outside on the day of his ordination.

Percy appears genial if gloomy. The loss of much of his correspondence, unlike the stacks of carbons that fill up the enormous epistolary collection “The Habit of Being “ for O’Connor and the letters and diaries for Merton posthumously published may explain Percy’s diminished presence vs. his other two rivals for literary and spiritual audiences. Day seems not to be much interested in writing even though she dutifully published her memoir, carefully glossed as was Merton’s for a more reticent era, “The Long Loneliness.” Day early on appears to have chosen a lifestyle and a manner committed to renunciation of her own early fling, her sexual adventurism (although by our standards she and Merton are the norm, more or less, for those raised less religiously at least today), and her flirtation with Marxist and leftist movements. I like Merton’s advice around the time of the grandstanding Berrigan Brothers agitprop: “I think the best thing is to belong to a universal anti-movement underground.” (qtd. 396)

Elie is at his best in this section, as he shows how Day separated herself from the peacenik hippie priests and those playing to the camera while “the whole world is watching” in the later 60s for revolution that made Jesus a proto-Che. Elie explains that Day took pains to empathize with the other side, always, and not to place any dogma or manifesto between her and her identification with those who may have not wanted war in Vietnam but who could not be led to sympathize with guitar-strumming hippies and angry Jesuits spilling napalm and blood on shredded draft documents as cameras rolled. Merton, too, as Elie takes great care in documenting, struggled to be a leader of the Catholic reformers and the progressive left from his hermitage on the Abbey grounds where civil rights organizers and leftist luminaries made their own pilgrimages to meet with him and where he attempted to stay in touch from behind the monastery walls with a world that he knew needed his advice even as he vowed to stay faithful, at terrible and necessary personal cost, to his promises to remain a loyal priest and obedient monk. Merton too shrank from the violence that inspired young people to immolate themselves as burnt offerings against the war, and soon enough he too would meet the One to whom he ended his “The Seven Story Mountain”. At twenty-seven he entered the Trappists; twenty-seven years later he would find “The Christ of the burnt ones” himself when he was bizarrely electrocuted in Bangkok as he stepped out of his bath mid-day to slip and catch a whirling fan.

O’Connor, being like Merton the more familiar of the four writers, comes across like him as the one you might like to meet and chat with, although unlike Fr. Louis I would fear reading about myself in her letters after the fact. Day’s harder to make appealing, as her severity and devotion to seeing the Lord in the shattered ones kept her focused upon the less prosaic and less easily dramatized side of life that eschews sentimentality and exalts the utterly assured recognition of the Messiah in the poor and the crazed and deluded ones. Her choice, despite the convulsions of the Catholic Worker Movement and the fact that she could rarely find the time alone that Percy, Merton, and O’Connor needed to become speakers to the rest of us, “making oratory out of solitude,” does make her active apostolate all the more admirable.

I conclude with a couple of passages. Elie compares O’Connor with Merton, Day, and Percy. Discussing an admittedly unlikely essay anthology in the tumultuous days of ’69, “Mystery & Manners,” Elie describes how she combined “objectivity and fierce personal conviction,” speaking out of “aloneness and absoluteness,” and how her Southern allegiance in the North, as “a believer in a disbelieving literary society,” as “an artist in a church of philistines,” transcends loneliness or alienation. What she and her fellow writers share is what all believers today share: “the aloneness of the religious believer generally.” (426) She knows faith, the “substance for things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” as I paraphrase the old Baltimore Catechism (as Elie I recall did much earlier in his book).

If O’Connor derived her power from her inflexibility, Elie continues, Merton by his sudden death escaped the end-time days of rage constant upendings of the 60s. His fluidity enabled him “to represent and call forth the aspirations of others.” (427) He could from his semi-cloistered perspective benefit from what the Benedictine Rule (and after all the Trappists are post-Reformation 17c “Cistercians of the Strict Observance” of the 12c Cistercian reform of the 6c Benedictines!) calls the particularly monastic vow of stability.

Elie finds his appeal in his “radical identification of himself with another” that evoked in his readers a similar identification. Merton was able to mature and recognize that his smarts, his charism, his desire for the spotlight could be used to turn attention from himself as the bestselling contemplative, the talkative monk, the literary talent submitting his work to censors (well, at least most of the time—the love letters he sent his nurse Margie notwithstanding, and showing the humanity that endured and made him ultimately a better monk and a kinder Christian at again what must have been enormous sacrifice and, at fifty-two, having to “grow up” even more). He had the gift of getting us to feel as if we were in his sandals, observing wryly and compassionately and righteously what he could see from beyond the walls around his hermitage, and beneath his own defenses within himself, schooled as he was in all the trends of the literati at the shrink.

A year and a half before his death, Merton in the thick of the antiwar campaigns addressed his brothers outside the monastery. Elie points out how “Seven Storey” ended with a poem to his Merton’s brother, John Paul, who had died in the Canadian RAF in WWII. Merton now that I think of it entered the monastery three days after Pearl Harbor, and although not a pacifist had strong reservations about WWII and the types of wars fought by capitalist powers for their own enrichment more than a high moral cause. Reading Camus, Merton came to realize the existential predicament for the believer mattered as much as for those like Camus who could not return to believe what they had left behind. Merton reflects in the letter to his superiors that he has moved beyond the “answers” that his early years in the monastery once led him to think that he had gained.

“Can a man make sense of his existence? Can a man honestly give his life meaning merely by adopting a certain set of explanations which pretend to tell him why the world began and where it will end, why there is evil and what is necessary for a good life? [. . . .] I have been summoned to explore a desert area of man’ s heart in which explanations no longer suffice, and which one learns that only experience counts.” (qtd. 402)

This journey into the arid regions impels the monk. He leaves the world’s distractions to concentrate upon the battle within, and behind the defenses of the cloister he stands vulnerable “to remain open to God wholly and directly.” Whether God answers is not up to the monk. Earlier this month I read (and see my blog for May 6) how Mother Teresa endured half a century of doubt after her initial epiphany calling her to leave her convent walls and serve Calcutta’s destitute. Why keep bothering with religion if its rewards are so few and so nigglingly and unpredictably dispersed? Merton finds God must be known, not proven. “To seek to solve the problem of God is to seek to see one’s own eyes.”

Elie on the last page sums up how the writers’ predicament is now that of any believer, half a century and more now since these four writers thought and argued and prayed. They all knew what any believer or unbeliever today knows: authority lies not on the institutional Church, for that is collapsing, as my two blog entries previous to this one have shown and pondered vis-à-vis David Brooks’ column and Philip Groening’s interview. The reform of today, for Catholics, or anyone “quasi-religious,” in Brooks’ phrase, might be abandoning the idea of a true faith. Elie tells us now that “clear lines of orthodoxy are made crooked by our experiences and complicated by our lives.” (472)

All of us look for signs. Readers, we are trained to and thrive by our own pilgrimage for meaning. Elie notes that “the burden of proof, indeed the burden of belief, for so long upheld by society, is now back on the believer, where it belongs.” I could not have said it better myself—Ireland now finds itself in the same philosophical position, like Merton mid-life and mid-crisis having to wrench himself out of the past habits into a bracing, and harsh, awareness of life as it must be met and improved and sustained without the sureties that in younger and more innocent days comforted us daily and kept us calm at night. Now we have the testimony of Day and O’Connor, Merton and Percy, who all had to balance their unwanted label as “Catholic writers” or intellectuals in thrall to the Vatican with their own real tensions and longings and upsets. They imagined their own afflictions and some made poems and fiction out of it, others and other times these became editorials, letters, diaries, and conversations. But they wrote them down themselves, whereas even for Jesus all we know is a few lines written to the rabbis in the sand at the foot of the “women taken in adultery.” And, the four new evangelists all speak to us, as evangels, messengers, of the pilgrimages they too stumbled through to their uncertain conclusions, far from Jerusalem, Canterbury, or Campostella, path along the Milky Way, that ended at land's end, Europe's last finestierre, in a “field of the stars.”

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