Friday, August 31, 2007

Mother Teresa, Patron Saint of Agnostics?

James Martin, the Jesuit priest whose "My Life with the Saints" (reviewed by me here and on Amazon) noted Mother Teresa's dark night of the soul apparently lasting from at least 1959 to her death, has written in the NY Times (link below) about her "noche oscura" in moving terms, occasioned by the publication of a journal of hers, which made not only the cover of Time, as I glanced at on the train yesterday over an Asian man's shoulder, but AOL's come-on blurb about "Mother Teresa's Secret Life, or Dark Secret," I cannot remember which. In a day that saw me take our neighbors to the train with news that both their fathers were ailing, one in hospital, my father-in-law elevated to life support, and seeing with my two sons my own father in critical care at the end of a long Labor Day-induced traffic jam two hours to the south and this in the carpool lane, I reflect again, aided by a decades-old Zinfadel I figured I better drink in this remodelling detritus, on our own mortality. And, on our own frailty.

I had asked my wife last night, after coming home with news of both our fathers' decline, about Mother Teresa's news, for if AOL & Time (Warner, now asunder) both carried the lead on this Albanian sister's revelations as well as the paper of record and the Amazon recommendation yesterday that popped up for me, I figured Mother T. was the talk of the chattering classes, albeit on a slow holiday weekend of little to note beyond the tenth anniversary of one woman born a week after me, and her fiery death as the former wife to the (usurping) Prince of Wales. I was bitter as a child when I read in National Geographic of the investiture at Caermarthen in 1969 of Charles, and I remain opposed to the English seizure of the Welsh throne, and any claims by its hangers-on to rule over this purported Principality.

Mother Teresa has an Irish connection, speaking of Celtic realms, as she was I recall trained there for the Sisters of Loreto (O. L. of L. by bilocation of the Holy House where Jesus supposedly was born-- I saw the copy on Prague's left bank-- and therefore the patron saint of television & media, Internet geeks note-- cooler than the wax doll Infant of Prague down the street but a few blocks). I find it sad, but therefore fitting, that Mother T. had to suffer so in her lack of firm belief for four decades hence.

Perhaps Christopher Hitchens, who I also admire if reservedly for his typically British air of lefty Oxbridged erudition mixed with a delight in taking on all comers in the journalistic agora (despite his air of noblesse oblige shared with child of privilege "The Nation"'s Alexander Cockburn), will show some mercy from his previous attack on Mother T's resigned attitude towards "the poor you will always have with you" that he savaged in his ad feminam attack-- for her connivance in the Keating [good Irish Norman Catholic name} scandal in Swiftianally titled polemic "The Missionary Position.")

The parable of the unjust steward's one of the tough ones for preachers to expound upon. The conclusion came to mind as I thought of Mother T's alliances with such as the Duvaliers of Haiti. "And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely. For the children of this world are, in their generation, wiser than the children of light. And I say unto you, make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness, that, when you fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations." Hitchens labels his antagonist's contrary position as "cognitive dissonance," but believers might recognize it as reality, for in the Catholic tradition especially, "la noche oscura" may never end.

As Fr. Martin in his book had already revealed, the dark night of the soul that Mother T. had to endure perhaps does not mark her as a depressed avatar for those of us-- ah that Celtic affliction-- also tainted by melancholy-- but rather an appropriate saint for our own afflicted age? "Has she been received into everlasting habitations?" We, like her on this earth, can never now-- at least yet? I hope she has found peace, as I pray the same for the two men around ninety who most directly are in my own thoughts as I write this entry tonight amidst wine, pizza, heat wave, my own acedia and weariness.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Mary Douglas' "Purity and Danger": Book Review

Why do we let those close to us lick the same spoon, or eat off the same dish? Why kiss away tears but not snot? How do we learn to live with some filth and yet recoil at other dirt? And how does this all relate to "primitive" ritual, magical belief, and ethical culture?

This book manages to be accessible for the non-anthropologist or historian of religion, yet too densely argued and scattered for the novice. How can it be both? Douglas writes in a no-nonsense style that I enjoyed, when I could grasp her points. Too often, like many critics, she's engaged more in a grudge match with previous academics and uses a considerable amount of this text settling scores, some from the time of "The Golden Bough" and the formative years of her discipline. While she makes her own argument known, the details of tribes, the skipping about that many of the chapters engage in through time and culture make her intricately developed thesis appear probably more fractured and piecemeal than she intended.

The centerpiece, therefore, stands out as the lasting reason for which this earlier book is known, and you can see from her later work that she returned to Leviticus with gusto. "The Abominations of Leviticus" pioneered a cultural approach to the laws not as health codes -- although she notes that ethical control, hygiene and dietary concerns may well be by-products of these Mosaic restrictions and allowances -- but as aesthetic counterparts drawn from the natural world to the cohesion that the military camp and the Hebrew tribes demanded for survival and identity. She reads the proscriptions and prescriptions as conceptual structures of what fit the divinely mandated order that the Hebrews strove to impose-- following God's will as they understood it-- on their natural surroundings. Here, Douglas provided a paradigm shift for scholars trying to figure out what had eluded them about these seemingly arbitrary do's and don'ts. I have to admit I was reminded of a Monty Python routine that takes glee in enumerating similarly detailed provisos and prohibitions.

Of value, too, remain cogent observations late in the book (my battered 1970 Pelican paperback may have different pagination) that relate to our own times. Most do not keep kosher or follow "primitive" rituals, but Douglas cautions us. We too follow our own elaborate yet apparently "natural" habits of cleanliness, and our own magical formulae. Douglas notes that when religions filter down to the masses, ordinary folks tend to minimize the philosophy and maximize the material benefits. Moral conformity and adherence to ritual guarantee, adherents are assured, continued prosperity. But, how long can the magic lamp be rubbed, she wonders? The danger comes when the magic, the pizazz of the ritual becomes vulnerable to disbelief. Too much stress on the ritual may lead to the exposure, as I compare it, of the charlatan and not the wizard behind the curtain. How does a religion safeguard itself against dissent? How keep the rituals potent and their promise fresh>

How do religions sustain their aura? Douglas suggests three ways. 1) Suggest an enemy's to blame for undoing the religion's good effect. Demons enter on cue and sinister forces can be blamed at work here. She faults this as a half-hearted answer that makes the religion appear weak, as if it cannot explain the whole of existence without resorting to boogeymen.
2) Attend to fine print, or else the incantation will not be efficacious. She likes this approach better, as the devil or angel as it were may lie in the details. Also, the audience and priests need to be cleansed, guilt-free-- again if the ritual fails, scapegoats often can be found close at hand to take the blame. This method also establishes moral purity and aspiration to a higher sense of communal goodness to bind the worshippers more closely to assure the success of the religious ritual. 3) Change its tack, as Douglas puts it. Religions can alter to meet the times, the mood, the circumstances.

Considering various "faith communities" in our curious parlance of our own generation's bureaucracies, applying Douglas' three responses to the present day secularizing drift and fundamentalist tendencies proves, now over forty years since its first publication, a salutary exercise in putting beliefs to the test. This book remains admittedly too much a collection of notes and readings rather than a tightly-knit thesis. Overall, its chapters move along fitfully, but Leviticus insights and the closing "The System Shattered & Renewed" retain their own verve for today.

(Image: the Routledge cover's genius, compared to my mangy, bird-nibbled, unclean $1 used Pelican 1969 copy with its René Magritte monochrome painting, pretty boring; this appeared 8-30-07 on Amazon US)

Richard Pearce (ed.) "Molly Blooms": Review

"A Polylogue on 'Penelope' & Cultural Studies" (U. of Wisconsin, 1994), gathers twelve articles by various literary critics exploring the ultimate chapter of James Joyce's "Ulysses." Kathleen McCormick surveys the reactions to Molly's chapter over the past century, from outrage to awe, from shock to praise, and finds that each decade reflects in its reception the unsurprising fact that the social mores, intellectual currents, and scholarly understanding of Joyce's bravura eight sentences and thousands of words that provide Molly with her scripted thoughts provide a mirror into the changing attitudes of earth mother or shameless hussy that have polarized much of 20c response to her performance. Pearce follows with a brave if awkward attempt by a "male feminist" to transcend the "male gaze" to scrutinize how we look at Molly, especially if male critics, even as his essay is inevitably, like Joyce's, framed by such a gender-constructed and linguistically daring but role-bound limitation.

The performative aspect of Molly's recital provides its own "star turn," what Joyce proffered as the 'clou', the closing act to bring down the curtain after Poldy went to bed, inverted next to her, and his own narrative ended with a big (or small?) black period. Cheryl Herr's analysis confronts the chapter as Molly's "period piece" with the multiple meanings this phrase carries. Herr, building upon her work in the 1986 'Joyce's Anatomy of Culture,' emphasizes the staginess of the drama-- which is not a stream of consciousness in its pauses addresses to the audience, role-playing, and although a monologue, it is a text and a speaker aware that the chapter plays with the melodramatic conventions of 1904 Dublin.Therefore, Molly acts out her role, yet she speaks her lines while holding back total revelation. Herr even argues that Molly's menstruation, seemingly the undeniable sign of the character's female self, remains in Joyce's portrayal "playacting." We can never truly know Molly, Herr insists. Mrs Marion Bloom sticks as an Irish citizen and a woman, to a "script forced on her." (78) Inside, she holds her secrets, keeping her interior feelings hidden from their external expression in the closing pages of Joyce's exploitative media.

Kimberly Devlin follows by contrasting masquerade with mimicry, as if Marilyn Monroe were set alongside Madonna the singer for contemporary analogies. Devlin argues Molly's closer to Ms. Ciccone in her willful appropriation. Carol Schloss raises the issue of colonialism with marriage, Susan Bazargan explores the Gibraltar aspects of Molly's memories, and Brian Shaffer employs Bakhtin. These three essays lack the inventiveness of Herr's contribution, but remain organized, cogent, and of interest to cultural studies scholars. Joseph Heinenger nears Herr's earlier work in contexts within which Joyce placed the novel by examining advertising language of the actual products peddled which Molly uses; Jennifer Wicke matches this with a dense, rather theoretically dependent article that enters the realm of consumption and the place not only of Molly but ourselves as consumers of these works. This essay, by the way, finds in the second ed. (2005; reviewed by me also here & on Amazon US) of the Cambridge Companion to James Joyce a counterpart in Wicke's longer piece on this topic; similarly, Garry Leonard-- another fine contributor to the CCJJ, on Dubliners-- here in Pearce's collection provides a spirited Lacanian look at the erotics of shopping, display, and performance. I particularly liked his close reading of Molly's decision not to return her "laddered" stockings before she meets Boylan as an example of pre-coital as opposed to post-coital shopping!

The book closes with Margaret Mills Harper on drapery in both the Odyssey & the chapter, and Ewa Zietek's ambitious study of technology, memory and "the female body." Again, while some essays, notably Herr & Leonard, stood out from the rest personally, this remains a solid anthology of in-depth investigations of Molly's enigmatic, shape-shifting, and fittingly masked and webbed persona(e).
Dated a bit by references to the Real Roxanne, Imelda Marcos, and "Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous," nevertheless the ties that continue to be made to the media of a century ago employed by Joyce and that through which you read my comments today show that Molly indeed transcends the time and place that she ineluctably remains tied to so vividly for us a century hence. She is part of the "transparent showcart" Bloom ad man imagined with "two smart girls" rolled through Dublin, hawking yet another cultural studies artifact to sell to us.

(Image: Festival de Occidente, Venezuela, Maria Fernanda Ferra's single-laddered stocking performance 2006: "La noche de Molly Bloom.")

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Norman Mailer's "An American Dream": Review

I remember Ancient Evenings for its erotic charge, its graphic battlescenes, and the smells and sights of Egypt that it conjured up. I also remember it for tedium, excessive languor, and pages and pages of dreamlike half-sense as characters floated in and out of each other's consciousness. The roots of this later fiction, as well as the philosopher-villain (as Pierre Klossowski analyzed Sade) of The Executioner's Song, can be traced to this post-JFK novel. Dated inevitably by the hipster slang, and the stylized verbal sparring between Rojack and the cop Roberts, the jive-talking Shago, the overheated moll Cherry, and the languid lockjaw of Kelly, still, Mailer does capture a fantasy of the mid-Sixties, as Freedom Riders prepared for the coming a few years later of the Armies of the Night.

Curious about the novel after Kate Millett's evisceration of Rojack's sexual assault- turned- arousal with the German maid Ruta, I read the entire book to find that Millett exaggerates one early episode, and seems not to situate Ruta within the context of the later revelations that confront Rojack in Kelly's lair. Shades of Chuck Barris playing a CIA operative on the side while he entertains the masses on a TV show! Rojack's public persona, similarly, is caricatured, and you fail to believe he was a Harvard grad, let alone a professor and noted pundit.

Still, whenever he is grilled by the police, threatened by Shago, or taunted by Kelly, the novel does flicker into life for pages at a time. However, the slow passage of time manages to live up to the title of the work, for stretches of this defy verisimilitude unless one was strung out on speed rather than java. The Mob element surprisingly hovers rather than enters the scene, although this shadowy presence is intentional from the storyline. Nearly all the novel takes place in but a couple of days with apparently very little sleep for the protagonist, the anti-hero that Mailer clearly relishes as his alter ego-- one who keeps wondering if he can get away with murder, between the sex, the taxis, the dancing, the clubbing, and the fear of being clubbed to death or pushed off a penthouse parapet that Rojack fears.

Incest often throws off an otherwise respectable plot, and it's used here by Mailer in my judgement as an easy out to get Rojack off the hot seat. The theme causes the climactic scene of the novel to feel hackneyed. The coda anticipates if in more measured prose Hunter S. Thompson's road trip crossed with Tom Wolfe's account of Kesey's Magic Bus; Mailer's half in tune with the counterculture zeitgeist, half catching up to the New Journalism, celebrating the White Negro, and predicting Radical Chic.

Parts of this book I found winning, notably in the character of unfairly maligned Ruta. The lustful intensity of this episode comprised the finest writing in the book, following a harrowing encounter with the four Germans Rojack killed during the war. These two parts cannot be extricated from each other. You cannot get outraged about the sex with Ruta taken only on its own, when previously the novel opens with the moonlit night two decades earlier that foreshadows the werewolf-like frenzy that Rojack enters into once again, with dramatic results. Lunacy rises fearfully.

Often, the novel failed to move me, as with Rojack's unaccountable lust for Cherry, who lacked an iota of sex appeal as sketched on the page. Shago's long sparring match with Rojack, physically and verbally, veered near self-parody for Mailer, which is saying a lot. But, as with the assault on and then with (a crucial qualifier Millett cannot understand) Ruta and the Nazi attack earlier, other sections succeed. While paragraphs drift off into showmanship, sentences shine coldly, in the uneven near-monologue Kelly delivers. Once in a while, then-- and probably more often than his peers as judged four decades later-- Mailer hits the target. He enters the zone of manic creativity that his fiction and journalism both have shown, before and after this experimental novel, him to be able to sustain, if in the short spurt rather than the long run, for most of his published oeuvre to date.

(I reviewed Mailer's Ancient Evenings & Pierre Klossowski's "Sade My Neighbor" as well as the above book on Amazon. The British Flamingo cover unaccountably gets cover girl status rather than the male backside Vintage reprint, and the former captures the tone much better.)

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Pierre Klossowski's "Sade My Neighbor": Review

This translation of "Sade mon prochain" collects two essays by Klossowski, brother of Balthus, and a painter- philosopher- translator-critic who lived quite a checkered life from 1905 through the end of the century. The first, "The Philosopher-Villain," (1947) attempts to explain his concepts of integral monstrosity and a negative anti-theology testing if supreme evil could indeed triumph, as Sade may have imagined and the Holocaust (the author was from a partially Jewish background, and married a concentration camp survivor) may have verified. It's a very dense treatise, despite the attempts of its translator, Alphonso Lingis (sounds like a Sade character himself!). The essay, like this short book, goes on about twice the length it needed to, and the point of perversion needing the normative to forever react against it, to transgress the moral standard, to overcome the natural order, is a sensible reading of Sade, although little of the original author remains cited or analyzed in depth.

The next essay from 1967, "Sade my Neighbor," reads easier, if only by comparison. The style is less turgid, and the argument clearer. It efficiently compares Sade's thought with the French revolution, and then outlines his system, and looks deeper into its purportedly atheist tenets. One of the most intriguing points is buried near the end, when Klossowski wonders if our being is our ultimate prison, where "duration in the unendurable length and emptiness of time is an experience of being chained to one's condition. Beyond the wall, there is the freedom of nonbeing, the freedom of God, who is accused of incarcerating his creatures in the prison of being." (99) But such passages are rare by their pithy clarity.

"Delectatio Morosa" again raises near the conclusion interesting ideas about its appropriation by Sade for his creative drive, that which renews the pervert's contemplation of the act he commits as if perpetually, driving him on in a frenzy of anticipation over and over again. "The Christian soul give itself over to God; the romantic soul to nostalgia; the Sadean soul to exasperation." (115) The erotic differentiates perversion by counterbalancing an instinct for propagation; perversion refuses this possibility for regenerating the natural order, preferring to annihilate the race rather than continuing its progeny. The essay stops at this point, however, just as this idea is raised only to be set aside. Too bad, as the erotic opposed to the Sadean project of a dystopian evil, however exaggerated to the point of tedium or exhaustion, would have provided promising material for more speculation.

This monograph contains a short introduction by Lingis, but a reader without more knowledge prior of Sade's works will likely be challenged and perhaps a bit wearied by this compact, but at times rather leaden, pair of essays. Scattered throughout are valuable ideas, but the lack of treatment given the erotic imagination vs. the Sadean obsession diminishes the total impact of this volume.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

"The Lord is in this place. How dreadful is this place."

A weekend trip to San Diego so my wife could see the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at the Natural History Museum, the Mustangs at the Automotive counterpart in Balboa Park, and the Salk Institute in La Jolla at a fundraising dinner and outdoor symphony filled the past couple of days. The four hours it took each way made me grumble again about the overpopulation of our coast. The weather, ten-to-fifteen degrees cooler, made me wonder why I live in heat and smog. The food, however, made me appreciate my wife's cooking even more, despite the fact it's that lack and the fact we don't have a kitchen that spurred this very excursion south 120 miles.

Here's my factoid: David slew Goliath and a scribal error gave the "giant" a height of nine-and-a-half rather than six-and-a-half feet. Still WWF size in those days when, as the sandal found at Qumran shows, the equivalent of a lady's five today. The exhibit, quite informative, reminded me of J.F. Powers in the lavish abbey where he taught, now the sponsor of the largest new project of the scriptural illumination for our new millennium. St. John's illuminated bible pages, perhaps nearly three feet each, were shown as samples of a work in progress; I believe one page, credited to Donald Jackson's calligraphy, is likely the same man who spoke at our high school when I was a senior and he was the city of L.A.'s official scribe.

Quite a jolt to see tiny coins of the Jewish revolt, Nero, various Herods, an Antoninus, a John Hyrcanus, and assorted Roman rulers and collaborating satraps. Or, a few dried date pits. Not to mention a hair net and a comb with microscopic lice eggs and blood still preserved.

I stood behind a stocky girl-- tattooed "Kwuiipa" (Uh, Guapa translated into the Pacific realm?) between flames up her nearly bare brown fleshy shoulders-- for a considerable time as her beau nuzzled her ears continually. They were in the long line for a half hour as we crept towards the shards of scroll fragments past the quite nuanced but definitely "humanistic" take on the abuses and uses of religion that introduced the timeline of events that began with the Venus of Willendorf to end around the 1700s, oddly. I wanted the curators to clarify when chapters and then verses were added to scriptural texts. Although mentioned, the dates were not given. Erasmus did place chapter & verse in his edition around 1520, a very humanist text!

Speaking of chronology, a testy seventy-ish visitor after handing in his audio headset sounded a bit aggravated about BCE & CE. This had been footnoted on the commentary as an optional number to key in to find out why these terms were used, but neither he nor I evidently had remembered to do so. I wondered if all museums use this terminology, or if it had not been a primarily Israeli-sponsored exhibit (and Jordan helped, as noted carefully in the museum credits with three fragments shown), would they have reverted to Anno Domini? The kind docent-- and I credit all the Balboa Park staff with unfailing patience and polite manners-- explained deftly why the terms were employed. "Sounds like you're changing history," the plaintiff mumbled as he stalked off, but the silverhaired, spectacled docent-- the same age and style as his counterpart but perhaps more skilled in what we call "critical thinking," called him back! The man half-turned, and the docent reminded him that "even many Christian scholars" had adapted the BCE/CE usage. The first man smirked, undoubtably skeptical at such liberal revisionism. The naysayer probably forgot too the small reminder in the great mass of simplified complexity that rendered this intense debate into few thousand words for us great unwashed that very little of what has been found at Qumran had any impact on what most people believe on the CE side of the great divide. And CE won, not the post-hejira or the time since the Birthday of the World 5760-odd years ago. Time split in two with the Incarnation, even if, as the docent noted, it was four years off!

Unwashed and perhaps never knowing about the crucifixion of a minor rabblerouser from Nazareth a generation before, those at Qumran may have exposed themselves to the mikvah in vain hopes of renewed purity. I wished these new discoveries had been mentioned in the presentation, but Neil Folberg's splendid photos of the desert and a eight-foot blow-up shot (not his) of a large date palm grove at the mikveh stage of our tour took precedence. Instead, as this article about "the Essene hypothesis" I read last year (see URL below) hazarded, the Essenes buried their waste, keeping over a century of occupation nasty germs alive under the soil. Essenes relied on runoff water stored in a cistern from three months yearly rain; no other water source existed. They recruited presumably healthy members at twenty or so. But by forty, they had but a 6% chance of making it to middle age, or elderly age back then, compared to a 50-50 chance up the road in Jericho. Why? Because they could not stay unwashed.

The Essenes, obsessed by cleanliness, had to reenter the mikveh each time they returned from defecating. At the latrine, while Bedouins leave their stools to dry up and break up on the dessicating desert surface, the Essenes by burying their waste ironically kept microbes alive from their dung. If they had cuts on their feet, out of those tiny sandals, they'd take the dirt from this waste dump back to breed. They left the latrine to wash and took the bugs with them rather than eradicating the tapeworms. Each time a man entered the water, it'd stir up the germs again. This swirling sump led to infections, and the life of those desert scholars, or perhaps fanatics, if monks are such today, shortened dramatically, hastening their return back to the God they sought so desperately in a Mideast retreat from the falling empires, imperial shock, and mystical awe that we too know so well with each NYT front page today.

Blog title today thanks to those Anglican folk-rockers who titled that one-minute busker plainchant recorded in some Muswell Hill-adjacent C of E echolarium by this Psalmic phrase that came to mind when I viewed this terribly awe-full image from Neil Folberg, In a Desert Land, 1998. Santa Katerina (the Sinai site of the monastery) in snowstorm.

Total immersion, in water up to nine months stagnant, many times a day. Eyes, ears, mouth, nose, throat. To quote from Prof. Tabor, leader of the dig: "As a group the men of Qumran were very unhealthy, but I think this would have been likely to have actually fed the Essenes' religious enthusiasm," said Tabor. "They would have seen their infirmities as punishment from God for their lack of purity and then have tried even harder to purify themselves further."

Does the tetragrammaton, the unnameable YHWH have a twisted sense of humor or what? Talk about "Purity & Danger." What would Mary Douglas say? (I got halfway through that eponymous book from 1969 before losing it in remodelling, but I found it again last week! I tried to explain her thesis about the (il)logic of Leviticus to my wife at dinner; a scrap unearthed we both noticed on display indeed proscribes wool with linen. No mix & match. Everything in its place. Exogamy verboten. And, for the most committed, no endogamy either, far off in the land where the devil took Jesus to the high mount to offer him all the kingdoms of the world, the desert's stark allure. Where prophets, madmen, shepherds, tourists, mystics all meditate.)

Essene Hypothesis:

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Mark D. Jordan: Review

Is it a sign of my own complicity that when reading "The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology" (U of Chicago Pr, 1997) on the train, I taped a Post-It over the large noun in the genitive case featured prominently on the cover? Am I too to blame for the history of shame? Jordan, of Notre Dame's Medieval Institute, seeks to recover the multivalent, flexible, and surprisingly non-same-sex context of the original term. I am not saying "sodomy" is not a sin, nor is he, but that it does not have the fixated meaning that roots it in forbidden and often male-male sex. On the other hand, what I find fascinating and frustrating is that even this limited denotation has inescapably permeable connotations, which puts us back in the same maddening dilemma where we started. Talk about an unmentionable sin that must be never known but always confessed. This is the whole problem, Jordan might argue, with the noun.

I wish in fact he explained the original interpretations and their range of adaptability much more, but his short work focuses on around 1000-1270 during the rise of theological, exegetical, penitential, and didactic texts that span roughly Peter Damian to Thomas Aquinas. This is my Amazon US review, posted today. I hope readers treat my considerations fairly, but as with other reviews on such hot-button books as Francis Collins claiming God's behind DNA and Sam Harris denouncing God's beneath our genes, Amazonians tend to rate you not on your critique but on the subject matter of the work itself and how it plays into their own prejudices. Ironic, isn't it?

I agree with earlier comments posted by others about this book's strengths & weaknesses. Jordan writes with verve. The account of Pelagius & the caliph as interpreted and embellished by hagiographers, the twists of an approach that threatened the sinner with doom if he confessed and yet appealed to the sinner to surrender for his own good to the harsh mercy of the punishing Church that Peter Damian's "Book of Gomorrah" promulgated, and the confessional manuals that had to elicit admission of an unspeakable sin-- all these sources elicit a reader's interest. Think of how a manual advises penitents and priests, but without letting the sinner in on the secret that in fact the offense that had to be elided had been named, that others practiced it, and it was perhaps more widespread than the sinner had imagined: these all provide evocative moments than most erudite studies which I have read on exegetical and didactic texts during the Middle Ages. It left me wondering how many men and women lived with their temptations and endured their own secrets for so many centuries.

Apropos, Jordan, who only "came out" when he received tenure at Notre Dame, bitterly and as he explains for just cause in his opinion, rejects classification under moral theology for a mature understanding of same-sex, or non-procreative different-sex, relations. This is a difficult challenge to the Church's sustained, if for Jordan unsupportable, position, admittedly. Perhaps ideally, Jordan envisions a more enlightened and tolerant climate in which Christians can express themselves in love (and presumably playful lust) as fully able to enjoy the pleasures of the body within a wider range of activity than one approved position for procreation, options feared by terrified canonists a thousand years ago.

If, as Jordan asks us, we do not look to these hidebound sources when investigating Newtonian inertia, then why do we insist on these narrow-minded, relentlessly minatory texts as guides for our informed and open-minded sexual diversity so many centuries later? If the clerical authors with so little genuine science and no real psychological sophistication then could not explain away the persistence of a natural desire for non-reproductive copulation and connection within a creation-centered spirituality, we should not look to such antiquated tomes for our own decisions. We know what the earlier authors did not about attraction towards others, and how what they called sin we can term desire-- an astonishing, and for Jordan, body-liberating, soul-nourishing difference.

The latter part of the book shifts towards this spirited conclusion, by dismantling the arguments left unsaid by Alan de Lille and especially Albert the Great. I did find the latter doctor treated less thoroughly than earlier authors had in Jordan, and the chapter drifted about noticeably. Thomas Aquinas gains respect, and Jordan often corrects the exaggerations of John Boswell in reminding us that Thomism is not the original teaching of the Angelic Doctor-- which was left unfinished at his death. Jordan tries his best to be fair in his evaluation of what Aquinas actually codified, as far as we can tell from a Summa lacking full realization. There is far less attention to same-sex relations than modern-day revisionists might have anticipated, Jordan cautions, and you can sense his admiration for what Thomas managed to accomplish despite the friar's familiar fulminations, albeit perhaps more gently phrased than earlier medieval clerics.

Such a free-floating signifier, the word "sodomy." Think of the many ways you have seen the word applied. That's the trouble with this term, used to obliterate any opposition by the very elasticity of the utterance. We fear it, but we struggle to define it.

While Jordan never answers as directly as I wanted my suspicion-- if not this word than surely some other would have condemned the same action between men-- he does show the gradual erosion and expansion of this terribly vague term. Being misattributed, taken out of already dreadful contexts of threats against angels and gang-rapes of men and virgins, the destructive potential inherent in Genesis 19 widens into a napalm blast of fulmination against a category-- Jordan quotes Eve Sedgwick-- both made a minority and a universal class of those to be despised and damned. The term carries a shadow over it, feared by those to whom it is directed, so unstable it threatens to undermine the surety of those who use the term to condemn others, for fear its very vocalization will in turn taint he who dares to speak its name.

Therefore, the term once made not an adjective but a noun becomes fixed, an abstraction that can be applied to specifics that in turn disorder the careful categories of "natural law" that, as Albert & Alan show, do not fit a neatly ordered plan. Jordan takes on not only the medieval lack of logic in fitting "sodomy" into unstable classifications, but our modern lapse in allowing for so long a lazy mental habit that leads to our own contemporary failing of ranking somehow a small anomaly in the order of how people fit together into an enormous error against nature herself. We by now should know much better, Jordan chides. His final pages leave us with the admonition that Christians today need to follow a higher Law than that calling fire & brimstone upon those segregated and banished from the company of sinners to which all in the Church equally belong. Rather than exclusion, Jordan seeks inclusion, tenderness, and understanding to heal us.

Two minor lapses: the merit of this book is its brevity and relative clarity for non-specialists, but often there are in the footnotes inconsistently translated Latin passages; sometimes you get the Latin original, often you do not. Also, the inter-testamental changes in how the Jewish texts interpreted the tale of Sodom and I assume Leviticus gain no attention at all here, and only one sentence in the entire book even nods to this surely momentous change that would influence Christian theology. I know his subtitle looks at the Church and not the rabbinical sources, but this background needed at least a few pages of explanation.

I recommend this despite these gaps, filled in by Michael Cauden's published dissertation on the biblical history of the term "Sodomy." This incorporates Jordan's study into an examination of the misattributions in Christian teaching up to the Reformation as well as Hebrew sources; Cauden supports Jordan overall in rereading the texts as he advocates a gay-friendly theology to supersede and correct the errors that liberal Christians reject in traditional interpretations. This quest, in turn, enters the realm of the social constructionists and gender theory, although Jordan shies away from total identification with Foucault regarding his views on how earlier cultures defined and understood same-sex desire. But, that's a whole other long shelf already written.

{Blog image credit: Nuremburg Chronicle in that heavyhanded Teutonic style, but whose linear clarity and cheery palette remind me of coloring books with crayons and nice thick outlines. The folks leave Sodom & Gomorrah. Except Mrs. Lot. In Islam, 'luwat' is the equivalent, or "Lot-ery." Some jackpot, although Lot's wife looks oddly content. Limbless, easily held, a salt shaker's body in her simplified, petrified, but calmer form. Lot's two daughters seem to have a sororial twinkle in their eye as they lead Pops off (away from the angelic escort, who's seen his share of the singles scene after his last night in Sodom, and that city's bacchanal to end all) to put the wine-and-grind moves on zayde. I think of Eric Gill's erotic sketch of a full-figured backside hovering over the prone, nearly invisible, body of her progenitor, as if he was indeed the last man on earth and the girls gamely doing their covenental duty to make more members of the tribe.

Try Googling the noun Jordan discusses and see what pops up. At least I have "safe search" images left on.}

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

It's Frank's World, We Just Live in It?

So my wife's button long lost once summed it up, purchased at the one-time, pioneering, before Silver Lake became uber-hip Amok, scary store that as she said you would not want your credit card information given over to, this in the pre-Net days; they did have a creepy netherworldish mail-order catalogue, the upended Whole Earth gnawed, the underside of the Northern Cal bliss. Well, whether Sinatra or God or Some Guy on the Couch is running us, it's still a Sims game, no?

John Tierney's NY Times August 14, 2007 article raises the supposition that The Game of (Our So-Called or in my case So-Cal) Life is happening to us as a computer simulation. I immediately thought of Anselm. (I read an assertion in Mark Jordan's book perhaps that he-- not Jordan although he is too once he got tenure at Notre Dame's Medieval Institute where I had once dreamed of going, and imagine my job prospects now-- was gay as was Aelfric and another medieval Mr. A. See my review blogged earlier this month of Toni Bentley's "The Surrender" for more tie-ins if not tie-me-ups or downs) As he theorized in his ontological proof, "God is a being greater than which cannot be conceived." The a priori reasoning of this has been attacked for a thousand years; remember his response to Gaunilo, who goes down in history as "the Fool"?

Yet, how is Anselm's Unmoved Mover any different, fundamentally, than Dr. Bostrom's model? I recall Frank Tipler's "Physics of Immortality" idea that some future beings can reconstruct all bodies that ever existed. Recently atheists ponder non-theistic afterlifes; they suggest that information once created never dies. Tipler earlier pondered a related model of the cosmological anthropic principle, that we evolved suited in such a way to understand the universe that created us-- this makes my head spin back to Anselm, or worse yet the Fool.

Blame or credit all this to my lunch at Caltech's splendid Athanaeum today. There I like to pretend I am a tweedy laureate in splendidly realized arches and shadowed corridors amidst Olde Spanish Revival California. Not to mention the hundred-degree smoggy heat of Olde San Gabriel Valley that plagued half my life and corroded half my lungs.

Here is the conclusion of Tierney, with a link to the whole article "Our Lives, Controlled from Some Guy's Couch."

It’s unsettling to think of the world being run by a futuristic computer geek, although we might at last dispose of that of classic theological question: How could God allow so much evil in the world? For the same reason there are plagues and earthquakes and battles in games like World of Warcraft. Peace is boring, Dude.

A more practical question is how to behave in a computer simulation. Your first impulse might be to say nothing matters anymore because nothing’s real. But just because your neural circuits are made of silicon (or whatever posthumans would use in their computers) instead of carbon doesn’t mean your feelings are any less real.

David J. Chalmers, a philosopher at the Australian National University, says Dr. Bostrom’s simulation hypothesis isn’t a cause for skepticism, but simply a different metaphysical explanation of our world. Whatever you’re touching now — a sheet of paper, a keyboard, a coffee mug — is real to you even if it’s created on a computer circuit rather than fashioned out of wood, plastic or clay.

You still have the desire to live as long as you can in this virtual world — and in any simulated afterlife that the designer of this world might bestow on you. Maybe that means following traditional moral principles, if you think the posthuman designer shares those morals and would reward you for being a good person.

Or maybe, as suggested by Robin Hanson, an economist at George Mason University, you should try to be as interesting as possible, on the theory that the designer is more likely to keep you around for the next simulation. (For more on survival strategies in a computer simulation, go to

Of course, it’s tough to guess what the designer would be like. He or she might have a body made of flesh or plastic, but the designer might also be a virtual being living inside the computer of a still more advanced form of intelligence. There could be layer upon layer of simulations until you finally reached the architect of the first simulation — the Prime Designer, let’s call him or her (or it).

Then again, maybe the Prime Designer wouldn’t allow any of his or her creations to start simulating their own worlds. Once they got smart enough to do so, they’d presumably realize, by Dr. Bostrom’s logic, that they themselves were probably simulations. Would that ruin the fun for the Prime Designer?

If simulations stop once the simulated inhabitants understand what’s going on, then I really shouldn’t be spreading Dr. Bostrom’s ideas. But if you’re still around to read this, I guess the Prime Designer is reasonably tolerant, or maybe curious to see how we react once we start figuring out the situation.

It’s also possible that there would be logistical problems in creating layer upon layer of simulations. There might not be enough computing power to continue the simulation if billions of inhabitants of a virtual world started creating their own virtual worlds with billions of inhabitants apiece.

If that’s true, it’s bad news for the futurists who think we’ll have a computer this century with the power to simulate all the inhabitants on earth. We’d start our simulation, expecting to observe a new virtual world, but instead our own world might end — not with a bang, not with a whimper, but with a message on the Prime Designer’s computer.

It might be something clunky like “Insufficient Memory to Continue Simulation.” But I like to think it would be simple and familiar: “Game Over.”

{Blog credit: French 13c. God as the Universe's architect, geometer at hand. More elegant than a Simpsons' Comic Book Guy type of Creator with one ring to rule or encompass us all, at least.}

J. F. Powers "Morte d'Urban": Review

Re-reading this novel, the winner of the National Book Award for 1962 and the author's first full-length fiction after his stories collected in "The Prince of Darkness" (1947) & "The Presence of Grace" (1956) after a few decades, many of its scenes remained vivid. The scotch-fueled reveries of a Father Urban, middle-aged preacher, about what he could if not should have been if he had drifted away from the faith and became an easygoing, silvertongued womanizer before settling down with one gal-- she who's trying to seduce him as he wanders into "what if" even as she waits on Belleisle, a little crenellated castle in the middle of a Minnesota lake. The struggle of a deer to avoid drowning at the hands of the priest's benefactor as he and the crony take an ill-fated canoe trip in search of fish. The endless conversations of his superior, Fr. Wilf, about how best to sand the shelves-- you go with the grain-- as the urbane sub-Fulton Sheen finds himself toiling at a new vocational calling at his third-rate Order of St. Clement's retreat house on truly a woebegone lake.

This droll tale, constructed out of short stories that Powers had been writing on as he created the Dioceses of Great Plains and its suitably downmarket dreadful neighboring see of Ostergothenberg, takes the pacing of his briefer narratives and generally sustains it for pages of effortless tragi-comic insight and deadpan commentary, filtered through a likable but slightly vainglorious success story in a religious community too good for him, or so he-- and we-- think. Critics have not always praised the deus ex machina (or bolus ex dei?) which brings Father Urban's apostolate at golf course and retreat house, visiting parish assistant and man-about-the Midwest for his Order to a jarring halt. The shift in the novel I find on perhaps my third reading of this novel appropriate, even if the coda remains rather too nuanced and low-key for full clarification of the novel's denouement.

Yet, this is Powers' intent. If "God writes straight with crooked lines," and if the Church's once-vaunted efficiency as a monolithical power "second only to Standard Oil" finds that the divine plan and the clerical bureaucracy will both recruit Fr. Urban for their own slightly opaque purposes that neither we nor literary critics nor the faithful can follow, so be it. The novel does show its scaffolding, and not all of it moves so smoothly. The Malory references and the whole Lancelot-Guinevere analogy appear strained and their incorporation may have come from shorter segments that Powers shoehorned into the larger framework at a oblique angle. I do sense that portions of the novel appear more polished than others, and one does read the whole with the suspicion that the stories were cobbled together and intervening sections had to be created to provide stepping stones from one narrative rock to another across a more fluid, less stable patch of multiple possibilities and competing directions for the author's quest.

But, the tonal adjustments add to the verisimilitude both of Fr. Urban's life and the craft of Powers, who must have worked a half-dozen years on this novel if my knowledge of his extremely slow rate of composition is any guide. Powers rests his reputation on the five or so best stories of his first collection-- among them his two best, "Lions" and "Prince." He adds to his achievement with the consistency, if slightly less awesome peaks, of the more unified stories in "Presence." And, with his novel, he entered, albeit briefly, the ranks of the most esteemed American writers of four or five decades ago.

This, published as Vatican II was in progress, ironically foreshadows the decline of the Catholic ghetto and clerical domination that the novel limns and critiques and celebrates somehow all deftly. It remains the best portrayal of how the Church once ruled Middle America, and those who have grown up since may marvel at the rapidity of the decline in clerical power. But, Fr. Urban and Powers seem to agree, such a fall from supposed grace had to happen if the Church was to remain intact and true to its divided calling. Whether or not Powers or his fictional priests and parishioners would have wanted the Church to shift so dramatically, or whether such a move was inevitable, I leave to you readers.

(Images: 1963 Red Letter cover; 2001 New York Review Press reissue.)

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Terence Killeen's "Ulysses Unbound": Book Review

Often, readers fear "Ulysses." I wonder how many of you checking in at The Blanket have managed to make it through? This short article will be one in a short series that shares ways that recent scholars, reciters, and non-specialists all have managed to make the labyrinth less frightening, threads leading you into the Minotaur's lair and back again to the harbor's safety, as it were. I wonder why so many indulge in a reverse snobbery about a book that shows you the power of the particular to illuminate the universal. In everyday trivia, we can guess at how to unravel connections back to enormously complex systems. A century that around the time of Joyce's creation of his greatest works also delved into quantum physics. Our last century ended with telescopes seeking the limits of human perception. It's also a century that at its beginning had one Dubliner's quest on paper to follow a journey, another Theseus more than a failed Dedalus, as it transpired. The Irish Times online site about the novel features famous novelists (foolishly to me) boasting about their inability to finish the purported masterpiece. Here's your chance for one upsmanship, to prove that-- as with Shakespeare-- literature can be meant for everyone. Put down the tear-jerker or the true-crime paperback! It'll be there when you need a break from Joyce, anyway.

Terence Killeen, a sub-editor at that same Times, offers a compact "reader's companion to James Joyce's Ulysses." This book can be ordered direct (see below) for 15 euro plus 5 s/h overseas-- a bargain for this sturdy, well-edited, handsome and handy guide. ISBN 1-869857-90-9. Second printing. (Bray. Co Dublin: Wordwell, 2004)

[What follows is my Amazon US review; what preceded it was prefaced to this review for The Blanket.] This offers a reader much criticism concentrated into one compact volume. It lives up to its subtitle. After a brief overview of the composition of "Ulysses" and its author's own life, the book proceeds chapter by chapter. A guided summary previews highlights, followed by Homeric correspondences, an examination of the rhetorical style, an elaborated-- within the limits of this short book, however, this is only a few paragraphs-- historical/ biographical gloss on mentions of real characters. A glossary of terms concludes each of the 18 main sections. It's deep enough to reward the return reader to Joyce, but light enough not to overwhelm newcomers.

Killeen, a Joycean specialist, pitches his study towards non-specialists in the manner that Anthony Burgess' "ReJoyce" had four decades earlier. I used Burgess as my first companion when reading the novel; Killeen serves as a fine update, integrating the scholarship of the subsequent decades smoothly, eschewing footnotes or critical controversy, but, as he notes, nevertheless distilling the essence of research into 250 pages. He argues that one should not approach the novel with "paternity, or androgyny, or colonialism, or Irish freedom, or many another thematic word one could summon up." (254) Instead, it's a "change in tone." We move from the seriousness of earlier chapters into a liberation of attitude, and style.

Where Killeen may prove most welcome is for those entering the novel for perhaps not only the first time. I tested it when needing to re-read "Penelope" yesterday for my own academic interests, and found that Killeen had prepared me for a much easier, more focused, and surer path through this challenging final prose outpouring. While those wanting more details line-by-line will turn to Don Gifford's "Ulysses Annotated," or Hugh Kenner's "Ulysses" which analyzes the book in detail for the beginning reader, sometimes you do not want a tall stack of books to take about with you every time you open the novel. Killeen's handy vademecum can "be taken with you" to read before and after each chapter as you wind your way through the labyrinth with Dedalus, Bloom, and Molly through 1904 Dublin.

Maps are not included, however. This means another volume such as Gifford's would be needed; there are also walking tour charts that could help, in print and online. Clive Hart & David Hayman's topographical guide could also be consulted for a larger resolution of cartographical minutiae. The short list of books at the end of Killeen leaves out many works I'd find necessary, and is rather old-fashioned, but if you add the old-fashioned Burgess to the list, you'll have plenty of interpreters for now. More can always be added as your fascination grows!

The typeface is handsome, the pages laid out efficiently, and the book is a good value, and can be purchased direct from the press. This book is published in conjunction with an exhibition at one of the sites featured in the novel, the National Library of Ireland. Well-chosen period photos begin each chapter in Killeen, noting the time and place of the events, and a thoughtful conclusion places the curious shift of the prose around the pivotal "Sirens" chapter as where the tonal alternation reminds us, perhaps to our surprise if we recall beginning with Stephen, that "Ulysses" is a comic work. Killeen concludes that the work is cyclical, not linear, and that this may be a more advanced form or paralysis rather than its remedy! He places the novel within "eternal recurrence," and leaves us to wonder if come the next morning it may well not happen all over again. (254) A one-page epilogue added to the 2005 reprinting neatly presents another open-ended possibility; Joyce's manner of composing the work, we learn from textual critics, integrated word lists in units, so that the result is less a novel only. It's more akin, he suggests, to Northrop Frye's "complete prose epic" as a lexicography, a mini-encyclopedia. This "sheer text," in turn, leads into the Wake.

P.S. Blog image credit: the National Library's stingy with their snap of the Reading Room, but the site has the same postcard that you can see larger-- but not copy-- online. 
(Post slightly revised 6-22-11)

Friday, August 17, 2007

J.F. Powers "The Presence of Grace": Review

Re-reading this 1956 collection, the second of three and considered Powers' best short fiction, I admired his ability to make me laugh and squirm at these darkly comic, gently compassionate examinations of 1950s Middle America, Catholic style. As the village of Sherwood (where some stories take place in a vaguely pinpointed but accurately mapped terrain) becomes swallowed up into Minneapolis suburbia, as the Church begins to find its parishioners assimilating beyond the reach of vestibule religious tracts into the Welcome Wagon invitations of the middle class tract, Powers shifts accordingly. While "The Prince of Darkness and Other Stories"(1947) mixed accounts of race relations, refugees and antisemitism, and baseball into the strongest tales, those about but also transcending the limits of clerical life in rectories across an austere upper Midwestern landscape where hamlet edges into prairie, this follow-up presents nine investigations of Catholic life. Most are clerical, and those that feature the laity tend to wear the trappings of their faith less obviously, as fits the subject matter. But each one peers into the dilemmas of compromise, how one must balance what's rendered to God with what's given to Caesar.

"Dawn" deals with a mysterious letter marked in the collection for Peter's Pence "The Pope- Personal." The struggle between prevarication and subtle greed, local control and papal authority, reverberates at the lowly level of one parish. "Death of a Favorite" and its sequel, "Defection of a Favorite," both are narrated by a parish cat who keeps a careful eye on an associate pastor (the same Father Burner who gave the title story in "Prince of Darkness" his own unwanted nickname) who the cat must deal with once the cat's protector is away at the hospital. These two entries are rare in that Powers uses a cat's eye view to remove his Joycean style of indirect discourse out of the human into the anthropomorphic. Some critics lower these two stories slightly for the bit of a trick ending "Death" provides, but they do show Powers varying, to generally successful and genially playful effect, his usual mode.

"The Poor Thing" gnaws at the tension between an shrewish elderly woman and her female caretaker who's been finagled and then blackmailed into the duty; Powers knows that stereotypes can never be trusted, and manipulates our view of the nagging Dolly so that we are taken aback by her humanity, persisting despite the fact that none of us would envy Teresa's employment, beholden at the hands of the well-named Mrs> Shepherd. This story, for me, recalled Flannery O'Connor's own perspective.

"Blue Island" is subtler, but puts the knife in as deeply by its conclusion. A timid housewife in a new suburban home opens her door to the Welcome Wagon lady, and tries to deal with the consequences of friendship vs. profit, while her husband skirts the line off stage largely, between his Italian Catholic upbringing with hints of bootlegging and the respectable society where, as the lady tells the younger woman, she looks like a fair, blonde, beautiful Swede. This story's climax I found nearly unbearable, and it relentlessly builds to its conclusion no less brutal than stories in "Dubliners."

Thomas Merton, Flannery herself, Frank O'Connor, Evelyn Waugh, and Sean O'Faolain all admired Powers. His painstaking craft combined with his moral sense eloquently, even as he no less than Hemingway or Joyce tried to listen to how his characters echoed real Americans, both on the outside in their Midwestern bitter truths and laconic delusions, and on the inside as they struggled to keep their faith in a secular, or at least purportedly Protestant, capitalist society where the military-industrial complex triumphs in the post-war boom. This critique comes obliquely, but those familiar with Powers' own thirteen-month sentencing for pacifism during the WW2 and his wartime involvement with the Catholic Worker and social justice campaigns can recognize the influence of his informed meditation upon a contradictory apostolate that the priests were vowed to follow in such an American go-getter expansionist culture where Babbitry contended against bigotry and luxury.

"A Losing Game" takes an everyday wish for a new curate, Father Faber, to wrangle a table to type upon out of the basement of an unnamed pastor. This makes Fibber McGee's closet look like Mother Hubbard's cupboard. The dynamic of underling and superior, the unspoken and the desired, pulls this lighter tale along well. "Zeal" switches the roles, as a politic bishop on a package tour herding the laity to Europe seeks, on the initial stage by train eastward from the Midwest, to ease himself out of the grasp of an eager Father "Crazy" Early, who witnesses to the hard truths of the Gospel and his priestly vocation to preach it no matter the odds or to whom. These stories show, as do the earlier two about parishioners, a rather schematic set-up that plays off a pair of matched players in a game where one person seems aware of the manipulation through the narrative filter, but the other remains stubbornly or cleverly silent to our entreaties for hearing, as it were, the other side of the story. These stories serve perhaps as examples of sturdy fictional construction, but they prove a bit less entertaining due to their parallelism and refusal to let up the pressure that the design of the story places upon its trapped characters.

But, this is Powers' world. He refuses to ease up. If the message of Christ is to be fulfilled, then priests even more than laity must never be allowed to slacken. Even though they will. Which provides the energy, the uncertainty, the humanity here. "The Devil Was the Joker" introduces the Clementines, who will provide the context for his 1962 novel "Morte d'Urban." But we see less of them and more of a lay worker who sells their magazine and canvasses parishes to raise funds for the Order. Perhaps a "Pardoner's Prologue" from Chaucer updated for a booster- crazed, billboard- fixated nuclear age?

The balance between his manipulation to close a deal and his assistant, a seminary dropout and "cradle Catholic," plumbs the depths of profiteering in the Lord's name. But, it fairly presents this in the quest of two mismatched men, who must make a living, reconcile their needs with the message of their Maker, and sleep well at night. The story again ambitiously tackles this theme perhaps at a length slightly too condensed or too limited for such a deserving topic, but it also shows that this material needed release into the novel that Powers, assembling out of other stories in the later 50s, was already working towards.

Finally, the title story returns to Father Fabre and his attempt to match the needs of home visits to his parishioners with the perceived if unintentional-- by his presence at the house to which he was invited for a meal-- of "blessing" an unmarried, late middle-aged, ambiguously paired couple who may or may not be technically sinning under the same roof. The title tilts neatly towards, again reminding me of Flannery O'Connor's predilection, a symbolic or anagogical interpretation, but this firm nudge from Powers aside, it again challenges the needs for tolerance against the demands of propriety within the Catholic parish community that still in mid-century America could exert such conformity upon its congregants. And in such decisions, balancing mercy against justice, expulsion with acceptance, Powers finds his milieu and his style fully emerge and flow into nine stories.

P.S. Powers lived 1917-99. His stories are issued as one volume from New York Review Press, as well as reprints of his two novels, the other being "Wheat That Springeth Green," (1988).

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

J.F. Powers "The Prince of Darkness": Review

While the thirty stories of this writer's writer have been collected and reissued, I prefer here to examine each volume (for here and Amazon) with their ten stories each, separately. Over the next month I will do the same for his other four books in their original formats. I am re-reading J.F. Powers and learning so much more about how to tell a story, how to accept doubt, and how to live with uncertainty than I ever imagined when I first admired these tales at the age of eighteen. They helped pull me away from my earlier belief, but they also prepared me for a more honest confrontation with my imperfect knowledge of my inner soul.

These ten stories were first published in 1947. They reflect Powers, Midwestern-born and bred, as intrigued by the possibilities of writing about Catholic priests. This slim volume treats as well as what then was called the "race problem" with contemporary African American tensions; baseball; "The Old Bird" where a middle-aged man looking for work during war when he knows it's the only reason he could find the menial temp job he must accept, and a nuanced story, "Renner," about refugees and anti-Semitism. As a Catholic Worker who had been jailed for his opposition to WW2, Powers possessed the moral strength of convictions rooted in signs of contradiction. He also peered about with an unsparing eye for dissembling, and called his fellow Americans to task for it. Yet he remained free of sanctimony, no mean feat, and counted himself culpable too.

No wonder that Thomas Merton admired him; Powers went on with only twenty more stories over a long career. (Born 1917, he began publishing stories in the mid-1940s; he died in 1999). A "writer's writer" who refused to glad-hand or cater to the mass market, his fiction in the post-Vatican II age failed to keep the attention of a fickle readership, but in retrospect his questioning of the insularity of a Babbitry within the separatist mentality endemic to the Catholic Church in the middle of the century may have hastened its own undoing! Powers had enduring ties with those in the Church agitating for social reform and relevant liturgies. His concerns may be muted in his art, but they resonate for an attentive audience today.

The best stories here probe gently but relentlessly how moral dilemmas unfold within a superficially trivial job or mundane career, often one in a rectory or chancery. This concentration enriches the collections "The Presence of Grace (1956) & "Look How the Fish Live, expanding the themes of his early stories. and his novels "Morte d'Urban" (1962, winner of the National Book Award) and "Wheat That Springeth Green" (1988) of which build on the promise first shown here, lean towards mordantly tragi-comic scrutiny of clerical life in unnamed Middle America.

His thirty stories have been collected, with no additions, as "The Stories of J.F. Powers" in 2001 by New York Review Press in a handsome edition, as well as the two novels each reissued. Painstakingly crafted, the lesser stories in "Prince" about racial tensions date themselves, however, compared to five clerical stories. "The Lord's Day" examines tensions between a domineering pastor and a convent full of cowed sisters. "The Valiant Woman" looks at a meddling housekeeper from a priest's perspective, as they are doomed to live together but remain vastly apart in their curious intimacy. "The Forks" poses a moral dilemma for an upright if uptight curate under a pastor's annoying but worldly-wise readiness to compromise one Gospel truth for another just as compelling. "Lions, Hearts, Leaping Does" offers a heartbreakingly vivid if uncharacteristically lyrical account of a dying friar's last days. It ends with an epiphany equal to any in one of Power's inspirations along with Hemingway and Faulkner, James Joyce's "Dubliners," A no less dramatic final line less ambiguously and more chillingly concluded the longer narrative of a restive associate pastor wanting a promotion in "The Prince of Darkness." This story prepares in retrospect for the fictional dioceses of Great Plains and the wonderfully apropos Ostengothenberg in the later work of Powers.

While unfairly consigned today to a mid-20c Catholic ghetto of once respected writers, Powers need not be read only by those interested in religious themes in American fiction. His assured style pares down what he ruefully and slightly satirically often observes while allowing a tenderness and humanity to filter in, akin to stories today of a superficially far different author, George Saunders. Like Saunders, Powers listens to everyday Americans off the beaten track, in nondescript suburbs and featureless tracts, and makes them as worthy of compassion and dignity as any hero of a revered epic.

[Image credit. Powers resists easy resurrection. His came out here as if he's been shot by an inkbottle-- no doubt a trick of the printer's impish devil. I cannot find cover paintings to share on-line of his earlier stories as originally issued. In an earlier post this year, I illustrated a piece on Powers with a print by his daughter, Mary Farl Powers (1948-92), who had returned to Ireland to become a noted artist. From the University of Limerick, her 1985 "Self-Portrait."]

Bob Quinn's "Smokey Hollow":Review

I admire Bob Quinn for his imaginative "Atlantean Irish" thesis from his documentary film and book of the same title (see review here & on Amazon), but the recently discovered fact he grew up not far from my relatives made me want to read his "fictional memoir." I found nearly nothing about the surrounding district, however; this memoir focuses on the eponymous stretch of houses along the River Dodder.

Published before Peter Sheridan's "44," Brendan O'Carroll's "The Mammy," or especially Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes" cornered the market for males telling of hardscrabble Irish cityscapes and childhood hijinks, this emerges nonetheless from a harsher time that Quinn neither downplays or harps upon. His style is sparer, with less lyricism. He notes that he began this as autobiography before using his imagination to help narrate the story better.

Read better as vignettes of his formative years 1939-53, as the cover blurb elegantly phrases it, in a housing estate on the edge of the more respectable south Dublin neighborhood of Rathgar: "Here flocks of children learned to shepherd their fantasies through the narrow gap between anarchy and rigid parental rule." The stories he tells have the flavor of honest recollections of many of his mid-20c generation, and they may lose much of their resonance on the page rather than in speech, I reckon. The book captured me more for its details in passing than the strength of its whole storyline, but Quinn appears to wish to avoid a neatly drawn recountingn of his fragmentary recollections. Therefore, the book to me was better a store of memories to be shared rather than a focused and possibly more aesthetically pleasing but less accurate recapitulation of his honest emotions and mundane doings.

I respect Quinn's motives, even as I compare his more austere phrasing to the richer, if stagier tone of his contemporary memorialists. His eye is more akin to the camera's detachment, framed by an alert consciousness and a calculating sense of space and depth. You can see why he excelled in film. The book may be less appealing for its subtlety than the brasher, more theatrical tone of later such works in the 90s, but two fine passages stand out. The first reminds me of Flann O'Brien's mordant ear.

His father ("Mr. Toner") insists against the subtle pleas of the boy narrator that plain food and lots of exercise-- the unspoken subtext being the large family's straitened circumstances exacerbated by the wartime shortages-- suffice for his brood. "Look at dogs. They have only one meal a day. Have you ever seen a sick dog?

-- Yes, and you can tell they're sick 'cause they have a dry nose.
-- Ah, but that's only because some fool has given them sweets or something. If we could live like dogs we'd be much healthier.
--They get the mange and die at twelve, muttered Joe.
--That's seventy in human terms, corrected Mr. Toner. And even then they can still chase cats. Can you see your grandfather chasing cats?
--He wouldn't be that much of an eejit.
--That's not the point. Your Mammy and I are perfectly satisfied that you get plenty to eat. Anything else is sheer greed." (56)

Most of the narrative does not rise to such sublime heights, but each reader should find his or her own delights according to taste. Here's a more serious passage; like the other autobiographical- meets- storytelling (are there any other kinds for first-person tales?) accounts, we find maturity jostling against innocence that only seems less informed due to nostalgia.

"There was no television to provide surrogate drama, to supply images of alternative realities, however banal, to the inescapable opinions, judgements and presence of parents and in-laws. Theirs was the children's only reality. Their tensions too. The experience of the cinema was too infrequent to mediate its illusions. It only served as an occasional escape from reality." (62)

Quinn, as a noted writer and especially documentary filmmaker, challenged the establishment in his later work. While this book ends well before his own entry into manhood, you can see in representative sections such as that last quoted his own wish, as his preface explains, to convey to his children as they watched James Bond on TV, of the utter difference between his childhood and theirs. As a maker of the contemporary Irish sensibility by his own media contributions, but as a memorializer of the grit and grace of an earlier Ireland, he allows a fair depiction of truth, how he and his family survived in an era narrower in its escapes from reality but for all that more enriched in the tactics necessary for imaginative power.

Bob Quinn's "Atlantean Irish": Review

A paragraph added to my earlier Amazon review updates a bit this consideration of a book that readers of Bryan Sykes & Robert Oppenheimer (reviewed by me there and here) should find provocative. Quinn deserves credit for thinking about these issues before the DNA & genetic findings bore him out, two decades later. A fascinating argument! (I also review his childhood memoir, "Smokey Hollow," here and on Amazon US.)

Barry Cunliffe, John Collis, Simon James, Bryan Sykes, and Stephen Oppenheimer all further ideas that Quinn proposed over two decades ago in film and print. This book revises and expands his thesis. Readers intrigued by more recent DNA, archeological, and linguistic discoveries in Ireland and Britain should read this exciting, if rather rambling, argument for Irish settlement and cultural influences coming not from across the Continent from a La Téne central hub, but from Mediterranean and Iberian sources via travels along the "Atlantic fringe" up the coastlines. (I review Sykes "Seven Daughters of Eve" and "Blood of the Isles" and Oppenheimer's "Origins of the British," all of which should have acknowleged Quinn, on Amazon; the following review I wrote in 2005 before "Blood" & "Origins" were published.)

Bob Quinn confronts received knowledge and upends the status quo. Living in a Conamara gaeltacht since 1970, his adopted locale inspired him to ask two questions that impelled the saga adapted in this update (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2005, 20 euro) to his 1986 work, Atlantean. Bono, in an interview with Bob Dylan, cited Quinn's initial contention: tracing ancient Gaelic song to North Africa. A new edition's range of illustrations, attractive font and design, and incorporation of material gleaned from refinement and elaboration of his initial foray into largely uncharted intellectual waters presents iconoclasts with a model of how to construct an alternative to what everyone assumes to be the only way from which to perceive 'reality.'

Looking at the púcán boats that once dotted his Atlantic coast, he noted their resemblance to lateen sails on Egyptian dhows; listening to sean-nos melodies, he marvelled at their pentatonic counterparts from the Arab realms. Quinn targets cultural echoes, archaeological evidence, and linguistic links tying Ireland not to the conventional La Tene-Celtic and thereafter European-centered diffusion pattern, but to a neglected nautical passage that, he reasoned, had long escaped the gaze of Continentally ethnocentric scholars fixated on an Indo-European genesis for the peoples and crafts that entered into the island. Now, Quinn's thesis contradicts the Celtic origins which many Irish have celebrated for 300 years.

His findings, necessarily scattershot and rather random, resemble a Victorian vicar's parlour-displayed assemblage of bric-a-brac. (Only source titles, not precise citations, fill his endnotes, frustratingly.) I suppose Quinn might retort it's instead structuralist bricolage, a bold thrust to delve deeper below the psuedo-Keltic veneer appliqued by Revivalists and Romantics to excavate the broken shards and ghostly palimpsests abandoned by those who travelled the "wine-route" from as long as 5000 BCE along the Southern Mediterranean littoral, until, drawn by tin from Cornwall and smugglers to Ireland, moving up the Iberian coasts until they continued due north to the first landfall the western and southern island shores. He advances that the true impetus for Irish culture came from North African, Egyptian, and Mediterranean lands rather than Central Europe, the Roman empire, and its successors.

Neither the ancient classical nor the native Irish authors, Quinn insists, called the indigenous people in our island 'Celts' -- this being an antiquarian and so relatively early modern coinage. In what was for me the most intriguing section of his study, he contends that North African substrata underlie our Irish language itself, and he relates the legendary accounts of the Iberian and Egyptian origins of the island's first ancestors to the migrations that would have brought trade, colonisers, refugees from early Christian persecutions, and monks to Ireland before the suspect arrival of a largely fabricated Patrick. While I lack the familiarity that Quinn has with his many sources, I wondered why, however, his use of mitochondrial DNA studies to support his claims cited Bryan Sykes (his eloquent Seven Daughters of Eve. London: 2001) of Eve, but not the concurrent team led by David Bradley from TCD, whose assertions a few years back in Science appear to complicate what Quinn simplifies about the coming of the earliest settlers from Asia Minor to Connaught thousands of years ago, Bradley's team, and other research by Brian McEvoy and colleagues at TCD, and by D.B. Goldsmith and colleagues, also depends on genetic markers still overwhelmingly present in natives to the West today. None of these researchers, active in the past decade, have been cited by Quinn, an obvious flaw.

But maybe Quinn's stacking his evidence? Bradley's TCD team and recent geneticists argue for an Atlantic fringe origin, but from Northern Spain to Scandinavia rather than further south and east. Simon James and Barry Cunliffe, among other leaders in pre-Roman Celtic-British studies, have accepted the invalidity of the "Celtic" invasion of the islands and the west thesis. Emerging challenges by linguists to the Central European genesis and Celtic invasion pattern seem to clash in their findings with Quinn's Mediterranean-African genesis for the early Irish.

Bearing the traces of peoples pushed ever westward as farmers advanced, a kilometer or so a year, the peoples (whose genetic traits distinguished at 97% in the West of Ireland among males of native descent vs. 3% in today's Turkey) came not over water but presumably over land--driven across Europe as they were pushed ahead by agriculturalists---unsettled folks from the Fertile Crescent who were shunted ever westward as farmers ploughed Europe over thousands of years. The remnants of those pre-farmers wound up settling finally into Connacht's spaces--the last nearby refuge on the North Atlantic fringe.

Again, certain portions of Quinn's argument, even to this general reader, appear akin to romanticised notions of solidarity with au courant Arab and Third World solidarity rather than the 'Thomas Cook model' of radial diffusion from an Alpine or Danubian homeland, favored by many 19 and 20c scholars. The evidence, as Quinn admits at times, for a maritime rather than continental dependence influencing Irish development depends far too often for academic scrutiny upon perhaps coincidental or random findings, albeit painstakingly and cleverly compiled by Quinn over three decades and more. His basic reliance upon his interpretation of Irish from its status as a living language rather than using Romanised inscriptions to re-create a Celtic tongue appears convincing, and I await further scholarship to clarify Quinn's educated guesses. Like the vicar, his collection impresses somewhat but also leaves the viewer muddle-headed as he examines many labels, evaluations, and connections between displays.

Chapters on Wales, Vikings, and Sheela-na-Gigs sway uneasily beside steadier accounts of monastic art, mythmaking, and the pirate trade with Algiers and Morocco. The Berber-Irish parallels again smack of the type of overly enthusiastic detective fieldwork that Lorraine Evans (Kingdoms of the Ark. London: Pocket Books, 2001) presented in establishing archaeological patterns making Queen Scota of Milesian lore into the eponymous ruler over Ireland's hordes and the instigator of the British race. I enjoyed both Evans and Quinn's attempts to scour the taint of British Israelitism off of their navigational tools, and I wondered why the latter author neglected the former, but I fear that those hidebound and tenured will publish on largely unconvinced by either freelancer's revolutionary reports.

Frustration emerges as Quinn recounts throughout his revised work the skepticism he faced from this establishment. Re-orientalists, as I term Quinn and Evans, preach to British and Irish audiences that their 'myths of origin' need not be based in a proto-Brussels conclave.

Many today, in classrooms and libraries, may not pay much attention to such independent scholars and thinkers. Yet, I applaud for Quinn that he speaks boldly from his own, equally defensible, certainly progressive, sea-ready fastness. If we descended from the Atlantic fringe sunder a Celtic heritage, we can then boast our descent from Atlanteans!

Revised from a review in the Belfast on-line journal The Blanket, "Re-orienting perspectives," March 2005.

Anyone driving from Galway city through to, say, Carna, might agree with Quinn. You hug the sea more than the mountain in drawing your bearings, your domain, and your living. Its towns and enterprises meet the needs of those traditionally travelling by huicear and not Honda, currach and not Cortina. Commonsense shows, in what Quinn should have displayed with localised and more modern archaeological maps, that from Neolithic times contacts can be charted drawing the West and South of Ireland into Spanish ports and settlement and trade more than European markets. For all the willful and accidental vagaries within Quinn's spirited and never less than readable chapters, this author takes on the 'Celtic' giant and chops his Irish progeny down to a less Eurocentric, more portable and shipworthy size. From the Arabic term for any trefoil, by the ways Quinn unveils, we import shamrakh.