Dante, Milton, and the Birthing Tub

My wife’s most recent labor changed everything.

To the woman walking her dog down our street around noon a week ago, it was likely just another beautiful spring Saturday. As she passed our living-room window she may have been considering her to-do list, the sound of the birds, her heartburn, or any number of the mysteries of the universe. Chances are, however, her mind never wandered near the truth of the miraculous happenings just beyond the window and drapes 10 feet away. As she left our vantage, I wagered the timing ripe for a jest on just this fact. It was good for a laugh, a moment of levity generally appreciated by every woman I’ve witnessed deliver a child (a grand total of 1). What’s funnier still, is that I, who have only witnessed labor and never labored myself, would wager to write about labor and delivery.

To labor for and deliver a child unto the world, though, is no laughing matter. Such a feat requires the exertion and focus of running a marathon–without the fun of changing scenery or the thrill passing that racer right in front of you. No, laboring is like a marathon where the runner doesn’t set her own pace, and the finish line moves. What’s more, if you are in a hospital setting, it’s like trying to run a marathon while having needles poked in you, fluorescent lights on you, strangers talking about your “progress,” beepers beeping at you, and instead of wearing your favorite running-shorts, -shirt, and -shoes, you have to don a 1980s track suit and velcro New Balance shoes (the ones your Grandpa has). [Full disclosure, I own a pair of these.] Perhaps the most important difference between the marathon and the labor unto birth, though, is this: for the runner, the cramping, fatigue, nausea, thirst, and pain might overwhelm, and she might well decide to throw in the towel halfway through the course, ending her race with a sad but understandable failure. Not so for the laboring woman, though. Ironically, unlike the runner she cannot stop, yet “giving up” is among the more successful strategies she could employ. While no runner ever completed (let alone won) a marathon by giving up, many a birth story I’ve heard (or witnessed) hinge on just such a surrender, a giving up, an admission of impotence, a desperate petition to the Lord for respite. Common phrases include: “I can’t do this! I’m going to die! From now on, we’re adopting!” A whispered prayer, “Jesus, just one break here, Lord. Just one break.” An earnest request – “pray for me.” It seems common for a woman to find her road through labor to delivery shortened by a move found in no athlete’s playbook anywhere ever: surrender.

Wait a second. This blog is supposedly about Catholic arts, literature, poetry, and theology. NOT sport psychology. Hang with me. We’re almost there. Bear with one more series of athletic tropes.

As an athlete, I knew the most important ingredient in victory was the “eye of the tiger,” wanting it more than the other guy, pushing harder, digging deeper, and all those typical metaphors. You get the picture. Well, as a husband and witness to 6 births, I have learned from my wife that some of the typical strengths of the athlete are the bane of labor and delivery. Chief among them, I found, was my favorite… “trying harder.” The laboring woman has little room, it seems, for “trying harder.” Relaxation, comfort, even the appearance of sleep, befit the laboring woman best. No adrenaline allowed! If there is work involved, it is the work of relaxing, of getting out of the body’s way, cooperating with the mystery of the labor of which the woman both is and is not the agent. She at once labors and receives labor. She simultaneously delivers the child and is delivered of the child. How strange, mysterious, and wondrously perplexing! I couldn’t let these paradoxes go.

The theologian in me had to find or give an account of this reality. Ina May Gaskin and Dr. Bradley (in their many books) both offer strong analyses of labor and delivery suggesting and developing psychological and physiological accounts for the importance of surrender in labor, but they don’t satisfy the theologian, or any spiritually curious person. For example, Bradley describes labor has having three emotional signposts accompanying the three stages of labor: excitement, seriousness, and self-doubt. The woman tends to experience self-doubt during the final stage before pushing, namely, transition. Bradley notes that the coach (husband) should celebrate (inwardly) this sign, as bearing witness to the near end of labor. The husband must simply reassure his spouse with praise, expressions of her progress, and encouragement. Bradley does not, however, offer overmuch explanation for whether the self-doubt is instrumental toward or merely a sign of the near terminus of dilation in labor.

Some interesting theological work on labor and birth exists (e.g., the Episcopalian pastor Margaret Hammer’s Giving Birth), but it wasn’t until my wife described her own moment of abandonment and surrender during this last labor that I realized I was still barking up the wrong tree. The theological key to this puzzle, she told, me, is the birthing tub. Now, you are thinking I’m just crazy. Humor me for a few more sentences before checking your Snapchat feed. My wife loves to swim. She’s most comfortable in the water. She reported to me that the change happened for her, she was able to surrender in total abandon to the labor when she was sitting in the birthing tub, and she realized that she was not really in a birthing tub at all, but she was enveloped in the arms of the God who would bring her through this labor and delivery. She could relax through the contractions, rest when they abated, and cooperate with the grace of this passion, this redemptive gift of self in labor for the life of a child. Only by sitting in the arms of the Father could it be done. This had been her longest labor, and her turning point came with this realization of the Father’s grace in the birthing tub. What God wanted to do for her, in her, without her yet with her. It was mystical prayer. It was no longer acquired labor, but infused labor. It was an experience a person cannot demand but can only prepare for, and remove the obstacles to. The best labor is a gift, received when the toiling mother finally steps out of her own way and into the Lord of life’s way.

My wife’s image of the birthing tub as place of rest in the Father’s bosom, a place where “doing nothing” actually gets the most done reminded me of two other notable “water” scenes that splendidly juxtapose her own experience (thank God). They both deal with the fundamental theological reality behind labor and delivery: humility, gratitude, and mystery over-against pride and lust for power.

Consider the first literary exemplar: Dante’s description of hell’s very center in Canto 34 of the Inferno.

“The emperor of that despondent kingdom / so towered from the ice, up from midchest, / that I match better with a giant’s breadth / than giants match the measure of his arms; / … I marveled when I saw that, on his head, / he had three faces / Beneath each face of his, two wings spread out, / as broad as suited so immense a bird: / I’ve never seen a ship with sails so wide. / They had no feathers, but were fashioned like / a bat’s; and he was agitating them, / so that three winds made their way out from him / and all Cocytus froze before those winds.”Inferno canto 34

Satan, a hairy, three-faced giant with six bat-wings grotesquely appended to his head, sits frozen in a lake congealed by the icy wind from his own furious wings, their endless beating stemming from the font of his own abysmal pride. Satan’s pride, we see with Virgil and Dante, bears the fruit of impotence. His labor brings naught but death. The harder he tries, the stiffer he lies in the ice of his own making. It is, moreover, his desire to be God that imprisons him and sends the wind of his error to chill the bones of any who behold his fate. The laboring woman, therefore, magnificently contrasts Lucifer. Her labor bears fruit best when it approaches the receptivity of the new Eve, the Immaculate One who said as no one had said before, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done to me according to thy word.” The laboring woman is truly the subject of the labor, but subject of its activity as gift received rather than act consciously undertaken.

Consider the second: Milton’s musings on the great fallen angel in the first book of Paradise Lost.

“So strecht out huge in length the Arch-fiend lay / Chain’d on the burning Lake, nor ever thence / Had ris’n or heav’d his head, but that the will / And high permission of all-ruling Heaven / Left him at large to his own dark designs, / That with reiterated crimes he might / Heap on himself damnation, while he sought / Evil to other and enrage’d might see / How all his malice serv’d but to bring forth / Infinite goodness, grace and mercy / On Man by him seduc’t, but on himself / Treble confusion, wrath and vengeance pour’d” (Bk 1, lines 209–20). Satan here lies cast into a burning lake, the raging flames symbolizing the raging pride and rebellion of his own heart against the God he would not serve. He would rather “reign in hell than serve in Heav’n” (bk 1, line 263).Satan Burning Lake

Satan’s hateful rebellion against God, full of passion for power, leads to his own impotence in Milton’s imagination as well. God abandons Satan to his vice, allows him to pile up burning coals upon his own head. The more he grabs for power, the more Truth and Power takes hold of and turns his evil to an opportunity for grace upon mankind. Fastforward to the present day, and we see our technocratic society faces the temptation to attempt mastery over every mystery of human life. Our passion for control, for power, to put creation at our service rather than serve the God who created extends even to the realm of a woman’s labor and delivery. The more women (and men) see birth as a procedure to technologically or psychologically or physically master, the more thrown down they will find themselves. Labor and delivery is not a puzzle to be mastered but a mystery to be received from the hand of a loving God. To be at the service of God in the labor rather than to reign over the labor is the challenge.

It seems to me, therefore, that the warm waters of my wife’s birthing tub could at any moment have been one of three things: the arms and bosom of the Father of life; the frozen lake or self-defeating pride; or the burning Sulphurous wave-pool of passionate rebellion against the God and the natural activity of labor that God created.

The suffering of labor and delivery, it seems, can serve a pedagogical, as well as redemptive function. The woman learns (and teaches her husband) that progress (whether moral or in labor) comes from cooperation in God’s activity, not as over-against my own activity, but as ennobling my own. “Unless the Lord build the house, the laborers work in vain” (Ps 127:1). The woman is not the master of the labor, but she cooperates with the graced and natural mystery of laboring for and delivering the child. To labor is to learn and teach humility. As to its redemptive character, the woman’s labor can be joined to Lord’s suffering on the cross. A woman might offer her labor for the sake of her child’s soul, for any intention. I have heard firsthand miraculous effects of labor abandoned to God in union with the cross. Moreover, the practice of laboring in grace, praying with and through contractions, disposes the woman (and frankly anyone else witnessing such an event) to radically reconsider the meaning of any and all sufferings and what might be done with those sufferings.

I, for one, cannot but see anew the daily crosses of life from a different vantage, now that I’ve witnessed these six miraculous deliveries of my wife. Having been seen  from the birthing tub, the world can never be the same. Every cross is an opportunity to freeze in pride, to burn with passion for power, or to rest (though not without pain) in the bosom of the Father. Thank you, women who labor, for showing us the way.

Immaculate Mary, pray for us!

The Artist as Eyewitness

In the beginning of St. Luke’s Gospel, he writes,

Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a narration of the things that have been accomplished among us; according as they have delivered them unto us, who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word: It seemed good to me also, having diligently attained to all things from the beginning, to write to thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, that thou mayest know the verity of those words in which thou hast been instructed.

Eyewitness accounts guarantee the truth of the incredible story he is about to narrate.

Dante begins the Inferno thus,

In the midway of this our mortal life,

I found me in a gloomy wood, astray

Gone from the path direst: and e’en to tell

It were no easy task, how savage wild

That forest, how robust and rough its growth,

Which to remember only, my dismay

Renews, in bitterness not far from death.

Yet to discourse of what there good befell,

All else will I relate discover’d there.

Dante, too, has an incredible story to tell and is no less anxious than Luke to claim the truth of the events to follow. He himself saw these things with his own eyes. His experience is not limited to the underworld, and Paradiso begins with a similar statement,

His glory, by who might all things are mov’d,

Pierces the universe, and in one part

Sheds more resplendence, elsewhere less. In heav’n,

That largeliest of his light partakes, was I,

Witness of things, which to relate again

Surpasseth power of him who comes from thence…

If you ask me, what St. Luke and Dante are up to is different. The former is a conscientious historian, the other a poet. But the role of witness is equally important. It is taken for granted that eyewitness accounts establish the veracity of a historical thesis and, as anecdotal evidence, provide explanatory power as the witnesses are multiplied. Does the fact that over 30,000 people witnessed the miracle of the sun at Fatima give pause? Certainly it cannot be dismissed out of hand.

Eyewitness is no less important to the artist. Often, we consider art to be a purely imaginative, creative activity, as if a painting springs whole and entire from the genius of the artist’s mind. Perhaps we forget that the imagination requires raw material before it becomes fertile. In order to be creative, we must first encounter the real world, memorize our multiplication tables, study the lives of those who have gone before, you know, the sort of boring education stuff we now skip in our primary schools in favor of unrestrained creativity. However, if we never sit at the feet of history, master the facts, study our grammar, and witness the touchstones of culture, our imaginations will starve for lack of food. This is true for every pursuit in life and is no less so for the artist. Dante understood that his poetry was but a humble witness that revealed pre-existing metaphysical truth.

This was widely understood by most artists up until very recently and there is a tradition of including the portraits of patrons in the paintings they commission, thus placing them virtually into the very scene itself. The donors have somehow come to participate in the reality the artist expresses. So, too, is there a tradition of artists including their own portraits in their pictures. Often, this is misunderstood as vanity but I would suggest the underlying reason is to emphasize the importance of the eyewitness.

Michelangelo Caravaggio famously reacted against the late Mannerist style by creating realist depictions that were highly dependent on the use of models. For instance, in his paintings one often sees the same courtesan portraying different saints. The saints depicted are humble, barefoot, and there is often dirt under their fingernails. This caused quite a commotion at the time because it was viewed by some as crude and disrespectful. It was seen to minimize the transcendent.

In fact, Caravaggio seems to have been attempting to accomplish quite the opposite. As Andrew Graham-Dixon argues in his biography (Some of the criticism below is paraphrased from his work), Caravaggio’s paintings are the perfect visual representation of the Catholic Reformation as idealized by St. Charles Borromeo, who valued a presentation of the faith that had clarity, drama, and aroused personal devotion. Caravaggio presents us with canvases that minimize distraction and intellectual games in favor of striking images that communicate a single, highly developed insight. He is witness to a Biblical story and strives to bring what he has seen in his mind’s eye to life for the viewer. Through his personal witness, he is able to communicate powerfully the pathos and strangeness of a God who acts in history. As the incarnate Christ, God is both hidden in the natural world as a human being and, for those with eyes to see, the transformative figure in all of human history by which we are made like God.

Okay, I’m wandering a bit from my original intention with this post, which was to show a few paintings and comment on Caravaggio’s presence as eyewitness. By specifically seeing what he himself sees we gain the truth of the historical scene. Here is a portrait of him by a friend, see you if can find him in his own paintings:

Caravaggio

 Betrayal of Christ

 Betrayal of Christ

Here we see him at the edge of the see holding a lamp. He is straining to see the action, peering through the Gethsemane night. Our Lord is visibly flinching at the kiss of Judas. Notice, however, that the main light source is not coming from the lamp but from somewhere to the front left. Caravaggio sees but dimly. He knows a tragedy has occurred and strains to understand the manner in which the gentle Lamb of God gains victory as a pure sacrifice amongst brutish sinners.

Martyrdom of Matthew

Martyrdom of St Matthew

My favorite painting by Caravaggio. He depicts himself as a catechumen running away as fast as he can (the furthest back from the frame), pausing only for a moment to look back in horror. St. Matthew is vested in priestly garb and had been preparing for baptisms. In the early Church, catechumens were baptized nude in a pool of water. The pool was often directly in front of the altar. We can see St. Matthew’s left arm hanging down over the edge. He has already been injured and there is blood seeping through his vestments, perhaps dripping down and mingling with the baptismal water. The blood of the martyrs is equivalent to the drowning waters of baptism, much like the blood and water both spring from the side of Our Lord. St. Matthew himself seems to be bathed in heavenly light during the moment he is murdered by a false catechumen. It is the murderer who has become the baptizer. Perhaps Caravaggio feels as though his mortal sins (of which he claimed many, including trying to smash a man’s face in over artichokes) are keeping him at a distance from the communion of saints.

David with the Head of Goliath

 David with head of Goliath

Here is the ultimate eyewitness. It is Caravaggio himself who has been slain. The last sight his eyes beheld was God’s chosen avenger launching a stone his direction. The sadness that is now in David’s eyes was perhaps already present during the battle. Why must we sin and bind ourselves over to death? Why do we grieve God so? For the artist, this question is intensely personal and meditating on the theme brings the point home to me, too. Perhaps it ought to be my head in the hands of the boy king.

The Raising of Lazarus

 Caravaggio Lazarus

On the run from the Knights of Malta, moving from town to town, Caravaggio depicts himself in this altarpiece just above the outstretched hand of Our Lord. The hand is reminiscent of the hand of God on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. It reaches out and brings new life. Caravaggio, however, looks the opposite direction. The darkness is closing in on him and he strains to see the light at the entrance of the tomb.

Martyrdom of Saint Ursula

 Martyrdom of St Ursula

This is thought to be Caravaggio’s last picture and at the time he was in exile for having committed murder. In fact, his output at this time had been curtailed by severe facial injuries received in a revenge attack. He himself is convalescing at the same time he is depicting a holy saint who has been mortally wounded not out of revenge for her vice but for her purity. Saint Ursula has been shot with an arrow by her spurned lover, the King of the Huns. She looks mildly surprise and yet statuesque, beautiful, glowing with inner joy. Caravaggio peers over her shoulder and into the visage of the King. What is it that causes a man to murder?

Gardiner Against the Catholic Philistines

On one of my bedroom bookshelves sits a forgotten book by a forgotten writer: Norms for the Novel by Harold C. Gardiner, S.J. It is an interesting piece of literary criticism that was perhaps very much a product of its time (1953), but also a precursor of things to come. Fr. Gardiner was the literary editor of America magazine at the time, and had written positive reviews of novels many readers considered to be morally repugnant, including Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. He wrote articles defending his broad reading habits, which were eventually collected into the booklet Tenets for Readers and Reviewers (1944, rev. 1952).

He is also possibly a bit infamous both for publishing Flannery O’Connor’s essay “The Church and the Fiction Writer” in 1957 and for botching the editing on one paragraph. Other than that minor gaff, I think that Gardiner and O’Connor have many critical affinities, but that would be a discussion better left for another time.

In his endless defense against what he called “the Catholic Philistines,” Gardiner expanded his ideas into the longer Norms for the Novel, thereby covering a broader range of subjects. He is especially interested in moral evaluations, and about not jumping too quickly to the conclusion that a novel is immoral simply because the novelist depicts immoral actions. This was, after all, an age when a Catholic’s decision about whether or not to read a book often went no further than a reference to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. “Too much of the criticism of the novel in our recent past has been based on the assumption that a novel is simply a sociological tract dressed up in a bit of fictional trapping” (vii).

Fr. Gardiner

That is all fair enough, although in our present day these thoughts have become rather more commonplace than exceptional. It is more frequent today to read a Catholic reviewer nuancing or excusing questionable elements in a novel than chastising them. An interesting discussion could be had about whether Catholic criticism has leaned too far in this other direction, but Gardiner was surely offering a reasonable counterbalance to the excesses of his own time.

A small selection from the chapter “Fiction and the Art of Living” follows. Most of Fr. Gardiner’s books have been out of print for many years, and it would not be unwelcome to see them published again. His thoughts on the proper approach to Catholic criticism were seminal for what has followed.

The novelist, like any artist, is dealing with two basic but imponderable realities—truth and beauty. The adequacy or the excellence with which he blends these two elements will to a large extent determine his stature in the world of literature. For he must blend the two; if there is no basic truth in his work, its appeal to the reader’s heart and mind is spurious; if there is no perceptible beauty, there is no possible engagement of the emotions. It follows, moreover, that a proper realization of the respective function of these two elements will to a great extent determine the justice of the reader’s demands on the author.

What can the reader demand of the author? He can and must demand, as the present discussion has endeavored to show, that the author treat human beings as human beings and human life as human life—in other words that he never portray men as either angels or fiends incarnate. The reader can further demand and must demand that in treating human life humanly the author does not so glamorize the sinful element in his characters as to run the risk of making the reader’s life less human. (65-66)

Not By Banana Bread Alone

banana breadWhen do we cross the line from being called to being covetous? It’s a question I’ve been struggling with lately–a question I should have considered a long time ago–in my life as a writer. I confess that nearly every waking minute of my life, I dream about Having Time to Write. Uninterrupted time alone with my computer and my characters–Ahhh! When people ask me why I am a writer, I tell them it is because if I don’t write, the voices in my head will keep me awake at night. Fictional people literally scream to be let out of me. I remember being four or five years old, desperate to learn how to physically form letters on a page so I could finally start putting stories down on paper. If I am doing my real job, or driving, or cooking, or helping my children tie their shoes, odds are that I am also working through structural problems in a novel or composing dialogue in my head. The inability to escape these mundane tasks to transfer my thoughts onto paper (or microchips) leaves me distracted and on-edge. Writing is my calling, or so I have told myself for as long as I can remember. It’s not that I am writing Great Things that will change the world; but my writing time is a form of prayer, time spent exploring mysteries both human and divine. In recent years, I have also learned to view it as a ministry by which I convey a little of the love God has shown me to whoever reads my words. But if God has given me this calling, this gift, whatever it is, why doesn’t He give me time to fulfill it?

As a seemingly unrelated backdrop to this battle raging in my heart, my four-year-old son recently developed a love of baking. (It is not coincidence that he also has a deep, abiding love of sugar.) In particular, he embarked on a quest to bake banana bread. Insistently, continuously, he begged to make banana bread, even after I let him bake cookies (our house being empty of baking soda to make the bread rise at the time.) “Today, we will make banana bread!” he would declare, day after day, because asking politely is a skill he stubbornly refuses to learn.

Now, banana bread is not a necessary component of life. In a post-apocalyptic world, no one would trek across a bombed-out nuclear wasteland in search of it. Neither was I going to drop everything, put dinner on hold, make a special trip to the store for baking soda, just to indulge my son’s desire to bake it. But banana bread is one of the little joys that add beauty to life, and baking it together as Mom and Four-Year-Old is especially lovely. So, some days later–after we had made our regularly-scheduled trip to the grocery store and a rainy afternoon presented itself–we set about the business of measuring and mixing, teaching and learning and bonding. I let my son take credit for the finished product even though I did the lion’s share of the work.

…And I discovered a new way to think about my writing.

God does not need me to tell stories. He has no need of my little talents any more than I need my four-year-old to help me make banana bread. I could do it perfectly well by myself. So, too, God already understands life’s mysteries, and if He wants to convey any insight about them to the world, He certainly has better tools at His disposal than my poor, gasping words. My stories are not essential nourishment; they are banana bread, a sweet something extra. Yet my Father allows me to create them because writing is time that He and I spend together, time that is cherished and filled with love. Just as I cannot let my son bake banana bread every day–because how would we eat it all? And when would we go to the park, or chase caterpillars in the yard, or pretend to be birds?–I must accept that my Father knows best, and He will give me no more than it is good for me to have. He knows that a little banana bread will cheer me, but too much will sicken my soul. And He has shown me that, no matter how I struggle with my stories, no matter how much of myself I invest in them, I will always be just the four-year-old helper who takes the credit while He does the actual work.

So, I am not going to covet writing time anymore. I will discipline myself the way I have been trying to discipline my son, and remember to ask politely. “God, is it time now, please? No? Okay then.” “Today, God? Please? Thank you, Father.” For I do not live by my own feeble words, but by the ones that come from Him.

Babette’s Feast

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We began the month with an homage to the grilled cheese sandwich, I would like to close it with Babette’s Feast. The grilled cheese is delightful, but (because some of us are irredeemable food snobs) perhaps a proper, French feast is in order?

I can recall no worse dining experience than the food that is from time to time served on airplanes. I was recently forced to board an airplane and ride it through the sky to New Jersey for a work-related purpose. Airplanes fill me with anxiety. Not fear of heights, mind you, no, it is delightful and awe-inspiring to relax in a chair that flies through the sky by some unexplainable magic. I mostly fear two types of encounters, those with germs and those with bad food. With this in mind, I basically cross my arms over my chest, sit in my chair, and refuse to touch anything, eat, or breathe too deeply for the duration of the flight. It is a sort of totemic ritual by which comfort is derived.

To soothe my overburdened soul, I brought along a copy of Babette’s Feast to watch. I had never seen it and wasn’t sure what to expect but was soon enraptured. So much so that it was somewhat of a disappointment when landing preparations began and the movie hadn’t quite finished. I wouldn’t have minded circling the runway a few times.

Babette’s Feast is almost 30 years old now, which is to me the definition of a cutting-edge new release (I’m making a habit of on-the-spot cultural commentary), but I imagine I may divulge the plot with no fear of reprisal. It’s rather simple, really. Two sisters are the daughters of a deceased fundamentalist preacher. Each in the past has turned away a suitor in order to remain at the time with her father. One of these suitors later sends a French refugee, Babette, to live with the sisters. She does so for many years, cooking and doing other housework until a windfall from the lottery gives her the funds to splurge on ingredients to cook a great feast. This feast she prepares and gives for the sisters and the remaining religious followers of their late father. That is the entire plot.

It doesn’t sound like much, right? It seems to me that there is a refreshing quality about a film that refuses high-concept plot and instead spends time with characters and atmosphere. The glacial northern air seeps through the screen and envelops the viewer. The pace is slow and time is given to express the interiority of the events. It all unfolds delicately and with great nuance, as a proper French feast ought.

There is beauty in the details. A stray remark by one of the religious adherents betrays hidden resentments underlying the proper, puritanical exterior of the sect. The cold sea wind brings with it spiritual depression. A typical meal is a form of gruel. All of this is set on edge by Babette, who causes the arrival of a giant tortoise destined to become one of the courses in a meal that is now suspected by the villagers to be a satanic feast. General Lorenz (one of the long ago-suitors returned for a visit) savors a spoonful of broth. Bright eyed, surprised glances light up the table. From course to course, the feast is found to be more enjoyable and distrust morphs into quiet happiness. Finally, we are left with a scene of the revelers dancing about the town square holding hands and singing a hymn. The feast has changed them. The stars seem closer. God has become more real.

Babettes-Feast-7943_7During the meal General Lorenz, who has spent time in France, reminisces about a similar meal he has had in Paris at the famous Café Anglais. The food there had the quality of bringing about reconciliation amongst those who partook. Babette’s Feast is not mere food, it is spiritual communion. The excellence of preparation bears with it the virtue of love itself. Many of us, I suspect, have had a meal with friends and family like this from time to time. Many of us, I pray, have been graced by this very meal in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the meal towards which all others aspire.

The feast costs Babette all of her money. She is not able, as had been assumed by everyone else, to use the money to return to France. Perhaps it is her sacrifice that makes this meal so special (it is no coincidence that she wears a cross necklace). We are changed into what we rbabette_2427002keceive and what is received is the total self-gift of the chef. Babette considers the exchange to be one in which she gains. She has given all she has, but she will never be poor.

In some mysterious way, artistic endeavor and love and beauty and goodness and truth are all bound up together, the one leading to all of the others. An artist suffers in the creating but becomes truly rich in the giving, by allowing others to participate in what has been created. Art binds mankind together. The mystical communion of saints knows no bounds. General Lorenz, speaking to his long lost love after the feast, gives an inspired benediction:

 I have been with you every day of my life. Tell me you know that…You must also know that I shall be with you every day that is granted to me from now on. Every evening I shall sit down to dine with you. Not with my body, which is of no importance, but with my soul. Because this evening I have learned, my dear, that in this beautiful world of ours, all things are possible.

A human being is more than a soul to be freed from the temptations of the physical world. A human being is a soul expressed in physical form. Because of this, we understand that there is beauty and joy and spiritual good to be had in something as simple as a feast, which is not merely food but rather a mediation of the communion of saints. It is not for nothing that Our Lord compares heaven to a feast. It is not for nothing that he chooses to come to us under the aspects of bread and wine.

How Hollywood Built a Golden Age in Five Easy Steps

I have a date with Alexander Nevsky this coming week–if all goes well, with both the film and a symphonic performance of Prokfiev’s score. This has gotten the wheels in my head spinning about two of my favorite subjects: my inexplicable fascination with Soviet-era art (which I will spare you any further discussion of in this post), and the overwhelming number of amazing films produced in the 1930s. Almost any movie you decide to download from the second half of that decade will not disappoint. Here is the list of Best Picture nominees from the 1940 Oscars, honoring films released in 1939:

Winner: Gone With the Wind

Dark Victory

Goodbye, Mr. Chips

Love Affair

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Ninotchka

Of Mice and Men

Stagecoach

The Wizard of Oz

Wuthering Heights

That was all just in one year. They followed on the heels of earlier ‘30s films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, A Star Is Born, and Mutiny on the Bounty. If you don’t mind extending the Golden Age into the early 1940s, you can throw in Citizen Kane, The Philadelphia Story, The Maltese Falcon, and many more. No other era of cinema comes close to producing the same number of classics per films released–but why? What made these films so great, and how did Hollywood manage to make so many of them at the same time?

We here at Dappled Things take the business of culture-building seriously, but thus far, the only model I have seen proposed for the modern development of Catholic art and literature to follow is the mid-twentieth century flourishing of writers like Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, et. al. A good place to start, certainly, but it need not be an end. The Golden Age of Hollywood inundated the collective American consciousness with stories–works of art–that continue to shape our national imagination three-quarters of a century after they were made. Isn’t that what our current renaissance seeks to do? The fact that these films did not usually feature religious elements is no reason we cannot learn from them.

There are plenty of differences between literature and film, but at their core, they are both ways of telling stories, and stories shape our culture in ways that are deeper and more profound than today’s “cultural arena” of politics. Did the financial crises of the ‘30s, the government’s many social programs, the battle over the Supreme Court, leave a lasting impact on American society? Absolutely. But let me ask: which of these iconic lines from the ‘30s is indelibly embedded in your mind?

Let’s Get Another Deck

or

There’s no place like home

Quite probably, you’ve never heard Alfred M. Landon’s slogan from his presidential campaign against Roosevelt in 1936. But I’m betting you have watched Dorothy click the heels of her ruby slippers.rubyslippers

So, to return to the question at hand: how did Hollywood create its Golden Age, and what can we learn from it? Here are some of the answers:

1. They did not try to reinvent the wheel.

Notice how many of those amazing movies are literary adaptations. The silent film era had already begun adapting classic novels and plays, but the advent of sound allowed the words of the originals to take on new life. Because sound film was a new medium, the entire canon of world literature was its oyster. To see Wuthering Heights on a screen was to experience the story in a whole new way. Filmmakers also incorporated existing traditions from theater, music, dance, and visual arts. To this day, the most widely-credited film score composer in the world is Richard Wagner, who died before the invention of the motion picture camera. Filmmakers understood that the elements of good storytelling never change, and they could cast a wider net if they stood on the shoulders of giants.

2. They helped people escape from reality.

MutinyontheBountyNo one wanted to spend his paltry paycheck from his WPA job to go see a film about miserable people standing in bread lines. Escape is a word that has been much maligned among “serious” artists, who often eschew it as the stuff of mere entertainment. But people crave it–so why not put it to good use? The actors were beautiful and romance abounded. And then, once the audience had left the gray Depression to arrive on the deck of a pirate ship or in the office of some gumshoe private-eye…

3. They tugged the audience’s heartstrings.

LoveAffairMr. Smith Goes to Washington allowed every “little guy” in America to go take a swing at Washington fat cats. Dark Victory and Love Affair both involve couples rent apart by illness or injury. Golden Age movies gave us genuinely sympathetic characters, and also celebrated the fact that those characters were flawed humans. Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler are very far from being saints, but no one can help rooting for their sheer determination.

4. Innovation was the norm.

SnowWhiteCoupled with an adherence to the time-honored rules of storytelling came an anything-goes race to experiment. What happens when you add singing to the plot of a novel? Can I make a fairy tale into a cartoon and then let the heroine sing English words over a Tchaikovsky ballet? Without computers to make the special effects, the art of filmmaking itself required constant creativity. How do you put a tornado on screen? Or film a burning plantation? At the same time that filmmakers remained true to many artistic traditions, they were also fearless in their desire to surprise because…

5. They wanted everyone to buy a ticket. 

ScarlettandRhettThe wonderful thing about the film market of the 1930s was that it was not fractured into the thousands of sub-markets we are accustomed to thinking about in 2015. Theaters typically only had one screen, and many towns only had one theater. If you wanted a return on your investment, you’d better make your film appeal to people in many different walks of life, often including children. Did this marginalize the stories of minority members of the population? Absolutely. That was the down side. The up side was that the stories had to appeal to what is most basically human in all of us, or else be financial failures. Our modern marketing “wisdom” likes to target every imaginable niche, selling us ways to further divide ourselves from the rest of humanity, but the fact is that the stories we cherish as a culture are the ones that speak to the greatest possible number people. No story will speak to everyone, but it is never wrong to try.

It is important to note that later Hollywood classics deviated widely from this this Golden Age formula. The Godfather has no sympathetic characters; the battle scenes in Braveheart are anything but an escape; The English Patient certainly did not have universal appeal–I could go on ad nauseam. It is impossible to peg down criteria that apply to all classics, especially since few people agree about which movies (books, plays, etc.) qualify for the title. My goal is not to define what makes a classic, nor to limit the scope of what ought to be included in our present cultural revival. Rather, I hope that by discussing the trends that made the movies of the Golden Age golden, the Catholic literary world can find a way to emulate its success. We might tell ourselves that the culture and the market have changed since the 1930s, but a 2014 nationwide poll still named Gone With the Wind as the most popular movie in America seventy-five years after its release. And in second place… Star Wars, which fits all of the above criteria for a Golden Age movie, even if it was not made during the Golden Age.

The Unsheathing of Dante

The invocation of the Muse has a long and storied history, dating back at least to the ocularly challenged Homer. In later times it would become a poetic tradition with Vergil and all his Medieval and Renaissance imitators. The poet would make a show of humility, acknowledging his debt to the divine bestowers of poetic genius. The nine daughters of Memory were the movers of the human mind, raising men up into greatness of science and song.

Dante Alighieri, writing in the Vergilian tradition and willing to use the pagan deities as poetic metaphors even in a Christian era, was aware that his Roman forerunner invoked the Muse to tell him “the reasons why / a wounded power divine, a queen of the gods” would condemn Aeneas to fruitless wandering. The Florentine poet similarly understood his debt to the celestial powers, and the figure of an inspirational heavenly woman—Muse or otherwise—resonated strongly with the maker of the Sweet New Style.

It takes Dante until the second canto of his Inferno to invoke the Muse, however briefly: “O Muses, O high genius, help me now! / O memory that engraved the things I saw, / here shall your worth be manifest to all” (II.7-9). In Hell, he asks Vergil for help more than the divine ladies: “you who guide my steps, / see to my strength, make sure it will suffice” (II.10-11). Hell is a worldly place, full of obvious imagery and well known monstrosities, and the Muse is not much needed to inspire a description of the damned.

In the Purgatorio Dante wastes less time admitting his need for divine inspiration:

My little ship of ingenuity
   now hoists her sails to speed through better waters,
   leaving behind so pitiless a sea…
Here rise to life again, dead poetry!
   Let it, O holy Muses, for I am yours,
   and here, Calliope, strike a higher key. (I.1-3, 7-9)

The realm of Purgatory is one of greater stature and importance than Hell, and as such it requires a greater genius of poetry—a “higher key”—to properly sing of it. Calliope is the mother of the doomed poet Orpheus and is the Muse associated with epic poetry, also invoked by Vergil in book nine of the Aeneid. Her inspiration is required to sing of the quasi-celestial realm of the ascending dead.

When Dante begins writing the Paradiso he fully acknowledges his dependence on heavenly assistance, but now instead of the Muse he invokes the sun god himself, Apollo. As a symbol of Christ, the bright Apollo is needed to inspire “this last work of art” (I.13) that will win Dante the poetic laurel. He had few worries about doing justice to Hell and Purgatory, but Heaven is so far above the experience of our sinful, earthly lives that he is desperate to receive the god of music’s help. The Muses are daughters of Memory, but Heaven is a place where “memory cannot follow” (I.9). Dante’s memory of his time in Heaven is insufficient because that is a place of pure ideas and spirits, where the sensory phantasms of human memory are of little use.

Till this hour
   one peak of twin Parnassus has sufficed,
   but if I am to enter the lists now
I shall need both. (I.16-19)

The sacred Thessalian mountain of Parnassus was the home of the Muses and the stomping grounds of the winged horse Pegasus. One peak of Parnassus was sufficient to inspire a poetry of Hell and Purgatory, but not of Heaven. A more worldly poet would be obsessed with damnation and punishment, pouring all of his genius into a description of the vile and base, while finding the subject of a blissful paradise too dull and abstract to take seriously.

But the most vivid image Dante uses to request poetic inspiration comes just after Parnassus:

Then surge into my breast
   and breathe your song, as when you drew the vain
   Marsyas from the sheath of his own limbs. (I.19-21)

In classical mythology, Marsyas was the satyr who challenged Apollo to a musical contest, lost, and was rewarded for his hubris with a thorough skinning. For Marsyas this was a cruel punishment, but Dante uses it as an image of mystical ecstasy. In writing about his journeys, Dante is daring to challenge the inscrutability of Heaven with verse, and hopes thereby for a future release from worldly things, one much like the transport he already received when Beatrice toured him amongst the heavenly spheres. It is a grotesquely violent image, not unlike the alien figures Dante recently watched parade through the paradise at the top of Purgatory.

The satyric unsheathing is not for the sake of poetry itself. He does not want to be in ecstasy beholding the beauty of the art, but hopes that his fumbling art will be received as a request to allow him to behold Beauty itself in the highest Heaven. It is the antithesis of art for art’s sake. It is rather art for the sake of God as man’s final end.

Poetry thus becomes a kind of penance, a purification of the soul and preparation for death. Dante is challenging Christ to a singing contest, knowing that he will fall very short, and is prepared to lose his skin in exchange for a heavenly reward.

[The quotes are from Anthony Esolen’s recent translation published by The Modern Library.]

The Devil’s Truths

I should have destroyed them. Who needs them? What good are they going to do the world? I had painted them; wasn’t that enough? No, it wasn’t enough. They had to be moved into the public arena. You communicate in the public arena; everything else is puerile and cowardly.

-My Name is Asher Lev

Dante's Francesca and Paolo, falling for the same old story.

       Dante’s Francesca and Paolo, falling for the same old story, and ending just exactly where you imagine.

The devil’s best lies are almost entirely true.

God made sex, and it’s one of my favorite things. I was designed for it, among other things, and I’m good at it. At least, I’m pretty sure I will be. Because, I’ve gotten close to it, and I know how to move, and what sounds to make, and what to hold onto, and what to say to let him know he’s doing everything just how I want it. I know how to do all of that because God made me knowing it. No one had to tell me how; I knew it even when I didn’t know I knew it. I was built for it, built to give it all, to make it all, for the man I love, for the man who loves me, who, just by being what he is, opens up all the strange wildness I’ve kept tucked out of even my own sight. He has opened me to a part of me I didn’t know, helped me to be more who I am than I’ve ever been, and the most natural thing in the world is to give him my whole self—the core of myself— that I only know because of what he’s done for me, what he’s given to me.

God calls us to complete surrender, to a surrender of generous love, to a giving over of ourselves to something outside of ourselves. And in that surrender, that going out of ourselves, He tells us we’ll find more joy than we’ve known in anything in our whole lives. We’ll find ourselves—lose ourselves—in ecstasy. So now I’m going to go show this man, this man who is not my husband, how utterly I love him; I am going to surrender my innermost self to him and accept his outpouring of love for me. God designed us to give love, to make love, and now we will.

Right. Why wait, after all? We know we’re going to be married. It’s the one Sacrament that lovers give to one another, rather than receiving from God’s ordained. All of that grace is already here, surrounding us, flowing back and forth between us. This will make us whole, this will make us holy. So say the murmuring voices, and they’re absolutely right. It will make us truly ourselves. Ninety-nine percent exactly right. . . . And then, they add, there is no need to wait. Simeon didn’t wait—never put in decades of patience to earn the right to say, “Now lettest Thou Thy servant depart.” And even if he did, that waiting made sense; this doesn’t. Did Mary really keep her secret quiet, wait eighteen years to say, “Whatsoever He tells you, do.”? And Jesus didn’t wait, or work, or suffer, to smash the gates of Hell. It all came easily, void of sacrifice, just like sex.

The devil is intimately acquainted with the truth. And he is a liar.

Contributing author: J.B. Toner

April is Grilled Cheese Poetry Month

Grilled cheese is, of course, the perfect food with which to celebrate Poetry Month, combining as it does those two ingredients both universal in their appeal and infinite in their variety. As poetry transforms and elevates language, so the grilled cheese sandwich transmutes the humble elements of bread and cheese into a golden unity. Indeed, in the realm of edible alchemy it would not be unfair to draw a comparison with the mythical Philosopher’s Scone.

It’s no surprise, then, that many poets have turned their hands to the subject of grilled cheese. Most famous, perhaps, was Robert Frost, who saw so clearly the transience of earthly things in “Nothing Grilled Can Stay”:

So curds go down to whey.
Nothing grilled can stay.

W.B. Yeats saw all too well the limitations of earthly food, but he also saw a promise of transcendence. These lines recall another famous verse about a grain of wheat.

A grain of wheat is but a paltry thing,
A tattered groat upon a stalk, unless
Mill turn its wheel and sing, and louder sing
For every kernel in its stone compress.

“Grilling to Byzantium” gives eloquent voice to his desire for immortality, for “monuments of melted magnificence” that stand beyond the natural world and its ceaseless cycle of death and rebirth.

O bread-loaves standing by the flour mill
As in an old prosaic pastoral,
Come from the flour mill, burn on a grill,
And be the sandwich-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dieting animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artistry of the panini.

For Wallace Stevens, though, there is nothing beyond the circle of the dinner plate.

Let catsup be finale of squeeze.
The only emperor is the emperor of grilled-cheese.

These lines place the grilled cheese squarely within the philosophical traditions and concerns of the twentieth century. But the concept of heated sandwiches long predates these poets, and has hardly been limited to poems in the English language. Grilled cheese may be a quintessentially modern and Western food, but scholars have traced the genre back as far as Bashō.

ホット鉄板 や
ブレッド飛び込む
バターの音

The hot grill–
Sandwich jumps on,
Sound of butter.

This too has found its twentieth-century adherents. It was from the quasi-Imagist manner of this haiku that Ezra Pound derived “In a Station of the Food Court”, with its arresting vision of

Cheeses on a hot, black grill.

And no one who has heard these lines of Octavio Paz can ever forget his idea of a midnight snack:

Si abres los ojos,
se abre la noche de tostado de queso,
se abre el reino secreto del sopa
que mana del centro de la noche.

Y si los cierras,
una sopa, una corriente dulce y silenciosa,
te inunda por dentro, avanza, te hace hambre,
la noche calienta emparedados en tu alma.

In nineteenth-century France, Baudelaire himself was not immune to the seductive lure of the cheese sandwich, but in “Fromages du Mal” his imagination, unsurprisingly, takes a surreal turn.

On dirait ton sandwich d’un fromage couvert;
Fromage mystérieux (est-il bleu, jaune ou vert?)
Alternativement tendre, crémeux, cruel,
Réfléchit le splendeur et l’éclat du ciel.

In the midst of these competing visions and interpretations, Archibald MacLeish pleaded for simplicity and a return to basics in “Ars Sabulovica”.

A sandwich should not go to waste
But taste.

But the last word, of course, must belong to Elizabeth Bishop who alone had the courage to transform grilled cheese into an imperative and a formula for living.

The art of grilling isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be grilled that their loss is no disaster.

Grill something every day. Accept the fluster
of melted cheese, the sandwich badly burnt.
The art of grilling isn’t hard to master.

Then practice grilling farther, grilling faster:
flatbread, pizza, and what it was you meant
to stir-fry. None of these will bring disaster.

I grilled my tuna melt. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three grilled reubens went.
The art of grilling isn’t hard to master.

I grilled two burgers, lovely ones. And, after,
some cheddar cheese, two pickles, a condiment.
I grilled them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

Even grilling this, (the turkey club, a sandwich
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
The art of grilling’s not too hard to master
Though it may look like (Grill it!) like disaster.