Where Is All the Fiction-Inspired Art?

It is a curious phenomenon that so few of our works of fiction inspire great, or even mediocre, works of visual art. Once it was the case that the usual matter for visual artists was the popular stories of the time and of antiquity: Homer, Vergil, Ovid, Dante, and many others provided seemingly endless fodder for painters, sculptors, potters, illustrators, and makers of decorative items. The popular romances of the middle ages—at times their version of our trashy novels—added reasonably to the mix, as well.

One can hardly imagine an illustrator itching to depict all the thrilling scenes from To Kill a Mockingbird (Atticus bravely shooting a sick dog?), The Great Gatsby (an allegorical figure rowing a boat?), Of Mice and Men (Lennie crushing small animals?), The Catcher in the Rye (Holden Caulfield getting punched by a pimp?), or Catch-22 (perhaps a montage of the same event over and over?). Of the popular modern novels, only a few standouts like Lord of the Flies and Animal Farm could provide especially interesting visual imagery, but even those wouldn’t spawn much more than a few interesting scenes (mostly involving pigs).

Just a few of the artists inspired by one medieval story.

Just a few of the artists inspired by one medieval story.

This is the downside of the psychological novel, as great as it is. The inner drama of the soul does not easily translate into a visual form without a medium of outward action. A great film actor could show this simply with his face, and a great sculptor or painter could do the same with his figure, but that sort of artistic greatness is rare. It is much better in the larger scope of things to have material that even merely “good” artists can clearly depict.

In a sense, the more it has become itself, the more the novel has drifted away from the other arts into isolation. One cannot imagine a great novel like Conrad’s Nostromo making a great stage play, for instance. Only an experimental artist would write a cycle of ballads about Mrs. Dalloway. The madness of Finnegans Wake would not even inspire a mind-blowing film dream sequence. The novel has become too subtle to successfully pollinate the other arts.

Nothing to see here.

Nothing to see here.

There are exceptions. Notably, the fantastic fiction of John Tolkien has inspired visual artists for decades. My parents collected the annual Tolkien wall calendars, all of which displayed twelve paintings or drawings in an impressively large reproduction. While the quality varied from year to year depending on the artist, most left a lasting impact on myself and countless other Tolkien fans. Some renditions of scenes from The Silmarillion were even more memorable than the published stories.

As a child, I often felt the tragedy of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth more tangibly through his illustrators than through his books. Likewise, I fell in love with Greek and Norse myths more through their artistic portrayals than through the often roughly-constructed stories. I became familiar with the Divine Comedy through Gustave Doré’s woodcuts long before I read the poem. And what child hasn’t flipped through his copy of the Chronicles of Narnia looking for all of Pauline Baynes’ drawings?

They were called unfinished tales for a reason, but doesn’t this just evoke an entire epic poem?

They were called unfinished tales for a reason, but doesn’t this just evoke an entire epic poem?

At the risk of becoming a heresy-hunting blogger, I have to wonder if there isn’t something rather Manichean about this problem. The separation of soul and body, of mind and flesh, is a perennial error we cannot seem to be rid of. The extremes of the psychological novel have something Cartesian about them, being all about internal thought and emotion, and very little about outward action. The less the characters of a story act, the less any visual artist has to work with. One cannot easily paint Hamlet’s internal distress, but any five-year old can draw Hamlet holding Yorick’s skull.

Visually attractive art is a kind of gateway into a great book, attracting readers a novelist might not otherwise have. Someone who has never heard of Orlando Furioso might search out a copy after flipping through Doré’s set of illustrations. The cover art for novels that are popular (or required reading for school) are usually dull or so abstract that a non-fan can’t get even a moderate understanding of the story inside. Stephen King’s novels unfortunately make for better cover art than Harper Lee’s, despite his inferior talent.

If there is some happy medium–or exalted golden mean–between schlock pulp fiction and high psychological prose, it seems that few have found it. There is a natural tendency for any community to become more insular over time, and the high-art novelist community is no exception. But with book sales still on a steady decline in spite of the occasional Harry Potter-esque shot in the arm, perhaps an increased consideration of cross-medium artistic pollination is in order.

What could go wrong?

What could go wrong? (source)

The Denver Publishing Institute

I’m sure I’m not alone in the Dappled Things community in having been told way too many times that my Liberal Arts degree was useless. And not only was it merely Liberal Arts! It was an English degree. Oh frivolity of frivolities! How will you ever got a job like that?

Six years after the fact, I’m proud to say I’ve been gainfully and steadily employed because of that English degree, first as a teacher, and now as an editor. So don’t let the haters getcha down! But also. . .

If you find yourself a little stuck, or, maybe even if you don’t, start thinking about developing that “useless” degree with some practical application coursework. I like my current job! I really do. But it’s not exactly the kind of editing I had in mind. BOOKS. That’s what I had in mind. So, I decided to up my ante.


I applied to the Denver Publishing Institute (DPI), and, after some nail-biting (wait-listed?! NObody wait-lists ME!) I’m lucky enough to be attending it now. In a four-week intensive program, they’re teaching me as much as they possibly can about the book publishing world, from the work of a literary agent to an acquisitions editor to the breakdown of publishing houses to marketing and beyond. (And no, they are not paying me to write this post. Scout’s honor.) They’re giving me real in-progress manuscripts to work on, evaluate, learn from and write reports on (which, actually, I should be doing right now. . .). The lecturers are some fantastic people with wild stories, excellent advice, and hard-earned wisdom, like the head of Young Adult publishing at Penguin (who refers to Louis L’Amour as “Louis.” NBD.), the head of Princeton University Press, and a young woman who has quickly risen through the ranks to run Scribner’s.

There are two other comparable programs in the country, at NYU, and at Columbia University. DPI isn’t cheap, but those two are hideously expensive. Name brand and what-not, I suppose. Also, the other programs spend time teaching magazine, journal and (last I checked) digital publishing. Really cool stuff! But not what I wanted.

So, if you would like to be a book editor (or literary agent or publicist or independent literary guru) and you find yourself at loose ends, might I suggest you look into this program. One of the great advantages to it, on top of all the nuts and bolts of the publishing world it will teach you, is that it connects you with an incredible network of people, many of whom have been highly successful in the publishing world, know it backwards and forwards, and have a great respect for DPI and the young men and women who have gone through the program.

Also, the campus is beautiful, complete with a mountain backdrop, collegiate gothic architecture, and ducklings in the lily pad pond. Can’t beat that.


I am not a Beach Person

I am not a beach person, and I prefer to take my long walks along rocky coastlines or in the mountains, where I am free from the distractions of beach towels, beach umbrellas, beach volleyball, sunscreen, sunglasses, and sun worshippers. If I go to the beach, it will be in late winter or early spring, perhaps in Florida, perhaps in the south of France, where I will fly kites or gather pebbles from the sand and collect foreign coins. But although I am not, as I say, a beach person, I think I know what the beach means. If the ocean is the primordial chaos, the beach is our earthly paradise. It is a Garden of Eden, and an angel stands over it with a burning sword. Dante thought of heaven, and he saw a mystic rose with the company of saints enthroned upon the petals, illuminated by the light of God. When we think of paradise we see palm trees and sand and the company of tourists enthroned upon beach chairs, illuminated by the tropical sun.

I suppose we’re no longer encouraged to think of heaven in anything but earthly terms, and that is why the first explorers of the South Sea islands believed that they had stumbled upon an earthly paradise, and projected upon its inhabitants the corresponding state of primeval innocence. Who was more surprised: the islanders to find out that they were innocent, or the explorers to find out that they were not? Even Dante placed the terrestrial paradise in the southern ocean, but he understood well enough to know that it could be found only by winning to the summit of the mountain of Purgatory. Are we wrong to think that the beach is a symbol of paradise? No, but we forget that it is only a symbol of paradise, and to enter paradise itself may call for devotion, purity of heart, and a clarity of mind not always found among beachgoers.

If you disbelieve in Heaven because you cannot imagine it, or because you can imagine only an eternity of clouds, harps, and music, and are not thereby filled with longing for the courts of the house of our God, then you might be listening to the wrong music. There is a story that St. Augustine, trying to understand the mystery of the Trinity, was reproved by the example of a boy trying to empty the sea with a shell. And there was once a king of England who placed his throne upon the seashore to show his flatterers that he was not the master of the tides. The beach is not the least of the places where wisdom may be found, if you know where to look.

Pity the peoples of the South Pacific islands, not because they have been misunderstood, but because they themselves know nothing of autumn and of winter, of the remarkable evergreens that never change their color, of the remarkable maple trees that do, of the snowfall whiter than the finest sand and the sea that freezes over. Untaught by the discipline of the seasons, they do not know that the blazing noondays and swift sunsets of their perpetual summer are not an eternal and universal possession but a gift that others dearly buy and slowly earn. Pity the islanders, for they have had their reward. Pity the beachgoers, for they have theirs. Pity the Australians, and all who must celebrate Christmas in the summer, and who miss the symbolic interruption of summer in winter, of day into night, the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness that comprehendeth it not.

I am not a summer person, but I think I know what summer means. Summer is a reward in proportion to what we have earned. Summer is also a symbol of heaven, as all the poets agree, and heaven too is a reward in proportion to our capacity to enjoy it. I spent several of the past few summers in graduate school. I won’t say that graduate school is heaven, but when I recall the hours of reading Dante in the classroom, eavesdropping on a rehearsal of a Bach aria in the great hall, glimpsing the rings of Saturn from the observatory telescope, or demonstrating geometrical propositions on the blackboard, I’m inclined to compare it favorably with the beach. I know that school is not nearly so popular as the beach, probably because it takes more practice to enjoy it. But I also suspect that school has a higher graduation rate. The rules are clear for both: you take out what you carry in. But you can always find something new: a shell, a metaphor, a message in a bottle. Keep looking.

St. Elizabeth of Portugal – Pray for Us!

July 4th – America’s birthday and the feast of St. Elizabeth of Portugal. A perfect pairing?

St. Elizabeth of Portugal (relative of St. Elizabeth of Hungary) was married at the age of 12 by proxy to King Dinis of Portugal. Despite praising his wife in word (he was a poet of some renown), King Dinis betrayed his wife in deed (he was an adulterer of some renown, too). Adding insult to injury, King Dinis asked his wife to raise these children of adultery in their house, as she would her own.

Her heroic response should not surprise, nor should the result of her generosity. Ultimately, her own legitimate son, Afonse, sought violently to overthrow his own father the king, for fear of his older half-brothers’ acceding to the throne before him. Unable to bear the impending slaughter between her husband and son, she endeavored to broker peace between the two. Though innocent of rumors that she had incited her son’s rebellion, Queen Elizabeth found herself exiled to a house-arrest at her husband’s hand. Despite the injustice, she remained faithful to her husband, breaking her exile only for the purpose of attempting to mediate peace between King Dinis and his son Afonse, who remained at strife until King Dinis’s deathbed, whereat Dinis charged Afonse to care for Elizabeth in his own place.

For her part, Elizabeth took up widowed life as a Franciscan Tertiary, building Churches, hospitals, caring for the sick (especially lepers), and praying intensely.

What, then, has Elizabeth of Portugal to do with America? Two points stand out. First, she offers an example of patient suffering, prudent and daring peacemaking, and prioritizing the good over the convenient. She served the good of her King and husband, despite accusations of subterfuge and a unjust exile. Second, she serves as a prophetic witness for Catholics attempting to contribute to the civic project of the American democracy. Like Elizabeth, American Catholics might find themselves exiled for their own best efforts at participating in America’s governance. A peek at the most recent SCOTUS decision on same-sex “marriage” gives a hint: “The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure” (emphasis mine). This sentence attempts to assuage the fear of many that religious groups will not be free to teach their position on same-sex marriage and argue for it publicly. No doubt such protections will continue, but more interesting is what does not appear in this sentence: the word “practice.” Religious practice might not be protected, though it’s “teaching” will. Tragically, the Church might soon be erroneously compared to truly evil institutions or persons. Consider this: as far as SCOTUS is concerned, the Catholic Church is like an institution that refuses to recognize interracial marriage, or a restaurant that refuses to serve minorities. We, the Catholic Church, could be maligned as an institution that continues to fight for a “dead issue”; we can be lambasted as being on the “wrong side” of history as far as the Supreme Court is concerned. Therefore, Catholics’ right to speech is protected, but not their right to practice, which is (in the eyes of the SCOTUS majority) manifestly unconstitutional. It would seem, terrifyingly and unjustly, in light of Obergefell et al., vs. Hodges, et al., that the Catholic Church could be likened to that backward-minded, pitiful owner of a diner who still pines for the days of Jim Crow Laws. He can attempt to argue for segregation, to “teach” segregation, but he’d be arrested (thankfully) for actually segregating his diner. Any comparison in truth between the Catholic Church and such a racist diner owner is an abomination; race has nothing to do with whether a person can order lunch, yet biological sex has everything to do with whether a person is capable of marrying. Likewise, race has nothing to do with whether a person is capable of marrying, yet biological sex has everything to do with whether a person is capable of marrying. The distinction the Catholic Church and the racist is invisible to SCOTUS because the court chooses an understanding of marriage along personal, intimate, romantic lines rather than biologically reproductive lines. The link between procreation and marriage (let alone the link between sexual intimacy and procreation) is entirely absent from the SCOTUS decision. One can hardly be surprised, therefore, at the Court’s decision as well as the possible consequences to come. Like St. Elizabeth of Portugal, the Church has been betrayed by one who ought to have protected her. Like St. Elizabeth, the Catholic Church will be asked to welcome and tend to the fruit of this betrayal as well. In all likelihood, the Catholic Church, as St. Elizabeth, will find herself innocent and exiled.

I imagine that, in the near future, if pastors are to be considered valid solemnizers of marriage contracts, they are going to be required to solemnize any legal marriage (including those between persons of the same sex). Refusing to do so might just result in their loss of status as solemnizer for all such contracts. Long-story short, all Catholic clergy may eventually be disqualified from solemnizing marriage contracts, since they practice discrimination on the grounds of orientation or sex. In this case, Catholics whose marriages are “solemnized” by a priest will need to see the justice of the peace (or Elvis) to make their marriage contract valid. It seems the stage is being set to defend the teaching, that is, the speech of religious persons (so long as they are safely in church buildings full of like-minded persons), but not any practice of religion that may be construed as having public or civic impact or visibility. Catholics, like St. Elizabeth, for all they contribute to the common good of their nation, may soon suffer exile to a house arrest of the sanctuary for mass and the parish hall for donuts.

The truth of the Church’s contribution to the common good will, like St. Elizabeth’s be vindicated one day. At his deathbed, King Dinis knew his wife’s true worth, and witnessed to it publicly, repenting of his sin against her. Let us pray the Church’s value in her defense of marriage and religious liberty need not await such dire circumstances for its recognition. Let us pray that, as St. Elizabeth, we may boldly break from our house-arrest and ride to the battle front to speak the perennial truth for the love of God and the love of our neighbor in God.

Be Praised! The Canticle of Creatures

Pope Francis Laudato Si

Pope Francis recently released the encyclical letter Laudato Si. I am still reading and thinking about it, but would like to offer an initial, limited reaction for your consideration. The title of encyclicals typically comes from the first line and this particular first line has a storied past. Here it is along with the opening section:

“Laudato si’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with colored flowers and herbs”. This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.… Nothing in this world is indifferent to us. (1,2)

Here is the full text of the poem by St. Francis, The Canticle of the Creatures (or Canticle of the Sun):

Most high, all powerful, all good Lord!
All praise is Yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing.

To You, alone, Most High, do they belong.
No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce Your name.

Be praised, my Lord, through all Your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and You give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of You, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
in the heavens You have made them bright, precious and beautiful.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
and clouds and storms, and all the weather,
through which You give Your creatures sustenance.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom You brighten the night.
He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth,
who feeds us and rules us,
and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of You;
through those who endure sickness and trial.

Happy those who endure in peace,
for by You, Most High, they will be crowned.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Bodily Death,
from whose embrace no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!

Happy those she finds doing Your most holy will.
The second death can do no harm to them.

Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks,
and serve Him with great humility.

I am reminded of the Canticle from Daniel 3 that is found in the breviary to sing for feast days: “Bless the Lord, all you works of the Lord…”

Regardless of where one stands on man-made global warming or the prudential actions that may or may not be required personally or on the level of national economies to solve it (or not!?), I hope that we can all agree to take seriously our solidarity with and stewardship over nature. Pope Francis clearly does and, in my opinion, this encyclical is a sorely needed reminder for us to reflect on our obligations to creation.

Pope Francis comments further on The Canticle of the Creatures,

When we can see God reflected in all that exists, our hearts are moved to praise the Lord for all his creatures and to worship him in union with them. (87)

We miss the point of both the poem and the encyclical if we examine them through the lens of contemporary politics. All of this pales in comparison to the astounding fact that nature is God-shaped. In nature, there is beauty that leads us ever upward and into the eternal beauty of the divine. Our hearts are moved to praise God. Knowing this, how could we possibly disagree that it is our sacred obligation to care for our world? To deface creation is to deface the image of God himself.

So that we do not misunderstand, Pope Francis makes clear that a hierarchy is in place,

This is not to put all living beings on the same level nor to deprive human beings of their unique worth and the tremendous responsibility it entails. Nor does it imply a divinization of the earth which would prevent us from working on it and protecting it in its fragility.

Human beings are special, for we have a rational soul that is crafted in the image of God. This does not separate us entirely from nature but rather places responsibility on us. The hierarchy brings us to the heart of The Canticle of the Creatures,

Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those she finds doing Your most holy will.
The second death can do no harm to them.

St. Francis is conformed to the Passion of Christ in this painting by Caravaggio. So is he able to go forth and love all of God's creatures.

St. Francis is conformed to the Passion of Christ in this painting by Caravaggio. So is he able to go forth and love all of God’s creatures.

Human beings are different than other creatures. Nothing is indifferent to us because we cannot be indifferent to ourselves. If indeed we are destroying the world it is only because we have first destroyed and alienated the human being. Neither Pope nor Saint Francis promotes sappy do-gooderism, sentimentality, or a cheap, overweening definition of love. No discussion of environmentalism can proceed without first considering what Pope Benedict XVI refers to as the ecology of the human person. What is a human being? What is our status as created beings in the image of God? What effect does sin have on us? What is our duty and obligation in solidarity with other creatures? How do we join in the praise offered God by all of creation?

I appreciate that Pope Francis always says exactly what he means,

Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties? (120)

If we want to be sensitive to the environment, we begin by protecting human beings: the innocent, the defenseless, the meek, and the exploited. Our commitment to creation is comprehensive, finding its source not in this world but in the world to come. God made us and he sees that we are good. We care for the environment by guarding her from rapacious economic activity and pollution. We also care for the environment when we defend the unborn and the criminal condemned to death. Most of all, we do so when we examine our own hearts and put our own spiritual house in order. When we are at peace with ourselves we will we be at peace with the world around us, for only then will we be acting with true human freedom and unreservedly embrace the beauty in all created things.

Confessions of a “Catholic” Novelist

A weak novelist?

A weak novelist?

The New Republic recently published an article that’s gotten a bit of popularity around the web. Novelist William Giraldi penned a 4000-word screed against Catholic novels and novelists ironically titled “Confessions of a Catholic Novelist.” Giraldi, himself an admitted heretic and apostate, wants to dismiss the idea that the Catholic has anything worthwhile to bring to the art of the novel, as a foundation to explain why he does not wish to be called a Catholic novelist:

The linguistic and narrative maneuvers of the Catholic novelist have at-hand explanations, ready-made motives, and so his characters tend to be denuded of complete and unique individual agency, of their own necessarily individual will. For the truly Catholic novel, there’s only one way to read it: the Catholic way. And any novel that can be read only one way isn’t a novel at all but an advertisement—or, worse, agitprop. If you want to know the aim of the avowedly Catholic novelist, the aim of his characters, of his storytelling sensibility, check in with the Gospels, the sacraments, the papacy, the Holy Ghost, the liturgy, the Mass. The Catholic novelist must, by definition, come to the novel with his epistemology embedded like a tick, his ontology fully explicable by deference to his faith…. Inside a Catholic novel, water, bread, and blood can never be just water, bread, and blood, and that’s a damning disadvantage for any writer.

Now, I have no other knowledge of Mr. Giraldi or his work. I had never heard of him before his article appeared in my blog reader feed. It might be that his novels are very well written and structured, that his imagery is rich and solid, dreamlike in the best possible way. But I cannot take seriously the intellectual meanderings of someone who pens something so ignorant as, “Sometime after my eighteenth birthday, I saw that Aquinas was no match for Nietzsche, and then Augustine lost by knockout to Hume.”

William Giraldi

Perhaps that’s beside the point–although if Mr. Giraldi can throw in a cheap shot, so can I–and the main point is ostensibly the aesthetic one: Can a Catholic write a novel in a Catholic spirit that succeeds as a work of art? But is that really what concerns him? “Here’s what I know with an almost religious surety: to be tagged a Catholic novelist is to be tagged a failed novelist,” he tellingly writes. He is worried about being thought a fool in the eyes of the world after Commonweal and First Things started praising his book. He knows that the wider critical apparatus of the world hates anything that even smells of portraying serious religious experience in a positive light. Catholicism is like a sinking ship that Giraldi does not even want to be close to on a life raft, lest he be sucked down with its whirlpool.

Is there anything worth salvaging in this short piece of anti-Catholic agitprop? Mr. Giraldi does actually say something rather interesting in response to a selection from a Walker Percy essay,

[M]ost erroneous is the assumption that a novelist requires a dogma such as the Incarnation as “a warrant” to probe the enigmas of human living. Why not just probe them? You don’t need a monotheistic guarantee of mystery: Your fellow humans will furnish it for you every day, don’t worry…. Referring to Flannery O’Connor in his essay “A Cranky Novelist Reflects on the Church,” Percy contends that “the truly Catholic writer knows” that “it is only through the particularities of place, time, and history … that the writer achieves his art.” Why it would take a “truly Catholic writer” to figure out what good writers have always known—E.B. White advised: “Don’t write about Man, write about a man”—is a tad baffling.

This, I think, is perfectly true. It is a natural truth that man–and a man–is a mystery full of interesting enigmas which the novelist can explore, and this belief needs no supernaturally-revealed warrant. The pagans of old knew that a man was interesting without the slightest bit of divine revelation (“Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide…”). Even when one ignores the existence of God and of the multitude of open doors between the spiritual and physical worlds, man himself is a mystery of preternatural heights and depths. Hamlet’s “Piece of Work” speech could be expressed by a materialist as easily as by a monk, because it is too self-evident to ignore.

After all, man is created in the image of God, and we could not say it were so if he did not share in some of his Creator’s mystery.

What Does Your Bookshelf Say About You?

We all know that the contents of the bookshelf hold the key to the inner mind. What a person reads is the raw material for how they think. This personality quiz is not that.

No, I have chosen a far more abstract and less reliable method. It has the virtue of not only being quite inaccurate but it is also my own invention and has very little practical application! The method relies on the actual, physical arrangement of the books themselves. In this heroic attempt to truly judge a book by its cover, no account is taken of the actual subject matter or content of the writing. Apply this method at your own risk. It does not work but at least it can create hilarious misunderstandings and prejudices that will entertain you and your friends for minutes at a time! Anyway, I hope this amuses you.

(Any similarities between actual people and the personality types listed below are inadvertent.)

Read on to find out who you are…


The Aristocrat

stacks on the floor

You are lazy and/or upper class. Because of the ennui from which you are sorely afflicted, it is too much of a bother to sort your books. You do not re-read and have a good memory of what you have already read. When you read a book the whole experience is what matters: the coffee shop you were in, the smells you smelled, where you were sitting… you remember your life by recalling what sort of books you were reading at the time. You use holy cards as bookmarks. You refuse to check out books from the library because another person you don’t know might have touched them. You either are a genuine eccentric or attempt to give off the impression of eccentricity. You read whimsically, regularly, widely, and the books simply pile up as you finish them one after another. Often you read two or more books at a time. Many of them will be un-locatable later, you know this at the time you are adding it to the stack and don’t care. Reading is probably a pure pleasure for you and your reference books are kept to a minimum. When you were in school it grated on your finely tuned sensibilities to be pressured into working through a reading list for class.

You have a dark side that we cannot ignore. All of the above may simply be a ruse to hide the fact that you are obsessively goal oriented and your habits may have developed because you read so aggressively that you really have two, tightly controlled collections: that which has been read and that which will be read soon. Your personality is carefully manicured. You are doomed to spend your life fighting the desire to organize your books, full well knowing that to do so would be to admit that you might, after all, be a sensible person.


The Auteur

carefully arranged as a harmonic visual

You are the type of person who asks every acquaintance you have if you ought to purchase a particular book, which version, which dust cover is most attractive, but always a hardback. You insist on giving extensive tours of your bookshelf to guests. You like to hear positive feedback about the aesthetic sensibilities evinced by the physical beauty of your collection and you take great joy in the quality of the materials that go into making each book. You are an extrovert and like to read books with others and discuss them later. After consulting with friends for months you will purchase a book but immediately be dissatisfied with the way it fits on the shelf and sell it cheaply to your friend who has his books stacked on the floor.

We are not talking about a visual arrangement as simple as descending size or matching colors, that would be too easy. There is a mysterious orderliness in the organization that is unexplainable to others but you know it when you see it. The calculus has to do with the quality of the artwork on the dustcover, the size and weight of the book, the way in which the title is printed, and the general spiritual atmosphere cast by the contents inside. We know this but the exact formula itself is ultimately a mystery. When the books are in perfect harmony with each other, this gives you a sense of supernatural peace.


The Librarian

ordered alphabetically

You are a librarian. Literally. You and other librarians are the only ones who would organize anything in this way. You are type A. You appreciate the books specifically for the ideas contained within and are not a collector. They are valuable as a reference library and you have probably saved your college textbooks in case they come in use later. You are precise in your statements and cautious in placing any academic opinions when conversing with others. You do not loan books out because, even though you don’t particularly care about the aesthetic qualities of the physical book, you take care that they are in good condition. Others aren’t careful with them and they have returned to you in the past with creases and small stains that displease you. You discriminate carefully and dole out your reading time to only those books that are truly worth it. You will never take a flyer on a random book from the discount bin at the local bookstore. That would be crazy.

You have abundant organizational skills but either don’t consistently put them into use or overdo it so much that you derive no benefit from being organized in terms of efficiency or time saved. The organization of your bookshelf is a thin veneer over an ocean of turbulence. You do not have music on while you read, you require complete silence and may even sit at the kitchen table or a desk because relaxing on anything upholstered prevents you from concentrating. You set goals to read either a certain number of minutes per day or books per year.


The Normal

by general subject

This is how books are supposed to be arranged, right? One friend I queried about the physical arrangement of his books did not even understand the question; after all, there is only one, normal way to organize books. It had never occurred to him that there was any other.

At your best, you are thoughtful and hospitable. You form the vast majority of humankind and there is something commendable in the way you fit into and form the dominant culture of book-organizing. It is a sign that you are at harmony with the universe. At your worst you fit in a little too well, without question. Or, if you do question you keep it to yourself. For instance, you patronize the nearby chain-coffee shop franchise because it is convenient and consistent but don’t really like it. That’s where everyone else goes, though, and it is better not to cause a fuss. Occasionally the siren song of the best seller list entraps you and you read a popular novel. You feel silly for doing so but you really shouldn’t.


The Resigned

stack of unread books on the nightstand

You are a parent. Children have destroyed all of your books by reinterpreting their contents as so many coloring pages. The few remaining good ones, i.e., all of your Laura Engels Wilder, have been brazenly re-appropriated and used as instruction manuals for how your entire family will now live. Your children now call you Pa and are demanding a butter churn.

You have no energy left to give and as soon as you begin to read at night you fall asleep. It has taken you years to read the first chapter of a historical biography. You have started and abandoned Infinite Jest at least 3 times. You probably gave up the pretence of being a reader years ago. In spite of all of the above, you are very happy.


The Capitalist

on a kindle

You have fallen into a modernist, techno-Heideggerian cult* and must extricate yourself immediately. You have good intentions but we are all worried about you.

*Or, as the Holy Father would have it, a “technocratic paradigm” run by economic Overlords.


The Student

piled onto a cinder block and plywood contraption

You are in grad school. You have not yet blossomed into the person you will one day become. You eat fried eggs on tortillas every night so that you can save money to afford to purchase more books. Your parents don’t understand you but don’t worry it should only be temporary. You are passionately interested, at this point in your life at least, in one or two subjects at most and your book collection is largely limited to these topics. A lot of your books have post it notes sticking out of them where you marked pages to go back over later. You will never go back over these pages later. In spite of this, you are a creature of hope, exemplifying for all the world the power of an oft-overlooked virtue. Seriously, though, you need to eat better. You are going to get sick.


God Speaks in Polyphony

polyphonyLast week, my church choir and I sang for the funeral of one of our long-time members. A terrible thunderstorm raged for the entire hour of the funeral Mass, shaking the windows in their frames and causing someone’s phone to scream the high-pitched wail of the Emergency Broadcast System. The pastor began his sermon with, “I knew Roy was musical, but I never knew he played the drums.” It was impossible not to find some connection between the storm and the life of the man we had come to celebrate. Was Roy, who was always soft-spoken in life, finally letting loose in the hereafter? Or was he up in the heavens whispering to the angels, “Shhh!” Our deacon assures me it was the former; another choir member insists on the latter; but no one who was present could escape the idea that the two happenings were connected by some spiritual truth. God spoke to the grieving in that thunderstorm, and we were reassured.

…Which is, of course, utter nonsense. Elsewhere in the city, streets were flooding, trees were being struck by lightning, life and property were jeopardized. Such things can hardly be regarded as acts of consolation carried out by a loving God. Nor is there anything unusual about a summer thunderstorm in Louisiana. They happen frequently, the result of very explicable meteorological phenomena. No deities need be invoked to account for them. To think that the thunderstorm was divinely timed to coincide with the funeral smacks of unenlightened superstition. Surely, we college-educated denizens of the twenty-first century allowed our grief to make us grasp at outdated spiritual straws.

I wonder how often such rational arguments have steered people toward despair. How ardently we humans long to hear the voice of God, and how resolutely we convince ourselves of His silence. We cannot reconcile the idea that a noisy instrument of destruction might also be a healing whisper of God’s eternal love. There are plenty of reasons to blame modern culture for our inability to accept such paradoxes, but in the wake of this very musical funeral with its boisterous natural accompaniment, it occurs to me that most of the music in our popular culture–even the very best of it–is complicit in training our minds to insist that life can sing only one tune at a time. One melody must dominate the song, while the harmonies march along in lock-step to support it. There may be room to elaborate and embellish, but there is no room for counterpoint, for an alternative point of view.

It is no wonder, then, that the narrative of a storm’s natural causes and effects–more widely understood than any private grace–should overwhelm all other narratives. We hear a theme that is loud, catchy, and obvious; it must be the melody. Any note that does not support it, any rhythm that refuses to be synched, cannot be part of the same song. We permit our empirical understanding to drown out the seemingly divergent voice of the divine. But this is not a triumph of science over superstition. It is a failure to listen to polyphony.

I suspect that, for the average American non-musician, the sum total of polyphonic music he has heard in his life amounts to a few random snatches from the occasional film score. Polyphony demands a great deal of its audience because, no matter how many different lines there may be, each of them is equally important. Every line is its own melody, a complement to the others, but neither synchronous nor subservient. That musical lines should move independently–weaving over, under, and through each other without recourse to ordinary chord progressions, without respecting that the soprano note must remain above the alto–is a difficult concept for modern ears to accept. Polyphony refuses to be reduced to something you can hum, yet it is rarely dissonant and undeniably beautiful. The voices sometimes echo each other, borrowing bits and pieces of each other’s themes, occasionally arriving at a cadence where they pause and breathe together. Then they go on, each to its own lofty heights or plunging depths, carrying the same text in different ways, until they all arrive at a single harmonious end.

This is what was happening at my friend’s funeral during the thunderstorm. Nature–that constant pedal-tone of life–carried on with its habitual song, but overlaid with it were other lines, equally important. Comfort for Roy’s friends and family was only one. Someone else might have heard a condemnation, a call to change his ways; another might have thanked God for a welcome rest from his labors because his job was rained out that day; those who feared the storm’s consequences had an opportunity (whether or not they made use of it) to unite their sufferings to the Cross and thank God for His mercy. God’s melodies are innumerable, written from the beginning of the world with a line for every single one of us to hear and heed and call our own. Every planet, every raindrop, every atom of creation dances to the song. It is not a song of harmony, with all the voices neatly aligned. It is polyphony, an intertwining of related strains, and we, with our finite minds, will never be able to read the entire score. We will never fathom the theory that structures it, but this is not our task. We need only pray for the grace to listen and join in, while we trust that the final cadence will come.

Now sit back and feast your ears on polyphony.

Dante Gets Political

"Dante in Exile," Annibale Gatti

“Dante in Exile,” Annibale Gatti

On this day in history, 15 June 1300, Dante Alighieri became one of the six priors of Florence. He was around 35 years of age. Even though he served for only two months, his activities–which included the banishment of his own rivals–would be enough to result in his exile two years later.

The Divina Commedia, while written almost a decade later, would be chronologically set two months before his taking of a political office, during the Holy Week of 1300. The decision to set his infernal and celestial journeys shortly before his brief political career certainly demands the question be asked: Why would a man who had been told by the souls of the deceased about his impending exile proceed with his contentious career?

Nowhere in the Comedy is the fictionalized Dante commanded to continue with the actions that will result in his banishment from Florence. One presumes that the poet-politician could have taken the warnings of the damned and the blessed as an opportunity to keep his head down and avoid the troubles that would surely come his way. Nor does it seem that he suffers from amnesia at the end of the poem.

Perhaps Dante–the real one rather than the fictionalized version–wished to grant a grander scope to his exile. By setting his tour of the afterlife just before his priorship, Dante takes control of the situation and makes his actions a part of unchangeable Providence. Dante makes himself a partner in the working out of the Divine Will. After the pope had sided against Dante with the Black Guelphs, the poet could retroactively condemn the papacy’s intrusion into worldly politics by penning a set of similar heavenly condemnations.

The Inferno begins the evening before Good Friday, the night in which Christ asked that the cup of suffering be taken from him. While Jesus was strengthened by an angel, Dante is strengthened by his hero Virgil and his old love Beatrice. Dante is midway through his life’s course, about the same age as Christ at his Passion. The poem is not so much a comedy as a Gethsemane. The poet imaginatively drinks the cup of his future to the full, embracing his predicted suffering rather than fleeing it.

Truly, what else was there to be done, except drift off silently into a smoldering bitterness? Dante called upon all the courts of Heaven to his aid in condemning the evils of his time and place, using the height of his poetic genius to confirm “Heaven’s” judgment in the hearts of men.

And there it has remained to this day.

Allegory in a Dream

The night after I drifted farther from the center of the purity path than I had in some time, I had this dream. It was strikingly vivid and full of minute detail in a way that dreams rarely are. I wrote it down for my own benefit, only to discover that it might serve as a good mediation for more people than myself. I hope it will.

I was on my way to a theater with some old friends, walking through a town that looked like 1940’s America, when I realized I had left my keys behind.  When I turned back to retrieve them, everything suddenly looked like an Irish countryside instead of that town. I decided to try to take a shortcut and went off the road. On my left, as I went through the moors, I saw through the mist an enormous ruin of an old gothic cathedral, with heavy, moss spotted stones and an open roof in most places, and a multitude of small rooms coming off the main body of the church at every level.

I walked to a side entrance and carefully pushed open the tall, damp, heavy wooden door. A few steps in, I heard voices and I saw lights coming from somewhere below me. I found myself at the back of the main church and saw the altar at the end of a long, uneven aisle, far away from me. I looked down, and saw a vast hole in the floor, opening to level upon descending level, as far as I could see, with a narrow but strong stone staircase winding in squares along the edges of every level. There was the sound of wedding bells, far off, and on each level I saw a medieval bride in procession, with a heavy cathedral train spread out in a great length behind her, bridesmaids in simple medieval dress attending either side of the train. Each bride had vibrant dark red hair, very curly and long, flowing down around her arms, and shrouded by a finely-wrought and impressively long lace veil that followed the length of her cathedral train. The veils framed each face on a sort of tall and wide headdress of white flowers and silver drippings that piled several inches above the forehead and off to the sides above the temples of each bride. I could see the expression on the face of the bride on the highest level, just a few feet beneath me; though her attendants had downcast, sober faces as they held the edges of her train, her eyes were lifted up as she smiled hugely and insipidly. But she was entrancingly beautiful nonetheless. She walked slowly and regally, taking each step deliberately (all the brides at all of the levels stepped in time with each other), but going in a continuous square around the level she was on, never rising higher. There was no staircase that led up; presumably she would continue walking where she was, not realizing, in her vapidity, that there was no way out.

Some of the brides below her, though, had found a staircase. Just as slowly and regally, they were ascending one level at a time. They were equally radiant, and all seemed something out of a dream, even within my dream. There was an ethereal, other-worldly quality to the whole picture that I saw through the floor, and it left me in wondering, confused amazement.

I decided to explore the rest of the cathedral ruins, thinking maybe I could find someone who would explain to me what I had just seen. I realized, to my consternation, that the door I had come in was gone, so I turned to my left, and through some dark rooms at the back of the church, I found another staircase, this time of heavy wood, leading up to another level. As I moved toward the staircase, I heard the sound of a child crying, and realized that a thin small boy with dark curly hair was sobbing in a little heap in the hidden underside of the staircase. I bent down to see if I could help him, and he reached his arms up around my neck so I could pick him up. He was wearing almost nothing, and his skin was dirty. I cradled him in my arms like a baby, supporting his head with my hand, and turned his face so I could make eye contact with him and try to calm him. All at once his subsiding cries turned to maniacal laughter, and his mouth widened into a demonic grin until it was almost the only thing on his face. His scrappy arms with sharp fingers began scratching at my face, gouging deep gashes across my cheeks and eyes and lips as I screamed in fright and pain, and tried to drop him and push him away. Hardly able to see, I ran up the stairs, but he clung to me and continued to scratch at my face, neck and shoulders, tearing slashes through my clothes as he cackled. I felt fat drops of blood splashing from my face to my chest, leaving large red spots all over my off-white linen peasant’s shirt.

As I reached the landing at the top of the stairs, still unable to fight off the demon, I saw a man walking calmly towards me and cried for help. He reached in with one hand and easily plucked the creature away. It screamed as it was tossed back down the stairs and disappeared around a dark corner. Gasping and trying to calm myself, wiping blood out of my eyes, I looked at the man who had saved me. He was wearing a light brown robe with a knotted white rope around his waist, had a trimmed, pointed beard and an unwearying but peaceful warrior’s look to his thin face and stature. He was taller than I, and yet his height came more from the aura of subtle indomitability than his physical form. He might have been St. Joseph, or one of the early founders of a monastic order. I asked him, as I regained my composure, what that thing had been, and what the brides below were doing, and what they meant.

He answered with a stern but not unkind economy, “That is one of the demons disfiguring you because you love your intended more than you love God. They will continue to torment you until you have learned to put your loves in the proper order. The brides below are caught in their circular procession, close to marriage and yet unable to marry, for the same reason. You cannot take shortcuts to find the key, and you cannot marry properly unless you love God more than anything else. You will not find a door out of this ruin until you have worked here for many years and learned to love.”

He turned away to resume his own work, explaining as I looked past him and saw a busy scene, all under the open daylight of the roofless cathedral, that he and the other saints, and other workers I saw, were all there to help me and people like me to learn to order our loves. Some of the industrious crowd I could see were like me, but had started some time ago and were on their ways to sainthood. There were large drafting desks with piles of notes of accounts that needed to be calculated, and there were also mountains of fine cloth to be washed and folded and sorted. In some ways the room looked like a sacristy; there were long, narrow drawers to hold vestments, and other wooden cupboards among the remaining labyrinth of stone rooms and crannies.

As I took my first step out of the corner, preparing to join in the tasks at hand, an enormous stone gargoyle, tall and thin, swung suddenly into my path and began to advance on me, towering over me, prepared to crush me. I determined he should not win, and that I would conquer him with my own strength, and crack him till he fell to pieces at my feet. I realized, after I took my first swing, that I had barely impacted him at all, and he began to grin with the same long, wide demonic leer of the savage child. He moved in closer and faster, and his shadow blocked out the light as I backed into the corner and tripped on my hem, stumbling away from him. All at once I realized I couldn’t defeat him on my own, and that he was moments away from crushing me. I raised my arms above my head to shield myself and cried out, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, protect me!” I heard a wild sound of stone being crushed, and felt debris rain down on my hair and hands, and then felt warm sunlight. I opened my eyes, and the gargoyle had vanished, leaving only some light gray dust and rubble on the floor.

I blinked, and saw the man who had plucked away the first demon. He looked over his shoulder from where he was busy at work, nodded curtly, and said, “Well done. Now begin your work. Clean that cupboard, and then those drawers, so we can put away the priest’s vestments.”

I opened the cupboard he had indicated and a small animal came out, the size of a raccoon, but not fitting a description of any animal I knew. It leapt at my face, screeching, determined to attack me, but I stabbed it swiftly with the sharpened end of my broom handle, and it disintegrated. I nonchalantly brushed away the dark cloud it had left hanging in the air and looked inquiringly back at my guide, who had calmly watched the whole episode. He gave another curt nod in answer to my implied question. “Yes. With each task given to you, a new demon will come from the dirt, some large and powerful, some more easily defeated. You must destroy each one, and so you will gain your freedom as you clean and prepare the dark spaces.”

As he finished speaking, I heard a trumpet sound from far away. Everyone in the room smiled radiantly as they paused their work, and looked expectantly at the stairs. I saw a bride ascending, and she was simply dressed. She no longer had a train, and her bright red hair was all loose and flowing, covered only by a white lace mantilla that fell to the floor, meeting the hem of her dress. Rather than the six or eight attendants I had expected to see, there was only one. She looked at the bride now, rather than at the floor, and she smiled serenely. And the bride, no longer grinning vacuously at the sky, smiled a private, shy smile as she looked at the ground and was a little embarrassed at the pleased attention of the joyous onlookers. She walked across the room with an unhurried surety in her step, and a door opened in the stone wall across from where I stood, surrounded by wheat stalks and golden light. It opened to a brightness I couldn’t see, and she and her attendant stepped up into it. I ran to follow them, to try to see where they had gone, but the door closed before I could reach it. It disappeared, and the stone wall grew back.

“She has finished her work,” said my guide, “As you shall.”