Hemingway Fan Fiction

Over the last few years, there’s been a surge of interest in Lost Generation writers and artists. I, of course, am a little annoyed by this, as my previously held and possibly unhealthy fascination with that lot now seems to be merely a part of the cultural shift in attention back to the days of flappers, gin fizzes, and desperation. But, I’ll have you know, I owned the book Gatsby Cocktails long before the Baz Luhrmann movie came out, and I was positively stuck on Hemingway’s stark prose—and dark machismo—eons before Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. (“Your blood coagulates beautifully.”) But really, I can’t actually be as snobbishly annoyed as I might wish, because this widespread interest means I get company in nerding out, and I get to read and watch the fan fiction and movies that have sprung up around those stories and their authors.

A few months back I was in an airport bookstore. They are, as you well know, horrible places. As I scanned the shelves of trade paperbacks, tried not to be sick all over the harlequin romances and the popular selections for today’s teenagers, I prepared myself to leave with the aloof sense of intellectual and moral superiority that customarily and scantly comforts me in lieu of a good book in such scenarios. But, my preparations were all for naught. Somehow, my eyes got around a slightly corny cover (yes, I do judge by them), complete with “artistic” scroll work, and saw “A beautiful portrait of being in Paris in the glittering 1920s.” ‘Nuff said.

The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain, is a novel about Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife. It begins with their meeting and subsequent courtship, and follows their story through their years in Paris until their separation. From Hadley’s perspective, we see Hemingway’s emergence as a young novelist, insecure and raging and eager as he rubs shoulders with Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and, of course, the Fitzgeralds. In one of my favorite passages of the book, Hadley is awake, pregnant and hungry in the early morning:

I wanted muskmelons and a really nice piece of cheese, coffee and good jam and waffles. I was so hungry thinking about this I couldn’t sleep.

“Waffles,” I said to Ernest’s curled back near dawn. “Wouldn’t that be lovely?”

When he didn’t rouse, I said it again, louder, and put my hand on his back, giving him a friendly little shove.

“Oh, for crying out loud,” he said, rolling out of bed. “It’s gone now.”

“What’s gone?”

He sat on the edge of the thick mattress, scratching one knee. “The right words for the sketch.”

“Oh, sorry then,” I said.

I watched him dress and move toward the kitchen. Within minutes I could hear the coffee boiling and smell it and it made me hungrier. I heard him get his coffee and then heard the chair squeak back as he sat at the table. Silence.

“Tiny?” I said, still in bed. “What do you think about the waffles?”

He groaned and pushed his chair back. “There it all goes again.” (161)

Somehow, Paula McLain manages to write about famous writers without sounding like she’s writing about writers. She’s a good writer on her own merit, and doesn’t skate by merely with writing about people whose lives are already popular. Also, even though Hemingway was an indisputably flawed, oftentimes selfish and arguably morally depraved man, and even though the story is told from the point of a view of the wife whom he cheats on and ultimately leaves, McLain somehow manages to keep him a sympathetic character. Though his faults are blatant, they are nonetheless understandable on some level. And while she paints the characters admirably throughout, makes them real and believable and even lovable, she has also done the research to make her story historically accurate.

Be warned, however, that since most of these characters are artist-y sorts of “liberated” people, there’s a fair bit of promiscuity, some of it less licit than desirable. (See what I did there?!) That being said, none of it seemed gratuitous or written lasciviously or salaciously. So far I’ve lent my copy out to three people. All of them, readers and writers themselves, have loved it. I imagine you will, too.

Why the Church Is Dying in Latin America

Among the many materialist fallacies of our time, there is one that manages to be at the same time popular and elitist: the degrading idea that the poor have no use for things like beauty. You never see it so boldly stated, but you find it in an attitude that treats the poor as so many stomachs to be filled, as underutilized resources to be harnessed or tangles of social pathologies to be straightened out. It’s a view incapable of seeing the needy as real people—people like you—people who fall in love, who choose daily between good and evil, who make mistakes, and fix them, and feel shame or pride or boredom, who cry when they hear a song and look up with fear and wonder at the lightning.

Catedral Primada, Bogota, Colombia

When applied to religion, this is the attitude that looks at a glowing gilded altar and calls it hypocrisy—and then looks at a gilded shopping mall and calls it progress. That the Church’s artistic treasures, which are currently enjoyed freely by worshippers and visitors throughout the world, would end up, if sold, in private mansions, select museums, and fancy hotels for the enjoyment of rich patrons doesn’t seem to bother these would-be champions of the needy. And while the Church itself—seeing in each person an immortal mystery in whom dwells a reflection of the face of God—has ever been a bulwark against this error, you can still find this tendency among many of its members, including its clergy. It’s an un-Catholic disposition to see beauty as superfluous, as something that may be well and good in the pope’s Masses, but irrelevant to the life of parishes in the inner city or the developing world. As if bodily hunger somehow quenched the hunger of our spirit. As if a life starved of beauty wouldn’t smother our human dignity as surely as anything else. As if we could love a God who we didn’t first think beautiful.

I bring all of this up because during a recent trip to my native Colombia, I became convinced that the Church in Latin America is dying for lack of beauty. In fact, unless things change drastically in the near future, it’s no exaggeration to say that this part of the world, which is now rejoicing to see the first of its sons seated on the throne of Peter, will find itself by the end of the 21st century—if not much sooner—in the same sad state of dechristianization we now see in Europe. The problem is not a lack of solidarity in terms of what you would usually associate with service to the poor—indeed the Latin American Church has a proud social justice tradition, and in this sense Pope Francis is no exception. Neither is the famous Archbishop Romero alone among Latin American clergy in his example of extraordinary courage, a passion for social justice, and a willingness to serve even at the cost of his life; my own former archbishop, Monseñor Isaias Duarte Cancino, was gunned down at the door of a church for daring to speak against the drug cartels that used to run the city. Such heroic witness has not been without its fruit, and yet our people are starving—starving spiritually—because the primary point of contact between most believers and the Church—the Mass—has been so gutted of transcendence that it reminds the average person of Heaven about as much as reading through an accounting textbook. The chance someone who is not already devout will ever sense a hint of the sublime at one of our Masses is practically null. And sure, North Americans love to complain about the liturgy too, but the problem in Latin America is not so much poorly celebrated liturgies or liturgical abuses, as liturgies that are simply dead. So will be the Church be, unless it can rediscover the beauty of its worship.

Considered from this point of view, the struggles of the Church in Latin America during recent decades become not only understandable, but predictable. Optimistic commentators often talk about a Christian boom in the “Global South,” and for all I know their analysis may be true for places like Africa and parts of Asia. Latin America, though, is another matter. During my teenage years in Colombia, a rushing tide of evangelicalism seemed to be the biggest challenger to the Catholic faith. The sheer dullness—sometimes silliness—of the liturgy, coupled with a not-unrelated ignorance about Catholic teaching, caused millions to leave for new Protestant congregations whose services, however lacking in real beauty, at least made an effort to give people an emotional experience. Non-Catholic Christians may well consider that good news, but the underlying weaknesses that exposed the Catholic Church to evangelicalism have left these once solidly Catholic countries wide open to an even stronger onslaught of secularism. And unfortunately evangelicalism—or at least the brand of evangelicalism that exists in Latin America today—simply doesn’t have the cultural and intellectual wherewithal to stem the tide. Indeed, evangelicalism was not enough to tackle even a lukewarm attachment to Catholicism—in Colombia, for example, its rate of growth has subsided significantly. The fact is that, fairly or not, the average Colombian tended to see evangelicals as fanatical, and so for a while it was easier to stay with nominal Catholicism as a default position.

That has changed. With a rising tide of secularism and controversial moral issues dominating the headlines, nominal Catholicism for many is no longer the path of least resistance. Growing up, I was rare among my peers—with the exception of the few evangelicals there were—for wanting to go to Church, though most stuck around anyway.[1] Now, however, I’m not rare just for wanting to go, but for going at all, and this among a population of Catholic children who all received First Communion and Confirmation. A main cause is ignorance of Catholic theology and philosophy, which has left even faithful Latin American Catholics intellectually unprepared for the challenges of secularism, but even here the liturgy is a major issue. One of my cousins recently returned to belief after decades of atheism, but he has given up trying to attend Mass with his young daughters, as he feels that the more he takes them, the more the banality of the worship alienates them from the Church. Unfortunately, like in many other parts of the world, many have tried to deal with this problem by making the Mass “fun,” playing songs that try to mimic what one hears on the radio—except with lyrics that are even more syrupy—with the predictable result of making the Mass ridiculous. What we fail to realize is that Mass shouldn’t be fun, it should be glorious.

Catholics in the United States have long been generous givers to the Church’s efforts in favor of the needy throughout the world, supporting organizations like Catholic Relief Services or religious orders like Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity. The value of this work cannot be overstated—in Africa, for example, the Church reportedly cares for 50% of all AIDS/HIV patients, and as I learned while interning at the UNHCR during college, in the United States about 50% of refugee resettlement cases are handled by Catholic institutions. However, strange as it may sound to many who bewail the quality of the Mass in the typical American parish, the Church in the United States possesses a comparative wealth in its liturgy that it has not even realized, a wealth that ought to be shared.

What is to be done? It is hard to see where a turnaround for Latin America could even start, thought I am encouraged to see that Corpus Christi Watershed has begun work on producing a Spanish hymnal, which, if their work in English is anything to go by, should be a wonderful resource. I am also pleased to see that they are not merely adapting English hymns for export to Latin America, but working with Hispanic Catholics to produce something rich and authentic from within our own history. This is a great first step, but much more is needed. Imagine, for example, the positive impact that American liturgical choirs could have if they partnered with Latin American parishes for what one might call a Liturgical Mission Trip. As is typical with Catholic mission trips, groups could spend a couple of weeks abroad doing social service work, but then in addition to this, they would sing during Masses at their host parish. Listening to the foreign choir would no doubt serve as an opportunity for local parish priests to draw bigger crowds to church, while at the same time whetting the appetites of those who attend. The groups could then develop longer-term relationships, serving as a resource to clergy and lay ministers interested in creating or improving local choirs (and please let me place the emphasis on creating, as choirs are rare, the music usually being provided by one or two people singing, perhaps accompanied by a guitar or keyboard). If one picked the right parishes and cities, word of this work could easily spread, leading other parishes to follow suit, developing a sustainable culture of beauty in liturgical practice.

These are just a couple of examples or ideas off the top of my head. My point is simply to raise awareness about the need there is in this area, and hopefully to spark a conversation. Our failure to act is already having disastrous consequences on the Church’s health in this important region of the world. The liturgy, of course, is only one aspect among the many challenges the Church faces there, but it is a vital and sorely neglected aspect. We need to realize that beauty is essential to any true notion of progress and human development. Once we understand that it is not a luxury but a human need, we must conclude that beauty is a blessing the Church ought to make all the more available to its neediest members—to those who need not only “practical” support such as food or education or healthcare, but the hope that comes with being able to catch a glimpse beyond the mundane and feel the joy of awe before the presence of God.



[1] As an aside, my desire to attend Mass persisted very much despite the music (if there was any) and I always felt a deep sense of embarrassment about singing in public. I always thought the embarrassment came from my being ashamed to show I cared about my faith—until I came to the US and, for the first time, had the opportunity to sing a hymn that hadn’t been written for three year-olds. I suddenly found that every trace of embarrassment was gone.

The Millennial Little Women

I watched Little Women with one of my roommates last night. Both of us are at the point where we’ve seen it so many times that it’s difficult not to recite it as we watch it, and bits and pieces of the script come up in every day conversation on an alarmingly regular basis. This is the roommate with whom, in college, I watched this whole movie in ten minute segments on YouTube on her phone. I’ve been told this means we’re addicts; I prefer to think of us as budget-restricted devotees.

It had been a while, though, since the last time I saw it, so of course lines that I thought I knew suddenly made new sense; I heard different things than I’ve heard before. One of the parts that struck me is when she’s talking with her mother after telling her dearest friend that no, she doesn’t want to marry him. She’s fretful and unhappy and feeling lost and confused, and it doesn’t help matters that her aunt has taken her little sister to Europe instead of taking her:

“Of course Aunt March prefers Amy over me. Why shouldn’t she? I’m ugly and awkward, and I always say the wrong thing. I fly around, throwing away perfectly good marriage proposals! I love our home, but I’m just so fitful that I can’t stand being here! I’m sorry—I’m sorry, Marmee—there’s just something really wrong with me. I want to change, but I can’t . . . and I just know I’ll never fit in anywhere.”

“Jo. You have so many extraordinary gifts! How can you expect to lead an ordinary life? You’re ready to go out and find a good use for your talent. Although, I don’t know what I shall do without my Jo. Go, and embrace your liberty, and see what wonderful things come of it.”

Okay, I know this is a sentimental movie. But is it just me, or is this the eternal story of that flustered 20-something? It’s not news that every generation has their own challenges, and that they think that their set of challenges is bigger and more monumental than the challenges any other generation has faced before. Ever. And this is what I keep hearing about my own generation, those of us who have been dubbed, “The Millennials.” We’re hopelessly floundering around our 20’s, with little direction, mediocre accomplishments and nothing to be proud of or to hold on to. And no one has ever been so lost as we are now, right?

Well, not exactly.

If I had twelve sons, I might name every one of them Augustine. (Kidding. Maybe.) Born in 354, he didn’t figure out his life till he was 32. In his own words, with my emphasis added,

Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you. You were within, but I outside, seeking there for you, and upon the shapely things you have made, I rushed headlong, I, misshapen. . . . source

Fast forward almost 900 years. In 1181, a cloth merchant’s wife gives birth to a boy whom he names Francesco. He’s fairly well spoiled, likes throwing crazy parties as much as Augustine did, and wants adventure in the great world. His big turn around happened gradually during his mid-twenties, and what a turn around it was. Luckily for Francis of Assisi, he didn’t end up living too long; he did a good job of making an ascetically penitential life for himself, and earned, as far as I can tell, an early retirement.

Go another 500 years. A wild Spanish knight named Ignatius is wounded in battle, and has to lie in bed for months waiting for his leg to heal up. Bored out of his mind, the 31 year old picks up the book someone left on his nightstand. Thus, in 1521, were the Jesuits born, totally kick-ass missionaries of Christ imbued with a soldier’s love of discipline and order. Have you seen The Mission, starring Robert De Niro, Liam Neeson, and Jeremy Irons? Go watch it, and thank Ignatius of Loyola for what he started. (And maybe ask him to help get the Jesuits back to their former glory; they’ve hit a bit of a rough patch.)

So, I have two things to say to you, my fellow millennials.

First, get over yourself. Your challenges are really nothing special in terms of the scope of the universe and all the people who have lived here and what they’ve had to deal with and figure out. Everybody has to fight against something to know his own place. If we didn’t, why then how weary, stale, flat and unprofitable would seem to us all the uses of this world (name that play!). Warning: sometimes they (those uses) will seem that way anyway. For example, bear in mind that figuring it out might take being imprisoned (St. Francis) or getting your leg mauled and lying on your back for a year (St. Ignatius). Get used to the idea, and buck up.

Second, you yourself are actually something pretty special. God never made anybody with the thought, “Now I will create a thoroughly mediocre individual whose highest possible level of accomplishment is unenthralled complacency.” If you are anything like the rest of us, which you are, you’ll hit that moment of crisis comparable to Jo’s. A good life was offered to her, but she knew it wasn’t right, somehow. She didn’t know what was; all she knew was that she was fitful and felt awkward and ugly and out of place and had to do something not that. Luckily for Jo, she had a wonderful mother who told her the right thing. She was meant for extraordinary things. She had talent, she had desire, she had passion, and she had an intellect. She didn’t take the first thing that was offered simply because it was offered and seemed like a “good enough” idea. She went out to test herself and to make her fortune in the world—and that is a story as old and lasting as the hills.

Millennials, your existential crises are nothing more or less than the eternal plight of the human condition. You have a multitude of comrades in the battle. Rise to meet it, revel in it, and be something extraordinary.

This post appeared previously on Taking Back Our Brave New World.

Flannery O’Connor, Women, and the Home

Barbara Wheeler

We cannot underestimate the roles of home, family, and community in shaping Flannery O’Connor as a writer. In her essay entitled “The Regional Writer,”Flannery O’Connor states: “Unless the novelist has gone utterly out of his mind, his aim is still communication and communication suggests talking inside a community.” She goes on to say, “I wouldn’t want to suggest that the Georgia writer has the unanimous collective ear of his community, but only that his true audience, the audience he checks himself by, is at home.” Home forms a major motif in Flannery O’Connor’s stories, particularly in “The Lame Shall Enter First” and “The Enduring Chill.” [Read more…]

Why Should You Write?

This is a question that plagues me. I like to know why I do the things that I do. But when I walk into a bookstore or a library, or browse new suggestions on Amazon, or look at my shelf that has all of the “waiting-to-be-read” books on it, I start to feel a little panicky for two reasons. First, how on earth will I ever read all the things in the world? Obviously, I won’t, but still, there’s a vague sense of guilt that rises to the surface every time I think about it. Second, and more pertinent to our discussion here, what do I have to write, what could I possibly add to the vast array of books and stories and poems and blog posts and letters, that could be worth anything more than everything that has already been done?

writingpic

As is often the case when I think about such things, I find that I’m not the first person to have wondered. (Blast! See? Everything has already been done!) One of my roommates, reading O’Connor’s The Habit of Being, shared a passage with me on Sunday. Miss Flannery is giving advice to a friend on accepting criticism and using her skills as a writer for the right purpose, that is, because she’s been given them. If God gives you talents, use them. Develop them. It doesn’t matter if you have no idea what the dickens it’s all about; it’s your responsibility to use what you’ve been given, even if you never see the result of it. And, of course, in reading O’Connor’s advice, I was reminded of similar advice I had also been given by one of my writer friends when I put the question to him. If you’re in a rush, I’ve already summed up what both letters are about (chin up and get to it). But if you’ve got a few minutes to spare, and you’re one of the thousand and one unoriginal souls who have pondered the same question with varying levels of frustration, they’re a comforting read-through. So, be comforted!

First, my query:

As far as my writing bringing solace to your mind and heart, and perhaps to others’ as well, I am so glad it does, and honored as well. Maybe that sounds formal or stuffy or something, but I really do mean it.  Sometimes I feel petty and childish (not childlike) because I wish that more people would read it or say something about it. I guess I just want attention; not a very original or singular desire by any means. But then, on what I like to think is a more noble plane, when I see something beautiful, it calls out to be shared. I want to share. I want people to be excited by the things that excite me. And if I have something that seems worth saying, I want to say it to as many people as possible. I want, I want, I want. Yes, well, maybe the fact that in this regard I want many good things along with the selfish things mitigates the wantingness of it all. At any rate, I am glad to know that I can occasionally give you something in which you find yourself delighted and more at peace, even if only temporarily so.

The response from J.B. Toner (Who, by the way, has had a number of things published in our magazine; he’s a good writer! Look him up.):

Regarding the yearning to have one’s words heard: holy Lord in Heaven above, do I get that. I used to go on rampages through my old apartment after I finished writing a chapter because it would be SO GOOD (everything seems brilliant immediately after you finish writing it, doesn’t it?) and I knew no one would ever publish it, no one would ever see it except a few of my friends that I pestered into reading it. I guess there’s an Old English saying that Tolkien used to quote:  Ciggendra gehwelc wile þœt hine man gehere, “Everyone who cries out wants to be heard.” What I keep trying to remind myself is that on the one hand, the temporal hand, every author ends in oblivion—even Homer will be lost when the sun burns out—and on the other hand, all is known to God and the best of what we create will be shared with everyone in the world to come.  So I shouldn’t be getting worked up over whether ten people or a million people read my stuff here on earth. Right? Sure . . . . But like Joey says, the great truths are usually not very comforting. Or at least, not right now. Just keep at it. Keep getting better, and trust your time will come. That’s what we do.

I think the closest thing I have to advice is the thing I’ve been trying for years to accept, with limited success: we have to write what’s in us, and just trust that He’ll use it somehow—that one way or another, it’ll find its way to where it’ll do good, and we will very, very likely never know about it. In this world, I mean. Someone, I forget who—St. T of Avila, maybe?—talks about all the people who will come running up to you in Heaven to thank you for all the things you barely remember, that you never dreamed would actually bear any fruit anywhere, but that somehow made a difference to people you never even knew on earth at all. Occasionally, that comforts me. Other times it just makes me go, “Yeah, yeah, great,” and be bitter because I’m writing all this stuff and nobody’s seeing it. So, believe me, I understand. Anyway, in short, I think we just have to offer it up and keep schlepping our tired asses forward down the path. I’m not exactly sure it gets easier, but it does get different—the angst sort of ferments with time into new and interesting transmogrifications—so, at least, there’s that!

I’ll tell you what I keep telling myself when I have fears that I will cease to be, and/or when I consider how my light is spent. When the unknown author wrote Beowulf, it was lost for centuries, copied down in a single manuscript that survived unnoticed in trunks and farmhouses for half a millennium, almost burned up in a fire, and was finally dusted off by scholars and remembered chiefly as a source of information on archaic heraldry and pseudo-history for many decades more. It wasn’t till Tolkien came along and wrote his seminal study of the work that it began to be valued as epic poetry rivaling Homer, Dante, and Milton in its own right. But in the meantime it inspired Tolkien himself so greatly that it became the chief wellspring of his own great works, and those works have become to millions of people (including the hell out of myself) just such an inspiration as Beowulf itself was to him. So, in short—we don’t know where our words will end up, or what use God will make of them on earth. Mostly we just have to trust Him. And it’s really, really hard. But, that’s who we are, and it’s absolutely worth it. So, you know—keep writing. Hard is good.

And from the Lady Flannery (I don’t know who B. is, I’m afraid. Do any of you?):

young flannery I asked B. what he thought might be the matter and he said he thought you might be depressed because you had shown something you had written to some young man who made a lot of criticisms of it that you thought were just. . . . Of course B. may be wrong and I hope he was but assuming for the moment he wasn’t, I have this to say. No matter how just the criticism, any criticism at all which depresses you to the extent that you feel you cannot ever write anything worth anything is from the Devil and to subject yourself to it is for you an occasion of sin. In you, the talent is there and you are expected to use it. Whether the work itself is completely successful, or whether you ever get any worldly success out of it, is a matter of no concern to you. It is like the Japanese swordsmen who are indifferent to getting slain in the duel. I feel that you are distracted, particularly when you say, for instance, that it is B.’s writing that interests you considerably more than he does. This is certainly not so, no matter how good a writer he gets to be, or how silly he gets to be himself. The human comes before art. You do not write the best you can for the sake of art but for the sake of returning your talent increased to the invisible God to use or not use as he sees fit. Resignation to the will of God does not mean that you stop resisting evil or obstacles, it means that you leave the outcome out of your personal considerations. It is the most concern coupled with the least concern. This sermon is now ended. (The Habit of Being, p. 419.)

So, that’s a lot of correspondence for you all. And I must say, while we’re on the topic, that some of the most meaningful and effective things I have written have been in letters. Unless you get to be someone like O’Connor, your letters are really only read by one person, sometimes two. But boy do they come to mean a lot! So write some letters, if nothing else.

Nearer My Dogs to Thee

John Zmirak

“Don’t like the weather?” they say here in New Hampshire. “Wait five minutes.” As summer comes, our polar clime becomes instead bi-polar. Four times this week, the day has turned almost instantly from brightness and balm to lightning and sheets of rain–then back again–several times. The sky is alternately black and blue, as if the weather had been punching it in the face. The lightning knocked out my circuits today, while the crackling of the thunderclouds sent the wimpier of my two beagles into a full-bore panic attack. Little Franzi cowered against my leg, buzzing like those massagers they use at old-fashioned barber shops, until I scooped up all 40 lbs. of quivering hound and laid him next to me in the bed. I actually had to cradle him like a child–albeit a bow-legged, pigeon-toed, stinky, fur-covered child with an IQ of under 25 whom you have trained to defecate outdoors. (It’s best not to admit this when Social Services comes knocking, FYI.) [Read more…]

Two Bases of Morality in Catholic Theology

Robert T. Miller

There are nowadays at least two competing foundational concepts in Catholic moral theology. The first of these is the concept of human dignity, the intrinsic value of the human person, something the human person has simply by virtue of being a person. Because the human person has such intrinsic value, we are morally obligated to respect human nature, both in ourselves and in everyone else, and the content of this obligation is usually explained by saying that we ought to treat the human person always as an end and never merely as a means, especially never as a mere means to our own pleasure. The concept of human dignity appears in the writings of many contemporary Catholic philosophers(1) and theologians,(2) especially the writings of Pope John Paul II,(3) and even in some recent magisterial documents of the Catholic Church.(4) [Read more…]

Welsh Starlight

Meredith Wise

Freshman year, I cut my hair after reading Hopkins. A girl had knocked on my door, interrupting my reading just as my eyes fell on the word “lovelocks,” and asked me if I would donate my hair to the cancer charity Locks of Love. My palms prickled. The poem was “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo,” with its solace for the despair of a young girl afraid of losing her beauty: “Give beauty back,” it says, “back to God, beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.” [Read more…]

The Problem With Being Friendly

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

Orkin.AmericanGirl_kpf

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as the reserved German Lutheran theologian that he was, found himself a little in awe of this American friendliness during the year he spent studying in the States:

Living together day by day produces a strong spirit of comradeship, of a mutual readiness to help. The thousandfold “hullo” which sounds through the corridors of the hostel in the course of the days and which is not omitted even when someone is rushing past is not as meaningless as one might suppose. . . . No one remains alone in the dormitory. The unreservedness of life together makes one person open to another. . . . One says nothing against another member of the dormitory as long as he is a “good fellow.” (104)

Beyond this genial good nature that existed in the hallways, he also noticed a great tendency towards generosity in his American classmates, a generosity in national character that did great things for all of Europe in the years following World War II (see the Marshall Plan):

The student body of Union Theological seminary has, over the winter, continually provided food and lodging for thirty unemployed — among them three Germans [Remember, this is in 1931. Memories of the Kaiser and hatred of the German nation were fresh and real in much of America]. . . . This has led to considerable personal sacrifice of time and money. (105)

Americans are friendly, he says. They’re generous. They’re kind and giving. They speak well of their comrades, and take care of people who need help. Aren’t we great? He even goes so far as to note that “in the conflict between determination for truth with all of its consequences and the will for community, the latter prevails” (104). Spectacular! We care so much about getting along with each other that we sacrifice truth! Wait. Hold up. Something is very wrong here.

Bonhoeffer was a clear, very rational, logical and dispassionate thinker. In an earlier passage of this book, his biographer speaks of the withering eyebrow raise of Herr Bonhoeffer, used to full effect when any of his children uttered an opinion that was ill-founded or irrational, teaching them with gentle exactitude the necessity of tight thought processes. And so, in his observations of American students, Bonhoeffer is happy to see their good qualities, but, as always, looks at the circumstances of their affability from all points of view, and thus comes to the sound conclusion that there is something rotten within; there is an unintended and thus devious result of their focus on social needs. The great thinkers of America had come down from the mountain of intellectual stimulation and achievement to be with the people, but in doing so had forgotten the vital importance of intellectual discipline, learned on those heights, and so had forgotten their principles, all for the sake of being friendly. Being friendly and generous is good, of course. But if it comes at the expense and to the exclusion of the reasons behind it, you better watch out. This is when something unsavory hits the fan.

American theological students knew more about “everyday matters” than their German counterparts and were more concerned with the practical outworking of their theology, but “a predominant group [at Union] sees it in exclusively social needs.” He said “the intellectual preparation for the ministry is extraordinarily thin. . . . the theological education of this group is virtually nil, and the self-assurance which lightly makes mock of any specifically theological question is unwarranted and naive.” His conclusion was withering: “I am in fact of the opinion that one can learn extraordinarily little over there . . . but it seems to me that one also gains quiet insights . . . where one sees chiefly the threat which American signifies for us. (105-106)

Worrying about the needs of society is, obviously, not something that can be shunted aside. Of course we need to worry about them, and, more importantly, we need to do something about them. But without a solid philosophy and well thought out understanding of why we should worry about our fellow man, and a rationally arrived at conclusion of how we ought best to help the physically, emotionally, intellectually or spiritually suffering individuals around us, we are going to make some big mistakes. In other words, our love, which is a good thing, will be confused, misguided, and ultimately not accomplish as much as it might in its finest form.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post appeared previously on Taking Back Our Brave New World.

 

Why Saving Mr. Banks is Worth Seeing

Disney’s newest dramatic offering, Saving Mr. Banks, made a quiet splash over Christmas. But for all it’s unobtrusiveness, the story of how Walt Disney finally convinced the reluctant author of Mary Poppins, Pamela L. Travers, to allow him to make her beloved novel into a movie is one of the best films to come out of the studio in some time. The performances are stellar, there are plenty of decent reviews out there, and this post is not meant to be another, except to say that in spite of all the contested opinions about the key players and how they are represented, the movie stands on its own as a good story. However, the film also deals with two important themes that are either overlooked or only briefly mentioned in the reviews, but which offer two key reasons why you should see it.

Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers and Tom Hanks as Walt Disney. Walt Disney Films.

Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers and Tom Hanks as Walt Disney. Walt Disney Films.

One of these themes is the tension between two artists over the concept of an original work of art. P.L. Travers conceived of Mary Poppins and through her own creative gifts brought the plot, setting, and characters to life through the medium of words. It is clear throughout the film that the novel is beloved, and not only by children – adults “can’t put it down.” As the artist, Travers is charged with preserving the integrity of the work and she has a horror – an arguably justified one – of the “art” Disney produces. She rightfully believes his “animated cartoons” have no place in or business with her story and is convinced he will ruin it. Her anxiety is borne out time and again as she discovers daily the “adaptations” he plans for her art, each one taking the original concept farther and farther from the “truth” of the story as she imagined it.

Critics may see Travers’s attitude in all of this as uptight and unappreciative. But the theme and the lesson it begs to teach is a critical one. To understand the weight of it we need look no further than December’s novel-to-film premiere of Peter Jackson’s newest Hobbit film. There is no need to waste time reviewing the film; rather, I only want to point out by way of example that the film had very little to do with Tolkien’s novel. The departure from the original work of art was overt and extensive and, sadly, horrifying. While Tolkien’s novel offered a fairy tale coming-of-virtue saga in the best of the tradition and appropriate for all ages, Jackson’s film dispenses with the theme of virtue pretty much entirely in favor of gratuitous, malicious violence — including decapitations, extended bitter battle scenes and grotesque orcs which do not appear in the novel – and weakly drawn “new” characters who forge relationships which simply do not exist in any of Tolkien’s work, not to mention the egregious abuse the character of Legolas endures in a story Tolkien never intended him to appear in.

The travesty Jackson perpetrates on Tolkien’s art is exactly the type of travesty Travers fears her work will suffer at the hands of Disney in Saving Mr. Banks. It is a disturbing cultural trend that it now acceptable to judge the merits of a vast array of literary arts by the film adaptations made of them. It is so easy to just “see the film” of anything these days, rather than to commit to the mental, emotional, and perhaps spiritual effort involved in engaging over time with a literary text. Sadly it isn’t unusual to hear someone say, as I did recently, when I told a woman she really ought to read Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, “Oh, I really didn’t like that movie at all!”  Her experience with a mediocre movie soured her on reading the book, which is in essence very different from the film. The ease with which we say, “I’ll just watch the film” version of any book distances us from the truth that an author, somewhere in time, grappled mightily to bring this text to life, a text we see no problem with reducing to mere fragments of sound bites that more often than not have little if anything to do with the original work.

Thus, one of the things Saving Mr. Banks does is remind us of the delicate tension that exists between preserving an artist’s original intention in her work alongside the creative potential of the artist who would reinterpret it through a new medium. The integrity of the original work must be respected. We owe it to authors, and to ourselves, to experience the text in its original form before experiencing it reimagined, regurgitated or remade by someone else. Saving Mr. Banks and the example of Jackson’s non-Hobbit remind us of what is at stake and what can be lost when we fail to respect the integrity and dignity of a work of art.

The other idea Saving Mr. Banks explores well is Tolkien’s principle of eucatastrophe: story, particularly fairy story, can and should be a healing event in the life of the reader by way of the consoling joy of the happy ending – even though it arises from what looks to be darkness itself – and all of the hope and promise contained within it. Writers write, consciously or unconsciously, about what they experience in life; their art grows out of who they are as human beings, of what they know and believe of life, and the ways in which their experience has affected them. In the film, Travers writes to heal and to make what went wrong in her past somehow right. She writes to save lives, her own and her father’s. “These characters are family to me,” Travers says, hinting not only at how closely the artist relates to her work, but to the truth behind the art: that literature arises from experience, in order to make sense of it, to heal from it, to share it. The braided flashbacks of Travers’s life that punctuate the film show the visceral truth of this element of the writer’s life.

For all his faults and scheming, Disney does see that the crux of Travers’s novel

Walt Disney Pictures

Walt Disney Pictures

isn’t about the children at all, but about what Mary Poppins is able to do to save Mr. Banks. Disney’s ability to express his deep understanding of this to Travers affirms the very core of her as an artist. Though their artistic vision is fundamentally different, he sees the truth of her story and promises her that he can and will make this element stand out in his film adaptation, telling her the job of a storyteller is to reintroduce order, to mend, to heal. This is a beautifully stated reminder of Tolkien’s principle that is sadly lost in much modern storytelling.  Whether or not Disney’s film adaptation of Travers’s novel is finally faithful is open to question; in the world of the film, that the principle of fidelity to the goal of the art is even raised is noteworthy and deserving of attention. Ultimately, Travers does experience her own happy ending, a catharsis and healing evidenced by the fact that her mood and attitude is significantly lighter at the end of the film than it was at the beginning. In addition, she takes up writing again and lets the light shine on the darkness of her solitary life. It might be she needed to see her happy ending through some other storyteller’s eyes to gain the benefit of healing. In the end, this is a truth many of us can relate to and appreciate. The film’s depiction of it is touching.

Saving Mr. Banks undoubtedly presents an amazing cast at the top of their game, an excellent script, and technical accomplishment. But Disney’s ultimate success with the film is in pointing to the dignity of the artist, to the integrity of the literary arts as deserving of great respect, and to the core truth of the healing power of any good story in its essence.  In doing so, the film raises a gauntlet for those who assume the challenges that come with adapting an original literary work of art to another medium. The irony that this gauntlet is thrown down by Disney is not lost on this writer. And maybe that is another reason the film is worth going to see.