In Which Hollywood Finds an Unlikely Champion

In the wake of Angela Cybulski’s post “Why Saving Mr. Banks is Worth Seeing” and the guest post from Kathryn from Through a Glass Brightly about “Poor A.A. Milne,” film adaptations of literary works are getting something of a bad rap here on the Dappled Things blog.  I find myself smiling more than I should, writing a defense of Hollywood movies, because I high-tailed my way out of Los Angeles a year after I graduated with an MFA in screenwriting from a prestigious film school.  Let’s just say that Hollywood and I are not exactly kindred spirits when it comes to creativity.


Gone With the WindLiterary adaptations are one of the things filmmakers have been getting right (at least, sometimes) since the earliest days of film.  Anybody ever see Gone With the Wind?  Margaret Mitchell’s novel is one of my all-time favorites, but the movie also stands as one of the greatest ever made.  Yes, you will say.  That’s because the adaptation respected the integrity of the story, even if it did deviate in the details to avoid being twelve hours long.  All right.  Let’s stick with movies released in color in 1939 and take a look instead at The Wizard of Oz. 

It’s been many years since I read Frank L. Baum’s original, and I was probably too young to fully comprehend it at the time.  However, I was even younger when I first watched Judy Garland traipse her way down the yellow brick road with Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion.  Of the book, I remember little except a general sense of boredom, of wandering through vaguely-connected episodes without much purpose.  Of the movie… if pressed, I could probably recite it.  Even as a child, I knew the lyrics to every song.  There were good guys, bad guys, defined goals, obstacles to struggle through, and plenty of magic (visual and musical, alongside the actual “magic” kind) to stoke the imagination.  I still watch it happily any time I’m flipping channels and find it on TV.  If filmmakers had maintained the integrity of Frank L. Baum’s thinly-veiled treatise about the gold standard, just think how impoverished our culture would be.

The Wizard of OzOK, once.  Once Hollywood managed to take a mediocre book and turn it into a spectacular film by, well, ignoring the author’s original intention.  But that was in 1939, right?  It’s all been downhill since then.

Wrong.  Try Forrest Gump.  If you have not read Winston Groom’s novel, please do not change that fact on my account.  Just believe me when I tell you that it bears no resemblance to the film except its title.  Subtract any sense of coming-of-age nostalgia, of growing alongside history, of the sweet, simple boy from Alabama who waited so patiently for the girl he loved to finally love him, too; then add in a trip to outer space alongside a monkey, a chess-playing cannibal, and a lot of raunchy sex.  How screenwriter Eric Roth ever arrived at the brilliant icon of his craft that became the movie Forrest Gump, I have no idea, but he deserved better than just a “Best Adapted Screenplay” Oscar for that work.

Forrest GumpIt may be uncouth to say to an audience of bookworms, but sometimes a movie adaptation can be better than the book.

The important point to note is that, of my three examples of adaptations done well, Gone With the Wind remained the closest to the novel because it was the best novel.  Maintaining literary integrity is only a good idea when the book has integrity to maintain.  When the original is flawed, the screenwriter has a duty to his audience to compensate in any way necessary, be it by trimming and clarifying The Wizard of Oz or by completely re-imagining Forrest Gump.  Of course there are more bad adaptations than good ones-bad scripts are easier to write, adapted or otherwise.  Still, great things can happen when great screenwriters free themselves from the shackles of an author’s intention and, instead, do their own work well.

With respect to the specific points my colleagues Angela and Kathryn raised in their posts, I really don’t have much to quibble about.  Winnie-the-Pooh did suffer undue injustice at the hands of Walt Disney, and it really is a shame that people often judge a book by the film (whatever the quality of the adaptation) instead of investing time in the prose.  Even in the case of a movie as classic as Gone With the Wind, you’re still missing out if you leave Margaret Mitchell’s words unread.  However, if filmmakers can find a better story lurking inside a novel than the one the author himself penned, then… I want to watch it.  Don’t you?

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.


Why We Need Mediocre Artists

Viktor Hartmann

Viktor Hartmann

Back in October, my husband and I decided to take our first childless vacation since we became parents.  We planned it for Biloxi, reserved the hotel, the sunset sailing cruise, dinner in a fancy restaurant, the whole nine yards.  Then, three days before we were set leave, Tropical Storm Karen took aim at the Mississippi coast.  Thinking it unwise to ignore an omen that literally came with my name on it, we decided to head west to San Antonio instead.

In my haste to plan a trip at the eleventh hour, I bought tickets for a Sunday matinee at the San Antonio Symphony, not realizing it was an abbreviated concert for children that included a lecture from the conductor.  So, on our “grown up” vacation, we went to children’s music class.  On the syllabus for the day was Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky, orchestrated by Maurice Ravel.

In addition to being a worthy musical composition in its own right, Pictures at an Exhibition is proof of the butterfly effect.  You know the theory: a butterfly flaps its wings, rippling the air just enough to tip the scales and cause a hurricane.  That’s essentially how Pictures at an Exhibition came to be.  The story begins like this:

During the summer of 1873, the artist/ architect Viktor Hartmann died suddenly from an aneurism at the age of thirty-nine.  Hartmann’s forgettable talents led to a series of mediocre works that momentarily captured the attention of a few major figures in the artistic community of St. Petersburg.  In all fairness, Hartmann’s work should have died with him. – from the symphony program

Maestro Sebastien Lang-Lessing showed slides of the existing Hartmann works during his presentation, and the program writer was quite justified in calling them “forgettable.”  The only reason Hartmann’s work did not die is that Modest Mussorgsky, a man of much more memorable talents, happened to attend a posthumous exhibition of his friend Hartmann’s work, which inspired him write a piece for solo piano.  Several decades later, that piece caught the eye of the brilliant Maurice Ravel.  Ravel was not the first to orchestrate Mussorgsky’s work–over a dozen composers have tried their hands at that task–but Ravel elevated Pictures at an Exhibition into the canon of established symphonic music, creating something that professional symphony conductors think worthy to lecture about to an audience of children.

It took three men in two countries more than forty-eight years to create the half-hour of music I enjoyed on a different continent, in a different century, through the intercession of an actual hurricane.  Somewhere in St. Petersburg in 1873, a butterfly flapped its wings.

"The Hut on Hen's Legs"

“The Hut on Hen’s Legs”

The improbable sequence of events that led both to the creation of Pictures at an Exhibition and to my having heard it in the exact context that inspired this post will seem to some as evidence of the randomness of the universe, to others as proof that God always has a plan.  For me, however, the lesson is simply this: Viktor Hartmann did his best.  His best could never put him in a class with contemporaries like Manet and Gaugin, and I guarantee that when he sat down to paint “The Hut on Hen’s Legs,” he had no notion that a Frenchman not yet born would someday use it as the backdrop of an orchestral work that would endure for centuries.  Hartmann sat down to paint it, nonetheless.

It so happens that I count myself among the world’s mediocre artists.  I am a singer and choir director working in a humble parish church.  Someday, my voice and my arms will die with me, and this music stuff I have been slaving at for decades will become nothing more than fodder for my obituary.  The odds that I will inspire some greater artist to create something lasting are pretty slim, but I have, at least, been known to inspire smiles.  I have taught a few people to improve their craft, and, most importantly, enriched a few prayers.  It is enough.  Viktor Hartmann’s legacy demonstrates that if we use our talents (however forgettable) to ignite just a tiny spark of beauty, there is no limit to the wildfire the winds of the Spirit can flame.  No artist should ever strive to be mediocre, but neither should the fear of mediocrity deter us from plying our trades.  So get out there.  Create.  Get better every day.  Make someone smile, and then let the butterflies do their thing.

When the Goad Rises

Every Tuesday and Thursday evening, the priests at my parish celebrate mass in the Extraordinary Form. Which is great, you know, because if I happen to be there on those evenings, I get to feel morally superior and well-educated, because I know when to sit and kneel down and stand up and genuflect and bow and cross myself and beat myself. And I know Latin. And I have a missal. So that adds up to what? 8 gold stars? Let’s keep it to a modest 7, since kneeling and genuflecting are kind of the same thing.

Thirty seconds before communion, the priest holds up the host, and I get excited to say the Domine non sum dignus prayer because I like the way Latin sounds, and I like the fact that I know that prayer, and can rattle it off without even thinking, while the uneducated plebe at the end of the pew is hopelessly lost even when he tries to read along.

And then, disaster strikes.

The guy 6 pews ahead on my right starts thumping his chest with notable abandon, and reciting the prayer with deafening volume, conspicuous speed, and deadly accuracy. And. my. goad. rises. Who the hell does he think he is? What a moron. What a self-righteous dweeb. Get over yourself already, dude.

Enter Brideshead Revisited. (Let’s be honest; when does it not enter?) “When people hate with all that energy, it is something in themselves they are hating.”

Remember when Julia hits Charles in the face? "'I hate it.' Her anger was as  unexpected as every change on  this  evening of swift veering moods. Suddenly  she  cut me  across  the face  with  her switch,  a vicious, stinging little blow as hard as she could strike. 'Now do you see how I hate it?' She hit me again.

Remember when Julia hits Charles in the face? “‘I hate it.’ Her anger was as unexpected as every change on this evening of swift veering moods. Suddenly she cut me across the face with her switch, a vicious, stinging little blow as hard as she could strike. ‘Now do you see how I hate it?’ She hit me again.”

We all just came back from Christmas, right? Family. Oh yes. Our families. There is nothing we dislike so much as seeing our own faults writ large. There is nothing so troubling as seeing our own weaknesses bared, out on display, raw and fractious and ready for a fight. And there is nowhere that the elements for such titanic disaster align so perfectly as at a large family gathering. The thing about families is, they share the bad traits as well as the good ones. Parents love it when their children look like them; it makes them feel proud, like they’ve left a mark on the world, and reminds them that they’re immortal and powerful (I helped create that child!). And guess what else? Even if they fail to realize it, as often they do, parents are particularly harsh with those children who most perpetuate their own faults. We do hate to be reminded of our shortcomings and failures (I helped spawn that thieving hooligan! Or, you know, whatever it is you’ve been spawning lately.).

So, here I am to preach at you. You see, after all, what with my 7 gold stars and everything, that’s what I’m qualified to do. Next time you feel like throttling somebody, chucking your substantial missal across 6 pews to knock the holy-roller off his kneeler, walloping the 6 year old or the 16 year old, badmouthing the boss or belittling your brother, take a breather. Think of the ways you’re like that idiot, and realize what it is you’re actually hating.

A New Kind of New Year’s Resolution

While I’ve never been much for making New Year’s resolutions, I do try to think about the things I’d like to do differently and the things I’d like to accomplish each New Year. And that is the thing about resolutions – they are all about “I”. This is not necessarily a negative; goodness knows there are an infinite number of things I could and should work to improve upon in my life and in my self. But this is where most resolutions begin and end – with ME. Which is likely why most of mine fade into the background, because I lack the resolve, strength, memory, or will to fulfill them over the course of the year. There is a paradox here – I want to be the one to make the necessary changes, but the truth is I am my own biggest obstacle.

Mary Untier of Knots, painted by Johann Georg Melchior Schmidtner, c. 1700. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Mary Untier of Knots, painted by Johann Georg Melchior Schmidtner, c. 1700. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

It isn’t a coincidence that the Catholic Church celebrates New Year’s Day as the Solemnity of Mary Mother of God. This is a day, the first day of a new year filled with hope and promise, in which the Church invites me to remember that I have a mother who is very concerned with everything that concerns me and all those I care about. She wants me to remember to involve and include her in my thoughts, plans, hopes, dreams, and resolutions for the year. This year, instead of going it alone as has been my past practice, I’ve decided to turn over my resolutions and all that needs fixing and improving and adjusting in my life to someone else’s more capable hands: Mary, the Untier of Knots.

The knots and difficulties I experience in my relationships and family life; the knots and difficulties associated with my health, finances, teaching, and writing; the knots and difficulties with my spiritual life and the lives of those most dear to me; the knots and difficulties associated with the good I’d like to do in the world and the suffering that breaks my heart . . . Mary’s capable hands can attend to all these things and more. Not only that, but unlike myself, Mary doesn’t get tired or discouraged or bored or forgetful about any of these resolutions. Full of God’s grace and love, she lives to act as the conduit of that same grace and love in my life, working tirelessly to untie the knots that paralyze me, that hold me bound and keep me from moving closer towards holiness and her Son. And because some knots are necessary and useful in life, Mary can take the loose ends that I am helpless to connect or understand the meaning or purpose of and find ways to knit and weave them together, creating the lasting, necessary grace-knots that aid me along on my walk of faith through this life.

This year, the only resolution I am making is to hang this image of the Blessed Mother in a prominent place in my home, to pray to God to deepen my faith and trust in His providence, and continue to make the effort to entrust all the resolutions and plans and dreams and aspirations and hopes I would like to make to Mary’s cooperation with God’s plans for my life and the lives of those I love. With her help and intercession, the knots in my life can be undone or reworked, my faith life can deepen, and the joy of God’s love can work through me to others as each knot/obstacle is loosened.

May the coming year be a blessed one for you and all whom you love. Mary, untier of knots, pray for us!

Our Holy Father has been a consistent reminder of the need for Mary in our lives and has himself a great devotion to Mary as the Undoer of Knots. Read on for excerpts from Pope Francis’s beautiful catechesis on Mary’s work as the untier of knots for all and how it corresponds to her faith journey, which serves as an example for our own, as well as a portion of his homily on this Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God. 

From “The Faith of Mary” delivered Saturday October 12, 2013

. . . Mary always brings us to Jesus. She is a woman of faith, a true believer. What was Mary’s faith like?

1. The first aspect of her faith is this: Mary’s faith unties the knot of sin (cf. Lumen Gentium, 56). What does that mean? The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council took up a phrase of Saint Irenaeus, who states that “the knot of Eve’s disobedience was untied by the obedience of Mary; what the virgin Eve bound by her unbelief, the Virgin Mary loosened by her faith” (Adversus Haereses, III, 22, 4).

The “knot” of disobedience, the “knot” of unbelief. When children disobey their parents, we can say that a little “knot” is created. This happens if the child acts with an awareness of what he or she is doing, especially if there is a lie involved. At that moment, they break trust with their parents. How often does this happen! Then the relationship with their parents needs to be purified of this fault; the child has to ask forgiveness so that harmony and trust can be restored. Something of the same sort happens in our relationship with God. When we do not listen to him, when we do not follow his will, we do concrete things that demonstrate our lack of trust in him – for that is what sin is – and a kind of knot is created deep within us. These knots take away our peace and serenity. They are dangerous, since many knots can form a tangle which gets more and more painful and difficult to undo.

But nothing is impossible for God’s mercy! Even the most tangled knots are loosened by his grace. And Mary, whose “yes” opened the door for God to undo the knot of the ancient disobedience, is the Mother who patiently and lovingly brings us to God, so that he can untangle the knots of our soul by his fatherly mercy. We might ask ourselves: What knots do I have in my life? Do I ask Mary to help me trust in God’s mercy, in order to change?

2. A second aspect is that Mary’s faith gave human flesh to Jesus. As the Council says: “Through her faith and obedience, she gave birth on earth to the very Son of the Father, without knowing man but by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit” (Lumen Gentium, 63). This was a point on which the Fathers of the Church greatly insisted: Mary first conceived Jesus in faith and then in the flesh, when she said “yes” to the message God gave her through the angel. What does this mean? It means that God did not want to become man by ignoring our freedom; he wanted to pass through Mary’s free assent, her “yes”.

But what took place most singularly in the Virgin Mary also takes place within us, spiritually, when we receive the word of God with a good and sincere heart and put it into practice. It is as if God takes flesh within us; he comes to dwell in us, for he dwells in all who love him and keep his word.

Let us ask ourselves: Do we think about this? Or do we think that Jesus’ incarnation is simply a past event which has nothing to do with us personally? Believing in Jesus means giving him our flesh with the humility and courage of Mary, so that he can continue to dwell in our midst. It means giving him our hands, to caress the little ones and the poor; our feet, to go forth and meet our brothers and sisters; our arms, to hold up the weak and to work in the Lord’s vineyard, our minds, to think and act in the light of the Gospel; and especially our hearts, to love and to make choices in accordance with God’s will. All this happens thanks to the working of the Holy Spirit. Let us be led by him!

3. The third aspect is Mary’s faith as a journey. The Council says that Mary “advanced in her pilgrimage of faith” (Lumen Gentium, 58). In this way she precedes us on this pilgrimage, she accompanies and sustains us.

How was Mary’s faith a journey? In the sense that her entire life was to follow her Son: he is the way, he is the path! To press forward in faith, to advance in the spiritual pilgrimage which is faith, is nothing other than to follow Jesus; to listen to him and be guided by his words; to see how he acts and to follow in his footsteps; to have his same sentiments of humility, mercy, closeness to others, but also his firm rejection of hypocrisy, duplicity and idolatry. The way of Jesus is the way of a love which is faithful to the end, even unto sacrificing one’s life; it is the way of the cross. The journey of faith thus passes through the cross. Mary understood this from the beginning, when Herod sought to kill the newborn Jesus. But then this experience of the cross became deeper when Jesus was rejected and Mary’s faith encountered misunderstanding and contempt, and when Jesus’ “hour” came, the hour of his passion, when Mary’s faith was a little flame burning in the night. Through the night of Holy Saturday, Mary kept watch. Her flame, small but bright, remained burning until the dawn of the resurrection. And when she received word that the tomb was empty, her heart was filled with the joy of faith: Christian faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This was the culmination of Mary’s journey of faith, and that of the whole Church. What is our faith like? Like Mary, do we keep it burning even at times of difficulty and darkness? Do I have the joy of faith?


From Pope Francis’s homily of the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God, delivered January 1, 2014. 

“Our pilgrimage of faith has been inseparably linked to Mary ever since Jesus, dying on the Cross, gave her to us as our Mother, saying: “Behold your Mother!” (Jn 19:27). These words serve as a testament, bequeathing to the world a Mother. From that moment on, the Mother of God also became our Mother! When the faith of the disciples was most tested by difficulties and uncertainties, Jesus entrusted them to Mary, who was the first to believe, and whose faith would never fail. The “woman” became our Mother when she lost her divine Son. Her sorrowing heart was enlarged to make room for all men and women, all, whether good or bad, and she loves them as she loved Jesus. The woman who at the wedding at Cana in Galilee gave her faith-filled cooperation so that the wonders of God could be displayed in the world, at Calvary kept alive the flame of faith in the resurrection of her Son, and she communicates this with maternal affection to each and every person. Mary becomes in this way a source of hope and true joy!

The Mother of the Redeemer goes before us and continually strengthens us in faith, in our vocation and in our mission. By her example of humility and openness to God’s will she helps us to transmit our faith in a joyful proclamation of the Gospel to all, without reservation. In this way our mission will be fruitful, because it is modeled on the motherhood of Mary. To her let us entrust our journey of faith, the desires of our heart, our needs and the needs of the whole world, especially of those who hunger and thirst for justice and peace, and for God. Let us then together invoke her, and I invite you to invoke her three times, following the example of those brothers and sisters of Ephesus: Mother of God! Mother of God! Mother of God! Amen.”




The Squalor of the Stable

Roseanne T. Sullivan

My pre-Christmas meditations were mostly about the stable. The one that Christ was born into. The one that He lives in, in my heart.

My meditations were partly fueled by a story that was sent to me before Christmas by Hilary Rojo. (Hilary and her husband Mac organized a pilgrimage I took to Israel in 2005.)

Hilary’s story was about the couple’s experiences as they went to Bethlehem to attend Midnight Mass one unspecified Christmas Eve. They had gotten tickets months in advance, and they looked forward to the chance to celebrate one of the holiest nights of the year in one of the holiest spots in the world.

As I had found out when I was there, Bethlehem is Palestinian controlled. Our Israeli-driven bus had to park in a garage on one side of the border. Then we had to walk down a street and through a security checkpoint in a building where rifle-armed guards strolled on open catwalks over our heads. When we exited the building, we were in Bethlehem. We had to get into a Palestinian-driven bus and continue our journey to the Church of the Nativity.

When the Rojos got to Manger Square in front of the Church of the Nativity that Christmas Eve, the din was hellish. As more and more people poured into the square, the press of bodies was so intense, it sometimes was hard to breathe. The way Hilary told it, the Palestinian soldiers who provided security stood by and laughed among themselves at the tourists as they pushed and shoved each other trying to get to the head of the line. A flying wedge of Germans elbowed by them. Young Palestinian children pushed into the crowd to pick pockets.

The Rojos were dismayed even further when then they saw the soldiers only allowed dignitaries and their entourages to enter the church doors. The Rojos stuck it out, mostly because there was no escape, and no place else to go. Their tour bus was locked in a garage. After a long wait, it seemed their persistence had been rewarded when they got as far as the church door. They were briefly relieved, until the guards suddenly announced, “The church is full, go away!” and BANG, the big wooden doors slammed shut.

Just as suddenly they spotted another opening, the famous Door of Humility, which some say was bricked over at the top and one side to keep the Crusaders from riding their horses into the church. In any case, the door keeps you humble because you must bow your head to enter.

Below: Door of humility

The Rojos rushed over to the door, and suddenly Hilary recognized Mahmoud Abass, the former president of the Fatah movement. She looked him in the eye, and then she and Mac got in line and drafted through the door on his figurative coattails.

Abass and his entourage were escorted to a reserved seating area in the adjacent church of St. Catherine of Alexandria, while the Rojos melted into the crowd somewhere behind him in a press of bodies that was as packed as the square outside had been. They couldn’t even see the altar. People began to faint and throw up all around them. Chunks were actually flying through the air. In the heat and unpleasantness, the stench and the fear, Hilary complained to God, “Is this what Christmas is all about in Bethlehem? Is this what I get for coming half way around the world to honor your Son?”

She went on to write that as soon as she had finished her lamentations, “the room became mysteriously quiet for me. I suddenly felt at peace and then felt a warmth encircle me. A thought/voice questioned me in a soft and loving tone, `What do you think it was like 2,000 years ago? Didn’t you want to experience the birth?’”

During my visit with my spiritual director, Carmelite Fr. Donald Kinney, in December, I had been telling him about my struggles. As we attempt to grow closer to God, the areas in which we fall short of His perfection become disgustingly vivid to us in the illumination of His Light. Fr. Kinney said in consolation that Christ is with us even then. After all, “Christ was born in a stable,” I told him Hilary’s story. He nodded, yes that’s it.

“It’s not a pretty sight, Father!” True, but He is with us any way.

When we create our little manger scenes, we leave out the manure and the flies. But these were surely part of that first Christmas night. City folks may not have experienced a stable first hand, so they don’t know. Where you have asses and oxen–and humans–you have excrement.

The spot where Christ was born is covered by marble and a silver star now. You get to it now by going down a narrow stairway under the basilica. Two stone mangers were excavated there in the past few years that were dated scientifically as 2,000 years old, so there really was a stable in that cave.

Below: Star over the spot where Christ was born 

Speaking about animals and smells, I remember the shock of my first visit as an adult to my Uncle Ralph and Aunt Irene’s dairy farm in Wisconsin. The reek of cow urine permeated even the farmhouses. And as I gradually came to realize, much of the dairy farmers’ energy is devoted to shoveling out the manure. Beside most barns in the country in winter is a manure pile sometimes as high as the roof, which will be spread on the fields in the upcoming spring as fertilizer.

While we were still sinners, Christ was born for us, lived with us and died for us. And He resides with us still, in the stables of our hearts, even if the best we can give him for a welcome is a bed in a manger full of hay and a modicum of warmth from a mix of animal breath and steaming manure.

It helps to be reminded of this from time to time, He is with us no matter how high and deep the pile is. Dare I hope that a composting is happening and that spring will bring the time when all that rich composted stuff will be plowed under to prepare the soil for the seed time and the harvest to come?

Restoring Faith in Fiction

Joseph O’Brien

Editors’s note: On December 19, 2012, Paul Elie’s essay, “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” was published in the New York Times, sparking a year-long conversation that this journal has followed with great interest. Now, exactly a year after the original article appeared, we are following up with Elie on the many responses to his piece. This interview is an online preview of our upcoming Christmas edition.


Paul Elie

There is an indistinct moment of passage on the north-south corridor of U.S. Interstate 55 where the Midwest becomes the South—and it’s located somewhere in the lower middle half of the state of Missouri. It is a place that is no place, as the novelist Walker Percy might have put it; somewhere between the last scattering of hay bales, left where they fell from balers, basking in the mid-autumn sun, and the first maculation of cotton bolls bursting forth with pallid punctuation from their russet-rusted shrubs. It is a moment on the perpetual roll of asphalt ribbon where upland’s gentle roll exhausts itself into a certain undeniable flatness, a place where tasseled corn rows surrender to tow-headed cotton fields.

This past October, on my way to New Orleans I found this indistinct moment of North yielding to South. My brother-in-law and I were presenting at the second biennial Walker Percy Conference, Oct. 11-13, sponsored by Loyola University. For five years I had lived in Dallas—which has more in common with the Midwest than most people would care to admit—before settling in southwestern Wisconsin—which has more in common with the South than most people would care to notice. But this recent journey through Cotton Country was my first look at the South, at least by car and it shouldn’t have been a surprise that in making the trip I experienced the same sort of recognition-through-displacement common to many of Percy’s works.

Conferring honors

The Walker Percy Conference was first launched in 2011 on the 50th anniversary of Percy’s debut novel The Moviegoer being published and winning the National Book Award. A cadre of like-minded Loyola University academicians and personal friends and associates of the late novelist organized the first conference at the school’s newly opened Walker Percy Center for Writing and Publishing. Now, two years later as an encore the organizers sponsored a conference on his 1983 work Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book.

Perhaps Percy’s most intriguing work, Lost in the Cosmos is a weird yet satisfying book – a hybrid of philosophical inquiry, satire, cultural analysis, multiple choice questions,  thought experiments and (“What the hell, why not?” you can hear Percy say) even fiction. Perhaps the book most closely resembles Melville’s own loose but not-so-baggy monster, Moby Dick. But Lost in the Cosmos stands well on its own. The quality and quantity of presenters at the conference attested to its enduring worth—with more than 40 papers covering everything from liturgy to pornography to interstellar exploration to mimetic theory to Marshall McLuhan.

For its challenge to the status quo of the modern milieu, Lost in the Cosmos stands as a whip-smart lion in the path for anyone seeking to understand the subjects which most crowded the late novelist’s mind—death, sex, sin, redemption, immanence, transcendence, man’s coarse and always transparent ways, and God’s sublime and often hidden ways. By analyzing and satirizing the self as alienated from itself, Percy draws an exact—and exacting—diagnosis of man’s place and purpose in the universe.

“The self becomes itself,” Percy writes, “by recognizing God as a spirit, creator of the Cosmos and therefore of one’s self as a creature, a wounded creature but a creature nonetheless, who shares with a community of like creatures the belief that God, who transcends the entire Cosmos and has actually entered human history—or will enter it—in order to redeem man from the catastrophe which has overtaken his self.”

Some have called Percy the last of the Southern novelists; others an American Dostoevsky. For editor and writer Paul Elie, Percy makes up one of a vital quadrumvirate of writers who have helped define the mid-20th century American literary experience and the Catholic contribution to American letters. The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage (2003) is a “group portrait,” as Elie says, of Percy, Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day. Until 2012, he was senior editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, the publishing home for all four writers at some point in their career. Although his physical address is still located in New York City, Elie takes up intellectual residence at Georgetown University—where he holds a senior fellowship at the school’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, where he is coordinating a partnership between Georgetown and the non-profit StoryCorps to gather, record and share with the public stories on religious belief in the lives of ordinary Americans. He also writes for his blog, “Everything that Rises” (

Group shot

Because of his advantageous view from high atop the FSG eyrie, Elie is particularly well qualified—perhaps more so than any other writer of our day—to draw the portrait of this writing quartet. The critics seemed to think as much, too, because The Life You Save May Be Your Own was nominated for the National Book Critics Award soon after it was published. He was nominated again eight years later for Reinventing Bach (2012), which explores how technology has helped reimagine the way we listen to music.

By striking a harmonious balance of biography, history, theology, and literary analysis, Elie’s extensive volume on Percy, O’Connor, Merton, and Day provides a long (overdue) view of these four writers, their individual contributions to the 20th century literary and cultural context in which they wrote, and an apologia for their lasting impact in America and in the Church.

Credentials and expertise aside, Elie was an odd choice for delivering the keynote address at the 2013 Walker Percy Conference. Conspicuously critical of Lost in the Cosmos in The Life You Save May Be Your Own, Elie found the work “airless and wearying,” noting that “Percy hectors the reader sarcastically until the book becomes not a test so much as a trap, a test only the all-knowing author can hope to pass.”

“In his novels,” Elie writes, “and in the essays published as The Message in the Bottle, Percy had artfully sketched a recognizable postmodern self—fractious, confused, a pilgrim searching for a path and a destination alike—and had led the reader to identify with it. This time [in Lost in the Cosmos] he reached out of the book and declared the reader bored, lonely, phony, and trapped in a meaningless existence. The reader winds up silently insisting otherwise.”

In his keynote address, Elie acknowledges this criticism of Lost in the Cosmos, but also notes that ten years after writing these words and rereading the book again he is prepared to reappraise the work not as a challenge to the reader but as one to the self—specifically Percy’s own self.

“In its style the book is phenomenally indirect,” Elie said in his keynote, “but in subject, Lost in the Cosmos is a very direct book; it’s a book about the self . . . . It’s a test, yes, but it’s the author, not the reader who is being put to the test. When Percy asks, why is it possible to know more about the Crab Nebulae than it is about the self?—he is saying, ‘Why is it possible for me to know more about the Crab Nebulae than about myself?’ . . . It’s a self-help book and it’s meant to help the self who wrote it first of all. ‘Who are you?’ Percy asks. And he asks because he, whoever he is, needs help.

“I thought, and I’m not saying I’m wrong, that Percy was hectoring his reader and his obtuseness made him impatient. Now, a dozen years later I see that the self who is being addressed in the book, the who, is the self who is writing the book. It’s a polemic with the self . . . inside Percy’s head. The test he’s giving is the one he’s taking; the questions posed for the self are posed by the self at the self.”

Call to pens

Perhaps it was something of this same frustration which led Elie to put down on paper his own concerns about the modern world and religion—and not just on any paper, but America’s self-proclaimed paper of record. “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” was published a year ago in The New York Times Sunday Book Review with immediate and overwhelming response from readers and writers alike.

“Christian belief figures into literary fiction in our place and time . . . as something between a dead language and a hangover,” Elie writes. “Forgive me if I exaggerate. But if any patch of our culture can be said to be post-Christian, it is literature.”

In response, readers, writers, and fellow editors sought to correct or demand qualification from Elie on his thesis. Surely things are not that bad? There must be plenty of fiction out there which takes on God—sincere, honest, sympathetic, even profound attempts to reckon with omnipotence? Suddenly Catholic fiction—and fiction concerned with religious belief in general—became all the rage on the editorial pages of the great American newspapers and journals. Gregory Wolfe’s counterpoint appearing in The Wall Street Journal a month later is characteristic of the reaction Elie’s original bow-shot elicited. As founding publisher of Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion, Wolfe has an understandable hound in the hunt when it comes to Elie’s claim.

“Our instinct when launching [Image] was that the narrative of decline was misguided, but we honestly didn’t know if we could fill more than a few issues,” he writes in his January 10, 2013 response to Elie.

“Sometimes when you look, you find. Over the years Image has featured many believing writers, including Annie Dillard, Elie Wiesel, Christian Wiman, Marilynne Robinson and Mark Helprin. But these writers of religious faith and others are not hard to find elsewhere. Several prominent American authors—Franz Wright, Mary Karr and Robert Clark—are Catholic converts. Nathan Englander and Jonathan Safran Foer last year published ‘New American Haggadah,’ a contemporary take on the ritual book used by Jews on Passover.

“In short, the myth of secularism triumphant in the literary arts is just that—a myth. Yet making lists of counterexamples does not get at a deeper matter. It has to do with the way that faith takes on different tones and dimensions depending on the culture surrounding it.”

It was with some sense of serendipity and good fortune that Dappled Things had an opportunity to sit down with Elie at the 2013 Walker Percy Conference to talk to him about his controversial essay, his response to those who replied to it and what it means for his own writing projects, past, present and future.


*          *          *


Dappled Things: You were baptized and raised Catholic?

Paul Elie: Yes, in upstate New York. I went to public high schools with a strong sense of Vatican II Catholicism in the family, but very much unmoored from city or ethnic culture. It was a very good suburban Catholicism that left me really perplexed by the Catholic experience rooted in being an Irish American or Italian American or ethnic resident of certain parts of Philadelphia or whatever.

I wrote an essay for Commonweal in 1991 about being a young Catholic who had to reckon with two churches at once—the John Paul II Church and the Pre-conciliar Church [“The Everlasting Dilemma: ‘Young’ Catholics and the Church,” Commonweal, 9/27/91]. Andrew Sullivan read that and invited me to write for The New Republic so I caught a break there.

DT: Why did you write the New York Times essay in the first place?

PE: Prior to leaving FSG, I’d had some conversations with some editors at the New York Times concerning various things, such as about who should review which book, etc., and it led me to say first in conversation what I eventually said in the article. At the time I couldn’t write for the New York Times Book Review because I worked for a publisher. The Times is pretty strict; they don’t want people in the publishing community to be writing reviews and essays. I could be pushing FSG authors and taking down authors from, say, Knopf. So I knew that this was something to dig into but I couldn’t do it at the time. When I left FSG I had the opportunity. I knew it would be opportune to do it for December because historically they’ve run pieces of this kind around this time. So around this time last year I presented the idea to them and they went right for it.

DT: In your article, you admit that there are rare exceptions of fiction being written today with faith integral to the story. But why do you feel you have to qualify even these works?

PE: I feel I can’t find them and if I do find them characteristically they’re set in the past. Gilead (2004) [by Marilynne Robinson], for instance, is a wonderful book, but as I say in the essay, it’s a book that’s the exception that proves the rule in that it’s set in 1950s and the man who’s telling the story is already old. The plausibility of his account has to do with the fact that at some level it’s quite believable there were pastors who were thoughtful readers of the classics in 1955. It’s an incredibly challenging novel but it’s somewhat less difficult to imagine such a character into existence when he is said to exist from the 20s to the 50s I think.

Rather I would want to see novels about the quandaries of belief—whether to believe in this religious stuff. Here’s where FSG comes into the picture. I’d been at FSG for about 15 years by now and people knew my interests, so I figure at this point if these kinds of novels are out there, I felt strongly that some of them would have found their way to me. The fact that they haven’t suggests that maybe they are not really there. I felt in a position that I could generalize after reading about 10,000 manuscripts.

DT: After writing the Times article, though, it sounds like you’re ready to qualify that generalization to some extent as well.

PE: Yes, there is a whole shelf in my office in Georgetown of authors who have written me saying, ‘Well, you’ve left out my novel—here it is.’ And I’m hoping to read them and write something about it as a follow up piece. Also, it’s important to say, there is a certain novel of every kind that is just not very good. So the unstated point in the Times essay is that there are no exceptionally good works of fiction in which the quandaries of belief are front and center.

DT: So other writers sent you manuscripts or published novels. What was your response to their response?

PE: The piece came out and one writer said, “Oh, you got my book exactly! It just came out last year.” It turns out I had just left FSG when it came out . . . . Then someone else told me, “You never heard of me, but I’ve been writing a novel, and it sounds like you would take an interest in it. Can I send it to you?” I haven’t read it yet. In fact, I have a lot of work and read so much stuff just because people send it to FSG. But I’m burned out. I lost the habit of reading people’s manuscripts. I try to get to them, but for now I’m not getting to them.

DT: Let’s talk about the people who responded to your Times essay—in particular Gregory Wolfe of Image in the Wall Street Journal last January.

PE: Greg and I are friends and I had seen him last October in Seattle. I think that he’s publishing a lot of interesting work in Image, but a lot of the work he publishes lies outside what I was discussing. What I tried to say was not that there aren’t Catholic novelists or people who write out of the Catholic milieu or background, but there’s a pretty conspicuous absence of novels in which questions of belief as they’re felt in the present time are central to the novel. So it was an active definition. So that leaves out Alice McDermott, who was Greg’s counterexample in his Wall Street Journal article. I went to her book party a month ago—I love Alice. I’ve read all her works, we swap books as Christmas presents, but she writes about the 50s and 60s. It’s just a fact of her work. It changes a bit with her new book, so for Greg to say Alice McDermott? I say, she’s not what I’m talking about.

DT: How does your approach to fiction differ, then, from Wolfe’s, at least when it comes to a faith component?

PE: I think that a lot of Greg’s approach involves what he calls the whispering generation—the present Catholic generation of writers. If Flannery O’Connor said that for the hard of hearing you shout and for the nearly blind you draw in large and startling figures, Greg took that and about ten years ago said, the present generation of Catholic writers are whispering. To a certain extent I think he’s right. I don’t like the formulation though because I think it’s not catchy. Why are they whispering? It’s not like we’re in England or Mexico where priests are being hunted. It plays into all sorts of neo-conservative ideas about what we’re not allowed to say in the culture, which I just don’t think is really true. At the same time, some of these people are whispering so softly that you have to ask whether we would recognize their work as having a religious dimension if it wasn’t part of their biography. There is a lot of work, for instance, that exists in Image that has to do very obliquely or peripherally with the question of disbelief. I think that’s perfectly OK. I’m a complete Vatican II-type of Catholic who says, “Let’s not have a narrow view of culture but the broadest most latitudinarian view of culture possible.” But that said, let’s acknowledge that many of those novels don’t deal with questions of religious belief. It comes in around the sides or it’s not really there at all. This is a non-judgmental active definition. There are a lot of great things out there by the community of Catholic writers in the largest sense, but the question of whether I should believe this religious stuff doesn’t really feature.

DT: The faith is in decline in culture—at least on the face of it anyway. After all that’s one of the reasons Pope Benedict called for the Year of Faith. That same lack of faith, it seems fair to say, is reflected in at least three kinds of readers out there. You have a readership with a fragile faith, a readership antagonistic to the faith, and a readership that’s simply indifferent. So if you produce a fiction that seeks to challenge the reader—the first sort of reader will pull away from the work because he feels threatened; the second will reject it outright as either unbelievable or even inhuman; and the third will simply shrug their shoulders and remain unmoved. How does a work of fiction which proposes a fictional component then capture these sorts of readers?

PE: I don’t go along with that idea at all. I’m not sure I got it from publishing or writers, but I see the book is something written by one person sitting alone in a room and read by one person sitting alone in a room. To ponder that is to realize the variety of readers. Not only is it hard to break readers down into three groups in terms of their religious disposition, and many readers don’t know where they stand on these issues. The view there is a more Thomistic analysis that is very powerful but I’m not sure it’s useful in this sense. Flannery O’Connor says you can do whatever you can get away with, but nobody has ever gotten away with much. She also said about her novel Wise Blood, “That belief in Jesus Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who prefer to think of it as a matter of no great consequence.” She was writing from the situation you speak of but she figured out how to do it. She figured out how to shape everything in the novel to sympathize with Hazel Motes, who is indignant about the abuses of Christianity which then lead to his attention to doctrinal impurity in Christianity. In so doing, he gives us a grasp of what an authentic Christianity would be. It makes you identify with that in spite of yourself as the reader. That’s what O’Connor was trying to do anyway.

DT: So taking our lead from Flannery O’Connor, what strategy ought the Catholic writer take in seeking to be published—and published widely?

PE: Instead of making blanket assumptions about what is possible and what’s not, you get in there and try to figure out how to get it done. You have to be savvy about what the obstacles are to getting your work read, but your big blanket statements about what you can or can’t do—it wasn’t easier in the 50s. For every better aspect then, there were also worse ones in the culture. You had more believing readers but you had a lot of teachers pushing pious pap on people. You had Cardinal Spellman writing a novel; you had Madame Bovary on the index and on and on. You’re getting me on one of my soapboxes here, but I prefer to work at a more specific level whether it’s in The Life You Save or the Times essay. Let’s look at the works and the twenty ways in which religious belief figures into some recent novels. Instead of saying the stuff doesn’t exist, I’ll work through 20 examples of how it does appear and then wind up by saying but still the central religious experience isn’t there in the way I yearn for. So what do we do? We look to non-fiction, other countries’ authors, we keep hoping, and we try to make the work ourselves.

DT: Have any of the responses to your essay caused you to change your mind on any particular point?

PE: Oscar Hijuelos1 wrote me a letter saying I should look at his novel Mr. Ives’s Christmas— which I should . . . . Jeffery Eugenides thought I hadn’t done full justice to his novel, the marriage plot. One plot in his novel involves courting a woman and he’s a manic depressive and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The other plot has to do with another man courting this same woman who is having deep religious yearnings that lead him to India and working with Mother Teresa. So the man who is the manic depressive is the serious major story and the guy who is having the religious experience is the comic story. The fact that it’s put together in that way—is suggestive of our time. The religious plot is the source of comedy and the guy with the supreme nervousness is the serious plot, instead of the other way around. But the summary of the book got suppressed [in the editing process at The New York Times] and doesn’t make the point as clear as I would have liked. Jeff said he didn’t think I did justice to the religious side of the novel. But I know him so we’ll patch it up.

DT: Why was it important for you to see it published in the New York Times and not say First Things or Commonweal, some publication at any rate, which would be friendlier to the idea?

PE: Oh, it’s a different conversation at the New York Times. The paper is much more widely read and there is a need to develop points for people who don’t share certain assumptions. For example, in Commonweal you wouldn’t have to keep open an eye for the idea of whether there ought to be a place for religious belief in fiction. So it forces you to go down to the root and it’s a more challenging piece if you do have to write an article that is easily found convincing by the people who read Commonweal . . . . I think that among sophisticated religious people there is a hangover mentality from the culture wars that there is a censorious secular elite who won’t allow certain ideas into their publications in any form. I don’t think that’s true and I don’t think it ever was. In every age it’s taken a certain amount of cunning on the part of the writer, and moxie and shrewdness.

DT: Which is something that you touch on in your book The Life You Save May Be Your Own.

PE: Yes, that story is the story of The Life that You Save May Be Your Own in many respects. For instance, Thomas Merton would figure out a way to write about monastic life that made sense for a literary publisher. To find a way to write poems about the monastic hours that would resonate with the people who bought City Lights books. My experience of my four protagonists in that book is one of people who don’t accept blanket statements about the hostility of the culture and the possibility of doing certain things with their writing. They went and found ways of doing them. In that respect, I thought I could get this piece into the Times. All I needed was to get the right person to read my email and that’s what I did.

DT: Was faith and fiction always in the forefront of your mind as an editor for FSG and a writer in your own respect?

PE: I went to Fordham and a Jesuit professor at Fordham . . . taught literature courses where he brought in the notion of Christian humanism. He said I should read Flannery O’Connor. I was a freshman. I went to get O’Connor’s stories but I thought Flannery O’Connor was a man—her name like Tennessee Williams’s, one of these Southern names. Then I read (founding FSG editor) Robert Giroux’s introduction to her complete stories where he evokes Flannery so vividly and unforgettably that I was off—and he compared her to Thomas Merton. Right from the beginning, the moment I encountered O’Connor I encountered Merton at the same time. I was about 18 years old. So already this group portrait was emerging.

DT: How did O’Connor become the entrée into the picture that would eventually emerge for you in The Life You Save?

PE: Time passed. I didn’t get the O’Connor stories at the time I was a freshman at Fordham. Then in London I bought Mystery and Manners, which had a photograph of O’Connor on the cover, not like the American editions. It was a Baber Edition. I bought it at a bookshop and read it in a square in London. I was so knocked out by the sense of surprise that this was the religion in which I’d been raised. Yet she was setting the Catholic faith out in a way that was different from ways that I’d come to know. I was already most of the way through a Jesuit education. It shocked me into life. I was approached by a woman in the square who asked me for money. I didn’t have much money; I was a student abroad and gave her a ten pound note—such was my sense of what Jesus, Francis, or Flannery O’Connor would do at that moment.

DT: That sounds more like something inspired by Dorothy Day than Flannery O’Connor.

PE: Yes, so then I somehow followed the connections to Dorothy Day and bought her selected writings in the basement of the Corpus Christi Church bookshop in New York. It was the church where Merton was baptized near Columbia University. I volunteered at a Catholic worker near there. Then to finish the portrait, I didn’t really discover Percy until I was actually working at FSG. I tried to read The Moviegoer on a really hot summer day. I sat on a fire escape in a New York apartment and I just didn’t get it. Then I went to work at FSG where Percy’s nonfiction works were on the walls with his secondary works and commentaries and things like that. So I found that through his interviews—such as the Esquire interview—Percy explained what he was trying to do and that made his work intelligible to me.

DT: With all the writers in your basket, so to speak, how then did you proceed?

PE: As I began to plan the work I thought, ‘Let’s not be so strict and straight and New Critical about this.’ If O’Connor’s essays and letters opened her fiction to me, and the recollection by her publisher opened her fiction to me, and Percy’s essays opened his fiction to me, I have got to figure how to put all these pieces together and not consider their non-fiction as secondary work. Let’s look at it all and one thing led to another before I figured out that these four people were connected in certain ways and if you figured out when things happened you could put the pieces together. Look, for example, in Lost in the Cosmos for a reference to Flannery O’Connor as a certain kind of artist . . . It became fun to do it—and I’m still having fun.

DT: It seems this concern for faith in fiction is something that’s been on your mind since you began down the road of literature in the first place. Were your book and the Times article inspired by things you saw magnified at FSG, a publishing house with a well-known sympathy for fiction that includes a faith component, or did you write it in reaction to the general drift of culture?

PE: It wasn’t magnified by what I saw at FSG but it was confirmed there. I wrote the Life You Save out of a sense that there ought to be a book of this kind. It doesn’t exist. So following the example of certain writers I thought I had to do it myself. More specifically, there was this Catholic generation that were obviously connected and working the same questions from different angles. The books they were writing could be about Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, or Walker Percy—but where was the book that tells their story as one story? It doesn’t exist, so I boldly decide to try it. In the same way, I feel the lack of books that address religious quandaries and the works of fiction.

DT: Was there a certain sense of frustration working at FSG or the publishing world in general that led you to this next phase in your life as a fellow at Georgetown?

PE: No, FSG was a great place. It was my Fulbright and ultimate graduate school and family in some ways—and still is my family in some ways. The simple fact is there are only so many hours in the day. I left 45 books behind that were in process, and I edited 15-20 books a year, many of them over 500 pages. Editors at places like FSG are doing more editing than ever. So writing two long books, I have three children, we homeschool them, and I was teaching a course at Columbia at night after the recession hit. It was madness to try to sustain all that. So when Georgetown had the imagination to figure out how to do something like this [the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs] and make it central to a faculty member’s efforts . . .

DT: In September, Ignatius Press’s fiction blog “Novel Thoughts” celebrated the new presses appearing around the country—including Labora Editions, Wiseblood Books, Tuscany Press, and Korrektiv Press. Do you see these new presses as a sign of hope? What sort of hurdles do they need to overcome—and are they a viable way of getting out the sort of fiction-cum-faith that you’d like to see published?

PE: It is a sign of hope definitely. Not just as a functional way of getting the books out there, but also as a calling forth the work and creating currents for these energies to run down. Because these presses exist, works will get made that didn’t have a prospect of getting made. We forget now how many small presses and projects there were at midcentury. It wasn’t just Robert Giroux editing everyone’s work. There were lots of small presses [such as] Jubilee Magazine . . . . In his essay on Hawthorne, Henry James says it takes a lot of culture to make a little literature. So the existence of so many presses in this one area—that’s the lot of culture that it takes to make a little literature.

There’s a danger, however, in losing the sense of discrimination. In that sense for me to work at a press that had a Catholic element in its tradition but is not a Catholic press, such as FSG, was a good challenge. I still had to convince other people who didn’t give a hoot about the somewhat subcultural thing we’re talking about—faith and all that entails—unless it was a really good book. Damned, if they really loved Gilead, but they don’t need to reflect how it would play out among the Calvinists in Michigan, they just read it as a work of fiction. We don’t want to engage in special pleading for our kind of book at the expense of a tough minded disinterested judgment about whether the books are good.

Stanley Kaufman died the other day. He was 97. The film critic for The New Republic, he was also the editor of The Moviegoer. So here’s this Jewish guy from Manhattan who’s worked in publishing, and he winds up editing The Moviegoer because it’s about movies. The agent sends it to him because he’s a movie critic. Kaufman forced Percy through two or three rewrites, helping him fix the title, bring out parallels between The Moviegoer and [Albert Camus’s] The Stranger, and urging him to write the epilogue which becomes a sort of final accent and flips the book back around and makes its Catholic dimension more explicit. All of this was through tough insistent editing. This guy didn’t care if Caroline Gordon said Walker Percy was going to be the next great hope for American Catholic fiction. He just kept pushing and pushing and we have the book we have today because of it. The best way we can move this forward is to have presses, journals, and conversations, but also to really insist on celebrating the great work and calling out the bad work and making the stuff in the middle the best work it can be.


Time did not permit the interview to explore Elie’s current project—which attempts to address the lack of faith in fiction about which his essay complains. However, after his keynote address, Elie once again acknowledged what he had done in his Times essay—that he was working on a novel.

“I am tremendously excited about it,” he says. “I love doing it and I have a lot of journalism down and oftentimes writers set their nonfiction against their fiction as the true thing. Having worked full time for eighteen years at FSG, I now have something like a writer’s life. It’s tremendously exciting. To be able to give this talk and not writing it from ten to midnight but writing it during the daytime is really exciting. This is my main work now . . . .

“I’ve tried to be attentive to the kind of book I want to write and the one I ought to write. I’m trying to write the kind of book my kids will read when they’re 17 years old, when they’re reading adult books but still won’t suffer an adult book any longer than they have to. When they put it down it ceases to be interesting; I guess that’s what I’m trying to keep in mind.”

1. The day after I interviewed Elie, the Cuban-American novelist Oscar Hijuelos died of a heart attack while playing tennis. We couldn’t know this at the time, of course, but in retrospect it seems to add a particularly bittersweet flavor to Elie’s response—and serves to remind us that while writing seeks an immortality of sorts it remains, no matter how urgent, a project tied as anything else human to our own individual and mortal timelines.

Joseph O’Brien is editor of Tuscany Press, as well as an award-winning journalist and a poet. He lives with his wife and nine children on a homestead in the Driftless region of rural southwest Wisconsin. He is the staff writer for The Catholic Times of the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin.

The Gift Of One Book

“Every reader finds himself. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument that makes it possible for the reader to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have seen in himself.” – Marcel Proust

The book was small, hard-covered, with a broken binding. My grandmother held it carefully as she told me the book had belonged to my mother when she was my age. She had discovered it when she was cleaning out “the little house” – a small cottage on the back of their property filled to the brim with heirlooms spanning generations – and she thought I might like to have it.

The book was Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott. I had no idea then what the story was about. But the fact that it had belonged to my mother and that it was something she and I could share was exciting.  And this bequeathal initiated me into a sort of curatorial community as far as the family was concerned, for I was being given an artifact, a treasure, from the mysteriously off-limits “little house” which meant it had to be worth something. My 10-year-old mind couldn’t possibly know in that moment what a treasure that book would in fact become, but I felt as though I had been given something truly special.

LittleWomencoverIt wasn’t an old book, but it had been well read. The mellowed cover had a color picture of a young woman, reclining on a candy-striped sofa with books strewn around the floor at her feet, thoroughly absorbed in reading the book she held in her hands. The sofa looked to be located in a sort of attic playroom, with the back of the book’s cover depicting old trunks, bookcases and an oil lamp surrounding a window laced with a flowering vine. It looked like a lovely place to wile away the day. The cover alone captivated my imagination and to this day I often look to a book’s cover as one way of determining whether I will or will not delve into the pages enclosed therein. The pages were brittle and brown all along the edges, which gave them a warm inviting glow. These might be off-putting to some readers, however, due to the musty breath they exuded when they were riffled, an aroma carefully cultivated over the course of many years by the damp beach air and the close proximity of older and wiser heirlooms. But to me those pages smelled glorious, unlike anything I’d ever experienced. A scent I would say now was a blend of heavy dust, smoked old cedar and mothballs and which I will forever associate with a certain kind of comfort and rest that comes from the pleasure of reading.

Little Women was the first novel I ever remember loving like it was a living thing. I read it over and over and over again and this lingering dwelling within its pages brought with it not only the gift of many life lessons, but friendships I’ve continued to carry with me. The story of the four March girls – Margaret (Meg), Josephine (Jo), Beth and Amy – struggling at home alone with their mother while their father was away fighting in the Civil War taught me there are various wars and battles that need fighting in every facet of a life. Spending time with the Marches, I learned a lot about anger and jealousy, sickness and love, poverty, worldly riches, and the unexpected joyful wealth of a rightly ordered soul. Their stories made me cry, but they also made me feel safe and helped me to make sense of the loss and joy and pain of life in its many stages. The girls and their Marmee taught me about forgiveness, self-sacrifice, and detachment from the vanities of the world.  Whenever I was sick or felt alone, I opened the pages of that novel and lost myself in its world. The book became a boon companion, never far from me, no matter where I moved. It is here next to me even now as I write this, days and years away from the moment my grandmother entrusted it to my care.

One of the novel’s themes was discovering one’s vocation in life and developing one’s unique gifts. There was a sense that each girl was meant for something, had a purpose to fulfill in the world and, though never overt, the gift of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress as a Christmas gift and the virtuous actions of the March family suggested an upbringing rooted in the Christian faith. Part of the fun of reading the novel was watching each girl find her way along her own path to realizing and developing her gifts. Gentle Meg had a talent and a love for homemaking, mothering, and everything that went along with it. Jo was a tousle of contradictions, loving an active life as much as the quiet life of the mind. Beth was a natural musician with a generous heart, and pretty Amy loved fashion and art. Like many young women before me and since, I fell in love with the tomboyish, headstrong, literary daydreamer Jo. Watching her pursue her path towards a life lived in writing and study, I began to conceive of a writing life and the sacrifices it would demand and the fulfillment it could bring. Every book, in some way, must necessarily change us, for we can never be the same person we were before we allowed the story and its people, places, and conflicts to enter into our lives for whatever amount of time they occupy. I think it is safe to say that my involved and repetitive experiences with Little Women at least in part defined my choice to become a writer and to surround myself with books and learning. Jo’s character and her journey in the novel made it possible for me to consider a life as a writer, that this was something I could choose. As any true friend would do, Jo seemed to give me the encouragement that I was seeking and in doing so helped me to attend to nurturing the gift that truly made my soul come alive.

And this is the gift of literature as an art – it has the potential to speak to our deepest human emotions, longings, fears, and dreams. It has the ability to push us into becoming who we were meant to be by exploring the urges that spring from the seeds of our unique talents and gifts. It has the power to make connections over generations and across time, showing the continuum of human experience and the power of story to move hearts and minds to truth and goodness, acceptance and understanding, awareness and compassion. It has the power to point us towards something higher than ourselves, to the One who bestows our unique gifts, and provides the channels of grace which allow us to recognize and develop them. My grandmother gave me a great gift the day she gave me Little Women, because she placed into my hands a key that helped to unlock the door to my heart, my mind, my talent, my future, and part of my purpose. And that gift is priceless.

What book have you been especially gifted with in your life?

Violence and Tragedy in Literature

When I hadn’t yet finished Light in August, some of my friends saw what I’d been reading and asked, “Do you actually like Faulkner?” Well, yes. I think so. I don’t know. Should I? Well, hm.

One friend noted that the explicit nature of some of the happenings in Faulkner’s stories, often described in very communicative detail, presents our minds with an occasion to be soaked in something unhealthy and possibly harmful. My response was that those less than pleasant elements of his novels are not gratuitous; good literature is truthful, is an accurate representation of our world, and not everything in life is shiny and rosy.

When I was in college, I went through a serious Hemingway/Woolf phase, and I’m still not really out of the Fitzgerald phase. Granted, there is a difference in tone among these three novelists, but they’re all part of that Lost Generation. Ultimately, as my much loved and wonderful mother worriedly assured nineteen-year-old me, they’re lacking something. Their novels are not the answer. These authors are not called “Lost” for no reason. They don’t realize that, all things told, the story of the universe is essentially one of comedy, not tragedy. Nevertheless, I maintain my position that there is a place for such novels; there is a place for such darkness.

If you object, I have a few things to say to you: King Lear. Hamlet. Sophocles. Dido. The Book of Job. “Darkling I listen; and, for many a time, I have been half in love with easeful death.” We will all of us meet our wicked sisters, our blinded fathers, our conniving Uncles, our own damning Hubris, our physical and spiritual trials, and, many of us, a death of love that makes us want to kill ourselves. As a friends once said, “The theme of Oedipus Rex is: Life’s the pits, and then, you die.” Of course, experience is in many cases the best teacher. But it doesn’t hurt to have some vicarious experience and knowledge of the depths before you fall into them yourselves. In the good and the bad, this, I think, is a summary of the value of literature. It teaches us enormous truths in human terms, and so teaches us how to cope with our day to day human lives. Christ taught in parables, not syllogisms; He was, He is, a storyteller. And, if you recall, there was death and damnation in some of His stories.

All of that being said, we all know that virtue lies in moderation and balance, not in extremes. I am quite thankful that I had the foresight to do my senior thesis on Willa Cather rather than Hemingway, as I had first thought that I would. Too much dwelling in darkness isn’t a good thing. It’s easy to forget about the light if we never read comedies. However, the experience of life as a solitary vale of tears is only compounded if a soul never has the cathartic purging of living tragedy in art. Misery loves company is not a jesting and trivial phrase. It is deeply profound, deeply human, and speaks to the nature of man being a social animal and needing to know that there is someone, anyone, who understands and can help him through the dark night in which he finds himself. Even if that help is only in the form of companionship, even if it can’t give all the answers, that standing together is necessary for survival. This is, at least in part, why tragedies are necessary.

three little boys

Back to my friends’ question on Faulkner. In thinking over it more since finishing the book, I wonder if perhaps I was wrong. Not in theory, but in the particular instance of this book, perhaps the darkness was too explicit. Balance is difficult to achieve (Yes, that is my profound statement of the century. Duh.), and it is possible that art that is in many ways excellent can be over-the-top in others. This is how I feel about Bruckner’s Christus Factus Est, which I’ve sung with one of my choirs a few times. Just chill, buddy. And then there is some art, there are some stories, that I think can never be justified. Movies about demonic possession, for example, are incredibly foolish. Not in the, “This is dumb,” sense. No; Because such things are far more real than most people want to acknowledge, voluntarily dwelling on Satanic powers is unnecessarily putting oneself in real danger. To a less immediate degree, dwelling intensely on any sort of wickedness or darkness for extended periods of time is a danger. When the enemy is smarter than you, stay away from him.

When I discovered that both my mother and my older brother had stopped reading Light in August partway through, citing the intensely immoral parts of it as one of their roadblocks, I naturally began to question my previous position that it was not gratuitously, well, messy. I had defended the inhumanity of some of the characters to my questioning friends by saying that part of Faulkner’s purpose is to highlight the grace and beauty that still can exist, in characters like Lena and Byron, in a society that has been conquered and is fallen. I still think that this is true, but I do wonder if he needed to focus on the fallen part of that world as much as he did. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the matter. Even if you haven’t read this particular novel, where do you come down on this question?

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

Flashes of Light in a Dark World: Why We Need Super Heroes

“I’m hyperventilating right now,” my 12-year-old son whispered to me and gripped my hand hard. He was waiting excitedly (and obviously breathlessly) for Marvel’s newest superhero film, Thor: The Dark World, to burst onto the screen in all its glorious action.

Photo credit: Marvel

Photo credit: Marvel

It’s no secret to anyone who knows our family that the Marvel heroes are preferred to the DC group and that my son measures time by when the next film, Lego set, or Nintendo game is scheduled for release. Thor was autumn’s happy milestone and now he has set the April release of Captain America as his spring marker. Not only does he spend countless hours reading his classic comics digests, lost in imaginative fantasy and wrestling with hefty issues of good and evil, but he hones his memory skills by memorizing intricate plot patterns and character details, regaling us with various character back stories, correcting egregious errors in the film or cartoon adaptations, while also filling in weak or missing elements in those same story lines. (And no, concerned reader, my son’s literary diet is not confined to comics. He gets plenty of classic literature, so have no fear. Also, consider how memorizing intricate story lines via the comics preps him for memorizing long passages of Shakespeare to rival Kenneth Branagh and you will see there is a method to this seeming madness.)

As we sat waiting for Thor to begin, I was excited that he was excited, remembering how much of an impact similar cinematic experiences had on me when I was his age. Some of those, like seeing the original Star Wars trilogy films for the first time, are impressed indelibly in my memory, not only bookmarking a certain time period in my life, but providing a back drop of classic stories, meaningful themes, and complex characters which have provided much food for thought and analogous comparisons throughout my life. I can see the same thing happening with my son through his fascination with super heroes, both in the comics and the films. Thor: The Dark World, as well as some of the other films in the Marvel franchise**, is like a modern fairy-tale, an entertaining and often gripping lesson about life, morality, virtue, and, ultimately, living a life of faith, hope, and charity.  Here are a few we’ve gleaned from our many forays into their strangely familiar worlds:

Super heroes teach us:

  • What it means to live with, embrace, and work with perpetual weakness;
  • That weakness is not only a strength, but a gift, because through it we learn humility;
  • The temptation to power and the drive to feed the ego is a constant battle that must be fought within each individual, even in the very best of men;
  • Possessing compassion for the weak, vulnerable, and defenseless among us is an essential character trait of a hero, as are bravery, courage, perseverance, and teamwork;
  • There are things worth making deep sacrifices for, even to the point sacrificing of one’s life, including the defeat of evil, freedom from tyranny, the ideals of one’s country, overcoming oppression and brutality, and putting the health and safety of one’s friends and loved ones before your own. Super heroes revive the nobility of authentic martyrdom in a world which has lost its faith;
  • That each individual is possessed of unique gifts. Some of these gifts do not conform to what society perceives as valuable; sometimes society says the person and their gifts don’t matter or are expendable. However, the super heroes remind us that each individual has value and is particularly charged – as a debt of honor – with perfecting and using his gifts for the greater good, regardless of the value society attaches to them;
  • Gifts used to serve self end in disastrous consequences – it is often this “school of hard knocks” which a super hero needs to experience before he or she can be ready to finally use their gifts to help others and perhaps atone for the wrongs they have done previously through their pride and self-serving ambition;
  • To recognize the varied faces of evil, a reality which a world without faith is apt to forget. Satan was first Lucifer, the angelic being of Light; thus
    Photo credit: Marvel

    Photo credit: Marvel

    Shakespeare is right to remind us in King Lear that the Devil is of noble birth – he is a gentleman. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the world of the super hero: evil often does not appear “as evil,” but is often masterfully disguised, playing out its machinations and temptations under genteel subterfuge, blending carefully, attractively, and seemingly innocuously into the surroundings, ready to strike when least expected;

  • A spade is a spade: darkness IS darkness in the world of the super hero and the edges are distinctly not blurred. There is no confusion between light/true goodness and darkness/true evil. When a character experiences a moment of grace which involves an opportunity to make the choice for good or evil, that moment is clear, as is the character’s responsibility for freely choosing that good or evil. Free will is dominant and the consequences following the exercise of it are clearly defined;
  • Evil within a character is ultimately manifested without — one becomes on the outside what one is on the inside. This visual depiction of the
    Photo credit: Marvel

    Photo credit: Marvel

    perverting, deforming effects of choosing evil is a powerful message in helping young people develop a moral sense of the damage moral evil causes to the one who chooses it, as well as the ways in which it can pervade the lives and environment of others;

  • Conversion is possible, even in the most seemingly hopeless situation. Even is a character who seems to be a lost cause, there can come the flicker of light, evidence that goodness is not yet entirely extinguished. Super hero stories remind us that it is never too late to change your mind and turn away from the path of darkness towards the light;
  • That if one is still alive on this earth, even after experiencing the most traumatic and painful events, then that means one still has a purpose to fulfill and a reason for being and one must persevere in hope until that purpose achieved.

The ultimate lesson the super heroes have the ability to teach, perhaps without intending to, is a profoundly spiritual one. While it is not clear that every super hero believes in God, every super hero believes in something higher than himself: a higher power, a greater good which points towards truth, light, peace, and justice. In general, these comic figures operate in the realm of natural law in terms of morals. To read or watch the super heroes is not to be preached at. But it is to encounter characters with very real moral struggles and weaknesses in constant pursuit of goodness and truth and in battle against the forces which would erode those virtues — and this truth is not the relative truth the secular world preaches. Watching Thor, Iron Man, Captain America and others wrestle with these dilemmas and the influence of clear and present evil helps us examine how we handle our own moral crises and why. It forces us to ask what we believe and to question if how we live reflects those beliefs, or if we are living a lie.

Photo credit: Marvel

Photo credit: Marvel

It doesn’t take a genius to see the parallels between the great line that Stan Lee (via Voltaire) wrote for Spider Man — “With great power comes great responsibility”  — and Jesus’s words in Matthew 13:12 — “To whom much is given, much will be asked.” Thor, the X-Men, and the rest of the Avengers don’t need me, or anyone else, to defend them. Their stories – both in words and actions – are flickers of truth, light and grace in a dark world. Their stories, and the reasons we need them, speak for themselves.

**This is not an endorsement of the comic genre as a whole, nor am I suggesting all of the superhero-comic-to-film-efforts are appropriate for young children. Obviously, extreme prudence is required and parents must vigilantly supervise what their children see and read. In addition, parents need to take responsibility for discussing whatever venues they do allow their children to experience, demonstrating clearly how these stories relate to daily and spiritual life. If a parent is willing to take the time to do this, and the child has the requisite maturity to handle and discuss these issues and connections, there is a unique value in certain niche characters and series that cannot, in my opinion, be denied.