Friday, September 22, 2006

"A mere exchange of material goods"?

An utterly random post here, nevertheless one I thought would be worth sharing: not for what I might say, but for some wise words I have come across in the book I am reading, God and the World. This book is basically a long -- very long! -- interview in printed form between a German journalist named Peter Seewald and the man whom we now know of as Pope Benedict XVI (but then knew of as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger).

A major pet peeve of mine, one I share with many many other followers of the Christian faith I am sure, is the way in which the holiday (holy-day) of Christmas has been hijacked by commericialism and consumerism. For some reason I find myself a little more annoyed every year at how early the stores and mail-order catalogs start hyping up Christmas, admonishing us to "be prepared" and throwing out tired aphorisms like "It's never to early to start thinking about the holidays." This is obviously not the kind of "preparation" that is really important when entering into one of the holiest seasons of the year, for Christians anyway... and though I am as guilty as anybody of falling for the allurement of materials gifts during the holidays and losing my focus on what is really important, I feel that the way our society manipulates the holiday for its own cash-centered purposes certainly works against any good intentions we might have of trying to remain watchful and alert to the real meanings, the deep mysteries, that Christmas truly offers to our hearts and souls.

Anyway, the fact that I am writing about this at all almost serves to illustrate that which I am ranting against -- why talk about this in September? Well, for one thing, it was on my mind recently since the catalogs are already starting to arrive in the mail, the watered-down carols piped in to waiting rooms and elevators, our family is talking about drawing names for the annual gift-giving exchange, etc... and it's not these things in themselves that are that bad, but it's the feeling of anxiousness and pressure they seem to initiate in one's mind ("Wow, maybe I'm not ready"... "can we afford Christmas this year???"... "what am I going to get for _______?", etc...) that really bother me, since such feelings seem so contra what the feast is really about, and what the Lord would want us to feel and focus on in celebrating His birth... and then, I came across this passage in the book mentioned above, and it seemed to crystalize all that I had been thinking. I think it makes for a profound passage, certainly worthy of reflection as we draw nearer to the holidays... for Christians anyway, not a bad way to start preparing oneself for the season of Advent, in which we anticipate the arrival of our Savior into the world:

"...There is a great idea underlying the original custom (of giving gifts for Christmas). This Child us God's gift to mankind, and in that sense Christmas is the proper day for giving gifts. But when the giving of presents becomes a matter of obligatory shopping trips, then the idea of presents is completely distorted. Then it is a matter of what Christ said to His disciples once: Do not do as the Gentiles do, who invite each other because they in turn receive invitations. As a mere exchange of material goods, Christmas is coming under the power of wanting-for-oneself; it is becoming the instrument of insatiable egoism and has fallen under the sway of possessions and of power -- whereas this event in fact brings us exactly the opposite message. Pruning back Christmas so that it is once again simple would be an enormous achievement."

"Pruning back Christmas so that it is once again simple"... this, I must say, is an idea that sounds better and better to me every year. For in the mad rush (that starts earlier and earlier every year) to buy the right gifts and satisfy the growing number of recipients on our lists, I fear we lose more and more sight of what is truly important... I know that seems to happen with me. I don't want to lose that vision, that knowledge of the truth. And if you have any doubt that money and material possessions can distort that vision and cloud that knowledge, you must be living in a different world than I am. I hope that our current Pope's words can help me to resist the pressure to buy often and early, and instead take the time to reflect on the indescribable gift we have been given in the coming of the One whose love shows us the way to heaven. Compared to this glorious truth, nothing else really matters.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #39

Here is a fascinating poem, in prose form, by the Norwegian poet Rolf Jacobsen. What interests me about this poem is that even though it comes out of a totally different country and a totally different mindset, it reads just as if it were an excerpted passage from someone like Jack Kerouac or Thomas Wolfe... pointing towards a universality of experience in human beings, specifically, the experience of a sense of communion with total strangers in our unspoken longings and yearnings for passionate release from the humdrum of daily existence.

Also of interest to me (and probably ONLY to me!) is the fact that, at the time I read this, I just happened to be in the process of composing my own poem about passing through a town (my chosen method of transportation happened to be a car, not a train, unfortunately) and ruminating on the hidden hurts and hopes within its residents... coincidence, I suppose, but certainly I was in a frame of mind to really appreciate Jacobsen's powerful observations. The line about "unseen wells of power" intrigues me to no end... every soul is just such as "well," and yet so many remain untapped... one wonders along with Jacobsen what indeed would happen if more of us had the courage and opportunity to express those yearnings we all hear echoing within the chambers of the heart. Ours might just be a world transformed.

Transformed into what, however, I cannot pretend to know...


Express Train

Express train 1256 races alongside hidden, remote villages. House after house wanders by, pale gray, shivering. Rail fences, rocks and lakes, and the closed gates.

Then I have to think in the morning twilight: What would happen if someone could release the loneliness of those hearts? People live there, no one can see them, they walk across rooms, in behind the doors, the need, blank-eyed, hardened by love they cannot give and no one gets a chance to give them. What would rise higher here than the mountains -- the Skarvang Hills -- what flame, what force, what storms of steady light?

Express train 1256, eight soot-black cars, turns towards new, endlessly unknown villages. Springs of light behind the panes, unseen wells of power along the mountains -- these we travel past, hurry past, only four minutes late for Marnardal.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Mutt Ploughman on September 11, 2001

It is only by grace that I was not located very, very close to the World Trade Center five years ago today. I would not have been in the towers, and yet for more than 2 1/2 years I came through them every day on my commute into New York City. I worked directly across from the towers, separated by one street's width, from February 1999 until late August of 2001. As luck would have it, the company I worked for was in the process of moving to southern New Jersey, not far from Philadelphia, during that summer. I accepted a job in the new office, and moved from northern to southern New Jersey in early August. About a month later, I witnessed the attacks on television like everyone else, intead of from the ground level.

But the event remains as harrowing for me as it does for all of us, and one of the reasons is how well I knew the area in and around the towers, how often I had walked through and around them, how well I knew their powerful and impressive image up close. I feel like I knew those towers well. I used to walk in the courtyard area between them in good weather on my lunch break. And one date, while our romance was new and just beginning to flower, my future wife and I met underneath them to go on our second date. From the lunch room in my office on top of the Century 21 department store, which looked directly across at the rising steel and glass, I saw her from above, strolling near the famous circular fountain sculpture, waiting for me to come down to meet her. That's a memory I treasure today.

Because I knew the area and the buildings themselves so well, I just could not believe my eyes, like the rest of us, when I watched the south tower explode into flames on television, when I saw people jumping from them, and, in a hellish vision beyond anything I had ever seen anywhere, watched them collapse into massive clouds of dust and debris. I would have been one of the ones sprinting away from those clouds. I would have been covered in dust and ash. But it never happened.

I can imagine, although I wasn't there to see it, the chaos downtown. I always came up from the Trade Center around 7:45, not 8:45, so I almost certainly would have been in the office, getting started with my day. But to go outside and see them burning and people falling out from that close - that I cannot imagine. I am fairly sure I would have gone down to see after the first plane hit, and I think I probably would have witnessed the second plane's crashing into the tower. I can only thank God that I did not have to see that.

Since September 11 five years ago, I have consistently had disastrous dreams in which I was either in or near a building or an area that an airplane would crash into. That has consistently happened every 3 or 4 months since those attacks, for me. In addition, I can honestly say that I have never looked upon a jet in the sky again without some kind of thought about terrorism, wondering where it is headed and if it is going to crash into anything. I thought this would fade away over time but it really hasn't.

The men and women who died in and around those buildings, and in the Pentagon and on that terrifying flight in Pennsylvania, under such horrific circumstances, did absolutely nothing to deserve their fate. They were totally innocent and did not deserve to die on that day. It is hard to come to grips with why they did. Some of them, particularly the people trapped above where the planes hit, must have suffered immeasurably. It is frightening and dizzyingly horrible to consider what one might have done in their shoes, and some of the recently released 911 tapes that i have heard in the news demonstrate clearly that they were subject to pain, anguish and terror.

It frightens and troubles me that this happened in my lifetime, and I never thought I would ever see anything like that day. On top of that, it has led our nation into some troubling times, caught up in a war that drags on and on and seems to become a larger and larger wedge between us and much of the rest of the world. It is hard to say I feel any safer in the world at large than I did five years ago, and harder still to imagine the long-term consequences for the next generation, specifically my two innocent little daughters.

All I would like to say now is that my heart goes out to the families of the victims and especially to the victims themselves. Their suffering is long over, but the memory of what they had to endure lingers in me, and I hope and pray that God carried them all into his Kingdom where they can exist forever in a place where that suffering is forgotten and, like all the rest of the sins and shortcomings they may have taken along with them, fully accounted for. For the nearly 3,000 innocent Americans and foreign-born citizens who died five years ago, I remember you as our nation remembers you, and offers up our prayers for your souls.

IN MEMORIAM: Remembering the Victims of 9/11

In lieu of a regular Poem of the Week this week, I am posting this poem by Adam Zagajewski which was, back when it first happened, often cited to help us all to deal with the horrors of the terrorist attacks in which so many innocent Americans lost their lives (it was posted without adornment on the back cover of The New Yorker magazine directly following the tragedy). Today, exactly five years later, I offer it both as a tribute to those victims and their families, and as a way of both remembering, and moving beyond, that horrific experience.


Try to Praise the Mutilated World

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June's long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You've seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you've heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth's scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the grey feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Mining the Modern Malaise: Saul Bellow

This is the first of a pair of posts in which I want to briefly discuss the efforts of two Nobel Prize-winning writers to "mine the modern malaise," to understand the place and meaning of mankind in a world that has largely forgotten God, through specific famous books they've written. It just so happens that I have recently read two of these famous books in a row and have been struck by their authors' differing approaches to the questions that haunt us all in these (to jump on the Dylan bandwagon, like everyone else right now) "modern times." Both books were written during the same decade, the 1950's, so they're not exactly recent responses to these ever-present questions, but the mere fact that they are still being read and discussed prove that they still have much to say to us in these areas. Though they don't supply much in terms of direct or satisfying answers to our deepest questions (as I will point out), they do certainly help to illuminate our struggles and fears and various attempts to deal with that longing for transcendence we so often talk about on this blog, that search for ourselves and our place in the grand scheme of things...

The first book I want to hit upon is Saul Bellow's breakthrough novel from 1952, The Adventures of Augie March. Were this post not part of a series, I think I might have titled it "Bellow's Big Book of Bewilderment," because that is the word that best describes (for me) the 550-page quest for meaning and purpose that the title character, Augie March, describes throughout the novel. The fascinating thing too is that this state of bewilderment seems to be shared equally by both the protagonist and the reader throughout the entire length of the book. Of course I can't speak for others who have read it, but from reviews I've seen and such, this experience seems to be fairly common: when reading the story of March's life, you get this strange sense of utter confusion, as if he himself is still trying to figure out the meaning of all he is relaying, even as you the reader are. And in the end, the enigma isn't made clear in the slightest: when I read the final paragraph of this novel, I was as perplexed as I was in reading the first. I didn't feel like I understood the protagonist any better than when I had first met him on page 1. Here's an example of what I mean. This is the famous first two paragraphs of the novel -- read it and see if you can figure out what March (Bellow) is trying to say in it:

I am an American, Chicago-born -- Chicago, that somber city -- and go at things as i have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man's character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn't any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.
Everybody knows there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression; if you hold down one thing you hold down the adjoining.

Now, I wasn't initially planning on this, but just for kicks, and for drive the point home, here is the last part of the last paragraph of the book:

...That's the animal ridens in me, the laughing creature, forever rising up... is the laugh at nature -- including eternity -- that it thinks it can win over us and the power of hope? Nah, nah! I think. It never will. But that probably is the joke, on one or the other, and laughing is an enigma that includes both. Look at me, going everywhere! Why, I am a sort of Columbus of those near-at-hand and believe you can come to them in this immediate terra incognita that spreads out in every gaze. I may well be a flop at this line of endeavor. Columbus too thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains. Which didn't prove there was no America.

Now. If you've read those two brief sections through a few times and still can't get at what the meaning is, what Bellow is trying to say, then I guess I'm not alone. And you've just gotten a taste of the experience of reading this entire book. Just about all of the prose struck me as fascinating but also almost totally opaque -- I could not "see through" it at all and get at its meaning. George Orwell wrote in his famous essay "Why I Write" that "good prose should be like a windowpane." Well, if that is true than I guess by Mr. Orwell's standards, this novel would be discarded as trash. As I think the sections I cited will show, the prose here is anything but as clear as glass.

But hold on -- is that the whole story? I don't think so, not by a long shot. For even though Bellow's prose is intricate and obtuse, it is also interesting and, in my reading experience anyway, quite original. That opening paragraph is difficult to figure out, yes, but it is also quite memorable. It is famous for a reason. I don't quite know exactly what March is trying to say, but nevertheless, his opening lines strike with the force of real conviction, and with the tone of a manifesto or declaration of some kind. In other words, Augie March bursts to life vividly on the page from the get-go as a unique and authentic character. And in every page following, his life rings true as an "actual" life that may well have been lived by a young Jewish-American kid from a rough neighborhood in Depression-era Chicago. And there is so much to be said for that. For if you're going to write a "coming of age" novel or a bildungsroman of some kind, your first task is to make sure your main character, the one whose "adventures" we will be following for as long as the journey takes us, is fully and authentically rendered. Famous characters like Holden Caulfield or Huck Finn are remembered and celebrated because they (still) speak with a true voice, and bring to life a time and place that was uniquely their own, and yet, an inner experience that is also universal. Augie March deserves to be placed in this same pantheon of memorable American fictional protagonists, and his experiences can still stir our imaginations and haunt our thoughts in the 21st century.

For in the end, despite all of his diverse and weird adventures, the scores of interesting characters he introduces us to, his bizarre ramblings about being a "born recruit" and his involvement in various schemes legal and illegal, and his dogged determinism to "make the record my own way," his story is really about one thing: the desire to love and be loved. That is the one thing I can ultimately see clearly through the dense fog of his prose and his peregrinations: his ultimate goal is to figure out what "his fate" is, but what he really wants to do is to find that soul mate he can rely upon and settle down with. His entire search, like all of ours in the end, is a search for true love of the kind that anchor the soul and settle the wandering spirit. Because of this, his story is a univeral one, and one we can indeed relate to despite the dizzying convolution of its expression.

Towards the end of the novel there is a section where he finds himself adrift in a stormy sea with a madman intent on bludgeoning him senseless in order to use him for his own lunatic scientific experiments (the kook is convinced he can effectively change human nature if he can rid the human psyche of the capacity to be bored!?!). He is cold, he is hungry, he is aimless and desperate, and all he can think about it getting through the ordeal so he can rush home to Chicago and marry the girl he's in love with. He is a man adrift in the world but pining for love. In the middle of the 20th century, amidst the affluence and spiritual decadence of America, no wonder this novel took hold of people and wouldn't let go. I think on some unconscious level, readers came to this point of the long and winding epic and realized, "Hey, I recognize that guy out there on that life raft, flailing and trying to figure out his place in a lonely universe. That's me."