Considering Jonah and Noah in Light of Harvey and Irma

I said earlier that  I’d been re-reading the flood narrative in Genesis.

The devastation from Harvey, and, soon, Irma, compels me to say something about what God isn’t doing.

God is not sending these storms as a punishment on America.

God is not sending these storms as a punishment on the world.

God is not sending these storms, period.

Remember the story of Jonah?

God (Yahweh in the text) calls Jonah to cry against the city of Nineveh, “for their wickedness has come up before me.”  Jonah wants nothing to do with this mission, and embarks for Tarshish instead.  He doesn’t get far.  Trapped in the belly of a great fish, Jonah offers an incredible prayer:

“I called to the Lord, out of my distress,
    and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
    and thou didst hear my voice.
For thou didst cast me into the deep,
    into the heart of the seas,
    and the flood was round about me;
all thy waves and thy billows
    passed over me.
Then I said, ‘I am cast out
    from thy presence;
how shall I again look
    upon thy holy temple?’
The waters closed in over me,
    the deep was round about me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
    at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
    whose bars closed upon me for ever;
yet thou didst bring up my life from the Pit,
    Lord my God.
When my soul fainted within me,
    I remembered the Lord;
and my prayer came to thee,
    into thy holy temple.
Those who pay regard to vain idols
    forsake their true loyalty.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
    will sacrifice to thee;
what I have vowed I will pay.
    Deliverance belongs to the Lord!”

“And Yahweh spoke to the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.”

Jonah preaches a warning from God in Nineveh: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” The people, from beggar to king, repent of evil.  God responds in kind.

Jonah gets lit.

“But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

I’m going to repeat the most important part of this passage, ignoring, for a moment, Jonah’s impossible dramatics.

“I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”

God could have left Nineveh tore up from the floor up.  (The justice of such an action is another matter.)  Rather than sending calamity, God sent a prophet.  Rather than a tidal wave or a series of storms or an earthquake, God sent correction.  Jonah held Nineveh in contempt; God wanted its people to repent and flourish.

In Jonah, God does not send calamity.  God sends correction.

The devastation from Harvey, Irma, and other natural disasters are not punishments from God.  Modern-day Jonahs, eager to see the things they despise brought to ruin and claim the destruction as mighty acts of God, be warned.

As for Jonah’s (and would-be Jonahs’) histrionics:

“Yahweh replied, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’

Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, ‘It would be better for me to die than to live.’

But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?’

‘It is,’ he said. ‘And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.’

But Yahweh said, ‘You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?'”

This stands in quite the contrast to the moody, brooding God of the Noah’s Ark narrative.  In that story, Yahweh (still smarting in familial dysfunction?), kills almost every man, woman, child, and animal on Earth with a great flood.

One of these stories is partly about the nature of God.  One is partly an attempt to explain an historic calamity in concert with the notion that God is all-powerful and good, and is also a claim that God has established a certain covenant with a certain elect band of people.  “Good” people.  And whatever these stories seek to say about God, they say an awful lot about the nature of people.  Jonah longs for the destruction of people God would rather save.  The writer of the flood story hedges that the payoff of a national god who can control nature will be worth the scandal of having that god kill innocent children.

These stories are “about” God, but they are more fundamentally about how we can only understand God in conversation with others.  Left to our own devices, we inevitably cast God in exclusionary terms.  We become like the writer of the flood narrative’s darkest moments.  We become like Jonah.

As I said yesterday:

It’s important to remember that when we study the Scriptures, we’re not simply interpreting a set of neutral or sacrosanct writings.  The very act of reading Scripture is an act of encountering a diverse collection of people’s perceived, longed-for, and actual experiences with God.  There is incredible richness in such and undertaking.  Whatever else they’re meant to do, these stories, poems, parables, and teachings are meant to put us in conversation with ourselves as much as with each other.  With our own preconceived notions about God and everything else.  Understanding the Scriptures, even a little, requires engagement with other people.  That’s incredibly important, especially if you believe or want to believe in a God who’s still speaking, a God who lives beyond story and page, beyond symbol or sacrifice.

I don’t know what God is literally able to do in the face of calamity.  But I know God does not send it.

For the victims of these and all raging storms, let us pray with Jonah:

“I called to the Lord, out of my distress,
    and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
    and thou didst hear my voice.
For thou didst cast me into the deep,
    into the heart of the seas,
    and the flood was round about me;
all thy waves and thy billows
    passed over me.
Then I said, ‘I am cast out
    from thy presence;
how shall I again look
    upon thy holy temple?’
The waters closed in over me,
    the deep was round about me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
    at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
    whose bars closed upon me for ever;
yet thou didst bring up my life from the Pit,
    Lord my God.
When my soul fainted within me,
    I remembered the Lord;
and my prayer came to thee,
    into thy holy temple.
Those who pay regard to vain idols
    forsake their true loyalty.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
    will sacrifice to thee;
what I have vowed I will pay.
    Deliverance belongs to the Lord!”

Amen.

 

“The Hurricane Does Not Roar In Pentameters”

With Hurricane Irma breathing down the necks of hundreds of thousands of people, I’ve been re-reading the flood narrative.  Far-removed from the physical devastation Irma brings, I’m I also hearing the echoes of Kamau Brathwaite: it’s geographic privilege, really, that allows me to consider the brilliance of Brathwaite’s contention that “the hurricane does not roar in pentameters.”

C.L. Innes writes:

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At The New School, I was a student of the amazing Robert Antoni.  A few years later, I had the pleasure of teaching writing at the College of New Rochelle, and I leaned on much of what Robert taught me.  The following is a reflection from that class four years ago:

In the context of the class I’m teaching, it’s important to present the modern formal structures of essay clearly, and for students to be able to execute these schema even as they learn to hear, develop, and deliver their unique, respective voices. It’s also important that they (and that all of us) read widely and across foreign and familiar cultural and linguistic settings.

Braithwaite, of course, is not saying that iambic pentameter is a more formal, academic, or polished form of expression than are the cadences of his experience. The old English forms, unlike the basic structures of essay taught at the undergraduate level, are not conventions to be mastered and then moved on from. They are simply different from other expressions, and just as valid. But the insight he gives about the ways in which experience, geography, and culture influence our voices and our framing devices is brilliantly stated: the hurricane does not roar in pentameters.

In writing, the old sports adage also holds true: you have to get good before you can get fancy. Braithwaite or Ferlinghetti aren’t “fancy” in this sense, nor are the old English conventions necessarily “good.” But we do, all of us, carry points of reference, and for better or for worse, the discipline, practice, and art of writing in English or in the West in general requires a certain level of engagement with things like pentameter and people like Shakespeare, Chaucer, and, later, Whitman, Emerson, Twain, Conrad, Hemingway, etc. In writing and in physics, we’re dealing with relative values and definitions: neither our experience nor our execution manifest in vacuo, neither are they hatched like Athena, fully formed, fully armed, out of Zeus’s head. Motion is always relative, and so too is the spectrum from “good” to “fancy.”

But developing our voice as writers or as people requires the mastery of certain modes of expression. We might even say that without the narrative frames afforded us by the convention of language, we’d be a very different species arranged in very different communities. Even if we can’t read or write, language has given us the ability to think of ourselves as objects with stories moving through time. Self-reflection is in most cases a function of narrative, ours or someone else’s. Mastering the elements of basic structure (getting “good” with the basic tools of the written trade) brings deeper possibilities of expression closer to our reach. I may understand, conceptually, a great many things about black holes, but I’ll likely make no significant contribution to the study of them if I’m not conversant in the language of higher mathematics, even if I say, with Einstein, that all motion and velocity are relative (save the velocity of C). “Good” and “fancy” may be relative terms, but they occur within a written and spoken frame of reference alongside our experiences and efforts toward understanding and expressing them.

The Physician's Palette, Pablo Picasso.
The Physician’s Palette, Pablo Picasso.

It’s been said by Malcolm Gladwell (and Macklemore and Ryan Lewis) that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master any given discipline. I like for students to keep this general idea in mind: you have to get good (proficient, comfortable, familiar, conversant) before you can get fancy.   Visually, I’ve used the work of Picasso to drive this point home.  Before he did his groundbreaking work, he become very proficient at using the language of the art world around him.  Before he was a cubist or surrealist, he mastered realism.  He became conversant at this formal aspect of the craft and, of course, transcended it.   But without The Physician’s Palette, we wouldn’t have The Old Guitarist or Guernica.

We’ve been talking about all of these ideas over the first few weeks of class. While preparing for our most recent session, I decided I wanted to revisit the Brathwaite quote in particular and did a google search for “the hurricane does not roar in pentameters.”   The second result was for a tumblr blog called Poets of Color using the quote as a tag line.  The most recent post on that blog?

Picasso, I want my face back.

2

Even my hat mocks me
laughing
on the inside of my grief –

My twisted mouth
and gnashing teeth,
my fingers fat and clumsy
as if they were still wearing
those gloves –
the bloodstained ones you keep.

What has happened
to the pupils
of my eyes, Picasso?

Why do I deserve
such deformity?

What am I now
if not a cross between
a clown and a broken
piece of crockery?

3

But I am famous.
People recognise me
despite my fractures.

I’m no Mona Lisa
(how I’d like to wipe
the smugness from her face
that still captivates.)

Doesn’t she know that art, great art,
needn’t be an oil-painting?

I am a magnet
not devoid of beauty.

I am an icon
of twentieth-century grief.

A symbol
of compositional possibilities

My tears are tears of happiness –
big rolling diamonds.

14

Picasso, I want my face back
the unbroken photography of it

Once I lived to be stroked
by the fingers of your brushes

Now I see I was more an accomplice
to my own unrooting

Watching the pundits gaze
open-mouthed at your masterpieces

While I hovered like a battered muse
my private grief made public.

15

Dora, Theodora, be reasonable, if it weren’t for Picasso
you’d hardly be remembered at all.
He’s given you an unbelievable shelf-life.
Yes, but who will remember the fruits of my own life?

I am no moth flitting around his wick.
He might be a genius but he’s also a prick –
Medusa, Cleopatra, help me find my inner bitch,
wasn’t I christened Henriette Theodora Markovitch?

Picasso, I want my face back
the unbroken geography of it.

– Grace Nichols

Dora Maar (nee Markovitch) was Picasso’s long-time partner and the muse/model for much of his best-known work.  She was also an up-and-coming artist in her own right in the 30s and 40s and photographed the creative process of Guernica.   The diamond tears Nichols speaks of refer to Maar’s role as the face of The Weeping Woman, a sort of Guernica writ large.   She also wrote poetry, and so we’re able to move from seeing Maar through Picasso’s lens to hearing Maar in Nichols’ voice to finally arriving at a place all writers want to be:  seen as we see ourselves, heard in our very own voice:

Pure as a lake boredom
I hear its harmony
In the vast cold room
The nuance of light seems eternal
All is simple I admire
the full totality of objects.

The soul that still yesterday wept is quiet — it’s exile suspended
a country without art only nature
Memory magnolia pure so far off
I am blind
and made from a bit of earth
But your gaze never leaves me
And your angel keeps me.

The hurricane does not roar in pentameters.  Dora Maar does not speak in the voice of Picasso or Nichols but is still, for them, an indelible symbol, a cypher for their own struggles (theirs and their peoples’).  Behind that is a person with a point of view and a voice, a photographer-poet wrestling with the ecstatic anxieties of having both and of using them.   That’s what we’re talking about here.

Why Did God Reject Cain’s Offering?

I was re-reading the story of Cain and Abel this evening.  Maybe it’s because I pastor a church in the agricultural heart of Lehigh County and, as a food trucker, am a near-end user of so much of what our local farms produce, but I noticed something in the text I’d never really thought about before.

I remember from childhood that Cain raised crops and Abel raised meat, and Yahweh accepted Abel’s offering and rejected Cain’s.  Cain was born first, “and Abel was keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground.”  Cain brought an offering of fruit, Abel the first of his flock and best potions thereof.

If Cain was a tiller of the ground, and Abel a shepherd, where did Abel get his feed?  Were his pastures enough? In all conditions?  In all kinds of weather?  For all the ewes in their various cycles, and for all the lambs?

Scripture doesn’t say why Yahweh rejected Cain’s offering.  The editorial school or tradition most likely to have produced this section of Genesis (the “J” or “Yahwist” source, named for its specification of “Yaweh” as the name of God) is also thought to have given us the story of Adam and Eve.  Yahweh fashions Adam (from adamah, essentially a word for earth or soil) from the ground (Genesis 2:7).  In Genesis 3:19, Yahweh reminds Adam that from dust, earth, and soil he was made, and to dust, earth and soil he shall return.  Yahweh banishes Adam and Eve from Eden after their disobedience, where they are destined to work the land (adamah) for their survival.

Cain, their first born, is as closely connected to the land as they are.  But Abel is at least one step removed from the earth-bound toil of his brother and parents.  Certainly, successful, stationary animal husbandry requires more feed than the sparse pastures the rocky ground east of Eden provided?

If I were to make an admittedly radical assumption as to why Yahweh rejects Cain’s offering, I’d start by considering family systems.  I’d speculate that Cain’s sacrifice reminds Yahweh not only of the failure of Eden, but of Yahweh’s own rash response.  Cain, who tilled the soil, reminds Yahweh of his own loving creation of Adam from adamah, and of Yahweh’s outsized reaction to Adam and Eve’s transgression.  Adam and Eve disobeyed Yahweh with the eating of a fruit, and it’s fruit Cain brings as an offering.  In Abel, Yahweh finds one a bit more removed from this original dysfunction.  It’s worth noting that Yahweh does not punish Cain with death, and vows to protect him from those who would slay him.  If I were to offer a radical assessment, I’d suggest there are deep pathologies here.

If the bulk of the stories in Genesis are meant to be taken symbolically, we’d be less radical locating these pathologies in the hearts and minds of the people writing the Scriptures, or we might understand Yahweh’s rejection of Cain as a commentary on the tension between settled agrarians and pastoral nomads.  We might take it as an indictment of personal property (though we’d need to find a way around Abel’s owning of sheep).

There are no clear answers within the story as to why Yahweh is displeased with Cain and his offering.  There are two passing references to Cain in the New Testament (1 John 3:13 and Jude 1:11), both of which speak to the evil of Cain killing Abel.  1 John 3:13 claims Cain was “from the evil one,” and I believe it’s from that understanding that theologians have read evil motives back into Cain’s offering.  They suggest he wasn’t giving his best, while it’s clearly stressed in Genesis 4 that Abel gave the best of his flock. That’s certainly what I was taught in Sunday School.  You’d think, though, that the Yahwist would make Cain’s attitude, if it were the issue, a key part of the story.

There’s a lot we don’t and can’t know about this story.  Here’s what we do: the Bible very clearly reflects the joys and heartbreaks of real family systems. Whatever the motivation behind his offering, Cain’s jealously at Yahweh’s seeming favoritism of Abel probably did not emerge in a vacuum.  Maybe Yahweh favored Abel as a pattern, or, more likely, maybe Adam and Eve did.

It’s important to remember that when we study the Scriptures, we’re not simply interpreting a set of neutral or sacrosanct writings.  The very act of reading Scripture is an act of encountering a diverse collection of people’s perceived, longed-for, and actual experiences with God.  There is incredible richness in such an undertaking.  Whatever else they’re meant to do, these stories, poems, parables, and teachings are meant to put us in conversation with ourselves as much as with each other.  With our own preconceived notions about God and everything else.  Understanding the Scriptures, even a little, requires engagement with other people.  That’s incredibly important, especially if you believe or want to believe in a God who’s still speaking, a God who lives beyond story and page, beyond symbol or sacrifice.

#RaisingCain

 

Robert W. Lee IV

A few thoughts on Robert W. Lee IV, because I’m a Christian, I’m a UCC pastor, I oppose White Supremacy, I don’t believe BLM is a terrorist group, and, on a lighter note, I remember when MTV mattered.

First, my criticism of Lee (and MTV), which has nothing to do with anything he said after his first few words.

“My name is Robert Lee IV, I’m a descendant of Robert E. Lee, the Civil War general whose statue was at the center of violence in Charlottesville…”

Robert W. Lee IV is Robert E. Lee’s fourth-great-nephew.  I believe the wording of this introduction was meant to make W. Lee seem like direct descendent of E. Lee.  I don’t know why MTV or W. Lee chose that wording or wanted that framing.  And maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe that’s just how I’m hearing/reading it. Being a fourth-great-nephew and bearing the name Robert Lee and speaking out against supremacy is no less compelling to me than being a direct descendent, but I feel like the statement started from a less than clear place, which is a shame.  Also, saying that the statue itself was the center of violence makes it sound like most of the so-called Alt Right protestors were really there because of the statue.  As evidenced by their own propaganda, we know this to not be the case.

Lee continued:

“We have made my ancestor an idol of white supremacy, racism, and hate. As a pastor, it is my moral duty to speak out against racism, America’s original sin.”

True.

“Today, I call on all of us with privilege and power to answer God’s call to confront racism and white supremacy head-on. We can find inspiration in the Black Lives Matter movement, the women who marched in the Women’s March in January, and, especially, Heather Heyer, who died fighting for her beliefs in Charlottesville.”

If you’d asked me in 1996 if I ever thought I’d see a pastor talking about God’s call on the VMAs, I would have laughed in your face.  Lee is absolutely right here: we must answer God’s call to confront racism and supremacy head-on.  The same is true for any injustice.

I have seen absolutely nothing to make me believe that Black Lives Matter is what its most vocal detractors say it is.  I’d welcome a one-on-one discussion with anyone concerned that BLM somehow promotes black supremacy or is engaged in terroristic activities.  Yes, I believe all lives matter.  So does BLM.  If you know me personally and want to talk about this, please, let’s.

If there was any area of Lee’s statement that I could understand people reasonably taking umbrage at, it would be with regards to the Women’s March, and for reasons you might understand even if you don’t embrace them.  Observers who felt that the March was primarily concerned with abortion, or that it largely ignored the concerns (and input) of women of color, might take issue with Lee’s reference to it as a model for confronting racism and supremacy.

Lee and his Winston-Salem church have received tremendous backlash for the appearance. He’s since resigned and issued this statement, which begins:

“I’m writing this statement to make sure that people are able to read in my own words what has happened to me over the last three weeks so that the events of my leaving Bethany United Church of Christ might be understood from my perspective.”

“It began when MTV invited me to speak out at the Video Music Awards in Los Angeles as a descendent of Robert E. Lee who is committed to speaking out against white supremacy and the hatred that had permeated our country.   The event was in the immediate aftermath of the gathering of White Supremacist in Charlottesville who were rallying around a statue of my ancestor Robert E. Lee. I strongly support the removal of these monuments to the Confederacy and feel it is my duty as a descendent to speak out against White Supremacy.”

Let’s be clear: Lee is right about his duty, not just as a member of the Lee family, but as a Christian and a child of God.  He also strikes me as a young, 24-year-old pastor seemingly blindsided by the reaction from within and without his congregation. I have no idea whether he talked to his church about his statement before he made it.  I hope he did. If he didn’t, he should have. We don’t know what did or didn’t go on behind the scenes.  Whether or not it would have made a difference isn’t the point.

My assumption, and it is only an assumption, is that the faction at Lee’s church taking issue with his statement were more upset with his lifting up of BLM than with the fact that the Women’s March had less overtly in common with combating white supremacy and racism.  I may also be grossly underestimating how much of the negative response is from people who don’t want the statues to come down.  And lest anyone think there’s no such thing as a liberal or progressive that opposes abortion, I know many people like Melissa Linebaugh.  The seeming near-zero-tolerance policy among many progressives for people who oppose abortion is likely part of the backlash.  While the Women’s March wasn’t “a march for abortion,” as such, it’s not hard to see why many people have that sort of view of it.  It’s part of Lee’s pastoral job to understand that, and to be in conversation with his church before he goes on national television.  And maybe he did and maybe he was.  Again, at this point, we don’t know.

I haven’t seen a statement from the church.  I’ve looked.  Its Facebook page is down.  Its website isn’t very current.  This piece from the Chicago Tribune has a few more details, and some important elaborations from Lee:  “‘The uncomfortable media attention and differing views with me by some of the congregation — and I want to make it very clear that it was not all of the congregation — made it clear that I was no longer welcome there,’ he said, adding that he’s also received positive messages.”

If Lee left the church because most of its members can’t abide the idea that he supports bringing the statues down, or because they’re so convinced that BLM is covertly in favor of black supremacy that they can’t see themselves to conversation and resolution, they should be called to task.  We don’t (and likely won’t) know the specifics of their broken relationship, nor how long it’s been broken.  That’s partly to Lee’s credit.

Because there’s much we don’t and won’t know, let’s say what we do know:

Racism is evil. Racial supremacy is evil. America is divided in ways we don’t even understand and are perhaps much further from understanding than we’ve been given to think.  Robert W. Lee is right to use his family name to fight racism and supremacy.  All people are right to fight racism and supremacy.  Even agreeing on that, we won’t always agree on the best ways forward. All ways forward require forbearance, listening to each other, respecting each other, and upholding each other’s dignity and worth.  In times like these, those basic precepts seem sadly radical.  We have more work to do than we know, and more than we have the strength for.  Build us up, Holy Spirit. Build us up.

 

 

C.S. Lewis on Writing for Children and Writing In General: Fear of Childishness is Childish; Images Always Come First

As a reader, I’ve never been a fan of fantasy.

I tried to read Lewis’ Narnia books as a child. I tried to read L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time.  I found them tedious and boring.  The suspension of belief was too great.  The affectation too heavy and too heavy-handed.  Why does Tolkien insist on that awful dwarf saga so close to the beginning of The Hobbit?  I didn’t open that book again for close to 15 years.

With that said, I do think Lewis is a great writer, an important writer, a brilliant writer.  My ambivalence about Narnia notwithstanding, his essay “On Three Ways of Writing for Children” is very good.  You can download it here.

I especially like this paragraph:

“Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But the on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development: When I was ten I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

I have nothing against giants and dwarves.  I have nothing against Hobbits or Elves or whatever else.  But as a reader, I have little patience for world-building.  I find it very hard to care about a place that I know does not exist.  I don’t care about its physics or its metaphysics or any other contrivance.  I am conversant with the Harry Potter series largely because it at least pretends to take place in a world that actually matters.  And because I’m confounded by so many of the proclamations made by its adult fandom.  You guys know that Dumbledore is the actual worst, right?

I agree with Lewis that “the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown” up are, themselves, hallmarks of childhood.  I love the mythos of DC Comics. I love the mythos of 80’s and 90’s professional wrestling.  I love metanarratives about Goodness and justice.  But the Pevensies (and Lewis’ mid-century British) ask too much of me literarily.

With that said, I love the Narnia and Tolkien movies.  They don’t ask or expect me to spend time investing in literary and readerly affectations.  Neither does Star Trek.   As for Star Wars, the best of the series is Rogue One.  Precisely because it could take place in our universe, and has.

Perhaps I’m simply averse to cute writing, and so much of the work of world-building in fantasy seems cute and finally pointless to me.  All those pretend names and languages.  I know neither Gondor nor Gotham exist, but I also know that in another way, Gotham exists in a way Gondor never could.

When I say I don’t have time for world-building or cuteness, that’s not meant to suggest the kind of “serious adult”  vs. “childish” critique cited above.  It’s my preference and personality and predisposition.  Given the choice between My Side of the Mountain and Johnny Tremain or A Wrinkle In Time and The Fellowship of the Ring, I chose the former and read them cover-to-cover.  But I think Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent, and Roddy Piper are just as important to the story of the stories we tell or read or love and why.

Lewis says: “According to Tolkien, the appeal of the fairy story lies in the fact that man there most fully exercises his function as a ‘subcreator’; not, as they love to say now, making a ‘comment upon life’ but making, so far as possible, a subordinate world of his own. Since, in Tolkien’s view, this is one of man’s proper functions, delight naturally arises whenever it is successfully performed. For Jung, fairy tale liberates Archetypes which dwell in the collective unconscious, and when we read a good fairy tale we are obeying the old precept ‘Know thyself’.”

Clearly, I’m with Jung.

“I would venture to add to this my own theory,” Lewis says, “not indeed of the Kind as a whole, but of one feature in it: I mean, the presence of beings other than human which yet behave, in varying degrees, humanly: the giants and dwarfs and talking beasts. I believe these to be at least (for they may have many other sources of power and beauty) an admirable hieroglyphic which conveys psychology, types of character, more briefly than novelistic presentation and to readers whom novelistic presentation could not yet reach. Consider Mr Badger in The Wind in the Willows—that extraordinary amalgam of high rank, coarse manners, gruffness, shyness, and goodness. The child who has once met Mr Badger has ever afterwards, in its bones, a knowledge of humanity and of English social history which it could not get in any other way.”

I actually agree.  But while Lewis’ hieroglyphics are fantastic literary beasts serving as typological shorthand, mine are more immediate still.  The bridge of the Enterprise in primary colors, an S-shaped crest, the silhouette of caped crusader watching over a world not so different from mine.  Lewis himself describes his creative process as a sort of necessary affection:

“I have never exactly ‘made’ a story. With me the process is much more like bird-watching than like either talking or building. I see pictures. Some of these pictures have a common flavour, almost a common smell, which groups them together. Keep quiet and watch and they will begin joining themselves up. If you were very lucky (I have never been as lucky as all that) a whole set might join themselves so consistently that there you had a complete story: without doing anything yourself. But more often (in my experience always) there are gaps. Then at last you have to do some deliberate inventing, have to contrive reasons why these characters should be in these various places doing these various things. I have no idea whether this is the usual way or writing stories, still less whether it is the best. It is the only one I know: images always come first.”

 

 

In Honor of Brautigan, In Spite of Ferlinghetti

I love Ferlinghetti’s “The Old Italians Dying.”

I hate his needlessly cruel and personal critique of Brautigan:

“As an editor, I always kept waiting for Richard to grow up as a writer,” he says now. “I never could stand cute writing. He could never be an important writer — like Hemingway — with that childish voice of his. Essentially he had a naif style, a style based on a childlike perception of the world. The hippie cult was itself a childlike movement. I guess Richard was all the novelist the hippies needed. It was a nonliterate age.”

Cute writing is the worst. But if I were to speculate on why Ferlinghetti felt the need to go the extra personal mile and call the people moved by Brautigan’s writing “nonliterate,” I suppose I’d be engaging in the kind of critique I find so pointless and distasteful.

I love this by Brautigan:

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