Thursday, December 17, 2015

Was Lewis Carroll enlightened?

I daresay I'm like most of my contemporaries in knowing about Lewis Carroll's Alice books – without having read them. As a child, I owned a 45 rpm record containing the songs from the 1951 Disney movie, Alice in Wonderland and I saw the movie as well. But, having just read Anthony Lane's article in the June 8 and 15, 2015 New Yorker, I see now how much I didn't know about these tales.

Of course, we are talking about a journey here – and Lane's choice of quotations, if not his text, make it clear that this is a spiritual journey. Here's the first:

“'You know very well you're not real.'
'I am real!' said Alice, and began to cry.
'You won't make yourself a bit realler by crying,' Tweedledee remarked: 'there's nothing to cry about.'
'If I wasn't real,' Alice said – half laughing through her tears, it all seemed so ridiculous – 'I shouldn't be able to cry.'
'I hope you don't suppose those are real tears?' Tweedledum interrupted in a tone of great contempt.”

Was Carroll enlightened? Or just amusing himself? Or maybe a combination of both?

Here's another: 

“I hardly know which is me and which is the inkstand. . . . The confusion in one's mind doesn't so much matter – but when it comes to putting bread-and-butter, and the orange marmalade, into the inkstand; and then dipping pens into oneself, and filling oneself up with ink, you know, it's horrid!”

Rumi, who definitely wasn't kidding, expressed it thus:
                                              There are no words to explain
                                  no tongue,                                             
                                              how when that player touches
                                 the strings, it is me playing
                                 and being played,
                                              how existence turns
                                 around this music, how stories
                                 grow from the trunk, 
                                              how cup and mouth
                                 swallow each other with the wine. . . .

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Consolations, by Sally Wolfe

Sexual desire in a monastic environment is especially charged. One or both of the parties may agonize over a passion that must not be fulfilled and yet seems impossible to deny. Consolations, by Sally Wolfe (Luminis, 2014), explores this territory with sensitivity and sympathy: a young nun and a priest find themselves thrust into a passion they never expected. But, while most readers will probably root for the lovers to get together in the end, this is really a book about something deeper than romantic love.

Fiona, a young Canadian from a Scottish protestant background, reads Thomas Merton in her late teens and is enthralled. Is the monastic life right for her as well? She visits the only English speaking female monastery in North America of the same order as Merton's – Cistercian – and decides yes. Her father is appalled: after training his daughter in the virtues of rational thinking, he laments that he has lived to see her become “a bloody papist.” Her mother is also opposed, but her response is more measured:

“I don't think you realize what you're giving up, the love of a man.” She ran her fingers through my short, frizzy hair and looked at me intently.
I stiffened. We had been over this.
“It's a thing to be cherished.”
Of course I'd thought of it, but I did not yet know what it was to have someone hold my body closer than my own skin could hold it.
“It's strange,” I said, knowing that nothing I could say would comfort her. “But it's the thing that concerns me the least.”
“You say that now, but it might not always be that way.” [6]

And, indeed, this exchange from early in the book presages Fiona's decades of inner conflict.

It is 1951 when Fiona, who will become Sister Bridget, defies her parents' wishes and enters the monastery in Vermont – a monastery filled with the variety of personalities one would find in any work or living situation. There is the nun who, convinced that adhering precisely to all the rules is the path to grace, insists that her underlings, including Sister Bridget, do so. There is the practical nun who does not reflect much but competently and uncomplainingly handles every situation. And, luckily for Sister Bridget, there is the abbess, Mother Cecilia, who recognizes Bridget's longing for God and takes her under her wing. Mother Cecelia also understands Bridget's passion for Nathan – Father Woods – and believes Bridget has the strength to overcome it. But Cecilia is a feminist scholar, as it turns out, and when she gets in trouble with the patriarchal Church authorities, it is not at all certain that she is going to survive as abbess. Without Cecilia's strength to rely on, what will Bridget do?

Those with spiritual aspirations are often attracted to those with similar aspirations. So it is with Bridget and Nathan. During one of their rare meetings, Nathan shares his love for a poem by John of the Cross:
In a dark night, kindled in love with yearnings – oh, happy chance! –
I went forth without being observed, my house being now at rest.
By the secret ladder, disguised, without light or guide,
Save that which burned in my heart.
This light guided me more surely than the light of noonday
To the place where he (well I know who!) was awaiting me – [54]

After Nathan recites, Bridget comments: “He opened his eyes and I saw that they were gray” – a statement that epitomizes her conflation of spiritual and carnal love.

The back-and-forth between the two would-be lovers could have been a comedy of errors in another kind of book: she thinks he doesn't want her; he thinks she is over him; she thinks she must be strong; he thinks she isn't interested anymore. But this is only the background against which the deeper question unfolds: can Bridget find a way to reconcile her spiritual and carnal longings?

While the story is told from Bridget's first person point of view, we sometimes get a glimpse of Nathan's struggles as well. For example, he confesses to Bridget that he gave up a university professorship and became cloistered as penance for their illicit encounter. (The reader might wonder whether, in a Catholic context, a priest would give himself penance, rather than have it given to him by his confessor. Perhaps this shows not only Nathan's unwillingness to confide his sin to another but also his irrational thinking on the matter of Bridget.) When Nathan decides to become cloistered, he joins the community at Gethsemani, where Thomas Merton is the star resident. Now he and Bridget are both in Cistercian monastaries – and we know that they will meet again.

Thomas Merton makes a brief appearance in the novel, and if the portrait is at all faithful to the real Merton, it is easy to see how his charisma, no-nonsense rabble-rousing, intelligence, depth of spirit, and plain good will endeared him to so many. Indeed, admiration of Merton is another passion that unites Bridget and Nathan.

Just as the cloistered nuns are allowed no idle speech, so Consolations contains no idle words. Each passage precisely conveys what Bridget is undergoing, whether it be desire to ascend to God, to be held and cherished by another human being, or to find solace in solitude and the natural world. The flashbacks to Bridget's pre-monastery days also lend insight to the struggles she endures. We see her strengths but her doubts as well. The tone is so authentic, in fact, that it is sometimes hard to remember that this is a novel, not a memoir.

Even readers who have never felt the slightest desire to join a religious community can recognize in Bridget the struggles we all face when our desires oppose each other. In this sense, the theme of Consolations is universal.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

George Eliot, Self-Centeredness and Fiction

Not too long ago I received an email from an acquaintance who, knowing I'd written a novel, and perhaps as an apology for being uninterested in reading it, said that he and his wife didn't read novels anymore as such reading material was incompatible with their spiritual journeys.

It may be that this man believed that novels are just entertainment. He may have been one of the many serious people I have met who believe that “truth” means facts and therefore only comes in nonfiction form. But even though my own definition of truth obviously differs from this, I myself have some doubts about the novel as a means of delving into the deeper truths of who or what we are.

Some define a spiritual novel as one about spiritual topics. But maybe it's more a matter of what the underlying assumptions are. In most novels, literary or not, we follow one or more characters over a fictive period of time. Does this not reinforce the idea that the stories we each tell ourselves about our own lives are true? Do we not believe that, like the characters of whose lives we read, we have a true history that reveals what we essentially are?

Perhaps, then, a spiritual novel is not so much about spiritual topics as about challenging this belief in a fictive self as representing a fundamental truth about being human. I've been reading Rebecca Mead's My Life in Middlemarch, an unclassifiable book that is part criticism, part biography, and part autobiography. Mead quotes George Eliot as saying, “Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellowmen beyond the bounds of our personal lot.” (p. 158, quoting from an essay by Eliot entitled, “The Natural History of German Life”).

Mead goes on to show how this attitude is exemplified in Middlemarch: “This notion – that we each have our own center of gravity but must come to discover that others weigh the world differently than we do – is one that is constantly repeated in the book. The necessity of growing out of such self-centeredness is the theme of Middlemarch. In one of the most memorable editorial asides in the novel, Eliot elaborates upon this idea of how necessary it is to expand one's sympathies: 'We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves,' she writes.”

This sounds suspiciously like a Buddhist teacher lecturing her students on the inter-connectedness of all beings.

Those who are really serious about spiritual awakening or enlightenment – especially those who have had a glimpse or more of it – might say that the self-centeredness into which we are all born only disappears when we realize “no self,” and that it is not something that can even be approximated by identifying sympathetically with others. Nonetheless, surely it is worth something to be able to glimpse what the world might look like if we all really knew in our guts what we know in our minds: that our own perspective is only one of a multitude of perspectives – that each and every being on the planet comes from a center known as a “self” and that each of these perspectives is equally, relatively speaking, valid.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Following another's path

I'm reading Consolations by Sally Wolfe, a novel about a woman who converts to Catholicism and becomes a nun. It was Thomas Merton who inspired the protagonist, and reading this caused me to recall my own reading of Merton and how I also felt drawn to Catholicism because of him, although, unlike the protagonist in Consolations, I never followed through.

It's probably a good thing. There were other times when, inspired by someone following a certain path, I did do so. When we are young, we are looking for someone who knows because, God knows, we don't. And there's a lot of danger in that – because we all have our own individual path in life, and the trick is to find that path, not to follow someone else's.

How do we find the confidence when we are young to look inside and “follow our bliss” as Joseph Campbell counseled?

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Embattled Saints: My Year with the Sufis of Afghanistan by Kenneth P. Lizzio

In a book I recently reviewed, Kenneth P. Lizzio tells a fascinating story of his life with present-day Sufis, adding much historical background to his tale. See my review here:

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Narration in fiction and memoir

I just finished a book that reads like a memoir although it is labeled fiction. This got me thinking about the difference between the two.

I think of Of Human Bondage, Somerset Maugham's classic coming-of-age story. Although Maugham admitted that this was basically his own story, through which he exorcised his demons from childhood, it comes across as fiction. Why?

When we write a story, all of the characters are invented by the author. Even when authors use people from their own lives as characters, they choose the characteristics of those people needed to make the story work. If a writer is competent, no real person makes it into a story unchanged because fiction writing involves selection -- selection of details that fit with what the author wants to say. And by selecting some characteristics and ignoring others, we implicitly alter a personality.

If a story is narrated in the first person, the same principle applies in terms of creating character. The only thing that differs is that, since the point of view is the narrator's, only what the narrator sees and knows and believes gets recorded.  The only way -- and the prime way -- that the reader gets to know how others see the narrator, or that the narrator has a false view of himself, is to create situations in which other people in the story reveal -- usually through dialogue --how they see the character.

In a memoir, though, the writer is completely fused with the narrator. The writer is trying to tell the truth of his or her experience. But this is going to look different from the way it looks when, in fact, the narrator and writer are two different people.  For one thing, none of us knows ourselves very well, and none of us knows ourselves the way others see us -- and everyone we know sees us differently!  But there is a more important difference:  although the fiction writer creates a fictional interior world for the first-person narrator, this is not the same kind of interior world a real person experiences.  A real person has an implicit understanding of the world that is never voiced in words, even to himself.  Why not?  Because he has never known anything else!  Language is about contrasts, and the fictional narrator can be created and defined by his characteristics because the writer knows what the myriad other possibilities are.  But the real person has been "me" as long as he/she can remember and the world has looked as it looks through those same pair of eyes for a long as can be remembered.  The only time, then, that we, in real life, give voice to our interior sense of the world is when something dramatic happens in our lives which causes us to question our implicit assumptions.

So, this is what makes memoir so tricky.  There is an assumption that the world looks to others the way it looks to us -- and, more importantly, the unconscious assumption that our way of viewing the world is shared with our readers.  When this assumption is never overcome, we end up with a piece of writing in which the writer thinks he/she has revealed something deep or true but the reader comes away thinking, "What was that all about?"  And a memoir billed as a novel will have this same characteristic, because it really doesn't matter if the characters' names are changed or if some events didn't happen as portrayed:  if the writer is not able to create a persona separate from the way she knows herself on the inside, the work will not succeed.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Cultural truths and novelists

In the current issue of Poets and Writers, Mary Stewart Atwell discusses the question of whether writers have the right to portray the inner life of people very different from themselves -- whether urban writers can write about rural characters, men about women, or one race about another.  One point of view, she states, is that "if you have the writing chops to convince a reader of the authenticity of a character's inner life, no one's going to care whether the character is based on yourself or made out of whole cloth."  Of course, many of the best writers do manage to convince us of the inner life of characters they resemble very little -- people of differing cultures and nationalities, for example.  But I'm wondering if there isn't a broader question here.

Since this blog focuses on books by people who have written about their journeys to different parts of the world, I find this topic particularly relevant.  Of course, with memoir, people don't usually try to get inside anyone's head but their own, so I'm thinking here mostly of novels.  Particularly when I was reading two of those I've reviewed here -- Audrey Hepburn's Neck, by Alan Brown, and Country of Origin, by Don Lee -- I pondered this question, as both of these American writers have peopled their novels not only with Westerners living in Japan but with Japanese characters whose inner lives are also explored.  Without doubt these portraits convinced me of their plausibility. But at the same time I asked myself whether Japanese people would be convinced.   

So, I think we need to look a bit more deeply at this question -- because people of the same culture as the author of a book may be convinced that the character from another culture is authentically described, but that may not in fact be the case.  Instead, the author may unwittingly be perpetrating a stereotype.  We see this most clearly when we look at American literature of the nineteenth and even twentieth centuries in which African Americans were portrayed by white authors.  So it is not, it seems, just a matter of being convincing but of actually knowing enough about the people who are portrayed to be able to tell the truth about their souls.

And I think this is true not only with respect to the individual characters from another culture but with respect to the culture as a whole.  The author may convince us that such-and-such behavior is typical of a certain culture, but if we know nothing about that culture, that is not a difficult task -- nor is it proof that the portrait drawn is accurate.  How many times have I heard someone who spent a week in Japan pontificating on the "Japanese people"?  Authors are not immune from this kind of over-simplification -- especially if it serves the wider goal of the story.  Myself, I would beware of believing a writer who has not spent a good deal of time living with or, if that is impossible, at least seriously studying, the culture of people he is describing in his work.  "Writing chops" are no substitute for knowledge.