Beauty’s Victory

I go on binges. For days, weeks, months—well, usually not months—but days and weeks anyhow, I get taken by something and it will be all that interests me for a while. I’ll plunge into Faulkner for a time, then breach, crest, and fall into Graham Greene.

Things don’t stay all that highbrow, either; I’m as apt to watch Duck Dynasty marathons as I am to read books. Then again, I might forswear all such pursuits and go into serious training to beat the last five folks who’ve registered their bragging rights on the gym treadmill.

I was well into an Anthony Burgess tear not long back before I got pulled off on another line. This time it was Nabokov. It started around Christmas and picked up when the holidays were over.

After Lolita (and the movie version), Pale Fire, The Defense (that movie version too—called The Luzhin Defence) and Pnin—which you have to re-read and ask yourself why you didn’t see X before, or notice Y—I stumbled upon an essay in the March 2014 edition of First Things by David Bentley Hart, entitled Nabokov’s Supernatural Secret.

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Memory: Jubilee and Knell

A friend mentioned a line from Hannah and Her Sisters the other day: “But in the morning, I forgot that I was happy.” That might not be the exact quote; it might not even be the right movie; but the line goes something to that effect. At any rate, we both laughed; the wit needs little explanation, which is the definition of that device. The quality of poignancy lies in a thing’s ability to be absorbed; poignancy can be understood as aptness to such a great degree that it has seeped through to touch the heart.

Still, while I know what it means, I believe the sentiment has more than one application. For example, I myself work the other way around. Rightly or wrongly, for good or ill, I have a constitution that rallies when the day breaks. My spirits rise with the sun. Night is the time in which it does not pay for me to think too much. I am a restless, imperfect sleeper, and prone to spectral thoughts as I toss to and fro. Let the day come, and I can leave them with the bedclothes.

But the line speaks to more than days and nights, happiness and unhappiness, and the variations of quixotic moods. The operative word is “forget.” That’s the part that translates to all occasions. Whoever we are, whatever we are up to, we cannot remember.

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You Could Be a Winner

I just entered the Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes. I’ve never done anything like that before. I’m sure it signifies some ominous line that I’ve crossed, some dubious group that I’ve joined (namely: “the time’s running out and I’m not rich” crowd). But I’m going to postpone any philosophical musings for the time being. I just hope like hell that I win.

If you’ve ever actually torn open one of those envelopes—and I’m sure that few people who read a blog such as this one actually have—high-minded folks who’re interested in the arts and faith and the cross-section betwixt them—then let me tell you what it’s like (I’ll relate this in the fashion of a ten year-old boy who accidentally walked into the girl’s bathroom—a high school girl’s bathroom—and comes out with eyes full of stars and a heart full of tales from the undiscovered country from which he returns).

It’s not as easy as you think—to become a winner, that is. Sure, you can just return your entry in the enclosed envelope and be done with it. But there are all kinds of bonus prizes and award enhancements. If you find the place to put a series of stickers—on one of the twenty-five slips of paper that accompany the ballot—and if you play all the scratch-off games and tick-tack-toe games and assorted treasure hunt puzzles—you increase your chances to win five, ten, sometimes twenty-fold. This is serious business. The loaves and fishes are multiplied. Who can turn down a chance to maximize his winnings like that? It would be downright wrong.

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The Parent State

A few years back, I watched an interview with a middle-aged woman who was educated, attractive, and well-spoken. She was also in jail—had been for thirty years and would be until the day she died. In her youth, as part of a drugged-out cult, she’d stabbed a young mother to death, slit her husband’s throat, and helped chase down and eviscerate a pregnant girl. She was penitent in the interview, but admitted that she was not particularly remorseful during her trial or for a long time thereafter.

The most chilling thing she said was in response to the reporter’s comment that he would never have thought her capable of such a thing. The inmate replied: “I would never have thought that either; I sometimes have a hard time thinking it now; but I was; I am.”

Why that reverberated so strongly with me was because I have often wondered what all I’m capable of—for both good and ill; I’m much more humble about that than I used to be.

When pressed too far, when down too low, when too far along a ruinous path—whether led astray by others or of our own volition—who knows what we might do. So best to hold tightly to that which orders the appetites; best to make virtue a habit, as Aquinas counseled.

By the same token, but at a greater level of abstraction, when discussing current affairs I’ve recently heard boasts along the following lines: “Yes, but that kind of thing could never happen here.” It will be said in reference to some late atrocity in a foreign land, and supported by arguments resting in our common history, secular institutions, and set of basic human virtues. These things will insulate us from the fate of the less enlightened parts of the globe, it’s suggested.

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Zeal for Thy House

It’s January 1 and the first Mass of the year finds me slouched onto the kneeler, sleepy-headed and negligent. It’s a Holy Day of obligation and I don’t want to start off on a bad foot. Never able to get to the vigil on New Year’s Eve, I always shuffle into the pew the next morning with the same disoriented outlook. I even say the same things to myself every year: I have to start things off right; I have to think about this hard; I wish I felt better.

My mind then drifts towards the football games that will be coming on, and the Hoppin’ John that will be served for good luck, before I rebuke myself and start over again.

The tough thing about it is that all about me I see a bunch of good Christian people. There’s a couple that has a passel of their own children who also take in a passel of foster children. Every service, they spend their time pacifying babies and taking toddlers out to the bathroom. The very sight of them exhausts me. The husband is also a lector and walks with a cane.

There’s a man in the back who has brought his wheelchair-bound mother every Sunday as long as I can remember. He is a farmer, I believe, and works long hours. Today, he is alone, and I don’t know what happened to his mother, though I suspect the worst. Still, there he is.

There’s a doctor up front who gave an entire sound system to the church because the people in the back couldn’t hear the priest. Just ponied up all that cash—and it was a lot of cash—so that folks would not strain so much for an understanding.

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An Almost Human Happiness

nabokov, butterflyA typical plot complication on reality shows involves the unexpected twist, a challenge that the credulous competitors never saw coming: The next leg of the race will occur underwater, in an eel-ridden cove, says the host; the next round of the bake-off will require the incorporation of mountain oysters in a rendition of Crepes Suzette. The idea is simple: the greater the skill, the greater the capacity to overcome.

If there were a reality show writing competition (imagine that), the curve might come by way of a forced employment of cloying conceits: “Write a profound story using a waterfall, a widowed grandfather, a daisy—aaaaaannnnnd a basset hound puppy. You have thirty minutes. Break my heart.”

Then the topper would require that it be set around Christmastime. For if anything can lose flavor faster than cheap Christmas candy, it’s a maudlin Christmas story.

Unless you’re a master, that is. [Read more...]

Complaint to a Profligate God

I am sick of God’s injustice.

Everywhere and at all times, the guilty walk free, indistinguishable from the innocent. The blasphemers, the idolaters, the moneychangers, the prodigals—God finds none too rank to be seen with, none too foul to implore. There is no discernment among persons in him. The just are jostled and trounced by the unjust, with never a flag thrown or a whistle blasted.

Why is it that I—stuck in mid-level management—can spot the sheep, know the goats? I can separate them, and do so daily, so why won’t he?

But no; with his Oedipus act, God stands aloof from the counting house; he is too good for the scales, and insists that all are welcome here. His neon sign never goes out—Open—Open—Open—it flashes, and every sort of trash walks in the door and sits at the table.

Oh, I know, I know. It will not ever be thus, I’m assured. One day justice will prevail; there is a limit to this irresponsibility, to this misfeasance. One day, professionalism will be resumed, and the exactions I crave will be doled out.

But that’s not until the scroll of time spools up like a window shade and the vastness of heaven crumples like crepe paper set alight. Even then, it’s rumored that his “justice” is only letting people have what they want—forever allowing them the dark distance that they seek. “Hell has a door locked from the inside,” they claim.

That’s better than nothing, I guess, but how does it serve me now? I, who rankle at the disparities unseen, at the extremities and enormities unpunished?

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Only God is an Atheist, Part 2

It was not out of sheer flattery that Thomas Merton compared Flannery O’Connor to Sophocles, for the things at which she stared were the very pulp and pith of humanity. Her ability to express metaphysical profundities through her native vernacular is nearly as impressive as the profundities themselves. For it is one thing to express sadness with the objective correlative of a weeping violet; it is another to express the Noumenon by way of a folksy, backwoods serial killer.

In yesterday’s post, I commented on the young O’Connor’s journal to God, published in the September 16, 2013 edition of The New Yorker, insofar as it concerned her prayers about writing. Today, I’ll comment on some other aspects of the journal.

On Prayer:

Permeating both O’Connor’s correspondence and this journal is a candor about her spiritual limitations. Her thoughts about the four aspects of prayer reveal an undeveloped soul that she seeks to mature, but finds herself incapable of achieving:

Prayers should be composed I understand of adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, and supplication…. It is the adoration of You, dear God, that most dismays me. I cannot comprehend the exaltation that must be due You.

She worries that her assent to adore is only intellectual, a dispassionate fiat. God must even provide the grace to adore him, she acknowledges, mystified. Still, if that is the way it must be, she asks:

Give me the grace to adore You with the excitement of the old priests when they sacrificed a lamb to You. Give me the grace to adore You with the awe that fills Your priests when they sacrifice the Lamb on our altars.

However close she came to that attitude, none can doubt the transfixion of the protagonists in Parker’s Back, The Artificial Nigger, and Wise Blood, all of whom exalt their God with scorched eyes.

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