Conference Envy: A Survival Guide

Sad Web SurfingYesterday I was running around the park in a T-shirt with a birthday party full of seven-year-olds. Today, I walked downtown through a flurry of hard, tiny pellets of snow that I couldn’t escape from. It was a little like the experience of going to bed a happy, underpaid writer and waking up the next day as a miserable, underpaid writer who is staying home while everyone else you know is traveling to a conference.

No matter where you look online, you’re getting smacked in the face with these niggling little reminders that you’re here dealing with laundry and kids and deadlines and your friends are off brown-nosing editors and eating dinner in absurdly large groups and developing inside jokes and memories that you’re going to be outside of the next time you get together.

You can complain to and commiserate with the three or four other people you know who aren’t at the conference, but you’re aware that it’s petty and fruitless, so you stop after a few hours and just try to avoid the Interwebs for a few days—which means that, no, you didn’t see that video of Trump as Lex Luthor or whatever it was. [Read more…]

Finding Another World in Winterkill

Winterkill by Todd DavisThere is another world, but it is in this one.” —William Butler Yeats

Reading Yeats’s line, I think vaguely incarnational thoughts: heaven enters earth with Christ’s Incarnation; God dwells within our world, not separated from it; and so on. I believe these statements. Yet these formulations give me nothing to grasp onto, nothing to engage my imagination.

How astonishingly rich, though, the other world “in this one” becomes in Todd Davis’s latest collection of poems, Winterkill, which takes Yeats’s line as its epigraph. For Davis, “this world” is the world of nature—particularly the mountainous woods, streams, and wildlife around his longtime central Pennsylvania home.

From what I’ve just said, you might think: oh, so his poems are about nature. But, no: something much more enlivening is going on in Davis’s poetry. He doesn’t write about nature; rather, he writes from deep within nature. The natural world is his ambiance: he so immerses himself in it that he breathes it, he prays it, he caresses each minute detail of it with his eyes and hands, his heart, his soul, his language. From within nature, life’s meanings speak to him.

Take fish and the water they live in. Davis spends a lot of time in these poems fishing. And sometimes it seems as if he catches fish specifically in order to handle them with delicate awe: to trace their wonders with his fingers and words. [Read more…]

The Confessions of X: An Interview with Suzanne M. Wolfe, Part 2

By Gregory Wolfe and Suzanne M. Wolfe

Continued from yesterday. Read Part 1 here.

Suzanne M. WolfeGW: One of the most interesting aspects of The Confessions of X is the way that X herself responds to Augustine’s intellectual passions, from his Manichean phase to Platonism. She’s not an intellectual but she’s no pushover and she instinctively challenges Augustine…

SMW: The last thing I wanted this novel to be was either a hagiographical account of the Great Man, Augustine, by the little woman or an intellectual debate about theology. And when I reached deeply into who X was and what her life experience was and how that had shaped her, I realized a couple of things:

1) That only a remarkable woman in her own right would fall in love with a man as fiercely intelligent as Augustine, so she would be no dummy;

2) Lacking a formal education, her grasp of intellectual and theological issues would be through her experience and her instinct. At one point in the novel she says, “I think better in pictures.” This is true to her experience with a father who was a mosaic layer. But it also reveals a more sacramental understanding of the world, a type of understanding in which women, I believe, excel. She and Augustine complement one another. More than that, X provides a necessary check to his tendency towards abstraction both as a Manichean and as a Platonist.

GW: In a sense, she’s a natural incarnationalist, even though you depict her as living in a space between her childhood pagan upbringing and Augustine’s Christianity…

SMW: Not only her experience with art through her father but her own experience of motherhood make her an incarnationalist. For her, beauty has a form; love has a form. She says: “Grace, for me, is flesh and blood, bones and sinew, someone whom my mouth can name.” [Read more…]

Wilberforce: An Interview with H.S. Cross, Part 2

By Gregory Wolfe and H. S. Cross

Continued from yesterdayRead Part 1 here.

Wilberforce_Horizontal_editGW: Religion and worship played a large role in the British public schools in the 1920s and St. Stephen’s is no exception. I suppose it’s easy to observe most of the characters ignoring Christianity, but it was a time when faith could still speak to a certain sensibility and when the best chaplains and schoolmasters could exercise something of a pastoral role. Is that a fair assessment?

HSC: I think so, though I hope faith still speaks to certain sensibilities. In the novel, in 1926, religious faith isn’t as strong as it was before the war, but Christianity is still part of the conversation. These people, regardless of their personal belief, have the vocabulary.

St. Stephen’s boys hear scripture daily, whether they pay attention or not. They take part in daily worship. Christian language—specifically the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer—is native to them. And Christianity isn’t in competition with other religions.

There’s certainly the question of whether religion matters, and even in some circles, whether God is real.

Because so many religious authorities had supported the war, and even tried to cast it as a kind of holy war, the existential collapse at the end of it sidelined the Church and wounded faith. You see it in the boys’ indifference towards religion, which is part of their hostility towards strong belief or indeed any enthusiasm. On the other hand, their expressions of atheism and agnosticism seem equally half-hearted, so even in their disillusionment, they have a shared religious culture. [Read more…]

George Scialabba and the Problem of Critical Distance

gospel_matthewGeorge Scialabba retired from his job this October. He had worked at Harvard University for thirty-five years. But not as a professor. Scialabba was a clerical worker and building manager. A piece in the Chronicle Review about Scialabba’s career as a writer and book critic described his day job as “low level.”

Scialabba has, more even than most writers, kept to the sidelines of public life. He worked at the very margins of academia. He has written critical essays and book reviews from a position that is self-consciously “unaffiliated.”

Why?

Because Scialabba wanted to be free, of course. He wanted to think and write freely. This, Scialabba thought, has gotten harder and harder to do.

That’s because (as he put it in an essay entitled “What Are Intellectuals Good for?”) we are facing, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, a general truth:

Intellectuals have indeed been incorporated en masse into the power elite, making the “transparent social relations” Merleau-Ponty looked forward to that much more difficult and distant. [Read more…]


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