Over the Rhine: Finding Our Tribe

Over the RhineGuest post by Linford Detweiler

The following post is adapted from a talk given at the Glen Workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico, August 7, 2014.

Hello. I’m Linford Detweiler. I’m one half of the band Over the Rhine, and my wife and I are leading the songwriting workshop this week.

I asked Greg when I saw first saw him here a few days ago—I was just thinking out loud—if there was any significance to the fact that both Over the Rhine and Image were celebrating 25th anniversaries this year. Neither of us could pinpoint anything immediate, but Greg did remind us that we would be getting together in October at his alma mater up in Michigan. You see, Hillsdale College is welcoming Greg Wolfe back to campus to recognize his contributions to the world of art and faith and the conversation that continues to evolve around the two—a dialogue and a dance that Greg has made his life’s work and passion.

Greg joked and said, Yeah, the prodigal son returns. And I said, Yeah right. What could possibly be prodigal about your achievements? [Read more...]

Inside Matisse’s Chapel of Cut-Outs

henri matisseAt the end of his life, Henri Matisse made art for a chapel. It was a strange thing for an atheist to do. That Matisse would make religious art was especially annoying to his friend Picasso. In one exchange, Picasso asked Matisse, sarcastically, why he didn’t just make art for a brothel.

“Because nobody asked me,” was Matisse’s reply.

You could take this answer as pure cynicism. The artist as gun for hire. “I make art wherever people pay me to make art. A church, a brothel, it doesn’t really matter.” Perhaps, in answering this way, Matisse was playing the tough guy in front of his friend and sometimes rival.

But there is another way to read Matisse’s answer. It is to take seriously that the asking matters. Matisse was asked to make art for a chapel, not for a brothel. He was—to raise the tempo of the language—called to do it.

Matisse seems to have seen it that way too. He always called the chapel his “masterpiece.” He said he was “fated” to do the work.

[Read more...]

Pasternak: Artist and Holy Fool

tumblr_lz6uc9ddzz1r4t46jo1_500As I read the essay “The Writer and the Valet” in my latest issue of the London Review of Books, an image came to mind of a T-shirt I saw in one of the random catalogs that come in the mail. It was a simple black shirt with the sentence, “Artists make bad slaves” printed on it.

The essay by Frances Stoner Saunders is about how Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago came to publication, and it is a story filled with Cold War suspense and intrigue. It also parallels the novel itself—the story of an individual artist whose life and living are wrecked by revolution in his homeland.

Pasternak was born in 1890 into the home of an artist father and pianist mother. Artists and musicians frequented his parents’ home, including the likes of Sergei Rachmaninoff. Pasternak himself started his studies in music, switched to philosophy, and then found his calling with poetry. He was a poet who loved botany, and was, according to Alan Furst in his review of The Zhivago Affair, “above all else, a poet of the human spirit, a poet in love with a world of weather, landscapes, romance and the Russian soul.” [Read more...]

Fiction is Truer than Fact

img_4595In Jill Lepore’s extraordinary biography of Ben Franklin’s sister Jane, Book of Ages, a short chapter near the end sketches the rise of the novel as a genre. Prior to the eighteenth century, “history” was the genre for telling the stories of lives, and they were always the stories of famous men. Then in the eighteenth century, novels began to be written, but at first they called themselves “histories”: Fielding’s History of Tom Jones, Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy are two that Lepore names. Richardson’s epistolary novel Pamela also purported to be real letters that Fielding had discovered.

Soon, though, novelists dropped pretense of writing history, because they were convinced that their new genre was truer than history. It was a new kind of biography—of ordinary people—and its truth was founded not in documentary evidence but in human nature.

I was reminded of this while recently reading Kent Haruf’s novels Plainsong, Eventide, and Benediction, all set in his fictional town of Holt, Colorado, on the high dusty plains east of Denver. The small events of very ordinary lives are Haruf’s subject. In a spare, understated style, Haruf creates characters who surprise themselves with a generous gesture, who suffer from depression or loss or the meanness of others, who settle into habits of sadness or of gratitude.

Reading along, I would often stop and think: “this is life as it really is.”

Lepore’s terms helped me understand why I keep reading fiction: because fiction connects me with the truth of other lives. And so with the truth of my own. [Read more...]

Susan Sontag, Simon Weil, and the Pursuit of Seriousness

Susan SontagI could stare for many hours at that famous 1975 picture of Susan Sontag lying on her bed. She’s wearing a turtleneck sweater and her arms are tucked behind her head. She is thinking. Her eyes are open, slightly dreamy, but fixed.

She looks serious. How else could she look? By God, that woman was serious. It is her main contribution as a belletrist, the idea that seriousness itself is a goal, that in the collapse of all other values, we can be serious about being serious.

There is also a picture of Simone Weil at age thirteen, before she got those round glasses you see in the later photos. Weil is laughing and pretty and resting her left arm casually on her neck. It seems impossible that this is the woman who later refused treatment for her tuberculosis and who more or less starved herself to death out of spiritual solidarity with those suffering under German occupation during WWII.

Susan Sontag wrote a review of a collection of Weil’s essays for the New York Review of Books in 1963. Sontag used the publication of Weil’s essays as an excuse to talk about her favorite subject: being serious. Sontag loved Weil’s harshness, her unrelenting, unremitting commitment to seeing her thoughts through wherever they lead. [Read more...]


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