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How about we just read some books?

I’ve knocked a couple over the past few days, two books of very different genres, but both absorbing in their own way.

And I’m telling you – settling into a book is far less anxiety-producing than settling into social media news opining for the evening. Or even for fifteen minutes. Even if it’s a book about death. Weird.

But try it. It doesn’t make you a bad citizen, I promise.

I have written about Dorothy Hughes before. She is known today to the extent she is known at all, for pulp/crime novels. I initially came across her work via the NYRB reprints line – they have published The Expendable Man, which I wrote about here – and still highly recommend. A while later, I read her most well-known book, In a Lonely Place, made into a movie with Humphrey Bogart, and which I wrote about here.

So, what do we have so far? In the first, a physician falsely accused of a crime. In the second, we’re in the narrative point of view (in the third person) of a probable serial killer. In the third Hughes I’ve read – Ride the Pink Horse, we’re in the head of a still different type of character: a small-time operator and borderline criminal who’s been a part of the circle of a corrupt Illinois senator and who’s trying to settle a score of sorts – or to simply get what he believe is owed him.

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What adds another level of interest and meaning to Ride the Pink Horse is the setting. Sailor – for that is his name – has followed the senator down to Santa Fe for the Fiesta that takes place over Labor Day weekend.  Fiesta provides a fascinating background to the story, a background that reflects a changing understanding of America, insight into the Southwest and, most importantly, a glimpse into a greater, even transcendent reality that pricks at Sailor’s conscience.

The Fiesta begins with the burning of a huge effigy of evil – Zozobra.

On the hill the outsiders played at Fiesta with their fancy Baile but Fiesta was here. In the brown faces and the white faces, the young and the old; capering together, forgetting defeat and despair, and the weariness of the long, heavy days which were to come before the feast time would come again. This was Fiesta. The last moments of the beautiful and the gay and the good; when evil, the destroyer, had been himself destroyed by flame. This was the richness of life for those who could destroy evil; who could for three days create a world without hatred and greed and prejudice, without malice and cruelty and rain to spoil the fun. It was not three days in which to remember that evil would after three days rise again; for the days of Fiesta there was no evil in this Fiesta world. And so they danced.

Sailor is an outsider to this world, and so it’s a convenient way for Hughes to explore the noir trope of alienation, particularly in that post-World War II era.

And standing there the unease came upon him again. The unease of an alien land, of darkness and silence, of strange tongues and a stranger people, of unfamiliar smells, even Ride-the-Pink-Horse-Dellthe cool-of-night smell unfamiliar. What sucked into his pores for that moment was panic although he could not have put a name to it. The panic of loneness; of himself the stranger although he was himself unchanged, the creeping loss of identity. It sucked into his pores and it oozed out again, clammy in the chill of night. He was shivering as he stood there and he moved sharply, towards the Plaza, towards identity.

For three days, Sailor lurks and waits. Because it’s Fiesta, there’s not a hotel room to be found, so he sleeps where he can. He encounters the Senator and his entourage, with increasing levels of threat and intensity as he demands what’s due him. He discovers another Chicagoan in town – a boyhood acquaintance now police detective, also keeping an eye on the Senator. He forms a friendship of sorts with the man who operates the  Tio Vivo – the children’s merry-go-round –  whom he nicknames (of course) “Pancho.” There is, by the way, a lot of what we’d call offensive ethnic-related language in this book, but it’s all from the brain of Sailor, who uses language like that because that’s the way his character thinks.

Anyway, Pancho is one of a few characters Sailor encounters who hints at a different way. Another is a teenage girl whom he could easily exploit, but doesn’t, and whom, for reasons mysterious to even himself, he tries to help. It’s her storyline that provides the hughes-ridepinktitle – a title which has nothing to do with the dame on the cover of the reissue. What these characters do is  show Sailor glimmers of life as it exists beyond greed and keeping score, either by the peace they’ve made with the limitations of their own lives:

‘Even with the gringo sonnama beetches,’ Pancho said cheerfully. ‘When I am young I do not understand how it is a man may love his enemies. But now I know better. I think they are poor peoples like I am. The gringo sonnama beetches don’t know no better. Poor peoples.’

….or the small acts of goodness they draw out of Sailor himself:

Sailor called to Pila. ‘Ride the pink one.’ He felt like a dope after saying it. What difference did it make to him what wooden horse an Indian kid rode? But the pink horse was the red bike in Field’s, the pink horse was the colored lights and the tink of music and the sweet, cold soda pop. The music cavorted. Pancho’s muscles bulged at the spindlass. Pila sat astride the pink horse, and Tio Vivo began its breath-taking whirl. Sailor leaned on the pickets. He didn’t know why giving her a ride had been important. Whether he’d wanted to play the big shot. Whether it was the kid and the bright new bike, the bum with his nose pressed against the window looking at the clean silver blonde beyond reach. Whether it was placating an old and nameless terror. Pila wasn’t stone now; she was a little girl, her stiff dark hair blowing behind her like the mane of the pink wooden horse.

Sailor was raised Catholic, by a pious mother and an alcoholic, abusing father. His mother spent her life praying – and how did it help her? In his view, it didn’t.

He hadn’t come here to pray; he’d come with a gun to keep his eye on a rat. He wasn’t going to be sucked in by holiness. He kept his mind and his backbone rigid when the golden censers swung the musk-scented smoke, when the organ and choir blazoned together the O Salutaris Hostia. He got on his knees only because everyone else did, because he didn’t want to be conspicuous…..Sailor slid over to the side pew. A pillar protected him from the eyes of those moving up the aisle. The old men and the little children. The rich and the poor. The alien and the native, the magnificent and the black shawls. The monks and the choir and the Sociedads, a slow-moving, silent procession to the open cathedral doors, out again into the night. Candles flickered like fireflies from all the vasty corners of the cathedral

Now and then, cultural commenters would worry about the appeal of antiheroes Tony Soprano (The Sopranos) and Walter White (Breaking Bad). What does it Say About Us? Well, what was most compelling to me -and I think to many – was not so much these characters’ dastardly deeds, but rather the possibility that they might turn around – both shows were full of such moments and opportunities, and decisions had to be made in those moments, decisions about whether to be really courageous or continue in your prideful, destructive, bastard ways.

Ride the Pink Horse has that same kind of vibe about it. Sailor didn’t have to be in the spot he’s in, and he still has a chance to move in another direction. Will he take it?

It’s a little repetitious – so not as strong as An Expendable Man, which is still my favorite Hughes so far. But it’s got a great setting, and in that pulp context, effectively examines the notion of conscience, creates a haunting spiritual landscape through which sinful strangers in a strange land choose one path – and not another –  and wow, the ending is just smashing. I gasped. I did.

Well, that took longer than I expected. I’ll wait until tomorrow to write about the other book I read this weekend – They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell, published eighty years ago about events set twenty years earlier than that, but astonishingly fresh and deeply insightful.

Ride-the-Pink-Horse-Movie-PosterBy the way, Ride the Pink Horse was also made into a film. It’s been released as a part of the Criterion Collection, so…I guess it’s good? But the plot is very different from the novel:

He plays a tough-talking former GI who comes to a small New Mexico town to shake down a gangster who killed his best friend; things quickly turn nasty. 

…but the discussion at the Criterion site intrigues me…so perhaps I’ll try to find it and give it a go.

 

 

 

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— 1 —

It’s the feastday of St. Clare! I’ll refer you to last year’s post on her, with links to biographical material and her letters, as well as photos from our own trip to Assisi.

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If you read nothing else, take a look at her letters, especially those to Agnes of Prague.  

From last year’s post: 

Agnes was the daughter of a king and espoused to the Emperor Frederick, who remarked famously upon news of her refusal of marriage to him, “If she had left me for a mortal man, I would have taken vengeance with the sword, but I cannot take offence because in preference to me she has chosen the King of Heaven.”

She entered the Poor Clares, and what makes the letters from Clare so interesting to me is the way that Clare plays on Agnes’ noble origins, using language and allusions that draw upon Agnes’ experience, but take her beyond it, as in this one. 

 

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There are no photographs allowed inside the Basilica of S. Chiara in Assisi, which is where the original San Damiano cross is now kept. Here’s Ann Engelhart’s lovely painting of the San Damiano cross from Adventures in Assisi. 

 

9. Santa Chiara basilica - spread 8 copy

— 2 —

And….the first week almost done. Driving to and from school has happened several times. I am loathe to say too much about that because, I admit, I’m superstitious. Or, as I prefer to say it, I believe there is wisdom and truth in old adages like “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”

So all I’ll say is that for me, my level of tension has decreased as the week as progressed. The fact that the new anti-texting-while-driving law took effect on 8/1 has helped. Not that I don’t see people still studying their phones on the road, but I’m hoping those numbers will, indeed, decrease and the risk to others decrease as well.

 

— 3 —

Speaking of Alabama….this is for you, in case you need to be amused. I guess it’s basically the same crew that does SEC Shorts – I don’t care a wit about football, but I find any kind of subculture – including fandom – fascinating, and always enjoy some precision satire and observation. These are hit and miss, but when they’re on, they’re really funny.

So they’re doing these. Some are weaker than others in both writing and acting, but my favorites are:

 

And the one on “southern” accents in movies…and bless your heart is okay, too. 

It’s just fun because they’re filmed in Birmingham, and the sights and sounds are familiar – there’s one about the challenge of eating healthy in the south that has a snip of the guy running in the park, distracted by an ice cream truck, which is very funny because he’s in Railroad Park where there’s always an ice cream song driving the world mad with its tunes….

Also – in one of the videos, “Things you never hear people saying in the South” – there’s reference to a wedding being scheduled on a football weekend. A few years ago, when I was living in the front-porch neighborhood (still missed – but we just needed a different space…), I was walking and overheard a woman talking on the phone on her front porch very loudly: 

“Okay, I know  the game will be on, but no, I am not putting a TV in the room during the reception.  There’s sports bars down the street – you all can just leave and go down there if you want….”

 

]— 4 —

This is a site to which I used to refer readers all the time: Aid to the Church in Need. It’s a good place to find projects to help and also provides helpful insight into the life of the Church around the world.

— 5 —

Edited – I miscopied the template and have been skipping #5 – thanks for noticing!!

Homeschooling is slowly getting rolling. We had a friend over on one day, and have had various other appointments, but next week looks clear. We’ve gotten going on math, and yesterday, he had his first good morning of “unschooling” – that is just reading and talking, and then recording what he’d read about. This won’t be a “comprehensive” education, but it will be…something.

— 6 —

The Jungle: It was my older son’s summer reading, so I joined in…the fun. Well.

On one level, it’s an “easy” read (for most of the book), because Sinclair was a journalist and tended to get right to the point and had great descriptive skills. It didn’t hurt that what he was describing was so vivid and visceral and the story of unrelenting misery so compelling, if…unrelenting.

For those of you who don’t know, The Jungle was the fruit of a couple of months Sinclair spent in Chicago in the early 20th century, examining the meatpacking industry and the lives of the immigrant workers in that industry. The focus of the story is an extended Lithuanian family and the young man who marries into that family, named Jurgis.

It’s all pretty devastating. The slaughterhouses and packing facilities are brutal and filthy. The workers’ lives are miserable and that misery is unrelenting. It’s all described quite vividly and, spoiler alert: No, things don’t get better. It’s just one thing after another.

Sinclair has a point in this, though. He was a strong socialist, and while most people associated The Jungle with the story told about the industry and the resultant formation of the FDA as a result of the outcry raised by the book, Sinclair’s main intention was to raise sympathy for the workers.  He was always a little distressed that the social activism inspired by the book was focused on the industry rather than the fundamental equation of American capitalism of the time – as he saw it – that made workers nothing more than cogs in a machine (or pigs on a killing line) for the purpose of enriching a relatively few.

It’s a mostly interesting book – until the last sixth, or so, when Jurgis discovers socialism and does so mostly by listening to speeches. Speeches that we are privileged to share in, also. Page. After page. After page. Thousands of words of socialist uplift, Comrade.

It’s important and interesting to encounter even that part of the book, in my mind, because of the spiritual associations. Jurgis experiences no less than a spiritual conversion that gives his life a transcendent meaning and binds him to others.

But still….it’s very boring.

As a whole, though, a book worth reading, even for young people. I quibble with a lot of school assignments, but I think this was a good choice as an introduction to the study, this year, of the second half of American history and literature. It vividly brings you into another world and lays out issues that gather up the promises of the first half of history that you studied last year then sets them in this new situation and demands you answer the question, What now? 

— 7 —

And, oh my heavens, speaking of immigration and American hopes and dreams – on a more positive note –  if this article has passed your various newsfeeds by, take a look and catch up. And then, if you’re like me, make the decision (again!) to stop the griping, be grateful, and jump back into this life business full-tilt, creating and giving what you can:

In 1956, blood spilled as Hungarians revolted against Soviet control. Hideg and his wife, a pianist, risked execution as they fled Budapest under cover of darkness. They sneaked past Russian infantry and escaped first to Austria and then New York City in early 1957. Hideg got a job as a janitor, and after work he’d race to Birdland and other Manhattan jazz clubs to see his heroes.

In 1961, he and his wife loaded up their old DeSoto and headed west, flat broke, stopping at bars along the way to play for food and gas money, Hollywood or bust….

 

….“I did not come to this country to be a burden on the state,” says Hideg, who has resisted signing up for many entitlements available to seniors.

He chose the musician’s life, he says, and has no regrets. If he has a message for others, Hideg tells me, it’s that doing something you love will serve you well. And another thing: Don’t hesitate to ask friends for help if you need it.

“He’s not a shy guy, but it’s not easy for him” to accept money, says Hideg’s longtime buddy Laszlo Cser, a retired musician and L.A. City College professor. “Lately he’s more willing to go along.”

Louis Kabok, a local bass player who knew Hideg in Hungary, fled at about the same time. He says his friend’s high spirits in the face of hardship and advancing age don’t appear to be an act.

“To tell you the truth, I never met another person in my life who has his kind of attitude,” says Kabok. “He just has an idea of the way he wants to live his life, and he’s doing it.”

Indeed, for all his troubles, Hideg glows. His silver hair is as thick as his Hungarian accent. His grin is young, timeless and broad, the grin of a man who’s in on a secret.

Whatever day it is, the weekend is coming soon, and Hideg lives for Friday and Saturday.

He can’t bang the skins in the quiet environs of his apartment building, so every Saturday, he stays drummer fit with a two-hour workout at Stein on Vine in Hollywood, the legendary music shop where he jams with gray-bearded buddies and it’s the 1950s all over again.

In the video attached to the story – worth a few minutes of your time – Mr. Hideg says, “I live alone…and I don’t have a family. But I am not lonely because I have my friends, I have God, I have my drums….when I play, I concentrate on the music. I don’t care about anything else…”

(The Go Fund Me campaign has raised a bunch for Mr. Hideg.)

 

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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  • Are you getting ready for school? Catechists, homeschoolers and Catholic school teachers are.  Pastors and principals, too. If you are a mind to, please take a look at all the resources I have available for catechesis.
  • Do you work in youth ministry? Please check out my books for teens and young adults here.

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  • Are you planning adult education? Consider these resources.

Or this:

  • Are you teaching First Communion children this year? Take a look at Friendship with Jesus and Be Saints. 
  • Are you teaching religion to elementary age students? Friendship with Jesus, Be Saints, Bambinelli Sunday, Adventures in Assisi, The Loyola Kids’ Book of Saints, The Loyola Kids’ Book of Heroes. 
  • And…the new book:

 

Note: the Amazon listing indicates it will be released tomorrow. This isn’t correct. It will be 9/1, according to Loyola. 

  • Can you help catechists, Catholic schools and parish programs?  Consider gifting your parish, school or favorite catechist with copies of these books.  Click on the covers for more information.

I have copies of some of these – the Prove it books, the Catholic Woman’s Book of Days and the Book of Heroes as well as the Prove It Bible available in my bookstore. 

Again – even if catechesis isn’t something you are personally involved in, any catechist, parish school, library or program would welcome a donation as a beginning-of-the-year (no matter when it begins…) gift.

Also: Did you know that public libraries accept suggestions for books to purchase? Usually you have to have a library card in their system to be able to recommend a book – but do look into that – you could give a boost to a lot of Catholic authors in this way.

And don’t forget that I do have some ebooks – in pdf form – available at no cost.

Mary and the Christian Life

De-Coding Mary Magdalene

Come Meet Jesus

The Power of the Cross

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All right! A couple of publications this week: first, on Flannery O’Connor, in Catholic World Report – which you saw if you were here yesterday. 

(I do blog almost every day…in some form or other. One of the few left! Most of the action has moved to Facebook and Twitter, of course, but I #resist that, especially the Facebook part. I just use it to toss out links, mostly and sometimes post family photos for a smaller sub-group of my “friends” group.)

Secondly, in the Catholic Herald– on relics. Most of it’s behind a firewall, but the beginning is here. 

And yes, I am working on the Guatemala thing. Got the prologue and one chapter done. I have a rather tedious project I must finish this weekend, but after that, my early fall will be working on this and getting a new Loyola book rolling.

This one will be out soon! The Amazon entry says the 8th, but I’m not sure if that is correct. I was told I’d have it mid-month.

Remember…you can help Catholic authors – all of us – by gifting our books to schools and parishes – and requesting that your local public library purchase them as well.

— 2 —

 

Old school. Today is the feast of St. John Vianney, whose life was part of the inspiration for Georges Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest. Ages and ages ago, I wrote a super short piece on the novel for Liguori. It’s here.

— 3 —

Life’s going to  change around here next week. School starts for the older one and he’ll be driving himself so…

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He’s been driving himself to work all summer, but school is in a different part of town with far more challenging traffic. So I have two years of that to look forward to, thnx.

]— 4 —

And…it’s back to the Homeschool for the 7th grader. We’ll see how life goes after this. I’ll write more about it next week when we things calm down a bit – I have a busy beginning of the week, plus a project I have to, have to have to finish this weekend. The schooling is going to be mostly of the Un-type, with math being the exception (AOPS Pre-Algebra). Everything else will be up to him.

— 6 —

Lengthy but important read, I think. From The Atlantic: “Have Smarthphones Desroyed a Generation?”  

The article takes on and expands what I have long felt was an important negative of internet/smartphone use – especially the young: the potential for anxiety and depression that results from exaggerated, continual, never-ending social pressure.

Share this, especially with teachers and school administrators, in the hopes that it will encourage them to move away from the delusion that a school best serves its students and families by preparing them for life in the 21st century by taking away books, papers and pens and putting making life onscreen and inscreen even more difficult to escape.

— 7 —

No family movies this week what with work and travel. One watched Innerspace, which is currently on Netflix. Another got one of the Star Wars movies from Redbox.

Currently being read around our house: The Andromeda Strain, The Jungle (for school), The Fellowship of the Ring and by HEAVENS I’m going to finish Doctor Thorne this week. I will.

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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Born in 1925, if she were still alive, she’d be 92. A year younger than my own mother, which is always odd for me to think about.  And given her mother’s longevity (Regina died at the age of 99 in 1995), if lupus hadn’t taken her, she might well still be alive, indeed.

I’ve written quite a bit about Flannery over the years.  Most recently, I’m in Catholic World Report today, commenting on a new documentary that’s been produced about her – the only one out there at the moment. 

I was in the area, and was hoping to go to Andalusia yesterday, on the way from Florida back here. But fortunately, I checked the opening hours and saw that the farm is only open Thursdays – Sundays. And it didn’t seem a great use of time to haul everyone off I-75 just to visit her grave, even though it was the day before her death anniversary. So we went to some Indian mounds instead. 

Some other posts and writings on Flannery O’Connor:

This one on the collection of her book reviews for the Atlanta Archdiocesan paper. 

Most of what O’Connor reviewed was non-fiction, and she did not like most of the fiction she did review – J.F. Powers, Paul Horgan and Julien Green being the unsurprising exceptions in the otherwise flowerly garden of pietistic fiction she endured.

The non-fiction choices are fascinating, although not a surprise to anyone familiar with the contents of O’Connor’s personal library and the scope of her reading we can discern from her letters. She was very concerned with the intellectual life of American Catholics and indeed saw what she was doing for the papers as in some way an act of charity in which readers might be encouraged to read beyond the pieties.

She was especially interested in Scripture, dismayed that Catholics did not read more of it, and quite interested in the Old Testament, especially the prophets. Again, perhaps not a surprise? She was, as is well-known, quite interested in Teilhard de Chardin, and reviewed a few books by Karl Barth, as well.

“The Enduring Chill” played a part in my last visit to my parents’ house after I’d sold it:

Secondly, the association of the breaking through of the Holy Ghost with coldness.  A chill. An enduring chill.  There are a number of ways to look at it,  since the “chill” is of course a reference to fever,  but  this morning I couldn’t stop thinking about Flannery’s continual argument against the modern expectation that “faith” is what brings us  contentment and satisfaction.  In the Gospel today,  Jesus says Peace be with You.  But that’s after the crucifixion, you know.

Image result for flannery o'connorAlso on Asbury’s mind- primary, really – was his mother.  How he blamed her for his own failure as a would-be artist, and how what he wanted to do most of all was make her see this.  To give her an enduring chill that would be the result of her awareness of what she had done to him.

He would hurt her, but that was just too bad.  It was what was necessary, he determined, to get her to see things as they really are. Irony, of course, comes to rest on him in the end as the Holy Ghost descends.

So I read and talked about this story about parents, children, disappointment, blame,  pride and being humbled.

Then I drove up to Knoxville, alone, thinking about Asbury, about that Holy Ghost, about peace be with you and doubt no longer.

I drove up to see my father’s house for the last time and sign the papers so someone new could live there now.

Tears?

Sadness that my father died six months ago, that my mother died eleven years ago, that my husband died three years ago. Sadness for my dad’s widow.  But then tempered, as I stood there and surveyed the surrounding houses and realized that almost every person who lived in those houses when we first moved in, is also dead.

Remembering that forty years ago, my parents were  exactly where I am now, watching the preceding generation begin to die off, absorbing their possessions, making sense of what they’d inherited – in every sense – and contemplating where to go from there.

There’s nothing unique about it.  It’s called being human. Not existing for a very long time, being alive for a few minutes, and then being dead for another very long time.

And in that short time, we try.  I’m not going to say “we try our best” because we don’t.  It’s why we ask for mercy.  Especially when we live our days under the delusion of self-sufficiency, placing our faith in ourselves and our poor, passing efforts, closed to grace…when we live like that…no, we’re not trying our best.  We need it,  that  Divine Mercy. We need it, and as Asbury has to learn, we need it to give, not just to take.  More

A summary of a session I lead on “The Displaced Person”

There is a priest in the story, the priest who brings the family (the Guizacs) to the farm, and then continues to visit Mrs. McIntyre. He is old and Irish, listens to Mrs. McIntyre’s complaints about her workers and the difficulties of her life with a nod and a raised eyebrow and then continues to talk to her about the teachings of the Church.

He is seen by the others as a doddering fool, talking about abstractions, not clued into the pressing issues of the moment, telling Mrs. McIntyre, for example, about what the Son of God has done, redeeming us,  “as if he spoke of something that had happened yesterday in town….”

And at the end, as Mrs. McIntyre watches the black figure of the priest bend over a dead man ” slipping something into the crushed man’s mouth…” we see why he spoke of it that way.

It did happen yesterday in town. It happens today.

He’s here.

The priest, too, is the only character who recognizes transcendence.  Every time he comes to the farm, he is transfixed by the peacocks (see the header on the blog today), a fascination the others think is just one more symptom of foolishness and “second childhood.”

You must be born again….

And here is the “irony.” Although steeped in Catholic faith and sensibilities, we know it is not ironic – but to the world’s eyes, it is. That the priest who expresses the mysteries in such matter-of-fact, “formulaic” ways, ways which even theologians today fret are not nuanced or postmodern enough, which they would like to dispense with in favor of…what, I am not sure, unless it is one more set of windy journal articles…this priest is, as I said, the only character who can recognize beauty and the transcendent reflected there. And the one who embodies Mercy.

Flannery O’Connor always said that she found the doctrines of the Church freeing – and this is what she means.

And the story ends:

Not many people remembered to come out to the country to see her except the old priest. He came regularly once a week with a bag of breadcrumbs and, after he had fed these to the peacock, he would come in and sit by the side of her bed and explain the doctrines of the Church.

A couple of interviews I did with KVSS on Flannery.

And….my piece “Stalking Pride” – which I think is a decent introduction:

Robert Coles answered the question well when he wrote of O’Connor, “She is stalking pride.” For Flannery O’Connor, faith means essentially seeing the world as it is, which means through the Creator’s eyes. So lack of faith is a kind of blindness, and what brings on the refusal to embrace God’s vision — faith — is nothing but pride.

O’Connor’s characters are all afflicted by pride: Intellectual sons and daughters who live to set the world, primarily their ignorant parents, aright; social workers who neglect their own children, self-satisfied unthinking “good people” who rest easily in their own arrogance; the fiercely independent who will not submit their wills to God or anyone else if it kills them. And sometimes, it does.

The pride is so fierce, the blindness so dark, it takes an extreme event to shatter it, and here is the purpose of the violence. The violence that O’Connor’s characters experience, either as victims or as participants, shocks them into seeing that they are no better than the rest of the world, that they are poor, that they are in need of redemption, of the purifying purgatorial fire that is the breathtaking vision at the end of the story, “Revelation.”

The self-satisfied are attacked, those who fancy themselves as earthly saviors find themselves capable of great evil, intellectuals discover their ideas to be useless human constructs, and those bent on “freedom” find themselves left open to be controlled by evil.

What happens in her stories is often extreme, but O’Connor knew that the modern world’s blindness was so deeply engrained and habitual, extreme measures were required to startle us: “I am interested in making up a good case for distortion, as I am coming to believe it is the only way to make people see.”  More

flannery o'connor stamp

No, this isn’t the real one, but an imagined redesign, which I like very much.  More on that here.  

It’s ironic that a stamp issued in honor of a writer who was determined to present reality as it is – prettifies the subject to the point of making her unrecognizable. 

Everybody, as far as I am concerned, is The Poor.

-Flannery O’Connor

 

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We never refused kindness which might lead to acquaintanceship….

As travel is a topic I’m interested in, as well as being an activity which prompts not a little soul-searching on my part, I found the end of Martineau’s account of her years-long journey in America quite fascinating and even rather moving. I’m going to just reprint the whole passage here – it’s long, but it will save you a click or two.

For previous entries on Martineau see here and here.)

Her way to these final considerations of the value of travel has begun in the graveyard – comparing the American graveyard to European cemeteries, which then leads her to reflect on journeys – mind you, when she speaks of “travel” she is not speaking of If This Is Tuesday It Must Be Belgium – Bucket List Travel. She is speaking of long, slow journeys – slow because that is how one traveled in those days – during which one had ample time to experience new places with new friends.

While writing I have been struck by the strong resemblance between the
retrospect of travel from home and that of life from the cemetery. In
each contemplation the hosts of human beings who have been seen acting,
suffering, and meditating, rise up before the mind’s eye as in a kind of
judgment scene, except that they rise up, not to be judged, but to
instruct. The profit of travel is realized at home in the solitude of
the study, and the true meaning of human life (as far as its meaning can
become known to us here) is best made out from its place of rest. While
martineau retrosepct western travel2busy among strangers, one is carried away by sympathy and by prejudice
from the point whence foreign society can be viewed with anything like
impartiality; one cannot but hear the mutual criminations of parties;
one cannot but be perplexed by the mutual misrepresentations of
fellow-citizens; one cannot but sympathize largely with all in turn,
since there is a large mixture of truth in all views about which people
are strongly persuaded. It is only after sitting down alone at home that
the traveller can separate the universal truth from the partial error
with which he has sympathized, and can make some approximation towards
assurance as to what he has learned and what he believes. So it is in
the turmoil of life. While engaged in it, we are ignorantly persuaded,
and liable, therefore, to be shaken from our certainty; we are
disproportionately moved, and we sympathize with incompatibilities, so
as to be sure of disappointment and humiliation inflicted through our
best sensibilities. In the place of retrospect we may find our repose
again in contemplating our ignorance and weakness, and ascertaining the
conviction and strength which they have wrought out for us.

What is gained by living and travelling?

One of the most striking and even amusing results is the perception of
the transient nature of troubles. The thoughtful traveller feels
something like wonder and amusement at himself for being so depressed by
evils as he finds himself in the midst of long-idealized objects. He is
surprised at his own sufferings from hunger, cold, heat, and weariness;
and at his being only prevented by shame from passing some great object
unseen, if he has to rouse himself from sleep to look at it, or to
forego a meal for its sake. The next time he is refreshed, he wonders
how his troubles could ever so affect him; and, when at home, he looks
through the picture-gallery of his memory, the afflictions of past hours
would have vanished, their very occurrence would be denied but for the
record in the journal. The contemptible entries about cold, hunger, and
sleepiness stand, ludicrously enough, among notices of cataracts and
mountains, and of moral conflicts in the senates of nations. And so with
life. We look back upon our pangs about objects of desire, as if it were
the object and not the temper of pursuit which was of importance. We
look back on our sufferings from disease, from disappointment, from
suspense, in times when the great moral events of our lives, or even of
the age, were impending, and we disregarded them. We were mourning over
some petty loss or injury while a new region of the moral universe was
about to be disclosed to us; or fretting about our “roast chicken and
our little game at cards,” while the liberties of an empire were being
lost or won.

Worse than our own little troubles, probably, has been the fear and
sorrow of hurting others. One of the greatest of a traveller’s hardships
is the being aware that he must be perpetually treading on somebody’s
toes. Passing from city to city, from one group of families to another,
where the divisions of party and of sect, the contrariety of interests,
and the world of domestic circumstance are all unknown to him, he can
hardly open his lips without wounding somebody; and it makes him all the
more anxious if, through the generosity of his entertainers, he never
hears of it. No care of his own can save him from his function of
torturer. He cannot speak of religion, morals, and politics; he cannot
speak of insanity, intemperance, or gaming, or even of health, riches,
fair fame, and good children, without danger of rousing feelings of
personal remorse or family shame in some, or the bitter sense of
bereavement in others. Little or nothing has been said of this as one of
the woes of travelling; but, in my own opinion, this is the direction in
which the fortitude of the traveller is the most severely tried. Yet, in
the retrospect, it seems even good that we should have been obliged thus
to call the generosity and forbearance of our hosts into exercise. They
are, doubtless, benefited by the effort; and we may perhaps be gainers,
the direct operation of forbearance and forgiveness being to enhance
affection. The regard of those whom we have wounded may perhaps be
warmer than if we had never hurt them. It is much the same with men’s
mutual inflictions in life. None of us, especially none who are frank
and honest, can speak what we think, and act according to what we
believe, without giving pain in many directions. It is very painful, but
quite unavoidable. In the retrospect, however, we are able to smile on
the necessity, and to conclude that, as we have been willing to bear our
share of the wounding from others, and should, perhaps, have been sorry
if it had not happened, it is probable that others may have regarded us
and our inflictions in the same way.

Nothing is more conspicuous in the traveller’s retrospect than the fact
how little external possession has to do with happiness. As he wanders
back over city and village, plantation and prairie, he sees again care
on the brow of the merchant and mirth in the eyes of the labourer; the
soulless faces of the rich Shakers rise up before him, side by side with
the gladsome countenance of the ruined abolitionist. Each class kindly
pities the one below it in power and wealth; the traveller pities none
but those who are wasting their energies in the exclusive pursuit of
either. Generally speaking, they have all an equal endowment of the
things from which happiness is really derived. They have, in pretty
equal distribution, health, senses, and their pleasures, homes,
children, pursuits, and successes. With all these things in common, the
one point of difference in their respective amounts of possession of
more than they can at present eat, use, and enjoy, seems to him quite
unworthy of all the compassion excited by it; though the compassion,
having something amiable in it, is of a kindly use as far as it goes. In
a cemetery, the thoughtless are startled into the same perception. How
destitute are the dead in their graves! How naked is the spirit gone
from its warm housings and environs of luxuries! This is the first
thought. The next is, was it ever otherwise? Had these luxuries ever
anything to do with the peace of the spirit, except as affording a
pursuit for the employment of its energies? Is not as vigorous and
gladsome a mind to be found abroad in the fields, or singing at the
mill, as doing the honours of the drawing-room? and, if it were not so,
what words could we find strong enough for the cruelty of the decree
under which every human being is compelled to enter his grave solitary
and destitute? In the retrospect of the recent traveller in America, the
happiest class is clearly that small one of the original abolitionists;
men and women wholly devoted to a lofty pursuit, and surrendering for it
much that others most prize: and, in the retrospect of the traveller
through life, the most eminently blessed come forth from among all ranks
and orders of men, some being rich and others poor; some illustrious and
others obscure; but all having one point of resemblance, that they have2martineau retrosepct western travel
not staked their peace on anything so unreal as money or fame.

As for the worth of praise, a traveller cannot have gone far without
finding it out. He has been praised and blamed at every turn; and he
soon sees that what people think of him matters to themselves and not to
him. He applies this to himself, and finds confirmation. It is ludicrous
to suppose that what he thinks of this man and that, whose motives and
circumstances he can never completely understand, should be of lasting
importance to the subjects of his observation, while he feels it to be
very important to his own peace and state of temper that he should
admire as much and despise as little as reason will allow. That this is
not more felt and acted upon is owing to the confined intercourses of
the majority of men. If, like the traveller, they were for a long time
exposed to a contrariety of opinions respecting themselves, they would
arrive at the conviction which rises “by natural exhalation” from the
field of graves, that men’s mutual judgments are almost insignificant to
the objects of them, while immeasurably important to those who form
them. When we look about us upon this obelisk and that urn, what matter
the applauses and censures of the neighbours of the departed, in the
presence of the awful facts here declared, that he has lived and is
gone? In this mighty transaction between himself and his Maker, how
insignificant to him are the comments of beings between whom and himself
there could exist no complete understanding in this life! But there is
no overrating the consequences to himself of having lived with high or
low models before his eyes; in a spirit of love or a spirit of contempt;
in a process of generous or disparaging interpretation of human actions.
His whole future condition and progress may be affected by it….

The mysterious pain of partings presses upon the returned traveller and
the surviver with nearly equal force. I do not know whether this woe is
usually taken into the estimate of travellers when they are counting the
cost of their scheme before setting out; but I know that it deserves to
be. I believe that many would not go if they could anticipate the misery
of such partings as those which must be encountered in a foreign
country, in long dreary succession, and without more hope than in
parting with the dying. The chances of meeting again are small. For a
time grief sooths itself by correspondence; but this cannot last, as one
family group after another opens its arms to the stranger, and gives him
a home only that he must vacate it for another. The correspondence
slackens, fails, and the parties are to one another as if they were
dead, with the sad difference that there is somewhat less faith in each
other than if they were in circumstances in which it is physically
impossible that they could communicate. To the surviver of intercourse,
in either place of meditation, there remains the heartsoreness from the
anguish of parting; that pain which, like physical pain, takes us by
surprise with its bitterness at each return, and disposes us, at length,
to either cowardice or recklessness; and each of these survivers may be
conscious of some visitations of jealousy, jealousy lest the absent
should be learning to forget the past in new interests and connexions.

The strongest point of resemblance in the two contemplations of the
life which lies behind, is this; that a scene is closed and another is
opening. The term of existence in a foreign land, and the somewhat
longer term spent on this planetary island, are viewed as over; and the
fatigues, enjoyments, and perplexities of each result in an amount of
calm experience. The dead, it is hoped, are entering on a new region, in
which they are to act with fresh powers and a wiser activity. The
refreshed traveller has the same ambition. I have surveyed my
experience, and told my tale; and, though often visiting America in
thought, can act no more with reference to my sojourn there, but must
pass over into a new department of inquiry and endeavour. Friendships
are the grand gain of travel over a continent or through life; and these
may be carried forward into new regions of existence here, as we hope
they may be into the unexplored hereafter, to give strength and delight
to new exertions, and to unite the various scenes of our being by the
strongest ties we know.

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Well, after several months of dipping, a day or two of  immersion here and there and finally a stint of sustained reading, I have finished Harriet Martineau’s Retrospect of Western Travel.  What a delight.

I had heard of the 19th century writer and early sociologist, but didn’t know much. Then I listened to the episode of In Our Time dedicated to her and I was intrigued, mostly by the fact that she had taken an extended journey to the United States and written about it.

The fruit of that travel is in two works: Retrospect of Western Travel and the more topical Society in America. 

It’s too bad de Toqueville gets all the love, because Martineau offers just as much. Retrospect is one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read, an astonishing first-hand view of the United States in its early history which includes encounters with most the most eminent personages of the age, from Andrew Jackson to Emerson, from the Beechers to Garrison.

And she goes everywhere.  New England and the Middle Atlantic, all through the South "amy welborn"from Charleston to New Orleans and up to Kentucky, and throughout the Midwest. She covers everything, from a close reading of the political system, to social morays to intellectual and religious life. Her impressions of slavery are particularly acute and impassioned.

Back in March, I wrote a bit about volume 1 – go back and take a look, especially if you want to read about her irritation at this newfangled obsession called a rocking-chair. 

I highlighted so much in reading that I can just skim the surface of sharing what interested me, so skim I shall. Different points will strike different readers. What interests me in writing of this kind are the moments in which I see the present in the past – in which Martineau notices aspects of American society that are still a part of our makeup, in which she happens upon quirks or incidents that might still be familiar to us today. I’m also interested in observations she make that confound our impressions of the past. Don’t look for rhyme or reason in these quotes. I’m just going through what I highlighted in volume 2 – most recently read – as the moments struck me:

At a school program in Cincinnati (a city, by the way, she believed should be nation’s capitol.)

Many prizes of books were given by the gentlemen on the platform; and the ceremony closed with an address from the pulpit which was true, and in some respects beautiful; but which did not appear altogether judicious to those who are familiar with children’s minds. The children were exhorted to trust their teachers entirely; to be assured that their friends would do by them what was kindest. Now, neither children nor grown people trust, any more than they believe, because they are bid. Telling them to have confidence is so much breath wasted. If they are properly trained, they will unavoidably have this trust and confidence, and the less that is said about it the better. If not, the less said the better, too; for  confidence is then out of the question, and there is danger in making it an empty phrase. It would he well if those whose office it is to address children wore fully aware that exhortation, persuasion, and dissuasion are of no use in their case; and that there is immeasurable value in the opposite method of appeal. Make truth credible, and they will believe it: make goodness lovely, and they will love it: make holiness cheerful, and they will be glad in it: but remind them of themselves by threat, inducement, or exhortation, and you impair (if you do any thing) the force of their unconscious affections: try to put them upon a task of arbitrary self-management, and your words pass over their ears only to be forgotten.

(Her comments remind me of the present day in which we think if we just tell children and young people to have self-esteem and believe in themselves!  ….it will happen…)

She often comments on the generosity of Americans:

This account of our three first clays at Cincinnati will convey a sufficient idea of a stranger’s impressions of the place. There is no need to give a report of its charitable institutions and its commerce:  the details of the latter are well known to those whom they may concern; and in America, wherever men are gathered together, the helpless are aided, and the suffering relieved. 

However, she notes as well the “illiberality” of many Americans – by which she means prejudices, and right after this passage, she comments on anti-Catholicism. (Martineau was a Unitarian, and no fan of Catholic practices, but she was also committed to freedom of religion and expression. Although she does infer that one of the reasons that prejudice is bad is that it might just prompt the growth and strength of the object of prejudice….)

The Catholic religion spreads rapidly in many most of the recently-settled parts of the United States, and its increase produces an almost insane dread among some Protestants, who fail to see that no evils that the Catholic religion can produce in the present state of society can be so afflictive and dangerous as the bigotry by which it is proposed to put it down. The removal to Cincinnati of Dr. Beecher, the ostentation and virulent foe of the Catholics, has much quickened the spirit of alarm in that region. It is to be hoped  that Dr. Beecher and the people of Cincinnati will remember what has been the invariable consequence in America of public denunciations of assumed offences which the law does not reach; namely, mobbing.

To more prosaic topic – corn on the cob.

This day, I remember, we first tasted
green corn, one of the most delicious of vegetables, and by some
preferred to green peas. The greatest drawback is the way in which it is
necessary to eat it. The cob, eight or ten inches long, is held at both
ends, and, having been previously sprinkled with salt, is nibbled and
sucked from end to end till all the grains are got out. It looks awkward
enough: but what is to be done? Surrendering such a vegetable from
considerations of grace is not to be thought of.

On New England education, class, and a contrast with Old England:

Their common and high schools, their lyceums and cheap colleges, are exciting
and feeding thousands of minds, which in England would never get beyond
the loom or the ploughtail. If few are very learned in the villages of
Massachusetts, still fewer are very ignorant; and all have the power and
the will to invite the learning of the towns among them, and to
remunerate its administration of knowledge. The consequence of this is a
state of village society in which only vice and total ignorance need
hang the head, while (out of the desolate range of religious bigotry)
all honourable tastes are as sure of being countenanced and respected as
all kindly feelings are of being reciprocated. I believe most
enlightened and virtuous residents in the villages of New-England are
eager to acknowledge that the lines have fallen to them in pleasant
places.

But she has harsh words for Harvard College:

The politics of the managers of Harvard University are opposed to those
of the great body of the American people. She is the aristocratic
college of the United States. Her pride of antiquity, her vanity of
pre-eminence and wealth, are likely to prevent her renovating her
principles and management so as to suit the wants of the period; and she
will probably receive a sufficient patronage from the aristocracy, for a
considerable time to come, to encourage her in all her faults. [Almost 200 years later…has anything changed??!] She has a
great name, and the education she affords is very expensive in
comparison with all other colleges. The sons of the wealthy will
therefore flock to her. The attainments usually made within her walls
are inferior to those achieved elsewhere, her professors (poorly
salaried, when the expenses of living are considered) being accustomed
to lecture and examine the students, and do nothing more. The indolent
and the careless will therefore flock to her. But, meantime, more and
more new colleges are rising up, and are filled as fast as they rise,
whose principles and practices are better suited to the wants of the
time. In them living is cheaper, and the professors are therefore richer
with the same or smaller salaries; the sons of the yeomanry and mechanic
classes resort to them; and, where it is the practice of the tutors to
work with their pupils, as well as lecture to them, a proficiency is
made which shames the attainments of the Harvard students. The middle
and lower classes are usually neither Unitarian nor Episcopalian, but
“orthodox,” as their distinctive term is; and these, the strength and
hope of the nation, avoid Harvard, and fill to overflowing the oldest
orthodox colleges; and, when these will hold no more, establish new
ones.

When I was at Boston the state of the University was a subject of great
mourning among its friends.

Martineau was hard of hearing, and used an ear horn. She visited schools for the visually and hearing impaired in a few cities and observed:

The benevolence which undertook the care of this class of unfortunates,
when their condition was esteemed hopeless, has, in many cases, through
a very natural delight at its own success, passed over into a new and
opposite error, particularly in America, where the popular philosophy of
mind comes in aid of the delusion. From fearing that the deaf and dumb
had hardly any capacities, too many of their friends have come to
believe them a sort of sacred, favoured class, gifted with a keener
apprehension, a more subtile reason, and a purer spirituality than
others, and shut out from little but what would defile and harden their
minds.

Martineau wrote extensively on what she saw in the slave-holding South, but also gives an interesting view of the impact of abolitionist activism in New England, and includes this very wise and still very true observation:

The same delusion (if it be mere delusion) is
visible here that is shared by all persons in power, who cannot deny
that an evil exists, but have not courage to remove it; a vague hope
that “fate, or Providence, or something,” will do the work which men are
created to perform; men of principle and men of peace, like the
abolitionists; victims, not perpetrators of violence.

And what strikes her as one of America’s most telling features?

The only times when I felt disposed to quarrel with the inexhaustible
American mirth was on the hottest days of summer. I liked it as well as
ever; but European strength will not stand more than an hour or two of
laughter in such seasons. I remember one day when the American part of
the company was as much exhausted as the English. We had gone, a party
martineau retrosepct western travelof six, to spend a long day with a merry household in a country village;
and, to avoid the heat, had performed the journey of sixteen miles
before ten o’clock. For three hours after our arrival the wit was in
full flow; by which time we were all begging for mercy, for we could
laugh no longer with any safety. Still, a little more fun was dropped
all round, till we found that the only way was to separate, and we all
turned out of doors. I cannot conceive how it is that so little has been
heard in England of the mirth of the Americans; for certainly nothing in
their manners struck and pleased me more. One of the rarest characters
among them, and a great treasure to all his sportive neighbours, is a
man who cannot take a joke.

Americans love their enthusiasms as well, and for Martineau, these enthusiasms, however nutty they might be,  point to something deeper: an imaginative spirit.

When Spurzheim was in America, the great mass of society became
phrenologists in a day, wherever he appeared; and ever since itinerant
lecturers have been reproducing the same sensation in a milder way, by
retailing Spurzheimism, much deteriorated, in places where the
philosopher had not been. Meantime the light is always going out behind
as fast as it blazes up round the steps of the lecturer. While the world
of Richmond and Charleston is working at a multiplication of the fifteen
casts (the same fifteen or so) which every lecturer carries about, and
all caps and wigs are pulled off, and all fair tresses dishevelled in
the search after organization, Boston has gone completely round to the
opposite philosophy, and is raving about spiritualism to an excess which
can scarcely be credited by any who have not heard the Unknown Tongues.
If a phrenological lecturer from Paris, London, or Edinburgh should go
to Boston, the superficial, visible portion of the public would wheel
round once more, so rapidly and with so clamorous a welcome on their
tongues, that the transported lecturer would bless his stars which had
guided him over to a country whose inhabitants are so candid, so
enlightened, so ravenous for truth. Before five years are out, however,
the lecturer will find himself superseded by some professor of animal
magnetism, some preacher of homœopathy, some teacher who will
undertake to analyze children, prove to them that their spirits made
their bodies, and elicit from them truths fresh from heaven. All this is
very childish, very village-like; and it proves anything rather than
originality in the persons concerned. But it does not prove that there
is not originality in the bosom of a society whose superficial movement
is of this kind; and it does not prove that national originality may not
arise out of the very tendencies which indicate that it does not at
present exist.

The Americans appear to me an eminently imaginative people. The
unprejudiced traveller can hardly spend a week among them without being
struck with this every day. At a distance it is seen clearly enough that
they do not put their imaginative power to use in literature and the
arts; and it does certainly appear perverse enough to observers from the
Old World that they should be imitative in fictions (whether of the pen,
the pencil, stone, or marble), and imaginative in their science and
philosophy, applying their sober good sense to details, but being
sparing of it in regard to principles. This arbitrary direction of their
imaginative powers, or, rather, its restriction to particular
departments, is, I believe and trust, only temporary. As their numbers
increase and their society becomes more delicately organized; when,
consequently, the pursuit of literature, philosophy, and art shall
become as definitely the business of some men as politics and commerce
now are of others, I cannot doubt that the restraints of imitation will
be burst through, and that a plenitude of power will be shed into these
departments as striking as that which has made the organization of
American commerce (notwithstanding some defects) the admiration of the
world, and vindicated the originality of American politics in theory and
practice.

Finally, she has an interesting section on “originals” in America:

There must be many local and professional oddities in a country like
America, where individuals fill a larger space in society, and are less
pressed upon by influences, other than local and professional, than in
Old World communities. A judge in the West is often a remarkable
personage to European eyes…..

….Originals who are so in common circumstances, through their own force of
soul, ruling events as well as being guided by them, yield something far
better than amusement to the observer. Some of these, out of almost
every class, I saw in America, from the divine and statesman down to the
slave.

Martineau ends her book with a remarkable reflection on travel itself, which I’ll share in the next post. 

 

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