Previous month:
August 2015
Next month:
October 2015

September 2015

52 Authors: Week 39 - Graham Greene

Christ-haunted. In the past couple of months I’ve read 7 ½ novels by Graham Greene and that phrase has occurred to me over and over again. And recently, when I re-read a post that Maclin wrote in 2011.

It is the world as viewed from within the Church that fascinates me, and what fascinates me most of all is the dialogue between belief and unbelief. Catholic writers like Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy dramatize this encounter in the most memorable ways. But people on the other side—artists and others—often shed their own sort of light upon it. Even in unbelief they may present the essential questions in powerful ways, or express, as well or better than a believer, the longing for pure unattainable love and beauty which is what I seem to have in place of the sense of the presence of God.

Over and over again in the novels I read, there is a man who is haunted by a desire to believe, or a resistance to belief, or, most frequently, by the Catholic Church. There is a group of four novels that are frequently referred to as “The Catholic Novels:” Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, and The End of the Affair, but some of his other novels are no less Catholic than these. We are constantly being reminded of the Church. Even in The Third Man which is the least Catholic of all those I read, we find the protagonist, Rollo Martins, confronting the evil Harry Lime with, “You used to be a Catholic,” and Harry replies, “Oh, I still believe, old man. In God and mercy and all that. I’m not hurting anybody’s soul by what I do.” And they all do believe, whether they wish to or not.

In preparation for writing this post, I planned to read Graham’s first and last novels, his four “Catholic novels,” and The Third Man, because the movie is so well-known. I also read part of The Honorary Consul because it was the only unread Greene novel that I had in the house at the time. Unfortunately I found that his last published novel, The Tenth Man was one that he had written many years earlier as an idea for a movie, and had completely forgotten until it was brought to his attention by a movie company, so except for the first half of The Honorary Consul, I haven’t read any of his later work which largely consisted of stories of international intrigue.

Graham’s first novel, The Man Within, begins with a man on the run. His pursuer has a sort of sixth sense that tells him where his prey will be. The reason for his uncanny ability is that the pursuer, Carlyon is the man’s best friend, indeed, the only friend he has ever had in his whole life. The reason for the pursuit is that our man, Andrews, has betrayed the band of smugglers of which he was formerly a part. This book, written shortly after Graham converted to the Catholic Church, contains all of the recurrent themes that are found in Graham’s novels. Repeatedly we find a man who is beset by his own faults and doubts, and frequently on the wrong side of the law; a deep and troubled friendship between two men; the presence of God hovering, or pursuing, or being rejected; and a woman who makes a difference. On the surface, faith is on the perimeter of this novel, but looking back you can see its pervasive influence, and it just now occurred to me that that one could make a good case for Carlyon’s pursuit of Andrews being analogous to the pursuit of God for the man within.

Week39-Graham Greene-Janet_html_Brighton

 The name goes all the way through Brighton Rock candy .

In Brighton Rock, the first of the so-called Catholic novels, we meet Pinkie, the most vicious and murderous 19 year old mobster that one can imagine. He carries a bottle of vitriol (sulfuric acid) in his pocket. He is filled with hate and loves to hurt, and yet, music moves his soul. And the dance music of Brighton is mixed with the music of his past.

…suddenly he began to sing softly in his spoilt boy’s voice: ‘Agnus dei qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.’ In his voice a whole lost world moved—the lighted corner below the organ, the smell of incense and laundered surplices, and the music. Music—it didn’t matter what music—‘Agnus dei,’, ‘lovely to look at, beautiful to hold’, ‘the starling on our walks’, ‘credo in unum Dominum (sic)’—any music moved him, speaking of things he didn’t understand.

The very seed of his hatred seems to come from the experience of watching the ungainly coupling of his parents from his own bed in their room every Saturday night. The thought of sex is nauseating to him, and Graham often writes of Pinkie’s soured virginity. In the course of events, though, Pinkie is forced to marry a plain, young woman, Rose, to keep her from testifying against him in court. Because of their youth, they have to lie to marry and, of course, they, both Catholic, cannot marry in the Church. They talk repeatedly about the fact that they aren’t really married—that they are living in mortal sin—and they deliberately choose it. This is the first instance I found of this deliberate rejection of grace in Greene’s work, but it’s by no means the last.

However, even though their marriage is far from ideal, the marital act begins to change Pinkie. He begins to feel a tenderness toward Rose. He feels that she completes him in some way. And though there is an outward narrative involving Pinkie’s disintegrating mob, the real tension in the story is Pinkie’s inward struggle. Of all the Greene novels that I read, this is the most psychologically complex, and the most chilling.

The Power and the Glory is aptly named. It is indeed very powerful, and the glory, although hidden under a mountain of misery and corruption, shines through. It takes place in Mexico in the time when priests were hunted down and forced to either marry and deny the Faith, or face death. The protagonist is the last priest in the state, I can’t remember if we even know his name, and he is not a good priest. Before the persecution, he was filled with pride, and cared more for the honor that came to him because of his priesthood than he did about the souls of his congregation. He has gradually come to neglect his prayers. He is a drunkard, and in one meaningless violation of his vow of chastity, he has fathered a child. However, he knows and believes the truth.

Throughout the novel, the priest confronts the fact that he will be damned because of his fall from grace, and his inability to confess as there are no other priests, but he never fails to serve the people with whom he comes in contact even though he is on the run, exhausted, and spiritually spent. He, alone among Greene’s protagonists, is friendless. The woman who makes a difference for him is his own child. Unlike the others, his opposition to the law is not of his own making. His struggle is not a struggle to believe—he believes intensely—but to endure in the knowledge that he himself is lost.

Week39-Graham Greene-Janet_html_Heart

The Heart of the Matter is, I believe, the heart of all Greene’s work. In Book I of the novel we meet Henry Scobie, a British intelligence agent in Sierra Leone during World War II. “Squat, grey-haired,” his Commissioner laughingly calls him “Scobie the Just.” He is scrupulously honest in his business dealings. He loves the country, and the people of the country. He wants to remain in his job even though he is passed over for the promotion that is rightly his. He also scrupulously fulfills his duties to his wife, but he is probably a man who should never have married. He is happiest when he is alone.

And from this point we watch the slow dissolution of Scobie’s life. As I read, I was forcibly reminded of Charles Williams’ Descent into Hell. Just as surely as Lawrence Wentworth wrapped himself in the darkness of his own self, Scobie, bit-by-bit descends into his own little self-made hell, but by a different path. I’ve always had a hard time wrapping my mind around exactly what people mean when they talk about “the tenderness that leads to the gas chambers,” but it is through a perceived tenderness and care for others that Scobie makes his way to that eternal crucible. At every misstep, it seems to him that he is sinning in order to help another person, and that he must help them in this way. It is a type of despair—the belief that God’s mercy is insufficient to heal the other person without Scobie’s misled compassion.

In what might be the saddest passage I’ve ever read, Scobie receives Communion in a state of mortal sin to hide the fact of his infidelity from his wife.

“To order our days in thy…peace that we be preserved from eternal damnation…” Pax, pacis, pacem: all the declinations of the word “peace” drummed on his ears through the Mass. He thought: I have left even the hope of peace forever. I am the responsible man. I shall soon have gone too far in my design of deception ever to go back.


“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you.”

“I’m all right,” he said, the old longing pricking at the eyeballs and looking up towards the cross on the altar he thought savagely: take your sponge of gall. You made me what I am. Take the spear thrust. He didn’t need to open his Missal to know how this prayer ended. “May the receiving of Thy Body, O Lord Jesus Christ, which I unworthy presume to take, turn not to my judgment and condemnation.” He shut his eyes and let the darkness in. Mass rushed towards its end: Domine non sum dignus…Domine, non sum dignus…Domine, non sum dignus….


Only a miracle can save me now, Scobie told himself, …but God would never work a miracle to save Himself. I am the cross, he thought, He will never speak the word to save Himself from the cross, but if only wood were made so that it didn’t feel, if only the nails were senseless as people believed.


But with open mouth (the time had come) he made one last attempt at prayer: “O God, I offer up my damnation to you. Take it. Use it for them,” and was aware of the pale papery taste of an eternal sentence on the tongue.

Now we have moved from the priest who offers his damnation because he has no choice to the man who chooses his own damnation.

Any given day might find The End of the Affair in the list of my ten favorite novels. While Maurice Bendix, the narrator of the novel, is agnostic, or perhaps even an atheist, he can’t deny that he is watching the making of a saint. However, as the nascent saint is his former mistress, Sarah Miles, he’s more angry than inspired. However, the story of Sarah’s conversion, and its testament to the power of the Sacraments is inspiring. I read everywhere that this novel, written in 1951, was influenced by his affair with Catherine Walston which lasted from 1946 until 1957. Bendix, so it seems, speaks from Greene’s point of view. His house was bombed during the Blitz, and a similar event is the turning point of the novel. However, one wonders what Greene was thinking when he used the affair which was far from over to tell the story of a man whose lover leaves him for God. I thought, before I read the other novels, that I would have a great deal to say about The End of Affair but reading the other novels has changed the way I look at it, and the ending, which seemed very clear to me when I read it before, seems more ambiguous now. Before I move on, though, I want to say that you should not watch the movie and if you have seen the movie, you should forget it. It is a dreadful turning inside-out of the book.

Both The Third Man and The Tenth Man were written as ideas for movies, so they are very short—The Third Man is less than 100 pages. Anyone who is interested in classic movies would be familiar with The Third Man and I will say here what I have never said before in my life, which is that you should watch the movie first, and perhaps skip the book altogether. It’s an all right story, but the characters in the book lack definition and motivation, whereas the script, the camerawork and the acting in the movie are excellent.

I watched a movie of The Tenth Man with Anthony Hopkins a few years ago, and I liked it very much. I had no idea that it was written by Graham Greene. The book is only 160 pages long and it isn’t as complex as most of his work, but it’s a good story. Of all the novels, it’s the one which most clearly speaks to repentance and redemption, although the Church is barely mentioned. It doesn’t have a happy ending—Greene’s novels are very short on happy endings, but it does have a very satisfying ending.

Returning to Maclin’s quote, specifically this part, “Even in unbelief they may present the essential questions in powerful ways, or express, as well or better than a believer…,” the question is, “On which side of the fence does Graham Greene stand?” Some sources suggest that he only converted to Catholicism because he wanted to marry a woman who would only marry a Catholic, and that he never really believed. After reading these novels, though, I would find it inconceivable that he didn’t have real faith, at least for a while. He not only knows facts about the Church, he seems to have a deep understanding of the way that God moves on our souls.

What is terrifying to me about this is that Greene also really seems to understand the determined rejection of grace. The passages that speak of this, like the one quoted above, ring with authenticity. He led a very dissolute life (which you can read about here if you wish to be distressed), and died estranged from his wife and children.

In the article from the Daily Mail he is quoted as saying, “I think my books are my children.” I’ve been thinking about this and about how it is the duty of children to pray and intercede for their deceased parents and perhaps in some way Greene’s books can intercede for him, or at least encourage his readers to pray for his soul. I’ve been praying.

Once again I found some biographical information at Wikipedia.

—Janet Cupo has been commenting on this blog for about as long as it's existed, and has her own excellent blog at The Three Prayers.

On the Pope's Visit

I discern a pattern in my reactions to popes in the news. I'm so irritated by the political weaponizing of everything he says or does that I pretty much have to ignore the hullabaloo while it's in progress. I've been told that his speech to Congress today was good, but I think I'll wait at least until the visit is over before I read it. Judging by the headlines I'm seeing, the political jousting is in full swing. It seems to me that if your reaction to the pope's words is to swing them at the head of your enemy, you're not quite getting the message right.

On that subject, though, one thing I did read is a piece by Emma Green in The Atlantic preparatory to the visit. The magazine is no friend to Christianity, and I don't read it (magazine or web site) very often anymore, but the title caught my eye when I saw it on Google News: "Pope Francis Is Not  'Progressive'--He's a Priest". That's not the sort of thing I expect from The Atlantic, so I took a look at it. I was not surprised to see that it was by Emma Green, as I've noticed before that when she writes about Christianity she does so with a respectable amount of knowledge and a reasonable degree of sympathy, far removed from the usual befuddled snark I expect from liberal publications. I see that she's the managing editor, so maybe the magazine is not a completely lost cause. 

52 Authors: Week 38 - Chaim Potok

When I was fourteen we took a trip to Chicago to visit a friend of my mom’s. On the way we stopped to visit my mom’s “St. Louis relatives.” I had previously met my Great-uncle Theo, who was deaf, but had not met any of his progeny. Almost immediately upon entering their house it dawned on me that they were Jewish. For one thing, they served bagels, a rarity in the Oklahoma I grew up in. As it turned out, my grandfather was one of ten children of a former rabbinic student from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. None of my grandfather’s brothers and sisters that I knew practiced any religion, much less Judaism. My Uncle Theo was the only one.

Soon after that I was in a high school production of Fiddler on the Roof. I was hooked. Ever since then I have been very attentive, curious, and fascinated by all things Jewish. I also have a reflexive and perhaps irrational defensiveness about the Jews which may blind me to the dark side of Jewish reality (in Israel, for instance). It doesn’t help that I’m a romantic sentimentalist.

Many years later I discovered Chaim Potok’s The Chosen and The Promise. I don’t remember when or how. I just know that they instantly took their place among the handful of books that I could reread on my own, with The Lord of the Rings and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I later read My Name is Asher Lev and one other novel, the name of which I can’t remember. All I remember about it is that there was a scene in which burly Jewish men play some kind of sport in Central Park.

For me one of the big draws is the peek into the Jewish world which fascinates me. I feel like I’m really in that world of the tsaddik, earlocks, yeshivas, gematria, Hasidim, the Talmud. It is like Fiddler on the Roof on steroids.

I am always drawn to Potok’s portrayal of the intellectual life—the study of the Torah and the Talmud; the intense scholastic life of a young Jew; the debates over the interpretation of the text. That is the model of academic life that I love, cultivated in the Great Books program at Notre Dame. Perhaps there is a familial memory of my great-grandfather’s rabbinic studies in the Old World?

The Chosen tells the story of the friendship between Reuven Malter, the son of an Orthodox Talmud scholar who uses modern scientific methods, and Danny Saunders, the son and spiritual heir of a Hasidic tsaddik, or spiritual leader. The tension comes when Danny, a brilliant Talmudic scholar, wants to study secular, Freudian psychology rather than follow in his father’s footsteps as leader of his Hasidic community. Reb Saunders is conflicted because he wants Reuven and Danny to be friends, but is strongly opposed to Reuven’s father’s method of Talmudic studies and his Zionism.

The Promise is the sequel to The Chosen, in which Reuven and Danny get involved in the psychological struggles of a disturbed 14-year old son of an "unbelieving" Jew. Reuven himself struggles with studying the Talmud with a teacher who will not accept his father’s scientific method. To complicate things, Danny and Reuben are involved in a love triangle with Rachel Gordon, the cousin of the boy. Danny seeks to figure a way to reach the disturbed boy and finds the tools he’s been given by his psychological training are inadequate. Can he perhaps find tools from his tradition? This description sounds more like a soap opera, but it really isn’t. It is as rich and insightful as The Chosen. It also inspired my daughter to study psychology.

My Name is Asher Lev is the story of a boy being raised in a strict Hasidic community who discovers early that he has a talent for drawing and painting—and an attraction to modern art. This causes tension with his father and with his teachers, who believe that representational art is not compatible with Jewish piety and who aren’t thrilled by the likes of Picasso. The real focus of the book, though, is the suffering that Asher Lev’s mother experiences as a result of the tensions Asher’s gift causes in his relations with his father and with their community.

The Chosen is at first blush a coming of age novel. Beginning with the incident on the baseball field that brings Reuven and Danny together, both boys begin to learn what it is to be a man in the world and a true friend. The transformation from childhood to the beginning of adulthood begins in the blink of an eye:

Somehow everything had changed. I had spent five days in a hospital and the world around seemed sharpened now and pulsing with life. I lay back and put the palms of my hands under my head. I thought of the baseball game, and I asked myself, Was it only last Sunday that it happened, only five days ago? I felt I had crossed into another world, that little pieces of my old self had been left behind on the black asphalt floor of the school yard alongside the shattered lens of my glasses.. Pp. 102-3

Other themes are the nature of true friendship and the difficulties a father has in raising his children and the difficulties children have being raised by their imperfect fathers.

The meaning of silence plays a significant role in The Chosen and The Promise. Danny’s father has chosen for reasons that are explained at the end of the book to raise his son in silence. He only talks to him when discussing the Talmud. “Why have you stopped answering my questions, Father?” Danny asks. Reb Saunders responds, “You are old enough to look into your own soul for the answer” (Chosen 280). Eventually Danny begins to understand: “‘You can listen to silence, Reuven. I’ve begun to realize that you can listen to silence and learn from it. It has a quality and a dimension all its own. It talks to me sometimes. I feel myself alive in it. It talks. And I can hear it.’” (Chosen 162)

Potok explores the tension between a commitment to strong, clear, comprehensive religious tradition, such as Hasidic Judaism, and engagement with the world. This question is a live one for those of us involved in homeschooling. It has also been brought to the fore recently by Rod Dreher’s proposal of what he calls “The Benedict Option,” which has been countered by others who propose an “Escriva Option.”

Potok clearly values the tradition. Even though Potok is a conservative rabbi, he can speak of the Hasidic vision in almost glowing terms. Reb Saunders explains his religious vision to Reuven:

A man is born into the world with only a spark of goodness in him. The spark is God, it is the soul. The rest is ugliness and evil, a shell. The spark must be guarded like a treasure, it must be nurtured, it must be fanned into flame. It must learn to seek out other sparks, it must dominate the shell. Anything can be a shell, Rueven. Anything. Indifference, laziness, brutality, genius. Yes, even a great mind can be a shell and choke the spark.” (Chosen 276)

A dark, almost Augustinian vision which I tend to resonate with, despite my attraction to Thomism.

Reuven’s dad explains the teaching of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, this way:

He taught them that the purpose of man is to make his life holy--every aspect of his life: eating, drinking, praying, sleeping. God is everywhere, he told them, and if it seems at times that He is hidden from us it is only because we have not yet learned to seek Him correctly. Evil is like a hard shell. Within this shell is the spark of God, is goodness. How do we penetrate the shell? By sincere and honest prayer, by being happy, and by loving all people. (Chosen 110)

When Asher Lev, a Hasid Jew, is given permission by his Rebbe to pursue the study of art, the Rebbe clarifies that fulfillment as a religious man, is not primarily about religious practice or intellectual study of the Torah or the Talmud: it is about what you make of your gifts and of your life—what you do anything for:

A life should be lived for the sake of heaven. One man is not better than another because he is a doctor while the other is a shoemaker. One man is not better than another because he is a lawyer while the other is a painter. A life is measured by how it is lived for the sake of heaven (Asher Lev,184).

Fulfillment may even involve going outside the tradition at least to engage it.

It is a pity [Reb Saunders] occupies his mind only with Talmud. If he were not a tzaddik he could make a great contribution to the world. But he lives only in his own world. It is a great pity. Danny will be the same way when he takes his father's place. It is a shame that a mind such as Danny's will be shut off from the world. (Chosen 150).

So, Talmudic studies take advantage of the scientific method; Danny, in order to be the compassionate tsaddik (righteous one) that his father wants him to be, must turn to secular psychology. Asher Lev must go outside the Jewish tradition “because there was no aesthetic mold in his own religious tradition into which he could pour a painting of ultimate anguish and torment” (Asher Lev 313).

Yet, going beyond the tradition involves first being thoroughly grounded in it so you don’t lose the treasure that has been handed down. As Asher Lev’s art teacher tells him about the “tradition” of painting:

I will force you to master it. Do you hear me? No one will listen to what you have to say unless they are convinced you have mastered it. Only one who has mastered a tradition has the right to attempt to add to it or to rebel against it. Do you understand me, Asher Lev? (Asher Lev 204)

Potok is interested in the meaning of the soul and how it is cultivated. It is more than the intellect. In fact, the intellect can be a barrier to compassion, to carrying the pain of others. Only a soul that suffers has compassion. How does one raise children to pay attention to their soul? Reb Saunders decides to raise his son in silence when he discovers that the four year-old Danny is “without a soul,” without compassion. Danny himself later asks, after he has enrolled in a program that emphasizes experimental psychology, “What do rats and mazes have to do with the mind?” (Chosen 207). For him, the mind has come to transcend the mere intellect, and the empirical.

I love Potok’s descriptions. They are lush and sensual, yet they pay attention to little psychological details:

It was a warm night, and the window between the stove and the sink was open. A breeze blew into the kitchen, stirring the ruffled curtains and carrying with it the odors of grass and flowers and orange blossoms. We sat at the table dressed in our Shabbat clothes, my father sipping his second glass of tea, both of us a little tired and sleepy from the heavy meal. There was color now in my father's face, and his cough had disappeared. I watched him sip his tea and listened to the soft rustling of the curtains as they moved in the breeze. Manya had done the dishes quickly after we had chanted the Grace After Meals, and now we sat alone, embraced by the warm June night, the memories of the past week, and the gentle silences of the Shabbat. (Chosen 104)

Potok’s paints a rich, but stark picture of Reuven’s first introduction to the world of the Hasidim.

A block beyond the synagogue where my father and I prayed, we made a right turn into a narrow street crowded with brownstones and sycamores. It was a duplicate of the street on which I lived, but a good deal older and less neatly kept. Many of the houses were unkempt, and there were very few hydrangea bushes or morning glories on the front lawns. The sycamores formed a solid, tangled bower that kept out the sunlight. The stone banisters on the outside stairways were chipped, their surfaces blotched with dirt, and the edges of the stone steps were round and smooth from years of use. Cats scrambled through the garbage cans that stood in front of some of the houses, and the sidewalks were strewn with old newspapers, ice cream and candy wrappers, worn cardboard cartons, and tom paper bags. Women in long-sleeved dresses, with kerchiefs covering their heads, many with infants in their arms, others heavily pregnant, sat on the stone steps of the stairways, talking loudly in Yiddish. The street throbbed with the noise of playing children who seemed in constant motion, dodging around cars, racing up and down steps, chasing after cats, climbing trees, balancing themselves as they tried walking on top of the banisters, pursuing one another in furious games of tag-all with their fringes and earlocks dancing wildly in the air and trailing out behind them. We were walking quickly now under the dark ceiling of sycamores, and a tall, heavily built man in a black beard and black caftan came alongside me, bumped me roughly to avoid running into a woman, and passed me without a word. The liquid streams of racing children, the noisy chatter of long-sleeved women, the worn buildings and blotched banisters, the garbage cans and the scrambling cats all gave me the feeling of having slid silently across a strange threshold, and for a long moment I regretted having let Danny take me into his world. (Chosen 123)

Those sycamores play an important role throughout The Chosen, as can be seen in this passage:

On the afternoon of the first day of Passover, I walked beneath the early spring sycamores on my street, then turned into Lee Avenue. The sun was warm and bright, and I went along slowly, past the houses and the shops and the synagogue where my father and I prayed. I met one of my classmates and we stopped to talk for a few minutes; then I went on alone, turning finally into Danny's street. The sycamores formed a tangled bower through which the sun shone brightly, speckling the ground. There were tiny buds on these sycamores now and on some I could see the green shoots of infant leaves. In a month, those leaves would shut out the sky, but now the sun came through and brushed streaks of gold across the side- walks, the street, the talking women, and the playing children. I walked along slowly, remembering the first time I had gone up this street years ago. Those years were coming to an end now. In three months, in a time when the leaves would be fat and full, our lives would separate like the branches overhead that made their own way into the sunlight.” (Chosen 273)

Potok is also a master of dialogue, paying attention to the faces of the speakers and how they express their psychological experience. A great example is the scene in the first chapter of The Promise, where Michael Gordon, the disturbed boy, reacts violently to being cheated by a Jewish owner of a carnival game. You can feel the boy’s disturbance, plus the disturbance of Rachel and Reuven—not to mention the cynical evil of the carny.

—Robert Gotcher and his wife, Kathy, live in Milwaukee, where they've been raising their seven children, four of whom are "out of the house" more or less. He teaches writing and Latin at a seminary.  He wrote his dissertation on de Lubac and Vatican II. He is originally from Oklahoma, but has lived in Kansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, and Innsbruck, Austria.

Bergman: The Silence and Through A Glass Darkly

Last night I watched The Silence for the second time. The first time was somewhere between five and ten years ago, and I thought I had discussed it here at least briefly, but if I did I can't find the post now. At any rate, what I remember thinking is that I didn't like at as well as the other two of the three films which Bergman (I think) and others (definitely) have referred to as his "faith trilogy." Well, I changed my mind. This is a wonderful work. It's so good that I don't even know where to start talking about it. The faces, the silences, the spaces, the mystery.... 

I thought the first time around that it was marred, if not spoiled, by its very explicit sexuality--pretty tame by today's standards, R-rated at worst, but powerful because of the artistry involved. I still think a couple of those scenes could have been toned down, but none of that comes anywhere near spoiling the whole, much less detracting from the faint but sublime joy of the closing gesture. I had thought of it as the most despairing, the most Godless, of the faith trilogy, and perhaps it is, but the tiny ray of hope, the two hearts that reach out to each other through a few simple words on a piece of paper, is only made brighter by the surrounding darkness.

Then tonight I watched Through A Glass Darkly (yes, I own these on DVD). It, too, I had seen only once, and is even better than I remembered. It, too, takes us through a very dark place, but the light at the end is not faint at all. Bergman only thought he was an atheist.

When I watch a Bergman movie I have the feeling that I'm in a world where absolutely every detail is significant and beautiful, beautiful in a Hopkins sort of way, if not in any conventional way--simply by being itself so richly. Sometimes I think these works should be credited to Bergman-Nykvist--Sven Nykvist being the cinematographer on most of Bergman's greatest work.

I really miss my friend Robert tonight, because as far as I'm aware he's the only one of my personal acquaintances who loves Bergman the way I do. Ordinarily I would have gotten out of my chair at the end of each of these movies and fired off an email to him, just to remind him of how great they are. If anyone else here loves these two films, I'd be interested in discussing them with you. I haven't mentioned the third, Winter Light, because I love it most of the three and know it so well that I don't feel the immediate need to see it again. 




The Terrible Truth

...And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.

That's Frost, from "Out, Out—", a poem you may know, and should know if you don't. It's one of his masterpieces. You can read it online at the Poetry Foundation.

It's been on my mind for the past couple of days. I got word last Friday of the death of an old and close friend--I've mentioned him here occasionally, the "Robert" who introduced me to a lot of good music and other things over the years. I feel the loss, and I'm going to miss him. And yet--as Frost says, one turns back to one's own life, though it feels somehow wrong that the world having come to an end (we suppose) for one person, it should continue for the rest of us. My usual routine has hardly been disturbed. 

52 Authors: Week 37 - Alexander McCall Smith


We don't forget, thought Mma Ramotswe. Our heads may be small, but they are as full of memories as the sky may sometimes be full of swarming bees, thousands and thousands of memories, of smells, of places, of little things that happened to us and which come back, unexpectedly, to remind us who we are. And who am I? I am Precious Ramotswe, citizen of Botswana, daughter of Obed Ramotswe who died because he had been a miner and could no longer breathe. His life was unrecorded; who is there to write down the lives of ordinary people?

I first heard the name Precious Ramotswe from my friend Barbara who was having a conversation with her daughter. The expression on their faces while they were talking about her was the expression that people have when they are talking about someone they love. I asked Barbara about the book, and thereby came to read The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. I can remember that I found the book in our library, and sat down in my favorite chair in the children's section to wait for my daughter to finish selecting her books. By the time she was ready to go, I had a hard time closing the book.

Mma Ramotswe is a traditionally built Motswana (a person from Botswana). After the death of her beloved Father, Mma Ramotswe uses the proceeds from the sale of his cattle to open the the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. Having amply prepared herself for her true vocation by studying that exemplary text, The Principles of Private Detection, by Mr. Clovis Andersen, she launches herself into her new life.

[Mma Ramotswe] was a good detective, and a good woman. A good woman in a good country, one might say. She loved her country, Botswana, which is a place of peace, and she loved Africa, for all its trials. I am not ashamed to be called an African patriot, said Mma Ramotswe. I love all the people whom God made, but I especially know how to love the people who live in this place. They are my people, my brothers and sisters. It is my duty to help them to solve the mysteries in their lives. That is what I am called to do.

The world of Mma Ramotswe is not always happy. The books deal with many serious subjects: the working conditions of the Kalahari diamond mines, the AIDs epidemic and the many orphans who suffer as a result of the epidemic, spousal abuse and infidelity, and people who have given themselves over to evil. Both Mma and her beloved country have sad and troubled histories. Nevertheless, the overall impression that one takes away from the series is one of joy. The books are funny with a gentle, understated humor, and the overall atmosphere is one of contentment and peace.

During the course of the series we become familiar with the people who surround Mma Ramotswe. First,there is her indomitable secretary, Mma Makutsi, a widow who has just graduated from the Botswana College of Secretarial and Office Skills with an average of 97%. And then, there is Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni, proprietor of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors; he is her always trustworthy and dependable friend, an excellent man in every way and eventually, her husband. (Yes, this is a spoiler, but not much of one since it's pretty evident from the beginning.) We meet Mma Potokwane, the matron of the orphanage, who has her own irresistible way (cakes being a necessary incentive) of getting people--especially Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni--to do whatever she needs done for the children, and Mr. Polopetsi, who assists the ladies in their detection. There are also Mma Makutsi's nemesis, the evil Violet Sephotho who was an academic failure at the Botswana College of Secretarial and Office Skills, but who succeeds wildly in her profession because of her physical charms and lack of scruples, and Note Motoki, Mma Ramotswe's selfish and unprinicipled ex-husband.

Mma Romotswe's character is beautifully drawn. She is wise and fair and generous. She is a loyal friend and a just opponent. She's the sort of person with whom I would like to sit down and have a cup of red bush tea, had I not a deep suspicion of a substance called red bush tea. She reminds me of my two African women friends, and her voice seems to be an authentic voice, which is why I was a bit taken aback when I saw this.


I must have know the name of the author of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, because I found the book in the library, but somehow it didn't really register with me, and it wasn't until I was well into the book that I realized that the creator of Mma Ramotswe's voice was a white (very white) man in a kilt, no less.

Despite the name and the kilt, McCall Smith comes by his knowledge of Botswana honestly. He was born in neighboring Zimbabawe, what was then Southern Rhodesia. Eventually, he received a PhD in law from the University of Edinburgh, and later returned to Africa where he helped to found the University of Botswana. He currently lives in Edinburgh.

He is the former chairman of the British Medical Journal Ethics Committee (until 2002), the former vice-chairman of the Human Genetics Commission of the United Kingdom, and a former member of the International Bioethics Committee of UNESCO.

(All this biographical information and more can be found in Wikipedia. I tried to find another source but since I am writing this literally at the last minute, I can't be too choosy.)

Very occasionally, Mma Ramotswe will say something which I think is out of character, most notably she once said that sometimes a woman must have an abortion, but when this happens, I just tell myself that McCall Smith is just putting words in her mouth.

McCall Smith is a very prolific writer. Since The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency was published in 1998 he has written 15 more books in this series and published at least 15 other novels, some short stories and at least 2 children's books.

Another series, The Sunday Philosophy Club series, features Isabel Dalhousie, the editor of the Review of Applied Ethics, and hostess of the eponymous club, although the club does not often appear in the books. I do not like these nearly as well as I do the Mma Ramotswe books, but I like them well enough. They are mysteries, but the mysteries are merely a background for the story of Isabel's life and material for her philosophical pondering about—well, everything.

There are also the 44 Scotland Street and the Corduroy Mansions series. I have read at least one of the former and perhaps I have also read one of the latter, but neither of these left much of an impression on me. I can't remember what they were about, nor can I remember much of anything about any of the characters.


Last but not least, series-wise anyway, and totally different from any of McCall Smith's other series is the small, but entirely delightful series about Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld. Originally published as, Portuguese Irregular Verbs, The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs, and The Villa of Reduced Circumstances, it was later released in a single volume called The 2 ½ Pillars of Wisdom. This short trilogy (the entire series runs to about 400 pages) follows the personal and professional life of Professor Dr von Igelfeld, famous in his field for his 900 page exegesis of Portuguese grammar, and “pillar of the Institute of Romance Philology in the proud Bavarian city of Regensburg.” and I found it to be hilarious. I think that anyone who has had any involvement in the drama of academic life (even anyone who has been merely on the sidelines, as I was) will appreciate these books. I see that a new, and longer (224 pages) addition to this series was released in 2013, and I'm planning to listen to it on vacation.

As far as I can remember, while the morality of the characters in these novels is not always up to Christian standards, there are no titillating passages, graphic sex scenes, or disturbing sexual relationships in any of them, and all of them are fairly positive books. This cannot be said for the one collection of short stories that I have read, The Heavenly Date and Other Flirtations. It has been a long time since I picked this book up in the library, and I did not read all the stories, but my overall impression of the stories is that they were dark and perverse throughout. They show a side of McCall Smith that I was not particularly eager to see. They are probably well-written, but I wouldn't recommend them.

All-in-all though, I have found McCall Smith's books perfect reading for those days when I want to read for pure enjoyment and relaxation. I can't say that the series are not somewhat formulaic, but there is enough variety in the stories to overcome the formulas, and there are times when you look forward to a certain dependable sameness in a story, the same way you sometimes appreciate a favorite restaurant chain after you have been on a trip where you have been eating somewhat experimentally.

—Janet Cupo has been commenting on this blog for about as long as it's existed, and has her own excellent blog at The Three Prayers.

[Editor's note: special thanks to Janet for writing this on very short (24 hours) notice. We were about to miss a week. If you've signed up for an author and know pretty definitely that you aren't going to be able to do the piece, please let me know (email address on profile page).]

Reject the Lie

Not with physical acts but merely by rejecting the lie, by refusing to participate personally in the lie. Everyone must stop cooperating with the lie absolutely everywhere that he sees it himself: whether they are trying to force him to speak, write, quote or sign, or simply to vote or even to read. In our country the lie has become not just a moral category, but a pillar of the state. In recoiling from the lie we are performing a moral act, not a political act; and not one that can be punished by criminal law, but an act that would have an immediate effect on our whole life.


52 Authors: Week 36 - Charles Dickens

Week36-Charles Dickens-Stu_html_m1fb16199

I am not an expert on Charles Dickens, but I do enjoy his writing immensely. I have gone through periods where I thought I liked other Victorian authors more: Anthony Trollope and George Eliot notably, but I always return to Dickens with vigor and realize that he is the best. Wasn’t there an old McDonalds ad which stated “30 Million Customers can’t be wrong”, or something like that? Maybe it’s not a good analogy, and perhaps being loved by the masses isn’t always best. I try to imagine what you read about that period of the 19th century and boats showing up at the port of New York that are carrying copies of the latest serial installment of a Dickens novel with near rioting on the docks. So many things in history are so hard to imagine that it is hard to even make an apt comparison.

Lately I have been going out of my comfort zone and reading mystery novels. To generalize them a little, they tend to be less than 400 pages, many less than 300. They are “quick” reads, and for me that not only means that you read through them quickly but also that I need to read them quickly, otherwise I will certainly forget important clues, plot devices, minor characters, settings … all of these things are so important in your average mystery read. I don’t think I have a terrible memory problem when it comes to reading, but I do think my memory is better with gradually delineated details rather than quick and minute ones. I am fine with a huge cast of characters as long as each character is very well explained to me by the author.

Your average 19th century tome spends a great deal of time with character development, plot development, making sure that the reader gets a very good impression of the setting, theme, mood … much of this may not be important to a 20th/21st century reader. With little else available for “self-entertainment” back in the pre-electronic age a reader might not necessarily want things to go quickly. I have so many of these classics on my Nook device (ironically) because I pick that up when I am lying in bed before sleep; these novels are warm, comfortable, cozy, and leave me feeling quite restful and pleased. I am like a hobbit in his warren and life could not be better. Quite a good way to be before falling asleep.

Charles Dickens only lived to be 58 years old, but he managed to complete fourteen novels, novellas, non-fiction, some “sketches”, and almost finish a murder mystery there at the end. He apparently was very much committed to reading his work in a public forum for his fans. Several sources seem to indicate that this hastened his ultimate demise; he became sick and was weaker and continued to read for his public. Without looking up the specifics, I believe he was married with several children, began an affair with a much younger woman and left his wife for her. Apparently celebrities are celebrities in any age. We seem to forgive celebrities their “sins” dependent upon their possible good nature, and perhaps with regard to the superiority of their product.

I mentioned in one of our recent posts how Dickens’ works can sort of be divided. If you look at a list of the novels and include The Mystery of Edwin Drood on that list, then David Copperfield takes the middle position, at number eight. The seven novels prior to DC are those of a younger novelist who is experimenting and learning his craft. The seven novels after DC are of a more experienced novelist, are seen as more realistic, have plots less likely to include fantastical coincidence, and can be a little more grim. As the reader completes Copperfield and dutifully moves to the next book he or she is faced with the grand opening chapter of Bleak House, which begins:

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another's umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

I believe that this chapter acts as an introduction to a new Dickens experience. There is nothing here remotely like what has come before. Yes, Oliver Twist certainly has its disturbing aspects, but by and large it is the story of an innocent young boy with little personality whose story will inevitably take us to a happy conclusion regardless of Fagin, the Artful Dodger, and the terrible Bill Sikes. Dickens’ main characters certainly become more interesting as the novels are written, and the latter half of his oeuvre holds those which are more complex.

Week36-Charles Dickens-Stu_html_156eea4b

But where does that leave us with the beloved middle book, David Copperfield? I will resist any discussion of my personal favorite, Great Expectations, in lieu of what has already been discussed recently on this blog. But having just completed DC recently for a second time I can mention a few aspects of it which come to mind before ending this post.

With a shout-out to William Blake, if the first half of the Dickens canon is innocence (The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, Barnaby Rudge, Martin Chuzzlewit, Dombey and Son), and the second half is experience (Bleak House, Hard Times, Little Dorrit, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend, The Mystery of Edwin Drood), then DC is a tale of a young man moving from innocence to experience. The first half of the novel shows the protagonist relaying the years of his life in which he is a very young man being bullied about by the forces of his fate as an orphan – the Murdstones, James Steerforth, and Uriah Heep most notably. Then at some point in the novel young Davey grows up and starts to fight back to some degree, and thus enables his own fate to be made. He in particular takes action against Uriah Heep which made this reader even feel a little sorry for that despicable character. I think I could write a rather long research paper on this innocence/experience idea.

This sets David Copperfield (the character) apart from characterizations in earlier books, most notably Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby (again, the characters). Oliver takes no real action, and as I mentioned before has little personality. Nicholas is simply the perfect protagonist, which also makes his character lacking to some degree. Nickleby and his sister are so wonderful and perfect for the entire book that they sort of make you sick. What saves the stories of both of these eponymous heroes are the supporting characters who surround them, and the travails they must go through to reach the end of the novel and encounter their happy ending. Destiny is more in the hands of the character of David Copperfield. This may be why Dickens is said to most prefer his middle novel, and of course it is the one modeled after himself. G.K. Chesterton is a tad more critical of David Copperfield, writing that the first half of the novel is perfect and harkens the reader back to the earlier novels, while the second half not so much. Chesterton is more of a fan of the “fun” Dickens novels. In David Copperfield, Chesterton says, Dickens is “making a romantic attempt to be realistic”.

I feel that I am not doing Charles Dickens justice in this post, and I have only given one quote which most of you have most likely already read. Even in my discussion of DC I do not give it its due – no mention of Wilkins Micawber, or Betsey Trotwood – two wonderful characters (Micawber is pictured above). Then there are the wonderful illustrations in many of his novels. I believe these were commissioned due to his immense popularity, first by George Cruikshank, then by Phiz. These illustrations are wonderful and fun to look forward to when reading, and even come through nicely on my Nook! No one needs a recommendation from me. The books are there. There are the very popular, the less popular, and then Barnaby Rudge and Martin Chuzzlewit (who has read these besides Chesterton?).

Many many years ago Eric Clapton was coming to Miami for a concert and friends had to convince me that it would be a worthwhile experience. I went, it was amazing, and I thought, “Well, I guess that’s why he’s Eric Clapton!” Perhaps that analogy is better than McDonalds.

—El Gaucho is a pseudonym for Stuart Moore, who used to work for a small Jesuit, Liberal Arts college in the South and now works for a small Baptist, Liberal Arts university in the South. He is either confused, seeking, or simply working for the greater glory of God with whomever he may.

Christopher Lasch: The Culture of Narcissism

Forty years or so after it created a great stir, I finally got around to reading this book. I have to say it is not what I expected. I expected less, to tell you the truth. I expected a look around the culture of the times, and perceptive commentary on it. I didn't expect erudition and big ideas. I got the look-around, but I also found more dense and challenging ideas than I expected, and a great amount of learning.

I also have to say that I might have preferred the more popular work I expected. That's because the biggest idea is Freudianism, which I don't know very much about, but of which I am skeptical, not just of its scientific aspirations but its perspicacity. I had taken the word "narcissism" in the title in a casual sense, as referring to a general quality of self-regard. But apparently it has a more detailed meaning in the Freudian vocabulary. Lasch assumes the reader is familiar with it, and a fair amount of other Freudian jargon as well. I don't think it's entirely an effect of my ignorance that I think this weakens the book. I often wished that he was coming at his subject from a Christian perspective. I sometimes had the feeling that he was thrashing, unable to place what he was seeing, the problems he was diagnosing, in a satisfactory explanatory framework. The concept of narcissism did not seem to me to do the job, though the problem may only be that I don't understand it well enough.

Anyway: those reservations aside, the book contains a profusion of brilliant insights into the contemporary American scene. They are extremely wide-ranging, covering almost every aspect of day-to-day life, with the major and significant omission of religion, which is mentioned only in passing. Some of the instances, naturally, are dated, but more cause one to think "still the same, but more so." I'll share a few of them with you.

The proliferation of recorded images undermines our sense of reality. As Susan Sontag observes in her study of photography, "Reality has come to seem more and more like what we are shown by cameras." We distrust our perceptions until the camera verifies them. Photographic images provide us with the proof of our existence, without which we would find it difficult even to reconstruct a personal history.... Among the "many narcissistic uses" that Sontag attributes to the camera, "self-surveillance" ranks among the most important, not only because it provides the technical means of ceaseless self-scrutiny but because it renders the sense of selfhood dependent on the consumption of images of the self, at the same time calling into question the reality of the external world.


Modern medicine has conquered the plagues and epidemics that once made life so precarious, only to create new forms of insecurity. In the same way, bureaucracy has made life predictable and even boring while reviving, in a new form, the war of all against all. 


Narcissism appears realistically to represent the best way of coping with the tensions and anxieties of modern life, and the prevailing social conditions therefore tend to bring out narcissistic traits that are present, in vary ing degrees, in everyone. These conditions have also transformed the family, which in turn shapes the underlying structure of personality. A society that fears it has no future is not likely to give much attention to the needs of the next generation, and the ever-present sense of historical discontinuity--the blight of our society--falls with particularly devastating effect on the family....

The perception of the world as a dangerous and forbidding place, though it originates in a realistic awareness of the insecurity of contemporary social life, receives reinforcement from the narcissistic projection of aggressive impulses outward. The belief that society has no future, while it rests on a certain realism about the dangers ahead, also incorporates a narcissistic inability to identify with posterity or to feel oneself part of a historical stream.


Faith in the wonder-working powers of education has proved to be one of the most durable components of liberal ideology, easily assimilated by ideologies hostile to the rest of liberalism. Yet the democratization of education has accomplished little to justify this faith. It has neither improved popular understanding of modern society, raised the quality of popular culture, nor reduced the gap between wealth and poverty, which remains as wide as ever. On the other hand, it has contributed to the decline of critical thought and the erosion of intellectual standards, forcing us to consider the possibility that mass education, as conservatives have argued all along, is intrinsically incompatible with the maintenance of educational quality.


The attempt to dramatize official repression, however, imprisoned the left in a politics of theater, of dramatic gestures, of style without substance--a mirror-image of the politics of unreality which it should have been the purpose of the left to unmask....

The delusion that street theater represented the newest form of guerrilla warfare helped to ward off an uneasy realization that it represented no more than a form of self-promotion, by means of which the media stars of the left brought themselves to national attention with its concomitant rewards....

By 1968, when the new left gathered for its "festival of live" outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the prominence of the Youth International led by Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman made it clear that a theatrical conception of politics had driven more rational conceptions from the field.


"You want too much," an older woman says to a younger one. "You aren't willing to compromise...."

 A woman who takes feminism seriously, as a program that aims to put the relations between men and women on a new footing, can no longer accept such a definition of available alternatives without recognizing it as a form of surrender. The younger woman rightly replies that no one should settle for less than a combination of sex, compassion, and intelligent understanding. The attempt to implement these demands, however, exposes her to repeated disappointments.... Thwarted passion in turn gives rise in women to the powerful rage against men so unforgettably expressed, for example, in the poems of Sylvia Plath.

Upon finishing this book I had an impulse to turn directly back to the introduction and read it again, because I felt that I hadn't really grasped the broad picture Lasch paints, and that the sharpness of many details justified another attempt at the whole. I didn't to that because there are too many other things I want to read, but I will no doubt browse it occasionally.