Pick up lines (Part III, Autumn edition)

Pick up Lines, Part 3 – Autumn edition

Laurus, by Eugene Vodolazkin, (“He had four names at various times.”) continued my Russian streak of novels. It was a strange and wonderful book which will appeal to people with an interest in embodied spirituality and, well, to say ‘religious life’ may be misleading if you already have ideas about what this means, but I think it fits. 
The translator, Lisa Hayden, has received awards for her work rendering the narrative from Russian to English. It was said to have been phenomenally difficult because of the range of registers used. (Modern English doesn’t really do registers, but Japanese does and so I have a sense of how mind-bending the task of translation must have been!) As I was reading I was thinking about the translators of the previous Russian works I’d read (Arch Tait and Polly Gannon of Ulitskaya’s Daniel Stein and The Big Green Tent, respectively) because in places the language felt a bit jarring or uneven. In retrospect, though, it’s fair to note that neither of them had quite such tricksy narratives to work with.
Vodolazkin, a medieval scholar, writes in a fascinating way about the nature of history and time. I found this a very engaging part of the novel. I have not seen, I think, a better, starker, and more unromanticised portrait of a Holy Fool than he writes. It is bonkers and it is quite brilliant. 
One of the criticisms of the book that struck me was calling it ‘hagiographical’, as if that were a bad thing. I don’t really get that. I found it a compelling exploration of goodness.

  • Talk by Rowan Williams on TED about Laurus – here
  • More info about Vodolazkin – here. An essay he wrote about the Holy Fool is here.

I was ready for some women in my fiction next, but I picked up Abir Mukherjee’s A Rising Man (“At least he was well dressed.”) because I needed something a little less deep and demanding. That is what I got. This is Mukherjee’s first novel. It was an easy read, a detective story set in colonial India that put me in mind of McCall-Smith’s No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, or the Death in Paradise tv series. 
Note to book blurbists: ‘Unputdownable’ is not a rave. It is not flattery; it is damning with faint praise and it is lazy. It is a word reviewers should put out to pasture, or better yet, somewhere the sun don’t shine. 
A Rising Man is not a book to be taken too seriously, I suppose, but I confess I felt needled by the racism of the colonials and uncomfortable with the accuracy of the mimicking that this Anglo-Indian man (Mukherjee) ventriloquized (is that a word?). My first, unfiltered inner response was that the absence of irony (at least!) was a betrayal of his ancestry. There was a serious, upstanding, slightly comical Indian character who, it turns out, was the moral centre of the narrative. Mention was made of Gandhi’s resistance and this layer of the story, the heart of it, I thought, was good and regrettably underplayed. Keeping it light seemed to have been a priority.
This may be an interesting text to put into conversation with the big questions that have recently been raised in the Lionel Shriver debacle in respect to cultural appropriation.
(On Shriver, I liked this column by Kenan Malik. I am also going to listen to The Mindfield podcast on ABC on this topic because those blokes are thoughtful and smart and provocative.)

I stayed in pre-partition India for the next read which was Black Narcissus (“The Sisters left Darjeeling in the last week of October.”) by Rumer Godden. I read In This House of Brede a few years ago and loved it and had wanted to read more of Godden’s work. Godden was English and raised in Indian South East Asia (whose boundaries changed in the C20th) and by all accounts she was a fascinating woman. This book was first published in 1939. It has the manners of the time, evident in the characters, cultural expressions and the writing style.
What was particularly engaging about it for me were the questions about mission that it raised. (I’m always trying to understand this better, being where I am, doing the work I do.) The story centres on a group of British sisters who are given a place in the mountains of India and set up a community there. 
I appreciated the less abrasive and insulting attitude to difference in this book. I suppose that is to be expected as the tone will depend on where the centres of power lie. In the former, it was in law enforcement; in the latter, the church. Baldly speaking, there was a preponderance of men in the one story and of women in the latter. There was one very good character drawn in BN, a foil, who encouraged the reader to think about ways of being foreign.
The story invites the question: what is the work of mission? If we agree that it is, plainly, to reflect the love of God and to be open to a range of reflections of the love of God, how are the powers of race, nationality, culture and language accommodated and integrated respectfully? Is the work of mission also about being, in some sense, ’change agents’? It is right to ask of change: Of what, of whom and by whose authority? I wondered, too, and this is a perpetual sort of a question on the dynamics of giving and receiving: How do you remain true to your roots while doing the work of mission? How do you proportion what is held to be precious and true of the self and also let go parts of the self for the good of the work? Do good missioners have to submit to conversion by their host community? (I suspect so.)

The fourth book I read over my summer break was The Amber Shadows (“Damned Engines.”) by Lucy Ribchester. I’ve not quite finished it and I am thoroughly enjoying it. I have been scrimping on it a bit in the last few days because I need it to accompany me in the wee hours when the jet lag has me wakeful. Alas, though, it is not long for the shelf. Its setting is Bletchley Park in World War 2 and what drew me to the book was the work of cryptanalysis. It has been a cracking good read!

Making sense . . .

Making sense involves

sharing and exploring

the significance of perceptions,

a capacity to question our clarity or truthfulness

in the light of communications from others

or

renewed engagement with what’s in front of us…

[Making sense means]

to make mistakes and to deal satisfactorily with them;

even to

suspend judgment

at certain points

because

we are aware of not having the conceptual or linguistic equipment

to enable decisions.

Rowan Williams, The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language 

(With liberties taken on line spacing)

The Particular & the Universal

An important reason that Wiesel emerged as a respected moral voice is that he embodied the classic Jewish insistence that particularism and universalism are not opposites but complements:

Those

grounded

in their own identity

are

best-positioned

to express

their common humanity

with others.

More, here.

No Manual. One instruction: Love.

Walking in downtown Oakland one day with a jolly blonde giant whose name meant Life, we passed an addled, homeless-looking man on the street, and she began to cry.  Out of her tumbled the story that her son, a heroine addict, had relapsed and was back, last she heard, on skid row. ‘That man,’ she said, ‘he could be my son … Wherever he is.’

I was reminded of this encounter reading Carol Christ’s recent post ‘All Children Are Our Children‘, and thinking, as an outsider, about the patient endurance of mothers, as well as the boundless creativity motherhood requires. Mothering is, Christ suggests, an excellent metaphor for the priming of a non-violent mind. My own mother was fond of reminding me that children did not come into the world with instruction manuals, and parents just did the best they could with all the love they could muster. The call to exercise mother-ing, by both women and men, –toward self and other, I might add–is a technique by which violence may be stemmed.

Like mothering, peacemaking and nonviolent resistance calls for patience, endurance and boundless creativity. It is, necessarily, an experimental art. It must adapt and shape-shift according to circumstance. It is emergent, in a way, and so the ground of one’s being needs to be conditioned (often) by the commitment to peace. Nonviolence is not the same as an absence of conflict. Not at all. It is a willingness to meet each other where we are, to collaborate, to listen and to learn together, to live that we might all be less violent, more whole, loving and life-giving.

There is no manual – there are techniques, yes, and these are founded and grounded in Love.

Do you know the story of the two men from different worlds who, by mothering one another (being respectfully present, patient, open, and willing to listen carefully enough that parts of who they were broke down), affected radical change in each other? This account, by Jennifer Pierce, tells the story of the holocuast survivor, Eiie Wiesel, working as a journalist in Paris after the war, meeting the rock-star Catholic theologian and writer, Francois Mauriac. [1] “To Elie Wiesel: a Jewish child who was crucified” read the dedication in one of his later books. His mind, his world, and Wiesel’s, too, had been transfigured by a willingness to stay present and dialogue. I like to think that both were transformed by their fidelity to one another.

Francois Mauriac . . . lived well beyond the Second World War and thus faced the challenge of revisioning his traditional faith amid the ruins of the old world.

~Robert Ellsberg, All Saints, (377).

The poet, Paul Celan, wrote that ‘No one / bears witness for the / witness’ but, surely, there is a degree to which we could agree that both Mauriac and Wiesel held space for the other. Celan’s words are undoubtedly true, considering the enormity of the tragedy both he and Wiesel survived. Mauriac is credited with encouraging Wiesel to release what he had been incubating for ten years in exile, and Wiesel’s testimony is, and should be, as shattering to us as it was to Mauriac.

Could we listen carefully enough to this story, to the people suffering in it and being changed, with enough sustained attention, to allow parts of our own selves to break down, or, at least, soften? 

There’s no manual. There’s really only one instruction and that is to love. 

You are the one to do it.

[1] A more recent write up by Mary Boys can be found here: “When Elie Wiesel met Francois Mauriac.” http://americamagazine.org/content/all-things/when-elie-wiesel-met-francois-mauriac

Difficult!

A few weeks ago in class I was trying to draw the distinction between ‘very difficult’ and ‘too difficult’, gently suggesting that very difficult are problems that, with patience and work, can be resolved, whereas something that is too difficult really means that the problem (however temporarily) is impossible to solve. It felt important to point out this small but significant difference to the students because  I hear, far too often these days, the whine, ‘Sennnseeeeeeiiii, it’s toooooooo difficult!’ and while I try to show the value of patience and taking time to chew something properly rather than just opening your throat and slurping down some noodles that will slither down easily, this notion does not exactly catch fire. Who has the time? 

Darlings, I want to say, you must learn to weather difficulty. I am not training you for karōshi, nor even for enjoyment; I’m preparing you for joy. 

“You’re only prepared to enjoy what you already have a taste for: whereas joy is shocking and surprising” 

(Geoffrey Hill).

I find myself these days re-reading bits of Gillian Rose’s Love’s Work. I came back to it when I’d heard that the poet Geoffrey Hill had passed away and I wanted to re-read “In Memoriam: Gillian Rose”, a poem Hill wrote, that appends the NYRB edition of Rose’s stunning autobiographical gift to the world. I confess I am not very familiar with Hill’s poetry, a lack I am looking forward to filling. I am slightly more familiar with Rose who is brilliant and demanding (and, if I’m honest, a little frightening). Both Hill and Rose enjoy the reputation of being ‘difficult’ writers. Both use language consciously, carefully and to powerful effect. Both engage with the pressure language exerts in a struggle for truthfulness knowing that, as Hill writes, ‘. . . There are achievements/ that carry failure on their back, blindness/ not as in Brueghel, but unfathomably/ far-seeing.’  

Getting rid of difficulties by way of simplification is often insidious. Hill writes: ‘Art that keeps us alive to the moral ambiguities of life is the best protection against the slogans of ideologues and tyrants.’ How else do we avoid Brueghel’s tragic line-up of the Blind Leading the Blind? ‘Tyranny,’ Hill declares, ‘requires simplification. Genuine art is truly democratic.’ Thus, Hill’s ‘difficult’ language, Rowan Williams reminds us, far from being ‘a mark of elitism or contempt for the simple and innocent, […] is a fierce defense precisely against the worst kind of contempt–self-interested or manipulative collusion with what you imagine is the capacity of your public.’ (Darlings, I want your capacities and skills to exceed what your government seems to believe they are.)

Reading Rose and Hill I am cognizant of the fact that there are life-giving and productive difficulties of the  soul-expanding kind. And also, that failure and frailty are part of the human condition. Sometimes radical suffering, pain and loss are the only way that we can come to know certain things about ourselves and the world, about its fragility and our own. Sometimes we must ‘recognize devastation as the rift/ between power and powerlessness.’ Sometimes we must simply go on wrestling in the dark, all through the night, and hold: ‘I will not let thee go except thou bless me.’   Perhaps then we may find our heart(h)s, return to Love, know

                           This ending is not the end,

More like the cleared spaces around St. Paul’s 

And the gutted City after the fire-raid. 

(Hill)

And then, waking up, keep trying to ‘stay in the fray, in the revel of ideas and risk; learning, failing, wooing, grieving, trusting, working, responding–in this sin of language and lips’ (Rose, 144).

Crossings

The full animality of the body looms in the heat and humidity of a Japanese summer. Thriving, for anything other than vegetable matter (and bugs), I believe, is impossible. Striving, too. Everything  goes slack; ‘effort-ing’ is pointless, resistance futile and there’s a great sense of (rather unpleasant) melting that comes over many of us.

 

No-one would tell you that the season is without its charms – but as exhausted as we mostly are, the simpler, the better. One desires, above all, relief and refreshment, to be transported to more pleasant, airier climes. We do not want this humiliation, being reminded of our human condition so rudely. But here we are: human. And, being human, escape comes via the gifts of imagination and story. We cross from the vividly-hued, hulking, hot, sensory bodies to the cool softnesses of the skies, greys and blues and pinks, pale watery colours, and nights with silvery streams of story easing our plight.

pink lotus

 

We wake in the dark, the coolest part of the day, before dawn, and take a slow walk, say, to gardens, along jasmine scented paths, green air hanging heavily, to contemplate beside ponds filled with lotus blossoms, as the sky turns rosy, listening quietly for that opening ‘pop’, the sound of a lotus blooming. The sound of a heart opening.

(Even the cicadas hold silence for this!)

 —

Poems are woven for the gods at this time of year and hung onto ‘Wish Trees’, tall stalks of bamboo. Bamboo, of course, because it is a reliably strong yet flexible thread between the terrestrial and celestial worlds. It grows tall and is sure to reach the heavens, enter the current of breezes and deliver our messages to the gods.You don’t have to write to send your message to the gods; everyone gets to send their prayers heavenward. The weavers hang colourful streamers on the bamboo, remembering the Goddess Weaver, a heavenly princess; the fisher-folk hang gossamer threads reminiscent of their nets, hoping for good catches. Some hang little origami bags wishing for prosperity; some, paper cranes hoping for longevity.

Issa, Tanabata

Haiku, by Issa

 

For our entertainments we recall ancient aristocrats sitting beside small streams, wind-chimes tinkling intermittently to mimic the water flowing over rocks. Gazing at the stars stories are told, poetry is written, saké is sipped. There’s one night of the summer, the seventh day of the seventh month, that is especially powerful. On this night brushes sweep hearts lightly loaded with ink ground and mixed with dew collected from a lotus leaf into poems elegantly written on coloured paper. Amid laughter, I hear, each poem-a prayer, a wish, a gratitude-is tied to a tall stalk of bamboo which is propped up and left outdoors as the party wobbles its merry way home.

hiroshige2c_the_city_flourishing2c_tanabata_festival2c_1857

Woodcut, Hiroshige

On the seventh day of the seventh month we remember the story of the Milky Way and the star-crossed lovers. There are two main variants of the story. The classic and better known one [1] concerns a working girl who begins to feel lonely and her father, worrying for her, finds her a mate. Married life is an absolute hoot and, alas, the duties of the couple go by the wayside – no more fine cloth from her and his cows are all over the place! Daddy is displeased and, as King of the Heavens, is sufficiently annoyed that he decides to separate the two—across the Milky Way. Lots of tears ensue. He is persuaded to soften his stance (a little) and agrees to let the lovers meet once a year provided all is in order with the world. This is all well and good except that crossing the Milky Way is no small feat. For one thing, a bridge is needed. When Princess discovers this lack she makes such a racket with her crying that some sympathetic feathered allies, magpies, arrive and make a bridge with their wings so that the lovers can meet.

IMG_5400_2

Straw sandals worn by pilgrims on a temple gate.

The second (and new-to-me version) [2] reminded me of the selkie stories of the Celts. It concerns a young farmer who lies about finding a gorgeous robe but who promises to help the beautiful woman (a goddess!) to look for it. They fall in love, but then she finds out that he has lied and cannot stay. For him to make it up to her she instructs him to weave a thousand straw sandals and bury them under a bamboo grove. Filled with remorse, he sets about the task and when, after a long, long time he finishes, he shimmies up the bamboo only to find that he’d lost count of the sandals, made only 999, and is now one step short of heaven. He calls out to the goddess who gives him a hand and helps him over. Then he comes nose to nose with her father who, none too pleased to see him, sets him a test: watching the melon patch for three days. (No touching.) He fails. The lovers are forever separated when the melon he touches, splits open and out spills the Milky Way.  As in the classic story, the father’s heart does not stay hardened and one day a year permission is granted for a reunion between the lovers.

All these  decorated trees make me think of Christmas. Being from the Southern Hemisphere, yes, I am used to Christmas falling near midsummer. The Tanabata stories bear resonance of the Edenic myth, separation and the longing that attends it; the folly that causes it, the hunger for connection that proceeds it. The attitude of the father-king got my attention. His heart does not stay hardened; he is moved by emotion and he allows a day a year for the two lovers to meet again, but does nothing else: they have to work out how to actually make it happen. The first story shows how; the second stretches us further.

Perhaps, too, there is something about the (difficulty of the) crossing that reminds us of Christ’s story? Tanabata is a love-story; stars feature prominently; it centres on the desire to bring things together.

Summertime, the full force of the sun upon us, in the north, is a time of growth and meshing, of hopeful bridge-building, of opportunities for crossing over, and finding ways to reunite all number of things, not least the mind (Vega) and the body (Altair).

May it be so.

Tanabata Boat Crossing

Tanabata Crossing [3]


[1] The Tanabata Classic

[2] Mick and the Princess

[3] Okumura Masanobu, Art Institute Chicago

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Winged Energy, Midsummer 

 

Taue, “TaWooWeh”, the rice planting, is complete. The water in the paddy fields is clear and footprints, the farmer’s deep impressions, and the wading birds’, can still be made out. Delicate green stalks sprout above the silvery surface, making rTaue (1)eflected clouds look whiskery. I hear a rice-planting song being softly sung in my inner ear, effortless invocation, as instinctive as breathing. The drains gurgle, a living frame around each neatly laid out field. The open lock nearby thunders white, roaring of recent rains and swollen hillside streams.

 

Patrolling the rippling mirrors of the paddy fields there are dragonflies and swallows by day, and bats by night, darting with magnificent vigor, night and day, hither and yon. These are the fields at play. The fields at rest seem to be hanging with a different crowd. In the distance I see them giggling in their raggedy state, tickled by small flocks of tumbling sparrows, that fall and rise in concert, and the slow flickering of butterflies.

 
A giant dragonfly momentarily alights beside me on a fence post but we simultaneously and quite suddenly draw back from this mutual inspection. Had I just come into focus? ‘You’re soooo big,’ I remember thinking, ‘I’ve never seen anything like you before!’ The creature, might well have uttered a choice Kurtzian phrase*, but likely as not, was not quite as surprised by me.

I remember the wonder of learning that dragonflies’ vision is 3 to 10 times more powerful than mine. Not only can a dragonfly see in all directions at once but it has 30 000 individual facets which create an image, and 8 pairs of visual neurons which compile those thousands of images into one picture. They see things on the light spectrum that I can only dream of.

Quite right you were, too, Dragonfly, flying away. It is your nature. And, as you flit away on those extraordinarily intricately woven wings, you and your honeycomb peepers, I’m thinking of human nature, of the soul magnifying God, and I’m thinking of those lines in Rilke’s poem:

 “Take your practiced powers and stretch them out

 until they span the chasm between two

contradictions . . . For the god

wants to know himself in you.”

 §


*From Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness: ‘The horror, the horror.’ 😆

Pick up lines (Part Two, 2016)

I read like a farmer: more when there’s less light and the leaves of the trees have fallen (an absence made up for by the leaves that are pages of a book?); less when the sun is high. During cherry blossom season, young minds enter the University and my cultivating duties commence. By Lammas, the feast of the first fruits is in, the semester done, and my summer teaching hiatus begins shortly thereafter.

Here, below, are my reading notes from the second quarter of the year. Two are authors I’ve never read before, their books translated from Afrikaans and from Russian. The short stories are translated from Brazilian. In non-fiction, three are originally in English and one is translated from French.

I have, in keeping with my earlier post, made a record of the first sentence of the books I’ve read . . . the so-called Pick Up Line.

(See part 1 from the first quarter of the year, here.)

Fiction

Icarus by Deon Meyer begins

Heaven and earth’s conspired to expose Ernst Richter’s corpse, the universe seemingly intent on reaching out a helping hand for justice.

This was my first Deon Meyer novel. I loved the familiarity of it; it brought back so many memories–of winelands and gorgeous scenery, for starters. I was so taken with the recognisability of the characters and the ‘sounds’ of speech, in particular, which powerfully reminded me of home. There is a warmth and generosity to the characters that is so totally southern African; it’s hard to explain but you know it when you feel it (and when you’ve grown up with it, but don’t have it anymore, it’s all the more nostalgic.) It brought also a kind of relief – to ‘see’ characters one doesn’t see, neither in life, nor, too often, in fiction, nor on telly. There’s really something to that need to see oneself reflected and I’m trying to figure out what it is . . . ?

Daniel Stein, Interpreter by Ludmila Ulitskaya. (Trans. Arch Tait.)

The epigraph reads:

“I thank my God, I speak with tongues more than ye all: Yes in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue.” (1 Cor, 4: 18-19)

The first sentence reads:

I always feel cold.

I’m on a bit of an Ulitskaya binge presently. As much, that is, as one can binge on Russian literature! This book, I loved. It’s very good on one level on interfaith, on in-culturalism (catholicism!), on (novel to me) Jewish Christians and the relations between these two traditions. I’ve been delving into Margaret Barker’s Temple Theology a bit lately (thanks to Maggie Ross’s Silence) and found a lot of resonance in this novel. Finishing this fictionalised bio, I felt bereft. I was also grateful–to the subject and to the author–that such quietly profound intelligence & sensitivity are available in a world of shouters and sound-bitten media.

Tracker by Deon Meyer

Ismail Mohammed runs down the steep slope of Heiliger Lane.

Reading Meyers’ books is great fun and I gobbled the first two thirds of this one in a couple of days. Something odd happened in the last section – like someone had put the brakes on and changed lanes and it kind of fizzled for me. Still, as noted of the first Meyer novel, there is something deeply satisfying to encounter the rich languages and idioms of people who sound like home and to recognize place names and landscapes. Reading Meyer is like eating comfort food for a person far from home.

The Big Green Tent by Ludmilla Ulitskaya. (Trans. Polly Gannon.)

The epigraph reads:

Do not be consoled by the injustice of our time. It’s immorality does not prove our own moral worth; its inhumanity is not sufficient to render us human merely by opposing it. (Boris Pasternak, letter to Varlam Shalamov, July 9th, 1952)

The first sentence reads:

Tamara sat before a runny omelet on a plate, the vestiges of sleep still clinging to her.

“Russian novel” has become shorthand for a kind of emotionally rich, intricately-plotted, doorstop-sized work of fiction. The BGT fits this profile, weighing in at almost 600 pages. I’m about half way through it and am thoroughly enjoying it. Ulitskaya is sooooo good. I’m reading slowly because I can’t absorb it properly otherwise, and the story and its details call for a kind of attention that I want to give to it. It’s not hard to read. You want to savour it all up. You want it to go on and on and I have known that, after the first chapter, I’d be sad when it was over.

Also, on the bedside pile is also

Clarice Lispector’s Collected Short Stories, Ed. Benjamin Moser (Moser writes a good intro,”Glamour and Grammar”. I was even more fascinated by the afterword by Katrina Dodson, the translator. There is an interview with Dodson in the Asymptote journal.)

Non Fiction (On the Go …)

• Hope Sings so Beautiful: Graced Encounters across the Color Line, by Christopher Pramuk

For much of my career as a teacher in Jesuit Catholic institutions, I have had my feet in two very different worlds: the world of privileged, and largely white, Jesuit education, and the world of black Catholic worship.

This book was a welcome gift from a trusted friend who had found it inspiring. While my personal history of race relations is different from Americans’, and is quite different now, living in Japan, the book has been calling to me. It has an intriguing table of contents. I haven’t gotten to the meat of it yet. Mr Pramuk and I went to the same graduate school, and so I have a sense of where he’s coming from, if only from the pictures he has used. (I keep opening the page with the picture of Thea Bowman because it makes me so happy to look at.) The foreword is by Shawn Copeland so you know this is a work of integrity.

(In connection with the book, I recently came across this article by Fr. Charles Curran, “Facing up to Privilege requires Conversion,” which I found very compelling.)

• The Intuiton of the Instant, by Gaston Bachelard. (Trans. Eileen Rizo-Patron) This slim volume is helping me to think through some ideas forming for an essay I hope to write.

• The Rhythm of Being, by Raimon Panikkar. Started this on Trinity Sunday 2016. I noticed Panikkar’s preface was written at Pentecost, 2009. Not much progress made with it yet.

• Temple Theology, by Margaret Barker. A third of the way through this and, honest to God, have had moments of feeling scales were falling from my eyes. This is radical research!


 

Collective Fictions

OR, ‘The Case Against Spiritual Agoraphobia.’

Collective fictions matter, writes Marilynne Robinson*, because they have ‘the profoundest influence on what we know and see and understand’ (77). They matter because collective narratives determine, in greater and lesser ways, the expanse and expandability of our imaginations, of our hearts.

These are things that should have a place in our imaginations: the value of life; suffering as part of life (for everyone); the guarantee of change and the assurance of death. These constitute the very bones of Reality. Questions that are always in the process of being worked out include things like: what are the boundaries between the individual and society? What is the common good? (Is coherence on this question possible?) For whom does public discourse exist? (Who is speaking and who is silent and why?) How are we to judge what is significant? Authentic?

If we have not (metaphorically) gone to sleep (disavowing of the power we do hold; or, trying to escape from personal responsibility, or, perhaps, attempting to create a space apart to envision something else), many have allowed fear a foothold. Fear in the collective narrative seems to ‘have something like an organic life, in the way [it] invades experience and transforms it to the uses of [its] own survival.’ Robinson’s insight is prophetic:

‘When they make fear the key to interpretation of history and experience . . . nothing contains a greater potential for releasing all the varieties of destruction.’ (78)

We have given our collective fictions the status of Reality and this spectre can be seen haunting election cycles and legislation. Who can argue with the fact that it is often it appears to be ‘a work of grim and minor imagination’, ‘such a poor contrivance that we would not believe in it for a minute if we did not want to . . . .’ (77). And we must wonder: Why do we play so small?

We play small because we are, in Robinson’s view, ‘spiritual agoraphobes’ (86). To counter this phobia a number of remedies are offered (elegantly, of course, and not in the brevity I will present them below.)

REMEDIES AGAINST SPIRITUAL AGORAPHOBIA

Wake up & own & use your power to act for good. We are living in a complex and interdependent world. Acts are shaped by beliefs, and acts demonstrate beliefs more reliably than talk does. Do good. Do good any way and anyway.

Be reasonable. ‘We are not taking responsibility for keeping ourselves reasonable, individually or collectively — we no longer admire or reward reasonableness because it has lost its place in our imagination’ (78). Think slowly and well.

Give. Hone your skills in humanity. Give more. ’It is because we hope to acquire rather than to achieve … to receive rather than to give … that the good we imagine can truly be taken from our hands’ (85).

Be open to judgment. ‘What if, in important numbers, we believe there is a God who is mysterious and demanding, with whom one is not easily at peace? What if we believe there will be a reckoning?’ When people stopped believing this ‘we adopted this very small view of ourselves and others, as consumers and patients and members of interest groups . . .'(86). Adopting narrow and intense fictions, which both comfort and distract us, reveals that we have forgotten the seriousness of the gift and the call of being large-hearted humans.

Cultivate a compassionate imagination. (Courtney Martin puts it well, here.)


* See, Marilynne Robinson’s “Facing Reality” from the collection entitled The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought. (1998).