The Power of Marriage

Without being bound to the fulfillment of our promises, we would never be able to keep our identities; we would be condemned to wander helplessly and without direction in the darkness of each person’s lonely heart, caught in its contradictions and equivocalities.

Hannah Arendt

dbe9ecf8-202b-4100-8a12-a5c14c2bc1d6Considering the political maelstrom of 2016, it’s surprising the New York Times most read story was Alain de Botton’s “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person.”

As there are many ways we all fail in life, it’s important that the few successes we attain hold weight: pursuing the right career, moving to the right city, and – perhaps most important of all – choosing the right spouse. How is this possible when, according to Botton, there is no “right” spouse?

Our unrealistic expectations deceive us. To prevent this, he encourages us to ask our potential spouse “And how are you crazy?” He proposes a more realistic, grounded approach to marriage. In essence, we need to erase the notion of  a soul mate:

We mustn’t abandon him or her, only the founding Romantic idea upon which the Western understanding of marriage has been based the last 250 years: that a perfect being exists who can meet all our needs and satisfy our every yearning.

Instead, we should pursue someone with whom we can disagree harmoniously: “Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition.”

You may think married the right person: you may ace the metrics of compatibility – similar worldview, overlapping life goals, shared affinity for ice cream – but we change. When kids enter the picture. When kids leave. Whether your nest is full or empty, we change. The person who seemed infallible will transform over the years into a human, broken individual.

If we always choose the wrong person, no matter how careful our courtship, then how can we ever hope to achieve success? Like any major life decision, it’s complicated.

In an interview, New York Times writer David Brooks said, “Every kid should take a course on how to choose a marriage partner.” In fact, choosing a lasting marriage partner is so vital to our well-being that Brooks compares it to your doubling your income.

Timothy Keller agrees. In The Meaning of Marriage, he writes:

If your marriage is strong, even if all the circumstances in your life around you are filled with trouble and weakness, it won’t matter. You will be able to move out into the world in strength. However, if your marriage is weak, even if all the circumstances in your life around you are marked by success and strength, it won’t matter. You will move out into the world in weakness. Marriage has that kind of power – the power to set the course of your whole life.

Thus, there is great power in marriage to heal and to empower. You are as vulnerable with your spouse as you will ever be with another individual.

***

In George Eliot’s masterful novel Middlemarch, her two main protagonists, Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate, both marry the wrong person, and it makes for one of the best novels.

Dorothy, a young and aspiring idealist, decides at the age of 17 to marry the Reverend Causabon, a 45 -year-old man who, initially, appears to possess an intellect that will both enlighten and educate Dorothy.

Post-wedding, however, Causabon turns out to be an utter drag of a husband. He is emotionally cold, intellectually dry, and – in all – a miserable man with little light to offer Dorothy.

Lydgate experiences a similar disappointment. Taken with Rosamund’s physical beauty, he proposes and marries her, only to realize what a shallow, selfish, and manipulative individual she is.

One character, however, gets it right. Fred Vincy pursues his childhood friend Mary Garth. As Zadie Smith aptly observes in her essay “Middlemarch and Everybody,” Fred is the wisest of them all because he pursues someone better than himself.

Fred is in love with a good girl; a girl who does not love him because he is not worthy; Fred agrees with her. Maybe the point is this: of all the people striving in Middlemarch, only Fred is striving for a thing worth striving for. Dorothea mistakes Casaubon terribly, as Lydgate mistakes Rosamund, but Fred thinks Mary is worth having, that she is probably a good in the world, or at least, good for him (“She is the best girl I know!”) – and he’s right.

Fred wants someone better than him, and his committed, driven pursuit of Mary makes him a better person in the process. May the pursuit of our own Beloved be as rich and ripe with growth.

Perhaps the greatest barrier to any lasting marriage is our own inflated self concern. No matter how shining or sunny or selfless our disposition, we are all steeped in our own moral mediocrity, our own consummate concern with our self. We are selfish.

Forget Hollywood romance and star-studded soul mates. Love is war, and any union of two people is, in essence, two lost and broken people who, by selfless devotion to one another, can escape the tyranny of ego and its endless demands by entering a sacred union whose binding power is as strong as death.

Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm,
for love is strong as death,
jealousy is fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
the very flame of the Lord.

Song of Songs, 8:6

 

Letters to a Young Demon

lewis-writingLet us pretend for a moment: Imagine that someone wishes you ill, that they have your worst interest in mind. Your destruction is their celebration, their telos. And worse yet, they are invisible and have a legion of supporters that are collaborating in league against you.

Enough to make one sleep with an night light.

C. S. Lewis not only pretends such a scenario but believed it and, similar to Dante, descended into his own inferno in his slim epistlolary novel The Screwtape Letters (notice the odd aural similarity to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter). Lewis creates a kind of modern Inferno through 31 letters from the demon Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood.

One would presume Lewis, scholar-artist that he was, consciously mimics the 31 chapters of Proverbs with Screwtape’s own 31 letters; Lewis himself wrote, “Screwtape’s outlook is like a photographic negative; his whites are out blacks and whatever he welcomes we ought to dread.” Thus, Screwtape can be an exhausting read at times because one must constantly reverse Screwtape’s advice. For example, when he refers to “The Enemy” he is actually referring to God, and when he writes “Our Father’s house” he means Hell. Through Screwtape, Lewis provides an inverted Proverbs, forcing the reader to perform a constant mental gymnastics.

One can imagine how difficult it was for Lewis to inhabit the mind of a demon. After completing Screwtape in Febraury 1942, he planned never to pen another letter. Yet as trying as the process of creation was for Lewis, one can sense that he also had some fun mocking Satan and his demons. Glubose, Triptweeze, Slubglob, Slumtrimpet – the names of the demons are ridiculous fun (Bill Watterson borrowed the name Wormwood for Calvin’s teacher in his timeless comic Calvin and Hobbe’s). The epigraphs preview Lewis’ irreverent stance toward Satan, one from Martin Luther reading: “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, it to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.”

The letters were originally published weekly in an Anglican periodical called The Guardian between May and November 1941. Each letter is no more than two or three pages, ending with the avuncular signature “Your affectionate uncle, Screwtape.” The plot, in brief: in each letter, Screwtape advises his nephew Wormwood on how to win “the Patient” (a young man who is never named) over to eternal damnation; this Patient recently converted to the Christian faith and, in the course of the letters, falls in love with a girl and endures World War II and, finally, dies in a air raid. Screwtape – spoiler alert! – loses: by the time the Patient dies, he has been “captured” by the “Enemy,” saved by God. And in the midst of his short life, the patient’s demon Wormwood is taught futile tactics.

Screwtape outlines a fascinating schema of human nature by imaging three layers, from outer to inner: fantasy, intellect, will. The will is where the true battle takes place; as Dostoevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov, “The terrible thing is that beauty is not only fearful but also mysterious. Here the devil is struggling with God, and the battlefield is the human heart.” While Screwtape wants the patient to push all his good will into the realm of fantasy and inaction in order to win over the Patient’s will. At one point Screwtape nearly echoes Christ when he writes:

Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

Reading this passage, I couldn’t help but recall Christ’s cry on the cross My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

Considering all the suffering in the world, it is extremely difficult much of the time to believe in a higher power that is omnipotent and benevolent. Like Job, we often feel beleaguered or forsaken in some way. How strange to imagine – to believe – that this suffering is inflicted and allowed by the Higher Powers that be, that its source is Satan or some such malignant demonic force that wants to break each of us into a surrender of hate.

Yes, the goal is surrender, but to which force – hate or love? Lewis makes you think, agnostic or atheist or theist: Could this life be a test of will, a series of daily choices for good and evil? A kind of theology of the quotidian is provided in each letter.

As it happens, Screwtape, like much of what Lewis wrote, has endured over the years. David Foster Wallace listed it in his Top Ten Books list, and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia praised the novel in an interview as penetrating study of human nature. The novel has been adapted for the stage multiple times. Screwtape covers a breadth of human emotion and experience; he writes of gluttony, cowardice, despair, sexual temptation, affliction, and suffering, and – in an addendum titled “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” later published for the Saturday Evening Post in 1959 – on education. I could quote numerous passages from each individual letter, but here are a handful:

On solipsism: You must bring him to a condition in which he can practice self-examination for an hour without discovering any of those facts about himself which are perfectly clear to anyone who has ever lived in the same house with him or worked in the same office.

On monotony: The horror of the Same Old Thing is one of the most valuable passions we have produced in the human heart – an endless source of heresies in religion, folly in counsel, infidelity in marriage, and inconstancy in friendship.

On individuality: The man who truly and disinterestedly enjoys any one thing in the world, for it’s own sake, and without caring twopence what other people say about it, is by that very fact forearmed against some of our subtlest modes of attack. You should always try to make the patient abandon the people or food or books he really likes in favour of the “best” people, the “right food, the “important” books.

As the saying goes, the road to hell is subtle (“Indeed, the safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts”). It is a daily venture, and the small choices the Patient makes day by day affect his fate. I am reminded of the Cherokee Legend, where the old Cherokee teaches his grandson about life, saying: “A fight is going on inside me”:

It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.

And when the grandson wonders which will win, the evil wolf or the good wolf, his grandfather replies, The one you feed.

This scenario probably sounds too primly black and white: a glib, moral parable that oversimplifies – as if one could reduce every minute action and thought throughout the day into the category of “good” or “evil.” A scenario comparable to the cartoon devil and angel on either shoulder, both whispering into either ear.

Regardless of how one perceives this good/evil paradigm, it can force one to question how s/he lives each day. Although DFW’s commencement address is quoted ad nauseam, this is a prime moment to quote from his speech, especially since he listed Screwtape as one of his favorite books. Dave’s central thrust is: We all worship something. We all bend our will toward some end.

The word that captures the core of Lewis’ message is “sacred,” an adjective that may, prima facie, seem anachronistic for our postmodern times – but I find it compelling. Lewis, through the letters of a demon, forces one to wonder what dream or vision drives your days. The days themselves are sacred, demanding a million different choices from you, second by second. Choose carefully.

w/r/t David Foster Wallace

gettyimages-50397607As Dave himself would say, let us have a prolegomenous look at two quotations. First, from his Kenyon commencement address, “This is Water”:

The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able to truly care about people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

And from Margaret Atwood’s essay, “Happy Endings”:

So much for endings. Beginnings are always much more fun. True connoisseurs, however, are known to favor the stretch in between, since it’s the hardest to do anything with. That’s about all that can be said for plots, which are just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what. Now try How and Why.

***

How does one begin to do the man justice? Since his death in 2008, we have tried very hard, and are still trying. First there was the posthumous publication of his unfinished manuscript, The Pale King (2011), nominated for the Pulitzer. Along came D. T. Max’s biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story (2012), with the posthumous essay collection Both Flesh and Not (2012) and a republishing of his earlier works: his undergraduate thesis Fate, Time and Language (2011) and, most recently, Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present (2013). His commencement address was made into a YouTube video. Currently, James Ponsoldt is directing a film titled The End of the Tour, based on David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself (starring Jason Segel as DFW and Jesse Eisenberg as Lipsky). Let us keep trying! For the man was gone too soon at the age of 46 (oddly, the same age as Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Like many DFW fans, I’ve indulged.

I read Both Flesh and Not as well as D. T. Max’s biography Every Love Story. I have read and re-read countless times “This is Water.” Finally, I read through all of Infinite Jest. Though I still have not read everything Dave wrote, most recently I finished his essay collection Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays (2005). Allow me to relay my experience.

A. Short summary of essay collection:

This is Dave’s other essay collection, after A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997). I made my way through ASFTINDA in a frenzy of reading, so it was only a matter of time before I read Consider the Lobster. Certain essays in it I have read multiple times before; specifically, the essays on Kafka and Dostoevsky. In short, ten essays: six are ten to twenty pages in length, and then the big four: “Big Red Son,” “Authority and American Usage,” “Up, Simba,” and “Host,” each ranging from fifty to eighty pages. That’s when you know you’re in DFW essay territory: the sheer length and diversity of the essays, covering topics as various as: tennis, grammar and language, politics, talk radio, belles lettres (Updike, Dostoevsky, Kafka), the Maine Lobster Festival, 9/11, and porn.

The vitality of Dave’s manic persona is on full display, buttressed with the usual and so but’s and pretty much’s, the interpolations, and the run-on sentences that extend into footnotes and footnotes-within-footnotes. All are present in abundance.

As usual, Dave makes you care about subjects and think of questions you’d never considered. Like any great writer, he looks close and wonders: What does it take to be a great athlete? Just how sentient is a lobster? What makes a true political leader? And he makes the exploration of these questions fun, engaging, and educational, sentence by sentence, with a vocabulary to rival Melville.

Quick breakdown:

  1. “Big, Red Son”: odd, comical report of Dave’s time at the Adult Video Awards in Las Vegas.
  2. “Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think”: review of Updike’s novel Towards the End of Time, placing Updike in a “Great Male Narcissist” trinity (along with Norman Mailer and Philip Roth).
  3. “Some Remarks on Kafka’s Funniness from Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed”: long title, short essay on Kafka and how the joke is on us.
  4. “Authority and American Usage”: review of Bryan A. Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage.
  5. “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s”: reflection on 9/11 from the good ol’ Midwest.
  6. “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart”: review of Tracy Austin’s memoir Beyond Center Court: My Story and Dave’s disappointment with its lack of depth.
  7. “Up, Simba”: on assignment for Rolling Stone, Dave follows McCain on the 2000 presidential campaign trail.
  8. “Consider the Lobster”: Dave attends the Maine Lobster Festival and wonders if it’s ethically questionable to boil and eat lobster.
  9. “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky”: review of Frank’s fourth volume biography on D., along with a reflection on meaningful fiction.
  10. “Host”: profile of conservative John Ziegler and his LA-based radio talk show.

While I found “Host” almost unreadable with is fragmented style and “Big, Red Son” too sensational, I enjoyed all the essays in between. I have yet to read an Updike novel, but Dave did inspire me to start reading Frank’s Dostoevsky biography, which, for any Dostoevsky fans out there, I highly recommend.

B. Wait, so who is this David Foster Wallace guy?

Born in 1962 in Ithaca, NY to a Philosophy professor father and English professor mother, Dave was raised in Illinois, attended Amherst, where he double majored in philosophy and English, and U of Arizona for his MFA, He was catapulted to literary fame with his novel Infinite Jest, which totals 1079 pages. Chad Harbach, author of The Art of Fielding, described the behemoth book as “a dense star for lesser works to orbit.” Zadie Smith aptly summarized Dave’s authorial prowess as a convergence of three qualities: “encyclopedic knowledge,” “mathematical prowess,” and “complex dialectical thought.”

The man wrote feverishly, leaving us six works of fiction and, to date, seven works of nonfiction. In 2008 he committed suicide by hanging himself on his back porch. He was the first Roy E. Disney Professor of Creative Writing at Pomona College. His widowed wife Karen Green, since his death, has penned a memoir titled Bough Down. Also, Dave was good friends with Jonathan Franzen (author of The Corrections and Freedom), who wrote an essay for The New Yorker retelling his experience of dumping Dave’s ashes on a South American island.

C. A couple excerpts w/ brief analysis:

The thrust here is that Dostoevsky wrote fiction about the stuff that’s really important. He wrote fiction about identity, moral value, death, will, sexual vs. spiritual love, greed, freedom, obsession, reason, faith, suicide. And he did it without ever reducing his characters to mouthpieces or books to tracts. His concern was always what it is to be a human being – that is, how to be an actual person, someone whose life is informed by values and principles, instead of just an especially shrewd kind of self-preserving animal. (“Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky”)

I’m always encouraged when a contemporary writer I like happens to admire a classic writer I love. As a huge Dostoevksy fan myself, I was pleased to see Dave’s mutual love for the D. In a way, it’s easy to see how D. influenced him, with The Brothers Karamazov’s main characters Dmitry, Ivan, and Alyosha mirrored in Infinite Jest’s fraternal trio of Orin, Hal, and Mario Incandenza. For anyone who has read D., or excerpts from “The Grand Inquisitor” in a Philosophy 101 class, you know that, indeed, he is all about what it means to be a human being. Not many fiction writers today concern themselves with heavy subjects like death, freedom, and faith. In many ways, I think a lot of the responsibility has transferred to media, with complex TV series like Breaking Bad and House and of Cards, and cinematic dramas like 12 Years a Slave and her. Living a life “informed by values and principles” – like Dave says, it’s extremely hard even to mention such terms without sounding way out-of-touch and un-hip and irrelevant – these values and principles, arguably, are what makes us human. The fact that we aren’t blind will and hunger but have ethical fiber that reasons and desires – or, as Tennyson writes: strives, seeks, finds, and does not yield.

A real leader is somebody who, because of his own particular power and charisma and example, is able to inspire people. . . . A leader’s true authority is a power you voluntarily give to him, and you grant him this authority not in a resigned or resentful way but happily; it feels right. Deep down, you almost always like how a real leader makes you feel, how you find yourself working harder and pushing yourself and thinking in ways you wouldn’t be able to if there weren’t this person you respected and believed in and wanted to please. (“Up, Simba”)

Near the end of his essay on McCain, Dave reflects on what makes a great political leader and leader in general: characteristics such as charisma and inspiration. In short, the best leaders, the true leaders (like the best writers) have vision, something they strive towards and share with others. They have a how and a why for their life. Think of Mandela, who recently passed away on December 5th, 2013. There was a leader – a man who spent decades in prison and emerged to become the first black president of South Africa. (I recommend Justin Chadwick’s Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and Mandela’s autobiography of the same title.) The mystery isn’t that these leaders demand your following; like Dave says, you “voluntarily” and mysteriously follow this person.

D. Some final thoughts:

You may wonder, Does this essay collection have an overarching theme or message? Yes, at least to me. Dave seems to enjoy the deconstruction of clichés, as he does so in his commencement address (the cliché that education is about teaching you “how to think,” translated by Dave to “You get to decide what to worship”). Dave always helps us to look deeper into these bromides. The title speaks for itself: in a word, consider. Consider such disparate and disconnected people as McCain, Updike, and Tracy Austin; consider old-fashioned ideas of morals and values.

Perhaps the person who tried hardest of all was Dave himself, writing and thinking in so many words. The best thing we can do is let his hard-earned prose speak for itself – and listen. Let it interrogate us and force us to contemplate both the quotidian and the bigger picture.

Yes, the days can be mundane and the afternoons tediously long – a what and a what and a what. It is hard to care, hard to engage. Yet the only chance we have at grasping the big picture is to understand how we live now, why we are alive today. To help others in “petty, unsexy ways” by holding open the door open for someone, waiting patiently in the grocery store line, saying hello to our neighbors.

Really, the best advice comes from Dave himself: Try to stay awake.

Grace is Everywhere

If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.

William Blake

robinson_examinedlife_ba_img_1Some writers demand to be read slowly. For me, Marilynne Robinson is such a writer. She has vision, a kind of anachronistic awe: her perception hales from the nineteenth century. Like Emily Dickinson, she sees that certain slant of light. Like Whitman, she says Look! praising the wren’s song. Her prose, charged with lyrical vitality, resurrects the scenes of everyday life with spiritual significance. Her doors of perception are superbly cleansed.

In short, Robinson has a unique voice in contemporary literature. Considering her publishing history, the past ten years have been considerably prolific for her. In 1980 she made her debut with the novel Housekeeping. She waited twenty-four years before publishing her next novel in 2004, the Pulitzer-winning Gilead. In between she stayed busy, writing the environmental expose Mother Country (1989) and a series of essays collected in The Death of Adam (1998). After Gilead, the books keep coming. In 2008 her third novel Home was released, and she published two works of nonfiction, her lectures at Yale in Absence of Mind (2010) and her essay collection When I Was a Child I Read Books (2012). Her most recent novel is Lila, already short-listed for the 2014 National Book Award.

***

Lila is the third novel in Robinson’s fictional town Gilead, Iowa. Today she teaches at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Along with Gilead and Home, Lila completes a triptych. The three novels are not sequential but rather complimentary. Each one focuses on different characters. One can read them in any order. Gilead is the journal of an elderly, ailing minister John Ames, writing to his son. Home focuses on Glory, the daughter of Ames’ best friend, Reverend Robert Boughton. Lila tells the story of Ames’ wife, Lila Dahl.

Plot-wise Lila is simple: after she sneaks into Ames’ church one Sunday morning, they fall in love, marry, and have a child together. In a third person narration, Robinson alternates between her present courting and betrothal with Ames and her troubled past. Neglected by her family, Lila was taken in and raised by the drifter Doll. With her itinerant childhood, and one year of formal schooling, Lila provides a stark contrast to the staid Ames, who has lived in Gilead his whole life.

In some ways, Lila is like a female Huck Finn, orphaned at a young age, lighting out for the territories, trying to survive. Searching for a place to call home. And then she meets the Reverend Ames.

***

For any piece of writing to come alive, there must be vulnerability. Robinson creates a convincing and touching portrayal of loneliness in Lila. Her marriage to Ames initially makes her uncomfortable. Although Ames clearly expresses his love for Lila – he is patient, kind, considerate – she is constantly tempted to buy a bus ticket and leave town: “That was loneliness. When you’re scalded, touch hurts, it makes no difference if it’s kindly meant” (253)

In Leslie Jamison’s review of Lila, “The Power of Grace,” she writes on the same passage:

Except it does make a difference, or it can. Witness a woman who has just been baptized by the man who will become her husband: “That was what made her cry. Just the touch of his hand.” Lila explores what that crying expresses—joy and scalding at once. In these pages, Robinson resists the notion of love as an easy antidote to a lifetime of suffering or solitude, suggesting that intimacy can’t intrude on loneliness without some measure of pain.

Jamison nails it: what makes Lila a vulnerable, real character – and, by turn, what makes Robinson a gifted writer – is her complexity of emotion. Her tears are not simply rooted in sadness; rather, they express joy and pain simultaneously. Lila is flummoxed by her marriage to Ames. Better than any character I’ve come across in contemporary fiction, she embodies the contradiction of grace. Lila is both repelled and attracted to the man she loves and the new life he creates for her. Her itinerant childhood looms heavily on her present life. One wants to heal, but not just yet.

***

Throughout her writing, Robinson consistently upholds the dignity of her characters. Lila is no different. Eschewing – or simply ignoring – postmodern irony, Robinson takes her characters seriously. Again, her prose can seem like an anachronism; she uses words like soul and blessing and reconciliation, and she means them. Take, for instance, her description of a face:

If you think about a human face, it can be something you don’t want to look at, so sad or so hard or so kind. It can be something you want to hide, because it pretty well shows where you’ve been and what you can expect. And anybody at all can see it, but you can’t. It just floats there in front of you. It might as well be your soul, for all you can do to provoke it. (82)

Robinson has many such passages that you read multiple times. She does not describe the soul as something abstract or elusive but as it really is: vulnerable, mysterious, something you can’t escape. She echoes a similar wonder with the human face in Gilead:

Now that I am about to leave this world, I realize there is nothing more astonishing than a human face. . . . Any human face is a claim on you, because you can’t help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it. (66)

The human face, so sad or so hard or so kind. The human face, nothing more astonishing. Mark Edmundson, author of Why Teach?, writes: “The best reason to read [great writers] is to see if they know you better than you know yourself.” Robinson, for me, is such a writer; she knows me better than I know myself. Her literary corpus should be titled: In Defense of the Human Soul.

***

I wonder how much longer we may have Robinson around (apparently she has another work of nonfiction on the way). With what stands, Robinson has a strong literary legacy. I suspect we will read her a hundred years from now. Lila, like Gilead, is a classic. More than a love story, it is the story of a a character finding her soul, slowly discovering its comforts.

Near the end, Ames says to Lila, “It’s all a prayer. Family is a prayer. Wife is a prayer. Marriage is a prayer.” They are as awed by their union as anyone else. Who would have predicted a young woman and an elderly minister having a child together? Like Abraham and Sarah, they are shocked by their newborn son. Yes, marriage is a prayer. For Ames and Lila, marriage is also a grace. To quote from George Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest: “Grace is everywhere.”

I can’t wait to read Lila again.

Scorsese and Silence’s Existential Howl

Silence is a monumental work, and a punishing one. It puts you through hell with no promise of enlightenment, only a set of questions and propositions, sensations and experiences… This is not the sort of film you ‘like’ or ‘don’t like.’ It’s a film that you experience and then live with.

Matt Zoller Seitz on Silence

Andrew Garfield (left) and Shinya Tsukamoto in <i>Silence</i>

Watching Martin Scrosese’s latest directorial effort Silence can be summed up in one word: painful – as far from the pleasure-saturated The Wolf of Wall Street as East is from West.

Clocking in at 161 minutes, Silence is a long, intense, and brutal film to digest.

Based on Endo Shushaku’s 1966 titular novel, the story follows two Portuguese Jesuit missionaries, Fr. Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Fr. Garupe (Adam Driver) as they travel to Japan to find their former mentor, Fr. Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has supposedly apostatized. On their journey, they are guided by Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka), and when they meet infamous Inquisitor, Inoue Masashige (Issy Ogata) a fiercely anti-Christian political leader, they realize the serious danger of Japan’s political regime.

After they split up to find Ferreira, Rodrigues is soon captured. He is forced to watch long, intense, brutal scenes of torture unto other Christian peasants, until Rodrigues, the Inquisitor says, apostatizes: “The price for your glory is their suffering.”

Peasants are drowned, beheaded, burned, and, worst of all, hung upside down with a small incision behind their ear as they slowly bleed to death over a pit of excrement.

Silence is somewhat similar to 12 Years a Slave or Unbroken: watching a male protagonist endure seemingly endless suffering, with a brief sigh at the end (Solomon and Lou both are free). Silence bears no such triumphant resolution, as Rodrigues’s prays:”I pray but I’m lost. Am I just praying to silence?”

***

Like King Lear crying, “Howl, howl, howl, howl!”, Silence takes one down into the depths of the existential loophole, forcing one to consider again and again and again the meaning and purpose of such suffering and the very premise of theodicy: If there is a God, then why does He allow such suffering?

In one scene Rodrigues stares at his own reflection in the water, and when he sees Jesus’s face reflected back at him, he breaks into strange laughter. His own grandiose aims to emulate Jesus’s suffering shatter any notion of illuminated martyrdom. Silence offers no pat answers, and any endeavor to reconcile God with such suffering seems absurd.

***

In today’s evangelical climate, where Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer distort the Gospel into a self-help tease of health and wealth – Pray and Grow Rich! their books exhort usit’s rare to find a “Christian” art that realistically, artfully portrays the costly demands and suffering a life of faith involves.

Scorsese supersaturates his film with the harsh reality of faith, taking the viewer in to the dark depths of doubt. I do believe! Help my unbelief! Perhaps the true offering of Scorsese’s Silence is a deep, visceral portrait of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called costly grace.

The life of a Christian not marked by the shallow metrics of mega-churches and New York Times bestselling books. As Scorsese shows, it’s a maelstrom of devotion, riven with doubt and humility.

The Subtle Art of Worship

mansonFirst, a look at two prefatory quotes – from David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement address, “This is Water”:

Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.

And from Mark Manson:

Because here’s a sneaky truth about life. There’s no such thing as not giving a fuck. You must give a fuck about something. It’s part of our biology to always care about something and therefore to always give a fuck.

The question, then, is, What do we give a fuck about? What are we choosing to give a fuck about? And how can we not give a fuck about what ultimately does not matter?

A cursory reading of these two quotes easily reveals the influence: Mark is clearly echoing Dave, word for word in parts. We all know Dave, but who is Mark?

Mark Manson is a superstar blogger – sans cape and boots – who recently published a short, wise, profanity-saturated book called The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life, released in September 2016. The bright orange cover and unabashed F-bombing colorfully announces Mark’s intention: to impart his wisdom on life and how to live a good one.

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To date, The Subtle Art is Manson’s second book (his first, Models: Attract Women Through Honesty), as he initially started a relationship blog in 2007; in 2010 he started his current blog at markmanson.net, and the first post is – you guessed it – “This is Water” in full, with a brief introduction by Mark:

The advice within is simple but poignant and beautiful. It’s had a massive influence on my own life and for me, it sets both the standard and the tune of all the work I try to do on this site.

Mark uses Dave’s speech at the central thesis for The Subtle Art. Mark also draws heavily from his own personal life experience, which, at age 32, is mostly about his own tumultuous high school years into the present day. His ideal audience is the Rolling Stone contingent, ages 18 to 30 – millennials who are blessed with an oceanic sense of possibility and burdened with a near-apocalyptic anxiety on how to navigate our lives. To us, he is an island of reason, steering our wayward ships to calmer shores.

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Anyone’s advice is a form of autobiography. To a certain extent, we speak from the limits of our own experience. Mark’s life experience, to date, includes having traveled to over 60 countries; he speaks three languages. Although an Austin TX-native, he now resides in New York City.

In The Subtle Art, Mark’s greatest strength is his honesty about his own failures and the subsequent wisdom gained from said failures. His main pitch, however, is his contrarian advice and tone. Instead of the usual pillars of positivity and happiness, of feeling good and believing in yourself, Mark ignores these and confronts the pain, failure, and doubt that plague us all.

You will suffer every day. Embrace it. Keep failing. Question yourself. He writes:

Life is about not knowing and then doing something anyway. All of life is like this. It never changes. Even when you’re happy. Even when you’re farting fairy dust. Even when you win the lottery and buy a small fleet of Jet Skis, you still won’t know what the hell you’re doing. Don’t ever forget that. And don’t ever be afraid of that.

His off-putting chapter titles read: “Happiness is a Problem” and “You Are Not Special” and “You’re Wrong About Everything.” The truth is, life is hard, no matter how wealthy or poor or young or old you are, and we need to stop ignoring this reality, blindly expecting every day to be bursting with rainbows and pixie dust.

If suffering is inevitable, if our problems in life are unavoidable, then the question we should be asking is not “How do I stop suffering?” but “Why am I suffering – of what purpose?”

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What truly separates Mark from the typical self-help fare comes in the final chapter, “. . . And Then You Die”. He confronts the reality of death, drawing from Ernest Becker, author of Pulitzer-winner The Denial of Death. We are mortal; as a result, according to Becker, we Commit to our own personal “immortality projects”: write the next Great American Novel, become a Movie Star – somehow make a name for ourselves to establish a conceptual immortality. Paraphrasing Becker, Mark writes:

Whether it be through mastering an art form, conquering a new land, gaining great riches, or simply having a large and loving family that will live on for generations, all the meaning in our life is shaped by this innate desire to never truly die.

And we come full circle, back to Dave’s notion of worship. Our mortality, by default, makes us worshipers. We each build our own golden calf. Our own will to power – to master, to conquer, to procreate.

So Mark (and Dave, and Ernest) force us to ask ourselves: What are you worshiping? How are you spending your days? What you pursue matters. Choose wisely.

**Note: the writer of this post finds it interesting that David Foster Wallace himself, as it turns out, was a diligent and careful reader of self-help books. Maria Bustillos, in her article “Inside David Foster Wallace’s Private Self-Help Library,” for The Awl, writes:

. . . the number of popular self-help book in the collection, and the care and attention with which he read and reread them. I mean stuff of the best-sellingest, Oprah-level cheesiness and la-la reputation was to be found in Wallace’s library. Along with all the Wittgenstein, Husserl, and Borges, he read John Bradshaw, Willard Beecher, Neil Fiore, Andrew Weil, M. Scott Peck, and Alice Miller. Carefully.

Thus, as much homage as Mark pays to DFW, one can’t wonder if Dave would’ve included Mark’s book in his personal library.

Top Ten Movies

To date, here are my Top Ten along with a brief rationale.

1. Good Will Hunting

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By far my favorite movie of all time, having watched it at least four times over the past 10 years. This movie will make you laugh, make you cry, make you lean back in your chair and chant, “Re-taaaaay-ner!”

2. 50/50

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A surprisingly funny, moving screenplay and film by Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg that is kind of a drama and kind of a comedy at once. See review here: “The Emperor of All Dramedies.”

3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind:

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When you take a Charlie Kaufman screenplay and Michel Gondry as Director, you get a masterpiece like this that never ceases to amaze me with each viewing, both as a surreal fusion of past and present and a realistic portrait of the messy dissonance of any loving relationship.

4. Punch-Drunk Love:

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Adam Sandler, whom I normally can’t stand, shows us what he is capable of, perhaps his one shot at artistic credibility. Oh – but what a wondrous performance as Barry in his fever dream of love!

5. It’s A Wonderful Life:

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The best Christmas movie ever, with the most timeless message ever. What more can I say?

6. Boyhood:

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No other movie gives me a more concrete and surreal feeling of time and youth. The risk involved and the resulting masterpiece is an unprecedented and grand recording of life and it’s quotidian drama. The Great American Movie of this decade? Perhaps! See review here: “Boyhood.”

7. Ordinary People:

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Robert Redford’s masterful directorial debut turns Judith Guest’s YA novel into a caustic and intense family drama with a performance of a lifetime from Timothy Hutton, youngest ever Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actor – well deserved!

8. Dead Poet’s Society:

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Robin Williams again! Such a fan, and no matter how many times I watch this – and no matter how cliche the “Carpe Diem!” bit has become – I am always down to watch Robin Williams as Mr. Keating, hopping on his desk.

9. Rear Window:

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Jimmy Stewart again! Such a simple yet effective plot with a masterful cumulative tension and a warm side story. See review here: “From the Vault: Rear Window.”

10. The Way, Way Back:

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Last but not least! Sam Rockwell as Owen, the slacker savant with a motor-mouthed sense of humor. An endlessly amusing, quirky coming-of-age indie that screams summer freedom along with some dysfunctional family melodrama to keep things interesting.

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Honorable Mentions:

  • Into the Wild, Sean Penn: read the book, see the movie.
  • East of Eden, Elia Kazan: same: read book, see movie, both excellent.
  • A River Runs Through It, Robert Redford: repeat!
  • Quiz Show, Robert Redford: Ralph Fiennes as Mark Van Doren, with a moral compromise on his hands.
  • Linklater’s Before trilogy: Linklater does it again, with time on his side.
  • Mystic River, Clint Eastwood: dark, gritty suspense with superb acting; Eastwood at his best.
  • American Beauty, Sam Mendes: a bit dated, but Kevin Spacey’s performance is so good, and the plastic bag, an unforgettable image.