Shakespeare and Douglass: Giving Speech to the Soul

In the eighth chapter of his autobiography, Frederick Douglass describes the loneliness that alone attends his grandmother in her final days. Continue reading Shakespeare and Douglass: Giving Speech to the Soul


SparkNotes and Your Soul

What’s wrong with SparkNotes? I’ve always joked with my English students that SparkNotes will make them shallow, but I’ve never articulated to them (or myself) exactly why. Continue reading SparkNotes and Your Soul

Eavesdropping on the Sacra Conversazione

During the Italian Renaissance, an art form emerged known as the sacra conversazione or “sacred conversation.” Fra Angelico, Filippo Lippi, later Titian and others painted the Madonna and Christ Child talking with saints and sometimes the artist’s own patrons. Recalling Dante’s beatific vision, figures otherwise separated by time and space meet in the planes of these paintings. Continue reading Eavesdropping on the Sacra Conversazione

“Stop Inventing!”

“Glory be to God for dappled things,” I thought, pausing on a run in the woods near my house. The late afternoon sun came slanting through the grey tree trunks and lit up the leaves like bits of stained-glass in a church window. All around me, layers of fallen leaves obscured the paths so that I seemed to have walked into a watercolor. Like a watercolor, although all seemed still, a hint of movement hovered around the edges of things—as if the artist had just, the very moment before, lifted his brush and let the water and pigments seep into the page.

“Glory be to God for dappled things” is the first line of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem Pied Beauty. One of my old professors regularly admonished us about the importance of getting some poetry permanently into our heads, and, although my current store is pretty pitiful, most of Pied Beauty is in there. Here’s the whole thing:

Glory be to God for dappled things –
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
      And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                Praise him.

Rather than do a close-reading of this poem, I just want to briefly consider how this poem helped me yesterday afternoon, and how similar works can help us all.

In an essay titled Learning How To See Again, the German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper warns that “man’s ability to see is in decline.” One reason for this, he argues, is that “there is too much to see!” Visual noise—the constant input from videogames and television shows and billboards and magazines and now cell phones and iPads etc. etc.—can obscure our perception and make us more and more “totally passive consumers of mass-produced goods.” St. Thomas Aquinas, echoing Aristotle, teaches that “nothing is in the intellect that is not first in the senses.” What, then, are the consequences for our intellects when we spend more time looking at manufactured or artificial reality rather than the real thing?

Pieper doesn’t use this particular term, but he essentially suggests that our senses can atrophy. We can become like the people of Jeremiah’s prophecy “who have eyes, and see not: and ears, and hear not” and who therefore lack understanding.

So what is to be done?

Besides abstaining when we can from the noise, Pieper says that the most immediate and effective remedy is “to be active oneself in artistic creation, producing shapes and forms for the eye to see.” The mere attempt to create an artistic form “compels the artist to take a fresh look at the visible reality; it requires authentic and personal observation.” I am reminded of my art professor at George Mason, who would always tell us (and sometimes shout at us) to “stop inventing!” and instead “look harder” and draw only what we actually see. When you’re trying to draw a human face, for example, it’s so easy to fall back and draw what you think you see—which is some combination of generic ideals and cartoon images—rather than what you really see. People’s faces aren’t really circular, their eyes aren’t really symmetrical little ovals, and the whites of their eyes are almost never actually white! But you have to slow down, and I mean really slow down, to be able to see that. Then you can begin trying to honestly communicate what you see.

What applies to painted or sculpted images also applies to verbal images. When I ran into the woods, the rich beauty of the scene literally stopped me in my tracks. I tried to think of words fit to describe what I saw, but it’s difficult to slow down enough to really observe. That’s where Hopkins’s poem helped me out. “Dappled things . . . fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls . . . whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) . . . adazzle, dim . . .”– those phrases jumped out of my memory right into the woods around me. Hopkins’s vision must have been so intense, and so patient, for him to have created such personal and yet authentic verbal images. Hopkins’s observations also led me to look more closely and carefully at my own surroundings.

The visions of artists like Hopkins can challenge us, like my art professor, to look harder and to notice more. Art that comes from sincere investigation, and that notices those things that are small and often overlooked, can help us to slow down and to see more and to speak more truthfully about reality.

Tumbleweeds and Freedom

This week, I went to a thought-provoking presentation on Plato’s critique of government sponsored by the Institute of Catholic Culture. You can watch the whole thing here soon.

But this post isn’t going to be about government. Something else caught my attention at the talk. At one point in his critique of government, Plato describes a man who:

lives from day to day indulging the appetite of the hour; and sometimes he is lapped in drink and strains of the flute; then he becomes a water-drinker, and tries to get thin; then he takes a turn at gymnastics; sometimes idling and neglecting everything, then once more living the life of a philosopher; often he is busy with politics, and starts to his feet and says and does whatever comes into his head; and, if he is emulous of any one who is a warrior, off he is in that direction, or of men of business, once more in that. His life has neither law nor order; and this distracted existence he terms joy and bliss and freedom, and so he goes on.

When the speaker read this quote, I first thought about how well the words apply to New Girl’s Nick Miller, and how Nick so often exemplifies Northrop Frye’s descriptions of characters stuck in the ironic mode. But then my friend who was also at the talk said “well, that description is sort of every man” and I’ve been thinking about the truth of that over the last several days.

The person Plato describes isn’t particularly terrible. I picture him like a tumbleweed—off in one direction, then another, but always subject to the whims of the wind. In Heretics, G.K. Chesterton points out that

The more dead and dry and dusty a thing is the more it travels about . . . Fertile things are somewhat heavier, like the heavy fruit trees on the pregnant mud of the Nile. In the heated idleness of youth we were all rather inclined to quarrel with the implication of that proverb which says that a rolling stone gathers no moss. We were inclined to ask, “Who wants to gather moss, except silly old ladies?” But for all that we begin to perceive that the proverb is right. The rolling stone rolls echoing from rock to rock, but the rolling stone is dead. The moss is silent because the moss is alive.

The person Plato describes as living a “distracted existence” is like Chesterton’s rolling, lifeless stone or the dry and dusty tumbleweed. The person Plato describes moves in no particular, willful direction, but is rather the subject (or slave) of changing, hourly appetites that pull him this way and that. True freedom, it seems, has something to do with putting down roots.

When I first came to Virginia a few years ago, I avoided putting down any roots. I started at George Mason following a sort of strange period in my life. I felt lost, and I also felt that I didn’t want to be found—like I didn’t want to be known. I guess I didn’t want to be known because I didn’t want to be found out; I was ashamed of recent choices I’d made. So I planned to duck into Mason, finish my last two years of undergrad, and duck out again. I would go to church and enjoy Mass but would avoid getting to know anyone and would certainly not go down for coffee and donuts afterwards. I would attend some interesting lecture, get my little intellectual stimulation, and then leave without talking to anyone. I tried not to put down roots and I avoided becoming a part of the place I was living in.

In an essay called “The Sense of Place,” Wallace Stegner considers the condition of such a non-placed or displaced person. It fits how I felt a few years ago, but also, Stegner suggests, this condition affects our country in general:

Adventurous, restless, seeking, asocial or antisocial, the displaced American persists by the million . . . He exists to some extent in all of us, the inevitable by-product of our history: the New World transient. . . . To the placed person he seems hasty, shallow, and restless. He has a current like the Platte, a mile wide and inch deep. As a species, he is non-territorial, he lacks a stamping ground. Acquainted with many places, he is rooted in none. Culturally he is a discarder or transplanter, not a builder or conserver. He even seems to like and value his rootlessness, though to the placed person he shows the symptoms of nutritional deficiency, as if he suffered from some obscure scurvy or pellagra of the soul.

Stegner’s displaced person and Plato’s distracted man strike me as one in the same person. Interestingly, Plato’s distracted man appears in a section on the dangers of democracy—where Plato considers in what ways the democratic state and the democratic man are prone to corruption—and Stegner sees the displaced person as a particularly American problem. Both the distracted man and the displaced man equate freedom with escape from or avoidance of ties that bind men to particular people and places and values. Stegner’s displaced man “even seems to like and value his rootlessness;” Plato’s distracted man, living a life without law or order, terms his “distracted existence” “joy and bliss and freedom.” Yet something is lacking. As Stegner suggests, there is something deficient about this form of freedom through isolation; it does not nourish the soul. The story of the good Samaritan is not “well I’ll leave you alone and you leave me alone and we’ll all get along fine.”

Stegner continues:

Indifferent to, or contemptuous of, or afraid to commit ourselves to, our physical and social surroundings, always hopeful of something better, hooked on change, a lot of us have never stayed in one place long enough to learn it, or have learned it only to leave it. In our displaced condition we are not unlike the mythless man that Carl Jung wrote about, who lives “like one uprooted, having no true link either with the past, or with the ancestral life which continues within him, or yet with contemporary human society. He . . . lives a life of his own, sunk in a subjective mania of his own devising, which he believes to be the newly discovered truth.”

Freedom is not something we find doing whatever we want whenever we want in isolation and anonymity—that becomes a prison, a “subjective mania” of our own devising. We find freedom when we honor the significant bonds we share with others and with the places we exist in—and not just the physical places you can point to on a map but places like your place in the mystical body of Christ. Our Lord’s love for us binds us to one another and to God, and in that bond is freedom and sustenance for our souls.

That’s something I’ve been learning over the last few years. Putting down roots doesn’t happen overnight, but it is a work in progress.

Adventures in Elfland

I had no plans for Labor Day and decided to find some woods to wander in. I checked Google Maps for green patches near my house and found one I hadn’t yet visited. After a short bus ride, I cut through neighborhoods new to me—wide rolling streets and small brick houses, vine clad and overshadowed with huge trees I don’t know the names of—and made my way into the park.

The park follows a meandering river through a developed and densely populated area. I was surprised, then, by how quickly I got away from the traffic noise and houses. Pretty soon it was all brown undergrowth and tall trunks and sweeping vines and purple leaves pressed into mud on the path. I crossed a creek and saw a family of deer upstream. One doe kept a nervous eye on me as long as I stood there, but the younger deer went on jumping around on a rocky bed in the middle of the creek, nosing each other and the doe that was maybe their mother. More deer grazed on the bank, and I caught sight of a few young bucks further off, their budding antlers blending in and out of the tree branches.

Roads cross through the park every few miles, but for the most part, you hear only wood sounds—crickets and the low hum of other insects, wind in the tree-tops, gravel crunching underfoot, scattered bird calls, and maybe the rush of water over some small rapids. A kind of silence fills the forest—not the silence of an empty room, but a richer and livelier kind of quiet.

The longer I walked, the more the quiet settled in. I am thankful that I live in a place where trails like this are so accessible. Sometimes, the brain just needs a break from all the bustle. My thoughts wandered with my feet, and I started imagining these woods to be woods in different stories. Maybe that mossy patch is like the one where Tom Sawyer sat, plotting his adventures. Or those gnarled roots along the river bank: they look like the ones Frodo fell asleep on, under the spell of Old Man Willow along the banks of the Withywindle. Black riders could be peering down that hillside. Or maybe Rat and Mole could go punting down that little creek, and find the island of Pan hid in the tall grass ahead.

When I first entered the park, I was trying to shake off a little of that moving sidewalk feeling—where you seem to be slowly and mechanically propelled forward through neutral, non-committal space. But imagining stories happening in the wood helped to wake me up. Suddenly, the wood became mysterious. And full of things to notice and be surprised by. The act of imagining these stories did not serve as an escape from reality—instead it helped me see and wonder more at what surrounded me.

This all reminded me of something G.K. Chesterton wrote in his book Orthodoxy. In a chapter called the Ethics of Elfland, Chesterton describes what he calls “a certain way of looking at life, which was created in me by the fairy tales, but has since been ratified by the mere facts.”

Chesterton observes that “all the fire of the fairy tales is derived” from a kind of “elementary wonder.” We all like love stories, he says, because they appeal to our instinct of sex. And we all like astonishing tales because “they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment.” The primacy of this instinct is proved, he argues, by the fact that “when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we need only tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door.”

Astonishing tales—hobbits talking with Ents and Rat boating with Mole and Hansel and Gretel escaping the witch and Jack climbing the beanstalk and Curdie confounding the goblins—help us remember and recover our elementary wonder at the world:

These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.

For Chesterton, the ancient instinct of wonder contains “a positive element of praise” which comes prior to any specific religious formation. He says it is a difficult feeling to express, but that nursery tales and fairy tales gave him a sense that “life was as precious as it was puzzling. It was an ecstasy because it was an adventure; it was an adventure because it was an opportunity . . . The test of all happiness is gratitude; and I felt grateful, though I hardly knew to whom.” Chesterton concludes that life “is not only a pleasure, but a kind of eccentric privilege” to which the proper response is humble thanks.

And that’s where my wandering mind ended on Labor Day: in thanksgiving for our lives that are puzzling and precious and take place in a world as mysterious as any fairy tale.

Hipsters and Hamlet: Escaping the Ironic Mode

[Last of Wedding Crashers series] This post is about the ironic mode, one of the four modes of story-telling identified by Northrop Frye and one which you’ve probably never heard of.

Ok, so Frye didn’t exactly mean that kind of “ironic” when he named this mode. But actually, the stereotype of the modern day “hipster” isn’t a bad place to start.

In case you aren’t familiar with the term “hipster,” this meme sums it up pretty well. (It’s a screenshot of Kenneth Branagh playing Hamlet, with a hipster twist on Shakespeare’s original line.)

Consider the characteristics we associate with the hipster stereotype: “so over” everything mainstream; misunderstood; independent; reluctant to show real emotion but ready to be sarcastic; often scornful of traditional values, culture, etc.

In many ways, the characteristics of the hipster stereotype also fit what Frye calls the ironic mode. While the comic mode celebrates the integration of the individual into society, the ironic mode shows the individual as ultimately isolated from society, and usually it’s a society that’s decaying or devoid of meaning. Integration in the comic mode requires humility, love for neighbor, and personal sacrifice; in the ironic mode, these values are scorned or lost or simply absent. The central characters turn their gaze inwards, away from their fellow men, away from objective reality, and so tend towards madness. As G.K. Chesterton writes in Orthodoxy, “Thinking in isolation and with pride ends in being an idiot. Every man who will not have a softening of the heart must at last have a softening of the brain.”

The absence of true communion gives stories told in the ironic mode a sense of loss, but it differs from the loss felt in the tragic mode. Everything in the ironic mode is reduced to a sort of “meh”—a pitiful little monosyllable—so without the drama of good and evil and right and wrong, events in the ironic move don’t move our hearts in the way that tragedies do. Like winter, the season associated with the ironic mode, a sense of numbness pervades.

The most dominant feature of the ironic mode is ineffective action. In a world without value and virtue, life becomes pointless and individuals powerless. Characters spin their wheels in the muck and get nowhere. Infertility and impotence appear often in this mode because we tend to associate the inability to conceive with the inability to fully participate in the ongoing life of society—infertility suggests something broken or missing or not quite right in the natural order. Stories in the ironic mode also often involve suicide, as that is the ultimate instance of an individual cutting themselves off from society.

A perfect example of the ironic mode and its consequences occurs in the movie Wedding Crashers, when John Beckwith (Owen Wilson) is exposed for lying about his identity and cut off from the woman he loves (Claire/Rachel McAdams). The sad sequence of events that follows has all the hallmarks of the ironic mode: the loss of meaning, the breaking of significant social bonds, the trap of ineffective action, and the temptation to just call it quits:

John, Jeremy, and Claire are isolated. Jeremy calls John and knocks on his door, but John ignores these attempts. John appears increasingly unkempt. Surrounded by empty alcohol bottles, he slumps in front of the television and listens while his voicemail plays: “This is John. Uhhhhhh. Whatever.” We see John try to crash weddings like the old days, but he crashes and burns instead. His table cloth trick doesn’t work. He trips over the band’s drum set. He toasts one couple by asking “Anyone ever feel like they’re just disappearing? I feel so much like giving up.” He tells a group of little children that “love doesn’t exist. That’s what I’m trying to tell you guys. And I’m not picking on love because I don’t think friendship exists either.” Later, John tells us he’s been reading “don’t kill myself books.” He’s sunk pretty near rock bottom. And then he visits Chaz Reinhold.

Here’s John’s first encounter with Chaz, who epitomizes the ironic mode’s anti-hero:

Chaz Reinhold is crass, irreverent, sarcastic, self-absorbed, self-serving, without honor, without scruples of any kind. His life is one big cycle of ineffective action. He lives at his mother’s.  In a house-robe. Watching cartoons. Yelling for meatloaf. Picking up vulnerable women at funerals. Joking about the deaths he takes advantage of. He’s not going to marry any of these women. He’s not going to father children. He’s not going to contribute to society in any way. And he doesn’t seem to care. John shows initial hesitancy and even disgust when he first meets Chaz; Chaz’s flippancy and degeneracy are shocking. But then John stifles this reaction. He forces himself to laugh with Chaz. It’s uncomfortable to watch—like someone gulping down a nasty drug they don’t really want. But that’s what happens in the ironic mode. You try to deaden your natural sense of right and wrong and good and evil. You try not to empathize with anyone. You numb yourself. You try not to care—maybe because it’s too painful to care. As C.S. Lewis has pointed out, we tend to become what we pretend to be, for good or for ill. Chaz has lost his sense of decency and shame, he has become someone who doesn’t care, who doesn’t suffer, but who also does not know joy. His is a mean and empty existence.

Yet Chaz’s life tempts John as a way to escape the pain of losing Claire—and it tempts us all. If you look around, you will find that many works in our modern culture operate in the ironic mode. Think about Jersey Shore: the cast lives in a house they didn’t work for, they fool around at a job of sorts, drink themselves into oblivion almost every night, and engage in lots of meaningless, selfish hook-ups. Think of all the “House Wives” shows: the women don’t appear to do much, they start silly fights because dysfunction is good for ratings, they complain endlessly, and they waste a lot of their time and talents and money. Or think of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Now, Charlie’s antics can make me laugh as much as the next person, but can you think of a single show where the gang does something worthwhile? They’re always scheming to get something for nothing; in one episode Frank leaves a stripper dead in his apartment (and we’re supposed to laugh at this?); they’re always in their dim dive of a bar, and nothing meaningful ever happens. And the list goes on. And we’re expected to laugh and not take any of this too seriously. In fact, we’re not supposed to take anything too seriously.

This is why I think the theory of the four modes is so helpful; it helps us to recognize different approaches to life and recognize where they lead. One professor suggested that each mode is like one quarter of the truth of our existence, and a person needs a balanced awareness of all four to get at the full truth. If we’re surrounded by too many works in the ironic mode, our imaginations tend to become skewed and our lives unbalanced. When we go to solve problems or deal with suffering or perhaps even find ourselves attracted to someone, if we only have stories told in the ironic mode to draw on for inspiration or advice about how to act, then we’re in a pretty bad way.

How do we escape the ironic mode’s cycle of ineffective action? Wedding Crashers shows us a way out, and I think this is what makes the movie more worth watching than the typical throw-away rom-com.

The first major step is to recover and honor significant bonds. For John, it’s his friendship with Jeremy.  Jeremy goes out of his way to draw John out of his depression, and he keeps trying even though John initially rejects him. Jeremy risks a visit to John and asks him to be his best man. It appears to go badly, but Jeremy’s appeal to the bond of friendship doesn’t quite fall on deaf ears. His request weighs on John’s mind, it weighs on his heart, and it later prompts John to take action.

To escape the ironic mode, characters must also escape the numbness they’ve fallen in to. Often, it requires deep suffering to recover a sense of value and meaning. When this suffering to restore meaning involves a significant shedding of blood, it’s called sparagmos (an ancient Greek term that has to do with ritual sacrifices to placate the gods and the demands of justice). Christ’s crucifixion is an example of sparagmos, and there are many others throughout history and literature. Wedding Crashers doesn’t have an instance of sparagmos per se, but John’s experience at the funeral with Chaz comes close.

John goes with the intent to “crash” the funeral as he has crashed weddings in the past. But as he later recounts:

. . . and I see this widow and she’s a wreck. She’s just lost the person she loves most in this world. And I realize we’re all going to lose the people we love. But not me. Not right now.

The widow’s suffering awakens compassion in John. He goes from telling little kids that “love doesn’t exist” to admitting that love is at the core of our existence. John doesn’t escape the ironic mode by putting on rose-colored glasses and pretending that everything is peachy. He recognizes that we will lose the people we love and that the separation of death is real. Yet he recovers the conviction that life and love have meaning in spite of this. Crashing funerals with Chaz and “cleaning up” with empty hook-ups isn’t what he wants. He wants to be his best friend’s best man. And he wants to love Claire.

This brings John to the final break from the ironic mode. Through intense suffering, he realizes what he truly values in life. He honors the bond of friendship with Jeremy and makes it to the wedding just in time. And then, in front of the crowd, he speaks truthfully in his own voice. This is something he has not been able to do throughout the entire movie. He’s always hidden his true self behind one pretense or another. Now he humbles himself and puts his true self out there (for all the shocked wedding guests to see). Taking effective action requires speaking the truth—anything else is like building a house on sand. (As a side note, I think this is why the reunion with Claire can’t happen earlier at the engagement party, which John tries to sneak into as a server. He isn’t being his true self. He isn’t yet courageous or convicted enough to do that. And so his action remains ineffective.)

There is an element of sacrifice in John’s speech to Claire. He tells her “I’m not standing here asking you to marry me. I’m just asking you not to marry him.” The “him” referred to is Claire’s fiancé Zach (played by Bradley Cooper) and, at this point, we know Zach is the wrong person for Claire. We get to see that he’s impatient with her, disrespectful, and unfaithful. John’s plea is probably supposed to be funny, but it also shows that he values what is best for Claire above all, which means that he truly loves her.

As Wedding Crashers and other works will show you, the way to escape the ironic mode and the cycle of ineffective action and despair is to honor significant bonds and speak the truth. We live in a fallen world, and so this often requires great suffering. But if we look to the stories that surround us, past and present, we find a recurring conviction that something good lies beyond the suffering, something that makes it worth enduring. And if you don’t know many stories that suggest this, then you haven’t been feeding your imagination a balanced diet. Lay off the irony! Go watch Wedding Crashers. Read The Little Prince. Listen to Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15 in A Minor (which is about thanksgiving and recovering from illness).

We might not know for sure what awaits us if we endure the suffering that is an inevitable part of this life. But we do know that living in the ironic mode and giving into despair tends to lead towards Chaz Reinhold’s ma’s house, and I don’t think any of us want to end up there, as tempting as that meatloaf may be.