One Hundred Monkeys in Texas

July 13, 2009

Language, faith, fiction and long Russian names

Herewith a review of a book I read recently. It’s not for the intellectually faint of heart, though!

Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction
By Rowan Williams
Baylor UniversityPress, $24.95

In an old “Peanuts” comic strip, Lucy finds Linus reading Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. “Don’t all those Russian names bother you?” she asks her brother.
 
“No,” he replies, “when I come to one I can’t pronounce, I just bleep right over it!”
 
A little advice if you happen to pick up Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction: Before starting, do your homework on the 19th-century Russian author. Some background in literary theory and criticism (particularly Dostoevsky critic Mikhail Bakhtin) would help, too. Otherwise, you may find yourself taking the Linusian approach and bleeping over large sections of Rowan Williams’ book.
 
The unresolved tension in Dostoevsky’s novels, says the archbishop of Canterbury (yes, it’s that Rowan Williams), “is not — as it is too often portrayed — a tension between believing and not believing in the existence of God. … Dostoevsky is not presenting to us a set of inconclusive arguments about ‘the existence of God,’ for and against, but a fictional picture of what faith and the lack of it would look like in the political and social world of his day.”
 
Another key point (and this is where some of that literary theory comes in): “[W]hatever Dostoevsky actually believed himself, he could not but put it into a novel as one perspective among others, since he was committed to a particular view of what authorship can and can’t do …. we have a text that consciously writes out the to and fro of dialogue, always alerting us to the dangers of staying with or believing uncritically what we have just heard.”
 
Working from The Brothers Karamazov and Dostoevsky’s other major novels — Crime and Punishment, Notes From the Underground, The Idiot and Devils (also known as The Possessed) — Williams addresses various questions. What did Dostoevsky mean when he wrote that “if someone were to prove to me that Christ was outside the truth … then I should choose to stay with Christ rather than with the truth”? How are freedom and the diabolical connected? Why is open-endedness important to the concepts of dialogue and narrative? What might “taking responsibility for others” entail? How does Dostoevsky employ the ideas of holy images and blasphemy?
 
If all that sounds like quite a mouthful … well, it is. Rowan’s book assumes not just a thorough working knowledge of the novels — there are no plot summaries or character lists — but also an ability to hike in the rarefied atmosphere of academic discussion. CliffsNotes this ain’t.
 
“[O]ne of the most serious mistakes we could possibly make in reading Dostoevsky,” Williams says, “is to suppose that his fundamental position is individualistic, simply because of his passionate opposition to determinism.” True freedom, according to Williams’ understanding of the Russian writer, involves the ideas of language and exchange — it is not something that focuses on my arbitrary choices and obliterates any need for an “other” whom I must react to and dialogue with. “Freedom as detachment or freedom as self-assertion will equally lead away from language, toward the silence of nonrecognition.”
 
So if you’re up to a thorough intellectual workout, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction may be the right exercise machine for you. Otherwise, you’ve got a few rounds of literary push-ups to do.

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April 27, 2009

Bin Laden and the Bene Gesserit

Filed under: Books,World — alancochrum @ 9:20 pm
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So according to The Associated Press, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari says that Osama bin Laden may be dead but that there’s no proof.

I’m reminded of an exchange in Frank Herbert’s Dune between Count Fenring and his wife, Margot. The count expresses regret about the reported death of Paul Atreides, the ducal heir of the planet Arrakis.

“There’s a Bene Gesserit saying,” his wife says. ” … It goes: ‘Do not count a human dead until you’ve seen his body. And even then you can make a mistake.’ “

April 25, 2009

A pause for thought at the wordsmith’s anvil

“We are all like the Word himself — we might say that we are ‘little words,’ made to be communicators in words just like our Creator. God is the One who called all worlds into being by his creative word, who sustains and rules over all things by his powerful and law-giving word, who reveals himself by his truth-giving word, who communicates by his life-giving word. We are to use language in imitation of him by exercising the gifts of creative imagination, by understanding and naming the world around us, by revealing ourselves truthfully in all we say and write, by communicating with our Creator and with one another to build trust and to give life to all our relationships.”

— Jerram Barrs, Through His Eyes: God’s Perspective on Women in the Bible

January 27, 2009

I thee wed

Filed under: Books,Marriage — alancochrum @ 9:28 pm
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Quote for the day in a society in which matrimony seems to weigh lightly in many minds:

“The very nature of marriage means saying yes before you know what it will cost. Though you may say the ‘I do’ of the wedding ritual in all sincerity, it is the testing of that vow over time that makes you married. I hope that I will always have faith in the giddy wonders of romance, but in considering what makes a marriage endure, I am likely to employ such ascetic and unromantic terms as discipline, martyrdom, and obedience.”

— Kathleen Norris,
Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life

January 7, 2009

Jingle all the way

Filed under: Books,Humor,Journalism — alancochrum @ 11:29 pm
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The most memorable Christmas present that this recently laid-off newspaper copy editor received in 2008:

My older daughter  bought me a book when the University of Missouri was culling its stacks: Arville Schaleben’s 1961 (my birth year) Your Future in Journalism.

And just to make it extra-special, on the spine label was stamped, in big red letters, “DISCARD.”

Gotta love it.

November 20, 2008

The writer’s constant difficulty

Filed under: Books,Writing — alancochrum @ 10:57 am
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“You are absolutely right to consider nothing but major problems. My major problem is finding the next word.”

— Flannery O’Connor, June 1963 letter in The Habit of Being

November 3, 2008

Don’t we all …

Filed under: Books — alancochrum @ 2:04 pm
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Quote for the day:

“I hope that before I die I either mend my manners or have less occasion to employ them.”

an April 1961 letter by Flannery O’Connor in The Habit of Being on what she viewed as her too-harsh response to a letter about her story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”

October 27, 2008

Cloaked in shadow

Filed under: Books,Work,Writing — alancochrum @ 10:10 pm
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Late in Frank Herbert’s classic novel Dune, the psychic Paul Atreides spots an unfamiliar face in the entourage of a galactic ruler.

The Emperor’s errand boy, Paul thought. And the thought was a shock crashing across his consciousness because he had seen the Emperor in uncounted associations spread across the possible futures — but never once had Count Fenring appeared within those prescient visions. …

“Something in his own secretive depths stayed the Count [later], and he glimpsed briefly, inadequately, the advantage he held over Paul — a way of hiding from the youth, a furtiveness of person and motives that no eye could penetrate.

“Paul, aware of some of this from the way the time nexus boiled, understood at last why he had never seen Fenring along the webs of prescience. Fenring was one of the might-have-beens, an almost-Kwisatz Haderach … his talent concentrated into furtiveness and inner seclusion. A deep compassion for the Count flowed through Paul, the first sense of brotherhood he’d ever experienced.”

I identify with the count. In some ways, I am always more comfortable in the background — if I’m going to be out in front, I like it to be on my terms. (And yes, it is sort of counterintuitive for a sometime columnist and book critic to be that way, but … what can I say? There it is.)

And oddly enough, I find this trait to be handy when I put on my blogging hat these days.

The Internet seems to bring out a certain mental incoherence in some people, particularly younger ones. They metaphorically (and sometimes literally) strip down to their birthday suit in terms of personal revelations, leaving the rest of us slack-jawed and thinking: “They do understand, don’t they, that a gazillion people can see this? And that once it’s out there, you can never erase it?” Apparently discretion is not the better part of valor in some people’s books.

At the moment I find myself caught between two imperatives. On the one hand, I am blogging, tossing my two cents out onto the street like alms in reverse. On the other hand, I am looking for a new job in a professional world in which I must assume that one of the first things that any halfway interested employer will do is run my name through an electronic search and see what pops up.

So I am forced to think twice — yea, thrice — about anything I might post. If I gripe about an unpleasant job-search experience, well, the person responsible might see it. That might come back to bite me. On the other hand, a specific reference to a pleasant experience might tip a different party off to the fact that I’m interested in some other job.

So it’s actually rather handy to be someone with a liking for being only half-seen, with no urge to lay it all out for everyone. It makes blogging harder but restraint much easier.

October 14, 2008

Tell us what you really think, Miz Flannery

Filed under: Books,Writing — alancochrum @ 4:16 pm
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So I’m about two-thirds of my way through The Habit of Being, the several-times-previously-referred-to collection of letters by Flannery O’Connor, and I run into this in a missive from May 1960:

“I hope you don’t have friends who recommend Ayn Rand to you. The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail. She makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoevsky.”

O’Connor doesn’t elaborate — at least in this collection — on what she found so offensive about Rand’s writing. They certainly were of differing minds about religion, O’Connor being a devout Catholic and faith being an F-word to Rand.

The ironic thing is O’Connor’s comparison of Rand to Spillane, given that the latter two liked each other’s work. Nathaniel Branden writes in his memoir Judgment Day about the period after the 1957 publication of Rand’s massive novel Atlas Shrugged:

“Ayn admired the ‘black-and-white moral absolutism’ of Spillane’s writing and also felt he was underappreciated as a stylist. ‘Granted his writing is uneven,’ she said, ‘and some passages are crude, but his descriptions at their best are excellent. Compare his descriptions of New York City in One Lonely Night with Thomas Wolfe’s descriptions — and you’ll appreciate the difference between a writer who knows how to make you see and one who just throws adjectives at you.’ I agreed with her, at least to some extent, but I was uneasy about the degree of praise she heaped on him publicly, as if she enjoyed shocking everyone — or as if she wanted to do for him what no one had done for her. At that time liberal reviewers went literally berserk on the subject of Mickey Spillane; I would not have imagined that a writer of thrillers could push so many hostile buttons.”

I have yet to read O’Connor’s fiction. But after reading a good number of her letters and a considerable amount of Rand’s work, I know which of the two I find more congenial.

September 12, 2008

A Flannery blouse for the spouse

Filed under: Books,Creativity,Writing — alancochrum @ 11:35 am
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“Writers write!” my wife reminds me occasionally. This is probably wise of her, considering that in some ways I am particularly susceptible to Sloth among the Seven Deadlies. (Not that this is the only one that I’m susceptible to, but that’s a discussion for another day. Maybe. When I get that “round tuit” that everyone talks about.)

She probably would agree with this thought from Flannery O’Connor:

“I’m a full-time believer in writing habits, pedestrian as it all may sound. You may be able to do without them if you have genius but most of us only have talent and this is simply something that has to be assisted all the time by physical and mental habits or it dries up and blows away. … I write only about two hours every day because that’s all the energy I have [because of ill health], but I don’t let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and the same place. … Sometimes I work for months and have to throw everything away, but I don’t think any of that was time wasted. Something goes on that makes it easier when it does come well. And the fact is if you don’t sit there every day, the day it would come well, you won’t be sitting there.”

— Letter of Sept. 22, 1957, The Habit of Being

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