Tuesday, 20 March 2012

40BFL 11: Wuthering Heights

I read this book in one sitting, which is rare for me - I have all the attention of a goldfish that got dropped on its head as a guppy. But sometimes a writer can catch you by a thread of your soul and something of theirs snakes around yours and before you know it you're breathing their prose like you wrote it. Something of me is trapped in Wuthering Heights. If you haven't read the book you should know that it's not a pleasant thought.

Part of why it's a genuinely very clever book is that it's told by an idiot - a banal simpering man who is the very antithesis of the characters who arrest our concentration. But this idiot narrator is for most of the book himself recounting the story of the nurse. The astute reader will notice that this nurse is in fact the primary enemy of the story - she singlehandedly destroys Heathcliff and Cathy's relationship at the crucial moment and so causes the terrifying grief and tragedy that ensues. We learn through the text itself to mistrust the text. A tale told be a villain told by an idiot. What follows is an intriguing test of reading. Can we sort through the layers of subjectivity and see the world as it really is?

The truth is that we get glimpses, mostly revealed in the most gut-wrenching and disturbing prose so fraught with emotion that it leaves you in a distempered state of anxiety for days. At the same time our own fury is amassed at the very tellers of the story, who frozen in print are unable to admit, to suffer and enable the release of our own wrought feelings. (A similar effect is achieved in Ian McEwan's Atonement though with nowhere near the force.) As an exercise in subjectivity Emily gives us a haunted text - haunted by the reality of tragedy. This is not various angles on certain decentred happenings as one might find in a postmodern novel; this is a moral disaster and tragic ruin of lives, obfuscated by the complexity of character, guilt and stupidity - but the truth is there - as bare as a corpse in the living room.

I read one page again and again and I can't get beyond it:

I cannot express it; but surely you and everybody have a notion that there is or should be an existence of yours beyond you. What were the use of my creation, if I were entirely contained here? My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff's miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning: my great thought in living is himself. If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it. My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I'm well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He's always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.

It is how St Ignatius wants you to feel about Jesus. And if you don't feel it towards the person you're with; after reading it, how could you ever want to stay with them?

Monday, 12 March 2012

40BFL 10: The Forger's Shadow

This book reminds me of a friend I have not heard from in nearly a decade. Seeing it gives me a wry smile of nostalgia and the return of an ambiguous range of emotions, such as I think all people experience when confronted with a particular year of their life - especially if it was a somewhat tumultuous one. The friend used to tell the story of the author of the book taking a class on Shakespeare's sonnet 129. He read the poem:

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoy'd no sooner but despised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated, as a swallow'd bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

and then began his paper: "Well it's about wanking isn't it?" (I think it was the author of this book - but as I said it was nearly ten years ago. Stories like that though tend to stick in the mind.)

Anyway, this is a fabulous book. You feel like it's revealing what lies beneath - the the dark shadow cast by the bright colonial power of the canon. For anyone interested in the murky, mysterious and entirely prevalent category of "authenticity" it's an absolute must-read. It dispels many common-place illusions and reveals a triumphant score-settling history of forgery, counterfeits and plagiarism. The breadth of material this guy engages with is breath-taking but it is also a master class in how to maintain a consistent, original, persuasive argument from start to finish. I remember a tutor telling me at some point that it is useful when beginning to write on a day to read a little of someone whose writing you really admire, someone you want to write like. Well this is it:

Deep in the Dialogues, then, Plato admits that there is an argument that questions his abiding binaries of, say, original and copy. For Gilles Deleuze this is a constitutive philosophy: 'God made man in his [sic] image and resemblance. Through sin, however, man lost the resemblance while maintaining the image. We have become simulacra.' Maybe. But if so we need to reinvent the simulacrum as a post-Platonic entity. This simulacrum is our reality, but in our being we remain haunted by the chimaera of authenticity. We can overcome this authenticity by craft and by making, and in rebellion, and in becoming inspirational; and we can overcome it too in that poetry which is all this and still more. Is the simulacrum the postmodern word for the daemonic? It has returned. It dwells herein: a flicker, a recurrent beat; whatever stirs the heart:

the progeny immortal
Of Painting, Sculpture and rapt Poesy
And arts, though unimagined, yet to be.

This is how it called to me in a dream, a dream of fire and writing, of the breath of life:

The wandering voices and the shadows these
Of all that man becomes, the mediators
Of that best worship, love, by him and us
Given and returned, swift shapes and sounds which grow
More fair and soft as man grows wise and kind,
And veil by veil evil and error fall.

Prometheus, Shelley's Prometheus Unbound, Act III

And the heart beats...

Even if you had no idea what the hell he was on about - the force, almost a sneer, of the single word sentence "Maybe." the mythological, primal language, the manifesto call to arms... That's as good a finish to a book as you'll ever read.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Ramping & Roaring Wine Tips

Apparently the new thing is for middle class websites to give wine tips. Even XOJane is doing it and they're like left wing feminists and everything.

Anyway tonight's wine tip.

Chateau Haut Branda Bordeaux 2010.

It was 13.5% at 6.99 which gives you a booze value of 1.93*. Highly respectable. And at 1/3 off at Waitrose and a very nice looking bottle you won't be embarrassed at dinner parties. The French house and gargoyle almost look classy. I had it with a delicious curry so I couldn't taste a thing.

Marvellous. Feel slightly merry and sleepy - going to bed.

* divide percentage by pounds for value per booziness. It probably needs a L'oreal beauty-product style word like "ethanide co-efficient". Smart.

Friday, 9 March 2012

40BFL 9: The Darkness of God

What could you follow Illuminations with but The Darkness of God? Having gone to Yale, Denys Turner is the biggest loss to British theology in a long time. I often feel guilty that I didn't make more effort when I had the privilege of being taught by him - actually I remember with acute embarrassment asking him for an extension on my extended essay deadlines because I was at hockey practice most days preparing for the blues game. (We won 3-1 - ha!) Not the greatest mark of pedigree in a wannabe theologian and I must say I have lived every bit up to the promise shown there. At Cambridge I excelled at punting, short corners and coxing in last night's clothes, but the greater loss is mine.

This is the best entry into mystical theology. It's the sort of book you wish everyone had read because then you'd be dealing a lot less with the frustration of people's sunday-school theology. In a nut shell, it gives you a two-for-one deal. Firstly, by managing to present an intellectually defensible idea of God. And, secondly, by challenging spurious contemporary notions of 'mysticism'. Turner has a life long preoccupation of correcting experiential readings of John of the Cross, Julian et al. and shutting out all that voodoo, woowoo nonsense. He does it, I think, in every book he's written and quite right because it is really annoying.

The general thrust is a sort of historical tracing of one path of theology brought about, he very successfully argues, by the coming together of two narratives: Plato's analogy of the cave in the Republic and Moses ascent of Mount Sinai. These stories play on the imagery of light and darkness and ascent and interiority, where the seemingly contradictory metaphors get resolved. The dark, smokey mountain of Moses ascent is equated with the blinding light of the sun coming out of the cave which plunges the philosopher into greater darkness on re-entry to the cave; while in Augustine's journey into the soul, where God is within and I am without (another Turner favourite), where I most approach the centre of my being I am also raised in the encounter with God - the ascesis of the soul.

The language of contradiction is important because it's at the heart of this theology. Essentially, from St Denys we receive the understanding that the cataphatic and apophatic pathways to God are part of the same process. We name God by everything in creation as everything bears its creator's imprint - caterpillars and slugs - even spiders and wasps - through higher categories of goodness, power, knowledge, to the radical difference of the transcendent divine to all creation. This is the cataphatic way. But then begins the apophatic way, which is to say that actually God is nothing like anything in creation because God is uncreated, but to go further saying we cannot even say God is good, powerful &c. because God is not good like anything we know - a good stool, a good dog, a good human. Then further again to say God is not actually truly different, because to establish difference requires a frame of references - triangles and squares are different (both are shapes); but how would one say salmon and quantum mechanics are different? talking about God is even more different. But this takes us back into the cataphatic approach because, for example, say we start from a basic principle that God is male. The temptation is to say in negation "AHA! God is not male, I'm getting somewhere here!" But actually no - it is better to say God is male and female. If we say God is not male we may think we have a handle on God's gender - he is neuter or asexual like those angels in Dogma. If though we say God is male and female, there is more truth in the contradiction - we are closer to understanding something about God. So it turns out - as the Heracleitan epigram to Four Quartets has it - that 'the way up and the way down are one and the same'.

Anyway that was very long winded. Basically it's a great book that returns a bit of sense and imagination to theology. And it's a joy to read - particularly the penultimate chapter on St John of the Cross, which contains a lot of truth and wisdom together with some personal and searching theology about depression and selfhood; combining all those requisites for truly great writing: honesty, clarity, insight and imagination. It's this chapter that first got me reading St John who is one of the few to successfully combine being a good theologian and a genuine poet. More from him later.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

40BFL 8: Illuminations

This book means more to me than any other. More effectively than any other work, the essays within it helped to organize my thoughts. There is something so arresting about Benjamin that distinguishes him from any other writer; perhaps it's partly the tragedy of his life, perhaps it's the nostalgic, magical tone in which he writes, perhaps the power of his detached but engaged observation that is so uniquely able to observe change in his own time, without modernist exaltation or conservative lament. It is a collection of essays - and particularly this collection - that best represents Benjamin, since one doesn't read him for a systematic appraisal of the world or literature. Instead one finds wonderful writing and gems of wisdom. The best modern parallel to him would be David Foster Wallace - the differences are obvious but I still sense an odd sort of kindred spirit between them.

There are four essays of particular note which I return to again and again. The most famous of these is 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.' It appears so often through the rest of the twentieth century it hardly needs mentioning. But put it against some of Adorno's writing, say, and you will see the difference in tone - the desire to understand, to see what is changing, what is passing and coming, to experience a moment in history. This essay in many ways foresees the advent of postmodernism coming a generation later. Adorno, in contrast, sulks and spits and harrumphs in a powerful but less intelligent way.

The final climactic essay is 'Theses on the Philosophy of History'. It is full of beautiful imagery, clear thinking and a mystical edge framed as messianic time. Take this passage:

A Klee painting named "Angelus Novus" shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned towards the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistably propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

The only problem is that he writes so well he makes me think it's not worth bothering to try.

And there is such frail honesty. When he talks about our cultural treasures, he looks upon them with horror:

They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another.

For some reason this quote always rings in my ears as I walk through Cambridge. But, crucially, it is not a dreary wading in bourgeois guilt so much as an honest appraisal of the price of culture.

The essays which have most concerned me in the past are 'The Task of the Translator' and 'The Storyteller'. For someone engaged in hermeneutics, cultural translation and interpretation, they are remarkable. But they are also a lament: 'Counsel woven into the fabric of real life is wisdom. The art of storytelling is reaching its end because the epic side of truth, wisdom, is dying out.' One of the great things about being a priest is that you get to tell stories. A mish-mash (in my case) of Aesop's fables and fairytales, biblical stories and the lives of saints. And you get to tell more stories, new stories from your own life and those of people around you. Benjamin is writing out of a world that was literally falling apart. His student Adorno wrote in bitterness about the world that has fallen apart. The world never did pull itself back together again. This makes the role of the preacher all the more expedient, as translator and storyteller, to help find connections that can draw lives, communities and nations towards peace.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

40BFL 7: Four Quartets

Not here/ Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.

Eliot had a gift for seeing the future. In these lines he remonstrated against the banality of Twitter, before the internet had even come upon us. Earlier in The Wasteland he predicted the Twin Towers attack, listing the centres of civilization fatefully up to New York:

What is that sound high in the air
Murmur of maternal lamentation
Who are those hooded hordes swarming
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth
Ringed by the flat horizon only
What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London

Spooky huh?

It is impossible to condense my thoughts on Four Quartets. They were the centre-piece of my ph.d. and I’ve read them so many times that I regularly hear the words in my mind triggered by any old conversation, much like lines from Will Ferrell movies.

When they were published people complained that they were too prosy and unintelligible. People are stupid though. And the theology is excellent. Eliot understands transcendence and writes it beautifully - with the strength of feeling of a convert, which he was both to Christianity and to Englishness. It’s the sort of transcendence that raises the quotidian, transforms experience and gives it new meaning. So it is not a turning against or away from the world, but, through attention and desire, discovering eternity in the world, which points beyond itself to the dancing stillness of God. Through the poems he captures both the cataphatic phase of theology - as God is discovered in all manner of creation, described through faltering over-description, by language stretching beyond its own possibilities, desperately trying to grasp and give shape to experience - but also the apophatic phase, borrowing from St John of the Cross, as the world is stripped away into darkness and poetry fades into silence.

For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.

But the poems are not abstraction - again and again they focus on the particularity of experience. They are full of England and (the later poems) the war in which they were written. But this is gathered into the richness of the Western Christian tradition and each makes sense of each. So 'Little Gidding' climaxes with a night patrol during the blitz but the language is suffused with medieval theology, drawing a wartime nation into the narrative of God’s love.

Four Quartets have the character of liturgy. Read properly they seek to draw you into the presence of God, to help communicate the structure of the universe in which God and the redemption of humanity can be known through Christ. And this is acknowledged as a communal activity, not just for the saint but for a nation at war: 'History is now and England'. If any book more concisely or beautifully describes the Christian vision of the world I have not come across it.
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