Monday, February 25, 2019

Escape hatch

Warning! I've recently found out Blogger might be about to go the way of the dinosaurs. Spring cleaning means shutting down features, the tech geeks were smirking a whole year ago. So I've decamped back to WordPress, which is a sight too good for me.

It's still Pluot and I'm still too cheap to buy a domain name. Come and see.


Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Black Lamb, Grey Falcon, doorstop

Once in a while you pick up a classic and find you cannot get more than fifty pages into it.

I was just barely beginning to hack into the two-inch-thickness' worth (paperback, 1994) of Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia (1941). Already in the Prologue she says most encouraging things.
I knew that in the next war we women would have scarcely any need to fear bereavement, since air raids unpreceded by declaration of war would send us and our loved ones to the next world in the breachless unity of scrambled eggs. 
...the word 'idiot' comes from a Greek root meaning private person. Idiocy is the female defect: intent on their private lives, women follow their fate through a darkness deep as that cast by malformed cells in the brain. It is not worse than the male defect, which is lunacy: they are so obsessed by public affairs that they see the world as by moonlight, which shows the outlines of every object but not the details indicative of their nature.
And, she writes on Fascism, when it was still dutifully understood as some bizarre but horridly recognizable new weed of a political construct totally outside the human experience, and not as what it is, frightfully confident liberalism on frightfully strong steroids:
All forms of compulsion are practised on any element within the state that is resistant or is even suspected of retaining consciousness of its difference from the dominating party.... [Christian wedding cake bakers -- or fill-in-the-blank dissenters -- anyone?] 

The Prologue to Black Lamb and Grey Falcon bedazzled me further, because it reinforced a notion I have had since reading Gone With the Wind at the age of 12, and gawping at its easy references to the Borgias and Thermopylae and the First Triumvirate of Rome. Withal Scarlett O'Hara was presented as a charming ignoramus, because she did not know these things! It was astonishing, what the author and her editors expected the reading public of 1936 to absorb. My notion was that when everyone was better educated, writers wrote better books. That rising tide did lift all boats.

And here was Rebecca West, same era as Margaret Mitchell, real name -- West's, not Mitchell's -- Cicily Isabel Fairfield (why cloak that?) getting ready to plunge into the Balkans, remembering the three royal assassinations that shaped the wars of her youth and therefore her fate -- hence the talk of being blown to eternity amid the morning's scrambled eggs, it did happen to some -- and French poetry is a part of her life, too! On page one. Before drifting off under an injection preparatory to surgery, West is reading "that sonnet by Joachim du Bellay which begins, 'Heureux qui, comme Ulysse, a fait un beau voyage [Happy he who, like Ulysses, makes a good journey]." She is civilized. This, along with most of the books of her era and before, so easily showed it.

Now I did quickly begin to suspect that the du Bellay wheeze (as Bertie Wooster might say) might be schoolgirl memorization. I took French too, and I could quote, par exemple, Francois Villon in a pinch, just like anybody. "Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan [Where are the snows of yesteryear]?" This Villon is the poet whom Bette Davis' character in the movie Petrified Forest keeps calling "Francis Vill-yun," while erudite wanderer Leslie Howard looks on with pity and adoration (same era).

After West's Prologue begins the Journey. I was still bedazzled, for where should she begin this but in the city of Salzburg, Austria, in Mozart's house. What a thing to think of. I have actually been there. Rebecca West and I have stood in the same room and looked at Mozart's spinet, perhaps fifty years apart. She visited in about 1936, I in 1983. In fact she died, at the age of 90, just a few days I think before the Icelandair plane took off for my first and no doubt last trip to Europe. Hear me Lord. All I could think of, as the wheels inexorably rolled, was that I wanted to be home for an ordinary evening with my gray cat.

Upon reaching the Journey after the Prologue, I began to be less bedazzled and more annoyed with BLGF, as the great thick majestic book is called among the citizen-reviewers, whether pitying or adoring, on Amazon. (I love this service, by the way. The negative reviews of any book always contain the most wonderful nuggets of truth and crankiness and wildly unfounded but probably just supposition.) My disappointment seemed the severer because Rebecca West's word-painting is very lovely. Not quite as gleaming and many-prismed as Dorothy Carrrington's Granite Island, but very good. One hates to give up on an 1100-page book, closely printed, after only fifty pages. One stands stupefied at a 500,000 word memoir, and at a lady who can judge in passing that the embroidery for sale in a Yugoslavian village market is inauthentic Slav, only imitation "Victorian Berlin woolwork." Still, when her writing began to drift into the dotty territory of madmen and dreamers and princes lost in the woods, I balked. I met and disliked this style, I am sorry to say, most thoroughly in the work of Elie Wiesel. Oddly, he of all people came to me right away. Central Europe, again. No word painting. But the same era.

Rebecca West begins the Journey chapter on the train with German tourists, on vacation from Nazi Germany, which is a thing you don't think about. They complain that Nazi party-loyalist tenants in an apartment building can't be scolded or evicted, whatever constant ruckus they make ... " 'the private citizen hasn't any liberty, but the state hasn't any real authority either.' " If you want to vacation you may only go to certain approved places, because when you holiday of course you are taking your money out of noble and needful Germany ....

But for West the main thing is, these people are tourists. At long last I think I understand what a tourist is, for I have read my share of travel writing by people who sniff at the sub-species. The tourist is concerned that unexpected and disagreeable things may happen before he reaches his destination. Perhaps in that way he is the ghost of a true pilgrim, only with nowhere really significant to go. A real traveler, on the other hand, looks forward or claims to do, to the unexpected. All the hotels in Zagreb are so comfortable and all the food good. If the tourists can't after all get into one or find the other, they will find substitutes just as good. In fact West considers the tourist's worry, paradoxically, to be dithering and "inefficient." 

When the train arrives at Zagreb the real holiday, true foreignness, begins. She looks out the train window to see an elderly man running alongside the tracks carrying an umbrella, in the pouring rain, holding the umbrella well out from himself and getting no shelter from it while he calls repeatedly " 'Anna! Anna!' " Three times he makes this performance, running up and down alongside the train, calling for Anna. Rebecca West, refreshed, now purrs, "I was among people I could understand."

This is what makes me abandon a thousand-page, twentieth-century classic at page 38. Am I wrong to do so? Remember what Ernest Hemingway said about the mental transformation of the downtrodden husband in The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber? "Fear gone like an operation." In my case, it was curiosity to read more, gone like an operation. Rebecca West's very next anecdote, about her bizarre tour guide at Zagreb, who once wrote a flamingly angry political article, and submitted it to "the censor," but then had to delete all of it because he was the censor himself -- that tale, so to speak, even erased the scar from the operation. " 'In what capacity, as author or as censor, must I be untrue to my ideals?' " she claims he asked proudly. Again our Rebecca swoons at magical foreignness, and purrs, "I am among people I understand" (p. 46). Later she explains this Gregorivitch or whoever in well-sculpted prose. He was heir to a different time, when an office and its responsibilities outranked the man, the man did not do the job to his own satisfaction or convenience, depending on what sense it made to him.
"He must have been conscious, all his life, of the social value of patriotic poets and, for the last unhappy twenty years, of censors. Therefore it seemed to him that he must do his best in both capacities, not that he should modify his performances to uphold the consistence of his personality. That, I could perfectly understand ...." 

And this is where I began thinking of the books of Elie Wiesel. He was not a travel writer but he would write a story like that, and about the umbrella-man too, men who were heroes of some other code, madmen or dreamers who then disappear in the woods. The key is that he understands them. After his first book of terrible witness, Night, he tended to venture into literary realms where no one can follow because he uses storytelling to paint himself as a perceiving subject, rather than to make clear on the canvas what he wants anyone to see. Is that what it means to be a Gnostic? -- to be privy to secret meaning? When he begins about beggars and princes lost in the woods, fine, but I don't know what he is talking about, nor whether he is hiding, or revealing, anything true.

It's the same for Rebecca West. Having established that of course she is not a mere tourist, looking at things as they are: when she says an old man ran up and down alongside the train doing something that makes no sense, or when some other man wrote and censored his own essay because each act was upright in itself, fine, but I have no interest in reading further because I don't know what Rebecca West is using language for. One hates to be the cynic saying these things don't happen, except perhaps among Slavs, who are madI don't like that dismissal when it comes to the Bible, say. "So religious people are mad, so what." Since Rebecca West is not actually divine revelation corroborated by witness, we are left only with her, fascinated by herself as the perceiving subject, restful among people she can understand. Which seems like a bald lie. At any rate it wasn't enough to carry five hundred thousand words.

I said that I love the reviews on Amazon. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon gets a lot of five stars, and only a few one-stars. Probably the best assessment is from a five-star reader who thinks that the people who hate this book are hung up on West's sympathy for the Serbs, a nation much admired in her era but not in ours. He assumes the detractors even wade in that deep. I nod at the one-star snorts. " Much too long." "Drivel." "The Britisher abroad in that era." I close Black Lamb and Grey Falcon at page fifty, wondering at the taste of another era, and deciding, No, I'm not being idiotic.



Monday, January 14, 2019

It's probably significant that I like bitters

At the same time that I was purring over my Four Complaints about Christmas Eve midnight Mass, and thinking that someday historians and God would see that here was the summation of It All, the wonderful -- I may almost say, the great -- Sister Wendy Beckett died. December 26, 2018, at the age of 88. How fitting that this cheery lady should die the day after cheerful Christmas!

I own quite a few of her books and I have watched and loved all her television shows. I saw to it that my now-grown children also knew about her. They can quote her on the muscular heroine, in a painting of Judith and Holofernes, "swinging the man's head like an apple," and about Henry VIII's being a "horrible man with little piggy eyes." At the age of six or seven my son made a Lego scene of Sister Wendy visiting an art museum, complete with an entrance arch, green plants, a cameraman and a kiosk with a map of the "museum." He used the black hood and cape from a Darth Vader Lego figure to represent a nun in traditional garb. Yesterday when I told my daughter that Sister Wendy died she exclaimed, "No! That sucks." She remembered.

Even though the good sister's art writing is wonderful, there are tiny hints from her heyday in the world in the 1990s, interviews and so on (though not this one), that gatekeepers and purists chafed at her. I wonder if their complaint was, that she does tend to treat painting all a bit alike. She treats it as a coded story -- a kind of play performed, an arrangement of symbols which she elucidates. Almost no talk of brushwork or line, as I suppose the gatekeepers wanted. Still, she decoded art with more profundity than most of us do, who scarcely walk into a museum at all and absolutely don't use the most necessary tool of all in appreciating art. That would be "a chair," as she once quoted someone else saying. In other words we don't stop, look, and think.

She did. She noticed that the iron scrollwork of an apartment balcony in a Matisse spelled the word Non, and that that had something to do with the angry couple in the painting. She noticed that a young squire's droopy socks in a Gainsborough portrait marked him as a "yobbo." She noticed the seven different flowers lightly incised on the seven lobes of a sea-green Korean ceramic jar, and told what joy it was to commune silently with a great work of porcelain art. If you do go into an art museum you can do that too, in privacy, because almost nobody visits Halls of Oriental Ceramics.

The gatekeepers who may have found this amateurish also did not approve of a nun looking at pictures of naked people -- a salacious criticism on their own part, she shot back. For my part, gradually after absorbing her art books I came to find her writing on prayer.

This struck me afresh. She always slipped in a few spiritual comments here and there in her introductions to be sure, or with the voice-overs to her shows. One of the best, from Sister Wendy's American Collection, was "Poverty, whether spiritual or economic, leaves us enslaved to work, either having it or wanting it ... museums, like theaters and libraries, are a means to freedom; they take us out of our daily anxieties into the vast and stable world of human creativity." When she discussed religious art, naturally she could let herself go. Unhappy customers on Amazon to this day who give her books only one star snipe at this. Why is all the art Christian? Not everybody's Christian. Ah well, dear soul, get a chair and let us look at Western civilization ....

To really settle into her writing on prayer, a much more important matter for her than art she said ("I would die for it") is to settle into much more deep, difficult, and practiced writing and thinking. Here, you might say, she is a professional, interested in brushwork and line. Here you are learning from a "content woman" who has done one thing for fifty, sixty, seventy years. There are gems to be found with her, fingered, turned, set down and looked at again and again in an effort to understand. Over the years I have created a small handwritten prayer book of my own by copying down quotes that seem to me prayerful, or at least very wise, and Sister Wendy has pride of place at the beginning of my jottings.

"The life of prayer depends completely on believing in the value of prayer. It is a total act of faith, because there is no concrete result to show the world.

"Art is essentially beauty that draws us into the truth of our own being, and whenever we have truth and beauty we have God. ... Art can expose parts of the self I was not aware of, so there is more of me laid bare for God to possess. Art is a way of making me human, and you cannot pray unless you are rooted in the truth of your own humanity. 

"Prayer is never an escape but the opposite, an exposure. The real self is held out to the real God, and any pretense or lack of reality makes the whole exercise futile." 

All the above are from her art books mostly. From The Gaze of Love (1993) comes "The real difficulty about prayer is that it has no difficulty. Prayer is God's taking possession of us. We expose to him what we are, and he gazes on us with the creative eye of Holy Love ...our concern here and now is the actual time we set aside to grow in truth, to receive love, in other words, to pray." You can spend your work day thinking from time to time of these two tasks, "to grow in truth and to receive love," and consider that this is perhaps, as the Scriptures exhort, to pray constantly.

According to a fond obituary in Catholic Herald, Sister Wendy was, before the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, "Sister Michael of St. Peter." One of the many formalities given up at that time was evidently the formality of religiously vowed men and women taking an entirely new name in religion. Remember in the novel In This House of Brede when one of the pre-Vatican II novices becomes "Sister Polycarp"? Just so, our own Sister Wendy bore not one but two masculine names. When in the spirit of the Council she reverted to her own plain Wendy, she assessed it as an act of penance because she did not deserve the strength of the names of the Archangel and the first pope.

Go back to the beginning. Remember my sneering over my Four Complaints about Midnight Mass? What I mean to say now, in remembering our delightful art- and yobbo-critic nun, is here is someone who has carried on and done the work of God in obedience and joy regardless of, shall we say, small penances, or her own small observations of things outside her control. (I can't say "sneering" because it's impossible to imagine her sneering at anything. She might laugh at a person in a painting who is sneering.) She would have gone on doing her real job, prayer, whether the BBC ever discovered her or not, or whether a lot of artists made bad modern art or not. "I shake my head over much of it." Just as, after her television programs were famed but she declined to make any more, she still arose every morning at one a.m. to begin her true work day.

There are so many like her. You can sit and snort in derision at shortcomings at this year's Midnight Mass, or you can open the journal Dominicana or Word on Fire to see real work done. You can learn of the startling growth of the Latin Mass in United States parishes. You can read about the canonization causes of people you've never heard of, whose lives are beyond belief. John Bradburne, lay minister to lepers in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), martyr, 1979. Much like Sister Wendy, these men and women are pulling treasures from an inexhaustible store, riches that are so wonderfully the opposite of ego that you cannot imagine you will ever reach that fount, because the trick is by the time you know of these exemplars they are already famous, and so you think the path to get to the treasures is to go on being as cute as possible and waving at the world from the back of the room. You also want, by the by, to spend time congratulating God on his good taste in you. After all there are so many other things you could be doing. " 'You ought to be thanking God on bended knee you get any vocations at all,' " fumes one angry mother in In This House of Brede. " 'We do,' " the Abbess begins calmly.

So I have thought a lot about what drives these people away from ego and into the treasure house from which they they end up drawing personal accomplishment yes, but more importantly obedience, contentment, and even the much-vaunted "joy." What drives them in is truth, of course. Either he rose from the dead or he did not. Deciding he did not turns out to be the more ridiculous decision.

What keeps them there, or at least an added benefit of their staying, is a way of looking at people untwisted by the ferocious loyalties and purities of politics. By politics I don't even mean civic involvement or voting or following the news, all of which matter. I mean the looking at people only through the lens of human judgment and for the sake of (what somebody will airily call) human needs. I will shape you in truth. I know best what is right for this world, and your getting on board matters. The idea of our both turning to worship God as sinners and as loved -- ridiculous! And when you displease me I will unfriend you on Facebook, which is not a minor act. Nor is my neighbor's son taking her to see the latest propaganda film, Vice, and then asking her cannily what she thought, a minor act. The son was politically indoctrinating the mother. She told me she was shaking with rage after, and spoke of the main character burning in hell. She got on board. Non-political ideas -- of original sin, of mercy, of common humanity, of redemption -- are ridiculous there.

And when I snort, really politically, at what I fancy are outrages of my expectations at Mass, and then I see the joyous, anonymous labor of a Sister Wendy or a John Bradburne, I think -- here are people who have moved into a different mindset. They would pray for the choir warbling bad music and for the son and the neighbor and me and Dick Cheney and the moviemaker -- "he's a comedian but he's really intelligent and he did a lot of research" -- and themselves; and then they would open another art book and take more notes, or go help the next leper in line. They are really alive.   

Sister Wendy in another of her prefaces to an art book says, most people want to become important by doing something different, new, how else but in other people's judgment, and that it takes a long time to unlearn this natural if sterile human trait. She also, being a nun, writes very plainly of the things that work to make a human being; the things that still embarrass the political personality. In tribute to a great lady who is an antidote to the desire to snort and judge, to wave ridiculously to the world from the back of the room, we learn: Sister Wendy on the Art of Saints, 2011:

We are all born and each of us will die: Those are the two certainties of life. In between these certainties God has given us the gift of time so that we may grow into the fullness of what we are meant to be. This fullness is different for each of us, but the ways n which it is achieved are the same. 
Since God made us in his own image and we know what that image is through the historical actuality of Jesus, each person's fullness is an attainment of a likeness to our Blessed Lord. When we are as God wants us to be, we will have within us what St. Paul calls 'the mind of Christ.' We learn it through reading the Scriptures where God reveals himself in his son, and, complementary to that, we come close to Our Blessed Lord in the books written by those who have understood the Scriptures. 
Yet prayer, worship, and reading are only a part of our day (though, literally speaking, everything is or should be prayer). One of the most neglected truths is that we learn to become like Jesus through the actual process of living. God is giving himself to us all  the time; but all too often we do not see it. He gives himself in human relations, in nature, in literature, in music, in art.  

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