“There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.”— Frank Herbert Beginning. Middle. Ending. In a good book, all three rush by and you turn that final page satisfied, disappointed, or wanting more. Today marks the end of Education & Culture. The beginning was unexpected, Read More
Is Borne, then, meant like other post-apocalypse scenarios to function as a kind of warning, and if so, why is the warning never made explicit? Much of the story, like the gigantic flying bear, seems to be edging towards myth, with no rational explanation. Should we take it perhaps as an allegory, prompted by remarks which seem more powerful, more generally applicable, than is demanded by their context? Some people in the city think they have died already and are in Purgatory or Hell, being punished. “We cared,” says Rachel at one point, confessing a collective guilt, “but we didn’t do.”
In his mid-thirties, the late French thinker René Girard experienced an intellectual and religious conversion, which he credited with granting him the dense insight he would gradually unfold over a wide-ranging career as a literary critic, anthropologist, and Christian apologist. In “Everything Came to Me at Once,” cultural journalist Cynthia L. Haven gives us an elegant, accessible account of Girard’s transformation from skeptical nonbeliever to Catholic Christian. The slender booklet is excerpted from Evolution of Desire, her full-length biography of Girard, to be published by Michigan State University Press in the spring of 2018. Yet it stands on its own as a look into events that changed a young professor’s life, and as a test case of Girard’s own thesis that the highest forms of literary and intellectual creation spring from a humbling deflation of pride.
As a Camaldolese Benedictine oblate or lay member of an order of contemplative monks, I’ve been grappling for over twenty years with the conundrum of how to live more contemplatively. Three practices in particular have helped me resist the distractions listed above. First, I have developed a love of solitude and silence, which means that for part of every day I am free to live and work outside the limelight and away from the constant chatter. Second, I have slowly embraced simplicity through reducing choices and turning down the dial on constant stimulation. And third, I have learned to question my high expectations and consequently become more satisfied with what comes to me in its own way and time through a daily practice of lectio divina.
I also feel freed a bit from trying to explain the world—to others and to myself. Especially to offer guidance on how to think, on what is true and what is illusory. “Just telling a story, mate. Nothing serious.” (Maybe that’s a factor in why I created a perpetually confused narrator who claims to have no answers to anything.)
I’ve gone so far as to say, “I got tired of telling people what to think, so now I’m just telling a few tales.” To which more than one reader has responded, “Oh, you’re still telling people what to think.”
Busted, I guess I’d have to say.
Again and again, Carrington portrays danger when she uses the motif of a white bird in a garden or wilderness setting, repeatedly echoing the dilemma from her own young life: the problem of being over-shadowed and kept from the work she must do by Max Ernst and, by extension, any male force. “Jemima and the Wolf” follows the trajectory of a privileged “she-devil” and “difficult child,” her wild hair investigated by tasty insects, who is irresistibly attracted to a wolfman. His form at times flickers into that of a bird, animal, plant; he gifts Jemima with the head of a huge white rooster. She is no Little Red Riding Hood, dutifully heading through the forest toward the safe island of grandmother’s house. Her pursuit of the mysterious man’s alluring beauty and power from the stately drawing-rooms of home through wilderness ends inevitably in the realm of the dead.
True to his own foundation, Lear’s writing demonstrates a great deal of creative freedom, exploring the ironic interplay between Plato and Kierkegaard, the psychoanalytic dimensions of Shakespeare, J.M. Coetzee, and Marilynne Robinson, and the connections between Aristotle’s ethics and Native American cultural heritage. In relationship to psychoanalysis proper, Lear is not offering a belated entry in the Freud wars or an attempt to repristinate what’s become an unfashionable legacy. Instead of settling or fixating on Freud, Lear argues, we need to work through him: “if psychoanalysis is to live up to its promise of being a moral psychology—one that contributes as it comes to understand what it is to lead a full, rich, meaningful human life—it must find ways to mourn Freud’s legacy and move on.”
If, as Monty Python says, “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition,” neither do we plan on shipwrecks on a desert island. Nevertheless, if I were taking to the open seas this summer I would surely carry several books by memoirist and novelist Rachel Cusk. (Just on the off chance.) I can think of few writers whose work might offer more in the way of distraction, engagement, challenge, and solace to the stranded. Oh, and did I say: provide more pure pleasure, the kind you recognize when you find yourself grinning ear to ear and talking to the book you’re holding in your hand?
Interest in their lack of sentimentality is not necessarily full-throated endorsement. In the chapters on Sontag and Didion, Nelson sharply brings forward the limits of a self-consciously unsentimental pose, which can devolve into smugness or self-satisfaction. Still, she insists, what links the six women discussed in the book is not simply their toughness but a need for reality, a move toward the painful. If there’s not a sisterhood, there is at least a school of unsentimentality here. In their attitudes toward their subjects, they sought to comprehend, to rebuke, to pay attention, but not to justify or to comfort. One could characterize them as seeking, in every instance, to be deliberately uneasy.
Many books have been written in recent years, by scholars, about the need to expand our feelings of kinship. Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene is an example; Timothy Morton’s forthcoming Humankind: Solidarity with Non-Human People is another. Such works are highly theoretical and dense with reference, and while there is a place for all that, I suppose, it is something of a relief to turn from such writers to one whose deep feelings of kinship with the nonhuman arise from the touch of a hawk’s feathers, the meeting of eyes with a mouse, the discovery that what lay next to his boot as he dozed in the shade of a mesa was not a pile of pebbles but a rattlesnake, taking his own calm siesta.