Michelle de Kretser, “The Lost Dog” (2007): Identifying a Post-Modern Meme

After discussing this novel with the friend who recommended it (as well as the same author’s Hamilton Case, reviewed here January 2), I decided that this is one of those novels that are more fun to discuss than to read.  Partly because given the author’s narrative method and the number of balls she is juggling, another reader is likely to notice important things you yourself missed.  And partly because the process of discussion itself unearths connections each of you individually missed during the reading process.

Hence, this is also the kind of novel that is likely to reward a second reading.  And I see that my earlier review of The Hamilton Case also indicated that a second reading might be rewarding.

If I reread The Hamilton Case, I would expect to get a better understanding and appreciation of the rather complex, multi-cultural, multi-class world de Kretser creates.  If I reread The Lost Dog, it would not be primarily to find out whether certain plot mysteries are finally resolved (first reading suggests that they are not) but rather to observe how gracefully de Kretser juggles all the thematic balls she has thrown up into the air or whether they all fall down in a random heap around her.

An aspect of de Kretser’s writing that both frustrates and fascinates me is her narrative method.  In both novels, she plops us down in the middle of a set of characters with minimal if any authorial guideposts as to the relationships among them or even, at least at first, which characters will turn out to be most important and therefore one needs to pay special attention to.

It’s very like going to a party where you know no one and, although everyone else seems to know everyone else, they are not going to help you by making introductions.  Which is in fact what happens to the main character near the beginning of The Lost Dog.  And his finding out how some of the people at this party are connected, or were connected in the past, turns out to be one of the main “mysteries” designed to keep the reader reading.

Like most mystery stories, this one becomes a game between the author and reader.   In such a story, reader satisfactdion usually requires just the right amount of frustration so that the game is not too hard or too easy.  In addition, a reader likes to feel that the author is “playing fair,” which typically means that the eventual solution does not depend significantly on information that seems to have been arbitrarily withheld.

As a mystery writer, de Kretser expects a very alert reader.  Honesty requires me to admit that my occasional loss of “fun” in the reading came when I knew she was getting the best of me, that she was “scoring” too often.  Particularly irritating was her habit of slipping in significant plot clues while you’re not watching—in the sub-clause of a sub-clause, as it were, or in a single name change in one seemingly insignificant sentence, an example of which my friend noticed but I entirely missed.  Not unlike how a magician diverts your gaze elsewhere to distract you from the tricks that make the “magic” work.

And then there’s the matter of the mysteries’ resolutions themselves.  Do they finally seem worth the reader’s effort?  Does the reader care enough about the characters so that what they learn and how they may change really matters?  If some plot-level mysteries remain unsolved or still capable of multiple solutions, are there sufficient thematic implications?

Using a plot mystery to explore larger themes has long been present within the mystery genre.  For example, some have read Edgar Alan Poe’s stories as explorations of psychological and perhaps spiritual guilt.  More recently—at least judging by the sample of books I have read this year—it seems that writers are using plot mysteries to suggest a favorite post-modern meme:  that “truth” depends largely if not solely on the perspective of the “truth-seeker.”

I see that I have highlighted this meme in my reviews of Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending (February 13) and Arthur and George (January 21) as well as de Kretser’s Hamilton Case (January 2).  Perhaps as a “post-modern,” I am especially on the lookout for this meme, but I don’t think I’m totally inventing it in these novels.

So about is The Lost Dog “about”?  The main character is both a Henry James scholar and a Henry-James-like character.  Highly intellectual, he is superbly aware of all the various kinds of concrete details, stimuli, or “clues” that come his way, but very slow to perceive their meaning—to discover what de Kretser describes at one point as “the figure in the carpet.”

Readers familiar with James will recognize her reference to his story by that title in which the narrator tries to tease out the “secret,” “the complex figure in a Persian carpet” in a story his friend the author has told him he put there.  Moreover, readers familiar with the ending of James’ story may interpret de Kretser’s reference as clue that her story, too, may have a somewhat ambiguous ending.

In de Kretser’s novel, her protagonist Tom is trying to figure out the past secrets of Nelly, a visual artist who infatuates him and seemingly teases him with what she reveals and what she conceals.  Just as de Kretser teases the reader.  Which is one reason I sometimes wanted to throw her book across the room but then found myself returning to it.  And I of course now see that in this analogy between Nelly and the author as in her reference to the James story, de Kretser is cleverly planting a comment within her art about the nature of her art.  I suspect I would discover more of the same if I reread the novel.

Another reason for my ambivalence while reading it is her verbal style which could be described as “rococo”—marked by ornamentation or, as one dictionary definition has it, referring to an 18th-century architectural and decorative art style, “a profusion of scrolls, foliage, and animal forms.”  Much like in a Persian carpet.  At times, I found de Kretser’s use of language positively dazzling.  At other times, it seems mannered, “over the top,” self-indulgent, and I became impatient with it.

De Kretser’s style, however, is admittedly of a piece with some of the larger themes she is exploring.  In an interview, she said that as a novelist she wanted to explore the similarities and differences between the verbal and the visual arts.  Accordingly, the novel is replete with descriptions of Nelly’s visual art of varying kinds—painting, photography, collage, installation, the clothes she wears.   In the novel’s portrayal of Nelly, her art, and the art world she inhabits, I was often reminded of what I learned about contemporary art in a university course I took several years ago.  Especially in its fascination with the material artifacts of commercial culture and what they suggest about contemporary social values.

And what about “the lost dog” in the title?  I’m going to leave that to the discovery of anyone invited to pick up the novel based on what I have said about it so far.

And conclude by observing that the process of writing this review has increased my desire to reread the novel.  Not because of my interest in the characters and their story.  But to explore further themes I have mentioned here and a good number I have not mentioned.


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Of Music and Silence: Johan Sebastian Bach and Claudio Abbado

Driving home from a weekend in Dayton, I listened to an interview with Anne Akiko Meyers about her new CD of Bach violin concertos.  The next morning I downloaded the album from iTunes and listened to it while cutting and chopping vegetables for soup and doing laundry.

And I realized how deeply satisfying Bach can be for someone waiting for an afternoon doctor’s appointment to tell her that the spot on her leg that looked like internet pictures of melanomas was just some broken blood vessels from an earlier trauma.

I decided that if I knew my death was indeed immanent, there could be no better companion than Bach.

I searched medici.tv for more Bach and found an Italian Baroque ensemble playing concertos with first two, then three, and finally four harpsichords.  And then the Mass in B minor performed in Notre-Dame de Paris.

And in my mind I adapted something I quoted here January 21 from my Trappist friend Paul Jones:  Typically, for me, as an avenue to the divine, “music is preferential to all but silence.”

I met this combination of music and silence again later that afternoon in a medici.tv. documentary on the conductor Claudio Abbado.  I have often appreciated his elegance on the podium and was grateful to learn more about him.

During his many years at the Berlin Philharmonic, for example, he abandoned the autocratic persona of his predecessor for more democratic leadership, repeatedly asking the musicians to listen to each other as well as watch him.

The documentary also portrayed the strength with which he faced an operation for stomach cancer and afterward set out on a new conducting challenge, creating a new orchestra.

Much of what we learn about Abbado in the documentary comes from what others, friends and musicians who have worked with him, have to say about him, rather than from what he says about himself.  For he seems himself verbally spare, saving his eloquence for his music.

And the silence that surrounds it.

One of the most memorable parts of this hour-long documentary is Abbado’s brief verbal description of the communal awe in a hall during the silence, sometimes a long silence, following an especially effective performance.  Abbado’s verbal description of that silence is then followed by a close-up view of him conducting the final phrases of a symphony and then standing in a long, rapt silence.

The look on his face reminded me of that which early painters and sculptors sometimes captured on the faces of saints in the moment of spiritual ecstasy, a look not of self-absorption but of pointing beyond.

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Julian Barnes, “The Sense of an Ending” (2011).

Barnes’ Arthur and George (2005), reviewed in my January 21 post, shares with this novel a preoccupation with how the same experiences and “facts” can be interpreted in such different ways.  In Arthur and George, an obviously innocent man receives a court judgment of guilty by a surprisingly convincing interpretation of the “facts” which is dramatically counter to the truth.  In The Sense of an Ending, a man in his later years learns that he has in major ways misread youthful relationships with friends and lovers as well as, subsequently, in a marriage.  As one of the women in his past put, he just “didn’t get it” and still doesn’t.

The novel raises some interesting questions about the complexity of our experiences and the reliability of our memory; it pulls the reader along in the hopes of discovering with the narrator the “true” interpretation of the “facts” which he has earlier missed; and it might provoke some interesting group discussion because readers are likely to disagree about the narrator Barnes has created.  I.e., is he unusually obtuse?  And if so, how relevant do his explorations of past experience and memory seem to readers who see themselves as significantly more acute?

The novel received some excellent reviews but I am one of those (e.g., Geoff Dyer http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/18/books/review/julian-barnes-and-the-diminishing-of-the-english-novel.html?pagewanted=all) who thinks that for all its clever crafting, it doesn’t have the heft or wide-ranging resonance of a novel deserving of the Booker Prize, which it won.  In this regard, I preferred Arthur and George which was short-listed for the Booker, as were Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot (1984) and England, England (1998).  I am thus inclined to compare this particular win for Barnes as similar to that of actors who win an Academy Award more for a series of earlier achievements than for the specific movie role that won it.



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“The Apostle” (1997), Robert Duvall writer, director, lead actor.

On March 6, 7, and 8, in a “Religion in Cinema” film festival on the Bluffton University campus, through the Institute for Learning in Retirement, I will be leading a discussion of this film along with “Of Gods and Men” (2010, about the Trappists in Algeria who were kidnapped in 1996) and “Silent Light” (2007, about a Mennonite colony in Mexico).   I got the idea for this festival from a review of “Of Gods and Men,” in which New York times film critic A. O. Scott included these three among the relatively small number of recent movies which “try to illuminate religious experience from within.” http://movies.nytimes.com/2011/02/25/movies/25gods.html

As it had been quite a few years since I saw “The Apostle,” last weekend I viewed it again and designed a handout with some background information and possible discussion questions.

This viewing confirmed my earlier impression that in his portrayal of a troubled Pentecostal minister, Robert Duvall avoided the expected caricature traps to portray a man who is flawed but in many ways admirable, someone we come to love and respect even though his way of expressing his religious experience and finding redemption is likely alien to many of the film’s viewers, myself included.

To avoid spoilers, I’m not going to say much about the plot but rather, to encourage people to watch “The Apostle” for the first time or revisit it, share a bit about how the film came to be made.

Duvall says that he wanted to make this film since 1962 when, while preparing to play a character from the rural south in an off-Broadway play, he traveled to Hughes, Arkansas, and visited the local Pentecostal church.  He wrote the script in the 1980s and after he could not find a studio willing to film it, he decided to direct and finance it himself.  He did a lot of research before filming and pays special tribute to the many preachers he met who inspired him.  He borrowed liberally from their sermons and was impressed that they said he could use anything he wanted—no squabbles about copyright or screen credit.

Non-professional actors played a creative role in the film.  In the last service, for example, Sister Johnson and Sister Jewell came up with their own testimonies.  Of these services, Duvall said, “The assistant director . . . holds the non-actors within certain limits, but within those limits their performances are a very spontaneous thing.  Like those little twin boys, playing in the church aisle.  How are you going to direct them?  You don’t direct them. They were born into these churches. So when they want to jump up and down, they are going to jump up and down. That’s why we used so many non-actors. We tried to let the story come out from their own community.”

Sources:  Wikipedia, http://www.unomaha.edu/jrf/apostle.INTERVIEW.htm http://www.guideposts.org/stories-faith/inspirational-story-how-robert-duvall-discovered-his-faith-while-making-apostle?page=0,2

Only vaguely aware of the history of the Pentecostal movement, I consulted the Wikipedia entry on it as well as on the Azusa Street Revivals in Los Angeles, 1906-1915, usually credited with its modern beginnings.

What I found especially interesting about these revivals was the mixture of the 300-1500 people who attended.  According to Wikipedia, they came from “a diversity of backgrounds . . . men, women, children, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, rich, poor, illiterate, and educated. . . .  The intermingling of races and the group’s encouragement of women in leadership was remarkable, as 1906 was the height of the ‘Jim Crow’ era of racial segregation, and fourteen years prior to women receiving suffrage in the United States.”

Also I was reminded that initially “the majority of early Pentecostal denominations taught pacifism and . . . advocated conscientious objection” to participation in the military.

This position was eventually dropped.  And, as the movement became more institutionalized, the proportion of female leadership declined; and as it moved especially into the southeastern United States, separate white and black branches were formed.  Though it never entirely disappeared, interracial worship . . . would not reemerge as a widespread practice until after the Civil Rights Movement”—“The Apostle” is apparently set during or after this movement and was filmed on location, in and around Saint Martinville and Des Allemands, Louisiana.

According to Wikipedia, “Pentecostalism claims more than 250 million adherents worldwide.” “When charismatics [similar faith experience but within a longer-established, mainline church] are included with Pentecostals the number increases to nearly a quarter of the world’s two billion Christians,” “the fastest-growing form of Christianity today.”

For those of us outside this movement, Robert Duvall’s “The Apostle” might suggest some reasons why this is the case.  I look forward to discussing it after we watch films about communities of Trappist monks and Mennonites, in Algeria and in Mexico.

We will also discuss the film’s artistry.  It won Independent Spirit (independent films) Awards for best feature film, director, and best male lead.  Best actor award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the Chicago Film Critics Association, the National Society of Film Critics.  Its only Oscar nomination was for lead actor.  That year, Jack Nicholson won for “As Good as It Gets” and “The Titanic” won for best picture.

“The Apostle” holds 22nd place in the 2011 Arts And Faith Top 100 Films.  Holding 21st place in this list is “Tender Mercies” (1983); with a similar setting and themes it also stars Duvall, who this time did win the acting Oscar.   http://artsandfaith.com/t100/

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Wagner and Anti-Semitism, part 3 (see January 5 and 8 posts)

Yesterday, I finished Robert Greenberg’s twenty-four Teaching Company lectures on Wagner.  In his last eight lectures, on the Ring Cycle and Wagner’s last opera, Parcival, Greenberg lays out the anti-Semitic messages of these operas in part by referring to the vicious, paranoid essays Wagner was writing at this stage of his life.

Greenberg says that these anti-Semitic views would have been obvious to most of Wagner’s contemporaries, but I admit that in my viewing of these operas, I have miss many of them.

Of course, I have had a generalized idea of why they might have had a special appeal for Hitler and others during the Nazi regime.  For example, in the Ring cycle, there is a hierarchy of different “races” with the subterranean, gold-loving dwarfs, who could represent the Jews, at the bottom; it is the greed of one them who, in the very first act, sets the foreground plot in motion by stealing the Rhine Maidens’ gold.  In addition, both Parcival and the Ring Cycle feature a sword-bearing super-hero who embodies the hope for social and spiritual salvation.  Both Siegfried and Parcival are reared outside society and so untainted by it that when we first see them, they are amoral—the rules that apply to others don’t apply to them; in addition, they have special, mystical powers that set them above others and could thus could elicit the kind of mystical hero worship Hitler encouraged, with devastating effect, in his followers.

Greenberg’s lectures taught me how these operas expressed Wagner’s anti-Semitic views more specifically.  For example, in the Ring Cycle, we see not only his racism but also his paranoia, his fear that German society as a whole could be destroyed if Jews and their influence were not expunged.  Thus, the Ring Cycle can be seen as a cautionary tale: the dwarf Alberich’s stealing of the gold and turning it into a ring of power eventually leads to the downfall of the gods in the last opera.  To be sure, the gods contribute to their own downfall, but an audience so inclined could say that it was because they were tainted or infected by the dwarves’ love of gold.  In any case, as Greenberg observes, when in the last act of The Twilight of the Gods we observe in the distance the gods inside their Valhalla going up in flames, we today might well think of Hitler and his inner circle committing suicide in their bunker while Berlin burned above them.

In the Ring Cycle, Siegfried, the hero the chief god Wotan hoped would save them, fails in his task.   Parcival succeeds.  The plot is too complicated to unfold here.  Suffice it to say that it is based on a medieval legend about the Holy Grail, the cup which was used at Christ’s last supper, later collected some of his blood, and continues to have mystical powers for those pure enough to see it.  It is surrounded by guardians, typically an order of knights who sometimes venture out to use its magical powers on humanity’s behalf, the title character of Wagner’s Lohengrin, being an example.

According to Greenberg, in Parcival the unbeliever Wagner cynically uses this religious symbolism as a cover for his obsession with racial purity.  Wagner the essayist argued that Christ could not have been Jewish and in this opera, according to Greenberg, Wagner sets out to create a new Christ without that blood taint.  Race mixing was especially to be feared and abhorred—the villain who ensnares and kills Siegfried in the Ring Cycle is half dwarf.

In Parcival, this fear is embodied by the king of the knights who protect the Grail.  He has been ensnared into sleeping with a temptress who embodies the archetype of the “wandering Jew”; and in a battle with her master, he has received a wound that will not heal.  He must be saved by a knight who resists her temptation and thus keeps his own blood “pure.”  Parcival succeeds in this quest and, upon his return, is crowned the new king of the grail’s knighthood and, according to Greenberg’s interpretation, is presented as a new Christ, one “untainted” by Jewish blood.

The abhorrence one is likely to have toward Wagner’s apparent intentions in this opera is only increased if one considers that he intended it to be produced only in the auditorium he built at Bayreuth, which he regarded in at least quasi-religious terms.   In the nineteenth century, Wagner was not alone in thinking that as religion lost its hold on people, that vacuum would be filled by art.  However, to my knowledge at least, no other artist had such a messianic (yes, I am aware of the irony) belief in the power of his own art to save society such that he built his own temple.

Given all of the above, it is not surprising that the question of how to regard Wagner’s art, his “music dramas,” as he called them, remains contentious.  I can certainly understand how his anti-Semitism and the subsequent history of his music dramas in Nazi Germany would bar some from an appreciation for his musical, and sometimes, dramatic genius.  Indeed, it remains to be seen how I myself will respond to them now that I have heard Greenberg’s lectures.  To see if I can set aside these interpretations and this history enough to still be moved by Wagner’s dramas and, above all, his music.

There is of course much else in these operas that is foreign to me, for the material Wagner was using is very old, having its origin in oral folktales and myths long before it was given written form in the twelfth century by the French Cretien de Troyes and adapted somewhat later in German by Wolfram von Eschenbach, Wagner’s chief source.

In addition, it is my experience that folktales and myths often refuse to be shaped exactly as a particular author or intends (Wagner wrote his librettos as well as his music).  For good reason folktales and myths are sometimes called humanity’s dreams; like dreams, they arise from deep within human experience but often in puzzling form, rarely if ever yielding just one interpretation; hence, much depends on the knowledge and experience, of the interpreter—which in this case, I would argue, includes Wagner’s audience at any particular time and place as well as Wagner himself.

As Greenberg says, the reason Wagner’s operas are still performed lies in their music—indeed Wagner said that the music usually preceded the words in his creative process.  However, it seems to me that the longevity of Wagner’s art also owes a great deal to his use of traditional stories that can speak in ways other than what he may have intended.   Certainly that is how they have spoken to me before I learned about anti-Semitic messages he may have intended.

In addition, of course, much depends on how they are performed.  Alberich can be and has been performed in make-up and with gestures that clearly evoke Jewish stereotypes.   In the Ring Cycle currently at the Metropolitan opera, he is performed by an African-American, which has different resonances, especially for an American audience.  I am not aware of them, but I’m guessing that there have been performances in which Alberich has been portrayed with considerable sympathy—one is reminded of the different ways Shylock is acted in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. 

I hazard this guess because I know that, especially in Europe, directors have often used highly inventive staging to impose their interpretation on an opera, including a questioning or even upending of the political implications of the original.  This certainly seems to be happening in Beyreuth, where Wagner’s descendents have been trying to rid his theatre and operas of their Nazi associations.  See, for example, the following review of the 2010 Beyreuth festival, which begins with a review of Lohengrin in which the German citizens of Brabant are portrayed as laboratory rats.


Whatever my response to the Metropolitan Opera’s movie-theater simulcast of Wagner’s “Twilight of the Gods” (February 11) or to Parcival (which I plan to watch again soon directly streamed to my iMac from the website “Met Player”), I know I will continue to wrestle with the questions of the relationship between art and morality posed by Richard Wagner.


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W. Paul Jones, “A Season in the Desert: Making Time Holy” (2000) and “A Table in the Desert: Making Space Holy” (2001): A “Theopoetic” Answer to Gordon D. Kaufman (See January 3 post).

W. Paul Jones is a priest and monk who spends one week a month in Trappist Assumption Abbey, in Ava Missouri, and the other three weeks in a hermitage he built, several driving-hours north, on Lake Pomme de Terre, later adapting the house on the next property into a refuge for anyone needing a quiet retreat. http://www.assumptionabbey.org/     http://www.hermitageretreats.org/

Before becoming a Roman Catholic priest and monk, he was a Methodist pastor and taught theology at Yale, Princeton, and St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City.  He describes himself a “bridge person,” having “a Protestant mind and a Catholic heart” (Table, 3).

I became interested in him and his publications during one of my several retreats at Assumption Abbey.  I have also visited his hermitage retreat center, and we have developed a warm though occasional email correspondence. As he always signs his letters just “Paul” (perhaps to acknowledge our shared Protestant heritage), I will refer to him thus here.

Paul does not fit the stereotyped image of a hermit as an isolate. From the monastery and his hermitage, he provides spiritual direction, in part via email, having published, in 2001, The Art of Spiritual Direction: Giving and Receiving Spiritual Guidance.  In a variety of ways he assists the poor in his area, and he is an activist in a number of peace and justice causes, such as opposition to the death penalty.  He often provides spiritual guidance to prisoners and has described one example in a book published in 2011 with Sr. Helen Prejean, A Different Kind of Cell: The Story of a Murderer Who Became a Monk. 

One of my favorites is his Teaching the Dead Bird to Sing: Living the Hermit Life Without and Within (2002), a memoir of his transition into the life of a monk and hermit.  I plan to reread it and post about it soon.

As I have been much enriched by his writings, I wish he were better known along with other Roman Catholic religious who have gained a wide following among non-Catholics such as Thomas Merton, of course, and the still-living Richard Rohr and Joan Chittister.

Now, to A Season in the Desert: Making Time Holy, and A Table in the Desert: Making Space Holy.

What I valued most about my retreats at Assumption Abbey was a revised experience of time and space.  Life slows enough so that one experiences them as ends in themselves rather than a means to some goal.  And paradoxically, I found that when one focuses entirely on the present moment within a fairly simple and circumscribed place, that present, small space sometimes springs open and thrusts one into a cosmic all-time and all-place.  As William Blake would have it, in “Auguries of Innocence,” you see “a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower,” you “hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour.”

I believe this is something of what Jones means by “making” “time” and “space” “holy,” although I’m guessing that if he had not had to minimize words for book titles, he would have allowed that all we ourselves can do is arrange our lives so that we are open to how time and space can sometimes be “made holy” for us.

After each visit to Assumption Abbey, I would try to better prepare for such “holiness” by simplifying my environment and slowing down.  I never tried to follow the monks’ round of prayers throughout the day, but I did and do follow the one daily ceremony of rising before dawn to write in my journal, do some “spiritual” reading, and silently wait (often sitting next to or holding my two small dogs) for the present to become Presence.

Paul’s books on time and space have often enriched these morning sessions.  And so, when last June I moved from Springfield, Missouri, to Bluffton, Ohio, I returned to them as part of an effort to sacralize this new time and space.  They did not disappoint me.

While revisiting these books, I was also reading Gordon D. Kaufman’s In the Beginning. . . Creativity (2004) and Jesus and Creativity (2006).  And it struck me that Paul and Kaufman were addressing some of the same questions, such as how current cosmologies are affecting concepts of “God” and how religion can encourage or hinder human efforts to pull back from making the planet uninhabitable by nuclear holocaust or resource poisoning and depletion.  But it also struck me that Paul and Kaufman were addressing these questions in strikingly different ways.

As I said in my January 3 post, I find Kaufman’s approach impressive intellectually but lacking in appeal to other aspects of our humanity.  Aspects I find provocatively engaged in Paul’s books, written largely from the view of a religious practitioner, although as a former theology professor, his intellect is also fully engaged.

A few days ago, a friend told me he was reading around in “theopoetics.”   I checked the Wikipedia definition and decided this term could be used to describe Paul’s approach; I emailed him, he agreed, and so I’m going to suggest that his books on space and time offer a “theopoetic” answer or complement to Kaufman’s creativity books.

In A Table in the Desert, Paul asserts, “We have reached the point of history in which theology, to be significant, must be written by those whose senses are poetically charged, and who have a firm sense that music is preferential to all but silence” (43).

“Secularism has seriously deadened our ability to recognize and function in a world of mystery and symbol” (Table, 157).  Hence, “more deeply now than perhaps at any other time in its history, the Church is at a crossroads.  Its viability rests in its ability to provide an alternative way of living time and space than that which characterizes our bitter age, an age of materialism and individualism. . . .  This would require the understanding and power sufficient to re-sacralize time and space—with their intersecting establishing the ‘mystery’ of place” (Season, 29).

Not surprisingly, as a Roman Catholic priest and monk, Jones devotes a considerable portion of his books to liturgical time and space—e.g., the Triduum (Easter weekend), the “Sacraments.”  I recommend these chapters highly, especially for a reader interested in comparisons of Roman Catholic to Protestant and Orthodox traditions, about all of which Paul is knowledgeable as well as respectful.

Here, I will focus on two chapters near the end of his second book, Table book, Chapter 5, “The Shaping of Space as Beauty,” and Chapter 6, “Thoughts on God.”

Near the beginning of Chapter 5, Jones observes that “the profound contemporary sin is ‘taking things for granted,’ diluting our ability to enter into the beauty of anything, our soul closed even to the absolute wonder simply in ‘being.’”   Accordingly, “we are called to sacralize our spaces into the fullness of life with which we are gifted daily.”  (179-181) Paul then illustrates these generalizations by a discussing a variety of specific spaces from homes, churches, and a public monument to wilderness.

He begins by describing how he built his hermitage on the wooded shore of a lake.  While still teaching at St. Paul’s Methodist seminary in Kansas City, he took a “side-job” tearing down condemned tenements,” his “pay” being the “resurrected lumber” and “bent nails” with which, “in due time was birthed . . . a hermitage of beauty, built by my own hands out of my own dreams, ”  “in its own way, . . . an ecological atonement for the waste of our society for its prostitution of ‘beauty.’” (186)

Paul provides an extended description of his hermitage, including details such as that the main pillars came from an actual house of prostitution, that the basic color is “barn wood painted by the rain and wind,” that “the perimeters between inside and outside are intentionally blurred,” that “there are almost no ninety-degree angles in the whole home, nothing predictable, inclining more to the serendipitous and unexpected” (186-187).

When I visited Paul’s hermitage, its various zig-zags and floor levels seemed to be responding to the ground on which it is built—uneven, rocky, irregularly treed, descending toward the lake—as if organically grown from bottom up.

Not surprisingly, the other home Paul describes in some detail is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater.   And his “theopoetics” of religious architecture includes description of a Wright-designed church and three others as well as Jewish and Latter-Day Saints temples, all of which he and his students visited and studied in Kansas City.

Near the end of this chapter, “The Shaping of Space as Beauty,” Paul points to the necessity for spaces untouched by humans:

“The Church must enter a plea for sacred spaces—both natural and created.  Without deserts and wildernesses for the human soul, without the waters and oceans and rivers, the heights and depths of mountains and hills, the plains and the sunsets, the straight paths and the labyrinths, the forests and the caves—without these, the human spirit languishes, deeply.” (223)

Accordingly, at the center of his next chapter, “Thoughts on God,” is an account of his hike down into the Grand Canyon where, like Jacob, he wrestled with God.

As he descended, he went through several stages.  First, his “eyes became those of an artist”; then he became “contemplative, empty of thought.”  Finally, his journey became “decidedly physical and, simultaneously, more spiritual.”  Thirst and warnings not to progress further without a gallon of water reminded him that, unlike the “toads, lizards, a coiled rattlesnake,” a circling “vulture,” he did not belong here.  Pondering the age of a pebble, he remembered that “in a universe possibly twenty billion years old, the first dated year in history is 4241 BC”; he observed “how utterly insignificant to this bleak wholeness is the fact of self-conscious mind”; and he wondered “how can one any longer take this recent phenomenon of self-consciousness as the image for understanding the whole?”  (227-229)

This question reminds me of Kaufman’s assertion that given our current understanding of the cosmos, anthropomorphic images of God are no longer valid.  However, while, as I see it, Kaufman addresses this God-problem largely from the perspective of someone flying well above human history and individual experience, Paul speaks from deep within the gritty subjectivity of human life.

As well as “theopoetically,” for his physical trip down into and back out of the Grand Canyon is portrayed as archetypically parallel to his spiritual journey.

At some point during his descent, he watches a spider assault a fly caught in its web and asks, “How can I stomach a God who designed such an arrangement, especially when, sooner or later, each of us will experience the whole from the vantage point of the fly?”  “It is inconceivable that one can identify God as a loving Creator, for in Creation every organism routinely devours something else for its livelihood.”  (231-233)

Speaking as a theologian, Paul observes that “in the trade we call this conundrum ‘theodicy,’ the effort to vindicate God in the face of sin and evil.”  However, beginning to see a possible way up out of this canyon-conundrum, he reflects that “the enigma that confounds every attempted theodicy rests on one beginning assumption:  that from the beginning, God is a fully conscious Creator.”  (233)

He considers a “process theology” alternative, in which God is not seen to have preceded creation but is “organically related to it.  God is to cosmos much as mind is to body, luring forth the novel possibilities of each instant” (235)—a concept which reminds me somewhat of Kaufman’s concept of God as “serendipitous creativity.”

However, Paul rejects this “process theology” answer.  For, just as he cannot stomach “a transcendent, all-knowing God who borders on sadism,” he finds unsatisfying “a God so immanent within the organic process that ‘it’ borders on impotence.”  “With such a God, the highs and the lows are leveled, diluted into a quietly reasonable and aesthetic order, kindly focused as divine invitations to choose well from divinely weighted choices.” Confronting these two unacceptable options, Paul says to himself,  “Damn.  This canyon is becoming harder to climb.”  (235-236)

“No.  I refuse such a god for the price is too great.  The price is a sacrifice of the full mystery, the terror, the grotesque, the hemorrhaging and blatancy of evil, as a surd worthy of rage.  While their God drinks deeply of sadness, the process imagery cannot keep hidden the God of the Grand Canyon.  The God here is the One who dabs with blood, with a huge brush made of human hair.  I would be a traitor if I denied that the cross remains the bottom line on history’s balance sheet, inscribed in red.”  “What matters is if there is room for Nikos Kazantzakis’s portrait of God.”  (237-237)

As Paul continues his hiking spiral up out of his physical and spiritual Grand Canyon, he increasingly finds within his Christian tradition images with which to understand it—and perhaps more important, live with and be inspired by it.

Observing that “contemporary theologians have largely abandoned the once widely accepted image of a completed Creation, from which humans fell,” Paul proposes a “reverse Trinity.”  The traditional Trinity begins with “the Father” as “a self-conscious, willing, all-powerful, all-knowing creator and designer of the whole” who “sends first his Son as Incarnation . . . bridging through suffering the alienating distance universally manifested as death,” and then his Spirit, as a “gift for those who believe.” (239-240)

“A reverse Trinity,” on the other hand, “would begin with the Spirit brooding over the face of the chaos . . . bringing form to the void.”  “This sacred restlessness becomes carnal, incarnated in and through and with the breath and depth of all Creation.  Intertwining nature and history in a common pilgrimage, this surging Spirit we call Holy, for it is Divine-self-consciousness in the making . . . moving powerfully toward the Divine fullness of consciousness whereby God is All in all. . . . With this image, the ‘Father,’ as fully self-conscious Being, no longer appears at the cosmic beginning, but as the ongoing end, as the eternal culmination of the Spirit’s contending.”  (241)

As in the traditional Trinity, Christ is central to Paul’s reverse Trinity:  “Expressed Christologically, God is birthed as the lowly one, unrecognized during the hidden years, crushed and bloody in divine-human crucifixion, resurrected as the intoxicating hope of ascension luring all things as a Pentecost.”  (245)

As in Kaufman, there seems to be an underlying evolutionary model here:  “God,” as well as cosmic and human history, is to be understood as “Becoming” rather than “Being”; all are intermixed in an unfolding process of Mysterious Creativity; human beings are co-creators, having, for example, a crucial role in deciding whether life will continue on our planet.

However, unlike Kaufman, Paul does not see the need for abandoning “anthropomorphic” images of God, such as, here, “Divine self-consciousness in the making.”  Nor even the more specifically anthropomorphic images of Christian scripture and tradition.

Perhaps because he is a “theopoet” who believes that “when the poet in each of us dies, God is strangled” (244).  Perhaps because he realizes that in talking with each other about that which is both most mysterious and most important to us, we humans often need to use self-reflective language, language rooted in all aspects, including the physical details, of our lives.  Although we must choose them wisely and always be aware of their limitations, we humans do need images.

Moreover Paul asserts that we need a “primary” or “primal image,” one “so powerful that it is able to hold in place most of the assorted pieces of one’s life”; “a primal image sufficient to sacralize our time and space” (Time, 86).

Not surprisingly, “Father” Paul says that the “primal image” that has “bitten” him is the Eucharist, which he does not limit to that which is part of his priestly function in church.   The Eucharist includes “the cup of joy with friend or stranger, intoxicated by the sheer delight of simply being alive.”  It also means “lifting up daily the paten of pain and yearning and brokenness of the world, lifting everything into God’s own becoming, forever.” (Time, 95)

This latter meaning is prominent in his depiction of his Grand Canyon journey.  Here, the Eucharist and Grand Canyon provide an image for his growing understanding of how God and the cosmos, the living and the non-living, the human and the non-human, are related in an unfolding creation:

“The Grand Canyon is a cauldron of death.  I began seeing it as a symbol of Creation’s bloody chalice.  Its restless sides teem with life, propelled by an insatiable drive to to endure, indeed, to prevail.  The restless wind, the soundless pull of river, the clutching root-fingers of trees, lean varmints in crouched determination—all are sister-brothers in this surging restlessness.  We can feel this straining deeply within ourselves.  Life is thrashing about, expanding, reaching out—in uncertain directions for seemingly unknown reasons. But here it is that one can sense strangely that consciousness is not totally alien.  It is an amazing breakthrough within the whole, for the sake of the whole.  Leaning out with giddiness over the rail, I could begin to confess that this emergence of self-consciousness does bring us to the alienating burden of knowing what nothing else in Creation seems yet to know; and yet it opens a deeply religious threshold.  At the center of Michelangelo’s famed fresco in the Sistine Chapel appears the image of God reaching out toward Adam, newly created.  Their fingers almost touch, as God and human finally greet in self-consciousness, as this aperture exposes the meaning of the Whole.”  (Table, 237-38)

I have quoted Paul generously this discussion not only to illustrate the “theopoetry” in his use of language but also to whet an appetite for the books themselves.  Being a retired literature professor rather than theologian or philosopher, I am personally predisposed to prefer Paul’s books over Kaufman’s.  But I recommend them both highly.  And I am very glad I read them together, because they complemented each other in very instructive ways.

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Julian Barnes, “Arthur and George” (2005)

Because of his creation of the very popular Sherlock Holmes stories, for which he was knighted, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle received many requests to become a detective but routinely refused them until at a time in his life when he was needing adventure, he undertook a campaign to establish the innocence of a man who had spent three years in jail for a crime it was obvious he did not, could not commit, a case which resulted in some significant improvements in the criminal justice system.

This actual case is the basis for Julian Barnes’ novel, a considerably less strenuous read than Michele de Kretser’s “The Hamilton Case” I reported on earlier, which likewise features a crime, detection, and miscarriage of justice.  Reasons include Barnes’ much smaller cast of characters, a linear plot that moves along expeditiously, and a minimum of language play and the direct “philosophizing” which is apparently to be found in Barnes 2011 Booker Prize winner, “The Sense of an Ending.”

Not that “Arthur & George” isn’t exceptionally well written–I can see why Barnes is held in such high regard.  And it does raise some philosophical issues.  But Barnes invites the reader to tease them out from the story itself, by comparing the personalities and fates of the two protagonists, for example, and by observing how the same set of details and circumstances can be interpreted in such opposite ways.

One of the questions raised within the novel itself is whether George’s ethnicity played a role in his conviction.  Arthur is certain that it did, but George denies it.   The reader is likely to side with Arthur, but it is interesting to speculate on why George denies it.

For well over half of the novel, in alternate chapters, we follow the two characters as they grow up and find their careers.  By that time, I was really curious about how these two very different people would interact as well as, of course, whether and how the crime-detection story would be resolved.

I found it a very enjoyable read.

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