Happiness is a good music biography, especially on a Friday tumbling into the weekend, and Tony Fletcher’s biography of the Smiths hits the elusive biographical trifecta: it manages to be all-knowing, heedlessly passionate, and light of touch all at once. It’s having the critic-proof effect of transforming the casual fan (this fan) into an ardent one as I turn the pages, so that I wind up at once feeling lucky to have been introduced to them early and kicking myself for not keeping up with them.
The introduction was through Hatful of Hollow: a college friend had it, and then some critic (not Robert Christgau, it turns out) tipped it as the Smiths record to get. Thirty years and a thousand plays later, I learn – for the first time – that it is a compilation of the singles, released every few weeks in England in 1983 and 1984 and boosted by BBC DJ John Peel, that made the Smiths’s name, and that it was put together as a fixer-upper after their first record was underwhelming:
“As far as we’re concerned, those were the sessions that got us so excited in the first place and apparently it was how a lot of other people discovered us also,” said Morrissey in the official press release. “We decided to include the extra tracks from our twelve-inch singles for people who didn’t have all of those and to make it completely affordable.” Syntax aside, he had summarized it perfectly.
… Hatful of Hollow appeared to have been sequenced by a roll of the dice. `How Soon Is Now?,’ for example, all seven minutes of it, was crammed into the middle of Side 1, in between songs from two different Peel sessions. In that respect, Hatful of Hollow had the delightfully random quality of the Who’s Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy or, more notably, the Rolling Stones’ Out of Our Heads – a compilation that had been released similarly early in that band’s career, admittedly before the birth of the album as an artistic statement.
That “delightfully random quality,” I now suspect, is what led me not to seek out the next Smiths record, or the one after that. Usually we think of “definitive” works as ones conceived as wholes and assembled with care, but in this case it’s the other way around. The record felt, and feels, definitive because it has the shape of its time, not some more orderly time come afterward. The jostling together of 16 Smiths songs left the impression of a band, and a place and time, seen from all sides – the great English band of the Thatcher era, the pride of pre-synth Manchester – and it was an impression I wasn’t eager to have dispelled.
Which means there are six full-length Smith albums I’ve never heard. Hand in wallet …
“We need jobs. We need good grades. We need green cards. We need American passports. We need our parents to understand that we are Americans. We need our children to understand they are Nigerians. We need new kidneys, new lungs, new limbs, new hearts. We need to forget the harsh rigidity of our lives, to remember why we believe, to be beloved, and to hope.”
So they have come to a Nigerian evangelical church in South Texas to see a blind man who is said to be a prophet and healer.
“We have come from all over North Texas to see him. Some of us have come from Oklahoma, some of us from Arkansas, a few of us from Louisiana and a couple from New Mexico. We own his books, his tapes, his holy water, his anointing oil. We know that he is an instrument of God’s will, and we have come because we need miracles.”
They are the transplanted Nigerian Texans in a story by Tope Folarin, “Miracle,” which won the Caine Prize for African Writing this year. The prize – often called the “African Booker” – is named for the late actor Michael Caine, who chaired the Booker Prize jury in England for many years and championed writing from Africa.
Folarin – a Utah native and Morehouse College graduate who worked for Google and was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford – was in residence at Georgetown this week, as the winner of the year’s Caine Prize is for a week every March.
'Miracle” is his first short story; and more than that, it is – he says – a “spiritual autobiography.” Just now I am loath to keep quoting Flannery O'Connor, or quoting my own work, but the story puts in mind the notion – floated in an address I gave at Georgetown – that in our time the territory O’Connor characterized as the South is now what is called the global south.
Here’s how “Miracle” ends, just about:
“This is what I learned during my first visit to a Nigerian church: that a community is made up of truths and lies. Both must be cultivated in order for the community to survive.”
I let Mardi Gras pass on the site because, this year, it passed me by — just about. Mardi Gras, for this northerner, is not about parades, or costumes, or dancing, or food and drink. Mardi Gras is about the music of New Orleans; and this playlist put Treme in mind – specifically, the Mardi Gras set-piece that figures into season three.
Remember Treme? David Simon’s post-Katrina New Orleans series got all its buzz on the front end, aired for four irregularly spaced seasons, and didn’t end so much as subside. Or so it seemed: I haven’t seen the fourth season – just watched season three in December and January. Watching it, I wondered, as I’d wondered while watching seasons one and two, where the whole Catholic side of New Orleans is felt in the series.
Is it? Watching late in the evenings, I missed parts and am hazy on others: but I can’t remember a significant moment that involved the famously thick Catholic culture of the city. Take that Mardi Gras scene. In the day, we are told — and we read in novels like The Moviegoer — Mardi Gras was a last guzzle before Lent. Tuesday was fat because Wednesday would not be. But on Mardi Gras on season three, the Indian krewes face off, the DJ guy with the soul patch ends up sleeping over in the restaurateur gal’s apartment, and the punky violinist catches a dawn cab to the airport. Mardi Gras is a culmination; the next day things start to get back to normal.
Have I got this right? And if so, what does it mean? I don’t ask in the way of pundits concerned that Catholic stuff should be represented on TV or claiming that the place of religion in the mass media is under threat. And I don’t ask with any confidence that “Catholic New Orleans” still exists. Louisiana was the first place hit hard by the crisis of priestly sexual abuse, and Jason Berry’s great and sick-making book made it feel like a storm as devastating as the hurricane a few years later.
I’m asking mainly out of curiosity as to what it would mean for the stories we tell. Flannery O’Connor, on the basis of literature and hearsay and a single day’s visit, characterized New Orleans as a city “both Southern and Catholic, and with indications that the Devil’s existence is freely recognized.” In cultural history the sense of the city was long rooted in the idea that Catholics (with their frequent confessions) take things easy as compared to their Protestant (especially Baptist) neighbors; that the food, drink, and rituals of the place are rooted in those of Catholic France and Spain; and that in the day-to-day of the place Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday are twined, with the city’s joyous excesses arising from the city’s deprivations: poverty, corruption, spongy ground, muggy air, lack of opportunity, and dependence on the outside forces of Big Oil and tourism.
It seems to me that if the Lenten side of the story has gone out of the story of New Orleans, a lot changes in our sense of the place – and in our sense of Catholic literature and culture in America, too. Is it left out, or is it gone, or does the one anticipate the other? Is it the case that, in life as in Treme, what the people of New Orleans believe in is New Orleans?
Ash Wednesday, and I am reading Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday” again. Isn’t this what rituals do, what rituals are for?
Yes and yes. When it comes to re-reading, they let us see a familiar work with a fresh eye, or let us see ourselves with a fresh eye through reference to a work that hasn’t changed since last time.
So it is with “Ash Wednesday.” In the Selected Poems, “Ash Wednesday” has a title page of its own, which gives the title and the year of publication – 1930 – in type worthy of a churchyard gravestone.
Eliot, born in 1888, was 42 years old in 1930, and that quick calculation led me to see the poem in a fresh way as a work about midlife. Eliot was enamored of Dante, and the debt to Dante in “The Waste Land” is widely understood. But the debts to Dante in “Ash Wednesday” are just as profound. As the poem opens, the speaker (as we were taught to call him) is in the middle of the road of his life: envious of others, past youthful expectations of personal change, mourning “the vanished power of the usual reign” and questioning his instinct to mourn.
His point of entry brings out the ways in which Lent – which begins with Ash Wednesday – is a middling season. We’re taught to think of Lent as a season of preparation, the way we are taught to think of Advent as a season of anticipation. But it seems to me that we feel the seasons differently – and maybe there is truth in the way they make us feel. Advent is felt as an ending, a December sloughing-off before Christmas and the New Year; and Lent is felt as a midseason, a time of getting-through between the twin peaks of Christmas and Easter.
That in turn opens on a further insight about midlife, a k a middle age. Whether we like it or not, midlife, for many of us, is a time of giving up, of sacrifices and renunciations sought and unsought. Is it any wonder so many of us kick at it so forcefully?
“Ash Wednesday” suggests that this time of sacrifice is not so much ritual as existential. The poem helps us to understand our lives — helps me to do so, at any rate. That, it seems to me, is something that we look to literature to do — and the literature that does it we call wisdom literature.
“Didn’t some wise man define a classic as a book that does not stay out of print?” That’s the great editor Robert Giroux (whose centenary approaches) — and who, by that definition, edited any number of classics: The Seven Storey Mountain, The Mountain Lion, Wise Blood, Life Studies, 77 Dream Songs, The Thanatos Syndrome, Elizabeth Bishop’s The Complete Poems, and so on.
Another way to define a classic is as a book whose influence keeps cropping up in the work of successive generations of writers. Brideshead Revisited is such a book. Its influence was apparent (along with that of a host of other English novels) in Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement, set in grand houses one European war earlier. Jhumpa Lahiri (in an interview a few months back) declared that if she could spend some time as any literary character, she would choose to be Sebastian Flyte. And in today’s Times Michiko Kakutani detects a Brideshead influence – or resemblance – in the new novel by Dinaw Mengestu, who holds the Lannan chair at Georgetown:
The first few African chapters of this novel have an elegiac quality oddly reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited.” Not only does the friendship that develops between the self-conscious Isaac and the charismatic Mabira echo that between Charles Ryder and the charming Sebastian Flyte, but there is also a similar sense of mourning for a vanished world: in this case, the lost interlude of African hope that flourished between the end of colonialism and the rise of authoritarianism in many countries across the continent.
That adjective “oddly” caught my eye. Why “oddly”? Odd resemblances are the best kind, aren’t they? That Downton Abbey resembles Brideshead Revisited is a matter of cultural necessity; that All Our Names does suggests the freedom of the artist.
Mozart, Auden, and Dorothy Day come together in the New York Review of Books:
When NBC Television was producing a broadcast of The Magic Flute for which Auden, together with Chester Kallman, had translated the libretto, he stormed into the producer’s office demanding to be paid immediately, instead of on the date specified in his contract. He waited there, making himself unpleasant, until a check finally arrived. A few weeks later, when the canceled check came back to NBC, someone noticed that he had endorsed it, “Pay to the order of Dorothy Day.” The New York City Fire Department had recently ordered Day to make costly repairs to the homeless shelter she managed for the Catholic Worker Movement, and the shelter would have been shut down had she failed to come up with the money.
The story of the time Auden brought Day a check in support of the Catholic Worker (told there by Edward Mendelsohn) is a key episode in the movement’s history, as canonically vivid as the making of peanut-butter sandwiches for longshoremen or the burning of draft cards in Union Square. The House of Hospitality in lower Manhattan was being held to an unusually strict fire code by a marshal who seemed to have political motives. Day set out the situation in the “Fall Appeal” for funds in the newspaper’s issue for November 1955. It worked:
The city’s case against the Catholic Worker was dismissed in court, the episode was written up in the press, and dozens of people made the pilgrimage to Mott Street to offer donations – among them W.H. Auden, dressed as scruffily as a Bowery bum, who gave Day a check for $250.
Mendelsohn – Auden’s executor – sees the episode as expressive of the “secret Auden” and as informed by the poet’s “idiosyncratic Christianity,” which had Montaigne as a patron saint:
He had no literal belief in miracles or deities and thought that all religious statements about God must be false in a literal sense but might be true in metaphoric ones. He felt himself commanded to an absolute obligation—which he knew he could never fulfill—to love his neighbor as himself, and he alluded to that commandment in a late haiku: “He has never seen God/but, once or twice, he believes/he has heard Him.” He took communion every Sunday and valued ancient liturgy, not for its magic or beauty, but because its timeless language and ritual was a “link between the dead and the unborn,” a stay against the complacent egoism that favors whatever is contemporary with ourselves. The book he wrote while returning in 1940 to the Anglican Communion of his childhood was titled The Double Man. It had an epigraph from Montaigne: “We are, I know not how, double in ourselves, so that what we believe we disbelieve, and cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn.” He felt obliged to reveal to his neighbor what he condemned in himself.
All the technical awards that went to Gravity last night – editing, sound editing, sound mix, visual effects, helmet design – suggest that it’s a work of science fiction, something like 2014: A Space Odyssey. But Vanity Fair's science-fiction correspondent suggests something different. I mean Michael Joseph Gross. In his deep-space reporting for the magazine Gross shows the ways phenomena we think of as science fiction are commonplace, if largely invisible in our daily lives. As he tells it, Gravity was “visually and emotionally, the most immersive cinematic experience of my adult life, and a vital reminder that a particular kind of storytelling, grounded in empathy and with the stakes of fate, is the fuel of fully human existence” – and the encounter led him to go through its director’s enigmatic body of work:
What I saw in Gravity—a character who in spite of herself makes a quest to find the powers of life, by reframing the limiting, limited facts of her existence in a self-skinning new narrative—is the template of all of Cuarón’s features, though some fit the pattern more neatly than others. The films follow characters on paths, from mired in fact to saved (or almost saved, or refusal to be saved) by story, and this structure recasts the director’s own description of his work (“road movies”) as something richer than a demurral.
Cuarón’s movies – whether Great Expectations or Harry Potter and the Prizoner of Azkaban – are road movies, and Gravity is a road movie “with one seriously open road,” more Fellini than sci-fi:
Fellini once described La Strada (“The Road,” 1954) as “the story of a man who discovers his neighbor.” That’s an incisive description of one of travel’s great rewards, and by its lights, all of Cuarón’s films are road movies, to greater and lesser extents. On the road, travelers are challenged to become themselves by transcending themselves, to restructure their perspective by empathizing with the people they encounter; and this act, by its nature, constantly creates new narrative understandings.
The Sandra Bullock character, Dr. Ryan Stone, is “saved by story”:
In Stone’s reluctant transformation—from being mired in fact to being saved by story—fact and narrative are not binary modes of perceiving the world. They need each other and are woven together by acts of imagination that might be called faith. Reoriented from fact to narrative, Stone gains a breadth of perspective that strengthens her imaginative command of facts, even allowing her to fly a space capsule that, in simulators, she has always crashed.
But Gross, rather than drafting the director, takes care not to push the point too far:
The Italian Fellini, a Catholic who distanced himself from the church, described the empathy of “a man who discovers his neighbor” as a Christian value, which he asserted, almost to the point of polemic, against his era’s reigning cinematic orthodoxy, Marxist neo-realism. Cuarón, who is Mexican, has disavowed any such agenda in his wide-ranging work. While promoting Children of Men, a kind of nativity tale, he clearly stated, “I’m not even Catholic.” The core assertion of his films is that life, for everyone, is a more complex, mysterious story than any set of facts suggest; and the greatest peril, for characters in these movies, is willed blindness to such complexity.
The greatest peril is willed blindness to complexity. That is well and wisely put, worth remembering, and repeating. The greatest peril is willed blindness to complexity. The greatest peril is …
Ten thousand magazine-ready words later, I get to turn to – return to – Gregory Wolfe’s most recent post about literature and belief.
Along the way, I realized that I haven’t quite gotten the hang of blogging, which (I am told) begins with an imperative not to “say something definitive” but to “say something.”
I am not sure I want to get the hang of that. But I wish I had said something, because in re-reading Greg’s piece, which is robustly organized and written, I see that there is less there than meets the eye.
To judge from the piece, Greg is having an argument with himself, not with me, or Dana Gioia, or anybody else. He wonders why certain kinds of literature, and certain books, have been ruled out of the discussion; identifies the sense of absence as part of the postmodern condition; calls what’s left of the argument “declinism” and “nostalgia,” and nostalgia for greats like Flannery O’Connor and C.S. Lewis in particular; confesses that he has heard “the siren song of declinism” himself, felt “the temptation to believe that we live in an era of exhaustion”; and against it affirms the value of an “incarnational” art as represented by artists who “struggle with faith,” such as Cormac McCarthy and Bruce Springsteen.
It’s a sound argument. But it doesn’t have much to do with the arguments I made in the Times Book Review, in a lecture at Georgetown published in Commonweal, in half a dozen pieces posted to this site, on the radio, or in the long book I wrote about four American Catholic writers or the dozens of writers in their company.
Anybody who’s read those pieces of writing knows that I am no nostalgist. What I am trying to do is to identify the nature of the literature we have so as to embolden us (beginning with myself) to make the literature we don’t have. If you are going to say with any authority what we don’t have, you have to describe what we do have, and that’s what I sought to do in the Times essay. To do it with any precision, you have to limit the scope of your argument, read and compare texts, make distinctions, and so forth. This is literary criticism, not a tenure review or a prize committee.
So – Greg to the contrary – I have nothing to say about an era of “exhaustion,” just about the nature of the American fiction coming down the pike in the past twenty years. So – Greg to the contrary – I am not ruling out the likes of Marilynne Robinson or Alice McDermott, just saying (and I’ll say it again) that it is significant that our two most accomplished novelists of belief set the major action of their books half a century ago, when the landscape of Christian belief, and religious belief generally, was considerably different than it is now.
Nor have I ruled out poetry, nonfiction, world literature, and the like. Quite the opposite: it’s my conclusion (see the Times essay) that the nature of our fiction, in part, prompts us to look elsewhere; and that (see the Georgetown lecture) in the past half-century nonfiction writers have spoken admirably to the questions their novelist predecessors posed at mid-century.
Yes, the postmodernists prize absence: but so did the modernists, in their way – and the impulse to see absence, and replace it with presence, goes backward from there. Deus abscondicus, anybody?
About “incarnational” art, I wonder if Greg is the one who is nostalgic – for the age of Andrew Greeley and David Tracy, who propagated this line of thinking a quarter century ago. It’s a line I find attractive. But I fear that it is the flattery that Catholics of their vintage paid to their and our tradition. To see in a work of literature a sense of ritual, or mystery, or human kindness extending beyond certain limits, or a glimmer of the divine, and call it “incarnational” is to claim for it a Catholic dimension that I wonder, over and over, reading those books, those critics, if the work itself actually has – and is to ignore the fact, obvious to me, that in our time (maybe more so than in theirs) the very basis for that “incarnational” view is questioned from moment to moment in people’s lives, and that there is real, fiction-ready drama in this: in people asking themselves and each other, from moment to moment, whether the Christian scheme is true or false, salvific or the big lie.
In 2014, with Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and other religions all thick on the ground, with our sense of human variety running strong in this country, I fear that it’s patronizing to draft artists to the “incarnational” position — to Catholicism — without making distinctions all the way, as I sought to do.
What is ‘incarnational”? I think greater precision is needed. What is it?