Posts Tagged ‘Fiction’

Some More Provocative Sentences

January 27, 2013

The power of grief to derange the mind has in fact been exhaustively noted.


She did not use her poetry as prayer; she did not write to mollify God, to ward off evil; she wrote because she and she alone could find in religion the adventures of her utterly independent, endlessly speculative soul.


The rich everyday exhort a part of their daily allowance from the poor not only by private fraud but by public law.


The lesson in education was vital to these young men, who, within ten years, killed each other by scores in the act of testing their college conclusions.


I conceive of poetry not so much as a matter of serene and disinterested choice but of action, and the very heat of choice, I think of the poem as a kind of action in which, if the poet can participate enough, other people cannot help participating as well.


If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.


For, like every act man commits, the drama is a struggle against his mortality, and meaning is the ultimate reward for having lived.


She hated her grandmother and had hidden it from herself all these years under a cloak of pity.


The urge of poetry is not, of course, to whoop it up for the automobile, the plane, the computer, and the space-ship, but only to bring them and their like into the felt world, where they may be variously taken, and establish their names in the vocabulary of imagination.


And I could cry for the time I’ve wasted, but that’s a waste of time and tears, and I know just what I’d change if went back in time somehow, but there’s nothing I can do about it now.


In order for a ruling class to rule, there must be arbitrary prohibitions.


We who are born into the world’s artificial system can never adequately know how little in our present state and circumstances is natural, and how much is merely the interpolation of the perverted mind and heart of man.

Compiled by Richard W. Bray

The Hemingway Defense

July 7, 2012

William Faulkner

According to William Faulkner, it is permissible for an artist to engage in all manner of malfeasance and loutish behavior because “An artist is a creature driven by demons.”

The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies. (h/t Ta-Nehisi Coates)

It is common for supermacho bibulous writers such as Faulkner, Kingsley Amis, Ernest Hemingway and Christopher Hitchens to confuse self-avoiding cowardice and self-destruction with courage and an intrepid dedication to art. Amis, for example, wrote entire books celebrating the wonders of alcohol. Hitchens thought that crawling into a bottle every day was something to boast about and he was dismissive of people who lack the requisite foolishness to become nicotine addicts. In the sick, sad world of Christopher Hitchens, teetotaling joggers are the real losers.

Stephen King, a man who knows a thing or two about both writing and substance abuse, has a name for the hyper-masculine variety of denial celebrated by various dipsomaniacal American authors: The Hemingway Defense.

as a writer, I am a very sensitive fellow, but I am also a man, and real men don’t give into their sensitivities. Only SISSY-men do that. Therefore I drink. How else can I face the existential horror of it all and continue to work? Besides, come on, I can handle it. A real man always can.*

King explicitly rejects all such poppycock. He argues that “[t]he idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time.”

Unlike writers such as Faulkner who lack the necessary self-awareness to confront their “demons,” when given the choice, Stephen King wisely selected his health and his family over the bottle. Thus he has no use in mythologizing the inebriated scribbler.

Substance abusing writers are just substance abusers—common garden-variety drunks and druggies, in other words. Any claims that the drugs and alcohol are necessary to dull a finer sensibility are just the usual self-serving bullshit. I’ve heard alcoholic snowplow drivers make the same claim, that they drink to still the demons.

Faulkner asserts that it is perfectly natural and wholly acceptable for a writer to be a scoundrel because a true artist “is completely amoral in that he will rob, borrow, beg, or steal from anybody and everybody to get the work done.”

Sadly, people who think like Faulkner have gotten existence precisely backwards. As King notes, “Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”

William Faulkner notwithstanding, no art is essential to humanity, and no poem, not even one as lovely as “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” is worth the well-being of a single old lady. Humanity will grope along with or without any particular work of art, and Earth will continue to abide long after we’re gone no matter what we do. It is expressly because everything we do is ephemeral that the artist’s humanity is of far greater value than anything he could possibly create.

Perhaps it is a longing for a false sense of immortality that leads people to engage in such diseased thinking. But it’s important to remember that although Hamlet will continue to live on for as long as humanity is extant, William Shakespeare is just as dead as the fellow buried next to him. As Groucho Marx pithily noted: “What has posterity ever done for me.”

Only love conquers death.

*All Stephen King quotations are from his marvelous memoir On Writing

by Richard W. Bray

Take it Decently

March 17, 2012

Nadine Gordimer

The remark that did most harm at the club was a silly aside to the effect that the so-called white races are really pinko-grey. He only said this to be cheery, he did not realize that “white” has no more to do with a colour than “God save the King” with a god, and that it is the height of impropriety to consider what it does connote.

—from A Passage to India by E.M. Forster (62)

I stand astonished at my own moderation.

Robert Clive’s response to a Parliamentary Inquiry on the plunder of India

Take it Decently

The obvious difference in pigmentation between the Europeans and Africans is the original point of reference for countless imaginary polarities: black and white, pure and impure, tame and wild, civilized and barbaric, rational and emotional, good and evil, decent and indecent. And in a culture built upon the systematic, racist murder and subjugation of tens of millions of Africans and Asians, members of the dominant class risk much pain and psychic confusion if they are unable to reconcile this tissue of false dichotomies at the core of imperialism.

The barter between the boy and the elderly native in “The Train from Rhodesia” is a microcosm of the imperial enterprise because it amuses the boy to toy with an old man who is attempting to eke out a meager livelihood. Oblivious to his own depravity, the boy represents all those who reveled in the plunder of Southern Africa.

“He laughed. ‘I was arguing with him for fun.’”

When the girl berates the boy for the callousness of his actions, he is “shocked by the dismay in her face.” Because the boy has internalized the imperialist denial of the old man’s humanity, the native is merely a thing to be trifled with for sport.

Unlike her boorish companion, the girl in “The Train from Rhodesia” has empathy for the old man, but as a member of the ruling race, she too is steeped in the toxic juices of Apartheid. Thus, her blindness to the inherent malevolence of imperialism is exposed by her protest that the boy should have found a way to “take it decently.”

The “shame that mounted through her legs and body and sounded in her ears like the sound of sand pouring” is merely the genesis of an appropriate response to a monstrous crime committed against entire populations for centuries.

The indecent mass murder, rape, and pillage of so much of the planet perpetrated by the Europeans over five centuries was carried out in direct contradiction to their notions of civility. When the Europeans commit such atrocities in the name of civilization who then are the real barbarians?

Richard W. Bray

The Steaming Complaint of the Resting Beast

March 11, 2012


The Steaming Complaint of the Resting Beast

The anthropomorphic train in Nadine Gordimer’s “The Train from Rhodesia” is not a single, neat, easily-envisioned metaphor
. But by utilizing contradictory symbols and images, Gordimer gives birth to a beast like none that ever lived, a creature which embodies human frailties and longings through the collision of beastly, anthropomorphic, and inanimate qualities.

Gordimer’s beast has many human attributes: It is ambulatory, vocal, sighted, blind, lonely, animated, rebellious, respiratory, contentious, melancholy and tragic. Ironically, the totality of these images forge a humanity which by far surpasses that of all but one of the white characters in the story.

Despite its numerous human qualities, Gordimer’s train can also be viewed as a beast of burden. The image of its “blind end pulled helplessly” would be familiar to any farmer who has led an oxen and plough. Also typical of a beast of burden, the train is not a silent, complacent victim. It “grunts”, “jerks” and brays out “the steaming complaint of the resting beast”. As the metaphor becomes less coherent, the train transforms into something at once animal, mechanical, and human.

Both men and beasts cry out when they feel pain, but only humans are capable of comprehending their fate. A train’s whistle is an eerie sound evocative of a howling wolf. And like our Hunting Fathers, the wolf is a carnivore which lives and hunts in small packs. So it is natural for people to associate the wolf’s cry with feelings of existential angst. But whatever the howling wolf may be feeling, its howl is not an existential lament because a wolf is not cognizant of its own mortality. When the train calls out “I’m coming” Gordimer’s metaphor is expanding into something exceeding the images of a train, a beast, or a person.

The train cries out “and again there was no answer” because its whistle echoes the inherent loneliness of self awareness. Just as humans have been calling out to the cosmos through prayers and radio antennae for millennia, the train’s cry is a prayer. Thus the man-made device mocks our craving for an omnipotent creator.

Like the trajectory of a human life, Gordimer’s train travels in one direction “over the single straight track” of time.” And the manner in which human existence is connected to an inescapable fate is captured by the complexity of the metaphor.

Ultimately, we must accept the messiness of the metaphor in order to appreciate its multiple meanings.

Richard W. Bray

Some Provocative Sentences

January 7, 2012

The most lively thought is still inferior to the dullest sensation.


By the time I was done with the car it looked worse than any typical Indian car that had been driven all its life on reservation roads, which they always say are like government promises—full of holes.


I tell you his mind bled almost visibly.


Why should so much poetry be written about sexual love and so little about eating—which is just as pleasurable and never lets you down—or about family affection, or about the love of mathematics.


In the morning there was a big wind blowing and the waves were running high up on the beach and he was awake a long time before he remembered that his heart was broken.


Well, then, says I, what’s the use you learning to do right, when it’s troublesome to do right and ain’t no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same?


Perhaps, when we remember wars, we should paint ourselves blue and go on all fours all day long and grunt like pigs. That would surely be more appropriate than noble oratory and shows of flags and well-oiled guns.


“Keep your pores open.”


“But, by what I have gathered from your own Relation, and the Answers I have with much pain wringed from you; I cannot but conclude the Bulk of your Natives, to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth.”


“There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow.”


It is only when our appointed activities seem by a lucky accident to obey the particular earnestness of our temperament that we can taste the comfort of complete self-deception.


“If you could look deep enough into anyone’s character, even perhaps your own, you would find a sense of machismo.”

Compiled by Richard W. Bray


July 17, 2011

Arnold Bennett wrote for money; he also wrote about money. It might seem incongruous that someone who earned and spent great sums of cash would suggest that the accumulation of wealth for its own sake is a symptom of human depravity, yet this is clearly the case. In Anna of the Five Towns and Riceyman Steps the soulless appetite for wealth leads to isolation, depression, poverty, hunger and death. For Ephraim Tellwright and Henry Earlforward, the compulsion to hoard money perverts their sensibilities and hampers their ability to connect with their fellow human beings. Furthermore, Tellwright’s daughter Anna suffers from her misbegotten notions about propriety and class and she is in some respects imprisoned by her wealth. Even Henry Mynors, the sole representative of the clergy in either of these two novels, is far more interested in the accumulation of riches than in the salvation of souls. Titus and Willie Price, moreover, are utterly destroyed by Tellwright’s lust for their property.

Are we to believe, then, that a man who lived as lavishly as Arnold Bennett hypocritically promoted the notion that the love of money was indeed a root cause of human misery and injustice? The answer is yes and no. For although Bennett believed that there was nothing innately wrong with acquiring money, he felt that it was indecent to stockpile it. For Bennett, money was for spending, and its true value lay in the worldly pleasures it might purchase.

The servant Elsie, by far the most sympathetic character in either Anna of the Five Towns or Riceyman Steps, represents a stark contrast to Tellwright and Earlforward in her attitudes about money. However, Bennett is not implying that working people are inherently superior to the wealthy because the rich are automatically corrupted by their money. This would contradict not only Bennett’s chosen lifestyle, but also his artistic instincts. He was no Marxist; there are immoral paupers and decent prosperous folks in both of these novels. But the reader can easily discern a relationship between goodness and one’s attitudes regarding money. Elsie exists on a higher moral plane than Tellwright and Earlforward because she is unafraid to spend what little money she has, which makes her capable of enjoying life in ways that they never will.

Arnold Bennett made no secret of the delight he took in the many blessings that money can provide. As a financially successful writer, he took full advantage of the benefits afforded to the wealthy in his day: He owned a yacht, traveled frequently, and took meals in the finest restaurants. For Bennett, the sin was not in the accumulation of wealth, but in the depraved desire to amass it for its own sake. Tellwright’s inability to express love for his daughters is a function of his miserliness. This is quite a contrast to the Suttons, who are magnanimous towards their children in the allocation of both love and money.

It is in the character of Elsie that Bennett best expresses his beliefs regarding the relationship between wealth and morality. She is loyal, humble, industrious, and almost preternaturally nurturing, and her lack of concern for money is displayed when she risks her livelihood by nursing Joe back to health inside Earlforward’s house. In contrast to Elsie, Anna Tellwright is unwilling to confirm the love she feels for Willie Price when she chooses to marry Mynors. Anna, who is just as tireless and faithful to her obligations as Elsie, is nevertheless handicapped socially and emotionally. It is clearly Anna’s relationship to her wealth which prevents her from acting upon her emotions the way Elsie does.

It was an appetite for riches rather than the love of words which originally motivated Arnold Bennett to write fiction, and during his lifetime, those who viewed Bennett as more mercenary than artist were particularly scornful of his work. One critic summed up his career as “a flagrant case of literary capitalism” (Lucas 9). Bennett, who in his own words, “wanted money in heaps,” began writing, and continued to write, “for an uncomplicated commercial motive” (Simons 16; Barker 41). This is not surprising; much of his childhood was spent in poverty. Yet it is absurd to suggest that this distinction makes his work less important than that of so many of his contemporaries who had the luxury of inherited wealth.

The important issue is not whether Bennett’s enjoyment of lucre somehow invalidates him as an artist, but how his feelings about money contributed to his artistic outlook. Materialism and the accumulation of money constitute one of the most prominent themes in his writing, and perhaps critics can justifiably accuse him of hypocrisy for not allowing certain of his wealthier characters to enjoy the blessings of riches as he did. But this does not negate his social commentary. “Arnold Bennett’s attitude to money and to mere material things is a criticism of life and of the modern materialistic age” (Simons 86).

Bennett’s revulsion for those who would simply hoard their money is elucidated in the form of two emotionally constipated men, Efraim Tellwright and Henry Earlforward. It is impossible to isolate the emotional detachment of these two rich misers from their need to accumulate wealth. Tellwright, who “belonged to the great and powerful class of house-tyrants,” is an overbearing presence who dominates the lives of his two daughters (Anna 112). Perhaps the most affluent man in town, he is nonetheless committed to a life of severe frugality: He does his own household masonry, denies Anna money for decent clothes, and serves his guests, his children and himself meager portions of food. “Mr. Tellwright carved the beef, giving each of them a small piece, and taking only cheese for himself” (Anna 67). Tellwright’s rigid asceticism is a manifestation of his misanthropy. This hard, unforgiving soul erupts when Anna forgets to buy him bacon, the only occasion when her conduct has been less than perfect.

The male creature’s terrible displeasure permeated the whole room like an ether, invisible but carrying vibrations to the heart. Then, when he had eaten one piece of bacon, and cut his envelopes, the miser began to empty himself of some of his anger in stormy tones that might have uprooted trees (Anna 67).

Tellwright’s outburst over this incident, entirely out of proportion to Anna’s oversight, demonstrates his lack of humanity. By referring to Anna as “the miser’s daughter” Bennett is emphasizing the connection between Tellwright’s hostility and his money-grubbing. Unfortunately for Tellwright, he is incapable of deep introspection:

If you had told him that he inflicted purposeless misery not only on others but on himself, he would have grinned again, vaguely aware that he had not tried to be happy, and rather despising happiness as a sort of childish gewgaw. (Anna 113)

The perversity of Tellwright’s lust for money is most evident in his treatment of Titus and Willie Price. He confides in Anna that the demise of their business is inevitable, yet he chooses to milk them for all they are worth in the meanwhile. Anna, who now owns the Price’s property, acquiesces to her father’s greed, but the episode exacts a grave emotional toll on her psyche:

Here were she and her father, rich, powerful, autocratic; and there were Willie Price and his father, commercial hares hunted by hounds of creditors, hares that turned in plaintive appeal to those greedy jaws for mercy (Anna 75).

The few pounds wrestled from the Prices before their imminent downfall is a pittance compared with Anna’s net worth. The mindless accumulation of wealth is Tellwright’s only source of gratification, and it is also, not coincidentally, the part of himself which he chooses to share with daughter.

by Richard W. Bray


July 15, 2011


Ephraim Tellwright is no mere caricature, and despite his monstrous behavior towards the Prices, he is presented as a three-dimensional character:

Tellwright is a fascinating creation….He is a domestic tyrant and a miser, flinty, quickwitted but utterly insensitive….The impressive thing about Bennett’s handling of him, however, is that there is absolutely nothing of aricature in the study of Tellwright. Nor is he sentimentalized. Instead, Bennett sets himself to record the life of a man who is quite without music in his soul (Lucas 44).

This lack of “music in his soul” deprives him form enjoying many of the experiences which make life meaningful, such as fellowship, religion, laughter, romantic love, all of which Tellwright has chosen to shun. The collection of capital is his only form of solace.

Neither Henry Earlforward nor Ephraim Tellwright is a stock character—the heartless skinflint. But unlike Tellwright, Earlforward, though miserly in the extreme, is capable of human affection. He is very fond of Elsie and genuinely in love with his wife Violet. Also in contrast to Tellwright, Earlforward is equipped with “other qualities one rarely associates with greed for riches: kindness, patience, almost indolence, and also, in certain matters, a comparative innocence” (Lafour 192). Yet Earlforward and his beloved Violet are destroyed by his unwillingness to provide them with sufficient food and timely medical attention. Ultimately, his craving for money outweighs any other motivation. He is “a man of some delicacy and tact. But his passion for hoarding money overrules all other considerations in his life” (Lucas 195). Earlforward is “a miser, but he is not a monster”(Douglas 411). Nevertheless, his appetite for lucre is hideously irrational, “a secret passion [which] fought against love” (Steps 121).

Henry Earlforward’s love of money manifests itself in his irrational affection for cash. He keeps his money in a safe at home, forfeiting the interest and security he would receive from a bank because he likes to be near it. Currency has a carnal attraction for him. “He never kept a dirty note for more then a few days….And the cash was so beautiful to behold” (Steps 201). Cash is something that Earlforward “gazed at passionately”, and it is no coincidence that he dies in front of his “sublime safe” (Steps 227;362).

Earlforward has a powerful revulsion for both eating and sexual contact, and the hunger for money clearly serves as his only sensual pleasure. Earlforward “ate little, but he would seldom hurry over a meal” (Steps 161). His repugnance at the consumption of food is further exhibited by his practice of picking his teeth, as though compelled by a need to eliminate all remnants of the act of eating. “He loved to pick his teeth, even after a meal which was no meal” (Steps 161). As there is no evidence in the novel that his marriage is ever consummated, we are led to conclude that Earlforward’s craving for cash has supplanted his ordinary carnal appetites.

But Earlforward pays an enormous price for his inability to express his hunger in a more conventional manner. His love of money leads to ruin: “The story of miserly greed moves on like a Greek Tragedy, and eventually engulfs Earlforward and his wife” (Simons 266). Earlforward pays a far greater price for his tightfistedness than Tellwright. Tellwright forsakes intimate human contact, but he is allowed to live into old age. In Riceyman Steps Bennett is more explicit about the ultimate cost of miserliness which precipitates Earlforward’s annihilation:

Avarice is as a blight on his physical and moral life. It is the cause of ruin and death, not power and prosperity. It is a cancer in his mind as well as in his flesh eating into his very substance (Lafour 193).

In stark contrast to her employer, “Elsie possesses an instinct for savoring whatever experience unexpectedly comes her way” (Wright 153). Her hearty fondness for food and her lusty relationship with Joe demonstrate that she, like her author, knows how to appreciate life. “(S)he has indeed the appetite for life that her employers singularly lack” (Lucas 203). Elsie discovers considerable delight in the paltry accommodations which her position with the Earlforwards affords her. A salary of twenty pounds a year is, to her, “an enormous sum” (Steps 111). And she found even greater pleasure in the bedroom they provided her:

But do not suppose that the bedroom had no grand, exciting quality for Elsie. It had one. It was solely hers. The first bedroom she had ever in all her life had entirely to herself….It was a balm to her grief. It was a retreat into which undisturbed she could enjoy her grief (Steps 110).

Due to her ability to appreciate life’s simple pleasures, Elsie is freer than Anna Tellwright who has difficulty finding fulfillment despite, or more likely in some way because of, her substantial inheritance. If happiness is the art wanting what you have rather having what you want, then Elsie is undeniably wiser than Anna. Anna’s inheritance of 50,000 pounds brings her no real satisfaction:

…we are told that Anna “felt no elation of any kind (over the vastness of her new fortune)….For Anna is a person who experiences little elation, ever. Indeed, the novel is about how she more or less misses out on life. She has no way of realizing the possibilities love and money have to offer her (Lucas 40).

Although Anna and Elsie share a similar devotion to duty, one surmises that Anna is motivated more by the fear of her tyrannical father than by any inborn desire to serve others. She spends her life wondering why her choices are so complicated instead of simply acting upon the freedom which her fortune would allow her. She would have faced societal derision had she chosen Willie Price over Henry Mynors, but the only thing preventing it is her own sense of etiquette. Elsie knew no such inhibitions. When Joe is sick, she sneaks him into her employer’s household in order to nurse him back to health, risking public scorn. Elsie is immune to such social forces because her need to care for others cancels out all other factors. Instead of being bogged down by questions of propriety, Anna simply does what she feels is right. “Elsie never asked the meaning of life, for she was dominated by a tremendous desire to serve” (Steps 29).

Riceyman Steps was greeted with widespread critical acclaim, and Bennett was thrilled that it earned him his first literary award. His creation of Elsie in particular has been lauded over the years as one of his greatest triumphs. For example,

Bennett’s greatest and noblest characters are the simple, self-sacrificing and humble. Such is Elsie, the young war-widow who spends every day of her life in toil….Our author has made Elsie Spricket the noblest character in Riceyman Steps (Simons 260).

It is important, however, that we remain cognizant of the fact that Elsie’s greatness is not a function of her poverty; none of the other working class characters in the novel come close to approaching her heroism. Her boyfriend Joe, for example, is certainly no moral giant. And the household of the “french-polisher’s wife” where she rents a space on the floor next to one of the children is certainly not a representation of virtue. Except Elsie, the adult inhabitants of the house were always unhappy save when drinking alcohol or making love” (Steps 68).

Just as poverty is no guarantee of righteousness in Bennett’s novels, affluence does not necessarily exclude one from achieving worldly fulfillment. The Suttons in Anna of the Five Towns are in no way made to suffer for their wealth. On the contrary, they are a loving, well-adjusted family because, like their creator, they are happy to exploit the benefits of their wealth. As hosts, they offer a conspicuous contrast to the penurious Tellwright.

The board was richly spread with fancy bread and cakes, jams of Mrs. Sutton’s celebrated preserving, diverse sandwiches compiled by Beatrice, and one or two large examples of the famous Bursley pork-pie (Anna 87).

Like Arnold Bennett, the Suttons know that money is for spending.

Today Arnold Bennett and many of his “Edwardian” contemporaries have been relegated to the far reaches of the literary canon. They have been displaced not because their work is without quality, but because, in contrast to the “Modernists” who supplanted them, they seem to be lacking particular qualities. Bennett doesn’t give us Forster’s flair for pithy social observation, Lawrence’s monomaniacal obsession with the phallus, Mansfield’s subtlety, or Wolfe’s poetry. But he was a fine craftsman who knew how to develop character. He remains worthy of critical attention. Perhaps in a hundred years or so his work will again become fashionable.

by Richard W. Bray


Barker, Dudley. Writer by Trade: A Portrait of Arnold Bennett. New York: Atheneum, 1966.

Bennett, Arnold. Anna of the Five Towns, 1902. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.

_____. Riceymen Steps. New York: George H. Doran, 1923.

Douglas, James. “The Miser and the Maid,” 1923. Arnold Bennett: The Critical Heritage. Ed. James Hepburn. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981.

Lafour, Georges. Arnold Bennett: A Study. New York: Haskell House, 1939.

Lucas, John. Arnold Bennett: A Study of His Fiction. London: Methuen, 1974.

Simons, J. B. Arnold Bennett and His Novels: A Critical Study, 1936. Folcroft, PA: Folcroft Press, 1969.

Wright, Walter F. Arnold Bennett: Romanitic Realist. Lincoln, NB: Nebraska UP, 1971.

Faith Might be Stupid, but it gets us Through (Part 2)

April 12, 2010

Louise Erdrich

Faith Might be Stupid, but it gets us Through
(Part 2)

Erdrich uses Lipsha’s preposterous theology to demonstrate how “Christianity has helped destroy the traditional Ojibwa religion but has not replaced it as the center of Ojibwa life.” (Vecsey 58) No Christian who believes in an omnipotent God could entertain the thought that He might be hard of hearing. But the alcoholism, disease, subjugation and extermination which has accompanied the white man’s conquest of the Ojibwa led many to question the power of their original gods. Erdrich uses the irony of a “deaf God” to reveal the spiritual abandonment that many Ojibwa feel.

While Erdrich clearly enjoys joking about the deafness of the Christian God, the preponderance of Christian references and imagery throughout Love Medicine creates an ethereal, almost otherworldly atmosphere. Yet Erdrich maintains that she is not a “Catholic” writer. She has stated in an interview that she writes about Catholicism in order to “exorcise” it from her system (Purdy 94). But the Christian symbolism woven so intricately into the fabric of Love Medicine betrays an ambivalence to Catholicism which Erdrich seems less than willing to acknowledge. There is even room for some reviewers to discern a hint of Christian allegory in Love Medicine:

Given all the obvious Christian references here, one might feel the urge consider to June a “Christlike” figure, one who has been sacrificed to the sins of history (Purdy 87) .

Although Love Medicine is obviously not a Christian allegory in the sense that, say, Crime and Punishment is, the overabundance of biblical images is obviously not arbitrary: Characters walk on water, wear crowns of thorns, and even achieve “sainthood”. And many of the chapter headings–Saint Marie, Flesh and Blood, Crown of Thorns, Resurrection and Crossing the Water evoke Christian imagery. But what effect is Erdrich trying to achieve here?

The last sentence of the first chapter reads: The snow fell deeper than it had in forty years, but June walked over it like water and came home (7). Later in the novel a character named Moses walked across the lake and appeared in town (75). These are clearly references to Christ. But they are not the kind of images which would bring comfort to pious readers. Instead, Erdrich assaults Christian sensibilities by comparing these two sinful, lascivious heathens to Christ.

Erdrich forges her most vigorous assault against the Catholic Church in the depiction of the struggle between “St. Marie” Lizarre and Sister Leopolda. This conflict can be viewed as a microcosm of the missionary enterprise. The sadistic nun who burns, beats and cuts an innocent Indian girl embodies the worst excesses committed against the Ojibwa by the Catholic Church. But Marie is determined to endure Leopolda’s torment in order to achieve sainthood despite her inferior status as an Indian girl who possesses a “mail-order Catholic” soul (44). Marie uses her guile to convince the nuns that the wound on her hand which she received from Leopolda is actually the result of a “holy vision” (60). The irony of Marie’s duplicitous achievement exposes Erdrich’s hostility for the Catholic Church. Despite Erdrich’s angry tone, however, the impact of Catholicism upon Erdrich and her characters is not easily dismissed. The cogent Catholic imagery in Love Medicine and the manner in which it shapes the lives of the Ojibwa in the novel attests to durability of faith, even in the minds of professed nonbelievers.

Erdich is certainly not a Catholic writer such as Flannery O’Connor who succumbs to the glorious masochism. But Erdrich wrestles with God in much the same manner as that oddly sincere Catholic writer, Graham Greene. The ridiculous yet compelling nature of Erdrich’s literary Catholicism reminds us of so many of Greene’s hopelessly flawed creations who tragically, and often comically, grope after grace.

Curiously, it is in the often ludicrous theology of Lipsha Morrissey where we find Erdrich’s most eloquent declarations on religion:

I thought how we might have to yell to be heard by the Higher Power, but that’s not saying he’s not there. And that’s faith for you. It’s belief even when the goods don’t deliver. Higher Power makes promises we all know they can’t back up, but anybody ever go and slap a malpractice suit on God? (245)

The incongruity of these words being delivered by the same person who substitutes the hearts of frozen turkeys for goose hearts in his love potion is striking. The irony here is that this persuasive testimonial of faith is delivered by someone whose actions rarely demonstrate any real religious convictions.

Native Americans have every reason to deny the existence of God. The most heinous crimes–murder, rape, larceny, and genocide–have been perpetrated against them in His name. And their indigenous gods were helpless against this onslaught. Yet faith, albeit “stupid” faith, persists in the minds of Louise Erdrich’s Ojibwa.

The various manifestations of God in Love Medicine, Catholic, Ojibwa and syncretic combinations thereof, are the results of Erdrich’s attempt to make sense out of her experiences. The people she portrays are, like all of us, both heroic and absurd, as are their explanations of God.

by Richard W. Bray


Erdrich, Louise. Love Medicine. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1993.
Purdy, John. Building Bridges: Crossing the Waters to a Love Medicine”, Teaching American Ethnic Literature Maitino and Peck, eds. Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 1996.
Vecsey, Christopher. Traditional Ojibwa Religion and Its Historical Changes. Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1983.

Faith Might be Stupid, but it Gets us Through: The Syncretic Collision in Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich (Part One)

April 10, 2010

Faith Might be Stupid, but it Gets us Through:
The Syncretic Collision in Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
(Part One)

Louise Erdirch’s novel Love Medicine demonstrates how the collision between indigenous and Christian cultures has decimated the Ojibwa language and religion. Love Medicine abounds with examples of characters whose behavior is influenced by traditional beliefs and practices which have been diluted beyond recognition. But the missionaries and United States government officials who devastated Ojibwa society were unable to entirely replace it with American civic and religious mores. The apostasy of the Ojibwa has created a vast spiritual malaise because many Ojibwa are unwilling to embrace American values yet unable to return to their pre-Colombian world.

Erdrich depicts a society where the aboriginal world of ghosts, gods, animistic automobiles, curses and spiritual healers freely mingles with the Catholic universe of masses, miracles, sacraments, baptisms and holy water. But these rival religious traditions are presented in a tone devoid of reverence. Furthermore, none of the major Native American characters in Love Medicine seriously embraces either of the two religions. So what is the reader to make of the numerous Christian and pagan allusions in Love Medicine? One could view Erdrich’s allocation of Christlike attributes to corrupt and sinful “heathens” either as a Christian allegory or as an ironic parody. Perhaps the book is simultaneously both a tribute to the persistence of faith and a condemnation of its shortcomings. As Lipsha Morrissey pithily observes: “Faith might be stupid, but it gets us through” (245-246).

The protracted efforts by Catholic clergy to save the souls of spiritually content Ojibwa left many of them in a state of profound religious confusion. In their zeal to add to their minions, the missionaries ruptured Ojibwa links to the pre-Columbian world. However, many Ojibwa remain resistant to the white man’s religion, resulting in “conversions to Christianity that have most often been nominal and superficial” (Vecsey 45). This phenomenon has left many Ojibwa in a spiritual no-man’s-land between the conflicting religions. The upshot here is that many of them, “alienated from the ultimate sources of their existence have suffered intense bewilderment and lack of direction” (Vecsey 5).

The exploits of Lipsha Morrissey (an extremely likable and amusing character) illustrate how the vestiges of Ojibwa religion have been diminished to the point of absurdity. For example, Lipsha is believed by many in the community to possess Native American healing prowess despite his near total unfamiliarity with Ojibwa teachings. He claims to have “the touch,” or the ability to heal by the laying on of hands, which he believes is “a thing that you got to be born with” (231). But this assertion betrays his ignorance of Ojibwa religious teachings. While curing was one of the “primary roles of [Ojibwa] religious leaders”, it was not an inherited skill (Vecsey 162). Djessakids (healers) achieve their curing powers by virtue of the potency of their adolescent vision quest, something Lipsha has not experienced.

Lipsha’s ridiculous attempt to create a syncretic love potion for his grandparents by feeding them the hearts from frozen turkeys that he had personally blessed with holy water demonstrates his perfunctory acquiescence to both Catholic and Ojibwa traditions. Like many of the Indians in Love Medicine, Lipsha refuses to let go of the few remaining shards of his Native American heritage, and his superficial Catholicism is more like an amalgam of assorted superstitions than a coherent theology. Lipsha’s predicament is shared by many of the Ojibwa who remain on reservations in North America:

The average Ojibwa has been stripped of much religious knowledge through the centuries and needs a specialist to perform the most basic religious acts. He still feels the need for those religious acts because Christianity has not adequately replaced the traditional religion (Vecsey 173).

Native Ojibwa beliefs continue to coexist with Christianity despite that fact that the reservation Indians are often unaware of their origins. Their perspective towards living things is thus altered by watered-down indigenous notions regarding the nature of existence. Although traditional Ojibwa religion is dualistic, it promotes a worldview which “did not make a sharp distinction between the orders of living beings” (Vecsey 92). The souls of humans are looked upon as identical with those of animals, superhuman beings (manitos) and even inanimate objects. There are several occasions in Love Medicine when characters behave as though they believe–as did their ancestors–that “entities like the sun, flint, and animals acted with living will; they were living persons.” (Vecsey 92) This phenomenon is illustrated by the reverent reaction June’s relatives have to the car which has been purchased with her life insurance money:

So the insurance explained the car. More than that it explained why everyone treated the car with special care….It was as if the car was wired up to something. As if it might give off a shock when touched. Later; when Gordie came, he brushed the chrome and gently tapped the tires with his toe. He would not go riding in it, even though King urged his father to experience how smooth it ran ( 24).

In a chapter entitled Crown of Thorns, a binging Gordie Kashpaw flees his house in order to escape the haunting ghost of his wife June. In his drunken haste, Gordie runs into a deer which he puts in his backseat in the hope that, “someone would trade a bottle for it” (220). But as he continues driving with the animal in his car, it begins to move and Gordie kills it with a crowbar. Later when he looks into the backseat, Gordie suddenly sees June:

She was in the backseat, sprawled, her short skirt hiked up over her hips. The sheer white panties glowed. Her hair was tossed in a dead lack girl. What had he done this time?

Besides exposing how traditional Ojibwa beliefs continue to manifest themselves among the reservation Indians, these two episodes demonstrate how Erdrich’s characters view modernity. Gordie’s vision of June is consistent with traditional Ojibwa beliefs in the “common metamorphisms between human and animal life” (Vecsey 63). But Gordie’s hallucination is more the product of his inebriation than a spiritual revelation. In this fictive world, the sublime and the ridiculous often go hand in hand.

Traditional Ojibwa beliefs, though remote and often barely discernible from their origins, maintain a powerful grasp on Erdrich’s characters. When Henry Lamartine drowns attempting to cross a river, his Brother Lyman is haunted by the knowledge that “(t)he old one say a Chippewa [Ojibwa] won’t ever rest if he’s drowned, a rumor that both scared me and kept me up at night” (298). Like Christians, traditional Ojibwa are dualists who believe in an afterlife, and they also believe that a river must be crossed in order to reach the afterlife. However, the Ojibwa are required to swim across this river. “If one could not cross a stream in life, one could not get to the next world” (Vecsey 64). Henry’s drowning is also evocative of Ojibwa belief in an Underwater Manito which had the power to “cause rapids and stormy waters; it often sank canoes and drowned Indians” (Vecsey 74). Lipsha Morrissey claims that the water monster “was the last God I ever heard to appear” (236).

Despite his Catholic God’s admonition that “You shall have no other gods before me,” Lipsha has incorporated both traditions into his belief system: “Now there’s your God in the Old Testament and there is Chippewa [Ojibwa] Gods as well” (236). Lipsha speculates that the current plight of the Ojibwa is the result of both the limitations of a Christian God who has “been going deaf,” and the Ojibwa inability to communicate with their indigenous God:

by Richard W. Bray