Posts Tagged ‘T.S. Eliot’

This Mortal Coil

August 28, 2020

Adam and Eve by Edvard Munch

In Love Medicine, a novel by Louise Erdrich, young Albertine Johnson is tasked with protecting the pies by her grandmother, who leaves a family gathering before it descends into drunken mayhem:

“They can eat!” Grandma yelled once more. “But save them pies!”

During the melee that ensues, Albertine heroically manages to prevent her cousin King from drowning his wife Lynette in the sink. But she can’t save the pies:

All the pies were smashed. Torn open. Black juice bleeding through the crusts. Bits of jagged shells were stuck to the wall and some were turned completely upside down. Chunks of rhubarb were scraped across the floor. Merengue dripped from the towels.

Later when she wakes up, Albertine does what she can for the pies:

I spooned the fillings back into the crusts, married the slabs of dough, smoothed over the edges of crusts with a wetted finger, fit crimps to crimps and even fluff to fluff on top of berries or pudding. I worked carefully for over an hour. But once they smash there is no way to put them right.

With the possible exception of Ella Fitzgerald singing Blue Skies, there’s no perfection in this world. We’re all broken in some way, just like those pies.

Christians tell us we’re living in a fallen world as punishment for the sins of Adam and Eve. I don’t believe this, but it’s a useful metaphor for the human condition.

It’s important to accept Existence on its own terms. Everything in this world is flawed. There’s a lot you can do to make life better for yourself and others, but you can’t fix the world; you can’t fix your friends; you can’t even fix yourself.

Like Albertine Johnson, you can try to make things better. If you try really hard, you might be as heroic as Albertine — you might even make the world a little bit more beautiful. Making the world a little bit more beautiful is a monumental achievement.

The Past Is Not the Future

How do we make the world a little bit better when human beings are so full of greed, stupidity, pettiness and cruelty? Well, it ain’t easy. But trying is all we have.

For example, we can learn from the past, but don’t get stuck there.

Sheryl Crow was right: Every day is a winding road, a new opportunity to try to do better.

The past is not the future; don’t make it a prison.

As T.S. Eliot reminds us:

The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been.

East Coker

You’ll never fix the world, but there are some helpful strategies for facing this mortal coil with dignity. You can start by taking a deep breath and letting it out really slow.

by Richard W. Bray

Shocking and New

August 14, 2016

xxxxxstuckrut

The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been.

T.S. Eliot, East Coker

Don’t get caught in a pattern
Don’t get stuck in a rut
Don’t be ruled by a pain
In the pit of your gut

Don’t make a prison of the past
Don’t contest old wars
Don’t hesitate to open
An unfamiliar door

Don’t miss tomorrow for today
Don’t clutch the dead and gone
Don’t turn your whole life into
A sad country song

Be open for the future
It’s shocking and new
Can’t know what it is
Until it gets to you

by Richard W. Bray

Some Thoughts on The Spooky Art

October 24, 2010

norman-mailer

Some Thoughts on The Spooky Art

The problem with naturalism is that there are just so many ways of saying that life is futile. About a hundred years ago when God was freshly deceased in the modern mind, Jack London, Theodore Dreiser and Stephen Crane had room to ruminate about the bleak, harsh unfairness of it all without getting stuck in naturalism’s inevitable cul-de-sac. Artful naturalism can still be written (see Being Dead by Jim Crace), but novelists with a metaphysical predisposition have many more aesthetic avenues to explore than devout nonbelievers.

Unlike so many twentieth century writers who were unable to reconcile belief in an anthropomorphized deity with the carnage and horror of two world wars and the Holocaust, Norman Mailer saw the supernatural everywhere. He was a confirmed mystic who was constantly groping after salvation in his tempestuous personal and artistic life.

In The Spooky Art, a compilation of the novelist’s musings about the craft of writing, Mailer insists that an “ongoing and conceivably climactic war between God and the Devil” manifests itself in the quotidian world of human strife (307). This is no mere literary affectation. Although Mailer did not ascribe to a particular faith, he was afflicted with a mercurial temperament which sought a deity that was, interestingly, much like himself:

“I confess that I have no attachment to organized religion. I see God, rather, as a Creator, as the greatest artist.”

Mailer enjoyed quoting Kierkegaard — I have a theory that Kierkegaard is more quoted than read. And he was deeply concerned with matters of good, evil, courage, and existence. Mailer argues that it is ludicrous to contemplate a universe without an active deity and some form of an afterlife (Mailer’s money is on reincarnation).

“Carnage walks the aisles of history hand in hand with philosophy. If there is no afterworld where the contest continues, then existence is indeed absurd” (148).

Sparkling literary careers have been wrought from that absurdity (see Brecht, Vonnegut, Kafka, and the Hebrew wit who wrote the Book of Job). But a diverse group of modern writers, including Fyodor Dostoevsky, G. K. Chesterton, Graham Green, Flannery O’Connor, John Updike, W. H. Auden and T.S. Eliot, have been theists.

It is not surprising that the pugnacious novelist and raconteur would have an idiosyncratic approach to religion. Mailer submerged everything that frightened and confused him into a big, dark pit which is alternately seen as hell or his own subconscious. For Mailer, the two are deeply connected. He asks us to

“Suppose the unconscious has a root in the hereafter that our conscious mind does not”(138).

For a novelist, the subconscious is a magic and mysterious font “and you never know where your words are coming from, those divine words” (70). Mailer, who was “always a little uneasy when my work comes to me without much effort,” liked to think of his unconscious as a “separate creature”(127, 143).

The novel Nightwood is a mad dreamy reactionary assault on society written by a brilliant, confused and obviously self-loathing woman, Djuna Barnes. In the section “Watchman, What of the Night?” Dr. Matthew Mighty O’Connor argues that night time—sleep time—is when the devil does his battling. Nightwood is a bizarre and disturbing book for many reasons, but Dr. O’Connor’s rant about sleep, “that unpeopled annihilation” in many ways explains how Mailer sees his own relationship with his unconscious (95).

…the day and the night are related by their division. The very constitution of twilight is a fabulous reconstruction of fear, fear bottom-out and wrong side up. Every day is thought upon and calculated, but the night is not premeditated. The Bible lies the one way, but the night-gown the other (87).

Norman Mailer takes his craft seriously and he fears the decline of “serious” novelists such as himself because “[n]ovels that reinvigorate our view of the subtlety of moral judgments are essential to a democracy” (161). Surveying the present state of fiction in America, Mailer laments how “the smart money would bet against the serious novel”(51). (Mailer’s observation, “I don’t think Jackie Susann went to bed with Rainer Maria Rilke on her night table,” gives us an idea about his regard for un-serious novelists(49).

For Mailer, the difference between “serious” novels and bestsellers is that the latter generally do not challenge their readers:


“mega-best-seller readers want to be able to read and read and read–they do not want to ponder any truly unexpected revelations. Reality might lie out there, but that is not why they are reading”
(51).

Norman Mailer was not sanguine about the future of fiction in America, a profession that has long been plagued with “various pirates, cutthroats racketeers, assassins, pimps, rape artists, and general finks (57).” And he has even less faith in our press which produces a “[n]ausea-broth of TV pundit-heads, coming to an intellectual climax every night” (83). A co-founder of the Village Voice in 1955, Mailer is hailed as an “innovator of narrative” . Here is his portrait of the journalist’s life:

“One half is addiction, adrenaline, anecdote shopping, deadlines, dread, cigar smoke, lung cancer, vomit, feeding The Goat; the other is Aloha, Tahiti, old friends, and the free ride to the eleventh floor of the Sheraton-Chicago, Patterson-Liston Press Headquarter, everything is free.” (185).

by Richard W. Bray