Wednesday, February 29, 2012

St. Cassian the Unmerciful

The leap-day is an unlucky day. It is the feast of St. Cassian, whose evil-eye can look out on the world today, withering what he sees. In one story, it is said St. Cassian was given the leap-day as a punishment for failing to help a peasant whose cart had turned over in the mud. Cassian, unmerciful, had passed him by, unwilling to dirty himself by helping the poor man. St. Nikolas, always compassionate, came by later to save the peasant, thereby earning himself two feast days in the Russian calendar, while Cassian was punished with only one every four years.

St. Cassian - unmerciful, is not a Saint to pray to, so much as an entity to fear. His day is dangerous. We went out anyway, but I wrapped Petka in red and gold to keep out his eye, and I wore my red seeds to distract him. When the sun sets, his eyes will lower once again, unable to see and harm for another four years, unless some resentful one asks his intercession, to sour milk or darken the sky.

The Purpose of Discussion ~ a divergence

With Mr. Pond & Jenna St. Hilaire
"In all matters of opinion our adversaries are insane"
   ~Oscar Wilde

I love discussion for discussion's sake. One of my greatest frustrations in life is when groups collect to 'solve' some small problem - The Healthiest Diet and How to Raise Children are the most common and the most likely to cause a fight - and insist on "coming to a consensus". It's not in my nature to "come to consensus" I guess, or maybe the topics on which a group can come to consensus are generally boring and not worth the time spent on them. So I don't participate in our discussion in order to attempt forming us into a consensus of mutual compromise and resentment. I don't necessarily participate in order to hear (or read) my own voice, though honestly, I have a blog, so obviously I like reading my own words and promoting my own opinion. So why the discussion? I like the interchange of ideas. I like the possibility for growth and change. But on Monday, Jenna wrote that argument "never convinces anyone, any more than the opposing arguments convince me. Minds develop, they don't often change." And that distracted me. It actually disturbed me a bit, when I first read it. I like minds that change, not on essentials - the things that have been wrestled with - but even then, should we wrestle again and again, getting stronger and wiser each time?

"Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative"
   ~Oscar Wilde

But Jenna is not unimaginative, so I assume she's referring to certain weak arguments, like those I enjoyed so much in Mr. O'Brien. And she's right, those arguments don't convince, well, they do, but they really shouldn't.

"A man who doesn't think for himself doesn't think at all"
  ~Oscar Wilde

But what arguments do convince, and how do they convince? Because some of them have to. Minds change, often and for good reason. I want to delve into this a bit, if Jenna and Mr. Pond will agree to. What is the purpose of discussion, of argument, of this little discussion? How do minds' change, and when, and why?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

50 days of Self Reflection: Day 16

If you were starting your own bookclub, what would be it’s theme? What books would ideally start it off? What would you hope it would accomplish?

I would love to have a bookclub, and I think if I could ever get one going, it would be wrapped around the theme I originally attempted - the sacramental imagination. I would like the focus to be on choosing and discussion books in which the sacramental imagination of the author is displayed. I would like to hold it in the evening, once a month with drinks and coffee and good background music. I would like it to include poetry. Ideally I might even have it start out with poetry, from a variety of writers, to give a broad understanding of the imagination at work. Rilke would be there for certain, and Camus’ The Fall, and Tolstoy’s stories from Divine and Human, as well as some kid’s stories, like the Hounds of the Morrigan, or that George McDonald story about the key. I would hope for good discussion, good reading, and good friendships.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Under the Night Wind

The hour between four and five is generally my favorite. Either I’m awake in the darkness, reading and writing, drinking tea and watching the stove, or I’m asleep. Even if she’s been awake all night, Petka rarely wakes to fuss right before dawn. This morning she sleep in the bed beside my husband, her little face mimicing his, while I sat by the stove and listened to the wild night wind beat the trees that surround us. We had a snowstorm on Friday that dumped a heavy load of wet, slick snow on us, just as everything was melting away. We spent Saturday digging out, and Sunday replenishing our woodpile and tapping our maples. Today I hope to go back to my slow weekday routine, it is a penetential day in our fasting schedule, and trying to plan dinner without oil is difficult. I generally just make beans, either white bean stew or beans and rice, but I may make an altered minestrone. Lenten fasting always manages to shake me out of any ruts I’ve fallen into, the discipline of fasting requires I begin again to eat mindfully. I’ve found, this year that it also pulls me into a mindful living, a rhythm of the day that I’ve been trying to build for months.

I love the moment when I first see the dawn through the dome. The sky is deep blue instead of black, the top of the big balsam is dark against the sky. Inside, the light takes on a dusty, sleepy look. Soon I can snuff the candle and walk in the light, but not yet. It’s still my time

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

50 Days of Self Reflection: Day 15

What are three things you loved about your best day last week.

My best day last week was Valentine's Day. I loved getting my original engagement ring back, made and recently repaired by my husband, and buried under a jar-full of calendula blossoms! I loved drinking champagne & chambord by candle-light (candle light never gets old), and I loved wearing my fantastic brown high-heels. I can't really walk on the ice in them, and our driveway is very icy, so it was wonderful to stay in and prance around the house in them instead. When spring comes, I look forward to wearing them more often. There really are a lot of things I loved about Valentine's day, but those are the three that come directly to mind. How about you?

Directing dreams & symbolism

“The girl dreams she is dangerously ill. Suddenly birds come out of her skin and cover her completely ... Swarms of gnats obscure the sun, the moon, and all the stars except one. That one start falls upon the dreamer.” 
  ~ C.G. Jung

    Our lives are full of the meanings of things. Symbols walk and talk and fly away, we cannot help but wrap them into our words.  But though symbols are always included, they are never fully controlled by the artist. We cannot hope to tie a meaning to our symbol and have it absorb completely, nor can we manipulate a symbol into something it will not be. Many times the artist-with-agenda attempts to control the symbols he employs - if art triumphs, he fails, and the symbols rise and make art despite him, if he succeeds, art fails and the subverted symbol catches the audience like a splinter.

   Michael O' Brien, who has been my reading candy recently, is very interested in what he calls "symbol-erosion" - the distructive mis-use of symbolism. His book, A Landscape with Dragons, argues that the dragon can be nothing but a demonic symbol, and he happily beats the dragon to death in the attempt to prove his point. But no symbol is so limited, and the book becomes ridiculous in it's pursuit of demons.

"Symbols can be so beautiful, sometimes."
   ~Kurt Vonnegut

  O' Brien makes a similar mistake in his analysis of the film Pan's Labrynth. A film in which the artist's attempt to manipulate the symbol fails entirely to create the "truly profane" image intended. It fails because del Toro, the filmmaker "made it art first" and looses control of his symbols. The beauty, despite violence, the light-in-darkness, the ultimate redemption of the heroine, Ofelia, is pure fairy-tale. It overcomes the artist's agenda. Mr. O' Brien, however, refuses to see past the darkness of the film's mythology, and the less-than-ideal representation of Church officials. He refuses to realize that at some point, both writer and reader must give up the attempt to control symbolism and simply allow it to act on them, as dreams do.

“And who understands? Not me, because if I did I would forgive it all.”
    ~Ernest Hemingway

The artist so often has to wait for his symbols to be discovered by his audience. He doesn't understand it all, if he did he would be more than he is, like God, who understands all and forgives all. Pretending to understand fully, to break things down into neat little boxes and present them cleanly is not the role of artist, and ought not be the role of the critic. Simply because we want to see something deep and profound, or dark and terrible is not proof of it's existence.  For every Mr. O' Brien insisting evil lurks in every image that is not created solely for evangelism, there is a critic finding Christological symbols at the bottom of the book-pile. Forcing symbols either way is a mistreatment of art, an inability to allow the symbol to live it's role.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Honest writers

"Love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art."
     ~Konstantin Stanislavsky

Last week we discussed agenda, and though Mr. Pond happily agreed so completely with my post that he was able to rest in it, Jenna, and a commenter, Eric brought up some interesting thoughts for further discussion. I am glad to continue alone their lines. I hope it will still provide something new  to consider.

"Agenda happens when the would-be artist has focused on an idea to the exclusion of everything that might be the least bit contradictory."

This can be a serious problem to the artist. In a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway once accused his friend of not listening "except to the answers to you own questions." Listening is what makes an artist able to portray the world with the "charitable complexity" that Jenna reminds us we need. When the writer makes a world where the only questions are his own and the only answers are the one he gives, the world is flat. It becomes merely an advertisement for an idea, an image with no soul.

Many good writers fall into the trap of agendas, G.K. Chesterton, who defines the "prison of one idea" so well in Orthodoxy, fell into it himself in writing The Flying Inn.  Bertolt Brecht falls into it in many of his poems, Philip Pullman lives in the trap, and seems happy to produce little else. Is it because they forget to hear the world around them?  Among Jenna's comments, Eric points us to Dorothy Sayers who instructs the writer to rid " himself of all edificatory and theological intentions..not to instruct, but to show forth; not to point a moral, but to tell a story." Good advice, but how do we keep to it? Most of us are passionate believers in something, hoping to share the good news that lifts us up with the world. To write without agenda, I suppose the vision must be to share the goodness first and foremost, leaving the news to be discovered by those willing to dig for it, to open our ears to the whisperings of God, of winter nights, of bitter old women and laughing girls, and then to write them all without fear they might upset our little world.

"God and other artists are always a little obscure."
    ~Oscar Wilde

They are always a little obscure because they focus on the goodness, on loving without needing or showing a reason for the love. Those who can write, as Sayers' says "not to point a moral, but to tell a story" write - I assume - for the love of story, not the love of self, or the love of an idea. It seems easy to tell at times, but not always, and as Jenna reminds us "give the benefit of the doubt in uncertain cases.

Friday, February 10, 2012

50 Days of Self Reflection: Day 14

What do you think is the most important personality trait for a spouse?

I’m going to skip right over honesty, because I think most people would insist on it, and go for humor, or a sense of fun. Life would be awful if it couldn’t be amusing, especially on hard days. The ability to laugh well and with love, not derision is essential.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Fiction with an Agenda

Last week we started drawing out what aspects of the writer come out in the writing. How much of ourselves to we reveal. Jenna reminded us that though the artist will not be able to keep from revealing any passionately held beliefs, agendas should be avoided; that is, if the author is aware of himself. Mr. Pond encourages us to remember that the author is not always aware of what he is doing in many aspects of his writing. But what of agenda? What of the writer who knowingly whores his talent for a cause?What are we to think of him?

"art is wholly concerned with the good of that which is made; it has no utilitarian end. If you do manage to use it successfully for social, religious, or other purposes, it is because you made it art first..."
  ~Flannery O' Connor

There is a goodness in writing wrapped up in an idea, in the story concieved within a theme. But the good writer takes the theme and submits it to beauty, to the living art he creates. The idea can move freely, be seen and unseen as it flitters throught the pages. It is not tied down, not forced to be still and stagnant. It belongs to the story, the story doesn't belong to it.

I've been reading a it of Michael O' Brien's book against most modern fairy stories (A Landscape with Dragons). It's a hard book to read, and reading it, he seems a hard person to like. The book assumes all authors have hidden motives, either to lead the reader to Christ, or to Satan. That all fiction is propoganda, either for good or evil.  I reject the idea entirely, but as Jenna writes in her previous post, "it can perhaps be hard to tell the difference" especially if a writer who generally writes with an agenda, as Mr. O'Brien's books seem to indicate, reads one who writes with no agenda at all, but with a vision that is "organically grown from the author's own devotion." (Jenna).

“Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing.”  
   ~Flannery O Connor

Perhaps this is the real trouble with so much of Christian fiction, music, and painting. It fails to be art because the maker put his beliefs so completely in his line of vision that he cannot see by the light they give.

Mr. Pond tells us that the writer must understand "the potential of the art, not merely the words on the page" if he is to create at all. But the writer of propaganda sees only the obvious. He uses for utilitarian ends what ought to be art, and in the process, what should be beautiful withers and dies.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

50 Days of Self Reflection: Day 13

What pet would best fit your life? Why? If you have one, is it the best fit?

We have a dog, Luba. I do think a dog best fits our life. Luba has 36 acres to run about in, she has chickens to smell, a baby to paw at, owners who let her curl up with them in bed, and a warm couch to sleep all night on. Luba though, is in her ungrateful teenage years. She sighs, rolls her eyes, destroys the order I try to keep, and punctuates her day with moody fits of despair. But she, and her roller-coaster of emotions do fit our life best right now, she adds her own spark of imbalance to the day; teaching me again and again that order is not always essential.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

"There's nothing to writing...all you do is sit at a typewriter and bleed."
    ~Ernest Hemingway

There is a good deal of trust and and good deal of courage in our little circle of writers. Faced with the dark emptiness of last week, Mr. Pond and Jenna rose up in confidence, Mr. Pond with an encouraging reminder not to be too afraid in the dark, moonless nights, to learn to welcome winters, and doubts and questioning. To find and love the hidden lights of winter, the darkest nights of stillness and starlight.” Which beautifully echoes Rilke’s advice to “live the questions now” without needing answers until you are able grow into them. Jenna’s response, embracing (to an extent) and uniting the three ideas with a need for the creative process “to stave off destructive sorrow” on occasion, and a deep relationship to the written word gave me my topic this week. How much of our flesh goes in the inkpot, and how much comes back out again?

Jenna writes that her "inkpot adamantly refuses to give forth its contents unless a bit of my own flesh goes in", goes in - but what comes out? Tolstoy is lived closely in Anna Karinina's Levin, but we can see pieces of him in War and Peace as well, lived out in Pierre and Prince Andrei; Robert Heinlein pontificates through Jubal Harshaw in Stranger in a Strange Land. Many characters have a good deal of the writer in them somewhere, but some have none at all, and some have too much.

"A character is never the author that created him. It is quite likely, however, that an author may be all his characters simultaneously."
  ~Albert Camus

No matter how much of ourselves we write in, the character can never be fully ours. A change or too, an idealization, a missed flaw or virtue, can take the created one away from his creator, the character becomes his own person. But, if I am a good enough writer, each of my people is one I've known on the inside, one I've lived with a while. I'm often wary of stories with a main character who seems to be an idealized version of the author, Dan Brown's books come to mind, in part because it comes across as an ego trip, and in part because it's boring. Levin isn't boring because he isn't idealized, and despite being almost Tolstoy, he isn't.

"A writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a charicature."
   ~Ernest Hemingway

Amen.  When I write, my attempt is to take people from life, alter to emphasis certain aspects, and from there they grow into their own selves. In a way, writing people is a pursuit of understanding, an attempt to really know the people around us, to understand their motives. To love them simply for being.