Monthly Archives: December 2011

Christopher Hitchens, God & me, pt. 2

L-R: Angel, Jesus Christ, John the Baptist, and my son, Tom, in Florence, Italy

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence

—William Butler Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium”

II.

The late Christopher Hitchens was like that dread baptismal tank. I cowered before him.

Sure, I admired his courage and his skillful prolificacy—I saw him as a great if often wrongheaded journalist of ideas—but flinched at his rage and at his sheer meanness. Especially regarding the straw-man figure of God he erected in order to mount an attack in the shadow of his intellectual superior, the atheist evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins.

As a friend said, it is significant that Hitchens and Dawkins are both British. In the European way, England mixed religion and the State—which is to say, it mixed religion and politics. While established religions tend to become political and prideful entities, formally merging them with politics—the most cravenly primate of necessary human activities—is bad medicine. And, besides, the two world wars so ravaged Europe that they put the quietus on any glimmer of a heavenly God.

Europe, by and large, is now spiritually spent for at least those two reasons.

But whatever his case, Hitchens seemed willfully, belligerently, gleefully tone deaf and clueless about religion. And I imagine him contemptuous even of spirituality—just, to him, more watery weak-kneed warm and fuzzies covering terror at death. Admit it, the disciple of Dawkins seemed to sneer, it’s all about our selfish genes. He called himself, in contrast to the deluded religious, a man of the Enlightenment. He failed to see that the principles he worshipped flowed from the same deep well as religion and were fostered by religion.

But I must explain what I believe, and that’s hard and it’s tricky.

The least of it is that mentioning religion positively, let alone invoking God, now inflames most people. The bigger issue is that my notion of God is evolving and is cumbersome to explain. Hitchens, along with those whom I imagine as true believers, including more than a few in my extended family, might see me at best as a soft-headed New Ager. At worst, they’d peg me as just another secular humanist.

But to Hitchens I’d also be a cowardly atheist who can’t man up like him and look squarely at life’s ugly reality—that it’s a bitch and then we die—and so dresses up his secular humanism with fairy tale garnish about a man in the sky.

That’s true only if you accept one literalist notion of God. If you don’t assume the adult task of defining God for yourself.

The Jews, who discovered God 3,000 years ago, did place him in the sky above their temples. He was an angry coot, as we know, a parental super ego sore displeased with his brood. But even though I believe only metaphorically in that God, I see profound significance in the Jews’ discovery and in their moving God into the sky, lifting one God above a welter of demigods.

Their insight was of historic and evolutionary importance.

Next: I open a fresh can of whup-ass on Hitch and define my God.

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Christopher Hitchens, God & me, pt. 1

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unaging intellect.

 —William Butler Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium”

 for Tom, with Kierkegaard among the dark Danes

I.

 Three years ago, as my mother lay dying, her youngest sister, Carolyn, died unexpectedly in Texas. Mom dispatched me from my home in Ohio to the funeral, as her designate. Instead of returning to Florida to see Mom again, one last time, I made my way to a vast Southern Baptist Church outside Dallas. Mom and I had a vexed relationship, our harmonics clashed, and that was something I could do.

The minister delivering Carolyn’s eulogy was a kid fresh out of seminary. Irritated as I watched him flail his feet around for all to see behind a clear-glass pulpit, it occurred to me that postmodern style had gone way too far. But then, my boyhood church had had a terrifying plexiglass baptismal tank front and center.

“Carolyn is in heaven with the Lord,” he said. “And she’s in a physical place with a physical body.”

“Amen!” said a beloved uncle, the last of the sons of Delbert and Mittye Rounsaville, Atoka, Oklahoma. My surviving aunts murmured their assent. My cousins and I sat in silence, realizing, perhaps for the first time, that we’d entered a new realm of adulthood. We sat among children of the latest generation—we were their age when we’d first met our Aunt Carolyn.

On her last morning, Carolyn, recovering from surgery, had done her Bible study in bed. She told her twin sister Marilyn, who checked on her, that she was going to rest. Then, apparently in her sleep, she died. A blood clot, they said.

I called Mom to tell her about the service. “It was beautiful, Mom. Aunt Carolyn was really loved. Everyone was there, and people from the church. You would have loved it.”

That was true as far as it went. But I’d been shocked to hear a minister take for granted a belief in a physical afterlife. Accustomed to mild Methodist guidance for twenty years, in a college town in Indiana and in a rural Ohio church, I’d forgotten the literalist notions I must have heard as a boy in the Southern Baptist church.

Our baptismal tank in our small church was kept sloshing. And someone had to get saved every service. Always I sat, rigid with fear, willing myself to invisibility. Once in high school I attended there with another Winn Dixie bagboy, a sweet pothead, who wept and rose, marched his tear-streaked face down the aisle.

In Dallas what truly appalled me was my sense, heightened after chatting with him, that the boy preacher didn’t believe a word of what he’d said. He wanted to comfort, I suppose. But his fancies and his deceitful mien left me feeling ill and angry.

“Everyone’s working on the same problem,” my uncle, a Baptist deacon, told me after the service, surely sensing my angst. “But Christianity got the answer. Some others came close. But it’s like math. There’s only one right answer.”

I was torn between admiration at his certitude and outrage at his blindness. One thing that’s always fueled my hope: the similarities of the world’s great religions.

But my uncle wasn’t too sure, even, about Catholics.

He said he was put off by their emphasis on opulence and on Mary. I understand the former—so many poor people have given so much to that rich church—but after lots of thought I decided I like what to me goes along with it: their use of icons. In a Catholic church, an image of Jesus, sometimes life-sized, dies in agony on the cross; giving Jesus a body makes him both more real and more potent a symbol for those who feel nailed to their own crosses. Of course, there’s something to be said for the way Protestants have purified the cross, turning a torture device—it killed slowly by preventing the crucified from exhaling—into an object of worship. As for Mary, I like the diversity—another human character to identify with—and the way she counters the church’s sexism. Protestants go to the opposite extreme: Mary’s almost missing.

Whenever I get really depressed, I think I should become Catholic. Just submit to its flawed authority, join its humbled masses. Then I realize I’m probably Protestant to the core.

(Merry Christmas, Tom.)

Next: I cower before the mighty Hitchens as before that dread baptismal tank.



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Virginia Woolf’s ‘moments of being’

The past only comes back when the present runs so smoothly that it is like the sliding surface of a deep river. Then one sees through the surface to the depths. In those moments I find one of my greatest satisfactions, not that I am thinking of the past; but it is then that I am living most fully in the present.—“A Sketch of the Past”

Virginia Woolf begins her “Sketch” by describing her earliest, joyous memories in infancy, those associated with her family’s beach house, St. Ives. She writes, “I feel that strong emotion must leave its trace; and it is only a question of how we can get ourselves again attached to it, so that we shall be able to live our lives through from the start. But the peculiarity of these two strong memories was that each was very simple. I am hardly aware of myself, but only of the sensation. I am only the container of the feeling of ecstasy, of the feeling of rapture.”

Woolf calls the forgotten rush of everyday life “non-being,” and contrasts this unconscious state with memorable moments—the hum of bees as she walked to the beach as a girl—that are often mysterious for being so ordinary and yet remembered. In these flashes of time she was conscious of being conscious, instead of “embedded in a kind of nondescript cotton wool” in which human days typically pass.

I mentioned in my last post the resonant hints of spirituality I find in Woolf’s concept. Here is an excerpt that shows what I mean:

As a child, then, my days, just as they do now, contained a large proportion of this cotton wool, this non-being. Week after week passed at St. Ives and nothing made any dint upon me. Then, for no reason that I know about, there was a sudden violent shock; something happened so violently that I have remembered it all my life. I will give a few instances. The first: I was fighting with Thoby on the lawn. We were pommelling each other with our fists. Just as I raised my fist to hit him, I felt: why hurt another person? I dropped my hand instantly, and stood there, and let him beat me. I remember the feeling. It was a feeling of hopeless sadness. It was as if I became aware of something terrible; and of my own powerlessness. I slunk off alone, feeling horribly depressed. The second instance was also in the garden at St. Ives. I was looking at the flower bed by the front door; “That is the whole”, I said. I was looking at a plant with a spread of leaves; and it seemed suddenly plain that the flower itself was a part of the earth; that a ring enclosed what was the flower; and that was the real flower; part earth; part flower. It was a thought I put away as being likely to be very useful to me later.

A manuscript page of "A Sketch"

The sensitivity with which Woolf experienced life seems excruciating, as the passage underscores as it continues with the third example, of overhearing her parents discuss the suicide of a neighbor. Walking in the garden later, she stood before an apple tree, unable to pass it, “looking at the grey-green creases of the bark—it was a moonlit night—in a trance of horror.” This connecting an innocent tree with a man’s death, of being “dragged down, hopelessly, into some pit of absolute despair,” shows her torture as a person better than anything I’ve read.

“All her life,” writes Hermione Lee in her introduction to the Paris Press edition of Woolf’s On Being Ill, “she had to do battle with tormenting, terrifying mental states, agonising and debilitating physical symptoms, and infuriating restrictions.”

How she suffered for her sensitivity. But Woolf writes in “A Sketch” that “the shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer.” Indeed, she says that when she wrote about the three above incidents, she realized for the first time consciously that one, the flower insight, ended in satisfaction. Even as a girl she felt she had made an important discovery with the flower, one she could return to, “turn over and explore.” And as an adult, even the blows that seemed to come from an enemy hidden in the cotton wool appeared to her a revelation of some sort, “a token of some real thing behind appearances.”

She continues:

Perhaps this is the strongest pleasure known to me. It is the rapture I get when in writing I seem to be discovering what belongs to what; making a scene come right; making a character come together. From this I reach what I might call a philosophy; at any rate it is a constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we—I mean all human beings—are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are part of the work of art.

To me this is spiritual, even as Woolf goes on to say emphatically that in these moments “there is no God”—nor Shakespeare nor Beethoven either—and she has also expressed what I see as the religious impulse—connection—and comes close to defining where I place God, inside humans as an evolutionary force impelling their search for goodness, truth, and justice. This is a very personal reading, of course, my receiving a thrilling hint, as when I read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, of someone else working out the same problems that preoccupy me and arriving at the numinous.

Or, as Woolf says better: “. . . we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself . . . It proves that one’s life is not confined to one’s body and what one says and does; one is living all the time in relation to certain background rods or conceptions. Mine is that there is a pattern hid behind the cotton wool. And this conception affects me every day.”

Woolf succumbed to mental illness and killed herself before she was able to put in “the horrid labour” she felt was necessary to make of her “Sketch” a work of art. I found an excellent short essay online by Nicole L. Urquhart,Moments of Being in Virginia Woolf’s Fiction,” which discusses how Woolf tried to portray moments of being—episodes in which characters are conscious of being conscious—in her novels Mrs. DallowayTo the Lighthouse and Between the Acts.

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Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Sketch of the Past’

From it all I gathered one obstinate and enduring conception. That nothing is to be so much dreaded as egotism. Nothing so cruelly hurts the person himself; nothing so wounds those who are forced into contact with it.—Virginia Woolf, writing about her relationship with her father in “A Sketch of the Past

Having posted so much lately on scenic narrative, I do penance by featuring Virginia Woolf, a most reflective writer. Toward her I feel a kinship, which for some time struck me as odd. Then I realized that, in her deep art, her delicate nature, and her spiritual sensibility, she had replaced my boyhood idol Ernest Hemingway. What bookends to have as literary heroes! He, killed by his egotism and his rage, she killed by her sensitivity and her pain.

I admire his courage and his artistry as a young writer; I lament the shameful boor he became. I write that feeling like a son striking against his father, because when I was a lonely and pained adolescent his stoic myth gave me hope and his stories artistic delight. As a teen I read everything I could by and about him, and first saw the link between outlook and art. As an adult I feel that his efforts to grow as an artist, and perhaps to deepen his tragic view of life, were doomed by the prison of image he’d constructed.

Barely having dipped into Woolf to the same extent, I nonetheless find the depth of her artistry breathtaking, and am in awe of the resonant hints of spirituality I find in her work, especially in her concept of “moments of being” that she discusses in “A Sketch of the Past,” collected in Moments of Being. Ever since I read that long, unfinished essay I’ve been thinking about it—how dominated she was by her father, how she lost her mother so young, how she was molested and bullied by her cretinous stepbrothers, how her account still feels modern. In it Woolf makes her famous statement that although she reads many memoirs, most are failures because they are mere narratives of events and “leave out the person to whom things happened.”

Here she is on her parents’ dysfunction:

Every afternoon we ‘went for a walk’. Later these walks became a penance. Father must have one of us go out with him, Mother insisted. Too much obsessed with his health, with his pleasures, she was too willing, as I think now, to sacrifice us to him. It was thus that she left us the legacy of his dependence, which after her death became so harsh an imposition. It would have [been] better for our relationship if she had left him to fend for himself. But for many years she made a fetish of his health; and so—leaving the effect on us out of the reckoning—she wore herself out and died at forty-nine; while he lived on, and found it very difficult, so healthy was he, to die of cancer at the age of seventy-two. But, though I slip in, still venting an old grievance, that parenthesis, St. Ives gave us all that same ‘pure delight’ which is before my eyes at this very moment. The lemon-colored leaves on the elm tree; the apples in the orchard; the murmur and rustle of the leaves makes me pause here, and think how many other than human forces are always at work on us. While I write this the light glows; an apple becomes a vivid green; I respond all through me; but how? Then a little owl chatters under my window. Again, I respond.

Here she writes on the early blows of losing her mother and then a sister to death:

My mother’s death had been a latent sorrow—at thirteen one could not master it, envisage it, deal with it. But Stella’s death two years later fell on a different substance; a mind . . . extraordinarily unprotected, unformed, unshielded, apprehensive, receptive, anticipatory. That must always hold good of minds and bodies at fifteen. But beneath the surface of this particular mind and body lay sunk the other death. Even if I were not fully conscious of what my mother’s death meant, I had for two years been unconsciously absorbing it through Stella’s silent grief; through my father’s demonstrative grief; again through all the things that changed and stopped; the ending of society; of gaiety; of the giving up of St. Ives; the black clothes; the suppressions; the locked door of her bedroom. All this had toned my mind and made it apprehensive; made it I suppose unnaturally responsive to Stella’s happiness, and the promise it held for her and for us of escape from that gloom; when once more unbelievably—incredibly—as if one had been violently cheated of some promise; more than that, brutally told not to be such a fool as to hope for things; I remember saying to myself after she died: ‘But this is impossible; things aren’t, can’t be, like this—the blow, the second blow of death, stuck on me; tremulous, filmy eyed as I was, with my wings still creased, sitting there on the edge of my broken chrysalis.

On how she gained insight into foreign pleasures and strangers:

Once, after we had hung about, tacking, and hauling in gunard after gunard, dab after dab, father said to me: ‘Next time if you are going to fish I shan’t come; I don’t like to see fish caught but you can go if you like.’ It was a perfect lesson. It was not a rebuke; not forbidding; simply a statement of his own feeling, about which I could think and decide for myself. Though my passion for the thrill and the tug had been perhaps the most acute I then knew, his words slowly extinguished it; leaving no grudge, I ceased to wish to catch fish. But from the memory of my own passion I am still able to construct an idea of the sporting passion. It is one of those invaluable seeds, from which, since it is impossible to have every experience fully, one can grow something that represents other people’s experiences. Often one has to make do with seeds; the germs of what might have been, had one’s life been different. I pigeonhole ‘fishing’ thus with other momentary glimpses; like those rapid glances, for example, that I cast into basements when I walk in London streets.

On how fiction and memoir feed upon and devour memories:

Further, just as I rubbed out a good deal of the force of my mother’s memory by writing about her in To the Lighthouse, so I rubbed out much of [my father’s] memory there too. Yet he obsessed me for years. Until I wrote it out, I would find my lips moving; I would be arguing with him; raging against him; saying to myself all that I never said to him; how deep they drove themselves into me, the things it was impossible to say aloud. They are still some of them sayable; when [Woolf’s sister] Nessa for instance revives the memory of Wednesday and its weekly [bank account] books, I still feel come over me that old frustrated fury.

But in me, though not in her, rage alternated with love. . . . ‘You must think me,’ he said to me after one of these rages—I think the word he used was ‘foolish’. I was silent. I did not think him foolish. I thought him brutal. . . .

Woolf died by her own hand before she made of this memoir a literary work equal to her fiction. It feels like a draft still searching for its structure, and ends abruptly. But what a memoir, and the very model for those who believe memoir must, as they say, “interrogate memory.” “A Sketch of the Past” is better for my money than another classic memoir, the gorgeously written Speak, Memory, since, lamentably, I find Vladimir Nabokov’s cold-fish persona in it repulsive. Woolf, in contrast to the guys, seemingly stands naked before her readers, a wounded creature working to understand her life, and life itself, with true courage and great artistry.

Next: Woolf’s concept of “moments of being” from “A Sketch of the Past.”

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Adair Lara on collage, narration & scene

Start a scene as late in the action as you can and get out right after the change.—Adair Lara

Naked, Drunk, and Writing: Shed Your Inhibitions and Craft a Compelling Memoir or Personal Essay by Adair Lara. 247 pages, Ten Speed Press.

Lara on collage:

The risk with collage is that while it looks temptingly simple—much as an abstract expressionist painting might to a student painter—it is not. An intuitive calibration of effects must supply the sense of unity that would otherwise be supplied by story. You must repeat images, colors, patters—something for the reader to recognize and track. And the less headlong narrative there is, the more engaging the voice must be, the more arresting the images.

Lara on narration vs. scene:

You’ll notice that I often refer to the “events” in your book when talking about the arc. These events can be dealt with on the page in one of two ways: in narration, or in scene. Some memoirs, such as Angela’s Ashes, are almost all scene; others, such as Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, are almost all narration. More and more, however, modern memoirs use scenes to make a book lively and readable.

Lara on scene:

So your first step is to identify which events are important enough to go into a scene. In the last chapter, we saw that each emotion that’s acted on to move the story forward is a beat. Beats are changes, thus they are dramatized: All important changes must be dramatized in scene. If we see you doing something you would not have done before, we want to be there with you when that change occurs. If something happens one night to make you realize that you are not the freak you took yourself to be, show it. If you feed your once-scary father yogurt with a spoon in the hospital, and feel a new kind of love for him, show it. . . .

Start a scene as late in the action as you can and get out right after the change.

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Q&A: a memoirist’s decade of discovery

Nina Hamberg, author of Grip

Nina Hamberg, whose award-winning book Grip: A Memoir of Fierce Attractions I recently excerpted, answered questions about her motives and process. In the manner of Tobias Wolff’s great memoirs, Grip’s meaning is embedded in its story. A narrative of Hamberg’s fraught relationships with men who are afflicted with their own baggage, Grip is frank sexually without being overly graphic or salacious.

Why did you write Grip?

I’d never planned on writing memoir. I thought I had a novel in me, one based on the year I was ten and my mother left my father and took me with her to Florida. But when I sat down to write that story I found myself using the first person and telling what had happened. Without planning it, I’d gravitated to memoir. I took many writing classes, did a lot of reading, and spent the next two years writing about that period. I’d completed the first draft before I realized that the manuscript didn’t hold enough of a charge to continue. In a way, I wasn’t surprised, just aware of a kind of dread. I knew the story I’d been in training to write. I’d been hiding from it for years.

Ultimately, I wrote Grip because I had to. I’d kept so many parts of my life shuttered away from the people I cared about, as well as from myself. The assault. My family’s silence. My relationship with Stephen. My willingness to stay with a man who’d punch holes in the wall. If I was going to fully feel, I needed to face the past—both the things that I hadn’t chosen that had caused me pain as well as those I was ashamed that I had.

What did you learn in writing it?

 Many things. For one, I gained a deeper understanding of my parents. The process of making myself see and hear them as a writer, not a daughter, revealed their confusion and pain, showed them as people feeling their way. For another, I assembled pieces of my own life. The writer has a fragment of a memory, and it’s her job to place that piece into its context. To do that, I used a technique many memoirist use. I created a written timeline of the key events of my life year by year – in some cases, month by month. You’d think this would be easy, but it isn’t. Once you get the basics down, you layer it with information about key events in the lives of your parents or your lovers. Then you move outside that familial room and ask who was the President, what music was playing on the radio, when did the Iran hostages come home. You don’t end up using much of this, but for me the timeline proved invaluable in lifting memories out of a fog and grounding them in a firmer reality. As strange as this sounds, I hadn’t associated my father’s illness with my compulsion to marry Lee until I’d assembled the timeline.

You depicted relationships with minimal interpretation and reflection from present time, choosing to embed the meaning in the narrative itself (a la Tobias Wolff). Most academics teaching memoir writing advocate an alternative approach. They want the story grounded in “the now” with extensive reflection. How did you decide which approach to take?

I wrote the kind of story I like to read, one in which the reader is brought into the scene, introduced to the characters, and allowed to draw her own conclusions. I didn’t want to insert a strong musing voice that pulled the reader out of the moment or tied up the loose ends. That said, the perspective of the present informs almost every aspect of this story. I don’t see how it could be otherwise. It is the writer’s present self who distills down what is important, who is strong enough to face the little horror that was her former self, and solid enough to let all her characters come alive on the page unbound by her judgment.

Maybe the choice of styles gets down to our writing nature, and not really theory at all. I’ve got to tell you, the few musing glimmers that do appear in Grip were a lot of work. I felt I had to crack into the narrative flow very carefully to insert them.

Sex is always tricky to write about. How were you able to depict sex so frankly and so personally while keeping the description to a minimum?

First off, thank you—both for the question, because those sections were difficult to write, and for saying it seemed minimal. Phew. (I’m still dealing with the image of my brother reading Grip.)

A story about lovers has to have sex but my earliest versions didn’t. I remember reading an excerpt to my writing group from an early chapter about Stephen. I’d described him as an amazing lover or something like that. During the critique several women (the group was all women which made this experiment much easier) pointed out that if I was going to say the sex was great, I’d have to show how specifically. So I wrote a scene, a specific bedroom scene, which was very explicit. It got quite a reaction when I read it aloud, lots of whoops and laughs. The group admired the audacity. But it was too much. I backed down the detail, realizing the reader doesn’t need to be in the bedroom for long to understand the intensity.

So in answer to your question, my advice would be to overwrite it; be as detailed as you can. Then scale the scene back to its essence, leaving telling details that reveal something about you and your characters.

What memoirs inspired you in your writing?

 There have been so many amazing memoirs in recent years. Among my favorites are: Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Drinking: A Love Story, The Glass Castle, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, and Long Quiet Highway. I also really liked Fierce Attachments (in fact, I tried to pay homage to Vivian Gornick in the subtitle of my book), This Boy’s Life, The Kiss, After Long Silence, Falling Through the Earth and one of the first memoirs I ever read, A Country Year.

You’ll notice some contemporary classics are missing. I started reading The Liar’s Club early on but had to stop because Mary Kerr’s voice was just too strong. When I went to write about my childhood, my New York Jewish neighbors had suddenly developed a Texas twang.

 How long did you work on the book?

It took me a long time to write Grip—just over ten years. I didn’t really have the narrative thread until six years into the project. Once again, I overwrote. There are many chapters that were in early drafts, pieces I loved, that didn’t make the final cut once the theme became my relationships with men. A good part of the last year was spent editing, adding connective tissue, tightening up the writing. I hadn’t expected any part of this would take as long as it did, but looking back, there isn’t anything I would have done differently.

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