Fiction · Random thoughts

Cynicism and trust

While cynicism is no less reasonable than trust, the latter is much more enjoyable and life affirming.

Thus Jo Carruthers in a review of Javier Marías’s novel The Infatuations. While it seems obvious to me that trust is always the better option and is indeed more life-affirming than fear or cynicism, I love the idea that it is also more enjoyable. I had never looked at it from that angle, I suppose, but it’s true.

The review, which appeared in Third Way, June 2013, has also whetted my appetite for the novel, which is said to explore existential questions of life, death, love and morality. It looks a fascinating read.

Poetry · Spirituality

Secret places inside this violent world

Time for some more of Rumi’s poetry, again in the translation of Coleman Barks, from Bridge to the Soul: Journeys into the Music and Silence of the Heart.

I am sure I have said this before, but Rumi has been an amazing discovery for me. There is profound spiritual insight in the words of this Sufi master, and there is so much here that speaks to me at such a deep level. Some of it puts into words my own recent journey in ways that I could never have managed myself. Other parts express some of my deepest hopes and longings. And then there are many wonderful insights about God, love, friendship etc.

If only more people would read Rumi’s poetry. It would open their eyes to quite a different side of Islam. But then, he apparently is the most widely read poet in America today. There is still hope then …

We must die to become true human beings.

From gardens to the gardener,
from grieving to a wedding feast.

We tremble like leaves about to let go.
There is no avoiding pain,
or feeling exiled, or the taste of dust.

I can truly relate to those reflections on dying, grieving, letting go, experiencing pain and the taste of dust.

When someone feels jealous,
I am inside the hurt and the need to possess.

When anyone is sick,
I feel feverish and dizzy.

This I find comforting: that God is inside the hurt of those who need to possess others. And that he is inside our sickness.

For the grace of the presence, be grateful.

Imagination cannot contain the absolute.
These poems are elusive
because the presence is.

‘Imagination cannot contain the absolute’. Quite. No point to even try!

No more holding back. Be reckless.
Tell your love to everybody.


Stand up. The prostrating
part of prayer is over.

the beloved is absence
as well as this fullness.

I love that attitude to praying and loving God.

Be a helpful friend,
and you will become a green tree
with always new fruit,
always deeper journeys into love.

Worth aspiring to …

Learned theologians do not teach love.
Love is nothing but gladness and kindness.

When you see a scowling face,
it is not a lover’s.

Rumi really does understand true love.

Lovers find secret places
inside this violent world
where they make transactions
with beauty.

Reason says, Nonsense.
I have walked and measured the walls here.
There are no places like that.

Love says, There are.

Lovers feel a truth inside themselves
that rational people keep denying.

This is just brilliant stuff, so true and so well expressed. Secret places in a violent world where you make transactions with beauty – that’s truly wonderful and how I wish to live.

Biblical Studies · Fiction

An evil book? C. J. Sansom on the book of Revelation

Revelation was the first C. J. Sansom book I have read, primarily because the plot is built largely around the seven bowls (or vials, as they are called in the King James Version) of judgement found in Revelation 15–16. I shall say more about the novel in an upcoming post, focusing on some of its comments on the book of Revelation for now. These comments are of particular interest to me, as Revelation is one of the biblical books that I am working on at the moment.

Sansom, a historian by training, has interesting things to say about how the book of Revelation was interpreted during the troublesome times of Henry VIII, in the aftermath of the dissolution of the monasteries and during the bitter conflicts between the radicals (i.e. those influenced by the Protestant reformers) and the conservatives (those wishing to preserve Catholic traditions).

One of the themes that comes up repeatedly in conversations among the novel’s main characters is Revelation’s obscurity. Consider the following conversation between Barak, the assistant of Matthew Shardlake, the book’s protagonist, and the latter himself. They are discussing the seven bowls of judgement:

‘I remember our vicar reading about that once. I couldn’t follow it, it sounded like a mad dream.’
‘A mad dream. Yes, well put. …’

In another conversation they reflect on Revelation generally:

‘This book makes no sense,’ Barak said at length. ‘It tells the same story in different ways, different versions of how the world will end, angels and wars and vials. There is no …’
‘Narrative? I know. It is the only book in the New Testament that is so obscure.’

Indeed, the book’s obscurity is causing all kinds of problems, as Shardlake points out:

There are as many interpretations of Revelation as there are interpreters, each one saying his understanding is the true one. And most are ill-educated fanatics. This book is causing much trouble in the world.

It is Guy Malton, a doctor and ex-monk, who puts his finger on one of the key problems:

Thrown into a different world, where the Bible is interpreted as literal fact, its symbols and metaphors forgotten, and fanatics react with equanimity to the blood and cruelty of Revelation. Have you ever thought what a God would be like who actually ordained and executed the cruelty that is in that book? A holocaust of mankind. Yet so many of these Bible-men accept the idea without a second thought.

But it is not only the interpreters that are at fault. The book of Revelation itself is deemed to be deeply problematic, as both Matthew Shardlake and Guy Malton repeatedly suggest. This is how Shardlake characterises Revelation:

The last book of the Bible; full of wild, fiery, cruel language, hard to understand, unlike anything else in the New Testament. Erasmus and Luther both doubted whether Revelation was really the word of God …

He then goes on to stress how different this book is from the rest of the New Testament, especially ‘in its violence and cruelty, its representation of Jesus as God’s harsh judge, who holds the keys of hell and death’. Indeed, Revelation appals him:

I read its cruel barbarous message and I despair.

Malton, for his part, comments:

What an evil book it is, for it says that humanity is nothing, is worth nothing.

And so he concludes:

Christianity would be better without that book. It preaches nothing but cruelty and destruction. It teaches that the destruction of human beings does not matter, is even to be rejoiced over. It is evil.

That these characters express Sansom’s own views about the book of Revelation is confirmed by the ‘Historical Note’ that concludes the novel. Here Sansom talks about ‘a London increasingly divided between radical and conservative parishes’ and notes that:

the radicals, with their view of themselves as persecuted saints, often comforted themselves in the belief that Revelation foretold their eventual victory against the ‘Beast’ of Rome. Many believed then, exactly as Christian fundamentalists do today, that they lived in the ‘last days’ before Armageddon and, again just as now, saw signs all around in the world that they took as certain proof that the Apocalypse was imminent. Again like fundamentalists today, they looked on the prospect of the violent destruction of mankind without turning a hair. The remarkable similarity between the first Tudor Puritans and the fanatics among today’s Christian fundamentalists extends to their selective reading of the Bible, their emphasis on the Book of Revelation, their certainty of their rightness, even to their phraseology. Where the Book of Revelation is concerned, I share the view of Guy, that the early Church Fathers released something very dangerous on the world when, after much deliberation, they decided to include it in the Christian canon.

Most of what Sansom says, especially about fundamentalist interpretations of Revelation, is very well taken. But his novel also leaves us with the question whether the book of Revelation is indeed evil in and of itself. And that is one of the issues I shall have to ponder in the coming weeks, as I reflect, among other things, on ‘Revelation, Apocalyptic Worldview and Violence’.

Best Reads 2013 · Poetry

Best Reads 2013. VII: Anne Carson, Red Doc>

Anne Carson, Red Doc>Anne Carson. Red Doc>. The sequel to Autobiography of Red. It doesn’t often happen that I preorder books that have not yet been published. This one I ordered as soon as I knew it was coming out. Autobiography of Red, which I must reread soon, had been a reading experience like no other, and so I had been looking forward to Red Doc>. I half expected to be disappointed though, for how could anything measure up to Autobiography?

So has Red Doc> left me disappointed? No, I’m glad to say that it hasn’t. Is it as good as Autobiography of Red? Perhaps not quite, although it doesn’t fall far short for me. It is a very good book and, like Autobiography, is one of Carson’s most accessible works.

As is so often the case with her books, the layout is once again distinctive.

Being a sequel, Red Doc> picks up the story of Geryon and Herakles years later, but the two protagonists have now acquired new names, Geryon being called G, while Herakles is known as Sad. As for the plot, well, you will have to read the book for yourselves, as I am not going to give anything away.

Readers of Carson’s work won’t be surprised to hear that there are some very poignant moments. For instance, when G meets his old lover, we read:

LOVE’S LONG LOST
shock the boy the man he
knows him. Knew. The
lion head the sloping run a
lavishness in him made you
want to throw your soul
through every door.

I adore Carson’s turn of phrase, which so often is utterly unique and unexpected. This allows her to offer some distinctly new perspectives on life’s most significant moments. In this example, meeting a long lost lover makes ‘you want to throw your soul through every door’. Isn’t that brilliant?

Carson also captures the shock and the breathless response to the surprise encounter so well: ‘the boy the man he knows him’.

Another great moment is G’s conversation with the shrink about his treatment of Sad:

what do you do / talk /
does that help him / one
test for this question /
what test / did he cap
himself yesterday /

no / did he cap himself
today / no / so talk helps /
see your point

Red Doc> features many well-taken observations, such as the following one about misnomers, which includes a wonderful description of anciently swaying pines:

Much is misnomer in our
present way of grasping the
world. But pines do
always seem queenly as
they sway so grand and
anciently from the sky to
the ground.

But to me Carson is at her very best when she talks about pain, loss and grief.

G lays his head on the
table it sinks into the table.

To feel anything
deranges you. To be seen
feeling anything strips you
naked.

You think what
will they do what new
power will they acquire if
they see me naked like
this. If they see you
feeling.

To be seen is the penalty.

Impairment and he lie
down on the floor.

Tears pour in Ida’s
heart but not her eyes …

And the
reason he cannot bear her
dying is not the loss of her
(which is the future) but
that dying puts the two of
them (now) into this
nakedness together that is
unforgivable.

Pain
catches the whole insides
of him and wrings it.

Tears pouring into your heart but not your eyes – what a wonderfully eloquent way of describing pain.

And then there are so many delightful phrases, as when Carson talks about ‘tearstained laughter’, ‘surprised front steps’, a room that ‘looks lonely’, ‘a smile that dazzles the car’ and a voice that is ‘thin enough to see through’, to mention only a few.

Even rather banal moments are evoked in language that delights by its brilliance:

He sits
up suddenly drenched in
ringing. Phone.

This is a book to savour and come back to time and again. I know I will.

Spirituality

Love deeply

Do not hesitate to love and to love deeply. You might be afraid of the pain that deep love can cause. When those you love deeply reject you, leave you, or die, your heart will be broken. But that should not hold you back from loving deeply. The pain that comes from deep love makes your love ever more fruitful. … Every time you experience the pain of rejection, absence, or death, you are faced with a choice. You can become bitter and decide not to love again, or you can stand straight in your pain and let the soil on which you stand become richer and more able to give life to new seeds.

Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey through Anguish to Freedom

Spirituality

Two types of losses

At the beginning of Lent I decided to subscribe to the Lent Daily Reflections by the World Community for Christian Meditation. I am glad that I did, because they have contained many inspiring thoughts alongside some gentle, wholesome counsel.

Today’s reflection (Friday of Lent Week 4) talks about the anguish of loss, making the helpful distinction between two types of losses. One is described as the deliverance from an addiction or a compulsive delusion, which, while very much experienced as a loss at the time, in the end leads to freedom and a life lived with renewed vigour. The second type, on the other hand, is a ‘genuine death experience that drags us into a vortex of surrendering to something vaster than we can control’.

Experience of the second type, which they describe as ‘major surgery with a strong anaesthetic that puts us out’, can take a long time to heal and integrate and can change your life forever. It probably will!

Best Reads 2013 · Poetry

Best Reads 2013. V: Anne Carson, Antigonick

Anne Carson, AntigonickThis is Anne Carson’s translation (and adaptation) of Sophocles’ play Antigone. Following on from Nox, an epitaph written on the occasion of her brother’s death, Carson here revisits the theme of mourning a lost brother, for the heroine of Sophocles’ play is condemned to nothing less than a living death in a sealed cave, all because she wished to bury her dead brother.

Anne Carson, AntigonickAntigonick is a powerfully compelling work, beautifully executed while at the same time, in typical Anne Carson fashion, bordering on the incomprehensible. The text is presented in handwriting (apparently Carson’s own), in capital letters and with hardly any punctuation. It is interlaced with rather surreal illustrations by Bianca Stone, printed on transparent vellum that overlays the text. It is not always clear how the illustrations relate to the text, but they contribute significantly to the beauty and appeal of the book as well as to its overall impact by heightening the absurdity of the world that Carson’s rereading presents.

Anne Carson, Antigonick
Illustration by Bianca Stone

Not an easy read this, but a fascinating one. Like Nox, it left me intrigued and deeply touched by Carson’s creative and harrowing ways of mourning her brother’s death.