Tag Archive: Joseph


An Unconventional Love Story: Part I

I’ve decided to triple dip with my next few posts.  Technically the three books I’ll be blogging form one story, Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Unset.  But seeing as how the story runs over 1,000 pages, and my March/April dry spell has me just barely on pace to meet the goal, I’ve decided to count each of the three books within Kristin Lavransdatter as one post, and I don’t feel too bad about this.  I would do the same thing with The Lord of the Rings, which, contrary to popular opinion, is not a trilogy – Tolkien intended it as one story in three books/six parts.  At any rate, enough hemming and hawing and rationalizing my blogging practices – it’s my blog (well, partly) and I can do with it what I want. 😛

I remember years ago, shortly after I graduated from college, seeing a reference to Kristin Lavransdatter.  The book sounded intriguing – a relatively unknown work by a Danish-born Norwegian convert to Catholicism plumbing the depths of questions about love, marriage, desire, and shame.  Though I was intrigued, as with so many other books, I filed it away and never got back to it.  But the prompting of my co-blogger, along with other factors, led me finally to pick it up (on Kindle, thank God – much lighter than the physical book 😉 ).  I just finished the first part, The Bridal Wreath, last night, and all I can say is: wow, thanks, C!  This is one of the most profound books I have read this year, perhaps in my life, and I’m only through the first part.

The story centers on the title character, Kristin Lavransdatter, the daughter of a medieval Norwegian farmer, Lavrans (medieval Norwegian last names were not especially creative, consisting of the father’s name followed by sohn [son] or datter [daughter]).  We meet Kristin at a young age, and the first part of the story follows her growth up to her wedding night.  The path toward this night is anything but simple, though.  In her early maidenhood, her father Lavrans finds a fitting match and arranges a betrothal.  Though she wants to follow her father’s will, it pains Kristin, as she has deep affection for her childhood friend Arne.  A series of mishaps leads Kristin to ask her father to delay the betrothal ceremony so that she can spend a year in a convent.  During this year Kristin meets and falls in love with a gentleman (and I use the term loosely) named Erlend.  Unbeknownst to Kristin when she first falls for him, Erlend has already sired two children in an adulterous relationship.  One can easily imagine how this goes over in medieval society.  Nevertheless, even once she has learned this information, Kristin remains firm in her desire for and love of Erlend, to the point of breaking off the betrothal her father had arranged despite the pain it causes him.  The first book ends on Kristin’s wedding night, which turns out to be anything but the storybook wedding she had longed for.

I’ve deliberately left some of the story’s details vague so as not to give away too many spoilers (though it’ll be hard to keep this up as I post on the next two parts of the story).  Suffice it to say that Unset’s novel is one of the most profound meditations on the nature of love, marriage, desire, shame, guilt, and family loyalty, among other themes, that I have ever read.  The time of arranged marriages in western civilization is long past – most people today, at least in the west, choose their spouses, and usually do so out of love.  Unset’s story explores how the nature of desire sometimes clashed with the practice of arranged marriages in medieval society.  In the process, she suggests that marrying for love in terms of affection is not necessarily the best recipe for success.  There is no doubt throughout the story that Kristin has deep affection for Erlend, even after his past catches up with him and impinges on both of them.  Several characters in the story wonder aloud whether the love Kristin and Erlend have for one another can overcome his track record.  Though I’ll have to wait to read the next two parts to see for certain, the early indications are not promising.  But Kristin Lavransdatter is not simply about Kristin and Erlend.  Unset also masterfully shows the effect of this relationship on Kristin’s other relationships.  Whereas Kristin enjoyed a deep and tender relationship with her father during her childhood years, her decision to break off the betrothal he had arranged, and particularly for an adulterer who has sired two children out of wedlock, puts an intense strain on her relationship with Lavrans.  Perhaps most intriguingly, this is not because of some antiquated commitment to arranged marriages.  At one point in the story, Lavrans tells his daughter that, had Arne asked for her hand, Lavrans would have approved.  Indeed, Lavrans himself wrestles with the circumstances of his own marriage to Kristin’s mother, as each of them had affections for someone else.  Nevertheless, they both followed through with their parents’ commitment, and managed to sustain a successful marriage.

On a purely thematic level, then, this is a powerful book (so far, though I doubt the rest of the tale will disappoint), and this is to say nothing of Unset’s prose, which goes down like a nice glass of Pinot Grigio.  I wish I could say more, but this post is already approaching my (arbitrary) limit, and so, until I read the next part, I will simply say: read The Bridal Wreath.  It will give you much food for thought on one of the most important questions we all face, and it just might challenge the way you think about love and marriage.

Twenty-seven down, (at least) twenty-five to go.

Ta,
J

Inklings Predecessor, Take Two

Having enjoyed The Princess and the Goblin, this past weekend I decided to pick up another MacDonald book, The Princess and Curdie.  This latter book serves as a sequel to the former, but unlike most sequels, it is at least as good as, if not better than, the original.  Whereas the first book focuses primarily on the eponymous princess, Irene, the second follows Curdie, the boy hero from the first story.

At the beginning of the story, about a year after the events in The Princess and the Goblin, Curdie is slowly drifting away from his former virtue.  One day he shoots an innocent white pigeon with his bow and arrow simply to test his skill.  Upon picking up the (nearly) dead bird in his hand, he is struck with remorse, and at once he runs to the king’s former residence to confess to the princess’s great-great-grandmother, to whom the bird belongs and who features even more prominently in this story than in the first.  Curdie’s act of repentance is the first step toward his rehabilitation, and Princess Irene the elder (she shares the name with her great-great-granddaughter) then sends him on a quest.  Curdie is not alone in his quest, but rather receives help from a strange and motley group of creatures, as well as Princess Irene the younger, with whom he is reunited.  As in most fairy tales, Curdie manages to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds, but, without giving away the ending completely, it does not end in the typical fairy tale ending.  Rather, the book ends on a note in keeping with MacDonald’s vision of reality, virtue, and society.

The Princess and Curdie was one of my favorite books I’ve read this year for a number of reasons.  MacDonald’s depictions of natural settings are rich and evocative.  Take his description of mountains toward the beginning of the story:

“I will try to tell you what [mountains] are.  They are portions of the heart of the earth that have escaped from the dungeon below, and rushed up and out.  For the heart of the earth is a great wallowing mass, not of blood, as in the hearts of men and animals, but of glowing hot, melted metals and stones.  And as our hearts keep us alive, so that great lump of heat keeps the earth alive: it is a huge power of buried sunlight – that is what it is.”

No disenchanted universe, this.  Moreover, MacDonald has a keen insight into the human condition and the nature of virtue.  The story’s symbolism is religious, and more specifically Christian, through and through, though without being overly preachy or moralizing.  Take his description of kingship:

“He was a real king – that is, one who ruled for the good of his people and not to please himself, and he wanted the silver not to buy rich things for himself, but to help him to govern the country, and pay the ones that defended it from certain troublesome neighbours, and the judges whom he set to portion out righteousness among the people, that so they might learn it themselves, and come to do without judges at all.”

The story is also darker than the first.  Though Curdie’s act of violence toward the beginning of the story is condemned, MacDonald was by no means a pacifist.  This tale has more than its fair share of battles, sometimes told in gruesome detail.

As with The Princess and the Goblin, this book made it abundantly clear why Chesteron, Lewis, Tolkien, et al. were so indebted to MacDonald.  Though each of their stories is set in a different world, their characters all inhabit the same moral universe.  Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if Chesterton had these stories in mind as he wrote the chapter “The Ethics of Elfland” in his classic Orthodoxy.

I would recommend both stories for young readers, though one might hold off on Curdie until the age of 10 or 11 due to the violence.  Regardless, if you are a fan of Tolkien, Lewis, and Chesterton, then do yourself a favor and pick up at least one work by the man Lewis proclaimed his “master.”

Twenty-six down, (at least) twenty-six to go – half-way there!

Ta,
J

Puritan Popery

When I decided to join my co-blogger on this New Year’s resolution, one of the ideas I had was to re-read some of the books I read in high school but didn’t understand or didn’t appreciate because of crappy English teachers.  Last week I finally got around to this task and picked up Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter for the first time since junior year in high school.

I won’t bother to give a plot summary, as most people who took English in high school are familiar with the basic story of Hester Prynne and her tryst with the young Puritan minister in 17th century Boston.  While not the most uplifting book, it is a well-crafted tale that touches on far more themes than one can adequately address in a brief blog post, from shame and ostracism to the nature of temptation to vengeance to penitence to historical aspects of life in the colonies.  Though I wouldn’t pretend to have grasped these themes anywhere near completely, reading the book nearly twenty years after my first time I certainly appreciated it more.  (I’m sure it helps that this time I didn’t have to listen to my annoying high school English teacher prattle on about it.)

At any rate, while there is much that could be discussed, the thing that struck me most this time around was the odd fascination with and simultaneous revulsion toward Catholicism.  This ambiguous relationship is manifested in a number of ways, both great and small.  Hawthorne often refers to the Rev. Dimmesdale as a “priest”; as an act of penitence for his sins, Dimmesdale takes of the “papist” practice of the discipline; and of course, one of the overarching themes throughout the novel is the question of the effectiveness of penitence.  Can Arthur and Hester ever atone sufficiently for their sin?  Does one act of passion automatically consign one to the fires of hell?  Or can the shame that Hester bears outwardly and the inner weight of Dimmesdale’s guilt act as a kind of purgatorial fire to absolve them of their sin?  In the end, it seems that the latter is the case, though this purgation is not without its challenges and temptations.

It is a relatively little known fact that Hawthorne’s daughter Rose converted to Catholicism later in life, and after the death of her husband founded a community of Dominican Sisters who care for patients with terminal cancer.  It may be that the seeds of Rose’s conversion were, perhaps a bit ironically, planted by her father.

At any rate, I’m glad I decided to pick up The Scarlet Letter one more time, and I will most likely come back to it again some day.

Twenty-five down, (at least) twenty-seven to go.

Ta,
J

Inklings Predecessor

Greetings!  This post comes to you from an undisclosed location in Western Europe (as will most of my future posts this year).  Once again, I have taken far too long between posts, but jetlag and getting settled in a new city will do that, even if I finished the book I’m blogging a week ago.

Years ago I heard that both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, two of my favorite writers, were strongly influenced by George MacDonald, a Scottish writer of the nineteenth century, and so for some time I’ve wanted to read one of his books.  A trans-Atlantic flight gave me plenty of time to dig into The Princess and the Goblin, a fairy tale that made a significant impression on another of my favorite authors, G.K. Chesterton.  Now that I’ve read it, I can see MacDonald’s imprint on each of these writers in different ways.

The story bears many of the literary features of a typical fairy tale: no distinct mention of a time or place in this world, stereotypical characters (a king, a princess, a miner, etc.).  The tale also extols many of the virtues that Chesterton, Tolkien, and Lewis prized: honesty, courage, keeping one’s word, faith in the seemingly impossible.  Moreover, MacDonald emphasizes the power of poetry.  The one thing that scares the goblins in the story away is rhyme, particularly spontaneous and silly rhyme.  It seems clear to me that this element of the story was the inspiration for Tolkien’s Tom Bombadil.

Though not overly complicated, the story is a bit much to summarize in a blog post.  Suffice it to say that if you are a fan of Lewis or Tolkien, you should read this book.  According to Wikipedia, Chesterton said of the book that it “made a difference to my whole existence.”  Indeed, I suspect much of the argument in his classic Orthodoxy depended on such lines from MacDonald’s work as, “People must believe what they can, and those who believe more must not be hard upon those who believe less”; or, “Seeing is not believing – it is only seeing.”

If you’re a fan of Tolkien, Lewis, or Chesterton, or of fantasy literature/fairy tales in general, then I highly recommend The Princess and the Goblin.  I intend to move on to the sequel, The Princess and Curdie, before too long.

Twenty-four down, (at least) twenty-eight to go.

Ta,
J

Dystopian Thriller

Wow, it’s been a while since I’ve written a post.  Lots of things going on these last couple of months that I won’t get into, but I’m going to try to get back on the wagon, as it would be a shame to let this project fall by the wayside.  I decided to go with a short but profound thriller by P. D. James, The Children of Men.

As you’ll have gathered from the title of the post, the story is set in a dystopian society in the not-too-distant future.  The year is 2021.  For twenty-five years, human beings have been unable to procreate, plagued with infertility.  Thus, the youngest members of society are in their mid-twenties, and the population trends geriatric.  The consequences of this plague are numerous: many have lost the will to live, committing ritualistic mass suicide; the lack of fertility has led to a dwindling interest in sex, so that the State purveys p*rn left and right, trying to maintain the societal libido; in England, convicts are shipped to a penitentiary on the Isle of Man where chaos reigns, though crime on the mainland is at an all time low.  In this bleak situation, Theo Faron, our protagonist, is recruited to a conspiracy that advocates for change in the government.  The cousin of the Warden of England, Theo would seem particularly well placed to persuade him to make the desired changes.  After some convincing, he makes the effort, but to no avail.  Thus ends the first half of the novel.

In the second half, Theo once again becomes involved with the conspiracy, learning that, by some miracle (not literal – no virgin birth here), one of the members has become pregnant and needs his help.  The rest of the story describes the group’s efforts to find a place for the delivery of the child safely far away from the government – a task harder than it sounds, as the government is on to the group, which has been blowing up landings from which the mass “suicides” are launched.  Filled with twists and turns, the story rushes to an intriguing and unexpected climax that tantalizingly leaves unanswered many of the difficult questions the story raises.

This is the first James novel I’ve read, and it did not disappoint.  Her style is elegant and engaging, and it is filled with profound insights on the nature of faith and the human condition, without being an overtly religious story.  Take this description of humanity’s relationship to science:

“Western science has been our god.  In the variety of its power it has preserved, comforted, healed, warmed, fed and entertained us and we have felt free to criticize and occasionally reject it as men have always rejected their gods, but in the knowledge that, despite our apostasy, this deity, our creature and our slave, would still provide for us; the anaesthetic for the pain, the spare heart, the new lung, the antibiotic, the moving wheels and the moving pictures… Science was never a subject I was at home with… Yet it has been my god too, even if its achievements are incomprehensible to me, and I share the universal disillusionment of those whose god has died.” (5)

Or the following dialogue regarding the existence of God toward the end of the story:

“I don’t think [God] bargains.”
“Oh yes He does.  I may not be religious but I know my Bible.  My mother saw to that.  He bargains all right.  But he’s supposed to be just.  If He wants belief He’d better provide some evidence.”
“That He exists?”
“That He cares.”

In a brief nine sentences, James eloquently sums up the strongest argument against the existence of God, and yet in a way that the challenge could be met.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about this book is its eerie similarity to western culture today.  Though human beings are not incapable en masse of procreation, the tendency in most western countries is toward reproductive rates below replacement level, and one wonders what kind of future is in store for western civilization.  The Children of Men grapples with these and other questions in a compelling and insightful way.  Highly recommended.

Twenty-three down, (at least) twenty-nine to go.

Ta,
J

The Angelic Doctor

Wow, it’s been a while since I’ve posted.  As C noted, some of this is due to “the Aprils,” but it’s also just that there have been other things going on and on my mind that have distracted me from reading.  Nevertheless, we press on.  This is probably the longest I’ve kept up with a New Year’s Resolution, and I’m not going to let a little reader’s block stop me now.

As I mentioned a few posts ago, during Lent I thought I would take up one or two more spiritual reads.  For a variety of reasons, I decided to reread a classic by G.K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox.  It is a small book about a large man – and I mean large in every sense of the word: physically, intellectually, spiritually.  Since it’s writing, the book has received mixed reviews.  The great 20th century Thomist philosopher Etienne Gilson dubbed it the best introduction to St. Thomas’s life and thought.  Others, however, were not as impressed, labeling it in many ways amateurish (undoubtedly an adjective Chesterton himself would have used of it, again, in every sense of the word).  The book certainly is not a close engagement with the writings of Aquinas, but rather presents an icon, if you will, of the man and what he was fundamentally about.  The story goes that the way Chesterton wrote the book is by first reading everything he could get his hands on about Thomas, then asking his secretary into his office and dictating the entire thing.  As such, it is not a scholarly tome, but a portrait.

For all its faults, the book does give the reader a lively sense of Aquinas the man, the scholar, and the saint.  Chesterton begins by contrasting Aquinas with the other saint about whom he wrote a biography, St. Francis.  Despite the many superficial differences between the two, Chesterton argues that fundamentally they were at one, particularly in their emphasis on the doctrine of the Incarnation.  For both these great saints, matter mattered – creation is good and God-given, and as such it is to be affirmed.  For Chesterton, this devotion to the Incarnation explains much of Thomas’s thought: his adoption and baptism of Aristotle, his obsession with the error of the Manichees, his affirmation of a common sense acceptance of the existence of the world.  In a typically Chestertonian witticism, he writes, “If the morbid Renaissance intellectual is supposed to say, ‘To be or not to be – that is the question,’ then the massive medieval doctor does most certainly reply in a voice of thunder, ‘To be – that is the answer.'”

More moving than the man’s intellect, however, is his singular devotion to Christ and to following the call of God.  Thomas’s family had plans for him: he was to be the abbot of a Benedictine monastery, at the time a position of wealth and status.  Thomas, however, would have none of it.  Resolute in his conviction that he was called to the upstart mendicant Order of Preachers, he stood his ground against the protestations of his family, casting aside status for the beggarly life of the Dominicans.  Chesterton’s discussion of the famous vision Thomas had of Christ offering him anything he wanted puts the story into perspective.  Here was a man who would willingly trade an entire city for a copy of a homily by St. John Chrysostom, but when the Lord offered him whatever he wanted, he replied, “Only thyself.”  For all his brilliance and scholarly acumen, his devotion took precedence even over the greatest intellectual gifts.

It is perhaps true that The Dumb Ox is as much about Chesterton as it is about Aquinas – this is often the case with books by the great British journalist.  Even if the book may not be the single best introduction to the great doctor’s thought, it nevertheless does convey the spirit and the fervor of this medieval man of mystery.

Twenty-two down, (at least) thirty to go

Ta,
J

Reader’s Block

So I recently ran into my first wall of the year in terms of this reading project.  I’m not exactly sure why – late last week I was plugging along at a good clip, and managing to read half of this book in an afternoon/evening.  Then, I crashed.  Part of it was the book, which I had a hard time getting into (not sure how I managed to plow through the first half so quickly).  Another part was a number of distractions, including, but not limited to, March Madness.  Perhaps now that my team flamed out in spectacular fashion, I can get back into the rhythm.

At any rate, my latest read was Northrop Frye’s classic The Great Code: The Bible and Literature.  I had been wanting to read it for some time, and though it skirts dangerously close to my field of study (thus nearly breaking the rules of this little project), my co-blogger gave me a dispensation to read it.  I kind of wish she hadn’t.  It’s not that the book isn’t good or insightful – it is, after all, a classic.  It’s just that, for whatever reason, I couldn’t get into it.

In the book Frye attempts to show how the Bible can be read as a unity, not on the basis of religious belief, but in terms of literature.  The Bible, he argues, is a myth – not in the pejorative sense of something that didn’t really happen (though he happens to believe that many of the stylized accounts are embellished to some degree), but in the sense of a continuous narrative with beginning and end.  Much of the book is devoted to analyzing the prominent images and metaphors of the Bible, and though I found it somewhat dry, Frye is a perceptive reader, showing how themes are constantly recapitulated and reframed throughout Scripture.  He also argues that the scriptural story follows a repetitive U-shaped pattern (I would perhaps describe it as a sine curve, hearkening back to my geeky days as an engineer) of alternating rises and falls.  This pattern appears both on the macro level (humanity loses the tree and water of life in the garden in Genesis and regains them in the Book of Revelation) and on the micro level (Israel’s story is a continuous cycle of these rises and falls).

There is much more to the argument than this, and I’m sure it would merit a closer reading, but as I said, for whatever reason, I had a hard time paying close attention to it.  Despite this dryness, Frye did manage to get into a quotation file I’m keeping of my favorite passages from the books I’m reading this year: “[O]ne should doubtless keep an open mind about them, though an open mind, to be sure, should be open at both ends, like the foodpipe, and have a capacity for excretion as well as intake.”  Perhaps the book was worth reading just for that line.  Well, here’s hoping the next read goes a bit more quickly.

Twenty-one down, (at least) thirty-one to go.

Ta,
J

A Diabolical Correspondence

Lent is upon us, and so I thought it would be a good idea to pick up a book or two dealing more directly with spirituality.  Having had my admiration for C. S. Lewis reignited and deepened by Planet Narnia, I decided to revisit Lewis’s little gem The Screwtape Letters.

I don’t remember when I first read The Screwtape Letters – I think it was toward the end of my time in college, but it may have been shortly thereafter.  At any rate, though I recall enjoying the book, I had forgotten just how insightful it is.  For those who have never read it, the book is presented as one side of a fictional correspondence between an elder demon (the titular “Screwtape”) and a minor demon, his nephew “Wormwood.”  In these letters Screwtape provides Wormwood with diabolical advice on how to ensnare a recently converted Christian under the minor demon’s “care.”  The book offers a humorous but penetrating take on the nature of the spiritual life generally and temptation in particular.

Every time I read Lewis I’m struck by his insight into the human condition, and The Screwtape Letters is no exception.  One of the main premises of the book is that often it is the little sins, the seemingly insignificant ones, that lead one off the right track.  Wormwood, being a young pup (as demon years go), is eager to get his subject to commit heinous crimes, but Screwtape reminds him, “It does not matter how small the sins are, provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing.  Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick.”  Like a slow drip of water that wears away at a rock for years, these little sins can do more damage than a deluge that is over in an instant.

Another important theme in the book is how even our virtues can be twisted into vices.  Lewis offers a brilliant discussion of the interaction between humility and pride.  When Wormwood’s subject has become humble, Screwtape advises him to draw the subject’s attention to his humility.  This will naturally instill pride in him, pride at having been humble.  If he realizes this and tries to overcome the pride again, Wormwood is to stir up pride over the attempt.  Thus, he can create a vicious cycle, continuing to trap his subject in pride.  This is not the only way to twist humility, though.  Screwtape also encourages Wormwood to foster a false idea of humility in the subject: let him think humility means downplaying his talents, rather than not thinking about them.  Toward the end of the letter, he summarizes “the Enemy’s” (i.e. God’s) approach to these things: “Your efforts to instil either vainglory or false modesty into the patient will therefore be met from the Enemy’s side with the obvious reminder that a man is not usually called upon to have an opinion of his own talents at all, since he can very well go on improving them to the best of his ability without deciding on his own precise niche in the temple of Fame.”  With a delicious line, he highlights the absurdity of pride when you really think about it: “The Enemy will also try to render real in the patient’s mind a doctrine which they all profess but find it difficult to bring home to their feelings – the doctrine that they did not create themselves, that their talents were given them, and that they might as well be proud of the colour of their hair.”  This section struck a chord with me, particularly in light of my newfound habit of blogging.  Though when I first joined the blog I was doing it mostly for myself, ever since one of my posts was freshly pressed, I often find myself checking to see how many people have read my posts, commented on them, “liked” them, etc.  This was a good reminder not to worry about those things.

There is so much more I could go into.  This time through the book I nearly ran out of pencil lead as I read (okay, that’s an exaggeration, but I did underline a lot).  Among other things, I was struck by his discussion of human beings as psychosomatic wholes (“they are animals and … whatever their bodies do affects their souls”); by his emphasis on virtue as a habit (“All mortals turn into the thing they are pretending to be.  This is elementary.”); by his insistence on the importance of disposition (“There is hardly any sermon, or any book, which may not be dangerous to us if it is received in this temper [i.e., one looking for nourishment].”).  And this is just the tip of the iceberg – which is all the more astonishing considering that my version of the book is a scant 134 pages.

If you are looking for an easy-to-read, entertaining, and yet profound book to read during Lent, I highly recommend The Screwtape Letters.  With thirty-one letters in all, reading one a day would pretty much get you through to Easter.

Twenty down, (at least) thirty-two to go.

Ta,
J

NOLA State of Mind

Continuing with the Catholic novel theme, this past weekend I read Walker Percy’s first novel, The Moviegoer.  Set in Louisiana, where Percy spent much of his adult life, the story centers on John Bolling, the eponymous moviegoer of the title.   As I sat down to write this blog post, I happened upon the epigraph of the novel from Søren Kierkegaard: “… the specific character of despair is this: it is unaware of being despair.”  Being the brilliant literary critic that I am (/sarcasm), I quickly realized that this epigraph epitomizes John Bolling.

Bolling, aka Binx, is a man with no clear direction in life.  A veteran of the Korean War, he now works as a stockbroker in Gentilly, LA and finds what little meaning he can at the movies.  The novel describes, at times beautifully and often meanderingly, Binx’s “search.”  “What is the nature of the search? you ask. … The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.”  Though most people associate the notion of a search with a quest for God, Binx is reticent to identify the object of his search.  Though he identifies himself with the 2% of Americans who are atheists or agnostics, he leaves open the possibility that the 98% who believe in God may be right – he simply doesn’t know.

Despite his fascination with the movies, Binx does not look to them for a proper understanding of the search.  On his reading, the movies screw the search up: “The search always ends in despair.”  Binx’s definition of despair is not, however, the typical definition: the protagonist in the movies inevitably marries and settles down and “In two weeks time he is so sunk in everydayness that he might just as well be dead.”

Given this understanding of despair, it is hardly surprising that Binx spends his life doing anything but settle down – his self-avowed goal is to avoid everydayness.  Unable to develop or maintain meaningful relationships, Binx periodically has flings with his secretaries, with only minor qualms about mixing business and pleasure.  The only escape he can hold on to is one that, somewhat oddly, he shares with his fourteen-year-old half-brother Lonnie.  In many ways Lonnie is the polar opposite of Binx: confined to a wheelchair, Lonnie is a devout Catholic who wonders about things like habitual dispositions.  In a rare moment of vulnerability, Binx tells the reader that he envies Lonnie’s ability to offer up his suffering to Christ.  Despite their differences, there is a deep affection between the two, which plays a vital element in the stories denouement.  Indeed, it is a combination of this relationship and Binx’s relationship with Kate, another main character in the story, that leads to the surprising end of his search.

As with the other existentialist novel with which I began this project, I’m sure there’s more to The Moviegoer than I caught on the first read through.  The search is clearly a central theme of the book, and yet I don’t think I’ve quite gotten it.  Even the title is a tantalizing riddle.  At one point Binx says of another character in the story that he, too, was a moviegoer, even though he didn’t watch movies.  There’s something there that I’d like to get, but it would take at least a second read through for me to begin to figure it out.  Alas, such is not the nature of this project.  Regardless, The Moviegoer is a great introduction to Percy and an interesting window onto the Louisiana of the 1950s.

Nineteen down, (at least) thirty-three to go.

Ta,
J

The Ambiguity of Knowledge

One of the things I’ve decided to do with this blog is to revisit books or authors that I read in high school and, for whatever reason, that either I didn’t appreciate at the time or I’ve just plain forgotten.  Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz falls into the latter category.  I’m fairly certain I enjoyed it when I read it freshman year in high school for a Western Civ class, but my memory of the story was pretty hazy, so I decided to pick it up again.  (A side motivation for reading a book like this is that I’m always on the lookout for fiction that I might incorporate into class, which, given my subject matter and setting, often leads me to Catholic fiction.)

Miller’s book is a fascinating sci-fi take on the relationship between Church and State, faith and reason, technology and human sinfulness, and the need for grace.  The novel is set in the distant future after a nuclear holocaust has wiped out most of civilization and focuses on a monastery in the American Southwest dedicated to the Order of Leibowitz.  The story is divided into three parts.  The first describes life in the dark period that followed the nuclear holocaust and continued for centuries upon centuries.  In the second part, the secular world is beginning to rediscover much that had been lost in the war, and it is on the cusp of a new Renaissance.  The third and final part is set in the distant future, after human beings have recovered the learning of the pre-nuclear war civilization and moved beyond it.  Colonies have been established in space, cars now transport people to their destination with no need for a human driver, and machines can take dictation in one language and translate it to another.  In the midst of this technological renewal, however, the threat of another nuclear threat hovers over civilization, poised to sink the world into yet another Dark Age.

Miller paints a grim picture of the world after the first nuclear war.  Radiation has left countless unfortunates maimed and mutated, thought by some to be sub-human, but referred to as “the Pope’s children” by the Church; food is in scarce supply, even for the monks of the abbey; travel is long, tedious, and dangerous.  These harsh conditions serve as a backdrop for one of the main themes of the book, the ambiguity of the Church’s role in preserving knowledge.  The ambiguity lies not in the typical new atheist rant about how the Church suppressed science and learning – in Miller’s story, as in any fair-minded assessment of medieval times, it is the monks who preserve learning, fiercely protecting the fragments that survived the nuclear holocaust.  No, the ambiguity lies in the use to which that knowledge is put.  As Norman Spinrad notes in the introduction to the edition I read, one of the running questions in the novel is whether humankind, once given the technological capability, will inevitably choose nuclear destruction rather than the ways of peace.  In Miller’s story, the answer seems to be yes.  At first glance, this seems like a rather bleak picture of humanity.  And yet, as we look back on the last century, indeed, on the history of the world, can we really think it’s an unrealistic one?  Given the atrocities we humans have perpetrated on one another, one could argue that it’s nothing short of a miracle that we haven’t yet blown ourselves to oblivion.

Regardless of whether one accepts Miller’s seemingly dismal view of the world, the book touches on a number of deep and important themes, and is well worth a read.

Eighteen down, (at least) thirty-four to go.

Ta,
J