Archive

Monthly Archives: January 2009

Christmas always comes belatedly for me, at least in one important respect.  I generally have the baking, and the decorating, and the family dinners at the regular time of year, but it is only once I have collected my Christmas money and had a chance to order what I want to order, and only once the supplier has found and shipped the usually obscure titles I want, it is only then that Christmas is complete for me.

So, today, the 28th of January, was Christmas, because today I had delivered to me Werner Herzog’s My Best Fiend: Klaus Kinski, Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran and Louisiana Story, and Steven Okazaki’s White Light / Black Rain.  Except for the Herzog film, I have not seen any of these documentaries, and I am looking forward to watching them very much.  Now, if I can only find several consecutive hours of uninterrupted time to make that a reality.

A friend of mine, Ben Platz, emailed me a selection from Karl Barth, the Swiss Reformed theologian.  He asked if I would perhaps share my thoughts on Barth’s argument, and I said that I would, though I fairly warned him that I would probably do so through this medium.  So, since I will be making reference to the selection that Ben has sent to me, I will begin by quoting it at some length:

“There is no a priori human knowledge of God; there is no absolute theology. There is only, there can be only, a relative theology: relative to God’s revelation. God precedes and man follows. This act of following, this service, these are human thinking concerning the knowledge of God. Consequently in theology it will positively be necessary to refuse to accept any philosophical theory as a norm of theology. There is only one norm and it is: God who speaks! Not that we should not philosophize at all. We may—a little. There is choice irony on God’s part which tells us: Since you have philosophy in you, well, then, have it and do your best with it. On the condition, however, that when you have to make a decision between your philosophy and some requirement of the faith, you always make sure that the subject precedes and human thought follows. On the condition that your philosophy does not keep you from ‘following’.”

Now, my experience with Barth is not extensive.  I have read only Dogmatics in Outline,  which is a series of lectures on the Apostle’s Creed that Barth delivered at the University of Basel in 1946, and I only came to read that much in order to give myself some further context after reading Graham Ward’s Barth, Derrida, and the Language of Theology.  It is entirely possible, therefore, that I may misrepresent Barth in some serious ways, so I will say now that the following remarks should not be taken as applying to Barth’s work generally, but only to the isolated section I have just quoted.

With that proviso, I agree with Barth in his insistence that any theology can be a theology, not of God as such, but only of God as revealed.  Theology never says anything about God.  It can only hope to say something about how humanity experiences the revelation of God, a revelation that it can never instigate, regulate, or even comprehend.

I agree also with Barth’s conclusion that the impossibility of an absolute theology means that theology can never find its norm in philosophy, though I would perhaps go even further here, arguing for the complete unrecognizability of theology and philosophy one to the other.  I would suggest that any truly theological thought, any theological thought that avoids the temptation to proceed absolutely, is a thought that will not even be recognizable to philosophy, and that, in the same way, any philosophical thought will not be recognizable to theology.  Any theology that employs the logic and the procedures of philosophy, any theology that remains recognizable to philosophy, is not a theology at all, however useful it may be.  It is only a mode of philosophy.

This means that almost everything that has traditionally been considered to be theology, including what I am writing here, including what I quoted from Barth, is in fact merely philosophy, something that has fallen, and must always fall, by necessity, into an absolutism.  There is no formal theology that can escape this.  Every attempt to write, to speak, to show a theology of the experienced revelation of God can only appear as an absolute theology, no matter how deeply it strives to deconstruct this absolutism.  The only theology that escapes this necessity, perhaps, if only for a moment, is the almost inarticulate cry, the uncontrollable response to God’s revelation that comes forth as a gasp of pain or pleasure, as a single word of exclamation, as an ecstatic affirmation, as a groan that words cannot express, as a gift that is treasured up and pondered in the heart.

Not only would I push Barth further in this regard, but I would seriously destabilize his notion of revelation.  As I have argued before, I do not think that the revelation of God is recognizable as such in human terms.  Instead, I would say that any recognition of this revelation is itself a gift that is merely received, a gift that can never be guaranteed for what it is, a gift that can never be articulated without doing a violence to what was given.  For me, therefore, the tension is not between philosophy and the clear requirements of a faith that has been revealed, but between all of the theologies that never rise above philosophies and the gift, tentative, unsecured, that comes from elsewhere and reveals something in me.  It is not between philosophy and theology, but between all the supposed theologies and the gift that can be the only theology precisely because it lies beyond any theology.

As I said, I may be misrepresenting Barth’s larger philosophy here, and what I remember of Ward’s book on Barth and Derrida gives me some grounds for believing that this is the case, but I will leave Ben to supply any necessary corrections.

I find myself using a distinction lately that reflects the change in how I am coming to understand the idea of labour, the distinction between the homemade and the handmade.  Though these two terms are often used almost synonymously, I think that it is perhaps necessary to use them distinctly to describe those things that are made in the place of the home and those things that are made by means of the hands, because these things are not always the same, even if they are often related.

To me, the homemade is the more easily defined of the two terms, and it is also the one that is most practically defensible.  The food that I prepare and the things that I create at home are often of a higher quality or of a lower cost or of a more exact variety than their mass produced counterparts.  I can make a toy castle for my kids that is better than anything I could buy commercially.  I can make bread more cheaply than I can buy it.  I can make tomato sauce exactly how I like it.  There are many practical reasons why I would choose to make things in my home, to cultivate the practice of the homemade.

The handmade, however, at least in the sense that I mean it, is not so easily defined, because there is much that we now do in the home that is no longer done by hand.  We may make bread at home, but it will probably be with a breadmaking machine.  We may do carpentry at home, but it will probably be with a whole assortment of power tools.  We may garden at home, but it will probably be with powered mowers and trimmers and other mechanized tools.  None of this is essentially wrong, of course, and I am a proponent of anything that will get people participating more active in the home, but I would argue that there is a real if not always articulable difference between these things and the things that I actually make with my hands.

I cannot demonstrate this difference.  It is something that I only experience, something that I discover in the practise of using my hands.  It is something that I can only call spiritual, despite all charges of idealism and romanticism, about feeling the dough or the wood or the earth in my hands, between my fingers.  This tactility, this tangibility, this physicality, this intimacy, this is what I mean by handmade.  It is something that can apply, for me, only to the things that I have made myself, with my own hands.  It refers to the creation of something that literally has my sweat in it, something that has actually gotten beneath my fingernails, something that I have come to know by touch and even by taste.

Yet, this intimate contact with labour is something that many people find profoundly uncomfortable, at least once they pass a certain age.  My young children are still very willing to bury their hands in the cookie dough, but even the teenagers I teach are already mistrustful of getting anything on their hands.  Somewhere in the intervening years they have learned that it is unsanitary, undignified, and immature to abandon themselves to this kind of tactility, and most adults are far worse.  They have lost the capacity for connecting tangibly with the objects of their labour, at least in the context of the home.

I am not proposing that we abandon all mechanized tools, of course, but I am suggesting that there is something physically different about these tools that separates them from hand tools, and that there is something even about tools as such that physically separates them from the work that I do with my bare hands.  This difference is one of tactility, of tangibility, but it necessarily produces a difference in spirit also, something that I can neither satisfactorily define nor reasonably ignore.

I have written previously about the significance of solitude, but recently I have been feeling acutely the lack of this kind of aloneness, and this sense was heightened yesterday as I was reading a blog called Daily Routines, which describes the habits of famous writers and artists.  It struck me forcefully how divergent my preferred routines would be from the ones that I actually live, because of work and family and other obligations.

My inclination would be not to have to see or speak to anyone from when I wake in the morning until early afternoon or even later.  I would prefer to breakfast and lunch alone, and this would be time that I spent doing nothing but thinking, or reading, or writing.  If it was to be spent thinking, I would want to be working at something as well, in the garden or the kitchen usually, but almost anything would do.  If it was to be spent reading or writing, I would want to be working at something more intermittent, something that permitted me merely to surface now and again, like a pot of soup stock or a batch of bread.  In any case, I would need a steady supply of very dark coffee, something to keep a bitterness on the back of my tongue.

Sometime in the afternoon, I would begin to exhaust my focus, and I would want conversation with someone.  Ideally, this person would be comfortable enough with me and my house that we would work together to prepare supper as we talked.  There would not need to be any particular form to this conversation.  Its purpose would be only to sift what I had done that day, to share it with another mind, to have it returned to me in a different form than I first shared it.  This exchange might happen over coffee again, but I would prefer by far that it happen over a red wine that was very dry, something harsh to the palette.  I dislike subtlety in wine.

I would prefer to have supper with several people, five or six at most, and I would want most of them to know one another, so that conversation need not remain long on superficialities.  This meal should linger, enveloping the whole evening, taking into itself the coffee that accompanies the dessert and the scotch that follows it.  In the summer, it should end on the porch with my pipe, in the winter, by the fire with a hot toddy, and I should spend at least an hour longer alone there after everyone else has left.

In practice, however, and probably for the better, my life very seldom resembles this ideal.  From the moment that my youngest son wakes me in the morning, I will likely not have a moment of solitude all day long.  If I accomplish reading or writing or anything at all, it will be in the few grains of time that I glean from the wake of my children, and my work, and my other commitments.  I might find a few minutes of aloneness as I am walking from one place to another or when those in my house are distracted by something else, but I can rarely predict these moments.  I seem only to have discovered them when they are ended.

In most senses, I do not begrudge this lack.  The things that seize my time are things that I value very much, and I am happy to give them their due.  There are moments, however, when I long for nothing else than the space for aloneness, when the difference between my ideal and actual routines seems about to break me.  Most of all, what I want of this solitude is silence, or at least the quietude that is more silent than silence, the quietude of natural sound when it suddenly finds itself in the absence of the human and  artificial.  I want to hear nothing that demands anything of me but grateful inattention, and I sometimes long for nothing more than this quiet and this solitude.

I would eventually like to discuss expertise and amateurism in relation to some ideas that Michel de Certeau forwards in The Practice of Everyday Life, but much of what I would like to say will depend on a distinction between intellect and intelligence that I am taking largely from Jaques Barzun’s The House of Intellect, a subject that I would prefer to discuss quite separately, so I am writing this post by way of preparation for later things.

Before I even get that far, however, I need to say that I have a very ambivalent relationship to Barzun in most respects.  I will not take the time to discuss the reasons for this ambivalence in any detail.  I will just say that I respect some of his ideas very much, but that our perspectives on fundamental issues diverge very widely, and I would not want my use of this particular idea to imply an endorsement of his thinking generally.

The distinction that I am taking from Barzun is between intelligence, which he defines as the native or protean ability to accomplish ends according to one’s wits, and intellect, which is the knowledge that is passed down by a community.  Intelligence innovates, invents, solves, whereas intellect is the common body of knowledge that intelligence has discovered as it becomes shared and applied in a community.  Intellect is, in Barzun’s own words, “intelligence stored up and made into habits of discipline, signs, and symbols of meaning, chains of reasoning, and spurs to emotion – a shorthand and a wireless by which the mind can skip connectives, recognize ability, and communicate truth.  Intellect is at once a body of common knowledge and the channels through which the right particle of it can be brought to bear quickly, without the effort of redemonstration, on the matter at hand.”

This distinction is crucial for me because it locates the role of the intellect and of intellectualism as inseparable from intelligence.  Intelligence produces knowledge, but the intellect collects this knowledge and makes it available to the community, permitting those who have intelligence in one way or another to build upon it and produce new knowledge, but also permitting those without intelligence in one way or another to function as if they did.  So, for example, if I had a great deal of mathematical ability, which I most certainly do not, I would not have to discover trigonometry through my own intelligence, since this knowledge would be available to me through the community’s intellect, through its body of common knowledge, so that I could apply my intelligence to higher orders of mathematical research that have not yet been added to that common knowledge.  Conversely, if I did not have any real mathematical intelligence, which is much closer to the case, I could still make use of trigonometry, even if my understanding of it was imperfect, because I could draw upon the community’s shared knowledge when I needed it, through others who did understand, through books or other resources, and through calculators or other devices.  The function of the intellect, in short, is to serve intelligence, either by enabling it or by substituting for it.

For Barzun, this intellect, this body of common knowledge, is understood primarily as literary and alphabetical.  While he does not explicitly reject the possibility of other kinds of common knowledge, whether they be orally transmitted, physically modelled, visually projected, or virtually transferred, he emphasizes to exclusion the kinds of intellectual communities that have been established around the written text and that have become institutionalized in the forms of schools and academies and universities.  This is the case to such a degree that his defence of intellectualism is at times indistinguishable from a defence of institutionalized education, even if the sort of institution he envisages is quite different from the one that is currently operative.

There is nothing in Barzun’s definition of the intellectual that necessitates this narrow understanding of intellectual community, however.  The same ideas would apply to any such community, whether they were formed around oral cultures, mythologies, and histories, or around modelled skills, arts, and techniques, or around visual art, theatre, and film, or even around virtual spaces and activities.  This broader understanding of intellectual community would then be able to include the kinds of common knowledge that operate in the kitchen, the workshop, the factory, the stage, the garden, the studio, the internet, the field, and wherever else knowledge is exchanged within a community.

This more inclusive concept of the intellectual community would also go some way toward alleviating the increasing disrespect that Barzun sees being shown to intellectualism generally, because it would remove the artificial distinctions between formalized academic intellectualism and the many other forms of intellectualism that operate elsewhere.  While permitting these various intellectualisms to retain their individualities, it would recognize the commonalities between those who practise them, between the professor and the cook and the carpenter and the artist.

This does not mean, of course, that all cooks and carpenters and artists, or even all professors, are necessarily intellectuals, at least not in one important sense.  Barzun markes this sense in passing when he describes the intellect as one form of intelligence, and I would mark it much more forcefully.  For me, intellectuals are those who relate themselves to the community’s body of common knowledge in a particular way, not merely using it to accomplish a necessary task, nor merely consuming it for its own sake, but actively involving themselves in its life.  Whether the intellectual tradition be theology or cooking, gardening or mathematics, those who relate to it as intellectuals are those who abandon and discipline themselves to it like an erotic desire.

This relation to knowledge does not require any great intelligence, though it will tend to develop this faculty in its practitioners.  Neither does it require any great degree of familiarity with its intellectual tradition in advance, though this familiarity will be its natural outcome.  What it requires is a certain desire and a certain longing, not for knowledge in itself, nor even for what this knowledge might accomplish in itself, but for what the very desire for knowledge might accomplish in the one who desires.

Because it is birthed through desire, it will have no absolute way of proceeding, even if it will always be marked by the extremes of discipline and abandon.  Neither will it have any absolute relation to knowledge, even if it will always be marked by the extremes of veneration and negligence.  It will always be driven past what it is able to grasp.  It will always use the knowledge it desires against itself.  It will cope with knowledge rather than master it.  It will hack knowledge rather than assume it.  It will throw itself into knowledge rather than take knowledge into itself.  Its relation to knowledge will never be a mere uitilty, never a mere pedantry, always also a consuming eroticism.  This is the relation of the intellectual, neither to intelligence nor to intellect solely, but to a desire for which these things are only ever a means.

There were two occurrences yesterday that reminded me again why I prefer to deal with small businesses rather than large ones.  Both stories will need a little introduction, so you may want to refill your coffee before you get started.

The first story begins with my difficulty in finding a vendor at my local market who could sell me hormone-free chickens at reasonable prices.  While I have a very good butcher there who supplies me with much of my meat, and while I have a quality farmer there who specializes in lamb, I have never been satisfied with the chicken that is available at the market.  Not only is it expensive, even for hormone-free meat, but the quality of the product is not always what I would like it to be.

Just before Christmas, however, a friend told me about Blue Haven Farm, a vendor who was selling various kinds of fowl, including heritage varieties, at a stand that I thought specialized in organic vegetables.  It took me until this past Saturday to find the time to talk with the vendor, but she was very helpful, comparing the qualities of the different fowl that she raises, showing pictures of the heritage pork that she also sells, even inviting me to come to her farm to see her operation.

Yesterday, because I had the car, which I rarely do, I took her up on her invitation, and drove my two sons to her farm, located a few miles north of Guelph.  It was cold but sunny, and our host was wonderfully hospitable.  She did not so much give us a tour as let us accompany her as she did her chores.  My sons have spent some time with cattle and with horses, but this was their first experience with swine, and my eldest was particularly impressed by the boar, which was taller than he was by several inches and came complete with a mouthful of tusks.  The swine are a heritage variety that has a gorgeous red coat, and the little ones looked particularly handsome as they ran through the snow.

We also saw different varieties of chickens and turkeys and ducks, helping a little as they were fed and watered.  The boys watched the goat being milked, though my eldest declined the offer to help in this operation.  As we walked, I talked with the owner, discovering that her family also has connections to Manitoulin Island and that she has met my father’s parents there on several occasions.  The cold prevented us from staying too long, but I hope to go back in warmer weather when there is a very young litter of piglets for the boys to see.

None of this, of course, would be possible on a larger farm.  The big factory pork operations would never allow visitors into the barns because of the risk of disease.  Many of the few remaining family operations have farm tours, which can be a revenue source for some, but these tours cannot usually provide the kind of personal attention that we received at Blue Haven.  There we were allowed to participate a little in the activities of the place, encouraged to milk goats, collect eggs, feed animals.  All of this is possible only because Blue Haven is a very small operation, even by the standards of a hobby farm.  It is essentially a house on a rural property just large enough to support a small collection of pens and outbuildings, but it offers something that is impossible for larger operations: an opportunity for others to partake in it, even if only in a very small way.  I have been on formal tours of some very impressive farm operations, including one horse stable that was truly opulent, but there was never an opportunity to be at home at these functions.  These facilities were never able to offer what the much smaller Blue Haven can only ever offer, an invitation into the life of the farm as it is lived precisely there and nowhere else.

The second story begins with the coffee roaster that my mother-in-law gave me for Christmas.  I am, if I have not already mentioned this before, deeply passionate about coffee.  I am also particular about coffee, so I am fortunate to have a local roaster just a few blocks away from me who provides me with a very good selection.  They do not, however, sell green beans, not any longer.  In fact, it seems that green beans cannot be purchased at all in Guelph, not from any of the regular coffee stores, though I have heard rumours about some underground sources.  So, I had my new roaster, but I had nothing to roast in it.

Just as I was resigning myself to the necessity of having to order something from elsewhere, I happened to see a new brand of coffee beans in the little grocery market down the street.  It was called Eco-Cafe, and it claimed to be locally roasted, though it did not specify its location.  A view of their website soon indicated that they were located in Kitchener, just a few miles from Guelph, and a phonecall then discovered that they did indeed sell green coffee beans.

So, while I had the car yesterday, I drove to Eco-Cafe.  I bought several pounds of different varieties, enough to test my roaster, but they had sold out of the variety that I really wanted.  A larger store would have been content to tell me to come back when the next shipment had arrived.  A really helpful store might even have offered to phone and let me know of its arrival.  Eco-Cafe, however, gave me the number to their warehouse so that I could let them know what I wanted, and then offered to have my beans delivered to my local grocery store so that I would not have to make another trip to Kitchener.  This kind of service is only possible from a store of that size.  It is exactly the kind of thing that makes smaller infinitely better than larger.

Advertisers and large retailers have done their best to convince consumers that we are best served by ever bigger and more comprehensive stores, that the economies of scale these stores create will result in a wider selection of better quality merchandise at lower prices.  Most of this, of course, is so untrue as to be ridiculous.  One farmer alone at my local market, one very small scale farmer, produces more varieties of fowl than are available in every major supermarket in the city combined.  One coffee roaster alone produces more varieties of coffee than all of the city’s supermarkets combined.  The quality of these products also far exceeds their supermarket equivalents.  The fowl are hormone-free and truly free-range raised.  The coffee is freshly roasted, organic, and fairly traded.  There is simply no comparison in the products.

It may be true that locally produced merchandise is often more expensive, but is it really worth the few dollars that we save at the supermarkets if it means that we have a reduced selection of lower quality merchandise delivered to us with poorer and less personal service, all so that the profits can leave our communities for large corporations elsewhere?  I would rather pay higher prices and consume less if it means that what I consume will be better, healthier, fresher, more environmentally responsible, more community supportive, more relationally committed.  I would rather pay more to the local roaster is who is willing to drive exactly what I want to the store down the street.  I would rather pay more to the local farmer who is willing to let me and my children spend the afternoon participating in the work of her farm.  These things, the smaller things, the better things, are worth any cost to me.

In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Friere is concerned with articulating a means for education to bring about revolutionary action by oppressed peoples against their oppressors.  To do so, he undermines the traditional separation between the roles of the teacher and student, through what he calls dialogic education.  He does not, however, similarly problematize the categories of oppressor and oppressed to any great degree.  Though he acknowledges that the oppressed begin to resemble their oppressors, and though he acknowledges also that the oppressors can willingly choose to identify themselves with the oppressed, he maintains a sharp distinction between oppressors and oppressed, despite the fact that it functions similarly to the distinction between teacher and student that he is so determined to subvert.

Freire’s central argument is that it is necessary to have a dialogic approach to revolutionary action and to education, as opposed to an approach that employs the techniques of the oppressors themselves, and as opposed to techniques that acquiesce entirely to the felt needs of particular oppressed persons or communities.  Dialogism, as Friere understands it, is the practice of engaging in education and other activities in a way that permits the right to dialogue if not absolute equality to all the participants.  This process involves all parties coming to recognize that they are both teachers and learners simultaneously, even if people occupy certain roles during a particular dialogue.  Some people, for example, may be facilitators of a dialogue, and some people may be appointed to fulfil other tasks, and some people may have knowledge or expertise that is particularly relevant, but this does not imply that these people solely occupy the role of teacher in opposition to the others who solely occupy the role of learners.  In this way, dialogic education recognizes the provisionality and limitedness of teacher and learner roles, seeking to turn the attention of the participants away from these roles toward the particular social, political, or educational issues that they are currently addressing.

Friere does not, however, make a similar move when he addresses the distinction between oppressor and oppressed, maintaining this opposition in every case.  Yet these roles are as susceptible to subversion as those of teacher and student, the role of the teacher even being implicated in a kind of oppression in many cases.  Maintaining these roles as absolutes only draws attention to the roles themselves and distracts concern from the issues in which both oppressed and oppressors are implicated.  This does not mean, of course, that oppression should be ignored, or that the perpetrators of oppression are not responsible for their actions.  It is only to recognize that the roles of oppressor and oppressed are not absolute, that they often shift from one context to another, and that they are always more complicated than these labels are capable of expressing.  It is to recognize that any lasting solution to oppression will need to put its attention, not on maintaining the distinction between oppressor and oppressed, but in erasing this distinction as much as it is able.

Dave Humphrey has recently tagged me with what is essentially a chain letter for blogs, the sort of thing that I usually ignore outright.  Since it comes from Dave, however, I will only ignore it partially.  I decline to list the rules of the game, and I decline to tag others in turn, but I will condescend to list seven things that people may find interesting about me.  Of course, you need not be interested unless you want to be.

1.  I am one of nine children: I have four birth brothers, three step-brothers through my father’s second marriage, and a step-sister through my mother’s second marriage.  Though I enjoy them all, I count myself fortunate that we did not all live in the same house at the same time.

2.  I have never in my life paid for television service, whether cable, satellite, or anything else.  This is a point of chagrin for telemarketers, who routinely disbelieve that this can be true, demanding to know why I would hide the identity of my provider.

3.  At one point, sometime about Grade 10, I was seriously considering being an accountant, until my accounting teacher drew me aside and told me that I might be better suited for something else, anything else, anything at all.

4.  As a result of practising for my highschool’s production of The Hobbit, I was, for a short period of my life, able to drop from standing to the jazz splits.  I discovered, rather painfully, that I was no longer able to perform this feat midway through the dance at my brother’s wedding.

5.  My wedding dress cost more than my wife’s.  The cloth for my hand-stitched kilt and plaid was imported from Scotland, which made it quite expensive, though I justify the cost on the grounds I that have since been able to wear my dress on more occasions than she has been able to wear hers.

6.  While working as a Youth Leader at a local church, the kids that I was supposed to be supervising lit a bonfire in the parking lot.  The blaze was so large that it attracted attention from drivers on the highway who called the local authorities.  A fire engine and two police cars were mobilized to the scene, and some of my charges were taken into custody as they were riding home on their bikes.

7.  During university, I worked as a security guard for the La Senza Lingerie retail chain.  I was told that I was the first male ever to work on the retail floor for the company.  Many of my friends claim that I will never be able to surpass this achievement.

I have only several minutes ago finished reading Ann Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest, a novel that is almost the stereotype of the Gothic Romance, complete with sublime landscapes, ruinous buildings, secret chambers, hidden crimes, mistaken identities, impossible coincidences, and sentimental speeches.  It is daytime television drama, only set in period costume and mixed liberally with murder mystery, romantic poetry, and horror. It is, in other words, Gothic Romance, and I love it.

My opinion is not universally shared, however, and there are those who claim to see some inconsistency between my dislike of genre fiction in general and my enjoyment of this quintessentially generic form in particular.  How, they ask, can I defend a plot in which the poor and abandoned heroine finds first that she has a Marquise for a suitor, then that this Marquise is married and is intent on ruining her honour, then that he is her illegitimate father and is intent on killing her to protect his wife’s honour, and finally that he is her Uncle and is intent on killing her to conceal the fact that he has already killed her true father.  How can I defend a prose style that, without the slightest trace of irony, uses the words ‘profound’, ‘inspired’, ‘awe’, heightened’, ‘sublimity, and ‘exquisite’ in the same sentence.  How can I defend characters who seem continually to be fainting, suffering heart palpitations, falling into fevers, composing poetry, and uttering emotional declarations at the slightest provocation.

The answer is that I can not defend these things, and that I have not even the inclination to do so.  I am certainly aware of them, and I often pass over the poetry and the extended descriptive sections because of them, but I would much prefer to wallow in this sentimentalism than to defend it.  So much of what I read operates in the modes of irony, sarcasm, and cynicism, that the chief benefits of Gothic Romance to me are precisely this supreme earnestness and idealism, as ridiculous as they often appear.  From the moment that I was introduced to the genre, through Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, it is this sincerity that has recommended it to me, and I find myself returning to it now and again, though I have no defence for my indulgence.

People have frequently asked me to provide in this space a list of the books that have most influenced me or that I would most recommend.  I have hesitated to meet this request for several reasons: first, because different books were important during different stages of my life; second, because many books are significant only in the context of an author’s larger work or in relation to a broader area of interest; and third, because the books that are important to me cover a range of genres that are not always congruous.  I almost feel compelled to make a list for each stage of my life, for each subject area that interests me, and for each genre that makes up my regular reading.

So, I offer the following list, but only with certain caveats: first, I will only include texts that continue to be important to me, though this means that I will exclude some books that were very formative for me in my earlier years; second, I will only include a single text from any particular author, though this is sometimes misrepresentative of an author’s significance to me; third, I will include texts from various genres, however poorly they may seem to combine, for the very simple reason that anything more categorized would be a poor reflection of how I actually read; and fourth, I will let the list remain ridiculously partial, though I hope that it will nevertheless give an idea of the reading that has shaped me.

G. K. Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill
Chesterton may be the greatest writer never to have written a great book. His imagination is unique in my experience, and this particular text is my favourite example of his writing.  There is little that is subtle about Chesterton, least of all the moral of his stories, but his bluntness has an affability about it, and his style is so jovial that his moralizing is somehow enjoyable.  His style can never be mistaken for anyone’s but his own.

Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life
De Certau is the most recent author to have influenced me, and I will likely write more about him in the future. I had read his work on history in my MA, but had not been interested enough even to find out what else he might have written. This fall, however, when I was expounding some point to Don Moore, he suggested that de Certeau had said it all before and recommended that I read The Practice of Everyday Life. It is an eclectic book, sometimes at the expense of coherence, but it also raises some fascinating ideas, and it is a good introduction to the kinds of things that are preoccupying me at the moment.

Jacques Derrida’s The Politics of Friendship
I can hardly overemphasize how significant Derrida has been on my intellectual development. Though I was initially very antagonistic to his ideas, I gradually grew to respect and even love his work. Frequently misused and misunderstood, he needs to be read by a wider audience. The Politics of Friendship was particularly influential on the development of my approach to ethics, and I may be due for a rereading of it in the near future.

Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Dillard was forced on me against my will, but I love her. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, her first and most widely read book, is a great place to start, but the rest of her work deserves to be read as well, even if it has not received the same kind of critical attention.  Her thinking has a sensitivity and a subtlety to it that proceeds in a way that combines the figurative and the logical and arrives at some compelling conclusions, all in what is essentially a novel.  It is a unique and beautiful book.

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot
I had read other novels by Dostoevsky before The Idiot, but none of them had the same nature that it does. I enjoy and respect everything I have read by Dostoevsky, but The Idiot is profoundly disturbing for me in ways that I have difficulty expressing. This book breaks something in me every time I read it, as if it was somehow directed at me specifically.  It is the only book that has ever made me consider learning another language to read it in its original tongue.

Rene Girard’s I See Satan Fall Like Lightening
Dave Humphrey introduced me to Girard, and I did not know what to do with his thinking for some time. Much of his work draws on psychology and anthropology, areas where I do not have any expertise, but he also draws on literature and art and mythology and theology and just about everything else.  This particular book is his most accessible one, and it introduces some of his central ideas, though his academic work is often more radical and provocative.

Ivan Illich’s Rivers North of the Future
Illich is another of the authors that I have discovered through Dave Humphrey, and the one whose thinking has altered my own most forcefully. Illich brings a unique perspective to the analysis of social and political institutions, one that is unrelentingly committed to the human and the relational, to what he calls conviviality.  His work on educational and religious institutions particularly have challenged my own preconceptions and my own practices, and Rivers North of the Future offers a good retrospective on these and some of the the other issues that Illich addressed over the course of his career.

Franz Kafka’s The Trial
Until I read Kafka, I did not know that a Kafka could exist in the world. My understanding of what literature could and should do was entirely overturned the first time that I read The Trial, and I still find it to be a tremendously uncomfortable book. There is a something in it, and in Kafka generally, that is both entirely true and entirely horrific. This truth displaces me somehow, every time I read it, and I find myself captured and terrified by its logic.  I have never encountered anything else quite like it.

Stephen King’s The Gunslinger
I have written before about this book, so I will add only that it broadened substantially my understanding of the possibilities of contemporary popular fiction. Prior to reading it, I would have said that popular fiction has been reduced to genre writing so completely that it is now incapable of producing work that has literary merit. The Gunslinger , however, overturned this idea definitively, and I have since found other isolated examples of similarly interesting work.  I have even been encouraged to explore the possibilities of popular fictions myself.

Emmanuel Levinas’ Ethics and Infinity
If my relationship with Derrida was something of an arranged marriage, my relationship to Levinas was love at first sight. I found in him immediately a thinker who said what my spirit felt to be true in many respects. My theology has benefited more from his writing than from any other single source, though I can only think of him in relation to Derrida and to what Derrida has written about him.  There are several of his texts that I might have chosen here, but Ethics and Infinity will be as good a place to start as any.

C. S. Lewis’ Til We Have Faces
I do not overstate the case when I say that Lewis was my introduction to almost everything literary. I loved the Narnian stories as a child, so I read everything of Lewis’ that I could find, which meant that my first exposure to narrative poetry, to theology, to literary criticism, to apologetics, to science fiction, to autobiography, to allegorical fiction, to literary diary, and to collected correspondence, all came through Lewis. Though his thinking no longer influences mine as much as it once did, Til We Have Faces remains one of the books that most haunt my imagination. It is by far the best of Lewis’ novels, which is probably why it is the least read, but I am changing this one recommendation at a time.

George MacDonald’s Lilith
Though he is not read much any more, MacDonald wrote some of the most beautiful fairy tales and children’s stories that I know. Lilith is directed at adults, but it too bears this fairytale quality in its fantasy. It is a strange and unforgettable book, with depths of allusion and allegory that reward careful reading. My students respond more strongly to this text than to any other, and I find myself meditating on it at the oddest times. I love this book, deeply, though I cannot readily explain this emotion, even to myself.

Jean-Luc Marion’s  God Without Being
Marion is a Catholic philosopher, and my own philosophical ground could be said to lie in the tension between his work and that of Derrida. I have read this particular book several times, and I never seem to exhaust it. It is also a good introduction to Marion’s theological thinking as a whole. What I feel most in Marion is a profound sense of sincerity, and I am constantly challenged by the way that he relates to biblical texts and to religious practise.

Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children
Rushdie is most often mentioned because of his notoriety rather than his literary ability, so I was sceptical of his work when it was introduced to me, but he has become one of my favourite writers. Midnight’s Children is perhaps still my best loved of his novels, but there are several others that I enjoy almost as much, and some of his short stories are fantastic. Even if he does get attention for all the wrong reasons, he rewards this attention in full.

William Shakespeare’s King Lear
Shakespeare is not on my list by default. Though I have always enjoyed his plays, I have never found in them the sort of timeless genius that so many other people claim to find. The exception, however, came on my third reading of King Lear, a reading that I was forced to make for a class on Shakespearean adaptation. As I have written elsewhere, the love test in this play suddenly captivated me, and I could not rid myself of it. It lead me into many other texts and eventually formed the basis of my MA thesis. It still remains a crucial influence of my understanding of ethics.

Walter Wangerin Jr.’s The Book of the Dun Cow
I found this book in the laundry room of the University of Guelph’s Family Student Residence, where my wife and I lived during my MA. I had read almost everything else on the shelf before it, because its title and its cover always dissuaded me.  When I finally did decide to read it, however, I finished it right there beside the dryer, even though the laundry had been done for an hour or more. It is an animal allegory, a beautiful and haunting animal story that deserves to be read more than it is.