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Monthly Archives: April 2009

The pastor at a local church is retiring, so on Monday, a gloriously sunny day, he left a table of his books along the sidewalk, free for the taking.  His collection, at least what he was discarding from it, was quite eclectic.  Here is what I took from it, in no particular order:

Jacques Ellul, Violence: Reflections from a Christian Perspective
Karl Barth, The Faith of the Church
Martin Buber, The Knowledge of Man
Erich Fromm, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness
Erich Fromm, Greatness and Limitations of Freud’s Thought
Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water
Tacitus, On Britain and Germany
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Confessions
Simone de Beauvoir, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter
Gustave Flaubert, Sentimental Education
Hannah Tillich, From Time to Time
Catherine of Genoa, Purgation and Purgatory, The Spiritual Dialogue
Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom
Paul Tilloch, Dynamics of Faith
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society
Erich Fromm, Man for Himself
Michael Ignatieff, A Just Measure of Pain
C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man

Actually, these last three books are exceptions to the rule of no particular order, since they all came with those little impromptu bookmarks that so intrigue me.  The Ignatieff book contained a promotional bookmark by a publisher called Chelsea Green, which is not remotely the publisher of the book.  The Lewis book contained a sixties era advertising postcard for The Prudential Assurance Company in London, England, with a very amusing black and white photograph of two elderly people framed by mountains and their brand new Buick.  The de Chardin book contained a little recipe card.  At the top, in very neat bloc capitals, it reads, “DIE VORWAHL FUR DIE SCHWEIZ, BITTE.”  When turned upside down, beginning from the bottom, there is a list: “Bus, L’Abri (this is boxed), Swiss Tourist office (this is linked with the previous item with a bracket), post office – see if Dianne or Trudy listed”.  On the back, it reads, simply, “Zurich – 01660845.”

None of these books will rank very highly in the order of books that I will be reading next, though Calvino and de Beauvoir  and Flaubert and Catherine of Genoa will probably get read sooner rather than later.  Most of them are merely books of the sort that I might read, at some point, if the occasion and the inclination arises.  Even so, they are welcome on my shelves.

I have just finished Days of Reading, a collection of essays by Marcel Proust. This is the first Proust I have read, so I will not yet judge him too harshly, but there was little in me that responded to the book. I could appreciate but not receive it. I found in Proust a perceptive and complex mind, but a mind that was too different from mine, not in its conclusions, with which I sometimes agree, but in its very movements, in its very processes. Of course, it did not leave me completely empty-handed. No book ever does. Much of his thinking on reading was quite interesting, for example, and he also left me with another of those sentences that I love so much, the ones that meander in digressions across whole pages and comprise a narrative in themselves. So, I will say nothing more about Proust, neither good nor bad, and offer instead this sentence, which I can praise without qualification:

“Then, at the risk of being punished if I was discovered, or of an insomnia which might last through the night once the book was finished, as soon as my parents were in bed I relit my candle to read; while in the street nearby, between the gunsmith’s shop and the post office, both steeped in silence, the dark yet blue sky was full of stars, and to the left, above the raised alleyway where one began the winding ascent to it, you could sense the monstrous black apse of the church to be watching, whose sculptures did not sleep at night, a village church yet a historic one, the magical dwelling place of the Good Lord, of the consecrated loaf, of the multicoloured saints, and of the ladies from the neighbouring chateaux who set the hens squawking and the gossips staring as they crossed the marketplace on feast days, when they came to mass in their turn-outs, and who, on their way home, just after they had emerged from the shadow of the porch where the faithful were scattering the vagrant rubies of the nave as they pushed open the door of the vestibule, did not fail to buy from the patisser in the square some of those cakes shaped like towers, which were protected from the sunlight by a blind – manques, saint-honores, and genoa cakes, whose indolent, sugary aroma has remained mingled for me with the bells for high mass and the gaiety of Sundays.”

Here, at least, Proust shows himself a master.

I was a guest preacher at a friend’s church this Sunday, and this is always an ambivalent experience for me.  Those who have some history with me will know already that my relationship with the institutional Christian church is not exactly orthodox, and they will probably know also that I am particularly uncomfortable both with the function of the Pastor and, to a lesser degree, with the function of the sermon, as these things have come to be understood in most Protestant churches.

This begs the question, of course, and there are several of my friends who have not left it begging, why do I still preach when I am asked.  Dave Humphrey posed this question to me the last time we were together for coffee, and I must confess that I had no very good answer for him.  I had to admit the extreme unlikelihood that my preaching would have any substantial influence on the church culture to which I am so opposed, and also had to admit, to myself, after Dave had gone home, that my preaching was much more likely to actually reinforce this culture by using the kinds of traditional forms that it finds familiar and reassuring.

I realized yesterday, however, as I was actually preaching, that this whole line of reasoning is wrong in the extreme, because it assumes that I have to be concerned with discovering the correct form and time and place of my speaking, when any medium and any time and any place will always be the wrong medium and the wrong time and the wrong place.  It is not a question of finding how I might speak appropriately.  It is a matter of recognizing that whatever I speak, especially if it presumes to speak about God, will always be inappropriate, in every case, by definition.

It is not my responsibility to speak rightly.  It is not my responsibility to accomplish anything through what I speak.  It is only my responsibility to make my speech open to what God might do through it.  If there is a God, something I believe but that I refuse to insist upon by any knowledge or by any guarantee, then it will always be up to this God to do what is necessary through me, whether I am speaking from a pulpit or from anywhere else.

The invitation to preach, therefore, at least to me, is an invitation to make myself available to what God might do through me.  It is an opportunity to see what might be accomplished, even if I do not actually see that anything has been accomplished.  It is an opening where I can do the best with what I have and offer this without expectation, just because it has been asked of me, and where I can do nothing else but hope that God will fulfil what God wills to fulfil.

This does not mean that everyone must preach, of course, or even that everyone who is asked must preach.  It means only that I must preach, beacuse I am asked to do so, not by any church, but by an obligation to something that I do not hope to understand but nevertheless hope to believe.

I sold our car today.

My wife and I have talked about doing this for several years now, but it was an ideal that was always deferred by her commute.  It was only recently, when she was finally transferred to Guelph, that living without a car became a real possibility.  It was also recently, at precisely the same moment, to be honest, that living without a car became a real anxiety.  What had seemed a beautiful ideal at some ambiguous point in the future had suddenly become disconcertingly possible.

We recognized, of course, that this kind of anxiety is part of making any substantial change, particularly when it is a change that involves something so socially and culturally significant as the car.  We recognized also, though not without a fair amount of reflection, that selling our car would not actually result in any problems very difficult for us to overcome.  We are, therefore, as of several hours ago, officially without a car.  We are, to use the language of Ivan Illich that I have already quoted elsewhere, officially moving at the speed of the bicycle, or rather, since I much prefer to walk than to pedal, at the speed of our own two feet.

I am simultaneously elated and terrified.

The ostensible subject of this post is a collection of George Orwell’s essays entitled Books v. Cigarettes, but it will take me some time for me to get there, so you should feel free either to bear with me or to find something better to read, as you like.

Twenty-five odd years ago, I began reading C. S. Lewis’ Narnian books on my own for the first time.  My parents had read all or most of them to me before, some of them more than once, but I liked them more than anyone else was willing to read them to me, so I was forced to read them for myself.  I skipped the first book, The Magician’s Nephew, which I did not grow to appreciate until a few years later, choosing to begin with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the most famous of the series.  I was six or seven at the time, so some of the words were unfamiliar to me, and I remember particularly being perplexed by Lewis’ reference to a bluebottle.

The word occurs fairly early in the story, when the children are exploring the house.  They pass through a whole series of rooms that are filled with highly symbolic things, like a room draped all in green with a harp in it, and they come finally to the room that holds the wardrobe through which first Lucy and then the others will find their way to Narnia. It is in this room that the bluebottle appears.  Lewis’ description reads, “They looked into a room that was quite empty except for one big wardrobe, the sort that has a looking-glass in the door.  There was nothing else in the room at all except a dead bluebottle on the window-sill.”

As the only other item in the room, this bluebottle seemed important, but I had no idea what it might be.  Perhaps because it is a specifically English word, or perhaps just because it is not an Ontarian word, I had never encountered it before.  I had some vague idea that it was a plant of some sort, and I pictured a tall stem rising from a clay pot with a blue and bottle-shaped but withered flower dangling from its end, an image that served my purposes perfectly well at the time.

I reread the book several times over the years, but it was not until I was supposed to teach from it for a Children’s Literature course that I decided to go and find out what a bluebottle actually was.  It seemed to me, considering the amount of symbolism that Lewis uses in his description of the other rooms, that he likely includes the detail of the bluebottle for a reason, and that it would probably be good for me to understand this reason before it came up in class.  After all, it does not seem a significant enough detail for author to  mention it without some particular reason.

So, I consulted the internet, as the great arbiter in all points of useless fact, but I still could not come to a satisfactory conclusion.  The problem was that there were still two plausible meanings for bluebottle.  First, and roughly in accordance with my imagination, there was the bluebottle flower, which was also known as the bachelor’s button flower, the cornflower, or the basket flower.   Second, and completely contrary to my imagination, there was the bluebottle fly, a very common fly that I had often seen but never heard distinguished by name.

Of course, the significance of Lewis’ reference depends very much on which of these bluebottles he intends.  The bluebottle flower is most commonly associated with celibacy, particularly in men, which might produce some interesting interpretations, especially considering that Lewis was himself a bachelor for many years and considering also that the house in which the wardrobe room is found belongs to an old professor who is a bachelor as well.  In contrast, the bluebottle fly, because it breeds mostly in rotten meat and in faeces, is usually associated with death and corruption, connotations that are not obviously related to the narrative but that might support a reading that associates the world of Narnia with either death or new life, perhaps with both, depending on how one reads the fact that the bluebottle, representing death, is itself found dead on the windowsill.

Whichever bluebottle I chose, however, and I had begun to suspect that Lewis had intended it to be the bluebottle fly, both possibilities were now circulating around the word whenever I read it, so that, for me, a sort of Oxford don bachelorhood became mixed in it with a sense of mortality and decay, whatever Lewis’ intentions might have been.

At almost this same time, I was reading Robert Graves’ Poems Selected by Himself, and I came across a poem, though I cannot now find which one, where he describes seeing a bluebottle through a broken window.  In this instance, the context dictates that he is referring to a bluebottle fly, and I was very interested at the similarities between the two images.  Even more, I was interested that these two very similar images were produced by two people with substantially similar biographies.  Graves and Lewis were born within just a few years of each other.   Both fought and were wounded in WWI.  Both taught at Oxford.  Both wrote in a wide variety of genres.  Both also, apparently, used the image of a bluebottle in a window, though this connection seemed at the time to be of the interesting but mostly useless variety.

This brings me, at last, to George Orwell and to Books v. Cigarettes, which I just finished reading yesterday afternoon.  Orwell was born a little less than a decade later than Lewis and Graves, just late enough to avoid WWI, though he fought and was wounded in the Spanish Civil War.  He did not teach at Oxford, though he taught in various British schools, and he did write in a variety of genres.  He also, as you will have likely guessed by now, makes reference to a bluebottle fly.

In a little essay called “Bookshop Memories”, he remarks that “the top of a book is where every bluebottle prefers to die.”  Granted, there is no mention of a window here, but I do not think that I am pushing the point too far to note that books and windows, and wardrobes also in certain cases, stand equally for portals to other places.  These three authors are making some association here, I think, whether consciously or not, between the death of death and the passing from one world into another, between the death of mortality and the threshold to worlds of the imagination.

I wonder whether this image of the bluebottle and the connections that these authors make through it are somehow the collective production of a particular generation, of a particular culture, and of a particular time and place.  I think that Graves would like this idea, and maybe Lewis also, though it would not perhaps  appeal as much to Orwell.  I am not invested in this particular idea in any case.  I am invested only in the belief that the repetition of this image is not simply coincidental.  Whatever it means, I am sure that it means something, as I seem somehow to have known ever since I began reading the Narnian books to myself those many years ago.

I do not know if anything can still be said about seeds that will not immediately fall into the most obvious kinds of romanticism and cliche.  This sort of idealization is a large part of the reason why I often claim to be cynical about spring and romantic only about autumn.  Even so, I need to confess that there is something unavoidably compelling about planting seeds, about pushing them into the soil with my fingers, about knowing what they might become.

There is something so perfectly anticipatory about planting seeds, something that looks so absolutely toward what might come.  It may very well be romantic of me to say so, and I might very well contradict my self proclaimed cynicism in so saying, but there is something miraculous in the seed, something that perhaps only escapes cliche when I do it with my own hands.

There was a tremendous flock of cedar waxwings in my garden today. They were eating the berries, shrivelled and dried, from last fall, and flying in their sudden squadrons. There were more of them than I could reasonably count, perhaps eighty or a hundred altogether, perching mostly in the newly budding maple tree that sits beside my driveway, but diving occasionally, a dozen or so at a time, to the berry bushes beneath my window: splendid.

This past Saturday the 11th marked the anniversary of my first post, which means that I have been writing this thing that I now confess to be a blog for a little more than a year.  About the time I began, someone told me that the average life expectancy of a blog was something less than three months, and there were perhaps ten inactive blogs for every active one , so I told myself that I would not begin writing a blog unless I could commit to it for at least a year.  At that point, I thought, I would take stock of what the blog had produced and decide whether I wanted to continue it.  The result of that reflection was interesting for me, so I have included it below:

1. As I wrote some time ago, I have found the medium of the blog to accord surprisingly well with the rhythm and pace of my life.  It is adaptable to the many ways in which my other roles distract and interrupt my writing.  I am able to write as a part of how I live in any case.  This has been nothing short of a gift to me.

2. The practise of the blog has come to function, much as writing papers did in school or as my personal correspondence did for some years after, as a way to respond to what I am reading and to articulate what I am thinking.  I need to write in order to think and in order to remember, and this space not only allows me to write in such a way, but gathers what I have written in a kind of archive to which I can easily return.

3.  The site of the blog has become a means for dialogue with some of my immediate social and intellectual community, though much less well than I had hoped.  Many of those whom I had hoped to engage through this medium have not found themselves able to respond through it, and it is a regret to me that my attention to the blog has caused me to reduce the amount of correspondence that I maintain and has therefore lessened the amount that I interact with some of those whom I appreciate most.

4.  In compensation, however, the space of the blog has also connected me with some people whom I did not at all expect.  I began with the thought that I would write for my existing community of friends rather than for the internet in general, but I discovered that, on occasion at least, the internet was reading along as well and was willing to receive what I was writing with the greatest hospitality.  In some instances, these responses have become the basis for ongoing conversations that I value very much.

5.  Writing the blog has encouraged me to write through other mediums as well, to write more often and more broadly.  During the past year, for the first time in my life, I can say that I probably spent as much time writing as I did reading.  This has taken me by surprise, and I am still adjusting to the expanded role that writing has come to play in my daily life.  I have always identified myself as a reader, and I have recently come to identify myself as a teacher also, but I have recently been confronted by the possibility that writing now plays as large a part in my intellectual life as reading and teaching do.  I am sometimes frightened by this.

6.  Writing through the internet has caused me to think more deeply about the nature of the internet specifically and about the nature of electronic media more generally.  The question of how we are mediated by the digital has taken its place among the several questions that regularly recur for me.

7.  The simple practise of writing, broadly, repeatedly, almost promiscuously, has also caused me to think more deeply about the nature of writing itself.  I am increasingly aware of the limits of writing, and yet I am also increasingly aware of how necessary these limits are for me.  Writing has become a way for me to mark, provisionally and tentatively, but also absolutely and authoritatively, above all paradoxically, the limits of myself.

There is probably more that I could say, but I will not.  What I have said already will suffice, I think, to explain why I have decided to continue writing in this way for a little longer yet.  Let us say, at least, though I will commit to nothing further, that I hope to be making a similar address next year.

This past Saturday’s Dinner and a Doc featured Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure, which explores the photographs and video clips that were taken of the torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.  Morris’ primary concern in the film is not, as one might expect, with torture as such.  It is not even with the sort of people who would commit these acts.  Rather, it is with the people who would film and photograph the torture, with those who would copy and share these images, and with those who would try to read and interpret this evidence.  In doing so, he attends continually to the visual frame, drawing attention to how this frame provides the limit of interpretation and even of legal culpability.

One of the ways that he draws attention to the frame of the image is by continually rematting the shots in the interview segments.  Both the sound and the image of the interviewees remain continuous as he does this, so that there is no interruption in the sense of what is being said, but the image becomes repositioned within the frame, slightly to the left or slightly to the right, so that the space around the interviewee’s face or torso is shifted .

The effect of this technique is twofold, I think.  First, it highlight’s Morris’ concern with what the frame of a picture includes and excludes, whether this frame be produced by a picture of torture at Abu Ghraib or by Morris’ own film footage.  In this sense, the rematting serves as a subtle reminder that the frame of the image is not absolute, that it is constructed, that it includes and excludes, and that it always excludes infinitely more than it includes, an idea that he also explores more explicitly elsewhere in the film.

Second, the rematting is also an indication that Morris is uncomfortable with how the frame of the film  tends to reduce the complexity of those being interviewed to a single authoritative perspective.  The shifts in matting present a kind of restlessness and uncertainty in the filmic gaze, as if the camera is never able to find a comfortable vantage from which to capture and understand its subjects.  This attempt to draw attention to the complexity of the filmed subject is characteristic of Morris’ whole body of work, and the rematting effect reinforces this idea visually.

These two functions of the rematting are connected, of course.  They both relate to the limitation of the image as a means to convey meaning, which is a significant question, considering how reliant our culture is becoming on the image and considering also how naively many people understand images to represent meaning.  By questioning exactly how seeing becomes believing, Morris is opening a question that extends far beyond the photographs from Abu Ghraib and far beyond the films that comprise his own work, a question, in fact, that is becoming an increasingly fundamental one in our imagistic society: “How exactly do images mean?” or, perhaps better, “How exactly do we read images?”

I think that the answer to these questions is of the utmost significance.  If it is indeed the case that our society is increasingly dominated by the image, then it becomes increasingly necessary for people to be able to read and to interpret these images critically, not with the purpose of producing absolute or otherwise authoritative  interpretations, but with the purpose of attending to the ways that these interpretations form and inform us.  I might even go so far as to say that teaching ourselves to read images in this way is the primary task of anyone who is interested in responding ethically to our culture as such.

I buy most of my books used, and I buy most of my used books from less than professional booksellers.  I find better deals in thrift stores and consignment shops, so this is where I most often prefer to shop.  What this means, not infrequently, is that the books I buy come with odd bits of paper that served their previous owners as bookmarks.  Of course, because I list obsessive behaviour among my personality disorders, I have collected these bits of paper, though with no real idea as to what use they might have.

Today, in a copy of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, I found another makeshift bookmark, and I decided that, rather than just collect these things, I will blog them and then dispose of them.  This solution seems somehow to meet my need to collect the silly things while dispensing with the problem of where to keep them.

The bookmark that I found in Don Quiote is a form of some sort.  It is printed on heavy gray paper, about seven inches tall and four inches wide.  At the very top, it reads, “Insert This End In Stock”.  This is underlined.  Then there is about three inches of empty space before a second underlined phrase: “Insert To This Line”.  The bottom three inches contain a series of form questions, all separated by lines:  “Date Mixed”, “Mixer”, “Batch No.”, “Cmpd No.”, “Oils”, and “Add Before Using”.  The final phrase, also underlined, reads, “Hold For Lab.  O.K.”.

I have no idea what this is, but there you have it.  Do with it what you will.