Obscene

…The great acts of classical brutality (Oedipus gouging his eyes out; Clytemnestra slitting her husband’s throat) are never portrayed but rather reported by the characters or chorus – told but not shown. These days, tell is a bad word. But in the golden age of Athenian drama, telling was a celebrated technique. Acts of violence in Greek tragedy were rendered ob skene (literally ‘offstage’), from which comes the present day word obscene.

-Benjamin Percy, Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction, p. 52

The worst things happen offstage. This includes real life – what happens in our minds.

Bodies in the Basements of our Minds

Fiction writers believe in total depravity.

Evil is banal. And the point is emphasized through the use of the obscene: when the violence occurs offstage, the reader creates it and becomes a perpetrator. Goethe famously said, ‘There is no crime of which I do not deem myself capable,’ and O’Connor and Oates imply the same is true of us. You are a molester, I am a murderer. We have, each and every one of us, bodies in the basements of our minds.

-Benjamin Percy, Thrill Me: Essays in Fiction, p. 54

 

Widowed Images

I like the phrase and agree with the idea:

Charles Baxter says that we write to make sense of the widowed images in our lives. Widowed images. Startling images. Haunting images. Whatever you want to call what ends up clogged in our imaginative filter. We don’t always know why they’re important, but for whatever reason, our mind won’t release them.

-Benjamin Percy, Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction, p. 41

Place and Abstraction

The older I get, the more I appreciate the importance of ‘place.’ It matters in life, in preaching, and in writing. I’m with Percy. I’m not a fan of abstraction:

Place matters. That’s what so many people seem to have forgotten.Is it because they spend most of their time indoors or online – so that they’ve lost touch with their environment? is it because every city contains the same neon-and-concrete gauntlet of Targets, Little Caesars, Subways, Great Clips – so that ever place looks like every other place?

Someone once told me, ‘I want my work to feel like it could happen anywhere.’

To which I responded, ‘Huh.’ That’s like saying you want your character to seem like she could be anyone, Margaret Thatcher or Pippi Longstocking, or you want your story to seem like it could happen anytime, a thousand years ago or a thousand years in the future. Abstraction Sucks. Good writing relies on the particulars.

-Benjamin Percy, Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction, pp. 117-118

On Finding Your Voice

On ‘finding’ your voice or the voice of a character in writing. This could apply to preaching and real life as well:

Though you shouldn’t consciously work on your voice as you write, there is a way to encourage it when you get to the self-editing stage. Start by rereading a  short story, scene, or chapter as if you were reading it for the first time…Whenever you come to a sentence or phrase that gives you a little jab of pleasure, that makes you say ‘Ah, yes,’ that sings – highlight that passage in a color you like, or underline it. Then go through and read aloud all  the sentences you highlighted or underlined. Don’t analyze them for the moment, just try to absorb their rhythm or fullness or simplicity or freshness or whatever made them sing to you. What you’ve been reading aloud will represent, for now, your voice at its most effective. And making yourself conscious of it in this mechanical way will strengthen it.

Now read through the same section again, and when you come to those passages that make you wince – or just leave you cold – highlight the passage in a color you dislike, or draw a wavy line under the uninspired sentences. Go back and read consecutively all the passages you didn’t like, and this time try to analyze what makes them different from the passages that sang to you. Is the writing flat? Strained? Awkward? Obvious? Pedestrian? Forced? Vague or abstract?…

If you do this exercise often enough, you will develop a sensitivity to your own voice that will gently encourage the development of the confidence and distinction that you want. And this is as true of a character voice as it is of a narrative voice…

– Browne and King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, pp. 178-179

DFW, End of the Tour St. Ignatius Quote

I recently watched the movie, The End of the Tour. Near the end of the movie, some space is given to a prayer of St. Ignatius that hung (not sure if this is true, it was a movie after all) on DFW’s wall:

Lord, teach me to be generous.
Teach me to serve you as you deserve;
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labor and not to ask for reward,
save that of knowing that I do your will.

If We Hand It Over

Below is a quote from an interview with Jonathan Franzen on why it is essential to good writing that traditional publishers and editors continue to exist. This could be applied to a lot of things today, including the need for traditional denominational structures and ordination processes in churches. It also speaks to the need for isolation and meditation in a world inundated by technology.

Okay, let’s talk about those guys. What do you really think about Twitter?

[Laughs] I have a particular animus to the social-media world because I feel as if the kinds of writers I care about are just temperamentally not very good at that. Hard to see Kafka tweeting, hard to see Charlotte Bronte self-promoting. If we don’t maintain other avenues for establishing a literary reputation and finding some kind of readership – things like traditional publishers and reviewing, where the writer could just be a writer and not have to wear the flak hat, the salesman hat, the editor hat, the publisher hat – if we don’t maintain those, then we hand over the literary world to the personality types who are, I would say, less suited for the kind of work I care about.

It could be that my model of literature is simply outmoded, but I feel closer to Joyce with his ‘silence, exile and cunning.’ I worry that the ease and incessancy of communication through electronic media short-circuits the process whereby you go into deep isolation with yourself, you withdraw from the world so as to be able to hear the world better and know yourself better, and you produce something unique which you send out into the world and let communicate in a non-discursive way for you…

It’s not like I’m militantly opposed to discursive interactive communication. It’s fine, it’s great. But there’s a tipping point you reach where you can’t get away from the electronic community, where you become almost physically dependent on it. And that, I persist in thinking, is not compatible with my notion of where terrific literature comes from.

-From Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, edited by Manjula Martin, pp. 266-267

Intimacy and Being Yourself

I recently picked up a copy of a collection of essays by Jonathan Franzen called Farther Away. The book includes his eulogy of David Foster Wallace. That particular essay can be found online for free HERE.

I am a fan of David Foster Wallace and continue to learn things not only from him, but from his life. This eulogy paints the picture of a man who was consumed by his need to control his life (especially the way he was perceived by others). From this, and discussions with a friend about it, I had a few thoughts.

When dealing with yourself and the idea of presenting yourself to others as you actually are, you have essentially four choices:

  1. Either you will be relentlessly controlling and either withdraw from others or be highly selective in what you reveal about yourself, or
  2. You will learn to fake it and become what others want you to be, or
  3. You will attempt to be yourself and find that this is paralyzing or crushing (that’s what happened to Wallace in some sense), or
  4. You will learn to say with the Apostle Paul, “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain.”

I pray that I will learn to put number four into practice. Here’s the relevant quote from Franzen, but I’d encourage you to check out the whole thing.

People who like to be in control of things can have a hard time with intimacy. Intimacy is anarchic and mutual and definitionally incompatible with control. You seek to control things because you’re afraid, and about five years ago, very noticeably, Dave stopped being so afraid. Part of this came of having settled into a good, stable situation here at Pomona. Another really huge part of it was his finally meeting a woman who was right for him and, for the first time, opened up the possibility of his having a fuller and less rigidly structured life. I noticed, when we spoke on the phone, that he’d begun to tell me he loved me, and I suddenly felt, on my side, that I didn’t have to work so hard to make him laugh or to prove that I was smart. Karen and I managed to get him to Italy for a week, and instead of spending his days in his hotel room, watching TV, as he might have done a few years earlier, he was having lunch on the terrace and eating octupus and trudging along to dinner parties in the evening and actually enjoying hanging out with other writers casually. He surprised everyone, and maybe most of all himself. Here was a genuinely fun thing he might well have done again.

About a year later, he decided to get himself off the medication that had lent stability to his life for more than twenty years. Again, there are a lot of different stories about why exactly he decided to this. But one thing he made very clear to me, when we talked about it, was that he wanted a chance at a more ordinary life, with less freakish control and more ordinary pleasure…

So the year was up and down, and he had a crisis in June, and a very hard summer. When I saw him in July he was skinny again, like the late adolescent he’d been during his first big crisis. One of the last times I talked to him after that, in August, on the phone, he asked me to tell him a story of how things would get better. I repeated back to him a lot of what he’d been saying to me in our conversations over the previous year. I said he was in a terrible and dangerous place because he was to trying to make real changes as a person and as a writer. I said that the last time he’d been through near-death experiences, he’d emerged and written, very quickly, a book that was light-years beyond what he’d been doing before his collapse. I said he was a stubborn control freak and know-it-all— “So are you!” he shot back at me— and I said that people like us are so afraid to relinquish control that sometimes the only way we can force ourselves to open up and change is to bring ourselves to an access of misery and the brink of self-destruction. I said he’d undertaken his change in medication because he wanted to grow up and have a better life. I said I thought his best writing was ahead of him. And he said: “I like that story. Could you do me a favor and call me up every four or five days and tell me another story like it?”…

He spoke to them so continually in the language of blood…How amiable!

From Andrew Bonar’s Commentary on Leviticus:

The blood must be ‘sprinkled round about upon the altar.’ Surely Israel must have felt that their souls were reckoned very guilty by their God, since he spoke to them so continually in the language of blood. None but a heavy-laden sinner could relish this never-varying exhibition of to the eye of the worshipper. The pilgrims to Zion, in after days, must often, as they journeyed through the vale of Baca, have wondered what was to be seen and heard in the courts of the Lord’s house, of which the worshippers sang, ‘How amiable are thy tabernacles, O Lord of hosts! My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth, for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh crieth out for the living God … Blessed are they that dwell in thy house!’ (Ps. 85:1, 2, 4). And when they arrived, and saw in these courts blood on the altar, blood in the bowls of the altar, blood on its four horns, blood on its sides, blood meeting the eye at every turn, none but a deeply-convicted soul, none but a soul really alive to the guilt of a broken law, could enter into the song, and cry with the worshippers, ‘How amiable!’ Even so with a preached Saviour at this day, and a sin-convinced soul!

He looks at us in our suffering as he would have looked at Jesus had our sin not been imputed to him

I’ve written about this before HERE and HERE, but here’s another angle on it. Calvin on 2 Corinthians 1:5:

Verse 5

2 Corinthians 1:5 For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.

For as the sufferings of Christ abound This statement may be explained in two ways — actively and passively. If you take it actively, the meaning will be this: “The more I am tried with various afflictions, so much the more resources have I for comforting others.” I am, however, more inclined to take it in a passive sense, as meaning that God multiplied his consolations according to the measure of his tribulations. David also acknowledges that it had been thus with him:

According to the multitude, says he, of my anxieties within me,
thy consolations have delighted my soul. (Psalms 94:19.)

In Paul’s words, however, there is a fuller statement of doctrine; for the afflictions of the pious he calls the sufferings of Christ, as he says elsewhere, that he fills up in his body what is wanting in the sufferings of Christ. (Colossians 1:24.)

The miseries and vexations, it is true, of the present life are common to good and bad alike, but when they befall the wicked, they are tokens of the curse of God, because they arise from sin, and nothing appears in them except the anger of God and participation with Adam, which cannot but depress the mind. But in the mean time believers are conformed to Christ, and bear about with them in their body his dying, that the life of Christ may one day be manifested in them. (2 Corinthians 4:10).

Samuel Bolton states a similar idea in The True Bounds of Christian Freedom:

…God has mercy for ‘can-nots’, but none for ‘will-nots’. God can distinguish between weakness and wickedness. While you are under the law, this weakness is your wickedness, a sinful weakness, and therefore God hates it. Under the Gospel He looks not upon the weakness of the saints as their wickedness, and therefore He pities them. Sin makes those who are under the law the objects of God’s hatred. Sin in a believer makes him the object of God’s pity. Men, you know, hate poison in a toad, but pity it in a man. In the one it is their nature, in the other their disease. Sin in a wicked man is as poison in a toad; God hates it and him; it is the man’s nature. But sin in a child of God is like poison in a man; God pities him. He pities the saints for sins and infirmities, but hates the wicked. It is the nature of the one, the disease of the other.

The main take-away I got from Calvin today is that God the Father somehow views the sufferings of his people as their share in the sufferings of Christ. In other words, the Father poured his wrath out upon Jesus in his suffering so that he could sympathize with us in our suffering. He looks at us in our suffering as he would have looked at Jesus had our sin not been imputed to him. He sees our failings and pains as weakness, not as wickedness. In doing so, he is the “God of all comfort.”