Suffering Through a Book

The initial reason I didn’t like The End of Suffering by Scott Cairns was his bad writing. I didn’t expect this, as he is a poet. I think poets ought to be even more careful about their words than most people, not wasting them. But some would-be poets might just love words so much that they lavish them on the page indiscriminately.

Cairns wastes words in several ways. He uses way too many, painfully hemming and hawing around, seemingly unable to write simple declarative sentences. Every page is padded with  phrases such as “In any case, all of this is to say…,” “I am supposing,” and “It may be fair to say.” In reading some of these sentences aloud to my daughter I couldn’t keep from laughing. My favorite is “I am thinking…” as an introduction to many of Cairns’ ideas. Doesn’t Paraclete Press have editors?

Even if I were a professional with an editor to look over my work, I would re-read it several times myself, with hopes of noticing that I had used another unnecessary phrase, “it seems to me” twice on one page, and the word “notoriously” twice on another. By the way, the text on these pages fills the space of a small postcard, and the whole book is barely over 100 pages, making for high percentage of poorly written content–and, adding to my annoyance, a poor return on the $15 I spent on it.

His word usage is odd, if not downright misleading. Example: “In appalling condescension, [Christ] remains Emmanuel, God with us.” I’m sorry, but appalling is not the word to describe God’s loving attitude toward us, as its meaning is “to fill or overcome with horror, consternation, or fear; dismay.” This is not poetic license, but rather abuse, of a good, strong word.

When I read the next example my suspicion continued to grow that Cairns had little wisdom to impart: “I have begun to discover how perplexity is not such a bad disposition to cultivate, considering.” Perplexed means confused, Scott! How on earth does one cultivate a confused state of mind? For a start, write sloppily.

This misuse of individual words is another way that Cairns wastes them. Perhaps the worst case I found is also an indicator that the author doesn’t know what he is talking about. Why would he use the word tweaking in the following passage, a word that means the making of a “slight adjustment” or a “gentle pinch” ?

     Life Himself, of course, has already accomplished an absolute trumping of death; we need only to notice, and by our noticing thereafter to participate in His continuing triumph.
That said, our ability to participate in this recovery appears to be dependent upon our tweaking our own, dissipated persons, and healing a concurrent rift in our own, discretely fragmented selves….

I’m sorry I had to put you through such a long passage just to make an example. Typing that out makes me wonder even harder if what we have here is not a word usage problem, but a theological problem. I admit that I am not skilled at spiritual warfare, but noticing and tweaking are not actions that have been recommended to me as effective by those who are.

Cairns seems ambivalent about people who have already written about suffering. What led me to buy his book after a brief perusal were the many references to good writers and poets, such as Alexander Schmemann and Emily Dickinson. This quote from Simone Weil is featured prominently on the inside cover: “The extreme greatness of Christianity lies in the fact that it does not seek a supernatural remedy for suffering, but a supernatural use for it.”

That quote helps explain what the author intends to do in the book, to talk about the purpose, not the cessation, of suffering, to use one meaning of the word end. In the prologue he writes:

     Given affliction’s generous availability, and given the wide, but so far unsatisfying, range of apologia that the nagging enigma of our human suffering has provoked over the years, I thought I might press ahead for a more satisfying glimpse of why it is we suffer, and why it is that some of us–even among the apparently innocent–appear to suffer far more than others.
At the very least, I would like to come up with a less specious way of talking about it.

He goes on to disparage the “disturbing pieties” and “commonplace yammerings” that humans offer to one another in affliction, and to say that “my own faltering faith has come to demand a somewhat more satisfying take on this ubiquitous business of affliction.”

I have neglected to say much about how the book fulfills that goal, because, when I was nearing the end, it dawned on me that I hadn’t got any clear idea of his take on suffering. I had alternated between underlining passages of bad writing and marking pithy quotes from other writers. But as to the purpose of suffering, the communication was lost in a fog of often puzzling statements about various aspects of the Christian life.

More than one literary person has told me that if you want to be a good writer, you must read good books, a lot of them. We assume that Cairns read the authors he quotes, but he doesn’t exclude them from his condemnation of the “range of apologia” as specious. I wish he had demanded satisfaction from someone more qualified than himself to accomplish the task. But wait–I see from the passage quoted above that he was only looking to provide a satisfying glimpse. That explains it. For any further reading I do on the subject, I might consult his references.

Forgive me for going on and on about such a little book. Better books don’t seem to require so much effort to write about, and my inability to give a brief and pithy review shows my own lack of skill. At least, I got some reading and writing practice out of the suffering I endured.

11 thoughts on “Suffering Through a Book

  1. You poor dear. I can see that you did indeed suffer. I picked up a book this weekend that was so full of overly poetic writing that I simply had to put it back on the shelf.

    Jody

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  2. The more essential the subject the pickier I get about who and what I will truly read. I can see how having made the purchase investment of the book, and reading the promising teasers, you pressed through to read it.

    It sounds like an appalling book that could perplex or tweak one's outlook . I'm glad you fought the influence with your applied analysis. Paring down is such good exercise in all realms! Isn't it?

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  3. I've not read enough of Cairns poetry (just a bit here and there in journals like Image) to give an opinion, but the passages you quote don't have me itching to try out his prose.

    Of course, at this very second I'm feeling self conscious about commenting beneath a comment from the book's author himself …

    Thanks for a fuller explanation, in any event. If you come up with a list of better books on suffering, let me know.

    frances

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  4. I guess writers reach out and more often than not, DO disappoint. I feel a little sorry for Scott and he was good enough to comment, too. I am happy to hear the book was short, for I think suffering is a bit vast for academic handling.

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  5. I am sorry to hear that this book disappointed. I have long been interested in this subject.

    There does seem to be a lack of editors in today's publishing business. I've read far too many books where I've wondered the same thing as you.

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  6. Hello, Gretchen Joanna! While it's the first time I read from the book aloud—and therefore not exactly polished—here's a link where, I pray, you'll more readily hear the prose as being more conversational than clumsy, more modest than meandering. May it be so. Good journey to you and yours.

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  7. Scott, I know that your intentions were and are good. I still think you have muddied the waters rather than revealing anything.

    I did listen to a good bit of your reading from the book, and that is even harder for my admittedly slow mind to take in, because the most important things you want to convey are often heavy-laden with words; it's only the padding that is conversational.

    But as for muddying the waters, I see that I am guilty of that in a worse way, by likening my own complaints to the kind of affliction you are writing about, just to tie in with your title. To even use the word suffering in that context does an injustice to the language, perhaps, but more than that it trivializes real suffering. Forgive me.

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  8. The good news is, of course, that we are all of us forgiven. I probably am overly fond of ambiguity, too much taken by the pleasures of connotation. In any case, good journey to you and yours, GretchenJoanna!

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  9. A very stimulating review and follow-up commentaries. I looked it up after reading tonight about your plan for a quotations section on your weblog.

    I picked out that book from our local Archangels Bookstore three years ago as I was inquiring into Eastern Christianity. I cannot recall that I learned anything new about suffering, but I figured it was my inattentive reading habits. You, on the other hand, are a very careful reader. If I ever tried writing extended prose pieces, I would seek your editorial advice. I myself suffer from (no, I actually enjoy) a meandering writing style–there is a temptation for some to let words run free and play together– but now I wonder what friends think of my letters. Fortunately for my ego, they are not as forthcoming as you (and my wife, I might add–she is kind to my poems but otherwise doesn’t suffer verbal foolishness lightly).

    Since finding your online site last year, I have gotten a lot from reading your almost daily posts (impressive effort!) and from browsing among the collection of former ones. Keep at it, Gretchen Joanna–for our sakes if not for your own.

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