Category Archives: humanity

Touring a house of endless rooms.

BOOKS

From the heart of this dark, evacuated campus
I can hear the library humming in the night;
a choir of authors murmuring inside their books
along the unlit, alphabetical shelves,
Giovanni Pontano next to Pope, Dumas next to his son,
each one stitched into his own private coat,
together forming a low, gigantic chord of language.

I picture a figure in the act of reading,
shoes on a desk, head tilted into the wind of a book,
a man in two worlds, holding the rope of his tie
as the suicide of lovers saturates a page,
or lighting a cigarette in the middle of a theorem.
He moves from paragraph to paragraph
as if touring a house of endless, paneled rooms.

I hear the voice of my mother reading to me
from a chair facing the bed, books about horses and dogs,
and inside her voice lie other distant sounds,
the horrors of a stable ablaze in the night,
a bark that is moving toward the brink of speech.

I watch myself building bookshelves in college,
walls within walls, as rain soaks New England,
or standing in a bookstore in a trench coat.

I see all of us reading ourselves away from ourselves,
straining in circles of light to find more light
until the line of words becomes a trail of crumbs
that we follow across a page of fresh snow;
when evening is shadowing the forest
and small birds flutter down to consume the crumbs,
we have to listen hard to hear the voices
of the boys and his sister receding into the words.

-Billy Collins

Johan van Hell – Boekenstalletje

This poem was the perfect one for me to find right now, because I myself have been acting out all the verbs: following, straining, hearing and touring… and listening hard, to the humming of a choir. This choir of authors aren’t all consciously “singing” in harmony, or even intending to write about the same things, but their voices, the sounds, the crumbs I am following “across a page of fresh snow” all seem to be parts of a whole. The rooms I am touring are all in one house; it must be the place where the human soul lives.

My “circles of light” sometimes seem like a 60’s light show, beautiful and confusing, when I am waiting rather for illumination and clarity. So many authors have shined their little lights out into the world, but how many reveal the reality of things?

Over the last several months I have been reading a lot, with no resulting book reviews and few even small illuminations of the sort I might write about here. The Eucharist was very focused and wonderful and I do want to say some things about it eventually, but instead of stopping for that I kept working my way through Irrational Man, which is such a tour de force that it’s hard to know what to say about — everything.  It mostly makes me want to read more books that William Barrett reminds me of.

Like Flight From Woman by Karl Stern, which I read some years ago and thought brilliant; but at the time I knew I needed to read it a second time to digest it. Barrett explains the duality of selves in Sartre’s philosophy, how he considers not the “fruitful, excessive, fruitful blooming nature” to be the true self, but only that of the radically free and active man who has projects. Now I want to go back and read Stern on this topic.

But I am determined to finish a couple more books first. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self is like another long chapter, maybe the closing chapter, of Western Philosophy, so it will be good if I can move right on to finishing it after Barrett.

On my recent road trip I listened to Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All: A New Zealand Story, by Christina Thompson, a title so embarrassing on several fronts that I considered leaving this accomplishment unrecorded. But even this book, which was about as deep as I could go on all that freeway driving, provided a few revealing glimpses of how ideas from the other books I mentioned play out in real life, especially the central one: What is the self?

About halfway through The Cross of Loneliness I began to have a difficult time knowing what these two men were talking about, but I will finish that book, too, before long. My really easy, small book to read under the covers right now is The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald, which I found in the little free library up at the lake.

And then, the sweetest, which will be easy to finish, as it’s like swimming slowly through a small and refreshing pond to the other side: The Scent of Water, which our book club is reading together. It is coming to an end way too fast.

Oh, yes, there are a dozen more sitting nearby, that I plan to continue with eventually, but they are not at the moment as current as these, these rooms full of delicious crumbs that I trust are leading me always to brighter places.

In regard to my own life and reading, I don’t relate to the progression of Collins’s poem, in its hearkening back to the experiences of childhood and youth, and the mood of evening and shadow descending. I am just very thankful for all the good writers I have at my disposal, and for the lovely song that they are trying to learn and to sing.

He will roll in their nets and sleep.

“His soul will never starve for exploits or excitements who is wise enough to be made a fool of. He will make himself happy in the traps that have been laid for him; he will roll in their nets and sleep. All doors will fly open to him who has a mildness more defiant than mere courage… [He] will always be ‘taken in.’ To be taken in everywhere is to see the inside of everything. It is the hospitality of circumstance. With torches and trumpets, like a guest, the greenhorn is taken in by Life. And the sceptic is cast out by it.”

G.K. Chesterton, in Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens

I write what (little) I know.

One afternoon when I was sitting on the sunny deck (still in Colorado for another few days) to read my book club book, Laddie came out and stood close by, searching my eyes and smiling his shy smile. He commented on how I wasn’t making much progress in Frankenstein. I teased him, “That’s because every time I sit down to read you come and talk to me.”

“You could go in your room and shut the door,” he said.

“But I like to talk to you, Laddie. It doesn’t matter if I finish this book. I can read it on the plane when I leave here.” Then we chatted for awhile, and more children came and went and climbed up on my lap and down again. Quickly and often the innocent and sweet conversation erupts into loud squabbling, but eventually equilibrium is restored and we go on.

The flowers and creatures that I typically focus on here are complex and fascinating, but they are nothing so glorious as the human soul. When that inner person is glimpsed in the clear eyes and honest, unselfconscious tenderness of a child, I so wish that my powers of attention and description were better, that I could convey to you something of this child, this unique personality.

If I put up a photo of a flower that I encounter, along with not much more than its name, it doesn’t grieve me that I have failed to “capture” and convey its complexity and deep beauty. But when it comes to people, everything I might say seems like an unworthy reduction and distortion.

When I was the parent bringing up my own children, my thoughts were naturally more on training and teaching, and forming the character of the children. Now that is not my job, and I am at more leisure to observe and enjoy each grandchild as he is, at whatever moment I am present with him. Since none of them lives near me, more and more the most important thing I can do to affect their future is to pray.

With my limited writing skills, I will continue to tell you about the birds and the flowers.

(Photos from previous years and younger grandchildren.)

Not the Star Trek kind of evil.

In his essay, “Does Goodness Require the Possibility of Evil?”, Father Stephen Freeman compares the Christian understanding of evil, choices, and being with that of Carl Jung, Star Trek, and Depth Psychology. He says that our modern way of elevating choice above all else leads us in the wrong direction:

“Before looking at the nature of good and evil, it is worth seeing the problem involved when choice is inserted into the conversation. What happens in that approach is that we are no longer speaking about the nature of good and evil, indeed, both are relativized in importance. Everything quickly revolves back to the nature of choosing, and makes the actions of our will the center of the good. Thus, there is no true good or evil, only good choices and evil choices. It is a narcissistic ontology – a system of thought in which we ourselves become the center of attention.”

The writer reminds us that only God is good, and that the goodness that we know in our lives is a gift from Him. So where is evil in all this? And how to sort out the choices that we have made? How many of our ignorant or hasty choices turned out for “evil”? Fr. Stephen recalls the example of Joseph in the Old Testament, who was the victim of his brothers’ evil choices.

“We cannot see the consequences of our actions (beyond the most immediate circumstances) nor can we control the myriad of other events that will interact with any choice we might make. We are simply insufficient of ourselves to create good through our choices.”

Getting from our narcissism and confused choices to receiving goodness has to do with movement:

“The course of our existence is a movement. That movement is impelled towards the good through our desire for God (sometimes manifest simply as a longing for beauty, truth, and goodness).”

To get a fuller picture than I can convey in these little clips, read the whole article: here.

I just noticed that Father Stephen discussed “Goodness, Truth and Beauty” with Jonathan Pageau a couple of years ago: here.