Another Week Ends

1) The Chronicle released a preview last month to Wiman’s newest piece of work, My […]

Ethan Richardson / 4.26.13

1) The Chronicle released a preview last month to Wiman’s newest piece of work, My Bright Abyss, which we’ve already pulled from a couple of times, here and here, and the life and the illness that spurred it. Jay Parini writes that poetry criticism and commentary began by pulling the fabric of a piece of work as closely as possible upon the tables of lived experience, but Parini also notes that contemporary criticism has become so po-mo-phobic of plainspeak that it winds up saying nothing at all. But Wiman, on the other hand, with sickness, has been voided of this pretense with urgency. Parini writes about Wiman’s enigmatic and genre-less approach, and makes a connection to Pascal’s Pensees:

To the Wonder

“What is poetry’s role when the world is burning?” asks Wiman, in a meditation that began with a 2007 article in The American Scholar. He refers here to encroaching environmental disasters and a world perpetually at war. But in passage after passage—the book is loosely organized, a sequence of entries—he also refers to his own body.

At age 39, recently married, he had fallen desperately ill with an incurable form of cancer. Without sentimentality, he relates his terror and anguish, the real and almost unimaginable pain he suffered as he slogged through various treatments, which at once raised and dashed hopes:

I have had a bone-marrow transplant. I have been home from the hospital for five days. Among other “side effects,” it skinned me on the inside, leaving me so bloody and abraded from mouth to bowels that I couldn’t even eat an aspirin. Even worse than that, though, was the way the Armageddon dose of chemo destroyed my mind so that I was unable to read even an ordinary magazine article, unable to follow a simple drama on television. I was in the hospital for several weeks, and the hours acquired a palpable thickness to them, like a pill impossible to swallow, some “cure”—by now the word is both radiant with, and devoid of, meaning, like “faith,” like “God”—you fight down at every instant because there is no other choice, you are out of options.

unbreakable1Contrary to expectations raised by his topic, the author makes no effort to say that he is somehow more in touch with God, with the meaning of human anguish, simply because of what he has endured. Yet he realizes that severe illness put his spirit in a kind of hothouse, forcing spiritual growth. Only in times of crisis does spiritual growth become possible.

“There must be a shattering experience,” Wiman says. “Words are tied ineluctably to the world. Language has its bloodlines, through history and through our own beating hearts.” He shrewdly quotes the poet and playwright Derek Walcott: “To change your language you must change your life.”

…Wiman anticipates the usual objection to conversion stories, that these transformations “often happen after or during intense, especially traumatic experiences.” He quite rightly asks: “How could it be otherwise? It takes a real jolt to get us to change our jobs, our relationships, our daily coffee consumption.” It takes even more trauma to “startle the heart out of its ruts and ruins.”

2) Over at HuffPost, there’s a interesting response to Slate’s article on the power inherent in holding grudges or withholding forgiveness. In their piece, on the healing power of forgiveness—that is, of forgiving others—the Huffington Post cites health-related strains that present themselves when grudges are held.

In tune with this conversation, one of the greatest complaints of unconditional pardon or forgiveness—within the church and without—is that it seems to stand in blunt objection to our notions of fairness, or deserving, or law. In the NewStatesman, Jenny Diski writes about the “paradox of fairness,” that delineating who gets what easily becomes a lesson in futility—we have no sense of objectivity when it comes to Law, and even if we did, “is the world a better place is the vicious suffer their viciousness?”

Desert, the noun deriving from the verb “to deserve”, appears to be an essential human dynamic. It is at least a central anxiety that provides the plot for so many novels and films that depend on our sense that there is or should be such a thing. Like Kafka and Poe, Hitchcock repeatedly returns to the individual who is singled out, wrongly accused, an innocent suffering an injustice. Yet consider Montgomery Clift’s priest in I Confess, Henry Fonda in The Wrong Man, Blaney, the real killer’s friend played by Jon Finch in Frenzy, James Stewart in The Man Who Knew Too Much and Cary Grant in North by Northwest; none of them is – or could be according to Hitchcock’s Catholic upbringing – truly innocent of everything, and often their moral failings give some cause for the suspicion that falls on them. There is always a faint tang of consequence about their troubles.

We worry about people not getting what they deserve, but, due to religion or some essential guilt we carry with us, we are also concerned that there might be a deeper, less obvious basis for guilt that our everyday, human sense of justice doesn’t take into account. In Victorian fiction, Dickens and Hardy are masters of just and unjust deserts, as innocents such as Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure become engulfed by persecutory institutions and struggle, only sometimes with success, to find the life they ought, in a fair world, to have.

In Dickens, readers get a joyful reassurance after evil intent almost overcomes goodness but justice finally, though at the last moment, wins out by decency and coincidence. Hardy, in his covert modernism, offers no reassurance at all that his innocents’ day will come; his victims’ hopes and lives are snuffed out by forces such as nature and class that have no concern at all with the worth of individual lives and hopes. For both writers, however, the morally just or unjust result is usually an accident that works in or against the protagonist’s favour.


3) Andrew Sullivan found Richard Brody’s New Yorker review of To the Wonder, Terrence Malick’s newest film, and also quotes Josh Larsen saying it is Malick’s “most earnest search for God and the film of his in which God is hardest to find.”

 For Malick, sacrament isn’t pageantry, isn’t style or theatre; it’s experience. The rigid mediation of such ostensibly Catholic filmmaking is the antithesis of his notion, his literal vision, of a cinema informed by the divine. Malick finds his vaulting spans in immediate vision: he films in a quasi-documentary manner, mixing his world-renowned stars with local residents and filming them on location with a devout attention to the natural landscape and modest, everyday, even banal settings (strip malls, tract housing, offices and stores, laundromats and restaurants of small-town streets).

Malick’s camera is neither weighed down by dogma nor by abstemiousness, neither by renunciation nor by ritual. His fluid, agile, impressionistic, ecstatic, awe-filled and joyful, yet essentially modest and intimate images suggest a transcendentally-guided trip through the world—a wandering that’s tethered to the light, a light that, seemingly beamed from the cathedral, lends a virtual architectural form to the inchoate open spaces of the landscape, and that seemingly guides bodies through it, weightlessly, transforming ordinary strolling into a sort of—well, a sort of ballet. The dancer herself, self-consciously dancing, is—despite her profane emotional voracity—a step closer to the divine than anyone in the movie, including the priest (who, however, graces those in his flock with a reflection of light that nonetheless hardly shines on him).


4) Short story writer George Saunders is one of Time’s 100 in 2013, and did you know that Mary Karr, his Syracuse colleague and New York Conference guest speaker, was his hat tipper? Here’s what she had to say—makes you think we might need to have a Short Story Wednesday on the guy sometime soon…

In my favorite stories (“Tenth of December” or “The Falls” or “The Red Bow”), some goofy, tormented guy tries to rise up to carve out justice on a heroic scale. Picture a knight in cardboard breastplate and tinfoil helmet wielding a toilet plunger. These guys are wholly loseresque except for a sudden lunge at saving — often against unbearable physical or spiritual odds — some very broken human units. All this plus laugh-out-loud wisecracks.

We hired George to teach writing at Syracuse University 17 years back, and he brings to class a similarly humble urge to serve. Blond and slim, with the bristly mustache of a Russian cavalry officer, he’s open to every student’s effort, however far-fetched. Both with his own characters and with teaching, he claims, modestly, “I just let everybody do what they want.”

5) Yes, after years of deciding if the inkling you were nursing was true, it is true—your mother is completely and totally to blame for the happiness you have, or the happiness you do not. A continuation of the Harvard Grant Study shows that, 75 years in, and with other data to boot, that love has been the lasting consequence for life “success,” at least however that success has been measured for those in the study. Strangely enough, it was not political ideology, it was not IQ, it was not even sex that made the man—but the love you were given as a chill. Speaking of love in the home—and mean tricks we play on its conditionality—this is pretty funny from BuzzFeed, if not a bit explicit.

Men who had poor childhood relationships with their mothers were much more likely to develop dementia when old. Late in their professional lives, the men’s boyhood relationships with their mothers—but not with their fathers—were associated with effectiveness at work. On the other hand, warm childhood relations with fathers correlated with lower rates of adult anxiety, greater enjoyment of vacations, and increased “life satisfaction” at age 75—whereas the warmth of childhood relationships with mothers had no significant bearing on life satisfaction at 75.

Vaillant’s key takeaway, in his own words: “The seventy-five years and twenty million dollars expended on the Grant Study points … to a straightforward five-word conclusion: ‘Happiness is love. Full stop.’ ”


Keha-and-Alice-Cooper-0056) Last but not least, the Atlantic tells us what Beyoncé can learn from Ke$ha—and it has nothing to do with co-writing tracks for Alice Cooper:

In an interview promoting My Crazy Beautiful Life, the new six-part MTV docu-series about the glittery adventures of hard-partying pop star Ke$ha, the singer told USA Today this week that, “There are lots of things in this TV show that I don’t think most people would want out there of themselves, honestly.”

As the first episode unfolded, I couldn’t help but think back to the last pop-music nonfiction film that got people talking: Beyoncé’s Life Is but a Dream. And I suddenly understood just how right Ke$ha was.

…Sometimes, Ke$ha’s failures are the kinds she laughs at. In the first five minutes of the premiere, Ke$ha attempts a cartwheel onstage and botches it spectacularly. She then loses her balance and flails to the ground again while merrily retelling the story backstage, then snorts at the memory when she reads about her tumble in a New York Times review the next morning. Later, she shares an oh-poor-us chuckle with a friend when a hot guy whose eye they’ve been trying to catch fails to notice them.

Other not-so-proud moments aren’t as cute, or as easily laughed off. Upon returning to her old neighborhood in Los Angeles, Ke$ha insists on taking a stealthy night drive past the home of her ex-boyfriend Harold. She makes a vomiting noise as she explains bitterly that Harold lives there with his new girlfriend, expresses dread that he’s making out with her right there inside the house, and sighs, “Well, that was unsuccessful,” while driving away. She’s failed to move on—a humiliating, sadly familiar experience that unites us all.