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Two things

One, please for God’s sake call your senators (202-224-3121) before they condemn you to an early death with a bill that:

1) causes 23 million families to lose their health insurance;
2) sends your premiums through the roof even if your insurance is through work;
3) kicks some old and disabled people off Medicaid.

Tell the operator where you live; they’ll transfer you. Say your piece, tell ’em thanks, and hang up. If you get an answering machine, leave a message.

When you’ve done that! Here is an essay on Elif Batuman’s wonderful novel The Idiot that I wrote for CommonwealVery honored to appear there; I do love me some lefty Catholics.

Reading this novel and writing this piece gave me a chance to clarify some things for myself about “where the novel is heading” (gag me, but I don’t have time to word that better) and I think the results of that thinking will be helpful for a lot more people than just me.

New-old piece on Edward Yang’s A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY

I wrote this for the Christian Courier a year ago; it was published last month, and, as always, they kindly allow me to repost it here, as it was paywalled. Please do consider subscribing to the Courier. They do good stuff

 

For some of us, there’s a season, a handful of months, on the cusp of young adulthood—around 16 or 17—when all the deepest failings and yearnings of your nature seem to announce themselves one after the other, like symphonic themes that the rest of your life will restate with far greater complexity, perhaps, but never again so pristinely. Adults view the struggles of teenagers as they pass through such times with pity, amusement, contempt: reactions that preserve our distance from our own memories of being so young, and so susceptible to the characteristic pain of this period, pain constituted, in large part, precisely by the absence of perspective. Every breakup, every lost fight, every death, every friendship lost to gossip or to moving trucks seems unsurvivable, precisely because you haven’t survived many such losses yet. You wonder, rightly, how it can possibly be done. (Really—how do we do it? And what does it say about us wise adults that we can repeatedly part with what is dearer than life? How coherent is a self that has grown used to losing, precisely, itself?). If adolescence lasted even six months longer than it did, it would certainly kill us all. And yet there is something admirable, even beautiful, about these storms of rage and sadness and fear, which recall the goddesses and gods of classical mythology, who also live outside the dulling and comforting repetitions of time.

Only an artist of extraordinary bravery even attempts to handle such radioactive material. (Most fiction aimed at the young doesn’t even glance at it.) And only an artist of extraordinary skill, perception, and wisdom could effectively evoke the feeling of those years from a viewer secure within the carapace of adulthood.

Edward Yang did it at least twice.

I say “at least” because Yang, the internationally acclaimed Taiwanese filmmaker who died in 2007, is truly an unknown quantity for North American filmgoers. Until earlier this year, only one of his films was legally available in the US in any form. That one film, however, was Yi-Yi (2000)—which is sort of like being unknown except for the Sistine Chapel. A tragicomic study of a middle-class Taiwanese family, Yi-Yi is so quietly convincing in its observation of character, and so enveloping and thorough in its portrayal of people, that you finish the movie feeling as if you’ve just made and lost a circle of friends. The experience is of a deep and painful joy. There are many movies I watch more often, because they’re easier (The Big Lebowski; Cold Comfort Farm; Godzilla Vs. Megalon), but if anyone asks me what my favorite movie is, the answer is Yi-Yi. The answer will always be Yi-Yi.

For years I’ve heard whispers that Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day (1991) is “even better.” This is silly. Is winning a legal victory against an evil corporation “even better” than holding your newborn niece? Is a mountain “better” than a flower? But now that Criterion has issued Brighter Summer Day in North America for, essentially, the first time (bar a few festival showings), I can certainly confirm that it, like Yi-Yi, achieves the kind of greatness that makes rankings impossible. Set in the years 1959-61, the film depicts the moral and social destruction of a thoroughly decent teenage boy, against a backdrop of Taiwanese youth gangs, Chinese refugee struggle, and US cultural incursion. If Yi-Yi is tragicomedy, Brighter Summer Day is tragedy, full stop: the self-destruction of a good person. The last hour in particular is crushing.

What unites the two films—and what accounts for the enormous emotional power of both—is the calm, honest gaze of Yang’s camera. Though there’s hardly a shot in Brighter Summer Day that isn’t exquisitely framed—it’s one of those movies where any given twenty-fourth-of-a-second could be mounted and shown in a gallery—the film never seems to be trying for an effect. Structural devices (similarly framed shots of characters in similar social positions; a flashlight that gets stolen early in the film and keeps reappearing) tie the film together and yet you only just register them; the characters, every now and then, make thematically important speeches, but they sound like they’re just talking. One of the teenage hoods in this film, during a period when he’s hiding out from the cops, reads War and Peace to stave off boredom. Yang is like Tolstoy in that, after you’ve spent some time with him, nearly every other artist seems mannered, straining for effect, while he is merely conveying life. This is, of course, the most difficult, and the greatest, artistic effect of all.

Some catching up

I wrote about Guardians of the Galaxy 2, the surreal costumed-criminal films of the silent era, the birth of modern policing, and other things in this post at the Hedgehog Review‘s blog. I also reviewed Mark D. Jordan’s Teaching Bodies, a fascinating exposition of Aquinas, for the Century, and explained why I love Adam Roberts’s The Thing Itself for the Courier.

New piece on Han Kang’s HUMAN ACTS

I reviewed Han Kang’s important novel Human Acts for the Christian Century.

New piece in HEDGEHOG REVIEW

The current Hedgehog Review has a lot of good stuff in it—pieces by Eugene McCarraher, Elizabeth Bruenig, B.D. McClay, Mary Townsend, and others. So it’s an honor to be represented in this lineup. Here is my review of those books by J.D. Vance, Nancy Isenberg, and Arlie Russell Hochschild. You know: the three books that everybody wants to use to explain the rise of Trump.

New piece on Charles Williams

This appeared in the Christian Courier a month ago. The version that appeared there deleted my (quite modest) references to Williams’s weird magick S&M stuff: my fault for going over the word limit, as I always do. I restore those sentences not because I think the piece is some sort of deathless prose masterpiece of which not a single phrase ought to be disturbed, but because I don’t want to seem to whitewash Williams’s flaws. Why, I think whitewashing him would be very bad, a deed for which a person must be punished severely…

Ahem. As always, the Courier has been generously supportive of my weird interests as a writer, and if you like me a lot it might be time to subscribe to them. 

We talk of Gnosticism as an early Christian heresy; it is better understood as an everyday Christian temptation. Loveless knowledge, implied St. Paul, does nothing but puff you up, and as Christians can hardly help claiming to know something about God—at the very least we distinctly suspect some things, codified in the Creeds—so the mere momentary absence of love threatens to leave us with swelled heads. About the history of Gnosticism as a particular movement or tendency in the early church, I have read many contradictory accounts and fully trust none; about Gnosticism as a name for a certain intellectual and spiritual pride, I need only one supremely illuminating remark, worth libraries of commentary. It is this: “See, understand, enjoy, said the Gnostic; repent, believe, love, said the Church, and if you see anything by the way, say so.”

The man who wrote those words—Charles Williams, in Descent of the Dove—traveled both paths. Fans of the Inklings and of Christian fantasy generally have long known Williams as the great bromance of C.S. Lewis’s later life, and as the author of a series of “spiritual thrillers” (so T.S. Eliot, also a friend, called them) that readers invariably speak of in condescending tones, while continuing to devour them even as putatively worthier books lay untouched. Lewis and Auden revered him—not merely his writings, but what they considered his personal holiness. And yet Lewis’s finest biographer, Alan Jacobs, speaks for many when he calls Williams “creepy.” The scholar Sorina Higgins finds him sexist, perverse, theologically heterodox, and altogether deeply troubling—and she’s a fan. He is one of those permanent minor writers who clings to the great ship Literary Canon by the fingertips. Grevel Lindop’s Charles Williams: The Third Inkling makes a persuasive case for hoisting him aboard, while also helping to explain why this great Christian writer left, and continues to leave, such differing impressions.

The first thing to know about Williams is that he wasn’t rich. In chapter after chapter, Lindop describes a pace of work (which resists being described as a “schedule,” still less a “routine”) that would have crushed a man ten times healthier. Throughout his adult life Williams writes poems, novels, biographies, prefaces, closet and liturgical dramas, spiritual and devotional works, letters, and lectures in a chaotic profusion that resembles the atmosphere of his “shabby-genteel” childhood home, where every adult seems to have had four or five sidelines. He did all this while shepherding the first complete English edition of Tolstoy, and the first English translations of Kierkegaard, through Oxford University Press, permanently changing literary history.

It was a hard, in many ways thankless life. Williams’s mystical, allusive mind probably helped to compensate. For Williams, everything stands in for everything else, is a microcosm of some macrocosm. He could tell himself, then, that his unhappiness was perhaps merely one part in a happy design, the outlines of which he hadn’t fully seen. Born in 1886, Williams shared the general late-Victorian fascination with the occult—self-styled magicians, cultists, even Satanists were as hard to avoid in the intellectual and literary circles of that time as meditators in a Whole Foods. Lindop establishes that Williams was a member not only of A.E. Waite’s goofy Fellowship of the Rosy Cross (a mystical group with Christian leanings, probably no more spiritually dangerous than the Masons) but of a discussion group that may have had less savory ties. His poetry can read like an attempt sympathetic magic, as if he’s using names to influence the things they refer to. On the other hand, it’s equally easy to read much sympathetic magic and ritual as itself a kind of embodied allegory, an attempt to communicate a vision of wholeness or perfection through the manipulation of physical things: a kind of writing with objects. Did Williams’s occult mind influence his literary mind, or was it just that mind continuing to work in another medium? The few instances of Williams’s magical practice that Lindop actually describes sound about as dangerous (and effective) as doing “the wave” to help your team win. Less defensible was Williams’s habit, after marriage, of engaging in mildly sadomasochistic rituals with young women disciples—the frustrated sexual energy thus created helped him work. He never had sexual intercourse with any of these women, and he seems to have convinced himself that a little ritual-magic-spanking between friends wasn’t cheating. The human capacity for self-delusion is amazing, though “amazing” is not the adjective his wife used. (They later reconciled.)

I don’t think Williams’s many imperfections fully invalidate his witness. Against a fascination with the occult, a kinky turn, and a penchant for being flattered by young women, we have to set great personal kindness, a ready sympathy for the downtrodden, and most of all, the books. They embody every spiritual quality that Williams sometimes lacked—and isn’t that the most we can say of any spiritual writer? Descent Into Hell (1937) offers a depiction of spiritual pride that will drive any reader to his or her knees. War in Heaven (1930) has one of the best opening sentences of its era (“The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no-one in the room but the corpse”). And there’s a scene in a country church in The Greater Trumps (1932) that says more about romantic love as an opening for spiritual transformation than a hundred songs. Most of all, there’s Descent of the Dove (1939), a visionary work of church history that sits with Orthodoxy, Mere Christianity, and Unapologetic on the list of books that make Christianity interesting by simply reminding us, in forceful epigrams, what Christianity is. All his books, even the worst, make the spiritual world seem as tangibly real as a cup of coffee.

Williams wanted to know the secrets of the universe. Sometimes he wanted only to see, understand, enjoy them. More often, he knew they could only be gotten at by love. At his best, he knew that Love was precisely who they were.

The People Behind the Professor’s Watchlist Are Worthless, Gutless Cowards

I’m not feeling nuanced about this. My rage is in its “blunt object” phase.

 

This morning I checked my email and found that an old friend and coworker had found himself on a watchlist of professors.

The group promoting the watchlist claims that they’re sticking up for conservative students who feel discriminated against. (No, I’m not going to link to your webpage, you worthless shitstains. My readers know how to google.) Since this group’s actual methodology seems to involve “trolling campus newspapers for stories in which a professor states an opinion we don’t like,” I’m not going to take that claim seriously. In my experience, conservative students who complain of discrimination are generally butthurt because they lost an argument in public. You can ask my more conservative students whether they thought I was too hard on them. Most of them got As.

You watchlist guys are savvy, I’ll give you that. Universities have become mini-corporations, and like all corporations, they’re afraid of customer complaints. They’re less likely to care about abstract non-monetizables like “free speech” and “academic excellence.” They’re scared of controversy, which might damage their “brand.”

But let’s talk about markets, since that’s the only reality people like you seem to know.

Enrique Neblett, who’s on your watchlist because he studies the physiological impact of racism on black people (something you guys want to ignore so that you can keep inflicting it), is one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met in this line of work. His research is respected by his peers, because unlike you, he knows what the hell he’s talking about. But let’s forget about that: students like him. On the stupidest, most populist, most “free-market” metric possibleyes, I’m talking about RateMyProfessor.com—he’s a good teacher. He has a 4.6 and a chili pepper, for God’s sake. (For the record I had a 4.9 last time I checked.) This means that his students like him so much they’ll go out of their way to signal to other students that he’s a good guy, and that no students dislike him enough to give him a truly bad review, even though RMP basically exists to invite bad reviews.

You guys like markets, don’t you? Your whole epistemology is “the customer is always right,” isn’t it? Well, your great god Market has spoken. Students like Dr. Neblett as much as I do. And I doubt they’d like you nearly as much. So shut the fuck up.

You worthless, pusillanimous dipshits. Your cause can’t win the argument, so you try to scare people with this secretive McCarthyist drama-queen bullshit. Well, if you’re threatened by Enrique Neblett, whose main weapon is “knowing what the fuck he’s talking about” and “being good at his job,” maybe you aren’t the great menace to democracy that I thought you were. I’m beginning to think you’re pretty soft.

Come to that, maybe you’re not as savvy as I thought, either. As I scroll further down your list, I find, to my considerable amusement, the most right-wing guy in my MFA program, an evangelical Christian conservative who spent three years telling everybody in every workshop that they lacked standards and character. He was our David Brooks. His name was Matt Boedy, and now he teaches rhetoric and composition, and he’s on your list because he wrote an op-ed about not wanting concealed-carry on his campus. You morons can’t even shoot straight.

Matt, if you happen to read this, I’m genuinely proud of you. This time, you’ve got people pissed off at you for a great reason. And when this becomes an open fight, when they stop hiding behind thinktanks (“wingnut welfare”) and anonymously compiled lists, we’re going to kick their asses. It won’t even be close.