Literary: March 2008 Archives

Ms. Rice has produced yet another magnificent meditation on the Life of Christ. This book deals with the period just prior to the beginning of the public Ministry. As such, many of the incidents of the book are fictional recreations--meditations as it were on the Life of Christ in novel form.

While I really enjoyed, in fact, loved the first book, I greatly admire the skill and beauty of this second in the series. What Ms. Rice does with such aplomb is to give us a vision of the "second" side of Christ's sacrifice for us. In fact, she kind of opens our eyes to it. Christ not only did things for us, there were things He DID NOT do, all for us as well. And Ms. Rice deftly demonstrates the cost. For example, we have all read the word, "The foxes have their holes and the birds of the air have their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head." What could this mean? Do we think He couldn't go to His mother's house and have a place to stay? Surely not. Then what are we to make of it? Anne Rice tells us--Jesus, though fully human and subject to all human desires, needs, and temptations, never takes a wife. This is NOT because He is not interested, but rather because it cannot be for reasons The DaVinci Code makes perfectly clear.

The book starts with a particularly ugly crowd incident in which two young boys are stoned to death because other boys accused them of homosexual involvement. Anne uses this to help us reflect on the fact that Jesus is a 30 year old man in a society that expects no bachelor uncles or unmarried men. This is a society that takes very seriously the Lord's injunction to "be fruitful and multiply and fill the Earth." And here is a man who will have nothing of it. What are we to make of Him? James, his step-brother makes it quite clear when he compares Jesus to these young boys.

Throughout the story, we see Jesus, now older and subject to the expectations and anticipations of the society in which He lives, defying that society in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. He isn't married. He doesn't join the young men in their march on Caesarea. He has an awful lot of female friends, etc.

As the story progresses, we approach events we all know and understand from the Gospels. Here Ms. Rice makes some choices the some may take exception to in the ordering of the miracles He performs, for example. She choses the Gospel of Matthew as the "spine" of her story and presents the chronology there with additions from John, etc. And for those who didn't care for "speculation" in the first book, they may still find something to object to here--but that goes with the realm of fiction.

But we should be very careful. While Anne Rice is not writing a biography of Jesus, she has written something more than a piece of fiction. This work is like an extended lectio, a writerly meditation on the Life of Christ which she shares with the whole world As such, it seeks an understanding of Jesus and of His interior life that is only possible through deep reading and reflection on what we already know and through prayer. In a sense, the book is a kind of prayer, and extended and extensive meditation on Jesus and coming to and understanding of who He is and just what His life means. As such, Ms. Rice has done more than a thousand scholarly dissertations can do for some of us. I have read countless faithful and faith-filled biographies of Jesus and have not encountered some of the insights that I derived from this book. For that, I owe deepest thanks and appreciation to Ms. Rice. She opened my eyes to a dimension I never really gave much thought to--the Life of Christ as ongoing and willing sacrifice to bring the world to God. In giving up the woman He has come to love because it does not fit into the scheme of what He must do, He shows the ideal man bringing His passions into alignment with God's will. Jesus lives not so much for Himself, but for every person He encounters (all of us).

Add to all of these features supple and controlled prose that occasionally approaches the poetic, and you have a superb novel. I marked out three passages as examples of simplicity and power:

(I don't think there are any spoilers/surprises here, but read at your own risk.)

from Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana
Anne Rice

I held up my hands.

"We're made in His image, you and I," I said. "This is flesh, is it not? Am I not a man? Baptize me as you've done everyone else; do this, in the name of righteousness."

I went down into the water. I felt his hand on my left shoulder. I belt his fingers close on my neck. I saw nothing and felt nothing and heard nothing but the cool flooding water, and then slowly I came up out of it, and stood, shocked by the flood of sunlight.

The clouds above had shifted. The sound of beating wings filled my ears. I stared forward and saw across John's face the shadow of a dove moving upwards--and then I saw the bird itself rising into a great opening of deep blue sky and I heard a whisper against my ears, a whisper that penetrated the sound of the wings, as though a pair of lips had touched both ears at the same time, and as faint as it was, soft and secretive as it was, it seemed the edge of an immense echo.

This is my Son, this is my beloved.

All the riverbank had gone quiet.

Then noise. The old familiar noise. (pp. 176-177)

[Satan Speaking]

"Since you seem at best to be a sometime prophet," he went on in the same calm voice, my voice, "let me give you the picture. It was in a toll collector's tent that he breathed his last, and in a toll collector's arms, can you imagine, though his son sat nearby and your mother wept. And do you know how he spent his last few hours? Recounting to the toll collector and anyone else who happened to hear all he could remember of your birth--oh, you know the old song about the angel coming to your poor terrified mother, and the long trek to Bethlehem so that you might come howling into the world in the midst of the worst weather, and then the visit of the angels on high to shepherds, of all people, and those men. The Magi. He told the toll colleftor about their coming as well. And then he died, raving, you might say, only softly so. (p. 187)

I heard the flapping, the fluttering, the muffled beating of wings. All over me came the soft touch as if of hands, countless gentle hands, the even softer brush of lips--lips against my cheeks, my forehead, my parched eyelids. It seemed I was lost in a lovely weightless drift of song that had replaced the wind without true sound. And it carried me gently downwards; it embraced me; it ministered to me.

"No," I said. "No."

It became weeping now, this singing. It was pure and sad, yet irresistibly sweet. It had the immensity of joy. And there came more urgently these tender fingers, brushing my face and my burnt arms.

"No," I said, "I will do this. Leave me now. I will do it, as I've said."

I slipped away from them, or they spread out as soundlessly as they'd come, and rose and moved away in all directions, releasing me.

Alone again. [p. 200]

I've chosen three passages from near the end of the novel, and yet, I could have chosen any number of others. Ms. Rice has such fine-tuned control and such masterly rhythm and pattern that this could almost be poetry.

I've said before that we owe it to ourselves, to our Church, and to the world to support writers who support the faith. But more than that, we owe it to ourselves to support such works of fiction if we desire to see publishers print more such in the future. We owe it to ourselves to lavish the gift of such writing on the world (and incidentally ourselves) over and over again. Get this book from the library and read it. Better, go out and buy it and share it with others.

The two books of this saga will be for a long time on my list of favored gifts for those who know and love the Lord and for those who are beginning an acquaintance and do not yet really know who He is. Ms. Rice serves as a fine guide for those who dare not attempt the Gospels themselves. If these books could cause one-tenth the excitement, one-tenth the uproar of DVC, then they serve well the purposes of those about Whom they are written.

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Plus ça change. . .

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plus c'est la même chose.

Oh my, but isn't it a day for the French?

Lunching with Mr. Faulkner and one of the most deplorable characters in the canon--by which I refer to Mr. Jason Compson the younger. But he has an observation that will probably sound a little familiar.

from The Sound and the Fury
William Faulkner

I went back to the store. Thirteen points. Dam if I believe anybody who knows anything about the dam thing except the ones that sit back in those New York offices and watch the country suckers come up and beg them to take their money. Well, a man that just calls shows he has no faith in himself, and like I say if you aren't going to take the advice, what's the use in paying money for it. Besides, these people are right up there on the ground; they know everything that's going on. I could feel the telegram in my pocket. I'd just have to prove that they were using the telegraph company to defraud. That would constitute a bucket shop. And I wouldn't hesitate that long, either. Only be damned if it doesn't look like a company as big and rich as the Western Union could get a market report out on time. Half as quick as they'll get a wire to you saying Your account closed out. But what the hell do they care about the people. They're hand in glove with that New York Crowd. Anybody could see that.

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mon ami, Charles Baudelaire.

And while I'm not saying the intent is my intent, the capitalization of Toi allows me to read it in a way that perhaps M. Baudelaire did not intend. (Almost certainly did not intend given the title of his chief work--Les Fleurs du Mal.)

De profundis clamavi
Charles Baudelaire

J'implore ta pitié, Toi, l'unique que j'aime,
Du fond du gouffre obscur où mon coeur est tombé.
C'est un univers morne à l'horizon plombé,
Où nagent dans la nuit l'horreur et le blasphème;

Un soleil sans chaleur plane au-dessus six mois,
Et les six autres mois la nuit couvre la terre;
C'est un pays plus nu que la terre polaire
— Ni bêtes, ni ruisseaux, ni verdure, ni bois!

Or il n'est pas d'horreur au monde qui surpasse
La froide cruauté de ce soleil de glace
Et cette immense nuit semblable au vieux Chaos;

Je jalouse le sort des plus vils animaux
Qui peuvent se plonger dans un sommeil stupide,
Tant l'écheveau du temps lentement se dévide!

A translation, more poetic than accurate, but aiming at the spirit:

De Profundis Clamavi
Roy Campbell

Have pity, my one love and sole delight!
Down to a dark abyss my heart has sounded,
A mournful world, by grey horizons bounded,
Where blasphemy and horror swim by night.

For half the year a heatless sun gives light,
The other half the night obscures the earth.
The arctic regions never knew such dearth.
No woods, nor streams, nor creatures meet the sight.

No horror in the world could match in dread
The cruelty of that dire sun of frost,
And that huge night like primal chaos spread.

I envy creatures of the vilest kind
That they in stupid slumber can be lost —
So slowly does the skein of time unwind!

And another, again, poetic, not literal

Out of the Depths
Jacques LeClercq

Sole Being I love, Your mercy I implore
Out of the bitter pit of my heart's night,
With leaden skyscapes on a dismal shore,
Peopled only by blasphemy and fright;
For six months frigid suns float overhead,
For six months more darkness and solitude.
No polar wastes are bleaker and more dead,
With never beast nor stream nor plant nor wood.

No horror in this world but is outdone
By the cold razor of this glacial sun
And this chaotic night's immensities.
I envy the most humble beast that ease
Which brings dull slumber to his brutish soul
So slowly does my skein of time unroll.

And then this, which comes from the same hand that gave us the delights of The Importance of Being Earnest

from De Profundis
Oscar Wilde

Prosperity, pleasure and success, may be rough of grain and common in fibre, but sorrow is the most sensitive of all created things. There is nothing that stirs in the whole world of thought to which sorrow does not vibrate in terrible and exquisite pulsation. The thin beaten-out leaf of tremulous gold that chronicles the direction of forces the eye cannot see is in comparison coarse. It is a wound that bleeds when any hand but that of love touches it, and even then must bleed again, though not in pain.

Which leads us to:

Psalm 129/130

De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine;

Domine, exaudi vocem meam.
Fiant aures tuæ intendentes in vocem deprecationis meæ.

Si iniquitates observaveris, Domine,
Domine, quis sustinebit?

Quia apud te propitiatio est;
et propter legem tuam sustinui te, Domine.
Sustinuit anima mea in verbo ejus:

speravit anima mea in Domino.

A custodia matutina usque ad noctem,
speret Israël in Domino.

Quia apud Dominum misericordia,
et copiosa apud eum redemptio.

Et ipse redimet Israël
ex omnibus iniquitatibus ejus.

Which, in those most magnificent of translations are:

Psalm 130
KJV


Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O LORD.

Lord, hear my voice: let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.

If thou, LORD, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?

But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.

I wait for the LORD, my soul doth wait, and in his word do I hope.

My soul waiteth for the Lord more than they that watch for the morning: I say, more than they that watch for the morning.

Let Israel hope in the LORD: for with the LORD there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption.

And he shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities.

1662 BOCP

OUT of the deep have I called unto thee, O Lord : Lord, hear my voice.

O let thine ears consider well : the voice of my complaint.

If thou, Lord, wilt be extreme to mark what is done amiss : O Lord, who may abide it?

For there is mercy with thee : therefore shalt thou be feared.

I look for the Lord; my soul doth wait for him : in his word is my trust.

My soul fleeth unto the Lord : before the morning watch, I say, before the morning watch.

O Israel, trust in the Lord, for with the Lord there is mercy : and with him is plenteous redemption.

And he shall redeem Israel : from all his sins.


To which I append,

[temp title] The Cloud of Unknowing


And so I move from knowing
to unknowing--not merely ignorance
but undoing the knowing I have
untying the knots and staring underneath
at what cannot be known once it is known.

Later: Upon review I discovered that I was remiss in citing my sources. This very fine site presents the original poems from Les Fleurs du Mals with several different English translations. I took the poem and the translations from that site.

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Synchronicty, not coincidence.

Reading The Sound and the Fury and what should transpire other than a trip to Boston. Why is this remarkable? Well, I can't really tell you straight out without giving away much of the book; however, suffice to say that one of the main characters has something critical and large happen to him in Boston.

So, reading The Sound and the Fury during Holy Week when it occurs during Holy Week, and visiting Boston, the site of one of the main events of the book. Wow! What a tremendous experience.

I have more to share on this. But now a delightful little tidbit. Arrived in Boston, walked down to the commons, stopped in a small used book shop near Emerson College and happened to pick up a first edition of The Collected Short Stories of William Faulkner for less than it would cost me to pick up a paperback edition. Oh, how wonderful to be back in a city where literacy is valued, perhaps even treasured.

One last point--the soaps and lotions and shampoos in this hotel are all verbena-scented. I have to come to the chilly late-winter north to smell "The Odor of Verbena." If the significance of that is not clear, google the phrase in quotation marks.

May God bless all who read this during this Holy Week. Indeed, may He bless anyone who reads this every--so few are my readers, I can afford to cast my blessings far abroad.

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An Evocative Passage--Anne Rice

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Anne Rice has published the second book in her extended novelistic meditation on the Life of Christ. The first, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt was an unalloyed success at conveying some of the complexities of the childhood of a man who "was like us in all things but sin." The second promises to be more of the same. I haven't read much of it, wishing to savor it in between passages of Gothic Americana (The Sound and the Fury). But I wanted to share a short excerpt from very early on that exemplifies the style that Ms. Rice has chosen for these works.

from Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana
Anne Rice

I looked at them, the two, lying there as if they were children asleep, amid the heap of stones, and not enough blood between them, really, not enough blood for the Angel of Death even to stop and turn and take notice of them.

Rolling, spare, simple, evocative, lush, and lovely. Trimmed down, to the point and carefully crafted. The story rolls on in sentence after sentence that exhibit this same quality.

I think one of the things that astounds me is this Anderson-like simplicity after the baroque excesses of the Witches novels, the Lestat sequence, and the Ramses book. Ms. Rice has taken care here to produce prose that seeks to evoke its inspiration--straightforward and still poetic, like many of the parables Jesus told.

While it isn't the Passion narrative (one is to hope that that is at least two books away) this will make for fine end-of-Lent reading.

I have said before, and will say again, undoubtedly, in a world full of Sam Harrises , Richard Dawkinses, and Philip Pullmans, it is a pleasure and a relief to come across a novelist who is trying to write something worthwhile and powerful for the reader seeking substance. This series is a departure from all of her previous material and as such, it represents a risk to her. Not much of one, as her other books remain in print and sell well and will support her for some time to come, but she risks her huge fan base and her continued profitability and ability to hand on to a publisher. Like Mel Gibson, she is fashioning a work that is demanded by heart and soul, and it is up to readers like us to support this work. I ardently pray that Ms. Rice's work affects the hearts and minds of some of the fans of the previous books and moves them to explore the beauty of Jesus Christ, Lord, Savior, Friend and Companion. If it is possible for you to do so, you might think of buying this book and sharing it with the next person you see reading Kim Harrison, Anne's previous novels, or other books which, while occasionally fun and entertaining, have as an end escape into unreality. What Ms. Rice is trying to create is an escape into ultimate reality.

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The first person we have speak to us from the realm of the Inconstant (the lowest and slowest sphere of heaven) is a woman named Piccarda. She is consigned to this realm because of her "inconstancy" to her holy vows of a religious. However:

from Paradiso
notes by John Ciardi

Piccarda was already a nun and living in her convent when her brother Corso, needing to establish a political alliance, forced her to marry Rossellino della Tossa of Florence. Various commentators report that Piccarda sickened and soon died as aconsequence of having been so forced against her will and vows.

It is this kind of reasoning that throughout time has bred atheists. Circumstances that we do not will nor do we consent to force us to actions that we would not take for which God, who created and allowed these very circumstances, then punishes or demotes us.

Piccarda had no choice in this matter. For much of medieval time in many places women were just a step (and a very small step) above chattel. A few extraordinary women did rise above these circumstances--but for the most part your lot in life as a woman was to do what the men around you told you to.

But in Dante's mind, a woman who against her will is forced to marry and is basically raped, is inconstant to her vow. I'm surprised she isn't in The Inferno for being false to her vow. Instead God in his infinite love and mercy says--"you were trapped by circumstance and by the situations my will allows, and couldn't puzzle your way out of it--so off to the lowest circle of beatitude and be glad I don't kick you downstairs."

Yuck! This is what I constantly run up against in Paradise. A strange sort of paradise it makes it.

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Beatrice--Snide and Smug

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Here's an example of what I spoke of before. Beatrice speaks to Dante:

from Paradiso
Dante (tr. John Ciardi)

"Are you surprised that I smile at this childish act
of reasoning?" she said, "since even now
you dare not trust your sense of the true fact,

but turn, as usual back to vacancy?

Charming. Simply charming. There's nothing to inspire love and admiration like some smug, self-righteous, overly informed combatant smiling at your stupidity and then telling you so. I'm supposd to be enchanted/enthralled by this? Color me appalled.

Fortunately Dante's goal was not entirely to make me love Beatrice as he did. If so, his cause is utterly lost. Unfortunately, I perceive that this guide to the celestial realms will not be nearly so convivial as our guide through the other two. We can expect to be laughed at, lectured sternly, and variously assaulted and accosted as we try to enjoy the scenery.

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Hidden Humor

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Where else, but in Faulkner. Light in August is an interesting study in neurosis and psychosis and how one feeds the other until disaster. It is also a repudiation of Calvinist fatalism, even though there seems to be that about it which suggests inevitability. But regardless of the dire and drear events, we have in the midst of them this:

from Light in August
William Faulkner

Presently the fire truck came up gallantly, with noise, with whistles and bells. It was new, painted red, with gilt trim and a handpower siren and a bell gold in color and in tone serene, arrogant, and proud. About it hatless men and youths clung with the astonishing disregard of physical laws that flies possess. It had mechanical ladders that sprang to prodigious heights at the touch of a hand, like opera hats; only there was now nothing for them to spring to. It had neat and virgin coils of hose evocative of telephone trust advertistements in the popular magazines; but there was nothing to hook them to and nothing to flow through them. So the hatless men, who had desert edcounters and desks swung down, even including the one who gound the siren. They came too and were shown several places where the sheet had lain, and some of them with pistols already in their pockets began to canvass about for someone to crucify.

But there wasn't anybody. She had lived such a quiet life, attended so to her own affairs, that she bequeathed to the town in which she had been born and lived and died a foreigner, an outlander, a kind of heritage of astonishment and outrage, for which, even though she had supplied them at last with an emotional barecue, a Roman holiday almost, the would never forgive her and let her be dead in peace and quiet.

In and among the solemn events, these flies in their brand new and utterly useless fire engine provide the kind of comic relief that Shakespeare (and probably a good many playwright of lesser compass before him) employed so effectively with the drunken porter in Macbeth.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Literary category from March 2008.

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