Unapologetic

Francis Spufford – Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense (Faber and Faber, 2012)

Like Francis Spufford, I am rather tired of patronising atheists telling me my belief in God is an emotional crutch, coming from a fear of death and a fear of life. My reply has been that it, at least in recent years, has been a decision grounded on reasonable evidence. What I am perhaps more hesitant to confess is that has also been because of the emotional experience of faith. I give these experiences little weight when articulating, to myself or others, my reasons for faith, considering them too vague and subjective. Spufford, a former atheist, shows no such qualms in affirming that the emotional sense that Christianity makes of life is a perfectly justifiable grounds for faith.

As Spufford shows, the Christian message is emotionally liberating. Accepting that we are all crooked in nature, that ‘there’s some black in the colour-chart of my psyche’, frees us from denial and unrealistic expectations of perfection. And knowing there is a God whose love is not conditioned upon our virtue and whose people are ‘an international league of the guilty’ allows us to live with hope and grace.

The longest chapter of the book is a condensation of the gospels which highlights the scandal of Jesus in first-century Palestine. It peels back layers of tradition and cliché and captures Jesus’ compelling character and teaching and the context in which he lived. Despite the undue weight he gives to John 7:53ff (an episode of doubtful authenticity), it is something I would recommend to Christians and non-Christians alike.

However, I would not do the same for the rest of the book. Although Spufford identifies himself as ‘a fairly orthodox Christian’ who tries to believes ‘the whole of the Creed’, ultimately he makes his own emotional reaction to doctrines the basis for affirming or rejecting their validity. He has no meaningful belief in heaven and happily denies the existence of hell, of which he says, ‘[Christians] went ahead and decided to do without it some time ago. The majority of us have not believed in it for generations…except in miniscule enclaves’ (p. 181-2).

To his credit, Spufford is willing to speak plainly about his own doubts and forcibly about the failings of the church – something done too rarely by Christian apologists. He writes, ‘On one level it is utterly unsurprising that Christianity is shot through with miseries, like a blood-stained roll of fabric. Christian history is, because all history is. It’s the HPtFtU [‘human propensity to f*** things up’, i.e. sin] at work’ (p. 169). He is honest about the weaknesses of Christians, who are human after all. However, he does not appear to have any belief in the Holy Spirit or the hope that Christianity can improve people in any way other than inspiring them to continue pursuing goodness independent of results.

Irreverence is part of the spirit of our cynical age and Spufford embraces this in a way which shows the rawness of doctrine and emotion. But his coffee-shop tone turns accusatory when talking about God’s apparent absence in suffering. To me, this took him from the merely irreverent to the profane. And it is not just this, but the whole thrust of the book that dilutes the glory of God. He ignores God’s cosmic purposes and genuine power in the world, and makes him a kindly servant to our emotions who we are free to call upon, or ignore, as desired.

The Art of Reading #1 – What to Read

By request, I am beginning a series of posts exploring how I read. I don’t pretend to be a great authority on how others ought to read, but I will offer humble insights into my own practice and hope it provides something of interest.

There is no canon of books that ought to be read. While there may be certain books that a man in my position, that is the English profession, ought to be familiar with, these are not what I prioritise in my reading. For reading is something intensely individual. What will delight and benefit me, may prove dull or futile reading for the next man. I can not say with assuredness whether a book is something I should be reading until I pick it up, and nor can anyone else. Given that there exists no external guide to what we should read, I join, Alan Jacobs, professor of English at Wheaton College, in positing only ‘one dominant, overarching, nearly definitive principle for reading: Read at Whim’.
We should read what we feel like reading.

However, although my reading is guided by whim more than anything else, there are strategies that I have in planning my future reading. The primary intention in this is to put in my path those books which will delight and benefit, but are unlikely to land there on the unpredictable tides of whim. So, I may emphasise a particular field, say Australian fiction or missiology, for a time. And generally I will try to include both contemporary and classic books and maintain an equal balance of fiction, Christian non-fiction, and secular non-fiction. I don’t always alternate between these three categories, but in the long run I continue to read roughly equivalent amounts of each. Amongst all this I will try to have regular interludes into poetry and periodicals (though this is really an independent pastime to my mind).

The shape of my reading plan can change sharply, but on the whole it is represented by two reading ‘lists’. My shortlist is essentially those books stacked along my desk – often items newly acquired or borrowed or simply selected for imminent reading from the shelf (though items are not infrequently relegated back to the ‘unread’ section of the bookshelf when another item of a higher priority arrives). Below is a photo of my current shortlist. The primary reference for my long list is the hundred or so items on my Book Depository wishlist. I don’t necessarily intend to ever buy the books from this source, it just serves as a convenient place to keep track of them (one could just as well use Amazon, Goodreads or any number of other websites).Reading List

As to the bases for selecting particular books for my reading list, there are many and I’ll try to identify some of them, though in many cases I probably can’t articulate just what they are. While I would hope that everything I read is both enjoyable and edifying, I think I can make a distinction between books read for pleasure and those read for growth.

Reading for pleasure
When living under the cruel oppression of the Murdstones, a young David Copperfield reflects that, ‘I believe I should have been almost stupefied but for one circumstance’ – a ‘small collection of books in a little room upstairs’. He would escape to these novels, losing himself in the travails and adventures of Tom Jones, Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe and the like. He reflects, ‘This was my only and my constant comfort. When I think of it, the picture always rises in my mind, of a summer evening, the boys at play in the churchyard, and I sitting on my bed, reading as if for life’.

Reading can be an intense experience; one powerful enough to offer Dicken’s Copperfield escape and solace and, on regular occasions, to so engross me that I remain oblivious as my train rolls past my stop (and the one after that). And it is an intensely pleasing experience which is justifiable as an end in itself. Let me dwell for a time on some of the pleasures of reading.

The pleasure of words
Reading something by a true wordsmith is a delight not easily rivalled. A familiar and commonplace action becomes exciting for the novelty of how it is told. Feelings that can only be expressed by mawkish clichés by lesser writers are told with uncanny accuracy, capturing what we always felt but showing a dimension to it that we never saw. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s mastery of metaphor and timing gives his writing a striking vividness. In spite of his great bulk, G. K. Chesterton’s prose skips nimbly down the street. And Thomas Hardy’s prose is as full and fresh as the rural landscapes they describe.

The pleasure of character
When I think of my favourite novels, often what stands out is their ability to take me deep into the life of another. I am able to understand the rhythm of their life, to know their flaws without losing sympathy for them, to feel the burden of decisions they must make. This was the great pleasure of Home by Marilynne Robinson and Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro and The Chosen by Chaim Potok.

The pleasure of story
In the books mentioned above very little actually happens. Change comes like the tide, gradual and unhurried. But for other books the pleasure is in the rush of movement. One is drawn into the adventure of the story. At present what leaps to mind is the suspense and intensity of Spies by Michael Frayn and the journey and exoticism of Caravans by James Michener. In reading such books, it is with pain and resentment that one endures interruption, and the mind continues to travel through what has been read and imagine what lies ahead. Those two books also have a depth to them which left me digesting them for some time after. But in this category one can also place the fast food of fiction, the thrillers and fantasy novels which one can’t build a diet on, but which are undeniably tasty escapes.

Sharing pleasure
The final pleasure I observe is that which comes from communal reading. In general, I have very little interest in bringing others along with me as I escape into a novel, but there are times when I can hardly bear reading something on my own. Perhaps it comes from memories of my childhood, but the experience of reading Roald Dahl, Rudyard Kipling or Lewis Carroll (be it their poetry or prose) is never quite satisfying unless there is company. Comic poetry and children’s fiction are two genres that are best served crowded around a fireplace, as laughter and chocolate-coated peanuts are shared around.

Reading for growth
In reading for pleasure, I am quite happy to remain unchanged as I leave the book behind. Its purpose was to entertain and move me in the time we spent together and to leave me with a general sense of experiencing something new. But many other books I read in the hope that they will contribute to my development. Non-fiction in particular I read in order to let it extend or shape me.

Knowledge and skills
Some books are instructive. I read them to learn about a particular area or develop new skills, particularly ones that will develop me as an English teacher. Aside from the dozens of books I went through last year as part of my research I also read books like Literature: A Student’s Guide by Louis Markos, The Christian Imagination: The Practice of Faith in Literature and Writing, edited by Leland Ryken and Take the Mic, a guide to slam poetry by Marc Kelly Smith, for professional development (though I say again the distinction between pleasure and growth is never absolute).

Wisdom
What I intend to learn from a book is not always as straightforward as the skills or new knowledge that the previous category suggests. Often it is a recognition that the writer has a clear understanding of the world that I can take wisdom from. It is this which brings me back to the works of Theodore Dalrymple, a conservative essayist, the novelist/poet/farmer Wendell Berry and Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton. As much as I may enjoy their writing craft, my purpose in reading them is to learn from how they look at the world.

Spiritual growth
The other major kind of growth I pursue in my reading is spiritual growth. I want to read books that will help me to know God, to share his priorities in life and to initiate personal change. Books that I have found particularly helpful for this last year were You Can Change by Tim Chester (and everything else I read by him), Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and John Day’s Crying for Justice: What the Psalms Teach Us About Mercy and Vengeance in an Age of Terrorism. The Bible is also a perpetual feature of my reading list for this reason.

A few years ago when I decided I would read all of the books on TIME’s list of the hundred best English-language novels published since 1923. I think I’d read less than a dozen when I gave up on the project. More recently I read a book called The Hundred Best English Poems, which didn’t particular impress me. The point I come back to again is that we can’t rely on another to tell us what to read, because no-one possesses sufficient insight into our tastes and character. I love taking book recommendations, particularly from those with similar tastes, and when I truly enjoy a book I normally lend it or recommend it to others. But I think in determining what to read we need to cast a wide net and let whim carry us to what is most pleasing and edifying.

Top 10 Books of 2012

As far as I can recall, I have only read eight books published in the last twelve months, so I can’t say with any authority what the best books from the year were. But I can at least say which books I most enjoyed reading last year. Before naming the top ten, I will give an honourable mention to To Change the World by James Davison Hunter, which would certainly have ranked near the top had the promise of its excellent early chapters been maintained, as well as Home and Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, Delighting in the Trinity and You Can Change by Tim Chester and Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But here are the top ten:

10. Wendell Berry – Standing on Earth: Selected Essays (Golgonooza Press, 1991)
As discussed in a previous post, I have great respect for Wendell Berry, not only as a writer but also a man. His wisdom and genuine care for people and the world are equally apparent in his fiction and his essays. These essays, mostly concerned with ecology and agriculture, have a sense of alarm, but also of careful and measured contemplation.

9. Jack McLaren – My Crowded Solitude (1926)
See earlier post. Reading this memoir of an Australia drifter sojourning amongst Aboriginal tribes in Cape York I was struck by how far attitudes towards indigenous Australians have come. Written long before political correctness or the notion of indigenous human rights, the writer has no shame in belittling Aboriginals as childlike creatures. Yet it is a fascinating story, told with beauty and profundity.

8. Tim Chester – Good News to the Poor: Sharing the Gospel through Social Involvement (IVP, 2004)
Chester gives an astute, passionate and practical discussion of the issue of Christian engagement in social justice. Having just read What is the Mission of the Church? by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert – a much poorer response to many of the same questions – I was struck by Chester’s ability to speak with balance and sensitivity to contemporary situations. He has remarkable clarity in seeing the strengths and weakness of evangelicalism and various approaches to poverty alleviation and social involvement and he shows a deep compassion for the poor (which, sadly, is rarely apparent in DeYoung and Gilbert).

7. Anna Funder – All That I Am (Viking, 2012)
See earlier post. As Nazism grows, left-wing dissidents are finding themselves pressed into increasingly small corners. Funder takes us inside their lives to experience the fragility that existed behind the façade of vigour and greatness. As Funder’s first novel, this is a great achievement.

6. Alain de Botton – Status Anxiety (Vintage, 2005)
De Botton offers a captivating exploration of our soul-destroying preoccupation with status. He examines the causes of our anxiety and also considers how it might be abated, through philosophy, art, politics, religion or bohemia. The book is written with deftness and humour and draws skillfully on history, philosophy and literature to give rich and thought-provoking insight.

5. L.P. Hartley – The Go-Between (1953)
I was led to read The Go-Between when I heard it had been the inspiration for Michael Frayn’s novel Spies (which was among my favourite books last year). In it, the protagonist Leo remembers an episode from his childhood when spending a summer at the estate of a wealthy friend. Naïvely trying to negotiate his place in this community of adults, he is easily taken advantage of, becoming a messenger for surreptitious and forbidden communications. Although not always believable, it is a moving tale of childhood and loss of innocence.

4. Cormac McCarthy – All the Pretty Horses (Knopf, 1992)
Cormac McCarthy is one of the finest living novelists. He creates works of stark, masculine beauty, suited to the barren landscapes of the American West. While All the Pretty Horses may perhaps leave less of a mark on me than other McCarthy novels I’ve read recently (The Road and Blood Meridian), I enjoyed it more simply because it isn’t so permeated by violence and despair. It follows a restless young cowboy, riding across of Texas and Mexico searching for something he can’t name.

=2. G. K. Chesterton – On Tremendous Trifles (Hesperus Press, 2010)
I can’t recall ever coming across someone who writes with the agility and vivacity of Chesterton. This collection, selected from columns written for the Daily News between 1902 and 1909, illuminates the brilliance in ordinary life and the wonders that can be appreciated when simply walking down the street or even lying in bed. Chesterton is a great observer of life and an extraordinarily funny writer.

=2. P. G. Wodehouse – What ho!: The Best of P.G. Wodehouse (Arrow, 2000)
See earlier post. Perhaps the only writer who can best Chesterton for wit and lively use of words is P. G. Wodehouse. I can imagine no more fitting a cure to the downcast mind than to spend some time reading these short stories about various aristocratic fools.

1. Stephen Crane – An Experiment in Misery: Stories (Harper Perennial, 2009)
It was some four years ago that I first read Crane’s novella The Red Badge of Courage, which has since ranked among my favourite works of fiction. From the first page of this collection I regretted waiting so long to return to Crane’s prose. These gripping short stories are filled with an amazing depth of insight into the fallibility of human character. In particular, ‘The Monster’ – the story of a young man who is disfigured and retarded after heroically rescuing a young boy from fire – I found to be one of the most artful and haunting short stories I have ever read.

A Sick Day for Amos McGee (Picture Books #4)

Philip & Erin Stead – A Sick Day for Amos McGee (Roaring Book Press, 2010)

A Sick Day for Amos McGee is undoubtedly one of the finest picture books, if not the very finest, I have read. It is the most incredibly nice book, perfect in its naivety and beauty.

It is a simple story about the friendship between a kindly old zookeeper named Amos McGee and various animals at the City Zoo. Its characters are of the most endearing sort: the pensive elephant with whom Amos plays chess, the self-satisfied tortoise who Amos races daily, the nervous but sincere owl who is read storybooks because he is afraid of the dark, and, most of all, Amos himself.

A Sick Day for Amos McGeeAs soon as he appears, stretching his arms as climbs from his bed, you can not help but smile at his quirky charm. From his pea-green three-piece suit, falling short at the ankles, to his balding head and gentle smile, everything about Amos exudes a sense of modest contentment and honesty. All his efforts go into caring for the animals and their friendship is the only reward he would ever want.

The illustrations, graceful pencil drawings and woodblock printings with sparing use of colour, have at once both gaiety and pathos. And small delights, such as a miniature bird strolling cheerily to work in his striped necktie or a weary daffodil drooping out of a recycled milk bottle, give added richness.

In his brilliant little article, ‘Tremendous Trifles’, G. K. Chesterton compared the writing of Rudyard Kipling, which is full of foreign cultures and the world’s great wonders, with his own, which is ‘an idle diary of such off things as I have fallen over by accident, in walking in a very limited area at a very limited pace.’ He continues,
we may, by focusing our attention almost fiercely on the facts actually before us, force them to turn into adventures; force them to give up their meaning and reveal their mysterious purpose. The purpose of the Kipling literature is to show how many extraordinary things a man may see if he is active and strides from continent to continent… But the object of my school is to show how many extraordinary things even a lazy and ordinary man may see if he can spur himself to the single activity of seeing.

A Sick Day for Amos McGee, despite featuring an elephant, penguin and rhinoceros, lies firmly within the Chesterton school. The thrill it offers is not in the exoticism of the creatures, but rather in their acute ordinariness, and the irony that such ordinariness should be found in the guise of an exotic animal. In this it is a world reminiscent of the Hundred Acre Wood, where bears and tigers are consumed with modest bothers and fascinations rather than eating naughty children (for instance).

It is a reflection of our thinking that ‘common’ is synonymous for both ordinariness as well as vulgarity. But in A Sick Day for Amos McGee that which is common is neither dull nor base, but beautiful and dignified. There is real pleasure to in catching a bus or sharing a pot of tea, and real treasure in simple friendship.
A Sick Day for Amos McGee

Rudyard Kipling (Picture Books #3)

Poetry for Young People: Rudyard Kipling, edited by Eileen Gillooly, illustrated by Jim Sharpe (Sterling, 1998)

I don’t see great children’s books losing their charm as I age, and nor do I think the delights of great literature are lost on the young. This week I have read a book called Mister Pip which is about children in a small village in Bougainville who are entranced by hearing Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectations read to them. Having never ventured more than a few miles from where they were born, they can’t possibly picture what nineteenth-century London, or even English marshes, are like. Nor do they understand much of the language they hear. Nonetheless they are completed engrossed by it.

Rudyard KiplingContinuing along in my series on picture books, let me introduce you to my favourite series: Poetry for Young People. The series takes the poetry of great writers, such as Shakespeare, Tennyson, Emily Dickinson, Yeats, Browning, and makes it accessible to children. The meaning of each poem is made clear with a short introduction and a glossary of words that might be new, and the accompanying artworks shows the mood and imagery of the poem. (Given the amount of text to a page, some may consider this a fairly generous use of the term ‘picture book’.)

At this stage in my life I can’t really justify spending too much money on picture books, but I was unable to keep myself from acquiring the collection of animal poems (which includes works by Blake, Yeats, Wordsworth, Keats, Hilaire Belloc and others) and this volume on Rudyard Kipling.

The selection is weighted towards poems written for children, such as those from Just So Stories and The Jungle Book, but also includes a few of his more well-known poems about war and imperialism, life in the army and the Orient, which I feel are no less suited to young ears. Kipling wrote with such strong rhythm that even if some words are lost on the young, the tone never is.

Also, his poems are full of the most fascinating people and places. He brings us songs of Viking sailors, British soldiers and, of course, jungle beasts, all beautifully captured in the paintings in this book.

Kipling was a man of strong political beliefs, which is reflected in the didacticism of his poetry. The qualities of humility, responsibility and compassion, as well as British nationalism, are core to his writing. And the introduction to the volume, as well as the brief notes introducing each poem, give insight into the social issues he was seeking to address in particular poems. It’s great to have kids (or grown-ups) reading this book thinking about the history the lies behind texts and wondering how it might have been different if written today.
Mandalay

The Three Pigs (Picture Books #2)

David Wiesner – The Three Pigs (Clarion Books, 2001)

Fairy tales are among our most popular cultural touchstones. From infancy they are etched into our memory and form the definitive experience of story-telling. We love them for their charm and fantasy, and also because of the shared memories they represent. As recent films like Mirror Mirror, Tangled and Hoodwinked attest, we will never tire of revisiting them.

And few stories are revisited as often as the tale of the three little pigs. Along with a plethora of retellings that have remained faithful to the original are those that have inverted it to great comic effect. Back in 1933, Walt Disney’s take on the story attributed to the three pigs familiar family dynamics, the bossy elder brother and foolish younger siblings. Roald Dahl similarly drew our attention to the porcine imprudence:
Pigs are noble. Pigs are clever.
Pigs are courteous. However,
Now and then, to break this rule,
One meets a pig who is a fool.
What, for example, would you say
If strolling through the woods one day,
Right there in front of you you saw
A pig who’d built his house of STRAW?

Other interpreters have gone further in making the ravenous wolf the object of our sympathy. Delightful picture books like The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig and The True Story of the Three Little Pigs come to mind.

All of these interpretations have in common that they entertain by playing upon our expectations of the story. They mingle the well-known with the unexpected giving us the sense of incongruity which we find so funny. David Wiesner takes this revision of the story one step further, playing not only upon the constructs of the story, but story-telling itself.

As The Three Pigs begins, the reader finds himself in familiar territory. The opening pages follow the traditional telling of the story, using the well-known dialogue and basic illustrations. But from the third page Wiesner begins his project of disequilibrium, inverting our expectations as the story quickly becomes undone.

Amidst all the huffing and puffing the first little pig is sent out into the bare reality that exists beyond the frames of the story. As the wolf seeks to come to grips with this unexpected twist, the pig explores the malleability of a world not controlled by a narrator. He and his porcine companions move in and out of various stories, disrupting the plots and giving Wiesner the chance the employ various styles of illustration.

When outside the story, the little pigs no longer conform to the mores of fairy tale characters. They revert to four feet and their speech moves from rhyme to a mundane vernacular. While the lacklustre dialogue shows Wiesner’s relative weakness as a writer, this is certainly compensated for by the wonderful artwork.

The Three Pigs is an invitation to imagination. It shows how all stories are creations of worlds and we can place our own stories within an existing genre, or we can create a genre with its own limits. Our imaginations can run as wild as the three little pigs do.

But it is also true that this view of the fluidity of reality has a risk of becoming anarchic. We can see this in postmodern thought that claims our language and culture create for us false, or at least subjective, realities in which we live. Like the characters in stories we assume what we experience is absolute only because we never experience anything different. But viewing reality as as blank and meaningless as the space the pigs enter after leaving the story, leads to a grim Nihilism. There is no goodness to value, no explanation for evil and no purpose for our lives. In the case of story-telling, anarchy is also unengaging.

The Three Pigs avoids this end in three ways. Firstly, anchoring it in a familiar tale gives us a sense order. Secondly, by showing that when the pigs leave their story they enter a world that is, in some ways, more tightly bound. They become more like real pigs, walking on four legs and without the use of fingers. Their freedom is still constrained. And, lastly, they quickly lose interest in freedom and choose to return to their own old story (albeit with new means of resisting the wolf). The story ends with the pigs welcoming those enduring, story-book lines, ‘they all lived happily ever after’.

Roxaboxen (Picture Books #1)

Over the next little while I am going to be doing a series of posts on some of my favourite picture books. Some from my childhood and others I have discovered more recently.

Alice McLerran – Roxaboxen (illustrated by Barbara Cooney, Puffin Books, 1991)

There across the road, it looked like any rocky hill –
nothing but sand and rocks, some old wooden boxes,
cactus and greasewood and thorny ocotillo –
but it was a special place.

‘Roxaboxen’ is what the children named that hillside in Yuma, Arizona and under the influence of their imaginations it became a bustling marketplace and town, a wilderness and a battleground. Salvaging wooden crates and pieces of glass they created their own city to rival the one in which their parents went to work.

It is a beautiful story of community and childhood play and McLerran writes with a crisp matter-of-factness which captures perfectly the serious nature of a childhood game:
Everybody had a car.
All you needed was something round for a steering wheel.
Of course, if you broke the speed limit you had to go to jail.

The story closes with the children, now grey-haired grandparents, remembering Roxaboxen. Small objects would bring to mind the grand exploits of their childhood and that rocky hillside, now deserted, was still a special place. When I was read the story growing up I always took this as a kind of promise that my own escapades – protecting the compound with my teddy bear sidekick, or building dinky towns in the dirt for my matchbox cars – were also of real importance. It probably never occurred to me that the book was also written for grown-ups, as a validation of their nostalgia (which is how I now read it).

The irony in the story is that while the grown-ups look back longing to relive those childhood days, the games they played as children all expressed a desire to be grown-up. They built houses, drove cars and sold wares, feeling that they were doing something equivalent to their parents’ daily dues. Of course, there were differences. You had to earn currency at Roxaboxen, but ‘everyone had plenty of money’. Roxaboxen had a cemetery ‘but the only grave in it was for a dead lizard’. Roxaboxen had bandits, but at the end of play they would remove the hankies from around their faces and become your brothers again. It reflects the beautiful naivety of childhood where failure can only be fleeting.

The story is perfectly complemented by Barbara Cooney’s illustrations, which balances the coloured landscape with the doll-like figures scampering over the hills. Their games look like such fun it’s a wonder they haven’t made a video game of Roxaboxen so today’s children might experience something like it.

Wendell Berry: Selected Essays

Standing on Earth: Selected Essays by Wendell Berry (Golgonooza Press, 1991)

I am hopelessly urbanised. So much so that I don’t think I could ever flourish in the country. But some part of me wishes this otherwise. Among my favourite writers is Thomas Hardy, who never forgave the Industrial Revolution for trespassing on those idyllic Wessex hills. And I feel a similar bond with the novelist, poet and farmer Wendell Berry. This collection of essays may have revealed just how distant I am from his agricultural experience, but I also felt its tug at my heartstrings, calling me back to the land.

The essays are selected from four volumes published between 1977 and 1987, but I found them extraordinarily contemporary (perhaps simply because I am too unaware of developments in my lifetime). Yet, others may find them like something from a bygone era. For instance, in the essay ‘Horse-Drawn Tools & the Doctrine of Labor Saving’ Berry provides a defence for his decision to purchase a team of horses rather than a tractor. His rationale is that not only do horse-drawn tools do a better, albeit slower, job, but they also have value over the tractor precisely in their failure to ‘save’ labour. The corporate definition of labour saving, Berry argues, fails to recognise it as human labour which necessarily has social and cultural significance. The aim of much technology, he contends, is not ‘to “save” labour at all, but to replace it, and to displace the people who once supplied it’ (p. 71) with grim consequences for rural communities.

Despite initial appearances (given, for example, in his sympathy for the Amish way of life), Berry is neither unable nor necessarily unwilling to adapt to change; rather his qualm with technology is its failure to adapt to the ecological reality. In our consumer society, technology has served to disconnect people like myself from the land and natural cycles and accept social breakdown and waste on an epic scale.

An example of this is our perception of the body as ‘a consumer of food’. He writes,
we reduce the function of the body to that of a conduit which channels the nutrients of the earth from the supernatural to the sewer. Or we make it a little factory which transforms fertility into pollution – to the enormous profit of ‘agribusiness’ and to the impoverishment of the earth. (pp. 62-3)
It is our very definition of the products of our body as ‘waste’ that leads to our misuse of them.
The technological purification of the body [by the flush toilet and water-borne sewage system] requires the pollution of the rivers and the starvation of the fields. It makes the alleged offensiveness of the body truly and inescapably offensive and blinds an entire society to the knowledge that these ‘offensive wastes’ are readily purified in the topsoil – that, indeed, from an ecological point of view, these are not wastes and are not offensive, but are valuable agricultural products essential both to the health of the land and to that of ‘consumers’. (p. 63)

After reading this I recognised the negligent ignorance in which I exist as a lifelong city dweller. I thought of the service I could regularly provide to lemon tree in my parents’ backyard and I even considered whether I might start making greater use of my balcony for the recycling of the nutrients I consume. However, I was forced to admit that, notwithstanding my noble intentions, my neighbours and building manager would likely object to such actions. In my current residence, it would be impossible for my body to be anything other than a waste factory.

This, Berry contends, is precisely the problem. The misuse of energy is not only pervasive in our societies, but built into its structure. Our urban centres are designed to consume, which in turn maximises demand and production and fuels economic growth. However, Berry argues that
it is easy to produce examples of nonindustrial human cultures in which waste was or is virtually unknown. All that is sloughed off in the living arc of a natural cycle remains within the cycle; it becomes fertility, the power of life to continue. (p. 79)
In contrast, our energy industry,
is not a cycle, but only a short arc between an empty hole and poisoned air. And farming, which is inherently cyclic, capable of regeneration and reproducing itself indefinitely, becomes similarly destructive and self-exhausting when transformed into an industry…industrial agriculture is forced by its very character to treat the soil as a ‘raw material’, which it proceeds to ‘use up’. (p. 79)

Wendell Berry argues that societies can only maintain their health by imposing limitations upon themselves, rather than trying to reach the limits of output. Although he reaches this point from a biblical framework, he sees this code equally expressed in other religious thought.

When he moves away from topics of ecology and industry I found him someone less engaging, but he is certainly a careful and wise social critic, and, as one might expect from a poet and literary critic, a clear and eloquent communicator.

Youth

J.M. Coetzee – Youth (Secker & Warburg, 2002)

In London, bustling and cosmopolitan London, a city of writers, painters and artists, in his bare, decrepit room is the lonely youth. It’s too harsh to call him South African, because he’s left that place behind. He has no more need for his old land, his old language, his old family, because he is in London.

In Youth Coetzee retells his exodus from South Africa and his years studying and working as a computer programmer in something not quite autobiography. We watch his younger self’s desperate attempts to throw away the heritage he was born with and forge a new identity in the pattern of a great European writer. But his pursuit of manhood and artistic fulfilment seems unavoidably compromised by a disinterested crowd, financial demands and his own mediocrity.

Coetzee captures well the disappointment of accepting the world as it is, including one’s own limitations. For the young Coetzee it was seen in the choice between uninspiring computer programming and the life of an artist:
The more he has to do with computing the more it seems to him like chess: a tight little world defined by made-up rules, one that sucks in boys of a certain susceptible temperament and turn them half-crazy, as he is half-crazy, so that all the time they deludedly think they are playing the game, the game is in fact playing them.
It is a world he can escape – it is not too late for that. Alternatively he can make his peace with it, as he sees the young men around him do, one by one: settle for marriage and a house and car, settle for what life realistically has to offer, sink their energies in their work. He is chagrined to see how the reality principle operates… (p. 149-150)

Of course, there is irony in the fact that while most people do have to settle for reality, Coetzee did in fact go on to become a renowned writer and Nobel laureate. But Youth gives few indications of this future success.

Rather, the Coetzee we are shown is almost entirely unimpressive and the author seems determined to undermine our sympathy for him. Although we recognise many of the experiences of the youth, the reader is made to feel distant from him, with a bare, third-person narration. We have little inclination to forgive his maltreatment of women, his insensitivity towards his mother and his egocentrism. I don’t know whether this was Coetzee intention, but in each of these aspects the youth seems reminiscent of Mersault from The Stranger. As in Camus’ novel, it is precisely those feelings of repulsion and detachment from the protagonist that enables the reader to experience their sense of being out of place.

All That I Am

Anna Funder – All That I Am: A Novel (Penguin, 2011)

Before the annexations and blitzkriegs, before concentration camps, ‘final solutions’ and Zyklon B, respectability and national loyalty determined that one should quietly acquiesce to the rule of the Nazi party. Their colours had been shown, but few foresaw their ruthless ambition and iron determination to actualise them. Among those who did were a band of left-wing dissidents. These writers and activists opposed the new regime and were forced to flee Germany. They found a fragile refuge in London where, continuing their work, they evaded both agents from home and from the hostile British authorities.

Unlike most historical fiction, All That I Am not only concerns historical figures but is narrated by them. Alternative chapters come from the first-person perspective of Ernst Toller, a famous German playwright, and a Jewish photographer named Ruth Becker (who Funder knew personally), both part of the dissident group during Hitler’s rise. The story is told through a series of memories. As the narrators navigate their twilight years an object or a feeling will pull them back to their youth and they are quickly lost in their recollections. Narrating through real people is far more difficult than placing a fictional narrator in the historical setting, and although not seamless this is the best I have seen it done since I, Claudius.

Through Funder’s careful writing the simple, everyday observations of life appear just as remarkable as the shocking events of those troubled times. The characters aren’t just actors in history, but daughters, husbands, employees and cat-owners, people consumed and shaped by the relationships around them. Because of this, the reader feels their apprehension when footsteps follow behind and their relief when they fade away. You come to understand that the frustration of being an unwelcome outsider in a foreign country, surrounded by bewildering manners and customs and reduced to the incompetence of a child, can be as great an ordeal as being targeted made a fugitive for your political ideals.

All That I Am is a tribute to these great men and women who risked their lives, faced overwhelming odds and achieved remarkable things. History is always selective in what it tells and rather than allow these heroes to disappear so soon down the forgotten crevices Funder writes them back into our memory (just as Toller is compelled to rewrite his memoirs to preserve the life of Dora, his co-worker and lover). But the novel also seeks to demonstrate what we might call the banality of heroism. Rather than descending into hagiography, Funder repeatedly lays the stress on the private lives of the characters, where they remain fearful, needy, insecure and even callous or cruel. Toller and Ruth are both seen as lonely souls looking back on their life with regret, seeking understanding and forgiveness rather than applause.

Funder’s previous book, Stasiland, was an exciting and jaw-dropping non-fiction reflection on life in East Germany. While insightful, All That I Am often lets the political events fade into the backdrop and it can be hard to discern fact from embellishment, so it doesn’t produce the same effect as Stasiland. But as a first novel it is certainly worthy of the praise it is receiving.