I’ve been thinking about Burundi lately. I took this photo up-country, outside of Bujumbura, the capital and only major city in the country. In a blog post I wrote when I was there I said these trees had “no North American correlate.” Now, that probably wasn’t true, but the architecture of these trees–and the total effect when they’re taken together–is alien to the Midwest. And so, after four years spent in Chicago’s familiar landscape, I find myself thinking back to what it felt like to be beneath the trees. One day, perhaps, I will know again.
This quote comes at the end of Rosenblatt’s otherwise excellent Unless It Moves the Human Heart. Like the writing he favors, Rosenblatt’s advice is brief, direct, and unpretentious. The characters he conjures are amiable and their conversation–the substance of the book–is insightful without feeling contrived. One almost forgets one is reading A Book About Writing. Until this quote. Yes, yes–writers today will be forgotten tomorrow. But to suppose that the stature of a Homer or a Milton is the one goal to which writers should aspire is silly. The world needs fine writers, writers who can craft a sentence without embarrassing themselves or the English language. To ask for all writers to aspire to greatness is to ask them not to examine their abilities honestly or to ask most to excuse themselves from the endeavor. There is–it is true–a certain motive force to grand aspirations but it is also true that grand disappointments tend to arrest motion. It would be a pity if, judging themselves unequal to writing worthy of “the silent gratitude of history,” fine writers were to fall silent.
Since January I’ve been working my way through the diaries of Dorothy Day, the founder of The Catholic Worker. The diaries are entitled The Duty of Delight. The entries chronicle the day-to-day trials of living in one of the houses of hospitality Day set up with residents that, on the whole, were not easy to live with: most were transients, many were alcoholics, and a few were mentally ill. Though she’s better known for her public opposition to the American state—in the pages of The Catholic Worker and protests—what’s most distinctive about The Duty of Delight is the difficulty of following Christ in the quotidian. Over and over she writes of the necessity of being forbearing and forgiving, ready to find her own faults before judging those of her often irksome fellow residents. Reading these entries before bed has been a good daily reminder that the difficulty of discipleship consists in its ordinariness. Only when one is obedient in ordinary circumstances, Day’s life suggests, can one pursue truly Christian public action.
About halfway through Les Innocentes there’s a scene in which Mathilde, a French Red Cross student serving a convent of nuns who have been raped by Russian soldiers, is suddenly surrounded by the nuns. Amid the sea of the nuns’ white habits is Mathilde’s face, radiant with the joy of being embraced by these women. In a film as harrowing as Les Innocentes, its a poignant reprieve. The meeting of Mary and Elizabeth comes to mind. Mary, surprisingly, is not mentioned in the film and that omission is mildly disappointing, since the story is so directly concerned with gender and faith. Still, this is a considered treatment of a serious subject. The theologian Robert Farrar Capon once wrote that “When you’ve got two truths that you can’t hold in harmony, you don’t solve the problem by letting one of them go. You hang on tight and hold them both in paradox.” Les Innocentes, to its credit, is mostly content to do this, holding before the audience the horrific act of violence of its premise and the Christianity of its characters. The result is a tense and difficult story that feels all the more real for its contradictions. For those with the eyes to see, there is much to see here.
Henri Degas and His Niece Lucie Degas /Edgar Degas / Oil on canvas / 1876
Unfortunately the subtleties of this piece aren’t obvious on a screen, but each surface in the picture has its own texture. Also, a reminder that you can see this and every other painting in the Art Institute for free if you are an Illinois resident on Thursday evenings. Or you can tag along with me since, thanks to my parents, I have a membership.
So opens Herbert McCabe’s sermon ‘Forgiveness.’ The rest is just as measured and memorable as this first paragraph. It’s the best treatment of the parable of the prodigal son that I have read and, two months into this new year, the piece of writing that’s stuck with me most since reading it last year.
Perhaps I’ll write about it more later but for now an exhortation: Read the rest.
The roads in Burundi are well-paved, for the most part, but narrow. Since much of the country is mountainous this makes for harrowing turns. I remember clutching the seat in front of me—the centifugal force pushing me to the side—as we slid around another semicircle of pavement blind. I felt something similar reading these books. They might be called a story of friendship, of growing up, of romance, of life in Naples in the mid-twentieth century. But all of these descriptions fail to capture the pell-mell energy of the books and the danger one senses waiting behind each turn. The energy and the danger spring from the relationship between the protaganist, Elena, and her best friend, Lina. “Friend” isn’t quite the right word: It feels more like a rivalry sustained by mutual obsession. The two revolve around one another like twin stars. Though the friends drift apart throughout the course of the four novels, fate—and the pull each exerts over the other—always brings them hurtling back toward one another. As a reader it was impossible not to get sucked into the vortex. A year later, I’m not sure I’m out yet.
Yesterday I visited the recently opened Hélio Oiticica retrospective. Oiticica was a Brazilian multimedia artist and “the most influential Latin American artist of the post–World War II period,” as the introduction to the exhibit puts it. Most of his work was political and much of the exhibit has an explicitly political message. Che’s familiar face greeted us in the second gallery; the image at left hung on the adjacent wall.
Not all of it is so serious, though. One section of the exhibit is a recreated beach, complete with sand, birds, and reconstructions of some of the box-like penetrables. Bouncing in the foam pit and trudging barefoot across the installation I felt as if I was transgressing all that I knew about museums. Can I do this? I asked the guard several times. Each time he nodded. Twice he added suggestions: “Feel free to go in there,” he said.
The most effective piece was one which combined play and politics, one of Oiticica’s signature penetrables. It is built like a maze, but with one path. Every few feet the path is broken by a semi-transparent curtain which one must move through to continue. Each section formed by the curtains in front and behind has its own multicolored light-source and a television blaring contemporary advertisements. The curtains block both light and sound, so the transition between sections is as complete as stepping across the threshold of one store to enter another in a mall. The total effect is disorienting. At the end of the maze is one final surprise, engaging one of the remaining senses. But I won’t spoil it. You’ll have to taste for yourself.
I spent half a day in Cleveland recently and I’m very glad part of the time was spent at the (free) Cleveland Museum of Art. The Italian Renaissance room, in particular, was wonderful. On one side were paintings in which the human form appeared bright and idealized. On the opposing were more naturalistic paintings and in the center was this one by Caravaggio.
It’s readily apparent that this is not a depiction of Christ’s crucifixion–the rope on the subject’s arms and his age suggest another crucifixion. I wasn’t familiar enough with Church tradition to identify this as St. Andrew but the description remedied my ignorance. Perhaps because I’m much more familiar with scenes of Christ’s crucifixion, as I looked at this painting I kept comparing it to those I’d seen before. Similarities and dissimilarities are evident at once. St. Andrew, like Christ, is the focus of the piece, and yet one senses that the true center lies outside the frame, as his eyes and the light on the right suggest. In both there is contorted flesh but blood is notably absent from this picture. One’s eyes are drawn immediately to St. Andrew’s right side–the spot where Christ was pierced–only to see that it is unharmed.
Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” As Lent begins I hope to carry this image with me as a reminder that discipleship is loving imitation, and not a replacement, of what Jesus did for us.