Spring is here and summer is fast approaching, so now seems as good a time as any to offer some suggestions for reading, preferably outdoors. Since Rod Dreher’s The Little Way of Ruthie Leminghas been on my mind, I’ll let it inspire my choices. The following works are frequently different, sometimes disagree, but complement Little Way and add other voices to its conversation about place, family, faith, and community.
For fiction lovers, the obvious choice is Wendell Berry, the godfather of literary localism. Remembering is a short work, among his most tightly crafted and multifaceted. But I would more highly recommend any of the novels of Marilynne Robinson (Housekeeping, Gilead, and Home), which dive even deeper into the difficulties of being at-home in the only place one can truly call “home.” Joshua Henkin’s The World Without You tells the story of a family’s grief, divisions, and love in the aftermath of a son’s death in Iraq, and is the best new novel I’ve read in the past year. However, if you still insist on reading something by a Kentuckian who came of age during the 1960s, let me direct you to Gurney Norman’s tale of a very different prodigal son’s return home, Divine Right’s Trip.
A.E. Stallings is a poet who has traveled far from her place of birth, Georgia, to her current home in Greece. Her poems are “small” in their focus but of a tremendous depth and beauty—which they grant to the individual and domestic lives that are frequently their focus. I was delighted to find her most recent volume, Olives, several weeks ago and have been savoring these delicious works since then. (You can sample severalof her works on the First Things website.)
And in case you insist on “true stories” in your summer reading, I’ll repeat my earlier recommendation of Robert K. Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra and add a second title. David Treuer’s Rez Life is part memoir, part study of life of Native American reservations today. The son of a Holocaust survivor who married an Ojibwe woman, Treuer grapples with the personal and societal dynamics that define his relationship with his, and his tribe’s, home.
If you have your own recommendations, thematically related or not, feel free to offer them to fellow readers in the comments section below.
A great deal has already been written about Rod Dreher’s new book, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (including William Doino’s review). I only have two short comments to add to the discussion. The first grows out of a conversation I had with a bookshop owner several weeks ago. On learning of my Kentucky roots, he observed, “I’ve always felt the South has produced the greatest American storytellers because it produces the greatest listeners in the country.” Dreher’s writing in Little Way offers readers the chance to be one of these great listeners. Even after five years as a regular reader of Dreher’s blog, I’ve never heard his voice sound so uniquely and clearly. The effect, most of the time, is the feeling that you’re sitting across a kitchen table, or on some humid front porch, listening to him tell you this story. So maybe the trick of Southern storytelling isn’t just that the author listens, but trusts the reader to listen with just as much focus and delight.
I also had the good fortune to finish Robert K. Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra after a four-month hiatus before picking up Little Way. Massie’s work is at once a biography of the last Russian tsar and his family and a history of the years leading into the 1917 revolution. From the moment of Nicholas’ abdication, however, it transforms into a work almost of a kind with the story Dreher tells about his sister: the tsar and his family meet the new and ultimate crisis of their lives with a preternatural calmness, faith, and even generosity. Still, they differ from Ruthie Leming. There are no stories of this love and grace emanating outward at age five; before the abdication Nicholas and Alexandra frequently (and rightly) come across as unsuited to their positions and power.
This difference lets us see something more: that despite a host of errors and sins, a love for others, a desire to do what is necessary for those others and the Russian people (even when it leads, ultimately, to their own deaths), and a simple, unwavering faith manage to spring from them. One can imagine the figures Massie draws bending to tell their children, as Dreher shows his sister doing, “We’re not going to be mad at God. Okay?”
Finding similarities between the two wasn’t entirely surprising. Last summer, while at work on Little Way, Dreher blogged about the effectNicholas and Alexandra had on him and his gradual understanding of the role, as passion-bearers, the Romanovs fulfill for some Russian Orthodox. These are very different works and very different stories, but Massie’s book offers a complement to The Little Way of Ruthie Leming for those who are interested in finding one. Tendrils of conversation are already growing between them.
It’s easy to read, perform, or teach Othello as Shakespeare’s race play—with, I should say, good cause. In this regard, he may well have written a play that speaks more strongly to today’s America than to his own country. This is also the play of jealousy, possession, and romance’s dark side: If Othello is guilty of anything, it is giving way to a deeply misogynistic violent impulse.
Indeed, approaching Othello as a play about “race” in the abstract obscures the particular historical circumstances of the play’s action: Catholic Venice is at war with the Muslim Ottoman Empire and Othello, the Moorish general, is sent to fortify the key economic and strategic ports of Cyprus. These wars began in the early fifteenth century and continued through the early eighteenth; conflict and contention over Turkish or “European” claims to the island continue to this day.
Shakespeare’s play was mostly likely first performed in 1603, within living memory of the Battle of Lepanto (1571), in which the Catholic Spanish Armada defeated the Ottomans and prevented their influence from advancing through the Mediterranean into Europe. The provocation for the battle? Papal desire to rescue a Venetian colony on Ottoman-controlled Cyprus, the firewall between East and West.
This is also the context for discussing questions of meaning and degree of Othello’s dark skin. He is clearly an ethnic outsider—but whether he is a darker, “African” Moor or a lighter, “Arab” Moor affects the type of outsider he is, as well as the degree and type of suspicion in which he might be held. Even the implications of the most likely reading— that he is of Sub-Saharan, rather than North African, descent—are affected by this.
From this perspective, lighter skin might make him the “wrong” type of non-European. Being clearly outside the ethnic and racial category of a Venetian or European Christian leaves open the possibility—the suspicion—that he may be dangerously close to a particular category of “Other”: the Turks. After establishing Venetian camps, the great general is abruptly recalled from his post as battle nears. He will offer advice from Venice, but the unambiguously Christian Cassio will lead the troops in battle.
Has Othello converted to the religion of Venice? Would such a conversion be accepted by his peers—or is he, like Dreyfus, always under suspicion for being of too international an extraction? In his dying words, Othello casts himself as both Venetian and Turk, the Christian soldier and the “circumcised dog”:
And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban’d Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduc’d the state,
I took by th’ throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him—thus. [Stabs himself.]
These questions aren’t clarified by the text, but operate in a nexus of religious warfare and suspicion with parallels in our own time. We, too, experience religious tensions and heated debates over whether we ought to aid a small, contested, Western enclave challenged by Muslim populations. In reading Othello, we must think not just of race but also of the geopolitics of his day and ours.
A few morethoughts on wonder and contemporary culture, if you’ll bear with me. Wonder as a sought-after object (as opposed to a manner of apprehending what is found) becomes, perhaps, just another way of curing boredom—Walker Percy wasn’t advocating a Russian assault on Greece so that we could better appreciate the Parthenon, but pointing out how that situation, stumbled into, might force one to confront the sight as sublime.
Seeking to experience wonder only or intentionally through the experience of such a threat is dangerous. Jack Gladney, the protagonist of Don DeLillo’s White Noise, sees the experience of mortality—and, ultimately, the committing of acts of violence—as the only ways to escape the mind-numbing boredom of everyday reality. The novel is bleak precisely because he never experiences anything like the sublime—only moments that are too exciting to be called boredom, but which are nevertheless wholly unsatisfying. (The so-called nihilism of Joel and Ethan Coen might be understood as a related phenomenon.) Lighter, more comic versions of this can be found in novels like Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys or Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics, where bored students and academics wreck their lives or the lives of those around them in search of moments of excitement.
The bleakest version of this experience might be best embodied by Heath Ledger’s performance of the Joker in The Dark Knight. “Some people,” the now well-known line goes, “just want to watch the world burn.” The Joker’s plots actively prevent him from being bored—he is what Jack Gladney, absent the realization that committing mindless violence is no way to lead a life, might have become.
The threat of boredom—perhaps a part of the decadence of Nolan’s Gotham—quietly helps differentiate this darkest of our contemporary dark re-boots from a movie like The Wrath of Khan. They don’t share an understanding of what’s at stake. Gotham City is sleek and modern, but doesn’t seem to touch the souls of its inhabitants. Wayne Manor has already burned to the ground; Batman’s “home” is alternately an antiseptic penthouse apartment and the Bat Cave. He is compelled by his knowledge of what he ought to do, but the audience never sees him find beauty in the city or lives he seeks to preserve. Star Trek’s Kirk loses his truest friend; Batman loses his love. But while Kirk is overwhelmed by the extraordinary, human beauty of his friend’s life, Batman has to move toward the Joker in order to stop him. Rather than feeling wonder at a new day, he takes on the mantle of “dark knight.”
My previous post on Star Trek and wonder caused a reader to ask what I thought of the thematic darkness of Deep Space Nine, one of the later Star Trek series. The show takes up war and crime in the Star Trek future to a greater extent than any other—its final seasons are tangled up in a war between the Federation and the totalitarian Dominion. But this show is no darker, I think, than the two darkest Star Trek movies—and all of them manage to preserve wonder. To understand how, it’s worth turning to the best English-language science-fiction self-help book out there, Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos. He poses the following thought experiment:
Imagine that you are a member of a tour visiting Greece. The group goes to the Parthenon. It is a bore. Few people even bother to look—it looked better in the brochure. So people take half a look, mostly take pictures, remark on the serious erosion by acid rain. You are puzzled. Why should one of the glories and fonts of Western civilization, viewed under pleasant conditions—good weather, good hotel room, good food, good guide—be a bore?
Now imagine under what set of circumstances a viewing of the Parthenon would not be a bore. For example, you are NATO colonel defending Greece against a Soviet assault. You are in a bunker in downtown Athens, binoculars propped on sandbags. It is dawn. A medium-range missile attack is under way. Half a million Greeks are dead. Two missiles bracket the Parthenon. The next will surely be a hit. Between columns of smoke, a ray of golden light catches the portico.
Are you bored? Can you see the Parthenon?
This is, in a sense, the situation of the final season of Deep Space Nineand the self-conscious Alamo analogy it constructs. It also helps to explain the end of The Wrath of Khan. Captain Kirk has been feeling his age—and, peering through reading glasses in the midst of a battle, has looked it. But in the movie’s closing moment, he declares, “I feel young.”
He doesn’t feel invigorated by his reunion with a former love or the son he never knew about, by his resumption of command or the thrill of battle. Only coming within seconds of losing all these things allows him to say that he feels young. A life that has become too mundane is threatened—and because of that threat, Kirk, for a moment, is allowed to perceive the sublime.
Maybe Star Trek and other cultural markers weren’t optimistic despite Vietnam, the threat of nuclear warfare, or Carter-era “malaise,” but were hopeful precisely because of them. It’s a wonderful thing to live in an era without existential threats to national survival—but, as Walker Percy knew, it’s very difficult to see the Acropolis when the only thing that threatens it is air pollution. With their darker, more dangerous plots, our contemporary re-boots of famous franchises put us in a position to wonder at what, threatened, we can suddenly notice. The Batman of The Dark Knight is certainly in a position to do this. But while he’s by no means bored, it isn’t at all clear he can see the Acropolis. There’s only the shadow of an object there, just as dark as anything around it.
Saturday evening, burned out and brain-dead after two weeks of grading papers, I plopped down in the living room to take advantage of my weekend by watching the first two Star Trek films. It had been, probably, fifteen years since I watched the 1979Star Trek, and it was every bit as strange as I recalled—even more so at times. But behind that weirdness was a decision to strive for a particular type of science-fiction. Of course it’s weird: there are weird things out there in the universe, the movie says, and can we do anything other than marvel at them? Gene Roddenberry’s future might be one without religion, God, or money—but it is one that hasn’t lost its sense of wonder.
The trailer for the upcoming Star Trek: Into Darkness shows some wonderful-looking shots—the coloring, one might say, is almost wonderful. The new movie, like many Star Trek films before it, takes some kind of imminent threat to the Earth as its plot-line. But where the renegade space probes in I and IV are also invitations to wonder or marvel at something about the universe—even its weirdness, its potential destructiveness—I don’t see a universe that one can wonder at in this (brief) clip: only one that is dark and fearful.
Granted: the Star Trek television shows were sci-fi procedurals and the movies space action flicks. Even the darkest, however, take up this question of wonder. First Contact is an attempt to preserve humanity’s next big leap into space. The crewmembers are suddenly living through the historical events that, to varying degrees, inspired them to go into space. And, at its heart, there’s the question of humanity’s future: some kind of semi-robotic hive mind, or an idealized version of the fallible being capable, even within the mistakes, of wondering and marveling.
The Wrath of Khan, at its end, moves away from the questions of revenge (and even aging) that have driven it and shows the characters standing in awe of the creation of life even in the face of death. Earlier in the movie, Dr. McCoy, that wonderful Percy-ite space traveler, watches a report on a device to create life from lifelessness in a matter of minutes, gasping in horror. The professionalization, the technologizing, the reduction to a series of equations—of Genesis? “The old Earth myth,” he complains bitterly, “said the world was created in six days. Well, move over God—we’ll do it for you in six minutes!” He doesn’t believe the Biblical story—there are no believers left in the Star Trek universe—but it’s clear he’d prefer this account to humanity claiming to have understood life’s origins entirely.
I don’t mean this simply as a complaint that J.J. Abrams has moved the franchise that filled my childhood rather too much away from what I most fondly remember. I see this, in fact, happening in the “darkening” of our re-booted franchises and pop culture more generally. Maybe we’re less optimistic than we were in the late 1960s (though Star Trek was born during Vietnam and the first movie was released late in Carter’s presidency); maybe we’re a society of “realists” now—but I fear that what we mean by that term is a preference for cynicism and pessimism, a failure or inability to wonder at the strange, mysterious, marvelous fact of life, the universe—and, well, everything.
In December, Paul Elie caused a small stir by claiming that “the novel of belief” has disappeared. I don’t want to wade into that debate—for those who missed it, Andrew Sullivan has a good series ofround-upposts—but instead to look at one of the exceptions to Elie’s argument. This disappearance, he wrote, is
a strange development. [. . .] Strange because novelists are depicting the changing lives of American Jews and Muslims with great success.
Elie’s claim applies only to Christian belief. The critic D. G. Myers similarly pointed to Jewish-American fiction as an important exception in his response, referring back to his observation in Commentary last January that,
Just recently, though, the Jewish religion has returned to Jewish fiction, and thank God for that: Jewish identity has its source in a Jew’s religious calling—it’s an app, as the saying now goes, not a feature—which can be reactivated at any moment.
The most compelling characters in Zoe Heller’s The Believers (2009) and Joshua Henkin’s The World Without You (2012) are daughters Rosa and Noelle, each a ba’ala teshuva who “converts” from the secular Judaism of her youth to Orthodoxy. The Believers, as its title indicates, is about belief of all kinds—of what, if not the religious, we will put our faith in. Henkin’s first novel, Swimming Across the Hudson, takes up a related theme as its protagonist grapples with the aftermath of his departure from the modern Orthodox faith in which he was raised.
Even novels that aren’t explicitly about belief have taken to depicting—sometimes in great detail—the lives of traditional believers. The imagined Alaskan Jewish community in Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is defined by the small but visible “Verbover” Hasidic sect. Chabon’s corrupt, conspiring Verbovers are less sympathetic than Heller’s sometimes abrasive but genuinely caring Monsey Orthodox, but in painting his Jewish world Chabon still needs to include the Orthodox.
Fiction isn’t anything so simple or dull as cleverly-written sociology, but demography is one possible cause for this resurgent concern for belief and believers among Jewish-American novelists. Last year’s UJA-Federation New York Jewish Population Survey showed sharp increases among the Orthodox and unaffiliated/secular groups, while Conservative and Reform Judaism continued their long decline. The increase in New York’s overall Jewish population was driven entirely by the growth among the Orthodox, now making up a full 40 percent of New York’s Jewish population—and providing over 60 percent of Jewish children. A more recent survey has confirmed that while New York’s Orthodox neighborhoods are growing, other Jewish neighborhoods are shrinking.
Jewish novelists are, I would wager, no more likely to be traditional believers now than they were a generation ago. Of the three mentioned above, Henkin and Chabon describe themselves as practicing Judaism—but not the Orthodoxy which defines their believers. Yet Jewish life in New York City—which remains (somewhat to the chagrin of this lifelong resident of flyover country) the capital of both American Jewish and American literary life—is increasingly lived in relation to Orthodoxy. Everyone has a frum (religious) cousin and if you think you don’t—the joke goes—then he’s you. Knowing or being related to someone who has turned to traditional Jewish belief and practice is increasingly common. Even, one suspects, among secular literary figures.
And maybe this can shed some light on Elie’s bracketing of Marilynne Robinson and her Iowa pastors. Robinson turns to men who were elderly in the 1950s to address questions of belief; Heller and Henkin turn to contemporary, thirty-year-old women. The contrast is stark, and while I’m no expert on Christian demography, I wonder whether it doesn’t, to some degree, represent the futures of questions of Christian and Jewish belief as viewed from the center of literary New York.