July 7, 2018

words so terrible you heard them with your whole body

And there was a voice above the firmament that was over their heads; when they stood, they let down their wings. She didn’t want to know what the verse meant, what the creatures were. She knew there were words so terrible you heard them with your whole body. Guilty. And there were voices to say them. She knew there were people you might almost trust who would hear them, too, and be amazed, and still not really hear them because they knew they were not the ones the words were spoken to.

From Lila by Marilynne Robinson.

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July 6, 2018

no need for any of it

Why did they waste candles on daylight? Him standing there, talking about people dead who knows how long, if the stories about them were even true, and most of the people listening, or trying to listen. There was no need for any of it. The days came and went on their own, without any praying about it. And still, everywhere, meetings and revivals, people seeing the light. Finding comfort where there was no comfort, just an old man saying something he’d said so many times he probably didn’t hear it himself. It was about the meaning of existence, he said. All right. She knew a little bit about existence. That was pretty well the only thing she knew about, and she had learned the word for it from him. It was like the United States of America—they had to call it something. The evening and the morning, sleeping and waking. Hunger and loneliness and weariness and still wanting more of it. Existence. Why do I bother? He couldn’t tell her that, either. But he knows, she could see it in him. Why does he want more of it, with his house so empty, his wife and child so long in the ground? The evening and the morning, the singing and the praying. The strangeness of it. You couldn’t stop looking. He would walk up the hill to that sad place and find them all covered in roses. If he knew, and if he didn’t know, who had made them bloom that way, he would think it was strange and right. There was no need for roses.

From Lila by Marilynne Robinson.

July 6, 2018

transform all the old love and make its relics wonderful

How could she know what he had sanctified to that child’s mind with his stories, sad stories that had made them laugh. …As if all that saving and keeping their father had done was providence indeed, and new love would transform all the old love and make its relics wonderful.

From Home by Marilynne Robinson.

June 21, 2018

the future is eating us alive

That’s the most interesting question in the world. How big is big enough? The Amish pretty much have solved it. Industrialism doesn’t propose a limit. David Kline, my friend, went to a Mennonite meeting. They were asking what community meant. And he said, “When my son and I are plowing in the spring, we rest our teams at the highest point on our farm. And from there we can see 13 teams at work. And I know that if I got sick or died those 13 teams would be at work on my farm.” Rightness of scale, you see, permits obedience to the Gospel’s Second Law.

…I like my physical life. I mean, I’m committed to live my physical life. I want to live my actual life, my body’s life, and die my body’s death with as little interference as possible. But I think that life for most people is getting less physical all the time. There’s a sort of death wish now operating among us. The future is eating us alive. If you’re obsessed with the future you can’t live in the present, and the present is the only time you’re alive. If you’re alive in the present, however bad the world is, goodwill still has scope to operate. You still can do a little something to make it better. Now is when the butterflies are flying and the flowers are blooming and the people who love you are putting their hands on you. That’s where it’s happening.

…If the teacher thinks that the place she’s teaching in is a good and worthy place then certain things are going to be communicated. “I’m teaching you things that could make you a powerful person. I don’t want you to start from here and get an education and come back here and desecrate this place.” Now most teaching has been done by people who think, “Coming from here is no advantage. I’m trying to give you something that will help you go to a better place.” Nowadays we easily forget that education makes bad people worse. But if you’re teaching for homecoming you can’t forget it.

Wendell Berry in this interview.

June 10, 2018

I could make anything a body wanted

Yesterday, we finished listening as a whole family to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain. It was a car trip listen, and we drove by the Mark Twain House near Hartford while hearing the last chapter. It was my second reading, and it seemed a rather bleak double satire (on both the “old” and the “new” England) by this Mississippi River boy. The critique of old England is bitter and relentless. However, I’m not sure that Yankee New England fairs any better in the end. For example, it’s hard not to read this passage without a hint of satirical critique against the spirit of “Yankee ingenuity.”

I am a Yankee of the Yankees—and practical; yes, and nearly barren of sentiment, I suppose—or poetry, in other words. My father was a blacksmith, my uncle was a horse doctor, and I was both, along at first. Then I went over to the great arms factory and learned my real trade; learned all there was to it; learned to make everything: guns, revolvers, cannon, boilers, engines, all sorts of labor-saving machinery. Why, I could make anything a body wanted—anything in the world, it didn’t make any difference what; and if there wasn’t any quick new-fangled way to make a thing, I could invent one—and do it as easy as rolling off a log.

In the moments after the end of the book, Nessa (14 years old) said wanted to name her first baby girl “Hello Central” in honor of Sandy and her child. Nessa was really sad to think of this mother and child abandoned in the sixth century as a victim of the dueling powers of Merlin’s magic verses the Yankee’s modern science. Both kids had some very thoughtful questions about the story. Merlin’s old sorcery powers were mocked throughout, but they seemed to come out decisively ahead in the end (banishing the Yankee through time and getting a grizzly “last laugh”). Twain was a wild and tragic fellow.

June 7, 2018

more tracks than necessary

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front
by Wendell Berry

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion — put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

“Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” from The Country of Marriage, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. 1973.

June 7, 2018

cowled with smoke and starred with lamps

Modern Elfland
by G.K. Chesterton

I cut a staff in a churchyard copse,
I clad myself in ragged things,
I set a feather in my cap
That fell out of an angel’s wings.

I filled my wallet with white stones,
I took three foxgloves in my hand,
I slung my shoes across my back,
And so I went to fairyland.

But lo, within that ancient place
Science had reared her iron crown,
And the great cloud of steam went up
That telleth where she takes a town.

But cowled with smoke and starred with lamps,
That strange land’s light was still its own;
The word that witched the woods and hills
Spoke in the iron and the stone.

Not Nature’s hand had ever curved
That mute unearthly porter’s spine.
Like sleeping dragon’s sudden eyes
The signals leered along the line.

The chimneys thronging crooked or straight
Were fingers signalling the sky;
The dog that strayed across the street
Seemed four-legged by monstrosity.

‘In vain,’ I cried, ‘though you too touch
The new time’s desecrating hand,
Through all the noises of a town
I hear the heart of fairyland.’

I read the name above a door,
Then through my spirit pealed and passed:
‘This is the town of thine own home,
And thou hast looked on it at last.’

June 7, 2018

fight magic with magic

Fairy-tale Logic
by A.E. Stallings

Fairy tales are full of impossible tasks:
Gather the chin hairs of a man-eating goat,
Or cross a sulphuric lake in a leaky boat,
Select the prince from a row of identical masks,
Tiptoe up to a dragon where it basks
And snatch its bone; count dust specks, mote by mote,
Or learn the phone directory by rote.
Always it’s impossible what someone asks—

You have to fight magic with magic. You have to believe
That you have something impossible up your sleeve,
The language of snakes, perhaps, an invisible cloak,
An army of ants at your beck, or a lethal joke,
The will to do whatever must be done:
Marry a monster. Hand over your firstborn son.

May 29, 2018

the pebble is a perfect creature equal to itself

Here is the original English translation (1968) of Zbigniew Herbert’s poem “Kamyk” by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott:

the pebble
is a perfect creature
equal to itself
mindful of its limits
filled exactly
with a pebbly meaning
with a scent that does not remind one of anything
does not frighten anything away does not arouse desire
its ardour and coldness
are just and full of dignity
I feel a heavy remorse
when I hold it in my hand
and its noble body
is permeated by false warmth
—Pebbles cannot be tamed
to the end they will look at us
with a calm and very clear eye

Notes: Peter Dale Scott later recommended that the poem’s first line should have been translated “a pebble…” instead of “the pebble” and also that the closing line should read: “with an eye calm and very clear.” This poem can also be found online in a slightly differing translation in which “stone” replaces “pebble” and the origin of which I cannot find.

For another beautiful poem about stones, see this poem by Charles Simic.

 

May 26, 2018

Building Folklore Wealth

Stable, local, human communities accumulate folklore over generations. This is a form of wealth that we are no longer capable of producing, valuing, or enjoying. Modern nation-states* no longer have the stable local communities or the value systems required for folklore creation and maintenance. It is well worth considering the many profound values offered by a growing store of folklore as well as the way that a human life is shaped when it is lived in pursuit of this form of wealth.

Folklore cannot be produced and maintained by any single person, no matter how powerful or gifted they are. It requires whole human communities with each of these qualities:

  1. Frequent and reliable communication patterns sustained over a defined geographical region for many generations.
  2. Significant leisure time for all classes or subsets of the community to spend listening to and telling stories together in person so that deep repositories of oral tradition are continually being created and maintained.
  3. Strong shared purposes and desires across all classes or subsets of the community so that heroes, villains, and all other story elements will be identified within the community, translated into folklore and/or mythology and carry these clusters of meaning and value onward for generations of people who will hear and retell the stories.

Human communities can value and produce many other types of stories, such as literature (great books) or entertainment (theater and film). However, folklore is radically different from even the most beloved classics of a literary culture, whether we are talking about the sacred writings of a community or simply the “great books” that become enshrined within the halls of education. Even more removed from folklore are the pop songs, comic books, TV shows, and blockbusters of our modern entertainment industry (or the opera, ballet and theater of earlier eras). While some communities within our modern society still have urban legends that develop, almost all other forms of story-telling or myth-making have been commodified or monetized by TV, Hollywood, Disney, celebrity culture, or pulp fiction.

It may be possible for human societies to maintain and enjoy a strong folklore heritage while also enjoying vibrant literary and entertainment cultures. However, there are clearly some elements of mutually exclusive conditions required for communities to consistently develop and enjoy folklore vs. blockbuster films. These different mediums require radically different forms of attention and human interaction, and they also directly compete for limited quantities of leisure time.

The products of folklore have been made very profitable by companies such as Disney and many others. However, folklore as a living practice within a community has never been connected to money or power. Can you imagine the originators of Br’er Rabbit or Robin Hood stories giving a fig about the opportunity to influence the high and mighty of this world? There is a kind of wealth reflected in these stories that cannot be easily given to anyone or easily taken away. Ever since the rise of capitalist economies, we no longer measure wealth in the most substantial or communal of categories. In a strange and vivid little image of what we have lost, C.S. Lewis laments that our society will never see “Cabinet Ministers leaving sandwiches in Hyde Park as an offering for the Dryads” (source here). Imagine if all economic and political energies focused entirely on goals such as:

  1. Depth and vibrancy of local folklore traditions.
  2. Rich genetic variety within local strains of produce or livestock.
  3. Or any quantifiable measures of shared spiritual lives and collective empathy across various classes and subcultures within local communities.

Societal values or objectives such as these would radically raise the bar on our ideas of progress and would require very different personal and collective commitments and decision-making criteria. Of all such standards, measuring the health of a rich local folklore is arguably the most meaningful single indicator of a society’s true wealth. This is because the growth of folklore and myth require so many other factors in order to develop: many generations of stable food supplies, predictable family structures, substantial leisure time spent physically together swapping stories that reflect and maintain shared value systems across various social classes.

We have lost the capacity to create and to enjoy folklore because, for many generations now, we have relied upon the written word and because we have pursued money over the ties of family and local community. Our loss of substantial time spent together in conversation and story telling has radically changed the nature of human society and individual experience. After many centuries of writing (and now well beyond the printed age and into the digital age), it is impossible for us to understand the extent of our isolation from each other and from the physical places that we inhabit. When one generation after another spends countless hours standing barefoot on the same piece of land and when these generations of barefoot people sit around the same fire to share the sames stories, the people, their land, and their stories all become one seamless fabric. This is a fabric that our fathers and mothers were torn out of a very long time ago. Writing as a tool for money, power, comfort, and entertainment has come to dominate our human interactions in ways that we cannot see or evaluate from the inside. About 2400 years ago, Socrates made this prophetic point in his dialogue with Phaedrus (written down, ironically, by Plato):

The parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the usefulness or uselessness of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of the written alphabet, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to letters a quality that they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. [That] which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality. [Translation by Benjamin Jowett (with a few of my own minor clarifications into more contemporary language).]

What would it look like to live a life committed to the restoration of stable local cultures capable of multi-generational creation and enjoyment of rooted oral traditions? I have no idea. It is almost certainly not a goal that any one individual could take up in any meaningful way. It is a goal that would require a community and the commitment of multiple generations. Nonetheless, I pray for the vision to somehow be included in such a work. I have no expectation of being able to see the thing of which I wish to be a part, but I pray that I might still, in some small way, be a part of it. This is not an opposition to writing or to the digital age. I love both alongside oral culture without any sense of contradiction. However, I am saying that our sense of value, proportion and priority are tragically damaged and distorted in ways that must be healed.

There is one more aspect to this vision that is even much more difficult to articulate. God’s entire creation participates in God’s own bright and fiery life of love, and all of creation also participated in human life as human life is made in the very image and likeness of God. I believe that spirits frolic, dance, and sing with every star, sand grain, leaf, ant, and asteroid in this cosmos-temple. When Job 38:7 speaks of how “the morning stars sang together,” I take that very literally.

God made many kinds of living creatures, and they all can be blessed (or harmed) by the life that humans take up (or forfeit) as God’s image bearers and priestly officiants within this loud and swirling temple throng that inhabits God’s creation. These spirits are typically not concerned or obligated in any conscious way by human life (or even by the life of God their maker, given that we’re in a fallen world). Often the disinterest that these other creatures show toward everything that we think is central to our human lives is the greatest gift that these creatures can offer to us. In any case, consciously interested in humanity or not, these many spirits are all bound up with us mortals in ways that run deeper than anything known by even the holiest saints and angels.

Humanity has always known these truths within our oral traditions. We inhabit a world of many spirits, and we know this very well within our folklore. Distinguished Notre Dame professor and world-renowned philosopher David Bentley Hart wrote about this world of spirits in “The Secret Commonwealth” (First Things, 2009). He describes a fabled pamphlet publication by a Scottish Presbyterian minister and Bible translator Robert Kirk (1644 to 1692). In addition to being a scholar trained at St. Andrew’s and Edinburgh, a master of Celtic tongues, and the author of the Gaelic Psalter of 1684, Reverend Kirk also possessed the second sight and wrote a short treaties on “The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies” (which I have read for myself). David Bentley Hart writes:

One aspect of Kirk’s investigations I find especially interesting is the purely autochthonous quality he ascribes to the second sight. Once removed from his native heath, says Kirk, a prophet loses the virtue that allows him to see the other world, and he becomes as blind to preternatural presences as any other mortal. He is like Antaeus raised up off the earth. Not only is every fairy a genius loci, every seer is a vates loci with a strictly limited charter. And the reason it pleases me to learn this is that it allows me to offer a riposte to an English friend of mine “a famous theologian whose name (which is John Milbank) I should probably withhold” who has quite a keen interest in fairies, and who regards it as a signal mark of the spiritual inferiority of America that its woods and dells, mountains, and streams, are devoid of such creatures.

In proof of this, he once cited to me the report of some English traveler in the New World who sent back a dispatch from Newfoundland (or somewhere like that) complaining that there were no fairies to be found in these desolate climes. But, ah no, I can say (having read Kirk), of course some displaced sassenach wandering in the woods of North America would be able to perceive none of their ethereal inhabitants, as any faculty he might have had for seeing them would have deserted him. And, anyway, anyone familiar with the Native lore of the Americas knows that multitudes of dangerous and beneficent manitous haunt or haunted these lands. They may lack some of the winsome charm of their European counterparts, not having been exposed to centuries of Greco-Roman and Christian civilization; and they may therefore be somewhat more Titanic than Olympian in their general character and deportment; but they certainly do not merit disdain or a refusal to acknowledge their existence.

Kirk and Hart both make it clear that a profound relationship exists between the land that human families inhabit and the storied forms of life that share this land with us. Beyond this, Hart strongly suggests that human communities somehow “domesticate” or otherwise influence the local spirits and stories over the course of generations. Hart says that North American fairies “may lack some of the winsome charm of their European counterparts, not having been exposed to centuries of Greco-Roman and Christian civilization.” This may include some cultural snobbery but may also be mixed with a profound understanding of the many New Testament passages such as 1 Peter 3:22 that speak of the ways in which all “angels, authorities, and powers have been made subject to [Jesus Christ].” Paul and all of the apostles inhabited a world permeated by diverse spirits and all deeply intertwined with the will of God for His image bearers.

As someone who grew up in a largely pagan and premodern Asian culture (throughout my childhood listening to shaman and séances working and chanting loudly through the night while following the water buffaloes through the rice paddies and swarms of dragonflies by day), I know just a little about oral cultures. The oldest son of a Presbyterian minister, I’ve ended up standing (for as many holy day as I can manage) within an Eastern Orthodox Church reciting very long verbal liturgies that have developed very slowly over millennia.

I certainly have no idea what I am doing or how to apply any of this for anyone else. However, it has been a great personal blessing to me as I have seen pieces of the human story come together for me more clearly across time and place. Therefore, I’ve shared these thoughts, and I do commend a life lived with a desire to grow in respect for stories and for their vital places within specific human communities.

Peter Pan is not an example of folklore (but of literary culture), and Peter is wrong when he claims: “Every time a child says, ‘I don’t believe in fairies,’ there is a fairy somewhere that falls down dead.” However, I do think that every time a family sits down together to the table in their home, there are a few unseen creatures who care enough to pause and to either laugh or cry over every word that is said.

End Notes

* Nation-state: this is a term coined by historians to describe a radical reorganization of human communities within modernity that represented unprecedented power structures and value systems. Historians continue to dispute exactly how nation-states came into existence, but there is wide agreement that nation states represent a cataclysmic and a relatively recent development in the rules and structures by which humans live and work together. In many ways, nation-states throw an invisibility cloak over the systems of empire and economic domination that drive the stories of interactions between human communities across time.

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