Repetition and remembering with Mary of Bethany

James Tissot (French, 1836-1902). The Ointment of the Magdalene (Le parfum de Madeleine), 1886-1894. Opaque watercolor over graphite on gray wove paper. (Source) *Some Christians over the centuries have identified the unnamed woman in the Gospels’ account as Mary Magdalene, and some have identified Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany.

Sometimes during the days leading up to and including Holy Week, I like to imagine what was happening on each day two-thousand years ago in the life of Jesus.

So what happened today, Saturday?

According to John’s Gospel, “six days before Passover” (12:1) and the day before Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on the donkey (cf. 12:12-15), Jesus came to Bethany and had a dinner with his disciples, Martha, Mary, and Lazarus (whom he had very recently raised from the dead, as told in John 11). At this dinner, Mary “took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment” (12:3).

It’s such a beautiful moment. Mark and Matthew also mention this episode, but seem to place it on Tuesday of Holy Week (more on the chronology here). They identify the dinner as taking place “at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper” (Mk 14:3, Mt 26:6) — perhaps the leper he cleansed earlier as recounted in all three Synoptic Gospels? — and neither Mark nor Matthew identify the woman’s name. Although, ironically, in both their Gospels, Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”

Which it has.

A similar episode of anointing by an unnamed woman occurs in Luke 7:36-50, but not in the context of Holy Week. Rather, this anointing takes place much earlier in Jesus’ ministry, and it is quite different from the anointing in Mark, Matthew, and John. An unnamed “sinful” woman approaches Jesus in the house of a Pharisee and anoints his feet with her tears. When the Pharisee (also, interestingly, named Simon) objects, Jesus tells a parable about two men who owed money to a moneylender, who forgives them both. The one who was forgiven the greater debt loves the moneylender “more,” as Simon begrudgingly admits. Jesus says to him,

“Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”

48 Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”

49 The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”

50 Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Luke 7:36-50

There’s a lot of controversy in biblical circles about how–or whether–these different accounts can be reconciled. Eleonore Stump, in her marvelous work on suffering Wandering in Darkness, suggests that perhaps the woman in both accounts is Mary of Bethany. Her first encounter with Jesus occurs in Luke’s story, where she hears about Jesus and, uninvited, boldly approaches him with tears of love and repentance. Her life is changed forever. She becomes a disciple, along with her sister Martha and brother Lazarus.

Lazarus later dies, and both sisters are devastated. Jesus arrives on the scene late. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died,” they both tell him. Mary, in particular, seems withdrawn in this story–she does not go out to meet Jesus, but only comes when Martha tells her quietly that the Master is asking for her (Jn 11:20, 28-29). Jesus weeps. And then he raises Lazarus after the man has been dead four days, prompting the amazement and adulation of the people and their willingness to sing “Hosannah” the next day on his entry to Jerusalem—and prompting also the Pharisees and religious leaders’ final determination to kill him.

It is in this context that the Saturday before Holy Week dawns, the day before his entry into Jerusalem (just two miles away). And Mary of Bethany at this dinner with Jesus and her brother, newly restored to her, anoints Jesus (once again). Eleonore Stump comments on this passage in a beautiful meditation you should slow down to read:

The wildness in Mary’s actions on the first occasion of her anointing him, in Simon’s house, is still there in this second anointing, after the raising of Lazarus; but it has a new form now. On this second occasion, Mary’s actions are not scandalous. Rather, they express her understanding of Jesus’ plan, her recognition of his love for her, and her love of him in return; and they are set in the context of her ongoing history of relationship with Jesus. Those who know her story, and that must be virtually all those present on this second occasion of anointing, will understand her action as a re-enactment of her first anointing. Her repeating of her original anointing is, therefore, a recommitment to Jesus, and in a deeper way. Mary picks this way of expressing her reaction to his raising of Lazarus because the as-it-were liturgy of the repetition gives weight to her act. The unrestrained abandon she showed in her original anointing had its loveliness, but it had an out-of-control character about it as well. In the second anointing, because she is choosing in quiet to recreate her earlier action, there is not only control but also power behind the unrestrained character of what she does. (366)

I love the solemnity and power that Professor Stump perceives in this second anointing, and her insight that Mary’s act is liturgical. And isn’t that what we do too, during Holy Week? Solemnly and lovingly re-enact those events so dear to the Church’s memory?

Some biblical scholars have also pointed out that this moment is the anointing of Jesus as Messiah (which, as you know, means “Anointed One”), a title he has often resisted to adopt openly up until the moment when the crowds hail him as son of David and king of Israel. His anointing as Messiah is the same as his anointing “for burial”, as Jesus says to Judas and the others to who object to Mary’s prophetic act.

Stump continues,

It is hard to imagine [Mary] being double-minded or uncertain about [Jesus’] love of her after this. […] The surrender of love of her action has an authority about it, as we can recognize by considering how very different the reactions of the onlookers must be this time. The first time Mary anointed Jesus, the other guests must have been a bit afraid of her, wondering what else this crazy woman was likely to do. This time the onlookers will be a little in awe of her. The courage behind her action this time is not desperate; it has strength and discipline in it now. This time the story does not say that she wept when she anointed him. (Ibid)

How beautiful, and how fascinating and human. Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus a second time, just days before his death, in act of gratitude and love and dignity. How moved he must have been. She takes him, and everyone in the room, back to an occasion of profound vulnerability for her, in order to re-enact the most precious moment of her life, in celebration of the miraculous resurrection of her brother and in mysterious anticipation of Jesus’ own death and resurrection.

In this anointing, then, Mary manifests the glory Jesus planned for her, in both senses of glory. Her standing in her community is here the mirror image of what it was when she anointed his feet the first time. And there is now something luminous and great about her. She is very different now from the frightened but fierce, shamed and shameless person she was when she anointed Jesus the first time. Now she is both powerful and lovely. (Ibid)

I would like to think that in modestly attempting to re-enact or at least remember the specific events of these last days in the earthly life of Jesus, we can join Mary of Bethany in honoring him with trust and gratitude and awe.

Teaching in a time of coronavirus

So many of my friends who are teachers are trying to find ways to teach their students well through unfamiliar online platforms, and are rather nervous about doing so. Different schools have different expectations about how you need to manage your time online with students. Some students may not even have internet access at home, or devices that work well with remote learning. And I do not want to be yet another voice pontificating on what you should or should not do–so please take or leave these thoughts as you will.

My background is in high school English literature, so a lot of these thoughts are coming from that experience.

  1. The essentials

There’s nothing like a crisis to get you to focus on what is essential and what is not. A couple of years ago I was asked to help co-teach an Algebra 1 class in March, since sixteen or so of the twenty-four students were failing. We really had to sit down and think about what really matters. What do they need to know in order to have a solid grasp of algebra before the end of the year? What do we need to let go of?

In the time of the coronavirus, this question is all the more poignant. What do kids need to know? What, in your subject, and in an age-appropriate manner, can speak into the abrupt changes in their lives? What wisdom, what love, can you offer?

And what do you have to let go this year? There will be a lot of that.

If you are a science teacher, what things could you be investigating with students that renew and deepen their appreciation of what doctors and medical workers do? In history, what are examples of human beings coming together in remarkable ways to help one another in movements of solidarity and courage?

I’m not saying that you need to bend over backwards in inauthentic ways to make content “relevant”… but, think about how your specific subject area can speak into your students’ lives in this time. I mean, that should always be a question teachers are asking, but the current coronavirus crisis is an opportunity for deeper revelation.

As Flannery O’Connor observed when asked why her characters have to undergo such violent and intense experiences, “It is the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially.”

2. No busy work

Maybe this doesn’t need to be said, but I’m going to say it anyway. The temptation all teachers have at certain times, especially when trying to manage a tricky class situation, is to “keep the kids busy.” There is some merit to this idea (“get to work!” thank you, Harry Wong) … but not much.

The goal is not to lower your standards, but to consider how your assignments are inviting students to spend their time. Are you assigning a project that requires a lot of online research and scrolling? If so, is that the best thing to do right now, when all of your students’ classes are currently conducted online and many people are spending far too much time on the internet scrolling through New York Times articles in order to have a sense of control over an unpredictable and scary situation? (I’m guilty of this, by the way.)

Assigning practice problems (esp. for Math and similar subjects) is often very necessary — we learn by practicing! — but consider how many problems are really needed here.

Really ask yourself: is this just busy work? Will my kids see it as busy work? If I think it’s meaningful and worth doing, how do I help them see that, to the extent that I can?

3. Assignments that lead students away from the computer and towards the people and world around them (with appropriate 6 feet distances!)

As an English teacher, I would be thinking if I were teaching right now, “How could I get my kids to interview their parents or grandparents on pivotal moments in history in their time? How could I encourage them to have meaningful, truth-seeking, and frank discussions that enlarge and deepen their understanding of the past to give them some context and wisdom for the present?”

Maybe, instead of having them type up these interviews, have them do an audio recording of them to minimize screen time.

If they need to do a writing assignment for you, does it HAVE to be typed? Could they write some (shorter) assignments by hand, take a picture of it, and upload it that way? (If their family has only one computer at home but several kids in school, this might be really helpful).

Are there assignments they can do by going outside for walks in their neighborhoods with their family, taking pictures of beautiful things they see?

I’m thinking about those Italians singing out their windows to encourage one another. What are ways my students could make art to add more beauty to the world right now? Could they write music? Poetry? Draw? How might they share their art with you and one another?

How can your class become a place where engagement with the truly and deeply human things is encouraged?

4. Checking in with smaller groups

As a for-credit assignment, make a sign up sheet for them to choose a time to do a short video chat with you once a week (30m or less) in small groups. Depending on how many students you have, a good idea would be to make these smaller chats with 10 students or less, if possible. (When I had 120 students, this would mean 12 different chats a week… that’s a lot. Do what you can.)

These video chats (via Google hangouts or Zoom or whatever) could be opportunities for them to share assignments with you, discuss readings of course… but more importantly it is time for them to see your face, to see that you care for them, that you are involved and engaged.

If your school is trying to have you record lectures and teach that way, talk frankly with your principal about alternatives. Real learning happens in the context of relationships, of real-time interaction. How might you facilitate that with your kids?

5. Be flexible and gentle

Be flexible and gentle– especially with yourself! Just as you would be patient with a student learning something for the very first time, be patient with yourself as you navigate online teaching.

Be honest with your kids — “Hey guys, this is new for me too. We are in this together to see what works and what doesn’t.”

More thoughts to come.

If you are a teacher, what have you been trying? What’s been working well? What hasn’t? Or, if you are a parent, what have you seen your children doing with assignments?

And for all of you who are teachers, trying your best, making mistakes, spending time trying to teach your kids in new and challenging ways, God bless you.

Country Schoolhouse, 1879 By Morgan Weistling

“Courage, dear heart”

I’ve been unsure whether and what to write in the last few days. The temptation to offer uneducated opinions seems to be strong in much of the online community, and I don’t want to add my voice to the noise.

Yet there has been a lot of beautiful communication as well; people offering to help out, teachers offering assistance to parents homeschooling in the coming days, folks eager to make deliveries / shopping runs for older people or others more vulnerable to the illness. It’s good to remember how wonderful human beings can be.

I’m thinking about writing some posts in the next few weeks with ideas/resources for ELA teachers who are transitioning to teaching online, so watch for those and feel free to share with parents or other teachers who might find them useful.

In the meantime, a passage from C. S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader I have always loved, that seems timely. Of course, the situation in the story is by no means an accurate analogy for our situation now — but Lucy’s response feels right. A long excerpt below (Lewis’ works are now in the public domain).

The crew of the ship are headed into a mysterious darkness hovering over the sea:

So the three lanterns, at the stern, and the prow and the masthead, were all lit, and Drinian ordered two torches amidships. Pale and feeble they looked in the sunshine. Then all the men except some who were left below at the oars were ordered on deck and fully armed and posted in their battle stations with swords drawn. Lucy and two archers were posted on the fighting top with bows bent and arrows on the string. Rynelf was in the bows with his line ready to take soundings. Reepicheep, Edmund, Eustace and Caspian, glittering in mail, were with him. Drinian took the tiller.

“And now, in Aslan’s name, forward!” cried Caspian. “A slow, steady stroke. And let every man be silent and keep his ears open for orders.”

With a creak and a groan the Dawn Treader started to creep forward as the men began to row. Lucy, up in the fighting top, had a wonderful view of the exact moment at which they entered the darkness. The bows had already disappeared before the sunlight had left the stern. She saw it go. At one minute the gilded stern, the blue sea, and the sky, were all in broad daylight: next minute the sea and sky had vanished, the stern lantern – which had been hardly noticeable before – was the only thing to show where the ship ended. In front of the lantern she could see the black shape of Drinian crouching at the tiller. Down below her the two torches made visible two small patches of deck and gleamed on swords and helmets, and forward there was another island of light on the forecastle. Apart from that, the fighting top, lit by the masthead light which was only just above her, seemed to be a little lighted world of its own floating in lonely darkness. And the lights themselves, as always happens with lights when you have to have them at the wrong time of day, looked lurid and unnatural. She also noticed that she was very cold.

How long this voyage into the darkness lasted, nobody knew. Except for the creak of the rowlocks and the splash of the oars there was nothing to show that they were moving at all. Edmund, peering from the bows, could see nothing except the reflection of the lantern in the water before him. It looked a greasy sort of reflection, and the ripple made by their advancing prow appeared to be heavy, small, and lifeless. As time went on everyone except the rowers began to shiver with cold.

Suddenly, from somewhere – no one’s sense of direction was very clear by now – there came a cry, either of some inhuman voice or else a voice of one in such extremity of terror that he had almost lost his humanity.

Caspian was still trying to speak – his mouth was too dry – when the shrill voice of Reepicheep, which sounded louder than usual in that silence, was heard.

“Who calls?” it piped. “If you are a foe we do not fear you, and if you are a friend your enemies shall be taught the fear of us.”

“Mercy!” cried the voice. “Mercy! Even if you are only one more dream, have merry. Take me on board. Take me, even if you strike me dead. But in the name of all mercies do not fade away and leave me in this horrible land.”

“Where are you?” shouted Caspian. “Come aboard and welcome.”

There came another cry, whether of joy or terror, and then they knew that someone was swimming towards them.

“Stand by to heave him up, men,” said Caspian.

“Aye, aye, your Majesty,” said the sailors. Several crowded to the port bulwark with ropes and one, leaning far out over the side, held the torch. A wild, white face appeared in the blackness of the water, and then, after some scrambling and pulling, a dozen friendly hands had heaved the stranger on board.

Edmund thought he had never seen a wilder-looking man. Though he did not otherwise look very old, his hair was an untidy mop of white, his face was thin and drawn, and, for clothing, only a few wet rags hung about him. But what one mainly noticed were his eyes, which were so widely opened that he seemed to have no eyelids at all, and stared as if in an agony of pure fear. The moment his feet reached the deck he said:

“Fly! Fly! About with your ship and fly! Row, row, row for your lives away from this accursed shore.”

“Compose yourself,” said Reepicheep, “and tell us what the danger is. We are not used to flying.”

The stranger started horribly at the voice of the Mouse, which he had not noticed before.

“Nevertheless you will fly from here,” he gasped. “This is the Island where Dreams come true.”

“That’s the island I’ve been looking for this long time,” said one of the sailors. “I reckoned I’d find I was married to Nancy if we landed here.”

“And I’d find Tom alive again,” said another.

“Fools!” said the man, stamping his foot with rage. “That is the sort of talk that brought me here, and I’d better have been drowned or never born. Do you hear what I say? This is where dreams – dreams, do you understand, come to life, come real. Not daydreams: dreams.”

There was about half a minute’s silence and then, with a great clatter of armour, the whole crew were tumbling down the main hatch as quick as they could and flinging themselves on the oars to row as they had never rowed before; and Drinian was swinging round the tiller, and the boatswain was giving out the quickest stroke that had ever been heard at sea. For it had taken everyone just that half-minute to remember certain dreams they had had – dreams that make you afraid of going to sleep again – and to realize what it would mean to land on a country where dreams come true.

Only Reepicheep remained unmoved.

“Your Majesty, your Majesty,” he said, “are you going to tolerate this mutiny, this poltroonery? This is a panic, this is a rout.”

“Row, row,” bellowed Caspian. “Pull for all our lives. Is her head right, Drinian? You can say what you like, Reepicheep. There are some things no man can face.”

“It is, then, my good fortune not to be a man,” replied Reepicheep with a very stiff bow.

Lucy from up aloft had heard it all. In an instant that one of her own dreams which she had tried hardest to forget came back to her as vividly as if she had only just woken from it. So that was what was behind them, on the island, in the darkness! For a second she wanted to go down to the deck and be with Edmund and Caspian. But what was the use? If dreams began coming true, Edmund and Caspian themselves might turn into something horrible just as she reached them. She gripped the rail of the fighting top and tried to steady herself. They were rowing back to the light as hard as they could: it would be all right in a few seconds. But oh, if only it could be all right now!

Though the rowing made a good deal of noise it did not quite conceal the total silence which surrounded the ship.

Everyone knew it would be better not to listen, not to strain his ears for any sound from the darkness. But no one could help listening. And soon everyone was hearing things. Each one heard something different.

“Do you hear a noise like . . . like a huge pair of scissors opening and shutting .. . over there?” Eustace asked Rynelf.

“Hush!” said Rynelf. “I can hear them crawling up the sides of the ship.”

“It’s just going to settle on the mast,” said Caspian.

“Ugh!” said a sailor. “There are the gongs beginning. I knew they would.”

Caspian, trying not to look at anything (especially not to keep looking behind him), went aft to Drinian.

“Drinian,” he said in a very low voice. “How long did we take rowing in? – I mean rowing to where we picked up . the stranger.”

“Five minutes, perhaps,” whispered Drinian. “Why?”

“Because we’ve been more than that already trying to get out.”

Drinian’s hand shook on the tiller and a line of cold sweat ran down his face. The same idea was occurring to everyone on board. “We shall never get out, never get’ out,” moaned the rowers. “He’s steering us wrong. We’re going round and round in circles. We shall never get out.” The stranger, who had been lying in a huddled heap on the deck, sat up and burst out into a horrible screaming laugh.

“Never get out!” he yelled. “That’s it. Of course. We shall never get out. What a fool I was to have thought they would let me go as easily as that. No, no, we shall never get out.”

Lucy leant her head on the edge of the fighting top and whispered, “Aslan, Aslan, if ever you loved us at all, send us help now.” The darkness did not grow any less, but she began to feel a little – a very, very little – better. […]

“Look!” cried Rynelf’s voice hoarsely from the bows. There was a tiny speck of light ahead, and while they watched a broad beam of light fell from it upon the ship. It did not alter the surrounding darkness, but the whole ship was lit up as if by searchlight. Caspian blinked, stared round, saw the faces of his companions all with wild, fixed expressions. Everyone was staring in the same direction: behind everyone lay his black, sharply-edged shadow.

Lucy looked along the beam and presently saw something in it. At first it looked like a cross, then it looked like an aeroplane, then it looked like a kite, and at last with a whirring of wings it was right overhead and was an albatross. It circled three times round the mast and then perched for an instant on the crest of the gilded dragon at the prow. It called out in a strong sweet voice what seemed to be words though no one understood them. After that it spread its wings, rose, and began to fly slowly ahead, bearing a little to starboard. Drinian steered after it not doubting that it offered good guidance. But no one except Lucy knew that as it circled the mast it had whispered to her, “Courage, dear heart,” and the voice, she felt sure, was Aslan’s […]

Reading Out Loud

There’s a famous episode in book 6 of the Confessions where Augustine takes special note of the fact that Bishop Ambrose had the habit of reading silently to himself:

But when [Ambrose] was reading, his eye glided over the pages, and his heart searched out the sense, but his voice and tongue were at rest. Ofttimes when we had come (for no man was forbidden to enter, nor was it his wont that any who came should be announced to him), we saw him thus reading to himself, and never otherwise; and having long sat silent (for who durst intrude on one so intent?) we were fain to depart, conjecturing that in the small interval which he obtained, free from the din of others’ business, for the recruiting of his mind, he was loth to be taken off; and perchance he dreaded lest if the author he read should deliver any thing obscurely, some attentive or perplexed hearer should desire him to expound it, or to discuss some of the harder questions; so that his time being thus spent, he could not turn over so many volumes as he desired; although the preserving of his voice (which a very little speaking would weaken) might be the truer reason for his reading to himself. But with what intent soever he did it, certainly in such a man it was good. (Confessions Book VI)

Augustine’s apparent surprise at seeing Ambrose reading without vocalizing–he even spends time speculating as to the reason why–has caused many people to wonder about how people read in the ancient world, and whether or not reading silently was an anomaly. This question seems rather controversial–and perhaps people are misreading Augustine’s surprise in this frequently referenced passage. (Check out this 2015 interview with Daniel Donoghue of Harvard on the subject.)

Others have argued that since Latin (and Greek) did not have spaces between words or punctuation, reading aloud made texts easier to comprehend. I mean, the first line of Virgil’s Aeneid would actually look like this:

ARMAVIRUMQUECANOTROIAEQUIPRIMUSABORIS

Or, in English:

OFARMSANDTHEMANISINGWHOFIRSTFROMTHESHORESOFTROY

Imagine hundreds of lines of that!

The line reads, “Of arms and the man I sing, he who first from the shores of Troy…” For another example, take a look at this beautiful 1,600 year old illuminated manuscript page of the Aeneid digitized by the Vatican:

So you can kind of see that the argument about reading out loud for clarity as your eyes interpret a long series of letters without punctuation or spacing might have some weight.

Whatever the case might have been for the ancients and medievals, it seems that most of the reading we do nowadays is silent. Texting, twitter, and other social media platforms don’t require speaking out loud; nor do they usually involve in-person contact unless you happen to be showing a friend a juicy text you just received from a potential admirer. And even then, I suspect that 70% of the time people usually pass their phones over for the friend to read the text for herself.

I read rather quickly, and reading silently certainly accelerates my pace and allows me to read a lot more. But sometimes I wonder how well I read when I don’t have the demands of vocalizing or listening to others to slow me down.

In my Jane Austen seminar I’ve been reminded again just how delightful it really is to read out loud with others. Austen is more funny when you read her aloud. (So is Flannery O’Connor, by the way; so if you’ve had trouble getting into her stories make sure you’re attempting your best Southern accent with friends.) There’s kind of a social dimension to humor; we are more likely to laugh when we hear others laughing. And I don’t think this is superficial or merely herd instinct or groupthink–I think there are real elements of a text that can come out more clearly in community.

In Austen’s novels themselves you often encounter scenes where characters read aloud to one another: Mr. Collins boring the Bennet family with Fordyce’s Sermons or Henry Crawford charming Fanny Price and the Bertrams with Shakespeare. One thinks also of Marianne decrying Edward Ferris’ lifeless reading of Cowper in Sense and Sensibility:

Oh! mama, how spiritless, how tame was Edward’s manner in reading to us last night! I felt for my sister most severely. Yet she bore it with so much composure, she seemed scarcely to notice it. I could hardly keep my seat. To hear those beautiful lines which have frequently almost driven me wild, pronounced with such impenetrable calmness, such dreadful indifference!

Jane Austen herself, according to John Mullan, seems to have been a bit particular about how to voice each of her characters appropriately. In a fascinating interview you can listen to here, Mullan explains,

There’s quite an interesting, telling complaint in one of Jane Austen’s surviving letters to her sister, Cassandra, that Jane Austen and her mother have just received the first delivery of the first edition of Pride and Prejudice in January 1813, and they’re reading it aloud. She complains that her mother doesn’t make sufficient distinction between the voices of the characters, because the novel is like a play script as well as being a novel, and Jane Austen has written the dialogue in order that you be able to hear and distinguish the character voices and what they’re like from their voices, and she complains that her mum doesn’t quite get it right. So I very much think that reading aloud generated that attention to what literary critics call ‘idiolect’: the way people speak which is singular to them.

Can you imagine Jane Austen reading her newly published work out loud with her family? How wonderful to have experienced that!

When I was teaching high school, especially in the first couple of years, I was afraid to spend time in class reading passages out loud to my students lest they think I was condescending to them or treating them like little kids. But I soon discovered that some of them had never been read to at home, and many of them had trouble reading anything at all. It became clear that if many of them were going to learn how to read better or at least approach challenging works with more open-ness it would require a communal effort.

It took me a while to get the hang of it–my voice had to get stronger–and I had to be willing to take more risks in trying to adopt different voices and tones and pitches. In Huckleberry Finn Twain adjusts the spelling of his words to echo the accents of his characters, so in order to read the dialogue comprehensibly you need to adopt a Southern drawl (which tickled my Louisiana students when they heard their Boston-born teacher attempt it!)

Some of my favorite memories of teaching are the classes I spent reading out loud with my students. We could pause and I could give some explanation or background, they could ask questions about what certain words or phrases meant, and all of us could laugh out loud or gasp or groan together. You could see many of their faces light up as even Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter started to seem a little less laborious.

I was reminded of that experience again in the Austen seminar. I often take on the role of narrator, but I often ask others in the group to take on the speech of Darcy or Elizabeth or Lady Catherine, just as you might when reading a play. And the result is marvelous. Besides discussing the nuances and artistry of a well-written story, sometimes it’s just good to simply sit back and enjoy it together, to let Jane Austen speak for herself.

If you don’t currently have a space in your life where you read literature out loud with others, I highly recommend asking a friend or family member to join you to try it. It’s good for the soul.

Reading Devotions to Grandfather (1893). Albert Anker (Swiss, 1831-1910)

On Laughter in Pride and Prejudice

Austen scholar John Mullan, whose marvelous collection of essays What Matters in Jane Austen? I am reading now, talks about how part of what makes Austen great is that if you pull on a thread in her work, you find fascinating and intricate patterns woven throughout the fabric of her novels.

He says,

One of the special delights of reading Jane Austen is becoming as clever and discerning as the author herself, at least for as long as one is reading. And when you do notice things it is as if Austen is setting puzzles, or inviting you to notice little tricks, which do justice to the small, important complications of her life. Readers of Austen love quiz questions about her novels, but the apparently trivial pursuit of the answers invariably reveals the intricate machinery of her fiction. Are there any scenes in Austen where only men are present? Who is the only married woman in her novels to call her husband by his Christian name? How old is Mr. Collins? […] Every quirk you notice leads you to a design. The boon of Austen’s confidence is that the reader can take confidence too, knowing that if he or she follow some previously neglected thread it will produce a satisfying pattern.

I love this description, and have found it to be surprisingly true. It’s another way of “catching Austen in the act of greatness.”

Here’s one example I noticed (I think Mullan mentioned the topic and I later decided to investigate it):

In Pride and Prejudice, who laughs?

The word “laugh” with all its iterations–laughing, laughs, laughingly–occurs 44 times in the novel. (Smiles are more frequent, occurring 57 times.) What’s intriguing is that the characters who laugh or who talk about laughing the most by far are two that we normally think of as being extremely different people: Elizabeth and Lydia.

Who never laughs? Darcy, predictably (though he smiles). Neither does Jane. Nor Charlotte. Nor Mrs. Bennet, surprisingly, despite her similarities to Lydia. Nor do Mr. Collins and most of the other characters.

Who laughs once or twice? Mr. Bennet, Mrs. Gardiner, Colonel Fitzwilliam, and Caroline Bingley.

Let’s pull on this laughter thread a bit. Why might it matter that both Elizabeth and Lydia are the ones who really laugh in this novel?

Consider this early exchange between Elizabeth and Darcy, after Caroline Bingley asserts that she could never laugh at Darcy, and warns Elizabeth that he is above reproach:

“Mr. Darcy is not to be laughed at!” cried Elizabeth. “That is an uncommon advantage, and uncommon I hope it will continue, for it would be a great loss to me to have many such acquaintances. I dearly love a laugh.”

“Miss Bingley,” said [Darcy], “has given me more credit than can be. The wisest and the best of men—nay, the wisest and best of their actions—may be rendered ridiculous by a person whose first object in life is a joke.”

“Certainly,” replied Elizabeth—“there are such people, but I hope I am not one of them. I hope I never ridicule what is wise and good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies, do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can. But these, I suppose, are precisely what you are without.”

In another scene, Jane says to Elizabeth, in response to her sister’s amusement over her tendency to think well of others, “Laugh as much as you choose, but you will not laugh me out of my opinion.” Elizabeth, at this point in the novel, thinks that Jane is rather naive in her desire to assume the best of people like Mr. Darcy. She finds her sister’s stubborn good-will amusing, and silly.

But Elizabeth’s laughter (as she indicates: “I hope I never ridicule what is wise and good”) is not totally unrestrained. When Mr. Bingley (surprisingly) teases Darcy for his somberness, she is not unkind. “Mr. Darcy smiled; but Elizabeth thought she could perceive that he was rather offended, and therefore checked her laugh.”

Lydia also loves to laugh. After sharing a story about dressing up a servant in women’s clothes as a joke, she tells her sisters, “Lord! how I laughed! and so did Mrs. Forster. I thought I should have died. And that made the men suspect something, and then they soon found out what was the matter.”

Much later, in her letter to her friend explaining her elopement with Wickham, which causes her family such distress and shame, Lydia writes, “You will laugh when you know where I am gone, and I cannot help laughing myself at your surprise to-morrow morning, as soon as I am missed.” She adds, regarding her family, “You need not send them word at Longbourn of my going, if you do not like it, for it will make the surprise the greater, when I write to them and sign my name ‘Lydia Wickham.’ What a good joke it will be! I can hardly write for laughing.”

Lydia, unlike Elizabeth, has no sensitivity at all for the feelings and concerns of those around her and laughs with abandon.

And yet, if you examine more of these examples of Elizabeth and Lydia laughing throughout the novel, you start to realize that both sisters, as different as they are from one another in many respects, share a tendency to enjoy the discomfiture or perceived silliness of others–a trait they also share with their father Mr. Bennet.

He also seems to derive the greatest pleasure from observing human folly. His chief enjoyment in life seems to be observing stupidity in his own wife and children, as Elizabeth comes to realize later with regret: “Her father, contented with laughing at them, would never exert himself to restrain the wild giddiness of his youngest daughters.”

Indeed Mr. Bennet says to Elizabeth towards the end of the novel, after sharing with her a letter from Mr. Collins: “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?”

This is very similar in spirit to what she had said at the beginning of the novel to Darcy: “Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies, do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.” But it is clear by this time that, though Elizabeth still loves to laugh, she has realized that this kind of amusement at the expense of others has its dangers–and even its own kind of viciousness.

Why does this matter? Well– I rather think that Austen likes to employ another technique in her novels: character foils—characters that contrast each other’s qualities in ways that lead the reader to new insights. Obvious examples in P&P include Darcy and his friend Bingley, Elizabeth and Jane, Darcy and Wickham, Lydia and Mary, Mrs. Bennet and Mrs. Gardiner.

The foil dynamic only works, however, if the characters share important similarities as well. I think Lydia and Elizabeth are a less obvious but extremely important example; their love of laughing connects them subtly throughout the novel, but it is the extent of their willingness to be educated in that laughter that sets them apart.

You see this, too, in their attraction to Mr. Wickham. Elizabeth ultimately realizes her feelings for him are superficial, and later that they are bestowed upon a very unworthy object, but Lydia’s affection, like her laughter, is unreflective and self-absorbed. Even after the elopement ordeal and the forced marriage, Lydia returns to her family with her new husband unchanged:

Lydia was Lydia still; untamed, unabashed, wild, noisy, and fearless. She turned from sister to sister, demanding their congratulations; and when at length they all sat down, looked eagerly round the room, took notice of some little alteration in it, and observed, with a laugh, that it was a great while since she had been there.

Just as Mr. Bennet favors Elizabeth, Mrs. Bennet favors Lydia. Both daughters are spirited, sanguine and, arguably, independent—but Elizabeth is willing to suffer the embarrassment and sadness of recognizing her own flaws. She says, famously, “Til this moment I never knew myself!” Lydia, meanwhile, is happy to remain ignorant. Her self-congratulatory laughter rings in our ears as she and Wickham drive away to the north of England.

Austen herself provokes a great deal of laughter in us as we read the novel, but perhaps she is inviting us to learn to laugh not like Lydia or Mr. Bennet out of self-absorption and superiority, but rather like Elizabeth, at ourselves and with others.

In a letter to her aunt in the penultimate chapter, telling of her engagement to Darcy, Elizabeth expresses an interesting change: “I am the happiest creature in the world. Perhaps other people have said so before, but not one with such justice. I am happier even than Jane; she only smiles, I laugh.”

Her laughter now is motivated not by derision or self-satisfaction, but by joy.

Catching Austen in the “act of greatness”

Virginia Woolf, a leader of the Modernist movement in the early 20th century, deeply admired Jane Austen but once quipped “that of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness.”

Why is this?

Well, before we examine that, you might realize that you may feel this way, too, when you pick up one of Austen’s novels for the first time. If your experience of Austen has only been through Keira Knightley and the 2005 Pride and Prejudice with its lush landscapes and affecting music – or, even better, the award winning BBC 1995 miniseries with its delightful acting, quick banter, and wit, and Colin Firth – you might find when you finally open a copy of the original written work itself that it seems a little… flat.

What is all the fuss about, anyway? How do these novels inspire such adoration and affection? Why do so many people keep making different movie versions of them?

All Austen’s plots certainly seem rather predictable, and their social norms archaic. The average reader would be hard-pressed to discover how they are “ahead of their time.” For those with strong religious convictions and a kind of rosy-eyed nostalgia for earlier ages, you might be disappointed to discover that, despite scholarship around Austen’s exploration of virtue, she never discusses prayer or God, nor do her characters seem troubled by any obviously existential questions. In fact Austen seems to have an unusual kind of restraint or reserve concerning the areas of life most intimate (and important) to us, areas of faith, of loss, of love–though her novels are populated by courtships, clergymen and country estates aplenty.

So, what makes her so wonderful?

I’m unpacking that question myself, and I think there are many ways to answer it. But here’s one “act of greatness” in which we might be able to catch her: the ability to reveal the interior lives of her key characters through a technique she was one of the earliest writers to master. It’s called free indirect discourse.

Technically, free indirect discourse occurs when certain words / phrases / clauses that are part of a third-person narrative reflect the perspective–and, I would argue, voice–of a particular character.

It’s often best to explain with examples. Here are three I made up that contain basically the same content, but are expressed in different modes of discourse:

Direct discourse:  She said, “I love Mr. Darcy—his quiet seriousness, his desire to do what is right—oh, but it’s more than that. How can I express it?”

Indirect discourse: She said that she loved Mr. Darcy because of his quiet seriousness and his desire to do what was right, but admitted there was something more she could not put into words. She wondered aloud how she might express it.

Free indirect discourse: She loved Mr. Darcy—his quiet seriousness, that desire of his to do what is right—yet it was more than that. How could she express it?

In direct discourse, the narrator quotes the character directly—we hear the character’s actual spoken words.

In indirect discourse, the narrator reports to us, indirectly, what the character is saying. But the tone, the voice, the diction of the sentence remains the narrator’s, just the phrasing of words would be if we report to our friend Ashley what our other friend Mark said to us at lunch.

In free indirect discourse, however, the narrator actually slips into the thoughts of the character—almost as Virginia Woolf or James Joyce would in stream-of-consciousness. Indeed, free indirect discourse is a precursor to that modernist technique. In free indirect discourse, the narrator takes on the interior voice of a character.

Another way to think of it is that in direct discourse and indirect discourse, we are being given reports of what a character says– either in his spoken voice or the narrator’s. In free indirect discourse, we are being given access to the character’s unspoken thoughts.

Here’s a real example from Pride and Prejudice, right after Elizabeth unexpectedly runs into Darcy at Pemberly. I will italicize the text where I think the free indirect discourse begins–though of course it is not italicized in the original:

The others then joined her, and expressed admiration of his [Darcy’s] figure; but Elizabeth heard not a word, and wholly engrossed by her own feelings, followed them in silence. She was overpowered by shame and vexation. Her coming there was the most unfortunate, the most ill-judged thing in the world! How strange it must appear to him! In what a disgraceful light might it not strike so vain a man! It might seem as if she had purposely thrown herself in his way again! Oh! why did she come? Or, why did he thus come a day before he was expected?

The exclamation points are a giveaway, which makes this example of the technique all the more clear (the narrator herself never employs them). Obviously, the narrator knows that this meeting is not “the most unfortunate, the most ill-judged thing in the world.” Those are Elizabeth’s (mistaken) thoughts on the matter. The narrator is not quoting Elizabeth either–Elizabeth is not speaking–nor is she merely reporting indirectly her own version of what Elizabeth is feeling (as she does when she says “[Elizabeth] was overpowered by shame and vexation”). Rather, the narrator has actually slipped into the mind of Elizabeth so that we can hear her— so that we can have access to thoughts that otherwise we never would have in a third person account.

Why should we care about this?

Well, Austen is revealing to her readers something I believe had not been really made fully explicit in literature before: the notion of the private self, the hidden self.

Think about it. Achilles is as Achilles does and says, and though we see him moping on the beach and rampaging through Trojan lines we never hear his private thoughts. His lamentations are public–spoken to his mother, his slaves, etc. Most of ancient literature is like that. The closest thing we might come to it prior to Austen is Shakespeare’s monologues (“To be or not to be!”) but even then, these are spoken aloud, performed—and thus rendered in a way that is not really how most of us converse with ourselves.

Elizabeth Bennet is so relatable and delightful not just because of her quick intelligence and witty replies to the snobs around her, but because of her interior life. We have access to thoughts and feelings she never shares with other characters: not with her beloved sister Jane, not with Darcy. We get to see her make mistaken internal judgments–and then learn from them. We note her interior frustration and embarrassment around her family not just because of the color of her cheeks, but because of her mortified thoughts.

This is a degree of intimacy with a person we normally can only have with ourselves.

First person accounts, like Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe or even Augustine’s Confessions (more intimate since written as a prayer to God) also come close, but I would argue that they still don’t give you that same kind of access. In a way, the first person narrator is addressing you as he would a confidante, but not as he would address himself.

The genius of Austen’s technique is that it alienates us from some characters just as much as it connects us to others.

Why does Mrs. Bennett seem so utterly ridiculous and Wickham so despicable? Why is Lydia so annoying? It’s not just because of their reprehensible actions and stupid (or deceptive) words. It’s also because, for us, they have no interior lives. Presumably, as human beings in the real world, they might—-but Austen’s narrator keeps us safely ignorant of them. It’s interesting to track which characters in each novel are revealed to us through free indirect discourse, and which ones are not.

Why do we love Emma, despite her stupidity, manipulation of others, and snobbery? One reason is that Austen gives us this same kind of interior access to her interior life in this later novel as she does with Elizabeth–more, in fact, and so much more that we end up seeing most of the story through Emma’s eyes even though it is a third person account. As a result, we are also deceived about other characters and situations and likewise humbled when the truth of the matter is revealed.

When Knightley helps Emma see how badly she behaved toward the impoverished Miss Bates, we not only see Emma’s actions and words as she repents later and try to make amends, as we would in any novel, we also get to hear her silent self-recrimination. Again, I’m putting the free indirect style in italics:

[Emma] continued to look back, but in vain; and soon, with what appeared unusual speed, they were half way down the hill, and every thing left far behind. She was vexed beyond what could have been expressed—almost beyond what she could conceal. Never had she felt so agitated, mortified, grieved, at any circumstance in her life. She was most forcibly struck. The truth of this representation there was no denying. She felt it at her heart. How could she have been so brutal, so cruel to Miss Bates! How could she have exposed herself to such ill opinion in any one she valued! And how suffer him to leave her without saying one word of gratitude, of concurrence, of common kindness!

Notice the beautiful movement in this paragraph from the exterior to the interior, gradually moving more and more inward: first, Austen gives us the barest brushstrokes of the outer scene, accessible to any viewer, of Emma looking out the carriage window until “they were half-way down the hill”. Then the narrator takes us into the carriage and reports (and, in a sense, interprets) Emma’s feelings: “agitated, mortified, grieved”. Already the narrator’s voice may be giving way to the character’s. We learn that “she was vexed beyond what could have been expressed;” so, of course, she does not express it. At least not aloud. And at last, we are drawn into Emma’s inner thoughts, that no one else in the novel will hear. Other characters will see her actions, hear her voice, but they will not share with her this pivotal inner moment of remorse and regret, like we will.

It’s so subtle. Free indirect discourse is not something we usually notice when we read–and that’s kind of the point. We are pulled in and find ourselves sympathizing before we know what we’re about. In pioneering this style, Austen gave us a great gift; the ability to imaginatively and sympathetically enter the hearts of flawed, ignorant people like ourselves who are trying to be better.

It’s an experience, I believe, that allows us to look at those around us in the real world a little differently, with greater kindness and a sense that the real story of each person’s life is the interior, hidden one, the story which only that soul and God get to read—except in the case of a good novel.

Kylo Ren, Confessional Poet

In what I think is the most interesting scene in Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, Kylo Ren, after killing his dark-side master and fighting off a bunch of guards with Rey, urges her to join him:

The Empire, your parents, the Resistance, the Sith, the Jedi… let the past die. Kill it, if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you are meant to be.

I think his words here reveal a lot about the Kylo Ren character, The Last Jedi movie itself, and the struggle in which the entire Star Wars franchise has been engaged for some time—a struggle I would characterize as negotiating one’s relationship to tradition.

Some context for my thoughts:

I was leading a poetry seminar a couple of weeks ago in which we discussed T. S. Eliot’s (in)famous essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, and one participant questioned the possibility of tradition at all. “In what sense is it even meaningful to talk about a ‘Western literary tradition’?”

Eliot and his modernist compatriots seemed to think of tradition as something very real–something you could have, or not have—and, for poets, something you were responsible for making sure you had in order to write proper poetry. But for many of us today, “tradition” is a very problematic term. The only safe way to use it in popular culture seems to be in phrases like “faith traditions” (with a respectable emphasis on the pluralizing “s” at the end); otherwise, to speak of “tradition” in the singular with any kind of reverence, one is perceived as advocating for a misogynistic unenlightened power structure, or of idealizing an ossified set of texts that neglect the literacies and voices of marginalized groups.

Even Eliot acknowledges that the term was problematic in his own time:

We cannot refer to “the tradition” or to “a tradition”; at most, we employ the adjective in saying that the poetry of So-and-so is “traditional” or even “too traditional.” Seldom, perhaps, does the word appear except in a phrase of censure. If otherwise, it is vaguely approbative, with the implication, as to the work approved, of some pleasing archaeological reconstruction.

Obviously there is much to be said about tradition in general and the poetic tradition more specifically, but I think an interesting way to explore how human beings grapple with tradition is to look at it through the lens of Star Wars.

Kylo Ren proposes discarding tradition altogether, no matter the source: “The Empire, your parents, the Resistance, the Sith, the Jedi.” One’s identity can only be uncovered by “killing” the past.

My dad was reminiscing about seeing the first Star Wars movie when he was a senior in high school, and one of the things he loved about it, apart from the incredible visual effects, was how the original movie engaged playfully and cleverly with film tradition. George Lucas incorporated elements of WWII movies, cowboy westerns, cheesy sci-fi thrillers and Japanese culture and films in a kind of hodge-podge that resonated rather deeply with American popular culture at the time; it was fun and recognizable, and yet fresh.

Lucas’ borrowing from those well-known motifs (and in some cases even specific storylines) reveals his engagement with, and sense of indebted-ness to, tradition. He was making something new (“make it new!” Ezra Pound says) but his innovations had a kind of reverence for the movie-makers that had come before.

I think the Star Wars franchise today — like so many other rebooted franchises that have to navigate nostalgia and memory — is grappling with conflicting conceptions of tradition. The characters within the story grapple with repeating the past, reinventing it, or rejecting it, and more importantly, the directors and writers of the films themselves do, too. They are trying to come to terms with a thing they did not create and which seems to have taken on a life of its own.

In an article tellingly entitled “Why Star Wars’ past is so important to the future in The Rise of Skywalker, we get some hints from one of the writers of the upcoming movie on this engagement with tradition:

“The idea of how the legacy of the Jedi is carried on and how the Force and its uses extend to the next generation [is] a thing that we for sure are taking up,” Chris Terrio, the co-writer of The Rise of Skywalker, told io9. […] “We first meet Rey, literally, in the wreck of the old war. The old war is so present in her life in every possible way,” he said. “So we wanted to explore [that] a little bit further and the origins of the First Order and how the past affects the present…And by exploring the story in the ways that we did, we could keep the sense of the past, even in the present war.” (emphasis added)

As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, J. J. Abrams got the new trilogy into structural and plot problems by choosing to repeat the universe’s situation from the original movie — merely replacing the Empire with the First Order and the Rebellion with the Resistance — instead of imagining new challenges a post-Return of the Jedi galaxy with a fledgling Republic might encounter. As Eliot says in his essay,

Yet if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, “tradition” should positively be discouraged. We have seen many such simple currents soon lost in the sand; and novelty is better than repetition. (“Tradition and the Individual Talent”, emphasis added)

On the other hand, choosing to have Kylo Ren be a microcosmic illustration of this approach within the film — acting as an inferior Vader wanna-be, helmet, black cape and all — was a much more interesting decision. Ren’s subsequent advice to Rey to “let the past die” seems to come from his own vacillation from slavish imitation to extreme iconoclasm, a pattern which Abrams’ The Force Awakens and Johnson’s The Last Jedi also exemplify structurally and thematically. Director Rian Johnson, in another memorable scene from the second movie, has Kylo Ren smash his Vader-like helmet to smithereens after Snoke shames him: “You are no Vader; you are just a child in a mask.”

Too add yet another thread to these musings, I’m reading a book of essays on poetry by Peter Balakian, Vise and Shadow. In a chapter on Theodore Roethke, Balakian gives an interesting description of the transition from T. S. Eliot’s modernism (exemplified in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”) of the first half of the twentieth century to the confessionalism of the 1950’s and ’60’s; a description that I find profoundly echoes something that’s going on in Star Wars as well. The old, original trilogy that embodies the Jedi mythos, I would argue, has the feel of a T. S. Eliot-modernist reverence for and invention within tradition, whereas the new trilogy has the more fractious feel of the confessional poets’ approach.

See if you agree.

Balakian says,

American poems of the later 1950s and 1960s were a departure from the passion for mythic structures and Eliotic notions of impersonality (“the poem Eliot insisted should be a ‘flight from the self‘”) that dominated modernism.

Think Obi-Wan and Yoda’s teachings on a kind of self-denial and asceticism as the proper way to wield “The Force”. The old Jedi tradition has a quasi-religious reverence for centuries of teachings, passed down to each new generation, and demands an intense self-discipline when engaging with them.

Balakian contrasts this T. S. Eliot modernism with the newer approach:

The new confessional orientation was embodied in a poetics that appropriated a more intimate and transparent sense of autobiography; it was created out of a personal mask that was forged from an idea of intimacy […]. (emphasis added)

Just think of all the stuff going on with Kylo and his mask. He wears it to imitate his grandfather Vader, of course– then he takes it off for most of The Force Awakens. In the second movie, as I mentioned above, he destroys it.

Interestingly, in the upcoming (and Abrams’-directed) third movie, he reforges it again for some reason, and, at least in the trailers, we see him wearing it, red-cracks and all. So much for “let the past die.” Maybe I’m being too literal here, but Balakian’s whole section on confessional poetics reminds me a lot of Kylo Ren:

This new aesthetic orientation was grounded in experience that was located in the personal realm […] [and] defined itself with a bold and visceral idea of a self located in the daily life and domestic space of stress and trauma, and often in a domain in which the dynamics of family become a location for self, history, and culture. […] In the way that classical myth and Western intellectual history were essential to the modernist poet, the domestic, the personal, and the family-historical–or some variant of personally inherited history—became central to a post-World War II poetic orientation. (Balakian, “Theodore Roethke’s Lost Son and the Confessional Era,” Vise and Shadow 56-57, emphasis added).

Now here’s the big distinction. Both the old trilogy and the new trilogy have a lot to do with the past and one’s family—but not in the same way.

Young Luke wants to become “a Jedi, like my father”—but the Jedi part for him ultimately comes first. His family legacy, the fact that Obi-Wan tells him Darth Vader “murdered” his father, is a point of entry for him into a larger, older, vaster tradition, that goes beyond his personal family history. The Jedi tradition itself is the real object of his desire. “The Force is strong with this one,” Vader observes, even before he realizes that Luke is his son, but Luke himself quickly realizes that his natural talents require a lot of hard work and cultivation.

Similarly, in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Eliot says, “[Tradition] cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour.”

You see that kind of labour in Luke, especially in The Empire Strikes Back as he runs through the swamp with Yoda strapped to his back. His bloodline is important, but his struggle to learn and live the Jedi tradition is more important. Contrast his experience with Rey’s — who, as many have noted — seems to have inherited the force with no labour at all in a matter of minutes.

Ultimately, though, for all his fascination with the Jedi tradition, Luke does need to contend with his personal family history—he needs to come to grips with the legacy of his father. His greatest fear seems to be becoming the man behind the mask, as his famous tortured reaction to the “I am your Father” reveal in Empire Strikes Back shows.

Yet Luke does find a way to integrate his vocation as a Jedi with his personal identity as son. Even when Obi-Wan warns him that Vader is “more machine now than man,” Luke insists that there must be “still good” left in Vader, and tells Leia this as well. In accepting the truth about his family, Luke does save his father.

But notice, in the key scene in Return of the Jedi, when he cuts off Vader’s hand in a fit of anger, just as Vader had done to him in the previous movie, he looks at his hand, pauses and throws away his lightsaber. He refuses to merely repeat the past, and tells the Emperor, “I will never join the Dark side. I am a Jedi, like my father before me.”

His sense of particular family legacy is fully integrated with his sense of the larger, deeper Jedi tradition. And it is his love for family and that tradition that saves him and his father. The redeemed Anakin, as he dies, asks Luke to help him take off his mask so he can look his son “with my own eyes”; that is, with love. The final unmasking of his father is a powerful moment that also unmasks and disarms, finally, Luke’s fear of what lies hidden in himself.

Kylo Ren, on the other hand, the embodiment of the new trilogy’s ethos, seems to be a kind of confessional poet who puts on a mask in order to manufacture an identity for himself. His “art” is all about releasing and unleashing his pain, his anger, his trauma. His obsession with his family legacy becomes the lens through which he interprets the world and it precludes any reverence for or sense of a larger, older tradition or schema in which he can find meaning. His interest in artifacts (Vader’s helmet) is not about Sith teaching, but about family bloodline and how it fuels his own experience of pain and power.

Despite his obsession with family, the only way Ren can cut himself off from the larger tradition is, ironically, by literally killing his own father. In this way he is an anti-Luke. He has no desire for tradition in the broader sense, though paradoxically by forging his own “new” path he seems to tread a very well-worn one down into dark side despair.

The prequel movies, also the work of George Lucas, reveal a lot of problems with the Jedi tradition. By these late ’90s early ’00s movies, the tradition is no longer a source of wisdom, but rather a kind of blind, ossified set of restrictions that alienate the young Anakin (a proto-Kylo-Ren, especially in his experience of unleashing his trauma on the world) and blind the Jedi themselves to the obvious machinations of Palpatine. You get the sense that over-adherence to tradition is what pushes Anakin away.

Rian Johnson’s older, embittered Luke in “The Last Jedi” seems to have adopted the Kylo Ren approach; his own trauma over the loss of his academy and his nephew seems too much to bear, and he lashes out in disgust against the tradition that he once reverenced as a young man but now feels has betrayed him: “the Jedi must end,” he says, in a moment that initially horrified even Mark Hamill (and, I suspect, still kind of does). He tells Rey, “Now that they’re extinct, the Jedi are romanticized, deified. But if you strip away the myth and look at their deeds, the legacy of the Jedi is failure. Hypocrisy, hubris.”

In The Last Jedi, tradition is symbolized by the sacred Jedi texts, old books which Yoda surprisingly seems to incinerate when he comes to comfort Luke towards the end of the movie. (We find out later, however, that Rey somehow saved them.) They don’t seem to play a very important role in the movie practically-speaking, and I suspect this is due in part to Johnson’s own perplexity as to what to do with tradition. The books are there, but nobody seems to actually read them—what they actually say is never discussed. (A powerful image of contemporary education.)

I kind of doubt that they will appear again in the Abrams’ movie, but we’ll wait and see what happens next week.

If I were penning this new trilogy, I would have liked to explore Rey’s character as a possible “balance” between these views, between the Eliot-style desire to recover and insert oneself into an ancient tradition and the confessional-poet approach of Kylo Ren that rejects tradition in favor of the trauma of ones’ personal experience. That would, however, require that she actually read those old books and learn about the past, and not simply “inherit” her power without “great labour”.

I think this integration of tradition, family legacy, and personal experience is the un-woke balance Luke achieved in the original trilogy, and therefore one that we are not very likely to see unfold in this one.

But who knows? Perhaps Abrams’ has realized that neither Johnson’s wholesale rejection of Star Wars mythos nor his own overly-nostalgic imitation of it really work. Perhaps we will see a new balance that successfully integrates the old and the new in The Rise of Skywalker. As Luke says to Rey in one of the trailers, “We’ve passed on all we know. A thousand generations live in you now.”

But it’s Kylo Ren I’m really interested in. He’s the archetypal millennial, embittered by the the family pressures and traumas the boomer-generation bequeathed to him, unsure what to do with his pain and power, attracted to and yet repulsed by the tradition.

Interestingly, he says to Darth Vader’s helmet early in The Force Awakens, “Forgive me. I feel it again. The pull to the light. Show me again the power of the darkness, and I will let nothing stand in our way. Show me, Grandfather, and I will finish what you started.”

At the end of Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader is redeemed by the love and example of his son and (seemingly) defeats the Emperor who had enslaved him for so long.

With Emperor Palpatine back for the final movie, Kylo Ren’s words to his predecessor carry some new weight.

Divine Art: “Something we can hold in our hands and love”

The story of Our Lady of Guadalupe features prominently in the beginning of Willa Cather’s sparse and beautiful novel Death Comes for the Archbishop, a story based on the lives and friendship of two French Catholic missionary priests in the southwest. Today is the feast day of Saint Juan Diego, so it seems like a good time to return to a fascinating scene and discussion in the novel that explores the miracle he experienced.

Father Latour, later the “archbishop” of the novel’s title, is a fictionalized version of Bishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy and, like his historical counterpart, is contemplative and intellectual. He and his more emotive friend Father Joseph Vaillant (who is based on Joseph Machebeuf, eventually the first bishop of Denver) have an interesting conversation in the opening part of the book. Both of them have just listened to a young priest retelling the story of the miracle of Juan Diego’s tilma and the roses. Both friends are deeply moved when they hear of how Our Lady converted millions to Christianity in the matter of a few years, as they, too, are in mission territory in the vast expanses of the new archdiocese of Santa Fe.

Latour later observes to his friend, reflecting on Juan Diego’s experience of the apparition and the image on his cloak,

Where there is great love, there are always miracles…. [They] seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always. (50)

It is a beautiful and thought-provoking interpretation. Indeed, Cather ends first part of the novel with his words, as if to emphasize that everything else that comes afterward in the novel should be considered in these terms. Latour’s description suggests something of the miraculousness of the every day– if we could only see and hear “what is there about us always”. It makes me think of a favorite epigram of Emily Dickinson: “Not revelation–tis–that waits / But our unfurnished eyes.”

And yet… there is something distinctly modern in Latour’s interpretation of miracles too, as if they are more a matter of adjusting one’s internal, subjective perspective than bumping into something unexplainable in external, objective reality. His words are particularly strange when you consider the story itself; what is the miracle of Our Lady’s appearance to Juan Diego if not an instance of “faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off”?

Taken too far, Latour’s characterization of miracles might move us toward Thomas Jefferson’s famous rather ribboned version of the bible.

But setting aside for the moment its possible problematic theological implications, I think his description is an important interpretive key to the novel. There’s another way Cather might be inviting us to conceive of Latour’s words here, especially when you consider them alongside his friend Father Vaillant’s very different description of the event.

Vaillant, moved almost to tears by the story, says fervently, “The miracle is something we can hold in our hands and love” (50).

In my senior thesis in college, in which I focused a lot on this scene, I summarized the differences in the two friends’ descriptions of miracles this way:

The bishop locates miracles as occurring within interior human perception, whereas Father Joseph locates them as occurring in nature, in the external world. Father Latour seems to define miracles as a process—of refinement, clarification or sharpening; but Father Joseph seems to define miracles almost as objects: indeed, they seem rather unsettlingly personal and tangible—they can be touched, even held “in our hands.” Miracles, for Father Joseph, are interventions into nature. But Father Latour distances his definition from the idea of divine intrusion, of “faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off,” and places it instead within the context of corrected human perception. And of course, one cannot hold that in one’s hands!

Or can one?

Now, I think there is a way in which these views might be harmonized–or at least brought much closer together. What if we considered them as different descriptions not just of miracles, but of art?

I mean, one could argue that miracles themselves are a kind of special divine art. All of nature is divine art, of course, but when God intervenes in nature He’s making a rather unique statement. So maybe there is a kind of analogous connection there.

But I think there is also textual justification for looking at these two definitions as descriptions of art. The conversation between Latour and Vaillant occurs in the context of the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and that story’s miracle explicitly involves a work of art: the image on Juan Diego’s tilma, which we are told looks “exactly as She had appeared to him on the hillside” (49). The mantle, especially in its strange properties and marvelous preservation over hundreds of years, becomes a kind of “miraculous portrait” that we can “hold in our hands and love.”

Maybe in this scene, Cather is suggesting that art (literature in particular?) can achieve two things: it “refines” the reader’s interior perceptions, our ability to see the world as it truly is, and it offers us a kind of tangible object of wonder and beauty to hold and to treasure. The first description concerns what art does for us, the second more what art is in itself.

Why does any of this matter?

I think these two “roles” of art are often in tension with one another. They are like two poles that pull the artist in different directions. On the one hand, art should be about “refining perceptions”—that is, correcting our vision, or even challenging our assumptions about what art is and can be. I think (in my very inexperienced opinion) that a lot of modern art (and literature) likes to push boundaries for this very reason. Contemporary art is very much about changing the way we see things, perhaps especially art itself.

On the other hand, art should also be about creating “something we can hold in our hands and love”— that is, something grasp-able, accessible, that moves us with its beauty. This kind of art is more content with being something beautiful than with engaging in mind- and category-bending acrobatics.

I think my favorite examples of art, both literary and visual, do both of these things, but I think I am drawn much more to the Father Vaillant side. Theologically, I’m also more drawn to his view of miracles. They are real, they are out there, they aren’t just in my head, they happen.

But as Father Latour points out, we do need the “eyes and the ears” to perceive them, and this takes the healing of our perceptions. “Whoever has ears to hear ought to hear” (Mk 4:9).

“Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. For I say to you, many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.” (Luke 10:23-24)

San Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin by Raul Beroza

“The feathers of some unimaginable bird”

Photo by Pixabay

I was reading the lovely winter poem “White-Eyes” by Mary Oliver for my last poetry seminar, and sort of expecting one of her characteristic detailed observations of a creature or specific scene—but by the end of the poem I felt like something had slipped past me or perhaps through the words on the page in a way that was unusual.

Does this happen to you, when you read it?

White-Eyes
BY MARY OLIVER

In winter
    all the singing is in
         the tops of the trees
             where the wind-bird

with its white eyes
    shoves and pushes
         among the branches.
             Like any of us

he wants to go to sleep,
    but he’s restless—
         he has an idea,
             and slowly it unfolds

from under his beating wings
    as long as he stays awake.
         But his big, round music, after all,
             is too breathy to last.

So, it’s over.
    In the pine-crown
         he makes his nest,
             he’s done all he can.

I don’t know the name of this bird,
    I only imagine his glittering beak
         tucked in a white wing
             while the clouds—

which he has summoned
    from the north—
         which he has taught
             to be mild, and silent—

thicken, and begin to fall
    into the world below
         like stars, or the feathers
               of some unimaginable bird

that loves us,
    that is asleep now, and silent—
         that has turned itself
             into snow.

Poetry Foundation

There is something about that transition going on in the middle of the poem, from what at first seems like a literal bird making music in the tops of trees, to clouds, to wind, to snow, and back to “the feathers / of some unimaginable bird” that “turn[s] itself / into snow” again. And this latter bird somehow “loves us”. It is strangely “asleep now, and silent”. With my Christian eyes I can’t help but think of Christ, and death, and the Holy Spirit.

Confused, I let my eyes slide back up the page to the title for some guidance, where I expected to be told the name of the bird (a name which the speaker tells us in stanza six she doesn’t know), and I was surprised to see instead “White Eyes”– a phrase of the second stanza that I had barely noticed during my first reading. What kind of bird has “white eyes”? What kind of animal has white eyes? Human beings do, around their irises–but not any bird I’ve ever heard of.

In the first stanza the speaker mentions the “wind-bird”, which at first I took to be yet another avian creature with which I’m unfamiliar, but just to see I googled “wind-bird,” expecting pictures of something lovely and “white-eyed,” and instead the first thing that came up was a description of the wuchowsen. This term is affiliated with the Abenaki, Penobscot, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, and Mi’kmaq native tribes who evidently lived in what is now known as New England.

According to the site, the wuchowsen, “wind-bird” or “wind-eagle,” is

a gigantic immortal bird spirit whose wings make the wind. Though Wuchowsen is monstrous in size and the winds he creates can be deadly, he is not treated as a monster in Wabanaki legends, but rather as a natural force of the world that must be respected. In most legends, either Glooskap or a mortal hero attempts to stop Wuchowsen’s wings from flapping, only to find that the world cannot survive without wind; Wuchowsen is restored to power, but is either persuaded to moderate the wind he creates or forced to do so by having one of his wings tied or broken. (Native-languages.org)

I have a feeling Oliver knew all this.

In this poem, in what seems to me to be a rare instance for Oliver, her subject is not literal– or, at least, not physical. The wind-bird is perhaps a kind of metaphor for the wind itself that “sings” in the “tops of the trees” and “shoves and pushes / among the branches”—a kind of movement more appropriate to breezes than to birds, I realize now.

The bird has “white-eyes”, and, taking my cue from my previous discovery, I found that there was a leader of the Lenape (Delaware) people during the revolutionary war era named Koquethagechton, or “White Eyes,” who sought to negotiate a relationship with Americans, and who married a woman named Rachel Doddridge, the daughter of English colonists who was adopted into the Lenape people after attacking her family’s farm.

I’m not sure if Oliver had him in mind in the background of this poem, or if the titular character (?) has white eyes because he is a “wind-bird”, or because he is associated with snow and winter. But the historical association with this man is possible.

At any rate, the bird is “restless,” the speaker tells us— like the wind always is, and like we human beings often are in winter: sleepy, but somehow unable to completely succumb to hibernation. The bird “has an idea” which turns into “big, round music” that is “too breathy to last.”

I’m not sure in what sense this wind makes a nest in the “pine-crown.” But the word “glittering” the speaker uses to describe the wind-bird’s beak is an adjective more appropriate, I would think, for snow.

It’s easier for me to imagine wind “summon[ing]” clouds “from the north” — but then, once more, the movement of the poem gets dream-like and mysterious. The clouds turn into an (interestingly un-named) snow that is likened to “stars”.

There’s this strange, graceful, almost circular motion (like falling snowflakes?) as the poem wanders from the image of the “wind-bird”, to what wind does in trees, to how wind calls clouds and sends snow falling down to the ground like stars, and then also like the feathers of a bird, pulling us back once again to the opening image.

The speaker admits that her subject is, for all of these poetic descriptions on the page, “unimaginable”—perhaps most of all because he “loves us.”

Strange, and beautiful.

“The Spirit’s Right Oasis”

Here’s a post I wrote a while back on one of my favorite poems to sit with during Advent.

Mysteries and Manners

A World Without Objects is a Sensible Emptiness

Richard Wilbur

The tall camels of the spirit
Steer for their deserts, passing the last groves loud
With the sawmill shrill of the locust, to the whole honey of the arid
Sun. They are slow, proud,

And move with a stilted stride
To the land of sheer horizon, hunting Traherne’s
Sensible emptiness, there where the brain’s lantern-slide
Revels in vast returns.

O connoisseurs of thirst,
Beasts of my soul who long to learn to drink
Of pure mirage, those prosperous islands are accurst
That shimmer on the brink

Of absence; auras, lustres,
And all shinings need to be shaped and borne.
Think of those painted saints, capped by the early masters
With bright, jauntily-worn

Aureate plates, or even
Merry-go-round rings. Turn, O turn
From the fine sleights of the sand, from the long empty oven
Where flames in flamings burn

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