How Columbo Educates

A few years ago I taught a one-semester Creative Writing course, and the unit that was by far the most successful was the one on mystery stories. Before my students wrote their own mysteries, we read Conan Doyle, Chesterton, and Christie — watched an episode of the new Sherlock and — in my opinion, best of all — an episode of Columbo.

If you don’t know, Columbo was a murder-mystery t. v. series starring Peter Falk that originally ran from 1971-1978 (and again from 1989-2003).

I wanted my students to see the different ways in which one could structure a mystery plot so they could try to develop one themselves– and, to my mind, the most interesting way is the Columbo way.

The funny thing about Columbo is that the show isn’t suspenseful in the way you’d expect. You know, right from the beginning of the story, whodunit. You see how they dun it. And usually, why they dun it. That is, the first twenty minutes of every episode show you the murderer committing the murder—and, usually, the reasons for it. The titular character himself never appears until after this sequence finishes.

What’s interesting about this plot pattern is that its consistency and predictability liberate the show from the challenge most crime shows face: finding new ways to conceal from the audience the real criminal in a way that does not seem cheap or unfair. Misdirection is almost never an issue. The audience knows, before even Columbo does, the truth—but we still find ourselves captivated by watching how he finds it and proves it.

The real action of the story, instead of being about finding out who committed a murder, is rather centered around the relationship the detective develops with the murderer. It is through this relationship that the show can make its jokes, its social commentary, its reflections on human nature. It’s entertainment, to be sure, but it’s of a much more thoughtful sort than many t.v. crime shows. In fact, I would argue that it’s educative.

How does Columbo educate?

  1. The show celebrates attentiveness.

Like Monk, his spiritual heir, Columbo’s genius lies largely in his obsessive attention to detail. He frequently apologizes to the killer for his incessant questions about these details: “Ya know, these things just botha me. I was up all night. I was wondering if you could help me understand why the victim’s shoelaces were tied with da loop on the left insteaduh the right.”

Indeed, the more you watch Columbo, the more you start looking for such details yourself during the first twenty minutes during the murder sequence, just to see if you can spot the key clue that might “bug” him later.

Attentiveness is the key to Columbo’s success; he has a particular way of reading the world that allows him to see what most other people can’t see. But unlike Sherlock Holmes’ “powers” or Hercule Poirot’s sophisticated genius or Monk’s OCD hyper-sensitivity, Columbo’s ability isn’t super-human—nor is it even a kind of spiritual charism like that of Father Brown. His gift feels almost accessible to us—as if we might be able to cultivate that kind of attentiveness, too, with enough practice. If we only learned how to pay attention to people more, to relate to them in the way Columbo does, we would be able to see a lot more going on around us.

2. Anagnorisis is key to the plot

In ancient Greek tragedies, the turning-point of the story often occurs when the tragic hero recognizes something about himself or his situation. The Aristotelian term for this is anagnorisis, and surprisingly it’s the heart of almost every Columbo episode. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, anagnorisis is

the startling discovery that produces a change from ignorance to knowledge. It is discussed by Aristotle in the Poetics as an essential part of the plot of a tragedy, although anagnorisis occurs in comedy, epic, and, at a later date, the novel as well. 

In Oedipus Rex, the tragic hero experiences anagnorisis when he finally realizes that it is he who unwittingly killed his father, the previous king, and married his mother.

The discovery here, of course, isn’t about the moment when Columbo recognizes the killer—he usually seems to intuit who it is within his first five minutes on screen. Nor does it a moment when the killer realizes the wrongness of his action–he usually doesn’t.

The discovery is usually more modest, but still significant. The killer recognizes a key mistake or oversight he has made. Columbo, like Tiresias, always needs to explain this error to the killer in order for him or her to see it. And this discovery, though not necessarily redemptive, is nevertheless humbling.

Almost all the killers in the series are extremely proud, and they often dismiss the man in the shabby coat with the cigar and the blue-collar demeanor. As clever as they all are, they are usually ignorant of human nature, and this ignorance often leads them to misstep or miscalculate in a manner that confirms their guilt. In the anagnorsis, they are forced to acknowledge the shortcomings of their own cleverness and the power of Columbo’s wisdom.

This is admittedly not the kind of radical grace Flannery O’Connor’s characters experience, the kind that seems to anticipate a possible conversion, but I believe it is a kind of grace nonetheless. Humility, a professor of mine in college always said, is “the reality principle.” It’s the ability to see things as they really are. Columbo often leads the murderer to recognize, at the very least, her own inattentiveness.

But the audience, too, despite their prior knowledge of all the steps the murderer took to set up and execute his crime, is somehow also limited by that perspective. You get the sense, after a while, that simply having factual knowledge about events isn’t enough in order to really see into the truth of things. The murderer, after all, also has access to all the facts of the case. It takes a deeper kind of wisdom to see how all those facts connect to one another. Columbo often solves the case through his insights into how human nature works, and we too often find ourselves saying in recognition, “Oh—that was what we missed!”

3. Uncommon courtesy is the rule.

Something that sets the Columbo character apart from other popular detectives is his deep sense of courtesy and respect for all the other characters—even, and especially for the murderer. His relentless affability and endearing clumsiness may be an act to put criminals off of their guard—but his deep kindness never is.

In my favorite episode, “Any Old Port in a Storm,” (remember I’m not really giving anything away since you’ll know who the murderer is in the first few minutes!) a sommelier seeks to protect his family’s wine business by killing his wayward, thrill-seeking half-brother. After explaining to him the evidence that will convict him, and before he drives the murderer to the police station, Columbo gently offers him a glass of very fine wine. Surprisingly, the guilty man accepts.

There are similar moments like this throughout the series, where despite his relentless pursuit of justice, Columbo shows respect and understanding to everyone around him, even the murderer. He reminds us that even people who have committed terrible deeds have dignity.

4. Anger is the appropriate response to injustice.

Columbo so rarely loses his calm disposition that when he does show anger, you know the murderer really is in trouble.

There are times when a murderer’s cruelty and manipulation of other characters elicits the detective’s anger in ways that even the act of killing itself does not. Columbo does not seem surprised or even particularly offended by run-of-the-mill envy, fear, or selfishness. But there are certain behaviors that inspire his clean and blazing wrath.

In the above scene, for instance, from “A Stitch in Crime,” the killer not only murders other people to conceal his efforts to murder a colleague, he abuses his role as a surgeon. You get the sense that what Columbo finds particularly repulsive here is the man’s betrayal of the nature of his otherwise noble profession of saving lives.

I say this with some hesitation, because any kind of offense against human life is an extremely serious sin and deserves unambiguous condemnation, but I do think the show demonstrates wisdom in suggesting that there are various depths of depravity. Dante himself places murderers and other perpetrators of violence down in the seventh circle of hell–but the ninth and lowest circle, where Satan is incased in ice, is reserved for the treacherous.

Perhaps because it is so rare, Columbo’s anger teaches us the difference between the motives behind vengeance and justice.

Oh, and one more thing–

5. The show’s pervasive humor is delightful, not derisive.

There’s a kind of light, old-fashioned touch to the humor in Columbo. Some scenes almost seem slap-stick because of Peter Falk’s gift for physical comedy in his gestures.

The humor often runs on motifs that develop throughout the series: there are references to the never-on-screen “Mrs. Columbo”: “Oh, well sir, my wife always tells me…” “Would you sign this? My wife–she’d get a kick outta that. She’s got pictchas from you’re movies everywhere.” “Oh, no thank you ma’am, my wife’s been buggin me all week to get home earlier.” There’s Columbo’s dilapidated car that’s frequently breaking down and getting all sorts of strange looks and bemused comments from the people around him. There’s his dog, a sleepy, stubborn basset-hound–named Dog–who he often takes to the vet and instructs to wait for him in the car while he’s on a case. There are his cigars–the odor and ashes of which sometimes get him into amusing dilemmas.

And then there’s the class motif. Columbo’s humor often explores the the relationship between the rich elites and the common man. In one particularly delightful and relatable scene, Columbo wanders into a fashionable modern art studio and, for once, cannot make head nor tails of what he sees:

There is often deeper irony lurking around too, yes, as here–but not of the sarcastic or acerbic kind. Laughter about the circumstances of the case is usually elicited by Columbo himself rather than by any derision of the crooks and their cronies. It’s this kind of pervasive humor which pokes fun but never ridicules that helps keep an otherwise serious show about the greed, ambition, and folly of human beings a joy to watch.

Columbo is entertaining certainly, but it invites a kind of engagement from the viewer that educates as much as it delights.

Leitmotifs and LIFEmotifs

No, go back and watch that first! ^^

I showed this video to my AP classes the other week in order to help them enrich their understanding of literary motifs– which are recurring images, symbols, ideas or patterns in a story that help highlight or develop a theme. (See previous post for the difficulty with themes.)

As I explained to my students, in the video above, the Nerdwriter uses the word “theme” where, literature-wise, I would use the word “motif.” He does an amazing job showing how Howard Shore develops the same series of notes (eg: the “Fellowship theme” /  motif) throughout the trilogy of movies in a way that highlights and qualifies the meaning of the scenes.

Literary motifs are not too hard to spot once you know what to look for–and they can really enrich your experience of a story.

For example, proposals are definitely a motif in Pride and Prejudice:

Mr.-Collins
“Almost as soon as I entered the house I singled you out as the companion of my future life. “

mrdarcy-1995-14
“You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”

MCDPRAN EC047
“On opening the door, she perceived her sister and Bingley standing together […] the faces of both, as they hastily turned round and moved away from each other, would have told it all. Their situation was awkward enough […]”

hqdefault
“It taught me to hope,” said he, “as I had scarcely ever allowed myself to hope before.”

Notice that, although each instance of the motif includes different characters in different situations with vastly different moods, etc– (like different instruments!) there is the common pattern of notes throughout. In fact, there is a thread weaved in the plot, if you tug it, you might be able to pull in order coax out a theme somewhere. What is Austen saying about proposals? Or even — what are adequate grounds for making a proposal? Answering those questions would give you a modest theme that Austen is probably getting at.

Interestingly, I find it rather unlikely that Austen thought to herself– “Hm, I think I will put a proposals motif into my story.” Maybe she did think that. But likely the proposal scenes occurred naturally in the plot. Motifs, like so many other amazing patterns in literature, often arise out of an organic process that isn’t always the result of the author’s conscious or deliberate intent; yet they are there just the same. I think of the Eucharistic sunset motifs in Flannery O’Connor stories, or the confession-rehearsals throughout Crime and Punishment, or the countless goodbye exchanges between friends in The Lord of the Rings. They are meant to be there, but not always, consciously, by the author.

Previously, my students had been thinking of motifs in King Lear as sort of static key words that show up frequently in the work; oh, look! There’s the word “sight” again! And then King Lear is acting “blind”! And now Gloucester’s eyes have been removed… so he’s literally blind… But although they could notice repeating images or words, they did not yet have the sense of the richness inherent in motifs. That’s why the video above is so helpful. There’s an almost visceral level that music in movies can touch that is not so easily accessed (at least anymore) by literature– but once you are reminded of it you can return to the page with awakened senses.

So, now that we’re reading Beowulf, what I want my kids to see is that the images or ideas that recur throughout the poem — like gold and treasure, the concept of fate, the use (or uselessness of weapons)— do so in much the same way as the stirring “Fellowship” motif recurs throughout LOTR or the foreboding Darth Vader or mysterious Force motif recurs throughout the Star Wars Saga. Sometimes, the same motif is played with different instruments, or with a different tempo, or with a minor shift of some kind. The change in tone, in instrumentation, in context, is as important in musical scores as it is in literature– and these changes suggest something about meaning.

For example, the first time we see the treasure motif appear in Beowulf is in the context of death: Shield Sheafson, a paradigmatic king and warrior whose hallowed memory strangely opens the tale of Beowulf, is given a water burial. He is lain in a boat by his thanes and covered with treasure:

They stretched their beloved lord in his boat,

Laid out by the mast, amidships,
The great ring-giver. Far-fetched treasures
Were piled upon him, and precious gear.
I never heard before of a ship so well furbished
With battle tackle, bladed weapons
And coats of mail. The massed treasure
Was loaded on top of him: it would travel far
On out into the ocean’s sway. (Heaney, Beowulf 34-42)
Yes, like Boromir.
The next time treasure in Beowulf appears, however, it does so in the context of the gilded gold in the hall of Heorot. The hall itself cannot protect the people from the brutal devastation of Grendel, and so once again treasure is associated with death. This time, however, it is clear that treasure does have some kind of protective mythic quality:
So Grendel waged his lonely war,
Inflicting constant cruelties on the people,
Atrocious hurt. He took over Heorot,
Haunted the glittering hall after dark,
But the throne itself, the treasure-seat,
He was kept from approaching; he was the Lord’s outcast. (Heaney, Beowulf 164-9, emphasis added)
Treasure is linked with death here, certainly– Grendel “took over Heorot” and “Haunted the glittering hall.” Treasure cannot ultimately protect men from their fate. However, treasure is also associated with kingship and a special kind of providence: “the throne itself, the treasure-seat, / [Grendel] was kept from approaching.”
One word for king in the poem is a kenning– “ring-giver”– that is, a treasure-giver. Kings and chieftains bestowed treasure upon their thanes in return for loyalty and mighty deeds. Their thrones are evidently “treasure-seats” protected by God, who keeps Grendel “from approaching.” It would be a mistake to think that treasure in this poem is a materialistic indulgence or source of vice in the same way that money is in, say, in The Great Gatsby. It is associated far too often with honor and nobility for that kind of dismissive interpretation. Yet at the same time, treasure and weapons and gold are left in the barrows of heroes long gone.
The more you notice the places in which this motif appears throughout Beowulf, the stranger and more mysterious it becomes. Beowulf lays aside his treasure, his arms, to fight Grendel– and only thus is victorious. Grendel cannot be defeated by ordinary means. And yet Beowulf needs treasure — a magic sword– to defeat Grendel’s mother. Much later, as he dies from battle wounds, the old King Beowulf asks his young thane to bring to him some of the treasure from the dragon’s hoard– pulling us back once again to the association of treasure with death.
I could be conflating different motifs here — perhaps it would be better to distinguish gold from weapons within this idea of “treasure.” But nevertheless I think the point holds; recurring images and patterns in stories are worth noticing. They can open up initially obscure tales in surprising ways.
The kids will be researching a topic in Beowulf for their first mini research paper, and each topic they can choose from is tied– at least obliquely — to a motif.
One of my students asked if he could trace rewards exchanged in Beowulf between king and thane in order to explore their impact on the rewards system in the RPG game Skyrim–which apparently borrows a lot from Anglo-Saxon culture. I said, go for it.
Ultimately, it would be cool for them to ponder the extent to which there are any motifs in their own lives. Admittedly, it’s dangerous to go pattern-hunting in one’s own life– it is better to cultivate a humble disposition that welcomes each day, acknowledging that day’s uniqueness, and that doesn’t too hastily categorize moments into pre-conceived patterns.
Still, I think God Himself sometimes has favorite ways of working with different people in a motif-esque kind of way: He seems to think exile is a recurring pattern that is necessary for the Israelites. Abraham is told to make all sorts of journeys– exterior and interior. Peter’s recurring motif is to make a fool out of himself. If we approached our own lives with prayer (the proper literary approach for this genre, if you will), I think we might discover some beautiful motifs woven throughout them. How much more intricate they are than movies and novels– and how much more strange and mysterious.

Theme and the Holy Spirit

382467-Flannery-O-Connor-Quote-I-write-to-discover-what-I-knowI remember during my first year of teaching being rather terrified of students asking me to help them, because I wasn’t sure that I could.

I distinctly remember the sinking feeling in my stomach when one of my seniors asked if he could stop by during lunch and get help on his first essay for my class. “Sure!” I said cheerfully, as dismay and tension settled into my shoulders.

Fast forward to this afternoon during my planning block in the library of my new school. Another senior had asked for help on her first in-class essay. I’m teaching the AP classes how to write the dreaded “Open Prompt” essay in preparation for the exam— where, in roughly 40 minutes, you need to choose a play or novel “of literary merit” with which to respond to a thought-provoking prompt about life and literature. (See this link for all the prompts on AP Literature exams from 1970-2017. They’re really worth reading– some of them are fascinating to ponder.)

My student is writing about the motif of blindness in King Lear, but was having trouble formulating a theme statement, what the AP exam usually calls “the meaning of a work as a whole”. In other words, what is Shakespeare trying to say to us about blindness?

As often as high school English teachers talk about theme, I’ve realized it’s actually a very difficult concept to teach well. In fact, I never used to teach it ostensibly because I agreed with O’Connor that trying to “find the theme” of a story is actually the wrong way to go about reading literature in the first place:

The result of the proper study of a novel should be contemplation of the mystery embodied in it, but this is a contemplation of the mystery in the whole work and not or some proposition or paraphrase. It is not the tracking down of an expressible moral or a statement about life. (O’Connor, “The Teaching of Literature,” Mystery and Manners 129).

Yet theme is a statement about life–some kind of claim, the theory goes, that a novel or play makes without ever coming out and spelling the idea out for you word for word. People often mistake the theme of a work for a mere topic like “revenge” or “ambition” or “the role of women”–but a full-fledged theme is a sentence with a subject and a predicate.

Flannery goes on to say in the very next sentence, “An English teacher I knew once asked her students what the moral of The Scarlet Letter was, and one answer she got as that the moral of The Scarlet Letter was, think twice before you commit adultery” (Ibid).

Okay, Flannery, but you could (with some fear and trembling) argue that a theme in The Violent Bear It Away is that “spiritual hunger is, for all its pain, a kind of poverty that makes way for satiety.” Or something like that. Couldn’t you?

51uTjOmSPXLFlannery responds,

I prefer to talk about the meaning in a story rather than the theme of a story. People talk about the theme of a story as if the theme were like the string that a sack of chicken feed is tied with. They think that if you can pick out the theme, the way you pick the right thread in the chicken-feed sack, you can rip the story open and feed the chickens. But this is not the way meaning works in fiction.

When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you experience that meaning more fully. (“Writing Short Stories,” Mystery and Manners 96)

I mean, I do plan to share that quote with my AP kids… but not until they have more confidence in developing themes and have written some good ones in a bunch of essays.

I’m essentially teaching them how to do something I plan on un-teaching them later.

Alas, the depths to which prepping kids for the AP exams will make one descend.

But my feelings about theme have softened over time through repetitive exposure and also through the private (perhaps naive) hope that I’m teaching in a way that does not encourage merely the “tracking down” of morals, cliches, or definitive life lessons.

So I’m sitting in the library, listening to this new student describe how hard it is for her to “come up with” a theme for King Lear that will “work” in this revised version of her essay. (I sense O’Connor’s non-plussed gaze–not on her, on me.) The good thing is, my student, like Socrates, knows that she doesn’t know– she sees that her essay can’t really go anywhere without a real thesis, without some kind of guess as to what Shakespeare is up to, but the reality is she simply doesn’t know what to say. “I don’t just want to say X is the theme,” she explains, “because that’s not what’s really going on.” Bravo. She cares about saying something true. (Another student I had spoken with earlier, after she had finally come up with a theme statement about undergoing trials in order to mature, when asked if she thought Cormac McCarthy was actually trying to convey that theme in his novel, replied that she didn’t care. She could write an essay about it, and that’s what mattered, and now, I suppose, she could go “feed the chickens”. Yikes.)

“I tried last night to come up with a theme, but they all just didn’t sound right,” my current student explained, gazing at her laptop screen with its strikethroughs and different colored fonts and other fragments of her labor.

As I listened, I realized, in the back of my mind, that I didn’t know how to help her.

That is, how to really help her. I could pretty easily come up with a theme statement and just give it to her, or ask her extremely leading questions that would help her to think of something rather similar to what I had in mind–but how to help her discover a central theme in King Lear on her own? I recalled, momentarily, that sinking feeling I got during my first year of teaching.

Flannery O’Connor says somewhere, probably in one of her letters, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say” (source).

It’s an idea I try to share with my students, especially those that feel like they have to have everything planned out before they can start writing. Although I fully support outlines if they are helpful, I do think kids need to learn that so often we only get to discover the deeper riches and beauty and meaning in a work while we write about it– not before.

Flannery says elsewhere, “I write to discover what I know.” Perhaps her preference for an organic meaning over a formulaic theme comes from her experience of what writing is really like. She knows that real writers don’t plant themes in stories like trophies to be dug up once you’ve cleared away enough of the distracting dirt of the plot. In fact, this is impossible. All they have is the dirt–the plot, I mean. There are no trophies to hide. Meaning simmers in the words themselves. The author only really knows what the work is going to mean after she has written it–and even then, not completely.

This rambling blog post itself, which has moved from a distant memory to an event in the library today to some musings on theme and the act of teaching illustrates her point too. I didn’t know, exactly, what I was going to write about until I began writing. (This post also highlights the importance of editing, and how once you DO discover what you want to say, you should probably go back through your work and delete all the irrelevant parts, if you have the time or inclination…)

I find O’Connor’s experience of writing in order to find out what she wants to say to be true of teaching as well. When I was a student I had this notion that teachers walked into a classroom with all of their thoughts carefully planned out–almost like a speech. And, perhaps, some teachers do teach this way, especially if they are giving a lecture of some kind. But there is so much in teaching high school kids that cannot work that way, that is unexpected, that cannot be planned ahead of time. The conversation comes and goes where it wills and often seems to have a plan of its own that you never could have anticipated. That definitely happened today.

So, back in the library, I paused for a moment, cleared my throat, and—gathering some confidence in the Holy Spirit who also likes to come and go when He wills and “who intercedes for us with sighs to deep for words” when we pray, but also, hopefully, when we teach—I said,

“Tell me more about the first time you saw Shakespeare mention blindness in the play. What did you notice?”

If there were another Narnia book

There are some books you always come back to, no matter how long you have been away from them. You come back to be comforted, uplifted, to see old friends again…

Or you come back because there is something still nagging at you.

This post is for people who have read The Chronicles of Narnia. There are spoilers, so if you have not read the books, please go fill the gaping hole in your childhood as soon as possible and come back to this post afterwards.

hipster-belle-meme-generator-i-read-that-book-before-it-was-a-movie-66fd20

Now then–

The Pevensie children, who enter the world of Narnia through the wardrobe, help put an end to winters with no Christmases, and become kings and queens, appear in five out of the seven books in the series. One wonders if perhaps Narnia with all its creatures was created just for them — for their particular salvation, though of course they play a large role in saving Narnia in return many times.

They appear at the very end of book seven, The Last Battle, on the other side of the stable door and in Aslan’s country.

There are three fascinating plot choices Lewis made in this last book regarding the Pevensies:

  1. Peter, Edmund and Lucy die in a train crash. That is how they end up in Aslan’s country (heaven) at all.
  2. Susan, however, was not on the train, and does not die. So she is left alive in our world and is not present with the other three in the last book.
  3. We learn that Susan has stopped believing in Narnia altogether.

Briefly – #1 is fascinating because up until this point, the only main character who dies during any of the stories is Aslan himself, and he comes back because of the “deeper magic before the dawn of time.” The children’s deaths are not dwelt upon at length, but I remember feeling a little shock when my dad read this part to me when I was a child. I may have been dimly aware that I would have only been a few years younger than Lucy was at that point. Lewis does not seem to shy away from hinting at his young readers’ own mortality as they learn that the characters they have followed and identified with met a rather tragic end.

But it is points 2 and 3 that surprised me far more when I first read The Last Battle. In fact, “surprised” isn’t really the right word. “Horrified” might be closer.

The whole book, of course, is about the battle of belief. Eustace and Jill find themselves in a Narnia where many people do not believe in Aslan anymore, or confuse Aslan with the demonic figure Tash. The Pevensie children, who had saved Narnia long before, are now perceived as mere legends themselves.

And then we find out that Susan herself has also stopped believing:

“Sir,” said Tirian, when he had greeted all these. “If I have read the chronicle aright, there should be another. Has not your Majesty two sisters? Where is Queen Susan?”
“My sister Susan,’ answered Peter shortly and gravely, ‘is no longer a friend of Narnia.”
“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says, ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.’”
“Oh Susan!” said Jill. “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.”

C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle

I was crushed.

Initially, I was devastated by Peter, Edmund and Lucy’s seemingly quick recovery from the loss of their sister. They seem irritated with her instead of deeply wounded by her absence.

Then, I was angry with the culprit herself. How could Susan give Narnia up for nylons? How could she leave her brothers and sister and the world they had shared? Above all, how could she leave Aslan? 

And, finally, I was furious with the author. How could Lewis have left Susan?

If your feminist side, like mine, is also angry with Lewis for condemning Susan’s interest in “nylons and lipstick” and growing up, see Eileen Lee’s wonderful response to that complaint here. A taste:

It is not so much Susan’s external activities, I think, that Lewis wanted to highlight, but the condition of her heart. And this was her condition—that she was preoccupied with things that, while not necessarily bad, were not worthy to be the foundation of her identity or source of affirmation. For she was a Queen. She had simply forgotten so.

My younger self was angry with Lewis, and my older self is still troubled by his choice, but now I think perhaps he was onto something.

Losing one’s faith really is a form of forgetting.

I’ve written about the connection between faith and memory before, and so have Popes Francis and Benedict in Lumen Fidei. How often does our faith in God waver because we forget what he is really like?  How often do we sin because we forget ourselves?

How many friends of ours, or family members, have fallen away from faith because they seem to have forgotten something? You kind of want to shake them sometimes and say, “But don’t you remember?”

In Susan’s case the relationship between faith and memory is particularly striking. She wants to be “grown up” and leave her former identity behind. She has forgotten who she really is.

But of course Aslan has not. He always did say, “Once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen.”

That line gives me hope for Susan, and for all the Susans in the world (of which number I am often included).

JustinSweet_Narnia-concept
Concept Art via Narniafans.com

Later, Lewis gave this tantalizing response to a concerned young reader in 1957:

“The books don’t tell us what happened to Susan. She is left alive in this world at the end, having by then turned into a rather silly, conceited young woman. But there’s plenty of time for her to mend and perhaps she will get to Aslan’s country in the end . . . in her own way.”

via Matthew Alderman, “Whatever Happened to Susan Pevensie” First Things

His words still echo in my mind.

I have this crazy desire to write that book. How does Susan “get to Aslan’s country in the end, in her own way”? How does she react to the death of her entire family? (We learn the Pevensie parents also died in the crash.) Does she grow up like she wants to? Does she get married and have kids? Does her daughter get to Narnia somehow, even after the ending of that world in The Last Battle? (Time always was flexible between that world and ours.) Does the story somehow involve the horn of Queen Susan, which was lost after the events of Wardrobe and rediscovered in Prince Caspian? Or does it perhaps explore the chase of the ever-elusive White Stag?

I have, of course, no right to attempt such a story. The “canon” is closed.

And perhaps leaving Susan’s fate unresolved is wise. Lewis’ troubling, irritating choice alerts young readers to the fact that “the last battle” of your life–the only battle of your life–is the battle of faith, and that it is ongoing. You win, you lose, you win again, you lose again. Even a Queen of Narnia is not safe. And even a “grown up” is not lost.

Peter, Edmund, and Lucy are not devastated by Susan’s departure not just because the “sorrows of hell cannot touch the joys of heaven” but also because, perhaps, the separation may only be temporary. Susan’s story, Lewis indicates, is not over yet.

Neither is ours.

I can see the beginning chapter now.

They were not to take the train, because Mother hated trains. But Father was very ill and the doctors said country air was the kindest medicine left for him. The small farm cottage that had been left to them years ago was prepared. So the Walker family took a bus from London, and then another bus, and then another—each a little less crowded than the last…

Who is Emily Eden?

19tt15
The Lady Emily Eden. Source: tribuneindia.com

I had never heard of her before, so when my friend explained to me that she was a contemporary of Jane Austen and had written a wonderful novel, I was immediately intrigued. Noel Perrin of The Washington Post, on the back cover, amusingly observes, “The Semi-Attached Couple is the answer to a good many prayers. It is the book you go on to when you have run out of Jane Austen’s novels.”

We all know Jane Austen and her enduring influence on our ideas of romance and strong women. The Wall Street Journal just posted a great article by Alexander McCall Smith exploring the mystery of her appeal even to contemporary people: “The Secret of the Jane Austen Industry”. Smith wonders,

What explains the continued popularity of Jane Austen and the handful of novels she wrote? It is, after all, rather remarkable that a woman who spent her life in quiet provincial circumstances in early 19th-century England should become, posthumously, a literary celebrity outshining every author since then, bar none. Tolstoy, Dickens and Proust are all remembered, and still read, but they do not have countless fans throughout the world who reread their books each year, who eagerly await the latest television or movie adaptation, who attend conventions in period costume, and who no doubt dream about the heroes and heroines of their novels. (Smith, “The Secret of the Jane Austen Industry.” Wall Street Journal).

After reading Emily Eden’s delightful novel, The Semi-Detached Couple, I guess my question is this:

Why has everyone heard of Jane Austen and nobody has heard of Emily Eden?

Emily Eden (1797-1869) occupied a rather distinguished position in the upper class of her day. She, like Austen, never married– but unlike Austen did quite a bit of traveling, even to India with her beloved brother, where she wrote about her experiences.

The Semi-Detatched Couple was originally written around 1830 but not published until 1860. Interestingly Eden felt the need to include a caveat right after the cover page, explaining to her audience that this novel had been written a generation ago, “before railroads were established, and traveling carriages-and-four superseded” and thus really was “a strange Chronicle of the Olden Time” (Eden, Preface to The Semi-Detatched Couple).

Unlike Austen, who always writes about the pre-marriage adventures of courtship, pursuit, and misunderstanding–Eden in this novel writes about post-married life. The novel explores the challenges of a newly married couple who have a very hard time understanding one another. Lord Teviot is desperately in love with this wife but extremely jealous of her strong attachment to her family. Lady Helen is confused by her husband’s moodiness and misses her loving home.

However, like Austen, Eden creates extremely memorable, humorous, and occasionally infuriating characters–like the next door neighbor Mrs. Douglas who

had never had the slightest pretensions to good looks; in fact, though it is wrong to say anything so ill-natured, she was excessively plain, always had been so, and had a soreness on the subject of beauty, that looked perhaps as like envy as any other quality. As she had no hope of raising herself to the rank of a beauty, her only chance was bringing others down to her own level. “How old she is looking!” — “How she is altered!” were the expressions that invariably concluded Mrs. Douglas’ comments on her acquaintances […] (Ibid 21)

Eden, like Austen, is a very opinionated narrator whose frequent use of irony and wit had me laughing out loud many times throughout the novel.

Very aware of Austen’s influence, Eden even includes an explicit reference to her work. In a letter to her mother while visiting the enviable Ecksdales, Eliza Douglas says,

I write in such haste, that I have not time for more than several very important questions which I want you to answer. What am I to give the housemaids here? and do you object to my reading novels, if Lady Eskdale says there is no harm in them? They look very tempting, particularly one called Pride and Prejudice. (Ibid)

Like Austen, Eden makes frequent use of letter writing in advancing the plot and exploring the motives of her characters. But fascinatingly, unlike Austen, she explores the servants perspectives of their lords and ladies. In a letter from Mrs. Tomkinson, Helen’s ladies maid, we hear about the petty competitions between servants, their opinions on the upper-class interactions they witness daily, and their own concerns.  Eden treats them with the same amused attitude she has toward all of her characters.

Notably, Jane Austen never enters into the mind or heart of any servant in her novels. They are barely mentioned in her works at all. I wonder if perhaps, because Lady Eden belonged the the upper class and was safely removed from the servants’ circle, she did not feel threatened in any way by their perspectives and could enter into them in her novels without losing ironic detachment. Austen, being somewhat closer in class, perhaps could not share in this narrative perspective.

Austen also does not comment very much on the politics of her day (although I do not hold this against her). Eden does, and reveals all the ridiculous machinations of the political process of the period. In some ways she was far more worldly than Austen and this is very apparent in her work.

Although I do not think Lady Eden’s novel reaches the depth of Austen’s finest works, (like Emma or Persuasion), I think it certainly surpasses Northanger Abbey and, in some ways, even Pride and Prejudice. She is gentler toward her characters than Austen is. And the “villains” in her story are not soundly punished like Mr. Willoughby and Mr. Wickham are, which perhaps better illustrates an irritating truth about human life.

I highly recommend The Semi-Detached Couple and wish more people knew Lady Eden.

Flannery’s Birthday and the Annunciation

images-2
source: mbird.com

I would be remiss if I did not blog on Flannery O’Connor’s birthday.

I have always liked the fact that March 25th is also the Feast of the Annunciation – the day that God became “incarnate of the Virgin Mary,” according to the Creed.

It seems very fitting that Mary Flannery (yep, Mary is her first name, Flannery her second and later her published name) should have been born on this feast day. The Incarnation seems to be the central concern of all of her works. She says:

The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem is to find that location.

Well, in some sense, that location is the Virgin Mary. That’s where “time and place and eternity” met for the first time.

In Flannery’s fiction, that location is usually a bizarrely violent moment of grace: like the murder of the grandmother and her whole family, the drowning / baptism of the little boy, the woman gored in the heart by a runaway bull… the list goes on.

Some pious Catholics are scandalized by Flannery’s writing, and they often cite the absurdity and violence in her works as their reasons.

Maybe they’re forgetting that, in the original Incarnation, when God first entered temporality, there were all sorts of violence afoot. Herod’s slaughter of hundreds of little baby boys comes to mind.

And even Simeon’s prophecy to Mary– as he held her beloved child in his arms — is predominantly concerned with violence: “A sword will piece your own soul too” (Lk 2:25).

And I don’t think we need to cite the crucifixion.

Flannery’s response is that the earthly response to grace is usually a violent one, and that “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”

As beautiful as the Feast of the Annunciation is, it’s important to remember Who was being Announced. The Incarnation of God was something wholly unexpected and ridiculous. And when people finally began to understand what He was saying, they killed Him, because in a way it was the typical human response to divine grace.

Flannery O’Connor shows the Incarnation over and over in her stories.

And like Mary brought grace into the world, Flannery brings grace into her fiction.

(She would probably scoff at that last sentence and censure me for impiety and exaggeration.)

 

If I could Teach One Thing About Writing…

… this is what it would be. I don’t know how I can really teach this, or rather, impart it. I do not know even if I have grasped this myself really.

“Wouldn’t it be better for you to discover a meaning in what you write than to impose one? Nothing you write will lack meaning because the meaning is in you.” – Flannery O’Connor

source: theatalantic.com
source: theatalantic.com

I had a conversation the other day with someone asking my opinion about Ayn Rand. Suppressing an (involuntary) shudder, I replied that if you’re vocation is propaganda, go into advertising, not novel-writing.

But Ms. Rand is just an extreme example of what most bad writers do. They come at a work with an “idea” they wish to impart– a “meaning”– or, much worse, a “moral“. You see this especially in bad fiction, but also in bad essay writing where the essay is supposed to be concerned with drawing out the meaning of a poem or work, and instead imposes a meaning upon it like a straightjacket.

You hear it in the worst English classes: “water means baptism, renewal. the sun means energy, new life. green always means X, and red Y, and this that, and blah blah blah….”

I want to tell my students: life just isn’t like that. Stop trying to impose your own patterns on it and let the God of all patterns show you His strange and forever-suprising designs. They might not be what you think. And if He doesn’t show them to you, so be it. It is okay. You don’t have to know.

It’s better to say, “I don’t know” than to pretend like you do.

Even in essay writing. Even in English class.

Some of my favorite essays I have ever read express an honest uncertainty– not a cop-out-I’m-too-lazy-to-think-about-anything– but rather a truthful and painful acknowledgement of inadequacy before the truth: “It seems like Dickinson could be saying … although it is possible that she … and ultimately this ambiguity shows the reader that …”

Flannery got it right when it comes to fiction. As much as she was (and is) an opinionated and ornery Southern lady, she was also a humble Christian and knew when to shut her own mouth and let the mystery speak for itself–whatever it meant to say.

The hard thing is literature is like life–and tells us about life. Life, too, is far beyond our silly pattern-making. I know several people (including myself) who love to “discover” patterns in their lives and thus ascribe different meanings and morals and oh now I get its, but these are just silly.

How do I tell you that writing reveals the secret?

It is better–far better– to discover a meaning in your writing, in your reading, in your life than to impose one.

And, as Flannery says, don’t be afraid. Nothing you write–or live– will lack meaning, because the meaning is in you.

There is the Holy Spirit, who “breathes in us sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).

7 Quick Takes Friday (2/28/14)

-1-

Just this.

1622209_403460403124930_1547732094_n

-2-

In Creative Writing, we are working on murder mystery stories. What’s so interesting to me about this genre is how particular it is. You just have to have certain strict elements to make this type of story work. For instance:

Objects. Objects are crucial to murder mysteries in a way that they are not to basically any other type of fiction. Obviously “the murder weapon” is often important, but more crucially, the plot itself is almost always driven by the discovery of objects–physical clues that lead the protagonist to the truth.

Think: in the first episode of the new Sherlock series, what object is crucial?

source: sherlockology.com
source: sherlockology.com

Yup. The pink suitcase. It’s essential. If the murderer had not forgotten leave the pink suitcase with the body, it would have been nearly impossible to prove that the lady had not committed suicide. But since the pink suitcase was missing, and Holmes knew (by the splash of dirty water on her left ankle) that she had been dragging a suitcase behind her in the rain, the so-called “suicide” had to involve at least one other person on the scene–the murderer.

Still not convinced?

sa columbo peter falk season 5 dvd review PDVD_020Think: In almost every Columbo episode, an object (or objects) plays a crucial role in Columbo’s deciphering of the facts versus the story given by the murderer.

In the episode we watched in class, for example, we see Columbo reading a newspaper while the police scurry about the house and the medical examiner peers over the body. As usual, Columbo gets some weird glances for seeming to be so uninterested in what is most important.

Wait. What? You’ve never seen a Columbo episode before???

But, in his characteristic way, there is always just “one more thing” that Columbo has questions about. In this case, he has questions about the newspaper. The murderer claimed she had not left the house all day and there was no one else who came to see her. The newspaper must have been delivered to the house, she said.

Ah– but only morning editions of the paper are delivered. The evening edition had to have been bought by someone at a drug store or grocery, proving that the murderer had, in fact, left the house even though she claimed not to.

So the challenge for my students is to recognize–and utilize–the importance of objects in their own murder mystery stories. Most really good mysteries rely upon them.

-3-

Speaking of objects, I wrote a paper in college tracing the development of the novel by looking at how objects are treated in four specific works: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Gustave Flaubert’s novella A Simple Heart, William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop.

The objects I consider in these works are, respectively: Mr. Darcy’s portrait, Felicite’s green parrot, the coffin and Our Lady’s tilma.

What’s interesting is how these four works suggest the increasing importance of objects in novels over time. Jane Austen (1775-1817) and other early novelists (Phillip Sidney, John Bunyan, Jonathan Swift, Laurence Sterne, Anthony Trollope) almost never talk about objects because they are more interested in ideas, concepts, conversation, and character. This is why the scene where Elizabeth experiences a revelation about Mr. Darcy while looking at his painted portrait is so interesting; it is very unusual for Austen and most other early novelists. By the time we get to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, objects are everywhere.

The biggest exception I can think of to this rule about early novelists is in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), where one of the best scenes in this early novel is about the main character salvaging various objects from the wreck of his ship. But the story still centers around his inner thoughts and religious conversion. Moreover, in most of these early novels, the narrator (even if she is not directly involved in the action of the story) uses 1st person–giving a sense of subjectivity rather than objectivity.

By the time we reach Flaubert and his parrot, however, objects become a lot more prominent in novels—perhaps partially due to the increasing influence of the Industrial Revolution and advances in science and what is “objectively” real. Think of the significance of the scarlet letter in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous work (1850), or the whale (is it okay to say it functions as an object?) and Captain Ahab’s wooden leg in Moby Dick (1851). Even in very interior and psychologically-driven novels, like Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866), objects (and characters’ interpretations of them) feature very prominently.  

By the time we get to Faulkner, the 18th and early 19th century subjectivity of the opinionated (and often 1st person narrator) begins to be fused with the objective mid-18th through late 20th century objective third person. Faulkner, Virgina Woolf and James Joyce and other adventurers into streams of consciousness and human interiority combine an emphasis on the external world with and its tenuous relationship to the internal world of the human mind.

I haven’t read as much post-modern fiction, but I would guess the relationship between character and object has already begun to change very significantly.

All of this is not to say that objects should “mean” something in a story– but rather that looking at the way an author presents objects tells us a lot about the his epistemology– what human beings can know about reality.

-4-

Obviously my above argument is fraught with holes and exceptions, but I think the general idea holds.

Speaking of ideas with a lot of holes and exceptions, this is a very interesting take on the popular Myers-Briggs Personality Test–a test which, by the way, has always fascinated me.

A taste:

All tests of the Myers-Briggs ilk are tautologies.  They are tautological because their results cannot exceed my input. If out of 100 questions, I 100 times affirm that I am likely to grow angry over criticism and confrontation, all my 100-question test-result really says is that “I am likely to grow angry over criticism and confrontation.” Sure, a test may express its tautological conclusions in words that sound like it has digested our answers and excreted some new diamond — as when we tell a test in 100 different ways that we are most likely to look outwardly than inwardly, and it tells us we are an “extrovert” — but closer inspection reveals that this new “identity” is no more than a simplified expression of what we usually do — an “extrovert” is defined as a person more likely to look outwardly than inwardly. The problem with test-takers is that we conflate words which summarize and offer back to us our habits with words that serve as identities given to us by the test. (BadCatholic, “Magic and Myers-Briggs”)

Hmm.

It is true that we should not so easily conflate “habit” with “identity” (although immediately Flannery O’Connor’s Habit of Being comes to mind).

But on the other hand: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

Aristotle, anyone?

UPDATE: Or, as Molly pointed out to me, not actually Aristotle, but Will Durant’s characterization in The Story of Philosophy.

#whathappenswhenyouhaveUDfriends

-5-

On the one year (!) anniversary of Pope Benedict’s official retirement, via Catholic News Agency:

1920063_10151850796636486_2037905161_n

-6-

Back to objects.

An excerpt from my essay:

For Felicite, however, this [relationship between a human being and an object] is more complex, and for Flaubert (or at least for his narrator) objects seem to gather more levels of meaning than they do for Austen. The portrait of Darcy in Pride and Prejudice is simply a description of him—its meaning lies in its accurate rendering and its ability to convey something of his inner character to Elizabeth. But the picture of the Holy Spirit and the stuffed parrot have a more complex relationship to one another and to Felicite—because that very relationship exists only in her perception: “In her mind, the one became associated with the other, the parrot becoming sanctified by connection with the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit in turn acquiring added life and meaning” (SH 35). The picture of the Holy Spirit is not a portrait of the parrot—yet the two objects acquire a kind of correspondence in Felicity’s “mind,” in her imaginative awareness. In Flaubert’s story the object’s significance is also much more subjectively determined; Darcy’s portrait would represent Darcy to almost everyone in Austen’s world (albeit to a lesser degree than to Elizabeth), but we may safely assume that the stuffed parrot would suggest the Holy Spirit only to Felicite. (Shea, “People and Things: Epistemological Possibility and Limit in Austen, Flaubert, Faulkner and Cather”)

Next time you read a really good novel, notice any and all objects presented. Do they figure prominently in the plot? Do they reveal something about how characters come to know the truth about themselves or about one another?

Are objects prominently featured at all?

Why?

-7-

Also, here is the most fascinating article to appear on my newsfeed this week (and, thanks to my very interesting friends, that is saying a lot):

“8 Surprising Historical Facts that Will Change Your Concept of Time Forever.”

This article features sliced bread, Betty White, the pyramids of Egypt, the Chicago Cubs, and other notables.

Excerpt:

Not everyone can be a world history master, especially when we tend to learn about it in specifically segmented classes like “European History” or “American Revolutionary History.” Maybe you have an exceptional grasp on the global historical timeline. But for those of us who don’t, the list below, inspired by a recent Reddit thread called “What are two events that took place in the same time in history but don’t seem like they would have?” puts key historical moments into some much-needed context. (huffingtonpost.com)

Have a great weekend!

The Fault in Our Selves

This wonderful quote by the extremely quotable C. S. Lewis appeared on my Facebook newsfeed today:

“In order to pronounce a book bad, it is not enough to discover that it elicits no good response from ourselves, for that might be our fault.” (Lewis, “An Experiment in Criticism”)

I think I am going to have these words painted in large letters right above the front board in my classroom.

And then I will have my students memorize this quote during the first week of school.

And at any point during the year, when a student complains that a book is “boring,” I will have him stand up and recite the words of C. S. Lewis from memory and see if anything happens.

But I am as guilty of Lewis’s implicit criticism as any of my kids. There are great works of literature I have had absolutely no taste for–and I readily admit the fault lies with me and not with War and Peace, Sir Gawain or Gulliver’s Travels.

There are other works which bored me the first time I read them but delighted me when I returned to them years later: Pride and Prejudice (gasp!) and Robinson Crusoe come to mind.

It’s not the book that changed. I did. I think for the better–at least insofar as I became able to appreciate what these books give.

In other cases, there are books that I used to think very profound and now have realized (or at least believe) that I misjudged.

But again, the books didn’t change, I did. And hopefully (though not certainly) for the better.

The relationship between text and reader is so complex that sometimes it is hard to tell where the “fault”–if any–lies. Flannery O’Connor’s first novel Wise Blood has been criticized as an ungainly novel, and some critics suggest she should stick to the short story where she belongs. Honestly, I did not enjoy Wise Blood when I read it years ago, and sadly I have not attempted to read it since. But O’Connor is one of those authors whom I think it is better to approach again with humility as well as criticism.

A case in point. In one letter, O’Connor says:

I once received a letter from an old lady in California who informed me that when the tired reader comes home at night, he wishes to read something that will lift up his heart. And it seems her heart had not been lifted up by anything of mine she had read. I think that if her heart had been in the right place, it would have been lifted up. (The Habit of Being: Collected Letters)

I’m inclined to agree.

During Bell Work today, I had a different but related quote written on the board that I asked my students to try to paraphrase in their own words:

“The fault […] lies not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

I did not cite the quote because I’m still leaving our next unit as sort of a surprise, but as many of you probably know, it is from William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Cassius says this to Brutus early on in the play, when he is trying to convince him to take action against Caesar and eventually to join a conspiracy to kill him. Cassius insists that it’s not because of fate (“the stars”) that we little Romans are oppressed by a dictator– it’s our own fault. We let him have the power. Now we have to do something about it.

BrutusandCAssius
Louis Calhern as Cassius (left) and James Mason as Brutus (right) in the 1953 movie version of Shakespeare’s tragedy

Of course, in this particular instance, Cassius’ wise statement about human nature is really only a ploy to manipulate Brutus into joining him in his dark plans. A central question of the play actually does turn out to be whose “fault” is the tragedy really? Caesar’s, because he is “ambitious”? Brutus, because he is disloyal? Cassius’, because he is scheming? Marc Antony’s, because he is eloquent and manipulative? The Roman people’s, because they are gullible?

The_Fault_in_Our_Stars
source: wikipedia

A lot of my students have been talking about (and even reading!) a book called The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, a novel about two teenagers suffering from terminal disease who fall in love with each other. Interestingly, Green inverts the original quote. His title seems to suggest that the “fault” really is “in our stars”–that is, outside of our own personal control, rather than “in ourselves.”

Which is, of course, what most teenagers (and human beings in general) like to hear*.

If I don’t like a book, it must be the book’s fault. If I don’t like a movie, it must be the movie’s fault. If I don’t like another person, it must be his fault.

How seldom do we wonder if our lack of joy, or of feeling entertained, or of liking someone else is because of our own deficiencies!

And not in a “1950’s Catholic guilt” way, either. That’s just too easy.

Real humility acknowledges what is true. As one of my UD Professors (Father Maguire) put it, “Humility is the reality principle.” It is the virtue of seeing oneself truthfully, both the good and the bad.

I notice that Christians (like myself in particular) bring this sort of “fault” misplacement to prayer and liturgy just as much as to our reading. The Mass is boring. The music is bad. The priest can’t string a word together in the homily. So-and-so was distracting me. This is so “Spirit of Vatican II.” This is so “Pre-Vatican II.” I prayed and nothing happened. God isn’t listening. It didn’t make me feel better. I wasn’t uplifted.

Well.

Maybe if my heart had been in the right place…

*Caveat: I have not read Green’s book. But I’m thinking of doing so because so many of my kids are reading it. Though many of them may just wait to see the movie version that’s coming out soon.

Yes, Writers Can Be Wrong About Their Own Stories

Of course, as my friends pointed out to me, it depends what you mean by “wrong.”

As Joseph says,

“[Rightness or wrongness in literature is] about properly understanding it–just like I can be wrong about what you’re thinking, even though in doing so I’m not necessarily “wronging” you. If a moral element sometimes creeps into our language, it’s because misunderstanding someone often involves “wronging” them morally, and works of art, while not persons, are kinda like persons; we like pretending they’re our friends. (See comment in previous post)

I like the idea that works of literature are sort of like persons. We can be mistaken about them. We can be mistaken about them even if we ourselves gave birth to them–if we were their authors.

In my previous post, I mentioned that the whole J. K. Rowling regretting her Ron and Hermione romance was making me think about the relationship of authors to their own writing, and that I believed this has something to do with God’s relationship to Creation.

Theologians often say that we are made “in the image and likeness of God” (Genesis) insofar as we have free will–we can choose to love or not to love. The more we choose to love, the more like God we are. In other words, we, as creatures, are better the more we conform to our Creator.

1) Now I think that being in the “image and likeness” of God has lots of other repercussions as well, and I am starting to wonder if literature is one of them. Not only do human beings share in God’s creative act when they beget children–they also share in God’s creative act (analogously) when they “beget” literature. Like God, they create entire worlds, possibilities, lives and choices. Unlike God, human beings are not capable of bestowing free will in a true sense on their characters as God does upon us. Whether they like it or not, characters conform to the will of the human author.

2) God, obviously, is always “right” about his creation. He is right in the sense of composition–how He created us. He is right in his perspective–He sees us as we truly are. Though some people quarrel with the whole “free will” plot element, since that leads to sin, suffering and death, Christians nevertheless believe that this plot twist is essential to God’s greater story for us, and will make sense when we finally arrive at the last chapter. (See also the chapter on the crucifixion and resurrection.)

3) Human beings, however, are not always right about their “creations”–whether we are speaking about real children or fictional characters and plots. They can be wrong in the sense of composition–how they raise their children or what qualities and techniques they use to make their characters. They can also be wrong in their sense of perspective–human beings do not see their own children, or their own stories for that matter, as they truly are.

Again, Joseph:

The question of composition is an entirely different one from interpretation; the author who misunderstands her work is like the parent who misunderstands her child after the child grows up, while the author who errs in writing her work is like the parent who raises her child poorly. Can a compositional choice be incorrect? Yes, if it makes the composition worse than some other easily accessible option. Works of literature are often wrong, that is, worse than they could have been. (Ibid)

It is in this last sense–interpretation–that I believe J. K. Rowling is mistaken or “wrong” about Ron and Hermione. It is in the former sense–composition–that I believe she is “wrong” in her resuscitation of Harry in book seven.

But Amanda raises an interesting question:

But […] Rowling wasn’t talking about being wrong in her understanding of the Harry Potter books, she was talking about being wrong in composing it. Of course anyone can misunderstand a work that’s written, but can you misunderstand it when you’re writing it and then say you wrote it wrong afterward? Being wrong in her compositional choice is what I think Rowling meant… being wrong in some technical aspect of her writing. But Maura seemed to be positing that authors can be wrong about their works in another way, and I’m curious what way that would be. (Ibid)

In response, I would also claim that while J. K. Rowling believes her error lay in the composition of Ron and Hermione’s romance, I believe she is actually wrong in her interpretation. This is rather a bold thing to claim, because obviously I am not J. K. Rowling and she knows better than I do why she was motivated to create the story that she did. Maybe those reasons were “personal,” as she stated. Yet whatever they were, I think her composition of that particular romance was, in fact, successful and appropriate, even though she believes now that her composition was flawed.

I could write an entire post or two on why I believe she is wrong, but I will contain myself to just a quote from Rosenberg’s article:

[…] It’s so sad that Rowling appears to be treating Ron and Hermione’s relationship as a kind of fan service that she was too weak to resist. Love isn’t always immediate, and it doesn’t always come from a place of strength. Sometimes love is strongest between people who have seen each other at their ugliest and most damaged. […] Ron knew Hermione when she was a priggish scold and a coward. Hermione knew Ron when his privilege was exposed and his will broke. That they love each other anyway, and that they help each other become heroes, is a truer illustration of the power of love than the idea that it’s magic. (Rosenberg)

But apart from enjoying Rowling’s books, what actually gets me interested in all this is the question of authority: who has it in literature?

In some ways, I am inclined to the think the author of a work has more credible authority on the meaning of that work than most readers. I see this all the time in the classroom. There are many letters in which Flannery O’Connor expresses her frustration at the lack of understanding among her readers.

And yet, in both the Rowling and Woolf example, and in others, I am finding that oftentimes authors don’t know their creations quite as well as they may believe.

This seems to me to be rather mysterious but also very natural.

When Flannery O’Connor says, “I write to discover what I know,” she is hinting at a rather remarkable truth about language — that it is not only expressive, but revelatory. The one who speaks–or writes–has just as much to discover in the process of writing as the reader does in the process of reading.

In some ways, the finished work has a kind of integrity apart from the author. It is a created thing, and while it does not exactly have free will, it does have a kind of independence.

This is why readers can find things in a work an author never intended to put there. But sometimes those things are very much there. Sometimes the reader sees things the author does not.

It is very amazing to me that works of literature can actually contain truths that the creator did not intend or even understand. We see this most especially with Scripture–because of hidden Divine inspiration behind the human authorship–but we can also see it in more ordinary pieces of literature.

The truth about human relationships can be discovered in J. K. Rowling’s work even if she herself has not discovered it.

Serena brought to my attention a wonderful article that follows this line of thinking:

“What J. K. Rowling’s Ron and Hermione Bombshell Tells us About True Love and Harry Potter” by Alyssa Rosenberg

A taste:

[I]t is interesting to me that Rowling apparently regrets what I see as some of the most sensitively written and emotionally well-realized passages in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows as an error of judgement.

Brianna also found a great article about this whole shenanigans you should read:

“Why we shouldn’t care who Hermione Granger dated” by Marama Whyte

A taste:

Following the bombshell, many Potter fans have divided angrily along the old shipping lines – Harry Potter vs Ron Weasley. But one character has been distinctly overlooked in the heated debates that have followed – Hermione Granger, the woman at the centre of both (potential) relationships. It seems like everyone has their own opinion on who Hermione is best suited for.

But why do we care?

Yes. Why indeed?