"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

28 March 2006

Woundedness and Love

Gardner again, from the book's final chapter:

"Art begins in a wound, an imperfection -- a wound inherent in the nature of life itself -- and is an attempt either to learn to live with the wound or to heal it. It is the pain of the wound which impels the artist to do his work, and it is the universality of woundedness in the human condition which makes the work of art significant [. . .]."

"True art's divine madness is shot through with love: love of the good, a love proved not by some airy and abstract high-mindedness but by active celebration of whatever good or trace of good can be found by a quick and compassionate eye in this always corrupt and corruptible but god-freighted world. [. . .] The business of civilization is to pay attention, remembering what is central, remembering that we live or die by the artist's vision, sane or cracked."

27 March 2006

Myths to Live By

Gardner sums up this chapter (the first chapter of part 2 of On Moral Fiction) this way:

"Real art creates myths a society can live instead of die by, and clearly our society is in need of such myths. What I claim is that such myths are not mere hopeful fairy tales but the products of careful and disciplined thought; that a properly built myth is worthy of belief, at least tentatively; that working at art is a moral act; that a work of art is a moral example; and that false art can be known for what it is if one remembers the rules. The black abyss stirs a certain fascination, admittedly, or we would not pay so many artists so much money to keep staring at it. But the black abyss is merely life as it is or as it soon may become, and staring at it does nothing, merely confirms that it is there. It seems to me time that artists start taking that fact as pretty thoroughly established."

I keep looking back at the original publication date of the book, because I find it hard to believe that it was written in the late 1970s. Nothing much seems to have changed . . . Of course what he says about good art, about moral art, if true at all will be always true. But what he says about the bad art of the '70s strikes me as not essentially different from what we still see today. So many of my students still think that a "happy ending" of any sort is inevitably "cheesy" and "unrealistic" because all that is "real" is evil and despair. And my students are Christians, young folk who profess to believe in the ultimate happy ending . . .

Of course, what Gardner writes about here is why The Lord of the Rings resonates so truly. But one needn't write literally mythic fiction to write "myths to live by"; realistic fiction, any genre of fiction, non-fiction, drama, poetry . . . any form of art can create a myth to live by. A student of mine once wrote a short story about a boy (a painter) and a girl (a writer) who are spirited away to another world where their stories and paintings come true: what they envision becomes the reality of that world. Ever since, I have considered all that I write as containing a vision which I pray may come to fruit in someone's life.

The Fiction Writer's Study

I disovered last night that I had not read the second half of John Gardner's On Moral Fiction when I started it a couple of years ago. Needless to say, that was the end of my grading binge.

(Reminder: Gardner, by "moral fiction," means art that is honest and that intends the good of the reader. This is not "moralistic," telling sappy sentimental stories like we so often, sadly, get in "Christian" fiction, but honest writing that acknowledges that art has a purpose: it "celebrates life's potential, offering a vision unmistakeably and unsentimentally rooted in love"; "[i]n art, morality and love are inextricably bound: we affirm what is good -- for the characters in particular and for humanity in general -- because we care.")

I am still in the first chapter of the section, where he is outlining a theory of the thought process of writers of moral fiction. The writer, he says, is testing out some theory of how people think and live by experimenting with characters -- he creates characters, places them in a setting and situation, and watches carefully to see how they act. This "watching" is, Gardner says, a matter of imitation -- the writer is imitating with his characters the way he believes that real people would act. Thus, he says, "[t]he writing of fiction is a mode of thought because by imitating we come to understand the thing we imitate," and "the kind of knowledge that comes from imitation depends for its quality on the sanity and stability of the imitator." (He suggests that this simply means that the writer is making a genuine effort, with real empathy, to understand all the characters of his work -- Tony Esolen recently remarked at Mere Comments on the reason he loves Dickens: Dickens loves his characters and wishes that even the worst of them would choose to be redeemed.)

This imitation, of course, requires that the writer study people. Not psychology or theory, but people. "We study people carefully for two main reasons," Gardner writes, "in order to understand them and fully experience our exchange with them, or in order to feel ourselves superior." Clearly, the writer of moral fiction must not fall to the latter reason, but embrace the former, seeking truth, seeking reality, not confirmation of some already-held prejudice or theory.

Making art, then, is a process of discovery -- sometimes, perhaps, discovery that one is, indeed, right, but often discovery that at least one's idea is oversimple if not simply wrong. The honest writer will always be open to such discoveries.

I am wanting to write fiction again . . .

20 March 2006

On Silence

I have been wanting to post some musings on art as I have just re-read Chaim Potok's novel My Name is Asher Lev, but I am tired and finding it hard to articulate any clear ideas. So I began to browse some of my favored sites, and found this meditation on silence by James Kushiner at the Touchstone weblog, Mere Comments.

There is no describing it. You really must read it.

It made an especially fascinating contrast to an article a former student, now a high school teacher, sent me just this afternoon about "plugged-in kids." But if you only have time to read one thing just now, please read Dr. Kushiner's meditation. It is edifying and challenging.

14 March 2006

Daffodils and Forsythia

Last week, my husband came into the house with an armful of downy yellow daffodils which brightened our kitchen for days. Every time I walked into the dining room, they greeted me with sunny cheerfulness and lifted my spirits.

Leaving for a wedding Saturday afternoon, as we came around the curve at the top of our street we were almost blinded by a row of sun-bright forsythia. I hadn't realized they were there, hadn't really noticed them in all the years we've lived here. But there's no avoiding them this year, the brilliant blossoms waving in celebration of spring.

Other colors are bright and rich this year, too, but the sunshine has come to earth for us, warming hearts even in the chilly air of a rain-washed morning.

03 March 2006

Moments of Delight

Over half my students in each class today; unusual for the day before a break. We are all ready.

My younger daughter invited the YM to stay with her a few days during the break, and she decided to come get him today. She arrived around noon with two of the grandbabies and when she was ready to leave, my husband told her I'd be in my office so she could stop by and say hello/good-bye. This was based on the respectable authority of the schedule I had given him of my classes.

What he had no way of knowing was that we are on "accelerated schedule" today -- a phenomenon we faculty hate because it drops chapel and moves all the classes that usually follow chapel up an hour, and so there is mass confusion from 10:00 a.m. on. So I was heading for class, in a different building from my office, as my daughter left the house to come see me.

Something made me call home from a colleague's office to see if she had arrived and might possibly be detained till my class was over.

"She's on her way up to campus right now," came the answer.

I flung down the receiver, yelled thanks to my colleague as I ran down the hall, scrawled "wait for me" and my initials on the white board in my classroom, then tore down the stairs, across the quad, down more stairs, rolling my eyes at the laughter of students I passed, to arrive, panting ridiculously, at the front of the building just one minute before they did.

So good to see them, even for just a minute. My daughter is simply beautiful, more so every time I see her. Her daughter was in school, but the two boys were with her; the older one said "Hi, Grandma" and "I love you, Grandma" like he really meant it, while the little one eyed me suspiciously and finally declined to let me hold him (though I got in a kiss and a hug anyway).

I miss them. I miss them so much.

01 March 2006

"Christ have mercy"

Today was Ash Wednesday. I don't participate in a church that takes much notice of any but the major church holy days, and I'd had it in my head that Lent started next week.

A year or two ago, I bought a 1928 Book of Common Prayer to use for private devotionals. So tonight, on seeing a news story about Ash Wednesday services, I got it out and found this prayer, meant to be said each day until Palm Sunday:

"Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou has made, and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent; Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."

As Lent is a season of confession and purification, preparation for the celebration of the Passion and Easter, I pray that this prayer will be made true in me and not mere words devoid of meaning. May we come to a place of ever greater devotion to and love for Him, seeing in that supreme sacrifice of Good Friday that His love for us is infinitely great.

Seven Songs and Five Simple Things

Lisa, over at Messy Musings, invited me to join a tag team for seven songs that are meaningful to one. Here's my list. (As you'll see, I'm not into contemporary music . . . Some folk say it's a refusal to grow up, but then, I don't really hear a lot of contemporary that compares technically with some of these, and none that have touched my heart the way these have.)

1. Be Thou My Vision
my favorite hymn
2. Bridge over Troubled Water (Simon and Garfunkel)
3. The Boxer (ditto)
my favorite songwriter is Paul Simon, and these melancholy yet hopeful songs have long been favorites
4. The Circle Game (Joni Mitchell)
the circle of life -- can't stop it and can't get off! at least it's a carousel in this song . . .
5. Fire and Rain (James Taylor)
6. You've Got a Friend (Carole King and James Taylor)
another couple of melancholy songs that speak to certain times and moods
7. Guns that Gained the Fame (Luke Axtell)
a friend of mine and a song about how pride destroys life (the gunslinger may gain fame, but at what cost to his soul?)

I also enjoy instrumental Celtic and Andean music, and bluegrass!

LuCindy, at Quotidian Light, asked folks what five simple things bring one satisfaction and pleasure. Here's my list:

1. sit on the porch and watch the clouds and the mountains
2. listen to classical music
3. work a crossword, cryptogram, or jigsaw puzzle
4. revisit a favorite book
5. Yoga stretches, which I need to get back into the habit of doing

I'd invite these folks to join either or both lists if they are so inclined:

Megan at In Middangeard
Amy at Over the Rainbow
Teri at Bo of the Bales
and anyone else reading who'd like to think on these things!