Tag Archives: Literature

Civilizing Civilization

booksThis last week I packaged my latest version of The Fire Trail, my sixth novel, and put it in the mail to one of several publishers. It felt like sending a child out into the great wide world. 

Much of my work has revolved around the idea of truth, how we find it, how we recognize it, how we know it’s opposite, falsity. And so the search for what is real and true is a theme of The Fire Trail. It is a search that many have made before me, explorations recorded in the literature of mankind, going back to the first scrolls. 

The mind of man has long journeyed into and through the great questions: What is right and what is wrong? What is love? What is goodness and beauty? How do we live together peaceably, respecting one another’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? We call the result, our effort at creating a civilized culture, a civilization. We have come to realize that man is not born civil or civilized, but must be taught and trained and encouraged in the art of selfless love for his neighbor. He must proffer this hope to his world, offer a way forward. 

With the ebbing of religious faith and thus the ebbing of hope in a future, a tsunami of despair has flooded our culture. We are doomed, many say. So it was with great satisfaction that I noticed this last week several optimists, those hope-sayers, who countered the pessimists, those doomsayers. 

Lord Lawson, Chairman of the Global Warming Foundation, writes encouragingly in his recent review in the Wall Street Journal of Ronald Bailey’s The End of Doom: Environmental Renewal in the Twenty-First Century. He describes Mr. Bailey’s list of current scares: overpopulation, the end of natural resources, global warming, genetic modification. Mr. Bailey challenges such scares by pointing out that global living standards are higher than ever and population trends will actually be reversing; genetically modified grain (a GMO), produced by a better breeding technique, feeds the hungry worldwide; fossil fuels are far better for the poor than wood fires, and the contribution to climate change minimal. These visions of hope have triumphed, he notes, because of free market capitalism. 

Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, weighs in with “The Green Scare Problem” (Wall Street Journal): “Making dire predictions is what environmental groups do for a living… they exaggerate… Pesticides were not causing a cancer epidemic…, acid rain was not devastating German forests…, the ozone hole was not making rabbits and salmon blind.” Remedies for scares can be costly and lethal, particularly in regards to GMOs, climate change, and nuclear power, the current fears. 

The truth is that mankind throughout the Western tradition has been inspired and driven to solve problems as they arise. We have used our minds to help one another live better lives, to survive poverty and cure disease. The fears of doomsayers Paul Ehrlich (over-population) and Al Gore (global warming) are without substance and even harmful with their necessary policies, especially hurting the world’s poor. We have every reason to believe that we may be hopeful about the future, not only of the planet, but of human survival. 

That is, if we continue to be inspired and driven to solve problems, if we continue to search for truth and recognize it when we see and hear it, if we continue to teach the rich tapestry of the history of the Western world to the next generation, that tradition of civilizing inquiry. But with the loss of this “civil” education in high schools and colleges, we may have every reason for unease. With the loss of religious faith – and mystery and wonder – we may have reason to lose faith in mankind. We must equip the next generation with what works and what doesn’t (history) and with inspiration to create (the arts). 

John Agresto writes in the Journal about “The Suicide of the Liberal Arts.” While he recognizes the value of an education that will train the student for the workplace, he believes the student must also be trained to think, to ponder the meaning of life, the pursuit of truth, the definitions of beauty and goodness. The classic liberal arts curricula aimed to do this, to inspire us and “teach us how to marvel.” And when we marvel, we admit we are less than marvel-ous, we are not gods, that we have something to reach for outside ourselves. We become creative. We use our minds to help others. Mr. Agresto writes: 

“Some (literature) holds up mirrors labeled ‘courage’ or ‘friendship’ or ‘smallness of soul’ to see if we can see ourselves there… books… can show us and lead us to examine creativity and desire, love and treachery, giddiness and joy, hope and fear, and facing death… (we) ponder law and justice, the nature of innocence and causes of moral culpability, forms of government and the ordering of societies that can preserve and refine our civilization.”

And so as I handed my weighty manuscript, sleeping in its slick Priority envelope, to the postal clerk, I said goodbye and wished it well. I prayed it would find a home, that it would be midwifed into the world of readers, birthed onto white pages or tablet screens. I prayed that my little novel, a (suspenseful) love story set in Berkeley in September 2014, would be my small offering to our culture of despair, a way forward on a path to a more civilized society, one of truth, beauty, and goodness, and one of safety and sanity.

I prayed that we keep well tended that fire trail protecting civilization from the wilderness.

A Sunday Poem

Perhaps it was my vision of music heard in a forest, piano notes calling someone up the path through the front door of a historic mansion to a salon where a young man was playing Beethoven; perhaps it was my recent meditation on poetry and prose and what the difference was, my wondering as to what art was, what spirit was, what man was, thoughts triggered by Jacques Barzun’s The Culture We Deserve; perhaps it was the unique “audition” in church today, the listening and comparison of a new electronic organ and our old pipe organ, the latter long in need of repair.

Perhaps it was all these things, and even as well it might have been the smooth ride, flight, through the new Caldecott shiny silver tunnel, the spanking fourth bore, our wheels spinning along as though we passed through a bullet chamber and shot out on the other side; whatever the reasons, I sensed this morning in church a sudden coming together of beauty, goodness, and truth, a vivid moment of heaven as the priest said, approaching me along the altar rail with the golden chalice, “The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life…”

The sense of intense beauty could also have been our coming in from the cold outside, coming into the warm nave with its red carpet leading to the great marble altar with its medieval Christ above, the giant flaming candlesticks framing the tented tabernacle. It could have come from the shimmering images of red, green, and blue stained glass that filtered the outside light, pulling it, transformed, into the inside. I was in the beauty of all of it, part of it, for I was kneeling with the Host, His Body, in my ordinary fleshy open palm, waiting for the priest with the chalice.

Being a participant in a poem, particularly a real and true one, is no small thing. But it seems to me that we are all poets, that a poet is a person who sees life, or simply desires to. The desire itself opens the door to seeing, noticing. The expression of what is seen (felt, heard, even learned in sudden epiphanies) we call a poem if the words are arranged in a distilled fashion, a closely knit pattern of images sculpted with care, with love, images colorful, powerful, and perfectly chosen. The reader of poetry often says, “Yes!” or “Aha, that’s it!” or “I couldn’t have said it better, she has it! She gets it! She sees life. She has shown me myself.”

Simon Humphries, in his introduction to Christina Rossetti’s Poems and Prose, seems to separate her faith from her poetry, as though such a surgical operation were desired or necessary. He writes as though apologizing for her. He admits we really can’t separate these things, and of course he’s right. But more to the point, faith is poetry and poetry is faith. The spiritual impulse is the creative impulse. Believers are poets. Religious man is artistic man. A poem with Christian themes and symbols weaving through its stanzas is no different in this sense than a poem with agnostic or Muslim or Hindu themes and symbols. Every poet has many aspects that make up his or her character, his or her spirit. Everyone has a belief system of some sort, and if not Christian, then pantheistic or nihilistic or often despairing. These aspects are not separate layers informing the poems, to be peeled away, but are intrinsic to them.

So the more I work with words and writing and images and the creation of characters, the forming of human beings on pages, the more I realize that all of it is spiritual, all of it is poetic. Which is why all forms of art are spiritual expressions of some kind, expressions of the inner desires of man (and woman). We are spiritual beings. So I want to explore musical art in my writing a bit more, explore the sound on the ear, the enormous pull of the heart made by not just the melody, the beat, the instrument, but the words too. Hymns entrance me for they are poems set to music, and not just any music, but Beethoven, Hayden, Mozart.

And then there is the organ. Yes, I said with my eyes as I glanced at my husband sitting next to me, I can hear the difference between the pipe organ and the electronic one. But even so both sounded spectacular, filling our warm nave and sanctuary, bursting upon the rows of pews and the ears of each of us, the electronic notes bundled and funneled through the speakers, the pipe organ notes singing through each pipe and meeting in my ear. The Mass was over and it was serious listening time, serious comparison time. We listened. We compared. And we sat with one another together, the Body of Christ, bathed in this moment of glory, bathed in the creative and artistic love of God pouring through those notes.

Dorothy Sayers wrote a book called The Mind of the Maker, in which, as I recall, she describes the artist as being a creator as God creates, and in this sense, full of a inspire-ation.  I think we all have this seed in us, we all desire to create, to impact our world with ourselves. If we are Christians, we desire to create beauty, truth, goodness. If we are not Christians, we desire to create something else, something that might have these things or might not. If we are Christians we want to reflect the love of God, if not preach it; we desire to distill themes of selflessness and sacrifice; we seek to give order to the chaos around us, to provide meaning where confusion corrupts.

So my vision of a pianist playing Beethoven in a forest, the jeweled and poignant notes calling me to follow the path to the open door and into the salon of sounds, remains. In the meantime I shall enter the front doors of our parish church, kneel against the shiny oak pews, pray alongside the walls of shimmering stained glass, and fall into the color and song of worship, a beautifully real Sunday poem in which I can reside for an hour.