Trees and Cities

Some years ago I decided I’d read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.  I had no idea what it was about, but I’d heard cultural references to it over the years.  So I decided to read it.  Then I saw how thick it was.  I confess I shouldn’t do this, but when I sign up for reading challenges, I want to make sure I can finish them.  Books tipping the scales at over 400 pages make me nervous.  Although I work with books, I’m a slow reader, and I panicked when I saw the size of Betty Smith’s ouvre.  All of which is to say that I’ve finally done it.  I’m glad I did, although, as someone who grew up in quite humble circumstances, with an alcoholic father, some of the story hit pretty close to home.

What really stood out, however, was how women and girls were treated in the early part of the last century.  They couldn’t vote.  Full-time work was often difficult for them to find, and when they did it didn’t pay well.  Francie Nolan, however, overcomes this because she’s smart, driven, and literate.  Her reading ultimately rescues her family after her father dies prematurely.  I’m certain there are other messages in this novel.  Other lessons to be learned.  Reading is nevertheless a great takeaway from any book.  As a symbol of its time, Francie learns to read from the Bible and Shakespeare.  These days that combination can get you into trouble.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of the book, for someone who writes instinctively, is that Francie gives up her writing in a deal with God.  When her mother goes into labor and Francie fears she’ll die, she makes a bargain that, strangely, she doesn’t seem to regret too much at the end of the story.  Some of us find writing as natural as breathing or eating.  I can forget to do both when I’m thoroughly into the zone.  I can’t image having that taken from me.  Smith notes that as she reflects on her unholy deal with the Holy One, that she now better understands God.  Indeed, in a kind of Kierkegaardian moment about halfway through she declares she no longer believes in God at all.  Her teacher doesn’t understand her writing.  Ah, but that’s a familiar dilemma to those of us who dare to attempt this craft.  For its size, the book was a fairly smooth read.  It took several weeks, but I learned about myself as a writer, and that makes it worth it.

Mother of Stone

One thing we all have in common is mothers.  Whether it’s the mysteries of biology or something more spiritual than that, the connection lasts forever.  The thought occurred to me yesterday as we visited Columcille, one of those places that reflects a vision for a piece of land that transforms the ordinary into sacred.  Columcille Megalith Park is inspired by the standing stones of Celtic lands.  Open to the public for a suggested donation, the park consists of a stone circle and several menhirs (megaliths) arranged along paths through the woods.  Recognized by the Nature Conservancy as a sacred space and outdoor sanctuary, it draws thousands of visitors of all faiths with both recreational and religious rationales.  Throughout the park we found evidence of spiritual interaction with nature left on or near the stones.  But what has this to do with mothers?

One of the areas in the park is the Sacred Women’s Site.  As we lingered there yesterday, I reflected on the sacred nature of all women, and mothers.  That’s not to suggest that motherhood is for all women, but rather that our society has been slow to catch up with the idea that women show us the way.  Men have “had charge” for millennia now and look at where we are; cooperative ventures and peacekeeping efforts crumble as world leaders encourage the resurgence of exceptionalism.  We’d rather have an inveterate liar lead the nation than a politically able woman.  Britain wants to pick up its marbles and let the European Union disintegrate.  We seem to have forgotten that just a century ago a world war ended.  We need sacred spaces like Columcille.  We need to remember the sacred women.

One takeaway from our brief visit was that although there was also a grove for sacred men, that of the women was more peaceful.  The idea of standing stones making a site sacred goes back at least to the Bible.  Stone circles are found from ancient Israel to the far-flung Orkney Islands of Scotland.  Standing among them, whether modern like Columcille or ancient like the Ring of Brodgar, or yes, the more famous Stonehenge, there is a sense of sacred purpose.  Miles from Stonehenge stands Avebury, a town built around another stone circle.  There the megaliths were divided between female and male stones, with both required to make the ring complete.  Such places require a tremendous amount of work.  When they’re constructed, however, they give us places to think of mothers and the mystery of life.

Writing Life

Writers are a conservative lot, in many respects.  Consider the epigraph.  I’ve written about this before—in modern-day publishing epigraphs require permission to reuse and serve little purpose beyond two negotiable factors: to prove the writer is well-read, and that someone else just summed up your chapter in a single sentence.  Most modern books have stopped using epigraphs, but scholars read old books produced before aggressive copyright laws.  There is a trick you can use, however, that brings an epigraph into the realm of the fair use doctrine.  It involves moving it into the body of your chapter.  Make it a quote.  Comment upon it.  For all their research skills, many academics do not take advantage of easily found advice on academic publishing.  Just ask an editor.

We all, I’m sure, have tunnel-vision.  Life is so incredibly busy and demanding that choices have to be made.  For most academics publishing is part of the rubric for tenure.  Perishing is the only other option.  Been there.  Done that.  Those of us who make a more modest living on the other side of the book sometimes write for different reasons.  We may need to supplement our income (as if academic publishing really ever helps with that!), and thus we must pay attention to the finer details of the business.  Write what people want to read.  Think like a reader.  And, yes, get rid of the epigraphs.  We know you’re smart; you’ve written a book.  Another reason for writing beyond the tenure-dome is the compulsion.  The need to do it.

While the struggling artist is a tired trope, it’s also true.  Many of the writers most admired today had lifetimes of struggle and obstacles which often stopped them too soon in life’s tracks.  I often think of the Brontë sisters.  In a family apparently cursed with premature death, living in a time when women writers were rare, three sisters set themselves the task of becoming novelists.  Not one of them lived to forty.  Anne, who wrote The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, made it to twenty-nine.  Emily, author of Wuthering Heights, died at thirty.  Charlotte, who gave the world Jane Eyre, survived to thirty-nine.  They defined, in many ways, the English novel.  And while they lived to see some measure of success in their brief lives, they wrote against the obstacles of life and the specter of early death.  Writing is a passion.  A craft.  And even academic authors provide a favor to the world if they do it well.

Brontë sisters by brother Branwell

No Refuge

A convention in histories of the horror genre is to trace it to Gothic fiction.  Gothic fiction itself is traced to The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole.  Having grown up reading Gothic stories along with religious texts, perhaps surprisingly I never came upon Walpole’s oeuvre.  Some weeks back I happened on a used bookstore, which, by convention, had its cheapest fare on sidewalk carts.  I was surprised to see a negligibly priced copy of The Castle of Otranto, which I took in to the counter.  The clerk looked puzzled a moment, then asked if it was from the carts.  “Oh,” he sniffed, “that explains it.  We don’t carry Dover editions; they’re too cheap.”  Perhaps that remark haunted me a bit, but I finally got around to reading the slim book and it left a kind of unanticipated horror in my mind.

Okay, so this was written in the eighteenth century, and set further back, in Medieval times.  A spooky castle, knights and knaves, and fainting damsels all populate its pages.  Religion, particularly in debased form, became a standard characteristic of the Gothic.  Here a monk, an erstwhile lord, holds a secret that leads to the downfall of a house of pretenders who have claimed ownership of the castle.  All pretty straightforward.  Even the ghosts and talking skeletons fail to raise fear.  One aspect, however, does hold horror.  The three princesses in the story are completely at the whim of the men.  They acknowledge as much and claim it against piety to declare any different.

It would be unfair to assert that such sexism was intentional—like most human behaviors it evolved over eons—but in this era to read it is to shudder.  We have moved beyond the horror fiction that men own women and that they have any right to determine their fate.  Especially in these days, it’s embarrassing to be reminded that such was ever the case.  Despite the word from on high we cannot hide from history.  The domination of men has been a testament to how poorly civilization has been run.  Some of its benefits can’t be denied, but on a whole we see a succession of aggression and wars, suffering and poverty, generally brought on my societies that have taken their cues from patriarchical ideals.  My reading of The Castle of Otranto brought this back with a force not unlike that of the giant ghost haunting its walls.  Is it too much to hope that some two-and-a-half centuries might show some evidence of progress?

Checkmate

March has been designated as Women’s History Month.  Since history has been written, well, historically by males, women have frequently been excluded.  History as a serious attempt to describe “what actually happened” is a fairly recent phenomenon.  Yes, men (mostly) have been writing their views of what events meant from the days of the Bible and the Classics on.  A few females had made their way into the narratives, but reading history often makes it seem like males were the only people of consequence.  I was thinking about this the other day after I read a reference to the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll.  Chess, I realized, is a game with a message.  Now I don’t often have time for games, but this felt important.

I’m not a good chess player, but I know that if you lose your queen you’ve got to be far better than I am at it to win the game.  In fact, the queen is the most powerful piece on the board.  Now if you plan to come back with something like “using the bishop, knight, and rook you can surpass the power of the queen” it suggests two things.  One, you’re better than me at chess, and two, you’re missing the point.  The queen can move in both perpendicular and diagonal lines.  She can land on either color.  The range of her motion is limited only by the size of the board.  The bishop is limited to one color square only and the rook takes two moves to equal the queen’s diagonal skills.  

Think about the king—he moves one space at a time, and mostly only to avoid capture.  The queen is out there defending the realm.  Even as a kid learning to play chess, it was obvious that the queen did far more than a bishop limited to his ecclesiastical domain, or the rook with his brute force.  The knight makes a move the queen cannot, but his range in limited.  If a player retained only a queen the opponent’s king could still be captured, in my mind.  Chess should be a queen’s game.  

History is a way of looking at things.  Although it involves facts—and this is where the government narrative goes off the rails; the denial of facts is an autocrat’s game—it’s not the same as facts.  History is an interpretation of facts.  The fact is that male history of the world just could not have been possible without women.  It’s time not just to acknowledge it, but to celebrate it.

Terror Text

Dystopia reading and/or watching may be more practical than it seems.  History often reveals authors who may be accused of pessimism more as prophets than mere anxious antagonists.  Two books, according to the media, took off after November 2016.  One was George Orwell’s 1984,  and the other was Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  I’d read both long before I started this blog, but I recently asked my wife if she’d be interested in seeing the movie of the latter.  While teaching at Rutgers, I had a 4-hour intensive course and to give students a break from my lecturing I’d have us discuss Bible scenes from secular movies.  The Handmaid’s Tale was one of them.  Watching it again last night, I realized the problematic nature of Holy Writ.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a movie (and novel) that involves what I call “Bible abuse” in Holy Horror.  That is to say, the Bible can be used to oppress rather than to liberate.  To cause human suffering instead of eliminating it.  Sure, to make Atwood’s dystopia work a future catastrophe of fertility has to occur, but the military state, the assumed superiority, and the will to control on the part of men are all too real.  We’ve witnessed this in the United States government over the past two years.  A lot more has been revealed than personal greed—that side of human nature that quotes the Good Book while doing the bad thing.  In the movie it’s literally so, while our “leaders” are only a metaphoric step away from it.  Although it’s not horror, it’s a terrifying movie.  I still have trouble watching The Stepford Wives.  Why is equality so easy in the abstract, but so difficult when it comes to actual life?

Aggression is not a social value.  This is perhaps the most ironic aspect of using Scripture to enforce oppressive regimes.  The whole point of the New Testament is self-denial for the sake of others.  That may be why the only Bible reading in the movie comes from the Hebrew Bible, the story of Jacob and Rachel.  Although this isn’t one of the traditional “texts of terror,” to borrow Phyllis Trible’s phrase, it nevertheless illustrates the point well.  A culture that values women only for their reproductive capacities is dystopian to its very core.  When a book, no matter how holy, is divorced from its context it becomes a deadly weapon of blunt force.  Atwood moves beyond Orwell here—the government that sees itself as biblical can be far more insidious that one that only weighs evil on the secular scale.  Not only the Bible ends up being abused.

Desert Demons

After reading many popular books, coming to a scholarly tome can be a shock to the system.  This is especially the case when said academic volume contains lots of information (not all do, believe me!).  David Brakke’s Demons and the Making of the Monk: Spiritual Combat in Early Christianity has been on my reading list for quite some time.  One of the perils of being a renegade academic is that you have no university library at hand and I’m not sure I want to reveal this side of myself to the local public librarian yet.  In any case, it would be difficult to summarize all that Brakke covers in this insightful treatment.  One of the elements that struck this reader, however, is the protean nature of the demons with which the eponymous monks wrestled.

Keep in mind that although demons appear throughout the Bible in various forms there is no single definition of what they are.  They appear to be spiritual monsters, in short.  Some passages seem to suggest they are fallen angels.  Others that they are foreign (primarily pre-Christian) gods.  Later ideas add the possibility that they are children of the Watchers, or even, as Brakke explains, evil thoughts.  The desert monks didn’t dwell on trying to discern their origin myth—they were out there to purify their souls, not to do academic research.  The Hebrew Bible does suggest that demons were creatures of the desert.  As monasticism began, appropriately in Egypt, one natural resource found in abundance was wilderness real estate.  The mortgage, however, was a constant struggle with demons.

Many of these demons developed into the seven deadly sins.  Not surprisingly, men living alone in the desert found themselves the victims of sexual temptation.  This led to, in some cases, the demonizing of women.  We’d call this classic blaming the victim, but this is theology, not common sense.  Anything that stood between a monk and his (sometimes her) direct experience of God could, in some sense, be considered demonic.  Brakke presents a description of several of these early desert-dwellers and their warfare with their demons.  Much of their characterization of evil would be considered racist and sexist today.  Brakke does make the point that during the Roman Empire—the period of the earliest monks—race wasn’t perceived the same way that it is in modern times.  Nevertheless, some of this book can make the reader uncomfortable, and not just because of demons.  Or, perhaps, that’s what they really are after all.