Monday, January 4, 2010

Very Good, but Very Mysterious

365: Guardians and Guides

Working on a biography, you meet yourself in your reactions to your subject.
I'm busy finishing an index today, so I'm just going to link to this article:
"The Experience of Writing a Biography" by Susie Boyt.

She especially pleases me by talking about how biographer A. N. Wilson came to dislike C. S. Lewis intensely. I thought I was the only one who felt that way. *
While writing Lewis's bio, Wilson said, "I would wake up in the morning with a feeling of dread thinking, ‘I’ve got to spend the day with this person.’”

The article got me thinking of my most involving editing job: working on a bio for teens of Pope John Paul II a few years ago.
I got so immersed, staying up way late at night with him, I felt like I'd met the man. I loved that because while I disagreed--sometimes vehemently--with many of JP's politics, we asked a lot of the same questions.

He held that people treating each other always as persons, and never ever using each other as objects, is key to a moral life--like Augustine's "Love, and do what you will." [full quote in comments]
But how does one do this?
Further, what would a society, including the Church, founded on this principle look like? How far can you trust people to follow this guide; and how much must you police them to make sure they do, and arrive at the right place? (Here, he and I part company.)

Trying to help the author articulate some of JP's thinking, at a 8th grade reading level in a small 102-page book, I not only had to understand his thinking, I had to understand mine.

Most people aren't up for bearing Big Power, and I'd say the weight hardened JP into rigidity.
I liked him most when he was Karol Wojtyla, back when he wore high-top tennies.
I'd like to have been on the camping trip in the 1950s when this photo >
of him shaving in said tennies was taken. I still have it up on my bathroom wall.
By the way, the photo on the wall below him (you can see it in the top photo) is of a dyed textile piece called "The Tree of Life" (1919-1926), by Lydia Bush-Brown. Looking for more on the artist, I found a post about LBB on The Textile Blog, a most informative blog, and more amusing than it maybe sounds.

And "Very good, but very mysterious" is what Glinda says of the Wizard of Oz.

* P.S. Art Sparker (thanks!) tells me Philip Pullman (of His Dark Materials) dislikes C. S. Lewis too. I found Pullman speaking on Lewis--he sounds Augustinian:
"Pullman said the Narnia books contained 'a peevish blend of racist, misogynistic and reactionary prejudice' and 'not a trace' of Christian charity.

'It's not the presence of Christian doctrine I object to so much as the absence of Christian virtue,' he added. 'The highest virtue - we have on the authority of the New Testament itself - is love, and yet you find not a trace of that in the books.'"
Peevish and reactionary, yes, that's what I'd say too.


ArtSparker said...

Re C.S. Lewis, SISTER! Do you know the Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman? Pullman is frequently compared to C.S. Lewis, whom he dislikes intensely - he's not shy about telling you why.

"Love, and do what you will" is surely a contradiction in terms? Yes, I know it's famous, but the whole point of love is that what one wills is just not part of the equation, is incidental to proper loving?

Fresca said...

Oooh...thanks Sparker. I didn't know that about Pullman. I must look him up. I tried to read His Dark Materials and just couldn't get into it. Not sure why... Possibly I would have loved it back in high school when I loved Tolkein?

Today, the only books of that type I can still read is Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain.

Does the Augustine quote work better if you read "want" or "like" for "will"?
"Love, and do you what you want/do as you like."

I.e., not "will" in the modern sense of "will power" (the imposition of mind over matter) but in the sense of your drive:
The idea, as I see it, is that if love is both your fuel and your compass, you can drive as you will ("drive as you like")--Love as a kind of unerring GPS.

It's sort of like the Wiccan philosophy: Do no harm, and do as you will/want.
Or, in reverse, Hillel: "What is hateful to you, do not do to others."

That's how I understand it, anyway.

Fresca said...

OK. I looked it up.
Here's the Augustine quote in context,
from his homily on the First Letter of John, where John says love is god (the only definition that allows me to say I believe in "god").

1 John 4:4:
"Dearly, beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loves is born of God, and knows God. He that loves not knows not God; for God is love."

Augustine says:

"Once for all, then, a short precept is given you: Love, and do what you will: whether you hold your peace, through love hold your peace; whether you cry out, through love cry out; whether you correct, through love correct; whether you spare, through love do you spare: let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good."

The whole shebang is online here, among other places:

And now, for the love of my editor, I must index!

ArtSparker said...

The quote in context is beautiful and workable also. I think by itself it's calling a certain a Mr. A. Crowley to mind.

Fresca said...

I had to look your reference up and found that Crowley wrote:
"Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law."
Yikes. That seems to be woefully lacking any checks and balances!

ArtSparker said...

He inherited a brewery fortune, which helped him follow his own precept.

femminismo said...

The Augustine quote is great and just what I needed to fill a certain void. Thank you. (Your huge electrical outlet fooled me for a minute. I didn't realize you were facing a mirror.)

Margaret said...

I find that Narnia is too rigid in how it paints the different characters. It has that musty good guys vs. bad guys, good guys win again feel to it. But I loved his book "Till We Have Faces" which he wrote half of while an atheist and half of while a Christian. Of course, it's his least popular novel, (and very un-Lewis like, in my opinion), but I thought it was beautiful.

Interesting quote from Augustine. Not sure what I make of it yet. It reminds me of another quote of his regarding love: "I am in love with love, but not yet in love." Not especially profound, but I quite like it. I'm guessing you've read The Confessions?

deanna said...

I was going to ask if you've read "Till We Have Faces." Like Margaret, I find it beautiful. The Space Trilogy was also much more interesting to me than the Narnia books (I think I only ever read the first one, though my daughter urged me to get through them all. I've wanted to enjoy fantasy - for her sake - many more times than I've actually done so.)

I love your ways of portraying Pope John Paul. And the way you say, "Most people aren't up for bearing Big Power, and I'd say the weight hardened JP into rigidity."

I noticed in the essay you linked to that it said Lewis's biographer grew tired of his image of the man, but it didn't say what he thought of his writings.

And, finally, my daughter read all of the His Dark Materials series and, though she really liked the writing, was extremely disappointed with the conclusion, which turned everything he'd written before on its head and seemed a great betrayal. I've heard that Pullman hates Lewis and for that matter Christianity. If so, that's his decision, but it sheds light on where he goes with his work.

Btw, thanks for this whole post. Well done, once again.

Fresca said...

What great comments! I had thought this post would be a quickie, but it drifted into deep waters (my favorites).

FEMMISMO: I'm glad the quote fit the bill. I liked reading it in full too--I've read a lot of Augustine but only ever heard that quote as a tag.

I'd forgotten about "Till We Have Faces," which I too liked... but I can't remember why, it was so long ago. I do remember it was not like the Narnia books, which I couldn't even finish. (But I was in college when I tried; I might well have loved them if I was ten. And Harry Potter too.)
I should try "Faces" again.

I'd also liked a collection of Lewis's literary criticism, and an essay on the psalms opened my eyes.
So I don't dismiss everything about him, but generally he curdles my milk.

Yes, Margaret--"The Confessions" blew me away when I read it when I was 31. Oddly, I haven't read it since--maybe I should..
Did you read it?
I remember that quote you like as being part of an ardent passage--it reminds me of what you wrote about being young and uninterested (quite rightly) in moderation.
Augustine was a tiger... or a dragon.
The Captain Kirk of Theology?

I went on to finish my BA in Religious Studies so I could study Augustine & Co. (I'd dropped out of college early on). I read a lot of the guy--some even in Latin (don't ask me now!).
Didn't always agree with him, but he was always worth getting down in the mud with.

DEANNA: I don't know much about Pullman--had heard he was anti-Christian, but here he attacks Lewis for his lack of Christian virtue (love), so I'm guessing it's the church (the institution) he doesn't like?

Hmm... I wonder if Wilson agreed to write the bio because he liked the writing, then was stuck with a man he didn't like.
I read that Judith Thurman felt that way about Colette--really regretted taking on a subject she ended up despising, yet spent 6 (!) years with.

I almost felt the opposite with the pope--had been very wary of his politics, but came to love the man.

Theology and writing--what a fun mix!

ArtSparker said...

Pullman is on record as saying he dislikes organized/institutionalized religion. I found the third book of the Dark Materials trilogy somewhat incoherent - possibly it could have been titled "His Unmanageable Materials". However, I'm frequently more taken by art where the reach exceeds the grasp.

I can imagine Judith Thurman not wanting Colette as a roommate - I wouldn't either.

Margaret said...

"The Captain Kirk of Theology".....Now I MUST read it! It's been in the back of my mind ever since my Philosophy of Religion prof. raved about it during class. It is officially next on my list.

Fresca said...

Margaret, I'd be v. interested to hear what you think.
Having read it again last night, I have to say it's hard going at first, especially if one flinches at all at Christianity... But by about Book IV, I was hooked all over again.
He's really not Kirk-like in his thinking, it's just they're both intense.