Category Archives: literature

The Authored Voice: Storytelling Across Lives and Media

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Thursday, February 13, 2014
8:00 – 10:00 pm

Old Stone House – Washington Park – Park Slope, Brooklyn
336 Third Street, b/t 4th & 5th Avenues
718.768.3195
info@theoldstonehouse.org

Brooklyn Reading Works presents The Authored Voice: Storytelling Across Lives and Media, an evening of stories and conversation with Murray Nossel, Catherine Burns, Trisha Coburn, and Edgar Oliver, moderated by John Guidry. These award-winning panelists will talk about the various media they have used to tell stories—performance, film, books, videos—and the different ways they cultivate voice for themselves and others. We will explore how storytelling is cathartic, empowering, entertaining … and sometimes a pretty good business. Join us at the Old Stone House in Park Slope on February 13, 2014, at 8:00 pm. A $5 donation at the door is appreciated to defray costs of wine and refreshments at the event.

The Panelists

murray-2MURRAY NOSSEL is co-founder of Narativ with Paul Browde, a company that has developed a storytelling methodology based on Murray and Paul’s stage performance, Two Men Talking. The performance began as an improvised telling of the story of their friendship, from their school days in South Africa to New York in the 1990s and the present. Storytelling was central to Murray’s practice as a clinician in AIDS services during the height of the epidemic, and he is also an award-winning filmmaker whose work includes Why Can’t We Be a Family Again?, A Brooklyn Family Tale, Paternal Instinct, and Turn to Me, featuring Nobel Prize–winning author Elie Wiesel. Murray holds a doctorate in Social Work from Columbia University and teaches in Columbia’s Master of Science in Narrative Medicine program.

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TRISHA COBURN has worked for a number of years as a fine artist in Boston and New York. She received her BFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and Tufts University, and she is also an interior designer with De La Torre Design. Trisha’s storytelling began with a one-day workshop at Narativ and eventually led her to The Moth, presenting her story, Miss Macy, on tour and on The Moth Radio Hour. Trisha is currently working on a collection of short stories based on her childhood experiences growing up in Alabama.  She lives in New York and has three wonderful children.

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CATHERINE BURNS is The Moth’s long time Artistic Director and a frequent host of the Peabody Award-winning The Moth Radio Hour. She is the editor of the New York Times Best Seller The Moth: 50 True Stories. Prior to The Moth, she directed and produced independent films and television, interviewing such diverse talent as Ozzy Osbourne, Martha Stewart and Howard Stern. She is the director of the solo show Helen & Edgar, which opened at The Public Theater in January with the Under the Radar Festival, where it was named a pick of the festival by The New Yorker, Time Out and WNYC. Born and raised in Alabama, she now lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two year old son.

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EDGAR OLIVER is a novelist, poet, and playwright who has been lauded as “a living work of theater all by himself” by Ben Brantley of The New York Times. He is a member of the Axis Theatre Company, under the direction of Randy Sharp. His one-man show East 10th Street: Self-Portrait with Empty House was the recipient of a Fringe First Award at the 2009 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. His most recent show, Helen & Edgar, directed by the Moth’s Artistic Director Catherine Burns and produced by Moth Founder George Dawes Green, did a sold-out run at The Public Theater with the Under the Radar Festival. He has published three collections of his poems—A Portrait of New York by a Wanderer There, Summer, and The Brooklyn Public Libraryand a novel, The Man Who Loved Plants.

The Organizers

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JOHN GUIDRY is the curator & moderator of “The Authored Voice.”  John uses storytelling to amplify and strengthen the voices of individuals, organizations, and causes. He has worked in public health and community development as a researcher, consultant, and movement leader with numerous organizations around the world. His multi-media social marketing and health communications campaigns have reached millions globally, and he has published two books Engaging the Community in Decision Making and Globalizations and Social Movements. A new project, “The Pursuit—Stories of Joy, Suffering, and the American Dream” is in development now—stay tuned to Truth and Rocket Science.

Louise-CrawfordLOUISE CRAWFORD is the founder of Brooklyn Social Media, a firm devoted to PR and social media for authors, artists and entrepreneurs. Since 2004, she has published the popular Brooklyn blog Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn. She is the founder of the Brooklyn Blogfest, an annual networking event for bloggers, and Brooklyn Reading Works. From 2005-2010, Louise wrote Smartmom, a weekly column for The Brooklyn Paper about parenting and modern life.

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Filed under art, life, literature, poetry, storytelling, truth

The truth and progress, 1: Texaco

Oil Refinery at Baby Beach, Aruba, 2012

“She taught me to reread our Creole city’s two spaces:  the historical center living on the new demands of consumption; the suburban crowns of grassroots occupations, rich with the depth of our stories.  Humanity throbs between these two places.  In the center, memory subsides in the face of renovation … here on the outskirts, one survives on memory.”

—Patrick Chamoiseau, Texaco,  p. 170.

In the novel Texaco, an old woman named Marie-Sophie Laborieux tells a young urban planner the story of her neighborhood, a slum named after a nearby oil refinery on the island of Martinique.  The urban planner sees the slum as place of chaos, disorder, violence, sex, and death.  The slum grew up around the refinery because it provided jobs for the poor and uneducated who could not afford to live in the city, Fort-de-France, which was the capital and the center of everything civilized on the island.

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Modern-day Fort-de-France

“In its old heart:  a clear, regulated, normalized order.  Around it:  a boiling, indecipherable, impossible crown, buried under misery and History’s obscured burdens.  If the Creole city had at its disposal only the order of the center, it would have died.  It needs the chaos of its fringes.  Beauty replete with horror, order set in disorder.”

Texaco,  p. 184

Marie-Sophie tells her story on the precipice of annihilation, a Caribbean Scheherazade to the urban planner from Fort-de-France’s development agency who has come to study Texaco in preparation for the slum’s demolition. The story begins with Marie-Sophie’s father, Esternome, born into slavery and freed as a young man. This is not the story you find in books.  It’s the kind of story that people tell one another at dinner and around bonfires.

Mount_Pelée_1902_refugees

Refugees from the damage caused by the eruption of Mt. Pelée in 1902

These are the stories that Chamoiseau, a noted anthropologist, has made it his life’s work to understand—along the way publishing both ethnographic studies and fiction based in Martinique and the cultures of the Caribbean. Chamoiseau’s work on either side of the fiction/non-fiction divide is equally celebrated as it exposes the voices of those who live “beneath history,” as Chamoiseau puts it.  These are the stories that give us a different way to see the non-self-evident goodness of what we normally call progress or modernity.

A hillside shantytown in Fort-de-France

Progress, in a word, means the destruction of everything Marie-Sophie will tell the urban planner in the course of the novel’s 400-or so pages.  While destruction itself is not always and everywhere a horrible thing, in no place in this story is it clear why this destruction or progress is necessary. The novel’s real purpose is given away in the urban planner’s name, Oiseau de Cham, the author’s barely disguised fictionalized self complicit in the dismantling of the culture and people—his own—that he has faithfully catalogued in all his writing.  In recording these stories, he annihilates them even as he preserves them.

. . . I did my best to write down this mythic Texaco, realizing how much my writing betrayed the real, revealing nothing of my Source’s breath, nor even the destiny of her legend . . . I wanted it to be sung somewhere, in the ears of future generations, that we had fought with City, not to conquer it (it was City that gobbled us), but to conquer ourselves in the Creole unsaid which we had to name—in ourselves and for ourselves—until we came into our own.

Texaco,  p. 390

In Texaco, Mr. Chamoiseau’s two writerly lives meet.  It is the chronicle of his life swept up by the grand rip currents of history.

Notes and Credits

This is the first of 3 posts in a longer essay on the concepts of “progress” and “globalization.”  I examine these issues through modern literature:  Chamoiseau’s Texaco here, and then Robert Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives and 2666.

I read Texaco while I was editing the book, Globalizations and Social Movements with Mayer Zald and Michael Kennedy.  I was deeply moved by the book and wound up quoting Texaco twice in the introductory chapter.  In Chamoiseau’s writing, I saw echoes of my own experiences gathering oral histories in Belém, Brazil througout 1992 and 1993, yet without the same remorse Chamoiseau/Oiseau de Cham felt. For the people of Belém were not my own, even if my Belemense friends and I sometimes felt otherwise.

There, I worked in neighborhoods of all social classes, but I especially loved my time in the neighborhoods of Bom Futuro and Aurá.  These areas would be called favelas elsewhere in Brazil, or “slums” or “shantytowns” in English.  The residents, however, resoundingly favored the term invasão, meaning land invasion, because it described their own action to take the land in a politically motivated context.

One of the eye-opening moments in my work came in Aurá when Dona Walda—after telling me her stories for over 2 hours one morning—looked squarely into my eyes, took my hand in hers, and said, “We are not important, but in our own lives, we are important.”  I think that statement will be the germ of another post, after this series is done.

Photographs:

[1]  The photo of the oil refinery was taken by the author at Baby Beach, Aruba, in February 2013.  We were on vacation there and I couldn’t help but think of Texaco when we stopped there for a swim.  The beach, which is opposite this view of the refinery, is very nice.  Baby Beach was created as a shallow swimming lagoon for the Aruba Esso Club.  The refinery is currently owned and operated by the Valero Energy Corporation.

[2]  The photograph of the modern city of Fort-de-France is from Panoramio and was accessed through Google Earth.  The photo was taken by Panoramia user FloetGilou. 

[3]  The next photograph is of refugees fleeing the 1902 eruption of Mt. Pelée, which devastated the surrounding area and killed dozens of people.  The picture is in the public domain and was uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by William Herman Rau.

[4]  The photograph of a hillside shantytown, probably much like Texaco, is from the web version of a brochure for the international conference called “The Changing World of Coastal, Island and Tropical Tourism,” which was held in Martinique in January 2011.  I would have liked to put this photograph in the place where the modern Fort-de-France photo is, but I couldn’t manipulate the size of the photo due to its original file properties.

Fort_de_France_Rainbow

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Filed under conflict, death, ideas, life, literature, memory, postcolonialism, struggle, truth, writing

The truth and publishing: Beyond the Writing

Photo 81

Brooklyn Reading Works at The Old Stone House presents The Truth and Publishing, a panel discussion about the future of books, publishers, authors, agents and readers, curated by John Guidry.

Thursday, January 17, 2012
8:00 pm – 10:00 pm
Refreshments provided
$5 suggested donation

OLD STONE HOUSE
5th Avenue in Brooklyn
b/t 3rd and 4th Streets at JJ Byrne Park
718.768.3195
info@theoldstonehouse.org

We often think of writing as a lone pursuit, a lone artist or dedicated journalist pursuing the craft with every ounce of dedication they can muster. If we think in the plural, it’s usually in pairs. Yet behind the work of writers is a larger cast of professionals every bit as dedicated to the written word and concerned about its future. They include editors, agents, publishers, critics, and others whose work helps make the printed word possible. On this panel, we will meet editors, publishers and agents who will share their perspective on the process behind the written word and what lies in store for those in the publishing industry during these changing times.

Panelists include Amy Hundley, Tamson Weston, Josh Rolnick, Rob Spillman, Jonathan Lyons, and Renee Zuckerbrot.

AMY HUNDLEY is subsidiary rights director and editor at Grove/Atlantic, where she has worked in various editorial capacities for fifteen years. As a fiction editor, she has worked with authors such as Jim Harrison, Anne Enright (Winner of the Man Booker Prize), Barry Hannah, Porochista Khakpour, Ryan Boudinot, G. Willow Wilson, Mo Hayder, and Aminatta Forna. She also works with many of Grove’s authors in translation, including Pascal Mercier, Catherine Millet, Nedjma, Kenzaburo Oe, and Jose Manuel Prieto. Her nonfiction list includes Last Night a DJ Saved My Life and How to DJ Right by Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton and The Deserter’s Tale, a memoir by an American deserter from Iraq. As director of subsidiary rights, she is responsible for selling foreign and domestic rights in Grove/Atlantic titles. She has attended international publishing fellowships sponsored by the French Ministry of Culture and French-American Foundation; the Frankfurt Book Fair; the Polish Book Institute; the Jerusalem Book Fair; and the Turin International Book Fair. Born and raised in Chicago, Amy Hundley attended Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.

TAMSON WESTON is a published children’s book author, founder of Tamson Weston Books, and an editor with over 15 years experience. She has worked on many acclaimed and award-winning books for children of all ages at several prestigious publishing houses including HarperCollins, Houghton Miffling Harcourt and Disney Hyperion. When she doesn’t have her nose in a book, Tamson likes to run, bike, swim, lift heavy things and, most of all, hang out with my family in Brooklyn, NY.  Visit her online at www.tamsonweston.com.

JOSH ROLNICK’S debut collection, “Pulp and Paper,” won the 2011 John Simmons Short Fiction Award, selected by Yiyun Li. His short stories have also won the Arts & Letters Fiction Prize and the Florida Review Editor’s Choice Prize. They have been published in Harvard Review, Western Humanities Review, Bellingham Review, and Gulf Coast, and have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best New American Voices. Josh holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and an MA in Writing from The Johns Hopkins University. He is working on a novel.

In a journalism and writing career spanning two decades, he served as a fiction editor at the Iowa Review, creative writing teacher at the University of Iowa, an editor at Stanford Social Innovation Review and Moment magazine, a newsman for the Associated Press, and a reporter for Congressional Quarterly and the News Tribune of Woodbridge, N.J. He currently serves as fiction editor of the literary journal Unstuck, and publisher of Sh’ma, a journal of Jewish ideas.

Josh grew up in Highland Park, N.J. He spent summers fishing for fluke and riding the giant slide at Hartman’s Amusement Park in Long Beach Island, N.J., and camping in a Jayco pop-up trailer across the Adirondacks, returning again and again to Buck Pond, where he caught his first bullhead. He holds a BA from Rutgers University, an MA in International History from London School of Economics and a visiting graduate certificate from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He has lived in Jerusalem, London, Philadelphia, Iowa City, Washington, D.C., and Menlo Park, California. He lives with his wife and three sons, dividing his time between Akron, Ohio, and Brooklyn, New York.

ROB SPILLMAN is Editor and co-founder of Tin House, a fourteen-year-old bi-coastal (Brooklyn, New York and Portland, Oregon) literary magazine. Tin House has been honored in Best American Stories, Best American Essays, Best American Poetry, O’Henry Prize Stories, the Pushcart Prize Anthology and numerous other anthologies, and was nominated for the 2010 Utne Magazine Independent Press Award for Best Writing. He is also the Executive Editor of Tin House Books and co-founder of the Tin House Literary Festival, now in its tenth year. His writing has appeared in BookForum, the Boston Review, Connoisseur, Details, GQ, Nerve, the New York Times Book Review, Real Simple, Rolling Stone, Salon, Spin, Sports Illustrated, Vanity Fair, Vogue, Worth, among other magazines, newspapers, and essay collections. He is also the editor of Gods and Soldiers: the Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Writing, which was published in 2009.

JONATHAN LYONS is a literary agent and Director of Translation Rights for Curtis Brown, LTD. Founded in 1914, Curtis Brown’s client list includes numerous bestselling and award-winners, such as Karen Armstrong, Po Bronson, Betty Friedan, Jane Dyer, Diana Gabaldon, Gail Carson Levine, Harold Kushner, Frances Mayes, Diana Palmer, Linda Sue Park, S.E. Hinton, A.A. Milne, Ogden Nash, Ayn Rand, W.H. Auden, Tony Hillerman, John Cheever, Lucille Clifton, and more. Previously Jonathan ran his own agency, Lyons Literary LLC, and has also overseen the subsidiary rights departments at both McIntosh & Otis and Folio Literary Management. His own client list is varied, including authors of mysteries and thrillers, science fiction and fantasy, literary fiction, young adult and middle grade fiction, and nonfiction of all types. Jonathan is a member of the Authors Guild and is on the Contracts Committee of the Association of Author Representatives.

Jonathan is also an attorney with the boutique intellectual property law firm of Savur & Pellecchia. He has over ten years experience handling a variety of publishing and copyright related transactions on behalf of individuals and corporations, with an emphasis on print and digital publishing. His legal clients include authors, publishers, magazines, literary agents, distributors, and artists, among other publishing industry businesses and professionals. Jonathan regularly gives lectures and participates in panels regarding publishing law, including most recently at the Copyright Clearance Center’s On Copyright 2012 Conference, the NYSBA Entertainment and Sports Law 2012 panel “New Models of Publishing”, and the 2012 Self-Publishing Expo. Jonathan earned his law degree from Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in 2001, and his undergraduate degree from Washington University in St. Louis. He is admitted to the bar of New York.

RENEE ZUCKERBROT founded Renée Zuckerbrot Literary Agency after working as an editor at Doubleday and Franklin Square Press/Harper’s Magazine, following a short stint at Marly Rusoff & Associates. She is a member of the AAR and Authors Guild, and in 2008, Poets & Writers included her on their list of “Twenty-One Agents You Should Know.” represents a wide-ranging list that includes literary and commercial adult fiction, narrative non-fiction, and cookbooks. The agency represents writers at all stages of their careers, first-time and well-established authors alike, and the agency’s small, intimate scale fosters warm and long-lasting relationships with our clients. We believe that an agent should be the author’s greatest advocate and fan, and to that end we take a proactive role throughout the publishing process, offering crucial support in project development, editing, contracts, marketing, rights management, and career-planning over the short and long term.

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Filed under art, fiction, ideas, journalism, knowledge, literature, Park Slope, writing

The truth and grace, 2: Beneficence

Macha Chmakoff, "Paul"

This is the second of three essays on grace.  The three parts move through different aspects of grace—reason, beneficence, and the unknown—roaming across Sartre, the epistles of St. Paul, Flannery O’Connor, Roberto Bolaño, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The Road to Damascus

A few years after the death of Jesus, a Jew named Saul of Tarsus, who was also a citizen of Rome, became a Christian and changed his named to Paul.  Prior to his conversion, Saul persecuted the Christians.  As Paul, however, he became the greatest apostle of the early church, moreso than St. Peter or the others who were with Jesus in his lifetime.  Working tirelessly until his own execution at the hand of Rome, Paul established numerous churches throughout the Greco-Roman Mediterranean.  Paul’s letters to these congregations provided definition for the faith and are a critical part of the Christian Bible.

Paul could not explain the change in his heart that occurred on the road to Damascus one day, when he was struck blind and heard the Lord speak to him.  He had to accept this as an act of radical, unsolicited, and unreasonable beneficence.  This he called the grace of God.

“For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect.” (1 Cor 15:10)

The grace of St. Paul is a divine beneficence that is unknowable and without a cause such as we can recognize.  To understand grace is to find a place in between the rigid certainty of dogma and the despair of Roquentin.  With grace, we accept that good things happen for no reason that we can understand.  In deeming God the author of grace in the universe, goodness is given a source and it is made relatable.  Without needing to explain beneficence, one must simply accept this:  You are loved, for no reason that you may know or understand.  But you are loved.

Flannery O’Conner wrote stories that often dealt with the consequences of grace for proud people.  They were crushed by grace.  They could not bear beneficence.  To a friend she wrote,

“All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless and brutal.”

Let it Be

Grace presents a challenge:  to live up to its goodness.  This is a challenge to act freely, for one must choose to live up to the goodness one has been given, even when that goodness was given freely and with no good reason for it.

For Ruby Turpin, the protagonist of O’Connor’s story, “Revelation,” recognizing grace caused her to crash on the shoals of her own hypocrisy and bad faith.  Mrs. Turpin was a well-(enough)-to-do woman in the Deep South whose Christian piety propped up her sense of racial superiority.  She was self-righteous in the most ungenerous sort of way.

“If it’s one thing I am, it’s grateful. When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, I just feel like shouting, ‘Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is!’ It could have been different!… Oh thank you, Jesus, thank you!”

The story is set in the reception room of a local doctor’s office, where Mrs. Turpin is telling all this to another woman in the room, a woman of similar class and beliefs it would seem, whose college-aged daughter, Mary Grace—a name well chosen—begins to seethe with each word out of Mrs. Turpin’s mouth.  The climactic moment comes when Mary Grace finally boils over in rage and throws a book at Ruby Turpin, telling her quietly, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog!”  After the incident, back on her farm, Mrs. Turpin sinks into filth and despair, overcome with a sickening sense, much like Roquentin when he discovered that his world wasn’t ordered the way he’d imagined it to be.  As she slops her hogs, she has a revelation of the righteous ascending to heaven with her and her husband bringing up the rear at the very end of the pack.

For Saul of Tarsus, the recognition of grace provided a reason to change for the better, to set aside violence, hatred and pride.  Writing to a different friend, O’Connor commented,

“There is a moment in every great story in which the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected, even though the reader may not recognize this moment.”

The nausea demanded of Roquentin that he become the sole author of his own life, but it also demanded a kind of surrender.  To be author of own’s life was not a Promethean charge to become a god. Quite the contrary, this freedom was “rather like death” at first, until Roquentin realized that in this freedom he gave away precious things (his sense o right and order) in order to take up a different, ultimately more rewarding, task. This is a theme Sartre visited in later works, most notably his play, The Flies, in which freedom leads to persecution and hard choices about breaking laws or traditions in order to do the right thing.

Grace demands the humility to accept that we may neither deserve nor benefit from the goodness we receive.  “There but for the grace of God go I,” as the saying runs, paraphrasing the English Protestant martyr John Bradford as he sat in jail and watched other prisoners being taken for execution.

Grace demands the humility to surrender, to “let it be.”

Notes and credits

The images in all three essays on grace are the paintings of Macha Chmakoff, a French painter whose works can be found at http://www.chmakoff.com/.  She has granted me reproduction rights for these images and provided high-resolution .jpgs for the postings, for which I am very grateful. This work is called Paul, and it is one of her many Biblical paintings that are beautiful and stunning.  I have never seen these works on the canvas, up close; I have only seen them on the Web.  Her use of color and muted, vague definition seaks to me and touches me.  Ms. Chmakoff and I have struck up a friendship over her paintings and my writing, and that, too, is an element of grace that I am thankful for.

For the early Christians, the time of Christ through the few decades after his death was a time without reason.  They believed, Paul along with them, that the world would end soon, in their very lifetime.  They believed that Jesus would return to judge the living and the dead, and that all those chosen by God would be taken to heaven with him.  In the face human law, persecution, the might of Rome, and the weight of the old Jewish law, Jesus’ teachings tore down all conventions and laws that had come before.  Jesus remade the world for these believers, and like Perpetua and Felicity in Carthage in 203 AD, they went to heroic lengths to demonstrate their faith.

In 67 AD, Paul was beheaded by the Roman Empire, an execution given him due to his Roman citizenship, less painful and drawn out than the crucifixions of Jesus and St. Peter, or the wild animals and soldiers who killed Perpetua and Felicity in the arena. The Frontline documentary, “From Jesus to Christ,” provides a robust discussion of the historical Jesus, the early Christian Church, and St. Paul’s role in defining the church and spreading the faith across the Mediterranean world.

The first Flannery O’Connor quotation, “All my stories …” I discovered on the blog Cage Wisdom, a site dedicated to the flms of Nicholas Cage.  The second Flannery O’Connor quote, “There is a moment …” is from an essay by Patrick Galloway called “The Dark Side of the Cross,” which can be found here.

St Paul’s writings are foundational to the Christian Church.  Differing interpretations of Paul were used by clerics and theologians on all sides of the Reformation, though by and large it’s possible to say that Reformed Protestantism is more singularly grounded on St. Paul than on the other letter writers of the New Testament.  That is to say, branches of Reformed Protestantism represent a Pauline purism, while Catholicism balances St. Paul with the other traditions evident in the early church.  As I am finishing the second part of this essay on grace, I am thinking of a fourth essay on St. Paul’s grace in modern Christianity.  Perhaps it will come, but for now, I leave it out of this essay on grace, because my understanding of grace is more personal (and larger than) Christian theological traditions.  My references are Christian because that is what I know, but I hope the notion of an unaccounted for, unexpected, superfluous experience of beneficence is something in the human experience that can stand apart from specific religious of philosophical tradition.  Indeed, gratuitous beneficence is something any culture needs to understand.

In The Flies, Sartre uses the Greek Electra myth dramatize the proposition that people freely determine their own lives through their actions.  Fleeing from responsibility for one’s actions, or from the consequences of those actions, is to flee from the truth.  In the story, Electra’s brother Orestes must assume must assume responsibility for killing his mother and stepfather in Electra’s defense.  She is too weak to do so, but in the act of assuming responsibility Orestes becomes fully human, finally showing throwing off the chains of self-denial and self-abnegation that Zeus and the gods used to keep people compliant and quiescent.  Now free, Orestes walks into the future pursued by the Furies (giant fly-like beings) who peck at him and torment him.  Such is the price of freedom.

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Filed under existentialism, freedom, hubris, ideas, individuality, Jean-Paul Sartre, life, literature, truth

The truth and grace, 1: Reason

Macha Chmakoff, "Le Chemin de Damas"

This is the first of three essays on grace.  The three parts move through three aspects of grace—reason, beneficence, and the unknown—roaming across existentialism, Sartre, the epistles of St. Paul, Flannery O’Connor, Roberto Bolaño, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

A Reason For Everything

There are people who say that everything happens for a reason.  This is true, for every event will always have an explanation. Natural events—say an apple falling from a tree—have mechanical explanations that can be objectively verified.  When people are involved, it’s less clear why things happen the way they do.  The reasons begin to get fuzzy, or they become contested.  These are the debates charted in the far too numerous tomes cluttering our bookshelves and Kindles.  Yet no matter how ham-fistedly human pretense tortures the truth with conspiracy, polemic, or just plain history, the fact is that in human events, too, everything happens for a reason.

But this is not what people mean when say that everything happens for a reason.  These reasons are invoked when unexpected events change life in some irrevocable way, whether for good or ill.  These reasons give purpose to the challenges we face.  Yet this saying says less about the nature of the universe than about the instinctively human drive to narrate order into it.  This takes place at the expense of reason, for it overlooks the simplest explanation that fits the facts:

We don’t know why some things happen, including the big, unexpected things that change lives and the course of history—and we may never know. 

There may be no “reason” to the universe.  It is shot through with events we can only call random, which appear to rob the world of purpose and meaning.  In response people seek different ways to build up the certainties they need.  Some avoid asking questions or wondering why.  Theirs is an existence amid the fog of quick pleasures and slovenly gratification.  Others turn to dogma or hard-and-fast explanations of the grand mysteries of life, preferring to believe that everything happens for reason, even if they have to make up those reasons again and again in order to adjust the truth to the events of the day.

Others still, a much smaller number to be sure, find themselves stuck in the middle, vexed and even anguished at the lack of universal order and meaning, repeatedly disappointed by every attempt to find larger truths they can hold on to forever.

Roquentin

Such was the case with Antoine Roquentin, the main character in Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel, Nausea.  Roquentin was sickened by the sense that his own life and actions were “superfluous” and even repugnant, since he could no longer find any deeper meaning to the world outside his own mind.  Instead of feeling intentional and historical, he was an alien in a world that treated him with indifference.  After fighting these feelings almost to the point of madness, he finally accepted that this was the real nature of life—empty, indifferent, unnecessary—and in this he found his reason to act.

“I am free:  there is absolutely no reason for living, all the ones I have tried have given way and I can’t imagine more of them … My past is dead …”

Roquentin now had the power to define his own life and what it meant, yet still he despairs.

“I am alone in this white, garden-rimmed street.  Alone and free.  But this freedom is rather like death.”

In the face of this bleak, graceless epiphany, Roquentin decides to abandon the historical biography that he was working on when the nausea struck him.  Instead, he will write a novel.  The novel will define him, as “a little of its clarity might fall over my past” and then one day “I shall feel my heart beat faster and say to myself:  ‘That was the day, that was the hour, when it all started’.”

Thus fiction replaces history to give meaning—and reason—to real life.

Notes and Credits

The images in all three essays on grace are the paintings of Macha Chmakoff, a French painter whose works can be found at http://www.chmakoff.com/.  She has granted me reproduction rights for these images and provided high-resolution .jpgs for the postings, for which I am very grateful.  She wrote me, “I am delighted with [John’s] respect for the work of artists, for he does not reproduce the images from my website without my permission.  As an artist this touches me deeply.  On the other hand I do this also as a sign of friendship between our two countries, France and the USA, in spite of our political and economic differences.”  Thank you, Ms. Chmakoff.

The painting that leads this essay is “Le Chemin de Damas,” The Road to Damascus.  It was on the road to Damascus that Saul of Tarsus had the conversion experience that led him to become Paul the Evangelist, the apostle who more than any other spread  Christianity across the Mediterranean world in the decades following the crucifixion.  Prior to his conversion, Saul persecuted Christians.  On the road to Damascus, something changed in an irrevocable way that turned Saul into his opposite.  He had no reason by which to understand this.

Paul Bloom’s essay in The Atlantic (December 2005), “Is God an Accident,” reviews recent science on the human instinct to read and narrate order into the universe:  “Our quickness to over-read purpose into things extends to the perception of intentional design. People have a terrible eye for randomness.”  The notion that there is no purpose to life (that we can recognize) is hard for human beings to swallow, because a sense of plot and story-line is hard-wired into our cognitive structure.

Quotations from Nausea:  Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea, trans. Lloyd Alexander (New Directions: 1964), pp. 156-57.  I devoured Sartre in college and eventually wrote my senior thesis on the evolution of “freedom” in his work, from Nausea through the Critique of Dialectical Reason, his last great work.  Along the way I read most of his plays, all the novels, his memoir (The Words), Simone de Beauvoir’s memoir his last years, Adieu, and another biography I have since misplaced.  At the end of the day, I can fully appreciate the humor of Marty Smith’s Jean-Paul Sartre Cookbook.

This essay uses a fictional character, Roquentin, as an exemplar of behavior, attitudes, and ideas that should be meaningful to real people.  I treat Roquentin as if he were real, for he is.  I never quite agreed with the way Dan Qualye was ridiculed for using Murphy Brown as an example for a discussion of values in America.  (There were plenty of other, legitimate reasons to ridicule Mr. Quayle and hope he would never have a chance to sit in the Oval Office.)  In all, the 3 pieces of this essay mix real and fictional characters, because their actions (fictional, real, or historical-but-embellished) are meaningful.

St. Paul, the overarching subject of the 3 essays, is a real figure who comes to us through writing:  his own letters to his congregations across the Greco-Roman world and the writings about him that survive, notably in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles.  We know that not all the letters attributed to Paul were written by him.  Those that are still contain later insertions and redactions added by scribes over the centuries.  In the end, the way Sartre finishes Nausea is the key:  Roquentin will gain his freedom by leaving history and biography and writing a novel.  This is just what Sartre did; Roquentin’s redemption was the day, the hour, when it all began for his author as well.  Through the very act of creating, even fiction, we give purpose to our lives and order to the universe.

 

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Filed under existentialism, freedom, hubris, ideas, individuality, Jean-Paul Sartre, literature, order, philosophy, truth, vanity

The truth and broken glass

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
—Anton Chekhov

Glass can reveal you and other things in the world.  Glass can challenge you.
Glass can cut you.  Glass is a magical substance.  Glass reflects things as truly as it distorts them.

Why, it’s a Looking-glass book, of course! And if I hold it up to a glass, the words will all go the right way again.
—Alice, Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll

Stained in small pieces, it can create images and stories that tell us how God lived and died, saints turning sunlight and suffering into colored mists of other-worldly atmosphere here on earth.

You could be known as the most beautiful women who ever crawled across cut glass to make a deal.
—Bob Dylan, “Sweetheart Like You”

Broken, glass becomes a metaphor for struggle laced with pain and suffering, love destroyed, the end of things that once were.

My whole life has crashed, won’t you pick the pieces up
’cause it feels just like I’m walking on broken glass

—Annie Lennox, “Walking on Broken Glass”

Yet broken glass is more than this.  Sometimes, what is broken becomes better than it was before.

Now it’s just like the other horses . . . ” says Laura in Tennesee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, when Jim knocks her glass unicorn to the floor, breaking its horn.

Breaking the glass at the conclusion of a Jewish wedding reminds of the fragility of human relationships, which need the greatest care.  The broken glass is the world the couple came from, forever and irreparably changed by their union.  New joy must live alongside the pain and suffering of the world.

Something fell from Nellie’s hand and knocked on the floor. She started, jumped up, and opened her eyes wide. One looking-glass she saw lying at her feet. The other was standing as before on the table.
—Anton Checkov, “The Looking-glass”

The mirror reveals only what it is shown, and what it means to the looker can be something different altogether.  The looking-glass is only one more opportunity to warp the matter of the world into shapes that suit deception, plotting, and retellings of post-hoc truths that matter now more than the time to which they refer.

Looking through the bent backed tulips
To see how the other half lives
Looking through a glass onion

—John Lennon, “Glass Onion”

All that ends must be followed by something else.  So it is with broken glass.  The broken vase pictured at the opening of this essay was bought by a lover to whom I had sent roses after some transgression that I have long forgotten.  She, too, is gone, though the vase remained with me after she left.  It’s been filled by the flowers of other lovers who have come and gone, each one leaving a mark on my heart, life by a thousand cuts, as it were.

Then one day last year, my cat jumped up to the window sill in the middle of the night and the vase came crashing to the floor.  The sound woke me and I went to look, shaking my head as I plodded back to bed, thinking that in the glint of that broken vase there was a story to be told.  I will miss her.

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The truth and oral history: The Double Life of the Interview

BROOKLYN READING WORKS

org. Louise Crawford
guest curator John A. Guidry

THURSDAY, JANUARY 20, 2011
8:00 – 10:00 PM
Where: OLD STONE HOUSE at J. J. BYRNE PLAYGROUND
5th Avenue in Park Slope between 3rd and 4th Streets
(718) 768-3195

The idea

Stories do not tell themselves. Even once they are told and recorded, stories need some help to be heard and to live in the world. This month’s Brooklyn Reading Works will look at the processes by which people collect stories and use them to tell stories. We will have panelists who use oral history practices to document our world and the lives we lead, and the conversation will explore the work it takes to make stories interesting and give them legs to stand on, as it were. Panelists will represent and explore several different genres and styles of the oral historian’s craft, from traditional first-person historical storytelling to the mediations of photography, academic writing, marketing, multimedia, and social advocacy—as well as stories of how collecting stories ultimately affects oral historians as authors and curators of the human experience.

The panel

Brian Toynes and Luna Ortiz, with Gay Men’s Health Crisis, who have developed innovative community-level interventions that use personal stories about change and resiliency. Luna is one of the few people documenting the “House and Ball” scene that came to general public prominence in the film, Paris is Burning, and in Madonna’s “Vogue – but which has also had a much more complex and international history over the last 100 years.

Michael Garofalo, a producer with StoryCorps, who will talk about the work of StoryCorps and the importance of collecting and listening to the stories we can tell each other about our lives.

Mary Marshall Clark, Director of the Columbia Oral History Office. Mary Marshall will concentrate on the stories of 9-11 that her team collected here in New York and the process of working with these kinds of interviews in order to create a tangible and personal history of these events.

Jason Kerstenauthor of “The Art of Making Money,” a true-crime story of a young counterfeiter and his life. Jason’s interviews with Art and his family reveal a host of issues that a writer must confront when getting so close to the subject while trying to tell a true story that is compelling, informative, honest, and in the end protective of the subject’s own history and privacy.

John A. Guidry, who has used oral history and long-interviewing techniques in academic writing (community organizing and children’s rights in Brazil), community development research (all over the US), and public health promotion (HIV health and social marketing).

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Filed under ideas, journalism, knowledge, life, literature, media, Park Slope, writing