Joan Didion

I’ve been revisiting Joan Didion lately—as have a lot of people, I guess. At first I didn’t understand why, and I’m still not completely sure. I’d read her early work back in the day, Slouching Toward Bethlehem (essays) and Play it as it Lays (novel) and The White Album (more essays). I was impressed by her writing and fascinated by the stories she told, but wasn’t sure what to make of it all.

There is a resurgence of interest in her now, a new book (haven’t read it yet) and a documentary on Netflix (not great, but pretty good). I guess what caught my eye this time was one of her famous quotes being endlessly repeated: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” I believe that more and more, and yet less and less do I think it is a good way to live—since it also seems true to me that we tell ourselves stories to distract ourselves from what’s actually going on, and if that’s what it takes to live, well, that’s a pretty dismal view of life.

So I started re-reading the early essays, and the writing is more astonishing than I remembered—and the message more obscure as well. Pellucid, jarring, elegantly crafted descriptions that leave me more baffled than ever about what I was just looking at.

So why is it somehow important to me to keep going back to her, rather than putting her on the shelf and moving on? Today someone quoted a bit of “The White Album” (the essay) and now maybe I get it.

We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.

Aha. This is the trap that mindfulness meditation is trying to escape, to set aside the narratives and see things as they actually are. No surprise that what you end up seeing is unrecognizable, and baffling. But keep looking.

This is a pretty good take on what Didion may be trying to do in her writing. And the Netflix documentary is worth 90 minutes of your time, if for no other reason that the filmmaker was family (nephew Griffin Dunne) and she is way more comfortable and frank with him than in the usual interview. Also—and this may sound weird—Didion is a remarkable physical specimen, fascinating to watch. She is in her early 80s, weighs almost nothing, veins bulging on nearly fleshless arms. Still sharp as a tack. Hands gesturing in the air as she talks, but with no relationship I could discern to the words she is saying. Absolutely without pretense. Not at all the sort of weird I expected—but still weird, just a very different sort.

A nice aphorism

I saw a review of a just-published biography of Jann Wenner, founder and publisher of Rolling Stone, and thought I might like to read it, having been a devoted reader from the early 70s through the late 80s. The library had a copy on order so I placed a hold and had it in hand a few days later.

I read the first few chapters, and decided: no, I don’t want to spend the time it will take to read this. It covers a part of the culture that was once part of my life, but I left it behind 35 years ago and have better things to do than reliving those (mostly vicarious) experiences. I took it back last night and I picked up another new book I’m really looking forward to reading. And this morning I ran across a good review of the Wenner biography, which linked to a New York Times article about how Wenner and his biographer had a falling out, and those two more than satisfied my curiosity about the book.

And so we come to the barely-related inspiration for today’s post, the final sentence of the book review. The reviewer, who worked at Rolling Stone for many years and at several points was courted by Wenner to write the biography himself, laments the fact that as good as the biography is it seems to miss something essential about Wenner’s character, a quality that allowed him to assemble a crack writing staff and give them the freedom they needed to blaze important new trails. Since it’s good writing, I’ll quote the whole final paragraph:

A funny thing happens when a part of your life becomes official history. No matter how good that history is, the writer can’t help getting a crucial aspect wrong. All the facts might be correct, but the spirit is lost. The effect is like a body without a soul. Everything we read about the past is bound to be incomplete because, though we might know what unfolded, we can never really know how the experience felt. The story that gets pieced together takes the place of the memory, then becomes the memory. Because this book is so good, its portrait of Jann Wenner will stick in our heads. History is not what happened, but what remains when everything else is forgotten.

This is a good thing to remember when reading any biography. But what caught my eye is that last sentence: History is not what happened, but what remains when everything else is forgotten. No offense to the writer, but it was just too good, so I Googled it and found that it is a variant (perhaps his own) on a cluster of aphorisms that have been around for awhile, the essence being:

Culture/Education is what remains after you have forgotten everything you’ve learned.

I like that because I think it restates a core aspect of character development, namely that the job is not to become skilled at a particular virtue or discipline, but to become a person who embodies it. That is, we work at patience not simply to collect and polish a set of skills to apply in trying situations, but to actually become patient—a state of being which will allow us to meet trying situations those skills aren’t designed to address—we come to understand patience deeply enough to craft new responses on the spot—and will radiate its effects throughout our character by putting us in closer alignment with God’s creation.

I should note that the reviewer’s variation actually repurposes the observation, moving it from one about individuals to one about societies.

And I want to use this as an excuse to repeat one of my favorite anecdotes:

[Vladimir] Horowitz was asked if the number of extremely talented young pianists concerned him. Did he fear losing his position among the stellar performers? He responded no, that he didn’t fear them. They are very talented, he agreed, and they practice like demons, making high demands of themselves, and then they go on stage before an audience and practice some more.

An experiment

I thought it might be interesting to publish a raw piece of writing here, the first part of something that may take me a good while to finish. The piece itself needs reworking, and may change quite a bit as I rework it into something that says what I think—and as I continue to discover what I think.

The title of the piece for now is Come Alongside, and describes what I think is one good way to walk the path of character development, Christian or otherwise.

Why are we stuck?

Richard Beck recent wrote a series of posts called “The Most Important Word in Christianity” (one, two, three, four). They’re good reading, short and to the point, but I think I can summarize it fairly as follows:

  • Christians have an understanding of the fruitful Christian life and a desire to live it, but in general make no progress toward that end.

Seriously, just take a look at your church. How many times have you heard the call to more Sabbath, simplicity and prayer? A bet a million times. Now ask: Is your church any less busy or stressed out than it was ten years ago?

  • We fail to develop the fruits of the Spirit because we don’t intentionally set out to develop those fruits.

For example, how many of us woke up today with an intentional goal to be more gentle? I expect very few. Which means, by the end of the year, none of us will have become more gentle. That’s a Fruit of the Spirit, a key marker of being like Jesus, totally ignored.

  • Spiritual disciplines, good in themselves, will not produce fruit because they are not designed to produce fruit.

Consider how Jesus ends the Sermon on the Mount. Having set out his vision of God’s kingdom rule in our lives, Jesus doesn’t conclude with the suggestion that we should practice prayer, fasting, Sabbath, and silence so that the Sermon can be formed in our lives. No, Jesus ends by saying this: “The one who hears these words and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house upon a rock.” […]

Jesus’ vision of spiritual formation is simple: Put these things into practice. Don’t wander off to do other sorts of things. Intentionally do these things. Intentionally put these things into practice. Yes, prayer and fasting are mentioned in the Sermon on the Mount, but intentionality in practicing prayer and fasting is primary.

  • We can progress in fruitful living by cultivating the actual fruits.

My biggest problem with Christian spiritual formation efforts is the lack of attention given to the Fruit of the Spirit. Somehow, prayer and fasting are supposed to cultivate love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I’m not wholly convinced that’s the case, all things being equal.

Here’s a crazy idea: I think you cultivate something like patience by being focused and intentional about being patient.

To my mind Beck is right about two things: (1) the fruits of the spirit are not cultivatable indirectly, i.e. practices such as prayer and fasting and Bible study do not by themselves produce the fruits, and (2) the fruits are cultivatable directly, i.e. we progress in them by practicing them.

This has been my experience. I’ve done both, and I’ve made progress in the fruits. For the record, I’m prepared to back up that claim in the case of joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—love is harder to quantify, and I’ll leave it to others to decide whether I’ve progressed there. I’ve also worked at the spiritual disciplines with varying levels of diligence for twenty-five years now, and I am confident now that, beneficial though the work was, it didn’t produce the fruits. At best it deepened my understanding of them, intensified my hunger to bear them, and cleared the way of certain obstacles.

So, Beck says e.g. we are not growing in patience because we are not focused and intentional about developing patience. But doesn’t this simply beg the question? We know we should be patient, we want to be patient, pastors urge us to be patient, we have before us the perfect model of patience—with all that, what keeps us from being focused and intentional about developing patience?

I’ve sat through enough sermons where the pastor was Homer Simpson to my television in this clip:

TV Host: Well, sir, it has been an uneventful week in Badger Falls… where the women are robust, the men are pink-cheeked… and the children are pink-cheeked and robust. [ Wild TV audience laughter ]

Homer What the hell’s so funny?

TV Host: At the Apple Biscuit Café… where the smiles are free, don’t you know… Sven lnqvist studied the menu. Finally, he ordered the same thing he has every day. [ Wild TV audience laughter]

Bart: Maybe it’s the TV.

Homer: Stupid TV! [Starts banging on TV] Be more funny!

Well, OK, pastor … but how? Is the path to patience so obvious that deciding we want to go there is enough, the work to be done will unfold before us as long as we set forth with intention? This hasn’t been my experience.

Richard Beck says the missing ingredient is intentionality, that we don’t progress because we make no serious effort to do so. I agree, but I think that such effort never materializes (or dies on the vine) because of a second, more important missing ingredient: clear and simple guidance on how to proceed. That we are left to work out for ourselves. For those few who are able to chart their own path, the progress will come. The rest are left to drift.

But as I suggested in my post earlier this week, the failure should not be chalked up to the individual but the community.

Most Christians know they are called to behave a certain way, and many are doing their best to answer the call, but they don’t seem to be enjoying it one bit. They are not content, but they don’t know why, and constant exhortation from the pulpit to just be content isn’t making it any easier. They don’t yet have the answers. But I think the answers are out there. I think that Christian thinking actually works, and it’s completely fair for someone to point out to the teachers that they can’t be telling the whole story if a Christian who honestly and diligently applies these teachings doesn’t experience joy and contentment as a result.

There are answers. But until we figure out how to (a) live them in our own lives, and (b) teach others how to live them in theirs, we don’t really have them.

Clear and simple guidance is a possibility, but somehow the community isn’t delivering. We can’t deliver an answer we don’t have, and we don’t have an answer until we have lived it in our own life and taught others how to live it in theirs. The pieces are floating around—some know how to live it out, some know how to teach—but we’ve forgotten as a community how to collect, cultivate, and communicate wisdom for living.

But … how?

In the mid-90s I saw a training video for Alpha course leaders where Nicky Gumbel, the Anglican priest who created the course, talked about once going on and on in pastorly tones about the importance of prayer, to which his wife responded in essence, yes, well and good … but how?

He then advised the small group leaders that, when they introduced prayer into their groups (about five meetings along, I think) they should initiate it … and keep it simple. As he said, if the group leader opens with a elaborate, articulate, delicately phrased prayer, those in the group with little or no experience of prayer at best are likely to think “Wow! That was wonderful, I loved that! Of course, I could never do such a thing …” Whereas if you open the meeting with “Dear Lord, thank you for the lovely weather this week, amen” those folks are likely to think “Huh … well, I can surely do better than that!”

Provided this is what you think prayer is about, then the above is great guidance—clear, simple, and practical. We might wonder why a collection of advice just as practical doesn’t exist, a training manual for those new to prayer (as far as I know it doesn’t, at least in the sense I’m describing). I think the reason is a simple one—the above bit of advice is specific to a time and place and situation, provided by an expert in such things, and if we were to collect all such advice even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written, only the tinest fraction of which would be relevant to a given person’s life.

And we don’t really need such a comprehensive library. We would be fine with just one book, as long as it were addressed directly to us and the writer added to it the things we needed to read at just the time we needed them.

Such books are occasionally written, though not always by setting pen to paper. They are written by mentors on the hearts of those they advise.

I think mentoring is nearly a lost concept in modern Christian circles. No one wants the responsibility that comes with doing it, and although many will make noises about wanting to be discipled no one wants to subject themselves to the actual discipline, which involves humility and docility and other quaint character qualities.

I was in a weekly Bible study with some of the other evangelical-leaning Episcopalians at my church, a Christian for just a few years, and ran through the standard litany of complaints about how unnamed “mature” Christians (I had none in mind) were apparently neglecting their mentorly duties to me and others, for reasons I couldn’t fathom.

To make the point, I turned to an older couple in the group, married perhaps forty years at that time. and said, “Look, surely if a young couple came to you and asked for guidance and wisdom about being married you’d be glad to give it.”

Instead of the vigorous nodding I expected to get, I got a deer-in-the-headlights look. Even after forty years of marriage my friends reacted in terror to the thought that someone might actually ask them for advice—after all, they might follow it, and it might not turn out well, and then who would be responsible?

From my Sent folder

I should know better than to predict when a piece will be ready. The one I predicted a few days ago is still in process, and I don’t know how long it’ll take to finish. No matter. For now I’ll follow Alan Jacobs’s occasional practice of posting something he has sent in an email to a friend.

In this case the friend asked me what I thought about William James’s essay “The Moral Equivalent of War”, which argues that cultivating a warlike nature is good and necessary but forging it in actual war is a bad and destructive thing, therefore we should look for outlets that are “morally equivalent” to war, other activities that cultivate the needed characteristics.

If now—and this is my idea—there were, instead of military conscription, a conscription of the whole youthful population, to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted against Nature, the injustice would tend to be evened out, and numerous other goods to the commonwealth would follow. The military ideals of hardihood and discipline would be wrought into the growing fiber of the people; no one would remain blind, as the luxurious classes now are blind, to man’s relations to the globe he lives on and to the permanently sour and hard foundations of his higher life. To coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing, clothes-washing, and window-washing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers would our gilded youths be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas. They would have paid their blood tax, done their own part in the immemorial human warfare against nature; they would tread the earth more proudly, the women would value them more highly, they would be better fathers and teachers of the following generation.

I love William James, but not his conclusion here. This is what I wrote to my friend.

Your reading program certainly takes you to interesting places! I remembed The Moral Equivalent of War only as Jimmy Carter’s rallying cry to confront and defeat the late 70s energy crisis. I knew he had taken the concept from William James, but had never bothered to go to the source. Thanks for giving me a reason to do that.

I disagree with James’s conclusion. But I also think he is one of the smartest and wisest thinkers ever, and I definitely agree with his instruction to fellow pacifists (among whom I’d count myself):

Pacifists ought to enter more deeply into the aesthetical and ethical point of view of their opponents. Do that first in any controversy, then move the point, and your opponent will follow.

Since I grant that James’s conclusion follows from his assumptions, I had to figure out which one(s) I disagreed with. And I think where James and I diverge is in seeing certain qualities of character as important, even vital to creating the good life:

We must make new energies and hardihoods continue the manliness to which the military mind so faithfully clings. Martial virtues must be the enduring cement; intrepidity, contempt of softness, surrender of private interest, obedience to command must still remain the rock upon which states are built.

He may be right that states require those qualities of their citizens–but that’s a problem for the state, not the individual. Moreover, the four qualities he mentions above, along with the rest, clash pretty strongly with the Christian virtues, and in some cases are in direct opposition.

James was a man of his time, when the American project was a roaring success and jingoism reached its zenith. I read a book called Imperial San Francisco which looks at the history of that period and makes it clear that Americans were bursting with pride at having conquered a continent and ready to move on to the next one, Asia; the ads and articles cited there urging the public to continue pushing the frontier west into the Eastern hemisphere … well, it curled my hair to read it.

I can see that he was in a peculiar position, having been bred to see those “virtues” as such, civilized enough to know that using war to instill them would lead to global disaster. But I think he was wrong about the virtues we need. The Christian ideal is sufficient.

James would say otherwise, perhaps grant that they are OK but that we need more in order to accomplish civilization. I’m with Chesterton: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” And with Tolstoy: “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”

Delusions of intelligence

Today I got caught up in some work, so no long blog post yet. In the meantime, I offer this nice observation from an essay by Nicholas Carr;

It turns out that we aren’t very good at distinguishing the knowledge we keep in our heads from the information we find on our phones or computers. As Dr. Wegner and Dr. Ward explained in a 2013 Scientific American article, when people call up information through their devices, they often end up suffering from delusions of intelligence. They feel as though “their own mental capacities” had generated the information, not their devices. “The advent of the ‘information age’ seems to have created a generation of people who feel they know more than ever before,” the scholars concluded, even though “they may know ever less about the world around them.”

I was as naive as anyone about this possibility. When the first glimmers of the internet appeared on my horizon, I assumed one benefit of easily accessed information would be that people would stop lying because the truth would be too easy to throw back in their faces. Silly me! Just because we have access to it doesn’t mean we will proceed to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest it. Much easier to search, scan, and weaponize, not even bothering to consider the implications of what they parade around as evidence.

There are answers

I have in mind a long post, probably for tomorrow, responding to a series of posts on Richard Beck’s blog this week. But I wanted something brief for today and started poking around this blog for inspiration. I came across something I wrote six years ago, a sort of a preliminary to the long post.

Most Christians know they are called to behave a certain way, and many are doing their best to answer the call, but they don’t seem to be enjoying it one bit. They are not content, but they don’t know why, and constant exhortation from the pulpit to just be content isn’t making it any easier. They don’t yet have the answers. But I think the answers are out there. I think that Christian thinking actually works, and it’s completely fair for someone to point out to the teachers that they can’t be telling the whole story if a Christian who honestly and diligently applies these teachings doesn’t experience joy and contentment as a result.

There are answers. But until we figure out how to (a) live them in our own lives, and (b) teach others how to live them in theirs, we don’t really have them.

Seems like I’ve been thinking about this problem for a long time. I don’t know if I’m any closer to a solution, but it’s helpful to me to keep looking for organizing principles, core assumptions under which the pieces easily fall into place. One more candidate coming up!

Jonathan Franzen steps in it

This essay by Jonathan Franzen is a particularly good essay, if you mean by that an attempt to think one’s way through a matter by writing about it. And as Alan Jacobs points out in How to Think, those who engage in thinking take the very real risk of losing friends and alienating people. Franzen’s essay is about publishing an earlier essay he wrote a few years back where he took thoughtful exception to the common wisdom of his circle regarding climate change, resulting in huge amounts of blowback. His reflections here about the whys and wherefores of that earlier episode fit together nicely with many of the observations Jacobs makes in his book.

It’s the nature of Franzen’s heresy that resonated with me most, serving as a good example of why I’ve opted to no longer spend time thinking about political issues. Franzen’s point is a moderate one, and almost unquestionably correct: “our preoccupation with future catastrophes discourages us from tackling solvable environmental problems in the here and now.” His editor, Henry Finder, helped him reshape the initial version to make it more persuasive:

In an email to me, [Henry] gently suggested that I lose the tone of prophetic scorn. “This piece will be more persuasive,” he wrote in another, “if, ironically, it’s more ambivalent, less polemical. You’re not whaling on folks who want us to pay attention to climate change and emission reductions. But you’re attentive to the costs. To what the discourse pushes to the margins.”

Email by email, revision by revision, Henry nudged me toward framing the essay not as a denunciation but as a question: how do we find meaning in our actions when the world seems to be coming to an end? Much of the final draft was devoted to a pair of well-conceived regional conservation projects, in Peru and Costa Rica, where the world really is being made a better place, not just for wild plants and wild animals but for the Peruvians and Costa Ricans who live there. Work on these projects is personally meaningful, and the benefits are immediate and tangible.

So, a moderate proposal to his crowd: let’s consider the possibility that our obsession with climate change is sucking up all the oxygen in the room, suffocating efforts to confront more tractable but less sexy problems.

It didn’t end well.

In writing about the two projects, I hoped that one or two of the big charitable foundations, the ones spending tens of millions of dollars on biodiesel development or on wind farms in Eritrea, might read the piece and consider investing in work that produces tangible results. What I got instead was a missile attack from the liberal silo.

I’m not on social media, but my friends reported that I was being called all sorts of names, including “birdbrain” and “climate-change denier”. Tweet-sized snippets of my essay, retweeted out of context, made it sound as if I’d proposed that we abandon the effort to reduce carbon emissions, which was the position of the Republican party, which, by the polarising logic of online discourse, made me a climate-change denier. In fact, I’m such a climate-science accepter that I don’t even bother having hope for the ice caps. All I’d denied was that a right-minded international elite, meeting in nice hotels around the world, could stop them from melting.

This was my crime against orthodoxy. Climate now has such a lock on the liberal imagination that any attempt to change the conversation – even trying to change it to the epic extinction event that human beings are already creating without the help of climate change – amounts to an offence against religion.

I note that where Franzen says “change the conversation” he is speaking idiomatically. There is no actual conversation taking place, at most we have what Rebecca West called “intersecting monologues.” And this is why I have no interest in the politics of the day. To even begin to have a fruitful interaction on a political topic, I think the participants need to be both skilled at what John Keats called negative capability (“capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”) and devoted to staying there as long as it took to gain real understanding, even if only partial, even if it never comes at all.

While reading Franzen’s essay I found I needed strong applications of negative capability, since his political sentiments run much different than mine and much of his language was pushing my buttons—but at the same time I recognized that much of my initial reaction was visceral and I needed to tamp it down in order to hear what Franzen was saying. So I did, and I learned some things, both about climate change and the limits of my own knowledge of the topic. If there were a group of people commited to taking the same approach, I’d gladly join together with them to consider the political issues of the day. But that’s not how public “discourse” works anymore, if it ever did.