Thursday, September 19, 2013

Wisdom Literature, And The Fuck-Ups Who Write It

Wisdom Literature is a genre I've precious little appetite for. I've read the stuff in the Bible, committed some of it to memory — usually to be recited in an ironic context. I don't voluntarily return to it, though.

Some — maybe even most — people seem to find it super-important. Recognizing that, I've taken a stab at reading varieties of Wisdom Lit: the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Koran, Marcus Aurelius, Confucius, Rumi, Rilke's Letters To A Young Poet. Couldn't finish any of 'em.

Back when I worked the bookstore Khalil Gibran's The Prophet also caught my eye. Try as we might, we could not keep enough copies of that homely-looking book in stock. At some point we finally caught up on our back-orders and I took a copy home to see what all the fuss was about. I could have read it in an evening, but didn't. Sleep overtook me, and the book was back on the store's shelf the next morning.

Gibran retains his popular appeal, though, so he's an inviting subject for critic-journalists keen for a peek-behind-the-curtain, like John Dodge, who riffs off Joan Accocella's in turn. Reading those pieces this week put me in a funk, for reasons I've had trouble identifying. I have no investment in Gibran's strain of wisdom, so a writer might reasonably expect a reader like me to indulge in a little schadenfreude. But I find the death of an alcoholic just plain sad, and Gibran's is no exception.

My responsive glumness is also the residual effect of reading Listening For Madeleine: A Portrait of Madeleine L'Engle In Many Voices (A). Leonard S. Marcus does a fine job of pulling together recollections of the woman from friends, writers and book-biz types, and others who naturally had dealings with L'Engle. What emerges is pretty much the expected picture: L'Engle as grand dame who, while fully in touch with her formidable charisma, very pointedly cultivated an air of approachability.

Marcus' conversations contain few surprises, and those are rather gentle. This is chiefly because it is Cynthia Zarin who first encountered and, in this NewYorker piece, exposed all the astonishments. Many of Marcus' interviews feel compelled to comment on Zarin — not on the revelations per se, of course, but on the spirit in which they were presented. Marcus, in turn, concludes by interviewing Zarin, commendably giving her the last word on the matter.

From my first reading to the present, Zarin's piece never struck me as sensationalist or exploitative or vituperative (in fact, I wish it was included in Marcus' book). Nor were her revelations a source of disappointment — sadness on behalf of someone encountered in the printed word, but not disappointment. L'Engle wrote frequently and forcefully on the subject of, for instance, marital fidelity, but there were also frequent (occasionally cloaked) asides that suggested these utterances had some unspoken history behind them. Her marriage to an actor from a popular soap came of age during the 60s and 70s. The marriage ideal might well be a two-part invention, but presuming strict fidelity on the part of two public “superstars” in the environment of that era requires a third party: the reader's willing suspension of disbelief.

Readers gave it, though — and still do. That's some sweet-tasting punch to be had, and no-one appreciates the suggestion it has been in any way tainted. So it is also no surprise if friends and colleagues subtly (or not so) cast aspersions on Zarin's character. Thomas Cahill, however, surprises me when he says,

The profile of Madeleine that appeared in The New Yorker really shocked me. What shocked me was not whether this or that detail was true. What was said about Bion,* for example, sounded more or less accurate. It would have been fine to say those things once she was gone. What shocked me was that Madeleine's family had talked about her in that way while Madeleine was still reading.

Emphasis is mine. Cahill seems to imply he'd be okay with reading this stuff after she'd died, and not a moment before.

I have to say I have considerably greater sympathy for L'Engle's children. The maintenance of a publicly revered parent is also a three-part invention, requiring the often reluctant participation of the children. Consider how, as L'Engle's physical and mental state was deteriorating, her public persona grew increasingly saintly. As the family casualties mounted, and the matriarch required ever more intimate care, receiving adulatory mail from strangers who presumed a deep connection with this person (“Madeleine was the mother I wish I had” is a common sentiment) must have become a staggering burden, especially if it appears that hagiography is nearly inevitable. Before Crosswicks becomes a tourist destination, and busloads of earnest believers spill out to tell you, ad nauseum, what a truly wonderful person your mother was, you might want to preemptively let a little air out of the tires.

You might also, consciously or no, want to prep her for deathbed conversation. It's debatable just how necessary it is to actually have these conversations, but one way or another, before or after death, a kid has to “say” “You fucked up. Not only that, you fucked me up. But I forgive you. I love you. And I will miss you so much more than I can say.”

Our parents, with all their flaws, try to pass on what wisdom they glean during their own lives. Beyond that, any Wisdom Literature we adopt we then endow with parental authority. It only stands to reason that this, then, is a conversation we readers ought to “have” with the writers of our Wisdom Literature.

Writing Wisdom Literature was a gig Madeleine took to, with obvious pleasure. In fact you could argue, as she elliptically did, that it is every writer's gig, whether they acknowledge it or not. Speaking with some personal experience, forgiving an author for his or her personal shortcomings can have a surprisingly freeing effect on the words they wrote. It may be that the only truly Sacred Literature we get in this life is written by people we have learned to forgive.

*If you haven't yet read Zarin's piece, Bion is presented as the golden-haired child who drank himself into an early grave. Sensing a theme, yet?

**This is the last time I link to Larkin's This Be The Verse. Now here's a link to his second most-discussed poem.

Friday, September 13, 2013

"Fools In Old-Style Hats And Coats": A 21st-Century Blasphemer Reads Anneken Heyndriks

Remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations: ask thy father, and he will shew thee; thy elders, and they will tell thee — Deuteronomy 32:7

We must cling to a God who approves of blasphemy because he hates Jehovah and Nobodaddy and Zeus . . . all the other kings of terrors and tyrants of the soul. To a God who appreciates obscenity because he looks not into the secret of our hearts, but into the hearts of our secrets, and knows that our bloodfilled guts and cocking guts are the real battlefield — Northrop Frye

Some people should die. That's just unconscious knowledge — Jane's Addiction

I have friends — born and raised and baptised Mennonites — who went on to become Catholic. I've also spoken with former Catholics who pointedly embraced Anabaptism so completely that they submitted to a second baptism of conscious consent. I've converted several PCs from Windows to Linux. Maybe the metaphor is too facile to be pertinent, but it seems to me these people have allowed their guiding, religious Operating Systems to be similarly converted.

Some of these conversions provoked considerable consternation among family members. But physical violence? Not really. A parental eye-roll, a noisy sigh of exasperation, occasionally some shouts and unfortunate words. Nothing in league with getting tied to a ladder and dumped into flames.

So my first, unfiltered response to poor Anneken's demise: is there any stupidity more brutal than the attempt to physically exorcise one's religious doubt in the face of another's religious certainty? Funny (o ho-ho — my sides) how religion provides convenient license to execute: if you're a bailiff in 16th Century Amsterdam, a Communist in 20th Century China, an Imam in 21st Century Tehran — or (it could, and probably should, be argued) a drone pilot for present day America. “I'm right. You're wrong. Go to Hell.”

"Here's me under the ladder,
losing my religion..."

The more circumspect side of me wonders what this account is not saying.

Anneken Heyndriks was a relative newcomer to Amsterdam, from Friesland — which even today's Amsterdamers consider a back-water. She couldn't read or write, but (if we take the account at face value) she was no slouch at committing scripture to memory: her response to her underbailiff neighbour's intrusion is remarkably similar to her Savior's, when He was finally approached by the State constabulary. It is this adept knowledge of the Gospels, or at least of their Passion narratives, which she is keen to impress upon her (Christian) captors.

What did she do to piss off her neighbour? Sixteenth Century Amsterdam was a city of massive commerce, and a modestly successful diaspora: even Jews — the most obvious, and thus the most frequently persecuted, dissenters to the ruling religion — were tolerated by the authorities. The regents who ran the place clearly had more pressing concerns than hunting down illiterate peasant heretics. Yet something about Anneken prompted Evert to drop the hammer. Perhaps the sound of hymns being furtively sung in the neighbouring barn during the wee small hours of the morning woke him up once too often.

Or perhaps it was something more personal. Listen to her response, preferably in Plaut-Dietsch or German, when he shows up with the rope: “Neighbour Evert, what is your wish? If you seek me, you can easily find me: here I am at your service.”

“Meek spirit,” you say? Riiiiiiight. Listen, I've known a few Heinrichses in my day. If you're in the right frame of mind, they can be a barrel of laughs. If you're not, they're a pain in the ass (a little like some Reimers, maybe). When Anneken spoke, Evert clearly wasn't in a laughing mood — yet.

And she goes on to speak a great deal more, with a liberty perhaps born of the realization she has nothing left to fear or lose. Or maybe she just likes to talk — some Heinrichses are like that. The fact that she, a peckerwood Frieslander, moved to the nation's bustling metropolis — at her advanced age — indicates a remarkably robust spirit (again, another trait common among the Heinrichses). Whatever the case, she does what she can to keep the spotlight trained on her, whether her audience consists of passersby or Pieter the Bailiff or Sir Albert the anointed chaplain of State.

Go on and look at me, an old woman all hog-tied and off to jail. What for, do you think? Prostitution? Robbery? Nope: following Jesus — you know: that guy you stare at every Sunday morning at Cathedral. The one ON A CROSS. Kind of ironic, isn't it? Kind of makes you think, doesn't it? Well if it doesn't, it sure should. Say, He was tried by the religious authorities of His day, too, wasn't he? Sure makes a person think, alright. Hey, good neighbour Evert: you remember that guy Judas, who led the State authorities to Jesus? Jesus died, Judas lived — for a bit longer, anyway — you know the guy I mean. Where's Judas now, do you suppose?

So Anneken, our determined saint, gets the final word; Evert, the last laugh.

"Fools in old-style hats & coats,
who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats."

Philip Larkin

Or does he? Both Anneken and the Mirror's scribe clearly (and quite understandably) expect God's Righteous Judgement to mete out a proper turnabout to underbailiff Evert in the Hereafter. And even if the staunch materialists among us determinedly dismiss this theological phant'sy, a curious historical irony nevertheless takes place.

You see, I happen to know a few Ewerts, also — in fact, it's a fairly common name among Mennonites. They're wickedly intelligent, and possess a weary sort of humour that I deeply enjoy, especially in difficult times. They're also an incredibly supercilious bunch (again, a little like the Reimers). It seems that somewhere in the untold part of this story, family members of the villainous underbailiff were radically converted, and joined the community this man hated with a murderous passion.

So it goes. Perhaps a few 21st Century Ewerts have even returned to Catholicism. And of course there are Heinrichses, Ewerts and Reimers who have committed apostasy — that's inevitable, no matter what your clan or religion. You can be as pious as you like, but walk far enough and you'll eventually cross paths with someone who thinks you're beyond the pale. In my hometown, back in the day, there were elders who considered a zipper on your pants an act of heretical pride.

I gave last week's post to my wife to read. She said, “There's something ghostly about those accounts, isn't there?” There sure is. Read it in its ancient font, with the crude illustrations, inside a 1200-page hardcover too heavy for your coffee table, and that “ghostly” quality is magnified something fierce. But do keep reading it. These people, who were just smart enough to get into the worst kind of trouble, changed the world.

Are you enjoying your religious freedom, the freedom to have no religion at all, the freedom to read whatever you like? You owe it all to the Age of Enlightenment — a tertiary ideological engine set into motion by the Reformation, the wheels of which my people greased with their blood, motherfucker. And you're welcome.

You're even welcome to chuckle at the old fart with the combed beard who tut-tuts the zipper on your pants. Perhaps he knows, like few people do, that in the bloody tide of our species' history your many blasphemies are trivial and banal, enacted to no great effect and easily forgotten.

Further reading: Mennonites, patron saints of mediocrity; awfully full of themselves, but boy, can they sing; and please won't you join my Long Line of Nüscht?

Anneken Haunts Me

Anneken Heyndriks isn't done with me — nor I with her. Here is the account of her trial, torture and death from Martyrs Mirror. I'm hoping to post some further thoughts by Monday.

In the year 1571, there was burnt alive, at Amsterdam in Holland, for the testimony of Jesus, a woman named Anneken Heyndriks, aged about fifty-three years. Having come from Friesland to Amsterdam, she was betrayed by her neighbour, the underbailiff, who entered her house in order to apprehend her. She said to him with a meek spirit: “Neighbour Evert, what is your wish? If you seek me, you can easily find me: here I am at your service.” This Judas the traitor said: “Surrender, in the name of the King.” And he bound Anneken with a rope, and led her along with him, as Judas and the scribes had done with our predecessor, Jesus.

When they arrived on the Dam, Anneken said that they should not hesitate to look at her, since she was neither a harlot nor a thief, but a prisoner for the name of Jesus. After arriving in prison, she thanked and praised her Lord and Creator with an humble heart, for counting her worthy to suffer for His Name's sake. And she boldly confessed her faith before Pieter the Bailiff and the other lords. They greatly tormented her with Baal's priests, in order to cause her to apostatize; but through the grace of God she valiantly resisted it. This greatly astonished the bailiff, that she did not pay more regard to his spiritual lords, and he said to Anneken, “Sir Albert, our chaplain, is such a holy fellow, that he ought to be mounted in fine gold; and you will not hear him, but make sport of him, hence you must die in your sins, so far are you strayed from God.”

Thus they suspended this God-fearing aged woman (who could neither read nor write) by her hands, even as Christ had been, and by severe torturing sought to extort from her the names of her fellow believers, for they thirsted for more innocent blood. But they obtained nothing from Anneken, so faithfully did God keep her lips. Hence the bailiff preferred against her the charge of being infected with heresy, having forsaken the mother, the holy church, now about six years ago and having adopted the cursed doctrine of the Mennonists, by whom she had been baptized on her faith, and married a husband among them. Thereupon she was sentenced to be burnt alive. She thanked the lords, and said with humility, that if she had done amiss to anyone, she asked them to forgive her. But the lords arose and made no reply. She was then tied on a ladder. Then she said to Evert the underbailiff, her neighbour: “Thou Judas, I have not deserved it, that I should be thus murdered.” And she asked him not to do this any more, or God should avenge it on him. Thereupon Evert angrily said that he would bring all those that were of her mind the same trouble. The other bailiff came once more with a priest, tormenting her, and saying that if she did not renounce, she should go from this fire into the eternal. Thereupon Anneken steadfastly said: “Though I am sentenced and condemned by you, yet what you say does not come from God; for I firmly trust in God, who shall help me out of all my trouble.”

They did not let her speak any more, but filled her mouth with gunpowder, and carried her thus from the city hall to the fire into which they cast her alive. This done, the traitor Evert, the underbailiff, was seen to laugh, as though he had done God an acceptable service. But the merciful God, who is the comfort of the pious, shall give this faithful witness, for this brief and temporal tribulation, an everlasting reward, when her stopped mouth shall be opened in fullness of joy, and these sad tears (for the truth's sake) shall be wiped away, and she be crowned with eternal joy with God in heaven.

Note: we have obtained this sentence of death of this pious and valiant heroine of Jesus Christ, as the same was read to her in court; as also the record of her torture, which, as it appears, took two weeks before her death; which we shall place here one after the other, as they were copied by the secretary from the criminal records of the city.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Shared Texts Among Mennonites

John Granger tells of Allan Bloom (The Closing Of The American MindA) belittling freshman students for their absence of shared texts.

Bloom asserted that Granger's “great-grandparents” (my great-greats) proceeded in life with a social confidence that their immediate peers had read, and frequently memorized passages from, the Bible, Pilgrim's Progress and Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks & Romans.

Sidestepping Granger's (and most certainly Bloom's) argument for a moment, I'm not at all confident that my great-greats were familiar with Plutarch. Even Bunyan's classic is a bit iffy. But the Bible, most certainly (along with the guiding principles — thoroughly memorized — of the Katechismus aus der Kleine Gemeinde). And most churches, and not a few households, had a copy of Martyr's Mirror.

Rachel Yoder (Mennonite name, hers — Swiss Mennonite, mind you) encounters the field of Mennonite Romance Novels for the first time, and contrasts it with the material found in Martyr's Mirror. Do read Yoder's piece, but also bear in mind some facts she (or, more likely, her editor) has withheld. The woodcut of “Anneken Heyndricks, bound to a ladder, (her) eyes cast heavenward in sublime abandon as flames lick her body” is indeed arresting and memorable. What Yoder neglects to mention is that Heyndricks is, in fact, being tilted by her captors so that she falls face first into the fire. Her mouth has been stuffed with gunpowder.

Hers is one of the speedier deaths in this enormous volume of broken bodies and spilled blood.

I hope I can be forgiven if I'm slow to push some shared texts on my daughters. (Though it's all on-line, of course.)

Girls, would you rather read this...

...or this?
(There's no way to answer this question without horrifying your father.)