Reading Mary Oliver Essays--2: She's simply wrong

The passage is about her observation of a turtle and eating some of the turtles freshly laid eggs, which disgusted me actually.  But then she further repulsed me with the following:

The turtle lay a long time on the bottom of the pond, resting.  Then she turned, her eyes upon some flickering nearby as, without terror, without sorrow, but in the voracious arms of the first of the earth's gods, she did what she must, she did what all must do.  All things are meltable, and replacable.  Not at this moment, but soon enough, we are lambs and we are leaves, and we are stars, and the shining, mysterious pond water itself.

I highlighted the sentence that offends me.  Maybe it's because I'm currently teaching Kant in my Ethics class and Kant defends the dignity of each unique human person.  No creature is replacable.  Each has a unique and sacred (to my mind) value that cannot be replaced.  This is precisely the wrong word.  It defies ancient wisdom, such as Heraclitus' statement that we never step into the same river twice.  No other turtle egg will replace the ones she ate.  No other human creature will ever replace me.  He choice of word leads to a cynical nihilism.

Reading Mary Oliver Essays--1: Who are your great ones?

I'm reading Mary Oliver's book of essays Upstream.  In a few pages I read earlier this week, I came across two passages I wanted to comment on.  First, this:

For it is precisely how I feel, who have inherited not measurable wealth but, as we all do who care for it, that immeasurable fund of thoughts and ideas, from writers and thinkers long gone into the ground--and, inseparable from those wisdoms because demanded by them, the responsibility to live thoughtfully and intelligently.  To enjoy, to question--never to assume, or trample.  Thus the great one (my great ones, who may not be the same as your great ones) have taught me--to observe with passion, to think with patience, to live always caringly.

Yes.  Quite rightly stated.

She goes on to list some of her great ones who include early Wordsworth, Shelley, Blake, Emerson, Carson, and Leopold.  She adds, "I go nowhere, I arrive nowhere, without them."

Who are your great ones?

Mine include Alfred North Whitehead, William James, Wendell Berry, Walt Whitman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, C. S. Lewis, James McClendon, Beethoven, Bach, and R. E. M.

First Cause?

When Sebastian entered the phase of asking Why? I was thrilled, as a philosopher.  And I told a friend that I was prepared to answer Sebastian's questions back to the First Cause and Unmoved Mover if need be. Well . . .

Last night I was changing him into his pajamas. He noted that it was getting darker outside and then asked, "Why?"
I explained that the earth is rotating on its axis and we were now pointing away from the sun.
I explained that this was the way the Solar System is constructed.
A brief explanation about gravity.
Why?  And now my excitement is building. We are getting close.
Then I told him about the Big Bang. He charmingly added sound effects. I went on to mention laws of nature, primary forces, and fundamental particles.
Then I waited, looking forward to the final question in the series. And . . .
. . . no question was forthcoming.
So I asked if the answer about the Big Bang was satisfactory, and he said 

Staring into the Sun

by Jennifer Grotz

What had been treacherous the first time
had become second nature, releasing
the emergency brake, then rolling backwards
in little bursts, braking the whole way down
the long steep drive. Back then
we lived on the top of a hill.

I was leaving—the thing we both knew
and didn’t speak of all summer. While you
were at work, I built a brown skyline of boxes,
sealed them with a roll of tape
that made an incessant ripping sound.
We were cheerful at dinner and unusually kind.
At night we slept under a single sheet,
our bodies a furnace if curled together.

It was July. I could feel my pupils contract
when I went outside. Back then I thought only about
how you wouldn’t come with me.
Now I consider what it took for you to help me go.
On that last day. When I stood
in a wrinkled dress with aching arms.
When there was only your mouth at my ear
whispering to get in the truck, then wait
until I was calm enough to turn the key.

Only then did we know. How it felt
to have loved to the end, and then past the very end.

What did you do, left up there in the empty house?
I don’t know why. I
don’t know how we keep living
in a world that never explains why.

My Thoughts on the Nobel in Literature

When Alice Munro won a few years ago, I realized that she was the first Nobel laureate I had read before she won the prize.  Mostly I've read them afterwards.  

So, when I set a goal for 2017 to read a broader array of world literature, one aspect was to read works by some of the authors I've not read before who are often mentioned in contention for the prize.  A few listed in the running I have read over the years, Haruki Murakami being the best example. I've enjoyed some of his books and been puzzled by others and have sort of given up reading them.  I'm ambivalent if he ever wins the prize.

Then there are those I've long wondered why they aren't mentioned seriously in the running or have never won, Salman Rushdie being the best example.  Given that he represented literature's value with his own life, this has always puzzled me, as the Nobel committee often likes to make a political statement and not just a literary one.  They must have some reason they don't like him.

It also seems that some writers whose names were mentioned more often at one point begin to fade over the years, Nuruddin Farah being an example.  I liked well enough his book Links, which I read this year.  


If I was voting, I would vote for the Syrian poet Adonis.  I marveled at the volume of his selected poems which I read.   It was among the best books I've read this year.  It has been something of a surprise that he has not won during these last five years of the Syrian civil war.  

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o has been mentioned for years and seems to be the odds on favourite this year.  With great anticipation I read his novel Devil on the Cross, which I had also read about in some books on postcolonial theology.  But I was very unimpressed by the book.  Maybe his reputation is based upon other works, but this was the one I thought was considered his masterwork.  So, while awarding the prize to an African writing in his indigenous language is a good thing (is this why Achebe never won?), I can't say I'll be excited if Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o takes the prize.

Amos Oz would be a worthy recipient.  I admired the writing in his memoir I read this year, though I judged the book needed some editing.  

I did not like László Krasznahorkai's The Melancholy of Resistance and don't understand his international reputation.

I quite liked César Aira's An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter and look forward to reading more of his works. 

Of course there are many writers mentioned in the running whom I've not read.  But I do hope this year especially to have read the author who will be honored.

Hillary Clinton's faith

I was reading the New Yorker article on her latest book. The author referenced a 1993 profile in the Times by Michael Kelly which discussed Hillary's theological worldview (a profile she didn't like). So I googled the article, which is quite revealing. 

One of the great puzzles of the last quarter century is how a basically devout woman got portrayed as something else.  She is a social justice Methodist who was deeply affected by her experiences in youth group.  While in Arkansas she developed close ties with many in religious communities.  This article also discusses how she used to preach and the influence upon her thinking of Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr.  Also how her political liberalism is at root a religious liberalism.  This latter I knew.

What she seems to have not liked about the article is how it presented her crusade to make the world a better place as a kind of benevolent paternalism.  This aspect of the Clinton's (most obvious in the 1996 Democratic convention) is something I haven't liked about them.  Though I now read her moral warnings and defense of virtue as another time when she was warning about something before it became obvious to the rest of (and clearly one reason she is so galled by Donald Trump).  In fact, many of the things she says in the 1993 profile sound like recent David Brooks.  Another puzzle how this left of center person with many ideas in common with the right was so villainized by the right.

Selected Stories of Lu Hsun

Selected StoriesSelected Stories by Lu Xun
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A compelling collection of short stories from early 20th century China. Most are realist depictions of life, often for those on the margins (Mao admired Lu Hsun). A couple are more fantastical. There are some a haunting scenes--such as when an adolescent boy keeps changing his mind as to whether he is killing or saving a rat who has kept him awake at night and has fallen into a pot of water.

For my 2017 effort to read a broader array of world literature and my more particular goal of reading Chinese literature this year, this was a good contribution.

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Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism

Saint Paul: The Foundation of UniversalismSaint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism by Alain Badiou
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When Prof. Ted Jennings lectured at First Central earlier in the month, he spoke of the non-Christian, even atheist and Marxist thinkers, who were drawing upon Paul as the revolutionary figure needed for our age. I was not familiar with this body of work, which surprised me, as I have read a lot in Paul studies the last dozen years and radically altered my views on him. So, I Googled to learn more and discovered a rich literature and even textbooks of selections of such writings on Paul.

I decided to order this one, as I have also never read Badiou, so I could check the box of having read one of his books and thus kill two birds with one stone.

When I began the book, I rolled my eyes, for a sentence like this is what makes contemporary French philosophy almost impossible: "How are we to inscribe this name into the development of our project: to refound a theory of the Subject that subordinates its existence to the aleatory dimension of the event as well as to the pure contingency of multiple-being without sacrificing the theme of freedom?"

I also had to look "aleatory" up.

But as I finished the first chapter, I had to take back some of my snark, for it was quite good. And this was one of those books I stayed up late and got up early to keep reading.

That doesn't mean it was easy, for it had some dense sentences like that one. And I'm certain I did not grasp all of Badiou's meaning. But here I encountered a Paul who is knew to me. Yet, also familiar enough that I could resonate with Badiou's discussion.

Paul centers his thought upon a fabulous event--the resurrection--which opens up the opportunity to create a new, universal humanity, a new creature. Particularity and wisdom, law and difference, are all overcome in this revolution.

When Jennings lectured on these developments in Pauline thought, but ended with an emphasis on resurrection, one of my congregants was puzzled, and we've had follow-up conversations. He felt that if Paul was to be used by atheists and Marxists, surely the resurrection would be cast aside. I enjoyed texting him that for Badiou the resurrection, while fable and as fable, is essential to understanding Paul and his ideas for revolution.

I also commend Badiou's exegesis, which is quite good. I will use some passages in sermons, I'm sure.

Two drawbacks to the book--no bibliography and no index. Puzzling in an intellectual work.

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Luther's The Freedom of a Christian

Today I read Martin Luther's 1520 manifesto "The Freedom of a Christian."  It is quite good.  I will be quoting from the text in upcoming sermons as part of our Reformed series.

At the beginning, he sets down two propositions which are both true: "A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject of all."

Here was a passages I enjoyed:

Since these promises of God are holy, true, righteous, free, and peaceful words, full of goodness, the soul which clings to them with a firm faith will be so closely united with them and altogether absorbed by them that it not only will share in all their power but will be saturated and intoxicated by them.

Since I'm also re-reading Kant ahead of teaching him again in ethics class in a few weeks, I felt the influence from Luther to Kant was clearly evident.  Kant's notion of freedom is autonomy from our desires and from any law other than that chosen by us.  We are freed to act morally. Luther also writes of freedom from the law and that once set free we can live a good life of love as we choose it as a response to God's grace rather than as a necessity to earn our salvation.  Their ideas are not the same, but one can see how Kant's notion would emerge from a milieu governed by Luther's ideas.