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Radiant Suggestion

For the universe is full of radiant suggestion. For whatever reason, the heart cannot separate the world's appearance and actions from morality and valor, and the power of every idea is intensified, if not actually created, by its expression in substance. Over and over in the butterfly we see the idea of transcendence. In the forest we see not the inert but the aspiring. In water that departs and forever and forever returns, we experience eternity.--Mary Oliver

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.

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.

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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The Practice of the Wild

The Practice of the Wild: EssaysThe Practice of the Wild: Essays by Gary Snyder
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A series of beautiful and profound reflections on nature and wilderness, with particular emphasis on what we can learn from the experiences of pre-industrial cultures. For instance, I learned a lot about traditional Japanese culture.

I read the book for our church's upcoming Advent series "Voices in the Wilderness" but also found it affirming some of my teaching on Wendell Berry in my Philosophical Ethics class.

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Montaigne's advice for educating children

I would therefore have him begin even from his infancie to travell abroad; and first, that at one shoot he may hit two markes, he should see neighbour-countries, namely where languages are most different from ours; for, unlesse a mans tongue be fashioned unto them in his youth, he shall never attaine to the true pronuntiation of them, if he once grow in yeares.  Moreover, we see it received as a common opinion of the wiser sort, that it agreeth not with reason, that a childe be alwaies nuzzled, cockered, dandled, and brought up in his parents lap or sight; forsomuch as their naturall kindnesse, or (as I may call it) tender fondnesse, causeth often, even the wisest to prove so idle, over-nice, and so base-minded.  For parents are not capable, neither can they find in their hearts to see them checkt, corrected, or chastised, nor indure to see them brought up so meanly, and so far from daintinesse, and many times so dangerously, as they must needs be. . . . if he will make him prove a sufficient, compleat, or honest man: he must not be spared in his youth.

A Way in the World

A Way in the WorldA Way in the World by V.S. Naipaul
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I admire Naipaul's writing. He may be the best living writer in the English language. But I did not enjoy this particular novel. It is a series of autobiographical reflections on revolutions from colonialism experienced in his native Trinidad and Africa and also a series of sketches of different figures from the histories of those revolutions and further back in history--particularly Sir Walter Raleigh and Francicso de Miranda. The sections set in Trinidad and Venezuela are a haunting picture of centuries of their history. But the novel as a whole is not clear and individual pieces vary widely in worth. I believe Naipaul was trying something new with the book, but it did not succeed, proving that literary genius can fail grandly.

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