Category Archives: Books
January 13, 2014 – 10:01 am
One of the unfortunate things we humans tend to do is rate a genius for invention as superior to a genius for explanation. We stand with (rightful) awe before the original insights of a Bernhard Riemann but shrug off the efforts of people who took brilliant but convoluted existing ideas and found a way for the mass of humanity to gain some purchase on them. But if something like calculus, which stumped a continent at its first unveiling, is second nature to sixteen and seventeen year old high schoolers now, it is largely because of those people who had a genius for reforming the clunky and abstract into something graspable but still faithful to the rigor of the original.
To be either a creative or explanatory genius is quite enough to earn our dazzled esteem, but to be both is to enter a slim minority of world figures indeed. Charles Darwin was one such, and I would rank English mathematician GH Hardy as another, but for most science-y people, if you say the words “brilliant explainer” and “genius scientist” in the same breath, they will respond, “Oh, you mean like Richard Feynman?”
And deservedly so. Yes, he’s been rather – merchandized – as of late, and with that over-exposure has come something of a backlash. “Oh, Feynman? I’m so done with that guy.” But if we step back, away from the t-shirts and novelty coffee mugs, maybe we can recall for a bit what made us fall in love with him in the first place.
For me, there is no better demonstration of him at his very best than the Mirror Example in his QED series of lectures. It is the quintessence of everything admirable about Feynman’s mind – the ability to take a vastly thorny concept and craft a physical example that retains all of the essential features of the original while smoothing out the parts that contribute formally but not comprehensibly to the whole.
What Feynman is trying to illustrate with the example is how Quantum Electordynamics weighs and combines different possible interactions for a given set of particles to calculate expected observable values. He asks us to consider how a mirror works, and starts off the way every good science explanation should, with a confidence builder.
He reminds us of the law of reflection, which says that the angle of reflection for light bouncing off a mirror is equal to the angle of incidence (the angle it came in at). “I remember that!” we all say, and feel that excited willingness to push on that only comes with an initial burst of confidence. Also, we now have an anchor to come back to if we feel ourselves getting lost. These are fundamentals of good explanation practice that Feynman just intuitively felt, and are what make him so compelling to read still, a half century on.
Having established a solid base, he starts branching outward. What if I told you that, in fact, the path where the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection is just one possible option, the one that takes the least time to travel, granted, but that there are many more paths which light can, and does take?
We get excited – something that we knew for sure was right turns out to have a little bit of devil living inside of it. And Feynman uses that excitement to start talking about probability vectors, something that most people wouldn’t have immediately found themselves interested in, but that now, eager to resolve the mystery, they will pay rapt attention to. He tells us how to construct vectors for different possible pathways (say, A-D-B or A-E-B in the above figure from the foundational Feynman Lectures), and uses those vectors to construct a total picture of all possible reflections off the mirror:
What was an obscure concept involving vector addition and complex exponentials thus transforms, through his flair for turning mathematical machinery into physical representation, into this picture which beautifully represents how reality works. Yes, there are lots of alternate pathways, but the ones at the edges of the mirror tend to cancel each other out, since they all point different ways, so the behavior that we witness is primarily created by the middle of the mirror, where the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection. So, at the end of the day, the law we learned in high school is largely true, from a certain point of view.
But then, like all good magicians, he saves his last trick for the moment when we feel comfortable and reestablished in the world. We can, he informs us, by scraping away the parts of the mirror that cancel out the contributions from the edges, make those edges contribute again. So, if we wanted, we could purposefully construct mirrors that break the law of reflection after all. Thank you, quantum mechanics.
And so, from safety, through excitement, to comprehension to safety to daredevilry, Feynman has taken something outside the veil of everyday thought and brought it home to us all. It’s that willingness to take some time to work on MERE explanation that I love about him, and about those generations and generations of teachers who sit up at nights trying to find new ways to illustrate our scientific heritage to coming generations.
December 30, 2013 – 6:00 am
“One of the things you’ll never know without God is what it feels like to be completely outside of time, submerged in something both boundlessly immense and profoundly personal.”
It’s one of those things you hear at the end of a long, circular night – all of the standard arguments and counterarguments have been batted about the table, all the requisite statistics recapitulated, and, bleary-eyed and hoarse, the real issues that separate believers from non-believers start making their quiet voices at long last heard. And what those issues often amount to is a personal unwillingness, on both sides, to renounce a whole category of human experience as merely the phantoms of neural fancy.
For the religious, that depth of feeling that they get when they feel Jesus over their shoulder must be real, and they cannot comprehend how we stumble through our day without its eternally fortifying presence. For us, that wild rush of pure intellectual freedom that stands before the towering maw of entropy and says Go Ahead, Bring It, and which we can’t imagine another thinking creature mangling in the name of comfort. These are experiences that each side thinks as unknowable to the other, experiences that keep them reconciled to the rest of the intellectual contract they’ve signed.
The experience of altered time is one I hear rather a lot, and have always felt as something well within the confines of secular culture to accomplish. Some of my favorite bits of artistic production revolve around just this ability to take our experience of time and twist it, alternately suspending us in pure timelessness or otherwise diverting our sense of its pressing linearity. For the former, you can hardly do better than the symphonies of Anton Bruckner. There is a great deal of wonderful classical music out there, but no composer has his ability to craft a tonal landscape that simply arrests time in its tracks. You stop noticing the things that Desperately Need Doing, stop even really analyzing the music as music, and instead just let it grow over you, an insulating layer of lush moss that keeps space and time at bay for an hour.
You can really pick any symphony to feel this (though 4, 6, 7, 8, and 9 are perhaps slightly more effective than 1, 2, 3, and 5), but for me it doesn’t come any better than the third movement of the 8th symphony (and if you’re of an impatient sort, but want to hear an absolutely perfect musical moment, fast forward to 1:58):
I would pit that against the most intense moment of prayer any day and never feel myself the loser. But it’s perhaps easy to hypnotize with music, to do so with words on a page is a whole different level of artistic sorcery. And precisely that is what Norwegian author Knut Hamsun (1859-1952) achieved on a regular basis throughout his long career. From the scratching, morphing staccato of Hunger to the sense of cyclical death and regrowth in The Growth of the Soil to the drifting euphoria of Wayfarers, Hamsun is the guy to go to when you want mere sentences and paragraphs to change the very beat of your heart, the way you walk through time after having put the book down. And not a word of it relies on the neurological cocktail that religion leans on to pull off its hallucinogenic spurts.
We are, persistently and mostly fortuitously, creatures of linearity. We armor ourselves in the past to deflect and absorb the shocks of an unknown future we cannot reach fast enough. But, from time to time, it doesn’t hurt to place ourselves in the experienced hands of one of our great creative minds to know time’s flow in a way that defies the strictures of pragmatic necessity. Religion can do that, but never forgets to charge heftily for the pleasure. Bruckner, Hamsun, and the dozens of others who found in them models for a new temporal sense in art, give us variations upon lived time of exquisite refinement, and the only criteria for admission is Being Human.
December 20, 2013 – 10:05 pm
There is something deep within the structure of our ape-bequeathed brains that ever strains against the necessity of buying safety in the coin of freedom. That call to mad, independent flight is the source of some of our greatest stories, and the characters who draw our rapt attention, generation upon generation. And of those champions for pure freedom, none rings so elementally true as Lucifer, the angel who challenged his creator.
Of course, he failed, but the nobility of that failure, the humanity of it, have made him impossible to forget. And so, from Dante to Milton to Goethe, Lucifer stands at the center of the story, the horror of his realm and the degradation of his fall sparking our curiosity and respect in ways that the subsequent, party-line marshaling of Heaven’s glories have never quite balanced. We read Inferno out of a desire to understand our true stars. We read Paradiso largely out of obligation.
At its best, fiction centering on Lucifer brings us to foundational grips with the tension between the lip service we pay to our love of freedom and our more commonplace (but civilization-building) need for things to be in proper and expected order when we wake in the morning.
At its worst, it is titillation mongering, and I admit I’m largely okay with that too.
But we are here to discuss an instance of the former case. This year, Vertigo Comics has begun its long-awaited re-release of Mike Carey and Peter Gross’s Lucifer, which ran for seventy five issues from 2000 to 2006. The first two books cover issues one through twenty-eight, with a third scheduled for release in March 2014. I remember catching from issue fifty onwards when it first came out (which is saying something in light of my extreme Marvel partisanship at the time), but didn’t bother to hunt down the earlier trades until it was too late, so this was my first time laying eyes upon those first story arcs.
And they are exquisite. Picking up where Neil Gaiman’s epochal Sandman left off, Lucifer has given up ruling Hell and runs a piano bar in Los Angeles from which he is turning over schemes to be free of Heaven and its determinacy at last. That’s all you really need to know, and people coming to Lucifer without having read Sandman won’t be missing out on too much other than those “That guy we perceive dimly has some pretty spikey hair – I bet I know what that’s about” moments which are eventually made explicit anyway.
So, yes, you can come to Lucifer issue one, page one, with no continuity at your back and be well served. Truth be told, Lucifer and Sandman are two very different beasts, the former an intense study of the character of rebellion and the philosophical thorniness of causality that is pure ambrosia to the likes of we humanist sorts while the latter allows itself to wander more broadly along the roads of its fancy, which is also exquisite but without the same rash, cocksure angularity that makes Lucifer so unique. Lucifer Morningstar seeks one thing, and the comic is drawn along swiftly in the wake of that quest, and we as readers are hurtled briskly, breathlessly along, gasping to ourselves, “Can he? Will he? Should we be hopping off now, while it’s still safe?”
It’s precisely that vertigo-inducing sense of wishes fulfilled that perhaps oughtn’t be that I love so much about this comic. Lucifer has the courage of his vision and the power to see it to its conclusion that we do not, as a day to day rule, share. Nor should we. Humanity would shake itself to pieces if our brains didn’t quell our Lucifer boldness in the oxytocin glow of community. But thinking about where the boundary lies, between that need for permanence and the instinct to tear a hole in space and create our own kingdom in the void beyond, is the most important thing we can do, and Lucifer excels at ruminating on these issues.
I realize all of this focus on the book’s philosophy makes the comic sound perhaps like a ponderous slog through The Illustrated Heidegger. But Carey is far too good a writer to let the philosophy ossify the story. There are tales here of incredible scope and virtuosity – stories of demons turning to addiction in the absence of leadership, of the cards of fate inhabiting a cabaret performer, of a new Adam and Eve given the sole command to never bend their knee in worship of anything, of angels callously cutting a swath through innocence to maintain their hold on power, and of a dream walking girl having to fend off a creature armed with a thought-sucking straw. It’s in every way marvelous, and Peter Gross’s art is perfectly matched to bring out the Baroque-modern harshness of Lucifer’s new plans for rebellion.
I suspect we’ll continue telling stories about Lucifer even after we have ceased being a religious species, because the point here is not religious. It’s not about Christianity or the papacy or the rich absurdities of theology, though they all make their appearance. It’s about the limits of existence, where they lie, and how close to them we dare tread. And that will be of interest to humans so long as there are humans and, most likely, to whatever comes after us as well.
December 6, 2013 – 10:34 am
The [Jedi] Order has long been about justifying its own existence, about acquiring and holding power… I know what I swore to do as a Jedi, and it didn’t have anything to do with turning a blind eye to social evils because the Sith were a bigger evil. – Gotab (Bardan Jusik)
Your report describes how rational these people are. Millennia ago, they abandoned their belief in the supernatural. Now you are asking me to sabotage that achievement, to send them back into the Dark Ages of superstition and ignorance and fear. No!
– Captain Jean Luc Picard
Ask any sensible 25 year old human which they prefer, Star Wars or Star Trek and, without missing a beat, they will reply Star Wars and proceed down the list of its clear advantages. It’s more exciting. There’s more action. The bad guys are cooler. It’s grittier. It has women in leadership positions before 1990. The aliens aren’t just people with face paint. There’s magic. Light sabers, dude, light sabers.
And so forth.
Ask any 35 year old, and the answer just as inevitably comes back Star Trek, and especially from the people who most vociferously insisted Star Wars a decade prior. It’s about bigger social issues. It’s philosophically more subtle. The science is more interesting. The team dynamic is more compelling than the series of lone wolves that Star Wars has to offer.
And so on.
The implication seems to be that Star Wars is the stuff of idealistic, solipsistic adolescence, and Star Trek that of pragmatic, socially-oriented adulthood, but that is to do a disservice to the philosophies of power and social change present especially in the Star Wars expanded universe, and the sense of individual struggle to be found in Star Trek’s most recent instantiation.
Starting with Star Wars, I won’t attempt to instill the original films with more philosophical weight than they had. The movies were the defining experience of my childhood, and merchandise related to them continues to consume more of my personal income than I care to reveal. They are thoroughly rad, but they aren’t particularly deep. They do, however, contain themes of astounding pregnancy which have been worked by others into fascinating ruminations about how change happens in civilization.
The best place to go to find this broader scope is undoubtedly the novels, of which there are hundreds, but the high point for me is definitely the nine-novel Legacy of the Force series, and particularly book eight, Revelation, by veteran Star Wars novelist Karen Traviss. The series centers upon the rise of Jacen Solo, son of Leia and Han, who possesses force abilities of untold power and flexibility, and seeks to use them in the service of a galaxy just rebuilding itself after disastrous invasion. It is hardly worth the hauling out of a Spoiler Alert placard to say that the Dark Side soon has him in its clutches. But what’s interesting is that the Dark Side isn’t some metaphysical notion of pure evil, but rather a philosophy about how you institute reform in a civilization. Presented with the self-serving inertia of those in power and comfort, how do you make life better for those actively but voicelessly suffering?
In grappling with this issue, the Legacy books are really looking at the structural flaws of Buddhist versus Christian practice. The Jedi, whose espousal of detachment allows flagrant injustice to continue in the galaxy so long as their precious monastery stays in power, are everything that’s wrong with a classical Buddhist approach to society, and Jacen soon grows frustrated with their mysticism-laced unwillingness to get their hands dirty to help people. The Sith, full of absolute confidence in the righteousness of their own actions, gifted with the ability to take action in the name of galaxy-spanning goals regardless of consequence, are the Christians, drunk on their own supernatural power and convinced that anybody who opposes them opposes the universal order and therefore deserves death.
Jacen is tossed about on the horns of these polarities until the sheer need for resolute action in order to save the galaxy tosses him into the arms of the Dark Side. During one of his moments of introspection, he basically rewrites the original trilogy, showing that the Rebellion, in acting as it did, was far more Sith than Jedi in affiliation:
“Who would make the tough choices if they were hidebound by conventional law? Had anyone protested about Luke Skywalker bringing down Palpatine? The Rebellion broke every law in the book, and killed many people, but citizens were ready to accept that because change was needed. [Jacen] was only doing the same thing, and yet he was vilified for it. He was wounded by the blindness around him. Why could they not understand? He wasn’t explaining it clearly enough, perhaps.”
Ultimately, the fallout from all of this propels the Star Wars universe into The Fate of the Jedi series, which finds the Jedi in disgrace and the galaxy questioning whether or not we’d be better off after all without these self-appointed paladins of disinterested virtue in charge. These books make the original movies retroactively more profound, and are worth the reading by anybody wanting to expand their love of a galaxy far, far away into that stage of life that needs something more than the hiss of a light saber to capture its interest.
To Star Trek, then, and particularly to the most recent series, Star Trek: Enterprise. Responding to criticism that The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager were essentially tales of space bureaucracy incapable of bringing in a younger audience, Enterprise went back to the very beginning of humanity’s interstellar program to catch us at a moment of cocky inexperience, before the Prime Directive, before the diplomatic concerns of negotiating borders with the Romulans. The crew, led by Captain Jonathan Archer, manifestly does not know what it is doing half the time, and in the space that protocol usually fills, they are left to suss things out for themselves as best they can.
And in that sense, this series is much closer to Star Wars than to the previous offerings of Star Trek. It is consistently about individual agency and power, and how that ought to be used to accomplish what you find to be the right task, precedent be damned. Whereas an episode of Voyager (incidentally, my favorite of the Trek series, though I realize I’m basically alone in that) will feature the crew agonizing over the application of Federation protocol to a particular instance, in Enterprise the issue Archer is constantly facing is what his power as a starship captain morally allows him to do, and what it compels him to do, which is a very Jedi/Sith kind of dilemma.
The framework, however, is still very Star Trek, in that Kantian philosophy and enlightened skepticism come to the rescue more often than not. The categorical imperative is the big machine that dictates how the episodes are going to turn out, while appeals to mystical explanations and vague religiosity, which cropped up from time to time in Voyager, are routinely squashed in favor of freedom of thought and the scientific method. It is entirely an amalgam of the personal drama of Star Wars and the larger concerns of Star Trek, with the occasional manifestly gratuitous Decontamination Room Scene by way of fan service.
The title of this essay implied a solution, that the weight of judgment would settle finally on one pole or the other of this, the most important question of our times. Certainly, looking at it casually, a humanist would be better rewarded investing their leisure hours in old Star Trek episodes than in repeat viewings of Star Wars, but that is to undervalue the richness of Lucas’s original conception, one which set the stage for big questions to be asked, even if he didn’t himself ask them. There is no need to hang up your Mandalorian armor upon reaching the august age of 30. Nor must you seek islands far from the Trek universe if you want to probe issues of individual psychology. The answer to Trekkie or Jedi is, simply, BOTH, or if you have utterly no sense of imaginative play, then NEITHER, but to alight on one side or the other exclusively is to do yourself a profound disservice.
Now, Marvel or DC, on the other hand…. That one’s easy.
November 27, 2013 – 10:40 am
With the smash success of the BBC’s television series Call the Midwife, it is nun season once again. Every half century or so humankind takes a break from Getting To Work On Time and Wondering What the Neighbors Think to ponder for a bit just what it is nuns do. While Midwife and its twentieth century brethren usually come down on the side of a more or less benevolent and whimsical conception of nun-dome, that has by no means been the case historically. A look back at the nun literature of the last three centuries shows how, more often than not, the cloister has been seen as the breeding ground of villainy than heroism.
Skipping over the Middle Ages and its saliva-bestrewn fascination with the prostitute-turned-nun trope, the foundational work of modern Nun Fiction is, for most, Denis Diderot’s The Nun (La Religieuse), which only received its first real printing in 1796, twelve years after the author’s death. It is a brisk novel that grew out of a practical joke that was inspired by a court case. In 1758, Marguerite Delamarre, a nun at the Longchamp convent, sued to be allowed to leave her convent, lost, and was forced to remain there for the rest of her life. This was not at all uncommon – the convent was where you sent daughters whose dowry you couldn’t afford to pay or, if you happened to be in Russia under the thumb of the Domostroi, where you sent wives when you got tired of them.
Diderot’s book, then, is a look at the piteous state of convent life, both for those with and without a religious vocation. The main figure is an illegitimate daughter sent to the convent so she won’t try and claim any inheritance. She seeks release from her compelled vows, only to find the full weight of the cloister brought to bear against her – psychological manipulation and pure physical violence are in turn heaped upon her shoulders. Diderot unleashes his full scorn for the crimes against nature wrapped up in the three vows of the convent, and the moral destruction they necessarily breed:
“Faire voeu de pauvreté, c’est s’engager par serment à être paresseux et voleur; faire voeu de chasteté, c’est promettre à Dieu l’infraction constant de la plus sage et de la plus importante de ses lois; faire voeu d’obéissance, c’est renoncer à la prérogative inaliénable de l’homme, la liberté. Si l’on observe ces voeux, on est criminal; si on ne les observe pas on est perjure. La vie claustrale est d’un fanatique ou d’un hypocrite.”
(To take the vow of poverty is to promise to become a layabout and a thief; to take that of chastity is to promise to God a constant infraction of the wisest and most important of his laws; and to make the vow of obedience is to renounce the inalienable prerogative of man, Liberty. If you observe these vows, you are a criminal, and if not, you are a perjurer. The cloistered life always makes of you either a fanatic or a hypocrite.)
By forcing young women so resolutely against the best parts of their nature, the convent life grinds slowly away at their humanity and very concept of identity, leading at best to a numbed acceptance of your captors’ truths, and at worst to mad flights of self-destruction:
“Alors les unes courent se jeter aux genoux de leur superieure et vont y chercher de la consolation; d’autres se prosternent ou dans leur cellule ou au pied des autels et appellant le Ciel a leur secours; d’autres dechirent leurs vetements et s’arrachent leurs cheveux; d’autres cherchent un puits profound, des fenetres bien hautes, un lacet, et le trouvent quelquefois; d’autres apres s’etre tourmentees longtemps tombent dans une espece d’abrutissement et restent imbeciles; d’autres qui ont des organs faibles et delicats se consument de langueur; il y en a en qui l’organisation se derange, l’imagination se trouble et qui deviennent furieuses. Les plus heureuses sont celles en qui les memes illusions consolantes renaissent, et les bercent presque jusqu’au tombeau; leur vie se passe dans les alternatives de l’erreur et du desespoir.”
(Some nuns throw themselves at the knees of their superior and attempt to find consolation there; others prostrate themselves in their cell or at the foot of their altars and call to Heaven for relief; some rend their clothes and tear their hair; others search out a deep well, a high window, or a rope, and sometimes find them; others, after long torment slip into a state of stupefication and remain that way; those of a weak and delicate constitution waste away in languor, while others still lose their minds to wild fancy and go stark mad. The most fortunate are those for whom the consoling illusions of religion reassert themselves, and continue to do so unto death; their lives are thus spent in delusion and despair.)
With all its invective against the unnaturalness of religion, The Nun is very much a product of the high Enlightenment, touching on the universal dignity of man and how it is ill-served by monasticism. Forty years would pass before the next big explosion of convent fiction, one equally critical of the life of religious seclusion, but which comes from a much darker place than the open and free humanity of Diderot’s forward-thinking mind.
The 1830s were a time of massive anti-Catholic sentiment here in the States, the heyday of the Know Nothing movement, and they saw the birth of a whole industry of anti-Papist fiction, with some of the most lurid examples being the Escaped Nun genre. These were novels purporting to be true memoirs of nuns who escaped their convents and the life of gross sin therein. Rebecca Reed’s Six Months in a Convent (1832) and The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk (1836) both ignited massive popular indignation with their portrayals of priests forcing nuns into sexual slavery, and babies murdered to hush up scandal. Reed died of tuberculosis shortly after her account was published, but Monk lived another thirteen years, enough time to see her book become the most-widely read in America, and then to die, abandoned and disgraced.
Americans responded how they generally do to these sorts of events. They burned down a convent in 1834, started feeling a bit embarrassed about it, and got on with their lives.
And so the genre had seemingly played itself out until, in 1942, a German Jewish émigré by the name of Franz Werfel wrote a six hundred page fly-squisher of a novel, Das Lied von Bernadette, published in America as The Song of Bernadette. It was as tremendously popular as it is thoroughly creepy. Most of the book centers on Bernadette Soubirous, the poor daughter of an ex-miller, and the visions of a resplendent holy lady that she has at a local grotto. Werfel, writing from the heart of the Second World War, fleeing the maw of the Nazi state, saw science and rationality as destructive forces threatening to tear civilization asunder, and so made of his book a sustained impassioned plea for a simple, fervent mysticism.
These were, by and large, the same concerns that motivated Heidegger earlier in his Question Concerning Technology, and would prod Horkheimer and Adorno a few years later to produce that pillar of modern anti-positivism, The Dialectic of Enlightenment. And yes, caught up in the whirl of a world that seemed intent on self-destruction, it’s hard to blame them for grabbing onto whatever was at hand for support, whether the purity of religious experience sought by Werfel or the entirely imaginary pre-Use-Value society of Heidegger. It was an awful time to be a European, or indeed a human, and so, if their vision stumbled here and there, if they mistook friends of humanity for its enemies and vice versa, it is understandable.
That said, Werfel’s book is pretty skeezy. Bernadette’s vision lady is obsessed with penitence, and gets a sort of sadistic kick out of watching this poor, uncomprehending girl thrash about trying to please her:
“The lady was never uncertain of herself and knew her own value. Therefore the appropriate posture in her presence was on one’s knees, if possible with a burning taper in one’s hand. If ever one moved to and fro in the grotto, or, still worse, turned one’s back, an expression of nervous suffering would tarnish the radiance of her countenance. If, on the other hand, one did a painful thing – Bernadette knew this well – such as sliding on one’s knees over the jagged rubble toward the rock, then was she transfigured with joy… if the jagged rubble made the knees bleed, then an act of penitence had been accomplished.”
Later, the Lady makes Bernadette eat grass and mud, and promises to reward her in the afterlife, but only after causing her much suffering in this existence. Ultimately, that suffering will include governmental abuse, seclusion in a convent, and death by bone cancer. Meanwhile, her family doesn’t know what to make of her and she, for her part, throws over their merely terrestrial love in favor of prolonged contemplation of her Lady and the Lady’s will. It’s everything that is deeply wrong about religion, written about as if it were the cure for modernity’s ailments.
Bernadette is eventually packed off to a convent, and, every once in a while, shows a glimmering of something resembling an actual character. In his attempt to portray her utter innocence, Werfel has drained her of anything tangible or interesting. She’s a blank space – things happen to and around her, but that need to keep her absolutely pure also stops her from having anything like growth or insight, and so it’s up to everybody around her to have philosophical and life-changing moments in her stead, giving the whole novel a feeling of hollowness – a vast activity at the circumference masking a yawning stasis within.
The amazing thing is that Werfel, for all of his antiquarianism, doesn’t really care for convents either. He thinks of his precious Bernadette as far too authentic and pure to be contained by something as merely human as a convent or a Church. She is primal religiosity in its best, least reflective, sense. Ironically, her unquestioning, visceral faith, which Werfel offers as the cure to the spread of Nazism, is precisely the sort of mindset that drove a nation into the arms of that very movement. Read her talking about her Lady, and read an account of a Hitler Youth member talking about his Fuhrer, and you’ll find but little difference.
The 1960s, as was their wont, drove nunnery to two extremes, one of goofy amiability, and one of profound change. For the former, look to the “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” religious affability of The Sound of Music or, if you’re in the mood to really bathe in some uncomfortable Americana, Sally Field’s short-lived sitcom, The Flying Nun, about which the less said, the better.
On the serious side, Vatican 2 was raising questions about what convent life ought to be about. The old order was dying out, and the question of Whither Now Nuns was being grappled with by superiors and novices alike. Karen Armstrong, who left convent life just as these ripples of change were making themselves felt, summed the spirit of the times up in the introduction to her The Spiral Staircase.
“Many of the orders had got stuck in a traditional rut. Customs that had made perfect sense in the nineteenth century, when my own community had been founded, now seemed arbitrary and unnatural. Practices that had no intrinsic spiritual value but were cultural relics of the Victorian age had acquired sacred significance, and change was regarded as betrayal. The council urged the religious orders to go back to the original spirit of their founders… Nuns and monks should also let the bracing spirit of change invade their cloisters; they should throw out the rubble that had accumulated over the years and craft a new lifestyle that was in tune with the times.”
One of the places this ambivalence with regard to the future of the cloister makes itself felt is in the alternately brilliant and thumbsy pages of Iris Murdoch’s 1980 novel, Nuns and Soldiers. There are characters of breath-taking complexity to be had here, amongst which is Anne, a former nun who left her convent after a loss of faith. Unfortunately, most of the book’s heart is spent not on her meditations on the meaning of personal religion, but on analyses, re-analyses, and re-re-analyses of a relationship between the two vapid central characters, Tim and Gertrude, about whom it is not possible to care less.
Still, when Anne is given time to act and think outside of the literary chasm that is Tim And Gertrude, her insights are deeply compelling. She realizes that she joined the convent primarily out of a fundamental need to reclaim innocence. Religiosity as extreme makeover. Sensing the futility of her hectic academic and social life, she instinctively heads it off at the pass by forcing herself into the role of perpetual penitent. But, of course, innocence doesn’t work like that. You can pretend for a long while (and it’s hard to look out at the religious landscape, especially here in America at the moment, and NOT interpret it as a sustained act of collective pretending aimed at achieving a desired lifestyle – just the right accessory to pull one’s whole mortal outfit together) but the immense concentration and dedication required to sustain that illusion speaks against its creation.
Murdoch’s ex-nun, then, shows us the convent teetering on the edge of irrelevance, a place where young women go to maintain a desired self-deception for as long as their consciences will allow. That sense of life momentarily de-railed is carried over into Call the Midwife, where the older generation of nuns (and here is a spoiler alert for those of you not done with season 2 yet) has to sit by and watch as a young member of the order struggles with her faith and, in the end, decides to reach out for life and romance at last. It’s a tale of simple human nature, honestly told without a hint of rancor, and so a world away from its literary ancestors.
Nun fiction has come to ground, then. No longer the ecstatic stuff of priestly fantasizing or the exasperated retelling of man’s worst instincts run amok, it has settled for the simple truth of ordinary people getting a bit confused, a bit more scared, and heading desperately into the arms of a whispy phantom for protection, closing their eyes desperately against the dissipation of their guardian until one day they awake, alone, armed only with the question, “What do I do with myself now?”
Which is where all good stories begin.