One opinion shared by people across the ideological spectrum is that things aren’t great in the world right now. From the greatest progressive to the most fervent conservative, you’ll find an argument that things are lacking right now. Morals and ethics are at an all-time low, there’s a lack of engagement with issues of substance, our concern for our fellow-man is lacking, religion is fading from society, religion is too predominant and prescriptive in the world, you’ll hear it all. And you’ll hear a wide range of proposed solutions and remedies to these issues. One example of this, and one that has gained a great deal of traction amongst those interested in religious matters, is an idea put forth by The American Conservative‘s Rod Dreher called The Benedict Option. The Benedict Option is something that Dreher has been writing about for a while and documented online but he’s just released a book length consideration of this idea entitled, appropriately enough, The Benedict Option.
As defined and articulated by Dreher in his book, the Benedict Option is
“a strategy that draws on the authority of Scripture and the wisdom of the ancient church to embrace ‘exile in place’ and form a vibrant culture. Recognizing the toxins of modern secularism, as well as the fragmentation caused by relativism, Benedict Option Christians look to Scripture and to Benedict’s Rule for ways to cultivate practices and communities. Rather than panicking or remaining complacent, they recognize that the new order is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be lived with. It will be those who learn how to endure with faith and creativity, to deepen their own prayer lives and adopting practices, focusing on families and communities instead of partisan politics, and building churches, schools, and other institutions within which the orthodox Christian faith can survive and prosper” (18-19).
The Benedict to which Dreher alludes is Saint Benedict of Nursia who, after leaving Rome because of its rampant decadence, authored the Rule of Benedict and founded monasteries and a monastic order. What Dreher has put forth as the Benedict Option is not necessarily a full-scale retreat from the world but, instead of “looking to prop up the current order” that is the modern world, “recogniz[ing] that the kingdom of which they are citizens is not of this world and thus will “not […] compromise that citizenship” (17). It does not negate the modern world or wholly deny it, but rather it seeks to minimize it and downplay its importance to the Christian.
It is not surprising, given that Dreher is presenting a concept driven to some degree by a disengagement with the modern world, that the Benedict Option is plagued by an overly simplistic line of thinking. While Dreher makes it clear that the Benedict Option is not simply a retreat from the world by denying everything that comes along with it, it still paints the present world as something that is pretty definitely not good. While he might not intend to be that reductionist or simplistic, that is how it comes off. Some of the complaints articulated in The Benedict Option are valid and true. Saying that the bulk of western civilization has become superficial and disposable is certainly something I agree with and I certainly agree with some of the overreach of the Enlightenment and modernity that he discusses in his second chapter. While I, and many others, would say that there have indeed been these instances of overreach through modernity and technological advances, what Dreher prescribes swings too far the other way. Dreher describes a “long journey from a medieval world wracked with suffering but pregnant with meaning […] to a place of once unimaginable comfort but emptied of significance and connection” (46). Again, it’s not so much the sentiment that I necessarily disagree with or that I think it’s wrong but rather it’s the degree to which the idea is played out that I resist. While certain aspects of the modern world do take away from meaningful connection, to deny that the advancements in technology and the progress that has been made would be foolish. It would also be foolish to deny that there weren’t issues in those past times that created issues that were, in their own like, like the ones we encounter now (in terms of their effect on people).
This aspect of the book made me think of a quote from Mad Men: “Maybe every generation thinks the next one is the end of it all. Bet there are people in the Bible walking around, complaining about kids today.” In a show that is very much about the relationship between the old order and the new, it probably bears a bit of consideration in this context and is relevant. Throughout history, everyone has assumed that the next generation and the younger people and the newest things would be the undoing of the world as they knew it. Dreher, by contrast, seems to be saying that this time, this moment, is the end of it all and it’s where everything has gone astray (with special attention paid to the Obergefell Supreme Court decision that legalized gay marriage throughout the United States). But, in reality, this has been something that has been going on for a long time and to point to this instance as some kind of absolute or sea change (he even refers to this moment in terms of the flood and Noah as depicted in the Book of Genesis) is profoundly reductive and a bit silly.
The proposal that Dreher puts forth is one that necessitates a certain degree of inherent privilege. Those who can afford to live a slightly more isolated or withdrawn life, who can make choices in terms of where their kids go to school (more on this later), who can make choices exclusively on principle, those people are the ones who are the safest and most secure in society. Basically the Benedict Option is an option for straight, white, upper-middle class people. If you are any number of minorities and for whom the system in place is already set up to disadvantage you, the choices the Benedict Option asks you to make are not feasible. Maybe that’s the point Dreher is trying to make, that this choice and to adopt this approach is a radical choice, but for some (and, from how it reads to me, the target audience for this) it is going to be easier and more feasible to make that choice than it is for others. That necessary privilege is something that is never addressed.
If those were the only points of disagreement between Dreher and myself, I might not feel as strongly in my disagreement with his concept. However, there are two points he makes that illicit a reaction that goes beyond benign disagreement to an outright distaste. One is something that runs throughout the book (how he addresses the LGBTQ community) and the other is one particular section (his section on public education). The way Dreher sees those who are members of the LGBTQ community is as people making a choice with their sexual orientation or gender identity based on a broader desire to emphasize pleasure and immediacy and gratification. This attitude rings so profoundly hollow to me. It casts that choice as a lifestyle one rather than something that is inherent that no one has control over. It also sees rights such as those to get married civilly (not in a church) as being some kind of overreach. While making the occasional perfunctory gesture by saying that Benedict Option Christians need to be more open and welcoming, Dreher would deny gay people the right to get married and, what is perhaps more important, the legal standing that goes along with it. Dreher describes the Obergefell decision as “the moment that the Sexual Revolution triumphed decisively” (9), as though the struggle of gays and lesbians to avoid unjust discrimination is merely a victory for lifestyle. I will certainly argue for moments and instances in which the spirit of the 1960s reached too far and we’ve gone astray from what would be best for everyone, but that gay people can now be civilly married (again, this has nothing to do with a church and is not forcing any church to marry anyone they do not want) is not a part of that. Dreher wants the more apparent existence of gay people and their desire for equal rights and treatment to be the product of this era of hedonism dominated by the libido and pleasure-seeking. Instead, because we have been able to encounter and understand members of the LGBTQ community our views have expanded and we understand them better (and here I think of Christianity as a religion based so much on witness and encounter). This is not something that happened overnight. Now we are more aware and we have seen more and thus our views have changed and progressed.
My distaste for his comments on public education might be a bit more personal (as someone who is the product, by and large, of a public school education) but nevertheless is something that is real and points to the major flaws in the book. Dreher writes “[b]ecause public education in America is neither rightly ordered, not religiously informed, nor able to form an imagination devoted to Western civilization, it is time for all Christians to pull their children out of the public school system” (155). Beyond the fact that this is a highly privileged position to take (the only people who can afford to turn their back on public education are, by and large, those who can afford private education of some kind), the idea that public school is “not religiously informed” and that is a reason to turn one’s back on the whole enterprise seems ridiculous to me. It is not nor should it be because this is a space for anyone, not just one who follows a certain creed or belief. And while I do have my issues with the state of education in this country (as anyone who spends any time in any kind of educational environment will have), I do not think casting off our public school system as a lost cause is the way to proceed.
What comes through in The Benedict Option is that secular, in Dreher’s conception, necessarily equals bad. All the things of the “secular” world– public education, the assistance of public works and government, popular culture (or, even more broadly, a not explicitly religious culture)– are inherently flawed and not worthwhile. This seems like a sweeping generalization to me and one that is unnecessarily reductive and untenable to boot. I’d refer to a famous quotation from the Bible in response to this: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). While I do not profess to be a biblical scholar and do recognize that there can be robust debate about the proper interpretation of that scripture, I would personally contend that it acknowledges the existence of something of a secular state and that it exists alongside the church but not against it. The idea of a separation between the church and the state is a good thing and thus we should not strive to make the state into a church (and vice versa). Each is stronger and better if they are their own individual, autonomous entities. Now, my beliefs and morality that are derived from my personal religious beliefs will affect what I think the job of that secular state is but it is a secular state nevertheless and one that will not reflect all of my personal/religious/moral beliefs.
To say that a secular or non-religious infrastructure is automatically bad or flawed because it is not directly reflective of the religious seems problematic. As Patrick Gilger, S.J. writes in his review of the book for America Magazine, Dreher’s “reading of pluralism as a problem prevents him from seeing it as a gift.” He cannot or will not accept any kind of good unless it comes from a religious source (and his particular, conservative version of it at that). I think specifically of Dignitatis humanae and what it has to say regarding religious freedom and the state, as it affirms (as I understand it) that the state’s duty is not to do the specific work of the church and that one must have the freedom to discover the truth and cannot be forced into it. This allows for a “common good” to exist, something that is shared by all in a way that spans creeds and beliefs and it is the duty of the secular state to uphold that good. Just because that “common good” is not tied to one specific religious belief does not mean it is bad or should be overlooked.
Just as the secular is automatically treated as inherently negative, so too is anything that is more liberal or not orthodox or conservative. Dreher notes the concept of “Moralistic Theraputic Deism” that is “mostly about improving one’s self-esteem and subjective happiness” and is “the natural religion of a culture that worships the Self and material comfort” (10-11). Mainline Protestantism along with the more liberal wings of Catholicism get lumped into this as Dreher appears to be saying that there cannot be a liberal Christian belief that is truly Christian. While there is always a conservative impulse or component that goes along with most organized religion (and I mean conservative in the actual definition of it/the way it is meant to be understood, not in the reductive American way we think of it to mean right-wing politics), Dreher’s seeming belief that the truly Christian belief has no place in the more liberal modern world is very limited.
Admittedly, I come at these things from a Catholic perspective and can’t speak as much to other denominations and faith traditions, but Dreher’s thesis seems to ignore and overlook much of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Now for Dreher that might not be such a bad thing and those reforms might be something that has led to the state we are in, but nevertheless they are a major part of the largest Christian denomination in the world. And the reforms that came out of the Council have yielded a great deal of good– whatever you think of the changes in the liturgy and the move away from Latin, the reforms in attitudes towards other religions (especially towards the Jewish people) and other Christian denominations are good and reflect the balance that can exist between a conservative past and a liberal present.
Additionally, with Dreher professing a desire to return to some kind of “authentic” or true Christianity, I found there to be a startlingly small amount of time considering the plight of the poor and what one should be doing for them. I understand that, in the eyes of some, a strong social safety net created by liberal policies and an active and involved government is not a way of trying to care for the forgotten in our world (I understand it but I think it’s pretty ridiculous to not see how those things are related, but I digress…) but to not offer any suggestions or consideration of this seems to limit the Benedict Option’s ability to stand as some kind of return to true Christian teaching. Perhaps Dreher’s conception of Christianity does not emphasize those qualities or sees the idea of something like Matthew 25: 31-46 not in quite these explicit terms, but the fact that there isn’t an engagement with ides of social justice and concern for everyone including the least and most vulnerable is decidedly problematic. I do agree with Dreher that, particularly in America, we do not have the religion we once did. However, I believe that its absence has more to do with us not caring for the outsider and the poor and the forgotten, that we do not exhibit compassion and that we do not try to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. The loss of these things has less to do with liberal/progressive/Democratic politicians and more with the right-wing and the Republican party that has turned religious belief into a series of bromides and bumper stickers while supporting a most cutthroat economic policy that ends up hurting the marginalized the most.
For one who professes to be such a fan of Walker Percy (the author that provided the title for this blog as well as much of my own outlook on life, though in a slightly more liberal/progressive way), I find that Rod Dreher and The Benedict Option is not consistent with what Percy (and what the Second Vatican Council) had to say about man. Percy, influenced by Gabriel Marcel, believed in a conception of man as a wayfarer or pilgrim making his or her way in the world. It also mirrors the third and religious stage in the view of Soren Kierkegaard, not the pleasure-seeking asthete nor the withdrawn and stoic ethical man. While Percy did often (and quite justly) point out the flaws and foibles of the modern world and the times when it went astray, he never left or denied the modern world itself. It often makes me think of the Minor Doxology within the Catholic Church, “As it was in the beginning, and now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.” There is that present, that “now,” in which one must live. It cannot be denied. There is also the beginning (or the past) and what ever shall be, but that “now” is there and cannot be denied or ignored. Pope Francis described, in an interview with America Magazine “that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle.” That the church is in the midst of things, doing the work of healing and salvation, requires it to be present and engaged in some way with the modern world. Dreher, in The Benedict Option, points to a church that is removed from the “battle” and opts to only tend to the health of a select few.
Given the title of this blog, my existential proclivities are probably not much of a surprise. As I’ve learned more and more about the philosophy itself (though, admittedly, I’m a novice and autodidact when it comes to these things and thus have a long way to go), I’ve realized how much of it I agree with or that I’ve been thinking these things for a while but didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate these things, I didn’t know there was a philosophy that was right for me. Though I come at things more from the theistic (especially, but not exclusively, Catholic) existential approach (as Walker Percy was my entry point into this field) I’m still interested in those authors and philosophers who fall outside of that track, which would include Albert Camus. It is in that spirit that I read Robert Zaretsky’s book on the philosopher entitled Albert Camus: Elements of a Life
What I thought the book did best and where I thought it was most useful was in the way it helped me to better understand Camus’ life and biography, filling in the gaps in my knowledge regarding his background (which, I confess, are fairly substantial). In 2016, I read Sarah Bakewell’s book At The Existentialist Cafe, which focused on the intertwining lives of Martin Heideigger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Camus (amongst others) and focused on their lives as they developed existential philosophy (or the existentialism that was dominant in and around western Europe in the first half of the twentieth century). What Bakewell did was to map out the lives of these major figures and show how they bother developed this philosophy as well as what was occurring in their lives that influenced them. I bring this up because it is doing some of what Zaretsky’s book is doing though in a much more focused (on the one author) and straight forward way (Bakewell’s book can be a bit on the less serious-side, which is not a bad thing by any means but it does reflect the ways in which they are very different kinds of books in their execution). Zaretsky does not provide a full and compete biography of the French Algerian writer and philosopher, but instead points to major moments and events in his life that shaped him and led to the development of his own iteration of existentialism. My knowledge of Camus’ life outside of his writing was fairly limited so it was certainly an eye-opening and revealing read for me and helped me to contextualize Camus and his philosophy both in terms of what was going on in the world around him as well as relative to the things happening in his own life. It is a book that packs a lot of information in and thus has a density to it while also moving along pretty quickly by not getting too bogged down in certain spots. Certain sections were of greater interest to me than others (I personally found the sections on Camus’ life in and around World War II as well as after and thus getting into his relationship with Sartre and de Beauvoir were amongst the most interesting) but Zaretsky kept me interested throughout and compelled to read on.
But beyond helping to enrich my impressions of Camus and who he was, Elements of a Life reflects what, in my opinion, makes existentialism the best philosophy (also, I feel like saying something is “the best philosophy” is profoundly reductive, but you know what I mean). It is that it, unlike maybe of the other philosophical systems that dominate discourse, meets the individual on their level and in their own life. It is not overly theorized to the point of being abstract while also not being so ruthlessly pragmatic and analytical that is does not allow for anything beyond that. It’s not an original thing to note how existentialism is a philosophical system that is able to move outside of the academy and the ivory towers but it is a true thing and thus worth noting in this context. Along those lines, understanding the lives of those who developed and articulated this philosophy helps to reveal that philosophy in a way that it might not for other schools and movements in philosophy. It’s why you see books like this and Zaretsky’s other book on Camus (A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning) or Looking for The Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic by Alice Kaplan or Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Cafe or Tete-a-Tete: The Tumultuous Lives and Loves of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre by Hazel Rowley or, going all the way back, Irrational Man by William Barrett, being so popular and prevalent. Just as these men and women developed a philosophy that was focused on the individual’s life and experience while eschewing reductive and overarching theories that would diminish that experience, so too did their lives affect and influence the ideas they espoused to such a degree that a better understanding of those lives helps us to better understand the philosophy. This is why Robert Zaretsky’s book is useful and worth reading for anyone who wants to understand existentialism, twentieth century philosophy, or French thought and culture in the early-to-mid twentieth century. Even to one who is not as steeped in Camus’ writings and philosophy as he could be (like myself), Elements of a Life is definitely illuminating and worth reading.
At the end of September in 2015, I drove up from Tallahassee to Savannah, Georgia for a weekend. While part of that trip was to visit with a friend who was going to be there at the same time as me, another motivating factor was to make the trip to Flannery O’Connor’s home in Millidgeville, Georgia, a couple of hours away from Savannah. I’d made trips to the homes and relevant locations of other writers I loved (particularly Jack Kerouac and Ernest Hemingway) but I still hadn’t been to the famed Andalusia farm of O’Connor even though I now lived in the (relatively) same part of the country for quite a few years. Since I didn’t know when I would be getting that close to Millidgeville again, I decided I should make a special effort and finally make the pilgrimage to the town so closely associated with Flannery.
The truth of the matter was that I had not really appreciated the degree to which I was interested in Southern writers. There were those I knew I had a great love for, like the aforementioned O’Connor and her Southern Catholic compatriot Walker Percy, but Andre Dubus and Eudora Welty and, of course Faulkner (though I still stand firmly on the side of Hemingway in the mythological bout between William and Ernest, I certainly appreciate Faulkner’s powers as a writer). But while I read Southern writers and I was aware of the idea of the Southern writer as seen in courses taught on that very topic, I’d never considered myself as someone who was particularly engaged with Southern writers in a meaningful way.
Just before I was going to leave on this trip to Savannah and Millidgeville to go into The South (in all that those capital letters imply), I came across Margaret Eby’s book South Towards Home. I can’t remember where exactly I came across the book, what publication had offered up a favorable review that made it very enticing, but it was on my radar and when it happened to show up at our local Barnes & Noble I was sure to pick up a copy and I made my way through it with the alacrity that is indicative of a well-written and engaging work.
Eby, a journalist and critic who has written for The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Salon, Slate, and is currently the features and essays editor for HelloGiggles, “a positive online community for women […] covering the latest in culture, female empowerment, style, relationships, friendship, careers, and issues that matter most to young women’s lives,” writes a travelogue of a journey throughout the south to see the landmarks and places closely related to that region’s most prolific writers that in some way illuminates what it is about the South that makes its writers so remarkable and their writing so distinctly and wonderfully southern. What Eby does in this book, and what makes it both so enjoyable and worth reading for the novice as well as the expert, is to seamlessly blend thoughtful travel writing and historical background with a sharp focus and critical eye that speaks to a knowledge and understanding of the source material crafted by these writers. This is a book that both speaks to those who know very little-to-nothing about these writers as well as those who are a bit more familiar with those upon whom she focuses.
I felt this to be particularly true as I represent both sides of that equation. I did not know much of anything about Eudora Welty and Richard Wright beyond the few things I’d read by them, and I was woefully in the dark regarding Harry Crews, Barry Hannah, and even John Kennedy Toole (who so caught the attention of one of my favorite authors, Walker Percy), thus the chapters focusing on them were welcome introductions that encouraged me to either read more by these authors or to read something by one of them for the very first time. But I felt like, as she talked about Welty’s garden or the hot dog vendors of New Orleans that feature so prominently to Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, I was being better prepared to tackle and understand their work, reflecting Eby’s insight into what is most essential and factors most greatly into our understanding of these writers and their writing.
Those chapters on the authors about which I knew a good bit more– William Faulkner, Harper Lee, and of course Flannery– were just as interesting as well. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on O’Connor, her home in Millidgeville, and the famous peacocks that she brought onto the grounds. But within that, there were many biographical bits of information or observations about O’Connor and her work that I had never encountered before and that made me realize certain things about O’Connor that I had not realized before that moment. Though it is perhaps something that cannot be translated to any kind of quantifiable form, it is this quality that displays that this is a book that is not just restating things or that Eby is writing a book for the novice. This is a book that can hold the interest of someone who has (or likes to think they have) a grasp on these things.
I sometimes feel as though we (those of us in the realm of literary criticism) often shy away from the biographical so much and so greatly that we never take the time to familiarize ourselves with those things to the degree that we should. While I’m not saying that all critical endeavors need to be the byproduct of biography and constantly refer back to the author’s life, there should be more encouragement and space allowed to fully acquaint ourselves with the histories of these authors we work on, something that came to mind as I read South Towards Home, which provides this blend of critical reading of the primary texts with the biographical and historical foundation that helps us as readers to better understand and comprehend what we’re reading.
In the next edition of my apparent series of reviews of books that are in one way or another about sports, I made my way through another novel that I’d heard a lot about and knew that I would probably like. Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. was something I’d come across in a few different places. Books about baseball, books of an existential or philosophical nature, postmodern novels, important American novels of the twentieth century, there were many lists on which Coover’s novel might have appeared that I read and subsequently noted The Universal Baseball Association as a book I needed to read. Motived by finally reading A Fan’s Notes or perhaps because I finally got my hands on my Strat-O-Matic baseball board game from back home, or just because we’re beginning the Major League Baseball season, I felt the push and decided to finally read Coover’s most famous novel.
The novel focuses on the life of the Henry Waugh of the title, a man who has created a dice-based baseball game. But his creation hasn’t stopped there as he’s created a league of players, an entire history that has goes back many years, and the lives of these players that they lead when they aren’t on the baseball diamond. There are families and rivalries and traditions and events that exist beyond the boundaries of the novel. We first encounter Henry in the middle of one of these games, in which Damon Rutherford (who is the son of Brock Rutherford, one of the greatest pitchers in the history of this game he’s created) pitches a perfect game. Henry is filled with a certain kind of joy and elation in the wake of this accomplishment for one of his players, a player who has a pedigree within this game, and thus elects to pitch him again the day after pitching that perfect game. In that game, he ends up on the Extraordinary Occurrences chart and Damon is hit by a pitch and killed. The “death” of this fictitious player causes Henry’s life to go out of control and affects him much like a “real” death would and we witness the crumbling of Henry’s life as a result of this incident. He could just ignore the results of the game or make a change to prevent Damon from being struck and killed, but that would destroy the rules that bind the game and make it “real.”
That’s probably all we need in terms of recapping of the plot and background information because, perhaps not that surprising for a postmodern novel, it’s not the most important thing. The content of the novel, the characters and the conflicts and situations, are more of a device for Coover to explore themes and ideas as opposed to trying to depict something. While it’s not as absurd and surreal as some postmodern novels and somewhat concerned with realism, it’s not as “realistic” as other non-postmodern works. Regarding the thematic and conceptual aspects of the novel, one can see that there are very postmodern notions of what is real versus what is constructed and ontological questions present that arise from Henry and his life. Questions about free will and destiny emerge through Henry and his game, as well as issues of the divine and omnipotence as Henry is in a godlike role with the world of the Universal Baseball Association that he has created and the ways in which his actions (at least that he is the one rolling the dice). There’s even some sound play going on here with J. Henry Waugh and YHWH, one of the Jewish names for God. As Wilfrid Sheed writes in his review of the book for the New York Times “Baseball and theology might seem to make strange bedfellows. But like a medieval schoolman who could make theology out of just about anything, Robert Coover has spliced the two together and produced a species of baseball scripture. His God is a lonely middle-aged accountant who has devised a dice-game that approximates the probabilities of baseball. That is all. Upon the void he projects the laws of chance, the percentages, what managers call, ‘the book.'”
What makes this such a great novel is the way that it is all of the aforementioned things as well as a depicting of what it is like to be passionate about sports or a game or something like that (in a somewhat similar vein to novels like High Fidelity or The Moviegoer). It is one of the great books that is “about” baseball. Well, let me clarify– it’s not about baseball in the same way as novels like The Natural or Shoeless Joe are about baseball, but baseball and the attendant fandom/fanaticism play a big part in the narrative of Coover’s novel. Postmodern novels are often overwhelmed by their postmodernness to the point where what is happening in the story is totally lost. The subject of the book itself does not matter as much as the theory or philosophy or concept that is being explored. The Universal Baseball Association, by contrast, does all those things and is still at its heart a book that’s about baseball. For someone who does not enjoy postmodernism as much as others but who loves baseball (and the baseball games like that which is depicted in the novel), this makes Coover’s novel both a palatable experience with the postmodern as well as one that reflects my experiences as an occasionally obsessive baseball fan. And while it is a novel, like so many of the best ones, that I feel like I need to read again another time to really pick up everything and appreciate it, I enjoyed that first reading and am looking forward to picking up The Universal Baseball Association again.
When I was an undergraduate and getting started in the world of proper literary study and scholarship, I was pretty insufferable with my love and appreciation for Jack Kerouac and his novel On The Road. It was something akin to one’s first love. Well that’s not entirely true, because there were many, many books that I loved that I’d read before reading On The Road. But its effect upon me was great and it lead me down this path (writing, literary study, seeing the study at literature as something like a vocation, etc etc). And throughout college, my friends and professors would, with the best of intentions (at least some of the time, the actions of some people I knew did feel a bit disingenuous) suggest books I should look into given my feelings about Kerouac’s novel. One of those books, suggested by one of my favorite English professors, was Frederick Exley’s 1968 novel A Fan’s Notes. I picked up a copy from Bookpeople, the best bookstore in Austin, perhaps the best bookstore anywhere. And, in a sad admission of reality, it sat on my bookshelf. It sat in Austin. It sat in two apartments in Winston-Salem. It sat in Tallahassee. But after all those years of having it recommended to me, I finally decided it was time I read this book that I felt like I should.
It was a bit surprising that I hadn’t read this book as, for many reasons, it is one that I was perhaps destined to enjoy. It is a novel (or perhaps we should say memoir, as the main character is named Exley and the subtitle to the novel is “A Fictional Memoir,” but I’ll talk more about that later) that is in part about the narrator’s interest in, obsession with, the NFL’s New York Giants of the 1950s and specifically their star running back Frank Gifford. As one who is obsessed with football, and sports in general, it was certainly something that resonated with me and to which I could relate in much the same way as I did to Nick Hornby’s memoir Fever Pitch documenting his life as an Arsenal fan.
But if Exley’s book were just a documentation of what it meant to be a fan of sports, to worship an athlete, to find something in fandom, it would be something that was nice and fun to read but that would be it. It is the ways in which the novel goes beyond that makes A Fan’s Notes much more interesting and why those comparisons to Kerouac are a bit apropos. Quoting from the New York Times‘ review of the novel in 1968, John Sisk writes “the book deserves comparison with the baseball novels of Bernard Malamud and Mark Harris. It is not about pro football in the sense that George Plimpton’s ‘Paper Lion’ is, yet it is inconceivable without the passionate experience of that sport–that ‘island of directness in a world of circumspection.'” Football and its attendant fandom plays a large and central role in the novel, and yet it is not just about that. As a depiction of depression and mental illness, I found it to be profoundly affecting. Spending time in and out of psychiatric institutions, being subjected to electroshock therapy, Exley depicts both the experience of being in those institutions along with the feeling and experience of depression, making me think of Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar.
But what lies at the heart of this novel are two issues that have often been the central subject of great literature and art– the American Dream and its viability as well as questions of masculinity and what it means to be a man. Exley questions the possibility of realizing the American Dream that we are presented from all sides in our modern American culture as well as wondering whether one can find some kind of satisfaction in those things that make it up. In his search for a career and employment, Exley questions whether or not this is worth it and whether achieving that “dream” will bring any kind of happiness and fulfillment. In that regard, the comparison to Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby seen in the blurb on the back cover from Newsday is profoundly apropos. Exley is shining a light upon the things that we have been presented, as a society, that will make men feel fulfilled and happy and the hollowness at the heart of those things. Exley also investigates masculinity and what exactly that entails, particularly in his depictions of relationships and commentary regarding sex, though much like how Gatsby links romance with questions of the American Dream so too does A Fan’s Notes though in a much more realistic way. Thinking about other books of that time that addressed these issues such as Percy’s The Moviegoer and Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road amongst others, A Fan’s Notes stands among those as a strong diagnosis of this malaise that affected those living at that time.
What separates or distinguishes A Fan’s Notes from those aforementioned novels is its claim to “real life,” its status as a “fictional memoir” with the memoir part being very foregrounded. Exley is a character in his own novel and it is a book that, whether he intended or not, makes some kind of claim to being a depiction of something that “actually happened.” I enjoyed this quality and, as one who is interested in memoir and creative nonfiction, found it to give the novel a deeper and richer character. It doesn’t matter to me whether or not the story is true, it doesn’t mean that the claims it makes are somehow invalid, but as a work that is or presents itself as memoir-ish, it provides and interesting model for what one can attempt to do with the memoir/creative nonfiction genre.
Based on what I’ve written, you can tell I did rather like A Fan’s Notes. I felt it to be akin to many of the novels that I love, many of them mentioned in this post. But what Exley does and how he engages with this big ideas that so much American fiction ends up grappling with is what sets it apart and makes it unique, both in terms of its status as a “fictional memoir” as well as in the more “down to earth” or “gritty” way these ideas are explored. It’s even interesting to think about this novel and the way in which it uses and depicts fandom in the context of our own time, where being a fan has become an even greater and more elaborate thing and when we’ve become much more removed and disengaged like Exley throughout the novel. This gives the novel a greater resonance and defines it as something that should be read by today’s audiences.
Though it came and went from theaters without much (relative) critical fanfare and impressive box-office numbers, the film I was most excited about from late 2016 into 2017 was Martin Scorsese’s Silence, an adaptation of the Japanese author Shusaku Endo’s novel of the same name. Any Scorsese project is going to grab my attention, but Silence was one in which I was particularly interested as it was a long-gestating passion project for the famed American director. In the run-up to the film’s release, I came across a book by the painter Makoto Fujimura entitled Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering. I’d heard about Fujimura from a couple different people, both that he wrote this book and he was holding a discussion with Martin Scorsese to discuss the film (you can find a video of that discussion here).
Silence and Beauty is an interesting work to try to talk about because it does not fit neatly into one specific category or genre (making my trying to appraise it a very difficult task, but I digress). It is not solely about Endo’s novel nor Scorsese’s adaptation of the film yet it is constantly returning to that primary text. It is not a work of literary criticism in the traditional sense, yet it reveals and helps one to better understand the novel. It is not a memoir, but Fujimura draws very much from his own life and experience. It is about Endo’s novel but it is also about art, both Fujimura’s own art as well as Japanese art in general. It provides an interesting window into much of the history of Japan yet the history does not dominate and it is not interesting solely as an account of a country’s history. It is all of those things and yet not solely that, it is certainly a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
The book was described in this way by its publisher:
Endo’s Silence took internationally renowned visual artist Makoto Fujimura on a pilgrimage of grappling with the nature of art, the significance of pain and his own cultural heritage. His artistic faith journey overlaps with Endo’s as he uncovers deep layers of meaning in Japanese history and literature, expressed in art both past and present. He finds connections to how faith is lived in contemporary contexts of trauma and glimpses of how the gospel is conveyed in Christ-hidden cultures. In this world of pain and suffering, God often seems silent. Fujimura’s reflections show that light is yet present in darkness, and that silence speaks with hidden beauty and truth.
I think the word “reflection” is particularly apropos in this instance and does a good job of explaining what exactly this book is. Fujimura uses Endo’s Silence as a beginning point, reflecting on what was said and depicted in the novel and then using it to explore aspects of his life, his art, his faith, and Japanese art, culture, and history. It is not really a thesis-driven work, one trying to make a specific point or argument about the text upon which Fujimura focuses, but rather it uses the text as a window into these different arenas. It displays how one can meditate upon a great work of art (in whatever medium) and use it as a means to consider the most important questions and concerns one can have.
The sections of the book that were particularly interesting to me were the sections that focused on Japanese history and culture. Part of it was because I just did not know all that much about the history of Japan. What Fujimura provides here is a window into what constitutes Japanese culture and why it is that way, particularly as it relates to the themes and topics that emerge from Endo’s novel. The idea of the insider culture versus the outsider, the fumi-e and the specifics surrounding that, Fujimura illuminates those ideas and topics so that a novice such as myself can better understand their importance and relevance to Endo’s novel. However, the history does not overwhelm the reader as Fujimura is sure to focus on the things that are relevant for the “narrative” he is trying to tell in this book. It certainly made certain aspects of Silence much more clear or meaningful to me as a reader while also giving me a better sense of a culture I knew next-to-nothing about and that now I wish to understand even better.
But what I responded to the most in Fujimura’s book was the way in which he engaged religion and religious belief. Fujimura depicts the mind of the believer and provides a window into it as a way of considering one’s thinking. One sentence really stuck with me and stuck me (though that is not to say that there weren’t many more throughout the book that did, but this one was far and away my favorite): “Doubt is not the opposite of faith but only an honest admission of our true condition, wrestling against the fallen world in which God seems to be silent.” It is this idea that Fujimura returns to throughout his book and what he puts forth as perhaps the most central component to understanding Silence. Though the narrative of Silence takes place in what seems like (and in many ways is) a whole other world, Fujimura brings out this point that is still relevant to the world we live in, one that sees doubt and questioning as a rejection of faith and belief and that values certainty to the point of rigid and unchanging ideology. This is where Silence and Beauty becomes more than merely a reflection upon Endo’s novel. Fujimura engages with questions about what does it mean to be a believer, a Christian, and how does this manifest itself in one’s life. What Fujimura does is to bring to the light the deep and rich faith that is hidden in Silence. It is not faith as we might initially conceive of it or that we understand most easily and directly, but it is something that is strong and lasting and powerful. I certainly know that Fujimura’s conception of faith and the way he describes it is very much in line with what I believe and how I see myself, and thus it was something that greatly resonated with me.
Makoto Fujimura’s Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering is a fascinating book. It provides helpful context as well as illuminative readings of Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence (as well as Martin Scorsese’s recent film adaptation). Fujimura also addresses art, faith, and Japan in a way that goes beyond a mere discussion of Endo’s work. As an accomplished artist, a Christian, and one of Japanese descent, he is perhaps uniquely qualified to discuss and examine these topics and he does so effectively and thoughtfully. Silence and Beauty provides a focused reflection upon a novel and film adaptation that is still relevant in our world today, and that we all would benefit from considering the lessons of that novel and reflecting on its meaning in our own lives. It is definitely something I would recommend, not just to those who have read Silence or seen Scorsese’s film adaptation (though it certainly helps) but to anyone who is interested in thinking about the larger and important questions as well as man and his place in the cosmos and relative to the divine.