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I recently finished reading Charles Dickens’ marvelous novel Bleak House. I was part of an online discussion group sponsored by the Catherine Project, a forum for studying books that have “richness, depth, and lasting value.” Every Tuesday for 20 weeks, 8 or 9 of us from all around the US and Canada met to talk about three or four chapters. It was nice that such a wide variety of people, each with a unique perspective, life story, and knowledge base, reflected together on a classic text.  I decided to write down a few things that struck me about the book and share them here.

Bleak House, like pretty much all of Dickens’ novels, was set in nineteenth-century England, a time of great social upheaval. Often, his novels highlighted some social ill or injustice—child labor, unhealthy environmental conditions, a rigid class system, the debilitating effects of poverty. In Bleak House, the most prominent target of Dickinsonian scrutiny is Chancery Court, which dealt with issues such as wills, mortgages, and trusts. Central to the novel is the Chancery case of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, a complex case that dragged on for years and engaged a multitude of lawyers, but without resolution. In the first chapter we’re told that the case “has stretched forth its unwholesome hand to spoil and corrupt” a wide variety of people.” I like Dickens’ description of the harmful effect on those who have only incidental contact with the case:

“[E]ven those who have contemplated its history from the outermost circle of such evil have been insensibly tempted into a loose way of letting bad things alone to take their own bad course, and a loose belief that if the world go wrong it was in some off-hand manner never meant to go right.”

It’s so easy for the social ills we live amidst to make us apathetic and cynical. I appreciate the caution to be on guard against such an outcome.

The character most directly impacted by Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce is Richard Carstone, a ward of the court sent at the beginning of the novel to live with John Jardyce, a distant cousin who is also party to the suit. Richard is amiable but irresponsible. As adulthood approaches, he tries his hand at several possible careers, going through a considerable sum of John Jarndyce’s money in the process. He can’t muster much of an interest in anything except the Chancery suit and its promise of riches, though. He starts reading documents from the suit and becomes convinced that its outcome will make him wealthy. Eventually, he gives up every other pursuit to research the case, attend court, and huddle with his lawyer, who encourages this preoccupation and convinces him that it’s in his interest to spend all his money on legal fees. Though John Jarndyce does everything he can to distance himself from the suit, Richard ruminates on the possibility that John Jarndyce’s professed indifference to the outcome is a front for pusuing his own welfare at Richard’s expense. It’s a sobering account of how suspicions can destroy a relationship. At one point, Richard describes his thoughts about John Jarndyce as follows:

“Whereas, now, I do declare to you that he becomes to me the embodiment of the suit; that, in place of its being an abstraction, it is John Jarndyce; that the more I suffer, the more indignant I am with him; that every new delay, and every new disappointment, is only a new injury from John Jarndyce’s hand.”

This shows wonderful insight into one aspect of how we react to our welfare being threatened. Identifying an impersonal or abstract injustice never satisfies; there’s an urge to personalize it, to find someone responsible. Once a nefarious mastermind is identified, every slight, indignity, or disappointment gets related to that source, thus building the offense to monstrous proportions.

Richard ends up deteriorating physically, emotionally, and mentally. Esther, one of the novel’s two narrators, goes to dinner at his house and is startled by what she sees:

“I found Richard thin and languid, slovenly in his dress, abstracted in his manner, forcing his spirits now and then, and at other intervals relapsing into a dull thoughtfulness. About his large bright eyes that used to be so merry, there was a wanness and a restlessness that changed them altogether. 1 cannot use the expression that he looked old. There is a ruin of youth which is not like age; and into such a ruin, Richard’s youth and youthful beauty had all fallen away.”

Richard had pursued the suit, but it ends up pursuing him, consuming his attention and replacing all other axes of importance. Augustine suggested that habits, if repeated often enough, become vices, which then become progressively more ingrained, so that the person’s will is eroded and they are totally captured. Dickens describes the process well in his account of Richard’s progressive preoccupation with Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce. I’m struck by the idea of “a ruin of youth that is not like age.” What a tragedy it is to be consumed by such ruin!

An essential element in Richard’s deterioration is the narrative he constructs about himself and the world. According to the story he tells himself, he’s incapable of giving his full attention and effort to any of the careers he dabbles in. None of them matter anyway, since he is likely to be rich one day when the suit is settled. His best course of action is to devote all is attention to the suit. Anyone else involved in the suit has interests contrary to him and is thus an enemy.

Richard isn’t the only character who lives according to a narrative that doesn’t fit well with the external realities that others see. In other cases besides his, the results are tragic or destructive (for example, Lady Dedlock and Mrs. Jellyby). Though the reader and other characters can see the discrepancy between what the person says and the truth, these narratives are highly resistant to change. Thus, too, with us. The stories we tell ourselves can be either gift or curse. Distorted stories can lead to waste, failure, unhappiness, and ruin. Yet we can’t see what we are doing to ourselves.

Those with inaccurate narratives can be doomed to miserable lives, as with with most such characters in Bleak House. But there are exceptions. I’ll end with one such exception. George is a retired soldier who scrapes by trying to run a shooting gallery. He’s a good man, kind and generous, but that’s not how he sees himself. As he tells his creditor:

“I ought to have been a good son, and I think I meant to have been one. But I wasn’t. I was a thundering bad son, that’s the long and the short of it, and never was a credit to anybody.”

We eventually learn what George feels so guilty about. He joined the military against his mother’s wishes. He didn’t write home at first, planning to do so when he was promoted to officer. However, the promotion never came. Out of shame, he never wrote, and failing to do so increased his shame. So his narrative is that he was a bad son who hurt his mother, who he’s sure was hurt but has come to terms with his loss, and the best he can do is to stay away from family so as to not open old wounds. He hides his background from others to keep information about him from getting back to his family. Eventually, he’s imprisoned on suspicion of a crime. Though innocent, he refuses to get a lawyer, planning to just tell the truth and, if convicted,  accepting the punishment, since he’s a wrongdoer in other regards.

This is his story. Fortunately, his family friends the Bagnets decide to help. Mrs. Bagnet has figured out who is mother is, and sets out to tell her of her son’s plight. She returns to London with his mother. The reunion of George and his mother is to my mind the most touching scene in the novel. Here’s the start of it:

“George Rouncewell! O, my dear child, turn and look at me!”

The trooper starts up, clasps his mother round the neck, and falls down on his knees before her. Whether in a late repentance, whether in the first association that comes back upon him, he puts his hands together as a child does when it says its prayers, and raising them towards her breast, bows down his head, and cries. . . .

“Mother,” says the trooper, when they are more composed; “forgive me first of all, for I know my need of it.”

Forgive him! She does it with all her heart and soul. She always has done it. She tells him how she has had it written in her will, these many years, that he was her beloved son George. She has never believed any ill of him, never. If she had died without this happiness–and she is an old woman now, and can’t look to live very long–she would have blessed him with her last breath, if she had had her senses, as her beloved son George.

This is unconditional love, total love, unending love, and it has its effect. George is changed from that time on—not completely different, but receiving the restoration offered and living in gratitude for it. This is the story of the prodigal son. Like Richard and George, we are all prone to telling false stories about ourselves. Would that we all had our folly corrected with such tenderness and care.

After my mother died in June, I went through lost of family pictures, including some from over a hundred years ago. It made me reflect on the people portrayed in them, thinking of who they were at the time they were photographed.

It’s a full-length portrait, head to foot.
He wears a dark suit, white shirt, and white bow-tie.
He bends his arms behind his back, hands out of sight,
the pose that’s favored by the awkward. 
She stands beside him, dressed in white from neck
to just above her ankles. She seems to lean
towards him the slightest bit. 

I’m quite sure who they are, though they 
don’t look like the people I remember.
In the days to come, he would grow his waist
and lose his hair; her face would hibernate 
behind thick glasses.

I see them through a grandchild’s eyes
but that is not the people whom they always were.
Unmoored once, 
they got to freely walk around the city, 
imagining the places they might live,
the people they might meet and marry,
and the man or woman each would come to be. 
I would have liked to travel back across 
the vast sea 
of time to meet them then: 
I wonder what our conversation might have been. 

My mom has been deteriorating for the past couple months. She’s currently on hospice. I’ve been her main caregiver. that’s been not only challenging, but instructive. I am learning how far I am from being unselfish and totally dedicated. Here’s a poem that describes one humbling moment:

Sometimes night conceals.
Sometime it reveals.

Caregiving for a parent is going fine by day,
the spinning top of dressing
		walking
		sitting
		feeding
		medicating
		comforting
proceed without a wobble,
but night is different.

“I need to get up.”
“You did a little while ago.”
“I need to again.” 

I compute my hours of lost sleep,
and, the books unbalanced,
add a sum of distance and discourtesy.

Back in bed, I feel the hard stone
of ego, wanting its ascendency.
I serve,
but I’m yet to be a servant.
Photo by u0410u043bu0435u043au0441u0430u043du0434u0440 u0422u0440u0443u0431u0438u0446u044bu043d on Pexels.com

The Revised Common Lectionary, a compendium of Biblical passages read in churches each week of the liturgical year, today includes the following verse:

“For our momentary light affliction is producing in us an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure and proportion….” (2 Corinthians 4:17)

Meditating on scriptures like this can bring to mind interesting thoughts and images, as it did for me today:

Affliction weighs too much sometimes,
enormous gravity that hangs on limbs and ligaments;
shoulders slouch and legs shuffle.

Odd then that such hardship fortifies us
not for the succor of relief but for another weight,
that being glory.

As lilacs have endured the heft of winter cold
that they may then be burdened with the fireworks
of fragrant flowers

so too will we be resurrected in seraphic Spring,
bursting with great blooms of glory,
extravagant beyond all measure.

This is a poem I wrote in April, 2005, when I was working as a college prof. Thankfully, my life isn’t like this anymore! My reading isn’t near as erudite, but much more enjoyable, and it’s easier to get outside.

Like those games in truck stops with quarters piled on flat metal trays

with the promise that, if you play, you can keep whatever falls,

so books roost on counters, tables, chairs, wherever they can find a space,

vital knowledge being held within the folds of their wings,

ready to be shaken loose. Nearby, I see Pinnock, Gerald May,

Kierkegaard and Hauerwas.  Walker Percy and John Calvin

lie one atop the other on my desk; Camus is on the floor,

in a scrum of existentialists topped by Frederick Neitzsche.

How nice it is, I think, to be the type of person who reads such books

and talks of them with other priests serving in a shrine of culture.

***********************************************************

Outside, winter’s bony fingers pull on gloves:

azaleas have exploded

with bursts of bloom as bright as any fireworks,

dogwoods twirl white parasols,

and souls have risen from the dead.

David Bailly, Vanitas. This is an example of the memento mori tradition

The last year spent isolated in response to covid19 has reminded all of us of our mortality. Now that some of us are getting vaccinated, there’s reason to hope for a gradual return to something like normal. Yet there are lessons to remember from this time. Here’s a poem I wrote about a month ago about what we’re going through; after the first couple verses, it is a conversation with death.

The ravages of death abound
in state to state, from town to town
conveyed upon the mist of breath
unholy virus, you are death.

So I avoid the best I can
death’s ravages, its frigid hand
while hundreds daily still fall prey,
be it by foolishness or fate.

My life for now is circumscribed—
lackluster days and quiet nights.
So, do I fear your dire threat?
No, but I offer you respect,

expecting we may meet one day
not battling, but in embrace,
prepared–by having had full life–
to book the journey you provide.

An ending, yes, but not the last,
for, after death mows me like grass
the king will come with trumpet’s shout,
before him death and I will bow.

Here’s a poem about the internal dialogue between fretfulness and trust.

 

Awake at 3 a.m.,
my mind invites me to climb from the low place
where languid wisps of drowsiness still curl,
up the stairs to where tomorrow’s puzzles wait.
If I try to fit one piece in place, like as not
I’ll be drawn to undertake a dozen more.

Content yourself, my soul
and in the darkness know
the God who’s everywhere
will hold you in his care.

About an hour’s passed. I’ve turned from side to side
too many times, stretched out my legs
then pulled them up again, folding and unfolding
like a flimsy chair. When does the dog need medicine?
What paperwork is incomplete? What emails need reply?
How should I be positioned on tomorrow’s starting line?

Content yourself, my soul
and in the darkness know
the God who’s everywhere
will hold you in his care.

The earth has nearly turned into the light.
My nighttime thoughts still leave in disarray
most pieces of the day. I learn for what must be
the thousandth time that without his help
I can’t build the house or guard the city.
Take to heart the lesson of the night:

Content yourself, my soul
and in the darkness know
the God who’s everywhere
will hold you in his care.

In a previous post, I wrote about one theme David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, namely the desire many characters have to escape themselves. Social realities in the U.S. intensify this desire. DFW seems particularly interested in exploring aspects of American culture that interfere with living a healthy and authentic life. In the book, the most detailed critique of American culture is offered by a character from a rather different culture, albeit still North American. Rémy Marathe is from Quebec; he is an agent  (he’s actually a quadruple agent, when you sort out who he is betraying and pretending to betray) of the Wheelchair Assassins, a violent separatist group that is seeking to acquire the lethal “entertainment” named Infinite Jest V to use as a terrorist weapon. He complains to his contact Hugh Steeply, agent for the North American government’s Office of Unspecified Services, about the failure of Americans to live for any purpose larger than themselves:

“You U.S.A.’s do not seem to believe you may each choose what to die for. Love of a woman, the sexual, it bends back in on the self, makes you narrow, maybe crazy. Chose with care. Love of your nation, your country and people, it enlarges the heart. Something bigger that the self.” (p. 107)

He thinks that Americans “choose nothing over themselves to love, each one.” (p. 318) As a result, they are particularly susceptible to the lure of the lethal entertainment. They will “die for this chance to be fed to the death of pleasure with spoons, in their warm homes, alone, unmoving.” Exclusive self-love prepares us for self-indulgence, nothing more. The effect of the lethal entertainment on its viewers seems just a more intensified version of what the American entertainment industry does to all of us every day. When DFW wrote IJ, we were entertained mainly through television, VCR tapes, CDs, and DVDs. Now packaged entertainment also infects our laptops and cell phones, enticing us everywhere we look. It deadens us, it tempts us to give our lives to it, one cat video at a time.

And it isolates us. Though the characters in IJ are often physically present with each other, they mostly fail to forge meaningful connections. The pioneering developmental psychologist Jean Piaget coined the term “collective monologue” to describe the way in which young children talk to each other: though they take turns talking, each is carrying on an independent stream of speech, not listening to or responding to what the other is saying. Many of the conversations in IJ come close to being collective monologues–Hal and Orin, for example, or the residents of Ennet House with each other. Hal asks his Little Buddies (the younger students at E.T.A. that he mentors) “Even if we all live and eat and shower and play together, how can we keep from being 136 deeply alone people all jammed together?” (p. 112) The question can be asked more broadly: how can we keep our way of living from isolating us, even if we are sitting in the same restaurants or offices or living rooms with others? Hal thinks connection is possible because the students are united by common hardship, but this hypothesis isn’t borne out in the rest of the book.

Isolation is an issue at Ennet House as well. One of the things that residents are said to learn early in their stay is “That loneliness is not a function of solitude.” As with the E.T.A. students, they aren’t alone very much–they room together, go to meetings together, and spend almost all their time in each other’s company. There is little solitude, but a lot of loneliness.

Marathe and Steeply. Image from http://www.brickjest.com.

Marathe tells Steeply, “You are what you love.” Unlike what we desire, what we’re tempted by, or what intrudes into our lives, we have a choice about what we love. Marathe later tells Kate Gompart, a depressed Ennet House resident, what (or whom) he chose to love. As a young double amputee who belonged to a suppressed minority, he felt empty. Everything changed one day when he saw a woman about to be hit by a truck. He quickly rolled down the hill he was on, arriving just in time to sweep her out of the way.

“It was this frozen with the terror woman, she saved my life. For this saved my life. This moment broke my moribund chains, Katherine. In one instant and without thought I was allowed to choose something as more important than my thinking of my life. Her, she allowed this will without thinking. She with one blow broke the chains of the cage of pain at my half a body and nation.” p. 778

His betrayal of the Quebecois cause was for the sake of getting medical treatment for Gertraude, the woman he rescued who subsequently became his wife. He of course had told Steeply earlier that a nation was a sufficient cause to give oneself to, but a woman wasn’t. Thus he wasn’t living according to the ideals he espoused. Despite his own inconsistency, Marathe’s critique of the U.S. raises interesting questions that the rest of IJ explores in depth. Though Marathe’s views weren’t identical with those of DFW, I suspect that Wallace used Marathe to express concerns about American culture that he thought had some validity.

Most of us have felt at times that entertainment or social media is playing too big a role in our lives. Most of us have been halfhearted at best in our efforts to keep these forces in their proper place, though. St. Augustine talked about our disordered loves; for many of us, our love for our entertainments is disordered. Thus, it will never fully satisfy. Choose what you love, says Marathe. Then follow through and give your time only to that which is worthy of your love.

Julie Beck, a writer at the Atlantic, recently wrote an article about how friendships change over time. She notes:

“The voluntary nature of friendship makes it subject to life’s whims in a way more formal relationships aren’t. In adulthood, as people grow up and go away, friendships are the relationships most likely to take a hit.”

Even in the social media age, when we can keep track of friends from long ago no matter where we each happen to live, there are some friendships from earlier phases of life that aren’t maintained. Others are maintained, but barely: seeing facebook posts a couple times a year written by someone I worked with 20 years ago means we are still in touch, but the fiber of connection is stretched so thin that it makes little difference to either of us.

Beck describes the developmental trajectory of friendships. In childhood, a friend is mostly someone to play with. In adolescence, there is more talk, more self-disclosure, and friends are important in our search to discover who we are. Young adults are “more likely to seek out friends who share their values on the important things.” Young adults are also quite mobile, so many friends get left behind as we travel to get educated or take a job. By middle adulthood, we’re all quite busy, shuttling between work, marriage, and parenting. “[I]t’s easier to put off catching up with a friend than it is to skip your kid’s play or an important business trip.” Thus, friendship researcher William Rawlings of Ohio University found that middle-aged adults defined friendship as “being there” for each other, but actually had little time to spend together. Busy middle-aged adults make relatively few new friends other than among people they already see regularly, such as co-workers.

Later in life, though, kids leave home and we work less, or not at all, and we have more time. Some of that time is devoted to friends. As Beck indicates, “People tend to reconnect with old friends they’ve lost touch with. And it seems more urgent to spend time with them…” Of course, some old friends are lost for good. Others live at such a distance that it is difficult to get together. It’s not impossible, though. There is one friend I’ve known for over twenty years that I go to Georgia a couple times a year to see. I also have a high school friend who lives in California but was able to spend time with when he came to Michigan twice since 2012.

I grew up in West Michigan and returned here in 2012 to help my parents. There are several old friends in the area with whom I thought I would be spending time, but it hasn’t worked out that way. I’ve seen a few of them briefly, but only meet regularly with one–the one I had made time for throughout the decades I was really busy. I’m not fully retired, so my desire to renew old friendships may increase once I do quit working. For now, though, rather than reconnect with old friends, I’m devoting more time to friends who were already a priority for me, and I’m making new friends.

I’ll write more about why I think I’ve maintained strong friendships with some people but don’t have much interest in renewing friendships with others with whom I was once close. I’m curious about other people’s experiences, though. How have your friendships changed over the years, and why have you kept the friendships you have?

This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar issues

Eisenberg and Segel. Image by Jakob Ihre/AP

Eisenberg and Segel. Image by Jakob Ihre/AP

I recently saw “The End of the Tour,”  the movie about Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky (played by Jesse Eisenberg) interviewing writer David Foster Wallace (Jason Segal) shortly after Wallace’s landmark novel Infinite Jest was published in 1996. Lipsky travels to Wallace’s modest rented home in Bloomington, Illinois, then accompanies him on a trip to Minneapolis for the last stop of the book tour. The movie is a long conversation between two intelligent men in their 30s, one probing, the other alternately spilling out his thoughts and lamenting the artificiality of their interaction. These seem to be two men struggling with despair, only one of whom realizes the struggle is occurring.

In alluding to despair, I’m thinking of the way that Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard used the term. In his Sickness Unto Death, he describes despair as a condition of the self. Here’s how I recently summarized the ways Kierkegaard thought we despair:

“We can despair in two ways, according to Kierkegaard. First, a person can wish to be rid of  him- or herself, that is, can be unwilling to be oneself, a condition that Kierkegaard calls “the despair of weakness.” Second, the person can despair to be a self, that is, can despair because one desires to be a self that one cannot be, a condition referred to as ‘the despair of defiance.’”

It doesn’t take much effort to see that David Foster Wallace (the Wallace of the film, that is, who might not have resembled the real man) was well acquainted with despair. He tells Lipsky that he is addicted to junk television (we see one TV-watching binge during the movie). Any addiction, TV included, can be considered either an attempt to escape from oneself or an attempt to be a self other than who one is (or both). Of the two possibilities, Wallace seems mainly to have been trying to get away from himself.

Wallace seems quite aware of his propensity towards despair. In 1988, eight years before Lipsky’s interview, he was hospitalized and put on suicide watch. He says to Lipsky (all quotes are my best attempts to transcribe the dialogue from the movie, but I can’t vouchsafe their accuracy), “I was a 28 year old who had exhausted a couple ways of living.” After describing the experience in the hospital, he added, “and when that happens you become unprecedentedly willing to explore some other avenues of how to live.” I haven’t read Infinite Jest, but I understand that it can be considered just such an exploration of ways to live. Wallace isn’t so sure his search has unearthed a workable solution. Looking back to the time he fell apart, He tells Lipsky, “I don’t think we change. I think I still have the same parts of me. I’m trying hard to find a way to just let them live.” He was well aware that despair still lurked within.

Wallace sees contemporary culture as making it particularly difficult for him (or anyone else, for that matter) to be a self capable of wholeness. That culture produced the endless flood of TV shows constantly available to soothe his angst. He foresees a time in which the internet and virtual reality become even more insiduous pathogens capable of infecting and  destroying the self. He says at one point that his writing is about “how easy it is to be seduced off your path because of the way the culture is.” He then mentions what he fears: “What if I become a parody of that?”

Wallace seems to have thought that a genuine connection with another human being would aid him in his struggles. He opens up to Lipsky with that end in mind. That effort proves fruitless, since Lipsky has no intention of being genuine. He would rather present a counterfit self in order to charm Wallace and thereby obtain material for his Rolling Stone article. Wallace at one point says that literary success has made him feel like a whore, but Lipsky is the real whore here, prostituting his humanity in an attempt to gain success.

Lipsky wishes to be a self he can’t be–he wishes to be an acclaimed author like Wallace–but, as portrayed by Eisenberg, anyway, doesn’t have the insight to realize that this striving is a form of despair. As Lipsky prepares to drive away after the interview is completed, Wallace leans into his car window and says, “I’m not so sure you want to be me.” Good words of warning for those times when we start thinking that we will be at peace if only we manage to be someone other than who we are.

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