Saturday, August 08, 2015

Ancestor Worship

Some profound lessons in how to be human that we can learn from our Confucian friends


Friday, August 07, 2015

Fascinating Lives

There is something, I think, admirable in a quiet life: care for family, constructive participation in community, hard work. But there are times and places (perhaps all times, but not all places?) where simply attending to the simple things of life becomes a kind of impossibility: whether for psychological or moral reasons. I was reflecting on two persons recently who have struck me by not only their intellectual genius but also by the sheer force by which they pushed against the norm, one for reasons of psychology and one for reasons of morality.

Yukio Mishima: narcissist, political fanatic, suicide. And one of Japan's greatest novelists. I recently completed the Sea of Fertility tetralogy, which traces the life of Shigekuni Honda from youth to retirement as a wealthy attorney, centered around what Honda believes are the successive reincarnations of his friend Kiyoaki Matsugae: as a young rightist, a Thai princess and an orphan. The most powerful of the four novels, in my opinion is the second: Runaway Horses. The book seems to rebuke the militant nationalism of Japanese reactionaries, though ironically enough Mishima himself ends his own life under the banner of a similar ideology. Mishima's fascinating portrait of an inherent dark side of youth - a taming of a deep inhumanism - so to speak, comes through almost all the novels, but most strongly in the last. This echoes a theme he developed in The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea, though I can think of few works that more strongly explore this theme than the Lord of the Flies. In any case, Mishima is masterful in exploring aberrant developmental psychology - even as he, himself, seems to have been stricken with his own disordered personality.

Maria Skobtsova: atheist, symbolist poet, Bolshevik revolutionary - and a renegade nun arrested for helping Jews in Paris by the Gestapo, she allegedly died by taking the place of a Jewish woman being sent to death. Jim Forrest provides a useful overview of her life - unlikely most lives of a Christian saints, this is no hagiography: it is a straightforward story of life. At the same time, we see a life transformed by a dawning realization that self-denial is a path to transformation -

"The way to God lies through love of people. At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked. About every poor, hungry and imprisoned person the Savior says ‘I': ‘I was hungry and thirsty, I was sick and in prison.’ To think that he puts an equal sign between himself and anyone in need. . . . I always knew it, but now it has somehow penetrated to my sinews. It fills me with awe."

And despite a life dedicated to service, she remained an acute intellectual, a characteristic of so many Russian emigres in Paris. This too reflected her view that redemption and suffering where intertwined - my favorite piece On the Imitation of the Mother of God
- draws this out beautifully.


Thursday, July 09, 2015

Poets of Zen Buddhism

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Aporias

1.
Actually
He likes word games
   Diffident
In the way they circle about
   Starlings in flight
   Or Seraphim.

2.
With sweeping gesture
   Left to right
Hands hang with head
Under the pressing of the sun:
   Weight of doubt
   Or will.

3.
Against open air, tumultuous sea
   Turtle green
The division is nowhere more evident
Where sand meets froth
   Stark, blinding glare
Wind balmed
   Until night.

4.
Cleanliness,
   Next to godliness
The echo of countless schoolmarms
Chiding, chilling - without regret
   Yeah, rather,
   Motherhood.

Friday, June 19, 2015

What The World Needs More Of

The interview with these two kids - Chris and Camryn Singleton - is available on BBC, but I wanted to pull out this remarkable commentary in a related article:

"People are hurting in Charleston. But for the hundreds who packed into the gymnasium at the Goose Creek High School, it was also a reminder of the importance of love.

Sharonda Singleton coached the girls' athletics team here. As her photo rested on an easel on the polished floors in the vast sports hall, her friends and family paid tribute. Speaking for the first time since the deadly attack on the AME church where she worshipped, Sharonda's two children, Chris and Camryn, told me they forgive the man who killed her.

 "We already forgive him and there's nothing but love from our side of the family," Chris told me.

Many will find this incomprehensible. Charleston is often called the Holy City for the number of churches it is home to, and the role religion plays here. For some, like Chris and Camryn, unwavering faith is the only way to turn such a devastating loss into something positive."

This immediately brought to mind the sayings of Fr Zosima in Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov, which not to many years ago were the source of a kind of epiphany for me that in a sense reoriented by own thinking:

"Strive to love your neighbor actively and indefatigably. In as far as you advance in love you will grow surer of the reality of God and of the immort
ality of your soul. If you attain to perfect self-forgetfulness in the love of your neighbor, then you will believe without doubt, and no doubt can possibly enter your soul. This has been tried. This is certain.

Above all, avoid falsehood, every kind of falsehood, especially falseness to yourself. Watch over your own deceitfulness and look into it every hour, every minute. Avoid being scornful, both to others and to yourself. What seems to you bad within you will grow purer from the very fact of your observing it in yourself. Avoid fear, too, though fear is only the consequence of every sort of falsehood. Never be frightened at your own faint-heartedness in attaining love. Don't be frightened overmuch even at your evil actions. I am sorry I can say nothing more consoling to you, for love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all. Men will even give their lives if only the ordeal does not last long but is soon over, with all looking on and applauding as though on the stage. But active love is labor and fortitude, and for some people too, perhaps, a complete science. But I predict that just when you see with horror that in spite of all your efforts you are getting farther from your goal instead of nearer to it—at that very moment I predict that you will reach it and behold clearly the miraculous power of the Lord who has been all the time loving and mysteriously guiding you."

....


"At some thoughts one stands perplexed, especially at the sight of men's sin, and wonders whether one should use force or humble love. Always decide to use humble love. If you resolve on that once for all, you may subdue the whole world. Loving humility is marvelously strong, the strongest of all things, and there is nothing else like it." 

....

"“Remember particularly that you cannot be a judge of anyone. For no one can judge a criminal until he recognizes that he is just such a criminal as the man standing before him, and that he perhaps is more than all men to blame for that crime. When he understands that, he will be able to be a judge. Though that sounds absurd, it is true. If I had been righteous myself, perhaps there would have been no criminal standing before me. If you can take upon yourself the crime of the criminal your heart is judging, take it at once, suffer for him yourself, and let him go without reproach. And even if the law itself makes you his judge, act in the same spirit so far as possible, for he will go away and condemn himself more bitterly than you have done. If, after your kiss, he goes away untouched, mocking at you, do not let that be a stumbling-block to you. It shows his time has not yet come, but it will come in due course. And if it come not, no matter; if not he, then another in his place will understand and suffer, and judge and condemn himself, and the truth will be fulfilled. Believe that, believe it without doubt; for in that lies all the hope and faith of the saints.”


This time, Chris and Camryn have moved me beyond words by living this reality.

Addendum/edit: more of this humbling love on display

Sunday, September 21, 2014

3 film non-meme

Riffing off previous post - was discussing with my wife last evening what we thought the three best "recent" films we had seen were. Here's my list:

1) Jia Zhangke's A Touch of Sin.

Reason: this is a powerful, powerful film that explores the effects of radical individualism, and economic inequality and of the overturning of normal, local, rooted communities. Banned by the Chinese government, it is as much a critique of the values of neoliberalism globally as it is of the current Chinese economic experiment.

2) Alejandro González Iñárritu's Biutiful.

Reason: a moving exploration of responsibility and ethics in the face of poverty, hopelessness and impending death. What do we make of the human spirit and our obligations to each other - and our obligations in the face of The Other?  Javier Bardem was birthed for this role - fantastic acting.

3) Pavel Lungin's The Island.

Reason: who is guilty before whom and for what? Take a director of Jewish background, give him a story that is loosely inspired by a hagiography of the fool-for-Christ Feofil of the Kieven Caves, and cast a retired-rock-star-current-recluse (Pyotr Mamonov) as a Orthodox monastic in the far north of Russia, and I would have quite low expectations for the outcome. What Lungin produced is instead not only his best film but I think one of the best films of the last 20 years.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Top 10 Book Meme

What books have most impacted me? I picked books I have returned to over and over. Yes, I know this is solipsistic to publish, but its a fascinating thing to think through. I'm sure the list will not look right in a few months anyway. But here I go...

1 The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Reason: the best book ever written. Duh.

2 Iob, LXX
Reason: bad things happen to good people, quite often.

3 I Am a Cat, Natsume Soseki
Reason: comedy is good for the soul. This is the funniest book I've ever read.

4 The Symposium, Plato
Reason: love. And I'm an only partially reconstructed platonist.

5 Demons, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Reason: explains a big part of the 20th century. Makes 1984 look like crude propaganda.

6 Also Spracht Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche
Reason: Nietszche saw the enormity of the modern project clearly.

7 Life of Moses, Gregory of Nyssa
Reason: before structuralism, post structuralism, semiotics, and deconstruction, there was Gregory of Nyssa. And apokatastasis.

8 For the Time Being, WH Auden
Reason: aside from the fact that Auden is the best English language poet, this is a deeply moving meditation on Christmas in the anglophone experience. Read it several times each winter.

9 The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri
Reason: great art meets allegory meets beauty. Honestly, stuck with only one book this might be it.

10 Faust, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Reason: we are all compromised to one degree or another.