Generous Orthodoxy  

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Tree of Life movie

Well, in our very own household we have diametrically different views of Tree of Life. About halfway through the interminable (20 minutes, actually) sequence of the creation of the universe, I turned to my husband Dick and said, "I bet you hate this." He, not taking his eyes off the screen, said, "I like it." I said, "You're kidding!" but when he did not respond I realized he wasn't kidding, so I shut up. I didn't say anything more except a few "What did he say"s (my hearing aids did not help with the numerous voice-overs). Oh, and when the people were wandering about on the beach in a seemingly detached stupor I muttered, "Last year at Marienbad."

At the end I turned to Dick again and said "Well, what did you think?" Again, he said, "I liked it," which is very high praise from Dick. As a devout and faithful Christian he saw numerous strong references to the divine story and was moved.

I agree that there are numerous such references but I thought the movie was tedious, pretentious, and incoherent. Admittedly I have a low tolerance for inspirational nature photography, and that is such a huge part of the movie that I can't detach it in order to assess the rest. I was somewhat thrown off balance by the use of the traditional liturgy, as for instance when the children are all confirmed at once (despite their different ages) with the great, much-missed traditional prayer "Defend, O Lord, this thy child with thy heavenly grace..." and I will admit that it appears the children were indeed mysteriously defended with heavenly grace. The church scenes were an odd blend of Episcopal, Roman Catholic, and generic Protestant elements not particularly convincingly put together. The name of Jesus is never heard, certainly not at the end of the family's traditional table grace, yet the Lord's feet appear (I think) on the beach.

Few moviegoers will recognize that the beach scene is accompanied by the Berlioz Requiem and that the Latin words are saying, "Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world...eternal rest grant unto them, and let light perpetual shine upon them." It seems to me that these words make a great deal of difference, but if people don't know them, they are going to have a "religious" experience without content. Dick thought the final scene suggested rectification (a better English translation for the Greek dikaiosis than "justification") but by that time I was so irritated by the movie's longueurs that I couldn't appreciate that suggestion. All in all I thought the extensive use of classical music was overly grandiloquent. It called too much attention to itself, as for instance when the "Moldau" erupts while the children are playing in the sprinkler.

I will admit that the evocation of the small town (Waco, Texas) is lovely and evocative. The scene of "Kick the Can" certainly brought back strong memories of my childhood in the forties, the time in which the movie is set. I found myself wondering repeatedly where in the world do the movie studios keep all those old cars? But none of that authenticity made up for the internal incoherence--not for me, anyway. We never even learn the facts about an early scene that sets the stage for what comes later.

Parenthetically, I am a great admirer of the director's The New World, about Pocahontas and the settlement of Jamestown. It also has an extremely slow, dreamy pace but a much better narrative arc, and the authentic setting in Surry County, Virginia (near where I grew up) is used to evoke early America, not vague spirituality. As far as I am able to ascertain, The New World hews very closely to the actual historical facts. The final scene, when Pocahontas goes to London to be presented at court, depicts her in the identical costume that we know she wore in real life, and I must admit it gave me brought her very close.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Why the Episcopal Church is shrinking

This recent report from a parish newsletter is guaranteed to be authentic, although a few details have been altered to provide anonymity.

A sizeable group of vestry representatives from the Deanery of South ========== assembled at the local conference center in April, to take part in a vestry retreat organized by local clergy. The 9 AM to 1 PM program was led by the Rev ===== and a husband-wife team of psychologists, and was followed by a delicious luncheon buffet.

The first half-hour was devoted to coffee and meeting one another as the various parish groups assembled. A large circle was then formed, and individual statements were given about hopes for the day. Then the program, or rather the games, began. The stated purpose was to relax us, to get to know one another’s names, and to produce an atmosphere of teamwork. Paper bags covered heads, and people had to form a line or persuade a stony-faced person to smile, etc., for two hours [italics original].

Finally we got down to what our representatives had come for—a practical exchange of what worked and what didn’t to encourage growth in a parish. That was the major concern of many attendees, but the leader asked us to show hands if we believed as individuals we would die. Then she said that since death was inevitable, the church too would inevitably die, so we shouldn’t worry about church maintenance and growth. Since we would die, we were “free to live!” It was pointed out that there was a difference between our attachments to 1) the church and 2) bricks and mortar.

The group kept reverting to its practical concerns, so the leaders decided we needed to loosen up with a 15-minute sing-along. Then one of the leaders got up and gave a brief history of Christian meditation, pointing out that after the Dalai Lama left Tibet and Pope John XXIII instituted reforms, meditation was revived in the West. A pair of shoe liners was placed in the center of our circle, and we were instructed to empty our minds and listen to God for ten minutes. We were sitting in very close proximity to one another, and I fear that many of us had minds that wandered to the buffet set out behind us.

The writer concluded with a brief report on how the various vestry members enjoyed their lunch and managed to exchange a few ideas about how they might encourage their members.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Great novels in foreign languages

A few years ago I read that some literary figure in Europe (a member of the Nobel Prize for Literature committee, maybe?) said that American writers were somewhat provincial and not as good as they should be because so few Americans read literature in other languages. I’ve been thinking about that ever since. I’m sure many American readers have been as mystified as I to read the names of many of the Nobel winners—writers we have never heard of.

I have recently made a foray into the works of one of those mysterious Nobel winners: Halldór Laxness of Iceland, who won the prize in 1955. I got started when Iceland’s Bell, originally published in 1943, was finally translated into English in 2003 and was praised on the cover of the New York Times Book Review section. The review piqued my interest considerably, especially since I was deep into Tolkien and Wagner’s Ring at that time. Moreover, when I was a child I had read the Norse myths and, like C. S. Lewis, was completely enthralled by the whole concept of the North with its legends. Without realizing it, I was being drawn into the world of the Icelandic sagas. (I am embarrassed now to recall how much I hated Beowulf in college. But then, I hadn’t had Tolkien to teach it!)

I also remember being struck by the fact that there were more books per capita in Iceland than any other country in the world. At the time I did not know why that was. Now I know.

So I read Iceland’s Bell, and was completely bowled over. I got books about Iceland and pored over maps and photographs. I had fantasies of going there (although I think for me Iceland is actually more a land of the mind). I don’t know when I have been so enthralled by a novel. Since than I have been busy doing research, so I didn’t get around to Laxness’ undisputed masterpiece, Independent People (1946) until more recently, and I have just finished Under the Glacier (with an introduction by Susan Sontag, no less).

I don’t suppose Laxness is for everyone. Independent People, with its hundreds of pages of unremitting detail about unspeakable conditions in an Icelandic peasant’s croft, might be too much for some. One passionate lover of the book, when asked what it was about, quite rightly said, “Sheep.” And yet the main character, the poetry-loving sheep-farmer Bjartur, is surely one of the most memorable literary personages of all time, and the novel is almost Tolstoyan in its range. The story is leavened with rollicking humor throughout, but in places it is almost unbearable. For both reasons, I couldn’t stop turning the pages. Without doubt, Independent People belongs with the greatest of the classics.

Iceland’s Bell, however, is my personal favorite simply because, though it takes place in the Middle Ages, it is deliberately written in the style of the sagas and gives the reader a strong feeling of being in the very midst of the world of the vanished mythic North. I don’t remember feeling like that since I (like Lewis) was stopped in my tracks, as a child, by the news that “Balder the beautiful is dead, is dead!” The action in Iceland’s Bell is very easily traced on a map of Iceland and is based on real personages and real events having much to do with Iceland’s unique literary heritage, but it feels like a story from the universal world-consciousness…like the world of the Norns in the prologue to Götterdammerung.

A few years ago I enjoyed re-reading Kristin Lavransdatter, the three-volume epic tale of a woman in medieval Norway, written in the 1920s by Sigrid Undset. It is well known for its vivid depiction of life in the Middle Ages, and people can (and do) take “Kristin Lavransdatter” tours to all the places in Norway that figure in the book. Iceland’s Bell is, I suppose, superficially like that. But not really. Kristen has more likeness to Michener than to Laxness. Undset's novel has none of the saga atmosphere, none of the literary power, none of the mythic grandeur. With all due respect to the other Scandinavian countries, Iceland stands alone and Laxness makes us understand why.

Under the Glacier is a smaller work by Laxness, set in the mid-twentieth century, accurately described as “one of the funniest books ever written.” It is peopled by remarkable types with highly entertaining views on everything from religion and philosophy to elves and boiled fish (God help Icelandic food). It has a certain Laxnessian magic all its own; it seems thoroughly modern on one level, but one is hardly surprised to hear that people have seen fairy rams and walking ghosts, and to discover a character reminiscent of Kundry in Parsifal. This is not the Laxness novel to read first, but for a true believer it is certainly a treat. (Warning: don’t look for Lutheran orthodoxy here!)

The translations of the three books varies tremendously. Each was translated by a different person. The greatest translations are produced by persons who are not only fluent in the language being translated, but also gifted in the literary expression of the language into which the translation is being made. Edith Grossman, for instance, who translated Garcia Marquez, is rightly noted for the beauty of her renderings into English—and whoever it was who translated Shakespeare into Russian is widely considered a poetic genius. It is most unfortunate that of the three Laxness translations that I read, Iceland’s Bell is the worst. It contains countless infelicities in English which interfere with Laxness’ surpassing ability to make us inhabit the world of the sagas. Under the Glacier is serviceable without noticeable flaws in English, but Independent People (“Self-Standing Folk” in Icelandic) is a magnificent translation, by J. A. Thompson, with wondrous renderings of traditional Icelandic internally-rhymed verse.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

A good word for beleaguered CNN

The recent explosion of news (up here in New York, anyway) about the hapless Congressman Wiener prompts some thoughts about Wolf Blitzer. (What? Who?) If anyone out there besides me is a fan of Wolf Blitzer, I haven't heard about it. Yes, I like his odd pauses and cadences. I like his deadpan delivery. I like his occasional little flashes of good-natured humor. I very much like that after years of listening to/watching him I still can't tell if he is a Democrat or a Republican.

What interests me at the moment is the way he conducted the interview he did with Wiener a week or so ago when the Congressman was still in denial mode. It's the first time I've ever seen Wolf obviously irritated if not downright angry. It was striking. Now that the unfortunate culprit has been "outed" in full view of the entire world, I have seen another moment or two of real anger, tamped down but still visible, from Blitzer when he said that Wiener had lied to various people and, specifically, "to me." I wondered if it might be, in part, one Jew feeling mortally embarrassed about another Jew's misbehaviour. If so, good for Wolf. In any case, it's an opportunity to say a public thank-you to Wolf Blitzer for being there night after night, ignoring the scorn from the right (Fox) and the ascendancy of left-wing commentary (MSNBC) and the less-than-stellar CNN ratings. I look at CNN intermittently on kitchen breaks in my office, and I listen to it on satellite in my car--certainly I don't watch it nonstop--and I enjoy Chris Matthews on MSNBC, but here's a little bouquet for the stoic, dependable, intelligent if not showy, genuinely fair and balanced Wolf Blitzer on "The Situation Room."