AldersAlders. Oregon – July 2017.

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Reading Notes: Ron Hansen’s Mariette

~ Mariette in Ecstasy (1991) by Ron Hansen ~

There’s an old friction in Christianity between the longing for mystical experience and the keep-your-head-down plodding work of the humble, devotional life. Hansen’s book succeeds best when he keeps to this theme, exploring the jealousies and factionalism that erupt at an upstate New York convent when a teenage postulant suffers a series of increasingly intense mystical experiences.

Unfortunately, Mariette in Ecstasy also suffers from a bad case of what I like to call “Writer’s-Workshopitis.” I could smell Hansen’s MFA after just a few pages. In this particular case, symptoms include present-tense narration, an excess of lyricism and ambience and a corresponding dearth of story and character, and too much poetic neologizing. For example, a cruel wind “sharks” through the fields; and rather than gently touching or caressing an object, hands must be “tendering” them. The fact that this second usage occurs twice in a book of a mere 180 pages is, in my opinion, unforgivable.

I appreciate the theme of Mariette in Ecstasy, and I admire its final solution (and I do think Hansen offers one), but the book reads too much like an outline of the novel that it was supposed to be.

The Trouble with Opinions

The eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume argued that the passions invariably lead reason about by the nose, that we want what we want before reason steps forward to build a scaffolding that justifies our desires. We then cling to that secondary work of reason in order to explain our desires as if we had settled on them by a process of sober logic.

We might apply Hume’s rule to our political opinions and religious beliefs as well as to our more tangible desires for material goods or influence over others. We come to many of our opinions and beliefs for reasons that have nothing to do with reason, and as a result, I suggest, we do not truly believe many of the things we claim to believe; we merely follow our passions.

For example, we often adopt specific opinions because persons we consider smart or sophisticated or successful tend to support them, and we want to be seen as smart, sophisticated or successful too. By a sleight of hand that fools even ourselves, we grab hold of convenient arguments to prop up our new opinions in order to obscure the actual motives of our endorsement.

From whom do we want to hide our motives? From God perhaps, but certainly from others and from that inward censor that tells us such motives are more often than not base or disgraceful.

What is a person to do?

We may try to hold as few opinions as necessary or to refrain from casually adopting new or fashionable ones. This is no small task when the prevailing culture teaches us that failure to publicly offer the correct judgement, even on persons or events with which we have no connection, is morally identical to endorsing evil or compounding the victimization of persons.

We might also investigate our opinions and beliefs by a process of cold self-examination, a method intended to determine what we believe in practice rather than what we merely select, consumer-style, from a shelf of beliefs and opinions arranged to flatter the purchaser or appeal to the eye.

Stand outside yourself as far as possible and consider the creature before you as you would a character in a novel or an animal under scientific observation. How does he live? What are his habits? How does he spend his time? What are the things he chases after and what are the things he avoids? What are his regrets?

Honest answers to questions of this sort may tell us more than we wish to know about what we believe. It may, for example, teach “liberals” that they live and think conservatively; it may show “conservatives” that they are often secret liberals. It may teach an “atheist” that he accepts a moral order that cannot be explained without a transcendent origin, and it may show a “Christian” that he is in fact a self-deluded atheist.

It is not possible to live without beliefs and opinions. The Greek philosophical school of the Pyrrhonists attempted something like it, but even to believe that forming opinions is undesirable is in itself to form an opinion. The trouble with opinions is that we’re tempted to hold them thoughtlessly or for the wrong reasons. “The heart is deceitful among all things,” said the prophet Jeremiah, and the bewigged Scotsman Hume would agree.

Reading Notes: James Richardson’s Vectors

~ Vectors (2001) by James Richardson ~

My reading had been scattershot lately. I’d been dipping into Kipling’s short stories, and into Chekhov’s. I’d been reading essays by Loren Eiseley and George Orwell, too, but one of the few books I’d read cover to cover in the latter half of June was this one. James Richardson is a poet, but I don’t read much poetry and didn’t know him that way. He’s quite a good aphorist, however, and it seems to me that aphorists are due some fresh appreciation in our era of abbreviated attention spans.

Which is not to say that a good aphorism is exhausted in the few seconds it takes to read it. On the contrary, a good aphorism cracks open at the end in some unexpected way and rewards leisured contemplation. Take, for example, this one, which I have selected at random from my well-marked copy Vectors:

“Ah, what can fill the heart? But then, what can’t?”

Indeed. We like to think grandly of ourselves, don’t we? But then it may be that the heart is not always so expansive a place as we imagine. Petty obsessions, grudges, etc. may consume it totally.

Another:

“On what is valuable thieves and the law agree.”

Let us think twice before we place ourselves in their company.

One more:

“If the couple could see themselves twenty years later, they might not recognize their love, but they would recognize their argument.”

As a husband for something near the twenty-year mark myself, I like this one very much. Love need not vanish within two decades, of course, and I’ve been blessed in this regard, but love will – and, I think, must inevitably – change. That’s because love is alive. It grows, alters, matures in unpredictable ways, like any living thing. This is as it should be, and I would never trade the love I have toward my wife now for the by-comparison-adolescent love I had for her when we first married.

That said, it’s true we argue today about the same things that we did at the beginning of our relationship. Perhaps that’s because the unhappy parts of any relationship are unhappy because they lack a life of their own, because they are the dead ends we drag about with us.