04 December 2009

"A nice thing for those who can afford it."

Since I started working from home a year and a half ago my news consuming in general, and my NPR listening in particular, has decreased significantly. That’s probably for the best. However, I did happen to catch a bit of All Things Considered last night as I was driving to the mall to shop for Christmas presents. On the show, there was a story about a luxury hotel and resort in California and why it is thriving in spite of the recession.

The story described The Resort at Pelican Hill which is located a bit south of Los Angeles, and boasts an Italian chef, a floor-to-ceiling wine cellar, two ocean-side gulf courses, a Roman Spa (whatever that is), and one of the world’s largest saltwater pools. With room rates starting at $700 a night, it is a popular place for rich city folk looking for a weekend retreat. One of the people they interviewed in the story was a television producer, who was very happy with the place: “It's not even a tank of gas. So, if you really weigh things on what you're spending by spending a weekend there or three days there, as opposed to flying off to Hawaii for, you know, a four-day quick trip, you're better off going to Pelican Hill.”

Here’s the piece’s clever NPR ending:
Ms. TIEGEL [the aforementioned TV producer]: Because of the business that I'm in and the insanity of how it is every day and pretty much every night, to be able to get away and feel really removed from everything, if you want to be, is an incredible luxury for me.

BATES [the NPR reporter]: A nice thing for those who can afford it.

I listened to this having just recently finished the wonderful book Meetings With Kontoglou by Constantine Cavarnos (you can read a segment of this wonderful book here), an author who I respect more and more with every book of his I read. The book, which is drawn from the author's journals, follows his friendship with the iconographer, writer, and thinker Photios Kontoglou, of blessed memory, during the 1950s and 60s.

The Kontoglous lived in relative poverty even by the standards of their time, though Photios could have been a wealthy cosmopolitan artist in the West. They did not have a bank account or health insurance, had to struggle to keep their house (for a time during WW2 they had to live in a friend's garage). Yet his house was always open to visitors and filled with intelligent conversation, and, at least as Prof. Cavarnos describes it, the Kontoglous overflowed with piety, sensitivity, and intelligence. In the book, they were continually going on pilgrimage. One chapter describes a trip to the Monastery of Kaisariani:
The evening of September 25, when I was about to leave them, Photios and Maria told me that they had made arrangements to go on a pilgrimage to the Monastery of Kaisariani the next day. They invited me to join them there. I gladly accepted the invitation.
He continues later:
The Monastery of Kaisariani was founded in the 11th century. Although no longer inhabited, it is a favorite place of pilgrimage for pious Athenians, because it is at a beautiful, quiet, restful site, and because its church has remarkable wall painting depicting holy personages and events.

This and many of the other stories in Prof. Cavarnos's book reminded me of Psalm 83: “Blessed are they that dwell in Thy house; unto ages of ages shall they praise Thee... For better is one day in Thy courts than thousands elsewhere.”[1]

The story of their retreat to Kaisariani was fresh in my mind when I listened to the quite different one described on NPR. I have nothing against saltwater pools or wine-cellars, but I would much prefer a weekend visit to a monastery than a stay at a place like Pelican Hill (and though we are not so fortunate in that respect as pious Athenians, we in Alabama are lucky enough to be only a 3 hour drive from the Monastery of the Glorious Ascension in Resaca, GA).

For that matter, I would prefer a weekend away to Elamville, AL the ancestral home of my wife's family, located a few hours south of here, where we happily visit from time to time. There isn't an Italian chef or anything, but there is an uncle who once to cooked for the army and, anyway, a fine catfish restaurant down the road; there's a nice road for walking, shaky cell-phone coverage for privacy, a tire-swing, and pecan trees.

Take that Californians!

To get away and be removed from it all, you don't need to pay thousands of dollars.

In any case there's no retreat for me anytime soon. We're off to Nashville for the weekend to visit friends. But maybe we'll get to see some snow.

[1] The Psalter According to the Seventy translated by Holy Transfiguration Monastery

11 November 2009

Review: The Pillar of Fire

The Pillar of Fire The Pillar of Fire by Karl Stern

“What if all that is folly in the eyes of the Greeks, and scandal in the eyes of the Jews, is Truth?”

This is the question asked by psychiatrist Dr. Karl Stern (1906-1975) in the forward to his wonderful spiritual autobiography, The Pillar of Fire. It describes his journey from liberal Judaism to Marxist Dialectical Materialism to Orthodox Judaism to Christianity and Roman Catholicism, while simultaneously becoming a doctor and neuroscientist, and experiencing the horror of Hitler’s Germany. What is refreshing about this book, apart from the author’s warmth and intelligence, is that Stern unites within himself what is often artificially opposed; Music, Art, Social Justice, Science, Religion, and Psychology all find their places. Near the end of the book, Stern writes:
“I have said that in entering the Church one does not have to give up any single positive value one has ever believed in. You think of yourself as a traitor to your past. You think you have to leave Goethe behind, or Tolstoy, or Gandhi, or Judaism, or whatnot. But there is nothing which is good in all these things which you do not find again in the Church. Now it is ordered and synthesized. It is molten in Christ.”

The last chapter in the book is a letter to the author’s brother, at the time living on kibbutz in Israel. It is an incredibly prophetic analysis of twentieth century society, and worth the price of the book. For more about this section see this post from the wonderful, but unfortunately currently inactive blog Ora Et Labor. See also the 2007 St. Vladimir's Seminary commencement address by Fr. Thomas Hopko.

Published in 1951, it is out of print, but if you can find it, please read it.

02 September 2009

Review: The Soul and Barbed Wire

In order to get to writing more here, I'm decided to start at least posting a book review now and then, particularly books related to my subject, that is, living and reading the American South. Although Russia and Alabama are somewhat far apart, geographically, there is a connection, a connection which I'll try to comment on in the near future.

The Soul and Barbed Wire: An Introduction to Solzhenitsyn The Soul and Barbed Wire: An Introduction to Solzhenitsyn by Edward E., Jr. Ericson

The Soul and Barbed Wire, by Edward Ericson, Jr. and Alexis Klimoff, is a very good introduction to the life and work of one of the most important, and misunderstood, artists of the last century. It includes several long essays (on his life, his beliefs, and his reception) and a number of short analyses of his most important works, which make up the bulk of the book. There is also a pretty good selected bibliography.

Solzhenitsyn is a difficult writer to understand. His output was enormous—his collected works in Russian is projected to be 30 volumes—consisting of poetry, short stories, long novels, journalism, memoirs, history, and public speeches, and often his works defy genre classification. He has a reputation as being the most important writer of the 20th century, but has also suffered from a good deal of criticism for not being all things to all people. His critique of Western liberal materialism was resented, even as his critique of Soviet totalitarian materialism was praised. Many western critics have seemed to willfully misunderstand him, painting him as a nationalist and monarchist (and sometimes worse) with little to no evidence, textual or otherwise. A strange sort of nationalist is one who repeatedly pleads his nation to repent and embrace self-limitation! I suspect the reason he has often been confused with a nationalist is that he so thoroughly and unequivocally loved Russia. The love of place, of home, is incomprehensible to the modernist temperament which so often takes refuge in the abstract. Particularly in our own time, when the language of patriotism has been so debased, it is hard for certain sorts of Americans to take seriously the notion of loving country. It seems to me, though, that true dissent can only be honorable when it is rooted in love of country. It is precisely that sort of patriotic dissent which Solzhenitsyn exemplified, both before and after the fall of the Soviet regime. For this reason alone some familiarity with the broad spectrum of his work is worthwhile, and it is nice that there is a relatively slim volume is available as a guide.

The authors of The Soul and Barbed Wire are unapologetically glowing in their praise of both Solzhenitsyn’s life and his works. He is portrayed a hero, which I think is fair but not everyone does. If you don’t share this view, all the approbation might rub you the wrong way. Or maybe you’ll be convinced to reexamine your position. I’m not sure. (Personally, I think that if a writer’s work offends the sensibilities of Marxists, Anglo-American liberal elites, as well as neoconservatives, he must have done something right). The authors do a pretty good job at convincing the reader that Solzhenitsyn was not a political writer, that to understand him one must take his moral and spiritual worldview seriously.

The prose is a bit academic, though not in a bad way, and the because of the structure of the book there is a lot of repetition. Not everyone will want to read it strait through from cover to cover, but I’m glad I did. It is the kind of intro that makes you want to explore the subject further, while serving also as a good reference work. I'm going to keep it on my shelf, ready to hand.

Solzhenitsyn, though a provocative political thinker, was first an artist and the authors, thankfully, spent a lot of time on the literary quality of his work. For a while I’ve been a fan of his political and moral outlook, but I have never read much of his fiction. Before I read this book I did want to read Solzhenitsyn’s long fiction, but mostly because it seems like the right thing to do. After finishing The Soul and Barbed Wire, I’m now actually looking forward to picking up The First Circle, The Cancer Ward, and August 1914.

18 May 2009

Southern Literature Reading List

So, here is my quixotic little reading list. Should keep me busy for the next couple years.

The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor
The Last Gentleman by Walker Percy
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren
A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O'Connor
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty
Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote
Suttree by Cormac McCarthy
Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner
Light in August by William Faulkner
Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor
The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O'Connor
Everything That Rises Must Converge by Flannery O'Connor
Look Homeward Angel by Thomas Wolfe
A Death in the Family by James Agee
Lanterns on the Levee by William Alexander Percy
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
One Writer’s Beginnings by Eudora Welty
The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines
The Fathers by Allen Tate
The Collected Stories of Caroline Gordon
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain

17 May 2009

Imaginary Geography

I grew up below the Mason Dixon line in Frederick, MD. Maryland is located in a tricky place geographically. But I don't think I would be on too shaky ground if I were to say I grew up in the South. Summers did get hot there sometimes, I recall, and our state song proudly--disturbingly--proclaims "Maryland! / She is not dead, nor deaf, nor dumb- / Huzza! she spurns the Northern scum!" [1] and was a hit in certain Confederate circles back in the early 1860's.

Yet here in Alabama my accent betrays me: here I'm a yankee. No getting around it.

But all this brings up the question: where does the South begin? Or, to put it in negative terms, where does yankee territory begin?

I found something helpful in a book by Slavoj Žižek, where he wonders the same thing about the Balkans:
It seems as if there is no definitive answer to the question 'Where do the Balkans begin?' -- the Balkans are always somewhere else, a little bit more towards the southeast... Is not this identification of continental Europe itself with the Balkans, its barbarian Other, the secret truth of the entire movement of the displaced delimitation between the two? This enigmatic multiple displacement of the frontier clearly demonstrates that in the case of the Balkans we are dealing not with real geography but with an imaginary cartography which projects on to the real landscape its own shadowy, often disavowed, ideological antagonisms, just as Freud claimed that the localization of the hysteric's conversion symptoms project on to the physical body the map of another, imaginary anatomy.[2]

Similarly the Yankee is always from somewhere else, a little bit more north. I smiled when I read in To Kill a Mockingbird how a pair of sisters from northern Alabama were considered yankees.

Misses Tutti and Frutti Barber were maiden ladies, sisters, who lived together in the only Maycomb residence boasting a cellar. The Barber ladies were rumored to be Republicans, having migrated from Clanton, Alabama, in 1911. Their ways were strange to us, and why they wanted a cellar nobody knew, but they wanted one, and they dug one, and they spent the rest of their lives chasing generations of children out of it.

Misses Tutti and Frutti (their names were Sarah and Frances), aside from their Yankee ways, were both deaf.[3]

What all this means is that to really explore the South it is not enough to journey through the physical landscape, one must also travel about the imaginary landscape. The cotton fields and bayous, the gulf coast and red dirt roads are necessary, but not sufficient. Ideas and Art, Dreams and Nightmare must also be on our itinerary. Luckily, just as in the South there is no shortage of compelling scenery, I think, the imaginary geography is equally compelling.

[1] Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maryland,_My_Maryland
[2] Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird.
[3] Žižek, Slavoj. The Fragile Absolute.


As is likely clear from the less than frequent posting, I haven't been able to blog as much as I would like to (or at all, really). But rather than give up, I've decided to expand the scope of this project: not only will I be reading and writing about the great literature of the South (my reading lists will be subject of a future post), I will also be reading through and commenting about the Southern Agrarians of the early to mid twentieth century--as well as some more recent Agrarians--and two closely related literary groups: the Fugitive poets of Vanderbilt, and the New Critics.

Agrarian Reading List

I’ll Take My Stand
by Twelve Southerners
The Southern Tradition at Bay of Richard M. Weaver
The Art Of The Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays Of Wendell Berry
The Southern Tradition by Eugene Genovese
The New Agrarian Mind by Allan Carlson

New Criticism Reading List

The Well-Wrought Urn by Cleanth Brooks
Understanding Poetry by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren
The Verbal Icon by W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe K. Beardsley

Fugitive Poetry List

Collected Poems, 1919-1976 by Allen Tate
Selected Poems by John Crowe Ransom
The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren

Wish me luck. This may take a few years...