Monday, November 24, 2008

Review: "Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light."

In keeping with my recent theme of theology, I finally got around to reading a book I bought after reading a Time article on it last summer. Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, compiled and edited by Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk, follows Mother Teresa's private letters that reveal a spiritual struggle few knew about during her lifetime--a feeling of isolation from God, of a constant spiritual "darkness," and a tug-of-war between faith and doubt.

What initially drew me to the book was the idea of faith in the face of adversity--Mother Teresa is the posterchild of a "good" Catholic and since her death in 1997 has been beatified, the first step towards becoming canonized as a saint. Despite her "saintliness," however, she struggled with doubts, mired in what some call the Passion of Christ--that moment on the cross when Christ cried, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" She felt abandoned by God, undeserving and unloved, and she still managed to live her entire life for the poor, the sick, and the dying. That kind of faith is staggering to the average American agnostic (a.k.a. me).

The book has been hailed by the religious community as an example of true faith to bolster the masses who also might have moments of doubt:

"[Rev. James] Martin of [the Jesuit magazine] America, a much more liberal institution, calls the book 'a new ministry for Mother Teresa, a written ministry of her interior life,' and says, 'It may be remembered as just as important as her ministry to the poor. It would be a ministry to people who had experienced some doubt, some absence of God in their lives. And you know who that is? Everybody. Atheists, doubters, seekers, believers, everyone.'" [1]
The atheist community has, of course, a different take on the book that I'm not entirely interested in discussing because it's so very simplistic--Mother Teresa didn't feel God's love because there is no God to be felt. (Slightly off-topic, I'm coming to believe that atheism is an easy out; cold hard facts are easy to believe in. Faith, on the other hand, is and should be difficult--hence my attraction to this book.)

The letters themselves are beautiful and fascinating. Though she was Albanian by birth, most of the later letters are written in English and have an almost-poetic feel to them, emphasized by her habitual use of a dash as punctuation which often serves to create a rhythmic flow. Read this excerpt and tell me it's not lush:

Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The Child of your Love — and now become as the most hated one — the one — You have thrown away as unwanted — unloved. I call, I cling, I want — and there is no One to answer — no One on Whom I can cling — no, No One. — Alone ... Where is my Faith — even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness — My God — how painful is this unknown pain — I have no Faith — I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart — & make me suffer untold agony.
It's an incredibly moving passage, as are many of the letters. I got chills more than once, imagining the pain she was feeling while showing a cheery face to the rest of the world.

Had the book simply been the letters to and from Mother Teresa, I would have no complaints regarding it. No, my problem with the book arises from the editing--or lack thereof. To give Rev. Kolodiejchuk his due, he obviously views Mother Teresa with inimitable respect, serving as he does as a member of her mission. That said, I'm not entirely sure that this is sufficient explanation for the complete lack of critical attention he pays to her letters. He assumes that her letters are 100% true and do not conceal any kind of interior thoughts--he does not read between the lines and usually goes so far as to assume that there is no between the lines. This, of course, is aggravating for a someone who occasionally likes to read books with an eye toward psychological criticism. There are three basic questions associated with this particular method of literary criticism:
One: How are the author’s psychological conflicts revealed in his or her work?
Two: What is an in-depth analysis of the characters if they were real people?
Three: What is the appeal of the work to the readers in relation to their own ability to work out hidden desires and fears? [2]
In my opinion, a posthumous biography that does not dip below the surface of the text and therefore asks none of these questions is a failure. For example, when Mother Teresa is petitioning her spiritual advisors to write to Rome about the Mission of Charity she wants to start, they respond by advising her to forget about the issue until an answer comes from Rome. Instead of obeying those whom she views as God's representatives on earth, however, she chooses to pepper them with letter after letter urging them to try to hurry the decision through to the Pope, despite the fact that neither of her advisors has any real say in whether or not the issue passes. Kolodiejchuk lauds this as an exhibition of her fervor for the cause, while I view it as impatience and general desire for immediate gratification--both of which are unflattering traits for a nun to possess. This is not a bad thing, however--Mother Teresa was human, as are we all, and to expect perfection is unreasonable. To portray her as perfect is an oversight on the part of the editor.

As I read the book, I found myself becoming more and more annoyed with Kolodiejchuk's "commentary," which basically re-states what the letters themselves say, though they occasionally provide historical context. There is absolutely nothing "critical" in his approach to the letters and therefore very little of interest in the majority of the book, which I feel is a disservice to Mother Teresa's very human struggle with faith. While I enjoyed the letters, I cannot in all honesty recommend this book unless it is to someone who wants to read below the surface of the text and draw his or her own conclusions.

Works Cited:

[1] Van Biema, David. "Mother Teresa's Crisis of Faith." Time. 23 August 2007. http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1655415-1,00.html


[2] A Dictionary of Literary and Thematic Terms. Ed. Edward Quinn. Facts on File, Inc. New York: 1999, page 263. Accessed at http://www.northern.edu/benkertl/psychological_criticism.html

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Who The Hell Does Aesop Think He Is?

I recently re-discovered Leo Lionni's prize-winning children's book, Frederick, in which a little mouse warms the hearts of his family in the bitter winter by sharing with them the "colors" he gathered in the summer. While the rest of the mice spend all summer preparing for the winter, Frederick basks in the colors of summer and forms them into poetry. Lionni's point, I believe, is that art plays an intrinsic role in a culture--it is the culture, and Frederick's family values the contribution he makes to their survival of the winter.

It's obviously a not-so-subtle point, but it's one that needs to be made. The book almost stands as an artist's response to Aesop's fable "The Ant and the Grasshopper," which we have all grown up hearing. In fact, the beginning of the two stories closely parallel each other, as evidenced by this version of the tale of the two insects:

"In a field one summer's day a Grasshopper was hopping about, chirping and singing to its heart's content. An Ant passed by, bearing along with great toil an ear of corn he was taking to the nest.

"'Why not come and chat with me,' said the Grasshopper, 'instead of toiling and moiling in that way?"

"'I am helping to lay up food for the winter,' said the Ant, 'and recommend yu to do the same.'

"'Why bother about winter?' said the Grasshopper; 'we have got plenty of food at present.'

"But the Ant went on its way and
continued its toil. When the winter same the Gsshopper had no food and found itself dying of hunger, while it saw the ants distributing every day corn and grain from the stores they had collected in the summer. Then the Grasshopper knew:

"It is best to prepare for the days of necessity."
Had Frederick's family been a little more cold-blooded, they, too, would have booted Frederick out in the winter because he hadn't helped to gather the food. Instead, they shared the bounty with him and in turn reaped the benefits of his "lazing about": the poetry that invoked the colors of summer and warmed their hearts in the cold of winter. Another way to look at Aesop's story is this: all summer long, the ants worked hard, listening to the beautiful music the grasshopper made while "chirping and singing." Everyone knows that work goes quicker when accompanied by music--hence the popularity of sea shanties and other work songs.

The problem, then, is that while the ants survive the long, cold winter, their music does not, as the grasshopper obviously starves and freezes to death. All winter, the ants will huddle in their dens with only the silence of the snow above to comfort with. The next summer, when they are industriously stocking food for the coming winter, their work will not be eased by the strains of the grasshopper's song. There will be no pleasure to be found in their work.

If anything, one might say that Aesop's tale of a utilitarian commune is an attack on art and music, while Leo Lionni's tale of the little poet mouse is a defense of it. While we all know hard work in the form of manual labor is necessary to physically survive, hard work in the form of art, literature, and music is necessary to spiritually and emotionally survive. The cold-hearted ants effectively killed the possiblity of culture in their world and there will be no songs lauding their efforts and survival. Nothing of meaning will emerge from their work, as only art can last beyond the death of the generation.

What is really galling about all of this, however, is that Aesop was a fabalist, a writer, a spinner of tales--essentially, an artist. He was not industriously tilling fields in preparation for the hard winter. He was telling stories and being paid to do so, and it was only because his stories resonated so well with the ancient world that he is remembered today. Though we know little about his life, we know that Socrates transcribed some of his stories, as did other figures in Ancient Greece. How does a writer, a sage, a philosopher, get off telling us that only those who work in the most obvious sense deserve to survive the winter? Read this little tidbit about his life:
"he subsequently lived at the court of Croesus, where he met Solon, and dined in the company of the Seven Sages of Greece with Periander at Corinth. During the reign of Peisistratus he is said to have visited Athens, on which occasion he related the fable of The Frogs asking for a King, to dissuade the citizens from attempting to exchange Peisistratus for another ruler." [1]
It was through his stories that he made a difference in the world--he was an advisor to kings, and he related to them by telling them stories. This is why his criticism of the grasshopper never has and never will make sense to me.

Who the hell does Aesop think he is?

Work Cited:

[1] "Aesop Biography." Biography Base. Accessed on 20 Nov. 2008. http://www.biographybase.com/biography/Aesop.html.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Room For Our Own

As some of you may or may not know, I've had a rather eventful month, and most of the excitement in my life has resulted from those with whom I've been living. Living for more than a year with two people who share a love/hate relationship is bound to be tiring, especially when you're the go-to girl for each of them to vent. I've been relegated to living in a single bedroom, having not been comfortable extending "my" territory beyond the door of my little room. In recent weeks, I've even felt insecure in my cramped haven, knowing that the privacy I crave and once thought I had established is a sham, a fraud--and there is nothing I can do to change it.

Nothing, that is, until November 15th, when I will officially begin moving into my own apartment. I've been dreaming of this day for quite some time--it's been my nightly fantasy for it for at least eight months, and now that it's upon me I can hardly wait. It's in a classic building in Capitol Hill, has hardwood floors, arched doorways, and more storage than I have stuff. All in all, it's an unhappy roommate's wet dream come true.

The reason I bring this up, however, is not to explain the lapse in my posts, though your very enthusiastic requests for more were nicer than you can possibly imagine. The reason I bring this up is that it merely re-affirms what women have long known to be true and what Virginia Woolf established so clearly and so firmly in her extended essay, "A Room of One's Own."

And with that awkward segue, let me continue. Though the recent presidential election has shown the world that Americans are ready for "change" (whatever that may mean to each person), the state initiatives and constitutional amendments passed around the country left something to be desired. The controversial passage of Proposition 8 in California, for example, added a constitional amendment that stripped gays and lesbians of their rights to be married because the majority of Californians voted to do so, though many did not understand what was truly at stake in the election. According to the LA Times, though the proponents of Propostion 8 had little to gain financially from the passage of the amendment, they "cite religious beliefs, and Mormons have emerged as the largest source of money to the Yes-on-8 effort, contributing about 40% of its war chest, according to the campaign. Church leaders have urged members to contribute." [2] This faith-against-rights face-off has been ongoing throughout history and has been applied to all minorities at one point or another; to those of us who don't have moral objections to gay marriage, the passage of the amendment seems bigoted and close-minded.

Interestingly enough, by studying the history the civil rights movement and the history of women's rights, we can clearly see the path that the current struggle will take. For example, a friend of mine who happens to be German and is a graduate student in literature recently told his teacher that "feminist literature" held little interest for him. She, in turn, coolly responded, "That was an incredibly stupid thing to say. If you aren't interested in the history of the rights of women, I suppose you aren't interested in the history of racism, either. Roughly how many Jews were killed in the Holocaust?" Believing in equal rights for all virtually necessitates interest in the Suffragist movement and in Civil Rights, if only because we have been down this path before and it is only the knowledge of those struggles that can lead the way.

Consider this argument against the "gay agenda": "'The homosexual activist movement, which has achieved virtually every goal and objective it set out to accomplish more than 50 years ago, is poised to administer a devastating and potentially fatal blow to the traditional family,' Focus [on the Family] founder James Dobson wrote in 2003." [2] While this argument might seem justified to those in the Mormon Church, the rest of us wonder how the "traditional family" (whatever that is) will even be affected by gay marriage. Remember, the same argument was once applied to bi-racial marriages and was shot down by the California Supreme Court in 1948 when it stated, "Marriage is thus something more than a civil contract subject to regulation by the state; it is a fundamental right of free men. " [3] These arguments against the rights of others are not new or original, and we can take comfort in the fact that they will not be effective in the long term.

What does this have to do with Virginia Woolf, you ask? By reading "A Room of One's Own" with the idea of civil rights for all, regardless of gender, race, or sexual orientation, we can clearly see where these discriminatory attitudes stem from. For example, Woolf wonders why some people feel compelled to force others into a role of subjugatio, and she finally decides that,

"Without self–confidence we are as babes in the cradle. And how can we generate this imponderable quality, which is yet so invaluable, most quickly? By thinking that other people are inferior to one self. By feeling that one has some innate superiority—it may be wealth, or rank, a straight nose, or the portrait of a grandfather by Romney—for there is no end to the pathetic devices of the human imagination—over other people. Hence the enormous importance to a patriarch who has to conquer, who has to rule, of feeling that great numbers of people, half the human race indeed, are by nature inferior to himself. It must indeed be one of the chief sources of his power. " [1]

Therefore, though gay marriage would have little-to-no impact on straight marriage, there are those who feel threatened by its very possibility simply because they must feel others are inferior to have any self-confidence. Each person who donated money to the Yes-on-8 cause cannot fathom gays being "equal" because his or her identity is based on the idea of being superior to all those whom the Bible classifies as sinners, i.e. gays, non-believers, etc. I'll admit that those of us who do not feel this bone-deep drive for superiority over the "gay agenda" instead feel superior to those who do, and our self-confidence is dependent on classifying them as closeted, close-minded assholes.

Let me give another example. On November 5th, the day after Senator Obama was elected the next President of the United States, a woman called into C-SPAN and said, "I'm a Democrat who voted for McCain because I think these people are treating whites badly and I've never been anything but polite to them. They're discriminating against us, and that's wrong." My aunt, upon hearing this, said, "Wow, that's mighty white of you," and we both laughed because the woman was so obviously racist while protesting that she is anything but.

Viriginia Woolf explains this tendency thusly: "if [the "other"] begins to tell the truth, the figure in the looking–glass shrinks; his fitness for life is diminished. How is he to go on giving judgement, civilizing natives, making laws, writing books, dressing up and speechifying at banquets, unless he can see himself at breakfast and at dinner at least twice the size he really is?" [1] The woman who called in to C-SPAN feels she is superior to "these people" and gets personal satisfaction from being polite to them from her position of power, but the second one of "these people" might gain power over her, she feels threatened and lashes out, voting against her own party in the hopes that she will maintain her position of superiority. My aunt and I, on the other hand, despised the woman for what she said and gained our own sense of superiority from her idiotic statement.

While those of us deplore everything Proposition 8 stands for, including those who voted for it, we would do well to keep in mind what Virginia Woolf says about groups of people:

"Great bodies of people are never responsible for what they do. They are driven by instincts which are not within their control. They too, the patriarchs, the professors, had endless difficulties, terrible drawbacks to contend with. Their education had been in some ways as faulty as my own. It had bred in them defects as great. True, they had money and power, but only at the cost of harbouring in their breasts an eagle, a vulture, for ever tearing the liver out and plucking at the lungs—the instinct for possession, the rage for acquisition which drives them to desire other people’s fields and goods perpetually; to make frontiers and flags; battleships and poison gas; to offer up their own lives and their children’s lives." [1]

While the religious Right convinced many that Proposition 8 was dangerous, they did it only by spreading propaganda and lies on the airwaves, by frightening the ignorant and prejudiced masses. Can the masses be held responsibly for fearing a group they know nothing about other than that homosexuality is "contagious" and "dangerous"? I would say so, but some might disagree. Regardless, protesting is effective to a certain extent, in that it brings attention to the issue, but education, compassion, and respect on the part of the public are the only things that will set this to rights. Though I have no doubt that justice will eventually be reached, it will be a long, uphill battle all the way, as nothing is more contagious and dangerous than ignorance.

Works Cited:


[1] Woolf, Virginia. "A Room of One's Own." http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/woolf/virginia/w91r/chapter1.html


[2] Morian, Dan and Jessica Garrison. "Proposition 8 proponents and foes raise $60 million." LA Times. 25 October, 2008. http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-marriagemoney25-2008oct25,0,2856145.story

[3] Perez v. Sharp. The Supreme Court of California. 1 October, 1948. Accessed at http://lmaw.org/freedom/docs/CA-Perez.pdf.

A Man of Thought and Action

Though I have in the past, and probably will again in the future, wax on about Senator Obama's brilliant use of language, I believe that it is worth re-visiting today. Take, for example, President-Elect Obama's victory speech from Tuesday night. Though he didn't say anything remarkably different from his campaign speeches, his poetic use of Ann Nixon Cooper's life story brought me to tears more than once in his "We Didn't Start The Fire"-esque retracing the 20th century:

"She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn't vote for two reasons -- because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.

"And tonight, I think about all that she's seen throughout her century in America -- the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told that we can't, and the people who pressed on with that
American creed: Yes we can.

"At a time when women's voices were silenced and their hopes dismissed, she lived to see them stand up and speak out and reach for the ballot. Yes we can.

"When there was despair in the dust bowl and depression across the land, she saw a nation conquer fear itself with a New Deal, new jobs, a new sense of common purpose. Yes we can.

"When the bombs fell on our harbor and tyranny threatened the world, she was there to witness a generation rise to greatness and a democracy was saved. Yes we can.

"She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that 'We Shall Overcome.' Yes we can.

"A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change. Yes we can.

"America, we have come so far. We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do. So tonight, let us ask ourselves -- if our children should live to see the next century; if my daughters should be so lucky to live as long as Ann Nixon Cooper, what change will they see? What progress will we have made? This is our chance to answer that call. This is our moment."
[1]

I don't care what your political views are, that beautiful speech should have made you proud and weepy if you weren't already. And while some people have argued that "you campaign with poetry, but you govern with prose," the poetry doesn't hurt one bit. [2]

You can bet your ass that I'm not the only one who feels that way, either. Though much attention was focused on Oprah Winfrey's endorsement of Obama earlier this year, I believe it was equally noteworthy that one of the greatest American writers of our time, Toni Morrison, a friend of the Clintons, endorsed Obama, as well, writing, "In thinking carefully about the strengths of the candidates, I stunned myself when I came to the following conclusion: that in addition to keen intelligence, integrity and a rare authenticity, you exhibit something that has nothing to do with age, experience, race or gender and something I don't see in other candidates. That something is a creative imagination which coupled with brilliance equals wisdom." [4] There has been little conversation of wisdom in politics over the last eight years as America played a harrowing game of chicken with the world entitled, "You're Either With Us Or Against Us."

In fact, if anything, the attributes that add up to wisdom (intelligence, education, and compassion) have been dismissed as unnecessary. We all know that Obama has often been labeled as an academic and elitist; Karl Rove famously tried to play up this perception of Obama months ago, saying, "He's the guy at the country club with the beautiful date, holding a martini and a cigarette that stands against the wall and makes snide comments about everyone who passes by." [5] My question, however, is this: when did intelligence, education, and culture become a bad thing? In an age overrun with Bushisms, I wonder when it became a bad thing to respect the leader of the Free World.

Others have felt the same way over the past eight years. Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Everything is Illuminated, says, "Until now, my identity as a writer has never overlapped with my identity as an American — in the past eight years, my writing has often felt like an antidote or correction to my Americanism."[3] It is undeniable that ours has been a culture that has stifled creativity and free thought, the threats of the No Fly List and Government Wiretapping Program lurking if anyone should get too radical in his or her thought. Author Rick Moody argues, "'But I think the larger issue is cultural. There's a trickle down from the top in the way art exists inside and outside of the culture as a whole. Here in the USA, you could feel in the Bush years how little regard there was for it. People who disliked art, literature, dance, fine arts, they had a lot of cover for this antipathy.'" [3]

In our President-Elect, however, we find a man who embraces culture--a writer, a reader, and a thinker. The much-debated photograph of President-Elect Obama (am I the only one who loves saying that?) carrying a book called The Post-American World (see right) gives me hope. [6] This is not a man who takes the path before him at the expense of acknowledng all other paths. Instead, I see a man who is thoughtful, who is in touch not only with the working class but with the thinking class as well. I see a man who I am not afraid to follow, because I know that he will pick the best path available instead of picking the one he is already on.

Works Cited:

[1] "Transcript: 'This is your victory,' says Obama." CNNPolitics. com. http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/11/04/obama.transcript/index.html

[2] "HRC on the Offensive." Huffington Post. 6 January 2008.
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/01/06/hrc-on-the-offensive-yo_n_80059.html

[3] Italie, Hillel. "Writers welcome a literary president-elect." AP. 6 November 2008. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/n/a/2008/11/06/entertainment/e042527S30.DTL

[4] "Toni Morrison's Letter to Barack Obama." The New York Observer. 28 January 2008. http://www.observer.com/2008/toni-morrisons-letter-barack-obama

[5] "Rove: Obama is that Country Club Guy." Swamp Politics. 23 June 2008. http://www.swamppolitics.com/news/politics/blog/2008/06/rove_obama_is_that_country_clu.html

[6] "What Does Obama Read?" Snopes. 10 October 2008. http://www.snopes.com/politics/obama/postamerican.asp

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