Apocalypse One More Time

Here is a piece by Harold Bloom about what’s wrong with America. He ends the piece with a scary quote: “In September, the US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice was quoted as saying at Zion Church in Whistler, Alabama: ‘The Lord Jesus Christ is going to come on time if we just wait.'”

I hope everyone will pay more attention to the apocalyptic overtones coming from our backwards-assed right-wing administration in D.C.

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The Spiral Staircase

I’ve been reading Karen Armstrong’s The Spiral Staircase, and have found it absorbing. It’s the second book by Armstrong that I’ve read, the first being Buddha, and I so far I find myself feeling a strong connection to Armstrong, of course, not because I was in a religious order: I feel the connection because religion and faith always seem a part of my life–if there are constants in it, religion is high on the list–and yet I feel no connection to God or faith at all. Even as a child, I didn’t feel this connection, no sense at all that God was a presence in my life or looked after my well being (if there is a God, and that God has been looking after me, he’s been pretty cruddy); and yet I’ve yearned for an understanding, for a real answer as to whether that God is real or not. (And no Bible quotes from anyone commenting on this blog entry, especially from fundies–you’re a big problem in my loss of faith, and not a solution; if there is a God, he ought to smite you.)

God’s general cruddy behavior toward me–it’s a big issue. As Armstrong progresses in her autobiography, she finds herself helping take care of an austistic child, Jacob, and at one point she suddenly has to face Jacob having an epileptic seizure: “It seemed unfair. Jacob had only recently started to have seizures. Did he not have enough to deal with? I wanted to blame somebody, and God was the obvious target, but somehow I could not get into this. Did I really believe that there was a Being up there somehow responsible for everything that happens on earth, including Jacob’s disabilities? No, I did not. Not only did it seem highly unlikely that there was an overseeing deity, supervising earthly events, apportioning trials and rewards according to some inscrutable program of his own, but the idea was also grotesque. If there was a loving providence, it bore no relation to any kind of love that I could conceive.”

There’s the rub: An “overseeing deity…apportioning trials and rewards according to some inscrutable program of his own….”–that’s the bit that gets me. If I’ve felt any sense of connection to God, it’s only through trials, with few rewards (if any), that I seem to experience God, this supposing loving God, who has puzzled me for most of my life. In adolescence, for instance, I yearned to have sex, was aroused as naturally and normally as any teenaged boy, and yet God said it was wrong to fornicate, and in one extreme Jesus suggests self-mutilation for simply thinking about something sinful. And then to discover a love object and get rejected by that person, and fear asking her out, and feel a sense that God is punishing you for even desiring her–the virginal one who follows Him and seems always rewarded by Him–and that combination becomes self-hatred and bewilderment that in some way lasts a lifetime. And this is divine love? How can I love a God, or conceive of such a Being who has created such a torment of trials?

Bewilderment with the secular world is another connection I find reading Armstrong, especially her sense of lack of self confidence. In the sixties, after she left convent life, and while at Oxford University, she saw students all around her who had such confidence in themselves, where she hardly had a sense of self, of who she was or what she could make of herself. (So far, as I read, she has come to the point in which she is trying to destroy that sense of self through annorexia.) To this day, I experience a sense of bewilderment, even as I try to pour myself deeper into the secular world, to understand it, I can’t seem to find my place in it. I see and hear and read writers in their 20s and 30s–my contemporaries–and what do they have that I don’t? I seem to have an innate ability to write. Armstrong sought to become a scholar; and yet somehow, despite getting her doctorate, is at first rejected–the Oxford dons can’t imagine her as a prof within the groves of academe, nor can she imagine herself there. I try so hard at writing and so far I feel rejected. My own alma mater rejected me last year in its creative writing program. I must have some kind of talent, some ability with words. What makes me different from my contemporaries? One thing I see: Religion seems inconsequential in their lives, even if they are believers. Has religion stunted me? Can I see beyond God and find myself and write?

Same Old Story, Same Old Song and Dance?

The New York Press recently published a story by Sam Sacks about the debate over MFA programs in creative writing, an old and perhaps unresovable argument, about the quality of today’s literary output and its effects on publishing as well as on writing itself.

At first when I started to read this piece, I thought I was going to hear the same arguments that critic John Aldridge made in Talents and Technicians more than a decade ago. Aldridge took a No-Sale tone slicing and dicing not only MFA programs, but also heralded writers such as Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver and Anne Tyler. Sacks, reviewing the collection The Best New American Voices 2006, takes up a similar tone: “…the stories included are so monotonous that they seem to have been written by a single person of middling talent….the plot and action are always neglible…the things the characters do are always mundane and largely to their psychological conflicts…From time to time a structural innovation appears to offer an interesting novelty, but under the packaging the same old formula is always to be found.”

The spin on this piece, though, is that Sacks himself attended an MFA program–at the University of Arizona–unlike Aldridge, who is mainly a critic, although he published a bad novel. Sacks is hardly a cheerleader like Tom Grimes (the director of the MFA program at Texas State University in San Marcos) or Madison Smartt Bell, who in their respective books acknowledge that workshops can teach the craft and technique of writing and not the art of it. Sacks doesn’t make a full on assault against MFA programs, but targets some of their weakenesses: lack of intimacy in classes even with small groups, profs whose only credentials may be the publication of one book or even a few stories, the development of rules and doctrine–a basic formulaic approach to the short story.

To me, this formulaic approach is the most troubling aspect. Many critics complain about the homogenous “workshop” style that produces bland fiction with a bland voice. A legitimate criticism that can be deflated by workshop graduates who happen to be great stylists like T.C. Boyle or Denis Johnson. And as a writer, who has been interested in getting an MFA and has even applied but so far been rejected, I’ve read fiction by MFA teachers and grads–Grimes, for instance, or other Texas State grads like Scott Blackwood (who published an excellent story collection In the Shadow of Our House) or Ray Robertson and have seen a potential for good talent. Their prose is rhythmic and economical and I feel one of my weaknesses as a writer is choppiness. (The sound of language and sentences has been an obsession since reading Hemingway’s breathless use of the coordinating conjunction “and”.) I feel an MFA might strengthen my actual prose and, indeed, help me with the essences of craft. Anyhow, back to formula. In effect, there’s nothing wrong with formula. Some great literary works follow formulas and structures–dramas in five acts, stories with exposition, rising action, climax and denoument. But Sacks elaborates upon the formulaic structure taught in MFA programs, and that formula follows writers out into the real world of writing and publishing and short stories are often published by small academic presses and literary magazines–the small magazines that are often staffed by those holding MFAs. And here is the kicker for me–I submit a short story I’ve written to such a journal. Is it rejected because I don’t have three letters behind my name (I do have an MA in English)? is it read and the MFA editor doesn’t recognize the story formula? or is it just that I’m a no-talent hack and should give up fiction altogether? Sacks opens up these questions because the MFA does give you a network of editors and publishers and opportunities; it becomes a signal of credential.

And yet, some really good novels that I’ve read lately–Wesley Stace’s Misfortune for example– break rules such as the quintessential “Show don’t tell” and yet provide fascinating characters and above all great stories. Misfortune is Stace’s first novel, and while he may have had some connections to the publishing world through his career as a musician, the novel itself is a surprise–a first novel running at over 500 pages–and a rulebreaker. Is such a book an exception to the MFA world and its affect on publishing? on writing itself? Let’s hope not, or talents may be missed simply because they don’t fit a particular style.

Apocalypse Now, or The End of Ambiguity

This weekend I glanced through the book Assassin’s Gate by George Packer about the Iraq war, and one word stood out as I skimmed pages–apocalyptic, a word that has come to mean not revelation itself, but an end of time itself. At the same time this weekend, while waiting to go to a Christmas party with B, and flipping channels, I caught on the History Channel a show about the Apocalypse, the Revelation of St. John the Divine–the revelation (a hallucination?) of the end of the world as Christians know it, and the supposedly hopeful revelation of Jesus’ Second Coming. Having been raised in a somewhat evangelical household as well as community, Revelation sometimes got woven not only into church sermons, but also into everyday conversations (a coach objecting to the word “Beast” blaring across a t-shirt; a TV show on long before that hideous Left Behind series of novels in which people vanish during the Rapture), and has long since been a serious questioning point in my own loss of faith.

In the History Channel program, a Christian scholar points out one of the most troubling aspects of the New Testament’s end time narrative: the absolute triumph of absolute good over absolute evil; the scholar saw such a triumph as not necessarily good, or even hopeful. As I listened, and thought, what was this violent hallucination all about–a final solution: Let’s rid the Universe of what God (a supposedly supreme being capable of perfect good and perfect love, though often full of wrath and vanity) deems Evil. If you’re with us (believers; good) you wallow in Heavenly bliss; if you’re against us (nonbelievers;evil) you’re eternally scorched in Hell’s fiery pits, never to be seen again. A final solution.

Adolf Hitler had a final solution: eradicate the Jews, eradicate all the impure, and let the great Aryan Master Race march in final triumph, in final world domination; and yet Hitler is the embodiment of evil in the 20th century. His was an apocalyptic vision, a vision organized by fascism. The Fuehrer was supreme. You were either with him or against him. Sound familiar? Is this the vision of our current president and his cronies, men such as Donald Rumsfeld mentioned in Assassin’s Gate as being one of many “apocalyptic” visionaries of the Iraq war.

In Romania, Condoleeza Rice has been trying to quiet European criticism of the U.S.’s practice in pursuing terrorists. Are you against us? And earlier, in Fort Drum, New York, addressing troops, Dick Cheney said a sudden withdrawal from Iraq would be dangerous. Who’s against us, telling us to withdraw? Are we as a nation slowly edging toward these people’s apocalyptic vision of some final triumph of good over evil? A theocratically-driven totalinarianism no worse than that of the regimes we’re facing down in the Middle East? Bush’s thoughts are informed by the same evangelicalism that moves Pat Robertson to call for the assassination of the Venezuelan president, an evangelicalism informed by the triumphal march of good over evil in Revelation, a position in which ambiguities do not exist: The shades of gray most people have to deal with no longer exist in such a worldview. In this worldview you are either with us or against us. Victory or Death.

The Language of War

This morning as I was driving into work, I caught a piece on NPR, an interview with an Arab (Palestinian) journalist who had been covering the war in Iraq, and had written a book about the war. The topic turned to insurgency. With this particular journalist, it was scary to hear that American forces in the early stages of the war were passing houses full of insurgents, who at the time weren’t firing upon them. But this journalist also noted the distinctions and factions that made up the insurgents: Some, for instance, were loyalists to Saddam Hussein, others were Islamists wanting neither Saddam nor Americans in Iraq.

Another Arab journalist brought up terminology: When this journalist wrote, he used “resistance fighters”, explaining that in Arabic the term had nuances that weren’t there in English. “Resistance fighter” is a term that you won’t likely hear in the Western press. Our preferred term is “insurgent,” which is vague, inoffensive. Dubya and Rummy have gone so far as to say that “insurgent” is hardly a good descripitive term. One term Dubya suggested was “Saddamist.” It made me think connotatively–Sodomist, Sodomites. Words, of course, that have connotations of sin, particularly for those of the religious ilk of someone like Dubya.

But, this whole name thing made me also think of a discussion I once read about the terms “rebel” and “revolutionary”; if you lose the revolution, you’re a rebel, just as Johnny Reb is still a rebel 140 years after the American Civil War. The question of course in Iraq: Are the insurgents rebels or revolutionaries? What are we? Though this is cliche: History often does get written by the victors. But we aren’t victors, are we? We’ve toppled one government, but have yet to make anything new. And was democracy what the Iraqi people wanted? Are we colonizers? Are we just “policing” as we did in Vietnam? Are the insurgents rebels, revoluntionaries, or resistance fighters? What are they rebelling against? What do they want to change Saddam Hussein’s reign into? What are they resisting, besides American/Western occupation? Perhaps that is what the Middle East itself has wanted–to resist the influence of the West, the insurgence of the West on a way of life. Except the money and power oil brings. Feed the Beast, but fight it off.

So much murkiness with this war, with Dubya’s crusade to rid the world of all ill, of all evil, by commiting Americans and the West to a worldwide state of perpetual war. “War is peace,” said Big Brother in Orwell’s 1984. And in that novel language came to mean what the state said it meant. Not unlike where we are now. Are we fighting Saddamists? sodomites? terrorists? rebels? revolutionaries? or insurgents? Perhaps that’s the troubling aspect of any war: Why do we fight? Hemingway made it clear in A Farewell to Arms that men went to war for abstractions such as courage and honor. The narrator Frederick Henry realizes what bullshit those terms are, and he leaves the battlefield. Still, we fight. We (humanity) fight over words and words become bullets and planes crashed into towers. All in the language of war.