Gilead, Part 4, The Human Face

Part 3, The Human Face

They say an infant can’t see when it is as young as your sister was, but she opened her eyes, and she looked at me. She was such a little bit of a thing. But while I was holding her, she opened her eyes. I know she didn’t really study my face. Memory can make a thing seem to have been much more than it was. But I know she did look right into my eyes. That is something. And I’m glad I knew it at the time, because now, in my present situation, I realize that there is nothing more astonishing than a human face. Boughton and I have talked about that, too. It has something to do with incarnation. You feel your obligation to a child when you have seen it and held it. Any human face is a claim on you, because you can’t help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it. But this is the truest of the face of an infant. I consider that to be one kind of vision, as mystical as any. Boughton agrees.

(pp. 65-66)

Gilead, Part 3, Existence

Part 3, Existence

There’s a shimmer on a child’s hair, in the sunlight. There are rainbow colors in it, tiny, soft beams of just the same colors you can see in the dew sometimes. They’re in the petals of flowers, and they’re on a child’s skin. Your hair is straight and dark, and your skin is very fair. I suppose you’re not prettier than most children. You’re just a nice-looking boy, a bit slight, well scrubbed and well mannered. All that is fine, but it’s your existence I love you for, mainly. Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined. I’m about to put on imperishability. In an instant, in the twinkling of an eye.

(p. 53, emphasis added)

I have been thinking about existence lately. In fact, I have been so full of admiration for existence that I have hardly been able to enjoy it properly. As I was walking up to the church this morning, I passed that row of big oaks by the war memorial – if you remember them – and I thought of another morning, fall a year or two ago, when they were dropping their acorns thick as hail almost. There were all sorts of thrashing in the leaves and there were acorns hitting the pavement so hard they’d fly past my head. All this in the dark, of course. I remember a slice of moon, no more than that. It was a very clear night, or morning, very still, and then there was such energy in the things transpiring among those trees, like a storm, like travail. I stood there a little out of range, and I thought, It is all still new to me. I have lived my life on the prairie and a line of oak trees can still astonish me.

I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.

(pp. 56-57)

The first excerpt, especially, recalls to my mind a passage from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, of which I have only Books VIII and IX:

…for life is by nature a good thing, and to perceive the good present in oneself is pleasant; and living is a choiceworthy thing, especially to those who are good, because existing is good for them, and pleasant, for in simultaneously perceiving what is good in itself, they feel pleasure. And if as the serious man stands in relation to himself, so he stands also in relation to a friend (for a friend is another [or different] self) – then, just as one’s own existence is choiceworthy to each, so also is the existence of a friend, or nearly so. Existing is, as we saw, a choiceworthy thing because a person’s perception that he is good, and this sort of perception is pleasant on its own account.

(p. 205)

The first passage I quoted also reminds me of a scene from one of my favorite movies of all time, Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Ash has always struggled with finding approval from his father, Mr. Fox, who seems to love Ash’s cousin even more than him. Yet, nearing the end of the movie, Ash and Mr. Fox have a conversation:

MR. FOX: The whole time I was putting paw over paw with your mother digging beside me [i.e. digging their foxhole], and I thought to myself, I wonder who this little boy…

ASH: Or girl!

MR. FOX: Right, ’cause at the time we didn’t know. I wonder who this little boy or girl is gonna be? Ash, I’m so glad he was you.

Gilead, Part 2, Baptism and Blessing

Part 2, Baptism and Blessing

I still remember how those warm little brows felt under the palm of my hand. Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing. It stays in the mind. For years we would wonder what, from a cosmic viewpoint, we had done to them. It still seems to me to be a real question. There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be, primarily. It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that. I have felt it pass through me, so to speak. The sensation is of really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time.

(p. 23)

That mention of Feuerbach and joy reminded me of something I saw early one morning a few years ago, as I was walking up to the church. There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me. The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her hair and her dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t. It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth. I don’t know why I thought of that now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash. I wish I had paid more attention to it. My list of regrets may seem unusual, but who can know that they are, really. This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.

(p. 27-8)

Christian Wiman, Once in the West, Sungone Noon, We Lived

CT ct-prj-christian-wiman06.jpg

Currently, I am reading a book of poems written by contemporary poet Christian Wiman. He has titled the collection, Once in the West. This is my first real experience with contemporary poetry, and I am glad I have entrusted myself to Wiman. The book of poems, with the exception of the introductory poem entitle “Prayer,” is separated into three parts: “Sungone Noon,” “My Stop is Grand,” and “More Like the Stars.” I have just finished the first part, and I wish to quote one poem from this group of poems:

We Lived

We lived in the long intolerable called God.

We seemed happy.

I don’t mean content I mean heroin happy

donkey dentures,

I mean drycleaned deacons expunging suffering

from Calcutta with the cut of their jaws

I mean the always alto and surely anusless angels

divvying up the deviled eggs and jello salad in the after-rapture

I mean

to be mean.

Dear Lord forgive the love I have

for you and your fervent servants.

I have so long sojourned Lord

among the mild ironies and tolerable gods

that what comes first to mind

when I’m of a mind to witness

is muriatic acid

eating through the veins

of one whose pains were so great

she wanted only out, Lord, out.

She too worshipped you

She too popped her little pill of soul.

Lord if I implore you please just please leave me alone

is that a prayer that’s every instant answered?

I remember one Wednesday witness told of a time

his smack-freaked friends lashed him

to the back of a Brahman bull that bucked and shook

until the great bleeding wings the man’s collarbones

exploded out of his skin.

Long pause.

“It was then,” the man said, “right then…”

Yes. And how long before that man-


began his ruinous and (one would guess) Holy Spirit-less affair?

At what point did this poem abandon

even the pretense of prayer?

Imagine a man alive in the long intolerable time

made of nothing but rut and rot,

a wormward gaze

even to his days’ sudden heavens.

There is the suffering existence answers:

it carves from cheeks and choices the faces

we in fact are,

and there is the suffering of primal silence,

which seeps and drifts like a long fog

that when it lifts

leaves nothing

but the same poor sod.

Dear God –

Gilead, Part I, Prayer and Writing

I will be making a record of influential excerpts from Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead. This book is itself a long letter from a father (John Ames) to his son. John Ames is a pastor, a son of a pastor, and a grandson of a pastor.

Part 1, Prayer and Writing:

For me writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn’t writing prayers, as I was often enough. You feel that you are with someone. I feel I am with you now, whatever that can mean, considering that you’re only a little fellow now and when you’re a man you might find these letters of no interest. Or they might never reach you, for any number of reasons. Well, but how deeply I regret any sadness you have suffered and how grateful I am in anticipation of any good you have enjoyed. That is to say, I pray for you. And there’s an intimacy in it. That’s the truth.

(p. 19)

Irving Penn

In preparation for my Senior Thesis Project, I have begun to study the work of great photographers. I began this exploration by looking into the photographs of Irving Penn, a 20th Century photographer, mainly famous for working for Vogue Magazine.

I just finished looking through a book of Penn’s photographs: Beyond Beauty, a collection of Penn’s photographs amassed and organized by Merry A. Forresta. I will of course study his photographs in more detail within the next year-year and a half. But for now, I wanted to select several photographs that stood out to me explain why.

  • Veiled Face (Evelyn Tripp), New York, 1949


[I enjoy this photograph for a few reasons. First, the light source is behind the subject (Evelyn Tripp), relative to the camera. In my opinion, the copy of the picture in the book I purchased (Beyond Beauty), the light source has a greater effect on the subject of the photograph. It is nonetheless captured in this version of the photograph. The invasion of that light gives the photograph an ethereal character, and increases the contrast. Another reason I noted this photo lies in Tripp’s left eye looking toward the onlooker as only her profile is captured. This adds mystery to the composition of the photograph.]

  • Cecil Beaton, London, 1950


[A friend of mine who takes photographs said that portraiture can tell a story like no other form of photography because the human face naturally tells its story (this is not verbatim). I might agree. This is what drew me to this picture of Cecil Beaton (another photographer). Beaton’s countenance and wears invited me to imagine the story behind this man’s life.]

  • Cretan Landscape, 1964


[This photograph communicates to me, above anything else, motion. Capturing motion in a photograph can be difficult, considering that it is in the nature of a photo to be still. Nevertheless, Irving Penn does it so well. Yes, it’s blurry – but that is part of the intrigue. Like literature, music, and other forms of art, what draws me to it is its ability to take me somewhere. this photo does that for me.]

  • Single Oriental Poppy, New York, 1968


[I love this photograph for mainly two reasons. First, this shows Penn’s eye for texture. Texture might be what I seek most in a photograph. Second, Penn creates an increasingly beautiful photograph with a dead poppy – something that might be considered ugly or broken.]

  • Mouth (for L’Oreal), New York, 1986


[This photo, along with previous photo and the following photo, shows Penn’s talent for finding and displaying different textures. Here you see the smooth skin, as well as the short soft hairs of the model’s face. Then you see the painted texture on the lips. The contrast not only displays itself via texture, but also via color. The viewer sees the white-painted face in contrast to the eight or so differing lip cosmetics.]

  • Issey Miyake Fashion: White and Black, New York, 1990


[Lastly, this photo from 1990 combines three of my previous favorite pictures. Like the picture of Evelyn Tripp with the veil, this picture contains a woman with one eye showing. Second, this picture details an interesting texture, as the poppy and the mouth photos – the dress looks both stiff and free-flowing. Third, this motionless photo capture motion magnificently, as in the picture of the Cretan landscape.]

The History of Philosophy

Since I am currently reading The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, I have been thinking about my experience with primary philosophical texts. I would like to record here what I have read, and what most interests me to read soon. I am recording entire texts. I will not consider something like Nicomachean Ethics, since I have only read books 8 and 9. I will include books that some might argue are not “in the realm of Philosophy.” I am claiming, then, that they do belong in the realm of Philosophy.

Books of Philosophy I have read:

  • Classical/Ancient
    • Apology by Plato
    • Crito by Plato
    • Euthyphro by Plato
    • Lysis by Plato
    • Less  by Plato
    • Parmenides by Plato
    • Phaedo by Plato
    • Republic by Plato
    • Theaetetus by Plato
    • Poetics by Aristotle
  • Late Classical/Early Medieval
    • Confessions by Augustine
    • The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius (currently reading)
  • Modern
    • Training in Christianity by Søren Kierkegaard

I am currently reading The Consolation of Philosophy. In the coming semester I will read and translate On the Nature of Things by Lucretius, as well as acquainting myself with the major modern philosophers (most likely Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Leibniz, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant). Yet, these are the books of Philosophy I am most interested in (I am choosing one book of Philosophy for each of the four eras I have identified – there are other works I want to read):

  • Classical/Ancient
    • Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle
  • Late Classical/Early Medieval
    • City of God by Augustine
  • Medieval
    • Summa Theologiae by Thomas Aquinas
  • Modern
    • The Sickness Unto Death by Søren Kierkegaard