Monday, July 18, 2016

I Read Dead People

I bought this bumper sticker at Powell's bookstore. While I enjoy being amused and, more often, disturbed by other people's, I don't do bumper stickers on my car, so I will place this one on my office door.

It seems a good reminder these days as the news gets worse and worse. Almost every day brings word of another act of terrorism or violence.

Every other Facebook post asks me to give in to fear.

My conservative friends think the answer is more law and order and respect for authority.

My progressive friends think the answer is more honest discussion about the deep racial and economic divisions in our country.

It's so stressful, and it's so easy to allow myself to get sucked into the anxiety and negativity and hopelessness. It's easy to become obsessed with what's happening now.

It's at times like these it helps me to read dead people.

Here's a few of the things I mean by reading dead people--and a few reasons I think it's healthy to do so:

By reading dead people I acknowledge that this has all happened before.
C. S Lewis recognized an important tendency in Western society. He called it chronological snobbery and said it was the tendency to believe that our contemporary culture is unique and superior to all the cultures of the past. In technology, it leads to a preference for the latest device. In literature, it leads to a preference for the latest author and to a discounting of dead authors, which Lewis saw as an incalculable loss.

By reading dead people I acknowledge the many ways the authors of the past continue to influence me today.
T. S. Eliot, in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," noted how no contemporary author writes without the influence, either conscious or unconscious, of past writers. No poet can write without the shadow of Chaucer and Shakespeare and Dickinson over her. While this awareness can create anxiety for writers ("How can I ever write anything as good as Sonnet 30?"), it also fosters the humility necessary for creating great art. We are, in a sense, only able to write what we write today because of our literary forefathers and foremothers. Or as the Bible puts it: "you drink from wells you did not dig."

By reading dead people I may just discover wisdom I can use today.
Here's a little story about how reading literature works in mysterious ways.

A few months ago, I joined a book discussion at my church about Christian Wiman's My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. You can check it out here.

Wiman mentions that one of the authors who's been most helpful to him in matters of faith is Fanny Howe, in particular her novel Indivisible. Well, I'd never heard of either Howe or her novel but decided to make a mental note and read Howe's novel later in the summer.

Making a mental note was not a good idea since I promptly forgot about it (see reading too many FB posts, above). Then I was in Powell's the other day looking for something else and, miraculously, the Howe reference came back to me--not as Howe but as "that author that Wiman, I think, referred to in that book." So I found Wiman's memoir on the shelf at Powell's, found the passage where he referred to Howe's novel, and went to look for it. (Technologically savvy readers, please don't judge the fact that I'm not doing this search online.)

As fate, or the literary gods, would have it, Powells didn't carry the novel, but they did have a book of essays by Fanny Howe, The Winter Sun: Notes on Vocation, at a reasonable price--so I bought it. You can check it out here.

In one of Howe's essays, she tells the story of Jacques Lusseyran, a Frenchman I'd never heard of whose life story, And There Was Light, was translated by Elizabeth R. Cameron in 1963. You would do well to read Howe's account for yourself, but here's some highlights:

Lusseyran was born in Paris in 1924. As a child he was fascinated by light, but at the age of eight, a minor accident at school rendered him totally blind. Lusseyran was not deterred. He learned Braille in six weeks and rejoined his friends at school. Neither did he let his blindness eliminate his appreciation for light. Howe writes:

The first thing he discovered, soon after his accident, was that there was a source of light that was not the sun; it hid within his body; he was flooded by it and because of it, he felt the presence of others and objects through their colors.

Soon the Nazis occupied France, and he and his friends decided to form a resistance group made up of students. The group grew and thrived until they were betrayed to the Gestapo by an infiltrator. Lusseyran was beaten but refused to name names or cooperate. In July 1943 he was sent to Buchenwald.

In spite of this turn of events. he did not despair. Howe notes:

He formed friendships, became a leader in the French Resistance inside the camps through translation and the transmission of overheard news reports in German to other prisoners. In January 1944, there were sixty thousand prisoners at Buchenwald. Six months later there were ten thousand.

Now for the wisdom I gained from reading Lusseyran's story:

Near the end of his horrifying account, he tells readers how to get through torture, through imprisonment. There are three things to remember: 'The first of these is that joy does not come from outside for whatever happens to us it is within. The second truth is that light does not come to us from without. Light is in us, even if we have no eyes.' The third is friendship. If you can form close human attachments to those around you you have the possibility of surviving as a human being.

Aren't those three things to remember amazing? And this also amazes:

I would never have heard those three things in just that way had a blind man from France not endured the experiences he did and had he not written them down.

I would never have learned Lusseyran's incredible story had I not read Fanny Howe's book of essays.

I would never have read Fanny Howe's book of essays had I not read Christian Wiman's meditation about his bout with cancer and his struggle to find faith as a poet.

I would never had encountered any of these ideas had I not read dead people.

But since I did and do read dead people, with my newfound wisdom, I may be able to survive another day of FB posts.

I may even be able to survive the Republican and Democratic conventions--at least with Stephen Colbert's help, who, I'm pretty sure, also reads dead people.

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