Hold It All

Category: World Literature

The Path of Sympathy in a Time of Plague

Tarrou was swinging his leg, tapping he terrace lightly with his heel, as he concluded. After a short silence the doctor raised himself a little in his chair and asked if Tarrou had an idea of the path to follow for attaining peace.  “Yes,” he replied. “The path of sympathy.” Albert Camus, The Plague, 225

 

The best part of Camus’s novel is the theme of commitment.  In a time when there is plague (HIV/AIDS, empire, military occupation, to name three contemporary plagues people suffer from), what options do people exercise?  Tarrou, Rieux, Grand, and eventually Rambert all take in one way or another “the path of sympathy,” the way of “comprehension,” which is Tarrou’s word for his code of morals.

Tarrou, who wanted to be a saint without God, is a hero, even with all his contradictions (and don’t we all have our own?):  he looks unflinchingly at the plague and works to combat it, and risks his life. Ultimately, he dies. He is like Rachel Corrie: This must stop – but he couldn’t stop the plague, he could only accompany the victims.  And not be condemning or judgmental.  

And what is true religiosity in a time of plague? It is praxis, it is the path of sympathy, and you can take the dogmas, doctrines, and rituals—who needs them? It is Yitz Greenberg’s anguished cri de coeur: No theology talk is credible; pull the children out of the burning pits!

This means knowing that children are being burned alive (recall Steiner’s  refusal to sit still). This means going near to where the children are, you’ve got to see it.  And then doing something.  But we keep our distance; we offer solidarity from afar, which alas isn’t much. Or is it? I myself said that “the real work” on behalf of Palestine was back in the US, what were we really doing to fight the plague there, in Gaza? It may have seemed heroic and risky from the stateside perspective. But I was convinced that we have more to contribute here, working to cut off the source of the funding and ideological support for the occupation, than doing accompaniment work.  But it’s ambos: Both/and: I had that opportunity then, I have this opportunity now, to be vigilant.  Here’s Rieux’s critique of distance:  “…sometimes at midnight, in the great silence of the sleep-bound  town, the doctor turned on his wireless before going to bed for the few hours’ sleep he allowed himself. And from the ends of the earth, across thousands of miles of land and sea, kindly, well-meaning speakers tried to voice their fellow-feeling, and indeed did so, but at the same time proved the utter incapacity of every man truly to share in suffering which he cannot see. ‘Oran! Oran!’ In vain the call rang over oceans, in vain Rieux listened hopefully; always the tide of eloquence began to flow, bringing home still more the unbridgeable gulf that lay between Grand and the speaker. ‘Oran, we’re with you!’ they called emotionally. But not, the doctor told himself, to love or to die together—and that’s the only way. They’re too remote.” [124] Read the rest of this entry »

Real Butchers

Leo Tolstoy, Hadji Murat
Translators, Pevear and Volokhonsky

I should read this short novel every year, in January. This time I read it thinking of Vietnam, the American occupiers (Russians), the indigenous resistance (Chechens), and the rivalries among the Vietnamese (Shamil v. Hadji Murat). Then there’s destroying the forests with herbicides (and the Russians cutting down the forest trees [441]). And the mutilation of corpses as in “beers for ears” (Hadji Murat’s head carried around in a sack). And these passages for meditation…

But deep in her heart Aksinya was glad of Pyotr’s death. She was pregnant again by the salesclerk she lived with, and now no one could reproach her anymore, and the salesclerk could marry her, as he had said he would when he was persuading her to love him. 410

HM: “Fear came over me and I ran away…Never afterwards. Since then I always remembered that shame, and when I remembered it, I was no longer afraid of anything.” 422

To disagree with Nicholas’s orders meant to lose all that brilliant position which he now enjoyed, and which he had spent forty years acquiring. And therefore he humbly bowed his dark, graying head in a sign of submission and readiness to carry out the cruel, insane, and dishonest supreme will. 443-4 Read the rest of this entry »

There and Then, Here and Now

A lady: Yes, that’s just like what goes on nowadays, and it’s because anyone that is struggling for the liberation of the oppressed, he himself is a Christ, and then here’s a Herod, and what we’re seeing is the living story of the life of Jesus. And more heroes will come along, because wherever there’s someone struggling for liberation there’s someone who wants to kill him, and if they can kill him they will…. it’s perfectly clear that the business of Herod and Christ, we have it right here.

–Ernesto Cardenal, The Gospel in Solentiname

 

Ernesto Cardenal, 1925-2020

Cultivating Attention and Animating Conscience: Reading Thoreau in Desperate Times

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

“Action from principle, the perception and the performance of right, changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary, and does not consist wholly with anything which was. It not only divides states and churches, it divides families; ay, it divides the individual, separating the diabolical in him from the divine.”

“On reading the words of Thoreau
I vow with all beings
to cherish our home-grown sages
who discern the perennial way.”
–Robert Aitken

Being a human being means benefiting from rich cultural traditions—not just our own traditions, but many others—and becoming not just skilled, but also wise. Somebody who can think—think creatively, think independently, explore, inquire—and contribute to society. If you don’t have that, you might as well be replaced by a robot.
–Noam Chomsky

In this course we will explore Henry David Thoreau’s prophetic and spiritual writings as a resource for living, in poet Marge Piercy’s words, “consciously, conscientiously, concretely, [and] constructively” in this time of domestic disparities and global crises.

We meet on eight consecutive Wednesdays from February 26 to April 15. We are hosted by Dianne Lee and Bill Quick at their home in Richmond Heights. We gather at 6:45 and go till 8:15. Sessions will have time for paired sharing, writing exercises, discussions of Thoreau’s works, announcements of the local scene, poetry recitations, viewing of documentaries, and more. A class blog will enable us to share our various responses in between classes.

Some Essentials—
An outgoingness of heart
“Pessimism of the intelligence, optimism of the will” [Antonio Gramsci]
A notebook, tablet, or laptop
These two books— Henry David Thoreau, The Higher Law: Thoreau on Civil Disobedience and Reform, with an introduction by Howard Zinn and Tim Flinders, ed., Henry David Thoreau: Spiritual and Prophetic Writings (Modern Spiritual Masters).

Tuition is $150, payable to me by check or Paypal.
Email me if you are interested —markjchmiel@gmail.com.

Share the Wealth with Jack Renard: Reflections on a Life in Islamic Studies

This sharing will revolve around questions I get frequently: Whatever led you to choose this as an academic specialization? Why does Islamic religious studies matter? What do Islamic religious studies specialists actually study, and what are some tools of the trade? Given all the time and effort you’ve put into this, how can you not want to be a Muslim? (a question on more than a few Muslims’ minds). Has your study of Islam impacted your own religious or other very personal beliefs? You were a Jesuit when you started full-time study of Islam – how did/does that background influence your approach? Any useful hints from the Catholic tradition about this whole business?

About Jack: Born and raised in Saint Louis 1944, joined the Jesuits in 1962, received MA Biblical at SLU Divinity in 1971, PhD in Islamic Studies from Harvard Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations 1978, at SLU since then. Left the Jesuits in 1989, and married Mary Pat Henehan in 1990.

Join us
Sunday 23 February
Potluck begins at 6:00 p.m.
Jack begins sharing at 6:45
At the home of Lea and Terry
4121 West Pine Boulevard
St. Louis, MO
63108
Read the rest of this entry »

The Russians

It should come as no surprise that black folks would immerse themselves in this Russian literary tradition that is so profound in its willingness to raise unsettling questions. They say when you go into James Baldwin’s house, the first thing you see is Chekhov. You go into Ralph Ellison’s house, the first thing you see is Dostoevsky. You go into Richard Wright’s house, the first thing you see is also Dostoevsky. So I can imagine [Alice]Walker reading these Russian texts, like Notes from the Underground, in Zinn’s class and saying, “Oh my God, this sounds like Letitia down here. Sounds like Shaniqua down here.” With all the brilliance that a Shaniqua—which means “God is gracious”—and a Letitia—which means “Joy”—can have, trying to make sense of the world given the absurdities of predatory capitalism and patriarchy and white supremacy and U.S. empire

–Cornel West, on Missing Howard Zinn Ten Years after His Death

“Action Needed, Goethean Action”

Allen Ginsberg, Journals: Mid-Fifties 1954-1958, edited by Gordon Ball

During winter and spring of 1996 I went on a binge of poet Allen Ginsberg’s books: poems, letters, photos, journals (I was taking a break from Elie Wiesel dissertation preoccupations). This volume documents his inner/outer life in the period when Howl emerged and just before he created Kaddish. I took note of the following passages…

On the New York literary establishment: “There’s no room for youth and vitality in New York. It is a city full of guilty academicians.” —Gregory Corso. “Too big, too multiple, too jaded.” —Jack Kerouac. “We want everyone to know that we had to leave the Village to find fulfillment and recognition.” Ginsberg.

“And so I thought for the benefit of posterity to keep a record of everything — don’t lose any information.”

“…the best I thought I could do was just keep a record of my own changes of self-nature and perceptions — you know, intermittent perceptions, spots of time. So my notebook is thoughts, epiphanies, vivid moments of haiku, poems, but not a continuous diary of conversations like Virginia Woolf, or Anais Nin, or Boswell.”

“Exaltation (what is the precise word for the sensation of love acceptance?)”

“Creating out of myself the strength to continue in some kind of force, some kind of uncanny care — though I have nothing to give actually but a cheerful spirit now and hands for dishwashing — to give force for my own & others’ pleasure — to learn to give love without despairing of the consequences.”

“…before it drags itself out and I get lost in confusions and imagined rejections.” Read the rest of this entry »

Exciting Curiosity

Robert D. Richardson Jr., Emerson: The Mind on Fire
University of California Peress, 1995

In the summer of 2017 I had the immense pleasure of reading Richardson’s stunning biography of the U.S. sage, and noted the following passages with gratitude…

“A man is made great by concentration of motive.” 54

“The present moment is in your power but the past in inalterable, the future is inscrutable.” 58

“…all that can be done for you is nothing to what you can do for yourself.” 69

“Every moment makes me a more powerful being.” 77

“… but our virtue is in all cases determined by ourselves…. Let anyone try to spend one hour a day without spot or blemish.” 80 Read the rest of this entry »

Share the Wealth with Jenny Lowe: An Appreciation of Leonard Woolf

Most educated people have read or at least heard of Virginia Woolf, the brilliant modernist writer and member of the Bloomsbury Group whose works include To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando, and A Room of One’s Own. You may also know of her battles with mental illness and her suicide by drowning in 1941. But what do you know of her husband Leonard? Novelist, journalist, publisher, political historian, advisor to the Labour Party on international affairs, ex-civil servant, atheist, memoirist, avid gardener, and animal lover, Leonard was also a stalwart support to Virginia through her bouts of illness. Virginia’s sister and their Bloomsbury friends believed that she would not have lived long enough to produce any of her famous works had she not married Leonard.

Jenny Lowe is a librarian at Saint Louis University. She and her husband Gregory visited the Woolfs’ house – Monk’s House – in Rodmell, England in 2017, and on their return, both read Leonard’s five-volume memoir with great pleasure. Jenny has also read the 2008 biography by Victoria Glendenning and various other works about Leonard and Virginia and their lives together. Read the rest of this entry »

Anne Waldman on The Art of Writing, Reading, and Sharing—Winter Class/Arco-Online 2020

Imagine you are not alone. Consort with other writers. You are in a League of Writing. You are part of a conspiracy to lift the discourse and practice of writing higher. Think of your writing as a way to alleviate the suffering of yourself and others. To make the world more beautiful and interesting.
—Anne Waldman, “Creative Writing Life”

If you writing life needs a recharge, if you want to reconnect with your writing practice and other kindred spirits, please join us in this class as we will engage the accumulated wisdom of Anne Waldman, poet, teacher, cultural activist, anthologist, and subverter of the patriarchy.

In her inspiring book, Vow to Poetry: Essays, Interviews, & Manifestos, Waldman has short chapter entitled, “Creative Writing Life.” It’s nine pages long and this will be the chief text for our class. Each week we will read, discuss, and write off of a page of Anne’s prompts–both friends who want to share via a class blog, and those who can meet up in St. Louis. We will spend our time in and outside of class experimenting, practicing, and integrating what she has to offer (I count 136 specific suggestions). Perhaps you will discover that 10 of these are really what you matter to you at this time in your life.

For Saint Louisans, outside of a 90 minute weekly class, you will need at least another 1.5 to 2 hours. Friends joining us via the class blog count on 2 to 3 hours a week. Make room in your schedule for cultivating creativity, clarity, and community.

We meet on Thursdays from January 30 to March 17, 6:45 to 8:15 p.m. at the home of Andrew Wimmer, 4400 Arco Avenue 63110. Online participants will receive an agenda on Friday mornings to direct their activities for the week.I will be frequently in touch with you, and try to connect people in the same city. The more we share, the greater our learning and expansion!

All you need are your writing materials and/or devices and, ideally, a copy of Vow to Poetry, or one of Anne’s other books, such as Fast Speaking Woman, Beats at Naropa, Civil Disobediences, or Outrider. Check out your bookstore or public library, or contact me for assistance–I have access to university libraries.

Tuition for St. Louisans, $100.
For online participants, $50.
You can send tuition to me by Paypal or by check at the first class.

For those of you who have done a class with me before and found it worth your time, please pass along this announcement to anyone you know who may be interested in this class, especially the online version.

Penny Smith, Northwest Coffee, Central West End

Start a club/”study group” around the work of a deceased writer or writers or a literary movement or a book. Meet once a month and plan to read aloud (or translate), write “off of,” and examine texts. The Sappho Club, the Niedecker/Zukovsky Salon, the H.D. Room, the Beat Trope Circle, Robert Duncan Lab, New York School Gallery, Black Arts Solarium…
–Anne Waldman, “Creative Writing Life”