Beauty, Writing. Illusioning and Disillusioning

“Untitled,” Zdislav Beksinski

Once I burned every story I had ever written. Literally. Then deleted the files. Or, I suppose I should begin in another place: I used to write stories. Then I burned them all. The act was at least partially inspired by G.M. Hopkins, who had burned his early poems on entering the Jesuit novitiate, and that was probably the only thing I liked about Hopkins at the time. What Hopkins and I shared – and I was much angrier about it than he – was a keen sense of beauty’s power to deceive. I had become aware, painfully aware, that my stories had become crutches, escapes – illusions. So I burned them away.

I also really enjoyed burning things and I was twenty-one or something, so I don’t put that past me as additional motivation. I wouldn’t even put that past me now.

Not a single copy of any of my stories exists. I think. Maybe a cousin has a copy of one, I don’t know. I like to think in epic terms, so I imagine that they’re all entirely lost and this delights me simply because it’s severe. Though I hated, hated the arts and literature – and took none of them seriously – I had a fondness for writing. As a very sickly adolescent, I had but few things to keep me occupied: reading, make-up homework, video games, writing. I retreated often to my intellect, which was the safest place I knew how to be. Writing became a way to play for once, to simply see what I could do, and it became a way to work through emotions that felt largely unavailable to me. Which was any emotion. At all. I had a strong affection for Spock.

The irony is that my career today is built on my knowledge of and sensitivity to the arts, especially poetry. The truth is that I love poetry, literature, the arts. But I didn’t know that. I was young and an idiot and really hurting.

I hated beauty because I perceived its strong relation to feeling. To desire, to willing. The Ancient Greeks and Medievals thought that beauty was simply an aspect of what they called the Good, which was the “highest” goodness, or goodness “itself.” For them, the Good was especially associated with the will. In other words, we want good things. Want and will match together. Beauty was woven with wanting. I knew something of this, though I knew nothing of philosophy. Feeling and desiring flared unstable and horrific in my young mind, twisted all together on tenterhooks. I could not bear to want or to feel. My secret life of trauma and abuse – I told no one, after all – left me wracked by profound distrust and confusion over nearly any feeling at all, especially desire. Especially that.

Once I failed a moral theology test because I couldn’t make myself read any of the questions on sex. I circled whatever. I literally couldn’t read the words. I never failed anything in theology. I have a fucking doctorate in theology. It’s funny. Kind of.

So by the time I reached college, there was a way in which storytelling – especially writing – remained with me as this single, unanticipated avenue to yearn and to feel. And that I did. I wasn’t all that great at it, the feeling or the writing, but I worked hard at both – and only together.

One central character was a young woman with four vicious scars across half her face. She herself was vicious, angry and half-feral. Dangerous with knives. Always taciturn, never cautious, never soft. She was an unsubtle figure of my own inexplicable feelings, the ones so haunted by violence and that singular rage that comes from violence. May no one ever have to know it. That peculiar, suffocating self-hating fire.

It would have fit nicely with one of those young adult series about horrible worlds that are so popular these days, the ones starring young women who are heroic and beautiful. Only my creation was much, much more brutal and physically marred. She grew up among demons. (So had I.) And it could’ve fit for a movie so long as I was never in charge of it. All of my stories ended with everyone dying.

I can see it so clearly, looking back. The young mind struggling so hard to understand violence.

I wasn’t that great at writing stories. My temperament left me far too impatient for a story arc, and I hated dialogue with absurd passion (so no one freaking talked). For reasons entirely lost on me, I had a strange talent for writing romances (and battles). More than one friend told me so. I’d blush and write more battles. (Desire was not okay. It wasn’t. Not when it hurt so much. When others made it hurt.) I much preferred building to some kind of harrowing image played out in intense engagement with my reader. My imaginary reader. The one I was trying so very hard to convince something was wrong, very wrong. Imaginary, since I didn’t think I lived in a world that could be convinced by anything I said.

Why would I let myself feel, really feel, in a world like that?

Still, I became aware of just how imaginary the infinite display of personalities, places, and scenes could be. They increasingly drew me away from the world, the real one, and I felt breathlessly afraid of the feelings I could not escape – and felt suffocated by a weakness for illusion that seemed especially serious in me. It’s not real, you know. The stories. They’re not real like that. They’re just stories. And no one turns out okay, and isn’t so wrong to think that anyway? I shouldn’t even symbolize it.

A lot of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon folktales involve fairies, often women, and many of them reside around water. (Thus King Arthur’s “Lady of the Lake.”) They weren’t always nice, either. These fairies. This definitely isn’t Disney, though there might be singing. These creatures were rather dangerous. Like those sirens that had Odysseus going mad, the fairies would lure men away with their beauty and lead them to their death. It’s a fairytale-truth about something we all know: beauty tells the best lies. Why else are perfect people in advertisements telling me to buy things I don’t need?

Beauty unhinged of truth isn’t good anymore.

So I burned all my lies and with them the truths I otherwise desperately hid. I gave up on the last bit of art in me. Still, I fiddled with words. Couldn’t seem to help it. I met a friend who saw in me a certain talent, and he carefully tricked me into reading poems. At first only the very Catholic ones. The Catholic poems about Catholic things. Anything Catholic meant I’d read it for sure. Then my friend offered me Catholic poets who stretched up and away from explicitly religious topics. Then non-Catholics, atheists, anyone. By then he had worn me away into the sincerity of my love for real beauty. I started learning foreign languages and he started handing me poems in those languages. God, I loved beauty. And yearned for it.

Like some immense experiment, I absorbed everything I read. I mean the technique of it, often quite unconscious. In stories I had started to mess with the rhythms of words, and now I accidentally wrote in meter with no story at all. I made games of collapsing images together. Playing. Imitating clever little things on purpose, and many others with no awareness at all. So eventually I began writing poetry. And, to be honest, I was far better at it than I ever had been at anything else with words.

And Hopkins is the best.

My mentors in graduate school knew. I’d reference poems in class – if I spoke at all. They knew I had a certain talent, and that I tried at poetry, though I wouldn’t show anyone my poems save my friend. Maybe two other souls. With immense fear and conviction, I protected my small corner of art. Of feelings and desire. I didn’t want poetry taken from me, as if that old fire sought to consume my work again. Besides, I didn’t want to be considered strange or insane. I could do theology, dammit, and I was very logical and compelling. I wasn’t a sentimental idiot. I just wrote poems sometimes, is all, and fuck you for asking.

I loved Hans Urs von Balthasar endlessly. That unusual and brilliant theologian of beauty. I was such a hopeless contradiction, stubbornly against even a hug but enamored of theological aesthetics. What can I say? Scars do strange things to people.

My mentors eventually wanted me to combine the poetry and the theology, since Balthasar did something like this and since my double talent allowed me to understand it. I fought them the whole way. Partly I’m just crazy stubborn. Partly I resisted out of extreme (and misplaced) anxiety over whether doing this would make me “weird” to other scholars. D. Stephen Long said, “You know, it’s good to be different.” And finally, out of a very real awareness that this effort, this theological poetic, would force me to unite intellect and will – knowing and desiring – and these two I had fought very hard not to unite for most of my life. I knew, keenly, that this union would hurt.

It was agony. The words emerged elegant and calm, but the struggle to unite what even the Academy refuses to unite (intellect and emotion) left me ragged. I was fiercely determined to be clear, logical. Almost cold. Carefully, deliberately, cooly – I tried. And then I’d break in with yearning, bittersweet pain, beautiful hope. It was a kind of cunning, the writing. Ever so clear and aching. My every power bent to keep them – clarity, aching – close.

And through it I reached those things in me that hurt the most. The terrible, breathless losses. Everything true and real in me broke open and broke apart. That’s what it felt like, anyway. Honestly, I was also exhausted by far too many years of silence. Trauma doesn’t exactly go away. It hides right in your skin, lights up nerves. Still, I’m not sure I’d have really seen that in myself so vividly if I hadn’t been encouraged to draw together the two things I loved. Beauty and truth.

It cost not less than everything.

And finally, finally I could learn to stop lying. It has been a long road since, but good.

“Love is holy because it is like grace”: Excerpts from Gilead

I told you you might have a very different life from mine, and from the life you’ve had with me, and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life. And you said, Mama already told me that. And then you said, Don’t laugh! because you thought I was laughing at you. You reached up and put your fingers on my lips and gave me that look I never in my life saw on any other face besides your mother’s. It’s a kind of furious pride, very passionate and stern. I’m always a little surprised to find my eyebrows unsinged after I’ve suffered one of those looks. I will miss them.

I told her I could not add a moment to my span of life, and she said, “Well, I don’t want you to go subtracting one from it, either.” A year ago she would have said “neither.” I’ve always loved the way she talks, but she thinks she has to improve for your sake.

***

Your mother came up the road to tell us our supper was ready. It was a cold supper, she said, so there was no hurry. She agreed to sit with us for a few minutes. She always has to be coaxed to stay in company even a little while, and then it’s all I can do to get a word from her. I believe she worries about the way she talks. I love the way she talks, or the way she talked when I first knew her. “It don’t matter,” she would say, in that low, soft voice of hers. That was what she said when she meant she forgave someone, but it had a sound of deeper, sadder resignation, as if she were forgiving the whole of the created order, forgiving the Lord Himself. It grieves me that I may never hear just those words spoken by her again.

***

I told them, If you want to inform yourselves as to the nature of hell, don’t hold your hand in a candle flame, just ponder the meanest, most desolate place in your soul. They all did ponder a good while, and I did, too, listening to the evening wind and the cicadas. I came near alarming myself with the thought of the loneliness stretching ahead of me, and the new bitterness of it, and how I hated the secretiveness and the renunciation that honor and decency required of me and that common sense enforced on me. But when I looked up, your mother was watching me, smiling a little, and she touched my hand and she said, “You’ll be just fine.”

How soft her voice is. That there should be such a voice in the whole world, and that I should be the one to hear it, seemed to me then and seems to me now an unfathomable grace.

***

She began to come to the house when some of the other women did, to take the curtains away to wash, to defrost the icebox. And then she started coming by herself to tend the gardens. She made them very fine and prosperous. And one evening when I saw her there, out by the wonderful roses, I said, “How can I repay you for all this?” And she said, “You ought to marry me.” And I did.

Love is holy because it is like grace—the worthiness of its object is never really what matters. I might well be leaving her to a greater happiness than I have given her, even granting every difficulty.

***

“I am sick with love.” That’s Scripture. It makes me laugh to remember this— I turned to the Bible in my crisis, as I have always done. And the text I chose was the Song of Songs! I might have learned from it that such miseries as mine were beautiful in the Lord’s sight, if I had been younger and if I had known that your mother was not a married woman.

She was there every Sunday but one, and I wrote all those sermons, I confess, with the thought of pleasing her, impressing her. I struggled not to look at her too often or too long, but I would convince myself nevertheless that I saw disappointment of some kind in her face, and then I would spend the next week praying, right down on my knees, that she would give me another chance.

So I couldn’t admit to myself that I simply wanted to see her, to hear her voice again. She said, “Good morning, Reverend,” that was all. But I remember trying to retain the sound of it, trying to hear it again in my mind.

She shook her head and said, very softly, “I don’t have family at all.” I felt a surge of sadness for her, and still, in my wretched heart, I thanked the Lord.

***

He said, “Reverend Ames still hasn’t warned you about me?” She found my hand and took it between her two warm hands. “He don’t speak unkindly. He never does.”

He said, “When I was young I thought a settled life was what happened to you if you weren’t careful.” She said, “I always knew better than that. It was the one thing I wanted. I used to look in people’s windows at night and wonder what it was like.”

Only thinking back on it did I realize that she was speaking as if from that settled life she said she had always wanted and as if it could not be lost to her, though in every practical, material sense she knows it will be. That pleased me, too. Remembering when they said what they did about looking in windows and wondering about other people’s lives made me feel companionable with them. I could have said that’s three of us, because, as the Lord knows, for many years I did exactly the same thing. But in that moment, the way she spoke, it seemed that all the wondering about life had been answered for her, once and for all, and if that is true, it is wonderful.

***

And your mother has found that sermon I was wondering about, that Pentecost sermon, the one I gave the first time I saw her. It was beside my plate, wrapped in tissue paper, with a ribbon on it. “Now, don’t you go revising that,” she said. “It don’t need revising.” And she kissed me on the top of the head, which, for her, was downright flamboyant.

I hate to think what I would give for a thousand mornings like this. For two or three. You were wearing your red shirt and your mother was wearing her blue dress.

I wish I could leave you certain of the images in my mind, because they are so beautiful that I hate to think they will be extinguished when I am.

***

Your mother has sent you off to the neighbors, so you won’t pester me, she says, but it makes me wonder about the impression I must be making on her this morning. The poor woman is very pale. She has not slept any better than I have.

I fell asleep in my chair and woke up feeling so much better. I missed eight and a half innings, and nothing happened in the bottom of the ninth (4 to 2, Yankees), but the reception was good and I look forward to watching the rest of the season, if God wills. Your mother was asleep, too, kneeling on the floor with her head against my knees. I had to sit very still for a long time, watching a movie about Englishmen in trench coats who were up to something morose involving Frenchmen and trains. I didn’t really follow it. When she woke up, she was so glad to see me, as if I had been gone a long time.

– Marilynne Robinson, Gilead: A Novel (c) 2004

Imagination in Ruins

“Ruins of Dresden’s Kreuzkirche,” Bernardo Bellotto

Oh, the things students say. One sat in my office, face open and sincere. And then she said: “My favorite things you say aren’t about Jesus. They’re about love. I’m sorry, I just love the way you talk about love.”

I blinked, not exactly shocked. Well, not since the first time such a comment made me stutter and blush until I almost ran from the room. It happens once or twice a semester. Love comes up in theology, especially the more philosophical and existential sort that I teach. It is a way to reach students who sure as hell don’t care about God, but who do care about love.

Coughing away some nerves, I quirked my mouth into a half grin. “Well. Thank you. And please don’t be sorry.”

I really hate when people are sorry for thinking something.

She shifted, drawing in a breath and hesitating. I saw the question in her eyes before she whispered: “How do you know so much?”

I tried not to scowl. “Oh, I’m observant, you know.”

“You must have loved so deeply.”

Now I was trying not to roll my eyes. I know what sort of love she meant, and it definitely was not friendship or how I love kittens or anything like that. I verbally prodded her to move on, and she let it go.

Except.

She’s not entirely wrong.

And yet –

She is.

There are many, many kinds of knowing. None of them are secret unless we insist on not paying attention. Mostly we do insist. So it becomes very hard to explain that there is an imaginative shape to knowing that allows us to extend experience into new anticipations of the future, and even to foreshadow what has not been experienced at all.

Because the truth is my actual, real experiences of “love” are more horrifying than beautiful and romantic. Not that I went and decided to follow the path of amazingly traumatic options like it was the greatest idea ever. But there you go. My first-hand knowledge of love is not great. So how do I end up with students all in my face about love?

Our knowledge does not, and cannot, end with what we directly understand. Human beings are not reducible to their experiences. And thank God. Else all I’d be able to say about romantic love is that it is awful and violent and it is a mystery to me why people want it ever.

I rarely indicate that I am aware of the dark undercurrents that can claw apart human desire. In the classroom especially, I announce a much different reality. I think it is important to leave hope in the hands of those who bear it. So I do my best to interact with that hope and imaginatively grasp what love might be like, what it should be like. The ruined pieces of me, the burned hallways and wrecked rooms savaged without my consent, seem to somehow know.

So. How does one imagine what one does to know?

Something important that we do all the time is observe others. We watch them and imitate them; we draw close to people and learn what is wonderful about them and what is hurt. Their own experiences live in them as a portrait of what we might want to be, or might not. We are not, in other words, only thoughtful about our own experiences.

That is one way we broaden our ability to understand what might be real. Another is the inward orientation we all have toward what Plato would call “the Good” and that we might experience as a simple yearning for more. We want to improve, somehow, at something. Or somewhere. We want to “get better.” However we put it, we all desire a richer form of life. That desire itself is an anticipation of, a willing of the potential for – a hope for more than we have yet known.

There is yet that strange imaginative impulse that insists on trying to grasp more than we know before we have even encountered it. It has a way of attempting to know before we know. Things like daydreams about that future job. That future family. That extravagant new whatever from Apple. None of us has yet known that reality, and – not to be a raincloud – it might never happen. All I mean is it has yet to be at all, doesn’t exist yet. Still we imagine.

It is beautiful to imagine.

Beauty, you see, shapes the best imagining. Beauty is what draws together what we already know with the “more” that we yearn for wordlessly. We try to dream about beautiful things, and dreams are only really beautiful if they stitch together fragments of what is true with care for what is good. Or else we will only be fantasizing, or having a nightmare. When we imagine, we anticipate a better self. That better self becomes real for us in figure, in a shadowed “almost.” An almost that we might yet make real.

So I think that artists at their best are incredibly capable dreamers, and in an uncanny way they are able to know things that they don’t know at all. Perhaps that they never will. Sure: Rilke was a selfish womanizer. And still: that poetry. It is more than he was.

I was once a poet of sorts. I’ve admitted that before here, and I continue to feel sadness at the ways I lost poetry somehow. Perhaps there is darkness that poetry cannot overcome. It’s only poetry, after all. It’s not a light from Heaven. Still, I miss it and hope for its return.

Because the best of me was alive when I wrote poems. In my little way, with what little I could sew together. And through it I could do some remarkable things. Like the time – maybe my favorite time – that I wrote a love poem (of all things!) for someone else. On something of a dare, I wrote a poem for a husband to his wife. (Yeah, do the difficulty math on that one.) I remember smiling softly after they gently teased me to write a poem, saying I’d do it. Meaning it.

I remember walking through the cool sunlight in the afternoon of wintry Milwaukee, closing my eyes and thinking of him. Thinking of her. Drawing together everything I knew about them and everything else I knew, including what I did not know. Letting it blur together. All so I could create something beautiful and good and true.

And I did. Especially, I think, with respect to each of them. I created a poem an engineer might write if he could write poetry. I drew a picture of his love for her, and of someone she loved. I held in mind her love for him as much as his. This fiercely independent woman who would not be bothered with love unless it were equally as fierce and free. Wasn’t that what she loved about him? Wasn’t that the way he loved her? Even if he had the most irritating way of saying it – “you’re mine” (I mean, come on, dude) – didn’t the fumbling words mean something else they both knew?

Then I lit a fire underneath each stanza.

Because love is yearning.

Love wants.

With no violence at all.

And I included his damned favorite phrase, and made it shine with the secret gold it concealed.

None of which, of course, is what I know. And, somehow, is what I know. The poem was as much theirs and as much the impossible imagining of my own ruined heart. I include it below, and if you can’t see why I miss poetry after reading it, well. I don’t know what to say to you that isn’t mean. Just read it gently, is all I ask. It’s an important part of me I want back.

Wrought

I am not weak.
I am wrought iron that, once
bent in bright primordial fires
(long before I met you)
never takes another shape.
I am not weak,
though all my angles,
my permanent contours,
turn to you.

I cannot change the way,
I cannot change –
my whole life curves toward you
like so many determined lines.
Threads gathered in and held
in your hands.
I could no more refuse you
than I could refuse myself.

Everything is yours.
My enduring curvature,
wrought before I knew you,
made for you alone:
time before time, dark
ages fashioned me for you –
and you alone.
And you…

And if you bent yourself close
to me, and felt the gentle
cool of my lasting shape,
the way my arms were made
to hold you (and you alone) –
you could rest here (with me).
If you curved yourself close,
you could feel that I am yours –
and you are mine.

Distracted. And not at all.

There are three lies that I tell in all of my courses. One of them is that I am easily distracted.

I am not, at all, distractible. Certainly not in the manner I feign in the classroom. I have other problems and such, but being abruptly and entirely obsessed with the feral cats that haunt campus is not one of them. Nor is my attention broken by the sudden mention of any pop star I loathe. (I might in fact hate them all. But, recently, at the mention of Katy Perry, I narrowed my eyes and hissed, “Teenage Dream.”) I am neither random nor arbitrary, nor all that susceptible to being swayed away from what I had planned for the day’s lesson.

When I was a little kid, I remember sitting up at night, listening to the quiet thump of my own heart, wondering how it kept me alive. I wondered about everything. I still do. Always with determined scrutiny of every angle, entirely unwilling to respond to the sound of my own name unless I thought I could safely put aside the puzzle for later. My sister says I “research the shit out of things.” (Her words. We shared a room. I can’t remember if I woke her up to ask her about death. I probably did.) I was an intense child. I remain an intense adult.

So, I am not distractible. But I pretend to be, all the time, in the classroom. I will stop, suddenly, and wonder aloud about something I have remembered. I will reach sideways into the universe of pop culture, often deliberately misunderstanding it, to draw out strange analogies. To provoke irritation. To incite laughter. To enjoy confusion.

I will even complain that I am distracted, and stand in front of my students as I straighten all the tendons in my diminutive frame, glancing around the room as if searching through a clearing for a lost conceptual thread.

But I am never. We are always arriving where I prefer. Every twisting thicket somehow always leads to just the corner of the forest I had marked on the map. I laugh to my students as if surprised, but in fact not surprised at all.

Why do I lie? Because my “distraction” is really immersion in things, awareness of and delight in details. Authentic theology – or, dare I say, authentic spirituality – is really a deep attachment to the mystery in everything. I have no idea how to teach that, except I know that it is necessary to thinking seriously. Nor do I know how to surface the thorny matter of faith without a goofy grin and some gentle sleight-of-hand that turns the eyes away from threat and toward joy. Learning is a riot, I tell my students. It’s fun and it’s work. It’s hilarious and it’s sadIt’s wonderful.

Learning is attachment to things that is willing to let them go so that they might be given back again. No one has ever learned anything that didn’t need to be relinquished and relearned. No one has ever ceased an education. Play means willingness to let something go to see what might happen, and work means willingness to follow it to the end. I’ve never had a thought I could hold onto. That’s the fun of it, though. Never holding still.

I suppose I could cleanly argue a position. Certainly I know how to corner someone until they feel compelled start calling me names. I am able to ask a question and entirely dismantle another person.

But will either of us have learned anything? Perhaps a fact or three. But nothing so exhilarating as the thrill at everything.

So I am perfectly willing to wander where my students lead, fully aware that all roads lead us back to what is beautiful. (“We will arrive where we started,” says T.S. Eliot, “and know the place for the first time.”) I play a bit distracted, when really I am listening to the sound of their hearts. A small question, a peculiar detail, a stubbornly interposed reading from a dead Christian… All things that turn the eyes away from threat and toward joy.