Betty Duffy

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Greetings from another world

Thomas Frank, oh, Thomas Frank. Why do I read thee?

Frank writes the Easy Chair column in Harper's Magazine. This month he turns his cynical eye towards an anti-abortion rally in Germantown, Maryland that took place in late July.

He writes:

"…stock markets have been seesawing wildly, U.S. Treasury notes have been downgraded, unemployment is soaring, and the entire government was recently held hostage. But for some people, that particular end-times scenario isn't satisfying enough: for them, the real crisis is still the massacre of the unborn and the horror of stem-cell research, and they regard the economic disasters of recent years as an annoying distraction. You and I may fret over the Dow, but they are out there still, fighting tooth and nail against the "culture of death."

He chronicles a poorly attended pro-life press conference (he was the only member of the press there), and the following day, hundreds of parishioners from a nearby Catholic Church who prayed near an office complex where abortions were performed.

Frank goes out to the rally (which is a very strong word for this particular gathering) hoping to see arrests, stupidity, rifle toting crazies, the fomenting of a grass roots movement-- but he's thoroughly disappointed to find only a few Catholics praying. And to make his story even more of a let down--they're rational people, well-spoken. He describes various players as "stylish," "ebullient, charismatic," even, "far-removed from the damnation-slinging, fetus-waiving protesters of twenty years ago." He quotes Pat Mahoney, an activist who orchestrated the event saying, "We're not coming with clenched fist demanding our own way, asserting our own position…We're coming in brokenness and humility before the Lord."

But Frank remains unimpressed, and somehow, boggled that anyone could pray for an end to abortion when there is an economic crisis going on.

I also am boggled, and not by people who think abortion is a bigger deal than a recession. I don't understand how literary agnostic types can write as much as they do, observing humanity in its various political, economic and religious systems, while remaining so willfully disengaged with metaphor. Frank and I don't speak the same language.

The missing key in a hypothetical dialog between Thomas Frank and any Christian, is the understanding of an individual's relationship to time and eternity. Death is life. Metaphor 101.

"For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to what is seen but to what is unseen; for what is seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal." (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

And yet, it's not just Christians that Frank seems incapable of understanding, but even people on the other side of his own field of writing--poets and novelists. Once you start contemplating the place of the individual in its relationship to time and eternity--even without a religious leaning--you flip to a genre that can handle metaphors. You don't need a metaphor to understand the economy, I suppose. But people require a metaphor.

One day it dawns on you that no one loves your home as much as you do, no one loves your house, your town, your dog, your cat, your kids, the words you write, or you even, as much as you do. And truth be told, there are days when even you don't like them all that much either. Nothing and no one can be made right.

It's a modern problem that arises in modern literature occasionally, in books like "Freedom," by Jonathan Franzen (unfavorably reviewed here), and if the author is godless, there's no hope, no light. Reading a book like that is like living in a pressurized container, knowing you will run out of breath if you stay there.

Where are you going to draw breath? The Christian draws breath in prayer, and there is life in the breath. It goes beyond metaphor--it's not just a nice little symbol, but a life-giving breath. It's the love you wish that you and everyone else really possessed, just handed to you by a Benevolent Creator. It draws you out of self-pity and fear, and helps you see the world in light of eternal realities.

"He who has experienced the shock of love, returns to the world with altered face." (Japanese Haiku)

I've met people who seem shallow, or uneducated, rich people and poor, who are transformed and made wise by living within the metaphor and framing their lives in response to eternal questions. Yes, this understanding often causes people to downgrade their interest in accumulating wealth in favor of helping the helpless, but it does not automatically assume a downgrade in quantitative intelligence. Rather it supports the acquisition of a poetic intelligence.

I went to a poetry reading last night, Robert Hass, whose books are some of the very few books of poetry to which I've returned again and again. Trying to get Pedge to go with me I explained that a lot of poetry will not affect you, but a few poets will speak a language that feels like your own. Hass is one who speaks mine--only he speaks it better, more fluently, in ways that surprise me.

After his reading, someone asked him about his translations of Japanese Haiku. And he discussed how haiku finds a way to speak the simplest truths in the most apt way. Often, the only way to speak the truth is to find the right metaphor, searching through nature, finding correlations, discovering the ways truth manifests in june bugs and mosquitoes, in landscapes. And when you begin looking for metaphors, suddenly you find them everywhere, and life takes on a deeper, more reflective tenor. "Once you start living in the metaphor, it's thrilling," he said.

If Frank could put himself in this frame of mind for just one minute, it might go a long way in demystifying the way believers approach politics, the economy, and the culture of life.


Alishia said...

Ever read any Dana Gioia? Scott Cairns? Just curious. I enjoy them though I haven't partaken recently.

BettyDuffy said...

Scott Cairns--yes. Loved "Recovered Body."

I haven't read Dana Gioia. Will have to do so.

Anonymous said...

Yes, you are so right. Your writing continues to amaze me. Some poets speak our language and some don't. My daughter just got done reading me The Ballad of Sir Keith out of Robin Hood, and it was lovely. I never thought I liked poetry until I started homeschooling and reading Shakespeare and other classics.

Rebecca said...

Well written! Thanks for a thought provoking piece.

Otepoti said...

What I can't understand is how seldom anyone draws a connecting line between the culture of abortion and the economic foolishness that has led us to this pretty pass.

Surely economists must see that NOTHING makes you box so carefully with your money and resources as the thought that you are stewarding them for the children of today and tomorrow. And nothing stimulates the economy as effectively as young families do, since they usually spend every penny they earn.

Actually, thinking back to Econ 101, many economists are men of a mechanistic and deterministic bent, and less able to think in those terms.

So much the worse for us all.

BettyDuffy said...

"And nothing stimulates the economy as effectively as young families do, since they usually spend every penny they earn."

So true. I was just thinking the other day about all the different things I am required to buy for our family's survival, the sheer quantity of which blows my mind sometimes.