Monthly Archives: August 2016

Further Thoughts on the Art of Writing

In my last blog I explained why I care whether my blogs are read. In summary, I pointed out that a blog is different from a diary. If I were writing for myself, I would be writing a diary, and I would have no inclination or need to publish it. Writing for publication, being an art, is a form of communication. When I write for publication, I am trying to open a stream of communication. If no one reads what I write, then there can be no communication, and the artistic effort remains incomplete.

This time I want to amplify that observation a bit. I want to bring some theological thinking into the discussion. Central to Feminist theology is the idea of the sacredness of the ordinary and the primacy of relationship. Central to Martin Buber’s thinking is what he called the I-Thou relationship, the notion that religion begins when one moves away from thinking of others as things out there on the other side of the skin and begins experiencing others as in holy relationship to oneself. In the Dhammapada, The Buddha is quoted as saying, “See yourself in others. Then whom can you harm?” He is asserting the essential unity of all things. The idea of ubuntu, the idea that we cannot become human except in relationship to others, is at the core of Bishop Desmond Tutu’s personal theology.

I could go on with this, but I think the point is made. Relationship, intimate, powerful and holy relationship, is the common nucleus about which religions, both public and private, revolve. It is out of this relationship that we discover the sacred depth of existence and are able to transcend the terrible aloneness that only seems to condemn us to eternal isolation behind our skins. It is through entering this relationship that we overcome separation and become whole within creation. As they say in Zen, not-two and yet two. To grasp to your heart this is to become enlightened.

Now, what has that to do with art in general and writing in particular? James Joyce set great store by what he called “aesthetic arrest”, the experience of being grabbed and held by a work of art. It happens when you suddenly see a painting and cannot move from the spot, as if your very soul were glued to it. Or when the audience at a concert simply disappears and you are as if alone with the music, held and nurtured and whole. Or when you read something and what you read reaches beyond the pages, beyond the words, beyond even the space between the words, and holds you to the page. You read it over and over. You put the book down and the words vibrate in your mind like a bell sounding along the corridors of your heart. It is in these experiences that we enter the depths of art. This is when art reveals our Self to our self.

Aesthetic arrest, then, is a form of mystical, religious experience. It happens when the artist reveals their soul to the audience and the audience receives it within their soul, and therefore the act of artistic creation is a religious act. It is the artistic version of an I-Thou relationship. The mystery of art is that this can happen even though the artist is long dead. (I use the word “mystery” here to mean that before which the only appropriate response is awe)

When I write for publication. I want to open a conversation. Now, the word “conversation” is very interesting. It comes from a Proto-Indo-European root that means “to turn toward”. When we are in conversation, genuine conversation, we must turn toward one another. This turning is not simply a turning of our bodies. It is a turning of ourselves, of our whole selves, toward one another. True conversation is about the speech of one heart with another. True conversation is akin to aesthetic arrest.

This form of conversation is not easy. It can disturb the soul. In fact, it should disturb the soul because it is in conversation with another that we discover that the Self in me is the same as the Self in thee. This knowledge is the essence of Divine Love, Agapē, and that discovery is always life-changing. Sometimes the change is huge and sometimes it is not, but an encounter with Divine Love cannot leave one unchanged.

So, yes, I do care whether or not my published work is read. And I do care whether I am able actually to publish what I write for others to read. At this level, writing is, for me, an act of religious art, and for that act to be complete requires that there be an other with whom I am in true conversation. And how can I have a conversation alone in the loneliness of my study?

On the Art of Writing

I recently posed a question on my Facebook page: What’s the difference between having blog that no one reads and not having a blog? The responses were interesting, the consensus being that one should write for oneself even if no one ever reads it. Somewhere Elie Wiesel made a similar point only more eloquently: “I write more in order to understand than to be understood.”

But if I am writing only for myself and simply don’t care whether anyone reads it, I don’t need to bother with a blog. I can set up personal diary on my computer. I could even give it a complicated password to insure that no one reads it and write there to my heart’s content. Somehow that does not much appeal to me. I suggest there is more to the art of writing than self-reflection.

Look again at that quotation from Wiesel: “I write more in order to understand than to be understood.” The whole thing in contained in that single word “more”. He is not writing simply for himself. He is also writing to be understood. He is also writing because he has something to say to people, and therefore he also cares that he has an audience beyond himself.

In the final analysis, a blog is a form of publication, and publication is a form of communication. A blog is somewhat like a short magazine article or an op-ed piece except that it is more or less self-published. One does not simply write a blog and put it away. One also publishes it. That’s what makes it a blog rather than a diary.

I don’t understand why anyone would publish something and not care whether or not it was read. Why publish—why write at all—if you are not interested in communication? Perhaps some writers truly don’t care, but I have to admit that I am not one of them. I do care whether or not what I write is read.

There is an aesthetic behind this. Art is, among other things, a form of communication, and therefore art needs an audience. What’s the difference between not writing, say, an opera and writing an opera that you immediately put up on a shelf, never show to anyone, and forget about? What’s the difference between not carving a sculpture and carving one that you immediately destroy?

To be sure, all of us who create sometimes consider our creation and give up on it because it does not really say what we want said. We learn to do better for having these “failures”, because they are like editing our work. But even these failures are aimed at an ultimate creation that does say what we want and is presented to an audience. Art without an audience is, I think, unfinished.

And so, yes I do care whether my blog is read. I care because I write also in order to communicate. I care because I believe I have something interesting to say to people and want to engage my readers. If no one reads what I write, I have failed to communicate and the creative act of writing remains incomplete. I may as well not have written.

Of course it could be that I really do not have anything interesting to say. It could be that I do not write well enough to say things in an interesting way. It could be that the art of writing simply eludes me. But how would I know if no one reads what I write and says something about it?

Or so I think.

Is Trump Fit to be Our President?

In my last blog post, I asked myself whether Trump was fit to govern the American people, and answered that he is not. This time I want to look outside of America and ask whether he is competent to be our top diplomat.

“Wait. I thought the Secretary of State was the top diplomat.” Well, yes and no. The Secretary of State has to follow the policies and orders of the President. If the President has no understanding of the realities of diplomacy, then those policies and orders are unlikely to result in workable agendas for the Secretary. An undiplomatic President is unlikely to lead a diplomatic administration. And, of course, the President is sometimes called upon to work directly with the heads of state of other nations. (Think Cuban Missile Crisis or the Camp David Accords.)

An effective President, then, must have a firm grasp of diplomacy, and the core of diplomacy is the ability to be firm yet yielding. One must be able to hold one’s position while being willing to move toward the other party, recognizing that the other party is also holding its position. The goal is not being sure that your position prevails, but reaching a mutually acceptable agreement. In short, diplomacy is not about winning; it is about agreeing. (Comes to that, it’s arguable that the same thing is true of effective governing, especially in a democratically governed nation.)

There are three things (at least) that diplomacy requires. The first is patience. A diplomat cannot hurry things along to the point that the other party is pushed into an intractable corner. On the contrary, one must be able to listen carefully and understand what the other party’s position actually is. And a diplomat must find ways to assure that the other party feels listened to, feels heard, and feels appreciated.

The second quality is imperturbability. A diplomat cannot fly off the handle or appear to be flummoxed, angered, dismissive, put off guard, or be visibly upset, unless it is by design. To be sure these things can sometimes be useful tactics, but those situations are relatively rare. Good diplomacy requires that one remain calmly firm in the face of what often appears to be a brick wall of disagreement but usually is not. It is simply the other party also being firmly calm. But when imperturbability meets patience, each side begins to find that the brick wall has cracks that can be widened into agreement.

And that brings us to the third quality. One must be able to recognize what is core to one’s position and what is expendable. Since diplomatic solutions to problems very rare involve getting everything that one wants, one must be able to see what is essential and what is expendable or can be put off for the time being, and this in both one’s own stance and in the other party’s stance. It is rare that one can get this without giving up that. These less essential points are the cracks that lead to agreement. Without this ability, one falls into the mistake of insisting on getting everything (winning), and agreement becomes impossible.

Has Trump all three of these qualities? Is he patient? No. Is he imperturbable? No. Has he the ability to see what is core and what is expendable? No. Well, can he at least be firm yet yielding? No. Does he understand the difference between winning and agreeing? No. Has he ever shown any diplomatic ability at all? No. Imagine him leading a diplomatic effort while imagining the he is the only one who understand the situation and what can lead to peace.

In short Trump Is not fit to our President. Or so I think.

IS Trump Fit to Be President? Part 1

It’s easy to caricature Donald Trump, too easy for my comfort. The man is a buffoon, pure and simple. Reminds me rather of the character Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, the father of the famous brothers in Dostoevski’s novel. And that is not a good thing. Certainly didn’t turn out well for Fyodor Pavlovich. He died friendless and held in contempt by most who knew him.

But there is so much more to dislike about Trump than his buffoonery. He is manipulative. He cheats; he lies; he steals. He is a cruel, arrogant bully of the worst sort, taking apparent delight in hurting people. He thinks customs, rules, and laws don’t apply to him. He has no compassion and is disrespectful and contemptuous of people he thinks are weak. (And he seems to think that everyone but he is weak.) He is selfish, stingy, and cowardly. He is racist, sexist and homophobic. In short, he seems to personify and appeal to the worst in American culture.

His attacks on the Khan family illustrate lack of understand of human nature. There is a difference between disagreement and attack that he does not understand. It is true that Mr. Khan expressed himself in strong terms, but all his rhetoric was in the expression of disagreement. Trump response to that disagreement was to attack Mr. Khan’s sincerity, honesty and credibility. And if that was not enough, Trump also tried to belittle Mrs. Khan.

And now ABC news is reporting that he seems to think he has earned a Purple Heart. And why does he seem to think that? Well you might ask. Because a vet gave it to him. A vet gave it to him?! You earn a Purple Heart for being wounded in action, and he has never been any where near combat. He may now own a purple heart, but he has certainly not earned it. Trump hasn’t the slightest idea what military discipline is about or what it means to be in the service. (There is a reason, after all, why it is called the military service.)

Trump claims to be a Christian. The core of the Christian message, as I understand it, is love. Jesus taught us in every action he took and everything he uttered, to love one another. The most important teaching from the Torah? Love God and love one another. How shall we treat our enemies? Love your enemies and pray for those that persecute you. Whom shall we serve? Even the least among you. The list goes on and on.

I cannot speak to Trump’s love of God, but his actions certainly belie any claim he may make to loving his neighbor or loving his enemies (who are, in his eyes, anyone who has the temerity to disagree with him). And far from serving the least among us, he heaps contempt on the majority of Americans as “loosers”.

One final point about this, though. We all know the story of the rich young man who asked Jesus what he must do in order to be saved. By the end of the conversation, Jesus told him that he must sell all that he had and give it to the poor, something the young man simply could not do. And Jesus’ remark was “It is easier for a camel to through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” Anyone want to place any bets on Trumps ability to sell all that he has and give it to the poor?

There is absolutely no way this man is fit to govern the American people. Or so I think.