The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘religion’

Painkillers, God, and America

June 18, 2014 | by

Let us pray. Photo: Jason Wojciechowski, via Flickr

According to the American Society of Interventional Pain Physicians, Americans consume 80 percent of the world’s painkillers—more than 110 tons of addictive opiates every year. As a writer in The Guardian put it, the U.S. must be a very painful place to live.

How much of that pain has been caused by soccer? Not much, at least not to begin with: an unlikely and magnificent 1-0 victory over England in World Cup 1950 (held then as now in Brazil) featured a bunch of part-timers putting the boot to the “Kings of Football.” It didn’t require so much as a baby aspirin. Since then, working on the “no pain no gain” principle so beloved of hackneyed American high-school football coaches, the U.S. has enjoyed a steady climb up the world rankings and some encouraging advances in international tournaments, including a World Cup quarter-final in 2002. Still, in the last sixty-four years, there have been more losses and draws—a draw in the U.S. means, as we all know, a loss—than wins. But not many Americans were following the team during all that. I imagine only a fraction of a ton of painkillers were consumed.

Now, though, after this week’s stirring 2-1 victory over Ghana, the 80-percenters are getting on-board big-time, and The New York Times is reporting that a majority of Americans are convinced, unlike their coach, that the USA can triumph in Brazil. The team is clearly riding for a fall, isn’t it? They play Portugal on Sunday. One would think it’s pass-the-Tylenol time. Read More »

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Always on Display: An Interview with Joshua Ferris

May 19, 2014 | by

cth-joshua-ferris-jpg-20140508

Photo: Beowulf Sheehan/Hachette Brown Group

“The mouth is a weird place,” says the dentist-narrator of Joshua Ferris’s new novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. “Not quite inside and not quite out, not skin and not organ, but something in between: dark, wet, admitting access to an interior most people would rather not contemplate—where cancer starts, where the heart is broken, where the soul may just fail to turn up.”

It’s not just dentists who peer into dark spaces. Fear that the soul may fail to turn up is everywhere in Ferris’s work. To date, he has explored the human search for soulfulness in the anonymizing ecosystem of an office (Then We Came to the End); in the repercussions of an isolating, untreatable disease (The Unnamed); and repeatedly in words themselves. A short story like “The Fragments,” published in The New Yorker last spring, is constructed from snippets of half-caught conversations. It takes as its subject the not-quite-bridgeable gap between overhearing and understanding, between the sound of a sentence and the meaning inside. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour turns this artistic interest in misunderstandings into an impressive investigation of faith and doubt. It’s a novel full of existential humor, and the laughs start before the book has even begun. Not many American writers, searching the Bible for an appropriate epigraph, would have found their eyes alighting on this one:

Ha, ha

—Job 39:25.

I met Ferris on a Friday afternoon in Brooklyn. We talked about his desire to shift his writing away from what he calls “the over-manufacture of the imagined” to a more “face value” approach. We also discussed the ways in which he envies the sense of belonging religion can offer, and why literary critics could afford to lighten up when it comes to funny fiction. “We don’t exist in the world solely to grow goatees and stroke them,” he told me. “We’re here also to make one another laugh.”

I heard that To Rise Again at a Decent Hour started its life as a detective novel called The Third Bishop. How did you find your way from that original idea into a novel about baseball and religion, narrated by a dentist?

Ten years ago, I was despairing of writing any book at all. I had about 250 pages of the novel that eventually became Then We Came to the End, and those pages were wanting. So I put them away and eventually gave myself over to a very different manuscript. It was about a kid who had been thoroughly indoctrinated into a cult and was convinced that his strange view was the worldview. I was interested in the borderland that exists between a cult and a religion, and especially fascinated by Joseph Smith and the evolution of Mormonism.

After Then We Came to the End and The Unnamed were published, I ended up coming back to that story of an indoctrinated kid. Slowly it evolved into the story of a private detective investigating a possibly ancient religion. In a way, the books you almost wrote on the way to finding the final novel will always be more interesting than the published version. They’re a more colorful record of the writer’s life. But with the help of my two editors I came to see that the private detective, who’s inherently a kind of mediating narrator, or a cipher, wasn’t working for me either. I needed a narrator right at the center of the novel, encountering the religion for himself. He eventually became a dentist because I need my characters to have jobs in order to feel real to me. People have to work. I thought, Why not make him a dentist? It doesn’t get any more real world than that. You’re getting in there every day and making shit bleed.Read More »

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A World Beyond the Glass: An Interview with Mary Szybist

April 8, 2014 | by

Image: Meilani Kirkwood, courtesy of Graywolf Press

Photo: Meilani Kirkwood, courtesy of Graywolf Press

Mary Szybist may not have been the best-known writer on the poetry shortlist for the 2013 National Book Award, but her book Incarnadine was ambitious and thoughtful enough to overcome this. Her second collection, after Granted (2003), Incarnadine comprises poems focused on the Annunciation. Szybist, who was raised Catholic, uses this intimate moment as an opportunity to explore the relationships between poetry and prayer and to explicate an encounter between the human and “the other”—something outside of human experience, be it nature or, in this case, God.

The National Book Award judges called Incarnadine “a religious book for nonbelievers.” It opens with an epigraph from Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace, which sums up Szybist’s approach to the project: “The mysteries of faith are degraded if they are made into an object of affirmation and negation, when in reality they should be an object of contemplation.” Receiving the award, she said, “There’s plenty that poetry cannot do, but the miracle, of course, is how much it can do, how much it does do.” I spoke with Szybist recently about religion, poetry, prayer, and the meaning of her name.

Incarnadine deals with the Annunciation—the visitation of Mary by the angel Gabriel, who tells her that she will have God’s son—and the implications and meaning of such an event. It’s an encounter between the human and something beyond human understanding. Your book is an attempt to describe the indescribable through poetry—which is something that prayer can do, also.

Prayer is one way to do this—and yes, I have thought about the connections between poetry and prayer for a long time, and sometimes I am even tempted to believe that they are similar engagements. When I was young, I reached a point where I found myself unable to pray. I was devastated by it. I missed being able to say words in my head that I believed could be heard by a being, a consciousness outside me. That is when I turned to poetry.

I have always been attracted to apostrophe, perhaps because of its resemblance to prayer. A voice reaches out to something beyond itself that cannot answer it. I find that moving in part because it enacts what is true of all address and communication on some level—it cannot fully be heard, understood, or answered. Still, some kinds of articulations can get us closer to such connections—connections between very different consciousnesses—and I think the linguistic ranges in poetry can enable that. Read More »

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Seeing Is Believing

November 26, 2013 | by

idaholarge

Sandpoint, Idaho.

ROBINSON

No, a mystical experience would be wasted on me. Ordinary things have always seemed numinous to me. One Calvinist notion deeply implanted in me is that there are two sides to your encounter with the world. You don’t simply perceive something that is statically present, but in fact there is a visionary quality to all experience. It means something because it is addressed to you. This is the individualism that you find in Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. You can draw from perception the same way a mystic would draw from a vision. 

INTERVIEWER

How would one learn to see ordinary things this way?

ROBINSON

It’s not an acquired skill. It’s a skill that we’re born with that we lose. We learn not to do it.

—Marilynne Robinson, the Art of Fiction No. 198

 

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“I Would Like to Write a Beautiful Prayer”

November 12, 2013 | by

Martha Sprieser, Flannery O’Connor’s roommate at the University of Iowa (Flannery O’Connor Collection, Special Collections, Georgia College Library, Milledgeville, Georgia)

Credit: Martha Sprieser, Flannery O’Connor’s roommate at the University of Iowa (Flannery O’Connor Collection, Special Collections, Georgia College Library, Milledgeville, Georgia).

Flannery O’Connor was a believer. It was at the end of every story: the appearance of holy ghosts, fiery furnaces, judgment day. It was in the twist of her knife. The way she would jam it in a character’s gut, turn it, then rip it up. To make sure she got all the vital organs. The end of “A Good Man is Hard to Find”—“‘Shut up, Bobby Lee,’ The Misfit said. ‘It’s no real pleasure in life’”—is the most Catholic thing ever.

While she was writing what would become Wise Blood, she was also writing A Prayer Journal. Literally, journal entries written during her time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, addressed to the Lord and asking for his help getting published. “Please let Christian principles permeate my writing and please let there be enough of my writing (published) for Christian principles to permeate,” she wrote. Also she kind of thought of God as a crazy lover. From November 23, 1947: “Dear Lord, please make me want You. It would be the greatest bliss. Not just to want You when I think about You but to want You all the time, to have the want driving in me, to have it like a cancer in me. It would kill me like a cancer and that would be the Fulfillment.” I am also from the South. I am also a writer. God was never anyone special. No one in my family took religion seriously. Read More »

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Kristin Dombek’s “Letter from Williamsburg”

July 26, 2013 | by

Pordenone_Holy_Trinity

Il Pordenone, The Holy Trinity

This essay may sound strange, read by a man—it is very specifically a woman’s essay. But Dombek’s voice is so powerful, every time I read “Letter from Williamsburg,” I hear it in my head. It’s like a song I want to sing along to. In fact, I remember reading the first two paragraphs to our Southern editor, John Jeremiah Sullivan, over the phone, before the rest of the essay was written. I wanted him to hear how beautifully Dombek modulates her tone from the sublime to the mundane. I only wish I could do justice to the music on the page.

Read the full essay in our Summer 2013 issue.

 

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