Posted by: Dan | August 31, 2011

August Books

Finished off a number of books this month.  Mostly lighter stuff, as I’ve been writing again (Hello, Paul-and-kinship-honour-patronage-economics-and-power-chapter!  It’s nice to finally meet you!).  Too lazy to proof-read right now… will follow-up later.

1. Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the “Saint of Calcutta” by Mother Teresa (ed. with commentary by Brian Kolodiejchuk).

Throughout her life, Mother Teresa made it a point of always submitting to the Roman Catholic hierarchy and chose to view her bosses as though they were Christ himself.  She would make her requests, plead her case, and then totally submit to their decisions — which they would make based upon criteria other than those Mother Teresa had chosen.

The publication of these private writings — letters, retreat notes, and so on — are a fine example of that sort of submission and authority.  Mother Teresa had begged her bosses to destroy these documents (she was always wishing for less and less of a focus upon herself as an object of any sort of interest) but they chose, instead, to publish them after she died.  They decided that the ways in which the writings would edify others trumped any thoughts Mother Teresa had about sharing her most intimate reflections.

Of course, like a vulture, I swooped in, disregarded what Mother Teresa requested, paid my money to the authorities who also disregarded her, and read the writings.  And, my goodness, it’s been a long time since I’ve felt as connected to a “religious” or “spiritual” text as I felt to this one.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I ain’t no Mother Teresa but, shoot, her reflections on godforsakenness absolutely capture what I have been experiencing the last three years.

Because this is what few people knew about Mother Teresa during her lifetime: ever since she founded the Missionaries of Charity at the end of the 1940s, she felt as though God had completely and utterly vanished from her life.  This feeling continued unabated until her death in the ’90s.  Part of what made that so devastating for her was that, prior to founding the Missionaries of Charity, she felt as though she was in constant intimate communion with God (and it was this communion, in their conversations, that drove her to founding the M.C.s).  This was the cornerstone of her life so when God vanished, she was left with a wound that never stopped hurting her.  Now, I won’t claim anything like what Mother Teresa experienced but, this is what I’ve been feeling as well.  The emptiness of the last three years has been hard, not just because they are empty, but precisely because I know what the alternative can be like — as she writes: “this darkness and emptiness is not as painful as the longing for God.”

Thus, she remains constantly on the edge of breaking — and speaks of no longer feeling any love or trust or faith — yet she persists with her labour, she continues to serve others, she tries to smile more and more… and for some reason those who come near to her feel as though they are closer to the presence of God.  A funny twist, no?

In thinking through the work Mother Teresa did and the changes she helped to create, it was startling to see how totally submissive she was to the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic church (which, we should recall, is just as death-dealing and corrupt as pretty much any other political or corporate hierarchy).  The catch is that it was (partly) be means of her submissive to this oppressive hierarchy that resulted in Mother Teresa being able to do what she did.  For those of us who want to more actively resist the death-dealing Powers this is a somewhat disconcerting observation…

Anyway, this is highly recommended reading.

2. The Twenty-Piece Shuffle: Why the Poor and Rich Need Each Other by Greg Paul.

A little while ago, somebody left a comment on my blog suggesting that the primary people saved by liberation theology are liberation theologians.  The theology they develop is ultimately their own road to salvation.  This comment came to mind while reading Greg Paul’s book — although full of many good stories, and obviously written with a lot of love for a lot of people — because it seems to me that the implicit theme of this book is really Greg’s defense of his own lifestyle in light of the work that he does.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with writing such self-reflective books (indeed, I think this is the implicit theme of a lot of writing — even outside of the realm of memoirs or autobiographies).  However, I do think Greg’s conclusions are problematical.  Before saying why, however, I should mention how much personal respect I have for Greg and the folks at Sanctuary — the place he helps to organize and run in Toronto.  I really to think Greg is a wonderful man and Sanctuary is one of two churches-that-call-themselves-churches that I think do an excellent job of actually being the way that churches should be (the other being The Mosaic here in Vancouver… in comparison to these two churches, every other one that I have attended falls far short).

That said, Greg’s argument in this book is pretty bad.  He remains strictly at the personal level of analysis and never moves beyond that to anything structural.  In fact, by writing in this way, Greg’s argument fits easily into the perpetuation of oppressive social structures.  This happens because Greg thinks that the poor and the rich need each other.  He shares stories about the brokenness of people on both sides of that divide, and he shares stories about how people have their lives enriched on both sides when they cross that divide and get to know others from different socioeconomic backgrounds.  Hence, their need for one another.

What Greg never does is challenge wealth and poverty, what creates it, what maintains it, in any sort of thoughtful manner.  In fact, his focus on the personal level of things, his assertion that the poor and the rich need each other, leads pretty straightforwardly to the conclusion that we need to live in a world (or in local communities) where there is always wealth and poverty.  According to this argument, there is no point in challenging that, no point in looking at moving beyond wealth and poverty to a community wherein there is neither poverty nor riches but enough for everybody (the sort of community that was to exist in Israel according to the Law and the Prophets, that was developed by Jesus in Palestine, and that Paul tried to expand into the Roman Empire).  Such a suggestion seems totally foreign to what Greg writes in this book.  Instead, Greg focuses on life stories, the personal divorced from the structural, and — despite many of his more “radical” stances — ends up writing a basic defense of the forms of charity that make a difference in the lives of individuals but end up perpetuating and strengthening the death-dealing status quo.

Finally, on a personal note, it’s interesting to observe how different it is for me to read stories like these now, compared to how I used to read them ten years ago.  When I was first getting involved with homeless folks, I read a number of journals or memoirs written by folks associated with this population.  Truth be told, at that time, a lot of the stories struck me as romantic, exotic, wonderful, and exciting.  Adventures dripping with pathos, ruptured by the in-breakings of Death or Life.  It’s a bit shameful to admit this (if I ever felt shame anymore…), since I was actively engaging in a process of Othering, dehumanizing and exploiting an already oppressed and vulnerable population by reading in this way.  Thankfully, I realized that I no longer read stories like those Greg offers in this way.  Having moved more and more into the context of the street-involved (in both “personal” and “professional” ways), the romance and exoticism have disappeared.  That’s probably a good thing, since what remains, more and more, is just people.  Peoples is peoples, to quote a character from one of the Muppet movies.

3. The Diaries of Louis Riel by Louis Riel (ed. by Thomas Flanagan).

So, given that I’ve been exploring more about the history of Canada’s First Nations’ people, the topic of the Northwest rebellion has always lingered around, and I stumbled onto Riel’s diaries in a bookshop and picked up a copy (I’d already read Chester Brown’s pretty fascinating graphic novel about Riel).  It comes through quite clearly in Riel’s diaries is that he was obviously very much committed to his religion (which began as Roman Catholicism, morphed into something of his own creation, and then kinda sorta returned to Catholicism in the end when he was trying to avoid execution).  The other thing that comes through pretty clearly is that Riel was a self-absorbed prick who thought he had some sort of divine calling that justified him in being a self-absorbed prick.  He speaks penitently and contritely about his “gluttony” or his drinking, but all this humility just masks (probably from Riel himself) that he seems to be largely motivated by a desire for wealth, status, and power.  God make me rich and smite my enemies!  Egad.  And all the time acting like he is on the side of the Natives, when really he only cares about the Métis (probably only because he is a Métis), and he has no vision of the Natives being present in the new nation he wishes to create.  Even then, despite all his revolutionary talk, he was still secretly writing letters to John A. MacDonald offering to sell-out the revolution.  Double egad.

It’s interesting to compare the diaries of Mother Teresa with those of Riel.  Some folks might be inclined to see them both as nuts based upon their visions, ecstatic experiences, voices or signs from God and so on.  Both also claimed to want to try and make a positive difference in the lives of people who were suffering and oppressed.  The major difference, is that Mother Teresa tried to abolish any sense of pride she had, whereas Riel was so in love with himself that he couldn’t even recognize how prideful he was.  I’m not saying that this is the only factor leading to the different end results they experienced (it’s not!), but I think it’s an interesting comparison.

4. Hope Dies Last: Keeping Faith in Difficult Times by Studs Terkel.

Studs Terkel is an historian who interviewed a good many of interesting people around America over the span of the twentieth century.  In this compilation — very roughly structured around the theme of hope — Terkel interviews everyone from politicians to priests, union organizers to veterans, activists to workers.  There are some big recognizable names who did big recognizable things, but there are also a good number of people who are unknown to the broader public who did just as big and exciting things.  It’s really a beautiful collection.  I often think there should be more work done to document and share the news of those who work in their own communities to create life-giving changes.  Personally, the section I think I found most interesting was when Terkel interviewed people — both students and (mostly illegal migrant) workers who became involved in in the movement for a living change for workers at Harvard, which occurred from around 1997-2001.  Like all major universities, Harvard (despite its billions of dollars in funding) employed migrant workers to do the cleaning and cooking and so forth.  These workers did not receive a living wage.  The students coordinated a number of efforts to try and change this policy and, after reviewing everything that was submitted the President of Harvard essentially said: “That’s an interesting idea but, no, we’re not going to give the workers a living wage.”  This prompted a moment of less-legal direct action, wherein about fifty students occupied some of the main admin space in the university for over twenty days.  The police tried unsuccessfully to remove them.  The President tried unsuccessfully to over to negotiate with them if they left (they refused — having already seen what happened with that kind of negotiation).

Along the way, and this is what I found so incredible about the story — the workers and the students united with each other.  Previously, the workers had been like an invisible non-human slave force to the students, and the workers had viewed the students as a bunch of rich assholes.  However, once students realized the humanity of the workers and once the workers realized the sincerity of the students, a wonderful community of creativity and resistance was born.  The end result?  A living wage for the workers.  And this caused a ripple effect throughout university campuses in the United States.  Wonderful stuff.  Now if only the students, or young activists, could be doing more in our time to be co-ordinating their efforts with the working classes and the poor…

5. Holocaust Poetry compiled by Hilda Schiff.

I’ve been trying to read a little more poetry lately, since falling in love with Rilke’s writings, and I figured it had been enough years since I touched this genre and, who knows, I might end up connecting with it more deeply than I have in the past.  Anyway, I don’t know if this collection was the best place to turn — it’s terribly sad and it feels almost sacrilegious to read and even more sacrilegious to review… so instead I’ll just post one poem from the collection, written by Lily Brett.  I think I was drawn to it because it circles around the unspeakable, without quite speaking it but, by doing so, thereby communicating something of it.  It’s called “My Mother’s Friend”:

my mother
had a schoolfriend
she shared the war with

my mother
looked after her friend
in the ghetto

she laid her out
as though she was dead
and the Gestapo overlooked her

in Auschwitz
she fed her friend snow
when she was burning with typhoid

and when
the Nazis
emptied Stuthof

they threw
the inmates
onto boats in the Baltic

and tried
to drown
as many as they could

my mother
and her friend
survived

in
Bayreuth
after the war

my mother’s friend
patted my cheeks
and curled my curls

and hurled herself
from the top
of a bank.

6. Baltasar and Blimunda by José Saramago.

I enjoyed reading Blindness awhile ago, and so I was feeling like a change of pace and tone (what with working through Proust) and so I thought I would pick up Saramago again.  I can’t say that I enjoyed this story all that much.  There were some moments when it felt like it had potential (especially early on) but nothing ever really materialized… it almost felt like Saramago didn’t really know where he was going with the story and so was just having fun rambling on with his descriptions, and lists, and names, and so forth.  I would suggest giving this one a pass.

7. Duino Elegies by Rainer Maria Rilke.

Speaking of Rilke, I decided I would reread the Duino Elegies.  I think they just get more rich and breath-taking with every reading.  There’s no point in even making little marks in the margins — the pages would just fill up.  I’ve decided that this is probably the closest thing to a perfect piece of writing that I have ever read.  Stunningly good.

8. Possible Side Effects by Augusten Burroughs.

A friend recommended this autobiographical series of sketches to me.  It’s in the same sad/comedic vein as some if the things written by David Sedaris.  Although I didn’t laugh a ton (when do I ever, right?), there were definitely parts that made me chuckle and Burroughs does a pretty decent job of entwining the painful or sorrowful with laughter and courage.  I liked it enough that I decided I would read his more famous book — Running With Scissors.  My wife told me to read it years ago, so I’ll see how that goes.

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Responses

  1. Yah I started translating a bit of Riel’s ‘theology’ from the French a while back (not really knowing anything of substance about him). It quickly became apparent the extent to which his original voice has been completely evacuated creating a disputed symbol of contemporary cultural capital (on whatever side). I suspect you have heard of the two statues of Riel in Winnipeg, the one as a dignified statesman the other as a naked and twisted soul.

  2. . . . perhaps a third statue of him as a self-indulgent prick will round things off.

    • To be fair, I really could be wrong about Riel. Maybe I was too overly put-off by his diaries… I don’t know. Seems to me that he embodies a lot of what goes wrong with some folks who get involved in active resistance. A good warning to us all.

  3. I doubt you are ‘wrong’ only that his life, actions and thought would not be reduced to his diaries. He is certainly a complex figure in the little bit of secondary literature I looked at.


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