Posted by: Dan | December 8, 2011

November Books

I had been feeling a little uninspired in my reading lately and then realized that, apart from research for my Paul book, I hadn’t really been engaging biblical studies too much.  I did some reading in that area this month and remembered how much I love it.  For whatever reason, I just really enjoy that genre.  Some good reading this month.  Reviews are also longer this month, but that’s not a bad thing, in my opinion.

1. Jesus, Paul, and Power: Rhetoric, Ritual, and Metaphor in Ancient Mediterranean Christianity by Rick F. Talbott (2010).

Many thanks to the kind folks at Wipf and Stock for this review copy.

Within this book, Rick Talbott “explores how Jesus and Paul responded to and used power to address various issues of conflict in their own communities” (p2).  Over against prior scholars, that have tended to defend one of two poles — on one side arguing that Jesus and Paul exercised a dominating form of “power-over” others and, on the other side, that Jesus and Paul empowered others by sharing “power-with,” Talbott proposes a more nuanced third alternative.  In order to engage in such a study, Talbott employs an interdisciplinary, cross-cultural methodology that relies especially upon social-scientific, feminist, rhetorical, and postcolonial criticisms.  All of this is explained in the first chapter.  The next two chapters are devoted to Jesus, the fourth and fifth chapters focus on Paul, and the final section is a conclusion that highlights some of the similarities and differences regarding the ways in which Jesus and Paul responded to and used power.

Within the section about Jesus, Talbott pushes back against, and enriches, multiple streams of scholarship.  First of all, Talbott pushes back against the now dated form of Conservative or traditional Jesus scholarship that sees Jesus as divorced from any economic or political interests or actions.  Jesus, as has now been firmly established in New Testament scholarship, was a member of an oppressed minority who embraced the interests of other oppressed people and gave his life in a struggle against the death-dealing powers and institutions of his day — notably the imperial colonizing force of Rome and the base of Jewish power that was rooted at the Jerusalem temple, which was working hand-in-glove with Rome to profit themselves and oppress the people.

Secondly, however, over against historical critical scholars who tend to stress the positive and life-giving side of the movement that gathered around Jesus (notably, Richard Horsley), Talbott emphasizes the difficulties Jesus would have caused, not only for those who chose to participate in the fictive kinship he helped to establish but also for any who were related to those Jesus-followers (from relatives to other members of the local community.  This is largely the focus of Chapter Two (entitled, “Nazareth’s Rebellious Son”).  Precisely because Jesus was instrumental in the organization of an alternative group that was “antikyriarchal”– that is to say, a movement that resisted the various networks of power, control, and domination that were inscribed in Jesus’ context through everything from gender relationships, to one’s economic status, to one’s state of physical and religious health and purity, to cultural conceptions of honour, shame, and kinship, and to the all pervasive pyramids of patronage and benefaction — those who gathered around Jesus were bound to suffer.  By challenging the inscribed social order, Jesus and his companions would have suffered shame, economic losses, and potentially death (given that economic losses would be devastating to folks who were living at or near the subsistence level, which is where Jesus and most of his companions would have been situated).  This is what occurs in Nazareth in the story told in Lk 4.16-29, which Talbott links to the Torah’s prescription for dealing with rebellious children, as described in Deut 21.18-21. Therefore, against the sometimes overly optimistic visions presented of the new family and new economy that was formed in the Jesus movement, Talbott stresses that Jesus did not simply “rescue peasants from economic hardship” but actually brought further economic hardships onto those who were already poor (p39).  What is interesting about Talbott’s presentation here is that he highlights the ways in which this may have also devastated the families of those who left to follow Jesus.  Not only would those families lose honour in a community wherein honour was everything but a family living at or near the subsistence level may have been unable to survive if it lost a son who was capable of working and assisting in the provision of food.  Hence, Talbott asks a fascinating question: “why did Jesus appear to be so callously insouciant towards the plight of Zebedee and other families, including his own, left to endure such losses in honor and economic status?” (p54).

Thirdly, in the next chapter, dealing with the eunuch pericope in Mt 19.3-12, Talbott argues against some feminist counterimperial scholars who have postulated that Jesus (subtly and perhaps unintentionally) reinscribed kyriarchal and patriarchal power dynamics into the fictive kinship he helped to create.  Talbott notes a number of antikyriarchal teachings and practices both as described in Jesus’ ministry and as emphasized in the Matthean narrative — from downplaying the significance of Jesus’ birth father, to emphasizing that only God is the father in the new community, to connecting Jesus to Sophia, to supporting the establishment of antikyriarchal meals, to teaching against standard gender hierarchies in marriage (cf. pp74-79, 87-88).  Talbott sees this as supporting a consistent antikyriarchal/antipatriarchal ethic in the Jesus community.  Hence, he see the eunuch teaching in Mt 19 — the assertion that men must become like eunuchs in the kingdom of God — to mean that men must give up the authority and status that society has granted them in relation to women if they are to participate in the new family of God.

Turning to Paul, Talbott first spends one chapter summarizing various scholarly perspectives on Paul and power, before turning to examining Paul’s approach “in [Paul’s] own words” by doing a brief case study of some of the issues that come to the fore in 1 Cor.  In his survey of scholarly approaches to Paul, Talbott pays especial attention to those who have employed Foucauldian lenses to reading and analyzing Paul’s letters (cf. esp. p102-118).  These critics have the advantage of being more nuanced and careful readers than earlier scholars who tended to read Paul in more black or white terms (i.e. Paul as a kyriarchal misogynist or Paul as a proto-feminist).  However, Talbott feels that these critics have still not adequately captured the “bifurcated” and “vacillating” approach Paul takes to power, nor do they pay sufficient attention to the circumstances that prompt Paul’s vacillations.  Therefore, Talbott proposes a reading of Paul wherein kyriarchy and “kyridoularchy” coexist in a contentious dynamic wherein neither one eviscerates the other (p118).  “Kyridoularchy” is a term Talbott creates in order to describe a way of utilizing power in order to serve and elevate those within the fictive kinship of the body of Christ who have less status or honour (cf. pp99-100).  Thus, while Paul was striving to create a community of equals, wherein everybody was ascribed equal honour and value, he would still employ kyriarchal power and rhetoric in order to fight against any who did not share that goal and who challenged him and sought to reinscribe other hierarchies into the body of Christ (cf. pp126-27).

In the subsequent chapter, Talbott looks at some representative conflicts in 1 Cor in order to demonstrate how this plays out in Paul’s own words.  Specifically he looks at matters related to marriage and sexuality (1 Cor 7), matters related to Paul’s own representation of his authority (1 Cor 9) and Paul’s words on how table fellowship was being practiced in Corinth (1 Cor 11).  One of the central points Talbott makes here is that, because Paul employs kyriarchal methods and rhetoric in order to support kyridoularchy, the signs of kyriarchy that we see in Paul’s letter cannot be used to justify any kyriachal practices today (cf. p161).

By way of conclusion Talbott summarizes the similarities and differences between the ways Jesus and Paul responded to and handled power within their communities and the conflicts they negotiated there.  The fundamental difference, Talbott argues, is that Paul still sought to redeploy (kyriarchal) power as kyridoularchy, and so is somewhat bifurcated and vacillating in his approach, whereas Jesus was much more thoroughgoing in his rejection of any kyriarchal structures or practices (cf. pp167-68).

All in all, this was a really excellent book.  I appreciated Talbott’s nuanced approach and feel that he did a better job of making sense of Paul and power than a lot of prior efforts.  My only (substantial) objection to Talbott’s presentation is his understanding of the relationship of material loss of poverty to membership within the community that gathered with Jesus and Paul.  On multiple occasions, Talbott feels that it is necessary to stress the observation that neither Jesus nor Paul “seems to have required those who served as patrons to relinquish their means and become poor as a standard requirement” (p164).  Or, again: “Jesus did not require all disciples to become wandering, itinerant disciples who left their families to follow him in an ascetic life of poverty” (p49); and “patrons like Zacchaeus would suffer some depletion of their holdings but would not have necessarily become poor, let alone destitute” (p59).  While this may be true, and while Talbott mitigates some of what he is saying by pointing out the ways in which even patrons like Zacchaeus may have been drawn into a threatening trajectory of downward mobility by giving to the Jesus movement (cf.p63), I still feel that Talbott doesn’t adequately grasp what is occurring in this regard.

In order to explain this, it is worth comparing the Jesus Movement to the Occupy Movement.  Who are the members of the Occupy movement?  Well, at one level, any member of the “99%” is represented by the movement.  However, within that 99% of our general population, different people participate to varying degrees.  Some people will only attend the major rallies.  Some people will go to a General Assembly five days a week.  Some people will actually set up a tent at an occupied site and dedicate most of their time and their energy to the movement.  They key point to realize here has two sides: first, that all of the groups of people mentioned are, in fact, members of the Occupy movement but, second, the goal of the movement is for people to become ever more involved in the struggle and in participation at ground level.

A similar thing is happening with the Jesus movement.  Who are the members of the Jesus movement?  Well, at one level, Jesus is claiming that all of Israel is represented in the movement (the “99%”).  On another level, there were those who would participate when the movement passed through their locality.  On still another level, there were those who chose to leave their villages and families behind to live and travel with the Jesus movement.  All, of course, are members of the Jesus movement, but, just as with the Occupy movement, the goal was for people to become ever more involved in the struggle and in participation at ground level.

With this in mind, we can see how Talbott’s observation is accurate — yes, not all the people involved in the movement participated, gave or risked to the same extent — but misses the intention of the movement (which was for all to participate fully so that all could have full and abundant life).

Finally, in relation to this matter of Jesus and poverty, Talbott states that Jesus did not “concentrate on the marginalized or the destitute in general to make up the bulk of his movement” (p49).  This is an odd assertion to make, within the context of Talbott’s book because, apart from a few people, like Zacchaeus or some wealthy women mentioned by Luke, everybody else mentioned in the Jesus movement appears to be precisely from that socioeconomic location.  It seems to me that Jesus does concentrate on precisely that group of people, as examplified in his “mission statement” in Lk 4, and so when Talbott makes this sort of assertion, without seriously backing it up and then going on to assert things that appear to disprove it, I’m left a little puzzled.

However, don’t let these few criticisms take away from any of the strengths of this book.  I enjoyed reading it very much and recommend it to others.

2. From Patmos to the Barrio: Subverting Imperial Myths by David A. Sánchez.

In this award-winning book, David A. Sánchez explores the ways in which those who ave been subjugated by the myths of the dominant, take those myths and reshape them in a manner that subtly subverts them in order to meet the interests of the subjugated while simultaneously producing the illusion of acquiescence.  He does this by look at the story of the woman and the dragon deployed in Rev 12, which then becomes the foundation for myths that rise about the Virgin of Guadalupe in 17th century Mexico, which in turn is the foundation for the prominence of images of the same Virgin in Chican@ art that appeared in East L.A. in the 1960s and ’70s (where Sánchez was born and raised).  Thus, the book is divided into three main sections. First, Sánchez examines the ways in which John’s narrative subverts imperial Roman ideology by redeploying the story of Apollo slaying Python (which had been incorporated into a pro-Augustan myth), by telling a similar story in a manner that undercuts Roman imperialism in order to push the messianism of the early Jesus movement.

Second, this passage from John’s Apocalypse then becomes the foundation for the stories of the Virgin of Guadalupe that arose in Mexico in the 17th century, especially amongst the Creoles (who were considered second-class, and potentially dangerous, citizens by Spaniards born in Spain).  Although the Virgin was originally deployed as an advocate of Spanish nationalism, imperialism, and conquest, the Creoles (and some indigenous Mexicans) redeploy that myth in a manner that undercuts the Spanish ideology and promotes an ideology that favours the oppressed.

Finally, Sánchez argues that something similar occurs in the deployment of images of the Virgin which were deployed by members of the Chican@ movement that appeared in East L.A. in the 1960s and ’70s.  Over against American nationalism, imperialism, and conquest — especially buttressed by a mythology of manifest destiny (well exemplified in the painting, “American Progress,” by John Gast, which Sánchez deploys in his text — and which is interesting to compare with other stories of American Progress as told in, for example, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee or Stolen Continents), Sánchez argues that the Chican@ movement utilized images of the Virgin of Guadalupe to support an Mexican ideology of independence, nationalism, and chosenness.

Sánchez then concludes by offering some remarks upon postcolonial theories — especially as developed by Homi Bhabha and James C. Scott — and stresses the importance of creating antimythologies in a counterimperial project of resistance and liberation.

I enjoyed reading this book.  It is always good to see scholars who critically engage both the biblical texts and our own histories and moments within history.  Would that more scholars were engaging in this sort of endeavour, especially with some of the postcolonial and counterimperial lenses and tactics that Sánchez deploys.  I do, however, have a few critical questions I would like to raise.

First of all, I want to question Sánchez approach to the creation of antimythologies and the kind of subversive work that he encourages, especially by means of (what Bhabha terms) hybridity and mimicry.  It seems to me that is is overly optimistic about what this sort of project and and what it can accomplish.  Some representative quotes should help bring this out.  In describing Jewish and Christian adaptations of the Apollo/Python dragon-slayer myth, Sánchez writes that “[t]he genius of these two adaptations is that they both employ important aspects of imperial propoganda in a completelysubversive way” (p46; emph. added).  This isn’t the only time that Sánchez describes this approach as “genius” and he thinks that it is not only genius in and of itself but also in relation to other tactics employed in resistance.  Thus, he writes that “resistance is most commonly accomplished with subtle acts of subversion, rather than outright rebellion or revolt” and to the important thing to do is to “undermine not the structures of oppression but the ideologies that stood behind those structures” (p74; emph. added).  This is why Sánchez stresses that one should engage in a counterimperialism rather than an anti-imperialism (cf. p120).  He writes: “To create an antimythology is as futile as armed resistance, so instead, they choose to create a countermythology… This form of resistance is realistic and brilliant. It has proved so effective historically, that it is a phenomenon that has transcended time and cultures” (p122).  Therefore, in his concluding remarks about Bhabha’s notions of hybridity and mimicry, Sánchez presents an overwhelming positive perspective: one that sees hybridity and mimicry and unambiguously good and brilliant forms of subversion, for, quoting Aschroft et al., in their reader on postcolonialism, mimicry can “locate a crack in the certainty of colonial discourse” and is “always potentially destabilizing to colonial discourse” (p118).  While for Ashcroft et al. the world “potentially” operates as an important modifier of the destabilization that mimicry might produce, for Sánchez it is almost as though the word “potentially” is removed and mimicry becomes “always potentially destabilizing to colonial discourse.”

The problem here is twofold: first, Sánchez is overly optimistic about subversion by means of the production of countermythologies in and of itself, and Sánchez is too pessimistic about other means of resistance or subversion that involve more direct action.

Beginning with Sánchez’s overly optimistic view of countermythologies and subversion by means of hybridity and mimicry it must be emphasized that, by utilizing the discourse, images, and tools of the dominant, oppressed people often carry forward violent, discriminatory, and exclusionary views and practices into their countermythologies.  Redeploying, albeit in a subverted or warped manner, the myths of the dominant still ends up producing domination.  Often this redeployment simply changes up who are to be dominant and who are to be dominated — it does not challenged the fundamental context of domination itself.  So, yes, there may be exploitable “cracks” in the discourse of colonial domination, but that may not point to a crack in overall context of domination.  This is part of the reason why, for example, so many liberatory revolutionary movements end up reinscribing violence, terror and oppression after they overthrow the previously dominant powers (so, for example, the legacies of the French revolution, wherein the bourgeois sell-out the proletariat — and fight against the Haitians who revolted based upon the belief in “liberté, égalité, fraternité”, which the French clearly believed only belonged to those who were white and not below the bourgeois class — the American revolution — which led to American imperialism both now and (for example) against the indigenous people from the moment of its inception — or the Russain revolution — wherein a push for freedom from the dictatorial power of the Tsar quickly leads to Lenin’s incarceration of the Anarchists or the famous Stalinist purges — and so on).

Now there are at least two things intrinsic to Sánchez’s project that should have brought this challenge to his attention, so I find it somewhat perplexing that he is as optimistic as he is.  First of all, studies of the New Testament, and especially of John’s Apocalypse, have increasingly raised the questions of how folks like the author of the Apocalypse (or of the letters penned in the name of Paul) may be trying to work in a subversive manner but may still, despite their best intentions, be replicating oppressive structures and expressions of power, even as they try to work against the death-dealing imperialism of their day.  Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza has done a lot of work to bring this project into focus in her rhetorical analysis of the New Testament and with her emphasis upon the notion of kyriarchy, which seeks to extend feminist analyses of patriarchy into the broader webs of power, control, and domination that operate within a given milieu (Schüssler Fiorenza has also written explicitly on John’s Apocalypse so I find it odd that Sánchez did not engage her).  Thus, for example, while claiming to be participants within a movement wherein life triumphs over death and those in bondage are liberated, John’s Apocalypse still seems to require God to violently overthrew, destroy, and massacre, the enemies of the movement.  So, sure, mimicry and hybridity may be at work here, but it is pure, genius, unadulterated subversion?  No.

The second thing that should bring this to the attention of Sánchez is his study of the ways in which the Creoles deployed the Virgin of Guadalupe in the 17th century.  The Creoles, so Sánchez tells us, created a countermythology that not only combated the dominant ideology of the Spaniards but also sought to undercut any indigenous claims to the apparition tradition (cf. pp75-76).  Now, the Creoles (Spaniards born in Mexico) were marginalized and lacked some of the power and authority granted to those who were born in Spain but were not nearly as decimated or oppressed as the indigenous people themselves were.  So, what you see is the redeployment of the Virgin tradition not in order to bring liberation to the oppressed (like the indigenous people) but in order to favour the interests of a relatively marginalized subset of the elite — and the tradition is redeployed in a way that explicitly tries to negate the myth from being appropriated by oppressed people (cf. pp75-76). Sánchez never explains how this observation fits into his optimistic reading of this form of subversion (thus, while Sánchez identifies himself as a postcolonial critic over against some liberation theologians who may not be sufficiently critical of oppressive power structures that are perpetuated within the biblical texts [cf. p125], it seems that he is not sufficiently critical of his own sources).

Thus, in and of itself, subversion through the production of countermythologies does not seem to be the glorious agent of salvation that Sánchez takes it to be.  Is it “completely subversive”?  No.  Is its historical track record as brilliant and glorious as Sánchez suggests?  No (as our revolutionary examples make clear).

Similarly, I am unsure as to why Sánchez is so critical of other tactics that may be employed to pursue life-giving change.  Why should one attack the ideologies of oppression but not the structures of oppression?  Why is armed resistance futile?  Seems to me that Sánchez is picking and choosing what he wants to see in the historical record.  Armed resistance has often been successful — in fact, as Todd Gordon suggests in Imperialist Canada, the First Nations people in Canada have pretty much only and exclusively been successful in defending their land claims when they have engaged in armed resistance.  Furthermore, Sánchez also ignores the ways in which a diversity of tactics, employed by various groups at the same moment, actually tend to produce greater success for a common goal.  Thus, for example, the civil rights movement in the United States achieved what limited success it was able to achieve in part because the Black Panthers were simultaneously trying to arm the ghettos.

Additionally, shouldn’t assaults upon ideologies ultimately lead to assaults upon structures?  Shouldn’t we cross that line at some point?  Or does Sánchez think that structures will simply crumble and disappear (structures that exist in order to buttress the already massive wealth and power of some people–people who will kill to maintain that wealth and power, regardless of what others believe) once some people start espousing a different ideology?  That strikes me as naive.  Doesn’t ideological criticism seek to inspire new actions and doesn’t an ideology of resistance seek to inspire actions of resistance?

Furthermore, isn’t is suspiciously self-serving for a person rooted in the Academy — i.e. a person situated in a place of (relatively) high status and wealth — to suggest that the way things are overthrown is by producing texts (which the academic is paid to produce) and not be acting to massively overhaul the system?  Doesn’t this ideology permit an academic to say any sort of radical text, while simultaneously benefiting from the death-dealing status quo?  Thus, the academic does not need to change his or her socioeconomic location, but can continue to benefit from the way things are while believing that s/he is on the cutting-edge of producing life-giving change.  Like I said, this strikes me as suspicious and so assertions like those Sánchez makes about fighting ideologies versus fighting structures need to be supported by a sustained argument.  Here, perhaps Sánchez’s inability to recognize the compromised nature of most countermythologies makes it difficult for him to recognize the compromised nature of his own context (or vice versa… or both).

This, then, leads me to my final critical question for Sánchez.  Sánchez writes that he chooses to employ postcolonial criticism because it is practical, praxis-oriented, and liberative (p8).  What is unclear to me is how exactly this book meets those criteria.  Perhaps Sánchez would respond by saying it meets those criteria in that it encourages people to subversively engage the mythologies of the dominant on behalf of the dominated… but all of that practical, liberative praxis remains on the domain of the word or letter — the sign and symbol.  What I do not see, is much cross over into concrete action (I am reminded of the following exchange in Camus’ Les Justes, a play about a group of Russian conspirators planning to blow up a member of the Tsar’s family.  The first character states that one of the conspirators “dit que la poésie est révolutionnaire” to which another conspirator responds: “La bombe seule est révolutoinnaire”).

Anyway, lest my criticisms lead the reader to conclude I did not enjoy this book, let me be clear: I very much enjoyed this book, in part, because it prompted these thoughts in me.  I would be curious to see what Sánchez might say in response (and we were exchanging emails about a possible exchange), so perhaps this conversation will continue.

3. The Prostitute and the Prophet: Hosea in Literary-Theoretical Perspective by Yvonne Sherwood.

This book was a lot of fun to read.  Sherwood has a strong grasp on both the Old Testament text and contemporary approaches to deconstruction and literary theory.  Thus, she reads folks like Jamison, Eco, Rorty, Fish, Barthes, Saussure, Peirce, Kristeva and (most especially) Derrida, alongside of those who have commented on Hosea — from ancient Jewish sources, to contemporary biblical scholars, to modern playwrights.  There are a lot of riches to be found here and one of the strengths of Sherwood’s approach is the way in which she is able to explain complex notions or systems of thought in a manner that is both substantial and accessible to the uninitiated (I think).

Sherwood’s goal in this book is to explore why Hosea is seen as a problematic text.  In particular, she wants to know why readers react to this text in the ways that they have and why (some) readers highlight some elements of the — often confusing or contradictory — passages in Hos 1-3 and why they neglect other passages.  Of course, reading as a feminist critic, Sherwood is particularly interested in what these readings communicate about the ways in which gender and patriarchal hierarchies are inscribed within the story of the prophet and the “woman of harlotry” — a text produced and analyzed by men.  As an ideological critic, Sherwood is also interested in the ways in which readers of the text often wish to protect (one understanding of) God against another (possible) understanding of God communicated by Hos 1-3.

All in all, good reading.  I remember reading some of Sherwood’s essays a few years back in a book she co-edited called Derrida and Religion.  At that time I wasn’t too impressed with the whole endeavour, but it may have been because I didn’t understand nearly as much on that matter as I do now.  Maybe it just went over my head.

4. Essex County (a trilogy) by Jeff Lemire.

I have sometimes felt that I spoiled the graphic novel genre from the beginning by reading the very best book first.  Granted, it was the right book for the right time, but every since I read Craig Thompson’s Blankets, most graphic novels, including the most highly rated ones (likes Maus, or Epileptic, or Black Hole) have seemed at least a little disappointing (by the way, Thompson’s newest, and largest, offering, Habibi, has now been published!).  Then I stumbled onto Jeff Lemire’s Essex County Trilogy and finally, at long last, I discovered a book that at least rivals Blankets.  Lemire’s artistic style is quite different than Thompson’s — much less ornate, much more stripped down and bare — but he is able to do what Thompson does — convey very powerful emotions in very few words.  Lemire is particularly good at drawing out feelings of loneliness and longing and the desire to love others and be loved one’s self (a desire that often goes unmet because of circumstances beyond our control or flaws in our own characters that we don’t know how to overcome).

Part of what made this graphic novel interesting to me is that it is set in Essex County in southwestern Ontario, not too far from where I now live and where I once lived as a child.  The places, themes, and kinds of characters are familiar to me, on a personal level, so I’m sure that helped me to connect with the story.

That said, this is highly recommended reading.  Definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year and I will read it again before the year is out.

5. Septuagenarian Stew: Stories and Poems by Charles Bukowski.

My wife recently surprised me with this book — she found it in a bargain bin somewhere and pulled it out for me I (given that I flirt with some of Bukowski’s character traits and given that my wife would like me to go in a somewhat different direction, that was pretty generous of her).  I’ve kind of gone back and forth on what I think of him over the years, but I think I’ve gradually made my piece with enjoying his writing and I enjoyed this volume more than some of the others I’ve read.  Additionally, I actually quite enjoyed some of the poems contained here, and that was another pleasant surprise, given that I usually struggle to enjoy any poetry (apart from Rilke… see below).  Part of what I enjoyed here was the way in which Bukowski is able to capture the beauty of the things which other people see as destructive or immoral or disgusting.  When he writes about being an alcoholic, for example, one gets a glimpse of why people are alcoholics.  He doesn’t romanticize it — the poverty, and squalor, and hangovers, and sickness, all of that comes through — but he doesn’t demonize it either.  Hell, booze becomes like any close friend in your life — sometimes a cause of great grief, sometimes a cause of great joy, but mostly a faithful companion whom you wouldn’t trade for the world.

It seems to me that Bukowski understands brokenness, he understands that people are often overwhelmed by things greater than themselves, things outside of their control — like an abusive father, or an unfaithful spouse — and so we all bears up in our own ways, finds a way to survive and make it through til the next day, sometimes just getting by, sometimes breaking down, sometimes being able to forget everything and laugh for awhile, and sometimes choosing to end it all because it has become unbearable.  Bukowski seems to get all this, and seems to also get this: all the things that people do, as they try to struggle on or as they give up the fight completely, are okay.

Recommended reading.

6. Uncollected Poems by Rainer Maria Rilke.

After rereading the Duino Elegies and being struck by the amount of different material that jumped out at me (compared to the material that jumped out at me in my first readings), I thought I would reread this collection of poems.  I’m glad that I did.  It would be hard to tire of Rilke’s writings.  Here’s just one example:

Do you remember: falling stars, how
they leapt slantwise through the sky
like horses over suddenly held-out hurdles
of our wishes–had we so many?–
for stars, innumerable, leapt everywhere;
almost every look upward was wedded
to the swift hazard of their play,
and the heart felt itself a single thing
beneath that vast disintegration of their brilliance–
and was whole, as though it would survive them!

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Responses

  1. I think I’m going to have to try on Bukowski again. I remember not getting that into his poetry (in fact, I think you gave me a book of his), but it has been a while. A poet I enjoy quite a lot is e.e. cummings. Have you read any of him?
    cheers.

    • Yeah, it was that Bukowski volume that left me unimpressed as well… maybe this collection was simply better or maybe my tastes or context have changed enough for me to like him more (or both). If you do give him another go, I would suggest one of his semi-autobiographical works rather than the poetry (which is also semi-autobiographical).

      I haven’t read e.e. cummings. Some folks who also know and love Rilke have suggested I read some of that poetry as well, so I’m meaning to get there… just haven’t yet.


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