Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Don DeLillo’

I preached about prophecy this morning at Mass. I was provoked (I won’t say inspired) by the whole non-Mayan non-apocalypse non-event that was Friday 21 December 2012. It shows how even an urban myth that becomes an uber-trending news story can stimulate some helpful reflection.

the end is not for a while by voteprime

Part of the attraction of the ‘crazy religious people waiting for the end of time’ story is that it seems to pit crazy religious people against un-crazy scientific people. But one of my small points this morning was that the desire to believe in prophecy, at least in its slightly over-simplified meaning of ‘telling you something that is going to happen in the future’, is actually one with the scientific instinct. It’s a longing to believe that everything makes sense, that everything happens for a reason, that the future is (through some very mysterious processes of futurology) pre-determined and knowable.

The belief that the world as a whole and every detail within it is meaningful, and that in theory this meaning can be discovered, is a belief that shapes both the worst excesses of superstition and the best endeavours of science. We don’t want to believe that everything is simply chaos; and in fact we have good reasons to think (if our epistemology is sound) that there is a fundamental order to the universe, and that our minds can gradually discover that order.

This hunger for order drives the scientist and the Mayan apocalypse seeker. It also drives the conspiracy theorist, as portrayed so well by Don DeLillo in his novel Underworld, who can’t conceive that a world-changing event like the assassination of JFK or the death of Princess Diana could have been caused by something as banal as a lone gunman or a tragic accident.

Yes, there are crazy prophecies; and there are non-prophecies (it seems that not even the Mayans really believed that this one was coming). But there are true prophecies as well, where God has spoken into history, and promised or predicted (perhaps they mean the same thing from the perspective of eternity) that something would happen in the future.

We see two of them in the scriptures today. First, seven hundred years before the birth of Christ, the prophet Micah promising that a leader would be born in Bethlehem; one who would shepherd God’s people, unite and strengthen them, and bring them lasting security and peace. And second, the Angel Gabriel appearing to Mary, telling her that her cousin Elizabeth was with child in her old age. No wonder she went to visit Elizabeth with such haste; partly to share her joy at the Incarnation, but partly to see with her own eyes a truth she could only hold in faith up to that point.

Prophecy used to be such an important part of the Judeo-Christian imagination. It reminded us that all things – including the course of history – are in God’s providential hands; it showed us his power and his wisdom; it was a sign of his care for us and of our own dignity – that he would speak to us and involve us in the unfolding of his plans; and it was above all a powerful indication of his faithfulness to us, and our need and our duty to trust him because of the objective signs that he has given us in history, as well as the personal signs he has given in our own life story.

I think we have lost our confidence in all this, for all sorts of reasons: historical criticism of the Bible; a loss of the sense of the supernatural; the shift from a historical religion to a personal spirituality, from an objectively founded faith to one based on inner subjective experience; and many others.

Some of the scepticism about prophecy is justified, and it reflects a whole different world view. But some of it is not – it is an unscientific narrowing of the human mind: to think that there is no fundamental order to the universe or to human existence; that God the creator is unable to guide his creation or direct the events of history; that he cannot in his infinite wisdom know what he ‘is’ doing or what he ‘will’ do; or that he cannot share his knowledge of what he will do through revelation in general and through the prophetic word in particular.

This is our faith as Christians, that these things are possible for God. And it’s not just a credulous, superstitious faith; it’s based on our rational understanding of what it means for there to be a universe at all, and our conclusion that some transcendent power and wisdom must lie behind this creation, a power that we have discovered – in the Old Testament and ultimately in Jesus Christ – to be personal and loving.

Prophecy still matters. The fact that God has spoken through the prophets and fulfilled his promises is one of the factors that allows us to believe with more confidence. It may not provide a proof that what we believe is true, but it is a good stimulus to belief, and an ongoing support.

This is how the First Vatican Council put it, a teaching that is as relevant today as it was in the nineteenth century (Dei Filius, Chapter 3):

4. Nevertheless, in order that the submission of our faith should be in accordance with reason, it was God’s will that there should be linked to the internal assistance of the Holy Spirit external indications of his revelation, that is to say divine acts, and first and foremost miracles and prophecies, which clearly demonstrating as they do the omnipotence and infinite knowledge of God, are the most certain signs of revelation and are suited to the understanding of all.

5. Hence Moses and the prophets, and especially Christ our lord himself, worked many absolutely clear miracles and delivered prophecies; while of the apostles we read: And they went forth and preached every, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it [18]. Again it is written: We have the prophetic word made more sure; you will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place [19].

6. Now, although the assent of faith is by no means a blind movement of the mind, yet no one can accept the gospel preaching in the way that is necessary for achieving salvation without the inspiration and illumination of the Holy Spirit, who gives to all facility in accepting and believing the truth [20].

7. And so faith in itself, even though it may not work through charity, is a gift of God, and its operation is a work belonging to the order of salvation, in that a person yields true obedience to God himself when he accepts and collaborates with his grace which he could have rejected.

Read Full Post »

I’m a great fan of Don DeLillo, and his Underworld is one of my all-time favourite novels, but Point Omega is a bit disappointing.

 

There is, however, a lovely passage about staying in cinema to watch the credits rolling. Here it is:

I used to sit through the credits, all of them, when I went to the movies. It was a practice that worked against intuition and common sense. I was in my early twenties, unaffiliated in every respect, and I never left my seat until the full run of names and titles was completed. The titles were a language out of some ancient war. Clapper, armorer, boom operator, crowd costumes.

I felt compelled to sit and read. There was a sense that I was capitulating to some moral failing. The starkest case of this occurred after the final shot of a major Hollywood production when the credits began to roll, a process that lasted five, ten, fifteen minutes and included hundreds of names, a thousand names. It was the decline and fall, a spectacle of excess nearly equal to the movie itself, but I didn’t want it to end.

It was part of the experience, everything mattered, absorb it, endure it, stunt driving, set dressing, payroll accounting. I read the names, all of them, most of them, real people, who were they, why so many, names that haunted me in the dark. By the time the credits ended I was alone in the theater, maybe an old woman sitting somewhere, widowed, children never call.

I’m not quite this obsessive; but nearly…

Read Full Post »

One of the few novels that I read again and again (every two or three years) is Don DeLillo’s magnificent Underworld. I won’t give too much plot away, but there is one section where a teenager is wasting his life away in a young offenders’ institution. He’s got no worldly prospects, not desire to put things right or move forward, no personal ambition at all. And the path to his redemption begins when one of his mentors, an elderly Jesuit, asks him to name the holes through which the laces are threaded in his shoes.

The Jesuit has a thing about shoes, and before too long he has given him an education in every aspect of the shoe, and the technical word for every single piece of leather and string and metal and cloth that goes to make up this triumph of human civilisation. (It reminds me, by the way, of that scene in the West Wing Series 6 when Josh first meets Senator Vinick, who gives him a lecture in the art of polishing shoes.) It’s the first time that the teenager has ever really paid attention to the world, and seen that there is a truth out there waiting to be discovered. A truth that is bigger than his narrow emotional connection with his environment that has defined his life up to this point. Even if it is just the truth of the humble shoe.

I say all this because I had one of those ‘vocabulary’ moments yesterday. I was visiting a friend with an outside staircase up to his first floor flat. I kept scuffing my shoes on the front of the steps, and I said that the stairs were very ‘narrow’. My friend said that this wasn’t the right word – narrow would be the width of the stairs from one side to the other. I wanted to describe the horizontal distance from the front edge of one step to the front edge of the next step; the space, in other words, that you have to step into before your foot falls over the edge.

My friend happened to do a carpentry course thirty years ago, went to an old bookshelf and pulled out a dusty file of handwritten notes about the construction of staircases. And there it was. The height of one step above the other is ‘the rise’. And the horizontal distance from the front of one step to the front of the next is ‘the going’. Isn’t that beautiful! A word that describes exactly what I wanted to describe. That people use every day. That was there all the time without me knowing it. The joy of language. And found without Wikipedia — although you can see the Wiki definitions here.

A final connected aside/recommendation: A great track on a great album, Aimee Mann’s ‘I know there’s a word for this’ on her masterpiece Whatever.

Whatever

Read Full Post »

Writing is hard – for most of us. I remember reading a biography of the journalist Malcolm Muggeridge. Whenever he went on holiday he would take a huge pile of books with him to review. Most days he would get through one of these substantial works and dash off an article of two or three thousand words without notes or pause for thought.

Writing words.. by _StaR_DusT_.

At the other end of the scale is Don DeLillo, one of my favourite novelists. He is so meticulous in the process of writing that he gives every paragraph its own sheet of paper, as if to say: You are important; I’m going to take you seriously; I’m going to give you space to breathe. I’ve always wanted to try it…

I mention all this because I’ve just come across Hugh Trevor-Roper’s ‘Ten Commandments of Good Writing’, a summary of some of the advice the renowned historian would give to his young students to foster their clarity of expression. I’m not sure if it is in copyright or not – the printed copy I have says that it had formerly been circulated only in samizdat. You can see the whole version online here. Here are the first four commandments – and the ones I need to remember most often:

(1) Thou shalt know thine own argument and cleave fast to it, and shalt not digress nor deviate from it without the knowledge and consent of the reader, whom at all times thou shalt lead at a pace which he can follow and by a route which is made clear to him as he goeth.

(2) Thou shalt respect the autonomy of the paragraph, as commanded by the authority and example of the prophet Edward Gibbon, for it is the essential unit in the chain of argument. Therefore thou shalt keep it pure and self-contained, each paragraph having within it a single central point to which all other observations in it shall be exactly subordinated by the proper use of the particles and inflections given to us for this purpose.

(3) Thou shalt aim always at clarity of exposition, to which all other literary aims shall be subordinated, remembering the words of the prophet commandant Black, “clarté prime, longueur secondaire.” To this end thou shalt strive that no sentence be syntactically capable of any unintended meaning, and that no reader be obliged to read any sentence twice to be sure of its true meaning. To this end also thou shalt not fear to repeat thyself, if clarity require it, nor to state facts which thou thinkest as well known to others as to thyself, for it is better to remind the learned than to leave the unlearned in perplexity.

(4) Thou shalt keep the structure of thy sentences clear, preferring short sentences to long and simple structures to complex, lest the reader lose his way in a labyrinth of subordinate clauses; and, in particular, thou shalt not enclose one relative clause in another, for this both betrays crudity of expression and is a fertile source of ambiguity.

And the last one can’t be left out:

(10) Thou shalt carefully expunge from thy writing all consciously written purple passages, lest they rise up to shame thee in thine old age.

Read Full Post »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,270 other followers

%d bloggers like this: