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Monthly Archives: May 2013

“Carousel Ride” (http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/317241) is partly about time–how it weaves itself around our lives and shapes our relationships and hopes and dreams. Perhaps it would be more accurate to describe time as a character in this story rather than a theme–it has both depth and a kind of personality, and is ever-changing.

Time is a character at the National Mall in Washington DC as well–you see it (let’s not skew the noun with a gender-specific pronoun) everywhere you go, interspersed among the monuments and the tourists of every nationality and race. One place you see time is in the changing, or unchanging, meaning of the words and sentences engraved into the stone monuments and friezes. One sentence that caught my eye on a recent visit was on the right-hand wing wall to the Martin Luther King Memorial. The sentence is: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.” It is excerpted from the text of his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech given in Oslo, Norway in 1964.

The phrase “unconditional love” is what first caught my eye. The word love is rarely used in public speeches these days. I think the reason for this aversion is obvious–the word has taken on a dual meaning of polar extremes, with neither meaning appropriate to mainstream public discourse. On the one hand, the word has been watered down by sentimentality and commercial interests to the point of meaninglessness. Can any word that appears at least five times on every greeting card still hold any relevance or weight? On the other hand, the word has been seized and hardened by conservative religious groups of various backgrounds and come to be associated with intolerance and extremism. Is it any wonder then that “love” is rarely heard in mainstream discourse?

Yet Martin Luther King planted it squarely in the middle of one of his most important speeches. But this was hardly King’s only public use of “love.” He uses the word throughout his speeches and sermons and interviews and writings. One must conclude that the word, and the emotion or concept it represented, was central–perhaps even the center of his mission and message. Clearly, for King “love” was neither greeting-card sentimentality nor strident intolerance. Which raises the question: just what did King mean by “love”?

One way to approach this question is to look at the other nouns used in the sentence: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.” All of these nouns are loaded with ponderous meaning and far-reaching nuance. But are they related? And if so, does that relationship shed light on their meaning? While King was delivering this speech on an international stage to a cosmopolitan audience (and sprinkled the speech with quotations and allusions from numerous cultures and periods), he was still the same preacher, the same Reverend King he’d been from his earliest public life. And to the Reverend King, the world was shaped in a Judeo-Christian context. And in that context all of these nouns could be, perhaps should be, capitalized as proper nouns, names for the same manifestation: the coming reign of God. To King, Truth, Love, Word, and (final) Reality define God’s eventual reign on earth, a new kingdom where there will be no more hatred or intolerance or injustice. It’s a vision to match that of Isaiah or Jeremiah or Amos precisely because it is the vision of Isaiah and Jeremiah and Amos. King simply extends this vision into a new society and era. Another beautiful and poetic passage from his acceptance speech affirms this view: “Sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood.” He then concluded the paragraph: “The foundation of such a method is love.”

For King, “love” is both the ultimate and inevitable reign of God and the means to its realization, a reign and a striving characterized by justice, peace, and harmony. It is a vision he not so much hastened as simply proclaimed and lived, letting that proclamation be his legacy. It’s a rich meaning for the word that one wishes could be reclaimed–in our public discourse and for our world. 

In that meaning–

JA 

 

Carousel Ride cover #2

 

They finally reached the park’s centerpiece—a brightly painted, early century carousel on a concrete pad, motionless and silent in its winter dormancy but nonetheless captivating with intricately carved wooden horses, gilded moldings, and bright brass fittings. For whatever reason, the children and their parents were avoiding the sleeping merry-go-round; and Zach and Becca had this whimsical enclave to themselves. Becca ran ahead and jumped on a white horse with a red saddle and gold harness. It was the horse Zach would have picked for her, though his choice would’ve been a nearby roan with burgundy saddle and obsidian trappings. He ran his hand over the smooth flesh of that horse on his way to sitting on an enameled white loveseat facing Becca who was laughing and swinging from side to side on her chosen mount.

He stared with dumfounded wonder at her beauty and overflowing charms. It wasn’t enough that they were floating through their dream of romance, now they’d landed in this tangible realization of that enchantment.

Becca stopped swinging. “What?” she asked, her eyes still glittering with that impossible vitality. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

Zach could laugh then. “Just my vision of perfection.”

“Little old me?”

Zach nodded, his eyes locked on hers. “Young and beautiful and enthralling Becca Coles.”

Becca wrapped her arms around the horse’s silver pole. “You suppose if I wait long enough, someone will turn this thing on and give me a ride? Just one circuit—that’s all I ask.”

“If you wait long enough—sure. But we both might be old and gray by then.”

“That’s the price of a ride?”

“Sometimes,” Zach said, still smiling.

“Then I guess I’ll pass,” she said and climbed down off the horse and took a seat beside him.

This passage is excerpted from my short story “Carousel Ride,” recently published and available for free at http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/317241. The story is fairly short, about twelve manuscript pages. The above scene occurs near the middle and is the moment of thematic climax, where the ascending passion of youth transitions into the descending reflection of adulthood. Of course, the characters don’t know this. It’ll take a lot more of life, and the associate disappointments and disillusionments, for them to perceive this subtle yet profound shift. But it’s this irony–the characters’ ignorance in the face of the reader’s awareness–that makes this story sad and touching, and something more than its simple plot.

Take a look, if you’re so inclined.

JA  

We watched The Whistleblower the other night; and as the closing credits marched across the screen, my wife said, “So nobody was punished.” And I said, “It’s an awful world, and it isn’t getting any better.” Both statements were natural extensions of the movie’s horrific story, and ironically reflective of its “soul.”

I mentioned in the last post that my concerns over the “soul” of novels arose directly from reading a novel where the characters, and therefore the novel, were without soul even as the prose–the imagery and descriptions–exuded grace and beauty.

How can a movie have a “soul” if its story shows none? And how can a novel lack a “soul” if its prose epitomizes it?

These questions continue a conversation that began over three decades ago, when a friend asked me what I thought about a novel he’d passed on to me. I said, “It’s incredible and unredeemed.” He found the latter adjective surprising and asked what I meant. What I meant was that the novel in question was “unredeeming”–which is to say that it didn’t inspire the reader to greater humanity and goodness–and since it was “unredeeming” it was thereby “unedeemed.” In short, it had no “soul” because it didn’t enhance or uplift that same quality in the reader. Then, trying to be open-minded, I added that–since one person’s “uplift” might be another’s “downtrodden”–the novel was unredeemed for me. If others found inspiration or meaning in its grim chronicle, then more power to them (and the novel). But it didn’t work for me.

I think my friend found the whole idea of art being redemptive rather quaint and old-fashioned, perhaps even judgemental or–Heaven forbid–Puritanical. But at no point did I say or mean to suggest that unredeeming art (whether judged so by me or anyone else) should be banned or censored. I was simply indicating that it lacked what was for me art’s central purpose–to raise the human condition by lifting or inspiring the human heart and spirit.

The flip side of that coin is the artist has to tell the story he or she is told, come what may. To reshape that story to fit some preconceived notion of purpose would be to betray the story and its source, which is most definitely not a wise or appropriate decision. And if the story as it is told the artist comes out without a “soul” for this or any other recipient, then it comes out without a soul. Or maybe its soul is unveiled at some other time, in some altered world or state. The artist’s purpose is to get it down right.

Does any of this matter? The cynic and the philosopher would say “No–the world spins on with or without redeeming art.” The idealist and the theologian would say “Yes–good can prevail in whatever forms it takes.” I’d only say I cling to meaning and purpose in acts of love, in art and all other expressions. Lacking that, it’s eat or be eaten. Lacking that, it’s all darkness.

I’m putting the finishing touches on a short story titled “Carousel Ride.” (For the record, I think it has a soul; and even if it didn’t, as a depiction of a moment it might inspire such quality beyond itself.) Like “Whiteout”  (http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/291355), it’s a Zach and Becca love story. But its tone is very different from “Whiteout.” Though it occurs earlier in their relationship, in some ways it has a wisdom and poignance of a much more mature love and understanding–or so I hope. I’ll post an excerpt or two in the coming weeks and get you the address for the whole thing once it’s published.

JA

O.K.–we’ve got it going now: CHEESECAKE! and a serialized novel on Reading and Recipes ( http://readingandrecipes.wordpress.com ). Check it out if you haven’t already done so (and sign up there as a follower for e-mail updates if you want to keep up with the serialized novel).

I have a question for you: Can a novel have a soul if none of its characters do?

The question makes two assumptions. First, that a work of art can have a “soul”–that is, the intangible essence of human goodness that sets us apart from all other creatures and exists both outside and beyond our physical mortality. And it seems to me that art is, potentially at least, the highest expression of this quality we call “soul”; and that the work of art is imbued with the soul of its creator (the artist) and of its creator’s creator, as art must ultimately derive from something beyond us and our finite world, shaped and channeled by the artist but originating from somewhere else, something else, someone else. So yes–art has the soul of its creators, or can.

Second, that a novel is held to a different standard than most other art forms. This is an important distinction, as I would assert that most art forms need not depict a soul to have a soul. Episodic or brief artworks, intended to impact more than envelop the recipient, may well have a soul even if its content seems the antithesis of one. The photograph of the young Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalm attack has a soul as potent as its subject is horrific; similarly, Picasso’s Guernica, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in DC, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the protest song “Ohio,” a stunning French film titled L’Apollonide: Souvenirs de la maison close (to name a random few) all have a soul lurking behind their appalling images or scenes, their haunting words. But novels, along with other artwork of vast scope–epic poems, sprawling murals, operas and musical narratives–should be held to a different standard because of what they profess to do: create a world in all its fullness. A photograph or painting or song or poem may create an instant or a period. A novel creates an entire world, with all its diversity.

And if in all that diversity (and freedom and power and responsibility) it fails to portray a single character with a soul, then maybe the entire novel loses that quality. It’s as if you took that poor napalmed girl and followed the story of her life both backward and forward and found nothing but more napalm and fear and horror and injustice, then you could say that photograph had no soul. But in the absence of such a grim narrative, the viewer is free to infer hope and justice and change out of that horror (which indeed happened, eventually–that girl’s image, that photograph, became an instrument of that change, contained the seed of hope, its soul, in its very existence). But a novel and other epic forms have the chance–indeed, the obligation–to include that hope, that soul, somewhere within their world. It needn’t be much, but it needs to be there.

I recently finished a novel (you probably already figured that the above musings didn’t just fall on me from the thin air above) by a highly regarded contemporary novelist. It is about 300 pages long, spans fifty years of narrative time, and includes dozens of well-defined characters. Yet few of the characters are likable, and none are heroic or noble or particularly interesting. All are immersed in selfish pursuits, manipulating or betraying others for their own gratification or advancement. The main character, a rather shapeless form floating through the saga, commits an almost unspeakable cruelty as his defining moment–and never acknowledges the depravity of his act. You keep waiting for someone, anyone, to reveal a good or gentle or caring side, show a little human kindness. There’s a sense that such actions are occurring “off camera,” outside the narrative. But none are ever exhibited within the story, as if such a display would compromise the realism of the tale, would risk the label “sentimental.” Is all rising above our basest desires, our animal needs and nature, sentimental then? Is the only realism grim and dark? Even more ironic, the settings and descriptions and imagery of this novel are generally extraordinarily beautiful–lyrical, at times breathtaking. The scenery reflects a soul! Why don’t the characters?

Can a novel have a soul if none of its characters do?

(As illustration of my point of a need for “soul” in art, and its ability to exist inside horrific images, I attach the following statement from Kim Phuc, the little girl in the napalm photo, made some thirty-six years after the incident photographed:

“Forgiveness made me free from hatred. I still have many scars on my body and severe pain most days but my heart is cleansed. Napalm is very powerful, but faith, forgiveness, and love are much more powerful. We would not have war at all if everyone could learn how to live with true love, hope, and forgiveness. If that little girl in the picture can do it, ask yourself: Can you?”    Kim Phúc, NPR in 2008

And I’ll also repeat my earlier two-part rhetorical question: Is all rising above our basest desires, our animal needs and nature, sentimental then? Is the only realism grim and dark?)

JA