So Glad You Wrote: An Exchange with Steve Antinoff
So Glad You Wrote: An Exchange with Steve Antinoff
Letters are the big fringe benefit in this work. Mail to Open Source keeps coming in on the matter of our “hiatus,” and I will be posting highlights and insights that extend the commentary on the threads. Keep ’em coming, please. And rest assured that we will be back — early and often, writing and podcasting on this site through the summer, and scheming our way deeper into the vast landscape of interactive radio.
Here’s an exchange with one of the best friends I’ve never met, a man I knew not of until the end of May when he wrote to comment on our conversation with Christopher Hitchens, the “Atheism I” show, and the next-night follow-up on faith and reason with Alan Callahan and the pastoral blogger AKMA, the “Atheism II” show.
I’m a huge admirer from back in “The Connection” days. I had just come back to America after years in Japan, and was paying semi-attention to NPR, when I gradually realized that there’s this guy who knows a great deal about politics talking about Yeats, and apologizing to Cynthia Ozick for not being quite up on his Henry James while making me jump out of my seat with references to “The Lesson of the Master” and “The Middle Years.” But it’s the fact that you’ve never been able to go too long without praising Dostoevsky that makes me write for the first time.
A hundred and twenty-five years after his death, Dostoevsky is still the guy to answer the question of your Atheism II show, about who to read to capture the historical moment of the religious situation. Myshkin in The Idiot, of course — and your reading of him was the high point of the program. But also: Svidrigilov, the decadent who almost walks off with the novel in the second half of Crime and Punishment. Also, Ivan Karamazov, Stavrogin and (above all) Kirilov in The Possessed or Devils all seem to me attempts by Dostoevsky to work out through character the several possible responses to the faith crisis he knew was coming. And the crisis for the atheist (which I am) is what Mr. Hitchens in the Atheism I show of the night before seems not to understand.
It’s this that makes Hitchens vulnerable to attack even from the side of atheism. Even if religion were as totally corrupt as he avers, even if God does not exist, the religious impulse, far from infantile, is paramount. The yearning and quest for transcendence of mortality and finitude will never be annulled, even if every religion in the world were suppressed or discredited. What Nietzsche (in the parable of the madman in The Gay Science) and Dostoevsky both understood was that the collapse of faith was calamitous, even if necessary. Hence Kirilov in The Possessed: “God is necessary, and so must exist… Yet I know that he doesn’t exist, and can’t exist… But don’t you understand that a man with two such ideas cannot go on living?”
On the basis of the Kirilov quote I wrote a long essay called “Spiritual Atheism,” published last year in successive issues of the American Poetry Review. I think you might enjoy it and I send it along. I believe Part One, in any case, addresses the question you are asking more directly than any of your four guests did so far. As of a few months ago, only Part Two was on-line.
With sincere thanks for the best program on the planet.
University of the Arts, Philadelphia.
P.S. It’s interesting to me that Mr. Hitchens’s hero, Orwell, writes, either at the end of Homage to Catalonia or in his later essay “Catalonia Revisited,” that the loss of faith in the immortality of the soul is the greatest crisis facing modern man. I was deeply surprised and impressed when I read that years ago — it was not something that I expected Orwell, with his political emphasis, to say. I am going to try this weekend to track down exactly what Orwell said.
Steve Antinoff at the University of the Arts, Philadelphia, in a letter to Christopher Lydon at Open Source, May 25, 2007.
Email to Steve Antinoff. Subject: Wow! May 29, 2007
Dear Steve Antinoff:
Just read your marvellous letter…
Holy mackerel, there are souls out there who are not just listening as they do the dishes, but registering on every palpitation in my earnest little heart! This is unbelievable.
Funny you should mention Orwell. It was on my agenda to track down Orwell’s thoughts on religion for that very reason, and I didn’t get there. Your line on the loss of faith would have scored.
Does your address mean that you teach alongside our pal Camille Paglia?
Of course I want to talk to you and figure how to make radio of your wisdom. But first I gotta read your APR pieces.
We are rushing in the direction of the studio, but this is just to say a sort of breathless ‘thank you,’ and ‘hello.’
I’m flattered out of my mind by your note and eager to continue the conversation.
With all good wishes and thanks,
Thank you so very much for your letter. Even in a brief note your energy pours off the page.
First, may I correct an error: I wrote you that the sequel to “Homage to Catalonia” is called “Catalonia Revisited.” It’s in fact called, “Looking Back on the Spanish War,” as I found when I got to some stored books this past weekend. It is published in Volume Two of Orwell’s “Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters” entitled “My Country Right or Left: 1940-43.” It’s number 41, pp. 296-306, in my version. I’ll type out the lines before and after the relevant sentence, since the context is very interesting.
“To raise the standard of the whole world to that of Britain would not be a greater undertaking than the war we are now fighting. I don’t claim, and I don’t know who does, that that would solve anything in itself. It is merely that privation and brute labour have to be abolished before the real problems of humanity can be tackled. The major problem of our time is the decay of the belief in personal immortality, and it cannot be dealt with while the average human being is either drudging like an ox or shivering in fear of the secret police.”
Here’s one other reference I found on line from a review (Nov. 9, 2003) by Berman Schwartz of a couple of Orwell biographies in the N.Y. Times:
“And, as both biographers keenly emphasize, Orwell the devout nonbeliever held that the loss of faith had left modern man spiritually bereft and ethically bankrupt. (Orwell, who always displayed an intricate knowledge of ecclesiastical matters, left instructions in his will that he be buried according to the rites of the Church of England.)”
Yes, I teach at the same school, and same department, as the wonderful Camille Paglia, though she’s safely ensconced in a recondite part of the building that houses the president and, in the 6 years I’ve taught at Uarts, I’ve seen her but a half dozen times. I doubt she’d know my name. But as it turns out we almost smacked into one in another trying to get through the same door from opposite sides about six weeks ago, and of course, my one line response to her amiable “Pardon me!” was: “I heard you on Christopher Lydon’s Open Source last week. You were wonderful.”
Re: last night’s William James program — there’s the man to do battle with Christopher Hitchens.
With deepest appreciation,
Steve Antinoff, email to Chris Lydon, May 29, 2007.
Email to Steve Antinoff. Subject: Wow! June 3, 2007
So now, having read your APR pieces, I know you almost as well as you know yourself, and it’s a treat to get acquainted. I’ve read your articles carefully, and compiled from you my modern death-of-God reading list, which I know reasonably well, especially the Proust, Dostoevsky and Beckett. The Easterners I recognize as total strangers except perhaps for Hisamatsu, of “Killing Buddha” fame. I loved reading your whole, beautifully conversational account of your own road as a “meditation junkie.” You’ve made a model text of very lively and personal deep seriousness, without the slightest whiff of didacticism or false pride. Congratulations and thanks.
You illuminate for me the very different path I seem to be on. I feel after reading you like an almost entirely pre-modern character, still working out (with a lot of pleasure and affirmation) the basic Christian teaching of my father and my childhood, after a long interval — from Yale to my 40s — of wandering in the nowhere wilderness. Then I got deliriously hooked on a preacher-teacher and his black Baptist church in Boston, and I’ve been an active member there for 20 years now, since my “second baptism” by immersion in the summer of 1987.
Anyway, what you make me realize that we share intensely is the drive for “ecstasy,” and indeed the experience of it. I realized only a decade ago — insanely in love, in Russia, in my fifties, in The Hermitage — that I am an Ecstatic, through and through. And as I stood looking and sobbing for an hour before a Rubens painting of Christ being taken from the cross, I realized for sure that I am also a Christian. More of the doubting than dogmatic sort of Christian, but a real Christian, I hope. To me Christianity is the true story of our forgiveness. It’s the Big Guy’s pained acknowledgement that as flawed as we are, we are the apple of His eye, each and every one of us. I revel in the rhetoric and the singing of the black American church. We sing confidently: “Jesus on the main line… tell Him what you want!” He paid your debts and got the charges dropped. So take your freedom and do something with it! As a handicapped Irish man once said of my saintly brother Patrick, who was caring for him, “bad as he is, he’s not that bad!” Neither, in God’s sight, are we. Our creator loves us unconditionally. In that theological-emotional context, we can do no wrong.
There’s so infinitely much more to say about all this. Starting with a big categorical exception to your list of authorities (artists especially) for the death of God and the overwhelming burden of The Void at the end. I thought of you yesterday when I was reading Montaigne’s Essay I: 14 … on the theme “That the taste of good and evil depends in large part on the opinion we have of them.” He says: “If I were to string together here a long list of those of all sexes and conditions and sects in happier times who have either awaited death resolutely or sought it voluntarily, and sought it not only to flee the ills of this life, but some simply to flee satiety with living and others for the hope of a better condition elsewhere, I should never have done…” (Complete Essays, Stanford, 1958 p. 36) And did you notice the marvelous Stanley Kunitz paragraph on the back page of the APR with your second piece in it. It’s worth retyping: “When you look back on a lifetime and think of what has been given to the world by your presence, inevitably you have to think of your art, whatever it may be, as the gift you have made to the world in acknowledgment of the gift you have been given, which is the life itself. And I think the world tends to forget that this is the ultimate significance of the body of work each artist produces. It is not an expression of the desire for praise or recognition, or prizes, but the deepest manifestation of your gratitude for the gift of life.”
Now Stanley Kunitz is not as great an artist as your guy Michelangelo, who seemed to end in despair, but he’s got a respectable claim to a resonant gratitude for the whole human experience. As it happens, Steve, and dropping all guards here with your forbearance, I am, as I write, watching my wife of 42 years in her very last few weeks or days of life. She is and always was a non-believer, she said. She faces the end with equanimity and, I would say for sure, grace. The core of her being, her soul, is ready for the next dimension. Among her last complete and original sentences were “I am just plain happy” and (for all my lapses) “I have a good family.” Just to say there are many mysterious routes to “resolution” and even transcendence.
Basta! I’m attaching below a quick account I gave in church when the pastor asked me for a mini-sermon on the subject of why I came, and stayed at the Twelfth Baptist Church. I go on too long… but not as long as you!
Hoping this leaves the conversation wide open. I look forward to figuring all this further, with thanks and very best wishes to you.
PS: Chris Lydon and His Connection
Following are excerpts from a talk to the congregation of the Twelfth Baptist Church by Chris Lydon, founder of the radio show The Connection:
Three points, three answers: why am I in the Twelfth Baptist Church? First and last, and foremost: by the grace of God the light of Christian understanding dawned on my hungry brain at the back of this church about 13 years ago. My little search engine finally locked on to an understanding of what I’d heard all my life and of course I never wanted to give it up. The Psalm says: As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so my soul thirsteth for the living God. And this is where I found it.
I had visited this church many times. I had known Reverend Haynes since the early sixties. By the eighties, I was a lapsed Catholic in my early forties, in the “dark forest” of mid-life, as Dante called it, searching for something. I didn’t know quite what it was. But then there was definitely a moment of light in this church. It was perhaps the second or third time I’d been here on a Communion Sunday. And everybody was singing “I know it was the blood…” And I nearly hit myself on the head and said: Aha, I get it! “One day when I was lost, He died upon the cross. I know it was the blood for me.” So simple really: my lostness, and I knew for sure I was lost; His pain and sacrifice, as relevant today as ever in my life, as ever in history. And I suddenly felt this connection with me. It was before we had a program called The Connection, but I knew it was one of those connections!
And I knew that in the singing fellowship of this room – some people ecstatic, some with tears streaming down their faces – I knew that this was the consolation and the assurance of redemption that we all know we want. This was the blood for me. And suddenly a story, a Christian story I’d been hearing all my life, made sense as it never had before. I was baptized by Cardinal Cushing when I was first born. I went to the Sacred Heart Church in Newton and its school for the first three grades, with Sister Emelina, Sister Jeremiah, and Sister Huberta. I learned the catechism and the basic Bible stories; I learned not just to rattle the Latin responses as an altar boy but to understand the language! But I never had the foggiest idea who Jesus was to me. And I’m not sure the priests and nuns did either! But suddenly here in the Twelfth Baptist Church, it dawned on me. It just locked in. And I came forward the next Sunday. And I was immersed in a second baptism in 1987, and I just praise God for it every day of my life.
Why am I in Twelfth Baptist Church? The second part is tricky: I didn’t come for the music, but in a sense the music came to get me. It’s important to say that at the moment of “getting it” we were singing that song. The music is always a big part of this church. My experience is that Twelfth Baptist music is at its best when everybody’s singing. I never forget Randy Haynes singing “If I can help somebody,” on my first visit to the church. I love the moments when Reverend Haynes on an impulse will just lay his baritone voice into a song, and Mr. Weeks on the organ and Jonathan on the piano have to figure out what key he’s in. It’s one of the great little dramas – you know, Mr. Weeks fingering his way up the scale on the organ looking for his tonic note. I love it when we’re all walking around greeting each other in Jesus’ name and singing “Something in my heart like a stream running down, Makes me feel so happy, as happy as can be. When I think of Jesus, and what He’s done for me, Something in my heart like a stream running down…” The music in this church is great because the people are great. The people are good, and the heart and mind of this church are in the right place. There are churches where completely magnificent professional music makes the service. It doesn’t work that way in this church. The music here can hit tremendous peaks of expressiveness and worship because the spirit of this church is worshipful. The music, it always strikes me, is a joyful noise that comes out of an inner knowledge and harmony, well defined in this church. Music is the visible flame on a reserve of grace.
Why am I in Twelfth Baptist Church? I’m here, finally, because in the Twelfth Baptist Church we have a pastor, Michael E. Haynes, who is my walking, talking embodiment of the very idea of the faithful shepherd. He’s an inspiring talker. He’s a deep and forceful thinker. He’s a modest man who walks humbly. He travels with a tremendous curiosity – a curiosity about the human condition, a curiosity about the spiritual activity in this world. He’s a man who sees God working. He sees the vitality of spirit the way the great Ralph Waldo Emerson saw Spirit in nature and in people everywhere. I don’t know anyone in the world – and I meet so many interesting people – who lifts people up the way Reverend Haynes does.
When we went to Ireland and sang with the Gospel Ensemble two summers ago, Reverend Haynes was there for part of it. One day when we were about to sing at my brother Patrick’s farm in Kilkenny, a big community farm with handicapped people, Reverend Haynes spoke the prayer. He said, in so many words: let us just thank God, praise Him, for this opportunity to represent His son Jesus Christ to this community with our love and our enthusiasm. And I thought: how much better could you possibly speak the pleasure of being a Christian, the challenge of being a Christian?
When Reverend Haynes misses a Sunday or if I miss one of his sermons, I’m hungry for a week. I call this the University of Haynes. We learn Haynesology — never to be confused with Haynesolatry. We learn about Boston. We learn about music. We learn about growing up with Edna and Gus on Haskins Street in the 30s and 40s, about brother Roy banging the pots and pans, and his friend Jimmy Callahan. We learn about Louis Farrakhan as a young violin prodigy in the neighborhood, and about Martin Luther King Jr. as a graduate student and fellow rookie on the TBC preaching staff. We learn about the Bible that Rev knows so well. I learn about myself. And so I praise God for his servant Michael, who leads this church so brilliantly. And that’s why I’m in the Twelfth Baptist Church.
I found your letter deeply stimulating, and moving, in ways I will fully explain in the next day or two. I’ve been planning on writing you this weekend at length. In the meantime, as a way of keeping the connection taut, I’ve been listening diligently to every program. I happened to be rereading “The Plague,” (I’m teaching a course called “Existentialist Paris”) when I saw that fabulous picture of Camus waiting on the screen, and, for the first time in my life, I loved Norman Mailer. By far the best interview I’ve ever heard with him. And of course the arts school show hit home. There’s a whole interesting aspect of that which ties into both Uarts and your letter: almost all of the black dancers, actors, musicians at our school have extremely strong connection to the church, much more so than the white students, as far as I’m able to perceive. Why that might be so, how far that (along with the strong family support that seems to be far above the norm) influences the capacity for the years of discipline that is needed to be an artist, are things I’d like to understand far better than I do. I’ve also been visiting with a very old friend of Camille Paglia named Jack DeWitt, like her a longtime professor at Uarts, and we spent hours discussing you, Hitchens, et al. He’s now a convert to the show, so with one philosophy professor who you’ve hooked, there are at least at three.
But here I am rambling in the preamble. The actual response to your letter and talk is soon to come. So please forgive the only apparent silence, and as for offense: impossible!!! Apart from the fact that nothing in what you wrote could warrant anything but gratitude that we can be friends.
But since these days I’m reminded by you of all an atheist can learn form a Christian, writing the above paragraph brings to mind a story I’ve not recalled for a long time. I no longer have the book in my possession, so I have to recount by memory, but in Thomas Merton’s book of stories about the desert fathers my includes this one: One of the Alexandrian fathers takes on a disciple and gives him the following as his spiritual training: Every time the disciple is badmouthed or insulted he must pay the offender 5 drachma (or whatever). This goes on for several years. One day the master says to his student: your training is over. You no longer have to pay. Go to the city and learn wisdom. The disciple goes to Athens (or wherever). At the city gate there is an old gatekeeper who hurls all kinds of expletives and insults at the disciple. The disciple breaks into laughter. The old gatekeeper wants to know how come. The disciple says: “I used to have to pay for this stuff, now I get it for nothing.” The gatekeeper says: “Enter. The city (of paradise) is yours.”
More this weekend, warmest regards,
Steve Antinoff, email to Chris Lydon, June 8, 2007.
First, I was deeply moved by the loving account of your wife. Maybe what Wordsworth meant when he wrote “Too deep for tears” does refer to a dimension in which joy must have its say, and perhaps the final say…
I’m not at all surprised you describe yourself as an Ecstatic, it comes through in your voice. Do you know Michael Korda? I’ve heard him interviewed a half-dozen times over the years, his aliveness is amazing. I find in you a similar quality, someone who has somehow gotten past the angel with the flaming sword and bitten into The Tree of Life. I can’t think of a third person who reveals that through the voice alone. Your description of your experience before the Ruebens painting also struck me greatly; Paul Tillich’s first religious experience was also through a painting. As the son of a Protestant minister in Germany he grew up with music but no real visual art, then serving as a chaplain in WWI he got hold of colored post cards of painting masterpieces while on leave, which stirred something in him. Then after the war, he saw a Raphael (a Madonna, I think), and had his first mystical experience.
But also, your sobbing is connected to an experience of my own: watching a British-made TV movie of “Les Miserables” on a tiny black and white tv in a dumpy apartment, I fell on the floor in wrenching tears in an ambivalence of anguish and joy when I saw John Valjean give himself up to the court in order to save from life-imprisonment a look-alike falsely accused his place. Joy, because in his beauty I saw my own true being; anguish because that true being of me was in him, not in me. Since that day, probably 25 years ago, I have been convinced, though I am largely excluded from it in practice, that the gospel’s “he who seeks to save his life will lose it; he who loses his life … will save it” is the highest truth (or maybe one of the two highest).
So I guess my atheism is, again, the other side of the same sheet of paper, as they say in Japanese. All my degrees are in religion, and Christian theology (though I’m Jewish), along with religious writings of the Eastern religions, have been the greatest influence on what atheism for me must be. So maybe that confluence is a way of attempting to respond to some of the issues you raise: particularly, the Montaigne quote, and your “big categorical exception” of “artists especially.” Your remarks are very interesting to me, and I should say at the outset I don’t care about being right about anything. Even my assertion of atheism applies only to me, and those who find themselves in the same fix as me. My essay isn’t against anybody, just for those who can make use of it.
If I were to make your art argument against myself I would call on Louis Armstrong, surely a transcendent being (who I learned on Fresh Air a couple years back wore a Jewish star around his neck his whole life to honor the Russian immigrant family who had cared so much for him as a child). But there’s this question, and I’d like to put it to you: How many artists have been liberated in the ultimate (which could be read, “religious”) sense by their art? I can’t name three. Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Robert Schumann, Tchaikovski? Surely not. I just heard programs this past week on Elgar (a depressive) and Faure (also inclined to depression). The Beethoven of the late quartets, as is sometimes claimed? Having read 3 biographies I don’t think so.
There’s a deeply moving episode that I as a bachelor always am affected by: Beethoven sobbing in lonely self-pity in sickbed a few days before his death as a friend/disciple’s wife wipes his feverish brow with a handkerchief. Ellington? One might things so from the elegant demeanor, but he was haunted man in my view: the reaction to the death of his doctor is extremely telling. Picasso? He couldn’t bring himself to make a will, nervously counted up his remaining friends over breakfast every morning, feared the the slightest diminution of his artistic or sexual prowess and so created at a mad pace. Mahler, according to Bruno Walter, was pressed and agonized by the quest for God his whole life. I think what I wrote is true: that the created object, even the masterpiece, does not disimprison the creator-subject. And if it can, religion is not necessary.
For, of course, despite my probably ludicrous list above, it’s not a matter of running down a checklist and saying Armstrong and Bach: yes, Jackson Pollack and Mark Rothko: no. Much closer to the point, and here I’m very much interested in your view as a Christian, would be to think in terms of the categories Reinhold Niebuhr uses to open up the second volume of The Nature and Destiny of Man: “Where a Christ Is Not Expected” and “Where a Christ Is Expected.” You can substitute for “expected” — “needed” or “necessary.” When he speaks of a Christ not being expected, he’s referring, finally, to those cultures (and implicitly, those individuals) who believe that either Nature or some human resource (ex: Reason), is sufficient to resolve the problem that he lays out in the opening paragraphs of Volume 1 under the heading: “Man As A Problem To Himself.” If such solutions were possible Christ becomes unnecessary.
In Tillich’s statement of the problem: “Intellectual endeavor can as little attain the ultimate truth as moral endeavor can attain the ultimate good. He who attempts it deepens the estrangement.” As I quoted him in my essay: “The situation of existence cannot be overcome by the power of this situation. Every attempt to do so strengthens this situation, which can be summed up in the title of Sartre’s play No Exit.” For Tillich, Original Sin is not an act, and is never to be equated with “sins” in the plural. It is a state of being which ontologically precedes action, though it is manifest in all action. He felt that the term “Original Sin” had been ruined for modernity, and proposed in its place: “Universal Estrangement.” For him, “existence is estranged from essence” (actual being is estranged from true being). (Here he’s siding with Kierkegaard against Hegel for whom existence is the unfolding of, not the estrangement from, essence.) But if the estranged situation of existence can be overcome by some power within the situation: i.e., art, then Christ is unnecessary and Hitchens is right — religion becomes just a psychological or aesthetic predilection. (For Tillich, and I would assume most Christians, the ‘No Exit’ of the human situation can only be resolved from a power outside the situation: the power of the Christ, the only being in whom the gap between existence and essence is overcome.)
Now here it gets complicated. Paul Tillich definition of religion is “the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern.” By an ultimate concern he means to be gripped by what concerns us ultimately (or unconditionally). One of Tillich’s central points is that it is the presence an ultimate concern alone that makes something “religious.” Music, art, literature often manifest it, while religion may not. This is the basis, I think, of what he calls Theology of Culture. On the other hand, both religion and art can become idolatry: the taking (mistaking) of a provisional, conditional, or secondary concern for an ultimate concern.
There’s a lot more I’d like to sound you out on about the relation of religion and art, but I’m afraid this is turning into a harangue so I’d better stop here. It all links to your fascinating Montaigne quote. I don’t yet see it as a challenge to anything I’ve said in the above. But if he implies (and I don’t see that he does) that the a solution to the human situation is natural and commonly achieved, or that, as the positivists used to argue with Tillich, that there is no human problem, that those who think so are projecting personal neurosis into a universal condition, then Christ cannot be necessary. My whole essay can be reduced to: For the religious atheist Christ [God] is necessary. But he does not, and cannot exist. In sum, I’m back full circle to Kirilov, take joy and pleasure in your life as a Christian — as expressed so wonderfully and with such admirable simplicity in your talk — all the while taking as well nightly hope in my own quixotic efforts.
You and you wife will be with me there. With gratitude…
P.S. Wanted to say that Les Miserables is my favorite novel of all time. Hope there aren’t too many mistakes. I didn’t proof read as well as I should have trying to get this off.
Steve Antinoff, email to Chris Lydon, June 10, 2007.
Email to Steve Antinoff. Subject: Wow! June 11, 2007
It’s a very thin sheet of Japanese paper, if anything, that separates your piety and mine. On my adult baptism just exactly 20 summers ago — the same week Ollie North was testifying before Congress — I chose as my Bible verse Luke 9:23: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it.”
Steve, It feels very like a miracle — surely a very wonderful and rare gift — to meet someone with such a close confirmation in this business of searching for something grand and deep and maybe transcendent. That’s one thing, for which we salute the Big Guy and say, “Thank you, Jesus!” even as we say it for finding a pencil when you need one, or not getting run over by a bus!
The second thing is: let’s pursue this! Not too hard, in that we don’t have to make a course of it, or have a schedule. But you remind me of my experience meeting the novelist Alexander Theroux about 25 years ago at MIT. He is a ridiculously learned and expressive character — Paul Theroux’s older brother, the author of some brilliant, beautiful, extravagantly “maximalist,” celebrated but unread fiction and essays, too. But the point was that over the course of 20 years or so he really guided my adult education: most especially in a wide range of fiction, starting with all the Dostoevskys, then James and Eliot and eventually Melville and Emerson and all the foundations of my rickety house of associations. And all through those 20 years we talked about it all, and tried in some informal fashion to make personal sense of it. I was going to say “existential” experience of it, except that I don’t have a firm enough grip on that word — and maybe you will educate me in existentialism.
What can I do for you? My man Haynes retired two years ago and just celebrated his 80th birthday. (His brother the drummer Roy Haynes, who was Charlie Parker’s favorite drummer, is going strong at 82!) I wish above all I could inflict on you 20 years of Haynes sermons, all of them, and even better the years of habit and consolation and pleasure and joy of association with the Twelfth Baptist Church, a unique community. But there may in fact be some way to suggest to you ways to relax in all you know and experience. Surely at Twelfth, someone would come over to you early on and tell you you’re in the right place, and you’d find yourself in one-on-one prayer with someone you enjoyed, and the blessed side of the searching mission would begin to assert itself, and someday the sense that “we’re going to understand it better by and by.”
I have to run, in any event, but thank you, Steve, for all of this, which will bear many re-rereadings and a worthier response from me.
All good wishes — may I say, as we would at Twelfth — “in Jesus’ name.” Fraternally, too.
PS: Never read “Les Miserables,” but I guess I’ll have to.
I learned from your pharmacology show that you passed you rotator cuff problem on to me. From you’re happy ending, I hope we’re doing the same exercises.
As for your suggestion of studying a bit together (as two bumbling pupils) maybe Les Miserables might be a wonderful place to begin. It is, for me, two things. One: in a way that probably can never be surpassed, it is a 1200 page meditation the passage from Luke 9 you cite and that we both love. Two: it is great study of the relationship between love (first embodied in the bishop, later in Jean Valjean himself) and justice (as embodied in the police inspector Javert). Though Hugo’s language is sometimes a little sappy, though he can digress for 50 pages on Parisian criminal slang or the battle of Waterloo, it is a moving story beyond belief. If you do want to give it a try, I recommend the Penguin Classics version translated by Norman Denny. First, because it is, I think, superior to the other translation I have read (by Charles Wilbur); second, the book is in my possession so we’d have the same pagination; third, the relationship between love and justice seems to be the subtheme of your show, and branches out in fascinating (and contradictory) ways: i.e, Prince Myshkin, whose pure love destroys because it does not know how to be just, Paul Tillich’s small book Love, Power, and Justice, and just about all of Reinhold Niebuhr, who took this up as the central issue of his life. I bought my copy in Italy, but couldn’t find the Denny translation in book shops here, so you might have to get it on line. I see it’s the first translation to come up on Amazon.UK. But it comes up on Amazon in the US as well.
At your level of vitality, I imagine 1200 pages might keep you busy for 2-3 days. From all you’ve said, I think you’ll love it.
Steve Antinoff, email to Chris Lydon, June 13, 2007.
All sentiments reciprocated.
It’s probably too late, if you began last weekend, to warn you not to be deterred if you find the opening 70 pages a bit sluggish; it caused me two false starts 25 years ago, until I saw a film version which helped me break through. The last time I read the opening chapters I loved them, and think I understood why Hugo begins with the Bishop and not with Valjean. The event that transforms Valjean is just a day in the life of a good priest. He probably prayed for Valjean for a while after that and may have thought of him from time to time, but from the Bishop’s side what he does for Valjean is no big deal, and the memory of him no doubt gets lost in a thousand other kindness the Bishop does spontaneously. It’s so wonderful that Valjean never meets the Bishop again. And when you get to it, count the number of words Valjean speaks in the scene that transforms him. Hugo never shuts up, he can go on for pages about nunneries in the 19th century and criminal slang in Paris, yet in this scene …
Just thinking of you reading I’m starting to remember all the things I love about this book.
I have too laugh at your claims to being a slow reader (as I am), as you read — simultaneously — the two longest novels in the Western world. I immediately thought of this Monty Python routine where four of them appear on a quiz show in which one has 30 seconds to recount a novel. Asked what novel they chosen: it’s the whole of Proust. Then they announce they are going to sing it — as a round. The buzzer of course goes off while they are still on the first line.
It’s hard to know where to begin in Proust. Probably it doesn’t matter which volume you read in what order. Most start with the first. A friend’s favorite is the second: “In a Budding Grove.” I was given Beckett’s essay on Proust (the only essay he ever wrote), got fascinated with the character of Albertine, and wanted to read about her. Then I discovered she was in all the volumes so I bought them all. I’ve read only 15-20% of the whole, I suppose.
I’m writing this, as I’ve been meaning to, from my home email. The Uarts email is unwieldy, so it’s best if you write me here.
I hope things are as comfortable as can be expected at home.
Excellent show tonight on Ireland’s lessons for Israel/Palestine.
Steve Antinoff, email to Chris Lydon, June 26, 2007.
Email to Steve Antinoff. Subject: Les Miserables. July 2, 2007
Only 1100 pages to go in Norman Denny’s brilliant translation of Les Miserables. There was nothing of the slog about the opening section with the Bishop, and now I am well into the chronicle of Jean Valjean and his rash grab for a loaf of bread. I am loving this book! The (to me) very Dickensian surge of action and characters, and above all the pulse of old-fashioned moral energy running under the whole narrative mark it out as a book I’ll push on family and friends, and read again and again. I couldn’t hum a bar of any song from the show “Les Mis,” but surely this is a book that was meant to be put to music.
The quick and urgent reason for this note is simply to ask if I could post the main lines of our correspondence on our Open Source website.
I want to keep the page alive with fresh stuff. And our spontaneous combustion of spiritual sympathy looks interesting to me. The serendipity of real connections, the wonderful lasting effects that came out of our radio show, and then the accessible, enthusiastic seriousness of the content. I found to my happy amazement that I was learning something interesting about myself as well as about the searcher and striver in a good man I’d never met. Let me know whether you’d be willing… and point to any parts of your letters that you’d like to clean up or delete.
Next week we’ll go to New Haven to interview Harold Bloom on his 77th birthday. Any questions?
More soon. My wife holds on to the last strands, ever gentle, longsuffering and strong in character. Our second grandchild was born to our second daughter on June 14. Cindy — eyes closed, silent on her back — grasped the four-day-old infant’s arm for an hour and never articulated a comment. But surely she knew something. Surely, as Alyosha Karamazov says in the last words of Bros K, we will meet again and will joyfully tell one another everything that has happened… And as I said at the close of Open Source last Thursday evening, “Hurrah for Karamazov.”
Now a couple of hours with Victor Hugo!
With thanks and all good wishes, Steve.
If you are fond of the book already, I think you’ll find the best by far is yet to come, and keeps coming.
Feel free to use any or all of our correspondence. I don’t mind if I’ve said anything idiotic, but I don’t want to say anything hurtful…
I was completely surprised — and saddened — when I went on to the Open Source page the night before and saw “Endings.” My immediate thought was you are facing endings on all sides. That can’t be easy. But one would never know it from your voice. “Hurray for Karamazov.” Amen.
Be well, and hang in there, Yours,
Steve Antinoff, email to Chris Lydon, July 2, 2007.
Here’s my question — don’t know if it’s a good one, or usable — for Harold Bloom: I recall reading him say that Freud and Kafka are the 2 most important Jews of the 20th century. Since neither were Jews in any traditional sense: what does he mean? and what does this mean for the religious impulse in humans, when a Kafka and a Freud are the greatest exponents of a religion.
Steve Antinoff, email to Chris Lydon, July 2, 2007.
In memoriam Lucine Ann (Cindy) Arkelyan Lydon. Born August 28, 1940. Died July 3, 2007