Monday, November 5, 2012

Fisking Francis

Unapologetic: Why, despite, everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense.  Francis Spufford. Faber and Faber.

I have been  meaning to post on our family’s experiences with the (in my opinion) unfairly maligned Youcat, but that’s a post that won’t gel at the moment.  So I’d like to break the long silence here (my Dutch friends would say, “A minister walked by”) with a book that I feel less responsibility towards.

“Unapologetic” aims not to be a logical defense of the faith, but a defense of its emotional intelligence, as it were, of how and why it addresses human needs, and in particular, the needs of Francis Spufford, an English writer of whom I’d never heard.  (But I have been very busy in the last ten years.)

It is a  personal account, and it doesn’t pretend to clothe its raw assertions with figleafs of appeals to others.  There’s nary an Early Church Father in the book, or even ur-Anglican C.S. Lewis.  Or rather, there is one reference to him, but the famed  liar, lord, lunatic trilemma has been collapsed by Spufford into a dilemma, for reasons I don’t remember, and then condemned as a bad argument.  So it’s fair to say that Spufford has no problem about owning his opinions. 

The book starts with Spufford bosom-burning as to how his faith practice may mark his six-year old daughter as weird.  My heart pumped custard, I tell you, feeling the pain of one who has just, it seems, at a pretty advanced age, stumbled on the inevitable ramifications of parenthood.  Get a grip, man. They fuck you up, your parents do, Spufford, you ought to know that: Larkin was English, after all. It is the  bounden duty of you and your wife to half the time be soppy-stern and half at one another’s throat, and thereby transmit to your child the troubled legacy of humankind.  A legacy which Spufford, in desperate advoidance of the word “sin”, labels, The Human Propensity to Fuck Things Up, thereafter, ad nauseam,  HPtFtu.

This abbreviation, as ugly a piece of Camel Case as I’ve ever seen, grates worse with each repetition, and Spufford spends the rest of the book trying to pass it through the eye of the needle, and  magic out of thin air a necessary fulfillment for an emotional need.  

Spufford recounts his first tentative realization of his own HPtFtu , and need of Christ.  It would be unbecoming of me to fisk that, especially since it involves a very low point, perhaps the nadir, of his married life.  I also first inched towards Christ when I realized that I had to change, or my marriage wouldn’t last.  My own self, considered in relation to one other human, was, so I saw, all I could manage.  I had a mission field of one, and it turned out to be myself. 

Spufford then outlines an episode of prayer of a contemplative and non-directed sort, unbounded by any urgent cognitive purpose.  May I note, at this point, what a relief it is to me to now have the helps of Catholic prayer.  Conventional is good; it works.  The Aves, the Paternosters, the Memorares, the Glorias, thank God for those, and I constantly thank God through and in those.  I never was any good at prayer extempore.  Spufford apparently doesn’t have this difficulty.  Fluency is not his problem.

There’s a slightly tiresome chapter wherein Spufford recounts the Passion in terms of Yeshua and Skull Hill, carefully spicing the narrative as much as he dares, like a sophomore spiking the punch.  What is rather sweet is that Spufford says he is avoiding cliche, without suspecting for a moment how crashing a cliche this is.  It was a cliche back in CS Lewis’ schooldays, when Lewis used to hang round with youths who thought it was clever to talk of Yahweh and Yeshua.

I’d like to sketch the rest of the book better.  The main point is that faith is the help of the desperate, the poor and the pain-racked.  He gets no fight from me on this.  Where this stops short is at any idea of the communion of saints, that our experience of pain may be pressed into the service of others, if we offer it humbly.  But that point may have been made, it’s just that I turned a page inadvertently.

The trouble is that I’m reading on my (son’s) Kindle.  Fine for large print, terrible for getting a sense of the totality of a book.  Terrible for keeping your place.  You can’t see the end, or the beginning, just the Word in front of you, divorced of context.  In a way, it’s the most thoroughly Protestant and sola scriptura of experiences, and disconcerting.  So I’m probably not doing the book justice, but the endless stream of hyperbole reminds me of the man in the pub, whose eye you hope not to catch, because you’ll not easily escape his monologue.  O Brunnenmund, Du Gebender, Du Mund.  I laughed aloud when I got to the end and found he’d written it mostly in a coffee-house.

I’d like to talk with Spufford, if I thought I could get a word in edgeways.  I’d tell him that Christian life gets better as you get older, acquire more friends and relatives, and the corporate aspect of your faith life grows.  It’s when you have a child to catechize that faith becomes urgent, part of your life blood, and then, you surprise yourself, sometimes to tears, by the simplicity of  the old adages you couch it in for your child, and for yourself.

As the Catechism says:

180 "Believing" is a human act, conscious and free, corresponding to the dignity of the human person.
181 "Believing" is an ecclesial act. The Church's faith precedes, engenders, supports and nourishes our faith. The Church is the mother of all believers. "No one can have God as Father who does not have the Church as Mother" (St. Cyprian, De unit. 6: PL 4, 519).

Yes.  This.


Pentimento said...

As ungainly as you make it sound, I think I would like to read this book. And I know I would like to meet Spufford down at the pub with you.

BettyDuffy said...

I've been trying to figure out what it is about my e-reader that makes it so unappealing to me. I think you put it into words for me, O.

Otepoti said...

"Claiming that a provincial rabbi somehow embodies the impulse behind billions of years of history and unthinkable expanses of space does not have much philosophical dignity to it as a position. It is - let's be honest - the kind of silly thing that a cult would assert. It entails a very odd, even comical, blending of the universal and the extremely local. It deliberatly entangles unlikenesses. To have a creator who becomes a creature mixes up the conceptual layers of ordinary reality. It pokes a hole in reality and pulls some of the background through to form a lovely rosette; it ties a Möbius-knot in the fabric, like the paradox Bertrand Russsell came unstuck on, when he was trying to compile a complete axiomatic basis for logic using set theory, and ran into the problem of the set that has itself for one of its members. Or you could put the paradox in literary terms, and say that this is a story which has its author as one of the characters - not parachuted in all post-modernistically, to twist and trick and tease and hint that the whole structure is airy nothing, but the opposite, with the author brain-hurtingly embedded on exactly the same terms as the other characters, his presence having the effect of making the story more real, consequential."

Kindle Loc 1796 (or 1786? or 1706? Who can see those infuriatingly tiny figures?)

I quote this to give you some of the flavour of the writing, but also to wonder if a modern physicist would find this such a mind-stretch. Because as far as I can see, physics is getting more and more like a fairy tale, and farther and farther from the sound Victorian materialism that is Spufford's starting point. Six dimensions, at least, and gravity is dribbling into one of them?

So I think here, Spufford is straining at a gnat. And this is what I see in a lot of agnostics - an insufficient sense of wonder.

Otepoti said...

last line of quote should be "more real, more consequential."

Enbrethiliel said...


I agree with Betty about Otepoti's great point about e-readers. Even when I read a Project Gutenberg book, I like copying and pasting the text to a Word file so that I can get a better sense of the size of the work and how everything fits into it.

While I don't think we will abandon the print medium for books (at least not within the next 500 years or so!), I'm certain that the ereading phenomenon will change the way books are written--kind of the way the phenomenon of "talking pictures" didn't make us give up on the theatre but nonetheless affected the way drama was performed on stage. It would be very interesting to see what those changes in writing will be!

Emily J. said...

I wonder if Spufford would be easier to understand after a couple of beers. I have to admit I can't follow the passage you quote at all, Otepoti.

But that could be because I'm having a glass of wine.

Another quibble with e-readers: why should an e-book cost MORE than the print version? And you have to power down when reading on airplanes during take-off and landing. I like the comparison of theater and movies, Enbrethiliel, especially since we just watched "The Artist" last night.

Meanwhile, I've been relishing the content and the form of Willa Cather's "One of Ours" - something very pleasing in the heft of the paper and balance of white space and font. Just adds to the beauty of the prose.

Otepoti said...

It is an incredible service, having a book delivered to you on a whim, in the middle of the night, to the point furthest from the bright centre of the galaxy. That's a luxury worth paying for, if you live on Tattooine :-)

Also, I got hold of Patrick Leigh-Fermor's "A Time of Gifts", the first book of his travels walking as a seventeen-year-old from the Hague to Constantinople, in 1933 and following. Out of print, but still enkindled!

Reading it, I found the Kindle had met its dream mate - a long, lingering travelogue, travelling hopefully and never arriving. Arriving is now out-of the-question, since Leigh-Fermor has died, so the best thing to do with his marvellous walk is to join him at any random point, and go along with him until duty calls.

I recommend this very highly, and it is not only ideal for Kindle, but otherwise unobtainable.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

Almost a month late to the party, but my brain wasn't wanting to deal with this when I first glanced at it. I thought I'd come back for another go and found it does indeed make sense this time around.

Anyway, I wanted to voice my agreement on the e-reader front. I find I don't mind works of light fiction on the Kindle, because with them my tendency anyway is to get caught up in the action. It's been rather exciting that not quite knowing how far I am in the narrative, how much time there is left to wrap things up instead of counting pages obsessively. But I want to be able to page back and forth in nonfiction books or even novels with any kind of seriousness. Not to be able to return to that passage back there and look at it again is maddening. I tend to remember where things were on the page: on the lower right hand side about that far into the book. And I can usually find them pretty quickly. With the Kindle I'm just lost.