Wednesday, November 19, 2014

At the Caxton Club

At the Caxton Club:

Always nice to read to a hometown audience. The Chicago Caxton Club  was founded in 1895 by fifteen Chicago bibliophiles. It was named after William Caxton, the first printer to set up shop in England. The Knox College Caxton Club was founded by members of the English Department about 1978. It was almost named the Wynken de Worde Society after the second English printer. Past speakers have included Stuart Dybeck, Aimee Bender, Denis Johnson, Junot Diaz, Peter Orner, Alice Quinn, and Michael Martone.

 "I kept my eyes open and didn't argue with myself before squeezing the trigger. The hammer was already cocked. I didn't want to wait for 'nine.' I could see him tensing up to make a move, and I didn't think he'd wait for the full count."

Monday, October 27, 2014



            About two weeks ago I gave a talk for the religious studies program at Beloit
College in Beloit, Wisconsin. My assignment was to initiate a conversation about the
challenges and benefits of living with uncertainty in a secular world.
            I took as my text an old hymn that was unfamiliar to all but one or two or the students but that will be familiar to most people my age (72):
Debra Majeed, Chair, religious
studies program, Beloit College
  Tempted and tried, we're oft made to wonder
  Why is should be thus, all the day long;
  While there are others, living about us,
  Never molested, though in the wrong.

   Farther along we'll know all about it,
   Farther along we'll understand why,
   Cheer up, my brothers, live in the sunshine,
   We'll understand it all by and by.

            What is it we want to understand? We want to understand a lot of things, but perhaps the most important thing is why bad things happen. Why is my grandson severely retarded? Why did my neighbor die of cancer at an early age? Why did God permit the Lisbon earthquake or the Holocaust? Why did God permit the shooting of Michel Brown in Ferguson on the night of August ninth?  My wife and I were in Ferguson that night visiting our daughter and her husband, and we were forcibly reminded that if there is a providential plan, it seems not only incomprehensible but ill-conceived or even malicious. It’s hard to see wars, terrorism, genocides, epidemics, grinding poverty, natural disasters, the shooting in Ferguson, as part of a plan that we’ll understand by and by.
            The problem is, what do we do if we’re no longer confident that we’ll understand it all by and by? What if we need to understand it right now?

            In the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh, which is really the first important text in the history of western literature, Gilgamesh, prompted by the death of his friend, Enkidu set out on a quest for immortality. Out on the edge of the known world he comes to a kind of bed-and-breakfast place run by a “barmaid” who is also a hierodule or sacred prostitute. Her name is Sidhuri, and after feeding and bathing Gilgamesh, and comforting him with her body, she offers him some advice:

Gilgamesh, whither rovest thou?
The Life thou pursuest thou shalt not find.
When the gods created mankind
Death for mankind they set aside,
Life in their own hand retaining.
Thou, Gilgamesh, let full be thy belly,
Make thou merry by day and by night.
Of each day make thou a feast of rejoicing,
Day and night dance thou and play!
Let thy garments be sparkling fresh,
Thy head be washed; bathe thou in water.
Pay heed to the little one that holds on to thy hand,
Let thy spouse delight in thy bosom!
For this is the task of mankind!

I quote this passage because it’s a passage I keep coming back to, in my own life and in my writing. There’s a Sidhuri figure in almost every one of my novels. I give one example.
            In Philosophy Made Simple my protagonist, Rudy, a widower who has moved to Texas to raise avocados, struggles with all the big questions. Like Gilgamesh he encounters a high-class prostitute on the edge of his known world. He’s introduced to her by his foreman, Medardo, at an exclusive Mexican “club” just across the border from Rudy’s avocado grove where he’s gone for what Medardo calls a “cultural Friday.” Her name is María Gracia and she gives him some advice as they’re eating dinner:
            “This is it, Rudy. This is what you’re looking for—alegría. The embrace of a woman. And the love of your daughters, your three lovely daughters. Rejoice in them, and remember your wife with love. Your whole world is full of love, Rudy, and I think you know that. ‘Gratitude’ is the word that should be on the tip of your tongue. Not ‘I’m worried I’m worried I’m worried,’ but ‘Thank you Thank you Thank you.’ For your daughters and the good times you shared with your wife, for hot water in your bathroom and this good wine, and for these wonderful seafood enchiladas. Don’t be afraid.” She stuck her fork into the last bite of her enchilada, pointed it at him, and then stuck it in her mouth.
            Most of us find ourselves in Gilgamesh’s shoes, so to speak. Or Rudy’s shoes. Are Sidhuri and María Gracia tempting us to abandon the quest to discover the larger meaning and purpose of human life, or are they offering us the accumulated wisdom of the ancient near east? Personally, I’m inclined to accept the accumulated wisdom of the ancient near East. At the same time, like Gilgamesh, I can’t entirely abandon the quest for some larger meaning.

            When I try to reconcile the impulse to continue this quest with a desire to accept the accumulated wisdom of the ancient near East, I get all tangled up. And maybe that’s true of all storytellers. Maybe this is why we become storytellers rather than philosophers or theologians.