Archive for October, 2005

Nothing is Worse than Pittsburgh: Salvador Plascenzia’s "The People of Paper"

October 25, 2005

Nick Hornby, like a lot of us, likes to benefit from other people’s misery. He wrote a wonderful collection of essays a couple of years ago called Songbook, in which he discussed various songs and why they were important to him. When speaking of Ryan Adams, he lamented the fact that Adams’ later, and more popular, work was NOT inspired by pain. Hornby likes the later stuff, but it didn’t come from the same place that Adams’ was, emotionally speaking, when he wrote the album Heartbreaker, which was written just after his longtime girlfriend left him.
“Some people are at their best when they’re miserable” Hornby writes. ” Ryan Adams’s beautiful Heartbreaker album is, I suspect, the product of a great deal of pain, and ‘Oh My Sweet Carolina’ is its perfect, still centre, its faint heartbeat, a song so quiet that you don’t want to breathe throughout its duration…On Adams’s next album, Gold, he seems to have cheered up, and though that’s good news for him, it’s bad news for me. His upbeat songs are fine, but they sound a lot like other people’s upbeat songs.”

We like to think this of art. Great art is produced by great pain. Artists must suffer, must be on the brink of chopping off an ear, in order to produce something that will inspire and move people, something unique. Pain, it would seem, is the only, or at least the best, place for great art to come. That’s what Hornby suggests above. That’s what we’ve been taught to think — hurt is the easiest emotion to turn into something beautiful and haunting and enduring.

In a recent essay, Laura Miller discusses “The Van Gogh Question.” The question: What if Prozac had been available during Van Gogh’s time? For many, this necearrily means that Van Gogh wouldn’t have created masterpieces. It’d have been good for him but bad for us. Miller addresses the question by discussing a book by Peter Kramer, Against Depression. Kramer critiques the “West’s propensity for romanticizing depression.” Depression has become so romanticized that we now equate it with “refinement, profundity, insight and intelligence.” Kramer concludes that although many artists have suffered from depression, there in no reason to assume there was a cause and effect relationship.

Sal Plascenzia’s The People of Paper has been described in a variety of ways. Some view it as experimental. Some view it as an attempt at magical realism. Some think of it as meta-fiction. And it is all of those things. More than those things, though, it is a novel that tackles the Van Gogh question. Is pain necessary for the creation of a novel? Plascenzia answers this in a peculiar way. The characters in the novel rebel against him. They decide they don’t want to do what he wants them to do anymore. They build walls made of lead to keep him from penetrating their minds and controlling their actions. They rise up from the paper and fight him. Hence, the book often has the “meta-fiction” label attatched to it. And that isn’t inappropriate. We do get a glimpse into Plascenzia’s mind during the writing process. It is, in very concrete ways, a novel exploring how a novel is written. But most reviews limit it’s meta-fiction-ness to the structure or character-development or the-writer’s-relationship-with-the-novel aspects of the book. The interesting part of the meta-ness to me, though, is Plascenzia’s epiphany half way through the novel — he realizes that the novel has simply become a way for him to express his pain. So although the novel is indeed meta-fiction, the novel seems more meta-creativity. To me, it is less a novel about how a novel is written than a novel about how a writer struggles with a variety of emotions throughout the creative process.

The creative impetus of the first half of the novel is a broken heart. In the novel, a man’s wife leaves him. He doesn’t know why, exactly, but he tells himself it is because he wet the bed every night. In order to deal with the emotional pain, the man begins burning parts of his body everyday. The size and depth of the burns corresponds to the level of his emotional pain each day. A bad day equals deep or multiple burns.

This man moves from his hometown and recruits members of a gang to aid him in a war against Saturn. Saturn, he believes, is trying to destroy him. Goes without saying the man is under obvious emotional duress. But it is beautiful. He takes his pain and does something great. He organizes a group of people into an army, of sorts. He plans attacks against the planet of Saturn. He stops wetting the bed. It’s absurd, and strangely, it’s something to which it isn’t hard to relate. (Or maybe it’s just me.)

But then a change comes over Plascenzia. He tires of writing from heartbreak. When the characters rebel against him, well, it’s wierd. Goes without saying it’s experimental. And, oddly, the characters do seem to develop their personalities through Plascenzia’s little ploy. Characters that seemed interchangeable in the first half — who were all written from the same painful emotion — now become distinct. They seem to represent different emotions. There is still pain in the novel, but it is complemented by joy and anger and confusion and all of the other things that make us people. Characters-rebelling-against-the writer does seem a bit gimmicky, and I’m not a big fan of gimmicks. But this one works. One reason is because Plascenzia is a very good writer, but the other is that the gimmick has a reason. What began as a novel of loss and hurt becomes a novel about what it means to be alive.

“What rights do we have here?” Nick Hornby asks. “Are we entitled to ask other people to be unhappy for our benefit? After all, there are loads of us, and only one of them. And how can you be happy, really, if you are only ordinary in your happiness, but extraordinary in your grief? Is it really worth it? It sounds harsh, I know, but if you are currently romantically involved with someone with a real talent — especially a talent for songwriting — then do us all a favour and dump them. There might be a Heartbreaker — or a Blood On The Tracks or a Layla — in it for all of us.”

Plascenzia’s answer is, okay. Break my heart. It’ll cause pain and I’ll use that pain to be creative. But I’m not a one-tool player. I can be just as creative if you don’t break my heart. Plascenzia’s refusal to rely solely on pain doesn’t diminish his art, it just creates something different. In Miller’s “Van Gogh” essay, she says that artists don’t need to avoid treating their depression out of fear their art will suffer. They may not create the same kind of art, but it wouldn’t necessarily be inferior. It’d just be different. If Van Gogh took Prozac, he might have been equally famous, just different: different subjects, different stories, different needs, different tastes. Plascenzia is different, but it’s my kind of different.

What Had Happened Was…

October 19, 2005

You can always count on the Houseflies for timely, informative pieces. Since you last heard from any of us…There’s the whole Supreme Court thing going on. Pretty much every Repulican in the House and Senate has been charged for somethingorother. Most of the charges make no sense to me. But whatever. William Bennett made some outlandish statements that aren’t actually too much different than a lot of the stuff he’s written before, but for whatever reason, this time people noticed and made a big deal (or made a big deal of other people making a big deal). The Democrats somehow manage to still seem irrelevant despite Republican attempts to make them so in the past couple of weeks.

Nobel Prizes were handed out. There was an actual stink in the literary world, as one of the members of the jury up and quit days before the winner was announced because he thought the rest of the committee didn’t know a good book from Dan Brown. They picked a playwrite this year, I think. I’d never heard of him. I should be embarrassed about this, but I’m not.

In the sporting world: Hockey’s back! I near soiled myself when the first puck dropped. And the whole two line pass thing…we’ll be debating the merits of this rule change for generations. Is there a funner baseball team to watch than the Astros? As a Cardinals fan, I don’t even like the Astros. For years I was one of the people who always rooted for them to loose to whomever they were playing. But now it’s kind of like rooting against your 80 year-old-lifelong-bachelor-of-an-uncle getting a date. Actually, I don’t feel sorry for the B’s or their fans, and I don’t think they’re fun to watch because they have played some close, exciting games. They’re fun to watch because they seem excited about playing. They seem to enjoy themselves, and they play very hard. I love the Cards, but I wish they’d play with the same enthusiasm.

Pictures-wise. Well…I’ve managed to move to across country and not take a picture worth posting on the blog. That’s not entirely true. I’ve taken lots of pictures — I just haven’t developed them yet. I don’t have a digital camera because I’m too cool for all this new-fangled technology.

I’ve not heard a word from our Editor-in-Chief, which I’m taking as good news. I assume Al and his family are working hard to get their community back together. We seem to have fallen apart since Katrina. I think that took a lot of energy out of us, and obviously, it effected Al and the families of other contributers greatly. Hopefully, we can get back into the swing of things, even if it takes a while.

Ministers of Reconciliation

October 2, 2005

This will be a strange start for those of you that don’t know me, but it makes sense in my way of thinking. I do a lot of counseling with married couples, many of whom are on the verge of divorce. What I often find them troubled by is fighting in front of their children. Many think that they should not do it because it troubles the kids, makes them think their parents will divorce, or whatever, i.e. that it makes for an unstable environment for the children. For those of you who are counselors out there, you might disagree, but I tell them it is okay to fight in front of their kids. Now I assure them that knock-down, drag-out fights are not healthy at all, especially not in front of the kids, but that arguing is natural and is okay for the kids to see provided they also see you work things out and make up. Rather than provide an unstable environment, it provides a very stable one that shows the children a healthy way to handle the conflict they will inevitably experience in their lives.

Somehow along the way, we as a church have perpetuated a dysfunctional way of disagreeing over the years. We fight, no one gives in, both parties think they are right, and something of a divorce often happens. We have split over such things as Sunday school, one cup or many cups, having a church kitchen or not, ad infinitum. We don’t mind fighting in front of everyone else and arguing for our own way, but then we never reconcile. We don’t know how to make up. So our kids growing up in our churches never see the type of reconciliation our very Bibles teach us. How can we be ministers of reconciliation if we don’t even know how to do that among our closest friends?

Here’s my example from Scripture. You might disagree with my interpretation of the situation and there is enough ambiguity that I could be wrong, but there is a situation in Corinth that Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians and seems to be solved in 2 Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, Paul has heard of a Christian who has his father’s wife. Paul tells the congregation in no uncertain terms to cast this wicked person out because of his unrepentant situation. He wants to deal with the flesh so the man will be saved. By the time Paul writes 2 Corinthians, it appears that his advice has been followed and has worked. In 2 Corinthians 2:6-10, Paul writes:

6 This punishment by the majority is enough for such a person; 7 so now instead you should forgive and console him, so that he may not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. 8 So I urge you to reaffirm your love for him. 9 I wrote for this reason: to test you and to know whether you are obedient in everything. 10 Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ. (NRSV)

It appears that this is very likely the man who has been kicked out and he has repented. Paul’s advice is reconciliation. Let him back in and reaffirm your love for him because his punishment has been enough and brought about the desired repentance. Now it is time to show love.

Okay, last I knew we did not disagree about anything as serious as blatant immorality conducted by a Christian. Instead, we divided on matters of opinion. People disagreed so strongly that the congregation divided, half or more going one way and half or less going the other way. People did not reconcile, agree to disagree, love one another and move forward as brothers and sisters struggling with their own understanding of their faith. This is a huge problem. What we modeled was how to be obstinate, not budge on one’s own opinion, and drive someone else away. We did not model reconciliation. We drew lines in the sand and would not budge.

I’m not saying there is never a time to draw a line in the sand. Paul did that in 1 Corinthians 5, but it served a purpose—reconciliation. He drew a line in Galatians and would not allow Jewish Christians to require Torah obedience from their fellow Gentile Christians. John in 1 John draws the line at denying that Christ came in the flesh. There are certain lines that are important, but we have not drawn them there. We’ve drawn them based on our own interpretations of certain church practices typically. And so we divide and we perpetuate it because our children have learned from us how to fight and not give in.

After all, we’re right, aren’t we? And when we get into arguments that get heated, we’re not the only ones at fault, right? How can I apologize when I know he or she also took it too far and hurt me too? It’s not about you and your right to not reconcile. It is about showing humility, the very humility Christ had (Philippians 2) and reconciling with your brother(s) or sister(s) in Christ, just like Paul urges of Euodia and Syntyche (Philippians 4). It is about being Christ-like and giving up your own rights because it’s not about you. This is how Paul attempts to solve the eating meat sacrificed to idols problem in 1 Corinthians 8-10. Those who want to be able to eat it argue vehemently for their right to do so. Paul starts 1 Corinthians 9 by arguing for his rights as an apostle just so he can give them up in 9:15. Amazing! It is not about me and my right to be right. It is about showing love for my fellow believer.

In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul writes:

14 For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. 15 And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. 16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. 17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. (NRSV)

We don’t live to ourselves but to Christ. We cannot be ministers of the reconciliation God offers to us through his son if we can’t learn to live out that reconciliation among fellow believers. We need to learn to say we’re sorry, even and especially at the expense of giving up our right to be right.

Living in community means that we will have disagreements. We don’t turn and run when things don’t work out as we like. We instead take the hard, but worthwhile, road of loving and forgiving, in that way modeling the very forgiveness we receive from God through Christ. The world needs to see the church as a witness of God’s reconciliation. They need to see that we can work out our problems and still love one another. The world needs to see the humility that realizes that I’m wrong and I’m a sinner in need of God’s grace and even in need of forgiveness from other people as well.

Will we break the cycle of division by showing future generations how to work things out peaceably? Will we show the example of our Lord by learning that humility can be a wonderful instrument leading to peace and love? Can we show respect for our fellow human beings by asking their forgiveness when we’ve wronged them? I hope so. Where else will people learn of Christ’s forgiveness?