This is a first in my “Two Quote” series, since it sets side by side not only a written quotation but a musical one.
It’s rare when music is mentioned in literature that I feel inclined to dwell much on it but when the writer is Dickens and the composer is Handel, well, naturally I took the bait. Needless to say, the comic nature of poor Bella’s father’s grimly melodious characterization of his marriage took flight. But then Dickens always did have a way of making you literally laugh through your tears, perhaps even his own as he was at the time estranged from his wife.
Our Mutual Friend was his last completed work and, as if in a farewell gesture, Dickens throws into it the unrestrained comic genius and dramatic flair of his first novel (The Pickwick Papers, 1837) which brought him the acclaim he richly deserved. In the excerpt below, the “Dead March” from Handel’s dramatic oratorio, Saul, is made to dance to the sorrowful notes of Reginald Wilfer’s portrait of married life.
Mrs. Wilfer, writes Dickens, “is a tall woman, and angular,” necessarily so according to the matrimonial law of contrasts, her husband being “cherubic.” “It is as you think, R. W.; not as I do,” comprised a part of her deceptively submissive repertoire of aphorisms with which she managed him. Only to Bella, his eldest daughter, is Reginald Wilfer able to relax his guard and venture into unfettered conversation.
It’s a rickety, rollicking ride I’m on Reading Uncle’s “Our Mutual Friend” On the tide of the Thames as it rolls along Dragging me in its mysterious wake With Veneerings and Rimtys and inspectors That lurk behind the John Harmons, who as easily Could be: the Annikovs or Huangs, or Pillais Or Chandras hawking rumors by the Ganges In the myriad scenario of humanity’s flow From the pen of a master storyteller, caught In the blood-spun net of familiar lives Of desperation, pathos, or tartuffery Spent on the banks of labyrinthian rivers That wend to shores around the world And stay to balance on my fingertips.
Every book that’s worth its salt leads me inexorably back to the only book that I read and re-read constantly, and which also happens to be the best-selling book of all time: the Bible. And let’s face it: all good books should do that, because every good story must have concerns that every one can relate to existentially, people, places, events that we can relate to, even identify with, and they must inevitably bring us back to the big questions in our life:
Why am I here? How can I know truth? What gives meaning to life? What should I do?
And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. (Galatians 6:9-10)
Have you seen the “Unsung Hero” commercials of Thai Life? They’re not the usual “roll your eyes” fare. I can’t say many commercials have really reached out and touched me but these did, and especially this one: three minutes long and worth every second. Hats off to the folks who made it. It’s got heart. Take a look:
Inspired by the Georges de La Tour painting below, the following poem attempts to give an added voice to the expressive eloquence of Tour’s work by “unmuting” Job’s wife. As a character in the book of Job, his wife is not prominent but, perhaps, delivers the most bitter blow to Job. Through her, we hear the voice of Satan speaking most directly to Job when she asks, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die” (Job 2:9). In the midst of his sufferings, I believe Job’s greatest challenge was to withstand this voice and choose to trust God.
It is no wonder that Virginia Woolf entitled a collection of essays on writing “A Room of One’s Own” since not only does a writer’s room occupy a space all its own, like a creative work or an individual’s life, but it maintains the boundaries of that space with enclosing walls formed at its conception. Only a doorway admits entrance or exit both to the occupant and visitor. And whatever that “room” may be, however modest or grand, private or public, man-made or natural, we leave one room only to enter another which in turn we leave for another. It is this sense of leave-taking that we see played out in our lives and in our occupations, but also in the interior spaces of the imagination as artists and storytellers, scholars, and critics.
In our lives, we pass through places, events, times, and histories, our own history intersecting with others’, passing from one day to the next until time stops. As writers we leave the “real” world with its ready-made structures and demands into a self-created world which may or may not bear a resemblance to any we have known.
But leave-taking in its many forms is not an easy job, and the dynamics of its interplay between the leaving of one room for another creates an uneasy tension.
There is an entrance that must be made and, more often than not, what we see is a closed door. Maybe even locked. Perhaps only slammed shut by an unceremoniously hostile exit echoing with the finality of rejection. It doesn’t matter that you yourself may have slammed it shut, stung by criticism or scorn or frustration at fruitless effort. The closed door dares you to approach it once more and make your entrance.
Matthew So-Yohu had thought it was a day like any other when the unthinkable occurred. Pushing aside that inherent illogic, So-Yohu grimaced internally and continued his speech. His unnameable audience was transfixed. So-Yohu’s grimace grew. He felt it stretch within his soul like a rubber band as large as Archimedes’s hypothetical lever. Would the grimace grow until it exploded his soul’s natural capacities or would his soul expand in its turn to accommodate the increasing proportions of his grimace, thereby proving itself infinitely flexible, gargantuan, and monstrous?
At this point the grimace transformed into a grimmus, which in fact it had been all the time, and So-Yohu was able to relax. The grimmus, however, could not.
So-Yohu’s grimmus got to work at once, as all grimmuses are compelled to do. It began with an ordinary 16-oz can of tomato sauce that So-Yohu inexplicably purchased on his way home from work. That was the unintentionally easy part since djinns can abide in anything but prefer the packaged effect. The intentionally easy part, of course, was summoning the djinn. Like cherries in an Anatolian cherry orchard after a moderately hard winter, plentiful spring rains, temperate sunshine, and only a modicum of infestation, djinns are everywhere. One doesn’t have to know where to look. The grimmus had only to choose. And that was the difficult part, though Who made it so, the grimmus knew very well.
So-Yohu’s grimmus did actually settle on one djinn but he ended up summoning another. Their little joke. But in cases like that and otherwise, the grimmus understood, the outcome was predetermined.
So the djinn claimed occupancy of the 16-oz tomato can that its owner, placidly unaware of its contents, carried in a large paper bag all the way into his domicile.
Dr. Timothy Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan discussed his insights into “Writing from a Christian Worldview” during a Redeemer InterArts Fellowship in 2003. What was said then rings true today. As his website puts it, “You can’t make sense from facts without using them to create a story, and you can’t make sense of a story without putting it in context of a macro-level worldview. All the stories we tell as Christians fall into the gospel worldview of creational good, fallenness, and redemption.”
For me, the most helpful takeaway from this hour-long discussion revolved around “how Jesus resolves the plot lines” for these reasons:
1. Every story fits into the world’s story, an overarching narrative that you believe in: “You can’t tell facts without a story.”
2. Every story is a subplot of your macro-story. If the macro-story is the Christian storyline, then it will follow the creation-fall-redemption arc.
3. The Christian story co-opts or completes all the storylines of all cultures and worldviews. For example, is it a story of gaining power? wisdom? goodness? freedom? Only Jesus can resolve and satisfy these other worldviews.
In effect, the Gospel story is the story to which all good stories point.