Book Review: L’Engle’s Walking on Water – Overly Lofty

9780804189293In one sense, Madeleine L’Engle’s “Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art,” was pleasant to read and stroked my ego as as a wanna-be writer. Parts of it were inspiring. Overall, however, I found it insipid and overly foofy; it talks of writing and art in the loftiest of idealistic prose, as the highest reaches of human meditation and striving.

In a sense, I agree with most of it. But an idealization of the writing vocation is only a tenth of the story. The other nine-tenths are work, the basic discipline of hitting the nail with the hammer every single day. In this sense, it’s like any other skill or job, one where talent and know-how deepen as experience progresses.

Here’s an example of what I didn’t like:

“The world of fairy tale, fantasy, myth, is inimical to the secular world, and in total opposition to it, for it is interested not in limited laboratory proofs but in truth.” (46)

I love fairy tales and fantasy far more than the average fellow, but science is not something to dismiss. I am not a scientist, but I suspect that a tech-minded reader might react defensively, “Hey that’s what my lab tests are all about–truth.” Of course scientific methodology excludes philosophy, meta-narrative claims, but the whole purpose is to learn true things about how the universe works in order to understand it better. This mentality oversteps when we view ourselves as masters of the universe, meant to tame it. But in general, I would say science and laboratory experiments are at the service to truth, a different approach to understanding our world. I think it throws the baby out with the bathwater to pit science in opposition to truth, as if creative types have some sort of lock on that.

Then there was this:

“In art, we are once again able to do all the things we have forgotten; we are able to walk on water; we speak to the angels who call us; we move, unfettered, among the stars.” (47)

Bleck. I am an idealistic person, and I am sympathetic to what she is getting at, which I take to be that art or creativity is an attempt at knowing or expressing truth. Seeking the fullness of truth can be understood as a sort of prayer or connection with reality aka God. That striving to speak truth can bring the speaker to the heights of human calling.

But. I find L’Engle’s language so over-the-top as to discredit it. It’s as if she divinizes the artist himself rather than showing him as a mere human glimpsing at participation with the divine–which is really the intention. Much of life, and I suspect much of an artist’s life, is spent in murky misunderstanding, darkness and trials, and the prosaic daily activities of buying materials, preparing food and changing sheets. Even the highest peaks of sublimity in creation pass unnoticed because the artist is so absorbed in the act. Never is she really conscious of “moving unfettered among the stars.” Maybe L’Engle is, and that sounds amazing.

But the work of other writers and artists, such as Stephen King and Flannery O’Connor, who have explained their craft, spend more time focusing on the process, on the work, of being surprised by the product despite their best plans. So while the artist does do some amazing co-creation, it is rather unknowable. My concern is not that L’Engle is wrong, but that the tone is deceptive.

Artists are not really a breed set apart for transcendental experience, but rather fellow stumblers along the road. More accurate would be Oscar Wilde who said, “We are all lying the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Continue reading

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Book Review: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

18131What a book! This was my second time reading it; I read it once in 6th grade and I enjoyed it far more this time. What struck me the most is how many incredibly complex thoughts and ideas flow so naturally in what appears to be an adventure story for children. And I love that it is an adventure that involves an entire family.

Meg, her little brother Charles, and her new friend Calvin, journey with three intriguing, teleporting ladies across space and time in an effort to save Meg’s & Charles’s father, who disappeared during research on the fifth dimension.

In the beginning, we see the beauty of the sweet relationships between Meg, Charles, their two other brothers and their Mother. The mother is an active scientist who has a lab in an outer room of the house. I simply loved the mother’s role in this story as wise, guiding, loving and very active on her own.

“Over a Bunsen burner bubbled a big earthenware dish of stew. ‘Don’t tell Sandy and Dennys I’m cooking out here,’ she said. ‘They’re always suspicious that a few chemicals may get in with the meat, but I had an experiment I wanted to stay with” (39).

In this alone, we see both a strong commitment to her family and also to her craft. It’s nothing short of inspiring.

Then there is the number of philosophical and emotional concepts packed into the story. Here’s one regarding the structure of our lives and the responsibility that we must take:

“You have a form of poetry called the sonnet….It is a very strict form of poetry….There are fourteen lines, I believe, all in iambic pentameter….But within this strict freedom, the poet has complete freedom to say whatever he wants”

“You mean you are comparing our lives to a sonnet? A strict form but freedom within it?” (198-199)

This is meant to describe how life works. There are boundaries, but within those, there is total freedom to do well or badly, and how very insightful this is! Boundaries I can think of include our physical capacity, the existence of others, the commitments we make in life and even moral laws. But in the example of the sonnet, L’Engle shows how beautiful the the boundaries can be. Freedom flourishes within bonds of love instead of turning into overweening destruction of neighbor.

And also, even though boundaries do exist, the measure of our freedom and responsibility is still enormous. We have a sonnet to write. Or a symphony perhaps, within a certain key. No one will write it but us.