The Herb Of Grace

Theology and Poetry, Politics and Prose

Worship Music and the Generation of Embarrassment March 15, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Joel @ 7:53 pm

There is something strange that happens between worship music and myself, and also, i think, between other people my age that i know want to proclaim the christian faith.  That strange thing is, i think, a kind of conviction.

The music enters with power, whether beautiful or not, into our consciousness, without any permission, without any question of its entering or not.  It just comes into our senses whenever we hear it, our ears performing their listening abilities perfectly.  And so, having heard the music, we hear the words, the gospel proclaimed, and our pasts and histories and our present lives are laid before us.  The difference between our lives and the words, and our lives and the life described in the words, becomes painfully apparent.

It is important to say here that it doesn’t matter whether the lyrics are shit or not, or whether they are even theologically sound!  that reasoning is yet to come.  what is immediate to our souls and senses is the experience of distance from the witness of these songs.  Before a word is said, if we have the feeling that it is a religious song, we are already worried that it will lay bear, or at least accuse, our spiritual inadequacies.  Perhaps we should criticize this, but who do we criticize?  No, instead we should pay attention to our fear.

We are afraid of being found out, of being “outed” as spiritually bankrupt.  Beyond this, we are afraid that the people around us will realize that we in fact DO care if we are spiritually bankrupt or not, that it does matter to us that we cannot lift our hands in praise, cannot stomach most church services, cannot maintain even the simplest theological dialogue with a person from a different generation.  These are deep points of embarrassment.


Finale: Charles Bukowski, TragiComic Hope, and the Inconsolable Secret March 8, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Joel @ 8:16 am

Find below the final installment of my presentation on Charles Bukowski (the abridged version).

In conclusion, it is true that Charles Bukowski was what Time magazine called “a laureate of American lowlife.”   Yet his influence went far beyond that demographic, suggesting that what Bukowski ended up writing about, especially in his Notes of a Dirty Old Man, was the story of the lowlife in each of us, whether we are poor, rich, cultured, or clueless.  Within the stories he wrote for OPEN CITY, Bukowski traced a line of narration down the centre of the human psyche, a line maintained by the energy of tragicomic hope.  For Bukowski, within every tale of woe there is a joke; within every joke, a longing for a world where one doesn’t need the joke to stall the bitterness of suffering; within every hope a loop back into that appropriate pain mentioned above, where both writer and reader engage in a kind of narrative jousting, nudging each other back and forth between history and fiction, between honesty and justifiable escape.  Bukowski’s tomb is inscribed with the words, “don’t try,” advice he would often give when asked how one should go about writing poetry.  There is a tragicomic loop there too; for trying not to try is still trying.  But Bukowski knew something about the mystery of the human interaction with reading, with human sharing through writing and reading.  Perhaps what he knew was akin to something St. Augustine said in a sermon on the Gospel of St. John,

I am not speaking in order to make [the text] understood, but to tell you what hinders it from being understood…. [This text] wasn’t read in order to be comprehended, but to make us humans grieve because we don’t comprehend it, and to make us discover what hinders our comprehension, so that we remove the hindrance, and hunger to perceive the immutable Word, ourselves thereby being changed from worse to better.

This says well what Bukowski is doing, if we take it as a sort of analogy.  Augustine is saying, “i’m talking about the text not because we understand it but because we don’t!”  Bukowski is saying something similar, “I’m writing about my life and the lives of those fucked up people i know, not because i understand my life or their lives, but because i don’t understand, and neither do you!”  The comedy is that this is, of course, a profound kind of understanding.  As it ever was, this is the beginning of hope, not the end; not the finish line, happy or sad, but the starter pistol announcing that human beings are at it again, and someone better write it all out, so that we don’t go crazy.


Pt. 3: Charles Bukowski, TragiComic Hope, and the Inconsolable Secret February 27, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Joel @ 10:12 am

Here is part 3 of my paper on Charles Bukowski, the american poet.  Read part 1 by clicking here and part 2 by clicking here!

Part 3

When a person writes poetry or auto-biography, there is always a certain concealment at work; it is no different with Bukowski.  That concealment is a function of its proximity to the hiddenness of the world.  So Bukowski’s work is concealed to the extent that he re-presents the hidden population of his beloved and impoverished Los Angeles.  A historian or a philosopher is trying to get close to the truth by the language they use.  A poet is trying to get close to the truth by setting up a world of language in which discovering truth becomes a new possibility.  When a writer weaves images, whether fictional, historical, or somewhere in between, there is always, if it is good writing, a sense of play with language.  This play is an analogy somewhat akin to hide and go seek.  the true meaning of the poem or the self disclosing act of writing is to be found both within the subject matter of the work as well as within the existence of writing as riddle.  the subject matter that the poem purports to deal with can be found within the words, rhythm, and syntax.  the fact of its being, its breathing, can be found as the reader steps back from what she is doing to recognize the nature of the poetic act, in writing and in reading.  the work of the poet, in this case Bukowski, is to say one thing and mean another, and this gives us pleasure.  and it is not pleasure from within the poem, but a pleasure that comes when the reader’s conception of the world as paradox, and as misery and joy, is reflected back to her through the double speak of the poet.

This is especially felt in poets like Bukowski who writes much like one imagines he would speak in person.  Because of this, the reader reads Bukowski much as if he were simply retelling a story he heard himself five minutes ago on the street from a hobo friend.  Because of the pure narrative force of tactile encounter that Bukowski’s writing effects with the suffering world, the reader is obliged to empathize with many shocking and offensive things that, were it not for the nearness of tragicomic hope, would still seem distant, frightful, and disturbing.  For instance, after a sexual encounter with a complete stranger, he writes, “she walked out of the bedroom.  I let them go; they let me go.  everything is horrible really, and i add to it.  they will never let us sleep until we are dead and then they will think up another trick.” (Notes, pg. 104)  This would be only a tragic scene were it not for the humor, the dark laughter, that comes twisting at the end, “then they will think up another trick.”  It doesn’t matter who “they” are, nor does it matter that we understand just what Bukowski believed about the after-life.  What matters is that we, the readers, relate to that strange human mixture of joy and despair, or joy quickly followed by despair.  We are dogged by this intense experience of meaning and then confronted with the finite nature of life, and of finite experiences within that finite life.  There is the feeling that we are being tricked.  But if we have common sense, and Bukowski has a great deal of this, then we know that such a feeling is melodramatic and a bit embarassing.  It is too stark, too over played to really believe that we have been tricked into life, that all of life is a trick, though everyone entertains these thoughts.  It is exactly at this point that the double-speak I mentioned earlier is activated and we are saved from this melodrama by humor.  Even small salvations like this are enough to awaken hope.

We agree with Bukowski’s poetic estimation of life, i am convinced, because he both means and does not mean what he says.  When he speaks without hope, or with derision, about things like love.  there is a trick at work.  The thing that is being derided is our condition, our continual lot, woven as it is between our choice and our addictions.  but beneath this, perhaps within the nature of poetry’s language itself, is a recollection of an unimaginable secret: the longing for love that cannot be satisfied by anything else but love.  For “then they will think up another trick” can also be understood as what to Bukowski would be the greatest joke of all: that there might be some kind of redemption for people like him.  it is a very picky, present longing, and, ironically, Bukowski champions this by describing all the ways in which he, and those he lives life with, trash love, kill it, leave it for dead by the side of the road.  but love does not die, and, by continuing to write, and perhaps even continuing to live, Bukowski narrates into being the stubborn inconsolable secret of love’s longing in the world, of hope that, though it is both tragic and comic, is real hope nonetheless.


Pt. 2 – Charles Bukowski, TragiComic Hope, and the Inconsolable Secret February 22, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Joel @ 11:44 pm

I posted the first part of a paper a few days ago (to read it, click here), promising then to post the rest in sections as the days yawned by.  Here is part 2, enjoy.

Arundhati Roy described the storyteller as one who “tells stories of the gods, but his yarn is spun from the ungodly, human heart.” (On Stories, pg. 9)  It would be a difficult task to find an author better than Charles Bukowski to represent the extreme end of Roy’s postulation.  Notes of a Dirty Old Man (hereafter Notes) is a collection of columns written by Bukowski for an underground newspaper called OPEN CITY.  One of its overarching themes is the notion that truly seeing the world around oneself enables one to survive the suffering, confusion, and loneliness of that world.  Implicit in this theme of seeing is the belief that the same help comes when one is seen.  Thus for Bukowski, truly seeing the world implies observation, but it also has to do with acceptance; acceptance of himself and acceptance of those around him; acceptance thus implying what it means to “be seen.”  Bukowski’s somewhat auto-biographical notes parallel the maxim,“whatever is denied cannot be healed.”  The Bukowskian maxim could be expressed as “whatever is denied is the normal stuff of human life; if we’re honest about a few things, that’s real progress!”

The stories he relates in Notes weave in and out of truth and fiction, constantly blurring the line.  They also constantly invoke the paradox of practices in life which, though they are admittedly destructive, have healing properties, have drops of grace in the folds of their clothes.  Gambling at the track, bedding a 300 pound woman (and breaking the bed), drinking from morning till night; all these episodes celebrate what he’ll call the “tragicomic” aspect of life.  For him, the tragicomic is life, and anyone who tries to spin it differently is “boring” or “full of shit.”  As he himself says, “sex is obviously the tragicomedy.  I write about it as a stage play laugh where you have to cry about it, a bit, between acts.” (Notes, pg. 132)

Bukowski had an uneasy relationship with the Beatnik movement.  Though Bukowski has often been filed in the same category as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, he had harsh words for their lopsided view of the world, going so far as to claim that Kerouac used Neal Cassady for his literary dreams and was even the cause of his death.  In Notes, Bukowski writes that “Kerouac had set him up for the sucker punch and Neal had bit, kept biting… Jack had only written the book, he wasn’t Neal’s mother.  just his destructor, deliberate or otherwise.”  For Bukowski, the beatniks were tragedy without comedy and comedy without meaning.


Charles Bukowski, TragiComic Hope, and the Inconsolable Secret, Pt. 1 February 19, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Joel @ 8:03 am

What you’ll find below is the first part of a presentation I gave for one of my classes on the American poet Charles Bukowski. (for an interview with Bukowski, click here)  I’ll post the presentation in parts and welcome comments along the way!

Part 1

The poetry and semi-autobiographical writings of Charles Bukowski (1920-1994) are examples of what this paper will call tragicomic hope.  Bukowski writes with gritty realism about his native Los Angeles in the latter half of the 20th century, inviting the reader into the circumstances, choices, and addictions of people, including himself, considered to be the underbelly of society (or what he repeatedly calls “subnormal”).  He does this by laying out clearly the ways in which such lifestyles are tragic, comedic, and sometimes beautiful (and thus perhaps hopeful).  It is the tragicomic aspect of his work which bears resemblance to these words by C.S. Lewis,

In speaking of this desire for our own faroff country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name.

The inconsolable secret, the longing that will not leave humanity, is viscerally present in the tragicomedy of Bukowski’s world.  This is not surprising when one considers Bukowski’s influences.  From Chekhov’s austerity to Dostoyevsky’s redemptive suffering, from D.H. Lawerence’s sexuality to Kafka’s visceral character portraits, one can see the great lake of resource Bukowski had to pull from.  Still, one might think after reading Bukowski’s work that the hope inherent in Lewis’ inconsolable secret is visibly absent in Bukowski’s admittedly “offensive” work.  But it is exactly that thought which this paper seeks to take issue with.  Bukowski’s self-narration in his poems and in his semi-autobiographical work hides a hope beneath its layers of sexual adventure and failure.  That hope is hidden within the tragicomic elements of his work precisely to the extent that he himself identifies with and acknowledges that there is significance in tragedy and meaning in comedy.  To make the same point from a telescoped perspective, the very act of writing, of documenting his own life and other’s lives is a sign of hope, a sign that he is very much aware of the inconsolable secret, and he is not about to give it up.  That would be bad poetry, and he’s not for that.


It’s Advent and I have nothing to wear! December 12, 2009

Filed under: advent — Joel @ 9:13 am

I haven’t thought much about Advent this year; and this very fact has disclosed something interesting.  Every commitment that is not school has felt like a burden to me as of late.  And while I can’t say that this is desirable, it is what it is and the idea of trying to formulate some plan to change this only feels like yet another burden.  So Advent celebrations, candle lightings, thoughtful conversations, they’ve all taken a backseat, or so it seems.  

If Advent is waiting, waiting for God, waiting for each other and ourselves to wait for God, then I have been participating.  I’m not sure if i’ve ever groaned for anything so strenuously as I have for these papers I’ve been writing.  More of myself than I’d like to admit has gone into them.  Every ounce of reflection, every inch of wisdom, every strand of my accessible soul.  I have two down and one to go, the end is drawing near.  Then what will I do?  I’ll drive the pretty pages to langley, through the resistance of traffic and time, I’ll drop them off, and I’ll leave to Saskatchewan for Christmas.  There’s an Advent progression there, I want to believe.  I want to believe that even the busy can enter the kingdom of God, that the work of liturgy can truly be “the work of the people.”


Carnival: unveiling of primordial energies November 14, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — Joel @ 9:08 pm

Carnival worked as a public and communal venture because the world was enchanted.  In other words, whether one believed in an overarching order of the world or not, one knew that this was the prevailing worldview.  But this is not the cut and clean order that we have come to know through our modern experiences of that word enfleshed.  When we think “order,” we think civility, peace, and proper behavior.  But order was seen then as existing with chaos symbiotically, as Taylor notes when connecting ancient carnival with other similar festivals,


“[O]rder binds a primitive chaos which is both its enemy but also the source of all energy, including that of order.  The binding has to capture that energy, and in the supreme moments of founding it does this.  But the years of routine crush this force and drain it; so that order itself can only survive through periodic renewal, in which the forces of chaos are first unleashed anew, and then brought into a new founding of order.  As though the effort to maintain order against chaos could not but in the end weaken, tire, unless this order were replunged into the primal energies of chaos to emerge with renewed strength.”



It is a paradox that chaos would be both enemy and source.  One can see immediately just how much the worldview described above would rely on a “spiritual context”; in fact, the above is describing a spiritual context, a context in which pure forms of order and chaos exist and have a static way of relating to each other, which then affects life on earth.  We will want to say, with all our materialist baggage, that this is of course a silly idea.  But that shrugging off of a spiritual context is false; we know exactly what he means.  For it is not that we have no idea about this kind of “pure form” thinking (think of our conception of love, for instance), but rather that we have taken on board massive social cues that we are to act as if this kind of thing is superstitious and outdated.  

Another modern point of contact with the above quote is war.  War is often seen as a kind of purifying force that resets the clocks of our disintegration and puts us back on the right track again (that is, unless you are the defeated country, or anyone who was unlucky enough to have survived fighting, or the victorious country on judgement day).  Perhaps the destructive pervasiveness of modern warfare owes something to our lack of smaller releases, our lack of ancient carnival.  All the tension of our lives, of the pure purposes of our nations and churches, builds up, passing by opportunities for release, until the pressure blows up into hiroshima.  This is not to ignore that technology and globalization are key components as well.