Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Faeries, History, God

I. Faeries

Writer's block keeps alive the pagan world of nymphs and faeries, of capricious powers beyond human control who can enrich or destroy human lives at a whim, who are immune to compassion yet can be sated somehow by mystical, ever-changing rituals. It–writer's block, I mean–exists alongside infinite other reminders of our world's irrationality and our human frailty. Control is an illusion. Those who think they wield it live in imminent danger of disillusionment, and the inevitable disaster which befalls them serves as a warning to us.

We are pitifully impotent to direct our lives.

II. History

In the spring of my junior year at Hillsdale I suffered through a sustained bout of writer's block, the worst one of my life, the memory of which evokes melodramatic descriptions. An exceptionally large writing load exacerbated, perhaps even triggered, the paralysis. That semester I wrote well over a hundred pages on philosophies of history, on modern France and Francis Fukuyama, on Leon Blum, on the Williams Blake and Shakespeare, on the Apostle Paul and the coward Parolles.

I cannot recall when paralysis struck, but I do recall that it lasted a solid three weeks. I spent countless hopeless hours staring at computer screens with little to nothing to show for it. I worked without Internet. I worked in coffee shops and my dorm room and the library and computer labs. I worked indoors and out. I drank gallons of coffee and, per James' brilliant advice, stuck chunks of dry coffee grounds in my cheeks as though I were an old school baseball player contracting cancer of the mouth. Once, far from any source of fresh coffee, I desperately sucked on the bitter, used ground in my French press.

I smelled of rot and corrupted the air around me. I said nothing pleasant to anyone and plenty unpleasant to my kind, sympathetic friends.

Eventually it passed. One day, as I sat low to the ground in my reading chair with my laptop topping my lap, I decided to upend one of those cylindrical metal wastebaskets we had in Galloway. I placed my laptop on this tiny circular desk and hunched over the keyboard, elbows resting on knees. And I wrote ten or so pages in one sitting, getting up occasionally to use the restroom and stretch my cramping lower back.

Faeries enter historical accounts only through those we study. When one writes about Russian ballet's invasion of Paris in the early 20th-century, one must discuss wood nymphs. Other causes must be examined in historical accounts. In hindsight I blame the development of my writing style. From my earliest school years writing came easily. This continued through my freshman year in college, but after that I grew increasingly dissatisfied with my writing style. The end of my junior year I now mark as a period of terrible transition. The passable prose I mindlessly produced and the mediocre thinking it reflected no longer sufficed, but I had not developed a better style to replace it. Instead of average writing I had nothing which could fill my pages (my early weeks in Germany produced a similar panic of loss without replacement).

It was as though a new era in my writing had been inaugurated and yet had not quite arrived, a sense of the now and the not quite yet.

III. God

Scientific explanations may or may not exist for writer's block and other superhuman forces. These explanations do not preclude alternate explanations, and the existence of a scientific explanation does not immediately enshrine its supremacy among other possible explanations. That something can be scientifically explained does not mean that it must be so explained, nor does science often bring these forces within our control.

I once flirted with, and continue to think through, a vision of history as the answer to a contemporary epistemological crisis. I continue to think that history offers the best and most humane way to think about the world, and that historical study satisfies human imagination in a way that science cannot.

Nevertheless, I know that history, like science, cannot exclude alternate explanations, and that there are ways of knowing outside history not subject to historical censure. For me anyway, studying history drives home how frighteningly circumscribed our lives and imaginations are. This should create humility, and a willingness to be surprised. History as a way of thinking, then, leaves more room for God.

"When difficulties arise, we like to think that there are certain steps we can take, or attitudes we can adopt, to alleviate our suffering and be happy. Sometimes there are. But anyone who has truly suffered"–and I am narcissistic enough to label my bout with writer's block suffering, however minor–"knows that when it comes to the real thing there is no help for it, no human help whatsoever. Simply put, when we are in a deep dark hole we cannot think our way out; neither can we hope, sing, pray, or even love our way out. In fact there is absolutely nothing either we or anyone else can do to better our situation. We can have faith, yes; but in itself faith will not change anything. Neither faith, nor any other good thing that a person might have or do, can actually lift the cloud, move the mountain, or bring about an end to the problem. Only the Lord Himself can do that, and when He does, as Exodus 6:6 puts it, 'Then you will know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the yoke.' How will we know? Simply because nothing and no one else could possibly have done it. In this kind of crucible, therefore, we come to a new understanding of what it means to be saved, what it means to be snatched away from the brink of destruction. Here we get down to the bedrock of the gospel." -Mike Mason, The Gospel According to Job.