The Moment of License

CALEB JOSEPH WARNER

Magic realism is not weird or even that interesting

I am especially susceptible to the evil poison of the mechanical university system that is making bank on creative suckers like me. Why? Because of all genres I took to as an early writer, it had to be magic realism. How did I manage to choose the most trendy genre to be interested in, barring some blend of absurdism and meta-fiction and blasé storytelling that focuses on the African American lesbian protagonist’s rough interaction in the grocery story with an old white man who said the wrong but funny thing. Oh we really can all get along in this mean world that hates being nice, can’t we?

I managed to choose it, because for the longest time my greatest point of pride in writing was my ability to ignore how everyone else thinks about writing and does writing and seeks to gain from writing. There’s the Scylla of the Myth of the Christian Writer and the Charybdis of Playing the Culture Fiddle. The first is a ghetto which requires you to be a brand of shiny and the other is a babylonian beast looking for the next experiment or technique or voice or style.

How did my willingness to ignore both camps lead me to inspect the catchiest, jangliest jewel of all currently being devoured by the American champions of the weird and novel? Because I had my own idea about magic realism. I used and abused the term, defined it in my own way, to break new ground for myself. I used the term to provide myself with license to write in traditional forms of fable.

And maybe this sounds wrong in your ear holes, but the only being that can give you license to write is yourself and the only being worth guiding the morality of your writing is God. But as it stands, the various camps of elite—however much I might be setting up strawmen here to lob darts at—believe they hold the keys to license. Christian elite say you cannot be too weird and the Creative Factory Elite say that you need to be original. The problem is that no one knows what they mean by weird or what they mean by original.

The aesthetic compass for so many people is guided by reactionary impulses and all this does is make the literary moment the rediscovery of license to write in traditional forms. This is all very abstract, so let me give you an example. The example I am about to give does not entirely map onto this dichotomy between Christian Cultural Camps and Creative Factory Programs.

Kafka isn’t that weird or interesting, either

Take Franz Kafka who is so often praised by intellectuals and original thinkers and the mainstream counterculture. Why is he so liked so much? Why is he lumped in the same group as writers who were talented? James Joyce knew how to write good short stories. One of the reasons Dubliners is so good is because James Joyce observed people and recorded his observations honestly.

One of the reasons why Kafka is so ungood is because he does not maintain the images in his stories with fitting descriptions. In Description of a Struggle, which is one of the worst short stories I have ever read, you find that his inability to describe action is one of the factors that motivates his move to the weird. Weird things happen in Description of a Struggle, because Kafka doesn’t know how to render normal actions. The reason he has the protagonist swim through the pavement, and this is an assertion, is not because he thought, “Oh I know how to make this story seem dreamlike.” He thought, “That would be funny.” And it is Kafka, it is. But had your protagonist not swoommed through the pavement, would you have been able to make him act like a real person?

Further evidence for the fact that Kafka didn’t really know how to write is the dialog in his short stories, which can go on and on. Not in a Dostoevsky-bountifully-voiced way (which has its limits). His dialog goes on and on, because he gets into that natural flow of writing dialog which is the result of license. There is a license that comes naturally to writing dialog, because the excess of words does not come from the author himself. That would seem like a vice, no, the excess of words is coming from the character. This one step of removal provides the author with an excuse to not trim the fat. And this is fine; literature is full of rambling characters and so are essays like this one.

The problem is when the dialog becomes nothing but pure exposition devoid of any voiced character. You can see this in The Village Schoolmaster. The dialog between the village schoolmaster and the main character is not alive with distinct voice. It’s only alive with Kafka’s desire to talk about a story instead of actually writing a story.

Now of course this might be the result of translation errors and I’ve read somewhere that Kafka is hard to translate. I’m fine with saying that. I also have to say that I have read both his unfinished novels, The Trial and The Castle. There is one scene in The Trial that made me laugh out loud. I would like to go back and read it in order to verify my opinion that it’s the funniest thing I’ve ever read.

The problem is that I read these two novels and The Metamorphoses years ago when I was trying very hard to like Kafka and be cool. So I don’t know how good those novels are. I do remember that, barring a few very funny scenes in both, they were slogs that literally did not go anywhere. Kafka should have been a standup comedian. He would have been better suited to it than long form prose. He has these one-off mental images that are hilarious. Even Description of a Struggle has a moment like this. The way he describes a naked fat man who scrunches his face in concentration is great. Yet amusing descriptions here and there don’t make a story.

I am also fine with saying that these stories are immature and that his best stories, like In the Penal Colony, are the ones to be scrutinized. Very well. But since I have rambled for a long time about it, I’ll just take one shot at In the Penal Colony, which only seems to be liked because it’s enigmatic enough to be interpreted broadly and has obvious anti-Jesus undertones. That is not what makes it bad, though. What makes it bad is that it could have, strengthening its parabolic quality, been much shorter.

In my opinion, Kafka does not do a great job of describing the actual torture device. Maybe it’s because I’m bad at reading and maybe it’s the translation, but the placement of the glass in relation to the needles is especially open to interpretation. And since the story all hinges on being able to visualize this machine, that is hardly a virtue.

I walked through just a few things here to point out that at the very least, Kafka was not a master of storytelling and he never became a master of storytelling. His best stuff succeeds only when he has a powerful enough mental image of humorous interactions and his worst stuff shows you the immature impulses that he never really overcame.

Kafka himself did not think his stuff was worth saving or keeping. He told his best friend, Max Brod, to burn it all and if he were to save any stories, he should only save about five. I think Kafka was write. He only wrote about five short stories that are okay enough to read. But why do we disagree with Kafka’s own assessment of himself and against his wishes read and love his writing? Because he gives us license.

The literary moment is often the rediscovery of something old

The mascot of magic realism, Gabriel Marquez, famously said that The Metamorphoses showed him that you could write in a different way. Kafka gave Marquez license to write fables at a time when the best and most famous writers did not write fables. The best and most famous writers wrote experiments in technique rooted in “realistic” metaphysics. Consider and ponder these names: James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Jack Kerouac, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, Thomas Pynchon, Marcel Proust.

I bet you anything that Marquez had authors like these in mind when he said that about Kafka. Why? Because if Kafka wrote in a different way, that meant that he had to be writing in a way no one else wrote. Of that list above, there is historical proof for Marquez interacting with William Faulkner’s writing. Undoubtedly he was aware that modern novelists were tinkerers of form and that Kafka was not.

My point in all this is to show that Kafka is famous, because he gave license to write in a way that was decidedly not in vogue for modern literature. He did not tinker with form. He struggled to achieve stories that had very much form at all. But Kafka’s goal, his target, was to write fables. Each and every story he wrote could be categorized as a fable. In fables, it is okay for a person to turn into an ungeziefer and for there to be giant moles and for all the characters to be titled instead of having proper names.

Kafka is considered a literary moment. He is considered a literary moment, because he gave license to write in a reaction against the trends at the time. While he cannot be credited with the invention of magic realism, he can be considered an inspiration to Marquez who helped define South American magic realism. The genre Marquez wrote in, however, was not new. The only reason his stories are tagged magic realism is because at the time the only literature getting written was wooden-worded realism.

The only reason wooden-worded realism was getting written, too, was because philosophy and the entire world was deeply skeptical of language and its apparent artifice. So in an attempt to be honest and real, authors tried peeling back the artifice of language and to mistrust their own tool. Literary juggernauts were juggernauts because they played with their food. At least Kafka had the innocence and sincerity to tell the stories that compelled him, instead of constantly trying to rip the rug from under his own feet.

But I hope you see that the Kafka was not doing anything new. He was just telling stories with traditional premises and seeking to find the significance in the conclusions he came to about them.

Why do we tell stories in different genres?

We should make an important distinction for posterity: Kafka is not a surrealist. Surreal things happen in his stories, but the end goal of his stories is not to replicate the quality of dreams. For a further discussion of the distinction of fantasy and surrealism, you can read about why I (used to) dislike writing fantasy. I’d like to say more on the subject of surrealism and its distinction between fantasy (or the telling of fables) in the future. All I’ll say for now is that I am under the firm belief that surrealism is primarily a genre for the amusement of the senses, while fantasy (and the telling of fables) is a genre for the consideration of the reason.

The goal for all stories, whether surreal or fantastical, is to provide answers where questions were previously. We read stories and we read fiction to better interface with reality. Storytelling is merely a mental process we boot up like we might boot up an argumentative essay. Hopefully the story spits us out at the end more willing and able to love the world for how it is. The difference between the process of fiction and the process of setting up arguments is that one is generated by the faculty of the imagination while the other is generated by the faculty of reason. Endurance in imagination looks different than endurance in making arguments.

For example, I am making arguments in this essay I have been writing and that takes a kind of flight—but the flight I take in my imagination when I write fiction is a very different kind of flight. It is the same for you as the reader. While this essay might tire out one part of your brain and the spiritual thoughts which are correspondent to certain synapses firing, it will not tire out your use of imagination. In fact, going and reading a story after this essay (or in my case, writing one because I have to) will be a relief.

That does not mean that there is any inconsistency when I say that some genres of fiction are more for reason than others. That relates to the end goal of story. The end goal of a fable or a fantasy is to give us something to think about. The end goal of a surreal story is to give us something to see and carry with us regardless of meaning or moral.

As it is now, I will leave aside any discussion of the French surrealists, even though I am about to mention four French writers before the era of tinkerers I partially blame for the burial of fable. Mentioning the surrealism that rose at the same time as the tinkering would be a different inspection. My hunch is that surrealism is also a kind of tinkering that is not wholly sold on the sincerity required to tell a plot that is downright Aristotelian. Side-note: the license for making these grand sweeping claims, even if I am wrong, is because every generation reads and interacts with the generation before it. I hope you don’t need evidence for that.

Why do we doubt certain genres?

All that cynicism about language and snobbery in the early twentieth century, I’d wager, is partially because of the generations of literarists before it like Flaubert, Maupassant, Balzac, Zola, and Chekhov. Emile Zola is the worst offender who dubbed his own genre “naturalism.” This naturalism shares a lot of the DNA of much of the other genre authors that were writing at the time: the deliberate attempt to avoid dishonest language. This was good and bad. I guess we can call that realism—or what I like to call it, boring and silly.

Zola, who I will take to be the mascot of this bunch, wanted to render reality as closely as possible in fiction, because he recognized that so many stories twist reality to their own end. So many stories show unbelievable things happening in order to make moral points. Maybe Zola did not have these in mind, but for our purposes you can think of children’s bedtime stories. In a children’s bedtime story, when a butterfly dies the whole world really can go to pieces.

But is this rEaLiStIc? NO! Shame! Shame-shame-bad! No! We must depict reality as it is in full detail and color, we must tell stories that really happen to people! We must be as distant as possible and keep our grubby fingers off the fictional process. We must be like a camera on the back of our characters and follow them around to see what they do! Because so often, we turn real people into mere caricatures and into what we want (psst, this means that the fictional process ends up sucking).

As a result, we shall tell stories that go nowhere—but at least they’re realistic! And we shall describe the opera house and how the people enter into it for an entire chapter—but at least it’s vivid! And we shall watch as our characters poop on the toilets—at least they’re human!

This obsession with showing reality as much as possible, like the world’s worst photographer, began that whole concern with language and whether or not the artist is a liar. They did not yet believe that the artist was a liar like the modern novelists did, but they did believe that he could easily become one, so they strived hard not to lie. Zola did not realize that by his own definitions, he was lying.

Zola’s terrible novel, Nana, is deliberately a fictional process Zola was running to see what kind of human nature this character and the nation at the time had. But in order to do that, Zola had to invent the character of Nana. You cannot write fiction and try as hard as you can to be as realistic as reality itself, because fiction is not realistic.

I forgot where I was going with all this

The success of fiction hinges on how much an author trusts the imagination to be a given thing for producing illusions in the mind. Zola could not have chosen a worse artistic form to show reality, because the imagination does not work how he’d like it to. It’s much more powerful. You don’t need an entire chapter to describe an opera house. The imagination is so powerful that all you need is one or two fitting descriptions. And although the first reason for these descriptions is to tease the imagination, we actually choose what descriptions based on how these descriptions interweave the fabric of subconscious connections being made by the reader. We choose to make the opera house look one way or another, depending on the needs of the story. What artifice.

I’m not describing this as lucidly as I had wished so I should probably stop, but I hope you see my point. There is nothing realistic, in the way that paintings are either realistic or unrealistic, about the imagination. Verisimilitude is better achieved by physical media.

I just got an email in my inbox from Submittable that demonstrates my earlier point about the world’s desire for the novel. Submittable is a very popular platform for submitting works of fiction and poetry and other schlock to literary magazines no one reads around the country. The title of this email was “Eccentric: And Why Not?”

And this is the main point I have been driving at. The whole world tells us what fiction is and is not, but this is the jostle of generations. Right now, there is the desire for the eccentric and weird and novel and voice of diversity. Meanwhile, Christians desire a culture warrior who will hold the sword of only certain kinds of fantasy approved by local church governments.

Avoid the jostle

See that there is nothing new under the sun, that what is uncool now will be cool tomorrow, and that the only reason to write fiction is to get answers you can’t get any other way but by making those imaginative connections between two unlike things being likened. Ultimately, the greatest unlikes are likened through fiction: our picture of the world and the world itself. This is a unifying relationship that brings us closer to the world and this is why the imagination and its use is very much a moral exercise.

We use our imagination in order to get a better picture of the world. This is not accomplished, like Zola thought, through words themselves. It is accomplished by the imagination as-teased-by words. It is through the imagination that we see the world better, but only the person who believes there is a world to see can use it like this.

Some people believe that we make our own worlds through language and fiction, that we tell ourselves stories. And in part, this is true. But we do not tell ourselves stories in order to escape from reality. We tell ourselves stories so we can break out of our false expectations of what the world is and to see what necessarily rises out of tragedy.

August 9, 2018

CALEB JOSEPH WARNER

I have been told by most of my older siblings at this point that what I am feeling is entirely normal and this comforts me. I feel completely lost in my twenties, feeling my way in the dark, not knowing where or what I am going to do. And that’s just fine with me.

I do, however, know what I should be doing and that is doing stuff. I am going to start just doing stuff to see what sticks. I am going to do whatever I want as long as I feel that it’s useful. Now is the time for making mistakes and for making something to look back and say, “Well, at least I tried.”

For the past month, I have been on the road. The first week I spent in Michigan right on the chill lake two hours from Chicago in an old house with no air conditioning. The next week, we drove back to Illinois and watched movies in the air conditioned basement renovated with devotion from my parents who if I may be so bold are entering a season where they might feel as confused as I am.

From there, I drove down with my two beloved sisters and my niece and nephew to Baton Rouge. The French called this place when they first paddled down the Mississippi, “the place of the red-hot hot dog.” We were in the car for eighteen hours, I believe, and broke up our trip by stopping at a hotel in Memphis, Tennessee in order to burn popcorn in their microwave. We managed to guide the smoke gently away from the flashing smoke detector. I flew out of New Orleans a week later to the high city of Denver, Colorado where I spent my time with my brother and sister-in-law wondering how we could more further eviscerate a comedy act which was so unfunny it didn’t even amuse us.

Yesterday, I flew from Denver to Spokane and I knew that I was on the right flight, because everyone around me was gross. The couple I sat next to had it in their hearts to get sloshy—on a Frontier flight. They purchased two adult beverage bundles, which included two adult beverages and a mixer each. In addition to these purchases, the couple asked of the flight attendant that they might have a can of Pringles and a thin slice of beef jerky and assuredly they were not turned away.

The man said to me, “Behold my wine tastes of cream cheese.”

And I, sipping on my I’m-not-anxious-gin-and-tonic said incredulously, “Assuredly, it does?”

And he said, “Aye, it be a cream cheese wine my homie.”

So in our reverie, he and I encountered the mysteries contained within the wine and assuredly, I be playing not, I said, “You’re a downright sommelier!”

But when I said it, I feared that I perhaps had mispronounced the word and feared that he might think ill of me and my trucker hat and button down shirt—but lo! I remembered that I was on a flight to Spokane and that across from us there were three stoners cussing their enthusiasm concerning the Burning Man this year and how, “Every year, the cops are in cahoots with the festival, there’s nothing to worry about.”

Indeed there is nothing to worry about whatsoever these days. Nothing at all. The world is not falling apart, Joan Baez is still alive and thankfully Hitler is dead (what a relief) and we’ve come to terms with gluten-free trends and friends are getting married and family is having kids and the fabric of society has been torn so many times that there’s nothing left to tear and Cher still has a gorgeous smile and lives in El Centro, California and is 5’9″ tall and her children are Chaz Bono and probably someone else who struggles with chastity.

Meanwhile, we have gotten away with a depreciation of ambition for so long that we find ourselves bored. It is time to refuel those tanks. So what have we chosen to do? Why, write a serial online novel of course. The author says that it is not a serious affair, that it will be a light little fling, but can he manage that? Can he manage how hard it will be to not care too much? But frankly, we are worn down and weary by caring about the wrong things.

We care about word choice when the sentence is unwritten and we care about what others think when there is no one even watching and we tinker with unfinished projects and tailor lives we haven’t lived. Yes, we’re sick and tired of not speaking up. College crushed our spirits as it was designed to do, because our spirits were far too high and then there was the season of listless wandering, seeking for something to devour and get our teeth around, but at the end of the day we came up hungry. And that is an answer in and of itself. When nothing happens, that is license to make something happen.  Confidence is coiled up inside the person who has failed many times, but the difficulty is that failure can just as easily be turned into license for giving up. We resist this.

The fact of the matter is that I have never been more excited about life and how easily it has set me up for failure. What would failure be? Giving into my latent and insane laziness. Life is a challenge we try to meet until we’re too tired to keep meeting it and other bland aphorisms that depressurize the real thing I am feeling and, when added together, end up just dissipating the feeling altogether. The fact of the matter is that I feel angry and I want to kick some teeth in and the first person in line is me. Let’s all get in line and get some actual work done though we are weak and small and confused and a profligate waste and very perfectly safe.

CALEB JOSEPH WARNER

All the people in all the different places I love and want to love and all the ways I am not big enough to love them all. I’m sad. 

All the loves and all the joy I have not taken captive and placed in my heart and kept there. It makes me tired thinking about how much I have not changed. When will the world get better and when will it start with my heart? 

I cannot love other people well enough and I cannot love what ought to be loved enough. Who knows what the story is anymore, but Lord to you I turn.

Fear the Merciful God

CALEB JOSEPH WARNER

I don’t really know how to begin with this one, because I am afraid that if I mention what is in my mind, I am just going to repeat the refrain of my heart. And I have repeated it so many times before. But maybe it is the return to this place that shows devotion distinct from cloying repetition.

There is nothing more difficult to understand in your bones than what faithfulness to Jesus Christ means. Is faithfulness just consistency? Is faithfulness doing something grand with ambition? Does Jesus want from me some great work whether it be a decaying cathedral or undying novel, so he can earn a shoutout at the end of the introduction?

“I just want to thank my parents for this awesome thing I did, oh yeah, and Jesus. But most importantly, I want to thank myself, because at the end of the day I am the one that did all the work and feigned this inane humility and posturing that is at the heart of my false devotion. What is the point of bowing the knee to a God when you can perform the same great feat so easily without him? What is the difference between the man who builds a great work and devotes it to the Lord and the man who bows the knee to the Lord? If the only thing that distinguishes you from the man who hates God is saying that you have Jesus to thank for your unimportant, fecal glory, then you do not fear God.”

We do not show our devotion to the Lord by devoting our human glory to him. We do not show our devotion to the Lord by building pretty buildings and writing pretty novels and living a balanced life and going on diets and not watching too much television and cycling on the weekends instead of masturbating to pornography and enjoying time with people we get along with and being a human. These are human things, which means that they are free to all. Christians do not write better novels or make better buildings or watch less television or cycle on the weekends or know how to best parlay and untie abstract notions. Being a good human is not the exclusive purview of Christians, do you understand? There is a glory to being human, a fundamental glory inside us. And so there must be some other quality beyond this human glory that distinguishes the worshiper of a Lord from the glorious failure of fallen mankind.

Devotion to Jesus as Lord means that we sacrifice to him our fallen nature. That is what God came here for and that is what he wants. The Father demands our broken and contrite hearts. What do you think that means, you idiot? That he wants you to be really good and get good rest and cultivate your human glory by having good prissy taste in clothing or having an immaculate house or making a blockbuster with subtle themes of salvation and new life? Christians the world over are deeply disturbed human beings full of confusion and abounding in steadfast stubbornness, convinced that their little repetitious onanisms of pleasing themselves are like salvation to God. How we count our men before God, how we take comfort when someone says, “I am a Christian” or they say, “That author, I think he’s a Christian.” Who cares? Why are we comforted deeply when we hear that some famous person claims to be a Christian? Because our fear of God is motivated by our desire to please ourselves and what pleases us best is to get the sense that we are on the winning team. That is only one facet of this. We want to fight the culture war, we want Ireland to pass the right law on abortion and we want gay marriage to be abolished and we want the secular suckers to warm to our notions of Lord. We praise God for public intellectuals who are engaged in constant foreplay with the truth. We say, “Oh, Jordan Peterson, he’s close to God. It’s only a matter of time before he turns.” But do we care about the state of his soul or the state of our own assurance that some pagans somewhere are finally not conflating the historical fact of Jesus Christ with Scientology and Hinduism and other bullshit invented by fiction writers? We might jump out of our seats! It is Christians who are to blame for the crossed wires of fiction and reality. We are the ones who have clogged the pipes with superstition and fowl stories of levitating saints and miracles performed by the Holy Spirit and tsunamis provided by our Gob who is occasionally and inconsistently angry. It is no wonder that the world right now is full of bland and deaf secularists who think they have a good enough reason to reject the risen Savior, because they read somewhere in their reddit Sunday School Lesson that the Old Testament is weird or they have seen a meme about Jesus being a zombie or they have read a list of contradictions contained in the Bible as if they are the world’s wisest theologian and the first person to have ever read and interpreted successfully the most thoroughly investigated text of all human history. Unbelievers like this comfort themselves with their own half-houses of cleverness and the belief that they are on the winning team against superstition without first inspecting their own superstitions about the structure of reality and coherence. And many Christians are no less superstitious and unthinking, no less proud and unwilling to have the Lord Jesus change their ways. Before Christ, we bowed before our Gods of the Good Life and after Christ, we bow before our Gods of the Good Life still, moaning with little deaths, moaning, moaning, “Oh, thank you Jesus, thank you!” And would we be ashamed when this God whom we have devoted our good things to and have claimed is the one who has made it all work out flings us into accident and wrecks our life and takes our friends and rips our spouse’s face off? Are we going to say that God did that then, too, or are we too scared? Are we scared that perhaps God has not dealt favorably with us, scared that maybe God is not as good as we thought he was, scared that we have done the wrong good things? We are scared, because we have all our lives brought the good things to his feet, but have never and not once brought the broken and contrite heart to him. And so when our lives are ruined, because it is only a matter of time before all the lives of the faithful fall to ruin in this ruined world and ruined corpse given to traverse it, we feel alone. Because our God has left us, because our God was our own appetite. And you have all your life simply prepared yourself for denying the risen Savior when the shit hits the fan, because you have seen your glory and said, “This is the glory of God, I have God to thank for my good life.” But that glory was bound to decay, because it was not the glory of God. You worshiped the wrong God. You did not worship the God who can deal with ruin.

And I contain the worst of you, which is why I started writing this in the first place. I have been very bad and I require some force or God to loose me. If I continue on in my ways, I will die. Not only do I feel that my human glory has run out, my returns from my human glory are diminishing rapidly. When I have gotten myself into situations that require loosing, which is to say when I have rejected the risen Savior with my life and have bowed the knee before my own God of the Good Life, I need help. I need a good word. I need to reset the camera of my eye onto the panorama of hope. The hope my youth gives me is a kaleidoscopic and confused vision that only becomes more divided and fragmented every year. How beautiful is my flailing! And how excellent I can seem! But my greatest failure is always to go back to myself and say, “I must get this in order, I must return to my past visions and must get back to that place I don’t even remember the name of.”

I weigh where I am now with all the promise and clarity and unconscious virtue I felt I had at seventeen and I have been found measured and wanting and extremely tired.

Oh God help that bastard who says to himself, “I need to go back, I have fallen off the way, I need to return, I need to figure out what I’m doing, I need to set a plan and get my life in order, I need to see through the glass dimly, I need to predict the future, I need to be safe, I need to be my own God.”

Has that ever worked for you?

Devotion is not consistent goodness. Devotion refers to where you go when you are not good, when your glory has run out. Most people go back to their own glory, hoping that this fountain has more to give. It is easier when you’re younger, easier to convince yourself that there is still great potential in life. When you are young, you can still see how you could make a good life out of what has not yet happened. But when most of your life has already happened and all that potential has run out, when your life has been chronicled in stone and that life was a life of turning to your waning light, where will you go? What is the highest ground—the holy place untouched by flood? Even the floodwaters of death will cover over your liver-spotted wrinkled head. Death steals your crown of wisdom and your ambition and all that luck plucked off the vine in your early twenties. You’re not going to get away with it this time.

The only place to go is at the feet of Jesus. You can say your whole life that you should just forgive yourself. Give yourself a break. Relieve some of that tension and, dare I say, burden of being. Take a deep breath. Take a deep breath at the bottom of the ocean, let the water into your lungs, let go and let sink. Every time I forgive myself, every time I say, “Well, I still have time, I don’t need to hurry, I don’t need to rush. I can take a break here and there,” I am revealing even in this that I have not yet submitted to Jesus.

Who are the devoted?

They are the ones who when life grows into what it has always been, when the cicadas of terror have woken from their underground slumber, when they have lost track of their self-mythology, when they have failed, they with gum in their eyes from sleeping in past the glory of God go to the point of singularity and ask for forgiveness. The devoted receive forgiveness from the only one who can give it. And when the devoted have not sinned, but are tense and uncertain, it is still the forgiveness of the Maker that unbinds them. Why? Because forgiveness is not, like our fealty, some repetitious act he must perform for us. Forgiveness is total and lasting. And when the devoted are crushing their teeth in pain, they say, “Blessed is the one who has unloosed the world! Blessed is the one who has forgiven me and forgives me and will forgive!”

The devoted are set free from worshipping the aging, dying god of the self who doles out comfort with high interest rates. Coming back to this place of humility is not a cycle of failure nor is it the thing that holds us back from flourishing into the human glory promised, however little, by our humanity. Coming back to Jesus and receiving the Gospel, day after day, is the devotion required. This means that we are tired of helping ourselves, tired of striving, tired of a confused mind.

Even if the devoted are not living lives of sin or ongoing struggles or single sins, they know that when or if they do express their temporary fragility, they must go to Jesus. Jesus is the one who centers life, who is the point of singularity that unwinds into the fruit of reality. And we go to him every day and in every moment until there is no more apathy, no more striving, no more sadness, no more death, no more fear. To fear God means that we fear the greatest evil greater than the problem of evil or suffering. The devoted fear not knowing him and only knowing their own guilt for the rest of eternity. As it is now, we are safe from all fear and the terror of our fragmented selves. We are loved with a perfect love and love like this will restore this ruined world and unforgiving self.

 

The Short Story is a Regional Flight

CALEB JOSEPH WARNER

The Takeoff

This morning, I had the ambiguous pleasure of taking a regional flight from Pullman-Moscow to Seattle, straight plumb across the state of Washington. I think short stories are regional flights such as these.

The takeoff feels no different from any other length of trip. It could be a 50 hour flight to Xanadu or a 45 minute up-down to SEA-TAC: it is the same same. The quick ascent thrills and you may, even if you are a pro at flying, consider your current relationship with life and death. The preparation is the same, the physical sensation is the same, and the goal is the same—to take to the sky.

The First Portion

You notice how the man’s scalp in front of you quivers. You didn’t know scalps could do that, but they can. Some anonymous artist sketched out the outline of a koala in the dirt on the wheel strut. It is a good koala. The wheels shutter into their beds faster than you thought they would. The velocity kicks up the dust of your life.

You look down and consider the world for its miniature status. You see the cars, toy cars always, and the houses, always where doll’s live. Details takeover after takeoff.

The Next Leg

The next leg of your trip is very much less about detail. The earth below no longer strikes you with its minute charm. It has matured into a broad-shouldered, big-boned thing. There is breadth to it all extending into the hazy horizon. You cannot take it all in. Small windows, jets, wings, heads, and seats all obscure your vision. But you know that the world out there is bigger than all you could ever see and it is the inability to see it all that proves it.

Breadth has its own charm over detail, but that charm does not involve precision. There is nothing precise about our world from a distance. So what then is the purpose of this burgeoning breadth and why should we ever acknowledge it? Is precision and detail, like, everything? I think it’s kind of to show you where you are, really, so that when you land, you know where you’ll have come from.

I hesitate to say it’s boring, but eastern Washington is nothing that might inspire an essay on literary form. The Palouse softens into the obscurity of a muddy desert. It is the kind you see after the tide has rolled back out in such a hurry that it didn’t even bother to pick up the puddles. You half expect some monstrous old woman to step over the mountains with a bucket and warbly rain boots to start looking for clams.

And I maintain that this first part of the short story, after its fiery rocket-like takeoff that feels like a bad idea to our bodies, should be just a touch boring. Not too boring, but boring enough to make you crave the interest and resolution. If there is too much interest in the first part, you spoil the main course. Potatoes do not make the steak dinner, but they do complete it. You know that a descent is inevitable. It could crash and burn thanks to your human error or you could pull it off flawlessly. The first part is nothing in itself but a tease, a flirt, and is best enjoyed the second time around when you know what’s coming next.

The Mountains

The mountains happen and they happen quickly. The sun had only risen twenty minutes ago. It hangs ten feet above the east, but already the mountain peaks are hard at work. They are like farmers in a field, standing over the haze huddled in the furrowed valleys. They diligently cut through the haze with the plows of their parallel shadows.

And underneath the line of workers, I saw the mountains look more ocean than the Pacific Ocean. Because of the angle of the sun, everything but the snowy peaks were pitch black. The mountains really were tossing waves in a storm, the snow the froth of violence.

The Landing

Like a short story, we had managed to get somewhere in forty minutes. I barely had time to finish my coffee before the flight attendant walked down the galley with her latex gloves.

A regional flight can show you an entire state in under an hour. You will see the vast flat mud desert, rolling hills, mountain ranges, a sound—and the glassy Pacific Ocean behaving better than the crashing, rowdy mountains.

You are always grateful for a safe landing, the reversal of the takeoff, the mirror image. And you remember what the purpose has been all along. The purpose has always been to take to the earth and feel in your bones and your ears that you belong down here on this earth.

Spiritual Consensual Non-Sexual Erotic Friendship

CALEB JOSEPH WARNER

Pastor Heehee Haha, best known for his peemillenial scatological religious blog, On Beefing, has this to say about safe spaces for the same-sex attracted in churches:

I am a same-sex attracted pastor and I know firsthand how hard it is not to find a safe space for all the cute same-sex attracted boys to gather. They’ve been through so much by the hands of the church, it’s the least we can do.

You know, being a same-sex attracted gay flaming homosexual Christian has been really really hard. You don’t know the mean stuff people have said about me. Boys would look at me on the ball field and say, hey you, you’re probably attracted to the same sex! They’d say, you’re gay! You’re flaming! You’re homosexual! And that’s been so hard to take as a same-sex attracted gay flaming homosexual Christian.

And it’s not just mean boys in the sixth grade. It’s people in the church. The church! They don’t understand the difference between being drawn to the same sex sexually and being drawn to the same sex sexually. They’re very different things. When I say that I’m gay, a lot of Christians go, “So does that mean you’re gay?” And I say, how dare you!

But it’s not all been bad. Because of the critical line errors in my software, failing to send the proper commands to my hardware, I have luckily sort of got superpowers. For one, I’m more understanding. And for twosies, I am also more sensitive and basically just am more perceptive of people and of nature and of even animals. I can actually read animal’s minds.

I can additionally tell if something has a greater essence of masculinity or femininity. My printer is a flamer. And I feel super duper extra equipped to reach out and give a helping, comforting hand to people in similar situations that step into my office, which is underneath the stairs to the right and please don’t step over my cat’s litterbox, just go around, she really hates it when people step over. She feels like it’s a sort of violation of her space. Which I totally get, because she’s got all those droppings she has laid, those little easter eggs hidden underneath the smelly good sand.

But back to the flaming printer. I want to let you all know, while I got you here listening, about an initiative I am part of, sponsored by the Christian think tank on all things important, Q-Tip Ideas, which involves a really under-considered minority in the church whose rights we need to protect. The object-attracted Christians. I want to point out that they identify this way, not to draw attention to themselves, but so people know they are out, they are proud, and they really do exist. So go down to the like button and show your support for object hot-hot-hot Christians.

The Eight Afflictions of the Soul

CALEB JOSEPH WARNER

I gather and gather and no natural force will stop my mounting power. I hover about the earth and stammer thuds. I cast my shadow over roofs and fields and mothers clamor at their husbands’s absence. I billow and hammer!! But the next morning, when you think I am off in some other town breaking necks and tearing trees to shreds, I hide above the lake with no strength left. My white hair is thin and blows easily. You can see the scalp of the sky.

The shell containing hope trickles away. Jesus was the firstfruits of hope and he did not just cast off the shell—he ascended on airfoils and he did not stall, but maintained the attack. And he could not be moved out of the air, but rose and burst through the clouds and the disciples could not see him anymore and Jesus coolly carried our human form with him into heaven.

So Jesus was the firstfruit of calm ascension past the tremulating turtle shells of lightning storms. The turtle shells of storms contain their flickers of light and the rain falls and the shell wastes away to wisps tracing out the memory of flight. And we raise our heads and say, “It’s coming down so hard. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it come down this hard.”

And we do not lose heart. Though our outer shell is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen past our fright contained in shells. For the things that are seen are turtles that hunger and bite and the things that are unseen are eternal and light as fleet bird bones lit with light.  

For a little while, we must contain our flickers of hope and not lose heart, though we are as light and dissipate as clouds. And we will gain the weight of heavy, glimmering things and with this weight we will coolly ascend the heights of heaven and our crossed shadows will barely trace across roofs and baseball fields. But we rise some more in our living coffins—who can find our shadow now?

For a little while, we feel the instability in the air of our hearts. And we waste away and the tails of our thunder untwine and fall to earth like safety ropes. So the world will hope when they look up at us and say, “I’ve never seen a coming down like this.”

We plant hope when we do not mean to; even our envy blasts bright.

Our hope is the waiting in the chair while the spirit lifts us up the air. And the dimming darkness in the light of hope (a hope contained within) meets us as nothing but light and temporary affliction.

But what are the light and temporary afflictions that fill our lives with instability and fit us to burst with rumbling blues? We know sadness, we know sadness, we know sadness.

And while they are light and temporary compared to our future glory, they still threaten to consume us. He or she who is born is born with these conditions and illnesses. The light and temporary affliction that gives way to all these children is the affliction of being a soul living in an unredeemed world. The world groans so deeply in the aches and pains of its own rebellion and longing, that it is hardly present-minded enough to hold our souls as it should.

These are the eight illnesses that prove we are souls in matter, but matter corrupted and angered. These eight illnesses arise from the unredemption of the world. Our immune systems are not just weak, they are broken and they have to be fixed.

The eight afflictions—memory, romantic desire, inspiration, ambition, affection, diminution, solitude, and death—will kill us if we do not get the right treatment for them. Each affliction is meant to be a property functioning properly. Yet when we are born, we are born broken. In this life, it is our hope that helps to heal us and get everything working properly again.

With a doctor who knows how to administer hope, we can treat the conditions of memory, romantic desire, inspiration, ambition, affection, diminution, solitude, and death. We will walk through what this looks like for each affliction of the soul. For the afflictions are light and temporary only when we receive the cures the Holy Spirit administers.

many, many tickles for your heart

CALEB JOSEPH WARNER

I feel pretty unneeded which makes me think that maybe I have gone at life the wrong way.

But as Leonard Cohen says or said (because he dead), “I don’t need a reason for what I became. I’ve got these excuses, they’re tired and they’re lame. I don’t need a pardon, no no, no no, no. There’s no one left to blame. I’m leaving the table. I’m out of the game.”

The difference for me is that I’m still in the game and will be for the next few decades. Fingers crossed.

But when your morning regularly starts at 1pm and you have so much dissipate work, it is pretty easy to feel unneeded and then to insert the excuses that make it seem like other people are to blame. Half of my life has become a dream, one extended dream, where love and futilities unrealized in life come to the forefront. So much dreaming is not good for us.

Maybe I should get a real job. This whole gig economy thing is not working for Caleb. How should we then love people? I think I could love people more easily if I were not dreaming my youth away.

And so someone could come along and light a fire under my butt, but I’m not sure what the right fire would be to get me moving. I feel content with the knowledge that all I attempt turns to dust in my hands. I do get things done, but as soon as I get them done, it feels like I have never done anything. Where is the evidence and proof of all my labor? Who cares?

Maybe I need someone there to shoot me every day of my life, that would be great. But then the man holding the gun to my temple would need someone there, like St. Moses, to hold his elbow up every day of his life. Ensure victory!

I’m only thinking out loud here. It is my tendency to feel totally depraved and anemic when I am not writing, a season in the wake. But in the wake of some great catastrophe I have unleashed on my own psyche, like writing a tremendously obscure albatross of a novel that to my deep shame has missing words and letters in the passages I wrote with my eyes closed (what a terrible idea), I simply feel cavernous and dead. It is as though I have swept the house of my heart and now a million things come to fill in the space that is going unfilled.

The difficulty is that I feel completely hopeless about my writing. I thought and assumed, like a sane person, that writing a novel would get me out of myself and restore my confidence. But now that I have written it, I almost feel sick.

I have woken up from a long dream, the writing of the novel. So it feels more or less entirely natural to sleep for twelve hours a day, dreaming, because that’s what I have been doing for a year. And not a year, but years.

It feels accidental that I write stories.

As John Cale says, “You’re a ghost, la la la la la.”

But I will go and do what I always do when I feel this sinful, which is to pick myself up and to say that I should stop complaining about my chosen lot in life, that I should go and look at other people in the eyes and ask them what they are all about. I should go and take one or five of those unrealized ideas and realize them.

I have plenty to offer, but the difficulty is what will contain these offerings. If you have breath and life and enfleshed soul, you have love to give this world. But you have to fight for that love. I do love writing and I do love telling stories, I love being in that web of unconscious connections, hanging there between the words like a spider, waiting to see what truth I might catch. And it isn’t up to me what gets caught in the net. What is up to me is setting the trap and, feeling with my hairy spindles the wriggling of terror so many inches away, pouncing with the poison of my humanity to capture it.

Picking myself up means that I have fallen, fallen because of exhaustion. So I need to eat, need to work and make the sleep worth it. But I still ask, what will contain my offerings? Will the world contain my offerings, will I contain my offerings, or will it just be anyone who passes by?

By God! Some people have wives and children, some people have businesses and normal jobs in cubicles and all that security and even they wonder where to put all their good things. So where do I put my gifts?

People wonder where they should be, which is a way of wondering what they should be doing. But when it is obvious what you should be doing and when it is obvious what you have, because we all have something, you have to ask a different question. Where should that work be? As in, where should that work go?

Considering my state as dust as sloth as actualized perishability, I crave imperishable vessels.

Some untouched tomb in the desert, covered over with sand for thousands of years. The golden tables might gleam still in torchlight.

A myth. Orpheus, you undying lovable sucker!

A McDonald’s french fry.

The hands of God. After his patient hands crafted the world, they opened and spread out to me.

Tattooed across his index finger were the words, “Many, many tickles for your heart, son.”

And tattooed across the line of his palm were the words, “You have been weighed, measured, and found.”

And tattooed on his wrist was a goblet. And around the rim of the goblet it said, “He who has little will give much.”

And there was a flaming puncture through each hand, as if from a pen or nail, but the flames restored the flesh that had been lost. And when the flame dissipated, there were scars. And the scars were like parchment and there were words written across the scars. And the words were, “My favor rests upon you. I establish the work of your hands.”

But I said to the hands, “Then why am I dying so quickly?”

And he said, “Come up here!”

And I said, “But I’m afraid you will close your fingers and crush me in your fist.”

And he said, “Come up here!”

And I climbed into his hand and the scar rose and became a pillow for my head and the hands flew up into heaven and the trip was long. I pulled up the words traced across the line of his palm for my blanket. I ate the words tattooed across his index finger for my food and I started to laugh.

I laughed, because I did not know where I was going, but I knew where I was and who I was with and what must happen after all these things, these perishable things and dying things and petty things and a life of many dreams.

 

 

 

Adultery in Literary Fiction

reni potiphar and joseph

Michael Thomas Jones

The primary concern of canonical literary fiction is adultery, or, more loosely, abandonment and broken sexual bonds. This first came to my attention during my attempts to explore well regarded 20th century fiction. To my great frustration, I came to novel after novel that primarily involved the main character whoring around and/or their wife leaving them. Incidentally, this plotline was often paired with a sort of post-colonial fantasy of the main character traveling to some third world country (Paul Bowles, Saul Bellow, Malcolm Lowry, the list goes on) to continue having adultery there. In any case, I began to compare these books to works of classical literature, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized classical literature revolved around adultery as well.

Gilgamesh – Story begins with the creation of Enkidu because of the people protesting Gilgamesh’s enforcement of primae noctis.
Iliad – Paris running off with a king’s wife sends the world into war.
Odyssey – This story is all about Odysseus and everyone, Penelope and no one.
Greek Myths – almost entirely populated by Zeus’ adulterous sexcapades, and if not Zeus, then others.
Alexander Romance – Alexander is born when an Egyptian sorceror in the likeness of a god sleeps with Philip’s wife.
Aeneid – Aeneas bewitching and ditching Dido.
One Thousand and One Nights – the frame story begins with the king marrying virgins and then killing them because he thinks all women to be adulterous, and the stories come out of Scheherazade’s ability to keep him strung along.
Parzival – Gahmuret’s two sons from his two different marriages reunite at the end; Parzival himself marries and then abandons his wife.
Troilus and Cressida – Cressida pledges her love to Troilus but then ditches him.
Canterbury Tales & The Decameron – just generally sexed up story anthologies.
Arthurian Romance – Lancelot and Guinevere.
Dante’s Divine Comedy – the arc is Dante’s platonic love for Beatrice, a woman who is not his wife.
Hamlet – Hamlet’s mother & Claudius.
The Faerie Queene – plot revolves around all kinds of suspected unchastity and sexual temptations.
Gulliver’s Travels – Gulliver leaves his wife to be at sea.
Moby Dick – Ahab abandons his family to search for the whale.

Anything you’d like to add to the list? Feel free to comment. Sacred scripture, while not fiction, fulfills these narrative requirements as well, often on a down to earth level – so many of the old testament narratives feature adultery and polygamy – but especially on the cosmic level, where Israel’s repeated adulteries are finally resolved by the faithfulness of Christ, the bridegroom.

Now, I won’t bother listing all of the modern fiction that meets these requirements. But I will to try to list the major historical works of fiction that I feel do not involve their premise in adultery (or more broadly abandonment), but I feel like I’m going to have a tough time of it. Children’s fiction doesn’t count, of course, because it seems what makes something children’s fiction is that it isn’t about ‘adult’ literary subject matter, where ‘adult’ is just code for ‘adultery’. My question is whether it’s possible to create proper adult literary work without it just being about the same subject matter.

Don Quixote
Paradise Lost
Pilgrim’s Progress
Robinson Crusoe

I have no doubt there’s other major works I’m not thinking of (certainly in other non-anglophone canons), but still, you get my point. I really do think throughout history fictional narratives without adultery in some form are the exception. So, does this make me want to read more 20th century literary fiction? Hmm…

Being offered sin is like being offered a handsome dessert after a huge dinner. “Looks delicious, but I’m stuffed.” 

CALEB JOSEPH WARNER

Hi, I’m Caleb. I am a lover, a fanboy of the frivolous, and I dig that hurts-so-good of denying myself.

There is a vision for hope that remains opaque and will remain so for the rest of my life. It is a vision so powerful, even people who do not have it struggle to see it with lame reminders on their espresso machines. “Smile today—you deserve it.” As a matter of fact, no you don’t and as a matter of fact, I saw this reminder on the espresso machine at the Dunkin’ Donuts here in the Denver Airport.

If you fight something for long enough, you might enjoy the pleasure of old age killing it. Nowhere is this more true than in our own sins. God, every time I hear someone say they have struggled with anxiety, what sympathy am I supposed to have? Maybe the sympathy of all humanity, but not the sympathy someone in an accident deserves. It is no accident that so many of us have our fertile gardens of neuroses. We come built this way, it’s in the packaging. We are born into this world with a few protocols locked into the system unwinding. Anxiety and depression are fickle protocols, however, and all you have to do to kill them is watch their slow demise.

Watch! As the particular textures of your misery burgeon under their excess. Watch! As you struggle to remain petty enough to remember what it is you are struggling with. With complex, minute narratives like these, what work do you have to do but sit and point at it and laugh at yourself for ever paying any mind to your overactive reason? What a rational mind we have, that we cannot get those thoughts out of our minds, what a rational mind we have, that we are on our knees in the bathroom retching for our complex fear of some OH or another UGH. You should be thinking, “Why did I ever trust my mind with anything?” You should be thinking, “Isn’t this a waste of my time?”

And you say you cannot defeat the darkness, and this is something we all nod our heads at. “It’s not so easy, you cannot just say no!” But saying no is not the solution, just the beginning of a victory. Saying no to yourself and to the bureaucratic processes of your very important rational mind is the practice of watching as your own brittle controlled ecosystem crumbles in. There is simply too much in our lives for us to manage and we hem and harm, because darkness lies so close by. We should be thinking, “God, I hope I fail.” We should be thinking, “Wouldn’t it be so nice if my sense of control broke?”

It has been said, grasshopper, that we ought to break apart everything we once knew and rebuild it. And we hum and ho at not knowing how to break the processes. That part is easy—in order to break the ticker tape and sever the spinal cord of the Dutch men in the corner recording the minutes of our ugly thoughts with sharp pencils—all we need to do is lean into it. Give the Dutch men hell. God, may the paperwork pile so high that the Dutch man huddling in the corner of our minds, fiercely seeking to record it all, may he fold up his hands and shout, “I quit! And also—I never liked you, anyway!” That is easy enough. When an ugly thought comes into your mind, do not desperately seek to throw it out. Do not say no. Stare at it directly and give it as much time as it needs. Give it the floor. You will not see its ugliness for what it is until it removes all of its clothes.

And there you are, the nude and embarrassed patient before the surgery—a most passive and exposed position. Congratulations, you may now allow someone else to perform the surgery on you. May the God of our hearts peel back the flesh flaps as we lie in deep dreams. May the All-Seeing Anesthetist drug us with death. And when we wake up, it will be all about the little comforts.

You are just a body again and a hurting one at that. God, may there be a bowl of buttered peas when we wake up! A little water, a little bread—it’s all we need. It’s all we ever needed.

What rational, dead minds we have. May God sever your spinal cord! May God shut you up until you’re ready to receive your buttered peas and cold water with the ecstasy of a heavy-tongued child.

And so here is this whole business of building up again, which you do not need to worry about. Your problem the whole time has been to build yourself up. You idiot! What do you think the whole surgery was about? All that pain tucked into your chest cavity and removed, soaked with black blood?

Sin dies of old age if we are willing to be the witness to its death. Recovery happens in this life if we are willing to go down under. Going down under may or may not be the same thing as going outward—what else is observation? And what else is observation but prayer?

But look at these fancy jumps I make with my prose. Thank you, synapses. And thank you, God, for the reconstruction of my brain. I am afforded a few, brief moments of clarity before the end, before I fly off this earth in the bitter ether of senile dementia. I approach grace as a continuum of uplifting accidents and faith is the confidence to believe that accidents happen.

Meanwhile, as we go about stealthily looking for the right kind of accidents—or, rather, we look for the right places to stand so the accidents can fall squarely on our foreheads—we must be mindful of everything around us. This includes you, doll. And the occasional old friend, but for the most part I believe our prayer lives involve the frivolous worries of strangers. Strangers have such dull problems. Yet being awake is the confidence to take them as our own.

Life after crises and/or reconstructive knee surgery is one that feels peculiarly dull. That dullness we feel is called peace, and peace takes time to get used to. After all, our whole lives we have been addicted to our own problems. But I think that proclivity to obsess about our shit is just a misdirected empathy. We are designed to obsessively care for others like we do with our own internals. And you were just about to be bored at the bleak future of not having personal crises. God, the heathen say, hates fun. God tells us that if we are to get a good insurance rate with him, we have to stop lustin’ fussin’ messin’ ‘n’ stressin’. What fun is there in life when we get rid of our primary source of entertainment: anxiety and struggling? Good news! All that energy and skill, you Master of Fine Arts in Self and Ennui, is for the sake of caring about others. What is prayer for, but to get our minds off ourselves?

Prayer is for observing the world how it is, how it really is, and not how it is framed by the narrow lens of our mind, a mind too busy opening new tabs/new tabs/new tabs and fragmenting our disc like a bitch.

Pray for others, thank God, and watch as your sin dies under its own dead weight and the pressure of new desires pushing in.