Saturday, December 22, 2012

“What Should I Do?” 

Many, many bloggers have been writing about the horrific tragedy in Connecticut. I didn’t think I wanted to add to the number. But last Sunday’s Gospel reading in church really hit home, and after a week of reflection, I decided to write down some thoughts.


“What should I do?”


This is the question that was asked repeatedly of  John the Baptist: “What should I do” to prepare for the coming of the Messiah.


Since last Friday, many people are asking, “What can we do?” It’s natural for us all to feel helpless and impotent in the face of such horror. But although nothing can bring those innocent children or courageous teachers back, there are some things--perhaps small, yet meaningful--that each of us as individuals can do. All it takes is the will.


At first I was going to write long paragraphs exhorting everyone to stand up for the two major issues here: gun control and mental health and illness. But those conversations have been in the air for days now, and I don’t think I need to add to them. People are already thinking about them, hard and seriously, and this is a very good thing.


My fellow blogger Sharon Hodor Greenthal, on Empty House, Full Mind, has linked to some excellent resources concerning gun control and mental illness. I urge you to check out her blog post.

There are still a few things, though, that I would like to emphasize, things that any one of us can do. Both could be ways of reforming our culture.


Stand up against our culture of violence. We have to take a good look at ourselves and ask ourselves if we really want the kind of society that builds its entertainment industry out of bloodshed and death. There is a lot of solid evidence that children who grow up watching violent media are more likely to become violent adults. Our movies are becoming more and more bloody, promote more and more calloused attitudes toward violence, and promote vengeance as a virtue, and they rake in millions of dollars. One easy step that anyone can do is to STOP putting money in the pockets of exploiters who produce these kinds of things. The same goes for television shows, video games, and music. This is one area in which the people, not the government, hold all the power. If these things stop making money, they will stop being made. It’s simple economics.

Keep beauty and love in the world.  

“A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul.” -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

There are things every one of us can do to help to heal ourselves and the world. Judaism has a lovely phrase for this: tikkun olam, “mending the world”.
Spread the power of beauty. Terrible events like this can make us despair, but don’t let despair grow into hopelessness and helplessness. Fight destructive actions with constructive ones. Creation negates destruction.
Make something beautiful. Make handicrafts if you have the talent and desire. Write poetry and songs. Plant beautiful flowers in a garden, and share them with others. Write thoughtful, heartfelt letters to people you love.
Fight against the hollow of negativity by doing positive things. Give love. Volunteer to do something good for people who need it, people you don’t know.
Adopt a pet and give it the love it needs, and the love it gives you will be a blessing and comfort.
Pray. The power of prayer has been demonstrated. Pray for the victims and their families. Pray for our country and for humanity. There’s an old saying about war: “There are no atheists in foxholes.” This is a time to contemplate and reconsider whether we have the ability to humble our pride and call on a higher power—whatever you may believe it or him/her to be—and admit that we need help, as a people, as a country, as individuals.
Share all the positive things and beautiful things in the world and in life with others. Don’t let ugliness control you or sicken your mind. Believe in beauty and in hope, and do your best to bring them about. Mend the world, in your own little ways.

Join the “Kindness Movement.” Ann Curry of NBC recently posted on Twitter a call for “26 Acts of Kindness”, asking people to do one kind act for every one of the victims. I think this is a wonderful idea, and I’m already thinking about what I can do. For more details, see: http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/12/18/15999109-if-you-do-good-youll-feel-good-ann-curry-explains-origins-of-26acts-of-kindness?lite


Are you in?



Friday, December 7, 2012


Enabling Henry:

Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies


Book Review



Mountains of books, fiction and nonfiction, have been written about Henry VIII and his wives, particularly Anne Boleyn. But Hilary Mantel’s novels are unlike any of them.



First of all, they aren’t about Henry at all. Their main, viewpoint character is Thomas Cromwell, a commoner who rose from blacksmith’s abused son to become arguably the most powerful man in England. Second, they are complex and beautiful literary works that well deserve the Booker Prizes they both won.

Wolf Hall, published in 2009, deals with Cromwell’s youth and rise to power under Cardinal Wolsey and then King Henry, his family life, and his maneuvering in bringing about Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Bring Up the Bodies, published in 2012, deals with Henry’s disillusionment with Anne, his attraction to Jane Seymour, and Cromwell’s unscrupulous means of ridding the king of Anne and her troublesome family.

Henry VII
and Catherine of Aragon

Jane Seymour

In these novels Mantel accomplishes the kind of revision of history that only fiction can. She dares to take on a historical character who is almost universally reviled and make him into a many-layered, complex human being. The world knows Cromwell, to the extent it knows him at all, as Henry VIII’s closest advisor, marital strategist, and hatchet man. He is not generally as well known as his later kinsman, Oliver Cromwell, but what the world does know is mostly repugnant. Grasping, self-interested, ruthless, scheming, ambitious without scruples, selling his ability and loyalty to whoever can benefit him the most, be it Cardinal Wolsey or King Henry—all of this is received wisdom about Thomas Cromwell. And though it may all be true, Mantel has managed to temper that perception of him for at least as long as the reader is under the spell of her writing.  

Thomas, Cardinal Wolsey

The secret to her success may well be her manipulation of point of view. She uses a close third person that somehow reads like first person yet maintains a crucial distance between reader and character. By referring to her protagonist as “he,” even the first time we meet him, she puts the reader inside Cromwell’s mind yet still manages to withhold just enough so that we don’t feel we really know the inmost soul of him. It creates an effect similar to first person without the degree of self-revelation that first person provides.


This device does tend to create some pronoun confusion, particularly in Wolf Hall, forcing the reader to stop and reread to understand which character is being referred to. Probably this slight flaw was pointed out by critics, because she makes an effort in the second novel to clarify more—to say “he, Cromwell” when there’s chance of confusion. But it works just as well, so nothing is lost.


This use of point of view manipulates the reader—in the best manner of great fiction—by causing us to forget or skip over the elisions in Cromwell’s story, the things Mantel partly withholds from us, including the most base elements in Cromwell’s character and the real nature of his maneuverings. These things, filtered through Cromwell’s mind as part of the duties he owes his king, become almost unremarkable, mixed in as they are with such duties as his handling of the royal treasury.

 Thomas Cromwell

In Wolf Hall Mantel shows us a man who has become self-made, who has worked his way up from the roughness of his childhood to somehow become educated and erudite, a man who has traveled Europe and worked in many professions, eventually becoming a lawyer and protégé to Wolsey, who was then the most powerful man in England after the king. She shows us Cromwell’s devotion and loyalty to the cardinal, a genuine feeling that curves back in a surprising way during the events of Bring Up the Bodies.
She shows us a loving family man who is devastated at the loss of his wife and two daughters to the plague, a man who takes in orphans and destitute people, shares his home with them, makes several of them proteges of his own. It’s a startling look at the man that doesn’t fit our preconceived notions of him. And in making Cromwell actually sympathetic, Mantel hides much of his cruelty and horrid deeds; so that when, in Bring Up the Bodies, we see all of his terrible ruthlessness come out in his persecution of Anne and her putative lovers, it’s even more chilling coming from this character we thought we knew.

Mantel makes us want to believe that Cromwell wasn’t the monster that history paints him as, makes us wonder whether his case might be more like that of Richard III; will these books spawn a Thomas Cromwell Society, dedicated to erasing the stains of history from his name? Of course, the history of the Tudor regime and the sixteenth century is documented just about down to every stitch of clothing; it doesn’t seem likely that Cromwell has been too unfairly represented. Yet these books carry the message of inscrutability that much great fiction illuminates: that the human mind and heart are always a mystery. Psychology has taught us that a person’s actions are mediated by context, by time and place, by the society he or she lives in and what’s necessary to survive in the world, nearly as much as they are by character and personality, and this is especially true of times as brutal as that of the Tudors. Was Cromwell an unfeeling monster, or was he a man who had decency in him that was corrupted by his insular world? Mantel raises the question and leaves us to try to answer it.


As a lover of English history, I’ve always tended toward the Plantagenets and hated the Tudors. But since reading these books I’ve read biographies of Catherine of Aragon and of Thomas Cranmer, Henry’s archbishop of Canterbury; I have found a sudden fascination for the people who surrounded the Tudors, who aided or were victimized by them. The real achievement of a historical novelist is to make her readers think and reconsider what we know or thought we knew about a person or a period, to excite our curiosity to learn more; this is Mantel’s achievement in these novels. And I was thrilled to find out that she is writing one more novel to make a Cromwellian trilogy; I can’t wait for it to be published. Bring up the next book!

The Tower of London--where Henry's enemies ended up.