Saturday, March 3, 2012

SOME CHAOTIC SOMETHING


“You occasionally get a very complete man, and he has no story. Who cares about Robert E. Lee? Now there’s a man who’s smooth as an egg. Turn him around, this primordial perfection: you see, he has no story. You can’t just say what a wonderful man he was, and that you know he had some chaotic something inside because he’s human, but you can’t get at it. You know he was probably spoiling with blood lust, otherwise he wouldn’t have been in that trade, wouldn’t have done so well at it. We can make little schemes like this, and try to jazz it up a bit, but really what you have is this enormous, this monumental self-control, and selflessness, and lots of things like that. You have to improvise a story for him. You don’t know his story. It’s only the guy who’s angular, incomplete, and struggling who has a story. If a person comes out too well, there’s not much story. Whoever wants to tell a story of a sainted grandmother, unless you can find some old love letters, and get a new grandfather? In heaven there’s no marriage and giving in marriage, and there’s no literature.”

--Robert Penn Warren, from an interview with Flannery O’Connor and Robert Penn Warren, Vagabond/23 April 1959 (From Conversations with Flannery O’Connor, edited by Rosemary M. Magee, p. 32)

ROBERT PENN WARREN AT HIS DESK,
APRIL, 1956
Leonard Mccombe/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
For more on the novelist and poet Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989), click here.

8 comments:

  1. This is great!! 

    I'm not sure one can quite agree with it—or that Warren did either, really. Who is another character "smooth as an egg" who would have been altogether forgotten except for an extraordinary three-year ministry? (I guess Dan Brown claims to have found some old love letters and spiced things up.) 

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  2. Heather, you quoted from the interview: "If a person comes out too well, there’s not much story." Perhaps not for selling books. But doesn't the Church teach us that God created every single one of us unique, that He calls every single one of us to Him, and that there is a drama and tension within each and every heart and soul? The Rich Young Man came out pretty well: no story here? And Jesus--was he 'angular, incomplete and struggling...?'

    Help me understand.

    Blessings,

    John W. White
    Purcellville, VA

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  3. Hi Bill and John--To come out "well" doesn't mean to come out "smooth as an egg." An alcoholic who gets sober comes out "well," but trust me, he or she hardly comes out smooth as an egg. The rich young man DIDN'T come out well, because he couldn't let go of the one last thing, and he wouldn't have come out entirely "well" if he HAD let go of the last one thing. Christianity doesn't promise smoothness or even wellness in a sanitized, hygienic worldly sense; it promises authentic humanity.

    And I see that Christ is always for the story, for the man with the story. Christ is for the poor in spirit, and the poor in spirit inevitably have an ongoing struggle/story. Christ is every alcoholic, because even if you’re lucky enough to get sober, the struggle continues. The edges never get smoothed out. The conflicts don’t resolve. You desperately want them to, you do everything in your power to resolve them, but they don’t. This is what it is to be human, and the people who pretend that to be human is something different, the ones who try to hide the chaotic something under a mask of self-control or whatever else, miss out. They miss out and they somehow don’t nobly bear their suffering. To nobly bear your suffering, you can have no self-pity. And you also have to acknowledge: I am in deep, deep trouble...I cannot carry on without help...

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  4. Well, I say no one is "smooth like an egg." We all suffer conflict in our lives, but with most people it is inner conflict that is not apparent to others. I would guess that we are all murderers in our minds sometime in our lives...even the holy grandmothers.

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  5. when i read this i feel deeply flawed and broken and i struggle to speak

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  6. Heather--totally agree with you, regarding the rich young man, as per my rhetorical question, "no story here?": he looked good in so many ways except for that one pesky little "sell everything" prescription Jesus gave him which caused him sadness and anguish. At mass today, after I posted, our priest said "EVERY life is a unique and sacred drama of sin and grace." Also agree with you that "...Christ is always for the story, for the man with the story...", and that means, for me, that Christ is always for the story of every single one of us,and for every one of us, because every single one of us has a story, as Barb suggests in her post.

    John W. White
    Purcellville, VA

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  7. I think this is why I haven't made it as a writer. When I look around me, I perceive nothing BUT chaos; I feel trapped by it, and the feeling is almost impossible to bear. When I sit down to write, my instinct is to make everything smoother, gentler, more logical, consistent and predictable. As a result, my work runs toward the sentimental.

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/diaryofawimpycatholic/

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  8. Hey Max, that piece wasn't sappy at all! I know for me I'm always a little worried I'll lose my "edge"...or of being a LIAR by presenting myself as way more pious, gentle etc. than I really am. There seems to be little danger of this, however--my friends are always making chance comments such as, "He's like you--prickly!" I figure just keep moving forward, one step/second at at time...it'll all be sifted through, somehow. You're a wonderful writer and don't let anybody tell ya different--including yourself...

    Thanks for reading, and for weighing in--

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