August Diehl as Franz Jägerstätter in Terrence Malick's A Hidden Life
August Diehl as Franz Jägerstätter in Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life

“The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

— George Eliot, Middlemarch


Terrence Malick‘s A Hidden Life has debuted at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It is the American filmmaker’s second work to be based on the events of the Second World War, and tells the story of Franz Jägerstätter, a conscientious objector who was executed by the Nazis in 1943. Writing for The Los Angeles Times, Justin Chang has praised Malick’s latest work as a return to form and “a spiritual call to arms”:

“At its simplest level, A Hidden Life exists to disprove the snarling Nazi soldiers we hear telling Franz that his act of protest is meaningless and that no one will ever remember him. (They have admittedly already been disproved, thanks to the scholarship of Gordon Zahn and Thomas Merton, as well as a 2007 papal declaration of Jägerstätter as a martyr.) But it is also a call for moral vigilance in any era, the present one very much included…”

Source: The Los Angeles Times

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“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

— Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

Rose early. Cool and clear morning. Went running around East Bute Dock (one lap). Reading Thomas à Kempis, Flannery O’Connor (her first published short story, ‘The Geranium’), and the diaries of Thomas Merton (describing his meeting with Zen scholar and practitioner D. T. Suzuki).

“Reading Mabillon’s wise and delightful book on monastic studies. Among other things, this beautiful quotation from Seneca: “If you will give yourself to study, you will ease every burden of life, you will neither wish for night to come or the light to fail; neither shall you be worried or preoccupied with other things.”

— Thomas Merton, Journal, 10 November 1958

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“I stuck with Merton, and my patience has been rewarded a thousandfold. He’s the only writer I read pretty much every day. There’s a small Book of Hours that never fails to inspire me. The main thing that’s so wonderful about him is his love of nature and his ebullience. And his need to constantly interrogate himself. And his extraordinary humility. And his exquisite facility with language.”

— Nicola Barker, The Guardian

“I need to set myself to the study of non-violence, with thoroughness. The complete, integral practice of it in community life.”

—Thomas Merton, Journal, 21 August 1962

Autumn. It has been almost four months since I made a decision to change the way that I live, and I feel happier now than at any other time in my life. I rise earlier in the morning (around 6 o’clock) to read and watch the sunrise. I go cycling or running almost every day, rain or shine. I have also become a regular visitor to my local library, which has a wonderful selection of books on every conceivable topic. At the moment, I am spending my days writing, looking for part-time work, and nourishing myself with healthy and delicious food.

I continue to find international news events troubling. I was saddened to hear about the most recent American mass shooting in Las Vegas, which took the lives of over fifty people and injured over five hundred. Someone who attended my wedding was at the event, and while she managed to escape she knew people who were shot. Other family members also know friends and colleagues who were in attendance that day, including some who were killed.

The shooting occurred on the first day of October. The next day, I spent an hour or more watching footage and witness accounts broadcast on various channels. I then picked up my coat and went walking. The second of October is traditionally known as the International Day of Non-Violence, a day inaugurated by the United Nations General Assembly ten years ago (June 2007). The second of October is significant since it marks the birthday of non-violence advocate and political activist Mahatma Gandhi. As I passed along Lloyd George Avenue, I saw that a new statue of the civil rights leader was being unveiled. The likeness struck me as a potent and inspiring reminder of human potential in the face of inestimable odds, and, moreover, a testament to the importance of kindness and compassion in these troubled times.

I went home and spent some time reading Thomas Merton.

“[In] an evolved society there are no innocent victims of propaganda. Propaganda succeeds because men want it to succeed. It works on minds because those minds want to be worked on. Its conclusions bring apparent light and satisfaction because that is the kind of satisfaction that people are longing for. It leads them to actions for which they are already half prepared: all they ask is that these actions be justified. If war propaganda succeeds it is because people want war, and only need a few good reasons to justify their own desire.”

— Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1966)

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

Spring is here, though on this morning the morose Cardiff sky begs to differ. I have finished reading Thomas Merton‘s memoir, The Seven Storey Mountain, and would highly recommend it. I have now picked up Marilynne Robinson‘s 2005 novel, Gilead, a first-person narrative that takes the form of a letter from an ageing Idaho Reverend to his young son. The novel is beautifully understated and really quite moving.

I recently interviewed the academic David Lloyd about his book on Samuel Beckett and art, entitled Beckett’s Thing: Painting and Theatre (Edinburgh University Press). Lloyd shares his passion for Beckett’s writing, and traces the writer’s abiding fascination with painting (while also acknowledging his abiding friendships with a number of twentieth-century European artists). Among other things, Lloyd mentions Beckett’s visual memory: “Beckett had an amateur’s (in the best sense) deep knowledge of the Old Masters, from Flemish and German painters to Italian painters of the high Renaissance. […] He had remarkable visual recall: to give just one example, there is a St Sebastian by Antonello da Messina that he saw in Dresden in 1937 that he describes with astonishing accuracy and detail in a letter to Duthuit in 1948.”

Finally, I see that my friend Scott Eric Hamilton is guest-editing a forthcoming issue of The Parish Review, a journal celebrating the work of Flann O’Brien. It’s lovely to see that he is currently accepting submissions.

Autobiography is always negotiating two or more voices, speaking from separate and distinct moments in time. We can see this in what is perhaps the earliest example of modern autobiography, St Augustine‘s Confessions, where a present-day narrator attempts to reconstruct a previous life. In this way, autobiographical writing attempts to collapse the distance between childhood and adulthood, innocence and experience, and past and present.  (more…)

The Journal of Jules Renard, ed. and trans. Louise Bogan and Elizabeth Roget (Tin House Books, 2008).
The Journal of Jules Renard, ed. and trans. Louise Bogan and Elizabeth Roget (Tin House Books, 2008).

When in doubt, pick up Jules Renard. His journal is unrivalled. A few choice picks from today’s reading (translated from the French by Louise Bogan and Elizabeth Roget):

  • On the ridiculous: ‘Look for the ridiculous in everything and you will find it’ (February 1890).
  • On André Gide: ‘He is clean-shaven, has a cold in the nose and throat, an exaggerated jaw, eyes between two welts. He is in love with Oscar Wilde, whose photograph I perceive on the mantel: a fleshy gentleman, very refined, also clean-shaven, who has recently been discovered’ (December 1891).
  • On Oscar Wilde: ‘Oscar Wilde next to me at lunch. He has the oddity of being an Englishman. He gives you a cigarette, but he selects it himself’ (April 1892).
  • On criticising others: ‘All our criticism consists of reproaching others with not having the qualities that we believe ourselves to have’ (July 1895).
  • On observing nature: ‘I want my ear to be a shell that keeps in itself all the sounds of nature’ (September 1895).
  • On modesty: ‘Be modest! It is the kind of pride least likely to offend’ (September 1895).

Rain, wind, moments of bright sunshine. Continuing to enjoy Thomas Merton‘s The Seven Storey Mountain: having completed his undergraduate degree at Columbia, he is now studying William Blake‘s poetry at postgraduate level.

Early handwritten manuscript for William Faulkner 'A Rose for Emily'
Early handwritten manuscript for William Faulkner ‘A Rose for Emily’

Rain. I walk to work every day, so adverse weather conditions require no small degree of ingenuity. Angling my umbrella towards the wind, I found a dry route through the city’s main shopping centre. As I neared the main building, I happened to chat briefly with several former students, and my former boss.

I see that the University of Virginia is hosting an exhibition celebrating the life and work of American writer William Faulkner. The website offers a wonderful glimpse of the materials on display, including photographs, garments, and an early handwritten manuscript of ‘A Rose for Emily’. Visitors to the exhibition will also be able to explore ‘Digital Yoknapatawpha’, an interactive virtual tour of Faulkner’s fictional Mississippi county. The exhibition runs until 7 July.

Reading Thomas Merton‘s The Seven Storey Mountain. Having left Cambridge University under somewhat mysterious circumstances, Merton is now studying literature at Columbia in the US. His grandfather, ‘Pop’, has died suddenly. Merton writes: ‘In the last year or two we had drawn rather close together. He often got me to come to lunch with him downtown and there he would tell me all his troubles, and talk over the prospects of my future’.

 

12403-franz-kafka-max-brodOvercast, but bright. The marine layer has moved in over the city. Watching political commentators reflect on the unfolding of the Trump administration—particularly impressed by the insights of MSNBC reporters Rachel MaddowKatie Tur, Joy ReidChris Hayes, Kasie Hunt and Chuck Todd.

Robert Cohen has written Franz Kafka‘s ‘Budget Guide to Florence’, filed under The Paris Review‘s ‘Department of Tomfoolery’. It includes a vital piece of Kafkaesque advice: ‘In the struggle between one’s self and the world, bet on the world.’

Meeting friends for coffee, and hoping to find some time to read Thomas Merton.

Thomas Merton
Thomas Merton
Bright morning. Watching American news broadcasts. Currently reading Thomas Merton‘s journals, and was reminded that he entered the monastic order during the Second World War (c. 1941).

Attended a fascinating talk by Professor Chris Weedon yesterday evening at the Centre for Critical and Cultural Theory at Cardiff University. The talk was entitled ‘The Cultural Politics of Memory: the Case of GDR’, and explored what often gets forgotten in accounts of the German Democratic Republic.

In an insightful piece for The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino revisits Ivanka Trump‘s 2009 self-help book The Trump Card. Tolentino observes: ‘Ivanka’s aesthetic differences from her father are often parsed as political differences, and she has made the most of such misperceptions.’

Michiko Kakutani has listed George Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-Four as a must-read for 2017.