I rarely watch a movie a second time or tune-in to reruns of television shows, not even the ones I’ve really enjoyed or have made a significant impression on me. Exceptions have been: The Wizard of Oz, the first movie by which I was mesmerized into enchantment; It’s a Wonderful Life, because it still jolts me into an awareness of what most matters; The Actors’ Theater Interview of Robin Williams¸ because it is improv on steroids and since I identify with the melancholia and mania, the sadness and silliness of Williams; and early episodes of Saturday Night Live¸ because those parodies of nearly everything remind me that we simultaneously take ourselves too seriously and not seriously enough.
It’s rare for me to re-read a book, too.
Over the last couple of years, though, I’ve been revisiting “classic” texts. A “classic” text (or person) serves as a source of insight, or as a doorway to wisdom, or as fuel for the imagination. A classic provides some norms, or frameworks, or ways of seeing or means of evaluating what we read and experience in other texts, contexts, and people.
More personally, a “classic” book is one with which I never get finished or which never finishes with me. Its flashes of insight, its coruscating language, the author’s honest vulnerability, and his or her willingness to risk the attempt to say the finally unsayable draw me back again and again.
For what it’s worth, here are three classic texts with which I’m spending time these days:
- Martin Buber, I and Thou: As our culture becomes coarser, harsher, and more violent, I need Buber’s insistence, beautifully expressed, that we are to treat each other as subjects, not objects, as “Thous” and not “Its.” Buber calls us to respect the dignity, irreducible value, and sacred mystery of each person, a call we need to hear and heed in the face of myriad forces of depersonalization and dehumanization.
- Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation: Nearly every page bristles with reorienting truth, and Merton’s language has the spare and warm feeling of his having wrestled his words from silence spent by a fire. An example:
“The more we persist in misunderstanding the phenomena of life, the more we analyze them out into strange finalities and complex purposes of our own, the more we involve ourselves in sadness, absurdity and despair. But it does not matter much, because no despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed, we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not.”
We’re living in a season when many of us are tempted by—even drawn inexorably toward—“sadness, absurdity, and despair.” We need the clear-eyed and faithful-hearted realism of Merton to persuade us that there is a dance going on, a divine dance of peace, joy, and love which we are free to join.
3. Soren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing: SK (1813-1855) said of himself that his whole life was an “epigram calculated to make people aware.” Since Kierkegaard stands near the fountainhead of existentialism, it’s no surprise that he challenges us not to hide behind the collective to avoid giving our own answers to the difficult dilemmas we face. We’re summoned and responsible to decide and act for ourselves, even if what we decide and do puts us at odds with the groups of which we are a part. He says: “Each [person], as an individual, should render his [or her] account to God. . . For in eternity there is no mob pressure, no crowd, no hiding place in the crowd.” Increasingly, I think, we need the courage to stand, if we must, in a minority shaped by compassionate conviction (or convictional compassion) and to resist the pressure to acquiesce to the majority’s anxiety and fear which target strangers as enemies.
There are others in the “classic” to-be-read stack; among them are: Dr. Seuss, the Far Side Cartoons of Gary Larson, Marilynne Robinson, William Faulkner, Thoreau, William James, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and E.B. White (I think I need The Trumpet of the Swan just now).
Summer is a good time for re-reading. If you decide to take up a classic or two, let me know what you choose.