Tag Archives: Suffering

Implore His Aid, in His Decisions Rest

The famous passage from Ecclesiastes–“All is vanity”–inspired a great poem by Samuel Johnson. Johnson’s final conclusion is that we can find happiness only in prayer.

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Crohn’s Disease and the Mariner’s Agony

A student with Crohn’s disease found a kindred soul in Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner.

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Thee Thyself We Cannot Lose

In a powerful four-line poem, Mary Elizabeth Coleridge sums up the main lesson in the Book of Job: even when we suffer, we still have God.

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Children Wrestling with Faith & Doubt

Alice Munro’s “Age of Faith” is a powerful portrait of how children turn to God–and also why they turn away.

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Books Helped Free Angelou’s Caged Bird

Maya Angelou, who died Wednesday, found strength in the literature of Shakespeare, Poe, Dunbar, and others.

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Nature Red in Tooth & Claw? Maybe Not

Carleton’s Ian Barbour turned to Tennyson in seeking to find connections between science and religion.

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Making a Fetish of Suffering

Ivan Karamazov attacks those Christians who rationalize suffering by finding a higher purpose in it.

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Jane Austen and the Ethics of Care

Austen’s Emma demonstrates an ethics of care–but only for people in her own class.

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Aristotle Wrong about Tragic Heroes

Revealing his prejudices, Aristotle tries to limit those whose suffering can be labeled tragic.

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Why Literary Suffering Made Plato Nervous

Plato worried that Greek tragedy causes us to act irrationally.

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A Paradise within Thee, Happier Far

By the end of “Paradise Lost,” John Milton has discovered a powerful response to suffering.

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Let Me Not Love Thee If I Love Thee Not

In threatening God that he will find another master, George Herbert sounds like a five-year-old threatening to run away from his mother. Deep down, he is acknowledging that he has no choice but to love God.

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God’s Non-Explanation for Suffering

As I think of the deaths and the destroyed communities that natural disasters have recently caused, from the Japanese tsunami to the Alabama tornadoes to the Mississippi flooding, the Book of Job comes to mind. After all, it is a story that addresses that most fundamental of questions, why do bad things happen to innocent people?

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Misery Loves Poetry

Yesterday a New York Times blog addressed an issue I have been wrestling with as well: whether literature is up to the string of disasters we are encountering. Sam Tanenhaus asserts that “one of the enduring paradoxes of great apocalyptic writing is that it consoles even as it alarms.” To my mind, Tanenhaus’s most interesting point is about why poetry seems to be better at responding to catastrophe than narrative prose.

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When Events Defy Human Understanding

As I wrote last year when the earthquake hit Haiti, all human language, even literature, comes up short when faced with disaster and death. Literature is language by humans about humans, and destruction on this scale seems to laugh narrative and image to scorn. Nevertheless, being human, we try to bring even apocalyptic disasters into a […]

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Out of Near Death, a Vision of Love

Spiritual Sunday Thanks to all of you who wrote this past week following the twin blows of my uncle’s death and news of the severity of Alan’s latest cancer diagnosis. The discussion in response to Thursday’s post about which goes deeper, self or love, brought to the periphery of my mind a catechism in which […]

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Is There a Price for Doing Evil?

In a dinner conversation with academic colleagues and novelist Rachel Kranz, we grappled with the question of whether those who commit atrocities pay a price for doing so. I came to the conclusion that it is a question that novelists and poets are sometimes better at answering than academics.

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Opened up by a Fire of Roses

  I am writing today about an image that gripped me as a child and that has proved a comfort to me since losing my oldest son ten years ago. I encountered it in The Princess and Curdie, a Victorian children’s fantasy novel by George MacDonald.   I use it differently than the author does but […]

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The Light that Came from Lucille Clifton

I have just heard about the death of poet Lucille Clifton and I still can’t wrap by head around the news. Even as I write this sentence, the opening paragraph of a story by James Baldwin (whom Lucille knew well) comes to me: I read about it in the paper, in the subway, on my […]

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Earth, Love, Birches, and Ice Storms

I promised this post on Robert Frost’s “Birches” in the event that we have an ice storm.  I don’t know yet whether we will have one, but we had frozen rain for much of the night, and as I write this (Wednesday morning) we are being attacked by a blizzard.  So if I don’t arrange […]

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Responding to Unspeakable Horror

No work of literature can begin to address the trauma that Haitians are currently experiencing in the wake of their devastating earthquake. But then, literature can never do justice to human tragedy. In the face of such inexpressible suffering, the poet gropes around in the dark, occasionally making utterances that some, in their agony, find […]

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Trusting that Good Can Come from Ill

Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus What have I learned about literature and pain this past week? First, that writers have taken up the topic, just as they take up every aspect of human existence. They imagine what it is like to feel pain and, through poetic images and fictional stories, convey that experience to readers. By entering […]

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Breaking through Pain’s Solitude

  I’ve had a chance to revisit the two classics that immediately came to mind the other day when I thought about literary depictions of pain.  Both were as powerful as I remember.  In D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, the death of the mother goes on and on, page after page.  As her son […]

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Can We Imagine Another’s Pain?

In Friday’s post I mentioned how we read and discussed the first few pages of Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World in our most recent salon, held to support colleague Alan Paskow as he battles with cancer.  Scarry claims that language is inadequate when it comes to physical pain so […]

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Perpetual Migraines and Julian of Norwich

This is the first of a series of posts I will be writing on literature and pain.  There are a couple of reasons why I write about this now.  First, in last night’s salon in honor of my cancer-stricken friend Alan Paskow, we discussed the introduction to Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain: The Making […]

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