#20: M.T. Anderson 2016
Sensation of the Sublime, September 1, 2017
Author of over forty books for young adults, M. T. Anderson describes his experiences witnessing the Javanese trance dance and Nepalese animal sacrifice, reflecting on the ways religious rites make the familiar strange and the strange familiar. In the same way, Anderson suggests, writing “opens a space where we can glimpse our world from the outside.” Art thus serves the important cultural purpose of estrangement, which challenges our assumptions and results in fresh perspectives. To further illustrate, Anderson recounts the story of Christina of Markyate, a plucky heroine of the Middle Ages who defies even the most determined efforts to marry her off. Opening conversation with host Lisa Ann Cockrel and religion writer and novelist Tara Isabella Burton.
- Tara Isabella Burton, Social Creature
- T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”
- Viktor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique”
- The Vita of Christina of Markyate
Lisa Ann Cockrel (host): [00:00:00] Welcome to Rewrite Radio, the podcast from the Festival of Faith & Writing. I'm Lisa Ann Cockrel, the director of the Festival, and I'll be your host. This is the place you can listen back to conversations we've had with writers and readers as we’ve celebrated the written word together for over two decades. In each
Today's episode of Rewrite Radio features MT Anderson at the 2016 Festival of Faith & Writing and his talk titled, “The Sacred and the Strange.” MT, or Tobin as his friends call him, talked about how paying attention to what might be considered “unusual” religious practices can help us see our own faith with new eyes. He says literature has a similar power to help us see our lives more clearly, by taking what we think we know and putting it at a distance, making it strange.
Tobin has written over 40 books for young adults, including The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, which won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature, and Feed, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His first graphic novel, Yvain: The Knight of the Lion, came out earlier this year. And his next novel, Landscape with Invisible Hand is set to come out September 2017.
Joining us to talk about the sacred and the strange is Tara Isabella Burton, who spoke at the 2016 Festival herself. Like Tobin, she’s observed religious practices from all corners of the globe writing for National Geographic, The Wall Street Journal, and Al Jazeera, among many other publications. She’s currently the religion writer for Vox, and her first novel, Social Creature, comes out next summer.
[music, phone ringing]
Tara: [00:01:46] Hello, this is Tara.
Lisa: Hey, Tara. It's Lisa.
Tara: Oh hi, how are you?
Lisa: I'm good. How are you doing?
Tara: Good, thank you.
Lisa: [chuckles] Good. Thanks so much for joining us today, Tara. Where did we find you?
Tara: I am working from home today in New York City where I am based
Lisa: Fantastic. Okay, before we go on, I want to hear a little about [chuckles] the witches in Ashville and the eclipse. What did you get into down there?
Tara: There were lots of different - it's a very witchy town.
Tara: There are a lot of people there very involved in different new-age spiritual practices, and I did a piece about - the eclipse was very significant cosmically for many of them, and there was a bit of a divide between people who wanted to use it as a time to do rituals or spells with very political or global impact
Lisa: We loved having you as a speaker yourself at the 2016 Festival and wanted to bring you on to talk a little about M T Anderson's talk in 2016. And he talked about the sacred and the strange and
Tara: Yeah, absolutely. It's kind of both: it's making the
Tara: That also tell you about people and that kind of allows you then to reflect on your own practice and realize that often, you know, it's so easy to separate out some kind of idolized notion of a foreign practice be it a spell or a prayer - a dhikr in the Sufi tradition - and think of it as something kind of utterly mystical and strange than sometimes when we think about our own practices whether we're Episcopalians, we'll go to Church and sometimes it'll be transformative experience and sometimes we'll be a little hungry or sometimes I'll be chatting to someone next to me and there's a very sort of human moment in that.
Tara: [00:05:07] That's sort of cultural, that's human, that's sometimes even banal or ordinary and yet it's only by kind of applying that to another practice that I'm witnessing and watching the intersection of the personal, the spiritual, and the day-to-day, and the sort of moments of sanctity that I'm able to kind of see that dynamic for what it is in my own faith.
Lisa: Definitely. So one of
And he was trying to find an analogue for something here in the United States, in North America that we might kind of be in a similar space with, and one of the things that he makes this connection to is writing and how when you're writing you are asked to or you're tasked with trying to kind of conjure lots of different stories and ideas that you're kind of believing and also knowing these people don't actually exist or you don't actually have immediate access to them depending on it's nonfiction or fiction, but I wondered about that believing in and not believing and how those things relate to each other in your writing when you're doing nonfiction but maybe also when you're writing fiction with this new novel, how that works in your writing process.
Tara: Sure, absolutely. Well,
And trying to invite someone to have space in something completely implausible as an extension of something emotionally real is absolutely at the heart of what we do as storytellers. We say, "Here's this crazy thing that's never happened but believe it anyway because it's also true in this other way." And for me, that's one element. Another element is at the level of character, so much, I think about this a lot, that kind of, our greatest sin in a sense in our own lives is we give ourselves as the hero of our own story is that everyone else is, you know, the villain or the pawn, and we kind of objectify other people and make it easy for them to – or make it easy for us to discard them because our own narratives are so important. And I think as a writer, it's on us to show how flawed that that conception is by fully believing in each of the characters we write and allowing each of them to be a center of consciousness, each of them to be the hero of their own story. Sure, maybe, within this story there is a clear protagonist, and yet as a
Lisa: Right. [chuckles]
Tara: For me, so much of the tragedy of life and the dramatic tension of a good book is when everybody is a hero in their own story and then all these stories are butting up against each other and contradicting each other and that's where a drama comes from, it's, you know, it's Alice wants this and Bob wants something else, and that's the story.
Tara: And so, I have to believe not just in the characters that are similar to me or the characters that I would necessarily sympathize with most because they're the most like me, but I have to believe in and become and subscribe to a world in which a character that is entirely unlike me is a center of consciousness, is the protagonist, even if that character's only on screen - on the page for five pages.
Lisa: Hmm yeah. Well, thanks so much for your time.
Tara: No worries. Well, thank you.
Lisa: Talk to you later, Tara.
Tara: See you later, bye.
Lisa: And now M.T. Anderson on "The Sacred and the Strange" at the 2016 Festival of Faith and Writing. A note to our listeners, this episode does include content that might not be appropriate for younger listeners.
- T. Anderson: [00:10:29] Thank you. [chuckles] So I just had a really miraculous experience myself. I was walking in your beautiful forest over there, and as I walked down this wooded pathway I ran into Mary Ruefle, the poet, who is here for this conference, which was unexpected for me. And I said, "Hey, Mary, how are you?" And I said, "I know you probably don't want to chat, you look like you are meditating." And she said, "Stick your tongue out at the sun." And I said, "Okay." And so the two of us sat there, stuck out our tongues at the sort of giver of life, giver of light. And then she said around her tongue, [imitating] "It maximizes the vitamin D."
So there's your real piece of wisdom for the day. The rest of this talk is just nugatory.
So, okay. I'm going to talk about the sacred and the strange today. Some thoughts on writing and the extremes of religious practice. So, I should say I grew up in the town of Stow, which is a dull little town in Massachusetts. And we liked it dull. We like the fact that is was a very standard American town. You know, standard congregational church, standard Carnegie library made out of brick from 1900. If that's not it, that's the Stop & Shop. So because I had grown up in a town that was sort of very small, very quiet, very standard, I felt very restless and I spent a lot of my life traveling around the world to places that were very unlike what I knew when I was growing up. Um, like this, which, where the hell is that?
(Yeah, um, ok)
So, and I also grow up in a deeply Christian context. so many of my family members have lived in religious communities of one kind or another. My mother is an Episcopal priest, she's actually here today. Say hello, wave to the people! Wave to the nice people, Mom! [laughter] There she is! And there's my Dad! Hey, Dad! Good to see you!
Sorryit's been a few months.
Okay, so. And because of that, as I've traveled around, because I grew up in this deeply Christian context, as I've traveled around, I've always been particularly drawn to and fascinated by the extremes of religious practice. So I've gone to ancient monastic cities in the Himalayas, ancient monastic cities in Europe. I have followed the route of the Albigensian Crusade and gone to the palace of the anti-pope at Avignon. Attended the festival of the child goddess of Kathmandu and scoured the Taklamakan desert with a friend of mine to find the tombs of Uyghur Muslim saints, the
mazars. Here we are in fact seeking one that turned out to be on top of the ruins of a temple to a Buddhist rat king. Anyway, [laughter] so anyway, I don't like to brag, but I've actually had a life threateningallergic reaction on every continent on the planet.
Here I am suffering from anaphylaxis in the Pyrenees. I realized actually that I have never been to South America. But I am allergic to legumes, and I feel like South America is a very heavy legume-heavy culture. [laughter] So I think it's kind of like a
shoe-in,like you know what I mean? Like, I’ll just land, get some red beans and rice, and boom!
[laughter] You know?
Okay, so. Today I am going to talk about some of the religious practices I've witnessed, which were most alien to me and how they might relate to literature. For me, writing and reading are some of the most important approaches to a sensation of the sublime. They are spiritual acts. So I want to discuss writing as
rite, "R-I-T-E." The three religious rites I’ll be talking about are not things that are mainstream in this country: possession and exorcism, animal sacrifice, and, perhaps most alien to the American mindset, celibacy.
Now a word about my method here. I am basically talking about writing, but using religious rite as a metaphor. I am not a scholar of religion, as in fact some of you are. But
isshould be absolutely clear that these acts, however fascinating I might find them, are not quaint or exotic, and are certainly not undertaken as a spectacle to wow spiritual tourists like me. They are not conducted to give, you know, upper-middle-class Elizabeth Gilbert's their epiphanies. [laughter] They are deeply ingrained with symbolic and spiritual value for the participants that is in fact only partially visible to those of us who come from outside those communities and that must be understood and respected.
[00:15:27] Now the first example I'm going to use is the Javanese trance dance. So I was
inthe island of Java with my sister and we had heard about these dances, they call them in English, they call them trance dances, where supposedly the dancers are actually possessed by spirits during the dance and do all kinds of crazy self-harming things under the influence of those spirits and thenare exorcised at the end of the dance. And so I said I would love to see it. We had this friend who was from a really garbagey Javanese garage band, and he said that he could hook us up with a trance dance when one happened; there had to be a ceremony that was going with it. He finally found out that there was going to be a circumcision ritual up in a village up in the mountains above Yogyakarta, and we could go to that. And I thought sure I could go to that, a circumcision party sounds fun.
Finally, I can attend a party where there is guaranteed to be at least one person who is more miserable than me. [laughter]
So we drove, you know, are motorbikes up into the hills and found this little village where they had set out a dancing space, there were about maybe 150, 250 people from the village standing around. And they did this trance dance that lasted starting at around ten or eleven at night all through the night. And I have just a couple of clips to show you, but keep in mind that this was, I did not have good technology. I was running out of space and was for
So at first for about an hour or so they did just these very repetitive dances, sort of getting themselves into a trance state. Let's see if the video actually works. And so yeah, here they are, sort of dancing around with, in fact, with these wicker hobby horses that then at certain points the music changes and they have these stylized mock battles that I also have a quick clip of. (These stylized mock battles...um)
And actually it's in some ways in terms of a dancing thing, it's eerily similar in some ways to if any of you know traditional British Morris dancing where they also have hobby horses and a lot of the dancing is very stylized battle dancing. It's very odd that here you also have this kind of like these wicker horses. Anyway, after
And then gradually they wake up and this is the state in which they are supposedly possessed. And so as they get up they move in something that is very much like a kind of zombie-movie fashion. And at this
So, um – and keep in mind that what I'm wondering while a lot of this is going on is, what is the connection with this ritual with the ritual circumcision? I mean remember that Java is actually a Muslim island. So this is actually clearly a preserved rite from a pre-Muslim culture. So I was very interested to know how this is supposed to theologically connect with a circumcision. Why does this possession need to happen for the circumcision to happen? Don't worry I don't have pictures of the circumcision.
[00:20:13] But okay. So after they get up, what they do is there is a table set up with stuff for them and they all do
They sort of, and what he did, here oh – I'm sorry this actually a – oh, no, no, no. Okay. And he would sort of lay them down and quiet them. And he was kind like the demon whisperer. He would kind of quiet them down and supposedly draw the spirit out of them and then gradually they would kind of become fixed on the ground and they would be carried out, which you can actually see here. You can see that the rain has picked up quite a bit, too.
And there's the guy in the background for example who - and they would be removed, and the idea is that at this point they will wake up inside one of the huts and they will be returned to human consciousness. So, so I was still wondering what is the connection between this and circumcision? And I tried to talk to people about it, but you know I didn't know Javanese and they didn't know English. So the one friend of mine who did speak English he was trying to explain, but they all kind of gave me this weird glance when I tried to ask about what was going on.
And you can see this in a sense, I mean, they were coy about the reality of possession, too. I would say well so are they really possessed and they would say (I mean not the, I didn't talk to the dancers), but you know other people would say, “I don't know, what do you think?” [laughter] And it felt very much like, okay, this is probably something that where their sense of belief is very moderated, right? Especially because there later, like at 2 or 3 in the morning was a women's version, and there was not the same kind of, like, misrule, zombie craziness as the men, there was not a kind of monstrousness to it. You could see that it was curated in a sense. The women started to actually move in a more sinuous, elegant way based on a lot of the Indonesian dancing when they were possessed rather than moving in a more monstrous way.
I have to boast that one of the demon-possessed girls did ask to dance with me.
[laughter] So. [laughter] Maybe that was like penance! Anyway, but also you know that actually does play into the thing that in a sense having the one tall white guy in the audience, drawing him out into the rain and having him dance is in a sense a very crowd-pleasing act, you know what I mean? And so there is also the sense of a performance here. So I was like to what extent is it trance and to what extent is it calculated? To what extent is this a learned skill? And I mean I think that the people there, the adults at least there, assumed pretty much that it was at most a trance, and perhaps actually a feat of concentration, more than even that. So you have these people in the audience who are simultaneously believing and not believing. Knowing and not knowing.
So I tried to think of a standard American practice which could be used as an analogy. And you know, the, at first I was thinking well in a way it's like a magician. You hire the party magician, but you know on the other hand we absolutely know
[00:25:31] Now this does not mean that the rite is somehow fakery, or that it doesn’t have a spiritual dimension. These possession rites mark off an evening from everyday life, that's part of it, you know. The boy who was circumcised that night will have
Or, you know, I talked earlier about the Kaptara Mazar the, you know, the tombs of the Uyghur Muslim saints. At this site down the
Anyway, so this is also a place that people go
Now we like to think of our home as secure and what we know as home does not need to be home. Architecture that speaks of home to us,
[00:29:50] Well there are some books that accept the world as we've always known it and presume that it makes sense. There are others that recognize that home is built, is always built in the desert, that it is always makeshift and that it need not be as it has been and will not always be as it is now. Just as a home or hermitage needs to be built in an empty place brick by brick, our novels are being constructed word by word from the smallest unit to the largest structure. It can be of our own design, or we can build it pre-fab.
So for example, we start in the level of the word. Words can be clichéd, individual words can be clichéd, or words can be unexpected. They can take us to a new place; simply the choice of a single word. On the level of a sentence, the sentence can bring together elements that you would never expect to see together and revitalize your sense of the connections in the world, or a sentence can tell you exactly what it is you expected to hear. On the level of the plot and the narrative, some of them take us to a place that is a complete shock, some of them actually take you to
So this points to what I see as the fundamental function of literature. As with those who go on pilgrimages to this site in the desert, we leave home because
In the early twentieth
So, he talked about sort of an alienation. He said that things in the world become naturalized after we read about
So the sacred is
[00:35:20] So, another example of this, my second example: animal sacrifice. Now, historically, animal sacrifice is often used by Europeans, especially by Europeans in the 16th, 17th, 18th century, as proof of a nation's barbarity. So it's an excuse to go in and slaughter the inhabitants by the tens of thousands until they stop, and recognize the superior kindliness and rationality of Christian civilization. [laughter] So, I've had to acclimate myself to animal sacrifice in some countries. It's just a fact of life and a way of life in some places. Here for example in the town of Dakshinkali, which is one of the, it's right near one of the big sacrificial sites in Nepal, I attended a festival where they built these palanquins for gods that are in these sort of jugs that they then, they're all over the town and then they pick them up every night and they walk with them in, they circulate around the town in a clockwise direction blessing the town for the year. And at the end of this ten-day festival, and those of you who are tender-hearted should close your eyes for a moment, I'll tell you when you can open them, at the end of this ten-day festival they sacrifice a bull that is born on the first day of the festival, so one that is 10 days old. Okay, I've switched the slide you can look back again. [laughter]
This is one of the few times that I really was disturbed by an animal sacrifice for various reasons I won't go into. And I should note that there are
Now, I mean, this seems very alien to most of us. But the peculiar thing is I started to realize, well
If we want to talk for a second about barbarity, many of you are from agricultural communities, as I live now in an agricultural community. And you know the difference between what goes
[00:40:00] Is this really more humane than sacrifice? In the case of a Nepali chicken, they are by and large free-range, often in fact in the restaurant near you, walking through. But also, they
You know, I was at a Bickford’s Pancake House watching a group of people pray over a set of chicken cutlets thinking about this. And thinking, okay, do we really believe that the Lord God of Jehovah, King of Kings, Lord of Sabaoth has arranged this chicken cutlet for us especially? Is the world ordained to so great a degree only to sustain us? Do we truly believe that God smiles upon all of the complicated systems of processing, packaging
Maybe they do believe this, maybe God does ordain this for his faithful servants. But it is certainly not the God who, as poet Alexander Pope says, "sees with equal eye, as God of all, A hero perish, or a sparrow fall." Suffice it to say, I find it hard to believe that the world was made for mankind's consumption. Reacting to the apparent cruelty of another's cultural treatment of animals, leads us to look at our own assumptions, [baby crying] which it sounds like is going on out there, [laughter] leads us to look at our own assumptions about an anthropocentric world, a world in which mankind is considered to be the center of everything. About all the species of living things that are forced to endure suffering and death so that humans can devour them. The glimpse of someone else's practice prompts us to question the legitimacy of our own.
And whoops – finally, I'm going to talk about celibacy. So, [laughter] the medieval period is a favorite for dreams of romance and for novels about romance, partially because everyone looks so much better draped. [laughter] But I want to talk about Christina of Markyate, who is a little known Christian teenager, in fact, one of the reasons why her story absolutely fascinates me, and it's been translated, Oxford University Press has a translation which is what I read, and so her incredible story resembles in so many ways a YA period romance. So she is born in eleven hundred, and just like in a typical YA historical romance, she is this plucky resourceful girl, you can't read this without loving her, and her parents tell her she has to marry a particular boy. And what's interesting is, we can reconstruct from, so this 1100, so just a little bit after 1100, we can reconstruct from her family names the fact that she came from an Anglo-Saxon family, and that now in 1066 the Normans have invaded England and the Normans are in control. And her family was clearly trying to set her up in a marriage that would connect them with their Norman
So they choose a good match for her, but he's not the boy she wants to marry. See this goes very well along with your typical YA scenario. And she says it's because she has already promised herself to another man. So this is the perfect setup for a YA romance: you have the plucky heroine standing up to the greedy parents. Now this where they alterity of religion, that is to
[00:45:17] So to go a little further into depth in her story, because she is so adorable; I love her. So as a small
So when she was, I think it was about thirteen or fourteen, a bishop connected with the family came to visit.
So the bishop was really peeved, and he, in his anger, told her to parents to marry her off and set up this connection with a young man of good family. And of
So the description of Christina is in fact like a plucky YA novel heroine. Here’s the description: “Such integrity, such beauty, such graciousness shown forth in Christina that all who knew her esteemed her to be above all other women. Furthermore, she was so shrewd and understanding, so prudent in affairs, so efficient in carrying out her plans, if she had wished to devote herself to the things of this world, she could have enriched and ennobled not only
So they call in all of the heavy guns of patriarchy: the abbots, the bishops, it's – this is, it's really, really an interesting story. And
So this is, however, then his friends intervened. “When those that had got him into the room heard what had happened, they joined together in calling him a spineless and useless fellow. With many
Now note here how patriarchy works on actually the male character, as well as the female, with phrases like to "unman him," to “act the man.” So behavior is being modified in a sense through the sense of masculinity for the male as well as for the female. So this guy is thrust in, Christina hears that he is coming, once again, she’s plucky, she grabs a nail on the wall and pulls herself up so she is standing on the nail in between the tapestry and the wall, okay. [laughter] And so the guy goes in, and she has disappeared. So he goes in, “I can't find her now.” [laughter] So they all come in and they start looking, right.
“How she trembled in fear of her life as they noisily sought her! Was she not faint with fear? She imagined herself already dragged out in their midst, with them all surrounding her, leering at her, threatening her, abandoned to the violation of her seducer. Finally, one of them by chance touched and held her foot as she hung there, but since the curtain between them deadened his sense of touch, he let it go, not knowing what it was.”
[00:50:07] So I love this girl. She is superb. And her mother torments her trying to send her to parties, where she is, you know, exposed to
Also though, very important, note that she is actually reading, which is very unusual for someone who has not taken holy orders. And that in fact, this illustration is actually her. [on screen] You know, the woman just there, is actually supposedly her because this, which was one of the most
Now, a modern version of her story would have her fall in love with a man and soften her views, and she did fall in love with the abbot of St Albans, the Vita says as much. But they decided to be strong and not to give into lust. They do carry on a deeply loving, platonic relationship for years. The demands of modern post-Freudian psychology require that for a happy ending, Christina of Markyate needs to recognize that her desire for Christ is just a sublimated sexual desire for another man. She then needs to (I can't read my own writing [laughter] – oh!) hook up passionately and hotly with the abbot of St Albans. [laughter]
And I have a note here that looks like monk's hood bodice-ripper, you know, that kind of pose, you know, so. [laughter] But that solution seems to me entirely reductive and disempowering, and I don't care if you believe what Christina believes or not. I want Christina of Markyate to get what she wants, not what we want her to want as modern people. I am rooting for her, I am rooting for what she wants. Here is a girl, who as a child, takes all of the tools of a crushingly patriarchal system and forges her own theology by herself, something that will serve to protect her and protect her spiritual life. That's incredible! To turn her story into a modern, human romance, rather than a very medieval, somewhat alien, divine romance, is
[sighing] Yeah! It really happened, yeah, classy. [laughter] And for once he is a Canadian, not an American, thank God! [laughter]
[00:55:22] Christina's story, like the other religious practices I've talked about, invites us to estrange ourselves from what we know. It invites us to see our own well-known world as foreign, as estranged. On the one hand, Christina is like the heroine of a YA romance, but she was intent on an anti-romantic narrative, one which is very alien to us. In a sense, this teenage girl, dead for almost a thousand years, who stood up against all of the might of the Church, the State, and the family, she offers us a critique of our own highly sexualized culture, too. She offers us renewed insight into the traps and double-binds in which we snare girls and young women through viciously enforced and conflicting cultural demands and ideologies.
This is the great purpose of literature, as with many rites, to open a space where we can glimpse our world from the outside, even though we’re trapped on the globe's hide. We seek a vantage point to see from,
But also, it is important for each of us personally to experience life fully. To touch the world that hangs so vividly all around us, and so, as readers, as writers, we dance like the possessed, trying to fill ourselves for a time with the alien, with the strange, with the sacred, with the eternal. We are all part of this dance, all pretending, yet all inhabiting. All waiting for that moment of vision, however brief it may be,
Lisa: [57:49] Many thanks to M. T. Anderson. You can check out his website at mt-anderson.com, and follow him on Twitter @MTAnderson. Thanks also to Tara Isabella Burton. You can learn more about her at www.taraisabellaburton.com, and follow her on Twitter @NotoriousTIB.
Rewrite Radio is recorded at the Festival of Faith & Writing on the campus of Calvin College and produced by the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing. Our team includes Jon Brown, Don Hettinga, Jennifer Holberg, Scott Hoezee, Bob Hudson, Lew Klatt, Deb Rienstra, Amanda Smartt, Sarah Turnage, Debbie Visser, and Jane Zwart.
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