All, Bookworm

“So Big”: It’s a Big Deal

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Edna Ferber

When I initially started writing this post back in the fall, I had recently re-read Edna Ferber’s 1924 novel So Big, which I first encountered in high school. This book is not only enjoyable, but it also arguably offers many profound lessons. Should one pursue worldly wealth or should one sacrifice and work for what is truly fulfilling and for which one has passion and talent? What is beauty and where do we find it? What is a true education? What is the value of living on and working the land versus living in a city? And what are the consequences of the choices we make about our life directions?

So Big is an important, multi-layered book, insightful in its look at cultural history and its philosophical questions about life. On top of all that, it is an engaging story with vivid, believable characters. Ferber doesn’t give the reader a tidy, “happily ever after” conclusion but rather a realistic one with one of the characters facing a moment of crisis and decision about what he will do in his life.

Set in rural Illinois and in Chicago from the late 1800’s to post-World War I, the reader witnesses the deracination of the culture with the Industrial Age and the accompanying generational shifts in people’s priorities and values as well as some of the disillusionment among the wealthy, “gilded youth” after the war.

The book takes its colloquial title from the game parents often play with their toddlers: “how big is baby? Soooo big.”  SoBig becomes the childhood nickname of the main character’s son and by the end of the book, the reader is left to wonder about the cost of being “sooo big” in the eyes of the world.

The story centers around Selina Peake Dejong, who is only nineteen when the action of the plot gets going.  Her father is loving and good-natured but he is a gambler by trade and tragically becomes the accidental victim of a fatal shooting.

He had instilled in Selina an appreciation for and love of beauty, and he had imparted this seminal piece of wisdom: “The more kinds of people you see and the more things you do and the more things that happen to you, the richer you are. Even if they’re not pleasant things. That’s living.” He told her that life is a grand adventure.

In order to support herself, Selina takes the position of school teacher in the bucolic, Dutch area of Illinois known as High Prairie. She is something of a fish out of water in the decidedly pragmatic and phlegmatic but welcoming community.  Yet, she accepts the challenges of her job and her new farm life as an adventure.

With her characteristic eye for beauty, she exclaims upon first sight that the cabbages grown by the Pooles (the family with whom she stays) are beautiful. Her reaction raises the mirth of all her new companions except for the Pooles’ twelve-year-old son, Roelf whose sensitive, artistic disposition contrasts with his family but finds a kindred spirit in Selina. Selina encourages Roelf’s artistic tendencies and loans him some of her classic literature to read.

Selina marries a farmer and settles on a High Prairie farm into a life she has never imagined for herself.

She has her fair share of hardships, including being widowed and having to raise her young son by herself, but she faces her trials squarely with poise, courage, intelligence, and creativity as she herself matures and grows as a person. She never loses her ideal of beauty but integrates it into all aspects of her life from how she runs her farm, to how she raises her son, to how she treats and views other people.

Even years after first moving to High Prairie, she still finds the cabbages beautiful. Ferber writes, “Life has no weapons against a woman like that.”

Selina has a child-like curiosity and simple kindness about her that attracts other people to her and gives a luminosity to her eyes. Ferber makes a point of contrasting Selina’s eyes to those of Julie Arnold, Selina’s girlhood friend, who attains wealth and societal prestige and can afford all the latest cosmetics. Yet Julie’s eyes do not shine like Selina’s but remain dull despite make-up, perhaps illustrating that old adage that the “eyes are the window to the soul.” Julie does not carry the same inner beauty that Selina possesses.

Selina is steady and steadfast, the “rock” of the story.

Her son Dirk is a different tale. Selina wants Dirk to have more opportunity than a farm life can proffer. She sends him to college where he decides to study architecture. This elates the beauty-loving Selina. However, away from his mother’s grounding influence, Dirk begins to stray from some of the values she held dear, even in how he treats those considered unpopular by the in-crowd.

When the Great War breaks out, Dirk gives up architecture for the more swiftly lucrative career of selling war bonds. He then transitions to banking when the war ends.

He falls into the restless, pleasure-seeking set of wealthy, gilded youth and their insipid, homogenous lifestyle, particularly that of his friend, the conniving and unhappily married Paula.

However, Dirk is ill-at-ease and Paula grates his nerves.

Selina, naturally, is concerned about her son and warns him not to betray beauty, saying that beauty may no longer be there when he decides he wants her. Basically, she is reminding him to take stock of his priorities and what he truly values personally and professionally.

Despite himself, Dirk finds that he is falling for a woman named Dallas, an unassuming, bohemian artist whose views on life are very similar to those of his mother Selina.

Dallas sizes up Dirk and decidedly gives him her opinion, and Dirk is left to accept the consequences of his life pursuits and choose in which direction he will turn.

I really cannot recommend this book enough. I don’t think it is as well-known nowadays as it should be. Its questions and conflicts are as relevant and timely today, if not more so, as they were one hundred years ago.

If you are looking for both a thought-provoking as well as engrossing read, check out So Big. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

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All, Art, Faith

Music and Life

Why is music so connected to the human experience? Minds greater than mine have pondered this question; yet, like the haunting notes of a stirring musical score, this inquiry is recurring and timeless.  Why is music so inextricably linked to humanity?  The harmonious and discordant sounds of the world as well as the notes of actual music greet us practically from the first moment of our existence in the wombs of our mothers.  Even if by some bizarre circumstance we somehow were to live our whole lives without hearing any man-made music, we would still be serenaded by nature’s music, so lauded by poets, namely, the whirring of the insects, the chirping of birds, and the roaring of the wind.

I daresay that the majority of people have an opinion on music; there are certainly differing viewpoints on what constitutes good music, on what music is appropriate for certain times and places, and, undoubtedly, there are extreme variances in musical preferences.

A myriad of musical genres exists, and it is a good trait to have a cultivated and eclectic taste in music.  There is no harm in enjoying classical, rock, country, and pop music.  Nevertheless, some music, arguably, is objectively superior to other music.  To paraphrase one of my former philosophy professors at Franciscan University, one can recognize the musical superiority of a Bach or a Beethoven and still simply prefer the music of the Beatles.

Yet all of this discussion still has not answered our initial question regarding music’s relationship to humanity.  It is a somewhat cliche saying that “music is a universal language.”  However, cliches become cliches because they are true, so what is it about music that makes it universal?

In C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, music is described as an attribute of heaven.  Ludwig von Beethoven, one of the greatest musical geniuses that the world has ever known, said the following statement: “Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom

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Ludwig von Beethoven, From Bing Images

and philosophy.”  Hans Christian Andersen of fairy tale fame, said, “When words fail, music speaks.”

In each of these descriptions of music, there seems to be an appeal to a transcendent quality?  Is this the universal characteristic by which music is united with mankind?  Is it that music appeals to our higher nature, to the spiritual part of us that is connected with God?  And is this why even people who profess no formal religious beliefs sometimes claim to find spiritual expression through music?

Along with those who have considered these questions before me, I would answer with a strong affirmative.  Music can be a channel through we come to a greater self-discovery as well as to a deeper realization of the meaning of our lives.  Moreover, music relates to beauty, which leads to God; therefore, music is a vehicle by which we begin to discover our relationship to God.  Finally, music also has the ability to facilitate a greater understanding between persons.

Firstly, let us consider how music can lead us to a better knowledge of ourselves and of our lives.  St. John Paul the Great in his 1999 “Letter to Artists,” (which is a worthwhile read for everyone, no exclusively partakers in the arts) states,

“Every genuine artistic intuition goes beyond what the senses perceive and, reaching beneath reality’s surface, strives to interpret its hidden mystery.  The intuition itself springs from the depths of the human soul, where the desire to give meaning to one’s  own life is joined by the fleeting vision of beauty and of the mysterious unity of things.”

These eloquent words exemplify the truth that an artistic intuition, which includes musical intuition, is an encounter with beauty and a means of transcending the mere sensory world to see something mysterious and unifying about reality.

How often has someone listened to a particular song or musical composition that seemed to afford a release and an outlet to feelings that were inexpressible otherwise?  Music can be a catharsis and help a person to recognize pains or graces that were previously ignored or unnoticed.

Over and over again in this inspiring letter, our late pope speaks of beauty.  Beauty awakens a yearning within us.

“Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence .  It is an invitation to savour life and to dream of the future.  That is why the beauty of created things can never fully satisfy.  It stirs that hidden nostalgia for God…”

And God is beauty itself.

St. John Paul continues, “Every genuine art form in its own way is a path to the inmost reality of man and of the world.  It is therefore a wholly valid approach to the realm of faith, which gives human experience its ultimate meaning.”

Music is art, and, thus, it has the power to shed light on man and on the world, subsequently leading to the transcendent end of faith and of God for Whom man was made.  Certainly these are some of the reasons why music contains such potency and importance for mankind, why it is a universal language.  Music bespeaks of mankind’s Creator, Who knows how to speak to the hearts of each of His creatures through His creation.  God can use music as a means to call us to Himself.

Secondly, music can provide insight and understanding between persons.  In the “Letter to Artists,” St. John Paul writes,

“Through his works, the artist speaks to others and communicates with them.  The history of art, therefore, is not only a story of works produced but also a story of men  and women.  Works of art speak of their authors; they enable us to know their inner life, and they reveal the original contribution which artists offer to the history of culture.”

Thus, this is also a way in which music is universal: we feel connected to one another through music because each composer, each singer/songwriter infuses some of his very self, his soul  into his art, and we cannot help but come to understand him better and to grasp more fully his view of the world than through listening to work.  This builds communion and unity with one another and preserves the story of the past for future generations.

Whether it is the Russian nationalist music of Tchaikovsky or songs from the 1960s and ’70s protesting the Vietnam War, we have a musical record of people’s feelings towards events  that were changing their personal worlds and the world at large.

Music is a wondrous thing.  Music has the ability to transcend, to lead us to a deeper understanding of ourselves and of each other.  Music can be a meeting with beauty, which leads us to a meeting with God.  These qualities of music are, I think, solid answers to our initial queries.  Yet, there are many more answers that are just as worthy, so let us conclude as we began–with thought-provoking questions: How has music  been a part of your life? Have you felt the beauty of music?  Have you been drawn closer to God and to your fellow man through a musical composition?  How has the universal language of music influenced and changed the notes of your individual life’s song?

NOTE: This is a slightly edited version  of a piece that I originally wrote for The Gadfly, a student publication at Franciscan University of Steubenville,  in 2014.

All, Art

The Gifts of Beauty and the Arts

NOTE: This is an edited version of an opinion piece that I wrote for Franciscan University of Steubenville’s student newspaper The Troubadour in March 2016.

This past February, Franciscan University was graced by the beautiful music of pianist and composer Eric Genuis.  His concert was one of the most inspirational events I had experienced in quite a  while.  Not only was his music exquisite, but he also shared so many profound thoughts about the importance of beauty and the arts in people’s lives.

In my final semester of college and as a life-long ballet dancer, it was a timely reminder of the value of something that has always been an integral part of my life.  Genuis exhorted the audience to fill their lives and their children’s lives with beauty.  “Beauty is the language of God,” he said, and the arts have the ability to encourage, uplift, and offer hope to people through an encounter with beauty.

Genuis gave multiple moving examples of this power, such as seemingly hardened prisoners for whom he performed, being deeply touched by the beautiful music.  He shared that one man stood up and exclaimed in the middle of the first piece that he had forgotten what hope felt like.

Genuis’ testimonies are concrete examples of how truly universal and unifying the arts can be.  The arts, both fine and performing, have the power to unite, in cordiality and friendship, people who might otherwise not have much in common.

An instance of this is the friendship of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.  She is a petite, liberal, Jewish woman, and he was a burly, conservative, Catholic man.  They clearly did not share the same political or religious beliefs, yet Ginsburg, in her statement following Scalia’s death, said that they were “best buddies.”  A noted part of their friendship was a shared love of opera.  There was even an opera written about the two of them.

We live in a society that is increasingly polarized and divisive when it comes to morals, to politics, to some of the really important questions in life.  These are, obviously, consequential differences that need to be respectfully discussed and considered.

However, part of the power of the arts is that they are, arguably, a great equalizer, a way to set aside our differences if even for a little while.  They are a means to celebrate the joy of being alive.  All people, no matter their political or religious affiliation, can enjoy and be inspired by a ballet, a play, a concert, or a lovely portrait.  They can be reminded that there is more to life and to the world than materiality.  They can be reminded of their own capacity for creativity and for goodness or for evil.

In his “Letter to Artists,”  Pope St. John Paul II, makes the important distinction between creation or bringing something out of nothing, which only God can do, and craftsmanship or working with already existing material, which is what man does.  Nevertheless, he writes, “God therefore called man into existence, committing to him the craftsman’s task.  Through his ‘artistic creativity’ man appears more than ever ‘in the image of God,’ and he accomplishes this task above all in shaping the wondrous ‘material’ of his own humanity and then exercising creative dominion over the universe which surrounds him.”

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