Archive for February, 2009

Atonement – The Essay


Good morning — Only one week until our final class: Atonement on Thursday, March 5th.  I’m not quite ready for our meetings to be over, but all good things…

Maureen Rolla, one of our alert members, found a terrific article in the February 23 issue of The New Yorker.  It’s called “The Background Hum” by Daniel Zalewski, and it’s a wonderful profile of Ian McEwan; the subtitle of the article is “Ian McEwan’s art of unease.”  I hope you get a chance to read at least some of it before our meeting next week.  mcewan450The article is available in print or through our library databases (Expanded Academic ASAP, for example). You can access the databases from home using your library card number or from within the library. This article has much to say about McEwan’s works, including Atonement, Saturday, and Black Dogs.  Additionally, there’s much here about McEwan’s private life, which added to my understanding of his writing. Here’s an interesting story:  After trying unsuccessfully to distribute a variety of free novels to men in a London park (the women in the park eagerly took the books), McEwan declared, “When women stop reading, the novel will be dead.”  Hmmm.

If you find yourself becoming a real McEwan fan, be sure and investigate some of his other works available at CLP: On Chesil Beach, Amsterdam, and The Innocent.

Finally, here is the essay from Dr. Betty Sue Flowers. I can’t wait to start the discussion!

Atonement – Ian McEwan

Between the plea for forgiveness and the granting of forgiveness, there is atonement, defined as “reconciliation” or “propitiation of an offended or injured person, by reparation of wrong or injury; amends, satisfaction, expiation” (Oxford English Dictionary). On one level, atonement is a kind of payment for a wrong committed. We make amends by trying to repair the damage we have done. But sometimes, like the broken vase in Atonement, lives are too shattered to be put back together again. In the novel, as in life, when amends cannot be made, another route to forgiveness must be found.

In South Africa, for example, there was no way to make amends for the years of injustice suffered by blacks under apartheid. But neither could the past be ignored when apartheid was abolished. Some path toward forgiveness had to be found in order for the people of South Africa to move forward into a shared future. That path was created through the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which allowed anyone—victim or perpetrator—to tell his or her story. People who bore witness to their own roles in the injustices committed were given amnesty after their public confession.

Like the public confessions before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Atonement is the attempt to make amends through the telling of a story. Briony, the thirteen-year-old protagonist of Part One of the novel, commits an injustice that arises from her overactive imagination and lack of experience. 200px-atonement_28novel291She sees her sister Cecilia embracing the charlady’s son Robbie and assumes her sister is being attacked. Shortly after witnessing the embrace, Briony discovers the victim of a real attack and puts together pieces of circumstantial evidence into a plausible but incorrect story that condemns Robbie to prison and separates the lovers. Lives are shattered, and Briony spends the rest of her life trying to atone for the story she has told, first by being a nurse under difficult circumstances (a kind of penance) and then by telling what readers believe to be the true story.

Atonement raises a number of themes related to love, forgiveness, and the stories we tell to make sense of our lives. Because we are the authors of the stories of reality we tell, we are like Briony in that we interpret the incidents of our lives in our own, limited way. We are capable of condemning the innocent. We are also capable of bearing witness to horrors we have never seen. Part Two is a vividly imagined story of the chaotic retreat toward Dunkirk in the Second World War—witnessed neither by Briony, nor, in real life, by Briony’s creator, Ian McEwan. Bearing witness to unbearable truth is a step toward reconciliation.

In the story she tells, Briony is not forgiven. But as she stands alone, confessing and begging forgiveness, we forgive her, even if the characters within the story do not. Later, we discover that the scene of confession has never actually occurred except in the story Briony is telling. Her own lack of courage has prevented her—and circumstances thwart a happy ending. So what difference has her story made?

By the end of Atonement, McEwan has applied this question to fiction itself: What difference does a story make in relation to injustice, atonement, forgiveness, and love? As Briony asks herself at the end of her life: “How can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. . . .No atonement for God, or novelists . . . .

See you all on Thursday —






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Some Final Thoughts on Rumi





I hope you  all enjoyed our class last week. I’m especially grateful to Ali and Audrey Masalehdan for volunteering to read to us, both in English and Farsi. I think we could create an entire discussion series around Rumi and Middle Eastern poets — what do you think? 

The next time you’re at CLP-Main, stop and see the display I’ve created for our Love, Forgiveness, and Wisdom series. I’ve selected titles that reflect the theme of forgiveness. In fact, as I was searching for these books in the library catalog, I found 37 books with the subject heading “Forgiveness–Fiction,”  but a whopping 345 books with the subject heading “Revenge–Fiction” — I’d say our culture has a definite point of view on these two options!

I also found a book recently added to our collection. Rumi: The Fire of Love  by Nahal Tajadod — it’s a fictional account of the life of Rumi, exploring his relationship with Shams of Tabriz.

NEXT POST: Atonement: The Essay

Until next time,



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I hope you are all enjoying The Essential Rumi. Although we’re only going to be discussing Section 8: Being a Lover (pp. 100-109 in the Barks’ translation), I’m sure you’re finding that it’s difficult to stop reading his poems — images3each one is a small gem, and as I  get into the rhythm of the words, I find myself in a sort of  meditation. In this busy world, and with all the terrible financial news washing over us every day, it’s been lovely to spend a few moments each day with Rumi.

Heather will begin this week’s meeting with another of her wonderful “talks” — I don’t want to use the word lecture because that sounds a bit stuffy,  and Heather always encourages us to join right in. I’m happy to announce that we will also have  a special guest joining us this Thursday night. Ali Masalehdan will be reading the poetry for us in Farsi. His wife, Audrey (one of our members), will read the same poems in English.

And now, here’s what Dr. Betty Sue Flowers has to say about The Essential Rumi:

The Essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks

Section 8: Being a Lover


Coleman Barks’ introduction tells the story of the 13th-century Afghan poet Rumi and Rumi’s deep love for his friend, Shams. After Shams dies, other friends become the focus for the practice of the ecstatic love that informs almost all of Rumi’s poetry.

Like the verses in the biblical Song of Songs, Rumi’s poems appear on the surface to be deeply romantic expressions of love directed toward a Beloved who can be seen and touched. But on another level, these poems are addressed to the unseen “Source” or “Sun” that the Lover is led to see through the experience of loving.

Almost any of the poems can be explored in terms of the way they function as windows into these unseen and larger dimensions of life. A glimpse of the poems in Section 8, for example, gives us a sense of what these windows reveal. The fact that any of the 27 sections would have offered a similar glimpse is an indication of the richness that The Essential Rumi offers.


The Sunrise Ruby

When the Beloved asks the Lover, “Do you love me or yourself more?” the Lover answers that there is no “me” anymore. The Lover is like a ruby held up to the sunrise through which the sun shines so that the sun and the ruby are one. Developing the capacity to allow the sun to shine through the self requires “a daily practice,” which operates like a knock on a door. “Keep knocking, and the joy inside / will eventually open a window / and look out to see who’s there.”

Getting rid of the “me” or the selfish ego is a goal that many religions put forward. Even though the paths to that goal may vary from religion to religion, the wisdom traditions within each usually present the achievement of that goal as a form of ecstasy, or bliss.


Water from Your Spring

“The form of our love / is not a created form.” The deep spiritual love of the wisdom traditions is often compared to water—living water—that the Beloved offers the Lover. Like water from a spring, the spiritual water of love is renewed and flows freely.


You Sweep the Floor

Like someone sweeping a floor, “the lord of beauty enters the soul” and sweeps away obstructions to our seeing what something truly is. In that clarity, the strength of the heart can take us to the point of wisdom, even when the Beloved is no longer with us. “You live where Shams lives, / because your heart-donkey was strong enough / to take you there.”


Each Note

Paradoxically, the practice of love results in a kind of radical freedom that leads to both unpredictability and originality. As Rumi puts it, “Don’t try to figure / what those lost inside love / will do next!” And later, with emphasis: “Be your note. / I’ll show you how it’s enough.”


Granite and Wineglass

The Lover coming into contact with the Beloved is like a wineglass coming into contact with the reality of granite. “You know what happens when we touch!” Presumably, the wineglass shatters, and “Love opens my chest.” Love is the contact that opens or breaks the self-centered ego. “Love / is the reality, and poetry is the drum / that calls us to that.”



“The sky is blue. The world is a blind man / squatting on the road.” When the self is broken or emptied of the ego, there is room for the possibility of a larger, more beautiful existence. We develop the capacity to see with different eyes. “To praise the sun is to praise your own eyes.”


Music Master

“We rarely hear the inward music, / but we’re all dancing to it nevertheless, / directed by the one who teaches us, / the pure joy of the sun, / our music master.”

The poetry of wisdom and love is threaded with the image of the sun as the source of life and joy. One of the masterpieces of Western literature, Dante’s The Divine Comedy, ends with the line, “The Love that move the sun and the other stars.” Like Rumi, Dante is inspired to go on a spiritual journey by falling in love. Even though, like Shams, the Beloved dies, the heart that has been broken open by love moves from dependence on the physical presence of the Beloved to a spiritual understanding of the larger source of life (the sun) and the Love that the sun represents.


Someone Digging in the Ground

“An eye is meant to see things. / The soul is here for its own joy.”


The Phrasing Must Change

When Zuleikha lets “everything be the name of Joseph,” her Beloved, then the whole world is transformed, and miracles occur. “The miracle Jesus did by being the name of God / Zuleikha felt in the name of Joseph.” Love is the principle of transformation through which the daily water of life can become the ecstatic wine of a wedding.


The Guest House

“This being human is a guest house. / Every morning a new arrival.” Through love, we “welcome and entertain them all!”—even depression or shame or meanness. When the eyes through which we see the world have been transformed, we can “Be grateful for whoever comes, / because each has been sent / as a guide from beyond.”


In Rumi and in other wisdom literature, the principle of love is not something that lies outside us. “Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere. / They’re in each other all along.” That is why, when we look at forgiveness through the wisdom of love, we understand that “We are pain / and what cures pain, both.” We have the capacity within us to move beyond pain, through love, to joy.

* * * * * * * *

I know we’ll have lots to talk about on Thursday — until then,

Peace, Jane

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First of all, once again let me say THANK YOU to the students from Carnegie Mellon University’s Department of Drama for their spirited interpretation of Act V, Scene III of The Winter’s Tale last week. It’s amazing, isn’t it, how the language springs to life when we hear the words aloud and watch the faces of the actors?

I was left with more than a few questions after our discussion last Thursday night. I see the play as three plays in one: a tragedy, or at least the beginnings of one, in the manner of King Lear or Othello; second, a comedy complete with strange happenings in the woods; and finally, a romance with its compulsory happy ending. For this reason, The Winter’s Tale is one of the least performed of Shakespeare’s plays. But as Elouise pointed out to me last week, it’s the play’s inability to be easily described that gives it charm, and makes it most like the lives we lead.

Before I leave our discussion of the play, I want to share something with you that I found in my reading of last week’s New Yorker. Shakespeare lives!

NEXT POST: Dr. Betty Sue Flowers’ essay on The Essential Rumi.

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