1. The Gift of the Magi

    December 8, 2018 by Chris Motley

    I was raised by the patriarchy. Home, school, church, country club, sports, music, television, movies – patriarchy. The environment spewing it like a severed water main that no one bothers to patch. It is an intoxicant as well as a soporific, inspiring frantic violence as well as puerile complacency, arrested development. In these years we confront the stakes of this poisonous climate. We men are caught off guard, suddenly compelled to think about things we have never been challenged to consider in a deep way. You know, things like, equality, fairness, and justice, as well as tenderness, gentleness, loving care. Listening. 

    Growing up, one consistent refrain, a question: What do women want? Three and a half billion women in this world, one conglomerate “them.” The answer to this question from all sides first of all refused to think of women in their particularity. The men in my life had the daftness to try to answer the question at the level of the general. As a consequence each answer, though it resonated as wisdom at the time, now resonates as utter, willful, stupidity. And the basic assumption behind these answers – “they” want to be protected; “they” want material comfort; “they” want children – is that, ultimately, women are a mystery. Who knows what “they” really want? And all together the men throw up their hands, confirming together the unreasonable-ness, the moodiness, and, ultimately, the weakness of the women in their lives, even – no, especially – the women closest to them. 

    So when it comes to gift-giving, men resort to stereotypical thinking. Instead of actually knowing what the women in our lives want, we fall back on chivalry. We often assume that they want to be surprised with a gallant gesture, especially if it is expensive. We are taught this by Hollywood and advertisements for diamonds and luxury cars. 

    This is the logic that governs “The Gift of the Magi.” Each partner takes a gamble about the other’s desires, risking their already tenuous economic situation for that grand gesture. No one asks the question that no one in my life asked of the women close to us: What do you want? Not just for Christmas, but in your life. What do you like? What are you passionate about? What gets you out of bed in the morning? Who are you? Indeed, women are mysterious, in part because even those we live with will always remain a mystery, but more – people remain mysterious to us because we lack the will to be curious about their lives. What better gift can you give someone than to acknowledge her experience, to ask her about it, and to change yourself as a result? 

    At the conclusion of “The Gift of the Magi,” the narrator (whom we should regard as being a close stand-in for O. Henry himself) steps in with a public service announcement: 

    The magi, as you know, were wise men—wonderfully wise men—who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi. 

    The “wise men” who brought their gifts to this holy family, crouching in a cave, recovering from a harrowing birth, on the run from state murderers, no doubt had Joseph in mind. Allow me to honor your child with the most precious items from my lands. But don’t you imagine Mary saying, “What the f@*k am I supposed to do with this?” Sell it? That’s what you give me, something at best “bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication”? What does that phrase even mean? Men and their capital. It’s this masculine foolishness that O. Henry praises at the end of the story. Though he acknowledges the foolishness of this young couple’s decision-making – rooted as it is in a lack of communication – he nonetheless concludes in an almost Trump-esque tone: these are the wisest ones, the most wisest, believe me! 

    Maybe I’m a little cranky. But the stories we read instruct our consciousness. The kind of gallantry we see in this story, from both characters, yes, is nonetheless evidence of a patriarchal mindset. In lieu of the dogged work of relationship, there is instead the grand gesture, whereby a woman thinks it right to even alter her appearance for the sake of a little trinket. What would this story look like if re-written for our own time? 

  2. The Happy Prince

    by Chris Motley

    I have heard it said that when a person dies, all the love that her body carried is released, a kind of supernova. And I have heard it said that, in retrospect, our loved ones can often sense when their death is near, and they begin the shedding process. Leaving a love-trace in preparation for departure. 

    “The Happy Prince” is a nice little fable, easily read as a parable about excess wealth and an authentic desire to be charitable. But we must not forget that the prince is charitable unto death. In the philanthropy world, people say, “Give until it hurts.” But the prince does not feel pain; rather, for the first time he feels truly alive. 

    I have heard it say that poverty is not a problem to be solved, but a condition to be joined. This seems to be the prince’s motive. Notice how he is described by the Mayor and townspeople: 

    Early the next morning the Mayor was walking in the square below in company with the Town Councillors.  As they passed the column he looked up at the statue: “Dear me! how shabby the Happy Prince looks!” he said.

    “How shabby indeed!” cried the Town Councillors, who always agreed with the Mayor; and they went up to look at it.

    “The ruby has fallen out of his sword, his eyes are gone, and he is golden no longer,” said the Mayor in fact, “he is little better than a beggar!”

    “Little better than a beggar,” said the Town Councillors.

    The vast majority of us are not called to be charitable unto death. But throughout the history of religion and philosophy we encounter the idea of dying before death, dying multiple, metaphorical, deaths. The Happy Prince is charitable unto death, but only after the decision to lay down his previous self, literally shed his skin.

    But there is something else that Wilde is grappling with here. Wilde is associated with what we now call the Aestheticism Movement, which supported the philosophy that a work of art should be beautiful for beauty’s sake, and that a work of art should therefore not concern itself with social questions. Art need not be useful or beneficial. 

    Wilde’s aphorisms present this idea, in pieces, as aphorisms do. In the preparation document, a Mouse Team member wrote the comment, “It’s incredible how someone could be so right and so full of shit at the same time.” I want to say that these naive and rather stupidly sexist statements are either consciously ironic, or conversely a glimpse into earnest vulnerable thought. But reading some of his statements about the “purpose” of art, and the “purpose” of the poor, we return to “The Happy Prince,” which, upon review, seems to convey a sentiment opposed to the aestheticist position. The Prince is beautiful in himself, a monument to beauty. In time, this is not enough for him, as he gladly sheds his ornaments. He becomes “shabby,” a waste. He is disposed of like garbage at the end of the story. But in his moral awakening, is the prince’s death not beautiful? 

  3. At Christmas Time

    December 6, 2018 by Chris Motley

    Few words these days annoy me more than the word “craft.” We live in a time when we know many “creatives” who preach the gospel of “craft.” Work on your craft, develop your craft. Perhaps I am cranky. More people are going to graduate school for “creative writing” than ever before. A beautiful thing, I think. But these programs often, even those at the top like Iowa or Stanford, aim to produce work that is ready for market. The highest aspiration for a “program book” is the Times’ annual list, through which is determined the dozen or so books that everyone should be reading (or at least buying) this holiday season. These books are splashed with blurbs by the young author’s celebrity mentors, and they are heralded as a fresh and bold new “voice.” But as one critic put it (I paraphrase): these books often consist of three to five excellent memorable sentences, a somewhat predictable story, and not much else. 

    What am I trying to say? That so many of these books by young people – especially young white people, especially young white men – lack a vision. Their craft passes in lieu of art. Their books reek of careerism. And when you ask them whom they look to for inspiration, they, following their mentors, offer the seemingly most chic response around: Anton Chekhov, the quintessential “craftsman.” 

    Maybe I’m jealous. I admit it: I can’t finish the stories I write because I’m obsessed with “craft.” My own sentences make me want to vomit, and that kind of scrutiny is essential. And so these young kids are doing what I wish I could have done. They are capable of what I wish I was capable of. But when I taught “creative writing,” my one refrain to my (predominantly, overwhelmingly white) students was this: it’s got to have heart. You can have all the bells and whistles and quotable sentences you want, but without heart, you have nothing. 

    We come back to Chekhov. He’s a writer’s writer to be sure, for the tightness of his prose and plots. But it’s the heart of “At Christmas Time” that endures. In this series on “giving,” we have a story of withholding. If you are a certain age, perhaps this passage resonates:

    Since the time when her daughter had gone away with her husband much water had flowed into the sea, the old people had lived feeling bereaved, and sighed heavily at night as though they had buried their daughter. 

    We come from where we come from, and we leave what we leave. What is the experience of our parents, as they age? Have we honored them? How much has gone un-said, un-known, un-felt? I find myself feeling like Vasilisa, who realizes, “when she lay awake thinking at night…that she could not get all she had to say into a dozen letters.” 

    The terrors and terrorisms of marriage, which sever the ties that bind us parent-to-child, which sever us from our old happier less worried selves. Do we know Andrey Hrisanfitch, who so casually forgets to send his wife’s letters home? Of course we do. Small, brutal men. Around these men I myself feel like Yemifya, who “was very much frightened of him—oh, how frightened of him! She trembled and was reduced to terror by the sound of his steps, by the look in his eyes, and dared not utter a word in his presence.” But I too, become Andrey Hrisanfitch, when I neglect my wife’s experience and desires, with an obliviousness that borders on cruelty. My neglect is a product of a privilege ingrained in me from my earliest days, the privilege of not being required to care. 

    Yemifya understands that marriage can be a kind of bondage, and so her memories of home, the joy those memories inspire, are all the more tragic. What could be more important than one’s family? The vexing final line of the story seems to say: anything. In a man’s world, anything, anything at all, can become more important than family.

  4. The Heavenly Christmas Tree

    December 4, 2018 by Chris Motley

    Even if you possess but a modicum of knowledge about 19th-Century Russian literature, you still might recognize certain household names. In this series we have decided to collect works by arguably the three most famous: Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Each writer has a distinct style and set of preoccupations. Tolstoy is best known for War and Peace and Anna Karenina, sweeping multi-character dramas that aim to convey the totality of Russian society, culture, and spirit. Anton Chekhov was a provincial physician; his proximity to illness and poverty influenced his short stories, which many today regard as examples of some of the finest “craftmanship” in the genre. 

    And then there is Dostoevsky. My blandly stereotypical Dostoevsky story begins in my Sophomore year, when I would stay awake by lamplight into the early morning to finish The Brothers Karamazov. I wrote my undergraduate thesis about that book, and so Dostoevsky haunted me for the last year and a half of college, as a work of fiction helped to shape my religious imagination. I mark this experience as one that set me on the path to my profession today. 

    What made Dostoevsky so fascinating to me? He was not the only Russian author to write about the lowest people in society, and he was not the only Russian author to try to capture the “Russian Soul.” But what drew me to him we can see in the story in this collection, “The Heavenly Christmas Tree.” It has to do with style. Dostoevsky’s prose feels too urgent to think about “craft.” It feels frantic, breathless, full of desperate energy. 

    This fragment is drawn from A Writer’s Diary, a collection of notes and sketches. One sees these pieces as not necessarily falling under his full scrutiny. They are rough. But it is also a collection which exhibits some of his more fervent and extreme ideas. Dostoevsky, we must admit, was a rabid anti-Semite, and scholars turn to A Writer’s Diary to encounter the scope and depth of his vitriol. 

    And so I had a plan for this blog post, a plan to connect Dostoevsky’s frenetic prose to the motif of sudden, unexpected redemption, a vision of Christ who cares for poor children. This motif is certainly evident throughout Dostoevsky’s fiction. It is a motif that drew me to him as a young Catholic (despite his open resentment of Catholicism). But we live in a time when the dark sides of the writers we admire must be taken into account. I live in a time in my life when I can no longer sustain my nostalgia for Dostoevsky, or other racist, misogynist, homophobic writers I have enjoyed in the past. I just can’t. 

    So why include this piece in this series at all? We can think about the flaws in the work we are engaging in together at Mouse. Alongside the other stories by Tolstoy and Chekhov, “The Heavenly Christmas Tree” makes for a nice comparison and contrast. A neat, succinct, academic study of the motif of destitution and redemption. A good fit, no? I suppose all I am saying is that when I sat down to write this post about Dostoevsky’s vision of redemption, I couldn’t in good conscience finish it. As attracted as I am to the idea that poor hated children will have their due, I can not affirm that vision unless it is all-inclusive. And for Dostoevsky, all-inclusive it was not. What to do about that? I still don’t know. 

  5. Papa Panov’s Special Christmas

    November 27, 2018 by Chris Motley

    To think about Leo Tolstoy’s “Papa Panov’s Special Christmas,” I want to give you a passage from Emmanuel Carrere’s book The Kingdom, a hybrid memoir/history addressing the early days of Christianity. In this passage he ruminates on why none of the writers of the Gospels provide a physical description of Jesus. There could be many reasons, but he arrives at a deep one: 

    The most striking thing about [the stories in the Gospels of the resurrection of Jesus] is that no one recognizes him at first. At the tomb, he’s the gardener. On the road, a traveler. On the shore, a stranger who asks the fishermen, “Any bites?” It’s not him, and strangely, that’s what makes him recognizable. He’s what they had always wanted to see, hear, and touch, but not the way they thought they would see, hear, and touch him. He’s everyone, he’s no one. He’s the first to come along and the last to draw attention to himself. The very person he was talking about when he said this sentence that they must have remembered: “I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, in prison and you did not care for me.” Maybe they also remembered this striking statement, which was preserved not in the Gospels but in an apocryphal text: “Cleave the wood: I am there. Lift the stone, and you will find me there. Look at your brother: you see your God.” What if that’s why no one described his face? 

    Does this idea not fittingly describe Papa Panov’s epiphany at the conclusion of the story? Just like Jesus says in Matthew 25 (“I was hungry and you gave me food,” etc.), we encounter him everywhere, but especially in destitution. The act of caring for those who crossed Panov’s path is precisely the catalyst for his recognition. Jesus is saying, “You did it!” Notice the final lines: “A great peace and happiness seemed to fill the room, overflowing Papa Panov’s heart until he wanted to burst out singing and laughing and dancing with joy.” I imagine his joy as an echo of the joy of those who encountered Jesus risen from the dead. 

    Okay, all of it might be fable for you. What use do these stories have for non-Christians? They are almost offensive. Still, there is an invitation. I refer to yet another Catholic saint, in fact another Jesuit, Alphonsus Rodriguez. He was a Jesuit brother, not a full priest, and so his role around the school in Majorca where he worked was one of servitude.  In particular, he was the porter, the man who answered the door. Whenever someone would knock, he would announce, “I’m coming, Lord!” For Rodriguez, it didn’t even matter who was on the other side of the door; he knew that he was about to encounter a manifestation of the divine. 

    “Look at your brother: you see your God.” Wherever we are religiously, spiritually, psychologically, ideologically, we are called to give a precious gift to one another: to believe that when we encounter each other, we are encountering the divine. The divine does not reveal itself spontaneously on a whim. One has to know how to look. That is Panov’s lesson in this story. That was Rodriguez’ practice. It is our practice today. 

    But wait, what about the other story from Tolstoy in this collection, “A Russian Christmas Party?” This is an odd, meandering one, but it arrives by its conclusion at another iteration of this same theme. There is a prolonged meditation on the idea of disguises and masks, culminating in a gaze into a mirror and a made-up story about what Sonia saw. But I dwell on a topic raised in an earlier conversation at the party. The topic was metempsychosis, which was a Greek term to describe the migration of a soul from one body to another after death (Pythagoras, whom you may not have thought about since studying his Theorem in high school, was a firm believer in metempsychosis). The term is a close cousin to the more familiar concept of reincarnation. Okay, double back to Carrere. What is he describing, if not metempsychosis on steroids? The migration of one divine soul into the bodies of all people? And now observe the tale of Panov. And think of Sonia, who is actively experimenting with identity and narrative by the end of the story. Tolstoy is playing with this idea of migration and shared identity, and it remains one of the deepest metaphysical questions of our time. But the act of simply proceeding as if our bodies contain divinity within them can be enough to spark change, the kind of care that we are called to. 

  6. On Giving

    November 26, 2018 by Chris Motley

    At my Jesuit high school, my class said this prayer at least once per day, often several times per day. It goes like this:


    Teach me to be generous.

    Teach me to serve you as you deserve,

    To give and not to count the cost,

    To fight and not to heed the wounds,

    To toil and not to seek for rest,

    To labor and not to ask for any reward,

    Save that of knowing that I do your will. 

    The prayer is attributed to Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order. As he experienced his spiritual transformation, his habits were a bit, shall we say, extreme. If you know about certain Catholic saints, you can picture a familiar pattern of fasting, wandering, solitude, constant prayer. Ignatius spent several months living in a cave, growing out his hair and even his fingernails. He would eventually arrive in Paris, where the work that would define his legacy began. But this penchant for going all-in remained, evidenced in this prayer. 

    After high school, I could not say this prayer for ten years. I had realized my own penchant for extremity, and working and living at the edge of the extreme left me feeling exhausted and, most important, guilty. As a young person, I took my faith seriously, and I thought that taking faith seriously meant taking things like this literally. Anything less would be un-serious. There is a trick in the last line of the prayer. What does God want of us? Well, to give and not to count the cost, to fight, etc., etc., just as the prayer itself describes. That is how I know that I do God’s will – that I am giving. 

    I said this prayer again on my wedding day, a sort of reclaiming. It was my way of promising my wife my commitment. There is a story from the Gospels that connects. Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem, and he is teaching in the Temple: 

    Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.

    Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

    Did the woman give her last coins out of a sense of obligation? No – it is a gift freely given, and it is the most valuable because of the cost of it. The speaker of Ignatius’ prayer needs to be taught generosity; he is literally asking God to teach him. Here, the woman is the teacher. 

    She is a destitute woman, a widow. If there is a common theme among the stories in this Giving series, it is the presence of destitute women and children. What do they give? More – what has been taken from them? What is always taken from them? And what do they give, despite the cruelty of men? How do the women in our lives fight, and what wounds go heedless? How do they toil, and what rest is denied them? How do they labor, and what is their reward? Can we men serve them as they deserve?