Coins and Dice
and other symbols for your memento mori
That’s the worst thing about teaching, that our actions either have no force at all or have force beyond all intention, and not only our actions but our failures to act, gestures and words held back or unspoken, all we might have done and failed to do; and, more than this, that the consequences echo across years and silence, we can never really know what we’ve done.
--Garth Greenwell, “Mentor”
Welcome, creatures! It has been a while because I suck, but here we are once more, gathered around our festive capering Dragon.
First, I am reading two fantastic books. One is Amy Richlin’s Slave Theater in the Roman Republic: Plautus and Popular Comedy. Richlin is cultured, witty, fun, and kind of camp, as well as deeply committed to uncovering the places where oppressed people spoke in the ancient world. I love this book. The other is Garth Greenwell’s fiction collection Cleanness. I’ve read three of the stories so far, including a re-read of “Gospodar,” the story I talked about here; it’s still absolutely searing. I wish I had written it. There’s something in it that cuts to the heart in the way that David Carr’s addiction memoir did for me, where even though the specifics of our experiences are very different, there’s an emotional core where the narrator says things I also have felt, with just enough distance from me that I can see them more clearly than I can when they’re my own.
Fortunately My Camel Is Only 98th Percentile in Mass
I also finished Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD. I read this in the hopes that it would give me some guidance, as basically a wealthy layabout. And it did give me some things to think about w/r/t my own overpossessions, though no clear guidance. A large part of the book is dedicated to stripping the glamour from the great renunciations of, say, Melania the Younger and her husband. Brown shows greater sympathy for the model Augustine proposed to his people, in which you’re supposed to give slowly but steadily, with daily alms making amends for daily sin.
Historians often imply that this sort of thing is accommodationist or compromising, and in one sense it just obviously is—Brown sometimes seems to lose track of the fact that Jesus did actually say the words that inspired Melania, Paulinus of Nola and other bazillionaires to strip themselves. It is easy to see the slow-and-steady approach as, in James Agee’s words, “writing a few hundred pages housebreaking ten lionlike words from the New Testament.”
But Brown makes a few points here, some stronger than others. His weakest bit, imho!, is criticizing Melania’s decision to free almost (!) all of the people she held in slavery. He argues that she abdicated her responsibility to support them in the face of barbarian invasion, when they didn’t even want to be freed!!!, and on the one hand yeah, I’d absolutely believe that if your goal, as a rich lady, is to shed your wealth, you’ll disregard slaves’ material needs in favor of your own fancy spiritual ones. On the other hand… what evidence do we have, in whose words, that the slaves protested their manumission? Do slaves frequently do that in late Rome? (A lot of Richlin’s book is taken up with the deep yearning for freedom expressed in the comedies of, I admit, five full centuries earlier.) Is there a reason to think that specific claim isn’t the slavery equivalent of just reporting the police department’s press release? Lol Brown gets so into this argument that he ends up saying landowners needed to control their workers, which: from whose perspective?
That said, the slavery argument is a microcosm of the much more powerful overarching argument, which is that Melania simply converted her enormous wealth into enormous influence, like how matter doesn’t just go poof, it converts into energy. The denuded rich poured their wealth into supporting specific monasteries, which meant supporting specific theological positions, or building specific shrines, thus boosting the profile of specific saints. Unlike people who became literal monks, they shed their wealth on their own terms. And so what was intended as a stripping of wealth became a spectacular display of power.
I buy that and it’s hard to avoid. The slow-and-steady way allows your gifts to disappear in the mass of other normal-sized gifts. You don’t have that much more influence than the average person. You can’t stand out. And you can’t think you’re good; you can’t think you’re done. You have always the daily reminder of your sinfulness, in the pressure to give alms. I have many grateful, difficult memories of being in the middle of some bout with one of my various sordid sins and being asked for money or seeing someone in need whom I could help: It feels like being allowed, like being given the undeserved chance to serve someone.
I don’t have a decisive conclusion here, just some conflicting thoughts; which I suspect was partly Brown’s purpose, to shift the grounds of conflict from “integrity vs. hypocrisy” to “which of these things is really self-abasement?”
“Okay, roll two D6 to Confront the Misdeeds of Your Past. ...Ooh, that’s a miss.”
I’ve also been playing role-playing games, for the first time since Vampire: The Masquerade in high school. It’s been unexpectedly emotional! I started because I was thinking about weird ways to express some of the realities of gay, celibate Christian life, especially the spiritual realities, and I thought, maybe a game? (Working title, A Series of Sloughs.)
Of course once I started playing them I rapidly learned just how difficult that would be. I love gaming systems with mechanisms that shape the storytelling (I’ve played Urban Shadows, Masks, and Dread so far, and of those, Masks probably has my favorite mechanics), but it would be easy to push that idea in the wrong way and end up gamifying faith or even salvation. I think it would be possible, but with maybe a more guided approach, something like Bluebeard’s Bride but with a bright ecstasy and sublimity as one possibility, not just the horror of that game?
Anyway, in the games I’ve played so far I’ve been startled at how much they tap into my real emotions. Partly this is because I tend to create characters who are fairly close to my own personality, which I only did because I thought it might be easier to start out that way, but it means that I’m simultaneously a) quick to work out what they might do in unusual situations, and b) frequently ashamed of their choices! In one ongoing game I’m playing a teenager who is basically just teenage me with superpowers: intensely needy of the approval of certain favored people, intensely dismissive and unkind toward people she perceives as uncool. And I was startled by how easy it was to reopen that door in my head, to get back into those instincts of contempt. On the other hand, it did make me see the ways that my neediness had sometimes driven me to be kind, or to defend people, not for the best possible reasons but not in the worst possible ways.
I recently played Dread as a conflicted AI and I did in fact feel anxiety, guilt, and general lack of self-respect basically all the way through! Which are emotions I totally set myself up to tap into by the ways I conceived the character; and I made those character-creation decisions because I figured I’d be at home there. I had not thought too hard about what that home might feel like!
Interested to hear more stories about this stuff: games that allow you to work through things, or that expose something you didn’t necessarily want to deal with.
I spoke at Revoice, a conference for lgbt/same-sex attracted Christians with *~*a traditional sexual ethic*~*. This is what I said, much of which is the kind of thing I wish someone had said to me when I converted.
I also reviewed Mariam Petrosyan’s novel, The Gray House, a weird literary fantasy/mystery filled with existential questions and the folk culture of semiferal children.
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Snake eyes via Wikimedia Commons.