The Matter with Morris

With one Giller prize under his belt, and a nomination for another, David Bergen’s star is high in the Canadian literary firmament. In this his latest book, the protagonist Morris Schutt, 51, works his way through something of a midlife crisis – a crisis of grief, really — precipitated by his son’s death in Afghanistan, for which he feels vaguely responsible. Morris is conflicted in many ways, not least of all that he was raised Mennonite (though “had shucked that off quite quickly”) and wishes he were Jewish. He sees “all of us…marching towards non-matter”; he needs “to understand how he could still grasp and hold on to the essence of his life.”

There’s not that much that happens (the critical event having occurred already), except for Morris’ inner questing, and the small steps he takes both backward and forward to respond to his situation. These acts, little more than gestures at the time, gather however, and seem both significant and hopeful by the end.

I have to say I was disappointed with the book at first. Something about the writing/characters wasn’t ringing true for me (and I don’t mean Bergen’s trademark spareness). Was it striving for affect without giving sufficient support for it? Perhaps I was comparing it to The Time in Between, which I’ve liked best of Bergen’s books so far. (I’ve not read The Retreat, the book just before this one.) But I can also say that by page 70 or so – page 76 to be precise – the book (or I?) had found its stride; found depth.

I was struck by a tiny recurring detail: Morris pulling a blanket up over someone (for example, over his letter writing friend Ursula, the prostitute Leah, his daughter Libby, and his father), tucking them in for sleep. It had a parental tenderness, but eventually I felt intimations of the undertaker as well.

Bergen insists he’s not Morris. There are certainly parallels between them, though, and Bergen admits he’s “pillaged” his own experiences for the novel. Those who know his Mennonite background and community, as I do, may find this adds layers of interest to the reading experience, and perhaps questions and some dissonance as well. I think it’s a book that needs — and provokes — further discussion, more than I’m able to give it at this time. But I’ll certainly be interested to hear from others who read the book.

“The rise of rhythm”

A fundamental shift has taken place in music over the last half-century, Christine Longhurst writes, in a viewpoint piece in the Nov. 16 Canadian Mennonite called “The rise of rhythm.”

Longhurst explains that music is made of three main elements: melody, harmony, and rhythm, and that western music throughout its history has seen a shift from one to the other of these. Now it seems, it’s rhythm’s turn. And it’s “not just a passing fad,” she says. Those who have grown up in the new musical environment — well, they feel at home in it. And, in terms of the church and its worship, “the increased focus on rhythm has changed the very nature of congregational singing in many churches.”

Longhurst goes on to say that this changes melodies, and makes congregational singing more dependent on instrumental accompaniment.

I found Longhurst’s analysis helpful — clarifying for me, in fact, what may be the underlying issue in the “worship wars” of so many churches, though, as she also says in her article, we often talk about contemporary worship music and its differences with earlier music in other terms. And I agree with her, that  if rhythm-based styles are the “soul music” of our culture, “adding some rhythm-based songs ” to our worship is “both an opportunity and an obligation.”

In our congregation, it’s not so such much “adding” as accepting the pretty much wholesale shift. I’ve noticed that pleas to include “hymns” usually result in rhythming-up some of the hymns of yesterday or selecting the upbeat, lighter, and sometimes sillier ones of the past, whose texts may be as vacuous as the texts of contemporary music ocasionally are. Which really has the effect of undercutting the argument.

Canadian Mennonite editor Dick Benner’s comments on Longhurst’s piece in his Nov. 16 editorial come out very much at the place I’m at: sadness over the loss of the voice, or better said, voices — in harmony — but recognizing a shift has taken place and definitely determined to keep open to that. (To be a nonresistant older person, in other words! And if I get really lonesome for the sound of the trained singing voice, I can always put on our record — a.k.a. a really big CD — of Peter Koslowsky singing German hymns, or some of the choir albums we own, which are gorgeous soul music for me.)

Bolivian Mennonite rape victims

One of the articles I’d hoped to pull together before leaving the MB Herald was that of the horrifying and bizarre situation in some of the Mennonite colonies of Bolivia. The news flashed around the world this summer (one example here, from The Guardian), about the eight men jailed arrested after being charged with drugging (via spray) entire households at night, then breaking in to rape the women while they slept.

We carried a short MCC release about it in the MB Herald, here. And that was all we did with it.

I’d been pushed into opening a file on it, at least, by some rounds of email correspondence with a man who worked with Low German/conservative Mennonite concerns in various ways for many years, who was greatly burdened following the news (which has continued to build, with some 12 or 13 men now in jail, reports of bribes and death threats, and many rumors as well), and who is finding the silence of the Mennonite press “deafening.”

“I expected an outpouring of concern from Mennonites everywhere,” he wrote, “but it didn’t happen.” He has been trying to rally interest, and hoping Mennonite Central Committee (which already has connections with Bolivian Mennonites) might be pressed to do more as our point agency there.

I won’t have time to do the piece and am turning the file of materials over to assistant editor K., who is willing to sort through what we’ve gathered and also make calls to some people who visited Bolivia recently. Today I finished going through 9 pages of excerpts from the Kurze Nachrichten, a German paper published in Mexico, which my “prod” above says is one of the better sources of information, and translating the salient points for K.

I feel I need more information, understanding, perspective. How far away these women seem, how foreign somehow, even though we share the name Mennonite. I agree that we need to be speaking up. But what do we say? And to whom do we say it?

[March 27, 2010: see update on this story, here.]