In early Chinese thought, heaven was considered "round" and earth "square." Westerners from St. Anselm to Kant taught that round and square are opposites. I will explore the connections between east and west (round and square) in a blog that takes seriously the little details of our lives. Round and square; east and west—never the twain shall meet (it has been said). Except when they do, and that is the whole point of this blog.
From Round to Square (and back)
For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project: http://magazine.beloit.edu/?story_id=240813&issue_id=240610
A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again). *Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.
I have already written on Round and Square about the exquisite pair of novels by the literary craftsman Evan Connell, Mrs. Bridge (1959) and Mr. Bridge (1969). In my determination not to "spoil" endings for readers who might be intrigued by these postings, I have chosen carefully which conclusions to highlight. In this case, the final vignette in Mr. Bridge should only pique your curiosity about a character so stiff, so buttoned-down, so de rigueur that he reflects with mild disdain on things such as communal harmony and joy. The cover illustration from one version of the book will show you every bit as much (above).
I should not have to point this out, but shall do so anyway. Lest this be interpreted as a kind of "attack" on religion, think again. Please. Rather, notice the mastery with which the author weaves a concluding portrayal of Mr. Bridge both acceding to and fighting the expectations of society. And notice his disdain for others—most others. The confines of church and social expectations are not the subject, but rather the field within which Evan Connell spins his witheringly evocative portrait of Walter Bridge.
By the way, I will say clearly here that the only way to enjoy the conclusion to Mrs. Bridge is to read from the beginning all of the way to the end. That is a perfect ending that I would not think to spoil. Just read the whole book.
So, spoiler alerts aside (no worries), let's have a look at the finely crafted conclusion of Mr. Bridge. It is one of those exquisite pieces of writing in which the conclusion makes the reader want to start right over again and plumb further the depths of Mr. Bridge's character. Let me add that Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward produced such fine Bridges in the 1991 film (Mr. and Mrs. Bridge) that it forms, to my mind, a crowning punctuation to their distinguished careers.
Every few months, acceding to the wishes of his wife, he found himself in church. Usually he agreed to go on Easter because that day seemed appropriate, once around Christmas, and once or twice more during the year whenever she became insistent. In church he behaved nearly as she hoped he would. He waited inexpressively through the sermon, held the hymnal, and more or less pretended to sing along with her, contributed a dollar when the plate came down the pew, and lowered his head enough to remain inconspicuous when Dr. Foster summoned the congregation to prayer—although he refused to shut his eyes. And he often consulted his watch, as though by this he could bring forth the welcome notes of the recessional.
He attended church on these occasions partly because he had no wish to attract attention by abstaining completely, but principally because she wanted him to. She needed him there not merely to demonstrate for the benefit of the neighborhood that her husband was not atheistic, but as actual bodily insurance against possible recriminations by God for such sins as he may have committed. In her heart she did believe God existed—He was a bit larger than a normal man, perhaps seven feet tall with a shaggy white beard untainted by cigar smoke, who dressed in a sort of nightgown similar to the one He wore on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
So it was that on a crisp, snowy, Sunday morning just before Christmas they were lodged in the front row of the balcony of the tidy little Congregational Church. Dr. Foster was hard at work and Mrs. Bridge listened attentively. Mr. Bridge was thinking about other things while he waited for the end of the service. The air in the balcony was stale and his head felt congested, but he did not like to sit on the main floor where he was obliged to look up at the minister. He scratched his ankle and thought of how much he would rather be at home in front of the fireplace with the Sunday paper.
He sighted, louder than he intended. He blinked, yawned, and looked around. There was not much to look at. Everything about the church was passionless. He remembered Chartres—the chill, somberly echoing nave, the stone effigies, the ominous shadows and crude colored-glass windows. The Congregational Church was bland, as innocuous as the man in the pulpit. This was a different kind of religion. It was more comfortable, and the minister's sermon was no doubt more comforting than the stark admonition of the Middle Ages. Here on never heard a warning from the man in the black robe. Here was no funereal sculpture in the niches, no blood-red windows. It was all quite pleasant.
He considered Dr. Foster discoursing on biblical events and wondered how a man could retain such innocence through the vicissitudes of life. It was as though the minister never worried or doubted. He resembled a stout, pompous little druggist, the sixty-year-old face as vacant as a melon—a trifle sleek and epicine, almost shiny. Time was not darkening or blemishing the surface of the man, nor had years disturbed the liquid flow of his faith. Imperturbably he stood in his pulpit and perpetuated a vision suitable for children. He stood so securely and lectured with such powerless conviction because he knew nothing else. He was truly a virtuous man, if not truly good.
It was time once again to sing.
Mr. Bridge go to his feel reluctantly. He opened the book and held it for his wife, who sang in a pure, slender tone. The congregation sang "Joy to the World," and he sang a few phrases because he enjoyed the Christmas carols.
Yet while he was singing he reflected on the word "joy"—the archaic sound of this odd word, and its meaning. He reflected that he had occasionally heard people use this word. Evidently they had experienced joy, or believed that they had experienced it. He asked himself if he ever had known it. If so, he could not remember. But he thought he must have known it because he understood the connotation, which would be impossible without having experienced it. However, if he had once known joy it must have been a long time ago. Satisfaction, yes, and pleasure of several sorts, and pride, and possibly a feeling which might be called "rejoicing" after some serious worry or problem had been resolved. There are many such feelings, but none of them should be called "joy." He remembered enthusiasm, hope, and a kind of jubilation or exultation. Cheerfulness, yes, and joviality, and the brief gratification of sex. Gladness, too, fullness of heart, appreciation, and many other emotions. But not joy. No, that belonged to simpler minds.