Circuitous Journeys: Modern Spiritual Autobiography

Circuitous Journeys: Modern Spiritual Autobiography

Copyright Date: 2000
Published by: Fordham University Press
Pages: 259
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    Circuitous Journeys: Modern Spiritual Autobiography
    Book Description:

    Circuitous Journeys: Modern Spiritual Autobiography provides a close reading and analysis of ten major life stories by twentieth-century leaders and thinkers from a variety of religious and cultural traditions: Mohandas Gandhi, Black Elk, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, C. S. Lewis, Malcolm X, Paul Cowan, Rigoberta Menchu, Dan Wakefield, and Nelson Mandela. The book uses approaches from literary criticism, developmental psychology (influenced by Erik Erikson, James Fowler, and Carol Gilligan), and spirituality (influenced by John S. Donne, Emile Griffin, Walter Conn, and Bernard Lonergan). Each text is read in the light of the autobiographical tradition begun by St. Augustine's Confessions, but with a focus on distinctively modern and post-modern transformations of the self-writing genre. The twentieth-century context of religious alienation, social autonomy, identity crises and politics, and the search for social justice is examined in each text.

    eISBN: 978-0-8232-4672-4
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  5. INTRODUCTION Circuitous Journeys: Modern Spiritual Autobiography
    (pp. 1-31)

    “A man’s work is nothing but a slow task to rediscover, through the detour of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.” These words of Albert Camus suggest the spark that ignites the narrative fire of modern religious autobiographies. In bringing their childhood to mind, each of the ten authors I will study follows a practice as old as Augustine’sConfessions: that of re-creating an intense childhood emotional experience from which emerges an image of an ultimate goal or ideal to be pursued with passion. In Augustine’s opening paragraph, he announces...

  6. 1 Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain
    (pp. 32-55)

    A half-century after its publication,The Seven Storey Mountainremains the most popular of Merton’s fifty books. Why is this life story, with all its youthful exaggerations, stylistic lapses, and revealing omissions, so readable?¹ I would suggest that Merton’s practice as a young novelist and poet helps to explain the power and popularity of his autobiography. The autobiography embodies in a rudimentary but sophisticated narrative Merton’s resolution of a profound personal crisis. In a later book,Conjecturesof aGuilty Bystander, he explains that “… a personal crisis is creative and salutory if one can accept the conflict and restore...

  7. 2 Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness
    (pp. 56-80)

    Dorothy Day tells us that the motif for her autobiography came in part from a letter her daughter sent telling about the loneliness of being a mother of small children (243). Day embodied the motif in the title and in the epigraph from Mary Ward, founder of a seventeenth-century order of nuns in England: “I think, dear child, the trouble and the long loneliness you hear me speak of is not far from me, which whensoever it is, happy success will follow” (iii). But the meaning of the phrase “the long loneliness” for Day did not limit itself to merely...

  8. 3 The Psychology of Conversion in G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis
    (pp. 81-101)

    “A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.” C. S. Lewis makes this remark inSurprised by Joy(191), just at the point where he describes his reading of Chesterton. At the time, Lewis was a nineteen-year-old second lieutenant in the British infantry recovering in 1917 from trench fever in a hospital at Le Trepart. Although Lewis disagreed with Chesterton’s essays at the time, he admits that the humor, paradox, and goodness of the author made “an immediate conquest.” In fact, the book led him to regard Chesterton as “the most...

  9. 4 The Dual Plot of Gandhi’s An Autobiography
    (pp. 102-136)

    The subtitle of Gandhi’s An Autobiography—“the Story of my experiments with Truth”—gives the reader a clue to why it is difficult to follow its plot. Written periodically during and after a prison term from 1921 to 1924, the narrative of Gandhi’s “experiments” appears episodic and disorganized, in part because it was composed as a series of newspaper columns to edify his followers.¹ Only Judith M. Brown, in her excellentGandhi: Prisoner of Hope, makes sense of the complex tensions in the development of Gandhi’s life and thought in a manner consistent with his own story. Yet even Brown...

  10. 5 Malcolm X and the Black Muslim Search for the Ultimate
    (pp. 137-161)

    The life of Malcolm X (1925–65) provides one of the most intriguing and prophetic stories of the search for ultimate meaning in the twentieth century. His life story and teachings, as expressed in his world-famous autobiography and his speeches and interviews, embody a range of experience as wide as any found in contemporary religious writers—Baptist Christianity, agnosticism and atheism, criminal hooliganism, Black Muslim ministry, and orthodox Islam. During his twelve years as a minster, he transformed the Nation of Islam, popularly called the “Black Muslims” in America, from a small sect into a large church. Even his break...

  11. 6 Black Elk Speaks: A Century Later
    (pp. 162-177)

    ReadingBlack Elk Speaksa century after its story ended at Wounded Knee raises issues quite different from those raised by other modern spiritual autobiographies. The primary problem for the reader is: what context to read it in? Some critics insist on placing the story solely within the historical culture of the 1890s, thus readingBlack Elk Speaksas another document (alongside Red Cloud’s speeches or letters from government agents) revealing the suppression of the Sioux culture by the American movement westward, expressed at its worst by the last episode of the book, the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890...

  12. 7 The Remaking of an American Jew: Paul Cowan’s An Orphan in History
    (pp. 178-196)

    Although called by aNew York Timesreviewer “beautiful and moving,” and applauded by a later critic as the greatest Jewish spiritual autobiography of the century, Paul Cowan’s story remains somewhat of an orphan in the history of recent autobiography. It is overshadowed, of course, by great first-person Jewish novels by Chaim Potok or Isaac Singer, which portray similar American religious struggles across the generations. It also appeared in 1982 in the wake of more sophisticated and sensational autobiographies by secular Jewish writers like Irving Howe, Norman Podhoretz, and Arthur Miller. As I shall notice, Cowan’s journalistic background and restrained...

  13. 8 I, Rigoberta Menchú: The Plotting of Liberation
    (pp. 197-214)

    Readers ofI, Rigobevrta Menchúhave been fascinated by the naïve intensity of the young Guatemalan woman’s faith and perseverence in the face of atrocities that destroyed her Indian family. But her storytelling, first audiotaped and then rearranged by Elizabeth Burgos-Debray, seems awkward and confusing. As an autobiography, it is clogged with extensive details of her tribal Quiché life and with repetitive expressions of her feelings. Like Neihardt’s structural framing of Black Elk’s story, Burgos-Debray’s version of Rigoberta Menchú’s life calls out for redaction and interpretation. While not excusing the obvious repetitions and ideological slanting of the editing, I find...

  14. 9 Dan Wakefield’s Returning
    (pp. 215-229)

    Although Paul Cowan’s autobiography includes most of the patterns of twentieth-century spiritual autobiographies, his story has a distinctively different tone from that of Merton, Day, or Lewis. No longer dominated by the “Wasteland” and Depression periods between the world wars, Cowan’s account takes for granted the post-1960s ruptures in Western society—the ongoing struggles for civil rights, the post-Vietnam distrust of military solutions, the alienation of youth, the exhaustion of the Cold War, the loosening of family ties and moral values, the assumptions of a large affluent middle class, and the pervasive reach of the media. Many of these traits...

  15. 10 Retraveling the Century: Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom
    (pp. 230-252)

    This final autobiography of the century has puzzled its readers. Published in 1994 to great acclaim, it reads like a mid-century spiritual journey with a structure similar to those we have seen in Merton or Malcolm X. Yet it lacks the periods of wandering and dramatic conversion of its predecessors. Its style is quiet, full of understatement, with a mixture of idealizations and realistic admissions of faults. The autobiographer begins with a youth full of spiritual influences and convictions, but gradually mutes the religious dimension as he travels the long political road. This shift in tone has led some reviewers...

    (pp. 253-256)

    What will be the future direction of spiritual autobiography? If we look only at the kaleidoscopic style of Wakefield’s new journalism, we realize that it reflects the loosely structured wanderings of Malcolm X, Paul Cowan, and other late twentieth-century seekers. The twists in the spiritual pilgrimage toward Mystery become for these writers so unpredictable as to raise questions about the future of religious autobiography. Is the era of classical spiritual journeys exhausted? Will future religious conversions be merely chapters in the plotting of a secular lifeline? Will the effects of the cultural fusions and confusions of the 1960s make the...

  17. INDEX
    (pp. 257-259)