In PRISM's Book Bag: SPEAK WHAT WE FEEL by Frederick Buechner
reviewed by Rick Bonn
In SPEAK WHAT WE FEEL: NOT WHAT WE OUGHT TO SAY (HarperSanFrancisco, 2004), Frederick Buechner, author of more than 30 fiction and non-fiction works, tenderly traces the bleeding from life to page of four writers who have most influenced him. Turning from his own dark shadows, especially the suicide of his father 65 years ago, Buechner finds startling encouragement in their greatest works and suggests that "the profane is not always the antithesis of the sacred, but sometimes the bearer of it."
This very personal literary study argues that only in honestly facing our grief can life spring from death. That Buechner does so himself, and that he leads us to writers who do the same, is a great gift in these times when rhetoric is built on denial, slogan, and cliche. His book is both wrenching and uplifting and becomes more poignant with each new sadness in our own world.
In his essay on William Shakespeare's KING LEAR, Buechner concurs with the contention in the play's concluding words, that nothing is more crucial than for us to take the sadness of our times into account without equivocation or subterfuge; in other words, to speak the truth rather than what we think we ought to say.
Writing about the latter sonnets of Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, Buechner states that he faced "the worst of his darkness with almost unbearable honesty." In a "bent world where night is coming," Hopkins spoke of Christ broken, as in a bird's buckled flight. Under temptation's lure he wrote of baptism sparked by naked boys in a swimming hole. And out of crushing grief he proclaimed, "[L]et joy size / At God knows when to God knows what."
In his meditations on Mark Twain's THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN, Buechner points out that the American author and humorist was surrounded by death. As a youth he witnessed two murders; three of his siblings died later; and his daughter died in adulthood. Though a world celebrity, Twain knew his white suit was "full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness." And yet, says Buechner, speaking a truth that was simultaneously tragic and comic in HUCKLEBERRY FINN allowed Twain to avoid being swamped by loneliness and to pilot "a course around the darkness behind and ahead."
In his essay on G. K. Chesterton's detective fantasy THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY, Buechner cites the author's own recollections of the occult-darkened collegiate years when he "encountered horror, and managed to stare it down." Far from friends and family, he nearly went mad. But the writings of Walt Whitman and Robert Louis Stevenson preserved his life, holding the fort until gladness came again.
Bearing the weight of his own sadness and bleeding his own agony onto the page, Buechner shows us the sacred to be found in writers who spoke their loss. "Take heart," Buechner says, "even at the unlikeliest moments. Fear not. Be alive. Be merciful. Be human. And most unlikely of all: Even when you can't believe, even if you don't believe at all, even if you shy away at the sound of his name, be Christ."
Formerly a development director for Reel Spirituality at Fuller Seminary and national marketing director for Art Within, Rick is currently a freelancer writing about the intersection of faith and art.