:::this is the way the world ends:::

Atonement (The Book) and Other Books and Movies, and Ideas, etc.

1) I have read Atonement now. The book is different than the movie, the latter part being significantly different. I feel that it is more baffling than the movie too. I’m not sure what to make of it.

I feel that McEwan is making a statement about how certain behaviors can not be made right in life. To that I agree, one can not go back and change the decisions one has made, for better or worse we are bound by time; and I think in the most catholic sense, we can not atone for such choices. But in a larger sense, I feel that we can change. We learn from our mistakes, and we are changed by regret. I think there is something in this, maybe not equal to atonement, but very valuable nonetheless.

The ending of the book (radically more complex than the movie) confused me. SPOIILER ALERT: Briony’s character does not seem to be aware that her exposing of the rape and shaming others will not, in fact, bring about any kind of resolution or “atonement” for her own earlier actions. This is sad if nothing else.

But then, with the references to an author being like God and that there can be no atonement for God or authors because they can bend reality however they want to, I sort of lost him and what he was trying to say about life or fiction or atonement. The book certainly leaves your thoughts running in circles as to what fiction is and what a story is.

2) I also recently finished John Berger’s new book of essays. The essays are more political than many of his past and there is less about art. I think I prefer his book Shape of a Pocket. But I am glad to have read these new essays, especially a couple of them.

3) I am now in the middle of two books, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny by Robert Wright, and The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin Jr. (winner of the 1978 National Book Award), which is a fantasy influneced by Chaucer, Milton, and other cultural fables and myths.

As far as the Wright book goes I still think, as I did with the Moral Animal, that he takes too long developing his arguments, but I am enjoying it. It is interesting that he brings up some ideas of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the somewhat nonconventional Catholic monk/paleontologist/anthropologist who I happened to be reading when I was reading the Moral Animal. He focuses especially on de Chardin’s idea of society as a brain or organism and the more we unite and connect, the more we resemble the evolution of a complex organism. Maybe this simply prooves deChardin’s famous concept that “everything that rises, must converge.” Of course, he dismisses de Chardin’s mystical aspects. I appreciate the breadth of Wright’s writing, all of the sources he brings in.

I should have time to read this week (as Sara is leaving for a weekend with her sisters) but not much, since I need to be painting my ass off.

4) Next on my list is River of Shadows by Rebecca Solnit, just in case anybody actually reads this far into my post.

5) I also read an interesting article about Dark Energy and Dark Matter in the New York Times on Tuesday.

6) And it looks like it is shaping up to be Obama. Hope he picks a good running partner.

7) I saw the Golden Compass. The actress they chose for Lyra was great, but the movie actually felt lighter, less dark and less urgent than the book. It will be interesting to see if they make the next two.

8) I also managed to see Prince Caspian, which I thoroughly enjoyed. There is a scene where they attack Prince Miraz’s castle that is really visually rich and seems to spell out a subtle lesson of pre-emptive warfare that is relevant to our times. The movie is perhaps almost embarrassingly satisfying, but maybe I didn’t mind that so much in this instance. I was happy just having fun.

9) Of course, I felt a little guilty. Eliot and I are reading the Narnia series together, and he has been swinging a sword and shield I made for him for a costume party, pretending to be Peter the knight. So when he discovered I had seen the movie, he was full of questions about Peter… and about when he gets to see it…

10) Just thought this post was long enough to constitute ten items.


  1. Pete

    We watched atonement last night. I enjoyed it and came away with a slightly different take on the message. Usually, when watching movies I prefer a more experiential approach on first watching, but having read your blog the other day, I was aware of the metaphores within. I felt the message, in the end, was more of a rhetorical question – who is atonement really for- the person wronged, or the person who has wronged. The tresspasser or those who trespass against us? I felt Briony’s character in some ways was almost more to be pitied than hated which it sort of felt like she was being set up to do. Of course, her rigidness and zealousness may have been part how she was remembering herself- kind of a defense mechanism to put distance between who she is now and who she was when she made the claims she made. It also may be a statement about the vulnerabilities we all share- ignorance of youth. I agree with what you said about certain things being things we can’t atone for. Perhaps the message may well be about the acceptance that we don’t always have the awareness or opportunity to make things right. Briony missed her opportunity with the early deaths, and it haunted her. I felt the movie did a good job of bringing the internal struggles she was facing, the soul-searching she was doing when she kept them alive in her book to have some of the conversations which were pretty clearly internal dialogue such as the conversation she has with Robert about how old she was at the time and whether she was old enough to know right from wrong. Seems like an aweful curse to go through life with. If I had more time, I would consider the book. Sounds like it was a pretty good read, too.

  2. Ned

    I finished “The Book of the Dun Cow”. It is good and I recommend it for a fable or fantasy.

    I’m also really enjoying the Robert Wright (slower going), and I suppose I can thank J. E. for that.

  3. J.E.

    Ned: I suppose you’re welcome. Sounds like the Wright book is great but must admit I’m in a more Dun Cow mood at the moment.

    I’m not getting as much reading dun so far this summer. I did read a small book about Jan Steen’s painting, “The Burgher of Delft.” I saw another work by Jan Steen at the Nelson (with Toby) and it grabbed me in the same way that a Pieter Brueghel (the younger) work did at the Royal Ontario Museum several years ago. There is something about those Dutch painters…. Perhaps it is in my blood — some cultural meme that the Mennonites carried with them and has made it’s way, however diluted, to me. I like to think so.

  4. Ned

    No problem with being in a “Dun” mood more than a Wright mood. I just thought I’d report on what I’m reading.

    I like the Dutch too. There are usually keen observations of human nature and on culture coupled with high craftsmanship. A dynamic combination. I never really liked Vermeer until I saw one in person and it astounded me. I appreciated Lawrence Weschler’s essay, “Vermeer in Bosina”. I saw a very large Vermeer show at the Met and also a Pieter Brueghel show there while I was living in NY.

    A former Illustration professor here at UWEC did a kid’s book on Brueghel’s trek from the North to Italy and back again. It’s very well done, and he took the trip himself too.

  5. Ned

    I remember being a guard at the Nelson. For some reason, I got posted in the American wing a lot. There is a large George Inness painting there of a woman on a farm. The rust colors with subtle hints of blue applied in his later scumbled glazes are phenomenal to me. I used to stare at that painting, literally, for hours to study it. He was dutch/american. Next time you are there you should try to locate it and see what you think.

  6. Ned

    The name of the painting is “Old Farm, Montclair”. It can be viewed (in a slightly greener version) on the Nelson website. Inness lived in Montclair New Jersey, where they have a small museum with several very nice paintings of his later period. My friend Adam lives very near there and so I have been to the museum twice. He’s certainly not internationally known, but in my opinion an often overlooked American gem.

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