Sister Wendy, Walker Percy & William Faulkner grapple with humans’ riven nature.

In the best works of art, be they visual or verbal, the artist’s relationship to the subject matter is passionate and complex.  All the artist’s skill and technique is focused by that passion and complexity.—Rachel Howard

Sister Wendy Beckett

[Sister Wendy Beckett, seer of art.]

Almost everyone consumes art in some form—it’s hard not to. Which means almost everyone has an opinion. Then there’s Sister Wendy. A nun who spends her days in silent, ego-less contemplation and prayer, the former English major emerges to take in the occasional art gallery. She has a gift, it turns out, for seeing deeply into paintings and their painters.

A seer of art, Sister Wendy illuminates the role of the critic in educating and inspiring others. And in serving as an artistic partner, effectively a co-creator.

In the YouTube clip above, Wendy discusses “Stanley Spencer, Self portrait with Patricia Preece,” 1936. She comments that the woman’s hair is “unconvincing” though her pubic hair is “lovely and fluffy.” So the novelty effect here is high, but Wendy is no joke. She focuses on how “his art understands—he doesn’t understand,” and she leaves “Feeling vaguely unsatisfied, though I’m not sure why I should be.”

Wendy intuits and appreciates the artist’s effort. At the same time, she is so sensitive that she senses and analyzes where he may have in some way failed. She is positive even in this. What she is saying is Art is a handmade thing and never perfect. I think we love any work of art for its perfection but also for its heightened quality, its attempt at perfection. Art is handmade and there will be flaws. Perhaps the critic must help her audience see places that might be uneven, especially if they’re either a fault of soul or the dark side of a virtue.

I love sister Wendy. She shows how creative criticism can be. Her ability to receive and to feel is amazing and inspiring. Watch the video above!

Ernest Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa seen anew

Hemingway-Green Hills of Africa

Speaking of insight into art, there’s a thrilling retrospective consideration of Ernest Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa memoir in the current New Yorker, “Hemingway as the Godfather of Long Form,” by Richard Brody. I read everything by and about Hemingway when I was a teenager, really studied him and his aesthetic. In middle age, I turned against him for the egomaniac blowhard he became, and which I feel hurt his art. Yet there was perfection in his early stories. And the first chapter of A Farewell to Arms—only two pages—is heartbreakingly lovely.

Brody’s piece helps me separate some of the distressing content in Green Hills of Africa from what he was trying to do in terms of advanced literary technique. So here is another instance where a critic can help an audience see and reconsider an artist.

I thought another recent masterpiece of critical insight in the New Yorker was Adam Gropnik’s review of Harper Lee’s new novel, Go Set a Watchman.

Walker Percy on estrangement


[Clarity is hard—”Signpost #2″ by Eli Helman.]

And speaking of insightful Catholics, one of my favorite writers is Walker Percy. Walter Isaacson discusses him brilliantly in “Walker Percy’s Theory of Hurricanes,” part of the recent New York Times Sunday Book Review’s reconsideration of Hurricane Katrina and its effects. The upshot appears to be that people who went through the harrowing experience of Katrinia in New Orleans remain closer, or at least less estranged from each other.

Isaacson writes about Percy’s observation that most people become happy when a hurricane threatens. Here Isaacson explores Percy’s portrayal of it in one of my favorite novels, The Last Gentleman (discussed), in which protagonist Will Barrett weathers a hurricane with a girl named Midge:

Driving through Connecticut, they are caught in a Northeastern hurricane and seek shelter at a diner. When the wind breaks a window, they help the counter attendant board it up. “Midge and the counterman,” Percy writes, “were very happy. The hurricane blew away the sad, noxious particles which befoul the sorrowful old Eastern sky and Midge no longer felt obliged to keep her face stiff. They were able to talk. It was best of all when the hurricane’s eye came with its so-called ominous stillness. It was not ominous. Everything was yellow and still and charged up with value.

Percy is so good on this matter of estrangement—man from himself and from others. I am not sure he ever got completely at the cause of the malaise. But he accurately diagnosed the condition and implied the cure: connection. A true conundrum of the egoistic self vs. the group. Since I see religion as about community and God as arising in connection, his work always resonates for me.

There’s that feature in The New York Times Book Review where they ask writers what three literary heroes they’d like to resurrect for dinner-table talk. Walker Percy is on my list—he’d be kinder and more fun than his Catholic compatriot Flannery O’Connor for sure. Virginia Woolf has to be there—Lord what a sensibility. And probably William Faulkner—veiled though he might be. On second thought, Eudora Welty? She’s so warm and recognizably normal.

Anyway, the South would be well represented. America’s Ireland, after all, that likewise hurt plenty into poetry. Speaking of that, W.B. Yeats and James Joyce are obvious options for my list, but I fear they’d just come off bat-shit crazy.

William Faulkner on connection

Might as well drag in Bill Faulkner. In my favorite Faulkner novel, the almost-endless Light in August, he portrays the disgraced Rev. Gail Hightower listening to nearby music emanating from his former church:

Sunday evening prayer meeting. It seemed to him always that at that hour man approaches nearest of all to God, nearer than at any other hour of all the seven days. Then alone, of all church gatherings, is there something of that peace which is the promise and the end of the church. The mind and the heart purged then, if it is ever to be; the week and its whatever disasters finished and summed and expiated by the stern and formal fury of the morning service; the next week and its whatever disasters not yet born, the heart quiet now for a little while beneath the cool soft blowing of faith and hope.

Spencer self portrait painting2

[“Stanley Spencer, Self portrait with Patricia Preece,” 1936.]


  • Hi, Richard. I’ve often wondered when Sister Wendy would get her deserved commendation, and to find her here grouped with others who love art is wonderful. I am not surprised to find out that she started out in English, because her narrations on PBS have that “feel” about them, that storytelling feel that only comes when one is first entranced by the pictures that story makes in one’s mind. We enjoy listening to her every time we see her, though for us her appearances are far too infrequent. Thanks.

  • Richard says:

    I am not surprised you are one of her followers, Victoria! Good to hear from you.

  • I’d never heard of Sister Wendy, but now I want more. Thanks, Richard.

  • shirleyhs says:

    So good to see your words here again, Richard. Hope you’ve had a wonderful summer. I loved the video and think Sister Wendy deserves sainthood. “Art and religion are one,” said Willa Cather.

    Oh, do invite Eudora Welty to your imaginary table.

    Although it would be hard to unseat any of your others. Thanks for the final quote from Bill Faulkner. I blew right past that one as an undergrad.

    • Richard says:

      Yes, I find myself wondering if I actually read the whole book as an undergrad. Can’t blame myself if I didn’t, as Light in August is interminable, but passages like that one are really rewarding to me now. If I read it then, it wasn’t the kind of insight that struck me as amazing, I guess.

  • dclaud says:

    I picked up Light in August on your recommendation and was swept away by it. Its world intruded into mine, which is what really good books should do. Thanks. It’s prompted me to reread Faulkner.

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