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Religion Scholar Karen Armstrong, 'Climb Out of Darkness'

When Karen Armstrong left the Roman Catholic Convent where she was a nun in 1969, she entered a world vastly different from the one she abandoned 7 years earlier. She had no idea what was going on in Vietnam and had little idea who The Beatles were. Her memoir, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness about her life in the convent and the spiritual quest that followed has just been published in paperback. Her other books include The Battle for God and A History of God.

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Other segments from the episode on March 18, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 18, 2005: Interview with Karen Armstrong; Review of Valery Gergiev's recordings of Shostakovich's fourth, fifth, seventh and ninth symphonies; Review of the film …

Transcript

DATE March 18, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Karen Armstrong discusses her life in a convent and
re-entering the secular world in 1969
DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Karen Armstrong has become famous for her books about the religions of the
world. She's written about fundamentalism, Islam and the life of the Buddha.
She also wrote the best-seller "A History of God." But before she became a
scholar of religion, she was a nun. She entered the convent as an idealistic
17-year-old and left seven years later in 1969 after suffering a mild
breakdown, feeling she had failed to find God.

The world she entered in 1969 couldn't have been more different from her
sheltered life in the convent. While she was in the convent, many of her
contemporaries had formed hippie communes. While she learned restraint,
younger people were trying to free themselves of inhibitions, including sexual
ones.

Armstrong wrote about her re-entry into the secular world in her memoir "The
Spiral Staircase." It's a sequel of sorts to her first book, "Through the
Narrow Gate," a memoir about her life in the convent. "The Spiral Staircase"
has just come out in paperback. Terry Gross spoke with Karen Armstrong last
year.

TERRY GROSS, host:

It sounds like you entered the convent to find some form of spiritual
transformation and also to avoid the things that made you most uncomfortable
as a teen-ager or a young woman. Let's start with the things that made you
uncomfortable as a teen-ager that you hoped maybe to avoid by going into the
convent.

Ms. KAREN ARMSTRONG (Author, "The Spiral Staircase"): Well, I wasn't a very
successful teen-ager in the 1950s. I looked ridiculous in the fashions--the
sticking-out skirts, the pointed-toed shoes, the beehives. I was hopeless
with boys, bookish, shy, very shy in those days, and I felt I would be
socially inept, that I was--dreaded the social demands. Also I looked around
at the lives of women in the late 1950s, early '60s, and I saw them all
tweeling at washing, cooking and cleaning, chores that I detest to this day.
And the nuns seemed remarkably unencumbered. And I thought that they were
living lives of real meaning and that they had a sort of radical freedom, as I
thought, that I wanted to have, too.

GROSS: Now the convent was not what you expected. Your community was founded
in the 19th century. And you write that customs that made sense when the
convent was founded--when the community was founded--now seemed arbitrary and
unnatural, practices that had no intrinsic spiritual value but were cultural
relics of the Victorian age had acquired sacred significance. What are some
of those customs and practices that were very Victorian that you didn't think
really made any sense in the 1960s?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, we were being asked to become Victorian women. Our eyes
were always to be cast down, and I was always getting told off for looking
people boldly in the eye. But I'd always been taught to look people in the
face when you answer them, not sort of cast your head down humbly; always to
laugh in a restrained trill, not to speak too loudly; not to run. But more
important was, I think, the emotional frigidity of our lives. Victorian women
were not supposed to have strong feeling, and yet we were supposed to be iron
ladies of iron self-control. And so I think our life was very cold. We were
not supposed to have friendship. We were never allowed to have conversations
in a two. We always had to wait until a third person came along before we
could talk. We had to give all our love for God, and that often made us
rather cold and forbidding and unkind to one another.

GROSS: And where did obedience figure into your life in the convent?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Oh, obedience in our order was crucial. We had the rule of
St. Ignatius, who had been a soldier before he turned to the religious life,
and he'd wanted his Jesuits to be soldiers of God. And we, in our own way,
too, had to practice that kind of military obedience. Ours was not to wonder
why; ours was but to do and rabbet our superior as unflinchingly and
immediately as a soldier will obey his commanding officer.

The idea was, during our training, that we were supposed to divest ourselves
of our secular, practical, worldly ways of looking at things and embrace God's
way. And there was one occasion, for example, when my superior told me that I
had to practice at a sewing machine that didn't have a needle, and I sort of
sat there treadling this empty machine for a couple of weeks, telling myself
that this was the best way in which I could be using my time. And the idea
was to make you lose your own will and judgment and rely entirely on the will
and judgment of your superior, who stood in the place of God for you. And so
when we spoke to our superiors, we always knelt down at her feet to remind
ourselves that she wasn't just an ordinary boss or human being. She was God's
representative.

GROSS: Did you feel at war with yourself? Because, on the one hand, I'm sure
you believed that on some level obedience could be a discipline that would
lead to transcendence...

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes.

GROSS: ...putting something else above the petty desires and needs of your
personal ego, but at the same time you thought some of the things you were
being asked to obey were pointless and ridiculous.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes. There was constant conflict because--and I really did go
in for it. I really did try. But, of course, the thing is, too, you've got
to realize that we were entirely isolated from the world, so we had no--our
superiors' whims and desires and orders became our whole universe. We didn't
read the newspapers; we knew nothing about what was going on in the world. I
entered a few weeks before the Cuban Missile Crisis, when World War III seemed
about to break out, and they did tell us that we were in this danger of
imminent nuclear war. But then they forgot to tell us that the crisis was
over, and that...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ARMSTRONG: We had another three weeks of scanning the horizon anxiously
for mushroom clouds, until, finally, one of us had--we weren't ever supposed
to ask for news of the world, and finally one of us said, `What happened about
Cuba?' And they said, `Oh, we forgot to tell you, it's all over.' So we were
so isolated. When I left the convent in 1969, I'd scarcely heard of The
Beatles, and I'd certainly never heard of Vietnam.

GROSS: When you were in the convent, you started studying at Oxford
University, where you were taught to think critically and challenge all
assumptions. And then you'd have to go home to the convent, where you were
taught to be obedient and never challenge. And it's impossible to reconcile
those two worlds, isn't it?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes, and I was feeling myself continually, in that first year
at Oxford, split apart because part of me was absolutely reveling and
luxuriating in the freedom to read books and read whatever I wanted, knowing
this was my job. It was just intoxicating to me. I loved it. And yet, on
the other hand, there was this deadly weight of disapproval if you sort of
wanted to try out your newly honed critical skills on the nuns at home because
we were supposed still to be obedient. And I wanted to stay. There was no
sense that I was yearning to escape. I was terrified of leaving, quite
terrified. And to leave seemed--even to think of leaving was like breaching a
taboo, it was so monumental and awful a step. But eventually, at the end of
that year, I had a breakdown. It was only a mild breakdown, but it became
quite clear to all of us, my superiors and myself, that I couldn't continue.

GROSS: What were the symptoms of the breakdown?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, I was constantly crying. I cried throughout my whole
religious life like a broken waterspout, I have to say. I just kept bursting
into tears. We were told that if we weren't finding life impossibly
difficult, we weren't trying hard enough. So they must have been delighted
with me because I never stopped crying.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ARMSTRONG: And I'm not a crier, really, in these days. But I think it
was a great strain. And we were all also convulsed with giggles, too. I
mean, one of us would start giggling at something utterly unremarkable, and
the whole lot of us--it would go like almost a disease, a contagion. We were
on the brink of real strain, I think. In that last year, too, I had fainting
attacks and, also, terrible nosebleeds and vomiting. And then finally I just
collapsed. I was supposed to be serving in the dining hall, and I just passed
out. And I cried and cried and cried and kept on saying, `I can't do it. I
can't do this.'

And they were wonderfully kind to me. They really were. They sort of saw
that something had gone badly wrong. And they wanted to do everything they
could to make me feel that I could take my time about deciding exactly what I
wanted to do without any pressure, and they put no pressure on me to stay,
though said that they would be very sad to lose me. We were all sad at the
end.

GROSS: Well, some of the physical problems that you described--the fainting
spells, the vomiting--some of this was like symptoms of what was later
diagnosed as epilepsy. But at the time...

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes.

GROSS: ...no one knew that that's what it was. And so you were diagnosed
with hysteria. It was considered to be a nervous reaction to your life.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes.

GROSS: Do you think, had you known that the problem was epilepsy, that you
might have stayed in the convent?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: No, I wouldn't have stayed because there was--another thing
that was eating away at me corrosively throughout my religious life was that I
was unable to pray, and that is obviously a drawback for a nun. I can now
concentrate on my work for hours at a time without even noticing the time
passing. But as soon as I would go into the convent chapel to begin my
meditation every morning, my mind would just go everywhere. And nobody else
seemed to have these difficulties, and I was waiting to encounter God, and I
never did. And the fact that I could not even keep my mind on my prayer for
more than two minutes at a time meant that my whole--it was a terrible secret
shame I hugged to myself because a nun's commitment is measured by the quality
of her prayer.

And I also harbored secret doubts about, you know, was there a God even? Who
could tell that Jesus had been God and man at the same time? And a nun who
had these kind of doubts could not be going to be a good nun. So there was
this despite--the epilepsy was an added problem; it became a monumental
problem once I'd left the convent. But I don't think that I would have
stayed.

GROSS: The doctor who did diagnose your epilepsy told you that a lot of
people who become religious have this form of epilepsy. It's temporal lobe
epilepsy.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes.

GROSS: Have you looked into that to see what the connection is?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes. I think that epilepsy of the temporal lobe does--it's
the seat, I believe, of the memory and many of the emotions. And so you are
living constantly on the brink of things. Dostoevsky suffered from it, and he
writes about it in his book called "The Idiot." When you're in convulsion,
your mind can sort of explode, and it looks as though you're seeing God. And
I've experienced that once or twice, but I knew this was only--by that time
the epilepsy had been diagnosed, and I knew this was only a neurological
thunderstorm. And the sense of evil and fear and terror I had would easily
have been seen as the devil or a demonic presence. So van Gogh had it, and
I think in some of his landscapes, with those tortured, writhing olive trees
or that brilliantly swirling, menacing, starry sky, you see a world slightly
out of kilter, slightly more intense.

Another thing that people with temporal lobe epilepsy tend to do is to write a
lot. I think of those big, fat volumes of Dostoevsky and van Gogh's letters
to his brothers, and I suppose my own books are--you know, a lot of people
keep diaries or write poems or obsessively chronicle their experience. But in
a prescientific age, some of those experiences could easily have been and
thought to be supernatural.

DAVIES: Karen Armstrong speaking with Terry Gross. She wrote the best-seller
"A History of God." Her memoir "The Spiral Staircase" about re-entering the
world after seven years as a nun is now out in paperback. We'll hear more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Let's return to Terry's interview with Karen Armstrong, a scholar of
religion who has written several best-selling books, including "A History of
God" and "Islam." Her memoir "The Spiral Staircase" is out in paperback.
It's about life when she came out of the convent and also about her life
inside the convent. She was there from 1962 to 1969.

GROSS: You came back into the world in 1969 at the height of the
counterculture. And, you know, the counterculture was, in part, about losing
inhibitions. It was about sexual freedom. You'd been raised in what you
describe as absolute physical restraint. What were some of the most baffling
new things going on in the world when you got out of the convent in 1969?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, there I was at my Oxford college surrounded by students
who were demonstrating their rage and protest with something called the
establishment or the system and, oh, carried placards and protesting. I mean,
I had been schooled in an institution where young people were subservient and
almost cravenly subservient. And the idea of voicing your disapproval in the
way that these young people were was astonishing to me because in pre-1960s,
we had been--young people were seen and not heard. These young people were
confident. They were clearly sexually involved. And in my days, before I
entered, before the contraceptive pill, sexual intercourse was a tremendously
dangerous and risky enterprise, not to mention a major mortal sin. And this
didn't seem to worry these young people at all. And they all wore these kind
of raggedy clothes or skirts right up to their thighs, and it was a sort of
carnival. And I had no notion what was going on.

And I remember going to my first party and hearing a song and trying to show
an interest and say, `Who are these people?' And everybody gaped at me and
said, `Well, The Beatles, of course.' And I'd never knowingly heard one of
their records, and I thought they were named after those little insects that
crawled around, and all that had to be explained. So while all this carnival
of joyous '60s exuberance was going on, I was looking on bewildered and also
sad because I just felt so appallingly sad about having left the convent and
having to relinquish that old dream and feeling a terrible sense of failure.

GROSS: It's interesting; you know, I've been talking to you for several years
now on FRESH AIR and I always think of you as so authoritative and having such
a kind of organized life and reading about your life and the problems that you
had and the failures that you had early on with your dissertation, which for
very complicated reasons wasn't accepted because of the guy who was your--who
was the judge of it. And, you know, you got fired from a teaching job.
Things were just like not working out. And it's understandable that, at the
time, you thought that nothing was ever going to work out for you. And then,
of all things, you started working on a TV documentary series for Channel 4 in
England about religion, and that's where you really learned that religion
scholarship was your calling. And some people might find it really
paradoxical that it was through television that you discovered the importance
of scholarship in your life, religion scholarship.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes, I mean, I'd never thought--by this time I'd--after a few
years of leaving the convent I gave up religion altogether. I wanted nothing
more to do with it. And I--if I saw people reading a religious book on a
train or something I felt quite sort of ill with horror at the thought of all
that awful stuff as I'd dismissed it. But then after a series, as you say, of
career disasters, I ended up in television, and found that I had--that I was
too--I did start making these skeptical television programs. They were--my
first programs were extremely skeptical. And that was very suitable for
London, which is a very secular city. Britain's a very secular country.
People look at religion with disdain.

And I did a documentary series on St. Paul, and yet, at the same time as I was
pointing out the evils of religion and the disorders of religion, which I
chronicled almost--it was cathartic for me to get all that off my chest, and
liberating. But also I found myself, much to my astonishment, being drawn,
through my study of St. Paul, to a much great affection for this pugnacious
apostle. And similarly with the other--I began to see that there had been a
lot in my religious background that was--had been very limited. I encountered
for the first time, when I was working in Jerusalem on this project on St.
Paul, Judaism and Islam, about which I knew nothing.

My religious horizons had been wholly Christian. And I began to find that
there were in these other Abrahamic traditions things and elements and visions
and ideals that I could really relate to. And so slowly, slowly--it was by
infinitesimal degrees--I began to see that there was more in religion than I'd
imagined and found myself gradually brought back through study, through
television initially, into a religious orbit again, and was beginning to look
increasingly, as the years went by, a little more favorably on it.

DAVIES: Karen Armstrong's memoir is called "The Spiral Staircase." It's now
out in paperback. She spoke with Terry Gross last year. We'll hear more of
their conversation in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this
is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

DAVIES: Coming up, we continue our conversation with religion scholar Karen
Armstrong about re-entering the secular world after seven years in the
convent. Also Lloyd Schwartz reviews new recordings conducted by Russian
composer Valery Gergiev. And David Edelstein reviews "Melinda and Melinda,"
the new Woody Allen film.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross.

Let's get back to Terry's interview with religion scholar Karen Armstrong.
Her books include the best-sellers "Islam" and "A History of God." Before
studying religion, Armstrong tried living the religious life. She entered a
convent as a teen-ager in 1962. After seven years, she decided she wasn't cut
out to be a nun. Armstrong's memoir about her time in the convent and her
re-entry into the world is now out in paperback. It's called "The Spiral
Staircase." Terry spoke with Armstrong last year.

GROSS: Where are you now in terms of being of a kind of practitioner or
believer? You know, would you use any words like, you know, faithful,
agnostic, atheist, whatever to describe yourself?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Well, I used to call myself a freelance monotheist, because I
studied all three of the monotheistic religions--Judaism, Christianity and
Islam--and could find not--I couldn't see any one of them as superior to any
of the others. I draw nourishment from all three. And I'm enthralled,
indeed, increasingly, by all three at their best. But that's not really--of
course, can't really say that anymore, because since then I've written about
the Buddha and was absolutely just delighted by his insights, and that
affected me profoundly, especially his emphasis on compassion in practice. He
was so sensible, the Buddha. But the Buddha was no theist.

And in recent years I've been studying the Hindu tradition and the Chinese
traditions, Confucianism and Taoism, so I would see myself perhaps a bit
eclectic. Sometimes I call myself a convalescent. I'm still sort of
recovering, I think. But the--increasingly, I see all these faiths at base
have so much in common. They are all so profoundly related, and that gives me
great heart because you see that your own tradition into which you were born
is not just a lonely idiosyncratic little quest, but part of a grand human
quest for meaning and significance over the centuries.

GROSS: So if studying religion is a quest for meaning, and if you see
religion itself as a quest for meaning, do you find yourself believing in the
existence of a god and, if so, what shape does that god have?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: No. I don't--I think belief--sorry to sound evasive, but I
think belief is a red herring. Quite early on in my studies I had the good
fortune to talk to a Jewish scholar friend of mine, Chaim Maccabee(ph), who's
also an author, and he told me the story of Rabbi Hillel, the older
contemporary of Jesus. And Hillel was approached by a group of pagans who
said that they would convert to Judaism if the rabbi would recite the whole of
the Torah while he stood on one leg. And Hillel stood on one leg and said,
`Do not do unto others as you would not have done unto you. That's the Torah.
The rest is commentary. Go and learn it.'

And I said to Chaim, `Well, what did he expect these pagans to believe?' And
he said, `Oh, easy to see you were brought up Christian.' You know, `We don't
care so much about belief.' But that is--that was a wonderful gift to me,
that moment, because I came to see that the golden rule is the essence of
religion. If you live in that way, you become--putting yourself on the back
burner, looking into your own heart, finding what grieves and pains you and
not inflicting that grief and pain on other people, `Do not do unto
others'--if we did this on a daily, hourly basis, we would be constantly
transcending ourselves, going beyond ourselves, and getting glimpses of a
sacred transcendent reality.

And I suppose I'm with the Buddha, with Confucius, and also with Hillel there
who won't go and just give a great discourse on the nature of the divine or
the sacred or the Tao or Nirvana. The Buddha always said these are improper
questions. He said: Behave in a certain way, live in a certain way, above
all by compassion, and then you will know that this exists. And I myself,
since I've been trying to live like that--and, in fact, it was my study that
helped me to come to this perception--have found a sense of joy and purpose
and enlargement of heart, though I'm by no means on some pinnacle. So I get
intimations of this. For me, the personal god didn't work. It...

GROSS: Wait, wait. When you say `personal god,' do you mean a god you have a
personal relationship with or a god that's embodied in some kind of personhood
that we could name, that has a shape...

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Yes.

GROSS: The latter?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: The latter, but I didn't--but I couldn't have a personal
relationship with God because of all these prayers, all my trying to talk to
him, and I didn't...

GROSS: Right.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: ...get it. I didn't do it. Now that's fine. Other
people--I'm not in the business of dismantling other people's faith. If the
personal god works for you and opens doors, then this is just wonderful and I
applaud it. The test is that it leads you to practical compassion, because
that's what all the world religions tell us. So I think--and after all, God
is--what we call God, what we call the divine or the sacred, is indescribable.
It is--it goes beyond our little theological systems. It is literally
transcendent. It is infinite and cannot therefore be defined, a word that
means `to set limits upon.' We can all only have these glimpses. But we can
know in our hearts a transcendence that changes us and that makes our life
worth living. The Buddhists would say that this transcendence is not
supernatural at all, you see. They'd say it was quite natural to humanity to
have this sense of wonder and awe and fulfillment that takes you beyond the
limitations of your mundane, secular self.

GROSS: As we record this interview, you have not yet seen Mel Gibson's movie
"The Passion of the Christ." How much was the suffering of Christ emphasized
in the convent?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Quite a bit. Quite a bit. And I--and so that's why I wonder
about it. We were always--we even looked at little movies ourselves. They're
rather primitive movies, lantern-slide movies, of the suffering of Christ.
And the message was `I did that.' You know? It was my sins that put you on
the cross. And even as a young child we were told this, and we were told
prayers: `Oh, my Jesus, I am the person who flogged you. I am the
person'--really, this is a heavy trip for an eight-year-old or even an
18-year-old. You know, you dismal, little peccadillos did this. And this
ruined my relationship with Christ, so even to this day I find it difficult to
think of Jesus without a sort of sinking feeling of dread, guilt, shame and
horror at what I apparently did. So I think that--so that's why I wonder
about this film.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Did you ever ask yourself, like, if you could redesign the
convent experience, what that experience might be like?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: I think it might be like what I have now, strangely enough,
because I often wryly think to myself that I am still a kind of nun in a way.
I live alone. I've never married. I spend my life writing, thinking,
speaking about God and religion and spirituality, entirely engrossed in this.
And I sometimes think that my early attempt to enter the religious life was an
early stab at the kind of existence that I have now but which wasn't available
for me then.

GROSS: You describe yourself in your book as a `failed heterosexual.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But it sounds like you live an almost monastic life in terms of that.
Is that something that you feel like you've renounced in some way, that you're
still almost--yeah.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: No, I've never been very popular with men, I have to say.
I've got a lot of men friends who love me dearly and I them. But I think that
at the time when people were--when I should have been finding a mate, I was
either struggling with my post-convent trauma or suffering from this
undiagnosed disease, which distorts your perceptions. Freud said that if you
are in pain, if you have toothache, you can't fall in love. And I think that
the pain is so overwhelming that that kind of relationship is impossible. And
I think at the time when I was supposed to be doing all that, when you're
biologically geared up to do all that, I was in too much psychic and physical
trouble.

Also, I wasn't used to men. And when I first--when I started sort of working
with them, I treated them as if they were ordinary people in my view, as
though they were women, and didn't realize that you had to treat them a bit
differently as a woman, and not--and sort of not tell them `Oh, you can't,
that that's not a good idea.' I remember saying that to one of my directors,
you know, `You can't have that idea. It's not right.' And he said, `All
right. Don't use this idea,' and stormed off in a great sulk. So I didn't
have that knack. I seemed inept at that knack with those winning ways that
men of my generation seemed to like. I think younger men, I think it's
probably a different matter. Also, men my age tend to be a bit big on
control. And I've worked so hard for my freedom that I don't want to have
somebody tell me what to do.

But then I ask myself, too, you know, I--well, I--was I--did I--was I pushed
into this solitude or did I jump? Because I think my solitude is, in a sense,
very much part of my work. I don't think I could have written so much or be
so involved in my work had I got family obligations. And so I think it might
have--my solitude, which I've often regretted and I've often felt isolated and
lonely, but I often think that perhaps, again, it was meant, that it had some
significance that I'm only just now perhaps beginning to understand.

GROSS: Well, we're out of time, but I'm just going to ask you--this is a
horrible thing to do--for a yes or no answer on this because we're so out of
time, but do you still feel uncomfortable in the world or do you feel like you
belong in the world now?

Ms. ARMSTRONG: I do belong in the world. But I'm still a bit of an
outsider, not married, writing about religion, living in a country that
doesn't approve of religion. And yet I have sort of--and, yet, too, my work
has brought me not only to the center of my life but also to the center of
people's concerns in this religiously troubled age. So, yes, I do belong to
the world now, more than I ever thought I would, though I've never entirely
fitted in. I'm still that--bit of that solitary nun.

GROSS: Karen Armstrong, thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: Thank you. Thank you.

DAVIES: Religion scholar Karen Armstrong speaking with Terry Gross.
Armstrong's memoir about re-entering the world after seven years as a nun is
called "The Spiral Staircase." It's now out in paperback.

Coming up, Lloyd Schwartz on one of the world's most charismatic conductors.

This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Russian conductor Valery Gergiev's recordings of
Shostakovich's fourth, fifth, seventh and ninth symphonies
DAVE DAVIES, host:

One of today's busiest musicians is the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev.
He's the Metropolitan Opera's very first principal guest conductor, the music
director of two orchestras and director of the White Knights Festival in St.
Petersburg. Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz says he's also one of the
most charismatic figures onstage.

(Soundbite of orchestral music)

LLOYD SCHWARTZ reporting:

The first time I sat up and took notice of Valery Gergiev was back in 1995
during the Boston Symphony's retrospective of works honoring the 50th
anniversary of the end of World War II. Gergiev conducted the most famous
symphony to come out of the war: Shostakovich's seventh, the so-called
Leningrad Symphony. Shostakovich actually started it before the Nazi seize of
the city now called St. Petersburg. But the attack gave him a new focus.

I confess, I have mixed feelings about Shostakovich symphonies in general. So
often he seems heavy-handed, bombastic and sarcastic. He goes on as long as
Mahler but without Mahler's more novelistic variety and melodic inspiration.
In the first movement of the seventh symphony, Shostakovich's little joke is
to take the lighthearted "I'm Going to Maxim's" number from "The Merry Widow"
and turn it into an aggressive, interminably repetitive march. But by subtly
increasing the volume of each repetition and never losing the central rhythmic
drive, instead of making me want to scream with boredom, Gergiev had me at the
edge of my seat.

(Soundbite of Shostakovich's seventh symphony)

SCHWARTZ: Those excerpts were from the Shostakovich seventh Gergiev recorded
just a week after September 11th, 2001, leading the combined forces of his two
orchestras, the Kirov Orchestra of St. Petersburg-famed Mariinski Theatre and
the Rotterdam Philharmonic. Gergiev now feels there's a close connection
among the six symphonies, four through nine, that Shostakovich composed in the
decade surrounding the second World War, and he's in the process of recording
them as a group. His latest is the fourth. Composed in 1935, it's both
autobiographical and apocalyptic, so schizophrenic it threatened Stalin's
political agenda for music.

(Soundbite of Shostakovich's fourth symphony)

SCHWARTZ: The composer suppressed the symphony just before its premiere. As
The New Yorker's Alex Ross wrote recently, `Shostakovich's urge to defy
authority was always tempered by an instinct for survival.' The fourth
symphony went unperformed for 22 years.

Shostakovich's most popular symphony is his fifth, maybe because of Leonard
Bernstein's famous recording with its celebratory ending. We'll probably
never know what Shostakovich really intended. What I like about Gergiev's
performance is its ambiguity. Is the last movement triumphant or despairing?
For Gergiev, music can be both.

(Soundbite of Shostakovich's fifth symphony)

SCHWARTZ: My personal favorite of Shostakovich's symphonies is the ninth. It
was controversial because it seemed too lightweight a response both to the end
of the war and to the tradition of a huge ninth symphony started by Beethoven.
Again, Gergiev refuses to simplify its multiple layers of irony.

(Soundbite of Shostakovich's ninth symphony)

SCHWARTZ: In our current climate of international anxiety, I don't really
want to hear war music. But with his emphasis on ambiguity and his masterful
sense of structure and pacing, Gergiev actually makes me want to listen.

DAVIES: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix and
teaches English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Valery Gergiev
and the Kirov Orchestra will be touring North America beginning March 27th
with a stop at Carnegie Hall April 4th through 6th.

Coming up, a review of Woody Allen's new film.

This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Woody Allen's latest film, "Melinda and Melinda"
DAVE DAVIES, host:

Woody Allen has a new movie, his 35th feature film. It's called "Melinda and
Melinda," and it's two versions of the same story rolled into one movie. Film
critic David Edelstein has a review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN reporting:

The premise of Woody Allen's "Melinda and Melinda" is not just great, it's
great for Allen. In a prologue, two playwrights in a restaurant, Wallace
Shawn and Larry Pine, looking a lot like Andre Gregory, argue about comedy vs.
drama and which form is the more vital. And then we get two interwoven
versions of the same basic story revolving around the same central character,
Melinda, played by Radha Mitchell. One story is a heavy drama, the other, a
romantic comedy.

Why is this so perfect for Allen? Because for the last 25 years, he has been
zigzagging between comedy and drama, first abandoning slapstick and parody for
his imitation Swedish art movie "Interiors," and then working his way back to
more soulful comedy in "The Purple Rose of Cairo" and "Hannah and Her
Sisters." He had some sort of dramatic breakthrough with "Husbands and
Wives," which was made in the throes of his scandalous breakup with Mia
Farrow. But his last four movies have been clunker comedies. They were a
desperate attempt to regain the goodwill of an audience that has abandoned
him.

Allen once said that doing comedy meant sitting at the children's table. And
he wanted to eat with the grown-ups, which was a blow to those of us who think
comedy can be a great grown-up art form too. So "Melinda and Melinda" is of
extraordinary interest to Allen watchers, a friendly contest between his two
muses, maybe even a kind of summing up. The grim news is that both muses are
shriveled, sclerotic shells of their former selves. His drama half features
young Manhattanites in absurdly huge apartments uttering bleak statements
about their unfulfilled longings in an indifferent universe with a soundtrack
of classical music. His comedy half features young Manhattanites in absurdly
huge apartments jabbering sillier statements about their unfulfilled longings
in an indifferent universe with a soundtrack of big-band jazz. One story ends
sadly and makes you feel bad. One ends with an unlikely smooch and makes you
feel good, and that's it, folks.

It's not news that Allen's ear for drama is three-quarters deaf. His dialogue
sounds like Victorian Ibsen translations, but his ear for comedy is mostly
gone, too. Here's Will Ferrell as an out-of-work actor married to budding
film director Amanda Peet. Ferrell is the latest gifted actor to do a
mincing, blurting Woody Allen imitation.

(Soundbite of "Melinda and Melinda")

Ms. AMANDA PEET ("Susan"): I hope tonight didn't kill my chances of getting
my movie made.

Mr. WILL FERRELL ("Hobie"): No, no, I think Steve Walsh(ph) was OK. I told
him I was going to play one of the male characters in the movie.

Ms. PEET: What did he say?

Mr. FERRELL: Nothing. We discussed acting. I told him about my
award-winning interpretation of "Pygmalion."

Ms. PEET: Hobie, that was in college.

Mr. FERRELL: Still, I thought it was a brilliant idea to play Henry Higgins
with a limp.

EDELSTEIN: Ferrell's character is madly in love with Melinda, the adorably
unstable downstairs neighbor with a string of failed relationships. He feels
guilty, though. He says, `I want to touch her and then I'm at Nuremberg,'
which gives you an idea of how contemporary Allen's reference points are. The
drama's Melinda is a dangerously unstable, even suicidal mother cut off from
her children. She moves in with her class-conscious college friend, played by
Chloe Sevigny, and her selfish out-of-work actor-husband, played by Jonny Lee
Miller. This destabilizes what has already been a bad arrangement. The final
blow is the arrival of a suave pianist and composer played by Chiwetel
Ejiofor, who stirs the souls and the erotic longings of both women, to
Melinda's anguish.

(Soundbite of "Melinda and Melinda")

Mr. CHIWETEL EJIOFOR ("Ellis"): These things happen. Living is messy.

Ms. RADHA MITCHELL ("Melinda"): My head is spinning. I need to lie down and
rest. I want to close my eyes and never open them again. I'm going out the
window.

Ms. CHLOE SEVIGNY ("Laurel"): Ellis.

Mr. EJIOFOR: Melinda, what are you doing?

EDELSTEIN: The Australian actress Radha Mitchell is the only reason to see
the movie. She has an extraordinary open face and a way of mixing dreaminess
with sudden bursts of lacerating emotion that recalls Jessica Lange. And
Chloe Sevigny is such a good, unaffected actress that she transcends her lumpy
dialogue and her character's shallowness. "Melinda and Melinda" gives you two
lousy movies for the price of one. And the spectacle of Woody Allen's
creative bankruptcy doesn't make for a very good time. His ideas about
comedy and drama turn out to be banal and he still can't bring himself to
regard comedy as anything but a mirthful diversion on the way to the grave.
This is what happens when a once vital artist stews in his own juices for too
long. Comedy, drama, it makes no difference, they both come from the same
stagnant well.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for Slate.

(Credits)

DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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