Archive for December, 2008
For those of you too old, too young, or too sensible, the title of this post is a line from the theme song to a movie called Beach Party, starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. It came out in the early 1960s, after Kennedy and the pill but before middle class college students started rioting in the streets and everybody seemed either to be overdoxing or assassinated.
I’ve got Beach Party stuck in my head because it was on TCM yesterday as I was flipping through channels desperately looking for some advance notice about today’s weather. We’ve got another big storm moving in this afternoon, but since a lot of the public school systems are on winter break, the closings lists on the local television stations don’t look anywhere near as impressive as they did the last time. It’s also hard to get find weather bulletins and even harder to get plowed out, since the roads people are likely to decide that if nobody lives on your road who is either a medical professional or on emergency alert for a heart condition, you can wait.
Welcome to New England, which is, sort of, what I want to talk about today. That, and Annette Funicello. I’m having one of those mornings when everything seems to connect.
To begin with, I was thinking about what I’d said yesterday, not the depressing part–well, some of it–but the part about how I don’t read much fiction that is new.
Part of that, I think, is the Frankie and Annette syndrome. I’m nobody’s Communist. And, except on social issues, I’m nobody’s radical, either. I don’t think that corporations are the evil supervillains of the world, or that they’re out to destroy the planet, or that they’d just as soon murder you for profit as put out a press release.
What I do think is that corporations are what they are and do what they do. Complaining that Megacorp is fixated on raising its profits is like complaining that lions eat gazelles. They are what they are. They do what they do.
And corporations are very good at some things, assuming they’re being intelligently run. There’s the economies of scale thing–it makes the lives of a great many people much better if they can afford things like DVD players and washing machines instead of having to live without them. Yes, goodness knows, the damned stores are tacky and they force some Mom and Pop operations out of business, but I live in the mecca of Mom and Pop businesses and some of them deserve to go out of business. I’m not the woman on the zoning board with her entire life invested in keeping the town quaint.
The other thing corporations are good at is planning, and that’s a wonderful thing. Many of the most important projects in any industrial society takes years, and sometimes decades, to bring to fruition–new drugs, new bridges, new buildings. Planning requires the ability to predict the consequences of our actions, however, and that’s where corporations have and probably always will get into trouble in the arts.
I don’t care if your media is mass or niche, the simple fact of the matter is that it’s damned near impossible to predict what the public is going to respond to next Tuesday, never mind a couple of years from next Tuesday, in music, painting, theater, film, or fiction. What’s more, the actual element that the public responds to is not quantifiable, or rationalizable (is that a word?), in the way the elements of things like cell phones or videogame systems are.
The reason Frankie and Annette are on my mind is that they’re a perfect example of what happens when a corporation tries to predict what its public–in this case, early Sixties teenagers and pre-teens–will like. It has some vague idea of what the elements of previously popular movies have been (protagonists in the right age group, surfing) and what else is popular with that same audience (rock and roll music). It sets its people the project of putting those elements together to make a popular film.
The Beach Party movies existed because the Gidget movies existed. The Gidget movies were lame but basically honest B flicks that got a little extra boost because their star, Sandra Dee, turned out to resonate with a fair chunk of the teen-aged public. The Beach Party movies were dishonest in every possible way, and they’ve come down to us as paragons of badly acted phoniness.
This is, I think, my problem with a lot of contemporary fiction, and especially contemporary “best selling” fiction. Publisher do today with that fiction what American International Studios did with the Beach Party movies: they have a vague idea of what is already “popular,” and they try to find authors and editors who will take those disparate elements and put them together in a single package.
This is the only explanation I have for the “cozy,” a subgenre theoretically meant to reproduce the Golden Age world of amateur sleuths and country villages. Ask any of the dozens of cozy writers now throwing books into the mix at your local Barnes and Noble, and they’ll tell you that their inspiration is Agatha Christie.
But Agatha Christie didn’t write “cozies.” Her books are spare, not jokey, and although they’re stripped of the kind of vulgarity that would have made them seem more “realistic,” they’re very realistic indeed when it comes to murder methods and the psychology of murderers and their victims. Miss Marple says at one point in Nemesis that she believes in evil, everlasting life and goodness, and she’s being entirely serious. She is never cute.
It’s rational “planning” for a best seller that seems to me to explain the endless stream of serial killer books that have poured out of publishers in the last fifteen years, books that by and large all have exactly the same plot and exactly the same focal character. It’s not even a new character, although Thomas Harris did some new things with it, and the rest of the serial killer writers have stampeded along behind. Hannibal Lecter is Dr. Moriarity with very bad habits. His imitators are a mind numbing array of obsessional losers with charter subscriptions to the kind of Internet web sites that depend heavily on clothes pins and goats.
I don’t read much contemporary fiction because too much of what I read is Frankie and Annette–a consciously constructed attempted to hit the best seller lists by writing something “the same, only different” from hat’s hit the best seller lists before.
There’s nothing terribly evil about trying to do this, about trying to rationalize the process. The only real problem with it is that it doesn’t work, and I think it may in fact decrease the audience for books overall. A book is a larger investment of time than a Frankie and Annette movie. If you’re not used to reading to begin with and you pick up the equivalent of Beach Blanket Bingo, the chances are good that you’re going to think that books are less interesting or worthwhile than movies, especially if the movies you’re comparing it to are Schindler’s List or even Ocean’s Eleven.
The need of corporations to plan explains the mania Hollywood has for sequels and the penchant many publishers have for series–it worked once, maybe it will work again. And remember, it’s the phoniness I’m complaining about, not the mindlessness. It’s harder to make “serious, thoughful” stuff phone, but it can be done. Take a look at big whacking hunks of the hard boiled private eye tradition.
I wish I knew what it would take to jump start a viable network of alternatives that could still be significant enough to get those alternatives into the consciousness of the general public. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the phoniness problem. I Love Lucy and Perry Mason were far more honest than Full House and the myriad versions of Law and Order.
I’ve been listening to people all week who describe the period we’ve just been thorugh as “a new Gilded Age,” but I don’t think that’s right. I don’t think this is a new Gilded Age, but a new Roaring Twenties, a time in which youth and money were the only criteria for judging anything, a time when those two things acted like a tidal wave, wiping everything else out.
Robert notes that out of those mistakes and the mess they made of the world, we got the Greatest Generation. I’d say we also got Robert Frost and Alan Ginsberg, Charles Mingus and James Brown.
And I’m sinking into the slough of despond again. Who’d have guess that a slough would be this big?
Happy New Year, everybody, and better books in all our futures…
A couple of nights ago, in the middle of an e-mail about something else entirely, I made the offhand comment that I should suggest, on this blog, that anybody reading this who wants to should post the list of his or her ten favorite novels. I said it, was asked to make that twenty-five, and found myself stumped. I don’t think I can name twenty-five of my favorite novels. I don’t think I can name ten. When I look around this house, when I look around my life, I come to the realization that I don’t read many novels any more.
I remember being fifteen or so and having my father tell me that he never read them himself. He explained it by saying that he had been incapacitated for many months after the war at Walter Reed–when Walter Reed was a first class medical facility, back when we did that for the armed services–and that in that time he had read his way through hundreds of novels, everything from Dostoyevski to the complete (up to that point) works of Erle Stanley Gardner, so that by the end of it he was just sick of the whole thing. In the time I knew him he read only history, and I knew there was something physically wrong with him when he began to give that up for magazines.
But the fact remains that I don’t read novels very often any more, and most of the ones I do read I read either for professional reasons or on a second or third pass. I reread more than I read, in other words, and what I reread tends to lean heavily towards the Victorian or early twentieth century. Most fiction makes me impatient these days. Most contemporary crime novels drive me straight up the wall.
In the past ten years, I’ve discovered exactly two writers I hadn’t known before whose novels I truly loved. One was Jose Saramago, whose books I won’t read anymore, after he published a sequel to Blindness, called Seeing, that was such a descent into the cynical pessimism of old age that I barely finished it, and that spoiled Blindess for me forever. Still, if I was going to list my ten favorite books, his The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis would be right up there.
The other novelist is Umberto Eco. I’d actually read The Name of the Rose some years ago, before Bill died, and noted that its take on the Middle Ages was actually accurate. About five years ago I picked up Baudolino, and for some reason that’s what set me off. I still think Foucault’s Pendulum is The Da Vinci Code for smart people, and I like Eco’s nonfiction, too. He writes well about writing.
But when I think of the books that have truly stuck me over the last decade, the ones I want to read again, most of them are not fiction. V.S. Naipaul is a noveltist, but I don’t like his fiction. It’s airless and claustrophobic, and far too obsessed with petty squabbles over status.
But Naipaul as a journalist of the third world is something else again–maybe because he’s not a journalist the way we think of journalists these days. If I was going to recommend one book to everybody on the planet, it would definitely be the long collection of Naipaul’s “travel” pieces called The Writer and the World.
Don’t like the designation “travel” put you off. These are not fluffy little essays about the best hotels. They’re long pieces on just what is wrong just about everywhere, about the barbarism and savagery Naipaul sees in both those countries that designate themselves as “revolutionary” and those that designate themselves “Islamic,” and you want tourists at the revolution? Naipaul has met a mountain of them, and he has no respect at all for their “commitment.”
I remember reading through this book the first time and wondering how the hell, given the political skew of the committee in Stockholm, Naipual ever managed to get a Nobel Prize. Because this is not a man who thinks the West is the Big Bad Evil Meanie and everyplace else is authentic and loving and just trying to secure its human rights.
But I would recommend all Naipaul’s “travel” books, all of which are biting dissections of just what is wrong with the world. Among the Believers is good, and he followed it a decade later by going back and seeing where these four countries had gone. The news is not hopeful.
And I forgive him for his short little work on the United States, in which he managed to do what non-Americans seem to, which was to go to the South as if that was the only “real” part of America and write about it in isolation. On the other hand, next to most of the books I’ve read by Europeans on the United States, this wasn’t actually bad, and it wasn’t at all stupid.
But I’m left, again, thinking about the fact that, if I had to recommend ten books to anybody, almost none of them would be fiction. I’m not sure why this is so. Maybe some of it is genetic, or familial, in some way–like my father, I now read lots and lots and lots of history. Unlike him, I read other kinds of nonfiction as well, not only things like Naipaul’s but more analytical books. The Higher Superstitition comes to mind as something that struck me, and also The Blank Slate, by Steven Pinker. That last one would go on any list I made of my ten favorite books. Like the Naipaul, I’d make everybody in the world read it if I had control of the curriculum. The Blank Slate is about how human beings aren’t that, and how most human nature is hard wired, and how we should stop thinking we can change people into anything we want them to be and start dealing with what people are.
Pinker has the science to back that up, and if an article John sent me is any indication, the rest of the world seems to be slowly catching up to what he said a decade ago. But one of the reasons why I love that book has nothing to do with what it says. It’s not just the way its written, but the enormous range of cultural reference inker seems to just have, as if in this one human being, education just “took” the way I want it to take. We get everything from Jane Austen to Calvin and Hobbes, Tolstoy to the Bee Gees, and the science as well.
Some of the writers I’ve discovered over the last ten years simply don’t write anything very long. I still think Theodore Dalrymple’s best book is Life at the Bottom, a collection of essays, published mostly in City Journal, about his experiences as a doctor in a public health practice in a slum in an English industrial city, and as a prison doctor at the nearby borstal.
It’s interesting to contrast Dalrymple’s work–not just in that book but in others–with the work of Jonathon Kozol, who is famous for swooping down on inner city schools for a few months and writing about them. Kozol has an agenda and Dalrymple doesn’t seem to have, but their different presentations of life in the inner city are, well, remarkable.
But I’m still here, you know, and I still have the same problem, and it isn’t going to go away. And it isn’t everybody’s problem. I know lots of people who read fiction in their middle age, and even in their old age. And I still write fiction, and want to write fiction.
I don’t really know what’s wrong here. I have trouble reading almost any contemporary fiction. I enjoy P.D. James, but Ruth Rendell I have a hard time getting through. I enjoyed one book by Sue Miller, called For Love, and one by Alice Hoffmann, called Seventh Heaven, and then I just sort of wandered off. Oh, there’s also a book called That Night, by Alice MacDermott. Of these three, I’ve read the first two much more than once, and then I got tired of them, and they’re lost in the office somewhere.
Older books seem to stay with me longer. I can still read Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, and most Sherlock Holmes (from the first half of Doyle’s career), and a lot of Dickens. I’m reading my way through the Palliser novels by Anthony Trollope, which are new to me, but definitely Victoiian, and I can get absorbed in those.
Lately I wonder if I haven’t written my entire generation off as a waste. Having been given the best start in life of any generation in the history of the world, we seem to have done nothing with it except convince ourselves that we’re too important to actually make anything like a contribution to the world. We’ve torn down a lot of things, but not built up much that I can see. My older son’s generation seems to be more–I don’t know. Focussed may be the word I want, focussed on something besides themselves.
The really bad side effect from that Romantic view of the world whose definition I posted yesterday is the tendency of people to think that how they feel and what they want are the only real issues in the universe, and that everything else can go hang if it means they can’t be true to themselves.
I think maybe I’ve been as big a downer as I want to be today.
Sometimes I find this project absolutely fascinating. I appreciate the efforts of so many of you, in comments and e-mail both, to assure me that if I will just look off the beaten track, I can find many examples of the kind of alternatives I’m talking about. But I’m aware of that, really. For one thing, I’m a living example of one.
It’s the lack of such alternatives alive in the culture and available to everybody that bothers me. I still say that, for all the newly highlighted differences of skin color and ethnicity we like to point to as an opening up of Anglophone societies over the last several years, diversity these days is largely superficial. We may all look different, but we are all expected to think alike.
And I don’t mean we’re all expected to be liberals, either.
Sometime last year I got into a lot of trouble on a Usenet newsgroup I post to sometimes because I disparaged a book put out by a group of rather geriatric “feminists” (the scare quotes are not only deliberate but eloquent) who wanted to let the world know that, in their sixties, they were not only still having sex, but having the best sex of their lives.
Actually, I wasn’t disparaging the book. I was disparaging the attitude. But it comes down to the same thing: I wouldn’t have much respect for a man of that age whose first imperative was to have lots of good sex, and in the case of at least some men there is likely to be a biological and hormonal imperative. Women past menopause seldom have such an imperative, and from the excerpts of this book I’d read, these women weren’t some of them. The point of their chasing sex at sixty-whatever was simple: the only criteria they had for a good life was being young and being hot and having access to an endless stream of sex and sensation. For these women–as for Hugh Heffner, as for generations of coarse-minded, foul-mouthed “male chauvinist pigs” before them–the worth of a woman was between her legs.
The worth of a man, too, by the way. Hugh Heffner is no less pathetic than this group of women is, and no less pathetic than my students who think having enough money for a Porsche and a house with three Jacuzzis in it will make them happy.
Yesterday, I did my usual Sunday thing of getting my work done very early in the morning and then sitting down with something to read and something to listen to. I went from a little Hildegarde to ssome Mozart, but what I read was an essay by Yvor Winters, actually the introduction to a book he wrote in 1937, collected in a volume of essays on the New Criticism called Praising It New.
The date of the thing is interesting, because in this essay and at that time, he seems already to have understood what Hitler was. But it’s not his comments about Hitler I want to quote here, it’s his comments about Romanticism, not only in literature but in everything else. Maybe Winters was so prescient about Hitler becuase he so hated Romanticism, and so it so clearly. As somebody here pointed out, Hitler’s was a Romantic movement. Indeed, it was.
Anyway, Mr. Yvor Winters:
>>>The Romantic Theory assumes that literature is mainly or even purely an emotional experience, that man is naturally good, that man’s impulses are trustworthy, that the rational faculty is unreliable to the point of being dangerous or possibly evil. The Romantic theory of human nature teaches that if man will rely upon his impulses, he will achieve the good life. Wen this notion is combined, as it frequently is, with a pantheistic philosophy or religion, it commonly teaches that through surrender to impulse man will not only achieve the good life but will achieve also a kind of mystical union with the Divinity…>>>
What follows is a comment on Emerson, who is definitely a Romantic by this definition. In fact, most of American intellectual life between the Revolution and the Civil War was Romantic by this definition.
What strikes me, however, was that we have gotten to the point that everything we are offered in public life is Romantic by this definition. We get no counterexamples even just as examples, never mind something like a Fulton Sheen or a Thomas Huxley to oppose it in a reasoned and systematic way.
It does no good to tell me that I’m looking in the wrong places for counterexamples, because my point is that the same places used to have such counterexamples. We had Marilym Monroe but we also had Fulton Sheen. We had Jayne Mansfield–and Norman Mailer–but we also had Lionel Trilling. Sitting right there in the “mass media,” in the public square, for anybody to see, were different kinds of people living different ways, different standards of value for what made a “good life.”
Part of the stifling monoculture of the moment has to do with the fact that the mass media aren’t as mass as they used to be. On the Monday after the Mumbai terrorist attacks, I asked each of my classes to write three paragraphs in fifteen minutes on “Mumbai–what is it, and why do I think you should know?”
Two thirds of my students claimed never to have heard the word before, and guessed that it had something to do with Africa, and that maybe it was a dance. Of the other third, fully half claimed to have heard the word but not to be able to connect it to anything. All of my students who didn’t know wrote sharp little complaints about how it wasn’t fair that I expected them to. They didn’t watch the news because it was too depressing, and besides, what did it have to do with them anyway?
Back in the days when there were only three network television stations and no other options, the local news was on at five thirty, the national news was on at six, and you were stuck with it whether you liked it or not. These days, it’s possible to simply avoid all that by turning to MTV or one of the vast number of radio stations that play the music of the moment 24/7 and offer no news at all. Even during 9/11 there were television stations that went on playing nonstop soap operas, nonstop cartoons, and nonstop fifties television shows. The “public square” these days sometimes looks more like one of those big bins of bubbles people roll around and get lost in.
Part of the reason for what’s happening is surely the imperatives of stockholder suits–the purpose of management, the courts tell us, is to maximize the value of the stock for the stockholders, and that means having a business plan targetted at capturing the most lucrative markets. In the “mass media,” that market is made up of unmarried people between the ages of eighteen and thirty-six. When everybody is chasing that demographic, a concentration on youth, sex, and sensation is almost inevitable.
I don’t watch a lot of television, so my observations here are necessarily limited, but from what I can see, the last alternative to the young-and-hot-is-everything scenario to make it on to a major network was Jessica Fletcher in Murder She Wrote. There she was, middle-aged, bookish, and with no particular interest in snagging a boyfriend. A much better image of such an alternative–the redoubtable Miss Jane Marple herself, as presented in the BBC-A and E series–exists only on a niche channel and makes it into the wider public consciousness almost not at all.
What I’m looking for is not Christianity, but the public face of lives that are not this–not that Romantic sensiblity Yvor Winters was talking about above. And up until fairly recently, those alternatives did exist in the “mass media,” and in the consciousness of alL of us.
My problem with religion, at the moment, is that the public face of it–remember, the PUBLIC face of it–is now just as Romantic as Paris Hilton flashing the papparazzi as she walks down the red carpet. It’s about what we feel and what we want and what we can get, about gobbling up “experiences,” and shutting our minds off while we do it. The fact that religion offers “spirituality and stuff” instead of “sex and stuff” isn’t much of a difference.
The fact that many secular organizations seem to be on a crusade to save the “embattled” Romantic ideal from the dark forces of anti-Romantic religion is just…well, a manifestation of cluelessness I find it hard to wrap m mind around.
I’m going to go spend the day watching lots and lots of Miss Jane Marple.
Oh, ack. I’m having one of those days when I wonder if I shouldn’t be in some other business, because I don’t seem to be having such a good time getting my point across.
To answer Robert–I said nothing at all about whether or not Christianity was “dying,” although, given other comments here, it might be. What I was talking about was the public face of Christianity, which is not just a matter of who makes the evening news. Back there somewhere or the other in this blog, I pointed out that one of the traditional functions of imaginative literature in the post-Enlightenment world was to provide us views of ways of living with which we otherwise do not have contact of knowledge–to show the way we live n ow, yes, but also to show us that there are other was to live than the way we live now.
Donne was nowhere near the minor figure that you make him out to be, even in his own time. He was married to Lord Egerton’s daughter, and he was a celebrated poet in a time when poets comanded the kind of esteem we now give only to movie stars.
But what’s more important than that is that he was only one of a numbe of writers who wrote about the lived experience of Christianity in a way that was pitched not to the emotions but to the mind.
When I was growing up, there was on offer a fair number of examples of the lived experience of Christianity pitched to the mind, and those examples were not generally news reports. Consider Thomas Merton, a student at Columbia who had already built up a considerable reputation in literary circles as a new and promising young poet, who converted to Catholicism, left his university, and entered the Trappist monastary at Gethsemane, Kentucky. He then produced a book about his religious journey, The Seven Storey Mountain, that became a significant best seller. It’s not an easy book.. It’s not pitched to the lowest common denominator of anything. It’s not an attempt to kick the reader in the solar plexus. And it’s long.
Or consider what I think of as near the end of the period when the public face of Christianity still offered an intellectual option–the Audrey Hepburn film of The Nun’s Story. I say the film and not the book because, although the book was also a signivicant seller, it is very simply written and it was aimed at the infrequent reader. The movie, on the other hand, was distinctly pitched up–it’s a long movie, it has a distinct and yet complex narrative arc, and it takes religion seriously as something thinking people do.
One of the things that I am constantly struck with in my students is the way in which they are isolated, culturally and intellectually. For all the sources of information available to them, they seem to know absolutely nothing about the way other people lived in other times, or that other people live in this time. They seem to have no idea that there is in fact any significantly different way to live. To the extent that they’ve been made aware of the “multicultural,” it’s been limited to pictures of native islanders somewhere wandering around beaches with flowers around their necks, usually accompanied by captions explaining how these islanders are much more matter of fact and sensible about sex than we are.
At one point this past term, I had to explain to a class that there was a time right here in Connecticut when having sex with somebody not your spouse was against the law, and when children born out of wedlock suffered significant legal disadvantages in regard to things like inheriting money from their biological father’s estate. These laws were in effect when I was a child, and although I’m rapidly approacing the geriatric, I’m not there yet. In other words, all this was less than fifty years ago, and they’d never heard about any of it.
What’s more, they have been presented with a world in which sex is about as morally important as defecating. The only moral issues they recognize in sexual matters concern telling one’s partner about STDs and following the standard rules of ‘relationships” (including no cheating while still formally in it).
The idea that there might be something else going on in a reationship than the ephemeral, the idea that men and women might look for something else in each other (and themselves) than being “hot,” the idea that there might be some point to life that isn’t having as much sex and getting as much “stuff” as possible, is entirely foreign to them.
When I say that it was a destructive thing to make the churches of the “religious right” the only public face of Christianity, it’s this I’m thinking of–that without people like Thomas Merton and Sister Luke, we have lost an important counterexample to current assumptions about what it means to be a human being alive today. We’ve especially lost an important counterexample to current trends in what it means to be female. Too often, the only examples my students have of what it means to be female are Paris Hilton and the sort of self-proclaimed feminist who seems to be angry and judgmental all the tiem, about everything.
Yes, there are and always were other kinds of feminists, but they don’t seem to have much of a public face these days either. Maybe I’ll get back to them at some point.
Lately I’ve been considering giving my students a poem by Henry King, Bishop of Chichester, called “Exequy.” I’m not going to post the whole thing here, since it’s very long, but this is the web address where you can find it
and I’ll just warn you to watch out for the pop ups.
That said, King wrote this poem to his wife after her death, in the 17th century, and it, too, like the Donne I posted yesterday, is an example of poetry presenting Christianity as a lived experience:
But woe is me! the longest date 35
Too narrow is to calculate
These empty hopes: never shall I
Be so much blest as to descry
A glimpse of thee, till that day come
Which shall the earth to cinders doom, 40
And a fierce fever must calcine
The body of this world—like thine,
My little world! That fit of fire
Once off, our bodies shall aspire
To our souls’ bliss: then we shall rise 45
And view ourselves with clearer eyes
In that calm region where no night
Can hide us from each other’s sight.
Meantime thou hast her, earth: much good
May my harm do thee! Since it stood 50
With Heaven’s will I might not call
Her longer mine, I give thee all
My short-lived right and interest
In her whom living I loved best.
Be kind to her, and prithee look 55
Thou write into thy Doomsday book
Each parcel of this rarity
Which in thy casket shrined doth lie,
As thou wilt answer Him that lent—
Not gave—thee my dear monument. 60
So close the ground, and ’bout her shade
Black curtains draw: my bride is laid.
Sleep on, my Love, in thy cold bed
Never to be disquieted!
My last good-night! Thou wilt not wake 65
Till I thy fate shall overtake:
Till age, or grief, or sickness must
Marry my body to that dust
It so much loves; and fill the room
My heart keeps empty in thy tomb. 70
Stay for me there: I will not fail
To meet thee in that hollow vale.
And think not much of my delay:
I am already on the way,
Okay, I have no idea why the font size changed or what it is I’m supposed to do to fix it. I’m sorry if I’ve caused any problems for any of you reading.
My point is just that that above also represented part of the public face of Christianity of its time, and an expression of the lived experience of that Christianity. It’s not a lecture on dogma or morality. It’s not didactic at all. I have no idea where Bishop King stood on the issue of the Real Presence or the nature of the Trinity.
And I don’t have to. I don’t even have to believe in life after death to understand what is going on in the Bishop’s emotional commitment to his wife, because I have such a commitment, and it perserveres in spite of the fact that I do not believe there is anything at the end of this waiting but the dark.
Bishop King and I still have more in common than either of us do with most of my students, who increasingly see themselves as one more commodity and the only point to anything as feeling good right here right now.
My students need alternatives, not only religious ones but secular ones. They need to be presented with other kinds of models for other kinds of living.
Christianity used to provide one of those models. Today, I get megachurches and Help, Lord! The Devil Wants Me Fat!
And I’m not making that last one up.
Every once in a while the comments actually point to someplace I’m trying to go, and that’s incredibly helpful. In this case, John wonders how so much could have changed so thoroughly in less than fifty years, and my answer would be: it changed less and less thoroughly than he thinks.
As to the reaction of nonChristians to Christian practices in public and in public schools, for instance, it’s a mistake to think that “didn’t say anything about it” means the same thing as “didn’t mind it.” There is a Catholic parochial school system in this country because Catholics objected to their children being forced to say the Protestant version of the Lord’s Prayer and read the Protestant version of the Holy Bible in public schools.
Most religious groups, however, didn’t have the numbers the Catholic Church had, and if they objected to these practices, they did so in the privacy of their own homes. Objecting in public could get you into a lot of trouble even in the Fifties. But people did object. They objected a lot. And since my father was a civil libertarian with a reputation for defending people with unpopular causes–and someone who gave a lot of pro bono time to the ACLU–some of those people ended up at my parents’ dinner table and made no secret of just how much they resented having these things forced down their throats. Those people included Jews as well as atheists and agnostics.
I said that this comment dovetailed with what I was hoping to talk about anyway, and it does, because it higlights a reality that almost everybody gets wrong: by the mid Fifties, the Christian consensus in general, and the Protestant Christian consensus in particular, was already losing force in the United States.
Right up through the beginning of World War II, the majority of people in this country not only said they believed in God, but actually believed in him, in the only way it makes sense to define that world in regard to religion.
I’m not saying here that all, or most, of the people who were declaring their belief were secret atheists, or agnostics, only that the belief they were declaring was more like “I believe that George Washington was the first President of the United States” than “I believe that I am standing right next to a large, angry dog that is about to rip the hell out of my rear end.”
No, I’m not saying that I think Christianity demanded fear, or that any belief in God demands fear. What I am saying is that Christian belief as it existed for somebody like Donne, for instance, was not an academic thing. It wasn’t a question of Donne having learned a lot of “theological facts” by rote and “believing” them in the sense that he was aware he’d learned them and didn’t question them because he really hadn’t thought about them since.
Donne lived every day of his life–or every day that he bothered to record–in the presence of God, who was present to him in the same way your brother or sister is present to you when he’s sitting across the dining room table at breakfast. Donne “believed” in God in the same way you and I “believe” in the chair we’re sitting in. For Donne, “believing” was simply accepting the reality in front of his face. Donne’s faith was not faith as we use the term, an acceptance of things not only unseen but unperceived.
One of the Catholic saints called this way of living “the practice of the presence of God,” and it informed a lot of people, Catholic and nonCatholic, during the period of the Reformation and the eras immediately following. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, the founders of the Discalced Carmelite nuns and priests, both wrote extensively of it, and St. John’s “dark night of the soul” turns out not to be the abyss of doubt modern writers now use the phrase to designate.
But look at the Donne poem, which is, structurelly and formally, a remarkable piece of work in poetry:
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
Donne is not talking to an “imaginary friend,” as some secular writerts like to say today. Nor is he descending into an orgy of emotionally-charged mindlessness, blotting out his reason by indulging in a kind of psychological drug. He is instead expressing what is for him a completely mundane but desperately important reality. This is the world as Donne lives in it. It is as real and immediate to him as my computer is to me, and considerably more important.
It is because this world is so immediate and so real for Donne, and because his expression of it is not Romantic emotionalism but tightly controlled and strictly logical exposition, that this poem energizes me in spite of the fact that it speaks of things I do not believe, and speaks of them in a way particular to a corner of a tradition that is not mine even in its whole.
I’ve said before that what makes a work of literature “good” or not has nothing to do with whether or not we “like” it, but this poem is both good and something I like, in fact something I love, much as I love Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. I don’t have to believe in Zeus and Athena to find Odysseus’s return from Troy compelling. I don’t have to believe in a divine Christ with the mission and capability to save the souls of men for all eternity to find myself caught up in Holy Sonnet 14, or in Bishop King’s “Exequy.” I promise to get to the “Exequy” tomorrow.
Right now I want to say this: somewhere along the line, somewhere in the twentieth century in America (although possibly earlier in parts of Europe), this kind of Christian faith was, if not completely extinguished, extinguished from the publid face of Christianity. When I shift through the channels on my television set and find religious programming, I do not get John Donne, or anything like him. I get a legion of “pastors” who seem to be pushing one version or another of “believe because if you don’t you’re screwed,” with the “screwed” being related entirely to the events of this life. Believe or you’ll lose your job. Believe or you’ll go bankrupt. Believe or your husband will leave you for another woman.
Looking at these “pastors” on television, I do not see men, or women, who live as Donne and St. Teresa did, always in the presence of God. Most of them live no more in that presence than I do, and when they say they “believe,” or that they “have faith,” the impression they give is that one of “believing” that George Washington was the first president. It’s an academic “belief,” the way I “believe” that Genghis Khan once ruled most of Asia. I could be right. I could be wrong. The knowledge has exactly zero impact on my life.
What changed over the past fifty years, I think, was the perception of non-Christians as to Christian belief. For a long time, non-Christians and Christians of denominations outside the American Protestant mainstream felt resentful of being forced to support religious practices they neither shared nor approved, but they didn’t do anything about it, because the tradition demanding them seemed so strong.
But the resentment was there, and at the first sign of weakness in the tradition it rose up and rebelled.
I’ve come to the realization that it’s not Christianity I object to, but mindlessness, and too much of American Christianity is almost willfully mindless. The faith of a John Donne or a St. Teresa seems to me to be no longer on offer. When I am forced to confront faith, what I get is that emotional charge and the demand that I shut down my mind and feel the Spirit.
Like I said, I think this is the greatest damage the religious right has done–by being emotionalist in religion, and by being the loudest and most visible wing of Christianity in the public square, they have given the world the impression that this is what Christainity is, and they’ve made the job of the kind of atheist who wants to tag al religious believers as “stupid” a much easier job.
And tomorrow we’ll get on to Bishop King, and good and bad poetry. Or something.
For years now, it’s been my custom to spend a fair chunk of my Christmas Day reading about atheism. For many years it meant reading one particular book about atheism, called The Final Superstition, by Joseph L. Daleidan, which I found in a Barnes and Noble in Pasadena, Florida one Christmas we spent at my parents’ house. I think it’s mostly a kind of reaction formation. There are tons of religious messages everywhere, and me being me, I have to be contrary, so I end up reading the opposite.
This tendency of mine has been considerably reduced in recent years, for whatever reason, and this Christmas it came down to looking through the latest copy of a magazine called Free Inquiry. For those of you who know nothing about the atheist/freethough/humanist movement in the United States–and those of you who aren’t even aware there is one–Free Inquiry is the flagship publication of the Council for Secular Humanism, an organization founded by a SUNY philosophy professor (now emeritus) named Paul Kurtz, after he had departed from the older American Humanist Association over a few differences of opinion that probably would seem minor to most of you but that didn’t seem minor to the people involved at the time, and don’t seem minor to many of them even now.
I think it would be an interesting project to trace the history of the Council for Secular Humanism, which is something of an impressive undertaking. By ow there are two magazines–Free Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer–“Centers for Inquiry” across the United States and in several foreign countries, Prometheus Press (one of the most successful small presses in the US and the only one dedicated to freethought and skepticism) and CSICOP, the Center for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. CSICOP was called in by the Vatican to be one of the groups investigating the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin, and it is supported by a number of world-class magicians. If you want to find out if a psychic is real or not, you don’t call in a scientist, you call in a magician. There’s a reason why Uri Geller could not bend spoons when he was sitting next to Johnny Carson.
Anyway, like I said, that would be an interesting project, and it would be made more interesting if I could compare it to another and similar project launched close to the same time: William F. Buckley’s founding of both National Review and the modern American conservative movement. The relative fate and ultimate influence of those two are more a matter of a study in personalities than in content, and those personalities fascinate me.
However, at the moment, I want to discuss something in this particular issue of FI, which I think was the December-January issue whose announced theme was “the future of religion.” I could go on at length about various articles in this thing and my problems with them. There’s one with graphs and charts where a gentleman tries to “prove” that the reason more Americans are religious than Euripeans is that American society is “dysfunctional” relative to other Western societies, the healthiest of which he confidently pronounces to be Norway. I liked the charts, because it made it possible to see at a lance that he was confusing “largely monocultural” with “healthy”–that is, his criteria for what made a society “healthy” are all much more likely to be met in societies without significant substantive cultural diversity, because the mere fact of diversity itself will cause some of those problems. It was also interesting to see what he left out.
But the thing that struck me about this article and others in this issue of the magazine had to do with something that is pervasive in freethought publications, and that is the utter lack of any knowledge about the history of Christian theology and the equation of “traditional religion” with “fundamentalism.”
One essay–the latest in a regular column by a Canadian professor–declared that Vatican II had changed everything by declaring that there were other paths to salvation besides Christianity–see, even the Catholics themselves admitted that they were not the one true way, there were other ways as well. Actually, the dogma is “outside the Church there is no salvation,” but it is also that it is impossible for man to know who is inside the Church, since the Church is the body of which Christ is the head and only the head can know who the members really are. Therefore some people who seem to be “outside the Church” may still be saved through Christ, but unaware of that until they meet their Savior in paradise. This line of thought did not start with Vatican II. It goes back to Augustine and was thoroughly developed in Aquinas and elaborated on at the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century. In this respect, Vatican II changed nothing at all.
The big problem, however, was exhibited in several of the essays, which confidently assumed that “traditional religion” was Biblically literalist and that any declaration that parts of the Bible were to be taken as metaphors or images was something “new” that represented the attempts of frantic believers to come to terms with the devasting proof of modern science that God does not exist.
Actually, Biblical literalism is an invention of twentieth century American Protestantism–note the twentieth century. And even within American Protestantism, literalism was, until very recently, a minority position. Augustine posited something very like the modern theory of evolution to explain how creation was actually effected on earth, and right through the time when the Church was supposedly prosecuting Galileo for saying the earth went around the sun, it was simultaneiously supporting a school at the Vatican that taught just that. Well, okay, Galileo is another story, and a long one, and maybe I’ll get to that some day.
Today, I just want to ask a question–I can rail all I want at Free Inquiry and its cousins (including Richard Dawkins) for beating religion on the head on the basis of misinformation and general ignorance. They do a lot of that. But the fact remains that they’re able to do it because their misinformation sounds plausible to a lot of people.
I think one of the most destructive aspects of the rise of the “religious right” in American politics has been the fact that it has presented a small and insular aspect of Christianity as if it were Christianity. Everything the FI authors say about Christianity would be true if Christianity were American folk Protestantism. Everything they assume and attack as Christianity is in fact American folk Protestantism, and that’s the case even when they think they’re attacking the Catholic Church. And when they run across an anomaly they can’t deny–like, say, Mr. Buckley himself–they tend to run around developing psychological theories to explain it away (he didn’t really believe it; he was so brainwashed by his childhood he couldn’t break free of it).
American folk Protestantism is Romanticism in religion–it is a religion of the emotions, not of the mind, and it often hates and fears the mind. But it is not Christianity, and it isn’t even Protstantism. It is essentially outside tradition religion more than inside it.
I was going to use a poem by John Donne to illustrate all this, and I probably will get back to it tomorrow, so just consider it now, written in the sixteenth century by the great poet of the English reformation:
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
It’s called Holy Sonnet 14, and in spite of the violence of its emotion, you can tell by reading of it that Donne would never have collapsed to the floor in an eruption of glossolalia, slain by the spirit into mindless
And I don’t even know if I’ve spelled “conundrum” right.
Okay, here’s the problem.
Earlier this morning, I posted a LONG page, called Bah! Humbug! It’s a separate page, and it contains the entire 100 item multiple choice “literacy quiz” I give to my students once a term, partially as an extra credit exercise and mostly as information for me. All the items are things referred to but not explained in their textbook. They’re things the textbook writers just assume any college student will, at least vaguely, know.
My best classes average about a 40, my worst about a 9.5. I thought some of you with nothing to do might have fun with this.
Well, the program says that that page/post is published, but I can’t find it anywhere.
If you guys can, tell me where to look for it.
If not, well, I’m going back to Anonymous 4 singing Hildegarde von Bingen for Christmas.
Kala Kristouyina to everybody out there.
Or, you know, whatever.
Let me give you a statistic here, the kind of statistic that sums up everything that bothers me about the time I’m living in.
In 1950, Lionel Trilling, an English professor at Columbia University and one of the leading literary critics of his era, published a book called The Liberal Imagination. This was a book of essays, and not political essays either, although one of the ones included did touch on the necessity of literature to engage the social, moral and, yes, political questions of its time.
By and large, though, this was a book of literary essays, including one on Henry James’s The Princess Cassamassima, and many years later I would read that essay and hear about the James novel for the first time. But the statistic that counts here is this: in its first year of publication, The Liberal Imagination sold 70,000 copies in hardcover. The next year, the paperback edition sold another 100,000 copies.
Let’s not beat around the bush here. If you have a book published by a major New York publisher and sell 70,000 copies in hardcover today, you’ll be a hero, and your next contract will threaten to look like the operating budget of a small African country. It’s virtually impossible to sell that many copies of anything today, and books like Trilling’s sell more in the range of 4,000 to 8,000 copies. Even “popular” novels usually sell not much more than that. The closest thing we have to Trilling–emeritus Professor Harold Bloom of Yale–does sell better than that, but even he can’t touch Trilling’s numbers, and although Trilling was a distinguished man, he was not a celebrity.
Now let me give you another statistic: fully seventy percent of the people teaching in America’s colleges and universities today are adjuncts.
In case you don’t know what an adjunct is, the common definition is usually a “part timer.” But the definition doesn’t do the problem justice. There are a lot of people working part time in colleges and universities that don’t have to put up with the conditions that adjuncts do. There are even other kinds of part time teachers, who get paid by the hour, say, or by a percentage formula on salary.
Adjuncts get paid a flat rate by the course. This can range from the meager (the highest rate for English adjuncts where I am is $4100 per course if the adjunct has been teaching at least five years) to the ludicrous (the lowest rate for the same English adjuncts is $1900 a course, and the lowest where a friend of mine teaches is only $1000).
The universities that pay these rates couldn’t get away with them under any other system, because in many cases they’re significantly below minimum wage for the amount of work required. For that relatively generous $4100, for instance–and for the less generous amounts as well–an adjunct is required to put in at least three hours in the classroom every week for sixteen weeks, plus another hour for office hours. She’s expected to write her own course–there are no standard curricula where I am, although there are requirements for inclusion–to manage a Blackboard site that includes all her assignments in detail, tracks student grades on an assignment by assignment basis, and provides supplementary material and opportunities for remedial work as needed, and to show up for a two hour final exam period even if she doesn’t give one. And that doesn’t count correcting twenty-six essays a week, in detail.
I’ve done this sort of thing, and I’ve taught these sorts of courses, and I can tell you that to run one well requires at least twenty hours a week in the term, and sometimes more. But the situation is even worse than that, because adjuncts are almost always given the lowest level courses, which means the least prepared students, which means the most work teaching anything at all.
And not just the most work. I’ve had everything from research papers to chairs thrown at my head. I’ve been followed around a parking lot by a student several inches taller than I am while she threatened me with everything from a law suit to a punch in the nose. Other people I know have had a lot more trouble of a lot more serious kind.
But there’s even more here: any adjunct has to have at least a master’s degree in her field, and I know plenty of adjuncts who have their doctorates. In other words, in order to get one of these jobs, an applicant must register in the upper ten percent of academic achievement.
What happens in this situation is twofold. First, there are some good adjuncts. These tend to be people who actually do something else for a living and teach only because they love it or they want to get out of the house, or people still working on doctorates who hope to be able to get a full time position somewhere when they finish.
Second, there are a lot of really, really bad adjuncts, including some people who could not get work doing anything else if they tried. Where I am, there is one adjunct who simply doesn’t show up to her classes until a third of the way into them, and then cancels another third of those classes because…well, because. There have been three cases of adjunct instructions simply disappearing in the middle of the term and not showing up at all. I know dozens who never actually correct any papers, and dozens more who make “teaching” a matter of showing a series of “educational films.” This has included the Ben Affleck Pearl Harbor and Citizen Kane–in a course on American history.
I could bemoan the lot of adjuncts, and I should–in the best paying system where I am, the good news of higher wages is destroyed by the fact that adjuncts are not allowed to teach more than two courses system wide, so that any one of them who needs to make a living is forced to take lower paying courses at other universities in the area. This rule has been instituted by the union that represents both the adjuncts and the full time teachers, which all adjuncts are required to belong to and pay for, and which doesn’t really think that anybody but the full timers matter at all.
I could bemoan the lot of adjuncts, but I won’t, because I’ve got bigger game in mind at the moment. In at least some of the places in this area, the full time faculty and administration know that their adjunct system is producing bad courses with bad teachers–and they don’t care. In one of these places, there is a single full time professor in the entire English Department, and her only job is to make sure she has somebody signed up to teach everything. Since working conditions are what they are, and the pay is so bad, that means any warm body off the street and pretend like you didn’t notice that nothing is actually being taught in those classrooms.
They don’t care. If there is a single symptom of what I find so objectionable about our present approach to higher learning, it’s just that–the Humanities are considered, by the public at large and by the administrations of colleges and universities–as so negligible, that it doesn’t matter if they’re taught badly or at all, that the people who know the fields are not worth keeping in the fields or attracting as teachers.
Good adjuncts leave for greener pastures, eventually. They go into publishing and advertising, or to law school, or somewhere. The bad adjuncts stay for decades.
Maybe it’s not so surprising that students don’t read well or write well or think well. Our colleges and universities give them concrete examples, every day, of what a waste of time that is. Not only won’t it get them a “good job,” it won’t even get them a job with health insurance.
Lionel Trilling sold 70. 000 copies in hardcover because lots of ordinary men and women, not academics or intellectuals or PhDs, thought literature was important enough to want to read the work of somebody who had spent his life making it his focus.
I’d be happy if I could get 70,000 people, not academics or intellectuals or PhDs, to understand what literature is and read it.
So, at the moment I’m sitting in the new Tech building, which has the most wonderful computers I’ve ever been able to play with, and I’m waiting for my very last section to come in and get their final grades. And I’ve been thinking that it was odd that John Oliver mentioned John Stuart Mill, because in a sense he’s at the very heart of the problems we’re having at the moment, both inside and outside the academy.
It was actually Jeremy Bentham, one of Mill’s father’s closest friends and one of Mill’s teachers, who invented utilitarianism and came up with that bit about “the greatest good for the greatest number.” That formulation was vague enough, and unworkable, but it was a paragon of clear thinking next to what Mill came up with in On Liberty. In a way, On Liberty is the founding document of all modern social liberalism, as opposed to the classical kind. To the extent that people like Locke dealth with social issues at all, it was mostly to say that if we limited the power of the state, the power of custom and social intercourse would go a long way to regulate our morals. That is, men could be free of the law, but such freedom did not guarantee the approval or even the non-interference of their neighbors.
Mill declared that such freedom was not really freedom at all–what did it matter if we did away with laws punishing promiscuous fornication, if the people around us still felt it was their right to condemn our behavior and shun us because of it? No, no. That wasn’t freedom. That was the dead hand of the past stifling all our liberty, and real liberty would only be achieved when our neighbors understood that they had no right to judge our behavior
The language of On Liberty is so radical, and so much more radical than anything Mill wrote earlier, that many scholars have suggested that he didn’t write it at all. They finger Harriet Taylor, his wife, with whom he had a long-time relationship while she was still married to another man. It was Taylor, these scholars say, who was so extreme, as a result of the social pressure she was under before her first husband died and she was able to marry the man she had no intention of giving up.
I don’t know whether it really matters if Mill wrote this on his own or if Taylor wrote it, or if they collaborated, which is what he said happened not only on this but on most of the work he produced after he met her. The fact is that this is a roaringly bad and unworkable idea, and at the present moment it is having a rip roaring vogue.
I say sort of because in spite of rolling out Mill’s arguments whenever they come in handy, this is one of the most judgmental ages in our history, and it seems to be getting more so by the minute. There are so many people with so many moral agendas screaming at the top of their lungs no matter who does what when, it’s difficult to remember that there was ever a time when we actually tried not to poke into other people’s private business any more than was absolutely necessary to keep the streets clear of drunk drivers.
In the anglophone sphere–and you’ll notice that practically every canonical work of liberal democracy comes out of the anglophone sphere; there’s something there that would be worth looking into at some point–at any rate, in this part of Western Civilization, liberty has always been a negative article. It has always been defined as what the government is prevented from stopping you from doing. Germany may think you have a “right” to health care and Holland may think you have a “right” to food and shelter, but in most anglophone countries there is a division between rights-in-law and natural rights.
I find this division a good idea on several counts, but what I want to get to herre is something else, and that is the assumption underlying Mill’s dictum that we are not really free to pursue a course of action if the people around us disapprove of it. Even though there are no laws forbidding it, even though we cannot be fined or sent to jail for what we do, if our neighbors disapprove, if they go so far as to tell us we’re behaving badly–then we’re not really free.
The assumption that strikes me here is that we are only “free” if we meet no obstacles in the way of whatever we want to do. And I mean none, none at all. In the immediate circumstance, what Mill is worried about seems small. I find myself getting enormously impatient with his fear of public opinion. If you have any kind of principles at all, and try to live up to them, and try to defend them, some people will hate you for it. Bitching about it is like complaining that if you eat a lot of candy, you gain weight.
But if you follow this thought to its logical conclusion, what you find is a fundamental principle that by definition destroys all others–we are all constrained by circumstances and heredity, whether we like it or not. My liberty is limited because I am not “free” to become an NBA basketball player I’m short and congenitally uncoordinated. If you stuck me up on a stepladder directly next to the basket, I’d probably still miss.
I’m not free in most other ways, either. My own convictions restrain me in some cases–I teach, and I get sick of teaching, but once I’ve committed to a class I’m going to finish it. Other people’slives are depending on me, if only in the sense that they need the remedial credit to get into a regular degree program, and they’ve depending on me to provide it, and I promised I would. I’m not free to ignore the other people around me, either, both because to do so would violate my convictions (again) and because society would definitely not be nonjudgmental if I did–the people around me expect me, as a mother, to put my children first, to make sure they’re fed before eating all the food myself.
Well, okay, it’s never come down to that. But you see what I mean.
But Mill’s little pamphlet provided the basis for a reflexive emotional stance towards personal liberty that is worse than destructive. It’s sometimes lethal.
There seem to be enormous numbers of people wandering around out there who think it’s just not fair that they can’t do what they want the way they want to do it: that they have to actual study and produce work to get a degree; that they have to give up catting around to take care of a baby; that they don’t have any money if they don’t do any work.
Which brings me to what’s been going through my head today, because it’s been on the news a lot and I really can’t ignore the news.
Sometime in the past several days they’ve found the remains of little Caylee Anthony, the two year old girl who has been missing for months while her single mother declared that she was abducted by a babysitter. The case is actually rather complicated, and Casey Anthony, the child’s mother, is a train wreck, but what’s been on my mind is the police suggestion of what most likely happened.
It seems that it’s fairly common among some younger single mothers who find beinging up a child rather confining, to give their small children a good dose of chloroform before going out to a club. The child sleeps for hours. The mothers wonder in drunk and stoned at dawn. After all–they’re young, don’t they have a right to have fun?
Okay, I’m being a little incoherent here. Part of that is Caylee Anthon–I couldn’t get the url to print in WordPress, or I would have sent you to a story about the case–and part ofthat is that this is the end of my term, and my students are largely little bags of resentment.
Because this is what this attitude causes, not happiness, and not the greatest happiness for the greatest number, but resentment, a life in which nothing is ever okay because nothing is ever fair.
Tomorrw, I’m going to have a fit about adjuncts, I think.
Robert says we used to make laws regulating sex by looking to the public good, and Cheryl says she doesn’t know what marriage is anymore, and I’ve been thinking about John Stuart Mill. That ought to cover enough ground, even without any confusion caused by this post’s title.
As to what marriage means, I’m in complete agreement with Cheryl, even though Canada seems to be far looser about accepting nonmarital relationships as marriages than the US is. I’ll go with what I said yesterday. For most people in the modern West, marriage is not a public act but a private one, the quintessentially private one, as private as sex itself. It’s about “love” and “fulfillment” and “relationships” and a whole lot of other things that have to do with the emotions, which is why it makes sense that so many people also believe that divorce ought to be easy, especially where there are no children involved, but even if there are. “The heart wants what it wants,” Woody Allen said, and even he knew he wasn’t talking about his heart.
But here’s the thing. If there is a defining narrative in the anglophone West, it is certainly the one about the brave individualist upholding his conscience–or his love, or his particular point of view–against the forces of society and conventionality, of the individual staying ‘true to himself” no matter what the cost.
And, of course, this narrative has an underlying theme, often unacknowledged in the past, but brought right to the forefront in the last few decades: that society is wrong for judging or punishing the individual for what he is doing, that the rights of individual conscience supercede any interest society may have.
Now, as I’ve said before, nobody actually believes this, at least not if they think about it for a minute. If they did believe it, they would be as strongly opposed to laws against rape and pedophilia as they are to laws against sodomy and abortion. What they do instead is to place entire categories of human action outside the realm of acts of individual conscience, declare them “different” somehow (they’re unnatural, they cause harm), and then pretend that they’re not there.
What’s more, there’s virtually no indication that another point of view is possible. There could be–the theme of the tension between individual conscience and society runs through all ages of Western literature and it by no means universally supports the rights of individual conscience–but not only don’t most of us read that literature, when we do read it, we often read it wrongly.
Let me give you two prime examples: the death of Socrates, and the story of Hester Prynne. I can tell you from experience that the story of the death of Socrates is taught, or was some decades ago, as a picture postcard example of the evils of censorship and intellectual intolerance. Generations of American and other university students have emerged from their introductory courses in Philosophy with the impression that not only did the Athenians wrong Socrates, but that any society who would so interfere with individual thought would also commit a wrong.
Now, I have a certain sympathy with this point of view, mostly because I hold it. I think there are good reasons to uphold the rights of freedom of speech and of conscience as damned near absolute, if not absolutely so. The very fact that the West has recognized these things is at the core of why the West, and no other culture, developed the first scientific civilization. And a recognition of the rights of individual speech and conscience is necessary ever to develop one.
The problem is that the story of the death of Socrates as Plato presents it is not that story. It is, in fact, the story of the limits of those rights, with the limits being defined as the good of the society in which they are exercised. Not only is Socrates in a position to escape from execution with no great exertion, the implication is that the Athenian authorites fully expect him to. They don’t want to execute him. They just want him to go away.
Socrates, on the other hand, is adamant: there is no individual anything, no good that can come to any individual man, without the framework and support provided by the state. It is therefore the duty of every person to place his individual good as secondary to the good of his City. Socrates dies because only by dying can he meet his obligations to Athens, and because he is convinced that those obligations must carry much more weight than any obligation he has to himself.
You get the same kind of misreading when schools teach The Scarlet Letter and “analyze” the character of Hester Prynne. Robert remarked once that stories about adultery bored him, and that he’d been taught The Scarlet Letter as a story about destroying the repressiveness of Puritan sexual mores.
But The Scarlet Letter is not about adultery, and it does not favor destroying Puritan sexual repressiveness. Yes, there is adultery in it, but that is an incidental and dramatic choise. Making Hester’s sin sexual works on a number of dramatic levels that making that sin about stealing money, for isntance, would not.
The issue in The Scarlet Letter is not adultery per se, but Hester’s insistance that she had the right to commit it, that her emotions and the emotions of the man she loves can and should supercede any rules society might impose for any reason, that society has no right to judge or punish her.
The Scarlet Letter is quintessentially the story about the clash of “what is good for me” and “what is good for society,” and it is decisively resolved in favor of society. At the end of that novel, Hester Prynne returns the scarlet letter to her breast and wears it for the rest of her life, indelible proof that she has come to accept that her own wishes and desires are secondary to what is good for her community. And she accepts the good of that community as paramount in spite of the fact that individual members of it are often hypocritical pricks, or worse. There is something bigger than ourselves. We are obliged to acknowledge it.
I’m not contending here for placing “the good of society” above the good of the individual in any systematic or absolutist way–that that doesn’t work, we already have enough history to prove. The real solution here is certainly some kind of balance.
But I do want to point out what happens when we move so far in one direction that we have no substantive counter to acts of individual will that are in fact deeply destructive to the social whole, even though the individual acts themselves are not destructive to any of the immediate parties to them.
That’s why Mary Kay Letourneau appears in the title to this post. I don’t know how many of you remember the Letourneau case, but she was the sixth grade teacher who had a sexual affair with one of her twelve-year-old students, and then got pregnant by him.
She was convicted of child rape and put on probation, a probation that included not being allowed to see her own children without supervision. When she was caught with Vili (the boy) yet again, she was sent to prison. When she was paroled she was caught with him again and found to be pregnant by him again. The boy’s mother raised both the children until Mary Kay got out of jail, at which point she and Vili waited just long enough for him to turn eighteen, and then got married.
They’re married still, last I checked.
All the way through this case, all the authorities involved in it make a set of assumptions, almost none of which was true, at least in this particular case.
First, they assumed that a rape had occured, not just in the sense of statutory rape, but in the sense of coercion. The rationale was the “power differential” between Mary Kay and Villi, both because of the differences in their ages and the fact that she was his teacher at the very beginning of their relationship. In the particular case of Villi, however, this seems not to have been the case. Villi has always contended that he was not harmed in any way by his relationship with Mary Kay, that he loved her, that she had helped him and not hurt him throughout.
The second thing the authorities assumed was that Mary Kay must be a “pedophile” who was driven uncontrollably to sexually assault children, and that given half the chance she would rape any child who was handy. But there’s no indication that any of this is true, either. Mary Kay Letourneau has never been accused of having sexual relations of any kind with any other child or adolescent, and Villi was, in fact, an adolescent and not a child when Mary Kay did have sexual relations with him.
There certainly are people who are sexual predators driven to have sex with children or adolescents, and who will do so if ever given the opportunity. And there certainly are people who use positions of power or large differences in age to coerce physical compliance out of children and adolescents who want no part of it.
But I think it’s reasonable to assume that there are relationships, like that between Mary Kay and Villi, that do not fit these criteria, that Mary Kay and Villi were and are an exception.
And that leads us to our problem–as long as we assume that any sex that doesn’t “harm” anybody is okay, that sexuality is the core of our identity and therefore not to be denied, that the good of the individual should supercede the good of society at all times–
As long as we assume all these things, we have no basis on which to condemn Mary Kay Leatourneau’s actions with Villi at the start of that relationship. It doesn’t matter what most cases are. This case was what it was, and given the two premises above, we’ve got two choices: lie about it so that we can condemn it, or not condemen it at all.
Personally, I think we should not condemn it, and not lie about it. The simple fact is that no matter how much of an exception this case is, it is an exception. The vast majority of cases are just what the au thorities think they are, both coercive and harmful to the children or adolescents caught up in them.
Allowing the exception would do more than just let Mary Kay and Villi be happy. It would make policing all the other cases that come down the road more and more difficult, and often functionally impossible. It would give real sexual predators a green light and an escape hatch. It will tend to normalize something that we cannot safely normalize.
But to make an argument about that, you see, we must first accept that our personal happiness is not the standard by which social rules are to be judged.