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Archive for April, 2011

Hiding Out

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Back there in the mists of time somewhere, when Greg was freaking out in total Oscar ceremony mode and threatening to refuse to have either of his eye operations because it was just to weird to think about…well, back there somewhere, I promised him that if he just went through with it, I would allow him to have total control of our television set for one full day following each operation.

This was a very silly thing for me to do, as it turned out, because Greg responds to his eye surgeon the way he responds to nobody else in his life since Bill died. 

There are a number of reasons for this, not least of which is the fact that the eye surgeon is at least as smart as he is, something he hasn’t run into much in his life. 

I’m told by a cousin that I was in much the same position at his age.  All I can say about that is that if his behavior is any indication, I must have been insufferable.

At any rate, it turned out I didn’t have to bribe him, because when he tried his “I can’t face this, it’s too freaking crazy” act on the doctor, the doctor turned him inside out, shook him out and dumped him into reality.

At which point, Greg wasn’t about to turn anything down.

Unfortunately, the doctor’s lecture came after I’d tried the bribe, so today, Greg has control of the television set, and there’s somebody named Warrior all over it.

So I’m hiding out in the office.

And it’s not a bad day. 

I’m doing my thing where I decide I’m just not dealing with anything for the week-end, which means I’ll have a tremendously lousy Monday morning, but I need the rest.

And I’ve been thinking about what constitutes a “cheerful” book.

I do know what constitutes one for me–any Agatha Christie, most Dorothy L. Sayers, about half of all the P.D. James, Charlotte McLeod.  You get the idea.

Murder mysteries make me happy, if they’re competently written,  not too sickeningly-sweet cozy,  not too boringly predictably “gritty.” 

There are other things l also find cheerful–in contemporary “literary” novels, there’s one called Seventh Heaven by Alice Hoffmann, and one called For Love by Sue Miller.

Then there’s all the old stuff, because the old stuff always works:  The Razor’s Edge, by Maughaum, Rebecca, by du Maurier, A Moveable Feast, by Hemingway.

I was trying to think, this morning, of what made a comfort book a comfort book.

With the old stuff, I think, for me, the big point is the fact that I remember them going so far back, to a place and time when I wasn’t living an ideal life, but where the problems were at least different ones. 

And, in those days, those were the books I read to imagine another life, in another place, among different people. 

For some reason, it doesn’t seem to bother me that I now know that the place I once imagined doesn’t really exist, and that it most certainly doesn’t exist in the place (college!) I once expected to find it.

With Christie–and the other mystery writers in general–I think the attraction is simpler:  they present a world that functions the way the world should function.  That’s the attraction of Sherlock Holmes, too. 

And that world may be ChristieLand, as Bill used to say, but it’s still a nice place to spend time.  If I got to come back as the philosopher- king, maybe I could turn it into that.

Except, probably not.  Most people who manage to set themselves up as philsopher-kings seem to turn into Eichmann.

With DVDs, etc, I know just what works–black and white, and usually from an era around the end of WWII to the beginning of the Fifties. 

I have an incredible fondness for a lot of truly awful, overly didactic old movies, movies with the film quality and general tone of the old Dragnet television show.   Try The House on 92nd Street, for one.  And any movie in which Richard Widmark plays a lowlife who ends up fighting Communism.

And if you think that last category comprises a very small number of movies–well, you have no idea.

Then we have one of my perennial amusements, which I already know, from previous posts, that a lot of you don’t share–my abiding  fascination with financial scandals.  The ID channel is running a day of conmen and big corporation malfeasance, which is very nice.  They even did half an episode of something on the Tyco thing, which once gave me an entire day of amusement when I read about it in the New Yorker, in one of the single funniest pieces of journalism I’ve ever seen.

For those of you who are interested in that kind of thing, I want to recommend a documentary, called Inside Job–which turns out to have won an Oscar, although I didn’t know that when I saw it.

It’s got a number of things to recommend it, not the least of which is the fact that it beats the crap out of everybody in both parties completely impartially.   For that, I could put up with the obligatory thirty seconds of lamenting “income inequality” in the last two minutes of the film.

But mostly I think I like to go back to the old stuff because it reminds me that it was not really a delusion:  there was a time when it really was the case that people went into the movie business to make movies, and only secondarily to make money; that there really was a time when people went into banking to run banks, and only secondarily to make money.

And something is seriously wrong when all the first set of motives are jettisoned in favor of the second.

And look at this–I have no idea how I ended up here. 

But here I am.

I’m actually in a good mood, sort of. 

So I’ll let you all do stuff, and I’ll get myself a Diet Coke.

Written by janeh

April 15th, 2011 at 3:09 pm

Posted in Uncategorized


with 4 comments

It’s Thursday, which is normally a reasonably calm day around here–or was, until that turned into the day always set for Greg’s surgeries.

This Thursday is not too bad, so far, although I got up late and I may still stumble on something.  It happens all the time.

Some things are more or less solved, or solved-ish:  my mother’s body has finally been returned to Connecticut, and we’ll have a service for her on Tuesday of next week.  It will be a simple service at the grave, because next week is Holy Week in the Greek Orthodox Church, so doing anything else seems to be prohibited by all kinds of things, including the priest’s schedule.

At any rate, it’s been done, and then Greg will have the second surgery on Thursday of next week and then…I don’t know.  Maybe things will calm down a little.

I wonder sometimes what my books would sound like if I wasn’t always writing them in the middle of this kind of thing.  Living in the middle of nonstop catastrophic chaos has to have some effect on my writing, I’m just not sure what.

I know it has some effect on my teaching, not the least of which is an increasing inability to maintain my patience in the face of “students” who don’t want to study.  Or at least don’t want to study English.

This term, the big issue is “what it means to me.”  I ask them “what is the central point of A Doll’s House” and I get “to me, the central point is that we don’t know how to celebrate the holidays any more, we’re too concerned about money.”

That was a real answer to a real quiz question.  I’m not making it up.

But what gets me in those encounters is not that a student would come up with something like that, but that all the students will look at me with shocked surprise when I say that I don’t care what Ibsen “means to them,” I only care what he actually means.

In the meantime, I am plowing my way through Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia, and a more depressing book I don’t think I’ve ever read.

Maybe because James is an Australian, he’s hit on a lot of figures in the history of ideas–and in history–that I didn’t know about, and it’s absolutely incredible how many of them were either totalitarians themselves or apologists for totalitarianism. 

It’s fun to watch him beat the crap out of Jean-Paul Sartre–Sartre deserved to have the crap beat out of him long ago–but I’m not sure it makes up for the mountainous pile of feces that seems to constitute everybody’s behavior.

Everybody, that is, but a small group of people, most of whom are dead, and a large percentage of whom were murdered–dissident Russians, dissident Germans, almost all the Jews.

It’s a good book, anyway, and good for reading in bursts between teaching class or chasing down funeral arrangements or giving Greg another round of eye drops.

But I think, when I’m done, I’m going to go look for something cheerful.

Written by janeh

April 14th, 2011 at 10:53 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Forever After

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Okay, I know.  The title.

I couldn’t help myself.

Just a couple of notes about the things I said yesterday:

First, I’m not talking about allusions or references.   In Anne of the Thousand Days, the fact that a child borne out of wedlock cannot inherit from his father is not an allusion or a reference, it’s the foundation of the plot. 

For the story to make any sense at all, you have to know what anybody even as late as 1960 would have known–that sex outside marriage was not only frowned on by a few judgmental people, but that it came with real legal penalties.

There has been a real break in social assumptions in the West since the 1960s.   Entire great rafts of social meaning have changed, and changed so radically that they make this culture unique in the history of the world. 

You can think that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but what it is is an enormous barrier to understanding. 

I’ll agree that my students are mostly less curious than, say, my children are, but students with their level of curiosity would have had no trouble understanding  Anne of the Thousand Days fifty years ago.

Even my students who are (seemingly) devoutly religious have this problem, because they don’t see extramarital sex as any big deal–it might not be the best way to behave, but if everybody treats everybody else right and everything is consensual, then the practice is at most a venial sin.

The idea that a girl’s parents might respond to the fact that she was pregnant out of wedlock by throwing her out of the house wouldn’t surprise them–but it would surprise them to think that this response was the usual thing with parents, rather than the depredations of people who are too rigid and controlling for their own good, and therefore not like the society around them.

And although sex is the obvious arena for this kind of social dissonance, it’s hardly the only one, and it’s hardly the most seriously damaging one.

Many of my students have a hard time understanding what the big deal is about plagarism, or cheating of any kind–they don’t see it as a blow to their own honor or integrity, because they see school (and life) as a game where they try to win and we try to stop them and there are no holds barred.

They’re also completely innocent of a world in which it mattered how you made your money, or how you got “famous.” 

In the world in which they live, almost any way is good enough.   They don’t like child abusers or serial killers, but they see nothing wrong with being Bernie Madoff as long as he’s getting away with it.

And even when he isn’t. 

Which bleeds into why they see nothing wrong with getting a BA by cheating their way through–it’s as if achievement had no content, only a finish line. 

It is not just difficult, but damned near impossible, to explain most of Western literature to people who think like this, because they lack almost all the key concepts as concepts, never mind as realities.

Honor, duty, integrity, loyalty, patriotism–the closest they come to any of it is in their conviction that cheating on the person you’re sleeping with is a bad thing.

I used to wonder why that one had survived when none of the rest of it had, but I think it’s because they have direct and irrefutable evidence of the consequences–they know that being cheated on hurts.  They’ve seen it in their own lives and the lives of their friends and family.

I am not trying to be universal here.  There are exceptions, and the exceptions are often spectacular. 

But even the exceptions live in an atmosphere without the shape of an actual culture–using “culture” here in the anthropological sense, I guess.

They remind me, in more ways than one, of the rich kid syndrome I saw growing up–the I can do anything as long as I get away with it and I can probably get away with it attitude of the richest kids from the richest families in the most expensive private schools and colleges, the people my father was always warning me against as people who had let money erase their common sense.

My kids aren’t rich, though, except in the sense that everybody in this country is rich vis a vis people in the shack villages of South America.

They don’t care because the society around them no longer seems to care. 

And the lack of understanding is truly profound. 

Every once in a while, I give students the Apology and the Crito and try to get them to talk about why Socrates would not escape his execution even if he could.  They find him an alien from another planet, and that’s if they’re willing to deal with him at all.

And “death before dishonor”?  I’d have to translate it. 

A few years ago I had an adult student, once a boat person from Vietnam.  He came to this country as a child, got married, had a family, built a business, encouraged his sons to go to college–and then had a massive stroke at forty-five.  It put him in a wheelchair and made him severely and permanently disabled.

So the sons gave up college and went to work to support their parents. 

My students find this story not inspiring or heart breaking or any of the rest of it.  They find it impossible.  They wouldn’t do anything like that, and if their parents made them they’d fight back, because something like that is just not fair.

And yet, I’d guess that in my parents’ generation, and even to an extent in mine, it was taken as a matter of course that in circumstances like that you would quit and support the family.  It was what families did, and what “family” meant. 

Given fiction in which such circumstances play a prominent part, their tendency is not to sympathize with the boy who gives up his dreams to support his suddenly widowed mother–but to blame him.   He should have been strong enough to resist his family’s pressures and follow his dream anyway.  Any normal person would have done that.

This sort of thing is not the same thing as not understanding an allusion or not getting a reference to the politics or the popular culture of the time. 

It’s a change that’s much more fundamental than that, and I don’t think I’m being completely crazy to say that it’s difficult to know how you teach literature to people like that.

Written by janeh

April 12th, 2011 at 6:42 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 5 comments

I’ve been having such awful luck with the Internet today, I’m reluctant to start this post. 

And, in fact, the start didn’t go all that well, as I typed all of the above while the cursor moved but no words appeared, then had to wait 15 seconds before they showed up.

So keep your fingers crossed.

For those of you who are interested, Greg’s surgery seems to have gone great.  Before it, I checked with a number of people, and although the vast majority said they could see wonderfully right away, a few others said to took days and, in one case, a couple of weeks.  Greg was in the see better right away category, and I’m going to have to take the DS away from him before it fuses to his fingers.

In the meantime, I’ve been having an e-mail discussion with a friend about why and how books last over time, and I think maybe that’s a good place to start today.

There is a rule of thumb in publishing that goes like this:  the literary merit of a novel has no effect whatsoever on how many copies it sells.

The literary merit in the above means whether or not the books is “well written,” starting with grammatical and clear and going all the way to elegant prose.

It’s not true that people do not buy and read well written books or that they prefer badly written ones.

The truth is that most people just don’t care one way or the other.  They like the books they like and buy the books they want to buy.  Some of them surely do it for the story, which is what some of you prefer.  Some of them surely do it for characters, which explains more books than we’d any of us like to admit to.

Some of them are probably like me, and go for a sense of place.

But whatever it is that readers do go for, it isn’t the sheer quality of the prose.  They’ll reject well written books and they’ll reject badly written books.  They’ll read well written books and they’ll read badly written books.

But that doesn’t get us very far.  Anybody who knows anything at all about fiction knows that there are literally mountains of old best sellers that slipped out of sight after a few years, never to be heard from again,  and a decent stack of “flops” that built audience over decades, and sometimes even centuries, to become “classics” familiar to anybody who’s gotten past the tenth grade.

And it seems to me that a number of different things are at work here, on a number of different levels.

The first is the playing field.

In 1776, a college or university could demand that a student read the sum total of the world’s acknowledged literary classics and get away with it.  There weren’t that many of them. 

I have no idea if there were dozens of other poets writing when Homer did, or when the writer of Gilgamesh did,  but if there were, they have disappeared into the mists.

We’d do better looking at the time of Vergil, who set out to write an epic to define the Roman people and to do it on purpose, and what we find is that there really weren’t all that many people in competition. 

In a world where most people were dirt poor in a way that couldn’t be equalled today except by Yanamomo Indians and aborigines in the Australian outback without the sense to come in from the rain, there also weren’t many people with the education to know how to write the stuff and the wherewithall to afford the materials. 

And then, once the thing had been written, you had to find people willing to copy it.

With the advent of the printing press, of course, the field got a lot more crowded. 

But it didn’t get very crowded, in spite of Hawthorne’s despair at the damned crowd of scribbling women. 

For crowded, you have to come to the 20th Century, and for very, very crowded, you have to come nearly to now.

And that brings up the first thing:  it’s possible that the qualities and circumstances that made it possible for a book to “last” three hundred years ago are different from the qualities and purposes that make it possible for a book to last now.

It may, in fact, be a lot easier for a book to last now than it has ever  been before, because I think the bottom line in “lasting” is a core group of dedicated people who love it.

And that core group has to have a critical mass, but the critical mass does not necessarily have to be huge.

Certainly a book like Gone With The Wind, or Atlas Shrugged, with hundreds of thousands of dedicated readers right from the start, has a better shot at reaching critical mass than a book with very few readers at the start. 

But, as I pointed out before, lots of readers at the start doesn’t necessarily guarantee anything lasting.

Still, the fact that the Internet can bring together the 5000 people that really passionately love Dance to the Band when It Roars, or whatever, and give them a cheap space to proselytize other readers around the globe, means more books have a chance to find their critical mass than they ever did before. 

The good news about that is that fewer good books will sink into oblivion without an audience.  The bad thing about that is so will fewer bad ones, including evilly bad ones.  Mein Kampf is a big best seller on the Internet.  So is The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. 

And NAMBLA isn’t exactly an infrequently visited site, even among people who are not agents from the FBI.

There’s more bad news, too.  In an era when maybe a hundred books were published every year, maybe half of them novels, readers could know what they all were and even read them all if they wanted to.

These days, some of the category romance lines put up 180 titles a year,  and the total number of mysteries–even restricting mysteries to straightforward detective novels and not thrillers or serial killer books–runs into three hundred or so a year.

I get sent a lot of these books, and if you’re ever on an Edgar award committee, you’ll be sent even more.  The simple fact is that I couldn’t keep up with all of them even if I wanted to. 

I know I am missing books I would admire.  I know that I am reading things that I wouldn’t read if I knew what was in them before I started.

But along with the death of the reviewer whose job it was to “form the taste” of the public has come the death of any functional sorting system whatsoever.

If I lived in Augustine’s Rome, I would know what books to read because I would hear the people around me discussing them–all of them. 

These days, I most likely won’t know that most published books have ever been published at all.  And the venues that provide reviews are…how do I put it tactfully?

Mostly on a different planet than I am.

But then we have the other problem–just because I love a book passionately doesn’t mean people ten years from now will. 

The decline of general education means that many of the allusions even in popular books—and movies and songs and television shows, for that matter–go right over the heads of the contemporary audience.  Give them an audience a good fifty years down the road, and they’ll be largely incomprehensible.

A book can’t last if it becomes impossible to read it.

My students seem to think that everything in the world was invented the day before yesterday, and if it wasn’t it couldn’t be of any interest.

And they live in a world that is sufficiently different from what came before it, even fifty years ago, that I find myself struggling to get them to understand.

How do they read Chandler or Agatha Christie when they don’t know it was ever the case that you could be arrested for booking into a hotel room with a lady not your wife?  How do they read George Eliot or even Faith Baldwin if they don’t know that children born out of wedlock once had no right to support from their biological fathers, or even recognition from them, and were often barred from other things, like entering a convent or being admitted to certain colleges and universities?

A book does not last unless it can speak to new generations of readers.  It doesn’t have to say the same things to those new generations as it said to the generation into which it was first published, but it has to say something. 

Maybe we’re looking at a world where all the old books will fall away, not because they’re not “good stories” but because the good stories are rooted in a civilizational actuality that no longer exists, and that in the world of these new readers has never existed.

Ah, well, that’s sufficiently garbled.

In case you want to know what brought on the mood:  we started A Doll’s House today.

I had to explain that a married woman who wanted a divorce at that time and place would automatically lose her children, and could not claim alimony or support of any kind, and would no longer be received by her friends.

And then I had to explain what “received” meant.


Written by janeh

April 11th, 2011 at 3:45 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

It’s My Blog, and I’ll Whine If I Want To

with 5 comments

Okay, I have a terrible feeling that’s not the first time I’ve used this title, but it’s really early in the morning and I don’t want to go back and look at the  moment.

Besides, I’ve only just started my tea.

And I don’t want to imply that life has been total crap, either.  Greg had his first surgery Thursday, and everything went well.   It will be a couple of weeks before he’s safe from developing an infection or any of the other scary stuff they warn you about, but he’s hopping around the house happy to play video games again.

Which I suppose is good.

Well, the happy is good.  I’ll deal with the video games later.

And, of course, a week from this coming Thursday, there’s the next surgery.

But no, my whining concerns my Saturday, which was one of the odder incidents in my professional life.

To give you a back story here:  I was asked, several months ago, to attend a local two-day mystery writer’s conference, to be on panels and that kind of thing.

And that was nice, and I was glad to be asked. 

Then, between the invitation and the last week or so, there was my mother, and there was Greg’s problem.

And I’ll be the first to admit, here, that I was late answering some of the e-mails, because I’ve been late answering everybody’s e-mails lately.  I did, however, answer them, including providing a rather lengthy bio and getting my publisher to send free copies of Wanting Sheila Dead to the moderator of the panel who asked for one.

And about a week before the event, I got in touch with the organizer and laid out my problem.  I checked the schedule, thought I saw that I was only slated to be on a single panel, and  that for today (Sunday), and told her that what I might do was to come for the panel and skip the rest. 

She answered me with a wail that they’d been so excited to get me to come, they’d put me on three panels, including two on Saturday. 

So I got back again and said, okay, I’d work that out, but I’d have to do some complicated things with transportation, and bring a friend with me to drive.

Now, note what’s going on here:  I did not want to be at a conference/convention yesterday.  I had a child who’d been out of surgery less than 48 hours, and I wanted to be home with him. 

The ONLY reason I was going on out there was because I was worried that if I dropped out at the last minute, I’d screw up their program.

And I made that fact completely clear.

So, yesterday, I get up at four, my friend gets up at some other ridiculous hour, and we haul on out for a full hour’s drive to this thing, leaving my house at seven thirty in the morning to do it.

We arrive, and I go to check in. 

The woman at the check in looked like a young, blonde Maria Schriver, and she did eventually figure out that I was an author and that she had my name somewhere. 

My friend and I picked up the program and wandered in to the breakfast, and that’s when things started to get…well, I don’t know how to put it.

Let’s start with this:  I was the only author at this thing who was not on the program, and whose web site was not linked to on the event web site.

When they did the introductions to the crowd, I was not introduced with the other authors, because, not being on the program, the woman doing the introductions didn’t know to say anything about me.  She discovered her mistake later, and then had me stand up at an awkward place after other things had been said.

Well, okay, whatever.  Things get disorganized sometimes.  I’m not a fussy kind of person with this sort of thing.

I went off looking for someplace to phone home and make sure Greg was all right, only to discover that there’s no cell service to this venue at all.   I went running around standing outside and on curbs and nothing. 

Finally, one of the event people let me have access to a land line, and I called home that way, and when I was on my way out of that room I asked her where exactly I was going to have to be after the first panel.

She looked flustered, blushed profusely and said, “Oh, um, I didn’t order any of your books.  I didn’t know if you were coming.”


So there I was, with no phone contact with home, with a kid still wearing an eye patch, not on the program, and with no books to sign.

And I didn’t want to be there.  And the only reason I had come was to make sure I didn’t screw anybody up. 

And they knew that.

But I wasn’t going to screw anybody up.  I could have cancelled without a guilty conscience.  They wouldn’t have missed me. 

So…why was I there, exactly?

Let me be clear here.  I’m not upset that I wasn’t on the program or that they didn’t order books for me to sign.

I’m upset because, when I told them that I had a problem, they urged me to come and told me how excited they were to have me and made me feel that I had to come, when in fact they didn’t need me at all.

And if they’d said so, I could have spent my Saturday at home with Greg, where I wanted to be, and been fine with it.

As it is, I’m supposed to be back there this morning for another panel, but I’m not going.  It would entail driving an hour to do forty-five minutes on a panel with six other authors, then driving another hour back home–because I still wouldn’t be signing books, since there still wouldn’t be books for me to sign.

And the next time I have a family crisis, I’m going to cancel and not worry about it.

Written by janeh

April 10th, 2011 at 7:08 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with one comment

I know where I have to start this post today–with the fact that I managed to consistantly misspell Foucault’s name throughout the post yesterday.   It’s the consistancy that surprises me, because I’m not unfamiliar with Foucault or his work.

There’s something Freudian going on there…

The other place might be to say that I am, as it happens, reading the book Mique mentioned, Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia.   I’ve had it on my TBR stack for years now.  I first picked it up when it was originally issued in hardcover.

I think it was, possibly, just the sheer size of it that was getting to me.  It’s a very interesting book, and not what it looks or sounds like from either the title or the organization.

But back to Michel Foucault, and how, being “only” fourteen, his work can’t possibly have anything to do with his behavior during the war.

Foucault was the son of a collaborationist family in Vichy France, and their collaboration was thorough enough to get him admitted to good and selective schools and eventually to university, although he didn’t attend until after the war.  

And although fourteen was youngish at the start, it was older than a fair number of people who actively worked in the Resistance and got shot for their pains.  And at the end of the war he was eighteen, and still taking loyalty oaths.

But Foucault is, indeed, a mild case in this particular circumstance.  Paul de Man actively wrote anti-Semitic propaganda for Nazi periodicals during the occupation.  People like Sartre, Camus and de Beauvoir continued their careers without so much as pausing for breath during the same period, the price of being left alone being their silence about the trains leaving Paris for Germany, full of Jews.

After the war, two things happened: 

First, Sartre and company got very Jesuitical, adopting the theory of the “mental reservation” as a catch all excuse for their behavior–yes, they looked like they were collaborating, passively if not actively, but they were really thinking transgressive thoughts in their heads.

Second, a concerted effort was made to smear as “right wing” any writer or thinker who had actually not collaborated, and especially those who had actively resisted–Raymond Aron, Marc Bloch.

You could tell the active resisters because, more often than not, they were dead.

And this worked for decades.   “Common wisdom” became the idea that the Soviet Army had beaten back the Nazis singlehanded, that “bourgeois capitalism” was incapable of staving off right wing totalitarianism (since it hadn’t done so in France), and that capitalism was just another name for Naziism.

Otherwise sane people engaged in nonsense it’s hard to credit, such as deliberately surpressing the work of Bloch and attempting to ruin Aron while simultaneously whitewashing Heidigger’s actual membership in the Nazi Party.

And now, it seems, we’re in an interesting era for this particular history. 

The grandchildren are beginning to write memoirs of their grandparents, and the memoirs are not conducive to a continued believe in the “mental reservation” idea of “resistance” to the Nazis.

I think we’re going to see, over the course of the next decade or so, a complete rewriting of the history of the French Resistance. 

And it ought to be interesting.

But I don’t think it’s strange that this should be happening in France rather than somewhere else.

For one thing, France is the country and the national culture that most strenuously valorizes intellectuals, and intellectuals are the people who write history.

And philosophy.  And politics.  And ideas.

Other people in other places collaborated, but they did not emerge at the end of the war in control of the war’s narrative.

The French intelligentsia were therefore in a unique position to save their own asses when the blame started being thrown around. 

And since they largely had control of the universities, the periodicals and the publishers, they were also in a position to suppress the sort of writers who might make for uncomfortable comparisons.   It’s a tribute to Raymond Aron’s sheer force of will that he managed to hold out anyway.

What becomes more and more interesting to me, the more information is released about this chain of events, is that what looks at first glance as yet another episode of intellectuals falling in love with totalitarianisms turns out to be nothing of the sort.

Some French intellectuals did so fall in love, and then stayed in love by switching their totalitarian impulses to Communism–but there were other intellectuals, and they did not. 

Every once in a while, somebody points out in the comments on this blog that people who fall for Communism are looked at indulgently while people who fall for Fascism are treated as beyond the pale, but that is not actually true.

Plenty of people who fell for Fascism are treated not only leniently, but as if that episode in their lives had never happened at all. 

Deconstruction, though, and existentialism in the French version, remain what they have always been–a way to hide your own history in plain sight.

Written by janeh

April 3rd, 2011 at 7:56 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The Marquis de Sade and Matthew Arnold

with 5 comments

I knew, when I wrote that post yesterday, or the day before, whatever it is I’ve been doing, that I was going to end up having to write this one or something like it today.

But I also think I may have come up with a slightly different approach.

So let me start on the usual first, and then I’ll try to branch out from there.

First, let me say that I wouldn’t take Michel Foucalt’s advice on where to get lunch, never mind on what constituted the best that had been thought or said in the history of Western Civilization.

The entire deconstructionist movement as it arose and existed in France is a swamp of former Nazi collaborators, sexually deviant (necrophilia, sadistic, etc) obsessives, and guilty consciences desperate to find a loophole to their own best good sense.

Whatever was going on in French literary circles in the long period from the end of the war to Vietnam, it had little or nothing to do with literature.  The fact that it was largely carried out in the literature departments of French universities–and then imported to literature departments here–was largely opportunistic. 

Literature departments both in Europe and the United States were uniquely vulnerable to corruption, because they were among the youngest of academic disciplines and as a discipline they had been distinctly undefined.

When the first English departments were established in American universities in the late nineteenth to early twentieth century, nobody was really sure what they were for or what they were supposed to be doing.

Matthew Arnold had suggested that education should consist of acquainting students with “the best that has been thought and said” in Western civilization, but nobody was entirely sure what that was or how we ought to pick it. 

American “English” departments spent some time trying to figure out what constitued a distinctly “American”  (as opposed to English) literature.  If you read Hawthorne and Melville now, that’s largely why.  And as an experiment in national identity-building, it’s worth a look for its own sake.

And for a while there was even some sort of consensus on the bare bones basics of what constituted literature in English:  Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Jane Austen. 

What consensus there was, however, fell apart in the late Fifties and totally self-destructed in the Sixties.  If you’d told me you were an English major in 1954, I’d have been able to know without asking that you’d read that list up there, and all of it–all the plays of Shakespeare, all the novels of Jane Austen.

I would have known that no matter where you went to school or who your teachers were.  If you’d gone to a “good” school, I’d also know that you’d been required to learn to read either French (more likely) or German and to have suffered your way through at least a couple of courses in literature in that language.

These days, if you tell me you’re an English major, I have no idea what you’re doing.  I know at least five colleges where you can graduate with an English major without ever having read a word of Chaucer, and with having ready at most half a dozen Shakespeare plays and those in “translation” to “modern English.”

The English major died long before the deconstructionists came to wreak havoc on the “literary” world.  And because it had already died, it was ripe for invection by politicized idiocy. 

And infected it did get.

But I wouldn’t blame that on something intrinsic in literature, any more than I’d blame chemistry if an entire generation of chemists decided that alchemy was the real deal and ditched their traditional discipline for that instead.

That said, a few things about canons, in the plural.

It has to be in the plural, because we actually use the word in a lot of different ways.

There is “canon” in referring to specific subsets of literature.  I don’t mean, here, things like American literature or even Southern Gothic, but things like the Star Trek “universe.”   Readers will talk about how Smith’s story presented Kirk’s past in this way, which is interesting, but it’s not “canonical.”  “Canon” requires Kirk to be born to a famous but now dead Starfleet captain.

Readers of many different series and viewers of many different movie and television series have developed rather complex systems of analysis and interpretation in which the word “canon” is used in this sense, and the sense isn’t all that different from at least one of the professional uses of the word.

But in this case, “canon” is used to define those parts of the story that are felt to be “officially” true, and those entries–published books, released movies, whatever–that are themselves assumed to be “official” (as opposed to fan fiction, for instance).

The way the rest of the world uses the word “canon” comes in two parts, and with two different but possibly intersecting meanings.

The first is “those works that have so influenced the society you live in that not to be acquainted with them makes you only semi-literate, and that your life will be influenced by whether you know about them or not.”

This is a constantly shifting list, obviously, and the item on it do not necessarily constitute “the best that has been thought and said.” 

In the America of the twenty-first century, I’d include Superman on that list, but I wouldn’t include Ethan Frome or even James Joyce’s Ulysses. 

I don’t know if I’d include either Steinbeck or Hemingway–my guess is that there would be a stronger case for at least some Steinbeck, if only because he represents Depression era attitudes of a very specific kind, still having some impact on how we view policy questions about poverty and the welfare state.

But the inclusion would be iffy. 

There would be nothing iffy about the inclusion of Ayn Rand on such a list, however, because her ideas have had a huge impact on American social and political life in one way or another.

The second sense in which we use the word “canon” is in the sense of “the best that has been thought and said,” and for this there are also two subdivisions.

The first is entirely technical.  We could mean, by this definition, those works that are the most technically accomplished in their areas, the literary equivalent, say, of Michaelangelo’s Pieta or Beethoven’s Eroica. 

When we do this, we are setting a standard for performance, justifying that standard, and then trying to determine if any particular work meets it. 

Literary forms, just like anything else coherent, have an internal logic.  We have at least as good a chance of figuring out if a particular work satisfies the rules for its form as we do of figuring out if a basketball player has just committed a foul or not. 

Think of literature in this sense as a game.  Games have rules, and the rules can never be 100% arbitrary.   Basketball will require a basket and a ball, and it will not work if you try to play it with squares of melting cheese.

On this definition, I have no way of knowing if Sade constitutes part of “the best that has been thought or said” or not.  Like I said, my French was never that good, and it’s far less good know than it was a couple of decades ago.

It’s worth noting, however, that although a few people have made the argument for Sade as great literature on the basis of formal excellence, they are few and far between, and none of them were part of the original Sade rehabilitation movement in France. 

Most of the people hell bent (so to speak) on “rehabilitating” Sade wanted to do so on the basis of the second of the two subsets here:  that of the “best that has been thought and said” as indicating those thing we as a civilization should be most proud of, examples of what in means to be human in the highest sense.

People like Foucalt did not want to say that Sade wrote well, which he might have, for all I know.  Hitler wrote well.

They wanted instead–and still want–to present Sade as an example for our emulation. 

Because that is what this second sense of “canon” means.  If these are the examples of being human in the highest sense, then they are by necessity the role models for the rest of us.  They define our aspirations and, in the end, our goal.

It was against including Sade in the “canon” in this sense that Shattuck was protesting, and equally protesting  what he saw as an overanalytical, hyperconceptual concept of art that was divorced from its actual function in the real world.

Personally, I think he gave Foucalt and company too much credit.  I think they, and the people who followed them, were completely aware that what they were trying to do was “normalize” behavior that was, in fact, objectively evil.

And I’m fairly sure they were doing it for the reason I think deconstruction was invented to begin with–because only by doing it, and by obscuring all straightforward understanding of what words mean in the process, could they get out from under how they had behaved during the Nazi occupation of France.

I’ve got Gustav and tea.

Written by janeh

April 2nd, 2011 at 9:50 am

Posted in Uncategorized

We’re Having A Snow Day, A Tropical Snow Day…

with 5 comments

Okay, not quite.  There’s snow on the ground, and some coming down, but it’s pretty warm, so I’m guessing it’s all going to be gone by noon or so. 

In the meantime, of course, it’s pretty annoying.

I have come to the conclusion that I’m not going to get any real writing done this month–I’ll try, but in the end this month is about Greg’s surgeries, and I’m just not going to be able to concentrate enough to keep fiction sane.

Oddly enough, this doesn’t seem to have caused me any trouble with reading, so let me go with that.

I’m nearly at the end of Roger Shattuck’s Forbidden Knowledge:  From Pornography to Prometheus, and as I expected–and vaguely remembered from having read it years ago–we ended up with the Marquis de Sade.

I don’t know how many of you out there have read Sade, but my recommendation, from the very little I’ve read myself, would be to say that you don’t really want to.

When I say I’ve read very little, I mean very little.  I made a stab at Justine once.  I got about seven pages in before I was so revolted I had to stop.  Then I sort of skipped around and targetted pages to read and found even more of the same.

Then I was required to read long excerpts in a course I took for my master’s degree.  The excerpts were mostly long passages consisting of one character or another justifying the other things.

I don’t mean to be deliberately vague, but it’s hard to convey the content of this stuff to people who haven’t read it.

Let me take one of the less revolting passages in a longer and very baroquely constructed book, Juliette.

In one long scene in this novel, Juliette, her aristrocratic lover and his valet take Juliette’s ten year old daughter, violate her simultaneously from in front and behind as she is forced to perform orally on the third party, beat the crap out of her, and then throw her into the fire alive, to burn to death.  All this time, the child is screaming in pain and terror, and her screams cause the aristocrat and Juliette herself (the mother) to come to orgasm.

And all of this is described in excruciating detail, play by play, blow by blow, as hard core as it’s possible to get.

And yes, I did say that that was one of the less revolting passages.  Sade has a really remarkable range, so to speak.

As is to be expected from a book called Forbidden Knowledge, Shattuck does touch briefly on the idea that maybe we ought to ban books like Juliette, not least because, obtained by the wrong sort of person, a person with a proclivity to sexual violence, they provide the impetus for action.

I’m not one of those people who tries to defend freedom of speech and the press by saying that books can’t cause violence or any other kind of action. 

I think this amounts to saying that books are essentially trivial, and I don’t think that’s true.  Nobody would write anything if he thought that readers would not be affected by what he says. 

Imaginative literature can be especially effective because it provides a way in under the radar of our conscious control.  Fiction creates a moral world and asks us to live in it, and some of us will adopt that moral world as our own.

When that means that we show up at jury selection wearing a Star Fleet uniform, it’s a little nutty but basically harmless.  When we’re Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, the harm is infinite.

The real issue in censorship questions is not whether a book can impel some people to violence–we know some books do that to some people–but whether or not a system of law, which is based inevitably on concepts and abstractions, can ever safely be allowed the power to determine whether or not this or that particular book produces more harm than good in any total sense.

There are very few Moors murderers and Ted Bundys and Jeffrey Dahmers.  There are a seemingly endless number of people convinced that “harm” means people who think differently than they do, or people who resist “common sense” regulations on private life, or–you name it.

And, liberal and conservative, they all go into government or start organizations to promote causes.

Shattuck, being as much a product of the Enlightenment as I am, comes to the same conclusion, but what really interests him is another issue altogether.  This is what he calls the “rehabilitation” of Sade.

Specifically, Shattuck looks into the movement, started in the Fifties and early Sixties, to turn the Marquis de Sade into a “canonical” author, in the sense of an author acknowledged to be “great,” one who produced work that is among the greatest achievements of human beings, work that deserves to be admired and imitated.

I don’t suppose it should surprise me much that the movement to “rehabilitate” Sade was started in France by many of the people we now call “deconstructionists,” or that a prominent figure in that movement was Michel Foucalt, who praised Sade for “resisting” and “transgressing” “bourgeois values.”

I mean, yes, I suppose it’s terribly “bourgeois” to think it’s wrong of people to rape, torture and murder their own children, but I’d hope it was terribly “progressive” and “conservative” and “stray wandering hippie,” too. 

In fact, I’d be willing to bet that “it’s wrong to rape, torture and murder your own children” comes close enough to an absolute moral standard to make most moral relativists choke.

That said, there becomes a bigger question:  why would anybody want to rehabilitate the Marquis de Sade?

In some of the cases of people involved in this movement–which is still ongoing, by the way–what we almost certainly have are men (and they are almost all men) with just those abnormal proclivities that de Sade’s work speaks to (and that de Sade seems to have shared), for whom these works are what milder forms of pornography are to other people. 

We’re just lucky that they have more self control that an Ian Brady does.

But the percentage of people who are trying to turn Sade into a “great writer” are not likely to be so inclined.   These are the people, I think, who make the case that Sade’s work is like vaccination–if you read it, you get turned off sexual violence–or catharsis. 

These are also the people who tend to fall in love not with the explicit sex and torture scenes, but with the philosophizing speeches of the characters who justify what they are doing in terms Milton’s Satan would have understood.

But it still brings me back to two questions:

Is this another manifestation of that weird attraction some intellectual people have for violent people?

It’s not an attraction to violence itself.  Norman Mailer didn’t go out into the streets and start mugging people at knifepoint.  He championed Jack Abbott and got his violent thrills vicariously.  That’s the best explanation I’ve been able to come up with for the attraction to Che, and various self-proclaimed “socialist” dictators over the last several decades.

And the second question is this:  what makes a “great” writer? 

What makes an imaginative work–a novel, a story, a play, a poem–so outstanding an achievement that it should be counted among the very few things that define the best of what it means to be human?

If we restricted the literary canon to only those works, my guess would be that there would be very few of them.

Does Sade belong on that very short list?  Does he belong there even if his work is technically perfect?

(I haven’t even attempted to read Sade in French and my French is rusty and weak anyway.  For what it’s worth, Shattuck thinks Sade is turgid and belaboring.)

And maybe that brings me to a third question:  what does it mean for a society if it counts books like Juliette as emblematic of the greatest heights of human achievement?


I’ve got to go.

I’ve got lawyers.

Written by janeh

April 1st, 2011 at 8:05 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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