Archive for May, 2012
So, I’m going to tell you right off. I don’t know how this post is going to go. AOL is doing that wonky thing where things will and won’t load, or whatever, and then it all starts over again.
At the moment, I’m having one of those odd experiences that I can’t quite find an adjective for.
Yesterday, having come to the end of The Imitation of Christ and not knowing what I wanted to read, I started looking through the TBR pile.
The TBR pile at our house is not exclusive to me. Matt’s books are there, even though he’s seldom in Connecticut. Greg’s books are there. Both Matt and Greg have their own TBR piles in their own bedrooms, but that doesn’t stop them from putting stuff on mine.
At any rate, whatever the rationale, other people’s books are on my TBR pile all the time, and this time, when I went looking through what’s there for something I could get interested in, what I found was a trade paperback copy of Oliver Twist.
Oliver Twist is a book I have–well, I don’t want to say a long history with, because that’s not quite true.
What it is is the first book I ever read–well, a real book. Not something for children. Not something for school (although I read long before I went to school).
I was about eight years old, and at the time we were living in Bethel, Connecticut. The main street in Bethel is called Greenwood Avenue, and the library was in an old house there on a corner near Mullaney’s five and dime store and the railroad tracks that took people to New York to work.
This was, quite literally, a house. It had been given to the town for use as a library by somebody or the other. The ground floor had been converted into what you’d expect of a library, with shelves and stacks and a counter to check books out.
Almost everybody went to that floor almost automatically, but there was another part of the place. If you took the front staircase to the second floor, you found a small landing with bookshelves and a door that led to a largish room with even more bookshelves and a big conference type table.
On that landing and in that room were the books the library had decided were “classics.”
Oliver Twist was one of those classics. It was the first one I found. I was the first one I read. And if I read today, endlessly and compulsively, Oliver Twist is why.
I’m not sure this makes a lot of sense in terms of what my later tastes in literature have been, but there it was. I found the book. I sat down on the floor. I opened it up. I started reading it. An hour and a half later, my mother charged at me, wanting to know where I had been and what I thought I was doing.
I checked out Oliver Twist and David Copperfield both, on the assumption that if I loved one thing by Dickens I would love too–and I was never the same after that as I have been before.
I think it’s odd that I can remember both when I learned to read–or, at least, when other people first knew I could read–and when I knew that if I could find a way, all I wanted to do was read.
The when other people knew I could read thing is probably my second oldest memory, because I could not have been more than two years and eleven months old at the time.
I know that, because I found the entire scene bewildering. We were at my Aunt Mary’s house, before she married my Uncle Austin. This was in or around Washington, DC, and Aunt Mary worked for an Admiral.
Later on in that trip, the Admiral would take us on a short tour of a submarine that wasn’t underwater.
At any rate, at some point during this trip, my Aunt Mary bought me a Little Golden Book called, I think, The Ugly Platybus. For some reason, I’m choking on the title at the moment. It was a story about a duck-billed platybus, though, and it was an ugly duckling story.
And I took the book, and sat down in a chair, and read it out loud. My mother and my aunt were talking, and it took a while for them to realize what I was doing.
In fact, they probably didn’t believe it at first, because my Aunt Mary came over to see what the book really said, and when she saw that it said what I was saying, she got excited beyond belief. She ran around, hugging me and exclaiming that it was wonderful, it was wonderful, I could read!
I thought she was completely addled. Of course I could read. Everybody could read. My mother, on the other hand, was having a baby.
That’s how I know how old I was. My mother was pregnant with my brother, which I thought was a very big deal. My brother was two years and eleven months younger than I was.
The revelation on the second floor of the Bethel Public Library, though, was something else. It was, in more ways than one, irrevocable.
I rose from the floor a different person than I was when I sat down on it. I have never been anything but that same person since.
And that makes it all the odder that, in the many years since, I have never reread Oliver Twist before now.
I am, let’s face it, the kind of person who rereads books. I reread some books over and over again. There were a couple of decades when I reread The Razor’s Edge and Rebecca every Christmas season.
I even reread mystery novels, including ones (like The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Murder on the Orient Express) that I couldn’t help remembering the solution to if I wanted to.
Still, whatever the reason, I never reread Oliver Twist, and I never reread David Copperfield, either.
I got started on the books on the second floor and just went through the shelves as if I’d die if I didn’t finish them. I read The Scarlet Pimpernel and Anna Karenina. I read The Great Gatsby and The Count of Monte Cristo. I read volume after volume of The Best American Plays, 19–.
And let me tell you, Tennessee Williams was quite an education–if a very confused one I didn’t straighten out until I was about 13.
So–what do I think of Oliver Twist now that I’m rereading it?
I think it’s a wonderful book, as wonderful as I thought it was the first time, although there are now parts of it that make me very uncomfortable.
I know some of you just can’t stand Dickens, but there is something about Dickens’s narrative voice that just pulls me in. It always feels to me as if, in this book, somebody in particular is talking directly to me.
On the other hand, this is not where my taste came to settle. This is not the kind of thing I read when I go looking for something I know I want. I still love Victorian novels, but I prefer the “grown up” ones, like Trollope and James.
But it does strike me that many of Dickens’s points about the treatment and especially of the children of the poor–well, it strikes me that they sound a lot like what we sometimes discuss here.
Sometimes, I think I’m saying something startling, and inside I seem not to be saying anything at all.
Let’s start with Lymaree’s comment that if your life on earth is a living hell, you’ll probably be open to the idea of despising it all in order to get a better life in Heaven.
I completely agree–but life in 15th century was NOT, for most people, a living hell.
This is the Quattrocento we’re talking about, the great run up to the High Renaissance.
Looked at from the 21st century, it seems very uncertain and unstable.
But 15th century Europeans were not looking at it from the 21st century. They were looking at it from what had come before. And in that context, the pleasures of the world and everything about them were definitely looking up.
States were consolidating and solidifying. Public order was on the rise, and so was the standard of living for almost everybody.
Between the time of Thomas’s birth and the day when Martin Luther brought the house down, there would be the greatest flowering of art (and progress in artistic technique) the world had ever, or would ever, see.
And, while we’re at it, that same period would see the beginnings of what we know acknowledge as “real” science.
The Imitation of Christ is not a response to how bad things were. It’s a response to the fact that things were getting better.
And, if you look at my copy, with its new introduction and new publication in 1952, that also seems to be a case of the popularity of the book being a response to things getting better.
What’s more, although there’s nothing heterodox about The Imitation of Christ, on the continuum of orthodox Catholic theology, it sits at one extreme.
Cheryl says that in one kind of theology you get no credit for doing good, because that’s just what you were supposed to do anyway.
But Thomas goes much farther than that. Man is innately evil, and he can never do good at all. All that can come of man’s will and acts is evil and corruption. When man appears to do good, it isn’t he himself who is doing it. It is God acting through him.
Therefore, man can win no merit by doing good works or living a good and honest life, because none of that is his own doing.
Therefore, what human beings must do is this: empty themselves of self in every possibly way.
Have no desires or loves. Care nothing for material things or even other people, including close family. Have no ambition, but be content to live in obscurity. Never have an idea or opinion contrary to anybody else, and never defend any idea or opinion.
Most especially, empty yourself of all curiosity. Do not look into the ways of God, on any level. Do not seek knowledge of nature. Do not question revelation in any sense. Do not ask if any doctrine makes sense or not–of course it doesn’t make sense to you, your mind is corrupted with sin. Do not ask why some people are rich and some are poor.
Just don’t ask.
The more I look at this, the more this seems to me to be exactly a response to the Quattrocento, to the progress in the arts and sciences.
It is a defense againt progress and prosperity, not despair and hopelessness.
For some reason, a lot of people over the centuries have found a newly prosperous world more frightening than enjoyable.
You can actually see this in various places in this book. Thomas will go along encouraging us to find comfort and joy in God alone, and then suddenly riff off on how it’s very important to understand that no matter how many comforts you may find in this life, your love for your family, nice clothes and a comfortable bed, whatever, all those are dangerous and bad for you. They draw you away from God and ready your soul for Hell.
These exhortations would have made little or no sense in 600 or even 1100, when giving in to the wiles of prosperity was not something most people had to worry about.
And it doesn’t help that the message is, intellectually, incoherent.
You must empty yourself of all self so that God can work within you, and this requires enormous self-discipline. We must work diligently to control our passions and desires.
Of course, this is impossible without God working in us, because WE can’t actually do anything of the sort, but…
Sorry, that got me tied up in knots for a while.
At some points in reading this book, I felt as if I were reading a parody written by Ayn Rand. It corresponds exactly to her fictional portrayal of Christianity in Atlas Shrugged, and it outdoes Nietzsche by a mile.
But it is, I think, worth asking the question.
Why are some people more frightened by the prospect of a comfortable life than a miserable one?
What is it that seems so terrifying about a world in which you can eat well, sleep well, and satisfy your curiosity about what makes plants green or why the sun goes into eclipse?
So–I am the kind of person who likes to read one book at a time, and I do not like to stop in the middle, or not finish. I make it a point to finish what I start, even if the book is not very good.
This is a habit that comes to me from my father, who told me, when I was very young, that if I started by not finishing some things, I would end by not finishing anything. This seems to have scared the hell out of me on a number of levels, and the result is that I always finish what I start.
Well, with a few notable exceptions. I managed to get out from under Little Women–which is a truly awful book–by telling myself that part one and part two were originally published as two separate novels, and since I had finished part one I couldn’t be said to be not finishing…well, you see what I mean.
The Art of the Renaissance is not a bad book. It is, in fact, a good one, and some of its essays have been fascinating, but it has one great drawback.
Because it’s an art book, and because the editor and publisher wanted to include lots of full color illustrations, the book is both outsized and very heavy, and printed on thick glossy stock.
This is wonderful for the illustrations, but it’s not so great for someone trying to read the smallish print. Holding the damn thing in exactly the position it needs to be held for me to read it is physical tiring and sometimes actively painful.
But it’s a book of essays.
So what I’ve decided to do is to read one essay, and then, in between, read smallish books or collections of short stories to sort of relax my hands and eyes and that kind of thing.
This seems to be working fairly well.
Right now, I’m between art essays, and what I’m reading is a little book called The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis.
The reason I’m reading The Imitation of Christ–aside from the fact that it was handy on my TBR pile–is that I’ve recently taken to rereading a lot of the things I read in college and graduate school in Latin, but rereading them in English translation.
A book sounds and feels different when you’re not continually translating the thing in your head.
And with a language like Latin or classical Greek, which is either not spoken at all any more or spoken in limited places and circumstances–Latin is the official language of the Catholic Church, and is the language used at the Roman theological universities–well, trust me, some part of you is always translating.
This is a strange little book, on a number of levels. For a very long time–almost from its first publication in the 15th Century to the early 1960s–it was the single most popular Christian devotional work in existence, second only to the Bible in popularity.
And it was popular not only among Catholics, but among Protestants as well, and also among people of other religious faiths (Hinduism especially) who found a lot in it that spoke to them.
That popularity was a little odd, if you think about it. Thomas wrote his little book to be read aloud to monks and nuns in refectory and at recreation. It was meant to be a work to help consecrated religious perfect their vocations.
Still, hundreds of thousands of people, including hundreds of thousands of people who rejected out of hand the idea of a cloistered, celibate, consecrated religious life, bought and read this book, often many times.
In the edition I have–a Penguin–the introduction was written by what is clearly a devoutly Catholic man. He wrote in 1952, and spent much of the time usually taken up in Penguin introductions by analysis urging his readers to take the book to heart and follow its advice. He is sure that the world will be a better place and that Communism will cease to exist if only enough people do.
And that’s a little interesting, too, because the advice is not what you’d think.
It’s the kind of advice that, I would say, has largely disappeared from Christian discourse by now–it is certainly the kind of advice that you would never hear from the pastor of a megachurch or from Rick Santorum on the campaign trail.
It is an understanding of Christianity as a lived experience that is very old and very extreme, and I cannot remember hearing anybody advance it as an idea since my childhood.
Maybe they still talk like this in religious communities, or at least in conservative religious communities, I don’t know.
But the second very odd thing I realized when I started rereading this book was this; it was written in the 15th Century.
I think I’d always assumed, when I’d read this before, that it was a book from the High Middle Ages or even before–that it had been written around, say, 1100 or 1200.
I had assumed this because its sensibility is distinctly Medieval.
Its picture of the world is of a place where any joy or comfort you may have is fleeting, to be destroyed in an instant by death or the change of fortune. If you are happy even for a moment, you are a fool, destined to spend eternity in the flames of Hell without Christ because you cared for the ephemerality of the material world (including your family and friends) than you did for your eternal destiny.
Its picture of human beings is of creatures sinful, corrupt, worthless and foul, with no right to claim inocense in anything, ever. Baptism washes away Original Sin, but not the human tendency to evil, which is part of our corrupted nature until we are cleansed by God at Judgment.
There is not a single thing we do that is worthwhile–not anything at all, even curing cancer (okay, Thomas wouldn’t have put it that way) or relieving the miseries of the poor–if we do it because it is what we want to do, if it is our own idea and a matter of our own will.
This is, as I said, a very old idea of Christianity, but it’s the Christianity of the destruction of Rome and the swelling tides of barbarian invaders, a world without order or certainty of any kind. It’s the Christianity of the great plagues.
Or at least, I thought it was.
And I find myself with a dilemma–if this is not just a response to wholesale civilizational destruction and massive death by disease, what is it?
And why is t his book still in print 600 years after it was written?
Try to think of yourself as a foul pit of sin and corruption, that needs, before anything else, to empty yourself of all will and desire, of anything that is a part of your self, in order to escape Hell.
That’s your homework for the day.
So, there I am, looking at the comments to yesterday’s post, and flabbergasted once again at how so many people read not what’s actually written, but what they expect to hear.
I’m also flabbergasted by some of the assertions, especially the one about how, if a writer wants to take in a broad and sweeping canvas and address large issues, he must focus on government enterprises because–well, I don’t know why because.
But let’s start with the particulars.
First, I SAID NOTHING about either “the contemporary middle class” OR “angst.”
I was talking about ordinary people making decisions in their everyday lives, and that is the actuality of every novel Dickens ever wrote. Dickens contains a lot of things, but I can’t think of a single instance of angst.
Besides that, Dickens does not focus on the middle class alone. He presents characters (and the way in which they make private decisions in their private lives) from most walks of life.
And later on in this post, I’m going to point out that Dickens does indeed spend ALL his time (except for the novellas) writing novels that having sweeping scope–and not one of them concentrates on government employees on government missions.
Second, I said NOTHING derogating SF. All I said was that ALL THE SF GIVEN TO ME TO READ (with one exception) has been of this same type–government employees on government missions.
For thirty years.
Please excuse me for thinking that this might indicate a trend.
My guess is that I’ve read a hell of a lot more SF than most of you here have read contemporary literary fiction, and yet most of you are perfectly comfortable declaring that all contemporary literary fiction consists of stories about angst-ridden upper middle class snots fretting about their extramarital affairs.
And yet the last two such novels I read concerned a story about what happens when the Iberian peninsula breaks off from the rest of the European continent and goes floating around in the ocean on its own (The Stone Raft) and what happens in Lisbon when a mysterious disease makes 90% of the population inexplicably and mysteriously blind (Blindness).
When I mention this kind of thing, I get–but that’s science fiction, not contemporary literary fiction!
But contemporary literary fiction it is, and nobody is angsting over extramarital affairs.
And, by the way, your contempt for what you call “contemporary literary fiction” is clear and out front, while I made NO DEROGATORY COMMENT AT ALL about SF.
All I said was: this is what the things I’ve been given to read have been like, and that’s why I’m not as interested in them as I am in other things.
Third, Cheryl says, and others of you imply, that you would never be interested in reading a novel that concentrated on the individual everyday decisions of a shopkeeper.
The fact is–you read them all the time.
That description covers virtually every Golden Age fair play mystery, virtually all of Stephen King and Charles Dickens, and, in fact, most of the novels ever written.
Some of them certainly have angst–Hamlet has angst, it’s going to show up once in a while–but I’ve never noticed it to be a particularly prominent aspect in most of them.
So, what kind of novels was I talking about?
All of Jane Austen. All of Dickens. Most of Stephen King (I haven’t read the Dark Tower series, so with that I don’t know). Trollope’s Barchester series. Vanity Fair. Gone With The Wind. All of Balzac. All of Agatha Christie except the spy stories during the war. All of the Brontes. All of Henry James and Edith Wharton. Most of Dorothy L. Sayers, John Dickson Carr, and Erle Stanley Gardner.
I could go on like this, but I’d be eating up a lot of space.
This should not be surprising, though, because this is what the novel was originally designed to do–to give voice to the emerging important “middle class,” in the sense of “people who are not the aristocracy.”
Fourth, it is definitely NOT true that novels of “larger scope” require their plots to be about government employees on government missions.
Margaret Mitchell could have written a novel set in the American Civil War that focused on the soldiers fighting–soldiers (government employees) on a government mission (the war). Instead, she wrote a novel about a woman left behind and the way she made small decisions about private problems and how that series of decisions added up to the reality of Scarlett O’Hara’s character and how that character was Scarlett O’Hara’s destiny.
Stephen King could have written a novel about state-sponsored scientific workers (government employees) and the military (more government employees) first causing a worldwide epidemic and then trying to fix it (a government mission). Instead, he wrote a novel about a group of very ordinary individual people and the small choices they made that added up to reclaiming (or not) civilization.
And those were good choices to make. Those choices made those novels large in scope, precisely because they concentrated on the everyday choices of ordinary people.
I didn’t invent that line about “character is destiny,” but it’s a good one, and it’s true.
As far as I’m concerned, a first rate novel is one that illustrates just that–that character is destiny, that deciding on Thursday to put your thumb on the scale and cheat your customer out of $1.48 on her hamburger order will end later (as a result of a long list of such choices) in your embezzling from your new employer or murdering your husband for his insurance or giving false witness that sends an innocent man to jail.
I think that is, in fact, the way the world works.
Okay, I’m not sure where I’m going with this, so bear with me.
I have talked on this blog, several times, about the work of Henry James. That makes sense, because I like the work of Henry James, and of the writer who modeled her own career on his, Edith Wharton.
I like James and Wharton because they write about people and how those people think and feel. They write about the individual caught in a society that is no good for him, or (more likely) her.
There is of course conflict and resolution, but the conflict and resolution is often largely interior. In The Portrait of a Lady, Isabel Archer must learn that her ideas about love and marriage–all of them romaticized and emotional–are untrue to reality, and do it once that reality has fallen on her and nearly crushed her. She can come into her own only once she understands that her husband is what he is and has never been anything else.
Even then, her emancipation is internal–she cannot divorce the man, given the laws and customs of her time, and even protecting her money from him is a major undertaking.
These seem to me to be real and important problems. They catch my interest because they are the problems of everyday life, the things we need to deal with every day–and, in dealing with, because the constituent parts of a life lived well or badly.
And living life well or badly–each of us, on our individual and largely unimportant level–is the final answer to that question about what it’s all supposed to mean.
I don’t care if you’re atheist or religious or something in between, and I don’t care what religion you practice.
Each of us has exactly one chance to live this life, and what we do with it, and how we build it, is the single most important fact for and about any of us.
I bring this up right now because I have been reading my way through some science fiction, and that reading has brought it home to me that when I choose books for myself, I always choose books about how ordinary people construct and conduct their lives.
That paradigm explains not only why I read James and Wharton–and Hemingway and Katherine Anne Porter and all the rest–but also why I read and write mysteries.
And not just mysteries in general, but specifically detective stories.
The detective story is first and foremost a story about very ordinary people caught in the concentrating experience of being part of an extraordinary crime.
I think that one of the things that often bothers me about reading science fiction–and certainly about reading a great deal of fantasy–is that these stories are not this.
The characters are almost always either Somebody Important, or Somebody Official, and the stories almost always take place in Extraodinary Circumstance–a space mission to a new world, the conquests of planets or galaxies, the reclamation of the entire world from the Forces of Evil, or just about anything except people going about their everyday business at everyday occupations.
In fact, one of the odder things about the science fiction people ask me to read is this: all the stories seem to be about big government projects of some kind. I never get any sense of how people on alien worlds, or even people on the Earth at the time, live day to day.
It is, in fact, even odder than that. I sometimes get the impression–and this is the case with Star Trek, too–that there is no day to day. The world seems to have become a wholly own subsidiary of whatever the government is. They are space troopers, or Imperial police, or members of a military crew, or–
You see what I mean here. What I don’t hear about is a guy running a grocery store or working for a small private insurance company or even running a bookstore or working an assembly line.
In these stories, the government, of whatever kind it is, seems to have swallowed up everything. The world of the future is characteried by large government project sending people into space to colonize remote planets or serving in intergalactic armies or going off to do the official dig at some archelogically important space site.
I know this is all supposed to be metaphor and analogy, relevant to our time and place through the magic of fiction and inference.
But the fact is, I’m not much interested in reading about big government enterprises in my own time and place.
I don’t even like most police procedurals, and I really don’t like the ones about chasing Really Evil and Sexually Gross serial killers.
My main exception to this is that I do like quite a lot of things set in and around World War II. I am not entirely sure why this is true. And I’m not sure what Patton and Band of Brothers have in common besides World War II.
And World War II is not enough in and of itself, because I tried very hard to get into The Pacific, and I just couldn’t manage it.
The more I look into my preferences in fiction, the more pronounced this particular preference is. I prefer Marple to Poirot, largely because Miss Marple is not a Great Detective. She’s a little old lady who lives in a small town and who has a clear head and a good mind.
She is, in other words, one of us.
I think I have, stuck somewhere in my mind, the conviction that the Great Events of the world are not really all that important, and that the Official ones are even less so.
Yes, of course Great Events affect us all, and the activities of government often affect us whether we want them to or not, and can change the entire intellectual and spiritual nature of a society.
But in the end, it seems to me more important what people do with it, in the small decisions, day to day, year to year.
Small decisions add up to some very large realities about the world.
In the end, I think what I find most disappointing is the lack of imagination–you’d think one of these guys, somewhere, would have come up with a story that gave at least some indication that there were people out there doing the ordinary things of everyday life.
In the world of the future, the universe has become an arena of governtment action, and not much else.
I saw the new issue of Reason magazine yesterday, and it contained a retrospective on Michael Harrington’s The Other America that I thought would fit right into this–but it is the new issue, and the piece isn’t up on their website yet that I can find.
But let me try to address a few things here, starting with Cathy’s complaint that the blog posts are talking about people who grew up poor, not just people who had a crisis where they were poor for a while.
And I’ll skip commenting at length on the idea that any crisis that lasts a decade ought to count, because it’s more complicated than that.
Let me just say, first, that I’m with Cheryl–there is nothing in these blog posts to indicate that the writer grew up poor. What he seems to say is that he made himself poor through a long period of alcoholism.
But whether he grew up poor or made himself that way through liquor, the fact remains that “buy canned vegetables instead of fresh” is a different kind of marker of poverty than “spend down the entire EITC check the minute it comes” or “go crazy with Christmas presents we can’t afford.”
It’s different in kind because it’s a forced choice, where the others aren’t. If you really have to buy all your groceries only once a month, then buying canned instead of fresh is pretty much the only option you have. Fresh will go bad in a week.
And there even are occasions and circumstances under which spending the entire big check the minute it comes in makes sense–for instance, if you have a whole slew of back bills you haven’t been able to pay until now.
Knowing which choices are open and which are forced is important–it keeps both the people in the situation and the government planners trying to help them from making stupid mistakes about what will and won’t make things better.
But I would object that even “growing up poor” doesn’t lead to blowing all the EITC money in one go or overspending on Christmas presents to the detriment of the rent and light bill.
Virtually everybody reading this–or at least the US people–is related to at least some people who grew up poor, often in immigrant neighborhoods at times when building codes were lax and nonexistent and social programs had yet to be conceived.
If they were like my father’s parents, they came from villages in Southern Europe where there was no electricity or running water to large American cities where they had to sleep eight to a bedroom and suffer through with few or no windows.
There are people now in the same situation–poor in the countries they came from, even poorer when they get here, speaking no English, breaking their backs.
It doesn’t seem to me that poverty per se is the issue here, except in the sense that the structural realities make poverty worse and harder to get out of.
And by structural realities I don’t mean payday loans. I mean long lists of regulations and requirements that make getting out of poverty harder. Let’s start with the municipal regulation of street vendors, which has made walking around the city with a pushcart a very expensive proposition. Those regulations exist not to protect the public, but to protect the owners of brick and mortar stores from competition by upstart immigrants.
Most of my students (my remedial students, now) would fit the blogger’s picture of poverty–and worse pictures of poverty, too. Almost all of them grew up poor.
The difference between my students and the Chinese family that runs our cheapest Chinese take out is not that one group grew up poor and the other didn’t, but that the two groups grew up different kinds of poor. It’s that they grew up different kinds of poor and among other poor people with different kinds of attitudes and assumptions about life.
The passivity of my students and their families is not innate, and it’s not an automatic response to poverty. It’s learned, and we teach it to them on purpose.
It seems to me that some of the things Ehrenreich talked about in that article were further expansions of the attempt to teach passivity–certainly things like charging room and board for your time in jail.
We need to get rid of those things, and anything else that artificially impedes people from making their situation better.
I’d even make their situation better, not by “programs” but by simply giving them money. (I’ll say it again–fire the social workers and the case workers and the administrators and put that money into the pool to be given out as an EITC. Give the poor people the money and let them decide what to do with it from there.)
Because it seems to me that the only alternative we have to that is to do what Michael Harrington wanted us to do and what we more or less seem to be actually doing–treating poor people like mental defectives whose lives have to be monitored and micromanaged on a nearly daily basis.
I think that’s what Ehrenreich is trying to protest against when she comes out with silly statements about how the only thing that causes poverty is lack of money.
I do think we do less damage running on that assumption than on the assumptions we run on now.
Me blithering about art essays–or even me going crazy over the attempts at mind control that now seem to be part of every enterprise, and especially of public schools–that’s not so interesting.
And there’s probably a point there, so I’ll let it go.
I would like to make one point before I start in with the Ehrenreich, though: propaganda has always been, by definition, an activity of governments. Advertising is not propaganda, because–under most circumstances–it has no enforcement arm.
But let’s get to the Ehrenreich.
First, it doesn’t bother me that she’s throwing out worst case scenarios and acting as if they’re the norm. Thats what all polemicists do–Mark Steyn as well as Ehrenreich, Paul Johnson as well as Christopher Hitchens.
Second, I think several of the points in this article were spot on, including:
1) We lock too many people up, and increasingly we lock them up for things that would have incurred only a fine 40 years ago, or not even that.
What’s more, we’ve been engaged for some time in an escalating war of laws and penalties that sometimes seems to me to be designed to get around all those pesky old rules about double jeopardy.
A simple traffic violation can often result in multiple charges, many of them overlapping–having a signal light on the fritz can get you failure to signal a lane change plus driving without properly maintained equipment plus failure to drive right (not making that last one up).
The idea seems to be that if you throw enough separate charges at the defendant, the jury is likely to come back with something.
I don’t see much difference between this and the bullying programs and “awareness” projects in public schools–both are attempts to micromanage the population, and both are equally ineffective and wrong.
I am certainly in favor of locking up people who continue to drink and drive. I don’t see the point of locking up people who drive cars that are unregistered, or who fail to use their turn signals, or who are doing 42 in a 35 zone.
Of course, this is me, so I also don’t see any reason to lock up people who are smoking marijuana in their own living rooms.
But do note–this drive to expand the areas of life for which the government can lock you up comes at a time when it is increasingly impossible to leave such a situation behind you.
The Internet means that the misdemeanor you committed at 18 will follow you for the rest of your life. It will prevent you from getting a job and can often prevent you from getting an education. Forever.
And even when records are sealed, as in the case of juveniles, they have consequences. A juvenile who is arrested and incarcerated will still have his fingerprints (and often DNA) on file in “the system.”
And juveniles can be arrested and incarcerated for things that are not actually crimes, like running away from home.
Is this what we actually want? Does it actually make sense?
2) To me, charging prisoners money for their room and board in jail seems just plain wrong, on just about every level.
Anyone who’s been here for a couple of days knows that I am not a fan of expanded government.
Jails and prisons, however, being part of the justice system, are a core function of government, and as such they should be paid for by government, meaning by taxes.
3) The child support question isn’t an either/or. Both Michael and Lymaree can be right in individual cases, and the situation may be very different in different states.
4) The question of payday and other loans charging–yes, insane–rates of interest is more complicated.
Some of you may remember a discussion on this blog about just those kinds of loans being made by people who claimed to be an Indian tribe, and where the stated rates of interest were all upwards of one percent.
Most payday loans, however, are not that. They’re $300 loaned Wednesday to be paid back, say, ten days later at $320 or $340.
Is that an awful rate of interest?
Yes, but it’s also $40, not thousands, and it keeps the heat and light on and gas in the car.
I’m not sure what government could do to step in and fix this. The issue is usually a pay schedule that doesn’t fit the payment schedule of things like utilities.
Government could pay for the utilities, I suppose, but it already does at least some of that, at least in Connecticut.
What really bugs me, on the subject of loans and interest, is the credit card companies.
Not only do they routinely charge 30% or more, but they have always claimed they do it because they make credit available to a large portion of the population, some of whom do not pay back what they borrow.
And that was fine when credit card debt was unsecured and therefore written off in bankruptcy.
But now the credit card companies have gotten the law changed so that, for many people, such debt is not discharged in bankruptcy.
I think they ought to pick–either the debt is fully dischargable and they charge any interest they want, or the debt is not fully dischargable and they should have their interest rates regulated.
5) I agree that it can be expensive to be poor, especially if you’re too poor to do things like shop in bulk, but I was not entirely sympathetic to Mike’s article when I first read it, and I’m not entirely sympathetic to it now.
Oh, more ack.
Not really. Or not exactly. It’s complicated.
The first of the two articles I thought was spot-on, but the second–the one about habits–made me a little nuts.
We went through an incredibly bad period in the two years after Bill died–I think one year I made less than $5000. And, as far as I know, there was no earned income tax credit.
But the two things I did not do during that period, or just after it, was to spend all the money in significant checks when it came in again, or buy Christmas and birthday gifts out the wazoo to compensate for how awful things had been.
The fact that I didn’t do this may have something to do with the fact that I have spent my life mostly self employed as a writer, and being self employed as a writer essentially also means you get paid twice a year.
You simply cannot function in this business if you don’t learn how to pace those checks.
And as for Christmas and birthdays–well, we had one year when Christmas and birthday presents consisted of ONE tub of flavored popcorn for each of us. And we survived.
I felt guilty, mind you, but we survived.
6) The civil forfeiture thing is definitely a nightmare, but it its effects are not restricted to poor people.
It’s an active license to steal, and it should come as no surprise that police departments use it to steal.
That’s human nature.
Okay, there’s also a long post, but here
is an article by Barbara Ehrenreich. And yes, I know some of you have problems with Barbara Ehrenreich, and I do, too–but this is the kind of thing I read her for.
And I’ve talked about some of it–including the “send everybody to prison for everything and act as if jaywalkers are Hannibal Lecter” thing–here.
Okay, I have no idea what that title means.
It’s Sunday, which means that I got up and went to work and then came out and played music to myself so that I could read to it–and yes, if you’re looking at the time stamp on this, that means I get up early.
Today, I was still reading the art book from yesterday, although I didn’t run into the kind of thing that would make me write a really long boring post just because I was aggitated.
And I’m glad I didn’t pronounce on the virtues and vices of Alick McLean before I’d read his essay. In spite of the indications in the introduction, McLean did not produce a long postmodernist screed about the Papacy using architecture as propaganda.
In a way, that was too bad, because what was really wrong with that essay was that it was incredibly and nearly endlessly boring. The man can’t write his way out of a paper bag, and he tends to list things, so that if you are trying to learn this stuff–or even just to sort of understand it–you find yourself taking the list items one by one and finding the photo plates that illustrate them and then going back and forgetting anything and starting all over again.
I am, obviously, one of these people who knows absolutely nothing about art (about painting and architecture and sculpture), and I am also a person who knows absolutely nothing about writing about art.
If you gave me a book of essays on literature, I could read it and tell you if it was valid and helpful or a mass of nonsense. I could at least tell you whether it corresponded to consensus thinking in the field, or consensus thinking in the field from sixty years ago.
With critical writing about literature, I’m like a lot of other people who have tried the postmodernist/structuralist/whatever and found it useless. I’ve gone back to reading the men (all of them men) who turned Literature in English into an academic field to begin with–Yvor Winters, Alan Tate, Cleanth Brooks.
With writing about art, I have no idea what’s going on. I’m going to venture to guess, here, that Alick McLean’s problem is that he can’t write, and not that his subject matter requires him to do what he did in the essay I read.
I say this because the next essay, on the development of painting in Italy from icons to the Quatrocento, is very well written indeed, and wonderfully easy to follow, even if I have to work to actually understand some of what it’s about.
I don’t mind having to work to understand what I read. In fact, I mostly like it, except right before I want to go to sleep–and then I don’t read before bed anymore. I do aggressively simple variety puzzles and drop off with my glasses on.
The article on painting is written by Alexander Perrig. A Google search found dozens of hits for buying his books, of which he’s written many, including what seems to be a textbook. What I couldn’t find, anywhere, was a standard issue bio.
I have no idea why this book I have does not include short bios of the authors. But the man can write, and the article is interesting, and I’ve picked up several things I didn’t know before I read it, not all of them about art.
What I haven’t figured out is the thing about “propaganda,” because although neither McLean nor Perrig runs at the word with the heavy-handed obtuseness of somebody trying to make political points, they both use it now and then.
And I’ve finally figured out that I have no idea what it means.
I don’t think that’s entirely right.
I do know what the word meant originally–it was the official line of a government or other institution meant to capture the mind of the public to its point of view. It was always biased and half-true. It almost always went along with an official attempt to suppress any contrary information or dissent.
Using the original definition, my guess is that the only propaganda out there at the moment–at least for us in the US–are the endless PSAs about smoking and drugs that now accompanying nearly every aspect of daily life, and the promotional materials for various attitudinal campaigns (like the one on bullying).
The biggest problem with this sort of thing is that dissent becomes unhearable–is that a word?
If you say the anti-bullying campaigns are intrusive, emotionally coercive and the invasion of the rights to privacy of most students–you immediately get branded as somebody who wants bullying to go on and students to feel bad.
The same goes for all the rest of the campaigns like it, including the ones about smoking and drugs. Try to protect your child from participating in the role-playing and emotional openness sessions that comprise so much of most of these programs, and you’re immediately branded as somebody with a psychological problem that must be “overcome.”
Most of the propaganda I have been personally acquainted with in my life has been part of a larger effort to change not just behavior, which would be legitimate, but the inner thoughts and feelings of large populations–children in the schools, of course, but also adults in workplaces or just adults who care for children.
And as these programs clearly do not work, and continue to not work, they become expanded–schools demand that students toe the line not only while they’re on school property, but even when they’re home on what is supposed to be their own time.
A student can be expelled for bullying or homophobia even if the incident occurs in his back yard, and the areas in which a school expects to be able to regulate his behavior get wider and wider.
It’s true for adults, too–Pat Buchanon was recently fired as a commentator on MSNBC for things he said in a book, off the air, on his own time–and not things that MSNBC should have been surprised by.
I mean, Pat Buchannon is Pat Buchanon. He’s been saying this stuff for decades.
But if you really want to see the excrement hit the rotary, be a public school teacher with a Facebook page.
The other interesting thing, of course, is that outside of Nat Hentoff, none of the usual suspects seems to want to take on the progranda and its coercive behavioral arm. The ACLU isn’t suing a school district somewhere because it punished a student for refusing to take part in a Day of Silence, or sent him to therapy because he wouldn’t “disclose” in the feeling circle on anti-bullying day.
It seems obvious to me that regulating behavior is one thing–and, in schools, entirely appropriate–but attempting to intrude on any person’s inner thoughts and feelings is entirely over the line.
It also seems obvious to me that the authority of a school or workplace should, most of the time, end when you leave the premises–that slavery was abolished in the 19th century and that nobody should get to own us 24/7.
Ah, but that must mean I think it’s okay for kids to bully kids, or for commentators to have yucky views about race.
I’m going to go see what I can get done.
I’m having a reasonably good morning.
You can always tell my good mornings, because I’m not listening to Beethoven–or Yardbird–at six a.m.
If I’m listening to something even less plausible at six a.m.–say, Mingus at Town Hall–the world has probably come to an end, and you can just shoot me.
This morning, however, I am listening to Paul O’Dette’s Alla Venetiana, which is a collection of 16th century pieces for the lute. Paul O’Dette is the guy to go to for lute, or at least that’s how my children would put it.
Anyway, 16th century lute music is very subdued, at least as this album plays it, and that’s nice for just getting up and not quite having the caffeine in me to face the day.
In fact, lute music is so subdued and the caffeine arrived with such alacrity that I’m not even going to have a snit fit here about all those comments delineating the difference between reading “intellectually” and otherwise.
I, also, get lost in fiction–very lost. I identify with characters, even ones I don’t write.
Reading remains an activity of the mind. And if you want to see me lose my emotional connection to a book, assuming I had one to begin with, just throw a sex scene into it.
All that said–I have just started to read a book I bought some time ago on the assumption that it was something else.
The book is called The Art of the Renaissance, and it is a collection of essays on Renaissance art and architecture by a collection of authors I know nothing about. It’s edited by a man named Rulf Tomin, and it was published originally in Germany.
The reason I said that I bought this book on the assumption that it was something else is this: I saw it online, not in a store, and it was priced at $5.99.
At this point I made an assumption that I probably shouldn’t have made. Since the book cost only $5.99, I thought it must be, say, a pamphlet on Renaissance art–something small and easy to handle that I could take around in the car with me and bring to class to read when students were taking quizzes.
What arrived instead was this enormous, heavy, hardcover coffee-table sized book, the kind of art book that would normally cost upwards of $50 and that is always too heavy and unwieldy to take around with me.
I put it to the side and chose more practically-sized volumes for going to and from class.
And then, as often happens, I just forgot about it, until about a week ago. My semester was coming to an end, I’d just finished a book, and it occurred to me that this would be a good time to read this thing. The pictures are gorgeous, the essays sounded interesting, and I didn’t have to take it anywhere if I didn’t want to.
The first essay in this book is the introduction, written by the editor. It doesn’t do much except give an overview of the essays that follow, and try to establish a timeline for “the Renaissance.”
The book then begins with an essay by a professor named Alick McLean, an expert in the history of architecture in the late Middle Ages, and apparently an American with a doctorate in architecture from Princeton.
I was more than a little cautious when I started to read this thing, because the introduction described the piece as being about how the architecture of the late Middle Ages was “propagandistic” in aid of Papal Imperial power.
In general, I don’t find this kind of thing either helpful or particularly interesting. Everything is Politics hasn’t done much to help explain the world. If anything, it has made the world less and less clear, and made human life look completely incoherent.
But I’m not going to go into this kind of thing at the moment. I have only started to read the piece, and although I’ve been wincing at yet another casual misuse of the word “theocratic,” I may find by the time I finish it that it’s less tendentious than I suppose.
So we’ll let that go.
What got me worked up this morning was something else–it was the statement, thrown away without elaboration or citation, that the Protestant Reformation broke the hegemony of Rome over Christendom.
Okay. I’ll admit it.
This is not the kind of thing that people spend their time being annoyed about at six o’clock in the morning.
But for those of you who don’t know, the name on my birth certificate is…well, Greek.
I’m not Greek–that is, I was born in the US, as were both my parents, and I could not more function in Athens without committing mayhem (especially now) than I could train a bunny to sing opera.
Nevertheless, to the extent that I had any religion in my upbringing at all, that religion was Greek Orthodox.
And, feeding into that, there is the fact that I am continually driven crazy by the Enlightenment narrative of the history of the world–the way the Catholic Church oppressed us all until Brave Scientists and Protestants threw off their shackles and Broke Free into the world of reason and objectivity…
You know the one.
But, as I’ve said, that isn’t my problem this morning.
My problem is this: the Protestant Reformation did not break the hegemony of Rome over Christendom.
Rome never had hegemony over Christendom, just as it doesn’t have it now.
There was never a time–and the operative word is “never”–when the Pope was the leader of all Christians and the reigned over all the Church in all its manifestations.
This may seem like a minor point, but it really is not. It’s impossible to understand all kinds of things–the Crusades, the Protestant Reformation itself–without first understanding that the Bishop of Rome’s claim to be in authority over all the other bishops on earth was uncompromisingly rejected by most Christian bishops, then as it is now.
The Bishop of Rome, by the way, is the Pope’s official title.
And that’s how we get into this mess.
If you read a history of what’s called “the Greek Schism,” what you’d probably get is an account of what’s called the “filioque controversy.”
I’m not going to go into all that here, but in capsule: in 1054, the bishops of the Christian Churches of the East, declared anathema on the Christian Churches of the West, because the Pope (the Bishop of Rome) added the phrase “filioque” to the Nicene Creed. After that, the two sides stopped talking to each other for nearly a millennium.
The Nicene Creed had been agreed to by a Council of Christian bishops in 431. Adding or subtracting from it would have been a major issue even if it had been done in the ordinary way, by a Council of all (or nearly all) the bishops.
In this case, the phrase–which means “and the son” and which was added to the line explaining that the Holy Ghost “proceeds from the Father,” so that in the changed version the Holy Ghost “proceeds from the Father and the Son”–
Anyway, in this case, the phrase was added by Rome alone, and Rome then declared its authority to so determine doctrine for the entire church.
Okay, so this sounds like what we’ve got now, and it is–Rome has spoken, the issue is decided.
And it is, in fact, what we’ve got now, in the West. To use my husband’s childhood capsule explanation: The Pope is the boss of the Bishop, the Bishop is the boss of the Priest, the Priest is the boss of the nun, and the nun is the boss of you.
But the important point here is this: the Bishop of Rome never had such authority over all the other bishops.
From the beginning of Christianity as an organized institution, the procedure had been as follows: missionaries would go to a new area and convert the populace. When enough of the populace had been converted, the church who sent the missionaries would consecrate a bishop for the new area, and the bishop would go there and become the authority for that area.
By himself. Alone. Without any other bishop set over him to watch what he did.
The Eastern churches always were, from the beginning, what they called “autochthonous.” That is, each bishop in each place was the Pope of that place, and his authority could not be superceded by any other bishop.
When St. Cyril set up the Christian Church in Russia, that Christian Church and its bishop became their own, autonomous Church, able to act on its own in matters of faith and morals.
And pretty much anything else.
That is not, however, what happened when Rome sent missionaries, and then bishops, into new territories.
In the Roman Model, a bishop–take, say, Patrick–although given authority over his new See, held it only as a subordinate of the Pope, and could be removed by the Pope if the Pope saw fit. He had no authority over doctrine, and could not pronounce on anything in opposition to the Pope.
The Western Church therefore became one vast empire ruled by the Vatican–and the Vatican began to assert just this kind of primacy over the Eastern Churches.
And the Eastern Churches weren’t having any.
As far as they were concerned, each Bishop had always had absolute authority in his own See, and could only be overruled by a Council of all the bishops acting together. Rome was not the ruler of the Church but just one Church among many. The Pope was also one Bishop among many, an equal and not a monarch.
It has long been the contention of the Roman Catholic Church that the organization as asserted by the Eastern Churches would be ultimately untenable. One of two things would end up happening: either each autochthonous church would end up with its own doctrine that conflicted with many of the others; or all progress in theology, history and philosophy would come to a screeching halt as each Church refused to move on anything in fear that they would end with dissension and heterodoxy.
And, for what it’s worth, that second thing is what happened, although part of the problem was the rise of militant Islam and its spread across the lands once held by Eastern Christians.
I know all of this sounds a little esoteric and irrelevant, but think about what would be the case today of the Eastern model had won out, and the Dioceses were all little fiefdoms of autochthonous Bishops. It’s not impossible that the Church in Seattle would be celebrating gay marriages while the Church in Birmingham would be condemning them outright.
What’s more important to me this morning, though, is that the Greek Schism was an ever-present issue in the Middle Ages, and in the Reformation, too. The example of the Church having been torn apart was on the minds of people like Luther and Calvin as well as Church loyalists like More and Erasmus.
The Church was already in tatters, and the authority of Rome had already been fatally compromised.
Neither the Middle Ages, nor the Renaissance, nor the Reformation, was what all these West-o-centric pontificators think it was.
And I think this has been a very long and incoherent post, and undoubtedly far less interesting to read posts about sex.