Archive for June, 2014
Let me start with this: if you don’t understand the reference in this post’s title, you should go immediately and watch Blazing Saddles. If you have never seen Blazing Saddles, there is something profound missing from your American experience.
Beyond that, I have a few introductory remarks.
This is a post about how we argue vital social issues–gay marriage and abortion most prominently–and how we ended up talking about these things the way we do.
Note that I don’t intend to argue ABOUT gay marriage or abortion, or any other issue. For the purpose of this post, it doesn’t matter which side of any of these issues you are on, legally or morally.
This is about HOW the argument goes, when we have the argument, in public or otherwise–the methods we use to defend our positions.
If you look long enough, you will find that there is something very odd about the nature of the conversations we’re having.
And I think I’ve figured out how and why that happened.
Unfortunately, I haven’t miraculously recovered from whatever it is that has got hold of me. My throat is still sore and I’ve still got hot and cold running chills, if that makes any sense.
If anything, I seem to be worse today than I was yesterday.
So my focus is–ah, a little bit off.
With any luck, some of you will be willing to stick with me long enough for me to make this plain.
First, I want to back up a little, to something I touched on in yesterday’s post.
Some of you will remember that I am in the middle of rereading Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. And I talked yesterday, and got comments yesterday, on how difficult it is for anyone to define “intellectual.”
But I think it might be a lot easier to define “anti-intellectual.”
I think that most of us could say that someone who believes that “book learning” is at least unnecessary and probably bad for you, who believes that being uneducated in the arts and sciences (from classics to chemistry) is to be preferred to people who do for all jobs anywhere (and especially the most important), that an ignorant man will always be more virtuous than an educated one–
I think most of us could call that “anti-intellectual” without fighting too much about it.
And this matters because it was the great argument between the then-standard churches and the evangelical revivalists in the First Great Awakening and every Awakening after it.
Let’s call them the theological and the evangelical churches for the moment.
And let’s stress that I’m talking about the period from just before the American Revolutionary War to the period just before the American Civil War.
The position of the theological churches, and especially of the Calvinist Congregationalists, was that the purpose of a minister was to expound doctrine.
Ministers had to be very highly educated indeed. They had to be able to read the Bible in more than one language, to read the early Church fathers, to understand the complexities of the matters of faith, like the nature of the Trinity and the workings of predestination.
The function of a minister was to bring his congregants into an understanding of these things as far as they were able, and therefore to head off heresy and apostasy before they could get started.
For the evangelicals, the purpose of the minister was to “bring souls to Christ.”
The fine points of theology matter not at all if they did not bring the people to conversion and repentance. In fact, they often got in the way. The plain, simple man couldn’t understand them and was left confused and without a relationship to God. The learned minister was seduced by the elegance of the arguments and undermined by the corrosive skepticism the elegant arguments brought with them.
Insisting minister be highly educated in theology, philosophy and the sciences didn’t make better ministers, but worse ones–and any minister having such educational credentials should be automatically suspect.
The actual history is, of course, much more complicated than this, but the book I’m reading quotes passage after passages from the autobiographies of people like Dwight Moody, Charles Grandison Finney, and Peter Cooper, all saying the same thing: it is far better for your soul to be ignorant than to be educated. Religion is feeling the movement of God inside yourself. Nothing else is necessary for preaching, and the lack of such feeling disqualifies anyone from preaching, even if he has a hundred degrees in theology.
Now, there is more to be argued here than this overview provides.
For one thing, the Congregational position that it is the learning that matters rather than the bringing of souls to God makes more sense than it seems to at first when you remember that the Congregationalist were Calvinists and the Calvinists believed that all souls were saved or condemned by God from the beginning of time and nothing anyone could do could ever change that judgment.
There is also the fact that the evangelical denominations were often founded by men who were themselves very well educated (see Wesley and Asbury). Those denominations–see the Methodists–often went on to have a very conflicted idea of the place of education in religion and later to change their minds and go in for founding colleges, universities and seminiaries.
But if the evangelical denominations of the first half of the American nineteenth century were ambivalent about the rejection of learning and education, the evangelical tradition was not.
Even now, you can find church leaders across the American South, and not just there, making the same arguments against a learned clergy, and against education as a corrosive force, as the pastors and leaders Hofstadter quotes from the 1830s, ’40s, and ’50s.
And therein comes the problem I ran up against when I started to think about this yesterday.
For better or for worse, for good or ill, the most significant voices arguing against abortion, against gay marriage, in favor of the reality of God–most of that is coming from people inside the evanglical tradition.
Evangelical churches, most of them still arguing that classical education is corrosive to faith rather than an aid to it, and that reason and logic and (now) science are enemies rather than allies, that what you feel in your heart is more important than what you know in your head–
Evangelical churches and their members or the ones out there in the public square making the arguments for those particular positions.
(Yes, there are also the Catholics, who most definitely have a theological and not an evangelical denomination. But, for better or worse, the public face of Catholicism is split. There’s the hierarchy, but there is also Catholics for Free Choice.)
But I think that one of the reasons why the arguments we have about these things are so acidic is this: each side is structuring its arguments in a way that the other side assumes to be completely illegitimate.
It’s not just that one side thinks abortion is okay and the other doesn’t, or that one side thinks that God exists and the other thinks He is a fairy tale.
That would be bad enough, but it doesn’t even begin to cover it.
The two sides don’t even agree on what constitutes “evidence,” or what it would take to prove their own side wrong.
Looking at all this from the perspective of the here and now, I’d have to say that, given the way society has developed up to this point, it’s the evangelical side that is being hurt worse by the position they’ve taken.
This is not because I think the theological side is actually better educated than the evangelical side in today’s America.
Let us all give a profound moment of silence to Al Gore defining “E Pluribus Unum” as “out of one, many.”
What I am saying is that style matters as much as content does, and we live in a world where the theological style–the resort to discourse that at least sounds educated even if it has its head completely up its ass–just “seems” right to most people, and not being able to argue in that style makes you “seem” wrong.
To make matters worse, not being able to argue in that style and from that set of evidentiary assumptions means it’s almost impossible to to anticipate and answer your opponent’s objections, so that, to undecided people who accept your opponent’s style as “right,” you sound evasive and irrelevant.
Of course, this is also true of the theological tradition’s arguments in respect to the evangelical’s style–but it matters less, because, no matter how unfair it might be, it is the theological style that has become pervasive across the culture.
And it is the culture that both sides are trying to win.
I have no idea what the evangelical side is supposed to do about this.
It’s not impossible that the original arguments against a “learned clergy” were entirely right–that a learned clergy will always be a skeptical one, that acquaintance with classical learning and science will always corrode faith, that a church that sees the proclamation of Right Doctrine as more important than saved souls is no Christian church at all.
And then, of course, they should stick to doing what they’re doing the way they’re doing it. They won’t much affect the culture, but they also won’t go to Hell.
So here it is on Sunday, which is, as some of you kn0w, supposed to be my official Day of Rest.
Instead, I worked this morning, meaning I wrote things, and now I’ve got Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata going on behind my head.
Beethoven on early Sunday mornings is always something of an ambiguous sign. I like Beethoven well enough–especially the Eroica–but he’s a little too enthusiastic and thundering for me first thing in the day, and normally I don’t like the sound of the piano.
Unless it’s played by Thelonius Monk.
But here I am, with the piano pounding, and hence the title of the post.
And outside there is a bird chirping away in an annoyingly regular and unmitigated fashion.
And I’m sort of quasi-sick.
The interview went fine, at least as far as I can tell, but I woke up the next morning with a sore throat and serious aches, and I still have a sort throat and serious aches.
On the other hand, I reserve the perogative to be completely incoherent even when I’m feeling well, so there’s that.
A few things.
First, I decided to give Tolkein one more try, and over the last week I’ve read The Fellowship of the Ring for the first time.
I did rather better with it than I’ve done with it before, meaning I actually read it. It turns out that the thing I hated about the writing–that it sometimes seems as if Tolkein was getting paid by the semicolon–stops being an issue after the prologue, and the writing afterthat is at worst workmanlike, which isn’t bad at all.
A couple of things.
First, it surprised me just how much was changed for the movie. It really surprised me just how much was left out.
I was under the impression, which was apparently wrong, that Peter Jackson had tried to change as little as possible and keep in as much as possible.
It sometimes got more than a little disorienting.
On the other hand, it was an interesting book, and it came with maps, and I’ve got the next to close at hand, and it’s become my reading project for the summer.
The second thing is that many characters are far more attractive (as characters) in the movie than in the book. Tolkein’s hobbits are whiny and self-absorbed rather than stalwart and heroic. And everybody seems to faff around a lot rather than getting on with it.
I’m a great supporter of faffing around if there’s some point to it–an insight, a movement in the character’s thinking, something–but in this case there just seems to be a lot of faffing for the sake of faffing.
On the other hand, I don’t tend to see faffing as a deadly sin, so that won’t stop me.
When I finished reading that, I did what I usually do and looked for something completely different to follow it with.
I came up with my old copy of Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.
I’ve only just started rereading it, so I don’t want to go into a long song and dance about it, but I find that I’m surprised at how much I’ve forgotten since my last reading.
I’m also more than a little heartened to see that he hits what’s really anti-rationalism–rather than anti-intellectualism–on the left as on the right. We get a good beat down of progressive education as well as the First Great Awakening.
I’m becoming more and more convinced that Perry Miller had a valid point when he defined that Awakening as a revolt against Enlightenment reason–a resort to emotion and enthusiasm in religion, and large-scale distain for reasoned argument and scholarly exegesis in sermons and services.
Hofstadter points out that Transcendentalism was also a revolt against reason and in favor of feelings, just dressed up in more aesthetic language.
The other thing is that he’s just like everybody else in that he can’t seem to come up with a solid definition of “intellectual.”
He abandons the first definition he comes up with without noting that he’s doing it, mostly, I think, because if you stuck to that definition, you wouldn’t have enough people to put into the “intellectual class” to make a book about.
The actual way he uses the word in most of the book corresponds to the way I tend to think about it, so my gut feeling is to leave it alone.
But not quite, and the not quite is making me a little nuts.
Hofstadter’s definition would leave out the Transcendentalists, because they were so vigorously pro-feeling and anti-rational (as a Romantic movement, they would have to be), and I think that intellectual they definitely were, even if muddled and thickheaded.
(“Couldn’t think their way out of a paper bag” is where I think I am with the Transcendentalists.)
But that brings me back to my obsession with New England.
Becuase the Puritans who settled New England brought with them a highly intellectualized religion. They believed in a learned clergy, in trained theologians, a populace docile to the teaching of men with high levels of education.
Their organizational descendants are now one half of the “United Church of Christ.” Their New England churches still make a point of announcing that they remain “Congregationalist.”
They are also the most thoroughly modernist denomination in the country, even more so than the Episcopalians, who are actually split on social issues.
For a while out here, long before anybody had declared gay marriage legal anywhere in the country, they were running ads pointedly aimed at gay people and touting how “inclusive” they were. They were also performing same sex weddings before anybody was legally recognizing them.
The preachers of the First Great Awakening would have said that this only proved what they contended, that religion aimed at the head instead of the heart was pernicious and false.
I don’t know what we would say now.
I do know that my throat is killing me and I’m getting a minor case of the shakes.
So I’m going to go put on The Emperor’s Concerto and eat some ice cream.
So, a few people sent me this
Before I start this, I should note that I have now spent more than ten hours trying to figure out how to write this post, and I haven’t really come to any defined approach yet.
In some ways, I find it hard to figure out what I want to say about what happened. In other ways, it’s easy enough to know what I want to say, but impossible to figure out what I think it means.
But it does mean something, I’m sure of that. So I should probably just get started.
On Sunday, I got myself into one of those positions on FB that happen because I am incapable of shutting up.
Starting fairly early in the day, I participated in two threads. On one of them–the one run by a secular woman who is adamantly pro-choice–I defended the pro-life point of view. On the other–the one run by a prolife person (more on him in a bit)–I defended the pro-choice point of view.
Yeah, I know. I can’t help myself, really.
The thread run by the pro-choice woman ended fairly quickly, with a lot of eye rolling in my direction.
The thread run by the pro-life person lasted two days.
The pro-choice person is the son of a friend of mine who is herself very religious. The son is an ordained Lutheran pastor who works for a pro-life organization as, I think, its communications director.
Whatever it is his position is called, he’s paid to promote the pro-life position in public life.
Which means he should be a good person to go to to find out what the pro-life position actually is.
And I think I can say that he is, in fact, a good person to go to.
A few other people participated in that thread who were this man’s friends but not, as far as I know, professionally involved in the pro-life movement. They were all, however, pro-life.
Before I get to what was said and how it changed over the long course of that discussion, let me make two things clear.
First, the bedrock bottom line fundamental principle of my moral code is this: people are ends in themselves. No person may be used as the means to the ends of someone else without his consent, and this is ESPECIALLY the case when the use involves using the physical body (the blood and skin and bone, NOT the work or time).
Anyone who has taken a philosophy survey course knows that I cribbed that from Kant. And that’s all right. I think that, on that particular point, Kant got it absolutely right.
On the matter of abortion, I think there are two aspects. One is the moral: whether it is morally acceptable for you to choose to have one. The other is the legal: whether your government should have the right to forbid you from having one.
On the moral issue, I’ve got a lot of convoluted ideas. I have never had an abortion, and I can’t imagine that I would ever have had one. I can’t think of a reason for an abortion–no, not even if I had been raped or the victim of incest–where I think I would have found it morally acceptable for me to have one.
The legal issue is something else.
If people may not be used as things for the benefit of somebody else against their will, then the fetus in the womb itself may not use its mother’s body against her consent.
And whatever the moral issue may be between the mother and the child, the LEGAL issue is whether the government can forbid her–can, in fact, force her to become a thing for the use of somebody else.
Because that’s what enforced pregnancy is. It’s the legal equivalent of declaring that the pregnant woman is not human. She is a thing. And her only purpose is to be used as a thing by other people.
Therefore, whether abortion is moral or not, government may not be given the power to forbid it.
If you look carefully at what I have said here, you will notice one thing: at no point am I saying that it is right to kill a child.
The right is to end the pregnancy only.
At the moment, that is only possible in most cases by using a procedure that does kill the child. But that doesn’t have to be the way it will be forever.
Technology marches on. There’s no reason why we couldn’t develop technology that would terminate a pregnancy while keeping the child alive and capable of growing to maturity.
If there is something I don’t like about a lot of pro-choice rhetoric it is precisely that so much of it is ill-considered. Some of it is ill-considered because it is: people just aren’t listening to themselves.
Some of it is ill considered in reaction to people who claim that all women who want abortions are only looking after their “convenience.”
So we hear things like “what if the child is profoundly damaged and will be born handicapped?”
The problem is that those arguments lead easily to a “right to kill the child,” and are so used by moral imbeciles like Peter Singer (and lots of others) to claim a right to “post birth abortion,” where parents would be allowed to kill their children in the first month if those children proved to “lower the quality of life” of the family.
If it really were impossible to defend a right to abortion except by defending a right to kill a child, then it wouldn’t be possible to defend abortion.
But it’s not–it’s perfectly possible to defend the right to terminate a pregnancy without even implying that that means you have the right to kill the child. Once the child is no longer in the womb, you are no longer pregnant, and would have no right to do anything with it.
This is an important point to remember.
Because one of the characteristics of discussions like this is the fact that everyone in them has had many discussions like them before, and has a firm idea in his or her own head about what the other side of the argument is going to be.
That means they also have stock ideas in their heads about how to counter and disprove what the other side is going to say.
And that can make it very difficult to hear what your opponent is ACTUALLY saying.
I therefore had to go through several rounds of “if I can kill the baby in my womb, why can’t I kill it once I was born?” before I finally got it through everybody’s head that the position I had outlined would not allowed it.
But that wasn’t any big deal. It’s the kind of thing that happens in these discussions.
What got to me was what started to happen after we’d been at it for several hours, and I think that it might be the result of our having been at it for several hours.
One of the thigns I’m constantly trying to point out to pro choice friends is that the idea that pro life people are only pro life because they want women to punished for having sex is not true.
There are such people in the world, of course, but on the whole, I think most pro life sentiment is mostly based on the fact that “it’s a baby.”
And I still think that.
But by the end of that conversation, I finally understood where so many of my pro choice friends were getting the impression they were getting.
And the entire experience was very, very odd.
First I was told that a pregnant woman who had not been raped had “consented” to the pregnancy because she knew she could get pregnant when she consented to have sex.
She knew she could get pregnant, so now she had to accept the consequences.
I pointed out that when you go skiing, you know you could end up with a broken leg. That didn’t mean that if you got a broken leg, you had to just sit there and let nature take its course. You could go to a doctor and have the leg set.
With pregnancy, you could accept the consequences by going through with bringing the baby to term, but you also had abortion available to you.
At that point, a young woman broke in to say that with a broken leg there would be a lot of pain and a long time recovering, but abortion is “instant.”
In other words, the problem with abortion was that it was too easy. But if that is the problem, then this is what my pro choice friends think it is–a complaint that women aren’t being punished enough, that they don’t hurt enough, when they choose to have sex.
This line of argument was all the more bewildering because it completely contradicted another line of argument being made by the same people at the same time: that abortion hurts women, that they end up suicidal and in pain for years and years afterwards, so that abortion should be stopped to protect women from all that pain.
But if abortion causes so much pain, then it’s not instant and it’s not easy.
Pick one, you can’t have both.
The discussion went from there in a round of escalating silliness.
The person whose thread it was would outline a scenario–she has sex, she knew she could get pregnant, she just doesn’t feel like being pregnant, so she kills the baby for her convenience. That’s what you’re advocating, right?
I would repeat my principle–no one may use the physical body of another person agaisnt her consent, and therefore she may end that use for any reason whatsoever–and then I would get.
You’re not answering my question!
But, of course, I was. Yes. She may end the pregnancy for conveniece, or for health or because she feels like it on Tuesday. Nobody may use her body in any way or for any reason if she does not want it to be used. She has an ABSOLUTE right of refusal, and if the only way to end the use ends up killing somebody–then it does.
Part of the problem was that I was not using the arguments he was used to hearing, so that his automatic responses didn’t fit. Part of it was that I wasn’t cringing at his formulations. When he demanded to know if she could “kill her child” for her “convenience,” I said she could terminate the pregnancy for any reason at any time, and I didn’t try to find excuses for silly or shallow reasons.
It doesn’t matter what the reasons are that you don’t want somebody to use your body. If you don’t want it, you don’t want it.
She’s just being selfish! somebody said.
And I said, yes, she may sometimes be being selfish, in a few different meanings of that word.
We hit about the twenty-seventh round of “you’re not answering my question!” when I seemed to finally get through–but what came out was not an acknowledgement of what I was saying.
It was the demand that he (our host) wished women WOULD stop letting men use them like things.
Then he deleted the thread, and the argument was over.
I came away thinking that we hadn’t actually gotten to his core objection to abortion until that very last bit–that what was really bugging him was that women went out and had sex because they wanted to and seemed to think that doing that was “all right.”
In his mind, they were deluded–they didn’t really want the sex, they were only letting themselves be used as things, which is all the men in their lives saw them as.
Now, I am myself. I’ve got my vices, but promiscuous fornication was never one of them, and really isn’t at this stage of my life.
On the other hand, I don’t tend to take sex all that seriously. It’s an activity. Some people like it more than others. Some people think it Means a Lot and some people think it’s a hobby. It’s a perfectly natural. What’s the big deal?
And although I think there’s at least a partial biological explanation for the fact that more women than men take sex seriously, I also know that’s an average. I have surely known women in my life who just like sex.
And I can find who bunches of women like that in history without even breathing hard.
It was obvious by the end, though, that this man felt very seriously about sex, and had a lot invested in the (mostly unstated) idea that women never just felt like having sex for fun, that the only reason they would seem to like sex for fun was because some man had duped them into it.
It was, in the end, one of the oddest conversations I’d ever had in my life.
It was one of the oddest conversations I’ve ever had in my life.
And I now know where my friends get their impressions.
My relationship to music is, I think, a little odd. Or maybe just a little odd for me.
If you’ve ever read this blog before, you know that I am a person who tends to…what’s the word?…intellectualize stuff.
In fact, I tend to intellectualize almost everything.
That “almost” in the preceding sentence exists mostly because of music. For some reason, not planned or even considered at the time, when I picked books to read or courses to study or topics to write about, if I considered the arts, the arts I considered were painting and sculpture.
If that makes it look like I was avoiding music and dance, all I can say is that, with dance, I probably was.
Dance has always left me cold.
Sometimes it does worse than that and outright annoys me.
Classical ballet bores me, although I do recognize the fact that it’s often very pretty, and I sometimes (as with Swan Lake) like the music very much.
Modern interpretive dance drives me to distraction, and the ultra-modern stuff meant to express political Important stuff often leaves me close to frothing at the mouth.
I agree with the premise, sort of. Art often expresses and disseminates ideas on which people act.
I just don’t agree that the kind of art that’s going to do that looks anything like interpretive dance.
I think you’re standard Guatamalan peasant or working class American ex-factory worker is more likely to be politically turned on by Bono or Green Day than by wispy figures in tights and flowing veils leaping around a stage until they crouch into little pretzel balls.
But music was something else. I have music all around me all the time except when I’m sleeping or writing, and I like all kinds of it.
What’s more, it’s something I actively sought out from a very early age, like books.
Unlike books, it was, for a long time, remarkably difficult to find.
My mother sang for a year in the chorus of the Metropolitan Opera, but it wasn’t something you could figure out from the contents of our house.
In spite of the fact that the Fifties saw the first great wave of recorded music of all kinds, and in spite of the fact that we had a then state of the art “hi fi,” there were no LPs in our house, classical or otherwise.
It says something about the intellectual and temperamental differences between my parents that my father always had the spanky brand-new just out latest thing of everything–we even got some of the first Hula Hoops–and my mother had two ancient, unplayable 72 rpm discs. One of the had “Sweet Georgia Brown.” The other had “Yes, We Have No Bananas.”
I was in junior high when I first started to get restless about all this. My father got both my brother and me transistor radios for Christmas one year, but the reception out where we lived was scratchy at best and more often intermittent.
I also didn’t realize there were different kinds of radio stations for different kinds of music.
When we were driving–and we from Connecticut to Florida and back again twice a year–my father favored Dan Ingraham on the rock and roll station, so I knew about Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkle before anybody else I knew.
I don’t mean to imply, here, that there is anything wrong with rock and roll. I love rock and roll. I still have albums by Dylan and the Stones and Joni Mitchell. And I probably always will.
And at the moment, I’m obsessing about a new song put out by, of all people, Blondie.
But it is also the case that “classical” music intrigued me from the beginning, even though I only got to hear snatches of it here and there.
And, finally, when I hit junior high, I decided I had to do something about it.
If I’d known anything at all about what I was trying to do, I could have saved myself a lot of time.
But I didn’t know, and when my mother talked about music, she never talked about it in a way that shed much light on things like composers or performers or even genres.
When I asked my mother about music, I got a lot of squirming, starry-eyed, ecstatic emotion-talk about how sublime it all was and how much better and higher and greater than all that noise people made with guitars on the radio.
It was the kind of thing that wouldn’t have been very helpful even if it was true, and I rapidly reached the point of realizing that I didn’t think it was true.
That was the discovery of jazz, although I think that might be another story for another time. Still, thank you, Thelonius Monk.
At any rate, I decided to start fixing my lack of understanding by asking for some records for my birthday.
And having absolutely no idea what I was doing, or where I should start, or even who Beethoven and Bach were, I scoured the record bins at the local Woolworth store until I found…
I have no idea if that’s how you spell it.
Rimsky-Korsakov was, for me, and enormous let down. Whatever it was I had been looking for in classical music, that wasn’t it.
Interestingly enough, at about the same time I started to run into classical music stations, and those stations were playing an awful lot of Rimsky-Korsakov.
Years later, I had a friend who got a job at one of those classical stations, and he explained to me that programming policy was to play music that listeners would find “soothing.”
That explains so much, it’s hard to believe I didn’t give up on the classical altogether.
Well, maybe I did, at least for a while. I pretty much ignored the classical stuff all through high school and most of the way through college. My closest college friend was very musical and sang with one of the college’s a capella groups. I went to hear her when she was performing.
Then I went to grad school. Then I moved to NY. Then I got married and went to England and France.
And then, in England, I met a woman, an American, who worked repairing and transporting harpsichords.
That was how I first heard the harpsichord, played by anybody.
I have no idea if that first thing I heard was performed well or badly, or whether those categories made sense given what I was listening to, but I did know I really, really loved it.
In the end, my wider introduction to classical music came with CDs and a couple of “Classical Music Clubs” that let you buy half a dozen CDs at a time for not much money.
I started with the Brandenburg Concertoes, because I’d heard of them, and went from there.
In the end, though, I always came back to the harpsichord, and I still do.
Which is, sort of, where I started with this thing.
One of the things I do in my spare time is lurk on a harpsichord e mail discussion list.
The people who actively participate on that list are professionals who spend their working lives making, repairing, transporting and sometimes playing harpsichords.
Most of the threads are about building and repair, with a heavy subset of making harpsichords that are as alike certain historical ones as possible, and repairing those historical ones so they sound like they were supposed to in the beginning.
This is because there is a lot of emphasis among harpsichordists in Historically Informed Performance, which sounds like a term invented by a college music program somewhere.
Sometimes there are threads about concerts and CDs. The list put me on to Frescobaldi, for which I’m grateful. Sometimes there are threads about performers. It’s how I first found out about Gustav Leonhardt and Wanda Landowska and became a kind of Leonhardt groupie.
Over the last couple of days, there has been a thread on a topic I’d never considered, but, not that it’s hear, I find myself surprised has never come up before.
The thread is about why it is you almost never hear harpsichord music, on the radio, in the media, or in concerts that are not explicitly designed to be about harpsichords and nothing else.
Not only that, but nobody seems to be coming up to replace the great harpsichordists of the last generation. Leonhardt announced his retirement a couple of years back, gave a farewell concert in Paris, and died a week later.
If I was doing more than lurking, I’d give Christophe Rousset as a possible successor–but I’m far too aware of the fact that I don’t know what I’m talking about to come out of lurkdom.
The fact remains that harpsichords are a minority taste, and so much of a minority taste that people outside the group don’t even seem to know what harpsichord music is.
One of the posters noted that, having heard that there would be a concert with “harpsichord music” near where he lived, he checked out the program and found that the “harpsichord music” on offer was Pachelbel’s Canon, which is not harpsichord music.
One of the things I try to explain to my kids when I’m not actively trying to killing them is that I can’t assign them things that “interest” them because, at eighteen, they have no idea what “interests” them.
I don’t think I’d heard of the harpsichord when I was eighteen. I hadn’t heard of natural law or the categorical imperative or Jose Saramago, either, and they’ve filled up a lot of my life in the years since college. They’ve filled up more of it since Bill died.
Maybe my friend who worked at the classical radio station had the answer.
Maybe most people who listen to “classical music” just want something that is soothing, undemanding, already familiar, already asleep.
But there are people out there who do wonderful things with harpsichords–making them, performing on them, even composing for them.
I keep thinking there has to be some way to get through the fog of “I know what I like” so that more people can actually hear this stuff.
This morning I learned a new word–emphyteutic, as in “an emphyteutic lease.”
I learned it because I looked it up, stopping my day at the beginning to hit the dictionary when a short paragraph I was reading hit me with the thing, and I couldn’t remember ever having seen it before.
An emphyteutic lease is a very long term one–99 years, say, or even forever–that sometimes comes with requirements that the tenants improve the property and do other services for the landlord.
It was a common arrangement in the disintegrating Byzantine empire of the 7th and later centuries.
It is a much less common arrangement now, but it exists as a category in our law and in English common law, and the English are fairly entranced with the idea. You can still buy 99 year leases for London real estate, and then sell the remainder of that lease as if you were selling a house.
In case you’re wondering what the point of all this–I don’t have a point about emphyteutic leases.
I did find it interesting that there is actually a word for an arrangement I’d known about for years. You have to be very careful, if you’re buying real estate in London, to make sure you’re looking at freeholds and not leases.
Although lots of Londoners like the leases. Americans, not so much.
My point is that a word came along that I had never sen before, and I learned it because it was there to learn, and I liked learning it, even though the likelihood is great that I will never again need it in my life.
The paragraph I read was in a book about the Byzantine empire that I’m using to tide myself over until I can get to something else.
The books is a volume in one of those ambitious publishing programs some houses do. This one has to do with an overall short picture of various eras in various places–Medieval Italy, the Byzantine Empire, I don’t remember what else–meant for a general reader, and accompanied by lots and lots and lots of color plates and black and white photographs both.
I run into these projects every once in a while, and sometimes they can be very helpful. I have a wonderful little book on Piero della Francesca that includes an essay by one of the Huxleys and, yet again, all those color plates.
This particular book isn’t as interesting as the one on Piero della Francesca, but it’s also not from the same publishing program.
What it is is the kind of generalist overview history that makes most people fall asleep–here’s how the city was run, here’s what the farmers did, here’s a quick overview of a few centuries in which wars and palace intrigues resulted in the change of emperor every year or two.
And, in Byzantium, these intrigues and assassinations occured in little groups of people with clumping names, so you have people named Constantine, Constantius and Constans all battling it out for who would become Emperor until you have to take notes to know who is who.
And even then you’re not 100% sure.
I am not, as you can tell, all that interested in the book.
But I am interested in the word, and that puzzles me in a way. I’m always interested in the words, and over the years that has not only “expanded my vocabulary” but done it in a way where I have sometimes become less clear to the people around me.
Let’s face it. If I ever decide to buy one of those emphyteutic leases, I won’t be doing anybody any good–except my solicitor, maybe–if I refer to it that way.
I’m not the only person who does this, of course, and sometimes the word you find is wonderful on many levels.
There’s the word stercoraceous, for instance. It essentially means “full of shit,” but that isn’t what it sounds like. What it sounds like is something along the lines of “copacetic,” a compliment, something good you’re saying about somebody.
You have no idea how much trouble that kept me out of in the days when I was endlessly fighting with my mother.
An awful lot of the words I become entranced with, however, have little or no use in my life.
I just like the way they sound, and I like them better the more polysyllabic they are.
I like the word “polysyllabic.”
And because what I do most of the time on most days, these words I pick up tend to get integrated into my speech and writing before I manage to notice it, so that I end up getting into tangled webs of arguments on things like FB and Internet forums with people who inevitably just think I’m putting it on.
In this case, though, the accusations of putting it on aren’t what bother me.
What bothers me is that as soon as that starts, the discussion has been knocked off course for the remainder of the time it’s got left, and I end up never having made my point.
Even when people aren’t mad at me, we end up doing more word definitions than arguments about the use of the death penalty or whether pigs have wings.
Of course, as soon as I tell myself I have to stop it, one of those wonderful words comes along.
I give you oomphaloskepsis–a word that means “contemplating one’s navel as an aid to medidation,” but that works just as well, and often, as meaning contemplating one’s navel as an act of idiocy.
I sometimes wonder if there was ever a world out there, or part of a world, where groups of people used words like these as a matter of course.
I tend to doubt it.
I think these words exist because there are other people in the world who are as enamored of polysyllabism as I am, and they make them up.
I haven’t made one up myself yet, but inventing a word has always been one of my secret ambitions.
Maybe someday I’ll get around to it.
I keep telling myself that there has to be a reason–other than the bleeding obvious–that every time I try to click on the link in my bookmarks to access the add a new post section on the blog, I end up clicking on the one that says “Living in the moment on the Island of Oahu.”
And yes, that’s exactly how the capitalization goes.
It’s not my fault. Go complain to the Hawaii tourism people.
Anyway, you probably remember from a few posts back that I was reading a book called The Life of the Mind in America: From the Revolution to the Civil War by Perry Miller.
I’ve been meaning to say something about this for days now, and I’ve been circling around it like my cats circle birds.
Perry Miller is a writer I’d recommend to anybody who wants to know how America got to be the way it is. He’s a better writer and a better thinker than most of the more modern writers on American intellectual history, and he still manages to hit all the things I think about as if he’d been living in my own head.
Okay, that’s a recommendation for why I should read the stuff, not you, but you know what I mean.
Or maybe not.
There are some complicated things going on with this book, though, so before I get to the point, let me outline them.
The most important one is the fact that the book was never finished.
Miller was in the middle of writing it when he died, and his students and widow put together what he had–a completed first two sections and a partially completed third, plus the outline for the next six chapters of that third, plus the general outline of what were supposed to be nine complete sections.
In other words, this was going to be an immense book, much like his two volume intellectual history of New England, and what we have instead is an incredibly interesting but truncated fragment.
Granted, it’s longer and more comprehensive as a fragment than most people’s books are finished. Miller seems to have been an incredibly methodical writer, finishing each section before going on to the next, moving from point to point and year to year like–well, I don’t know what it’s like. Something to do with engineering, rather than something having to do with prose.
The book traces what Miller saw as two separate and largely antagonistic approaches to knowledge–to education, yes, but also to knowledge itself, to what kind of investigations into the natural world are good and right and proper, to–
Hell. When I put it that way it sounds both dull and theoretical.
But there really isn’t anything theoretical about what he’s talking about here.
The issue he’s discussing is, to a large extent, the same one now animating the animosity between Republicans and Democrats, between the Tea Party and the Progressives, between the coasts and the “heartland.”
It is the antagonism between people who think that knowledge is good in itself and should be pursued for its own sake and those who feel that knowledge is worthless unless it has some “practical” application.
It is the antagonism between people who are perceived as “intellectuals” and people who define themselves as “just plain folks.”
It is the difference between the real equality possible as “equality under the law” and the kind that insists that equality can only mean that we are all equal in fact in every way, and any assertion of superiority or inferiority (especially of intelligence) can never be anything more than a sneak attack on democracy, an attempt to restore aristocracy and to keep the (masses, people, pick your side of the political spectrum) down.
And what hit me in the face while I was finishing this up was a phrase from the long outline of what would have been the next six chapters of part three:
“…that there does exist in the country a deep, angry, sullen hatred of the concept of intellect maintained by the advocates of pure, unproductive science. The democracy and the religious community both sense that it [pure, unproductive science] is their enemy.”
And now, I’m sure, everybody’s going to yell at me.
But Miller was no left wing kook. He didn’t sit in his office sneering at dumb hicks. He was looking back on a century and a half of American life, on the growth of the country and its institutions, on strands of American thought that ranged from the Puritan to the utilitarian to the abolitionist to the Revivals.
And he recognized there, as he recognized in his own time and as I recognize in mine, “a deep, angry, sullen hatred” of the idea of learning for its own sake.
I will say here what I’ve said before–that this attitude does not seem particularly “left” or “right.” There’s a lot of it in people the press quotes as being part of the Tea Party, but there’s a TON of it in the kind of public school teacher and administrator who wants to cancel Honors Night because it’s “too exclusive.”
Its existence has been noted–and identified as a hatred of mind and not just of a particular kind of taste or attitude– by liberals like William A. Henry, conservatives like William F. Buckley, and anarchic liberatarians like Ayn Rand.
In fact, the hatred of mind, and of intelligence, is one of Ayn Rand’s favorite themes.
In other words, if I’m crazy, I seem to have a lot of company.
FWIW, it was this–the recognition of, and naming of, that deep and sullen and angry hatred of intelligence that first drew me to Ayn Rand’s work. Atlas Shrugged is a lot of things, but it is first and foremost a passionate brief on behalf of “the men of mind.”
The only reason Rand wants an anarchically libertarian world is because she thinks it’s the one form of government in which the people with that sullen anger and hatred won’t be able to get in the way of people with great and superior minds.
Unfortunately, I find myself here, as I have with every other book I’ve come across that recognizes this phenomenon for what is is, stymied.
Miller didn’t live to finish his book. Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life turned out to be about something else. Rand’s novel did a beautiful job of drawing the picture without actually explaining what such a thing should exist to begin with.
I’m left again with the feeling that, yes, I’m not crazy. This thing does, in fact, exist, and it exists in quite a few people with university degrees (and LOTS of people who become elementary and high school teachers, and a good number who become university professors).
On the other hand, I still don’t understand why this exists at all, or why it is so prevalent in almost all societies.
My little Darwinian soul wants to know what the evolutionary adaptive advantage was in such an attitude.
There has to be something going on around here, and it can’t be the “I met lots of teachers who looked down on me thing,” because THOSE teachers are the ones, above, who have this attitude in spades.
Every once in a while I get into one of those frustrating bottlenecks that make me despair of ever finding my way out, and that’s where I got to today with something called the Book A Day Challenge.
I first saw the Book A Day Challenge because people were posting their answers to it on FB, and I naturally–being a simpleminded person–thought it was a FB thing.
It turns out that it is, instead, a Twitter thing, but that doesn’t help.
FB makes my computer freeze up, which is why I look at it on my Kindle. Twitter won’t let me copy and past the photograph with the questions on it, and I can’t figure out how to link to it here.
If you like, you can go to
and see it for yourself.
Right now, I’m just going to answer the first twelve items, and after that I may go on from there.
I will say that I’m having one of those days when the Spirit of Capitalism seems to me to be rank stupid.
Yes, everybody makes money from the ads and we need ads to keep going, but if your ads make it impossible for even 20% of your audience to access your site, you’re not doing yourself any favors.
Now, in the probably vain hope that I will one day be able to put these things up on FB, I’ll answer the first twelve items and see what you think of them.
Or see if you’ll post your own.
Day 1: Favorite book from childhood.
Caroline Keene. The Ghost of Blackwood Hall. My first Nancy Drew and, please note, from the original editions of the series. The later editions really blew the whole point of the series, which was empowerment for girls before anybody had ever heard of such a thing.
Day 2: Best Bargain.
Almost certainly a copy of Meyer Shapiro’s volume of essays on Medieval Art, bought for a quarter–that’s 25 cents–at the local library’s little used book store. Plates and everything. I love books about painting and sculpture and all the rest of it, but they’re just SO expensive.
Day 3: One With A Blue Cover.
Here’s a dilemma. I don’t usually notice covers. Let me put in the paperback edition of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique because it did indeed have a blue cover, sort of grey blue, and I noticed. I never bought a copy of that for its cover, though.
Day 4: Least Favorite Book by Favorite Author.
Definitely Death at Pemberley by P.D. James. James is, as far as I’m concerned, the greatest writer of mystery in the history of the genre, and like half the other writers I know, she’s enormously enamored of Jane Austen. But she’s not Jane Austen. The sensibility is not the same, and this book just irks me. It’s neither good Austen nor good P.D. James.
Day 5: Doesn’t Belong to Me.
My first instinct here is go go–wait! Do you mean there are books that don’t belong to me?
But I’ll try to get a little serious here. Because we should all get a little serious. Although I don’t know why.
I’ll go with Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett, which lives in the house but belongs to one of my sons.
I once had a very funny afternoon with that book. I went in for an ambulatory hernia operation and I brought the book with me as something to read while I waited. The edition my sons have has a picture of the Grim Reaper as a skeleton with a scythe wearing a pair of overalls on the front cover, and I was so nervous about the operation, it took me quite a while to figure out why all the little old ladies in the waiting room kept staring at it.
Day 6: The One I Always Give As a Gift.
Terry Pratchett again, this time Small Gods, which is both very funny and the most remarkably elegant extended metaphor for Christianity I’ve ever seen. If I ever got a chance to construct the Canon for myself, this would be on it.
Day 7: Forgot I Owned It.
Niven and Pournelle, The Mote in God’s Eye. Forgot I owned it twice and bought it a third time. And I still haven’t managed to read it yet.
Day 8: Have More Than One Copy.
See above. They’re in the house somewhere. But I’ve also got more than one copy of The Razor’s Edge, by W. Somerset Maugham, because it’s one of my favorite books of all time. I’ve got the matched Maugham set edition that was my mother’s, a hardcover copy of another edition I bought used many years ago, and a paperback Penguin edition I bought in London to carry around on the bus. I used to read this book every Christmas. Some Christmases, I still do.
Day 9: Film or tv tie-in.
I’m not too sure how I’m supposed to interpret this one. A film or tv tie in where I read the book before I saw the other media? Or that I read because I saw the other media?
With the first interpretation, I would say Jose Saramago’s Blindness, which is the book that made me want to learn how to read Portuguese.
With the second interpretation, I would say The Nun’s Story by K. Hulme.
In both cases, the work was better in the version I originally encountered it in.
Day 10: Reminds Me of Someone I love.
Well, for God’s said. William L. DeAndrea. The Lunatic Fringe. It was his favorite book of his. It’s not mine, but it’s one of those things. When I reread it, I can hear his voice in my head.
Day 11: Secondhand Bookshop Gem.
This is difficult, because what I tend to do in secondhand book shops is to buy things I’ve already read but that I don’t have a copy of anymore, for whatever reason.
Let me go with Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Velvet Claw, which was the first Perry Mason novel (as opposed to short story, etc). And you can’t get the damned thing anywhere anymore, and I have of course lost my copy.
Because, when you have this many books, you lose them all the time.
Day 12: I Pretend to Have Read It.
This is something that, as far as I know, I don’t do. I do sometimes make polite noises around other writers whose work I don’t know, but I don’t actually claim to have read anything.
I’m not entirely sure why this is the case, but it is.
I keep trying to think of a comparable situation, but I can’t, except for the being professionally polite thing.
Somewhere in the middle of all that, there must be someone I gave that kind of impression to, but I can’t think of who.
So those are the first twelve.
I’ll get around to the rest of the month later, if I can negotiate ad-encrusted web sites to let me have the list again.
For the past week or so, I’ve been having this weird mental hitch where I think it’s later in the week than it is. This morning, I thought it was Wednesday, which is a day on which I have to do a whole ton of stuff I’m not really prepared to do.
I scuttled around this morning trying to gear myself up to do things I later–much later–realized couldn’t even be done before another 24 hours.
Then I realized what I was doing and sat down to see if I couldn’t get my head to start dealing with reality.
The situation is even weirder than it seems on the surface, because it oddly connects with what I’ve been reading, and even with some of the conversations I’ve been in on FB.
What I’m reading is still Perry Miller’s Life of the Mind in America from Revolution to the Civil War, which is an account–by a New Deal liberal–of how Americans came to understand their society and the place of religion, law and government in it.
This is a very odd book to be reading these days, because, if Miller’s history can be trusted, these days are an awful lot like the ones that led from the founding to the Civil War.
The players these days are not only pretty much the same people as they ever were, but they’re pretty much ranting and railing about the same topics and in mostly the same way.
The issues are going to sound very familiar: the power of the federal government, the place of religion in American life and politics, the expanding power of experts and the use of those experts by Eastern elites to foil the will of ordinary people.
In fact, all of this is so familiar, I’d almost suspect Miller of writing a spoof. I know he didn’t, because he died in the Fifties, when he, like most historians, thought that all these issues had been resolved.
Of course, ten or so years after Miller died, Richard Hofstadter brought out Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, so hope on the part of New Dealers that the acceptance of what we now call Big Government was complete were undoubtedly exaggerated.
That said, the issues aren’t anywhere near as easy to work out as I once thought they were, or as Hofstadter thought they were, either.
You have to give it to Perry Miller for understanding that, and being careful.
The foundational principle of this nation is that ordinary people–the mechanic in the gas station on Main Street, the lawyer in a New York highrise office, the Christian fundamentalist mother of four driving her children to a religious school, the band members of Florida Georgia Line–are fully competent to make their own decisions about their own lives and to run their own government theirselves.
This is, of course, a political fiction, and everybody knows it, but the bottom line is very simple: we must behave, politically, AS IF it were true.
We must behave that way because the alternative leads to far worse–to the imposition of an established religion (metaphorically), of the spectacle of people who think they’re morally and intellectually superior to their fellow citizens running roughshod over everybody else.
And it’s a big but.
I don’t think there’s any one of us out here with an IQ over 2 who hasn’t looked at the some of the specimens of our fellow citizens and gone, “Oh, my God.”
If you’ve never done that, I’d recommend about a week of reality television. Forget the “outrageous” stuff like Duck Dynasty (those people built and run a successful business) and go straight for the mind-numbing mindless.
Party Down South would be a good one–following the adventures of a group of people who seem to do nothing but get drunk, get pregnant and fight with each other.
I have no idea why anybody, anywhere, would want to appear on national television behaving like this, but there they are. It’s the ultimate example of the principle that it doesn’t matter what you’re famous for, as long as you’re famous.
For me, though, the issue isn’t people like the ones on Party Down South. They don’t seem to be very bright and they’re mostly wasting their lives in ways that aren’t even interesting, but we all have the right to pursue happiness, and this is how they pursue theirs.
No, the people who get me going are the ones I always identify in my head as the ones who “ought to know better,” although I’m not sure why they ought to know anything.
The prime example of the breed is a woman named Jenny McCarthy.
Ms. McCarthy is an actress who had something of a vogue about a decade ago. She also lived for a long time with the actor Jim Carrey, who is a truly astounding actor, and therefore probably somebody you do in fact know.
None of this matters next to the fact that the woman has spent the last fifteen or so years declaring to all and sundry that vaccines cause autism and that parents shouldn’t vaccinate your children.
Note here, that the anti-science stand is coming strictly from the Left. Ms. McCarthy is convinced that we only vaccinate our children because we have been hoodwinked into it by Big Pharma, which is making a mint off the fears they themselves have invented.
Sorry. I get REALLY sick and tired of people telling me that one side is “pro-science” and the other is “anti,” when both sides deny science as soon as it gets in the way of their ideology.
At any rate, Miss McCarthy.
The first time I heard about Jenny McCarthy’s anti-vaxx campaign, the first thing I thought of was that she was obviously much younger than I am.
I was a little over 2 during the last great polio epidemic to hit the US. It’s one of my earliest and definitely one of my strongest memories: being forced to stay in the house all the time, listening to my parents discussing what had happened to a boy down the block that I played with all the time and would never play with again.
If you think vaccinations are nothing but a plot by Big Pharma to make a bunch of money, you’re a very lucky person. You’re too young to remember when not being vaccinated meant dying at the age of 5 or spending the rest of a short life in an iron lung or paralyzed from the waist down.
There are lots of things out there like this, things that ought to be no-brainers. There’s the fluorescent light bulb thing. I think it was wrong of the US government to institute a ban on incandescent bulbs.
On the other hand, if you’re still using incandescent bulbs, you’re an idiot. The fluorescents last long, use less power, and–in spite of a higher initial cost–end up costing you less money.
Things like the anti-vaxx crusade are a type of stupidity that seems to have its own natural history.
This type of stupidity always comes accompanied by high levels of paranoia–Hofstadter also wrote a book called The Paranoid Style in American Politics–and the paranoia always seems to come wrapped in a conviction that the world is being run by secret forces with absolute power conspiring against the rest of us.
In other words, it’s the paranoia of what we ordinarily think of as true nutcases. David Icke. The Reptilian people. The Illuminati.
I’m not saying Jenny McCarthy natters on about the Illuminati. She doesn’t. It’s just that her theories about the Big Pharma plot to trick us into giving our children vaccines they don’t need and that will cause them autism is that kind of paranoia.
Big Pharma is all powerful. In can operate in complete secrecy without ever being detected, or even–in outright contradiction to all human nature everywhere–losing one of its conspiracy members to book deals and whistleblower fame.
Some of the Christian versions of this kind of thing come right out and blame the devil for what’s going on, and that at least makes a certain kind of sense, since the Devil is supernatural. The chairman of Glaxxo-Klein, on the other hand, is most likely a middle aged functionary who has enough trouble trying to stay ahead of international tax codes.
I think what I’m trying to say here is that this way of looking at the world seems to be a standard variant of the way our brains work.
All of us do a little of it, and some of us do a lot of it.
Right now, one of the groups of people doing a lot of it is running around the American West shooting police officers and declaring that we’re about to see “the revolution.”
One of the police officers working on the mess out in Nevada yesterday helpfully explained to CNN that the perpetrators hadn’t left the swastika because they were neo Nazis. They’d left the swastika because they thought the POLICE were Nazis.
Which was helpful as a distinction, but I’d already figured it out.
Rachel Maddow spent last night asking the question that’s now a favorite all over the Internet–are these guys being egged on by Republicans who write books and produce radio shows talking about how awful the government is?
It’s cute, but it doesn’t even begin to address the issue.
The US has always had a large and vocal segment of its population that is anti-government to the point of anarchy. It was here in 1776, in 1828, in 1861 and yes, now, and it will always be with us.
What’s actually egging these people on at the moment is the fact that this government no longer seems sure enough of itself to provide a credible threat.
It was the Obama Administration, not the Republicans, that backed down during the Cliven Bundy mess, and did it on international media.
And that is the point, and it’s a big one.
Those people know the Republicans are more-or-less with them. They now think the Democrats don’t have the will to successfully oppose them.
I think it’s going to turn out to be the worst mistake any American government has made in 100 years.
The Jenny McCarthys in our midst, though, will earnestly and stridently tell us that the whole thing is being orchestrated by Big Pharma.
Or Big Oil. Or Big Tobacco. Or—
Every once in a while, I have one of those days that seem to go wrong as a matter of principle.
Not seriously wrong, you understand.
Days that go seriously wrong always feel to me as if they had solid rationales behind them: the universe hates me, and it’s doing what it’s doing to me on purpose.
Days like today are just…ack.
Let’s take, for instance, the book I was going to read: Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence.
Absolutely none of the problems I usually have with books I wanted to read applied here.
I owned a copy. I knew where it was. Last night, before going to bed, I put it out on the coffee table so that I’d see it first thing in the morning.
I did this even though I knew I wasn’t going to get to it first thing in the morning, because I had a book I was finishing up, and the Wharton was likely going to have to wait until after tea and work and all that kind of thing.
And, as it happens, I did get to The Age of Innocence first thing this morning, just not in the way I’d expected.
I got to it because it was lying in the middle of the living room floor, ripped to shreds and marked to within an inch of its life by one or the other of the cats, each of whom was out of the room when I made the discovery.
What I have now, instead of a Victorian novel to read, is confetti and those gorgeous Penquin Classics covers, front and back.
Apparently, my cats are even lazier than I thought they were. Cardboard covers are too much work to shred.
It sort of went that way from off.
I spent my third day in a row flailing around in a scene I can’t seem to get right, and which is unfortunately too important to skip.
I first tried to flail around in it in my usual manner, and then I gave up and put on my favorite Bach CD and tried flailing around in it with music.
Normally, I can’t write fiction with music on–any kind of music–but I was doing so screamingly badly at this, I figured it couldn’t hurt.
I don’t think it did hurt.
Unfortunately, it also didn’t help.
My favorite Bach CD, by the way, is called Bach: Harpsichord Concertos and was recorded by the Academy of Ancient Music for the Harmonia Mundi label.
I have no idea if it is even any longer in the CD equivalent of print, but I think it’s one of the best CDs ever made, beautifully performed and beautifully recorded.
That didn’t go wrong. It’s a two-disc set, and the second disc is playing right behind my head at the moment.
Given the perversity of the day, though, it’s made me think of how many of the things I grew to love seem to be dying natural deaths in the larger culture.
Classical music stations are dropping like flies. Bookstores are closing right and left. Publishing is in the kind of panic that causes people and institutions to commit accidental suicide. My students think the American Civil War happened in the Middle Ages.
Okay. Only one of my students thought that. But I’d say that given the subject matter, one is enough.
All of this is making me sound more down than I actually feel, although the thing about my having outlived the things I love hit me more and more often lately.
When I’m in a chipper mood, I tend to think that I got very, very lucky–I may have come in at the end of that marvel of civilization that brought us Bach and Michaelangelo and John Donne and Henry James, but better late and never, and my students seem to be stuck with never.
But it’s not just the Bach and the Henry James, it’s a spirit of being human that seems to have completely collapsed.
We went to the moon. We just got up one morning and decided to go, and we went.
I suppose there were people at the time whining about how we shouldn’t “waste” our money on space travel, we should “fix the problems” here at home, but they didn’t impinge on my consciousness much.
And I’m the daughter of a man who wouldn’t have had much patience with them.
We got up one morning and decided to go, and we went.
I think the world would be a better place if we did that again. Right now. Mars would be good.
Part of the reason I have always supported a liberal education–liberal in the ancient sense–is that I’ve always thought that an acquaintance with people like Bach and Aristotle and the rest of them would give people of sense of something they could aspire to be that was greater that what they saw around them–
And REALLY, if anybody starts whaling at me that I’m channeling Matthew Arnold, I’ll go upside your head.
I think that knowing about Jonas Salk refusing to patent his polio vaccine because it wasn’t about the money, but making sure that he never saw another child with polio in his office; of Hector and Achilles caring not only each for their own honor but for each other’s; of John Donne looking into the face of death and declaring victory–
That knowing those things helps you see past a world where the only wisdom seems to be “he who dies with the most toys, wins.”
I really am in some kind of mood here.
I’d better go do something semi-constructive, like mutilate a chicken.
But maybe you see what I mean.