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Archive for November, 2008

Genres and Other Things

with 6 comments

Right now, I’m really grateful that I’m not dead, because I’m so tired I can barely see straight, and I keep having to drive places.  Long distance places.

Of course, the day before yesterday, this ninetten year old kid killed his brother in a town near here and then took off in a panic.  He was the subject of one of those “routine traffic stops” a couple of towns further north and he responded to that by assaulting a police officer and running off into the woods.  All of which resulted in a manhunt that first locked down all the schools in the area, then sent state police helocopters buzzing a bunch of state land trusts, then closed schools in three towns the next day, all to find this one kid who was more of a danger to himself than anybody else.

They did catch him, but it was exciting.  Or, you know, annoying.  Like that.

Anyway, Cheryl says that she thought intellectuals had always found their homes in universities, and all I can say to that is that they didn’t.  Writers and artists, especially, until my generation, stayed about as far away from “schools” as they could, and if you’d told Hemingway about the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, he’d have laughed himself silly.

Until my generation, intellectuals did all kinds of things–during the Thirties, Forties and Fifties they tended to work for magazines, of which there were several.  Nobody made much money, but it was considered better to be poor than suffocated by pedants and the conformity university life was supposed to impose.  There’s a very famous and really odd short story, called The Lottery, by Shirley Jackson, that is an extended metaphor on the horrors of her life stuck in Bennington, Vermont, afer her husband decided to take up college teaching full time.

As for who should decide what children should read–I don’t know why we keep coming back to that, as if the only point of reading deeply and widely is to mesh a book list into a curriculum and then assign it to somebody, but I’ve got a few suggestions, even for that.

First, I don’t see why schools should assign any contemporary fiction at all.  Contemporary writing always has and always will suffer from the fact that it either does or does not suit contemporary tastes, which are not a good long term guide for what is going to be important in literature or anything else.  Every once in a while you might want to include some contemporary texts in a modern course–I taught a course in the history of the mystery novel in England and America, and in the last month we looked at contemporary writers in order to give everybody a feel for where the field was going–but in general, I’d say that a book should have been in print for at least fifty years before we let anybody teach it to anybody else.

After that, we have the distinction between the purpose of high school and the purpose of college, which are not the same, or even entirely related, and, in college, the difference between what it makes sense to teach to majors and what to non-majors.  Robert is quite right that Jane Austen wrote a number of minor novels, that are not bad but not particularly good, and that the only reason anybody bothers to read them at all any more is that they were written by the same person who wrote Sense and Sensibility.  There’s some point in reading them in a course if you’re specializing in English literature and especially if you’re specializing in the English nineteenth century novel, but there’s no point in foisting Northanger Abbey on John the Physics Major.

As to John’s comments this past time–I agree, genres can be used as structures, much the way sonnets are structures, and such a structure may make it possible to write about a subject that wouldn’t ordinarlyhave any sales appeal.  The subject of the girls bullied at school by more popular classmates is not such a subject, however.  Several years before I wrote a Somebody Else’s Music, a woman named Sue Miller wrote a book called For Love, pretty much on the same thing, and it made the NYT bestseller lists in both hardcover and paperback in spite of it being “literary fiction.”  It’s one of the very few modern books I wish I’d written.

That said, I’ll stick by my other two points.  First, that the writer’s intention is not and cannot be the standard by which we judge a novel.  For one thing, we can’t always know that intention.  For another, it’s entirely subjective.  What we can know is what the writer actually produced, and once we know that, we can go for there.

My guess is that almost all really good writing is doing more than half of what it’s doing unwittingly.  If you remember the post about characters that write themselves, all I can tell you is that thre are also books that write themselves, and they do what they want. 

But I’ll also stick to my guns about entertainment–I’m not decrying it at all.  I’m perfectly happy to let you have all the entertainment you want.  I’m just saying that a novel that does that and only that isn’t a very good novel.  That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t read it.  That doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you for enjoying it.  It just means it’s not a very good novel.

And the real problem of entertainment for me remains the fact that it presents what is false deliberately in order to allow us to live in the falsehood.  That is the great difference between Gone With The Wind  and Vanity Fair, which are otherwise so incredibly similar.  GWTW presents a sentimentalized, romanticized, meretricious view of life in the South under slavery.  VF presents a very clearsighted view of life in England both at the time it is set and the time it was written.

Because, of course, novelists do indeed write fantasies, science fiction and historicals as a way to comment on the present day by removing themselves to another vantage point in time.  And yes, Tolkein certainly did this, as did Stanislaw Lem, as did Jorge Luis Borges.  But that is not what most romance writers, or science fiction writers, or mystery writers, are doing.

It’s not even close.

If I don’t get sme caffeine into me, I’m going to go completely crazy.

Written by janeh

November 19th, 2008 at 10:47 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Let Me Entertain You

with 4 comments

Well, I said I was going to get into trouble, and I did.   And I know from long experience that the people who love Georgette Heyer are fierce on her behalf.

Let me start, however, with this:

>>>The FIRST purpose of fiction—any fiction—is to entertain—at least in the sense of attracting and keeping the reader’s attention. <<<

That’s Robert, and part of the problem is that he and  I are using the word ‘entertain’ differently.

The first purpose of any communication, written or otherwise, literature or otherwas, is to attract and keep the reader’s attention–but it can do so in a lot of different ways, and not only by “entertaining.’  To entertain is not simply to keep and hold a reader’s attention, but to do so by providing an escape from reality, a sort of light emotional drug.  Truth, historical or philosophical or otherwise, is to be abandoned if it is unpleasant or uncomfortable, or if it requires too much work on the part of even the least qualified reader.  The point of entertainment is to help us relax.

And no, I’m not sneering at that.  I’m just saying that a novel (or a poem or a play or a movie) whose primary effect is that is not only not ‘literature,” but is objectively poorer as a novel (or whatever) than one that does more than that. 

Which doesn’t mean that I don’t like entertainment, every once in a while.   I mean, come on, guys.  I own a copy of  Dude, Where’s My Car?

A writer can attract and hold a reader’s attention without producing ‘entertainment”–by offering knowledge, or insight, or textual virtuosity, for instance.   And if we’re going to consult readers, then we should consult the best, not the poorest.  Swann’s Way will not appeal to most readers, but it does appeal to most of the best of them, and that’s about as far as we can take a reference to what readers do and do not ‘like.”

What’s more, the issue is not what is taught in  English departments, but what the best of readers read on their own time because they want to.  We keep getting hampered in this discussion by the assumption that we can equate ‘literature” with “what is taught in schools and universities.”

But the very idea that intellectual work of any kind properly belongs in a university is brand new.  It only arose around WWII and it only really took hold in the Seventies.   As late as the Kennedy administration, most ‘intellectuals’ didn’t teach in universities and most of them didn’t want to.  For literary intellectuals especially, the idea was that work in a university was destructive of talent and integrity. 

As for this

>>>Right after that is selling enough copies to keep the author from starving so there can be other work>>>

That’s like saying that the purpose of a chair is to make sure the furniture maker can feed his family.   But that’s not true, of course.  No matter what may be uppermost in the furniture maker’s mind, the purpose of the chair is for people to sit in, and if the furniture maker makes a chair that falls apart the first time anybody heavier than a mosquito attempts to use it, it’s a bad chair, and inferior to the ones people can sit in, even if it manages to catch a wave of fashion and sell several million copies, thereby making the furniture maker rich. 

The purpose of a novel is to give us a picture of the way we live now, and the truer the picture the better the novel.

i completely agree that most of that avalanche of “literary fiction”–no plot at all, virtually unreadable, boring as hell–is NOT literature, but neither is  Agatha  Raisin, and they both fail for the same reason, even if they go about it in different ways.  

As for the writer’s intentions, in the long run, they are, literally, beside the point.  The problem with deconstruction is not that it abandons any concern for what a writer intended to do, but that it abandons any concern for what the work actually does. 

Milton did not intend to glamorize Satan, and rebellion, in Paradise Lost, but he did it just the same, and any reading of that work that does not take that into account is a bad reading.  In the end, what Jane Austen does is not just ‘critique’ the “place of women in society,” but eviscerate a social system that both relied on parents to  protect their children and raised those parents in such a way that they were often completely incapable of doing so.  It doesn’t matter what Austen intended.  It only matters what she did. 

There’s actually a name for that tendency we have to think that the work must “mean’ what the writer says he “intended” it to mean:  the Intentional Fallacy.  

Not only does the writer often doing something other than he intended to do, he often lies about his intentions.   Writers make a living by lying.  People keep pointing that out, but then not paying attention to it.

I really do think that the biggest hurdle we have here, however, is to assume that when we’re talking about “literature,” we’re talking about what schools teach, and what professors say is good and bad. 

The university does not set the standard here, and it never has.  It has its own agenda, and at the moment it has several of them.   Studying literature is different than engaging it as a reader, and a lot different than writing it.  I know very few successfully publishing writers who teach with any regularity in literature departments.  Even  I don’t teach in a literature department.

The purpose of the novel is to give us a picture of the way we live now, and to do that truthfully and with insight.  To the extent that it does that, it is a good novel.  To the extent that it doesn’t, it isn’t.  It doesn’t matter a damn if it has one reader or one million. 

But “entertainment”–lightweight escapism that falsifies the world so that we can stop worrying about it–is in no way part of the p urpose of any good novel. 

A NOTE:  This is on the order of if I have to say this one more time.

I have said, over and over again, that I do NOT consider most contemporary “literary fiction’ to be literature.

I do NOT think that the mere fact of not having readers is an inidication that a work is “good,” I do NOT think that not having a plot is an indication that the work is “good,” I do NOT think that precious little stories about suburban anomie are anything but silly wastes of time.

I’m NOT talking about “literary fiction’ here.

I’m talking about literature.

Written by janeh

November 18th, 2008 at 6:29 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Telling Stories Out of School

with 6 comments

I’m about to get myself in a lot of trouble here, but it’s Monday morning, and I suppose that’s as good a time as any.

Robert complains that books he likes fully as well, or better, than ones designated Literature have the same story, and yet are dismissed as–well, I don’t know what as, since he doesn’t exactly say.  “Genre,” maybe, which is an interesting word, and an interesting concept, that we ought to get around to one day.   But let’s look at the other thing, the thing about “story.”

I’m not familiar with most of the writers on the list Robert gave, but I am familiar with the work of Georgette Heyer, and I know why she’s never made anybody’s list of novels in the  Western Canon.  I’m not saying she doesn’t write well.  The two books of hers I read, both a long time ago now, were more than competently well written, and I know many very intelligent people who are fanatics about her work.


The purpose of the novel isn’t to “tell stories,” although a novel must do that to get where it’s going. Nor is “storytelling” (or the lack of it) in and of itself any mark of literary quality.   There are only a very few stories extant in the world. Mostly, writers use the same stories over and over and over again.  Very good writers often do that quite blatantly.   Shakespeare, as we mentione earlier, never seemed to see the point of inventing a plot from scratch.  He didn’t even bother to disguise the plots he borrowed from other people, but then, they hadn’t invented them either.

Goethe wrote a famous Faust.  Christopher Marlowe wrote a somewhat less famous Dr. Faustus.  Faust had been around for a few hundred years before they got to him, and other people have gotten to him since, with various tweaks and pokes to make him fit more modern sensibilities.

Anthony Trollope said that the purpose of the novel was to show us “the way we live now,” and he named a novel of his own just that.  Epic poetry presents the history of a people and the models of behavior to emulate and avoid.  Lyric poetry presents smaller themes–single insights into emotions or ideas–by using language in an evocative (rather than didactic) way.  The novel shows us the way we live now, and goes farther than that.  It pronounces judgment on it.

The problem with Georgette Heyer is that she is an Austen imitator, and that’s all she is.  Her books are meant to be entertaining, but they aren’t meant to be any more than that.   Austen was not merely presenting little stories of love and marriage.  She was presenting her world in a critical way that had a lot to say about the lives of women in her era, about the responsibility (and lack of it) of parents in that same era, about the institution of marriage as she knew it.

It is of course possible to write an historical novel in such a way as to use it to comment on your own time, and many people have done so successfully.   Thackeray does it in that same Vanity Fair I was talking about yesterday.  Tolkein even manages to do it with fantasy.  Walker Percy does it with futuristic science fiction in The Thanatos Syndrome

I’m not saying that the novelist must stick strictly with his own time as a setting for his books.  I am saying that if he leaves that time, then what matters in the judgment of his work is what he does with the leaving.

Georgette Heyer writes entertainment.  There’s nothing wrong with entertainment.  We all like to be entertained.  But there’s a substantive difference between a novel that is only entertainment and one that has (and successfully fulfills) the form’s broader purpose.

As for genre–the problem with genre is the fact that so many of the decisions a novelst must make for himself in a “straight” novel are made for him beforehand, with (necessarily) no foresight into whether or not those decisions are the best for his material.

And genres vary.  Some of them are very strict about the parameters allowed to the writer.  If any of you have ever wondered why all those category romance books sound so alike, it’s because they’re deliberately constructed to be that way.  The people who publish them put out what are called “tip sheets,” which outline what the writer must and may not do if she expects to get anything published.  

Tip sheets can be very elaborate–they often specify particular characteristics of characters (the old Berkeley Second Chance at Love series would not allow the hero to be a redhead), particular structures of the plot (the old Silhouette Desire line had a tip sheet that required a writer to present her first love scene no later than page twenty-five of the manuscript),  and specific image restrictions (“her complexion bloomed like roses in a sea of cream” was good, “her complexion was as clean and smooth as Norwegian wood” was bad).

Even romance novels outside the category lines are subject to these kinds of restrictions, although usually less elaborate ones.  Some publishers refuse to allow heroines who are divorced, for instance, or references to ‘controversial’ subjects (turns off too many readers).

All such novels are subjected to a relentless dumbing down–main characters must be ‘likable,” sentences must be short, plots must be linear and without too many subplots.  Anything more complicated like this is assumed to confuse the reader and to end in fewer sales.

I doubt if Georgette Heyer was ever subject to these sorts of restrictions, except possibly early in her career, but it ought to be obvious why it is the rest of the world resists the call to accept work produced under these conditions as Literature.  It is damned near impossible to produce anything honest when you start by accepting such parameters. 

Most of the other genres are more expansive in their definitions of what constitutes a work in their subfield, but a lot of that expansiveness is fairly recent.  Detective novels, for instance, were once far more formulaic than they are now. 

Expansive or not, however, there are still plenty o formula writers in the field.  Think of the endless stream of serial killer novels that has issued from every major publisher in New York for the last thirty years. Think of “cozies,” which are formulaic books imitating other people’s fomulas.  Practically every cozy writer you know declares her intention to write “just like Agatha Christie,” but Agatha Christie did not write cozies.  

The purpose of a literary work is not to entertain you.  It will last longer and have more impact if it does that along with everything else it should be doing, but entertainment is not its primary purpose and not the criteria on which its quality can be judged.

And some of the animus to “commercial fiction,” genre and otherwise, has to do with the fact that most writers know about the dumbing down pressures on most such work.   So many publishers assume that a work must be dumbed down if it is going to sell, it’s hard not to assume that any work that does sell must in fact be dumbed down.

This is not the case, of course, in the real world, but there are over twenty six thousand books published by major publishers every year, and more coming from the university and small presses.   That number has to be winnowed down before a few can be chosens for reviewing or promoting through course adoption or book clubs.

It’s not entirely a matter of snobbery that genre fiction doesn’t make the cut, automatically.  There’s good reason–inherent in the realities of the business, not in elitism–to think that that isn’t going to be a good place to look for first class work.

Like I said.  I’m going to get into trouble here.  But what the hell.

Written by janeh

November 17th, 2008 at 6:14 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 9 comments

So, somebody says, he reads books, and I read Literature.

I used the capital there deliberately.  All written work is literature, it’s just that some of it is bad.   But what the writer meant by Literature is what I think would have been called in my childhood  Great  Books, and that would definitely leave out various forays into genre madness, although it wouldn’t leave out everything in the genres altogether.

What interests me, though is the implication that some of the writers I mentioned–like Ann Beattie–must qualify as Literature.  I’m not sure what the qualifications of such writers would have to be, but I suspect that the criterion was something like “well written maybe but indescribably boring to read.”

And Mary was quite right, such books are not Literature, but Literary Fiction, which is a much different thing.  There’s a lot of literary fiction out there.  It sells badly, and the people who write it take great pride in the fact that it sells badly.  Some of it is very bad.   Some of it is very good.  All of it is essentially ephemeral.  When Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections was chosen for Oprah’s book club, he complained it didn’t belong there, because he has always written in “the High Art tradition.”  A lot of literary writers think they write in the High  Art tradition.  Most of them–including Mr. Franzen–are wrong.

Look, it makes no sense to judge the inherent merit of a work of fiction by the number of readers it has, whther that number is high or low.  Having lots of readers does not make a book good, or bad.  Having very few readers does not make a book good, or bad.  Whether or not a book offers insights into the human condition that will remain pertinent for the next five or six hundred years–well, have that, and a book is good, and in the High Art tradition, even if it fails on every other criterion.

First, let’s look at the book I am reading, Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. If I were more awake this morning, I would try to work out this system my friend Richard constructed for me that would let me link you to the book on Amazon in a way that, if you bought it, I’d get a little kickback for having sent you there.  If you decide at the end of this that you want to read Vanity Fair, use the Amazon link on your right, which will do the same thing but be less efficient for you, as it won’t get you directly to the book.

Anyway, Vanity Fair is not  Literature in the way that word was implicitly defined by the poster who said he didn’t read it–because that particular definition of Literature requires that a book be Heavy, and  Ponderous, and Meaningful, and damned near impossible to read.  Silas Marner is usually the exemplar of this category of writing.  I don’t know if the animus is deserved, since I’ve never read it, but it’s the one most people bring up when they complain about being forced to read Great Books.

Vanity  Fair is a great, big, enormous soap opera of a novel about a poor girl named Becky Sharp and her attempts to get herself settled with a title and a fortune, in the pursuit of which she makes Scarlett O’Hara look like Mother Teresa.  Of course, Scarlett came later, and might easily have been based on  Becky.   Some people have said she was.  But Vanity Fair is like Gone with the Wind in another way, and that is that it is structured around a war.  In Vanity Fair, those wars are the Napoleonic, specifically the last gasp of them, so that the book contains a scene of the Battle of Waterloo, but not from any kind of perspective that Tolstoy would have found sensible.

That is, Tolstory in War and Peace gives you the battleground much as Homer did, in an attempt to write about war.  Vanity Fair, like Gone with the Wind, uses battle to provide backdrop to a larger story.   And I know there are readers of this blog who thing battle is the Most Important Thing–which makes me wonder why they mind Hemingway so much, because he definitely thought that battle was the defining experience of every man’s life–but I think that, in this case, both Vanity  Fair and Gone with the Wind are closer to having it right.  War is punctuation.

Vanity Fair presents the Battle of Waterloo from the point of view of the highborn ladies who rode out to the battlefield to witness the action as if they were going to the Saturday night fights.  I first read this book when  I was about ten or eleven years old, and for many years afterwards it was that scene–the ladies in their carriages, commenting on the action as if they were at the opera–that stuck so well in my brain that I had a hard time really remembering the rest of the book at all.   Of course, at the end of that scene, reality intrudes with a bang, so to speak, and the ladies scatter. 

What I’m trying to say here is that there is nothing about this novel that would make anyone reading it compare it to castor oil–something unpleasant that we have to endure for a while because it’s good for us.   Most of the tuly great novels in the world are nothing like this.  Think of Bleak House and Sense and  Sensibility and even Jane Eyre.  Think of David Copperfield, and The Brothers Karamazov  and Anna Karenina.  Hell, go look at The Last Temptation of  Christ, which is a spectacularly wonderful piece of work even if it does make many American readers (especially women) want to beat Nikos Kazantzakis’s head in with a bloody big stick. 

There are, of course, books out there that are  Great Books that are difficult to read, but the difficulty almost never comes from lack of anything inherently interesting happening in the plot.  Paradise Lost is difficult because of its language and because of the density of its references, but I’m willing to bet anything that if a first rate filmmaker decided to make it into a movie, you wouldn’t be bored.  A war in Heaven?   The betrayal of mankind and the coming of death into the world?  You wouldn’t be bored.

Sometimes I get maybe unnecessarily touchy about that word “bored.”  My students use it a lot, usually to mean “you can’t get me to take an interest in anything I’m not already interested in.”  It’s the ultimate defensive wall.  Their goal is to make it through four years of college while imbibing the least possible knowledge of anything, anywhere.  This principle often applies to the courses they take in their majors as well as to their distribution requirements.   They don’t watch the news or read newspapers or books or listen to music that isn’t playing on MTV.  It “bores” them.  Or they declare it “stupid.” 

I had an interesting discussion with one student the other day who admitted that she called things “stupid” in order to appear smart–that’s stupid, I’m much too intelligent to like it.  I pointed out that this ploy was not having its intended effect when what she was declaring “stupid” was, say, King Lear.

Literary fiction is not Literature, or at least not usually.  It is a late twentieth century genre whose patron saint seems to be J.D. Salinger, except that Salinger was a better writer and actually had something to say.  Most of literary fiction these days has nothing much to say except “I’m miserable and life is meaningless” or “the world is full of people who are too stupid to realize that life is meaningless, and they’re making me feel alienated.”

Assuming any reason is given for the alientaion at all.   Thoreau said that most men live lives of quiet desperation.   The writers of literary fiction have taken him at his word and run with it.  I’m coming more and more to conclude that in this case, at any rate, Thoreau was wrong.

And then there was the thing with the pond.

I guess what this is is a roundabout way of saying that I’m not asking that more Americans read small, tightly written novels about how life sucks and spending your time on an elite college campus renders everything meaningless.  Most writers of literary fiction cannot make a living writing what they want to write, which means that most of them spend a lot of time as writers in residence on one campus or another.  In a very significant way, they never leave school.  You can yell at Hemingway all you want, but he knew better than that.

What I am asking is that people stretch themselves when they read, that they not expect to just sit passively in front of books and “just get it” right away, with no need to work at all.  Of course, if you’ve done enough reading in your life, in a wide enough range of work, you’ll get to a point where you’l even managed to “just get” Paradise Lost, but most of us never quite make it all that far and yet we can still have a good time with books that aren’t just printed versions of Paris Hilton’s My New BFF or Leave it to  Beaver.

My students would have trouble understanding Gone with the Wind. because they don’t know anything about the  Civil War, because they’re completely clueless about the fact that in other times and places men and women behaved differently to each other, having children out of wedlock was a big deal and really bad for both the mother and the child, that a woman could be “ruined” (meaning rendered outcast and untouchable by her closest friends) in any sense at all. 

But  I think that if they put the effort into it, the effort they needed to put in would grow less over time.  And as it grew less, the effort they needed to read other things, other Great Books, would grow less, too.  And a whole world of people and places and things, “imaginary” but parallel to this one, would make their lives better.

Vanity Fair is a good book.  It’s not castor oil, and it’s really not literary fiction.

Written by janeh

November 16th, 2008 at 8:32 am

Posted in Uncategorized

What Happens to the Money

with 8 comments

In novels,  I mean, this time, and especially in  American novels.

But first:  I’ve learned a number of really odd things over the last week, the least important being that if you have a fever, cats will sleep on you. 

Somewhat higher on the list was that atheism might get better press, and have a better public profile genereally, if the people who tried to support it in public took a different tack than the one we’re used to.  The one we’re used to is, of course, angry/scornful/contemptuous/triumphant, and armed with all those facts and figures that have been around since the Enlightenment and never convince anybody but the already convinced.  There are two different sets of commandments!   The Gospel accounts don’t agree!   Nobody can respect a  God who wants his people to commit genocide to get some land!

And so forth.   I’ve got a real problem sometimes, wanting to go and fix other people’s arguements, on the assumption that if you’re going to argue a point at all, you  might as well argue it correctly.  I can make pro-life arguments better than most pro-life people.

But whoever it was who posted to the comments that it’s hard to teach people that understanding and being able to state an argument is not the same as agreeing with it was more than right.  The assumption is always, it seems, that if you’re able to make a good case for your opponent’s position, if you actually understand it, then you must support it. 

Fred Edwords, who used to be the editor in chief of The Humanist, the magazine put out by the  American  Humanist Association, used another strategy altogether.  He went on The O’Reilly Factor and was just happy.   He was so happy, I spent some time wondering if he’d taken some kind of anti-depressant medication, although I’ve  never seen those work that well.  Edwords was happy.  He was bouncy.   He was obviously having a good time.  O’Reilly couldn’t even manage to harangue him, and O’Reilly harangues everybody, even the people on his own side.  In the end, O’Reilly gave a pat little lecture about the AHA’s new ad campaign–why believe in God?  be good for goodness sake!–but his heart wasn’t in it, and Edwords was happy as a claim when the interview was over.

It was the last day when I was feeling really awful, and it was odd to watch it.  I went back and forth between it and the book I’ve been reading–I think I mentioned it before, William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair–and that’s when it struck me about the money.

Actually, it struck me about the money once before, when I was much younger, because for me, as a child, books were both promise and prophecy.  I knew I didn’t want any of the lives I saw around me.  My father worked too much and never seemed to be in a good mood.  My mother was a mass of neuroses, and so completely miserable as a stay-at-home  partner’s wife I used to wonder why she didn’t just get up and leave.  I also used to wonder why  she’d never done anything with the talents she’d been given, and she’d been given two:  she was a remarkably talented artist, and a coloratura soprano with a four octave range.

My mother was, however, one of those people who always had a reason why she couldn’t do what she wanted to do.   She spent a year in New York in the chorus of the Metropolitian Opera, and then she came home, because her father demanded it.  She spent several years, during the war, at a job where she spent her time coloring in the outlined drawings for the Sunday comics at a local newspaper.  When my father retired and she was quite old, she did some painting of her own, but she always copied other people’s work.   I don’t know why.

When I was growing up, I didn’t see the point of being miserable, and I was always planning my escape.   Any chance my mother ever had to go to college had been erased by the Great Depression.  Some of her brothers went, on the GI Bill, but her father wasn’t about to waste money educating a girl when money was tight, and colleges weren’t in the practice then of picking up most of the tab through financial aid.

I had a father and a grandmother–my father’s mother–who were determined that I would go to college, and started telling me all about it when I was tiny, so I had that, but what I really dreamed about was what was supposed to come after college.  I had only the very haziest ideas of how that would work, but I knew where I  wanted to start.

I wanted to go to  Paris.  I desperately wanted to go to  Paris.  It hd to be Paris, because all I really knew about the world I was learning from Hemingway.   I wore out three copies of A Movable Feast.  I had visions of dusk, with the lights coming on, and cafes with tables outside, except I wouldn’t be outside, I would be in, because it would be winter.

I am not entirely sure what I expected to be doing in the middle of all this.  It wasn’t a dream of doing, but a dream of being.  I could see myself as a figure, drinking coffee or liqeuers, wearing clothes that would have been out of date if I’d ever managed to acquire them.  High-heeled Mary Janes.  Skirts that went down to the bottom of my calves.

The thing that stopped me, the thing  I could never get past, was the money.  In the novels of  Hemingway, in the novels of the vast majority of American novelists, money doesn’t actually seem to exist.  Or, it exists, but independently of anything anyone does to acquire it.  It’s just there.

I might have been a dreamer as a kid, but I wasn’t so silly as not to understand that it takes money to live.  There would be air fares, and rent, and the price of all those cups of coffee in cafes–where was I supposed to get that?  Where did the people in Hemingway’s novels get it?

People in British novels write often and endlessly about money, and how to get it.  That was especially true of the Victorians, for whom securing a settled “place” was often the be-all and end-all of everybody’s life, although nobody was ever silly enough to want to take a job and work for it.   Still, they worried about it, and they were embarrassed abou tit, and they schemed and cried over it.

In most American novels, money simply seems to be a given–it’s there, somehow.   Hemingway characters rush off to London and Paris and live there…however.   He never actually says.   And it isn’t just his characters.  Think of the characters in any book by Ann  Beattie, for instance, or in the more conventional stuff by Joyce Carol  Oates, or in anything fictional by Joan  Didion.  Characters have nervous breakdowns.  They wander around the landscape doing odd, pointless things.  They leave on vacation or go to consult a guru in the Himalayas.  They get the money to do these things–we have no idea how.

The odd thing was that, in the midst of all this, twentieth century American novels always seemed more “realistic” to me than British nineteenth century ones did.  Lady Duff Cooper seemed more true to me than Cathy on the moors, although I didn’t want to be like Lady Duff Cooper.  Of course, I didn’t want to be like Cathy, either, so there was that.

Where is all the money in American fiction?  Why is it either not there at all, or there in a way that is so arch and intrusive that it’s just annoying?  Tom Wolfe wrote a novel Sheridan McKay and another about  Charlotte  Simmons.  In the first, everything is about money, money is the topic and the focus.  In the other,  money is, yet again, just assumed to be there.

Why is it that characters in American novels never do the ordinary thing of sitting down and working out the financial logistics of taking a month off, or going to Peru, or doing whatever it is they want to do?  How do they manage to live lives where it is possible to worry about the sex they’re having while never spending a moment figuring out if they can make the mortgage? 

People in real life–even fairly well off people in real life–think about money all the time, about how they’re going to get it, about how much of it they need, about what will happen to them if they have to live without it.  Characters in  American novels are not usually rich, and yet they do not seem to have anything like an everyday relationship to money.

When I was a kid, I would think about being all grown up and running away to live in Paris, and then I would stop, because I knew even then that I  had to have some way to support myself, and I couldn’t imagine how I’d do it.  Certainly none of the characters in any Hemingway novel seemed to be making a living.  Jake in The Sun Also Rises was supposed to work for a newspaper, but we never saw him actually working, and we really never saw him getting paid.

Why is it, exactly, that so many of us see so much fiction as plausible–and not just Hemingway, either, think of the genre fiction out there, the amateur detectives who don’t seem to have to worry how many days they take off, the private eyes who spend more of their time working on cases nobody is paying them for than on the ones that might bring in some bacon–when none of us ever lives this way?

Okay, it’s a small obsession, but there it is.  

At least for today.

Written by janeh

November 15th, 2008 at 6:22 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 2 comments


I had this absolutely wonderful plan.  I  was going to drop my younger son off at school, come home, and go immmediately to sleep until I had to pick him up again, because the way my life is going at present, Friday is the only day I don’t have something I have to do.  Instead, of course, here I am, far too wired to get any sleep, which probably means the fever will be back by dinner time.

But there are a couple of things that wandered across my not particularly focussed attention, so let me get to them.

First, I still disagree with Robert–nothing new started in 1964 in terms of tourists at the revolution, except maybe that a far larger percentage of the public fit the description.   The  Princess Casamassima did indeed make damn sure to find herself a safe revolution–that’s why she was romancing anarchists in  England instead of in Italy–and so did  Shelley, who was always meticulous about removing himself to another country before even so much as criticizing the one he started in.

But there’s something else that came up, and  I haven’t figured out how or what to think about it yet.

The state of Nebraska had a problem a while back with newborns and infants being found dead or badly neglected because their mothers or other caregivers were unable to handle the new responsibility.   You hear about cases like this every once in a while:  the girl who gives birth at the prom and puts the baby in the dumpster, and that kind of thing.

Nebraska looked into the situation and found that the young mothers were resistance to coming forward and handing the children off to child services because they didn’t want anyone to know they had ever been pregnant, or they didn’t want to deal with the kind of rules and oversight child services would provide.

Okay, we’re not dealing with rocket scientists here, and the girls would usually be very young and very immature.  So the Nebraska state legislature decided that the lesser of two evils would be to do something that would save the child.   They therefore passed a law that said that any parent could drop off such a child at any hospital in the state, no questions asked, and the state would take over the care of it.

There’s a certain kind of logic to this, and it does seem to me to be a better thing to save the child than to let it die in the name of forcing a young mother who is obviously not capable to “face up to her responsibilities.”  The problem was that the  Nebraska legislature wrote the law in such a way that it put no age restrictions on the children to be left at the hospitals.

From the day the law went into effect until now, all but four of the twenty-seven children left at  Nebraska hospitals under its provisions have been at least ten years old, and many of them have been teen-agers.  Not even one has been an infant or a newborn.  What’s more, the children have not all been  Nebraskans.  One father flew his son up from Miami, dropped him off in a hospital waiting room, and flew back home.

There’s a Slate article here


that gives a pretty good overview, although it is,  in a few places, knee jerk in a way that has bothered me about a number of the stories about this situation.  For one thing, it tends to assume that the majority of parents who decide to drop off older children are doing so frivolously, as a way to dump ordinary adult responsibilities on the state.

The more I look at the stories, however, the odder all this becomes.  Some of the cases make a certain amount of sense.  A number of the children have been severely disabled or otherwise ill.  If you’re a single mother with four children one of whom requires so much care that the other three are being neglected, or worse, the option of handing that child over to authorities who know how to care for him may not be an idea you love but it may make some sense.

A lot of these kids, however, seem simply to be wild, or disobedient, to be going through the kind of adolescent rebellion we generally consider normal.  When I looked through the list of children legally abandoned, I was surprised at the high percentage of males between 12 and 14, just the age at which boys get taller and stronger and stupider all at the same time. 

I can’t see, however, that this is just a case of feckless parents wanting to live without responsibilities.  For one thing, plenty of parents actually are like that, and they don’t take their kids to Nebraska to abandon them.  They just ignore them right at home, at which point the kid gets into trouble and gets sent to juvie or, if the kid is much younger, somebody at school or the doctor’s office gets alarmed at the fact that he keeps showing up dirty and hungry and disoriented and calls in the cavalry.

But in most of these cases, the parents are not only not in a hurry to hand their kids over to the state, they’re positively furious at the state’s attempts to interfere.   Even the kind of parent it’s hard not to consider hopeless–crack addicted, criminal, mentally ill–fights for custody of his or her children most of them time.  Especially if the child is small.  

i can’t, at the moment, figure out what is going on here.   So many of these kids are adolescents, I wonder if some parents, at least, don’t become less attached to their children as the children grow older.  Maybe thre’s a problem here caused by the way in which we’ve prolonged “childhood” far beyond its natural parameters.  

As late as the Victorian era in Britain, most twelve year olds would either have been spending their time at boarding schools or shipped off to be apprentices.   Maybe there were reasons for that beyond what anybody was willing to say out loud.  

It seems odd to me, though, that a parent would willingly walk away from a child knowing she would never see him again, or even hear from him. 

And that’s especially true because most states do have provisions for parents to voluntarily give up custody of children they don’t think they can properly care for.  If you think your child is “incorrigible,” the state of Connecticut will take him over and do it without forbidding you to have any contact with him.

So I don’t understand what is going on here.   Twenty seven children is not that many in a country full of children.  It’s not even that many in one state, and these children did not all come from the same state.   I wish there was more information on the families and the children involved.  

Meanwhile, Nebraska is busy amending its law so that it applis only to babies in the first few days or weeks of life,  and the governor was on television this morning begging parents not to bring their children to Nebraska to abandon them.

What the hell.

Written by janeh

November 14th, 2008 at 10:24 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Lost in the Stratosphere…or Somewhere

with 3 comments

That’s how I feel, at the moment–both because I still seem to be feverish enough to be floaty and because I took some Benadryl this morning in spite of the fact that it makes you drowsy, because now I’m stuffed up, too.  I absolutely refuse to be responsible for how anything is spelled.

I do want to address a couple of things, though, not necessarily related. 

First is the contention that Tourists at the Revolution start in the Sixties–it’s not true.  The Princess Casamassima, the title character in Henry James’s late nineteenth/very early twentieth century book, is definitely a TATR.  And, as I said before, TATRs abound in Dostoyevski.

In fact, one of the things I find really, really odd is the way in which so many of the issues, ideas and personalities we tend to think of as resulting from the Sixties actually appear first in the late Victorian era.  In a way, the Victorians built the house we’re all still living in, in matters of politics, and religion, and a good many other things as well.

That’s something that might not be perfectly clear if you’ve read Trollope’s Barsetshire novels and Austen but not Henry James and Conrad, for instance, but it’s there all the same.  Most of the arguments we have now, the very outline of the culture war, existed before us, and hasn’t changed much in the intervening time.

Even things that seem spectacularly new–abortion! gay marriage!–aren’t really.  The late Victorians took up a public discussion on the nature and status of homosexuality–especially male homosexuality–for the first time, and their responses were nowhere near as “traditional” as you might think.   Nor were these ideas and responses restricted to small groups of “intellectuals.”  The fact that they were current in the world is amply demonstrated not only in self-consciously “political” novels like Trollope’s Palliser series, but in more general fiction like Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.

The Victorians were familiar with Tourists at the Revolution, and it isn’t clear that the Princess Casamassima’s assumptions about her safety (or lack of it) were much different from Lori Berenson’s.  Members of important and aristocratic families had a certain amount of immunity, even in a far harsher time.

If I think something fundamental has changed between then and now in the phenomenon of TATR, I think it comes in the fact that there are at least some groups within present day society that take a certain set of moral values for granted, where they would not have been for Matthew Arnold.

In spite of all the blither about moral relativism, Lori Berenson’s parents and John Walker Lindh’s share a deep-seated conviction that some things are just right and others just wrong–that freedom of speech and protest, for instance, are moral goods fully as absolute as any presented by fundamentalist religion.  If anything, these people are actually less culturally and morally relativist than the “moral absolutists” of traditional religion that they pretend to abhor.  They literally cannot imagine anyone who does not see the obvious truth of the things they hold to be morally good.  That is, I think, why they are so shocked when people (governments, the media) respond otherwise.

The other way the late Victorians built the house for us has to do with religion, because, at least in the Anglophone West, that’s when we first begin to see the widespread occurrence of involuntary loss of faith.

I’m stressing that “involuntary” because there always have been people who have made decisions to abandon faith, who have looked into all the arguments pro and con and come to a conscious decision.

That is not, I think, what happened to Matthew Arnold and the late Victorians.  Rather, they woke up one morning, looked at the Christian narrative they had assumed the truth of all their lives, and went:  oh.  No.  It didn’t work.  It just looked false.  It just looked like a fairy tale.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that there is a vast difference between people who., like me, were brought up without faith and people who leave a faith in adulthood.  Almost all the “annoying atheists” you know are converts to atheism, not born ones.

But those who lose their faith involuntarily are yet a third type, and for at least some people the experience can be highly disorienting.  It certainly was for Matthew Arnold.

Arnold drives Robert crazy, but I sympathize a bit.  Arnold did not deliberately ditch the Christianity on which he had been raised and set out to construct a secular morality (and a secular narrative) to replace it.  He just suddenly found himself without the faith he had unconciously based his entire life on, and in its absence he could see nothing that would fill the void. 

That’s what Dover Beach is all about, a poem that is not tremendously good technically, but that so clearly expresses the bind the man found himself in that it has become an anthem for generations of writers who followed him.  If you haven’t read it, it’s here:



Life, Lear said, is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.  Shakespeare meant Lear to be an exception.  The Elizabethans did not, in general, think of life like that.  For Arnold, Lear’s signature insight is the truth about the world, and the only job of man in it is to find a way to survive through its endless round of meaninglessness and misery.

Arnold’s attempt to solve the problem is in his long essay Culture and Anarchy, and it’s not a very good solution, really.  But then, he didn’t want to find himself in the position of needing such a solution.  He got hit on the head by disbelief.

I think this exactly mirrors where a lot of people are today–I think we are living in a time when the Christian narrative has become increasingly implausible to many of us.  Some very few of us have responded to that by becoming militant atheists of the Hitchens and Harris varieties.  Some even fewer have gone in for revolutionary politics as a substitute for religion.

For most people who don’t believe, though, there’s no animus and no impetus.  They just hear the Christian story and their brain registers it as “fiction,” automatically.  They’re  no more capable of changing that response than they are of growing a horn out of the top of their heads.

In a way, all the things I have been arguing about here since this blog began have been about this:  the fact that there are more and more of us every day for whom the Christian narrative–or the Jewish one, or even the Muslim one–is nothing more than a narrative, at best a metaphor, at worst a fairy tale.

Even if you’re one of the people who truly and sincerely believes, you’re stuck living in a world where a lot of people don’t.  And if we’re going to be able to live in that world together, we’re going to have to find a way to ground  moral principles that do not rely for their authority on “God said so.”

Arnold’s answer was feeble, and Thomas Henry Huxley’s wasn’t much better, but the tradition of moral philosophy outside religion is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the West.  Socrates and Plato and Aristotle, Kant and Hegel and Heidigger–hell, even Aquinas and Peter Abelard–knew they had to be able to present a workable moral code in a way that would appeal “to reason alone.”

That’s a Catholic term, meaning “without revelation.”  The Catholic Church decided, early on, that men and women could know God’s law “by reason alone,” even if they were raised in false religions, or non at all.  The Catholic Church also assumes we can all know that God exists “by reason alone,” but I think they’ve been less successful at that one.

I think that what I’m trying to say here is that Tourists at the Revolution are not the children of the Sixties, but the roadkill of a civilization that can no longer rely on its founding narratives provide structure and meaning to its people, and that has as yet not found a compelling alternative. 

Tourists at the Revolution are playing Messiah games, like children dressing up as brides and grooms.  They give structure to their own lives by inserting themselves into a story of rage and redemption.  They direct their rage mostly against their own societies because that’s where they can direct it and still be safe.  Rachel Corrie sat down in front of a bulldozer in Israel, not in front of a madrassah in Riyadh, protesting the Saudi government’s ban on driving lincenses for women.

Tourists at the Revolution are engaged in a kind of make-believe.  They like to imagine themselves as Heroes, and Saviors, and Saints.  They’re usually very careful not to enmesh themselves in situations like the ones that got Lindh, Berenson and Corrie in trouble.  That’s why stories like those three are so few and far between.

And that’s why the new atheists are, by and large, devoted to deconstructinng Christianity, and not Islam.

Deconstructing Islam can get you killed.

Okay,  I’m wandering all over the place today, and I have oranges. 


Written by janeh

November 13th, 2008 at 11:02 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Tourists, Revolutionaries, Enablers, Whatever

with 6 comments

Tosay, I really, really, really apologize for the typing.  First, I’m the sickest I’ve been yet, with one of those fever making me floaty feelings that results in a lot of rambling if I start talking.  Second, I’m on an excellent computer that has, for some reason, been set up so that I can’t actually sit at the keyboard, but have to sit sort of sideways and twist around. 

Robert wants us to notice that all the people I’m talking about are Americans, and Cheryl says Lori Berenson seems to be more of a revolutionary than a tourist at the revolution.

As for the Americans–I think it’s true enough that these people only show up in advanced Western civilizations, but I know it isn’t true that they only show up in countries where very little is done in response to their romanticism.  They show up all over Dostoyevski, for instance, and he was writing about Russia at a time when doing some of this stuff could, and did, land you in Siberia.

I’m also not sure that actually getting down in the nitty gritty and committing “revolutionary” acts actually qualifies you as a revolutionary, rather than a tourist.  It seems to me that this is precisely a romantic movement, that it starts in earnest with the English Romantic Poets–with Shelley, but especially with Byron.

And Byron certainly got down to the nitty gritty.  He went to war on behalf of Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire and died at thirty six while doing it.  But he was, I think, still a tourist.  He was a man who went looking for a cause to commit to, rather than one who had such a cause given to him naturally by circumstances.

I’m not sure if that’s clear.

But I’ve been wondering this morning if what we’re actually seeing here is not just adolescence, or romanticism,  but an adolescent/romantic response to the death of religion.

I don’t mean that religion is dead for everybody.  Nor do I mean that anybody who does not believe in God will get caught up in dangerous and destructive causes.  I don’t believe in God, and the only cause I’m really interested in at the moment is getting over this cold and getting back to work on the new book, which I think they rather expect to have me send them pretty soon.

I do think, however, that there are some people who need religion in a psychological way–who do not function well if they are not able to see themselves as part of a cause bigger and more important than themselves.

This is something that has always been rather thin on the ground in the countries of the Anglophone sphere. The “nation of shopkeepers” that drove Marx so crazy was a nation of people willing to settle for small satisfactions and everyday meanings. 

And I think that a willingness to live in the everyday is a necessary if not sufficient condition for a successful modern democracy.  The real problem with all the political screaming–fascist! Communist!  just like Hitler!–that’s been going on lately is that it derails the idea of politics as the art of the practical. 

I think that for all of these people, from Byron on down, the need has been for some big, overaching, apocalyptic Meaning with a capital M, and once they no longer believed in God, they had to find that meaning in politics.  That accounts, I think, for the incredible will to violence in all these people–almost always people who are relatively well off and privileged in their societies.

Maybe, for some people, looking at the world and seeing that it by and large–at least in their part of it–a very nice place, where you’re not going tob e killed or starve, where you can go on day after day being happy about the tuna casserole you made and the movie you saw last Sunday, maybe that looks like a huge black hole where there isno point to anything.

That would account, I think, for the fanaticism, and for the dogmatism, which is often far worse than the dogmatism of various religious groups.  The Inquisition was less hysterical on the subject of orthodoxy than your average Berkeley Maoist.

George Steiner–to quote another writer I like–once said, in an essay called “Archives of Eden,” that true art, high art, is not possible in a democratic republic, and further not possible once we no longer accept the idea of God.  You need extremes of inequality of condition, and the impetus of eternity, to create the Sistine ceiling or The Well-Temptered Clavier or any of the plays of Shakespeare.

I have no idea if this is true or not.  It seems to me that Shakespeare himself was happy as a clam in that natrion of shopkeepers, and one of the least self-consciously important artists of all time.  I can’t imagine him thinking of himself as an Artist with a capital A.

In fact, I wonder how much of Steiner’s thesis comes from the fact that we are unable to hear the word “artist” any more without automatically defining it as Goethe did.  The Sorrows of Young Werther gave us the Romantic movement, and the Artist as finely tuned and tortured genius.  Before then, an artist was a craftsman, who worked for commissions, usually, and got his job done without too much fuss.

Well, no, not exactly.  Michaelangelo is supposed to have been something of a histrionic nut.  But you know what I mean.

I keep thinking these tourists at the revolution are all Byron–they are all Young Werther, except that they live in an age that has demystified both art and religion for them, so they have gon on to the only thing in the culture that still seems to be promising an Ultimate Meaning:  apocalyptic politics, in which intoxication with violence takes the place of the intoxication with God that characterized people like, say St. Teresa of Avila.

The Sorrows ofYoung Werther is a thoroughly silly book, but it marked the end of the Enlightenment, and it’s first child wasn’t Byron, but the French Terror.

That ought to be enough blitherng for one day.

Written by janeh

November 12th, 2008 at 10:53 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The Calliope Crashed to the Ground

with 8 comments

I  want to apologize up front today for my typing.  I’m never very good at it, but today I’m sick with something or the other.  I thought it was strep, since we’ve got strep in the house, but my strep test came back negative–the little initial one–so unless the back up test says something different I’m just being achy and feverish.  Of course,  I also haven’t had a flu shot, because I  never get a flu shot this early in the season, so maybe it’s that.  Whatever it is, I am not fully functional.

Mique posts that the reaction of “ordinary people” to the Ivy League has less to do with class or a dislike of intelligence of knowledge than it does with “a rejection of the arrogant bossiness and condescension of that part of the elite who fill the op-ed pages of the media with their contempt for such ordinary people and their values.”

And that may be true of some people, but it can hardly be true of my students, whose contact with the media–unless I assign them to go look at it–tends to be restricted to  MTV and various blockbuster movies and who have often never met anyone who has gone to an Ivy League school or who is going to go.

Nor can it explain the utter dearth of interest in what used to be called, in the fifties, “self improvement.”  There was a time in this country when publishers (the Modern Library,  the Loeb  Classical Editions) made a fairly decent income putting out cheap editions of classic works, because there was a fair hunk of “ordinary people” interested in readin them. 

And there’s probably a fair hunk now, it’s just a smaller hunk, and it’s drowned out by the furious anger and rejection of all things “intellectual” by the culture at large. 

Today’s the day  I give Mr. Shenkman’s comments to my students.  Let’s see what they have to say.

But beyond that, let’s consider a phenomenon, the tourist at the revolution we talked about before.  I got an e-mail musing about why, with the same kind of education, the writer had not turned into “liberals” like these and was a conservative instead.

But tourists at the revolution are not liberals.  Their parents may be, but our TATR tend to be either extremely far left or extremely far right.   These days, most of them are left, because there isn’t an international movement on the right of the kind that would attract them.   Back in the Thirties, on the other hand, both Hitler and Mussolini had his groupies.

The present day tourist at the revolution is somebody like John Walker Lindh, or Lori Berenson.   John Walker Lindh was the “American Taliban.”  He was picked up in  Afghanistan after 9/11, fighting on the Taliban side, only to be dusted off and washed down and shipped back to  California, where his parents tearfully demanded that he be given at most a very light sentence, because he hadn’t done anything really wrong.  He wasn’t a criminal.  He was just searching for the truth and himself.

Lori Berenson’s story has some similarities, except that she didn’t have the good luck to be picked up by American forces.  Instead, she was apprehended and arrested by Peruvian authorities and charged with aiding and abetting a terroist organization, meaning something called the MRTA, which is an umbrella organization for a number of left-wing activist and rebel groups in Latin America.

The Berenson case is a lot more complicated than the John Walker Lindh incident, but any perus of the FAQ at the web site dedicated to getting her released make the emotional and intellectual similarities clear.  You can find the FAQ here:


Although I do caution you that if you actually want to know something about the case you should check with some sources that aren’t dogmantically convinced of her “innocence.”

I put the “innocence” in quotes, because I’m not too sure what innocence would mean in this case.  Did Lori Berenson have contacts with MRTA and its affiliates?  Yes.  Was this against the law in  Peru?  Yes.  Did she later refuse to denounce these groups as terrorists and say that she thought they were “revolutionaries” instead?  Yes.  Was all this against the law in  Peru?  Also yes.

The difficulty, of course, is that most of us do not approve of making speech, or even mere association, punishable by twenty years in prison, but for the moment I want to ignor that and look at what I think of as the oddest aspect of cases like this.

For  Lori Berenson’s parents and friends, for the parents and friends of people like John Walker Lindh and even of the various Weather Underground members who have surfaced over the last decade or so, the fundamental complaint seems to be that these people didn’t do anything wrong. 

John Walker Lindh was fighting for an enemy power with whom we were at war and shot at American soldiers?  He wasn’t doing anything wrong, because he was doing what he was doing out of solidarity with oppressed people, and a deep seated commitment to his ideals.  Lori Berenson collaborated with an organization known to have caused the deaths and torture of dozens of their fellow Peruvians?  But she was just protesting against  Peru’s corrupt dictator ship and standing up for the things she believed in!

The problem here, I think, is that both the TATR themselves and their friends and families suffer from what I think of as  Disneyfication syndrome.  There is something about the death and destruction caused by these people that just doesn’t seem real to them, or to their supporters.   It’s all a matter of attitudes, not realities.  It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you do it for the right reasons.  “Speaking truth to power” is real.  A thirty year old father of four dead on the ground because you set off a bomb–or helped people who did–has no more substance than light fog.

I’m doing badly here, and I know it.  Part of the reason is that I have a hard time getting a grip on the mental function here.  

Adolescents often rebel precisely because they assume, underneath, that their parents are invincible.  Certain kinds of anti-Americanism, but domestic and European, are like this.

But adolescents faced with the fact that their parents are mortal usually pull back and regroup.  It’s something most of us have to do at some point in our lives.  Oh, wait, go this far and there are real consequences.  Better back up a little here.

These people, however, seem to be stunned by the realization that there are real consequences out there, that there are plenty of other countries–or even places in this one–where they will not be indulged for their good intentions.   And instead of stepping back, regrouping, and examining their assumptions of invulnerability, they go into some kind of infinite loop. 

But the law in Peru doesn’t allow for due process protections!  But treason is a just a word bad people use–you can’t really execute somebody for that!  You can’t put me in jail for trying to blow up that building, I was acting on my ideals and trying to make America a better place!

It’s the shock, and the inability to comprehend–well, the inability to comprehend, period, that hits me.  It’s as if these people have somehow imbibed the notion that nothing really bad can happen to us, or maybe that nothing we do could really be criminal. 

I don’t know.  Like I said, I’m doing this badly.  I just can’t shake the idea that, for these people, “revolution” is a game, a sort of role playing exercise where nothing really happens, and “change” is something they’re proud to be for mostly because they see advocating it as a free ride.

And if I understood this better, I’d be Henry James.

I’m going to go take some more aspirin.

Written by janeh

November 11th, 2008 at 6:50 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The Apotheosis of Stupid

with 4 comments

So I was thinking about one of the most persistent symptoms of American anti-ontellectualism, except that it isn’t specifically American. Robert wrote me at one point complaining that an Ivy League degree doesn’t guarantee that somebody is smart–fair enough.  Nothing guarantees that somebody is smart–and wanting to know how many of the people I knew with such degress could balance a checkbook or organize a meeting.

We were in the middle of an extended coversation on another top entirely, so my answer skirted the question, but let me answer it here:  I’m willing to bet everything I own that the percentage of people with such degrees who cannot balance their checkbooks is far lower than the percentage of people without them who are so handicapped.

In fact, whenever they do a study of this kind of thing, it turns out that the stereotypes about highly educated people–that they’re impractical and can’t take care of themselves; that they’re socially awkward; and on and on–are, on any statistical measure, utterly false.

Highly educated people are more likely to be married and to stay married than people with less educaion.  They’re more likely to be healthy.  They’re less likely to be obese.  They smoke less, drink less, and take fewer drugs.  They’r less likely to go to jail, drive intoxicated, drive at unsafe speeds, or die in hundreds of different ways.  They’re more likely to vote, more likely to volunteer in their communities, and less likely to be deadbeat on their child support paymehts, assuming they get divorced to begin with.

And most of us can see that in the world around us.  Yes, of course, as John pointed out, those people are also less likely to be able to fix their plumbing or their carburetors, but then there’s been very little call for them to learn.  The underlying assumption of such statements–that highly educated people couldn’t learn to do such things even if they tried–has no empirical foundation that I know of.

The question for me is this–WHY have so many people, over so many centuries, persisted in promoting this stereotype, and why has it become nearly the mantra of the present-day Republican Party?

Maybe I should add “up to last week” to that last thing, since the op ed columns and the magazines seem to be full of people bemoaning the latter-day Republican romance with stupidity.

To say that somebody is both highly intelligent and highly educated and that those two things are good, admirable and to be desired is not the same thing as saying that anybody who doesn’t have them is less of a human being.  Like I said at the beginning of this blog, we don’t make the same assumption when we talk about some people who are more talented and better trained at basketball than the rest of us.

When I say that most people couldn’t play like Michael Jordan in his prime because they weren’t born with the talent and they weren’t trained to use it well does not make anybody think I am saying that anybody who can’t play like Jordan is less of a person, or to be looked down on. 

Human talent is variable in all things.  What is it about this thing that makes so many people think it’s an awll-or-nothing proposition–as soon as we admit that some people are smarter than others, we must also be saying that some people are better than others?

Here’s another piece of the Deweyan take on education that a lot of anti-Dewey crusaders have swallowed hook, line and sinker:  the idea that “equality” demands that we all be the same intellectually, if in no other way.  And yet most of us can easily see this isn’t true.  Spend some time around random groups of two year olds, and in no time at all you’ll find one or two standing out for their ability to solve problems, follow trains of thought, and understand inferences than the others. 

I have no idea how I learned to read.  Nobody taught me, but I do know that I could do it–actually do it, on material I had never seen before–when I was no more than two years and eleven months old.  My younger son started around the same age, without any help or training for me.  How?  I’ve got no idea.  It just happened.  One day I, and he, could just do it.

Thad boy who was the first I ever went out with could do it at about that age, too, and on top of that he could do math.  Nobody taught him.  Teachers would demand he “show all work!” and he’d just be confused.  He hadn’t done any work.  He’d just looked at the problem and, you know, it was obvious.

It took a lot more to teach me mathematics.  It took infinitely more to teach even basic arithmatic to a boy in our class named Jimmy, who took up great gobs of the teacher’s time having things explained to him, onjly to have to take up great gobs the next day having it explained again.

There’s absolutely wrong with any of that.  It doesn’t mean that Jimmy is or was a worse person than me.  It doesn’t even guarantee that one of us will be “successful” and the other will not.

But the stereotype, that “such a genius he can’t even tie his shoelaces” nonsense, has definite negative effects across the culture.  Forget Sarah Palin for the moment.  We’ve raised generation after generation of kids whose biggest nightmare is to wake up one morning and find that they’re “smart.”  After all, what is a “smart” kid?  One of those nerds.  One of those people nobody else likes.

I think we’re losing a significant amount of talent due to people who deliberately opt for stupidity and ignorance.   We’re creating an ever-widening pool of people who are not just going to be skeptical of pronouncements coming out of Harvard and Yale–which makes sense, we should all be skeptical about most everything–but who stubbornly hold to the idea that “it’s all just opinion”–not only whether or not you like Devil Dogs but whether vaccines work and two plus two can equal five.

What’s worst, for me, is that we’re creating legions of “readers” like the one I mentioned in my last post, readers who want books to provide them with passive, untaxing “entertainment,” who do no see any obligation to learn to read in the widest sense, because they think the author’s job is to make sure they can “relax” and “destress” from their everyday lives. 

That isn’t reading, that’s television, and it seems to me we already have a couple of hundred channels on the cable box.  We don’t need ersatz in paperback.

It’s this kind of thing–this attitude to intelligence, and education, and reading–that is the only thing I can think of to explain the success of The Da Vinci Code..

It’s not just that Dan Brown got a few things wrong.  Writers get things wrong every now and then, and it’s no big deal, even if it’s annoying.

The problem is that Dan Brown got nearly everything wrong:  the entire European Middle Ages, the history of the Crusades, the Merovingian dynasty, the streets of modern day Paris–I made it to page twenty-six of the paperback edition before I had to stop, because I’d already made so many notes in the margins that I’d drained the ink dry on one of my red pens.

When The Da Vinci Code came up for discussion on RAM, one of the posters insisted that he just didn’t care if all the history (and even the modern geography) were wrong, it was “a good story” and he loved it. 

I tried to explain why it wasn’t a good story for me, why “getting things wrong” pulls me right outside the narrative and starts me nattering in my head trying to correct the mistakes, and the response I got was basically that I was being a snob and I had no right to tell him what he should like.

But I wasn’t telling him what he should like.  I am a long time devotee of stupid and brainless entertainment.  I own a copy of Dude, Where’s My Car?  I’ve got no problem with people who create alternative universes where Hitler won WWII or Napoleon discovered the foutain of youth and is secretly living in a Motel 6 in Marietta, Georgia.

Okay, I also own a copy of Bubbahotep.

I do think, however, that this particular attitude is not only annoying, but that it is making us stupider.  It is creating a world where stupidity increases.  And by stupidity, now, I’m talking about the choice to be ignorant, uninformed and laregely brain dead.

But, you know, it may be that I’ve beaten this horse to death.

And tomorrow I ought to talk about high schools.

Or something.

Written by janeh

November 10th, 2008 at 10:56 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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