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Archive for December, 2008

Sex Redux

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I’m calling this post Sex Redux because I think I’ve already got a post back there somewhere called Sex, but I can’t find it this morning, which is not surprising.  I’m writing from a really bang up new computer at school, because we’re having classes this Saturday morning, in spite of the fact that we had a major snow storm yesterday, and getting here was like negotiating a county-wide ski run, and exactly one of my students showed up.  But, you know, we’ve got to look rigorous where it doesn’t really matter.

Okay.  I can’t get started on that now.  Next week.  On to sex.

Here’s the thing–societies regulate sex.  All societies regulate sex.  In fact, it seems to be the first thing most soceities do do.  Before they have writing, before they have a division of labor in anything else, they’ve got rules about sex.

We have rules about sex, too, and always have.  And those rules fluctuate, and always have.  For all the blithwering that gets done about how “repressive” society was about sex before us, it had in fact gone through several repressive and less than repressive periods, in a big wheel.  Renaissance Europe didn’t bat an eye over homosexuality, or–let’s be real here–about sex between grown men and adolescent boys, activity our own supposedly more tolerant society will not stomach.  When I was in grade school, I used to wonder how those colonial New England couples managed to bundle all night without getting themselves into trouble.  In graduate school, I found out they didn’t–there were just lots and lots of pregnant brides in Calvinist churches.

Originally, we regulated sex by considering the job of the public authorities to be to validate some kinds and invalidate others.  That is, formal marriage defined that sex that was considered “licit,” and the reasons for making it licit had nothing to do with love or desire.  Marriage was a public act, instituted to insure the legitimacy of children or, barring that–and there was a lot of barring that–to secure the rights of children born in wedlock to their father’s property, while at the same time excluding children born “illegitimately” from those same rights.  There were lots of illegitimate children, of course, and quite often their fathers had no trouble both recognizing them and providing for them, but the law confined validation to what went with a formal, public marriage.

A lot has changed, of course, since the Victorian period.  Men and women don’t think of their marriages as “public acts” any more.  If you ask any stray fifty people on the street what marriage is all about, they’ll tell you it’s about “love” or something of the kind.  Keith Olberman did an on-line editorial on gay marriage on his Countdown program on MSNBC, and it was all about the government (or voters voring in favor of Prop 8), legislating “love.”

And he’s hardly the first person to make the mistake, and it is a mistake–feminist groups in the 1970s got a lot of bang for the buck by printing the legal status of marriage in their states and passing it out for women to read.  The law did not, at that point, and in most states does not now, recognize “love” as a reason or basis for marriage, and it didn’t care whether you and your spouse got along at all.

Still, people change, societies change, and this is one genie that is not going to get put back into the box. Even Pope John Paul II recognized the shift in sensibilities, which is why we have his ‘theology of the body,” an approach to marriage that would have caused any medieval Pope to be struck dumb. 

And it’s not just that we’ve “advanced” morally or socially.  We’ve changed in fundamental, technological ways that need to be taken into account.  We no longer need marriage to legitimate children, for instance, because we’ve got DNA.  DNA can tell us who is actually the child’s father, and when it turns out that Joe isn’t, he’s shocked as hell to find out that the law still considers him to be.  He’s who was married to the mother when the kid was born, tag, he’s it.

There are people who believe that the social regulation of sex was and is mostly about controlling the sexuality of women or, to expand the range a little, to uphold the sexual privileges of heterosexual men.  If that were the case, however, or the main case, many of the rules societies have come up with would make little or no sense.  Monogamous marriage, for instance, is actually  very bad news for alpha males, and not much better news for women. 

At least as strong as the issue of determining which children a male is responsible for, then, I think that social regulation of sex is about defining what it means to be human, as opposed to animal.  Sex is the crux of the mind-body problem.  It is definitively part of our animal, rather than our intellectual, natures, and unlike other of our animal functions–eating, say, or defecating–it often produces a kind of mental derangement that reduces us to sensation.

And therein, you see, likes the problem–or at the intersection of that and our present cultural moment.  Man in a state of nature was morally innocent, Rousseau said, and the Romantics responded by declaring the “natural” to be the good.

Come to the second half of the twentieth century, or the first half of the twenty first, and we find people confidently declaring that it is a good thing to be “polymorphously perverse,” that all sexuality ought to be accepted because it goes to the core of what and who we truly are, that it is morally wrong to disapprove of homseoxual practice or to try to regulate sexual relations between “consenting adults” at all.

At which point, we run smack into Fred and Rosemary West.

Fred and Rosemary West weren’t the first couple to get caught doing what they did, and they weren’t the last.  The first I ever heard of were another British pair, Myra Hindley and Ian Brady, and then there was another pair in Canada.  But there will be more. 

Fred and Rosemary West had a hobby.  There was a bus stop just outside their house in Glouchester, and they would periodically befriend runaway teen-age girls waiting there, take them home, drug them, tie them up, torture them, rape them, murder them, and they put the bodies in the poured concrete of Fred’s endless DIY projects in the basement.  Oh, and they taped the whole thing.  Did I mention that?

The modern response to Fred and Rosemary West is to decalre what they’ve done “unnatural,” by which we mean, these days, neurotic or psychotic, the result not of natural drives but of psychological illness.  We have the same explanation for most of the kinds of sex we don’t like, for one reason or another–for pedophilia, for instance, or for what we like to call pedophilia but isn’t, meaning sex with post pubescent teen-aagers who have yet to reach the latest age of consent.

There are good reasons to ban these activities  that have nothing to do with their “naturalness” or otherwise, but “naturalness” is the place we’ve decided to take our stand, and that’s what’s getting us into so much trouble. 

Homosexuality certainly seems to be “natural” to the human race, or some proportion to it, in the sense that it exists in all societies at all times among a subset of the population.  It seems to exist in most species of mammals under at least some conditions, too.  The Renaissance Church knew this, which is why it would never have made the mistake of the modern Church and said that homosexuality was “gravely disordered.”  As far as the Renaissance Church was concerned, all human sexuality was “gravely disordered” as a result of the Fall, and one kind of disorder was no more shocking than any other.

But if you can’t regulate homsexuality on the grounds of its being “unnatural,” I don’t think you can tolerate it on those grounds, either.  Contrary to contemporary popular wisdom, lots of truly repugnant sexual practices are also natural, just as heterosexuality is natural–that is, they are biological phenomena that do not require illness of any kind to emerge into a population.  Rape is natural.  And as for that thing with the adult men and the post pubescent teenagers, it’s been the custom in most of the world for most of history to marry off girls as soon as they hit puberty.  At, for instance, thirteen.

The usual response to all this is to say “sex is okay as long as it’s between consenting adults” because “otherwise, we cause harm.”  But, for God’s sake, define “harm.”  When I was in high school, two of the girls in my class had “relationships” with much older men.  In both cases, the girls enjoyed those relationships and now, forty years later, look back on them fondly and as generally positive experiences.   We are not, however, about to make such relationships legal, and in fact have become more and more harsh by the day on the adults men involved in them.

Neither “naturalness” nor “harm” is a workable basis for sexual rulemaking, not unless we want to allow a lot of things we don’t, and shouldn’t.  We make sexual rules as a way to define our humanity–to wall off “human” behavior from “animal” behavior.  Let’s start there and see what we come up with.

As for “gay marraige,” if we are going to define marriage in terms of love, we have to allow it.  And if the law is meant to keep the peace, and not to establish morality of one kind or another, then the law must recognize those arrangements it needs to recognize in order to function.  I live in a state where the vast majority of people willing to adopt and raise HIV positive children are gay couples.  I say we need to regularize those unions for a dozen reasons having to do with streamlining the law and safeguarding the rights of those children. 

But don’t talk to me about “natural” any more.  The snow storm that just hit my part of the country is “natural.”  I’ve been plotting ways to abolish nor’easters all morning…

Written by janeh

December 20th, 2008 at 11:41 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Snow Day

with 3 comments

So.  Yesterday I had nothing to do, and the way that works,  I got absolutely nothing done. Except this:  I went to the grocery store.  That may seem like a small thing, and it may seem even smaller when you realize that I did not have any big shop to do.  I was just picking up enough to make sure my older son had something when he came back for vacation on Saturday, and  a few necessities for the week-end in general.  I won’t shop for  Christmas until next week.

But as it turns out, this was a very big deal, and a very big thing, because we have a nor’easter moving in today.   For those of you who don’t live in New England, the real problem with nor’easters is not the storms themselves, but what happens right before the storms:  everybody rushes to the grocery store and buys fifteen or sixteen bags of potato chips.

I am not making this up.  New England eats more potato chips and chocolate than any other region in the United States, and when it snows we want potato chips.  I bought potato chips, too, because I want to make a big tub of clam dip for Matt, and when  I say “big tub” I’m not kidding.   But I did it only in the hope that I’d be able to sleep in today and get some correcting done, and not because I’d been paying any attention to the weather news.  So  I can’t congratulate myself on my foresight.

That said, I’m sitting here at the computer with my customary really enormous (forty ounce) heavily steeped (two tea bags, twenty minutes) cup of tea, and I don’t know if I can face corecting today.  I’ve just about finished the Hawthorne biography.   I’ve got a couple of pages, and then  I want to read through the notes.   The description of the funeral was depressing in a way I had not thought it would be, but then that’s a lack of foresight, too.  It’s not that the rest of the book hadn’t given me enough hints.

Hawthorne died of a disease we aren’t sure of, but that sounds a lot like some kind of stomach or intestinal cancer, not only because of the symptoms but because two of his uncles died of  what looks like the same thing with the same symptoms at the same age. 

And at his funeral there was  Ralph Waldo Emerson, Franklin  Pierce (the ex-president),  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James  Russell Lowell, Charles Eliot Norton, Bronson Alcott, the Peabody sisters (his wife was a Peabody)–it was a gathering of the New England Renaissance.  Only Thoreau and Margaret  Fuller weren’t there, and they were both dead.

I don’t have much use for the illustriousness of funerals.  It isn’t that that strikes me in the list of mourners.  It’s that right here, in the middle of the Civil War, men and women who had largely been friends since childhood remained friends.  Elizabeth Peabody did not refuse to attend Hawthorne’s funeral because Hawthorne was a copperhead (a “peace Democrat,” who did not believe the Union should fight to keep the South, and who did not support abolition). 

Hell, she came even though Franklin Pierce, the biggest copperhead of them all, was sitting with the Hawthorne family.

i’m getting back to something here that ought to be commonplace but today is not.  Given our present climate, young up and coming man with political aspirations would have been very careful not to be in that church, not to give the impression that he “approved” of Hawthorne’s views on race, or slavery, or secession. 

And Hawthorne had the kind of views that were repugnant even at the time, when there was far less stress on the utter moral unacceptability of racism.  Someone e-mailed me the other day and in the course of the message gave a sort of throw away comment on Agatha Christies xenophobia, which the writer thought of as an imperial trait.   I tend to think of British xenophobia as an insular one, instead, but the comment made me think of why that trait in Christie never really bothers me much, and I came up with the realization:  there’s no malice in it.

Christie’s xenophobia was reflexive, not thought out, and it did not spill into her personal life as far as we can tell.  She traveled widely, and counted as friends people of many nationalities, whom she admired and praised publicly with no sense of irony.  What’s more, in those of her books where she’s actually thinking about it, the xenophobia is not only tempered, it’s often completely reversed.  Think of Dumb Witness, one of my favorite of the Poirots, where we spend the entire book being treated to the snide contempt for the Greek husband (sure to be the killer–he’s a foreigner!), only to have the book end with the revelation that he’s just fine, thank you very much, intelligent and generous and well-meaning and kind, it’s his Very English Lady Wife who’s a selfish, conniving, homicidal bitch.

The problem with  Hawthorne was that there was malice in it, a lot of malice, and racism of a kind that far outstripped anything around him.  He was not, after all, a child of the South.  He was born and raised in New England, and if his views on race and equality had been merely a matter of going along with the flow, they would have been much different than they were.  

I’m not saying that people like Elizabeth Peabody and  Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David  Thoreau were free of racially discriminatory ideas, as we would define that today.  They weren’t.  But compared to the kinds of things Hawthorne thought, and wrote, and respected, they were paragons. 

And yet they went on talking to him, all their lives.  They were good friends to him, as he was to them, all his life.  Even when forty thousand dead lay on the field at Gettysburg, they did not repudiate him.

And he did not repudiate them, even though they supported John Brown, an  American radical who makes Bill Ayers look like a hot fudge sundae. 

I tried to talk about this in a former post somewhere, and felt as if I didn’t do as good a job with it as I could.   But if there’s one change I can’t help but recognize with the start of the new  American dispensation–a change that comes with the end of  WWII and starts with the McCarthy period–it’s this demand that our public figures, political and otherwise, cut their friendships to only those that can be presented as politically acceptable.  Bill  Ayers!   Jerry Falwell!   Totally anathema!

I don’t know what I think of the invitation to Rick Warren to give the innaugural invocation.  I am convinced that we elected Barack  Obama to be president of the United States not because of any particular policies he might have, but because he came to us declaring that it was time for this crap to be over, it was time that we all understood that we are all Americans together, and that all the other things, the policy disagreements, even the moral disagreements, have to be secondary, if we are to be a country.

I’ve watched the transition with increasing fascination over the last few weeks.  I find this latest move completely flabbergasting.

But even so–and even though I disagree with Rick  Warren on practically everything, and most especially on gay rights–I hope Obama doesn’t get stampeded into changing his mind.

Because I think it’s vital right now that we start to learn, again, how to be All  Americans  Together. 

And to do that we have to learn that in a pluralistic society–which we have created, and which we claim to be very proud of –some of those Americans we’re together with are going to hold views and support policies that we find morally and politically reprehensible.

A world in which we are all neat different colors but complete conformists inside our heads–what I think of as the rainbow sprinkles version of diversity–isn’t really diversity at all.   It’s a monocultural society with a superficial paint job.

Barack Obama is a very interesting man.  I don’t think he should repudiate either Wright or  Warren. 

I do think I’d give a lot to live in a time when personal commitments–love and friendship and everything that goes with it–were not calcuated on their potential to look politically palatable to any particular group of people.

I’m blithering again.

Written by janeh

December 19th, 2008 at 9:10 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with one comment

Well, okay, it was coming eventually.  But before I get started on this particular rant, let me sort of agree with both Cheryl and Robert.

Yes, of course, I’d have hated being a proper Victorian lady, and yes, of course, no society is stable in the sense that Robert means it.  We’re always at some point in an arc.

But the reason I’m drawn to the Victorians is precisely because both the British Museum and Marx existed side by side, they were both part of the mix.  A world with just the British Museum in it would have been stultifying.

And as for Victorian ladies–yes, there were those, but the Victorians invented the idea of the “gentlewoman,”  who was invariably described as “handsome” if she was good looking, and who did very no-nonsense, professionally competent things–founded first-class schools for girls, for instance, or the Red Cross.  I couldn’t have been a Victorian lady, but I would like, even now, to be the kind of woman who could be described as a “gentlewoman.” 

I don’t think I have either the imperiousness or the competence down.

I know I don’t have the imperiousness down, because if I did I wouldn’t be about to kill four of my students by now.

I’d just scare them, and they wouldbn’t try to pull this kind of crap on me.

Let’s start with student 1, who was actually a student of mine a couple of years ago.  She had some personal problems, and she ended up taking an Incomplete.  When a student takes an Incomplete, she signs a contract agreeing to finish certain work by a certain date.  If she does, she gets a grade for the course based on total work done.  If she does not, the grade reverts to what it would have been if she never got the incomplete.

Well, this student agreed to a set of assignments and never did them, so the grade reverted to an F, where it sat until last week, when she was told she would not be allowed to graduate because she had not passed my course, which was a requirement for graduation.  Oh, she told the registrar, that’s okay, that’s an incomplete.  I did the work.  That grade is supposed to be changed.

Did she think I was going to go along with that?  Or that the registrar wouldn’t check with me first?  What?

That’s the unusual case, though.  Let’s try the more usual ones–the myriad numbers of my students who don’t do their work and claim that they DID do it, but I must have lost it.  Or they e-mailed it to me last week, and I must have gotten it and lost it.  Or something.

And when informed that, since they’ve done less than half the work for the course, they’re going to get an F, they’re FURIOUS.  I mean completely bonkers. 

My highest level students are assigned a research paper–extended outline, first draft, MLA format works cited list with at least five entries, at least one block quote, at least five citations in the text, minimum five to seven pages. 

One kid handed in a paper exactly two pages long, no block quote, no citations, and forget the MLA format.  And he’s mad at me, because it was TWO pages, damn it.  That’s a long paper.  What’s wrong with me?

I am not a sentimentalist.  I read enough to know that students of this kind–people of this kind, trying to do the least work necessary, trying to scam the system–has always and everywhere existed in great numbers.  And I wonder what it is that makes me less and less able to deal with them.

I think that, eight years ago or so, when I started on this experiment to go back to teaching,  that I would be dealing with people whose life circumstances had screwed them over, that I would be a resource for them to help get themselves out.

And that does happen, every once in a while.  I’ve had some interesting students over the years, kids and not-quite-kids who have been through hell and back and turned themselves around.  Most of my kids, though, although they live very miserable lives in a great many ways. are either busy making their lives more miserable, or so passive that there’s no chance of much ever happening to them that’s going to get them out of where they are.

I think it’s the passivity that makes me craziest, that and the deep seated hostility to anybody or anything that wants to hold them to realistic standards in the world.  I don’t know what it is they want, or what it is they think they’re doing.  I don’t know how they think, and the few attempts I’ve made to write them into a book have not worked.

I don’t think the Victorians knew, either.  Of the various things I don’t like about that era, certainly the workhouses and the treadmills are high on the list, but this morning what strikes me about both is how completely useless they were at achieving their ends.  The Victorians were bigon Moral Hazard, that is, the idea that giving money to someone poor or destitute was likely to sap their will and make them dependent and therefore even less able to care for thenselves than they had been before somebody helped them out.

So in order to make sure that people did not lose sight of the fact that if you want money, you must earn it, they would require some recipients of public charity to walk a treadmill for hours to “earn” their handout–why that and not simply establish some kind of public works, or other projects, to actually put people to real work, I don’t know.

But the truly remarkable thing is that the treadmills did not seem to teach the poor to work.  They didn’t raise the moral standards of charity cases.  They just existed, and people walked them to get their handout, and then sank back into the same misery from which they’d come.

The older I get–God, I keep saying that–the more I think that a good half of the misery in the world is misery we inflict on ourselves, and yet I can’t see a way to distinguish that from the misery that is outside out control.  Oh, some of the out of control kind is easy enough to see–people get terminal diseases, or are involved in accidents that they could not have foreseen or guarded against.  Some of my students this term were refugees from various civil wars in Africa, fori instance.  One flunked out of high school after four bouts of early onset breast cancer.

But consider somebody who is not one of my students–a young woman with two young children I see on and off in my local grocery store.  I’ve talked to her often enough to get the impression that she may have borderline mental retardation.  She’s not very bright.  She is very nice, and very–I don’t know what.  She’s not vigorously tattooed or any of the other things some people in her position do to themselves that makes them less than attractive to employers.

She’s less than attractive to employers because she doesn’t think too well, no matter how hard she tries.  And she’s not mentally retarded enough to qualify for one of the state programs that provides supervised work (as supermarket baggers, for isntance) and living arrangements for adults with Down Syndrome or autism.  She’s just slow and she has two children and she’s living in a state with a lifetime limit on welfare benefits–in fact, one of the shortest and most stringent of such limits in the country.

Last Christmas, she tried to buy a small turkey breast, a box of instant rice and a can of corn with a food stamp card that didn’t work–and that I knew she knew wouldn’t work, because I could see it in her nervousness and talkativeness.  The woman at the checkout knew it, too, And all of a sudden, netither of us could stand it.   I took out all my change–seven dollars in quarters, because I’d been collecting them for a state quarter thing for my younger son–and Linda took out all of hers, and between the two of us we managed to make up the fifteen dollars to buy the groceries.

But it’s another Christmas now, and I have no idea what’s happened to that woman or her children.  And my students make me think of her.

I can’t think of a way to separate cases like that from cases like “how dare you give me an F, I showed up for half the classes!”

But there needs to be a way.

Okay.  This has been your maudlin Christmas misery rant.

Written by janeh

December 17th, 2008 at 11:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 3 comments

I was going to write about students today.  It’s exam week, and I’m being inundated by people who cannot tell time, and who all seem to have computers that malfunction at a drop of a hat, and in the same way, too.  And, of course, they’re sure that if I just let them hand in all ten papers this week, they’ll at least be able to pass, if not to do much better than that.

It’s enough to make you crazy.  But I’m not thinking of students today.  I’m thinking about Victorians.  A Christmas Carol is a Victorian novella, but it’s not the only Victorian fiction I’ll read this Christmas, and the longer I live the more Victorian I feel.  Sort of.

I wonder sometimes what the necessary and sufficient conditions are.  It’s common enough that you have to put up with something unpleasant to get something you find much too valuable to miss.  I get up at an unGodly hour of the morning in order to make sure I have time to write and do the rest of the things I want to do before Real Life sets in.  Until I started writing for a living, I rarely got up before noon and didn’t see why anybody would bother.

But I don’t know what part of the Victorian world was necessary and what was not–necessary to keep the things I like about it, I mean.

Those things are, first and foremost, the balance between the traditionalist and the scientific, the religious and the scientific, that is what I think it is you actually need for a decent life.  I think both the religious people who want to turn everything into God’s Gountry and people like Hitchens (whom I generally love) who think “religion spoils everything” are fundamentally wrong. 

As I’ve pointed out before, there seems to be something about largely secularized societies–at least, the ones we have up to now–that lacks drive, or something.  People don’t seem to get committed to science or reason, they just seem to get disconnected from everything, to become more concerned about their short-term comfort than about anything else, even their own children, if they bother to have them.

But I don’t have to go into a big spiel on the problems with strongly religious societies, because those have been outlined  by better people than I will ever be.  Let’s just acknowledge the know-nothing reaction to science, the need to police orthodoxy, and what seems to me to be the almost reflexive need to police the sexuality of women. 

The Victorians were caught in a moment of balance.  Christianity was strong, but so was the rationalist reaction to Christianity, and one modified the other.  Christianity took from the rationalists the need to be rational itself.  The rationalists took from Christianity the commitment to improve the lot of all men everywhere, because of the moral equality of all men everywhere.

The Victorians believed in honor–personal honor–without the overwrought irrationality of the Romantics. They outlawed dueling, but they demanded of their friends, their families and even their acquaintances a commitment to honesty and integrity that brooked no, or few, exceptions.  They believed in self discipline, and in living well-regulated lives.  Their distaste for divorce, and for “irregular” living arrangements like cohabitation, had less to do with their mythical dislike of all things sexual than with their very real dislike of all things chaotic.  Divorce muddied the waters, put inheritance and property into question, cost a lot of money one way or the other, made it difficult to know who and what belonged to whom.

I know, of course, that many Victorians were “hypocrites,” by which most writers today mean people who do not live up to their expressed ideals.  But that makes us all  hypocrites, and it’s not the actual meaning of the word.  A hypocrite is someone who not only doesn’t live up to his expressed ideals, but doesn’t try to, and works to punish other people for failings for which he expects to be given a pass himself.

Still, I think that having high ideals of personal conduct and at least trying to live up to them is better than the attitude I run in too often today–back to students, again–that, really, there’s no use in even bothering to try and nobody ever makes it anyway.  You’d be amazed at how many of my students will argue passionately that, say, Shakespeare didn’t really write those plays or that Einstein plagarized the special theory of relativity.

The idea seems to be that nobody ever really achieves anything, that there’s no reason to make them feel bad about themselves by expecting them to actually do any work to be better than they are.  Well, the Victorians insisted on trying to be better than they wre, and they had a strong sense of duty to themselves, their family, their country, and their world.

It’s easy to laugh at the “white man’s burden”–and not wrong to cringe at the implicit racism of the idea, either–but the fact is that the British Empire did a lot of good as well as harm, and did it because it insisted on “imposing its values” on societies it decided fell short of the ideal that the Victorians would have considered to be objectively good for all societies everywhere.

And we’ve only recently come out of the modern fog to accept the fact that there is a dilemma here, and not a simple straightforward split between the badness of “cultural imperialism” and the goodness of self determination for all peoples everywhere.  We can only uphold that point of view by carefully ignoring the fact that for some peoples in some places, self determination means the decision to carry out wholesale genocide, or to destroy the lives of generation after generation of women by purdah and female genital mutilation.

Of course, having the example of the British empire in front of me, I’m not all that sanguine about the ability of one nation to impose civilization on another–at best, it seems to work about half well.  At worst, well, people are people.  They behave like human beings.  This is not always a good thing, but it always leads to snobbery and social exclusion and condescension. 

So I don’t know the answer to that.  I know enough history to know that civilization has almost always been spread by the sword, and that some empires do indeed leave their subject peoples better off than they had been before.  On the other hand, other empires have simply destroyed anything and anything that got in their way.

But there are things I definitely do not like about the Victorian period–the formality, for one thing.  I’m not a very formal person, and I like the idea of slouching around the house in loose clothes with a large cup of tea in my hands.  Nor am i fond of the Victorian tendency to police social behavior by a set of public markers that often had very little to do with anything–a young woman could be “ruined” by so many innocuous circumstances that she required a chaperone nearly twenty-four seven just to stay out of the “trouble”she wasn’t actually in to begin with, and if she got into such trouble her sisters were often considered “ruined” along with her, sort of guilt by association.

Debtors’ prisons don’t seem like much of a good idea to me, either.  I never did understand the rationale.

But I suppose what I’m getting at here–and in the meantime working up to the subject of the next book I intend to read, which is Anthony Trollope’s The Prime Minister–is that I wish I knew what was and wasn’t necessary to build a society like the ones the Victorians managed for themselves, and what that society had within itself that eventually destroyed it.

There’s an absolutely wonderful scene in a novel by P.D. James, where a young university student with passionate left-wing political attachments histrionically declares to her magnificent Victorian grandmother, “You’re world is dead!  Dead!  And it’s never coming back again!”

And the grandmother says, very drily, “Yes, I know.  I was there in 1918, when it died.”

I’m dredging the James up from memory, which means I know for certain what the grandmother said, but I’m not so sure about the entire accuracy of the granddaughter’s quote. 

But  you see what I mean.

Or maybe not.

Written by janeh

December 16th, 2008 at 12:39 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

The Heidigger Problem

with 2 comments

So between comments and e-mail I got a lot of feedback on that last one that amounted to, “well, MY kind of writer is nice.  It’s that other kind that isn’t.”

As a matter of fact, thatisn’t true.  Among “storytellers,”for instance, there have been some notable pricks, including both Maugham and Hawthorne, neither of whom was in the least bit interested in changing the world.  Some writers who were passionately interested in changing the world–Orwell, for instance, and Ralph Waldo Emerson–were actually, by all accounts, unusually decent human beings.

One of the reasons we like naratives is precisely he fact that they fix he moral chaos of the world.  In narratives, heroes may have flaws, but justice is always done, and an evil skank is never a saint in her professional life.

If you want to know just how strongly we cling to our wish for a world that is morally cohesive, consider the response to a book of mine, now very far in the past, that was published under the title Dear Old Dead.

Not my title.  Don’t get me started on the early titles.  Really.

Anyway, the central character in Dear Old Dead is a physician by the name of Michail Pride, who chucked over a Park Avenue practice to open a clinic in Harlem with the help of a group of Augustinian nuns.  He is a truly remarkable man.  He works ceaselessly and at gteat hardship to himself to bring free medical care, and first class care, to people who would otherwise be reduced to emergency rooms and really bad doctors.

There’s just one thing–he’s not only a gay man, but a gay man with a complete obsession with sex in glory holes.  And he’s got AIDS, which of course he would have–but he’s still going to glory holes, which means he’s still infecting other people.

So what is Michael Pride–a saint or a piece of moral crap?  I’d say that what Michael Pride is is more realistically drawn than most fictional characters.  In the real world, it just isn’t true that anybody is ever a “good person” in every way, and my guess is that somebody who is spectacularly good in some ways will be spectacularly bad in others.

But Micheel Pride would have been even more realistically drawn if I’d given up the glory holes and simply made him petty and meanspirited in everyday life.  Because that’s more realistic, too, than what we normally get from fiction.  In fact, it’s the most realistic of all. 

It’s a good question, though, in terms of real life–what part of the human being should we count as definitive in our jedgments of him?  When, if ever, are we justified in rejecting a writer’s work because of what he is or has been in life?

Fiction may be the easy case here.  Fiction creates a world of its own, and lots of writers seem to crate that world on autopilot, so it relly doesn’t matter if Hawthorne was a racist, misogynist jerk, Hester Prynne is feminist enough for practically anybody, and a strong enough call for the rights of individual conscience aainst the pressures of conformity.

Science might not be too dificult a case, either.  Two plus two equal four no matter who discovers it.  Even if it had been Hitler who had first presented the world with the heliocentric solar system, the merits of the case for that system would not be weakened.  Science is supposed to be about the data, and the data are the same for everybody.  Liberals and conservatives do not get different answers to the question of the validity of the germ theory of disease.

Even so, ad hominem is the first of the logical fallacies for a reason.  Human beings are loath to give it up.  What do you mean it doesn’t matter if he’s scum of the earth?  If he’s scum of the earth, nothing he says can possibly be tue!

Francis Bacon was a nasty little man, a world-class opportunitst who took favors from people and then cheerfully threw them to the wolves as soon as the political winds changed.  He also laid the foundations for the scientific method, and the world has een immeasurab;y better because of the movement he started. 


Consider another kind of writer–the writer on philosophy.  Philosophy is ethics and politics as well as metaphysics.  In fact, almost nobody does metaphysics any more.  And seemingly obscure branches of philosophy can have enormous impact on history.  Epistemology is the philosophy of knowledge, what it means to say we “know” something, whether we can “know” anything at all.  It’s not just academic, whether we understand the world as being really out there or just a construction of our own minds.  It really matters what the rules of evidence are, and not just in courtrooms.

I’ve always been of the opinion that Hegel was the worst thing that ever happened to Western Civilization.  It was Hegel who apotheosized history in such a way that made both Naziism and Communism not only possible, but inevitable.  If you want to know why so many secular people think that those two movements were religious, not “atheistic,” go read Hegel.  It’s fairly clear.

But the philosopher that has had the most impact on Western philosophy in this century, the one whose insights have generated the most comment, and engagement, in the field and out, is Martin Heidigger.

He’s the counterexample to the old saw that academics will allow a Commu8nist anything but conservatives absolutely nothing.

Of course, Heidigger wasn’t a conservative.  He was a Nazi.  Literally  He was a member of the Nazi party.  He joined after the persecution of the Jews started, so he was not blind to what was going on.  His former student and longtime lover, Hannah Arendt, had to flee to New York to escape being placedin a concentration camp.  Heidigger sailed serrenly through the war, overseeing the expulsion of Jews from his university, hanging on to his position to the very end–and never, not once, apologizing for it afterward, or even really explaining himself.

And yet, after the war, his reputation was rehabilitated, his career was excused–he was only doing what he had to do to keep his job, people said, as if craven ambition is supposed to be a mitigating factor–and he became the foundation of a whole set of philosophical, literary and historicall movements, from that old saw moral relatiism to structuralism, deconstruction, and constructivism.

I really don’t expect my universe to be morally coherent.  I know that many atheists are more generous and upright than many Christians and that many religious people are more intelligent than people who do not believe. I knwo that there are lots of intelligent and compassionate Republicans and lots of stupid and selfish Democrats.  I know the world is not a narrative, no matter how much we would like to make it one.

But there is a part of my head that says philosophy–and that offshoot of philosophy which is intellectual religion (think Thomas Aquinas here)–is trying to tell us how to live, and looking at how well the philosophers themselves were able to live is a good place to start to judge their usefulness to the rest of the human race.

But then part of me remembers Saint Paul.  The spitit is willing, but the flesh is weak.  We often understand what would be the right thing to do and lack the whatever it is to carry it out.

Okay, I have to admit it.  In spiteof the silly nonsense about women, I often rather like St. Paul.

Written by janeh

December 15th, 2008 at 10:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 2 comments

Aristophanes famously made Socrates a character in one of his most successful plays, The Clouds, and not a very nice character, either–petty, spiteful, conniving, foolish, dishonest, destructive, arrogant and what can only be called slatternly, although that’s a word usually applied only to women.

I reread The Clouds this summer, along with a long list of other Greek works I hadn’t picked up since my early days in college, and I remembering wondering what the audience had thought of the skewering of the man who was supposed to be Athens’ greatest thinker.  The Athenians liked their thinkers, by and large.  Athenian society probably gave a higher social status to  philosophers (think “intellectuals”) than any society has before or since.

But Aristophanes was writing about a man who was alive and well in the world in which his play was produced, and nothing has come down to us of protest against the portrait.  Maybe there was such protest, and we have simply lost all the examples of it.   Maybe the audience just liked a good joke at the expense of public figures, even public figures they  liked–much the way we like to laugh at Obama impersonations on Saturday Night Live.

What strikes me, however, is how incredibly modern that play seemed to me as I read it.  The fundamental fault line between the philosophers and the ordinary men of ordinary occupations could have been taken out of The  Weekly Standard a month ago.  Socrates is the man who not only deliberately attacks and dismantles tradition, but who scorns and pities the men who make the everyday world work with their labor. 

So, okay, we can say that the old tension between the intellectuals and the rest of us is of long standing, but it’s the other half of the depiction that struck me, and that came back to me as I continued reading my Hawthorne biography.  It reminded me of a few other biographies I’ve read, recently, including one of Somerset Maugham and one of Mary McCarthy.  I’ve got a biography of Edna Saint Vincent Millay in the office here–I spent one year living in her old dorm room at Vassar–and I have a funny feeling that that one will bring me back to the same place.

That place is this:  it astounds me beyond measure how often it is the case that writers whose fictional and poetic worlds are large, generous, serious, joyous. and insightful live personal lives that are small, pinched, petty, spiteful, vain and resentful. 

I don’t know why we expect writers to be like their work, but we do–and I think I can safely use that “we.”  And I’m not saying that all writers live lives that are cramped in those ways.  There have been some notable exceptions, including both Hemingway and Stephen  King.

But a lot of the very greatest writers, the ones with the largest and the longest literary reputations, have had these personal faults.  We know very little about Shakespeare’s personal life, but what we do know is not in general pleasant.  In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as “writing” became a profession instead of something relatively rich people did on the side, the news got less and less pleasant.

In general, I think we can say that the great writers who have done something else with their lives besides “just write’ seem to have done better, in terms of personality and personal history, than the ones who have not, but that isn’t always the case, either.  Orwell was “just a writer,’ and from all reports a first rate human being.  The same is the case with Conan Doyle, and I tend to think that that last mental breakdown, in response to the death of his son, is to his credit as a personality rather than an embarrassment. 

Maybe this is the fault of a narrative, or of all narratives–we want our people to be all of a piece, as characters are, and so often they are not.  It’s not only great writers who exhibit small personalities, it’s people with great talent at everything–basketball players, composers, even legendary business innovators (think Henry Ford) all seem to fall into small lives, pinched ideas, spiteful nastiness over trivialities as soon as you get them at home. 

Maybe it bothers me more about the writers of fiction because they spend so much of their lives examining and recreating the interior lives of others,  A Nathaniel Hawthorne, the man who created Judge Pyncheon and Hester Prynne, ought to know better, I think–in fact, he does know better.  He just sees to be completely unable to act on what he knows. so we get not only his casual racism (once having been asked to dinner at the house of friends to find that one of the guests was a free black woman, he refused ever to dine there again), but his vindicative attacks on the dead Margaret Fuller and his relentlessly cruel lampooning of Elizabeth Peabody.  The situation is not made any better that he owed both  Fuller and  Peabody many of the professional breaks that made it possible for him to become an American writer of the first rank, or that he had once been almost engaged to Peabody before he threw her over for her sister.

I find I like the absolute psychopats better than I like people like Hawthorne, as people–I like him as a writer just fine, and he’s a necessary link in the chain of American intellectual history.  But the absolute psychopaths actually have a kind of grandeur to them, the Percey Bysshe  Shelleys, the Lord Byrons.  They didn’t bother to lie, because they didn’t see any point to it.  They slept with your wife and threw it in your face, and in the faces of their own wives, too, and then they demanded that you lend them your villa in Naples because you wouldn’t be staying in it anyway.

It seems to me that the writers of the worlds I want to live in are the least likely people to actually live in such worlds.   Maybe that is why  I am not, and will never be, a Great Writer.  What I want out of writing, and out of reading, is not only to live in that world for a little while, but to bring my own world a little closer to it. 

I can be a very happy person on Sunday mornings, with Bach harpsichord concertos on the CD player and something I really love to read, fictional or otherwise.  At times like that it almost seems as if it’s possible to live in the world I keep looking for in fiction, and even sometimes in poetry, and often in music and painting.  When I think of that world to myself, I tend to call it “the life of the mind,” but the phrase bothers me in a number of ways, and it means things to me that wou ld make somebody like Hannah Arendt or  George Steiner cringe. 

In the life of the mind as I want to live it, there is a place for Shakespeare and Mozart and Faulkner and Trollope and Piero della Francesca, but there is also more than enough room for Sherlock Holmes and all my Miss Marple Agatha Chrities.

I don’t know.  It’s Christmas, and I’ve gotten to the point in the Hawhtorne biography where I’m exasperated with the man so much that it’s begun to impinge on my admiration for his books.

On the other hand, I do have lots and lots and lots of the old Perry Mason television series on DVD, and that’s something that fits into my definition of the life of the m ind, too.

Written by janeh

December 14th, 2008 at 8:58 am

Posted in Uncategorized

A Christmas Carol

with 2 comments

Every once in a while, I think I know what I’m going to write here.  I walk around with opening sentences in my head all day, and then I read through the comments from the day before, and everything goes to hell.

That is sort of what has happened this morning.   I was going to write about my peculiar obsession with Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which tends to be a big deal around my house between Thanksgiving and  Epiphany, because that’s when I decided to run all my Christmas Carol videos back to back and over and over again.  And I have a lot of them.  I’ve got both the Patrick Stewart and George C. Scott versions, plus the one with Albert  Finney, plus A Christmas Carol:  The Musical (which I don’t like), plus at least two from the early days of sound movies, including the one with Alastair  Sim.  I’ve bot the  Muppets version (my favorite).  I’ve got a bunch of the modern retellings, too, like A Diva’s  Christmas Carol and a renamed one with Henry  Winkler set in the US during the Depression. 

By now this obsession is of the kind where I feel the need to have items even though I know from the start that I won’t like them–there’s a Barbie version out this year, which makes me cringe, but somebody will give it to me eventually.  It’s gotten to the point where pretty much everybody knows I do this.  On the other hand, there’s the Bill Murray movie Scrooged, which has been on television a few times, and which I definitely like, but that I haven’t yet come across at a time when I can pick it up.

Then there are the ones I’ve seen on teleivision and don’t actually know the names to–there’s a modern American version where the ghosts all go to the wrong house and Marley is a Jamaican Rastafarian.  There are also the versions that constituted a single episode of various television series I have no other particular interest in but that can only be acquired on DVD by the season.  The one that sticks in my mind is an episode of Highway to Heaven, the series where Michael Landon played an angel.  

I don’t know just what it is about A Christmas Carol that strikes me so, and it’s double hard to figure out because this is a relatively new obsession.  It showed up only after Bill had died.

When I was growing up, I always reread The Razor’s Edge (by W. Somerset Maugham) and Rebecca  (by Daphne  du Maurier) for Christmas, and also sometimes Hemingway’s supposed “memoir” A Movable Feast.  I knew what was going on with those even then, though.  They were my imaginary escape routes out of the emotionally barren, intellectually stultifying environment of my childhood, and they involved going to live in Paris (first choice) or England and being somebody else entirely.  Hawthorne, in The Scarlet Letter, called it the desire to be “a citizen of somewhere else.”  I know exactly what he meant, even now.

I’ve tried to analyze my fascination with A Christmas Carol several times, but every explanation I construct seems somehow false.  This year the explanation seems a little less false than usual, so let me try it out here. 

I have serially recurring e-mail conversations with a number of people about what I’d call Picking A Winner–that is, why it is that publishers are generally so God awful at knowing what books will sell and what will not.  Significant best sellers tend to come as a surprise, and although it is possible to manufacture the appearance of a best seller, the appearance tends to fall apart after awhile, and a good hefty minority of books with seven figure advances just fall off cliffs and into the slough of midlist.

Some of the people involved in these debacles are publishing brass who have been brought in from other kinds of companies and who have no idea why anybody reads books, since they don’t read books themselves.  These people use the It Worked Before method of figuring out what will sell–last year there was a big best seller where the detective was a cat?  and another one where the detective was a nun?  Fine!  We’ll publish a book where a nun solves crimes with the help of her cat!

There are some truly terribly books out there published on this philosophy, and it doesn’t matter that most of them fail to sell much of anything at all.  If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting the outcome to be different each time, then there’s a certain kind of publishing executive who is demonstrably insane.  It’s all coming to a bookstore near you–mafia families, serial killers with sexual kinks that would curl the hair of the Marquis de Sade, cat and dog and guinea pig detectives, cozy English villages invented by the people who put marzipan figurines on wedding cakes…

The other method of picking books is to pick them by how well they’re written.  That method has the advantage of actually being about the quality of the work, and to an extent it does better than the we’re-all-doing-cannibals-this-year approach, but it really isn’t a good predictor of how well the book will sell.

It isn’t true that books that are well written sell less well than books that are written well–okay, that sentence was a train wreck.  You know what I  mean.  The fact is that how well a book is written has no effect at all on whow well it sells.  I suppose there is some great gaping hole at the bottom below which readers will not go.  Some of the rejected manuscripts I’ve seen in my years in th is business are so excruciatingly embarrassing, I can’t imagine even those people who insist that they “just want a good story” would put up with them.  But being badly written won’t make your book sell, and being well written won’t make it sell either.

I’ve come to the conclusion, lately, that the reason people read books is to live for a while in a thing I can only call a “controlling sensibility.”  That is, that they’re not looking for particular content, but for how the world the book creates makes them feel. 

I know, I know.  I should come up with a snappier phrase for this.  I haven’t been able to think of one. But the idea explains a lot of what’s confusing about present day publishing–why a right-wing author like Patricia Cornwell, for instance,  has so many devoted fans among liberals, and why so many very conservative readers are devoted to distinctly liberal novelists.

I’m sure that every reader has a threshhold beyond which he or she will not go–a level of in-your-face politicization that’s just too much to take.  Stay clear of that threshhold, though, and what you’re saying matters much less than the atmosphere you create around saying it.  That’s why so many people can read the same book over and over and over again, even though it’s a detective novel and they know who did it.   That’s why I read Miss Marple over and over and over again, and  probably why  I read (and watch) A Christmas Carol.

So what is it about A Christmas Carol that attracts me so much?  I find it hard to say.  It obviously is not the Victorian setting, because I like plenty of the modernizations, and you can’t exactly call the Muppets version Victorian.  And I keep playing around with a version of my own, or maybe a sequel.

Maybe it’s just that A Christmas Carol creates a vision of Christmas that I’ve never really had, but would like to.

Someday, I’m going to write a version with Gregor in it, and post it on the website.

Written by janeh

December 13th, 2008 at 6:24 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The Sixties

with 3 comments

One of the reasons  I always think it’s a good idea to teach intellectual history and not just history–to teach the history of ideas–is because it keeps us from inventing mythologies that have little to do with reality and everything to do with what we want to be true. 

And the problem about what we want to be true is that, if it’s wrong, it gets us into trouble.

So I’ve been reading all this Hawthorne, and all these things about  Hawthorne and the people he knew in that odd period between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars in Massachusetts, and it suddenly occurred to me that the Transcendalist movement was more like the Sixties than I’d ever realized. 

We like to think that the Sixties happened to us, that it was unprecedented in American history, and that everything went bad afterwards.  At least, we like to think that unless we are a certain kind of sociology professor, who thinks the  Sixties was wonderful, and that it was  Ronald Reagan who made everything go bad afterwards.

Let’s start with this:  there have always been both liberals and conservatives in America, and we’ve always needed both liberals and conservatives. Each of them brings something to the conversation that the other lacks, and the thing each of them brings is vital.

In the case of conservatives, I’m talking mainstream here, not the kind of nutcase who finds Communists under Barack Obama’s bed, or in it, or the kind that has a burning desire to legislate everything from sodomy to religious expression.   In sane times,  American conservatives tend to be about free market capitalism, limiting the reach of government power in the economy, adhering to judicial precedent (sometimes beyond the point where that makes sense), and respecting tradition.

With liberals, though,  I’m talking not necessarily about true radicals, but about the left edge, given where “left” is for the time.  The odd thing about the left edge is that it always looks more or less the same.  It tends to be utopian in social policy, to think that it is possible to perfect human beings and to build a just and painless society.   It tends also to think that doing that is best handled by going Back to Nature in some way or the other.   Rousseau believed that man started good and was corrupted by society.  Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Bronson Alcott concurred.   Even Nathaniel Hawthorne tried to concur, but it turned out he didn’t much like working on a farm, which you have to do if the farm is what’s supposed to support you.

The farm I’m thinking about is  Brook Farm, the first of the  Transcendentalist experiments in communal living.   Like the communes of the  Sixties that were its spiritual heirs, it collapsed under the weight of its own silliness in only a few years.

And it’s hard not to look at the Transcendentalists and not see them as just as silly as they were, because they were very silly indeed.  In religion, they departed from standard forms of Christianity first into Unitarianism–no Trinity, everybody gets saved in the end, and a vagueness about theology that made Deism look rigorous–and then into a sort of spiritual mush made up of feeling one with the universe and finding heaven inside each man.

Or something.  I came to the Transcendentalists late, well after I’d read my way through a ton of Catholic theology.  I was hard to figure out what they hell it was they wanted, and my guess is that they didn’t know it themselves.  Unitarianism was vague enough itself, and that finally ended in a denomination some people call “atheism for people who like church.” 

It’s easy to laugh at the airy-fairy silliness of so many of Emerson’s essays, just as it’s eas to laugh at Henry David Thoreau and his not-quite-going-back-to-nature on Walden Pond.


Emerson’s theology was hammered out of a life of staggering losses–two of his brothers died before they reached adulthood.  The third was insane.  His first wife died less than two years into their marriage.  His first son died in infancy.   When his first wife had been dead about a year, he went to the graveyard and had her tomb opened.  He looked at what was eft of her inside, came out, and resigned his pulpit.  He would never be a tradtional Christian again.

As for Thoreau–I’ve always found it odd that the book everybody is assigned to read is On Walden Pond.  Yes, of course, that whole thing about going back to nature, separating ourselves from the pressures of a materialist life, striving for simplicity, is an important strain in American literature, in all the literature of the West, really–but it’s not unique to Thoreau, and it doesn’t represent the three quarters of his life that he lived in town.  Nor is it the most significant thing he wrote, if by “significant” we mean “had an impact on events in the real world over time.”

For that, you need two esays, “Civil Disobedience” and “Slavery in  Massachusetts.”  The first sets out the rationale behind all American protest movements, the good, the bad and the ugly.  It was the rationale for the abolitionists, and the rationale for the Civil Rights movement, and, yes, the rationale for the movement against the Vietnam War, and the draft. 

And it’s a rationale that can go off the rails.  The abolitionists weren’t just nice, middle class men and women who gave speeches and staged protests.  They included John Brown, who led an armed uprising against the United States government–a real one, complete with guns, battles and body counts.   You may like his cause better than you like the causes the Black Panthers and the Weathermen supported,  but the reasoning isthe same, and so are many of the tactics. 

As for “Slavery in Massachusetts,” it’s the single most powerful indictment of the Fugitive Slave Act ever written, and to the extent that this country ever developed the conviction that black and white should be equal not only under the law, but as human beings, this was one of the galvanizing expressions of it, and one of the few to last.

I don’t understand what it is, exactly, that causes this situation.  I do know that we cannot do without the Emersons and the Thoreaus, because when they’re good they’re the best of us.  Maybe there’s something in human nature that will not allow sensible people to see clearly to the root of injustice, that makes sensible people equivocate, as Hawthorne did, even if the face of what should be unequivocably intolerable. 

Hawthorne’s philosophy and theology were much more traditional than Emerson’s or Thoreau’s.  His great grandfather had been the chief judge in the witch trials at Salem, and Hawthorne maintained an essentially Calvinist sensibility all his life.  He did not think man was perfectable, and he had a finely tuned ear for the siren song of original sin.  He was a good and solid conservative, even though he thought he wasn’t, and he was adamant that men and women must uphold the law as written if society is to function at all.  All those things are much more likely to keep society running smoothly and well for most of us most of the time than Emerson’s utopianism or Thoreau’s political resistance.

But Hawthorne was iffy about abolition, and he definitely did not accept the idea that black men and women were his moral equals.  And he isn’t the only example of this particular constellation of values we can find in that period.   The same constellation recurred in the civil rights movement.

Every once in a while, we get incredibly lucky and land ourselves with an  Abraham Lincoln or a Martin Luther King, who breaks the mold and combines the right instincts with the right thoughtfulness. 

Then we get change that we may or may not believe in, but that we definitely need.

Written by janeh

December 11th, 2008 at 6:40 am

Posted in Uncategorized

What A Waste

with one comment

So, here’s the thing.  I know I was in the middle of talking about something else, but this keeps coming up, and I find that it bugs me more as I get older than it did when I was very young.  Consider the following passage:

>>>In some old magazine or newspaper, I recollect a story, told as truth, of a man – let us call him Wakefield – who absented himself for a long time, from his wife. The fact, thus abstractedly is not very uncommon, nor – without a proper distinction of circumstances – to be condemned either as naughty or nonsensical. Howbeit, this, though far from the most aggravated, is perhaps the strangest instance, on record, of marital delinquency; and, moreover, as remarkable a freak as may be found in the whole list of human oddities. The wedded couple lived in London. The man, under presence of going a journey, took lodgings in the next street to his own house, and there, unheard of by his wife or friends, and without the shadow of a reason for such self-banishment, dwelt upwards of twenty years. During that period, he beheld his home every day, and frequently the forlorn Mrs. Wakefield. And after so great a gap in his matrimonial felicity – when his death was reckoned certain, his estate settled, his name dismissed from memory, and his wife, long, long ago, resigned to her autumnal widowhood – he entered the door one evening, quietly, as from a day’s absence, and became a loving spouse till death.

That is the opening paragraph of a “short story” by Nathaniel Hawthorne called “Wakefield,” and until I started my present obsession with all things Hawthorne I had never heard of it.  I have a number of Hawthorne books around the house, including a couple of collections meant to be used as textbooks in lit courses, and none of them included this “story” either. 

And once I  had heard of it–it was referred to in the Wineapple biography, twice, and in a couple of essays on  Hawthorne I had in essay collections and a few more I found on the web–I was completely mystified as to why it hadn’t ever been included in anything.   I mean, think about it.  This is one of the most peculiar ideas ever conceived for a short story.  In the hands of one of the masters of the deadpan Gothic, like Shirley Jackson, it would have been creepy as hell.  It’s the kind of plot that shakes students out of their lethargy, if only to express outrage at being asked to read anything so ‘weird.”

Then I read the thing, and it all became plain.  There’s a reason why I’ve been putting quotation marks around the word story, because “Wakefield” isn’t one.   Rather, it goes on in the way it starts, with the narrative voice staying well outside the events being related, and the events themselves being presented as hypothetical musings on the possible character and motives of Wakefield himself. 

The thing is, in short, God awful, and boring as hell.  Of all the things I can think of that could be done to this basic idea–and I  can think of a lot of them–Hawthorne does none of them.   And  I mean none.   Granted, this is a very early work, after Fanshawe and before the novels that made Hawthorne an American literary star, but even so.   The man was master of the Gothic himself.  He was capable of The House of  Seven Gables and “Young Goodman Brown.”   Even fairly early in his career, he knew better than to pull the sort of emotionally detached nonsense he pulls here.  And now I sit here looking at this absolutely wonderful idea, gone entirely to waste.

It isn’t the first time, either, and it isn’t just first rate authors who have done it to me.  About twenty years ago, I picked up a paperback by a minor horror writer named F. Paul Wilson called, I think, The Keep.  It was the story of a Jewish man who had been picked up by the Nazis and brought to their local headquarters somewhere in Eastern Europe, this castle they’d just happened to commandeer.

Which turned out to be Dracula’s castle.

The possibilities here are really endless.  The Dracula legend as it has come down to us, thanks to Bram Stoker and his many followers, has a distinctly Christian foundation.  Dracula cannot stand the sight of the cross.  His skin burns when holy water is thrown on him. 

Our hero is a Jew imprisoned by Nazis in Dracula’s castle?  We’ve got the set up for one of the great religious conflicts of all time.  The mere question of whether the tradtional defenses against vampires are going to work is a tangled mess–if they don’t work, all well and good.  Our protagonist will have to find out what works, and Wilson will have to find something new to do in a vampire novel.

If the traditional remedies do work, however, our protagonist will be presented with empirical evidence that his religious commitments are factually wrong, that Jesus  Christ was the Messiah.  But this is WWII, and our protagonist is in danger because he is Jewish.  Even granted that the Nazi antipathy to Jews was racial, not really religious, we’re still left with a significant more dilemma:  if Jesus was the  Christ, He should not be denied, but the force of Nazi evil must be countered in the most direct way possible, and that is necessarily by reaffirming your commitment to  Judaism in the face of persecution.

And F. Paul Wilson does–absolutely nothing with any of this.  The traditional remedies mostly work.  Our protagonist doesn’t think anything of it.  There’s a standard horror plot mixed with a standard action-adventure plot.  Our protagonist’s Jewishness turns out to be “essential” only in the sense that it gives a plausible historical excuse for the villains to lock him up in the castle.  Besides, Nazis are always good villains, since everybody knows they’re evil.   It saves a lot of trouble trying to make evil plausible itself.

Thesea are certainly not the only cases I can think of where I have looked at somebody else’s work and just cringed at the way a great plot idea, a great situation, a great character, was simply thrown away.   They are the two cases where I truly wish I’d gotten there first, because I think I could have done a better job than either of these writers with their central premises.   I might not have been that good with the F. Paul  Wilson plot, because I don’t write that kind of in-your-face, mosters and zombies and vampires and ghouls, kind of horror very well.

But the “Wakefield” idea–the short story that should have been written has been running through my head for days, and it’s a damned shame it doesn’t exist.  Now that I’ve seen the actual short story, though, I know I won’t write one of my own, because–because–

It’s odd to think that Shakespeare never thought for a second about whether or not he was “original,” and probably didn’t care.  Nobody cared, in the Elizabethan era.  Nobody cared in the eras before, either.   “Originality” as a mark of the ‘artist” enters the culture with the imagine of the artist as a Genius, and the  Genius is the result of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young  Werther.  It’s almost unheard of for an author to invent a new mythic archetype and have it taken up by the culture around him.  Plenty of writers much better than Goethe never managed it.   Maybe Geothe was just in the right place at the right time.

The Sorrows of Young Werther is a thoroughly silly book, and a dangerous one as well.  It was published in 1776, just as the Enlightenment was about to bring to fruition its one great triumph.  It is, on every level, a denial of everything the Enlightenment proposed.  It validated emotion over reason, and overblown, uncontrolled, irrational emotion at that.  It celebrated the artist not as craftsman or even exemplar of human enterprise, but as emotionally tortured, singular, and entirely outside the human enterprise.  It is, in fact, the very beginning of the Romantic movement.

My professors in college would have said–did say–that the  Romantic movement was a reaction, a backlash against all that measured reasonableness, a revolt against science and that rationalization of life that it brought with it.  What bothers me is that it established an archetype of the “artist”–writer, painting, composer–as “tortured Genius,” too fine a soul to stand living among ordinary men and women, misunderstood by the vulgar, crass, mindless practicality of people who are “successful’ in everyday life, and, above all, as “original.”

I think originality is, in large part, a delusion.  There really are only a finite number of narrative arcs, and only a finite number of mythic archetypes.   But delusion or not, “originality” has become the bottom line that every work of art, high or low, has to meet.  

In painting, this has been a complete disaster,  wrecking the form as a viable enterprise in the modern world.   Contemporary art has been reduced to a status game whose only real function is to give a certain small group of people–not only the artists, but the gallery owners and the critics and the collectors–an excuse to exhibit the superiority of their taste to those Philistines in the population who aren’t able to see past their own prejudices to the Greatness that is the latest statement installation.  After all, the public never bought van Gogh, either, and the public will always oblige by picketing.

In music, the form has been saved largely because there have been avenues outside the standard ones.  John Williams composes what we would otherwise call “classical’ music, he just does it for the movies, and therefore doesn’t hae to rely on the arts establishment for either money or validation. Still, even in popular music we celebrate John Lennon instead of Paul McCartney.   We’re all convinced Lennon must have been the superior composer, since he was so tortured and misunderstood.  We think McCartney is far too sane to produce anything, you know–good.

In writing, what all this means is that I will not write a version of “Wakefield,” although I should.

Handled properly, that ought to be a really bang up creepy tale.

Written by janeh

December 10th, 2008 at 5:31 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Damned Clever Title Coming in This Space Eventually

with one comment

So, John says that the free market is better than central planning, and Robert opines that we all think that the things we value the most shouldn’t be subjected to free market forces, and both of them have missed the point.

I said nothing about central planning, and I mostly have no use for it.  In a country as large and diverse as this one, it’s often a really bad thing.

And as for the thing I value most–which is not liberal arts education, but the reading and writing of fiction–the last thing I want is to see it removed from market forces.  In fact, such removal is almost always really, really bad for an art form.  If you don’t believe me, just look at French films–even French people won’t go to them if they’ve got an American or Australian or British alternative.  The result of fifty years of government subsidies to the movies in France has been an art form completely unable to connect with an audience.  Pretty much ever.

What I said, and what I still maintain to be true, is that not every endeavor is suited to a market model.  By that I DON’T mean that some things must be subsidized by the government–although I suppose there are such things, like mail delivery in rural areas where people live too far apart to be useful to private company–but that the market works best for those enterprises the purpose of which is to turn a profit.

Even in very capitalist societies, not everything that gets done, or that people feel worthwhile doing, is designed to turn a profit.  At the turn of the twentieth century, a bequest to Harvard College made possible the founding of what has come to be known as the Loeb Classical Library.  The LCL publishes small volumes of Greek and Latin works, the left hand side in the original language, the right in English translation, and its goal has always been to put the entire existing corpus of such works into print.  The LCL is not profitable, and never could be, but the people who run it think it’s very important to have these works in print, and their standard of success is all about how many they’ve managed to get and how widely they’ve managed to disseminate them.

You don’t expect the local food kitchen to judge its success by the profit it makes, either.  And that’s my point.  Some enterprises cannot be both successful at what they aim to achieve and profitable at the same time.

I pointed out the likelihood that medicine was one of thsoe, yesterday, but let me add to what I said there:  you don’t really want a hospital making medical decisions on what is or is not likely to bring in a buck.  The few for-profit hospitals that do that tend to lean very heavily on expensive but not particularly medically important procedures–cosmetic surgery, for instance, and special maternity packages that include things like single rooms with bathrooms en suite and hot tubs and aromotherapy for relaxation.

It isn’t generally profitable to care for the severely ill or injured.  That’s why tending to the sick is an act of corporal charity.  The country as a whole, and each of us as individuals, is bettered served, in the long run, if hospitals see their goal as helping sick people get well, and run on a non-profit model that assumes there will have to be some subsidy if the goal is to be reached. 

One of the things driving higher medical costs these days is precisely the fact that a lot of  hospitals and other providers have switched from a nonprofit to a “business” model, and the business model is doing exactly what you’d expect it to, including driving collection practices that no for-profit business would be allowed to get away with for a second.

In terms of education, I’m merely trying to point out that to the extent that we expect instutitions of higher education to be gatekeepers into higher paying jobs and the professions, the free market model will not work.  Students and their parents are understandably reluctant to shell out tens of thousands of dollars for the system to wash them up with a curt, “nope, you don’t measure up.  Out you go.”

On the other hand, if colleges and universities do no uphold those standards, the degree becomes increasingly meaningless and increasingly worthless on any objective level.  All it takes is somebody–where is Bill Gates when you need him?–to come along and say, “you know, these degrees aren’t telling us anything.  From now on, we don’t care if you’ve spent the last 16 years in a cave.  Come take our qualifying exam.  We’re hiring from that.”

To the extent that higher education is not being used as a gatekeeper, there are areas that will in fact do well with a market model.  That’s certainly happening with the liberals arts, where companies like The Teaching Company and The Great Courses put out entire courses–the Nineteenth Century British novel, Renaissance Art, The Rise of the Confederacy–on DVD and audiotape, and people line up to buy them.

On the other hand, if providing such courses–pretty much PC free, by the way, since the public doesn’t want PC–was not profitable, I could see it as being worthwhile to provide them with the aid of subsidies from private donors and foundations.

Note:  I am NOT talking about government money here.  I almost never am. 

But there’s a further problem for me with a system which assumes the validity of a market model for everything, and that is that it precisely tends to make all systems of value appear relative.  The Da Vinci Code is a profoundly stupid book, ignorant (and just plain wrong about almost all its history and a lot of its locations), badly written (the damage to English grammar alone is astounding), derivative and trite.   Selling a couple of million copies does not change any of that, nor does it make The Da Vinci Code a better book than any number that sold less well–including, thank you very much, most of mine.

And I do not harbor any illusions that what I write is Literature.

The fact is that sales tell us nothing at all about how good or bad a book is, as a book, because in order to produce a really big best seller, you have to sell to lots and lots of people who read, maybe, one book every five years.  If that.  They like what they like when they like it.  They couldn’t tell you the difference between fiction and  history to save their lives.  They just don’t care if the information is accurate.  They tend to think people who use proper English grammar are snobs who think too well of themselves.  They’re not book people.

It’s because you have to sell to people like these in order to produce a best seller that the big conglomerates who have taken over book publishing are having such a hard time of it.  It is absolutely impossible to figure out what these people want to read, because they don’t actually want to read anything.  What they’re going to find fascinating next spring is a total toss up, and what they find fascinating is often what people who DO read don’t want to touch with a ten foot pole.

Some very good books sell like crazy (The Shining) and some do not (The Portrait of a Lady).  Some very bad books sell like crazy (The Da Vinci Code) and some do not (thank goodness). 

Money and popularity are nice to have, but they’re not the only worthwhile goals in the universe.  If the (classically) liberal democratic state has one overriding virtue, it is precisely in the fact that it makes it possible for lots of people to find viable niches for goals that have nothing to do with making money. 

And please, I don’t in the least despise making money.   I wish I made a lot more of it.  Something in me just isn’t wiling–and may not even be able–to write a series about a nun with a cat detective to do it.

Not everything works well on a market model, just like not every recipe does well if you just make it with limes. 

Education is a bubble because it is based on a fantasy, and the bubble will burst eventually.  But I wouldn’t expect educational standards to rise because consumers–parents or students–demanded it.  First you’d have to teach the parents and students what is important about the fields of study you want them to understand, and then…

But there’s no and then.

In an anti-intellectual culture, that selling of “diplomas” is inevitable.

And it isn’t good forus.

Written by janeh

December 9th, 2008 at 11:41 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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