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Archive for July, 2009

The Mind Body Problem

with 12 comments

Back during the election, before I started writing this blog, I was contributing on a regular basis to a Usenet newsgroup I still contribute to on and off, and I was keeping my mouth shut on at least one point.  I know, I’m n ot all that good at keeping my mouth shut.  But in this case a number of people had made me annoyed, and since I knew those same people would be heartily in favor of my opinions on at least one subject, there were a few things I didn’t say so that I didn’t get drafted onto a side I wasn’t interested in being on.

It occurs to me that that paragraph probably makes no sense.  Bear with me.

Mique says that intellectuals exhibited “ugly” behavior during the last election, especially in their behavior to the Republican vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin.

I say that the single ugliest thing in American culture today is represented perfectly by  Sarah  Palin herself. 

Whether she is in fact what she chose to represent in public,  I have no way to know.  But what she chose to represent in public is the single worst thing about  American culture.

Note I said culture, not politics.  It’s not the politics I’m referring to.

God, yes, Michael Moore is a jerk.  I don’t know if he’s an intellectual–I’d say not–but he’s definitely unattractive.  On the other hand, what he does in his documentaries is neither better nor worse than what Ben Stein did in Expelled,  his movie about evolution, or what Michelle Bachman does every time she opens her mouth on national TV.

Palin, however, was the living, breathing embodiment of what George  W. Bush only pretended to be–yucka, yucka, yucka, looka me! I’m a stupid, ignorant hick and I’m proud of it! 

Republicans can be intellectuals, obviously.  There are a lot of Republican intellectuals out there.  The modern conservative movement was started by probably the most widely recognized public intellectual of his time, Willian F. Buckley, Jr. 

And you want to talk about “damn the audience?”  Buckley’s resonse to people who complained that he used too many big words was–look them up. 

I  don’t know how we got from William F. Buckley to  Sarah  Palin, but I’m not the only one unwilling to sign on to the latter.   Hell, during the election and after, a whole slew of very prominnent Republicans ditched support of the McCain ticket because they didn’t like what they saw in Palin–including Buckley’s own son, and such long-time party stalwarts as Regan speecwriter Peggy Noonan.  

The party of William F. Buckley, Jr, is one I could belong to–although I disagree with about half the platform; but then, I disagree with about half the platform for the Democrats, too.

The party of  Sarah  Palin has no room for me in it.  That “down home” “just folks” “don’t you just hate smart people, they’re all such snobs” attitude is a declaration of war against every single thing I think is valuable and important in an adult human life. 

And please remember, “just folks” is not the same thing as “ordinary people.”  There are plenty of ordinary people out there without that kind of attitude to life and learning and ambition.

Somebody here called what I’m talking about “anti-intellectualism,” and that’s certainly some of it.  But what I’m talking about goes far beyond anti-intellectualism. 

What this is is a mulish refusal to accept that there are any valid standards in the world that cannot be met by all us “just folks,” and when people say there are, well, they’re just being “elitists” and those aren’t real standards anyway, they’re just snobby pretentions.

I’m a dentist and you’re an evolutionary biologist with degrees in biology from MIT and Johns Hopkins and sixteen years of work in the field?   Well,  I don’t care–I know just as much about evolution as you do!

You’ve spent the last twenty years of your life living in England while I’ve been checking groceries here in Macawanee, Kansas all my life?  It doesn’t matter, I know just as much about the English National Health Service as you do!

This is “anti-intellectualism” only if you define the term to mean “opposition to anything that takes any thinking whatsoever.”

Yes, goodness knows, there are “intellectuals” who are jerks.

I’d still much rather have somebody erring on the side of jerky intellectualism than somebody witht the attitudes above.  Your intellectual pretentions might actually get you to read something someday that might kick start your brain into thinking better.  Wallowing in smug, self-satisfied ignorance is a potentially terminal condition.

I don’t care what Sarah  Palin’s political positions were–they could have been left or right, moderate or extreme–I could never vote for her, because in voting for her I would be voting to elevate that attitude to an almost official status.

Sarah Palin is a lot more dangerous, and destructive, than Michael Moore could be even if he were trying.

And if you’re going to ask me how a country founded by intellectuals–because Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Franklin and even Hamilton were the intellectuals of their time–got to just this place, I couldn’t begin to tell you.

Written by janeh

July 31st, 2009 at 6:31 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Those Little Town Blues

with 5 comments

So,  I was thinking about yesterday’s post, and I want to clarify a few things.

First is that I never suggested that writers should add references deliberately for the sake of adding references.

In fact,  I thought I was stressing, over and over again, that the writer should write in the way that is natural to him.   I agree with Lymaree that the best luck a writer can have is to have a style that works on many different levels for different people–although  I do think that that works more consistently in film than in prose–but the bottom line, for me, is that the writer be true to himself.

I certainly do not think that there is any virtue in being obscure for the sake of being obscure, but I also don’t think there is any virtue in being accessible for the sake of being accessible. 

But what I really object to is the idea that the standards for “good” books should be set by the least intelligent, least educated, least diligent readers among us, the same people who made life miserable for the nerds and the geeks when we were all children.

Sorry, guys, but they had their run.  Books are my place.  And in my place, the standards of good and bad, right and wrong, cool and uncool, are set by people like me.

If you don’ think that’s a lot of what’s going on in all the arguments about “intellectual elites” and all the rest of it, you’re crazy.   Virtually every writer I know–and a fair number of the academics in the humanities, come to think of it–has a string of horror stories about childhood, all centered on that relentless imposition of mediocrity that is the standard American primary and secondary school.

Hell, it was that way for me in New England where, if there’s a need for budget cuts, the schools eliminate sports long before they eliminate academic programs.   I can only imagine what it was like for my friend from Mississippi, who grew up in a place where football was all that mattered for a boy and dating a football player was all that mattered for a girl–and the coach taught math because, let’s face it, it was more important to have somebody on staff who understood footbal than somebody who understood algebra.

We talk about conformity a lot, but the problem isn’t conformity, it’s what we’re asked to conform to.  And it outlives high school by a long shot.   Every politician, actor, filmmaker, novelist, journalist, you name it, is required to pay repeated abeissance to the Absolute Wonderfulness of the American small town and the people who live in it.

If they don’t, they not only get branded as “elites,” but if they’re prominent enough they get a nice little stretch on the FoxNews cycle. 

This came up, a couple of years ago, on a forum I sometimes contribute to, when I pointed out to a gentleman that if I had thought that staying home with my children and not having a career was the better path, I’d have chosen that one.  Since I didn’t, it would be disingenuous of me to pretend that I was just sighing and envious of Mrs. Homemaker, getting to opt out of the workforce like that and spending all her time with her family.

I  arranged by life to make sure I spent as much time as possible with my children–and given what I do, that was a lot of time–but to do nothing else for twenty years would have driven me crazy.

And it isn’t just that.  I’ve had a very expensive education.  I  think women who have that and ditch it all to go back home and “nest” are doing something at least ethically, if not morally, wrong, at least in cases where there’s no extraordinary circumstance (like the death or disability of a child).

Why is it that we’re compelled, so often, to pretend that we admire the average, the mediocre, the unambitious–that the highest standard we aspire to is to be “just folks”?

I don’t want to be “just folks.”  I never did.  Life with a big, ethnic, anti-intellectual family is not My Big Fat Greek Wedding, it’s a horror story that absolutely refuses to go away when you grow up and leave it.  

I think people have a right to do what makes them happy–well, short of serial murder or raping children–but  I don’t think that they have a right to demand that I even pretend to denigrate my own decisions in order to elevate theirs to cultural stardom.

Here’s what I think the truth is–there are significant things to be done in this world, and they will not be done by “just folks.”  Curing cancer, devising a better method to teach mathematics to  recalcitrant twelve year olds, making the next really spectacular movie or writing the next really significant novel–all those things take intelligence, ambition, drive, talent and the determination not to be just like everybody else.

Of course we need plumbers and electricians as well as surgeons and novelists–but you know what?  Plumbers and electricians don’t have to be “just folks” either.   The problem with “just folks” is not that they’re stupid, but that they’re ignorant and proud of it.

I write what I write the way I write it because that’s how I write.  When I add a reference, it’s not because I’m thinking of ways to be obscure, it’s because that’s what came into my head.

I  walked out on Small Townville a long time ago, and the last thing I want is to import the values of ST into the world I walked out of it for.

Written by janeh

July 30th, 2009 at 6:24 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Big Words

with 5 comments

Before I get down to the actual discussion, I’d like to point out something.

This is the way I write this blog:  I get up in the morning, work on my fiction while drinking vast amounts of very strongly brewed tea and then, when I’m done, I access the WordPad page.

Then I sit down and type whatever comes into my head.   Just like that.  I don’t think it over first (which ought to be obvious from some of these posts).   I don’t write it out and then edit it.   I rarely change words or fix sentences.

What you see here is the way my mind works, left to itself, with no help at all.   The vocabulary is the vocabulary my mind uses, without trying.  The sentence structure is the sentence structure my mind uses.   This is the way I think.

I’ve spend virtually my entire life, from fairly early childhood, being accused of using “big words” and being a “phony” because I’m trying to “put on airs” by sounding “all snobby.” 

I’ve actually tried to fix this in myself on and off over the years, only to run into the same roadblock each time:  I’ve got no idea what other people think are “big words.”  When  I try not to use them, I fail, because I invariably think that something isn’t a “big word” that my accusers think is very big indeed–like, say, “invariably.”

I bring this up because of what should be obvious–there is nothing a writer can write that will not lose him some audience.

In my case, I literally can’t sound like myself without losing a hefty chunk of audience, and it’s not because I’m importing a deliberately “fancy” vocabulary to put some people off. 

But it’s not just the vocabulary.   Take the basic techniques of fiction.   We’ve gone into the problem with third person multiple viewpoint in fiction before.  It’s a very basic technique, not something fancy and esoteric, and I honestly don’t think that people who can’t recognize it can really be said to be able to read.

But a lot of people aren’t able to recognize it, and are angry and confused when a writer uses it.   The writer has the choice of ditching one of the oldest and most useful techniques in fiction or losing some audience.

I  agree with Robert on at least some things–no, writing 25 word sentences isn’t automatically better than writing short ones (and contemporary literary fiction adheres riigdly to the short-sentence formula), and using lots of references isn’t automatically better than using fewer.

But anybody who produces a first rate work of fiction is going to lose a lot of audience to the simple fact most people won’t get most of it, and don’t want to.

I’ve taught Small Gods to classrooms full of students who declare that they don’t understand a word of it–and when I point out the Crucifixion scene have no idea what I’m talking about.  I mean, they know Jesus had something to do with dying on a cross, but what’s that supposed to be about anyway, and why should they care?

I’ve taught Gaudy Night to classrooms full of students who found it completely boring and didn’t understand a word of it, and the same with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

These are not difficult books written for highbrow audiences.

Just how far down into the depths of least common denominator is an author required to go not to lose audience? 

And will anybody notice that long before he gets to the bottom of that particular pit, he’d have lost that part of his audence known as me?

I did get both the references to Space Invaders and the Almanach de Gotha.  Any truly well-educated reader would get both, as he’d get both the references to Alisoun and truth, justice and the American way. 

The point of referenes is not to create a puzzle, any more than the point of vocabulary is to send the reader to the dictionary–the point of refenes is in the assmption that everybody who reads the book gets them without thinking about them.

Yeats didn’t write “The Second  Coming” as a puzzle he hoped the reader would work out.  He wrote it under the assumption that the reader wouldn’t have to think twice about the references, because the reader would already know them just as clearly and automatically as he knew his own name.

And, in fact, I did know them the first time I read that poem, and I never had to sit down and “work out” what it meant, and the first time I saw The Exorcist I knew immediately that the film was referencing the poem, which told me something about the meaning of the film I might not have known otherwise.

All writers use references.  All of them.  No writer could create a work of fiction without them.  Films are full of them, including films meant to be light comedies or mass-cult horror fests.  Mel Brooks is as full of references as Woody Allen is.  Maybe more.

What is “a good book for John” may not be “a good book for Mary,” but what is a good book is a good book irrespective of whether either of them “likes” it.

And it is definitely not the mark of a good book that its author carefully and meticulously dumbed down the entire project so that it wouldn’t upset the fragile little egos of his least educated and most determinedly slothful potential audience.

End of rant.

Written by janeh

July 29th, 2009 at 6:04 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Good Writers–Or, Why I Am Not A Relativist

with one comment


I still don’t know how to say this.

Let me try to start here.

First, all art functions–all of it.  That doesn’t mant that art is its function in any particular society at any particular time.  Medieval church art functioned as catechism, as a teaching tool for a populace that could not read, but painting is not “about” providing catechetal lessons. 

But even though an art is not “about” its function in any particular society, any art that ceased to have any function for anybody in a society would cease to be practiced.   If it didn’t die out altogether, it would become a museum exhibit, the kind of thing that is taught at school and encountered nowhere else, or  almost nowhere else.

You don’t need huge masses of people, or anything like a majority, of a society to keep an art alive, although the more people who have the better the chances of an art’s survival.   And an art doesn’t have to serve the same function in the same society at all times.

For the great mass of history, poetry served the kind of function now taken up by the novel, or by film.  Now it seems to function as a specialty taste for a small and rarified group of people who all know each other, read each other’s books and come to each other’s readings.

Or maybe not.  Most people, after all, find themselves deeply involved with poetry in this society at this time.  It’s just that they don’t call it poetry.  They call it “lyrics.”

So painting might be a better example–the function of painting as it was understood in, say, the eighteenth century, is now the function of photography, and the “New York Art  Scene,” as Lymaree put it a while back, looks to the rest of us like a little collective delusion.

The second thing is that the health and general level of achievement in an art depends heavily on the knowledgability of the available audience.

Robert scoffs at writing that uses lots of references–it’s just a puzzle, he says.  But the simple fact is that no writer could write anything without using at least some references.  References are a kind of shorthand.  If the writer can use references and be confident that his audience will recognize them without effort, he can say a lot more in a lot fewer words, and say it more effectively.

To take a very low-level example:  there was a movie out last year called Knowing, in which aliens come to take one boy an one girl child off the earth before the earth explodes in a cosmic disaster (the sun goes nova?  something like that). 

The aliens take the children to another planet and put them down in a field.  At the far end of the field, there is a tree.  The children run towards it, and it’s obviously an apple tree.

Understanding the end of that movie requires understanding a reference–but trying to make that end without the reference would have been a mess.  It could have been done, of course, but it would have required a lot of set-up and explanation, and the impact of the ending would have been greatly decreased.

Shakespeare didn’t expect his audiences to get hold of copies of his plays and study them for hidden references.  He expected them to know, and his expectations were largely fulfilled.   The same is true of that Yeats poem, “The Second Coming.”  I understood what it meant the first time I read it because I knew the references before I saw them in the poem.  They weren’t strange or obscure to me.

And the poem says much more with the references than it could say without them, because the references imply entire narratives of connection.   That apple tree at the end of Knowing, and the children’s mad rush towards it, mean not only that the children are in paradise but that they’re about to lose that paradise.  It’s also at least possibly a conjecture about how the original of that story came to be.

An artist whose audience has little in the way of breadth and depth of cultural literacy, or one whose audience is composed of people from various cultural traditions who do not share such breadth and depth in any one tradition, is automatically restricted in the art he is able to create–or, at least, that he is able to create and present successfully.

George Steiner had half  a valid point in “Archives of  Eden.”  Democratic societies are not fertile soil for the greatest of art, for two reasons.   The first is the democratic assumption–that the standard of anything, art or food or make of car, should be how many people like and want it.  The second is that to present anything that cannot be enjoyed by “most” people is automatically to engage in “elitism,” and to be a snob and therefore morally as well as politically unacceptable as a human being.

But the fact is that the best of anything–automobiles, corned beef hash recipes, books, music–is unlikely to be appreciated by “everybody,” or even by a majority.   All human endeavors have internal logics against which various particular instances of them can be judged. 

And, interestingly enough, practitioners of the various arts often have a spookily similar take on them.   I wish  I could find the reference to the experiment that was done in Africa in, I think, the early  Seventies, where the mebers of various African tribes who were unfamiliar with Western music were presented with a sest of works (Beethoven, Bach and Mozart as well as rock and roll and jazz).  The ordinary members of the tribes basically thought verything they were hearing was n oise, and liked, if anything, some of the rock and roll.  The tribal musicians, however, were able to rate the music in an order much like classical music devotees in the West.   The internal logic of music is the same the world over, because it’s about something in the music, not something in individual “taste.” 

The knowledgable audience for an art doesn’t have to be vast, but it does have to exist, if an artist is to do the best work.   Without such an audience, an artist will only do the best work if he doesn’t care if anybody notices or not, and artists are notorious for wanting to communicate on an almost obsessive basis.

(A note, by the way–when I say “artist,” I mean any artist–poet, novelist, composer, painter, sculpter, choreographer.  Last time I got started on this, somebody, I  forget who, seemed to think I meant only painters, or maybe painters and sculptors.)

The democratic assumption has its drawbacks, and one of those drawbacks is a mass resentment of any proejct–arts or otherwise–that isn’t immediately accessible to everybody. 

But there isn’t a single field anywhere where the best of it can be understood and appreciated by everybody.   Recognizing the best always requires education and experience and a certain amount of work.  It is never effotless.

Written by janeh

July 28th, 2009 at 7:04 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Questions of Substance, Questions of Style

with 8 comments

I’d like to start by pointing out that nobody asked me who I thought was “a great writer.”  The term of choice was “admired as a writer.”  If you’d asked me who I thought was a great writer, the answers would be significantly different.  But if I’m asked who I admire as a writer, I’m going to talk about the writing.

And the truth is, as I’ve said before, that I’m not much interested in plot, and that I don’t read novels or plays or even g to movies for plot.  There are a limited number of possible plots.   They’ve all been done to death already, with nothing new to come on that front, ever, except some changes of setting and a few twists added by technology.  I don’t see the point.

But that brings me to the place I thought I’d be at about a week and a half ago, which is to the book I’m reading–actually, a compendium of three books and a long essay–by Yvor Winters, called In Defense of  Reason.

I’m nearing the end, which means I’m in the middle of book three, called The Anatomy of Nonsense. And even if this collection had done nothing else for me, it introduced me to an American poet named Jones Very, and to an early poem by Wallace Stevens called “Sunday Morning.” 

Very is interesting for a couple of reasons, only one of which is that he wrote very fine poetry.  He was also a contemporary of Emerson and Thoreau, and a New  Englander born (like Hawthorne) in Salem, but the crisis in Calvinism made him not opt for the Romantic delusion but to become more Calvinistic.  Which, considering the internal contradictions of Calvinism, must have been an interesting balancing act, psychologically and morally.  But I recommend to any of you a poem called “the  Still-Born.”

That said, the interesting thing, to me, about this book (okay, collection of books, I don’t know what to call it) is the fact that it’s written by a man who assumes that discussion about literature will be of a certain kind, and that the concerns about literature will be of a certain nature, and who therefore proceeds without explaining why he is doing what he is doing.

This is actually the kind of dicussion about literature I was hoping to find when I first went to college, and mostly didn’t.   Winters was not a New Critic, and didn’t have much patience for them, but even the New Critics were going out of fashion when I got to Poughkeepsie.

There are also a few hints here about something I wish  I knew more about:   Winters says that his study of literature made it obvious to him that God must exist, but he says elsehere that he is neither a Christian nor capable of being one.  Since these volumes were mostly put out in the 1930s–and since he shows no signs of going in for  Buddhism or that kind of thing–I’d really like to know what form this belief in God took.  

What he does do, what the purpose of each of these collected volumes is, is to stand up for absolute values and absolute truth.  The “nonsense” in The Anatomy of Nonsense stands for relativism, hedonism and the Romantic impulse.  That’s how I ended up learning about Jones Very.  In the second of these volumes, called Maule’s  Curse, Winters compares the New England Transcendentalists, and especially Emerson, to Very and  Very’s resurgent Calvinism.

I agree with Robert that we have, at the moment, exchanged one ossified system for another, but what should have happened, what u sually has happened, historicaly, when a system ossifies, is not just that it breaks down but that it resurgence not of a new system but of a new form of an old one.

The Victorians didn’t invent “Victorian morality.”  They discarded both the looseness of Renaissance morals and the rigidities of early Protestantism to constuct a newly workable framework for the Christian consensus. 

They even managed to keep several of the things the Enlightenment did right–like a commitment to the use of reason in human affairs, the investigation of the material world by material means, and the sea-change that made government more a matter of parliaments than of kings.

Or Queens.  One of the most depressingly disappointing experiences of m life was to finally find, about five years or so ago, a good biography of Victoria, only to find that–the strenuous efforts of the writer notwithstanding–she seems to have been a largely mediocre woman who was simply in the right place at the right time.

Winters points out that Deism, in itself, was the seed of the Romantic revolt, because Deism assumed not only what I’d always been taught–that God made the universe and established its laws, and then ceased to be at all interested in its day to day operations–but that,  God being good, the creatures and the laws he made must also be good.  Therefore, the nature of man must be, at base, also good, and man could make himself happy by learning to understand “the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” and following them.

For Winters, the study of literature is an essentially moral project not because literature will make us better men and women but because literature is one of the ways, and the chief way for most people, that human beings ask and attempt to answer moral questions.

I am, I think, making a mess of things here in ways that I can’t begin to unravel, but I think what  I’m getting to comes down to this:

The Victorian dispensation was a reaction to the moral and social excesses of the eras that proceeded it, and most immediately to Romanticism. 

That reaction, and the establishment (or re-establishment) of conventional and rule-bound morality was accomplished by the middle class.

But “middle class” here means not what we take it to mean here in America in the 21st century, but by what we now call the “upper middle class”-by the very people the  Republian party likes to call “the elites”–not the very rich, but the liberally educated members of the gentlemen’s professions, the owners of substantial business enterprises.

The Sixties was, in a sense, the resurgence of the Romatic revolt against reason.  If history repeats itself, then we should be seeing a return of conventional moral strictures in precisely those people and places–the Gold  Coast of Connecticut, Westchester County, the Virginia suburbs of Washington D.C.–who are now so enthusastically championing the exact opposite thing.

In a way, of course, the moral strictures have reappeared–but where they should have reappared to enforce compliance with an old code, they’ve reappeared to enforce compliance with a new one.

And, of course, it’s not working.  When the middle classes of Victoria’s reign lowered the boom on Romantic moral laxness, they were influential not only because they were an “elite,” but because the rules they wanted to enforce had always been generally accepted to be valid, even if honored mostly in the breach.

That meant that the classes under the middle respected the rules even if they couldn’t or wouldn’t always follow them–but in that respect came at least attempts at compliance, and in those attempts came a reformation of society that lasted over a hundred years and gave us some of the most important intellectual and cultural work ever produced on this earth.

The new moral strictures of America’s upper middle class today, however, are laregly foreign not only to the public at large but even to themselves–the exception being the enormous importance placed on commitment to work almost bove all other things. 

Winters didn’t live long enough to see any of this, but I wonder what he would have thought of it.

Written by janeh

July 26th, 2009 at 8:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Tragedies of Manners

with one comment

So–where to start.

Lymaree says I should meet more contemporary artists.  But I wasn’t thinking about contemporary artists.  I was thinking about the historical record, and how many great painters, poets and composers have been distinctly Bohemian–think of Paris in the twenties, San Francisco in the Fifties, the New England Transcendentalists, the circles of Byron, Shelley,  Blake, Coleridge and even George Eliot.

It’s really remarkable how consistantly the Bohemian theme arises when you look at high art movements across time, and how many of the people who seem on the surface to be conventional are not (for instance,  Somerset Maugham).  And, like I said, the stereotype goes back at least to classical Athens and persists today.

But I also don’t think that it’s a matter of politics, one way or the other.   You couldn’t figure out my politics from the writers I admire, mostly because I admire writers as writers, not for what it is they’re saying, assuming they’re saying anything.

And quite a few people whose ideas I agree with  I know are really terrible writers. 

Some of the writers I admire as writers are opaque as to their political or philosophical convictions–think Jane Austen, and J.D. Salinger–others are not opaque but objectionable, like both Louis Frederick Celine and Jose Saramago.  Norman Mailer is a stunning writer and a complete idiot in virtually every other way.  The same is true–although somewhat less true–of the Hemingway of the early short stories. 

I’m closer–politically–to Ayn Rand than to any of these people, and I know she’s God awful as a writer.  In fact, cringingly awful. 

The closest I can come to a writer whom I admire as a writer and whose ideas I mostly agree with–and then I only agree with about two thirds of them–is the essayist who goes under the pen name Theodore Dalrymple.  He writes such clean and elegant prose it’s astonishing, and he’s better at the sheer writing than anybody else I can think of who’s working today. 

But I’d admire that writing even if Dalrymple were producing Communist tracts.   Which is why I admire George Steiner as a writer–at least of nonfiction–even though his ideas drive me up the wall at least half the time.

But I think it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the Romantic critique of civilization was a coherent one, and that when Bohemia first recognzed itself as a separate and conscious movement, it had a logical rationale for what it was doing that was not entirely wrong.

Rousseau declared that human beings were naturally good and that society corrupted them.  He was wrong, but he was responding to something real.

Manners are what human beings devise to express morals in their everyday lives.  Manners stand in for a set of assumptions about the nature of being human–and therefore about what one human being owes to another in recognition of their shared humanity–and allow men and women to go about their daily business without having to always judge and figure what themoral thing to do would be in each separate encounter.

There’s nothing wrong with this, nor is there anything wrong with the fact that the particular customs devised as the stand-in are largely arbitrary.  If your society thinks that human beings are little less than angels and should be respected accordingly, it might demand that you tip your hat when you pass a fellow human , or that you bow deeply, or that you get down on your knees and kiss his shows.  The particular custom doesn’t really matter much, as long as everybody understands that it’s meant to express your respect.

The problem with manners is the problem with all things human.  They become detached from their original purpose over time, and begin to be nothing more than rote habits observed for their own sake.

Once manners get to this point, they can become stultifying instead of liberating.  For one thing, once they’ve been detached from their original purpose, they tend to attach themselves to a whole slew of really bad ideas, and always the same bad ideas:  to hierarchies of prejudice, to the human tendency to label some human beings humans and others less so, to the whole messy competitiveness that shows its most annoying ace in high school clique cultures. 

Bohemianism as it first self-consciously understood itself was a protest against empty formalism that really was empty formalism, but its approach to that protest was to attack the principles that had originally provided a foundation for that formalism.  

I think there is always danger of such formalism, and of the ossification it threatens.  I even spent part of the morning looking at this


which showed up as a link on Arts and Letters Daily this morning.  These days, it isn’t priests and ministers who police our manners, and through them our morality, it’s psyhiatrists nd psychologists.  We now talk in medical terminology about until very recently we considered problems in philosophy.

By the way–shopaholics, Ritalin, and “post traumatic embitterment disorder” are all good reasons to resist scientism. 

But it seems to me that I am living in a strange period.  Aomost all the old systems of manners that I remember from my growing up have disappeared, as have many of the moral  principles that once provided their foundation. 

What should have happened was some kind of cyclic resurgence and regeneration of morals–that is, after all, h ow we got the Victorians after the depredations of both the Renaissance and he Reformation.  And yes, I know they both had good parts, too.

For some reason, though, we seem to have skipped the resurgence and regeneration part and gone directly to the dessicated formalism, and like all formalisms, what we’ve got lacks coherence or even logic.

Why is a psychologist who takes his patient’s desire to reject homosexual practice for heterosexual guilty of malpractice, while one who takes his patient’s desire to reject his physical maleness just doing the right thing?  Logically, either both these psychologists should be guilty of malpractice or neither should be. 

But formalistic systems of manners are never self-aware enough to ask questions like this, and they tend to treat such questions hurled by dissenters as proof that the dissenters are deeply morally flawed. 

Or, in our case, crazy.

Written by janeh

July 25th, 2009 at 8:16 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Evereybody Epaters Somebody Sometime

with 5 comments

Lorenzo de Medici as a thug.  I say that because it’s true, but also because it at least implies the obvious–thug he might have been, but he was no Stalin.  If an artist willfully screwed up a commision, he might have had him brought up on charges of fraud–which is somsething you could do in the same situation now, at least if you could prove intent–but he wouldn’t have had him whacked. 

The real reason why art in the Renaissance seems to have consisted of so much agreement between artist and patron is that art in the Renaissance was almost univerally commissioned.  Making a living as an artist in fifteenth century Italy meant making your patrons happy, so that they’d commission more pictures, and so that other patrons would also commission pictures.

No Renaissance artist thought of himself as an Artist with a capital A, in the Romantic sense.   If you commissioned a large project from Michaelangelo, Michaelangelo himself would do the big bits (God holding out his finger to touch Adam’s, say) but a lot of the detail work would be done by apprentices and artisans under Michaelangelo’s direction.  You wouldn’t have considered yourself defrauded, and if you had, everybody would have considered you nuts.

But although  Michaelangelo was not much interested in epater-ing the bourgeoisie–and the Medicis where the first and greatest of the bourgeoisie–he was still infamous for the irregularity of his life. 

And only part of that was his homosexuality.  The Renaissance had both a more and a less tolerant attitude towards homosexuality than we do.  On the one hand, they saw it as a mortal sin that would send you straight to hell if you didn’t confess it.  On the other, they thought sex was such a strong drive, in both men and women, that people would nail anything they could get their hands on when the mood took them.  Homosexuality was “normal” in the Renaissance in a way it hasn’t been since precisely because the Renaissance didn’t distinguish it.  Men, women, sheep–it was all sex, and all sex outside a consecrated marriage was mortal sin. 

I suppose Michaelangelo can legitimately be considered to be a genius, but I want to point out here that I’m not equating “genius” and “Bohemian.”  The only people who do are, I think the Bohemians themselves, because they’ve got something to gain from the linkage.

It’s not genius I think we correlate to Bohemian living, but artists as a class.

And I agree with Cheryl on one point especially–the only difference between “white trash” and “Bohemian” is the rhetoric.  And the rhetoric matters less, in the end, than the Bohemians hope it will.  That’s why reading biographies of writers, painters and composers is often so uncomfortably embarrassing.  Here’s this man, or woman, who seems to have this extraordinary insight into the human condition, or who is able to express that condition at its peak of perfection. You go looking to find the way in which he managed to imbue his own life with the things he understood so well, and find that he didn’t imbue it at all.  He lived a mess and died pathetic.  You know dentists who’ve made more sense of their lives.

But although it’s true that there are artists, and great ones, who have not been Bohemian, the fact is that enough of the percentage of the population that is engaged in the arts has been Bohemian so that the correlation has been a stereotype for millennia.

And that phenomenon requires more explanation than it may seem to, especially since it persists even in periods when artists do not see themselves as outside of or in an adversarial position to their societies.

Yes, of course, there are plenty of people who live like Bohemians without the rhetoric.  We call them a number of things–white trash, no-account, useless–but we also tend to recognize the most salient feature of their existence.

By and large, the people who live like this are bone stupid.  They lack insight, foresight, and self-discipline, and by and large they lack the self discipline because they lack the insight and foresight. 

But Bohemians aren’t stupid people.  That’s why they both need to and find it possible to construct rhetoric to defend the lives they lead.  The question remains as to why they should want to live those lives at all. 

Sherlock Holmes was not a Bohemian, but an eccentric.  He pretended to no quarrel with the social and moral customs of his soceity–in fact, he was proud to embody them.  He was successful, and remains so, because he represented the epitome of the Victorian gentleman scientist.  The cocaine never became an addiction, and his deviations from convention never defined, or justified, his life.  

So we’re back, really, to why Bohemians want to be Bohemians, and why so many people who work in the arts embrace Bohemia. 

Which is a more interesting question, to me, than the one that asks why so many of us consider only Bohemians to be ‘real” artists.

Written by janeh

July 24th, 2009 at 5:46 am

Posted in Uncategorized

John Lennon and the Madness of Crowds

with 2 comments

Okay, color me stupid, but this confuses me:

>>>Of course, Jane’s description effectively makes the literary novelists government employees, dependent more on taxpayer money (through a cutout or so) than on sales to the general public. >>>

Where is the “government” coming from?  I said nothing about government funding of literary novelists–in fact, government funding for the arts in this country is a drop in the bucket, and doesn’t usually go to novelists anyway.

This system is essentially private–most of the universities inolved in it are private, the publishing companies are private, the foundations are private. 

For all the yelling and screaming about the NEA–the national endowment, not the teachers’ union–it provides very little in the way of money to people who fully expect to clear over a hundred thousand a year in a bad year.  

Its purpose among the writers of literary fiction is largely symbolic–proof that they have the blessing and honor of their society, or at least the upper-end part of it. 

(And a note–of course Nozick meant literary novelists, since he probably does not identify other writers of long fiction as novelists at all.  Nobody from the college I went to would call me a “novelist.”  I write detective novels, or mystery novels, or something–but that’s not the same thing as being a real novelist. My guess is that you’d get the same reaction if you talked to anybody on the Connecticut Gold Coast–the high-end Wall Street brokers and lawyers, the medical specialists with three advanced degrees, etc.

But before you decide that those people are all snobs, I’m here to tell you that the attitude is prevalent with fans, too, and with people who work in the industry in one capacity or another.  The fans of genre writers have a tendency to the attitude of “we made you, you’d better stay in line” (I get into a lot of trouble on that one), and a woman who said she was a copyeditor on one of the forums I contribute to now and again once said that if she were working on a literary novel, of course she deferred to the writer’s judgment about wording, vocabulary and form, but with a genre writer, well, shs expected those to stick to the standard conventions and assumed that any deviation from them was automatically wrong.  Then she told me I  had no right to complain that my “chaise longue” was changed to “change lounge” since the second was now perfectly accepted common usage.  I pointed out that the common usage was wrong, and let it go.)

But let me go back, for a minute, to Bohemia.  The issue of the madness of artists is one thing, but Bohemia is another. 

By Bohemia I meant a determination to live outside normal social conventions–to refuse to marry in those ages when cohabitation was a scandal (or even a crime), to be a “night person,” to refuse to hold down steady jobs or to establish a normal career arc.

And, if ou can believe the reports of their detractors, to dissent from conventional notions of hygene.

The artist as tortured genius is a trope that goes back only to the eighteenth century.  Leonardo would have considered the idea ridiculous.

The intellectual as Bohemian, though, goes all the way back to the Greeks.  It’s there in Aristophanes’ The Clouds where Socrates is portrayed as a sort of smarter-than-average Maynard G. Krebs. 

From what I’ve read, the portrait in Aristophanes was supposed to be a composite of intellectuals in general and not necessarily of  Socrates in particular, but we’ve got documented evidence–in spades–of the Bohemianism of both the British Romantic poets and the writers of Bloonsbury.

Of course, a lot of what was then considered shockingly irregular would  now be considered perfectly normal.  We don’t get all bent out of shape if somebody calls us by our first names before we’ve known them very long, or expect that a ‘well run” house needs at least one maid, if only to serve at dinner.

But a number of the themes are constant across the centuries–the casual disrespect for the authority and persons of parents; the retreat from customary means of earning a living (or even the pursuit of earning a living at all), the endless indulgence in “alternative” forms of family structure and varieties of promiscuous fornication.

And no, of course it’s not the case that artistic excellence requires any of this, or intellectual work, either.   Lytton  Stachey notwithstanding, there were plenty of Victorians alone who managed to live quite conventional lives while dealing with and advocating the most original ideas, in politics and art as well as bioloy and physics.

Sherlock Holmes was a lot of things, but he was not a Bohemian.

But, really, the more I look at this, the more interesting it gets.  George Steiner has a point–the high art tradition has always worked on a patronage basis.  The ordinary peasant in the streets of Florence may or may not have benefited from Michaelangelo’s art, or Leonardo’s–I tend to think he did, but that’s another post–but Florentine artists of the Renaissance weren’t painting or sculpting for the peasant in the street.

The artists of the Renaissance had an audience, but it was made up of the great patrons, Popes, aristocrats, and the first great captains of capitalism.  These were by and large highly educated men and women whose tastes bore no relation to those of ordinary men and women, and they were backed up by a rising middle class that took it upon itself to form its own tastes to be more aristocratic than not.

Since the opinions of ordinary men and omen did not matter in these societies–the upper classes would have been unlikely to  know what those opinions were–there was no need to “epater” anybody.  There was no conflict between the artists’ judgment of what made good (or great) art and society’s, because both the artist and his audience came from the same intellectual tradition with the same tastes and values.

This was true even in cases–like Michaelangelo’s–where the artist’s socioeconomic history was significantly different from that of his patrons.  If there ever was a brilliant example of class not being primarily about money, Michaelanelo might be it. 

I’m going somewhere with this, I thihk.  I just don’t know where yet.

Written by janeh

July 23rd, 2009 at 8:38 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Not So Much of a Scandal in Bohemia

with 6 comments

Every once in a while, things come together sort of serendipitously, and oddly enough, they seem to have today.

Let me start with  John’s question about whether “people who are good at English are also good at math,” or maybe the other way around.   It doesn’t matter.

What does matter is how you’re defining “good at.”   If you’re defining it in an absolute sense, then no–it’s very rate that people are “good at” both  the humanities and the mathematically-dependent hard sciences.

But relatively is another matter.  Ask any of my friends who are good at math–I actually have two who are full time mathematicians, one with something of a reputation–and they’ll tell you that my math abilities are ludicrously weak.

But  I managed to pass–respectably–two semesters of college calculus and a semester of differential equations.  Next to even most of the girls in the private girls’ high school I attended, I was “good at math,” and in honors math courses and the Math Honor Socity {Mu Alpha Theta, no less). 

Relative to the student population of a takes-all-comers public high school, I would have looked very good at math.

Robert, I think, misinterprets what Nozick is saying about intellectuals being “the smartest” people in their high schools–he’s not saying that they actually are smarter than everybody else, but that they spend four years in a system where “smart” is defined as “good at school,” and they’re very good at school. 

The only experience they have of a situation in which “the people” decide who gets status and who loses it is the clique system in their high schools–and that system definitely denigrates the hell out of who they are and what they’re good at. 

But being “good at school” gets you a lot in this society.  First, most of the people Nozick is calling “intellectuals” here would not be government employees of any kind, unless they signed on as White House speechwriters. 

Professional status for academics in the United States is firmly in the hands of private colleges and universities.  Only a very few public universities count as “first class” in job prestige for academics.

And first rate private universities pay their professors a lot of money–lots and lots of it.  A tenured professor at a Harvard or at Amherst will make an easy six figures.  A tenured prfessor with seniority will make a healthy six figures.

As to high-end journalists, etc, the best indication that a kid is going to end up with a national career in the media these days is where he did his undergraduate work.  In other words, yes, these are the people who were “good at school.”

And literary writers in the U.S.  are not getting poor and are not doing something even loosely akin to vanity publishing.  In fact, quite the contrary.   Every major New York house makes a point of publishing at least some literary fiction, and they are considerably more patient with their literary writers than with their popular ones.

There’s also an interlocking systems of awards, committees, writer in residence jobs, magainze and journal publication, and CATs (course adoption texts), that mean these people make significant money and have significant audiences, even if some of those audiences are captive.

In fact, if you want to make a living as a writer, you’d do much better to be “good at school,” go to an  Ivy  League college, get an MFA from the Iowa Writer’s workshop, and then do a year or two at Granta or The Wilson Quarterly.  Most “popular” writers won’t make half the money you do, and they won’t get anywhere near the prestige.

I think Nozick has a point–if you’re “good at school” in a country where being so means you spend four years of your adolescence being denigrated and humiliated by your peers, and where all your rewards come from a top-down centrally planned system of merit, and you then enter the real world to find that your greatest sucess comes when you stay within just such a top-down centrally planned system of merit, you’re going to end up thinking that top-down centrally planned systems of merit are a good thing.  In fact, the only good thing.

But that still doesn’t quite make sense of what’s going on, because it’s been going on longer than the present system has been in place, and it is clear in the lives and works of hugely popular and successful writers and intellectuals as well as dismissed and marginalized ones. 

You can say anything you want about Byron and Shelley–and I think they were worse as poets than we’re usually allowed to admit out loud–but they were not marginal.  They were more like their era’s version of rock stars.  They made tons of money, were more famous than most figures in government, were followed around by what can only be called groupies, and constituted a solid social class of a particular and often highly venerated kind.   At least, venerated by the public, if not by officialdom.

So let me turn this around and ask the question that’s been bugging me for several years now–why is it that intellectual work, and not only the arts, seem to correlate so highly with socially irregular behavior.

I feel like a Victorian mother here–“socially irregular behavior.”  But  I don’t know what else to call it.  Why are artists, writers and musicians expected to be “Bohemian”?

When  I was first thinking about this, it occurred to me that it might be simply a matter of correlation.  If your stock in trade is originality, if you can only do your best work if you do something new, then maybe whatever makes it possible for you to see other ways to write a novel or compose a symphony than the ones you’ve been brought up with might also make it possible for you to see other ways to live.  Whatever compels you to “originality” in one area may compel you to “originality” in another. 

I finally decided that this wouldn’t do, for at least two reasons. The first is that Bohemian originality is not particularly original.   If you’ve grown up upper middle class in New England or California, for instance, you’d do a great deal more to epater les bourgoisie if you moved to  Mississippi, got born again, and settled down to work in a lube shop and have six children than by running way to Paris to sleep with sexually ambiguous African revolutionaries.  

The second is that, in some quarters, the Bohemianism seems to be a settled social role, part of what is expected of certain people in certain walks of life.  For all the rhetoric of “transgression” and revolution, your standard American Bohemian today is an organization man.

That’s the real issue behind literary fiction in the US as we speak–the problem isn’t that it’s divorced from everyday life, or doesn’t speak to a wide audience, or is composed of people who despise their audiences (that last one is true of lots and lots of writers, including some very popular ones who claim to be conservatives).

The problem with literary publishing today is that it’s precisely a system–you enter it the same way you get a job in a Wall Street law firm, by being “good at school” (which means being not too independent in what you say and write, among other things), and then carefully fulfilling the requirements to get degree after degree until you’re finally “officially” a writer.

I mean, for God’s sake.  No wonder all that stuff sounds the same. 

Right now, I’m just going to make a suggestion.  Go see if you can find a collection of essays by Tom Wolfe called Mauve Gloves and Madmen, Clutter and Vine.  In it, there’s an essay–I think it’s the title one, but I’m not sure–that’s a satirical look at the kind of intellectual Nozick was talking about. 

In some ways, it’s more useful than Nozick’s article in outlining the problem–but it’s also very funny.

Wolfe has no patience with this kind of thing, and the last line of the thing is hysterical.

Written by janeh

July 22nd, 2009 at 7:54 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The Robert Nozick Problem

with 2 comments

So, John brought up Anarchy, State and Utopia, a book I sometimes suggest to people who know nothing about libertarianism and either can’t or won’t read Ayn Rand, but a book  I always recommend with mental reservations.

I first heard of Robert Nozick in 1983.  I bought the book in London in 1984, going to one of those big academic bookstores they used to have to find it.  I was excited, at the time, for obvious reasons.  The idea of a libertarian–and a radical libertarian–on the faculty of the philosophy department at Harvard was a really neat idea.   It was even neater that he became chairman of that department, just as John Rawls had been before him.  Rawls has got to be the premiere liberal (American sense) philosopher of the last half of the twentieth century.

And Nozick really is a radical libertarian–radical on both fronts of libertarian thought, which is where he gets into trouble, at least for me.

He’s radical in the limitations he would place on government, basically reducing it to the police, the courts, and the military.  Ayn Rand was, of course, there before him, and went farther.

The standard libertarian formula for goverment says that government may properly intervene in cases where one citizen or group of citizens initiates the use of force or fraud against another citizen or group of citizens, and can perform those functions necessary to the continued existence of the society that cannot be successfully performed any other way.

The second half of that formula allows for a certain amount of wiggle room, and most libetarians think it’s okay for governments to run road systems, for instance. 

But Nozick’s problem came in addressing the second issue of libertarianism–what liberty meant for the individual–and in my opinion, he went to the edge of the cliff and just jumped off.

Consider Thomas Jefferson’s reworking of the Lockean formula on rights–not “life, liberty and property” but “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

A lot of people have taken that to mean–and almost all libertarians have taken that to mean–that government has no business interfering in the individual life style choices of citizens.   Most libertarians are pro-choice, but most of them are also in favor of ditching all the drug laws. 

But now let’s take an extreme example–what if you want to own slaves, and know somebody who wants to be a slave.  What right has the government to interfere in your choice?

In a certain sense of “choice,” the answer to the above may be:  none.  Go out on the Internet, and you’ll find entire networks of websites devoted to the “dom and sub” lifestyle, which is all about choosing to be or have slaves in the confines of your own home.   That would seem to indicate that “being a slave” or “having a slave” was a lifestyle choice you are able to make.

But.  Here’s the thing.

A slave isn’t a slave because he voluntarily submits to the will of his master.  He’s a slave because his submission is involuntary.  As long as you can leave any time you want to, you’re not choosing to be a slave,and you aren’t really a slave owner.  You’re playing a game with roles on both sides but no solid basis in reality.

In order for it to be possible for you to choose to be a slave or choose to be a master, your government would be required either to enfoce your choices–to bring your slave back to you when he runs away–or to stay neutral while you did (by, say, hunting down your runaway slave and dragging him back).

This government will do neither of those things, and on the subject of slavery we actually have a Constitutional amendment to cover it.

Now take another example–a real one.  And I warn you, this is gross.

A few years ago, a young man in Germany placed a classified ad saying that he had always wanted to eat a human being, and asking if there was anybody out there who had always wanted to be eaten. 

He got a taker, and the two men hooked up together for a truly remarkable few weeks, during which the first man chopped off bits and pieces of the second, cooked them, and then both ate them hismelf and fed his apparently willing victim.  Finally, the first man killed what was left of the second man, and ate that.

The German government was not amused. Nor were they inclined to be understanding of the lifestyle choices of two consenting adults.

Robert Nozick wasn’t thinking of extreme cases like this when he formed his conviction that in a free society, groups of people should be able to form communities that decided that rules for themselves, no matter how objectionable they might seem to other people.

He was thinking of things like religious communities, not only the  Amish but less strict sects that, for instance, didn’t accept the political equality of women and expected them to e subordinate to their husbands, or groups that wanted polygamay. 

If the pursuit of happiness was to mean anything, Nozick said, then such communities must be able not only to form, but to enforce their rules within their communities.

In a way, he went right back to the Greek understanding of liberty–not as an attribute of individuals, but of societies.  For the Greeks, a society was free if it could make its own rules unimpeded by outside power or authority.  It didn’t matter if those rules were crushingly oppressive to individual action.

Nozick would in fact have been okay with government enforcing–or allowing communities to enforce–slavery.  I don’t know what he would have thought of the second case, but there’s nothing in any of the books I read by him, or any of the articles, that gives me even a hint that he’d be able to oppose it.

The simple fact of the matter is this–in a free society where liberty inheres in the individual, you can pursue happiness, but nobody can guarantee that your fellow  citizens wil like you for it, or respect you for it, or refuse to jude you for it.  Nor are your fellow citizens required to pay for it.  Nor are they required to enfocrce it. 

And that means that we will never be perfectly free.  I’m free to buy a beachside mansion in the Hamptons, but I don’t have the money for it, so my freedom is moot for the moment.  I’m free to decide to dye my entire body neon green and my hair neon pink, but not to walk the streets without getting started at or keep my job as the spokesperson for the Family Values Association.

Some choices are harder to make than others.  They cost more mentally, emotionally, and materially than others.   You are free to make them, but you are required to take the consequences.   If those consequences make you feel constrained in your choices, that’s not lack of liberty but presence of calculation. You are free to jump off a twenty-story building.   You are not free not to go splat when you hit the ground. 

I like a lot of Nozick’s work, and I have a tendency to send people links to my favorite essay of his, “Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism.”  The link is here:


But although individual liberty is ultimately the right to choice of various kinds, that’s not all it is, and reducing your defense of liberty to choice and choice alone is going to get you into a lot of trouble.

The nation Nozick visualized, the one in which individual groups could go off and live with rules of their own making no matter what those rules were would not have been free in any sense of the term, maybe not even in the sense the Greeks gave the word.

In the end, a free country is one in which the government defends the rights of individuals to make free choices, and that ultimately means not only that communities have limited rights of choice in at least some cases, but that individuals themselves may have limited rights of choice in some areas if those choices would decrease or endanger the liberties of the rest of us.

In other words,  Robert Nozick wouldn’t have been able to come up with a defense of the  German government’s prosecution of the cannibal for murder–but  I could do it with my eyes shut.

Written by janeh

July 21st, 2009 at 8:09 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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