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Archive for December, 2010


with 7 comments

It’s New Year’s Eve, and if I wanted to really get started, I’d have a lot to say.  I don’t know if any of you would find it interesting–it would be, largely, about the state of my own life–but it’s building up in here somewhere and I figure I’ll have to do something about it sometime.

When and what are two perfectly good questions, but at the moment I’ve got a keyboard, an office that isn’t frozen solid, and Gustav Leonhardt playing Bach.

That will do to be getting on with.

So, some end of the year notes:

1) In re the post from a couple of days ago, I admit to being perfectly flabbergasted by the phenomenon of people who don’t read. 

I don’t mean people who can’t read.  There can be a lot of reasons for that, some of them fixable and some of them not.

I mean people who don’t.  I go nearly nuts when I don’t have a book with me when I’m doing something.  I read on line at the bank.  I read when I’m waiting to pick up the boys from one thing or another.   I read when I’m on hold.

Sometimes, when I’m going around to various places, I see people waiting for things, just sitting and staring out at nothing, and I really don’t get it.  If that were me, I’d be chewing the carpet or pacing or otherwise making a nuissance of myself.

And then there are those prison reality shows that I sometimes watch, mostly because they’re there and the remote is on the other side of the room and I don’t want to get up and get it. 

You see these guys in single cells or in solitary confinement.  They don’t have access to television or radio.  They don’t have Game Boys or computers unless they go down to the prison library. 

They’re just there, all alone, staring off into space and doing nothing.

I mean, for God’s sake–they can have books.  They just…I don’t know.

Okay, under those circumstances, I’d probably kill myself or somebody else.

I can understand why some people can’t stand schools and don’t want a formal education.  I don’t understand people who don’t read.

2)  I think it’s interesting the extent to which people who eventually prove successful at work that takes a lot of imagination–think Spielburg and Lucas, say, or even James Fennimore Cooper–so often do so badly in schools.

I used to say, often, that schools reward conformity and life rewards creativity, but I know that’s only half true.

If you’re bothg really talented and really luck in your timing, life can reward creativity really well.  If you’ve got no talent at all, or you’re not in the rigt place at the right time, it might not.

But it still bugs me the extent to which schools have become loci for enforcing social control, and the extent to which that social control is being enforced.

When I was growing up, it was enough of you sat still, turned in your homework, and didn’t cuss or beat anybody up on the playground.

These days, notes go home to parents demanding that no chips or cookies be sent in with bag lunches (bad nutrition! childhood obesity!), and the list of “red flags” for potentially violent behavior (he could turn into a school shooter!) includes things like playing cowboys and Indians and pretending to shoot things.

It bothers me even more than it might have because I’m fairly convinced that most of the “studies” used to defend this kind of thing are not properly controlled, and rely a lot on the post hoc fallacy.

And that brings me to

3) A really depressive feeling about the enormous emphasis now put on two things:  the idea that people are not in control of themselves and their actions AND the idea that what we need to do is to make sure everything is “safe.”

When I was ten or so years old, I would get on my bike on summer afternoons and ride–all alone, by myself–fifteen or twenty miles or more, across town lines, into places I’d never been.

It was largely a rural area–well, suburban-rural–with lots of trees and woods and few houses anywhere.  I’d go and go and go and turn around when I got to the point where I felt like turning back.

I’d spend all my time doing that thinking through fiction in my head, writing the things I’d put down on the brand new typewriter my grandmother had bought me for Christmas.

If I write books now, a lot of them come from those afternoons alone.

But my children have never had that experience, and they’re too old for it now.  If they travel to strange places and wander around on their own, it will be as adults.

The simple fact is that I wouldn’t have dared to allow them to wander around like that.  Nobody does dare anymore, as far as I can see. 

Most of the parents I know don’t let their children trick or treat for Halloween, either, except when accompanied by a parent and usually in a car, going only to houses the parents already know well.

By the time I was nine and my brother was six, we went all over the place on our own, on foot.  It was a matter of pride with all the kids we know to go farther and get more candy than anybody else. 

And all of this is justified in the name of “safety,” because of course there are predators out there, there are pedophiles, there are rapists and kidnappers and murderers.

There may even be more of them now than there used to be, but I’m not sure that’s true. 

I do know that there is something incredibly debilitating, to a child, of being brought up this way.  I developed a lot of independence and confidence on my walks and bike rides alone, and a strong sense of an individual self not formed by either adults or other children.

A lot of the children I see–and, yes, the adolescnets–seem to lack this. I don’t know if it is a result of this mania for “safety” or for something else.

What I do know is that this approach teaches, first and foremost, a fear of the world, and an inner conviction that one is not capable of handling one’s own life.

And that’s the good news.  The bad news is that there’s another way it can work out–and that is that kids get the idea that adults lie to them all the time about what will happen if they try X.   They can’t distinguish between the bullshit (one marijuana joint and you’ll be hooked on heroin in a week!) and the real (sticking your finger in a light socket and you’ll get yourself electrocuted).

Which brings us to:

4) The enormous effort that is being put into redefining adults as not-really-adults.

I talk a lot on this blog–and lots of other people talk about it elsewhere–about the entire “addiction” thing as a way for adults to evade responsibility for their own actions.

But that’s only half the story.  The other half is that the entire concept of the “at risk population”  provides a rationale for government, government bureacracies, and several different kinds of instutitons (schools, nursing homes, hospitals) to treat adults as if they’d been declared incompetent to handle their own affairs–even when they haven’t been.

Under ordinary circumstances, it’s up to the adult to decide what he wants to eat, or wear, or ingest otherwise, or do for recreation.

Under the concept of the “addicted” and the “at risk population,” we declare that the adult only things he’s making choices. What he really is is being manipulated by corporations or peer groups or whoever.  When he decides he’d rather eat a Big Mac instead of a salad, or smoke cigarettes instead of quit, he’s being controled by his addiction.  Therefore we have to step in and make his choices for him.

The breathtakingly arrogant and insulting premise here is masked by a whole array of different devices.

The first is that the usual approach is to begin with “education”–if we only teach people the basics of nutrition and how to make healthy choices, and then demand that the fast food restaurants carry healthy food–well, the people will do it for themselves.

Then, when the salads in Burger King sit for day after day unsold, when the nutritional labels on the cans and boxes go unread, when everybody opts for the Big Mac and the fried shrimp anway, we go to–

Oh, no!  This can’t be happening–there must be something wrong!  Obviously, these people are incapable of behaving rationally.  They must be in thrall to something, maybe an addiction, maybe corporate advertising.

One one complained that restaurants kept putting out food that was not only high in fat and calories, but “highly palatable.”  That means it tastes good. 

If you opt for something that is “highly palatable” instead of something that is supposed to be good for you–well, you can’t be trusted, you’re a slave who can’t make choices, we’ll just have to step in and make sure you do the right thing.

And this is even funnier–in a black sort of way–because the principle excuse for the need to “step in” is childhood obesity, which I’m willing to bet anything is being at least partially caused by the fact that we never let our children go out and do things on their own any more.

And children, like other people, strongly prefer to do things they want the way they want them rather than take a class or join a group with formal structures and rules.

And that leaves me at:

5) The fact that I’m coming to decide that the real culture war is not between liberals and conservatives, or the religious and the secular, but between those of us who want to be “safe” and those of us who…don’t.

Written by janeh

December 31st, 2010 at 10:03 am

Posted in Uncategorized

I’m In With The In Crowd

with 3 comments

Sorry for the spottiness of the posts lately.  I’ve had my scheduled derailed by snow.

It’s mostly somebody else’s snow, mind you, but that doesn’t seem to matter much.

For the run up to the new year–ten years since 9/11?  really?–I thought I’d say a little something about something almost everybody thinks they know something about.

What I mean is:  best sellers. 

Back when I was blithering on a couple of days ago, I was talking not about the sales of any particular book or movie, but the preponderance of the popular culture–the way in which all aspects of popular entertainment tend to trend in one direction in any one era.

These days, we’ve got Twilight and Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, movie theaters full of vampires and elves, television shows full of werewolves and zombies.

That is, today, unlike the fifties, the majority of what is on offer is fantasy and science fiction, with the possible exception of Law and Order, which has become some kind of rapidly mutating cancer of the television set.

The fact that the era trends in one particular direction, however, tells you nothing at all about how one particular book or movie or television show will do with readers and viewers. 

With books, especially,  the calculus is more than a little complicated.

There are people who read and read everything–I’m one of them, and I’d guess that some of the people reading this are too.  We’re very rare, really, and even if every single one of us bought exactly the same books, we couldn’t make a single writer even a halfway decent income.

Then there are the people who read practically everything of one kind of thing–the serious fans, usually of genres. 

I do go to mystery conventions sometimes, and what I meet there are people who have literally rooms full of books by everybody from Conan Doyle to whoever just came out last week. 

Some of them read only one subset of the genre–only cozies, for instance, or police procedurals–or the ones with more general tastes, who read “only dark” or “only humorous” or “only historicals.”

If you can get a majority of the fan base, you can do anywhere from well enough to very well.  You can, at any rate, make a living. 

But if you want to have a best seller, and especially if you want to have a blockbuster best seller–then you have to sell books to people who don’t read. 

No, I am not making this up.

There are, out there in the vastness of an America with over three hundred million people in it, more people than you realize who read one book a year, or maybe two, or maybe three.

Most of these people are middle to upper middle class, and they buy their one book to take on vacation somewhere. 

In the upper reaches of this group are people who buy a book to have other people see they own it–it’s what turns something like Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses into a bestseller. 

Most of these people expect to read what they buy, however, and that means that a book aimed at the blockbuster or better category has to have a few definite characteristics.

Contrary to widespread reports, it is not necessary for such a book to be badly written.  Writing style–even writing competence–has no effect at all on the sales of such a book.


Some blockbuster best sellers–the early and mid-career Stephen King, for instance–are very well written indeed.   Some are The Da Vinci Code.

But there are some things about the writing that do matter.

One of them is straightforwardness–blockbusters do not use experimental forms at all, and they tend to shy away from a lot of sarcasm and irony, which can be difficult to understand if you’re not a regular and wide reader.

They can be difficult to understand if you are a regular or wide reader, but have never gotten much beyond the technical level of what we now call “young adult” novels.

Robert is going to start calling me smug and superior here, but I’m only being realistic.

You’ll move more books the fewer readers you discourage.  Good readers don’t mind reading books that are simply and uncomplicatedly written.  Bad readers often do dislike and resent hitting things they can’t understand. 

We’ve gotten to a point where literary devices that used to be taught in junior high school–how to interpret multiple viewpoint, for instance–don’t seem to be any longer. 

The next thing you need to sell books to these people is to make sure you’re pushing nothing that can make them uncomfortable–stay off politics and religion except for cliches (it’s okay for your hero to be fighting an evil polluting American corporation or for your heroine to be visited by a miracle that cures her daughter’s cancer, but not for the characters to be involved in a fight over abortion or your hero to be opposed or in favor of gay rights).

And finally, it really helps if your book is already the flavor of the month.  The one book a year reader tends to read what “everybody” is talking about.

That last proposition is trickier than you’d think.

It is, on the one hand, the reason why publishing companies can “manufacture” a best seller.  They take out a lot of advertising, they push the reviewers, and, most especially, they buy space at the front of the bookstore.

If they can make enough noise, especially in the right areas of the country, they can sometimes push the book onto the bottom rungs of the NY Times best seller list, and for reasons that are too complicated to straighten out, the Times is the list to make.

And that’s odd, in a way, because the Times has always been a particular kind of list skewed toward a particular reading public.

There’s nothing wrong with that, by the way.  All best seller lists aimed at readers–rather than those aimed at the industry itself–are skewed toward the readership of the periodical that publishes them.   That is, after all, the information the readers want–what do people like us think is good to read this week?

But the Times has always been a newspaper aimed at the northeastern establishment and educated upper middle class.  It therefore tended to poll those bookstores its readers were likely to use–independent ones in upscale places like Westport and Scarsdale. 

There is, as I said, nothing wrong with that.  The readers of the Times–like the readers of USA Today–want to know what people like themselves are reading. 

But by its very nature, that particular skew meant that the books that made the Times bestseller list were not only weighted toward the literary, but unlikely to be what was selling best in the rest of the country.

I’m told that the Times these days is taking in data from a wider variety of outlets these days, so this may not be as true as it once was.  The list still looks to me, though, as if it were a little lopsided.

One way or the other, though, it is possible to “manufacture” a best seller. It’s even possible to manufacture a short career.  Since some people want to read what “everybody” is reading, you just have to give them the impression that this is it.

What’s far more interesting to me are the books that become blockbusters, or even just best sellers, without this help, because it’s very difficult.

Publisher print the number of books they think the public will buy.  If they don’t print enough for you to have more than a single title in all the Barnes and Noble franchises, it’s hard for you to build any kind of momentum to propel yourself into bestseller-land.

In this, Amazon has been something of a Godsend.  Amazon takes orders, and when it gets hundreds or thousands more than it has on hand, it goes straight to the publisher and says:  well?  And it usually gets what it wants, too.

The question is–how do the readers who order the book on Amazon know that the book is there?

If you expect me to provide you with an answer here, I can’t.  Nobody knows how things like that happen–how books whose publishers do not expect them to do well suddenly do very well indeed. 

The phenomenon is even more surprising when it happens to a book by an author whose previous career has been lackluster–P.D. James before Innocent Blood, Peter Benchley before Jaws, Mario Puzo before The Godfather.

But I’ll guarantee you one thing–whatever it is will almost certainly be either within a trend already existing, or the start of a new one.

But if it is the start of something new–it will only be new within the confines of the national mainstream, not in the population of all readers all the time.

And I’m making no sense any more.

It’s getting about time to be New Year’s.

Written by janeh

December 29th, 2010 at 7:28 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Bah, Humbug

with one comment

Well, okay, not quite.

I just had something of a miserable, frustrating day yesterday.

It was Christmas Day, so, of course, nothing was open anywhere that might be useful–like, for instance, repair shops.  And that wouldn’t have mattered, except that the oven here went out of whack and wouldn’t get hot enough to do anything in, which meant that we left this enormous roast beef sitting in the refrigerator. 

It’s still there, and probably will be there for a while.

In the meantime, Christmas dinner consisted of ham sandwiches, provided by the same very good friends we were going to feed the roast beef to.

This was, needless to say, not what I had been looking forward to, and the really great chocolate the friends brought with the ham sandwiches only kind of helped.

Anyway, it’s the day after Christmas, and you can’t get north of Charlotte, South Carolina at the moment–or maybe even Atlanta.  It’s hard to tell, since where I am there is nothing like news on on Sunday morning until it gets fairly late.  From what I can tell, the East coast is going to be closed all of today and tomorrow.

In the meantime, I thought I’d try again to explain something I think, from both the comments and the e-mails, I explained badly. 

Then I thought I’d use that to launch myself into the subject of the Gothic novel. I’m talking about the mid-eighteenth, early nineteenth century Gothic novel, not the kind, as Westlake said, “about a girl who gets a house.”

The issue was this:  I did not mean to say, or even imply, that people these days turn to fantasy or horror or science fiction so that they can “base their morality” on space aliens or dwarves.

I think many contemporary readers find the realities of present day ordinary life to be profoundly unsettling.

They don’t believe the religious stories they learned as children.  For many people, that particular narrative has lost both its force and its credibility.

At the same time, they do not believe that there is a code of morality that can be founded on human reason, either–they don’t think reason will provide them with moral rules that are true for everybody, and not just for themselves.

I don’t think this should be all that surprising to people here, who have expressed the opinion (often) that no such rationally-derived moral code could ever be simply and unequivocably true, rather than just a matter of opinion.

What people are looking for, I think, is a place where a moral code that was simply and unequivocably true could, at least plausibly, be possible.

The point about fantasy novels is not that they provide a moral code in the lives of dwarves or elves that we can follow.

The point about fantasy novels is that they provide a world in which magic exists and can be proved to exist–characters in such novels meet the effects of magic every day.

And since magic exists in such a world, it is not a world restricted to the natuarlistic and materialist.  It is a world in which something exists outside human beings and their wishes an desires.

All fantasy novels I’ve ever heard of, including Tolkein’s (especially Tolkein’s) are supernaturalistic in their assumptions, not naturalistic.

To whoever it was that said that there was never any morality in Tolkein except that “derived from human intelligence”–well, I haven’t read much Tolkein, but I’d be willing to bet that that isn’t true.  Tolkein himself was a devout and practicing Christian, which means he did not himself think that morality was “derived from human intelligence.”  He thought it was derived from God.

What he did was to create a world in which the supernatural was ever present, in the form of prophecies and magic–and in so doing, provided his readers with a world in which the supernatural was credible.  It is not so credible in the world we live in now.

The need for a world in which the supernatural is credible is, I think, also behind the popularity of some kinds of horror–not the slasher kind, but the ghosts and demons kind. 

The everyday Stephen King fan may no longer be able to believe in Virgins giving birth and wise men bringing gifts, but that doesn’t mean she wants to live in a world where all there is is the material, where moral codes are made up by people based on whatever they like on Tuesday, and where death is the end.

A world where ghosts and demons exist and can be seen and interacted with is one in which there is something else beyond (and presumably above, as well as below) workaday human existence.

The issue of space aliens, and that sort of thing, is a little more complicated.

But you can see what I’m talking about by looking into the whole phenomenon of Trekkies, who have managed to derive elaborate moral and ethical codes, and even some nascent institutions, from what began as a rather thin storyline with (at the beginning) what seemed like a limited audience.

But the phenomenon is even easier to trace in the Star Wars saga, because Lucas seems to have been deliberating developing a theology for it.  “The Force” is a power so close to magic it’s hard to think of anything else to call it, and the people who dedicate their lives to it are said to follow a religion.

In all these cases, however, the primary driver is not that there is some explicit moral code outlined for readers to follow.

It is that books like these create worlds in which human beings and their reason are not the only intelligent force.

They create worlds, in other words, where something exists outside ourselves on a moral and ethical level.

I’m probably blithering again.  It always amazes me how clear something can seem in my head and how difficult I can find it to lay it out here.

Let me try to leave it here:  I think many people, faced with living in a world where human beings are the highest intelligence possible, where there is no intelligence lift outside ourselves, no life after death, find that they don’t particularly want to live there.

Many of them feel–as many of the people who comment on this blog feel–that such a world is one in which there is no morality, just a lot of subjective opinions about right and wrong.

And then they go looking for places where the supernatural, or the superior to human, feels credible to them.

Now, I know I’ve probably put that all badly, and we’ll go reeling off into goodness only knows what.

But for now, I just want to say–a very similar situation existed at the height of the Enlightenment, which corresponded to the  height of the popularity of the Gothic novel.

And I’ll get back to that later.

Written by janeh

December 26th, 2010 at 7:43 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Sharing, Caring…

with one comment

Yesterday, Joel posted a link to a web site about C.S. Lewis and the idea of a common, underlying shared morality across time and traditions.

And that’s where I want to get to, because it’s the next point in this argument.

But before I start that, I want to make a couple of things perfectly clear, so that I don’t have to go over the ground yet again.

First–when I say the novel is “secular and naturalistic” (actually, George Steiner said it), I am NOT saying that that is what it should be.

I’m saying that that is what it has, in fact, been.  The novel started as secular and naturalistic, and in its major (meaning most read and most popular) form, it remained so for well over a hundred years.

For better or for worse, the novel began as a story about the private lives of the middle classes. 

Second–when I ask what happened to the popularity of the mainstream novel, I am NOT talking about the contemporary “literary novel.”  I said not a single world about novels of people having angst over selling out while they worked for Wall Street.

In fact, in an–obviously vain–attempt to cut off discussion of the “literary” novel, I listed a few writers of the kind I was thinking of.  Dickens.  Jane Austen.  Hardy.  Eliot (George).   Sir Walter Scott.

The modern counterparts of these writers are not “literary” novelists, but such popular mainstream novelists as Arthur Haley, James Michener, Leon Uris, Irving Wallace, Faith Baldwin, Somerset Maugham.

Third, I am NOT talking about the “decline” of the novel.  I’m talking about the decline in POPULARITY of the traditional mainstream novel, and of the puzzle mystery as the closest form in the genres to that traditional mainstream novel.

Up until about the time I was in college, the best selling fiction in this country and Britain and Canada and Australia was the traditional mainstream novel.  The best selling of the genres was the mystery, with a hefty dose of puzzle mysteries in the mix. 

What else was out there just didn’t sell as well–Tolkein wrote the only truly popular fantasy novel of the period.  Those novels that were not naturalistic–horror, fantasy, science fiction–came out mostly in paperback originals, not because of snobbishness, but because if you put them out in hardcover with a hardcover price, you lost your shirt.

It does no good when I say “why don’t people seem to want oranges anymore?” and somebody responds “they like pears! pears are still fruit!”

I’m not talking about pears.  I’m talking about oranges.

So lets get on, and to help in that endeavor I’ll repost the link, here:


This is an interesting site, for a number of reasons, and if you haven’t looked at it, you should.

And the argument–that there is at base a set of moral rules that apply in all times and places–is not new, and in many respects I think it has a lot going for it.

When we say that “people think all sorts of things are moral and immoral” or that “morality varies a lot,” we are, most of the time, wrong. 

What varies over time and place are not generally the rules, but who they apply to–that is, the definitions of what counts as “human” (first and foremost) and secondarily what constitutes things like “murder.”

And those definitions cause a lot of trouble, and a lot of warfare.  They always have and they always will.

But right now, I want to look at the right now.  Because the fact is that on a number of counts listed by this website, we do indeed have a lack of consensus.

Let’s get away from the usual suspects for a moment, and look at this:  the moral rules, assumed to be common throughout civilizations, about the relationships within families.

It may well have been the case in every society throughout history that we have felt it moral to respect our parents and be loyal to both them and our siblings, but I’m not so sure we could get a consensus about that now, in this country, in this year.

For one thing,we have been bombarded, for thirty years, with a new vision of the family–not as a place of refuge, and not as the locus of our strongest and most sacred loyalties, but as a repressive monster, a hotbed of physical, sexual and emotional abuse and neglect, our worst nightmare, the place where bad things happen.

This vision of the family has been enshrined in law, not simply disseminated through art and literature and women’s magazines. 

We once said–as the worst of the things that could be said–about the Nazis and the Soviets that they taught the children to betray their parents to the authorities.  During the sexual abuse hysteria of the 1980s, American public schools routinely urged children to do just that, in the guise of “getting help” for “abuse” that was defined so vaguely it covered nearly all family relations of any kind. 

The programs were finally scaled back after a series of false accusations by teenagers against parents who just wouldn’t let them go out to unsupervised parties or go on seeing that boyfriend who’d already been in juvie four times.

But although the programs were scaled back the attitude wasn’t.

If anything goes really wrong–if there is a real case of child sexual abuse, for instance, or if somebody is murdered–the assumption is that the perpetrator will be a member of the family.   If a wife is murdered, the first suspect will be the husband.  If a child is abused, the fist suspect will be the parents. 

And the suspicion goes in the opposite direction. States, like Florida, with large populations of the elderly, tend first to treat those elderly more as children than adults, and then to assume that the elderly person’s children are more likely to abuse them than to love them, more likely to be after their money than concerned with the well being of their parents.

I do understand that there is a certain amount of logic in this.  Perpetrators do tend to be those most closely related to the victims.

But it’s one thing to understand that, and another to make the leap to treating such things as the norm rather than the exception. 

The simple fact is that most parents do not abuse their children, or their children’s elderly grandparents.  Most husbands do not murder their wives.

We have, nevertheless, erected vast bureaucracies that assume that they do, and the attitudes of those bureaucracies are echoed in popular entertainment.

If you don’t believe me, sit down and watch one of those Law and Order: SVU marathons that show up on cable every once in a while.

This is an enormous, deeply significant change, and one that is far more important to the identity of a society than rules about, say, what we should think of homosexual behavior or whether women should be allowed to vote as well as men.

And we don’t need something this significant to break a moral consensus in any society.  Just those much more minor questions can do it, because although they may be matters not of substance but of definition, the definitions matter.

I’m with both Robert and Cheryl–I think that no society can go long with a lack of consensus, and I think this society will finally arrive at one. 

But in the meantime, we are at a place where that consensus does not exist, and where we can’t come to a consensus even about what the foundation of a consensus would be. 

I think that’s one of the reasons for the current popularity of the fantastic over the naturalistic–if we no longer believe in the gods, or in God, then something or somebody else must be the reason for accepting one set of moral rules over another.  If we do not believe that there can be any reason in reason–and a lot of us don’t–then elves, wizards, and space aliens might be options.

The other thing we do, of course, is to self-select into moral tribes and create spaces where we can be together with people who share our moral assumptions.

Which makes a good start on why the genres have become increasingly more important than the mainstream.

But that said–the web site linked to above is put up by the Augustine Club at Columbia University.

I’m impressed that Columbia even has an Augustine Club.

Written by janeh

December 24th, 2010 at 7:07 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The Epistemic Polka

with 3 comments

Let me start out by saying that I more that half-agree with Mike Fisher’s comment on the post a couple of days ago–We’d Have Had To Invent It–“design” is a word with a lot of baggage, virtually none of it intended by what I was trying to get across with all that.

In the post that followed–yesterday’s–I tried substituting “engineering” for “design.”  I don’t  know if that helped.

It’s  important to repeat, though, that I was not talking about what people do consciously and deliberately. 

Certainly if we sit down and think out what makes sense in terms of how we can know we know (anything) or what the probabilities are in terms of order coming out of chaos, we come to all kinds of interesting ideas and an entire branch of formal philosophy.

But what we come to when we think about it deliberately is not necessarily what we do.

I’m sitting at a table, at the moment, and I perceive this table as “solid.”  I know that that perception is an illusion. The table on which this computer sits, the computer itself, are both composed of atoms which are in constant, whirling motion.

When I think about this, I have no problems understanding why and how this is true. 

But I don’t usually think about this.  What I do is go about my day as if  things like the table and the computer were unambiguously solid.   This works in practice.  I’ve got no reason to think about it.

What I meant in that post called “We’d Have To Invent It” is that most people–virtually all people–go about their day without thinking much about whether the universe is engineered or random, but automatically and unthinkingly responding to it in the same way as they respond to those things in their everyday lives that have been engineered.

They do not respond to it in the same way as those things they perceive as random or chaotic. 

This is not a matter of epistemology, but of unconscious expectations, and part of my point was that the very basis for the novel as it was originally conceived and as it originally developed–and of the puzzle mystery especially–is that once you start thinking about it, the entire edifice falls apart.

You can see the way that works if you look at the issue of shared moral values, as those things we automatically think of as unquestionably morally true.

In the early part of the twentieth century, which produced both Conan Doyle and Christie, those shared moral truths covered a wide area.  The fact that that area was founded on a long Christian tradition was less important than the simple fact that it was shared. 

But the actual Christian moral consensus was already broken, as was the status of Christianity as true for society as a whole.  There had already been a hundred years of thinking about it deliberately, poking at it, questioning it.

The only way the Christian moral consensus maintained its force when Conan Doyle and Christie were writing was in the fact that virtually nobody did question it.  Even many of the writers who proclaimed themselves atheists and agnostics just went about trying to construct a moral code that was mostly just like the one they’d grown up with, but resting on different reasons.

Once that code began to be widely questioned, things got very sticky indeed.  We fight, these days, over questions that all of us–religious or atheist, Christian or Muslim or Jew, American or African–wouldn’t have thought about twice only sixty years ago.

Most of you may be too young to remember when the big breakthrough in social attitudes about homosexuality–the really liberal, really open-minded response–was to consider homosexuals not morally bad, but mentally ill.

These days, we have very little we can claim as “morally true” in the population at large, at least in Western countries.  A consensus is like an hypnosis, or a trance.  Once the spell is broken, the world is a different place.

We have, I think, reached that different place. That’s why there’s a “culture war.”   That’s why we find ourselves continually unable to draw any line anywhere.  And I do mean any line, and I do mean anywhere.  No matter what the issue is–even things you’d think were no brainers–there will be somebody, somewhere, arguing for the moral validity of it.

And that includes both sex with small children and cannabalism.

The issue in all this, for me, at the moment, is not where we’re going with all this.  My guess is that, in the long run, we will find another consensus and it will last a good long time.

But in the meantime, without such a consensus–on the moral front or the epistemic one–I think it’s very hard to write a credible puzzle mystery, and nearly impossible to write a credible mainstream novel.

And I’m using mainstream, now, to mean Dickens and Trollope, not silly self-consciously arty “literary” things about how everybody is depressed and alienated because they’re so well off their emotions have died.

Or, you know, whatever.

The novel arrived in the world at a particular moment of history and culture, and that moment has–for better or worse–passed. 

And that, I think, is how we ended up in a place where the novel as originally conceived and developed–secular and naturalist–has been giving way to the novel as a new way to express an older form, a form full of myths and legends and folktalkes,  of magic and elves and dwarves and–well, things.

Space and time.

But more on that later, because I’ve got errands to do.

Written by janeh

December 23rd, 2010 at 7:25 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Puzzles, and Practical Atheists

with 2 comments

Before I let myself get going here, I’d like to make one point.

Yesterday, I tried very hard to say “detective novel” and not “mystery novel” at every possible instance, because I wasn’t talking about the “mystery,” but specifically about the sort of thing written by Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie.

There is a lot to be said about the mystery as a total form, a metagenre, if you will, taking in several different subcategories of writing about crime in fiction. 

But most of that has nothing to do with what I was saying yesterday, which had to do with the way in which we often behave as if we held different convictions that we think say we hold, or even think we do.

And I’ll stick with my statement, yesterday, that most of us behave as if we thought the unverse had been consciously designed.

Even those of us who know, intellectually, that this is probably not true, respond to the events around us as if we could count on them–as if they were largely predictable.

And in our day to day lives, the things we can count on have not come about by chance and circumstance, but by engineering. 

What’s more, we have such a strong internal bias in favor of engineering that we continually attempt to treat real chance and circumstance as if it were not.  We develop “systems” for the roulette table, for instance, and for craps, and for poker.

But there’s something else we do, and it’s no less important to the larger point I was hoping to get to.

We live our lives as practical atheists.

I have to admit something here. I didn’t come up withthe idea of the “practical atheist.”  The first time I saw the term was in an article on a Catholic website castigating fellow Catholics for not acting like Catholics.  Since then, I’ve seen it in a number of different places. I get the impression that this is a fairly common approach to the behavior of most people who call themselves Christians by people who think they are better Christians.  My guess is that you could use the concept to good effect applying it to Jews and Muslims, too.

Those of us who are actually atheists would be, well, just atheists.

The concept runs like this:  people who say they are Christians say they believe in a world in which an omniscient, omnipotent God is watching over their every thought and action, no matter how small, and recording and remembering each one. 

But if you look at how they actually behave, it’s obvious that they don’t feel themselves in that position at all.  They behave as if nobody is watching, not even the neighbors, never mind an omnipotent God.

For all practical purposes, they behave as atheists.

(Note the “as.”  I didn’t say “like.”  The issue isn’t if these people behave as actual atheists do, but if they behave as if they thought no God existed.)

And this is another thing that’s necessary to make a novel, and especially to make a detective story.

On one level, characters in a novel–and especially characters in a detective story–must behave as if they thought the universe was designed (engineered might be a better word) and at the same time they must behave as if they thought that no God existed.

You cannot safely dispense with either side of the equation and still write a novel, and you really can’t dispense with either and write a detective novel.

The detective novel is, I think, a kind of meta-narrative for the entire Western historical period from about the end of the Victorian period through at least WWII.  For some of us, of course, it remains the meta-narrative.

It is the form that attempts to balance something that in all probability could not be balanced for long–a secular rational order in the context of a universal established one.

The detective novel is the Deism of fiction.

This works in more ways than I’ve outlined so far.  On the God-exists end of the scale we’ve got the necessity of a shared morality that is not experienced as “values” but as truths–a morality that is fixed, certain, and applicable to everybody, that is outside our ability to modify or change.

On the atheist side, it assumes a settled body of human law that scrupulously ignores the metaphysical and theological to concentrate on humanly discovered facts and humanly established rules.

It’s a balance that is enormously productive while it lasts.  It just doesn’t last very long. 

It’s inherently unstable, because it rests on an unacknowledged contradiction.  

And it can only do that as long as the contradiction remains unacknowledged.

Since WWII, and especially since the Sixties, it seems to me that that contradiction has not only been openly acknowledged, but nattered at endlessly, all throughout the Western world.

Maybe that’s why we see so much “crime fiction” and so few detective novels these days–maybe that’s why more readers prefer more and more nearly identical tales of serial killers with sexual dysfunctions or child molesters with the same. 

That rape is bad is one of the few things we’re all still willing to think of as a moral truth (rather than a moral value), and chasing and catching people who engage in it at least feels “realistic.”

For a puzzle to be realistic, we’d have to go back to thinking that we can solve our problems with reason.

Ack.  This sounds depressing, and I’m not depressed.  I’m listening to Handel.  I’ve got tea. 

And I’m not freezing.

Written by janeh

December 22nd, 2010 at 9:38 am

Posted in Uncategorized

We’d Have Had To Invent It

with 2 comments

I’m getting to the post earlier today, which may keep me less disorganized than I’ve been lately. I tend to be better in the mornings.

And I’m also in a pretty good mood, because I’ve just come from an hour of reading and listening to Hildegarde herself, on the Anonymous 4 album called The Origins of Fire.  They’ve got another one, called 11,000 Virgins, that’s also all-Hildegarde all the time, but I like Origins better.

And it was a fortuitous choice, because this morning I was thinking about what Steiner said about the novel as an art form at the beginning of Tolstoy or Dostoyevski?  It was this:

The novel was conceived and developed as

a) secular  and

b) naturalistic.

Let me try to get that clear.

Secular is not the same as atheist.  Steiner means only that the novel deals with the relaitionships between men and women, or even men and nature, and not with the relationship between man and God.  Or gods.

Back in graduate school about a million years ago, we were given a thumbnail sketch of how to deal with literature:  myths were stories of the gods; legends were stories about heroes; folk tales were stories about ordinary people.

In this categorization, the novel would be a kind of folk tale, but it isn’t.  That’s because what that little thumbnail leaves out is that all the categories assume the everpresent reality of the supernatural or the magic in human life.  All the categories are inherently supernaturalistic.

Folk tales could be secular, in the sense of having nothing to do with God or the gods, but they almost always included magic of some kind, fairies and leprechauns, monsters of the mountains and the deep.

The novel, however, was at the beginning and throughout most of its early development naturalistic, in that it not only wrote about the private and public lives of ordinary people, but wrote about them without referring much, or significantly, to either religion or magic.

I do not think Steiner is being prescriptive here–I don’t think he’s saying that “if it’s not secular and naturalistic, it’s not literature.”

I think this is a pretty fair description of what the novel actually was in its early development, and what it remained in its major forms right down to the mid-twentieth century.

That doesn’t mean there were no exceptions (A Christmas Carol, The Turn of the Screw, half of Poe), but that the exceptions tended to be minor works by writers whose major works fit the mold, or works by writers not as popular or as influential as the major writers of the period.

I’m making convoluted sentences again.

Henry James and Charles Dickens both wrote ghost stories, but all their major novels are secular and naturalistic.  Mrs. Radcliffe wrote Gothic everything, and was to Dickens’s popularity what mine is to Stephen King’s.

But even though the novel was largely secular and naturalistic, it really wasn’t “atheist,” at least in the beginning.  Dickens and James, George Eliot and George Sand, Herman Melville and Jane Austen, all set their works in a world where God might be seldom mentioned, but was always assumed.

I’m not really sure how to make this point as strongly as I’d like.   If you read your way through the Victorian novel, or the 19th Century American novel, you’ll find a scene or two here or there where one or more characters go to church.  Trollope even wrote an entire series of novels whose main characters were clergymen in the Church of England.

Trollope’s clergymen, however, always seem to think of themselves and their profession as a profession–not as a relationship with God, but as a ladder to advancement.  Jane Austen’s characters sing hymns now and then, but always while worrying about their suitors or the state of their father’s finances.

And yet.

And yet.

God is always assumed in these novels, in the sense that the idea of a world ordered from outside itself, its rules and truths and obligations imposed by a larger order somewhere else.

The 19th Century novel “works” only to the extent that this assumption is there, shared by writers and readers alike–as if everybody were standing on a gigantic platform poised over a deep chasm, knowing that if the platform gave way they’d all be destroyed, but never mentioning the platform for a minute.

I’d even be willing to bet that this assumption was shared even by those writers who were self-consciously non-religious, or non-Christian.  Look closely enough at their works, and you find the entire laundry list of 19th Century Christian moral conviction, on everything from sex to generosity.

This lasted, I think, until just after the First World War.  That’s when we first get to writers who not only did not share that moral assumption, but who did not share the far more important assumption that underlay that first assumption:  the conviction that the world was a rational and comprehensible place.

This is not a small thing, at least for me, because without that conviction, there could never be a detective story.

Detective stories depend on both writers and readers assuming absolutely that what seems mysterious can be unraveled and made clear, that nothing is outside the realm of reason.

And that conviction is the symptom of a mind that believes (however deep in its subconscious) that the world has been designed, that it did not arise out of chance and circumstance and chaos.

Before everybody starts yelling at me to say that we now know that there are ways that order can come out of disorder and chaos can boil down to things like the laws of nature–I know, and it’s beside my point here.

I just want to note this: the literature of a design-less world is not found in the essays of Francis Bacon or even in Carl Sagan’s Contact.  It’s found in Bertholdt Brecht and the Absurdists and the Dadaists. 

When writers sat down and actually thought about jettisoning the Greek/Judaic/Christian foundations of their civilization, they didn’t produce detective stories or even horror novels.  Ghost stories are light years more rational than Waiting for Godot. 

They’re also much  more sustainable.  Most writers who started out trying to write on the assumption of a world without design ended up signing onto other kinds of design, or just failing at the attempt.  Sartre’s peculiarly virulent Marxism, Celine’s hapless Fascism, Camus’s fruitless attempts to portray the irrationality of the world as actually irrational–one way or the other, most writers went back to the old assumptions while pretending they hadn’t.

Crime and Punishment, after all, was a self-consciously Christian novel.  And that’s the one that’s supposed to have started it all.

I am not saying here that the existence of God–or an assumption of the existence of God–is necessary for fiction. 

I am saying that an assumption that the universe is a rational place is necessary for fiction, and especially for those forms of fiction (like the detective story) that rely most heavily on rationality.

And further, that the assumption that the universe is a rational place, which can be accurately perceived and understood by human beings, is, at its base, an assumption of design. 

If nobody had ever believed in God, or gods, we could not have invented the novel without invented Him first–if not in the sense of imagining an all-powerful presence, then just in the sense of perceiving the world around us as having been deliberately and consciously made the way it is.

Without that, the best we would have been able to manage was Waiting for Godot. 

The worst would be–well, there are a lot of candidates.

I was going to go on and say some things about shared moral assumptions, but this is getting long, and I’ve got Beethoven on now.

There’s only so much piano I can take, even from Beethoven.

Written by janeh

December 21st, 2010 at 10:05 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Sex. Drugs and Rock and Roll

with 2 comments

Or something.

I like to sound more exciting than I actually am.

Robert says that what I was talking about yesterday wasn’t sex, but love, and Cheryl says that you can’t separate the two, and I say…

Well, I say, first, that we talk about sex and love these days the way we talk about religion–as people will talk about these things who do not really experience them.

Or at least, don’t experience them in the way people like Anna Karenina experienced them.

There used to be a woman who posted here fairly frequently–and hasn’t for a long time; I think I annoyed her; I annoy almost everybody after a while–who commented at one point that she wouldn’t think much about somebody who rejected “professional ethics” for so small a reason as religion.

It occurred to me at the time that this was a good indication that, not only did she not herself believe in any religion, but that she probably didn’t know anybody who did.

Of the issue of sex and love, lust and passion, I’d say that the two are inextricable once we get to the Anna Karenina, give it all up and smash your life level of the feeling.

And that’s for two reasons.

The first is that the one feeds off the other.   For at least some people, sex is like gasoline.  If you light a match without the gasoline around, nothing much happens.  If you add the gasoline, you get an explosion.

Sex in such cases is like brooding on something that makes you explosively angry.  It takes the emotion from one level to the other until it pops out of the top like a volcano going off.

In most of the cases I referred to yesterday, the chances are not just good but damned near certain that the lovesick partner would never have done the things that landed her (or him) in jail or on death row if he hadn’t met the beloved, and would never have done them, either, if the love hadn’t led to sex.

And been reinforced by sex.

I think reinforced is the word I’m going for here.

In some cases we have what’s called a folie a dieu, where both partners do what they would not do without the other.

And it’s sex there, too.  Or at least, sex that fuels the craziness.

Love alone will not do that.

We’re dishonest about sex and about anger–dishonest about how they work–almost continually in the present era.

We say, for instance, that repression is bad for people, that if we repress our desires we will become ill, or neurotic, or compulsive or something, and that the world will be a better place if we just “express out emotions” and bring it all out into the light of day.

Then we run up against a brick wall–pedophilia, for instance, or rape, or road rage–and suddenly we’re all for “anger management” or some other form of “therapy” meant to rid the offending human beings of what we now call their “disorder,” which is the same thing the rest of the planet called their bad behavior before we decided to declare that all behavior was naturally good.

God, but I’m going around in a maze this morning.  Afternoon.  Ack.

First we say that we should not discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation.  Then we define sexual orientation–most people who feel X way have since childhood; the sexual preference occurs in a steady minority percentage in all populations at all times that we can check out.  Then we turn around and freak when it turns out that the definition includes kinds of sexual preference we most definitely do want to discriminate against, and should discriminate against.

And all of this in aid of the usual suspects:  the innate “goodness” of human beings, the moral superiority of the natural over the “artificial.”

The reality is that repression does not usually lead to an explosion of pent-up feelings, but just the opposite.  A consistent course of repression helps most of us to lower the temperature on such feelings and to bring them under our conscious control.

We tacitly admit that with every course of anger management and aversion therapy.

Ack.  I don’t know what’s wrong with me today.

Anna Karenina isn’t about how bad it is for women to have sex.  It’s about how bad it is for any of us to indulge our feelings instead of controlling them.  Sex/love/passion is a particularly strong feeling, but you can get yourself into just as much trouble with anger, resentment and revenge. 

I’m going to go have some tea so that I can think straight.

Because I’m just getting tangled up in this at the moment, and I still think I have a lot to say about a movie called Mildred Pierce.

Written by janeh

December 20th, 2010 at 3:30 pm

Posted in Uncategorized


with 3 comments

Well, okay.  Not quite.

But I was bringing together a bunch of things–one of them JD’s comment a week or so ago that although Hanson says that the liberal arts teach logical thinking, etc, apparently they don’t anymore.

And that, believe it or not, popped to the surface of my brain while reading Steiner on Anna Karenina.

So, let’s go back.

JD’s comment assumes that what goes on in humanties classrooms these days is “teaching the liberal arts.”

But that’s not the case.   We may call these departments “English Literature” and “Philosophy” and “History” and “Classics,” but the content of the work in the classrooms has nothing at all to do with the liberal arts, Humanities division, as it was traditionally understood, or as Hanson meant by using the term.

Steiner, however–I’m still on the book Tolstoy or Dostoyevski–is in fact teaching the liberal arts, or maybe practicing them. 

This consists, at this point in this book, of looking at Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina as part of the tradition of the novel as an art form, and as part of the tradition of the novel in Russian, and then tracing its connections with the history of idea in the West in general and in Russia in particular.  Then you’d take the book apart scene by scene, character by character, and see how it worked.

If you read Anna Karenina in a college classroom today, this is not how you would read it.  It is not how you would read it even if you got lucky enough to have it assigned as part of a course in “19th Century Russian Literature in Translation.” 

It’s much  more likely that, if you were assigned it at all, it would be in a course called something like  “Women and Sexuality in Literature,” and then you’d really be in a mess.

Let me backtrack yet again, this time very far. I remember reading Anna Karenina.  I remember picking up the book for the very first time, taking it out of the very bottom shelf of the upstairs “classic fiction” reading room in my local public library.   I couldn’t have been any more than twelve years old at the time.  I was probably more like ten.

And here’s something else:  I hate Tolstoy.  I really hate him.   There is something about Tolstoy’s fiction that just repulses me.

I often say that I’ve never gotten past the first of the Napoleanic War scenes in War and Peace, and that’s why I’ve never finished it–and that’s true, up to a point.

The fact is that I would probably have bulled my way through the battle scenes by now if I wasn’t already put off the book because of an earlier scene, where the pregnant Princess Natasha is described as sitting at a ball looking ill and frightened because she’s anticipating all the pain she will have to experience in childbirth.

Ech.  I can’t quite capture the emotional tone of that scene, at least in the old Constance Garnett translation.

But it always appeared to me to be the author absolutely relishing the anticipation of that pain, as if Tolstoy wanted Natasha to hurt and took positive glee in the inevitability of it.

For many years, I thought my impression of this scene had something odd about it–that I was responding not to what was actually there but to some unresolved issue in myself.  Then I read “The Kreutzer Sonata,” and I can tell you that the man who wrote that would be fully capable of relishing the idea of a pregnant woman anticipating and then suffering severe pain in childbirth.   And it surprises me not at all that the real-life Tolstoy opposed the use of anesthesia in childbirth as not being “natural.”

So, I really feel repulsed by Tolstoy, but repulsed or not, I know that Anna Karenina is a powerful book.  I know it because, having read it that one time, I retain the names of the characters, most of the major scenes, and some of the minor ones, and even some of the descriptions.  

I remember more of Anna Karenina than I do of most books I’ve read more than once.   I remember more of it than I will ever remember of, say, Buddenbrooks.  Or even Bleak House, which I’ve read three or four times, and absolutely love.

For those of you who don’t know, Anna Karenina is the story of a woman–a comfortably situated, upper class woman with a husband and family–who falls in love with a handsome, utterly amoral rock star of a single man.  He seduces her, but she doesn’t have to try very hard.  They are found out, and in the way of society at the time, she is ostracized and he is let off with nothing but a few half-admiring sniggers.

It’s at this point that Anna realizes she’s made the worst kind of mistake. She has given everything to Vronsky on the assumption that he loved her as she loved him.  She expects him to run away with her when the scandal breaks, because nothing else matters but that they are together.

Vronsky, however, is not in love at all.  In fact, having had his fling, he’s in search of newer and fresher pastures. He cares not at all what happens to Anna, and he certainly has no intention of ripping up the pleasant routine of his life in society to live out his days in sin with Anna in some dreary resort town a couple of countries away.

Anna finds herself deserted by her husband, prevented from ever seeing her children again, with nowhere to go, no place to be willing to take her in, and looking forward to nothing better than to spend her life as a common prostitute.

So she throws herself under a train. 

There is nothing particularly original in this story.  By the time Tolstoy wrote his book, Flaubert had already produced Madame Bovary, and the similarities between the two novels are close enough so that there has always been speculation that Tolstoy took his inspiration from Flaubert. 

Of course, the differences are also significant, so there’s that.

If I tried to teach this book in a literature class today, what I would almost certainly get would be a lot of people telling me that the book was boring and not relevant, because we don’t feel that way about women committing adultery these days.  We don’t like it, but we don’t ostracize them to the point where they feel they have no other option but to commit suicide. 

If those same students took a modern literature course, they would hear that Anna Karenina represented Tolstoy’s deep seated misogyny, and that literature was one of the devices men used to “keep women down” and to “control women’s sexuality.”

Ditch the oppressive men, students would be told, and women could come in to the joyous expression of their sexuality.

Well, I’m not going to dispute Tolstoy’s misogyny.  That the man had a totally foul attitude to women can be figured out by any intelligent ten year old willing to read through the work.

But the actual message of Anna Karenina is almost absolutely the opposite of the one the modern academic English professor wants to make of it.  It is not that women’s sexuality is being repressed by men, but that sex–all sex–is inherently dangerous. 

“Safe sex” is, and always will be, an oxymoron.

Anna Karenina is the story of a woman so lost in passion that she can “think” only through it, it distorts her personality, her thought processes, her reason, her faith, everything.

And she has plenty of real-life counterparts, even today, when nobody would stop speaking to her–or most people wouldn’t–because she cheated on her husband.

Some of Anna’s present day counterparts do, indeed, commit suicide–and men do it as well as women.

But Anna’s real representatives in the modern world are the men and women who “do” things for love that ruin their lives in much more dramatic ways.

They show up on all those true crime documentary shows every day.  The woman in Florida so in love with her husband that she killed his ex-wife for him, only to have him throw her under the train (claiming it was all her idea) when they got caught.  Or the woman prison guard who fell so in love with an inmate that she engineered his escape and took down at least one other guard to make sure she got away.  Or the man whose online “affair” turned into a real affair and whose lover convinced him that her husband was beating her–so our online Romeo murdered the husband, only to be ditched in the aftermath as the lady had fun spending hubby’s life insurance payout.

Oh, and in that last case, the guy did in fact commit suicide when he got ditched.

I should really keep a file on the names and dates.  But you see what I mean.

Actually teaching Anna Karenina as literature might actually lead to students who think more deeply and logically about all kinds of thing, including “safe sex.”

But nobody teaches literature any more.

I’ve got to go. 

I’m glad I found the Steiner book, though, no matter how idiotic he gets about why artists feel alienated.

Written by janeh

December 19th, 2010 at 12:35 pm

Posted in Uncategorized


with 2 comments

So, what can I say?

I’m sleeping in.  I’m not on my home computer.  I don’t have to set the alarm clock for at least the next five weeks–well, except on Christmas morning–and so I find myself almost impossible to get started on the day.

I find it odd sometimes how much routine depends on geography–how much the regular schedule depends on being in the regular place. Maybe I’m about time the way my mother used to be about money.  My father could never trust her with cash when she left the country, because she could never convince herself that foreign money was actually “real” money.  She’d spend it as if she were on a Monopoly board.

At any rate, I’ve been reading my way through a mountain of Agatha Christie novels, which by now should be obvious to everybody.  Last night, I finished Sad Cypress–Christie had some of the worst title on the planet, really–and I didn’t want to go on directly to the next one.

I’m actually trying to think about them this time, which I don’t think I ever have before.  So I read one and then read something else to buffer it, then I read another.

What I found to read in the stacks of the TBR pile was George Steiner’s Tolstoy or Dostoyevski.  It’s the very first book he ever published, issued in 1959, and by odd coincidence has as its basic premise something I’ve thought true for years:  that Tolstoy and Dostoyevski represent the two main currents of thought (aesthetic, religious and political) of the period we call “modernity.”  If you are drawn to one, you will be at least faintly repulsed by the other.  There are Tolstoy people and Dostoyevski people.  Nobody is both.

In the opening chapters, however, Steiner goes back to a theme he would take up later in his essays:  the theme of the alienation of the artist in the modern world.

By “artist,” Steiner most definitely means not only novelists and poets, but also composers (of classical music), painters, and sculptors.  The impression I get is that he does not include filmmakers, never mind the people who make television programs or write and draw comic books.

But this is George Steiner, the man who wrote “Archives of Eden,” whose basic message was that high art could not be produced in a democratic society, and that monarchy, hierarchy and at least a little tyranny would be a price well worth paying to produce high art.

So it’s Steiner, and we’re not going to get from him any paeans to universal suffrage, or even universal literacy. 

What stopped me, though, was this:  at once point near the very beginning of this book, he explains the alienation of artists in the years after the French Revolution as being caused by the rise of the new industrial middle class. 

These are the people that we would call “upper class” in America today, the great founders and builders of industries, the Rockefellers, the Carnegies, the Bill Gateses.

I’ve heard that argument before, from other people in other places, and it’s always confused me.  

The people who  make that argument do not apply it to the rise of the upper middle class in other societies at other times–to the great merchant bankers in Republican Florence, for instance, like the Medicis. 

The Medicis made it up from being “nobodies,” and did so in one of the proto-democratic societies of Europe, and yet they are not castigated for their Philitinism or blamed for the death of art.

Steiner, however, goes on to explain why the rise of the industrial age killed high art and made the artists necessarily alienated from the world around him.  It is not because there was a new ruling sensibility in and of itself, or because this new ruling sensitivity was often made up of people who had not been to the manor born, but because this new ruling sensibility, although happy to snap up works of art like any other commodity, didn’t listen to the artists’ critique of their way of life.

Okay, here’s the thing.  I put that in italics for a reason. 

Steiner is not a stupid man, by a long shot.  And he is more highly literate than better than 99% of the people in the world, with a wide knowledge of several periods of Western history.

And yet the most obvious difference between the new industrialist-led societies and the eras of those same societies that came before, at least as it relates to artists of any sort, is–it fundamentally changed the way in which artists made their livings.

In the middle ages and the Renaissance, artists attached themself to great men, or great rulers, one on one, so to speak.  Michaelangelo’s audience was the Pope who hired him.  Leonardo’s was Catherine di Medici. 

There’s nothing in particular wrong with this.  It got us the Sistine Celing, The Last Supper, the David, and a good deal more.

What I’m pretty sure it didn’t get us, though, was critics of the ruling society that the ruling society took seriously and felt as a spur to personal or social change.

For one thing, rich patrons wanted what they wanted, and if they didn’t get it, they fired the artist and hired another one to paint over what he’d done.   Artists worked “freelance” the way magazine writers do today, and that meant that they worked to specification, not as outside independent critics of anything except their patrons’ enemies.

The  new industrial society meant that artists were free to criticize for the first time, and that they they were free to cobble together an audience from individuals of many different ideas and temperaments.  If their work didn’t suit those new industrialist masters, they could sell it to carpenters and plumbers, or to aesthetes, or to revolutionists, or to any of a number of other groups.

The interesting thing is that they apparently hated it.

Steiner starts from the assumption that all “real” (meaning high) art is anti-democratic in its very nature, so this doesn’t seem very strange to him.

It does seem very strange to me. 

Even given the fact–and it is a fact–that there are people out there who self-label themselves “artists,” or “writers,” or “composers” who do so only because it provide them with a handy rationale for the “alienation” they were already committed to displaying–

And even given the fact that there are a good number of self-labeled artists or writers or composers who are failing at what they do and need an excuse–

Even given those people, there are a fair number of actual artists and writers and composers who take this tack, and it’s hard for me to understand why.

I don’t understand what they think the alternative would be to what we got now.  This is the freest and most open situation artists have ever been in in the history of the world, if they’ve lived in societies at all. 

For one thing, there was never a time before this one when anybody took artists seriously at all.   If you think it was better in Classical Athens, you ought to ask Aeschylus.

I find it really astonishing that somebody like Steiner, who really ought to know better–hell, who almost certainly does know better–could say a thing like this.

It represents a sentimentalization (is that a word?) of history that would have sounded idiotic coming from a college freshman at a fourth-tier university.

And even then it would have had the virtue of being explicable.

Written by janeh

December 18th, 2010 at 3:07 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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