Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Spring, Not Exactly Sprung

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So here I sit, at the end of February–almost–feeling very aware of the fact that I have been neglecting the blog. 

I’ve got good reasons for that, of course–I’ve had a ton of actual writing to do, the term has started, the office at home is in a sunroom and gets REALLY cold when the temperature goes down to single digits, or worse.

The real problem, however, is that lately I’ve been feeling as if I don’t really have much to say.

Not having much to say is not the kind of thing that stops writers writing on a regular basis.  Most of us are willing to say stuff just because we want to go on saying stuff, whether it makes any sense or not.

Recently, though, I have been feeling as if not only do I have nothing to say, but that nobody else does, either.

I do that thing where I almost obsessively keep up with “current events” and end up thinking that I’ve heard it all before, that all the talking heads on all sides of every issue are doing nothing but repeating the same stuff over and over and over again. 

They not only don’t say anything new, they say what they’ve always said in almost perfect repetition from the other times they’ve said it. 

But it’s not just The Rachel Maddow Show turning into All Chris Christie All The Time, or the Fox News people dredging up Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky to having something to bash Hilary with. 

My largely apolitical students are engaged in the same kind of wheel spinning. 

This past week I gave them a short story to read called “The Birthmark,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne.  It’s an early example of what has to be science fiction, and one of Hawthorne’s many protests against the intellectual and social ideas imported into the early US by the Transcendentalists. 

If you ever want to see Hawthorne at his most sarcastic, I suggest his novel The Blithedale Romance, which takes apart the Ideal Communist Communities of the period as only someone who had actually lived in one for a while could do.

“The Birthmark” concerns another mania of the movement, the idea that we can somehow make people perfect. 

In this story there is a scientist, named Aylmer, who is married to a beautiful and docile young woman named Georgiana.  She is so beautiful, in fact, that she is the closest thing to physical perfection that has ever been seen in womankind–except for one thing.

There is a tiny birthmark, in the shape of a human had, on her cheek.

The more Aylmer looks at that birthmark, the crazier he gets.  It is an affront to his reason, and to his commitment to science, which he is convinced is capable of knowing all and controling all.

It is an affront to science and reason to allow such an imperfection to continue to exist when it can be remedied by the proper methods.  And Aylmer is convinced he is able to devise the proper methods.

Georgiana is not really happy with this, but she’s a perfect docile and obedient wife, and she allows it because her husband commands it.

Aylmer removes the birthmark–and as soon as he does, Georgiana dies.

Now, this is not a particularly subtle allegory.  Hawthorne is not a particularly subtle writer, or a particularly fluid one, either. I don’t tend to recommend him, because I think his prose style would drive most modern readers up the wall.

It’s not his prose style I’m concerned about here, however. 

My kids have a hard time reading anything, even straightforward nonfiction prose.  They have not been taught common literary devises like personification or metaphor.  Their vocabularies are very small and the range of their cultural contexts are nearly nonexistent.

So in order to try to bridge some of this stuff, I gave them a running start.

At the end of the class before the class this reading was due, I outlined the basics:  the theme is the perfectibility of man.  The issue is whether or not it is possible to build a society in which all the bad things–war, crime, disease, whatever–will be gone, whether the people who live in that society want that or not.

Your job is to figure out which side of this question the story comes down on, and to tell me how you know.

So we get into the class where they’re supposed to do this, and I ask them to write down: a) the themep; b) the message (that which side thing); and c) real world examples of the kind of thing Hawthorne is talking about.

Let’s pass over the usual overaching problem, which is that my students do not understand that the author isn’t the same thing as his characters. 

Part of my brain says that they can’t really be as clueless about this as they seem to be.  They all watch movies and television.  They’re used to story structure and actors who play villains in one movie and heroes in the next.

Let’s go to the quizzes they turned in, almost half of which told me that the theme of “The Birthmark” was that “nobody’s perfect.”

It’s bad enough that “nobody’s perfect” makes no sense as a theme for “The Birthmark.”  It’s even worse that I actually discussed the theme–gave them the answer–the class before.

The very worst thing is that “nobody’s perfect” is the kind of thing they say to each other, thinking they know what they mean, that actually has no meaning at all.

To the extent to which my students use this phrase in the conduct of their own lives, it’s an excuse–and excuse without actual content, so that they can’t be called on it.

“Nobody’s perfect” means “I don’t have to meet anybody’s standards, not even my own, because it’s all useless anyway.”

Except that it doesn’t actually mean that, either, because if you make them unpack it, they repudiate it. 

It’s just a thing people say, without thinking about it. 

And not thinking is the point.

My students have dozens, maybe even hundreds, of things like this wandering around in their heads–things they think they “know,” but that actually mean nothing at all.

And in that, they are exactly like the talking heads I watch on cable news channel opinion shows, and exactly like the “professionals” (educational and psychological and medical) who spew advice into the daily lives of children and adults.

It’s like we’re all on some kind of verbal loop, with words passing through us without ever stopping long enough to be identified. 

And in doing that, we’re not only not solving our problems or making them worse–although we’re surely doing both of those–but we are engaging in a collossal waste of time.

And I’m beginning to think it is also a deliberate waste of time.

Maybe what we’ve done is to make a farreaching bet–that by clinging to these things that mean nothing but that make us feel we’ve said or thought something meaningful, we can get to the death we pretend isn’t coming while never having to face the fact that we don’t understand anything.

That our lives are meaningless and futile because there is no meaning to be had, anywhere. 

Meaning doesn’t exist.  Hope isn’t just an illusion, but an absurdity.

Of course, this is the kind of thing religion is supposed to solve for people, but my guess is that it doesn’t, not in the contemporary US, not for most people.

People say they believe all kinds of things, but if you probe at those beliefs long enough, what you mostly find is even more mush, more phrases that meaning nothing but sound like they do, more truisms and platitudes and empty verbiage that nobody is ever going to examine if they can avoid it.

And, yes, that is true of people in the modern humanist/secular movement, too.

I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with this.

On one level, it’s very bad news indeed, because one of the things a society does–whether or not it rises to the level of a civilization–is to provide a framework and foundation for meaning. 

When a society can no longer do that, when most of its people get up in the morning and can’t see the point, or burrow into their emotions and fantasies so they don’t have to face not seeing the point–

Then that society is over, even if it goes about its business on the day to day mundane level just as it seemed to do before.

And, of course, eventually, something else shows up.  I don’t know if nature abhors a vacuum, but meaning certainly does.

I think we’re on the cusp of one of those “paradigm shifts” Thomas Kuhn was so enamored of.

I don’t know what comes next, although I’m pretty sure it will be neither a mass reconversion to Christianity nor what some people here call “The Movement,” that tissue of fashionable shibboleths about gender, race and class that pretends to be a moral code and is actually a resurgence of penitential monasticism in a new and not very improved form–scrupulosity raised to the tenth power, meant to keep us all focussed on our navels instead of on the questions nobody has the answers to.

There are a fair number of people who think that the Next Thing will be Islam, since Muslims at least actually believe what they believe, and nobody in the West really does any more.

I don’t have the answer to that, either.


Written by janeh

February 23rd, 2014 at 12:31 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Spring, Not Exactly Sprung'

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  1. Yes, of course? People who appear every night to a million viewers talking about political events are not analysts, but cheerleaders. Be fair to them. Most of them have families to support, anad the day Bill O’Reilly says “Obama hasn’t done such a bad job with foreign policy: he’s made mistakes, but it’s not clear that McCain or Romney would have done any better” is the day before O’Reilly goes on unemployment. If Chris Matthews ever stands up and says “it’s not the tax rate or the things we regulate, but the complexity of the tax code and the regulations which are the problems: it’s a corrupt system, and Obama works at making it more corrupt” Mr. Matthews will join him in unemployment.

    I don’t say nuance can’t be had. I say political television isn’t where to look for it.

    As for meaning and society, I don’t know either. I don’t know how many people in any era believed the meaning preachers, philosophers and politicians offered. I suspect but cannot prove that the numbers are down, and that makes for a comfortable era. To quote a bumper sticker tolerance is the virtue of a man with no convictions, and we’ve gotten pretty tolerant lately. But people with no convictions won’t work or fight when the situation calls for it either. Add to that a highly dysfunctional political system–a corrupt regulatory state–which the population despises, and you’ve got the societal equivalent of an old tree, rotted at the core: however impressive it looks from the outside, it won’t survive the next storm.

    As for what comes after, fanatics if they win fast–think of Bolsheviks or the Lord Protector. If the struggle goes on for a generation or more, politiques like Henry of Navarre or Augustus Caesar. But I refuse to bet on which fanatics. From some of the previous incidents they could be as obscure to us as Lyndon LaRouche and company. (How many Russians do you suppose had HEARD of a Bolshevik in 1910? And seven years before the Reign of Terror, there were no Jacobins to hear tell of.) And the politiques who might rule the West are probably still in school.

    Treat your students well. One of them might be Commisar of Pensions or Minister of Security one day.


    23 Feb 14 at 3:05 pm

  2. JD would like to say that Jane’s piece today makes many points that Mark Steyn has made in his book “After America”. Unfortunately, he cannot do that himself because for some reason he is unable to “log in” to Hildegarde. Could that be fixed, please?


    23 Feb 14 at 8:10 pm

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