Jul 26 2017

Works of Art versus the Art of Hard Work: Some Recent (& Not So Recent) Examples

typewriter

I don’t know where the cliché “Are you working hard or hardly working?” originates from, but it recently came to mind as I was reading Frank Goodwyn’s Lone Star Land: Twentieth-Century Texas in Perspective (1955) where a few passages made me huff:

As in the case of older Texans, their faith was bolstered by a strong equalitarian outlook. They scorned all aspirations to identify themselves with the self-styled elite by cultivating a fondness for deliberately complex musical, artistic, and literary patterns. Their basic philosophy prevails to this day, coloring the political and cultural life of the state. Their blanket endorsement of plain labor and their suspicion of all exclusively intellectual activities are well depicted in the answer that one West Texan gave when I asked him whether his town had produced any successful artists, writers, actors, or musicians. “No, sir,” he said. “None ever had time for such things. All have tried to work and make an honest living.” [1]

I suppose all work and no play means West Texas has no “complex” music, at least it didn’t in 1955. Perhaps it’s why I (being born in West Texas) never learned how to properly read (and therefore never bother to attempt to write) poetry. Continuing with Goodwyn:

Most Texas versifiers are still too busy being poets to write good poetry. Anxious to excel in the literary world’s critical eyes, they adopt the classic poet’s manner without capturing his fire. They follow his metrical rules without fully feeling their powers shying from clichés and baying the moon in accepted bardian style. They think they have to speak in terms of Greek mythology and cosmic dreams, treating the seasons as if they were lovelorn spirits and the heavenly bodies as if they were rational creatures. The task of expressing these trite ideas without using the trite words which have traditionally conveyed them is too much for the average Texas poetaster, as it would be for anyone else. He hence emerges with little more than a few lame lines in slender books printed at his own expense. [2]

As Mark Athitakis has recently pointed out in The New Midwest: a Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and Rust Belt (2016) one of the reasons Laura Ingalls Wilder focused on hard work, particularly in her first work Little House in the Big Woods (1932), is because, when one is living in a frontier environment as she did in her childhood, one quickly appreciates hard work’s relationship to survival. Wilder’s emphasis on the relationship of hard work and survival is part of what made it a hit with Depression-era readers when the book was first published. [3]

Athitakis then goes on to show that some contemporary writers of the Midwest have been much more hesitant in their enthusiasm for portraying hard work, even when portraying hard work as it relates to the act of writing, as in Athitakis’s example of Lionel Shriver’s novel Big Brother (2013), which I have yet to read. [4]

Now when it comes to the concept of hard work and contemporary nonfiction writers of the Midwest, J. D. Vance has recently observed in Hillbilly Elegy: a Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (2016):

People talk about hard work all the time in places like Middletown. You can walk through a town where 30 percent of the young men work fewer than twenty hours a week and find not a single person aware of his own laziness. During the 2012 election cycle, the Public Religion Institute, a left-leaning think tank, published a report on working-class whites. It found, among other things, that working-class whites worked more hours than college-educated whites. But the idea that the average working-class white works more hours is demonstrably false. The Public Religion Institute based its results on surveys—essentially, they called around and asked people what they thought. The only thing that report proves is that many folks talk about working more than they actually work[5]

The concept of hard work (and sometimes the mere appearance of hard work) was very much accompanied with that of survival for most non-whites in the early and mid-twentieth century South. As Isabel Wilkerson shows in The Warmth of Other Suns: the Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (2010) with the example of Robert Joe “Pershing” Foster:

The friend showed him what to do, and Pershing worked beside him. He looked up and saw the foreman watching him. Pershing pretended not to see him, worked even harder. The foreman left, and, when he came back, Pershing was still at work. At the end of the day, the foreman hired him. Pershing finished out the summer stacking staves, not minding the hard work and not finding it demeaning. “Sometimes,” he said, “You have to stoop to conquer.” [6]

For Pershing, survival eventually meant leaving the South. But others were determined to stay (and they did), like the parents of actor Wendell Pierce as he, a native to New Orleans, writes in The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, a Play, and the City that would not be Broken (2015):

It’s hard for people today to understand it, but for black folk back then, a strong will like Mamo’s and Papo’s, joined to a rock-hard sense of discipline, was a tool of survival. [7]

With regard to hard work and Southern whites, consider the nonfiction writer Rod Dreher and his family situation. Even though his father Ray Dreher graduated from LSU, “he was a man who had no business confined to a desk. It wasn’t in his nature,”[8] because “Paw had not wanted to go to college; he thought he belonged at trade school, where he could improve his mechanical skills, which were his passion.”[9] In contrast, Ray describes his son Rod as a child who “had your head in books all the time,” unlike Ray and Rod’s sister Ruthie who “loved nature, and being outside.” [10] Later on when Rod and Ruthie attend LSU:

Ruthie thought I was getting away with something, and not only because I managed to ace tests even though I had stayed out late drinking beer and barely studied…. [11]

We were both straight-A students, but Ruthie earned her grades through hard work and grit; academics came much more easily for me. [12]

Ruthie and Ray revered hard work in a way Rod (at the time) did not; they even defined the concept differently than he did, where in a sense, physical accomplishments were valued more than mental feats. At times, for Rod, even something as physical as preparing a dinner for his family ended in resentment, because, frankly, concocting a hoity-toity bouillabaisse just ain’t the same as stewing plain ole gumbo. [13] Rod describes his father’s worldview:

To him, preferring the world of ideas to the natural world was no mere aberration on my part. It was personal, and constituted a failure to love. If I loved as I ought to love, I would desire the things he desired. [14]

If that wasn’t enough his sister and her husband felt similar to their beloved patriarch:

Hannah [Rod’s niece] said she and her sisters had grown up with Ruthie and Daddy disparaging me as a “user”––my father’s word for the most contemptible sort of person, one who gets things done craftily, usually by taking advantage of others. [15]

Rod’s hard work as a writer was never fully accepted by his family.

As I attempt to bring these thoughts to closure, let me contrast these contemporary American concepts of hard work, and their relation to survival, and their relationship to creative output (particularly writing) to the life and work of James Joyce––an Irishman who worked hard on his writing—some might say too hard, at least some of the time, because it is hard work to learn to read him properly, no matter what they say in West Texas.

As his biographer Richard Ellmann acutely observed:

We are still learning to be James Joyce’s contemporaries, to understand our interpreter….[16]

He does not wish to conquer us, but have us conquer him. There are, in other words, no invitations, but the door is ajar.[17]

At one point Joyce confessed:

“My literary work during the last eleven years has produced nothing. On the contrary my second book Dubliners cost me a considerable sum of money owing to the eight years of litigation which preceded its publication.” [18]

NOTES

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[1] Goodwyn, Frank. Lone Star Land: Twentieth-Century Texas in Perspective. NY: Knopf. 1955. p. 239.

[2] Goodwyn 339.

[3] Athitakis, Mark. The New Midwest: a Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and Rust Belt. Cleveland, OH: Belt Publishing. 2016. pp. 37–39.

[4] Athitakis 39–43.

[5] Vance, J. D. Hillbilly Elegy: a Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. NY: HarperCollins. 2016. p. 57.

[6] Wilkerson, Isabel. The Warmth of Other Suns: the Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. NY: Random House/Vintage Books. 2010. p. 131.

[7] Pierce, Wendell. The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, a Play, and the City that would not be Broken. NY: Riverhead Books. 2015. p. 21.

[8] Dreher, Rod. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life. NY: Grand Central Publishing. 2013. pp. 3–4.

[9] Dreher Little Way of Ruthie Leming 63.

[10] Dreher Little Way of Ruthie Leming 9.

[11] Dreher Little Way of Ruthie Leming 35.

[12] Dreher, How Dante Can Save Your Life: the Life-Changing Wisdom of Historys Greatest Poem. NY: Regan Arts. 2015. p. 8.

[13] Dreher Little Way of Ruthie Leming 78–79; How Dante 19–20.

[14] Dreher How Dante 10.

[15] Dreher How Dante 27.

[16] Ellmann, Richard. James Joyce. Oxford UP. 1959. p. 1.

[17] Ellmann, James Joyce 4.

[18] Ellmann, James Joyce 404.


Jul 25 2017

How Much was a Plum Worth in the Middle Ages? Reading Richard Rolle

Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin

So a while back I was reading The Continuity of English Prose from Alfred to More and his School (1932) by Raymond Wilson Chambers (1874–1942), a friend of Tolkien’s, and came across this intriguing passage concerning someone I’d never hear of before, the medieval mystic Richard Rolle (1290/1300–1349):

Rolle’s date, his style and his popularity give him a supreme place in the history of English prose. In English or in Latin he was, during the latter half of the Fourteenth Century and the whole of the Fifteenth, probably the most widely read in England of all English writers. Investigation of English wills and of documents bearing on the ownership of books seems to show a dozen owners of manuscripts of Rolle for one or two of the Canterbury Tales. Such devotional books were likely to be worn to bits, and not to come down to posterity at all: yet Miss Allen has examined between four and five hundred of them, in Latin or in English, scattered through the libraries of Europe and America. [1]

And later I learned from an article by Margaret Deanesly (1885–1977):

Among English books, those of Richard Rolle seem to have been most frequent—partly because his glossed English psalter was the only biblical book which the laity might use without license.[2]

So in light of the life-long quest to understand the Middle Ages I undertook several years ago, I recently decided to read some Richard Rolle. Hence I found Richard Rolle: Prose and Verse (1988) edited by S. J. Ogilvie-Thomson for the Early English Text Society.

I must say I found very little “mysticism” in Rolle. His religion seems pretty plain, ordinary, and orthodox, even when compared to a non-radical like Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758),[3] but maybe that’s what made Rolle so popular.

Now it’s been a while since I dove into Middle English, and it took some slow adjusting (is his surname pronounced like rôle, or does it rhyme with Raleigh?), but I found a few gems by Rolle such as:

þe fyre of his loue lyght oure hert, and þe swetnesse of his grace be our comfort and our solace in wel and in woo. [4]

[the fire of His love light our hearts, and the sweetness of His grace be our comfort and our solace in well and in woe.]

Elsewhere Rolle writes that “loue is hard as helle.” [5]

But I was especially struck by his strange comparison of apples to castles:

Bot sum men þat loueth nat wisely, like to children þat loueth more an appille þan a castelle. So doth many; þay gvf þe ioy of heuyn for a litel delite of har fleisshe, þat is noght worth a ploumbe. [6]

[But some men that loveth not wisely, like to children that loveth more an apple than a castle. So doth many; they give the joy of heaven for a little delight of her flesh, that is not worth a plum.]

Just how old is the metaphor and phrase “not worth a plum?” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, both “plum” and “worth” are very old words, even within Old English. Google Book’s Ngram viewer finds the phrase extremely rare before 1800, [7] peaking at about 1837 and slowly decreasing since then.

And are (or were) plumbs worth less than apples? Were they worth less because they bruise more easily?

Plums and pennies #books

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NOTES

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[1] Chambers, R. W. The Continuity of English Prose from Alfred to More and his School. An extract from the introduction to Nicholas Harpsfield’s Life of Thomas More edited by E. V. Hitchcock and R. W. Chambers. EETS: Oxford UP. 1932. 1957. p. ci.

[2] Deanesly, Margaret. “Vernacular Books in England in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries.” Modern Language Review. Vol. 15. No. 4. (October 1920.) 349–58 at 352.

[3] Rolle doesn’t dig too deep into epistemology and ontology as Edwards occasionally does:

BEING. It seems strange sometimes to me, that there should be Being from all Eternity; and I am ready to say, What need was there than anything should be? I should then ask myself, Whether it seems strange that there should be either Something, or Nothing? If so, it is not strange that there BE; for that necessity of there being Something, or Nothing, implies it. (Jonathan Edwards: Basic Writings. Edited by Ola Elizabeth Winslow. NY: Signet Classic. 1966. pp. 45–46)

[4] Rolle, Richard. Richard Rolle: Prose and Verse. Edited by S. J. Ogilvie-Thomson. Oxford UP. EETS. No. 293. 1988. “The Form of Living” 5.

[5] Rolle, “Lyrics” i, 43.

[6] Rolle, “The Form of Living” 22.

[7] Under its entry for “nose” the Oxford English Dictionary quotes from Frances Burney’s (1752–1840) novel Ceclilia, or, Memoirs of an Heiress (1782): “Bad way too,” cried Briggs, “never get on with it, never see beyond your nose; won’t be worth a plum while your head wags!” (V, ix, 67).


Jul 21 2017

I’d Rather Have Role Models Than Leaders

portico in Bologna, Italia

At the moment our democracy is in disarray, at least according to the Apocalypse of Saint Snowden. As recent writers have shown, what once constituted the legalities of Leviathan has now mutated into the bureaucracies of Behemoth (a.k.a. Big Brother’s Deep State), a beast set to steal all sorts of liberties from citizens:

Modern democracy does not, on its own, encourage a political life and therefore does not encourage people to think of themselves as citizens…. The well-functioning administration (local, state, and federal) liberates them [its citizen-clients] from mutual dependence and thereby robs them of township freedom….[1]

The neighborhood will come; for here, residents are treated as fellow citizens by leaders they know well, rather than as clients by professionals who drop into the community from nine to five….[2]

Every time we blame government for our public problems without contemplating our own role in their solution—from public safety to public works—we view ourselves as “customers rather than citizens….[3]

The mind of Technological Man cannot resist his heart’s desires, because he has been trained by his culture not to question them. Technological Man comes to believe that the limits on what he can do to nature lie primarily in his capacity to subdue it to his will. The Christian must rebel against this. [4]

We are not hermits who happened to have bumped into each other amid our individual isolations. No, we remain a community, and a community must embrace some minimum dependency upon a guide.[5] Yes, much as I hate to admit it, leadership remains a “necessary evil” for human society. Winning teams don’t coach themselves. Yet I’m not infatuated with leadership per se. I’m not interested in being a dog who wants only to lick the palm of its master. There are some who seek to lead, and there are some who need to always be in need––a need usually satisfied by following a leader. But neither role works for me.

Instead, I usually feel things like: I need to be led, but I don’t want to be led, and I believe such confused feelings come about by mistaking the term “leadership” for the term “role model.” For every leader may be a role model, though not every role model is a leader. Perhaps every leader is a potential role model but not vice versa.

There is a lack of dependency, or a sharp difference in degrees of dependency, between an individual’s (as well as a community’s) need for a role model and that individual’s (and that community’s) need for leadership.

When it comes to writers, I look for role models, contemporary ones like Rod Dreher and Alan Jacobs, as well as prior ones like Jonathan Swift and Mary Shelley.[6] But as a reader trying to become a writer, I don’t look for “leadership” from other writers. I don’t want to be collared or muzzled or leashed or (God forbid) crated by penmen and typewomen while they go on vacation.

I imagine my writerly role models reading my work, and such imagining seems to skirt into the cult of celebrity and its transcendental experience of being “star struck” when in the presence of one of these highly regarded role models. But that kind of seizure of nerves leads only to obsession, addiction, and idolatry. For obsession, addiction, and idolatry are structured around mistaking things as needful that aren’t actually necessary. To be in need is to expose and confess one’s dependency, and the concept of dependency returns us to the question of (and need for) leadership. ’Tis a vicious cycle.

Coaches like to tell the team: “never be satisfied.” But if we follow the coach’s lead and logic too closely, soon enough we will not be satisfied with the coach’s leadership. In order for her to remain the leader, we must not follow what she says too literally, too absolutely. In other words, we must not let a leader lead us too far, that is, if we desire to attain the things we are being led toward.

But such a path of independent thinking has its own obstacles. Once we have pushed the leadership of the coach aside, and approach the void of choice ourselves, there nonetheless remains an apparent need not to trust ourselves too much––at least if we wish to remain consistent. Because if we don’t trust the leadership of others, why should we bother trusting any leadership from ourselves? None are without sin, all are fallible, and Acton’s dictum remains ever-true.[7]

Even stranger is the behavioral pattern where, once the game has ended, a coach comes quite close to disavowing her leadership. Once the results are in, a coach never says to the team: “I lost the game” or “I won the game,” but something like: “we lost” or “we won” or, sometimes, “you lost.” When coaches reflect on their results, they detach themselves from their team’s dependency on the very leadership those coaches provide.

As Boethius proclaimed from his prison: “A free mind cannot be commanded.”[8] Who here is interested in propagating “a rhetoric of pure authority?” [9] Not me. Freedom in shackles is what Southern slaveowners told their slaves they had. As sociologist George Fitzhugh (1806–1881) wrote in November 1857:

It is the duty of society to protect all its members, and it can only do so by subjecting each to that degree of government constraint or slavery, which will best advance the good of each and of the whole…. To protect the weak, we must first enslave them.[10]

So I am understandably wary when Rod Dreher stresses a contemporary need for leadership, which might mean actively seeking a leader (perhaps as the Hebrews did for King Saul):

During Benedict’s three years in the cave, a monk named Romanus, from a nearby monastery, brought him food. By the time Benedict emerged from the cave, he had a reputation for sanctity and was invited by a monastic community to be their abbot. Eventually Benedict founded twelve monasteries of his own in the region. His twin sister, Scholastica, followed in his footsteps, beginning her own community of nuns. To guide the monks and nuns in the living simple, orderly lives consecrated to Christ, Benedict wrote a slim book, now known as the Rule of Saint Benedict…. [11]

As we await a new Saint Benedict to appear in our quite different time and place and teach us how to reweave the tapestry of our Christian lives…. [12] not for the second coming of Ronald Reagan or for a would-be political savior, but for a new—and quite different—Saint Benedict…. [13]

If we are the abbot and abbess of our domestic monastery, we will see to it that our family’s life is structured in such a way as to make the mission of knowing and serving God clear to all its members. That means maintaining regular times of family prayer. That means regular readings of Scripture and stories from the lives of saints—Christian heroes and heroines from ages past. “Christian kids need Christian heroes,” says Marco Sermarini, a lay Catholic community leader in Italy. “They need to know that following Jesus radically is not an impossible dream.” [14]

Clearly Sermarini is a “community leader” stressing the need for role models, but concerning Dreher’s other comments I’m not so sure such a distinction is made––particularly the way he pairs a secular politician with a saintly monk—it sounds like the seeking of leadership by those who need to be in need of leadership.

But perhaps Dreher is thinking more along the lines of role models instead of leaders. Take this passage:

The politics of the Benedict Option assume that the disorder in American public life derives from disorder within the American soul. Benedict Option politics start with the proposition that the most important political work of our time is the restoration of inner order, harmonizing with the will of God—the same telos as life in the monastic community. Everything else follows naturally from that. [15]

That doesn’t sound like the Benedict Option is a proposal for its followers to start looking for leaders, but rather a call to turn inward and let their eyes lead them toward some worthy role models. In this context, it is somewhat ironic to observe that Nietzsche too sought high quality role models for how to live, but he didn’t suggest they should lead us via the typical tactics of leaders (lies, threats, and coercion):

Thus another point of Nietzsche’s early philosophy is re-enforced: namely, the view of nature as purposive but inefficient…. [16]

The place Nietzsche would assign to natural selection deserves special mention. He grants that natural selection takes place, but he denies that it operates for “progress.” Mediocrity seems more apt to survive than “the single higher specimens”––“that which is more unusual, more powerful, more complicated.” Hence natural selection will not generate bigger and better philosophers, artists, or saints, but only bigger and better brutes…. [17]

Empirical facts do not seem to him to warrant the belief that history is a story of progress, that ever greater values are developed, and that whatever is later in the evolutionary scale is also eo ipso more valuable. “The goal of humanity cannot lie in the end but only in its highest specimens.” Perhaps there is no more basic statement of Nietzsche’s philosophy in all his writings than this sentence. Here is the most crucial point of his philosophy of history and theory of values—no less than the clue to his “aristocratic” ethics and his opposition to socialism and democracy.[18]

NOTES

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[1] McAllister, Ted V. “Making American Places: Civic Engagement Rightly Understood.” Why Place Matters. Edited by Wilfred M. McClay and McAllister. NY: New Atlantis Books. 2014. pp. 194, 199.

[2] Scruton, Roger. “A Plea for Beauty: a Manifesto for a New Urbanism.” Why Place Matters 168.

[3] Peterson, Pete. “Place as Pragmatic Policy.” Why Place Matters 214.

[4] Dreher, Rod. The Benedict Option: a Strategy for Christian in a Post-Christian Nation. NY: Sentinel. 2017. p. 234.

[5] Even when we don’t realize it, we depend on others. Yet to be dependent is to be limited, and to be limited is to be unfree. (I use “dependence” in Schleiermacher’s sense.) As the aristocrat Consul Buddenbrook warns his daughter before she decides to marry someone beneath her class, no human is isolated in his or her individuality:

I would like you to recall, however, something that I have impressed upon you often enough in conversation, and which the present occasion allows me to repeat in writing. For, although the words we speak are more vivid and immediate, the written word has the advantage of having been chosen with great care and is fixed in a form that its author has weighed and considered, so that it may be read again and again to cumulative effect. We are not born, my dear daughter, to pursue our own small personal happiness, for we are not separate, independent, self-subsisting individuals, but links in a chain; and it is inconceivable that we would be what we are without those who have preceded us and shown us the path that they themselves have scrupulously trod, looking neither to the left nor to the right, but, rather, following a venerable and trustworthy tradition. (Mann, Thomas. Buddenbrooks, 1922. Translated by John E. Woods. NY: Knopf. 1993. III, x, 130–31.)

[6] There are also things like counter-role models. I once worked for a veterinarian who put it this way: “You can always learn something from anybody, even if it’s what not to do.” To observe someone and learn what not to do would be an example of them serving as a counter-role model. MTV’s Jackass was a television show starring lots of counter-role models because they did lots of things their audience would not do, and were warned in a legal disclaimer not to.

[7] As Walter Jackson Bate put it:

How do we proceed? When we are actually confronted with specific answers, we soon complain of being suffocated or inhibited, of being denied the opportunity to contribute “creatively” and “freely” on our own; and we at once begin—usually with some success—to pick holes in what has been presented us. But as soon as we feel we have pushed all this aside, and at last stand free and ready to make our own contribution, the human heart shrinks at its new nakedness and its new gift of what Santayana calls “vacant liberty.” We start once again to crave specific direction, and turn reproachfully, notebook in hand, on those who are now exhorting [strongly urging] us—in the very spirit we had before demanded—to “go and do likewise….” (The Burden of the Past. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP. 1970. p. 56)

The channeling effort toward achievement, in other words, constitutes a certain limitation: to be one thing is, by definition, not to be another. It is limitation, at least, when compared with what Santayana calls ‘vacant liberty,’ even though this blank liberty to drift without purpose in the dark is meaningless until it is again channeled into specific aims and renewed efforts. The history of human achievement is strewn with compulsive by-products—and with by-products that become, if not more pronounced, at least more striking, in proportion to the degree of concentration on the end desired. Too often, of course, we find a tendency to interpret the achievement as either the flowering or else the compensation of the secondary traces that accompany it, putting the hoof-prints before the horse, and regarding them as a pre-determined path. We are never unwilling to ‘lessen our disparity.’ We all feel disturbing psychological quirks in ourselves; and it is not unpleasing to imagine that if we allowed them to be a little more pressing, the achievement we are interpreting could be our own. (The Achievement of Samuel Johnson. NY: Oxford UP. 1956. p. 155.)

[8] Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus. The Consolation of Philosophy 524 A.D. Translated by David R. Slavitt. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP. 2008. II, vi, prose, p. 50.

[9] Jacobs, Alan. “When Character No Longer Counts.” National Affairs. No. 32 (Spring 2017.)

[10] Fitzhugh, George. “Southern Thought (cont’d).” De Bows Review. November 1857. pp. 450, 454.

[11] Dreher 14–15.

[12] Dreher 47.

[13] Dreher 91.

[14] Dreher 125.

[15] Dreher 96.

[16] Kaufmann, Walter. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP. 1950. Revised Fourth Edition. 1974. p. 235.

[17] Kaufmann 174.

[18] Kaufmann 149.


Jul 17 2017

Working With Wilder: Reflections on Mark Athitakis and “The New Midwest”

Athens

It is evident after reading The New Midwest: a Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and Rust Belt (2017) that Mark Athitakis has read a lot more books on the Midwest than I think I’ll ever be able to get around to, so I am somewhat hesitant to comment or critique his book too much. But when it comes to the work of Laura Ingalls Wilder I think I can offer some constructive reflection linking both authors.

The Little House books are some of the earliest books I remember my mother reading to me and my siblings in the mid-1980s. So I found it a little strange to encounter Athitakis’ confession that he was “conditioned to think” of the books as “written for girls,” (p. 37).

Yes, the characters of Laura, Ma, Mary, Carrie and Nellie are all girls, but I never felt the books were “girly” or “sissy” or what have you. But on the other hand, I get what Athitakis is getting at. I wasn’t quoting passages from the books and the television show in the locker-room after football practice.

I’m pretty sure that, even in “the late 1970s and early 1980s,” when he was growing up, Mr. Athitakis doesn’t mean he was conformed to believe all fiction written by women was therefore written for women. I don’t think he was taught that in school, nor do I interpret him as saying that he did. But, what is an interesting question, is whether he (and I and others of our generation) grew up assuming that when fiction prior to the 21st century contains females as its principle characters, did (and do) we initially assume such fiction was written more for women than for men?

Upon some reflection, the question doesn’t pan out. Think about it. I’ve never heard of a male reader characterize Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865) as a “girly” book, nor have I ever heard of girls complaining that Rowling’s Harry Potter series were too “manly” to be read. My mother’s favorite book by Wilder is Farmer Boy (1933), which is a retelling of the boyhood of Wilder’s husband Almonzo Wilder. Perhaps gender is pretty arbitrary.

But what about when the author, particularly for a children’s book, is a woman and the principle character happens to be a girl? Are there examples in this context that have traditionally not been considered too feminine for male readers from the last 300 years?

On this issue I must confess I’ve never been impulsively tempted to read Little Women (1868) (or Little Men for that matter). Super-reader Andrew Lang once confessed in Adventures Among Books (1910) of his childhood love for Brönte’s Jane Eyre (p.10). And, if we accept the experts general agreement that fairy-tales were originally and principally told by women to children, then one can say Charles Dickens’ confession of his desire to marry Red Riding Hood counts as an answer in the affirmative to the proposed question above (see “A Christmas Tree” (1859)).

The Midwest: a dream by David Lynch #bookshelf #books #Literature #midwest #twinpeaks

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Athitakis’ comments (pp. 37-38) on the plotlessness of Wilder’s first book Little House in the Big Woods (1932) is an important observation. As Laura Wilder said later in life:

For years I had thought that the stories my father once told me should be passed on to other children. I felt they were much too good to be lost.

And so I wrote Little House in the Big Woods.

That book was a labor of love and is really a memorial to my father. A line drawing of an old tin type of father and mother is the first illustration.

“My Work.” A Little House Sampler. By Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane. Edited by William Anderson. Lincoln, NE. 1988. NY: Harper Collins. 1995.  176–77.

But one should compare and contrast the sixth book in the Little House series The Long Winter (1940), whose narrative is strongly plot-driven–yet also full of psychological stress and spiritual strength to endure a fierce series of blizzards in the winter of 1880-81, strangely not unlike Stephen King’s The Shining (1977), although it takes place not in the Midwest but in Colorado, and Michael Punke’s The Revenant (2002), a novel of the Northwest but one that starts out in Midwest Missouri.


Jul 14 2017

A Future Without Sports

writing is its own sport

Or, The Current Absence of Reference to Sports
When Debating the Future of Our Country

I recall:

But it is the frequent error of those men (otherwise very commendable for their labours) to make excursions beyond their talent and their office, by pretending to point out the beauties and the faults; which is no part of their trade, which they always fail in, which the world never expected from them, nor gave them any thanks for endeavouring at.

––Jonathan Swift (1667–1745)[1]

Nonetheless, I read (and reread) two books and one article:

These two books, both alike in dignity, in fair view of what this reader has seen, deserve the following analysis:

  • Dreher writes to his own generation and, it seems, his elders.
  • Coates writes to his own generation as well as to his son, and, it seems, his son’s generation.
  • Dreher is adamantly orthodox in his Christianity.
  • Coates is adamantly atheist.
  • Dreher believes the United States of the Future (and much of it Today) will not protect the body of Christ (i.e. the Church).
  • Coates believes the United States of the Future (and much of it Today) will not protect the bodies of its citizens who happen to be designated “black,” (i.e. their literal, physical bodies).

Because I overdosed on sports as a child, and remain in rehab as an adult, perhaps I have “a strange Effect of narrow principles and short views,”[2]–for after reading these two authors it occurred to me that their books contain very little about sports other than:

  • Dreher’s book does contain a hunting episode, told more elaborately in his previous book).
  • Coates’ book does contain one reference to an athlete, Jackie Robinson.

So one can naturally conclude:

  • In the mind of Coates, sports will not protect the physical bodies of black Americans from discrimination.
  • In the mind of Dreher, sports will not protect the body of Christ in America from discrimination.

When they see the world around them and render their particular points of view into words, sports speak neither to Dreher nor to Coates as either a cultural affirmation that the authors can participate in, or have their kids participate in, or merely to watch as entertainment. Sports are not a part of the cultural assessments of these books. They are not relevant to the points Coates and Dreher want to make.

“Fear and hope are the two greatest natural motives of all men’s actions.”

––Jonathan Swift[3]

NOTES

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[1] Swift, A Tale of a Tub. 1704. “An Apology For the Book.”

[2] Swift, Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World by Lemuel Gulliver. 1726. II, vii.

[3] Swift, “The Testimony of Conscience [a Sermon].” 1714.


Jul 11 2017

Reading About Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option (Part IV)

Texas wildflowers

I’ve been reading, and wondering for example, about the question of language–particularly the question of the language of community. I’m thinking: if you don’t speak the language of the community, you are in fact, not a part of the community, no matter who or what that community is. As Rod Dreher writes in in The Benedict Option:

Americans cannot stand to contemplate defeat or to accept limits of any kind. But American Christians are going to have to come to terms with the brute fact that we live in a culture, one in which our beliefs make increasingly little sense. We speak a language that the world more and more either cannot hear or finds offensive to its ears…. [1]

The Benedictine example is a sign of hope but also a warning: no matter what a Christian’s circumstances, he cannot live faithfully if God is only a part of his life, bracketed away from the rest. In the end, either Christ is at the center of our lives, or the Self and all its idolatries are. There is no middle ground. [2]

With His help, we can piece together the fragment of our lives and order them around Him, but it will not be easy, and we can’t do it alone. To strive for anything less, though, is to live out the saying of the French Catholic writer Léon Bloy: “The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.” [3]

(Sarcastically) I say Dreher makes it seem like everything is crystal clear to orthodox Christians 24/7––but I counter that it seems easy to imagine not having certainty about what your life is centered around and be content with what is “random” and “liquid.” But perhaps I am an outsider and unaccustomed to understanding Dreher’s language. Compare Augustine:

Whenever we express anything in words, our hearer either does not know whether it is true, or he knows it is untrue, or he knows it is true. In the first of these three, it is a matter of belief or opinion or doubt; in the second, of opposition and denial; in the third, of attesting to what is true. In none of these cases, therefore, does he learn. It follows, therefore, that one who does not grasp the reality after hearing our words, or who knows that what he heard is untrue, or who could have given the same answer, if asked, has learned nothing by any words of mine. [4]

Compare Robert Gates on A&M:

If you’re on the outside looking in, you can’t understand it. If you’re on the inside looking out, you can’t explain it. [5]

Compare Alan Jacobs on the idea of “code switching”:

What is required of serious religious believers in a pluralistic society is the ability to code-switch: never to forget or neglect their own native religious tongue, but also never to forget that they live in a society of people for whom that language is gibberish. To speak only in the language of pragmatism is to bring nothing distinctive to the table; to speak only a private language of revelation and self-proclaimed authority is to leave the table altogether. For their own good, but also for the common good, religious believers need to be always bilingually present. [6]

See also: “Rereading Ruthie Leming” and “Reading About Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option (Part III).” As well as Dreher’s “When is a Sandwich Not a Sandwich” responding to David Brooks’ “How We Are Ruining America,” for further conversation on the language of community.

NOTES

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[1] Dreher, The Benedict Option: a Strategy for Christian in a Post-Christian Nation 12.

[2] “There is no middle ground”––yet just a few paragraphs before, Dreher held:

Wall Street. Conservative Christians can and should continue working with liberals to combat sex trafficking, poverty, AIDS, and the like. (p. 84)

Isn’t the second quotation an example, in fact, of middle ground?

[3] Dreher, The Benedict Option: a Strategy for Christian in a Post-Christian Nation 75–76.

[4] Augustine Aurelius. De magistro. (The Teacher.) The Fathers of the Church – A New Translation. Vol. 59. Translated by Robert P. Russell. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press. 1968. XII, 40, p. 55.

[5] Gates, Robert. A Passion for Leadership: Lessons on Change and Reform from Fifty Years of Public Service. NY: Knopf. 2015. p. 17.

[6] Jacobs, Alan. “When Character No Longer Counts.” National Affairs. No. 32 (Spring 2017.)


Jul 5 2017

Reading About Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option (Part III)

Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin

Unlike his previous two books, which were coming of age, bildungsroman narratives, after reading Rod Dreher’s latest work The Benedict Option: a Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (2017) I find that it falls under that vast genre of books (both fiction and non) that try to apprehend the spirit of the times in which they are written, those books that try to explain the zeitgeist. I mean books like:

(Forgive me for giving only white male examples; these were the ones that spontaneously popped into my head; everyone from everywhere has written about the zeitgeist.)

These books try to understand and articulate the moments in which they were written. If they contain predictions about the future (and almost all of them do), those predictions are only modest side-effects stemming from the cause for which they are written. Prophets speak of the future, but these books speak of the present, though they find things to revere from the past.

Such [as] are greedy of fame [,] as think it not foolhardy to attempt the works of Bacon, of Shakespeare, of Newton must devote themselves to the diligent study of the Spirit of the age in which they live.

–Ralph Waldo Emerson[i]

See also “Reading About Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option (Part II).”

[i] Journals and miscellaneous notebooks. Vol. II: 1822–1826. Edited by William H. Gilman et al. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP. 1960–82. July 8, 1824, p. 255.


Jul 1 2017

Reading About Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option (Part II)

After a careful first reading of Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option (2017), I find its central thesis to be found on page 83:

The real question facing us is not whether to quit politics entirely, but how to exercise political power prudently, especially in an unstable political culture. When is it cowardly not to cooperate with secular politicians out of an exaggerated fear of impurity–and when is it corrupting to be complicit?

Or as Miss Anscombe once put it:

It is indeed one of the troubles about government, that it is difficult to specify the ‘things that are Caesar’s.’[1]

This is the same question that confronts Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons (1966). Its historical inaccuracies aside, it develops the question of whether the King or the Church would rule England.

It is the same question the butler Stephens refuses to face in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day (1989) with regard to whether his employer was a Nazi sympathizer and if Stephens “did his duty” by never questioning his employer’s requests.

And what is the answer to Dreher’s and Anscombe’s and Bolt’s and Ishiguro’s dilemma? I suggested last time that it might involve Emersonian compensation. But now C. S. Peirce is nagging me, and I’m afraid he re-articulates the whole problem when he says:

Unless we make ourselves hermits, we shall necessarily influence each other’s opinions; so that the problem becomes how to fix [stabilize] belief, not in the individual merely, but in the community.[2]

See also: “Reading About Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option (Part III).”

and:

Reading About Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option (Part I).”

NOTES

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[1] “On the Source of the Authority of the State.” From Ratio 20 (1), 1978. The Collected Philosophical Papers of G. E. M. Anscombe. Vol. III: Ethics, Religion and Politics. Blackwell: Oxford. 1981. p. 132.

[2] “The Fixation of Belief.” Popular Science Monthly. No. 12. (November, 1877.) 1-15.


Jun 24 2017

Deep Reading and Deep Book Collecting

Read about deep book collecting in “10 Famous Book Hoarders” by Emily Temple at LitHub, June 22, 2017.

Then read about deep reading in “What does it mean for a journalist today to be a Serious Reader?” by Danny Funt at Columbia Journalism Review, June 14, 2017.


Jun 24 2017

Non-Books, Counter-Books, and Not-Books

Sometimes book-lovers start imagining books beyond books. First, take Larry McMurtry:

I take it that a non-book is a publication in book form that need not and should not be read. Life is, after all, short, sweet, and uncertain—the last thing it should be wasted on is a non-book. The publishers who subsist on non-books recognize this truth and design their publications in a manner guaranteed to minimize such vagrant readability as they might have. Weak typefaces prevail, and a lavish use of well-printed pictures carry the entranced looker past whatever text there may be.[1]

This reminds me of a passage from Borges:

The books themselves are also odd. Works of fiction are based on a single plot, which runs through every imaginable permutation. Works of natural philosophy invariably include thesis and antithesis, the strict pro and con of a theory. A book which does not include its opposite, or “counter-book,” is considered incomplete.[2]

And finally from Albert Mobilio’s recent piece “The Bookness of Not-Books” in The Paris Review:

Our reaction to these artists’ books moves along the continuum between seeing and reading. Included are Barry Moser’s wood engravings for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, both of which could be said to fall into the more common category of illustrated books. These images serve to enhance the text, to make our reading experience more literal, more detailed, and perhaps more comprehensible. (Of course, many argue that such visual aids, like film adaptations, in fact encumber the imagination.) This sort of book—at least in its mass-market edition—is meant to be handled and read, its images checked against our own visualizations. When the art part of the book—the possessive in artists’ books is telling—becomes increasingly salient, the experience of the text can become subordinate to the experience of the visual and even end up almost incidental. (In The End of the World as Filmed by the Angel of Notre Dame, Blaise Cendrars’s words, when exploded in a variety of typefaces and colors, are hardly distinguishable from Fernand Léger’s colliding shapes, which appear throughout the collaborative volume.) These are books and pages intended to be seen but not necessarily read.[3]

NOTES

[1] Film Flam: Essays on Hollywood. NY: Simon & Schuster. 1987. p. 76.

[2] “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” Translated by Alastair Reid. Ficciones. 1941. NY: Grove Press. Evergreen Edition. 1963. pp. 28-29.

[3] “The Bookness of Not-Books.” The Paris Review. June 22, 2017.