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

wood

[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.


Jan 27 2016

GERMANS, JEWS, & SOUTHERNERS: Knowing Your Place & Knowing Your Purpose

bookbread Canterbury

In both The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (2013) and How Dante Can Save Your Life (2015) Rod Dreher writes about experiencing exile from his Louisianan hometown, an exile that had been imposed upon him. Yet, perhaps some of that exile was self-imposed, for Dreher is not a prophet:[1]

For the first time in all my life I was going home and [my sister] Ruthie would not be there. Ruthie, the anchor, the fastness, the tower and the ark that would carry our West Feliciana family into another generation. Long ago I accepted that I would never settle there, and I always felt ever more free to roam the world over, knowing that Ruthie would always be present on the ridge in Starhill…. There has never been a time in my life when I have not acutely felt that I was disappointing my father…. The cold war between my father and me.[2]

These feelings Dreher shares––“the cold war between my father and me”––compare well to an early conversation in Chaim Potok’s novel The Chosen (1967) where two high school boys discuss the relationship one of boys, Daniel, has with his father Reb Saunders, the chief tsaddik (or righteous man) in their Polish-Hasidic-American community:

“My father doesn’t write,” Danny said. “He reads a lot, but he never writes. He says that words distort what a person really feels in his heart. He doesn’t like to talk too much, either. Oh, he talks plenty when we’re studying Talmud together. But otherwise he doesn’t say much. He told me once he wishes everyone could talk in silence.”

“Talk in silence?”

“I don’t understand it, either,” Danny said, shrugging. “But that’s what he said.”

“Your father must be a quiet man.” [3]

Both Potok’s fiction and Dreher’s nonfiction use the conflict between family members—particularly the angst between fathers and sons––to illustrate a  cultural severance experienced between silence and space, a spiritual chasm between purpose and place larger than just their individual experiences. And the notion of speaking in silence reminds me of a dictum from Gershom Scholem: “teaching is transmitted in silence—not by silence”[4] as well as Oscar Wilde’s just observation:

Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.[5]

wood-h-small

This disjunction between an individual’s place to live and that individual’s purpose for living isn’t just a problem that emerged in the middle of the twentieth and early twenty-first century America. The conflict of family and place may not be anthropologically universal, but it can easily be found when kicking over stones and thumbing through books.

It can, for example, be found in late nineteenth-century Northern Germany, as in Thomas Mann’s novel Buddenbrooks: the Decline of a Family (1901) where the character of Toni Buddenbrook and her choice of an unsuitable fiancé––unsuitable in terms of the community and culture of Lübeck and its old family of the Buddenbrooks––leads to a letter containing a tender rebuke from her father the Consul:

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.[6]

The point of view of Consul Buddenbrook is of a successful mercantile capitalist and statesman, and no doubt his particular brand of nineteenth century German conservatism tolerates far less individuality expressed by cheerleaders of American conservatism in the twenty-first century. The Consul expresses a faith in tradition-for-tradition’s sake based on an even deeper faith in the totality of good intentions of his own ancestors, the sound examples of his fellow citizens of Lübeck, as well as the experiences of all of that community’s past ancestors.

While the example from Thomas Mann offers a reply from the father, Franz Kafka, in his Letter to My Father (1919) replies as a son. Kafka uses an image of two ladder-climbers to illustrate the non-relationship shared between his father Hermann (a middleclass merchant businessman of Prague) and himself:

It is as if one person [you my father] had to climb five low steps and another person [myself] only one step, but one that is, at least for him, as high as all the other five put together; the first person will not only manage the five, but hundreds and thousands more as well, he will have led a great and very strenuous life, but none of the steps he has climbed will have been of such importance to him as for the second person that one, firstly high step, that step which it is impossible for him to climb even by exerting all his strength, that step which he cannot get up on and which he naturally cannot get past either.[7]

Both Kafka as the nonfictionalized writing-son and Mann as the fictionalized writing-father (Buddenbrook) act as teachers trying to impart lessons to students where the student-reader plays counterpart to the teacher-writer. Herr Buddenbrook knows his place as Consul of Lübeck. Kafka knows his place in relation to his father––perhaps he also perceives his own position (or imposition) within his immediate Jewish community––and Kafka knows he is confined to a low altitude, stuck looking upward at an unreachable rung on a ladder that progresses ever onward.

wood-h-small

If you don’t know your place, you’re agnostic about your environment. But for some, like Wilfred M. McClay in his introductory essay for Why Place Matters (2015), the knowledge and awareness in the United States of our past problems of conceptualizing and altering Place aren’t relevant to modern times:

Many of us can still remember when the idea of “knowing your place” was used to promote racial segregation and the social and legal subordination of women. But very little of that is relevant anymore, and it would be a grave error to think that the problems of the past are the same as those today.[8]

As demonstrated by Dreher’s cold war, Potok’s talking in silence, Mann’s trustworthy tradition, and Kafka’s unreachable ladder, today’s problems, while certainly not the same, most definitely share a family resemblance to problems of yore.[9] For when it comes to things like the lingering aftereffects of redlining districts by race––particularly in my own community of Austin, Texas[10]––unlike McClay, I don’t see how even old ideas about “knowing your place” cannot be relevant. (And no, “relevant” isn’t a code word meaning “successful” or “worthy” or “meeting my approval.”)

“The past,” said Faulkner, “isn’t the past; it’s not even over.” For the individual today in Texas in 2016 both a knowledge and awareness of the place where one lives emerge as  inescapable tropes that might best be rendered: if we don’t know our place, then we certainly know our placelessness. Yes, Bard Willie, we are all “on the road again,” but this time (as in all times) we don’t know where we’re going:

 

wood-h-small

NOTES

[1] Mark 6:4: “But Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.”

[2] Dreher, Rod; The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: a Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life. NY: Grand Central Publishing. 2013. 176–77; How Dante Can Save Your Life: the LifeChanging Wisdom of Historys Greatest Poem. NY: Regan Arts. 2015. 7, 11.

[3] Potok, Chaim. The Chosen. NY: Simon and Schuster. 1967. Fawcett Crest Book reprint. June 1968. 72.

[4] Weidner, Daniel. “Reading Gershom Scholem.” The Jewish Quarterly Review. Vol. 96. No. 2. (Spring 2006.) 203–31 at 208–09.

[5] Wilde, Oscar. “The Critic as Artist: Parts I.” Intentions. London: Osgood, McIlvaine. 1891.

[6] Mann, Thomas. Buddenbrooks: the Decline of a Family. (Buddenbrooks: Verfall einer Familie.) Berlin: S. Fischer. 1901. Translation by John E. Woods. NY: Knopf. 1993. III, x, 130–31.

[7] Kafka, Franz. Letter to his Father. (Brief An Den Vater.) Translated by Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins. NY: Schocken. 1971. 99.

[8] McClay, Wilfred M. “Introduction: Why Place Matters.” Why Place Matters. Edited by McClay and Ted V. McAllister. NY: New Atlantis Books. 2014. 6.

[9] Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Translated by G.E.M. Anscombe. Oxford: Blackwells. 1953. I, 66, 67.

[10] See the recent series from the Austin Chronicle:

 

 

 

 


Apr 1 2014

Nabokov’s “Lolita” (a second reading)

bookbread Canterbury
wood-h-small
I read Lolita for the first time about five years ago and was overwhelmed by the style but thought it lacked substance in terms of plot and character. Upon a second reading I would concede the book has substance, and my initial sense of something lacking was really a reflection of my belief that the novel contains no likeable characters. I find nothing to like or sympathize in Humbert, Lolita, or Quilty.

Lolita’s name is Dolores—“pain” in Spanish––Lolita is a “pain” and painful for Humbert.

The book is setup as a confession: Humbert is definitely no St. Augustine, though he may have read some Rousseau. I have not read Rousseau’s Confessions (1782), but as a reader, I find the company of the literary children of James Joyce more tolerable than that of their father. In other words, the linguistic acrobatics of Nabokov’s Lolita, as well as Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962), work in ways Joyce never mastered. The Irish Oscar Wilde taught art-for-art’s-sake, and later Irish James Joyce believed in style-for-style’s-sake—but Nabokov and Burgess both know that the best formula is style-for-story’s-sake.

It’s quite a writer’s trick for Nabokov to make the narrator a professor of French poetry. Throughout my reading this trick made it difficult for me not to confuse Nabokov-the-author-poet for Humbert-the narrator-poet.

Early on Humbert confesses: “I knew I had fallen in love with Lolita forever; but I also knew she would not be forever Lolita,” (Part I, Ch. 15). This line might be compared to a reflection made by the character of Thomas Buddenbrook:

“I know that the external, visible, tangible tokens and symbols of happiness and success first appear only after things have in reality gone into decline already.” (Buddenbrooks, VII, vi, 378–79)

Later Humbert dreams of eventually impregnating Lolita (Part II, Ch. 3), so that he can have a second Lolita, somewhat like the character of Manfred in Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764), P. B. Shelley’s remark that incest is the most poetic of all circumstances, and sentiments of the villain Noah Cross at the climax of the film Chinatown (1974). Nabokov’s line “my impossible daughter” (Part I, Ch. 29) is brimming with multiple meanings and interpretations.

I remain ambivalent but more accepting of Lolita after this second reading, but Nabokov has thought about the idea of re-reading, as found in his lectures on literature:

“I use the word reader very loosely. Curiously enough, one cannot read a book:  one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.” (“Good Readers and Good Writers,” 3)

For Nabokov, a writer is a storyteller, a teacher, and an enchanter:

“There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three—storyteller, teacher, enchanter—but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer…. The three facets of the great writer—magic, story, lesson—are prone to blend in one impression of unified and unique radiance, since the magic of art may be present in the very bones of the story, in the very marrow of thought.” (“Good Readers and Good Writers,” 5–6)

Finally, here’s Nabokov on artists and morality:

“I never could admit that a writer’s job was to improve the morals of his country, and point out lofty ideals from the tremendous height of a soapbox, and administer first aid by dashing off second-rate books. The writer’s pulpit is dangerously close to the pulp romance, and what reviewers call a strong novel is generally a precarious heap of platitudes or a sand castle on a populated beach, and there are few things sadder than to see its muddy mat dissolve when the holiday makers are gone and the cold mousy waves are nibbling at the solitary sands.” (“The Art of Literature and Commonsense” 376)

 

NOTES

Mann, Thomas Buddenbrooks, Verfall einer Familie. Berlin: S. Fischer. 1901. Translation by John E. Woods published as Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family, 1993.

Nabokov, Lectures on Literature, New York, NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1982.