Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Socrates' Religious Utilitarianism

(Yes, I always picture him as So-Crates Johnson.)

I'm finally almost done with The Republic, which is engrossing in a way that no other Platonic dialogue is and horrifying in a way none of them could ever hope to be. I will avoid talking about the book's implication for totalitarian regimes; if you're interested in that kind of thing, see everything ever written on The Republic. (I did notice all that stuff and took pages and pages of notes to that effect, but I don't have much to add to that conversation.) Instead, I'll do what I do: theology.

Theologians often describe Socrates as a forerunner to Christianity, and it's true in a way--theologians have co-opted his thought for millennia, clear back to St. Augustine and possibly further than that. (I am criminally unread in the patristics.) But was he? Socrates certainly appears to reject a good deal of Greek orthodoxy, which is why he was condemned as an atheist by the Athenian councils. He looks like a monotheist sometimes, as he generally refers to "God" or "god" rather than to "gods." In this, he reminds me of the Rig Veda, which asks, "In the beginning the Golden Embryo arose. Once he was born, he was the one lord of creation . . . Who is the god whom we should worship with the oblation?" (10.121.1). You can be a polytheist and believe in that unknowable but Almighty god, and that's what Socrates seems to believe in.

At least when he believes in anything. One of the reasons why his Ideal State (or State of Ideals) is disturbing is his willingness to lie to its citizens. He suggests the Rulers come up with a "magnificent myth" or a "noble lie" to foist upon people in order to orient them the right way. Desmond Lee, who translated and annotated the Penguin edition of the text, cautions us against viewing Socrates and Plato as noble liars:
Plato has been criticized for his Foundation Myth as if it were a calculated lie. That is partly because the phrase here translated "magnificent myth" has been conventionally mistranslated "noble lie"; and this has been used to support the charge that Plato countenances manipulation by falsehood. But . . . one of Plato's own criticisms of democracy was that its politicians constantly mislead it, governing it by propaganda rather than by reason. (118)
If I hadn't actually read the book, this might have convinced me. But I have, and even in Lee's translation, Socrates sounds like a propagandist; he suggests feeding the Republic
a fairy story like those the poets tell and have persuaded people to believe about the sort of thing that often happened "once upon a time," but never does now and is not likely to: indeed it would need a lot of persuasion to get people to believe it. (414c)
Here, a pseudo-religious myth is used solely to further the Republic. (A word on this myth: Socrates presents three classes of people--the Golden, the Silver, and the Bronze. The Golds are the Rulers of the Republic; the Silver, those who enforce the rulings; and the Bronze, the common people. Children were to be selected in school as one of the three classes and forced into that occupation by this Foundation Myth.) Plato must convince the citizens that they are locked into their station in life. How does this differ from the Indian caste system?

All through the book, Socrates shows interest in religion not because it's true but because it's necessarily to stabilize the State. For example, he wants to censor poets, particularly poets who have things to say on religion: "We must ask the poets to stop giving their present gloomy account of the after-life, which is both untrue and unsuitable to produce a fighting spirit, and make them speak more favorably of it" (386b-c). That "untrue" is almost an aside--he gives no reason why it's untrue but gives plenty of reason why it's unsuitable, and that's really what matters.

I don't see Socrates as any sort of religious believer. Religion in general and Socratic monotheism in particular exists in order to make life in the State easier, and in this sense he is a consummate humanist, bending faith to meet man's needs.

For this reason, he reminds me of the German nun in Don DeLillo's White Noise, who, when asked about her faith, says, "It's for others. Not for us . . . The others who spend their lives believing that we still believe. It is our task in the world to believe things no one else takes seriously. To abandon such beliefs completely, the human race would die" (318). The stability of the world (or of the State--Socrates shows zero concern for any non-Greek) is more important than the truth, and Plato is willing both to lie and to censor those who would undermine that stability for the sake of that truth. (I find myself wondering how he'd respond to the Hebrew prophets.)

With his religious utilitarianism in mind, it's a little surprising that Socrates has been so influential on Christian thought over the years. Then again--I get my theology through Sartre, so who am I to accuse anyone?

Sad Announcement

MP3 posting (including, of course, this week's scheduled Tuesday Mix) will cease for awhile, as my computer is dreadfully ill and I don't want to tax it. Other posts will continue.

Monday, April 28, 2008

I'm Too Young to Be Cynical

I've spent the last hour or so reading the posts over at Rate Your Students, a site set up as a counterpart to Rate My Professors, and it's left me feeling a little hollow.

I'm nearing the end of my first year as an instructor, having taught both sections of Freshman Comp. I don't feel like the angry and embittered folks at that blog. I've been lied to, sure, I've been second-guessed, sure, and I've been disrespected, sure. But I'm young--26 last month--and I believe that I have something to offer, that my class has something to offer, and that education itself has something to offer. And reading that site makes me afraid that I will lose that as the years wear on and that I will start seeing my students as entitled little jerks who want what they want and who will make my life a living hell if they don't get it.

Other than a few exceptions, I haven't gotten that yet. My students for the most part try, and for the most part they seem interested in the class, and when they tell me they've enjoyed it and learned a lot, I believe that they mean it and that they're not just blowing smoke so they'll get a better grade. But then I start to wonder if I'm a pushover--liking students means hating to give them bad grades, and maybe I go too far to help them sometimes. Nearly half of one of my sections is on the "A" track this semester; that's too many. If half of the class gets an "A," I'm too easy, right? I'm giving them out instead of making the students earn them.

Part of me is disgusted by the tenured professors on that site glorying in not taking an interest and assuming that everything out of their students' mouths is a lie, but part of me wonders if I'm just young and naive. I legitimately love my students (how cheesy does that sound?), and I'm interested in them as people, and I want them to do well in my class and in life. But is that some sort of intellectual justification for egotism or self-doubt? Could it be that I'm more interested in their liking me than in their learning the cold, hard facts about life?

Or maybe life's not as full of cold, hard facts as it seems. Maybe there are people we can trust, and maybe some of them are in positions of authority. I would not have made it through college or graduate school without professors who behaved as I behave now--and I know that Rate Your Students exists as a venting mechanism, but I don't ever want to be those people. I want to inspire and to care and to treat the students like they're important because I think they are.

I'm interested in other teachers' opinions on this.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Age of Reason

Question of the day: When did Western culture shift from privileging age to privileging youth? Socrates takes it as a given that "the elder must govern, and the younger be governed" (Republic 412c). But look at the discourse surrounding Barack Obama (and Kennedy before him): He's young; he's HOPE FOR AMERICA! (The most common criticism of him, of course, is that he's inexperienced, but that gets lost in the shuffle.) When did youth in and of itself become a positive?

I suspect it was during the Romantic era, with its elevation of childhood, or else during the 1960s, when age became a signifier of The Man. You can't trust anyone over thirty, after all.

This continued and expanded in the popular culture of the 1980s and '90s. Michael Medved (whom I usually can't stand) points out in Hollywood vs. America that films of the era--particularly children's movies--feature kids who are far more noble than their parents. Think about Disney's The Little Mermaid, in which Ariel is intelligent and open-minded, while King Triton is an unpleasant bigot who opposes interracial marriage. Family sitcoms of the era feature an idiot father and his brilliant kids, The Simpsons being the worst offender. (The only post-Cosby Show counterexample I can think of is King of the Hill. Hank is clearly the most level-headed and intelligent character, and his son needs a good deal of guidance.)

(When we discussed this earlier today, V. pointed out that most sitcoms are now vehicles for male comedians, who play up this boneheaded angle. But Cosby was a comedian, too, and he was never dumb on his show--he was silly, but he was a great father figure, the kind of father most of us would appreciate. I suspect part of that was that because it was a "black" sitcom that featured upper-class African-Americans, he felt he had to be an example.)

Asian cultures, we're told, esteem and revere the elderly. I wonder if this system is changing in Japan with the influx of American pop culture. The fact of the matter, though, is that age doesn't make you The Man and that authority is not necessarily a bad thing. I'd definitely rather be sixty than nineteen, which, as the Old 97's tell us, "is not the age of reason." No offense to the nineteen-year-olds reading this (and I know a good deal of intelligent and thoughtful nineteen-year-olds), but it's the age of confusion, the age of incompetence, or at least the age of inexperience. Plato was right: Let's let the aged lead us, and let's stop making youth something to hold onto forever.

Old 97's, "Nineteen"

Sunday, April 20, 2008

O Tinkerbell, What Have They Done Unto Thee?

A few years ago, when I bought the DVD of Disney's Peter Pan, I was a little surprised. I'd not seen the film since I was a kid (when, of course, I loved it, along with the rest of the animated canon), and apparently my personality has shifted quite a bit in the intervening years. Peter himself, for example, is wholly unlikeable--he's got no personality at all, save for a vague selfishness, and while every little boy wants to be him, no grown man ever should. (Likewise, I loved Holden Caulfield when I was sixteen, and now I just want to kill him.)

The only human character in the movie--by which I mean the only character who reacts to things more or less the way human beings would react--is that pin-up fairy, Tinkerbell. I recognize that Tinkerbell is problematic in terms of gender and sexuality; I get that she's a collection of stereotypes, from her sexy look to the way she examines her posterior, horrified by its size, in a mirror near the start of the film. But Tinkerbell rings emotionally true. She's in love with an idiot who doesn't appreciate her, who actually grabs her, holds her upside-down, and shakes her so that his new girlfriend can fly away with him. And when she's finally taken all she can stand, she gets so filled with rage that she actually attempts to murder Wendy. Tinkerbell is one tough broad.

Or she was. In an attempt to skew the horrible "Disney Princesses" line of merchandizing to an even younger crowd, the Mouse has just started its "Disney Fairies" line. Now, the Disney Princesses, as aberrant and horrifying as it is, at least makes sense. Little girls watch "Sleeping Beauty" and want to be Aurora. (Then they go to Disney World and get hair extensions and whore clothes and yell at their parents in line. Then my girlfriend almost kills them. It's a good system.) But Tinkerbell isn't the kind of role model I imagine most parents want for their little girls. She doesn't play nice, even if she proves herself capable of self-sacrifice at the end of the film. And besides that, she's really the only canonical Disney fairy--except for Flora, Fauna, and Meriwether, and they're not included in this line.

And so Disney has (a) completely changed Tink; and (b) given her an entire series of politically correct buddies, all of whom live in a magical place called "Pixie Hollow." (You can read more than you want to know about it at the official website.) The fairies are racially diverse but all have basically the same figure, of course, except for their teacher, an overweight matron named "Fairy Mary." I'd be a hypocrite for talking about the homogeneity among their body types because of my affection for the original Tinkerbell (whose figure is, after all, unchanged), and so instead I'm going to rant about the changes made to her character, the bowdlerization of Tinkerbell.

First of all: I don't think Tink would have friends. I see nothing in Peter Pan that suggests she plays well with anyone, and so it's pretty clear that her fairy buddies were created so that little Madison's parents will have to her buy fifteen backpacks instead of one. And oh, her friends are awful and have the types of names parents who give their children fauxhawks would like: Silvermist, Rosetta, Fawn, etc. In twenty years, are we going to have a rash of adult women named "Iridessa"? Count on it.

The fairies are, of course, precisely and cynically calculated to appeal to every type of little girl (except overweight ones). Fawn is the "rough and tumble tomboy." Silvermist is vaguely Asian and naively optimistic (at least she doesn't ride a dragon or something). There's even a fairy for little girls lost who haven't yet established a sense of self: Prilla, who has no idea what her talent is but loves the color pink.

Most of the other fairies get awesome occupations like animal-fairy or water-fairy. Do you know what Tinkerbell "loves" to do? She loves to repair pots and pans. Dirty pun aside, I'd love to know why come Peter Pan gets to never grow up and to bang mermaids and Indian maidens all day long while Tinker has to stay at home with a welding torch. And why such a domestic occupation? In the film, Tinkerbell wasn't particularly matronly--I get the feeling she only hung around with the idiot lost boys in the hopes that she could surprise Peter in the shower. Here, she's burdened with the responsibility of holding society together. No way the 1953 Tinkerbell would put up with that.

Tink's fact sheet claims that she's a social outcast, and interestingly, she doesn't appear in the lineup with the rest of the fairies but in her own circle off to the side. But in the excerpts from the book series provided on the website, she's friendly and helpful (two words that would never describe her in the film). She also talks.

Disney's mute characters are usually their most expressive ones. Think about Pluto, for example, who never says a word but runs the full gamut of emotions in his face--he's a much more dynamic and expressive character than Mickey Mouse, and he may even be more so than Donald Duck (always my favorite). Likewise, part of Tink's appeal in the film is that she doesn't have to speak the ridiculous dialogue the other characters get. She retains an aura of mystery, which only contributes to her being such a tough broad.

But she's not a tough broad anymore. She does people's repair work mostly because she's such a nice person (1953 Tinkerbell was not nice by any stretch of the imagination), and she's got a cadre of more interesting friends--outcast or no. In short, Tink's turned into a sororiety girl, a "perfect little flirt" who reinforces the status quo and doesn't seem to rock the boat much anymore. (She certainly isn't into murder these days.) I can't wait until my next trip to Disney World, when I will doubtless see eight-year-olds dressed in her outfit and will have to hold the vomit down.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Polished and Precise Like the Brains Behind the Gun Should Be

I'm reading Battle-Pieces, Melville's collection of Civil War poems right now. Melville is not typically known as a poet--if you've read any of his verse, it's likely only "Billy in the Darbies," the brief poem that concludes Billy Budd, Sailor. And there's a reason for that: He's mostly hamfisted, although he's got a few lines of great power. (My favorite so far is "Storms are formed behind the storm we feel." I'm not sure what to make of it, but it sticks in my brain.)

One thing Melville repeatedly suggests is that war is a young man's game, fought and apparently controlled entirely by youth while the older, wiser, and more experienced men stand beside helplessly:
Grief to every graybeard
When young Indians lead the war ("Apathy and Enthusiasm" II.21, 22).
And, more to the point:
Youth must its ignorant impulse lend--
Age finds place in the rear.
All wars are boyish, and are fought by boys ("The March Into Virginia" 4-6).
I'm no Civil War scholar, but wasn't the war started by old men? Hasn't this been the case for wars all throughout history? Old men start the wars and then step aside to let young men fight them. That's certainly the rhetoric around our current war.

And so I wonder if Melville's condemnation isn't misplaced. The young fight the wars, but then, they're forced to. Theirs is the enthusiasm--the old men have the apathy, although it is only personal apathy. They're more than willing to take a vested political or economical interest in the war and then send the young men off to die for that interest.

Czeslaw Milosz seems to be much closer to the point in his beautiful, heartbreaking "Child of Europe," written in the immediate aftermath of World War II:
The voice of passion is better than the voice of reason.
The passionless cannot change history. (5.7-8)
Milosz's sarcasm gets at the same idea as Melville but makes things clearer: It's not the young men's fault. It's the old men who behave as young men--the old men, who should know better but force themselves not to.

By the way, if anyone reading this knows more about the Civil War than I do and wants to correct my impressions, please do.

Monday, April 14, 2008

If No One's at Home Out There, Someone Else Has Got to Fill That Need

In a desperate attempt to get my students to think about heavy philosophical issues last semester, I assigned my Freshman Comp I class a brief excerpt from Walker Percy's The Thanatos Syndrome. In it, Bob Comeaux admits to Dr. Tom More that his organization has placed a chemical into the water supply at and around Angola Prison, and that
One: The admissions to Angola for violent crime from the treatment area have declined seventy-two percent since Blue Boy began . . . Two: The incidence of murder, knifings, and homosexual rape in Angola, which is of course in the treatment area, has--declined--to--zero . . . We're treating cortical neurones by a water-soluble additive, just as we treated dental enamel by fluoride in the water fifty years ago--without the permission or knowledge of the treated . . . The hypothesis is that at least a segment of the human neocortex and of consciousness itself is not only an aberration of evolution but is also the scourge and curse of life on this earth, the source of wars, insanities, perversions--in short, those very pathologies which are peculiar to Homo sapiens.
More feels instinctually that there's something evil and sinister in Comeaux's plan, and while he cannot articulate a logical argument against it, he does his best to stop Blue Boy from getting into the water supply of the rest of New Orleans.

This puts him a step ahead of my children, not one of whom had any objection to a plan like Comeaux's. All of them would be perfectly fine with adding such a chemical to prison water supplies (after all, prisoners are sub-human anyway), and only a few of them had vague reservations about it hitting the populace at large.

I was horrified, of course, and so I decided to try again. This semester, my kids read Don DeLillo's White Noise, a major plot point of which is the distribution of a drug called Dylar, which will ostensibily allow mankind to overcome its fear of death:
It's not just a powerful tranquilizer. The drug specifically interacts with neurotransmitters in the brain that are related to the fear of death. Every emotion or sensation has its own neurotransmitters. Mr. Gray found fear of death and then went to work on finding the chemicals that would induce the brain to make its own inhibitors.
This proposition would perhaps not be so sinister if DeLillo hadn't already cued us to think that there's something about being human that makes us fear death. He speaks much earlier in the novel of "the irony of human existence, that we are the highest form of life on earth and yet ineffably sad because we know what no other animal knows, that we must die." To remove our fear and knowledge of our mortality is to make us somehow less than human. To know you're going to die is to know you're alive and to realize that means something.

The students responded much more negatively to Dylar; only a few of them said they would take it, although they couldn't really explain why not. A bunch of them used the old chestnut that "awareness of death makes life more precious," but as the protagonist of White Noise says, How precious can thirty years of fear and anxiety be?

What interests me more is that, when I asked them what the difference was between Dylar and anti-anxiety-disorder medications, they said, "not a lot." I have students--perhaps not the majority, but a lot of them--who believe that it's wrong or weak or sinister to take mood-stabilizing drugs. I had to tiptoe gingerly around the issue to some extent; I felt strange outright asking if anyone took them. But a few students volunteered that information and talked openly about their experiences with Adderall and Prozac, the way they worked for them and the way they resented having to take them to be "normal."

In a way, I sympathize with the students who fear and distrust pharmopsychology. Over Christmas break, I read David Healy's Let Them Eat Prozac, a disturbing history of Selective Seratonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs). The pharmaceutical industry, according to Healy, pushed these drugs even when it might not have been such a great idea, and even today most patients with mild depression are unaware that Prozac can increase their risk of suicide (in addition to completely flattening them out or sending them into what's called a "mixed episode," a combination of mania and depression that is, as far as I know, the most dangerous psychiatric state there is).

And then there's the issue of social phobia disorder, a supposed "mental illness" that Christopher Lane alleges was invented wholesale by the pharmapsychology industry in order to push medication. Shyness--a condition that's more or less benign and that's existed throughout human history--became illness. Have trouble stating my opinion in my class? Take this pill. Or, as Bill Mallonee, ever insightful, puts it,
When a need is nonexistent, you've got to create desire
Eastern Europe is the most likely buyer
They've been dying for it, crying for it, ever since the Wall
For syringes, porn, designer drugs, orgasms, and shopping malls
That lyric sounds like something both Percy and DeLillo could get behind, this conflation of soft science with consumerism and sexual misethics.

Meanwhile, This article claims that scientists are nowhere near understanding how the human brain works and that it's irresponsible at best to toss medication at an organ we don't understand. Psychiatry is a soft science masquerading as a hard one.

I've got a personal stake in this debate. A year and a half ago, I was diagnosed with cyclothymia, a "low-level" form of bipolar disorder. (I hesitate to use the term "low-level" because it's just as dangerous as full-scale bipolar--I just shift poles more quickly.) The suicide rate for unmedicated bipolar patients is one in three. My psychiatrist told me I was doing well not to have killed myself--and I complicated it.

The treatment I was given was Lamictal, an anti-seizure medication that somehow treats bipolar disorder--particularly that type of it that features depression more heavily than mania. Lamictal is not really comparable to SSRIs--it has few side effects. But there's something disturbing to me about the fact that I have a mental illness that psychiatrists cannot explain and that I take a medication that they also cannot explain. Like my students, I resent having to buy and take medication to get along in the world. My therapist told me to think of it like a diabetic who has to take insulin--the party line is that "chemical imbalance" stuff--but no one can tell me what chemical I naturally lack and need to have made up. I have by necessity an almost religious devotion to Lamictal, a blind faith in the pharmapsychology industry.

And yet I've been set free. I don't have depressive or manic episodes anymore, and I can function well in day-to-day life. My faith is rewarded, at least until that point in time when my body grows adjusted to Lamictal and I have to take another crapshoot to find another medication to make myself functional.

I'm afraid these are questions without easy answers; it's not as simple as my students want it to be (or as the pharmapsychology industry wants it to be, for that matter). I feel that in terms of psychiatry, we're still in the Dark Ages, applying leeches and mercury until we find something that we can explain. Doctors, as Hippocrates and Foucault suggest, are the new priesthood, and the rest of us are lighting tapers and dropping coins in the collection plate.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Upcoming Series: Summer of Hamlet

So because V. and I are both incredible nerds, we're devoting our summer to reading various versions and adaptations of Hamlet. And because we're both incredible nerds, we're taking you along for the ride, posting every yawn-inspiring moment of it to this blog. Here's our schedule, with dates left off because we're not yet to that level of incredible nerditude:

- William Shakespeare, Hamlet. Naturellement.
- Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. A crazy absurdist comedy based on Hamlet's indistinguishable buddies. We're reading this one early on because the Shakespeare Tavern in Atlanta is putting it on May 9 through June 1, and we want to be able to read the play first.
- John Updike, Gertrude and Claudius. This whole project began as a way of forcing Shakespeare scholar V. to read Updike. I've not read this novel myself, but it's apparently a prequel to the play that leaves Hamlet mostly out of things. It'll be interesting to see how ostensible sexist Updike treats that dirty whore Gertrude.
- Heiner Müller, Hamletmachine. V. suggested this one, which I've never heard of. Müller condenses the play into eight inpenetrable postmodernist pages.
- Film: Hamlet. The classic and influential Olivier performance. I'm not wild about this idea, but we figured we needed to have a straight performance of the play.
- Film: Hamlet 2000. Yes, the Ethan Hawke version. Why Ethan Hawke and not Mel Gibson or Kenneth Branaugh? Because Ethan Hawke doesn't hate Jews, and he never cheated on Emma Thompson.
- Film: The Lion King. I love this movie, and it was my first exposure to the play. I was twelve when I first saw it. V. was eight, and even then, she thought it was a hacky ripoff of Shakespeare.

The semester ends in a few weeks, and I hope we'll get right on this series. In the meantime, if you have any suggestions as to texts or films to add to the mix, we'd love to hear them.

Updike and Emerson, Pt. 2

In my last post, I argued that (a) both Updike and Emerson tend to be victims of the P.C. Age in academia; and that (b) the former has a certain understanding of and affection for the latter. In this post, I will point out similarities to Emerson's thought in Updike's most famous and most well-read book, 1961's Rabbit, Run.

I've read Rabbit, Run more times than any other book, beginning my senior year of college, although I've never been assigned the novel in a class. I didn't assign it as my Freshman Comp II class's novel, either--my students did not by and large respond positively to "A&P" (a dagger through my heart!), and I didn't want to have to defend the graphic sex in the novel, even if the sex in Rabbit, Run pales in comparison to nearly every other Updike novel. I've written two class papers on the novel--one comparing Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom to Mr. Wheelock in Dorothy Parker's "Such a Pretty Little Picture" and one tracing the history of the criticism of the novel, from the early reviews that treated Rabbit as an existential hero to more recent criticism that treats him or his author as a terrible human being.

That's one of the major debates swimming around Rabbit, Run--are we supposed to admire or condemn Rabbit Angstrom? He abandons his wife and child, not so much to find a better life as because he's just bored. His decisions wreak havoc on his family; they destroy almost everything stable in the novel, but Rabbit doesn't seem to mind. And then when he decides to return to his wife, he wreaks his mistress' life, too. Is this just the price to pay for freedom? Or is Updike, the semi-orthodox Christian, giving us an object lesson of something to avoid?

I take the viewpoint that Updike condemns his most famous protagonist, however gently he does it. There's really nothing special about Harry; he works as a salesman in all four of the novels, and while he seems to have some talent for it, that speaks against rather than for his specialness. In Rabbit, Run, he is an emblem of the alienation of the lower-class male; with nothing to distinguish his pathetic life from the pathetic lives of those around him, he must convince himself he is special by clinging to basically four things: sex, food, gardening, and basketball. (I won't go into detail on most of these here.)

His reasoning for the flight he takes away from his wife sounds distinctly Emersonian. Emerson famously takes Socrates' command to "Know Thyself" and expands it to
Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. ("Self Reliance." Essays and Lectures. Library of America, 1983.) 260.
Updike suggests this passage in Rabbit, Run; Harry receives his flight recommendation from The Mickey Mouse Club, where an adult Mousketeer named Jimmie conflates "Know Thyself" with "Be Thyself":
Know Thyself, a wise old Greek once said. Know Thyself. Now what does this mean, boys and girls? It means, be what you are. Don't try to be Sally or Johnny or Fred next door; be yourself. God doesn't want a tree to be a waterfall, or a flower to be a stone. God gives to each one of us a special talent . . . And He gives to each of us the special talents to become these things, provided we work to develop them. We must work, boys and girls. So: Know Thyself. Learn to understand your talents, and then work to develop them. (Fawcett, 1996. 10).
Rabbit's spiritual advice, then, comes from Emerson by way of Walt Disney.

But Rabbit--never a great thinker--ignores the rest of Emerson's catalogue in formulating his non-plan for escape. In this way, he is a typical reader of Emerson, disgarding a 40-year career and focusing entirely on "Self-Reliance." Emerson's philosophy is not, after all, quite so simple as that essay makes it out to be. Whereas he claims there that he will follow his own impulses and that "if I am the Devil's child, I will live then from the Devil" (262), he elsewhere admonishes his readers to do the right thing, even if the right thing is not their natural impulse: "Let a man keep the law,--any law,--and his way will be strown with satisfactions" ("Prudence" 360). It seems that you can and should trust yourself only once you've committed yourself to the spiritual laws of the universe and to Emerson's famous Oversoul, that part of the Divine that fills all of us. Freedom, for Emerson as for Kierkegaard, is twinned with responsibility, because
A man cannot speak but he judges himself. With his will, or against his will, he draws his portrait to the eye of his companions by every word. Every opinion reacts on him who utters it. ("Compensation" 294)
I suggest that for Emerson, trusting oneself is ultimately the same thing as trusting society, providing that society consists of self-actualized individuals who are aware of their connection to one another through the Oversoul.

And so Harry Angstrom is not an emblem of Emersonian self-realization or even of self-trust. He trusts himself, but for all the wrong reasons; he trusts himself in the face of all evidence to the contrary. As another character tells him, "you worship nothing except your own worst instincts" (115). Even after he wrecks the lives of nearly everyone around him, he can't see that his compass is out of line, and the novel ends with him running off into the sunset yet again. This running strikes me as distinctly non-Emersonian in and of itself; it is the opposite of taking a bold stand on one's beliefs; it is pure cowardice.

Now, as I think that the New Yorker piece suggests that Updike was aware of the range of Emerson's material and was not interesting in pinning him down to the simplistic evaluation typical of lay readers, it cannot be a mistake that Harry's philosophy sounds like but is not Emerson's. When I first read the novel, I assumed it was a critique of Emerson, and maybe it is; maybe Updike didn't read the rest of Emerson's catalogue until he wrote that piece in 2003; or maybe it, like Pierre, it's a critique of a certain aspect of Emerson's philosophy. But since I love Updike and I'm beginning to love Emerson, I choose to believe that among other things, Rabbit, Run is a critique of misreadings of Emerson, an object lesson drawn from "Compensation" and "Prudence" rather than from "Self-Reliance."

Friday, April 11, 2008

Updike and Emerson, Pt. 1

I love John Updike. My 95-page chapter on the first two Rabbit Angstrom books was my favorite part of my master's thesis, even though it got cut because it was an "indefensible argument." (I can tell that story another time, if anyone is interested.) And I love his criticism; Updike seems like he reads for 18-20 hours per day, and his comments and evaluations are usually sharp and interesting.

So you can imagine my horror today when a visiting philosopher, Dr. Russell Goodman (who's a very nice, very approachable, and brilliant man), took a potshot at him during a lecture on Ralph Waldo Emerson and Pragmatism. He talked about common misconceptions and oversimplifications of Emerson's message; he's often treated as though his sole message were "follow your bliss d00d," a viewpoint which ignores almost every essay other than "Self-Reliance."

"The New Yorker, for example," he said in a voice dripping with irony, "had John Updike"--he pronounced that name with the sneer that I'm used to hearing from academics--"write a condescending piece on Emerson. And then, 25 years later, they couldn't find anyone new, so they had Updike write another one." Goodman suggested that Updike subscribes to the popular view on Emerson's thought and condemns him for his own misreading. I was upset at first, but I rethought my opinion; I'd read the second piece, from 2003, but at that point I hadn't read all that much Emerson and my own opinion followed those oversimplifications pretty closely. Maybe Updike dropped the ball on this one. I mean, the man's not perfect.

I own two books of Updike's criticism--Picked-Up Pieces and Hugging the Shore--but that's not even half of his critical output, and I couldn't find his original (1970s?) essay on Emerson in them. But he makes offhand references to the Sage of Concord from time to time, always in either neutral or positive terms. Here's an example, from an essay called "Whitman's Egotheism":
Like many of his radiant literary generation, he borrowed courage from Emerson; but Whitman's brave advice bears no accent of the lectern, and small flavor of the stoic.
Updike may privilege Whitman here, as he privileges Melville elsewhere, but this is hardly a condemnation of Emerson; he gives the latter credit for the former's existence. Elsewhere, he claims that Emerson began a new tradition in American prose style, "cranky, granular, impulsive, confessional." This description is a positive for Updike--he uses it to contrast John Cheever's "taut and mordant" older style with his newer, more satisfactory one.

In an essay on Knut Hamson, Updike actually takes the author to task for criticizing Emerson, and it is by means of the conventional misreading of Emerson that Hamson is able to criticize him: "Emerson's major failings are 'his undeveloped psychological sense and thereafter his overdeveloped moral sense.' Reverse the proportions, and you have Hamsun." Updike does not in this essay directly combat the myth of Emerson--after all, the enemy of my enemy is not my friend--but he hints at it.

It's not until "Big Dead White Male: Emerson Turns 200" in 2003 that Updike directly rejects the Emersonian myth. I am not sure how Goodman found the article condescending; Updike has clearly read nearly everything that Emerson produced, and his tribute to him reads a bit like a hagiography. He praises him for his antinomianism (usually a positive quality in Updike's brand of Christianity), and says that only Poe equalled him"as a homegrown critical and creative mind." (I have my own, anti-Updike opinions of Poe, but nevermind for now.)

I wonder if Goodman does not mistake Updike's attack on Lawrence Buell for an attack on Emerson. He is indeed harsh to Buell--a major scholar of the American Renaissance and, though I cannot find the evidence, a man who I am certain has written some major essay or another on Updike--whom he accuses of ivory-tower intellectualism and defensiveness. I think these are critiques that Emerson would get behind, at least in principle; after all, John Dewey argues that he is the "philosopher of democracy," always privileging the pragmatic over the abstract, and Emerson himself never bowed to or defended the past.

Besides that, I think that Updike is in actuality defending Emerson against Buell and other ivory-tower types:
A hundred years after Emerson's centennial was declared a school holiday in Concord and marked by an oration by William James and a public prayer that the spirit of Emerson inspire all present, he is put forward gingerly, apologetically, as a devalued stock on which we might still want to take a flyer . . . The endorsement seems excessively hedged, linking the sage's value to a presumed madness in society. Emerson was too much a realist, I think, to dismiss the workings of a society as mad, even a society like his own, passionately riven antebellum America. He pitched his palace of the Ideal on the particularities and rationale of what existed.

Updike's problem is with the political correctness that attempts to "prove" that Emerson was a racist or a classist and that discards his work because of it. These concerns are beside the point; and Emerson still has a lot to say, particularly in the essays which people don't usually read. Updike views Emerson as a consummate humanist, speaking directly to the human condition and offering concrete advice for it.

If this whole debate sounds familiar, it's because it's the same one that rages around Updike himself. Is he a racist? Is he a sexist? Maybe--that's not really my call to make. But his novels manage to speak to me, and they speak to many others as well, even if the Academy treats him as damaged goods. I've been at three different schools now, and I'm still the only academic I know who deals with him. And I don't get why that's the case.

Part 2 of this post will involve an Emersonian reading of Rabbit, Run, but give me a few days.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Still Feel Gone (Record #76)

This series is a continuation/"simulcast" of a series I do on Facebook about my mathematically determined Top 100 Records.

Uncle Tupelo

Rock Pile, 1991

No Depression is the watershed Uncle Tupelo record, but that’s because of what it represents, not what it is. That record slams out of the gate with some fantastic songs—“Graveyard Shift,” “That Year,” “Before I Break”--but its second half is as weak as you’d expect from a record made by 19-year-olds. Do you ever listen to “John Hardy” or “So-Called Friend”? I don’t.

That’s not to say that Still Feel Gone is consistent, although its lows aren’t quite as low as No Depression’s. Jeff Tweedy’s songs remain sub-par for the most part, with the exception of the opening “Gun,” a Replacements-style barn-burner that’s the first perfect song Tweedy ever wrote. But “Watch Me Fall” shuffles its way nowhere, and “If That’s Alright” dies on the runway. “Nothing” fares a little better, although it’s attitude rather than skill that makes it worthwhile.

No, this is still Jay Farrar’s show, and Farrar’s big revelation is that he could write beer-weepers like “Still Be Around” just as well as he could write punk-screechers like “Postcard”--maybe even better. “Still Be Around” is a classic, a distillation of everything Farrar does right. He’s always had one of the best voices in both rock and country music, aged well before its time by cigarettes and whiskey, and hitting all the wrong notes in all the right places. This song beats the hell out of anything on No Depression, tossing out references to “Whiskey Bottle” just so we know he knows this is better.

The twin cousin to “Still Be Around” is “True to Life,” in which Farrar updates and reifies “Factory Belt” as a late-‘70s Springsteen anthem. It starts off slow. “I can only sing it loud. I always try to sing it clear,” he says, and then the other shoe falls with the beat: “What the hell are we all doing here?” It’s really a continuation of No Depression’s “Factory Belt,” with the angry guitars replaced by resignation and harmonica.

The band was still living in Belleville, Illinois, at this time, that remnant of the Rust Belt filled with dying car and beer factories, and Farrar’s dissatisfaction with the town bleeds through every note he sings. The one-two explosion of “Punch Drunk” and “Postcard” provide a slice of life in future ghost towns. “Everybody’s just spending his time just building and making / Someday, someone will say, ‘For what?’” he rages in the former--Farrar would never write another song this violent--before following it up in the latter with, “Nothing here to stand on.”

Even the song titles reflect the pain he feels for the broken-down blue-collars around him. There’s “Looking for a Way Out” (“You spent your whole life in this county / Never been out of state”), and there’s “Discarded” (“So goddamned hard to make it work / No easy way out of this one”). Farrar was working in his parents’ used bookstore at the time, and so he probably didn’t have first-hand experience in the beer factory, but he’s genuine and believable when he sings about this stuff.

Uncle Tupelo wouldn’t be in Belleville much longer--they’d move to St. Louis sometime between March 16-20, 1992 and Anodyne--and coincidentally or not, their music calmed down when they left. Something about the town itself seems to have turned them into the Minutemen, and while Still Feel Gone has its country elements, they’re less present than on No Depression, and certainly less so than on their next two records. Protest songs are easier when your guitars turn into razorblades, I suppose.

And so it is that Still Feel Gone is without a doubt the band’s most conventionally angry record--when it’s not out-and-out raging at George H.W. Bush and trickle-down economics, it’s in despair, the other side of anger. Uncle Tupelo (and for that matter, Son Volt and Wilco) would make better records, but never one this righteously indignant, this fed-up.

Gun *****
Looking for a Way Out ****
Fall Down Easy ****
Nothing ****
Still Be Around *****
Watch Me Fall ***
Punch Drunk ****
Postcard ****
D. Boon ***
True to Life *****
Cold Shoulder ***
Discarded ****
If That’s Alright ***

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Everybody Loves to Stick with a Loser

I was a big Red Sox fan when I was a kid, but I didn't follow baseball at all through my angsty teenage years. (A lot of that was due to my parents' watching the Braves play every single night when I wanted to watch whatever terrible sitcom I wanted to watch.) But once I got to college, I started supporting the Sox (and reluctantly, the Braves) again.

The Sox weren't that good in 2002, just like they haven't been that good for nearly a century. But now they've won two World Series, and following them is different. It's a little like watching your favorite indie-rock band hit the big time; you're afraid that people are going to think you listen to them only because they're popular.

The Sox aren't doing so hot so far this year--today's game was a bloodbath and an embarrassment--and somehow that makes me feel better about supporting them. What is it about losers and especially losing sports teams that attracts us? The Red Sox and the Cubs both have huge national followings--even when the Red Sox were terrible and even though the Cubs still haven't won in decades.

I've got no answers, and I'm counting on Joel to provide them.

Roger Kimball Wises Up

Maybe Kimball read my last post. Arts and Letters Daily included a link this weekend to this article where he argues against Rudyard Kipling's racism (along with a typical Aesthetic argument).

I've not read Kipling (I've seen Disney's Jungle Book, which has its own share of odd racial tensions), so I can't join in on the discussion. Anyone?

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Eliot and the Five Types of Criticism

Here's the speech I gave my Comp II students at the top of this semester. I'm not sure if these ideas are totally viable or not--I worked them out on my own.

There are essentially five reasons that people call a particular work of art "great," the end result of which is that there are essentially five types of critics.

1) Aesthetic. "This is beautiful." In this category I class the 1890s Aesthetes (Wilde, Pater, et al), the New Critics (Wimsatt, Beardsley, Ransom), and what I term the Neo-Aesthetes (the Blooms, Frederick Crews, and Roger Kimball). In these latter, you tend to get a neo-Arnoldian streak of "preserving the best that Western civilization has to offer." I still call this Aesthetic.
2) Impressionist. "This moves me." I think this is the reason that most people start their love of literature. I am not aware of a major critic who primarily utilizes this method, however.
3) Moral. "This speaks the truth." I include in this category both the Christian critics and the Marxist critics, as well as the Black Arts folks from the 1970s. Moral critics tend to see art primarily as propaganda, as a political/social/religious vehicle for the Truth.
4) Social. Either "This changed things" or "This perfectly represents a given viewpoint."It is by means of social criticism that something like The Jungle--otherwise a poorly written book--ends up canonized or semi-canonized. Note that social criticism almost always has an element of moral criticism to it. There can be little argument that The Clansman perfectly represents a given viewpoint, but I do not think Paul Lauter is interested in putting it on one of his many canons.
5) Hermeneutic. "This is open for endless discussion." I used to call this the "deconstructive" school until Don Williams suggested that that particular term is too narrow and too polarizing. These critics value a work of art for its depth and the number of its possible interpretations.

If anyone would like to add a school of criticism to my schema, if anyone has found one that I've left off, please let me know.

Most people do not fit squarely into one of these categories, but I suspect close to all readers have one that lords over the other ones. I, for example, am primarily hermeneutic (and secondarily impressionist), and I have little to no interest in social criticism. My theory about these schools is that they're all more or less valid, but if you're in an argument over a particular work (like those tiresome canon arguments in the 1990s), there's no sense in arguing a different school than your opponent.

Let's say, for example, that Roger Kimball and Paul Lauter are arguing over whether we should take Othello out of the canon. (I have no idea if Lauter wants to or not.) Kimball will say, "This is a perfectly constructed play." Lauter will say, "This play is racist, and besides, we should take it out to open up the canon for other viewpoints." That argument is never going anywhere. Either Kimball needs to argue against the play's racism, or else Lauter needs to argue that the play is a piece of garbage on an aesthetic level.

I bring all this up because I am reading T.S. Eliot's selected prose right now, and he seems to subscribe to all of the schools. Eliot is pretty much forgotten as a critic, which I'm sure is a consequence of his being so closely associated with the New Critics. The New Critics loved Eliot because his poems were ideal for the New Criticism--they were tightly constructed and could (supposedly) be viewed on their own, without recourse to the author's intentions. I've taken three Literary Criticism and Theory classes, and I've never been taught Eliot's work, aside from a few offhand references to his "objective correlative."

That objective correlative is a particularly ugly aspect of the Aesthetic School; it's the idea that an author can toss together a given sequence of events or words and demand a particular emotional reaction from his readers. It sounds cynical to me, and a little too close to the sentimental fiction of the 19th century, in which the author would attempt via rhetorical tricks and bizarre plot points to make the reader cry on every page. It simultaneously utilizes and minimalizes the Impressionist School as a means to an Aesthetic end.

But something funny happened. When Eliot converted to Anglicanism in 1928, both his poetry and his criticism changed dramatically. I'll post about the differences between his pre- and post-Anglican poetry some other time, but his criticism opened up to all sorts of other directions, ones that the New Critics who praise Eliot seem to disregard.

For example, he begins to value the Impressionist over the Aesthetic. Emotions become the big deal for Eliot--he says in "The Music of Poetry" that "If we are moved by a poem, it has meant something, perhaps something important, to us; if we are not moved, then it is, as poetry, meaningless." Emotion is not the sole judge of good poetry, but it's a major judge, and the post-1930 Eliot seems to think it is in many ways a better judge than pure Aesthetic criticism.
In an essay on Henry James, he even criticizes dry intellectual approaches to criticism:
Englishmen, with their uncritical admiration (in the present age for France, like to refer to France as the Home of Ideas . . . In England ideas run wild and pasture on the emotions; instead of thinking with our feelings (a very different thing) we corrupt our feelings with ideas; we produce the political, the emotional idea, evading sensation and thought.
It seems clear to me that it was Eliot's conversion that moved him from "corrupting his feelings" to "thinking with them"; Aesthetic intellectualism led him to the depths of despair in "The Waste-Land," despair that he was just beginning to escape in "The Hollow Men" and "Ash-Wednesday," but it's in his criticism that he really seems rescued, able to feel again.

Christianity also led to his establishment as a Moral critic supreme; at the top of "Religion and Literature," he claims that "Literary criticism should be completed by criticism from a definite ethical and theological standpoint." He makes his own viewpoint clear, but his readers are not exactly instructed to follow it--the important thing in this essay is to have a standpoint. He no longer believes in objectivity, clearly. He also takes another delightful shot at the Aesthetes, one that reminds me of Walker Percy's The Second Coming, in which one of Will Barrett's aggravating friends reads Dante for the meter:
The people who enjoy these writings [The Bible, Jeremy Taylor, Clarendon, and Gibbon, among others] solely because of their literary merit are essentially parasites; and we know that parasites, when they are become too numerous, are pests.
Eliot is, of course, taking aim at his past self in quotes like these; his post-1930 criticism comes off like it's the ascending spiral staircase in "Ash-Wednesday," a method of purging oneself for divine purity. If he can decimate his former views enough, he's saved.

Elsewhere, he sounds like a Social critic. His criteria for a text being a "classic" involve, among Aesthetic considerations, its representing a particular culture. Indeed, it is the culture moreso than the text that is classical. Groups of authors pool their resources and influences to produce the cultural aura of the classical, and it's out of this that an individual author creates a classic text: "What we find, in a period of classic prose, is not a mere common convention of writing, like the common style of newspaper leader writes, but a community of text." Culture is extremely important for the post-'30 Eliot; his last two books attempt to provide a definition of culture and then figure out how to create one based on Christianity.

Finally, the seeds of postmodern criticism are latent in Eliot. In addition to his privileging of the reader's emotions and interpretations over the author's ("The meaning of a poem may be something larger than its author's conscious purpose, and something remote from its origins"), he levels the playing field between High and Low Art based on the number and importance of interpretations:
I incline to come to the alarming conclusion that it is just the literature that we read for "amusement," or "purely for pleasure" that may have the greatest and least suspected influence upon us. It is the literature which we read with the least effort that can have the most insidious influence upon us. Hence it is that the influence of popular novelists, and of popular plays of contemporary life, requires to be scrutinized most closely.
Now, Eliot is of course horrified by popular fiction; even after his conversion, he's always a snob. But if not exactly a hermeneutic critic himself, he throws the doors wide open for it: All texts, he seems to say, need to be examined and parsed out, especially the ones we don't want to.

My conclusion from all this is that it's time for a re-evaluation of Eliot's nonfiction writing by critics of all stripes. I suspect that everyone is going to find something in his essays to love--and many other things to hate.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

My Sister Never Made Love to Anybody Else but Me

Pierre is not a canonical Melville novel, at least not to the lay reader, who's maybe read "Bartleby the Scrivener" and at least knows Moby-Dick's reputation as a Great Book. But Pierre is forgotten for the most part, or if remembered, it's labeled at best a noble failure. (Even Hershel Parker, a name so synonmous with Melville studies that I even imagine he looks like him, put out an edition with entire chapters excised for cohesiveness.) This criticism is not unfounded. If Moby-Dick is a glorious mess of a novel, four or five smaller books tossed together without caution, Pierre is just a mess. The language is purposely obfuscating, the plot is simultaneously horrifying and boring, and the book's organization is nonexistent. Parker reveals that Melville was midway into the novel when the Moby-Dick reviews started pouring in and claims that the savaging that book received essentially drove him nuts, at which point he inserted a bunch of incongruous material about Pierre's foundering career as a writer. Regardless of the reason, though, the book flat does not work as a novel.

Philosophically, on the other hand, it's interesting. It's my contention that Melville fashioned Pierre as a direct attack on Ralph Waldo Emerson, certainly the most prominent American intellectual of the time. Emerson, in his early writings especially, was a consummate optimist; he clearly belives that mankind is essentially good and will eventually be close to perfect and that society is moving forward. Melville, to put it gingerly, does not share his sentiment.

I suspect much of this argument boils down to religious upbringing. Emreson was a Unitarian--ever the most liberal of the Protestant denominations--and so man can trust himself; he is not exactly fallen--more like confused--and Christ becomes the great Example rather than the Savior. Emerson's essays bleed with Unitarian thought, diluted though it is with Eastern Pantheism. Melville, on the other hand, was raised Presbyterian, that dour, dark, and fatalistic Calvinist sect that sees man as totally depraved and unable to help himself. This is not to say, mind you, that Melville was all that great of a Calvinist, particularly in terms of total depravity. He subscribes to the notion of the noble savage in Typee and Moby-Dick (always the least racist of the 19th-century authors, his most evil characters are always white), and Billy Budd is remarkably free from the taint of sin. But he believes in evil in a way that Emerson does not seem to--witness the sinister joy in the way the sailors disembowel whales or Claggart's horrifying obsession with Billy.

Emerson and Melville's argument may also have to do with a hermeneutic disagreement. Both men admired Plato, and I'm sure neither of them missed the discussions of depravity in Protagoras and Meno. Socrates does not believe that man has an evil streak; he does not knowingly or willingly do wrong:
Simonides was not so ignorant as to say that he praised all who did no evil voluntarily, as if there were any who did evil voluntarily. For myself I am fairly certain that no wise man believes anyone sins willingly or willingly perpetuates any evil or base action. They know very well that all evil or base action is involuntary. (Protagoras 345d, e)
Meno modifies his disbelief, however:
Isn't it clear then that this class, who don't recognize evils for what they are, don't desire evil but what they think is good, though in fact it is evil; those who through ignorance mistake bad things for good obviously desire the good. (77d, e)
Socrates says that man does not willingly desire evil. (I'd love to hear a conversation between him and Dostoevsky, whose Underground man desires both evil and unhappiness just because he can.) Instead, man desires the good but sometimes cannot differentiate between the two. I suspect both Emerson and Melville agree with this diagnosis; their difference lies in their opinions on man's capacity for differentiation.

In "Self-Reliance," Emerson famously expands Socrates' most famous maxim so it reads "Trust thyself":
Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind . . . What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within? My friend suggested,--"But these impulses may be from below, not from above." I replied, "They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil's child, I will live then from the Devil.
Emerson's pan(en)theism later contradicts this--if we all share an Oversoul, then doing as you please is ultimately following mankind as a whole--but no matter: "Follow your bliss" is a common enough theme in Emerson's work, and it is to this theme that I think Melville responds.

And so Pierre opens in medias res of the conflict between Emerson and Melville, with a glorious Emersonian paean to transcendent Nature:
There are some strange summer mornings in the country, when he who is but a sojourner from the city shall early walk forth into the fields, and be wonder-smitten with the trance-like aspect of the green and golden world. Not a flower stirs; the trees forget to wave; the grass itself seems to have ceased to grow; and all Nature, as if suddenly become conscious of her own profound mystery, and feeling no refuge from it but silence, sinks into this wonderful and indescribable repose.
This sets up Pierre as an Emersonian hero, pure and innocent and ready to commune with God and Nature. But the plot of the book subverts Emerson. Pierre's idyllic country life is shattered when he discovers that his saintly father sired an illegitimate daughter. For some bizarre reason, he decides the best course of action is to leave his angelic fiancee mere days before their wedding, pretend to have married his sister, and move to Greenwich Village. Disaster, as you might expect, ensues.

It's important here that Pierre clearly believes he's doing the right thing; all the pain he will suffer "seemed to him part of the unavoidable vast price of his enthusiastic virtue," and he even codes his actions as a search for God. He follows Emerson's advice here; he does what his heart tells him to do without worrying whether his heart belongs to God or to the devil. But his actions bring ignominy both to him and his family--I won't give away any specific details, but suffice it to say that everyone's life is ruined. He's picked the dumbest of all possible options, and what's more, he knows this on an intellectual level:
But this last distrust [of himself] was not of the heart; for heaven itself, so he felt, had sanctified that with its blessing; but it was the distrust of his intellect, which in undisciplinedly espousing the manly enthusiast cause of his heart, seemed to cast a reproach upon that cause itself.
Pierre (and his inspiration, Emerson) privileges emotion over reason, the heart over the head; he shares Socrates' apparent optimism regarding human nature but ignores Matthew Arnold's famous warning to "Firstly, never go against the best light you have; secondly, take care that your light be not darkness." And Melville punishes him dearly for it.

But, philosophically interesting as it may be, Pierre is a mess of a novel. It reminds me of a severe version of my problem with Walker Percy's fiction: he's a great philosopher with no talent for telling a story. Except that Melville could once tell a story, and he would be able to again. I'm not sure what kills Pierre as a novel--whether it's the negative reviews of Moby-Dick or whether it's the heaviness of the subject and the vitriol with which Melville approaches it--but I'm filing it under imperfect nonclassics.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Looking for the Ghost of Tom Joad

The New York Review of Books has a fantastic essay on the latest Library of America edition of Steinbeck's works. I've not read an abundance of Steinbeck--just the three majors (Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, and East of Eden) plus Travels with Charley in Search of America, and that in itself suggests that he's not taught much in universities. (I read the three novels on my own, and Travels was assigned to me in a directed reading one summer.)

I think Steinbeck is essentially on the same continuum as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Upton Sinclair. Uncle Tom's Cabin and The Jungle are not well-written books. They are clumsy and affected and melodramatic. And yet they've got a peculiar sort of uplift--they hit you, perhaps, in the gut instead of the head--and there's little doubt that they changed the world. Steinbeck's novels hit you harder, and they changed the world less, but I think history has ended up placing him with those novels rather than with his contemporaries like Faulkner and Hemingway.

I didn't teach any Steinbeck in my Comp II class this semester, and I doubt I will next year--his fiction is too simplistic, too jingoistic, too nailed down. I'll throw my support behind Travels with Charley in Search of America, though--it's less preachy than the novels, a cross-country travelogue more cohesive and enjoyable than On the Road and a highly personal love letter to America disguised as a piece of gonzo journalism. I was obsessed with the concept of spatiality the last year of my undergraduate work and the first year of my master's degree, and I think Travels set that off to some extent. "Nearly every American hungers to move," says Steinbeck early on, as he takes the camper out of park, and the book is pure joy from that point on.

So I don't know. If Travels with Charley manages to be something more than (a) jingoistic patriotism or (b) a pamphlet for the Communist Party, his fiction likely contains something beyond those things as well. It may be time for an academic re-evaluation of Steinbeck; he may be getting short-changed by the neo-aestheticism movement, and I suspect that a rereading of those novels would reveal something more subtle than my memory allows.