Monday, August 31, 2009

Torn Curtain

I wrote my master’s thesis on the novels of Walker Percy and Frederick Buechner and tried desperately for months to find one of them commenting on the other one. Far as I can tell, Percy was completely unaware of Buechner’s existence, but I did manage to track down an interview with Buechner in which he spoke very unfavorably of Percy:
I must say he just leaves me literally cold. That’s just the right word for it. I don’t feel any excitement, any passion. It seems very cerebral and planned out and cold. I always feel that the characters sound like what I imagine Walker Percy would sound like. I have a hard time believing in them as real human beings.
Buechner actually understates it. Percy’s characters are for the most part a royal bore, and his own voice, evidenced in his nonfiction writing, is far more nuanced, elegant, and interesting. I’ve now read every word Percy has written (he’s probably the only author about whom I can reasonably be considered an expert), and I’ll shout it from the rooftops: He’s not a novelist. He’s a philosopher who wants to be a novelist. Of his seven novels, only two, Love in the Ruins and The Thanatos Syndrome, have anything resembling an interesting or coherent plot; the rest are mere philosophical exercises.

Not that that’s a bad thing. At their best, Percy’s novels serve to inject his philosophy into more-or-less real-world applications, and taken on these terms, they’re pretty good. In some respects, they are more or less interchangeable—they all take some aspect of Kierkegaard’s “spheres of existence” and throw characters into them. They’re all about the sick condition of the modern world, and they all hint at the same solution for that condition. (It’s not for nothing that one of the worn-out descriptions of Percy as a philosopher is that of the dianostician.)

The problem with the modern world, for Percy, is that the human being has been completely split along Cartesian lines. On the one hand, you have a soul/mind; on the other, you have a body, and never the two shall meet. (Obviously, Percy is following his existentialist forbearers in this diagnosis; both Heidegger and Sartre describe Descartes’ sins along these lines.)

One of Percy’s main concerns in the split modern world is sex, an act which he variously portrays as splitting the self further and bringing it back together in a type of religious redemption. (This was the subject of my thesis, incidentally—if you’re interested, Buechner’s Lion Country portrays only the latter; virginity is atheism in that novel, and sex is redemption.) This concern with sex and alienation and wholeness might make you think of John Updike—by all means a reasonable connection, since Updike and Percy share similar religious views and have a similar mission in writing.

But Percy hated Updike as a theologian, as much as he might admire him in terms of sheer writing. Biographer Jay Tolson reports that Percy’s reaction to Updike’s controversial Couples was almost entirely negative, calling the novel muddled Kierkegaard and noting its treatment of “[sex] elevated to a kind of religion” (351).

Thus we shouldn’t be surprised that in The Last Gentleman Percy gives us a thinly veiled version of Updike in the novelist Mort Prince (the name, of course, suggests “prince of death” in French). Here’s one character’s description of his latest novel:
You know what that guy told me with a straight face. I asked him what thiis book was going to be about and he said quite seriously: it was about ----ing. And in a sense it is! . . . But it is a beautiful piece of work and about as pornographic as Chaucer. Indeed it is deely religious . . . It is essentially a religious book, in the sense of being a yea-saying rather than a nay-saying . . . Mort has one simple credo: saying Yes to Life wherever it is found. (Bowdlerization Percy’s)
That sounds like Updike to me. The Last Gentleman precedes Couples by two years, but this description could just as easily apply to 1961’s Rabbit, Run. Percy’s protagonist, Will Barrett, is confused by this description; he wonders, “What the devil does he mean telling me it’s about ----ing? Is ----ing a joking matter? Am I to understand that I am free to ---- his daughter? Or do we speak of ----ing man to man, jokingly, literarily, with no thought of ----ing anyone in the vicinity?” Updike/Prince and his fans, then, are guilty of taking sex too seriously and simultaneously not seriously enough. It’s a type of religious rite, but at the same time it doesn’t mean anything.

Unsurprisingly, then, Percy compares Mort Prince multiple times to Descartes, suggesting that he is the product of the mind-body division that is the chief ill of the modern age. With the body split from the mind, we’re left with desire for carnal knowledge and desire for angelic knowledge—but no knowledge whatsoever of what it means to be human, between the extremes of the angelic and the bestial. That’s why Prince can see sex as simultaneously disconnected from the soul, that is, purely bodily, and as an attempt to reunite the soul and the body.

Will Barrett, however much he is offended by Mort Prince, tries to make the same connection when he sleeps with his asinine girlfriend, Kitty Vaught. (Kitty, I suspect, has the name she does because it suggests curiosity, Heidegger’s word for a sort of constantly moving stasis.) But you can’t have a real relationship with another person if your own identity is constantly in question, as it must be in a world split into mind and body. Thus, Will promises her that “I’ll be both for you, boyfriend and girlfriend, lover and father. If it is possible” (167). Of course, that’s not possible, and Will’s relationship with Kitty, like every sexual relationship in Updike’s novels, leads only to further alienation.

All of that said, I suspect Percy is slightly misreading Updike here. The latter’s reliance on sex (and his steadfast commitment to depict every nauseating detail of it) can mask the fact that sex almost always fails to produce the effect his characters would like for it to produce—that is, the reunion of soul to body. If anything, Percy has a more optimistic view of sex, as evidenced in the sequel to The Last Gentlemen, 1980’s The Second Coming.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Why I Like Christian Colleges

I’ve spent the last several days listening to a series of public lectures from Columbia professor Andrew Delbanco (you can access them on iTunes from the UChannel podcast), the subject of which was, “Does College Matter?” Delbanco’s answer, as you might imagine, was “Yes, but not in the ways you think it does.”

Once a college diploma became the minimum requirement for most jobs (a relatively recent development), American society had to find a way to justify pushing people into going. It came up with a social model: It’s good for the culture at large, both financially and intellectually, to have a lot of college graduates. Delbanco disagrees, saying that you can’t force a primarily financial model onto something as nebulous as a college education. No, he says, the reason college is valuable is that it is valuable for the individual—or at least it can be.

Almost all colleges in America two hundred years ago were religious schools, including Harvard (Puritan), Yale (Congregationalist), Princeton (Presbyterian), Columbia (Episcopalian), etc., etc. You can still see this heritage in some of the school mottos; Columbia’s, for example, is “In Thy light shall we see light,” even though the school no longer has a religious mission.

Even after the Ivy League (and other, smaller private colleges) abandoned their status as divinity schools, the mission of the university remained mostly the same, at least according to Delbanco: Teachers must transmit the accumulated knowledge of the ages (possibly creating some of their own, it’s true), and in so doing, they must help create and develop the whole student. College, in other words, was supposed to make you a better person—that’s what the doctrine of in loco parentis was meant to accomplish.

I think most professional academics would scoff at that idea nowadays. Their job may be to transmit an increasingly narrow field of knowledge (which is why humanities folks typically don’t know much about the sciences and scientists don’t know much about the humanities, a development that has taken place over the last 150 years). But it certainly isn’t to make students better people—we’d never dream of telling people how they should live.

And we don’t. Students run wild at universities, at least according to the horrifying statistics Delbanco quotes—your average undergraduate, he tells us, watches four hours of television per day (and presumably that doesn’t include the hours she spends on Facebook or text messaging), binge drinks at least once per month, and feels no qualms whatsoever about buying her term papers online. He tells a tragicomic story about two friends of his, Harvard professors, who spend each graduation day pointing out students they personally knew cheated and who nevertheless graduated with honors. Character doesn’t seem to count at college anymore.

Further, we’ve disconnected all knowledge from itself. Students attend a biology class on one side of campus, take the bus to their literature class, and see absolutely no connection between the two. Part of the problem is doubtless that we don’t treat education as an end but as a means to an end—you go to college not to learn (or to develop character) but to get a piece of paper that will allow you to enter the workforce.

Delbanco, however, says that the reason students can’t, by and large, connect their classes, is that the university lacks a cohesive philosophy. Columbia, perhaps, doesn’t have this problem as much as some schools; their Core Curriculum of Great Books requires that all students learn a little about all areas and discuss them with the same students and the same teachers. But most schools, it seems, don’t have many cohesive goals other than attracting good students and raising their position on U.S. News and World Report’s annual college ranking list.

I’d never heard of that particular list until it was time for me to apply to graduate school. I applied to exactly one school for my undergraduate work—I honestly have no idea why—and it was an unranked school, a combination Bible and Christian liberal-arts school. In my days at Toccoa Falls College, they seemed to admit just about anyone who applied; the rumor on campus was that the average student SAT score hovered around 950.

I had my problems at TFC; the place just about drove me nuts sometimes. But as I look back on it from an increasingly large distance, I see everything they do right. TFC and other religiously oriented schools are not subject to the problems of larger and sectarian schools. My alma mater’s motto is “Developing Character with Excellence,” and I think that, unlike Columbia’s, that slogan is in earnest. Christian colleges seem to be the last refuge of legitimate character-building in academia.

Further, since the school revolves around a Christian worldview (and a fairly specific one—as far as I know TFC administration still hasn’t made it official, but the school has always been closely affiliated with the Christian and Missionary Alliance), the problem of disconnection is to some extent abated. All the classes, from the humanities to the sciences, are oriented toward theology—sometimes this may get ridiculous, but only a student who doesn’t pay attention could see his classes as disconnected from one another. The unofficial motto of the school seems to have been “All truth is God’s truth.” That puts everything on the same foundation.

My major research area these days is the intersection of theology and literature, and I’m almost certain I wouldn’t be able to do that if I hadn’t gone to a college where the teachers were convinced the two were built on the same ground.

By the way, I am not trying to suggest that Christian colleges are the only ones that can achieve a healthy balance of character development and underlying philosophy. I do think it must be easier for a school with a set doctrinal statement, one that does not have to deal with the pluralism of the student body at a major university. But I’m sure it’s a goal that can be met in some way by even the largest and most secular of schools. I’m just not sure what that would look like.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Too Awful to Ignore

When I was in high school, I used to claim pretentiously that Flannery O’Connor changed my life. I have no idea what I meant by that, and if I was honest with myself at the time, I’m sure I would have admitted I had no idea then, either. Such was the depth of my ignorance and my pretention, in fact, that I made this claim after reading through the Complete Stories and being completely unable to point out the religious dimensions of her work. College did that for me, along with a book I picked up at a Christian music festival, Jill Pelaez Baumgaertner’s Flannery O’Connor: A Proper Scaring. Baumgaertner’s book is the perfect introduction to traditionalist readings of O’Connor—she goes through her work story by story and explains what she’s up to.

The phrase you hear bandied about in O’Connor studies—I don’t have the energy to comb through Baumgaertner’s book to see if it’s in there, although it’s not listed in the somewhat skimpy index—is tragic grace. However sophisticated you want to get with your interpretations, it’s a hard thing to ignore, and it’s certainly the method endorsed by the author herself, who famously notes in “The Fiction Writer and His Country” that “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”

So to get her very premodern point across to those of us numbed by the modern and postmodern worlds, O’Connor kills off her main character in pretty much every story. (In the few stories where the main character doesn’t die, something nevertheless terrible happens to her, as we see in Mrs. Turpin’s public come-uppance in “Revelation,” a personal favorite.)

In O’Connor’s Catholicism, a character who receives a flash of grace just before her death is given a chance for full acceptance of that grace in Purgatory; thus, it really counts for something that the Grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” “would have been a good woman . . . if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” She’s a good woman for 35 seconds on earth, and she’s given a chance to be a good woman forever. Furthermore, the reader is made aware of divine presence and grace and given his own chance to accept that grace by viewing someone else’s tragedy.

All of this is de rigeur O’Connor criticism; throw a rock up in the air on a college campus, and you’ll be sure to hit someone who wrote a paper to this effect. What I didn’t recognize until I reread, for the first time in 15 years, the previously uncollected work at the front of Complete Stories, is the extent to which her own biography created and then necessitated this approach.

The stories in question—“The Geranium,” “The Barber,” “Wildcat,” “The Crop,” and “The Turkey”—were part of O’Connor’s master’s thesis at the University of Iowa’s Writers Workshop, from which she graduated in 1947. The future, presumably, was wide and open in front of her at this point; she would attend the Yaddo Writer’s Retreat in a few months and move in with lifelong friends Sally and Robert Fitzpatrick shortly after that, and these appear to have been happy times in her life.

What these stories have in common is their weakness, at least when viewed in the larger context of her later work. (O’Connor, best I can tell, got much better as she went along—A Good Man Is Hard to Find is better than Wise Blood, and Everything That Rises Must Converge is better than both of them. We’ll ignore The Violent Bear It Away.) Readers looking for tragic grace in these early stories will not find it, not without stretching credulity to its limits. “The Barber,” the best of the five, sets up the reader for a great fall that never comes; death permeates “Wildcat” up until the very end, when it mysteriously vanishes; and “The Crop” is a very ill-advised attempt at John Barth-style metafiction (even if it was composed before Barth was a blip on the radar). We get in these stories all the elements that make O’Connor such an entertaining and philosophically interesting writer—but without a catalyst to put them all together.

Then came 1950. O’Connor was hospitalized for a floating kidney, and while she was there, she discovered she suffered from the lupus that claimed her father eight years earlier. She was dying—there was no cure and not much treatment for the disease in those days. She finished Wise Blood while recovering from her surgery and adjusting to her new lifestyle in Milledgeville.

I am not sure of the degree to which her conception of this novel changed once she learned of her illness. It’s obvious from the fragments published earlier (also collected in Complete Stories) that it gained a certain measure of darkness, a darkness which her later stories would not only replicate but intensify. Hazel Motes blinds himself in penance, but the Grandmother, say, or Mrs. May, aren’t given a choice in the matter. Fate or God takes over, and we’re to them as flies are to errant boys.

We can see the difference between pre- and post-lupus O’Connor in the twin stories “The Geranium” and “Judgment Day,” the first and last stories she published. The latter is a rewrite and expansion of the former; they both deal with an elderly Southern man adjusting to life in New York City by staring at a plant on a balcony across the street, but the tone of their endings is radically different. “The Geranium” ends with a thud, the potted plant falling off the balcony. Old Dudley survives, at least for the time being, but the story ends in alienation and ugliness.

“Judgment Day” is somehow less dark, despite Tanner’s ending position with his head stuffed into a balcony. His death is made explicit here—and it’s one of the most horrifying in O’Connor’s entire corpus—but the story offers redemption. He’s explicitly given the judgment day he’s so hoped for, and he makes it back to Georgia, even if he does so in a pine box. “The Geranium” is a tragedy; “Judgment Day” is a comedy of sorts.

So American literature may have received its own form of tragic grace in O’Connor’s untimely death; as Walter Clemons remarks on the back cover of my edition of Complete Stories, “What we lost when she died is bitter. What we have is astonishing: the stories burn brighter than ever, and strike deeper.” The point is, however, that those stories wouldn’t burn at all without her knowledge of her impending death—for whatever reason, she needed that time limit in order to create her own unique vision of the world.

Monday, August 24, 2009

New Skin for the Old Ceremony

Bernard Malamud seems to be the forgotten giant of Jewish-American fiction. Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, and Philip Roth receive the lion’s share of recognition in the genre, and so it’s easy to forget just how good Malamud is. His personal life may have been less exciting than his peers, but his writing snaps and crackles and is, in its way, far more indebted to the Jewish way of speaking than theirs is. (His authorial voice, I mean to say, utilizes Jewish diction far more than Bellow’s or Roth’s; for example, the narrator of The Assistant remarks that “Twice he had painted all over, once added new shelving”—this diction recalls the reversals in Jewish humor: “An artist he wants to be,” as Asher Lev’s father might say.)

The Assistant, Malamud’s second novel, takes Judaism as a culture and a religion as seriously as any I’ve ever read. World War II had been over for just a bit more than a decade when Malamud wrote his novel, and Elie Wiesel had not yet come up with the term Holocaust to describe the German slaughter of the Jews. The book itself takes place in the 1920s or ‘30s and thus does not deal with the war itself, but the main Jewish protagonist, Morris Bober, is a Polish refugee living in New York, and in 1957 this could not have been an accidental decision on Malamud’s part. The Assistant, in many ways, functions as an allegory of the World War II refugee experience, but its setting before the displacement allows the author to talk about the event indirectly, without getting bogged down in historical details or horrific images. Morris is thus meant to be a typical post-war Jew, and his story is supposed to suggest—although not stand for—those of others.

Morris is hardly Orthodox—he sells and eats pork products and does not celebrate Jewish holidays—and yet he is disgusted midway through the novel when his gentile assistant, Frank Alpine, asks him if he considers himself a “real Jew.” Morris’ survival is based off of selective Judaism; pragmatic concerns take precedence over religious ones. “Sometimes,” he says, “to have to eat, you must keep open on holidays. On Yom Kippur, I don’t keep open. But I don’t worry about kosher, which is to me old-fashioned. What I worry is to follow the Jewish Law." Frank, understandably, points out that holy days and a kosher diet are part of Jewish Law, and Morris’ response redefines 6,000 years of Jewish history:
Nobody will tell me that I am not Jewish because I put in my mouth once in a while, when my tongue is dry, a piece ham. But they will tell me, and I will believe them, if I forget the Law. This means to do what is right, to be honest, to be good. This means to other people. Our love is hard enough. Why should we hurt somebody else? For everybody should be the best, not only for you or me. We ain’t animals. This is why we need the Law. This is what a Jew believes.
Morris thus elects to follow the spirit of the law over the letter of the Law.

In this respect, he resembles existentialist Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. Their two names are similar enough to beg the comparison, and indeed, it seems as though Malamud meant for the reader to make this connection. The essence of life—the “why we need the Law”—is, according to Buber, to be able to face another person in the full implications of one’s humanity. He deals with this in some detail in his dense and complicated philosophical treatise I and Thou. Buber postulates two forms of human relationships, the “I-It” and “I-Thou.” The “I-It” treats the other as an object; it is by nature dehumanizing and objectifying. But the “I-Thou” encounters the other at the full extent of its being; in doing so, it humanizes both the I and the Thou. The I-Thou becomes the fullest expression of humanness:
Whoever says You does not have something for his object. For wherever there is something there is also another something; every It borders on other Its; It is only by virtue of bordering on others. But where You is said there is no something. You has no borders.
The “I-Thou” relationship therefore becomes the essence of proper human relationships; Morris Bober agrees with his namesake when he says that the individual laws are less important than the way people interact with one another.

And it is clear that Morris treats Frank Alpine as a Thou. Frank, having already been involved in a robbery of Morris’ grocery store that results in a dangerous head injury to the grocer, begins to hang around the grocery store and begging for a job. Although it is clear that Morris at least suspects Frank’s involvement in the robbery, he not only gives him a job but also allows him to live in his basement (and later, he procures him an apartment upstairs). He talks to his assistant, spiritually reveals himself to him, and answers the questions Frank asks about Judaism. Morris seems to view their relationship as one of self-sacrifice:
“But I think if a Jew don’t suffer for the Law, he will suffer for nothing.”
“What do you suffer for, Morris?” Frank said.
“I suffer for you,” Morris said calmly.
Frank laid his knife down on the table. His mouth ached. “What do you mean?”
“I mean you suffer for me.”
Morris equates suffering for the Law with suffering for another person, with seeing another person as “Thou” rather than as “It.”

Frank Alpine, on the other hand, does not seem concerned with Buber’s system of ethics. He is interested in Judaism, but in some respects, he is interested in Judaism only because he is interested in Morris’ daughter, Helen. His interest in Judaism, in other words, has no discernable element of either religion or ethics. This is reified when he and Helen grow closer. Helen gives him a list of books to read, which he does dutifully, not making much connection to the likes of Flaubert and Tolstoy, but Dostoevsky strikes his interest. This is not an arbitrary choice on Malamud’s part. Crime and Punishment is one of the classics of religious fiction, and it is important both that Frank has a revelation while reading it and that the revelation is not religious in nature. As Frank reads the book, he connects to it, the first time he has connected to one of Helen’s novels; he has, Malamud says, “this crazy sensation that he was reading about himself.” More specifically, the book makes him feel “as if his face had been shoved into dirty water in the gutter” and “as if he had been on a drunk for a month.” Dostoevsky seems to speak directly to Frank’s life; no doubt, he connects Raskolnikov’s brutal murder with his own unconfessed crime.

But the connection Frank feels to Crime and Punishment is a double of a scene in Crime and Punishment itself. As Raskolnikov serves a seven-year sentence in Siberia, he looks at a copy of the New Testament:
The book belonged to Sonia; it was the one from which she had read the raising of Lazarus to him. At first he was afraid that she would worry him about religion, would talk about the gospel and pester him with books. But to his great surprise she had not once approached the subject and had not even offered him the Testament. He had asked her for it himself . . . He did not open it now, but one thought passed through his mind: “Can her convictions not be mine now? Her feelings, her aspirations at least…”
With the power of Sonia’s religious faith embedded into her New Testament, Raskolnikov is ready to live a “new life” and views his sentence as “only seven years.” The Bible gives him an existential revelation that cures his alienation, explicitly comparing his own redemption to the resurrection of Lazarus. Frank Alpine’s redemption, on the other hand, contains no references to God or to Lazarus or to anything else associated with religious belief. It is a secular redemption, coded as a rite by its association with Crime and Punishment.

Morris Bober dies of pneumonia two-thirds of the way through the novel, and his family wants nothing to do with Frank because of his involvement in the robbery (and because of his frequent shoplifting after beginning work at the grocery). Frank, however, takes over the grocery out of necessity—who else is there to do it? Who else can take care of the family?—and passes his time reading and dreaming of the day when he can again talk to Helen. Frank becomes Jewish in the last paragraph of the novel: “One day in April Frank went to the hospital and had himself circumcised . . . The pain enraged and inspired him. After Passover he became a Jew.” This ending is ambiguous, however; it is not clear whether Frank is engaging in a rite stripped of its religious connotations—does he become a Jew so that Helen’s mother will approve of him?—or whether Morris’ memory has won out and he suffers the pain of the circumcision because he finally sees Helen as a Thou and views Morris’ Judaism as the best way to express that.

Either way, the central conflict in the novel—perhaps the central conflict in the majority of post-war Jewish fiction—remains intact: Belief in God is difficult if not impossible in a post-Auschwitz world. But Jewish culture, heritage, and ritual remain worth preserving and worth protecting, even if that preservation and protection result in a rite free from religion.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Friday Links

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Seeking Whom He May Devour

Existentialism is not exactly a breed of romanticism, but the two philosophies are connected by their reaction against Enlightenment thought—Descartes and Hume for romanticism, and Hegel for the existentialists. Because of these shared enemies, we should not be surprised to find certain parallels in the two movements, and one of the biggest of these parallels is a focus on uncivilized humanity.

The term noble savage is often attributed to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but the French philosopher never actually used it. But he still—more or less—subscribed to the notion that it is civilization that corrupts human beings and that there’s something freeing about primitivism. We see this idea resurface in Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals:
One cannot fail to see at the bottom of all these noble races the beast of prey, the splendid blond beast prowling about avidly in search of spoil and victory; this hidden core needs to erupt from time to time, the animal has to get out again and go back to the wilderness: the Roman, Arabian, Germanic, Japanese nobility, the Homeric heroes, the Scandanavian Vikings—they all shared this need. (I.11)
Notice, however, that Nietzsche strips away whatever vestiges of Enlightenment thought were lurking around in Rousseau; his blond beast is definitively not moral, is indeed marked by a complete abandonment of morality in favor of raw power. (Also note that the Nazis who took this passage and used it as an excuse for their idea of the master Aryan race are misreading Nietzsche, who loved the Jewish race and hated the Germans, as evidenced by Ecce Homo.)

Martin Heidegger doesn’t go quite as far as Nietzsche in his return to primitivism, but he is always concerned with the feelings and observations that lie at the very baseline of human consciousness—which explains why he uses the word primordial about eight thousand times in Being and Time. He is also adamant about the need for a connection to one’s body—a rejection of Cartesian dualism.

So it’s no surprise that this theme pops up with some regularity in existentialist fiction. Think of Saul Bellow’s Henderson, who is freed from the nothingness of his comfortable existence by his trip to Africa and his becoming a lion and a “rain king.” Or—less successfully—think of Rabbit Angstrom’s complete immersion into his body, be it for sex or sports or overeating. (Updike, perhaps, was critiquing this idea, though it’s always hard to tell exactly what Updike is critiquing.)

But nowhere is the return to animality more clear than in the short fiction of Franz Kafka, where it’s mixed and contrasted with the life of the writer. I am generally not a big fan of critical readings that make everything in a given work of fiction about writing fiction, but it’s difficult to get around it in Kafka’s case—most of his stories either feature a literal artist or a metaphorical one, and much of his work has something to say on what it is to be a writer in a society that can’t possibly appreciate “real” art.

The animals in Kafka’s work occasionally mark dehumanization—the obvious example is poor Gregor Samsa in “The Metamorphosis,” who turns into an insect (a better translation would apparently be vermin, as he appears to have more than six legs), a transformation that demonstrates just how dehumanized he always was, with his terrible desk job and ungrateful family. But in its way, his metamorphosis sets him free—he’s no longer forced to go to work and no longer labors under any delusions about what he really is. And when he becomes a bug, his family is forced to go to work, making the whole thing a sort of tragic grace.

Meanwhile, after the protagonist of “The Hunger Artist” starves himself to death in front of an uninterested audience, he is replaced in his circus cage by a panther, a vast improvement on its previous occupant:
Even the most insensitive felt it refreshing to see this wild creature leaping around the cage that had so long been dreary. The panther was all right. The food he liked was brought him without hesitation by the attendants; he seemed not even to miss his freedom; his noble body, furnished almost to the bursting point with all it needed, seemed to carry freedom around with it; somewhere in its jaws it seemed to lurk; and the joy of life streamed with such ardent passion from his throat that for the onlookers it was not easy to stand the shock of it. But they braced themselves, crowded around the cage, and did not want ever to move away.
Kafka describes this panther in artistic terms—his roaring is a type of storytelling—but the animal is superior to the man because he harbors no delusions; he is what he is, and he’s okay with that. The human artist, then, could be improved by becoming more like this wild animal, less inhibited, stronger, more noble.

Elsewhere, the mole in “The Burrow” is paranoid and neurotic precisely because he’s so much of a human being, eloquent and fastidious. But his human thoughts and emotion lead him only to a state of anxiety, constantly afraid that someone will be able to enter his perfectly constructed home. One assumes that most moles don’t live in this fear but are something closer to the panther, even if they’re less powerful.

It’s not until “Josephine the Singer” that we find an appropriate combination of the artist and the animal. The titular mouse maintains her mouse-ness but manages to create something so beautiful that no one can possibly resist it. Her singing takes her mouse brethren away from their worried lives—away from their resemblance to humanity—and brings them back to their animal natures, to the point where they cannot even look at her but “bur[y their] face[s] in [their] neighbor’s fur”—a connection both to community and to animality, the best parts of the human and bestial worlds.

It’s this expansion of Nietzschean animalism—rather than the introduction of angst into literature—that is Kafka’s true legacy to writers. It is “Josephine the Singer” that will allow Saul Bellow to bring Henderson the Rain King back to the United States, allow him to become an animal and thereby to connect to his fellow human beings and resume his—much happier—life in the suburbs.

Monday, August 10, 2009

On Blame and Psychiatry

We’re still three years from the release of the DSM-V, the updated version of the Bible of psychiatry, but the controversy has already begun. Debate has swirled around this book from the very beginning—this is, after all, the reference work that until 1974 classified homosexuality as a mental illness. But the American Psychiatric Association seems determined to outdo themselves this time around, as this article from Slate demonstrates:
The APA isn’t just deciding the fate of shopaholics; it’s also debating whether overuse of the Internet, “excessive” sexual activity, and even prolonged bitterness should be viewed, quite seriously, as “brain disorders.” If you spend hours online, have sex more frequently than aging psychiatrists, and moan incessantly that the federal government can’t account for all its TARP funds, take heed: You may soon be classed among the 48 million Americans the APA already considers mentally ill.
I am by no means hostile to psychiatry, not in a knee-jerk manner, anyway; but I’m disturbed by this relatively recent pathologization of day-to-day life. The problem is not so much that psychiatrists are now free to see “normal” things as harmful—excessive sexual activity can certainly be a problem, if it results in the breakdown of relationships—but that it turns them into behaviors outside of our control.

I’m torn even on that phenomenon, however; I believe that alcoholism and drug addiction exist, and I believe to some extent that addiction is beyond the individual’s power to correct. (I’ve not read the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous, but I suspect I could get behind most of it.) But once we start to see all harmful behaviors as symptoms of mental illness, we step into a world where individual actions don’t count for much. Addiction medicine—especially once it gets applied to the world outside of drug abuse—can result in an odd destruction of the human being. We become machines, completely controlled by the data that gets put into our systems.

An example: I’ve listened to the radio program Loveline for several years now, and I enjoy it and respect Dr. Drew Pinsky for what he does for his callers. (If Pinsky annoys you on the radio or on the television, I highly recommend his memoir, Cracked, in which you’ll see an entirely new side of him—you’ll see exactly how much he bleeds for those under his care.) My wife and I both read his latest book, The Mirror Effect, this summer, and while I was intrigued by his examination of celebrity narcissism and could get behind some of his assertions about how it destroys our society—I’ve seen what he calls the Don’t you know who I am? phenomenon in my students—I was disturbed by his steadfast refusal to label narcissism as anything other than a mental illness.

His concern for his patients, then—including many of the celebrities he interviewed for this book—cuts both ways. It allows him to treat alcoholics without their feeling that he thinks they’re terrible people, but he, and those of us who would like to listen to him, is left without the capacity to make moral judgments. (Because of this, Loveline was much better when Adam Carolla co-hosted the program—Carolla was always perfectly willing to judge. His harshness and Pinsky’s gentleness balanced each other out in helpful ways.)

So I’m left with a bad taste in my mouth after reading Pinsky’s book, to the extent where he’s starting to irk me even on the radio; there’s no doubt in my mind addiction hardwires the brain to harmful behavior, and there’s no doubt that narcissism in some cases springs from childhood abuse or tragedy. But for us to be human beings in what that has always been understood to mean we must be able to be jerks and to be held accountable for it.

The same goes for the DSM-V: If my (hypothetical) debt is the product of a mental illness, should the credit card company let me off the hook? If my (very real) bitterness is turning people off, should they assume I’m a good person who’s suffering from a “brain disorder”? As usual for critiques of psychiatry, I turn to Walker Percy to make my point for me:
suppose you could show me one “sin,” one pure act of malevolence. A different cup of tea! That would bring matters to a screeching halt. But we have plenty of evil around you say. What about Hitler, the gas ovens and so forth? What about them? As everyone knows and says, Hitler was a madman. And it seems nobody else was responsible. Everyone was following orders. It is even possible that there was no such order, that it was all a bureaucratic mistake.
Percy is right; for us to be human beings—for us to be capable of doing good—we must be capable of doing wrong, and we must be held responsible for it when we do so. I’m afraid that the APA is moving further and further away from this, into a world where human beings are mere medical cases, lab rats waiting for the doctor’s cure for issues of the soul.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Friday Links

Friday links triumphantly returns!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Transcendence of 'The Transcendence of the Ego'

I tried my best to just “jump into” Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophical masterwork, Being and Nothingness, but I just couldn’t—not even after seven months of struggling through Heidegger’s Being and Time. Being and Nothingness is as difficult (the cynic in me says “incomprehensible”) as Being and Time, but it’s even more frustrating. It’s easy to blame the difficulty of Being and Time on Heidegger’s failure as a writer; it’s easy to say he was just no good at it and that it wouldn’t be fair to expect him to write clearly. But Sartre is a good writer, even a great one, when he wants to be, as you can tell from his fiction and from his wonderful little essay “Existentialism Is a Humanism.” So why is Being and Nothingness so incredibly hard to understand?

For answers, I turned to Paul Vincent Spade, whose excellent and extensive class notes on Being and Nothingness are available online. Spade is clear where Sartre is obscure; I can’t imagine going through Sartre without him. But before he discusses Being and Nothingness, Spade has his students read through an earlier work of philosophy by Sartre, 1937’s The Transcendence of the Ego, which, he warns, may be even more difficult.

He’s right. I took Transcendence slowly and used Spade’s notes, but it still made my head hurt. But halfway through, his points began revealing themselves to me. Essentially, Sartre argues in this book that there’s no such thing as a “transcendent ego”—that mysterious creature posited by Kant and Husserl that creates the world “outside” of the human mind. I’ve not read Kant and Husserl, and so I struggled with this part even after reading Spade’s explanation of their thought.

But when Sartre turns to philosophical egoism, I understand him completely. Egoism, as I’m sure you know, is the notion (put forth by Ayn Rand and some people who are possibly even more unpleasant than her) that human beings necessarily follow their own best interests. Thus, there’s no such thing as altruism; if I see someone in need and I give her something to help her out, I’m doing so only to assuage my own guilty conscience, not because I care about her.

Sartre rejects this notion outright, not because he believes in the goodness of humanity but because it’s a philosophical and psychological absurdity. The reason, it seems, goes back to Husserl, who says that every act of consciousness must be a consciousness of something—consciousness, in other words, is always transitive in the grammatical sense. Thus no consciousness is consciousness of itself—if one wishes to turn the eye of consciousness onto itself, one can do it only by examining a prior act of consciousness. (I’ve believed this for years without knowing the philosophical terms for it; you can’t examine yourself wholly because you can’t examine the part of yourself conducting the examination.)

So how does this assertion disprove egoism? Simple: it disproves the notion of an unconscious ego. (Sartre, I believe, rejects the notion of the unconscious mind altogether, since the word mind designates consciousness and consciousness cannot be unconscious—but one need not go this far to agree with his dismissal of egoism.) Consciousness cannot be consciousness of consciousness, so a person absolutely cannot be aware of herself when she is focused on someone else’s problems. Jane sees Charlie suffering; in her consciousness of Charlie’s suffering, Jane’s ego does not exist, since you can’t be simultaneously conscious of someone else and yourself. The ego enters only later, when Jane reflects upon her response to Charlie. There’s no unconscious egoism involved when Jane gives a dollar to Charlie—there’s only her response to Charlie.

Thus there’s a gulf between consciousness of the world (an imprecise term, and Sartre prefers the more focused but more obscure being-in-itself) and consciousness of oneself (which Sartre calls being-for-itself). Spade describes the act of crossing from one to the other as something violent, something painful in a spiritual sense—even though we do it hundreds of times a day.

I think this explains why The Transcendence of the Ego (as well as Being and Nothingness and other works about consciousness itself) is so difficult to read. Oftentimes, when you read a book, you “lose yourself” in it—you get bound up into the plot of the novel or the argument of the philosophy, and you’re not conscious of your own ego. But that absorption is not possible when reading a book about consciousness; the argument (another controversial term, since Sartre, with his phenomenological background, doesn’t technically “make arguments” but merely “observes,” but let’s not worry about that for our purposes) involves a nearly constant shift from consciousness of being-in-itself (the book) to being-for-itself (my act of reading the book). A writer may be able to write a book about consciousness well or poorly, but it’s going to be difficult no matter what—because the act of reading is always already violent; it constantly shifts your attention.

It’s either that, or I’m just making excuses for my short attention span.

Monday, August 3, 2009


I’ve liked Ernest Hemingway’s work ever since 10th grade, where I first encountered A Farewell to Arms and lost myself in its quiet horror. My affection for that novel, however, never really translated into full-scale obsession the way it did, at the time, for T.S. Eliot or William Blake; more than a decade later, I haven’t read much more of Hemingway than I had at the time, and the one time I did read The Sun Also Rises, I did it in three hours one cold Sunday morning—and I didn’t pay much attention to it.

I’m reading Sun again for my comprehensive exams, which of course forces me to slow down and pay more attention this time, and as I go through it I remember the things I liked about Hemingway in high school and the things I learned that I should probably hate about him—the ridiculous “hard-boiled-ness” of his protagonists, for example, wears thin after awhile for any reader who’s safely made it through puberty.

(Funny story: I had to reread A Farewell to Arms for a class in college. I’d just seen the Coen Brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There, a pastiche of film noir and existentialism, and I couldn’t make it through Hemingway’s novel without cracking up, imagining Frederic Henry’s monosyllabic responses coming from Billy Bob Thornton’s laconic barber. Okay, I guess that story's not that funny, but it makes me laugh, anyway.)

Probably the first thing you learn in any classroom scenario critical of Hemingway’s work is the feminist objection to him. There’s a group of scholars now who are desperately trying to “reclaim” A Farewell to Arms, saying that Catherine Barkley is a strong character and perhaps even some sort of role model. These people are insane. Hemingway seems incapable of writing a female character with any kind of depth or verisimilitude to her; women are, for him, either mannish sexual aggressors or submissive and docile objects of masculine sexual aggression.

But that’s not even the biggest problem with Hemingway’s portrayal of women. A long passage from The Sun Also Rises demonstrates:
Women made such swell friends. Awfully swell. In the first place, you had to be in love with a woman to have a basis of friendship. I had been having Brett for a friend. I had not been thinking about her side of it. I had been getting something from nothing. That only delayed the presentation of the bill. The bill always came. That was one of the swell things you could count on.

I thought I had paid for everything. Not like the woman pays and pays and pays. No idea of retribution or punishment. Just exchange of values. You gave up something and got something else. Or you worked for something. You paid some way for everything that was any good. I paid my way into enough things that I liked, so that I had a good time. Either you paid by learning about them, or by experience, or by taking chances, or by money. Enjoying living was learning to get your money’s worth and knowing when you had it. You could get your money’s worth.
Obviously, masculinity’s a big deal for Hemingway. His protagonists may be cerebral and literate, but they always have a connection to the body; they’re always fishing or boxing or bull-fighting. Masculinity—even mere male-ness—is a restorative condition in Hemingway’s work. Feeling down? Play tennis for four hours, and you’ll get your soul back.

Accordingly, male-to-male (or “homosocial,” to use Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s famous term for it) relationships are generally positive in his fiction. Think of the male relationships in Hemingway’s novels—think of how much more vivid, for example, Frederic Henry’s relationship with Rinaldo is than his romance with Catherine. Men are able to achieve Heideggerian being-with-one-another only with other men—the entrance of women into the equation creates an economy of relationships in which no one gets anything for free and in which even gifts have huge and heavy strings attached to them.

Furthermore, women move homosocial relationships from the realm of the being-with-one-another into the realm of the being-against-one-another. Jake and Robert Cohn, for example, have their falling-out over their conflicting relationships with Brett. Women, in Hemingway’s novels, are poisonous and contagious, infecting everything and everyone they touch. And yet they’re unavoidable; even Jake Barnes, who’s unable even to have a sexual relationship, can’t stay away from Brett Ashley.

Hemingway’s feminist critics are right, in other words. The problem with his novels from a gender standpoint is not that he doesn’t know how to write a believable woman without making her into a man; it’s that his women are, to paraphrase the Hollies, King Midases in reverse, destroying everything they touch.

Not that Hemingway was alone in this, of course—The Great Gatsby’s Daisy Buchanan, for example, seems to exist mostly as a way to take Nick's model of masculinity away from him. Nor is he a mere product of his time, one that we can look back on in innocent disgust, as Judd Apatow’s “bro-romance” comedies demonstrate. (Seth Rogan’s friendship with Paul Rudd in Knocked Up is far more compelling than his sexual relationship with Katherine Heigl.)

I’ve written about the kinks in male-female relationships elsewhere, and I wonder to what extent those who take Genesis 1-3 seriously as mythology can blame this phenomenon on the Fall. Male-female relationships are obviously more complicated than male-male or female-female relationships, since there’s an entirely new brain system to deal with in the latter.

As I (jokingly) tell my wife, I don’t read women authors, so I’m wondering if we see a similar structure in fiction by women. Are men mere agents of entropy and destruction? I’m not sure, but I suspect not: Women are for the most part capable of greater nuance and complication than are men, a product of the superiority of the X chromosome to the small and decaying Y.

This went a long way off track from The Sun Also Rises, but you’ll have to forgive me—I haven’t written one of these in quite some time.