Friday, October 30, 2009

'The Birth-Mark' Takes on Enlightenment Scientism

In his excellent and highly recommended essay “Contemporary Southern Literature,” Richard M. Weaver posits the South as the only American region—and probably the only region in the world—capable of saving literature from two deep anthropological errors. In one corner, we have the Emersons and Thoreaus who spend their lives denying humanity’s capacity for wickedness; in the other, we have the later naturalistic school (Dresier, Crane, et al) who claim that human beings are mere symptoms of their environment. (If these two schools sound familiar, it’s because they largely survive today.) “One school of writing,” says Weaver
tried to present man as all glory. A later school tried to present him as all jest—for that is what he must be if he is considered merely the pawn of circumstances. Only the contemporary Southern school has combined the glory and the jest and remained faithful to the riddle of man which may never be answered.Weaver, like many of the South’s most strident advocates, is prone to overstatement. It’s true, of course, that the two movements he discusses—both of them peddling what is in the end a destructive philosophy of humankind, although I don’t think Emerson is as bad as he says he is—began north of the Mason-Dixon line. And it’s true that in 1959, at the time of his writing, the Southern Renaissance was presenting us with numerous writers who did justice to the terrible mystery of humanity.
But it’s not that simple; the South has always had its share of novelists who lean too far to one side or the other (Faulkner, who is fatalistic to a startling degree, is the most obvious kinsman to Crane and Dreiser; the post-Civil War writers who would have given everything they own to return to the era of happy slaves and virginal young women fit, in their way, in with the Transcendentalists.) And besides, you can always find counterexamples from other parts of the country. It’s patronizing for Weaver to claim the South as the spiritual center of American literature, even if he does so chiefly because as a region it has been undervalued through the years.

How he could read Hawthorne, for example, and not see a philosophical kinsman is beyond me. Hawthorne famously descends from the Puritans of Salem, Massachusetts, a name now synonymous with spiritual oppression and persecution, and he does not shy away from telling the story of that oppression in stark and disturbing terms. But he does not have a knee-jerk reaction to his Puritan ancestors the way Emerson and Thoreau do; in terms of his literature, at least, he pretty much remains a Puritan his entire career, whatever he actually believed.

Weaver should have been able to get behind “The Birth-Mark,” in particular, a story that anticipates Walker Percy’s skepticism of science’s reign over the popular mind and which, in the end, could have been written by Harry Crews if not for the absence of obscenity. Hawthorne seems to have written it for the sole purpose of taking all the air out of Enlightenment optimism of the variety that created Emerson. (The Transcendentalists were not, strictly speaking, Enlightenment men; they were instead Romantics in the Byronian/Keatsian mold. But the Enlightenment lead to Romanticism, which borrowed from the movement it deposed an overwhelming optimism as to the nature and destiny of humankind.)

Our protagonist is Aylmer, a scientist hell-bent on progressing his discipline until human beings conquer the world around them. In his world, “Nature seemed to open paths into the region of miracle.” Indeed, his scientific experiments are “of a spiritual affinity more . . . than any chemical one.” Aylmer’s philosophy is one in which the categories of physical and spiritual have collapsed into one. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it was true of the Middle Ages, as well, and largely true of Hawthorne’s own work. But Hawthorne reads the physical through the spiritual, whereas Aylmer wishes to read the spiritual through the physical.

Enlightenment-style scientism, then, is a reversal of the natural order of things, an attempt to reduce the complicated spiritual world to the easy world of appearances. Aylmer is sinister not because he is a misanthrope but because he loves humanity so much, and so blindly. The central plot of the story involves his relationship with his wife, who is nearly perfect but who has a small, hand-shaped birthmark on her cheek. This will not stand with her husband, who can’t look at it without turning it into “the visible mark of earthly imperfection.” He therefore elects to use his knowledge of chemistry to remove it and to create the perfect human being.

These, then, are the two marks of the Enlightenment’s abuse of science: Humanity is seen as ultimately perfectable, and it is humanity itself that can perfect it. Hawthorne is clear that what Aylmer and his real-life counterparts practice is not science but rather a sort of base superstition; we know this is true because of Aylmer’s appeal to the alchemists, who he really believes were onto something even if “a philosopher who should go deep enough to acquire the power would attain too lofty a wisdom to stoop to the exercise of it.” (Again, there’s the innate goodness of man on full display in a sort of free-market scientism. We must never ask if we should do something; we need only know that we can, and we must trust that we’re wise enough not to screw things up too badly.)

The problem with scientism’s obsession with the perfectability of humanity is that it completely ignores what it means to be human. Aylmer’s wife, Georgiana, has lived with this birthmark for her entire life, and no one has ever told her that it is a blemish. Her husband’s obsession over it leads her to a strong and irrational self-hatred, leading her to submit to Aylmer’s bizarre tests, which will eventually kill her.

The reason, of course, is that to be human means to be blemished. Once we attempt to remove all of the problems from a person—once we explain them away, for example, as the trend seems to be in modern psychiatry, or once we put to death that tricky old word, sin—we also remove something at the very core of their humanity. Aylmer kills his wife and grants to “the veriest clod of earth . . . a soul”; the two moves are not unconnected. What separates humanity from the matter around them is not just the ability to have faults but the inability not to.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Christian Humanist Episode #2: Christian Humanism Meets John Calvin

This week, The Christian Humanist podcast discusses John Calvin's influence, for good or for ill, on Christian humanism.

A brief technical note: If you subscribed last week to our feed on iTunes, you need to delete that feed, re-search for the podcast, and resubscribe. We had to delete and resubmit the podcast because things didn't show up the way we wanted them to.

General Introduction
Response to questions from CWC: The Radio Show.
- How can Christian Humanism include both Erasmus and Aquinas?
- We refuse to comment on the relationship between faith and reason?
- Nathan begs Christian colleges to hire David and Michial.

Our First Encounters with Calvinism
No polemics here.
- Southern Baptists and Calvinism.
- Calvinism as a solution to total depravity.
- A moratorium on Calvinist dating strategies.
- Personal questions and intellectual debates.
- How much Calvin have we read, anyway?
- What does Reformed mean in terms of Calvinism?
- Is Open Theism an option?

Calvin's Minimalism
The Institutes as apology.
- Calvin as cherry-picker of the classics.
- Calvin's intellectual theology.
- Is there a place for visual art in Calvinism?

Calvin in Our Own Research

- Calvin as a giant of the 17th century.

- Reading Anglo-Saxon literature through Calvin.

- Calvinism and Christian existentialism.


- Is it fair to bind Calvinism to predestination?

- Is predestination a comforting or horrible doctrine?

Calvin's Legacy


Anselm. Monologion and Proslogion with the Replies of Gaunilo and Anselm. Trans. Thomas Williams. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1996.

Augustine. City of God
. Trans. Henry Bettenson. New York: Penguin, 2003.

Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics: A Selection
. Ed. Helmut Gollwitzer. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1994.

Calvin, John. The Institutes of the Christian Religion
. Trans. Ford Lewis Battles. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Fear and Trembling.
Trans. Alastair Hannay. New York: Penguin, 1986.

Lewis, C.S. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
. New York: Harper Collins, 1994.

Perkins, William. “Perkins’ Diagram of the Path to Salvation.” Religion and Society in Early Modern England
. Ed. David Cressy and Lori Anne Ferrell. New York: Routledge, 2005. 139-140.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “The Humanism of Existentialism.”
Essays in Existentialism. Ed. Wade Baskin. New York: Citadel, 1993. 31-62.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

In God's Country

Of the many aggravating buzzwords that cropped up around the administration of George W. Bush, perhaps the most aggravating was “the ‘blame America first’ crowd,” an epithet directed at anyone who dared to suggest that perhaps the events of September 11, 2001, were not undertaken merely because the terrorists “hated our freedom.” To say that America had any culpability was, for a time, tantamount to saying that we deserved it and that any nuclear weapon exploded over Chicago or New York or Los Angeles would also be well-deserved.

I suspect the general attitude that informed the use of this phrase springs from the notion of American Exceptionalism, which began long before the colonies became a country, continued on through Manifest Destiny, and got firmly attached to the Republican party about the time Ronald Reagan called the country a “city on a hill.” Exceptionalism sets up a false binary: Either America is the greatest country in the world—God’s country, in fact, created to be a shining example of democracy and Christianity, which are, in the eyes of some people, the same thing—or else it is the worst country in the world, a cesspool of intolerance that’s far inferior to anything in Europe. Republicans, in the eyes of some Democrats, say the former; Democrats, in the eyes of some Republicans, say the latter.

I am neither a Republican nor a Democrat, and so I suppose I’m somewhere in between the poles. I believe in American Exceptionalism to a limited extent in that I believe in the “mission” of the country and that I believe that democracy is a good system of government that beats out a lot of other options, but I don’t believe America holds a special religious status or (God forbid) that Christianity is somehow summed up in democracy. (In fact, I suspect God moves more freely in more oppressive countries, but I’m no church historian.)

Further, I believe that one thing that makes America great is its capacity for self-doubt. I think it means something important and good that one reaction to September 11 was for some citizens to ask what we did to deserve it. The proper attitude for both the individual and the nation is constant self-scrutiny, constant self-improvement, and, if you’re of a religious mindset, constant repentance. So maybe blaming America first isn’t such a bad thing.

That being said, I think the term is misapplied largely because the people in question often aren’t blaming America qua America first; rather, they’re blaming their political enemies first. Thus, anything negative that happened to America from 2002 to 2008 was, naturally enough, George W. Bush’s fault (including Hurricane Katrina, you’ll remember); and, for Glenn Beck, et al, anything that’s happening bad right now is Barack Obama’s fault. The correct position is instead an inward stare. When the economy hits the skids, the first question we should ask ourselves is, “What did I do to make this happen or to keep it from not happening?” That’s the right way to blame America first; as Langston Hughes says, “I, too, am America.” Starting with self-doubt is a very good way to save yourself from self-righteousness when you actually start looking around at other causes.

That’s one reason I like Nathaniel Hawthorne. I hated The Scarlet Letter for a long time until I finally came around last summer. I’m rereading the novel yet again, and I’m noticing more and more the degree to which Hawthorne suspends judgment before enacting judgment. A popular 20th-/21st-century reading of the novel, for example, is to say that those awful Puritans were wrong to treat Hester Prynne as if she’d done something sinful. (See, for example, the truly execrable 1995 film version starring Demi Moore.)

But Hawthorne doesn’t allow for that reading. Hester Prynne does the wrong thing when she sleeps with Dimmesdale, however understandable her loneliness and their connection is. She even admits her wrongdoing to herself and undertakes her sewing career with “an element of penance” in it. Nor is the scarlet A an unequivocally cruel punishment; it alienates her from her fellow colonists, it’s true, but by the end of the novel it’s come to signify something else entirely.

So Hawthorne’s problem with the Puritans is not that they blame Hester Prynne for doing something wrong—indeed, he goes along with that blame to a certain extent. His problem with them is that they enact this condemnation on someone outside of themselves, ignoring the sin that most certainly dwells in their own hearts, thereby using Hester as a scapegoat for the wrongdoing of the entire community. It’s the same thing we see in politics when we blame an entire financial crisis on one political administration—things just aren’t that simple.

Ah, you might say, but when Hawthorne points a finger at the Puritans, he’s got three pointing back at himself. Isn’t he just using Puritan sins as a way to cast the reader’s eyes away from his own sins or the sins of his society? Well, no, he’s not, as is evidenced by the (at times boring but overall worthwhile) introduction to The Scarlet Letter, titled “The Custom-House.” Here he comes clean about his own ancestry. If you’ve read Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, you’ll no doubt remember Judge Hawthorn of the witch trials, who was an ancestor of Hawthorne’s and who put dozens of presumably innocent people to death:
I know not whether these ancestors of mine bethought themselves to repent, and ask pardon of Heaven for their cruelties; or whether they are now groaning under the heavy consequences of them, in another state of being. At all events, I, the present writer, as their representative, hereby take shame upon myself for their sakes, and pray that any curse incurred by them—as I have heard, and as the dreary and unprosperous condition of the race, for many a long year back, would argue to exist—may be now and henceforth removed.
The only way, in other words, that Hawthorne can even get down to telling the condemnatory tale of Hester Prynne, is by implicating himself, via his ancestry, right away, and asking forgiveness from God and the reader for his own culpability, however unlikely or small.

It’s a remarkably humble move, one that greatly enriches the subtext of the novel, and one that could teach today’s political commentators (yes, including myself) quite a bit.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Christian Humanist Episode #1: What Is Christian Humanism

After a few misfires and foul-ups, I'm proud to announce that the first episode of my podcast with Nathan Gilmour and David Grubbs, "The Christian Humanist." We'll be recording these every Tuesday (at least this semester...things can always change) on a variety of topics. (We've got the first six or seven lined up, and they look like winners to me.) We've submitted the episode to iTunes, so it'll be up there before too long, and you can subscribe to it there if you are so inclined. I'll also post a link to the MP3 and the show notes here each week. Happy listening, and let us know what you think!

Episode #1: What Is Christian Humanism?

General Introduction

Definitions of Humanism

- “Secular humanism”

- Study of the humanities—discipline and education

- “Philosophy is the handmaiden of theology”

Humanism in the Early Church and the Medieval Era

- Justin Martyr’s adaptation of the Logos

- Tertullian’s rejection of Athens

- Alfred the Great as humanist

Humanism in the Renaissance

- Desiderius Erasmus vs. Martin Luther

- Francisco Suarez as heir of Aquinas

- John Milton’s classicism

- Francis Bacon’s New Science

General and Special Revelation

- John Calvin, the Seneca scholar

- Is Christian humanism intellectual arrogance?

20th- and 21st-century Humanism

- New Critics

- “Heroic Critics”

- The dismantling of the Canon

- Christian colleges and humanism

Theological Objections to Christian Humanism

- Pauline objection

- Augustinian objection

- Barthian objection


Arnold, Matthew. Culture and Anarchy. New York: Oxford UP, 2006.

Augustine. Confessions. Trans. Henry Chadwick. New York: Oxford UP, 1998.

Bacon, Francis. The New Organon. Ed. Lisa Jardine and Michael Silverthorne. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000.

Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics: A Selection. Ed. Helmut Gollwitzer. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1994.

Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. New York: Riverhead, 1995.

Calvin, John. The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Trans. Ford Lewis Battles. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960.

Carson, D.A. Christ and Culture Revisited. New York: Eerdmans, 2008.

Denby, David. Great Books. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.

Erasmus, Desiderius. The Praise of Folly and Other Writings. Ed. Robert M. Adams. New York: Norton, 1989.

Justin Martyr. The Writings of Justin Martyr. Ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Berkeley, Ca.: Apocryphile, 2007.

Kurtz, Paul. Humanist Manifestos I and II. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus, 1984.

L’Engle, Madeleine. Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. New York: Shaw, 2001.

Milton, John. The Major Works. Ed. Stephen Orgel and Jonathan Goldberg. New York: Oxford UP, 2003.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. Christ and Culture. New York: Harper and Row, 1956.

Sayers, Dorothy L. The Mind of the Maker. New York: HarperOne, 1987.

Suarez, Francisco. On Creation, Conservation, and Concurrence: Metaphysical Disputations 20-22. Trans. Alfred J. Freddoso. Chicago: St. Augustine’s, 2002.

Tertullian. De Praescriptione Haereticorum ad Martyas. New York: General, 2009.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Tolkien Reader. New York: Del Rey, 1986.

Trilling, Lionel. The Liberal Imagination. New York: New York Review of Books, 2008.


Nathan Gilmour's blog

Columbia University’s Literature Humanities

Torrey Honors Institute

Bethel University’s Christianity and Western Culture

Bethel University’s Western Humanities

Why I Like Christian Colleges

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Book Review: 'My Father's Tears and Other Stories'

The party line on John Updike is that, while his novels are pretty good, it’s his short stories that will be his true legacy. I’ve always resisted this notion, not because there’s anything wrong with Updike’s short fiction but because his novels are so good. It’s in the longer fiction that we see the extent to which, contrary to some critics, Updike had something to say—given 300 pages to stretch it out, he moves beyond his famous descriptive skills and endows characters like Rabbit Angstrom or Roger Lambert with real philosophical import. The stories, on the other hand, are over in a flash, and more than any idea, you remember the turns of phrase and the images their author packs in.

The problem is that Updike didn’t release a good novel in the last thirteen years of his life. His last winner was 1996’s In the Beauty of the Lilies, which took everything he was good at and expanded it throughout four generations of would-be saints. It somehow hits all the things you associate with Updike—sex, death, popular culture, and religion—and puts them in an unfamiliar context, far from the dulleries of suburban wife-swapping that plagued late-period novels like Villages.

I’d mostly written Updike’s final decade off, in fact, after spending the first few months of 2009 reading Gertrude and Claudius, an interesting but not particularly successful “prequel” to Hamlet, and Terrorist, which tried its best to present a sympathetic portrayal of an Islamic radical but came out weak and flaccid. (It’s not quite as bad as everyone says it is, but it’s at best a noble failure.)

So reading My Father’s Tears and Other Stories, Updike’s final book, was a revelation. (I should say that it’s his final book as far as we know—one might imagine a Prince-esque vault full of unpublished fiction and poetry in Updike’s recently sold Beverly Farms estate, but given that the man published at the rate of 1.3 books per year, I find that prospect, however titillating, unlikely.) Updike had not lost his powers; he’d only lost the ability to express them in spurts of 300 pages. Indeed, the eighteen stories in this volume rank among his most effective work, bolstered by a new sort of melancholy one does not find in the best of his novels.

It’s impossible to read My Father’s Tears and Other Stories without thinking of Updike’s death, which followed the last story in the volume (“The Full Glass”) by eight months and which preceded the publication of the collection by five. With a few exceptions (“Morocco,” first published in 1979 and dealing with events a decade earlier, being the most obvious), Updike creates shadow-selves in these stories only to watch them decay or destroy them outright. There’s thus an air of suicide here, coupled with an obvious grasp at immortality, since Updike knows people will be reading his fiction long after his body has decayed.

The selves he presents us with are familiar—most of them could easily be Rabbit Angstrom or Piet Hanema or Roger Lambert, or for that matter, the Updike we discover beneath the fiction in his memoirs, Self-Consciousness. But, presented as they are in the winter of their lives, they are simultaneously unfamiliar. They’re aware of what awaits them in months of years, aware that the life they have drank so eagerly from for decades is about to slip through their fingers.

Their reactions vary; some, like our old friend David Kern, who shows up in two stories, do everything they can to recapture the past and make it part of whatever small future they have remaining for them. In “The Walk with Elizanne,” Kern meets his first girlfriend at his high-school class’s fiftieth reunion, discovers the secret meaning of life in male-female relationships:
Elizanne, he wanted to ask her, what does it mean, this enormity of our having been children and now being old, living next door to death? He had been the age then that his grandsons were now. As he had lived, he had come to see that for a man there is no antidote to death but a woman. Yet from where, he wanted now to ask Elizanne, does a woman draw this antidote, her cosmic balm? And does it work for her as well?
The story ends with a lovely description of the titular walk, one that redeems David’s sadness at the ravages of age and makes a sacrament of their innocence and exploration. David’s spiritual brother is the unnamed narrator of “The Full Glass,” who spends the story reminiscing on his attempts—successful and otherwise—to grasp life by the horns, to truly live it, to drink from a full glass.

Other characters can’t muster this effort. Martin Fairchild, the protagonist of “The Accelerating Expansion of the Universe,” finds himself faced with a cruel and uncaring universe, devoid, the scientists tell him, of a benign or benevolent divine presence. He can transcend it only through the violence that is done to him, as when he is injured by a purse-snatcher in Seville.

But this strangely pleasing incident only goes so far, and Martin finds himself alone when he returns home. He retreats to his barn, the home of an ancient cupboard owned by his mother before her death, a home for “Souvenirs of a life of which Fairchild was the last caring witness” (151). The story’s Flannery O’Connor-esque ending allows him a final moment of transcendence of his memory and of the universe’s blind watchmaker.

Some of Updike’s protagonists finally learn morality in their final years. Updike has always been a frustrating novelist for his steadfast refusal to judge any character or to present any clear moral; combined with his own antinomian sexual history and his continued profession of belief in Christianity, he and his autobiographical characters have always been an enigma. But in several of these stories—“Free” and “Outage”—they finally learn to love their wives and submit to a conventional sexual morality. I can’t say much more without giving away the ending of the story, a move that violates Updike’s own rules for reviewing books—but it’s nice to see their author taking a stand for once.

The true gem of My Father’s Tears and Other Stories, however, is “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” written shortly after the events of September 11, 2001. Updike takes the point-of-view of four participants in the terrorist attacks—an Episcopalian who, like Updike, watched the towers crumble from Brooklyn Heights; Mohamed Atta, who hijacked Flight 11 and spends his section of the story in a strip club, drinking whiskey and trying to fit in; an elderly woman who witnesses the heroism of those aboard Flight 93, who prays for mercy seconds before hitting the ground outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania; and a bond trader on the top floor of the North Tower, who has his final conversation with his wife before jumping out the window.

Writing about such a horrific event, especially so soon after it happened, must be one of the very hardest thing an author can do, and numerous others—Don DeLillo comes to mind—have failed to produce compelling work out of the wreckage of the towers. But Updike succeeds largely because he refuses to draw conclusions; he presents these four stories without sentimentality and therefore succeeds in moving the reader. His use of religion is understated but effective; the Hand of God doesn’t appear in the wreckage, and the characters who maintain their faith in the face of tragedy do so for reasons even they don’t understand, which strikes me, at any rate, as accurate.

Aside from a few stories about his childhood—these have never particularly interested me—and a few that go nowhere (“Spanish Prelude to a Second Marriage,” for example, is overwhelmingly boring and detracts from the overall mood of the collection), My Father’s Tears and Other Stories is a moving end to the career of the person who may be the quintessential fiction writer of 20th-century America. Anyone disappointed by Seek My Face or The Widows of Eastwick would be wise to turn here before writing off Updike’s final decade.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Jewish-Presbyterian World of the Coen Brothers

I don’t write much about movies on this blog—aside from my numerous Disney posts—mostly because I haven’t seen enough of them to have much of value to say. The exception to my general ignorance, however, are the films of the Coen Brothers. I’ve seen all of them except this year’s A Serious Man (which I’m dying to see and which I will probably use in my dissertation once I do), and I like them all, even The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty.

The complaint you frequently hear about the Coens is that their movies are all style and no substance. They’re not—critics must be thinking of the beautiful but vapid work of Tim Burton. The Coens’ work is ripe with profundity, even as it defies analysis; they’re fond of playing tricks on the audience, throwing out red herrings and, presumably, laughing as the bad analyses pour in. (A few examples: the claims that O Brother, Where Art Thou is based on The Odyssey and that Fargo is a true story, both of which they’ve later denied.)

No, the meaning of the Coen movies are hidden beneath the flash and glitter of the cinematography (always perfectly planned and perfectly executed), beneath the complicated dialogue that almost never fits the characters, beneath the layers of postmodern “clues” that lead nowhere as surely as a Thomas Pynchon novel. The meaning, furthermore, belongs as much to John Calvin as it does to the Coens’ secular Judaism, to the first point of his famous TULIP, total depravity.

Calvin, as is obvious to anyone who’s read him or anything about him, is no fan of humanity. God has implanted in each of us an inborn religious drive, but it is “either smothered or corrupted, partly by ignorance, partly by malice” (Institutes I.IV). Man is totally depraved, which, despite the occasional defenses of Calvinists, does indeed mean that every single part of every single human being is tainted and untrustworthy.

This is not an optimistic view, to understate the obvious, and it becomes even darker when one disregards the other four points of TULIP, which serve to lessen and mitigate it. The Coens are forced to disregard the other four points, of course, since they all (unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints) require an active and gracious God. The Coens’ God, best I can tell, is absent and/or cruel, in the tradition of the darker books of the Hebrew Bible, and so there’s no room for election or grace in their theology. (Apparently A Serious Man makes this even clearer; someone should buy me tickets to this movie.)

But they’re almost wholly on board with total depravity. Their dramas, in particular, all feature a force of unrelenting and unexplainable evil. No Country for Old Men’s psychotic serial killer, Anton Chigurh, is the most obvious example, even though he was created by Cormac McCarthy. But all the dramas feature a similarly evil character—think of Gaear Grimsrud in Fargo, or Julian Marty in Blood Simple—that is almost unstoppable by the other, more sympathetic, characters. The amazing thing about the Coens, however, is that these figures of evil never lose their humanity; they maintain the image of God, however perverted and corrupted by violence it may be.

Of the dramas, Barton Fink has the most sophisticated and interesting portrayal of evil. No character in the film is good—even its protagonist, whom we’re set up to like given his similarity to the Coens themselves and his name’s presence in the title, proves himself a patronizing and pompous fool. He’s a “friend of the common man,” as Pappy O’Daniel will be nine years later, but he’s completely blocked out the stories around him.

No, the most likeable character in the movie is John Goodman’s Charlie Meadows, a traveling insurance salesman who lives next door to Barton at the Hotel Earle. He’s a big, gregarious guy, a little stupid perhaps, but he has a good heart and is the “only person in Hollywood [Barton] can talk to.” Problem is, Barton doesn’t listen to him; when he finds out his new neighbor is a writer, Charlie repeatedly declares that “I could tell you some stories,” but before he has an opportunity to do so, Barton launches into rant after rant on the state of American drama, which should belong to people like Charlie instead of “the fifth earl of Bastrop and Lady Higginbottom and . . . Nigel Grinch-Gibbons.”

So the audience likes Charlie Meadows much more than it likes Barton Fink, and that’s why it comes as such a shock when [SPOILER ALERT] he turns out to be the notorious serial killer Karl “Madman” Mundt, who “likes to ventilate people with a shotgun and then cut their heads off.” He’s done just that, it turns out, to a woman with whom Barton has slept—and he’s somehow done it silently, as Barton slept next to her.

The obvious question, of course, is, How could Barton have slept through a murder committed six inches from him? The answers are suggestions rather than statements. The movie takes place in 1941, just after the bombing of Pearl Harbor necessitated U.S. involvement in World War II and several years after Hitler’s death camps became known. So one possible answer comes in the form of another question (in the Jewish tradition): How could the United States, and in particular the Jewish liberals in Hollywood and on Broadway, have slept soundly while millions of people were being gassed?

That’s the political answer. The theological answer is that we’re not quite sure that Karl Mundt committed the murder. He seems genuinely shocked when Barton goes to him for help, after all, and he doesn’t seem to have a key to the room, nor could he move silently through it. Barton claims he didn’t kill his lover, but he could have done so unconsciously, in his sleep, which would certainly fit with the Coens’ dim view of humanity. Charlie gives Barton a head-sized box just before he skips town; we never find out if it contains Audrey’s head or not, but when Barton is asked at the end of the film if it is his, he can only reply, “I don’t know.” He finally recognizes depravity—not just around him in individuals or in social structures, but in himself.

Evil is less obvious in the comedies, perhaps, though it’s still there in the form of Leonard Smalls in Raising Arizona or Sidney J. Mussburger in The Hudsucker Proxy. More often, however, the Coens show the darkness of human nature in their comedies by flat-out stupidity. The three convicts in O Brother, Where Art Thou have to be three of the dumbest people ever to be projected onto a movie screen, for example; and nearly everyone in The Big Lebowski is so stupid they’d be ejected from a public kindergarten (and probably were).

This is in keeping with Calvin’s view of total depravity, in which God’s presence in the world is blocked not only by evil but by human ignorance, or, as Calvin prefers to call it, stupidity. And this stupidity is exacerbated by vanity: “their stupidity is not excusable, since it is caused not only by vain curiosity but by an inordinate desire to know more than is fitting, joined with a false confidence” (Institutes I.IV.1). If there’s a better description of Ulysses Everett McGill, I don’t know what it is—he even uses his limited knowledge of history, science, and society, to declare that the age of religion has passed, even as God clearly saves him and his friends from execution. The hardened and ignorant human heart denies the presence of grace.

The Coens are not completely committed to total depravity, however, as a viewing of Fargo demonstrates. Frances McDormand, who is married to Joel Coen, plays small-town sheriff Marge Gunderson, whose politeness and kindness are very real (as opposed to every other aw-shucks Minnesotan in the movie) and whose detective abilities save the day. I spent the entire movie waiting for the very pregnant Gunderson to be savagely murdered, but it never happens; indeed, she performs the coda of the movie, the moral, a speech that demonstrates the way in which she accepts but can’t quite understand the depravity of those around her. (Fargo is to some extent Melville’s Billy Budd with a happy ending—Marge is as innocent as a lamb but as crafty as a serpent. She can recognize evil but refuses to participate, whereas Billy can scarcely believe it exists.)

This is in the end a very different vision of depravity than Calvin’s, in that it holds out the possibility of a human-based redemption or exemption from the big T in TULIP. (The Coens, who are getting bleaker as the years progress, may go back on it when they cast McDormand as the truly vain and vapid Linda Litzke in Burn After Reading, a comedy so black that it may be darker than No Country for Old Men.) They don’t hold out hope for a God who intervenes, at least not in benevolent ways, and so if there’s to be hope in this world, it must come in the form of genuinely “good people” like Marge Gunderson. Still, Calvin might approve their oeuvre with reservations. Out of the hundreds of characters in their fourteen movies, we’re given only one who is neither debased nor stupid—hardly a good sign for the human redemption of humankind.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Stephen Crane and the Destruction of the Human

The popular wisdom is that the great national theme of American literature is that of the heroic individual vs. the cruel and robotic society. Thus we get Natty Bumppo single-handedly winning the French and Indian War; thus we get Huck Finn lighting out for the territory to escape the Missouri slave trade; and thus we get the literature of the 1950s and 1960s, with Cheever’s and Updike’s disgusted suburbanites doing anything they can to escape the suffocating ennui around them.

Millions of readers have seen the same forces at play in Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage—the only Crane most people ever read, apart from the early free-verse experiment “War Is Kind.” (I’m not much better, mind you; I read “The Open Boat” in my sophomore year of college, but I don’t remember anything about it.) It’s not exactly a misreading if you read Henry Fleming’s army misadventures as his struggle against society, but it’s not entirely accurate, either.

Certainly Henry feels oppressed. Who wouldn’t? Crane never refers to any character in this novel by his Christian name. He gives us only “the youth” or “the tall soldier” or “the loud soldier,” leaving us to discover through dialogue that their names are actually Henry, Jim, and Wilson. These men—boys, really—are faceless and nameless, pieces of meat to catch the fire of the pieces of meat who fight for the other side.

The war itself doesn’t seem to be worth much. We’re never told in the novel that this is the Civil War, and while Shelby Foote reveals that the battle in which Henry disproves, then proves, his mettle is Chancellorsville, you’d have to be a Civil War historian of his magnitude to figure it out from the text, since there’s no reference to place or person. No deeper reasons are given for the war; the soldiers themselves seem innocent as to why it’s taking place, and all they want is personal glory, to prove themselves in the context of mythic warriors like Homer’s Achilles.

But, as Crane shows us, this glory is not forthcoming. Henry finds himself “merely as part of a vast blue demonstration. His province was to look out, as far as he could, for his personal comfort” (14). In such a vast and ugly machine as the Union regiment, personal glory is impossible, and all you’re left with is a base selfishness. Self-interest becomes self-assertion.

So when Henry runs away from his first battle, we’re inclined to think him an existential hero even as he is a traditional failure. We’re inclined, in other words, to read his desertion as a Heideggerian action, a rebellion against the cruel strictures of society. After all, before his desertion, he finds his Self nearly wholly subsumed into the machinations of his unit:
He suddenly lost concern for himself, and forgot to look at a menacing fate. He became not a man but a member. He felt that something of which he was a part—a regiment, an army, a cause, or a country—was in a crisis. He was welded into a common personality which was dominated by a single desire. For some moments he could not flee, no more than a little finger can commit a revolution from a hand.
The pre-revolutionary reader—if such a person existed for a novel published in 1895—would no doubt see this subsuming of the self into a larger purpose as a good thing. A person reading after the October Revolution and particularly after the end of World War II would see it as an unequivocal evil, since it involves the utter lost of the self and the triumph of an oppressive and violent whole. Crane is somewhere in the middle.

Crane, it should be noted, wrote into a very specific cultural and literary milieu. The late 19th century was, in America, the heyday of naturalism, possibly the bleakest artistic movement in American cultural history. The movement began in the wake of the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which took man’s unique place in the universe from him and made him an object among objects.

Thus these writers (Jack London, Edith Wharton, Frank Norris, and Theodore Dreiser are the most notable naturalists in America; Émile Zola is the most famous outside of the States) presented their characters as doomed by the machinations of their societies, destined to fail and to be destroyed by a culture that was much more powerful than them. It’s the bleakest parts of Calvinism without a benevolent deity calling the shots.

So Crane is neither valorizing nor judging the system; the naturalists, apart from Dreiser (who is more preachy than any Victorian novelist I’ve ever read), are notorious for their utter lack of moralizing. Instead, Crane gives us life as he sees it, with no harsh words for the society that makes Henry one of their own, nor any praise for the young man who deserts it out of fear for his life.

In fact, when Henry deserts his regiment, he’s no more acting from his own volition than he was when he was caught up in the collective heat of battle. Crane tells us that another deserting soldier does so from the call of “a revelation” (76), and when Henry himself runs, he does so “like a blind man” (77), mechanically and thoughtlessly. Henry, it seems, has been so conditioned by the social forces that have shaped his entire life to this point, to run; it’s not something he thinks about and not something he chooses. He’s not responsible for it, to bless or to blame. He’s an animal or a robot.

Henry’s problem, in Crane’s judgment, is that he can’t accept this state of things. He shifts between twin poles of total heroism (as when he enters the battle at the end of the novel and saves the American flag) and total debasement (as when he calls himself a worm for his desertion), when the truth is something else entirely. Henry, like the rest of us, is not responsible for his deeds or his misdeeds, and it’s society that makes him what he is.

That’s why I say that Crane destroys the human in The Red Badge of Courage. Henry is freed of responsibility by the narrator and by the reader, which is an attractive proposition, especially when he’s being let off the hook for his cowardice. But he’s done so at the expense of his individuality and his nobility—he’s let off the hook because he is little more than a cog in a vast machine, with no help of ever asserting any kind of authentic self. If his authentic self existed, it would be that of an animal, unthinking and instinctual. This is no way to live, but Crane shows us clearly that it’s the way man must live under a wholly naturalist system. And he does so better than Dreiser and London, perhaps better than anyone.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Concluding Unscientific Postscript on Charles Brockden Brown

In my last post on Charles Brockden Brown, I complained that while, in the words of one critic, he may have been the first American novelist of ideas, he lacked the philosophical courage and the literary talent to follow those ideas through to interesting conclusions. This impression has been slightly lessened upon my reading of his later novel Edgar Huntly, which is more willing than its more famous predecessor to interrogate humanity’s inner being but which still betrays a reluctance to see the heart of darkness lurking behind Enlightenment thought.

Edgar Huntly
is for its first third or so a detective knowledge (decades, you will note, before “Murders in the Rue Morgue”), in which the titular protagonist tries to find out who has committed the savage murder of his best friend. The subtitle of the novel informs us that Huntly is a sleepwalker (a practice which no doubt signified the same sort of mystical pseudo-science as ventriloquism and hypnotism in the early days of this nation), and so the reader is led to believe that he will himself have murdered his friend in his sleep and be unwittingly hunting himself, seeking punishment.

Brown encourages us to scoff at Huntly; as we know before he does that he sleepwalks, we are able to notice how hypocritical he’s being when he says of another suspect that
The incapacity of sound sleep denotes a mind sorely wounded. It is thus that atrocious criminals denote the possession of some deadly secret. The thoughts, which considerations of safety enables [sic] them to suppress or disguise during wakefulness, operate without impediment, and exhibit their genuine effects, when the notices of sense are are shut out from a knowledge of their intire [sic] condition.
The double self he sets up for Clithero could, no doubt, apply to himself as well, and indeed, he is remarkably double-minded. For example, he remarks at one point that “Curiosity is vicious, if undisciplined by reason, and inconducive to benefit,” then turns around, just two sentences later, and says that “Curiosity, like virtue is its own reward.” He is in possession of a remarkably sunny attitude toward human nature, prizing a self-righteous benevolence in the face of Clithero’s supposed sin, setting himself in the position of a judgmental but forgiving God.

So yes, we’re expecting that he will receive his come-uppance in the form of the revelation of his own double self, a shadow-side that takes over at night and murders those closest to him. But that doesn’t happen. The detective story drops out 100 pages in, and we’re left with a Cooper-esque wilderness adventure. Clithero confesses that, yes, he is a sleepwalker, and yes, he accidentally killed someone, but that was a long ago and has nothing to do with Huntly’s friend. Then he disappears into a deep cave, presumably to starve himself to death in penance.

Huntly himself has become a sleepwalker by this point, however—apparently it’s contagious—and he wakes up in that same deep, dark cave. These actions, both the sleepwalking and the cave, set Clithero up as Huntly’s shadow-self, a prefiguring of the döppelganger trope that would prove so popular half a century later in the American Renaissance. But Clithero is nowhere to be found; instead, Huntly runs into a panther, which he kills with a tomahawk and eats raw, and a tribe of American Indians in the midst of raping a young white woman. He kills them, too. He has become a savage, a shadow-self.

Problem is, we’re not encouraged to condemn him for his slaughter of the Indians. They are, after all, “savages” and are committing a terrible crime against an innocent woman, and besides that, they would probably have killed him if he hadn’t gotten them first. Huntly is disgusted at himself for eating the panther, but the reader is inclined to let him off the hook; he was starving, after all.

So Huntly manages to rise above the “savagery” around him, even when he is in the dark, sinister cave, the site of amorality and license. (Think of the woods in Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.”) Indeed, by the end of the novel (and after a series of increasingly mystifying and poorly conceived adventures), he is proven to be nearly completely innocent.

The small exception is that his sunny view of humanity has been disproven. Clithero, it turns out, is a madman who did not actually kill the woman he said he did all those years ago. In fact, she has arrived on American shores, a fact which Huntly relates to him in an attempt to ease his conscience. The result is that Clithero attempts to kill her again and then drowns himself en route to prison. Huntly is safe, free, and relatively innocent, but he has learned something about human nature.

It’s true that this sequence of events is more philosophically interesting—if less well-written—than those of Wieland, but they are not what they could be. The Enlightenment mind is now aware of the presence of evil in the world, and, unlike Clara Wieland, is aware of slippery morality. But this evil remains a presence outside of the mind itself; it exists in the savages and in the madman, even if that madman is a döppelganger of the hero. Evil is therefore made “safe” for the observer; the hero is kept pure, and we will have to wait for Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville to show us where the darkness really lies: in the heart of every human being.

I’ve now read a third of Brown’s novels—his two best, by popular opinion—and I can declare with some certainty that his place in the American canon is primarily chronological. He’s not that good of a literary stylist (though he is better than all but the best of Poe), and his philosophy is thin and, in the end, flaccid. It’s been an interesting experience reading him, but what will stick with me is the questions I had to pose to myself—not the ones he attempted to pose to me.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Killing the Father

Poor Bronson Alcott. All but forgotten today, eclipsed by his much more famous daughter, Louisa May, he nevertheless practically invented the modern educational system and introduced veganism to American culture for the first time. And yet we know him, for the most part, secondhand, whether it’s from Mr. March in his daughter’s Little Women or from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s brutal portrait of “Hollingsworth” in The Blithedale Romance. He’s a pathetic or sinister footnote to much more substantial texts.

But it’s not for lack of trying on his fault. Alcott desperately wanted to do something important, whether it was his two unconventional schools (the Temple School in Boston and the Concord School of Philosophy and Literature), his utopian community, Fruitlands, or his Transcendental philosophy, never formulated particularly cohesively and eclipsed in a major way by that of his friends Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Even Margaret Fuller, a name known mostly only to students of the American Renaissance, has a better reputation than Alcott.

Alcott lived a long life, however, long enough to see his daughter become a popular success. (In fact, he died only two days before her, and she never learned of his death.) I am not aware of his reaction to her books, although we’re given a clue in Good Wives, the second volume of Little Women, in which Mr. March, upon seeing Jo’s literary success, tells her that “You have had the bitter, now comes the sweet. Do your best and grow as happy as we are in your success.” But if Bronson Alcott said something similar to his own daughter, it must have been through clenched teeth.

Little Women
is famously autobiographical, telling the story of the Alcott sisters (Anna, Louisa May, Elizabeth, and May) without changing very many details at all. Other than Jo’s popular opinion-forced marriage at the end of the second volume, the only major change from life to novel comes in the person of Mr. March. The Alcotts were as poor as the Marches, by all accounts, but Louisa was too ashamed or proud to present the reader of Little Women with the real reason for their poverty. Bronson Alcott, unlike Mr. March, never served in the Civil War, and the family was destitute because of his utter failure at everything he tried.

So Mr. March figures in the first volume of the novel only as an absence, whereas Bronson Alcott was apparently there in his family’s life the entire time, presumably playing a role in his daughters’ various adventures. Louisa’s sending Mr. March off to war strikes her father from her published memory, simultaneously making him unimportant to literary history; it’s cruel, from a certain perspective, even if it’s probably more interesting for the narrative.

Mr. March returns from the front at the end of the first novel and is thus present in the second. But he is only present in the most technical of senses and in fact has less influence in the second volume than he did in absentia in the first. In the writing of her most famous novel, Alcott emasculates her father; instead of being a noble failure, Mr. March is a pleasant inconsequentiality. Some critics, it is true, would argue that this move had to be made, since the March household is a feminine bower, a seat of female power against the harshness of the masculine world outside. This may be true, but it’s also true that the novel is based very directly on real people, and so there can be no purely artful decision for Alcott—changing Mr. March changes forever the public’s perception of her father.

(On the other hand, it may be better for Bronson Alcott that his daughter mostly left him out of the novel; when Elizabeth Alcott died in 1858, it may have been because her father’s strict vegan diet left her malnourished and weak. As things stand, if the reader of Little Women wishes to cast blame on anyone for Beth’s death, it likely falls on Mrs. March, for insisting she take care of the baby from whom she catches scarlet fever.)

These sins of omission are enough to make one feel sorry for Bronson Alcott; however, they are not the only violence his daughter perpetrates on him. The entire structure and focus of Little Women can easily be read as a rebellion against her father’s concerns and methods. As Nina Auerbach points out, whereas the Platonist Bronson cared mostly for the invisible and eternal world, Louisa “stubbornly clings throughout her novels to the primary reality of physical things.” There is almost no Transcendentalism to be found in Little Women; the novel’s style belongs much more clearly to the burgeoning Realism movement, and its philosophy is decidedly pragmatic: Here is how a young lady should act.

In fact, when Transcendentalism finally does briefly enter the novel, it does so only so Alcott can dismiss it. Jo finds herself at a dinner party of illuminati, no doubt similar to the meetings of the Transcendentalist Club that Louisa May Alcott must have witnessed:

The conversation was miles beyond Jo’s comprehension, but she enjoyed it, though Kant and Hegel were unknown gods, the Subjective and Objective unintelligible terms; and the only thing “evolved from her inner consciousness” was a bad headache after it was all over. It dawned upon her gradually that the world was being picked to pieces, and put together on new and, according to the talkers, on infinitely better principles than before; that religion was in a fair way to be reasoned into nothingness, and intellect was to be the only God.
Jo ends up rejecting this philosophy, and part of the reason, one suspects, she marries Professor Bhaer is that “Somehow, as he talked, the world got right again to Jo; the old beliefs, that had lasted so long, seemed better than the new; God was not a blind force, and immortality was not a pretty fable, but a blessed fact.” Alcott creates the character of Professor Bhaer so that she may marry her alter-ego off to him, leaving her father’s oppressive house for good. The invention, it is true, was dictated by popular opinion, but it has the unintended consequence of breaking her from her father’s failures and philosophies once and for all.

With this in mind, perhaps it’s time for a rediscovery of Bronson Alcott’s work. I’ve not read him myself (what a hypocrite!), but apparently his work has much to say to the modern age, with its emphasis on animal rights, sustainability in agriculture, and a humane diet. Perhaps it’s time we released Alcott from the grip of the venomous and unfair fictional representations of him that have colored our understandings for more than a century now.