Tuesday, October 25, 2011

"The Marriage Plot" by Jeffrey Eugenides

Jeffrey Eugenides is part of a triumvirate of writers that includes, Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace.  Wallace is the fair-haired boy of the literary world at the moment, whose writing is dazzling, hilarious, and profound.  Sadly, he committed suicide not long ago.  Eugenides was working on "The Marriage Plot" when Wallace died.  Franzen won notoriety when he declined to be Oprah's book of the month after she dubbed "The Corrections" a good read, as indeed it is.  He later thought better of his petulance, but he wanted to make it clear that his novel was "literary," not "popular."  Eugnides' "Middlesex" won the Pulitzer Prize, but he hadn't published a novel in about ten years.  "The Marriage Plot" is his new novel, and it is wonderful.

I'm sorry to be so vague, but I neglected to note the author of an article in the NYRB or the TLS or wherever I read it, so I will have to paraphrase what I remember.  The basic argument was that these "new realists" do not produce serious literature because they eschew the theoretical "advances" (my word) of contemporary literary criticism, ie., deconstruction, queer theory, post-modernism, gender theory, Marxism, and so on.  That these young(ish) writers still take seriously such 19th c. elements as plot, realistic description and character development, and the historical context of the action is seen to be a failure of imagination as well as style.

Another British writer from an older generation, A.S. Byatt, is also condemned for the same "crimes."  Too much realism, too much history, too many "real" characters, too much plot.  For the record, I believe Byatt's "The Children's Book" to be perhaps the best novel in English since "Middlemarch."  I couldn't believe my eyes when I read in the aforementioned article that Byatt's writing is execrable.  Byatt is nothing less than brilliant, and "The Children's Book" is the product of a lifetime of learning and deep reflection.  I don't see how she could follow it with anything near the same level of accomplishment.  We shall see.

I bring Byatt into the discussion because of the comparison drawn between her and these young American writers, whose work may have different historical and social roots but whose approach to writing is similar.  Of course, I am expressing my own preference for realism, but I believe realism in fiction to be more than a personal quirk.  I believe a defense of realism can be made that recognizes its philosophical and moral seriousness, its humanity, and its repudiation of faddish literary trends that are smug in their difficulty, exclusive in their audience, and dissociated from ordinary life.

"The Marriage Plot" tells the story of three friends, students at Brown in the 1980s.  Madeleine is the daughter of an upper-middle-class family, with intellectual parents and a sophisticated lifestyle.  Leonard is essentially David Foster Wallace.  He is brilliant but troubled, a scientist not in control of his own mind, who cannot love without doing damage.  Mitchell is Eugenides, the "good boyfriend" that Madeleine's parents wish she would marry.  He majors in Religious Studies and searches the world for enlightenment, just as Eugenides did.  Madeleine eventually marries Leonard, with disastrous consequences, just like a willful but loveable Trollopian heroine.  These are broad strokes; none of these characters is as simple as I have described them.

Is marriage still a viable plot device in the 21st century?  Now that divorce is easy and acceptable, do decisions about whom to marry not matter enough to warrant a whole novel?  Eugenides suggests that, yes, they do matter--profoundly.  He also recognizes that love is not rational nor even necessarily in one's best interests.  His plot may echo those of the great 19th c. novels, whose plots were almost always about marriage and money, but he brings it up to date with his very recognizable 20th c. characters.  They are definitely of their time; they are also emblematic of an elemental aspect of human life: relationship.  Whether it's marriage or a love affair or a friendship, the way people relate to each other is important and often problematic.  It is the stuff of life, and Eugenides makes no apologies for that.

He also explicitly rejects the whole post-modernist, deconstructionist, New Critical approach to literature.  His satire of Madeleine's and Leonard's English professor is a treat.

"Zipperstein was in a lively mood.  He'd just returned from a conference in New York, dressed differently than usual.  Listening to him talk about the paper he'd given at the New School, Madeleine suddenly understood.  Semiotics was the form Zipperstein's midlife crisis had taken.  Becoming a semiotician allowed Zipperstein to wear a leather jacket, to fly off to Douglas Sirk retrospectives in Vancouver, and to get all the sexy waifs in his classes.  Instead of leaving his wife, Zipperstein had left the English department.  Instead of buying a sports car, he'd bought deconstruction." (48)

Here is Mitchell's description of Madeleine: "In Madeleine's face was a stupidity Mitchell had never seen before.  It was the stupidity of all normal people.  It was the stupidity of the fortunate and beautiful, of everybody who got what they wanted in life and so remained unremarkable." (77)  But Mitchell is wrong about Madeleine, at least at this point in the novel.  He is in love with her, but he underrates her.  She is an English major because she loves to read.  The list of books she has devoured and relished is impressive for one so young, and her ambition is to go to Yale graduate school.  She ends up at Princeton.  She sees things for what they are (mostly) and believes a book should be harder for the author to write than for the reader to read.  "They [the Zippersteins of the world] wanted to demote the author.  They wanted a *book*, that hard-won, transcendent thing, to be a *text*, contingent, indeterminate, and open for suggestions.  They wanted the reader to be the main thing.  Because *they* were readers." (42)  Whoever it was who wrote the article I'm responding to (if I were a better person, I'd make an effort to find it) will have none of this.  He fumes and sputters and attempts to appear a wise judge, but his criticisms ring shrill to my ear.

I believe that literature is a source of wisdom and comfort; it provides, at its best, a guide to life.  Good writing and good thinking go together, and being deliberately obscure is not only insulting to the ordinary intelligent reader, it is the expression of introverted, solipsistic thought.  The academy is not the natural home of the writer--or the reader.  The imposition of a scientistic framework upon an art is truckling to the economics of institutions.  Physics is difficult, so, by gum, literature has to be difficult too.  Chaucer's, Shakespeare's, Tolstoy's, George Eliot's works were not written to befuddle but to shed light, to show the deepest truths of life to actual people who want to live it fully.  Madeleine knows this, even as she is led astray by romantic idealism a la Dorothea Brooke.  She may be at times misguided, just as Dorothea is--the reader wants to shout out to them, "Don't do it!"--but like Dorothea she is intelligent, well-intentioned, and capable of deep feeling and self-sacrifice.  She is "ordinary," but she is fully human and mentally healthy--not such a bad thing to be.

"The Marriage Plot" is a good read; I found it a real page-turner.  But if that makes it sound superficial, you misunderstand me.  Great literature--to me--is what pulls you in and holds you rapt, while delivering more than you expected and expanding your mind and heart.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Every day brings its discomforts, until it all gets to be too much and I boil over.  I know I am not alone in my thinking, but I am dismayed that sensible voices are being silenced or ignored.  My current list of grievances:

The uproar over mandated health insurance.  If everyone participates in the system, care is more affordable for everyone.  We require car insurance and mortgage insurance (sometimes); what's so different about health insurance?  Let people contribute on a sliding scale, but bring everyone into the system.

The outrageous things said by Republican candidates in their debates and elsewhere: denial of climate change, denial of basic civil rights to the LGBT community, resurrection of the gold standard, total obduracy vis a vis anything proposed by Obama, insistence that America is a "Christian" country, absurd defense of the wealthy alongside scorn for those in need.  I could go on.

 Is it just me, or does the WHOLE country seem to be tilting farther and farther right?  Why are so few willing to admit to being a "liberal?"  Why are so many silent?  That may be what bothers me most of all--the silence.  Wall Street is occupied by protesters for days, yet the mainstream media doesn't mention it.  It took Michael Moore to get the media's attention.  I'm sorry to say, I don't believe Michael Moore's voice is the best one to speak for the good and the true these days.  He gets attention with his baseball cap and sneakers, but his clownlike presentation of himself only alienates the more sober folk who should be his comrades-in-arms.  Al Gore is more serious, but he lacks flash.  Where are those who can speak for liberals, be taken seriously, and receive the public attention they deserve?  The silent majority, I assume, is moderate, temperate, responsible, compassionate--qualities that don't attract attention or headlines.  The Tea Party with its fulminators, its cranks, its ignorance, is front and center; it is, I fear, becoming respectable.

I can't help thinking of Germany in the 'thirties.  A paranoid megalomaniac was able to transform a tiny cohort of followers into a vicious society, wherein regular folks were turned into monsters, and the crowds cheered.  I worry that some of the same forces are astir in our land.  We assassinate our enemies, and we cheer.  We don't turn a hair when the uninsured suffer and the unemployed seek sustenance.  It's every man for himself, and Ayn Rand is considered a hero.  "Freedom" and "liberty" are code words for "I've got mine, Jack, so f--- off."  A political movement fueled by anger is unpredictable and potentially uncontrollable.  The Right today feels nothing else, from Wayne LaPierre and his paranoid fantasies about the second amendment to Sarah Palin and her hatred of just about everything, from Rush Limbaugh to the whole tribe at Fox News.  Anger is energizing, but it is also frightening. 

Place these alongside each other and ask yourself which you would choose:

"Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."
The Great Society, one of whose aims was to end hunger in America.
FDR standing up to the big banks and averting a revolution.
Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the earned income tax credit.
The GI Bill.
Aid to Families with Dependent Children.
The Civil Rights Act

Requiring photo ID in order to vote, thus disenfranchising thousands of people.
Building a "Berlin Wall" along our borders.
An enchantment with guns that goes beyond reasonable limits.
Government-sanctioned torture.
Ignoring habeus corpus.
Debilitating wars with so many unintended consequences it's hard to count them.
Prejudice against anyone who is "different."  The denial of rights and protections to those so defined.
Laws based on the beliefs of one religion.

What scares me is that a sizable portion of Americans would choose the second list.  Once a tipping point is reached, it may be impossible to impede a rush to destruction.  Public office is for sale.  Religious disputes are settled with horrifying violence.  Enemies of the state are held incommunicado in secret locations.  Illegal wiretaps and covert surveillance of innocent people are commonplace.  Foreigners are treated like criminals; alternative lifestyles are considered deviant.  Sexual exploitation is rampant in the sexualization of children, advertising, and entertainment.  Privacy is invaded, and difference of opinion is branded treasonous.  Rome once thought itself the "eternal city," until the sale of public office, the corruption of the legislature, debauchery, cruelty, and the repudiation of republican values led to disaster and eclipse.  America is no more eternal than Rome, but we have history to learn from.  We will need more than monasteries to keep culture alive if we don't learn how to choose between the better and the worse.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

"Portobello" by Ruth Rendell

I have been a fan of Ruth Rendell, the British mystery writer, for years, but her latest novel, "Portobello", is something of a departure for her.  For one thing, there isn't really any character you could call crazy, and for another, the only murder is accidental.  What Rendell has done in this novel is present a slice of London life, circa 2010, not the London of tea rooms and green parks and intimate theaters, rather the gritty goings-on of what we might call the underclass, some of whom work, sort of, and some of whom live on what the government metes out.  Juxtaposed to the ramshackle lives of those who get by are Ella and Eugene, a long-engaged, middle-aged couple.  Ella is a doctor; Eugene runs an art gallery.  When their paths cross with Lance, Gemma, and Fize, there is trouble with a capital T.

As always, Rendell's characters are vividly drawn and quirky, if not eccentric.  Gemma is a pretty young mother who uses men for all manner of purposes, often playing one against the other.  Lance is in love with her, but she kicks him out when he hits her and knocks out a tooth.  She has better things in mind for herself than being kicked around by an unemployed lout.  Lance's friend Fize (Fizal), a Muslim who drinks and loves his mother, moves in with Gemma, mainly as a babysitter so Gemma can go out.  Fize's friend Ian is the closest thing to a psychopath in the novel.  There is no doubt he is capable of murder and worse, but when a Romanian immigrant is burned to death in a fire that Ian sets, it is an accident.  Ian and Fize, his reluctant accomplice, don't realize the house they're burning is occupied. 

With this unholy trinity, Rendell presents the sordid lives of many of Britain's young.  A young man with nothing to do and nowhere special to go, a basically decent Muslim who loses his cultural bearings and gets swept along by the current, a teenage mother with ambition and limited opportunity.  Of the three, I put my money on Gemma, but time will tell.  What is wonderful about this novel is the way Rendell takes us right into the thick of the noise, the crowds, the shops, and the hustle of Portobello Road.  A crossroads of sorts, it attracts all kinds and classes of people, who in rubbing elbows sometimes throw off sparks.

Eugene is a pip.  He's likable enough, I suppose, but he's a bit unformed for a forty-something art dealer.  His track record with women is abysmal, yet he has a loyal companion in Ella, a physician who treats all sorts, including Gemma and Joel, who, yes, I guess would qualify as the crazy and menacing, but ultimately harmless, character Rendell is known for.  Ella is on the cusp of forty and would like to marry, perhaps have children, but Eugene is evasive.  He is reluctant even to live with Ella because he harbors a deep, dark secret.  He is an addict.  He is addicted to chocorange, a sugarless sweet that he absolutely can't get enough of.  He hoards these candies all over his house and in his pockets the way an alcoholic keeps bottles of vodka in his underwear drawer or behind the commode.  He his ashamed; he tries to quit; he succumbs to temptation and feels wretched.  Yet, despite his obvious suffering, there is something ludicrous about a grown man who can't get married because he cares more about chocorange than a loving woman.

I'm tempted to say that Rendell dissects the corrupting influence of materialism, but that would be too simple.  Portobello Road is a place where practically anything can be bought, from trash to treasure.  Eugene's art gallery is cheek by jowl with kabab stands and cheap jewelry boutiques.  His home is comfortable and well-furnished, a perfect setting for an educated, professional couple, while Lance lives with his Uncle Gib, a reformed thief who now cares absolutely nothing about things of any kind.  His house is worth a lot, but it's falling apart, and he couldn't care less.  Rendell doesn't so much indicate that wealth, even relative prosperity, is a bad thing as show what living like Tantalus with the world's goodies just out of reach can do to unformed or chaotic minds.  Joel, Ella's patient, is obesessed with her and lives alone in the dark in a flat his wealthy father pays for.  His family is broken, and his father's response is to throw money at the problem in order not to have to deal with Joel or confront his own demons.  Joel's difficulty isn't material temptation; he lives like an ascetic, but his attachment to "stuff" is as pathological as Uncle Gib's or Ian's.  What should our relation be to the objects around us? Rendell seems to ask. 

In "Portobello" we have a whole range of socio-economic classes crashing into each other like calving icebergs.  We see death, theft, lies, family breakdown, loneliness, obsession, addiction, weakness, and grief, and what kind of an ending does Rendell provide?  Not the one you might expect.  Rendell's vision is generally dark, and even though the guilty may be brought to light in true English-mystery tradition, you wouldn't necessarily call her endings happy.  In this novel, however, there is a twist.  In a brief few chapters, everything sorts itself out.  Ian goes to prison, which he deserves even though he didn't mean to kill the Romanian; Gemma and Lance reunite, and she will be the making of him; Ella and Eugene marry; Uncle Gib ends up with his prophet's widow; and everyone lives happily ever after.  As a great American writer once wrote, "Wouldn't it be pretty to think so."

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Recent Travels: Third Stop

I was born in Newport, RI, right at the end of WW II.  Nine months after it concluded, actually.  My parents must have been feeling a new optimism.  I never spent any time there and until fairly recently I had only been back once, when I was a teenager.  Still, I have always felt attached to our smallest state and proud to call it my birthplace.

After leaving Boston, we made our way to East Greenwich, RI, where a dear friend of mine lives.  Our visit with her was restorative and relaxing, as well as intellectually stimulating.  I don't want to dwell on her story, but thinking of her makes me ponder once again the value of friendship.  I have almost always had a "best" friend.  My first was a little girl who lived up the street from me in the small town in Pennsylvania where I lived my first nine years.  I don't remember a time when I didn't know her.  I had other friends too; our neighborhood was teeming with kids.  But she was my closest friend, and when we moved to Indiana I missed her terribly.  My little grandson's best friend just moved to New York city, and I sympathize with the boys.  Parting from your childhood best friend is the first loss most of us encounter, and it hurts.

Here's what I find intriguing: how is it that so few of the people we know actually make it to that inner circle of "best friendness?"  Just now I have what I consider a large number of best friends, and I can count them on one hand.  We don't fall in love with every man we know or want to parent our friends' children, so perhaps it's only natural that our intimates are few.  I consider a best friend to be someone I can call on the phone at any time for no particular reason, just to talk.  In order to be completely happy, I need at least one such friend at all times.  There have been times when all my friends were "social" or "couple" friends, and they're fun too.  But I need a friend I can be totally open with and totally myself.  My visit to Rhode Island reminded me just how true this is.

Shifting gears, I'd like to talk now a bit about our day in Newport, where we visited the Elms and the Breakers, two of the many mansions built along the sea by wealthy nineteenth century industrialists, such as the Vanderbilts.  These amazing dwellings were built mainly as summer homes, yet they were as opulent as a king's small palace.  America may not have a certified aristocracy, but we did have our own version of "Upstairs, Downstairs."  The Breakers had a staff of over forty to cook, clean, tend the gardens, and serve the master's family.  That's a lot of people to manage one family's home.  But what really impressed me (if that is the right word) was the house itself.  (Somehow "house" doesn't do it justice.)  It was like a giant jewel box, with intricate designs on every wall, some gilded with platinum, as well as gold.  There were acres of imported marble and chandeliers whose crystals must have reflected candle light in a most romantic way.  The Breakers, built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II (I think it was, the brother of the one who built Biltmore House in NC), was designed to impress.  It was the site of many a ball and dinner party, and I have to admit to being a bit overwhelmed by the whole enterprise.  I could imagine being a young woman whose sole purpose in life was to please her family and friends by marrying a wealthy or a titled man.  Those balls and dinner parties were not just fun, they were a high stakes engagement with a larger world where social connections meant everything.

I don't know if the Vanderbilts' several daughters felt their position to be a burden or an entitlement.  At least one of them went on to be a success in her own right.  She married a Whitney (I love how these people refer to themselves as a this or a that, as though a family were a category) and went on to found the Whitney Museum of Art in New York.  I fear I might have felt the whole rich girl role to be too much, but I am sure I would have twirled around the dance floor with abandon anyway.  What else was a woman to do?

I am left with mixed feelings.  On the one hand, the whole Newport scene, with its mansions overlooking the Atlantic and its amazing gardens, is beautiful, a wonder to behold.  On the other, it is an egregious display of wealth from a day when there were no income taxes and a rich man's fortune didn't have to be shared with anyone.  I can't help thinking about the poor marble cutters in Italy or the sweating workers in dangerous factories or the frazzled kitchen help who made this whole edifice possible.  There is something unseemly, something gauche, about such flamboyance, yet without these millions there would be no art, no great architecture, no beauty to inspire and awe.  This is something that has always bothered me: is a great disparity of wealth necessary to the creation of monumental art?  I fear the answer is yes.  What would St. Petersburg be without the wealth of the czars?

Monday, August 8, 2011

Recent Travels: Second Stop

I'd only been to Boston once before, when I was in my early twenties and living in New York with my then-husband, an artist I met through my brother.  What stood out in my mind from that long-ago visit was the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum of Art.  This is one of my four favorite art museums in America, which include the Gardner, the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia, the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., and the Frick in New York City.  These are all small, privately built museums that embrace the viewer as a family friend.  The Gardner was designed by Mrs. Gardner herself and reflects her passion for Roman antiquities, as well as housing a wide range of European art.  Everything is exactly as she left it, and it is stipulated in her will that nothing ever be changed.  What you see is what she created, dark, ornate, a bit over the top, but utterly charming.

After our museum visit, we had an hour to kill, so we crossed the street and strolled down to Harvard Square.  I had never been there before, and I was slightly amazed to see that it looked like any college campus, with brick buildings, criss-crossing sidewalks, and incredibly young-looking students lumbering along with their bulging backpacks.  We sat down on two chairs under some trees and settled in to people-watching.  One exuberant student led a tour of prospective students and their parents; he was a hoot.  Maybe he was an acting major (if there is such a thing at Harvard) or maybe he simply enjoyed being the center of attention, but if I'd had to join a tour group, I'd have wanted to be in his.

I always enjoy watching family threesomes navigating an unfamiliar space.  Gangly teens with big feet stumble alongside eager parents, whose lostness is undoubtedly an embarrassment to their offspring.  I like to see the noses in particular.  Every kid's nose resembles at least one of his parent's, and you can project a middle-aged face onto the undefined features of the young.  I have been that awkward teenager; I have been that tentative parent; I have been that professor who alone seems to know where she is going.  Now I am the observer, a graduate, if you will, of the institution we call "higher education."  I have sailed through its straits, survived its turbulence, and come ashore on an island afloat in time.  It is good to be still and sit under the trees and remember where I've been.

I have concluded that I am not a big-city person.  I find the idea of small-town life suffocating, but large cities make me feel like a bug about to be crushed.  Too many strangers, too much traffic, too much dirt.  The Gardner and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts were like ports in the storm to me, places where I could put down an anchor and look about.  I do love art museums--better than concerts, plays, or operas, probably because I prefer walking around at my own pace to sitting still while other people do the moving.  I want to be able to speak, to push ahead, or to pause, without following someone else's timetable, even if it is Mozart's.  I love the four above-mentioned museums, for their scale as well as for their art, but my very favorite museums have to be the ones I visited in the South of France many years ago.  The Fondation Maeght, the Matisse Chapel, the Leger Museum, the Picasso Museum in Antibes, as well as others, combine the attributes of a human-scale, a single vision or focus, and the tranquility of nature.  Renoir's house, with its small collection of the master's paintings, could almost be any French family country home, and the monastery in Nice that houses a fine collection of Matisse vestments perches on a mountainside amid tangled olive trees, overlooking the Mediterranean.  Of course, the Louvre, the Metropolitan, or MOMA are impressive, but I still prefer the small jewel to the mountain of marble.  I have refreshed my memory of the Isabella Stuart Gardner.  Perhaps one day in the not-too-distant future, I'll be able to walk through the farmers' market on the way to Picasso's fortress, picking up an armload of flowers along the way.

Addendum: I have been reminded that the Gardner museum is nowhere near Harvard, so obviously we didn't walk from one to the other.  The way I described it is the way I remember it, however.  Memory is indeed a slippery fellow who, as the psychologists point out, has his own agenda.  Sometimes I wonder if we don't create the narrative of our lives, rather than  simply remembering it.  As Wordsworth put it, "We half perceive and half create."

Recent Travels: First Stop

This summer's vacation took us to upstate New York, Boston, East Greenwich, RI, Litchfield Ct., and Winchester, Va.  It's always good to do things in the right order, and this time we hit it just about right.  First stop: my brother's house, which perches above a small lake where the Colgate University crew practice.  My brother has a pontoon boat that putts happily around the lake, and I love being out on the water.  Truth to tell, I prefer a lake to the ocean.  Oceans are so infinite and ultimately threatening.  Excepting the Great Lakes, a lake tends to lap the shore gently and smells comfortingly of water, rotting plant life, and boat fumes.  This may sound like an unpleasant combination, but when I smell it and feel the wind in my face, I am young again and anything seems possible.

For us, a couple of days hanging out on my brother's deck was a wonderful respite from the deadly heat in NC.  It had been hot in Hamilton too, but fortunately it cooled down in time for our stay.  Global warming is changing everything, as this summer's droughts, floods, storms, and heat waves attest.  Human beings' long history has been witness to many climate changes, and people have had to adapt in order to thrive, if not to survive.  The Thames used to freeze solid, and the Sahara used to be under water.  Nothing stays the same.  But sitting among the trees that shelter my brother's house, I felt the past--both my brother's and mine--as a presence that I could see out of the corner of my eye.

My brother had a cache of old family photographs, most of which I hadn't seen before, strangely enough.  Together we pored over them, recalling long-dead relatives, our own childhoods, and an America where cars had running boards and swim suits were made of wool.  One photograph in particular sticks in my mind.  It shows my father lying prone on a diving board that projects from a lakeside dock.  Hanging from his arms, with her feet just grazing the water, is my mother.  They both look so young, this photo must have been taken when they were in college.  My dad looks much as I  always think of him, except his hair is dark.  My mother, though, seems a different person from the one I knew.  Here, caught in a playful moment where she literally depends from my father, she is a slender sprite.  Will he continue to hold her, perhaps pull her up beside him?  Or will he let her go into the water?  My mother never really learned to swim; the water was an alien environment for her, and I imagine the thrill of fear, hilarity, and love she must have felt at that moment.

When I observe young people today, I am conscious of what lies ahead for them: the pains and joys of parenthood, the anxiety over career and money, the pressure of never having enough time.  Imagining my mother as one of those hopeful kids, with a World War, seriously ill children, and a year in Afghanistan no one could have predicted all ahead of her, I feel a lurch.  It is as if I were seeing her as my own daughter.

My brother moves more slowly now than he used to.  He nods off as I continue riffling through our shared family history, and I try not to disturb him.  My big brother.  My hero when I was a child, my advocate when I was an unhappy teenager, my friend when I most needed one.  I feel time nudging us from behind, and I want to say, "Stop!"  I want to stop the reel of memory from spinning; I want memory to be more than a black and white photo or a whisper of an emotion once felt.  I want to say everything I know I won't say, because to do so would be to admit mortality, and I can't do that.

And so we embrace and laugh and say goodbye until next time.  I never lived in Hamilton myself, but I spent a lot of time there over the years, so much so that I almost feel it as a kind of home and am struck by how much the familiar can be so exclusive.  In the end, I know I don't belong there, don't even want to, but leaving seems to pull something precious out of my hands.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

"State of Wonder" by Ann Patchett

I haven't written on my blog for a while, mostly because the books I've been reading have been mysteries--good ones (Ruth Rendell, Henning Mankell, et. al.)--and I don't see a whole lot of point in writing about them.  But I did just finish a novel that knocked my socks off.  "State of Wonder" by Ann Patchett is, quite simply, an amazing book.  Spoiler alert: don't read further if you haven't read the book and plan to.

Imagine "Heart of Darkness," "Mosquito Coast," Greek and Roman myth (Orpheus and Euridice, Laocoon); throw in a love quadrangle of sorts, a beautiful bohemian couple, a wise child with no parents, and a journey to hell and back, and you have some idea what this book is about.  Marina, a forty-something researcher for a pharmaceutical company, is hiding out in the lab. after doing a botched Caesarian while she was in medical school, studying with the formidable Dr. Annick Swenson.  She has never told anyone about this mishap that cost an infant an eye, and her guilt accompanies her everywhere.

Dr. Swenson has spent decades in the Amazonian jungle, befriending an indigenous tribe and studying their incredible fertility.  Lakashi women never lose the ability to bear children.  Women in their seventies get pregnant, including, we eventually discover, Dr. Swenson herself.  Issues of medical ethics, profit and loss, and dedication to a cause are all gone into, not dogmatically but as a natural working out of the plot, which really kicks into high gear when Mr. Fox, Marina's lover and the CEO of Vogel Pharmaceuticals, dispatches Marina's research partner, Anders Ekstrom, to Brazil to investigate the investigations of Dr. Swenson.  The good doctor is incommunicado, as she is deep in the jungle, no one knows quite where, and she refuses to have so much as a cell phone.  Anders will have to find her first, then persuade her to come home or at least hand over her results.

Anders is a lovely man, a husband and father to three young boys.  An avid bird watcher, he eagerly takes on the Vogel mission.  He can hardly wait to see species he has so far only read about.  The novel begins with Anders' death.  Dr. Swenson has sent a brief explanatory letter to Mr. Fox.  Anders has died of a fever, and they (Dr. Swenson and the other doctors who work alongside her) have buried him in the jungle.  Now it is Marina's turn to head south from Minnesota, where the world is clean and cool and predictably safe, to an Amazon tributary that she hopes will lead her to Dr. Swenson's camp and a fuller explanation of Anders' death. 

I'll say no more about the plot, except that it is beyond suspenseful.  From the start, a sense of dread hangs over everything, as indeed it should.  So many things in Brazil can kill you: a bug bite, a snake bite, malaria, unexplained fevers.  Survival is definitely of the fittest.  One of the things I like about the book, and there are many, is that the heroine, the rescuer, the brave soul who goes where no one else has gone before and lived to tell about it, is Marina, a woman.  "State of Wonder" could count as an adventure story, but it is more than that.  It is an exploration of how deep a human being can go and in so doing be redeemed.  I felt almost as if I were holding my breath as I read every page, even up to the last word on the final page.  Ann Patchett takes her reader on a journey that is as life-changing as the one described in the book.  I await the movie.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Follow Up: Belief

It's happened again.  I think about something, and next thing I know I see an example of it somewhere else.  This is a follow up to the previous blog about belief.  This morning on Stephen Colbert (we watch a tape from the night before), Colbert interviewed an author (name slips my mind) who wrote a book called The Believing Brain.  The author contends that each of us develops a belief system, then  looks around for corroboration.  Since many things are beyond proof--ie., religion--we see the truth we want to see.  Science is the only way to see things clearly.  As they say, you can't argue with facts.  There's no such thing as a scientific fundamentalist.  No one today could get away with saying Copernicus was right about the cosmos.  We should not be dismayed when "truth" gets shoved aside by fact.  Just as no one can prove that one religion is right, no one can prove that gravity is wrong.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Where Does Belief Come From?

Why do we believe the things we do?  A complex question, but one I enjoy thinking about.  There used to be a series on NPR called "This I Believe."  Random people would record a 2-minute statement of what they believed: love rules the world, nature heals, education is (or is not) all it's cracked up to be.  That sort of thing.  Not necessarily religious belief, but something you carry with you in your core.

I used to know someone who was accused of preferring things to people.  Knowing that person, I'd have to agree.  "These fragments I have shored against my ruin" seems to encapsulate his attitude toward his possessions.  Margaret Thatcher once said, there's no such thing as "society."  I've always thought of her as an Ayn Rand sort of person, who puts the individual above all else.  Sometimes it's an activity that shapes a life.  My brother is an artist and has been since he was two years old, perhaps earlier.  He's 75 now, and he is still and always has been a painter.  Making art is the way he sees the world.  And, of course, there are those for whom religion is central.  I have come to believe that religious feeling is simply another way of seeing the world.  Religion, art, music, politics, literature, public service, acquisitiveness, the need to control, the need to submit (not a complete list)--all provide angles of vision that shape whatever belief system we may have.  This kind of belief, like personality, is not something we choose.  It is who we are.  That is why logic is often insufficient, persuasion ineffective, and true conversion rare.

An Islamic fundamentalist intent on restoring the caliphate, had he been born in Alabama, would no doubt be a foot-washing Baptist.  It is our minds that matter, far more than the message.  Belief comes from within; then we find rationalizations to support it.  Everything we think is an attempt to wrench the world into the shape we already see.  So what do I believe?

When I was a young child, I overheard the adults talking about the Hungarian Revolution.  I had no idea where Hungary was or what the people were revolting against, but I picked up enough to know that innocent people were suffering.  I wanted to do something to help--collect clothes to send them, anything.  I didn't, of course, but I thought a lot about it.

My parents used to take us to Youngstown, Ohio, just over the border from Pennsylvania, where we lived, to go shopping in the big department stores there.  Getting downtown meant driving through a poor, African-American neighborhood.  The streets were so unlovely I could not understand how anyone could live there.  I remember once passing an old man who was waiting at a stoplight to cross the street.  He looked so sad.  The image of this poor old man, bowed with the weight of years and who knows what sorrows, pierced me like a shard of glass.  Our car moved on and left him behind, still standing in the same place.

When I was in the eighth grade, a poor family was burned out of their house just before Christmas.  I rounded up some friends, and we all bought gifts for the children.  My dad drove us to their rundown neighborhood, a place I never went otherwise, and we delivered the packages.  What I remember is an empty room with bare floors, a worried woman who stood in a doorway and spoke not at all, and a toddler, dressed only in a diaper, running about barefoot.  The emptiness was like the inside of a bell. 

The sadness in other people's lives is something I have always been aware of.  I don't remember a time when I didn't know that I was lucky and many others were not.  How could I be happy, knowing that so many were broken and alone?  I still ask myself the same question.  This all sounds rather depressing, and it is.  So how do I manage not to drown in the pity I constantly feel?

There are two things I base my life on: love and beauty.  To me, love means giving comfort, nurturing, supporting, and encouraging another person(s).  Lacking a human being, I would need a pet to care for.  I'm sure most people would feel the same way, or say they do, but I can never know if others feel what I feel.  I believe in MY feelings.  I don't have to do anything to feel these emotions any more than a believer has to do anything to believe in a religion.  My core--and I say this not to boast but simply to describe--is empathy.  It is natural for me to put myself in another's shoes and feel what I would feel in their situation.  When my teenage children went through break-ups, my heart was broken as well.  When my grandson wants his "lamby," I want him to have it.  If I cherished something, wouldn't I want to hold onto it too?  I don't always act in accordance with my own deepest values, but when I don't I feel tremendously guilty.  Shame is what you feel when you are caught by others doing something amiss.  It is related to embarrassment.  Guilt is your judgment of yourself, and for me that is far more unforgiving.  I am not religious, but when the Bible says that of faith, hope, and love the greatest of these is love, I have no trouble agreeing at all.

Love is my connection to other people; beauty is my connection to the world.  A melting Mozart aria, the clarity of a Bach fugue, the lushness of a Beethoven symphony are all enough to push me toward the sublime.  The paintings of Monet, the poems of W. H. Auden, a beautiful garden take me places I can't get to on my own.  I prefer a panorama to a pinpoint, an ennobling idea to an ideology, a wilderness to an urban grid.  I believe people are more important than ideas, philosophies, religions, ideologies, abstractions of any kind.  I believe justice is conditional and truth elusive.  If I had to choose one philosopher, it would be J.S. Mill.  If I had my life to live over, I'd do things differently, but I'm glad I don't, because I want to be right here, right now, right where I am.  If it's the past that got me here, then of course I wouldn't change it, pain and all.  I hope it doesn't sound cruel to say it, but I wouldn't be so happy if I weren't so aware of the unhappiness that lies just off-shore of every life.  Virgil wrote of "the tears in things."  I believe he would understand what I am talking about.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

I Think I Just Figured it Out

How do some politicians get away with it and others not?  Gingrich is a skunk who cheated on two wives.  McCain's record is nearly as colorful.  Bill Clinton made a mess of things and is today one of the world's great humanitarians.  Texting, groping, lying, cheating--it seems as if it's almost inevitable these days for pols to self-destruct when their libido and sense of power get in bed together.  Now Anthony Weiner goes down (so to speak).  I felt sorry for him at first, because I figured he had been only a little bit bad.  I still feel sorry for him, but I think he's been very, very bad.  How excruciating to be humiliated in such a public way.  How devastating to carry the guilty knowledge that he himself caused all this.  And his poor wife.  What a terrible position he's put her in. 

Absolutely no one can or should try to tell her what to do or how to respond.  Donald Trump is an ass for going on TV and scolding her for sticking with her job in Europe while all this blew up.  It's none of his business, and it's none of mine either.  But I want to go on record as saying I see this debacle as both a disaster and an opportunity.  Something was clearly awry in Weiner's head; now he has a chance to face his demons and figure out how to live the rest of his life.  Is it possible that this is somehow what he wanted deep down all along? 

What disturbs me almost as much as Weiner's peccadillos is the obloquy heaped upon him by the public.  Is there anyone else besides me who feels sorry for the poor schmuck?  I don't defend or accuse him, but if I were in his shoes, my heart would be broken.  That seems pretty much punishment enough to me.

Am I being selective about whom I direct my sympathy toward?  Perhaps.  I admit that I get more upset with the politicians I don't like than with the politicians I do like or am indifferent to.  Weiner would fall in the latter category.  All I know is, morality is not one-size-fits-all.  Consenting adults should be free to do whatever they want; we are only obligated to those closest to us.  Private matters should be left alone by everyone not immediately involved.  And I have a question?  If all these women (Weiner's online pals, Clinton's dishy side-dishes, etc.) were so outraged, why did they write back, stay in the room, answer the phone?  Surely, they bear some responsibility as well.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

What Was He Thinking?

I stand by my defense of poor Anthony Weiner (below), but I feel I must add a post script.  I don't know what possessed the Congressman to expose himself to the world in such a flagrant manner, but I'm told that when this sort of thing comes to light, it is because at some level the perpetrator (for lack of a better term) actually wants to be caught.  It's difficult to believe that such recklessness is mere accident.  One tweet, maybe.  But a pattern of contacting strange women and saying sexual things to them is neither healthy nor wise. 

I feel sorry for Mr. Weiner, more sorry for his wife.  I hope they can repair the damage and continue their lives together.  I hope the public can set the scandal aside and focus on the work the man has done and may yet do.  I hope Mr. Weiner has learned that risking marriage and family is not worth a few minutes titillation.  People stumble.  Sometimes they fall.  Let's not kick him while he's down.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

What Is It With These Men?

And so another up-and-coming politician bites the dust of sexual misbehavior.  Poor Anthony Weiner.  Move over Clinton, Gingrich, Sanford, and don't forget all the ministers of the gospel who have taken the plunge into hypocrisy.  For what it's worth, here's my take on this latest Washington misfortune.

I have always believed that those who read great literature have the best education in human nature possible.  One of the truly great American novels, "The Scarlet Letter," is but one example of how society fails in its judgment of what most Americans would call a sinner, Hester Prynne.  Hawthorne presents the community of Salem, MA, as the arbiter of convention, religion, and decency, but he gives us a negative example.  The good citizens of Salem are vicious in their rectitude, unmerciful toward the human need for love, and cruel in their punishment of a young woman whose only "sin" is to be caught in a loveless marriage that traps her spirit and degrades her soul.  It is she, the wearer of the scarlet letter, who is the only virtuous character in the entire novel.  Her lover, a minister, who should stand by her, rejects her in favor of his God, a demanding, punitive force that works through Salem's townspeople, who enjoy the deliciousness of punishment as much as they detest mercy and tolerance.

In the recent NYRB Stephen Greenblatt compares Milton's "Paradise Lost" to Wagner's "Die Walkure."  Without going into his whole, very cogent argument, let me draw out what I believe is one of his most important points.  Both artists create a world wherein humans choose human love over transcendence into the sublime.  Both Milton and Wagner emphasize the loneliness of God/Wotan, whose power and unmatched status isolate them utterly.  Their isolation is their agony, and it lasts forever.  Humans who choose earthly love escape their loneliness, if only for a time.  It is clear in both works that, while being thrown out of heaven or denied Valhalla is tragic, living without connection to other human beings is worse.  (Who is more lonely than a tyrant?)

Both Milton and Wagner consider self-love the origin of mature love.  Most psychologists would agree.  Ourselves reflected back to us is what we most want to see.  Isn't this what loneliness is?  The desire to be known by another as well as you know yourself?  This impossible need drives man like the furies.  Laws and customs prevail not because they reflect what people do, but what they so often don't do.  Otherwise, we would need no laws.  When a couple promise to be faithful to one another, the promise is serious precisely because it is difficult to keep, so difficult that we need to stand up before the community and commit ourselves to a choice, not an inevitability.

I believe that Anthony Weiner does love his wife and is a good man.  I don't know him, but he's a friend of Jon Stewart, and for me that's a good recommendation.  So far as I know, he did not sleep with any of his online contacts, which makes him, I suppose, technically innocent.  But the question is not one of innocence or guilt; it is a matter of private thought.  Thank god we are not mind-readers.  Our thoughts are our own, and we are accountable to no one for them.  The most terrifying thing to me about totalitarian systems is their invasion of the mind.  Mr. Weiner, I believe, was indulging in a bit of make-believe and obviously never intended it to see the light of day.  I had a professor in graduate school who once said you know you haven't really lived if, when you find a note on your desk that says "all is discovered", the only thing you do is chuck  it in the wastebasket.

American society in the 21st century is as blinkered and puritanical as 17th c. Salem.  We recoil--with delight--when the mighty are brought low.  If we can stand in judgment, perhaps we won't be judged ourselves.  If we proclaim the supremacy of virtue, maybe our own peccadillos will never be brought to light.  (Newt, are you listening?)  It feels so good to see another righteously punished, and I suspect this feeling is a mixture of envy and revenge, neither of which is laudable.  Why should an intelligent, compassionate, loving young woman be humiliated and shunned simply because she brought life into the world through a loving act?  Why should a congressman be vilified because in the middle of the night he felt a universal, existential loneliness and reached out to another mind for a moment's tenuous connection?  Oscar Wilde said that hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.  Another fine aphorism is, never presume to understand a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes.

What Mr. Weiner did is embarrassing.  No, he shouldn't have done it.  But he was flirting with danger, no more.  A man who deceives his wife and children over a long period of time, who condemns others for doing the same, who believes that apologizing for an act is as good as never having done it, is a whole different kettle of fish.  The French have their mores.  When the prime minister's illegitimate children appear at his gravesite and no one blinks, it is clear that French society has found an accommodation to the frailty of man.  This sort of thing goes against the American grain, perhaps for good reason.  If we go back to what I said earlier about the highest form of love being mature, mutual connection with another soul, not because nature dropped an anvil on our head and rendered us helpless, but because such a relation requires a choice forged in our deepest selves, then love is more sacred than prayer.  It is also nobody else's business.  We should feel sorry for the hapless Mr. Weiner and remember that we all have our secrets.  He deserves our commiseration, not our condemnation.  He owes his wife an explanation and undoubtedly a lengthy apology; he does not owe the rest of us the destruction of his career.

So what is the difference between Newt Gingrich, who cheated on two wives, one of whom had cancer, and Anthony Weiner who took some embarrassing photographs of himself--not anyone else, mind you, himself?  Mr. Weiner has that deer in the headlights look of stunned amazement.  His apparent lack of affect is presumably an effort not to break down in sobs before the cameras as he sees his life and career slipping inexorably away.  Newt, on the other hand, puffs himself up like a bantam, tosses off a cursory apology, and blames "the pressures of work," thus trying to blame his own conscientiousness for his own tawdry behavior.  One is a poor slob; the other is a pompous ass.  One has critics baying for his resignation; the other throws his hat in the Presidential ring, and no one chokes on it.  Who is really to blame here?  I suggest that, as with the good men and women of Hawthorne's Salem, the real evil is in our own hearts.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

"The London Train" by Tessa Hadley

"Writing makes me happy....All those years I couldn't do it...writing was a painful, awful absence in my life....I love paintings, but it's never hurt me that I can't paint for toffee.  Which bit of myself, and when, elected to need to write, in order to be me...?  I used to feel...that life itself wasn't quite real, unless I could write about it in fiction.  Now that I am writing..., that mild insanity has dropped out of sight.  I have a fear, of course, of its returning, if writing ever failed." -- Tessa Hadley

Tessa Hadley joins Alice Munro, William Trevor, and John McGahern in my pantheon of writers who write the way I wish I could.  When I was younger and had more ambition than talent, I was so jealous of successful women writers that I declined to go hear Margaret Atwood read from her work.  Of course, I regret that now.  I admire Atwood, though I wouldn't call her a favorite, and I subsequently fell in love with her critical study of Canadian literature, "Survival."  Thankfully, I have outgrown my youthful sensitivity and can now rejoice when reading a short story by Lorrie Moore or a novel by Kate Atkinson.  At least I have the satisfaction of believing I'm a good audience for these more accomplished writers.  I do, however, resonate with the Hadley quote above.  It follows in an epilogue to her latest novel "The London Train." 

Once upon a time I wrote fiction and was quite serious about it.  I even had a short story published in a Canadian ladies' magazine and was paid $400 for it.  That was the peak of my writing career, though I did follow it up with an MFA in creative writing and a PhD in English literature.  I'm no academic; in my bones I still feel like a writer, but writing about literature seems to come easier to me than creating fiction.  I wish it were otherwise, but there it is.  One thing I do know, I need to write, as well as read, to keep a grip on life.  Somehow, putting words on the page anchors me.  The shape of the English language contains the best of whatever thought I have and keeps it from leaking away.  I have loved to read my entire life.  As soon as I could read by myself, I climbed down off my mother's lap and lost myself in the mysteries of the written word.  I can remember the passion I felt for particular books when I was four or five years old.  I have it still. 

As a PhD student, I, of course, read a lot of literary criticism.  Some of it was very, very good.  There is a chapter by M.H. Abrams on "Moby Dick" that was life-changing for me, and Jonathan Bate's "The Song of the Earth" is a book I would hate to have missed.  But the pursuit of criticism, the effort to find something new to say that both provokes and rings true, the unending need to be somewhere near the cutting edge, the knowledge that few people will ever read you or care what you think are all too disheartening for me.  I'm glad to have climbed those mountains, but I cannot live in those climes.

In my twenties I struggled to find something to say.  Perhaps I had not yet lived enough or lacked the distance from experience that is necessary to see all its contours.  I was an empty vessel.  Now I contain a river of words and can release them almost at will.  Whether I actually have anything worth saying is another matter, but I'm beginning to think that really doesn't signify.  In the end, I am writing to get inside my own head, to hold a conversation with myself.  Solipsistic, I admit, but true.  I would love to be able to express in words the ways I feel about the people I love.  I believe nothing could mean more to me.  Of all the things I need to say, that is the most important--and the most daunting.  Much as I love language, I know I could never make it dance to the music in my heart.  Words are all-important, but at the end of the day the things that most need utterance are locked in fearful silence.

When I read a novel like "The Train to London," I fall in with the rhythm of the writer's mind and for a while can make it my own.  This illusion of release and connection paradoxically makes lived experience richer, just as Monet's waterlily paintings encourage the viewer to see nature more vividly, or the way a painting by Braque casts a landscape seen from an airplane in an entirely new light.  E.M. Forster said, "Only connect."  These words have been my mantra every since I first read "Howard's End."  Imagine two planets colliding or two amoeba dissolving into each other.  Watch an iron filing crawl toward a magnet or a mother cat surround her kitten, and you begin to realize that in everything, living or inert, connection is the constant.  The only way I've found to truly get inside another mind, or at least to feel that I have, is to read something--prose, poetry, fiction--that draws me into connection with it.  This is a need that goes beyond entertainment; it is not a desire for escape.  In fact, it is just the opposite.  For me, literature is the road to life itself.

Monday, May 30, 2011

"We Think the World of You" by J. R. Ackerley

Now here is a curious little novel.  It is brief, and my remarks shall be brief.  Frank is a middle-aged, gay man who his besotted with a working-class amateur thief with a jealous wife and three, then four, children.  Johnny, Frank's beloved, also owns a German Shepherd named Evie.  It is sometimes difficult to tell whom Frank loves most, his unreliable boyfriend or this wild and undoubtedly dangerous dog.  Johnny goes to prison for a few months; the dog goes to stay with Johnny's mother and step-dad Tom.  Frank wants to rescue the dog from Tom's cruelty and neglect.  No one wants Frank to have the dog, out of spite.  Frank's money is the nexus connecting this disparate crew, and Frank wields it like a weapon, giving and withholding as circumstances dictate.

It's a sad little story really.  Frank's loneliness is a bottomless pit, and it is painful to see his slavish attachment to Johnny  received with such indifference.  The dog becomes the "child" they share, and it is a Solomon-like task to figure out who really owns her--or should.  In the end, Frank gets the dog but loses the boy.  At last Frank has an attachment that will not desert or disappoint him.  So what if he has to relinquish everyone else in his life because Evie won't tolerate anyone coming near?  So what if she devours his mail and will barely tolerate a leash?  She loves Frank, as Frank loves Johnny.  In one creepy scene, Frank describes Johnny's sexual arousal of the dog in the most positive terms.  There is obviously something sick going on, and one recoils from it.  It's not a bad novel though.  It does depict, very touchingly actually, the obsessions of a lonely man, whose dark mind is a place where he admits he doesn't want to go. 

"A Favorite of the Gods" by Sybille Bedford

Anna, Constanza, Flavia--Three generations of women whose lives weave in and out of Italy, England, and other parts of Europe, taking us from the late nineteenth century into the 1940s.  Money, marriage, and misunderstanding weave in and out of their lives like a tangled rope, sometimes tripping, sometimes choking.  Anna, a conventional, stiff-necked American marries an insouciant Italian prince and finds herself supporting his household with her considerable wealth, while he carries on a decades-long affair with a family friend in the European way.  Anna's reaction to her husband's infidelity (not the only one, incidentally) when she finally discovers it reflects her Protestant principles and her bruised rectitude.  She flees with their only daughter, Constanza, and takes all her money with her, leaving behind a small son, whose birth cost her much and who grows up to be a disappointment and a thief.

"They fell back, as people--and nations--in a crisis do, upon ready-made standards and emotions....she dealt with it [the "prince's conduct"] as once it might have been judged and felt about by her New England family."  For his part, he does the same, clinging to the sacrosanct idea of the family, puzzled by his wife's extravagant reaction.  Indeed, their entire Italian community is more than a little amazed that Anna didn't know what was going on and simply ignore it, as so many wives have done.  Or she might have taken a lover herself.  That would have balanced things out.  Discretion was much to be preferred to righteous indignation.  Anna is technically innocent, yet it is she who sets in train the events that shape and sometimes blight the lives of her daughter and granddaughter.  Constanza is led to believe her father didn't want her, which was not true, and Flavia trails around Europe after a mother whose metier is men.  She receives a strangely unsentimental education and has no settled home.

World events simmer in the background, erupting occasionally into these peripatetic lives to inconvenience or impede, but, as in a Henry James novel, the overriding theme is the collision of new- and old-world manners and mores.  Women live through their relations with men, while the men, though not peripheral to the action, are not the focus of Bedford's moral scrutiny.  The only note of hope is at the end when Constanza and Flavia take a villa in St. Jean, a small French village often visited by tourists.  Their neighbor is a Parisian, "un homme politique," who lives in a tower with a library of books.  Constanza and Flavia refer to him as "the man of principles."  After Anna dies, after the many men, Constanza moves yet again, this time with Michel, "the man of principles" who offers to drive her to Paris.  He gives Flavia the key to his tower, and Constanza assures her that she will find plenty of books there to read.  And so life goes on, not without hope.

What I love most about this novel has to be the way it is written.  I have come to believe that just about any plot can be made interesting if the style it is written in is compelling.  Bedford is highly intelligent, literate, and worldly, and it is a joy to be carried along by her well-crafted sentences.  There is something about being in the hands of a skilled writer that settles a restless place in me, that invites trust.  I can give myself over to the reading experience whole-heartedly and be rewarded with astute insights into the way things--and people--are.  If the author's judgment is discriminating and articulate, the novel resonates with life.  Without that magic (talent, deftness, call it what you will) the story lies flat upon the page.  I am so happy to have discovered Sybille Bedford and will certainly read more of her.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

"The Love of My Youth" by Mary Gordon

"The Love of My Youth" is the kind of novel I refer to as a guilty pleasure.   It's not the greatest literature, but it has an addictive quality that pulls you along.  Perhaps the main reason I couldn't put it down is the depiction of the late 'sixties, its university life, the Viet Nam war, travel in Europe, and a youth that coincided with my own.  The novel is told from the vantage point of today, with the two teenage lovers finding themselves together again in Rome after 36 years.  Each has married and had a family.  Each is happy and settled into the life that could have been predicted for them years before.  They agree to meet everyday for the two weeks they'll both be in Rome, see the sights together, drink some wine, eat some pasta, and remember the good old days before he "betrayed" her by getting another girl pregnant during a one-night stand.  My guess is there are legions of sixty-somethings out there who will be able to identify with substantial parts of this story. 

I don't find the structure or the dialogue entirely convincing.  Do people really talk like that?  But there is enough withheld to make you want to read on, and Rome is always interesting.  It's summer now, and this would be a great beach read, which is not to denigrate it.  Let's just say that if it were a meal, it would be a simple pasta dish rather than a gourmet feast.

Friday, May 20, 2011

"Desperate Characters" by Paula Fox

What are the perfect American novels?  The first two-thirds of "Huckleberry Finn"?  "The Great Gatsby"?  "The Catcher in the Rye"?  Whatever your list, I suggest you add "Desperate Characters" to it.  Paula Fox is quite simply a wonderful writer.  This novel stands in marked contrast to the one I discussed previously, "Three Stages of Amazement."  Both are character driven and deal with marriage and a particular (upper middle) social class at a critical time in American history, the late 'sixties in the case of "Desperate Characters."  But "Characters" is so much the superior novel it's hard to believe that Fox was out-of-print and long-forgotten until Jonathan Franzen "rediscovered" her in 1999.  I'm not sure I'd say she's better than Updike, as Franzen does, but she certainly belongs in his company and is a near contemporary.

Sophie and Otto Bentwood are a forty-something, professional couple who are part of the wave of gentrification in Brooklyn when New York is at its lowest ebb.  A flasher lives across the street, drunks stagger around the neighborhood, and garbage is everywhere, but the Bentwoods have made a cozy nest in their old brownstone and filled it with a library of great books, a Tiffany lamp, and "risotto Milanese in a green ceramic bowl."  The first paragraph, which Franzen in his introduction finds slightly regrettable, is in fact a perfect listing of just the sort of things a successful, well-educated couple would have around them.  A few objects--a bowl, a lamp, "the old cedar planks of the floor," a stainless-steel sink--tell you everything you need to know to place them.  Even their names have weight: Sophie (wisdom) confronts Otto (Germanic control) over the course of a single weekend, and like one of those origami flowers that opens magically in water, a crisis slowly develops and a turning point is reached.  This is not to say that the ending provides "closure."  This is the first novel by Fox I've read, but I don't believe she ever provides her readers with closure.  The ending is exactly right and totally ambiguous.  The Bentwoods--and the reader--are left not with resolution but with an indeterminate future.

Franzen has read this novel many times and has taught it, and he says he finds new things every time he picks it up.  This is a novel I will want to read again (there aren't all that many).  Now that I have the simple plot firmly in place, I will be able to look more closely at the brushwork, as it were.  I cannot wait to read another Fox novel, and I haven't even mentioned how interesting Fox's own life has been.  She is Clement Greenberg's sister-in-law for one thing.  She taught at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in all sorts of places.  Best of all, she possesses a rare brand of wisdom, unflinching, realistic, enduring.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

"Three Stages of Amazement" by Carol Edgarian

"Three Stages of Amazement" is a chick novel about, what else?, marriage.  And loss and pain and female friendship, a former Italian lover, a newly discovered paternal relationship, and a damaged child and...you get the idea.  It is about a high-flying surgeon, his ambition, and its effect on his marriage and children, to sum up the plot as quickly as I can.  What's curious is the name-dropping that occurs throughout.  Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, Francis Ford Coppola, Sean Penn and more make cameo appearances or are at least referred to as party guests.  These mentions cause a certain frisson, but their only function is to point up just how rich and powerful the old guy with the bucks our surgeon needs to produce his revolutionary surgical invention really is. 

The heart of the novel belongs to Lena, the long-suffering wife who copes with grief at the loss of one of her twin babies, the constant health crises of the one who survived, a young son with sensitivities, and a mother and sister who try to help but mostly annoy, while her successful husband pursues a bi-coastal medical career.  Will he get the financing he needs before Lena walks out?  Will Lena succumb to a former lover who has influence over that funding?  Will baby Willa survive?  Will Lena and her newly-discovered father (the rich guy who holds her husband's fate in his hands) make peace with each other before it is too late?  I guess it would make a good movie. 

"Stages" has gotten a lot of press and enthusiastic reviews, which is why I wanted to read it.  Let me say that if I could write a book this good, I would.  That is not to say it is a great novel, or even a particularly good one.  It has a strong plot, recognizable characters, and an emotional kick, so it's not un-fun to read.  Lots of women will probably like it, but I doubt it will win any prizes.

How's that for snark?

Monday, May 9, 2011

"A Parisian From Kansas" by Phillipe Tapon

Back in February I read a novel, "The Mistress," by Phillipe Tapon.  I liked it a lot, which is why I picked up his first novel, "A Parisian From Kansas."  Let's just say, it's rather different from "The Mistress." (See my February blog for a fuller discussion.)

"Parisian" is what the author/narrator calls a self-referent novel, self-referent in that the author talks about writing the novel even as the plot progresses.  It is not an AIDS novel, we are assured, yet the main character, Darren, is dying of AIDS.  When "Phillipe Tapon" meets Darren at a party in Paris, he is entranced by this thin, unique, unrestrained young man.  When Darren discovers that Phillipe has ambitions to write a novel, Darren immediately seizes on him to write the story of his, Darren's, life--and death.  The two men begin a relationship that is sometimes a friendship, sometimes a collaboration, sometimes a searing conflict.  You could say it is about a philosophy of life, a meditation upon death, a story of friendships made and tested, but mostly you could say it is a novel about love.  And sex.

One reason I like fiction so much is that I am fascinated by human relationships.  If the relationship is interesting, I don't care if it's between a cab driver and a runaway teenager, an artist and his model, a couple falling in love, or a homosexual and his best friend.  I like knowing what makes people tick, how they find meaning, how they cope with loss and pain, what they do with whatever fortune deals them.  Sex is obviously part of the human experience, but in literature it's not usually the most interesting part, to me at least.  What is interesting about Othello and Desdemona is not just their sexual relationship, though that certainly plays a big part; what fascinates are the jealousy, the insecurity of a strong man, devotion in the face of fear, the machinations of a selfish schemer.  We don't need to know the secrets of the bedroom; we can infer that.  Most of "Parisian" is interesting, though it drags a bit and is repetitious.  For a novel that talks so much about editing, this one could have used a bit more red pencil.  Quite frankly, the infamous Chapter 11 is one I could have done without, not because I found it offensive.  I just found it irrelevant.  I would recommend this novel, with reservations.  In my view, "The Mistress" is a far better book.

We Are All Cowards

My good and dear friend L. asked me this morning what courage is.  The question has led me to think about not only a definition but also the presence or absence of courage in our daily lives.  Who is brave?  Does it matter?

We read about freedom fighters who willingly risk death for a cause or a country.  We watch as mountain climbers scale impossible heights.  We applaud a little girl who sacrifices her own life to save her sister from drowning.  These are all brave people.  We would all like to believe we could be like them should circumstances warrant, but I very much doubt that the vast majority of us are brave at all.  To me, courage is pursuing an action or course that is filled with danger beyond the normal risks we all take when we drive a car or fly across the country.  To me, bravery is not absence of fear; it is, as Hemingway put it, "grace under pressure." 

There are all kinds of fear, but the one I want to consider here is the fear of speaking one's mind, the fear of ruffling feathers.  Let me be specific.  I have spent over 30 years as a teacher, first in high schools, then in universities.  For most of that time I was quite happy with the way things were organized and managed.  When I taught high school back in the '70s, I was lucky enough to have a principal who had, well, principles.  He was fair and reliable.  He did not suffer fools gladly but he could listen to his faculty and change course if they wanted to try something new.  He thought for himself and allowed us to do the same.

Years later, when I was teaching at a state university, I began to hear rumblings from the public schools about increased paperwork, demands for more and more "assessment," teaching to the test, and being forced through a narrow curricular chute.  Thank goodness I'm not teaching in the public schools, I thought.  That could never happen in higher education.  Professors are too independent; the ethos is completely different.  By the time I retired higher education too was in the grip of a bureaucracy of micro-managers who thought education was best served by increasing the number of buzzwords associated with it--outcome-based,  goals and strategies,  uniform syllabi,  student-centered, critical thinking (as demonstrated by quantifiable data)--rather than by a recognition of and a reliance on the ability of a teacher to get her students thinking for themselves and, if not loving the subject at hand, at least deepening their appreciation of it.

There are two fields where personal relationships matter a great deal: education and medicine.  Students learn from teachers they love, and patients recover more calmly and quickly when they are comforted as well as cured by their physicians.  Both medicine and education have been highjacked by pencil-pushers intent on removing the human factor and replacing it with protocols, rubrics, data, and documentation.  "Oversight" is the watchword, as if good teachers and doctors couldn't be trusted to know what they are doing.  We have lost trust in those we should most revere, perhaps because we have lost trust period.  When reading my student evaluations at the end of each semester, it was the comments I looked at, not the circled numbers or checked boxes.  But when student responses were tallied, it was only the numbers that counted and were kept.  There is a proliferation of paperwork that drains time out of a teacher's or a doctor's day and creates so much redundancy that when you  provide your doctor with your address and phone number you have to put the same information on a dozen sheets of paper, and the nurse at check-out asks you for it again.

All of this bureaucratic glut and nit-picking is not the only thing that troubles me, however.  What amazes me is the alacrity with which otherwise intelligent, competent professionals cave in to the demands to follow all the rules, without deviation.  Standardization is meant to assure quality, but, I suggest, it too often flattens everything into the same pancake.  If there is a good reason for doing something, then I am all for doing it.  But does it really matter if every professor's syllabus looks exactly the same?  Isn't "what are your goals for your class" a terribly silly question?  Does relentless testing promote learning and make it more enjoyable, or is it just an obstacle to real growth?

My question is this:  why don't more people just say no?  Why can't a senior professor simply say, "I've been teaching this course for 20 years.  My classes are always full, and my former students come back to visit long after they have graduated.  Everyone knows who the good teachers are on this campus.  Give me one good reason why I should fill out this silly form and answer your silly questions?  Who benefits from my wasting time in this way?"

What I have noticed is that younger faculty go along with the system without question.  They shrug their shoulders and say, "Just do what the Office of Assessment wants and get it over with."  They have been brought up in this new world and don't know any other.  But I have watched the morale of older professors wither and die.  It is a fact that universities are becoming more and more top-heavy with administrators.  That's where the real money is, and the power too.  Because research has become the be-all and end-all of academia, professors whose research is less than stellar often opt for administration, where the research requirement disappears.  Those may be the best teachers on campus, but administration offers an attractive refuge.  In addition, many of the new administrators who proliferate like rabbits (layers and layers of vice-chancellors, vice-provosts, associate deans, directors of various services, such as student life, multicultural affairs, sustainability, etc. etc.) have never been inside a classroom as anything other than a student themselves.  Their take on the university is quite different from their faculties'.  Productivity, retention, cost-cutting, grant-winning--in short, a bottom-line mentality.  Education is becoming a business with customers rather than students.  Slick advertising entices students with spas, athletics, and luxury dorms, as though a university were a resort with an academic component. 

I am trying hard not to become an old curmudgeon, pining for the good old days when professors smoked pipes and had leather patches on their elbows, but it's not easy.  I know this will never happen; the current system is too entrenched, but I wish our higher education could be divided into teaching institutions and research institutes, each with a clear mandate.  Just as some doctors choose to work in a lab rather than a clinic, so too some academics would prefer to do research rather than teach undergraduates.  The way things are now, if a young faculty member wants to devote his life to teaching, if he feels a calling to teach and can't imagine doing anything else, he is pulled away from his primary passion by research requirements that sap his time and his energy.  It's a mistake too many people make when they think young professors have it easy.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Teaching--at any level--is one of the most demanding, exhausting professions going.  Let anyone who doubts it spend a week in front of a classroom.

Over the course of my career, I have watched students slide down the list of public universities' priorities.  Revenue, retention, growth--these are what come first.  Welcome to the university as corporation.  I'm not saying anything new in the ongoing debate over the future of our educational system, but I can at least encourage those who are still in the game to ask for a timeout.  We need to rethink where we are going and why; we need to re-read Cardinal Newman's "The Idea of the University."  We need to learn to say, No.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

"Finding Nouf" by Zoe Ferraris

I have not finished reading "Finding Nouf" but I feel compelled to comment not so much on the novel, which so far I am enjoying, as on the cultural milieu it presents.  Zoe Ferraris was at one time married to a Saudi-Palestinian-Bedouin and lived in Saudi Arabia with her husband's extended family.  I am relieved to read on the book jacket that she now lives in San Francisco, no longer with said husband.

What this book gives is a stark picture of how women in Saudi Arabia are forced to live.  This may be the 21st century, but so far as Saudi women are concerned it might as well be the fourteenth.  Here are just some of the things a good Muslim woman in Saudi Arabia may not do: leave her home unescorted by a male relative, show her face to men outside her family, vote, drive, enter a government building by the same entrance as the men, have sex outside marriage, leave the country without her father's or husband's written permission.  If a man has completed his ablutions before praying but sees a woman before he actually begins to pray, he must do his ablutions again, as he has seen something unclean.

Forcing women to follow these strict rules, often on pain of death, is more than just wrong; it is abominable.  The Arab world needs a women's liberation movement.  I am a student of the Victorian age, and part of its fascination for me lies in the roles played by women, from prostitutes in the Haymarket to pampered aristocrats without rights to property or their own children.  Girls today have, I believe, little notion what generations of women before them had to fight to overcome.  In my own girlhood I remember being told by my mother that I shouldn't necessarily make good grades, or if I did to keep quiet about it for fear of putting the boys off.  There were so many things girls couldn't do that boys could.  They may seem trivial, but to a young woman with an independent spirit the restrictions seemed arbitrary, unfair, and demeaning.  When I was in college, we had a dress code: no pants or shorts to be worn to class or in the library; a 10:30 curfew on weekdays, 12:00 on weekends; no leaving campus overnight without parental permission.  I was not allowed to phone a boy or visit him in his home, with rare exceptions.  In college, men were not allowed above the first floor of the dorm and its public rooms.  It amuses me to recall that because there was no privacy, couples kissed and groped each other in full view of whoever was around.  We were used to ignoring the semi-orgy that occurred each night on the porch before the doors were locked. 

Obviously, these restrictions were designed to prevent unsanctioned sex, and where very young girls are involved such restrictions are, of course, acceptable.  But when grown women are discouraged from getting a full education, have their husbands chosen for them, or are restricted in their movements, something is very wrong.  Cultural differences can be charming and should be celebrated.  The Japanese tea ceremony is lovely; Native American dancing can be exciting; French cuisine is rightly celebrated.  Customs, diet, dress, music and art--differences here make the world a more colorful place.  Making virtual slaves of half the population is not colorful; it is cruel.  When I was a child, my beloved grandmother explained to me that American slaves in the South were happy with their lot.  We are all aware of the cognitive dissonance of, say, Thomas Jefferson, who believed in individual freedom and owned slaves simultaneously.  My rather Victorian mother wanted to protect me and shelter me from possible unpleasantness.  She certainly meant me no harm, even when she goaded me about my support for the Equal Rights Amendment.  I have no doubt that many, if not most, Arab men love their wives and daughters.  Many things throughout the course of human history have been undertaken because they were deemed "for your own good."

I can understand that it is easier--and safer--to go along with family and societal demands if you live in a traditional culture.  Often it is women themselves who exercise vigilance when it comes to other women's behavior.  How much easier it is when slaves themselves guard other slaves.  It is no accident that it is educated women who make the most noise about rights.  The fact that some Arab women want to cover themselves from head to foot in voluminous black cloaks when the temperature is 100 degrees is no argument. 

I feel sorry for those women who are forbidden to have male friendships.  I have always enjoyed the company of men and not just physically.  One of the most significant friendships between a man and a woman occurs in George Eliot's "Middlemarch" when Dorothea and Lydgate join forces to help their community and each other.  Their relationship is not sexual but is based on mutual respect and shared interests.  Had they been denied each other's company, much would have been lost.  To assume that the overriding current between men and women is necessarily sexual is to pervert human possibility.  How can it be right for men to devise the rules for women to follow?  How infantilizing it is to render women impotent!

It is so hard to live in a state of constant anger.  I can understand how women in difficult circumstances are able to convince themselves that being submissive is being womanly, but it is certainly not natural, nor is it mandated by some supernatural power whose very nature is problematic.  Religion has always been used to trump dissenting argument.  When God himself declares something to be so, who are we flawed humans to quibble?  I realize that I will not convince religious people to abandon their beliefs, but I do wish people would recognize how equivocal those beliefs are.  Whatever gets you through the night, is my view, so long as you don't find your own comfort in another's loss of autonomy.

The Islamic, or indeed the Christian, fetish for virginity strikes me as more than a little creepy.  What is it they say, "Who thinks more about sex than a monk or a fourteen-year old boy?"  An entire culture that is preoccupied with the sexual behavior of its members strikes me as perverse, if not perverted.  Yes, I am a product of my own culture that values women (to a fair degree) and has come a long way toward granting them the freedom of action that any adult human being deserves, but I am still capable of making moral discriminations on my own.  I know that if any preacher, mullah, or shaman tried to tell me what to do, I would be mad as hell.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

"The Northern Clemency" by Philip Hensher

Henry James said that the novel is a loose, baggy monster.  His novels may be baggy, but they are not loose.  Like an infinitely intricate puzzle, all the pieces of his novels fit together precisely.  There are just so many pieces!  Philip Hensher's "The Northern Clemency" is indeed a loose, baggy monster; unfortunately not all the pieces fit, despite the first line reappearing in the last paragraph like a cinch around the neck of a sack.

I often choose novels that are short-listed for the Booker Prize, as this one was, because they are almost always a good read, as this one is.   While Hensher's style is not distinctive, it is accomplished and moves along without unnecessary flourishes yet is not simplistic.  His attention to physical detail is precise and abundant, without devolving into gratuitous description for its own sake.  Hensher is a good writer, and I have no doubt we shall see more of him, but I have one quibble.  As a method actor might ask, what's the motivation?  Morton Densher wants to marry the dying Millie Theale so he can inherit her fortune and marry the penniless woman he loves.  Isabel Archer marries the odious Gilbert Osmond because she wants to rescue his motherless daughter.  "Clemency" is filled with compelling set-pieces that rise and fall from the surface of the novel like a spotlight searching out one actor after another, but to my mind these stories within the story do not connect organically.  I fail to perceive any cause and effect in what the characters do.  It is possible to read this novel with interest yet finish it with no clear idea why it went where it did.  Why does Timothy keep snakes?  Why does Sandra/Alex move to Australia, never to return?  Is it only her stroke that makes Alice believe her husband Bernie made a suicide pact with her, or is there some deeper undercurrent in their relationship that remains unexplored?  Why does Malcolm leave Katherine?  Why does he return?  Why is Francis so gormless and disconnected?

I am  tempted to compare Hensher to Jonathan Franzen, who has been criticized for the shallowness of his characters and the banality of their lives.  Hensher's characters are certainly shallow, their lives indistinguishable from others like them in their Sheffield neighborhood.  It is a photograph without shadows, where Franzen's shadows contain ideas and observations that provoke thought and ring true.  James said there are two kinds of knowledge: discovery and recognition.  A novel has the potential to discover novelty, but it doesn't have to in order to have weight.  What I look for in a novel is recognition--of a truth newly brought to light, of a human motive that I share or can imagine sharing, of an idea worth contemplating.  The dark tides of a marriage, a father's love for an impossible son, the temptation to do good by committing a crime--these scenarios promise an examination of human nature, not just the surfaces of behavior but the causes that underlie them. 

Ultimately, a novel is not like real life; it is an artifact, a simulacrum, a composed observation of the things real life contains.  We read novels--at least I do--in order to have questions about personality as well as action answered.  It may be that by their acts you shall know characters, but it is by getting inside them that you will achieve enlightenment.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

"The Troubled Man" by Henning Mankell

It seems the spy business hasn't closed down with the end of the Cold War.  In Mankell's final Wallander novel, the aging detective solves his last case before  sliding into early-onset dementia.  The plot moves along at a lively pace and involves Wallander's daughter Linda, also a police officer.  Actually, it is her partner's parents who are the nexus of the plot, which involves spy networks dating back decades.  But interesting as the action of the novel is, it is Wallander's own state of being that most concerns this reader.  Kurt is an old 60, who fears the approach of old age and death.  He is not reconciled with any of the important people in his life, except for his daughter, and their relationship remains prickly.  If there is anything heroic about him, it is his persistence.  Even when he feels unwell and is supposedly on vacation, he travels wherever the case leads him and follows it to its bloody conclusion. 

We like our heroes to be human in this day and age.  The braggadocio of an Achilles or a Hector, when seen in a contemporary light, is more often taken as a sign of mental disorder.  Kurt Wallander is, as we say, married to his job, but he lacks confidence and always wonders if he's missing something.  He has few friends, drinks too much, lives in an isolated farmhouse, and is closest to his dog Jussi.  I picture his world in shades of grey, with a cold rain on a bad day.  The melancholy atmosphere suits the story and the people in it, yet it is not oppressive.  Perhaps it's knowing that the world I live in is more brightly colored than Kurt's that allows me to contemplate his bleak canvas with equanimity.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

It May Not Be the Way You Think It Was

Yesterday I read an essay by Nicholson Baker (in Harper's) wherein he explains why he is a pacifist.  His argument is not one I had heard before.  He talks about the "good war" that obviously has to be fought and points to World War II as America's default good war.  We HAD to fight Hitler, didn't we?  Neville Chamberlain was wrong, wasn't he?  Civilization itself was at stake.  Or maybe not.

In an argument that is carefully constructed and amply supported by data, Baker blames the wholesale massacre of European Jews at least partly on America's war policy.  Hitler virtually held the Jewish population hostage in order to keep America out of the war.  Once we entered the field of battle, he immediately ordered mass extermination.  The Jews no longer had any value.  This may sound far-fetched, but Baker's argument makes sense.  The most important thing, he says, is the preservation of life.  Nothing else compares to that.  The desire for revenge, while understandable, leads only to more death.  Rather than bombing Dresden, America and the Jews would have been better served by getting as many Jews out of Germany as possible, but as we all remember, Jews weren't always welcome, even in the United States, and boatloads of Jews were turned away from our ports.  Could we have "bought" the Jews through trade agreements or at least have shepherded them to safety by stalling for time?  Hitler had Parkinson's disease.  Might we simply have waited for him to die, maneuvering furiously behind the scenes to support the resistance?  As we have seen time and again, when the leader of a cult dies, the cult dissolves. 

In recent days I have also read about Russians who still consider Stalin one of the four greatest Soviet heroes and Chinese who believe Americans have never heard of Marx, and I wonder if in this information age we inhabit we aren't ironically as misinformed and misguided as those hapless Russians.  We congratulate ourselves on our free press, our open access to information, our ability to speak truth to power, yet everywhere I look I see evidence of misdirection and obfuscation.  More than ever, I appreciate Pope's observation that "a little learning is a dangerous thing."  We are so awash in "news" that headlines substitute for history.  The demands of contemporary life eliminate time for serious reflection, and our educational system is obsessed with teaching skills and measuring outcomes.  Our children are too often as busy as we are, as distracted by entertaining glitter, as likely to avoid boredom by the easiest means.  It is a facile and perhaps gratuitous comparison, but like the Japanese we are hit by a tsunami--a tsunami of work, consumption, and an unconsidered race for material success. 

If this were not so, why then did so many of our brightest young minds choose Wall Street and wealth rather than service to the public good?  Education is supposed to raise all boats, but this lie is borne out every time the gap between the very rich and the struggling majority widens.  Difference of opinion presents itself as self-righteousness, and changing one's mind in response to circumstances or new information is seen as lack of character.  Of course, changing one's words to fit the moment is just as often a cynical ploy to be on the popular side du jour.  Reasoned argument, reliance on evidence, the ability to be skeptical about even one's own cherished beliefs are so far removed from our public discourse as to be practically invisible.  I may be my own best example.  I have never questioned the necessity of our entrance into World War II.  I honor those who sacrificed and endured and were brave.  But yesterday I questioned for the first time the interpretation of the war that I have been taught since the cradle.  I was reminded that the most important thing is life itself and that our ways of protecting it too often fall short.  I was reminded that an open mind is essential to mental freedom.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Loveliness of a Spring Evening

I wish I could capture in words the evanescent beauty of this spring evening.  The air is refreshed by a light rain, the light is muted, and the white wisteria and dogwood glow in the muted air.  Everything is saturated with green, and the wisteria's scent hovers above the uncut grass.   A mourning dove coos somewhere in the distance, reminding me of my grandmother's house, where as a child I listened to the doves' mournful cries and felt drawn to distant, unknown destinations.  Is it time or distance I wish to step into?  The most beautiful things are those glimpsed out of the corner of the eye, gone before grasped, lost but remembered.  Is this what age brings in its wake: the perception of all those transcendent moments that could not be held, could not endure?  Is there an aged memory that gathers up the white petals that have fallen like a benediction?  The light fades, the white blooms retreat into dark shadows, where they wait for eternity.