George Eliot: A Tribute

I have been a reader since I was in short pants, as they say. It began with “Boy’s Life” and books about young detectives who solved impossible cases. It is a passion, I admit, perhaps even an addiction. But it has opened a world to me that would have otherwise have remained closed.

In any event, I do believe that George Eliot is the best writer of the many I have read and she is almost certainly one of he wisest of writers who ever set pen to paper (remember when writing was about pens and paper?). And the list of wise writers and thinkers is long and includes the many philosophers I have read and such great novelists as Joseph Conrad, Wallace Stegner, R.K. Narayan, Yasunari Kawabata, and Edith Wharton. Eliot is the best of the lot.

I am currently re-reading (for the third or fourth time) Felix Holt: The Radical which is about the struggles in England at the end of the nineteenth century with the issue of suffrage: should all people be granted the vote or only the few who are presumed to know? Eliot suggests that the answer lies in the hope that all can know, that knowledge can be expanded along with the vote. But she knows full well that Democracy is predicated on an educated electorate. She always gets her teeth deep into an issue and masticates it until it is easily digested. Those who know her only from Silas Marner do not know the writer at all. That is her most popular novel, but it is also her lightest. Her other novels deal with serious topics and none is more serious than the topic addressed in Felix Holt. And timely, given deep questions about whether or not our electorate is intelligent and well-educated enough to vote for the best person — given recent elections.

Felix Holt is a well-educated, liberal thinker who has chosen to throw in his lot with those who are less fortunate than himself. He works at a menial job and rubs elbows with those who are disenfranchised and worries with them about how their country is to be run. In a lengthy speech he delivers to his “fellow workmen,” Felix reveals the author’s wisdom in his own pithy observations about things as they are and things as they ought to be. To take just a few examples:

“. . .a society, a nation is held together . . . by the dependence of men on each other and the sense they have of common interest in preventing injury.”

“. . .any large body of men is likely to have more of stupidity, narrowness , and greed than of farsightedness and generosity, [thus] it is plain that the number who resist unfairness and injury are in danger of becoming injurious in their turn. . . . the highest interest of mankind must at last be a common and not a divided interest. . .”

“No men will get any sort of power without being in danger of wanting more than their right share.”

“Now changes can only be good in proportion as they put knowledge in the place of ignorance and fellow-feeling in place of selfishness. . . . . Our getting the franchise will greatly hasten that good end in proportion only as every one of us has the knowledge, the foresight, the conscience, that will make him well-judging and scrupulous in his use of it.”

“Those precious benefits form a chief part of what I might call the common estate of society: a wealth over and above buildings, machinery, produce, shipping, and so on, though closely connected with these; a wealth of a more delicate kind, that we may more unconsciously bring into danger, doing harm and not knowing that we do it. I mean that treasure of knowledge, science, poetry, refinement of thought, feeling, and manners, great memories and the interpretation of great records, which is carried on from the minds of one generation to the minds of another. . . . let us watch carefully lest we do anything to lessen this treasure which is held in the minds of men, while we exert ourselves first of all, and to the very utmost, that we and our children may share in all its benefits; exert ourselves to the utmost to break the yoke of ignorance.”

“To discern between the evils that energy can remove and the evils that patience must bear, makes the difference between manliness and childishness, between good sense and folly”

At a time when we struggle with the problems generated by foolish politicians and blind leaders who lead a population of diffident followers busily going about seeking pleasure while finding reasons why they should not bother to become involved in the running of a democracy that demands their attention and their best energy, a time when education has fallen to the ground and is in danger of being trampled upon and reduced to training young minds to become abject followers, the words of a wise woman writing over a century ago have the ring of truth — a truth that has also been lost in the forest of bloat and rhetoric flowing from the mouths of self-interested politicians who only care about being reelected. We can do no better than to stop and think about those things that George Eliot thought about and weigh carefully what she had to tell us.

If the experiment in universal suffrage can ever succeed, it demands an educated electorate — at least one intelligent enough to separate the worthy from the unworthy.

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Ressentiment

 

{One of my blog buddies, Lisa Palmer, made the following comments in response to something I said on her blog. It rang a small bell and inspired me to go back to find a previous post where I addressed her concerns; it expands the brief response I made to her comment, which I thought well worth thinking about and hope my response is appropriate and helpful.}

Most of the Trump supporters I have actually had conversations with (not anonymous internet interactions, which are rarely productive) honestly seem to believe he is a savior of sorts. They all seem to buy into this elaborate conspiracy theory where Trump (sometimes working with a hidden military shadow government) is trying to take down the elite. When confronted with the actual wrongs he has done that affect them negatively, they respond with certainty that “it’s all part of the plan!” Any day now, arrests are going to start occurring and all of the corrupted evil-doers in government and business (including all of the liberals and democrats who are the worst offenders) will be taken down. Once his “job” is accomplished, Trump will resign, and the hidden military shadow government will take over, dismantling the Federal Reserve and the banking system, and resetting things in favor of the middle class…

The story is sadly consistent. When I try to discuss specific wrongs he has/is doing, I am told immediately that none of it is true; it’s all part of the liberal press’ agenda to villianize Trump because the elite are so afraid of him. When I ask why no progress appears to be being made, as the “soon” they discuss has never wavered, they tell me that the liberal fascists keep fighting him, but he’s almost got everything ready.

Most of them agree he is a terrible person, “but he’s the only one who could get the job done!” And the saddest/scariest part for me, is that the number of Trump supporters (those who believe some version of this tale) are growing, or at least growing more vocal…

Despite the fact that I swore never to read or write about this man out of my very genuine concern that it raises my blood pressure, I do think it worth a moment’s reflection. I suggest that it is what the French saw in the eighteenth century as they experienced the reign of terror that was their revolution, a time when the rise of what they called “sansculottism” — an extreme form of republicanism* that roused the very poor against the aristocracy and the wealthy who refused to pay their way in France, shifting the entire financial burden onto the shoulders of the poor and disenfranchised, thereby making them and their country weak and sickly. The word used to describe the mind-set of those who rose against the power-mongers is the French word “ressentiment,” which we loosely translate as “resentment.”

Ressentiment is an ugly beast and it grows and festers within the heart of those who see around them others who have what they think they ought to have. It is not simply jealousy, though it is certainly akin to that most ugly passion. It breeds a form of hatred that is directed against those around them who have the power and the wealth and seem to lord it over those who are not in their privileged position. The French aristocracy knew the country was on the brink of starvation and insurrection and that an increase in their own pathetically small tax burden — which was a joke — might bring about some sort of balance or at least quiet down the growing unrest among those who suffered deprivation. But they refused and the resentment grew until it finally erupted in the reign of terror directed against those with wealth and position who remained in France — those who had not already fled in fear.

Clearly, there is no exact parallel between the French in the eighteenth century and today’s Americans. But there are broad areas of resemblance as those who regard themselves as deprived of power see around them wealthy men and women who ignore them and who refuse to bear any of the political burden, except in so far as it increases their own wealth and prestige. Indeed, the power-brokers seem to find new ways to shift that burden to the shoulders  of those who can least afford it while at the same time increasing their own wealth. And in this atmosphere there appears a man who is full of bloat and rhetoric, but who seems somehow different — like them, a womanizer, a crass fellow with bluster who promises them a piece of the pie that has been denied them for so long. The things this man does that horrifies many of those around him endear him to those who would be like him, arrogant, proud, domineering those around him, and abusing those who differ from him. He is their savior.

In a word, one might have expected something like what we are at present living through if we had thought about it a bit. It is really not all that surprising and it will not end until or unless those who have been denied access to the halls of power can somehow find themselves within those halls and portioned at least a small share of that power. This is the only way they can possibly gain some semblance of self-respect and cool down the passion of ressentiment that festers within their hearts.

It is doubtful, though certainly possible, that a revolution will be the alternative; the passion doesn’t seem to have reached a fever pitch (though the embers smolder there), but there will be continued attacks on liberals, the intelligent, the wealthy, those who seem to have what others lack, and those who pull the strings of power that makes life a burden for so many who are chronically deprived. And folks like Our Leader will continue to bask in the glow of popularity cast by those who see him as The Answer, one of Them, one who will lead them out of the mud that surrounds them.

 

*[the ideology which at that time sought the establishment of a true Republic as opposed to an Aristocracy] 

 

Facts (As Opposed to Opinions)

I wrote this in the early years of this blog, but, with a few additional comments added, it seems especially relevant today with “false facts” floating around us. And, Heaven knows, we need a respite from the truly ugly political shenanigans going on.

One of the most popular segments on E.S.P.N.’s popular Sports Center is called “Cold Hard Facts,” and it consists of one or more “experts” sitting down and giving his opinions about upcoming sports events. The confusion here between “facts” and “opinions” is instructive. We seem to have lost sight of a rather important distinction.

While there is nothing we claim to know that should ever be held beyond doubt, there is certainly a basic distinction between an opinion — which can be silly or sensible — and a fact which has the weight of evidence and argument behind it. It is a fact that water freezes at 32 degrees fahrenheit. It is a fact that objects fall toward the center of the earth. The most reliable facts are in the hard sciences and in mathematics (though there is some discussion whether a mathematical formula is a fact or simply a tautology). But even when an expert tells us that the New England Patriots are sure to win the game on Sunday, that is an opinion.

As mentioned, opinions can be silly — as in “there’s a monster in my closet,” or sensible, as in “don’t raise the bet when holding a pair of twos — unless you are a really good bluffer.” And opinions can differ in degree, some being more likely or more probable than others. But they do not cross over into the territory of fact until the weight of argument and evidence is so heavy it cannot be moved. Thus the opinion that smoking causes cancer became fact once the correlation between the two became very nearly inviolable (there are still exceptions). And the opinion that humans are evolved from lower forms of animals became fact when the weight of evidence became so heavy it could no longer be ignored — except by looking the other way.

One of the big controversies in our schools, especially in the South, is whether “intelligent design” is a fact or an opinion, that is, whether or not it should be taught along with the theory of evolution. But as there is no possible way to disprove intelligent design and there are any number of ways one might try to disprove evolution, the latter can be regarded as fact whereas the former cannot.  Intelligent design, the claim that human evolution is guided by a Creator, is a matter of faith. It may have plausibility, but it cannot be proved or, more importantly, disproved. This is where Socratic doubt comes in.

The secret to Socrates’ method was to doubt until we could doubt no longer. At the point where a claim seems to be beyond doubt, we can claim it is true — so far as we know. The key to the Socratic method was questioning and attempting to disprove. That is the key to scientific method as well. Claims become factual to the extent that they can no longer be disproved. If there is no way to disprove a claim, even in principle, it cannot ever rise to the status of fact. The Freudian position is usually denied the status of fact precisely because it cannot be proved — or disproved, even in principle. Still, it functions as an explanation of many of our human foibles and can be regarded as plausible.

We can talk until we are blue in the face about who was the best basketball player ever, or whether the souls of evil persons will suffer eternal punishment, but since no claim we make could ever be proved false, we never get beyond the realm of personal opinion. The claim that the polar ice caps are melting is a fact. The claim that humans are part of the cause of global warming is an opinion, though it is probable. And in this case, it would be wise to treat it as fact because even if it turns out to be false, it hasn’t cost us a great deal to seek ways to reverse the trend. And if it turns out to be true, we will have taken steps to solve a serious problem facing our earth.

Distinctions help to clarify our thinking. When they are glossed over, it leads to confusion. That is my opinion, but it seems plausible. That is the most I can say until further review.

P.C.

I have been re-reading Joseph Conrad’s The Nigger of the “Narcissus” and was put in mind of the terrible constraint the P.C. movement has placed upon those who would teach the young and how so many of us are becoming word-impaired as a result of the claim that certain words must never be used because they might hurt someone’s feelings. To be sure, we must be careful about hurting one another, but when all are victims, as seems to be the case at present, none are victims. In any event, the constraint that has been placed on ordinary discourse seems to me to be a step in the direction of shrinking minds that are already tending toward empty. In that spirit, I reprint here a post I wrote several years ago about this movement and the threats it is to open discussion of important issues, not to say the reading of classical literature. [This post, among many others, is collected and collated in my non-selling book Alone In The Labyrinth which is available for a nominal fee from the publisher, Ellis Press or from Amazon. (wink, wink, nudge, nudge.)]

Philosophers are fond of making distinctions. For example, I am careful to point out the difference between “need” and “want” in explaining that many of the things we insist we need are simply things we want. Such distinctions can go a long way toward clarifying our thinking and helping us to see our way through a tangle of words, show the fly the way out of the milk bottle in Wittgenstein’s delightful image. Many years ago Bertrand Russell wrote an essay in which he made a distinction between “use” and “mention.” He noted the vast difference between using a word, say an offensive word, and simply mentioning that same word. Thus if I say “Judy is fat” I am using a word that many people find offensive, especially Judy. If I say “Fred said that Judy is fat” I am merely mentioning the offensive term and the difference is important and fundamental. But we have lost sight of this distinction, especially in academia where political correctness demands that we neither use nor mention offensive terms — words that might possibly be found offensive to someone else.

Some years ago I wrote an article for a professional journal in which I defended Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness against the libel of the novelist and critic Chinua Achebe who insisted that people avoid Conrad’s novella altogether because it and its author are both “racist.”  He made that claim on the grounds that in the novella Conrad plays fast and loose with the word “nigger,” which is almost certainly one of the most offensive terms in our language. My defense was based on the point that when a novelist like Conrad used the term he put it in the mouth of a seaman at the turn of the last century who would most assuredly use the term without giving it a second thought. The novel is not “racist” because Conrad is simply telling a story in which the term is used by his narrator. Conrad himself is simply mentioning that fact. Again, the distinction Russell made is key here. Conrad is not a racist, nor is his novella. His narrator may have been, but the charge cannot be laid at the feet of the novelist.

But, as I have said, this distinction is lost on those who would protect victims from words they might find offensive. And while I respect the motivation that has led us to this point — to protect sensitive people and avoid hurting their feelings — it is clear that the situation has become extreme and is now putting a cramp on communication at so many levels. In addition, of course, everyone now claims to be a victim. It is especially problematic in our colleges and universities where this sensitivity to others’ feelings has become excessive.  As a result, according to a recent (9/15/17) essay in The Atlantic, “the new political correctness is ruining education.” In addition to ignoring the distinction between use and mention and insisting that any and all uses (or mentions) of certain words must desist (or else!), officials and students themselves in a great many institutions of higher education also wave the red flag at what are called “trigger warnings.”

“For example, some students have called for warnings that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart describes racial violence and that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby portrays misogyny and physical abuse, so that students who have been previously victimized by racism and domestic violence can choose to avoid those works which they believe might “trigger” a recurrence of past trauma.”

Now, clearly the motivation of those who call for this sort of avoidance cannot be called into question. But this concern is clearly out of control. Those who would teach are denied the opportunity to free young minds and open them up to the world around them which, unfortunately, is a source of a great deal of discomfort. Clearly, the use of  offensive language is different from the mention of those words that might possibly offend. We need to recall that distinction and move past this sort of censorship, remaining sensitive to others’ feelings, but not so concerned that we cannot say or write what needs to be said and written. However, the Atlantic article notes that concern over political correctness and trigger warnings has created a bleak atmosphere on college campuses across the nation.

“The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. More than [concern over political correctness], it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into ‘safe places’ where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make them uncomfortable. And more than [P.C.], this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness.”

And this despite the fact that making young adults “uncomfortable” is precisely what they need in order to become educated persons. As Jerry Seinfeld has noted in refusing to perform on college campuses because of the atmosphere of “vindictive protectiveness,” we need to keep our sense of humor. And we also need to keep our sense of balance before we fall off the edge of an increasingly small platform of politically correct terms that doesn’t allow us to say what needs to be said or read what needs to be read in order to provide students with the education they so desperately require in an increasingly confusing world.

 

Balance Of Power

In the early years of the eighteenth century, Baron De Montesquieu wrote his famous The Spirit of the Laws in which he noted:

“. . .there is no liberty, if the judiciary power be not separated from the legislative and the executive. Were it joined with the legislative, the life and liberty of the subjects would be subjected to arbitrary control; for the judge would then be legislator. Were it joined to the executive power, the judge might behave with violence and oppression.”

This principle, the separation of power, was the cornerstone on which this nation was founded. The founding fathers had read Montesquieu and took what he said to heart as they knew first-hand of which he spoke. Our lessons are just beginning.

Words

    “I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ ” Alice said.
    Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ ”
    “But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.
    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

It’s interesting, to say the least, how folks bandy words about, making them mean what they want them to mean — not unlike Humpty Dumpty who pays them extra when they work overtime.

Take the word conservative, for example, which ought to include such things as environmentalists who are regarded by many so-called conservatives as liberal “tree-huggers.” Environmentalists are dedicated to conserving our world. But those conservative critics are really dollar conservatives who care only about the bottom line, the profits that are frequently the result of attacks on the environment. There are also intellectual conservatives who are dedicated to preserving those ideas that have helped to create a better world. I number myself among such types. And then there are those liberals usually identified as democrats who advocate human freedom and number among themselves the bleeding heart liberals who react in a programmed manner to all types of human pain and misery — real and supposed. They leave their minds on the shelf and lead with their gut. Endorsing political correctness, they also head the attack against the Canon in the universities and all books written by “dead, white European males.” The pain and misery resulting from this attack, in the form of uninformed and confused students with shrunken minds, is ignored in the name of “social justice” — which can be loosely translated as “what I want to be the case.”

Oddly, it is quite possible for someone to embrace a number of these positions simultaneously and without inconsistency. One can be, for example, a democratic socialist who seeks greater social equality through democratic means.

Socialism, according to Karl Marx, is the economic system that arises upon the death of capitalism, an economic system that feeds on the rotting carcasses of exploited workers — speaking of human pain and misery. Karl Marx was convinced that the state would commandeer the means of production and socialism would result. But eventually the workers would themselves own the means of production and all would share equally — an economic system, called Communism.  Many an intellectual in the early part of the last century embraced the ideals of Communism until, like George Orwell, they discovered that so many of those who said they were promoting Communism were actually fostering totalitarianism and were responsible for the death of millions of their fellow humans — all in the name of “equality,” and “justice.” It is worthy of note that Communism, as embraced by Marx, resembles in important ways the Christianity preached in the Gospels.

And speaking of Christians, there are those who claim to be Christians and who are quite happy with their own prejudices and even preach hatred against all of those they regard as different from themselves. These should be called nominal Christians, as they are Christian in name only. The real Christians, who are rare, are those who do the right thing because it is the right thing and try hard to love their fellow humans, as was preached by the original (and some might say the only) true Christian. There are some who seek to do the right thing, as our beloved blogger Jill Dennison tells us each week, pointing out those who truly deserve our respect and admiration. And, I dare say, many of those people are not even nominal Christians! So it goes.

In any event, words do have relatively fixed meanings, as our dictionaries attest. But, in the spirit of Humpty Dumpty, many of us think that meaning, like truth itself, is something we make up and which dances to the tunes we play. This leads us, as we are becoming increasingly aware, toward a relativism of the meanest sort, a relativism in which hate comes to mean the same thing as love and truth is a fabrication of those in power whose private agenda centers around themselves and their ugly urges toward more and more power. It pays us to beware and to tread carefully, to make sure we know whereof we speak and insist that those claims that we are told are true have the force of evidence and argument to support them. And we should make sure folks say what they mean even though they seldom seem to mean what they say. Otherwise our minds will become prisoners of those who delight in making others a means toward their own ends.

 

Intelligence

IN 2008 Northwestern University Press published a collection of essays by Lionel Trilling edited by Leon Wieseltier under the title The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent. Wieseltier chose the title because one of Trilling’s teachers, John Erskine, had once published an essay by that title. The problem I have with this title is that it makes no sense whatever and given that Trilling was a brilliant man he would have known this. The collection is in some way an insult to the man Wieseltier hoped to praise. There is no question he held Trilling in very high regard, but he should have given the title of the book more thought.

The title makes no sense because we cannot have an obligation to be intelligent. We either are or we are not intelligent. As Immanuel Kant argued many hears ago, “ought implies can.” We cannot choose to be intelligent, though we can choose to be as intelligent as possible. Thus the title “The Moral Obligation To Be As Intelligent As Possible” would have made sense. But it is a bit cumbersome and was doubtless rejected on those grounds. Again, we can try to be intelligent. Indeed, according to much of the collective wisdom of the Western tradition, we have a moral obligation to develop our potential, including our mental capacity, and not to waste it.

Our president and his minions have set the benchmark for intelligence at a very low level. In addition, the electronic toys the kids are addicted to have been shown to diminish intelligence. Popular culture and the entertainment industry have replaced “high culture” and civil discourse. And our schools don’t see intelligence as having any real value. But then intelligence in this country has never been regarded as an especially good thing, a thing to be sought after as desirable in its own right. Ours is a nation of practical folks who have always been suspicious of those who exhibit intelligence, those “eggheads” so derided not long ago. The notion that we should pursue knowledge for its own sake and not simply because it may someday translate into greater profits for ourselves and the companies we might happen to work for is anathema in this culture. And, to a lesser extent, it always has been, despite the fact that the founders of this nation were a remarkably intelligent group of men, as were the two presidents we revere most highly — namely, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. But, then, consistency has never been our strong forte.

Moreover, it makes no sense to say that we have a moral obligation to do something we cannot do. I cannot tell you, for example, that you really should leap off the highest building in town and fly — where “should” reflects the moral obligation to do just that. This makes no sense whatever. Thus, if intelligence is something we are either born with or not, then it makes no sense whatever to tell someone that they really should be intelligent. Even the phrase reflects the nonsense at the heart of the demand. But the notion that we should all, in this day and age, try as hard as we can to become as intelligent as possible makes perfectly good sense — despite the current cultural pressures to be as stupid as possible. Wasting our time and our minds on electronic toys, social media, violent movies, and listening to mindless people shouting at one another on television is not designed to make us smarter. It is tantamount to wasting our talents, our potential as human beings, our potential as a specific human being with specific abilities and talents.

We pay lip service to this idea when we note that “the mind is a terrible thing to waste” (or as Dan Quayle said in this regard, “What a waste it is to lose one’s mind. . .”  Quayle knew whereof he spoke.) And our sitting president who spends his time tweeting inanities and taking mulligans on the golf course at the expense of the American taxpayer is certainly not my choice to be captain of the intelligence corps. But he is revered by countless Americans who see him as the Great White Hope, a man of extraordinary intelligence (as he insists he is) who will lead us to a brighter tomorrow. Probably not. Certainly not if we continue to waste our minds on trivia and toys and ignore the obligation to try to be as intelligent as possible and to elect politicians in the future who exhibit at least a modicum of intelligence.

Home Sweet Home

In a short story about the fictional Prince Roman, Joseph Conrad provides us with the following description of the hero’s attempts to “move on” from the premature death of his beloved wife:

“What were men to him with their sorrows, joys, labors, and passions from which she who had been all to him had been cut off so early?

“They did not exist; and he would have felt completely lonely and abandoned as a man in the toils of a cruel nightmare if it had not been for the countryside where he had been born and spent his happy boyish years. He knew it well — every slight rise crowned with trees amongst the plowed fields, every dell concealing a village. The dammed streams made a chain of lakes set in the green meadows. Far away to the north the great Lithuanian forest faced the sun, no higher than a hedge and to the south, the way to the plains, the vast brown spaces of the earth touched the blue sky.

“And this familiar landscape associated with the days without thought and without sorrow, this land the charm of which he felt even without looking at it soothed the pain, like the presence of an old friend who sits silent and disregarded in some dark hour of life.”

There are a number of things about this passage that are worth reflecting upon. To begin with it is pure poetry written by a man working in his third language, a man who had spent the majority of this adult life at sea. But it also speaks about the lost sense of connection with the earth that so many of us experience without realizing it, a connection with the earth-mother, as Jung would have it, She from whom we all came and to whom we will all return. A spirit and a place we seem determined to destroy in our blind pursuit of profit.

But, more than this, perhaps, is the lost sense of home that so many of us seem to be experiencing, we who are in a tizzy to go somewhere else, to turn our backs on the familiar. I do wonder sometimes if we as a culture that is in such rapid motion might have lost something precious in disconnecting with the earth and having no place to call home — no place, really. No place like Prince Roman’s at any rate.

In my own case, if you will allow, I was born in Charlottesville, Virginia and had moved more than a half-dozen times before I was sixteen years of age — “uprooted” as we say (and note the term). It seemed to me we were always packing and going somewhere else. As a Freshman in high school I was enrolled in three different schools. And I transferred as a Sophomore to a fourth. Even after high school I moved more than eight times until reaching a place in a small town that I can honestly call “home.” And, significantly, here in this small town I am surrounded by many families that go back several generations. And while my case may be a bit extreme, I dare say it is not uncommon in what students of culture have characterized as a “mobile” society. As a people we seem always to be in a hurry, on the move, going somewhere where we are not, where the grass is greener, we hope. It must, certainly, contribute to the general malaise we all feel. I do wonder.

In reading Conrad’s story I have the sense that there is a piece missing in the puzzle we call “life.” A piece that we might all benefit from finding again — if we can. An “old friend” who sits beside us in “some dark hour of life.”

Who Should Vote?

As the election nears — you can smell it a mile away! — I thought it appropriate to repost a piece I wrote two years ago that deals with the question of whether or not everyone should “get out and vote.” The push will soon be on, and there are solid reasons this year, especially, to get folks off their butts and into the voting booths (where, we will hope, all will be Kosher). To be sure, the vote this November may determine whether or not this Republic is capable of being saved! But there remains the question about the qualifications that ought to be demanded of those who determine the folks that are given the reins of power in this country. And that question is worth pondering.

The British fought with the issue of suffrage for much of the nineteenth century. How many people should be allowed to vote? It seems such a simple question, but it has numerous ramifications, twists, and convolutions. At the outset, when this nation was first founded, we followed the British example: men with property can vote, but no one else. The idea was that men with property had a vested interest in what their government did or didn’t do. It seemed to make sense. But like the English, we also fought with the issue of extending the suffrage.

One of the best sources to read about this issue, oddly enough, is novel by George Eliot: Felix Holt The Radical. It focuses close attention on the issue of extending the vote in Great Britain to many who were disenfranchised at the time. But the key issue, which the hero brings into sharp focus, is why the vote should be extended to the illiterate and unpropertied (the question of extending the vote to women was shelved until later!). Leaving aside the issue of ownership of property, the question is central to any meaningful discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of democracy. After all, why should those who cannot read and write, who cannot possibly become well informed about the issues of the day, be placed in a position to vote on those who make laws? In Eliot’s novel, Holt takes the “radical”position that all male citizens would be allowed to vote, since everyone has a vested interest in the laws his government passes, whereas his conservative opponents argue the contrary position: only those with the demonstrated ability to understand the issues should be allowed to vote on those who will decide the fate of the nation. As Eliot has one of her Tory clergymen say in the novel:

“There’s no end to the mischief done by these busy prating men. They make the ignorant multitude the judges of the largest questions, both political and religious, till we shall soon have no institution left that is not on a level with the comprehension of a huckster or a drayman. There can be nothing more retrograde — losing all the results of civilization, all the lessons of Providence — letting the windlass run down after men have been turning at it painfully for generations. If the instructed are not to judge for the uninstructed, why, let us set Dick Stubbs to make the almanacs and have a President of the Royal Society elected by universal suffrage.”

In this country we insist upon testing those from other countries who wish to become citizens, but we allow that any child born in the United States can vote upon coming of age, regardless of any other qualifications. In days long gone by, young people growing up in this country took a civics class as a normal part of their high school curriculum in which they learned about the machinations of the government — or at least how many Senators each state has. But no more. In fact, many high schools have gone away from any requirements whatever and allow the students to select most if not all of the courses they want for the four years they are within their hallowed halls. Civics is no longer taught and as result, the young not only do not know how to read and write, they know nothing whatever about the history of their own country or how the government works — the government that they will help select when coming of age.

The situation is complex, but the issues it raises are worth pondering at a time when the democratic system we are all so fond of is beginning to show signs of breaking down. It becomes more and more apparent each day that large numbers of disaffected people simply don’t want to have anything to do with politics (for  good reasons, in many cases) and that by default the wealthy who have hidden agendas are placed in a position to “call the shots.” This hardly amounts to a democratic system; as I have noted in past comments, it is more like an oligarchy, government of the wealthy.

The problem of suffrage, therefore, gives birth to the interesting question whether everyone should vote and if so what qualification they should have, if any. As things now stand, in the interest of –what? — equality, we allow anyone at all to vote as long as they were born in this country and are of age or have passed their citizen’s test. That, in itself, is a problem. But added to it is the thought that despite the fact that it is so easy to vote (too easy?), more and more choose not to do so or vote based on the promises, soon to be broken, of some clown who has no qualifications for office at all.

Alice and K

Lewis Carroll’s tales about Alice, titled Alice In Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass, are considered children’s tales, suitable to be told to children or made into vapid Disney movies. In fact Carroll, otherwise known as Charles Dodgson, was a mathematician who used his “children’s tales” to make serious points. And, I would contend, his points have to do with the impossibility of a rational, logical person (such as the mathematician Charles Dodgson or, indeed, Alice herself) making any sense of an absurd, irrational world.

Franz Kafka also wrote tales, though they are not regarded as children’s tales and, so far at least, Disney’s crowd has not attempted to make a movie of them. The most famous are The Trial and The Castle. Both reveal to us the same world as the one Carroll depicts: a world that is both comical and inaccessible to the rational mind. In addition, Kafka suggests that the absurdity of that world is the result of the death of spirit, the disenchantment of the world, if you will. Ours is a flat, colorless material world of endless diversions, power struggles, and Big Business, a world that not only allows, but encourages us all to get lost within ourselves and to ignore, as long as possible, the absurdity of the world in which we live: a bureaucratic world that makes no sense.

Kafka describes to us the world in which his hero, simply called “K,” finds himself as he seeks unsuccessfully to approach and enter the Castle. In the excellent essay he wrote about Kafka’s world, the critic Erich Heller, describes it succinctly:

“The world which this soul perceives is unmistakably like the reader’s own; a castle that is a castle and ‘symbolizes’ merely what all castles symbolizes: power and authority; a telephone exchange that produces more muddles than connections; a bureaucracy drowning in a deluge  of forms and files; an obscure hierarchy of officialdom making it  impossible ever to find the man authorized to deal with a particular case; officials who work overtime and get nowhere; numberless interviews which never get to the point; . . . . In fact, it is an excruciatingly familiar world. . . .”

Indeed, it is, and while we may marvel that our world today was seen so clearly by a writer like Kafka nearly a century ago, we must agree that this is the world in which we live, a world in which power is always out of reach; a world in which robot-calls are relentless, frustration comes to a boil when wading through recorded menus in an attempt to find a human voice to speak to on the phone, the need for a G.P.S. when trying to find our way through a modern mall or office building, endless forms to fill out simply to have our teeth cleaned, and corporate hierarchies where responsibility goes to hide. In short “a bureaucracy drowning in a deluge of forms and files” that threatens to overwhelm us. No wonder the kids have taken to electronic toys! At least they can make some sense of that world, even if it is not the real one.

And this is the heart and soul of Kafka’s novels, as it is of Carroll’s in a way: ours is a world in which, if we bother to look up from our toys, the spirit has died and in which we search without success for some sort of meaning. And that is why we agitate over such things as the rotten world of politics where the absurdity of human existence is writ large, where the leader of the free world, as he is known, is a fool who lies a blue streak and speaks in tongues. A world which we seem determined to render unlivable, just as it is unintelligible.

And like K, or like Alice, some of us try to make sense of it. But it does not reveal itself to reason and logic. Kafka was himself unable to “take the leap of faith” that someone like Kierkegaard was able to take. This might have made it possible for him to make sense of a seemingly absurd world. For most of us it’s not an option any more, either. We are far too sophisticated and religion has been corrupted by small-minded zealots who ignore its central message.  It’s unlikely that we can once again restore the spirit in our darkly materialistic world.  All we can do is try to come to terms with our small part of that world and try to make sense of those things and people closest to us. The rest is outer darkness, the world of the Castle and Wonderland “an excruciatingly familiar world.”

But that is not a bad thing, because there are people around us who deserve our love and attention, and there are things that need to be done which we can do if we are willing. Happiness is in the smile of a child and the genuine goodness in those folks who determine to do the right thing.