Imagining Peace

I have referred to Lionel Trilling’s excellent novel The Middle of the Journey and I do recommend it. Trilling writes well and has something important to say. That is unusual. Indeed. In the eighth chapter of that novel his central character is reflecting, as is his habit:

“. . . he thought how weak the human imagination is because it so dully represents peace and brotherhood. A careful, shabby Hindu student and a skinny Methodist student shake hands and agree that there are no real differences between people that cannot be overcome by mutual understanding and education and the cider and doughnuts they will presently be offered by the religious director. The world’s imagination of strife was surely much more attractive. It allowed men their force and their selfhood as well as their evil. Yet in actual fact . . . the true emotion of reconciliation is an heroic one. Hamlet never appears in fuller virility than when he offers Laertes his hand, and nothing he says rings with a sweeter and graver note of masculinity than his ‘Give me your pardon, sir. I have done you wrong.'”

There are so many things to delight in this brief passage, but I will start with the weak imagination that “so dully represents peace and brotherhood.” It raises the deep question why we seem to relish the violent and hateful and hear so little about the true heroism that goes on all around us every day. The news media, which ought to be called the “entertainment” industry to be accurate, glories in all the mayhem and animosity in the world and says little, if anything, about the beauty and goodness that is easily as common. So many of our fellow bloggers — including myself, though with the exception of our good friend Jill Dennison — tend to dwell on the bad and nasty and ignore the good and the magnificent. But our weekly posts from “Filosofa” remind us that there are good people doing good things each and every day. It just takes more of an effort of imagination to represent the good than it does to represent the evil in the world.

It has been said that when Dante wrote his Comedy he sailed through the Inferno, slowed down when writing about Purgatory and swam upstream slowly when writing about Paradise. Even Dante, he of the most extraordinary imagination, working with an impossible rhyme-scheme and burdened down with the immensely complex theological/cosmological baggage of the Middle Ages he had to carry with him as the made his way, even Dante struggled to describe peace and brotherhood. They are hard to imagine, much less write about.

But Trilling also speaks of true heroism, which consists in humbling oneself to the realities of a harsh world and swallowing one’s pride to admit that he or she was wrong. We see the antithesis of this every day in the media which cannot look away from the absurdities of a president who is unwilling or unable to admit he is ever wrong and who shows a singular lack of heroism with each and every tweet he compulsively sends forth into the world, unable to exhibit the “true emotion of reconciliation.” True heroism is simply less spectacular, and less easy to imagine. Perhaps also less common. So we don’t hear about it and confuse it with athletics or military endeavors that are sensational and take no imagination whatever to relish. But we need to remind ourselves that it is out there, the real thing and not the cheap imitation.

Trilling wrote his novel in 1945, soon after the Second World War. He would despair to see how much more diminished the human imagination has become in the meantime with the rise of the entertainment industry, the electronic toys, and the sensationalism of the cinema that glory in violence and mayhem and shy away from, or are in fact unaware of, the true heroism of those who suffer quietly, admit their mistakes, and forge ahead with their difficult lives.

“The world’s imagination of strife was surely much more attractive.” Indeed.

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Seeing Things

Lionel Trilling was primarily a critic though he wrote one novel which is quite remarkable and makes the reader wish he had written more. It is a political novel about the 1930s when intellectuals around the country and the world were flirting with Communism — the idealistic version that demanded that private property be eliminated and all are treated truly equally (a truly Christian ideal, surely). It was hardly the view that soon became a harsh reality and Trilling is dealing with the clash between ideas and reality. It is a stunning piece of work and reveals to us the writer’s acute grasp of the nuances of human behavior and his astonishing awareness of the things around him. It is in this latter regard that I want to take a peek at one small passage midway through the novel that reveals what I m talking about.

The hero, John Laskell, is visiting some friends in Connecticut after a near-death experience, trying to recover in the peace and quiet of the Connecticut countryside. He is staying at the home of a Mrs. Folger and while sitting and admiring her collection of tea cups the narrator tells us:

“Laskell looked again at the cups. Sitting with Mrs. Folger over her precious pieces of china, taking pleasure in the objects and seeing life in them, Laskell was happy in the mild relationship with this worn, elderly women who was so far removed from his usual existence. As he sat in the dim, damp dining room he had a strong emotion about the life in objects, the shapes that people make and admire, the life in the pauses in activity in which nothing is said but in which the commonplace speaks out with a mild, reassuring force.”

In itself, this passage is not remarkable. But in its way it shows how the author is in tune with his surroundings, how much he sees of what he is living with, and how this makes him happy. Note how Laskell’s attention is directed outwards, away from himself. This is not about Laskell; it is about the tea-cup and what it “means.” It’s the world around him, the little things that make him happy. I find this remarkable because, with the exception perhaps of an occasional artist hiding out in Ecuador, we seem to have lost this ability, the ability to see things around us. And we don’t appear to be terribly happy.

I was reminded of the incident recounted by Nathaniel Shaler regarding his initial encounter with the naturalist Louis Aggassiz who “taught him how to see.” Aggassiz handed him a fish and told him to look at it and write down what he saw. After week of studying the specimen Shaler came up with a list of a dozen or so properties and handed the list to Aggassiz who handed the list back to him and told him, to look again.  “. . . in another week of ten hours a day labor” Aggassiz was finally satisfied.

The point is that there is so much around us that we miss in our preoccupation with ourselves and our petty lives — and our electronic toys. So many of us simply don’t see.

I am also reminded of the truly remarkable descriptions written by Edith Wharton who lived in the early part of the last century and loved to travel. This was the age of the early cameras when things had to be standing still to be photographed and she preferred to write down what she saw. She wrote several travelogues that are extraordinary in their detail and liveliness. Her descriptive powers were well beyond the ordinary — so far beyond that they would stand alone as testimony of her exceptional writing skills if it were not for her novels which are filled with similar descriptions as well as profound observations of those around her and the ideas and practices that were found by her to be worthy of comment. It is her novels that folks connect with her name, though another great writer, Wallace Stegner, later paid tribute to Wharton’s exceptional descriptive abilities.

But one would have to journey far to find better lyrical qualities and descriptive powers that Trilling himself as we can see from this brief passage:

“The air was filled with the perpetual sound of crickets, the sound of summer that speaks of summer’s end. It spoke of this now to Laskell, as it always had, ever since boyhood, with its pleasant melancholy of things ending, a conscious and noble melancholy leading to hope and the promise of things to come, of things beginning, all the liveliness of autumn, of new starts, the renewed expectation that, this year, one’s personal character would learn the perfect simplicity one wished it to have.”

But that was then, 1945 and before. This is now, and as I have suggested we seem to have lost the ability to see and to reflect on what we see means in the grand scheme of things. Granted, these were exceptional people with exceptional skills, but where do we find such people today (outside of Ecuador)? And how many of us look around us and see the beauty and weigh the details of an ordinary tea-cup or the sounds of the crickets and think about what they mean and how many things they suggest to the careful observer? It is precisely those things, those seemingly trivial things, that may be the secret to human happiness if only we bothered to take the time to look.

In the end I am reminded, once again, of the group of teenagers sitting in the museum before Rembrandt’s Night Watch staring at the iPhones clutched in their hands, totally unaware of the beauty just a few feet away. It says so much about us and about how much of the world we are blind to.

YIMBY

The current issue of Sierra Magazine has a most interesting article about the determination of some cities, in this case Pittsburg, to continue to fight against global warming despite the fact that the President and members of this Congress continue to deny it is a problem. I will quote the opening paragraphs and encourage interested readers to read the article. What I found most interesting is that the fight in Pittsburg is being lead by a group of “millennials” who are active despite the fact that studies show that the vast majority of them really don’t care. I suppose it is a question of numbers.

GETTING TO YIMBY

“When President Donald J. Trump announced he was withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate accord, he framed it as a stark choice: ‘I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburg, not Paris,’ he declared.

“The mayors of those cities don’t see it that way. In a joint op-ed in the New York Times, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo and Pittsburg mayor Bill Peduto declared their unity in the fight against climate change — and talked about how it was improving both cities. ‘The experience of Pittsburg in the three decades since the collapse of the steel industry reveals how a commitment to science, research, and green technology can transform our cities,’ they wrote.

“Pittsburg, it turns out, is in the midst of a year-over-year burst of economic activity — its per-capita GDP in 2016 grew at almost twice the pace of the nation’s, thanks to a thriving tech sector. Its planners are working on the city’s third climate action plan (the first was published in June 2008), outlining specific steps it will take to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

“Pittsburg and other cities are taking a leading role in the fight against global warming — and growth and prosperity are part of the plan. Standard efforts include negotiating with local utilities to switch to renewable energy and beefing up green infrastructure like mass transit. In addition, a new movement, composed largely of millennials, is pushing hard on city leaders to make their cities denser and more walkable and bikeable, with green infield development, more affordable housing, and transit-oriented centers. In a twist on the popular label of those skeptical of urban development, these new activists proudly adopt the mantle of YIMBY — ‘Yes, In My Back Yard.'”

It is also noted in that magazine that after President Trump withdrew from the Paris accords (while insisting it was “very unfair”), those urging him to stay in the agreement were BP, Chevron, Exxon Mobile, and Shell. Interesting, no?

In the same magazine we are told that the mayor of Tangier, Maryland — a low-lying island in the Chesapeake Bay that is disappearing slowly beneath the rising oceans — received a call from President Trump assuring him that “Your island has been there for hundreds of years, and I believe your island will be there for hundreds more.” What can one say? Seriously!

Overconfident

How often have we witnessed the following scenario in sports? Our team is on a winning streak and have been playing well, winning seven out of the last nine games. They are starting to believe in themselves and their confidence is high. Today they play a team with a losing record they have beaten five times already this year.  No sweat! This is a piece of cake. We have our “ace” pitcher going for us, he is pitching well, and he has beaten this team three times already this year. In addition, the opposing pitcher is known to give up home runs and our team has been hitting homers at a record pace. As I said. Piece of cake.

Only the cake is spoiled by the fact that the other team wins in the bottom of the ninth inning by a “walk-off” single scoring a man from second base for the winning run. Our team hit only one home run and our ace pitcher had a bad day. Another one got away.

The gods on Mount Olympus are watching with broad grins on their collective faces. This is, for them, just another example of humans’ over-confidence. The Greeks called it “hubris,” but the name is less important than the fact that another sports team has been hoist by its own petard. The team that should have had a cake-walk fell on its face and slinks to the locker room to shower, make excuses, and forget the loss over a beer or two. Or three.

This scene is not all fiction, of course, though the team will not be mentioned in order not to embarrass the Minnesota Twins. But the point is that this sort of thing happens on a regular basis in sports and yet we fail to see the broader implications. I am here to point them out.

They have to do with the smug self-assurance that seems to infect those “winners” in power who see only success in imagining conflict with other nations they regard as their inferiors. After all, we have the weapons, including nuclear weapons, and armed forces around the globe waiting for orders to attack. No one is as sure of themselves as we are and the swagger is visible as is the sound of the bloat and rhetoric that spews from the mouths of our leader(s) as swords are rattled and chests puffed out.

The Athenians had the same sort of swagger when they sent the major part of their remaining forces to do battle with Sparta and her allies in Sicily toward the end of the very long, protracted Peloponnesian war. Thucydides described it for us in detail, as he lived through it, and he saw it as a tragedy, just like the tragedies the Greeks loved to sit and watch and agonize over in the theaters. One more example of hubris, one more victim of over-confidence, or excessive pride. But, surely, tragedies happen on the stage and in books. Not in real life? Right? Wrong.

We see it every day in our sports teams, and the results are predictable. In fact when I was watching the hype prior to the game described above I sensed that my team was about to lose. And they did. “Pride goeth before destruction and an haughty spirit before a fall,” according to Proverbs. And yet we ignore this truth when we look around outside the sports arenas because, perhaps, we lack critical acumen and are ourselves caught up in the hype and fail to realize that the swagger on the international stage by those in power can only result in one thing: tragedy. Losing a baseball game is no big deal. War is a very big deal. And given today’s advanced technology and the stupidity of those who push the buttons, no one will win the next one.

Remembering Churchill

Not many years after the Second World War the world had only a hazy memory of the man who may have saved Western Civilization, namely, Winston Churchill. Historians have wondered over the years why the man was not more honored toward the end of his life as he sat, for the most part quiet, in Parliament and awaited his inevitable death. To be sure, his nation remembered him on the day of his burial while millions paid a last tribute to the man whose voice they heard countless times during that awful war telling them to remain calm and carry on. But perhaps they, like the rest of the world, wanted to forget as soon as possible the horrors of that war and thus Churchill was not given the tribute that many, if not all, of his biographers think he deserved. One of those biographers, Geoffrey Best, asks a profound question as he pondered this rather confusing determination to forget:

“One might not lament the end of ‘glory,’ but what about ‘chivalry’ and ‘honour’? There must be improvement of some kind in the fact that the concept of ‘dying for your country’ no longer provides a model of an ideal death; but there may not be much of an improvement in not knowing whether there is anything in your country worth dying for, whether you belong to this country or that, or even whether you belong to any distinctive country at all.”

Since the time of Winston Churchill’s death this question has become more and more pressing as we begin to see that the wars that cost so many lives are often, if not always, fought for the wealthy to become even wealthier and the poor who survive the wars even poorer. The scales have been removed from our eyes as we see more clearly now what it is that makes men and women do what they do — especially in this country in the past few months as a man who is riddled with shortcomings, prejudices, ignorance, and blurred vision, who has no concept whatever of what true patriotism and self-sacrifice involve, has become one of the most powerful men on earth. One asks seriously whether we truly belong to this country.

The terms “great” and “honor” are called into question in a relativistic age as we ponder the pressing questions of how we, too, can become wealthy and where next to find the latest titilation. Chivalry, of course, went out with hooped skirts and the moral high ground has been leveled so no one stands any higher than anyone else. The past is forgotten by people scurrying about like the creatures at Alice’s caucus race, hoping for some sort of tangible reward simply for making the effort: trophies for all participants and find the path of least resistance — but for heaven’s sake, don’t stop and think about what is going on around you!

Men like Winston Churchill were, in fact, great men, because they took advantage to the opportunities offered them and did what they knew had to be done — at great personal risk. Early on he was pilloried by his own countrymen for warning them about the dangers of Naziism, though he was later honored during the war when he rose to great heights; but he is now largely forgotten along with the rest of the men and women who created and sustained Western Civilization.  And there don’t appear to be many around able or willing to take his place.

Hitherto Unknown

I am reading Gertrude Himmelfarb’s latest book The Moral Imagination, which is a collection of essays about famous people and their take on life. One of the entries is about John Buchan, whom I must confess I had never heard about. He died in 1940 and Himmelfarb describes him as having been a “novelist, biographer, historian, member of Parliament, governor-general of Canada, . . . one of the last articulate representatives of the Old England. . . .the paradigm (the parody some would have it) of a species of English gentlemen now nearly extinct.”

Buchan is also a bit of a cynic and I find myself drawn to many of his witticisms and observations about the people he sees around him — mostly found in his novels apparently. As I say, I had never heard of this man, which is a bit embarrassing since he is quite remarkable. In any event, he has this to say about civilization, a civilization which he regards as “a very thin crust” over the barbarism that lurks always just beneath the surface:

“A civilization bemused by an opulent materialism has been met by a rude challenge. The free people have been challenged by the serfs. The gutters have exuded a poison which bids fair to ingest the world. The beggar-on-horseback rides roughshod over the helpless and the cavalier. A combination of multitudes who have lost their nerve and a junta of arrogant demagogues has shattered the community of nations. . . .There is in it all, too, an ugly pathological savor, as if a mature society were being assailed by diseased and vicious children.”

Remarkable prose. And telling insights. If we were to alter the word “serfs” in the second sentence above and replace it with “mindless minions” Buchan could be describing what has just happened in this country, now under the thumb of a “beggar-on-horseback” if there ever was one.  But Buchan’s gaze extends beyond the  borders of any particular nation to the world as such. And it would appear that he saw  what has come about in this country and other “developed”  (and undeveloped) nations as well: mature societies “being assailed by diseased and vicious children.”

What concerned Buchan primarily was the boiling cauldron beneath the surface of civilization in the form of a black heart, the dark subconscious mind, within so many of the humans he saw around him — even before Hitler and Stalin had taken center stage. As Himmelfarb notes in this regard:

“Once the subconscious, lawless instincts of men were liberated and broke through the barrier erected by civilization, ‘there will be a weakening of the power or reasoning, which after all is the thing that brings men nearest to the Almighty; and there will be a failure of nerve.’ It was not the reason of state, even of a hostile state, that alarmed him but the force of unreason itself.”

At times we come across a mind that, while perhaps a bit cynical, sees clearly what the rest of us fail to admit is there, or never saw in the first place. But given the events of recent times where the force of unreason has most assuredly been released and at least two of the major players on the world stage strut their stuff and play “chicken” with nuclear weapons (neither of these men having a brain the size of a chicken’s), one must shudder to think that Buchan may have been prescient. The gutters have indeed “exuded a poison which bids fair to ingest the world.”

We live in hard times and many of us prefer to think about more pleasant things. But despite our determination to look the other way, when we hear the ring of truth it stuns and demands our attention.

“Racism” Revisited

Once again as I near the end of preparation for the publication of my book I reprint a previous post that will appear in that book. I apologize to those who demand originality — though a few years ago this was an original!

CAN A BOOK BE “RACIST”?
(2/21/13)
I recall having a discussion with a colleague years ago about racism. I accused him of being racist in his grading policies since he graded his minority students more leniently than he did his other students. He objected that this couldn’t be racism, since he was treating the minority students more favorably. I thought that treating his students differently because of their race — regardless of how he treated them — was still racist, that that all students should be held to the same standards. I still think that is right, though I am not nearly so sure as I was at that time. In fact, I am not nearly so sure about many things I was sure of 20 or 30 years ago!
But the question of what constitutes “racism” is a tricky one. Chinua Achebe, the African novelist, wrote a scathing attack on Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness because Conrad’s narrator, Marlowe, uses the “N” word repeatedly. I have mentioned Achebe’s essay before, but it deserves extended comment.
Achebe insisted that the book was “racist” and that people should not read it for that reason. I published an essay defending Conrad on the grounds that while some books might be called such, this one is not. The fact that the narrator used an offensive term in a novella set in the early part of the twentieth century was simply an accurate depiction of the way people used the word in those days. In addition, it is not clear that Conrad himself can be accused of racism, and his novella certainly didn’t encourage or, worse yet, promote racism.
On the contrary. I argued that if you read the novella carefully you can see that it is the Europeans who are under attack. The native people in the novel are in every way superior to the whites who are there to exploit them and their continent in a greedy attempt to take everything they can profit from– especially, in this case, ivory. We know from reading Conrad’s biography, furthermore, that he was sickened by what he saw when he visited the Congo late in his years with the British merchant navy.
What was happening in Achebe’s case, I felt, was that he was unable to get past Marlowe’s use if the “N” word, which is offensive to the people so designated — now. Out of deference to black people we should assuredly not use a term they find offensive, even though they might use it themselves. The one who is the target certainly is in a position to determine what words are or are not offensive. But it makes no sense to accuse a man who wrote in 1902 of being “racist” if he is using language that was not regarded as offensive at that time. Edith Wharton, among many of her generation, uses the term as well. And there are other terms that were in general use at the time that we now recognize as offensive and it would be a mistake to dismiss those writers out of hand because they weren’t able to determine 50 or 60 years down the road what words would be found offensive by future readers.
One of the common practices in our schools, in so far as any of these books are read at all in the schools, is to substitute acceptable words for the offensive ones, thereby protecting the young from the words that might offend someone even at the cost of altering the nature of the work being read. I am not sure where I come down on this question, because I have such a high regard for great writers and object to any attempt to alter their works. But I am not the one being targeted by the offensive terms, so I don’t really have anything to say about it.
In the end, though, I would prefer if the kids were to read the books as they were written and the teachers used the reading as an opportunity to talk about racism and the language that some find offensive. It seems to me that we are missing out on an excellent educational opportunity. Again.

Hard Times

I am not a Charles Dickens scholar and really not much of a fan to be honest. I have read a number of his novels, but I find them a bit too didactic to be true art though I realize that novelists are free to do with their writing whatever they choose. At the same time I realize they are well worth reading, despite the fact that so many of his characters are caricatures, overdrawn and designed to produce a smile or a frown. Clearly, he was determined to draw attention to the poor and downtrodden of his times and their proximity to criminality which is always a temptation, especially for the poor. Moreover, his popularity and his influence are well documented. If popularity were the measure of the true worth of a novel, Dickens’ name would be at or near the top of the list. But I do not think popularity counts for much when it comes to aesthetic value. Still, as I say, his novels show signs of true artistic impulses, his writing is masterful, and his novels always provide us with something to think about.

In Hard Times, for example, Dickens targets utilitarianism, just aborning in his day and in his view a threat to the human spirit. Utilitarianism was the brain-child of Jeremy Bentham and it involved a careful calculation of alternatives in order to determine in a given case which is the best (i.e., most pleasurable) course of action, the “felicity calculus” as he called it. In a word, one could calculate the amount of pleasure involved in alternative courses of actions to determine which was the better choice. It’s all about human pleasure and calculation. And it was the calculating part that bothered Dickens — by which he meant all sorts of mechanization and regulation, the determination to measure everything and the eradication of all spontaneity and imagination. Dickens was a true romantic.

Folks like Dickens, and Fyodor Dostoevsky, have always had a problem with reason and the notion that one should incorporate reason into the normal comings and goings of the ordinary human. By way of satirizing this notion, for example, Dickens has Gradgrind hold forth at the start of Hard Times:

“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts; nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”

Mr. Gradgrind (note the name) the schoolmaster is all about “facts” and his determination to make reasoning machines out of his pupils — as Dickens sees it. And this view of education became an accepted truth about traditional ways of educating young children. It gave birth to such things as the Summerhill experiment in England in which children were allowed to have free reign over their own education. This eventually morphed into progressive education, an education, following Dickens’ lead — and the full-blown attack by Rousseau earlier on — that paid less attention to the subject matter (Facts) than it did to the children who were being taught the subject matter: education became child-oriented. And we have inherited this view of the proper way to educate children, for better or worse, emphasizing self-esteem and giving birth to our age of entitlement.

I have held forth on this topic many times, and I will not bore my readers by dragging out old axes I love to grind. But suffice it to say that, assuredly, the child matters — but so does the subject matter. In addition, facts (especially in our day of “alternative facts”) and reasoning skills are essential to help young people gain possession of their own minds, so they can free themselves from stupidity, narrowness of vision, and blatant prejudice. We need to teach the child when she is young and as she grows older we need to teach the child the subject matter. When she reaches college we need to teach the subject matter. Facts, perhaps, but necessary ingredients in any well-rounded education. I share Dickens’ aversion to utilitarianism and the trend toward reducing quality to quantity, but his reaction is a bit extreme.

In a word, we need Romantics to remind us of the pitfalls of a too narrow indoctrination which we try to pass off as the only way to teach and learn. But we also need to rescue the notion of discipline and rigor from the dust-heap where they have been thrown by the zealots who see only one way to do things. It’s a question of balance, in the end, reason and heart. We need not choose between them. I suspect Dickens knew this: he was trying to make a point.

Grantchester

My wife and I have been watching the excellent BBC series “Grantchester” which just completed its latest season with the usual cliff-hanger. The series is extremely well done and focuses on a young Anglican vicar in Cambridgeshire back in the late 1950s who befriends a policeman and helps him solve crimes. Old hat, perhaps, but the intricate personal stories of the two men are what hold the series together.

It turns out that the Vicar, Sidney, is in love with Amanda, a woman he has known most of his life and whom he would have married except for his strained financial situation and the fact that the woman’s father would have none of it. He forces her to marry a wealthy man whom she doesn’t love and together they have a child. But she is also in love with Sidney and as the series progresses it is clear that the two of them will be drawn closer and closer together.

Throughout the series, focusing on the relationship between these two people, the struggle is the ancient one between “want and will.” Sidney is a man of the cloth and in the 50s when these events are supposed to have taken place he cannot marry a divorced woman. Thus, even if  Amanda leaves her husband who is cold and remote Sidney would have to leave the Church in order to marry her. And what is he to do? He is well-loved and much relied upon by those in the Church, including his housekeeper and the young Curate (who happens to be gay, another taboo of the times and a fascinating story in its own right).

Sidney begins to lose his faith in the Church and to have serious doubts about his abilities to carry out his duties as head of the small Church. He finally decides to resign and move to London with Amanda and her daughter. The move is planned and he has written his letter of resignation when he begins to realize that his duty is to those people who depend so much upon him in the small village and especially within the Church itself. He chooses duty over love, though it hurts him to the core.

On the face of it, this is pure melodrama, and the crimes that Sidney helps his detective friend, Geordie, solve seem almost incidental. But it is so well done, and we become so involved in Sidney’s life and in the lives of those around him, that we are drawn in as if it were quicksand. And in the end, it forces us to an awareness of how different was the age in which these events took place — just over a half-century past. There were social and churchly taboos that have been largely removed in the interim. But also missing is the sense that each of us, especially the spiritual leaders among us, have duties that take precedence over the desires of the heart. Ours is an age in which what we call “honesty” demands that we not only know what we want, but we pursue it with all the vigor at our command. Duty has become a notion that grows fainter with each passing day. It will soon become a word very few will be able to understand — a word in a foreign language.

The series was fascinating to me especially because of the very battle I recount here, the battle between what Sidney wants so dearly and what he knows to be his duty. It is a battle that is the core of Immanuel Kant’s ethical system which has played so important a part in my philosophical development — and a struggle I have written about in previous blog posts. Kant thought the very center of all ethical decision-making was this very struggle between what we want and what we ought to do. Ethics is about trying to be clear about what it is we should do and then somehow finding the courage to do the right thing.  But, as I say, this struggle is now only the topic for a television series about an age gone by and about the struggles of a man who must seem a total stranger to so many in the audience, so many who have no idea what it means to struggle to do the right thing because they are busy doing “their own thing.”

Revisiting the Crystal Palace

Once again, dear readers, I must recall the past as I am busy as a bee editing my best posts for the upcoming book!

UNDERGROUND MAN
(6/16/12)
I recently read an interesting essay on Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground in the June 11th edition of the New Yorker. The author of the essay, David Denby, revisits the book and reflects on its enduring message for our times. He’s right: “it can still kick.”
It does seem to me that along with Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass not to mention Kafka’s Trial, Dostoevsky’s novella does indeed show us a side of ourselves and the world in which we live that we may want to deny. But when we contemplate the things that are being done on a state and national level out there in the “real” world, where politicians insist that we can improve education by eliminating teachers, and that we will be safer by firing policemen and firemen; when the military expands the war on terror in parts of the world that most of know about only by hearsay and kills by remote control; and when corporations destroy the earth and ignore threats to the survival of life on this planet (and legislators say it isn’t so), the words of these authors start to ring true.
Dostoevsky’s hero in this novella is a man of “caprice.”  “He passionately loves destruction and chaos. . .” He does things for no reason whatever. He likes to deny the obvious, rails against the Crystal Palace and everything European/scientific/technical/mathematical. Two times two may NOT be four. “. . .two times two is four is no longer life. . .it is the beginning of death.” We learn from this novella that if we try to fathom human motives we come up empty. The world is borderline insane and humans do things for no reason whatever much of the time — as Carroll and Kafka also suggested — and we might just as well not try to make sense of it.
For someone who spent his life trying to teach young people to think, who still believes deeply that sound judgment is the way to ferret out small pieces of truth, these authors leave a bad taste in the mouth. One doesn’t like to admit that his life may have been spent in a caucus race (as Carroll would have it) chasing around incoherently with no purpose and slim rewards in the form of comfits from Alice’s pocket.
But as I grow older and “crawl toward death,” along with Shakespeare’s Lear, I begin to think Carroll, Kafka, and Dostoevsky were right: the world really doesn’t make sense. And humans are capricious: acting often without reason, doing good or evil seemingly with blinders on. But I don’t despair because reason can help us sort things out; more importantly, we have it on good authority (when Dostoevsky’s underground man exhibits a profound need to connect with another human being) that the things that matter remain after all: friends, loved ones, and a life lived trying to “lift the lives of others,” as a good friend of mine recently put it. Why? Why not?