New Perspectives

In reading John Murrin’s new book, Rethinking America: From Empire to Republic, I was struck by the deep divisions that separated the original thirteen colonies and made the uniting of those disparate entitles almost impossible. I have always thought it was simple: England abused the colonies; they united and threw off the weight of the Empire. As Murrin points out, however, deep divisions among the colonies existed before the revolution broke out and persisted long after the war was over — eventually leading to the Civil War.  At one point the New England states threatened to separate themselves from the rest and establish their own identity. And the South was never happy about joining the North where, they thought, abiding loyalties to the English king persisted and a determination to end slavery would cripple the economy of the South.  The adoption of the Constitution was not a matter of course; it was a struggle:

“[By 1787] the only alternative to the Constitution was disunion.”

This remained a real possibility during that turbulent period as the aforementioned interests of the New England states differed almost completely from those of the deep South. And the Middle States wavered back and forth between Federalism, following Alexander Hamilton, and Republicanism, following Thomas Jefferson. There were, throughout the period, many who remained loyal to England and, indeed, most Americans at the time regarded themselves as English citizens — even after the revolution. As Mullin presents his case, it is remarkable that the colonies were ever able to unite enough to carry off the war, much less adopt a Constitution that would unite such diverse entities. But the Stamp Act, together with the Boston Massacre, in addition to a series of political blinders on the part of the English parliament, persuaded enough people in this country that separation from England was the only way to go. And, after the revolution, strength lay in a united states of America, not separate colonies or states. But, almost without exception, the colonists did not want a strong central government. They wanted their independence and minimal interference with their lives. Murrin describes the struggles in detail, and they were immense.

What I found particularly interesting was the widespread distrust at the time of the people, the common clay, along with the difficulties connected with the ratification of the Constitution itself — regarded by many historians as an “elitist” document, full of compromises and exhibiting the aforementioned distrust — as in the case of the notion of representation restricted to

“one for every thirty thousand people (a figure about twice the size of contemporary Boston) . . . . . [This was a document] designed to secure government by ‘the wise, the rich, and the good.’ Only socially prominent men could expect to be visible enough over that large an area to win elections, and they might well get help from one another. . .”

It is fairly well known that a great many people, loyal to the English, fled this country and headed for Canada during the revolution. In fact, my wife’s ancestors were among them — while one of my ancestors fought alongside Washington and died at the battle of Princeton. (It has not caused problems in our marriage you’ll be happy to know!) What is not so generally known is that a great many people who remained behind during those years were loyal to the English and played a role in the revolution itself — spying for the English and making secrecy in Washington’s tactics nearly impossible. More than one-third of the population of New Jersey, for example, was fiercely loyalist during the revolution. One wonders how on earth the colonists pulled off the victory at Trenton after crossing the Delaware — given the presence of so many who would have gladly told of the movements of the militias.

Alexander Meiklejohn once said that people should read history after they know everything else. I know what he meant, but I disagree. History is fascinating and important. And in an age that is self and present-oriented and inclined to dismiss history as “yesterday’s news,” an age in which history has been jettisoned from college curricula across this land, it becomes even more important, especially for those who know nothing. We learn how to act today by reading about the mistakes we made in the past — just as the young learn from their parent’s mistakes. But, like the young, we think we know better. We think that ours is a unique experience and nothing the old folks have to say has any bearing on what is going on our life.

It may have been best said by the ancient historian  Diodorus of Agyrium in 85 B.C. (surely you have heard of him?) when he noted that

“History is able to instruct without inflicting pain by affording an insight into the failures and successes of others. . . History surpasses individual experience in value in proportion to its conspicuous superiority in scope and content.”

The kids are wrong: we can learn from others. We had better.

 

 

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Communities

In an ideal world, that is a world as I like to imagine it, colleges and universities would be communities of learning, places where folks with different points of view, ages, and preferences meet to discuss with open minds the issues that have confounded humanity for generations. The emphasis here is on “communities,” since the idea is that there is a common purpose, a common goal: all are together to learn from one another and from other minds outside the community that are invited in to share what they know and join in the conversation.

In the real world, the world we all know and love, it is not quite like this. Increasingly, colleges and universities have become warring camps where faculty and students align themselves with one another on political or ideological grounds and dare others to intrude. Increasingly commonplace are such things as the denial of invitations to certain people to come to campus to join in the conversation; such invitations are met with howls of protest as they are regarded as the anathema of what education is now all about. Faculty members select reading material that conforms to their own particular “take” on the issues of the day, insisting that others have done so for generations and it is now their turn. Whether or not this is true, and I seriously question it, there is no place for this sort of selective indoctrination, the hammering into young and impressionable heads the last word on controversial topics that allow for a variety of opinions, indeed, demand a variety of opinions in order to help the young people to learn to think. Cultural diversity, with the stress on the superiority of other cultures (any other cultures) to our own, has taken the place of intellectual diversity, the open expression of a variety of points of view on complex issues. Shouting has replaced civil discourse, and open minds have been closed.

Years ago, when I taught at the University of Rhode Island there was increasing interest among faculty members in the new unions that were forming around the country. At URI we had the American Association of University Professors, the mildest form of union, but one dedicated to guaranteeing freedom of speech, intellectual freedom, and, of course, decent wages for the hard work that many are unaware goes into teaching the young. At the time I worried that this new wave of unionization might well lead to a confrontational relationship between faculty and administration, that it would destroy the collegiality that I though central to the purpose of a community of learning. How naive! But, in a sense, I was right. Unions, for all the good they do, tend to grow like an experiment gone wrong and to become all-powerful and all-important. Instead of working to protect the ideals of communities of learning they lend themselves to the growing conviction that education is all about business and learning must take a back seat.

All of this, I suppose, is the complaint of an old, fossilized college teacher who complains that things were never as they should have been but are even worse today then they were once upon a time. There is some truth in this, of course, as old folks tend to look back with rose-colored glasses. But, at the same time, it is undeniably true that the gap has grown wider and wider between the ideal of education as a place where the young come to gain true freedom, the possession of their own minds, and the reality of college as a business. I have seen it happening and while I have done what I could to close that gap I do realize that it is too little too late. Things were never ideal, and there have always been reasons to complain — legitimately so. But of late, the larger culture has come together with the academy to create a world within a world in which business is the order of the day and intolerance has replaced tolerance while the young struggle to understand why they are there in the first place — and how on earth they are going to pay for the privilege after graduation.

There are success stories, of course, excellent students who want to learn and grow led by dedicated teachers who realize that the student’s intellectual growth is of paramount importance, and it is not fostered by indoctrination posing as education . And these exceptions are the foundation on which to build our hopes as they are in the world at large where good people struggle to do good while all around them folks worry only about how to do well, how to “succeed” in  world in which success is measured in dollars and cents.

The Hollow Man

Bartley Hubbard is a hollow man. He is a flawed character and totally without principles. He is self-absorbed and uses others to improve his standing in his own mind. He is not a wicked man in the strict sense of that word: he hasn’t killed anyone and hasn’t raped any women — so far as we know. Though, in all honesty he does flirt mercilessly with pretty young women while in the company of his beautiful wife. Oh, did I mention? His wife is beautiful and worships the ground Bartley walks on — which is why he married her. While she is away one Summer after they have been married for some years, he ruminates on his wife and his feelings for her, recalling that when they broke apart some years before, she was the one who sought him out and wanted to be with him, accepting all the blame for his many shortcomings:

“As he recalled the facts, he was in a mood of entire acquiescence; and the reconciliation had been of her own seeking; he could not blame her for it; she was very much in love within and he was fond on her. In fact, he was still fond of her; when he thought of the little ways of hers, it filled him with tenderness. He did justice to her fine qualities, too; her generosity, her truthfulness, her entire loyalty to his best interests; . . .[however,] in her absence he remembered that her virtues were tedious and even painful at times. He had his doubts whether there was sufficient compensation for them. He sometimes questioned whether he had not made a great mistake to get married; he expected now to stick it through; but this doubt occurred to him.”

Bartley and his wife Marcia have a child. He is only a fiction, of course, a figment of William Dean Howells’ imagination. But he is, in Howells’ words, a “modern instance” in the novella by that name. Bartley Hubbard, pragmatic and unfeeling at the core, is a modern instance of a hollow man whom Howells worried was beginning to become more and more common in the late nineteenth century, the so-called “modern” age. In our “post-modern” age his type is becoming legion. And in a country led by the grand pooh-bah of hollow men, we should be quite familiar with the type by this time.

Bartley drifts along writing for newspapers and accepting the accolades and financial rewards, when they come, as a matter of course. A turning point in the novel, when Bartley steps over a line and becomes less a hollow man and perhaps more a cad, is when he steals intellectual property from an old and trusted (and trusting) friend, Kinney, “the philosopher from the logging camp.” Kinney was, among many things, a cook at that logging camp in Maine who had befriended Bartley because he saw in him a bright and good-humored person. One evening Kinney shares with Bartley and another friend stories of his exploits during his long and fascinating life. He plans one day to write them down and get them published, but before he can do that Bartley has written them down and had them published himself to wide acclaim. In the process he allows it to be mistakenly believed that the friend who was with him that evening wrote the stories — his friend is allowed to take the blame for the theft of another’s intellectual property when it becomes known. Needless to say, in the process Bartley loses two close friends. But he cares not. Not really; after all, he has lost a number of friends along the way, people who have seen through the facade and don’t like what lies behind. After all, his story was a success and it garnered him a large financial reward.  And money is very important to Bartley — along with the prestige it gives him.

The truth slowly comes out about what Bartley has done and he finds himself fired from his high-paying job on one of Boston’s most popular newspapers and set somewhat adrift. He borrows some money from a man he regards as a friend and proceeds to gamble it away. His wife finally begins to see the sort of man she has married and sends him packing, though she immediately regrets it because she can never quite shakes the image she has of the man she still loves. It bothers him not, because he can rationalize that what he did is not wrong and others are wrong to persecute him. Bartley is very good at rationalizing and placing the blame on others. As a hollow man he has no center, no principles that might otherwise give his life meaning and direction. This in one reason he remained with his wife as long as he did: she had been very willing to take the blame for his many faults and brush them aside as they did not fit in with her image of what her husband is.

William Dean Howells is a brilliant novelist and A Modern Instance may be his best work., But in any event, he is prescient as he saw coming soon after the Civil War that the Bartley Hubbards would become increasingly numerous, men who are hollow at the core and who are lost within the labyrinth of their own diminished self whose only goal is to seek pleasure and financial ease. And like any great work of literature, there is much food for thought and many insights into the modern, and the post-modern, temper. We can learn a great deal from those old, dead, white, European (or in this case American) men, can we not?

 

Religion and Mammon

I recently blogged about what I argued was the inverse relationship between morality and wealth, insisting that we have somehow lost the proper perspective — one that the Greeks shared, for example — between wealth and morality. Aristotle, for example, insisted that the accumulation of wealth was a means to an end, not an end in itself, and that too much wealth was a threat to a balanced character. The goal of humans is to be as happy as possible and a certain amount of money is necessary to that end. But when the accumulation of wealth becomes all-consuming it is problematic. In my argument I suggested that the preoccupation with wealth in this country since the Civil War has brought about the reduction of our moral sensibilities. But, it might be asked, what about religion? Folks like Gertrude Himmelfarb insist that Americans are among the most religious people on earth. Doesn’t this undercut my argument somewhat?

I would say not because, as I argued in a blog not long ago, much depends on what we mean by “religious.” If we mean, simply, that many Americans attend church regularly, this is probably true — though there are a great many empty churches in this country and traditional religions are struggling, especially in attracting the young. Furthermore, mere attendance at church hardly sets one apart as a deeply religious person. In any event, William Dean Howells noted in a most interesting novel, A Modern Instance, that religion — even in the late nineteenth century — had become something less than all-consuming and considerably less important than such things as the pursuit of pleasure. Speaking of the small New England town in which his novel was set, the narrator notes that:

“Religion had largely ceased to be a fact of spiritual experience and the visible church flourished on condition of providing for the social needs of the community. It was practically held that the salvation of one’s soul must not be made too depressing, or the young people would have nothing to do with it. Professors of the sternest creeds temporized with sinners, and did what might be done to win them to heaven by helping them to have a good time here. The church embraced and included the world.”

Howells was good friends with Mark Twain and we can see the same scepticism in his novel that I noted in some of Twain’s comments quoted in the previous post. The Civil War did something profound to the ethos of this country. The death of 620,000 young men almost certainly had something to do with it. But the sudden accumulation of great wealth by many who took advantage of the war to turn a profit was simply a sign to others that this was the way to go. And the Horatio Alger myth was born as inventors and business tycoons seemed to appear out of nowhere. The cost to the nation as a whole was the conviction that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Wealth increasingly became a sign of success and even of God’s favor. As I noted, the relationship between the accumulation of wealth and the sacrifices necessary to pursue one’s sense of duty was turned upside down and instead of looking askance at those with fat pocketbooks, as was the norm for hundreds of years, the rich became instead role models for the rest of the country — and the world, as it happens. Simultaneously, as it were, morality was set on the shelf by many who now insisted that right and wrong are relative concepts and virtue is something to be read about but not to bother one’s head about. It certainly shouldn’t be allowed to interfere with pleasure and the accumulation of as much money as possible.

 

Dollars and Sense

I am borrowing this title from my senior thesis in college. I have been fascinated since that time (back in the Dark Ages) by the direct relationship between the accumulation of great wealth and the weakening of moral precepts. We are at present witness to the very fact to which I allude in the form of a very wealthy president who has (shall we say?) his own unique take on morality. But this is merely an isolated example and hardly makes my case.

In the pages of a novel by George Eliot in Victorian England around the time of our Civil War, the author pined for a time before the coming of the railroad when:

“reforming intellect takes a nap, while imagination does a little Toryism by the sly, reveling in regret that dear, old, brown, crumbling, picturesque inefficiency is everywhere giving place to spick-and-span new-painted, new-varnished efficiency, which will yield endless diagrams, plans, elevations, and sections, but alas! no picture.”

Perhaps reflecting this same sentiment in an introduction to an edition of  Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn he wrote in 1950, Lionel Trilling focused on the fact that Twain noted that the Civil War in this country marked the sudden transition from a mere desire for money to a fixation with it, the growth of greed in this country on a grand scale and the loss of something of major importance, something very much like what George Eliot regretted losing. He also drew on such prominent thinkers as Twain, Henry Adams, Walt Whitman, and William Dean Howells when he noted that

“. . .something had gone out of American life after the war, some simplicity, some innocence, some peace. None of them was under any illusion about the amount of ordinary human wickedness that existed in the old days, and Mark Twain certainly was not. The difference was in the public attitude, in the things that were now accepted and made respectable in the national ideal. It was, they all felt, connected with new emotions about money. As Mark Twain said, where formerly ‘the people had desired money,’ now they ‘fell down and worship it.’ The new Gospel was, ‘Get money. Get is quickly. Get it in abundance. Get it in prodigious abundance. Get it honestly if you can, dishonestly if you must.'”

Now, to be sure, one could go back to John Calvin for the source of the Protestant “work ethic” and the birth of the notion (which has become commonplace among the spiritually certain) that wealth is a sign of God’s love. But, in this country at least, in the early years there was a healthy suspicion about wealth and a concern that too much was not a good thing.  Indeed, a preliminary draft of Pennsylvania’s Declaration of Rights included an article that stated:

“. . .an enormous Proportion of Property vested in a few individuals is dangerous to the Rights and destructive of the Common Happiness of Mankind.”

This, perhaps, was a result of the Puritanical view that the love of money is the root of all evil. In any event, nearly all of the colonies has proscriptions, even laws, against the accumulation of too much wealth — laws against such things as primogeniture, for example. After all, that way lies aristocracy and the separation of people into classes. It was frowned upon. It was undemocratic.  It was regarded as leading the country in the wrong direction — even by such enlightened thinkers as Thomas Jefferson.

The Civil War marked the radical changing point because, like all wars, there were many technological advances — especially in armament but also in such things as steam engines and the sudden “need” for thousands of miles of railroad tracks and new and faster engines to haul more goods and people to places they wanted to go. And the war made many people, especially in the North, very wealthy. In a word, the Civil War marked the true dawning of industrial capitalism in this country and soon we saw the birth of the Horatio Alger myth that insisted anyone could become fabulously wealthy overnight. The notion that wealth was a sign of God’s favor was now a certainty. And with this certainty much of the simplicity that Trilling and Eliot talk about disappeared and, along with it, the notion that there was moral high ground that was sacred, certainly more important than building miles of railroad tracks and making more money than one can spend in two lifetimes.

To be sure, it is difficult to make a case for the causal relationship between two such diverse factors as great wealth and the decline of morality. But there does seem to be a conjunction between the two. How often are we struck by the generosity and charity shown by the very poor who have nothing and the obsession with money that seems to consume the very rich who never seem to have enough? I ask this as a question, but it is largely rhetorical because the relationship I speak about  is evident. And it may help to explain modern man’s “search for a soul” as Jung would have it, and our uncertainty about what truly matters and what is of considerably less importance.

Entertainment?

I have suggested on occasion, sometimes generally sometimes pointedly, that the entertainment industry has been one of the more pernicious influences on the development of such things as intelligence and character that have been seen of late. It’s influence is felt everywhere and since we know that animals, including the human animal, learn from imitation it follows that the ubiquitous television and the social media (of late, especially) have had a tremendous effect on the development of young minds and hearts.

Robert Hutchins once pointed out that the invention of  television held out the greatest of possibilities for humankind. It could be an educational tool like none other and could bring about the elevation of minds and the enlargement of experience among all those touched by it. But we know that has not happened. Not only does public television — which was the last bastion of hope — struggle against the tide of political interests that lie elsewhere, but even when its programs are seemingly beyond criticism they still raise deep questions about their effect on young minds. I speak of such programs as “Sesame Street,” which has always been held up as a paradigm of the best that can be hoped for in television programming. And yet, television is a passive media and does not involve the viewer fully, and this applies to children’s programs on P.B.S.. Furthermore, such programs as “Sesame Street” — as good as they are in many respects — lead the young to expect to be entertained by those who would be their teachers later on. I know this from first hand experience, but it is fairly easy to deduce. Given the fact that the young spend hours each day in front of the television waiting to be entertained, it follows that when in a classroom they will expect the same stimulation. Again, television is essentially a passive media and that’s the key. It does not involve the give-and-take that is required for real learning to take place.

I speak in general terms about television as the main culprit in the drama I am attempting to expose, but in addition to the programming itself, which is beyond banal, there are the dreaded effects of commercials that are designed to capture and hold the minds of the viewers and lead them to buy items they certainly do not need and probably do not want. But one cannot deny the pernicious effects of the frantic series of pictures drummed into the heads of passive viewers hour after hour that present him of her with examples of human behavior that are anything but exemplary. I speak of the commercials, especially, that advertise everything from feminine hygiene products to pills to cure erectile disfunction, and God only knows how many drugs designed to make our lives easier and more pleasant. But much of what I say can be placed at the feet of the programming itself which presents innumerable examples of what was once regarded as deplorable behavior — such things as chronic lying, for example, not to mention the common practice of shouting and interrupting, and the repeated message that YOU are the only thing that matters and violence is the way to solve conflict.

There has been much attention drawn to social media lately, and with good reason. But it simply exacerbates the problem I allude to, since it reinforces the message that the self is paramount and others are there to be used and discarded. Many young people admit that in addition to being addicted to social media, they are driven to present themselves to those who read and follow in such a way that they will be “liked.” It’s not a question of whether or  not a person is a good person, a virtuous person as once was, but if one is well liked. How many followers do we have? Has my latest post been “liked”? How can I make sure that I never hear again from that fellow who just criticized my latest post?

I carp, of course, and grind a favorite axe, one that many  would prefer to ignore or even deny altogether. But we might do well to think about the impact of the entertainment media and the effects it has had on generations of people with diminished attention spans and lowered intelligence who seem to be withdrawing further and further into themselves and less and less inclined to become involved in the world around them except in so far as it affects them directly. It is not something that is likely to change — and certainly not because of this blog post. But it is a phenomenon that deserves serious attention if we are to better understand the current cultural malaise, the growing incidences of violence, and the widespread apathy among growing numbers of people who could not care less about the world around them.

Why Sports?

I have a number of friends who tend to look down their noses at sports and those who “waste their time” viewing or participating in sports. What’s the point, they ask? Why so much fuss about hitting that ball back and forth over a net or rolling that tiny white ball into the small hole in the ground?  Clearly, they cannot see it. And many who do see it are unable to see much of anything else. But there are reasons, good reasons, for participating in sports and while watching athletic events in person or on television might not be the most productive way to spend time, it beats such things as drinking or smoking pot — though, perhaps, it’s not as much fun. (I wouldn’t know [wink, wink]).

In any event, I do think there is a defense that can be made for participating in sports at all levels, from the lowest to the highest.  As others have pointed out, they tend to develop “character” and that is something that seems to be on hold pretty much anywhere else. I’m not talking about Division I sports at the University level, especially football and basketball. We know that character is the least of the concerns of those involved in those activities. The scandals that break out almost daily drive home the point that those sports are corrupt at their core and leave many former athletes dazed, discarded and wasted on the sidelines, victims of alcohol or drugs, out of work, frequently penniless, and full of pain.

But at the junior levels, in the schools and even in college at the Division III level where sports are played for the fun of it — for the most part — character is developed through self-denial, discipline, and the frequent experience of failure.  In no other walk of life these days, least of all in the schools, do we allow kids to fail, ignoring the well-known fact that failure is a very valuable life-lesson. In this regard, I hasten to add, the strange new practice of awarding trophies to all young participants and refusing to keep score defeats the purpose of sports — those aspects  of sports that are worth preserving.

Sports are also one of the few remaining places where it is not only appropriate but encouraged to discuss “greatness.” Is Michael Jordan the greatest basketball player ever to have played the game? How about Bill Russell? And is Rod Laver the greatest tennis player to have ever wielded a tennis racket — or is it Federer (or, perhaps, Martina Navratilova)? And so it goes. The Commissars of Culture who dominate the scholarly citadels have disallowed the notion of greatness in the arts, literature, and even behavior since it is now the case, apparently, that it is all a matter of taste. Period. There are no great writers, only those we prefer. There is no great art because it’s “all in the eye of the beholder.” We cannot talk about Great Books because there are no such things. They have been tossed into the bin waiting to be burned by professors who prefer to hold forth about postmodern theories and discuss the latest tome by a minority figure who has been wrongly ignored.

I have held forth on this topic many times because it seems to me to be so intellectually lazy and wrong-headed. There are clearly great writers, painters, and sculptors as there are great dancers and musicians. Not only can we discuss over a beer (or two) whether Jordan is the greatest basketball player ever, but also can also discuss over a glass of wine (or beer) whether Mozart was a great composer, perhaps the greatest ever, and whether or not Elizabeth Wharton was a great writer. I’m not saying that the discussion won’t get heated at times, or even that there is an answer that we would all agree upon. But the issue can be discussed, because there is greatness in our common world. It is rare, but it is there along with real beauty, ugliness, fear, spitefulness, and generosity. Indeed, our world is full of richness in all shades and colors. And we can talk about that world and come to some sort of agreement about the things that go on in it, even with those who see things entirely differently. Out at least we used to be able to do so.

In any case, the argument in favor of pursuing sports at all levels has to do not only with the fact that it does build character through self-denial and discipline, and, of course, acceptance of the lessons of failure. But it also teaches us about greatness. It opens our eyes to things going on around us and prepares the field for an intelligent discussion not only of greatness in sports but anywhere else as well. Furthermore, it helps participants to develop coordination and strength, a healthy body to accompany our healthy minds. The Greeks knew it, like they did so many other things. But many of us seem to have forgotten it, or are determined to look away and snigger at the horrible waste of time on the part of those who participate as well as those who simply watch and marvel at the beauty sports sometimes display, the sheer magic of what the human body can do, and the vicarious release of passions that might otherwise lead us in the wrong direction.

Art and the Unexpected

In an essay he wrote in 1952 Lionel Trilling uses a captivating phrase in describing the novel of an obscure Russian writer by the name of Isaac Babel. Trilling notes that “the essence of art is unexpectedness.” This is, of course, true, as is the related notion that the success or failure of art, especially literary art, hinges on ambiguity. The worse sin that a writer or novelist can make is to convey messages; art degenerates into didacticism. This is why Tolstoy was wrong when he insisted that the Bible was the greatest work of art ever written. The Bible is fundamentally and essentially didactic: it seeks to convey messages, clear and to the point. Literature and indeed all art requires, above all else, the unexpected.; they also require at the center an ambiguity that allows for a great many interpretations of what the artist or writer is up to. They themselves may not even know what they intended to say or paint. So, rather than listen to them we must recall what D.H. Lawrence said:

 “If you want to know what the novelist has to say, read the novel. As for the novelist he is a dribbling liar.”

In any event, Trilling’s comment about the unexpected lead me to recall an essay I used to teach in aesthetics classes years ago by the musicologist Leonard Meyer. He insisted that great music is a function of the unexpected. The difference between Bach and Francesco Geminiani, for example, is that Bach is full of surprises, whereas Geminiani tends to be predictable. Bach is a great composer; Geminiani is not. When we listen to Bach, or Mozart, or Beethoven, we never know quite what to expect. Music has “gestalt” qualities, as does all art, which lead us to certain expectations, certain resolutions of tensions built up with in the work. The great artists know how to frustrate those expectations and to surprise us in so many creative and interesting ways, thus increasing what Meyer called “information” — the heart and soul of greatness.

Greatness in art, as indeed in anything except in sports where greatness abounds apparently (along with “super stars”), has disappeared behind a screen of relativistic nonsense. We can no longer talk about greatness because it is a sign of our being “judgmental, which is forbidden by the politically correct…..and incorrect. Those who call the shots these days insist that there is no truth and no greatness. There is just what people do and it is up to us to make of it what we will. To which I say: bollocks! There is truth, and there is greatness. In fact the preceding sentence is true and certain works of art and literature are indeed great — for the reasons given above. It’s all about “the unexpected.” It is not about what we perceive, it is about what is going on, or what fails to go on, in the work itself. Our tendency these days to reduce all value judgments, in both art and ethics, to personal reactions is nothing more and nothing less than a sign of out inverted consciousness, our determination to turn the world into the world-for-us. It is a denial of the objectivity and reality of that which stands before us in all its glory, and it is quite simply wrong-headed — if for no other reason than it closes off to us the beauties and wonders of a world we are lucky enough to be a part of. It is not OUR world; it is THE world. We share it and we can make statements about it that are either true or false. And some of us can create works of great beauty, works that reveal to us dimensions of that shared world that we would otherwise miss. Our world tends to be bland; theirs is full of surprises — we never know quite what to expect.

And, curiously enough, the unexpected is the heart and soul of comedy as well. Interesting, don’t you think?

How Much Alike?

“The fact that man knows right from wrong proves his intellectual superiority to the other creatures; but the fact that he can do wrong proves his moral inferiority to any creature that cannot.” (Mark Twain)

Back in the early 90s of the last century Carl Sagan co-wrote a book with Ann  Druyan (Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors) that bears directly on what Mark Twain had said nearly a century before. In that book the authors stress the similarities between humans and other animal species, perhaps with the object of letting some of the air out of human puffery.

Aristotle insisted that humans are “rational animals,” thereby seeking to differentiate our species from the rest because of our abilities to reason, our use of tools and also our use of language. Subsequent studies have shown that many other animal species can not only reason, and even use tools, but also many of them do so remarkably quickly; some even use language. There have been studies of chimpanzees that have not only learned several hundred words but have shown and  ability to teach that language to their young! Jane Goodall studied the amazing Lucy, a chimpanzee brought up by humans who showed many of the signs of being human herself:

“No longer pure chimp but yet eons away form humanity, she was man-made, some other kind of being. I watched, amazed, as she opened the refrigerator and various cupboards, found bottles and a glass, then poured herself a gin and tonic. She took the drink to the TV, turned on the set, flipped from one channel to another then, as though in disgust, turned it off again. She selected a glossy magazine from the table and, still carrying her drink, settled in a comfortable chair. Occasionally, as she leafed through the magazine, she identified [in Ameslan] something she saw. . . .”

This doesn’t sound, to my ear, much different from the description of a great many humans we can observe pretty much any day, a condition that has been worsened by the addition of mind-numbing electronic toys that are putting our minds to sleep and causing even greater Lucy-like behavior. But the one thing that Sagan and Druyan missed when trying to make the case for the similarity between humans and other animal species, was the presence in humans of the capacity to act morally.

In saying this I am aware of the studies that have shown macaque monkeys, for example, that are unable to inflict pain on others of their species, refusing treats when asked to turn a dial that will increase an electronic charge connected with another monkey and causing him to scream in pain. They simply will not do this. This would appear to be evidence of a moral sense, a determination to do the right thing. And it is in sharp contrast with studies of humans put in the same, or similar, situations who are perfectly willing to turn the dial and inflict pain on other humans when asked to do so by another human in a white coat.

However, the behavior of the monkeys does not show the presence of anything more than an instinct to act, or refuse to act, in a certain way. It provides no evidence that there is a reasoning process involved. On the other hand, humans have a reasoning capacity and, as Kant insisted, also the capacity to ask the pivotal ethical question “what ought I to do?” And yet many of them will turn the dial. This would seem to prove Twain’s thesis stated at the outset of this post: we are inferior to other creatures. But does it?

What the experiment shows is that some humans are simply unable or unwilling to do the right thing — not that they could not do so under different conditions. Kant does not say that humans always do the right thing, he says we have the capacity to do the right thing. Often we do not do it. And this does help Twain make his case. Moreover, as Sagan and Druyan note at the conclusion of their careful study:

“The many sorrows of our recent history suggest that we humans have a learning disability.”

And yet we are the species who now have nuclear arsenals at our disposal, weapons numerous and powerful enough to end all life on earth. In addition, in this country any certified moron can walk into a gun shop with a credit card and ten minutes later walk away with an automatic weapon with the capacity to kill dozens of other humans in a matter of seconds. And our only solution to this situation is to insist that more morons arm themselves against the possibility that they might be the next target. This seems to be the best we have been able to come up with so far, though if this plan were to be realized it would surely mark the end of any pretense that we are a civilized society and announce to the world that we have once again returned to a state of nature where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

I do agree with Kant that humans have the capacity to act morally and that this is what separates us from the other animals on earth. But the evidence is overwhelming that increasing numbers of us tend not to exercise that capacity and are becoming less and less inclined to do so as our species becomes more numerous, more self-absorbed and disinterested in others. However, if we fail to exercise our inborn capacity to do the right thing we have no instinct to fall back on, as do the macaque monkeys. This is a difference that makes a real difference.

Uncivilized??

After reading Lionel Trilling’s excellent essay insisting that Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park oughtn’t to be dismissed as her weakest novel I was inspired to visit the novel again. I must admit I had thought, along with many another critic, that of all her novels this was indeed the poorest. With Austen, of course, even her weakest  novel would be gradations above the novels of so many others, but still, it simply didn’t seem to rank up there with Pride and Prejudice. Trilling shows that Austen herself started writing Mansfield Park almost before the ink was dry on the pages of her greatest novel when she thought it could have been even better — an urge that lead her to start writing what she regarded as a more balanced novel.

Whether one agrees with Trilling or not, and the argument can get a bit hairsplitting at times, a tempest in a teapot if you will, Austen points us in a direction we seem to have too long ignored. In her novels, all of them, we are forced to admit that manners are what makes the person. Character and good manners go hand-in-hand and cannot be separated from one another. Ortega y Gasset reminded us in the 1930s that “civilization is above all else the will to live in common,” and Norbert Elias, in his study of The Civilizing Process insists that civilization is nothing more and nothing less that the awareness of others and the “consideration of what others might think.” In a word, the civilizing process involves “restraint and the regulation of elementary urges.” The notion that others matter, that we have obligations to others is the common thread in what we loosely call “good manners” — as it is in all of Austen’s novels.

When a man opens a door for an elderly person, or gives up his seat on a crowded bus; when a neighbor turns down the radio or television out of consideration for others who might be disturbed; when one avoids saying what one thinks because it might hurt the feelings of the listener; when a speaker refuses to interrupt another speaker; in all these cases, we see self-restraint at work along with the “regulation of elementary urges” — good manners. Edmund Burke saw them as the stuff of morality.

Franny Price, the heroine of Mansfield Park, is the embodiment of good manners, the civilized person. She has been torn away from her poor family at the age of nine to live with her wealthy uncle and aunt one hundred miles away. She suffers separation anxiety in the extreme because of the sudden change and her one link to mental stability is the care and concert of her young cousin Edmund who, alone among all the other “upper crust” people she nows lives with, cares about her and shows compassion and concern for her suffering.  In the eyes of her new family, except for Edmund, she resides somewhere between the servants and themselves. One of her aunts relegates her to an attic room and tells the servants not to light the fire.

As Fanny grows older and her love for Edmund deepens and her sensitivity of others around her increases — including her three other cousins and her aunts and uncle — she becomes an attractive and fascinating woman. Indeed, a “gentleman” of considerable fortune by the name of Henry Crawford sets out to make Fanny fall in love with him, purely out of boredom, only to fall helplessly in love with her himself. He makes her an offer of marriage, an offer Fanny repulses — to the distress of her relatives. She sees him as the embodiment of all that is wrong with those around her, an “uncivilized” man; she sees

“. . .a want of delicacy and regard for others. . . .a gross want of feeling and humanity where his own pleasure was concerned — And, also, has always known no principle to supply as a duty what the heart was deficient in.”

In fact, the pleasure-seeking, self-absorbed Henry Crawford is the embodiment, along with his sister Mary, of what Trilling calls “the modern type, the person who cultivates the style of sensitivity, virtue, and intelligence.” In other words, in Trilling’s view Mansfield Park is about pretense, personality in the place of character, the tendency so many have to pretend they are something they are not for lack of sound moral principles to form a solid core of self. Fanny and her cousin Edmund are, among all the characters in the novel, the only two who are genuine and honest, the only truly civilized people among a host of others who either pretend to be so or who are past caring.

And this is where  a novel written in 1816 can be seen to be a commentary on our own age and culture, an age and culture in which the self and its pleasures have become the center of concern for the greater part of humanity and the Other has been lost in that preoccupation with self that sees good manners as archaic and somehow irrelevant — and who view honesty as not an obligation we have to ourselves and others but simply a matter of letting it all “hang out.” All of which places us in the category of those who in one way or another revealed themselves to Fanny Price as people who are locked within themselves, showing a lack of principles “to supply as a duty what the heart is deficient in.”