Aboard The Titanic (Again)

This is another of the several re-blogs I am posting in an effort to allow me time to collect those that seem to be the very best that I will include in an upcoming book. My hope it to whet your appetite!

Barbara Kingsolver’s excellent novels Flight Behavior is both disturbing and well worth reading. The reading goes slowly because the book, while extremely well-written, is so dense and so disturbing. One can take only so much at a sitting. This one is about climate change and the effect it is having on monarch butterflies. Actually, the odd behavior of the monarchs is the result of climate change and the stupidity of humans who have clear-cut a huge area in Mexico where the Monarchs usually Winter over. Because of the clear-cutting, torrential rains in that part of Mexico have destroyed the entire mountain area where the butterflies usually end their migration. As a result, they have found themselves in the Tennessee mountains and the question is “why?” The climate in southern Tennessee is not conducive to the survival of the butterflies over the Winter. Something has gone seriously wrong with the inherent navigational system they have relied upon for thousands of years, and the novel centers around a small group of people who are determined to discover the reasons and try to understand what is happening to their world — and to ours.

The novel’s focus is upon its hero, Dellarobia Turnbow, a young woman with very little education but a bright and inquiring mind, her slow-witted husband, and two very small children. They are dirt poor, but Dellarobia has discovered something extraordinary when she walks up on the mountain one day in a fit of despair over what she regards as a wasted life. She suddenly comes upon millions and millions of beautiful monarchs who have appeared from nowhere and seem determined to stay for a while. The novel recounts the results of her discovery: her mother-in-law’s determination to profit from the discovery by giving tours; her father-in-law’s determination to log the area for the money that he desperately needs after a series of financial disasters; Dellarobia’s fame as the news media seek her out and delight in romanticizing her story, without mentioning the terrible fact that there is something very wrong to bring those creatures to this place in such great numbers. But the discovery also brings a lepidopterist from New Mexico, an expert on Monarch behavior, with a small crew of three graduate students who are very much concerned to find out why this has happened.

I won’t spoil your surprise should you decide to read the novel, which I highly recommend to those with steady nerves. But at one point in the novel, after Dellarobia has gone to work for the scientific team helping with odds and ends around the laboratory they have set up in her barn, a discussion is taking place between the lead scientist, Ovid Byron, his somewhat cynical graduate assistant Pete, and Dellarobia. At one point Byron explodes in anger at Pete’s glib dismissals of the unconcerned,
“For God’s sake, man, the damn globe is catching fire, and islands are drowning. The evidence is staring them in the face.”
Later, Dellarobia reflects on the apathy of humans who choose to ignore the obvious.

“She spoke carefully to the room. ‘I think people are scared to face up to a bad outcome. That’s just human. Like not going to the doctor when you’ve found a lump. If fight or flight is the choice, it’s way easier to fly'”

The novel puts me in mind of a ride on the Titanic with all of us aboard. The captain and those in charge of the vessel have all the confidence in the world in the invincibility of this ship. After all, it’s the greatest thing men have come up with and the epitome of technological expertise. The passengers are all busy entertaining themselves in hundreds of different ways, in the lounge dancing and dining; in their staterooms making love or playing with their electronic toys (or both); a small group clusters in the stern, heads bowed in prayer, eyes shut tight, fingers in their ears; and a few scientists are standing in the bow of the ship pointing to the huge iceberg that is dead ahead and shouting against the wind. We all choose to ignore it, to “fly” as Dellarobia says, rather than fight. We are in group denial: it’s too painful to take into our consciousness. As she says, “It’s impossible.” So we continue to dine, dance, play with our toys, and keep our fingers firmly in our ears. The captain is certain that the ship can withstand any collision with an iceberg and denies that there is any real danger.

But there is danger; it is dead ahead, and we cannot survive if we continue to ignore it — especially since there are no lifeboats on this ship. The only possible option is for enough passengers to take the scientists seriously, band together and take control of the ship and steer it to safety. The question is whether enough people will realize that the scientists are right before it is too late.

Individuality

As you may have gathered, I have become a devoté of the writer Barbara Kingsolver. It’s my friend Dana Yost’s fault: he got me started and now I want to read everything she wrote. She writes beautifully and has a great deal to say that is important and worth serious thought. That’s what I do: I find an author I like and I read everything they wrote. Kingsolver belongs among the first rank of American writers in my view and the novel I finished reading not long ago raises a most interesting question. It has to do with what it means to achieve true individuality while at the same time belonging to a group.

In the novel, Pigs In Heaven, we follow a young woman introduced in Kingsolver’s previous novel as she struggles to deal with the fact that a young Indian girl she has adopted illegally and she has grown to love is now claimed by the Cherokee tribe to which they insist she rightfully belongs. As it happens, the woman is herself part Cherokee, but that fact remains in the background as the tale unfolds. During the telling of that tale, the young woman’s mother, Alice, goes to the Cherokee Nation to visit with a cousin and intervene on behalf of her daughter; while there she gradually reclaims her own sense of belonging to a people that, while poor, are held together by age-old traditions, painful memories, and, most importantly, love and respect for one another.

The question that this novel raises is whether it is possible for a person to become true to themselves while at the same time pledging loyalty to a group that may make moral demands on them. In a word, can one remain free while at the same time doing what others demand of them? The Nation has traditions and ways of doing things that Alice and her daughter are unfamiliar with — being raised in Mississippi and Kentucky, far away from the Nation itself. Kingsolver paints a beautiful picture of how Alice gradually finds herself drawn into this strange group of people while attending a “stomp dance” in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere (where alcohol is not permitted, as it happens). As the night  gradually turns to dawn and she finds herself dancing along with the entire nation, “For the first time she can remember, Alice feels completely included.” And yet she remains the same person she was before.

Is it possible for someone to feel (and, indeed be) included in a group and at the same time achieve true individuality? Kingsolver suggests that belonging to something greater than oneself is the ONLY way to achieve true individuality. It is possible to love others and oneself at the same time: one finds oneself by losing oneself. Our culture’s view of the issue seems quite different. We seem to think that true individuality can only be achieved by rejecting the group we are born into and swearing allegiance to none other than ourselves. Think of the turbulent 60s when the “establishment” was rejected out of hand and love was reduced to free sex: it was all about “doing your own thing.” As the young Cherokee attorney who is pursuing the little girl in order to return her to her people says to a white man early in the novel:

“Your culture is one long advertisement for how to treat yourself to the life you think you really deserve. Whether you actually deserve it or not.”

What we have here is a profound difference between the sense of belonging that Huxley, for example, depicts in Brave New World, in which individuals lose their sense of self by becoming drawn into a group that captures not only their wills but also their minds. This does not happen in the Cherokee Nation, according to Kingsolver. Alice, and to a lesser extent her daughter, is drawn back to her Cherokee roots. It is a beautiful idea and Kingsolver is able to make a convincing case. The glue that holds the group together is nothing more, nor less, than then love and respect they have for one another. Alice, for the first time she can remember, “feels completely included.” But she is also the same woman who lately joined the group, though now she has a deeper sense of who she is and where she belongs. In achieving true individuality and a sense of freedom she has never before known she has the assurance that she is loved and accepted for who she is.

These people seem to have it right: one achieves true selfhood and true freedom not by rejecting others and seeking to stand apart, but by accepting and willingly belonging to something larger than oneself– subordinating one’s self willingly in order to discover one’s self. In a way it’s not unlike a good marriage.

 

NOTE: In an interview with Stephen L. Fisher of Emory & Henry College in 2011 Ms Kingsolver confirmed some of the ideas I have expounded here:

“. . .the most remarkable feature of human culture is its capacity to reach beyond the self to encompass the collective good; yet, here in the United States we are blazing a bold downhill path from the high ground of ‘human collective’ toward the tight little den of ‘self.'”

Well put, but as is the case with so many fine novelists, her books make the point more forcefully.

Truth In Fiction

As a trained philosopher who also happens to love reading what used to be called “Great Books” — but which are lately dismissed by much of the academic community as the works of “Dead, White, European Males” — I would like to make the case for reading works of fiction written by exceptional writers, such as Barbara Kingsolver (who is not D.,E., or M.). I have mentioned her before because she has the ability to write fascinating stories that have deep and important messages beneath the surface. Thus, they are not just tales, they are also food for serious thought. I have mentioned her name before and dare say I will mention it again, but at this time I would like to focus attention on a brief exchange between the writer-hero of her brilliant novel The Lacuna and his lawyer as the F.B.I. hovers in the background ready to arrest the writer for subversion. The time period follows the second world war when Stalin went from being our ally to being Satan incarnate, the “Cold War,” the period of the so-called “House Un-American Committee.” The year is 1948 and our hero’s lawyer is speaking:

“What these men are doing could become permanent.”

“What do you mean?”

Suddenly he looked weary. “You force people to stop asking questions, and before you know it they have auctioned off the question mark, or sold it for scrap. No boldness. No good ideas for fixing what’s broken in the land. Because if you happen to menition it’s broken, you are automatically disqualified. . . . .”

“I’m an old man, I’ve seen a lot. But what these men are doing is putting poison on the grass. It kills the crabgrass all right, and then you have a lot of dead stuff out there for a very long time. Maybe forever.”

Now, of course, the lawyer is speaking of folks like Martin Dies, J. Parnell Thomas, and later Joe McCarthy who many of us have forgotten or would like to have forgotten, men who assaulted Civil Rights and the First Amendment in the name of “Anti-Communism.” But events did evolve as the lawyer says, precisely, ” . . . . a lot of dead stuff out there for a very long time.” Countless decent men and women were brought to heel by frightened, small-minded, ambitious men in positions of power who were convinced that anyone who ever had shown any interest in, much less sympathy for, Communism or who spoke out for, say, Negro rights, or women’s rights, or may have read Karl Marx, were ipso facto Communists. And, despite the fact that no one really knew what Communism really was, thousands were scared silly — many of whom were literally destroyed by what was, in effect, a witch hunt.

Those days are over, one would think. But what about the other insidious elements in our culture that are designed to silence criticism and label the dissenter as an enemy, who fear words like “socialism” or “Muslim”? Those elements are more subtle in their tactics, but, at the risk of sounding somewhat paranoid, they are nearly as effective as the House Un-American Committee at silencing critics. In 1950 a writer dare not write anything favorable about Communism or the Soviet Union; today a writer dare not write anything that is not politically correct or pro-America. In either case, the written (and spoken) word is censored.

There seems to me to be a good deal of “poisoning of the grass” going on all around us. Does anyone seriously deny, for example, that the propaganda machine has gone into high gear as the DOD pays sports teams millions of our tax dollars to convince us that those among us wearing camouflage (and not at the moment hunting deer) are all, without exception, “heroes”? Does anyone in this culture today dare to suggest publicly that the wars these people are fighting are concocted by the government to protect monied interests? Does anyone dare to suggest the possibility that by invading Iraq for no good reason our nation gave powerful impetus to IS? Does anyone dare to suggest (other than on blogs that no one reads) that our democracy is “broken”and that the monied interests in this country will henceforth be calling all the shots? Recall the words of Voltaire: “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.” Are we not, slowly and quietly, being “forced to stop asking questions”?

Let’s hope I exaggerate. But let us never stop asking questions — or reading thought-provoking fiction that has at its center profound truth.

 

Loving The Earth

An outstanding athletic team can win even when it doesn’t play its best game. Apparently the same can be said of an outstanding novelist. Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Animal Dreams is not her best work, but it is stunning nevertheless. Like a rich mine, her novels keep turning up nuggets of pure gold. In this novel, we follow a young woman in search of her self and her place in the world. Her mother died whence was three and her father was cold and remote, lost in his work and unable to give his daughter and her sister any real affection. So the sisters form a tight bond, but when the younger one goes off to teach people in Central America how to improve their farming practices, the heroine is left alone to find her way. She ends up with a dashing young Indian named Loyd who takes her to his Pueblo village at Christmas time to witness a celebration of the season — not Christmas, but a spiritual celebration of thanks that has many parallels with the Christian custom as it was once celebrated (before Big Business took over the show). The two have the following conversation, which, as I say, is pure gold. Loyd is explaining the celebration:

“We’re on our own. The spirits have been good enough to let us live here [on this earth] and use the utilities, and we’re saying: We know how nice you’re being. We appreciate the rain, we appreciate the sun, we appreciate the deer we took. Sorry if we messed up anything. You’ve gone to a lot of trouble and we’ll try to be good guests.”

“Like a note you’d send somebody after you’ve stayed in their home?”

“Exactly like that. . .

“It’s a good idea. . . especially since we’re still here sleeping on God’s couch. We’re permanent house guests.”

“Yep, we are. Better remember how to put everything back how we found it.”

It was a new angle on religion for me. I felt a little embarrassed for my blunt interrogation. And the more I thought about it, even more embarrassed for my bluntly utilitarian culture. “The way they tell it to us Anglos, God put the earth here for us to use, westward-ho. Like a special playground.”

“Well that explains a lot.  . . . But where do you go when you’ve pissed in every corner of your playground?”

“. . . . To people who think of themselves as God’s house guests American enterprise must seem arrogant beyond belief. Or stupid. A nation of amnesiacs, proceeding as if there were no other day but today. Assuming the land could also forget what had been done to it.”

Admittedly, the novel is somewhat didactic. Kingsolver has something to say and dammit! she’s going to say it. But it is important, even if it smacks a bit of romantic blindness to the shortcomings of native people and holds them up as paragons of virtue. We must admit that they, being human, also have faults. They have their petty jealousies, squabbles, and even wars. At the same time, the native people have always been much closer to the earth than we are and it’s a good idea to take a long, hard look at our own culture from the perspective of other people; Kingsolver is very good at that. In the end, what our culture has done to this planet, and continues to do today, is indeed embarrassing. And stupid.

 

 

 

 

 

Truth To Tell

One of the reasons I like to read novels by folks like Barbara Kingsolver is because they often have important things to say and do it so well. Her novels (and I am hooked on her novels, I admit) are always thought-provoking and intriguing. She has won numerous awards and, in her case at any rate, they are well deserved. In her novel The Lacuna, which is in its way brilliant, she tells us of a young novelist living in Washington D.C. and lets us read the letter he is writing to an old friend in Mexico. The letter is dated July 6, 1946.

“Politics here now resemble a pillow fight. Lacking the unifying slogan (Win the War), our opposing parties sling absurd pronouncements back and forth, which everyone pretends carry real weight. How the feathers fly! The newsmen leap on anything, though it’s all on the order of, ‘Four out of five shoppers know this is the better dill pickle,’ assertions that can’t be proven but sway opinion. ‘Dance for the crowd’ is the new order, with newsmen leading the politicians like bears on a leash. Real convictions would be a hindrance. The radio is the root of the evil, their rule is: No silence, ever. When anything happens the commentator has to speak without a moment’s pause for gathering wisdom. Falsehood and inanity are preferable to silence. You can’t imagine the effect of this. The talkers are rising above the thinkers.”

It’s no longer the radio, of course, but her point is well taken: “The talkers are rising above the thinkers.” Or is it “the shouters”?

Aboard The Titanic

I am working my way through another of Barbara Kingsolver’s excellent novels, titled Flight Behavior. The reading goes slowly because the book, while extremely well-written, is so dense and so disturbing. One can take only so much at a sitting. This one is about climate change and the effect it is having on monarch butterflies. Actually, the odd behavior of the monarchs is the result of climate change and the stupidity of humans who have clear-cut a huge area in Mexico where the Monarchs usually Winter over. Because of the clear-cutting, torrential rains in that part of Mexico have destroyed the entire mountain area where the butterflies usually end their migration. As a result, they have found themselves in the Tennessee mountains and the question is “why?” The climate in southern Tennessee is not conducive to the survival of the butterflies over the Winter. Something has gone seriously wrong with the inherent navigational system they have relied upon for thousands of years, and the novel centers around a small group of people who are determined to discover the reasons and try to understand what is happening to their world — and to ours.

The novel’s focus is upon its hero, Dellarobia Turnbow, a young woman with very little education but a bright and inquiring mind, her slow-witted husband, and two very small children. They are dirt poor, but Dellarobia has discovered something extraordinary when she walks up on the mountain one day in a fit of despair over what she regards as a wasted life. She suddenly comes upon millions and millions of beautiful monarchs who have appeared from nowhere and seem determined to stay for a while. The novel recounts the results of her discovery: her mother-in-law’s determination to profit from the discovery by giving tours, her father-in-law’s determination to log the area for the money that he desperately needs after a series of financial disasters, Dellarobia’s fame as the news media seek her out and delight in romanticizing her story, without mentioning the terrible fact that there is something very wrong to bring those creatures to this place in such great numbers. But the discovery also brings a lepidopterist from New Mexico, an expert on Monarch behavior, with a small crew of three graduate students who are very much concerned to find out why this has happened.

I won’t spoil your surprise should you decide to read the novel, which I highly recommend to those with steady nerves. But at one point in the novel, after Dellarobia has gone to work for the scientific team helping with odds and ends around the laboratory they have set up in her barn, a discussion is taking place between the lead scientist, Ovid Byron, his somewhat cynical graduate assistant Pete, and Dellarobia. At one point Byron explodes in anger at Pete’s glib dismissals of the unconcerned, “For God’s sake, man, the damn globe is catching fire, and islands are drowning. The evidence is staring them in the face.” Later, Dellarobia reflects on the apathy of humans who choose to ignore the obvious.

“She spoke carefully to the room. ‘I think people are scared to face up to a bad outcome. That’s just human. Like not going to the doctor when you’ve found a lump. If fight or flight is the choice, it’s way easier to fly'”

The novel puts me in mind of a ride on the Titanic with all of us aboard. The captain and those in charge of the vessel have all the confidence in the world in the invincibility of this ship. After all, it’s the greatest thing men have come up with and the epitome of technological expertise. The passengers are all busy entertaining themselves in hundreds of different ways, in the lounge dancing and dining; in their staterooms making love or playing with their electronic toys (or both); a small group clusters in the stern, heads bowed in prayer, eyes shut tight, fingers in their ears; and a few scientists are standing in the bow of the ship pointing to the huge iceberg that is dead ahead and shouting against the wind. We all choose to ignore it, to “fly” as Dellarobia says, rather than fight. We are in group denial: it’s too painful to take into our consciousness. As she says, “It’s impossible.” So we continue to dine, dance, play with our toys, and keep our fingers firmly in our ears. The captain is certain that the ship can withstand any collision with an iceberg and denies that there is any real danger.

But there is danger; it is dead ahead, and we cannot survive if we continue to ignore it — especially since there are no lifeboats on this ship. The only possible option is for enough passengers to take the scientists seriously, band together and take control of the ship and steer it to safety. The question is whether enough people will realize that the scientists are right before it is too late.