George Eliot: A Tribute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

“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.

The Visible Wonder

Great writers are great because they notice things about the people around them and the world in which they live. One of the greatest of these is Joseph Conrad whom I would list among my top five favorite writers — a list that includes George Eliot, Edith Wharton, Jane Austen, and Fyodor Dostoevsky. They not only notice things: they write about them with extraordinary psychological insight and a distinctive writing style — even in the case of Dostoevsky whom most of us must read in translation.

Conrad was, in addition to being a magnificent writer, a relentless critic of man’s inhumanity to man — especially with regard to the exploitation of the Congo, which he witnessed first-hand, “the vilest scramble for loot that has ever disfigured the history of human conscience and geographical exploration.” This concern was most powerfully expressed in his remarkable novella Heart of Darkness where he made clear that the white Europeans were guilty of the most heinous crimes against the native people as well as the earth they exploited out of unfettered greed. Unfortunately, this message was lost on Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian author and critic, who wrote an essay attacking Conrad and urging people not to read his novels, calling him a “racist” because his moderator, Marlowe, used the word “nigger” — a word freely bandied about by merchant seamen in the early part of the last century. Ironically, Achebe simply could not see beyond this to uncover Conrad’s obvious sympathies with the native people and hatred of what the Europeans were doing to them. In any event,  Conrad would have us all become astute observers of our world and the people around us. In his “Personal Record” he says that we should all become engaged in

“visionary activities. . . unwearied self-forgetful attention to every phase of the living universe . . . [make it] our appointed task on this earth. . .to bear true testimony to the visible wonder, the haunting terror, the infinite passion, and the illimitable serenity; to the supreme law and the abiding mystery of the sublime spectacle.”

The problem, of course, is that we can no longer engage in “self-forgetful attention” to the world, because we cannot for a moment forget ourselves: we have reduced the world to OUR world. With exceptions like the delightful artist Z, who is alive to the world around her, increasingly we suffer from our inverted consciousness, our attention focused solely on ourselves — a condition exacerbated by the electronic toys we are addicted to that direct our attention away from our world and other people to the ego at the center. Surely, the word “social media” is a misnomer: there is no real socializing going on here; we just write about ourselves. Beauty is no longer regarded as out there in the world, it is “in the eye of the beholder.” We no longer see the beautiful sunset or the grace of the deer as it leaps over the fallen tree. We “see” only our own reactions to those events, our own feelings. It is now all about us, not about our world. How does it make me feel? That’s the only question we ask. Some even go so far as to deny that there is any truth to be told about the world, that all truth, like all value, is subjective — just a reflection of the subject himself or herself. In the process, of course, we have flattened the world and made of it a two-dimensional sheet that merely reflects back the face and the feelings of the observer, ugly though that image might be.

In a word, if we ever were able to realize what Conrad seems to regard as our true, human calling — to “bear testimony to the visible wonder. . .” — few of us today are able to do so. I would guess that most don’t even know what Conrad is talking about — assuming that they read Conrad (or anything else for that matter!)

Why Great Books?

Many years ago when “Rosemary’s Baby” was the talk of the country the movie appeared in the town of Marshall near where I live. The local paper was full of letters to the editor from local zealots who were urging people to stay away from the movie — including at least one who proudly admitted that he hadn’t seen it himself and was determined not to do so. That same sort of closed-mindedness is reflected in the outspoken criticism by a great many college teachers of literature in this country who are promoting postmodern literature and trashing the “great books” which they insist are the work of “dead, white, European males” and thus not worth reading. Like the letter-writer, a number of them have apparently not even bothered to read the books they condemn! One might expect closed-mindedness of small-town zealots but one would hope for a broader view from supposedly educated people who are responsible for opening the minds of the students in their charge.

The criticism of the great books tends to center not only on those who wrote them but also on the notion of “greatness” which, it is said, cannot be attributed to any works — except in an arbitrary manner. I have always disagreed with this claim, since there are criteria of greatness which some works of art and literature exhibit and the majority do not. Great books, especially great works of literature, are exceptionally well written, with a rich vocabulary, vivid descriptions, engrossing plots, and characters we recognize immediately. Further, they are rich with insights into the human condition and often contain profound reflections on the world we share in common. They are not just “stories;” they exhibit a kind of intuitive truth that simply cannot be found anywhere else. They make us pause and reflect. And there are great books in philosophy and science which may not be as well written, but have provided us with some of the seminal ideas that have helped shape our world, not to mention our nation’s Constitution — and even brought about revolutions.  Such books are classics in the sense that they are seminal and they ring true today no less than they did when they were written, no matter who wrote them. They are the books that have been read by the exceptional minds that have preceded us; we seem determined to marginalize them — which is our mistake.

I have blogged about the wisdom of George Eliot so I won’t repeat here what I have already said. But Eliot was a superb writer, recognized in her day as one of the brightest and wisest of women who spent her declining years responding to letters from innumerable readers seeking her advice. But there are a great many authors of novels and plays who have exhibited remarkable insight and wisdom as well — and humor, such as Shakespeare’s famous line in Henry VI, Part II where we are told “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Or this, in King Henry V, “The saying is true, ‘The empty vessel makes the greatest sound.”‘  And also Edith Wharton, whose sometimes biting satire leaves one’s head spinning — as in this description of a type: “Mrs. Ballinger is one of those ladies who pursue Culture in bands as though it were dangerous to meet it alone.” Wharton, who knew whereof she spoke, was able to strip the New York upper crust if its pretense and leave it shivering in the cold.

From his remarkable novel, Lost Illusions, I add Balzac’s characterization of a fop who “always behaved with distant politeness, cold, a little supercilious, like a man not in his proper place and waiting the favors of power. He allowed his social talents to be guessed at, and these had everything to gain by remaining unknown.” Pure genius (even in translation!). Like so much humor, these descriptions have the ring of truth in them. We all know women like Mrs. Ballinger, for example. But there is also the disturbing observation about the rapaciousness of humans by writers like the extraordinary Joseph Conrad, writing in a second language, in Heart of Darkness:

“The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. . . . The Eldorado Exploring Expedition . . .was reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage; there was not an atom of foresight or of serious intention in the whole batch of them, and they did not seem aware these things are wanted for the work of the world. To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire, with no more purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe.”

I hesitate to cite passages in the great works of philosophy, but one cannot do better than reflect on the early dialogues of Plato to which John Dewey said the rest of philosophy was mere footnotes. And there is Alexis de Tocqueville who visited this country for nine months in the early nineteenth century and then wrote the most perceptive book on Democracy in America that has ever been written, showing us all our warts and flaws along with the remarkable strengths that arose from the experiment we were then engaged in, such as the following: “I think that the democratic communities have a natural taste for freedom; left to themselves they will seek it, cherish it, and view any privation of it with regret. But for equality their passion is ardent, insatiable, incessant, invincible; they call for equality in freedom; and if they cannot obtain that they still call for equality in slavery.” Or Mark Twain who had so many penetrating insights into the human condition: “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.” And so it goes.

The pages of great books are filled with such insights and well crafted, profound words that cannot but change those who read them and take them to heart. And that is what ultimately comprises greatness in art: the power to change those who come into contact with it, a power it does not lose as the years pass. Great books, like great art, invite and reward repeat visits. Thus, those who would displace the works of Dead White European Males on the grounds of political correctness had better make damned sure that after reading those works they can find words of equal power and worth in the writings they substitute, because it is a zero-sum game. For every work chosen one is ignored.

Why Manners Matter

As humans emerged from the “dark ages” they began to show greater interest in their behavior toward others. It was an essential element in what Norbert Elias called “the civilizing process.” In 1530, for example, we find Erasmus admonishing folks to be “reasonable, courteous and respectful in word or gesture.” One of my favorite of his admonitions was his insistence that “it is impolite to greet anyone who is urinating or defecating . . . A well-bred person should always avoid exposing without necessity those parts to which nature has attached modesty.”  These concerns were coupled with admonitions not to be like “the rustics,” which reflect a conviction that some people were simply regarded as better than others. Classes, evolving from the Feudal age, were beginning to form and they would take firm hold well into the age of capitalism and industrialization when they would begin to blur. But the point was that people were becoming aware that others mattered; the “higher” classes were beginning to learn manners and they were also determined that they needed to take care of those who were their responsibility (no doubt because the “rustics” provided them with their living. Here we have a sense of duty born of self-interest). Thus came into being, I would think, social “forms,” which were prevalent well into the Victorian age in England and, to a lesser extent, in this country as well.

But then came the growth of capitalism and the sudden birth of a wealthy class which blurred the old social classes and the “new rich” began to imitate the “well-born.” The blue bloods had been taught from birth to behave well in company and to take into account the impact of their behavior on others.  But right and wrong became lost in the confusion over whether or not wealth was a good thing as a waning Christianity weakened the restraints of morality and the Other became less and less important.  Manners began to deteriorate as the new rich took up the same forms and tried to mimic those they regarded as the paradigms of society, their “betters.”

This is what was happening in New York in the early part of the twentieth century as reflected in many of Edith Wharton’s novels: ethical restraints were tottering and the new rich were social climbers who took up behaviors that were not natural to themselves and those behaviors became mere empty forms — though those “born to the manor” whom the new-rich imitated increasingly lost sight of what those forms had once meant. I don’t think Wharton had any quarrel with the forms themselves, after all, they were built around a genuine concern for others and focused on what she would have called “good manners.” But when the forms were empty they became a sham, and the young, especially, saw that and also saw the hypocrisy and pretense that hid behind a false front. So the young during Wharton’s era started looking for new paradigms and saw around them the more “natural” behaviors of others who smoked, were disrespectful of their elders, and were increasingly preoccupied with themselves. This they found an easy model to copy and it became the norm.

Again, Wharton’s quarrel was with the pretense and falsehood of the empty forms that were being grafted onto wealthy social climbers who modeled themselves after a “higher” social class who had begun to forget why the forms were invented in the first place. In the shuffle something terribly important was being lost, namely, a determined effort (for whatever reasons) to behave toward others as one would have them behave toward oneself. Indeed, the sense of “other” was soon lost entirely. That, I think, is what bothered Edith Wharton. It bothered George Eliot and Anthony Trollope as well who saw it happening around them in England a generation before Wharton. And we are the inheritors of this legacy. The loss of “good manners” was nothing less than the loss of a sense that the “other” mattered in the least. Thus, if manners are a sign that we have become civilized, then the loss of manners would suggest that we are reverting to a sort of new barbarism in which the individual is the only one who matters.

Wisdom Revisited

No one has asked, but the topic fascinates me, so I will ruminate again briefly on the nature of wisdom. I have noted in a previous blog that it is not mere information or knowledge, but it is knowledge of what is appropriate in any given situation. In addition to a wealth of experience, either direct or vicarious, it requires a great deal of common sense and a willingness to proceed slowly. It demands the imagination to anticipate outcomes and consider alternatives. This, in turn, requires a sense of history and if not knowledge of human nature then certainly knowledge of human tendencies. It is more intuitive than discursive, though critical thinking is certainly involved: one does not simply stumble ahead blindly. But if we think of intuition in its primitive meaning of intellectual sympathy and acknowledge that the feminine aspect of the human psyche (the yin of Chinese philosophy) is where we usually find sympathy, it is not surprising that women are frequently wiser than men. I dare to use this sort of language despite the fact that we are told we must deny fundamental differences between men and women. In any event, as intellectual sympathy, intuition is contrasted with discursive thinking which regards the object of knowledge as standing over against the subject; intuitive knowledge is an immersion of the subject with the object. Herein lies the basic nature of wisdom: becoming one with the object. It is not knowledge, it is understanding and it requires a balance between intuition and discursive thought, with emphasis on the former.

Accordingly, if I were to list the wisest thinkers I have encountered in my intellectual travels I would certainly list George Eliot at the top (especially in Middlemarch and Felix Holt, Radical) — as mentioned in a previous blog. I would also list Edith Wharton  (especially in The House of Mirth and Fruit of the Tree) who knew the people around her well and understood the flaws as well as the strengths of the age in which she lived and wrote. I would also add Jane Austen in all of her novels. Among the men who seem to have abundant common sense and are highly intuitive, but also exhibit the balance noted above, I would list Plato’s early “Socratic” dialogues (especially “Apology,” and “Euthyphro”), Dostoevsky (especially in his novels The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment), Hermann Hesse (especially Narcissus and Goldmund), Huxley in his Brave New World, Joseph Conrad (especially in Heart of Darkness), Cervantes, Swift, the Greek poets, and, of course, Shakespeare. I need to get to know him better, but it is quite possible that Ralph Waldo Emerson should be added to the list. Fewer women appear on this list than men, of course, because for so many years women were denied the opportunity to express themselves seriously in print. Indeed, for so many years they were not taken seriously at all. Now we would have them all turn into men in order to become “successful.”

As I said in that previous blog on the subject, J.D. Salinger’s fictional character Franny was absolutely right: we don’t talk much (if at all) about wisdom in our schools. Part of that may be the result of the academic gender attacks that have disallowed the distinctions between ways of thinking that I would regard as essential to an understanding of what wisdom is. Be that as it may, we teach to the tests, as the teachers say, and undervalue imagination, and the poets and writers who have so much to teach us. If this seems like an indictment of an academic culture that is mired in ideology and focuses on testing and outcomes, that preaches that “no child should be left behind” and which pushes young people into narrow “career” channels from which they emerge with a smattering of knowledge about a few things so they can make a living — if, I say, this seems like an indictment of that culture, then so be it.

Can A Book Be Racist?

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. As I noted in a blog several months ago, 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. 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, for example, 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 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.  It’s a tough call.

Political Correctness

In response to a genuine need for greater sensitivity to the chronically disadvantaged in this country there came into being not long ago the serpent “political correctness.” This serpent, originating from the best of motives, has become so large that it threatens civilized discourse itself which was already weakened from constant abuse. We must now watch everything we say for fear we might offend someone somewhere at some point. And the ones who determine what constitutes “offensive” are the offended parties themselves. There is no court of appeal. And that’s the problem.

Some years back Chinua Achebe, the great Nigerian novelist, wrote a scathing essay attacking Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a “racist” novel. Achebe charged that the novel was racist because of the author’s frequent use of the “N” word and his reference to the natives of Africa in less than glowing terms. Achebe’s essay has been anthologized widely and is now considered a classic of its type. I published a rejoinder in Conradiana, the journal dedicated to Conrad scholarship, which was not widely anthologized, incisive though it was! I insisted that Achebe didn’t know how to read a novel, that Conrad did not denigrate the native people — on the contrary — and I defended Heart of Darkness as one of the greatest novels of all time and one that we should continue to read — in spite of the “N” word.

The problem is not whether or not Conrad or Conrad’s novels were “racist,” whatever that might mean, but where we draw the line. Edith Wharton also uses the “N” word with reckless abandon. In fact, writers of her generation pretty much did so because that was the way people talked back then. Use of such words lends the novel verisimilitude, an important weapon in the writer’s arsenal. She also slurred Jews, as did Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, among others. Again, where do we draw the line?

The problem doesn’t stop with literary works as a blog in the American Council of Trustees and Alumni publication “Inside Academe” recently points out. The Chronicle of Higher Education fired a writer of fifteen years, Naomi Schaefer Riley by name, because she wrote a piece attacking Black Studies dissertations “for substituting political partisanship for objective research and analysis.” Her piece resulted in 6000 petitioners demanding that she be fired since she was clearly “racist.” Now whether or not she is a racist (again, whatever that means) she was never allowed to defend herself or presented with the evidence of her mistakes, whatever they might have been. Instead of a lively discussion of what dispassionate scholarship ought to be or what racism actually is, she was simply accused and fired. As the blog in “Inside Academe” notes in its final paragraph: “The Chronicle missed a chance to stand up for intellectual freedom and intellectual engagement. They kowtowed to their constituency — the academy — deciding that political correctness was more important than the search for truth and the defense of free speech.” This seems to me to be the central issue here.

Have we really come to the point where claims are disallowed if someone uses an offending word such as “savage,” contends that sloppy work is being accepted in our academies of learning, suggests that a woman was fired because she was incompetent, or an elderly man (such as myself) refused a job because he is unable to lift 200 pounds over his head — when these things may in fact be true and perhaps even important? If so then not only the academy but the wider culture itself has become impoverished and shrinks back on itself out of fear of intellectual engagement and the free exchange of ideas — no matter how disturbing. This is a huge price to pay not to offend someone, somewhere, sometime.

Sheldon’s Problem

In one of my favorite episodes of “The Big Bang Theory,” in which Laurie Metcalf plays a large role, Sheldon Cooper has had a miserable day because his Mom spends the day with Sheldon’s friends. She would rather do that than go to a lecture with him and listen to him trip-up the Nobel Prize-winning speaker. She tells Sheldon she would rather to go to Hollywood so she can talk to a wax statue of Ronald Reagan and thank him for his service to his country!  At the end of the day Sheldon has caught a cold and lies in bed while his Mom rubs Vaporub onto his chest and sings “Soft Kitty.” Near the end of the scene Sheldon tells his mother that he regrets that he hasn’t been able to spend time with her on this trip. His mother asks, “And whose fault is that?” Sheldon replies, “Yours.” Funny, yes. But also a bit sad. In Shelden’s world it is always the other person’s fault. Increasingly this seems to be the same world we all live in: when things go wrong, it is always someone else’s fault.

Edith Wharton’s novel The Custom of The Country features a heroine, Undine Spragg, who marries Ralph Marvell a man with little money but “Old New York” family connections. The marriage goes terribly wrong because Undine cannot control her spending and, like her parents, her husband can’t say “no.” Undine, like Sheldon, blames her husband: the failed marriage couldn’t possibly be her fault. And that is the problem: Undine is a self-absorbed, spoiled child.  No one has ever denied her anything. And despite the fact that these are fictional characters, they both reflect a common feature of our culture.

We may not have Sheldon’s problem — which would require extensive psychological counselling. But more and more of us have Undine’s problem: we are spoiled rotten and our attention is turned inward. I suspect there is a connection here. I have spoken about the unwillingness of so many of us in this culture to accept responsibility for our actions. The problem is widespread. But while I have never discussed the possible causes, I think there is a definite connection between our increasing preoccupation with ourselves and our unwillingness to accept responsibility for our actions.

As we become increasingly self-centered and others become reduced to a means toward our personal ends, and those around us (especially our parents and teachers) confirm this preoccupation with self by gratifying our every wish and telling us how wonderful we are, we grow in our sense of entitlement. We are thus subjected to ego enhancement at every turn. As the ego becomes enlarged, and the world becomes our world, it becomes harder and harder to accept the fact that we may have caused the things that go wrong in that world. It simply cannot be our fault: we are too wonderful. It must be someone else’s fault.

Sheldon Cooper has Asperger’s Syndrome, which may not be treatable. Undine Spragg is simply a self-absorbed, spoiled brat. But her problem may also be untreatable, since she has reached adulthood and it has developed into a character flaw. These are fictional characters, but they resemble us in important ways; as their condition becomes widespread among the population at large, our society takes on the character of those who comprise it. We are used to seeing people duck responsibility and indulge themselves at others’ expense. A few people complain, but on the whole, it’s what we do. It’s who we are.

In 1810 Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to his friend John Langdon in which he spoke of kings; he said, in part, “. . .take any race of animals, confine them in idleness and inaction, whether in a stye or a stateroom, pamper them with a high diet, gratify all their sexual appetites, immerse them in sensualities, nourish their passions, let everything bend before them, and they [become delusional and self-absorbed].” We are all kings today, with little or no political power, but with more power over the things that affect us directly than even the kings of Jefferson’s day might have had. Let us hope we don’t all turn into Undine Spragg.