Picture Puzzles

There is little doubt that the novels of Joseph Conrad will soon gather dust in forgotten sections of the few remaining libraries around the world. For one thing, Conrad’s novels have been castigated by China Achebe, who tells us that we should not read Conrad’s masterpiece Heart of Darkness because the author has the audacity to use the “N” word  with abandon. This is absurd, of course, and I have defended Conrad in print against this attack. But Achebe’s essay is much read while mine also gathers dust in libraries around the world. So it goes.

But, more to the present point, Conrad’s novels will not be read because the novelist was an impressionist, which is to say, he demands of the reader that he or she engage their imagination in order to enter the world the novelist has created. He hints and suggests rather than describing in detail; he allows the reader to infer from the written words what it is that has not been written. And while it is certainly the case that there are fewer and fewer readers of books it is even more certain that there are fewer and fewer of those who have the capacity to engage Conrad’s novels or indeed any work of art with his or her imagination. The problem is, of course, that our imaginations have become shriveled by the entertainment industry which is convinced that the more graphic and vivid the entertainment the more success it will have. God forbid that we should have to make an effort!

This is a shame because the world of the artist is a richer and fuller one than the one we occupy in our ordinary goings and comings. But it demands that we pay attention and that we imagine what is NOT being said.

In Heart of Darkness, for example, we are taken into the world of avarice and greed on a major scale as Europe is in the process of pillaging the world of Darkness in order to make a buck — the only real value that seems to be shared among those who are not the exploited of this world. In that novel, the hero, Marlowe, is seeking out the man Kurtz who has disappeared and, because he has been very successful in bringing tons of ivory back to Belgium, is sought by the company — if he is still alive. Marlowe wends his way past villages that have  been laid waste by greedy Europeans; he eventually finds himself approaching the hut where he is told Kurtz is to be found. He describes the sight as he approaches:

“You remember I told you I had been struck at the distance by certain attempts at ornamentation, rather remarkable given the ruinous aspect of the place. Now I had suddenly a nearer view, and its first result was to make me throw my head back as though from a blow. Then I went carefully from post to post [in front of the hut] with my glass and saw my mistake. Those round knobs were not ornamental but symbolic; they were expressive and puzzling, striking and disturbing — food for thought and also for the vultures if there had been any looking down from the sky; but at all events for such ants as were industrious enough to ascend the poles. They would have been even more impressive, those heads on the stakes, if their faces had not been turned toward the house. Only one, the first I had made out, was facing my way.”

The passage goes on for a bit, but Conrad does not describe the orgies and the murder of the blacks that Kurtz was engaged in to satisfy his sensualism and greed, his lust for human flesh and elephant tusks, not to mention his contempt for the blacks he exploited. Conrad demands that we imagine for ourselves. Can we do that any longer? I do wonder.

Another impressionistic novel that I finished lately also provides us with bits and pieces and asks us to out them together to form a complete picture. I speak of the Nobel Prize winner Yusunari Kawabata’s Thousand Cranes — which draws on the Japanese Tea Ceremony to assist us in putting the pieces together. Doubtless it is more difficult for us Westeners to do without the proper indoctrination into the complexities of those ceremonies, but it is made even more difficult because  most of us are forced to read the original in translation. Those difficulties aside, we must, above all else, think and attend carefully to what is said in order to imagine what is not being said.

Toward the end of the novel, Kikuji, the hero of the novel, has found his way into the interior of himself and realizes that the woman Fumiko is the one person in the world for whom he is able to feel real love. As he approaches her house very near the end of the novel he discovers from a young girl that Fumiko has “gone away with a friend.” Kikuji realizes at once that this means the Fumiko, like her mother, has taken her own life. Kawabata does not spell this out for us. He suggests it, as does Conrad in Heart of Darkness, and we are left with the terrible awareness of the emptiness in the man’s soul — a sense that comes to us as we put together the pieces the author has provided us with, using our imagination.

Kawabata’s novels, like Conrad’s, will also gather dust on the shelves of libraries around the world — in the East no less than the West, as we can infer (even at this distance) from the impact Western capitalism has had on the orient. For better or worse — and many a Japanese writer suggests that it is worse, much worse — the East is being informed by the West and Western values, such as they are. But in any event, both novelists demand that we use our imaginations and we are slowly but surely losing the ability to do that. How sad.

What Matters?

In the recent college basketball game between Duke and their in-state rival North Carolina, Duke’s star player “blew out” one of his expensive Nike shoes, tripped and sprained his knee. He left the game and didn’t return. Duke, predictably, lost the game. It appears as of this writing that the sprain is minor. But it raised a number of questions that got the talking heads talking.

On the television the next day the air was filled with opinions left and right: since the injury is not season-ending, should he just “shut it down” and not play lest he seriously hurt himself and ruin his chances to make big money (VERY big money) in the N.B.A.?  The consensus was that he should. After all, that’s what intercollegiate athletics at the highest levels are all about these days: money. But Jalen Rose — who played basketball for Michigan and later in the N.B.A. and now comments on ESPN’s lively morning show “Get Up!” — held to the opinion that the man signed a letter of intent to play for Duke and owes them the rest of the year and a chance to win the National Championship — a real possibility with this man playing, a long shot without him.

I applaud Jalen because he was the only one I heard in all the drivel (and I gather there were a few others, but very few)  who seemed to be the least bit aware that those who play intercollegiate athletics do have an obligation to the institution that gave them a “free ride” and to those teammates with whom he or she played. It’s not all about money, though the weight of opinion “out there” is clearly that it is about money. Period!.

I have blogged about this before and I will not hash over the points I made earlier, but I will only add that it is heartening that at least one or two people in the entertainment world are aware that there is such a thing as a moral obligation (though Jalen didn’t use those words) and that athletics is not all about money. Or it shouldn’t be.

Athletics at every level should be subsumed under the highest goals of the universities where they are housed. The highest goal, obviously, is to educate the young. There is a serious question whether athletics at the NCAA Division I level have anything whatever to do with education, but we will let that also pass as I have posted about that ad nauseam. In their place, however, athletics can play an important role in educating the “whole person” who attends a college or a university. It can help the participant learn to put the team above the self — a lost art in a culture that dwells on the “selfie” and wants only to be “liked.”

Sports can also teach the player about the valuable lessons to be learned from losing, another lost value in a culture where “self-esteem” is the goal of the schools and entitlement is the result — with everyone expecting a reward with little or no effort whatever. All of us who have lost or failed from time to time remark about the valuable lessons we learned from those losses or failures. It helps us grow and mature. It makes us work harder next time and enjoy the satisfaction that comes from finally succeeding.

Sports in their right place are important and valuable, despite the fact that there are folks who will insist that they are frivolous and a waste of time. How better to spend our time than with healthy exercise that also helps us learn about failure and the joys of winning while at the same time we also learn that our success at times depends on others? We need to keep these lessons clearly in mind in a culture that tends to cover them with mud and money. But it is not clear that football and basketball at the highest collegiate levels are sports any more. They have become a business — like education itself.

In any event applaud Jalen Rose for seeing beyond the immediate focus on greed and self-advancement to the wider picture that also involves important values, values that are slowly sinking into the mud.

The Tenth Circle

At the risk of disturbing Dante’s magnificent architectonic  which allows only nine circles in Hell — nine being the perfect number, since when multiplied by any other number the integers always add up to nine, and being the product of 3 X 3 (three representing the Trinity, of course) — I would suggest that if he were alive today he might want to allow for a tenth circle.

To review (there will be a short test next period), Dante places the treacherous against kith and kin, folks like Judas, Brutus, and Cassius, in the pit of hell which is not a fiery pit, but a frozen wasteland. It is frozen because it is as far away from God as is possible in Dante’s geocentric universe. Some of the sinners’ heads are barely above the ice and close enough together that each person’s head is being gnawed upon by his neighbor. Some are twisted beyond recognition in the frozen ice. Others cry and their tears freeze against their cheeks. All are beyond redemption because they love only themselves and they never repented their sins.

In the tenth circle, which we can now imagine to be below the frozen wasteland, there are spaces reserved for modern-day sinners — folks like Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and their loyal supporters; and, of course,those among us who promote hatred and trade on the fears of frightened and ignorant people in order to increase their political power and prestige. We can also see the immensely wealthy who are blinded by their greed and can see only the huge bags of gold that are just out of reach. Even when they manage to drag their way to one of the bags, others appear just beyond and they spend all their time and energy seeking more and more. They are desperately in need of water, but there is none, because their own activities have dried up the lakes and ponds that we can see in the background, whips of dust being stirred up by brief winds that do not cool. Not that these men need the gold. It won’t do them any good in Hell. But they want it just the same. It is an uncontrolled urge and Dante was very hard on those among us who cannot control their urges.

Now, Dante allowed for the greedy and avaricious a circle much higher in his scheme, but these men are not only greedy, they are greedy at a time when there is widespread starvation and the planet is in danger of irreparable harm from the determined attempts of men such as these to line their pockets no matter the cost. And they are more than treacherous since their greed tends to the destruction not only of their country but also of our world. Thus, they must share the tenth circle with those who pile lie upon lie in order to have their way and who spread hatred and fear wherever they go. But, then, it’s not a small circle. There is plenty of room for growing numbers of folks who share the worldview of these stunted and purblind men.

Black Friday

[I am re-blogging my annual rant. Sad to say it seems to be getting worse with stores now opening on Thanksgiving Day and putting decorations up as early as Halloween. 

The headline read “Woman pepper sprays other Black Friday shoppers.” In an effort to have a better chance to get at the cheap electronics Walmart was using as a lure to get shoppers jump-started this holiday season, a woman pepper sprayed about 20 customers who were in her way. Except for the talking heads on Fox News who think this is perfectly acceptable behavior, everyone is in a dither —  but for many of the wrong reasons. Out-of-control shoppers are a worry, but the whole marketing ploy that increasingly encroaches on Thanksgiving and Halloween is the larger problem.

We do live in a commodified culture, as Robert Heilbroner told us many years ago, but our values are clearly out of kilter when money and the things that money can buy become the main focus of an entire nation. If we take a commodified culture preoccupied with possession of things, combine it with an immense advertising machine that works buyers into a frenzy prior to Thanksgiving, it is no wonder that things like this happen. We shouldn’t be surprised; clearly things are out of focus when money becomes the center of one’s life. Citizens who bother to go to the voting booth any more are there to turn around a weak economy. That has been the rule for some time now: vote out the bastards who are taking money out of my pocket. The real issues, like spread of nuclear weapons and the damage we are doing to the environment in our tizzy to raise our already obscenely high standard of living, are largely ignored.

Christmas should, of course, be a time for reflection and thought about others. In this country, and other “developed” countries around the world, it has become a time to get that 30% of the yearly profits that keep the engines of commerce running. It is understandable, since business has become the cornerstone of our culture. But is it necessary to point out that the ideals of business are antithetical to the ideals of the one whose birth we celebrate next month? The fact that a woman in California would pepper-spray her way to the cheap electronics in Walmart is simply a sign of the times and a clear indication that we need to rethink our priorities.

Pioneer Parable

In 1823 James Fenimore Cooper wrote The Pioneers, the first of what came to be called his “Leatherstocking Tales.” The story features the aging Natty Bumpo, a white man more at home in the forest with his Mohican friend Chingachgook than in what was loosely called “civilization.” Cooper tends toward the Romantic and glorifies the native people somewhat, but his tales are one of the first serious attempts by an American intellectual to deal with the problems of an expanding white population and its effects on the wilderness and the native people.

James Fenimore Cooper (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

James Fenimore Cooper (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

In a fairly lengthy episode in The Pioneers Cooper describes an annual fishing assault by the people of the fictional village Templeton, New York located on the very edge of the wilderness. I call it an assault because it is described that way by Cooper who draws a fascinating contrast between the way the white inhabitants of Templeton net the fish by the thousands and the way Bumpo, accompanied by his native friend, catch their fish. After the eager citizens of Templeton have pulled their straining net to land and unloaded an estimated two thousand fish which they plan to pass around to the villagers, Marmaduke Temple, the founder of Templeton and one of the main characters in the novel, confronts his daughter Elizabeth holding “a bass that might have weighed two pounds, and, after viewing it a moment, in a melancholy musing, [says] ‘This is a fearful expenditure of the choicest gifts of Providence. These fish, Bess, which thou seest lying in such piles before thee . . . by tomorrow evening, will be rejected food on the meanest table in Templeton.'”

Elizabeth worries about the waste, since she knows it is not possible for the villagers to eat all of the fish. Most will rot or be eaten by the wild animals. Marmaduke sympathizes with his daughter briefly and then joins the other villagers in their attempt to make a second haul!  As the scene is drawn before us we see in the dwindling light Natty Bumpo appear in a canoe with his friend Chingachgook as they cruise the lake quietly and Natty calmly spears several fish which he plans to take back with him. Marmaduke and the others upon seeing him offer him some of their fish: “Approach, Mohican. . . approach leatherstocking, and load your canoe with the bass. It would be a shame to assail the animals with the spear when such multitudes of victims lie here that will be lost as food for the want of mouths to consume them.” Natty turns him down, “I eat of no man’s wasty ways. I strike my spear into the eels or the trout when I crave the creatures, but I wouldn’t be helping myself to such a sinful kind of fishing for the best rifle that was ever brought out from the old countries…”

As is so often the case with Cooper’s tales — which were widely read in England and Europe and had a powerful effect on people like Thackeray and even George Eliot — the author has crafted a parable for our times. We can work past the romantically exaggerated picture of the “noble savage” and we will find in the end a tale that tells us a great deal about ourselves, things we may not want to recognize or admit are true. Cooper was one of the first to see clearly the damage we could do to the environment and the wilderness in our voracious attempt to get as much from the earth as possible in the shortest amount of time.

Black Friday

[I am headed to Minneapolis to spend Thanksgiving with my son and his family. So I am copping out by re-blogging a post I wrote last year. When you’ve seen one Black Friday you’ve pretty much seen them all — except that the Walmart employees have threatened to strike this year and that will hopefully reduce attacks from pepper spray!]

The headline read “Woman pepper sprays other Black Friday shoppers.” In an effort to have a better chance to get at the cheap electronics Walmart was using as a lure to get shoppers jump-started this holiday season, a woman pepper sprayed about 20 customers who were in her way. Except for the talking heads on Fox News who think this is perfectly acceptable behavior, everyone is in a dither —  but for many of the wrong reasons. Out-of-control shoppers are a worry, but the whole marketing ploy that increasingly encroaches on Thanksgiving is the larger problem.

We do live in a commodified culture, as Robert Heilbroner told us many years ago, but our values are clearly out of kilter when money and the things that money can buy become the main focus of an entire nation. If we take a commodified culture preoccupied with owning things, combine it with an immense advertising machine that works buyers into a frenzy prior to Thanksgiving, it is no wonder that things like this happen. We shouldn’t be surprised; clearly things are out of focus. Citizens who bother to go to the voting booth any more are there to turn around a weak economy. That has been the rule for some time now: vote out the bastards who are taking money out of my pocket. The real issues, like the damage we are doing to the environment in our tizzy to raise our already obscenely high standard of living, are largely ignored.

Christmas should, of course, be a time for reflection and thought about others. In this country, and other “developed” countries around the world, it has become a time to get that 20% of the yearly profits that keep the engines of commerce running. It is understandable, since business has become the cornerstone of our culture. But is it necessary to point out that the ideals of business are antithetical to the ideals of the one whose birth we celebrate next month? The fact that a woman in California would pepper-spray her way to the cheap electronics in Walmart is simply a sign of the times and a clear indication that we need to rethink our priorities.