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.

Worldly Wise

Is it possible that women are wiser than men? I ask in all seriousness. Two of the wisest people I have ever encountered (through their writings) are George Eliot and Edith Wharton, both women, needless to say. I ask this while noting that I have read all the philosophers, the “lovers of wisdom,” from Thales to the most recent lover of hair-splitting. Most of the philosophers I have read are brilliant and well worth the effort of pondering the depths they ask us to explore with them. I have learned a great deal and have grown along the way. But with thinkers like Eliot and Wharton I feel as though I have entered another world.

Bear in mind that George Eliot was recognized in her day as a brilliant writer and also a very wise woman. People wrote to her with their problems and expected her to be able to suggest possible solutions. Her novels are full of psychological insight and penetrating observations about the human condition. She was indeed a wise woman. The same can be said for Edith Wharton, though she is seldom mentioned in the same breath as Eliot, despite the fact that she was the first woman to win a Pulitzer for her remarkable novel Age of Innocence. Her novels are rich with insight and spot-on observations — not to mention just plain common sense (which so many men seem to lack).

I am re-reading Wharton’s The Fruit of the Tree, an overlooked novel that has within it all the worldly wisdom one could hope to uncover — along with philosophical problems to tax the deepest mind. She has a way with words, no doubt, and her descriptions are second to none — and were said to inspire such writers as Wallace Stegner. In addition to novels she wrote travelogues at a time when the camera was in its infancy and those who wanted to convey the beauty of what they saw had to use words — a talent that has been too long lost and was rare to begin with.

In The Fruit of the Tree Wharton tells us of a man who marries a wealthy woman in order to join with her to revolutionize the industry where he had once worked as an Assistant Manager — and which she had inherited when her first husband died. They were very much in love, so they thought, and both saw the terrible conditions the workers had to endure in order to scrape together a living while their bosses thought only of the ways they could increase profits. In its day this was heresy as America was going through its Horatio Alger phase and many thought only of how they could get rich. Few worried about the exploited souls who made their wealth possible. And while the novel centers around the struggle of the couple to make the employees’ working conditions, not to say living conditions, more humane, their fragile marriage begins to tear apart. This brings Wharton to such issues as euthanasia and infidelity. The novel has it all!

A few of the insightful comments Wharton makes along the way are worth quoting.

“The disappearance of the old familiar contact between master and man seemed to him one of the great wrongs of the new industrial situation. That the breach must be farther widened by the ultimate substitution of the stock-company for the individual employer — a fact obvious to any student of economic tendencies — presented to [the hero’s] mind one of the most painful problems in the scheme of social readjustment.”

“He had forgotten, too, that the swift apprehension of suffering in others is as much the result of training as the immediate perception of beauty. Both perceptions may be inborn, but if they are not they can only be developed through the discipline of experience.”

“But his demands, moderate as they were, assumed in his hearers the consciousness of a moral claim superior to the obligation of making one’s business ‘pay’ . . . .”

“But it seemed to her that they missed the poetry of their situation, transacting their pleasures with the dreary method and shortness of the view of a race tethered to the ledger.”

“She could not conceive of shutting herself into a little citadel of personal well-being while the great tides of existence rolled unheeded outside. . . .as human nature is constituted it has to find it’s real self — the self to be interested in — outside of what we conventionally call ‘self.'”

As I ponder those comments and recall why it is we read well-written novels it does occur to me that there are a few men who have also written profound words and have shown brilliance and penetrating insight, even worldly wisdom. I hasten to mention Fyodor Dostoevsky and Joseph Conrad as two of my favorites. Perhaps it’s not that Wharton and Elliot were women but that they were novelists. Perhaps. But I still wonder if the women don’t have a corner on worldly wisdom and common sense.

Highly Specialized

In the spirit of sharing what went before and hoping that the topic is still relevant I post here a previous effort from many, many years ago.

I am reading a history of early Rome that is well done but painstakingly detailed and slow reading. It’s title is Through The Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 A.D. Yes, that’s just the title. The book is by Peter Brown an Emeritus Professor of History at Princeton. Not long ago I was wading through another history book, The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787 by Gordon Wood. I never made it through Wood’s book even though I am downright compulsive about finishing books I have started to read. The book is ponderous, provides much more detail than I require, and is not well written. So I gave up on it. The Peter Brown book, on the other hand, exhibits better writing and was recommended by a friend, so I will probably work my way through the 530 pages (with 200 pages of notes and index, which I will skip). It reminds me of the fact that we suffer from over-specialization in this country.

The phenomenon results in books written by professionals in the field for other professionals — I dare say historians would appreciate the details and copious notes in both of these books. I speak here of history, but the same thing can be said of books in other disciplines (reading philosophy is like swimming through glue). Even novels are now written by writers who seem to be writing for other writers, not for the average reader who just wants a good read. The novel has to be clever and in the latest postmodern fashion.

Music is composed that can only be appreciated by professional musicians. For the rest of us it sounds like a cat with its tail caught in the car door. Much art has become specialized as well as artists experiment with their media and try to discover new ways to say the same old things. This is not such a bad thing in the plastic arts, since they are more readily appreciated by the unsophisticated viewer and new ways of seeing things can be exciting. The plastic arts may survive the trend toward overspecialization, though there is always the lunatic fringe who create works that can be appreciated only by others on the lunatic fringe — like those artists who place a urinal in the museum on the grounds that it is “art.” In so many of the arts sophistication has become the key to appreciation.

In any event, the phenomenon of overspecialization has infiltrated our colleges and universities where there are now specializations within specializations. As Michael Polanyi said 60 years ago,

“. . .it is a rare mathematician, we are told, who fully understands more than half a dozen out of fifty papers presented at a mathematical congress.” 

And that was then! This has resulted in a hodge-podge undergraduate “education” where students take bits and pieces of this and that until something strikes their fancy or someone convinces them that they can find work in that field when they graduate — or they have decided going in that they will become physicians or CPAs and they stay on track for their entire undergraduate years and get trained but not educated. Neither of these alternatives amounts to a coherent education that broadens as well as deepens perspective. But that’s what we seem to be stuck with as the specialists, separated as they are from one another by discipline — and often by geographical location on campus — don’t (can’t?) talk to one another and cannot come to any sort of agreement about what kinds of things make for a defensible undergraduate education. From the faculty’s perspective, it’s all about protecting their turf. The student is victim though she doesn’t know it.

And the rest of us suffer as well when we want to know a bit about the history of humankind and we are faced with ponderous books that are deep in detail and shallow in writing skill and readability. The curious layman (and student) has been forgotten in this age of specialization where walls between schools of thought cannot be conquered even by the most determined climber.

Who Should Vote?

As the election nears — you can smell it a mile away! — I thought it appropriate to repost a piece I wrote two years ago that deals with the question of whether or not everyone should “get out and vote.” The push will soon be on, and there are solid reasons this year, especially, to get folks off their butts and into the voting booths (where, we will hope, all will be Kosher). To be sure, the vote this November may determine whether or not this Republic is capable of being saved! But there remains the question about the qualifications that ought to be demanded of those who determine the folks that are given the reins of power in this country. And that question is worth pondering.

The British fought with the issue of suffrage for much of the nineteenth century. How many people should be allowed to vote? It seems such a simple question, but it has numerous ramifications, twists, and convolutions. At the outset, when this nation was first founded, we followed the British example: men with property can vote, but no one else. The idea was that men with property had a vested interest in what their government did or didn’t do. It seemed to make sense. But like the English, we also fought with the issue of extending the suffrage.

One of the best sources to read about this issue, oddly enough, is novel by George Eliot: Felix Holt The Radical. It focuses close attention on the issue of extending the vote in Great Britain to many who were disenfranchised at the time. But the key issue, which the hero brings into sharp focus, is why the vote should be extended to the illiterate and unpropertied (the question of extending the vote to women was shelved until later!). Leaving aside the issue of ownership of property, the question is central to any meaningful discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of democracy. After all, why should those who cannot read and write, who cannot possibly become well informed about the issues of the day, be placed in a position to vote on those who make laws? In Eliot’s novel, Holt takes the “radical”position that all male citizens would be allowed to vote, since everyone has a vested interest in the laws his government passes, whereas his conservative opponents argue the contrary position: only those with the demonstrated ability to understand the issues should be allowed to vote on those who will decide the fate of the nation. As Eliot has one of her Tory clergymen say in the novel:

“There’s no end to the mischief done by these busy prating men. They make the ignorant multitude the judges of the largest questions, both political and religious, till we shall soon have no institution left that is not on a level with the comprehension of a huckster or a drayman. There can be nothing more retrograde — losing all the results of civilization, all the lessons of Providence — letting the windlass run down after men have been turning at it painfully for generations. If the instructed are not to judge for the uninstructed, why, let us set Dick Stubbs to make the almanacs and have a President of the Royal Society elected by universal suffrage.”

In this country we insist upon testing those from other countries who wish to become citizens, but we allow that any child born in the United States can vote upon coming of age, regardless of any other qualifications. In days long gone by, young people growing up in this country took a civics class as a normal part of their high school curriculum in which they learned about the machinations of the government — or at least how many Senators each state has. But no more. In fact, many high schools have gone away from any requirements whatever and allow the students to select most if not all of the courses they want for the four years they are within their hallowed halls. Civics is no longer taught and as result, the young not only do not know how to read and write, they know nothing whatever about the history of their own country or how the government works — the government that they will help select when coming of age.

The situation is complex, but the issues it raises are worth pondering at a time when the democratic system we are all so fond of is beginning to show signs of breaking down. It becomes more and more apparent each day that large numbers of disaffected people simply don’t want to have anything to do with politics (for  good reasons, in many cases) and that by default the wealthy who have hidden agendas are placed in a position to “call the shots.” This hardly amounts to a democratic system; as I have noted in past comments, it is more like an oligarchy, government of the wealthy.

The problem of suffrage, therefore, gives birth to the interesting question whether everyone should vote and if so what qualification they should have, if any. As things now stand, in the interest of –what? — equality, we allow anyone at all to vote as long as they were born in this country and are of age or have passed their citizen’s test. That, in itself, is a problem. But added to it is the thought that despite the fact that it is so easy to vote (too easy?), more and more choose not to do so or vote based on the promises, soon to be broken, of some clown who has no qualifications for office at all.

Motion Sickness

Have you ever thought about how much is going on around us all the time — filling our eyes and ears? There is constant motion and noise. It’s so much a part of our world we scarcely notice it, though in our cities it never stops: the air planes taking off and landing, the police and ambulance sirens, the cars and trucks on the Interstates, and the hub-bub of constant people noise. It never stops. Even in rural areas there are the barking dogs, the trains and motorcycles, loud pickups and kids’ cars with their modified mufflers, and the occasional crop duster roaring in the distance. Noise.

And if you watch TV for a while without paying attention to what is on you will notice that it now consists of thousands of quick shots from various angles — a frantic download of pictures in constant agitation. It jars the nerves and rattles the brain. It can’t be good, though I am not aware of any studies to help us understand what this constant noise and movement does to our nervous system.

I am not talking about the actual events portrayed on the television or reported in our papers and on the radio. That is enough to chill the bones — especially these days with “false news” and lie after lie trying to scare the bejesus out of us. But I speak about the constant agitation. As I say, it can’t be good.

Lionel Trilling wrote an essay in 1976 about a class he was putting together at Columbia University on the novels of Jane Austen. He wanted the class to be small, about 20 students, but over a hundred signed up! He culled the group and managed to reduce the number to 40, but he was astonished that so many students would want to read an author who wrote novels so long ago. He thought about it and concluded it was because in Austen’s day “there were more trees than people.” This was a cute way to get across the point that those young people were tired of all the noise and agitation (even in 1976!) and wanted to retreat to a calmer and quieter world, the world of Jane Austen. Austen lived between 1775 and 1817. She wrote most of her novels in the early part of the nineteenth century.

A generation later George Eliot (who was born two years after Austen’s death and was the wisest of women) could already express her exasperation over the noise and agitation that was growing around her. Between Austen and Elliot the Industrial Revolution had burst forth in all its glory, noise, and pollution — visual, nasal, and aural! One of my favorite passages in Eliot’s novels is the following in which she expresses her own feelings about the coming of the “machine in the garden,” as it has been called. She pined for a time 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.”

There is no way we can turn back the clock. And as I have noted in previous posts, I would not want to do so (for the most part). But there was a time when people took things slowly and had time to reflect and enjoy the world around them. Things took time; that was just a fact of life. As things stand at present we are always in a hurry and are surrounded by noise pollution and constant visual agitation, as noted. Ours is a hectic world and one in which we cannot find time to simply relax and enjoy the beauty of the world around us. For the most part, the world won’t let us: it obtrudes. But even when it does let us escape, when we retreat to a quiet nook away from the noise and agitation, we take our electronic toys with us in order to listen to our tunes and to make sure we don’t miss out on anything important — like the latest photo on our phones of our friend’s evening meal or the cute trick by her pet poodle. Important stuff.

Eliot was right. Things happen too fast and furiously and it is not good for the soul. We need to “take a nap” every now and again, get away from it all — and I mean ALL — and think about the many good and beautiful things that surround us. And forget the noise and agitation and especially forget the folks that seem to be running the show these days who simply add to the noise and agitation without making our world even a little bit better.

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?

 

“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.

Much To Learn

I attach here a brief post I wrote some time ago that helps fill the void created by my taking time to collect these posts and ready them for publication in book form.

LEARNING FROM GREAT POETS
I admit I am one of these odd people who thinks we can learn a great deal not only from history but also from great literature. There are many, of course, who would deny that there is any such thing as “great” literature — just literature that some like and others do not. But I agree with Robert Persig, who wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in which he said that “quality” is one of those things no one can define, but everyone recognizes it when they see it. Greatness is like that.
For example, all sports fans recognize the great athlete. They are rare and stand out above the others. We may not know what it is that sets them apart, but they jump out at us. We might quibble about who was the greatest tennis player, football player, or basketball player. But we know who the great ones were. Great literature is like that. It stands out and commands our attention — if we are well read enough to know what to look for: exceptional writing and insight into the human condition.
I recently came upon a passage in E.M. Forster’s The Longest Journey that helps me make my case. Forster is a poet in the true sense of that term: he creates with words. His creations happen to take the form of novels. This novel is one of those that tells a story, but which also makes us stop and think. In that novel we find the following passage:

“the city [Salisbury] has strayed out of her own plain, climbed up her slopes, and tumbled over them in ugly cataracts of brick. The cataracts are still short, and doubtless they meet or create some commercial need. But instead of looking towards the cathedral, as all the city should, they look outwards at a pagan entrenchment, as the city should not. They neglect the poise of the earth, and the sentiments she has decreed. They are the modern spirit.”

The stunner, of course, is in the final sentence. Forster is pointing to the human tendency — which has grown stronger since he wrote his novels — to put itself in opposition to the earth, to ignore its “sentiments,” and demand that it satisfy human cravings.
Farmers sit in their eight-wheel tractors polluting the air and ripping into the soil in the Fall of the year to expose the dark topsoil to the eroding Winter winds; miners tear apart the earth and leave it exposed as they look for spoils beneath its surface; deforestation leaves the earth bare and parched and unable to provide future growth; we use millions of gallons of water to take precious oil from deep beneath the earth and burn it up in our gas-guzzling automobiles and trucks; we topple trees and cover the exposed earth with concrete parking lots and malls so we can shop for goods we don’t really need; and so it goes. In so many ways we do, indeed, “neglect the poise of the earth.” If we ever knew what stewardship meant, we have forgotten it in our haste to beat the world into submission to our will, to meet our endless demands, and continue to provide nourishment for growing human populations.
Forster’s passing remark strikes chords and makes us pause and reflect. That is a mark of great poetry.

Total Depravity

In a deleted chapter of Dostoevsky’s Demons he describes a visit between Nicolai Stavrogin and Tikhon, a holy man. Pevear and Volokhonsky include it as an appendix to their  700 page translation of that remarkable novel. In that missing chapter Nicolai hands to Tikhon a 30 page epistle, a confession, he wrote to help him clarify in his own mind the sort of person he is and the kinds of things that give him pleasure. He is a sensualist, as Dostoevsky would describe him, a man dedicated to getting as much pleasure as he can, perverse pleasure, from his own suffering and the suffering of those around him. He is, in a word, a masochist and a sadist — a man with a dark soul. In his confession he recounts a series of truly disturbing incidents he brought about when he was at the height of his search for pleasure.

At the time he was renting three separate apartments to which he brought various partners for sex and whatever else might delight him. At one of those places his apartment faced onto the landlady’s apartment and he spent a good deal of time watching what was going on in her rooms and became strangely attracted to the lady’s fourteen year old daughter, Matryosha. The landlady beat the girl on a regular basis, frequently for no reason whatever and often with Nicolai watching. And she seemed to enjoy the fact that Nicolai was watching as she did so. At one point Nicolai lost his penknife and mentioned it to the landlady who immediately reasoned that her daughter must have stolen it as the three of them were the only ones home at the time. She took a switch and was determined to beat the poor girl when Nicolai spotted the knife on his bed. He pocketed the knife and said nothing and then watched as the woman beat the girl until welts appeared and the girl whimpered pathetically. He then smiled, locked his door and went elsewhere, throwing his knife away as he went. Nicolai later seduced the girl after which she hanged herself.

Now, for whatever reason, Dostoevsky chose not to include this chapter in the final version of the book. Like many such stories it is quite possible it came from an incident related in the papers that the novelist read daily and from which he took many of the episodes in his numerous novels. In any event, whether this incident is pure fiction or is based on actual events I would argue that what Nicolai did was wrong. I would be judgmental, if you will, and I would hasten to condemn his actions and those of anyone else who repeated such actions or others even somewhat similar. What the man did was cruel and sadistic, depraved. He was wrong.

I think I could provide reasons, if required, for making this judgment, reasons involving the inflicting of pain on innocent persons, the rape of a young girl, the violation of the ethical principles of honesty and respect for persons. In any event, I don’t regard my judgment as simply my personal opinion. It’s not just a gut-reaction, though there is that. In ethics, moreover, there are many such situations in which a moral judgment seems to be sound and capable of defense. In that regard, ethical judgments are not altogether different from the judgments we make about ordinary things and events every day. They can be supported and verified by means of persuasive arguments and the eliciting of known facts or accepted truths about the world.  We make a mistake when we lump all ethical judgments together and dismiss them as mere opinions or ask “who’s to say?”

The same reasoning applies in the case of judgments about ethical values such as generosity and compassion, courage, and honesty. We judge these things to be good just as we would judge the actions of Nicolai to be wrong (to put it mildly). Values are present in our world, as I have noted many (too many?) times. And so also are the opposite, dis-values, if you will, as exhibited in the chapter that Dostoevsky wisely chose to erase from his novel. They surround the events and objects that are part of our shared world and they provide the grounds for making judgments about those events or objects, judgments that can be well-reasoned or wrong-headed. We can never be certain, but we certainly can, and we do, make ethical judgments.

In sum, though at times times strong feelings may be involved, the notion that ethics is based on the subject’s feelings and opinions alone is simplistic and ignores the fact that many such judgments are based on factual information and ethical principles that we all take for granted and which make civilization possible. If there were no such principles we would be in a state of nature in which, as Thomas Hobbes would have it, life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” This would be a world, I imagine, in which no one would bother to notice, much less comment upon, the sorts of things people like Nicolai Stavrogin choose to do to himself or to others. Is it possible that this is what we are coming to? I sometimes wonder.

Conrad’s Art

I take it as given that Joseph Conrad was a consummate artist. He worked at his craft devotedly and somewhat self-consciously. An excess of self-consciousness would have flawed the finished product which, in my view, was seldom if ever flawed. The artist must know when to “let go” and let his or her work have its head. Conrad knew. His novels are beautifully written and filled with insights into the human condition, powerful images, and flowing prose. It beggars belief that this man was writing in his third language — after his native Polish and, later, French. He was convinced that English allowed him to better express the subtleties of language and evoke the most powerful images.

Take the following brief descriptions as an example — selected almost at random from Conrad’s novel Chance:

“As often happens after a grey daybreak the sun had risen in a warm and glorious splendor above the smooth immense gleam of the enlarged estuary. Wisps of mist floated like trails of luminous dust, and in the dazzling reflections of water and vapor, the shores had the murky, semi-transparent darkness of shadows cast mysteriously from below.”

And again:

“It was in the trade winds, at night, under a velvety, bespangled sky, a great multitude of stars watching the shadows of the sea gleaming mysteriously in the wake of the ship; while the leisurely swishing of the water to leeward was like a drowsy comment on her progress.”

Or, finally:

“The night of the town with its strings of lights, rigid, and crossed like a net of flames thrown over the somber immensity of walls, closed round him, with its artificial brilliance overhung by an emphatic blackness, its unnatural animation of a restless, overdriven humanity.

Art requires imagination, not only on the part of the artist, but also of the spectator. Fully appreciating art requires of the spectator a suspension of the critical, discursive faculties and the willingness to embrace the work on its own terms. Conrad worked very hard to present in his novels hints and suggestions that pointed just beyond the words themselves and which demanded of his reader an effort, a willingness to engage the work fully in its own terms. Some have characterized his works as “impressionistic.” As Conrad himself tells us:

“[The artist] speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain: to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation — and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts  in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity — the dead to the living and the living to the unborn. . . .

“All art appeals primarily to the senses, and the artistic aim when expressing itself in written words must also make its appeal through the senses, if its high desire is to reach the secret springs of emotion. . . . My task, which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all else, to make you see. That — and no more, and it is everything.”

Art cannot be translated. It must be met on its own ground. And to the extent that we are unwilling to make the effort and open ourselves to the wonders that art can make available to us our world shrinks and diminishes. When we mistake mere entertainment for true art, demand that we be allowed to remain passive while the work dulls our senses, we move farther away from that which has the capacity to open to us a world we will otherwise remain blind to throughout our lives. The artist works in three-dimensions and we ignore his or her work at the risk of reducing our world to two dimensions and missing out on what might otherwise allow us to grow and to see and feel things that we must otherwise completely miss.

This is why we read. This is why we listen carefully to music. This is why we visit galleries and concert halls and witness the elegance of human bodies in motion. Conrad knew whereof he spoke, and he spoke of writing as only one of many forms of art. As we gradually become less and less willing to make the effort his words will fall on the ears of increasing numbers of people who will simply not know whereof he speaks. Because, above all else, engaging art fully requires an effort of imagination and in our modern world imagination is held in low esteem, art is regarded as frivolous, we are reluctant to expend effort, and we settle increasingly for mere entertainment as our senses become slowly but surely dulled and our world shrinks accordingly.