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.

Tolstoy As Artist

Leo Tolstoy, the author of Anna Karenina and War and Peace, once said in an essay on aesthetics that the Bible was the greatest work of literary art ever written. He was wrong. The Bible is a truly remarkable piece of literature, but it is not art at all. It is the opposite of art: it is pure didacticism. It is designed to teach, whereas art is designed to delight. We engage didactic works with our intellect, we engage works of art with our imagination and our heart.  William Gass saw this clearly, and he should know as he is not only a philosopher who writes readable essays (which sets him apart), he is also an author of novels and short stories. He once insisted that when novels succeed as art they don’t tell, they show. Theirs is not discursive language, the language of the philosopher or the psychologist, it is metaphorical and poetic; the novelist seeks to present characters and events in their full presentational immediacy, as much as possible.  Gass provides a most apt example from Shakespeare:

“Hamlet, Horatio, and Marcellus walk upon the castle platform awaiting midnight and Hamlet’s father’s ghost. Hamlet says, “The air bites shrewdly; it is very cold,: and Horatio answers, “It is a nipping and an eager air.” Hamlet and Horatio do not think of it as cold, simply. The dog of air’s around them, shrewd and eager, running at heels. The behavior of this dog is wittingly precise in their minds. It nags — shrewishly, wifelike. The air is acidulous, too, like sour wine. Hamlet and Horatio, furthermore, are aware of the physical quality of their words. Horatio not only develops Hamlet’s implicit figure, he concludes the exchange with the word that began it, and with sonorous sounds. The nature of the weather is conveyed to us with marvelous exactitude and ease, in remarks made by the way, far from the center of action, so that we find ourselves with knowledge of it in just the offhand way we would if, bent on meeting a king’ ghost, we too went through the sharp wind. Yet Hamlet’s second clause is useless. “The air bites shrewdly” is the clause that tells us everything. It is cold. The wind is out. The wind is alive, malevolent with wise jaws. The two clauses have a very close relation. The first is metaphorical, the second literal. Both are about the weather, but the one is art, the other not.”

In the case of Tolstoy — especially in War and Peace — the novelist  cannot resist the temptation to philosophize and engage in polemics and even criticism (usually of historians who regard the telling of history as a science), which detract from the novel considered as a work of art. Indeed, the second part of the Epilogue is a lengthy and somewhat dry philosophical treatise on power, history, and free will. Interesting though it is in many ways, it has no literary merit whatever. Tolstoy’s novel is also disconcertingly jingoistic and given to inaccuracies and contradictions. He seems at times to simply be musing. This makes the novel far too long, though it remains, on the whole, a great literary work and even a fine work of art. How is this possible?

It is possible because despite its many flaws, Tolstoy is insightful and a masterful wordsmith; he is no Shakespeare, but he is able to lean convincingly on historical events (and bend them to his purpose); provide precise and moving descriptions of events, places and people; portray his main characters with great sensitivity and care, including penetrating insights into human motivation and feeling; and, for the most part, allow the novel to have its head. When the man takes control, as he does on many occasions, the artist takes a back seat and the novel fails as art. The novel taken as a whole is a fascinating struggle between Tolstoy the man and Tolstoy the artist. But there are enough moments when the artist is in full control to judge the novel as a remarkable work of art — if one can say that the novelist ever truly controls the novel. And those  moments are full of beauty and passion, fully able to engage the reader on a visceral level as well on the level of imagination and intellect. When the man, Tolstoy, writes there is much to think about; when the artist takes pen in hand, the reader is touched on a deep, human level.

So, on balance, despite the fact that Tolstoy needed a good editor who could have shortened the 1200 page novel to about 800 pages and helped the author work out some of the blemishes, no editor could have done what the novelist himself did and that was to write a novel that is also a masterful work of literary art — in spite of the fact that Tolstoy himself didn’t seem to know what art is.

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!)

The Man And His Art

Many people avoid reading Fyodor Dostoevsky because they are put off by the Russian names. This is a shame, because he is one of the greatest writers of all time and some of his novels rank among the best the human mind has yet to come up with. In fact, no one less that Sigmund Freud said that The Brothers Karamazov, perhaps Dostoevsky’s best known novel, is the greatest novel ever written. Well, Freud would say that; it involves patricide, one of Freud’s favorite themes. But then many agree with Freud and so far as I know these critics don’t have any hidden psychological theories to confirm. Dostoevsky simply could write and his novels reveal a great deal of us to ourselves — perhaps more than we might choose to know — and about the world in which we live.

Great novels are not all about plot, to be sure. But if they were, many people would say  that Dostoevsky’s life is even more captivating than any of his novels. As a young man he dared to meet with some of his fellow students to discuss anarchistic ideas at a time when Russia was suffering from paranoia under the Czar and as the revolution was brewing beneath the calm surface of Russian life. He and his friends were caught, tried, and found guilty. He was sentenced to death and moments before the firing squad shot him dead he was pardoned by a “humane” Czar — a device apparently designed to turn Dostoevsky’s affections toward Mother Russia and away from revolutionary ideas.  The version of the story I read was that a soldier came riding up to the scene of the execution on his horse with a pardon in his hand just as the firing squad was taking aim. Whether this is true or not, and despite the fact that it had to be traumatic, the ploy may have worked, since the author became increasingly conservative in his later life — but not before he spent five years in Siberia in lieu of execution. He later wrote The House of The Dead expressing some of the horrors he himself experienced in prison. But this was not his only largely biographical novel: as I shall explain in a moment, he later wrote another one out of necessity.

After prison, perhaps as a result of the traumas he had suffered,  he became a compulsive gambler and also suffered from epilepsy. His gambling placed him in debt time after time and he lived from hand to mouth for many years as he developed his distinctive writing style and began writing short novels, exhibiting a fascination with odd psychological types and conditions, such as schizophrenia. His first novel, The Double, is about a man who gradually goes mad and one day goes to work to find himself already there! But Dostoevsky’s gambling placed him in the debt of his publishers who advanced him money on future publications until one crafty publisher gave him a large advance on the condition that he agree to sign over all his past and future works if he failed to meet a deadline to deliver a novel of roughly 200 pages by a specified date. He gambled away the advance and fell behind the writing of the novel until he realized that he couldn’t possibly meet the deadline as the novel he had started was becoming a major work, well over 200 pages. He hired a stenographer and dictated a shorter novel in the mornings which would meet the terms of his agreement with his publisher. His stenographer spent the afternoons writing up what he dictated in the mornings, as Dostoevsky spent those afternoons working on the longer novel — Crime and Punishment. He finished the shorter novel, called The Gambler (that other biographical novel mentioned above) in time to meet the terms of his agreement with his publisher. He then went on to finish the longer, and more important novel. He also fell in love with and married his stenographer and she managed to help him turn his life around. He no longer gambled and he had fewer and fewer epileptic fits. He also wrote four of his five greatest novels after this marriage, including The Brothers Karamazov.

So, despite the fact that his novels are extraordinary, there are those who would argue that his life was even more fascinating than his novels. It is certainly the case that his remarkable life revealed to him the dark sides of the human psyche — his own and others — and deepened his interest in the New Testament, human suffering, redemption, the problem of evil, human freedom, and the close relationship between love and hate. He was a remarkable man who was also an extraordinary writer who saw more clearly than most what was true and what is false about human existence. If you haven’t read any of his novels, you owe it to yourself to do so. Once you plunge in you will get used to the Russian names, and  if you don’t read Russian (!) those who do so agree that the best translations are the ones by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

Quixote As Poet

Miguel Cervantes was born in a small town near Madrid, Spain in 1547 and was, among other things, a soldier. He served with great valor and was shot in the chest and arm, leaving his left arm practically useless. He later spent five years as a captive in an Algerian prison where he pondered life and its many meanings. And, oh yes, he wrote Don Quixote which garnered him fame but little financial reward. The book was so popular that a bogus sequel was written by another author and Cervantes wrote the second part of his classic in order to make sure Quixote was dead in the end and another sequel would never appear!

As a result of Cervantes having been shot he seems to have longed for the day when men fought one another face-to-face — like knights-errant. Surely, this was at least part of the inspiration for his great novel. But another part of his inspiration was the coming of not only mechanized warfare, which he detested, but also the coming of machines, which he saw as impediments to the growth of the human spirit. Hence Quixote’s famous battle with the windmills.

Don Quixote was generally regarded as a madman. He saw things differently from other people and he was therefore dismissed as mad. It’s what we do. I prefer to think of him as a poet, since poets also see things differently from the rest of us and many times make us look again and see things we had missed before. Quixote does that again and again — especially alongside his practical, down-to-earth sidekick Sancho Panza who is like the rest of us and prefers to see things as they “really are.” But one of the things Cervantes’ novel demands is that we ask  just what on earth reality is. What is real?

When Quixote sees a barber plodding along on his donkey in the distance with his basin comfortably perched on his head it is clear, to Quixote, that the barber is a knight and he is wearing the helmet of Mambrino, the famous knight whom Quixote immediately decides to engage in battle. The barber sees Quixote coming at him at full gallop (well, as full a gallop as poor old Rocinante will allow) and flees in terror, leaving the basin behind. (Sorry, leaving the helmet behind him: the spoils of war, don’t you see?)

Rocinante (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Rocinante (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Sancho, of course, insists that the helmet is really a basin and this gives rise to one of the more colorful and provocative discussions between the two men in the entire novel. It goes on for many pages and is a delight to read. Is the item a basin or is it a helmet? After considerable discussion, Quixote finally addresses Sancho as follows:

“Do you know that I think, Sancho? I think that this famous piece of that enchanted helmet must by some strange accident have fallen into the hands of someone who did not know its worth and who, seeing that it was of the purest gold and not realizing what he was doing, must have melted down the other half for what he could get for it, while from the remaining portion he fashioned what appears, as you have said, to be a barber’s basin. Be that as it may: I recognize its value and the transformation that it has undergone makes no difference to me. . .”

And as Quixote later notes,

“. . .there are always a lot of enchanters going about among us, changing things and giving them a deceitful appearance, directing them as suits their fancy, depending upon whether they wish to favor or destroy us. So, this that appears to you as a barber’s basin is for me Mambrino’s helmet. . . .”

Quixote is not mad: he knows things look different to other people. But for poets things are not as they seem. It is for us to let discursive reason and logic take a hike every now and again and engage our imaginations so we can see the world in the many colors and shades of meaning that we tend to gloss over in the hurly-burly of everyday life. The poets and artists in our world take us for a ride if, and only if, we are able to suspend our sense of what is real for a moment and in the process we learn to see things anew and engage the world more fully. The item in Quixote’s possession is both a basin and a helmet. After all, the Don puts it on his head and it saves him later on from a barrage of stones thrown by an angry shepherd whose sheep Quixote “mistakes” for an army.

Silver Spoons and Such

Edith Wharton’s name has come up in previous blogs. She is one of my favorite writers, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Age of Innocence, and certainly one of the best writers this country has produced, male or female. She was born with the proverbial silver spoon in her mouth and spent most of her adult life telling folks how bad it tasted. In a word, many of her novels are satirical studies directed against the puffery of the very rich. As such, they have something important to tell us about those “successful” people who now run the country — you know, the infamous 1%. If Wharton is right, they took a wrong turn somewhere along the line and, despite what they may think, they live empty lives and are not really happy. I must say I tend to believe her: she does make a strong case.

In one of her lesser novels, Glimpses of the Moon, she tells about a young couple, Nick Lansing and Susy Branch, who decide to get married and then live off the wedding checks and invitations from their wealthy friends for as long as possible. They are attracted to one another by their shared honesty and the fact that they are both relatively poor and rely on wealthy friends to get by. The whole game starts out like a lark as the two think they are having a grand joke at their wealthy friends’ expense. The matter becomes complicated, however, when they find they really do love one another and during a prolonged separation following a major argument, they drift apart only to discover the falsehood of their own game, — and also the complete falsehood of the way of life they ridicule– to wit, lives immersed in great wealth.

Toward the end of the novel, as the scales are falling from Susy’s eyes, she agrees to sit for several months with the five children of one of her few remaining friends, a musician who is married to an artist and whose children turn out to be exceptional. As she gets to know the kids, she comes to know herself better. Like Wharton herself who organized relief for Belgian refugees during the First World War in France, her heroine finds herself by immersing herself in the lives of others. Susy comes to see more and more clearly how false is the make-believe world of the very rich. The kids are remarkable: they are bright and “their intelligence had been fed only on things worth caring for. . . good music, good books, and good talk had been their daily food, and if at times they stamped and roared and crashed about like children unblessed by such privileges, at others they shone with the light of poetry and spoke with the voice of wisdom.” As Susy comes to realize, the thing that makes these kids so unusual is the fact that all their lives they have been surrounded by beauty — and the honesty of their parents. As it happens, she finds herself not mothering the children but “being herself mothered, of taking her first steps in the life of immaterial values which had begun to seem so much more substantial than any she had known.”

As Wharton weaves the tale, it becomes clear that the heroine grows as Wharton herself did, from a spoiled child surrounded by the comfort and security of great wealth — with all its sham and pretense — to a life of clarity and truth where she comes to realize what really matters. She finds happiness not by looking for it, but by immersing herself in the lives of others, lives that demand that she come out of herself. Like Wharton, when she divorced her husband and turned her back on all the glitz, she was financially less well off. But in the only sense that matters she was truly richer.

When summarized, the tale sounds a bit corny, but when told by a writer of Wharton’s caliber who knows first-hand whereof she speaks, it has the ring of truth and conviction. It is a truth that must fall on deaf ears in this age of “me-first” where those among us crave material well-being and identify their happiness with the very things Wharton pilloried. But if we would only take the time to reflect we might discover a great truth in novels such as this. In addition to being a superb writer, Edith Wharton was an immensely wise woman.

The Ugly American

This blog will focus on a lengthy quote from Wallace Stegner’s novel A Shooting Star, which is not one of Stegner’s best novels. But, as with all his novels his descriptions are superb — second only, in my view, to Edith Wharton’s (an author Stegner obviously admired). In this novel most of his characters are thinly drawn. The exception is the main character, Sabrina Castro, who provides Stegner with a model of the narcissistic personality who discovers that she can only find herself by caring about others. But her brother, Oliver Hutchens, is something of an abstraction, the ugly American, the embodiment of all those qualities that we wish belonged to someone else.

Oliver is intent on making huge profits by taking land away from his elderly mother, even to the point of declaring her incompetent. He has actually made an agreement with developers to take possession of 400 acres of his mother’s land without her permission. This is one of the main intersections in the novel, and it brings about a rather dramatic interview between Oliver and his sister (who has her own problems). Sabrina, is reflecting on her brother’s character — or lack of it — and draws a vivid picture of the man and also of what that man represents. He is, indeed, the ugly American.

“Through the shadow of her headache and the lurk of her unresolved trouble she saw him as a rampant and impatient boy frantic at being balked from doing something momentarily more important than anything in the world. Probably he would wear out this building itch, and go on to something else, some new promotion, the way he went from sports cars to antique cars to water-skiing, to sky-diving, but meantime he would create consequences both physical and human. His kind never anticipated consequences. His was the kind that left eroded gulches and cutover timberlands and man-made deserts and jerry-built tracts that would turn into slums in less than a generation. They got awards from service clubs and resolutions of commendation from chambers of commerce. They denuded and uglified the earth in the name of progress, and when they lay on their deathbeds — or dropped from the massive coronary that the pace of their lives prepared for them — they were buried full of honors and rolling in wealth, and it never occurred to the people who honored them, any more than it had occurred to themselves, that they nearly always left the earth poorer and drearier for their having lived in it.”

Powerful stuff! I spoke in an earlier blog about the novelists who succumb to the temptation to wax philosophical, and this passage reads like an essay. It is discursive rather than poetic. Stegner tells rather than shows, a serious breach of the novelist’s code. One suspects that Stegner’s deep feelings about the earth and our antagonism toward it got the best of him for the moment. But it is a strong statement, however we want to classify it, and Stegner’s novels are filled with them. The man does get on his soap box from time to time, though for the most part he remains in firm control of himself and his material. But while I might applaud this passage, because it is powerfully written and makes a thought-provoking statement (which I happen to agree with!), I recognize that it flaws the novel somewhat as a work of art. Because such statements occur throughout this novel, I find it well worth reading, but recognize the fact that it is not as strong a poetic statement as either Angle of Repose, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize, or Crossing to Safety, which, in my view, is his best novel.

Stegner is above all else a masterful poet, but he is also a man of strong convictions. When these convictions show through in his novels, we might applaud or hiss, but we listen because they are so well stated. Whether these passages rise to the level of art or remain the author’s reflections, they wipe the fog away from our eyes and help us to see more clearly — or as Stegner would have it, to see “what it means to be human.”