Ladies and Gentlemen

Tennis has always been a large part of my life and while I cannot play any more I watch as much as I can on the television and especially look forward to Wimbledon (“The Championships”) every year at this time. Having played on grass only once in my life and thinking at the time I had died and gone to Heaven,  I watch with dismay as the back-court area turns to dirt and the beautiful grass gradually disappears; I recall another era when the path between the baseline and the service line became worn down with players serving and volleying, chasing every serve quickly to the next. But no more. With the new equipment, it has become fairly easy to pass someone going to the net, so the vast majority of players stay on the baseline and hit the ball as hard as they can — often with good effect — and make the grass disappear.

I also watch with dismay players such as the young Australian I watched recently (who will not be named) with pierced ears and artfully shaven head who prowled the court with a permanent scowl — while he wasn’t “tanking” the entire third set — and was cheered on by his entourage (I suppose) all dressed in yellow shirts with “AUS” printed on them. They, too, looked like something the cat dragged out from under the sofa. The players all wear white, as required, but that’s the only remnant of the “old days” when ladies and gentlemen seldom, if ever, resorted to histrionics and who played the game for a trophy and not for millions of dollars. (Uh oh, I hear some say. Here he goes again. And yes, here I go again.)

I have blogged about the demise of manners before and I will not go back there except to expand on something I wrote a couple of years ago about this sad phenomenon — sad because manners are all about being mindful of the other, and it has become abundantly clear that the other has dropped off the radar of increasing numbers of folks in the Western world — perhaps because there are so damn many of us. Anyway, here’s the clip (with additions):

As humans emerged from the “dark ages” they began to show greater interest in their behavior toward others. It began with courtly behavior and the recognition of our “betters.” But it expanded in important ways as we learned to control our emotions. It was an essential element in what Norbert Elias called “the civilizing process.” In 1530, for example, we find Erasmus admonishing folks to be “reasonable, courteous and respectful in word or gesture.” One of my favorites was his insistence that “it is impolite to greet anyone who is urinating or defecating . . . A well-bred person should always avoid exposing without necessity those parts to which nature has attached modesty.” These concerns were coupled with admonitions not to be like “the rustics who have not been to court or lived among refined and honorable people, [and who] relieve themselves without shame or reserve in front of ladies….”

These quaint recommendations strike us as funny, but, again, they are directed toward the goal of “civilizing” human beings, making them suitable for a life among others. As Elias would have it, manners were born as humans living together became increasingly aware that their own behavior must take into account the feelings of others,  restraining oneself “out of consideration for the embarrassment of others.” Ortega y Gasset once said “civilization is above all else the will to live in common,” which captures the same thought.

In and of themselves a lack of courtesy and poor manners are trifles. But as signs of something deeper they must give us pause. I simply point out that when I speak about “manners” and “courtesy” as signs of a civilized person, I do not refer to the superficial behavior, the pretense, the bowing and scraping, the obsequiousness that hides a rotting soul. These are mere formalities and they do not necessarily imply the recognition of one person by another. Rather, I speak about a deeper sense on the part of each person that others matter, a sense of the other that leads readily to true virtue, to the practice of what has been called “the Golden rule.” Being polite is just the beginning of doing the right thing by another who deserves respect and at times sympathy.

The fact that we are becoming increasingly uncivilized, that we care less about others or about living with others — except, perhaps, for those few who are in our narrow field of vision — is a sign of what I have called “inverted consciousness.” Let me explain. Consciousness, as Edmund Husserl reminds us, is always intentional — it has an object; gradually over the years our consciousness has turned upon itself and the subject itself has become the object. In plain words, “it’s now all about me.” The other has disappeared, for all practical purposes, and so one can behave boorishly on a tennis court, chant and cheer loudly when the opponent commits an error, and forget all about court etiquette, or, indeed, etiquette of any sort. This, of course, is a reaction to past behaviors which a Victorian age, wrapped in mere formalities, stressed to absurd lengths and which we have tossed on the rubbish heap along with the all-important sense of the other as worthy of respect. This in the name of “letting it all hang out.”  Next I suppose we can expect to see our neighbor urinating on the road or in his front yard. No, wait: I have already seen that! But I didn’t greet him while he was in the act. As Erasmus reminds us, it would have been impolite.

Let It All Hang Out

We pride ourselves on being open and honest about our most private lives. We think ourselves superior to the Victorians, with all their hangups, their unwillingness to discuss sex or to see one another naked. We have been taught by every pop psychologist who can find anyone to listen that we must let it all hang out to be healthy: it’s not good to repress our feelings. Though they may never have read him, these people are playing fast and loose with some of the ideas of Freud who knew whereof he spoke. But it is no more clear that these ideas are truly Freudian than it is that we are any healthier than the Victorians, for all our “honesty” about sex and the widespread display of naked bodies on the TV and movie screens. Wallace Stegner, who has a way of asking troublesome questions, wrote about this and presents us with an interesting set of questions.

In his Pulitzer-winning novel, Angle of Repose, his hero is writing a history of the marriage between his grandmother and her husband, whom he greatly admires. His grandmother was an unadulterated Victorian woman, a lady, and one who bore all the burdens of womanhood in an age when women were supposed to be handmaids to their husbands — a situation that has come under severe scrutiny from the feminists among us. In his novel, Stegner also presents us with a young, liberated woman named Shelly Rasmussen, who helps the wheelchair-ridden narrator in his attempts to gather material for his history and get it ready for him to work with. Shelly is in her early 20’s and has already had a failed relationship with an “acid-head” who has forced her to flee back to her parents where she finds work with Lyman Ward, historian. While musing about one of the chapters Ward has written about his grandmother, Shelly admonishes him for being prudish about his grandmother’s sex life. If this “history” is largely a novel, why not juice it up and make it more interesting, instead of turning out the lights just when things get interesting? Ward muses:

 “I felt like asking her, if contemporary sexual attitudes are so much healthier than Grandmother’s, how Grandmother managed to get through a marriage that lasted more than sixty years, while Shelly Rasmussen hides out in her parents’ house at the age of twenty or so to escape the attentions of her liberated and natural lover.”

Stegner’s novel was written in the early 1970s, soon after the radical movement had blown the top off pretense and restraint, as one might say, and started “telling it like it is.”  Stegner may be reeling somewhat from the aftershock of that experience, but his questions still seem bothersome many years later: are we really better off for all our “honesty”? We have been told we are, but it is not all that obvious.

Freud, of course, never said we should let it all hang out, and if we were leaning on Freud for our psychological insights, instead of a bevy of pop-followers, we would learn that civilization presupposes repression, or at the very least, sublimation, in order to provide us with the many benefits we so much take for granted. It does result in neuroses, but there never was a time when humans were completely free of those — caused early on by numerous tribal taboos. He knew all about repression, and he borrowed Nietzsche’s notion of sublimation to instruct us about the mechanism that makes creativity and real progress possible — the redirecting of creative energy outward. It’s not all about “letting it all hang out,” it’s all about being honest with ourselves and acknowledging those things that inhibit us, facing up to them, and redirecting our energies in productive ways.

Lyman Ward sits imprisoned in his wheelchair in almost constant pain, looking at a picture of his grandmother on the wall, a face that reflects “discipline, self-control, modesty. . ” Then he notes Shelly Rasmussen sprawled on the floor, disheveled, unkempt, bra-less and full of rage, letting it all hang out — literally and metaphorically. Readers are aware not only of the stinging things this young woman says to an elderly, retired professor of history who is racked with pain, grilling him and critiquing his book and his prudery as well as his grandmother’s. But we are also struck by the fact that she would have the audacity to do so in the first place. Without a doubt, we are less civilized than the Victorians; we live such shallow lives. We are asked by Stegner to question whether we are happier.

Victorian Values

The two major forces that brought the Victorian age to an end were industrial capitalism and the demise of the Christian religion after the First World War, the “war to end all wars.” What lies at the heart of this struggle for survival of the paramount Victorian values, as we see it working its way out in the conflict between the social classes in England at the time, and in the expansion of suffrage, is the struggle between Self and Other: which is to be paramount? Victorian intellectuals, such as Anthony Trollope, were greatly alarmed by the coming of the steam engine and the rapid changes it entailed. Among other things, it meant the displacement of birth and privilege by wealth. This was disturbing because for the Victorians birth and privilege implied duties on the part of the landed gentry to those of lower social standing, those upon whom life itself depended and who were assumed to be in need of guidance.  And while there were abuses of this responsibility (as George Eliot showed in Adam Bede)  in large measure the landed gentry cared about their dependents and saw their own good tied up with those who depended upon them. We get a glimpse of this in the recent popular TV show on PBS, Downton Abbey. It was by no means clear that the new, wealthy landowners in the provinces, many of whom had moved from the large cities as they acquired wealth, would feel the same obligations to those who worked for them.

As capitalism grew by leaps and bounds and wealth changed hands from the “well-born” to the nouveau riche, power also changed hands. It was a painful process, as those who saw their power and prestige slipping away regretted the sudden appearance of those “middle-class upstarts who want to rank with gentlemen, and think they’ll do it with kid gloves and new furniture,”  as Rev. John Lingon remarked in Eliot’s Felix Holt: The Radical.  Anthony Trollope, like his contemporary, William Makepeace Thackeray, saw the issue clearly, as he struggled for years trying to determine what exactly makes a “gentleman”;  whether the term could be said to apply in an age of increasing wealth and prestige among the lower and  middle classes, given the corrupting effects of money, especially upon men who had never had much. In a remarkable passage in Trollope’s The Three Clerks, the narrator tells us that one of the three clerks, hovering between virtue and vice, is learning what there is to know about

“the great utility, one may almost say the necessity, of having command of money; he was beginning  also to perceive that money was not a thing to be judged by the ordinary rules which govern a man’s conduct. In other matters it behooves a gentleman to be open, aboveboard, liberal, and true; good-natured, generous, confiding, self-denying, doing unto others as he would wish that others would do unto him; but in the acquirement and use of money – that is, its use with the object of acquiring more, its use in the usurer’s sense – his practice should be exactly the reverse: he should be close, secret, exacting, given to concealment, not over troubled by scruples; suspicious, without sympathies, self-devoted, and always doing to others exactly that which he is on guard to prevent them doing unto him – viz., making money by them.”

To simplify somewhat, then, we can say that the growth of industrialism and capitalism and the accumulation of great wealth in the hands of the few helped promote the sense of self-importance we see so prevalent today along with the desire on the part of the majority to imitate the wealthy and identify success and happiness with wealth and position rather than the obligations we have toward others and the desire to make the world a better place. The Victorian era had its many problems, to be sure, but when we rejected its values we seem to have thrown out the baby with the bath water.

A New York Minute

I thoroughly enjoy reading Sports Illustrated and have done for years. It is well written, timely, and insightful. I nearly always find food for thought as I am interested in sports and the numerous scandals that surround professional sports that I have myself written about and which SI always covers in depth. In the most recent issue, the editor holds forth on the short attention span of the American sporting public. No sooner have we experienced Tibomania than we are bored and move on to Linmania, which lasts until Jeremy Lin has a couple of bad games. This is assuredly true, though the exception is the sporting public’s fascination with Tiger Woods. But this exception simply proves the general rule. The editorial also provided the following gem, which has larger implications:

“Our culture moves at warp speed, no question, the weekly or even daily news cycle long since replaced by an up-to-the-second Twitter feed or Facebook update. We said goodbye to thoughtful consideration the day we moved over to microwave popcorn — because who could possibly wait for the stove-top variety. That’s our reality.”

The phrase I want to focus on is “we said goodbye to thoughtful consideration…” That does seem to sum up one of the salient facts about our culture. Not only do we have a short attention span that requires snippets rather than lengthy explanations, we also want our news to be entertaining and we also cannot stay focused on the latest sensation long enough to savor it fully. That is a shame. And it says a lot about us as a people. Teachers are finding it out about their pupils in the classroom and newspaper editors are finding it out about their shrinking readership. We want what we want in small, easily digested thought-bites and we want it now. We don’t relish the uncertainty of anticipation even though it increases delight. We cannot focus on an issue long enough to probe its depths and discover its hidden meanings. In a word, we cannot pause and think about things because our attention is brief and shallow.

It has been known for some time that kids need “down time,” a time when nothing is scheduled and they can simply be by themselves with nothing particular to do. I have always felt that adults need that as well, though I have never seen anyone make this claim. I know I prize my down time — which the Greeks called “leisure” and put a high price upon. It is a time when a person can be most creative, most productive. I find it in abundance as a retired person in the small town I am lucky enough to live in, where I am out of the “loop” and the world seems to go by in slow-motion. But not everyone is as lucky, and things seem to happen to most of us in too much of a hurry for us to assimilate what is going on. Thus frenzy replaces leisure. And this is the problem.

One of the things Victorian writers like George Eliot and Anthony Trollope worried about with the coming of the steam engine in the nineteenth century was precisely this: the pace of life would now becomes so fast that we would no longer have time to digest what is happening to us, to thoroughly enjoy the moment and discover what it really means. These writers never imagined the jet age, of course, and were not around to see the microwave replace the oven. But they knew what they were talking about. We have become a “me-here-now” culture that demands immediate satisfaction and doesn’t have time to stop and think. Furthermore, we don’t seem to be able to imagine the consequences of our actions or plan ahead. Our focus on the immediate present seems to have cost us our imagination, though part of that loss must be attributable to a media industry that is prone to overkill. In any event, we have  indeed “said goodbye to thoughtful consideration.” The payoff is predictable: anxiety blended with mistakes resulting from lack of foresight. These are certainly two of the most obvious symptoms of our age.

Let It All Hang Out.

We pride ourselves on being open and honest about our most private lives. We think ourselves superior to the Victorians, with all their hangups, their unwillingness to discuss sex or to see one another naked. We have been taught by every pop psychologist who can set pen to paper that we must let it all hang out to be healthy: it’s not good to repress our feelings. Though they may never have read him, these people are playing fast and loose with some of the ideas of Freud who knew whereof he spoke. But it is no more clear that these ideas are truly Freudian than it is that we are any healthier than the Victorians, for all our “honesty” about sex and the widespread display of naked bodies on the TV and movie screens. Wallace Stegner, who has a way of asking troublesome questions, wrote about this and presents us with an interesting set of questions.

In his Pulitzer-winning novel, Angle of Repose, his hero is writing a history of the marriage between his grandmother and her husband, whom he greatly admires. His grandmother was an unadulterated Victorian woman, a lady, and one who bore all the burdens of womanhood in an age when women were supposed to be handmaids to their husbands — a quality that has come under severe scrutiny from the feminists among us. In his novel, Stegner also presents us with a young, liberated woman named Shelly Rasmussen, who helps the wheelchair-ridden narrator in his attempts to gather material for his history and get it ready for him to work with. Shelly is in her early 20’s and has already had a failed relationship with an “acid-head” who has forced her to flee back to her parents where she finds work with Lyman Ward, historian. While musing about one of the chapters Ward has written about his grandmother, Shelly admonishes him for being prudish about his grandmother’s sex life. If this “history” is largely a novel, why not juice it up and make it more interesting, instead of turning out the lights just when things get interesting? Ward muses:

“I felt like asking her, if contemporary sexual attitudes are so much healthier than Grandmother’s, how Grandmother managed to get through a marriage that lasted more than sixty years, while Shelly Rasmussen hides out in her parents’ house at the age of twenty or so to escape the attentions of her liberated and natural lover.”

Stegner’s novel was written in the early 1970s, soon after the radical movement had blown the top off pretense and restraint, as one might say, and started “telling it like it is.”  Stegner may be reeling somewhat from the aftershock of that experience, but his questions still seem bothersome many years later: are we really better off for all our “honesty”? We have been told we are, but it is not all that obvious.

Freud, of course, never said we should let it all hang out, and if we were leaning on Freud for our psychological insights, instead of a bevy of pop-followers who may never have read the man’s works, we would learn that civilization presupposes repression, or at the very least, sublimation, in order to provide us with the many benefits we so much take for granted. It does result in neuroses, but there never was a time when humans were completely free of those — caused early-on by numerous tribal taboos. He knew all about repression, and he borrowed Nietzsche’s notion of sublimation to instruct us about the mechanism that makes creativity and real progress possible. It’s not all about “letting it all hang out,” it’s all about being honest with ourselves and acknowledging those things that inhibit us, facing up to them, and redirecting our energies in productive ways.

Lyman Ward sits imprisoned in his wheelchair in almost constant pain, looking at a picture of his grandmother on the wall, a face that reflects “discipline, self-control, modesty. . ” Then he notes Shelly Rasmussen sprawled on the floor, disheveled, unkempt, bra-less and full of rage, letting it all hang out — literally and metaphorically. Readers are aware not only of the stinging things this young woman says to an elderly, retired professor of history who is racked with pain, grilling him and critiquing his book and his prudery as well as his grandmother’s. But we are also aware of the fact that she would have the audacity to do so in the first place. Without a doubt, we are less civilized than the Victorians; we live such shallow lives. We are asked by Stegner to question whether we are happier.