George Eliot: A Tribute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Seeing Things

Lionel Trilling was primarily a critic though he wrote one novel which is quite remarkable and makes the reader wish he had written more. It is a political novel about the 1930s when intellectuals around the country and the world were flirting with Communism — the idealistic version that demanded that private property be eliminated and all are treated truly equally (a truly Christian ideal, surely). It was hardly the view that soon became a harsh reality and Trilling is dealing with the clash between ideas and reality. It is a stunning piece of work and reveals to us the writer’s acute grasp of the nuances of human behavior and his astonishing awareness of the things around him. It is in this latter regard that I want to take a peek at one small passage midway through the novel that reveals what I m talking about.

The hero, John Laskell, is visiting some friends in Connecticut after a near-death experience, trying to recover in the peace and quiet of the Connecticut countryside. He is staying at the home of a Mrs. Folger and while sitting and admiring her collection of tea cups the narrator tells us:

“Laskell looked again at the cups. Sitting with Mrs. Folger over her precious pieces of china, taking pleasure in the objects and seeing life in them, Laskell was happy in the mild relationship with this worn, elderly women who was so far removed from his usual existence. As he sat in the dim, damp dining room he had a strong emotion about the life in objects, the shapes that people make and admire, the life in the pauses in activity in which nothing is said but in which the commonplace speaks out with a mild, reassuring force.”

In itself, this passage is not remarkable. But in its way it shows how the author is in tune with his surroundings, how much he sees of what he is living with, and how this makes him happy. Note how Laskell’s attention is directed outwards, away from himself. This is not about Laskell; it is about the tea-cup and what it “means.” It’s the world around him, the little things that make him happy. I find this remarkable because, with the exception perhaps of an occasional artist hiding out in Ecuador, we seem to have lost this ability, the ability to see things around us. And we don’t appear to be terribly happy.

I was reminded of the incident recounted by Nathaniel Shaler regarding his initial encounter with the naturalist Louis Aggassiz who “taught him how to see.” Aggassiz handed him a fish and told him to look at it and write down what he saw. After week of studying the specimen Shaler came up with a list of a dozen or so properties and handed the list to Aggassiz who handed the list back to him and told him, to look again.  “. . . in another week of ten hours a day labor” Aggassiz was finally satisfied.

The point is that there is so much around us that we miss in our preoccupation with ourselves and our petty lives — and our electronic toys. So many of us simply don’t see.

I am also reminded of the truly remarkable descriptions written by Edith Wharton who lived in the early part of the last century and loved to travel. This was the age of the early cameras when things had to be standing still to be photographed and she preferred to write down what she saw. She wrote several travelogues that are extraordinary in their detail and liveliness. Her descriptive powers were well beyond the ordinary — so far beyond that they would stand alone as testimony of her exceptional writing skills if it were not for her novels which are filled with similar descriptions as well as profound observations of those around her and the ideas and practices that were found by her to be worthy of comment. It is her novels that folks connect with her name, though another great writer, Wallace Stegner, later paid tribute to Wharton’s exceptional descriptive abilities.

But one would have to journey far to find better lyrical qualities and descriptive powers that Trilling himself as we can see from this brief passage:

“The air was filled with the perpetual sound of crickets, the sound of summer that speaks of summer’s end. It spoke of this now to Laskell, as it always had, ever since boyhood, with its pleasant melancholy of things ending, a conscious and noble melancholy leading to hope and the promise of things to come, of things beginning, all the liveliness of autumn, of new starts, the renewed expectation that, this year, one’s personal character would learn the perfect simplicity one wished it to have.”

But that was then, 1945 and before. This is now, and as I have suggested we seem to have lost the ability to see and to reflect on what we see means in the grand scheme of things. Granted, these were exceptional people with exceptional skills, but where do we find such people today (outside of Ecuador)? And how many of us look around us and see the beauty and weigh the details of an ordinary tea-cup or the sounds of the crickets and think about what they mean and how many things they suggest to the careful observer? It is precisely those things, those seemingly trivial things, that may be the secret to human happiness if only we bothered to take the time to look.

In the end I am reminded, once again, of the group of teenagers sitting in the museum before Rembrandt’s Night Watch staring at the iPhones clutched in their hands, totally unaware of the beauty just a few feet away. It says so much about us and about how much of the world we are blind to.

Our Way

I am reblogging a post from several years ago that makes the point I was trying to make in my last post in a slightly different — and more effective — way.

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 or manage a spot on a daytime TV show 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 Sigmund 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, and narrator of this story. 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 explosion, 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. Repression does result in neuroses, but there never was a time when humans were completely free of those — even caused early-on in history by numerous tribal taboos. Freud 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 “sublimating,” i.e., 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 beloved grandmother’s. But we are also aware of the fact that she has 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.

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.

Self-Destruction

History has recorded a number of civilizations that have committed suicide. One of the theories about the collapse of the pre-Columbian Maya, for example, is that they destroyed the forests that surrounded them and also sustained them. When the forests were gone, the people died out or were largely absorbed by other cultures.

Wallace Stegner wrote a most interesting book about his years as a child on the Canada/U.S. border which includes fascinating historical, geological, and geographical information. It also focuses on the plight of the plains Indians who peopled that area for so many years, especially toward the end of the Indian wars when many tribes sought sanctuary in Canada from the avowed American policy of extermination. Despite the fact that the Americans practiced genocide on a grand scale, Stegner makes a good case that the Indians themselves contributed to their own downfall by destroying the environment that sustained them — by killing off the buffalo, for example. Granted, they had considerable assistance in this destruction from buffalo hunters and white “sportsmen.” But native practices such as driving whole herds of buffalo off the edge of cliffs, coupled with such common practices as having each member of a hunting party of the métis killing six or eight buffalo “from which his women would take the tongues and hump ribs and leave the rest, even the hides,” most assuredly helped bring the end to thousands of Indians themselves. As Stegner points out, the men surveying the Canadian/U.S. border witnessed this sort of mindless slaughter and working their way “across the arid cactus plain . . . pushed through the carrion stink of a way of life recklessly destroying itself.” In a word, history repeatedly shows us humans bent on self-destruction, destroying the environment that sustains them. Does this sound familiar? Consider some of the things we have done to ourselves just this past year alone, in a year when the planet experienced record-high temperatures and human populations continued to spiral out of control:

At present 4 out of 10 power plants in this country have no advanced emissions controls despite EPA limits on such emissions.

Canada pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol to protect its burgeoning tar sands oil developments.

Russian government documents revealed that the country spills 5 million tons of oil a year — equivalent to seven Deepwater Horizon disasters annually. Shell Oil, in the meantime, spilled 13,400 gallons of gasoline and drilling fluid into the Gulf of Mexico  and more than 100 times as much oil off the coast of Nigeria. Despite this, the Obama administration approved Shell’s plan to drill for oil in the Arctic.

Worldwide emissions of carbon dioxide rose by 5.9 percent last year, the largest jump in any year since the start of the industrial revolution.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that the United States suffered a record dozen climate disasters causing damages of $1 billion or more each.

Arnold Toynbee, in his remarkable Study of History examined 21 separate civilizations he marked out from the beginnings of recorded history, 16 of which have disappeared. He determined that there are definite rhythms that recur in each of those civilizations and that the disappearance of each followed definite causes — many of them self-inflicted. One of the major causes, according to Toynbee, is the fact that “a challenge arises which the civilization in question fails to meet.”  Toynbee’s own conclusion was that our civilization is showing definite signs of deterioration and it can be saved only by recovering “the use of a spiritual faculty which we have been doing our utmost to sterilize.” Whether or not we agree with Toynbee, it is clear that we currently face innumerable challenges and the failure to meet those challenges can be catastrophic. Meeting them begins with awareness. And this begins by reading history and learning from our past mistakes and the mistakes of past civilizations that have come and gone — in many cases as a result of their own fixation on immediate needs with no thought for tomorrow.

Philosopher King

In his Republic, Plato imagines a utopian state with a philosopher king running the show. My students always scoffed at this because, of course, Plato was himself a philosopher. But the point was that a man* who knew what the common good was would be the best person to run the political state. In today’s political climate that idea would never take hold. We don’t even talk about the common good anymore.

Next to Abraham Lincoln, the closest we ever came to a philosopher king was late in the nineteenth century when John Wesley Powell was running the General Land Office in charge of the Irrigation Survey that was established by Congress to determine how the waters of the West were to be distributed. Powell was not an elected official, but he had an immense budget and carte blanche from the Congress to survey all lands west of the 100th meridian, public or private. He was for a brief period the most powerful man in this country. But his power made people suspicious and he soon had enemies who saw to it that his budget was cut and his power base in Congress eliminated.

Wallace Stegner wrote about Powell in 1952 and his account is part history and part fiction. But it makes for fascinating reading. What interests me most is the fact that Powell was  a man who strongly believed in the common good, was suspicious of the land-grabbing that was going on after the Homestead Act was passed, and worried that sod-busters would soon discover that the sod they busted was dry and would produce no new crops. This, of course, happened, but not until Powell was no longer able to help. He was done in by the land-grabbers, the greedy, and the short-term thinking of the majority of people around him, including the politicians who were in the pocket of the wealthy. He wanted to take a scientific approach to land stewardship and ward off future calamities like the Johnstown Flood and prepare for long periods of drouth, as  occurred over a ten-year period in the late 1800s, and again in the 1930s. His goals, according to Stegner, were disinterested: “relieving and preventing agricultural distress, extending scientific government aid to farmers, and protecting small landholders against monopolistic practices and the inequalities or inadequacies of the laws.”

He was a man of vision who was committed to the common good. He had no interest in self-aggrandizement (according to Stegner) and never took advantage of his immense power. In a word, he was an anomaly, and Plato would have been proud of him. But he found no home in a democracy dominated by capitalistic greed where people, goaded on by myth-makers like William Gilpin, bought into the “American dream” of vast plains of rich earth that would produce bountiful crops year after year while the people who watched over them grew fat and wealthy. They wanted to be left alone to have-at the land and make it pay — ignoring the fact that there was a very good chance they would fail.

It’s a lesson for us all. Short-term thinking resulted in throwing out Powell’s goal to map the region and plan reservoirs to guarantee water supplies well into the future. Instead, the very thing he feared took place: corporations and wealthy individuals grabbed the land at the headwaters and saw to it that they commanded the water rights downstream where yeoman farmers, depending on less than 20 inches of rain a year, saw their fields dry up and yield nothing but sand. The result was thousands of homesteaders whose dreams were shattered by the greed and avarice of narrow self-interest. Steps were taken later to remedy the situation, but by that time it was a matter of crisis-management. And Powell was dead.

Both Plato and Aristotle insisted that self-interest was the single most serious problem facing political bodies. Every possible form of political constitution if it is to be successful depends on disinterested people who can see the larger canvas. That’s why Plato wanted philosopher kings. Aristotle, on the other hand, wanted men who exhibited political virtue, men of common sense and sound political wisdom who could see beyond themselves and their own personal gains. People like John Wesley Powell who, like Cassandra, saw his warnings fall on ears deafened by the imagined sound of gold coming into their coffers.

* (or woman; Plato allowed that there might be female philosopher kings!)

Unmitigated Tragedy

As is the case with many of the words we bandy about these days, we tend to misuse the term “tragedy.” We think that if the running back gets a nasty hit and tears his ACL it’s a tragedy. It may simply be terribly sad. We don’t distinguish between pathos and tragedy. The Greeks thought tragedy arises from the conflict between a wrong that is also right and a right that is also wrong — like Antigone’s dilemma when faced with Creon’s prohibition against burying her brother. You can’t win for losing. Ultimately, somehow, tragedies affirmed the rightness of the universe, a cosmic harmony where wrongs are punished and humans learned by suffering from their mistakes. The evil that they commit is due largely to their overweening pride, or hubris, and they get what they deserved.

Shakespeare pushed the envelope a bit, suggesting that tragedy arises from within human hearts resulting in evil on a scale that defies explanation — not just from simple blunders, but from thoroughly wicked motives, from minds that are deeply disturbed or, perhaps, deeply troubled. There is also the sense in Shakespeare that tragedies are frequently undeserved. This sense of the word is reflected in tragedies like Hamlet, Macbeth and, especially King Lear.

My thesis adviser at Northwestern, Eliseo Vivas, agreed with Shakespeare. He thought there were “unmitigated” tragedies, those that simply could not be explained away.  King Lear, for example, showed us human beings, like Lear’s “dog daughters” Goneril and Regan, who are fundamentally and irreducibly evil. One cannot explain it away on grounds of pop psychology/sociology, or even the machinations of the depth psychologist. They are simply evil. And they are representative of whole groups of people who are simply no damned good — no matter how you look at it. Unmitigated tragedies occur every day and they cannot be explained away.

Wallace Stegner sensed the same thing and wrote a powerful, if disturbing, novel entitled All The Little Live Things about a fascinating young woman who loved life and affirmed her enthusiasm for every living thing, but who died an awful death when cancer worked its way into her liver and kidneys, killing both her and the unborn child within her. That, thought Stegner, is pure evil, and it cannot be explained away as some sort of human mistake.  But let him tell it:

“. . .how random and indiscriminate [evil] is, think how helplessly we must submit, think how impossible it is to control or direct it. Think how often beauty and delicacy and grace are choked out by weeds. Think how endless and dubious is the progress from weed to flower.. . .Think of the force of life, yes, but think of the component of darkness in it. One of the things that’s in the [mother’s] milk is the promise of pain and death.” 

Stegner quotes William Wordsworth in the front pages of his novel: “Oh Sir! the good die first,/And they whose hearts are dry as summer dust/ Burn to the socket.”

Stegner’s heroine is in her early 30s and pregnant. She desperately hopes the baby will be born before she herself dies. So she refuses any treatments that will prolong her own life and threaten the child within her. In the end she also refuses pain killers on the same grounds. She hopes that her child will live, but in doing so dies a gruesome death and her child is born, “a blob of blue flesh that moved a little, and bleated weakly, and died.” There is good in this world, and real beauty. But there is also ugliness and ineluctable evil. Unmitigated tragedy.

One who is able to take the leap of faith, like Dostoevsky’s Father Zosima, can somehow embrace the absurdity of human existence. He takes the leap with love and hope — and an anguished heart, because he knows evil is real and cannot be explained away. But he still believes. For the rest of us we are left with doubt, uncertainty, and bitterness when we read or hear about the death of an innocent child or a loving adult. We demand an explanation that makes sense to us. But we cannot find one. The person of true faith, who has taken the leap, doesn’t ask. He simply accepts.

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.”

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.