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“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Difficult Reading in the Age of Narcissism

It’s hard to imagine amid all the commercial clamoring for our attention, with a mediascape in which impossibly attractive women routinely doff their clothes, and some will even have sex on camera, where the finest specimens of athletes, men (and increasingly women) who take innate gifts voyeurs on the other side of the screen can only fantasize about possessing to peaks probably new to the human race with the advent of nutritional and sports science, struggle against one another in dramatic skirmishes for stakes that dwarf our lifetime net worth—it’s hard to imagine with all this just a few clicks away that there could be anything worth wresting our attention away from the screen for, something worth exercising the discipline involved in actually directing our own attention, taking charge of what we might take the time to deliberately decide will be gratifying to a part of us deeper and more enduring than the flashy whims of any shallow and single-minded industry, no matter how adept that industry’s executives have grown over the last half decade at giving us no choice in the matter.

I’m reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse for the first time. It’s for a graduate course I’m taking on representations of the dead in literature. Though I read Mrs. Dalloway some years ago, I never bothered with Lighthouse because I knew Woolf used stream-of-consciousness narration and having slogged through Ulysses in my early twenties I was of the mindset that the technique was an experiment that failed outright. Maybe it’s because I’m a more mature reader; maybe it’s that Woolf takes greater care in orienting her readers within the flood of perceptions and emotional turmoil that is her characters’ inner lives than does Joyce or Faulkner in their ever-so-dense works in the same style. To the Lighthouse is exquisite. And every time I lose myself to the tide of impressions and the figurative estrangement of recognizable feelings I want to call everyone I know and insist they all read it. But then reality sets in and I begin sorting through the ranks of my acquaintances for that rare individual who has the patience and who has managed to develop the sensibility to appreciate such trifles.

Last night a friend texted me. He couldn’t recall the title of a book he’d read as a teenager, one he wanted to recommend to his daughter. Embarrassingly, I recognized the plot elements he used as clues, not from my own experience reading but from the TV miniseries the book had inspired. One more on my to-read list—there’ll never be a shortage. When I texted him back that I might check out the book when I was done with grad school and all the “heavy lifting” it called for, he confessed he was struggling with Crime and Punishment. “C n P,” I responded, “is on my to-read list too.” He can only take ten or so pages at time of the great masterpiece. And he takes frequent breaks with the likes of Tom Clancy. No shame in that, I thought; once in a while you have to take some guilty pleasure. World War Z anyone?

Empathy is on the wane in American youth. A meta-analysis led by Sara Konrath of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and published last August found that college students, whose scores on self-report tests have been steadily dropping over the past 30 years, have experienced a particularly dramatic decrease in concern for others just in the last decade. Thirty years ago coincides with the ascent of the radically individualistic ideology of the right in politics. But what has been going on in the past ten years to make the decline accelerate? Well, for one thing people are reading less fiction. Raymond Mar of York University in Toronto and his colleagues published research last year that showed how many stories preschoolers read is strongly associated with how well they understand the emotions of others, and the more fiction adults read the higher they score on those tests of empathy.

In the wake of consciousness-raising efforts like the documentary Supersize Me and the book Fast Food Nation, a culture of foodies has arisen and seems to be growing. The unfettered free market and the ideal of consumerism is bad for our health, it seems. We need to protect our children from marketing and preservatives. But the narcissism at the heart of our economic ideology—the me-first ethos, the trained impulse of what can it do for me now?—corrupts more than just our bodies. We don’t only require nutrition and exercise for our bodies; we need it for our minds as well, and the parts of our minds that have been wasting away in recent decades more than any others are the parts that allow us to direct our own attention rather than letting the TV tell us what’s important and the part that we as a species seven billion strong especially can’t let atrophy, the one that makes us aware not only of the people standing next to and around us but also of those people in Bangladesh who are losing their homes to rising sea levels, the people in Cambodia who go blind making the 2 dollar t-shirts we buy at Wal-Mart, the inner city kids our government can’t afford to keep healthy, much less educate, because they believe they must continue sniffing the farts of billionaires who we supposedly rely on to give us jobs but who in reality are employing the most wretched of Cambodians and paying them minuscule fractions of slave wages.

How to get our lazy asses off the couch of narcissism and instant gratification, to whip our minds that have been turned to mush courtesy of Kim Kardashian and Michael Vick (some role models for empathy those two) into shape for the sake of each other? As an English teacher, I think I need to take some personal responsibility on this front. There are some basic techniques that can be applied to reading fiction, even difficult fiction, that can make it more accessible and more gratifying. First—and I’m addressing this to my colleagues in the department—completely ban from your mind, at least on first reading, anything you’ve ever learned about literary theory. Most of these theories can easily be shown to lack validity, and people were enjoying fiction long before they were thought up by the cranks who sponsor them. Concentrate instead on the characters and the language. Good writers give us all the clues we need into what kind of people they’re writing about, and our feelings toward these people are what lies at the heart of our appreciation of their stories. Rather than stand back and try to decode the story as if it were some type of puzzle, allow yourself to connect with or hate the characters—or both, as the best ones never let you quite decide—based on what they do in the story. As an example of this, I knew I wanted Llewelyn Moss in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men to escape when he went back to the caldera to bring the dying Mexican drug runner some water. That’s a guy you can feel for. That's a guy who would feel for you.

But a lot of great stories don’t involve the type of fireworks you find in McCarthy or Palahniuk. Nor should they. Most of what are considered literary writers focus on the types of experiences common to us all, only they explore them with uncommon language. This isn’t done for the sake of being impressive; it’s done to make us see these experiences anew—or to encourage us to see them at all, so prone are we anymore to discount them, never even think about them, because we’re busy watching the game or attending to The Situation.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

First Impressions: Freedom by Jonathan Frazen

The characters in Freedom are educated and aware, introspective and thoughtful. The pleasure of reading about them is similar to that of hanging out with people who you have a lot in common with but who are just a bit older. You see in their struggles and their wanderings some of what your own future might hold in store. But you have the advantage of these forebears making mistakes you can be sure to avoid. Walter Berglund devotes his time and his thinking to conservation and getting out the message that overpopulation endangers everything we hold dear. Meanwhile, Richard Katz can’t manage any such lofty ideals and so goes about his life playing rock shows—at least until he and his band actually become successful, at which point music loses its luster—and fucking women young and old alike, as much out of contempt as lust. Then there’s Patty Berglund, who was prescient enough to marry Walter, but human enough to pine for a good fucking by Richard. At the beginning, Richard seems to possess a distanced wisdom, Walter seems absentminded and sexually clueless, and Patty comes across as a basket case. But Richard comes to seem more and more pathetic compared to Walter, who I for one found myself rooting for even though what I was rooting for most was for him to drop his feminist compunctions and throw some woman down to have his way with her. The dilemma at the heart of this triangle is that freedom—the freedom to choose a life, a mate, a purpose—is not the unqualified boon that Americans tend to make it out to be. An abundance of freedom can be its own form of oppression.

Each of characters is eminently sympathetic, even the rock star who gets laid all the time but feels he can’t compete with his passive-aggressively nice environmental lawyer friend. Most charming of all is the way their bemoaning of young people’s self-absorption betrays their own. All Patty can think of is her own unmet womanly needs. Richard’s cynicism serves as a warrant for his parasitism. And even Walter, so obsessed with the world’s population, wrestles with his intense desire to have a third child. They’re the type of intensely wrought characters in a dense novel that you find yourself inadvertently analyzing in the wakeful hours of the late night and early morning. It is the tendency of fiction to exaggerate the individual differences between people. And if I have one criticism of Franzen’s work it’s that his characters are too perfectly defined by their individual tragic flaw and too perfectly complementary in how their personalities conflict with one another. People surely do contrast themselves with siblings and college roommates, embrace and heighten the differences for a pleasing sense of individuality, and seek to prove the superiority of their chosen ways. But it is not only possible, I’d wager, but completely natural for those niches and those rivalries to dissolve over time and with distance. Identity is more a matter of narratives told by others about us, or by us about ourselves, than it is of fixed boundaries between personalities.

Franzen does give a nod to this wrinkle in conventional notions authenticity, most intriguingly when he has Richard witness a younger musician “performing authenticity.” If we can perform ourselves, if it’s an act of will and one designed to entertain, seduce, or market, what does that mean about identity—especially when the performance really is genuinely our own? So far, Freedom hasn’t done much more than bring up the question even as the characters overwhelm the disturbing ramifications by being so consistently and frustratingly themselves.

Upon finishing: By page 561, I found myself bracing for a slog every time I picked up the book. Not everyone can be Saul Bellow, but Franzen's prose is excessively weighted with an unshakeable tone of resignation--this is how it happened, this is how things are, and so this is how the story must be told. The characters, for the most part, develop in gratifying ways. But there is a sameness that takes hold about half way through the novel that becomes as oppressive as the character's freedom to embrace their tragic flaws.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Church of Capitalism and the Hunt for Welfare Witches

When you’re inside an awe-inspiring cathedral, listening to a booming sermon alongside hundreds of congregants, you’re very likely not assessing the ideas resonating down from the impossibly high, vaulted ceiling on their merits. The robustness of the tradition serves as its own proof, forestalling any sustained questioning. Spend an equal amount of time in a temple or a mosque, though, or doing ethnographic research with a hunting-and-gathering tribe in sub-Saharan Africa, and questions about the nature of religion and the validity of any one tradition become unavoidable. We shore up what begin as naked ideas by dressing them up in physical trappings and by surrounding ourselves with likeminded peers. We seek evidence of our ideas in the real world, pretend finding it is serendipitous, put assertions of the ideas to music in mystical settings that inspire us to undeniably real and profound experiences, which we then turn from side to side to witness others experiencing. We build our lives up from the foundations of these simple ideas, like the grand cathedrals, and so questioning them is out of the question. Doubting thus becomes a perversity.

Voltaire captured the essence of why the tribal impulses manifested in religion must be kept in check when he wrote, “He who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” Religions have a catastrophic tendency to undermine their own tenets of compassion and humility by dehumanizing those with competing traditions. But it’s not just the Church of Rome or Islam that poses an existential threat to our global population of seven billion. Just as Christ’s exemplary empathy is so often drowned out by the confused swirl of idiocy that is Christian tradition, the beneficial effects of free markets have been reified into a worldly idolatry that serves to contravene free thought while it goes about debasing growing numbers of its devotees at the feet of dynastic heirs whose wealth makes for its own breed of apotheosis. The Church of Capitalism, the attribution of supreme beneficence and supernatural powers to the blind mechanisms of free markets, has established its tradition nowhere on earth as strongly as in the United States. Heaven has been replaced with the high life, hell with dehumanizing poverty. But at the core of both Christianity and Capitalism is the myth of free will, the absurd overestimation of the individual’s powers of self-determination. We don’t object to the state of the damned in hell because we believe they belong there. They chose to be there. We rather take pride in our own virtuousness, which is evidenced by our being materially better off. But what if the bad choices are preceded, or even precipitated by the poverty? To pose the question is perverse.

Our inherent tribalism has us organizing ourselves into competing groups and arranging even those within our own group according to hierarchical rankings based on who best exemplifies the ideals which set us apart from the outside groups. In the Church of Capitalism successful entrepreneurs, small business owners who create the jobs which grow the economy and the conservative politicians who clear the road for them of regulatory hurdles and disincentivizing taxes are the analogs of Hindu Brahmins. Who are the pariahs, the untouchables? The analogy fails for Americans because for us the idea of hereditary castes is appalling—people are only what they make of themselves. We revile those at the base of our hierarchy for the conscious choices they make. They choose to cash in on the folly of politicians and academics with bleeding hearts. They choose to compound their poverty by having more children because they make the shrewd but unconscionable calculation that more kids will earn them more government largess. They choose to sell their dignity for the food stamps and welfare checks heretical progressives are so outrageously wrong to offer them. So our pariahs are worse than those in other religions because they suffer their abjection by their own choosing.

Throughout history and all over the world, poor people have more children. Social scientists refer to the change from illiterate agrarianism to educated civilization as the demographic transition. The claim that welfare causes impoverished women to have more children is based on profound ignorance. Women have lots of children when they’re poor and uneducated. They have fewer when they’re better schooled and better off. For those of us in The Church of Science and Humanism, the biggest problem the global community faces is not slowed economic growth; it’s exponential population growth. But if we can agree that something needs to be done about our welfare witches, finding a way to educate them is an infinitely better solution than burning them—or stepping back, washing our hands of them, and congratulating ourselves for our superior choices as we watch them burn themselves. For if it’s not about heredity, why is the leading determiner of who ends up poor in America the income and education level of parents? And whatever happened to “There but for the grace of God go I”?