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Saturday, December 13, 2014

John Updike, Rabbit Run

On this front, Deresiewicz was wrong. What a tawdry waste of talent this book is. The style is perfect - the minute perceptiveness and uncanny prose is as remarkable as his short stories - but there is no substance in it. I spent the entire 250 pages hoping that Rabbit Angstrom would just fall down a well, and take his entire town's dreary, declining existence with him. It's hard to imagine how this bleak collection of frustrated, dimwitted sadsacks managed to animate three subsequent novels.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Silence and noise

Harvard has a finals week tradition called Primal Scream, which entails a large number of undergrads imbibing vigorously, disrobing completely, and then running around the quad screaming. This term, a group of students concerned about racism determined that this event would be the perfect setting in which to stage a silent protest. The Crimson dutifully chronicles the results of this prudent judgment, in prose and pictoral form:
As student streakers began to gather, talking and shouting, just a few yards away, the protesters, some of them clad in black sweatshirts with the words, “I ♥ Black People,” stayed silent. After failing to quiet the students with a megaphone, Khurana was lifted onto the back of a half-naked man, from where Khurana tried to quiet the crowd again. 
When the streakers continued to talk, the protesters broke their silence, chanting, “Silence. Silence.” Meanwhile, shouts of “U.S.A., U.S.A.!” erupted from the group of runners, drowning out the calls for silence by the protesters. Primal Scream participants have also chanted “U.S.A., U.S.A.!” during past runs.

“This is absolutely ridiculous, this is absolutely ridiculous,”one of the protest organizers, Aubrey J. Walker ’15, said to his fellow protestors. “We’ll wait here all night. Guys, look to your left, look to your right, these are your brothers and sisters and siblings. All we ask is for four and a half minutes of silence.” 
Shortly after, a group of streakers from the back of the crowd began to run in the opposite direction of the protesters, and the rest of the streakers followed in a lap around the Yard. The protesters turned to face the streakers after they finished their first lap around the Yard, forcing some streakers to run off the path and into the middle of the Yard. Some runners chanted, “black lives matter!” while others shouted obscenities.
No satire could improve on this reality. I'm not sure there will ever be a more complete encapsulation of Harvard than the photo of the Dean of the College perched on a shirtless student's shoulders yelling ineffectually into a megaphone at a crowd of drunk, naked kids and protesters in the rain.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

"People are trying to turn being a woman into a profession"

In one of my occasional forays into vintage Crimson reportage (some great day, all school papers will digitize their archives), I came across this profile of Judith Shklar from 1972. I've been struck in the past by the aversion of  some of the sharpest mid-century female minds - Arendt, Didion - to feminism, and found the same sentiment (Arendt's "zat's not serious") here:
"Maybe it's because I'm a foreigner," she jokes, "but I always take people at their word. When I was in school, the women I knew there were at the top of the class." She throws this out with a kind of proud matter-of factness. "When most of them said that they preferred married life. I believed them. Perhaps I was naive. But now people are trying to turn being a woman into a profession, which is the worst kind of tokenism." She has the distinct sense that American women are suddenly being harassed by the magazines and newspapers they read for new but still wrong reasons. "Too much empty discussion of the role of women and her family can lead to just as disastrous effects as sex-discrimination. American women are being bombarded with articles on how to run their lives and those of their families. You'll notice that the tone is always threatening and pseudo-scientific" (two pet hatreds of Dr. Shklar's). "It's going to get worse--the pressure is on everyone. A less destructive way is needed." A student's impression affirms this attitude. "Her reaction to Women's Lib is probably to stop all that snivelling about insignificant issues, take care of yourself, and get on with it."
While we're lamenting poorly-verified sources and other journalistic failings in the immediate present, it must be said that this profile has it all. It's fawning and poorly written (what is a "metic's metic"?) and the student descriptions of Shklar are inexplicably anonymous, because praising your professors is surely one of those life- and reputation-endangering ventures requiring special protection. Still, this is a pretty prescient prediction.

UPDATE: Someone on Facebook also points to this lecture by Shklar with even more on this topic in the middle.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Self-inflicted campus hate crimes, Chicago edition

Peeps, remember all those times when racists vandalized Scripps College, the KKK invaded Oberlin, anti-Catholic thugs assault a guy at Princeton, and so on? Well, those same ruthless nogoodniks have struck again, this time at UChicago.

Last month, threatening and racist things were posted on a student's Facebook account, galvanizing the whole campus to action to fight the hate (and also galvanizing a federal investigation into the origins of the hate). Much hate was fought before it became clear that the source of the threats was the student who reported them. As usual, this was shocking news to all, because as we know, elite American universities are hotbeds of hate, so the likelihood is always high that such baroque threats are real. However, should the discovery that this was merely another false threat mean that things are ok and everyone should go back to studying? As the college press release gravely informs us, the answer to that question is emphatically,
No. As Vice President Coleman’s message pointed out, “That conclusion does not erase the seriousness of this episode, the harm it has caused to individuals and our broader community, or the consequences for those responsible. Whatever its purpose, the language used in this incident does not constitute discourse and will not be tolerated. Its use underlines questions about campus climate already raised in other contexts. These emerging facts do not in any way diminish the University’s commitment to a diverse campus, free from harassment and discrimination, as articulated by the president and provost in their message.”
As I mentioned in my previous post on this phenomenon, the discovery that a campus catharsis-inducing hate crime was self-inflicted has never impeded any college administration's commitment to histrionic over-reaction. That is because what self-inflicted hate crimes always prove is just how ubiquitous the hate in question really is. We're so steeped in hate that people sometimes get confused and inflict it on themselves without even noticing. Then they absentmindedly report it to their universities as an act committed by someone else, until they manage to recall how it came about (when investigators show up at their doors with some unusual evidence), and graciously correct the record. As the college admin puts it, self-inflicted hate crimes "underline questions about campus climate already raised"...by the same people who committed the hate crime against themselves. It's just more efficient that way.

My question is this: According to the Maroon article, President Zimmer's initial response to news of this crime was to promise that the university "would pursue criminal prosecution of the individual behind" the Facebook post. At the time, the hate crimer's friends dismissed this response as "reactionary at best" (Marx weeps). Now that the culprit's identity has been revealed, I wonder if the university will stand by its commitment to criminal justice, or if it will instead discover that what's really important at a time like this is not anything so vindictive and reactionary as punishing individuals, but rather that we take advantage of this opportunity to come together as a community to heal the wounds inflicted on us all by the ambient hatred sewn in our social fabric that was finally brought to light in this unfortunate incident, and to move forward toward progress, uniting in solidarity in our embrace of diversity, et cetera ad nauseum.

Serious people may ask serious questions about this pattern of behavior, especially in light of recent doubts about Rolling Stone's UVA story, which is not quite the same thing, but perhaps a relative in the larger campus hoax family. Why do students and professors lie about being victimized? The easy and insufficient explanation is "for attention," but there are many other ways to get attention - call in bomb threats during finals, show up to class naked, invent Facebook. The people behind self-inflicted hate crimes are all almost all campus activists and the hate crimes they inflict on themselves are of a piece with their prior involvement fighting sexism, racism, anti-gay bias, social liberalism, whatever. They're trying to advance their causes through these stunts, and the most common public statement after the fact that I've come across goes something like, "I was frustrated that everyone else was paying insufficient attention to my pet issue, so I dramatized it to show them how big a problem it really is." (Our Chicago culprit expresses this sentiment on his Facebook.) After the fact, there is always speculation that the hate-crimer is mentally ill and so should be an object of pity rather than derision or punishment, and it's certainly true that pulling such a stunt takes a foolhardiness that most college students - activist or pacifist - lack. Still, the mental illness explanation is too just-so: because we like to say that no sane person would do something doesn't mean that the person who does the thing is insane. So I'm open to other theories of the self-inflicted hate crime.

What's quite remarkable about this as a strategy is how often it works, in spite of the usually rapid revelation that it's a lie. Despite some mealy-mouthed regret rhetoric out of Chicago about the Facebook threat being fake, both the students and the admin continue to insist that the hate it conveyed is real and the university's planned response must remain unchanged in light of this discovery. But I suspect UVA will be a little different: because the story had national reach, the admin and the campus activists can't so flippantly dismiss its invalidity and dig in their heels like Chicago. That only works when the whole country's attention isn't riveted on the little doings of your campus. There is a certain reasonableness to the widely-voiced concern that if people dwell too much on the UVA story's defects, no one will believe legitimate rape allegations ever again, so to avoid that bad outcome, let's just chalk this all up to a "troubled woman" being exploited by a feckless reporter and put it behind us asap. That's the line in self-inflicted hate crimes - let's not let this regrettable error "distract" us from our mission - and in those cases, it usually works. Maybe that's even the best approach to the UVA story, but I think that this concern won't be enough to override the public's dislike of being duped, as it often is on campuses where those who dislike being duped are fewer and quieter than those who believe in the cause. Had such a false or inaccurate rape accusation been lower-profile, it's possible that it would've had the same local result as the typical self-inflicted hate crime: the university would express regret at the inauthenticity of the particular incident but insist that it only "underlines" the urgent need to do whatever it was planning to do when they still believed it was real. But this was too big and sensational a hoax, and it raised the stakes too high. But, on the other hand, maybe not.

So much for the serious people and their serious questions. On the whole, my favorite analysis of the Chicago situation comes from a student quoted by the Maroon observing one of the hate crime-inspired protests :
Second-year Edward Huh said that he thought that the message of the protest was somewhat muddled..."It was like a Sosc paper with no thesis,” Huh said.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Suggested causes for underemployed student activists

There was perhaps a time in the idyllic past when the primary similarity between undergraduates and graduate students was their mutual engagement in study, or the pursuit of knowledge, or some other lofty and discreditable end. But that time has come and gone, and new times call for new practices. One thing I've noticed about undergrads is that they now resemble grad students in a new and more important way. Like grad students, they face a world of diminishing possibilities for new, self-aggrandizing ventures but increasing expectation for them. For us, the problem is that we must produce original research, but everything has already been published. For them, it's that they must burnish their activist credentials, but everything has already been protested.

Just as this pressure leads desperate grad students to write on the most obscure and inane stuff they can think of (I cannot, alas, link my own work here for evidence), it forces beleaguered undergrads hungry for recognition to demand justice for wrongs that have never even happened. For example, last week, someone emailed a barely literate death threat containing a dose of anti-Asian racism to lots of Harvard undergrads. The threat was forwarded to the police and the FBI and the CIA and the White House, etc., investigated, quickly found to have come from some stupid kids in Europe playing a prank, nothing at all happened on campus, and most of us moved on with our lives. But for some students, such an opportunity to call attention to gross injustice could not be squandered. Had the university administration, in communicating with students about the grave danger and offense they faced from these emails, been sufficiently sensitive to student...sensitivities? Perhaps not. For why had only the university police sent us email updates, and not all the administrators, with information about the resources available to the traumatized victims of mean pranks?
Some students at the event said that those emails were insufficient, with many adding that they had expected an email directly from the dean of the College regarding the threat. “All I ask for is a College-wide email...saying there has been a great loss, there has been a great tragedy in our community and in our midst, these are the resources, we feel for you,” said Shengxi Li ’15, who had received the emailed threat.
A great loss and a great tragedy has occurred in our midst with the sending of a fake death threat, and no one even feels for the undergrads and how they might be coping with this veritable war crime. But no, the college dean totally feels for them, and admits it's all his fault that he didn't get in touch sooner, and left all the touching to the other 25 administrative offices that touched us with updates about our unfolding campus tragedy of prank email but whose touching lacked his human touch. In the future, he promises, he will report to his clientele promptly about every matter that comes up.

While students less tenacious for justice might have accepted this mea culpa, our students will not rest until every human rights violation contained in this non-event has been brought to light. For yet more injustice was perpetrated by the university in their atrocious handling of this matter than we knew, because TAs were not "sufficiently informed" about the death threat. This does not mean they were not informed, since in fact all graduate students were informed, repeatedly, but not sufficiently so. For, lacking this all-important additional email from the college dean to complement the emails received from the university police about how nothing was happening, how could we TAs possibly provide appropriate consolation to our charges during this dark time of totally non-credible threats:
Several student attendees said all professors and teaching fellows, not just students, should have been notified of the threats through an official email from administrators in response to the incident...Teachers could then have been a source of emotional support for undergraduates affected by the threat, the students at the discussion said.
The dean agreed on this point too, and promised to flood our inboxes with redundant information from multiple university offices next time that nothing happens. Perhaps justice has finally been achieved, and students can rest easy with a new line for their cover letters about the time when they saved Harvard from the scourge of malicious spam email by ensuring that there would be more email to address the original email. If it were not for their brave stand, we might only hear about nothing happening before and after it didn't happen and only from one source. But for our vigilant undergrads, no crisis is too nonexistent to let pass without full investigation of the possibilities for protest and administrative concession, so I have faith that these stalwart guardians of democracy will uncover even more foul injustice contained in this scandal in the coming weeks. (UPDATE: I was right, there is more.)

In the meantime, I would like to call the attention of would-be student activists who didn't manage to notice the gaping holes in the sensitivity of university email protocol in time and are now looking for other causes with which they might make their names to some of the more shocking and inhumane practices going on right underneath their noses. Did you know, for example, that the university library closes at 7 PM on Fridays, 8 PM on Sundays, and 5 PM on Saturdays? 5 PM! People, that is a great loss and a great tragedy in our community! The Ed School library is little better, being open only until 7 for most of the weekend, and the Law School library is too far away from my apartment (consider the safety threats of walking alone at night!). Now, you may counter that the college library is open quite late during the weekend, but is that not like being told that you may receive an email from HUPD about a campus crisis that's is about to not happen but not from the college dean? What is the purpose of having the other libraries if they are not open? Where is the equality? The democracy? The justice? Graduate students do not want to work in the smelly college library, where they run the risk of being seen, indistinguishable in dignity and desperation, by their own students. How, truly, can we be a great institution of higher learning if we do not prioritize our libraries, which are almost the most important things at a university, after the student protests?

Monday, September 29, 2014

Turnover

Why does anyone bother starting a business in Cambridge? I've lived here on and off for the past six years, and walking down Mass Ave from Central to Porter Squares, I'd say that more than half the businesses that line it have changed during that time. The life cycle, especially in Harvard Square, is something like:
1. discover boring old thing is closing, lament, b/c small local business that tried so hard, like little engine that could (but couldn't)
2. hear that new thing is coming in its place! we don't have one of these particular things yet! cast aside lamentation, recall pleasures of novelty, rejoice!
3. new thing opens, so new! stand in line during opening week for it, rejoicing!
4. within first three months, new thing acquires 200 gushing Yelp reviews, six regular customers, 12 irregular customers, and 24 people who are perennially planning to check it out soon, thereby reaching equilibrium, while other new things open in the vicinity and novelty of this old-new thing begins to wear off
5. within six months, Yelp reviews begin to emphasize lack of "creativity" in food or merchandise, complain that place is "bland" and "tired," notice that it is "overpriced"
6. within two years, profits sink, overhead costs increase, place looks empty all the time and cuts its hours
7. evince concern, recall fond memories of the two times you ate/shopped there when it first opened, insist that old-new thing is "an institution" that can't possibly be permitted to close even though, yes, it's a bit dated and no, you personally haven't stepped inside in the last 12 months
8. old-new thing announces closure, lament, rend garments, decry corporate capitalism
9. new-new thing announces opening in old-new thing's place, promises novelty, inspires new bout of rejoicing
10. old thing is gutted, new thing opens, everyone rejoices and forgets what was even there before, but probably something old and lame?

There do seem to be some establishments that are neither churches nor hospitals yet remain insulated from the laws of novelty and boredom, like this wretched hole. But the survival of such places can probably be attributed to the indiscriminate appetite-increasing side effects of illicit substance use among the undergraduates under whose noses they are located.

UPDATE: A timely case-in-point. Ramen! We don't have one of those yet (except up in Porter Sq.)! So new! Rejoicing stage commences.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

John Updike, Olinger Stories

Remember when our recurring nemesis William Deresiewicz wrote this stunning review of a new Updike biography that was so lovely that it compelled us to go read Updike immediately although we never had the slightest interest in him before? Well, we did that, while still dangerously under the influence of our recent reading of Cheever, and found that Deresiewicz was right, the stories are wonderful. The bait in Deresiewicz's review was the promise that Updike would contribute to the vindication of my desire to find something valuable in nostalgia, which all right-thinking people treat as a low-minded self-delusion but which I can't figure out how to understand my life without:
Updike’s nostalgia is not for a specific historical moment; it is the ubiquitous modern ache for time past, and in particular, for youth. We applaud it when it comes to us in cultured Continental form (when the odor is of madeleines and tea), but less so, for some reason, here...Atheism, alienation, and angst; elitism and cosmopolitanism; aesthetic 
austerity and experimentalism; political and spiritual extremism: these were not for him. Updike’s life and work are testaments to the idea that mid-American values, beliefs, and sensibilities are adequate to address and interpret modern experience. 
This is pretty much the sum of the middle-brow conviction that I don't know how any amount of education, travel, reading, or haranguing from the sophisticated will flush out of me. But, admittedly, it's hard to reconcile this conviction with the small-scale misery of the homely but thwarted aspirations and the dread of death despite the smallness of life experienced by nearly everyone who actually lives this way. So you can either reject all that bourgeois nonsense in the blind hope that the unknown is better, or you can try to dignify these small sufferings, to make the mundane momentous by recording it. Updike is aggressively concerned with this kind of sanctification.

One of the stories, "The Blessed Man of Boston, My Grandmother's Thimble, and Fanning Island," calls this approach to sanctification through precise description "the evocation of days." Deresiewicz points to "Pigeon Feathers" to show that Updike takes writing to be an imitation of God's creation (and destruction). There, the narrator is reassured of his immortality when he examines the bodies of the pigeons he has shot, concluding that "the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let 
David live forever." In "The Blessed Man of Boston," the narrator is even more explicit about what he's doing: "O Lord, bless these poor paragraphs, that would do in their vile ignorance Your work of resurrection."

There is a lot that is reminiscent of Cheever in the Olinger Stories, but the foundation of Updike's idea of fleeting middle-brow happiness seems to be Christian faith rather than, as for Cheever, marriage:
"We would-be novelists have a reach as shallow as our skins. We walk through volumes of the unexpressed and like snails leave behind a faint thread excreted out of ourselves. From the dew of the few flakes that melt on our faces we cannot reconstruct the snowstorm." 
What a thoroughgoing piece of Protestantism that is - pleading for grace through self-abnegation - but for the anachronistic invocation of the novelist, this would fit comfortably into the rhetoric of the sixteenth century. We are worthless nothings who make no more impression on the world than a trail of snail shit in the dirt, our lives are a storm which we lack even the capacity to fully understand. All we have is the paltry power to recount a "few flakes" of our experience. But for all that melodramatic cringing, Updike's faith is much like Cheever's marriage - a flexible thing, subject to frequent assault and deformation, just as long as, in the end, it's not surrendered. You can cheat on your wife in Cheever, or renounce Jesus in Updike, but if you divorce or deny the possibility of immortality, well then civilization is lost.

But Updike seems to write mainly for the sake of the "evocation of days," and rarely gets so shrill about things. His similes are inventive, often because they pick up such mundane domestic experiences that you'd never remember them but for these promptings, as when a character described trying to comfort himself lying in bed at night "with the caress of headlights as they evolved from bright slits on the wall into parabolically accelerating fans on the ceiling and then vanished." A minute observation of childhood fixations. Nostalgia as simply an account of time passing in small lives can be funny too. This is one character's first effort to kiss a girl: "It was as if I had been given a face to eat, and the presence of bone - skull under skin, teeth behind lips - impeded me."

It's a mode of writing that's delightful while it lasts but can get tiresome pretty easily, when it becomes so much about making unexpected observations that plot is forgotten, or everything becomes indiscriminately significant in a desperate bid to record every last detail of living. Or maybe when Updike just gets too obsessed with adulterous sex to be any longer interesting, as even Deresiewicz's review, which emphasizes the early stories, suggests will happen. I suppose I'll find out about that in the next volume.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

More Argentina

Public health campaign: get your blood pressure measured in the middle of the park

Chip flavors available in supermarkets of Buenos Aires: chorizo, asado, quesadilla, empanada, pollo con limon. Chip flavors not available in in supermarkets of Buenos Aires: any other flavors. These chicken chips tasted so much like an actual grilled chicken that my husband refused to eat them for fearing of spoiling real chicken for himself.

Porto Madera


Ambiguous midday meal consisting of parts of all other day's meals - breakfast, lunch, and tea.


A 200-year-old rubber tree that takes up approximately the space of a city block and is supported by special branch crutches.

The only copy of Locke I was able to find in the city. As against a million copies of Hobbes and the Heidegger/Benjamin/Foucault triple-package of bad ideas.

Straussiana.

Empanadas stacked like potatoes, a sight that should be found in every supermarket.

Iguazu falls

Coati: basically a jungle raccoon. Cute but vicious.

The butterfly situation was out of control but the pretty ones refused to sit still for photos.

Full moon over the Iguazu River.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Outrageous indignities

When Fedex loses the box in which you shipped all your clothes from San Diego to Boston for the year, and you have to substitute several years' worth of careful curating and collection with the current clearance rack at Gap.

UPDATE: After talking on the phone with probably every employee of Fedex over a period of five days, the box has been located somewhere completely random and is being re-sent to me. This demonstrates the importance of having personal connections in the lost package world. Fortunately, I only purchased two duplicate items so far on final sale; the rest of my compensatory online shopping can go back whence it came. (But maybe I'll keep one skirt as, you know, a memento of this trial of patience, or a duly deserved reward for my suffering...)

Friday, September 05, 2014

Platforms of the future

I'm in Buenos Aires through next week, and it's pretty great here when you come with American dollars and discover that a three-course dinner with a bottle of wine at one of the nicest French restaurants in the city costs the equivalent of $40 per person. Also good is the omnipresence and frequently expected consumption of facturas con cafe, which similarly cost next to nothing, and are available from cafes that are open at all hours and offer free wifi. (Those who, like me, fervently believe that pastries are a breakfast food, take note: there appear to be about four or five daily meals here, and three of them consist of pastries.)

Which raises the question: in a society so totally conducive to the grad student lifestyle - everything is open late, fine dining and alcohol are cheap, and caffeinated workspace is everywhere - why isn't everyone a grad student? I posed this question to some of my husband's relatives, who were puzzled by it and replied that being a grad student is hard. Maybe, but it seems a lot less hard here! My husband suggests that people are generally about as inefficient as grad students, so it amounts to the same. (I don't know about labor efficiency, but the kids do seem to spend a lot more time in school each day than Americans, but we never hear about any impressive outcomes of the Argentine education system.)

Finally, there is the problem of the platform shoe. Every woman in Buenos Aires is wearing the chunky platform that very briefly reached maximum coolness in 1997. Since leather goods are also cheaper here than in the US, I was hoping to obtain a pair of ankle boots, but it seems that, given local trends, this aspiration can only result in the unfortunate acquisition of something like this:

The question is, would owning such shoes make me fashion I prescient, like an early adopter of a thing that is just about to become huge back home? Or will it make me a late-90s goth teen revivalist?

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Contextual differences

Teaching is not an engineering problem. It isn’t a question of transferring a certain quantity of information from one brain to another. “Educate” means “lead forth.” A teacher’s job is to lead forth the powers that lie asleep within her students.
Thus sayeth William Deresiewicz, would-be speaker of useful truths who is too passionately enamored of the monumental urgency of his cause to bother to speak carefully. But where have we heard these particular tropes about education before? Oh yes, here:
I have no doubt Miss Mackay wishes to question my methods of instruction. It has happened before. It will happen again. Meanwhile, I follow my principles of education and give of my best in my prime. The word education comes from the root e from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means a leading out. To me education is leading out of what is already in the pupil’s soul. To Miss Mackay it is a putting in of something that is not there, and that is not what I call education, I call it intrusion, from the Latin root prefix in meaning in and term trudo, I thrust. Miss Mackay’s method is to thrust a lot of information into the pupil’s head; mine is a leading out of knowledge, and that is true education as is proved by the root meaning. Now Miss Mackay has accused me of putting ideas into my girls' heads, but in fact that is her practice and mine is quite the opposite. Never let it be said that I put ideas into your heads.
Is Deresiewicz being ironic then? I doubt it (though if he were, my estimation of him would undoubtedly skyrocket). But Spark certainly is. So beware.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

What people are thinking when they speak to perennially outraged internet writers

There is a genre of internet ranting, common to Twitter and "women's blogs," wherein a writer describes a social encounter she has recently had with a stranger or a vague acquaintance, to whom she has recounted some aspect of her personal life and who responded with some well-intentioned comment or advice that proved unhelpful, or even absurd, to the writer. This hapless interlocutor's advice is then reproduced for the gratification of the writer's audience as evidence of the shocking insensitivity of people out there (as against all the right-thinking people in here) who will just walk up and say anything to you these days, you know, and without even knowing you. The reader of this Tweet or post is then invited to exasperate himself in solidarity with the writer in the comments section. Can you even believe this person said that? What were they thinking? How dare they speak? 

Here is one such rant, posted  on Facebook by my friend, featuring various questions and suggestions regarding the writer's long-distance academic marriage. The post itself is moderately funny, despite the strong undercurrent of bitterness, aimed I thought only partly at the people supposedly asking her these questions, and in part at the unpleasantness of her circumstances. But, judging by the comments, no, it's all, Can you even believe this person said that? What were they thinking? How dare they speak? 

For example, this comment:
"I would like, just once, to have an encounter with someone who says all manner of horrible, invasive jokes and comments you've heard 10,000 times before, and to ask them honestly why they say things like that. Do you really think that you, a stranger or brief acquaintance, are more familiar with this person's circumstances than they are? Do you really think you've offered them a solution to their problem they haven't already considered? Do you REALLY think that asking them personal questions ("But the sex is great then, right, because you only see each other so often?") will benefit you in some way??? "
Good news, outraged commenter peep: Miss Self-Important is here to tell you exactly why people "say things like that." No, it's not because they think they're more familiar with your complex and trying circumstances than you are, or they would probably not bother to ask you questions about them in the first place. It's not because they desire to floor you with the originality of their response, but fail to inquire whether their quip has not been offered to you on 10,000 prior instances. It's not because they doubt your superior competence in solving your own problems, which you have as yet failed to solve or else you wouldn't be complaining about them. No, short-fused commenter peep, it's because they're trying to be friendly and nice.

I know, I know, friendly good intentions are the absolute worst. We should probably just decapitate the people who dare to speak to you and demonstrate interest in you without knowing you from birth while we have them in sight, because such individuals are likely to be serial offenders, and if you don't stop them now, they'll only go on to victimize others. I mean, can't they see that you're a committed hermit, that you've taken vows of silence and are forbidden from all communication with the people by whom you're regularly surrounded? Isn't that obvious from the way you're standing around awkwardly at this party with a drink in your hand, or sitting on the train staring into space? Why do they insist on harassing you with their conversation when they haven't even been briefed about your life history yet? It's like they think talking is pleasant, or making friends is worthwhile, or some reactionary nonsense like that. I mean, really. There oughtta be a law.

There's little that annoys me less than being chatted with by strangers, or vague acquaintances. I hardly ever start up conversations with such people, but I love it when they start them with me. Maybe it's because I rarely talk to people I don't know that I'm glad they talk to me - how would I ever talk to anyone otherwise, or have any friends? I even love being asked for directions on the street, and I used to be sad when I didn't know the place being sought, but now I have a phone that solves all navigational quandaries. I also don't mind when men (or, as is often the case in San Diego, bums) on the street compliment my appearance on I suppose the off-chance that this will pique my interest in them or for no reason at all, although I guess that's something we're supposed to be against these days. I love all forms of non-threatening stranger interaction because I'm pretty certain that without it - that is, if everyone were as cold and stand-offish as I am - there would not be any civilization at all. And we should be willing to make small sacrifices for civilization, like the sacrifice of our right to flip out when people we've just met don't know everything about us and say useless or redundant things in absence of this knowledge. So when such people ask me what I do for a living and don't immediately understand how I can be a grad student at a school 2,000 miles from the city I live in, or that a political science PhD is not a path to a job in politics, it doesn't annoy me, though these confusions are common and recurring. Why should anyone not in your line or work be expected to know its ins and outs? How is it reasonable to expect, or demand, that people read up on the intricacies of the academic job market before talking to me, or only presume to talk to me if they already know all about it? Why ought their simply naive but not ill-spirited suggestions or questions be offensive?

In "Puritans and Prigs," one of her best essays in defense of Calvinism, Marilynne Robinson points out that by ascribing all priggishness to the long-extinct Puritans, we think ourselves cured of all their failings by the passage of time and hardly notice how much this move rests on willful self-delusion or our own even more ominous forms of priggishness. One modern form that priggishness takes is precisely such uncharitable persnickitiness about the speech of strangers:
A great many of us, in the face of recent experience, have arrived with a jolt at the archaic-sounding conclusion that morality was the glue holding society together, just when we were in the middle of proving that it was a repressive system to be blamed for all our ills. It is not easy at this point for us to decide just what morality is or how to apply it to our circumstances. But we have priggishness at hand, up to date and eager to go to work, and it does a fine imitation of morality, self-persuaded as a method actor. It looks like it and it feels like it, both to those who wield it and to those who taste its lash... 
Priggishness is useful in the absence of true morality, which requires years of development, perhaps thousands of years, and cannot simply be summoned as needed. Its inwardness and quietism make its presence difficult to sense, let alone quantify, and they make its expression often idiosyncratic and hard to control. But priggishness makes its presence felt. And it is highly predictable because it is nothing else than a consuming loyalty to ideals and beliefs which are in general so widely shared that the spectacle of zealous adherence to them is reassuring. The prig's formidable leverage comes from the fact that his or her ideas, notions or habits are always fine variations on the commonplace. A prig with original ideas is a contradic- tion in terms, because he or she is a creature of consensus who can usually appeal to one's better nature, if only in order to embarrass dissent. A prig in good form can make one ashamed to hold a conviction so lightly, and, at the same time, ashamed to hold it at all... 
Recently I saw a woman correct a man in public - an older man whom she did not know well - for a remark of his she chose to interpret as ethnocentric. What he said could easily have been defended, but he accepted the rebuke and was saddened and embarrassed. This was not a scene from some guerrilla war against unenlightened thinking. The woman had simply made a demonstration of the fact that her education was more recent, more fashionable and more extensive than his, with the implication, which he seemed to accept, that right thinking was a property or attainment of hers in a way it never could be of his. To be able to defend magnanimity while asserting class advantage! And with an audience already entirely persuaded of the evils of ethnocentricity, therefore more than ready to admire! This is why the true prig so often h├ís a spring in his step. Morality could never offer such heady satisfactions.  
The woman's objection was a quibble, of course. In six months the language she provided in place of his will no doubt be objectionable - no doubt in certain quarters it is already. And that is the genius of it. In six months she will know the new language, while he is still reminding himself to use the words she told him he must prefer. To insist that thinking worthy of respect can be transmitted in a special verbal code only is to claim it for the class that can concern itself with inventing and acquiring these codes and is so situated in life as to be able, or compelled, to learn them. The more tortuous our locutions the more blood in our streets. I do not think these phenomena are unrelated, or that they are related in the sense that the thought-reforms we attempt are not extensive enough or have not taken hold. I think they are related as two manifestations of one phenomenon of social polarization.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Imagining the upsides of neo-feudalism

For practically as long as I've been conscious, I've been hearing complaints about modernity. These complaints come from the left and the righ: we're too technologically dependent or technologically mediated, we've lost a "sense of place", "disenchanted the world," submitted to rigid constraints on the varieties of erotic experience, stigmatized ecstasy and prophecy into mental illness, lost our capacity for "deep connection" with others (and with trees and buffalo and krill), oriented our aspirations towards impossible ends like the abolition of death even while we despise the banality of life, and so on. In sum, life was a lot more meaningful in the premodern past, which came to an end sometime between the 15th and 19th centuries, depending on whom you ask, and then gave way to liberal capitalist bourgeois tyranny.

Why then are we so averse to the re-creation of precisely the social arrangements of yore, with a small class of rentiers and a large class of...renters? Is this not - finally, after so long an exile - a road back to pre-modern authenticity? If these trends persist, we may even return to the long-disused forms of property-holding that obstructed the nation-state and the advance of modernity in the first place, like allodial and entailed land. Then the power of Kotkin's universalizing, centralizing "clerisy" will find itself in competition with that of the neo-feudal land aristocracy, re-creating an uneasy balance between our new ecclesia and the saeculum that might hold for a good four or five hundred years between the neo-Investitute Controversy of the mid-21st Century and the neo-Reformation of 2517. Not only will most of us successfully rediscover our roots in the necessity of our newfound poverty (imagine that; we always were from wherever we happen to be now! I myself come from an ancient family of Skokieans) and reconnect with nature, our labor, and the divine, but we'll decisively give the lie to progressive (and maybe even linear) theories of history. Aristotle was right all along, "practically everything has been discovered on many occasions--or rather an infinity of occasions--in the course of time."

I understand that for those positioned somewhere between the anti-liberalisms of the left and the right, who regularly invoke the miracle of penicillin and "creative destruction," this nostalgia is counter-balanced by a view of the Middle Ages as a time when everyone was born and died (of Bubonic plague at age 17) in the same sparsely furnished puddle of mud which he shared with 27 family members, passing his days in illiteracy, drunkenness, sexism, and superstitious belief in dragons and a flat Earth, politically repressed by the simultaneous despotism of feudal lords, absolutist monarchs, and an omnipotent clergy (a remarkably harmonious power-sharing arrangement). Holders of this view of the past may be less eager to return to it. But these images of the Middle Ages are merely dark mirrors of our present fears: material discomfort and inegalitarian social mores and appearing foolish in front of our peers. Since they were hardly true in the first place, it's not clear that they will re-appear in the second. Neo-feudalism may well retain the Ikea furniture and smartphones of modernity, for even the feudal serf had a few simple possessions. And there is no reason to think identity politics incompatible with feudal orders, is there? There will yet be fights over gender pronouns for the clerisy to work out in their ten thousand-page digests of the Twittersphere. So everything will be ok even for creative destroyers, who ought to take comfort in the lifetime sinecures that will cement their status near the top of the neo-feudal hierarchy, since the upside of stagnation is security.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Golding, Lord of the Flies

I've long been intending to read this for obvious dissertation-related reasons, so when I found it on the shelf of the apartment I'm staying at this weekend, the moment seemed opportune. And here is that rare example of a good YA book: by dramatizing the tension between nature and civilization both within the individual and at the level of a society, it serves as a prelude to the reading of Hobbes and Freud. Its appeal is not exclusive to the young, but it's clearly an introduction to the study of psychology and politics rather than an extension of such studies. I would've loved it had I encountered it first in high school, but I'm not sure what it offers over and above Hobbes, save for the emphatic gesture towards childhood.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Rousseau on anecdata

"But this pretended truth [D'Alembert's assertion that the Genevan clergy is Socinian despite all their claims] is not so clear or so indifferent that you have the right to advance it without good authorities; and I do not see on what one could found oneself to prove that the sentiments that a group professes and according to which it acts are not its own. You will tell me next that you do not attribute the sentiment of which you speak to the whole ecclesiastical body. But you do attribute them to many; and many, in a small number, always compose such a large part that the whole must be affected by them."
--Letter to D'Alembert

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Doing it better, meritocracy edition

One last post on the meritocracy theme: a short essay that does it better. No revolutions in the name of uncovering the boundlessly interesting soul within, no absurd embrace of the most vulgar careerism just to spite the idealistic in the name of the people:
Colleges aren’t monasteries. They can’t give their students spiritual sustenance; they can’t provide an escape from modernity. And they shouldn’t be faulted, or punished, for that...One of the ironies of college is that the impossibility of reading your way out of the modern predicament is something you learn about, as a student, by reading. Part of the value of a humanistic education has to do with a consciousness of, and a familiarity with, the limits that you’ll spend the rest of your life talking about and pushing against. So it’s probably natural for college students to be a little ironic, a little unsettled. It’s time, meanwhile, to admit that the college years aren’t for figuring out some improvised “sense of purpose.” 

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Attacking the defenses of meritocracy made against meritocracy's attackers

As I've tried to suggest repeatedly here, no anti-meritocracy screed that I've thus far read has actually rejected the principle of meritocracy and proposed that college seats be distributed by anything other than qualification. All these laments about the exclusion of the poor, or minorities, or the interesting and authentic nonetheless presume that it's the most academically proficient among the poor, minority, or authentic who ought to get new or more thorough consideration. Even "nationalizing the Ivy League" and making it free - an apparently shocking and radical proposition - would only be for the sake of enlarging the pool of academically proficient applicants. In fact, I'll take your nationalization and raise you a universal application requirement - every high school graduate must apply so that no talent is overlooked as a result of such circumstances as insufficient familiarity with the schools, missed deadlines, or even simply lack of interest. And what would be the inevitable result of prestigious, free, state-run universities with mandatory applications? An even more competitive meritocracy, one with acceptance rates even lower than 1 percent. So much for "taking a meaningful stand against" elite education.

So, while some of these "exposes" of the secret soul-crushing depredations of the Ivy League have been entertaining because elite schools really are comical and absurd in many ways, none have landed a death blow. It's hardly news by now that this theme has become almost its own genre (as I wrote five years ago, which is almost an infinity of years in internet time). We can complain that, as far as genres go, it's not exactly at the level of epic poetry, or even political satire. But it seems almost worse than lamenting the Ivy League to lament the laments as constituting a form of class warfare. Are they "Edith Wharton characters with austere taste and Dutch last names sniffing with disgust at the vulgarity of new money"?

If they are, this is class warfare of the most inconsequential variety:
Since elite populism ultimately amounts to an intense discussion of the elite experience, it ultimately turns into a parlor discussion at the Harvard Club — albeit one that absolves participants from the shame of being the kind of person who hangs out at the Harvard Club, talking about Harvard with other Harvard people. If that sounds bleak, imagine Harvard guy discussing Deresiewicz’s article with the human object lessons he meets at his service-industry job. Even worse, right?
Yes. Urgent public health warning: Ivy League laments "ultimately" cause Harvard guy to use people he knows from Harvard as object lessons about the life he's lived as a result of Harvard during conversations with people who, by virtue of where he meets them, are connected to him only by mutual attendance at Harvard. Please try to contain your fear and outrage. And, really, what greater sin is there than not feeling the appropriate shame at hanging out at the Harvard Club? Besides, if Maureen O'Connor wants us to stop caring about what goes on at Harvard, then why is she so concerned with the bleakness of the conversations that go on at the Harvard Club? Perhaps it is she who is obsessed with those whom she accuses of obsession. Of course, this is always the problem of infinite regress that comes with sniffing at the sniffers, a problem whose depths have been amply plumbed by the Privilege Wars. If denouncing privilege is privilege, then isn't it also privilege to denounce the denouncers, and to denounce the denouncers who denounce the denouncers? If "the obsession with improving Ivy League conditions only further exalts those institutions," then doesn't obsession with this obsession exponentially exalt them? Here finally is a quandary even more tiresome than the Ivy League lament.

And what, in effect, is defended by attacking the psyches and motivations rather than the arguments of our Deresiewiczes? O'Connor positions herself as the nemesis of the modern academic equivalent of Dutch-surnamed austere taste, which in this case is those who extol "impracticality" in education and downplay the role of college as anything but an "opportunity for upward mobility." So whose friend is she? Who is it that really thinks of college as nothing more than means to upward mobility? People announce without shame or irony that, "Networking is all that's important to me. It's not what you know, but who you know." I guess if O'Connor believes that this noble creed and its exponents are really in need of defense from the "privileged" partisans of otium like Deresiewicz, that's good news. It suggests that we've really made a lot of progress in healing the long-standing rifts in journalist-investment banker relations.

As for me, I happen to be in New York this week. This article inspired me to look into stopping by the Harvard Club in order to exercise my privilege-denouncing privilege. But it turns out that it costs over $100, a Harvard degree, and a several-month application period to "stop by" there, so now I have to read these Ivy League laments in solitude while awaiting a real anti-meritocracy argument, without even a kindred spirit to whom I can convey my own anecdata. What happens to a privilege deferred?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The necessity of slaughtering the meritocracy of excellent sheep in order to breed more excellent sheep

I was considering reviewing William Deresiewicz's new screed against the meritocracy, follow-up to his now-ancient essay on his difficulties communicating with his mechanic, but in keeping with my all-important New Year's resolution to stop beating dead horses and a Twitter friend's affirmation that this horse was indeed dead, I decided not to. But what is this blog if not an equine cemetery? So I'll still mention it here. I do like Deresiewicz's writing for the American Scholar a lot, especially "Love on Campus," but on the meritocracy question, he is emblematic of the bipartisan impasse in cultural writing whereby we slam elite colleges without providing any real alternative to them.

That's not to say people don't make suggestions - admission lotteries, or Great Books for all, or most commonly, the commencement speech standby: a pop-transcendentalist excoriation to individual students to stop grade-grubbing and go introspect, preferably on an alpine mountaintop or some other Romantic setting, and then to thine own self be true, or whatever. But no one is really capable of wishing for anything other than a society - and by extension an educational system - in which the best flute players get the best flutes. Because on what other basis would we award the flutes? Parentage? Wealth? Hair color? The alternatives are inconceivable to us, and that's as true of those who can imagine the dangers of a pure meritocracy as of the tech-utopians who prefer computer overlords to less intelligent human ones. So everyone who begins by roaring about the imperative to dismantle "the system" ends by bleating pleas to improve it. The problem initially set out is meritocracy itself, but by the end, it's only our current approach to merit that's wrong: it's too narrow or biased, it excludes minorities, the poor, the rural, the sad. What that really means is that merit is still the standard, but that we need a better meritocracy, not "another kind of society altogether," as Deresiewicz boldly announces in his TNR book plug.

The two halves of Deresiewicz's essay perfectly depict the contradiction of this way of thinking. In the first part, we have the classic Rousseauian critique of conventional education*: it denatures man, teaching him to live for others under conditions where real citizenship - the wholesale Spartan dedication of the self to the common good - is no longer possible. The result is confused and contradictory men who are at war with themselves, "always appearing to relate everything to others and never relating anything except to themselves alone." Elite schools suppress individual nature with their insane admissions demands and their "greasy pole" ideology of success. The result is basically zombies:
Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.
The really Rousseauian solution to this is of course to dismantle universities altogether and educate all men "for themselves" rather than for society, but it follows from this that we may have to dismantle society too, so commentators understandably shy away from that conclusion. Then the waffling begins. And what are Rousseau's most recurrent and ubiquitous injunctions but, "Don't waffle!" and "There is no half-way!" (That's a direct translation.) So the romantic, Rousseauian beginning quickly deteriorates into a technocratic, anti-Rousseauian ending. When all of society is the system to be smashed, everyone suddenly drops the sledgehammers and takes up the duct tape instead.

This dilemma explains the blatant bait-and-switch in the second half of Deresiewicz's essay. It's entirely a lament of the unjust exclusion of the poor from an educational system that Deresiewicz has just denounced as corrosive to the soul. Now the problem is suddenly that the opportunities for corrosion are not universal enough. In Part 1, for example, we are informed that the "national leadership" into which a degree from these schools will catapult you is "nothing more than getting to the top. Making partner at a major law firm or becoming a chief executive, climbing the greasy pole of whatever hierarchy you decide to attach yourself to." In Part 2, a deficient understanding of leadership is apparently no longer the problem, but rather that "we have contracted the training of our leadership class to a set of private institutions." In Part 1, the problem is that students pursue staid, unimaginative careers like medicine and live programmatic lives. In Part 2, the problem is that they get their medical degrees from Penn instead of Ohio State, and live in, I guess, NYC instead of Dayton. What about the souls of the poor? How will they benefit from joining the Ivy League Zombie Track? Will they not be zombie-fied just like their affluent peers? How will the zombie track be improved by their presence?

Instead of answering these questions, Deresiewicz borrows from Charles Murray's "bubble" logic the feel-good suggestion that if the children of doctors just socialized more with the children of coal miners, America would be better. No mention whether its universities would be better or its students less "anxious." Was any of their anxiety, timidity, and lack of intellectual curiosity caused by their lack of exposure to the children of coal miners in the first place? Were the defects of the university curriculum or its culture caused by it? Unlikely. But wouldn't society be better off if it weren't so economically stratified? Now we've totally abstracted from our concern for the individual soul into a concern for the national soul. We've become social engineers. And like Murray, Deresiewicz recommends many ways that you - elite university student that you are - can turn your very presence into a form of charity and uplift for the poor by voluntarily and sacrificially placing yourself in their midst. No more building houses for charity over spring break and all that condescending frivolity; now the thing to do to help the poor is to play-act at being poor yourself.

How to do this? You might find the types of places where the poor like to congregate - waitressing jobs, state schools - and frequent them. Once there, you will learn from their down-homey values how to act like less of an "entitled little shit" (though, as a volunteer for this lifestyle, you will still technically be one), and they from your maniacal work ethic and ambition how to...work maniacally and ambitiously. The suppressed intellectual curiosity of the Ivy League striver will finally be satisfied by his summer of washing dishes and wiping tables, while the other dishwashers will learn from him the poetry of Alexander Pope that he listlessly memorized for class and be inspired to attend the Ivy League themselves, where they will be turned into gradgrinds and sent home summers to wash dishes in order to inspire subsequent poor people to become like them. In the process, all schools will somehow become excellent so you won't even need to go to an Ivy League school to get a good/bad education and simultaneously satisfy your no-longer-contradictory longings to live for yourself and be approved by others. In sum, it's gonna be real good in the future, when there is a better meritocracy that is therefore no longer a meritocracy at all, and everyone is rewarded for their equal and unequal talents equally and unequally, thereby eliminating altogether the social scourge of entitled little shits.

The problem is, if you're not willing to consider distributing the best flutes by lineage or height, then you're not really against meritocracy. Rousseauian individual soul-training is tempting, but Rousseau is emphatic that there can be no educational system made from it, and maybe even no education in the first place, so it may not offer the best model for the systemic reform of education. One can worry about perfecting souls or about equalizing systems, but equalizing systems of soul perfection may prove impossible. Judging by his earlier articles, Deresiewicz is at bottom a soul-perfecter and not a system-equalizer, which is almost always the better thing to be anyway.

*As the great mid-century thinker Lesley Gore once said: It's my blog and I'll generalize if I want to.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Things to see and do

Sometimes you just have to update, even if you have nothing to say.

A highly selective encyclopedia of political thinkers.

- Here is Market Basket, the incredibly cheap grocery chain in MA to which I never lived close enough to be able to shop regularly, looking like the Soviet Safeway* on a bad day. I hope it stays in business, even though I'm living no closer to it this year than previously. But everything in Boston is so expensive that there has to be some reprieve somewhere, even if only in discount tomatoes.

- I've been reading Sholem Aleichem and I.B. Singer, some for a summer seminar and some more out of curiosity, and this is my most blog-able discovery: it's apparently not unusual for Ashkenazi Jews to be blond. All my life, I've been told that blond Jews were an anomaly and possibly evidence of some long-forgotten intermarriage to a wandering Swede who one day circa 1860 found himself in Galicia, but there are plenty of blond Jews in these stories.

*The Soviet Safeway is the Safeway in the Watergate building in D.C. Or it was that Safeway; I don't know if it's still around. But in the two summers that I spent nearby, it would regularly run out of food mid-week.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Hannah Arendt movie

Yes, this movie came out two years ago, and I have been anxious to see it for three, but such are the privations of living in paradise: we are not exactly the market for this kind of film. (My husband protests that the world slights "San Diego intellectuals," but our effort to identify even one candidate for this title resulted only in the smug guy who runs D.G. Wills.) But Netflix instant is a great democratic leveler, and now the movie is available on it. Everyone else who cares has already seen it, but what can we who dwell amid the swaying palms and rolling surf do about that?

As one of my friends observed when it came out, it's hard to make a compelling movie about people whose main activities are reading and thinking. Given this structural obstacle, this one was not too bad. But maybe its inability to get beyond not-too-bad suggests that movies cannot be "philosophical" by depicting the activity of philosophy, and are better off illuminating philosophy's questions by indirect means. The movie-fication of Arendt's understanding of Eichmann and evil was basically accurate and coherent, but her arguments are all conveyed via her monologues to her absolutely rapt students (these lectures are all of five minutes long! no wonder the students can manage to look so intensely absorbed) or in harangues to her cocktail party guests. These scenes alternated with absurd shots of Arendt lying on a couch chain-smoking with her eyes closed, to indicate "thinking." (Side note: These characters in this movie smoke as much as the characters in Cheever drink. Mid-century America really must have been the greatest time to be alive for lovers of permanent mild chemical stimulation.) (Experiment in living: if I lie on my couch and chain-smoke for four hours a day for the next year, will my dissertation write itself into brilliance? I'm sure I would enjoy testing this, but less sure I would enjoy the results.)

An important part of the movie is friendship and conversation, but the cheesiness of the dialogues is directly proportional to the clarity of the monologues. This seems to be a product of research almost too well done, since much of the dialogue is taken from Arendt's letters, and sounds unnatural when put into conversation. This is especially true of the exchanges between Arendt and Mary McCarthy, who comes off as a very sophisticated airhead. But it's even true of the tender conversations with her husband, who is clearly intended to come across as a serious thinker in his own right and a kind of philosophical muse to Arendt, but who actually only repeats one tired point for the entire movie (it was illegal to kidnap Eichmann and try him in Israel) even when this point's relevance is long past. It is never clear how Arendt's friendships provide more than moral support, encouraging her to keep going under adverse conditions, but not really contributing substantively to her thinking. When she is shown arguing with her friends, it's a battle of wills: she insists that Eichmann is mediocre and not an anti-Semite, her friends insist the opposite. Then someone swoops in and changes the subject before they come to blows. There was only one scene where it seemed that one of Arendt's friends says something she did not think of herself: when Kurt Blumenfeld explains that the generation of children born after the Holocaust blamed their parents for not resisting because they didn't grasp the totalizing, systemic nature of the Final Solution, and that the testimony of survivors at the Eichmann trial was intended to reveal this to them. This point was connected to the backlash against Arendt's claims about the complicity of European Jewish leaders, but I'm not sure this is clear in the movie. At some point very late in the film, she does admit that "resistance was impossible," but it's not clear what this means given how much the movie dwells on Arendt's own escape from France.

Another reason I think the depiction of Arendt's friendships falls flat is that the movie indulges pretty shamelessly in national stereotyping. There were the gregarious but intellectually shallow Americans (McCarthy, the New School prof, Norman Podhoretz and Lionel Trilling) contrasted with the brooding, profoundly insightful Europeans (Arendt, Blucher, Hans Jonas until he defects to the stupid side, and even Arendt's secretary), and in this case, it added a third type: the passionately nationalistic but self-deluded Israelis (Blumenfeld, Hausner, the non-appearing Ben-Gurion). Much is made of how ignorant Americans are of foreign languages, and the students in "Advanced German" whom Arendt teaches sound like they'd barely pass a first-year course. When Podhoretz and Trilling oppose Arendt's Eichmann articles, they're dismissed as opportunistic naifs who never had to personally flee Nazis and so have no credibility. The multi-lingual Arendt with her dark personal experience of the rise of totalitarianism is the only person who can be right about Eichmann. This clearly poses a difficulty with explaining why other German Jews with comparable personal experiences and linguistic abilities like Blumenfeld, Jonas, and Gershom Scholem (seemingly merged into Blumenfeld's character in this film) also objected to Arendt's book. And the answer the movie gives us is basically that they're stubbornly over-committed to Zionism. This is forgivable because they've been though a lot, what with the Holocaust and all, but ultimately, they are just too angry and close-minded to see clearly. Reason is on Arendt's side, passion is on theirs. (Which, incidentally, seems incompatible with her younger self's incomprehensible but apparently seductive soliloquy about "passionate thinking" to a clownish Heidegger in one of the Heidegger flashback scenes that this movie really could've done without.)

And, to be fair, I suspected in advance that the film would demonize Arendt's detractors while turning her into a paragon of free thought against their venal attempts at censorship, and was watching for confirmations of my suspicion. Most of the movie is not this lame. But the depiction of Blumenfeld's and Jonas's intractable, unreasoning opposition after Arendt's articles are published was pretty flimsy. Surely Arendt was not the only person in the world to think seriously and unhysterically about evil and totalitarianism? If, as the movie suggests, her main qualifications to think seriously about this were contained in her life experiences (a claim which real-life Arendt rejected) and the rigor of her education, then Blumenfeld's and Jonas's claims should be as strong. Plus, there is a scene where sinister Mossad agents ambush Arendt at her country house demanding that she retract her book (over whose printing they have no control) and threatening to ban it in Israel (which they also can't do). And she bravely stands up to these fascist thugs (see, Jews can be fascists too, especially if they are Israeli) and says no! That's straight-up agit-prop.

Even though I think it tries to avoid this, the movie depicts "philosophy" as consisting in feeling agonized over something in your personal life, lying around, producing a deep thought, and then browbeating the public with your thought. This requires great courage, because the more brilliant your thought is, the more strenuously the public will oppose you. I suspect that it's really just too hard to visually depict the reciprocal relationships between reading, talking, thinking, and writing, and that the best way to experience them short of actually living them is not to watch a movie about people who thought but to read the books their thoughts are in. I'm not actually sure how this movie would even be interesting to anyone who hasn't read Arendt, or that it alone would pique anyone's interest in reading her. But I can see the appeal of a visual depiction for those who already love Arendt.

Friday, June 20, 2014

More on YA lit is bad, parody edition

This synthesizes the situation, style-wise:
"Her eyes were green in a really specific way. Other people’s eyes are green sometimes, but
not like the way her eyes were green.

Her hair smelled good, like some kind of fruit and also one kind of herb. “Your hair smells good, like some kind of fruit and also one kind of herb,” I told her.

“Thanks,” she said. “I washed it.”

Monday, June 16, 2014

John Cheever, Collected Stories

Another ambivalent chronicler of proprieties, like Henry James lite, showing at once how stifling and crazy-making all these social rules are and also how necessary. But in this case, either because Cheever makes himself less distant from his characters, or because their proprieties are less distant from mine, the sense of their importance and violation is more intuitive than James's. I still spent plenty of time looking up things like Lady Baltimore Cakes, serge suits, and Episcopalian church services. (I at first thought the characters were Catholic because they took communion, then decided this was improbable, vindicated my doubt via the internet, then wondered whether I've ever even met an Episcopalian.) Also puzzling was why, despite the fact that all the characters drink enough to euthanize a horse, no one is ever depicted drinking a beer or even a glass of wine, unless they're abroad. Was there really a world so recently lost whose inhabitants exclusively drank cocktails, whose alcoholism was so stylish? Maybe it still exists somewhere or could return, so that we don't have to spend our social lives trying hopelessly to discriminate the fruit notes in a tasting flight of microbrews?

I read "The Swimmer" in high school, and although it was beautiful and impossible to shake off, it also gave me the inaccurate impression that Cheever was a typical mid-century critic of bourgeois suburban despair. But the progression of the short stories suggests a different development: Cheever's early stories are more New York-centric, critical of the bareness and compression of city life, but already ironic and redemptive. ("Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor" is so aggressively ironic that it could be mistaken for something from O.Henry.) The middle stories are the suburban ones, taking place in old money (but besieged by new money) Shady Hill, where the burden of keeping up appearances has made everyone privately crazy, but where there is still enough sweetness in life that most of them eventually find something to keep them going, usually a crisis-induced realization of their love for or need of their spouses. In the Library of America edition that I read, there is a little essay inserted in the end, "Why I Write Short Stories," that strengthens my impression that these suburban stories cautiously embrace suburban life as a reasonable temporary shelter from the postwar storm, something less than the lofty dignity that its mishmash of historical facades aspires to, but something more substantial than mere appearances. It's the later stories, among them "The Swimmer," which are about irredeemable despair. But these are also less consistent - often we're abroad, usually in Italy, starting to approach Jamesian territory. I'm an impatient reader of the American expatriate's lament, so I skipped many of these.

One liberty that Cheever seems unable to permit his characters - in addition to a sip of wine or beer - is a divorce. There are many threats of and attempts to divorce, but the couples always recover each other in the end. In the only two stories of unsalvageable marriages, Cheever kills the couple's children first, as if in pre-emptive retaliation for their waywardness. It's not that there are no divorces or family abandonments off the page - we encounter many fatherless characters, and some who divorced at some point before the story begins. But that the story itself should countenance such a rupture seems impossible.

Finally, there is a short appreciation of Saul Bellow appended to this edition, particularly fitting for me because Bellow is one of the few contemporaneous writers I've read, and all throughout these stories, I kept thinking of their inversion of Bellow's preoccupations. Bellow's characters are hustlers, even those who find themselves in genteel professions (of which there seems to be approximately one for Bellow: the academic), where they proceed to become hustling professionals. And hustling works for Bellow's characters, though they sometimes suffer nervous breakdowns along the way. In Cheever's stories by contrast, there is a pronounced absence of hustling. He depicts some misguided efforts to hustle ("The Pot of Gold" and "O City of Broken Dreams"), but these schemes suggest that it's a doomed pursuit, in addition to being disreputable. In his appreciation, Cheever has a funny description of competing with Bellow: 
"I was determined to diminish the book. I read Augie March dead drunk in a heated room. I read it backwards. I read it upside down in a bucket of water. The clarity of the voice and the music he sang remained peerless. I then moved my family to Italy, where,on a winter afternoon, I saw a woman on a Roman bus reading with great intensity an Italian translation of Augie. I wanted to kill her."
I wonder if he saw him as representing American life from something like the opposite end, from the precariousness of clinging to the summit rather than the vagaries of climbing it?

Friday, June 13, 2014

On choosing an early modern sect to join

As a natural partisan, I have long wondered, while studying things related to the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, on whose side I would fight were I present at this time. I find it difficult to study any event or text or epoch, no matter how long-past, without vicariously taking a side in its disputes. Often the choice is easy, as when one must decide whether to be a Greek or a Persian, or an Athenian or Spartan in the fifth century BC, or a Ciceronian or anyone else in the first century. Sometimes it's more difficult, like the for some reason ubiquitous dilemma of my undergraduate life about whether to be a Greek or a Roman during the late Republic, a dilemma centering on a mutually exclusive choice between a philosophical and poetic tradition on one side, and a legal and historical one on the other. 

But the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries present us with a unique proliferation of choices. Assuming you were not geographically constrained, would you be a Lutheran, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Huguenot (or some other continental Calvinist), Catholic, Jesuit, Anglican, Jansenist, one of those weird Bohemian heretics, or something even more bizarre - Quaker, Ranter, Anabaptist? And let's be clear, you cannot be any of these things casually, but must choose on the assumption that you will be fighting for it, by means of either pen or sword. A great deal is at stake in this decision: an entire worldview, a way of life, the social and political order implied or expressly demanded by the theology you embrace. 

In college and for some time after, I assumed I would have obviously liked to be a Calvinist of some sort, most likely English, so that I could be a Puritan, but Scottish Presbyterianism would be acceptable as well. And if not that, then surely some other respectable sort of Protestant - an Anglican, if necessary. But time and study have revealed to me the hard fact that, all things considered, I would probably be happiest as a Jesuit. (Yes, I realize I would have to be male to qualify, but that's no less improbable than time travel, so I'm unperturbed by that technicality.) This realization goes against all my entrenched sympathy for Protestantism over Catholicism, which can alternately be understood as a preference for early America over everything else. It has been hard to come to terms with this new understanding of my hypothetical historical self and its implications for my previous staunch Puritan partisanship, but I am trying.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

A secular prayer for those afflicted by the World Cup

In the manner in which nondenominational, vaguely deontological benedictions were delivered to us in college:

We call this day upon the Great Benevolent Substance-Form That Infuses The Universe With Reason to preserve us against the irrational scourge of global soccer fandom by which we are quadrennially visited. From Thee, we seek patience and forbearance, especially those of us married to individuals of South American descent or those from the benighted nations of Europe and Africa whose peoples worship globular gods of synthetic leather on vast altars of turf. We ask

That when the screaming from the pub on the corner downstairs threatens our sleep, we may calmly close our windows and return to our slumbers and not launch projectiles in its direction.
That when we are shocked out of our sidewalk reveries by a car bearing foreign flags blaring its horn for no traffic-related reason, we are able to re-compose ourselves and continue on our paths rather than screaming obscenities after it.
That when we speak to our spouses whose heads are glued to their tablets, they do not respond with, "Gogogogogo...YES! GOAL! GOAL!" and then take a victory lap around our living rooms before re-affixing their tablets to their faces.
That when we are trapped in conversation about the relative merits of the various priests of this fanatical false religion, we may be permitted to pass through them unharmed with a non-committal response of "yes" to every question.
That when we are in close proximity to disputes waged by partisans of its competing sects, we may be preserved from the ensuing blows of their fists.
That when we are in the vicinity of partisans of a sect which has gained a recent victory, we may be spared the necessity of engaging in celebratory dance with them.
That when partisans around us have imbibed overzealously, we may avoid being the inadvertent receptacle for the contents of their stomachs.
That when we are dragged to viewings of these cultic rituals, we recall that with each additional enactment, we come closer to the conclusion of the whole.
That we may simply ignore our Facebook, Twitter, Feedly, and NYT feeds for the duration.

We beg of Thee a speedy deliverance from these and other instances of unreason which will beset us in the coming weeks, which we understand come as a logically necessary re-education for our ethically unsupportable actions of the past four years. For these things do we beseech you, Great Substance-Form, whose wisdom is complete and whose judgments are a priori just.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

John Cheever: not schlock

The opening of "O Youth and Beauty!":
At the tag end of nearly every long, large Saturday-night party in the suburb of Shady Hill, when almost everybody who was going to play golf or tennis in the morning had gone home hours ago and the ten or twelve people remaining seemed powerless to bring the evening to an end although the gin and whiskey were running low, and here and there a woman who was sitting out her husband would have begun to drink milk; when everybody had lost track of time, and the baby-sitters who were waiting at home for these diehards would have long since stretched out on the sofa and fallen into a deep sleep, to dream about cooking-contest prizes, ocean voyages, and romance; when the bellicose drunk, the crapshooter, the pianist, and the woman faced with the expiration of her hopes had all expressed themselves; when every proposal—to go to the Farquarsons’ for breakfast, to go swimming, to go and wake up the Townsends, to go here and go there—died as soon as it was made, then Trace Bearden would begin to chide Cash Bentley about his age and thinning hair. The chiding was preliminary to moving the living-room furniture. Trace and Cash moved the tables and the chairs, the sofas and the fire screen, the woodbox and the footstool; and when they had finished, you wouldn’t know the place. Then if the host had a revolver, he would be asked to produce it. Cash would take off his shoes and assume a starting crouch behind a sofa. Trace would fire the weapon out of an open window, and if you were new to the community and had not understood what the preparations were about, you would then realize that you were watching a hurdle race. Over the sofa went Cash, over the tables, over the fire screen and the woodbox. It was not exactly a race, since Cash ran it alone, but it was extraordinary to see this man of forty surmount so many obstacles so gracefully. There was not a piece of furniture in Shady Hill that Cash could not take in his stride. The race ended with cheers, and presently the party would break up.
This might be the most perfect opening - ironic, foreshadowing, and bizarrely funny - of a story that I've ever read.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

No one should read YA books

Allow me to intervene into and mediate the important internet dispute about who should be reading YA novels. The New Yorker's Margaret Talbot endorses YA books for everyone, while Slate's Ruth Graham suggests that books for children should be read by children. A meager third-way is advanced by The American Conservative's Catherine Addington, who says that while everyone should read YA books, adults should also remember that they are intended for children. That, in practice, means very little. So I have another, more conciliatory solution: no one should read YA books. They're bad for adults, yes, but they're also bad for young adults. This is because they're bad books.

First, let's be clear that when we refer to adults and young adults here, we almost exclusively mean women. Adolescent boys do not read YA books. I'm tempted to say that they do not read books, but will relent and say only that maybe they read other things - genre fiction and comics, perhaps. They do not squee over Edward the translucent vampire hottie in Twilight, or sigh over Katniss the inexhaustible post-apocalyptic warrior-princess in The Hunger Games, or melt over this new cancer romance that's apparently a Timeless Work of Literature, despite the fact that "Green is male and his first books featured boys as protagonists his new novel seemed capable of reaching both genders." Talbot's reportage tacitly admits that this capacity was never realized when she describes the movie preview:
Thousands of fans had lined up for free tickets, and, after the screening, they screamed when Elgort strode down the aisle for a Q. & A. But they screamed louder for Green. “We love you, John!” they called out...One questioner, who had to apologize for hyperventilating as she spoke, asked the five actors onstage to name their favorite lines from the book. Woodley was partial to “I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once”; Elgort cited “The world is not a wish-granting factory.” I had never watched a movie in a theatre where there was mass crying—not discreet nose-blowing, or stifled sniffles, but wracking sobs.
I've never watched a movie where there was mass crying either, but I have watched movies of mass crying and of shrieking, hysterical fandom like this - think of those videos of Beatles concerts in the '60s - and noticed that hyperventilating mass criers tend to be all of one sex. YA is for girls, and now also apparently for women who recall their girlhoods (too) fondly.

Second, it seems that everyone who is so enthused about this new cancer romance and wants to promote the virtues of YA for everyone has a very short memory for what they're promoting, because they have overlooked the great Lurlene McDaniel, author of eleventy million such books in the '80s and early '90s, all essentially identical except for some variation in the particular disease plaguing the characters. There would be a boy and a girl, both highly attractive and intelligent, but suffering from some horrible and usually terminal illnesses, who meet in the hospital, fall deeply and passionately in love, muse sentimentally on the meaning of their doomed romance, and then promptly die. You read one such book, have a good cathartic cry into your pillow at the end, then chuck it into the pile of never-to-be-reread YA drivel and immediately start in on the next one. Last time our lovers died of leukemia, before that of lupus, but this time, cystic fibrosis shall be their demise! This is not an original or daring foray into the edgy new territory of dying and grief; it's one of several well-worn tropes of YA lit (look at that long list of tearjerking titles on McDaniel's wikipedia page!).

But it's not just that YA is formulaic schlock, but that it's a genre whose origin is in a political effort to undermine parental authority, or at least the authority of insufficiently progressive parents, and reinvest that authority with YA authors, another point that none of these commenters notice. The banner for this effort is YA's supposed "realism," by contrast with the cloying, unrealistic moralism of its predecessors in the children's book industry. Reality is horrible things that happen to some people, while unreality is good things that happen to most people. None of this cotton candy be-good-and-you'll-be-loved stuff. Reality is do-good-and-you'll-be-raped. Books for children must depict rather than evade reality to be educative. Reality's constitutive elements may be summarized as: divorce, drugs, disease, depravity, dissolution, and death - often in combination or all at once. That's both what adults want to keep from children and what children most need to be exposed to, so they can be ready when their own turn to be ground down into powder comes. Have no fear children, YA authors are here to rescue you from the enforced ignorance in which your heartless parents would keep you! I've written about this all so many times that I won't belabor it again here, but you can read my previous posts here, here, here, and here.

Now, Talbot assures us not to worry about all that because The Fault in Our Stars is "tamer" than the average YA book, which I take to mean that it contains fewer items serially copied from the Catalogue of YA Issues and more character development rather than exposure to the rawest depravity of which people are capable. That's probably good. But I still don't see how it makes schlock into great literature; it just makes this into less schlocky schlock than the other schlock with which it shares shelf space. As with musical schlock, you can consume and enjoy it, but you ought not forget that it's schlock, which is to say not simply that it's aimed at a younger audience, as Addington suggests, but that it's objectively bad. There is great literature about love and death, and though I can't say for sure, having never read it, I'm willing to bet this book is probably not an example of it.

Does that mean that it can't still be a good warm-up for children, a gateway to the good stuff? Here we should be careful. Garbage fiction is not on its own going to turn anyone away from better things. Most young readers are pretty indiscriminate. I consumed reams of trash fiction between the ages of about eight and 18, and it didn't prevent me from reading better books both simultaneously and later on. However - and this is the real reason why no one should read YA books, not even the "young adults" at whom they're aimed - adolescents do not need training wheels for literature. They've already gone beyond children's literature, and they're ready for adult books - fiction, but also that collection of everything else that what we call "non-fiction." The real disservice adults do to children is not to hide "reality" as defined by Judy Blume from them, but to hide real books from them by propping up this genre of mawkish, salacious crap in front of them at the moment when they would otherwise move on to something better on their own (well, out of necessity really, unless they want to keep re-reading Little Women forever).

Graham says, "If people are reading Eleanor & Park instead of watching Nashville or reading detective novels, so be it, I suppose. But if they are substituting maudlin teen dramas for the complexity of great adult literature, then they are missing something." I'd only take this one step further to include, among "people," young adults. And she in a sense admits this herself, despite holding out for the value of YA lit for adolescents:
I remember, when I was a young adult, being desperate to earn my way into the adult stacks; I wouldn’t have wanted to live in a world where all the adults were camped out in mine. There’s a special reward in that feeling of stretching yourself beyond the YA mark, akin to the excitement of graduating out of the kiddie pool and the rest of the padded trappings of childhood: It’s the thrill of growing up.
But "the YA mark" is not some natural developmental hurdle you have to leap before you're ready for the real stuff. If you can understand The Hunger Games, you can understand Animal Farm and 1984, which are more politically sophisticated (and logical) dystopias. If you can understand teen girl romances, you can understand at least one level of Jane Austen. If you want to read about love and death, you can read Anna Karenina or even War and Peace, though you should be prepared for a long haul with some boring expounding of Tolstoy's theory of war if you go that route, but the point remains that the books are not beyond the intellectual grasp of a well-read adolescent (girl). If you can follow a bildungsroman, you can follow probably half of all American fiction. Maybe Faulkner and Melville and Joyce will still elude you for a while (or in my case, possibly forever), but that hardly requires crawling back to Judy Blume and the anticipation and exhilaration of...wait for it (and you will be waiting for it, for 250 pages)...a first period! And none of these books may yet render to the adolescent reader the satisfaction of full mastery on first reading that a YA book will, but that's only further evidence of how subpar YA books are.

So basically, I agree with whoever it was that suggested a single standard for evaluating all literature, only I'd make an exception for literature for actual children, like Winnie the Pooh, because I don't know in what terms one could compare it to, say, Henry James, unless we just laud its delightful whimsy and admit this is simply one of the possible good qualities of literature that James lacked. I suppose I could be open to this approach, although it might become difficult to compare children's books against one another, since they'd all be degrees of whimsical.