Sunday, January 31, 2010

A Sunday thought

Some beliefs get stated in a tone that precludes any disagreement. A good example is the condemnation of casuistry. My Oxford Concise Dictionary even defines the word as meaning "the use of clever but false reasoning."

For any dedicated deontologist, this must be the case. Your duty is your duty and any attempt to argue that duty may vary in response to particular cases would destroy any ethical system that defined duty in terms of moral laws.

I'd argue that casuistry is an essential part of any morality worth following. It couldn't be the foundation of that morality but it would be a part of all our moral decision making. I'd go further and say that it is a part of all actual moral decision making. And nowhere is that more true than in the case of Christian morality.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

What he said

A long post, but who am I to complain about long, that makes a very good point about Catholic biblical interpretation. If you care about that sort of thing—and you don't have to— go here.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Drink this ...

... and you will never forget anything nor need to learn anything again. I mean Bourbon, of course.

There is an intriguing new book out on the subject called Bourbon: 50 Rousing Recipes for a Classic American Spirit. You can read more about it here.

All of which inspires me to post the one and only true and authentic Mint Julep recipe (which is just another way of saying, "it's my recipe").

Mint julep

Combine 2 teaspoons confectioner's sugar, 2 tablespoons Rose water and about six sprigs of mint in a julep cup. Muddle and allow to stand for a few minutes. Add 4 ounces, yes four ounces, of Bourbon. Stir well. Pack with crushed ice.

Important update: Crush your ice by hand, not in a blender. Put it in a plastic bag, wrap the bag in a bar towel, place it on the bar and whack it with a bar hammer. (You do have a bar hammer don't you?) The result should be about the size of rock salt. If you use the puréed ice you get by using the blender you will get an undrinkable mess called a Bourbon Slurpee which requires a straw and will qualify you for arrest as a sex offender as the only possible use of such a concoction is to get sixteen year old girls drunk in a hurry.

A few explanations.
  1. "Jul" is the Arabic word for "rose". "Julep" (from julab) means rose water. If you make it with the finest spring water or, shudder, chlorinated tap water, it isn't a julep. And nine million supposedly "authentic" or "original" recipes to the contrary cannot change this undeniable fact.
  2. Only that very unfortunate man who manages to be combine the worst vices of barbarians and effeminate wimps would drink anything at all out of Collins glass—and that goes triple for an actual Collins whether Tom, John or any of their misbegotten siblings.
  3. Anyone who ever calls or even vaguely suggests that Jack Daniels is Bourbon will be castrated without anesthetic.
  4. There is a song called One Mint Julep (was the start of it all). Heed the words:

Which notable lady ...

Modern Traditionalist has a poll running. The question is: Which notable lady embodies the disposition a modern female should uphold? The choices are Audrey Hepburn, Babe Paley, Emily Post, Grace Kelly, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis or Lee Bouvier Radziwill.

I found that I got down to just two contenders fairly quickly: Audrey Hepburn and Emily Post. After that, the choice was made all the more difficult because some of these choices are double. Do I vote for the public persona of Audrey Hepburn or do I include what I know of her private life in my deliberations? I decided not to include those details because Audrey Hepburn, however saddening some of her choices were, always kept a veil over the more intimate side of her life.

It''s easier to decide in Grace Kelly's case. Her public conduct, and the rather more unfortunate public conduct of her daughters, forces the private details on us. And those details must disqualify her—as is also the case with the Bouvier sisters—immediately. Babe Paley, while a contender, lacks the the grace of Audrey Hepburn and the gravitas of Emily Post.

So it boils down to grace versus gravitas.

And that's it ...

... for Northanger Abbey.

A bit of a break from the novels now because there is some stuff I want to say about stories before moving on to Sense and Sensibility. I also want to do something far more ambitious with that book and will need to do a little preparing first.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Why I am a libertine (1)

Let's cue up my good friend and confidant Aquinas (whose feast day is today):

Well-ordered self-love is right and natural.
He's right. Now, immediately, the question is, "What does well-ordered mean?"

And the answer we will give will differ widely depending on how we understand morality. I would even say that only someone who embraces virtue ethics can give a satisfactory answer here. Why? Because virtue ethics is about teleology. Okay, big word, but what it means is that your life should be aimed at something. I'll try and explain what this is by first explaining what it is not in terms of an example.

Here is the example. First year university, everybody is drinking and celebrating and letting loose a bit. There is a party in the common room and someone has put a porn DVD on to play and both women and men are watching. (As you probably have guessed, this is an actual case.) Would it be right or wrong for you to join in?

If your idea of ethics is based on duty the answer you give will apply now and for always. If binge drinking or watching porn is wrong it's wrong for everyone at all times. You might find reasons to mitigate. If you think it's wrong you still might say a 19 year old has a bit more of an excuse because they have less life experience and are more susceptible to peer pressure than a 39 year old and therefore you might be less severe in your censure. But you can't approve.

And here comes something really odd. People who believe that morality is a matter of doing your duty have to do one of two things. Either they have to say that desires are irrelevant and the only thing that matters is duty (so being well-ordered is also irrelevant), or they have to say that in a well-ordered person duty and desire tend to be the same thing. So, to become well ordered you have to make a distinction between false and real desires. You don't really hope the young woman bends over again so you can see her breasts, you would prefer to respect her as a human being (even if you're pretty sure it isn't an accident that she chose that top and that bra).

The problem with this notion of "well ordered" is that it defies our self knowledge. I'm sorry, I really do want to see your breasts. I'm a polite and civilized guy so I keep it to myself and I don't stare or hide in the bushes outside your bedroom window but if you reach down to pick up the napkin you just dropped and your shirt falls open, I'll steal a glance and I will feel nothing but pleasure at the sight. Trust me on this, it has happened before and I hope it happens again.

If your are a consequentialist, the answer to the question of what is well-ordered is going to be based on outcomes. In the example I have given, those will be psychological. Is it healthy? This is probably where most current Catholic moral thinkers sit. "Well ordered" to them means the way a psychologically well-adjusted human being acts and they will worry about the ways that alcohol or pornography might upset your adjustment point as it were. And they will also spend a lot of time and pixels convincing you that much of modern culture is making people unbalanced psychologically and, therefore, morally. (Not just Catholics, by the way, liberals and libertarians have exactly the same concerns they just have a different answer about what the adjustment point ought to be and tend to think that it is moral restrictions in the broader culture rather than moral laxness that make people unbalanced.)

So, we're back at the dorm in first year. What does our typical Catholic moralist say? They say, look, if you slip up that's okay provided you confess your sin but you have to get this under control. And getting it under control means doing it the right way. Drink and enjoy your drink but don't enjoy it too much. And if you find you keep failing, well then cut it out altogether.

That's not a crazy way to think. Being a well-adjusted human being is a huge blessing and if you suspect you have a drinking problem, you have to do something about it. But this thinking has significant limitations. Consider arguments against porn. Your Catholic moralist can't say, go ahead and enjoy the porn just don't enjoy it too much. No, they have to say don't enjoy the porn at all because it will make you a badly adjusted human being. That is why you don't have to read far into much contemporary Catholic thought about porn before you will hit the term "porn addiction". And, again, it would be no laughing matter to end up addicted to porn just as it is no laughing matter to end up addicted to alcohol. But most people who use porn or binge drink don't end up addicted to either.

The problem with this notion of well-ordered is that it defies our knowledge of others. There is no clear causal relationship here. And people who do end up addicted to alcohol, for example, seem to be suffering from a disease. And just as six people can walk out into the rain and only the one who already has contracted a flu virus will suffer, so it seems that lots of people can use porn or binge drink and suffer no negative consequences whatsoever. And people aren't stupid; they can see that most people don't suffer serious psychological or moral consequences from doing these things so they ignore moral teaching based on that understanding of what it means to be "well-ordered".

In virtue ethics being well-ordered means developing the character and habits you need to become the person you ought to be. Along the way, we might quite reasonably say that everyone ought to have certain experiences. That these are part of our moral development. And we can even acknowledge that we will make mistakes (that is do things that no one ought to do at any age) and learn from them rather than just suffer negative consequences.

And? Well, and a lot of stuff but short answer, I think that sensual pleasures are an essential part of becoming human. There are real risks and dangers in pursuing these things but I think God intended us to experience comfort and pleasure here on earth. These things don't just make us feel good, they remind us of God's plan for us. Eating good food, drinking wine and other alcoholic beverages (the first mouthful of cold beer on a hot day is gift from God), even if it means getting drunk sometimes, and seeing beautiful women and having sex, even if that means getting really worked up about it, are things that help us to become what we are supposed to be.

What to make of the end (4)

Okay, but Austen has been burlesquing something in this novel right? You aren't denying that are you Jules?

No, I don't deny it. And I'll grant that I have been pig-headedly holding off the burlesque as long as I could; always focusing on other aspects of the novel. But there is a reason for this. I think that the target of the burlesque is not the novels but some of the women who read them. And I think that always was the target.

And I still stand by my earlier arguments that this book is not, despite nine million other people saying it is, a Gothic burlesque. It contains a burlesque yes, but my house is not a kitchen because it contains a kitchen.

In that earlier post, I a later book called The Heroine by Eaton Stannard that was written later than Northanger Abbey but published before it. That book actually does what people say this one does. It has a heroine who imagines herself to be like the heroine of a Gothic novel.

I think Austen's point is rather the opposite. She did not, as a lot of male critics of her time did, blame novels for causing women to assume a lot of fanciful nonsense. She thought women behaved like heroines of romantic fiction rather than assuming the moral responsibilities of assuming their roles in life all too easily without any help at all. And I don't think that anyone who has read her novels can deny this. Starting with Mrs. Allen here and carrying on through Mrs. Dashwood, Mrs. Bennett, Mrs. Norris, Mrs Betram. Elizabeth Elliot and (I hope you are sitting down for this one) Emma Woodhouse, Austen targets the follies of women of her age with a pen dipped in acid.

(She doesn't spare the men either but there the criticism is presented differently and I'll get to it with Sense and Sensibility.)

And I think she tells us this is her target in plain language here in Northanger Abbey:
Feelings rather natural than heroic possessed her; instead of considering her own dignity injured by this ready condemnation — instead of proudly resolving, in conscious innocence, to show her resentment towards him who could harbour a doubt of it, to leave to him all the trouble of seeking an explanation, and to enlighten him on the past only by avoiding his sight, or flirting with somebody else — she took to herself all the shame of misconduct, or at least of its appearance, and was only eager for an opportunity of explaining its cause.
You might find the sort of "feelings heroic" that Austen condemns here in a Gothic novel, although you don't find much of it in Ann Radcliffe. But, even if, you don't have to go anywhere so exotic to find it. Walk across any university campus in the land and you will find women (and men) behaving exactly like this. Austen saw it all around her. And I think she also saw it in herself. And that is what she set out to mock here.

In the process, I think she discovered something else. Remember that Austen is already writing her other novels. Northanger Abbey is not the first novel she starts writing it is only the first one she manages to finish to her satisfaction (at the time, later she was not satisfied with it). It's a very different book from the first drafts of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, originally called Mariann and Elinor and First Impressions. Those drafts were epistolary novels, written entirely in letters like those of Richardson, whom she obviously admired profoundly.

I speculated at the beginning of my blogging Northanger Abbey that Austen undertook this burlesque as result of her disappointment in those other efforts. She fell back on something she knew she could do well. Somewhere in the middle of writing, though, I think she realized that she had something good here. That underneath any Radcliffe-like plot, there had to be a real story. A story not requiring all those improbable adventures that could not happen in the modern England that both Radcliffe and Austen loved.

You can find this plot yourself in any Radcliffe book if you care to do the archeology. It's true even today of mystery, fantasy and science fiction. Those genre books that aren't trash, are worth reading for the genuine story under the murder. In Northanger Abbey I think Austen found that genuine story kept getting expanded until all that was left of the burlesque was four chapters squeezed towards the end.

PG Wodehouse once said that his books were like musical comedies without the music. Ann Radcliffe's books are haunted by history. No heroine of hers can get through life without the towering evils of the old Catholic world of superstition and intrigue hovering over her. Jane Austen's novels are a lot like the those Radcliffe novels with all that Romantic flavour taken out.

What to make of the end (3)

Meanwhile, real dangers do threaten Catherine. Dangers she is utterly unaware of and unprepared for. When it all blows up, she cannot even begin to imagine why.

This, strange as this might seem, is a huge moment. This is the foundation of the rest of Austen's fiction. Take a book like Udolpho and take out the elements that Henry says cannot take place in modern England and you have the basis for a different kind of story. You'd have to rethink motives and relations somewhat but you wouldn't have to rethink them completely. Fantasy fiction starts by exempting itself from some rules but it cannot exempt itself from all rules and good fantasy stories must pay heed to non-fantastic motives and relations. Strip the castle out of Udolpho and you have a story about an orphaned girl at the hands of relatives. And this, in turn, is an almost universal story because most of us leave a home where everyone loves us to go out into a world where people's motives are neither transparent nor consistent.

At heart of Radcliffe's fiction are story elements that Jane Austen will use for the rest of her career. If I remember, I'll come back to this when I get to Pride and Prejudice because there is an interesting relationship between it and Radcliffe's The Italian. And again, in Mansfield Park we will see how Austen uses elements from stories about virgin martyrs to shape a new story about Fanny Price.

My point is, that is what she does from now on. Austen looks at certain grand narrative forms and rewrites these stories in terms of the beautiful, feminine, intimate details that other writing has tended to leave out. With Sense and Sensibility, however, she aims much higher. That book doesn't rewrite a Radcliffe story , it rewrites a Shakespeare story.

Am I really a libertine?

The perils of being a small time blogger. My unofficial comments policy is that I will publish all critical comments but no abusive ones. And, no, I'm not defining abusive. I remain confident that I will recognize abuse when I see it.

Anyway, I recently received, and published, a comment from someone who more or less defines irony impaired. (Is it abusive that I say that about him? Some might think so, I don't.) This person seems to have read the word "libertine" in the blog title and taken it at face value and assumed I'm with him. I doubt he read the post he was commenting on very carefully. He just thought he found a place to advertise his philosophy.

But am I really a libertine? I could also ask am I really crypto-Catholic? Only that wouldn't make much sense. Saying you're crypto-Catholic is like announcing you are in the closet. The second you say it out loud, you no longer are. Libertine is a tricky concept. In some ways, I could simply say yes.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

What Eberstadt gets right

The truth in her article is all in this paragraph:
Does the relaxing of dogma drive people from church, or does the decline in attendance push leaders to relax dogma? As with the previous discussion of dissent, we do not really need to know the answer in all its causal complexity. All we really need to know—as the brilliant convert and teacher Monsignor Ronald Knox observed in an essay some eighty years ago, “The Decline of Dogma and the Decline of Church Membership”—is that “the evacuation of the pew and the jettisoning of cargo from the pulpit” have been going on side by side for as long as Christianity Lite has been attempted. As with doctrinal dissent, it seems, where one appears, the other is sure to follow.
The central argument for what Eberstadt calls Christianity lite was always that it would draw more people in. Its proponents argued that they would save Christianity form extinction. In practice, this approach has been an abject failure. Funnily, even as it fails, some proponents argue that we need to move all the faster. That is the thing we need to keep reminding proponents of Christianity Lite of: hey guys, you failed and failed by your own standards.

The fate and effectiveness of Catholic sexual teachings is another subject for another day.

Catholics need to stop ...

... making arguments like the one Mary Eberstadt has over at First Things.

In a piece that could rightfully be described as a screed Eberstadt manages to get basic facts wrong and completely misread history. But much, much, much worse than that she says this:
Although commentators quickly dubbed this unexpected overture a “gambit,” what it truly exhibits are the characteristics of a move known in chess as a “brilliancy,” an unforeseen bold stroke that stunningly transforms the game.
No, he did no such thing. His move was not strategic but pastoral. He saw sheep without a shepherd and he offered them a home.

More importantly, this is not a strategic game. The point of Christianity is not to be the dominant force in this world. It is not to see off opponents called Christianity lite.

Eberstadt's triumphalism continues with an assertion that it is traditional Christian moral teaching that divides the Orthodox winners from Chrsitian Lite losers. Would it be unkind to remind her that it is precisely in those jurisdictions where Catholicism held the most sway politically and culturally—e.g. Italy, France, parts of Germany and Quebec—where the birth rate is the lowest today. Below the replacement rate in fact. This suggests that supposedly pro-family Catholic teaching was not particularly pro-family in practice. It suggests that people "followed" Catholic sexual morality because it was imposed on them by the culture and politics and when that yoke was removed they ran free.

As Gregory the Great noted long ago, a Catholic Church without lots of children being born has no future. Yes indeed, Christianity Lite is floundering, but to take as a lesson from that that everything is hunky dory on our side of the tracks is delusional at best.

And, please, no educated person should ever write anything as ill-informed as the following:
In fact, in a fascinating development now visible in retrospect, the Anglican departure over divorce appears as the template for all subsequent exercises in Christianity Lite.
Please, Henry did not found Anglicanism. He created the mess that necessitated its founding but his search for divorce was not the founding principle of Anglicanism. This a fact so obvious even Eberstadt includes it in the very next sentence she writes (thus destroying her own argument):
For about two centuries, and despite its having been midwifed into existence by the divorcing Henry VIII, the Church of England held fast to the same principle of the indissolubility of marriage on which the rest of Christian tradition insisted.

I do wish writers like Eberstadt would step back a moment and consider the effects their writing will have on outsiders. Her smug, triumphalist writing will only appeal to people inside her camp, and her camp is a subset even of Catholics. Everyone else will be appalled.

The really sad truth is that there is a grain of truth at the heart of what Eberstadt says here; there is a point that should be made. Unfortunately it gets swamped by all the other nonsense she writes. And what is it? Check my next post.

What to make of the end (2)

The moment that strains our credulity to the breaking point in Northanger Abbey is the moment when Henry reproves Catherine for her suspicions about his father. Even given what we have guessed, and our guess is soon confirmed, about the nature of the relationship between the General and his children, this moment passes too easily. The relationship between Catherine and Henry should be heavily strained by this. At the very least, a grovelling apology is required from Catherine. Nothing like that happens.

Here is what I think actually happens. This conversation exists solely so that Austen can have Henry make her points for her. And here he makes them:
Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open?
That is not, as I have argued before, a criticism of Radcliffe. Radcliffe's novels are deliberately set in in countries other than England to make exactly the point Austen is making here—that these things could not happen in England (although they could happen in the exotic south).

But, here is the thing, the whole point is that Catherine's sensibilities as developed by her reading of Radcliffe (and others) has no connection to her life in England. They don't connect in the book because they cannot connect. And that is the message we are to draw.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

What to make of the end

The part of Book 2 Chapters 5 to 9 is unlike anything else in the book and it isn't at all clear what they have to do with the rest of it. The temptation is to say it's simply a burlesque of Radcliffe but the rest of the book doesn't do much burlesquing of Radcliffe: only these four chapters do. What is Jane Austen up to here?

The question, "What is she trying to do?" is so tempting but I think wrong. I had a English professor years ago who started our class by saying that anyone who wrote a sentence along the lines of "Shakespeare [or other famous] writer is trying to ..." in an essay or answer to an exam question would be summarily failed. It's a good rule of thumb. It does not matter, and in any case we cannot know, what Austen was trying to do. What matters is what she achieves.

So, here is what I think. There is a burlesque of Radcliffe in this novel. It is forehadowed. When it arrives, it is exactly four chapters long. It does not connect with anything else in the story. So, what Austen achieves is a non-connection.

Huh? I'll explain in another post.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Is Henry a good influence?

On Catherine I mean?

As I have said somewhere before, Henry Tilney sometimes acts in a way that suggests that he is too much at his creator's behest. This criticism has also been leveled at Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice but I think with less justice.

No the problems with Henry are twofold. First, he too often says things just to be playful as is the case in his getting poor Catherine worked up about the mysteries of the abbey. Second, and far more troublesome, he does not have any pedagogical influence on Catherine and she cannot have any on him. Catherine, disturbingly, comes to trust him so implicitly that we have to wonder what chance their future marriage could possibly have as it will be the union of a playful wit and an unthinking follower. He'd be bored, she would inevitably be exploited.

The importance of analyzing motives

Anyone who plugs along this far will have noticed that I am not summarizing the plot the way some other Austen bloggers do. I assume people actually want to read the book or already have. I like to raise questions.

One interesting thing about all Austen novels, I may have already said this somewhere, is how much they share in common with mystery novels. Our heroine has to analyze the motives of others to succeed. With one notable exception, every Austen heroine is a female sleuth analyzing and explaining the motives of others. The glaring exception is Catherine Morland. As Henry points out to her, she unfailingly assumes other people have the best motives.

In Book 2, chapter 3 this weakness of character—and for Austen it is a weakness—reaches its maximum depth. Isabella's perfidy meets its match in Captain Tilney. This sets a course of events that will hurt Catherine's brother but is to his ultimate advantage.

Catherine completely misses the thought process of a loaded line from Isabella. In comes in response to Isabella's making a case on behalf of her brother and Catherine emphatic insistence that she is not interested followed by a declaration that is really a plea: "And you know, we shall still be sisters,"

To this Isabella replies, "'Yes, yes,' (with a blush), 'there are more ways than one of of our being sisters. — But where am I wandering to. ...." Well, as is obvious to everyone but Catherine, she is definitely trying to wander out into something.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

My Godfather ...

... died today. Exactly twelve hours ago. He was the greatest man I have ever known.

Addendum to a Sunday thought

One of the many reasons I am certain this and some other anti-moral songs of Tori Amos's are not strictly autobiographical is that she doesn't worry about getting the autobiographical details straight. The daughter of the Reverend Doctor Edison Amos wouldn't refer to her priest and her father as two different persons if she was writing of her own experience.

Further, when the daughter of Reverend Doctor Edison Amos says, "here I stand", you can be sure she fully understands what she is echoing. This is personal moral stand against the kind of morality the modern world offers us and on this I am with her all the way. I can do no other.

How Austen differs from Radcliffe

1. She differs in that there are no actual terrors to drive Catherine Morland's wild imaginings. Unlike a Radcliffe novel, there is no mysterious, half-ruined Gothic castle, there are no huge craggy mountains and there are no evil plots of kidnapping, poisoning or forced starvation in secluded rooms hidden beneath monasteries.

Radcliffe, by the way, didn't think these things happened in England. Her novels are set in far-away romantic lands that are haunted by history. So while it may seem that Austen is mocking the view in Radcliffe, she is merely making the milder case that a heroine living in modern England will not have the experiences Radcliffe describes.

2. Fiction itself, including Radcliffe's is a major contributor to Catherine Morland's imaginings.

3. The sexuality in Austen is direct whereas it is allegorical in Radcliffe. The black veil in Udolpho, for example, is a fairly obvious symbol for female sexuality but a symbol it remains. (Veils and veiling are probably the most common literary device in Radcliffe.) The sexuality in Austen may seem tentative by our standards but sexuality it is. When blood rushes to the cheeks of an Austen heroine as she is helped out of a carriage by some gentleman, it is perfectly clear her blood rushes elsewhere too.

3. The real threat in Austen is never something capable of causing terror. People really do get murdered in Radcliffe. In Austen, the threat is social. Her heroine's risk being ruined in society. What Catherine is threatened by is being cut off from contact with Henry forever because of the prejudice and bad character of the General.

4. Radcliffe's novels are haunted by the past. Beliefs, practices and superstition of the past that threaten our heros and heroines. Catherine risks making a terrible fool of herself because of her infatuation with fiction about these things but there is none of this in her experiences. Jane Austen is thoroughly modern Jane and everything in her stories is very much up-to-date for their time.

A Sunday thought

I'm going to bring the tone down a bit again.

Tori Amos appears to have had a happy childhood. We can't, of course, be too certain about things like that but the evidence is pretty good in this case. I mention it because it might seem as if some of her songs, Take to the Sky with its opening line "This house is like Russia" for example, are autobiographical but they probably aren't.

And even if you insist, despite a lack of evidence, that Tori actually had a horrible childhood and is keeping it a secret, there are still lots of other middle class kids who had nothing but love and support but are angry adults.

So where does all the anger come from? What is it directed at?

I think it is directed at morality. Modern morality, which is to say that it is directed at a morality that offers nothing in return for moral behaviour. As I say, I am dragging things down a bit but I think Tori makes a sound argument about moral theology here. If the only reasons we can give for moral behaviour is either duty or the possibility from produces good social consequences, then this is a rational response:

Follow up on todays celebrating

The thing that got Ann Althouse and Emily Bazelon started on that discussion I posted earlier, was this Pew study on marriage. There is a lot in that study but Althouse and Bazelon particularly notice that the study shows that men now seem to benefit more economically from marriage than previously and that marriage roles are changing because women are increasingly the main breadwinner in a marriage. Bazelon links this to the greater success women are having in education now.

Some observations about this, some of which may appear contradictory and others are bound to offend:
1. The most important information in the entire study is this part: "... those with more education are far more likely than those with less education to be married, a gap that has widened since 1970. Because higher education tends to lead to higher earnings, these compositional changes have bolstered the economic gains from being married for both men and women."

With these sorts of social phenomena, it is important to remember that the causality is potentially reversible. The wording above says married people earn more because they have more education. But it strikes me as considerably more likely that that getting married and staying married is a cultural trait of the upper middle class and is, therefore, a marker for success in all fields.

2. The Jane Austen point: marriage is an agreement people enter into for sexual, moral and practical reasons. A big part of practical is economic. If you want a successful marriage, you will pay due consideration to all three. If you want to fail, you will allow one to predominate.

Any socially competent person will meet hundreds of people they could fall deeply in love with. Meeting someone you could have a successful marriage with is far rarer and a far more important goal to have in life than erotic love. Contrary to what thousands of books, songs, movies and television shows tell us, erotic love is a trivial and easy thing to do. We're biologically programmed to fall in love and any idiot can do it. Having a successful marriage is a far greater achievement in every way.

3. We pay people in the professions far too much money and this has been made possible by gross distortions placed on the market by the very idea of professional status and state management and regulation of professional fields. This imbalance cannot be maintained and the salaries of lawyers, doctors and, especially, high school teachers should and will drop about a third in real terms in the coming decades. Once the artificial incentive to go into these professions has been removed, fewer people, including fewer really smart people, will be attracted to them and this will make for a better society.

4. The education bubble will burst. A post-secondary education costs too much money and gives too little benefit. The market will adjust for this.

Celebrating: the Patron saint of discount retail

Today is the feast day of Francis de Sales. Always the "de" and never translated as "of" for reasons that are kind of funny if you think about it. I own five books of saints and every single one of them unhesitatingly prints "Francis of Paola" but then "Francis de Sales". This says a lot about our idea of saints, and not just the way Catholics think about saints; it tells us that no one wants to suggest, even accidentally, that there might be a patron say of discounted retail prices.

Well, there ought to be and I hereby, on the basis of no legitimate authority whatsoever, add this to his patronage. Retail sales are a very good thing and the world is a better place for them. Those who hold them and those who attend them now have a patron saint.

And it seems to me, in that regard, entirely fitting that his most famous quote is: "Whoever preaches with love preaches effectively." And anyone who doubts that we live in a debased age, compare that believe with these sentiments where all distinction between moral persuasion and moral manipulation is obliterated.

In his honour, I give you this fascinating discussion:

Lots to comment on here, but for now I just want to highlight this fascinating tidbit from the above:
Ann Althouse: "It might be that there is something at a biological/sexual level with most human beings where they are more satisfied with the man in the dominant role."

Emily Bazelon: "Um, I don't now, you have to cite me some really solid study or else it is going to sound like [inaudible] baloney to me. How can we be wired for men to be in the dominant role."

Ann Althouse: "No, no, no listen to me, In. The. Actual. Sex. Act."

Emily Bazelon: "Oh, Oh I missed that part."
After which they proceed, Ms. Bazelon having no trouble accepting that possibility.

The thing that I have been highlighting in these "celebrating" posts is what has changed and what has not. In the 1980s, that discussion between two self-identified feminists was unthinkable.

What Austen owes Radcliffe

The title on this post will puzzle anyone who hasn't actually read Radcliffe. And most people have not and should feel no shame at not having done so. It's work to read Radcliffe now. I quite like her but can't recommend her with the ease that I'd recommend a others.

For the benefit of those who have a lot of good reading to do before they get to Radcliffe, here are a few things you might not guess.

1. There is no supernatural in Radcliffe. There are no ghosts, no magical powers, no spells, no demons. Every single thing that happens has a natural explanation.

2. The (false) sense that something supernatural might be at work is always a product of the hero or heroine's imagination just as is the case in Northanger Abbey.

3. The hero or heroine's wild imaginings get out of control because he or she is in a stress causing situation such as visiting some romantic and awe-inspiring locale. This is very close to but not quite what happens to Catherine Morland.

4. Ultimately, the explanation for the bad things that happen to the hero or heroine is a plainly human cause. There is a person who is motivated by evil will and a lifetime of nursing their vices who is behind it all. Again, Catherine Morland's case is close to this but not quite.

5. Just as the supernatural elements are imagined in both Radcliffe and Austen, it also turns out to be the case that the heroine is faced by some very real threat.

6. Finally, because the supernatural is not real in Radcliffe, the encounters with this imagined supernatural don't drive the plot.

I'll explain the "not quites" in a later posts about how Austen differs from Radcliffe. For now though, I hope the similarity is clear.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Symmetry (3)

I have always thought that TS Eliot's greatest critical failure was his review of Ulysses. He sees the formality that Joyce imposes on the book through the use of Homer as a great triumph. I know this will get a lot of people really angry, but I see nothing but failure in Ulysses. Here is how the Cambridge Companion to Modernism sets it up:
Eliot wanted to make the novel possible again by instilling into it a stricter form. He admired Joyce's use of Homeric myth as "a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history."
Here is the thing, it doesn't work. Empty formalism doesn't work in Joyce and it doesn't work anywhere else either, unless you take the point to be to show how empty modern life is by setting it against the classical form.

And it's a problem in Northanger Abbey too. Not in the same sense, Austen didn't think that applying a formal structure was enough to make chaos meaningful. She thought stories had this structure because life itself, far from futile and anarchic, was best described in certain forms.

No, I think the problem with the symmetrical form here brings out is that the book isn't finished. Austen either planned more revisions or she'd given it up as a lost cause (I'm guessing the latter).

More on that cover

At least one of the people who criticized me over at the Macleans blog was kind enough to come over to this blog. He saw that the blog was "mostly about virtue" and asked what connection my skepticism about the suffering portrayed on the cover could have with virtue.

I think the most important moral question about that cover is the following: Why would someone buy a magazine with that picture on it? And why did Macleans feel comfortable using that image to make money? And we might add, why has it become a socially acceptable practice for news media to produce these sort of sentimental memorials and for us to buy them.

If you go back, you'll notice that Paul Wells, in the original post, has no trouble raising the marketing question.
We usually pack the front page with “refers” to as many as a dozen different stories because we can never know which story will catch any individual reader’s attention. That strategy has now been rewarded with four consecutive years of increasing newsstand sales. But this week there was no need for that scattergun approach.
Okay, you walk down the street this week (not last week when it was news) and you see that cover with a picture of anguish and grief and a single word, "Haiti" on it. The people who produced that cover assume you already know what the story is about. And you do; there isn't an intelligent being in the galaxy that doesn't already know. And the chances of Macleans having anything that even vaguely counts as news in this issue are slim.

I think it would have been a bit more honest to call it the "Haiti Earthquake Commemorative Issue" because that is what it is. It serves a similar function to the issue of Michael Jackson. We buy things like this in order to feel more connected to the event. It arouses sentiments. And it does nothing else at all.

I upset some people

Over at the Macleans blog, Paul Wells posted this week's cover, which you can see above. Someone with the screen tag ex canuck was first post in and he had a simple question. Was it posed? This provoked a certain amount of anger.

Which is odd. I find it particularly odd given that there is something about that picture that feels a little too good to be true. Which isn't to say I can safely conclude that it was posed. It might be legitimate. But it is also a case of a kid expressing anguish and grief in a classic pose found in a lot of art and when that happens, I think it is legitimate to ask questions.

Check out these examples and you will see what I mean:

Caravaggio's Deposition

Goya's 3 mai

Picasso's Guernica (look for the figure on the right)

And we might wonder about the coincidence of events required to get this shot. The kid just happened to express grief and anguish in this classic pose and the photographer was in exactly the right place to get the shot? Remember that the photographer has to be crouched to get this picture as he is taller than the kid he is photographing. And he has to be just a few feet away in this crouched position.

It could happen. The photographer might have been crouched taking a picture of something else and the kid just happened to come along, throw her hands up and look to the sky for relief from her suffering and the photographer thought quickly pivoted and caught the shot. These things do happen in real life. However, anyone with even a modicum of knowledge of the history of photojournalism will know that many photographers have given into the temptation to help reality along a bit.

I joined in over at Macleans to defend ex canuck's position. I think it is okay to raise the skeptical question. Others disagreed. You can see the complete thread here. You may have to scroll down and open up a collapsed sub-thread. Look for the red tag that says 17 replies (or perhaps more when you get to it) and click on it to open up.

The thing you will notice is how uncivil and quick to insult the people attacking me are. You'll also notice how utterly unsophisticated their criticisms are. They conflate the actual suffering in Haiti with the news report in Macleans. They forget that Macleans is owned by a corporation dedicated to making money (a point that Paul Wells himself does not miss in his commentary in the original post).

All critical comments will be accepted. Abusive ones will not.

The odd remark

I have been puzzling about a rather odd thing Austen says in the middle of the book:
From the latter circumstance it may be presumed that, whatever might be our heroine’s opinion of him, his [Captain Tilney's] admiration of her was not of a very dangerous kind; not likely to produce animosities between the brothers, nor persecutions to the lady. He cannot be the instigator of the three villains in horsemen’s greatcoats, by whom she will hereafter be forced into a traveling–chaise and four, which will drive off with incredible speed.
Well, that is preceded earlier in the book by another odd comment back in Book 1, Chapter 12. We are at the theatre and Catherine is feeling badly about the incident wherein John Thorpe refused to stop as they went by the Tilney's in his carriage. She is concerned that she has insulted the Tilneys. Seeing Henry at the theatre and concerned that he is being distant and formal, she worries:
Catherine was restlessly miserable; she could almost have run round to the box in which he sat and forced him to hear her explanation. Feelings rather natural than heroic possessed her; instead of considering her own dignity injured by this ready condemnation — instead of proudly resolving, in conscious innocence, to show her resentment towards him who could harbour a doubt of it, to leave to him all the trouble of seeking an explanation, and to enlighten him on the past only by avoiding his sight, or flirting with somebody else — she took to herself all the shame of misconduct, or at least of its appearance, and was only eager for an opportunity of explaining its cause.
What we have here is a contrast. But a contrast with what? We have not seen anything like the "heroic" feelings contrasted with natural feelings here from Catherine before. And she will not, as it turns out, respond this way at any point in the book. What's the point?

Now some might say, you're just being obtuse Jules. You don't want to see the obvious, that this is a burlesque of the Gothic novel. But here is the problem, if it is, how does this fit in. What other events is this in contrast with. The obvious possibility is Isabella's behaviour. These artificial heroic feelings are exactly what we would expect from her. But isn't the whole point here that reading these novels has made Catherine see the world in Gothic terms? That is precisely what has not happened yet.

Is it about to begin now?

Symmetry (2)

Remember that odd authorial allusion to the carriage that might whisk Catherine away.
From the latter circumstance it may be presumed that, whatever might be our heroine’s opinion of him, his [Captain Tilney's] admiration of her was not of a very dangerous kind; not likely to produce animosities between the brothers, nor persecutions to the lady. He cannot be the instigator of the three villains in horsemen’s greatcoats, by whom she will hereafter be forced into a traveling–chaise and four, which will drive off with incredible speed.
Well, she does get whisked away in the novel; she gets whisked away three times.

The first time is when John Thorpe lies to her about seeing the Tilney's heading away in a carriage and then ignores Catherine's pleas to stop. The three villains in that case are John and Isabella Thorpe and her own brother.

The second time is when she makes the trip to Northanger in an actual chaise and four. The rip is slow and boring. The three "villains" are Henry Tilney, Eleanor Tilney and the General.

The third time is at the end of the book when the General arrives and unceremoniously sends Catherine packing. Unfortunately, we don't get three neat villains to tie it up here.

It's not perfectly symmetrical but the cryptic comment happens in the centre of the book and a little off exactly between the first and third carriage rides.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Symmetry (1)

There are a couple of really neat symmetrical elements about the book. I'm not sure what they add up to.

Anyway, remember how I was saying just a while ago that Catherine was reinterprets life events in novelistic, especially Udolpho-like terms back in Book one? She has an experience and then she imagines it in Gothic terms. Well, in book two, that reverses. From here on in, she will first imagine upcoming events in Gothic novel terms and then the actual experience will fail to live up to her imaginings.

Pivotal events (4.5)

And then there is the pivotal non-event. We also get this odd little interjection:
His [Captain Tilney's] taste and manners were beyond a doubt decidedly inferior [to his brother's]; for, within her hearing, he not only protested against every thought of dancing himself, but even laughed openly at Henry for finding it possible. From the latter circumstance it may be presumed that, whatever might be our heroine’s opinion of him, his admiration of her was not of a very dangerous kind; not likely to produce animosities between the brothers, nor persecutions to the lady. He cannot be the instigator of the three villains in horsemen’s greatcoats, by whom she will hereafter be forced into a traveling–chaise and four, which will drive off with incredible speed.
Well, it's obvious you say, this is the beginning of Catherine's imaging herself a Gothic heroine leading to interesting results. Except it isn't because here is the very next sentence:
Catherine, meanwhile, undisturbed by presentiments of such an evil, or of any evil at all, except that of having but a short set to dance down, enjoyed her usual happiness with Henry Tilney, listening with sparkling eyes to everything he said; and, in finding him irresistible, becoming so herself.
Why, the commentary comes from Jane Austen herself and the whole point is to tell us that Catherine has no such thoughts. This is odd because she soon will be having such thoughts. What's going on here?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Pivotal events (4)

And we might include the odd conversation with John Thorpe at the end of Book one where he obviously means to begin making love to Catherine combined with the Isabella's obvious campaign against the Tilney's in the central chapter that begins book 2. This pathetic failure (in more than one sense of pathetic) of a love affair contributes to Thorpe's anger and his subsequent denunciation of Catherine's family to General Tilney.

The only thing all these central events have in common is Catherine's inability to decipher other people's motives and we might clean things up a bit that way. But is that what the book is about?


Pivotal events (3)

Next, we have the arrival of James Morland's second letter and the revelation of the financial settlement being proposed for the young couple. The disappointment of both Isabella and Mrs. Thorpe is obvious to anyone whos name is not Catherine Morland and even she has uneasy feelings she can't quite define.

Pivotal events (2)

Next we have the arrival of Captain Tilney and his obvious interest in Isabella and her encouragement of his attentions.

This is accompanied by Henry noting that Catherine does not wonder much, or worry much, about other people's motives. This is not a pivotal event but it is worth noting how unusual this makes her for an Austen heroine. Some have compared Emma to a mystery novel but, it seems to me as I write this (and I'll have to check this going forward), that all the great Austen heroines behave like detectives trying to work out people's motives.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Celebrating a half century

I meant to spend last year celebrating my fiftieth birthday. That was the plan and then the plan was upset because quite a few people I knew and loved died last year. I've decided to be pigheaded and celebrate it this year.

Most of what I will post under this heading, will be about what did and did not change. Here is something that has changed: When I was a boy, there were hotels and clubs in downtown Montreal where you'd find a black man working in the washroom. His job was to stand there and hand you a towel when you finished washing your hands. There were other parts of the job too—although they probably didn't come with a lot of dignity either—but most of what he did was to stand there and hand towels to you.

It's Saint Agnes' Eve tonight, (I'm going to do one of these posts on the feast day of a saint every month.)

And they are gone ...

And they are gone: ay, ages long ago
These lovers fled away into the storm
It's Keats day here at Crypto-Catholic Libertine in honour of his greatest poem. Relevant to some stuff coming up, Keats was a huge Ann Radcliffe fan. But there is also something in Keats that Radcliffe didn't get and you can see it in the lines above.

Youth always dies just like old people do. The only difference is that youth dies a lot sooner. You'd think this would be obvious. What dies faster than a youth movement? Fashion is driven by youth; permanence is driven by the middle aged and the old.

I shy away from partisan politics here but it seems to me that this is a place where great literature has bearing on current events. All my life I have read people claiming the future is on their side because the youth vote is. Our cause is supported by the young; their cause is supported by the old. It seems so obvious that in just a few years, their supporters will be pushing up daisies and our supporters will carry the day. But in just a few years our now-young supporters will be middle aged and they will ride away in the sleet-filled night just like Madeline and Porphyro.

Saint Agnes Eve

Tonight's the night:

St Agnes' Eve---Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limp'd trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent was the flock in woolly fold:
Numb were the Beadsman's fingers, while he told
His rosary, and while his frosted breath,
Like pious incense from a censer old,
Seem'd taking flight for heaven, without a death,
Past the sweet Virgin's picture, while his prayer he saith.

You can read the rest here.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Pivotal events (1)

The centre, BTW, is Book 2, Chapter 1 or—if you have a crappy edition—Chapter 16.

The first pivotal event is Catherine's attendance at Milsom-street to visit General Tilney, his son and his daughter. The event is a disappointment. Something is wrong but Catherine cannot put her finger on what.

She does decide not to blame the General:
... it had been a release to get away from him. It puzzled her to account for all this. It could not be General Tilney’s fault. That he was perfectly agreeable and good–natured, and altogether a very charming man, did not admit of a doubt, for he was tall and handsome, and Henry’s father. He could not be accountable for his children’s want of spirits, or for her want of enjoyment in his company.
Good heavens, that's free indirect speech. And that has to at least tempt us to think that we are reading something that Jane Austen added while revising the book.

An aside, some critics have argued that Austen always or sometimes equates manners and moral character. Hardly, what Austen believes (not what she assumes) is that good character and manners have a relationship not unlike that of faith and acts in the Epistle from James: "But someone will say, 'You have character and I have manners.' Show me your character apart from your manners and I by my manners will show you my character."

But while you can't have character unless you also have manners, it is certainly possible to have manners without having moral character as both the General and his eldest son show us in this novel.

Another bit of odd personal flavour

As I've mentioned before, I really like William James notion of that each thinker comes with an odd personal flavour: that pre-rational bundle of preferences that urges him to hop on whatever logic-train seems to be already heading in his general direction.

Something Kevin said in a recent comment has forced me to face another of these. I am quite certain that the United States is wealthier than France and England or even Canada for that matter. But Kevin is quite right that there are places in the USA where you can see appalling squalor. I have an economic argument in response to that but it seems to me that there is something deeper underneath it; there is a belief about life that was formed sometime in early childhood.

If I had to put it in words, I'd put it this way: Any notion of freedom that is worthy of the word will include a healthy allowance for failure. It's not just that freedom must include the freedom to fall on your face (although that would be a good start), it's that freedom isn't compatible with our efforts to compensate for the inequality and unfairness of life. Some people can do most things better than most people and there will always be some people who, although they do everything right, will fail because the odds are against them. Yes, there will be some times when it makes sense to compensate for the vicissitudes of life but we must be aware that every such effort takes away from our freedom.

I started developing this belief somewhere in childhood while watching adults try and make everything fair and nice for all the kids. By grade seven, it was firmly entrenched.

The centre

The centre of an Austen novel always features a pivotal event. Elizabeth's refusal of Darcy's first proposal is at the centre of Pride and Prejudice. Marianne shows Elinor Willoughby's appalling non-apology letter along with her returned letters from him at the centre of Sense and Sensibility. In Emma it is the arrival of Jane Fairfax's pianoforté. In Mansfield Park it is Henry Crawford announcing his plan to make Fanny Price fall in love with him.

In Northanger Abbey, the centre of the novel features a whole lot of pivotal incidents; features far too many pivotal events. There are three or four depending on how you count them—and I'll count them out ina series of upcoming posts.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Why I prefer Austen's feminism to second wave

A lot of 1970s and 1980s feminism saw the relationship between men and women as something akin to Spartans and Helots. Susan Brownmiller, for example in her book about rape argued that rape was not an individual crime but part of an overall subjugation strategy aimed at women. Not all men were rapists but all benefited from the threat that kept women in their places.

Suppose for a moment that that is true. What could women possibly do about it? Brownmiller argues that this subjugation has been going on since the ancient world. So, if it has been happening, it has been working. If men are so evil and effective, why would they stop? And what could women do about it other than appeal to men's goodwill?

Brownmiller's argument is based on an unspoken assumption that once this horrible injustice is brought to light, something will happen. But why would it? Would exposing the Spartan's brutality allow the Helots to over throw their oppressors. Would the Spartans themselves suddenly collapse in shame.

Okay, here is the paradox: if there is to be any hope for women, Brownmiller has to be wrong. Any feminism that is actually going to bring about change has to be far more charitable towards men and far less charitable towards women than was typical in the 1970s and 1980s feminism.

And Austen can show us the way.

Drink, drank, drunk (at Cana)

This is pretty insidery Catholic but I think of general interest anyway. The Catholic Church initially greeted the NRSV (New Revised Standard Version) with enthusiasm and then withdrew its support because of some serious reservations. The biggest problem was that Isaiah 7:14 translated a key phrase as saying "young woman is with child" instead of "virgin is with child".

Here in Canada, the bishops rushed to adopt new lectionaries (the book that readings at the mass are read from) based on the NRSV before the Vatican voiced its objections. A lot of more traditionally inclined Catholics (including not a few priests) would like to see these new lectionaries done away with but it's much harder to change something than to prevent change even if all you want to to is change back to what went before.

Yesterday in the sacristy while I was preparing to doing my bit for an upcoming mass, a rather traditional Catholic approached the priest and tried to convince him to change the words of that days Gospel when he read it out loud to the congregation. That's a pretty stunning thing to do on your own authority.

Here is what he objected to. The story is the wedding at Cana, which I trust most people know (John 2: 1-11 if you don't). It is the occasion of Jesus turning water into wine. when he has done this, the steward compliments the bridegroom on the quality of this new wine (which he does not know the origin of):
Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.
Compare that with the New American Bible used south of the border and you will see the issue that bothered my traditionalist friend right away:
Everyone serves good wine first, and then when the people have drunk freely, an inferior one; but you have kept the good wine until now.
Who is right? I don't know but if you asked me to bet, I'd put my money on the NRSV being the more accurate translation. Which is another way of saying that I trust current liberal scholarship over current conservative scholarship.

But, that aside, I have a hard time figuring out why people care so much. Drink freely and you will be drunk. And it is clear from the quote that the wine has had enough impact to make the guests less discerning which is just another way of saying they are drunk. And Jesus converts one awful lot of water into wine here. By my calculation, he makes the equivalent of 740 bottles of wine. If the guests aren't drunk yet, they will be.

A little more insider Catholicism, this text is one of several that are read as Jesus validating the sacrament of marriage. It seems to me that we have to read it as his validation of feasting at a marriage as well.

Lent isn't that far away now, let's celebrate while the bridegroom is with us. No, I'm not advocating anyone getting falling down drunk, but do loosen up a little.

Why I think feminists should love Austen ...

... even when she slags women.

After Henry has been ragging the two women about their mutual misunderstanding, his sister tries to make him say something positive about women:

“You know what you ought to do. Clear your character handsomely before her. Tell her that you think very highly of the understanding of women.”

“Miss Morland, I think very highly of the understanding of all the women in the world — especially of those — whoever they may be — with whom I happen to be in company.”

“That is not enough. Be more serious.”

“Miss Morland, no one can think more highly of the understanding of women than I do. In my opinion, nature has given them so much that they never find it necessary to use more than half.”

“We shall get nothing more serious from him now, Miss Morland. He is not in a sober mood. But I do assure you that he must be entirely misunderstood, if he can ever appear to say an unjust thing of any woman at all, or an unkind one of me.”

And Catherine quietly lets the side down by assuming Henry must be right:

It was no effort to Catherine to believe that Henry Tilney could never be wrong. His manner might sometimes surprise, but his meaning must always be just: and what she did not understand, she was almost as ready to admire, as what she did.

My argument is that we should not be disappointed. Catherine assumes she has something to learn from Henry. She admires him. And she attributes authority to the teacher even tough she is not yet in a position to understand everything he does. (How good a teacher he is in the end is an interesting question I'll get to later.)

More troubling for some, Jane Austen seems to agree with both Catherine and Henry on this point. She sometimes says feminist sounding things and then appears to contradict them by mocking stupidity in women. I think, both types of sentiment are linked. It is precisely because she is a strong feminist that Austen is so scathing of women who, in her view are letting the side down. And I think she is right. Mrs. Allen and Mrs. Bennett aren't just twits, they are moral failures.

(It's a virtue thing. Once we accept that wit and intelligence are part of what it is to be a woman, or a man but we are talking about women here, then it becomes a moral obligation for every woman to develop that ability as well as she can. As always, there are legitimate reasons for failure but none of these apply to either Mrs. Allen nor Mrs. Bennett.)

It's no accident ...

... that "Americano" means wimpy, watery coffee.

I like Americans. I really do. I like them a more than most other Quebecois and I like them a whole lot more than people from Toronto do. But Americans don't have a clue about coffee. The otherwise intelligent and reasonable Jonah Goldberg writes:
Dunkin Donuts coffee is much, much better than Starbucks coffee (which often has that burnt taste, hence the nom de brew "Charbucks").
No Mr, Goldberg, that is what proper dark-roast coffee tastes like. (And I don't mean to single out Goldberg, Megan McCardle has said equally inane things.) And, no, Starbucks is not the word's greatest coffee but it is actually coffee and that is a lot more than you can say about the stuff that 99 percent of Americans willingly drink.

Someone I read years ago pointed out that you can see this for yourself by invited an American houseguest to make their own espresso. They'll turn that crank and they will keep turning it until they have run soooo much water through those poor grounds that they yield up that flavourless brown water they crave.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The riot that wasn't

Immediately after the discussion of history, we have an entertaining misunderstanding in which Catherine Morland is discussing fiction and Miss Tilney takes her to be discussing fact. Miss Tilney imagines that the truly terrible, meaning hair raising, novel to come out of London that Catherine is discussing is actually real social unrest taking place in that city—a riot in fact..

The first thing we need to remind ourselves of when reading the misunderstanding about "something very shocking" that will come out of London is that riots were not unheard of at the time. The Gordon Riots and the Spa Fields riots were both serious events and Miss Tilney, with a brother in the military, would be quite right to worry about such a thing.

Henry takes Catherine's side here, although he could just as easily have gone the other way. His possible motives for doing so aren't hard to guess. It perhaps does not matter because the lesson seems clear either way: these two women were talking right past one another. They were using the same words to mean very different things.

Except that Henry can tell what both mean.

A Sunday thought

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. (Second Timothy 3:16)
This is one of many biblical texts that gets trotted out all the time and hardly ever gets read. It gets trotted out because it is understood as a proof text. A proof text is a text people see this as an argument killer—whip this one out and the other side has to shut up.

It's interesting, in that regard, to actually read the thing.
All scripture is inspired by God ...
What can Paul mean by "all scripture"? When he wrote this, not one of the Gospels had yet been written. When he wrote this, there was no canon; there was no Christian Bible. On the face of it, this is either a very inclusive claim (there were great piles of holy writings about) or a very narrow one (the Torah, Nevi'im, the Kethuvim often referred to as "TaNaKh" and, maybe, the extra texts in the Septuagint).

There is no reason whatsoever to assume Paul meant anything here but the very narrow interpretation. And nowhere does Paul say his own letters are holy scripture.
... and is useful ...
"Useful" is a fascinating word choice. This is NRSV*. Earlier editions of the KJV I have here say "profitable". This text most emphatically does not use a word that would justify the most common use of this proof text; that is to say, as proof that scripture is authoritative and sufficient. And, notably to the contrary, Paul himself questions and contradicts the understanding of the law found in TaNaKh.
... is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in
righteousness ...
Training in righteousness? What can that mean? Elsewhere in Paul we are made righteous by God and not by acts of law, which make up a huge section of TaNaKh. And "training"? Is becoming righteous like becoming skilled at a trade? To answer my own question, we would almost certainly have to understand it that way as that was the most common understanding of what it was to attain the state of righteousness at the time in Hellenistic culture. (And we should remember that Paul was writing for an honour-shame culture and not a guilt-redemption culture as we now live in.)
... so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
Again, the word choices here are very interesting: "proficient" and "equipped". The whole point of this instruction is to become a virtuous person; and here virtuous means a person who is able to live a certain kind of life. And this is confirmed by the larger context, Paul is here instructing Timothy in what he and others should do in order to lead a righteous life.

A final quick note: I used the indefinite article "a righteous life", instead of "the righteous life" advisedly. If we go back to Second Timothy 2:20-21, it is clear that Paul does not think everyone has been fitted by God to be capable of one and only one kind of righteous living:
In a large house there are utensils not only of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for special use, some for ordinary. All who cleanse themselves of the things that I have mentioned will become special utensils, dedicated and useful to the owner of the house, ready for every good work.
So what can we conclude from Second Timothy 3:16? That the Jewish scriptures are useful in our teaching, correction, chastisement and training as Christians and that preparation is to make us better at good works. And that is all it says! Anything else is pure invention.

* Yes, I use the NRSV. Not without reservations. Some of the inclusive "gender" language added (and it is very much added) to the NRSV does work against the original meaning. Aside from that, however, the NRSV represents by far the most scholarly translation available.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

And Henry's defence

In the end, all Henry Tilney can manage is to argue that history is good for teaching us how to read. Worse, he begins slyly mocking Catherine's intelligence; this is a strange thing for the "love interest" in our story to be doing.
“Very probably. But historians are not accountable for the difficulty of learning to read; and even you yourself, who do not altogether seem particularly friendly to very severe, very intense application, may perhaps be brought to acknowledge that it is very well worth–while to be tormented for two or three years of one’s life, for the sake of being able to read all the rest of it. Consider — if reading had not been taught, Mrs. Radcliffe would have written in vain — or perhaps might not have written at all.”
And then Catherine, having been given the opening to talk about what really interests her, gives what Austen describes as a "a very warm panegyric" on Radcliffe, although she does not report its contents.

"Panegyric" is an interesting word choice here. It is the sort of thing you might give if you were talking on a subject of some importance—perhaps even historical importance. Irony? If it is, it's heavy-handed irony of a particularly obvious kind—like making fun of evangelicals at a Darwin convention—that Austen rarely stoops to.

The thing I want to make clear, however, is that neither Henry nor his sister give us a single reason why history should be read in its own right. Nor do they answer any of Catherine's three cogent criticisms: why aren't more women featured; why aren't there more good qualities displayed in the people history is about; why is it so boring.

Catherine does not say, but could, "It's wonderful that people learn to read with history texts but they could just as easily be learned with other, more entertaining books."

Manipulative non-bastards

I think Alasdair McIntyre's single most brilliant observation was that emotivism obliterates the difference between manipulative and non-manipulative social relationships. Emotivism is the moral philosophy that says that moral statements are just statements of personal preference. One person who self-declaredly holds this view is Matthew Yglesias who has compared moral beliefs to liking chocolate ice cream more than vanilla.

I mention this because I have found yet another stunning example of how this philosophical position plays out in Yglesias's moral behaviour:
..I would further strongly urge Democrats who don't believe marriage is between a man and a woman but who feel they ought to pretend to believe this in order to win elections (a plausible position) need to do a better job of pretending. I've heard a shockingly large number of politicians say things, in rooms where journalists are present, that make it perfectly clear that they think gay marriage is just fine but that the voters aren't ready for it. That's a sensible thing to believe, but you can't go around saying it if you're trying to win votes. If you're going to lie, then lie -- and lie convincingly!
Let's read the key line in the above again: "That's a sensible thing to believe, but you can't go around saying it if you're trying to win votes."

I found that quote here (it's #27 0n the list). Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, the original post seems to have disappeared.

Austen's feminist critique of history

I don't know that there is much to do here other than to let Catherine speak it and let Miss Tilney respond. Here is Catherine:
"The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all — it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention. The speeches that are put into the heroes’ mouths, their thoughts and designs — the chief of all this must be invention, and invention is what delights me in other books.”
She's right. The men are often good for nothing and the women are usually missing. And she is also correct that the writing of history involves a lot of invention and yet it is usually boring. This is odd, as Catherine notes, because invention is often what makes other writing interesting.
Miss Tilney replies but, and I do so want to like her, she doesn't actually answer any of Catherine's criticisms:
“Historians, you think,” said Miss Tilney, “are not happy in their flights of fancy. They display imagination without raising interest. I am fond of history — and am very well contented to take the false with the true. In the principal facts they have sources of intelligence in former histories and records, which may be as much depended on, I conclude, as anything that does not actually pass under one’s own observation; and as for the little embellishments you speak of, they are embellishments, and I like them as such. If a speech be well drawn up, I read it with pleasure, by whomsoever it may be made — and probably with much greater, if the production of Mr. Hume or Mr. Robertson, than if the genuine words of Caractacus, Agricola, or Alfred the Great.”
But Catherine isn't concerned that the embellishments may be false, she is concerned that they aren't more interesting. We might begin to wonder if either of the Tilney's is paying all that much attention to poor Catherine.

Friday, January 15, 2010

History (3)

You are fond of that kind of reading?”

“To say the truth, I do not much like any other.”


“That is, I can read poetry and plays, and things of that sort, and do not dislike travels. But history, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in. Can you?

So, is Catherine Morland just an airhead? The type was not unknown in the Regency. If this book is just a burlesque on Radcliffe, she might well be. And surely she should care.

Austen can be read both ways here. It certainly seems by the end of this that Catherine ought to care about history more. There are two things that make me hesitate though. The first is, as lots of people have noticed, a "feminist" critique of history. The other is that no one listens to poor Catherine.

In which I reveal ...

... what a base human being I am.

There is a fascinating new paper about the use of alcohol and drugs as a way to signal things about ourselves to others:
It is argued that drug consumption, most commonly alcohol drinking, can be a technology to give up some control over one’s actions and words. It can be employed by trustworthy players to reveal their type.
Okay, here is the no doubt unethical experiment I'd like to try. I'd like to hide video-cameras in a campus bar and have the staff replace all alcoholic beverages for each sex with fakes (placebo drinks as it were). I'd like to give all the men placebo drinks one night and all the women placebo drinks on a subsequent night. Then I'd like to compare the behaviour patterns of the two sexes after multiple drinks.

And yes, I'm guessing that differences will be considerably less marked than we might guess. That, in addition to what the study above suggests, we don't use the alcohol only to give up control; sometimes we use alcohol in order to have an excuse to give up control.

Update: mea culpa, belated H/T Tyler Cowen

Some things have been improving

On the upside, drugs and technology (mostly developed in the USA) have been getting better. These new developments always get here significantly later than patients south of the border can get them but they do get here eventually.

Funny story on those lines. A few years ago MRI machines were much sought after and some Canadians had taken to driving across the border to get a scan done so as to avoid the up-to-six-month wait. There were stories in the newspaper regularly and considerable political pressure was put on the government to do something about it (the waiting times are now considerably shorter but you do still wait).

While this was going on, my dog developed back problems that put him in considerable pain. I took him to the vet and the vet said she'd like to do an MRI. I said, but he is pain right now. And she said, "The MRI machine is right down the hall, we can do it right now."

And that is the difference between private versus government managed service.

By the way

As long as I am saying things that will upset fellow Canadians, a little witnessing on health care. In a little while I will call my doctor's office to book my annual checkup. They will tell me that the soonest my doctor can see me is more than two months away. The day I show up, I will sit in the waiting room for twenty to thirty minutes. Then I will be shown to an examining room where I will wait another ten. My doctor will then come in and try and get the session over as quickly as possible (typically, I'll get less than ten minutes) because she is only allowed to bill a flat rate for this visit and she can maximize her profit by making each session shorter and seeing more patients. (That, BTW, is why the huge wait. For this profit-maximizing to work, the waiting room has to be full of patients.)

On the other hand, neither my optometrist nor my dentist visits are covered. When I call them, they can get me in next week. If I say I'm in a hurry, they'll find a way to get me in tomorrow or even this afternoon. When I arrive, the wait, if there is one, will be less than five minutes. The equipment is newer and better; the appointment is longer. I can sit around a few minutes and discuss my eyes or teeth with them (if I try that at my doctor's I will be brushed off or told to make another appointment so she can bill for it).

And the level of service we are getting from our doctors and hospitals has been steadily declining all my adult life. There is no reason to believe it won't be even worse a decade from now.

She's right

Megan McCardle answers Paul Krugman:
When Paul Krugman said "Europe's economic success should be obvious even without statistics. For those Americans who have visited Paris: did it look poor and backward? What about Frankfurt or London? You should always bear in mind that when the question is which to believe -- official economic statistics or your own lying eyes -- the eyes have it." I had roughly the same reaction that Matt Welch did: having lived in London for intermittent (short) periods, I found it noticeably poorer than the United States.
I remember seeing similar differences in Paris in the 1990s. Parisians weren't poor but they had a noticeably lower standard of living than we have here. For example, kids there obviously had seen Rollerblades on television shows from North America but most couldn't afford them and bought old style roller skates instead. By the end of the decade, the kids all had Rollerblades but in 1995 they were nonexistent on Paris streets. (Although a few rich kids must have already had them. The other thing that really jumps out at you in Paris is how much more clearly the line between rich and poor is marked there.)

And, at the risk of offending lots of fellow Canadians, we are in the middle; when I go to the USA, I can't help but notice that people there have a higher standard of living than we do here. I know the temptation is to say "So what?" about such an unimportant difference but the cumulative effect of such small differences is substantial. Morally speaking, the difference isn't worth worrying about, economically speaking it matters.

PS: The really rude question about Canada is whether we could exist in anything even vaguely like our present form without the USA for a neighbour. It's a rhetorical question of course. Bring it up in the company of any member of the Canadian intellectual class, however, and you will get a quick demonstration of what irrational hatred looks like.


Before we get back to history, a moment on the great niceness controversey:
The word ‘nicest,’ as you used it, did not suit him; and you had better change it as soon as you can, or we shall be overpowered with Johnson and Blair all the rest of the way.”
Thus did Miss Tilney reprove her brother's mockery of Catherine's language. Whose side is Austen on? Whose side should we be on? It's a friendly little dispute—we don't have to get worked up about it. Brothers and sisters tease each other this way all the time.

The Johnson Miss Tilney refers to is, of course, Sam; and Blair is Hugh Blair. Blair is not so respected now. He has two strikes against him in modern eyes: he wrongly certified the Ossian poems as legitimate and he connected the effective use of rhetoric with social improvement (we would say social climbing).

He was much admired at the time, however, and he was a leading latitudinarian, just like Austen's father. Austen also consistently links effective speaking with social and even moral stature. I'm inclined to agree. No one has to agree with me.

What I think does matter is this. The discussion will now turn to history. Is the point Austen makes here about the value of history or about the value of learning to use language effectively?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

History (2)

The discussion of history is book-ended by Catherine's praise of Radcliffe. Henry, providing evidence for those who think Austen is mercilessly mocking Radcliffe, teases Catherine about the language she uses in her praise:
But now really, do not you think Udolpho the nicest book in the world?”

“The nicest — by which I suppose you mean the neatest. That must depend upon the binding.”

But just lines before this Henry has said he is a huge fan of Radcliffe and that was confirmed by his sister so we have no reason to doubt his admiration for the great Gothic novelist. What he is picking on Catherine about is her use of language. Should we agree with him? Here is how the discussion plays out

“Henry,” said Miss Tilney, “you are very impertinent. Miss Morland, he is treating you exactly as he does his sister. He is forever finding fault with me, for some incorrectness of language, and now he is taking the same liberty with you. The word ‘nicest,’ as you used it, did not suit him; and you had better change it as soon as you can, or we shall be overpowered with Johnson and Blair all the rest of the way.”

“I am sure,” cried Catherine, “I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should not I call it so?”

“Very true,” said Henry, “and this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk, and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a very nice word indeed! It does for everything. Originally perhaps it was applied only to express neatness, propriety, delicacy, or refinement — people were nice in their dress, in their sentiments, or their choice. But now every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word.”

“While, in fact,” cried his sister, “it ought only to be applied to you, without any commendation at all. You are more nice than wise. Come, Miss Morland, let us leave him to meditate over our faults in the utmost propriety of diction, while we praise Udolpho in whatever terms we like best.

For no reason at all

First, a few things that won't be obvious to the uninitiated:

1. This boat is out in serious weather. These aren't optimal conditions and it is easy to find other videos of trimarans moving much faster in better conditions. The amazing thing is that this boat moves so magnificently under these conditions. This isn't grace under pressure, it's grace in the teeth of hell.

2. If you wanna be out in weather like this you damn well better know what you are doing. And your boat had better be a good one. Take a trip down to your local marina and check out the power boats there. Every single one of them would be doomed in the conditions this trimaran handles. Even a Cigarette boat could not move through these waves like this boat does, it would flip or plunge and the occupants would probabaly die if they tried to keep up.

3. If you have any understanding of engineering at all, think of the stresses involved. You have three roughly sixty-foot long hulls and they have to move across a rough surface at speed and the whole structure has to remain rigid. This boat is not going to last long.

My she is yar. I hate saying things like "the human spirit: but she is an inspiration and a tribute to the human spirit.

Click here to see what I mean.

(Sorry but the owner of the video doesn't seem to allow embedding.)

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Garbage and gifts (2)

Am I saying that there is no excuse for being poor in our society? No, I am not. What I am saying is that people who give rarely have much understanding of the plight of the people they are giving to. And that plight has changed significantly as our society has gotten richer. That old sweatshirt you gave away? they wouldn't wear it because they can easily get something better.

I'll give you an example. I have a friend who volunteers a good portion of every week to cook free dinners for people on the street. In fact, none of her clientele are street people. And anyone who wanted to determine this could just sit down at the table and ask them. They'll cheerfully tell you about the apartment they live in and the support payments they get. They'll also tell you about how these free meals allow them to save some money because they can use support payments they receive for food on something else. They treat clothing donations the same way: if it is as good or better than something they could buy, they'll take it.

That is the face of poverty in an extremely wealth society like ours. There are worse cases but these are almost entirely made up of drug addicts and people who are mentally ill. Give a drug addict money and you are just giving it to the drug dealer. In any case, poverty is not even remotely like the material needs problem that we keep telling ourselves it is. Do these people have real problems? You bet they do. Most of them spend their days doing little more than existing. That is a life you wouldn't wish an anyone.


One side just has to lose. It's not just that compromise won't work, it's that one side is better than the other. Here is an example and I put it to you that anyone who cares about civil society will be rooting for the bars and nightlife to keep losing this battle. And Paris, is not the only city facing struggles like this.

Garbage and gifts

Out with the dog this morning, I passed what is a fairly common sight in middle class neighbourhoods. There was a fridge and oven out in front of a house with a sign that said, "Free! Works!"

It's not free though. To get it, you have to own or have access to a truck. You'd have to be strong enough to lift the stuff into that truck and you have to be willing to accept the risks that come from taking something "free" instead of buying something from a vendor who is bound by consumer protection and contract law and probably also offers a guarantee. If you had to pay to have the thing transported, it would probably cost you at least a couple a hundred dollars.

I know from past experience that if you talk to the people who put these things out, they are often upset that their old appliances not only have no resale value, it will cost them money to get rid of them. And if you are involved with certain kinds of charities, as Snake is, you will know that charities spend a lot of time warding off junk like that fridge and stove that is being passed off—as these people in my neighbourhood are trying to do—as a "free gift".

(As a quick rule of thumb, if it isn't worth anything to you, it probably isn't any good to anyone else either so pony up and pay someone to haul your junk away. And don't feel good about yourself because you put a lot of crap clothing and other stuff into a bag and gave it away. The charity you gave it to has volunteers who do nothing but sort the garbage out of such "gifts" to get the very few items of any use or value. If you want to give, give something that is worth something to you.)

As it happened, just a few blocks later, Montmorency and I saw something I'd never seen before: a mini garbage truck (I mean the truck was small not that it picks up miniature garbage). I asked the driver what it was about and he told me that if you call the city and complain long and loud enough that your garbage was missed in the weekly pick up, they will send him and his cute little garbage truck around to pick up your stuff. The city doesn't like to advertise this fact, he told me, and I can't blame them.

But think of that. The city not only will cave, they have a special little truck and assigned driver who does nothing but respond to these complaints. Think of how incredibly wealthy a society has to be to do something like that. Now ask the impolitic questions: What does it mean to be poor in such a society? And how do people end up that way?