Sunday, February 28, 2010

Scholarship and belief

James McGrath writes:
But more than that, it seems to me that the biggest hurdle in the way of promoting scholarship is precisely the fact that some denigrate it in the name of religion, and many people who need to encounter scholarship never do precisely because of the attitude of the leaders of their religious tradition.
I think there is something right about that. I also think there is something backwards about it. The backwards part is in the bit I have added emphasis to. No one needs to encounter scholarship. It is up to scholars to prove, and prove again and again that they have something to offer us.

There is an interesting example that I think backs my point in piece McGrath links to by a guy named Joseph Hoffman about the demise of something that was called The Jesus Project. No, I've never heard of it either and that seems to be a big part of the problem. As near as I can tell, it was a transparent attempt to replicate the succès de scandale of the Jesus Seminar.

What makes Hoffman's post interesting—to me anyway—is that the man is obviously educated and capable of writing well so he ought to be able to produce a coherent piece and yet he fails. I don't want to pick on him too much as he clearly doesn't deserve it but I wonder what makes an intelligent person incapable of seeing the obvious contradiction between this:
It [the existence or non-existence of an historical Jesus] is not a question that was going to be answered by men and women whose minds were made up ...
and this:
Everyone (almost) agrees that most of Jesus is a myth of the church ...
I think a better way, and a more honest way to make this second claim would be to say something along the lines of, "as a scholar there are only a limited number of things that I can say about Jesus." It is, for example, quite possible for a scholar to stand in front of a class and state scholarly beliefs that would exclude much of what is in the Christian faith and then go to a Catholic church and recite the Creed and mean every word of it. Religion scholars—like religious believers—come together in groups based on a set of things about which they have already agreed to agree about. It couldn't work any other way.

More importantly, doing it my way would help scholars who want to reach religious believers. Do it the way Hoffman does above and most religious believers will just tune him out and they will be quite right to do so.

Let me suggest another reason why the Jesus Project might have failed. It failed because the Jesus Seminar failed. By the time Funk died, enough people had realized that the Jesus Seminar was just a bunch of publicity whores who had gotten tired of the relative obscurity of academic scholarship that the trick couldn't be pulled off a second time.

I know it is hard for academics to accept but the market valuation of what they do is low and declining*. Lots of people think that a university degree is a valuable thing to have but very few people think that what university professors have to say about the really important things in life is worth much. No where is that clearer than with scholarship relating to religion. A complete fraud like Dan Brown can sell forty million books while the only reason academics get published at all is that they and the institutions where they work and the publishers that crank out their books are heavily subsidized by governments.

My advice to scholars—in the unlikely case that they might seek it—is to be considerably more humble. In an era of publicly funded post-secondary education even the elite universities are nothing more than public education. You are not professional truth seekers (no more than the rest of us) but public servants. In practical terms, you don't have any more significance than a high school teacher and no, no-one outside of your classroom needs to listen to you and no one outside your classroom has to listen to you. So, be honest about yourself and what you do. Yes, there always will be brilliant scholars but you probably aren't one of them. Your job is teaching and the research you do is intended to prove you are qualified to teach not to change the way we understand our world.

*The salaries of university professors have declined as compared to other professionals and there is no reason to believe that trend won't continue.

H/T Exploring Our Matrix: The Mything Links

A true story having something to do with Jane Austen's perennial appeal

Some of us were out doing some back country skiing one day and somehow, I can remember why, relationship counseling came up. No doubt one of the group had announced that either they or some other couple we all knew of had been doing it. This is typically the way people get you ready for a future breakup. It doesn't say it's over but it does sort of let you know that it's quite likely. It's a good thing to do because once you're a couple other people start counting on you to remain a couple. Even if it is just the reassurance value of knowing that your friends are still making it go, you lose something when they break up.

You don't lose as much as they do but you lose something.

Except for it being a mixed group and not just men, it had a sort of Hemingway feeling about it. We'd climbed a hill where there had used to be a commercial ski resort but it had gone out of business because it had only about thousand feet vertical and that isn't enough to attract the paying customers anymore in this part of the country. Once upon a time, and we all remembered when, the place had been full of people from the city every weekend. Now we stood at the top of the longest run looking down at an awful lot of absolutely pure, deep powder. You take a few moments to capture your breath before tearing into an experience like that.

No one said a word for a little while after this announcement. Then Joel decided to tell a story about someone he knew who'd had a funny experience with relationship counseling. Maybe he thought it would break the tension the big announcement had left behind.

It was the very first session and the counselor asked them both what had brought them there. The woman spoke first. She explained that she'd been in this relationship a few years and she wanted to get married and have children. The problem was that the guy wasn't ready to "make a commitment". Those were the words she used. She'd recently brought the subject up again and he'd agreed it was time to get married but kept putting her off when she wanted to talk about definite plans.

The counselor turned to the guy and asked him what he had to say to that. The guy started to talk directly to the woman but the counselor insisted that he talk towards him so the guy did. He explained that he was in favour of getting married but he just wanted a little time to get used to the idea. It was a big step and he just needed to adjust to it. He went on about why he felt this way at some length.

The counselor then turned to the woman and asked her what she thought of that. She thought it made sense. The guy had never put it that way before; he'd shown hesitation before but had never explained the feelings behind the hesitation. Now that she'd heard that she felt better.

The counselor nodded sagely a few times and then asked her, "But do you believe him?"

And she said, "You're right. He's never going to make a commitment. We've been through this crap for a decade now." And she kept talking and talking about it. After that the counselor kept trying to steer the conversation back to some sort of reconciliation but she kept making the same point and getting more conviction in her voice each time. By the end of the session, Joel concluded, the relationship was over. And we all laughed.

I was having a chilled white port in front of a hot fire with the Serpentine One late that night when she said, "I don't see how Joel could know that story so well without it being about him and the woman you say he used to be with?"


"Yes, Maggie. You told me that she used to complain about his never wanting to commit."

It always amazes me how much the Serpentine One remembers. If I ever tell her a lie, I'll be doomed.

"Yes, I agreed, the story must be what happened to them." I said this in a tone that implied it was all obvious but it hadn't been obvious at all to me until she'd pointed it out.

A sip or two later she said, "Do you think the counselor was really good at his job or really bad at it?" After a pause, she added, "Because it has to be one or the other."

Lenten reflection: Ite missa est (3)

Looking around, I see that there is much discussion about the meaning of "Ite missa est". I'm not even remotely qualified to add anything even vaguely like an authoritative opinion. But when has that stopped me? It seems to me that the simplest interpretation is the most literal minded one. It means "get out of here" or, as I said before "be scattered". I take it as a healthy reminder of something.

Most devout Catholics will spend less than one hour per week in church. That is less than one hour of every 168 hours which is a little over one half of one percent of their time. My mother taught me (and I think she was right) that one reason we go to mass is to be reminded who we really are. And who I really am is the person I am supposed to be. If those last words do mean "be scattered", that tells us something of the real purpose of the mass. We go in order to come out. We go in to be strengthened to better become who we are supposed to be the rest of the time.

Update: There are some similar, but more elaborate, thoughts here. I doubt Mark Shea would feel comfortable with my approach but we are more or less on the same page. I also wish I had written this:
Now, “Go! You are sent!” is a radically different statement than “The Mass is ended, go in peace.” The former has the sound of a trumpet in it. .... It’s like translating, “Veni, Vidi, Vici” as “I visited France. I saw a lot of interesting things. I decided live there as an important official in the Italian Ministry of Peacekeeping for Indigenous Peoples.”
That is wonderful. I'm not so sure I agree with Shea about Ite missa est being a call to evangelize. The bit I leave out of the quote above includes this:
It’s a clarion call to bring Christ to the whole world, to cast down the mighty in their arrogance and lift up the meek and lowly.
It might be important to do that but I don't think we can honestly leap from Ite missa est to all that. The old pastors—I think—meant something considerably humbler than that.


Gypsy Scholar, a blogger I like to read has a post up about a fascinating place called The Saddle Store. Contrary to what you might guess, it didn't get its name because it sold saddles. I don't know for certain, but it may be the case that the store never sold a saddle in its entire existence. In any case, Gypsy Scholar has some fun with the store and notions of fact and fiction. Just look at the picture with his post and you are inclined to think of stories. The Saddle Store is the sort of place that people probably say "the legendary Saddle Store" even though I have no doubt the place actually exists.

There was a historian whose name I can't remember now who had a great line about "the King and his constitutional rival," meaning the actual guy versus the figurehead he increasingly became as the British constitution evolved. With places like the Saddle Store, you get the impression that there will always be a tension between the actual place and the place it comes to occupy in the imagination.

Gypsy Scholar also tosses up this great sentence: "This description isn't quite accurate, so I suppose it's also partly fictional." Wittgenstein would have had a field day with that sentence. I would hazard a guess that much if not most of what sells under the heading of "non-fiction" is not tr
ue. Shirley MacLaine's autobiography is classified as non-fiction. OTOH, there are novels which are nothing but thinly veiled autobiography and yet we unhesitatingly call them fiction. There was a movie a few years ago called Laurel Canyon* that featured the standard disclaimer none of the characters were intended to be real life portraits even though one character's personality seems have been modeled on Joni Mitchell (and it wasn't an attractive portrait). My guess is that Wittgenstein, if he were still alive, would say, absolutely correctly in both cases. To write non-fiction is not synonymous with telling the truth and writing fiction is not synonymous with lying.

* A pretty good movie by the way. It's well worth renting. I recent years I have met two people who have had dealings Joni Mitchell and both said that if the portrait in the movie errs it doesn't do so by being too kind.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

What's the difference ...

... between Greil Marcus and the clip below? The clip below is intentional self-parody.

Greil Marcus

Digging around a bit on Google about Albert Goldman, I found an interesting response from writer Greil Marcus.
After citing a long list of appalling behaviour by Elvis in the Goldman book Marcus says:

The real significance of Goldman's Elvis is in its attempt at cultural genocide.
Wow! Think of that. What do you have to believe about yourself and your culture to think that one book, one book! making an, admittedly excessive, attack on Elvis Presley constitutes cultural genocide?
And he means it! Check this out:
It is Goldman's purpose to entirely discredit Elvis Presley, the culture that produced him, and the culture he helped create--to altogether dismiss and condemn, in other words, not just Elvis Presley, but the white working-class South from which he came, and the pop world which emerged in his wake.
We might stop here and wonder if Mr. Marcus is quite so fond of the "white working-class south" when they vote Republican? And does he get similarly worked up when writers set out to utterly discredit, oh I don't know, Frank Sinatra or Pius XII or Winston Churchill. That digression over, back to the text:
But because the book is having its intended impact, and because Elvis Presley is so large a figure, intertwined with the lives of millions of people in ways that have hardly begun to be examined, a good deal is at stake. What is at stake is this: any book that means to separate a people from the sources of its history and its identity, that means to make the past meaningless and the present incomprehensible, is destructive of that people's ability to know itself as a people, to determine the things it might do as a people, and to discover how and why those things might be done. This is precisely the weight of Goldman's book, and it is precisely the weight of the cultural genocide he wishes to enact.  
You know, I could publish a book tomorrow that claimed to have proved that Jesus Christ was completely different from what millions of people have believed. A book that attempted to shred his reputation. I might worry that somebody might assault me or even kill me for doing this. I wouldn't stay up nights worrying that Greil Marcus would write a book accusing me of cultural genocide, or that Harvard University Press would publish such a book by him or anyone else.

Publishing a book and getting lots of people to read it is not an act of cultural genocide and could not be. Read that last quote again—especially the bit about Goldman's book being "destructive of that people's ability to know itself as a people"—and then mentally compare the fate of Elvis-loving baby boomers after Goldman with say, the Ojibwe people after Canadians took over their territory or the Cherokee people after Americans took over their territory and you can get a rough grasp of how foolish this is. That Mr. Marcus could write with a straight face that it was cultural genocide suggests a lack of a sense of proportion that is staggering.

Photographs and memories (2)

I don't mention Charles Gordon to discredit him. That would be like hunting butterflies with a shotgun. I mention it because it is a good example of just how silly we used to get about rock music. When I was in high school, Doobie Brothers fans considered themselves morally superior to people who went to discos. Really!

And not just a little morally superior. Hester Prine never went through the kind of moral disapprobation that these guys (they were almost all guys, girls were more into dancing than moral disdain) leveled at anyone who listened to disco. A guy at school with me actually vandalized a car because he heard the driver listening to disco.

At the end of the that era, guitar-based rock music came back and there was much rejoicing in some circles. And then a group called The Knack had a hit with the song My Sharona. That song attracted more anger than five years of disco had done.

A local rock critic produced a piece in which he claimed, with great authority, that The Knack were a manufactured phenomenon not unlike the Monkees intended to cash in on the efforts of other, presumably more authentic, musicians. The article was must discussed by music geeks of my acquaintance.

One of the things that really angered this critic was the cover photo (which you can see above). He imagined millions of people buying the record and being so stupid as to believe that the model on the cover was Sharona.

Well, it was Sharona.That is the song writer's (then underage) girlfriend. I didn't know this until the song writer and leader of the band died. He was real rock buff. He lived for the stuff the way very few normal people would do. The irony is that the people in my town who hated him with a passion were the guys who were exactly like him (except for their not actually having enough talent to play anything but a sound system).

I think their hatred was motivated by something else. Rock music is like potato chips. There is nothing wrong with chomping down on them so long as you don't pretend they are gourmet food.

You can sort of get away with deceiving yourself about this if you listen to obscure or cultish rock.

This is why some people loved John Lennon but sneered at the vastly more talented Paul McCartney, whose songs sold many more copies than the other three Beatles. You can tell yourself that the proof that your music really is special is that most people don't get it. For the guys who listened to punk/new wave music in the late 1970s, My Sharona ruined all that. When it became popular, they reacted the same way they would have done had they found out their girlfriend had become popular by putting out for the whole school.

(Assuming they had girlfriends which most music geeks, being geeks after all, did not.)

Photographs and memories

Years ago there was a hack writer here in Canada named Charles Gordon. He may still be around for all I know but I have not (mercifully) seen any of his stuff published for a while now.

He will always stick in my memory because of a hilarious incident involving a John Lennon biography. The biography was by Albert Goldman. Goldman wrote hit pieces on celebrities and he often made it easy on himself by picking celebrities with drug habits as it is easy to find evidence of people with drug habits doing really stupid things because people with drug habits do do a lot of really stupid things.

Anyway, Charles Gordon took umbrage at Goldman's book and accused him of getting his facts wrong. One of the principle wrong "facts" he chose to highlight was that Goldman said that Lennon's cocaine use in later life had been so heavy his nostrils had collapsed. This was so obviously false, in Gordon's view, that merely quoting it was enough to prove Goldman an idiot.

Anyway, the column was picked up by the wire services and published here in Quebec. The local editor must have decided it would be good to have a photo with it and someone picked one off of the wire. It was a late photo.

The funny thing, as you may guessed, was that the photo clearly showed that Lennon's nostrils had completely collapsed.

Friday, February 26, 2010

For next Friday

It seems to me then that a good question is whether moral laws can be private. In the previous example, B2 might say, "Yes there is a generally accepted moral law that says you shouldn't invade a woman's privacy by touching her breast and trying to make it look accidental but I don't accept that. I have a different set of principles of my own. Principles that are more flexible because they are based on an assessment of likely consequences and not some hard and fast law."

Further B2 might claim that his principles are private. He isn't saying, ""We should take the existing moral law and replace it with my principles." He is saying that it's okay for him to ignore the existing public moral law because these private principles are all he needs to behave morally.

I think that Linda Hogan is striving for something like that. (I'll admit that, although I don't know her, I have here deliberately constructed an example I suspect she would find repulsive. )

Back to conscience

Now what happens to conscience with moral laws? This was supposed to be a conversation about conscience and all I have been talking about is laws and authorities. Where does conscience fit into this?

Beats me. In fact, it seems like conscience has no part in the discussion, so far anyway.

And I guess that is the first huge mistake it seems to me that Linda Hogan makes. Most of the time conscience isn't necessary. Most of the time we simply make moral judgments or don't even have to think about moral issues to do what is right.

The second big thing is that she seems to think that conscience is primarily about deciding what is or is not wrong as opposed to actually behaving in the correct way.

Suppose B is standing on the bus and notices that a woman standing near him is standing close to a pole and occasionally drifts into it such that her breast touches the pole. So B thinks, "I could casually reach over and hold the pole as if I was steadying myself so that when she next moves closer to it her breast will touch my hand."

Now does B have any doubt whether what he is doing is right? Maybe. It could be that B knows it would be wrong but decides to do it anyway because he doesn't think he will get caught. It is also possible that B thinks it is only wrong if he gets caught.

B1 is the guy most likely to be affected by an appeal from his conscience. His inner voice might say, "What am I doing?"

Conscience will have little purchase in the second case. B2 might be susceptible to worrying about shame if the woman were to loudly say, "Get your hands off me." But he isn't susceptible to any inner voice telling him what he is doing is wrong. He might think, "This sort of thing is inevitable on a crowded bus, so I am not harming anyone by helping the situation along a little."

B2 might change his mind after the fact if the woman is visibly upset at having her privacy invaded (perhaps she is just a teenager or is emotionally vulnerable for some reason at the time). In that case, we can imagine B2 saying to himself, "I thought it wouldn't do any harm." In that case, we might say that B2 operates on a more complex moral principle. Rather than believing it is wrong to invade a woman's privacy, he believes it is only wrong if someone gets hurt. Before the incident, he didn't think it would cause her any emotional distress. Upon seeing that his assumption was incorrect, he is filled with guilt. (It may be that the woman's reaction is such that only he and she know she is upset.)

But what seems clear to me is that conscience can't work without moral laws. It is only because we have come to accept certain moral laws as binding, as having authority over us, that our conscience can work. In both these cases, the feeling of guilt when B1 or B2's conscience speaks to him is possible because he holds a moral law as binding on him. It's not so much that conscience tells him how to interpret the moral law; it's that conscience reminds him that the moral law applies.

Moral laws

It's not just the moral authorities that we accept. We also accept the authority of moral laws. We do so even if we might grant an exception.

If Laura's husband has lost all interest in sex with her and has done no more than grudgingly go through the motions only when asked these last ten years we can easily imagine that someone might decide that Laura's having an affair was justifiable. You might not agree about this but you can imagine how someone else could talk themselves into it (Laura herself for example).

But we couldn't say that the person who felt an exception should be made didn't respect the moral law that says you should not cheat on your spouse. The mere fact that they need to consider the behaviour of Laura's husband puts them in an entirely different category from someone who believes in open marriage.

This is so because the very possibility of laws depends on there being agreement about how the laws should be applied most of the time. It's a lot like colours. When we talk about "blue" we can do so because most of us agree that certain colours are blue. We do this even though there is royal blue and navy blue which are quite distinct from one another. To be able to talk about blue, as Wittgenstein said, it isn't enough to have a definition of "blue" we must also agree in the judgment that this is blue. And that is true even if we might wonder if maybe blue indigo is more like purple.

So too with adultery. There are variations and maybe even degrees of adultery but there are also a lot of cases wherein everyone will agree that this is adultery. Even the person who thinks that marriages should be open will be able to agree that this set of facts fits the definition (they just won't think there is anything morally wrong with it).

Thou shalt not ...

A possible alternative might be to consider a version of authority that isn't exclusively Catholic. How about "Thou shalt not kill"? Both Christians and non-Christians have no trouble accepting that there is something special enough about human life to accept this one.

So how does conscience line up with this commandment?

There are laws and various moral authorities responsible for protecting the sanctity of human life. For the most part, we also expect that our private judgments about, for example, murder, will line up with the authorities. There is disagreement in some cases to be sure and there are also cases where the authorities were clearly wrong (OJ Simpson was guilty). But there are hundreds of murders every year and we accept the way legal authorities handle those without hesitation. So much so that when I learn that Richard X of no fixed address has been arrested for murder I take it for granted that the authorities have acted correctly, that he is guilty and that even in the unlikely case that there has been a miscarriage of justice the courts will fix the problem. We are so confident of this that we don't even bother informing ourselves further about the case.

So here we have a parallel case where there are individual consciences and a central moral/legal authorities. Does it make sense to say, as Hogan says elsewhere, that this means that "there is an immediate and inevitable tension" between the two? No it doesn't. It's a little ridiculous to even try and think of examples. "Why are you hassling me about shooting the piano player."

Conscience and (Catholic) authority

Here is the quote (it's from the Introduction and is on page 2):
The Catholic approach to conscience is deeply ambiguous. On the one hand conscience is regarded as the most fundamental and directly personal way the individual apprehends moral goodness and truth. The church's constant but little publicized teaching is that conscience must always be obeyed. However, there is also an expectation that the judgments of conscience will be in agreement with church teaching. As a result there is an immediate and inevitable tension between conscience and other moral authorities in Catholicism.
Now, Hogan's axe grinding is already self-evident. Even someone who reads no more than this will have no trouble seeing that she means to conclude that individual Catholics should be free to ignore church teachings. It won't come as a terrible surprise that the particular teachings she wants them to be able to ignore are teachings about sexuality.

And, yes, my eyes glaze over too. Not to mention that Catholics seem to have little trouble ignoring church teachings on sexuality so it is hard to figure out why they need Hogan's help to do things they are already doing.

Any non-Catholic who comes by here might also wonder why they should even care? No reason actually. That said, I do think I can make an interesting point of this even if Hogan can't.

Conscience and authority

Reading Linda Hogan, two things have become obvious. The first is that she has an axe to grind and that doing so ultimately ruins what might have been an interesting book. The second thing is that I want to go at conscience much more slowly than she does.

In the opening pages of Chapter 1, Hogan says a whole lot about what conscience is and what isn't and says this without a hint of doubt. I'm not so sure we can or should assume anywhere near so much as she does.

Anyway, revised plans. Rather than going through chapter by chapter, I'm going to pull out intriguing claims she makes and think about them. Put them down here and walk around them for a while (figuratively speaking) and see what I can make of them.

Next post will have today's quote.

Thursday, February 25, 2010


Okay, having whined about writers writing about writing, I'm about to do it myself.

There are two mitigating factors that I think amount to excuses. First, I'm not charging anyone twenty-four dollars a copy just to read my musings about what I do for a living and calling it fiction. Second, I promise I won't talk about the "process" of writing but only about technique.

I mentioned Mrs. Jennings a few posts back and talked about what a wonderful character she is. I also invoked Dickens. Thinking about how he might have handled Mrs. Jennings, I was hit by how much Austen relies on exposition. I haven't counted pages or anything but most of this novel is exposition. This is one of those things that they tell you not to do in creative writing classes.

Show don't tell, is the mantra. Well, Jane Austen always tells us first and then shows sometimes.

Consider Mrs.. Jennings. She tells us Mrs. Jennings talks too much. Dickens wouldn't have done that. He would simply have had her talk too much.

Why does Austen get away with this violation of the rule? Well, one possibility is that the rule is just wrong. And that is partly the answer I think. The other thing she does, however, is that her exposition becomes almost a character in the story itself. It shifts around.

If we think of the famous opening sentence from Pride and Prejudice for example. The irony is obvious, so obvious that we laugh. But the exposition itself doesn't seem to realize this. It's not in on the joke. So when batty Mrs. Bennet makes her appearance we glide rather smoothly from the exposition's point of view to hers. Her views are funny but not completely crazy after all.

The same with Mrs. Jennings. The exposition tells us that she talks too much such that when Elinor is looking for someone to talk to later—having been abandoned by Marianne who is completely consumed by Willoughby—her experiences of Mrs. Jennings talking too much merge with the exposition.

I think there is a very deep perception about human psychology at work here.

AD Nuttall said, and I think he was right, that characters in Shakespeare often act first and form convictions later. They pluck a red rose or a white one with no sense of deep motivation. But once they are standing there holding a rose of a particular colour and are revealed to others (and themselves) as belonging to a particular faction, their convictions begin to solidify.

This is, as I say, true, and we will see it happen in this novel. Both Elinor and Marianne are playing persons who represent opposing factions vis a vis sensibility as understood by the nascent movement of Romanticism. They are, as it were, picking a white rose or a red one.

They each assume their role—that is they act it a while—before it becomes part of their inner being. There is even a stage here at the beginning where we could imagine them reversing positions. (That I think is true of all the novels: there is a moment in Mansfield Park when it is very easy to imagine Mary Crawford becoming the heroine and Fanny Price devolving into another Lucy Steele.) It's not that what we do is more important than who we are; it's that what we do is who we become.

Jane Austen sets us up for this by having the exposition take positions that the characters will before they do. In Pride and Prejudice we laugh at Mrs. Bennet but promptly hop on board with her and so do Jane and Elizabeth Bennet. For the rest of the novel they will be firmly of the opinion that Mr. Bingley needs a wife. Likewise, we will promptly hop on board here with Elinor's judgment that Mrs. Jennings talks too much and it won't occur to us to wonder if just maybe some of the things that Mrs. Jennings is saying might be worth paying attention to.

Colonel B

Mrs. Jennings was a widow, with an ample jointure. She had only two daughters, both of whom she had lived to see respectably married, and she had now therefore nothing to do but marry all the rest of the world.
And we have an interesting example of the kind of match she could set up in the Middletons. It is not a reassuring example. They have little in common and Lady Middleton is a good 14 years younger than her husband. And yet it turns.

Colonel Brandon is about 19 or 20 years older than Marianne (the gap between them exceeds her entire life on this earth) and Mrs. Jennings is keen to get them together. After all, she is handsome and he is rich, a combination that, come to think of it, also recalls Sir John and Lady Middleton. Marianne is repulsed at the idea and who can blame her.

I remember seeing Tie me Up, Tie me down a few years ago. Shortly after the film opens, a guy fresh out of an insane asylum kidnaps a porn star with a heroin problem. Soon after that the director starts telegraphing hints that he means to end the film by have them live happily ever after. That is only a little more outrageous than Mrs. Jennings' suggestion that Marianne and Colonel Brandon should end happily married. In any case, our reaction to the hint that this might be is the same as with the film, "She wouldn't dare! Would she?"

And thank heaven we have Mrs. Jennings to blame otherwise we might have to look at our authoress and wonder what she could be thinking.

Wonderful Mrs. Jenniings

As with the Middletons, we could easily get quite down on Mrs. Jennings if we considered only the feelings she seems to evoke in others. Which others? Hard to say. Austen has a marvelous knack for expressing feelings without really tying them to a person. Sometimes we end up inside a certain characters head without knowing quite how we got there.

But what of the facts? Mrs. Jennings is always "discerning" love affairs in the behaviour of young women and disconcerting at least some of them by doing so. But here is what I wonder, How often is she wrong? She gets one thing wrong (but only sort of wrong), in the next few chapters, but off the top of my head I can't think of anything else. I'll have to make a note of any as I go through.

I'd forgive her almost anything given how much colour she adds. Charles Dickens created some wonderful characters and is rightly admired for it but I don't know that he ever came up with anyone as magnificent as Mrs. Jennings. I'd love to meet her.

Sir John and Lady Middleton

I think a very deliberate parallel has been drawn between these two and John and Fanny Dashwood. First we are told that neither has much sensibility or taste making them the equals of the new owners of Norland. The first few times through this novel that was all I noticed.

And if we think like Marianne—which I suspect Jane Austen wants us to do for now—we will not notice, at least I didn't, that in every other way they are superior.

Sir John, who made no promises at anyone's deathbed, does as much for Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters as John Dashwood was willing to consider. And he does this with pleasure. Lady Middleton, meanwhile, makes it very clear to Mrs. Dashwood that she would not dream of visiting until she has been told that Mrs. Dashwood would not be inconvenienced by it when Mrs. Dashwood is, after all, staying in a house that belongs to her husband.

Before Willoughby

What Jane Austen does with the next three chapters (6-7-8), which are far from the most memorable in the book, fills me with awe. I look at this stuff and think, no human being could be that good at writing. That will probably puzzle some because, as I say, this is not memorable writing.

So why am I so impressed? Well, we've had the backstory and now we are about to start the story. In chapter 9, Willoughby makes his entrance. Before that, in three short chapters, Austen gives the setting and the rest of the cast she needs too get the story rolling. She does this in a very compressed way and it all feels so easy and comfortable.

First we get the cottage in a paragraph that could have come out of Northanger Abbey:
As a house, Barton Cottage, though small, was comfortable and compact; but as a cottage it was defective, for the building was regular, the roof was tiled, the window shutters were not painted green, nor were the walls covered with honeysuckles.
Not all is lost for Romantics, however, as we will later learn that the chimney smokes.

Otherwise it is modern, almost always a good thing in Austen's view. Which makes me wonder whose sentiment this is—the feeling that it is defective as a cottage? I honestly couldn't say at first. I was relatively sure it's not Elinor's. Marianne? Quite possibly. Mrs. Dashwood? Normally I'd say yes but she actually has to live in the place and that tempers her romanticism. And she immediately plans improvements. Margaret? Probably but Margaret is little more than a plot device in the novel.

What about Jane Austen herself? One of the recurring images in her novels is Gray's Elegy and she loved Cowper. She could understand the appeal of the movement that was becoming Romanticism because she was part of it. She was as much swept up in the spirit of her times as anyone else. My suspicion is that at some point, however, she decided not to just ride the wave with everyone else.

If I am right, then the book we are about to read is the story of the limitations of sensibility as experienced by someone who rides the wave herself for a while and suffers the consequences. So, to answer my question, the person who thinks the cottage is defective is most likely Marianne. And I think we get confirmation of this in a few chapters.

Jane Austen Thursday: a resolution

Rereading my stuff, I see that I have gotten to be much too assertive in expressing views. I barely recognize myself in the seemingly certain writing . I believe these things to be certain but I hardly feel so dogmatic about them as my writing suggests.

I must fix that. Or try to.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The road to perdition

I have to say, I always worry when I see a novel wherein a major character is a novelist. An awful panic sets in that I'm going to be reading pages and pages of some writer writing about writing. The only thing that sets off more alarm bells is when a writer at the end of their career starts writing about cats. Eliot did it well and so did Christopher Smart but others ...

The lake, the cabin, the cottage

One thing Greenwood has going for her is the setting. If anyone was going to do a convincing comedic-ending novel in the Austen tradition set in North America the only way it would work would be if it was set in a place where people summer.

In my life, anyway, it was there and at yacht clubs that some sort of genuine community based on virtue still existed. It was there that I learned to tie the reef knot and also that it should never be used for anything more demanding than wrapping parcels. It was that way with a lot of the skills I learned: it wasn't just, "this is how you do it".

To be honest, most of those skills don't have much application and I haven't practiced some of them in a long time. But learning about the impact of your actions and learning snobbish little values—like always leaving things a little better than you found them—have served me well my entire life. If I wanted to write a novel in the Austen tradition, that's where I'd set it.

Who reads this stuff?

So I'm at the airport waiting for some friends coming back from Vancouver and their flight is late. So I go over to the magazine stand and check out the novels. Most of it was the usual flashy stuff you'd expect to find at an airport.

Two novels stood out because they are clearly been designed to look "literary". Their publishers had decided to consciously distance themselves from the impulse buy marketing that was pushing all the other novels. So I checked out to see what the marketing department thinks will appeal to serous-minded travelers. Reading the descriptions, something jumped out at me.
The Hungry Season by Tammy Greenwood
It's been five years since the Mason family vacationed at the lakeside cottage in northeastern Vermont, close to where prize-winning novelist Samuel Mason grew up. The summers that Sam, his wife, Mena, and their twins Franny and Finn spent at Lake Gormlaith were noisy, chaotic, and nearly perfect. But since Franny's death, the Masons have been flailing, one step away from falling apart. Lake Gormlaith is Sam's last, best hope of rescuing his son from a destructive path and salvaging what's left of his family.
The Weight of Heaven by Thrity Umrigar
When Frank and Ellie Benton lose their only child, seven-year-old Benny, to a sudden illness, the perfect life they had built is shattered. Filled with wrenching memories, their Ann Arbor home becomes unbearable, and their marriage founders. But an unexpected job half a world away offers them an opportunity to start again. Life in Girbaug, India, holds promise—and peril—when Frank befriends Ramesh, a bright, curious boy who quickly becomes the focus of the grieving man's attentions. Haunted by memories of his dead son, Frank is consumed with making his family right—a quest that will lead him down an ever-darkening path with stark repercussions.
Wow, two novels about families in danger of coming apart over their grief at the loss of a child. Two "best-selling" novels—and not just because its says so on the cover, they don't let just anything into airport shops you know.

I'll be honest, I'd rather pull my own fingernails out with pliers than read either of these books. Perhaps I'm too cynical but I sense a category mistake: I think the writers have decided that writing about serious subjects amounts to serious writing. You can tell it isn't in Greenwood's case because she has made one of her characters a novelist. A prize-winning novelist no less. (Is there a writer anywhere who isn't award-winning?)

Alternatively, both writers know better than to think this is serious fiction but are cynically exploiting the vanity of their target market. I'd think better of both of them if that were the case.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Edward Ferrars (6)

It turns out Edward's family have big plans for him and those plans do not include a wife of Elinor's status. Mrs. Dashwood is apprised of this and that is an insult too many so she packs up and moves the family to Devonshire.

At which point the story really begins as we now have the back story out of the way. Before we go with them, though, I'd like to note one interesting detail. When Marianne complains to her mother that Edward lacks sensibility, she gives as evidence of this his reading of poetry. And her mother says:
"He would certainly have done more justice to simple and elegant prose. I thought so at the time; but you would give him Cowper."

One of the great bipolar writers of the 18th century* was old Cowper. Really bipolar! He attempted suicide several times. He was romantic before romanticism was cool. He was also a close pal of John Newton of Amazing Grace fame and that is something to keep in mind for when we get to Mansfield Park.

Here is another to keep in mind. Austen gives us Marianne's enthusiasm for Cowper as evidence of Marianne's Romantic attitude. In real life, Austen herself was a huge Cowper fan. Interesting, no?

* Who are the other great bipolar writers? Well, there are quite a few really but if you're interested, check out Christopher Smart and Samuel Johnson.

Edward Ferrars (5)

The very next thing that Elinor learns is that Marianne and her mother suspect that she and Edward are engaged. She is dismayed at this but we might wonder ourselves what with all this "throwing together". Here is how she handles it:
Elinor started at this declaration, and was sorry for the warmth she had been betrayed into, in speaking of him. She felt that Edward stood very high in her opinion. She believed the regard to be mutual; but she required greater certainty of it to make Marianne's conviction of their attachment agreeable to her. She knew that what Marianne and her mother conjectured one moment, they believed the next -- that with them, to wish was to hope, and to hope was to expect. She tried to explain the real state of the case to her sister.

"I do not attempt to deny," said she, "that I think very highly of him -- that I greatly esteem, that I like him."

Marianne here burst forth with indignation --

"Esteem him! Like him! Cold-hearted Elinor! Oh! worse than cold-hearted! Ashamed of being otherwise. Use those words again and I will leave the room this moment." Elinor could not help laughing.

Esteems him. Actually, I suspect he steams her up quite a bit. Austen rather coyly suggests that she will not intrude on Catherine Morland's dreams to see if Henry is in them in Northanger Abbey and she likewise does not tell us about Elinor's but we can be sure that her bedclothes are getting a good workout every night.

The crucial, I think, is that Elinor doesn't just regret not concealing her feelings now that she sees how much her mother and sister have read into them. She is very careful not to read too much into her own feelings herself! And it isn't just that she isn't sure if Edward loves her, she isn't entirely sure she loves him yet either.

Our reaction is to think, well surely Elinor can't have any doubt about her own feelings. And in a sense that has to be true. We might say the thing she doubts is whether to let them go. As I say, her bed is probably good and rumpled come morning but she is holding back. There is this sense she won't even allow herself to think certain things ahead of time.

To have a proper appreciation of Elinor, we have to grasp this incredible tension. She is like fabric on tenterhooks; the outward surface is smooth only because she is pulled taut evenly. Her wishes are perfectly balanced by her sense to be sure but that doesn't mean she is calm. Quite the contrary she is perfectly balanced the way a drawn bow and arrow are and she knows that if she lets go things will happen. And we should not make the mistake that Marianne is making and think that she has any less feeling because she does not hop from wishes to hopes to expectations.

Edward Ferrars (4)

Not surprisingly, Elinor goes on to praise Edward's good sense. Well, that's getting me excited. How about you?

Well, don't give up hope on the guy just yet. There is more. Elinor wants us to know that although the water is chilly at first, it's better when you get used to it.
But of his minuter propensities, as you call them, you have from peculiar circumstances been kept more ignorant than myself. He and I have been at times thrown a good deal together, while you have been wholly engrossed on the most affectionate principle by my mother. I have seen a great deal of him, have studied his sentiments and heard his opinion on subjects of literature and taste; and, upon the whole, I venture to pronounce that his mind is well-informed, his enjoyment of books exceedingly great, his imagination lively, his observation just and correct, and his taste delicate and pure. His abilities in every respect improve as much upon acquaintance as his manners and person.
A little added emphasis by me. Here is a question: Is Elinor right in thinking that Marianne has had less opportunity to get to know Edward? Why do I ask? Well, because I have already read the book a few times and I know there is an interesting surprise coming up on this subject. I'll just mark it for now but this subject will come up again.

What we can note for now, is that Elinor herself is a little coy in the bit cited above about the nature of her interactions with Edward.
"He and I have been at times thrown a good deal together ...."
You don't say? And tell me, my dearest Elinor, who exactly has been doing the "throwing"?

Here we get the beginning of a glimpse, just the tiniest glimpse, of the glory of Elinor.

Edward Ferrars (3)

Marianne, being Marianne, cannot resist confronting her sister about this:
"What a pity it is, Elinor", said Marianne, "that Edward should have no taste for drawing."
Set up to it, Elinor quickly defends Edward right? Not exactly.
"... I assure you he is by no means deficient in natural taste, though he has not had opportunities of improving it. Had he ever been in the way of learning, I think he would have drawn very well. He distrusts his own judgment in such matters so much, that he is always unwilling to give his opinion on any picture; but he has an innate propriety and simplicity of taste, which in general direct him perfectly right."
Hmm, let me try paraphrasing that. Elinor agrees that Edward does not have very highly developed sensibilities but says she thinks he has potential.

So, he isn't handsome, he isn't well spoken, he doesn't have well-developed tastes. What, if anything, does the guy the have going for him?

Edward Ferrars (2)

So, what does Marianne think of Edward? Her mother is a little worried on this point.
But you look grave, Marianne; do you disapprove your sister's choice?
As it happens, she does disspprove.
"Perhaps," said Marianne, "I may consider it with some surprise. Edward is very amiable, and I love him tenderly. But yet, he is not the kind of young man -- there is a something wanting, his figure is not striking -- it has none of that grace which I should expect in the man who could seriously attach my sister. His eyes want all that spirit, that fire, which at once announce virtue and intelligence. And besides all this, I am afraid, mama, he has no real taste. Music seems scarcely to attract him, and though he admires Elinor's drawings very much, it is not the admiration of a person who can understand their worth.
Poor Edward, Marianne thinks he lacks sensibility.

Jane Austen Tuesday: enter Edward Ferrars

Edward has smaller part in the story when we read the novel than he tends to have when we remember it later. By any conventional reading, the novel really is the story of Marianne and Elinor and the relationships with the two men are more like foils for what happens between the sisters. He is, however, an important source of conflict between Marianne and Elinor so his few parts in the story carry a lot of weight.

Anyway, can you picture him? Close your eyes and imagine "Edward Ferrars". Go ahead and use the image from any of the filmed versions if you'd like. Got that in your head? Now scroll down a few lines and read about him.

Edward Ferrars was not recommended to their good opinion by any peculiar graces of person or address. He was not handsome, and his manners required intimacy to make them pleasing. He was too diffident to do justice to himself; but when his natural shyness was overcome, his behaviour gave every indication of an open affectionate heart.

That's right, he is a nice guy when you get to know him but he is no Hugh Grant! If you'd been set up with him on a blind date your first reaction would be disappointment. Have you ever seen that Edward Ferrars in a dramatized version of the novel? Neither have I.

Monday, February 22, 2010

"Settling" and feminism (7)

Okay, there is enough to say here I'll come to a point and come back to this next Monday.

Dana Goldstein does acknowledge that Lori Gottlieb gets something right, "It's lonely to be single and it's wonderful to have a partner." That's true. But even more than that, your life will be better if you can get married and stay married. That's not an issue for public policy. It's an issue for personal policy and it's one that shouldn't need explaining. Most people have no trouble figuring it out and want to get married.

I think the deep point Lori Gottlieb (almost) makes—and the reason why the article and book have caused a certain touchiness— is that you can fail. You can fail.

If you have seen Annie Hall you may remember the scene where Alvy says that he thinks the relationship he and Annie have is like a dead shark. It stopped moving forward so it failed. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, people in failing relationships used to tell others that "we just grew apart". These are evasion strategies. Even the expressions "failed relationship" or "failed marriage" are evasions.

Relationships and marriages don't fail, the people in them do. When a couple breaks up, there are only three possibilities.
  1. It's his fault.
  2. It's her fault.
  3. They are both at fault.
It's not that difficult to meet someone and begin a serious relationship leading to marriage. Millions upon millions of people do it. So, if I want to get married* and I reach my thirties without doing so that says something very important about me; it says that I am on track to fail. (Relevant disclosure, I did reach 30 without managing it and realized that I needed to change in fundamental ways if I wanted to succeed.) And, look out but here I go, if a woman really wants to marry and she reaches her thirties without doing so then she is on track to fail.

I know, many will want to hate me for saying that and they can go right ahead and do so if that is what they want. But that is what virtue means: it means that being born a man or born a woman comes with an obligation to strive to be good at being a man or a woman. Lori Gottlieb is right to think there is a definite window of opportunity for these things. It's not impossible to succeed after that window closes but it is very, very difficult. If you think you're headed that way, you want to sit down and do some serious self-examination and you want to do it now.

* It is, of course, true that some people don't want to get married and this doesn't apply to them. They don't fail. There are also people who decide they don't want to get married and later decide they were wrong. They fail.

"Settling" and feminism (6)

Now, let me pour myself a saucer of milk and get a little catty.

Cause notice what happens. After attacking Gottlieb for drawing broad conclusions based on her personal experience, here is how Dana Goldstein defends feminism:
"... if I think about the young women I know who are feminists, I think most of them are in really healthful relationships."
Emily Bazelon, is clearly not impressed with that line from Dana Goldstein (her "Uh huh, that's interesting" in response is worth replaying the thing to catch). But that doesn't stop her from going on to make a nasty ad hominem by telling us all about this interview in Jezebel with "Tim" who says that Gottlieb was overly critical and not mature enough to make a relationship work. Bazelon is so thrilled with the personal attack being made her that she has a hard time not laughing.

I guess the only problem I have with that is that the Gottlieb's central point is that she was too critical of past partners so I don't quite get how citing one of her past partners saying she was too critical hurts that point. What I do see here is Emily Bazelon being so obsessed with defending feminism that she has forgotten what the book was about.

I also think that "Tim" is a first class shit and vile pig of a man for doing that interview. Gottlieb might have been too critical of him in some ways but her decision to dump him certainly feels right to me.

"Settling" and feminism (5)

In the diavlog embedded above, Emily Bazelon says:
I don't think most feminists ever really said women should get away from men. That is the most extreme, parody version of 1970s feminism ... I just don't believe it every had enough social or cultural power to quite warrant the kind of attacking we like to do.
Well, having been around at the end of the 1970s and through the 1980s, I have to disagree. That sort of extreme, "parody version" of feminism was very real and it did have that sort of social and cultural power. I don't think anyone has to give up on feminism as a consequence but we do need to acknowledge there were huge problems with feminism of that era. In particular "man-hating feminist" was not some fiction made up to blacken feminism during that period. Every college in the country had a significant subculture of women whose feminism derived from either a hatred of men or negative attitudes towards sex.

I appreciate that feminists don't want to see the good thrown out with the bad and that they want young women around today to "realize what feminism has done for them." And that is true enough but young women of today should be just as grateful to women such as Joan Didion and Katie Roiphe, to pick just two, who stood up to 1970s and 1980s feminists and said, "Wait a minute."

"Settling" and feminism (4)

The first line of attack, and there is even more of it before we get to the bit I have excerpted, is that Gottlieb's arguments are not widely representative of women in general. And they're not but so what?

Gottlieb's point is personal not political. She is not writing about the state of women in general. It might be summed up as, this happened to me and to quite a few others. There don't have to be enough of those others to constitute a social trend; there just has to be enough to sell a lot of books.

And it is not a terribly shocking thing that this book and those of Caitlin Flanagan are based on the experiences of women from middle and upper-middle class women. That's who buys the most books!

And that's the question: Do you think this book is going to sell well? I thought so. Me too! I suspect that Emily Bazelon and Dana Goldstein are also convinced it is going to sell rather well. I also suspect they wish it wouldn't.

"Settling" and feminism (3)

One sure fire sign that someone is onto something important is when she anticipates her critics arguments correctly. And Lori Gottlieb does just that.

Oh, I know—I’m guessing there are single 30-year-old women reading this right now who will be writing letters to the editor to say that the women I know aren’t widely representative, that I’ve been co-opted by the cult of the feminist backlash, and basically, that I have no idea what I’m talking about. And all I can say is, if you say you’re not worried, either you’re in denial or you’re lying. In fact, take a good look in the mirror and try to convince yourself that you’re not worried, because you’ll see how silly your face looks when you’re being disingenuous.
Is she right? Well, do the two critics below say exactly what she anticipated they would? Why yes they do:

"Settling" and feminism (2)

Believe me, I'd love to join the large chorus of people out there dismissing Lori Gottlieb. But, I think she has something right—not everything right, just some things right. I think the problem she has identified is not quite as she describes it, but she has a few things right. This is one of them:
Of course, we’d be loath to admit it in this day and age, but ask any soul-baring 40-year-old single heterosexual woman what she most longs for in life, and she probably won’t tell you it’s a better career or a smaller waistline or a bigger apartment. Most likely, she’ll say that what she really wants is a husband (and, by extension, a child).
I'm not so sure about the "by extension, a child" bit but, otherwise, this is true. Gottlieb is not talking about women in general here, she is talking about "soul-baring 40-year-old single heterosexual women". A year ago, the Serpentine One and I found ourselves trapped in a social gathering where there were three such women present and we ended up listening to them go on about the subject for three hours.

One thing that one of the women said really jumped out at me, apropos of the remark about children above. One of the women said she had tried dating younger guys and had given up on the idea because, They wanted children and "I can't promise them that." You could say a lot about that, not the least of which would be the way her experience upsets what you might come to think if you relied entirely on journalism to shape your ideas about men's and women's attitudes.

Unsolicited love advice: "settling" and feminism

Below is the money quote from a controversial article that became a controversial book. I'll just post it for now and make a few comments over the next few posts:
Of course, we’d be loath to admit it in this day and age, but ask any soul-baring 40-year-old single heterosexual woman what she most longs for in life, and she probably won’t tell you it’s a better career or a smaller waistline or a bigger apartment. Most likely, she’ll say that what she really wants is a husband (and, by extension, a child).
To the outside world, of course, we still call ourselves feminists and insist—vehemently, even—that we’re independent and self-sufficient and don’t believe in any of that damsel-in-distress stuff, but in reality, we aren’t fish who can do without a bicycle, we’re women who want a traditional family. And despite growing up in an era when the centuries-old mantra to get married young was finally (and, it seemed, refreshingly) replaced by encouragement to postpone that milestone in pursuit of high ideals (education! career! but also true love!), every woman I know—no matter how successful and ambitious, how financially and emotionally secure—feels panic, occasionally coupled with desperation, if she hits 30 and finds herself unmarried.
Oh, I know—I’m guessing there are single 30-year-old women reading this right now who will be writing letters to the editor to say that the women I know aren’t widely representative, that I’ve been co-opted by the cult of the feminist backlash, and basically, that I have no idea what I’m talking about. And all I can say is, if you say you’re not worried, either you’re in denial or you’re lying. In fact, take a good look in the mirror and try to convince yourself that you’re not worried, because you’ll see how silly your face looks when you’re being disingenuous.
Whether you acknowledge it or not, there’s good reason to worry. By the time 35th-birthday-brunch celebrations roll around for still-single women, serious, irreversible life issues masquerading as “jokes” creep into public conversation: Well, I don’t feel old, but my eggs sure do! or Maybe this year I’ll marry Todd. I’m not getting any younger! The birthday girl smiles a bit too widely as she delivers these lines, and everyone laughs a little too hard for a little too long, not because we find these sentiments funny, but because we’re awkwardly acknowledging how unfunny they are. At their core, they pose one of the most complicated, painful, and pervasive dilemmas many single women are forced to grapple with nowadays: Is it better to be alone, or to settle?
My advice is this: Settle!

Here are my thoughts: twothree, four, five, six, seven.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

A true story having something to do with Jane Austen's perennial appeal

Every year my neighbourhood has a community garage sale. It's very popular because I live in an upper middle class neighbourhood and there is a popular delusion that upper middle class people often put valuable items such as antiques out for sale having no idea what they are really worth. This either never or almost never happens but thousands of people come every year anyway.

It's a fascinating experience from an economic perspective because you get to see how much some products depreciate. Every year there are piles of things left at the end of the day that no one will buy at any price. They get left at the end of each driveway with a little sign that says "free" on them—things that people spent money on that are now quite literally worthless. For example
  • Non-fiction books, doesn't matter what they're about, no one wants them. You could heat your house by burning old Malcolm Gladwell books from my neighbourhood alone.
  • Novels that get assigned to high school and university students: anything by Nabokov, Joyce, Faulkner, James, Shields, Davies, Atwood, &c. It doesn't matter what critics say, the market says these novels have no value.
  • Electronics, computers (and computer manuals), game systems, any television that isn't flat screen. It doesn't make any difference at all that it works and it doesn't make any difference that you only bought it six months ago, the market says it has depreciated 100 percent.
  • Any piece of Ikea furniture.
  • Sports and fitness equipment—especially skis and golf clubs—is worth nothing at all.
  • Appliances
Of course, there is a markdown because it's a garage sale. Put the same stuff in a store with a reputation to maintain and some of it would acquire some value. Even at that, though, it wouldn't acquire a lot of value. In any case, a famous book shouldn't need a vendor's guarantee—the critical reputation should be enough.

Sometimes you see entire lives out on the front lawn. Exercise trends, food trends, health trends, sexual trends, spiritual trends, intellectual trends—it's all there at giveaway prices. And seeing this stuff what hits you is not just the money invested but the blood, sweat and tears—parts of people's lives down the drain. You could learn a lot about what not to invest in walking around my neighbourhood on garage-sale day.

Oh yeah, before I leave off. There was a really sad one two blocks over last year. Everybody was gone and there was nothing but these little piles with signs saying "free". This one house had about six banker's boxes with books in them. As the dog went along deciding whether or not to pee on each box, I looked at the contents. They fell into groups. Some boxes had been used to group all the feminist texts: The Hite Report, Rape, the Bait and the Trap, Backlash &c. Others had self help books and books about negotiating, getting to yes and getting along as well as a couple of the Mars and Venus books. The last group had a bunch of new-agey texts like Goddess in Everywoman, The Spiral Dance along with books about vegetarianism and Yoga.

Most notably, some of the self-help books had titles like Creative Divorce, Rebuilding Workbook, and Divorce and Your Teenager. That didn't surprise me because I knew the story that went with the house and the people who lived there. The woman had spent two years trying to convince her husband to see a therapist. It didn't seem to matter what kind of therapist. At first, she pushed for them to go to a marriage therapist together. He asked if she was unhappy with the marriage and she said she was happy but she didn't think he was. He insisted that he was happy as well, so why see a marriage therapist? After that she pushed for other kinds of therapy.

I know this because she told me as it was going on. I'd meet her while walking the dog and she'd let these things drop. I got the sense that she needed to talk to someone about it and a relative stranger was easier than anyone who knew her well. Once she'd let a couple of thing slip and seen that I wasn't going to object, it was easy for her to pick up on the subject next time I saw her. That sort of thing happens to me quite a bit. I must have the sort of face or something. Maybe I just put up with crap other people won't in order to have conversations with attractive women.

She kept telling him he wasn't happy and he kept insisting that he was. "It's so obvious he isn't happy, I can see why he won't admit even to himself," she told me. In any case, he eventually gave in and agreed to see a therapist so that he could determine what it was that had his wife so convinced that he was unhappy even though he didn't think he was unhappy.

One day as the dog and I made the last turn about the block before going to bed I found her sitting on some of the play equipment in the park in the dark crying because she didn't want to cry at home in front of her kids. After six months of therapy her husband had told her he wanted out of the marriage. Talking to the therapist, he'd decided that the happiest time in his life had been before he was married and he wanted to go back to that lifestyle again. Told her he wanted out is understating it actually—they had the discussion while he was packing his stuff into the car. The net effect of the therapy she had so badly wanted him to do had been to convince him that his marriage was worth nothing to him.

A few years had gone by since that happened before the books appeared on the lawn. He has a new girlfriend now and they are living together in a downtown condo. The girlfriend is only ten years older than his youngest child. The woman tried dating too and she went through a succession of boyfriends but lately seems to have given up on the idea of meeting anyone she can have another serious relationship with. I suppose one day she found herself looking at bookshelves full of the books she'd been reading since university—books that once seemed to say a lot about what mattered in life—and decided that there was no reason to believe she'd ever want to look into any of them again.

It was kind of funny in that way that really sad stories sometimes are. Standing in front of the boxes I picked up a few of the books and while leafing through them saw that passages were underlined and comments were written in the margins. It occurred to me that you could take all the boxes home and get to know an awful lot more about this woman than she ought to be revealing. I briefly thought about quietly suggesting that maybe she should just trash the books but couldn't think of a way to put it that wouldn't do precisely the sort of damage the advice would be meant to avoid.

And, then again, are our secrets really that secret? We all imagine that our inner lives really are intimate secrets but any reasonably observant person can read this stuff right off of our facial expressions, our unguarded remarks and our too closely guarded remarks, the spines of the books on our shelves and from what we sell at the garage sale.

Lenten reflection: Ite missa est (2)

The word "mass" derives from the "missa" in "Ite missa est" which were the words said at the conclusion of the old mass.

That may not seem interesting but consider the following. The Our Father is named for the first words of the prayer it identifies. So is the Creed (from "Credo"), the Gloria, the Hail Mary, the Sanctus, the Agnes Dei, the Magnificat and the Nunc Dim­it­tis. And it's not just liturgical matters, think also of opera arias: Caro Nome, La donna est mobile, O mio babino caro and Nessum Dorma all come from the first words.

Consider then, what an unusual thing it was to name the single most important liturgy of the church after the last words spoken in it. Think of what a betrayal of the hundreds of years of tradition and the millions of Catholics who have gone before us it is to now take away that simple expression of release.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Saint-André de Kamouraska

Even those with only just a passing familiarity with iconography will immediately see that the guy in the picture to the right  is Saint Andrew, who, is the patron saint of this blog. The big giveaway is the cross in the shape of an X that the saint is about to be crucified upon. I like that he is wearing pink and green and hereby pronounce him the patron saint of all unrepentant preppies.

The painting is from behind the main altar at Saint-André de Kamouraska. This church—found on the south shore of the Saint Lawrence River in the town of Saint-André—is one of the most beautiful churches in Quebec. Visit it if you can.

There is a shot of the exterior here. There is a panorama view of the interior here. Note; this link will play music.

It's neoclassical inside. The style was one of the good things (and there were some) that came with the conquest. For reasons that would take a while to explain, this church has been preserved in something very near to its original form and is rare and unusual treasure. There are a number of gorgeous churches on the south shore (two others worth mentioning are Saint-Jean Port Joli and Notre Dame du Portage) but this is greatest jewel in the collection.

Conscience (5)

So, I went and got a book about conscience. I wasn't very sophisticated about it. I went to the local university bookstore and looked in the moral theology section and took the only book on conscience they had there.

The book is called Confronting the Truth and it's by someone named Linda Hogan. For the next few weeks, I'm going to go through it chapter by chapter.

I'll admit right off the bat that I am not sympathetic to the account it gives. I trust my instincts and my instincts tell me that conscience is a voice that calls us to attention sometimes and that it is nothing more than that. But, on the theory that it is good to confront the views those we disagree with, I'm going to spend the next few Fridays going trough it chapter by chapter.

There are six chapters, so it will take at least six weeks. I probably won't be able to get to every point of interest. My main focus is going to be figuring out, for myself, what conscience is and I will treat her views as a spur for my own thinking.

Conscience (4)

This classic view of conscience, then, has two steps.

The first step is some sort of impetus to do good (this is the ordinary sense of conscience). The second step (what philosophers call "conscience") is the actual "process" by which we discern right and wrong.

Because of the way they set things up, theorists end up having conscience do two sorts of things. One is purely intellectual, figuring out how to apply the rule. The second is more about conquering our bad instincts to make sure that the will to do right wins out.

That seems not just confusing but confused to me.

Conscience (3)

The way I have always thought about conscience is not the way philosophers do and it's not the way Catholic theory about conscience works either. You can see the difference in just one sentence of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Medieval theories of conscience:
Through conscience and its related notion, synderesis, human beings discern what is right and wrong.
That is not a voice that occasionally pipes up and says, Do you really think this is morally right?

My notion of conscience is hiding there though. The Encyclopedia article goes on to say that there were two competing notions of conscience and that ...
Both seem to derive from Philip the Chancellor's treatise on conscience. In his treatise, Philip chiefly discusses synderesis, and at times he describes it as an unerring intellectual dispositional potentiality that provides general truths to conscience for specific application. At other times, he describes synderesis as the desire for the good, and it is equated with emotional reactions when one follows evil instead of good.
Synderesis—emotional reactions when one follows evil instead of good—that's something like, but not exactly like, what I mean by conscience.

Conscience (2)

Image: Wikipedia Commons

I don't think I am crazy to think this way. When people want to portray conscience, they always pick that moment when it wakes us up. Look at the image above. It's called The Awakening Conscience but we don't see the conscience awakening, we see the woman waking to the moral wrongness of what she has been doing. It's as if her conscience has finally managed to wake her up. Having done its job, her conscience can go back to sleep. It's up to her now.

Virtue Friday: Conscience

For Lent this year, I decided to read about conscience. It's been a jarring experience because I have realized that my idea of conscience is largely at odds with the philosophical tradition of conscience. I have never sat down and thought about it—I take it for granted I know what a conscience is because I have one just like I have a left foot.

Let me tell you what my conscience is to me. It's a voice that speaks to me sometimes. It says things like, "Don't do that," or "Go back and say you're sorry," or "He has been a very good friend in the past and you should spend more time with him now even though you don't care much about hockey anymore and hockey is the only thing he cares about."

My conscience, as I have always understood it, only speaks to me sometimes. It intervenes at morally crucial moments but most of the time it does nothing at all. And when it intervenes, it doesn't so much say "Do this!" or "Don't do that!" as it says, "Reconsider the thing that you are about to do!"

Thursday, February 18, 2010

My new role model

Presenting Mr. Harry Feinberg:

A Portrait of Harry from Thomas Trail on Vimeo.

He says he plays with a piano player. Hmm, do I know anyone who plays piano?

Sensibility (3)

Is having sensibility just a matter of having feelings in the way we use the word today? No it isn't. To have sensibility is to respond to something. In our modern sense, feelings are something that come from inside.

Consider the martini obsessive. He is one of the great entertainments for bartender. When I tended bar, it was a rare week not to have someone order a martini and then send it back because it wasn't dry enough. When martini obsessives are particularly obnoxious about it, many bartenders will deliberately make the second martini sweeter to see if they notice. Sometimes, bartenders will give a complainer a martini that is mostly vermouth.

This is all possible, of course, because getting excited about martinis is just an affectation. It's an act people put on to call attention to themselves. It's a way difficult, high maintenance people have of making themselves the centre of attention.

Real sensibility is to have the ability to respond to something outside yourself. You don't need the notice of other people if you have sensibility.

And that is Marianne. She has strong sensibilities and—though she does tend to hector other people about them—she really is responding to the beauties around her. She is not some modern delusional fraud talking about their feelings. She lives more profoundly than most people around her.

Sensibility (2)

When Dr. Samuel Johnson writes about Hamlet the character who interests him most is Ophelia. This comes as quite a surprise to some people nowadays as we have had it driven into us from an early age that Hamlet is not only the most fascinating character in the play that bears his name, he is the most fascinating character anywhere.

I think Dr. Johnson gets it right. Hamlet may deserve our pity but he does not deserve our admiration. Ophelia, on the other hand, is a character to pity and admire.

Like Johnson, Austen will focus on the Ophelia character in the story and she is Marianne Dashwood. Marianne has sensibility.

Let me take a step back, though and discuss the sisters in the same order Jane Austen does. Here is Elinor with some emphasis added by me:
Elinor, this eldest daughter whose advice was so effectual, possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counselor of her mother, and enabled her frequently to counteract, to the advantage of them all, that eagerness of mind in Mrs. Dashwood which must generally have led to imprudence. She had an excellent heart; her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong: but she knew how to govern them: it was a knowledge which her mother had yet to learn, and which one of her sisters had resolved never to be taught.
And here is Marianne:
Marianne's abilities were, in many respects, quite equal to Elinor's. She was sensible and clever; but eager in everything; her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation. She was generous, amiable, interesting: she was everything but prudent. The resemblance between her and her mother was strikingly great.
Notice that nowhere does Jane Austen say that Elinor is lacking in sensibility nor does she say she has too much sense. This is something we have to get into our heads to read this novel. Do whatever it takes to get this idea out of your brain forever—write 100 times on a blackboard, write it on the palm of your hand, put an elastic band around your wrist and snap it to hurt yourself every time you make the mistake of thinking of it that way.

Elinor is not perfect, as we shall see, but her character is the superior one in the novel and the story we are about to read is all about how Marianne learns from her sister.

Jane Austen Thursday: Sensibility

UPDATE: rereading this on June 9, 2011, I realize there is a major flaw here. Contrary to what I wrote below, Jane Austen does write variations on the same story over and over again she just does it much better than John Irving. I'll leave the post here but I don't think this was one of my better days.

Sensibility is a virtue. Sense is also a virtue. Pride and prejudice are both vices.

I mention this because many of the people who don't warm to Sense and Sensibility seem to come to it with the expectation that it will be a lot like Pride and Prejudice. But Jane Austen is not like John Irving; she does not write variations on the same story over and over again. This is a very different book from Pride and Prejudice.

So what is sensibility and what is so good about it?

Mr. John Dashwood lacks in sensibility. We learn this when Austen tells us how he responds to his father's request that he look out for his sisters:
Mr. John Dashwood had not the strong feelings of the rest of the family; but he was affected by a recommendation of such a nature at such a time, and he promised to do everything in his power to make them comfortable.
And he means to do so but, because he doesn't have strong feelings, his desire to do something is easily overwhelmed by his wife's selfish manipulations. We might even say, he never had much of a passion to do anything at all.

That is not the case with his mother and, more importantly for us, with his half sisters Elinor and Marianne.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Lenten reflection: Ite missa est

"Ite missa est" is the dismissal from the Catholic mass in Latin. And it says something that you cannot even say the English word "dismissal" without recalling it. It is the same root we find in other English words such as missive and missile.

Literally, it means to send, to let go, to hurl, to emit or to utter. Because the priest says these words to a group of individuals who are about to go in different directions, the phrase in context means "be scattered".

Naturally, the dignity and power that comes from such simplicity could not be left alone. Nowadays the dismissal consists of the phrase "go in peace ..." plus some added on stuff. At least one priest I know can never say this without adding a short sermon so it becomes "Go in peace to love and serve the Lord by ...." and here follows a list of directions and injunctions.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

What is due to us (4)

But there is more to it than Hamlet's sensibilities of course. His feeling that something is wrong is soon vindicated and amplified by evidence that his father was murdered. Mrs. Dashwood's sense that her daughter in law is more than insensitive is also soon confirmed.

Hamlet is driven by a sense that more is due to his father. Mrs. Dashwood is driven by a sense that more is due to her daughters.

What is due to us (3)

Efforts are made to persuade Hamlet and Mrs. Dashwood to put aside their sensibilites in the name of sense. Claudius give Hamlet what is, in fact, very good advice about excessive mourning below. Remember that Hamlet does not yet suspect his father is murdered. The only thing that bothers him is that life is moving on and his father is being left behind and that offends his sensibilities.

And if that were all there were to it, then every word of Claudius's here is would be right:

But to persever 295
In obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubbornness. 'Tis unmanly grief;
It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,
A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,
An understanding simple and unschool'd; 300
For what we know must be, and is as common
As any the most vulgar thing to sense,
Why should we in our peevish opposition
Take it to heart? Fie! 'tis a fault to heaven,
A fault against the dead, a fault to nature, 305
To reason most absurd, whose common theme
Is death of fathers, and who still hath cried,
From the first corse till he that died to-day,
'This must be so.' (Act 1, Scene 2)

What is due to us (2)

Another parallel between the back story of Hamlet and the back story of Sense and Sensibility set out in the first five chapters is that both feature a breach of decorum towards the recently deceased.

In Hamlet the breach is the over-hasty marriage of Claudius and Gertrude:

Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother's death
The memory be green, and that it us befitted
To bear our hearts in grief, and our whole kingdom
To be contracted in one brow of woe,
Yet so far hath discretion fought with nature 205
That we with wisest sorrow think on him
Together with remembrance of ourselves.
Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen,
Th' imperial jointress to this warlike state,
Have we, as 'twere with a defeated joy, 210
With an auspicious, and a dropping eye,
With mirth in funeral, and with dirge in marriage,
In equal scale weighing delight and dole,
Taken to wife;
Our sometime sister in Sense and Sensibility is Mrs. John Dashwood:

No sooner was his father's funeral over, than Mrs. John Dashwood, without sending any notice of her intention to her mother-in-law, arrived with her child and their attendants. No one could dispute her right to come; the house was her husband's from the moment of his father's decease; but the indelicacy of her conduct was so much the greater, and to a woman in Mrs. Dashwood's situation, with only common feelings, must have been highly unpleasing; but in her mind there was a sense of honour so keen, a generosity so romantic, that any offence of the kind, by whomsoever given or received, was to her a source of immoveable disgust. Mrs. John Dashwood had never been a favourite with any of her husband's family: but she had had no opportunity, till the present, of shewing them with how little attention to the comfort of other people she could act when occasion required it.

Jane Austen Tuesday: what is due to us

Hamlet is full of characters who are hemmed in by the strictly legal requirements of last wills.

Hamlet himself, is stuck because his father died without meeting the legal (and legalistic) requirement of making final absolution. One way of thinking about this is that Hamlet's sense of what is due to his father as man has been denied by a strictly legal requirement.

And there are legal requirements all over Hamlet. Consider the duel between old Fortinbras and old Hamlet. We might think, typical heroic stuff here. Two guys stake everything on a fight just like two young men racing for pink slips. Only, when Horatio tells us about the famous duel, he immediately starts talking legal talk about legal requirements:
[Old Hamlet] Did slay this Fortinbras; who, by a seal'd compact,
Well ratified by law and heraldry,
Did forfeit, with his life, all those his lands 105
Which he stood seiz'd of, to the conqueror;
Against the which a moiety competent
Was gaged by our king; which had return'd
To the inheritance of Fortinbras,
Had he been vanquisher, as, by the same cov'nant 110
And carriage of the article design'd,
His fell to Hamlet. (Act One, Scene one)
Young Fortinbras does not feel constrained by these legal restraints because he feels that more is due to him as a man. One of the least-noticed aspects of the play is that young Fortinbras (whose name literally means "strong armed") will get his way. We all focus on Hamlet so intently, we miss what the magician Shakespeare is doing with his other hand. Hamlet never has any sense of what is due to him as a man. His sole passion is a sense of what was due to his father.

And that has to make us think somewhat of Mrs. Dashwood.