Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Journalistic idiocy

There was a story a few years ago about a paper where some editor changed "back in the black", to read "back in the African-American".

Yesterday, the august New York Times pulled a similarly bone-headed move:
But the network of so-called illegals — spies operating under false names outside of diplomatic cover ...
Read it again and ask yourself what exactly is "so called" illegal, as opposed to simply "illegal", about spies operating under false names. Of course what obviously happened here is that some knee-jerk politically correct type with a bumper sticker brain thought "no one is illegal" and inserted the fatuous qualifier.

At the risk of angering some readers*, the qualification is fatuous on immigration as well. Even if we favour more open immigration laws, it still remains the case that someone who enters the country without permission is an illegal immigrant under current immigration law. No matter what side of an argument we are on, we hurt everyone if we abuse language by saying inane things like "no one is illegal".

*I've had almost 200 people pop by now by the way. And there are about 20 people who come back on a regular basis. I blog in the old-fashioned way. I put down here exactly the same sorts of things I used to write in my diary. I've never advertised the site and have no ambitions for it but I am flattered and grateful that others are interested.

A post for a certain member

The Serpentine One and I both like editor's jokes. What's an editor's joke? Well, here is an example from Three Men in a Boat.
For the next four days he lived a simple and blameless life on thin captains biscuits (I mean that the biscuits were thin, not the captain) and soda water ...
It's a recurring problem in the English language. When I  was teen, I saw a truck belonging to a company that dealt in "edible oil products" and was horrified at the thought that someone was making edible products from petroleum instead of seeing that the products were made with edible oils. Similarly, a lazy CBC news reader once read the results of the "Avon Ladies' Marathon" with an emphasis that suggested a competition for Avon Ladies.

Anyway, perhaps you can  imagine my joy on reading Instapundit yesterday and finding this heading:
Important Penis News
I immediately thought, is it important news about penises or is it news about an important penis.

It was the latter as it turns out. That is if you consider Tutankhamen's penis to be important. Well, I'm sure he thought so and I hope Mrs. Tutankhamen felt likewise.

What is sin?

The virtues of mad men
Meditations in an Emergency
Note: a special two-fer on this episode. This morning, I'll set up the problem, as I see it, and  tomorrow, I'll dwell on how the episode does and does not resolve the problem.

We've had an entire season that has come back to the theme of atonement again and again. We'll see in this final episode that it never comes to any sort of satisfying outcome. What goes wrong?

Well, it's in the question I used for the title above. If we don't have any idea of what we mean by sin, then we won't be able to come up with a satisfactory narrative about sin and atonement.

We all know that sin is even if we don't know what it is. Everyone, or almost everyone, knows the feelings of remorse that come from wanting to be able to undo some thing we have done. Sometimes this feeling attaches to surprising things. Things that seem objectively evil, things we couldn't easily bring ourselves to tell others about (some desperate things we did for sex or to avoid getting fired or something we stole) often don't bother us at all. And then some little thing that doesn't seem like much will haunt us for years.

For a long time, under the influence of Freud, we tried to convince ourselves that dealing with sin guilt was a therapeutic thing. We just needed to fix the part of our mind that was causing us guilt. We don't believe that anymore.

What do we believe? Well, this season has given us a number of options to consider. Three children and two adults. First, the three children.

Three little children in a grown-up world
Betty thinks like a child and acts like a child. Her notion of sin was formed by the family and she craves a parent or parent substitute like Don or her family maid Viola to come hold her hand and make the evil sin monster go away by telling her that everything is okay. But what does she do when it is the parent or parent substitute who has sinned against her?

Pete Campbell is something bordering on a sociopath. He doesn't have feelings. When his father dies, he keeps saying things like, "It feels like it should be significant." Its not that he has no idea how to react but rather that he can't react. His parents were cold, distant figures beholden to a highly mannered life that had no real morality that he can respect. He craves some sort of adult figure to show him but, at the same time, wants to compete with and conquer the adult figure.

One of the people he looks to be an adult is Peggy. Like Don, Pete has married a childish woman and his marriage brings him no chance to grow. But Peggy is also a child and Pete is always disappointed when Peggy fails to be the adult he wants her to be. When he sees her having fun dancing the twist at the bar after work, for example.

Peggy's father is simply absent with, as near as I can tell, no explanation (perhaps I missed something that explains it). She is desperately in need of some sort of father figure and keeps latching onto any male who offers something like fatherly maturity to her including, this season, a priest and a gay man. The one exception, that we have seen anyway (and more about this in Season 3), is Pete with whom she had a sexual relationship of exactly the sort you might expect when a love-and-approval-seeking child meets an exploitative sociopath. It's Echo and Narcissus all over again. She keeps looking to him for the thing he cannot provide and she cannot ask for. He can only see himself so only loves what he can project on to her.

Dashing thy little ones against the stones
The two adults are Roger and Don. They both have different versions of the same problem. They did the right thing and got married and now they are stuck in unhappy marriages. Roger thinks he can simply get out of his. It's a simple matter of "Here is the problem, let's apply money and strategy to deal with it". His near-death experience in season 1 has defined the problem for him. Faced with the thought that he will go to his grave having nothing but a sexless marriage and affairs on the side, he is desperately looking for a woman who can offer him both sex and love. The right choice for such a woman is obviously Joan but some barrier stands in his way. He can't bring himself to say it to her or himself.

I think the explanation is in Jane Siegel's college degree. Culturally speaking, Roger and Joan don't match up. I'm not sure Weiner himself realizes how significant the gap really is. Roger couldn't be happy for long with a woman who gets all worked up about As The World Turns. Thus, when Jane writes and reads a poem, he goes over the edge and proposes.

That poem feels familiar in both it's cadence and style of exposition. Here it is:
I lay on my pillow
At the Sherry-Netherland Hotel
Delicious and destroyed
Feeling the warmth
Where you were just laying.
You make me new with laughter
You make me old with wisdom
You make wine taste sweeter
It's a better poem than we might be inclined to credit, clearly the work of a professional writer. It doesn't go anywhere, of course, but that is also the mark of a professional writer writing a poem for a relationship that has nowhere to go beyond the desires of two people seeking comfort.

The key couplet is  "Feeling the warmth ... were just laying" It breaks the rhythm of the rest of the poem and thus draws attention to itself. And note the word "laying". Joan would have said "where you were just lying". That would have opened up a nice ambiguity that is missing here but it also would have been less correct.

Okay, I'm a snob. I'm not so sure that the cultural difference here isn't more important than we think. The Hollywood version is to think that love will conquer all. That it doesn't matter that Joan has the wrong cultural background and Jane the right cultural background. We want to believe that the gap between Roger and Joan is really only contingent. It isn't and I suspect it matters a whole lot. (There is a hint of this in Joan's denying to herself that she is still in love with Paul Kinsey. They are much more similar than she and Roger are.)

That poem, should feel familiar by the way. It draws heavily on the influence of a poet that Jane may well have studied in university.

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Notice how "As the clever hopes expire" breaks the rhythm the same way the line in Jane's poem does. How it starts with the same sense of anticipatory nostalgia. Auden already is missing the thing he knows will be lost. Jane doesn't know that things are already over just as they seem to be beginning with her and Roger but we know it and her poem's anticipatory nostalgia lets us know this.

Auden, of course, was also echoing a poetic tradition.
By the rivers of Babylon,
there we sat down,
yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps
upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song;
and they that wasted us required of us mirth,  saying,
Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the LORD'S song in a strange land?
The thing that all these have in common, besides a thematic and rhythmic similarity I've already noted, is the need for restoration. The sense of wanting to return home. All are written by exiles.

So, to answer the big question. Weiner has a surprisingly theological view of sin. Sin exiles us us from something we need to be restored to. And yes, I suspect that (on some level at least) that something is God but we see it here in various ways people feel like exiles.

Okay, I hear you thinking, Jane is an exile? Well, her name is Jane Siegel. You can draw your own conclusions.

What about Don? Well, as happens so often with Mad Men, once you have explained Roger, you also have explained Don. His problem is not a sexless marriage (although the sex can't be very good) but rather that he has married a woman who has nowhere near his depth. He needs to feel a connection with something profound and he has married he a shallow, silly woman utterly lacking in self awareness. He needs someone more like himself.

Again, the Jewish subtext is there for us to take up and ignore as we like. Don is not Jewish but he has this secret identity he is hiding. He is much like a Jew passing in WASP society. But all the time, he knows he has this past inside and he has no one to share it with. And the most important human relationship in his life is with a woman who not only doesn't share that hidden culture with him, she is so vapid that she could not even if he tried to invite her in.

But Don, unlike Roger, is held back by a concern for others. If he thought entirely in terms of fulfillment, as Roger is doing, he'd leave Betty. But he cannot bring himself to abandon the children. There is a  delicious moment in this episode where Bert's sister Alice refers to Roger's children and he says he has only one and she snidely suggests otherwise. Well, Don has children plural but Betty is one of them.

Roger doesn't care anymore that others must suffer. Don still cares.

Season 2 blogging begins here.

The next entry on this episode's will be here.

(Season one begins here if you are interested.)

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Rationalist mythologies

I say dubious things myself all the time, so please don't think I highlight the following to mock. I think it's very important to understand the kinds of silliness that intelligent people are prone to:
The movie is based on a real historical figure - Hypatia of Alexandria - and actual events surrounding her. But a lot of it is fictional, including the suggestion that Hypatia might have had inklings more than a millenium before Kepler that the planets moved around the sun in elliptical orbits.

But perhaps that is the point. For all we know, she could have been thinking those things, or might have one day, had she lived. And so the message, however much license it is taking with historical evidence, is that when a great thinker's life is cut short, we'll never know for certain what was lost as a result.

That's from: Exploring Our Matrix: Thoughts on Agora

The movie in question is called Agora.

The completely unwarranted move here could be mapped out like this. There is no evidence that N was about to make great discovery X but she might have been. That statement is equally true for any name N you might want to substitute. It's an absolutely vapid claim.

So why does McGrath make it? He isn't stupid. I think it is because modern rationalism, being descended from enlightenment rationalism, absolutely requires a certain kind of mythology to exist. It needs the great spirit of science. For the sort of history of science implied above to be true, you need giant spirits who don't slowly and painstakingly advance the work of lots of other scholars but who have "great insights" that change the world in a flash; always doing this despite great opposition by the humble peoples.

This mythology is so important that historical accuracy, something that usually matters a lot of McGrath, isn't so important in a movie that supports the mythology.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Lies, lies and more lies

The virtues of mad men
The Mountain King
There are so many lies, so many false lives being lived here it would take all day to chart them. We open with two transparent lies. Sally tells her mother that she wasn't smoking when we all just saw her smoke. Betty tells Sally that her father is on a trip when we all have seen that Betty is not letting him come home, just as Sally has surmised.

Just one more for me but there are others. There is a nice subtle touch with Bert Cooper's sister Alice. Up until now we have heard her first name only. We have no idea if she ever married. We get a bit of a giggle when it comes out in the partners' meeting that her full name is "Alice Copper".  And if we keep the sexual ambiguity that goes with that name in mind long enough, we just might think that she has never been married and lives with a companion named Florence.We might just wonder about the nature of her relationship with Florence and the various deceptions that go with that.

Finally, as I noted before, there is the rather strange touch where Roger knows the actual facts behind Don's absence. The most likely explanation of this is that Don has called Roger to tell him what is up or that Roger is in touch with Betty. Either way, there is more concealment here.

Retroactive context
As I said last time, it is with the playing of In The Hall of the Mountain King in this episode that we get the clue for understanding the last episode. Peer Gynt is the perfect choice for Weiner to use because the play threw away all the conventions including even a vague unity of time and place. It jumps all over the place. It also mixes fact and fantasy freely. Just like Mad Men.

By the way, one thing to keep in mind is that flashbacks all take place in Don's imagination. Because we see these events happening "on film" as it were, we assume they are true. But there is no reason that the reverse couldn't be true. That the present is more real than the past. All the encounters with Adam take place in odd, dreamlike settings. (If you want to get really crazy, there is even room for a Fight Club interpretation here where Don is just something Roger has invented)

There is an odd little flashback scene here where Dick meets some hot rod guys. He sees how they have put a number of old cars together to make a hot rod. The scene is completely unnecessary to the plot. It includes a suggestion that one of the guys could put together a hot rod that 'looks just like you". Maybe this is where Dick got the idea of making up a new life out of parts of others. Alternatively, perhaps Don keeps all the paraphernalia from his "past life" because he made that up.

Or is this just a post-modern touch wherein Weiner lets us have a glance into the stuff from his inner life that he has put together to make up Don Draper? That is to say a moment where we see that the creator has made his creation in his own image?

Anyway, back to the action. (The Peer Gynt references here won't make any sense unless you read the post on the previous episode.)

When Peer Gynt imagines his relationship with the Troll King's daughter he projects all sorts of stuff from his real life into the fantasy. When he leaves the fanatsy world all sorts of moral consequences of what he only imagined there come back to haunt him in real life.

Here is an example. In the play, Peer fantasizes about the Troll King's daughter. Later the Troll King will tell him that he has gotten the girl pregnant through his fantasies. Earlier this season, we might remember that Betty wakes Don up in the middle of the night while they are visiting her father and they have this rather dreamlike sexual experience. We will soon learn that Betty has conceived as a consequence of this. And it has to be that time because we also know they haven't been having any other sex lately.

But this stuff refuses to fit neatly together like the jigsaw puzzle that Don and Gene work on in The Inheritance. As with the play, the series we are watching doesn't obey the unities. The stuff from Peer Gynt is scattered all over Don's life like so many ghostly images.

In the play, there is also an incident where Peer seems to be about to settled down happily with Solveig in a cottage he has built in the wilds, only an older woman in a green dress shows up with a limping child to burden his conscience. In the series, it is the older woman herself who limps but she still shows up to haunt Don's conscience.

Let me introduce a Catholic notion to suggest what I think is going on here. The notion I have in mind is the Pieta. No, it isn't referred to anywhere in Mad Men but, as Peggy says this episode:
"It's Christian; as in behaviour not religion." Here, courtesy of Wikipedia, is what the most famous Pieta looks like:

Now here is the thing. This statue cannot represent any actual even from the life of Mary. We know this because the woman in this statue is far too young to be the mother of the man whose body she is holding. The giveaway is that she is holding him like a child. The statue does not represent a moment in time but the entire life of Mary in relation to her son.

Something similar is going on in Peer Gynt and something similar is happening in Mad Men Season 2. The thing Don is struggling with is not any particular incident in a particular relationship with a particular woman but his entire life in relationship to women. His entire fantasy life as we know that he has invented himself. He is at once the son, husband and father to Anna and he also plays all three of these roles in the life of Betty.

By the way, if you really want to make your brain hurt, "Anna" or "Hannah" is the name of Samuel's mother in Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible). There is also an Anna in Maccabees who, to further complicate matters, is also sometimes called Miriam and that is interesting because Anna is also the name Catholics traditionally assign to the mother of Mary and the original form of "Mary", the name Mary herself answered to, is Miriam. And, oh yeah, there is a long tradition of assigning names to the  nameless characters in the Bible. If we think of Don Draper as being like a biblical figure, and Weiner keeps treating him that way, then Don Draper must have a mother and that mother must have a name even if the name is not mentioned in the text and, therefore, Anna.

And there is a little in joke this episode about Peggy slipping a Catholic image of crucifixion and Eucharist into the Popsicle ad, just as Weiner is just loading this episode with religious imagery.

If you don't want to make your head hurt, you can ignore all that.

The Western Ocean
In the play, Peer returns to Solveig and tells her that he has sinned. Don says,
I have been watching my life. It's right there. I keep scratching at it, trying to get into it. I can't.
We might reasonably ask ourselves if this is Don Draper speaking or the person trying to play the role of Don Draper. We might also remember the bit of Frank O'Hara we hear Don read back in The Gold Violin:
Now I am waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again - and interesting, and modern. The country is grey and brown and white and trees, snow and skies of laughter always diminishing - less funny, not just darker, not just grey, it may be the coldest day of the year, what does he think of that - I mean, what do I.
and if I do, perhaps I am myself.. again.
Don is seeking something. Atonement. But what is atonement? Especially, what is atonement if we take it not as a religion but a way of living your life.

In the play Solveig tells Peer he has done nothing wrong. Anna tells Don exactly the same thing here. In the final scene of the play, Peer lies in Solveig's arms, whom he calls mother, and perhaps dies there, we never know for sure.

In one of the flashbacks, we see Don telling Anna about having met Betty and wanting marry her. They have a brief discussion of what has to be done in order for Don to marry Betty. Don says that Anna can become his cousin now. She says, no, it is a chance for a new life.

The references to religion come so fast and so heavy it's hard to know what to make of it all. Here is the thing though, the play ends unresolved and so does this episode. We don't know whether Peer dies or not and we are left with the suggestion that God is still waiting for Peer.

In the show, Anna pulls out the Tarot cards and tells Don, incorrectly, that the Sun card is a good omen. It could be but it is upside down here. Then he points at the Judgment card and says, "that can't be good." She assures him that it means the resurrection and then says, "Do you wnat to know what this means or not?" Don says, "No, I don't."

And then we get some incredibly lame feel-good philosophy bad enough to be from the Desiderata. 

And then Don goes and stands in the ocean. That, I think, is Weiner's final joke. There is only the appearance of resolution here and only the appearance of religion. It's all sham just like the Desiderata.

We don't have to see that if we don't want to though. We could see a country that has gone all the way to the western ocean and now faces a lonely uncertainty.

Season 2 blogging begins here.

The next episode blog will be here.

(Season one begins here if you are interested.)

Sunday, June 27, 2010


I'm reading at Mass tonight so I have been preparing. Saint Paul has, as he often does, some difficult stuff today.

For freedom Christ set us free;
so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.

For you were called for freedom, brothers and sisters.
But do not use this freedom
as an opportunity for the flesh;
rather, serve one another through love.
With Paul, I figure that if I think I get it right away, I'm probably not reading  carefully enough.

What does "For freedom Christ set us free" mean for example?

And what is freedom if we are supposed to do something specific with it? As a teenager, this sort of stuff used to bug me. I figured freedom could have no end but itself. If you were supposed to use your freedom to a particular end, then it wasn't freedom. That is what I used to think.

Now, it seems to me that the only freedom worth the name is freedom to be used towards an end.
For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement,
namely, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Where it gets tricky is when someone, or some organization, tries to define the end entirely in terms of rules. You can't derive specific rules for living from love your neighbour as yourself. That gives us the spirit of the law but no specific content. When people do attempt such a move they always end up maximalizing. Who is to say when you can stop? There is always a way to think of one more thing you can do.

Rene Girard has a nice rule of thumb that I find useful. I can't remember his exact words but the gist of it is this: To love another as yourself means not one tiny bit more. If you deny yourself, then you should feel perfectly free denying others to the same degree.

I think similar problems exist with  "do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh". Does that meet that macaroons are out?

Again, the maximalizing tendency should be resisted. There is a line that says, "Okay no food or pleasures except for the minimum required for nutrition and procreation". Read the larger context, it is plain that neither Jesus nor Paul taught any such thing. And yet some people want to make it that. 

I think—and no one has to agree with me—that Paul's real point here has to do with that notion of choices that limit our freedom. If we always indulge the flesh we slowly lose our freedom. We become, to use Paul's language, slaves to the flesh. 

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Mighty Elinor?

Book 3, Chapter 9 (Chapter 45 in some editions)

Last chapter, Willoughby unleashed a charm offensive on Elinor. How did she fare?

Shaken to her very foundations. Even though she knows it is wrong, Elinor sympathizes deeply with Willoughby. Here is the relevant paragraph with some added emphasis:
Willoughby -- he whom only half an hour ago she had abhorred as the most worthless of men -- Willoughby, in spite of all his faults, excited a degree of commiseration for the sufferings produced by them, which made her think of him as now separated for ever from her family with a tenderness, a regret, rather in proportion, as she soon acknowledged within herself to his wishes than to his merits. She felt that his influence over her mind was heightened by circumstances which ought not in reason to have weight; by that person of uncommon attraction -- that open, affectionate, and lively manner which it was no merit to possess; and by that still ardent love for Marianne, which it was not even innocent to indulge. But she felt that it was so, long, long before she could feel his influence less. 
Notice how hard Elinor's good sense is working to overcome her feelings here and yet is failing on every front. Okay, we might say, but she'll get over it.  She doesn't. In a stunning turnabout that most readers, including not a few readers with degrees in English literature, miss, we now discover that feelings matter far more to Elinor than they do to any other character in the novel.

 She is torn by thoughts of "poor Willoughby" that night and even entertains the fantasy that his wife might die leaving him free (and rich enough) to marry Marianne after all.

And when Mrs. Dashwood reveals next day that Colonel Brandon has revealed his love for Marianne, Elinor has decidedly mixed feelings. She raises all the concerns that modern readers who do not like the marriage raise. When Mr.s Dashwood says she things Marianne will be happier with Brandon than she would have been with Willoughby, Elinor silently reviews all the reasons this is nonsense:
Elinor was half inclined to ask her reason for thinking so, because satisfied that none founded on an impartial consideration of their age, characters, or feelings, could be given ....
 And, just in case, we had any doubts, the whole issue is raised a  second time so that Elinor can, privately, reject it that second time.
"And his manners, the Colonel's manners, are not only more pleasing to me than Willoughby's ever were, but they are of a kind I well know to be more solidly attaching to Marianne. Their gentleness, their genuine attention to other people, and their manly unstudied simplicity, is much more accordant with her real disposition, than the liveliness, often artificial, and often ill-timed, of the other. I am very sure myself, that had Willoughby turned out as really amiable, as he has proved himself the contrary, Marianne would yet never have been so happy with him , as she will be with Colonel Brandon."
She paused. Her daughter could not quite agree with her, but her dissent was not heard, and therefore gave no offence. 
The irony, dramatic irony, in the situation is that it is Mrs. Dashwood's feelings that now prevent her from seeing that her assessment of Marianne's feelings is not accurate.

Perhaps even more shocking is the last line of the chapter where we learn that Elinor is not primarily concerned with Marianne's feelings:
... Elinor withdrew to think it all over in private, to wish success to her friend, and yet, in wishing it, to feel a pang for Willoughby. 
At the risk of of offending, the  prize in the story right now is Marianne. The novel in these chapters is very much about, as Mrs. Jennings earlier put it, who will "get" her. Marianne has very little control over her destiny now. Prepare to be shocked as it soon will be obvious that Jane Austen thinks that is more or less her due. The two sisters are about to get their just rewards and only one is going to get a marriage based on love.

Fern bars (6)

It's funny that they call it adultery because it makes people act like children. (an old one liner)
When I was still under-aged, I went to a fern bar called Brandy's and a woman tried to pick me up. It made a big impression on me. At seventeen I was so sex-crazy that this might have seems a dream come true sort of like what kids dream of a world where everything is made of candy.

I was seventeen and all alone because none of my friends would have been caught dead in a fern bar. She was in her late twenties and was an employee of the federal government. She was wearing a slinky red dress that clung to her in a  way that made it obvious that the dress and a pair of strap sandals was all she was wearing.

And we talked about relationships. Well, she did. I was keeping my mouth shut because I had no idea how to behave in adult society and was certain that I would soon be spotted as an impostor and told to leave if I did try talking.

The sentence that has stuck with me all these years was when she said, "The thing I insist upon in a relationship is absolute freedom." Even at seventeen I knew that was a great steaming pile of crap.

I'm not sure she was trying to recruit me for "a relationship". Thinking about it now, I think maybe she was really trying to explain why the relationship she was in (and which she incorrectly assumed I might know about) was not a barrier to our having sex together. She was old-fashioned enough, however, that she would not make the key move. She dropped hints and expected me to pick up on them and make the proposition (it was still called "making a proposition" then).

And that wasn't going to happen. I didn't go through any set of logical steps and fear probably had more to do with it than prudence but I wasn't going to go there. That was the right decision even though I replayed other options in my mind many times afterward. There was a time when I used to regret things I could have done but had not. Nowadays, I'm far more likely to thank God for what I didn't do.

But boy did I love it. Just being in a setting where that sort of thing might happen felt so grown up. I don't regret that at all. I especially don't regret that I ignored the cult of youth and spent my youth looking forward to adulthood.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Girls and boys

A conversation overheard at the video store
I was standing there looking for a movie and two women, college girls, pop in. One is running down a third woman who is not present. This not-present woman has recently broken up with her boyfriend and approached the woman now running her down for sympathy. She apparently got none.

Why not? Here is what the woman in the store said, "She was mad because he'd hooked up with two or three girls but I'm like, you didn't talk to him about this before."

What to make of this? Well, less than might appear on first glance. When girls and young women decide to trot out some bit of behaviour by another girl not present they are almost always lying. It's exactly the same as when boys start talking about their sexual experience. And these lies serve similar purposes, they are told by people who want to know what normal is. They tell these stories and see how others respond.

Boys live their sexual experience in their heads, having thoughts and fantasies they dare not express while dealing with girls who are emotionally and physically more advanced than them. They tell lies about what they have done to try and tease out what others think. Most boys don't tell tall tales but rather, as Hooper said, want others to think not that they have seen a lot of action but that they have had enough to say they've been in it.

Girls sexual selves, on the other hand, are very public and very much affected by peer pressure from other girls. They need a way to get issues that concern them into conversation while attributing these things to other girls. Thus the incredible convenience of the girl who isn't there—and, besides, we're not talking to her right now—whom these things can be credited to.*

In any case, to get back to the question at hand, if the girl so coldly describing her "friend" above had had the same thing happen to her you can bet she'd be badly hurt by the experience. You'd probably want to worry about what she might do if she was left alone with your guy though.

But it is still significant that, even for the purposes of lying, young women are now taking it as a given that fidelity is not automatically expected in relationships. There is no way that can be spun as a good thing.

*How useful this sort of gambit is if everyone lies is an open question.

Fern bars (5)

This all started on the night of Saturday June 12. I was making an Old-fashioned and when I pulled out the bitters I found the bottle was empty. So I went to the corner store looking for some. I live in a neighbourhood immediately adjoining a university and the convenience stores here cater to university students' needs. That means lots of bar supplies and sometimes you can get a  bottle of Angostura bitters there.

Unfortunately, I could not get any that night.

What I could have purchased if I'd wanted to, however, was Pina Colada mix. There were more than twelve quart bottles of mix from three different makers. There was more Pina Colada mix than there was milk at that store! And if you were too proud to use a mix, there was Coconut cream and pineapple juice.

And I regretted not having rum at home. I don't like to admit I like Pina Coladas but I do like them. I always have. By the time I had my first, it was already much sneered upon. I remember that a woman named Nadia and I were in a bar together when I had my first. It may have been her first too. I certainly lied when I implied I'd had them before.

The thing was, we both had to make a point of being ironic when we ordered it. Admitting that we actually wanted it wouldn't have done. It had to be a joke.

I also remember her advancing a theory that you might get herpes from bar mints. In those days, many bars and restaurants would have a little bowl of after-dinner mints near the door and I scooped some up and ate them on the way in end Nadia said, "Aren't you scared of getting herpes?" That struck me as bizarre but she went on to outline her theory of how it could happen. I'll save it for some other place.

In any case, it was a fern bar and we sort of had to have a Pina Colada because they were the fern bar drink.

Purists sometimes say that the only thing a Pina Colada is good for is getting alcohol into the bloodstream of young women who do not like the taste of alcohol. That may not be the only thing but it certainly is one of their uses. I can tell you, however, that in the years I worked as a bartender I never saw a man encourage a woman to order one. That is significant (to me anyway) because the purists often suggest that it is evil men seeking to get women drunk who buy them.

As near as I can tell, however, it is the women themselves who choose the drink. Back in the day, if the woman you were with ordered white wine you knew you had to work to get into her good graces. If she ordered a Pina Colada your attitude was more, as the old song had it, "if I don't do it somebody else will". The Pina Colada is a form of self-medication favoured by young women seeking to lower their inhibitions.

I'd bet it still is. It's hard to think of anything less cool than a Pina Colada and yet the students at this campus obviously drink a lot of them. And I imagine that when young men in my neighbourhood see a group of young women showing up at a house party with a bottle of Pina Colada mix and a bottle of rum, they still think the kinds of thoughts we thought back when.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The F-bomb

Timmy N. taught me how to say the F-bomb.

It was at Bayview Public School, which, I am happy to say, actually did overlook a bay. It's torn down now. I had no idea what the the word meant or was supposed to mean. I just knew it was pretty cool word. It jumped out of my mouth naturally and comfortably.

I got so used to it, I let it slip out that evening at home that very day I first learned it. My mother heard me say it and, as I remember it, immediately came down hard on me and the word. "Where did you learn that?"

I told her. I could not have even imagined lying to her. My mother had made a moral impression on me such that I would not have dared not tell.

The funny thing is that she never took it up with Timmy. She never mentioned it to his parents. She took it up with me. She didn't punish me in any way but then she didn't need to. Her disapproval was so profound that I didn't need to be punished. I suffered for days afterward. It was the right way to handle it—the full weight of Mummy moral authority.

The story has a sequel. Years later I heard her talking to another mother who, unlike my mother, didn't handle it right the first time. To reassure this woman, my mother told her the story of the first time I'd said it only with a detail I didn't remember. As she told this other woman, my mother had had to rush through the scolding so she could leave the room and burst out laughing.

Of course, she must have used the word herself, along with others I could not have then imagined her saying, but I never heard her say it. Once, when she went out with her sister Margaret, they came home and played the piano together and sang a song that featured the following chorus: "My girl goes for all the boys but she only comes for me." It was just an odd fluke that I was awake to hear it and they never would have sung it if they'd had the slightest reason to suspect I was awake. That's one of those things that can't be explained and would probably sound like hypocrisy to some people but, to me, is the sign of someone who has things just right.

Not perfect, you understand, just right. In a roundabout way, I learned how to use the word correctly from her. I learned to use it rarely, never in front of children and never in writing. And I learned to use it with an odd kind of respect that cannot be explained.

She went into hospital for the very last time on the Feast of Saint Joesph the Worker. She told my sister, who was helping her pack, that she was glad to be going in on the feast day of one of her favourite saints.

She died on the Feast of Saint John the Baptist. That is today.

Those are, respectively, the patron saints of Canada and Québec. There is something just right about that.

There will be no other posts today.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Speaking of divine judgment ...

We just had an earthquake. A long, long one. By our standards anyway.

Longest one I've ever been through. Mild enough but it just kept going, which was kind of spooky. No new reporting on it yet.

How does God judge? (3)

One of the most tempting moves to make at this point is to some form of relativism. There are two ways to do this:
Subjectivity: Only I can know if I am being as good as I can be?
Blunt relativism: No one can know, so we never can judge.
The second argument is just stupid and while we all make it absent-mindedly at some point in our lives we only need to be reminded that not only we actually do make moral judgments all the time, we make moral judgments that we all agree about all the time. Yes, it is true that there are grey areas where we might have a hard time agreeing but there are so many more areas where we do agree.

But what about subjectivity? Subjectivity is a big thing in a lot of current Catholic moral theology debate. The argument might be put like this: Only the person living their life can really know what it is like to struggle against what they are struggling so no one else can judge for them.

Is that true? I don't think so.

It is true that we often fail to understand others but we also often succeed. Men can understand how it feels to be a woman and women can imagine what it feels like to be a man. We may not get it exactly right but we can develop our empathy such that we can grasp what it is like. And yes, we can grasp how people of other races and cultures feel and why they feel that way.

It's not scientific knowledge, it's not like knowing how to navigate from Ithaca to Bethesda, it is not like knowing how to generalize the Pythagorean theorem for four dimensions and it's not like knowing how to make a Sidecar. But it is something human beings can and do do.

It's all in the title of the next episode

The virtues of mad men
The Jet Set
I'm going to make just two points this time. I could say a lot more but these two things strike me as so important that they are worth isolating. I'm also going to cheat. Anyone have any objections?

Here's how I'll cheat. I'm blogging these shows after the fact but so far have not resorted, not a lot anyway, to using stuff from I know upcoming episodes to explain the episode I'm blogging. This time I'm going to cheat because what the writers have done here is just so neat.

Point 1: Peer Gynt
The very next episode features Don dropping in on a house where a little boy is playing piano. He is playing In the Hall of The Mountain King from Grieg's incidental music for Peer Gynt. Don remarks that the music is scary and the little boy agrees gleefully.

Okay, what is the mountain king about? It's a fantasy sequence within Ibsen's play Peer Gynt. So what happens in the hall of the mountain king? in the play,
  • The hero, Peer Gynt, is banished to the mountains because of his misbehaviour at a wedding.
  • The mountains are a place rich in mythology.
  • He falls and bangs his head starting a dream sequence.
  • He meets a woman in green who turns out to be the daughter of the troll king.
  • He is offered the chance of marrying the girl by the king but, in order to do so, he must become like the trolls.
I'll stop there for a bit.

Now, the sequence isn't exact here. Don falls at the pool and bangs his head  after meeting Joy but otherwise, let's run through the details.

  • Don is banished from his house.
  • He goes to California, a land rich in mythology.
  • He first sees Joy she is wearing what?

  • Her father is the Viscomte de Monteforte d'Alsace, that literally means the Viscount of the "mountain fortress"in Alsace. (Unfortunately, the actor playing the part mispronounces this title.)
  • Don is offered the chance to live with Joy but in order to do that he must agree to become like then. By the poolside, Joy tells him he will have to get a tuxedo but we know it means more than that.
Be true to yourself?
The key question that Peer has to answer in determining whether to become a troll is what exactly is the difference between human beings and trolls. The answer is given by another character who says that humans have a saying be true to yourself while trolls say "be true to your selfish". 

That character is an old man in the play but here Don is asked the question by a young woman. Joy says to him, "Why would you deny yourself something that you want?" The something in question here being her.

Of course, those of us who have been following the story know that this is the rule that runs Don sexually. All the justification that he needs for a sexual relationship is that the woman be someone he wants. Joy may or may not literally be a dream but she acts like a projection of Don's fantasies. When trying to entice him to become member of the troll/jet set community she even assures him that she isn't "possessive" and that "you can be with anyone you want."

The whole sequence is a projection of Don's wishes. And Roger Sterling's. Joy is a fantasy girl. (An aside, next episode someone will ask where Don is and Roger not only says where he is, he also correctly explains why he is there. Don and Roger are either a lot closer than we are being allowed to see or Betty and Roger are.)

In any case, the dreamlike sequence with Joy, Willy and the boys is also a distorted projection of Don's life. He has in sense become like a troll and married the troll king's daughter by marrying Betty and now he has an opportunity to renew this fantasy only even more of a fantasy this time.

What convinces Don not to stay this second time and be a troll? There is an immediate cause but I think there is something else happening here too. The something else is my second big point.

First the immediate cause. Christian, who is presumably Joy's brother shows up at poolside with two children. We soon learn that he is running from his ex-wife's lawyers because he wants to keep the children. Don looks a this and sees an image of selfishness he doesn't like. It's not so much Christian he sees but a projection of himself.

Point 2:
And the crack in the teacup opens
  A lane to the land of the dead.
Sitting by the poolside after meeting Christian and his two children, 
Don looks at the glass in his hand 
and here is what he sees. 

Why is it a problem for Don that he would be holding a cracked glass on this night of all nights?

There is a big hint in the background music. it's a haunting melody in a minor key. Which religious/ethnic group uses minor key melodies for festivals?

There is also an odd gap in the chronology between this episode and the next.  The day after we see Don sitting by the poolside looking at his cracked glass, we see Pete Campbell arriving at the office in New York to find his colleagues watching JFK give a speech about James Meredith. JFK made that speech on October 30, 1962 so Don sat by the poolside on September 29. The very next episode will open with Betty endorsing Don's paycheque. That cheque is dated October 11.

Okay, I'll stop teasing. September 29, 1962 was Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment. Don sees his judgment in the cracked glass because a cracked glass is disqualified for the Kiddush blessing that would take place on the night of October 13 in 1962 to open the Feast of Tabernacles. The cracked glass is a judgment on Don Draper. The gap between the two episodes are the days of repentance during which Don could repent and ask forgiveness. October 8 was the Day of Atonement that year.

No, Don Draper is not a Jew but his creator is and Matt Weiner is a man who does not hesitate to make connections between the Jewish experience and American experience as represented by Don Draper.

Season 2 blogging begins here.

The next episode blog will be here.

(Season one begins here if you are interested.) 

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

How does God judge? (2)

More Wittgenstein:
How God judges a man is something we cannot imagine at all. If he really takes strength of temptation and frailty of nature into account, whom can he condemn? But otherwise the resultant of these two forces is simply the end for which man was predestined. In that case he was created so that the interplay of forces would make him either conquer or succumb. And that is not a religious idea at all, but more like a scientific hypothesis.

So if you want to stay within the religious sphere you must struggle.
That's from 1950, so we might begin by noting that there is nothing new about this question of determinism and free will. (And you can find people wondering about the same things back in 1750 too.)

I think Wittgenstein moves the question forward by asking about religious versus scientific ideas. I'll expand on that a bit, here are two questions:
  1. Are you sure you turned the stove off?
  2. Are you sure you will keep your wedding vow?
Wittgenstein would say that those questions have a structure that makes them look like they are more closely related than they really are. But they are really very different questions with very different criteria and standards.

And we can see how different they are by asking how we would check in each case. If I want to know if I really turned off the stove, I walk over to it and check where the dial is and see if the burner is hot. But if I want to know if I really meant it when I made my wedding vow there is no dial to check.

The only proof that I have is that I am still working at it, that I am, as Wittgenstein says, that I am still struggling.

More tomorrow ...

How does God judge?

In the comments, BobinCT writes:
But why did I make the first bad choice? That's the major question as I see it, and the 2nd major question is does that determine my destiny? Two very separate yet connected questions with no universal answer.
This was in response to a discussion about how our character gets formed. The question BobinCt asks, and it's a very good question,  might be paraphrased as follows: if both things that are under our control and things that are not under our control contribute to forming our character how do we judge character?

I have a number of answers to that but I want to hang around the question for a while first. Because BobinCt is in very good company. In the very last years of his life, Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote the following:
Look at human beings: one is poison to the other. A mother to her son, and vice versa, etc. But the mother is blind and so is her son. Perhaps they have guilty consciences, but what good does that do them? The child is wicked, but nobody teaches it to be any different and its parents spoil it with their stupid affection; and how are they supposed to understand this and how is their child supposed to understand it? It's as though they were all wicked and all innocent.
More to come ...

File under "useful information"

If you are part way through making waffle batter for breakfast before you notice that you have no milk and the stores aren't open yet a cream diluted with ginger ale* works as  a substitute.

Alter the butter and sugar added appropriately.

* Yes, water would have worked too but we had a part bottle of flat ginger ale sitting around the fridge since the last time someone got sick. We don't drink much soda pop here.

Fern bars (4)

But here are some of music's pioneers
That time will not allow us to forget
For there's Basie, Miller, Sachimo
And the king of all Sir Duke
And with a voice like Ella's ringing out
There's no way the band can lose
That's from Stevie Wonder's Sir Duke. I like the stylized spelling of "Sachimo" here. That is the way Stevie says it I suppose. It got a lot of play everywhere not just in Fern bars but it is a good example of the sort of music that got played in Fern bars.

The people who picked the music for these places couldn't just pop a tape of Top 40 music of the day in the player because a lot of it wouldn't fit. It had to feel sophisticated to the people who frequented these places and 1970s pop music—1970s just about everything—was the opposite of sophisticated. The people who went to fern bars weren't sophisticated either but we wanted to be.

Even people who eat nothing but junk food have some notions of what gourmet food is like. And even people in the 1970s who'd grown up on the Led Zeppelin and Elton John had some notions about sophisticated music. There were two choices really: classical and jazz. Jazz was the choice. Well, not really jazz because really jazz meant John Coltrane and that wasn't music to socialize with. But there was music that, while not really jazz. was sort of "jazzy".

The music in fern bars was jazzy music and it came with a certain attitude about jazz. You can see it in the pantheon of greats that Stevie Wonder selected above. I think of Glen Miller as jazz but lots of jazz purists would not. In any case, if those are the names that matter: Basie, Miller, Satchmo. Duke and Ella, then you can be sure you are in jazzy world where John Coltrane. Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman and Sonny Rollins need not apply. And, while she is welcome, Ella Fitzgerald would be well-advised not to scat.

The jazziness of the fern bar owes most not to Stevie Wonder, however, but to Van Morrison. He was the guy who put a jazzy veneer on pop music in 1970 with his record Moondance. That record was the soundtrack for fern bars and restaurants in the style. Only the first side of it. I never heard the second side played anywhere and even when I bought my own copy, I don't remember ever listening to the second side beyond the first disappointing listen. But you couldn't get away from the first tracks: And it Stoned Me, Moondance, Crazy Love, Caravan and Into the Mystic.

It produced a style that, while never intended for anything like a fern bar, fit in perfectly. It expanded to include all sorts of stuff. Stevie Wonder, Boz Scaggs, George Benson, Seals and Crofts, King Harvest, Jimmy Buffet, Chuck Mangione, Weather Report and Rashan Roland Kirk. It was, like the decor elements, stuff that was just lying around waiting to be put together almost like a soundtrack that someone might assemble for a period movie only we were actually living in the period.

The style extended not in any direct way from jazz but sounded like it had been suggested by it, as Phillip Larkin said of other jazz-like music. And I think it had echoes of an era that we (I mean those of us who rejected youth rebellion and aspired to adulthood) were nostalgic for even though we'd never lived it.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Here's a quote

If science shows that people behave better when they believe they have free will AND that people do not have free will...

... should that information be suppressed so that people will behave better?
That's from Ann Althouse. She uses this teaser to get us interested in this discussion at Blogging Heads.

It strikes me that this quote says a whole lot about just how confused our ideas of "free will" are.

For starters consider this, how could it be that our beliefs have an affect on our behaviour if we don't have free will?

In the  video at the link, the two participants start off by discussing self control and they say we do have some self control. How could we have any self control and not have free will?

Most obviously, let's suppose we didn't have free will, why then would we think it was worth discussing whether or not we can suppress the information that we don't?
What all of this suggests to me is that free will has come to mean something rather mystical and even magical to people of a rationalist bent. The only kind of free will they are willing to consider is a sort of god-like power that would be without restraint. This is more of a child's fantasy of freedom than the real thing. (A child's fantasy that has very deep roots that can be traced back from Sartre through Kant and back to the Stoics.)

Here's the comparison that struck me. Here in Ottawa we have a very ugly monument to human rights. One of the "rights" identified on it is "dignity". Every time I see it, I hear my mother's voice inside my head saying, "Dignity is not a human right but an achievement; a task that you can either succeed or fail at."

Free will is not something that we have but an achievement; a task that you can either succeed or fail at. (That is a grown up notion that can be traced back through my mother to Aquinas to Aristotle.)

More on family values

One of the seemingly dependable truths of modern life is that young people will be more culturally and politically liberal than their parents. The chart below, showing results of a Pew poll from earlier this year, shows some results that may surprise you. What the numbers represent is people's response to certain terms. The researchers read the terms and then asked people if they responded positively or negatively.

In many ways, the results here seem typical. You see more liberal attitudes in the young and then these youthful enthusiasms fade a bit. The two outliers are "progressive" and "capitalism". But I thing the high ratings associated with progressive probably reflect the fact that the term means nothing for most people; it has no meaningful content for most people. Capitalism's low rating is probably a reflection of this survey being conducted during an economic crisis.

But the number that ought to stun us is family values. The younger you go, the higher the approval rating. That is what the episode of Mad Men I discussed earlier today is reflecting back on its audience.

Our Father

The virtues of mad men
The inheritance
The way I see this episode, it is all about parents. It is, and I initially found this shocking, a very pro-family values episode. We might miss this because what it draws our attention to is the dearth of family values in these people's lives. The inheritance in question is an inheritance that is missing.

This is a Biblical theme. In a sense, the Bible tells the story of a people constantly in search of their true father. If they can find their true father they can find their true inheritance; meaning by this not a pile of money so much as a sense of who and what they are truly meant to be. Don Draper and Peggy Olson in this series are both fatherless and seem to have no moral inheritance from their families. Oddly, these two are the characters who seem to have the closest connection to the old values.

Betty and Pete are characters who seem most interested in moving into a new world. They both have or had fathers but both fail to inherit anything from their fathers; again, meaning by this not a pile of money so much as a sense of who and what they are truly meant to be.

Many Meanings of inheritance
Once you have a title, prove it. That is a bit of advice given by one of the classic writers of American song, I can't remember who right now. Maybe Ira Gershwin. In any case, it's great advice and it applies here too. The title of this episode is "the inheritance" and the writers make good by delivering many senses of inheritance. Here are some of the ones I noticed:
  • Genetic. First Pete's mother threatens to disinherit him if he adopts. Then Betty's father Gene, after admitting that his recent stroke is not his first, says it runs in the family. There is much emphasis on how Betty inherited her mother's looks.
  • Material. Betty remembers that her mother promised her the ceramic jardiniere. Pete's brother confirms that their father spent away the entire estate. (Oddly, though, Pete says, "this was all supposed to be ours" while talking to his brother this episode but he said to the same brother that he had been disinherited way back in the second show this season.)
  • Cultural: It is made clear that Betty inherited her mother's sense of values and that her brother did not. The converse is true in Pete's family where his brother retains the family values even among the ruins while Pete is reaffirmed in his decision to be the prodigal.
  • Statistical fluke. When Pete tells Peggy that his upcoming plane trip will be the first he takes since his father died in a plane crash, Peggy reassures him with the thought that it is statistically unlikely that two people from the same family would both die in plane crashes. (She is wrong about that by the way. It is statistically unlikely that anyone would die in a plane crash. But if someone related to has already died it doesn't alter the odds in your case.)

What is common in all cases, is that the show uses all these to show how thin family ties are for Betty and Pete. There is no common values beyond a lot of superficial manners connecting these two families.

The uptight white people
This is, I have to point out, a monstrous cliché. It is based on a thin, stereotypical vision of east coast preps that is as realistic as a Minstrel show.  Mostly, this turns out to be harmless. East coast preps are adults and they can take it. But I do want to digress a moment here about one detail that the show gets wrong; something it gets wrong not just about the period but that it gets wrong about istelf.

The childish notion that this show cannot resist is that east coast preps were emotionally repressed. Just as happened with Pete's family following the plane crash, we get a  scene of Betty's family dealing with a  family crisis by all sitting around uncomfortably not knowing how to behave. Similar scenes happen again as Pete and his mother and brother attempt to deal with the crisis brought about by their father's spending.

And then someone goes for a drink.

The stereotype doesn't bother me as much as the belief that fuels it. That is the belief that we'd all be better off if we just let our emotions out. That is nonsense. Controlling your emotions is very important. Controlling your emotions is not to suppress them. And the ability to control emotions was why the east coast preps were such a successful culture. Their controlled emotions served them very well. (And what is wrong with social drinking anyway?)

Return of the creep
The key line in the episode is Betty telling Don that the way they behaved in front of her family was "just pretending" and that there is no togetherness between them. Which way are we going to go with that? One line of logic is to say that Don is just pretending. He isn't who he says he is. But Betty is just pretending too. She has never accepted her adult responsibilities. Marriage and motherhood are just like playing house for her.

Perhaps surprisingly, the show takes Don's side on this one. He may be playing a role but he plays it devotedly. Betty keeps saying the right thing but fails to act the right way.

And we see this when creepy little Glen Bishop shows up again. He has been hiding in the Draoper family playhouse and she invites him in and offers to wash his clothes. He puts on Don's T-shirt and they quickly settle down into a childlike parody of married life. Betty slides into just pretending with him so easily that it's scary. And when Glen ultimately creeps her out it is with his suggestion that he is there to protect her—thereby threatening to usurp not Don's role, which did not trouble her, but her father's role, which does bother her.

And then we get this really ironic scene in which Betty repeats the advice about taking care of your family that Viola gave her to Helen Bishop. The painful irony is that Betty is so painfully unaware of herself that she fails to see that she is as much a failure as Helen.

This is a moment so stunningly "incorrect" I wonder how they got away with it. In the discussion, Helen even admits that her divorce changed nothing.

Children who had children
 One of the really powerful things about shows that trade in stereotypes like this one does is that they can actually touch some issues quite directly without offending. I think that is what happens here.

The divorce rate was still quite low in 1962. It was about to take off but it had not yet. The parents we see represented here are not typical of that era anymore than the blackface characters of a minstrel show were representative of real African-Americans.

But what the minstrel show often did was reflect the life of the whites in the audience back at them in a way that didn't feel too close for comfort because it was all in this weird dress up mode. That is what I think is happening here. What this episode shows us, and shows us very clearly, is not the parents of a past era but the parents of the 1970s and 1980s. They were the ones with the highest divorce rate in history.

Which is to say the parents of the people who watch this show. The mostly twenty and thirty something audience are seeing a portrayal of their parents. It's all here, the absent fathers who lived second childhoods, the selfish mothers who treated having children as being about them and who dumped their husbands (the vast majority of divorces are initiated by women) when the going got tough. But the portrayal is all dressed up in the early 1960s garb so it doesn't get in their faces.

Running awayIn the end, Betty sends Don away again and he deals with his crisis by running away. That may seem psychologically important but (as I'll expand on in end-of-season entry later) psychology doesn't matter in this series. What matters is the narrative reference that opens up. I'll tell you what that is next episode. Think Norwegian if you want a hint.

Season 2 blogging begins here.

The next episode blog will be here.

(Season one begins here if you are interested.)

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Addendum to a Sunday thought

In line with what I said below, I note that my own Bishop today makes the mistake of reading an economic agenda into Jesus's teachings that just isn't there.
The third saying addressed marketplace issues ("what does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves"). Here we note that the NRSV plural translation, adopted for the sake of inclusiveness, takes some of the edge off challenges Jesus addresses to each person. Jesus contends that there are dimensions of life vital to happiness which cannot be satisfied by possessions or wealth. [Emphasis added.]
Taking the issues I have highlighted one at a time, where does Bishop Prendergast get the notion that Jesus has the marketplace in mind here? I suspect he gets it from one word and that word is "profit". But this is to read a modern usage back into the ancient world. For us, "profit" is a word that applies narrowly to marketplace goods. The world of Jesus saw all goods in the same terms. Good luck and semen were limited goods in the same sense that money and tradeable commodities were for them.

In context, by saying "profit" Jesus simply  means what do they gain.

More importantly, Jesus is not speaking of profit or gain in general here but of a very specific type of gain. He is saying, what good would it do you if you gained "the whole world" only to lose yourself. This is a question that applies more to the politically and socially ambitious than it does to someone making their living in the marketplace. (And, lest we forget, the reason most people go into the marketplace is love; they do it to make enough money to provide shelter, food and clothing for their families.)

Sadly, this focus on an economic issue leads my Bishop (who is an excellent Bishop) to wind up with a point that is trite and trivially obvious in the sentence emphasized in the quoted bit above. Jesus is making the far more profound point that our lives have to aimed at the right thing.

Sunday thought: (re)Distribution of wealth

There were interesting readings this past week. Fascinating because they covered a lot of political intrigue from the old kingdom. These make gripping reading but the religious, moral, political and economic significance for us is hard to discern. The reading that really struck a note with me is from Monday, June 14.
Ahab said to Naboth, “Give me your vineyard to be my vegetable garden, since it is close by, next to my house. I will give you a better vineyard in exchange, or, if you prefer, I will give you its value in money.”

Naboth answered him, “The LORD forbid that I should give you my ancestral heritage.”
If we want to apply strictly representational truth standards in our reading of the Bible, passages like this one will give us fits. Did this conversation actually take place as reported? Who knows? Even today details of conversations like this are difficult to establish.

But even though we can't be certain about the details, this conflict is very typical of the period not just in Judah but all over the ancient world. The problem was this, if you start with a situation in which everyone has there own tract of land to feed their family it will inevitably be the case that the land will end up concentrated in a small number of hands over time. One day one family will manage its holdings badly and will be forced to sell out. Or a father might end up in debt and have to sell. Carry this on over time and the land and therefore the wealth gets increasingly concentrated.

And with the concentration of wealth goes the concentration of power. Aristocrats, well aware of this, will begin to use every means at hand to get more land and to keep others from getting any. And because these cultures were largely agrarian, there were no factories and offices for displaced farmers to work at. Ancient cities increasingly filled up with people who had no choice but to beg for a living or to sell themselves into slavery.

And little guys like Naboth got squeezed in just the way that Kings tells us Ahab squeezed him. The Bible authors were keenly aware of the injustices this brought about. Over and over again, they remind those with wealth of their responsibility to look out for those who are disenfranchised by the situation. Less noted is the fact that they did not worry about economic injustice in any general sense. They—like Jesus who assured us the poor will always be with us—assumed that poverty was a fact of life. Their message was to take care of the widow and the orphan and the poor man at your gate. It was not reform the economic system to make sure everyone has enough.

More or less the same thing happens in many third world countries even today. And the solution that many modern political activists came up with is redistribution. For some reason, modern Christians are also fond of redistribution although it is clearly not in Christ's message and, more importantly, it just doesn't work! And yet, the idea of redistributing wealth drives modern Christian thought about economics like no other.

There was a telling moment at last year's Trinity Sessions. Rowan Williams had just made his presentation in which he managed to say absolutely nothing new or significant. He was then questioned by a journalist named Susan Lee from NPR. She said, “Theologians have focused on the distribution of wealth. Economists have focused on the creation of wealth." Then she went on to remind Williams that historically the theologians efforts to alleviate poverty through government control and manipulation of the distribution of wealth had been failures whereas the economists concern with promoting greater creation of wealth has considerably improved the lives of the poor.

She did not say but could have added that the emphasis on redistribution has also led theologians to make some monumentally poor political judgments. They have chastised western governments in countries such as England, Canada and the United States—governments that have done more than anyone in history to extend and protect human rights and freedoms—while apologizing for some of the vilest oppressive thugs to ever live beginning with Lenin and running through Castro to Hugo Chavez in our time.

I'm sorry to say that Rowan Williams didn't respond to her questions but dodged them instead. And he is not the only one. Much as I love the Catholic church, the political economics that have grown out of Catholic social teaching are a murderers row of unfortunate mistakes from corporatism to liberation theology.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Who needs subtext?

Book 3, Chapter 8 (Chapter 44 in some editions)
“The lamp of the body is the eye.
If your eye is sound, your whole body will be filled with light;
but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be in darkness.
And if the light in you is darkness, how great will the darkness be.”

In my crueler moments, which happen far too often, I sometimes wonder if people who spend their time digging for subtexts have any idea how to enjoy reading. The surface, the text, of this chapter is so rich, so profound that I could spend a week blogging it and not come close to doing it justice.

Before beginning, let's stop and consider the sheer virtuosity that Willoughby lives his life with. One of the many things he has in common with Hamlet is is his ability to just do what he wants to do. No one wins duels with Willoughby. We see it here in his marriage. Consider what must have happened in the back-story for a moment. Willoughby, who has just been playing at life until now, suddenly finds himself in need of marrying a  woman of fortune. So he goes out and does it. Just like that.

You couldn't do that and neither could I. The problem with both men is that they don't want to do anything but wallow in their own feelings. Only in odd moments of necessity does either man actually stir himself up to actually accomplish anything. Otherwise, all they are good for is acts of desecration.

Also like Hamlet, this chapter opens with a dark hint of violence. Elinor encounters him alone and she is alarmed not just at the impropriety of his being there but also with the sense that she is encountering a wild man who might do who knows what. Again, think of Hamlet showing up at Ophelia's burial and jumping in her grave to confront her grieving brother. Think of how Hamlet treated Ophelia appallingly when he ought to have treated her well and then, when she was dead and the whole issue was moot because she was dead, suddenly speaking of his love for her.

And then remember that that "love" itself later turned out to be doubtful for Hamlet will tell Horatio that he jumped into the grave because he didn't like the way Laertes was expressing himself. As if life was some giant drama and the only thing that mattered was the tastefulness and delicacy of the performance.

And consider how people keep loving Hamlet no matter how worthless he proves himself to be. How Horatio wants to kill himself so he can die with this catastrophic failure of a human being. How generations of critics have killed trees trying to convince themselves and others that Hamlet is really a hero even though all the evidence suggests otherwise.

There you have Willoughby. No matter that he always proves himself to be a schnook, we want to trust and love him. Even Elinor feels this way about him.

And here we need to be honest with ourselves. We like to think that we hate vanity—or that we at least hate it in others. But we are very susceptible to the vanity of others especially if that vanity occurs in a beautiful person. In those cases it tends to produce something very like charisma.

Faith and honour
It seems to me that the key lines of the chapter are these:
I will not reason here -- nor will I stop for you to expatiate on the absurdity, and the worse than absurdity, of scrupling to engage my faith where my honour was already bound.
This is Willoughby explaining himself to Elinor. He is acknowledging that he initially allowed the relationship between he and Marianne to develop in directions it ought not to have been allowed to develop. And he is saying that when they were both in love with one another he still scrupled at the thought of declaring his love, a declaration that must lead to marriage. So he is saying, his honour required the move and yet he continued to hold back.

But, in typical fashion, he wants to have his cake and eat it too. He  is really only hinting at the apology he ought to make and then holding back. "I will not reason here ...." Willoughby, you never reason anywhere, you let your feelings justify pretty much anything you want to do.

It seems to me there are two things to note here. First, just how commonplace this is. Who has not fallen in love and known, or at least strongly suspected, that this love was returned and yet held back because .... Well, because what? Because we weren't ready for it? Because we might meet someone better later? Because we are too busy having fun to make a commitment?

As we read this chapter we get constant reminders of what a cold, calculating swine Willoughby is. Read this again slowly:
"My fortune was never large, and I had always been expensive, always in the habit of associating with people of better income than myself. Every year since my coming of age, or even before, I believe, had added to my debts; and though the death of my old cousin, Mrs. Smith, was to set me free, yet that event being uncertain, and possibly far distant ...."
Willoughby is not overcome with any great love for his cousin here.

[By the way, note the parallel between Willoughby and John Dashwood. As a writer, I am amazed at the incredible number of parallels like this Austen employs. You'd think it would feel artificial and contrived and yet it never does. Probably because our real lives are just as full of such parallels as Austen's fiction is. Also, she never explicitly draws the parallel she leaves it for us to discover. Not hidden in any subtext, but right on the surface.]

The second thing to note is how Elinor is in a situation that mirrors that of Willoughby. She is hesitant to let down her guard, to let Willoughby engage her confidence too far because she knows that her honour must follow what her faith has already allowed. If she turns him away, doesn't allow him to enter and explain himself, then she would not have been bound to honour his request that she apologize for him to Marianne.

In the end, though, she does let him explain, does allow his charm to affect her, so that, when he asks, she has no choice but to agree. And thus sets up the tension for the last few chapters.

Blurting it out
Here, by the way, I think we can see why Austen had to switch from epistolary to dramatic narrative. This scene could not have played out convincingly if this were a letter. Then Elinor could read the letter all the way to the end and still returned it with a note saying, "I must return this letter to you sir, unread ...." It is the human contact that makes it all possible by engaging her faith and thus her honour.

This sort of scene—a scene where a character suddenly enters into a more intimate bond with another by blurting out the thing that otherwise should not and therefore would not be said—is a regular feature in Austen novels from now on. She did not originate the device but she uses it brilliantly enough that all her predecessors seem irrelevant.

What's fascinating here in Sense and Sensibility, is that the scene is accomplished through an intermediary. Willoughby does not blurt to Marianne herself the way that Darcy will blurt out his first marriage proposal to Elizabeth or the way Elizabeth will later blurt out the desperate situation her sister's elopement has created to Darcy. Here we have Elinor in the middle and Elinor must decide whether to keep her promise or not. And Elinor's chief worry is to not rekindle any passion in Marianne when she does keep the promise.

That may seem like a bad thing. Oh how we crave the moment when a Darcy or Elizabeth forgets themselves so completely that they cannot help but let their feeling spill out. There is something erotic about such a moment and there should be.

But let's stop and read it the right way. Austen is still discovering the power of such intimate moments. Remember that the blurt out moment in Northanger Abbey is one of pure shame, where Catherine is humiliated when she lets out what her feelings have led her to think. She is not more intimate with Henry as a consequence. Austen is easing herself into the moment. She is not ready to let her heroine let go. It will be a little easier every time after this but let's give our full appreciation to that first time.

Do you believe him?
There are three things that Willoughby gets away with in this chapter that he ought not to. Three ways he charms even the supposedly cold-hearted Elinor and probably fooled you too. He certainly fooled me the first time through.

The first is with regard to the character of Brandon's ward.

First, consider how he describes his falling for Marianne:
"To have resisted such attractions, to have withstood such tenderness! -- Is there a man on earth who could have done it!"
But Willoughby,  honey, "resisting attractions" isn't exactly your strong suit. You did, after all, if you'll pardon me putting it so crudely, nail Brandon's daughter before coming here. Willoughby's excuse here is that he he didn't know she was pregnant as a consequence of what he'd done. How exactly does that make a difference? You committed the crime, what matter that you didn't know you left your DNA at the scene of the crime?

And what possible difference could it make that your partner was a willing participant? Is the fact that the other person also wants to do this too all the justification that an act as intimate as sex needs?

Again, the Hamlet comparison is relevant here. Everything Hamlet does feels absolutely legitimate to him when he does it because it is in line with his feelings. Where he is a miserable failure is at hiding his feelings. When he should hide them during the play within the play, for example, he cannot, thereby alerting Claudius to the danger he represents to him.

A cheap seducer like Wickham has nothing on Willoughby. Willoughby will go through life seducing one person after another and be all the more deadly because he will genuinely feel himself to be in love every time he makes the other person fall in love with him.

So his account of what happened between he and Eliza should ring hollow. The thing that troubles us Willoughby, is not that the suspicion that you behaved like a libertine towards her but the suspicion that you fell deeply in love and felt that sex was justified by this love. Someone who just wanted to get some has potential for reform, someone who falls in love too easily does not.

The second thing we ought not to believe is his claim that it was his failure to see how Marianne's love could have made up for a life of relative poverty that stood in his way.
My affection for Marianne, my thorough conviction of her attachment to me -- it was all insufficient to outweigh that dread of poverty, or get the better of those false ideas of the necessity of riches, which I was naturally inclined to feel, and expensive society had increased. I had reason to believe myself secure of my present wife, if I chose to address her, and I persuaded myself to think that nothing else in common prudence remained for me to do.
Actually Willoughby, there was a bigger problem here that you must have been aware of even if you deny it now. And it is this: Marianne shared exactly the same character failings. Married, she would only have encouraged you in your lack of restraint. It would be no act of love to marry such a woman unless you really meant to reform yourself as part of your vow to her. And you have no intention of changing. (And his attempt at atonement now fails for the same reason, any genuine act of atonement must include a promise to attempt reform. He makes no such vow anywhere in this chapter.)

The third thing we ought not to believe is his claim that he has suffered because of his strong feelings and therefore ought to be forgiven. He has already used these feelings as an excuse to forgive himself:
"Thank Heaven! it did torture me. I was miserable. Miss Dashwood, you cannot have an idea of the comfort it gives me to look back on my own misery. I owe such a grudge to myself for the stupid, rascally folly of my own heart, that all my past sufferings under it are only triumph and exultation to me now. Well, I went, left all that I loved, and went to those to whom, at best, I was only indifferent. My journey to town -- travelling with my own horses, and therefore so tediously -- no creature to speak to -- my own reflections so cheerful -- when I looked forward everything so inviting! -- when I looked back at Barton, the picture so soothing! -- oh! -- it was a blessed journey!" 
As Willoughby sees it, he has already atoned in his mind. All that remains to be done is to convince others to see this. Again, this is purely a matter of feelings. He has suffered in his feelings and now it's all over except the moment of seducing others to feel the same things.That there might be moral requirements on Willoughby to forever act differently from now on doesn't occur to him.

The answer he deserves is, "You'll get over it Willoughby, you always do. And how can you comfort yourself when you have done nothing to comfort your victims?"

By the way, all the proof we need is right here in the chapter. At the outset, Willoughby is so overcome with feeling of his own guilt, he doesn't feel entitled to use Marianne's name.
"I mean," said he, with serious energy, "if I can, to make you hate me one degree less than you do now. I mean to offer some kind of explanation, some kind of apology, for the past -- to open my whole heart to you, and by convincing you, that though I have been always a blockhead, I have not been always a rascal, to obtain something like forgiveness from Ma -- from your sister." 
But, oh, how quickly he gets over this scruple. Just like he gets over everything else; like he always will get over his own sins.

Final shot at this moral midget. He blames—of course he does—the hurtful letter he earlier wrote to Marianne on his wife Sophia. That is bad enough, but notice how he manages to do the honourable thing and not do it at the same time:
'I am ruined for ever in their opinion,' said I to myself; 'I am shut out for ever from their society; they already think me an unprincipled fellow, this letter will only make them think me a blackguard one.'
A real man would have left it there Willoughby. He would have had the decency to  have left his victims the comfort of thinking him the vile one. Only a disgusting piece of wimpcrap like you would want to be forgiven for being what you are and somehow tried to imply your feelings lifted you above your actions.

Just like Hamlet that.