Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Staying with Relations by Rose Macaulay

As she trotted round the room in the arms of Adrian, Catherine felt again the comic strangeness of this handful of modern western persons tripping with their ordered steps to mechanical music round a rococo ballroom erected on a Spanish monastery, on an Indian palace, in the heart of the primeval forests.  Round the villa jungle creatures prowled and roared, Indians and Spaniards and half-breeds slept and waked, and a strange stone army crowded up against the house, Maya gods, sixteenth century Spanish missionaries and saints, and eighteenth century beings in togas or cocked hats.

But it was not really stranger than anything else, thought Catherine.  All the world is strange.  Strange looks passed from eye to eye, strange touches, strange half-phrases.

Rose Macaulay's Staying with Relations emerges from the same Anglo fascination with the non-Anglo world as The Towers of Trebizond, which was my favorite surprise read of last year.  Like that novel, Relations skewers the provincialism of the English traveler, who skips halfway round the world to drink the same tea, read the same books, and talk to the same white people as in London; trading only the Turkey of Trebizond for Guatemala.  In that way both books are comedies, but they simultaneously recognize that the obsession with travel emerges from something near horror; we are fascinated by the Other but terrified to embrace it.  The alienation of the traveler, for Macaulay, is a stand-in for all kinds of alienation: from others, from ourselves, from God.

Catherine, a young popular novelist goes to visit her aunt, uncle, and cousins in Guatemala, where they live in the renovated hacienda of the Imperial Spanish.  Guatemala is a wild place; the jungle is dotted with Spanish ruins that speak of Nature's power over Western civilization.  Her uncle is a dilettante archaeologist, constantly poking around his own residence for the mysteries it might contain.  Her cousins are blithe, cultured, and utterly bored by Guatemala.  The jungle's threatening nature becomes suddenly literal when Catherine's cousin Isie is kidnapped by native Guatemalans in return for a mysterious "treasure" which the hacienda may or may not contain.  Until this point the book seems like little more than a bland travelogue; once the kidnapping is proved to be a ruse by an untrustworthy white friend, the novel veers again, as Catherine and her cousins pursue the culprit through Mexico.

The villain had to be white in the end.  It's okay, in the latter half of the twentieth century, to write about white heroes in a non-white world, but the only permissible subtext is we were the monsters all along.  That's probably a fair standard, and as Conrad proved, even that is enough to save your narrative from being morally questionable.  For Macaulay, the perfidy of the white neighbor shows that we cannot trust each other, because we do not know each other.  Even the relations of the title, are, in the end, unknown to us.  Catherine, who is known as a novelist with an eye for character, is constantly misjudging her own family--surprised that this one is having an affair, or that that one isn't, etc.:

Catherine thought, perhaps if we travel together, I shall get to know them at last, for so far I have been all wrong, and they have turned out different to what I thought.  How is one to know what people are like?  I wonder what Julia would say.  Perhaps one can never know; perhaps people are uncapturable, and slip away like water from one's hand, changing all the time. 
But still, as a novelist of human character, she felt that she must try to understand it.  After all, there it is; people must be like something, if only one can discover what.  How does one penetrate through the idea that they give of themselves into the elusive spirit behind?  Can it be that one never can do that?

The Guatemalan jungle becomes, rather than merely a symbol of unknowability, a source of misdirection for human bewilderment.  In the end, the jungle is what it is; it is other people who contain mysteries.  Conrad's error was that he mixed up people and the jungle; the Londoner, the African, and the jungle were each as inscrutable, and possibly evil, as the other.  It's only the Londoner he expected to surprise you.  The native Guatemalans turn out to be as banal and ordinary as anyone else, but even banality proves not to be penetrable.  As Catherine notes, "All is strange."

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The First Bad Man by Miranda July

I drove to the doctor's office as if I was starring in a movie Phillip was watching--windows down, hair blowing, just one hand on the wheel.  When I stopped at the red lights, I kept my eyes mysteriously forward.  Who is she? people might have been wondering.  Who is that middle-aged woman in the blue Honda?  I strolled through the parking garage and into the elevator, pressing 12 with a casual, fun-loving finger.  The kind of finger that was up for anything.  Once the doors had closed, I checked myslef in the mirrored ceiling and practiced how my face would go if Philip was in the waiting room. Surprised but not overly surprised, and he wouldn't be on the ceiling so my neck wouldn't be craning up like that.  All the way down the hall I did the face  Oh! Oh, hi! 

I first encountered Miranda July during college, when Netflix recommended that I get the DVD of Me and You and Everyone We Know.  I was really into indie comedies back then, and when Netflix said I would rate something five stars, it was never wrong (indeed, it was a simpler time...).  Netflix was spot on with Me and You and Everyone We Know; it's one of the few indie films from that time of my life that I still remember and rewatch occasionally.

I didn't even know July wrote fiction.  During one of our camping trips Brittany brought the audio tapes for one of her collections of short stories, read by her.  Confession: I love the sound of her voice.  The short story collection was great (although, I don't think I finished listening to it).

So I was excited to see she'd written a novel (and even more excited when my friend lent it to me).

July has a talent for characters for whom regular interactions are very difficult.  These characters know that they are navigating a world that is easy to navigate for others, and so have a deep self-consciousness about the fact that they are different from other characters.  This novel is no exception.

The protagonist/narrator, Cheryl, works for a self-defense workshop not for profit; the group teaches women how to defend themselves against attackers.  She is full of insightful and hilarious observations about the people around her: "Dr. Broyard had Scandinavian features and wore tiny, judgmental glasses."

By the time we meet Cheryl, she is infatuated with Phillip, an older man who works on the board of her office; she works at home because her coworkers have decided she's better as a stay-at-home-manager.  Her life is disrupted when a temporary roommate is forced on her: where Cheryl is quiet, structured, and middle aged, her new roommate is loud, spontaneous, and young.

The novel is full of beautiful writing and imagery, and she successfully maintains an interesting plot throughout.  Highly recommended.

And because this is clearly the best cinematic moment in the all of time and space, I'm linking it here:

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Minding the Law by Anthony G. Amsterdam & Jerome Bruner

But this does not mean our purpose in writing about these cases is to criticize their results.  We subject their texts to close reading; and where the reading shows that Supreme Court Justices have made undeclared categorial choices--or have chosen to take one narrative, rhetorical, or cultural direction rather than another without explaining why--we do not hesitate to say that the choices lack any justification in the text.

Anthony Amsterdam is a legend in the capital defense world.  He argued Furman v. Georgia, when the Supreme Court abolished the death penalty.  He argued two of the five cases that brought the death penalty back.  See here and here.  He won a MacArthur genius grant, and teaches at NYU law.

To say I admire him is...an understatement.  So you might imagine my excitement when I learned that he wrote a book.  And not just any book, a book co-written with an accomplished psychologist, Jerome Bruner.  In it, they seek to explain how Supreme Court decisions make categorical, narrative, and rhetorical decisions without acknowledging them.  They throw in chapter about what they call the "cultural" dialectic. For purposes of this review, I'm only going to talk about "categories" and the "cultural dialectic," but only because they have the less intuitive interesting things to offer.

As to categories, they explain the basic human cognitive function of categorizing the information presented to us; this allows us to organize a lot of information more efficiently and also to rely on our generalizations of a category when presented with a specific instance.  However, though categories serve an important cognitive function, we forget that categories are "made, not found."  It follows that to categorize something, is an act of meaning-making.  The act of categorization also serves an end.  They write, "In general, we can say that category systems serve two major cultural functions . . . . One is to promote cohesiveness within cultural groups . . . . But almost by virtue of that function, category systems can also serve to dominate other groups: to impose your system on them."

Categories also present a danger.  Consider:
     When one raises a question whether any particular legal category, category system, or category placement is defensible by anything but fiat, one is more often than not met with the claim that there must be some substance to the challenged categorization because things within the category are more similar to one another than to things outside the category.  And often the similarity adverted to is undeniable, even glaring.  But beware the other similarities that were ignored when the adverted-to similarity was selected for attention.
     For the fact is that human beings have an exquisite, ubiquitous capacity to register endless sources of similarity.  And any judgment of similarity depends upon the criteria chosen to measure likeness or unlikeness.  Similarity for what? is the question.  Two dachshunds are more like each other than like a Doberman, unless one of the dachshunds belongs to me; then the other dachshund and the Doberman are more alike because they are "not mine."
When this analysis is applied to decisions of the Supreme Court, we see that they are full of decisions about how to categorize facts.  These categorizations can ultimately decide a case.  The authors take two Supreme Court decisions and go blow for blow, exposing and explaining every categorical choice.

I cannot decide which is
more righteous: the 
mustache or this portrait.
They do this kind of analysis for "narrative" and "rhetoric."  Those chapters are also full of insight into the unseen decisions within decisions.  I want to focus on the "cultural dialectic" because I think that section was more Amsterdam/Bruner than mere explication from other disciplines.

They explain what they mean by "cultural dialectic" by reference to ideas: "All cultures are, inherently, negotiated compromises between the already established and the imaginatively possible" and "Whatever internal coherence a culture achieves is attributable, not to some natural process (as with homeostasis in biology, say), but to the dialectical processes inherent in negotiation."  Or to summarize, "cultures in their very nature are marked by contests for control over conceptions of reality.  In any culture, there are both canonical versions of how things really are and should be and countervailing visions about what is alternatively possible."  Of course, this framing may not work for many purposes; however, in the context of legal decisions, it is very helpful.

The reason is that, many Supreme Court issues fall within this fissure.  Fundamentally, when an important issue appears before the Court, the Court is presented with competing views of what it should do: maintain the status quo or aspire to something better.  Do we maintain marriage as the institution of yesteryear, or do we transform it into something all encompassing?  Indeed, one of the most enduring debates about the Constitution is whether it should be read as the same document it has always been or whether it should be read as an evolving document.  Their application of this analysis to actual Supreme Court decisions is fascinating because, fundamentally, and without acknowledgment, the Court is making a decision about which side of the dialectic the Court is on.

Why do we care that the Court is making decisions without acknowledging them?  As a lawyer, I care because professionally, I'm trying to persuade the court to do things, knowing what unstated considerations are at play are part of doing this job well.  As a person interested in ideas, this book has caused me to reflect on the layered nature of persuasion.  Yes, the logical is persuasive.  But, as this book shows, much more is at play than logic.  The implication is that our minds understand narratively, categorically, and rhetorically in a way parallel to logically.  And, lurking behind the shadows, is the cultural dialectic: our ability to understand is shaped by the questions of our day.

Obviously, of late, I've been reading what may be generally referred to as "legal theory" books  More so than any of the others, I'd recommend this to both lawyers and non-lawyers.  For the lawyers out there, this book explains the action of the law and problematizes what we easily take for granted.  For the non-lawyers, I think this book explains how being a lawyer is much more than applying straight forward rules to straight forward facts.  Highly recommended.