Monday, March 30, 2020

Young Man with a Horn by Dorothy Baker

That's the story, and it could never be called a grand tragic theme; it does not depict the fall of a noble person from high to low estate--Rick Martin never got anywhere near high estate, though he did make a lot of money for a while.  But it is a story that has the ring of truth and an overtone or two.  It is the story of a number of things--of the gap between the man's musical ability and his ability to fit it to his own life; of the difference between the demands of expression and the demands of life here below; and finally of the difference between good and bad in a native American art form--jazz music.  Because there's good in this music and there's bad.  There is music that is turned out sweet in hotel ballrooms and there is music that comes right out of the genuine urge and doesn't come from money.

Dorothy Baker's Young Man with a Horn is a fictionalized version of jazz giant Bix Beiderbecke, who, while largely forgotten among Americans today, was one of the first real virtuosos of the genre in its early days, and who died tragically and mysteriously young.  Her version of Beiderbecke is Rick Martin: a wayward kid from Los Angeles who discovers an aptitude for music by fooling around with a piano in an unlocked church, and who then finds there's no room for anything else in his life.  It's a story, at least in part, about race: like Beiderbecke, Rick is welcomed into the almost entirely black world of jazz music, and his talents and passion for the music are what are able to overcome the prejudices he's inherited.

Moreover, it's a story about the gifts and poisons of genius; Rick is the best trumpet player in the world because it is the only thing he's able to fit into his life.  Baker underscores this when, in an early scene, the teenage Rick hears that the drummer in the band he adores has suddenly died of a burst appendix.  Rick's best friend Smoke, a world-class drummer in his own right, is going to inherit the job, but while Smoke is wracked with grief, Rick can only think about the band:

"When you going to start?" Rick said.  He didn't have anything to say about death; the only thing he ever had anything to say about was music.  From his own point of view as a pianist and trumpet player he could tell you whether a piece was hard or easy; in a larger sense, as a critic, he could say right off whether a thing was good or bad.  His instinctive taste was infallible within the bounds of his chosen field.  Outside of that he was deaf, dumb, and blind, even slightly halt and more or less lame.  What was death to him; what was plane geometry; what was Spanish Conversation and Composition?  He looked steadily, with appraising eye, at the late George Ward's drums.

I was surprised how different Young Man with a Horn is from Cassandra at the Wedding, a book published almost 25 years later than Young Man, and which possesses a kind of mid-century modernist air that Baker apparently had yet to develop.  In place of Cassandra's third person limited POV, Young Man with a Horn is narrated by an unidentified and unnamed narrator whose account of Rick's life is steeped in vernacular and colloquialisms.  It seems right for the novel, and by the end, the novel itself becomes kind of jazzy, taken up with elaborate counterpoints between Rick, Smoke, bandleader Jeff Williams, and the other early jazz figures that make up Rick's world.  Even Rick's brief and ill-fated marriage to an ironic and aloof woman seems to take on the forms of great jazz improvisation.  At the same time, the narrator--and Baker--are cagey about the ability of the written word to capture the feeling or sensation of music, and while Baker writes lucidly and without repetitiveness about the experience of playing music, her reticence to reach for unsatisfying metaphors or florid language is one of the book's strengths.

Like Beiderbecke, Rick is doomed to die young, a fact that the narrator warns us of from the very outset of the book.  Beiderbecke's death is somewhat of a mystery, but Rick drinks himself to death.  Alternatively, Baker suggests that what really kills him is that love of jazz, a need to play music so powerful there's no room for anything else in Rick's life, even his life itself.  The climax comes when Rick, playing on a recording behind Smoke's sister Josephine (everyone in this L.A. neighborhood seems to grow up to become a jazz virtuoso) when, for the first time in his life, he plays a bum note.  The rumor is that Rick is washed up, that he's finally exhausted his talent, but the bandleader hears something different:

They waited a minute and Jeff went on almost as if he were talking to himself: "I don't know what the hell that boy thinks a trumpet will do.  That note he was going for, that thing he was trying for--there isn't any such thing.  Not on a horn."

Rick dies because his dream has outstripped life; as the note he is imagining cannot be played, so the life he wants to live cannot be lived.  You can't live jazz and only jazz.  But jazz, as genteel and milquetoast as it seems today, strikes me as the only musical form, except for its cousin blues, that might ever have inspired anyone to believe such a thing.  No one seems to be under the impression that trap music might offer a transcendent existence, or house music, unless maybe those on molly.  Young Man with a Horn really gave me a sense of how special it was to be around jazz in those early days and what a loss it is that those days are gone.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

The Beauty by Jane Hirshfield

A man reaches close
and lifts a quarter
from inside a girl’s ear,
from her hands take a dove
she didn’t know was there.
Which amazes more, you may wonder:
the quarter’s serrated murmur
against the thumb 
or the dove’s knuckled silence?

I do not remember where or why I acquired this volume of poetry.  Hirshfield is a poet I had heard of, but not read and perhaps I found it for sale in a bookstore or simply liked the cover – which contains a still life of peaches.  At any rate, I had it on my shelf and in lock-down mode I thought it was a good time to try it.

The title is well chosen – the book focuses on beauty, of course, but that article, “The,” identifies and expands on the noun quality of the word.  Beauty is a kind of mythical space Hirshfield opens up where the boundaries of the self and those of the world overlap.  There are smells and sounds and sensations that permeate the reader and we are called to remember or produce feelings to populate this sensory landscape.  In the opening poem, “Fado,” quoted above, the simple act of a magic show is expanded and the reader is carried across the world to Portugal where a woman in a wheelchair sings a fado.  Music and magic are transposed and we need to pay attention to such transformations.

The poems are short and clear, but often contain stunning moments.  In “My Skeleton,” the poet is celebrating that frame when suddenly its deathly imagery comes up:

When I danced,
you danced.
When you broke, 
The poem is no longer strictly about the self, there is another skeleton, returned from some past whose bones are more specific – arthritic wrists and cracked ribs – and weaker is celebrated and missed.

In “Like the Small Hole by the Path-Side Something Lives in” the poet becomes the path and other things – birds and apples, music and ideas – have travelled her and left their mark.  It is a stirring and slightly creepy way to think of life’s course and aging, what she refers to (in “A Person Protests to Fate”) as “the long middle” -  that period between the difficulties of youth and those of old age when

“the things you (fate) have caused
me most to want
are those that furthest elude me.”

However, it would be wrong to say that this sort of existential wear and tear is dark.  That poem ends with a reference to “the penmanship love practices inside the body,” and the references to loss, which come back in the end of the book are overwhelmed by the power of having something to lose.  In the final poem, “Like Two Negative Numbers Multiplied by Rain,”  Hirshfield says “I wanted my fate to be human,” and in The Beauty she has embraced both sides of that statement – the limitations of humanity are intrinsically tied to its joys

“The logic of shoes become at last simple,
The questions keep being new ones.”

Satanic Panic: Pop-Culture Paranoia in the 1980s by Kier-La Janisse and Paul Corupe

While moral panics may appear in new form to deal with evolving fears and anxieties, the enduring cultural legacy of the Satanic Panic era lies in the pop-culture artifacts it produced.  The paperbacks, music, comics, movies, talks shows and religious tracts that argued for or against the Satanic Panic, or that sometimes lampooned it, are unique documents that give you a feel for what it was like to live through the period.  Rather than being dry pieces of socio-cultural history, these artifacts of the era are sill engaging as entertainment when taken at face value, or as kitsch.  Whether they illustrate the fears of parents and authority figures, or take a sympathetic view toward the typical long-haired teenage metalhead, it would be impossible to truly understand the era without them.

Since the summer I've been writing a novel that takes place at the tail end of the "Satanic Panic"--a period during the 1980's and 90's in which widespread beliefs of organized Satanism and ritual abuse produced deep anxiety and paranoia in America and around the globe.  My research for that book has, so far, included Debbie Nathan's account of the McMartin preschool trial, Satan's Silence, and Mara Leveritt's The Devil's Knot, about the conviction of the West Memphis Three.  Satanic Panic is a series of essays about the cause and effect of pop culture on the Satanic Panic era, including movies, music, Dungeons and Dragons, talk shows, and even the infamous mass-published tracts of Christian propagandist Jack Chick.

The essays themselves are an uneven bunch.  Some are sensitive cultural analyses, others polemics, and some are sort of shoddy.  The least interesting keep their tongue firmly in their cheek, convinced that the hysteria around Satanism for the better part of two decades deserves nothing more really then to be laughed, or marveled at.  It was, of course, ridiculous, but it snookered a lot of people, as moral panics still do.  The best of them made me look at familiar tropes in new ways: Kevin Ferguson's essay on technology and Satanism on film, for example, thinks of the Satanic Panic as a reaction to the dwindling authority of not just the traditional home, but of print authority: computers and telephones place authority outside traditional modes of discourse, including the Bible, and locating it in frightening and foreign places.  (I didn't know, actually, that 900 numbers produced their own mini-hysteria about pernicious influences on kids at the time.)

One thing they all have in common is Geraldo.  Alison Lang provides an essay detailing Geraldo's landmark 1988 special Devil Worship, but references to the special itself appear in almost every essay in the collection, demonstrating somewhat implicitly the special's central position in spreading the hysteria.  The special itself, for what it's worth, seems to have been a potboiler and a travesty: ambushing each of its dozens of guests in turn, including serial killers, Ozzy Osbourne, and Anton LaVey's young daughter and leader of the Church of Satan, Zeena Schreck, then pulling away before they could say anything of substance.  As the postscript notes, Geraldo continues to enjoy influence and audience even today: as silly as the panic may seem in retrospect, its purveyors have not disappeared and its consequences have not diminished.

The best essays, though, are the ones by writers who had a stake in the era, so to speak.  I really enjoyed Forrest Jackson's account of his years-long habit of pranking Bob Larson, a Dallas-era radio talk show host and key proponent of the panic.  Jackson, whose affection for Larson's outrageous antics is palpable, called in for years pretending to be a Satanist named Wayne.  Like Jackson, David Canfield's essay about Christian provocateur and supposed former Satanist Mike Warnke comes from a place of affection: Canfield discusses being an acolyte of Warnke's, then being disillusioned as he joined the staff of the Christian magazine Cornerstone, whose expose on Warnke's lies shattered his credibility.  Canfield makes an important point:

It's easy to see in hindsight that these narratives, including the urban myth of the Satanic underground, were effectively a covert horror culture--a way for Christian folks to get those campfires story heebie-jeebies outside the verboten cultural arenas of secular entertainment.  And it wasn't any less entertaining.

When you look at it this way, Canfield and Jackson's complex relationship with Larson and Warnke comes to resemble the entire Christian and paranoiac obsession with Satanism in general.  The parents who obsessed over their teenager's black clothing and frightening music are not so different from the teenager who wore the clothing, and listened to the music: both emerge from a prurient need for release from the conventional.  And yet, when these two manifestations of the same impulse collided, lives were ruined.

The most baffling essay, to me, is Adrian Mack's analysis of HBO's made-for-TV movie Indictment, which was a dramatic reenactment of the McMartin preschool trial of the 1980's.  The McMartins were accused by dozens of children of Satanic ritual abuse, though eventually the public came to agree that they had been the victims of zealous prosecutors and Satanic panic true believers, and they were acquitted.  Indictment came in this after-period, when public opinion had long since settled on the McMartins' side.  To Mack, the bias of Indictment is a distortion of the truth, and while the essay doesn't come out and say that the prosecutors were right, that's what it clearly believes, and it blames HBO, and all the prosecutors' critics, for "sowing doubt about the reliability of witness testimony."

But that's a pretty broad statement: the critics of the McMartin trial don't doubt the reliability of witness testimony, but they do doubt the reliability of young children's testimony, especially those placed under manipulative conditions, as the children in the McMartin case clearly were, and the "expert" testimony of doctors who had not sufficiently researched claims about the way sexual abuse is physically detectable.

To Mack, the bias of Indictment is inexcusable, a pattern of groupthink that diminishes the serious claims of abuse made by children and their parents.  There is a reasonable claim, I think, that public opinion can shift too far, and that the dynamics of hysteria that fomented the McMartin case are the same that unraveled it, and should be treated with similar skepticism.  But the essay treats the McMartin case devoid of context, and fails to even grapple with the idea that public opinion was against the McMartins before it was for them, or that in other cases--like the West Memphis Three, and other day care workers, most of whom have since been released after long prison sentences--public opinion never got the chance to swing the other way.

It's a strange essay in a collection that mostly finds the value in, as the excerpt above says, the "kitsch" of the Satanic Panic era: the most outrageous music, the goriest films, even Christian "white" metal--all of them are as much a product of the Satanic Panic as they are the cause of it.  That is to say, these cultural artifacts are still fun and interesting because they see, clearly and satirically, the stifling and unflappable character of American monoculture.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Here Among Strangers by Serena Crawford

On an afternoon when Catherine was able to duck away from the Quiet Adventures tour group, in between two lectures she was signing for the traveling hearing-impaired, she took a taxi to a village outside of Taipei, to a small English school where she’d once taught.  She’d lived on the third floor in a room with a bare bulb, an electric kettle and a mosquito coil.  There was a hole underneath a loose floor tile, the kind of place you could stash your valuables and return to find them twenty, thirty years later untouched.   (from “Silence”)

Can a traveler ever blend back into life?  Can you ever fully return from where you;ve once been?  (from “Here Among Strangers”)

Here Among Strangers is a book of short stories – winner of the 2019 Spokane Prize for Short Fiction.  I received a copy because I did not win that contest.  As usual, there is a risk of sour grapes in my reading of such a book, though it is also a worthy way to asses my own lack of publishing success.  In a nutshell, there is much to admire in Ms. Crawford’s prose – it is dense with well-chosen details so that the reader feels as if he is inhabiting a real place.  Her characters get slightly repetitive, but always feel like fully three-dimensional people, though often with similar difficulties with decision making.  There seems to be an autobiographical element here in that certain character traits, plot developments and settings repeat across stories.  This is certainly a world Crawford knows well, whether she has lived it or not, and she gets it to add up to a world view that holds the collection together.

One of the patterns that repeats is the portrayal of college graduates financing their travels around Asia by teaching English.  In “Silence,” quoted above, Catherine has graduated to working for a travel company that specializes in tours for the hearing impaired, but much of the story involves flashing back to the weeks she spent at the English school she mentions in that opening paragraph.  At that time she had an awkward but intense relationship with the man who ran the school and during this return trip we learn that he was dying and every trace of the school was swallowed up by modernization after he was gone – including the treasure she left under that loose tile, a series of notes he had written to her to improve his English.

Catherine has moved on from her bumming-through-Asia phase, but several other characters are having more trouble with the transition to adulthood.  In “Chinatown,” the narrator was called back from China to take care of her aging mother.  Both women have recently survived tragedies (the death of a husband and the still-birth of a child) and one deals with grief through a severe asceticism – the daughter will not own anything that does not fit into a small backpack – while the other has become a full-fledged hoarder – mom insists that her daughter accompany her to Costco and other stores to purchase random junk.  In “Ocean,” a Father has come to Hawaii because his son has been hospitalized after a surfing accident.  The father’s severe disappointment with his son’s peripatetic lifestyle – he travels to surfing mecca’s endless summer style – is hammered home constantly and our sympathy for the son grows as Dad (an investment banker) slowly learns what a disciplined and simple lifestyle the young man is pursuing.

In “Oasis,” “My Brother’s House” and “Enchanted” the grown-ups who have moved beyond their youthful artistic/travelling phases have been justly punished by the rigors of parenthood.  Granted, I am looking back on my children with rose-colored glasses, but these stories could act as birth control:  parenting has rarely seemed so unrelentingly grim and difficult.  There is not a moment of joy or success that makes the decision to reproduce seem like anything a sane person would want to take on.

These patterns do give a reader a chance to contemplate the arc of life – how we move from our youthful refusal of responsibility towards something more adult.  While that decision is not celebrated here – it is almost always something forced on a person, something to be mourned – its inevitability is taken seriously.  There is also a recurring contemplation of the role of possessions – Catherine and her backpack, her mother and her hoarding, the banker father vs the surfer son, a family, in “Enchanted” trying to raise children and stay true to their youthful ideals, and the school owner in “Silence” whose wealthy parents bought him a school so he could fulfill his life-long dream before he died.  

These themes are brought to their fullest and most graphic realization in the title story, the last in the collection.  A group of young people on individual post-college adventures have united to share an adventure and – having decided they enjoyed each others’ company, have reunited in an impoverished and depressing Bangkok rooming house.   One of their number, Kippy, the kindest and most sincere of the group (“he seemed to be travelling for all the right reasons – to learn more about the world, see what he was missing.”) shows up late.  He is filthy and gaunt and permanently disoriented:  he appears to be no longer capable of taking care of himself.  The group attempts to nurse him back to health (though without engaging any medical professionals) and to arrange for his return to the states, but when nothing works, they give him money and food and leave him to survive the streets of Bangkok without them.  The narrator is thinking back on this event, and on Kippy, from her office at an insurance company.  She gets regular holiday cards from the group, but the “propped-up babies, the plastered smiles, the tinselly decorations … remind me of fish trapped in a frozen pond,” and she cannot stop wondering what happened to Kippy, the purest of the travelers.  It is the strongest story in the collection because the moral questions surrounding their behavior are haunting in a way that the decisions of other characters simply aren’t.

In Here Among Strangers, youthful inexperience involves running from responsibility to someplace foreign and impoverished, only to be forced home where American materialism provides no balm.  It is not a pleasant world, but it is thought provoking and fully realized.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

The Claw of the Conciliator by Gene Wolfe

Here I pause again, having taken you, reader, from town to town--from the little mining village of Saltus to the desolate stone town whose very name had long ago been lost among the whirling years.  Saltus was for me the gateway to the world beyond the City Imperishable.  So too, the stone town was a gateway, a gateway to the mountains I had glimpsed through its ruined arches.  For a long way thereafter, I was to journey among their gorges and fastnesses, their blind eyes and brooding faces.

Here I pause.  If you wish to walk no farther with me, reader, I do not blame you.  It is no easy road.

The Claw of the Conciliator is the second book in Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun tetralogy, following the torturer Severian as he continues his journey away from the Citadel of his upbringing toward--well, what exactly?  At one point he tells us of his various missions, each of which seems to be of vital importance, but which strain against each other not just for him, but the reader, making it difficult to read the book as a quest narrative like you expect: he wants to make his way to Thrax, the city where he's supposedly posted as a torturer after having been exiled from the Citadel; he wants to find and protect Dorcas, the waif-like girl who appeared in a lake; he wants to serve the rebel Vodalus, who fights the ruling Autarch; he wants to return the all-powerful healing crystal known as the Claw of the Conciliator to the religious order who guards it.  Along the way, here are some of the things he encounters:

A cave full of aggressive glowing aps-people.  An ancient giant who seeks to control Urth, and wants to seduce Severian to live at the bottom of the sea.  Flying bat-like creatures made of night that burrow into your body for warmth, and that separate into two creatures when you cut them with your sword.  A robot who's been grafted with flesh and organs.  (Not, significantly, a person who's been grafted with robotics.)  The House Absolute, seat of the Autarch, which turns out to be build entirely underground.  The Second House, a--well--second house built in secret around the House Absolute, full of mysterious and hidden passageways.  Hideous cacogens, disguised as human beings, but who really have thousands of eyes laid out like a pinecone.  A secret ceremony in which he is invited to ingest the flesh of his dead love Thecla, after which her memories continue to live on him.

...And a lot of other stuff, besides.  Looking at the list, you get the impression that The Book of the New Sun is a particularly inventive but also fairly formulaic fantasy series.  But what makes Claw of the Conciliator, like The Shadow of the Torturer, so engaging is the sense I get that it's not really interested in being a fantasy or science fiction book at all, and that the whole thing is a kind of papier mache facade that's concealing another kind of book entirely, or perhaps nothing at all.  More than once, Wolfe pauses the narrative to include another kind of genre entirely: first a book of legends, then a script for a play that Severian performs, which is so mind-boggling that it reminded me of nothing more than Faust.

Everything comes at you whip-fast, introducing new characters and ideas and then undoing or recontextualizing them in a way that makes the reader's footing supremely unsure.  No sooner does Severian meet the rebel Vodalus in the woods and agree to carry a message to a spy in the House Absolute than the spy turns out to be the Autarch himself.  Is the rebellion just a red herring?  If so, what's the "real story" here?  Is it about the giants that live in the sea who want to exert dominion on the land, or are they a red herring, too?  Maybe every herring here is red.

Again, Wolfe suggests that the world of Urth may be a figment: in The Shadow of the Torturer, interlopers from our own time appear on a kind of safari.  Here, Severian's friend Jonas suggests that he comes from a different place and time, and is perhaps thousands of years old.  In a room of mirrors in the House Absolute he disappears--presumably, having known how to return to our own era, perhaps slipping through time, but perhaps because Urth itself is a fiction or a metafiction.

I feel like I haven't entirely captured just how strange these books are.  Talking about them makes them seem ordinary, but they outstrip the capacity of my language to really capture, and that's part of what makes them so uneasy and unsettling.  The quest continues, but it's almost like the book, and the very nature of its book-ness, is falling apart, and I have a hard time imagining these qualities intensifying for two more novels.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Damnation Island:  Poor, Sick, Mad and Criminal in 19th Century New York.
By Stacy Horn

Initial planners for Blackwell’s would have been mortified at how wretched and deadly conditions there had become.  When the island was bought by the city for $32,500 in 1828 (they would end up paying $20,000 more to settle a lawsuit), their goal was to relieve the crowded conditions at Manhattan’s Bellevue, which in addition to being a hospital, was also the location of the city’s Penitentiary, the Lunatic Asylum, an Almshouse for the poor, and the Workhouse, a prison for people convicted of minor crimes.  As the city had grown, so had the number of the poor, the lunatic, and the criminal, all of whom had to be treated somewhere when they got sick.

While this may have been an opportune time to read this volume, I ended up more frustrated than enlightened by it.  While Damnation Island is loaded with gory and depressing anecdotes regarding our ongoing inability (or refusal) to care for the needy, its lack of organization or context made much of the information less meaningful and the effect was actually boring.  Rather than being a history of Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island) that tells the story of its evolution from farm land (owned by the Blackwell Family) to its century as a complex of city institutions for the sick and destitute and then to its new 20thcentury life as an attempt at model middle-class living, the book is organized around the institutions that were housed there in the 19th Century.  

While these were several and diverse, the use of them as an organizing principle comes across as random and confusing.  Most of the work centers on the period from the 1873 economic collapse through the 1890s. This seems to be driven by the existence of the diaries of a Reverend William French, who commuted to the island daily for thirty years to minister to its sick and impoverished residents.  That would work better if French had made distinctions between the institutions, but he viewed his calling to work with all of the residents.  Horn makes it clear that this was a rational decision on his part, since the staffs and the residents were often moved from one institution to the other as space was needed.  A shocking piece of information but one which means that the island will require a different organization to illuminate it.  In its current form the reader is swimming through a vast array of horrific anecdotes that seem interchangeable.  There are several exposes written during this time that attempt to show the need for improvement but there is very little discussion of what set these apart from one another (possibly nothing) or what effect they had (possibly none).  A substantial number of these anecdotes follow people who are suffering official neglect in other institutions, not even those on Blackwell’s. 

However, there is a valuable lesson in this history.  Just as Blackwell’s institutions are each developed to reform the failures of what came before them, they are replaced by institutions that fail just as miserably. The New York City Lunatic Asylum is ultimately replaced by a series of psychiatric hospitals, some on Long Island that included farms, with their opportunity for healthy manual labor and fresh air. (Reformers are frequently of the opinion that the poor need more hard work in the fresh air.)  When I was in high school, my health teacher – an otherwise unenlightened man – took us on a field trip to one of these institutions – Pilgrim State Psychiatric Hospital.  It was a gigantic castle-like warehouse structure.  I remember huge, high ceilinged rooms with stone walls and stone floors.  There were drains on the floor surrounded by puddles because the only cleaning ever done was hosing these unfurnished caverns down.  I remember dozens of people standing or wandering around the room, talking to themselves, crying, rocking in the fetal position.  Some were dressed in shabby street clothing (perhaps what they were wearing when they arrived, whenever that was) and others were simply covered with white poncho-like tunics.  What I remember best is the echo – every sound rang like a drum in the giant empty space, and the cold.  

Similarly, in an important reform stretching from the late 19th to the mid-20th centuries, the wretched, overcrowded penitentiary is replaced by a larger, more modern and civilized complex on neighboring Riker’s Island.  As the city finally closes Riker’s – long since labeled the worst jail in America (not a low bar) – we might do well to remember that Rikers was the solution before it became the problem.  While modern facilities are important, it seems there is an element of humanity required to help people that may be more important than bricks and mortar.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

The True Heart by Sylvia Townsend Warner

What she wanted to say was:

'Save me!  You must save me, for I am in despair and only you can rescue me.  I am alone, I am in love, I am terrified out of my wits.  Everything is in a conspiracy against me, everything menaces me, everything is new and unknown and terrifying, for love has changed it, and changed me too, so that I can do nothing to save myself, I can only whirl to and fro among my fears.  Oh, save me, you ought to save me, for I am yours, I have given myself to you, I am not my own any longer.  And yet I don't feel as thought you had got me.  I am like a ghost, I don't know myself any longer.  I am like a dream.  The sight of my own hand is enough to startle me, it seems strange and not mine.  I am like your dream, and you may wake up and forget me, and I shall never be able to find my way to you any more.'

Orphan Sukey Bond is placed as a servant with a family on a small farm in the marshes of England.  By the members of the family there she is either ignored or condescended to, with one exception: a mysterious young man named Eric, who the brothers of the family insist is not their relation at all.  One day, Eric leads Sukey to a secret and abandoned orchard full of fruit, where he kisses her for the first time.  Eric is pure and good-hearted--perhaps, you might suspect, a little too pure, as when he suggests they climb through the window of an empty church and get married.  Later, he has a convulsive fit when Sukey is compelled to slaughter a chicken for dinner.  Eric, the family explains, is "an idiot"--and soon his haughty and ashamed mother has spirited him away from the house where she has hidden him away, leaving Sukey alone.

The True Heart is the story of Sukey's long quest to find Eric and bring their promise of marriage to each other to fruition.  Townsend Warner gives the impression that Sukey, too, doesn't quite have full possession of her faculties: entreating Eric's mother, she confesses an unshakable belief that she is pregnant, though all the pair has done is smooch in an orchard.  But Sukey's naivete is not permanent, but the product of youth and inexperience, which finds in Eric a kind of familiar companion.  The True Heart believes that there is a wonder in the simplicity of childhood and its imaginative power, which is lost in the process of aging.  See how, by contrast, a slightly older Sukey veers toward cynicism and despair:

One day, in the midst of stilling the outcries of little Louise, who had stuffed her nostrils with soap, it flashed upon her with an extraordinary unreality that she had once believed herself to be pregnant.  It seemed the delusion of a child.  Just so, in the old days at Notting Dale, she had awoken one morning firmly convinced that she could fly, and had launched herself down a flight of stairs, to roll bewildered and howling into a clothes-basket.  Perhaps her very love had been a delusion too.  It had seemed like love, but so had it seemed to her that she would bear a child.  One was untrue, so might the other be.  For what did she know about love?  Nothing.  A farm-servant, very young, very ignorant, who had been kissed by a boy who was not quite in his right mind.

But Eric acts like a lifeline for Sukey's youthfulness, keeping it alive even in his absence.  It's this youthful imagination that gives Sukey the boldness to abandon three different placements to renew her search for Eric, and to traipse around the English countryside, relying on the kindness of tramps and madams.  She develops a ridiculous notion that if she can procure a signed Bible from Queen Victoria and present it to Eric's mother, she will see the light and permit the marriage.  It seems impossible, but Sukey's firm belief makes it possible, and in the end, she really does meet the Queen, she really does get the Bible.  Things don't quite work as she expects, but that doesn't seem to matter; what matters is that Sukey believes in the dream of her youth at all costs.

The True Heart is very charming; it's the kind of heartwarming and optimistic--but not shallow or didactic--book that I needed at this difficult moment.  As in Lolly Willowes and Mr. Fortune, Townsend Warner creates characters that are appealing and convincing, sympathetic even in their follies and mistakes. 

Friday, March 20, 2020

The Plague by Albert Camus

In this respect our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words they were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilences.  A pestilence isn't a thing made to man's measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pas away.  But it doesn't always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away, and the humanists first of all, because they haven't taken their precautions.  Our townsfolk were not more to blame than others; they forgot to be modest, that was all, and thought that everything still was possible for them; which presupposed that pestilences were impossible.  They went on doing business, arranged for journeys, and formed views.  How should they have given a thought to anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views.  They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.

Why did I do this to myself?  If I were being self-congratulatory, I might say that I read The Plague during a global pandemic because I have decided to face facts, and look the enemy in the eye.  But that's not true; I've stopped looking at Twitter because I can't take the news at the moment.  Maybe there's something pacifying about reading about a fictional plague, one that unfolds over the pace of 200 pages, and doesn't have to be lived through at the agonizing rate of a day at a time.  Maybe it's just a kind of grim joke I decided to play on myself.

In Camus' novel, the place is Oran, a French Algerian port, and the plague is the plague.  It begins, as the plague does, with rats: first a couple of rats dying in the streets, then dozens, then hundreds, then thousands.  The rats unleash the bubonic plague on the people of Oran, in isolated instances at first, and then, again, by dozens, hundreds, thousands.  Soon Oran finds itself shut off from the outside world as plague rampages through it, separating lovers, family, and incarcerating those inside.

Oran is not the world.  That's the first big difference between The Plague and the coronavirus; there's no sense at the moment that other places have it better, and if you could just be elsewhere, everything would be all right.  But the sense of exile, of being cut off, doesn't that describe what we're all going through with extreme social distancing?  Thank goodness we have more, these days, than telegrams.  In a hundred other little ways, The Plague is spot-on about the dynamics of the pandemic, from the bureaucratic slowness and ineptitude which is formed by an unwillingness to admit the truth:

Then, after sweeping the other members of the committee with a friendly glance, he said that he knew quite well it was plague and, needless to say, he also knew that, were this to be officially admitted, the authorities would be compelled to take very drastic steps.  This was, of course, the explanation of his colleagues' reluctance to face the facts and, if it would ease their minds, he was quite prepared to say it wasn't plague.

To the enervating mystery of when things will get back to normal:

It is noteworthy that our townspeople very quickly desisted, even in public, from a habit one might have expected them to form--that of trying to figure out the probable duration of their exile.  The reason was this: when the most pessimistic had fixed it at, say, six months; when they had drunk in advance the dregs of bitterness of those six black months, and painfully screwed up their courage to the sticking-place, straining all their remaining energy to endure valiantly the long ordeal of all those weeks and days--when they had done this, some friend they met, an article in a newspaper, a vague suspicion, or a flash of foresight would suggest that, after all, there was no reason why the epidemic shouldn't last more than six months; why not a year, or even more?

Even to the way an epidemic exacerbates the injustice of society and falls hardest on those like prisoners:
"I should tell you, however, that they're thinking of using the prisoners in the jails for what we call the 'heavy work.'"
"I'd rather free men were employed." 
"So would I.  But might I ask why you feel like that?" 
"I loathe men's being condemned to death."

But I'll say this: the focus of The Plague is not really on the dying or the beleaguered, but on a small group of people, led by Dr. Bernard Rieux, who risk their lives to help Oran through the plague.  Rieux tells those who volunteer with him that they stand a one in three chance of surviving, if they assist in what are called "sanitary squads," but each of them comes to realize the work as a kind of human duty.  You can't read about Rieux without thinking about the thousands of doctors, nurses, and yes, grocery store workers who are putting their lives at risk every day to combat the coronavirus.  In the end, The Plague is a very human and humane book; it sees self-sacrifice and community as the heart of what is best about people.  As one of Rieux's friends and associates, Tarrou, says, "What's natural is the microbe.  All the rest--health, integrity, purity (if you like)--is a product of the human will, of a vigilance that must never falter."

Late in the book, the inept magistrate M. Othon, who spends weeks in a horrid isolation camp, decides upon his release to return there in order to help it run.  Pestilence, Camus says, offers the opportunity for human beings to become better and wiser, if we'll take it.  Ultimately, the lesson of the novel is that "there are more things to admire in men than despise."  Maybe I'm grasping at any kind of straw, but I closed the novel with at least a little bit of that kind of hope.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar

Different persons have ruled me in turn, though none of them for long; each fallen tyrant was quick to regain power.  Thus have I played host successively to the meticulous officer, fanatic in discipline, but gaily sharing with his men the privations of war; to the melancholy dreamer intent on the gods; the lover ready to risk all for a moment's rapture; the haughty young lieutenant retiring to his tent to study his maps by lamplight, making clear to his friends his disdain for the way the world goes; and finally the future statesman.  But let us not forget, either, the base opportunist who in fear of displeasing succumbed to drunkenness at the emperor's table; the young fellow pronouncing upon all questions with ridiculous assurance; the frivolous wit, ready to lose a friend for the sake of a bright remark; the soldier exercising with mechanical precision his vile gladiatorial trade.  And we should include also that vacant figure, nameless and unplaced in history, though as much myself as all the others, the simple toy of circumstance, no more and no less than a body, lying on a camp bed, distracted by an aroma, aroused by a breath of wind, vaguely attentive to some eternal hum of a bee.

Machiavelli called Hadrian one of the "Five Good Emperors": a stretch of Roman emperors also including Nerva, Trajan, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius, each of whom used power effectively and wisely, and who were distinguished from those who came before and after them by adopting a successor they thought deserving of leadership, rather than letting the role fall to their biological heirs.  Hadrian, if he's remembered at all today, is probably remembered for Hadrian's Wall, the defensive battlement that stretches across the narrowest part of Britain, and which still stands.  That's  a pretty good monument for Hadrian, who was a builder above all else, and who wisely fortified the edges of the empire.  Marguerite Yourcenar's novel Memors of Hadrian imagines the emperor toward the end of his life, crippled by disease, reflecting on his achievements and missteps in a long missive to the emperor-to-be Marcus Aurelius.

The obvious analog to Memoirs of Hadrian is John Williams' terrific novel AugustusBoth mine the last days of the emperor's life, and the approach of terminal illness, for incredible pathos.  But Williams was interested in the way that myths and legends accrete around a person, and how the subject beneath them remains true to is own human weakness.  For that reason, Williams keeps Augustus from speaking on his own behalf until the end of the novel; it becomes the pulling away of a veil.

Hadrian is no Augustus: his achievements, while far-reaching, are hardly the stuff of legend.  He discards many of the territorial gains under his predecessor Trajan, knowing that they only make the empire more vulnerable to attack.  He builds cities and public works projects: temples, aqueducts, stadia, defensive battlements.  He spends much of his time away from Rome, visiting the far-flung places that Rome has conquered, seeking ways to incorporate these strange new lands into the body politic.  These achievements are not flashy, and they gain Hadrian little support in the Senate or fame in Rome, and yet they are more permanent than any of the bloodthirsty conquest perpetrated by Hadrian.  Hadrian's greatest gift is his far-reaching sense of time; he seeks a Rome that will endure for centuries, even while he's aware that nothing can endure forever.  This is a difficult wisdom that, in his last days, he applies to the realization of his own mortality.

Yourcenar imagines this mindset with great subtlety and generosity; the 20th century never filters through ironically.  It's not hard to imagine, with some concession to the language itself, that you're really reading the private thoughts of a 2nd century emperor.  Even privately, Hadrian can be wonkish and aloof, but from time to time the emperor lets great emotions bubble up.  The most convincing and tragic part of the book is when Hadrian's young lover Antinous has himself killed in a ritual sacrifice for Hadrian's good fortune without the emperor realizing it:

I descended the slippery steps; he was lying at the bottom, already sunk in the river's mud.  With Chabrias' aid I managed to lift the body, which had suddenly taken on the weight of stone.  Chabrias hailed some boatmen who improvised a stretcher from sail cloth.  Hermogenes, called in haste, could only pronounce him dead.  That body, once so responsive, refused to be warmed again or revived.  We took him aboard.  Everything gave way; everything seem extinguished.  The Olympian Zeus, Master of All, Saviour of the World--all toppled together, and there was only a man with greying hair sobbing on the deck of a boat.

I'd never heard this story, and I was affected by it here.  Yourcenar is able to do something extraordinary here: she bridges a gap of 1800 years to allow us to feel the pain of someone who would ordinarily seem impossibly remote.  In her afterword, Yourcenar emphasizes that the expanse of time is not as great as we think: "Some five and twenty aged men, their withered hands interlinked to form a chain, would be enough  to establish an unbroken contact between Hadrian and ourselves."  In this--the ability to compress the immensity of time, and make it seem not so immense--Yourcenar shares a gift with Hadrian himself.

Monday, March 16, 2020

The Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark

Upstairs and far away in the control room the recorders, activated by their voices, continued to whirl.  So very much elsewhere in the establishment do the walls have ears that neither Mildred nor Walburga are now conscious of them as they were when the mechanisms were first installed.  It is like being told, and all the time knowing, that the Eyes of God are upon us; it means everything and therefore nothing.

The abbey in the English town of Crewe has become the epicenter of a national scandal.  It seems that to help ensure her election for abbess (is that a thing?) a nun named Alexandra has been bugging the entire abbey to listen in on her rivals.  One particular bugging operation--the installation of a microphone in her opponent Felicity's sewing box--was badly bungled, and suspected by Felicity when she discovered that her silver thimble was missing.  Fast forward a few months: Alexandra is abbess, but Felicity has disappeared with her lover, a Jesuit priest, and all of England is consumed with the salacious story of the silver thimble and the bugged Abbey.

The Abbess of Crewe makes its inspirations plain: the subtitle on the cover is "A wicked satire on Watergate."  Alexandra is the Nixon figure, a megalomaniac and paranoiac who, although almost assured to win the position, must subvert the rules of power and transform the entire abbey under the power of her will.  Abbess is weakest, I think, when it cleaves to closely to the Watergate model and the conception of Alexandra as Nixon, and best when Alexandra, as a character, breaks out of the narrowness of that restriction.  When faced with public scandal, Alexandra barrels ahead happily; she's convinced that she and the abbey have entered a life that is mythological rather than historical:

The Abbess continues evenly, 'The more scandal there is from this point on the better.  We are truly moving in a mythological context.  We are the actors; the press and the public are the chorus.  Every columnist has his own version of the same old story, as it were Aeschylus, Sophocles, or Euripides, only of course, let me tell you, of a far inferior dramatic style.  I read classics for a year at Lady Margaret Hall before switching to Eng. Lit.  However that may be--Walburga, Mildred, my Sisters--the facts of the matter are with us no longer, but we have returned to God who gave them.  We can't be excommunicated without the facts.  As for the legal aspect, no judge in the kingdom would admit the case, let Felicity tell it like it was as she may.  You cannot bring a charge against Agamemnon or subpoena Clytemnestra, can you?' 
Walburga stares at the Abbess, as if at a new person.  'You can,' she says, 'if you are an actor in the drama yourself.'

While the other nuns are singing along with the hymns in the book, Alexandra chants to herself passages of British poetry.  For her, the bugging isn't even really an expression of the will to power, but a kind of art piece.  Good art, she says, needs "not be plausible, only hypnotic," and she's more than willing to provide the spectacle that the public craves because it puts her beyond the realm of history and politics.  Applied to Watergate, it seems like Spark is less interested in the petty reality of a politician trying to consolidate power than the idea that great actors on the world stage are involved in a kind of mythopoesis, the making of a legend or story.  I doubt Nixon thought of it that way, but Alexandra embraces it.  (Frighteningly, I think our current president does think that way: political reality is subservient to a mythic story at which he's at the center.  Alexandra is really more Trumpian than she is Nixonian.)

The Abbess of Crewe is one of those Spark books that you admire and enjoy, but you wish were just a little longer and more substantial.  Its moments of comedy are as charming as ever--the Jesuit priest dressing up as a woman to meet Sister Walburga in the Harrod's dressing room to recover the illicit tapes, the globetrotting missionary Sister Gertrude who calls in on the "green phone" to act as a kind of guiding conscious--but they seem... parsimonious?  Alexandra wants an epic, something on the scale of the Odyssey or the Iliad, but Spark has the last laugh--she only gets these slim pages.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Dune by Frank Herbert

And what he saw was a time nexus within this cave, a boiling of possibilities focused here, wherein the most minute action--the wink of an eye, a careless word, a misplaced grain of sand--moved a gigantic lever across the known universe.  He saw violence with the outcome subject to so many variables that his slightest movement created vast shiftings in the pattern.

The vision made him want to freeze into immobility, but this, too, was action with its consequences.

The countless consequences--lines fanned out from this cave, and along most of these consequence-lines he saw his own dead body with blood flowing from a gaping knife-wound.

Last weekend I visited America's second-newest national park, Indiana Dunes.  (Remember travel?  Maybe we'll be able to do it again someday.)  I took along with me Frank Herbert's science fiction masterwork Dune, only partly as a pun and a joke: Herbert claimed that he was inspired to write the novel by the sand dunes he knew so well in Oregon.  The planet Arrakis in Dune is not so much a giant beach but a giant desert, and I had forgotten--I read this book, like I think a lot of young boys did, as a teen--how it's meant to be an amalgamation of the different desert landscapes of the earth.  The planets of Dune are all sort of biological manifestations of what the book calls mankind's "terran" origins, and so Arrakis is filled not just with sand and spice and giant worms but also saguaros, eagles, kangaroo mice.  It supports the plants and animals of the American southwest but the culture of the Fremen--the roving bands who live there and who prop up the spice trade--cribs a lot from the Islamic desert cultures of the Middle East and North Africa.

I was really interested in seeing how Dune stacked up against my memory.  At first blush, my reaction was that the novel seems like a high-quality version of many of the same narratives and archetypes that we see so often in fantasy.  It begins with a quarrel between "great houses": House Atreides, led by Duke Leto and his young son, Paul, and House Harkonnen.  The Emperor has recently replaced the Harknonnen monopoly on Arrakis, which produces the galactically valuable spice, giving it to the Atreides, but it's a trap: the Harkonnens and the Emperor are working together to destroy the Atreides.  Add to that a "chosen one" narrative: in the opening scenes of the book, Paul Atreides survives the trial of the gom jabbar, suggesting that he might be the Kwisatz Haderach, a prophet-like figure who is the end result of millennia of eugenic breeding by the secretive Bene Gesserit.  So far, so good.

The Harkonnen trap more or less works, but Paul and his mother Jessica survives, though they are pushed out into the desert where no one expects them to survive.  They're taken in, however, by the Fremen, who suspect that Paul might be their own chosen one: a messiah figure called the Mahdi.  (Paul has about a billion names in this thing: Mahdi, Muad'Dib, Usul, Kwisatz Haderach, Lisan al-Gaib, etc., etc.--like the many epithets of Jesus or something.)  One of the more interesting ideas in Dune is that local religions, like that of the Fremen, have actually been planted by the Bene Gesserit over thousands of years in order to enable them to do their secretive work among the many peoples of the universe.  Religion, for the Bene Gesserit, is a sociopolitical sham.

I think Dune ultimately rejects that view of religion.  Paul fits neatly into the chosen-one narratives of both the Bene Gesserit and the Fremen, but he manages to overshadow them both.  With the help of the spice, he gains incredible powers of seeing, into the future and the past, and the ability to see the consequences of billions of tiny choices.  Almost everyone in Dune has special powers--the hyperintelligence of the Mentats, who are like human computers, the mind-control training of the Bene Gesserit--but Paul outstrips them all.  In that way he suggests a power beyond reason, beyond history, something religious or prophetic in nature that cannot be controlled by the sociopolitical.  With these powers he seeks not only revenge on the Harkonnens but a way to guide the future of humanity, and part of his vision is that he will unerringly unleash a terrible jihad on the universe through his Fremen followers.

The best thing about Dune, in the end, is this: it has that quality of great science fiction that seems to collapse millennia into the space of a book.  It's big in a way that only Isaac Asimov's Foundation series really resembles, as far as I can recall.  In his desert stronghold, Paul considers the fate of humanity over a thousand years, and Herbert really makes you believe that he's doing it.

Exhalation by Ted Chiang

It cheers me to imagine that the air that once powered me could power others, to believe that the breath that enables me to engrave these words could one day flow through someone else’s body.  I do not delude myself into thinking that this would be a way for me to live again, because I am not that air, I am the pattern that it assumed, temporarily.  The pattern that is me, the patterns that are the entire world in which I live, could be gone.

Ted Chiang is a highly successful science fiction writer, winner of 4 Hugo and 4 Nebula awards.  To date, he has focused exclusively on short stories – Exhalation is his second collection.  Science fiction is not usually a genre I read, but this was a gift from my son and I decided to expand my tastes a bit.  My chief response is that most of these stories are extremely well-written and while their plots focus on details that don’t excite me, Chiang is most interested in theme and idea.  His plots are carefully thought through, but what kept me turning the pages was his interest in identity and its relationship to memory and event.

In the title story, quoted above, a scientist begins an exploration into the nature of memory.  What only slowly becomes clear to the reader is that this is not a human scientist.  The narrator is some form of robot or cyborg, living in a human-like society and on an earth-like planet, but whose body is a mechanical and electrical construct.  As a result, the narrator’s exploration involves finding the physical location and structure of memory – something he accomplishes by performing brain surgery on himself.  Chiang creates a really beautiful description of the mechanical brain uncovered in the surgery – a series of very thin gold leaf sheets, physically imprinted with memory lines that interact with each other as air circulates among them.  This circulation is uncontrolled and extremely delicate, so that what memories become important and how they feed the identity of the self becomes a subtle and unpredictable phenomenon.

There is an entertaining time travel story, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” in which characters are able to travel forward and backward in time in twenty year intervals – so that multiple versions of the same person interact with each other, carefully figuring out how to optimize their lives by showing up at key moments every two decades.  The story is written as if it is a kind of Arabian tale, mixing the science fiction with a variation on the mysticism of the 1001 knights.  

In “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” people live with a kind of very advanced Tamagotchis – electric pets that evolve to be like children because of their human qualities (language, ethics, learning).  The relationship between owner and “digient” grows to be very similar to a parent-child relationship.  Chiang makes this observation more powerful by incorporating elements of the corporate history of electronics into a long narrative (this is really a novella, rather than a story).  Start-ups that create digients go out of business or are sold to larger conglomerates, early digient platforms are abandoned by their developers in the same way that computer programs and operating systems have become obsolete.  As a result, some digients have vastly more constrained lives and opportunities than others.  Thus, the parent-child relationship metaphor is given a socio-economic component.

In “Anxiety of the Dizziness of Freedom” society has found a way to track parallel universes.  Every time someone makes a major decision, it affects the quantum field (the relationship between time and space?) and multiple versions of the decider are created, each of whom follows one of the possible decision paths.  An inventor has developed a machine called a prism that allows people to communicate with their “paraselves” and see what the result of the other decision would have been.  This causes much heartbreak for those people who see their paraselves leading much happier and more successful lives than their own.  One lonely character discovers his paraself is happily married.  He responds by finding the version of his paraself’s wife in his branch and proposing to her out of the blue.  There are also people who use the prism for criminal activity and we follow a pair of con artists attempting to fool people into paying for information from another branch of their lives.  The plot is entertaining and Chiang has a good eye for character development, but his major interest is always identity and its relationship to phenomena:  which self is the real one?  If you behave the same way in every branch, does that prove something about your character? Do you have a greater obligation to the branch you live in or to your paraself even in another branch of the quantum universe?

In most of these stories, minimal time is spent exploring the details of the alternative universe posited for the story.  The worlds here are usually very much like earth, with obvious, key differences.  While even the explanation of the key differences was sometimes too much for me, I appreciated Chiang’s ability to create settings and plots that opened up avenues for speculation and wonder about the world we live in.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday

Abel walked into the canyon.  His return to the town had been a failure, for all his looking forward.  He had tried in the days that followed to speak to his grandfather, but he could not say the things he wanted; he had tried to pray, to sing, to enter into the old rhythm of the tongue, but he was no longer attuned to it.  And yet it was still there, like memory, in the reach of his hearing, as if Francisco or his mother or Vidal had spoken out of the past and the words had taken hold of the moment and made it eternal.  Had he been able to say it, anything out of his own language--even the commonplace formula of greeting "Where are you going"--which had no being beyond sound, no visible substance, would one again have shown him whole to himself; but he was dumb.

This semester, I'm teaching a class on Native American literature for the first time.  I had planned on teaching four texts: Tommy Orange's There There, LeAnne Howe's Savage Conversations, Louise Erdrich's Future Home of the Living God, and this novel, N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn.  Of course, the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic has changed my plans.  I don't know if school will be happening this week or next, or if I'll be there even if it is.  If I have to cut a book from the curriculum, it's probably this one, important and vital as it is.  It's demanding, challenging--but I don't know if I'm in the right frame of mind for this kind of challenge right now, and I don't know if my students are either.

Anyway.  I did find that, reading it a second time, it wasn't as difficult a read as I had first found it.  It helps, of course, to know what happens; I spent the second time around not reading for the plot but for other things: the spareness of the language, for one, which is actually quite striking.  Some other things I discovered:

House Made of Dawn is a multiethnic and multicultural story.  On the surface, it's a story like Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony, in which a Native man, his spirit ravaged from war, returns to his tribal home only to find he no longer fits.  When he finds a way at last to reintegrate himself into the cultural and religious life of his community, his mental anguish disappears.  But for Silko, this means a rejection of white culture, which she associates with a malevolent force named "witchery," and complete reabsorption into the lifeways of the Laguna Pueblo.

In House Made of Dawn, on the other hand, Abel already begins as a kind of outsider: his mother is not Pueblo but Navajo.  His community, Walatowa, has opened their doors to a small group of refugee Navajo, whose ceremonies become part of Pueblo life.  The rites of the community are a mishmash of traditional Pueblo religion, Navajo religion, and Catholicism, which Momaday seems to respect.  And furthermore, my first reading of Abel's trist with the white woman Angela St. John (whose name is an Anglicization [Angela-cization?] of Walotawa's patron saint-figure Santiago, who may or may not be the St. John of of the Bible) as something nefarious now strikes me as a mistake.  Angela, after all, ends up helping to nurse Abel through his hospitalization in Los Angeles, when his hands are badly broken by a corrupt cop.  It seems hard to read House Made of Dawn as an embrace of a specific cultural tradition; after all, Abel's friend and narrator Ben Benally, who is Navajo, seems to be comfortable in Anglo-dominated L.A.

House Made of Dawn is structured around rituals and rites.  Part of what makes the book a challenge at first is that these rites are totally unfamiliar, and Momaday is not particularly forthcoming with explanations or justifications.  At Walatowa, there is ritual distance running and the Navajo practice of hunting and capturing eagles (!).  In L.A., there is the peyote ritual of the Native American church.  These rituals are what give order to life among the Native people of House Made of Dawn, and Abel's distress is clearest when he is unable to comprehend them.  During the festival of Santiago at Walatowa, Abel is bested in a strange ritual by an albino man named Juan Reyes, who rubs a bloody chicken in his face.  The first time around I read this as an act of gloating, but now it seems to me that it may be part of the ritual itself--who knows, honestly--which Abel misinterprets.  He kills Reyes in a fit of anger, perhaps because his mind remains on the field of battle, rather than the world of ritual.

House Made of Dawn is very good.  I'm sorry to think I won't get a chance to read it with my seniors, if that's really what's happening.  Doubtless some of them would breathe a sigh of relief if they knew they were being absolved of reading such a challenging text, but that's OK.  Maybe some of them will come back to it someday, like I did, and see how stunning it can be.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

The Quest for the Historical Satan by Miguel A. De La Torre and Albert Hernandez

In a very real way, the search for the historical Satan is an attempt to justify God's grace while legitimizing the reality and presence of evil in human history.  At least this seems to be what was occurring with the birth and development of Satan in the legends of pre-Christian mythology and across the pages of the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic sacred texts and Scriptures.  It appears that the development of Satan was, to a certain extent, trying to save God form appearing as the source of evil that is so much a part of the reality of human suffering and death.  The Scriptures attempt to convince us that God is still worthy of our worship despite the presence of evil, even though the most troubling conclusion derived from the Judeo-Christian biblical text is the discovery of a God who is the cause and author of all that is good--and all that is evil.

For Miguel De La Torre and Albert Hernandez, the authors of The Quest for the Historical Satan, the nature of Satan is inextricably tied up with the biggest question about God: if God is both omnipotent and perfectly good, why does evil exist?  Pre-Christian Jewish texts seem to have no problem casting God in a dubious light, as when he encourages Abraham to kill Isaac.  A "Satan" appears in the book of Job, of course, but his relationship to God is awfully ambiguous; is he an agent of God or an adversary?  And if he's an adversary, why is God so willing to do what he suggests and torture poor Job?

In The Quest for Historical Satan, De La Torre and Hernandez trace the growth of the Satan figure over centuries.  When Christian thought begins to demand God's perfect goodness, they argue, conceptions of Satan change.  The story of Lucifer, the fallen angel, gets assimilated into the story of Satan because it allows us to understand how evil comes about, not from God himself, but from a rebellious angel who works to undo God's beneficence and grace.  And yet, this understanding of Satan is troublesome, too.  If Satan is so powerful, a kind of foil to God himself, doesn't Christianity stretch the definition of monotheism?

The authors' history of Satan through the years is as predictable as it is bleak.  Time after time, this version of Satan, with slight ideological and theological emendations, is used as a representation of the political and cultural other.  It begins with the Church Fathers, claiming their opponents are not just heretics but inspired literally by the devil.  In the hands of medieval Christians, Satan becomes a Jew, then a Muslim; in the hands of explorers, the rites of Native Americans become Satanic.  There's a whole thing about witches in Puritan Massachusetts you might have heard about.  Throughout it all, De La Torre and Hernandez stress the continuing development of an ideology that associates Satan with "pure evil," an observation that seems somehow too commonplace and dreary to fully appreciate its implications.

The most interesting part of The Quest for the Historical Satan comes after the authors are done questing: they offer, in place of the popular conception of Satan as an antagonist of God who represents pure evil, an understanding of Satan as a kind of trickster figure, like Coyote or Br'er Rabbit.  Like those legendary figures, Satan uses deception to spur the complacent to reassess their own beliefs and habits--look what happens to Job when Satan convinces God to trick him, after all.  This reimagining of Satan comes from the context of a liberation theology, and fashions a Satan that serves as a goad for powerful and self-righteous people.  I'm not sure I buy it, but it sure is interesting and bold--and a hell of a lot better than the way we think about Satan now, and have been for centuries.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Reconstruction:  America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877.  Eric Foner

What remains certain is that Reconstruction failed, and that for blacks its failure was a disaster whose magnitude cannot be obscured by the genuine accomplishments that did endure.  For the nation as a whole, the collapse of Reconstruction was a tragedy that deeply affected the course of its future development.  If racism contributed to the undoing of Reconstruction, by the same token Reconstruction’s demise and the emergence of blacks as a disenfranchised class of dependent laborers greatly facilitated racism’s further spread, until by the early twentieth century it had become more deeply embedded in the nation’s culture and politics than at any time since the beginning of the antislavery crusade and perhaps in our entire history.  The removal of a significant portion of the nation’s laboring population from public life shifted the center of gravity of American politics to the right, complicating the tasks of reformers for generations to come.  Long into the twentieth century, the South remained a one-party region under the control off a reactionary ruling elite who used the same violence and fraud that had helped defeat Reconstruction to stifle internal dissent.

When it was published in 1988, this volume was a stunning revision of the period immediately after the Civil War; by the time it was revised and reissued in 2014, it had become the standard account of that period.  It is deeply researched, strategically organized and dispassionately written in order to establish both the importance of the period and the tragedy of the events that unfold in these 600 pages.  It is possible that readers younger than myself may not find its conclusions so remarkable:  at the end of the 600 pages Foner recounts some of the myths that had grown up around Reconstruction, and it is these myths that, to historians “everlasting shame,” I learned in what were considered excellent high school history classes.  I suspect that younger readers of history were never burdened with these misconceptions and that Foner’s work would represent something less revolutionary to them.

In this volume he narrates the nations attempts to confront several essential questions in the aftermath of the bloodiest war in its history:
·      How could the rebellious Confederate States, and their citizens, be reunited into the political and social life of the nation?
·      Who should decide the answer to that question – the President or the Congress?  Behind this question lay a deeper one:  to what extent would the question be answered by the evolution of social and political practices that the President and Congress were nearly powerless to influence?
·      What system of labor should replace plantation slavery?
·      What should be the place of blacks in the economic, political and social life of the nation?
It would be foolish to try to summarize Foner’s account of how the nation addressed these questions in any detail.  He moves at a pace of about a page a week, looking at key dates and periods through multiple lenses and offering voluminous supporting details for each and every pattern that he outlines.  However, it is possible for me to outline his major accomplishments by simply discussing the aspects of what I learned that surprised me – knowing that the surprise may tell you more about me than about Foner’s work.

To begin with, I was surprised that Foner begins his work in 1863.  He does this in order to outline the ways that the Civil War changed America generally, to capture the context that Reconstruction needed to take place within.  But he also makes clear that the nation began the process of Reconstruction in ad hoc and evolving ways throughout the war.  Lincoln and Johnson both outlined Reconstruction ideas before the war ended, but more importantly, wherever the Union Army took control of a region, the general in charge of local forces had control over the liberation and livelihood of the formerly enslaved peoples. Tennessee and Louisiana were occupied by the Union Army in 1863, so these were not small tracts of land in question.  

Many of the questions and controversies that will focus the nation’s attention for the dozen years after the war’s end are present in these early experiments – which vary tremendously with the ideas and energy of the generals involved.  In some cases, enslaved peoples were encouraged to continue living and working on plantations (to the benefit of Northern industries) with the Union army doing little more than insisting upon and enforcing work contracts.  Often the enforcement was to the benefit of the plantation rather than the worker – as when rules were established requiring workers get a plantation owner’s permission to change jobs.  However, in Louisiana, the earliest attempts to reconstitute a government included an established minimum wage, a nine-hour work day for non-agricultural employees, a progressive income tax to replace the corrupt antebellum property tax system and free public education – with some schools and other public accommodations being desegregated.  This central division – whether to support the return to something closest to the old system or to forge an entirely new role for government – would reverberate through all the debates of the period.

Foner is deeply critical of Johnson’s Reconstruction plans – citing the ease with which he allowed former Confederates to retake control of their states and communities.  What was most surprising about this phase of Presidential reconstruction was the revolution in thinking about voting rights that took place during this phase despite the President’s desire to prevent it.  At the war’s end, there is near total agreement that black suffrage was anathema to all powerful parties.  Blacks could generally not vote in Northern states, and there was little power behind any idea to change that.  But the Fifteenth Amendment passed just a few years later.  Foner makes clear that some of the change comes from political calculation as Republicans realized that blacks would overwhelmingly vote for them.  But a much larger factor is that Radical Republicans win the battle for the hearts and minds of the country, at least temporarily.  Foner points out several times that granting former slaves citizenship and voting rights was beyond what any other nation dealing with emancipation accomplished.

Perhaps the greatest change in my understanding of the period centers on that term Radical Republican.  I had been under the impression that the term “Radical” in that title simply connoted a desire to black political rights too far and too fast, with the label being essentially a critique that argued that the pace of change was unreasonable.  I was taught that this rush promoted changes that former slaves were not ready, that it put illiterate and ignorant blacks in power where they were easily manipulated by corrupt carpetbaggers.  That gave a powerful argument to the white South as it tried to reclaim its right to good government.  What Foner makes clear is that the Radical Republicans were advocating a complete rethinking of the role of government, beginning an argument that still rages in the 21st Century  

Foner uses the term “activist government” to describe Southern constitutions written by Radical Republicans.  Their view, which Foner presents as eminently logical, is that a society in which one of the main forms of economic relations has been abolished and which now has almost 4 million new citizens with whom a new social contract must be developed, requires a larger and more active role by government.  That absorbing these changes and finding a peaceful and productive role for newly freed workers and their families will require planning and programmatic experimentation that is best handled by government.  The Radical Republicans – pushed largely by newly enfranchised blacks not afraid in these early years to demand a government that met their needs, promoted a dramatic change in Southern Society.  Among the  measures enacted in this period, in addition to black enfranchisement and basic protections for labor, were government sponsored medical care for the poor, government supported legal counsel for the poor, liberalized divorce laws that protected the rights of women, legal requirements for child support that included children born of formerly enslaved mothers raped by their masters and free public education, with some areas experimenting with desegregation.

Foner makes clear that this thoroughly modern view of the state would not simply address needs of the South.  There is an extensive chapter on economic and political issues faced by the North in this period, as class warfare begins between labor and capital.  This new concept of government is as much a subject of debate in New York and Chicago as in the rural South.

Of course, this radicalism was by no means the sole point of view within the Republican party.  An equally strong wing of the party – deemed “liberal” – was primarily interested in stabilizing the agricultural economy through enforceable labor contracts and expanding the opportunities for railroads and other public works. In other words, the Republican Party was the main voice for both workers and business.  The two sides were united by their role in the war years and their fervor for black rights.  However, as the Radicals pushed for a broader transformation and were less than enthusiastic about aid to railroads, many Liberal Republicans began to find common ground with Democrats.  When Republican promises of a resurgent Southern economy failed to come true, these new alliances opened the way for a resurgence of Democratic political power in the elections of 1870 and 1872.

Though Grant was re-elected in 1872, he faced a hostile Congress and the economic collapse of 1873 (caused by a bursting bubble in railroad investments).  This panic plunged the nation into its worst economic crisis since 1837.  I had studied the 1873 Depression in both college and graduate school without ever linking it to the end or Reconstruction.  The collapse of the economy also meant the collapse of Republican economic policy.  Republicans took the brunt of the blame for the widespread poverty and Democrats won back what was to become the Solid South.  It only remained for the election of 1876 to cause the Republicans to abandon Reconstruction and bargain away protecting African Americans for the White House.  However, Foner is clear that the liberal wing of the Republican Party was already looking for a way to abandon what they saw as a failed policy.  As a result, the kind of mob rule that would effectively eliminate black political participation for the next 90 years had already begun. 

In discussing the end of Reconstruction, Foner puts two other ideas I had learned in context.  The first was that the period was marked by unprecedented corruption in Southern government.  Foner points out that corruption in the South was indeed endemic and unprecedented – except by the contemporaneous corruption in the North.  His time period saw the rise of urban political machines like Tammany, with Boss Tweed the most glaring example of bosses who enriched themselves.  Corruption was a national problem:  it hurt Reconstruction, but was not caused by it.

The final revelation for me was the level of violence endured throughout the period.  My history education left the impression that freedmen and their allies had been protected by Federal troops during Reconstruction and fell victim to the KKK after the troops were withdrawn.  But there was never a period where blacks or their allies were secure and protected.  The constant, daily threat of violence was punctuated by massacres like the murder of 2000 people in Shreveport Louisiana, and a later massacre in Colfax Louisiana.  The level of violence varied tremendously from place to place, but there was never a time when Northern politicians could have fooled themselves into thinking the freed peoples were secure and safe. That is, until they needed to believe that for political purposes.  As for the protection of the troops, it is true that the situation got worse after they were withdrawn in 1877, but in fact by that time there were only a few thousand troops left of the more than a million that had originally occupied the Confederacy.  The final removal of troops (most of which travelled west to fight Native Americans) represented breaking the promise of protection, but that promise had never been fulfilled.

By the end of the century the combination of sharecropping, strict social segregation, voter suppression and state sponsored violence that has been called slavery by another name was firmly established.  It provided the Northern industrialists with the labor stability they needed after the chaos of the war and would, therefore, go unchallenged until the second half of the next century.