Friday, May 25, 2018

The Impacted Aggressions of Sexuality

Philip Roth has died, which has gotten me started on a post I've been dithering over for a couple of years now.

It all started when I stumbled on Promiscuous: "Portnoy's Complaint" and Our Doomed Pursuit of Happiness (Yale, 2012), by Bernard Avishai.  Avishai was born in Canada and is now a professor of business at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  He was a personal friend of Roth's, and had access to some of the latter's view of his work, including Portnoy's Complaint (Random House, 1969), which is probably Roth's most famous, and certainly his most notorious work.

Avishai's eulogy for Roth can be read here.  It's a lovely personal bit of writing, and I found myself identifying with Roth to a degree.  He wasn't good at romantic relationships, and had no children, but he had many friends and enjoyed being a mentor.  His failures as a husband might be different from mine; Claire Bloom's 1996 memoir of her marriage to him indicates that he was even harder to live with than I am, which is always a relief.

But it's Roth's work, not his life, that I'm interested in here, though the work is also problematic to put it mildly.  Avishai is very defensive about it, and indulges in some typical straight-male-supremacist mansplaining in response to feminist accusations of misogyny in Roth's writing.  It's reminiscent of Tina Fey's recent confrontation with David Letterman about sexism in TV comedy.  I've written about this before, wondering if at least some women recognized themselves in Portnoy's wild sexual frustration; of course some did.  Talia Lavin has an essay in the current Village Voice in which she describes how reassuring, if not liberating, her adolescent identification with Alexander Portnoy was.
Nonetheless his prose echoed something I had already begun to feel: the subaltern griminess of my desires, the urgency of my flesh, made me dirty; I was a dirty Jew, in direct contrast to the holy Jews that surrounded me, let alone the unimaginable goyim I saw primarily on TV. I was (I am) small, plump, simian-faced, pursued by a halo of ungovernable frizz; I felt I took up too much space. I looked into the faces of those I desired and imagined what I saw in them to be disgust. Portnoy’s Complaint was disgusting: Alexander Portnoy fucked raw liver. Alexander Portnoy masturbated on a bus. Alexander Portnoy was perpetually at the point of ejaculation. Alexander Portnoy was a dirty Jew. Like me. Portnoy’s Complaint with its beat-up yellow cover was soon added to the small pile of books that felt incontrovertibly mine. “Doctor, doctor,” I recited to myself, in Portnoy’s voice, as I slipped my hand under the waistband of my modest long black skirt and dreamed of familiar figures transmogrified by my lust, “it’s time to put the id back in yid.”
But she recognizes that the identification wouldn't have gone both ways:
In allowing myself to be seduced by the author, to inhabit his viewpoint, I adopted this myopia; to be thrilled by great art, I had to abnegate my own gender. This is, of course, a laughably common experience: to be anyone but a white man and consume the canon, one must thrust one’s own experience willfully back, to see a man in the full and indulgent complexity with which he would never, ever see you. He would not deign to; he did not need to; now, he never will.
That some women identified with Portnoy, or any of Roth's other male characters, is not proof that his work isn't sexist or even misogynist, any more than the fact that some of his best friends were women proves the same about the man.  That Avishai falls into that cliche doesn't speak well for him.

As a gay goy boy I also recognized myself, or thought I did, in young Alexander Portnoy, though his predictable use of mom-obsessed gay men on Fire Island as bogeymen was not helpful.  On the other hand, it inspired me to write a short play during my senior year of high school, which had a gay character.  (A hairdresser, duh.)  The play was also influenced by Albee's The American Dream, dosed with Theater of the Absurd.  This must have been in 1969, so what I'd read of Portnoy at the time would have been the excerpts published in New American Review before the book was published.  I'd also read The Essential Lenny Bruce and Bruce's autobiography, which had a voice very similar to Portnoy's.  I'm amazed that I composed such a thing at that age, and I wish I could read it now, but I lent it to my high school drama teacher (what was I thinking? well, I could hardly have shown it to my mom), who never returned it.

Avishai does a pretty good job in Promiscuous of distinguishing between Portnoy and Roth.  (As Gore Vidal once remarked, even though people fantasize about sex far more than they engage with its reality, they tend to believe that no writer about sex ever makes anything up, but regurgitates straight autobiography onto the page.)  But one thing struck me very forcefully as I read and reread Promiscuous (it's very readable, and not very long) that has less to do with Portnoy or Roth himself than with certain stresses and faults in the culture that produced him.

In teaching notes he prepared for a college class he was going to address on his work, Roth wrote: "Masturbation, which seems to have made the book famous, was the least of it.  It was the aggressive rage, the ingratitude, the hatred that was the most shameful secret" (page 8 of the Kindle edition).  Exactly, and on some level I recognized that as a teenager on my first reading.  But for me as for so many readers (including, as you can see, Talia Levin), Portnoy made an impression as adolescent rebellion against repression, especially sexual/erotic repression.  Another motif, intimately intertwined with the erotic, was rebellion against the pressure to be a Good Little Boy or Girl, which a common theme in mid-century American literature.  The villain, of course, especially in those days, was Mom, always trying to mold you into a submissive good citizen.

Though I didn't see it that way at the time, as a young homosexual I was at least as repressed.  I couldn't have challenged adults about then, because almost no one thought that gay kids had a right to sexual expression or love.  Which didn't keep me from daydreaming about it, but I couldn't really imagine it either.

Then it suddenly occurred to me to quote again the remarks of another Jewish writer, Joanna Russ, about the scapegoating of mothers:
Every women’s studies teacher, for example, knows the female student who comes into her office and announces defiantly that she’s going to get married – the world is still full of girls who think that heterosexual alliances with men represent a form of rebellion against sexless Mommy. How do these young women imagine their mothers ended up where they were? Yet the hope persists that heterosexual activity (a little wilder than stuffy Mom’s) will provide access to the men’s freer, wider world. Mother’s function as the forewoman who polices Daughter’s sexuality, in many American families, gives some color to this notion – that an alliance with men is an alliance against Mother – and yet these girls must have at least the suspicion that Mom made the same bargain. And surely they know that heterosexual alliance can’t confer membership in the men’s world but only a place (Mother’s place, in fact) on the sidelines. But they don’t. And so they end up married, leading the same life as Mother, or – if unlucky – a worse one with less bargaining power. And their daughters repeat the process.*
But what, I began to ask myself as I read Promiscuous, would be better for kids?  Alexander Portnoy's daydreams of sexual expression are as stunted as mine were, maybe more so: he can only imagine a fantasy girl he calls Thereal McCoy, an insatiable minx who begs him, "Give it to me, Big Boy! Give it all you've got!" as he pulls his pud.  If mom's repression was magically removed and Alex were free to do what he wanted sexually, what would have satisfied him?  The trouble wasn't that masturbation is unsatisfying; neither is copulation with a partner -- you have to, or get to, do it over and over again.  He was a teenager right after World War II, though we know that people, including adolescents, were sexually active in those days far more than they were supposed to be.  Their activity led often enough to unwanted pregnancies and shame.  Imagine an erotic utopia; I've been trying to do so, and it's not as easy as I thought.  Nowadays, when kids can get access to accurate sexual information and often to contraception, it's still difficult for many of them, because they don't necessarily know what they want, or they want what (or whom) they can't have.  Eroticism, like other human emotions, isn't rational.  It's messy.  A lot of what people say about it is mistaken, confused, self-defeating.

A start can be made, I think, with accurate sexual information.  Though I learned how bodies worked erotically long before I got any experience with them beyond the self-inflicted, I had little anxiety about how sex was done.  It took me a long time to realize that not only did many adults not want kids to know about sex, many kids didn't want to know either.  Many clung to shame, mainly so they could try to inflict it on others.  Maybe this is a more or less inevitable consequence of puberty, where what seems gross to pre-adolescents (kissing, eeuuuw) abruptly becomes desirable -- while still, often, remaining gross.  No wonder many people are comfortable doing it, but resist talking about it. It might have been easier for young Alex Portnoy if he could have talked honestly about his desires with someone who wouldn't have been freaked out by them, but maybe not.  After all, even as an adult, free (he thought) of religion, free of his parents' strictures, in a comparatively open time and place, he still didn't know what he wanted.  That's the point of the book.

To borrow another metaphor, there can't be a Grand Unified Theory of love and sex that works for everybody, because everybody doesn't want the same thing.  What one person's wants is the opposite of what the next person next wants, but the same person will harbor contradictory wishes and fears.  Edmund White has said that when he was having sex with hundreds of men a year, he still felt that other guys were getting more than he was, and he wasn't getting enough.  I never had as many partners as that, but I still have had more than any decent person is supposed to have; sometimes I felt frustration, because you can never have everybody you want, and of course some people you don't want will want you.  Nevertheless, as I got older, I found that I was amazed at how lucky I've been sexually speaking, how much good experience I've had with people I really wanted.  How many partners is a decent person, or even an indecent one, supposed to have?  What is the proper place of sex in a person's life?  There's no agreement about that at all.  It was a common belief among the scientifically minded in the early twentieth century that once religion and its associated ignorance and hangups were removed, sex would become unproblematic and rational.  But human beings aren't rational.  Not everybody welcomes openness and honesty; even if you get rid of existing misconceptions and superstitions, people will just invent new ones.  That's how we got them in the first place. 


* From Russ's review of Dorothy Dinnerstein's The Mermaid and the Minotaur (Harper, 1976), reprinted in The Country You Have Never Seen (University of Liverpool Press, 2007), page 162

Monday, May 21, 2018

Two Words: Accurate Analogies. You Won't Even See Them Coming.

Jon Schwarz returned last week to a subject he's addressed before, the apparent scarcity of conservative comedians:
This is a Weird Opinion, but I believe there's a connection between conservatives' inability to construct accurate analogies and the near-total lack of competent conservative comedians. That's because constructing accurate analogies is a key comedic skill.
Well, um, you know, I don't think so.  First, I don't think that analogies have to be accurate for audiences to find them funny.  Humor is not a rational, evidence-based phenomenon.  I also don't think that, as a group, liberals or leftists are any better than conservatives at constructing accurate analogies.  But the accuracy (weird word, actually) of analogies isn't an either/or matter anyway.

Take what I hope is an easy example; certainly, it was at Jon's blog, A Tiny Revolution, that I first encountered it.



Writers from The Daily Show reportedly helped Obama write his routine, so even if you don't consider Obama a liberal (I don't), even if you want to deny that the people who laughed at his performance are liberals  (I don't), I think this counts against Jon's theory.  I'm not even sure where an analogy comes in: the point of contact would be death by predator drone, but aside from that, what?  The Jonas Brothers correspond to American children?  One commenter under the blog post drew an analogy between the Jonas Brothers and a 60-year-old Brit slavering over a teenaged girl at a wedding.  (No permalink; just look for N E, a reliable Obama toady at that site.)  The weakness of any analogy involved didn't keep a lot of liberal Obama fans from finding the gag a kneeslapper, though they've mostly preferred to stuff it down the Memory Hole in years since. 

One commenter on the YouTube video wrote, "It IS a dark joke... but if Bush can joke about not finding WMDs (and thus mocking all the people he sent to their deaths based on a lie), then Obama can joke about this." That's exactly the point: people who criticized Bush for joking about not finding WMDs defended Obama for joking about killing kids with predator drones. It's contemptible. It also says something that the commenter focused on "the people he sent to their deaths", presumably US troops, rather than the many more Iraqis he killed: only American lives count.

Of course there are other examples I could give; Hillary Clinton's "We came, we saw, he died," for one.  Clinton's not a liberal either, but liberals didn't object, either to the terror bombing of Libya (disastrous for Libyans, not so much for the US) or to the lynching of Qaddafy.  The analogy in this one is clear: Clinton is casting herself as Julius Caesar, not a great example of democracy or human decency.

Several responses to Jon's remarks from liberals and leftists struck me as clueless.  Such as this exchange:

"Modern conservatives"?  Like conservatives were any more better in the past?  Vastleft's reply is even odder.  Smarter people than I have been trying to discover and explain the nature of humor for millennia, but there's considerable acknowledgment that humor isn't empathetic, it's mean even when it's playful.  As Mel Brooks says: Tragedy is when I cut my finger, comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.

Dayv also wrote:

Much depends on who's the target of the satire.  Was "A Modest Proposal" empathetic toward the English?  No; it was savage to them.  And I have plenty of reason to doubt that liberals or progressives understand what satire is anyway.  Personally I think that good satire should make me wince (whether as author as as consumer) as I laugh, but I also think that's a refinement for pansy-ass intellectuals like me or Dean Swift.  The base of satire is mockery, and any empathy involved is used to make the target squirm harder.

As Ellen Willis wrote in 1979, "Humorless [is] what you are if you do not find the following subjects funny: rape, big breasts, sex with little girls.  It carries no imputation of humorless if you do not find the following subjects funny: castration, impotence, vaginas with teeth."  But that's about as predictable as it gets.  Quite a few men, including me, find her definition funny.  Others, like my Right Wing Acquaintance Number One, pull a long glum face at it.

RWA1, significantly, was extremely upset by Michelle Wolf's performance at the White House Correspondents' Dinner a few weeks ago.  (Transcript here.) It was tasteless, it was awful, it was going to hurt the Democrats' chances of getting Trump out of the White House.  Concern-trolling again, you see.  It wasn't even his ox that was being gored -- he hates Trump as only an establishment Republican Never-Trumper can -- but I suppose that was the problem: true, she mocked Trump, but she also mocked establishment Republicans and Democrats, Hillary Clinton, the #Resistance, and the respectable media, which was inappropriate, unnecessary, and definitely Going Too Far.  He seemed not to have noticed that the White House Correspondents Association was as unhappy as he was. Personally, I think he was revolted by all her references to lady parts, which always make him queasy.

Does the widespread disapproval of Wolf's performance indicate that her analogies were inaccurate, or that they were inaccurate?  I thought she was on-target most of the time, but obviously not everyone agrees.  The accuracy of analogies is as subjective, I would argue, is as subjective as humor itself.

I could also mention the popularity among liberals and progressives of fag jokes about Trump.  If I were feeling charitable, I could suggest that their motivating impulse is at base conservative, but I'm not feeling charitable.  What I think bothers me most about the distinction Jon drew is that it buys into an assumption that "conservative" and "liberal" refer to actual discrete types of human beings, perhaps reflecting innate biological differences: They are fundamentally different than Us.  Their many errors can be blamed on their nature, as our adherence to Truth is due to ours.  Something wrong with that; call it a failure of empathy.

Incidentally, today is the eleventh anniversary of this blog.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Gag the God

It seems that just about everybody, liberal and conservative alike, is disappointed by Trump's failure to start World War III. Well, at least he brought them together. You know there's a problem when Roy Edroso has to tie himself in knots like this. One of his commenters did better:
I’m having a helluva hard time trying to explain to my non-American wife why the U.S. cares enough about Syria to take sides.
ME: Well, it is a genuinely awful, murderous regime.
HER: [stares at me silently for several seconds].
ME: OK, seriously, though, it’s mostly because Assad is supported by Russia and Iran.
HER: And Trump will do anything to spoil PUTIN’s day??
ME: Well, forget Russia, it really comes down to Iran. We don’t want Iran to come out of this with a win.
HER: What exactly do they win, then, if the Syrian regime survives?
ME: Ummm, mostly they get to give the Saudis the finger.
HER: [stares at me silently for several seconds].
ME: Look, that’s how I understand it. It has all these balance-of-power, proxy war ramifications.
HER: So is it something like... if Russia and Iran get credited with the “win,” then the U.S. loses international ranking points? Like when Federer went out early in Miami?
ME: Exactly.
Anybody who can explain it better, please chip in. Thankfully, she didn’t marry me for my geopolitical savvy.
Meanwhile, the US and our dear clients continue to kill civilians in Yemen and elsewhere, showing our government's regard for the sacredness of human life.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Hold That Thought

I"ve begun reading Louise Erdrich's new novel Future Home of the Living God (Harper, 2017), which so far appears to be a satirical speculative-fiction novel worthy of (now late) Ursula Le Guin, only with a sharper edge.  I love much of Le Guin's work, though I don't think she ever made me even chuckle, and at times she could be obnoxiously pompous.  Not that there's anything wrong with that, I'm not casting the first stone.

But I digress.  It's a pleasure to see Erdrich, a Turtle Mountain Chippewa, skewering some fantasies about Native Americans, starting with her narrator, a twenty-six-year-old adoptee named Cedar Songmaker who learns that her biomom back on the reservation is named Mary Potts, Senior.  Cedar goes to meet her birth family, and muses on the End Times material she sees along the way.  (Something big is happening to the world, that's the speculative-fiction part, but just what hasn't been explained yet.)  I'm taking this as part of the satire, please Jesus:
Perhaps all of creation from the coddling moth to the elephant was just a grandly detailed thought that God was engrossed in elaborating upon, when suddenly God fell asleep.  We are an idea, then.  Maybe God has decided that we are an idea not worth thinking anymore.
Hold that thought.

A week ago, a Facebook friend from high school who's lost the struggle with Christianity posted a link to an online preacher's video dedicated to the proposition that in Scripture, Every. Word. Matters.

Now, this is of course absurd.  I posted a comment pointing out that if every word matters it would have to be words in Greek or Hebrew, and because of textual variation in the New Testament especially, you can rarely be sure what the exact words are.  Few of these variations make any difference in overall meaning or doctrine, but that's just the point.  In that previous sentence I could have written "seldom" rather than "rarely" and the meaning would have been roughly the same, but the exact word would not.  My friend replied that he knew all that, that he subscribes to the doctrine of plenary verbal inspiration, and every word of the Bible testifies to God's love and care for us.  We left it there, with me giggling in the eternal silence of the Internet, but the exchange sent me back to James Barr's fine 1977 book on fundamentalism.

Barr pointed out that most fundamentalists officially distance themselves from "dictation" theories -- the idea that the Holy Spirit told the biblical writers exactly what to write, word for word -- but plenary verbal inspiration is mainly an attempt to have a dictation theory without calling it one.  Lay believers like my friend who don't know any language but their own have trouble grasping the problems involved in translation, the difficulty of finding equivalents in one language for the words of another, or the problems raised by textual variation. The phrase "plenary verbal inspiration" ought to include "of the original manuscripts," a late nineteenth-century attempt by Professor B. B. Warfield of Princeton University to make sense of the phenomena.  This inspired more critical scholars to joke about "the Princeton Bible," compiled from the (non-extant) original manuscripts.

Conservative scholars who hold to plenary verbal inspiration have a rough time of it.  In Fundamentalism Barr quotes numerous examples of their efforts to maintain the Bible's freedom from error, for example:
We move to yet another venerated conservative publication, The New Bible Dictionary (Inter-Varsity Press 1962), and J.  A. Thompson there tells us (pp 271f.): “[Genesis] I has an artificial literary structure and is not concerned to provide a picture of chronological sequence but only to assert the fact that God made everything.’  Only that God made everything!  How are the mighty fallen! and how ridiculous a mouse has the mountain of fundamentalist interpretation brought forth!  What radical ‘liberal’ or wild ‘modernist’ did not believe ‘only’ that God had made everything? [Fundamentalism (Westminster Press, 1977), 41-2] 
But it isn't only fundamentalists who resort to such feeble expedients.  The highly sophisticated, non-fundamentalist, ostensibly non-theist philosopher Mary Midgley, drawing on Origen and St. Augustine, wrote that
the Genesis story simply describes the total dependence of all creatures on a ruling benevolent spirit and does this through a myth: an imaginative vision that is the most appropriate way of bringing such vast and mystifying facts within human comprehension.  The details of the story are merely shaped to make this central point clear [The Solitary Self (Acumen, 2010)].
The total dependence of all creatures on a ruling benevolent spirit!  Of course there is no such being, certainly not the god of the Bible, and even such a vaguely platitudinous "central point" is not necessarily or obviously what the writer had in mind.  No doubt he also believed it, but as Barr went on to note:
In fact the only natural exegesis is a literal one, in the sense that this is what the author meant.  As we know from other parts of Genesis, he was deeply interested in chronology and calendar, and he depicted the story of creation in a carefully and deliberately arranged scheme of one week.  As Kevan, cited above, rightly sees, the ‘evening’ and ‘morning’ phraseology clearly indicates that he thought of a day such as we understand a day to be; but that is only one of the multitudinous details of the story which show that the seven-day scheme is essential to his way of describing the creation [42].
In other words, the author of Genesis, though he or she probably would have agreed with Midgley about the dependence of all creatures on their creator, had other fish to fry.  All those multitudinous chronological details aren't there as mere ornament, they have a function, and it won't do to brush them lightly aside.  The irony here is that though Midgley, the daughter of a parson, despises fundamentalists, she interprets the Bible like one.  Or vice versa -- as Barr shows, fundamentalist scholars often interpret the Bible as if they were liberals.  The same is true of the message my Facebook friend finds in Scripture.  I don't believe it, either as a governing principle of the universe or as "the" overarching message of the Bible, but it's a doctrine that the most liberal, even wildly modernist Christian could agree on.  You wouldn't even have to be a Christian to believe it; such platitudes are beloved of theists of many stripes.

So back to the passage I quoted above from Louise Erdrich.  I hope it's satire, though I fear it's the kind of vacuity that even the bitterest satirists will come up with to show that they're really big softies at heart.  Once again I'm disappointed by the conceptions of gods that people who reject conventional religion come up with: in this, a deity who nods off at its station, allowing his creation to fall apart.  Cedar's musings would be better reversed, I think: If God has lost interest in us, that doesn't trump our interest in ourselves. God is an idea, an idea we should decide is not worth thinking anymore.

Friday, January 19, 2018

It's Not What You Know, It's Who You Know

I understand perfectly the human tendency to get deeply involved with fiction.  When you're talking about a story, it's natural to take the background conditions as given.  But this fangirl post on Star Wars, by Emily Asher-Perrin, from Tor.com crosses a line.  The title is "The Rebellion Won Because They Treated Their Droids Like People."
The Separatists, the Empire, and the First Order all have poor track records when it comes to treating any non-human with even basic decency, to say nothing of empathy. The Empire in particular has a track record of enslaving other races, so it’s hardly surprising that they would fail to view droids as worthy of consideration. But the detriment of this philosophy becomes plain as binary sun daylight when you realize all it has cost them ...
Admittedly, in the interest of balance Asher-Perrin admits that "Even the heroes have their own prejudices to overcome in this regard."  But she concludes:
There’s still no question about it. If the “bad guys” of Star Wars actually bothered to think of droids as sentient beings worthy of attention and consideration, they’d have won every single war. It wouldn’t have been difficult either; just let their own droids develop personalities and treat them like crew and soldiers and operatives. Listen to what they have to say, particularly when they make note of some weird droid hanging around a datacore.
Guess we should just be real grateful that they never thought of that.
I won't ask who "we" are, who should be grateful that the bad guys were so clueless about the droids.  I have no stake in the outcome of these movies, other than that of any spectator following a storyline.  The issue is that Rebellion won because their creators, the writers of the franchise, wanted them to, just as the Ku Klux Klan in Birth of a Nation triumphed over the nasty, uppity blacks because their creators wanted them to.  Imagine someone writing that the blacks in Birth of a Nation were crushed because of their obvious moral faults, their rebellion against American Christian values: if you want to beat the Klan, don't lust after white women.

Birth of a Nation, of course, is based loosely on American history.  It sides with the resurgent white racist reaction that rehabilitated the Confederacy for most white Americans, hence its immense popularity; it was in box-office terms the Star Wars of the first half the twentieth century.  (Another big hit, Gone With the Wind, inhabited the same American imaginary; I take it that's no coincidence.)  Star Wars is a completely imaginary world, which frees it even more from the constricting bonds of reality.

Am I saying that Star Wars is the same as Birth of a Nation?  Of course not.  I'm saying that what happens within a fiction proves nothing about the real world, and that a different story can prove the opposite.  The droids in Star Wars have roughly the same dramatic function as the house-elves in the Harry Potter series.  The Wizards treated the house-elves badly, but they still beat Voldemort.  What does that prove?

Monday, January 15, 2018

Embracing The Barbaric Yawp

I've been reading a number of satirical novels about academia lately.  It started by chance, but then a friend, an academic, mentioned another one to me (Robert Grudin's Book), and I began thinking about the genre a bit.  I may or may not write on this topic at length, but I'm near the end of David Lodge's 1975 novel Changing Places now, and found a passage that I feel compelled to quote.

The premise is that two professors of English literature, one English and one American, take each other's places in their institutions.  The story began slowly, but became much more engaging as Lodge developed some entertaining complications.  It even made me laugh aloud a few times, which these novels almost never do.  What I'm going to copy here isn't one of the laugh-aloud passages; it is, I think, more interesting than that.  The Brit, sitting in a coffeehouse toward the end of his American stay, suddenly has an epiphany:
He understood American literature for the first time in his life that afternoon, sitting in Pierre's on Cable Avenue as the river of Plotinus life flowed past, understood its prodigality and indecorum, its yea-saying heterogeneity, understood Walt Whitman who laid end to end words never seen in each other's company before outside of a dictionary, and Herman Melville who split the atom of the traditional novel in the effort to make whaling a universal metaphor and smuggled into a book addressed to the most puritanical reading public the world has ever known a chapter on the whale's foreskin and got away with it; understood why Mark Twain nearly wrote a sequel to Huckleberry Finn in which Tom Sawyer was to sell Huck into slavery, and why Stephen Crane wrote his great war-novel first and experienced war afterwards, and what Gertrude Stein meant when she said that 'anything one is remembering is a repetition, but existing as a human being, that is being listening and hearing is never a repetition'; understood all that, though he couldn't have explained it to his students, some thoughts do often lie too deep for seminars ... [195 of the 1978 Penguin edition].
Reading this passage in the context of the novel, I understood it too.  It's a notably generous insight to give a protagonist in an academic novel, most of which are extended sessions of Ain't It Awful.  Lodge is, unlike most of the authors of such books I've read, smarter than his characters, yet he doesn't look down on them.  He's written more academic novels, and I think I'll end up checking them out too.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

How to Be Good

I was about to start bitching yesterday about the reports that Oprah Winfrey plans to run for the US presidency in 2020 -- just what America needs: another uber-rich celebrity President with no political experience, right? -- but then I started reading Betty Smith's 1963 novel Joy in the Morning (Doubleday) and cheered up remarkably.

Smith is best known for her autobiographical first novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, published in 1943.  I knew of it only because the title featured in so many Warner Brothers cartoons, though I finally read it three years ago and was impressed enough to want to read more of her work.  I picked up a copy of Joy in the Morning at a used book sale not long ago, and yesterday I took it out of one of the piles ot to-be-read books on my living room floor.  I was a bit wary of it, I admit, because as fine as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was, it was fairly grim, depicting a childhood of grinding poverty in early twentieth-century New York.

But Joy in the Morning lived up to its title.  Set in 1927, it's the story of Carl and Annie Brown, newly married and relocated from Brooklyn to an unnamed college town in the Midwest.  Carl is twenty and studying law, Annie is eighteen and had to leave school at fourteen, but loves to read and wants to write.  Contrary to the assumption of all the adults around them, they are not marrying because Carl got Annie pregnant: in fact, they are both virgins at their (civil) wedding.  Carl knows about contraception and is determined that they won't become parents right away.  Not too surprisingly, the best-laid plans don't work out in that department.

Smith periodically switches viewpoint to Carl and other characters for a page or two, but Annie is the focus of the novel, and it is she who cheered me up.  She's positive without being bland or syrupy, and that I think is no mean achievement.  She isn't sure of herself, she feels inferior next to Carl because of her lack of schooling, she has her blind spots and prejudices, but she overcomes these weaknesses through conscious effort and a determined refusal to let herself be treated as less than a person.  So, for example, there's this scene, where Annie recalls her mother's reaction to being told that Annie was going to marry and move away:
"I can't wait, Mama.  I got to get married."
"You got to?  Did you say you got to?"
"It's not what you think, Mama."
"Tell me what I think.  Tell me."
"You're hurting my arm, Mama."
"I said, tell me!"
"It's better that you don't know."
"When was your last period?"
"Don't say ugly things, Mama."
"Don't you tell me what to say, you ... you tramp!"
"Mama,  if you say that again ..."
"Tramp!"
"You went too far, Mama."
"How dare you raise your hand to me!  When I think ... when I think how I suffered bringing you into the world, the sacrifices I made for you ... " [7]
The only indication that Annie offered physical resistance to her mother's violence is that "How dare you raise your hand to me!"  I don't know whether to read it to mean that Annie hit her, pushed her away, or simply took her hand off her arm.  The important thing is that it shows that despite her lack of self-confidence, there are limits beyond which Annie will not be pushed, even by her mother.

This scene does show one of Annie's weaknesses: she is comfortable enough in her body, she enjoys marital sex with her husband, she's fairly non-judgmental about other people's lives -- but she is intensely uncomfortable talking about these things.  She knows that Carl uses condoms, for example, but considers it nasty for him to say the word.

Similarly, when Carl defends his mother's misjudgment of Annie:
"She said she was sorry."
"An easy thing to say after she had the fun of telling me off.  Does she think 'sorry' is a word like a rubber eraser she can use the rub out the dirty way she thought of me and the things she said?" [17]
And when Carl tells her never to change over their wedding dinner:
"Oh, I couldn't give you a guarantee on that.  No."
"Why not, Annie?"
"Well, the world is full of people."
"No kidding!"
"And people are persons."
"You mean individuals."
"All right.  Individual persons.  Persons change.  A person gets old and old makes him different.  So he changes whether he wants to or not."
"I ask you a simple question, my girl, and you go all away around the mulberry bush."
"All I'm saying is, persons have to change.  I am a person.  I will change." [21]
Annie is mostly outgoing, curious about the world and the people in it, determined not to be limited by her lack of schooling or class status.  So she makes friends, reads omnivorously thanks to the university library (to which she has access through Carl), eavesdrops on and finally audits classes, and begins writing plays.  Until I was about three-quarters of the way through the book I was afraid that she was going to be punished somehow, and not until I finished was I really sure she wouldn't be.  The novel ends with the birth of their first child, their first wedding anniversary, Carl's graduation, and Annie's nineteenth birthday.  Initially I'd thought that Smith had set Joy in the Morning so far in the past so she could follow them until the time of publication, and I'd have been happy to see that; but it ends in early 1929 -- a few months before the Great Crash, just as some gay male fiction is set to end just before the arrival of the AIDS epidemic.

One reviewer on Amazon called Annie "petulant."  I can see why she'd annoy a certain kind of person -- someone like her mother, say -- but it's definitely the wrong word.  I liked her because despite her intense desire to be liked, she won't let anyone abuse her, not even her husband, which I think is what that reviewer objected to.  She has a core belief that people, starting with herself, shouldn't be treated badly.  Carl is also quite likable, by the way, and though he's a fairly conventional middle-class boy in many respects he is ready to put aside his expectations and adjust to Annie, just as she adjusts to him.  I've said before that one shouldn't look to fiction for a reliable guide to the workings of relationships, but I thought that Joy in the Morning provides a plausible account of how a happy marriage might work.

It also reminded me of something the critic Marvin Mudrick wrote in a review of a book on Chaucer from the 1970s, which has stayed with me ever since I first read it.  (In fact this passage was quoted in a review of Mudrick's book, Books Are Not Life But What Is? [Oxford, 1979], and it led me to buy and read it.)
Howard has a fund of jazzy generalizations, as when he defends the dull Parson against the fascinating Pardoner: "If goodness is dull in literature -- if Milton's Satan is more interesting than God, Iago more exciting than Desdemona -- this is a fact not about goodness or about literature but about ourselves.  Take someone to the zoo and he wants to see the snakes."  But it doesn't occur to him that nothing in life or literature is more interesting and exciting than goodness: that Troilus, Criseyde, and Pandarus are all both good and wonderfully interesting; so too Elizabeth Bennett, Anne Elliot, Sophocles' Antigone, Pushkin's Tatyana, Trollope's Plantagenet Palliser, Lawrence's Tom Brangwen; so most of all the character Chaucer in Chaucer's poems, who is the best human being on record and marvelously interesting.  And when someone takes me to the zoo I want to see the swans [184].
I still basically agree with Mudrick, though I think there's some sloppy, lazy thinking on his part here no less than on his target's.  I do agree that nothing in life or literature is more interesting and exciting than goodness.  I can quibble about some of his chosen examples of literary goodness, but who couldn't? Most of my favorite characters are good people, and I don't think I can think of any favorites who aren't.  (The bit about God also reflects less on God than on Milton, I should think, but I've also complained that given the opportunity to invent good gods, people always seem to invent monsters.)  I believe I was bothered slightly by the snakes/swans contrast from the beginning, though: snakes are not evil, and swans aren't good.  I don't think that moral goodness applies to non-human animals, and certainly not to entire species.  But Annie and Carl are good without being goody-goody, and wonderfully interesting, which is very much to Betty Smith's credit.  I'm grateful to her for giving me a hand out of the Slough of Despond today.