20 May 2016

Goodbye Burlington . . . for now

The thing about airports is that there no place to sit in solitary silence. Airports are places characterized by incessant motion and there is no place to be without distraction. In the airport people are in constant motion. There exists in them no area of stillness—the people movers constantly move people who sometimes stand almost still but on which they often double the movement by walking on the people mover nevertheless. People move ceaselessly about in the wide lanes heading somewhere else; trams and carts speed by; the televisions flash with ever changing images and constant news. The loudspeakers blare endless messages: of changing time zones; of lost laptops and portable phones; of warnings to watch your luggage and watch your neighbors. From the shops blast music and flashy items for sale—the airport has become a shopping mall where all I should want is for sale as long as I’m just waiting. And in their seats people sit staring at computer screens, iPads and Kindles busy being somewhere else and all wearing headphones to approximate solitude amidst the crowd. I often wonder what Thoreau might have said about airports and airplanes.
     Of course, in my generalizations I speak inaccurately.  There is as well a stationary quality to the airport. People sit in their chairs sometimes for hours at a time waiting to board, and parents rock their younger children to sleep; and couples and friends sit in discussion always holding in their hands their cell phones to which they glance obsessively. I wonder for what they are looking . . . or for what they wait? But there exists for me no sense of calm in the airport and when I exit the buildings and out into the air I enjoy a decompression, and feel like a balloon that slowly loses its air. I don’t like airports—I feel out of control in those absolutely controlled spaces and though I write this piece 30,000 feet in the air, I am hardly alone or at quiet peace. I’ve been listening to Joni Mitchell’s album “Songs to a Seagull:” I find this one of the saddest albums and Marci” one of the saddest knows I have ever heard.
     Guy Clark died this week. I came to him late, but sometimes he produced the perfect metaphor: “I Think I Can Paint Over That!”
     I am saying goodbye to Burlington, Vermont. I have had a lovely run here and this is a most lovely city. For three summers and years ago I taught a course at St. Michael’s College and we walked every evening up the hill from Winooski to Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream. I ate a lot of ice cream, but then I was a runner and every morning I would run off last night’s indulgence. This time I am more cautious so that I can still fit into my yoga pants. Then we enjoyed the activity on the Mall and watched with delight the often eccentric street performers: many are still here and still performing. I spent a glorious week of my sabbatical in a cabin along Lake Champaign writing Symphony #1 during her first year here. And drank single malt scotch at the Whiskey Bar where I could have had Balvenie 30-year at $200.00 a pour if only the Symphony had sold a few more copies. And now she is graduating from the University of Vermont and beginning graduate school in another city. Endings are always poignant but they always end in another beginning.
     And the next time we visit in her city won’t have to fly.

16 May 2016

Continuing and Continual Tirade

Rufus Lyon, in George Eliot’s Felix Holt: The Radical opposes the extension of the vote to larger segments of the (male) population. The issue of the vote “will take you to the root . . . of political morality,” Lyon says to the Radical candidate Harold Transome. “I engage to show to any impartial mind, duly furnished with the principles of public and private rectitude, that the ballot would be pernicious, and that if it were not pernicious it would still be futile” (180). I suspect that Lyon’s argument would suit today’s Republicans well, though Lyon be a Dissenting minister and certainly not prone to vote Republican, the latter would restrict the vote to ensure that the constituency that might turn them out of office can not get to the polls. To Transome the minister says, “I will show first, that it would be futile as a preservative from bribery and illegitimate influence; and secondly, that it would be in the worst kind pernicious, as shutting the door against those influences whereby the soul of a man and the character of a citizen are duly educated for their great functions.” The minister believes that engagement in politics serves as a corrupting influence and diverts people from that moral effort that their Christian faith requires for the achievement of virtue. In that effort, Lyon requests that the Radical candidate for office, Harold Transome, take the time to study his position in a “brief writing” that Lyon will compose and send to him for his perusal. Lyon is confident that his urgings will influence Transome. Transome, of course, want nothing to do with Lyon or his position on the Vote. “Confound this old man,” thought Harold.” “I’ll never make a canvassing call on a preacher again, unless he has lost his voice from a cold” (180). Transome runs as a Radical. And it would seem that Lyon has been reading the reporting in The New York Times on the current election process.
     Politics is in part the subject of Eliot’s novel, Felix Holt, the Radical. Holt, too, has something to say about the electoral process and the extension of the vote. He, too, has doubts about the benefits that might accrue by increasing suffrage in early nineteenth century England. Responding to a previous speaker whose advocacy for the extension of the vote promises more power to the working class, Holt responds, “I think he expects voting to do more towards it than I do. I want the working man to have power. I’m a working man myself, and I don’t want to be anything else.” But Holt recognizes two varieties of power. The first is destructive: “to undo what has been done with great expense and labour, to waste and destroy, to be cruel to the weak, to lie and quarrel, and to talk poisonous nonsense.” I think Holt talks here to both the social conservatives who maintain their privilege by oppressing the workers, but I think he also speaks to the Luddites, who in their protests again the advance of technology have destroyed the means by which the workers have can maintain themselves. These are wicked and ignorant forms of power. He talks presciently about many Republicans and not a few Democrats. And especially about the leaders of the Republican Party and that Party’s presumed Presidential candidate.
     The second form of power derives from education. Holt argues that all the right to vote in the world will not improve the lot of the working classes unless those workers have engaged in an education so that they will “come to be ashamed of things they’re proud of now.” Felix says, “I’ll tell you what’s the greatest power under heaven, and that is public opinion—the ruling belief in society and about “what is right and what is wrong, what is honourable and what is shameful.” Needless to say there are differences of opinion on what might be included in these categories, but some consensus of opinion on certain issues might be beneficial. Terry Eagleton writes “Not all uniformity is pernicious. Neither is all unity or consensus to be demonized as ‘essentialist.’ On the contrary, a great more of it would be thoroughly welcome. It is true that it takes all kinds to make a world, but it would help if all of these kinds clamoured for the abolition of child prostitution, or held that decapitating innocent civilians in the name of Allah is not the surest way to usher in utopia.” It is wrong to oppose raising the minimum wage but to make no objection to the obscene salaries paid to Wall Street brokers and hedge fund managers and CEOs of companies that ensure high profits by oppressing workers. Perhaps there are no absolutes but there are, I think, sureties. And an education that is ethical might go a long way to improving the quality of the electorate. Holt says, “For suppose there’s a poor voter named Jack, who has seven children, and twelve or fifteen shillings a-week wages, perhaps less. Jack can’t read—I don’t say whose fault that is—he never had the chance to learn; he knows so little that he perhaps thinks God made the poor-laws, and if anybody said the pattern of the workhouse was laid down in the Testament, he wouldn’t be able to contradict them” (294). What appears to be an advocacy for an idealistic educational plan not unlike that proposed by Robert Hutchins in the 20th century, Holt’s argument claims that unless people’s “passions, feelings, desires” have been by learning directed towards wisdom, toward a trained mind, then nothing will change. I have to say I agree.
     This tirade is in response to the candidacy of Donald Trump. In our age of near-universal suffrage (which Republicans attempt desperately to restrict) his grab for power will not improve the condition of those who most need the government to improve their lot. Holt argued then “How can political freedom make us better, any more than a religion we don’t believe in, if people laugh and wink when they see men abuse and defile it? And while public opinion is what it is—while men have no better beliefs about public duty—while corruption is not felt to be a damning disgrace—while men are not ashamed in Parliament and out of it to make public questions which concern the welfare of millions a mere screen for their own petty private ends,--I say, no fresh scheme of voting will much mend our condition.” Holt’s been reading the current papers.  I have heard nothing from the Republicans that speaks to our condition, and indeed, the gross rhetoric that spews out of the mouths of hopeful candidates would be totally unacceptable in our public and private schools where teachers are held accountable in ways that no politician need be concerned. Indeed, in our educational institutions consequences severe could result from such repulsive cant that pours daily out of the mouths of our reputed leaders. Out of the mouths of most Republican politicians these obscene words are gleefully reproduced in the papers, in the media and on the tongues of the populace. Our lives have become the comedic subject and object of reality TV entertainers who have no investment in what they say but great investment in the financial holdings that they intend to maintain hold over.
     I think this is how fascism grows.

11 May 2016

Of Sense and Senselessness

I spent this morning attempting to work out an idea inspired by George Eliot in Middlemarch and Felix Holt, and that found resonance in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I did not achieve much resolution and gained very little insight. And so I went to a Yoga practice for an hour that was crowded but somewhat rewarding—and though I must admit that I appreciate the physical effects of yoga, I don’t quite comprehend the emotional effect of the practice. Nevertheless, at the end of the hour or so I am usually content. At home I showered and rubbed CerVe cream all over my parchment-like skin in an attempt to denounce my aging. And I’ll sit for a bit more this afternoon on the ideas I could not work through this morning and see if I can make any progress at all.
     But the death of a very young man by suicide, and the incomprehensible and excessive malice directed by one friend and roommate at another, and the apparent forthcoming nomination by the Republican Party of Donald Trump as its presidential candidate makes everything in this world seem senseless. I do not understand the extremity of pain that would lead someone to take his own life—and I hope that I may never have to experience such hopelessness. With Othello I might say “I have loved not wisely but too well.” I can not comprehend the unnecessary cruelty that one person wishes to inflict unnecessarily on another when alternative means of effecting consequences might have been found. And I despair that a man with absolutely no experience in government, little exhibited intelligence and a great wellspring of virulent hate to spew could have even a slight chance to become the leader of the United States in which my children will have to live.  Nothing seems to makes sense to me now, though applying the CerVe cream to my skin pretends that life has meaning.
     I have written extensively about death: it is to me the greatest mystery, even moreso than the mystery of God whom I cannot comprehend but whose incomprehensibility makes sense. But death—the absence of everything I hold valuable—yes, even of my parchment skin—represents the opposite of everything for which I have lived, and loved and worked. And cruelty serves no purpose, educative or otherwise, and I have been for most of my life a teacher. I have been guilty of practicing some cruelty at various times, and have even at times been the target of meanness; I hope I have learned to desist from and avoid (or deflect) such events. But I look out today and can truthfully say of recent events that touch me personally, “I am not part of this crime.” But I am not wholly comforted.
     And so it is with difficulty but relief that I try to make sense of the idea in my head because the world seems so senseless.