30 November 2017

In Times Like These

Yes, the news is horrible and frightening. In her op-ed column today Gail Collins writes “On the one hand you had Garrison Keillor and Matt Lauer getting canned for sexual harassment. On the other there’s the president of the United States circulating a picture of a Muslim beating up a statue of the Blessed Virgin. About which the presidential spokeswoman said, “Whether it’s a real video the threat is real.” And I haven’t even gotten to the tax bill. Or North Korea. Good grief.” And just a little while ago a notification appeared on my iPhone that Trump had wearied of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and was going to replace him with Pompeo. The Republican majority in an attempt to show its muscles is prepared to pass anything, an accomplishment they have incapable of for the 10 months of the administration. All they have achieved is the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch in an appointment they Republicans unconstitutionally stole from President Obama. This is a government in chaos, in a sharply fractured nation that is headed by a weak and psychologically damaged narcissist with absolutely no regard for anything or anybody beyond his own ego needs and a Congress that is prepared to bully its way to legislation regardless of the moral cost. The times are, indeed, out of joint, and I fear that there is no attempt by anyone in power to set them right.
     And so I am reading still and again Lionel Trilling. I read a great many novels for a complex of reasons that I hope to address in more extended form in my retirement that begins in two weeks, and Trilling’s criticism always comforts and provokes me! In “Manners, Moral, and the Novel” Trilling writes “” . . . that the moral passions are even more willful and imperious and impatient than the self-seeking passions. All history is at one in telling us that their tendency is to be not only liberating but also restrictive.”  I think that what Trilling means here is that the moral passions, the advocacy for progressive social conditions, the reports meant to report and provoke indignation at the bad conditions, even the moral indignations that I expressed above, might only serve the self-gratification of the middle class of which I am, alas, a member. Trilling asks whether instances of moral indignation, “which has been said to be the favorite emotion of the middle class, may be in itself an exquisite pleasure.” Decrying social conditions offers a certain pleasure in being morally correct! To indulge our moral indignation enhances our self-image. Trilling suggests that the novel ought to deal with what he terms moral realism rather than moral activism, the awareness of the multiplicity of manners in society and an awareness of the dangers of the moral life itself as an egotistic indulgence and willful blindness to reality. In a sense the novel assumes the stance of curious observer.
     But I wonder if such a call inspires a sort of quietism and movement away from political (and social) activism. Trilling’s seems to propose an advocacy for intensive self-examination rather than a call for present action. The achievement of a heightened consciousness seems to be his goal rather than a call for an active social movement that might campaign for greater freedoms to a greater number of social groups and individuals within those various social fabric of the United States. Of course, the former—heightened consciousness--doesn’t necessarily exclude the latter—political action--nor vice-versa, but in this essay at least Trilling doesn’t seem to advocate for the necessity for engagement in both self-meditation and social activism. Almost thirty years I argued in Anonymous Toil that the critique of the radical novel by critics associated with such journals as Partisan Review and Commentary (yes, both journals publishing Jewish writers such as Lionel Trilling) supported as the hallmark of literature those ‘realist’ narratives that focused on the development of personal consciousness by singular effort of the individual without regard to the material conditions. Nick Carraway’s growth does not condemn Gatsby. In my work I suggested that the radical novel argued that consciousness arose from the immersion of the individual in material conditions and that consciousness was a product of an immersion in the social: the difference in focus between say, Ira Wolfert’s Tucker’s People and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby; or of Ishma in Fielding Burke’s Call Home the Heart compared to the character in Mailer’s Barbary Shore who says “It is the need to study . . . to ride out the storm . . .to advance to the front of any revolutionary wave, for we alone shall have the experience and the insight so vital for the period.” Trilling knew that literature—art—could change society, but in this essay, he seems to assume a power that already depends on the intellectual power that reads novels. In times such as these I despair . . .

21 November 2017

A Complaint and A Plea

For years and miles I was a long-distance runner. I would head out at all times of day: I recall arising at 4:00am when I trained for the New York Marathon, running along Riverside Drive when the only people yet on the streets were prostitutes somewhere and the homeless. I ran in all climates and weather conditions. Once during a torrential rainstorm in the late afternoon a police car passed me and called out over its PA system, “Are you crazy?” Perhaps I was. Perhaps I still am. I have run in almost every state of the United States, even a bit fearfully in Southern states on rural roads. I ran six days every week wherever I happened to be; there were times when I discovered that in my gym bag I had neglected to pack my running shoes but I ran despite this lack uncomfortably but in respectable time in dress shoes. My life in school was a public one, but running was a time when I could be alone. All alone. In my solitude, I could experience a sense of comforting lostness and attain a transcendence. Undisturbed by the commitment to the social that was my daily life as a teacher and then a professor, In the running I could immerse myself in my thoughts and settle my mind and what others call my soul. As Dylan commented, as I ran I thought I could hear “the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea” and “Sometimes I would turn, and sense there was someone there, and at other times it was only me.” I was content in either event. I could only find myself in these miles of lostness.
     Often when I ran I listened to music. Originally I ran with a radio the make of which I cannot remember, but I enjoyed many Sunday morning runs listening to Vin Scelsa’s program Idiot’s Delight on WNEW-FM. Then I owned a series of iPods and I filled them regularly with playlists that I organized almost daily. For one year I listened religiously to Bob Dylan’s album Love and Theft and in another year I listened every day to a Beethoven symphony or concerto. I did not get lost in the music so much as the music let me get lost; much that I wrote began in the solitude of the music and the roads.
     I no longer run long distances; indeed, I don’t run any distances. But I go to spin cycle class twice a week and I attend Yoga classes two to four times each week. And the music no longer allows me to feel my lostness and does not permit a possibility of transcendence. Indeed, in the spin cycle the music seems to punish and I remain tense and assaulted. There is no solitude available. In the yoga classes too often the music distracts me from the concentration on the rhythms of my breath and the focus requisite for the poses. Sometimes I can’t even hear the teacher’s lead over the music volume.

     A good part of my exercise in the past allowed transcendence. This sense probably kept me happily on the road. Now I have become mired in my exercises in emotional discomfort, experienced anger at the harshness and cruelty of the sound of the music, and the incapacity to realize the sense of lostness that accompanied my times on the roads. In running, there seemed to be for me beauty out there that my recent experiences in the gym have made unattainable. But I think this beauty should be possible still if they would only turn down the volume of talk and sound and let me run. Left alone I could make the hour worth my thoughts.

14 November 2017

Selves and Stories

For a great many years I have taught a graduate course in which I asked students to study the nature of stories and the stories they tell in the classroom. Curriculum, of course, is the story we tell our children. I hold that  to interrogate our stories is to discover the person we present ourselves to ourselves and to others, though I must admit that this program doesn’t always go over very well . . . “What is this shit,” I often heard from bewildered and sometimes angry students.
     But I receive some supportive comfort in Dickens’ character of David Copperfield. David writes, “I set down this remembrance here because it is an instance to myself of the manner to which I fitted my old books to my altered life, and made stories for myself out of the streets, and out of men and women, and how some main points in the character I shall unconsciously develop, I suppose in writing my life, were gradually forming all this while . . .”  I have at times puzzled over these lines, but I think they suggest that David knows that his character evolved from the events of his life and the people with whom he had contact but that the character about which he will write derives unconsciously from the stories has once told and will now tell about his own life. In this way, I believe, David/Dickens suggests that the lives we declare to be ours are no less fictional stories than are the events of any intentional novel, short story or dramatic creation, and how our older stories become adapted to newer circumstances, events and acquaintances and become inevitably, then, fictional narratives. We are never fully known to ourselves or others except in the stories we tell about ourselves: we become our selves in our stories, and perhaps we are not much beyond those stories.

     And it interests me to consider that David says of his autobiographical tome, “This narrative is my written memory:” this narrative is David’s story and its narration creates the memory and the life. At the novel’s end the most secret current of his memory, that which did not ever come to the knowable surface, becomes the subject of the book’s conclusion, and narrates the consummation of his love of Agnes, a feeling that gnawed at him even in the midst of his passionate love for his wife, Dora. He had earlier written, “I had a great deal of work to do, and had many anxieties, but the same considerations made me keep them to myself. I am far from sure, now, that it was right to do this, but I did it for my child-wife’s sake. I search my breast, and I commit its secrets, if I know them, without any reservation to this paper.” You see, David knew then that it was Agnes that he truly loved, but it was the child-wife Dora he married. He did not at the time link these anxieties to his love for Agnes, but as he writes these earlier anxieties take shape and become defined by his relationship to Agnes.
     And I think many of us carry within us these secrets that only in writing we will learn. WE can form to the vague anxieties and turn them into our stories and our life.  It is in the writing that David will come to realize and to understand his love of Agnes and how the loss of her through his voluntary actions left a cratered emptiness in him that nothing but Agnes could fill. This David learns only through his writing.