March 2009 Archives

In recent months, I've thought a great deal about the limits of human compassion.  We seem hard-wired to relate to individuals and their stories, but our compassion breaks down when we're asked to relate to groups.  We can empathize with one Holocaust survivor; 6 million dead, on the other hand, are a number. 

I was put in mind of another limitation on human compassion as I read D.T. Max's recent New Yorker article about David Foster Wallace.  Wallace, he says, perceived "that America was at once overentertained and sad."  Speaking to Salon in 1996, Wallace said that living "in America around the millennium" was "particularly sad . . . . It's [a] like a stomach-level sadness. . . . It manifests itself as a kind of lostness.

Wallace's experience of the 90's made me gape in amazement.  Sad?!  The 90's?  The Internet boom?  The swinging Clinton years?  When America was good and loved and Whole Foods was becoming mainstream and salaries were rising and everyone was making money hand-over-fist in the stock market?

Of course, Wallace's 1990's included stays in mental asylums, a half-way house, a failed relationship, as well as the pre-Infinite Jest stage in his career, when he was worried that his career had ended before it'd begun.  His diagnosis of the American condition during those years strikes me -- and I say this gently, cognizant of Wallace's suicide six months ago, and feeling that engagement with his ideas is a proper way to honor his memory -- as a projection of his own profound sadness onto the country writ large.

That Wallace felt the need to address the state of the nation is a reflection of his ambition, but whether he could have come to any other conclusion of the world around him -- be it his closest circle of peers or the broadest circle of the globe -- seems doubtful because of another of the limits of human compassion: the tendency to generalize about others based on ourselves. 

For example, my default assumption is that most people value time efficiency; my experience, on the other hand, is that my default assumption is wrong.  Nonetheless, it's difficult for me to restrain my frustration at the Beijing taxi driver who has resignedly driven me into a traffic jam instead of taking a faster detour; unless replenished through conscious effort, my compassion dwindles for people who operate on rules different from my own.

This limitation makes challenging any individual's ability to relate to another person; applied on a group level, it's even more likely to cause distortions ("All Americans want fast services"; "All Beijing taxi drivers waste time").  Wallace was, without question, aware of his pain, but the fact that he detected sadness in himself does not mean that other Americans were aware of their own conditions, sad or otherwise.  Self-awarenes, in my experience, is among the least useful of characteristics to project on others if the goal is obtaining accurate deductions about them. 

Of course, maybe I'm falling into my own trap; my generalizations about the limitations of human compassion could be wrong; I may be completely misconstruing the basis of Wallace's conclusions.  And perhaps Wallace was right about millenial sadness in America (for example, the musical Rent makes the same point). 

The question is whether nurturing such doubts is a means of transcending those limits and expanding the scope of human compassion.  I am hoping the answer is yes.     
Immediately after I wrote the post British authors mentally masturbate about physics, stories suffer, I read Peter Dizikes essay in The New York Times about C.P. Snow, the physicist and novelist who coined the term "the two cultures" to describe the rift between scientists and literary types -- and I knew I would have to write an addendum to my previous post.

According to Dizikes, Snow made three claims that are worth considering in light of Ian McEwan's The Child in Time and Michael Frayn's Copenhagen.  First, Snow laid the blame for the rift between these two cultures on the literati.  Plainly, that claim is untenable today.  With the advent of string theory, the mathematics required to understand physics has become so complicated that even other physicists, much less literary scholars, don't understand it.  (See, for example, this New Yorker article about Garrett Lisi, renegade physicist, or this review of a couple of books about string theory.) 

Moreover, the strenuous efforts at bridging this gap between the scientists and the poets is coming from the poets' side, with novels like McEwan's, plays like Frayn's, and countless other examples (Huxley's Brave New World, Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, etc.)  Oliver Sacks alone cannot make up for the majority of scientists who are incapable of communicating with the rest of the world.

Second, Snow argued that science, not literature, is what safeguards the progressive betterment of society because scientists are more morally reliable that the literati.  This claim, also, is one that cannot be credited.  Science, as the history of scientific advances in the 20th century amply demonstrates (atom bomb anyone?), is amoral.  The job of scientists is to discover the truth, regardless of the outcome; the moral ramifications of the discoveries are someone else's job.

That "someone else" often, increasingly, is a writer.  McEwan has reached the stature of "England's national author" (in the words of New Yorker profile) because, in novels like The Child in Time, Amsterdam, Atonement, and Saturday, he undertakes the task of sorting the moral ramifications of technological and social developments.  Copenhagen, as well, is an attempt to parse the morality of working on an atom bomb in World War II, examining the question from multiple perspectives.  (Whatever might be said about the moral failings of Ezra Pound, Snow's example of a literary moral degenerate -- or P.G. Wodehouse, or Gertrude Stein, to name a couple of other literati who behaved abysmally during WWII -- none can approach the scale of damage done by physicist Werner Heisenberg who, in addition to being a Nazi, was also almost certainly developing an atomic weapon.)

Third, according to Dizikes, Snow maintained that "20th-century progress was being stymied by the indifference of poets and novelists."  This claim, of course, is risable.  To whatever extent 20th century progress has been stymied, governments, corporations and academic mismanagement have been vastly more responsible that poets and novelists -- who, as the novels and plays cited above demonstrate, have been anything but "indifferent" to 20th century progress.

That said, something can be salvaged from Snow, namely his prescription for a generalized education.  Specialized education, especially too early in life, narrows the mind and exacerbates the gap between "the two cultures."  Moreover, a broader educational platform might obviate the need for incorporating physics lessons into novels and plays, leading to better, more elegantly-told stories about these issues (the point I raised in my previous blog post).  After all, only when we're able to communicate easily across this divide will we be able effectively to bridge it.

Denys Finch-Hatton, the not-great aristocrat

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Denys Finch-Hatton.jpgIn an earlier post, Greatness and Aristocracy, I wrote about the idea of greatness as relating, not to absolute achievement, but to achievement within a particular context, specifically, among the aristocratic.  The life of Denys Finch-Hatton (left), as depicted in Sara Wheeler's Too Close to the Sun, bears out my observation.

Everyone instantly recognized Deny's greatness, insists Wheeler, even though he achieved nothing.  "Denys was a great figure," according to  his obituary in Eton's magazine, "not only to Masters and boys, but to the Eton population at large, human and animal."  (p. 34 (emphasis added).) 

Eton's magazine is not alone in promoting the absurd notion that the animal kingdom hailed Denys' greatness.  In Out of Africa, Karen Blixen reported that "'[a] lion and lioness have come [to Finch-Hatton's grave], and stood, or lain, on the grave for a long time.' . . . It was fit and decorous that the lions should come to Denys's grave and make him an African monument." (p. 308.)

But, by the end of his life (short, but still 44 years), Denys had accomplished nothing.  "In terms of a career -- positions held, books published, the shibboleths of success one lists in Who's Who -- there was nothing," admits Wheeler.  He left behind no written record, no diary, no significant letters.  Perhaps his most enduring legacy is of the abortions and miscarriages that Beryl Markham and Karen Blixen had respectively, carrying children for whom he showed no inclination to take responsibility.  "It's not clear what he ever did to merit a biography of his own," adds Nicholas Best, reviewing Too Close to the Sun for The Observer.

Plainly, when people characterized Denys as "great," they were responding not to his accomplishments, but to his place in the (waning) aristocracy.  "He was the Last Edwardian Male," wrote Florence Williams, in a New York Times book review. 

This use of "greatness" to invoke the aristocratic is both imprecise and not, in my view, without harm.  Great people are worth our time; alive or dead, kind or mean, great people have something to teach us.  Whatever their personal natures, great people have contributed something to society and human existence.  Greatness, despite the costs, ought to be encouraged.

Aristocrats, on the other hand, are people who have convinced themselves and the rest of the population that they have an entitlement to wealth, based on their cultural superiority and proximity to a divine monarch.  Though this class of individuals, like any strata of social organization, has something to teach us about human nature, individual aristocrats (potentially Denys among them) are often privileged wastrels, fungible in their educational value.  They have not invariably contributed something to society and, as a group, they are not necessarily normatively valuable.  (While, anecdotally, culture typically flourishes in aristocratic societies, the cost-benefit equation doesn't compare favorably to non-totalitarian societies in which the government substitutes as patron.)

But regardless of the larger issues at stake in conflating a romanticized notion of aristocracy with genuinely great achievement, Denys Finch-Hatton is an easy case: he was unquestionably artistocratic; he was also, unquestionably, not great.  Sara Wheeler does him no favors by wrapping him in a mantle that's too broad for his shoulders: doing so only makes the man look small.

(Photo courtesy of The New York Times.)
Thinking about Ian McEwan's The Child in Time, I cannot help but relate it to Michael Frayn's play, Copenhagen.

When I saw Copenhagen in 2002, at the Kennedy Center, it was much-buzzed as the play to see.  I remember leaving the theater befuddled at the buzz: "boring" was the word I would've applied, followed by "repetitive." 

The play three times enacts the famous walk that Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg took in 1941, during which they had a conversation -- the substance of which remains unknown -- which fundamentally altered their relations for the rest of their lives.  At the time, I recognized fully that the repetitive enactment of the walk-and-conversation was a dramatization of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which is colloquially (though controversially, from a physicist's point of view) understood to mean that our understanding of any situation is always limited by our perspective; shift the perspective, and the content changes.

However boring Uncertainty might be to learn in the classroom, Copenhagen didn't make the case that dramatizing it improved the learning experience.  On the contrary, I found the physics lesson to get in the way of Frayn's proper task: storytelling. 

The number one priority in telling a story, so far as I'm concerned, is maintaining interest, entertaining the audience.  This imperative is among the most difficult of the novelist's tasks.  "Most novels incredibly boring. It's amazing how the form endures. Not being boring is quite a challenge."  That's McEwan talking, quoted in a recent New Yorker piece (at p. 48).

But McEwan appears as vulnerable as the rest of us to recognizing principles that we don't apply in our own lives.  The Child in Time makes the same blunder as Copenhagen (although, seeing that Copenhagen post-dates The Child in Time by a decade, perhaps it should be the other way around.)  The entire plot line involving Thelma and Charles Darke, Thelma's long physics lectures, Charles' regression into childhood, as well as the lorry accident and Stephen's near-miss driving around it -- these some hundred pages or so are all peripheral to the story of Kate's disappearance, and Stephen's reuniting with Julia.

These irrelevancies are not in the book to advance plot.  They're in the book to illustrate physics principles about the nature of time.  McEwan is elaborating in prose on his intellectual love affair with physics.  These passages are all cerebral masturbation.  And, while admittedly they're more masterfully done than Frayn's tiresome redundancies, these diversions are as disruptive to McEwan's storytelling in The Child in Time as Uncertainty was to Frayn's in Copenhagen.

The irony, of course, is that nothing illustrates the importance of perspective to determining content, or the elasticity of time, better than a well-told story.  With a page-turner in hand, the content of the world of the page is determined wholly by the author's perspective, and time flies.  

Sex and the single girl's world view

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My belief is that the world is fundamentally indifferent to any individual's presence.  Our course in life is mapped, not by design or fate, but by a combination of individual resource and luck.  As individuals, we should care if we're enjoying ourselves (indeed, I believe that joyfulness is an aspect of moral responsibility), but the world itself is as indifferent to our pleasures as it is to our sorrows.

Not everyone shares my perspective.  If you were to have asked me why -- what accounts for differences in world view -- I would've guessed that a combination of experience and temperament accounted for the variance.  Reading Ian McEwan's The Child in Time, I discovered a new explanation: world views correspond to our styles of lovemaking.

The Child in Time includes a sex scene between Stephen, the protagonist, and his wife, Julie, during which Stephen wonders:

how anything so good and simple could be permitted, how they were allowed to get away with it . . . . [M]atter itself had dreamed this up for its own pleasure and perpetuity, and this was exactly what you were meant to do, it wanted you to like it. . . . Surely the, he thought . . . surely at heart the place is benevolent, it likes us, it wants us to like it, it likes itself.

(p. 68.)  The passage brought an abrupt halt to my reading, as I mused that I'd never found sex to be "good and simple," nor did the pleasure of an orgasm suggest (to me) the fundamental benevolence of the world.  On the contrary, the humiliating complexity, searing ecstasy and basic irrationality of sex has always implied a world that, if not indifferent, was sardonic.  (My own preference for indifference over sardonicism relates to the my temperament: I'm not a pessimist.) 

I nonetheless appreciate McEwan's insight.  I recognize intuitively the correctness of his observation: what we like to do in bed, how society responds to those preferences, and how we deal with the societal response, colors our world view.  Unlike Stephen, I myself have never experienced the word "home" repeating itself in my mind during intercourse.  The sex Stephen and Julie share derives its joys from the habitual: "the known dip and curve [leading to] a deep, familiar place."  (p. 68.)  The societal approprobation that accompanies such a domestic delight in sex no doubt supports a benevolent world view.

That our behavior in our most primal moments should correpond to the fundaments of our world view is logical, but not necessary.  In fact, the correspondence might -- at the opposite extreme -- be viewed as silly.  Why should a personal fetish, for example, complicate one's understanding of something universal, like matter (to use McEwan's formulation)?  The fact that it so clearly does, however, is yet another instance of the world's indifference to what we think.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry dedicated The Little Prince to Léon Werth, a Jewish, leftist, writer friend in hiding in France during WWII.  "I ask children who may read this book to forgive me for dedicating it to a grown-up," writes Saint-Exupéry.  "I have a[n] . . . excuse," he continues.  "This grown-up lives in France, where he is cold and hungry.  He needs a lot of consoling."

Why The Little Prince would console anyone is an interesting question.  It's a book about loneliness, exile and homelessness.  The book is filled with unanswerable questions: why did the Little Prince leave the flower and his home planet?  Why did the Little Prince ask for a drawing of a sheep, when what he needed was an actual sheep?  Why did he need -- want -- to die?  And, although on a strictly rational level, the story isn't fleshed out enough for full comprehension, on a visceral level the book's clarity is searing: the story pulsates with loneliness.

Reading The Little Prince -- for the first time, three days ago -- I ached.  I didn't feel lonely reading it, but rather I remembered my own lonely childhood.  My empathy for the Little Prince was the vehicle through which I could empathize with my own past self without shame, condemnation or the reflexive defensiveness that normally allows me to think of that time with a cold impassiveness.  I wondered why no one had given me the book to read when I'd been a child.

Why would I have wanted to have read it as a child?  Because it would've consoled me.  As counter-intuitive as it might seem, a book that pulsates loneliness is balm to the lonely.  You aren't alone, The Little Prince says to a child.  You aren't as lonely and helpless as you were when you were a child, The Little Prince says to the political subversive in hiding underground.

But the consolations of The Little Prince go deeper than its message.  The book itself is like a ritual of, if not resurrection of the dead, at least restoration of the missing.  Everyone involved in The Little Prince misses someone: the pilot misses the Little Prince, the Little Prince misses the flower, Saint-Exupéry in exile in America misses Werth in hiding in France. 

For Saint-Exupéry, the remedy for this pain of separation was writing.  He wrote to Werth -- not just The Little Prince, but also the elegiac Letter to a Hostage.  Saint-Exupéry's characters also write.  The pilot, of course, "writes" The Little Prince and urges child readers to write in turn.  The last line of the book is "write quickly and tell me that has returned . . ." 

Writing, for Saint-Exupéry, is not merely psychologically soothing, but a means of working a physical return of the lost -- that greatest consolation of all.
DorothyParker.jpgSo said Dorothy Parker, quoted in a recent NY Times book review of the book A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx, by Elaine Showalter.

Since I myself have been told -- repeatedly and derisively -- that I write "like a man," I grimaced reading Parker's prayer.  If I were the praying type, my prayer would be: to live in a time when writing like a man was marketable!

That said, I've never been too fussed about whether I write in a gendered manner, or whether I can be classed as a "woman writer" -- a category that many of the renowned females who are the subject of A Jury of Her Peers rejected.  I understand their objections.  The task of all writers, whatever their genitalia, is to develop a voice, to write in a manner distinctive to their individual persons.  Having crafted unique voices, why should women writers be subjected to critical generalizations that lump their achievements into the denigrating sub-class of "women writers"?  And what male writer would find himself in an anthology of "Writers with Penises"?

Still, violent antipathy to being classed with one's peers bears with it a whiff of mythologizing ("I'm the most unique woman ever"), as well as self-loathing ("Don't group me with women -- contemptible").  It's also unreasonable.  "Women writers" is as legitimate a classification, and as useful a basis for comparison, as "British writers" or "Post-colonial writers" or "detective fiction authors."  Such classifications are external to the writing process, devised by critics (non-writers) to aid the understanding of readers (non-writers), and in their hierarchy of values, Stella Gibbons' vagina is more important to understanding Cold Comfort Farm than her internal process of developing an authorial voice, and the influence that P.G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh or any of the other great, male, British, comic novelists might have had on that process.    

If critics and readers find such classifications helpful, god bless, as long as they're reading.  It makes no difference to my task as a writer, which is the honing my own authorial voice.  In the service of which task I pray: Dear God, please make me stop writing like an unpublished author.

(Photo courtesy of The Boston Globe.)

When the pen is the sword

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In Black Swan Green, David Mitchell writes, "If you show someone something you've written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin and say, 'When you're ready.'" (p. 183.)  Funny that creative writing should make the author so vulnerable, but my own experience confirms his observation.  The act of writing a novel, for example, seems to arm everyone around the author, while transforming the surroundings into a battleground where the pen is not mightier than the sword.

I recalled the Black Swan Green quote when reading Too Close to the Sun, Sara Wheeler's biography of Denys Finch-Hatton.  Wheeler is open about her dislike of Karen Blixen, who -- by memorializing her love affair with Finch-Hatton in Out of Africa -- is the only reason anyone recalls Denys Finch-Hatton today.

Wheeler's distaste for Karen Blixen spills over into gratuitous pot shots about her writing: "[Karen Blixen] liked sweep and grandeur, and later imbued her tales with it (often with little substance beneath the glittering surface)."  (p. 125.)  This remark is typical of Wheeler's regard for Karen Blixen, and every time I stumble on another Wheeler's tossed-off, untutored literary judgments, I feel more empathy for Karen Blixen, lying in her coffin, with Wheeler gleefully wielding the stake overhead.

On the other hand, I also feel sympathy for Wheeler.  Her subject, Mr. Finch-Hatton, died without leaving any substantive written record of his existence.  While this silence might be one reason why no one previously published a biography of him (despite the lapse of more than 70 years since his death and Wheeler's biography), Wheeler isn't dissuaded.  She grunts through three years of research, until she comes "to see the lack of material not as a biographical handicap but as a cipher for the unknowability of anyone else's inner life."  (p. 3.) 

In other words, she begins a process of rationalization to stave off the certainty that she's been wasting her time, chasing a phantom.  Thankless task, biography writing.  As thankless, no doubt, as literary criticism.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from March 2009 listed from newest to oldest.

February 2009 is the previous archive.

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