Middlemarch and Civil Society. Chapters 23-42

Occasionally, in literature, good men appear. I am thinking of Martin Cunningham, in Ulysses, who always had something kind to say on behalf of Leopold Bloom. And here in Middlemarch I encountered another one.

The good Caleb Garth, whose kind nature was exploited by the n’er-do-well spendthrift and gambler Fred Vincy, who impoverished his family and expunged their savings–Garth is offered his old job back, as the manager of the farmland for the local gentry, and he has this to say:

“…it’s a fine thing to come to a man when he’s seen into the nature of business; to have a chance of getting a bit of the country into good fettle, as they say, and putting men into the right way with their farming, and getting a bit of good contriving and solid building done that those who are living and those who come after will be the better for. I’d sooner have it than a fortune. I hold it the most honorable work that is. … it’s a great gift of God, Susan. “

“That It is, Caleb,” said his wife, with answering fervor. “And it will be a blessing to your children to have had a father who did such work: the father whose good work remains though his name may be forgotten.”

It is because criminals are occupying the highest offices in the nation, because the gangrene of corruption has spread to the furthest corners of America, because we are so endlessly subjected to the most repugnant appalling and reprehensible behavior–that this stood out so much for me: the modest but deep satisfaction that comes from honest work, giving much and leaving things better than they were found. 

Middlemarch is the story of a town, a community, a civil society, and its various personalities, their struggles with each other and themselves, and their eventual fates. Their responses to cultural change, the introduction of new technologies and scientific discoveries. The perspectives of both maids and Lords. And one of the terrible things I realized as I read this book is that, in America, we no longer seem to be living in a civil society. We’re being told that we don’t have it, and can’t.

In a civil society, there’s a sense of trust, fellowship, and solidarity. Even with deep disagreement, and political conflict–which are unfolding in Middlemarch in these chapters–all townspeople and members of the civil society, from the snobbiest Baron, to the filthiest farmhand, grant dignity, humanity and self worth to one another.  Discussion, irritation and exasperation results from differing points of view–but not hatred, contempt, violence or dismissal. The book shows arguments between opposed parties that are not inflammatory. Respect prevails. Any position counter to that of another, any dispute, any selfishness is superseded by that person’s membership in this community, town and society.

Which is still mostly the case in the United States, and in spite of our differences, we mostly agree. So why don’t we bring public conversations back around to the temper and mood of conversations the people are having in Middlemarch? Where has our civil society gone? How do we get to a Middlemarch of our own?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nice White Parents and Point Omega

Nice White Parents. I listened to the first three episodes of this new podcast about how a Brooklyn school serving mostly black and brown students was harmed by the arrival of the titular Nice White Parents, who flexed their privilege, proceeded to fundraise $50,000 (compared to a prior raise by the PTA of $2,000) and whose kids provided some truly squirmworthy comments. About how school integration may not be so desirable after all, how schools keep failing to support nonwhite kids, and how entrenched inequalities persist, and might be eradicated. This will be a five part series, and has already met with some dissension and controversy, but I am curious to hear the next episodes and see where it goes. Whether or not you agree with the portrayal of the issues or the conclusions, it’s a fascinating listen.

Point Omega. When reading Don DeLillo novels, I often feel as if I have entered a cold, white, vast, fluorescent-lit space, like a data center, interstellar terminal, or morgue. Point Omega was no different. Beautifully structured though it was, a brief 5 chapters, it was set in both the desert and the mind–unforgiving, spare places beyond time’s horizon. We were promised a glimpse of a bighorn ram, which never materialized, and though there were sunsets and occasional glimpses of earthly loveliness, human connection was absent and human relations were reduced to voyeurism, stalking, staring, predation and self-absorption. Who is and who is not a DeLillo Fan? I try, repeatedly, but am not.

July Reading

July reading

Reading continues to get done! These are July’s books. The stack looks higher than usual because there are three books in there that have pictures: Blind Spot, writer and photographer Teju Cole’s book of photography from all over the world; Yoshiharu Tsuge’s comic book, The Man without Talent, paragon of the unsuccessful man genre, a genre which actually has a name that I’ve forgotten, or failed to remember, because in this genre it is always appropriate to note failure; and Nanotecture, a book of photos of very small buildings. I grew up sleeping in a large room in a large house, but moved into my closet when I was 10 or 12, so I really appreciate being cramped. Better for thinking. And also reading. There’s a lot of poetry in this stack too, most of it good. And even some missing from the picture (Dark Matter by Aase Berg, Toxicon and Arachne by Joyelle McSweeney) But I found Fiona Benson’s Vertigo and Ghost absolutely stunning, indispensable, potent. Absalom Absalom was the perfect book for the era of Black Lives Matter, which I mentioned before, and is not my favorite being long-winded, racist and repetitive. I do prefer Light in August and As I Lay Dying, but I felt it had to be reread

Vocabulary loss and the narrowing of understanding

My blog posts get a “D” for readability as graded by this web site, because my sentences are too long and the vocabulary I use is too advanced. Turns out I am writing at a college level, and that is, according to this article, a cause for alarm. According to the site, I’m limiting my readership.

I ran my blog posts through this analysis after ending up on an article about how the most successful writers–by successful they mean getting on a best-seller list–write for an audience reading at an elementary or middle school level. The author claims that Cormac McCarthy–Cormac McCarthy!–writes at an 8th grade level. If you’ve read McCarthy–a great favorite of mine–you’ll know that he demands a lot from his readers. He writes long, complex sentences, employing odd structures, repetitions, sentence fragments, and a strange, almost Biblical language. He uses a rarefied vocabulary, pushing words to the limits of their sense. I don’t think I’d’ve had an easy time reading him in 8th grade. I didn’t believe this result, so I grabbed this passage from Blood Meridian I had laying around and ran it through the same test.

“He watched the fire and if he saw portents there it was much the same to him. He would live to look upon the western sea and he was equal to whatever might follow for he was complete at every hour. Whether his history should run concomitant with men and nations, whether it should cease. He’d long forsworn all weighing of consequence and allowing as he did that men’s destinies are ever given yet he usurped to contain within him all that he would ever be in the world and all that the world would be to him and be his charter written in the urstone itself he claimed agency and said so and he’d drive the remorseless sun on to its final endarkenment as if he’d ordered it all ages since, before there were paths anywhere, before there were men or suns to go upon them.”

Have you ever heard the word “endarkenment” before? Me neither. Looks invented. Far from being at an 8th grade level, the Flesch Kincaid Grade Level analysis put Blood Meridian–at least this passage–at grade level 14.6, requiring around 2.5 years of college to be easily understood. Here are the scores:

 

I felt vindicated. Would you rather write like the article was suggesting? In order to “succeed” should we dumb down our blog posts? We should not.

I had been raised with the idea that having an extensive vocabulary meant expanding your understanding of yourself, other people and the world, an idea similar to this exhortation from Joseph Brodsky’s commencement address at the University of Michigan in 1988, which I read in his collection of essays, On Grief and Reason:

“Try to build and treat your vocabulary the way you are to treat your checking account. Pay every attention to it and try to increase your earnings. The purpose here is not to boost your bedroom eloquence or your professional success — although those, too, can be consequences — nor is it to turn you into parlor sophisticates. The purpose is to enable you to articulate yourselves as fully and precisely as possible; in a word, the purpose is your balance. For the accumulation of things not spelled out, not properly articulated, may result in neurosis. On a daily basis, a lot is happening to one’s psyche; the mode of one’s expression, however, often remains the same. Articulation lags behind experience. That doesn’t go well with the psyche. Sentiments, nuances, thoughts, perceptions that remain nameless, unable to be voiced and dissatisfied with approximations, get pent up within an individual and may lead to a psychological explosion or implosion. To avoid that, one needn’t turn into a bookworm. One should simply acquire a dictionary and read it on the same daily basis — and, on and off, with books of poetry. Dictionaries, however, are of primary importance. There are a lot of them around; some of them even come with a magnifying glass. They are reasonably cheap, but even the most expensive among them (those equipped with a magnifying glass) cost far less than a single visit to a psychiatrist. If you are going to visit one nevertheless, go with the symptoms of a dictionary junkie.”

Exhibit B, from economist, libertarian and autodidact Henry Hazlitt, in Thinking as a Science (via Jyri Engestrom):

“A man with a scant vocabulary will almost certainly be a weak thinker. The richer and more copious one’s vocabulary and the greater one’s awareness of fine distinctions and subtle nuances of meaning, the more fertile and precise is likely to be one’s thinking. Knowledge of things and knowledge of the words for them grows together. If you do not know the words, you can hardly know the thing.”

The desperate state of public discourse today is partly due to the lack of words, the poverty of expression, the limited vocabulary that keeps us from understanding and communicating with one another.

 

Racial Injustice & the Bill of Rights

In this time of  Black Lives Matter, and after the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many others, I wanted to go back and find this post I wrote in 2012 about how the Constitution and the Bill of Rights contribute to the discrimination and abuse of black men and women, so entrenched in America history, with no signs of abating.

I had been reading about the work of the late William J. Stuntz, a law professor at Harvard, who dedicated his life to studying the roots of racial discrimination in America’s criminal justice system. He was a conservative. Upon his death an obituary in the Nation said: “Widely acknowledged as the leading criminal procedure scholar of his era, Stuntz defied easy labeling. He was a conservative and an evangelical Christian whose preoccupation with race and mercy allied him with liberals, and whose insights were contrarian and often quite radical.” His solutions to the inequities of the criminal justice system had two parts: making trials local, and basing justice on principles rather than procedure. 

The Collapse of American Criminal Justice (Stunt’s book) asks what went wrong and how it can be put to rights. Stuntz covers much ground and floats many reforms, but his answer is two-pronged. The first part of it is structural: “local democracy” must be restored to the criminal justice system by reducing plea bargaining and holding more jury trials—and the jurors must live in the same communities as the victims and the accused.

The second part of Stuntz’s answer is technical: he argues that we must turn away from the law of criminal procedure—broadly speaking, the guarantees of the Bill of Rights like the right to counsel and the freedom from unlawful search and seizure—and toward the substantive law of equal protection, which the Supreme Court left for dead during Reconstruction. The former proposal is an arresting insight that seems broadly correct and broadly unobjectionable (except to prosecutors). The latter is as provocative as anything you will read from a serious legal commentator, and raises many problems. Both proposals will be probed and tested by scholars for years.”

Stuntz looked for the underlying reasons why we arrived at this impasse in America, how we are still, in 2011 when he wrote his book, seeing the unending injustice towards black people, finding it, ultimately, in the Constitution, and particularly in the Bill of Rights. I was hard struck by how right he was in what was wrong. The problem, as he sees it, is that the Bill of Rights is about process and procedure, rather than principles. Compare, he says, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen with our Bill of Rights—Bills 4-8 establish our judicial system, and are how we end up with more black men in prison than were slaves in 1850, and more than six million people under “correctional supervision”. It’s appalling.

Adam Gopnik writes

The trouble with the Bill of Rights, he argues, is that it emphasizes process and procedure rather than principles. The Declaration of the Rights of Man says, Be just! The Bill of Rights says, Be fair! Instead of announcing general principles—no one should be accused of something that wasn’t a crime when he did it; cruel punishments are always wrong; the goal of justice is, above all, that justice be done—it talks procedurally. You can’t search someone without a reason; you can’t accuse him without allowing him to see the evidence; and so on. This emphasis, Stuntz thinks, has led to the current mess, where accused criminals get laboriously articulated protection against procedural errors and no protection at all against outrageous and obvious violations of simple justice…You can show a problem with your appointed defender, but it is much harder if there is merely enormous accumulated evidence that you weren’t guilty in the first place and the jury got it wrong.


I’d always been uneasy with the over-valorization of the Constitution, and felt there was something off about the Bill of Rights, and certainly have always felt that the justice system rarely dispenses justice, but more often perpetuates the prejudices and privileges already existing in society rather than overcoming them–but I didn’t have the least idea why it was so bad. This is why.

Also from Stuntz: The Pathological Politics of Criminal Law

Middlemarch Diary #2, Chapters 14-22

George Eliot, circa 1849

Proceeding apace! After the evocative gothic image of the sanctimonious peaches-and-cream maiden marrying the cadaverous Casaubon, Middlemarch has quickly devolved into a village comedy with all the usual types: the aunt busybody, the congenial parson, the young rake, the dull but earnest suitor. I’m a jaded English Lit major, and have never been a fan of the Marriage Plot, general in 19th century novels, unless there is, say, a madwoman in the attic or an egregious breach of manners, say, someone naked in the drawing room. It’s all too genteel and proper, and I await some grisly murder or monstrous betrayal beneath the scrim of politesse. There was a recent interview with Emma Cline, whose first novel was The Girls, about a Manson-like murderer with a cult of young women. She has recently written a story from the perspective of a Weinstein-like protagonist, and her interviewer suggested there might be something wrong with presenting a predator and criminal in a way that might make him sympathetic. Cline rightly retorted that monsters and madmen are better subjects for stories than the upright and respectable. I agree. Unless, say, the subject is repression itself. I’m thinking of Anita Brookner novels, or The Remains of the Day. There are no hard and fast rules. But are we, with Middlemarch, headed towards Anna Karenina on the train tracks? The Ace of Hearts at the end of Tess of the d’Urbervilles? I know where this is going, I’ve read it already, and every other one of these Marriage Plot books. The women cannot win. 

Except, have you heard of Miss Marjoribanks, by Margaret Oliphant? I hadn’t either, until today’s London Review of Books arrived in the mail and I read this article by Tom Crewe, where he writes:

“The novel tells the story of Miss Marjoribanks, and of her return, after finishing her schooling, to live with her widowed father in Carlingford, where already

preparations and presentiments had taken vague possession of the mind of the town, as has always been observed to be the case before a great revolution, or when a man destined to put his mark on his generation, as the newspapers say, is about to appear. To be sure, it was not a man this time, but Miss Marjoribanks; but the atmosphere thrilled and trembled to the advent of the new luminary all the same.”

Doesn’t this sound good? Read on, that article has choice excerpts. Miss Marjoribanks never gets married! Or does she? I have ordered a copy. Apparently Mrs. Oliphant wrote 98 books, so this may be the start of something I can’t finish. But first, let’s find out what happens to Dorothea Brooke. I have forgotten the details. It’s not looking good for her, let’s all agree. 

And before I go, I quite enjoyed Chapter 13, and the argument between Mr. Vincy and Mr. Bulstrode, with its suppressed insult, insinuation, veiled threat and oblique jabs. So English. Bulstrode is emerging as a villain, a character it gives one pleasure to detest. If the result of all this repression is vicious and amusing banter, and elegant eviscerations, OK OK, I’m along for the ride.

 

 

Middlemarch Diary. Prologue & Chapters 1-14

Middlemarch, like many many-paged books, seems to be a top candidate for lockdown reading these days, 819 pages in my Penguin edition.  I just read the long, dense, and repetitive Absalom, Absalom again, it being timely, given that it is about how great wealth and power requires the exploitation and degradation of women and black people–and by extension, all people of color, children and non-hegemons–but more on that book later. If you’ve decided to read a big book, by all means, leave us a comment and let us know what it is. A few friends of mine turned out to be reading Middlemarch too. Hooray! We will read together.

I’ve already read Middlemarch, though. I read it in college for a Victorian lit class, but I remembered very little about it other than that I’d disliked it. I’d skimmed. And when I read the first 50 pages, I remembered why. Dorothea Brooke’s youth and beauty are extensively described in the opening chapter, as well as her priggishness and sanctimony. She has an admirable desire to live the life of the mind, and learn from brilliant scholars, and this is what leads her to marrying, against the hopes and advice of the surrounding community , the Revered Edward Casaubon. He is about thirty years older than she is, near 50, and his physical repulsiveness and decrepitude is described by her younger sister Celia who struggles to hide her revulsion. He has hair growing from moles on his face. Fortunately she didn’t describe his teeth or his breath, but still it lingers. And this is as far as I got, page 51. I am encouraging myself to continue after this unpromising beginning, though if it develops along gothic lines, well then that’s another thing. But George Eliot, famously, didn’t submit to the 19th century marriage plot so why does Dorothea Brooke?

I was also put off by discouraging passages encouraging defeatist positions on women’s potential and possibility. The prologue extols the admirable qualities and goodness of Saint Theresa, and how so many women are not given the opportunity to fulfill their promise. And what to make of epigraphs such as “Since I can do no good because a woman, Reach constantly at something that is near it” which precedes chapter 1, and casual observations by the characters that even a man’s ignorance is superior to a woman’s intelligence, whose intelligence is downgraded  to “cleverness”, like a dog performing tricks? Again, George Eliot’s anachronistically liberated life could have informed the lives of her characters. Why didn’t it?

So, we have begun. I’m sure to discover what is great about this novel soon. I just haven’t yet.

June Quarantine Reading

There was much to hate about a June spent mostly in lockdown, watching the COVID numbers go up and up, so many shattering revelations and injustices. If there was any consolation to be had for all the anxiety, outrage and despair, it was found, for me, in books. Many of the books pictured here I have read many times before (Chekhov, Calvino, Sebald) but I read my favorites repeatedly because I never fail to be fulfilled, pleased, educated, startled, surprised, enlightened, gratified and satisfied by them.

The Janet Malcolm was the fourth I’d read in a series of Janet Malcolms, of which The Silent Woman and The Journalist and the Murderer were the standouts. Aase Berg was a revelation, so animistic and weird, a shaman who would bury our strange age and unearth another, stranger, but better age, which is what we all need. And in Nilling, by Lisa Robertson, whom I met once at a party in the late nineties or early noughts–the essay about Hannah Arent + De Rerum Natura + Story of O was thought-provoking. And I am still processing Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor which left me stunned.

Occasionally my favorites fail me after many years; lately my loyalty to Nabokov has faltered–though the first chapter of Speak, Memory remains perfect and peerless. Maybe my tolerance of entitled white guys is flagging, in spite of the beauty and perfection of their prose.

Community-run testing for COVID-19

Here’s a brief summary of how we set up COVID-19 testing for the community  in our  town of about 1,500 people, with a partnership with UCSF. Why Bolinas? UCSF was interested in testing here because it is rural, and fairly isolated. It is not as wealthy as surrounding communities in the Bay Area. Households in Bolinas, CA have a median annual income of $56,250, below a U.S. median of $61,937. The next community UCSF is testing is The Mission, a dense urban neighborhood in San Francisco, with a median annual income of $92,000–but where the Latinx community has a median annual income of $24,000. This latter study is funded by UCSF grants.

But the real reason this happened is this is a community that takes care of its people. When coronavirus struck, a group got together to make sure vulnerable neighbors had food, and now serve regular meals. Community members distribute masks they have made, there is an emergency fund another resident started for local businesses and people out of work.  The disaster relief group made sure everyone had their contact info and a phone tree was set up to check on seniors living alone. If you have money, you give money. If you can make sandwiches, you make sandwiches. If you have organizational skills, you organize. Or you paint signs, direct traffic, make a web site, bring people food, pick up the phone. Someone’s the heart, someone’s the hands, someone’s the head, the pinky, the ears, the nostril–for snorting disdainfully–someone’s even the spleen.

It took about a month of planning to set this up. People keep asking about getting the tests, but the tests aren’t the problem—we actually had too many to choose from, and we’re going to run several tests on the samples we’ll collect. We realized nobody has access to tests because nobody was assembling all the other pieces.

These are all solvable problems, with a bit of work, creativity and collaboration. Let’s not kid ourselves–a lot of work. While diagnostics companies were shipping test kits and labs were ramping up capacity, no one was building an end to end solution for communities. We made it up as we went along. But none of this would have been possible without UCSF Infectious Diseases who is administering the tests.

Here are the missing links:

  • Popup testing sites (we sourced wedding tents)
  • Medical professionals to staff it (we found phlebotomists by searching online. Who knew?)
  • PPE (we went to a dozen small stores in Marin getting protective suits from hardware stores, gloves from restaurant suppliers, masks from friends who sourced them from China)
  • Tech that made it possible to recruit an entire city by SMS in a few days (a volunteer team of AirBnB engineers built the platform in 2 weeks)
  • Planning a physical setup for pushing through hundreds of people per day with minimal risk. We designed a 4-lane drive through “freeway” as in the photo above
  • Partnerships with local community organizations. In our case the Bolinas Fire Protection District, Mesa Park, Bolinas Community Land Trust, and the Coastal Health Alliance
  • Local volunteers to help in the planning process, getting the word out to the community, including some harder to reach communities. Volunteers are also doing traffic control.
  • Volunteer coordinator to manage all the people wanting to help!
  • Translators to spread the word in other local languages
  • Donors whose generosity makes it happen. We partnered with a non-profit (BCLT) to take donations.
  • It costs approx. $200 per person, all in. With economies of scale, and a site that is easier to manage it would likely go down significantly.

Today went well, but we still have over 1,000 people to do. Jyri says, “Hoping it will scale in a distributed way. Kind of like the internet used to be?” and Cyrus: “Hopefully this project serves as a model for other communities and as a wake-up call to organizations (cities, counties, states, federal govt, etc…) that _should_ be able to do all of this at scale with much greater efficiency than some ragtag group of volunteers supported by community donations, yet, up to now, haven’t.”

We will publish the blueprint as soon as we have it ready!

This is largely cobbled together from FB comments from Jyri and Cyrus.