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

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, nakedness 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, and doesn’t humanizing them serve us all better, enabling us to finally see them? 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 anywhere in literature. 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 Reverend 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 breath, but it hangs miasmatically in the book’s atmosphere. 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.

The Believer Festival

Screen Shot 2019-05-03 at 10.46.50 AM

Last week, for a second time I headed to The Believer Festival in Las Vegas, a literary festival spun out from the Believer Magazine, founded by Vendela Vida and Heidi Julavits. One of the best parts of being on the McSweeneys board is going to this festival with them. It redeems Las Vegas for me.

I’ve always avoided Las Vegas–the smoke, the vice, the disorienting carpets, the sad compulsion, the flashing lights and ringing bells–but through the festival I’ve learned to see Las Vegas as a vast, still disorienting carpet woven of a million stories. Everything in Las Vegas is a story. For the four days of the festival we floated in an oasis of stories, a glory, an orgy, a jackpot of stories.

Look at the author list at the link above to find new writers to adore. I loved Valeria Luiselli, Leslie Nneka Arimah, Rita Bullwinkel, Tommy Orange.

NYT Review of “Mama’s Last Hug”

Mama, the long-time matriarch of the Burgers Zoo chimpanzee colony, with her daughter Moniek. At the time of this photo Mama was at the height of her power. She did not physically dominate any fully grown males, but nevertheless wielded immense political influence.” Credit: Frans de Waal

Just pre-ordered Mama’s Last Hug by Frans de Waal, based on this review, which starts, as the book does, with this anecdote:

The two old friends hadn’t seen each other lately. Now one of them was on her deathbed, crippled with arthritis, refusing food and drink, dying of old age. Her friend had come to say goodbye. At first she didn’t seem to notice him. But when she realized he was there, her reaction was unmistakable: Her face broke into an ecstatic grin. She cried out in delight. She reached for her visitor’s head and stroked his hair. As he caressed her face, she draped her arm around his neck and pulled him closer.

The mutual emotion so evident in this deathbed reunion was especially moving and remarkable because the visitor, Dr. Jan Van Hooff, was a Dutch biologist, and his friend, Mama, was a chimpanzee. The event — recorded on a cellphone, shown on TV and widely shared on the internet — provides the opening story and title for the ethologist Frans de Waal’s game-changing new book, “Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves.”

Science has historically ignored emotions, dismissed them as irrelevant, as impossible to study, as beneath our regard. The technology we’ve built is unable to detect it, and so emotion has been invisible to us as we communicate through our machines, using clumsy signals such as emoticons, and agreeing to be misunderstood, misinterpreted and reduced to a smaller and smaller version of ourselves, even eliminating nuance and expression to use technology.

Emotions, de Waal writes, “are our body’s way of ensuring we do what is best for us.” Unlike instinct — which leads to preprogrammed, rigid responses — emotions “focus the mind and prepare the body while leaving room for experience and judgment.” Emotions “may be slippery,” he writes, “but they are also by far the most salient aspect of our lives. They give meaning to everything.”

The world we live in–the Technic–denigrates and disparages our emotions, and this is damaging and deadly to our humanity.  Looking forward to getting my copy!


From the Amazon review: “De Waal discusses facial expressions, the emotions behind human politics, the illusion of free will, animal sentience, and, of course, Mama’s life and death. “

Anxy, Hilma & Vassar

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  • I am a huge fan of the new magazine Anxy by Bobbie Johnson et al. which is a beautifully designed, thoughtful bi-annual magazine about our inner lives, our psychology and our behavior. Recent issues have centered on Boundaries, Workaholism and Anger. In the most recent issue, on the subject of Masculinity, I found some terrifying quotes from pre-teens, who, when asked the question, “What is Masculinity?” presented the most violent, aggressive and insensitive men as paragons of masculinity. Can we all watch The Mask You Live In again please? 
  • I’ve had many vicarious experiences, which are often better than original, immediate, actual, personal experiences. A wonderful example of this is in a short story–a very short story–by Lydia Davis, reproduced here in full:

Happiest Moment

If you ask her what is a favorite story she has written, she will hesitate for a long time and then sat it may be this story that she read in a book once: an English-language teacher in China asked his Chinese student to say what was the happiest moment in his life. The student hesitated for a long time. At last he smiled with embarrassment and said that his wife had once gone to Beijing and eaten duck there, and she often told him about it, and he would have to say the happiest moment of his life was her trip, and the eating of the duck. 

I recently had the experience of attending the Hilma af Klint exhibit at the Guggenheim vicariously, since all my friends have gone, and raved about it. Who says these things can’t be among your happiest moments?  I also feel as if I have seen Saturday Night Live through other people, never having seen it myself, as well as having read Thinking Fast and Slow and Sapiens by osmosis, surrounded, as I have been, with people who have in fact read it themselves. We can live through other people, much of the time, and experiencing the joy of other people as if it were your own is one way of guaranteeing your own happiness. 

  • Vassar, my alma mater, has a beautiful campus, full of trees and old buildings, exactly the way you imagine a college campus to look. I went back recently to give a keynote at the Sophomore Career Development event, and was happy to note that very few students were staring at their phones. 

More:

Have a look through the Vassar Quarterly to see what a great school Vassar is. I love small, liberal arts colleges, and my education there was exceptional. The cover of the most recent issue shows the campus in all its autumnal leaf-changing glory. And downtown Poughkeepsie is on track for a wonderful revival, having started some projects with the amazing non-profit design firm MASS Design Group

 This is a wonderful collection of very short stories by Lydia Davis, who also does beautiful translations from the French, such as Swann’s Way, the first book of In Search of Lost Time; a new translation of Madame Bovary, as well as translations from Maurice Blanchot, another of my favorites, such as The Gaze of Orpheus.

 

Another way I’ve vicariously experienced the Hilma af Klint exhibit is through this book, which I was given as a gift by another exhibit attendee. This, and her book of Notes and Methods, are gorgeous. 

Heidegger, Journalism vs. Trump, Translations

  • Journalism should stop “feeding the trolls”, as we’d say here in Silicon Valley, and Donald Trump and his flying monkeys are clearly trolls. A great strategy for this has been presented by Jay Rosen on Pressthink of how the press can execute it: report from outside the white house; don’t broadcast live events in order to protect your audience from lies; don’t amplify or repeat lies. Send interns, not top reporters, into press conferences.
  • I’ve been rereading The Question Concerning Technology by Martin Heidegger.  Technology’s essence is not technological: it is a way of looking at the world as if everything is “standing reserve”.Everywhere everything is ordered to stand by, to be immediately at hand, to stand there just so that it may be on call for a further ordering. A tree is not a tree, it is subordinate to the orderability of cellulose; Humanity is reduced to what is calculable, manipulable, employable. Nature most of all. Viz:

    The hydroelectric plant is not built into the Rhine River as was the old wooden bridge that joined bank with bank for hundreds of years. Rather the river is dammed up into the power plant. What the river is now, namely, a water power supplier, derives from out of the essence of the power station. In order that we may even remotely consider the monstrousness that reigns here, let us ponder for a moment the contrast that speaks out of the two titles, “The Rhine” as dammed up into the power works, and “The Rhine” as uttered out of the art work, in Hölderlin’s hymn by that name. But, it will be replied, the Rhine is still a river in the landscape, is it not? Perhaps. But how? In no other way than as an object on call for inspection by a tour group ordered there by the vacation industry.

    Heidegger’s Black Notebooks were also translated into English a couple years ago, and I will probably never read them, as I’ve left off reading much Heidegger in the past couple decades. Have you read them? Here’s a primer in The New Yorker: Why does it matter if Heidegger was Anti-Semitic? Heidegger was a Nazi. This is especially relevant in the context of technology and the human, for obvious reasons.

  • I was shocked to learn how few books in translation Americans read. If you want to find some good reads, a good place to start is the long list from the National Translation Awards. I’ve got my eye on August, and already have a copy of Dandelions.