Wednesday, July 5, 2017

My Headstone

“Í don’t know what one puts on a stone when it’s murder…Can’t very well say ‘entered into rest’ or anything like that.  One will have to choose a text—something appropriate.  R.I.P.?  No, that’s only for Catholics.”
“O Lord, thou has seen my wrongs.  Judge thou my case,” murmured Mr. Entwhistle.

I have never really thought about what I want on my headstone.  Is this the sort of thing I should be pondering?  Janet would insist that this is precisely the sort of thing I should not be pondering.  Indeed, if I ever start a conversation with Janet with, “I was thinking about this today…” she could instantly reply that whatever comes next is surely not worthy of any attention, let alone the attention I gave it during the day.  Nevertheless, I persist in pondering such things.  In this case, I am not pondering what I would want on my headstone but whether I should be thinking about what I want on my headstone.  (Truth be told, I have never really even thought about whether I want a headstone in the first place.  But, let’s just pretend that question has been answered in the affirmative.) 

On the one hand, I think I probably shouldn’t care what is on my headstone because, not to mince words, I’ll never actually see or read said headstone.  On the other hand, said headstone will be the only permanent record of the fact that I have whiled away a few years in this Vale of Tears, and surely I should care about my Permanent Record.  Moreover, if I don’t think about this question now, then I am leaving it to my heirs to make this permanent decision at a time when they are (presumably (hopefully?)) in grief.  Surely, I  shouldn’t impose that burden on them.  Then again, is it really a burden on them since there is no chance that I will ever express disapproval of whatever choice they have made? And come to think of it, should I or the people who survive me decide on the content of my headstone?  After all, they are the ones who will read it, they are the ones who will use it as a Stone of Remembrance, so shouldn't they decide on the content?  Until now, I must admit, I have given this matter shockingly little thought.  And I still don’t know the answer.  I don’t really care about my headstone, but now I am wondering if I should care.

The quotation above is from (in case it isn’t obvious—maybe it is a famous quotation and you already know where it is from.  Oh dear.  What if that quotation is as famous as “to be or not to be,” and I am the only one on the planet who had never heard it before?  I guess I could check the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations to see if it is in there, but I am now afraid to do so in case it is in there and I was supposed to know it was in there.)—the quotation is from Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral.   The quotation has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the plot, by the way.  It just strikes me as strange bit.  I had no idea, for example, that RIP was Catholic; then again, maybe it isn’t—I am not sure a character in an Agatha Christie book is necessarily a reliable source of information.  Even still, I never would have made the R.I.P.-Catholic association.

I’ve read a lot of Agatha Christie before now.  But, until writing this blog post about a random quotation from the book, I have never really associated Agatha Christie with actual life and death.  Her books are so obviously fiction.  Why?  What does an Agatha Christie novel not seem more realistic than some sort of fantasy novel with sorcery and monsters?  It must be something to do with the constraints of the Whodunit genre.  To work, a Christie novel must have a confined feel; the murderer can’t show up out of the blue as someone we haven’t met earlier in the novel.  So, there must always be a limited number of people involved in the story.  And, then not only the murderer, but also assorted others must have some motive for actually murdering the deceased.  And on top of that, at least some of the non-murderers must have an unrelated secret which gives them an excuse for doing suspicious things.  And, when I compare all that to real life, I realize I have never been in a situation in my life with such tightly defined intrigue and back-story.  I suspect if I was ever in a remote country home with 8 other people and someone was murdered and the murder must have been done by one of the remaining 7 people, it would take all of about 30 seconds to figure out who the murderer must be. 

Maybe all this is obvious to everyone, but I have never once thought about any of this before. Which may explain why I never thought about my headstone either.  With all the Agatha Christie I have read, why have I never imagined being the victim of a murder or an even suspect in a murder case?  Instead, I read Christie and think of it as a nice little intellectual puzzle—one that you can’t really solve, but it sure feels like you could solve.  That is what makes them fun.  If this was real, it wouldn’t be quite so much fun would it?

To return to my headstone.  How about this?  I’d like the Raiders shield with the guy with the eyepatch and the crossed swords behind him on my headstone.  It’s like a skull and cross-bones, so it sort of fits in a  graveyard.  And that way when people see my headstone they will be reminded that something about which I dearly care survives me.  The Raiders will be here for a long time, too.  So, even after everyone I know is gone, people can still think fondly about the Raiders..  So how about: 

Your Humble Narrator
11/24/66 – [insert date]
Requiescat In Pace
Survived by the Raiders
[Insert Raiders logo]

Is that a good headstone?

Monday, July 3, 2017

Mr Rosewater

After deciding that the world is one meaningless thing after another, what then?  (Wait, the Hypothetical Reader asks, when did We decide that?)  (Well, Your Humble Narrator replies, the Hypothetical Reader May Not have Decided that.  What makes you, Hypothetical Reader, think that You are the One Doing the Thinking and Deciding Around these here parts?)  (But, I digress.)  (Then again, isn’t the whole point of using parentheses to demonstrate that this is a digression?  I think one uses parentheses for parenteral asides, right?  So, I guess saying “I digress” in parentheses is redundant)  (By this point, there are no Hypothetical Readers left, so We may now progress with the Main Event).  To remind ourselves of where We were: After deciding that the world is one meaningless act after another, what then?  Kurt Vonnegut (see, it wasn't about you, Hypothetical Reader) demonstrated the absolute absurdity of everything in Cat’s Cradle.  So, his next novel presented a challenge—does he simply double down on the meaninglessness of everything or is there some way out of this trap?

As I have noted in this space before, thanks to the Library of America, I am finally understanding Vonnegut.   Again, as noted before, I had read lots of Vonnegut in the past, I had enjoyed the novels when I read them, but a week after reading a novel, I had no memory of the content of the book.  But, reading them in order, it is all making so much more sense.  The Library of America is a National Treasure.

So, in Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut argues that the world is pointless and meaningless.  His next novel was God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.  I had read this novel before, and I only remembered one thing from it—a particular scene from the novel.  You can imagine my surprise when I realized that the one thing I remembered about this novel wasn't actually in this novel.  It must be from another Vonnegut novel—presumably I’ll get to that remembered scene at some point.  So, to correct the record—I had read this novel before, and I didn’t remember a single thing from it.

Coming after Cat’s Cradle, though, the novel makes a lot more sense.  Vonnegut’s universe is still meaningless.  But, a meaningless universe creates a new problem.  There are still people living in that meaningless universe.  What do you do about all the people living meaningless lives in a meaningless universe but who do not know the universe is meaningless and so don’t know they are just supposed to laugh at how meaningless everything is?  The temptation is just to ignore them.  After all, if you are faced with a meaningless universe, why not just enjoy yourself?  And if you have wealth and live in a meaningless universe, then why not just hang out with all the Beautiful people, and you and the other wealthy beautiful people can enjoy a beautiful life in a meaningless universe?  Should you worry about all those other people?  Why bother?  They are all sort of…repulsive and low-class, anyway…right?

Eliot Rosewater, the Mr. Rosewater of the title of the book, has more inherited wealth than he can spend.  And he makes a discovery.

“I look at these people, these Americans,” Eliot went on, “and I realize that they can’t even care about themselves any more—because they have no use.  The factory, the farms, the mines across the river—they’re almost completely automatic now.  And America doesn’t even need these people for war—not any more, Sylvia—I’m going to be an artist.”
“An artist?”
“I’m going to love these discarded Americans, even though they’re useless and unattractive.  That is going to be my work of art.”

That was published in…1965.  Imagine a large swath of Americans who have become largely irrelevant.  As the Vonnegut surrogate in the novel explains:

“In time almost all men and women will become worthless as producers of goods, food, services, and more machines, as sources of practical ideas in the areas of economics, engineering, and probably medicine too….Americans have long been taught to hate all people who will not or cannot work, to hate even themselves for that.  We can thank the vanished frontier for that piece of common-sense cruelty.  The time is coming, if it isn’t here now, when it will no longer be common sense.  It will simply be cruel.”

So, imagine a society divided with the Good, Beautiful People on the one side and Pointless, Pedestrian, Boring, Low-class people on the other side.  Imagine a person from the Good, Beautiful side of the tracks decided to love the latter set of people—and love them not from afar, but actually move into the neighborhood and help them out whenever they had a need, a real immediate need, like needing someone to talk with at 3 AM or someone to help out on the volunteer fire department.  If you knew someone who did that, who walked away from an Ivy League Education to move to a small town in the middle of nowhere, just to live there and be with those people, what would you call someone like that?  Insane, perhaps?  And therein is the plot of this Vonnegut novel.  Is Eliot Rosewater insane?

It is an eerie book to read in 2017, by the way.  This idea of a whole set of Americans who are angry because they feel useless and ignored and don’t like feeling useless and ignored, well…what would happen if they actually existed and then 50 years later they still actually existed and they were still angry that they felt useless and ignored?  Not a rhetorical question, obviously.

So, Vonnegut is providing an interesting answer to his problem from Cat’s Cradle.  It is all well and good to say that we live in a pointless world, where there are no higher goals or causes which can give our lives meaning; in fact if you are one of the wealthy, beautiful people, the type of people who have nice college educations and buy books by Kurt Vonnegut, then it is even fun to think about a world like that and imagine we live in a world like that, and even live as if we live a world like that.  But, if you are one of those people out there living in a small town like Rosewater, Indiana, well, you might not be enjoying your life as much as those people reading Cat’s Cradle and laughing at the pointlessness of it all.  And, maybe, just maybe, those people reading Cat’s Cradle should think about what it must be like for those other people and do something crazy like, love them.  Not love them from afar in some abstract, “I love humanity” way.  But, love them enough to set aside all their privileges and become like one of them.  A radical idea that.  Imagine the Social Justice Warrior who instead of joining a non-profit in Downtown Manhattan or a nice College Town and Working to solve the world’s problems from a nice one-bedroom apartment near cute vegetarian restaurants, imagine that person just deciding to move to Rosewater, Indiana or the equivalent town in Nowhere America and get a job at Wal-Mart and just live with people and love them.  That would be a radical act. 

Of course this is all just silly talk.  What kind of person would voluntarily set aside all the trappings of a very nice life and endure such humbling as to actually live with, among, and like the lowly, unworthy beings?  Empty yourself and become a servant?  Yeah, that would be insane.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

A Traveller from an Antique Land

Dahlia is bounded by the Ruby Wall, 27 feet high and 9 feet think, bright red when the rays of the sun beat upon it.  It is a three day journey to cross through Dahlia on foot, more if you bring a camel.  As you traverse the city, you find many structures which are a roof, held up by four posts and no walls.  There are structures with four walls and no roof.  There are roofs with just one wall, sometimes having a door or windows set within the wall, sometimes not.  There are roofs with two walls.  If you spend many hours searching, you might find a roof with three walls down one of the twisted walkways, though I have never seen such a structure..  The roofs are always a bright blue, sometimes with streaks of white.  These structures serves as dwellings or shops or government offices.

But in the middle of the city sits a structure with a roof and four walls.  It has a doorway set in the middle of  the Northern wall and a window of painted glass set above the door.  This is the only structure in the whole of the city with a roof and four walls and it sits directly in the center of the great city.  The walls are 17.25 feet high and the roof is flat.

If a person crosses through the doorway of the structure in the center of the City, Dahlians say the traveler has gone Outside.   In every other place, a person is said to be Inside.  The structure in the center of the City is well known; one only has to say “Let us meet Outside,” to know that one should leave the city by going through the doorway in the structure in the middle of the city.  Once Outside, people go Inside by passing back through the doorway.  There are no other places in all of Dahlia that are Outside.  The rest of the City is Inside.

Now that you, Dear Reader have read about Dahlia, do you wish to visit it?  The idea of Dahlia was born when I was reading Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino.  A student gave me the book (thanks, Lia!), and I can easily imagine her reading it and liking it.  The book is dozens of descriptions of cities which do not exist, with a framing story of Marco Polo describing the cities to Kublai Khan. 

The City descriptions are prose poems, lyrical and evocative.  There is possibly a structure to the book, but it is hard to tell.  It is the sort of book that might repay endless hours of devoted study or it might simply be what it is and no more.  Could one add another city to the book or take out one of the cities or would such an addition or subtraction fundamentally destroy the order and beauty of the book?  I have absolutely no idea.  I suspect academic papers have been written on the matter.  But, this is one of those things where academic papers may destroy what beauty the book has.  It is a hypnotic book.  You roam across the land, with hints that this is all real or this is all false or some of this is real and some is not.  Even the framing device may be real or not real. 

This is the sort of book that prompts the question: why do we tell stories?  It is an ancient question, of course.  Before thinking about this book, I thought that question might have an answer.  But having just read a seemingly endless array of stories about cities which do not exist, each one of those stories being more evocative of a place than actually describing a place, each one of those descriptions hinting at story upon story that could be told about the city, but having none of those stories actually told, after reading all that, I am not at all sure I can explain why we tell stories. 

Take the city of Melania, which shows up on page 81.  (Melania was chosen totally at random—all of the following is accurate, but I am pretty sure the same paragraph could have been written no matter which page I randomly chose.)  A page and a half description of a city.  It isn’t hard reading the description of the city to imagine a whole book of short stories coming straight out of the description on those pages.    It would be a challenge to write such a book, but then again, it is a challenge to write any book.  The book of stories from Melania, though, has the potential to be Great Art, Beautiful and Deep.  I can see that book of stories in my mind; I would like to read that book of stories.  But, Tales of Melania not only doesn’t exist, it never will exist.  Instead, we have the page and half evoking the idea of Melania and nothing more.  So, why tell about Melania?

Having read Invisible Cities, I am not even sure how to read this book.  Reading it straight through was more hypnotic than thought-provoking.  There is no forward momentum, just one description after another. And even the framing device is just one description after another.  Having read it, when I now pick it up, I can simply flip to a random page, and read it and start wondering.

Does a book that just starts you wondering provide anything to the Reader?  I can’t tell.  As I sit here puzzling over this book, I cannot figure out if this is a book I should pick up on a regular basis, read two pages, and then set down just to start imagining a city and the tales that city could tell.  A book that fosters imagination.  And therein lies my problem.  I do not know the intrinsic value of imagination.

Take the description of the city at the outset of this post.  I started ruminating about the book by wondering what it would be like to write a description of a city that does not exist, and so I began.  It morphed with an idea I puzzled about for a few hours months ago about whether Outside and Inside could be flipped or not.  Is it possible that by being in my office, I am outside, and everywhere else is inside?    I tried to talk with my family about this matter which seriously troubled me, but nobody else seemed to think the matter was troubling.  So, that idea worked its way into the story of the city above.  In that city, they think this way. 

But, as a city that fits within Invisible Cities, I am pretty sure it is a failure.  A city of one idea, and probably not a very interesting idea at that.  None of the Invisible Cities seem so small.

My failure to craft a city worthy of this book does not surprise me in the least, by the way. I do not think I could ever write a respectable short story, novel or even a poem.  I have always thought my creativity does not lie in that direction.  And now I wonder if perhaps my imagination does also not lie in that direction.  Why is it that I am troubled by the idea of a book that simply sparks imagination?  Why do I want Imagination to have some end beyond itself?

(Incidentally, I actually like this cover version better than the original (which I always thought was far to saccharine))

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Seeing Eye

I have long had a troubled relationship with C.S. Lewis.  I first met him as a young lad when I won a copy of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in some Bible Trivia contest.  I really liked the Chronicles of Narnia; I read the whole series multiple times when growing up.  I started his space trilogy as soon as I heard about it, but I only made it a few chapters into volume 1 before realizing it was really boring compared to the tales of Narnia.  (Later reading confirmed that my childish impression was correct.)   Over time, I heard more and more about him; he is one of those authors evangelical Christians are supposed to like.  So, I kept reading him and kept finding him mildly disappointing.  Interesting ideas, but never anything like a slam-dunk book.  Eventually, I came to appreciate him a bit.  I really like The Abolition of Man; not a perfect book, but a book well worth reading (and, it would seem, assigning in a class).  But, even still, I have this vague sense that while Lewis is good and all, I really should like him more than I do.

So, when I was offered the chance to go to a colloquium on Lewis, I didn’t hesitate.  It’s a Liberty Fund colloquium, which means you get a set of reading, and show up for two and a half days of conversation with 15 other invited participants.  No presentations, no papers, just talking about the reading.  Liberty Fund colloquia are without a doubt the best conferences in the world.

The colloquium is in September, so a few weeks back I got a box with the reading material.  The reading turned out to be The Abolition of Man (good news—I like that book!) and a dozen other essays.  The dozen essays are scattered among 5 books. So, here I was at the start of summer with five books of Lewis essays and I figured I might as well just read them all.  Seems like a decent project to add to my summer list.

The first volume I read: The Seeing Eye.  This is a posthumous collection of otherwise not collected essays.  And, as always with such things, it is hard to review.  If you step back and ask, “What unifies these essays?,” the honest answer is “Well, Lewis never put them in a collection of essays he made during his lifetime.”  Not much of a hook there.  So, who buys a book like this?  Presumably people who just can’t enough of Lewis.  Should you read it?  Yep—if you have read everything else he wrote and just can’t get enough of Lewis.

Don't get me wrong, it isn’t a bad book at all.  There are some interesting essays in here; indeed, I didn’t detest any of the essays.  Lewis writes well—he is an easy person to read, which is presumably a part of his appeal.  It is conversational writing, and not simply because many of his essays were originally talks he gave.  It is one of those depressing facts of life that far too many people giving talks cannot manage a conversational style even when giving a talk.  So, I found the book easy and thoughtful reading.  Perfect for while having that second and third cup of coffee in the morning.

But, and here is the problem with the book, the best of this book is already embedded in The Abolition of Man.  Indeed, part of the book could have been labeled, “First drafts of material which will later be included in another book.”   There are other essays which read like precursors to Lewis’ book on the Psalms.  So, if you have read the other Lewis books and come to this one, do you learn anything new?  Sort of.  It is interesting to see familiar material presented in a  new way.  Every now and then there is an interesting turn of phrase that stands out.  (“Some people make allowances for local and temporary conditions in the speeches of Our Lord on a scale which really implies that God chose the time and place of the Incarnation very injudiciously.”  “It may even be the duty of some Christians to be culture-sellers.”)  But, I can’t imagine recommending this collection of essays to someone over the more completed books which were finished off later on in his life. 

Now the good thing about reading a book like this is not really the book itself, but the idle speculation to which a book like this leads you.  Halfway through that third cup of coffee, you finish an essay, stare out the window and start mulling.  What exactly is Progress? you ask yourself.  Lewis is hard on the Apostles of Progress, the charlatans who talk about Societal Evolution as if evolution always improves matters.  But set aside Lewis’ target for a second, and wonder: suppose we wanted society to progress.  What change would constitute progress?  The first instinct is to say that progress would be fixing things I don’t like about the society.  But, that is a rather amusing answer.  Does Society progress when it becomes more to my liking?  Now that is rather egocentric of me.  I am confusing “I like these things” with “A Society progresses when it has more of the things I like and it regresses when it has fewer of the things I like.”  When did I become the standard for progress?

So, if we become a little less egocentric and say society progresses when it has more of the things people like me like, then it doesn't sound quite so silly, but it still sounds weird.  So, we modify it to say society progresses when it has more of the things Enlightened People like, which is a circular argument saying the same thing. 

So, to get progress, we have to have something more abstract.  Society progresses when it has more Liberty or Equality or Fraternity?  Take the second one.  As society becomes more equal, it makes progress on being more equal.  Tautologically true.  But “society progresses when it becomes more equal” just begs the question.  Why is more equality progress?  What enthroned equality as the progressive endpoint?  Or Liberty?  Or Fraternity?  And again, we are back to the idea that society progresses when people like me like the society more.

In the absence of something outside myself establishing the goal, I am not sure what Progress means.  Does theism get around the problem?  Does Society progress when God likes it more?  That gets us into all sorts of theological problems.  Is God’s goal for this society to improve until it hits an eschatological end?  Does Society progress when it gets more like Heaven and regress when it gets less like Heaven?  If the world ends in fire and condemnation, which the New Testament seems to suggest it does, is it progress to get closer or further away from condemnation?  There seem to be a slide here from the idea of progress as found in Pilgrim’s Progress and the idea of a society progressing by…what?  What are the rules to measure the progress of a society? 

The very term “progress” implies a goal which society is either moving toward or not.  Without a stated goal, it is a meaningless term.  Calling someone “progressive” sure sounds like a compliment, but surely it matters to what end they are progressing.  When you frame it that way, you realize that every act of progress toward one goal is simultaneously an act of regress from the opposite goal.  There is no such thing as progress in the abstract.  We spend too much time talking about progress and not enough time establishing what the goal is to which the progress is occurring.

And that is where I get stuck.  As soon as you try to articulate the goal toward which a society is progressing when people talk about ”societal progress” it gets rather messy.  I suspect if the goals were stated more clearly, it would be less attractive to talk about progress.  I suspect that the very idea of “progress” is just a mask for some very muddled thinking.

I’ve been puzzling over this for a while now, which is of course the sign of a good book. At best, Lewis only hints at any of this—I have no idea if he would even recognize these ruminations as related to the essays he wrote.  I am still back at my original problem though—is Lewis worth reading or not?  I rarely find that Lewis gives me a satisfying argument for anything, but he is easy to read and make me think.  I suspect he would be happy with that characterization.  Framed this way, I too find it a positive thing to say about an author.  But, while Lewis makes me think, I always find him far too yielding of a conversation partner; when I push back against Lewis, he just yields the terrain.  Maybe I just prefer stronger-willed conversation partners.  I don’t know.  But, I do have four more books of essays this summer to sort out my Lewis Problem.