Archive for February, 2017

A friend of mine was asking about this book a few weeks ago, and I’d never read it, or anything by Lewis, so I gave it a go. I studied literature because I wanted to read books and talk about them with intelligent people, so the emailed conversation we’ve been having has been a rare joy. And I’ve realized that I’ve been conflating Sinclair Lewis and Upton Sinclair, which sort of happens when you’ve never really read anything by either.

George F. Babbitt, as my friend pointed out, is the classic Trump supporter, only back in 1920. He’s solid middle class, at a time when that was possible. His is the America that people look back to as being great, prosperous and conformist and sexist and anti-immigration and would probably be racist if there were any other races represented.

Which of them said which has never been determined, and does not matter, since they all had the same ideas and expressed them always with the same ponderous and brassy assurance. It if was not Babbitt who was delivering any given verdict, at least he was beaming on the chancellor who did deliver it.

The people in Babbitt’s life are all pretty much the same. Their god is named Pep, and they all go around “boosting” each other, which I take to mean they advertise each other’s businesses in a loudly jovial fashion. Even their poetry sounds like an ad campaign. Relationships are kind of weird. He never really wanted to marry his wife, he never even asked – one night she was crying on his shoulder and he kissed her and she assumed that meant marriage, so he never contradicted her.

And the strange thing is that the longer one knew the women, the less alike they seemed; while the longer one knew the men, the more alike their bold patterns appeared.

I’d like to talk about gender, because that is one of those things I habitually do, but there’s not a whole lot here. Babbitt tries to avoid spaces that are coded feminine; he doesn’t even sleep in the bedroom, but on a sleeping-porch. He flees his house to get back to masculine spaces, like his real estate office.

The novel is organized as a three-act tragedy. The first part establishes Babbitt’s normal life, with his iron-clad habits and habitual dissatisfaction. The blurbs keep saying this is a book about complacency, but I don’t see the joint pleasure that word implies. His phonograph needle is stuck in this one groove, but he doesn’t like it.

He was conscious of life, and a little sad. With no Vergil Gunches before whom to set his face in resolute optimism, he beheld, and half admitted that he beheld, his way of life as incredibly mechanical. Mechanical business – a brisk selling of badly built houses. Mechanical religion – a dry, hard church, shut off from the real life of the streets, inhumanly respectable as a top-hat. Mechanical gold and dinner-parties and bridge and conversation. Save with Paul Riesling, mechanical friendships – back-slapping and jocular, never daring to essay the test of quietness.

He turned uneasily in bed.

He saw the years, the brilliant winter days and all the long sweet afternoons which were meant for summery meadows, lost in such brittle pretentiousness. He thought of telephoning about leases, of cajoling men he hated, of making business calls and waiting in dirty anterooms – hat on knee, yawning at fly-specked calendars, being polite to office-boys.

“I don’t hardly want to go back to work,” he prayed. “I’d like to – I don’t know.”

But he was back next day, busy and of doubtful temper.

Paul Riesling is important – he and Babbitt complain about their mutual unhappiness, and that releases the pressure so Babbitt can go back to his boringly successful existence. This is the part where I usually speculate on the possibility of their being gay, but no. There are opportunities for that, but I don’t think they go there. It is possible for two heterosexual men to enjoy each other’s company without either of them secretly wanting to have sex.

Act Two describes Babbitt’s rise to power. Lewis always points out the ways that Babbitt is successful, but not the most successful. He belongs to the second-best clubs – nothing is ever quite of the best. But then he starts getting a reputation for being an orator, and makes some well-received public speeches (that to me sound like meaningless jingoism), and he starts climbing the social ladder. In this part of the book, Babbitt is frequently reminded of the fact that there is a pecking order and what his place is in that order – knocked down by those above, slavishly adored by those below.

Frankly, this first two-thirds was sort of dull to me. Conspicuous consumption and the expected indiscretions, like having whisky at a dinner party during Prohibition. His neighbors on either side represent his superego and his id, and it’s all sort of predictable and episodic and boring. Babbitt’s life is boring. It’s hard for me because I see so much of this in my family; they follow the round of business and church and the collective life. There’s a certain degree of comfort in all of it, but it feels like a hairshirt to me. The thing is, that life in gay land isn’t much different. The gay men I’ve met are just as conformist as everyone else, and the cultural push to marriage equality celebrated this fact. Look at us, we’re just as boring as straight people. Don’t get me wrong, I’d like some more prosperity in my life, but I’d prefer a home life with fewer possessions and organizations. Frequent moving has made my life fairly Spartan, both in design choices and social activities. Home is where I go to relax, not to be overstimulated by a lot of people who need attention and a mountain of stuff that needs to be cleaned.

Babbitt’s story gets interesting (to me) when he starts to fall. It starts with Paul Riesling shooting his (own) wife and going to jail. Without that safety valve to release the pressure, Babbitt goes off the rails. His wife goes off for a visit to her sick sister, and he starts going out with a lovely widow who was a lot of young scandalous friends. But as he gets farther and farther into this group, they demand an equal amount of conformity, just of a different variety. They’re just as involved in every aspect of each other’s lives, they just prefer a different sort of life. It’s kind of sad. He learns to hold his liquor and dance the latest steps, but he’s not actually more independent than he was before. His rebellion is as neatly prescribed as his previous life. But then the old crowd cuts him, and he pulls himself out of the new crowd, and he sinks to the bottom. Unlike a good many tragedies, though, he rights himself. His wife gets appendicitis and spends two or three weeks in the hospital. It may seem like the crowning tragedy, but the sympathy generated brings him back into the fold of conservative, right-thinking people. He ends where he began, but with a little less rigidity.

As he began to drift away he also began to see her as a human being, to like and dislike her instead of accepting her as a comparatively movable part of the furniture, and he compassionated that husband-and-wife relation which, in twenty-five years of married life, had become a separate and real entity.

The whole thing does improve his relationship with his wife; at least, he has more respect and consideration, and I guess that can take the place of love. I want to live with someone who is kind, and that seems the most important quality to me these days. My current he is kind to me, and good to his family and friends generally. We have some cultural differences that may be irreconcilable – he doesn’t find the strange to be beautiful – but it works for right now.

This week I read Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” with my advanced class, and Babbitt is the sort of person the essay decries. He flies from one conformity to another, and never really settles into living by his own values and opinions. His independent thoughts are only for private time and aren’t permitted to dictate changes to his public life. I’m not saying that I never do this. It’s not like Emersonian self-reliance is easy, and I don’t think an extreme devotion to it is healthy because we do need to live in communities. But living according to one’s own opinions and values is important; it’s a vital part of what being American means to a lot of us. Maybe twenty-first century mobility and communication have been necessary to both embrace one’s own priorities and still live in a community. If so, the internet is a great gift to the world.

Sinclair Lewis’s style matches his subject matter. It’s clear and impartial, occasionally descriptive but never really effusive. The book is a good one for people who are interested in the daily lives of the Midwestern middle-class in 1920, but my final evaluation is pretty much the same as my evaluation of the protagonist: not bad, but not interesting enough to keep my attention.

I have only ever read this book for school assignments, I have refused to purchase it, and reading it for my students this week has not changed my dislike.

Before he was The Old Man, he was Santiago el Campeón, a Cuban sailor who made runs to the coast of Africa. Once in a bar in Casablanca he won an arm-wrestling match that had lasted twenty-four hours and made his fingernails bleed. But generally, he watched the lions on the shore and was happy. Now he’s an old fisherman. He’s lost none of his strength and courage, the determination to win. After all, arm-wrestling is generally won not by the stronger competitor but by the one who wants it more. I was never very good because I never could care very much about competitions of strength.

The old man has been eighty-four days without catching anything. His apprentice has been sent to another boat, so even though Manolin takes care of him on shore, at sea he is alone. So now, Day 85, he catches a tuna and throws it in the bottom of his boat. Then, one of his hooks farther down gets something big. It’s an eighteen-foot marlin, and it tows him out to sea for the next two days. The first night he eats the tuna. The second night he catches a dolphin, which he eats about half of, along with the two flying fish he found inside it. The third afternoon the marlin circles a bit, and he brings it in for the kill. It’s too big for his boat, so he straps it alongside. That afternoon he kills four sharks and seriously wounds two more, as they come for his fish, but after it gets dark he can’t see them any more and by this point he’s too tired and weak to do anything about it. By the time he gets home, all he’s got is a big old marlin skeleton.

It’s utterly depressing. This is a book about someone who has never been defeated in his entire life being destroyed by the thing he loves most. Despite his persistent unreflected-upon Catholicism, he has a real animistic view of nature – all the animals are his friends, the sea is his lover, even the stars are his friends. He has a strong love for life and the world, even though when considered independently of his perspective it doesn’t care about him. Hemingway makes him a Christ figure, the suffering servant who kills the brother he loves in order to feed the community, and I know this is the classic Modernist view of things. I’m more interested in how the old man compares himself to Icarus – he wasn’t defeated, he destroyed himself by letting the marlin pull him out too far.

Which means, consider the third implied comparison: Is Jesus Icarus? Jesus doesn’t take a middle path; he calls others to a higher standard of social and personal morality, starting from his Sermon on the Mount comment “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Like Icarus, Jesus aims high, only instead of looking for personal glory or whatever it was about the sun that entranced Icarus, he aims for the good of the entire community. But his goals are too high. Frankly, the god of the Old Testament always aims too high. Moses brought down a huge list of commandments, the drunk people were fornicating in worship of a golden calf, he breaks the list and goes back up the mountain and comes back with only ten. By the time of Jeremiah, this same god says that if ten is too much, they can follow just one commandment and he’ll save them from Nebuchadnezzar, but that one was too much. Many Christians have this idea that they are expected to follow this list of rules, but it was always aimed a little too high. It’s common to see Jesus as the one who makes everything easier and doable, who stops us from being Icarus because he gives people grace, forgiveness for taking the middle road between godliness and devilishness. But our stories of Jesus, the ones that made it into the New Testament, characterize him as perfect. He aimed for the sun and fell into death and infamy, though both were only temporary. For Icarus, death is the end. There is no recovery from defeat. For Jesus, there is always a victory coming.

Which is true for the old man? Is this the end, or is there a future victory waiting for him? For me, it feels like the end. All his optimism and confidence carry him through the catching of the fish, but when the sharks come, despair enters his heart for the first time. There is nothing he can do. The sea will not allow him to take this victory. It’s like this whole experience was intended to teach him that he has reached the limit of his power. He’s no longer the champion. Instead, he’s like that guy in Casablanca – they had a rematch once, but it ended quickly because he had lost his confidence. Now that the sea has beaten him, he’s going to expect to be beaten and he’s going to die a loser.

In real life, none of us are gods. We have to learn how to lose. The old man hasn’t had to learn to lose gracefully, so I think this defeat will destroy him. Me, on the other hand, I’ve been beaten so many times I can’t count. There are some ways that this has shaped me – for example, I don’t like competition and tend to avoid situations where there is a winner and a loser – but I haven’t adopted this as my identity. I’m not of the Beat generation. I fall, I get back up, I keep going. Sometimes in a new direction, but always forward.

I’ve been thinking of this in terms of my profession, lately. In our culture people think that teachers can never be happy or fulfilled doing anything else, as if we all feel this sacred calling, as if we were nuns or something. I’ve gotten past that. Teaching is a job, and though it’s one I do well, I don’t think it’s the only one I could enjoy. There are lots of ways to help people; teaching them to communicate is only one, and it’s not even the one I spent six years in college for. I went to school to help people understand, and I’ve spent the last ten or eleven years teaching them to speak. Giving people a voice is a powerful thing, but my lack of explicit training in it means that my professional life is dogged by uncertainty. There must be a better way than the one I’ve worked out on my own, but I’m little motivated to go research teaching strategies or get the MA in TESOL or education that would qualify me for the work I’m already doing. As I think about it, I realize that I feel like my life is being controlled by forces that I don’t understand and therefore cannot manipulate, specifically, money. I’d like to study economics or finance or accounting or something so that I stop panicking when I think or talk about money, so that I can use it to make my life better instead of feeling like it’s a dirty stranger that lives in my wallet. I want to make money familiar to me and I want to learn to make better choices with it. I’m sick of being so goddamn poor all the time.

Before I get into Shen Fu, I have a confession to make. Because I love The Woman Warrior, I’ve been trying to read Maxine Hong Kingston’s fiction, but it’s been killing my motivation pretty quickly. This is the second time it’s happened, so I checked something. Tripmaster Monkey, the one I was reading last week, features a character named Wittman Ah Singh, and I find him thoroughly unlikable (in the first chapter, which I didn’t finish). I looked back at The Fifth Book of Peace, which I’d started a few years ago – the first section, the one on the San Francisco Fire, is great, but then she starts telling a story about that same guy, Wittman Ah Singh! I couldn’t stand him then either! Maybe I need to find a book of hers that isn’t about him.

Shen Fu lived in the later part of the Eighteenth Century, in China. Some things were weird and foreign, yes, but what surprised me is just how similar he is to British authors writing around the same time, like Coleridge, Blake, and Wordsworth. Lavish descriptions of nature, interest in ruins and other picturesque features of the landscape, travel, and fragmented narrative. Each of these six records shows a different side of his life, but they don’t follow each other chronologically.

First, he talks about the happiness of his marriage. He marries a girl who seems like his intellectual (but not social) equal, so they make jokes about literature and laugh all the time. He and Yün are very happy and love each other very much. Yeah, sometimes they leave a party drunk and he sends her on ahead so he can have sex with a stranger, but attraction to third parties doesn’t change their feelings for each other. They live in beautiful places and find joy in their everyday lives. Besides, in China at the time lesbianism was kind of a normal thing that didn’t upset straight marriages. His wife has a couple of very dear friends, and whenever they come over the three women get the bed and he gets the couch, which he accepts with the same good cheer that men in my society accept “Girls’ Night Out.” In their early thirties, she starts looking for a concubine for him, but she’s really looking for a woman she can love too. When they find one, she falls hard for her, but it doesn’t work out and she becomes seriously depressed.

But later Han-yüan was taken off by a powerful man, and all the plans came to nothing. In fact, it was because of this that Yün died.

Ending the chapter like this, it seems like we’ve started a murder mystery, but there is no mystery. Grief and stress rob Yün of her health and kill her at the age of forty.

The second part is about his hobbies, so there’s a two-page section on flower arranging. He likes entertaining and landscaping. He is quite the aesthete.

Third, we have the story of his sorrows. Life with Yün isn’t a bed of roses, like it may have seemed in the first part. His parents don’t really like her, which makes for some serious problems. He’s not that great with money, or holding down a job, so they’re always poor and relying on friends for help. His parents also don’t like Han-yüan, so they’re part of the plot to prevent the concubine thing from working out. Nevertheless, he takes his father’s death pretty hard, as well as his younger brother’s attempt to take over as head of the family. He talks about his children here, but not in the first part, and I take that to be a little odd since my children were the happiest part of my marriage, but he is separated from them and his son dies in childhood, so it makes sense.

The fourth story is about his traveling. Up until now, Yün has seemed like the protagonist of this story because everything he talks about involves her. But he spends a lot of time away from her, following the demands of his changing professions, and maybe she really was happier living with a girlfriend than with him. This is the longest section of the book, so I think that spending time away from each other must have been critical to maintaining the happiness that was so strong in the first chapter. When he goes to the Land of the Floating Whorehouses (my title, not his), he looks for a girl who reminds him of his wife, and even though there are several girls living in the houseboat he sticks with the one he likes. His friend makes the rounds, though. He’s always traveling with some close male friend, so maybe there’s some male homosexual behavior going on too, but he never alludes to the possibility of that. The closest we come is when he talks about being in a room with a few friends and all their rented girls and being teased for wanting a private room. I’ve never been in a room with people who are having sex when I’m not involved, so I think it must be very awkward, but I suppose in a society that’s less puritanical it’s like watching a porn video. Except that it features your friends and coworkers. Even when I was in an all-male workplace, I still wouldn’t want to see my coworkers naked. I would be really uncomfortable.

Hsin-yüeh had a son named Chu-heng who was quiet and well bred. We never quarreled, and he was the second close friend I have had in this life. The pity is that we only met like bits of duckweed drifting on the water, and were not together for long.

This is why I hang onto Facebook, even when it’s full of sad news about world events. My entire life has been drifting along a stream, and I meet many interesting and lovely people, but then I move away, or they do, and we are never together for long.

I know it’s called the Six Floating Records, but today there are only these four. The other two have been lost to time. People have claimed to find them, but so far all “recovered chapters” have been forgeries. Some scholars think he may not have finished writing them, like one of those verse dramas by the English Romantics that are only ever published in fragments. He gets to the end of his travels, especially the traveling he does to recover from his wife’s death, and the book just ends with no real conclusion.

I felt very close to Shen Fu while I was reading his book, like he’s telling the story of my hypothetical life in China two hundred years ago, being bad at business but interested in art and literature and history and making everyday life beautiful. The Chinese astrologers would say that this makes sense, because we’re both born in the year of the Goat. Goat babies are unlucky, vain, unable to save money, and very proud of their homes. We like our lives to be nicer than we can afford on our own.

Normally this would be the part where I talk about him and how great it is that I live with someone who has a job and likes to take care of me, but he’s been out of work for the last six weeks and it’s given me a lot of stress because I don’t make enough money to support my kids and myself, much less another person. But he’s being trained in a new position this weekend, so I’m hoping that our financial situation will improve very soon.

Hope is so very important. Shen Fu and Yün are always hoping something will turn up, and it always does. There’s a certain amount of drift involved in living by hope, the Floating from the title. After she dies he loses his hope that anything good will happen again. I’ve heard depression defined as the inability to see a future, and that is his problem not just in his widowerhood but throughout his life. He doesn’t plan specifics – there’s only the vague hope that things will work out. It’s like when The Ex got pregnant for the first time, and we went to the midwife and she asked, “What form of birth control were you using? Hope?” Hope is not an effective method of preventing pregnancy, nor is it an effective tool for taking control of your own life. Relying only on hope means that your life will be determined by external events; it keeps the locus of control outside of yourself. However, for those of us who frequently feel that our life is in fact controlled more strongly by sinister outside forces than by our own will, hope is also the only thing we have to hold on to. Hope gives us a way out, a light in the darkness. Hope is our escape. Hope gives us the ability to sketch a vague plan that can keep us from dying from depression. Yün loses hope and dies. Shen Fu’s friends keep supplementing his hope with their own, keeping him alive long enough to find goodness in the world again.

This is a short and beautiful book, and it apparently gives us the most detailed look into private life in this period of Chinese history. I enjoyed it thoroughly. When I first came out a lot of people were after me to tell my story, but the task always seemed too big. This may be a good approach, though, taking just one element at a time. It could be a way for me to get a handle on it.