Posts Tagged ‘law’

It’s taken me five or six weeks to finish this book. It doesn’t normally take me that long to get through not quite three hundred pages, but the writing is just so dense. It’s like Berdyaev stopped to think for an hour in between sentences, so when reading I’m tempted to do the same. It’s not that I’m uninterested in his ideas, just that they come so thick and fast that the book demands more time than most novels.

This is the sort of grown-up Christianity that I would have loved eight or ten years ago, but it isn’t where I am now, and Berdyaev might take to account certain subsets of Christians, but the basic tenets of the religion are treated as self-evident, and while I love someone who loves his in-group, I’m not always convinced by his repeated assertions that ‘only Christianity’ has figured something out. I don’t see it as all that unique, doctrinally.

In his introduction, he explains a little of his theory – instead of exploring how we know things, he insists that philosophy (and thus epistemology) has to be rooted in the real world, in our lived experiences. I found this part to be exciting because it’s what I believe.

Philosophy is a part of life; spiritual experience lies at the basis of philosophical knowledge; a philosopher must be in touch with the primary source of life and derive his cognitive experience from it. Knowledge means consecration into the mystery of being and of life.

I think it’s important, when developing theories about life and the universe, to begin with what is known and experienced. It’s generally safe to trust the evidence of our five senses, so start there. Intuition is a good next step, but it’s hard to come up with sound ideas when you’re not weighing them against what you know of reality.

Because Berdyaev is a Christian, he sets this up as The Story of Man (I would say Humanity, but he really does seem to mean male humans when he talks about man and men). As such, we hit the four significant events from Christianity’s perspective: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Judgment. And while that’s true, this is also a book about ethics, exploring the nature of good and evil. So. When Adam and Eve were created, there was no such thing as good and evil. They lived in a garden where those categories didn’t exist, or make sense. God Himself continues to live in this sort of reality, beyond that basic binary. It’s wrong to say that God is good because that distinction belongs to this world only. But then the two ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the universe was fractured. The Fall takes people out of eternity (the great and eternal now) and introduces time, as well as good and evil. The individual psyche also became divided as a result of the Fall, and we’re all still fragmentary as a result of that original sin.

The human soul is divided, an agonizing conflict between opposing elements is going on in it. The modern man has, in addition to his civilized mentality, the mind of the man of antiquity, of the child with its infantile instincts, of the madman and the neurasthenic. The conflict between the civilized mind and the archaic, infantile and pathological elements results in the wonderful complexity of the soul which scarcely lends itself to study by the old [pre-Freudian] psychological methods. Man deceives not only others but himself as well. He frequently does not know what is going on in him and wrongly interprets it both to himself and to others.

And that part I know is true. I’m seeking wholeness through self-acceptance, but it’s not a quick or easy process. I hide my internal conflicts from myself until they become too heated to ignore, and by that point I’m usually quite upset. This unity is a lifelong quest, not something that can be solved in a few months or a few years.

So then there was Moses and The Law, and what Berdyaev has to say about the ethics of law is quite in line with what most evangelical Christians say when they talk about legalism: it’s bad. Well, to be more specific, it’s only partially just because it ignores the person’s individuality and the effect of circumstances. Law is pitiless, applying the same reductive principles to every person and every situation. The ethics of law reduces us all to robots, cogs in a machine, and could easily be applied by a computer judge. We don’t have computer judges because we recognize the limitations of the ethics of law.

The ethics of law can never be personal and individual, it never penetrates into the intimate depths of personal moral life, experience and struggle. It exaggerates evil in personal life, punishing and prohibiting it, but does not attach sufficient importance to evil in the life of the world and society. It takes an optimistic view of the power of the moral law, of the freedom of will and of the punishment of the wicked, which is supposed to prove that the world is ruled by justice. The ethics of law is both very human and well adapted to human needs and standards, and extremely inhuman and pitiless towards the human personality, its individual destiny and intimate life.

For me, one of the problems with the American legal system is the emphasis on punishment rather than rehabilitation. Collectively, we seem to think that putting people in prison is the only effective way to convince them that crime is bad. We ignore the roots of the problem, which often include poverty, lack of education, and mental illness. In Foucault’s terms, we transform people into delinquents and then imprison them for the delinquency we created. Law upholds the current state of society as the best possible reality and ignores the social problems that lead to crime.

Next is the ethics of redemption, which Berdyaev claims to be the Christian view. I think rather a lot of Christians are still focused on the ethics of law, no matter what they say. It’s one of the things people hide from themselves. The ethics of redemption focuses on the idea of vicarious suffering as a substitution for the law. We don’t have to worry about legal punishments because Jesus bore all the punishment for us, provided that we feel sorry for the bad things we’ve done and try to do good. As with the ethics of law, the ethics of redemption is an incomplete system, not yet what Berdyaev thinks God was really striving for. For example:

A false interpretation of ‘good works’ leads to a complete perversion of Christianity. ‘Good works’ are regarded not as an expression of love for God and man, not as a manifestation of the gracious force which gives life to others, but as a means of salvation and justification for oneself, as a way of realizing the abstract idea of the good and receiving a reward in the future life. This is a betrayal of the Gospel revelation of love. ‘Good works’ done not for the love of others but for the salvation of one’s soul are not good at all. Where there is no love there is no goodness. Love does not require or expect any reward, it is a reward in itself, it is a ray of paradise illumining and transfiguring reality. ‘Good works’ as works of the law have nothing to do with the Gospel and the Christian revelation; they belong to the pre-Christian world. One must help others and do good works not for saving one’s soul but for love, for the union of men, for bringing their souls together in the Kingdom of God. Love for man is a value in itself, the quality of goodness is immanent in it.

In other words, focusing on redemption keeps our attention on the division in the world and in ourselves, and I still agree with Buber that being internally divided against oneself is the source of evil. To heal those divisions, we have to try to get beyond good and evil, though Berdyaev has issues with the Nietzsche uses that phrase. He quotes lots of other philosophers, most of whom he has issues with, but he’s a Russian writing in 1931, so his research is dramatically different than it would be today. Lots of Freud, Schopenhauer, Heidegger, Nietzsche, and a long list of Russians who are unfamiliar to me (though I recognize Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky).

Fortunately, there’s a third system: the ethics of creativity. In order to become more like God and get beyond good and evil, we have to do the one thing we know that God does, we have to create. I never was an ex nihilo guy, I always thought there were materials that God used to make the world. Now that I’m not so religious, I still think that creation is important, and that I’m not quite myself if I’m not regularly making things. So, higher than law and redemption is the exigency of taking the raw materials of our lives and making something beautiful.

The soul is afraid of emptiness. When there is no positive, valuable, divine content in it, it is filled with the negative, false, diabolical content. When the soul feels empty it experiences boredom, which is a truly terrible and diabolical state. Evil lust and evil passions are to a great extent generated by boredom and emptiness. It is difficult to struggle against that boredom by means of abstract goodness and virtue. The dreadful thing is that virtue at times seems deadly dull, and then there is no salvation in it. The cold, hard-set virtue devoid of creative fire is always dull and never saves. The heart must be set aglow if the dullness is to be dispelled. Dull virtue is a poor remedy against the boredom of emptiness. Dullness is the absence of creativeness. All that is not creative is dull. Goodness is deadly dull if it is not creative. No rule or norm can save us from dullness and from evil lust engendered by it. Lust is a means of escape from boredom when goodness provides no such escape. This is why it is very difficult, almost impossible, to conquer evil passions negatively, through negative asceticism and prohibitions. They can only be conquered positively, through awakening the positive and creative spiritual force opposed to them. Creative fire, divine Eros, overcomes lust and evil passions. It burns up evil, boredom and the false strivings engendered by it. The will to evil is at bottom objectless and can only be overcome by a will directed towards an object, towards the valuable and divine contents of life. Purely negative asceticism, preoccupied with evil and sinful desires and strivings, so far from enlightening the soul, intensifies its darkness. We must preach, therefore, not the morality based upon the annihilation of will but upon its enlightenment, not upon the humiliation of man and his external submission to God but upon the creative realization by man of the divine in life – of the values of truth, goodness and beauty. The ethics of creativeness can alone save the human soul from being warped by arid abstract virtue and abstract ideals transformed into rules and norms. The ideas of truth, goodness and beauty must cease to be norms and rules and become vital forces, an inner creative fire.

This is hardly an original thought with Berdyaev. I’m thinking specifically of Wilkie Collins’s opening to Hide and Seek, where an energetic little boy is forced to stop playing and do nothing on Sunday afternoons because his overbearing father only sees goodness as not doing bad things. That also connects to John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines, where the protagonist’s best friend realizes that he’s been defining his religion and therefore his identity by all the things he doesn’t do. People need something to do, something to create. It’s not that making things is good (though it does make me feel good), it’s that making things is beyond good and evil. Creativity, beauty, and love all come from a place that is beyond those distinctions, so let’s focus our attention there.

At this point, Berdyaev talks about some specific ethical problems, and this part ends up being a third of the book. I found it a bit unfocused, as he drifts from one topic to another in a stream-of-consciousness fashion. Another things that bothers me about this section is the way he elevates tragedy as the best mode of life. I don’t see tragedy as inevitable, and I don’t see it as good. I don’t see tragedy as inherently valuable. I agree with many of the things that he says here, like war creates a complicated reality when it comes to interpersonal violence. I also disagree with him on a lot of things, like homosexual love is unreal because it doesn’t result in the archetypal union of opposites that creates some mystical androgyny. As if people weren’t already inherently androgynous to some extent, or as if that were our goal in falling in love in the first place. To my ears, he writes about love like someone who’s never experienced it, even though he’d been married for quite a long time when he wrote this text. At least he destroys the ideas that marriage is indissoluble and that its purpose is procreation. I think many of his ideas are rooted in his time and place, so maybe if he were writing now he wouldn’t have such outdated ideas about women and gays. Speaking of his milieu, he is writing as an embattled Christian escaping the forced atheism of Communist Russia, so he says horrible things about atheists and communists. His progressive ideas shine brightly because of the dark background of conservatism they’re set in.

Finally, we reach the end, death and what comes after. I started reading faster at this point, maybe because I got better at reading the translation of his writing, or maybe because I didn’t have to work through so many dilemmas. Death is just a transition to another state of being, so Western culture’s erasure of death is toxic and unhelpful. Then he discusses hell, which I found really interesting. Berdyaev sees the discourse surrounding hell as reliant on our ideas about time – this life is a fractured bit of eternity, but for him it doesn’t make sense to punish someone in eternity for things done in time. Eternity isn’t infinite duration of time, it’s the absence of time. Think about that episode at the end of season six of Doctor Who, when River Song destroys time. All historical moments happen simultaneously, so everything is now. If time doesn’t progress in a line, if every moment is simultaneous, then how can it be just to punish someone in this timeless reality for something they did when reality was broken into time? Besides (and for Berdyaev this is an important point), we’re supposed to conquer evil, not build it a house and let it live next door. Good people create hell by condemning others as evil, even more than bad people create it through guilt. Believing in hell puts us back at the ethics of law, punishing people and reducing their entire complex selves to a few actions or attitudes that we find intolerable.

Berdyaev concludes with paradise. It’s not the good place where people go if they’re not in hell – it’s the place beyond good and evil that we all came from. The goal is not for good to defeat evil and cast it out, the goal is to get to a place where the distinction between good and evil is so unimportant it doesn’t exist. Again, this leads us to freedom, creativity, beauty, love, all those bohemian ideals that Shelley and Luhrmann explicitly claim.

There are two typical answers to the question of man’s vocation. One is that man is called to contemplation and the other that he is called to action. But it is a mistake to oppose contemplation to action as though they were mutually exclusive. Man is called to creative activity, he is not merely a spectator – even though it be of divine beauty. Creativeness is action. It presupposes overcoming difficulties and there is an element of labour in it. But it also includes moments of contemplation which may be called heavenly, moments of rest when difficulties and labour vanish and the self is in communion with the divine. Contemplation is the highest state, it is an end in itself and cannot be a means. But contemplation is also creativeness, spiritual activity which overcomes anxiety and difficulties.

In the traditional point of view, evil is defined as acting in opposition to God’s will, so human freedom is the source of evil. That’s why so many religions work at limiting people’s freedom. However, for Berdyaev, freedom predates good and evil. It’s part of the eternal world, the one piece of paradise that we brought with us. Freedom is not evil; it’s beyond those distinctions. As is beauty, as is the creation of beauty.

This year I’ve been making more of an effort to read nonfiction, and I have to say that I still find philosophy hard to read. Philosophers tend to use a specialized vocabulary, so I kept having to look up words like meonic and eschatological. They also use words in idiosyncratic ways, so the translator kept using the word personality when it would have made more sense to me to use personhood or individuality. The philosophers we read in English seldom wrote in English, so a good bit of the difficulty could be that of the translators. Whoever translates Michel Foucault does a fantastic job, and I think with better translators philosophy could be more approachable as text. I suppose then we wouldn’t need philosophy professors to explain it to us, which could put people out of jobs. But I’m not in favor of the elitism that surrounds philosophy, which is just one variety of nonfiction. Regardless of all that, Berdyaev has a lot of good ideas, but I’d like to see him be a little more critical of his own religion. Just because it’s yours doesn’t mean it can go unexamined, and if he had examined it a little more he might have been less prejudiced against people who are different than he is.


The plan?


Murder multiple motherfuckers, save one asshole.

McCrary has a few lines that are absolute gems, like this one. Most of the book, though, was not very satisfying. It’s a tawdry action flick written down. The titular Remo is a New York defense attorney, severely alcoholic and addicted to Ritalin (keeps him focused because he comes to work drunk), who is on the run because of the singular good deed he’s done in his life. He threw a robbery case, found and dug up the money, and donated it to a charity that supports the families of the people who were killed in the robbery. He’s sort of worthless as an action hero, but that can lead to funny situations sometimes. However, McCrary’s is a grim sort of humor, at its best.

Leslie likes to fuck men. Sometimes she ends up fucking some dudes that she doesn’t really like. It happens.

So what?

When you’re a thirty-three-year-old woman living in New York and you like to fuck men, you may find yourself bedding a few pricks. Yes, the literal nature of that statement is understood, but you get it. An attractive woman in a demanding job, working ridiculous hours, surrounded by men of loose moral fiber may have to drop her standards in order to get some.

Sex or the high road. The low road has an impressive win/loss record. Again, it happens. All of this swirls around Leslie’s pretty little head as she nudges back and forth on her back. On a desk. In the dark. Having sex with one of those previously-mentioned pricks.

Reading this book and wondering why anyone would either write or enjoy it, it seems like pure wish fulfillment. Remo is rich as anything (and we poor people would love to be rich like that), but he’s also miserably depressed (and we poor people want to believe that rich people are deeply unhappy and morally bankrupt). Yet, he is also approachable, because most of us can identify with being bored with our jobs and yearning for a life with more meaning and focus. I know, since I’m a teacher it’s practically blasphemy to admit that my professional life is not a constant blend of Mr Holland’s Opus, Freedom Writers, and To Sir, With Love, but there you have it. It’s a job, not a divine calling. My life feels focused and meaningful not when I’m teaching writing, but when I’m actually writing – using words instead of explaining their use.

And, in the end, justice is done. The bad guys get killed, Remo connects with the son his ex-wife keeps away from him, and the get-away driver who converted to Jesus takes it as his life mission to keep saving Remo. The Acknowledgements section implies that he was killed in an early draft, but that a test reader encouraged McCrary to keep Lester alive. Saving Lester does make for a better book, and since this one spawned a whole series, I’d predict that he becomes a sort of sidekick. I find the idea of my continuing the series to be rather unlikely. There’s so much unhappiness, and not much humor to lighten it up. If you like tight, action-packed thrill rides, go for it. It reads quickly and easily. But I’ll go back to my Victorians.


Billy Budd is sort of a gay Christian allegory. The Christian part is fairly obvious – Budd is falsely accused of mutiny and accidentally kills his accuser, a superior officer. Even though that officer was the only man on ship who wasn’t openly in love with Billy Budd, the captain has to kill him to maintain law and order.

And yes, it’s quite gay.

When Claggart’s unobserved glance happened to light on belted Billy rolling along the upper gun deck in the leisure of the second dog watch, exchanging passing broadsides of fun with other young promenaders in the crowd, that glance would follow the cheerful sea-Hyperion with a settled meditative and melancholy expression, his eyes strangely suffused with incipient feverish tears. Then would Claggart look like the man of sorrows. Yes, and sometimes the melancholy expression would have in it a touch of soft yearning, as if Claggart could even have loved Billy but for fate and ban.

This short novel wasn’t published in Melville’s lifetime, and it was written toward the end of his life, forty years after Moby-Dick. The big whale book has some clearly homosexual passages, and here Melville just drags it into the fore. The only “ban” against Claggart loving Billy is society’s ban against homosexual behavior, and in single-sex environments like a warship that ban is a little relaxed. After all, there’s an older Dansker who calls Billy “Baby,” and Melville just says that it’s for “some recondite reason.” Even casting my imagination back to 1891, when the story was written, or to 1797, when the story is set, trying to reason that there’s a nonsexual yet secret reason to call a grown man Baby is kind of complex.

Baby Budd is a great Christ figure, and after the book was first published in 1924 there was a rash of Christ figures in American literature. The classic elements are derived from him – blond, innocent, acting spontaneously from his own good nature. Billy is beautiful and charismatic, despite his naivete and tendency to stutter. Everyone loves him, and the one who lets that love get twisted is the only one who works against him. It’s a tragedy in that an innocent man has to die, but it’s also a tragedy that Claggart has to distort his entire character for some imaginary social code that no one else cares about and that he dies for it.

I am not certain whether to know the world and to know human nature be not two distinct branches of knowledge, which, while they may coexist in the same heart, yet either may exist with little or nothing of the other.

I think the world is beautiful and fascinating, and with the amount of traveling I’ve done, I could be considered to know something of it. But while I do all right understanding people in books, in real life I’m a little less skilled. Real people have all kinds of secret motivations and do underhand things, like spying on a significant other online or selling shoddy merchandise or plagiarizing an essay. I’ve been feeling a little taken-advantage-of lately; while that may just be the effect of reading about a Christ figure or two (remember The Old Man and the Sea), it may also have some merit. For a long time I’ve been worried about my mental stability, but I’m not going crazy. I’m struggling not to overreact, because I know I do that, but at the same time I know that I can trust my feelings. If I feel this way, there’s a problem, not with my brain function, but with the way I’m being treated. I wish I knew how to fix it.


The Piazza Tales is a short story collection that Melville published in 1856. Except the first, these were all written for Putnam’s Monthly Magazine. He was simultaneously publishing other stories in Harper’s, and those were collected after his death and published as The Apple-Tree Table and Other Stories. That later collection is now a little harder to find, but it contains the frequently anthologized “Paradise of Bachelors and Tartarus of Maids” and “Hawthorne and His Mosses.” Piazza has the stories that people generally think of, if they think of Melville short stories at all, “Bartleby the Scrivener” and “Benito Cereno.”

The Piazza

Just to be clear, Melville loved Nathaniel Hawthorne. I mean, so much that after they met Hawthorne started avoiding him because there was something a little excessive in his fan-boy-ish-ness. NH sometimes used the first piece in a story collection to establish a sense of place, as in “The Old Manse” (Mosses from an Old Manse) or “The Custom-House” (The Scarlet Letter, which was originally conceived as the beginning of a short story collection). Melville gives this strategy a try here. He’s settling into a house in the mountains, and decides that it’s a real crime to have a spectacular view and nowhere to sit outside and enjoy it from, so he builds himself a deck facing his favorite view. He becomes interested in a spot on the mountain opposite, investing it with all sorts of fairy qualities from Shakespeare and Spenser, and one day he goes to see it. It turns out, there’s an isolated girl in a cottage there, and she spends her time looking over at his house and imagining how happy and magical his life must be.

There are a few ways to read that. People often say that it just means that our fantasies are all just illusions, and that if we get to the heart of what we really want there is only equal or greater unhappiness. But I’m feeling optimistic this morning, so I’d rather say, even in the least happy life there is magic, if we have eyes to see it. Glory and beauty are all around us; we just have to learn to look for them. We need to value what we have instead of letting familiarity breed contempt. And perhaps the good things are easiest seen at a little distance.


In many ways, I think this story is a response to Thoreau’s essay “Resistance to Civil Government.” We’re familiar with the idea of civil disobedience that has shaped protests in the West, particularly with the American Civil Rights movement, and so we typically see this as a good thing, a way to get stuff done. Melville imagines a passive resister in ordinary life. Bartleby isn’t making a political point or taking a stand on an issue; he just quietly says that he “would prefer not to” do anything he is asked. In other ways, this is a response to Dickens’s Bleak House, which began serial publication the year before “Bartleby” was published. The characterization here, with the quirky extreme personalities, is very similar to Dickens, and both stories tell about law-copyists. Before the Xerox machine, the courts still needed several copies of legal documents, so someone had to copy all those papers by hand. Scrivener is a dull, mechanical profession, and both Dickens and Melville try to humanize these machine-like people. Enter Bartleby, the copier who won’t do what he doesn’t like.

Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance. If the individual so resisted be of a not inhumane temper, and the resisting one perfectly harmless in his passivity, then, in the better moods of the former, he will endeavor charitably to construe to his imagination what proves impossible to be solved by his judgment.

The narrator, the lawyer who employs Bartleby, is an older, active gentleman who takes a paternal interest in his employee, but he cannot figure out all of this preferring not to do things. This type of polite disobedience leads to Bartleby doing some inappropriate things, like living in the workplace outside of working hours, eavesdropping on important meetings, and being insubordinate to his employer, to law enforcement, and indeed to everyone else. He clings to the secret dictate of his heart, just like Robinson Crusoe or Ralph Waldo Emerson, but “doing his thing” is doing nothing. Narrator can’t figure out what to do with him, so eventually he moves to a different office. The new lawyer who takes the office eventually has Bartleby arrested for vagrancy, and he dies in jail after refusing his meals.

I’ve been taking the lens of Transcendentalism, but you could also read this story as a warning against depression-induced inanition. Bartleby used to work in the dead letter office, burning all the letters that could not be delivered. If every letter represents a desire, a wish to connect with another human, the dead letters are the failures. After who-knows-how-long destroying all these wasted desires, Bartleby lost any desire of his own. There’s no implication that he’s looking to the future; he seems like a remarkably clear example of what clinical depression looks like. No active sadness, but no hope either. Just doing nothing, wanting to do nothing, until death. I admire Bartleby’s adherence to himself, but the result makes me sad.

Benito Cereno

Oh my god, the racism, the racism. I suppose you could argue that this is free indirect discourse, or a narrated monologue, so these terribly offensive opinions are Captain Delano’s and not Melville’s, but even so. The racism.

“Benito Cereno” is the most like Billy Budd, it being a naval story featuring The Handsome Sailor set in the 1790s. Captain Delano seems like what Billy Budd could have been, had he lived and advanced.

Considering the lawlessness and loneliness of the spot, and the sort of stories at that day associated with those seas, Captain Delano’s surprise might have deepened into some uneasiness had he not been a person of a singularly undistrustful good nature, not liable except on extraordinary and repeated incentives, and hardly then, to indulge in personal alarms any way involving the imputation of malign evil in man.

This is also a classic Gothic tale – Captain Delano gets into a mysterious and vaguely threatening situation, until about two-thirds or three-fourths of the way through, when the real threat is revealed and he defeats it.

The threat comes from the extreme racism – think Heart of Darkness. Don Benito Cereno is captain of a merchant vessel carrying slaves along the coast of South America. They’re in distress and put in for water on the same island that Captain Delano has stopped at to restock his water supply. He goes on board to render assistance, and the Nordic-looking white boy (I always picture him as whiter than white, sort of glowing) is surrounded by Africans. His inner monologue is full of comments on the ethnic differences between himself and the Africans – he thinks of them as the perfect servants because of their (he thinks) natural stupidity and servility. He thinks of them as animals, little different than deer or monkeys. Even the few Spanish he sees are marked in the text as different, not quite as white as he is. He can tell that something fishy is going on, maybe Don Benito is plotting to murder him, but he quickly dismisses the thought because he’s such a nice guy (as some of my acquaintance would say, “It’s awful white of him”). Of course, the truth is that the slaves have taken over the ship and are much more intelligent than he had taken them for, but the intelligence is bent toward evil so the white captain is still better than they are.

This story is based on the real events that happened on board the Amistad, which were memorialized in the film of the same name with Matthew McConaughey and Anthony Hopkins. Africans who had been illegally kidnapped and sold into slavery took over the ship and forced the Spanish to sail them back to Africa, but the Spaniard turned the ship north and it was taken off Long Island. The film focuses on the trial and how the brave white lawyers overcame their own racism to rescue the poor black victims, so I think it’s still a little white-centric, but it’s better than Melville. “Benito Cereno” moves the story back into the time when slavery was legal in South America (The United States was about forty years behind the times when it came to abolition) and makes the Africans evil murderers and thieves, the worst of mutineers, slaughtering the beloved slaver Alexandro Aranda. Don Alexandro is Don Benito’s childhood friend – some people read the relationship as gay because they think Don Benito is effeminate, but the evidence is not as strong as it often is in Melville. They want to overtake Captain Delano’s ship too, but of course they are sufficiently white to conquer the former slaves quite easily, incidentally killing most of the remaining Hispanics in the process.

“Benito Cereno” is just as long as Billy Budd, but without chapter breaks, which helps build suspense and all but makes it harder to find a good place to stop. The sentences are also simpler, and it’s less allegorical, which will appeal to a lot of readers who aren’t put off by the racism, which is so intense I would feel bad quoting any of it.

The Lightning-Rod Man

A short piece about a man who makes his living by scaring people to death, and Melville’s “The Piazza” narrator is having none of it.

The Encantadas; or Enchanted Islands

A series of ten sketches describing the Galapagos Islands. They’re mostly volcanic rock, and while I’ve seen some really beautiful specimens of black glass from volcanoes, Melville sees them as ugly misshapen hellrocks. They’re called enchanted because sailors had some major problems with their navigation; people thought they moved around because they’d find them a hundred miles away from where they were expected. There are a few narratives, but this is mostly description – I would go so far as to say that it’s of limited interest. The descriptions are only partially original; he’s writing years after he came back to shore, so he did some borrowing from previously published accounts.

This group does have the second female character, Hunilla the Chola widow. She’s a mixture of Hispanic and Native American ancestry, which the Latins call Cholo (though anthropologists lean toward Mestizo). She was left on an island with her husband and brother, who both died. There’s some implication that passing ships would stop and the seamen would do unspeakable things to her, before Melville’s ship rescues her. Melville usually writes about male-only worlds, so he doesn’t do much with female characters, and this lack of practice is evident. He seems to understand that the lives of women are unnecessarily difficult because their dependence on men (and transportation by them) isolates them, but he seems incapable of realizing or understanding their characters. It’s like women are another species to him, as different as the Africans in “Benito Cereno.”

The Bell-Tower

This is another piece strongly influenced by Hawthorne. Think of the Promethean allegories, like “The Birth-Mark” or “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” A Renaissance architect builds a bell-tower. He goes way overboard, both with the height and the ornamentation, even making a mechanical man with arms like clubs to strike the bells. Like any good Frankenstein story, the attempt to create life leads to death, so it’s hardly cheerful, but then Hawthorne is seldom cheerful himself. In all his admiration for Mosses from an Old Manse, this is his closest approximation to one of those stories, which I suppose makes it a fitting bookend for “The Piazza.”

The Piazza Tales is a weird collection, indicative of the weirdness Melville got into after the failure of Moby-Dick. Pierre has a lot of that reaction, when Melville suddenly stops telling his story to complain about literary critics for several pages, but the insistence on writing what he likes to write instead of what paying customers might like to read is still evident, as is his problematization of ideals beloved by Emerson, Thoreau, and their attendant Transcendentalists, as well as his extreme admiration of Hawthorne. Very intertextual, sometimes engaging, interesting reading.


I guess whoever edited this collection for Signet Classics thought the project wouldn’t be complete without a little Moby-Dick, so here’s the obligatory excerpt. It works well as a stand-alone piece. It covers mutiny at sea, so it’s thematically linked to Billy Budd and “Benito Cereno,” but there’s a much stronger sense of destiny. This collection is arranged roughly backward, chronologically, so it seems that Melville’s interest in predestination waned over his lifetime, because here in Moby-Dick everything is predestinated or foreordained. The white whale is not just one face of God, as in Ahab’s “strike through the mask” speech, it’s the bringer of Fate. The whale decides men’s destinies at sea.

The Town-Ho is a leaky boat, which is apparently not unusual at the time. It’s a bit like my friends who have a fluid leak in their cars and just keep putting water in before they drive to town. You keep your men on the pumps and go where you need to go. Working the pumps can be exhausting work, so another type of The Handsome Sailor (but without the innocence of Capt Delano or Baby Budd) wears himself out and sits down for a rest. The ugly commanding officer tells him to get up and sweep the pig shit off the deck. Steelkilt replies that that job is for the little boys, who aren’t busy just now. Radney tells him to get off his ass and clean the deck. Now in one sense Steelkilt is right, cleaning the shit isn’t in his job description, but in another sense he doesn’t have the right to refuse a direct order. He refuses anyway, they get into a fight, and Steelkilt breaks Radney’s jaw. He starts up a mutiny, but the captain gets it under control. Radney gets to whip Steelkilt, who then starts plotting murder. Fortunately, the white whale comes along and removes temptation. Ahab may have lost a leg, but Radney got straight up eaten by Moby Dick. Steelkilt later gets everyone to defect and the captain never sees him again, but Ishmael swears that he has seen and spoken with him, I guess in a White Whale Survivors’ Club meeting.

Looking at the collection as a whole, it seems Melville had a real issue with authority – the artificial distinctions created by society keep us from acting toward each other as equals. Men are divided by arbitrary social roles, which leads to poisonous behavior. Maintaining a sense of freedom and innocence is a natural response, but when an underling does not conform there are unfortunate consequences. Similarly, when a leader abuses his power there are unfortunate consequences, because the abuse of power leads to rebellion. Love seems like a good answer, but it’s not always enough. We love and admire the extraordinary, but the world insists on conformity to usage, so it’s safer to be average. Don’t get noticed and you can lead a long, mediocre life. Be amazing and you die young. I don’t agree with this attitude, but it does seem to be what Melville is pushing. I get in the mood for Melville every so often, and Billy Budd is a much quicker fix than Moby-Dick, but this fatalism is not the direction I want to go in. I steer my course, and I’m guiding my ship to a happier port.

I come from a large family of people who are not especially kind. When I was young, I got angry quite easily, but I recognized how powerless I was to vent my frustrations on my older siblings, so I’d grip my little hands into fists and turn red and grit my teeth until smoke poured out of my ears. Those older siblings enjoyed the show so much that they spent all their leisure time making me angry for no other purpose than to watch me get angry. What does a child learn from this? First, he learns to conceal his feelings. I was so adept at this that I myself didn’t know what I was feeling for most of my life. Now, I’m shy enough that when people meet me, I seem not to have any personality at all, so they project their opinions, desires, and prejudices onto me as if I were a tabula rasa. It gives me a chance to try being different people, but the real me always surfaces eventually, often to jarring effect.

Second, he learns that the world is an unfair place, inimical to his own interests. Those with power make others suffer with impunity, and those who are responsible for keeping him safe are either too busy with other matters, too indifferent, or too powerless to do any good. Life isn’t fair, and there’s nothing you can do about it. As I got older, I’d occasionally try to create some sort of justice, but I quickly discovered that I have no sense of proportion. Any attempt of mine to right the scales of justice leaves them leaning too far to the other side. When you don’t expect the world to be fair, you don’t try to make it fair. When injustice is normal, justice no longer seems like a goal worth reaching toward. As I’ve gotten along, I’ve tried to supplement my deficient sense of justice with moral rules, but everyone knows that rules only really matter in board games. This is why I try so hard to be kind; there’s a baseline of fairness that makes it possible for us to live in a society, that I am lacking. Though I often apply the principle inconsistently, I find kindness easier to manage, and I also find that people don’t mind if you’re unfair if you’re unfair in their favor.

I’ve enjoyed Margaret Atwood’s fiction for quite some time – The Blind Assassin was new when I first loved it – but this is the first nonfiction book of hers that I’ve read, and it is quite good. The reading goes very quickly, and the book takes stories and concepts that we are familiar with and presents them to us in a new light. Five chapters, forty pages each, but they don’t feel that long. If it were a novel, I’d try to read it as an Elizabethan drama, but it’s not a connected story. Well, maybe it is.

Part one, Ancient Balances. Humanity’s earliest laws governed the balancing of accounts, as did our earliest religions. The Egyptians believed that after death, a human heart was weighed against truth, and justice claimed the soul for either good or ill. This belief spread through the other pagan religions, as well as into Judaism and its descendants, Christianity and Islam. In fact, it seems to have predated our evolution into human beings, as primates also have an acute sense of justice. The interesting thing about justice, though, is that it’s always represented as being female. I think that it’s because our sense of justice comes from our mothers, the primary caregivers in most societies. My mother had too much of a temper to manage her children effectively; sometimes punishments were excessive, sometimes they were insufficient because they had been excessive, and sometimes they were nonexistent. I guess it’s easier to love some children if you don’t look too closely at what they do. The ex-wife is also a woman of quick temper who loves babies, but she has a rather extreme sense of justice, which occasionally makes me uncomfortable. By getting divorced, we kept her from having more children than she can manage, so hopefully my children will be more emotionally healthy, more human than I have been.

Part two, Debt and Sin. As we saw with the Egyptian scales, the things we do in this life are often seen as a series of moral debts and credits, that great accountant’s ledger in the sky. I’ve mentioned before how incomplete this metaphor seems to me, how easily it can be used to justify acts of great evil by balancing them with a series of small charitable donations. However, Atwood points out that it’s not only the debtor who is seen as the sinner; the creditor is also morally damaged by the lending of money. Think of our culture’s opinion of pawnbrokers, a career so questionable that it seldom appears outside of Dickens novels or TLC programs. We see them as profiting by taking unfair advantage of people who are at their most vulnerable, as if the pawnbroker forces them into sin. As if the act of borrowing money itself were a sin. My own debts make me uncomfortable; I’ve taken on a second job to try to pay them off. But they were also necessary; when I moved here, I needed some money for a security deposit on an apartment, and I was also in need of food. I got a new credit card because I couldn’t make it on my own. It’s like this: if I have a skillet, I can make healthy food for a few dollars a day. If I don’t have a skillet, I can eat unhealthy fast food at a rate of eight to ten dollars a day. So, it makes sense for me to buy a skillet. If I don’t have the money for a skillet, I’m stuck eating expensive food. I could decide not to eat for three or four days and so save enough money to buy a skillet, or I could borrow the money. I chose to borrow it. I don’t think that makes me a sinner, just a human being who values his health.

In this section, Atwood also talks about the importance of record-keeping. Remember Fight Club, when Jack/Tyler’s plan was to destroy all the credit card records? Apparently that’s a historical trend. Erase the record of the debt, cancel the debt without paying it. It’s what all we debtors really want, isn’t it? And what we refuse to do when we become creditors. Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

Part three, Debt as Plot. As Cecily points out in The Importance of Being Earnest, memory is responsible for nearly all the three-volume novels one encounters. Specifically, memory of debts. The nineteenth century novel is full of debts and repayments. In graduate school, I once wrote about how Wuthering Heights is a rewriting of Byron’s “The Giaour,” where money has replaced religion. One of the strongest examples that Atwood uses is one of my favorite books, The Mill on the Floss. She also discusses the imaginative power of millers generally. In Eliot’s novel, life is a matter of inheriting and settling accounts; Maggie Tulliver tries to create a world where relationships are built on more than debts, and it eventually kills her. The next logical step is

Part four, The Shadow Side. Revenge. A good portion of this is about Shakespearean tragedy, which revolves around vengeance. There’s also The Merchant of Venice, which covers a humanized Shylock and his overgrasping vengeance. Atwood mentions a production that used a Native American actor for Shylock, which I think must have been quite compelling. For me, though, thoughts of Shakespeare generally turn to Twelfth Night, the play most interested in giving gifts, and the debts that gift-giving creates. Indeed, it’s a play about unwanted debts, where people become creditors against their will. Years ago, I decided that I would never lend money to a friend. I will gladly give, and if they want to return it that’s their choice, but I won’t give money to someone if I need it back. This practice can lead me into trouble, like when I gave money to someone who was a bad risk, and then he moved to a different continent while promising to pay it back. It would have come in handy a year later, when I was getting a new credit card instead of buying a skillet with my own money. Así es la vida.

I prefer to pay my debts off, but I will forgive any creditor who comes my way. Even those people who have repaid my love with violence and neglect. Let debts go, even those of emotion and soul. Let there be love and peace. Let forgiveness overcome our desires for war.

Part five, Payback. I believe that the human desire for payback leads to more unnecessary conflict than anything else. Jesus fuck, just let it go. It doesn’t matter if you have a right to exact vengeance; relinquish your rights and let it go. Clinging to your vengeance binds your debtor to you more closely. The only way to be free of him is to let go.

The bulk of this section is taken up by a rewriting of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, updated for our time. We can’t imagine a man so consumed by the love of wealth that he won’t spend on himself, so the Nouveau Scrooge does. But when he’s faced with the price of his wealth, the destruction of the earth led by the industrial age, he changes his mind and gives his money to support the preservation of nature. Atwood finishes her tale of human history with the renunciation of wealth, the reversal of the nineteenth century – a vision of a future where capital is used to benefit the earth instead of the individual, where species are saved, and we stop acquiring more than we need.

It may seem strange, to write a book about money and spend most of it talking about religion, fiction, and the environment, but it makes sense. Atwood has spent this book telling us who we are, what makes us human. Fair play, justice, getting into and out of debt, yes, but more importantly, we are the stories we tell. If we keep telling the story of capitalism, we will keep living in a world of more and more extreme capitalism. There are other stories to tell, though. Stories of community, stories of cooperation, stories of peace, stories of kindness. As the Barenaked Ladies once sang, It’s time to make this something that is more than only fair.