Posts Tagged ‘society’

Lately it seems that I’ll do anything other than what will conduce to my mental, physical, or financial health.

So. We’re all familiar with the stereotypes of the Irishman – a drunken idiot more interested in carousing than in learning how to do anything the right way, a ready victim for its more self-controlled neighbors. FitzPatrick’s stories do nothing to change this perception. The constant perpetuation of negative stereotypes really turned me off to her writing. I suppose that without conflict there is no story, but there are ways of being Irish that are healthy and constructive. Any people who have maintained a sense of distinct identity and ethnic pride over thousands of years deserve a little more respect, even if you are one of them.

The other stereotype at play here is one I’ve contended with more directly, the one about how people who are good at school are terrible at everything else. Smart people in these stories go crazy, poison the world, die strange deaths, get raped, and are marginalized by a society that refuses to accept them. So. Let’s talk about what a pain in the ass it is to be smart.

When I was in high school, I had a series of seizures which I believe left me less intelligent than I was before. People remark on my brains now, but back then I was brilliant. It was hard for me to relate to other people because my mind worked so much faster than theirs, and could hold more information in short-term memory. This sort of mind represents power, and adults find power in children to be threatening. I spent my childhood being told that I couldn’t do things when all I really needed was a few more tries to get it right. I got locked into this habit of dropping activities that I didn’t excel at initially because people were so happy with my failures, and I was so ashamed. This is what makes people become supervillains, by the way – the keen sense that humanity rejoices in our pain.

There were times that my intelligence was useful, though – administrators liked the fact that I made their schools look good with very little effort on their part. Or mine either, I suppose. When they’d talk about school statistics, I felt used.

Being smart meant that I was isolated from my peers, who laughed if I got any questions wrong. I don’t mean quiet snickering; I mean, a full-class disruption that lasted for several minutes. I suppose I talk less than most people because I had to be right the first time, or suffer the disproportionate response of my classmates. I just couldn’t communicate on their level. I’m sorry, that sounds elitist; it would be more accurate to say that communication was difficult because I had dramatically different interests and a wider vocabulary. Later on, I would meet people who were equally as intelligent, but it was still hard to talk to them because I didn’t have the social skills they developed by having friends.

My younger sister used to warn her teachers at the beginning of the year not to expect her to be like me, because she wasn’t. She was equally exceptional, but in athletics instead of academics. She has always had a facility for being happy that I have never had, and I’ve been envious for most of my life. If intelligence is supposed to be its own reward, it ought to translate into something more positive than a bullet point on your resume, ten years in the future. When she’d joke at home about these conversations with her teachers, I felt rejected. I was busy being rejected by nearly everyone in my life at the time, so I had more urgent pain to deal with, but looking back on that now, it hurts.

Being a smart kid for me meant being alone, unhappy, and unwanted. And sometimes forgotten. I suppose I can’t blame all of this on intelligence – it probably also has to do with manner. I wasn’t reticent about my intelligence, and maybe people would have been different if I had been more patient and more kind. Then again, maybe being friends with me would have been just too much work, and they had their own stuff to go through. There’s a girl that I went through school with, and we reconnected on facebook a few years ago. But it took me a while to recognize her because she’s so happy now. She grins from ear to ear in every photograph she takes, and I have no memories of her smiling as a child. When I mentioned this, she agreed that none of us had much to be happy about back then. Life was so Faulknerian back then – not cheerful, Cash talks Darl into going to Jackson Faulkner, I mean Quentin Compson getting his head dumped full of incestuous revenge tragedies and going to the watch shop before drowning himself Faulkner. Like Quentin, being smart was just depressing, and adding up the pieces of our lives and synthesizing them leads to adult forms of truth we’re not ready for. Being smart was a bit like a disease, and no one wanted to catch it from me.

I’ve passed it on to my kids, though. When I went to college, I met someone who was also smart and felt as rejected as I did, so of course we got married and reproduced. My children seem happier and more socially adjusted than I was, but that could just be me projecting my desires onto them. My youngest seems to have absorbed my childhood habit of saying things that are true and unpleasant, like the fact that he is less drawn to me than his brothers are because he was still just a baby when we got divorced. The fact that he said it so plainly to me makes me think that some adult said this when they thought he wasn’t listening, and he’s been trying to use this fact to make sense of who he is. I worry sometimes that he doesn’t like me the way the other two do, but that might be related to the fact that he’s right, we don’t connect as easily. But maybe I was hard to connect with at that age too.

It’s like the whole teacher thing. A lot of people think that smart people become teachers, but that’s a load of bollocks. People become teachers because they had positive experiences in school, which is why cheerleaders and football players teach high school and late-blooming misfits teach at colleges and universities. I was really unhappy as a child, so now it’s hard for me to relate to children, even my own. I didn’t have any really close friends until I was eighteen, and that’s about the age of students that I can start connecting with. I do better with adults. Even as a kid, I was more drawn to grown-ups than to people my own age.

So, wrapping up. Society seldom values intelligence unless it’s partnered with common interests and emotional accessibility. FitzPatrick’s book was five dollars at a used shop, but you can buy it new on Amazon for only $4.50. There are some funny moments, but I found the cumulative effect depressing, which is sort of to be expected from a self-consciously literary book from the 1990s. Unhealthy stereotypes of Irish people and intelligent people, and putting them together you get characters who are just not suited to the real world.

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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.

I do love my dystopian fiction, perhaps a little more than most. This novel is different than your classic dystopias because instead of presenting us with a new dystopian world, Eggers starts with a world very similar to ours and shows us how dystopia develops, or how it could develop from where we are now.

The basis of society’s transformation is The Circle. It starts with electronic health records, which we’re already moving toward in the United States, and joins them with banking and credit card information. Thus, each person has an online identity for purchases and prescriptions, a TruYou, which sounds sort of convenient in a creepy way. Now, imagine that all of this information is linked to Facebook, so your friends can Like and Comment on your dental cleanings and physical examinations.

The next step is SeeChange, a system of cameras placed everywhere. It’s sort of like the CCTV in London and other major cities, but the live feeds are broadcast on Facebook, with facial recognition software that automatically tags you so that people can watch you, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing. Also, it’s not the government posting cameras, it’s regular people. Imagine that you’re a regular customer at a kayak rental. You’re there enough that you have a fairly close relationship with the owner. You have a really hard day and need some serious paddle time, but it’s late at night and the shop is closed. You know the owner won’t mind if you borrow a boat, so you jump the fence and take one out. The time on the water does you a lot of good, but by the time you get back to shore the police are waiting to arrest you. You have them call the owner and she tells the police to let you go; she’s not going to press charges even though it is technically a theft. When you get to work in the morning, everyone is talking about your near-arrest, including your immediate supervisor and the president of the company. A number of coworkers don’t care about the crime but are hurt that you haven’t joined their kayaking groups on Facebook.

The kayak incident is the climax that drives us into the second half of the book, about transparency. The classic dystopian formula is in three parts, Thesis Antithesis Synthesis, but because Eggers’s story is not a classic dystopia, his book works differently. It is divided into three books, but the third is more of an epilogue. Transparency joins the ideas of TruYou and SeeChange – you wear a camera around your neck that broadcasts everything you see, say, and do, all the time. You can turn the sound off in the bathroom and you can take it off when you’re asleep, but otherwise your life is a reality show where friends and strangers can watch you at any time. There is one level of embarrassment at walking in on your parents having sex; there is a whole other level where you walk in on your parents having sex and accidentally broadcast that to forty thousand people on Twitter, where people comment on how great it is for two people at their ages and with their medical backgrounds to continue being interested in sexual activity. Politicians pick up on transparency and use it to virtue-signal to their constituents; it’s a snowball where once one representative goes transparent, they all have to or they look untrustworthy. There’s also a movement to move voting online and to make it mandatory, the sort of direct democracy a lot of people think they want to live in. It’s actually pretty horrible. I mean, politicians are people that we choose to make decisions for us – there are too many issues in this country for each citizen to inform themselves fully on each issue and make an intelligent decision. This is what representative government is all about. In the end, transparency alienates our protagonist because her friends and family can’t act naturally when everything they say becomes so very public.

So, let’s talk characters. Our protagonist is Mae, a bright young recruit at The Circle. She doesn’t immediately get into the idea that the company wants to own her entire life, but she eventually gets into it. She becomes the public face of The Circle, the first average citizen to go transparent. We’re told that she’s smart at the beginning of the book, but in time it becomes clear that she’s a pawn in bigger schemes. Supervisors keep manipulating her into having epiphanies about the everyone-together-all-the-time corporate culture, until she distills that culture into a few Orwellian sound bites. Her ending is totally 1984.

Mae turned to look at the three lines together. She blinked back tears, seeing it all there. Had she really thought of all that herself?
SECRETS ARE LIES
SHARING IS CARING
PRIVACY IS THEFT
Mae’s throat was tight, dry. She knew she couldn’t speak, so she hoped Bailey wouldn’t ask her to. As if sensing how she felt, that she was overcome, he winked at her and turned to the audience.

“Let’s thank Mae for her candor, her brilliance, and her consummate humanity, can we please?”

She can seem inconsistent, but I kind of understand her. A lot of her decisions are based on expediency – her dad will die without her company’s insurance, so she will do pretty much anything to keep the job. Add to that social pressure to go with the group and her capacity to commit to a decision even if she thinks it’s a bad one and kind of forced on her. She’s also controlled by her need for public approval, as manifested by Likes on her posts. So I think it’s understandable that she makes short-sighted decisions that seem random and inconsistent – she’s being indoctrinated in a cult-like atmosphere, so think of her more as a cult follower than a normal employee.

Mae’s best friend Annie got her the job at The Circle. Annie spends most of her time doing higher-level work with foreign governments while Mae is stuck in customer service. Annie’s life is ruined when she gets tapped as the pilot for PastPerfect, The Circle’s extension into family history. When people find out her British ancestors had Irish slaves, it’s pretty bad. When people find out her American ancestors had African slaves, it’s even worse. When a video surfaces of her parents watching someone die, it’s the end. Privilege has become a terrible word in American society, and it defines her family for thousands of years.

Mae has three boyfriends to deal with. Mercer is the ex that her parents still love. He hides from the spread of technology and has a John the Savage ending, though it’s not the climax like it was in Brave New World. Francis is the kind of supernerd who makes sense in a tech company but would have a hard time in the real world. Mae gets frustrated with his persistently premature ejaculations. Kalden is secret and shadowy, somehow inside The Circle but without espousing any of its ideals. He’s the kind of well-endowed lover that leaves Mae daydreaming, but it’s hard for her to trust him.

There are three heads of The Circle, and at one point they bring in three marine animals that sort of represent them. The seahorse is Ty – he hides at the bottom, guarding his children, which in this case are his ideas and inventions. He has very little contact with the public. The octopus is Eamon Bailey – he stretches out his tentacles in an effort to know and understand the world around him. He’s the warm fuzzy that people see – he wants to know people, and don’t we all want to be known? The shark is Stenton. He controls the money and therefore more than anyone else really understands or admits to themselves. Like Google and Apple, The Circle presents this image of a company that likes learning and exploring ways of connecting people to each other in an effort to mask the fact that they are profit-based institutions. Stenton is kept in the background as a sort of necessary evil, but he’s a shark. When they put all three animals in a tank together, the shark eats the other two. That’s what sharks do.

Whenever I see a group of three like this, I try to fit it into the Mind-Body-Soul symbolism, but these seem to be working in opposite directions. With the boyfriends, Mae rejects Mercer/Body, betrays Kalden/Soul, and ends up with Francis/Mind, which is disappointing. With the executives, Stenton/Body and Bailey/Soul make Ty/Mind unimportant, but the implication is that eventually Body will overpower Soul and reign supreme. Either way, a balance is impossible to sustain.

There was a film last year, with a lot of really big names like Emma Watson, Karen Gillan, Patton Oswalt, Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, and Glenne Headley. But even though Eggers was working on it, it seems to have fared much worse than the book. I think the movie’s failure has to do with the very ideas the story addresses: the ending was changed to make it more marketable, and they had to reshoot several scenes because test audiences didn’t find the protagonist to be very likable. Since my theory is that Mae was chosen for her malleability and need for external approbation more than for her intelligence, I think Emma Watson might be too smart to play the character. I find it interesting that a film based on a book that is against crowd mentalities ruined the message by trying to appease the crowd mentality. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m not fond of faithless adaptations, and I’m not so in love with the book that I’m ready to see the story as plastic.

The recent news about Facebook makes this book all the more timely. It seems that four or five years ago, a company called Cambridge Analytica stole data from thousands of Facebook profiles and used it to manipulate people’s ideas, pushing for unnecessarily conservative events like Brexit and the Trump election. Facebook is backpedalling as much as it can, but the information gathering was allowed under the privacy policies in place at the time. In related news, Facebook has been experiencing a decline in usage figures, so maybe this is the beginning of the end. Personally, I like the interface and the fact that most of my friends and family members are there – it’s a low-effort way for an introvert to maintain relationships. That being said, I don’t think it’s perfect either, and I have complicated feelings about putting personal information on my profile. I am curious, though – if Facebook falls, what will rise to take its place?

Above all, this is a book about privacy and the difference between our real selves and our public personas. I believe that all people need times and places where they are unobserved, where we can rest from the need to perform for others. We need a break from all that approval. The Circle presents us with a quick and easy path from where we are now to a world with no privacy, no relaxation, no disconnecting. For an introvert like me, this world is a nightmare. I’ve heard that this is a generational difference, that people of my generation are more individualistic while the kids born in the late 1990s and early 2000s are more communal, and if that’s true then many of them wouldn’t see the problem this book presents. And I suppose part of the problem with both book and film is that this is Generation X’s perception of what Millennials believe, which may not be accurate. But it’s interesting to explore these ideas and decide whether privacy is a big deal, and how important it is to us.

As a final note, I’d like to point out that in this book no one’s identity is stolen. A lot of us think that the main problem with online identities is that they can be falsified and the information used fraudulently, but that’s not the big problem for Eggers. It’s the ideas inherent in social media that are the problem, the Ding an sich and not the abuse of it.

As I’ve been thinking of things this week, I’ve realized that there is an astonishing amount of rape in Greek mythology. It seems like a third of their stories are, “Fleeing from a man about to rape her, a woman is transformed into a feature of the landscape,” and another third are, “Having been raped, a woman flees from the rapist’s jealous wife and is transformed or killed.” Women’s bodies are mutable and disposable, and men are powerless to control their constant erections. The story of Pan is no different: He chases a girl who doesn’t want to sleep with him, she gets transformed into a reed, and he cuts a group of reeds (hoping to get her) and makes them into a musical instrument. Pan seems to be defined by his sexual appetite – I’ve even seen a statue of him fucking a goat, but instead of the goat standing on its legs (the more practical approach), he’s got the animal on its back, which seems to imply consent but also the idea that this is unnatural. Hamsun only explicitly mentions Pan in one short scene, but the protagonist seems modeled on him, the man who lives in nature and is sexually irresistible.

pan

This is a story of the Nordland summer, when instead of the night nearly equal to the day, the sky blushes as the sun approaches the horizon for a kiss and a little touch before shooting back up into the air. It’s mostly the first-person account of Lt Glahn’s loves during that summer, but there is a short narrative from another voice at the end that shows us a little about him.

When I met him in the autumn of 1859, he was a man of thirty-two – we were about the same age. At that time he had a full beard and wore woollen hunting shirts with excessively low-cut necks, and it happened also that he not infrequently left the top button undone. At first, his neck struck me as being remarkably handsome; but little by little he made me his deadly enemy, and then I did not think his neck any finer than mine, even though I did not show it off as much.

Glahn lives in a little hut close to the woods, and I’m honestly a little envious of how easily he manages his sex life. Girls just seem to show up at his hut, ready to go, as if the warm weather activates a magnet that draws partners to his cock. For all his good looks and self-confidence, though, he’s still a wild man of the woods, sort of useless in polite nineteenth-century Norwegian society.

I have written this now just for my own pleasure and amused myself as best I could. No worries weigh on me, I merely long to go away, I know not where, but far away, perhaps to Africa or to India; for I belong to the forests and the solitude.

Much as he enjoys spending time with Henriette and Eva and the other girls who pop in to the hut, Glahn is interested in, and gradually obsessed with, Edvarda, the local rich girl. She won’t sleep with him, but spends the entire summer playing this elaborate come-here-now-go-away thing that I personally would not have put up with. I don’t understand the pursuit of someone so irresolute in her actions; Edvarda likes the power of having a handsome man in love with her, but I don’t think she actually likes him, she just can’t bear to have him like anyone else. Edvarda’s father pays Eva to do some work for them, so she gets angry and mocks Glahn for talking with ‘a servant,’ or ‘the help,’ but to Glahn they’re both just women, and all women are equal. Or at least, they’re ranked according to beauty and attraction to him, not according to wealth or social standing. Edvarda plays with a couple of other men that summer too, a Doctor and a Baron, both of whom Glahn abuses, both of whom Edvarda compares him unfavorably with. And he does some pretty insane things out of love for this girl – she says that the Doctor is a better man than he even though he’s lame, so Glahn shoots himself in the foot and has to spend weeks recovering under the care of the Doctor he’s so jealous of. He doesn’t end up lame, though, just a little arthritic when the weather is ready to turn.

This is the nineteenth century, though, so a book about casual sex and the misery of denying it will, of course, involve a lot of dying. So I wasn’t surprised so much as saddened at the end. I like to think that sex can be good and happy, not leading to madness and death.

Although I lack Glahn’s confidence in my own attractiveness, I identify with a lot of what he says. He has a number of elaborate descriptions of nature and the effect it has on him.

From my hut I could see a confusion of islands and rocks and skerries, a little of the sea, a few blue-tinged peaks; and behind the hut lay the forest, an immense forest. I was filled with joy and thankfulness at the smell of the roots and leaves and the rich, fatty redolence of the firs, so like the smell of bone-marrow. Only in the forest did all within me find peace, my soul became tranquil and full of might.

This is, of course, why I love North Carolina so much. It’s a place of forests, where I can spend time with the trees, breathing in the rich life of their oxygenic exhalations. In the woods there is an ecstasy, a rapture, that doesn’t belong to any other place.

I lay on the ground as I ate. It was quiet over the earth, just a gentle sighing of the wind and here and there the sound of birds. I lay and watched the branches waving gently in the breeze; a diligent little wind was bearing the pollen from twig to twig and filling each innocent blossom; the whole forest was in ecstasy. A little green caterpillar loops its way along a branch, without pause, as though it could not rest. It scarcely sees anything, although it has eyes; often it rears up and feels the air for something to catch hold of; it looks like a bit of green thread slowly stitching a seam along the branch. Perhaps by evening it will have arrived where it wants to be.

For all his attention to the outward world, though, Glahn is rarely self-aware; he doesn’t identify or admit what he is feeling and why. When he tells a girl he loves her, it rings false because I’ve just read an entire chapter about shooting a couple of birds, roasting them over a fire, and eating them, but he hasn’t mentioned her or himself thinking about her, and he’s either fucking or mooning over other girls at the same time. I suppose it could be not so much a lack of self-awareness as an unwillingness to commit his awareness to paper, but his actions make me think that he’s not great at thinking things through or planning ahead.

I lie closer to the fire and watch the flames. A fir cone falls from its branch, and then a dry twig or two. The night is like a boundless deep. I close my eyes.

After an hour, all my senses are throbbing in rhythm, I am ringing with the great stillness, ringing with it. I look up at the crescent moon standing in the sky like a white shell and I feel a great love for it, I feel myself blushing. ‘It is the moon,’ I say softly and passionately, ‘it is the moon!’ And my heart beats gently towards it. Several minutes pass. A slight breeze springs up, an unnatural gust of wind strikes me, a strange rush of air. What is it? I look about me and see no one. The wind calls to me and my soul bows in obedience to the call, I feel myself lifted out of my context, pressed to an invisible breast, tears spring to my eyes, I tremble – God is standing somewhere near looking at me. Again some minutes pass. I turn my head, the strangely heavy air ebbs away and I see something like the back of a spirit who wanders soundlessly through the forest.

I struggle for a little while against a heavy stupor; with mind worn out by agitation and weary as death, I fall asleep.

Which reminds me of my own experiences of the divine in this world, and the way that for me the sacred and the sexual and the natural are all intimately tied together. Perhaps my unsatisfaction with my sex life is caused by not giving enough attention to those other two areas. Maybe Glahn’s confidence comes not from staring into a mirror but from touching the trees and shunning human society. In this book, the sense of powerlessness comes from other people – solitude in nature revitalizes the protagonist until he’s glowing with life. There are no faux pas in the forest.

For it is within ourselves that the sources of joy and sorrow lie.

Glahn tells us this at the beginning, and then tells a story where he forgets it, trying to extract these emotions from a woman instead of just accepting them as they come up within himself. I believe that the statement is true, that our true happiness comes from ourselves rather than our external circumstances, but there are external circumstances that support creating joy. For me, those include trees and aloneness, but for others those could be the sea and a crowd, or the desert with one special man. But whatever those circumstances may be, it’s important not to lose sight of them as I tend to do. These last few months I’ve been trying to engage more with people, but that means that I’m not taking care of my self, or my soul if you’d rather, like I did when I was so far away.

There is, of course, one other important feature of the Pan myth: he dies. The rest of the pantheon is cursed to endure, forgotten, faded, and immortal, but Pan dies. His death signals the end of Greek polytheism and the beginning of the Christian era, where there is only one god and he only impregnates one girl (who consents) and everything is single instead of multiple. Not only is rape punished now, but so are masturbation, homosexuality, fornication, and adultery. That sentence really makes it sound like I’m somehow nostalgic for a society in which rape is acceptable, but I’m not. I’m all for sexual license, but only as long as the consent of all parties is obtained – nothing sensual if not consensual. Pan’s death marks the end of rustic pleasure and the beginning of a policed society. Similarly, Glahn’s departure seems to be the end of an era – civilization has taken over. Nominally Christian morality has taken over, people have been sorted into classes, and economic power has replaced emotional connection as the motivator of human behavior. The cities have defeated the forests – in nineteenth-century Norway. In my here and now, the antagonism between the two seems to be passing away. A number of cities are incorporating greenways, large parks, and other acknowledgments that people need nature to survive. I’ve seen forested bridges that allow animals to cross highways in safety and landscaped roofs of conference buildings where executives can walk through a garden between meetings. The library where I work is halfway buried in a hillside, and while that means there are no windows on an entire side of the building, it also means that, as every book was once a tree, ours are rooted in the earth. Perhaps I love libraries so much because they are the forests where we keep our knowledge and experience, the collected memory of our species. And perhaps I’m spending less time with the trees because I’m spending so much more time with the books.

We had a snowstorm here, which seems to have begun early last Friday morning and continued until Saturday afternoon. Saturday I was awakened at 5:30 by the landlady next door, banging on my door and shouting that the power was out. My initial reaction was to wonder rather rudely what concern of mine that was, but I kept my mouth shut and eventually answered the door, simply saying “I don’t understand.” I figured that she might want to go somewhere to plug in her oxygen apparatus, but after I got nearly twelve inches of snow off her car, she didn’t want to go anywhere. After a while I figured out that she had dragged me out of bed simply because she didn’t want to be alone in the cold and the dark. The experience felt surreal, like we were acting in one of those shitty modern plays where everything is hyper-realistic and nothing seems to happen. I could see my own words written on a page in front of me as I was saying them. Once the sun came up she released me from conversation and I went back to bed to finish reading Northanger Abbey.

The last six years have been the bicentennial of Jane Austen’s publishing career, starting with Sense and Sensibility in 1811 and finishing with Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, published together as a four-volume set in December 1817. However, for the other bicentennials, I’ve had things going on – I spent 2011 preparing to come out of the closet and celebrating the birth of my third son, 2013 and 2014 (Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park) in Saudi Arabia working through my identity issues and suicidal tendencies, and 2016 (Emma) dealing with paranoia and post-traumatic stress. I suppose it’s not really paranoia if they really are out to get you, and the Christians really were plotting my downfall, I just didn’t understand the messages my subconscious was sending until it was too late to profit by them. So here I am, just now celebrating an Austen bicentennial at the appropriate time, the release of her posthumous books. NA and P were published in December, but Miss Jane had passed away the previous July.

NORTHANGER ABBEY

nabbey

In the 1790s, Austen wrote three novels: First Impressions, Elinor and Marianne, and Susan. After her father’s retirement the family moved to Bath, and she prepared Susan for publication. It was sold to a publisher in 1803, but he kept it without doing anything with it. Eventually she bought it back, revised it again (changing the protagonist’s name) and published it as Northanger Abbey. This is one of her most intertextual books, with several homages to the Gothic novels of the 1790s – so many, that in the advertisement for the book, she apologized for its being a little dated even before it was published. Since Frankenstein came out in 1818, and Melmoth the Wanderer in 1820, I think she needn’t have worried, but the Gothic craze was dying down a bit. The most important source is Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, which I read thirteen years ago and haven’t felt the need to go back to. It’s a huge book, and Radcliffe holds the audience in suspense a little too long for me. By the time the mystery is solved, three pages before the end of the book, I don’t care any more. I just wanted it to end. I do appreciate Mrs Radcliffe’s rich descriptions of the natural scenery, and I do recommend her other novels to the attention of people who are fond of two-hundred-year-old suspenseful romances (The Italian, The Romance of the Forest), but Udolpho requires a dedication that I’m not ready to give just now. I have the same hesitation for reading other long books as well – I want to be sure that the exchange of time for pleasure will pay off.

Catherine Morland is the protagonist, but hardly a Gothic heroine. Happy home life with three older brothers and six younger siblings, with two living parents who seem intelligent and interested in promoting their children’s welfare. She’s not especially bright, or talented, or beautiful, but she loves reading scary stories, so Gothic novels fill her thoughts. She goes off to Bath with friends of her parents, and she meets a man that she really likes.

She was assured of his affection; and that heart in return was solicited, which, perhaps, they pretty equally knew was already entirely his own; for, though Henry was now sincerely attached to her, – though he felt and delighted in all the excellencies of her character, and truly loved her society, – I must confess that his affection originated in nothing better than gratitude; or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought. It is a new circumstance in romance, I acknowledge, and dreadfully derogatory of a heroine’s dignity; but if it be as new in common life, the credit of a wild imagination will at least be all my own.

For a clergyman, Henry Tilney is kind of a sarcastic bitch, and it seems that Catherine loves him because he’s the first guy to give her any attention at all. He’s smart enough to see the advantages of loving a seventeen-year-old girl who’s a little more innocent than we expect girls to be in the twenty-first century – Catherine is sweet and kind, always attributing the best possible motives to other people and blaming herself for misunderstanding when they prove to be less perfect than she imagines. Unless the person in question reminds her of the villains in Gothic romances, in which case she assigns the worst possible motives instead.

After meeting Henry, she meets the Thorpes, a brother and sister destined to grieve and perturb.

Friendship is certainly the finest balm for the pangs of disappointed love.

At first, Isabella seemed the perfect friend, especially when she gets interested in Catherine’s brother James. John Thorpe then pays his addresses to Catherine, but she finds him very uncongenial from the start. He’s not interested in talking about books, only about carriages and hunting, rather a lot like the straight men I grew up with. The vehicles are a little more modern, and the hunting involves dogs and horses less often, but the dullness of the conversation is unchanged. The panic she feels in a car being driven way too fast and the umbrage she takes at being lied to are also familiar experiences.

Catherine spends Volume II on a visit to the Tilneys’ home, Northanger Abbey.

Her passion for ancient edifices was next in degree to her passion for Henry Tilney, – and castles and abbeys made usually the charm of those reveries which his image did not fill.

Catherine tries to write herself into a Gothic novel, but real life is set at a lower pitch than a Radcliffe novel, so self-centered men might be a pain to live with, but they don’t lock their wives in towers and starve them to death. A comparison could be drawn to another Austen protagonist, Emma Woodhouse, in the way that they both create stories for their lives and the lives of their friends that have no bearing on the real world, being based on the author’s character and not the character of those friends. Besides, there are always secrets that the protagonist is not privy to, which leads to the surprises in their narratives.

When I first read Austen’s novels, my sister-in-law was reading them too, and I suggested them to the brother who connects us, but he declined, stating that Austen’s characters cared more about the lace on their dresses than the realities of their personalities (or something like that, I’m trying to remember a conversation from fifteen years ago) – which I thought an odd comment for someone who had only ever seen the Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice, until I was speaking with my mother and she made the same comment in almost exactly the same words. Having attended high school in the 1960s, my mom had had to read many of the books that I read at university, so I knew that she might have some actual Austen experience.

It would be mortifying to the feelings of many ladies could they be made to understand how little the heart of man is affected by what is costly or new in their attire; how little it is biassed by the texture of their muslin, and how unsusceptible of peculiar tenderness towards the spotted, the sprigged, the mull or the jackonet. Woman is fine for her own satisfaction alone. No man will admire her the more, no woman will like her the better for it. Neatness and fashion are enough for the former, and a something of shabbiness or impropriety will be most endearing to the latter.

But the excessive attention to lace is a sign of an unsympathetic character, and Austen has quite the same opinion of such people as my mother and brother do. Which I was able to convince my mother of in the following years, as I kept sending her books like Mansfield Park and Persuasion. When I started sending Victorian novels, though, she stopped reading them, and sometimes I have half a mind to take back Villette because people who don’t love that book shouldn’t have access to it.

PERSUASION

persuasion

Persuasion was Austen’s last completed novel, and its protagonist is dramatically older than the others – Anne Elliott is a full ten years older than Catherine Morland.

Surely, if there be constant attachment on each side, our hearts must understand each other ere long. We are not boy and girl, to be captiously irritable, misled by every moment’s inadvertence, and wantonly playing with our own happiness.

So Anne thinks, but lovers at thirty are not so different from lovers at twenty as she might imagine. There are still all the same emotions, jealousies, and misunderstandings, but she is right that the two of them have much less tolerance for bullshit than they might have had when they were younger. Indeed, Austen herself seems ready to cut the shit and quit being routinely nice to everyone. This is the book where she lets herself get a little nasty.

The real circumstances of this pathetic piece of family history were, that the Musgroves had had the ill fortune of a very troublesome, hopeless son, and the good fortune to lose him before he reached his twentieth year; that he had been sent to sea, because he was stupid and unmanageable on shore; that he had been very little cared for at any time by his family, though quite as much as he deserved; seldom heard of, and scarcely at all regretted, when the intelligence of his death abroad had worked its way to Uppercross, two years before.

He had, in fact, though his sisters were now doing all they could for him, by calling him “poor Richard,” been nothing better than a thick-headed, unfeeling, unprofitable Dick Musgrove, who had never done any thing to entitle himself to more than the abbreviation of his name, living or dead.

And this is the author that once gave Mr Willoughby a reasonably happy ending.

As a skilled and practiced reader, I tend to identify with the protagonist in whatever book I’m reading, and Austen’s are no exception: I feel especially close to Fanny Price and Anne Elliott. It is often harder for me to identify with the men, though, particularly the ones like Colonel Brandon, who falls in love with a girl literally half his age. Thirty-five-year-old men have no business flirting with seventeen-year-olds, a fact that Marianne understands early on in Sense and Sensibility but allows herself to forget. I do feel close to Mr Darcy, with his shyness and overconfidence in his own understanding, and to Henry Crawford, with his short-sightedness and need to make everyone love him, but here in Persuasion there’s a man whose descriptions could more obviously apply to me. These phrases are other characters’ responses to him.

Give him a book, and he will read all day long.

He will sit poring over his book, and not know when a person speaks to him, or when one drops one’s scissors, or any thing that happens.

He is one of the dullest young men that ever lived. He has walked with me, sometimes, from one end of the sands to the other, without saying a word. He is not at all a well-bred young man.

He considered his disposition as of the sort which must suffer heavily, uniting very strong feelings with quiet, serious, and retiring manners, and a decided taste for reading, and sedentary pursuits.

He had a pleasing face and a melancholy air, just as he ought to have, and drew back from conversation.

Anne points out that while Captain Benwick’s manners aren’t ideal for his society, he has a good mind and is someone whose acquaintance is worth cultivating. I like to think that’s true of me as well; not that I’m ill-mannered, but I have the same habit of silence, particularly with people I don’t know well. I was driving a teenager to school once – when the conversation lapsed, she said, “Awkward silence,” and I replied, “I don’t find silence to be awkward.” I think it’s nice, and often restful. I do not aspire to Benwick’s fate, though, of meeting a girl with an empty head and filling it with my own books and opinions. I’d like to love someone who has his own mind.

Another pleasant singularity is in the way that Austen takes some time to show us a relationship that works, a rarity in her novels. Admiral Croft married a younger woman, to be sure, but she is by far the steadier head of the two, and Austen seems to represent them as a model for connubial bliss:

But by coolly giving the reins a better direction herself, they happily passed the danger; and by once afterwards judiciously putting out her hand, they neither fell into a rut, nor ran foul of a dung-cart; and Anne, with some amusement at their style of driving, which she imagined no bad representation of the general guidance of their affairs, found herself safely deposited by them at the cottage.

Knowing their feelings as she did, it was a most attractive picture of happiness to her. She always watched them as long as she could; delighted to fancy she understood what they might be talking of, as they walked along in happy independence, or equally delighted to see the Admiral’s hearty shake of the hand when he encountered an old friend, and observe their eagerness of conversation when occasionally forming into a little know of the navy, Mrs Croft looking as intelligent and keen as any of the officers around her.

While this is definitely complimentary to the pair, I think it’s also a big compliment to Mrs Croft. She lets her husband drive, but also makes sure he does it properly. Instead of getting all put out when they meet her husband’s friends, she participates actively in the conversation, which requires a knowledge of subject and audience that many people do not cultivate. Sometimes I think about the importance of boundaries, and she may cross those at times, but she crosses the stupid boundaries around what their society tells her a woman should know and be interested in. A person of her mental and physical strength would languish in the traditional wifely role, staying in England while her husband goes sailing for a year or more, in what Austen describes as the “the sameness and the elegance, the prosperity and the nothingness” of empty-headed society like Sir Walter and Elizabeth. It seems a real challenge to meet quality people – I don’t mean titled, I mean people of intellectual and moral substance – in any station of life, whether among the Regency gentry or twenty-first century America. In this case, I feel myself to be more blessed than most as regards my friends, and less blessed than most as regards lovers.

My cousin, Anne, shakes her head. She is not satisfied. She is fastidious. My dear cousin, (sitting down by her) you have a better right to be fastidious than almost any other woman I know; but will it answer? Will it make you happy? Will it not be wiser to accept the society of these good ladies in Laura-place, and enjoy all the advantages of the connexion as far as possible?

There are influences in my life encouraging me to get out there and find someone to date, and there are a couple of guys that I’ve sort of thought about, but I’m not really that attracted to them (I don’t mean primarily physically). I am questioning the worth of this fastidiousness, this disinclination to kiss frogs in the hope that one might turn into a prince, but still. I don’t want to force myself into a situation that I don’t actually want. I’ve been in a few awkward situations, and right now I seem to be choosing the discomfort of loneliness over the discomfort of a bad relationship. And I know, not every encounter has to turn into a relationship, but there are so few prospects out here that I’m worried that I would force the relationship just to stave off the loneliness.

She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older – the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning.

I haven’t cast off the habit of prudence, but I want romance too – to feel loved, not just to get fucked. I want someone who will put his arm around me during a movie, who will sing with me in the car or in bed, who will hold me when I cry, who will take my hand and lead me through a crowd, who will love to touch me as much as I love to touch him. I want someone who will make me a priority in his life. When I buy flowers, I want them to be really for him and not actually for myself.

She watched – observed – reflected – and finally determined that this was not a case of fortitude or of resignation only. – A submissive spirit might be patient, a strong understanding would supply resolution, but here was something more; here was that elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself, which was from Nature alone. It was the choicest gift of Heaven; and Anne viewed her friend as one of those instances in which, by a merciful appointment, it seems designed to counterbalance almost every other want.

Fortitude, resignation, resolution, patience – these are qualities I can actually do pretty well with, despite my complaining here on the blog. But Persuasion reminds me that these aren’t the way to happiness. Being truly happy comes from within, not from external circumstances. Even if I did have a job that allowed me to pay my bills and a man who loved me, these things would not guarantee my happiness. That can only come from me, from making peace with myself and from loving being who I am.

It’s always a little sad to me that Jane Austen died without having experienced the sort of marital felicity she imagines for her characters, but really, I get sad when I remember that she died at all. And at the end of Persuasion there were some tears, whether for the conversation comparing the strength of men’s and women’s love or for the end of the book or for the end of the career I’ll leave you to decide for yourself. I imagine the world two hundred years from now and wonder whether anyone will remember my name then, or if my memory will last even twenty years after I go. But while some look at Austen’s novels as proof of the oppressive restrictions placed on women in Regency society, her name endures. People are still reading and writing and thinking about her, much more so than any of her brothers, despite their active careers and large families. She may have focused on “a little bit of ivory, two inches wide,” but she created something beautiful, which I truly believe will last as long as civilization endures.

mythologies

I’ve been working in a library for the last few weeks, and I’m finding it quite agreeable. It allows me to use both my retail warehouse experience and my academic experience. I’m enjoying it so much I’m considering going back to school next year to qualify for a full-time job. One of the benefits is getting a close look at the collection, which is really very interesting. As is essential with small libraries, the collection is highly idiosyncratic; big sections on medicine and sociology, not as much in languages or the hard sciences. I sometimes think that we must have had an amazing collection forty years ago, but then I realize that these books that were cutting edge in the 1970s probably weren’t acquired until the late 1980s or 1990s.

This is from work rather than from my personal collection; I’m the first person to check it out, but now that there’s a stamp from 2017 it’s likely to have a spot reserved on our shelf for some time to come. This is a book of essays about French pop culture in the 1950s, translated to English in the 1970s, but Barthes’s observations seem oddly congruent with American society of the 2010s. Far from being a dispassionate observer, Barthes seems to get quite angry about things, and the things that make him angry are the same things making my friends angry now.

The petit-bourgeois is a man unable to imagine the Other. If he comes face to face with him, he blinds himself, ignores and denies him, or else transforms him into himself. In the petit-bourgeois universe, all the experiences of confrontation are reverberating, any otherness is reduced to sameness. The spectacle or the tribunal, which are both places where the Other threatens to appear in full view, become mirrors. This is because the Other is a scandal which threatens his essence. Dominici cannot have access to social existence unless he is previously reduced to the state of a small simulacrum of the President of the Assizes or the Public Prosecutor: this is the price one must pay in order to condemn him justly, since Justice is a weighing operation and since scales can only weigh like against like. There are, in any petit-bourgeois consciousness, small simulacra of the hooligan, the parricide, the homosexual, etc., which periodically the judiciary extracts from its brain, puts in the dock, admonishes and condemns: one never tries anybody but analogues who have gone astray: it is a question of direction, not of nature, for that’s how men are. Sometimes – rarely – the Other is revealed as irreducible: not because of a sudden scruple, but because common sense rebels: a man does not have a white skin, but a black one, another drinks pear juice, not Pernod. How can one assimilate the Negro, the Russian? There is here a figure for emergencies: exoticism. The Other becomes a pure object, a spectacle, a clown. Relegated to the confines of humanity, he no longer threatens the security of the home. This figure is chiefly petit-bourgeois. For, even if he is unable to experience the Other in himself, the bourgeois can at least imagine the place where he fits in: this is what is known as liberalism, which is a sort of intellectual equilibrium based on recognized places. The petit-bourgeois class is not liberal (it produces Fascism, whereas the bourgeoisie uses it): it follows the same route as the bourgeoisie, but lags behind. [Barthes’s italics]

Barthes’s main point can be summarized pretty quickly, actually. One of the most important problems with people (specifically, the bourgeois, or we might say conservatives or Trump supporters) is that they confuse Nature with History. They look at the injustice in the world and they assume it is the natural order of humanity instead of a culturally specific situation determined by social, political, and economic forces (what he calls History). Nowadays we call it being blind to privilege and it’s the fashionable complaint against our political opponents, but it’s the same concept. The consequence of this confusion is what I call The Myth of Human Powerlessness, the idea that no one can do anything about things. People don’t fight against injustice because they think that they can’t (powerless) and that they shouldn’t (it’s natural, so no one is responsible for it, least of all me).

The first part of the book is a set of short pieces, each three or four pages long and inspired by something happening around him. Some of the pieces come from performances, like a wrestling match or a striptease, but others come from reading the sort of magazines that these days are found in the supermarket checkout line – Elle, Paris-Match, and L’Express. These pieces are focused on concrete facts and events, which makes them fairly simple to understand.

The second part is a fifty-page essay of post-structuralist theory, which is highly abstract and less simple to understand. He refers to Saussure and Freud and seems to prefigure Derrida, whose first major essay was written around the same time, but most of whose work came later. Barthes defines mythology as a second order of signification: a concept is represented by a symbol, and the relationship between the two is considered a sign, which is a simple dialectic that I can understand. I saw Bell, Book, and Candle for the first time recently, so let’s talk about it. Most of the main characters are witches, but if they fall in love with the opposite sex they lose all their power, so they are constantly fighting against heterosexuality. So in this film, it seems like witchcraft is a symbol for gay sexual orientation; homosexuality is the signified, witchcraft the signifier, and our connection between them (which includes them) is the sign.

The trick with Barthes’s definition of mythology is that it’s a second-order sign: the sign itself can become a symbol for another concept, and the relationship between the two can be considered a myth. Or in other words, what does the fact that we equate witchcraft with homosexuality mean? The narrative surrounding homosexuality in 1958 told the story of anti-American sexual deviants who had no place in proper society; these witches lead similar lives of secrecy and hold similarly dismissive attitudes about the people who demean their community and deny their right to exist. For Barthes, this is the sticking point: modern mythologies point us to injustices in our society, and for someone who understands that Human Powerlessness is a myth, injustice can and should be corrected. When I was in school people talked about how post-structural linguistic arguments were politically motivated, but I think I’m just beginning to understand that now.

Barthes includes a section on left-wing myth, but he points out that mythology is primarily a conservative drive. It’s the people on the right who have a vested interest in keeping things the same (hence the name conservative), so they invent complicated mythologies to maintain their privileged position. The examples of this are too numerous and too painful for me to pursue right now, and besides, the internet is full of people pointing out the injustices. I sometimes feel like my facebook friends are expecting me to fix all of the injustices right now (ALL OF THE INJUSTICES!!!!!!!), and while I don’t believe myself to be powerless, I don’t see how I can do more than I’m doing already, teaching my students to spot their own prejudices by guiding their reading of essays used as rhetorical models. Because I don’t think it’s enough to spread articles on facebook to raise awareness; I think awareness has to be coupled with a concrete plan of action to remedy the injustice. For example, people raised my awareness about the tragic hurricane in Puerto Rico, and then they included several links to pages where I could donate money to support the relief agencies traveling to the island to help the people. This one is good, but most of the others don’t tell me what I can do to relieve the pain. Hence my frustration with the MeToo hashtag, which seems to tell me not to sexually harass or assault women, but I’m already exhibiting that behavior. How much of this awareness-raising is being targeted at people who are already demonstrating the target behavior? How many of the people using that hashtag are actually friends with someone who would assault them or denigrate them because of their gender? And for men, the limit of what people seem to expect of us is that we won’t assault women. I can’t volunteer in a facility for women who have become victims because the mere fact of my maleness could be a trigger for them. My presence would make them relive their trauma, so I stay away. But I feel like there ought to be something I can do other than feel the weight of suffering of hundreds of people and carry it on my shoulders like Atlas.

The world is a beautiful place where good people live. But there are still problems, and Barthes’s strategies can help us elucidate those problems and work toward solutions. He doesn’t reach any solutions in this book (other than something like “treat people with more respect”), but he raises questions and models thinking that will push us in the direction of solutions. He’s raising awareness. And if it takes us another sixty years to find solutions, then at least we’re moving in the right direction.

Written in the late 1990s, this is a novel about Taiwanese homosexual men. In many ways, the story was really depressing, not just because the first-person narrator writes as a way of coping with his grief after his friend dies.

I boarded the first plane to Tokyo, then took the Ome Line train to Fussa. At the Fussa Clinic I saw Ah Yao, sunk into the hollow of his bedding, and spent his last five days with him. I can still say that AIDS is horrifying, but the price of loneliness is higher.

No, the much more depressing fact about the book is just how little of it is uniquely Taiwanese. With different names, this could have been about gay men in the United States. They follow the same culturally approved pattern that gay men in the west do: they accept their sexuality sometime in their teens or early twenties, then they run after sex like they have to meet a quota – like if they don’t sleep with a thousand different men before the age of twenty-eight, they have to give up being gay and marry a woman – and then they die of AIDS. Thanks to advances in technology, the dying-of-AIDS part is happening a lot less now than it used to, but this book is set during the 1990s, so the gay community is more strongly marked by absence and loss.

But even though the loss is devastating, I have to come back to this cultural question. Why are gay Asian men so similar to gay North American men? Is Taiwan so invested in American culture that some people are losing their connection to their own traditions? Ah Yao runs off to live in San Francisco and New York, just like any other gay man of the time, but the narrator lives primarily in Taipei. Is it true what I read in that homophobic French book about masculinity a while back, that there are noticeable cultural similarities among all gay men, no matter what their culture of origin? Or is it as the narrator thinks, that being gay necessarily separates us from the culture of our country, and that without procreation we have no place in normal society?

This last question I must answer with an emphatic No. I admit that the world has changed in the last twenty years, so I may not be reacting to the same world that these characters are, but I do not see any great separation between Us and Them. Thinking of my own experience, Dallas has a Gayborhood, but we’re not required to live and work there. Two of my friends got together because they taught in the same school, and the students encouraged them to get together – at a time when I would have been in middle school. Most of my gay male friends have close relationships with heterosexual women. And, oddly enough, a lot of gay people seem to be closer to their parents than straight people. Because we have fewer responsibilities with spouses and children, it is easier for aging parents to rely on us to fulfill their needs. That doesn’t really apply to me, since I have six siblings who are all more willing to care for our mother than I am, and a couple of them could be coaxed into caring for our father. Also, I’ve spent more than thirty years cultivating the image among my family that I’m useless in practical concerns, so I doubt they actually expect much from me.

But from what I can see, gay people are actually quite interested in whatever culture is happening around them. Maybe they’re in local theatre companies, or attending local art exhibitions, or reciting a liturgy in some High Church service, but we’re pretty deeply involved in local culture. The specifically gay aspects of our lives we save for the people who care about them, just like Christians who don’t talk about their religion at work. For example, I’m interested in my family history, which is one of my mother’s big interests, encouraged by her religious beliefs. I don’t have to believe that they’re converting to my way of thinking in the afterlife to want to learn who they were and how they lived.

We do see a hint of this with Ah Yao, who lives with his mother and tortures her by bringing his boys home to have really loud sex while she tries to turn the television loud enough to cover the noise. It’s one thing to say that your parents have to accept who you are, but being rude about it is something else. I mean, straight people don’t shove their sex lives in their parents’ faces; there’s no need for us to do that.

But I suppose the cultural similarities make the book easier to relate to. It seems to have been one of a short series of Taiwanese novels to be translated; I think the translation process is difficult because so few works make it across the Pacific. And really, find a forty-year-old gay man who can’t identify with this:

Eventually we had to admit to ourselves that there was no true hair restorer anywhere, just as there was no elixir of immortality. We admitted that our youth was gone and that we were paying the price for exhausting our energy and vitality as young men. We aged earlier, developed addictions, were afflicted with hidden illnesses, and died young.

I take issue with the idea here that aging prematurely is the result of too much gay sex, as if they’re being punished for having enjoyed their youth. I was celibate until marriage (age 24), completely faithful to my wife for eight years, and didn’t have gay sex until I was 34. Still, at 37, my hair is getting thin enough that I’ve nearly got a bald spot in the back, it’s greyer than that of people fifteen years older than I am, and I have to work hard to keep my weight reasonable. Age happens to us all; it’s not a punishment. And even if it were, it would be happening to everyone, regardless of their sexual habits or orientation. The signs of aging are much more likely to be caused by stress, or in other words, not enjoying life enough. Being happy in a way that doesn’t make you feel guilty seems key.

Paradoxically, Narrator and I seem to have reached the same conclusion by taking opposite paths:

My greatest consolation was to be alone with words in a clean house.

Eventually he finds someone like himself, who enjoys quiet activities and great sex, and they’re very happy together. I keep hoping that someday I’ll find my Yongjie, but I haven’t yet. I meet people (and hear stories of them) who realize that they’re happier without trying to find someone, so they live their lives alone. I’m not there yet, and I don’t think I ever will be. As I described myself to one such friend, when I’m eighty-five and living in a nursing home I’ll be flirting with the hot young seventy-year-olds. I don’t believe that I’ll ever stop looking for love. Now that I’m certain that it won’t happen with my current him, I keep looking outward, hoping one day to meet someone who likes reading and hiking and being quiet as much as I do. I’m not quite ready to leave him yet, but I’m gearing myself up for it.

Narrator gives his memories in a stream-of-consciousness fashion, so sometimes it’s hard to know what the timeframe is. I’m not sure it’s all that significant, anyway.

While I’m on the subject of gay culture, I want to mention a couple of other things. Yes, it’s great that we have the right to marry (in the United States) and there’s a general degree of acceptance. However. We’ve accomplished this by pushing the idea that ‘We’re just like you,’ which means that whatever truly unique aspects our community had are passing away. My friends are skipping the Columbus Pride parade because “it’s too family-friendly.” Gay is the culturally approved method of being edgy and cool, so we’re targets for hipsters who don’t want to try too hard. Sometimes I feel like we’re pit bulls who have had our teeth pulled. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the concept of the Gay Best Friend. To see this in action, watch the gritty reboot of the Archie comics, Riverdale. Now, most of this I thoroughly enjoyed, but I seriously object to the way that Veronica treats Kevin. When she first arrives in Riverdale, she’s happy that she can have a GBF, but she basically treats him like an adorable accessory instead of a human being. Most of the time she ignores him, but when she wants to rebel she takes him out for the evening. It’s odd because the writers try so hard to humanize and soften her in every other respect. I guess it’s still cool to Other gays as long as you do it in the same way you shave your poodle. Betty just treats him like her best friend, where being gay is about as significant as having brown hair, which I take as a sign of sincerity and moral value. I was a little worried about the series because I don’t have a lot of patience for high school drama, but this first season at least is a murder mystery, which I love. Riverdale isn’t as good as How to Get Away with Murder, but it held my attention. The series I’m enjoying with (I think) a healthy attitude toward sexuality is Sense8. It’s about eight people whose minds are linked, so as they share ideas and experiences, the sexuality becomes more fluid. The gangster and the cop, tough as they are, get mentally linked into the gay sex and participate, but it doesn’t diminish any of their stereotypically masculine qualities or behaviors. It’s like in Penny Dreadful when Ethan Chandler has a night with Dorian Grey without compromising his identity.

Anyway, back to Taiwan. This book was short and kept me reading, but it’s not happy. It’s one of those stories where being gay is a tragedy and leads to death, and even when Narrator finds his husband and settles down, he tells us of his insecurity and unhappiness rather than his joy. There are so many great things in the lives of gay men; I don’t want to spend all my time with this kind of depressing material. Maybe back then people weren’t talking about our joy, but we are now. Let’s tell happy stories; after all, Ginsberg’s line in “Howl” is about screaming with joy, not pain. Let’s spread the joy – the world has enough of the other stuff.