Posts Tagged ‘tragedy’

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.

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A few weeks ago, a very dear friend asked me my opinion of this book – apparently it’s the new big thing among certain gay communities. I must say, since it was copyrighted last year, this is one of the most recent books I’ve ever read in my life. I usually catch the cultural moment ten, fifteen, thirty, sometimes fifty or a hundred years late. Sometimes more.

My first impulse is to talk about the negatives, but that’s because he’s writing about things that are very similar to my experience, but expressed differently than I would, and not exactly my experience. It felt like he was trying to write my story but getting it wrong, as if he were making a collage of my life but mixing it in with stereotypes I don’t fit. I think this is what Rider Haggard must have felt when he read Treasure Island, only I’m not actually planning on writing a response.

I even felt something of that desire myself, though it was nothing like madness for me, in my life lived almost always beneath the pitch of poetry, a life of inhibition and missed chances, perhaps, but also a bearable life, a life that to some extent I had chosen and continued to choose.

This is one of the places where I diverge from him, because even though a good bit of my life has been dominated by inhibition and missed chances (as I think is inevitable when you wait until you’ve passed thirty to admit to yourself that you’re married to someone of the wrong gender), I have not lived my life beneath the pitch of poetry. I have always felt things deeply, and though my life has not always been what I want, my inner life has always been quite intense, and that is where poetry comes from. I don’t share the full force of my emotions with many people, and when I have done over an extended period of time, those people have asked me to please stop. I’m too much, which would make poetry the perfect outlet for me if I took the time for it more often.

Stylistically, all you really need to know is that Greenwell attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. It wouldn’t be fair to say that they all speak with the same voice, but they definitely all have the same accent. It’s the type of writing that wins the National Book Award, the highly self-conscious writing of Americans who write Literature (capital L) after around the 1990s. His sentences just keep going on and on. I wanted to break some of them into smaller sentences (comma splices are okay in the UK, but not here), but others I just wanted to cut off the ends because they were unnecessary, the meanings of those last clauses already understood. As I was thinking about why he would keep these obvious redundancies, I thought about what they contribute, and I realized that they were pointing out things that Protagonist doesn’t know, often with the implication that he can’t know, or that he can’t be bothered to find out. Or, you know, since this is supposedly fiction, the author could just make something up. There’s an air of ignorance and apathy that I had a hard time with, considering that this is a love story.

Thematically, all you really need to know is that this is a gay love story, and in our current cultural climate, that means there are three options: pornography, unrealistic stereotypes played for overdone comedy, and Greenwell’s choice, utter tragedy involving isolation and alienation. Seriously, gay writers and filmmakers have got to be the most depressing people in the world. What we need is our own version of Their Eyes Were Watching God, a story of how great it is to be us that doesn’t hide from the times it’s not, where we see someone really learn to love himself and claim his identity as something positive and peaceful rather than defiant and in opposition. Protagonist is an English teacher from Kentucky living in Bulgaria, and I guess he likes it even though he says some unkind things about the cityscape. He doesn’t like the Soviet architecture, but he seems to get on okay with the native stuff that survived World War II and the Cold War. The fact that he’s an English teacher doesn’t impact the story much because we don’t see him in class, but his narration shows that he loves languages and words, and the phrases he says in Bulgarian sound similar enough to the Russian that I remember to pique my interest.

Okay, plot. Mitko is a hustler in Sofia, and First-Person Narrating Protagonist hooks up with him a few times. They start to feel something real for each other, but FPN sort of freaks out and breaks it off. Then, a couple of years later, Mitko shows back up to tell him that he may have given FPN syphilis, and yup, sure enough, he did. The American teacher has enough income to pay for treatment, but the Bulgarian street kid does not, so he ends up most probably dying from it. It’s as simple as La Traviata, but as in that quote up above, he overthinks everything as a way of keeping his emotions in check, so he doesn’t get operatic. He feels this overwhelming attraction for this guy that he doesn’t even seem to like much, but he doesn’t dig into that. He treats his own emotions as something alien to him, along with everything else because he’s living in a foreign country. To some degree, he’s hiding from his anger so that it doesn’t overwhelm him – he’s bought into the lie that he’s monstrous, only capable of hurting the people around him. We see this most strongly when he has syphilis; one of the common themes of the gay tragedy archetype is that our love is paired with disease, as if being gay is inherently unhealthy. Well, his anger isn’t a disease, it’s a response to being rejected by his parents because he’s gay, and to having a pretty shitty dad. In the course of this book, he doesn’t unpack the injustice of his life; he just pushes it down and tries not to deal with his family. Moving to eastern Europe is a convenient way of hiding from his feelings.

Some of the similarities to my life are obvious, as in the whole ESL teacher thing. I came out of the closet and moved to Saudi Arabia, which isn’t that far from Bulgaria. I didn’t go looking for hookups, though, because having gay sex is punishable by beheading there. I know most gay Saudis don’t get their heads chopped off, but we’re all products of our culture, and I didn’t want to get involved with someone who thought what we would be doing was evil or shameful. I cannot deal with that kind of secrecy. I’m just not discreet enough.

I did hook up with a guy I met in Europe, though, and there were some similarities to Mitko. He expected me to be rich, not understanding that I was blowing all my money on a week in Paris. We went to an expensive restaurant and I spent way too much on a lunch, but I also skipped eating a couple of days that week. People don’t often get the way I swing back and forth like that; I’m not sure I understand it myself, but I know that I do, and I love and accept that about myself. Like Mitko, the Algerian boy made sure I knew where I stood in his life – as in, not the center, not even for the three days we spent together. He was also into some BDSM stuff that I am definitely not into, but Mitko doesn’t seem to be into choking. As I’m thinking about it, the Algerian was actually pretty great when his clothes were on; he just went sort of bizarro once the trousers were off. Mitko is pretty consistent, whether his dick is out or not.

When FPN was describing their early encounters, I contrasted them with my singular one-night stand. FPN can’t wait to get down to business, but Mitko puts him off, and actually borrows his computer to set up encounters with other clients. FPN just sort of lets him, staying off to the side, having someone within reach without reaching out to him. With Mr Labor Day, it was very different. I should say, I was very different. FPN is like me in being shy, but he’ll reach out to guys who set up dates in public toilets and I won’t. Then he keeps being shy all the way through. I believe that there is a time and a place for shyness and modesty, and that is in public when my trousers are still on. Once the clothes come off, the time for being shy is over. All I wanted to do with Mr Labor Day was touch him, so I did. There was Round One, then I rubbed his back and shoulders until he was ready for Round Two, and then after we were dressed I held him close and swayed and sang, “Do You Wanna Dance?” And I kept kissing him all the way out of his house and into the driveway. And on his side, he was so gentle. I remember how carefully he used his big rough hands to take my glasses off, fold them, and set them on his nightstand. Sometimes I remember the way that he touched me and my entire body responds, even if I’m driving down the freeway. FPN doesn’t get into the sexy details, at least not many of them, but when I was reading I had to assume that the sex was pretty phenomenal for FPN to put up with being treated with this lack of interest. But then again, maybe it was uninteresting, because he describes everything else in such detail. Or maybe his editors made him take it out. It’s like when people write gay romances but don’t have any experience with gay sex, so they describe in minute detail the furtive glances, the covert touching of hands, the stolen kisses, but when the lovers take it further the authors suddenly have all the prudery of the Hays Committee. Greenwell isn’t that extreme, but it’s clear that his story isn’t there. It’s not his goal to give us a blow-by-blow account of blowing Mitko, so we gloss over that. Oddly enough, we seem to get the most details when they’re in public restrooms, as if the level of privacy of the location is reflected in the way the story is told.

I’ve never been good at concealing anything, the whole bent of my nature is toward confession.

This is true of me as well (check the name of this blog again, if that’s a surprise to you), and I wonder if it’s the author rather than the narrator talking. After all, FPN has a name that’s hard for people who speak European languages to pronounce, as is Garth. What other languages use that dental fricative sound at the end? Arabic, and some Spanish accents. There are probably more; I’m just listing the ones I know from my own experience. He also only gives us the name of the guy who’s dead (probably) – everyone else is referred to by a common noun that indicates their relationship to FPN, or with a first initial. Maybe it’s a tactic to lend authenticity to a fictional narrative; maybe he just isn’t willing to assign fictional names to people who are real, alive, and possibly willing to sue him. In this blog I’ve been avoiding the use of names, but in the past I assigned fictional names to people, sometimes using their middle names, sometimes using names that would be easy for me to remember, like switching Jason and Justin, or renaming Peter Paul. But it seems like a cop-out. Once I was in a church pageant that was structured as a set of songs introduced by monologues, and all the monologues were given by characters named things like First Woman or Third Man. My friends kept saying, “George. Betty. How hard is that? Just give them names!” And really, if he were retelling his actual experience as if it were fictional, he’d be in good company (anything by Henry Miller or Jack Kerouac). I’d just prefer that it be made explicit. I’d like to know, am I identifying with someone who doesn’t exist, or am I making a real emotional connection with someone I have never met and will never meet through the medium of language?

One last complaint, I promise: the structure is weird. Yes, ABA form has been with music for centuries, and sometimes we do it in fiction too (think of Sense and Sensibility – Book 1 divided between two country homes, Book 2 in London, and Book 3 back in the country), but the B section doesn’t seem to fit. It feels like someone told him that he needed to add forty pages before they would publish his book, so he wrote a section on being a gay teenager in Kentucky (it’s only marginally about the present, when he gets news that his father is dying and takes forty pages to decide he’s not going back to the United States for the funeral). I suppose it gives us some motivation for him to have become an ESL teacher and left the country, but since he talks about word etymologies and English-Bulgarian cognates, he has enough of a linguistic interest to make it a reasonable career choice without hearing about how his father threw him out of the house. It would actually make more sense to talk about how he met the guy he actually calls his boyfriend, the Portuguese student named R (which makes me think of the Romeo in Warm Bodies). It might take some focus off of the Mitko stuff, but it’s sort of like in Merry Wives of Windsor, where I don’t care about the Fords’ marriage because I’ve never seen their happiness. I don’t know what his jealousy costs them both, except to recognize that Mrs Ford is completely awesome and his fears are unfounded.

Okay. I’ve talked and talked about the problems and the connections, but as I alluded to earlier, a good part of what I feel about this book is jealousy. Some people have the confidence and determination to make a career of writing, and I blog about them instead of doing it myself. Lately, all my attempts at fiction writing have veered into the pornographic, so I haven’t been sharing them. Much as I would like to write something that people would like to read, I would prefer it didn’t happen through Bad Penny Press. I often also have some envy for people who came out of the closet before marrying someone of the opposite gender, but as I think over my life, I’m actually fairly satisfied. For all that I hate The Ex sometimes, and I hate what I did to her, my life has been amazing, and she was a big part of that. And I would not trade witnessing the births of my children for all the disease-ridden gigolos behind the Iron Curtain. Yes, I spent the part of my life when most people are experimenting being too religious and pretending to be straight, and I’ve had to make up for that lost time in imagination and not in reality (like in Hesse’s Magic Theatre), but in every life there are tradeoffs. Most gay men will never know the feeling of biological fatherhood, of watching a part of you grow inside someone else, mixing with her and becoming an amalgam of you both, and then seeing this new person that is both you and not-you arrive into the world. And for most of the time we were together, The Ex supported and encouraged me to be my best self. If I had a dream, she set about finding a way to make it happen. I’ll probably never know what it’s like to be promiscuous, to know that I have a body that is young and strong and generally lusted after, to feel confident that I could have any person I wanted to be with. I may never know what it’s like to be in a relationship with someone who wants to have sex as much as I do. But FPN talks about having a life that’s bearable, and it makes me sad that his expectations are so low. Life isn’t just for enduring; it’s for enjoying. It seems that the gay community as a whole is interested in pleasure without happiness, and I think that tendency is already sufficiently well documented. Let’s start telling the story of our joy as well as the story of our pain. Let’s start believing that joy is possible for us and that it’s a worthwhile pursuit. And when new gays come out, let’s help them work through the rage instead of burying it under a mountain of booze, sex, and pills. What seeds are we planting?

So, yes, I think eight pages of advance praise is a little excessive. I think this book is sad in a way that is becoming trite. But I also think that Greenwell is a talented, thoughtful author, and I’d like to see what he does in the future. It’s a first novel that grew out of a prize-winning story; let’s wait for him to get some more material and show us something really new. Given the title, I suppose I should have written about possession and possessiveness and recognizing what is and isn’t a person’s responsibility, but that’s a strain I wasn’t much interested in. I suppose because I still need to do some work in this area myself. Now that the Midwestern guy and I have separated our daily lives, no longer eating and watching TV together, it’s becoming apparent that we don’t have much to talk about, and talking is sort of the essence of long-distance relationships. I’m not much of a talker (only this verbose when writing); I need someone I can do things with. Surely it can’t be impossible to find a gay man who loves books, music, movies, and the outdoors?

Given the option to teach literature again this month, I was firmly against repeating The Old Man and the Sea, so I chose the other option for a really short book that the company had in inventory. I hadn’t read it before, and reading a new book to teach it was a really strange experience. I kept looking for new vocabulary and literary elements, thinking of ways I could assess my students’ reading instead of enjoying my own. It’s like knitting projects to sell – it turns a hobby into work, and I’m not that fond of working. It takes the joy out of it.

Steinbeck was working on crossing the line between prose and drama, so this novel is set up like a play. Each chapter begins with a description of the scene, and everything happens in that confined place. There’s a lot of dialogue and not really a lot of action. It’s mostly, people walk on, sit, and talk. It’s a three-act tragedy, with each act having two scenes (six sections that are not actually named chapters).

George and Lennie are migrant ranch hands in California during the Depression, a time and place that are practically owned by Steinbeck. George is little and sharp, Lennie is the opposite, large and dull. My international students were fairly familiar and comfortable with the idea of Lennie being a grown man with the mind of a small child (one of them has a relative with Down’s Syndrome), and I don’t have the training to diagnose his particular brand of developmental delay. George grew up in the same town, so he keeps him around. Lennie is a habit he just can’t break, even though he complains about how much fun he’s losing out on. He could be going out and getting drunk and laid like all the other guys if he didn’t have to take care of Lennie. Yet, the two of them have plans for the future precisely because he does take care of Lennie. Other migrant workers drift without a sense of direction, but these two have a definite plan to get some money together and buy a specific plot of land. They’ll have a house and animals, and Lennie will take care of the rabbits. He loves touching soft things. They’re starting a new job, which is the exposition.

The big trouble at the new job is with the boss’s son. Curley is a little guy who likes to fight, and he’s stupidly jealous of his too-sociable wife. He thinks Lennie is laughing at him because of his wife’s wanderings, so he starts a fight that he can’t finish. Lennie breaks his hand. That’s the climactic turning point that leads the wife of the pugilist to cast her eye on the over-big child. Now, at their last job, Lennie started touching a woman’s dress that was soft like a rabbit or a dead mouse, and she freaked out and he couldn’t figure out what to do except close his hand tight and hold on for dear life, while the poor woman is screaming Rape just as loud as she can. George had to whack him over the head with a fence picket and they ran off to keep from getting killed. Curley’s nameless wife lets Lennie pat her hair, and then when he clamps on and can’t release she starts screaming, but he covers her mouth to shut her up and accidentally breaks her neck. At this point all George can do is shoot Lennie before the lynch mob hangs him.

At one point Steinbeck said that this woman wasn’t actually a character; she’s just a symbol of evil, a piece of forbidden fruit. Lennie falls because he can’t resist, even though he remains innocent, just like Billy Budd. I’d like to argue for a minute that she’s a real person. She grew up in a little town, dreaming of something better, and then she met a few men who promised her Hollywood and glamour but didn’t deliver, though I imagine she delivered her goods to them. Then she meets a guy who’s little but strong, and instead of promising fame he promises love. It sounds like a good deal, but then it’s all isolation on a farm outside Soledad CA. Every time she tries talking to anyone, her husband shows up and makes trouble. It’s not her fault there aren’t any other women around. Some people are cut out for solitude, but some aren’t. This girl needs people, society, conversation, but all she gets is trouble and loneliness. I didn’t notice any evidence of domestic violence, but I think more careful readers have made a case for it. Her life is miserable. She found acceptance in the past by treating men a certain way, and now she’s punished for it. The Depression may make the workers’ life miserable, but hers is just downright untenable. Then someone defeats her guardian monster, and she shows a little interest, but the new champion is even worse than the old one. He kills her. Lennie didn’t slut-shame her like everyone else on the ranch, but I’d say death of the body is worse than death of the reputation. The explicit narrative centers its pathos on Lennie, but in a time when there was no good treatment or care options for the developmentally delayed or mentally ill, his fate is inevitable. Hers could have been avoided, if the author had seen the woman as more than the instrument of a man’s downfall. You know, if he had bothered to give her a name.

Race is another isolating identity. Crooks works in the stable, and lives in a little room off the main part of the barn instead of in the bunkhouse with the other hands. He’s crippled from getting kicked by a horse, showing just how little valued the lives of black men are. In his isolation, he becomes misanthropic instead of social, with a sort of self-protective hostility. Lennie doesn’t notice and befriends him, but not too closely.

Candy is isolated by his age. Ranch work is for the young and strong, and he is neither. It doesn’t help that he only has one hand. But he’s the right sort of different, because George and Lennie make space in their plans for him.

When it comes to the others, mainstream society, it’s a toss-up. You could get Slim, who’s compassionate and a real friend to George, or you could get Carlson, who sees that George has just killed his best friend and says,

Now what the hell ya suppose is eatin’ them two guys?

A lot of people are just not good at emotions. Carlson is a bit of a psychopath, intent on killing whoever doesn’t serve him, like Candy’s smelly old dog. It’s unfortunate, but hard times like the Depression bring out the utilitarian in some people. I have to confess to having this unsentimental streak as well, because circumstances in my life are also sometimes difficult and necessitate parting with people or things that I would prefer to keep. It doesn’t help that I love people who aren’t good for me. He’s working at being better, these last few weeks, so I’m hopeful for our future. I know I should be thinking about how good I am to him too – I am a bit self-centered. I do my best for him, but I express my own needs to myself more clearly than he expresses his to me, so it’s easier for me to evaluate whether my own needs are being met than his. Yes, I need a break from these fatalistic modernist texts, but it’s nice to come back to the real world and know that there are people who care about me, and that there’s a handsome man I’m going to sleep next to tonight, and he loves me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He turned uneasily in bed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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