Sunday, March 30, 2008

Re-Affirming Faiths

(reflections on Gregory Epstein, humanist, and conservatism as recently considered by David Mamet and David Brooks.)

Listened this morning to Gregory Epstein, chaplain of the Humanists at Harvard, performing there ritual marryings and buryings without God, and promoting a faith in our efforts to live meaningful lives by promoting the best world that we can through individual and group efforts. He reads and respects the scriptures of different traditions (and he studied talmud for a year in Israel), but adds that he gets even more out of modern literature. (All on the radio program SPEAKING OF FAITH).

I have no quarrel with anything I heard from him. Do I have any difference with him at all? Wondering this bothered me through most of our week-after-Easter "lessons and songs" service. I guess I'm also soured by Spring's sudden retreat, and our cold grey skies, and by the fact that I can no longer put off designing a week's History project for the 7th grade.

Somewhere near communion, my mood shifted, thanks to a hymn I'd not sung before (number 109 in the 1982 Episcopal Hymnal), memorable for its mode-ish melody and a blue note. It didn't change anything: In practical terms, Epstein is right that God or no-God makes no difference at all to grown-ups, who should operate beyond the primitive reward-punishment scheme of heaven and hell.

My political beliefs have been refreshed recently by coming back into contact with the root of all political questions: Is man good, or not? I've long believed that man is dangerous in power, that all organizations (government, corporations) are suspect, and our Constitution is brilliant in balancing self-interested parties against each other, making room for courage and goodness.

These beliefs have been enunciated recently by playwright David Mamet and conservative columnist David Brooks. The first one has announced "Why I am no longer a brain-dead liberal" in the liberal newspaper THE VILLAGE VOICE; the other writes in a critique of the Bush administration, quoted in THE ST. CROIX REVIEW (December 2007). Conservatism, in both pieces, is neither a party affiliation nor a preference for policy, but an outlook that says, "Be careful: organizations are corrupt, we need protection from the powerful, society cannot be changed by legislative fiat without dreadful consequences."

Brooks, quoted in the REVIEW, writes

What Burke articulated was not an ideology or a creed, but a disposition, a reverence for tradition. ... A temperamental conservative is suspicious of rapid reform believing that efforts t quickly transform anything will have, as Burke wrote, 'pleasing commencements' but 'lamentable conclusions.'
Mamet asks:

Is the military always right? No. Neither is government, nor are the corporations—they are just different signposts for the particular amalgamation of our country into separate working groups, if you will. Are these groups infallible, free from the possibility of mismanagement, corruption, or crime? No, and neither are you or I. So, taking the tragic view, the question was not "Is everything perfect?" but "How could it be better, at what cost, and according to whose definition?" Put into which form, things appeared to me to be unfolding pretty well.

Mamet goes so far as to endorse Milton Friedman, Shelby Steele and Thomas Sowell when he asserts that our nation is "not a schoolroom teaching values, but a marketplace." He writes:

"Aha," you will say, and you are right. I began reading not only the economics of Thomas Sowell (our greatest contemporary philosopher) but Milton Friedman, Paul Johnson, and Shelby Steele, and a host of conservative writers, and found that I agreed with them: a free-market understanding of the world meshes more perfectly with my experience than that idealistic vision I called liberalism.

An older friend Charles Weeks, when I was in my early twenties, observed that I was not exactly a conservative, but "conservative in temperament." I think so. Burke, more than Bush, more even than Reagan, is my touchstone.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Local News: Tornado in Atlanta

What's so beautiful about distant storms? Is it just the fact that we're not in them? I know that color and shape are part of the answer. Here's a photo of the unprecedented twister through my hometown, passed on to me by email:

Friday, March 07, 2008

Past Modern: Stieglitz, O'Keeffe, and Beckett

(reflection on Samuel Beckett occasioned by some of his poems newly translated from French by Philip Nikolayev in POETRY, Feb. 2008, along with an art exhibit about Stieglitz, O'Keeffe, and their company)

Ah, the good old modern days! Remember them? From this distance, some of those brash, new revolutionary artists look like pathetic attention-seekers, on a par with Madonna. Still, the best of them have something to show us even now.

First, the pathetic: Atlanta's High Museum of Art has an exhibition of photos, drawings, and paintings by Alfred Stieglitz and the women that he promoted under the banner of "modernism" in the early decades of the 20th century. The draw for the exhibit is the eventual Mrs. Stieglitz, a.k.a. Georgia O'Keeffe. I'm sure the exhibitors didn't intend for us to see these women artists as the harem of a man who was nothing more than a mediocre artist and a prurient promoter. Yet, the photos of the women show them in posing, and being posers. Again and again, we're told that this or that woman fulfilled Stieglitz's notion of a woman's "innocent" and "childlike" vision. He flitted from one to the other, until he got a star in O'Keeffe, so they didn't fill full at all. What business does Alfred Stieglitz have telling us what a woman's vision is? How condescending to equate "woman" with "child." With all the nude models who drape themselves across unlikely prop pieces, their heads back, their faces averted -- it all seems like "childlike" and "innocent" are code words for "erotic" and "submissive" in the way that "wild" and "untamed" telegraphed "sex" in the ads for movies and books that puzzled me in my childhood in the Sixties. O'Keeffe always pretended to be shocked that her big fat close-ups of flower's reproductive parts were said to be erotic, but, by the time we reach those at the end of this depressing exhibit, what else can we conclude? She was the best of the bunch at doing what they all did, and I still like her early pictures of city skylines and her late pictures of American desert, but this exhibit, which intended to set her off as the jewel of the collection, only diminishes her.

One bit of commentary at start of the High's permanent collection of early twentieth century works was a helpful reminder to me, however. We are admonished to remember "modernism" as an attitude, not a style. Since art of the immediate past had told stories, and had romanticized nature, and often had didactic intentions, the modernists focused on the purely personal, and on urban life, and generally on mocking prevalent values as "bourgeois."

In literature, this attitude informed the works of James Joyce and of his disciple Samuel Beckett, and we're all richer for that. Right now, I'm stuck once again around chapter seven of ULYSSES, having reached the point of diminishing returns where my inability to figure out just what's going on in each sentence is weighing me down more than my appreciation of Joyce's choice to write an episode at a newspaper office entirely in the form of little newspaper articles. But my affection for ULYSSES is growing with each new slog through the book, nourished by the fun and distinct feel of the early chapters, with nothing more appealing than the very first page.

Now, reading newly translated poems by Samuel Beckett in February's issue of POETRY, I'm looking in vain for the Beckett I learned to appreciate from his stage works.

In the late Seventies, at a time when I was calling myself an evangelical fundamentalist, Beckett helped me out of that limited perspective by showing me how truth and joy could be expressed by a man in the very act of describing a world where there is no God. I read his novel MURPHY, and enjoyed its word play. But it was seeing a double bill of KRAPP'S LAST TAPE and ENDGAME that won me over. It was a production at London's Old Vic theatre in 1980, performed by (former?) inmates of San Quentin prison, directed by the author. I'll not forget how dim light came up on the old man "Krapp," seated at a desk, his head in his hand -- and how nothing happened for an uncomfortably long period of time, until the actor suddenly sighed, causing the audience to jump and even squeal in surprise. What a great way to adjust our expectations! This stretched the old ideas of what a play should be -- the man acts alone, but he's in a dialogue of sorts with his own past selves, represented by tape recordings.

These poems by Beckett, upon several re-readings, don't give so much. The commentary by translator Philip Nikolayev tells us that these are each responses to very personal events, full of cryptic references to things and people Beckett knew. In short,"you had to be there" to "get" them. Poetry had been a popular form for the unified expression of common ideas and values, and for the sharing of personal experiences and insights. So one prominent modernist T. S. Eliot went another way, trying to objectify his poetry and to make his readers piece together for themselves the fragments of others' experiences -- minus the unifying voice of the poet. Beckett, here, is trying to do less than that.

Still, there's fun in a disorienting little poem on a littler subject, "La Mouche" ("The Housefly"), amusing in playing with perspective. Here's the first half of it:
between the scene and me
the glass
empty except for it

belly down
tieid tight in its black guts
panicked antennas linked wings
And, as always, there's word play, as in a morose poem translated as "all right all right there's a land," which contains this line: "my loneliness I know it oh well I know it badly," and ends with "the calm the love the hate the calm the calm." Beckett often juxtaposes opposites for the effect of jarring us into some kind of truth. In this poem, it's just to call attention to the incongruity of the phrase "I know it well" when the poet means to express the tedium of loneliness. The last words of WAITING FOR GODOT are something like, "Yes, let's go," juxtaposed with the last image of the two waiters sitting still, still waiting. I think often of another juxtaposition in the last words of his last novel THE UNNAMABLE, "I can't go on. I'll go on." That encapsulates much of life, especially for people who live in poverty of means or health.

While I'm dwelling on the February 2008 issue of POETRY, I'd like to point out a "portfolio" of poems by George Szirtes from a larger collection called "In the Face of History." These are short poems printed alongside historical photos that inspired them. For example, a photo of Jewish boys in the Ghetto playing at being goose-stepping soldiers draws a poetic response from Szirtes that doesn't do much more than describe what we see -- but the combination draws attention to something marvelous and horrifying that deserves our attention. The final picture in the collection shows a little naked girl on a barren hill flanked by Soviet-era public housing with commentary that wraps up the period of Soviet domination and Marxist theory with this laconic and neatly rhymed musing:
All that you see is the all-but-naked child
on the all-but-naked hill against a naked sky
as if what you could not see were the question
and she the reply.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

More Fun with COUPLES

(reflection upon re-reading John Updike's COUPLES, with some research into JOHN UPDIKE AND RELIGION edited by James Yerkes, and a survey of web blogs and the NYTimes web page about the book.)

Two of John Updike's novels are puzzles to which I keep returning because, following hundreds of pages of incidental pleasures and insights, they leave me unable to sum up what I've read, yet with the strong sense that they do add up to something important. Updike says the same thing about novels by the late philosopher Iris Murdoch, and his COUPLES (1968) shares more characteristics of her novels than this. Like many of hers, this one flits from one love affair to another so frequently that I've had to keep a table of couplings in the back flap of the book. I've dealt with Updike's SEEK MY FACE elsewhere (see Updike's Underappreciated Seek My Face); now I'd like to see what I can nail down in COUPLES.

More than I can remember the details of Updike's book COUPLES (1968), I recall the world it conjures up, and how it felt to explore that world when I read it the first time. That was back in 1987, when I was still young enough to see the 30-something characters as older, middle-aged types. For me then, it was a glimpse into what it was like to be one of the grown-ups when my parents entertained neighbors at our home in Pittsburgh in the year that the novel is set, 1963. I still don't drink a martini without its aroma taking me back to that time. I asked my parents about the book in 1987, and about my vague sense that those neighborhood parties were very much like the wife-swapping flirt-fests that Updike describes. My parents admitted that's exactly what was going on, though they were the newcomers and slow to figure that out.

About that time, I've written elsewhere how it seems in retrospect to have been the last time that there really were grown-ups. (See my blog entry about the Rat Pack.) A recent book called THE DEATH OF THE GROWN UP sees a decline in our national maturity level dating from the end of the 60s, but Updike had it covered at the end of the 50s. "Are we the last generation to be ambitious?" the character Foxy Whitman asks, observing the slightly younger generation's easy-going "peace and love." But earlier, character Piet Hanema describes the USA as one big adolescent: "God doesn't love us any more . . . . We're fat and full of pimples and always whining for more candy. We've fallen from grace" (p. 200 in the original edition).

This time around, I didn't immerse myself in their world, and may have a clearer view for that. I read about the first gin-soaked party when the new couple Ken and Foxy Whitman first meet the others, including Piet and Angela Hanema. Then I skipped to the denoument: the Hanemas' visit to the Whitmans to clarify exactly who had slept with whom, for how long, and who was complicit (around p.416 in the 1985 Fawcett Crest paperback).

What I saw in those few pages was a distillation of the whole book. Ken Whitman, cuckold and host, pours drinks and proceeds to question his guests. We don't have to have read the preceding four hundred pages to appreciate the pain, embarrassment, and calculation that underlie each line of dialogue:

Ken [asked Piet's wife] Angela, "How much did you know of all this?"
"Ah," Piet said, "an oral exam,"
Angela said, "I knew as much as you did. Nothing."
"You must have guessed something."
"I make a lot of guesses about Piet, but he's very slippery."
Piet said, "Agile, I would have said."
Ken did not take his eyes from Angela. "But you're in Tarbox all day; I'm away from seven to seven."
Angela shifted her weight forward, so the leather cushion sighed. "What are you suggesting, Ken? That I'm deficient as a wife?"
Foxy [Whitman] said, "One of the things that makes Angela a good wife to Piet, better than I could ever be, is that she lets herself be blind."
Another sharp exchange a bit later recalls the plot's crisis, when Piet arranged an abortion for Foxy performed by dentist and Tarbox's high priest of parties, Freddy Thorne -- in exchange for a night with Piet's wife.

Ken turned to him. "Among the actions I'm considering is bringing criminal charges against Thorne. You'd be an accessory."
"For God's sake, why?" Piet asked. "That was probably the most Christian thing Freddy Thorne ever did. He didn't have to do it, he did it out of pity. Out of love, even."
"Love of who?
"His friends."
The interconnectedness of the friends, the ten couples of the title, is what makes this book unique. The earliest review of the book that I've seen, by Wilfrid Sheed of the NEW YORK TIMES in 1968 (available on the web) observes that we meet these couples "vaguely," the way we would meet them in life. They come into sharper focus as we discover, with some of the same wicked pleasure of real gossip, how this or that spouse is secretly trysting with another.

But the newness wears off, and so do the erotic attractions, and so does the friendship. Mutual betrayal, disappointment, and natural processes (John Ong's cancer, the Saltzes' moving away, the childrens' growing into teens) all crack the ring apart. By book's end, nothing remains of this too-tightly-knit group except some bad reputations discussed among Tarbox's younger, newer couples.

Clearly the character Piet Hanema comes closest to being protagonist, though he disappears from the book for dozens of pages at a time. Of all the promiscuous people in the novel, he's most promiscuous. He's also the most prominent character whose thoughts and words about God are given consideration, often in contrast to his nemeses Freddy Thorne and atheist scientist Ken Whitman. He's also, let's not be too blunt, a despicable man. Updike allows us to see him in all his evasive, rationalizing, back-stabbing, woman-abusing boorishness, and he affords this moment when Piet sees himself as others do (p. 431 in the paperback):

"All I can do is let things happen, and pray," [Piet said to his business partner Matt Galagher].
"That's all you ever do." Matt spoke without hesitation, as a reflex; it was one of those glimpses, as bizarre as the sight in a three-way clothing-store mirror of your own profile, into how you appear to other people.
What are we to make of Piet, his name so close to Piety, his last name close to "hand made," and his one virtue of caring about the integrity of his carpenty work?

These last pages of the book could have ended with the lightning bolt that levels the town's church also striking Piet down with it -- he's there watching. Maybe the Puritans' old all-seeing weathercock could have toppled and skewered Piet right there in the storm. Instead, Piet and the others muddle through, life goes on (or not: John Ong dies shortly after Piet's uncomfortable visit through an oxygen tent), and it's as if none of this mattered.

But in those sharp lines of dialogue, the pain is acute and real.

A survey of comments about John Updike's novel COUPLES (1968) turns up a lot of references to sex, religion, sex as a substitute for religion, sex and religion as two responses to death, and to explicitness of the religious purpose (especially God's own bolt of lightning that ignites the congregational church) almost as often as to the explicitness of the -- umm, physical functions, not excluding those that are more digestive than erotic. 

Critics have always called for more judgement of the characters in the book. I'd say, what they do to themselves carries its own judgement, and what they do to redeem themselves after could be seen as grace, at least provisionally, until the next time they screw up. I'd have to say, COUPLES cannot be pinned down in terms of good and bad, final judgements, clear meanings, clear narrative lines -- and in this, reading it is much like living real life, only blessed with Updike's acute vision of detail and his wide frame of reference.