Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Rope Walk

The Rope Walk
By Carrie Brown
Anchor Books, $13.95 paper
ISBN 978-0-307-27809-8

Clearly, there is a magical geography to childhood, a place to which we can never return. Therein might be the secret to coming-of-age, or bildungsroman novels; they offer a chance for the reader to see the world once again through the eyes of the innocent, and to mourn the moment when the child is left behind for the grown-up life we all must eventually embrace.

Carrie Brown’s recent novel, The Rope Walk, brings us into the life of the MacCauley family, focusing on the childhood of Alice MacCauley, surrounded by her five brothers and widowed father. The novel begins on Alice’s tenth birthday, late in May. Her brothers are home, but soon will be leaving for various colleges and institutions. Her father, Archie, is a teacher at a local college, and is raising the family without his wife, who died tragically in a fall from a horse. Alice does not remember her well, and she must grow up in a household full of men. Her only feminine role models are Helen O’Brien, a longtime family friend, and Elizabeth, the MacCauley’s Vietnamese housekeeper.

Alice is already feeling the cold death of her childhood creeping in. Her games and child fantasies have recently taken a darker turn, and she is beginning to realize that suffering is real in the world. Several events are alluded to: September 11th, the tsunami in Thailand, the growing concern over the outbreak of bird flu. She feels helpless and small in the face of the world’s miseries, and although she would like to remain in the innocent world she has known, the gradual realization of the unfairness of life unsettles her.

At her birthday party, she meets Helen’s mixed race grandson from New York, Theo Swann. He is about Alice’s age with an astounding curiosity about the world and a knack for mechanics and engineering. In fact, he carries a large toolbox with him everywhere he goes. He is also an aficionado of television documentaries and science programs. Alice is a reader, but Theo borders on the creative genius, so they become fast friends.

Also at the party is Kenneth Fitzgerald, a well-known artist who grew up in the small Vermont town. He is the anonymous donor who built the town library, and he has designed several mobiles, one of which hangs in the Guggenheim. The children quickly realize that Kenneth is not well; he has AIDS, and has probably come home to die. Theo and Alice begin reading to him everyday, and therefore see firsthand the suffering he endures.

The plot moves slowly, and we are treated to a series of vignettes that involve life-lessons for the children. Different characters act as teachers for the youngsters as they develop an awareness of the world, and also the pain and suffering that runs like a river through life. Alice misses her mother. Theo worries about the decaying state of his parents’ marriage and his mother’s depression. Together, they are concerned about Kenneth’s health. After Helen suffers a stroke and falls into a coma, Theo comes to live with the MacCauleys and Alice is deprived of one of her surrogate mothers.

Brown describes nature with a rapturous zeal. A waterfall becomes a booming siren song, full of bombast and danger: “When you drew close to the falls, the air had a deep, concussive ringing, and you felt compelled to try to creep closer to the tumult of water, inching along on the tumbled wreckage of rocks.” While climbing around the fall with her brother, Wally, Alice discovers a deer, frozen to death in the icy water. “The poor creature, slipping on the rocks, had fallen in and been swept downstream until it was trapped by the forked branch, held there in the water while it froze to death. The deer’s body had been encased in a cataract of ice like a gruesome sculpture, tiny hooves protruding helplessly through the frozen waterfall.”

When Brown connects the description to Alice’s growing revelations about herself, the novel becomes ethereal. Of the deer, Alice thinks of the “proximity of such suffering alongside her own comfort. It was guilt that she felt, and pity, but also something more complicated; she would turn then and look for a long time at the photograph of her mother holding the infant Alice, and when sleep slowly took her away in its black-sleeved arms, she went as an orphan, a wide-eyed survivor, all alone on the deck of a boat sailing into the darkness.” Her prose is beautiful and crystalline, accumulating in vast sculptures of words that ring like poetry.

She alludes liberally to Shakespeare—Archie teaches the plays—and there are references to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, and Hamlet. But the journals of Lewis and Clark form the true metaphor in the story. The children read from this book to Kenneth, and the two explorers of America parallel the children’s exploration of life.

Brown excels at characterization. The MacCauley sons are clearly drawn: James, the good looking one; Wally the musician and surrogate parent for Alice; Tad and Henry, the madcap twins; and Eli, the sensitive gardener with the deep connection to nature. All are given distinct personalities and voices. Theo and Alice are also separate and distinct entities. Their dialogue may be a bit sharper than most ten year-olds are capable of, but their words drip with nuance and revelation about their emotional states. They are soul mates, and by the midpoint in the book, they can almost read each other’s mind. Theirs is a pure, childhood friendship, and the novel hints at the end that they may have a future together in adulthood.

There are some weaknesses to be found in The Rope Walk. The story meanders a bit, and takes three chapters to really take off. Mostly this has to do with Brown taking time to really describe and set the scene.

I am also puzzled by Helen O’Brien’s story. Aside from placing Theo with the MacCauleys, I was unsure where the stroke story was going. Brown takes some time to describe the O’Briens, but almost immediately has Helen become incapacitated. She does not return until the end of the book. She is permanently damaged by the stroke and is left speechless, although she does convey a very important message from Theo to Alice.

In addition, the racial aspect of Theo’s mixed heritage also seems to get too much play here. Aren’t people more comfortable with mixed race relationships and children these days? Brown writes: “Alice thought about the mysterious black man who was Theo’s father. She hadn’t seen all that many black people in her life.” Brown goes on to say that Alice has seen pictures of black people before, like in the pages of National Geographic Magazine. I found Alice’s lack of experience with blacks to be a stretch.

Kenneth’s AIDS seemed dated as well. AIDS, although still a dangerous and devastating disease, is not the death sentence it used to be. Many HIV positive people live longer due to advancements in medications and therapies. Having Kenneth come home to die might be necessary given the ending, but this plot device strains plausibility.

The stress between father and daughter—Archie and Alice—after the cataclysmic events at the end of the novel also pushes the boundaries of realism. Archie is the enlightened parent, a man more comfortable with books and learning, a sort of lesser Atticus Finch from To Kill A Mockingbird. I do not think he would blame Alice, a ten year-old child, for the rash actions of an adult.

In the end, Alice, Theo, and Kenneth become entwined in a tragic occurrence. Alice realizes the end of innocence, Theo must return to New York and face his fears, and Kenneth struggles in the face of his disease to control his destiny. It is a powerful novel, and Carrie Brown reveals herself to be a writer in command of her craft.

All in all, there is a lot to like in The Rope Walk: the magic of a summer night, the voices and dreams of children, and the luminosity of the burning days of youth. Like the rope walk itself, Carrie Brown’s prose brings us along in the story. Its gorgeous richness keeps us reading, even when the story drags a bit. Watching Alice explore the frontiers of her own life as she reads about Lewis and Clark exploring the American frontier, one is struck by the distance we must travel to reach our destination, the perils we encounter along the way, and the beauty and grace of a young girl who leaps toward adulthood during one magical year.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Seneca's Letters From A Stoic

Letters From A Stoic
By Seneca, Selected and Translated by Robin Campbell
Penguin Books, $13.00 paper
ISBN 0-140-44210-3

“A person who goes to a philosopher should carry away with him something or other of value every day; he should return home a sounder man or at least more capable of becoming one.”

As teachers we hope to create in our students life long learners. Therefore, teaching is not just about the subject being taught. The skills of analysis and critical thinking my students learn in my class can be applied to any life situation. Certainly, I hope they remember some of the novels and poetry we cover, but more than this, I hope they learn in my class a system of thinking, a way to consider things critically, analytically, and creatively.

So to that end, our lives as teachers are about modeling how to live. That is the most important thing we teach. The most important thing our students can become is a life long learner, someone who is forever interested, intrigued even, by her world, and anxious to learn all she can about it and the inhabitants of it.

In our third and final book on Stoicism, we find advice for teachers and students in the form of the epistle, the letter. Seneca, living in a town in Spain controlled by Rome during the time of Christ, is an authority on the art of rhetoric, public speaking and debate, says his translator, Robin Campbell in the Introduction to Letters From A Stoic.

Stoicism has a long history predating Seneca. It is a philosophy founded by Zeno around 336 B.C. “The Stoics saw the world as a single great community in which all men are brothers,” Campbell writes, “ruled by a supreme providence which could be spoken of, almost according to choice or context, under a variety of names or descriptions including the divine reason, creative reason, nature, the spirit or purpose of the universe, destiny, a personal god, even…’the gods.’ It is man’s duty to live in conformity with the divine will, and this means, firstly, bringing his life into line with ‘nature’s laws’, and secondly, resigning himself completely and uncomplainingly to whatever fate may send him.” Campbell goes on to say that Stoics “discipline the pleasures and the passions, and generally subordinate the body and emotions to the mind and soul.”

As with most of these books, the Introduction—Seneca’s Life, Seneca and Philosophy, Seneca and Literature—Notes, Further Reading, and an Appendix, take up almost as much space as the letters themselves. Campbell does a thorough job of describing the philosophy, Seneca’s role as teacher and secular saint, and bringing together a variety of resources for further study. The text of the letters themselves is also rendered clearly and concisely, with some of the “brevity and sparkle” of the philosopher’s language.

Seneca’s view of philosophy is particularly interesting. In his time, philosophers functioned as counselors as well as teachers. They believed that it was a philosopher’s job to impart some knowledge of how to live. In short, philosophy was part of the mainstream, a requisite subject to become an educated person.

Seneca models a passion for learning. References to this life long learning are sprinkled throughout his letters. “I remember a piece of advice which Attalus gave me in the days when I practically laid siege to his lecture hall,” he writes, “always first to arrive and last to go, and would draw him into a discussion of some point or other even when he was out taking a walk, for he was always readily available to his students, not just accessible.” There are many such instances where he shares memories and reflections of his student years.

Seneca is clear about how a teacher must also be a student: “part of my joy in learning is that it puts me in a position to teach.” Yes, a teacher’s role is, first and foremost, to be the educational leader of students, the philosopher who models what it means to approach life as a learner, for Seneca believes “men learn as they teach.”

Seneca’s focus is on the common man, advising people how to live, focusing on matters both physical and intellectual. He writes, “…shame on him who lies in bed dozing when the sun is high in the sky, whose waking hours commence in the middle of the day…” In another letter, he remarks that “In a single day there lies open to men of learning more than there ever does to the unenlightened in the longest of lifetimes.”

His take on death is sober as well as comforting. “No one is so ignorant as not to know that some day he must die,” he writes. “Nevertheless when death draws near he turns, wailing and trembling, looking for a way out. Wouldn’t you think a man an utter fool if he burst into tears because he didn’t live a thousand years ago? A man is as much a fool for shedding tears because he isn’t going to be alive a thousand years from now.” Seneca considers death, “Either a transition or an end.” But the law of everything is that “Every journey has its end,” he assures us.

Echoes of later writers influenced by Seneca abound. Shakespeare’s numerous references to the living as actors on a stage appears in Seneca’s letters. “As it is with a play, so it is with life—what matters is not how long the acting lasts, but how good it is. It is not important at what point you stop. Stop wherever you will—only make sure that you round it off with a good ending.”

Henry David Thoreau obviously read Seneca. His quote, “Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all,” finds a root in the letters. “You should be extending your stay among writers whose genius is unquestionable, deriving constant nourishment from them if you wish to gain anything from your reading that will find a lasting place in your mind. To be everywhere is to be nowhere.”

Lest one thinks that Seneca only focused on learning and thinking, he did not neglect the body. He has entries in the letters about fatigue, diet, and of course, exercise. He also addresses how one can give time off to the mind. “I’m not telling you to be always bent over book or writing tablets. The mind has to be given some time off, but in such a way that it may be refreshed, not relaxed till it goes to pieces.”

Stoicism addresses how to live. In our society, we need to return to such ideals. Many people today are lazy, unmotivated, reluctant to work hard or pay their dues for something better in the future, or take action that might challenge themselves physically and mentally. There is a culture of cheating and a focus on avoiding difficult challenges in our schools, and there is very little modeling of good behavior and intellectual integrity by adults—parents, teachers, principals, business leaders, political leaders. Really, what kinds of lessons do our children learn from us and from our actions?

It is time to return to the wisdom of the Stoics, and consider how we live. The lessons of these ancients will bring us closer to actualizing our ideal lives, to peace, intellectual growth, and a startling vision of what the world, and its people, can be.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Art Of Living

The Art of Living
By Epictetus, A New Interpretation by Sharon Lebell
Harper San Francisco, $11.95 paper
ISBN 0-06-251346-X

“Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control, and some things are not.”Epictetus

Epictetus is the Stoic for the common man. He expresses his ideas in clear, focused language without artifice or rhetorical trickery. Sharon Lebell, writing a “new interpretation” of his work, focuses on the message and renders Epictetus’ meaning in similarly clear and present English. The result is an excellent book of short passages on how to live a good and moral life.

There are many books to explain philosophical schools of thought like Stoicism. Epictetus had little use for such theoretical discussions. His teaching is down to earth, directly accessible to the man on the street, and easily applicable to everyday living. This holds true with his ancient words even today.

According to Sharon Lebell, Epictetus concerned himself with two questions: “How do I live a happy, fulfilling life? How can I be a good person?” This is the “single-minded passion of Epictetus,” one of the three greatest Stoic philosophers. (The other two are Marcus Aurelius and Seneca.)

Epictetus did not start out his life with the respect afforded a popular philosopher. His beginnings were as a slave in A.D. 55 at the eastern end of the Roman Empire. In her introduction, Lebell says that he demonstrated a superior intellect from an early age, impressing his master, Epaphroditus. He became a student of Musonius Rufus, a famous Stoic teacher who favored equal education for women, something unheard of in the society of that time. Epictetus went on to teach in Rome until the emperor Domitian banished all philosophers from the city. He moved to Nicopolis on the coast of Greece and lived out his life in exile. “There he established a philosophical school,” Lebell writes, “and spent his days delivering lectures on how to live with greater dignity and tranquility.” Flavius Arrian, an historian and one of his students, copied down his lectures for the ages.

Marcus Aurelius was also one of his students. He wrote of his first teacher in his book, Meditations. What did Epictetus teach him? “To put up with discomfort and not make demands. To do my own work, mind my own business, and have no time for slanderers.”

Lebell casts his character as a “humble teacher.” He was not interested in fame or power. “Epictetus believed that the primary job of philosophy is to help ordinary people effectively meet the everyday challenges of daily life, and to deal with life’s inevitable major losses, disappointments, and griefs.”

As the title of this work states, Epictetus focuses on living a good life. For him, “a happy life and a virtuous life are synonymous. Happiness and personal fulfillment are the natural consequences of doing the right thing.” His teachings and this book, focus on three main themes: “mastering your desires, performing your duties, and learning to think clearly about yourself and your relations within the larger community of humanity.”

The book is set up as a manual, with short passages that merit some deep thinking. The book shares elements of Buddhist and Zen writing—thin books that cause expansive thought and consideration.

He begins by clarifying how we come to freedom and happiness. We must recognize that some things are within our control, and some things are not. “Within our control are our own opinions, aspirations, desires, and the things that repel us…Outside our control…are such things as what kind of body we have, whether we’re born into wealth or strike it rich, how we are regarded by others, and our status in society.”

Lebell adds a summary aphorism at the top of each passage, such things as “Stick with your own business,” and “Recognize appearances for what they really are.” The reading is easy and very accessible. Lebell writes in plain, everyday language. The concentration comes with application to life; that is what Epictetus wants us to focus on, and Lebell’s interpretation does just that.

The wisdom of Stoicism drips from every page. “Circumstances do not rise to meet our expectations,” Epictetus tells us through Lebell. “Events happen as they do. People behave as they are. Embrace what you actually get.” Stoicism takes as a major tenet the acceptance of life as it is. The idea is to accept what is thrust upon you, and therefore out of your control. It is a waste of spirit to bemoan what is fated. Accept fate and move on. This idea recurs throughout this manual.

This advice also extends to people. “Things and people are not what we wish them to be nor what they seem to be. They are what they are.” People—friends, relatives, our children—often fail us, or fail to do what we think they should. We must let go and not try to live their lives for them. They must make their own decisions on their own journey. It is a recipe for a non-judgmental way of being, and the truth is, we can really only control our own actions. We cannot control others, events that happen, or the universe spinning through space. We can only control ourselves. Therefore there is a certain amount of freedom and peace that can come from simply letting go of all that we cannot control.

Of course, the most powerful part of the book is where Epictetus seems to be speaking directly to us through the telephone line of history. “If you wish to become proficient in the art of living with wisdom, do you think that you can eat and drink to excess? Do you think that you can continue to succumb to anger and your usual habits of frustration and unhappiness? No. If true wisdom is your object and you are sincere, you will have work to do on yourself. You will have to overcome many unhealthy cravings and knee-jerk reactions.” I doubt there is an ancient Greek or Latin word for “knee-jerk,” but Lebell does a good job of using modern words where needed to convey Epictetus’ ideas.

Where I think my students might benefit from this book is in his words about wisdom and individuality. “The life of wisdom, like anything else, demands its price,” he says. “You may, in following it, be ridiculed and even end up with the worst of everything in all parts of your public life, including your career, your social standing, and your legal position in the courts.” The price of not doing what is right is also made clear. “If you try to be something you’re not or strive for something completely beyond your present capacities, you end up as a pathetic dabbler, trying first to be a wise person, then a bureaucrat, then a politician, then a civic leader. Those roles are not consistent.”

The hallmark of Stoic philosophy is a calm consistency, a person who can be counted on to be cool under pressure and put the needs of others ahead of her own needs. These are the lessons embodied in this book and rendered so truthfully by Sharon Lebell.

The Art of Living is chock full of wisdom and good advice for everyday life, even life in the twenty-first century. The truth in history, philosophy, even literature, is the time test. Does the work stand the test of time and still remain relevant? For Epictetus, teaching so long ago, on the steps of a city far from his home, living in exile, the answer is a resounding yes. He speaks so clearly through the years that we should feel compelled to listen.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

By Marcus Aurelius, Trans. by Gregory Hays
Modern Library Classics, $5.95 paper
ISBN 0-345-47237-3

“States will never be happy until rulers become philosophers or philosophers become rulers.”
Plato, The Republic

Don’t we wish.

So begins Gregory Hays’ Introduction to his translation of Marcus Aurelius’ words. It seems Marcus Aurelius was fond of quoting Plato, and in Hays’ view, we could not find a better ruler who fit the description of a philosopher-king. “He never thought of himself as a philosopher,” Hays writes. “He would have claimed to be, at best, a diligent student and a very imperfect practitioner of a philosophy developed by others.”

Marcus Aurelius was most likely first educated in reading and writing by slaves before being “handed over to private tutors to be introduced to literature…especially Vergil’s great epic, the Aeneid. However, Hays believes the real goal of his education was rhetoric, “the key to an active political career under the empire.” Unlike young students today, Marcus Aurelius trained in the art of the argument, forced to take one side or the other of the issues current in his day. The classes were conducted in Greek and Latin, so he was fluent in both languages.

Philosophy in Marcus Aurelius’ day was concerned with how to live life. According to Hays, this is a different focus than most modern schools and departments of philosophy. In ancient Rome, philosophers dealt with the questions of living, making ethical choices, constructing a just society, responding to suffering and loss, and coming to terms with death. The end result was “a set of rules to live one’s life by,” in Hays’ words.

Hays believes that this kind of philosophy was created by Socrates, the fifth century B.C. Athenian thinker. A progressive stream of this philosophical thought, one Marcus Aurelius embraces, is the Stoic school. “The movement takes its name from the stoa (‘porch’ or ‘portico’) in downtown Athens where its founder, Zeno…taught and lectured,” writes Hays.

“Of the doctrines central to the Stoic worldview,” continues Hays, “perhaps the most important is the unwavering conviction that the world is organized in a rational and coherent way. More specifically, it is controlled and directed by an all-pervading force that the Stoics designated as logos. The term (from which English ‘logic’ and the suffix ‘-ology’ derive) has a semantic range so broad as to be almost untranslatable.” Fortunately for us, Hays gives the explanation his best shot and does an admirable job of it. Logos operates in human beings and in the universe, and could be equated with nature or God. Hays believes that when John writes in his Gospel that “the Word” is God, he is “borrowing Stoic terminology.”

Everything in the world follows an unbreakable chain of cause and effect, the outcome of which is determined by logos. We can either follow this chain willingly, or be dragged along by it. Doing what is right and just is to create harmony; we also have the ability to do the opposite which will lead to hardship and difficulties, but either way, the outcome is out of our control. Therefore, Stoics believe that we should face these outcomes without emotion, without personalizing the situation. The outcome is simply the result. We cannot change it, but only accept it without losing control of our emotions and composure.

Hays boils down the philosophy to a clearly defined quest. “The questions that the Meditations tries to answer are primarily metaphysical and ethical ones,” he writes. “Why are we here? How should we live our lives? How can we ensure that we do what is right? How can we protect ourselves against the stresses and pressures of daily life? How should we deal with pain and misfortune? How can we live with the knowledge that someday we will no longer exist?”

Marcus Aurelius offered a variety of responses to these questions. Clearly, though, his primary belief is that we must see things exactly as they are, without the coloring of subjectivity and personalization. “It is, in other words, not objects and events but the interpretations we place on them that are the problems,” Hays writes. “This requires not merely passive acquiescence in what happens, but active cooperation with the world, with fate, and above all, with other human beings…Our duty is to act justly…” treating others as they merit. Finally, we must also see that things happen to us that are outside our control, and therefore, these things cannot hurt us. What our enemies do to us hurts our enemies far more than it damages us.

Marcus Aurelius adopts a theme of the “transience of human life,” according to Hays, an attribute not only of the Stoic philosophy, but Marcus’ character. Death is never far away—something that must be accepted as part of the cycle of life, not to be feared or despaired of, but to be embraced.

We also must put up with the foibles of others, and restrain our anger towards them, for they, too, are searching for the secret to a successful life.

The translation itself is divided into twelve books, of which the first three are titled: “Debts and Lessons”; “On the River Gran, Among the Quadi”; and “In Carnuntum.” Each book takes the form of dialogue or numbered aphorisms. It is not a narrative but a collection of sayings and words of wisdom to contemplate.

Marcus begins by attributing what he has gleaned from each “teacher” in his life. “My Grandfather Verus: Character and self-control. My father…Integrity and manliness.” Within these lessons are the precepts of Stoicism. Marcus learns “Not to display anger or other emotions. To be free of passion and yet full of love.”

From Maximus, Marcus learns “Self-control and resistance to distractions. Optimism in adversity—especially illness. A personality in balance: dignity and grace together. Doing your job without whining. Other people’s certainty that what he said was what he thought, and what he did was done without malice…A sense of humor.”

The thrill in all of this is not the enlightenment of the lessons. Surely, we have all heard similar aphorism and precepts before, but the connection back to ancient times of such time-tested lessons is the key. We see an ancient Roman trying to live the same way we struggle to survive in this world today. Some might look at this and say, things never change, and become depressed. The lesson from the Stoics is that the tests are always present, always active, and human beings struggle to deal with these tests of courage and strength. Therefore, to engage in such philosophical inquiry is to engage in living fully as a human being. It is what it means to be alive.

Some of the aphorism are structured like dialogues with himself. “No one could ever accuse you of being quick-witted,” he writes. “All right, but there are plenty of other things you can’t claim you ‘haven’t got in you.’ Practice the virtues you can show: honesty, gravity, endurance, austerity, resignation, abstinence, patience, sincerity, moderation, seriousness, high-mindedness. Don’t you see how much you have to offer—beyond excuses like ‘can’t’? And yet you still settle for less.”

Marcus Aurelius even touches on some favorite themes of literature teachers. “Keep reminding yourself of the way things are connected, of their relatedness. All things are implicated in one another and in sympathy with each other.” Of course this makes sense, given the way Greeks and Romans view public discourse. Rhetoric and argument were central to the education of the time, and therefore, these things were the constants while subjects under debate might be as diverse as science and politics, poetry and civic duty. Reading Marcus Aurelius, I wonder if we have not become to compartmentalized in school. Even with general education courses, are we really turning out well-rounded and well-educated individuals? Marcus Aurelius desires to be cogent and well-versed in all matters, all topics. To him, this is what it means to be fully engaged in living.

The value of this book is in the way the writer lays out a schematic for life. We could all use some Stoicism right now, what with our politicians and their excesses, the pedantic and often infantile level of public discourse, and the growing superficiality and emptiness of the life of the mind. In this age of all access, of unlimited information at our fingertips, have we ever been more out of sync with the heartbeat of our world? Maybe it is time we listened more carefully to the past for the keys to the future. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations as translated by Gregory Hays is an excellent place to begin.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Revisiting The Gutenberg Elegies

The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age
By Sven Birkerts
Faber & Faber, $15.00 paper
ISBN 978-0865479579

A decade ago, I read a book that changed me on a subatomic level. That book is Sven Birkerts’ The Gutenberg Elegies. I recently revisited the book on my shelf when I was doing a thorough summer cleaning.

Birkerts, a lecturer at Harvard and Director of the Bennington College Writing Seminars, classifies himself as an essayist and literary critic. He has written for an astonishing number of top magazines and journals in American letters: The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, The New York Times Book Review, and Esquire, to name a few. He is also the author of the previous books, My Sky Blue Trades, Reading Life, and Readings.

In The Gutenberg Elegies, Birkerts writes, “…the greater part of what I do is read and write about books.” He came to be this kind of writer through fate, hearing the call to a life of letters at an early age. He began writing in elementary school and was rewarded with encouragement. “It is easy enough in retrospect to see a book as a screen, a shield, an escape, but at the time there was just the magic—the startling and renewable discovery that a page covered with black markings could, with a slight mental exertion, be converted into an environment, an inward depth populated with characters and animated by diverse excitements.” He quickly found himself possessed by “the mania,” walls of books, piles of journals, and papers everywhere.

Considering oneself a reader is no mean feat in America where action is prized over the thinking. “[I]t is the prevalent bias in our culture,” Birkerts writes. “Doing is prized over being or thinking. Reading is something you do because it has been assigned in school, or because all other options have been exhausted.” Birkerts did not let this cultural lack of enthusiasm for reading deter him, and burned with the desire to be thought of as intelligent and well-read. By tenth grade, he was spending great amounts of time in libraries and book stores, and he did not fight the growing compulsion to be around books.

His four years of college were, in his words, misguided. Birkerts speaks of reading and studying, but still feeling a desperation in terms of figuring things out. “I worried that I might have some kind of a breakdown. I would stretch out in the dark and listen to classical music on the all-night station, waiting for the window square to lighten and my anxiety to abate.”

He begins his writing career on an impulse. He had read the work of Robert Musil, but could find very little criticism about him. “I had read the work,” he writes, “I had ideas—maybe I could write something.” He compares this moment to the proverbial light bulb going off over his head. “I sat at the desk I had built into the corner of my room and I worked. I went through the books and copied out lengthy passages I wanted to quote. I filled sheets of paper with ideas, drew connecting arrows. And then, relying on my memory of writing college papers, as well as on the example of essays I admired by writers like George Steiner, Susan Sontag, and Brodsky…I launched forth.” His feeling of success is palpable. “For, no sooner did I begin putting words on the page than I tapped a rightness and ease I had never known before.

As a critic, his criteria is simple: “The books that matter to me—and they are books of all descriptions—are those that galvanize something inside of me. I read books to read myself.”

The real meat of this book is Birkerts’ belief that we are in the midst of a cultural metamorphosis caused by electronic communications—or, that the Internet is killing reading. We have heard studies recently that reveal Americans’ lack of enthusiasm for the written word. We have also heard how reading is flourishing—the Los Angeles Times’ Festival of Books is one of the hottest events of the year in the city. So what is the truth? How many people are really reading? What are they reading? Birkerts believes it is not literature and not reading as in deep thinking.

Birkerts offers an anecdote about teaching a literature class at a local college. After carefully selecting texts with student interest in mind, he is appalled to discover that students will not read anything that they have to think over or consider deeply. They want the movie version. What’s more, they cannot make it through the classic Cliffs Notes or Sparks Notes. The language used there is beyond their comprehension.

He asserts a new paradigm: people born in and after the 1970s cannot access an entire history of culture, myth and stories because the medium of language and expression is completely alien to them. “…[T]he understandings and assumptions that were formerly operative in society no longer feel valid. Things have shifted; they keep shifting. We all feel a desire for connection, for meaning, but we don’t seem to know what to connect with what, and we are utterly at sea about our place as individuals in the world at large.” Later, he makes his point clear. “Looking out at our society, we see no real leaders, no larger figures of wisdom. Not a brave new world at all, but a fearful one.”

Birkerts breaks down our postmodern plusses and minuses into two categories. The gains of postmodernity are: increased awareness of the big picture; expanded neural capacity; understanding leading to tolerance; readiness to try new things.

The losses to postmodernity illustrate a steep price for the above plusses: fragmented sense of time and loss of reverie; reduced attention span and impatience with sustained inquiry; shattered faith in institutions and explanatory narratives that shape experiences; divorce from past and history; cut off from sense of geography and community; absence of a strong vision for the future.

We need to reorient ourselves, according to Birkerts. He posits a humanistic code: we confer meaning from experience; we communicate symbolically through language; and literature holds the meaning of experience. Only in reading do we slip out of our everyday ruts and consider the higher purpose of existence, our origins and destinations. What my students think of as reading on the Internet is simply having access to a gigantic amount of information. However, much of the information is not vital, or even relevant. A student must sift and work through to glean the important nuggets of thought and idea, but few students want to take this time. The pace of life is too fast and there is little time for deep thinking. It is all snap decisions and forward momentum.

In his chapter, “The Owl Has Flown,” Birkerts discusses life before 1750. Few books were available, so people read them over and over and discussed them. After 1750, people read books, magazines and newspapers and read them once to race on to something else. Depth was sacrificed for sheer volume, with “a shift from intensive to extensive reading.” Therein lies the key. We consume information with little digestion—there is a dearth of critical and analytical thinking.

Students have trouble comprehending that it is not enough to know where to find the information, or to be able to cut and paste it into a document. They must digest it, understand it, and be able to utilize it fluently in their work. What I keep pounding into my students is that everything is connected. It is that whole global village thing—history, philosophy, current events, literature, culture, the life of the mind—all connected, all important. They must make these connections to be good students of literature, or any other subject.

Literature offers us not facts, but truths about human nature and the processes of life. Deeper, wiser people will result from reading deeply and considering ideas, so as hard as it is, we must force our students to read. Reading causes us to reconsider our lives in the light of what we learn. Therefore, it is not always a pleasant experience especially when it is assigned for class, but reading is always a necessary experience.

What is the solution? We are “a culture in which image and presentation have assumed a substantiality formerly unthinkable.” But Birkerts argues that we cannot ignore a deeper inquiry, the desire to know, to discover, to understand. It is part of who we are, so we must embrace it.

“If literature is to survive,” Birkerts says at the end of The Gutenberg Elegies, “to gain back some of the power it has ceded to terrorists and newsmakers of all descriptions, it must become dangerous. That is, it must throw up a serious challenge to the emergent status quo; it must shake and provoke people even as it leads them back toward a reconnaissance of selfhood.

I cannot track how many times I have returned to Sven Birkerts’ themes and ideas in my teaching and writing life. In this book, he develops and displays the problems and pitfalls of our American culture and the life of the mind. His writing has the clarity of a bell whose toll calls us back to what is most important: the idea, the humanistic desire to think, to analyze, to wonder. This is who we are, our true nature, and Birkerts believes we should not let technology deter us from our humanism. Computers and technology are simply tools to enhance our study, our quest to understand our world. The thinking is up to us.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Pesthouse

The Pesthouse
By Jim Crace
Vintage Books, $13.95 paper
ISBN 978-0-307-27895-1

“Hard times make stones of us all.”
Jim Crace in The Pesthouse

The scary thing about the recent spate of post-apocalyptic novels that have been published lately is that the idea of surviving and living on after a cataclysmic event such as a nuclear holocaust has entered the public consciousness and imagination. If we can imagine it, can the actual event become a reality?

Jim Crace takes a more lush and evocative approach to the end times in The Pesthouse than Cormac McCarthy did in The Road. In fact, the two novels illustrate the differences in modern British and American prose. Whereas McCarthy is lean and spare, Crace writes voluptuous sentences. His novel is full of setting and character, no everyman or unchanging landscape of ash. He moves us from the high country across an unnamed, rushing river, and on down to the sea where salvation is a possibility for the characters of Franklin Lopez and Margaret. There on the coast they can meet a ship to take them out of America and across to Europe. That’s right: in Crace’s world, people flee from America. Immigrants become emigrants, a reversal of conditions in America today. In Crace’s novel, America is a dead country with infrastructure destroyed and lawless bands of criminals running rampant through the countryside.

Crace begins with a moment in time. It is night, and several characters find themselves caught in this moment, when a mountainside slips away and rumbles into the lake, but the real danger for the inhabitants of Ferrytown is the cloud of gas that escapes from the lake during the landslide. The poison slips across the land, killing every living thing.

As the new day dawns, we find Margaret in an old stone hut called the pesthouse, where she is recovering from the flux, a plague-like illness sweeping the countryside. She has had all the hair on her body removed and been ostracized from Ferrytown. It is the only way the people of the town know to fight the disease. The baldness also marks the victims so that people know to avoid them. The irony is, the disease makes Margaret only one of two survivors of the landslide.

The other survivor is Franklin Lopez, a gigantic boy-man who is traveling to the coast with his brother Jackson. Franklin has hurt his knee, and therefore is hiding in the hills above Ferrytown when Jackson journeys down to investigate the town. When the brothers part, they will not see each other again. Jackson is killed in the landslide.

This sets up the meeting between Margaret and Franklin and launches them on their journey together to try to reach safe passage to Europe. Each carry touchstones of their past lives. Franklin has his brother’s coat, made for him by their mother, colorfully composed of goatskins. Margaret carries “her three lucky things—a silver necklace that was old enough to have been machined; a square of patterned, faded cloth too finely woven to have been the work of human hands; some coins from the best-forgotten days, all inside a cedar box…”

The coins include modern pennies, dimes and quarters that she found on a river bank. She describes the presidents on each as “mostly short-haired men,” and identifies the motto, “In God We Trust.” With the penny, “She dragged her nail across the disk to count every column and tried to find the tiny seated floating man within, the floating man who, storytellers said, was Abraham and would come back to help America one day with his enormous promises.” History becomes mythology.

These artifacts of the past are lost for some of the novel. The coat becomes a portent of evil, and the cedar box is recovered in the pesthouse, ironically a place of safety and refuge.

Of course, Franklin comes across Margaret, feverish and near death in the pesthouse, and nurses her back to health. In and out of consciousness, she remembers him rubbing her feet. Franklin does this because he believes disease leaves a body through the feet. So he begins his relationship with the desperately ill Margaret by rubbing her feet.

After she is better, and Franklin’s knee has healed, they start down the trail together. In Ferrytown, they encounter the dead, in their beds, in the fields, in the midst of activities. Franklin ransacks the cabins and homes for supplies, and thus outfits himself for the trek ahead.

Crace is very good at weaving in the history and mythology of America. These new emigrants making a beeline for the coast dream of a past nation. “The optimists among them believed that once the river had been crossed, something of the old America would be discovered,” he writes, “the country their grandpas and grandmas had talked about, a land of profusion, safe from human predators, snake-free, and welcoming beyond the hog and hominy of this raw place; a country described by so many of their grandparents in words they’d learned from their grandparents, where the encouragements held out to strangers were a good climate, fertile soil, wholesome air and water, plenty of provisions, good pay for labor, kind neighbors, good laws, a free government and a hearty welcome.” It is the American dream of long ago, of what was and never will be again. Jim Crace excels at bringing every American’s nightmare to life: what will happen when it all ends? As we know from history, all empires must end and the American empire most likely will not escape mortality.

The remarkable aspect of Crace’s writing is the richness of it. There is a grace and beauty in its fullness. He tells a story, and he does so in such vibrant detail that the ordinary becomes beautiful. His description of an abandoned, damaged highway is poetic and clear, avoiding clich├ęs and overused descriptions. “It did not take them long to reach and climb the first of the two parallel mounds that protected the road from the wind…this great swath of track could easily take two teams of horses, each fifty wide or more. It had to be the pathway of a giant or else to have been designed to carry something huge and heavy—those wooden war machines, perhaps, that Margaret had heard talk about, the ones that broke through walls, or shot boulders in the air, or hurled fire.” His prose is so rich with mythological imagery that it takes a minute to realize Crace is writing about a common roadway, although one in extreme disrepair. “The road…seemed built—by how many laborers and over how many years? At what immense cost?—to take great weights. Its now damaged surface, much degraded by the weather and time, comprised mostly chips of stone, loose grit, and sticky black rubble…” Such ideas float about regarding the Egyptian pyramids—what race of men or slaves could build such massive structures?

The ocean, too, is rendered poetically without resorting to tired language. Margaret wakes in the night to hear the waves crashing on shore in the distance. “…[T]he sounds she could hear were only breathing and the wind, and the restlessness of horses, and something deeper, far and near, a sort of restful quake. That was a sound she’d never heard before, but still she recognized it from the stories she’d heard. The snoring sea.”

The journey takes the young couple over rough terrain. They are terrorized by bandits, Franklin is captured by them as well, and Margaret winds up carrying for an infant when she is separated from the child’s grandparents. So the three make a trinity, not unlike Jesus, Mary and Joseph—Margaret is a virgin—searching for a place to rest, to be taken in, and possibly, start another life.

All along the journey, Franklin cannot help feeling pulled back, back west to his mother and the farm. In the end, in all this rush to escape the dying country, the west holds particular attraction for the cobbled-together family. As when the country was first settled, Franklin sees the west as a chance to start over in this now unfamiliar landscape. He sees the opportunity to begin again and reinvent himself, which ironically, was the attraction of the west for people at the start of America.

Jim Crace’s novel pulls the reader into a world we only dare to imagine. He does so with such poetry and grace that we must consider what America might become after the empire falls. In Crace’s view, the land returns to the wild, the untamed, the savage.

Margaret and Franklin are such clearly drawn characters that we can feel their uncertainty while reveling in their strength and resilience. The book is a page-turner, exciting as it is wise. In many ways, it is a better novel than McCarthy’s The Road because the story is richly told. It is the kind of novel that reads like a dream—it is America that our travelers wander, but it is nothing like the America we know. The power of fiction is to create worlds that parallel our own, and then feature characters who act out our worst fears and nightmares. The lesson of The Pesthouse is clear: when everything is lost, the human spirit will endure. We will find danger, we will witness horrors and immense suffering. So to, we will find love, salvation, redemption, and hopefully, a chance to live again. In our darkest dreams, this is the only comfort we have.