Saturday, October 17, 2015

Why Buddhism?

If you like your spirituality to be a deep cosmology without superstition, and your mental health practice seasoned with logic, close observation of your own thinking, and a non-fanatical social outlook, you could do worse than studying Buddhism.  Besides, there's no reason to 'give up' a theistic religion for Buddhism.  If you approach the non-magical side of Buddhist practice, you can still be, as many Buddhist practitioners are, Christian, Jewish, Islamic--whatever.

My own favorite commentator and translator is the Vietnamese Zen Master (and poet and artist) Thich Nhat Hanh, whom his followers fondly call "Thay," a Vietnamese term variously pronounced "Tie" or "Tay" as nationality dictates perhaps, meaning  "Rabbi, Teacher, Maestro"-- that kind of title. But you can sample from perhaps hundreds of writers and lecturers and leaders.  What's important, I think, is to differentiate between the psychological/philosophical practice and the religious beliefs and rituals.  I know many Buddhist teachers and practitioners think that you "MUST" believe in spirits, deities, gods, demons and magical formulas and rituals.  Most of all, the most common non-rational tenet is reincarnation.

I can't say any of that is wrong.  It's just that, to quote an apocryphal remark of LaPlace to Napoleon, "I have no need of that hypothesis."  Somewhere (it's written) that when Buddha was asked by one of his students whether or not there was life after death, he responded in the same vein:  his teachings were not invitations to speculate about invisible and immaterial theories.  His teachings were how to practice supreme and sublime sanity.  Yes, such practice can and must become, to some extent, psychedelic:  i.e., we can all agree rationally that everything is connected to everything else, but when you grasp it deeply, it is said to "make you one with everything."  At that point life and death are no more separate than you and the air you breathe.  It is said.


Buddhism, overall, is a system of thought and behavior directed toward reducing suffering--suffering in and of one's self as a direct result of and cause of suffering in "the world."   For if you can grasp deeply and intuitively that within-the-self and outside-the-self is a false dichotomy, you see that every action is an action in the world sum of suffering and delight.  The "self" as a being delimited by the boundary of the skin then becomes an illusion.

Buddhism is inherently consistent with a common First-Americans' belief that the earth is our body, its rivers our blood, its air our life.  Buddhism agrees.  Agrees literally.  No single thing exists entire and to itself alone.  Thay calls the realization of this mutually dependent web of being "Interbeing" as an equivalent of the more complex Buddhist phrase "Interdependent Co-Arising."  "This is because that is.  And vice-versa.  Not just a causation through time, a causation through space. Interbeing.

Louise Erdrich wrote that the Ojibwe word "Manitou" does not name a 'primitive god,' but is the reverent word for that mystery in which all things have their being.  Not primitive at all, but much more comprehensive than most Christians' idea of "God."

Mental health?  No such thing as one person's mental state in isolation.  So your path to personal 'salvation' has to be via an effort for everyone's salvation, everyone's happiness.  Compassion for all, the self included.  Salvation, or 'Enlightenment,' thus cannot be achieved by someone in isolation, because there really is no isolation except a delusion of separateness.


All human suffering springs from that delusion, and its twin:  the desire to make things last.  To oppose death, to oppose change, to try to build up a store of things that are yours unchangingly and forever.  Illusion of permanence.  Illusion of separateness.   When/if you read or hear about Impermanence in Buddhism and Emptiness, those words refer to the antonyms of humans' desires to make things last, and their delusion of separateness.  There is no separate self.  That separate self is 'empty' as a concept.

So there's no contradiction between spiritual practice and social practice.  Christ put it like this:  "Even as you do to the least of these, so you do to me."  Or, as he died, tormented by Roman guards, he said, "Forgive them.  They know not what they do."  They don't know that I am one with them and so they languish in ignorance and suffering.

The marks of spiritual and mental health are generosity, compassion, stability, happiness and peacefulness, and stability--equanimity.  These are not considered to be 'feelings' but character traits that come with deep meditation, especially on one's own thoughts.  They are not virtues, as in good behavior that can affect one's value or worth.  The compassionate person is more fortunate that the selfish person, but not "better."  There is no hierarchy in practical Buddhism, Zen Buddhism.  And maybe the hardest habit for a contemporary American to break is the habit of perceiving everything by comparison in a hierarchy:  good and evil, worst and best, least and most, superior and inferior.

There are degrees of freedom from suffering.  That's it.  So if I feel compassion for others who are suffering, it may break my heart but it will not contribute to the world's suffering.  I may grieve for the destruction of the web of life through pollution, waste, greed.  But I do not increase my suffering.
To grieve, to know what one's pain is, is to be free of it becoming a permanent knot in my guts, anger in my mind.

Of course if one holds the goal of decreasing suffering in the world, it's easy to see that compassion is a useful tool.  But it is not a virtue that makes me or you better.  It's not "praiseworthy" so much as it is plain good sense.  In that connection I remember an episode of the "Friends" tv series in which Joey and Phoebe try to find how they can do a good deed that doesn't benefit themselves.  They find it impossible.  I miss Joey and Phoebe.

To perceive reality with good sense, one must be capable of good sense.  Good sense requires a mind that can hold focus and can separate itself from waves of mental chatter and tsunamis of emotions.
To achieve a focussed mind, one must train it not to chase after every whim nor wobble with every moodshift, whim and fancy.  Mind-training.  Who or what can train a mind?


As in theatre training, the first available physical tool is awareness of breathing.  Instead of worrying about the lines or the audience, turn your attention to the physical sensations of simple breathing.  As you experience breath, the mind is given something practical to do that helps it escape nonsense.  The actor may indeed experience breathing with an increased vitality.  That increased vitality could become nervousness if the mind was given over to looking at it and describing it and worrying about it.  But that increased vitality is mere excitation: it is the same physical sensation as preparation for receiving a football pass, as playing music, entering a stage, or focusing on deep contemplation of what the mind is.

It's intense.  Intensely alive, deeply alert, enlivened.  It is a discovery mode.

 The practice of conscious attention to breath helps a person to locate 'home base,' from which they can see how the will-o'the-wisps and mirages sweep over the surface of the mind like reflections of clouds in a lake.  You don't stop the clouds.  You just don't obsess about them and mistake their transience of the deep inner silence of the water.

Meditation can be as simple as that.  Training the mind to know itself.  Quieting the ideas of passion and finding the physical site of feelings.  Once you can 'feel' your feeling, it can pass. You don't have to keep complaining about it to yourself.  You feel your feeling, you cradle it as if it were a distressed child or whimpering puppy.  And it calms down.

The mind matters.   More on that later.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Consider the Lobster and Other Essays by David Foster Wallace

Top of my lists.  340 pages of a fluid questioning intelligence that can track on many levels at once, as best seen perhaps in his review of a Dostoevsky critic, Joseph Frank, who applies simultaneously a close textual/aesthetic approach and contextual criticism.  Wallace's review becomes a Dostoevskian parsing of existence at the synchronic and diachronic nexus as he peppers his text with Dostoevskian self-interrogations, e.g.: "What is 'an American'? Do we have something important in common....are there also special responsibilities that come with being an American? If so, responsibilities to whom? (p.269,Backbay Paperback 2007).

Another representative foray into S. Hunter Thompson territory is Wallace's essay on the Adult Video (Porn Film) industry, its economics, its audience, its workers and its sociological implications are plotted for the reader to interpret herself  or himself--each gender invited to arrive at separate conclusions.

Essay topics range from these two to a lobster-eating festival and what it means to eat living beings (reference made to the video "Meet your Meat"), cosmic comic twists in Kafka,  9/11 as experienced in the heart of the working-class Christian Bible Belt, a long graphic exquisition on "Talk Radio."

My "must-read" essay is Wallace's linguistically savvy article on rhetorical ploys in the highly political and contested field of American language, via a review of Bryan A. Garner's A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. This 62-page essay written in 1999 is subtitled "or, POLITICS AND THE ENGLISH LANGAGE IS REDUNDANT." I think it is a brilliant analysis (again, SOP) although I disagree with his condemnation of something I call "double-speak" or "institutional euphemism," and which he labels "Politically Correct English"  in a mostly subconscious resentment of feminism's opposition to male prejudice in language. Yes, DFW can, and occasionally does, have his own unexamined life.  However, for me to discuss the label Political Correctness as a reactionary and extremely clever label for efforts to expose politically prejudicial language would take an essay of my own, and would be to start a DFW-ish chain reaction here, an opportunity I respectfully decline.

Nevertheless and notwithstanding, I think the Language essay should be required reading for all teachers at every level who, whether or not teaching English language skills is their primary purpose, judge the English usage of their students, even and maybe especially in primary grades, but certainly in secondary and post-secondary education, on a continuum from "wrong" to "right."  Perhaps I say that because I hit upon a teaching strategy very much like the one Wallace himself arrived at:  i.e., to acknowledge that "Standard" or "Correct" English is a specific dialect and one among many.  

As Wallace argues persuasively, what many educated intellectuals believe is "correct usage" is misidentified.  There exists, certainly, a use of language which is accepted as correct, but it is thus accepted by a specific elite demographic segment of English speakers. The elite here includes especially  professionals who will judge you in your life which includes many employment agents including interviewers who allow you or not to become a teacher or professional, and others such as  judges, police, lawyers, teachers,  clients, etc.  For precisely that reason, it should be revealed to students as a code, one rhetorical ploy among others, a specific way to speak and write when you wish to be heard out by anyone "elite."

One pedagogical advantage is that teachers can then "correct" language usage without condemning it: saying for example, "this is a Standard English error" instead of saying "this is wrong." Like David Foster Wallace, I had hit upon a teaching strategy very much like the one he outlines here. A second advantage is that one hereby exposes to clear appraisal the class structure of our society and some of the arbitrary codings that signal one's class position.  "Standard Written English" is a passcode, the secret handshake for "advancing" up the ladder.  This method of teaching  acknowledges the ladder and may demystify social power and hierarchies.

Finally, Wallace takes on in the longest of the essays (79 pages,
while Talk Radio gets 69, American Usage 62, Big Red Son 47) John McCain's bid for the Presidency in 2000. I would hazard a guess that the length relates to Wallace's puzzlement in the end over how a person can be somehow heroic and enviable and yet must enter into a vast smarmy ideological cloud even to become a primary candidate for President of the US. 

All these essays are unified by Wallace's passionate appetites for tennis, physics, language, addiction, philosophy, entertainment, politics, rage and all the self-binds of ideology.  In the end we have traversed a restless almost limitless intelligence that sees everything as clues worth turning, testing, examining from every angle with elaborate self-reflexive curiosity, catching all the double-binds, noticing his own ploys and strategies, in quest of Dillard's Holy the Firm that could put in perspective the field of human existence.

Also a dry cut at the "Great Male Narcissists," Updike, Mailer, Roth, in "Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort Of Have to Think."

A curiosity driven, we see in sad retrospect, partly by the insatiable ravening need of the afflictions of depression.  Rest In Restless Peace, David Foster Wallace.  We loved you.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2015

A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf.

 What a wonderful book, a classic to read again and again for the precision of Virginia Woolf's language, the inimitable way she mixes gentle humor and fiction with a serious social critique, and for the unassuming, patient research and analysis of its subject.

It is a long and delicate essay about Women and Fiction (in England) cast as a fictional autobiographical epistle. Woolf's alter-ego/narrator here drolly sets her essay in the form of what English Composition 1-A used to call the "I-Search" paper. Here, however, the "I" is a pretend-character who is articulate, bemused, insightful and not afraid to say simple truths. She composes a meandering story of how she came to conclude that a woman's need for 500 pounds a year and a room of her own (then) was the most important thing to say about a topic she's been invited to "give a talk on." The topic is Women and Fiction.

 Woolf acknowledges that she's writing fiction, and that it doesn't matter what you call the narrator, call her any of the "Marys" from an English folksong about Mary Hamilton's death: "There was Mary Beton, and Mary Seaton, and Mary Carmichael and me." This allusion accomplishes several things. First, because the Mary Hamilton of the song was executed for gender-related reasons, seduced or used by the queen's husband/consort and consequently a perpetrator of abortion or infanticide, the fictional Woolf identifies with being a powerless woman, punished for what a man did to her. Second, Woolf finds a form for her essay that allows her to present results of research without the crushing apparatus of a work claiming to be "true" scholarship. "Lies will flow from my lips," she says, "it is for you to seek out [the] truth." Third, this "fiction" guise allows her to cite contemporary abuses and scandals, books by contemporary women that drew the wrath of powerful men.

 For instance, she writes about reading a new work of modern women's fiction in which closeness between women could be acknowledged: "Chloe liked Olivia perhaps for the first time in literature. Cleopatra did not like Octavia. And how completely Antony and Cleopatra would have been altered had she done so!"

 How subtly she has introduced the idea that in men's books women do not like each other, and that perhaps in reality they do, or will, more often, and thus perhaps in new fiction by independent thinking women, they will. Writing in 1928, Woolf is less theoretical although no less radical than Simone de Beauvoir would be in The Second Sex (1949). Her ultimate focus is the need of a woman writer for at the very least some private space of her own from which to think, and a minimal independent income. Although far from being an existentialist philosopher, Woolf is certainly not an essentialist claiming that women's writing would bring to literature a needed "womanliness," in any sense, but especially as that was commonly understood: tender or sweet, emotion-based, interested in home and appearance and babies. She thinks women who are free to write without excessive insecurity will write "differently" than what literature has been in the past. Perhaps such women, free to perceive independently of men's ideas about women, will have new perspectives, ones that she herself cannot foresee.

She does not claim that women's literature will be "other" than men's literature on some essential level, but that women free from the image and influence of "the male sentence" can create something unpredictable and new. She envisions a day when occupational gender-limits are abandoned and then things will be so changed that, well, let me quote her:
          The nursemaid will heave coal. The shopwoman will drive an engine.
          All assumptions founded on the facts observed when women were the
          protected sex will have disappeared. . . .Anything may happen when
          womanhood has ceased to be a protected occupation.

But until then, patronizing and prejudicial opinions would and do dominate. Mr. Oscar Browning, for instance, is cited by his biographer as complaining, after reviewing student examination papers from Girton and Newnham, the two Cambridge women's colleges, that "the best woman was intellectually the inferior of the worst man." And Mr. Greg: the "essentials of a woman's being are that they are supported by, and they minister to, men." Woolf asks specifically that the psychologists of Newnham and Girton should try to determine what not just the material difficulties, but also the psychological difficulties of men's attitudes-- "not indifference but hostility"—had on women's ability to write with any confidence or hope.

 The book begins its history of how she came to think as she does with a day when "Mary" has been invited to lunch at "Oxbridge" (Oxford/Cambridge). Before lunch she's contemplating her talk but at one point she is frantically warned off of the grass which a woman is not allowed to walk on, and the interruption makes her lose her train of thought, which especially irks her. Remembering as she passes a famous Oxbridge library that her favorite essayist, Charles Lamb, had seen a manuscript of Milton there, she recalls his reaction to seeing Milton's changes: "it shocked him to think it possible that any word in Lycidas could have been different from what it was." She wonders whether the emendments were for style or sense, but then, she thinks, "one would have to decide what is style and what is meaning, a question which – but here I was actually at the door." And "instantly there issued, like a guardian angel barring the way with a flutter of black gown instead of white wings, a deprecating, silvery, kindly gentleman, who regretted in a low voice as he waved me back that ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction."

 She continues, in the next paragraph: "That a famous library has been cursed by a woman is a matter of complete indifference to a famous library."

 It is a frustrating day, and that evening she compares the meager and rather ascetic supper at "Fernham" (a fictional name combining the two women's colleges at Cambridge, Girton and Newnham) with the sumptuous delights of the Oxbridge kitchen lunch, all of which leads her to wonder why women are and have been so poor, and what effect it has had on their development in literature, and it prompts her to a public library where her question becomes one of how sex (not sexuality, but gender ) affects writing. She finds that many men have written extensively on females, especially their inferiority and their incapacity for education.

 Women writers, she notes, have frequently been confronted with men's scorn. First there was Nick Greene's remark that a woman acting put him in mind of a dog dancing. Dr. Johnson repeated the phrase two hundred years later about a woman preaching. And in 1928, a Mr. Cecil Gray reproduced the famous simile about a woman composer: "Sir, a woman's composing is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all." Woolf convincingly and charmingly surveys the library's entries about "woman.". But she notices they are all by men, and they all treat women as a curious anthropological phenomenon. Woolf ponders this attitude from a number of viewpoints. Instead of instantly starting to fulminate, she patiently watches herself and her thoughts, and a growing proclivity to doodle on her paper at this point, making, in fact, rather uncomplimentary doodles of "the professor," as she calls her personification of all those opinion-writers.

 And she discovers that she is angry. Why, she asks, should all this make her angry? Well, of course, she admits, it's never pleasant being told that you are inferior. But she traces her deep anger to a different source: from encountering a sense of anger, indignation, righteousness, in "the Professor's" writing. But that raises the question of why the estimable Professor should be angry. Here she deftly articulates the psychologically salient proposal that men's overreaction to women being their equals or independent in thought or livelihood or education is related to how hard it must be to feel superior enough to everyone else that it is possible to dictate, direct, lead, manage, conquer and subdue others, which seems to be the male prerogative.

  To maintain their secure superiority is, it seems, the role of woman: dependent, deferring, admiring,
reassuring, comforting, but above all looking up to them. At the slightest hint that their women might cease to fulfill this magnifying mirror duty, the men—the professors and the pontificators—are edgy. And angry. "Mary" gives gentle specific examples. It is interesting that Woolf writes here about the importance of Mirrors in creating and sustaining a sense of superiority; it calls to mind the later Lacanian theories involving mirrors as being the primary wedge which divides a person from authentic whole existence into an observer and a gendered role, teaching us that you Are, only as you Are a Male or a Female, and from that early point in the journey toward maturation one is thus living a divided and inauthentic life.  (I paraphrase and oversimplify Lacanian mirror theory wildly, of course.)

Here she examines the effect on women's writing. First of all, she looks at how much men control not only law, institutions of learning, business, government and the like but the very sources of information and influence. She hypothesizes that a visitor to the planet taking one look at a single edition of a London newspaper could not fail to understand that the society was a patriarchy. In that paper are stories of important men, and a few graphics about unimportant women—like an actress being suspended in mid-air over Hollywood; moreover, the writers of these articles, the editors, the very owners of the papers are also men. Like Simone de Beauvoir in the fifties, she notes that one effect is that women are convinced either that they may be inferior to male writers or that at least the male appraisers who bestow such important opinions on writing will think so. Consequently they sometimes try too hard to disguise their gender by writing overmuch like they think men write. She notes that George Eliot to some extent fell prey to this temptation of the male sentence, committing "atrocities with it that beggar description." Unfortunately, she does not give us an example.

 Or, of course, women "dare not" write at all, or at least not publish. Again and again in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, women asseverated that "no woman has any business to meddle with that or any other serious business." And yet she calls attention to the poetry of Lady Winchilsea, born about 1661, lamenting indignantly the position of women. Traces of writing by Margaret of Newcastle, or Margaret Cavendish, also noble and discontent, and in rage: "Women live like Bats or Owls, labour like Beasts, and die like Worms." Dorothy Osborne, then, a contemporary who wrote expressive and sensitive letters, regretting the Duchess's writing: "Sure the poore woman is a little distracted, shee could never bee soe ridiculous else as to venture at writeing book's and in verse too, if I should not sleep this fortnight I should not come to that." And yet, Woolf points out, "what a gift that untaught and solitary girl had for the framing of a sentence, for the fashioning of a scene. . . .One could have sworn that she had the makings of a writer in her."

 And then Virginia Woolf turns to "a very important corner on the road": Mrs. Aphra Behn, "a woman forced by the death of her husband and some unfortunate adventures of her own to make her living by her wits. . . . She made, by working very hard, enough to live on. The importance of that fact outweighs anything that she actually wrote. . . for here begins the freedom of the mind." Woolf suggests that this historical moment might be a fit subject for a student at Girton or Newnham, perhaps, especially how shocking Mrs. Behn's life seems to have been, bring into question "the value that men set upon women's chastity and its effect upon their education."

She notes: "Thus, towards the end of the eighteenth century a change came about which, if I were rewriting history, I should describe more fully and think of greater importance than the Crusades or the Wars of the Roses. The middle-class woman began to write."

 [Actually, I place Aphra Behn at the end of the seventeenth century, during the period generally called the Restoration, when women, including Mrs. Behn, also began to act on the English stage for the first time. Women had long appeared in French theatre, and it will be remembered that the English monarchy took refuge in France during the period of the Puritan-dominated Commonwealth. When James II returned in triumph to the English throne he brought with him a thoroughly Francophone culture. ed.])

 In The Rise of the Novel (1955) Ian Watt observes that the very inception of the English novel coincides with this amazing development in England: women of the middle class were beginning to have more leisure time generally and they provided England with its most voracious class of readers and coincidentally women of the middle class were also beginning to turn to writing. Not just the intrepid Fanny Burney, but hundreds of women wrote novels in the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries. In fact, perhaps the majority of novels written in the 1700s were written by women.

 In Woolf's perceptive examination of Jane Austen, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, and George Eliot, the four main British women writers of the nineteenth century, she selects a passage from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. The passage describes Jane Eyre's suppressed feelings of being caged, limited, denied scope, as she stands on the roof looking longingly out over the horizon of countryside. Or perhaps, Woolf notes, these are not the feelings of Jane Eyre imagined, but the feelings of Charlotte Bronte recorded. For the passage sticks out uncomfortably from the surrounding fiction. Its bitter complaining tone ends abruptly, too abruptly, with Jane noticing the "laughter of Grace Poole." (The original Madwoman In the Attic; see Gilbert and Gubar.) Woolf's conclusion is that Charlotte Bronte's work was marred by the discontent she herself felt which intruded into and marred the writing. Jane Austen, she says, and even Emily Bronte perhaps were able to find a placid acceptance of their circumstances, but such complacency is rare.

Woolf, or rather, "Mary" retails how bitter and insecure and harassed she herself had been before an
aunt left her a bequest that freed her from the exhaustion and the worry of finding work to support herself. Even worse was the grief at how her time and energy thus were diverted from exercise of the gift that she felt within herself. She quotes Milton's plaint about the wasting of "that gift which it is death to hide." After the bequest, "Mary" makes the discovery that with a bare survival subsidy she begins to recover the dignity which allows her to think for herself, without fear or bitterness or anger, and which may in time let her write freely.

The great beauty of Woolf's book is its research into the actual circumstances surrounding women, especially in English history, tracing the tragic obstruction of women's ability to know, to study, to find out anything about their "mothers" in history, and/or to communicate freely. ." She comments on the ironic dysjunction between the heroic and empassioned characters of women in drama and women's actual lives---noting that for instance in the seventeenth century, in reality, as a "Professor Trevelyan points out, she [woman] was locked up, beaten, and thrown about the room."

It is here that Woolf writes her famous remarks on what would have been the fate of Shakespeare's gifted sister, had he had one: "who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet's heart when caught and tangled in a woman's body?" She observes that history teaches us that "genius is not born among labouring, uneducated, servile people." And, she continues, "It is not born today among the working classes." But, she demurs: "Yet genius of a sort must have existed among women as it must have existed among the working classes." But what a fate it would have been in Shakespeare's era:  "Had she survived, whatever she had written would have been twisted and deformed, issuing from a strained and morbid imagination."

In the latter twentieth century, to U.S. feminists, and to "womanists" specifically, Woolf's view of women here, however, revealed itself as limited to the middle and upper classes, the "genteel" classes. And that criticism is certainly warranted. Virginia Woolf was the daughter of respected scholar Leslie Stephens, in a relatively privileged and narrow social circle. She is not alone in being an artist with a blind spot when it comes to class and ethnic hierarchies. Sojourner Truth at a (U.S. Women's Suffrage meeting in 1849 (or 1851) proudly defied the same exclusive preoccupation with women needing male protection: "That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman?" The protected sex, indeed!

 In a 1983 publication, In Search of Our Mother's Gardens: Womanist Prose, Alice Walker commented on the impossibility of Woolf's solutions for many, especially underprivileged women of color. What, Walker asks, then of poets like Phyllis Wheatley, a black slave, not even owning herself let alone a bequest and a room "with lock and key"?

Moreover, post-colonial awareness highlights the source of the great equalizer in Woolf's book: her bequest comes from, -- but here's the passage: "My aunt, Mary Beton, I must tell you, died by a fall from her horse when she was riding out to take the air in Bombay." In Bombay. On her horse in Bombay. Out in one of the Colonies, out where England was engaged in siphoning off the wealth of the 'brown' people of the East as well as of Africa, with which to provide young Mary Beton in London an income that would obviate the necessity of work and deprivation and insecurity.

On the other hand, Woolf backs up her position that women writers will probably come first from the middle classes, and certainly Woolf is right about the need for the "space" in which writing can be generated. It would be healthy to acknowledge how powerful has been the correlation between being independently wealthy and being a writer, whether of poetry or fiction. She herself allows that "you may object that in all this I have made too much of the importance of material things." You "may say that the mind should rise above such things." She then quotes Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch to the contrary, and I will repeat an abbreviated version here:

"What are the great poetical names of the last hundred years or so? Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Landor, Keats, Tennyson, Morris, Rossetti, Swinburne—we may stop there. Of these, all but Keats, Browning, Rossetti were University men; and of these three, Keats, who died young. . . was the only one not fairly well-to-do. It may seem a brutal thing to say, and it is a sad thing to say: but, as a matter of hard fact, the theory that poetical genius bloweth where it listeth, and equally in poor and rich, holds little truth. As a matter of hard fact, nine out of those twelve were University men: which means that somehow or other they procured the means to get the best education England can give. . . . These are dreadful facts, but let us face them. It is – however dishonouring to us as a nation — certain that, by some fault in our commonwealth, the poor poet has not in these day a dog's chance. . . .Believe me – and I have spent a great part of ten years in watching some three hundred and twenty elementary schools — we may prate of democracy, but actually, a poor child in England has little more hope than had the son of an Athenian slave to be emancipated into that intellectual freedom of which great writings are born."
                                    (Quiller-Couch, The Art of Writing)

And I would add, too, that when that wealth is dependent on social inequities, like the Colonial wealth that flowed into England so consistently for more than four hundred years (1500-1950 for the bald colonial empire specifically), that which is expressed will benignly overlook that injustice itself. Woolf is so thoughtful that one has to be surprised she could pose the prospect of a bequest from an aunt "out riding in Bombay" without at least an ironic comment on the relationship of the colonies to the commonwealth, but that is how material interests obscure our insight. For she is addressing her talk to young women who are already "at college," and hardly acknowledging the class privileges that got them there, let alone the relationship of "Fiction" to the women of color of England's widespread empire.

Today most well-known well-published poets are still "university" educated; moreover, most of them teach poetry in universities. Are they willing to look social inequities in the face seriously? Do their poems and essays address the great injustice that keeps many longing young people out of college, and bankrupts others who manage to get there by means of loans? No. Look at the general tenor of what is publishable today and you will find it mostly apolitical. There come periods when the energy of the lower classes, the exploited and socially devalued, pushes up hard against moribund hierarchies, and then the literature, the art, the music and theatre and dance begin to speak of, and from, the lower social strata. But usually: not.

 Walker's example of a "great" poet who had none of the material or educational advantages unfortunately fails; Phyllis Wheatley was amazing for her time and place. But the impossibility then of thinking and writing rebelliously stifled what must have been an enormous innate ability. Wheatley's poetry expresses an 'approved' theme in which there is no injustice, no race, no poverty, no cruelty. Importantly, Alice Walker did also acknowledge the common ground between Woolf's vision of women writers and her own womanist search. That common ground was the acknowledgment of the need for some kind of space—-psychological, financial, educational. For Walker it was a search for the fecundity of our mothers' gardens. In our misogynistic and cruel social age, genuine matriarchal fecundity is often a psychological luxury. A Room of One's Own is a delightful semi-fictional musing about non-fictional social history which makes the reading so pleasant and palatable that one hardly knows one is being profoundly educated.

"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" indeed.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton; a Review.

Edith Wharton: the name seemed familiar.  I was browsing in a bargain book bin at a used book store.  Edith Wharton.  As I dredged up some fragments from the memory-stew, out came Ethan Frome. We read it in high school English class.  And then I snatched at another floating wisp:  an of Julie Harris in the movie.  That's all I really knew about Wharton, and it's probably more than many people do. So I picked this up, on a whim, to know more about women novelists of the past. Once I began reading, I couldn't put the book down.  And this novel is supposedly "inferior" to her later major works such as Ethan Frome which I suspect is read in high school because it is short and because it "teaches" that any girl who fools around with a married man, even just sled-riding, is going to be very very sorry. I think of Dylan Thomas and "useless" Christmas gifts:  "books about boys who were warned not to skate on Farmer Giles's pond, and did, and drowned."

 Edith Wharton was one of the few women novelists to win a Pulitzer Prize in the early twentieth century: hers was for The Age of Innocence in 1920. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1930.  To my mind she excels any other woman novelist until the 1960s.  She is comparable to Henry James in faultless style and vivid situations, and better than him to my mind, although much less well-known.  Gore Vidal was of this opinion:  

Traditionally Henry James has always been placed slightly higher up the slope of Mount Parnassus than Edith Wharton. But now that the prejudice against the female writer is on the wane, they look to be exactly what they are: giants, equals, the tutelary and benign gods of our American literature.   

Edith Jones Wharton was born into the upper class New York society she so dispassionately dissects in The House of Mirth, and she knows all the tiny markers of prestige, the subtlety of tone or gaze that indicates the rise or fall of someone's stocks in the social market.  She understands the eccentricities that differentiate individuals while seeing clearly that, on the other hand, the apparent idiosyncracies and distinctions are only tiny markers in a conformist herd. The actors ascribe almost instinctively to a rigid and pretentious code that remains unspoken while they frequently and gaily declare their opposition to it, thinking themselves daring, free and spontaneous. Oh, yes.  So open, unstuffy, gregarious, free of judgment they are in their frivolities.  So ready to spring open trapdoors under another's feet.  So coldly calculating each other's relative currencies.  So careful to obey the subtle strictures.

The House of Mirth, 1906, was not Edith Wharton's first publication by any means but it was the first to establish her as both a serious novelist and a popular one.  In many ways this could be a companion piece to Balzac's Père Goriot, but written about a young woman in a position comparable to that of Balzac's young law student who tries to go "into society." And the two enviable-seeming daughters of Old Father Goriot whose dashing lives are so perilously close to disaster.  In Wharton's novel Lily Bart is, in a way, already "in" society; she was born to a life of spending and making life decorative in social circulation.  But her father lost his fortune, and both parents died.

The advent of Lily's sudden fall dramatizes her naïve incomprehension of "expense."  As her father approaches a luncheon table, the young Lily appeals to him to please furnish the house with better fresh flowers, lily-of-the-valley, she thinks. He laughs in an odd way which causes Lily's mother instantly to dismiss the butler.  "Are you ill?" she says cuttingly. "Ill?—No, I'm ruined," he answers.

For two years after his death, which followed hard on the bankruptcy, Lily's mother keeps herself and her daughter anxiously on the edges of society while she prepares Lily to use her extraordinary beauty as "the raw material of conquest."  Wharton's shows keen insight into the self-delusion inculcated by the idea of personal beauty as a distinctive value, and of "good taste" as a virtue.  Lily comes to see herself as having an innate superiority, unable as she is, like most of us actually, to understand that social advantages do not bestow moral rights:

            [Lily] liked to think of her beauty as a power for good, as giving her
            the opportunity to attain a position where she should make her influence
            felt in the vague diffusion of refinement and good taste.  .  .  . she could not
            help thinking that the possession of such tastes ennobled her desire for
            worldly advantages.

After both parents' death, Lily is taken in reluctantly by a stuffy widowed aunt who understands the need for a woman to "dress," and at least pays for Lily's clothes, allowing Lily stay beautifully costumed  although always in debt because she wants more and genuinely sees no reason she should not have everything she desires.  We meet her when she is twenty-nine.  She has been courted by many but she is still unmarried.  Most men bore her.  Why should she give up her pleasant life?  She is so popular, so charming, so decorative, that women vie to have her for their weekends, their seasons, their parties. And that means gifts from her hostesses:  sometimes dresses, sometimes cash.   Lily makes her way by means of these parties and gifts.

She knows, however, that she is at the age when she must marry or lose the status of "charming girl" and become "spinster."  She identifies a good candidate:  a young man  
fabulously wealthy but almost pathologically shy.  Just then, however, another complication presses upon her.  Her main benefactor Judy Trenor has taken up hosting bridge parties, and Lily is expected to play cards. For money. It is understood that at parties, her role is to "help" Judy, whether that means the tediousness of writing out notes and cards for her, or the task of charming guests who might be sticky or stodgy.  Or appearing as a lively entertaining figure at the card tables.  And the wealthy play for rather large stakes.  When Lily wins, she is delighted and she spends.  When she loses, however, difficulties arise.  No one must know how utterly destitute she really is. And the young man she thinks she must marry would be shocked to know she owes money for "gambling debts."  

The final complication is that there is one man who does not bore her, an attorney, Lawrence Selden. He has adequate family status to be seen at occasional parties but he has no money to speak of.  She likes him but he is ineligible as a husband.  He doesn't have enough money or social clout.  Just as Lily had to have better fresh flowers at home she needs a better fortune for the life she is trained for.  He is just attractive enough, however, that spending time with him compromises her dedication to taking a rich husband.

One of Wharton's gifts is to make the reader admire the grit and cleverness with which Lily maneuvers in this artificial society and simultaneously to see the fatuous vanity of it as well as its heartlessness.  Wharton doesn't make Lily an innocent victimized by cruelty; Lily is an adept: she knows what she is doing.  But she is also spoiled by her  success managing people, and she is impulsive, drawn to instant gratifications. The novel begins with such an impulse:  to have tea with Lawrence Selden when she is stranded in a hot train station waiting for a late train.  There is always a mild flirtation between them, with something more serious just under the surface, and when he invites her to take tea with him in his hotel lodgings she yields to the impulse.  As she leaves afterward, she realizes how it may look—a single woman going to a man's hotel rooms, and it gives her a momentary disquiet. To her dismay she is seen by a man who moves somewhat in her circles but it is someone she finds loathsome. She knows she could give him a charming smile and a bright word that would effectively put him "on her side," so he does not speak maliciously about her leaving Selden's apartment). But she disdains to do so.

Lily is not above resentment that she cannot have both her freedom from financial worries and complete freedom from bores. She chafes under her obligations to always be careful, adroit, winsome, guarded:

            Why must a girl pay so dearly for her least escape from routine?  Why
            could one never do a natural thing without having to screen it behind a
            structure of artifice? She had yielded to a passing impulse in going to
            Lawrence Selden's rooms, and it was so seldom that she could allow herself
            the luxury of an impulse!  This one, at any rate, was going to cost her rather
            more than she could afford.

Thus Wharton casts a somber shadow over these three characters:  Lily, Selden, and Sim Rosedale.

For Wharton is not Louisa May Alcott: she builds a careful case to convince us of the complete unlikelihood of Lily Bart freeing herself.  Anyone who has read Ethan Frome knows that Edith Wharton is not going to supply artificial happy endings even if a situation is intolerable;  people are what they are in her fictions and there is no divine rescue,  no poetic justice, no fairy godmother.  Lily herself knows her own weaknesses: the idea of setting herself up independently to earn her own way is laughably unrealistic.  No life seems to her more dreadful than that of the few single women she knows who live by their own work in ugly little rooms with dismal clothing and no parties, no thrillingly beautiful people, no excitement.  She knows herself incapable of making that choice.
Wharton's most admirable quality is the patience, the detail, the fulsomeness with which she constructs the plot for both believability and empathy, in which she details each step in the inexorable descent, and with which she allows the coils she has laid out to slowly close around Lily.

Mentioning Sim Rosedale, however, brings up one aspect of the book that stings.  Or stinks.  How does an author go about casting the villains in a plot? One method, unfortunately, is to choose the outsider, someone who doesn't really "belong."  As if there is in social exclusion a wise intuition of moral inferiority.  In British and American literature and drama, the "dark" character is always to be mistrusted. Today (I hope) the educated reader finds this racist tactic flimsy and objectionable, an offensive reminder of how culturally promoted prejudices can fasten themselves on even the most intelligent of persons.  Sim Rosedale is one such character. And his darkness is, or seems to be, Jewish; Wharton describes him as fabulously successful on Wall Street(!) and doggedly determined to rise in society, although he does not come from "people."  Social aversions to Rosedale (think Rosen, Rosenbaum, etc.) are never stated flatly in terms of anti-Semitism. He is a "nouveau riche" in a setting with long traditions about restricting who is acceptable to the "good families."  Any "nouveau" or "nobody" is avoided in this world.  Nevertheless Wharton depends on us to sympathize with Lily's special repugnance by describing Rosedale in terms of "the instincts of his race," and "the tradition of his blood," for instance.  Wharton may have empathy for others excluded from the elite air, but not for Rosedale.

She also employs racist associations to describe a woman of disrepute, in ways that I suppose are meant to be telling to the reader.  But the particular references have fallen from use now, so that I was completely mystified by what she was referring to as "ladies of her nationality,"  "the ideal of their race," and  "Oriental indolence and disorder."  And we are expected to understand that "Oriental" does not here refer to a nationality but to decadence and sensuousness, characteristics Western Colonialist prejudice assigned to those 'Others' as justification for needing to civilize them (needless to say the task was accomplished by invasion, aggression and oppression).

In the 1999 edition I had purchased, there is a prefatory essay, "Mrs. Wharton in New York," by Elizabeth Hardwick, an extract Sight Reading(1998), that glosses over the ugly tracks of racism in Wharton as merely "[i]n the practice of the period."   Hardwick finds predatory Gus Trenor (husband of Lily's friend Judy) merely "realistic" when he is only a nudge away from an attempted rape.  But she describes Rosedale as "a crafty usurper" because in the end he turns down marriage with Lily when she has become a social liability, even though he never does anything particularly unkind or rude to Lily, or to anyone else that we know of. Besides, the premise of the whole book is that almost everyone in elite society is craftily "usurping" social position. Hardwick does acknowledge that there is something objectionable in the characterization of Rosedale, but ascribes it to an innocuous "practice of the period." I am surprised at a woman of Hardwick's stature continuing "in the practice of the period" in her own prejudices in 1998, and failing to identify that practice as racist and anti-Semitic.

All in all, however, The House of Mirth was a great book.  I was swept up in the story, and I found myself in tears for many pages leading to the ending.   Perhaps a reason for my special susceptibility was that I could identify with Lily's predicament.  When I was a girl, women still had to "take care" around men. You had to accept and pass off with smiling grace their crude suggestions, dirty little insinuations, and outright sexual aggressions.  I was in my thirties before I was finally willing to risk a man's hostility, at last becoming more comfortable with insults and anger than with being a willing, smiling, victim.

Moreover, in my twenties I honestly did not know what to do with my life so I understand much of Lily's dilemma. I was not trained to envision myself in a career, and I was not prepared for one.  When I turned thirty, however, I had an epiphany which Lily did not.  I realized my "girlhood" was gone, but in its place I found my adult competence and my assumption of competence I owed to the tide of  the Women's Liberation movement which swept me up in its power. It was far less exciting than a vision of myself as being "attractive" to men.   But I enrolled in graduate school, even though I had to temporarily support myself with office work. (Which I loathed because of the necessity to "dress the part," one more artificial demand for being 'attractive.')  I look back now, at that moment and think how easily it might not have been.  How easily any young woman who is attractive and successful at girlhood charm might not in other circumstances, find independence and authenticity. I work with such girls every week, as a volunteer mentoring girls in juvenile detention. They are not raised to luxury, but they are raised in a media culture of parties, sexiness, and fashionable self-display. They are not all beautiful but they are all young flesh and they can make that to work for them at least some of the time. It's a revolving door; they get addicted to parties and drugs, they get strung out and used by men, they are arrested and go into detention, they are rehabbed, educated, psychologized, medicated, but they come out into the same world they left.  Like the stereotypical pretty small-town girl of thirties and forties fiction, they dream of "Celebrity" the way those girls envisioned "Hollywood."  They want to become famous and glamorous, or at least to feel like it.  Yes, like Lily, young women can still "fall from grace."

Lily Bart never betrays her inner sense of decency or dignity.  She doesn't stoop to blackmail.  She doesn't stoop to selling her body or sexuality.  She doesn't intentionally hurt anyone.  And she doesn't waste her spirit in hatred, revenge, or blame.  She just tires out. And in her circumstances, she hits a wall.  In her circumstances I could have.

A marvelous book.