Thursday, May 23, 2019

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton


Source of book: I own this.

One of the gaps in my reading experience has been the “era of pessimism,” for lack of a better term. I read a lot of the Victorians and earlier, and some of the books of the 20th Century, but not nearly as much as I should have. I think there were two reasons for this. First, my parents, who introduced me to authors like Dickens, Twain, and Hawthorne at a very young age (think single digits) weren’t all that familiar with more modern books - perhaps a result of the schooling they received? I mean, there were some - my mom encouraged me to read The Octopus. But for the most part, we read older books together. The other factor was that my literature curriculum was A Beka, which, while in a few cases quite subversive for a Fundie publication, tended to give the 20th Century - that godless era - a rather short shrift.

So, over the last few years, I have tried to read a wider variety of books and catch up on some of the most important ones I missed. To that end, I read my first Edith Wharton novel: The House of Mirth.


The title comes from Ecclesiastes: “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.”

Wharton was born about a decade before the Gilded Age, into a wealthy New York socialite family - like the characters in this book. As such, she wrote from first-hand knowledge of that society. She also was insulated from charges that this book was sour grapes, that she was from a lower class just jealous of the wealthy. Her own background allowed her to write piercing satire from her own experiences and take her shots against her own tribe, so to speak.

Lily Dale is an impoverished but well born beauty who has been raised since birth for one task: to marry money. At the opening of the book, however, she is at the elderly age of 29, and so far hasn’t succeeded. In part this is because she wishes to marry for love. As she discovers, though, the ultra-wealthy guys tend to be...not very nice people. This much remains true. Excesses of money and power do not tend to build good character, and trust fund babies (like, say Il Toupee) grow up to be entitled assholes.

Lily makes a number of missteps that lead to her crashing out of society, and eventually coming to a tragic end. The first is at the beginning, when she visits her friend Laurence Selden, a respectable but not wealthy lawyer. (He is kind of at the fringe of the top society because of his birth, and he lives a comfortable, but not ostentatious life - but he still earns his living working, which keeps him out of the upper echelons.) She is seen leaving by Mr. Rosedale, a Jewish banker trying to rise in society.

Next, she chickens out of marrying Percy Gryce, a wealthy mama’s boy who is at least not a jerk, even if he is insipid.

In debt because of the social expectation that she play at bridge for money, she cannot sustain her lifestyle, and turns to her friend’s husband, a stock speculator, for assistance. She fails to realize that he isn’t just investing her money, he is adding to it with the expectation that his generosity will be...rewarded. And not in a way Lily wishes to.

From there, it is misstep after misstep, and not of the necessarily blameworthy variety. She is “sacrificed” by a friend who wishes to deflect blame for her own affair. She is unjustly accused of trying to get young heir married to her social inferior. (The males who were really involved get off scot free, of course.)

I can’t decide how much of The House of Mirth is intended to skewer upper class society, and how much of it is intended to critique women like Lily, who expect to have wealth and love just because they are well-born and beautiful. Probably both. Wharton also takes on the sexual double standard, where men are free to play without consequence, while women pay the social price. Unless they have money and a scapegoat.

Reading this book left me with ambiguous feelings about it. On the one hand, Wharton is a skilled and witty writer. There are many devastating lines, and her descriptions and psychological explorations are memorable. On the other, her casual anti-semitism is really grating. Rosedale is mostly a stereotype common to the age, and even the little bit of humanity he is briefly allowed is then immediately counteracted by his avarice. In a book with nuanced and conflicted and complicated characters, that one should be “unacceptably Jewish” and assumed to be beyond the pale for a woman of good breeding to consider is disappointing. And while you could blame Wharton‘s time in history, it seems less of a valid excuse when you consider that George Eliot wrote a far better book with Jewish characters, Daniel Deronda, a full 30 years prior.

Another irritating factor for me was that it was hard to find a character to actually like. I guess the closest is Selden, who seems at least normal and decent. But he - quite rightly - realizes that Lily would never be happy with his financial station. So I was hoping he wouldn’t get caught in her snare. Except that he is about the only good thing in her life, and you hate to see her lose that. And Lily herself is the sort of woman that I most hate to deal with in divorce court - aware of their beauty and wearing a gigantic sense of entitlement. I spent more of the book looking on in horror at the unfolding tragedy, but having a hard time sympathizing with anyone. To quote Mercutio: “A plague on both your houses!”

There are some great lines along the way, at least. One comes in the opening scene, where Lily Dale expresses her jealousy of Selden’s modest flat (with a library, though, so I approve.)

“How delicious to have a place like this all to one’s self! What a miserable thing it is to be a woman.”

Seldon points out that his cousin gets along fine by herself. But she has no ambitions of marrying, so Lily sees female independence as giving up the dream of marrying money.

I also loved this description of another character, Mrs. Dorset.

She was smaller and thinner than Lily Bart, with a restless pliability of pose, as if she could have been crumpled up and run through a ring, like the sinuous draperies she affected. Her small pale face seemed the mere setting of a pair of dark exaggerated eyes, of which the visionary gaze contrasted curiously with her self-assertive tone and gestures; so that, as one of her friends observed, she was like a disembodied spirit who took up a great deal of room.

There is also a good scene where Lily is still on the fence about Percy Gryce.

She had been bored all afternoon by Percy Gryce -- the mere thought seemed to waken an echo of his droning voice -- but she could not ignore him on the morrow, she must follow up her success, must submit to more boredom, must be ready with fresh compliances and adaptabilities, and all on the bare chance that he might ultimately decide to do her the honour of boring her for life.

This is, of course, the dilemma for Lily. Which is more important? To marry for the vast wealth she craves? Or settle for less but avoid the boredom? Lest we forget, this is only the dilemma because Lily is well-born and beautiful - if she were ordinary, she would be forced to take what she could get.

It isn’t until we have the stage set pretty well that we get to hear of Lily’s upbringing. Of her mother who was good at spending and raised her daughter to be the same. Of her father who did what was expected - bring home the money - until he didn’t, and at that point, he might as well be dead. Wharton sneaks this poisonous line in:

She [Lily] had not been deceived by Mrs. Bart’s words: she knew at once that they were ruined. In the dark hours which followed, that awful fact overshadowed even her father’s slow and difficult dying. To his wife, he no longer counted: he had become extinct when he ceased to fulfil his purpose, and she sat at his side with the provisional air of a traveller who waits for a belated train to start.

I have seen too many of this kind of woman in my divorce practice. Sure, they aren’t in the upper crust of society, but the idea that the function of a man and the measure of his manhood is money very much persists. It is the same dynamic: woman leverages her beauty and “purity” into a marriage to a man with sufficient income. Life happens, and his income decreases, and she dumps his butt and slanders him to everyone as lacking manhood (aka money).

Here is another cutting line, from Lily’s analysis of Mr. Gryce’s nature.

He had the kind of character in which prudence is a vice, and good advice the most dangerous nourishment. But Lily had known the species before: she was aware that such a guarded nature must find one huge outlet of egoism, and she determined to be to him what his Americana had hitherto been: the one possession in which he took sufficient pride to spend money on it. She knew that this generosity to self is one of the forms of meanness, and she resolved so to identify herself with her husband’s vanity that to gratify her wishes would be to him the most exquisite form of self-indulgence.

That’s just so good. Wharton does indeed capture that dynamic - the man who loves to spend on his wife as he would on another hobby that gratifies him. To see her dressed finely (or, in the modern case, to see her driving an Land Rover) gratifies his ego, and is that “exquisite form of self-indulgence.”

Later in the book, Lily has found herself in the uncomfortable position of accompanying a wealthy friend and her husband on a European trip - and the expectation is that she will keep the husband occupied so he doesn’t notice his wife having an affair with a much younger man. But things fall apart (and Lily is eventually blamed for it.) I like this line in the middle of a longer contemplation of the situation.

All her concern had hitherto been for young Silverton, not only because, in such affairs, the woman’s instinct is to side with the man, but because his case made a peculiar appeal to her sympathies. He was so desperately in earnest, poor youth, and his earnestness was of so different a quality from Bertha’s, though hers too was desperate enough. The difference was that Bertha was in earnest only about herself, while he was in earnest about her. But now, at the actual crisis, this difference seemed to throw the weight of destitution on Bertha’s side, since at least he had her to suffer for, and she had only herself.

Wharton’s wit is definitely the best part of the book. I wonder if she was as rapier-sharp in person as well.

After the crisis, Bertha blames Lily, and tells tales about her. Lily’s poorer and do-gooder friend asks why Lily can’t just tell the truth about it all and clear her name.

“The whole truth?” Miss Bart laughed. “What is truth? Where a woman is concerned, it’s the story that’s easiest to believe. In this case it’s a great deal easier to believe Bertha Dorset’s story than mine, because she has a big house and an opera box, and it’s convenient to be on good terms with her.”

Lily is right, alas. We see this play out every day, where those with money and power are able to control the narrative. (Although the Me Too movement is pushing back - a welcome development.) In fact, I can point to my wife’s experience as a teen as an example of this. It was more convenient to believe she was a Jezebel gunning for the young men than to challenge those with power in the group.

There is one final observation I want to look at. As Lily falls further in social status, it becomes clear that her specific skill set isn’t well adapted to changing circumstances.

Having been accustomed to take herself at the popular valuation, as a person of energy and resource, naturally fitted to dominate any situation in which she found herself, she vaguely imagined that such gifts would be of value to seekers after social guidance; but there was unfortunately no specific head under which the art of saying and doing the right thing could be offered in the market, and even Mrs. Fisher’s resourcefulness failed before the difficulty of discovering a workable vein in the vague wealth of Lily’s graces.

Wharton puts it particularly well, but the problem is simple enough: Lily hasn’t learned how to “do” anything productive. She has learned how to perform a role in a particular society. She knows how to look pretty, dress well, say witty stuff, and make people of a similar social class enjoy her company. But, failing to leverage these skills into becoming a rich man’s wife, she has nothing else really to offer. And when she is forced to actually earn a living, she is worse off than the average working-class girl.

Inherited tendencies had combined with early training to make her the highly specialized product she was: an organism as helpless out of its narrow range as the sea-anemone torn from the rock.

I have had this discussion with a number of people of the white Evangelical persuasion - typically parents of children or teens - about whether it is wise to train female children with the goal that they will be stay-at-home moms. For the cult in which my wife was raised, this was the only acceptable choice - and she was ostracised because she went to college to learn a skill.

But really, isn’t this very much like Lily Bart? Sure, the social stratum is lower - the white middle class - but the idea is the same. A woman is to be trained to perform a particular social role. “But what about caring for children and keeping a home?” I hear all the time. Sorry, I do not consider caring for children and doing housework to be a particularly unusual skill. I believe it is a basic life skill that all people - men included - should have. Kind of like knowing how to bathe and dress one’s self. Like Lily’s ability to charm, they aren’t that marketable in a pinch. And, given how many “stay-at-home moms” I know and have known who send their kids to school and have a housekeeper come in and clean, I am thinking the essence of the role isn’t actually the kids and house: it is fulfilling a particular social role in a particular social stratum. And if you fall out of that stratum for whatever reason, it’s a hard landing without other skills to fall back on.

In the end, Lily’s desire to marry for love isn’t a bad one. But combined with her insistence that it come with money, and her lack of a plan B, mean that she has zero margin for error - or even bad luck. Anything less than the “perfect” man coming along means she will fail. In contrast, Wharton portrays the working-class women, who grow up expecting to work, and hoping for a marriage to a decent if poor man. And so, if love doesn’t come, they can work, and if it does, they work to provide for the family. There is the resilience of lower expectations and greater diversity and suitability of their skill sets.

So, I guess in the end, I did rather enjoy this book. The wit and perceptive portrayal of the issues won me over, despite the lack of likeable characters.


Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The Misanthrope by Moliere (Shafter Ford Theater)


A nouveau riche attempts to acquire high culture and makes a fool of himself. A health-obsessed hypochondriac falls for a series of quack doctors and their remedies. A religious huckster preys on foolish aristocracy to obtain money and sexual favors. A young, snarky hipster mocks everything and anything, but finds nothing to believe in - not even his own misanthropy.

Are these plots from the late Twentieth Century perhaps? Quite the contrary. They come from the Seventeenth Century comédies Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme [The Would-be Gentleman], Le Malade Imaginaire [The Hypochondriac], Tartuffe, and Le Misanthrope, by Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, commonly known by his stage name, Molière.

The above is quoted from my first blog post on Molière, wherein I examined The School for Husbands. I have loved Moliere ever since I read Tartuffe as part of my high school literature curriculum. That scathing indictment of religious hucksters and foolish people who fall for their smarm seems ever-so-relevant today. In fact, most of Molière’s best known works have aged extremely well: human nature hasn’t changed all that much in the last 400 years. We still have the same weaknesses, and we still seem to go for the same charlatans and fall for the same fallacies.

I have seen three different Molière plays live over the years. The Empty Space did a production of Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme years ago, with Bob Kempf in the title role. (He was hilarious.) Theatricum Botanicum presented an adaptation (by Constance Congdon) of Le Malade Imaginaire three years ago, and we took the kids to that one. And, also a while back, our local university did a marvelous version of Le Misanthrope. Basically, if I see Molière on tap at a reasonably local theater, I’m there.

So, when I saw that long-time Bakersfield College theater professor turned Anglican minister Randy Messick was directing Le Misanthrope in Shafter, I knew I had to find a way to go.

This was my first time at this particular theater. It is fairly new, built in the last couple of years, and (presumably) financed by the Starrh family - who must have spent quite a pretty penny over the years on the Colours Festival (I’ve played in the orchestra for that for several years) and other arts-related stuff in Shafter. However, it did (at least in this production) feature local actors that I had seen elsewhere. If Messick is involved, I am sure the artistic values will be high.

So, about this production. Unlike the CSUB version, which used a contemporary setting, more or less (Hipster coffee shop culture…), this one went for the original time period and costumes. The music was slightly anachronistic, using Mozart rather than Lully (Molière’s original collaborator.) But it actually fit pretty well.

I am not sure of the specifics, but illness led to the lead character, Alceste, being played by local thespian and teacher Kevin Ganger reading off the script. I am assuming he was a last-minute fill in. Reading is never ideal, but Ganger is a pro, and nailed the cynical and obnoxious tone just fine anyway.

 Philinte (Nolan Long), Alceste (Kevin Ganger), Eliante (Shelbe McClain)

As Alceste’s best friend, the likeable everyman Philinte, Nolan Long brought an earnestness and equanimity that contrasted nicely with Alceste’s misanthropy. Long has been a regular at TES, and has shown a nice range from comedic bit parts to earnest leads to villains. I’m always happy to see his name in the cast.

Celemene is the main female character. She is frivilous, flirtations, and utterly untrustworthy. She does her best to string along multiple guys, telling each that he is her true love, while doing the same for the others. Alceste, naturally, is dead gone for her - opposites attract in this case. I think Karisma Normandin has been in the cast of something or another local - in a bit part - but she was fantastic in this role. Her over-the-top costume and her over-the-top Betty Boopishness was hilarious.

Celemene (Karisma Normandin) and Oronte (John Spitzer)

The cast was filled out by a few others. John Spitzer was Oronte, the young social climber with the ludicrous wig which strongly resembled the Pointy Haired Boss from Dilbert. Scott Deaton played Clitandre, the smarmy and elderly aristocrat with a bit too much French effeminacy for his own good. Shelbe McClain - another versatile local theater regular - took the role of Eliante, the sensible woman who is invisible to Alceste, but the perfect match for Philinte. She gets some of the absolute best lines in the play, as the observer (the Chorus, perhaps) of the other characters’ foibles. Leslie Aldridge played the prudish Arsinoe (complete with ludicrous prosthetic nose) to good effect. Arsinoe is one of the funniest characters, as her self-righteous (if somewhat accurate) condemnation of Celemene is matched only by her imperfectly suppressed sexual voracity. A couple of servants and officers had bit parts as well.

 Celemene and Arsinoe (Leslie Aldridge)


 Eliante, Clitandre (Scott Deaton), Alceste, Celemene

There are some outstanding lines in this play. I wish I could quote at length, but I really prefer that people read the whole thing. Or, better yet, go see a Molière play live. I am not sure which translation Messick used as the basis for his adaptation (ALL productions you are likely to see have been adapted, as the originals required songs, ballet numbers, and other stuff that rather interrupts the plot…) but I am using my own Franklin hardback version, translated by Donald M. Frame. One thing I did note was that the parts of Oronte and Acaste have been combined and remixed with Clitandre - which works fine, considering they are both young noblemen seeking Celemene’s love. Here is a good example of the wit.

Clitandre: You glow with satisfaction, dear Marquis:
You’re free from worriment and full of glee.
But do you think you’re seeing things aright
In taking such occasion for delight?

Acaste (Oronte): My word! When I regard myself, I find
No reason for despondency of mind.
I’m rich, I’m young, I’m of a family
With some pretension to nobility…
My wit is adequate, my taste discerning,
To judge and treat all subjects without learning…

This is just one of the many witty exchanges in the play. One more is worth quoting here. Alceste is trying to convince the others that if you truly love someone, you will see - and try to correct - their every fault. Yep, that sure sounds like a plan for marital bliss, right? The far more sensible Eliante understands the truth far better.

Acaste (Oronte): Her charms and grace are evident to me;
But any faults I fear I cannot see.

Alceste: I see them all; she knows the way I feel;
My disapproval I do not conceal.
Loving and flattering are worlds apart;
The least forgiving is the truest heart;
And I would send these soft suitors away,
Seeing they dote on everything I say,
And that their praise, complaisant to excess,
Encourages me in my foolishness.

Celemene: In short, if we’re to leave it up to you,
All tenderness in love we must eschew;
And love can only find its true perfection
In railing at the objects of our affection.

Eliante: Love tends to find such laws somewhat austere,
And lover always brag about their dear;
Their passion never sees a thing to blame,
And everything is lovely in their flame:
They find perfection in her every flaw,
And speak of her with euphemistic awe.
The pallid one’s the whitest jasmine yet;
The frightful dark one is a sweet brunette;
The spindly girl is willowy and free;
The fat one bears herself with majesty;
The dowdy one, who’s ill endowed as well,
Becomes a careless and neglectfull belle;
The giantess is a divinity;
The dwarf, a heavenly epitome;
With princesses the proud one can compete;
The tricky one has wit; the dull one’s a sweet;
The tireless talker’s charmingly vivacious;
The mote girl modest, womanly, and gracious.
Thus every man who loves beyond compare
Loves even the defects of his lady fair.

That manages to be both hilarious, witty, satirical, and sweet at the same time.

I mentioned the costumes briefly. These were made by a local artisan, Jennifer Keller at Fantasy Frocks. As such, they were ludicrous and delightful, totally overboard and perfect. Between the dresses with an obscene number of bows and the foppish wigs, the production was aided by the costumes.

I should also mention the running gag where the servant girl (Basque, played by Cheyenne Reyes) used a different percussion instrument to announce guests each time. The bell to start with - normal enough. But then, a triangle, various cymbals, castanets, drums, and more. It was a nice humorous touch for those who paid attention.

Before the play, Messick came out to talk briefly about it, and asked if anyone had seen Molière before. I think he was surprised to hear that Amanda and I had see three live productions before this one, and were quite familiar with Molière. I am sad that he isn’t better known. He was indeed the French Shakespeare, and, if his language wasn’t as revolutionary and profound, his grasp of human nature and eye for the details of hypocrisy set him apart as one of the all time greats. Seriously, if you get the chance, go see one of his plays. And if not, read one. You might be surprised that, under the 17th Century surface, Molière’s satire seems as if it could be written in our own times.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Salvation by Faith...in The Rules(TM)



Like many of us who have had a significant crisis of faith in the last few years - and are trying to find a way forward into a non-toxic version of belief rather than the reality-challenged, white nationalist, LGBTQ hating, Trump-worshipping cesspit that Evangelicalism has become, I am still reeling from and processing Rachel Held Evans’ sudden death. To those who haven’t shared the experience, it is hard to explain, and my attempts to do so have been rather fumbling. I may try to write about it later. I guess the best way to put it as a quick take is this: she was one of the very few who combined an Everyman (non-professionally-trained) background, a lifetime in the church, and a clarity and eloquence in pushing back at the self-appointed authorities and guardians of “Orthodoxy.” As someone who left the church over two years ago and hasn’t been back, her passing was a bit of a blow to the dream that someday, when the Baby Boomers no longer have a stranglehold on power, we might someday see a church that is a force for good and not evil. One which isn’t obsessed with the Culture Wars™, which are at the core about keeping minorities in their place (and promoting white patriarchal culture as “godliness”), policing what people do with their genitals and reproductive organs, and keeping women firmly in a subordinate place. Oh, and persecuting anyone outside the tribe. 

While it is certainly possible that others will rise up to replace RHE, I am not sure she truly can be replaced. And the result of that isn’t going to be some sort of a return to the cruelty of “orthodox” theology - it is going to be that many more are going to give up on religion entirely. My atheist friends will probably not mourn that - but most would likely agree that if we are going to have religion, everyone is better off if it is a force for good and not vicious cruelty.

A case in point here is that to the degree we have discussed their thoughts, my older kids largely associate Christianity with hate - particularly against minorities and LGBTQ people - and with Trump. And why wouldn’t they? And that is why they don’t consider religion an important part of their lives at this point. And I can’t blame them one iota - because their experience has been and continues to be very negative.

So yes, the loss of one of the truly decent remaining prominent Christians is a big loss.

***

I want to discuss something related to this, though. Something RHE’s death has clarified fully. And that is this:

Evangelicals don’t really believe in salvation by faith in Jesus Christ.

They believe in salvation by faith in The Rules™.

Here is how I know this:

In the aftermath of RHE’s death, a bunch of people who had argued with RHE - she challenged the misogynistic patriarchists who hoard the power in Evangelicalism - came out with statement which were, shall we say, less than gracious. These ran from “pretending to be gracious” to truly vicious and nasty, but I think they share a common thread - and that common thread is that they believe - or at least suspect, that RHE is burning in hell. Let me use a “do not link” to just a few of these.


The worst (or best perhaps) are the Pulpit and Pen ones - best because they are more honest about what the authors think. But the others are pretty bad too. Doug Wilson is incapable of being gracious rather than smarmy anyway, but his is only marginally better than Pulpit and Pen. For CT, they seem determined to get a final dig in at RHE - they don’t go so far as to be explicit that they think she is in hell, but they don’t want anyone to mistakenly believe that she was a “true” Christian, apparently. (The original has been removed - but the “explanation” is still problematic. Zack Hunt explains why (quoted from his facebook page):

“When we learned of her illness, we began seeking an essay that could balance two concerns—to properly honor her without pretending she didn’t have significant disagreements with important CT distinctives.”
Except here’s the thing....
You didn’t actually have to do that.
Jesus didn’t call us to be legalistic assholes so myopically obsessed with defending our version of orthodoxy that we think it’s even remotely ok to use a tragic death to score a few final points with our theological opponents.
If you didn’t agree with everything Rachel believed, fine.
But we all knew that already.
Thinking you need to use her death to reiterate your disagreement isn’t an oversight
It’s a pathological condition & one of many reasons so many want nothing to do with evangelicalism.
And just so we’re all on the same page, let’s be crystal clear about what those “distinctives” are that Christianity Today feels the need to use Rachel’s death to reiterate.
They think LGBT folks are going to hell.
And by “think” I mean they’re so obsessed with the marginalization and damnation of the LGBT community they’ll use a tragedy as an opportunity to cause more pain.
It’s not just sick.
It’s not just sinful.
It’s anti-Christ in the truest sense of the word.

As for the others, let me summarize: for Pulpit and Pen, it is clear that RHE is in hell. And is now discovering that God is in fact male (and definitely NOT in any way female) and that he will torture her for eternity because she didn’t believe every point of Patriarchal doctrine. For Doug Wilson, trying to dance around his instinct to be an asshole to her in death as he was to her in life, essentially punts with “I hope Jesus found her in that coma and converted her.” It is pretty clear that he thinks she cannot have been a genuine believer - because she disagreed with his theology.

As Hunt notes above, there are specific doctrinal differences which are the problem here, and for (as I have experienced) most Evangelicals, these specific doctrines - not faith in Jesus Christ - is what determines your eternal destiny.

These are specifically:

LGBTQ people are going to hell (corollary: we should persecute them!)
Women shouldn’t preach or contradict a man. (know your place!)
Everyone who doesn’t believe exactly as we do will burn in hell! (particularly on points 1 and 2)

What are we to make of that?

Let me start my analysis with this thought: looked at closely, the bible doesn’t even speak with a uniform voice about the afterlife (or lack thereof) itself - let alone how one gets to heaven or hell. From the Old Testament and “sheol” - often translated as “the grave” - hardly an afterlife at all, to the different New Testament perspectives which aren’t a clear statement that “salvation” means merely fire insurance. And that’s before you get to the significant differences between Saint Paul and Jesus Christ on teachings.

Oh, and there is the fact that a significant number of the early church fathers believed in some form of universalism. Even our Protestant concept of hell owes more to Greek mythology than the actual words of the bible.

So, at best, in my opinion, we ought to tread really carefully here. I personally do not believe in the Evangelical version of hell - I am inclined to a combination of C. S. Lewis in The Great Divorce, and Neil Gaiman in “Other People.” But my faith in my belief on this point is...provisional. (Actually, I believe ALL of our beliefs should be provisional - we should be open to new information.)

But I think there is another thing to look at carefully here, since we are talking about Evangelicals, who claim to take the bible literally. Except they don’t in this case. What is the usual proof text on salvation by faith alone? Let me think back to my AWANA days...here it is, recite with me:

Romans 10:9. If you declare with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

Hmm, that seems pretty...broad. Openly declare you believe Jesus is Lord, and believe sincerely in the resurrection.

I won’t go through all the other proof texts, but that is a pretty dang good summary of the stereotypical Evangelical teaching. Believe in Jesus, say a prayer out loud (some version of the Sinner’s Prayer, preferably), and BAM! You have fire insurance!

Perhaps a bit more complicated is what Jesus himself said. There are two places, where he gives a direct teaching on some form of hell. One is in Luke, where he describes the rich man in hell, and Lazarus the beggar in paradise. And the only reason for the torment of the rich man appears to be that he was rich and didn’t help Lazarus. Well, that’s kind of scary for a lot of Evangelicals, who have made the oppression of the poor their political priority, but it still seems pretty broad.

The other, of course, is in Matthew 25:31-46 - the parable of the sheep and the goats, where Christ explicitly ties eternal destiny to how we treat the vulnerable and oppressed.

You could also add in the best known parable of all time: The Good Samaritan. Which I wrote about here.

So, good evidence of salvation by how we treat the needy.

You can also find sayings of Christ indicating that belief in Him is a threshold requirement for entry into the kingdom.

Now, Evangelicals will also try then to bring into the discussion the passages in Saint Paul’s writings where he describes those who “will not inherit the Kingdom of God.” In practice, they only care about the sexual sins, of course, not the malice or slander - those are fine if directed against people outside the tribe, like, say, immigrants.

But even for those, the warning is against the actions, not the beliefs. I can’t find anywhere it says that God will burn you for eternity if you don’t have ALL the correct beliefs about how other people should act.

Here we get to the core issue.

All evidence suggests that RHE believed in Jesus Christ. All evidence indicates she publically proclaimed him as Lord. All evidence indicates she genuinely tried to follow his example and commands. For that matter, all evidence was that she was heterosexual and faithful in marriage.

So why do these guys (and it is men, overwhelmingly), believe she is burning in hell?

Because she didn’t believe in all the “right” rules.

Zack Hunt nails it: her mortal, unforgivable sin was in refusing to believe that LGBTQ people will burn in hell.

The other one, of course, was refusing to defer to male “authority,” and just shut the fuck up already. To know her place. (And yes, that is precisely one of Doug Wilson’s beefs with her.) But it is really the first one, wasn’t it? The one thing a “true” Christian may NEVER believe. That genitals are not destiny and that God doesn’t really obsess about what we do with them all that much.

This is literally salvation by believing in the right rules.

***

I think Morgan Guyton wrote the most perceptive piece on why this is. American (white) Evangelicalism isn’t about following Christ. And it hasn’t been for a very, very long time.

Rather, it is about performing orthodoxy. It is about proving to one’s self and others that one belongs in the “in-crowd.” To the Demos (the mob) as Guyton puts it. And to that end, it is necessary to find bright-line distinctions between those who are “in” and those who are “out.” And this distinction needs to be one which doesn’t call for any actual sacrifice on the part of those who are in. Instead, it has to be hatred directed at those who are out - the sacrifice is that of the outsiders. As one might put it, “The gods require the sacrifice of someone other than me.” And, to prove to each other that they are “in,” the members of the Demos must become increasingly rigid, fanatical, and cruel. Because “faith” is no longer about seeking to follow Christ in good faith: it is proving over and over to the others that we “belong.”

***

My wife and I have way too much experience with “performing orthodoxy.” Our families spent time in fundamentalist cults which took that to the extreme. We performed orthodoxy by eliminating all music with African roots. (Demonic “Tribal” rhythms, yo!) We performed orthodoxy by insisting on ever more coverage of female bodies (because female bodies are the source of SIN!) We performed orthodoxy by insisting on rigid Victorian gender roles. Eventually, when my wife and I left, and decided we were no longer going to perform orthodoxy for the benefit of family or others of our faith, we paid the price. Many relationships have been badly damaged, and we were evicted from our longtime church. As I read somewhere, belonging is a hell of a drug, and it makes you put up with shit that otherwise you would never be around. This goes for politics as well as dysfunctional relationships. But when belonging requires you to sell your soul and conscience, you have a choice. Most of Evangelicalism has sold their souls. (To white nationalism as a start…) We decided no sense of belonging was worth that price.

So yeah, I understand all too well why those of my former tribe have consigned Rachel Held Evans to hell. Because if salvation ceases to be about performing orthodoxy for other members of the mob, they might actually have to do the hard work of self-examination, and discover that, far from being good people, they have chosen to combine the power and cruelty of Rome with the self-righteousness of the Pharisees. And a WOMAN, of all people, who had the huevos to point that out, must of course be consigned to hell.

So, RIP, Rachel Held Evans. The world is a worse place without you. All of us pushing back against the darkness will miss you.










Sunday, May 19, 2019

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller


Source of book: Borrowed from the library.

This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. One of the things I enjoy about this club is that I end up reading interesting books that I never would have discovered on my own.

Earlier in the year, the club read Miller’s second novel, Circe, and apparently everyone loved it. I was camping, and was unable to participate - I hope to catch up on that one later. 



I read The Iliad in my teens - we had to read the chapter on the death of Hector for school (along with, inexplicably, the departure of Telemachus for The Odyssey - easily the most boring section if read out of context - I think because it was a Fundie video course, the thought of sexual escapades was a bridge too far.) I decided to read both of Homer’s epics at that time. I have re-read The Odyssey several times since then. I haven’t returned to The Iliad, in part because there were whole chapters of battle scenes that I found tedious. The central story, though, is quite fascinating, and worthy of a new look.

Madeline Miller studied the classics (in the Greek and Roman sense) and went on to teach Greek and Latin to high school students. During that time, she started working on what became her first book. She credits Plato for the ideas in The Song of Achilles, which is a retelling of the myth of Achilles from the point of view of his friend (and lover) Patroclus.

I’ll give a bit of a spoiler here, assuming that is possible given that these myths are 2500 years old.

Achilles was a famous warrior, born to a human father and a minor goddess. She made him nearly (but not completely) invincible. When he came of age, the Trojan War erupted. Helen, the ultimate MacGuffin, has been kidnapped by (or ran off with) pretty-boy Paris, prince of Troy. Her husband, Menelaus, is determined to get her back. His brother, Agamemnon, smells an opportunity to get rich off the spoils. Because of an oath to defend Helen’s honor, all the kings of the Greeks sail to Troy to fight. Achilles comes of his own free will, seeking glory. He has been offered the choice of long life and obscurity or short life and glory. My choice would have been different, which is why I will never be the subject of an epic poem. After 10 years of mostly fruitless fighting, the war still hasn’t ended, and tempers are short. As The Iliad opens, Achilles has quarreled with Agamemnon. Both are proud. Achilles wants to be his own boss, and Agamemnon disagrees. When Agamemnon makes a bullheaded mistake which offends the gods and brings a plague on the Greeks, Achilles points it out and gets the wrath of Agamemnon, who seeks to take a woman won as a war prize from Achilles. As a result, Achilles refuses to fight for the Greeks and sits in his tent as the Trojans wreak havoc on the Greek ships. Seeking to save the Greeks, Patroclus puts on Achilles’ armor and fights, killing more than his skill level would indicate, before he is killed by Hector. Achilles is furious, and pursues and kills Hector. This is where The Iliad ends, but other legends carry forward the story. Because of a prophecy (and Apollo), Achilles loses his invulnerability after killing Hector, and he is killed by an arrow shot by Paris. With the playing field again even, a stratagem is needed. Odysseus invents the Trojan Horse, and the rest is history...I mean mythology.

Miller chooses to focus on a more human aspect of the story, and chooses the point of view of Patroclus. When I first read The Iliad, I could tell that Patroclus was more than a mere friend of Achilles - but it wasn’t spelled out. Later writers - Plato included - stated the obvious, that they were lovers. Miller starts the story early in Patroclus’ life, when he is a young boy and accidentally kills another boy who was bullying him. As a result, he is exiled and sent to live with Achilles’ parents. This much is part of the myth. Miller does take one liberty in making Achilles and Patroclus the same age, where the original myth put Patroclus as the older.

The Song of Achilles spends most of the first half telling of the boyhood, adolescence, and growing closeness of the two. After that, fate and circumstances intervene, and the rest tells of the events in Homer’s epic and its aftermath.

Knowing Patroclus’ fate, I was curious to see how that was handled. Did the book just end with his death? (That would have been annoying and missed the key events of the original story.) Would someone else tell the rest? Who?

Miller decided to have Patroclus continue to tell the story after death - he is a disembodied spirit seeking rest, who longs to be reunited with his lover. The book thus ends when he is able to, after Achilles mother intervenes.

Having not read Circe, I don’t have anything to compare this book to. I did find it enjoyable. Miller knows her myths, and does a good job of giving them a modern spin. By modern, I mean that the story is told with modern sensibilities. For example, rather than focus on all the famous ancestors of potential listeners that Achilles killed or fought alongside, Miller focuses on a personal relationship. Rather than telling of the gods and the fates and destiny as the main drivers of history, she looks at the human interactions and psychology. Homer assumed that everyone would understand why Achilles would get pissed. Miller delves into his more personal motivations. Homer took for granted that women were chattel to be won like war trophies. Miller, through Patroclus, questions that assumption and humanizes the women. The myths seem all too okay with human sacrifice, while Miller exposes the horror. And notes that women seemed to be the usual sacrifices, not men. And, perhaps most strikingly, Miller views the Achilles Patroclus relationship through the modern lens of sexual orientation even while accurately portraying the social aspects of same sex relationships in the ancient world. Thus, the relationship is a love match as we would understand it in the 21st Century, not a form of hierarchical male bonding. I don’t think Miller is unfaithful to the original myths, but the lens is different. An ancient Greek reading her book would not understand her point at all.

Since Patroclus is a barely-more-than-minor character in The Iliad, he is an ideal character to choose to reimagine. There is less baggage, so to speak. He is also ideal in that he was, by the terms of the myth itself, an outsider to masculine martial culture. He is exiled and disowned, a lousy fighter, drawn to healing rather than killing, and the opposite to Achilles. This is one reason they work as a couple. They are complementary.

I also thought that Miller did a nice job of drawing out the sexual politics of wealth, aristocracy, and sexism in the ancient world. All too often, the past is glorified and sugar coated. Miller points out the blindingly obvious: in that world, slaves were sexual chattel. And that goes for males and females. A wealthy heir would typically marry early - but have had lots of experience raping the slaves first. And it wouldn’t have been understood as rape - women in general didn’t have the right of sexual self-determination. This is one reason why I shudder whenever partriarchal sorts wax nostalgic at the old days, and try to return us there. And, of course, blame “Feminism™” for our modern problems. I guess if women would just know their place… (And don’t get me started on all the nastiness of the Abortion Wars - and the growing war on birth control and female autonomy in general. I grew up in that nasty subculture and don’t want it to win this fight.)

The character of Odysseus was rather interesting in this book. He comes across as somewhere between a prick and a snake. Which is probably somewhat accurate. Although I guess he kind of had to be to survive as a small fish among the Greek kings. I am curious to see how he is portrayed in Circe. One line near the end is pretty funny. Achilles’ son Neoptolemus, aka Pyrrhus has joined the battle - and he seems to have all of Achilles’ weaknesses with none of the charm. He, like his grandmother, hates Patroclus and doesn’t want Patroclus to be buried with Achilles and share his fame. Odysseus tries to persuade him otherwise, but he refuses to listen, being devoid of both sense and empathy. Odysseus’ response is intriguing.

“But fame is a strange thing. Some men gain glory after they die, while others fade. What is admired in one generation is abhorred in another.” He spreads his broad hands.” We cannot say who will survive the holocaust of memory. Who knows?” He smiles. “Perhaps one day even I will be famous. Perhaps more famous than you.”

You think?

But it is the first part of that which is most thought provoking. Tastes change. And our understanding of ethical behavior evolves and grows. And thus it was that the wily Odysseus is better remembered than the brutal and entitled Pyrrhus, who is mainly remembered in legend for stealing Orestes’ wife Hermione and getting whacked for his trouble. And allegedly being the ancestor of Alexander the Great, so there is that.

I think there is a bit of a lesson in this. It is bad enough to be a person of one’s time, and subject to the weaknesses of that era. But far worse is to be worse than one’s time. That sort of thing rarely ages well. I wish that a lot of the older right wing sorts in my life understood that. History will not be kind.

All good stories are worth reexamination, in my opinion. The power of myths isn’t that they are unchanging in meaning, but that they speak to us in our own times and our own frameworks. The point of reading The Iliad isn’t to resurrect martial honor culture, or make women back into chattel, of course. It is to reimagine and reinvigorate the timeless truths of human nature and experience. We can recognize ourselves in Achilles, in Patroclus, in Briseis, in Andromache. We can wrestle anew with the great questions of meaning and truth and justice and honor. I felt that Miller did a good job of remixing the myths and seeing the ancient from a new viewpoint.

The writing is mostly good - I am told that Miller finds her voice better in Circe - I guess practice helps. But The Song of Achilles is a worthy effort, and I found myself enjoying reading it.  

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Happy City by Charles Montgomery


Source of book: I own this – a gift from my brother-in-law

I was born and raised in a Los Angeles suburb - specifically the San Fernando Valley (of Valley Girl and Free Fallin’) on the north side of the city. Southern California is pretty much ground zero for car culture - and traffic. And, in fact, traffic has gotten substantially worse since I left in the early 1990s. And even more than that, sprawl has accelerated, to the point where many are making commutes of two hours or more. Meanwhile, California has a huge housing shortage in the coastal cities, which has caused housing prices to soar out of the reach of most middle class people, let alone working class. Los Angeles is estimated to have between 50,000 and 100,000 homeless. This is, shall we say, not sustainable.

Happy City is a look at urban planning, and what increases, rather than decreases, human happiness in our urban areas. Montgomery looks at cities around the world, and draws some fascinating conclusions. 



It should be no surprise that our current American approach to city planning is terrible. Long commutes, pollution, and traffic are hardly conducive to happiness. But problematic too are the smaller-level issues. With the exception of a few downtown areas (which tend now to gentrify and become unaffordable to most), our cities are not walkable. You either own a car, or you end up isolated, essentially housebound. I can attest to this from my professional experience. Bakersfield is practically one big suburb, with a pathetic bus system which only works if you live and work near a stop AND can hit exact times to get on and off. Or you can easily wait an hour or longer for another. And that is all we have as far as public transportation. And good luck if you want to live in a dense area. We have (by my count), all of two residential buildings of more than three stories - in a metropolitan area with 800,000 people. And those two buildings are a public housing apartment tower, and a senior living complex. Oh, and I think we only have three commercial buildings more than five stories high. Density is not our thing, which is why farmland has disappeared at an alarming rate.

I mention all this to just give a bit of a picture of the problem. Happy City gets much more into the details, of course, and looks at both the root causes of and ways to fix the problem.

To begin with, Montgomery notes that we have seen a massive privatization of public space. For example, roads once were open to everyone, regardless of their method of travel. Now, that space is mostly reserved for private cars. Urban design itself has been remade to favor automobiles: mandated parking, which increases distance between buildings; neighborhoods built around car ownership rather than walkability; segregation of shopping, employment, and housing; gated communities to keep parks private rather than public; and so on. Here in Bakersfield, the results are pretty obvious. It is nearly impossible to function without a car, we have a high pedestrian and bicycle rider fatality and injury rate, we have some of the highest pollution in the nation, and the cost of maintaining our roads means our pavement is crumbling.

The social costs are high too. Compared to my childhood, I really don’t know my neighbors that well, and kids don’t tend to play in the streets. (Obviously, technology and overscheduling are factors, but so is the trend toward front yards being for show, not common use.)  Oh, and commutes don’t help either. When people aren’t home, they can’t really interact.

None other than Adam Smith (whose legacy has been co-opted by Social Darwinist economists) pointed out that our human conscience comes from our social relationships. If you want to understand at least a part of our current hate-filled xenophobic moment, it helps to realize that we don’t really live with each other that much - we live in our cubicles and our cars, and then in front of our televisions. (Or books in my case…) Our cities do not, by and large, foster interaction. The author quotes Aristotle on this point:

He who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god.

I very much agree that our social connections are in many ways contracting. The internet has actually worked against the general trend, by giving alternate ways to connect, but the problem itself existed before the internet. It was created in significant part by our design around cars - everyday interactions happen less when you go from garage to garage to parking lot to parking lot.

Montgomery also examines why we ended up with cities carefully segregated. And I don’t mean primarily by race, but by function. Careful separation of the commercial and industrial from the residential. Careful separation of low income tenement housing from the wealthy - can’t have the dirty poor infect you, right? And yes, the use of redlining, zoning, building regulations, and other methods to keep the skin colors separate. (There is a section on this exact issue.) What this has come to mean is that there is really very little freedom when it comes to how cities grow and develop. Things stay the same by the force of law, custom, and habits. The author quotes Georgia Tech professor Ellen Dunham- Jones:

“We have not had a free market in real estate for eighty years. And because it is illegal to build in a different way, it takes an immense amount of time for anyone who wants to do it to get changes in zoning and variance. Time is money for developers, so it rarely happens.”

The result, the author points out, is this:

Together, these rules and habits have ensured that the American city is as separated and static as any Soviet-era housing scheme. They have ensured that first-generation suburbs closer to downtowns do not grow more diverse or dense. They have pushed new development out to the ever-expanding urban frince and beyond...and they have ensured that these new developments will, in turn, resist most efforts to change or adapt them over time.

The factors compound each other too. In one chapter, the author mentions a study that put the ideal commute time at about 16 minutes. Which I agree with, by the way. That number is also my typical commute - for all its sprawl, Bakersfield hasn’t yet developed crippling traffic. I have considered alternatives to my car, but they are not great. Biking in lawyer clothes isn’t feasible, and I don’t have a shower at work. But even during the good weather (we top 105 regularly during the summer), I worry I would get hit by our inattentive drivers. And I already mentioned the sorry state of our transit.

Come to think of it, why IS transit so poor most places in the United States? Again, we have a self-feeding loop. Because transit sucks, the only people who use it are those who have no choice. Which then means low ridership and a stigma in the bargain. And without riders, budgets are low, so the equipment tends to be bare-bones. As the author puts it:

When transit is seen as a handout to the poor, politicians tend not to invest beyond the most basic levels of service.

In contrast, in a city where everyone rides, there is a shared commitment to making transit work well. The one metro area in California where this works at least a bit is the Bay Area, which has sufficient busses, trams, and trains to serve at least the city centers. It is possible to leave one’s car and take transit all day in San Francisco - we have done it often when we visit. Even better are European cities - I have never driven a car in Europe, because the transit is good and the cities are walkable.

Another point by the author that I strongly agree with is that we have become far too fixated on astronomically expensive subways, rather than looking at the obvious: we have plenty of places to run trams, trains, and busses: we just need to remove the cars from them. If I could run the city of Los Angeles, that would be my approach. Shut down a bunch of lanes - and roads - and run transit. Speeds would be far faster than the gridlock they have right now, and cost would be far lower.

The main obstacle to this kind of thinking is, of course, that those entrenched interests who benefit from our current subsidies of car ownership aren’t all that interested in giving way for anyone else. The author ties this into a general problem of the last 50 or so years, where we assume that private wealth has more right to our space than everyone else.

Who should share in the public wealth of the city? Who should have access to parks and beautiful places? Who should have the privilege of easy mobility? The questions are as much political as philosophical.

The author quotes one-time mayor of Bogota and reformer Penalosa as advocating for a radical vision of fairness.

“One of the requirements for happiness is equality. Maybe not equality of income, but equality of quality of life and, more than that, an environment where people don’t feel inferior, where people don’t feel excluded….We’re telling people, ‘You are important - not because you’re rich, but because you are human.’”

This is so very true. And, given our national history of obsession with making people feel their inferiority, it is easy to see why reform has been so difficult.

I also loved Montgomery’s recognition of who suffers most from these inequalities. The elderly and children lose safe mobility. Minority neighborhoods tend to lack sidewalks, crosswalks, and signals, making them more dangerous. He notes that this has led to a much higher pedestrian fatality rate for African American children in Atlanta - because crosswalks might require a detour of two miles, children would dash across the busy roads.

In what should come as no surprise, a major force against reform in urban design turns out to be...wait for it...the Tea Party movement! (Did you see that coming? I certainly did.) Here in California, it is the Right which opposes pretty much any spending on public transit. Or even raising gas taxes high enough to cover road maintenance costs. Those Republicans LOVE their welfare - the heavy subsidies of their lifestyles. And, they turn out to actually love near-totalitarian government...when it benefits them. As already noted, our city planning is centralized, and strict, and the pure opposite of free. (This whole chapter is fascinating - and the conspiracy theories spouted by the Tea Partiers are nuts.)

I have experienced this first hand, living in a fairly conservative city. (Very conservative by California standards.) You wonder why we have no high apartment buildings? Well, that’s because getting a permit for one is practically impossible. Not just because of regulations, but because the NIMBY contingent will come out and protest anything that looks like letting low income people live near them. And that includes building low-rise apartments next to single-family detached homes. Seriously! Or the most ridiculous one yet: our local state university, which was once at the edge of town, but is now mostly surrounded, has a large amount of undeveloped space - intentionally, so that it could expand. They are building some dorms. On their own land. To house college students. And the nearby residents are losing their shit over it. God forbid a college houses college students on campus!

But this is writ large all across our state. California desperately needs to increase density as our population grows - particularly in the coastal cities where the jobs are booming. But get this:


Say what?? We have some of the most populous urban areas in the world, to say nothing of the nation, and it’s nearly all sprawl. So far, attempts to force localities to allow five story apartments near transit have not succeeded. Eventually, I believe they will, because something has to give. If you already own a house in LA, I guess you are set, but younger people cannot afford to live there. So people are living in cars, RVs, and on the streets.

These are all complex issues with difficult solutions. But ultimately, the status quo cannot be sustained - and my children’s generation know this. What is needed is what they have: a shift in the way of thinking. As the author puts it, our current system seems designed as though the city existed purely for commerce, rather than for the people that commerce was thought to enrich. The city needs to belong to all of us.

To get there, we need to stop measuring the success of a city by its median income, or its property values, but by the happiness of those who live there - and that means everyone, not just the wealthiest.

I highly recommend this book as a starting point for the discussion. While Montgomery shows the problems well, and offers a look at ways they have been addressed around the world, this book isn’t intended as a detailed blueprint. And it is unclear if a single blueprint will work everywhere. Montgomery’s central point is excellent, however. We have made poor decisions in how we plan our cities, and have created a situation where fixing them will be difficult.

Overcoming regulation, inertia, and public opinion will be a tough task - but the conversation is already shifting as it becomes obvious that the status quo is unacceptable, particularly for the next generation. California has started to explore some options, as our very success as the world’s fifth largest economy has exposed the weakness in our current model. But we have the opportunity to find ways to make positive and innovative change, as we have in the past.

***

Just a fun article that is related: what if, instead of designing our cities around male breadwinners commuting to a 9-5 job, we built them around everyone else? After all, there are more women, children, and elderly than working-age males...

***

One more thing: I actually like cars. I love driving, for the most part. I wrench on my own vehicles, and drive a stick shift.

But by “driving” I mean propelling the car forward at a reasonable speed on the open road. I do not mean sitting in traffic, because that just plain sucks. And, for that matter, while I don’t mind driving to and from work (as I said, I have a short commute and flexible hours, so traffic is rarely an issue on an average day), I would be fine with catching transit or biking to work - I’ve driven that road a lot.

I also HATE trying to find parking. Which is why my preference would be to use transit in San Francisco (or other major cities) whenever possible. Now if LA would just get its act together…






Monday, May 13, 2019

Les Miserables (National Tour - Hollywood Pantages)


I have a bit of a history with Les Miserables. I didn’t see the original tour run, although the billboards were everywhere in the Los Angeles I grew up in. However, in high school, I played some of the music for one of our concerts, and loved it. Later, I went on a law school trip to London, and we had our afternoons and evenings free. A few of us got some cheap scalped tickets for three nights of shows: The Mousetrap, Phantom of the Opera, and Les Miserables. While all were good, the best was definitely the last.

When I left for that London trip (and the week and a half on the continent which was my first real parent-free adventure), I had been going out with Amanda for a couple of weeks. She was jealous as heck about Les Mis, because she love the book, and had the musical pretty well memorized - but had never seen it in person. We started reading through the book together - aloud - and got to somewhere in the never-ending Waterloo digression before we got distracted by moonlight walks and the like. I probably need to go back and read it from the beginning.

Anyway, Amanda has wanted to see it live for forever, so when we saw it was coming to the Pantages, we were all over it. And decided to take the kids. (And yes, they all enjoyed it - it was their first truly big-budget show.)

It was interesting to see a rather different production than the one I saw in London. The music was the same (although orchestras are smaller these days, alas - at least there was one), and the book was the same. However, the sets were quite different. In the original, it was a rotating stage and two tumbling elements which could be configured to provide everything from the ship to the barricade. The new version definitely had more moving parts, and a huge variety of settings. Obviously, they were determined to use the entire budget. I made for an impressive spectacle which rivaled movie special effects - without the CGI.

The most impressive scene from a technical point of view was Javert’s suicide. In the original I saw, a trapdoor, fog, and projected ripples provided a dramatic result. But not like this one. The pieces of the bridge set were pulled up to make it look as if Javert was falling. And then, well, it is hard to explain, and I am not sure how they did it. Projected imagery combined with careful lighting and positioning by the actor made it feel as if our perspective rotated from a side view to a top view as he plummeted faster and faster. It was a moment that made you gasp.

And that was just the best part. Throughout, the technical stuff was amazing - and fascinating to my older son, the engineer (and also live theater geek since age 6…)

I also wanted to mention a few performances. This is, of course, a high-level professional troupe, so we expected and got generally excellent work. The only bit that bothered me a bit was that in the first half, Fantine (Mary Kate Moore) leaned just a bit sharp. It was weird because she would be fine on the long notes, but the connecting notes were just a tiny bit off. Now, I know I am a picky listener - most of us violinists have good pitch (if not always perfect intonation...it’s a lifetime battle) so I noticed small faults that others might not notice. Also, she was better in the second half, so I wonder if she had a bad ear monitor - that would certainly make sense.

One thing that little faults like this make clear is that a show like this is indeed live. No lip syncing. Indeed, there were the usual tiny vocal cracks and nuances that characterize live performance and make it so much better than even a good recording. As a performer myself, I appreciate the tremendous effort and hours of preparation which go into something like this - and I enjoy it as a result.

The Thenardiers (J. Anthony Crane and Allison Guinn) were good - and doing songs like that in dialect while still remaining intelligible is tough. The other parts were generally good - including the kids. The harmonies in the ensemble singing were top notch - very enjoyable.

The very best, though, were Eponine (Paige Smallwood) and Jean Valjean (Nick Cartell) Smallwood was unquestionably the best female vocalist on stage, and I mean no disrespect to the other fine singers. Smallwood was just a cut above, with power, range, and emotion. I could have listened to her all day.

 Paige Smallwood as Eponine

Nick Cartell as Jean Valjean
Except when I was listening to Cartell, who delivered as fine of a live theater performance as I have ever seen. His level of vocal control was amazing - I couldn’t believe his ability to hold notes in awkward ranges without needing operatic volume. There were some moments I had a dropped jaw. You wouldn’t know it from this performance, but he is a fairly young guy. Obviously, the aging was done well by the makeup people. But he nailed the physical aspect as well as the vocal gravitas.

I did want to talk about the story itself a bit too. The story is, after all, the best part. Victor Hugo does have some of the usual Victorian faults: long winded writing driven by financial concerns, extended digressions, overearnest naivete, bathos, and so on. But he also writes a powerful and empathetic story. He was perceptive about the complexities of human motivation, too, and created several timeless characters in Les Miserables. Also timeless is his uncomfortable look at the institutionalization of impoverishment - and indeed the criminalization of poverty. For those of us in the United States of the 21st Century, this seems all too familiar. Our national character is to grind the faces of the poor - it is no accident that we have the highest incarceration rate of ANY country in the world, as well as, far and away, more total prisoners than any other country.

We are a nation of Javerts.

Ah, Javert. I think if I had read Les Miserables as a kid, I would have missed his motivation. Seeing him for the first time as a law student, I think he made the greatest impression on me of any character. After all, he is the villain who could have been the hero in another book. The upright man serving faithfully and doing his duty. So why is he the villain? (Or at least a villain - he’s not the only one in the book.)

Hugo makes a few points here. One, of course, is that Javert is a cog in an unjust - and malevolent - system. That the Jean Valjeans of the world were (and are) imprisoned for being poor and human is the result, not of their own failings, but of a system which is designed to crush them. Javert participates, and not as an ignorant bystander. He is close enough to the action to see that the system is failing vulnerable humans.

But Javert doesn’t care - and why he doesn’t care is a key point. Javert is sure that God will love and reward him because he ruthlessly punishes those who fail to live up to his high standards. Javert isn’t a hypocrite in the strict sense - he doesn’t appear to indulge the vices he punishes in others. But he also has never had to face the hard choices his victims do. He will never watch his own child starve to death. He will never be a woman abandoned or fired from her job. He will never be run out of a town because of his past, or cheated of his wages. He always gets his - sucks to be the poor.

But Hugo goes far deeper than that. The climactic scenes are so powerful because we get to see Javert’s inner dynamics. Because Javert cannot extend grace to others, he cannot accept it for himself. In his mind, he has always deserved his good fortune and good life. He earned it, one painful choice at a time. That this is probably not a reflection of reality does not enter his head.

Thus, when the tables turn, Javert, who believes that Jean Valjean will always be a thief and a bad person, is left to face a horrifying truth:

Jean Valjean is a better man than Javert.

When Javert’s sense of self-worth crumbles, he has nothing left. His identity was as the “good guy,” and he constantly proved this to himself by his zeal to punish the “bad guys.” And then, when he is extended unexpected mercy by someone he believes to be his inferior, he can’t handle it.

And so he chooses annihilation.

I have mentioned in a few places that I don’t believe in the Evangelical version of hell. I won’t get into all the reasons here, but just that C. S. Lewis and Neil Gaiman both have influenced my views. But also, I should credit Victor Hugo. It was that viewing of Les Miserables that let me see a terrifying truth:

There are many who would choose annihilation rather than give up the pleasure of self-righteousness.

In fact, I tend to think these days that a lot of white Evangelicals will be like that. Particularly the white males in positions of authority. They have built their entire self-conception out of “I thank God I am not like other people.” For them to find out in the end that they were the bad guys, and all those gays, African Americans, refugees, impoverished people, and women they were so eager to put in their place and persecute were the “greatest in the Kingdom” all along, they will be like Javert. And choose to cease to exist rather than give up that comforting sense of self-righteousness they have clung to with bleeding fingers even as everyone around them outside the bubble turned away in disgust. That’s sad. But I think it is true.

Hugo, like many brilliant authors, had the ability to portray those on the margins of society with empathy and yet without making them into one-dimensional saints. One thing that struck me this time around is the way he captures the way that desperation makes humans turn on each other. The factory women, living tenuous lives for starvation wages, can’t resist the opportunity to slut shame Fantine. Other peasants turn on Jean Valjean. The prostitutes, even, don’t rally against an abusive john, but leave Fantine to her fate. Unfortunately, this is how the powerful and abusive stay in power.

Les Miserables also highlights another sad truth of most of history: women have always been treated as disposable. It isn’t just the prostitutes. The factory women are just cogs. Madame Thenardier has her fiefdom, but she is still treated like crap by her drunk abusive husband. Fantine can be tossed aside by her lover as soon as she becomes inconvenient. Eponine is useful to her parents as long as she gives unquestioning obedience - and she too is thrown away when she is no longer useful. It’s not just women. The working poor are treated as disposable. But women are particularly vulnerable.

It was good to experience this one again after a 20 year gap - I think my perspective has matured a bit - and current events have stripped more than a few illusions away. For example, I can’t really believe that Evangelicalism is any better than Javert. If anything, they relish cruelty for cruelty’s sake, which is further than Javert would go. (Sorry, I can’t un-hear or un-see things…) I am glad that the kids got to go. It was a splurge for us - we take the kids to local stuff all the time, but this was definitely more pricey. All those amazing sets and effects and the orchestra don’t come free. But there is something fun about an immersive spectacle. And Hugo’s story continues to reverberate today.

Do you hear the people sing?
Lost in the valley of the night
It is the music of a people
Who are climbing to the light

For the wretched of the earth
There is a flame that never dies
Even the darkest night will end
And the sun will rise.

They will live again in freedom
In the garden of the Lord
We will walk behind the plowshare
We will put away the sword
The chain will be broken
And all men will have their reward!

Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that we bring
When tomorrow comes!
Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that we bring
When tomorrow comes!

***

Music clips!

This interview with Paige Smallwood includes a clip of her singing. The sound quality sucks, and doesn’t do her justice. But you can get a feeling of it. Believe me, in person, she was amazing.


The second is Nick Cartell. This clip is much better quality, and shows off his gorgeous voice quite well.

***

I do want to share this: my very first experience of Victor Hugo was this powerful poem.

After The Battle

MY father, hero of benignant mien,
On horseback visited the gory scene,
After the battle as the evening fell,
And took with him a trooper loved right well,
Because of bravery and presence bold.
The field was covered with the dead, all cold,
And shades of night were deepening : came a sound,
Feeble and hoarse, from something on the ground ;
It was a Spaniard of the vanquished force,
Who dragged himself with pain beside their course.
Wounded and bleeding, livid and half dead,
'Give me to drink - in pity, drink!' he said.
My father, touched, stretched to his follower now
A flask of rum that from his saddle-bow
Hung down : 'The poor soul - give him drink,' said he
But while the trooper prompt, obediently
Stooped towards the other, he of Moorish race
Pointed a pistol at my father's face,
And with a savage oath the trigger drew :
The hat flew off, a bullet passing through.
As swerved his charger in a backward stride,
'Give him to drink the same,' my father cried.