Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Happiness Philosophers by Bart Schultz


Source of book: Borrowed from the library

Another impulse read from the New Books shelf.

I have a good friend who is a thoughtful guy, and we, from time to time, have conversations about religion, philosophy, and ethics and stuff. I recall in particular a conversation from a couple of years back.

At the time, my friend was rather into Christian Apologetics, specifically William Lane Craig. Unfortunately, I loathe apologetics in general, and presuppositional apologetics in particular. While Craig does have some good points, and he is at least far more intellectually honest than the average Evangelical/Baptist/Fundamentalist, he still had several things that rubbed me really wrong. The main one, of course, was Divine Command Theory, which I find to be essentially ethical suicide. (I might have to blog about that some time.) In the context of this conversation, however, the big irritant was Craig’s chauvinism about ethical systems. The presuppositional assumption is that, without some “objective” source of ethics - meaning a supernatural being who has laid down the law - there is no possible way to determine right from wrong in an intellectually consistent manner. And, to the Evangelical/Baptist/Fundie sorts like Craig, that means acceptance of the bible as literally dictated, capable of a single obvious objective interpretation, and so on. Of course, this is a major flaw in presuppositional apologetics in general: they make the leap from “there is a rational basis for belief in an ultimate source of the universe” to “our interpretation of an ancient collection of writings is the only possible conclusion,” which is ludicrous to anyone who pushes the issue.

Anyway, here is where I am going with this. At some point in the conversation, my friend raised the question of how one determines ethics without a divine command. This is a legitimate question, actually, and it is one that has occupied philosophers around the globe for the last, well, four or five thousand years at least. That IS one of the great questions of philosophy. Why are we here? Does life have purpose? And, perhaps most pertinent: How should we live, and why?

At this point in the conversation, my friend brought up the Utilitarians, with kind of a derogatory tone. Which is precisely how Craig and other presuppostionalists respond to any ethical system which does not start with “things are right or wrong because God says so.”

This was not a surprise. In the circles I was raised, the Utilitarians were definitely personae non grata, blamed for every ill of our modern life - well, along with Hegel and Nietzsche. It was obviously their fault for the holocaust, Stalin’s purges, and homosexuality. (And every other possible real or perceived evil.) The claim was that the Utilitarians severed the connection between ethics and the teachings of the Church, so after that, anything was ethically permissible.

That this is a ridiculous straw man should be obvious to anyone with a passing knowledge of philosophy.

I will confess, I didn’t really understand the issues until relatively later in life. I wasn’t ready in high school to get into the details. Later, in my late 20s, I did explore things a good bit more, and realized that it was pretty obvious why the Fundie/Evangelical tradition in which I was raised as absolutely freaked out about Utilitarianism. (More on this later.)

At this point, let me give a recommendation: before you read this book, you really should read an introductory book on philosophy. The author assumes the reader already knows the outlines of Utilitarian thought, as well as Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, Marx, Kant, and others. Trying to read this book without some form of background knowledge is going to be frustrating. Trust me on this.

So, here is my suggestion: go online and find a copy of Socrates to Sartre: A History of Philosophy by Samuel Enoch Stumpf. Various editions have been available for decades - since 1966 - and used copies are fairly easy to find. A hardback 6th Edition (1999) graces my bookshelf, and I have referred to it constantly since reading it cover-to-cover. One of the strengths of the book is that it goes through Western philosophy in chronological order. It really helped me to see that philosophy isn’t a bunch of independent schools of thought, but a long conversation stretching back thousands of years. Each new development is a response and reaction to what came before. You can’t understand Bentham unless you understand Kant and Spinoza and Aristotle. Go get this book. Read it. Then come talk philosophy with me.

Sorry about the long introduction. I thought it might be helpful in seeing where I was coming from both in my own Fundie history and in more recent conversations.

Bart Schultz didn’t write a summary of Utilitarian thought, nor did he intend primarily to defend or criticize Utilitarian philosophy. On the other hand, this isn’t a mere biography of the four great Utilitarians. Schultz weaves the biographical information together with a chronological view of how the ideas of the main characters changed over time. The goal is to let the lives of the Utilitarians shed light on their writings - to show how the men (and women) themselves aid in the interpretation of their ideas.

Generally, when one thinks of Utilitarianism, one things of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Schultz brings in two other luminaries. First is William Godwin (perhaps best known these days for being the eventual husband of Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman), but who really set the stage for what Bentham and Mill did within a few years. Likewise, Schultz spends a good bit of time on Henry Sidgwick, who took Mill’s ideas even further by the dawn of the 20th Century. Both of these figures are important, although less known than Bentham and Mill. 

 William Godwin, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Henry Sidgwick

Schultz also did something which has been long overdue, which is to consider the three women whose contributions have been largely suppressed and forgotten because of a combination of sexism and prejudice against women who refused to adhere to cultural demands for their gender. In addition to Wollstonecraft (who was largely dismissed for her child out of wedlock and other sexual liaisons - stuff Victorian men were expected to have but women were punished for), there were two others.  Harriet Taylor, Mill’s eventual wife (after perhaps a long affair...it’s complicated, as the book points out) collaborated on many of his works - she should be listed as a co-author. Eleanor Balfour - sister of Arthur Balfour, Prime Minister of England - married Henry Sidgwick, and was a significant influence on his philosophy throughout his life. She too likely deserves a co-author credit for his works. 

 Mary Wollstonecraft, Harriet Taylor Mill, Eleanor Sidgwick

The common factor that these women had is that they were all independent, feminist, and progressive - in an era when this was frowned upon. Men might perhaps be radical, but women were expected to know their place, submit to their husbands, and keep their vaginas virginal. These three, um, perhaps not so much. But, as Schultz points out, it is often their contributions to philosophy that have aged the best. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that it was these women who were most ahead of their time, not just on questions of sex and gender - but on racism, colonialism, and poverty as well. More so than their husbands, they would seem at home in our 21st Century world.

This is a long book, and a dense one. Small print, lots of pages, footnotes, and a plethora of quotes from the subjects and others. It took me a while for that reason. It was quite excellent, however.

Let me try to hit a few highlights, realizing that I will miss so many great lines, quotes, and ideas.

First, let me start with this:

The Utilitarians have been largely slandered and intentionally misunderstood by the reactionary forces in my religious tradition.

Certainly, they have been unjustly mocked for attempting to apply scientific reasoning and reason to the difficult questions of personal - and political - ethics. I think, actually, that this is the reason they have been slandered. At their best, the Utilitarians presented a formidable intellectual and ethical threat to the status quo. The challenged the idea that noble birth entitled one to luxury while others starved. They questioned whether something could be “virtuous” in the abstract, without reference to how it affected others. They raised doubts about church teachings on sexuality, and insisted that “because tradition says so” was insufficient to determine right and wrong.

I think, too, that Utilitarianism has been limited in the popular imagination to a mere individualistic ethical system. Certainly the Utilitarians did examine how each of us individually might approach ethics. But that was less of a concern than the political question: how should public policy be shaped? And this is where, in my view (and many others), the most lasting contribution of Utilitarian thought is manifest.

At its core, then, Utilitarianism asks that we order our politics (and our own actions) with the view to maximize “happiness” and - and this is crucial - minimize pointless suffering.

Two points need to be made here. First, “happiness” in the Utilitarian sense - and in the sense intended in our own Declaration of Independence, the “pursuit of happiness,” isn’t some fleeting, circumstance-based, subjective feeling of pleasantness. Rather, “happiness” means well being, a decent life, a lack of needless suffering. For Jefferson, this meant that it was a god-given right for each of us to pursue well being, a lack of pointless and unneeded suffering. The American Dream, if you will. (Really, the dream of humanity.) So, for the Utilitarians, the goal was to attain this well being, lack of suffering, and good, decent life...for everyone, not just the wealthy.

The second point is this: the goal of Utilitarianism was in large part to avoid policies which inflicted needless and pointless suffering on people. In considering our own actions - and our public policies - we need to consider whether we will harm others. For the same reason, something which benefits a few wealthy powerful people while causing harm to the poor is an ethical evil. In this sense, Utilitarianism is actually rather similar to the teachings of Christ - the ones that modern Evangelicals are thoroughly committed to ignoring in our time. Utilitarianism is “love your neighbor” in action, in that sense. The author also quotes Socrates on this point: “Actions are more reliable evidence than words.”

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of the political in this book. Let’s start with this quote from William Godwin (who is the first subject in this book) from Political Justice:

“Is it well, that so large a part of the community should be kept in abject penury, rendered stupid with ignorance, and disgustful with vice, perpetuated in nakedness and hunger, goaded to the commission of crimes, and made victims to merciless laws which the rich have instituted to oppress them? Is it sedition to enquire whether this state of things may not be exchanged for a better?”

Couldn’t this have been written in our own time? It sure continues to ring true in an era when the idea that the wealthy of society owe the rest of us something is somehow controversial. We have lost the ability to recognize inequality as oppression - something the biblical prophets had no difficulty doing.

I will note in the above, the dedication to education. This was certainly a common theme for the utilitarians. Women, the poor, and (nearly) everyone should have an education, they believed. One can directly trace the thought from here to John Dewey and others who pushed for a universal public education. It is no exaggeration to say that Godwin, Bentham, and Mill deserve much of the credit for the fact that humanity (particularly in the first world) is more literate than any time in history.

I’ll note at this point an interesting question regarding Bentham. Of all the Utilitarians, he was the most prosaic, having little of the sense of wonder and magic that the artistic sorts would have. (Sidgwick, on the other hand, was a friend and devotee of Tennyson, and was poetic as heck.) The author, however, points out that Bentham’s views on education needing to be more about usefulness to the student than cultural indoctrination were more a reaction to the teaching of subservience than contempt for poetry.

Bentham had particular contempt for the role of religion in society - and I am afraid in the era of Trump, I am increasingly of Bentham’s viewpoint on that. Like Bentham, I find that organized religion in our time and his is so far divorced from the teachings and example of Christ as to be unrecognizable. And, furthermore, that it is calculated and focused on justifying injustice and oppression. Here is one quote that stuck with me:

“Destitute of intellectual instruction, man, even in the bosom of the most civilized country, is often found appearing in no better a character than that of a savage. Of the Hulks, and the Penal Colonies - not to speak of the home Prisons - the population is, for the most part, composed of human beings thus abandoned to ignorance, vice, and wretchedness. Such as to the far greater part, appears to be the state of the population under the Church of England.”

Every bit as devastating is Bentham’s observation that religion spends an awful lot of time convincing people to hate things they would not otherwise hate. In our own time (as in Benthams...this is also a theme of the Utilitarians), this includes the endless obsession with sex and genitals and what people do with them.

Mill too was no fan of established religion. He too argued that the poor should have a right to an education - but not by the Church of England, which spent its time trying to convince the poor that they deserved poverty.

I also found interesting Mill’s intellectual crisis, where he felt he needed to somehow revise his views to accommodate the reality he had discovered. (I’m not even going to attempt an explanation - you’ll have to read the book.) The one thing that jumped out at me was the argument - still ongoing today - about how much of our morality is merely an artifact of evolutionary “survival value” versus things that have an inherent “moral value” in and of themselves, separate from evolutionary utility.

While the classic Utilitarians definitely show the defects of the age in which they lived, they had some great ideas which have been influential today. Chief among them was a radical (for their time) feminism. I would also add a shockingly progressive view of poverty and economics. Both of these seem, to me, to be a solid stand in favor of Christ’s teaching, against the forces of Empire and hierarchy.

One of the most interesting parts of the book in regard to feminism was the discussion of Harriet Taylor Mill. Harriet was widely slandered as a shrew and haridan during her lifetime, and later by the biographers of John Stuart Mill. Her contributions to their books were dismissed, and every fault amplified.

However, as later biographers noticed, she really wasn’t like that. The problem was, she failed and/or refused to be a good Victorian woman. Her marriage to John Taylor was troubled, and, despite the fact she bore him three children, it was difficult at best. Reading between the lines of her writing (with Mill) on domestic violence and divorce, there is good reason to believe he was abusive to her. Eventually, they would separate, although the would, of necessity, remain legally married. Her intellectual collaboration with John Stuart Mill was apparently a huge scandal, despite a lack of evidence of sexual intimacy. (Indeed, there is reason to believe he was impotent.) Rather, the idea that a woman might be merely a friend without benefits was rather unthinkable. On the other hand, there was definitely an emotional connection. After Taylor’s death, they did eventually marry. Her’s was a “complicated” life by female Victorian standards. And, she wrote extensively with a distrust for “conventional” marriage. As a later biographer would explain:

“Finding a way to construct such a life took consummate skill in a society that disallowed divorce, prevented married women from maintaining financial independence, and discouraged women from obtaining a liberal arts education.”

The same biographer would also note a fundamental hypocrisy of Victorian society. And, let’s be honest, of our own as well:

“Selflessness is the kind of virtue society tries to instill in women. (Men tend to be hypocrites on this score, since they are allowed some freedom for their own desires, while women wound their wings at every attempt to expand them against their gilded bars.”

Harriet’s influence on Mill is readily apparent in their mutual work, On the Subjection of Women. I really wanted to quote several pages that were reproduced in this book. Let the following suffice, as a cogent description of the effects of social pressure on women to be a certain way. This pressure makes it difficult to ascertain exactly what the differences are (if any) between the sexes.

“All causes, social and natural, combine to make it unlikely that women should be collectively rebellious to the power of men. They are so far in a position different from all other subject classes, that their masters require something more from them than actual service. Men do not want solely the obedience of women, they want their sentiments. All men, except the most brutish, desire to have, in the woman most nearly connected with them, not a forced slave, but a willing one, not a slave merely, but a favourite. They have therefore put everything in practice to enslave their minds. The masters of all other slaves rely, for maintaining obedience, on fear; either fear of themselves, or religious fears. The masters of women wanted more than simple obedience, and they turned the whole force of education to effect their belief that their ideal of character is the very opposite to that of men; not self-will, and government by self-control, but submission, and yielding to the control of others. All the moralities tell them that it is the duty of women, and all the current sentimentalities that it is their nature, to live for others; to make complete abnegation of themselves, and to have no life but in their affections. And by their affections are meant the only ones they are allowed to have - those to the men with whom they are connected, or to the children who constitute an additional and indefeasible tie between them and a man. When we put together three things - first, the natural attraction between opposite sexes; secondly, the wife’s entire dependence on the husband, every privilege or pleasure she has being either his gift, or depending entirely on his will; and lastly, that the principal object of human pursuit, consideration, and all objects of social ambition, can in general be sought or obtained by her only through him, it would be a miracle if the object of being attractive to men had not become the polar star of feminine education and formation of character. And, this great means of influence over the minds of women having been acquired, an instinct of selfishness made men avail themselves of it to the utmost as a means of holding women in subjection, by representing to them meekness, submissiveness, and resignation of all individual will into the hands of a man, as an essential part of sexual attractiveness. Can it be doubted that any of the other yokes which mankind have succeeded in breaking, would have subsisted till now if the same means had existed, and had been as sedulously used, to bow down their minds to it?”

Damn mic drop after that one. And it gets even better:

“Stand on the ground of common sense and the constitution of the human mind, I  deny that any one knows, or can know, the nature of the two sexes, as long as they have only been seen in their present relation to one another. If men had ever been found in society without women, or women without men, or if there had been a society of men and women in which the women were not under the control of the men, something might have been positively know about the mental and moral differences which may be inherent in the nature of each. What is now called the nature of women is an eminently artificial thing - the result of forced repression in some directions, unnatural stimulation in others. It may be asserted without scruple, that no other class of dependents have had their character so entirely distorted from its natural proportions by their relation with their masters…”

It’s as if Mill had viewed the toxic teachings of the Fundie cults my wife and I spent time in - or sat through a 21st Century Evangelical sermon on gender essentialism. Oh yes, this is one reason we left and will never go back. The Utilitarians argued for women’s suffrage, among other feminist causes. I believe this is one of the biggest reasons why Fundies loathe them, and have grossly slandered them.

Now, let’s take a look at the Utilitarian approach to poverty. Again, here it is helpful to see Utilitarianism as a reaction against other ideas. I have mixed feelings about Edmund Burke, but I will grant that his ideas were in direct reaction to the French Revolution. And he has some great points. He identified why people like me, who are essentially center-right in temperament and philosophy, have a distaste for revolution, preferring reform. And also why we are deeply concerned about the modern American Right, which combines a Gilded Age approach to inequality with a vicious racism. Burke had his weaknesses, though, and it is best to view the Utilitarian approach to poverty and economics as a reaction to the worst of Burke, rather than a confirmation of Marx. (Indeed, the Utilitarians had a bias toward individual freedom, rather than government control, in many cases.) Likewise, the Utilitarians were in conversation with Adam Smith - who was far less libertarian or social darwinist than the modern disciples of Ayn Rand would have you believe.

So, for the Utilitarians, it was natural to question whether the status quo was ethical - or inevitable. Mill wrote in his biography a number of statements on economics which I found fascinating and pertinent to our own modern discussion. First, Mill questions a conflation of free enterprise with oppression of labor. And credits Harriet with the idea, by the way.

“This tone [of Harriet’s] consisted chiefly in making the proper distinction between the laws of the production of Wealth, which are real laws of nature, dependent on the properties of objects, and the modes of its Distribution, which, subject to certain conditions, depend on human will. The common run of political economists  confuse these together, under the designation of economic laws, which they deem incapable of being defeated or modified by human effort; ascribing the same necessity to things dependent on the unchangeable conditions of our earthly existence, and to those which, being but the necessary consequences of particular social arrangement, are merely coextensive with these. Give certain institutions and customs, wages, profits, and rent will be determined by certain causes; but this class of political economists drop the indispensable presupposition, and argue that these causes must by an inherent necessity, against which no human means can avail, determine the shares which fall, in the division of the produce, to labourers, capitalists, and landlords.”

Again, a mic drop moment. I had a conversation just today with a doctrinaire right-winger who seemed to insist that there was no possible way to change the allocation of wealth and income. Economic laws (which largely benefited him) were fixed, and human efforts to change things were doomed to failure - and would indeed fuck up the economy at large. Meaning - Always Cut Taxes™. No matter what the circumstance. Mill (Harriet, really) point out what should be obvious: there is no inevitability about landlords and capitalists reaping the vast majority - and growing share - of the production of an economy. It isn’t the result of immutable laws. It is the result of particular customs, laws, and institutions. And these can be changed.

Later, Mill makes another fantastic argument. I wish I could quote it in full, but it is too long. Here is the best of it:

“What is true is, that wages might be so high as to leave no profit to the capitalist, or not enough to compensate him for the anxieties and risks of trade; and in that case labourers would be killing the goose to get at the eggs. And, again, wages might be so low as to diminish the numbers or impair the working powers of the labourers, and in that case the capitalist would generally be a loser.”

This much is actually classic Adam Smith. There is a gap here, however, as Mill points out. Smith calls this the “higgling of the market.” Mill notes that, given powerful employers, and individual workers, wages will be at the bottom end of this. Unionized labor would push wages toward the higher. Realistically, as Mill notes, sometimes mistakes are made, and the limits on both ends are violated, making adjustments necessary. But Mill makes a moral judgment, which I not only agree with, but believe is at the heart of the evil of the present-day right.

“But, having regard to the greatly superior numbers of the labouring class, and the inevitable scantiness of the remuneration afforded by even the highest rate of wages which, in the present state of the arts of production, could possibly become general; whoever does not wish that the labourers may prevail, and that the highest limit, whatever it may be, may be attained, must have a standard of morals, and a conception of the most desirable state of society, widely different from those...of the present writer.”

Exactly. This is a key point of Utilitarian politics: the goal should be greater happiness for the greatest number, not a high level of happiness for the elite few, and misery for everyone else. That this is the polar opposite to today’s American Right is pretty much beyond dispute. Rather, they are convinced that employers need ever-increasing power of workers. It’s a totally different standard of morals than I have.  I hate to say that, as I am inclined toward conservatism. But that isn’t a value of today’s right - they have sold their souls to Ayn Rand’s philosophy which is that the capitalists deserve as much as they can squeeze out of everyone else.

Speaking of Adam Smith, how about this from The Wealth of Nations:

“No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.”

That sounds practically Marxist in comparison with today’s Right.

In each section, Schultz examines the legacy of each Utilitarian. After all, philosophy is a continuing conversation, not a set of boxes containing separate philosophies. As a general rule, I am not a particular fan of Peter Singer (although he has the occasional good point.) I tend toward Martha Nussbaum, and her application of Utilitarianism to a modern world. One particularly fantastic section in the book is the one in which Nussbaum expounds on Mill’s views of patriotism. I have written a bit about that. Both Mill and Nussbaum have amazing things to say on the topic - things which are so relevant today, in a time when the American Right stands in opposition to Mill’s ideals.

“I never said that we should not have a particular love of and attachment to our own nation...I compared our relation to our country to our relationship with our own children: just as good parents love their children more, but still, compatibly with that, may and should seek a nation in which all children have decent life-opportunities, so too we may love our own nation more while seeking a world in which all citizens have decent life-opportunities.”

AMEN! Is it really that hard? Apparently so to the Steve Kings of the world, who throw shade on “other people’s babies,” thus setting themselves up for hell. (Nope, tired of sugarcoating this one. I don’t believe in the traditional Evangelical hell - but I believe that if it exists, the overwhelming majority of white Evangelicals right now are competing to purchase a one-way ticket there. Seriously. Read Matthew 25 again.)

Before I finish, I really should mention the Utilitarians and sexuality. I believe this is another reason why the Fundies I grew up with hated them. They dared to challenge the misogyny that underlies “traditional” sexual rules. In addition to the feminist ideas that women were not the chattel of men, and should be able to choose their partners - and divorce if they wished - the Utilitarians pushed back against another trend in the culture.

Jeremy Bentham was the first Utilitarian to question the proscription of homosexuality. From his point of view, both the risk of overpopulation and the idea of human freedom indicated that this might be legitimately questioned. It wasn’t just Bentham, however. By the time of Henry Sidgwick, there was a full-on puritanical witch hunt under way. The Criminal Law Amendment Act in England was a mixed bag, to be honest. (Seriously, note that raping a 10-13 year old was a misdemeanor - and the Act didn’t do much to fix that.) The main issue, however, was a re-criminalization of homosexual contact, even when anal intercourse couldn’t be proved. This is the law that put Oscar Wilde in prison, and led eventually to his death. The late-Victorian witch hunt against LGBTQ people is pretty obvious, both in England and in America. It coincided with a reaction against Feminism and social change in general. Hey! Sounds like today too!

There is a fun passage in this book on Sidgwick and his associates. He was part of “The Apostles,” an intellectual group that included Tennyson among others. A number of gay men were part of the group, and Sidgwick, however sympathetic, did his best to censor the erotic or philosophical writings of these men (particularly John Symonds) out of a fear it could get them prosecuted. Symonds probably originated the idea of sexual orientation as we know it now, and the Utilitarians examined the issue using reason, rather than religious teachings - yet another reason why Fundies hate them…

One not-so-pleasant part of this book is the examination of the racism of the Utilitarians. This is, alas, a common experience in reading about pretty much any Victorians. The Empire was considered noble, and non-Europeans lesser humans at best. I wish I could say that this was unique, but it wasn’t. It is difficult to find any white writer of the era that didn’t share the prejudice and blind spot. Although all of the Utilitarians suffered from this problem, it was particularly sad to see that Sidgwick, who was the latest in time and the most prone to doubt about his ideas, was enthusiastic about Charles Henry Pearson, who pretty openly advocated for genocide of non-whites. (On a related note, Pearson would fit right in with Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, and Steve King. And, sadly, Hitler a half century later. Just vicious racism and a view of whites as superior. All too familiar…)

Again, this isn’t unique to the Utilitarians. It is a problem the vast majority of Victorian whites suffered from - it is the rule, not the exception. But, on the other hand, they did pretty universally deplore slavery - even before it was cool. The Utilitarians advocated for universal education, universal suffrage, and human freedom and thriving, before such concerns became mainstream. In our own era, we owe a lot to the Utilitarians that we don’t even realize. I have been struck this year with just how much of the modern American Right is actually a reaction against Utilitarian values. A reaction against a belief that government should be for the common good, not just the good of the wealthy few. A reaction against Feminism. A reaction against the egalitarian impulse in general.

At its core, Utilitarianism is about the common good. It is about considering the needs of others and rejecting selfishness. These are values in short supply these days.

Let me close, however, with a line from the author’s epilogue:

“Arguably, if today we were to follow the lead of the great utilitarians, a decent education for all would be more of a priority, and the world would be less cruel.”

I cannot agree more.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Artemis by Andy Weir


Source of book: I own this

A combination of camping and my concert schedule kept me from attending the last three book club meetings. I made this one, though.

Andy Weir is best known for writing The Martian, which became a popular movie. The premise of this book looked interesting, and it got enough votes for our club to choose it this year. 



Artemis is definitely genre fiction, not literature, but it works pretty well for what it is intended to be.

Artemis is a moon colony, established by a Kenyan company who managed to solve some of the technical problems in getting enough mass into moon orbit. In this version of our world, earth nationalities have essentially become professional guilds (or monopolies) when it comes to the colony. The Kenyans have the transport monopoly - and essentially own and rule the place. Brazil...okay, the Brazilian mafia...runs the aluminum smelter which provides the building materials and oxygen for the colony. And, the Saudis run the welding guild. Jazz Bashara is the protagonist, and she is the daughter of a skilled welder. She’s the black sheep, and kind of but not quite estranged from her father.

She works officially as a porter, and unofficially as a smuggler. Things like cigars are her main trade - anything flammable is forbidden on Artemis. She aspires to be able to join the EVA (spacesuit) guild, and lead tours. This more lucrative job could let her escape her poverty.

Then, she gets an offer she can’t refuse from wealthy businessman Trond Landvik - a rather sizeable fortune. All she has to do is sneak out of the city, hitch a ride to the place the automated rock harvesters are working, and destroy them. So that Landvik can take the oxygen monopoly away from the Brazilians. Which might have to do with a mysterious new technology. No big deal…

Naturally, things don’t go quite according to plan, things blow up, people get whacked, and Jazz is a target of the mafia.

So, first the good. Wherever science comes into the book, it is at least plausible. I am particularly impressed when the chemistry isn’t laughable. (Seriously, chemistry is almost as much of a black box to most authors as math.) Most of the science and technology is believable, and seems to be the way that it would develop in real life. Thus, things mostly work, but they are utilitarian, not objects of great beauty and sophistication. Cost and weight are more important than either style or engineering perfection.

The plot idea itself was interesting, although not spectacular.

Where I felt the book was weakest was in its characterization. Weir doesn’t really make characters who feel like real people rather than types drawn from central casting. I realize this is a standard thing in genre fiction as a general rule, but it still was a bit of a letdown. Given another 100 pages, perhaps an author used to writing complexity might have improved things. As it was, Jazz feels like a cookie cutter hero, with her gender, race, and religion there as accessories like her boots or purse. And likewise with the other characters. Weir could have avoided describing them altogether, and they wouldn’t have lost much. I can’t even really remember who was gay, and which eastern European country the computer geek guy came from. So that part was disappointing.

There were also some really awkward scenes that seemed thrown together with just enough in sexual references to check off the PG-13 list. It got in the way of the narrative without adding any real depth. It is an imperfect book in that sense.

On the other hand, the last few weeks have been filled with a lot of symphony stuff - including time I had to spend learning Petrushka and Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. Great works, but really challenging. So my brain power was in decline in the evenings, and it was nice to have something light and easy to use to wind down.

I should also mention a couple of things regarding food and drink. Since growing fresh food is challenging in space, ordinary people got by on “gunk,” an algae flavored with various substances. I was reminded of an Isaac Asimov short story, “In Good Taste,” in which ordinary food was replaced entirely by “prime,” a fungus-derived food, which is flavored by chemicals. The point of that story was the competition to come up with new and delicious flavors using computer-driven molecular synthesis and careful blending. But the winner is disqualified when the judges discover he has used real flavors from things which actually grew in dirt (gross!) So that was an interesting parallel. I’m not sure which is more realistic: unappetizing food for working class people - or an industry devoted to making addictively tasty synthetic food.

The other food related touch was kind of fascinating. Because liquids are heavy - and thus not efficient to ship by rocket - alcohol is made by reconstitution. Alcohol powder actually does exist, but isn’t commercially available yet as far as I can tell. (And it has some significant safety risks, to say the least…) Weir gets this right, for the most part. I agree that, in general, the flavors would be suboptimal. Kind of like the difference between fresh milk and powdered milk. However, the idea that beer is the closest to drinkable, while the hard booze is far worse seems to me to be backwards. The more alcohol, the easier to mask poor flavors. Has Weir never had a shot of Everclear? Or store brand vodka? I would also say that it seems that beer could be brewed on the moon more easily than the others. Barley and hops aren’t that inefficient. Someone would be willing to pay for the good stuff, in any case. It is telling that every civilization seems to have developed some form of wine or beer as one of its first inventions.

Anyway, not my favorite book of the year, but not a total dud either. Light, genre fiction, with some good, some not so great, and not a big time suck.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Domestic Abuse and Divorce - Evangelicals are Ignoring the Elephant in the Room


 
Ah yes, the issue of domestic violence and abuse is back in the news, and, as before, Evangelicals are having a terrible time making a morally and rationally coherent statement.

To those not following it, Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and notable Southern Baptist, got caught (again) advising women to stay in abusive marriages. Hey, I mentioned him five years ago. This is nothing new, and is a feature of the Complementarian movement. As I have pointed out, the issue is control. If men have a right to expect obedience, then it follows that they have the right to use some means - either force or other abuse - to compel it.

In the wake of this, notable patriarchist Russell Moore (who, to his credit, as been one of the few voices in the SBC standing against Trump and White Supremacy), published a response in which he claimed that abuse was the same as “abandonment,” and thus a “biblical” reason for divorce.

I mention Moore here, because I’m afraid that what he is saying is pretty much bullshit. I will explain in a minute.

A much better response has come from Beth Moore (no relation to Russell), who was willing to say what should be obvious, which is that Patterson’s teaching is based on misogyny. And this point is connected to why Russell Moore is missing the real issue.

The best response I have read so far is from Morgan Guyton, in his post entitled No, The Bible Does Not Condemn Domestic Violence.

Guyton is absolutely correct. However, he doesn’t go quite far enough in my opinion. Any discussion of what the bible says about divorce is completely and utterly futile until we actually acknowledge the elephant in the room:

The bible was written during a time in history where it was assumed that men owned women and their bodies; and that this was the natural, proper state of society because women were congenitally vastly inferior to men.

This is where we must know our history in order to understand things. So, let’s get that part right first.

***

During most of human history, in most places, including in the West, women were the property - the chattel - of men. They could be bought, sold, given in marriage, pimped out, raped, and even murdered by their husbands (or fathers before that) with impunity.

This includes all of the times in which the books of the bible were written.

I have already written about the legal status of women in the Old Testament. But the 1st Century CE wasn’t much better. Aristotle’s view of women as malformed, defective men was the assumption of Roman society, and women were - as in the OT - the chattel of men.

I won’t expand on this too much more - go ahead and read my post above - or grab a history book.

One of the things that this meant in practice was this:

Women had NO right to a divorce.

Seriously. Find me one place in the bible where it talks about women giving a man a divorce. Of course they don’t, because they had no such right in the law. Divorce was what a man did to a woman when he no longer wished to support her financially. So, when you see “divorce,” you have to understand that. A divorce was a MAN sending a WOMAN away, without any financial obligation to her. If he did that to her, it meant she either starved or became a prostitute.

That is the real meaning of “divorce” in the bible.

As you can see, it bears little resemblance to our modern society.

But wait! It gets better!

Women lacked divorce rights well into the Victorian Era!

This is where it helps to have gone to law school. You learn some really, um, interesting things. First, how about William Blackstone? (1765)

By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband; under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every thing; and is therefore called in our law-French a feme-covert, foemina viro co-operta; is said to be covert-baron, or under the protection and influence of her husband, her baron, or lord; and her condition during her marriage is called her coverture. Upon this principle, of a union of person in husband and wife, depend almost all the legal rights, duties, and disabilities, that either of them acquire by the marriage. I speak not at present of the rights of property, but of such as are merely personal. For this reason, a man cannot grant anything to his wife, or enter into covenant with her: for the grant would be to suppose her separate existence; and to covenant with her, would be only to covenant with himself: and therefore it is also generally true, that all compacts made between husband and wife, when single, are voided by the intermarriage…
The husband also, by the old law, might give his wife moderate correction. For, as he is to answer for her misbehaviour, the law thought it reasonable to intrust him with this power of restraining her, by domestic chastisement, in the same moderation that a man is allowed to correct his apprentices or children; for whom the master or parent is also liable in some cases to answer.

Interesting, yes? A woman ceased to be a person upon her marriage, and he had the right to use violence on her.

Now, let’s talk about divorce, because this is important to our discussion.

A woman could not divorce her husband except for abandonment.

A lot of people don’t understand this. One reason is that they do not understand the meaning of “adultery.” Historically - and in the bible - adultery is as follows, and no more:

Adultery was sexual intercourse between a man and a woman who is married to another man.

Some things which were NOT considered adultery historically or in the bible:

a. Sex between a married man and an unmarried woman.
b. Sex between a married man and a prostitute.
c. A man taking a mistress and having a second family with her.
d. A man marrying a second wife (although this would eventually be the crime of Bigamy.)

You see the problem here? If a man cheated, it was only adultery if the other woman was married. That is, if she was another man’s property. Adultery was a crime against property - which is why in the 10th Commandment, it was forbidden to covet a man’s house, slave, beast, or….wife.

So, that is why, a woman whose husband was unfaithful had no legal recourse. She just had to take it.

But wait! There’s more!

Abuse and violence were NOT grounds for a woman to divorce her husband.

I think this is a missing piece in this discussion. Paige Patterson isn’t saying anything that would be shocking to the average Victorian. Back then, a woman by law had to stay and be beaten. Sure, she could try to get help from law enforcement, but then (as now in many churches), she would have been asked what she did to deserve a beating. If she had been anything other than perfectly compliant and submissive, well, she deserved it. And, she would, in any case, have been sent back to live with her husband after he was punished.

Oh, and it gets even better!

Divorce in the bible doesn’t mean what you think it means.

Let’s start with this: During the time the Old Testament was written, a man could choose to stop having sex with, cohabiting with, or showing affection to his wife anytime he wanted. Not just that, but he could marry another wife - or six if he could afford it, take a concubine, rape his slaves, frequent brothels, and in general, act as though he wasn’t married to her.

But he still had to financially support her. He couldn’t throw her out and let her starve.

THAT is what a divorce was. Divorcing a woman meant you were no longer financially responsible for her - she was on her own. What this meant in practice was that a woman who had been divorced had limited options. Her family might take her in if they believed the man was at fault. She could try to find a man who would marry her or take her as a concubine. She could become a prostitute. Or she could starve.

So whenever you see a discussion of “divorce” that refers to the Torah, that is what we are talking about. Whether a man could cut a woman off without support.

To be clear, this means not just stuff you see in the Old Testament (although this understanding puts a totally different spin on the passage in Malachi used to bludgeon women who wish to leave abusive marriages….) It also means that wherever you see Christ discussing divorce in the gospels, He is discussing the Torah - and that means divorce means the above.

What about the New Testament? Well, a few things change. The biggest one is that, by law, Roman citizens could have only one formal marriage. The reason was simple: one’s marriage was for producing legitimate offspring, who would be citizens like their parents, and inherit any property. Marriage was all about property and status. Not love. Not sex.

This did not mean that the Romans believed in monogamy for men. Far from it. Rather, they took from the Greeks a view of “a woman for each purpose.”

To quote Demosthenes:

“For this is what living with a woman as one's wife means—to have children by her and to introduce the sons to the members of the clan and of the deme, and to betroth the daughters to husbands as one's own. Mistresses we keep for the sake of pleasure, concubines for the daily care of our persons, but wives to bear us legitimate children and to be faithful guardians of our households.”
Concubines were common, prostitution was rampant, men could rape their slaves (both male and female), and men really could do pretty much anything they wanted sexually, as long as they didn’t mess with another citizen’s wife or unmarried daughter. Because of the distinctions of class, a man who wanted to be with a woman of lower class couldn’t marry her. She would be a concubine, and he would marry someone of appropriate status to bear his children and inherit his property.

Divorce was actually fairly liberal in Roman law, and it was apparently common among the upper classes. However, while MEN could divorce their wives with few restrictions, WOMEN did not gain the right to divorce until the 2nd Century.

So, again, with the exception of polygamy (which non-citizens still engaged in throughout the Empire), all of the Old Testament rights that men had carried over. In fact, if you read the New Testament, the one truly obvious change from Roman mores is that St. Paul frowned on prostitutes. I was kind of surprised to re-read the NT, and realize that concubines aren’t really mentioned at all. Even polygamy seems to merely disqualify one from church leadership. And “slaves submit to your masters” looks a bit different when you realize that that meant submitting to rape.

When you actually read it with the cultural context in mind, you realize that the one thing scripture doesn’t do well is give clear direction for how marriage should function in a culture where women aren’t seen as property, and the sexual double standard is mostly unspoken rather than written into our laws.

Let me be clear, then, regarding what “biblical” divorce really means:

1. Women could not divorce their husbands under ANY circumstances.

The very idea that a woman had this right would seem as foreign to anyone living in the times the bible was written as the idea of speed limits for motor vehicles. You cannot find any reference to grounds for a woman to divorce for the same reason you do not see a 55 mph speed limit - the very idea was not even on the table.

2. Men were permitted to seek sexual satisfaction outside the marriage - they just had to support their wives.

And yes, this includes the New Testament, which says a lot less about male sexual morality than we were taught.

3. Men were fully permitted to beat their wives.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I believe domestic violence is a serious sin, and a crime, and inconsistent with the Christian faith. But legally, during the times the books of the bible were written, it was legal, and culturally acceptable. Period. You can’t sugar coat it.

4. It was assumed that men owned women, because women were inferior.

This is the key. Since women were the property of men, the idea that property had rights was as silly as saying that oxen had rights, or wine had rights. They didn’t. Thus, it would have been equally anachronistic for us to find rules in the bible based on the idea that women had these rights.  

So, if you were to take the theonomic approach to scripture, in a truly honest manner, I do not believe there is any conclusion other than to say that the bible does not in any way permit women to divorce their husbands. Rather, they should acknowledge their legal status as chattel and act accordingly.

Do I believe this is the meaning of the bible? Hell no! But that is the conclusion if you use a theonomic approach.

***

Back to Paige Patterson, Russell Moore, and Morgan Guyton. Patterson and Moore share what I have termed the “theonomic” approach to the bible. Let me elaborate.

Theonomy is an approach to the bible which treats the bible as “God’s Little Instruction Book™” for humans. It means searching scripture looking for rules to apply to our lives, to our churches, to our relationships.

In the case of marriage and divorce, that means searching the bible for RULES telling us how our marriages should work, and when - if ever - we are allowed to end them.  

I spent time in Bill Gothard’s cult. Key to the movement was an idea called “theonomy,” which was coined by Rousas Rushdoony. What it meant in the most extreme case was that our civil laws should be based on the rules of the bible - including the Old Testament.

People like Rushdoony, whatever their faults - and these were many - at least had one virtue: consistency. They honestly followed their assumptions to the bitter, cruel, evil conclusions which logically flowed from their approach to scripture.

The Patriarchists at least understood what Evangelicals refuse to see: many - indeed most - of the rules found in the bible only make sense if you re-create the culture in which they were found. Specifically:

You cannot truly enforce the rules related to gender and gender roles unless you re-create a culture in which women are chattel.

It does no good to try to figure out what the “biblical grounds for divorce” are, unless you understand the legal and cultural system in which they arose.

And that system did not permit women to divorce. For any reason. Because they were property.

Paige Patterson and Russell Moore, therefore, are both, in their own way, being dishonest. But Moore is being more dishonest than Patterson.

After all, Patterson is closer to how someone in the 1st Century CE would have understood marriage. Heck, Patterson is closer to how someone in the 19th Century would have understood marriage and divorce. To wit, a woman had to stay and be beaten.

Guyton has it right on that score, by the way.

I think Guyton might have gone further and admitted that the bible makes no provision for women to end marriages. Ever. But his point is otherwise correct.

***

This is where a theonomic approach is so poisonous. Searching a book written in a time when women were legally considered chattel for rules about when women have rights will inevitably result in conclusions consistent with the idea that women do not, in fact, have rights.

Russell Moore has to tie himself in theological knots because he knows deep in his conscience that it is cruel and wrong to make women stay and suffer abuse. Somewhere, in his moral self, he understands that the only morally decent answer is that women should be free to leave an abusive marriage. I think Moore is a fundamentally decent person and wants to do the right thing.  

But, on the other hand, his theology binds him to a theonomic approach to the bible - at least when it comes to marriage and sex. So, he has to muster all of his sophistry to make the bible say what it certainly does not.

There is a better way.

The first part is to let go of the belief that the bible is intended to be God’s Little Instruction Book™. That is, in fact, the most harmful way to read the bible. Rather, it is better to acknowledge that everything you read about marriage and divorce in the bible was written during a time in which women were chattel, and this arrangement was justified by a belief that women were vastly inferior to men.

That is the foundation on which ALL of the so-called “Biblical™” teachings on marriage, gender, and sexuality rest.

If you assume that foundation is correct, then the rules make perfect sense.

If you reject the foundation, then the rules seem, unsurprisingly, rather nonsensical.

For purposes of this post, I will limit the discussion to the rules surrounding divorce. (But make no mistake, the ENTIRE edifice of sexual rules rests on the foundation of misogyny. The ancients had no illusions about this like we do, and thus no need to lie to ourselves about it. That is a topic for another post…)

If you truly believe that women are inferior to men (in a similar way that small children are inferior to adults) and you believe that men own women, their bodies, and particularly their reproductive system, then the “biblical” rules for divorce make perfect sense.

Women do not have the capacity to make their own decisions, so a woman has NO right to end a marriage. (Although, if her husband refuses to support her, she kinda has the right to seek support from another man, perhaps.)

Women do not own their own bodies - those belong to the husband. Thus, she has no right to have sex with another man. (And can be killed for doing so - that’s in the law. A man who finds his wife in bed with another man could kill both of them - and it wouldn’t be a crime.) However, she doesn’t own him, so he could sleep around without any recourse on the part of his wife. Likewise, if he chose to beat or otherwise abuse her, so what? She was his property. No different than, say, kicking the couch.

Once you acknowledge that the rules were written with the assumption of a misogynist society and legal system, then you can actually think morally and reasonably about them. You can’t just apply those rules to our modern understanding of the equality of the sexes or the autonomy of women. If you try, you have to go back to the old misogyny. Once the foundation has crumbled, the rest falls - and neither Moore nor Patterson understands that.

The Patriarchists are actually closer to honest. They don’t quite say that they believe women are inferior, and that they are owned by men. But they come oh so close to saying it outright - and in practice, they mean the same thing.

***

Imagine instead of using the theonomic approach, we start with the assumption that men and women are equal, and that they each own their own bodies. Once you start with that, it is easy to think ethically and rationally about the implications. If men and women are equal, then neither has a privilege when it comes to entering or ending a marriage. What is good for the goose is good for the gander. Since each owns their own body, each is entitled to the dignity of being free from abuse of any kind. If one spouse fails to treat the other appropriately - and this includes more than just physical violence - it includes mental, emotional, verbal, and financial abuse - then the abused spouse has every right to protect him or herself and end the marriage. That is the result that Russell Moore knows in his heart and conscience is right. But because he is wedded to theonomy - and patriarchy - he must engage in pretty obvious mental convolutions to avoid cognitive dissonance. 


It isn't just about hitting your partner...
it's a whole constellation of behaviors meant to control and assert ownership.



In case it isn’t obvious, I despise the theonomic approach in general. I think all it is in practice is an attempt to find a new Torah - a new law to follow. The idea of being led by the Spirit, engaging our reason and our empathy, and walking by faith - that’s really terrifying to fundamentalists (and the vast majority of Evangelicals are fundamentalists these days.) It’s easy to just parse the words of the bible looking for rules to follow - and impose on everyone else. It’s much harder to wrestle with what “love your neighbor” looks like in the actual world we find ourselves in.

I’ll confess, I find this really puzzling.

We should not be surprised that the bible reflects the misogyny and injustice of the cultures in which it was written.

The authors of the bible wrote to the cultures of their times. This is a surprise? That’s why you find tribalism and slavery and genocide and all that. It was in the water, so to speak. Times change, and humanity has - to a significant extent - grown less violent and more concerned with human rights over the last few thousand years. The writings of St. Paul (to cite one example) were pretty radical and progressive by Roman standards. But not so much today. Now, what was shockingly empowering has become a club to beat women back into submission. It breaks my heart that my faith tradition has lost its way like this. Christianity should be - like it once was - ahead of the curve rather than behind it on human rights.

None of this is meant to condemn the bible, which I still find to be a glorious and inspiring book. It is we who have misused it in a way it was never intended to be used – as an instruction book.

***

It should be no mystery why Evangelicals/Fundamentalists are having difficulty these days. Their theological edifice rests on the belief that the bible was literally dictated by God, is perfect and flawless in every way, and speaks directly to us in our time and culture. And, as a result of this, that it is intended to be a new Torah for us - an instruction book for life, marriage, sex, and everything. Except for the “love your neighbor, feed the hungry, welcome the immigrant stuff. That stuff isn’t literal or binding. But I digress.

To lose the certainty of an instruction book is terrifying to Evangelicals. Their morality is tied up in legalism of two kinds. First, that one must believe the right things or burn in hell for eternity. Second, that God has spelled out every facet of our lives that is connected with our genitals. What we do with them. And what having a particular set dictates about how we function in relationships, church, and society.

Thus, morality in marriage is about what your genitals dictate for your life. Have one set, and you are in charge, and God speaks to you directly. Have another set, and you are called to suffer and put up with abuse, always submitting to the superior person with the other set of genitals. The question of divorce isn’t about protecting the vulnerable. It’s about maintaining a certain hierarchy.

Legalism is easy. Truly ethical thinking is hard. Particularly I ethical thinking. It requires self sacrifice, rather than mostly the sacrifice of others. It is no accident that women are leading the resistance to the (mostly) men pushing the theology of abuse. Powerful men are unlikely to be victims of domestic violence and abuse. And they would have the full support of their congregations if they took action to end the abuse. But they have zero empathy - not really - for vulnerable women. It’s all about how things fit with their theological structure.

***

I have been an attorney for 18 years. During that time, I have worked with victims of domestic violence. I have also handled divorce cases. This experience has significantly changed my perspective on divorce.

I believe that divorce is not a problem in itself: it is a symptom of greater problems. In the case of abuse, divorce is a symptom of that abuse, every bit as much as the broken bones and bruises on the face. It is as much a symptom as the psychological damage to the victim - and the children.

Divorce is like the vomiting caused by food poisoning. Telling a person when they can divorce and not is like telling someone when they can puke.

This doesn’t just apply in obvious cases of violence. For most of us, we will never see what goes on in a marriage. There is always more to the story. (We attorneys hear a lot more than we would like to know, to tell you the truth. In particular, I have a really hard time looking at pastors the same way after some of the cases I have had. And in seeing “godly” women the same way too.) Even if we could observe a marriage over the course if years - as a fly on the wall - I doubt we could really understand the dynamics.

Thus, I firmly believe that we have no right to sit in judgment on whether people should divorce or not.

Here is just one story - I have heard a number like it. And others not like it, but unique in their own way. Tolstoy was at least half right: unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way.

Back in the day, before my former pastor went (in my view) off the rails, he had some good things to say about marriage. One of those was that we spend so much time telling people not to divorce - and way too little time teaching them how to love each other in marriage. I agree. And part of that is making it clear that abuse has consequences, and one of those consequences is that the abuser is evicted from the marriage. Without the ability to escape, preaching against abuse is toothless. I haven’t seen many abusers change. And the very few I have, it was because they lost everything: their marriage, their children, their job, their freedom. And in those cases, the marriage was still over. And it needed to be. Because some damage cannot be fixed.

Unless and until Evangelicalism stops trying to find ways of squaring the misogynistic view of marriage from the past with our present times and culture, it will become increasingly irrelevant. I have mentioned before that I believe American Christianity is on the verge of losing most of its youth. This will be a reason why. Why should my children want to embrace a tradition which is 100 years behind the culture on supporting the basic human rights of women? They aren’t stupid, and they don’t think women are inferior.

Why on earth would they wish to go back to the injustices of the past?

Something to think about...

***

If you want to read more about my perspective on how to interpret the bible in light of ancient culture, I recommend my series on Christianity and Culture, and the second installment on the Bible and Culture in particular. 

***

Please read my comment policy before commenting. In particular, for posts like this, I really am not interested in getting lectured on what YOU believe the bible means (which generally means some set of talking points I have already heard over and over during my 40 years as an Evangelical.) I've heard it. I've dealt with the aftermath of failed Evangelical marriages. You are not going to somehow explain it to me in a way that I have never heard before, or that you are special enough to convince me to return to my past beliefs.

I also want to be clear that I will delete ANY comment that has some form of "marriage was created to give us a picture of Christ and the church." I already blogged about that.  I believe men and women are equal PERIOD, and that taking St. Paul's metaphor about sacrificial love in ANY way that even implies that men are to rule women is exactly the problem I am talking about here.

Friday, May 11, 2018

A Winter's Love by Madeleine L'Engle

Source of book: Borrowed from the library.

I doubt I would ever have discovered this book if it had not been for a law school classmate who read it and liked it. To be honest, we have both swapped book ideas enough that we each can whine that our book lists - too long already - have been impacted by the other.

I have, however, read other books by Madeleine L’Engle - her young adult science fiction series. You can read my thoughts on A Wrinkle In Time and A Wind in the Door if you like. A Winter’s Love, in contrast, is neither science fiction nor aimed at children or young adults. It is a straightforward, realistic, literary novel for adults.

L’Engle actually started out by writing books for adults. These did not sell all that well, however, and she had determined that if she didn’t have a real success, she would quit writing at age 40. Soon after making this decision, she had the idea for A Wrinkle In Time, managed to talk a publisher into giving it a shot, and had a bestseller on her hands.

That was in 1959. Two years prior, she wrote A Winter’s Love. After reading her basic biographical information, it is clear that this book contained some elements taken from L’Engle’s childhood. Her father suffered from some combination of damage from mustard gas in World War One and alcoholism (much like one of my great-grandfathers); a condition which led to them living for a time in the French Alps. 



A Winter’s Love is set in the aftermath of World War Two, rather later than the time period L’Engle would live in the French Alps. Rather than an illness, the reason for the winter sabbatical is that the father, Courtney, has lost his job as a professor at a New York university. He has essentially been forced out by the new guy, a trendy writer who finds Courtney to be too old fashioned. The sabbatical had been planned, but now it isn’t fun, but one where the future is doubtful, and the family greatly strained.

The mother, Emily, is the main focus of the story. She met and married Courtney when she was his student. They had two daughters together, but the younger one died at age 8, a tragedy that caused Courtney to withdraw inside himself for a time. Later, they would have another child together unexpectedly, leaving them with a teenager and a youngish child. Now, with the lost job, Courtney has withdrawn again, and is trying desperately to regain his sense of manhood. Emily is devastated by the loss of connection, and unsure what she wants from life.

The older daughter, Virginia, is close friends with Mimi Oppenheimer, a friend who has been essentially adopted by Virginia’s family. (This parallels the adoption of Maria by L’Engle and her husband after Maria’s parents died.) The youngest child, Connie, is a pretty typical - that is to say demanding - little kid.

Already, the setup is stressful: living in a cheap chateau, with a busybody (and kind of nasty) landlady, Mimi’s tales of her parents’ free-love lifestyle, and the tubercular and alcoholic Gertrude living down the street with her mountain guide boyfriend Kaarlo.

But then, an old friend of Emily and Courtney turns up. Abe is now a widower (and later divorcee) with a teen son, Sam. There is a mild love triangle there, as Virginia is smitten with Sam, who prefers Mimi. There is some harmless frisson here, but everyone is young and decent, so nothing worse than a little angst. Much more serious is the fact that Abe and Emily have been in love for a long time, even though neither of them admitted it even to themselves before. But Abe makes the move, and Emily responds.

It is fair to say that they have an affair. It isn’t fully physical, even though at different points they want it to be. (Just not exactly at the same time.) It is, however, emotional and passionate, with a bit of mild touching and kissing. It is also morally troubling to Emily in particular, and much of the book is devoted to her own struggle to choose a path, and reconcile that path with her values.

A subplot in the book revolves around anti-semitism. Gertrude met Kaarlo when both were in the French Resistance against the Nazis. Gertrude has a past and a good story to tell, but she is also badly damaged by her experiences. Her late husband haunts her, and she feels guilty that the uber-healthy and strong Kaarlo is “wasting” himself on tubercular her. The landlady, in contrast, collaborated with the Nazis, and takes out some of her guilt on others by causing trouble and being nasty.

Anti-semitism rears its head first, however, at a dance. Sam invites his friend “Beanie” along, so that there will be a guy for Virginia - and so Mimi and Sam can be a couple. Beanie drops a casually anti-semitic comment about Mimi to Virginia (while Sam and Virginia are dancing), which causes Virginia to stalk out on him. Later, Virginia and Mimi catch sight of Abe and Emily kissing, which basically finishes the job of tearing Virginia’s world apart. And yet, she will not tell her parents what she saw.

Obviously, things are a mess at this point, and they get worse. But L’Engle forces her characters to work through their problems and find a way. It is obvious from the start that the affair is doomed. It is clear enough that Courtney cannot succeed as an academic writer, and so he will have to take a less prestigious job in Indiana, thus taking Emily away from the world she knows - and Abe. It is also pretty obvious that Emily will not be willing to leave Courtney or take his children from him. So this obviously cannot be more than a temporary fling - a winter’s love, so to speak.

So much for the plot. What drives this book is the characterization. It is filled with flawed, imperfect, complex people. It is difficult to either love or hate anyone in it. Okay, except perhaps for Sam and Mimi, who are endearingly sweet in a teenaged way. They too will part after the winter, but one can hold out hope that they might end up together in the long run. And if not, they will part friends.

I myself sympathised with Courtney. I too have had the stress of an uncertain financial future. It wasn’t always easy finding a sense of manhood in a marriage where my wife’s job has always been our source of health insurance - and thus less expendible than mine. She never resented it, but I felt from time to time that I was somehow failing as a man. She didn’t feel that way, but I expected her to. That was a learning process. I also have Courtney’s unfortunate tendency to withdraw when I feel like a failure. So I got how he felt.

Emily too is interesting. She is upright to the point of rigidity, appearing perfect to everyone except herself (and her family, perhaps), which is why she struggles so much to discover she isn’t nearly as good as she wants to think she is. She also is discovering that her black and white world isn’t working for her. L’Engle never really resolves Emily’s feelings either. There is no epiphany, no happy ending for Emily. She will lose something no matter what choice she makes. But L’Engle also doesn’t make this a catastrophe. It is an event. An affair. A winter’s love. It is part of Emily, and who she is. Part of the dynamic here is that Courtney knows even if he doesn’t know the details. He too has a decision, and he admits that if she cheated, it won’t be the end of him - or his love for her. I can very much understand this in the emotional sense. (Not that I have personal experience here or anything.)

The handling of Virginia is interesting as well. She has her teen moments, and they ring true. Again, complexity. Virginia is furious at the discovery that her parents aren’t perfect, and yet she can’t truly hate them either. The relationship dynamics are fascinating - and better written than many books involving teens and parents.

I could go on with more, but I’ll end with that. I found it a compelling read because of the psychological complexity.

I do want to mention a few quotes, however, that I found interesting. Emily and Courtney are what we might call “liberal” or “progressive” by today’s standards. That is, they are opposed to racism, well read and educated, urban, sophisticated, and so on. I mention “today’s standards” because in a bygone era (perhaps even my childhood), this wasn’t a “liberal” thing at all - it was still to be found on the Right. In the setting of the book, however, there is definitely a gap between the “liberals” like Courtney and Emily, and the casual anti-semites, which are linked to racists in America.

I bring this up in part because some of the more fascinating conversations in the book are between Virginia and various adults on the topic of racism. Virginia is in a tough situation, because she kind of likes some things about Beanie, and she doesn’t want to just exclude him from all activities (which makes it hard on Sam, and there are only a few young people anyway, so you get what you get.) One of these conversations is between Emily and Virginia, but references prior conversations with Courtney as well. One question is exactly what Jews are. Being “Jewish” isn’t really being a race (particularly by 1950s definitions), but it isn’t merely a religion either. So what is it about being a “minority” of some sort? How does that happen. Courtney makes the observation that all prejudice against minorities is similar. It isn’t about who the minority is, but about the prejudice of those who are prejudiced. Courtney himself feels in a minority because he cares about “education and books and music and things,” as Virginia puts it. I kind of agree with that. I certainly feel part of a minority for that reason. I feel it particularly acutely living in a town with a lot of people who do not care about those things. (To be fair, there are many that do.) But also, that was one reason that I felt out of sync with my own religion for so long. There is an increasing hostility toward education and thought and reading and music and art and the whole thing - we are painted as “elitists” now, for valuing those things.

Later in the book, Virginia discusses Beanie with Gertrude. A very interesting exchange occurs:

“He’s still pretty young, isn’t he, Vee?”
“Oh no. I think he’s a couple of years older than I am.”
Gertrude smiled again. “Quite grown-up, then. But I think he’s still young enough to change, don’t you?”
“Are people apt to?”
“You know, Virginia,” Gertrude said, suddenly serious, “before the war I was quite thoughtlessly anti-Semitic in a casual way.”
“You, Madame de Croisnois??
“Yes. Of the ‘some of my best friends are Jews’ school.”

I wasn’t expecting that. I somehow thought that “some of my best friends are [black, gay, etc.]” was a more modern term - even if the sentiment likely wasn’t. But there it is. And as true then as now.

One final quote is worth mentioning. Virginia and Emily end up in a conversation about poetry (Virginia writes it), and it veers in an interesting direction.

“We’ve been studying atoms in chemistry this year, too,” Virginia said, “and they kind of fascinate me. And God. God is so tremendously exciting, mother. He’s so much bigger, so much more -- more enormous -- than most churches let Him be. When you look at the mountains -- or when you look at the stars and think how many of them probably have planets with life on them -- and maybe life entirely different from ours --- Mother, why do people all the time try to pull God down so He’s small enough to be understood?”
Emily stood up and put her hands on Virginia’s shoulders. “I suppose because most people are afraid of what they can’t understand.”

Damn. Mic drop. This is a huge reason why I am not comfortable in my church tradition any longer. Their concept of God has to be reduced to an 19th Century theological dogma based on a particular approach to a beautiful but complicated and messy ancient text. It has to be perfectly clear, perfectly rigid, and completely understood by them. Anything bigger than that has to be crushed. This passage also ties in with both Emily and Virginia struggling with the reality of shades of grey that are intruding on their black and white conception of the world, people, and morality.

I wasn’t sure whether I was going to like this book - but I trust my classmate’s judgment in certain things. I was not disappointed. This was a better than average book, and I find I am still thinking about it after finishing it.