Monday, August 19, 2019

The Essential Rumi (Part 1)

Source of book: I own this. My wife got this for me for Christmas last year. 

Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, known to us in English as Rumi, was a 13th Century Persian poet, theologian, and Sufi mystic. Born (probably) somewhere around the border between what is now Afghanistan and Tajikistan, his family moved southwest to Persia, then Baghdad, finally ending up in what is now Turkey. Because of this peripatetic childhood, Rumi became fluent in multiple languages. While most of his works are in Persian, he also used Turkish, Arabic, and Greek. 

Immensely influential for centuries in the Islamic countries, he was also translated into many languages, and his works became known around the globe. Today, he is one of the most read poets in the United States, a fact which surprised me. For most of us westerners, Rumi has been our introduction to Sufism, the mystic tradition of Islam. 

I had read a bit of Rumi here and there, but had never really read more than a poem at a time. I mentioned my interest to Amanda, and she managed to find a (sort of) used hardback copy of Coleman Barks’ version, The Essential Rumi. This is one of four volumes. Technically, Barks does not translate the poems. He instead paraphrases them from other translations - and at least he is clear about this. There is some controversy about his work, as it isn’t the most faithful to the original. The worst offense is omitting some lines and phrases, but there is also the recurring problem of translating a text which has strong rhythm and rhyme in the original language into what is essentially free verse in English. This is the challenge of any translation, but particularly of poetry. Translation itself is interpretation, and retelling a translation is one step further away. Poetry is even harder, as many languages do not convert well. Everything ends up with some sort of a compromise. Whether the compromises are acceptable or artistic is a matter of taste, but also a matter of the skill of the translator. 

(For other posts addressing this issue in a poetic context, see The Book of Hours by Rilke (Barrows & Macy translation), Inferno by Dante (Robert Pinsky and other translations), and Beowulf (Seamus Heaney). Also, the interesting case of Gitanjali by Tagore - who wrote his own English translation, which is definitely a bit...different than his Bengali version.)

I am a bit torn on what to think of Coleman Barks’ version. Since I can’t read Persian, I have no easy way of comparing. Most other translations seem to choose either rhyme or meter, but not both, and most of what was easily available online seemed similar to the Barks approach, namely free verse. 

On the one hand, Barks is a poet, so the words flow pretty well. On the other, it seems as if Barks is more concerned with the content - particularly the theology - rather than the poetic essence. Some of the shorter bits cohered as true poems. But the longer passages seemed kind of like a “prose-poem” in the vein of Khalil Gibran. There is nothing wrong with this, but I do wonder how much is missing of the original music when it is prosified. 

Barks also breaks up the original collections of poems, grouping them by his view of their topic. This further removes the poetic form from consideration, as one cannot compare poems within a genre. I think Barks was going for treating the collection more as an organized philosophy or theological text rather than a traditional poetry anthology. 

Because of the organization, I didn’t have the chance to pick just one collection and read it. Rather, I decided to arbitrarily stop at a chapter break, which fell at 100 pages in. This seemed like enough to read of one poet in a row. I would feel worse about that random cutoff if the book wasn’t organized the way it was - since Rumi’s original organization was already mixed up, I figured I wouldn’t miss his intended flow of poems anyway. 

Here are a few that I particularly liked. 

Who Says Words With My Mouth?

All day I think about it, then at night I say it.
Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing?
I have no idea.
My soul is from elsewhere, I’m sure of that,
And I intend to end up there. 

This drunkenness began in some other tavern.
When I get back around to that place, 
I’ll be completely sober. Meanwhile,
I’m like a bird from another continent, sitting in this aviary.
The day is coming when I fly off,
But who is it now in my ear who hears my voice?
Who says words with my mouth?

Who looks out with my eyes? What is the soul?
I cannot stop asking.
If I could taste one sip of an answer,
I could break out of this prison for drunks.
I didn’t come here of my own accord, and I can’t leave that way.
Whoever brought me here will have to take me home.

This poetry. I never know what I am going to say.
I don’t plan it.
When I’m outside the saying of it,
I get very quiet and rarely speak at all. 

That is indeed a bit of an existential music. Who (of the poetic bent, at least) hasn’t felt like he wasn’t from the same planet as everyone else, that the soul longs for its homeland, or that someday it will return?

I Have Five Things to Say

The wakened lover speaks directly to the beloved,
“You are the sky my spirit circles in,
And love inside love, the resurrection-place.

Let this window be your ear.
I have lost consciousness many times
With longing for your listening silence,
And your life-quickening smile.

You give attention to the smallest matters,
My suspicious doubts, and to the greatest.

You know my coins are counterfeit,
But you accept them anyway,
My impudence and my pretending. 

I have five things to say, 
Five fingers to give 
Into your grace.

First, when I was apart from you,
This world did not exist,
Nor any other.

Second, whatever I was looking for
Was always you.

Third, why did I ever learn to count to three?

Fourth, my cornfield is burning!

Fifth, this finger stands for Rabia,
And this is for someone else.
Is there a difference?

Are these words or tears?
Is weeping speech?
What shall I do, my Love?”

So he speaks, and everyone around
Begins to cry with him, laughing crazily,
Moaning in the spreading union
Of lover and beloved.

This is the true religion. All others
Are thrown-away bandages beside it.

This is the sema of slavery and mastery
Dancing together. This is not-being.

Neither words, nor any natural fact 
Can express this.

I know these dancers.
Day and night I sing their songs
In this phenomenal cage.

My soul, don’t try to answer now!
Find a friend, and hide.

But what can stay hidden?
Love’s secret is always lifting its head
Out from under the covers,
“Here I am!”

I find a lot to love about the language of love in all its contradictions and messiness in this poem. 


Inside this new love, die.
Your way begins on the other side.
Become the sky.
Take an axe to the prison wall.
Walk out like someone suddenly born into color.
Do it now.
You’re covered with thick cloud.
Slide out the side. Die,
And be quiet. Quietness is the surest sign
That you’ve died.
Your old life was a frantic running 
From silence.

The speechless full moon
Comes out now.

I am really curious how this sounds in the original. Clearly, there is a poetic rhythm of some sort going on, but it is somewhat lost in the translation. The metaphor of rebirth is a universal human (and religious) idea, although the meaning all too often is abandoned in favor of a call to give intellectual consent to dogma. This eliminates both the mysticism and the mystery of transfiguration, and reduces an experience of the whole self to a set of precepts. Here is another poem with a related theme. 

Only Breath

Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu,
Buddhist, sufi, or zen. Not any religion

Or cultural system. I am not from the East
Or the West, not out of the ocean or up

From the ground, not natural or etherial, not
Composed of elements at all. I do not exist,

Am not an entity in this world or the next,
Did not descend from Adam and Eve or any

Origin story. My place is placeless, a trace
Of the traceless. Neither body or soul. 

I belong to the beloved, have seen the two
Worlds as one and that one call to and know,

First, last, outer, inner, only that
Breath breathing human being. 

Some of the poems aren’t given titles, but are grouped together under a title, with separations marked. This next one comes under the heading of “A Great Wagon,” which doesn’t seem to match more than the first two sections. I wonder if they are drawn from different places, or if they were intended to go together. Anyway, here is a short passage that I liked. 

Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
And frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
And begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.

Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground. 

As one whose experience of the Divine, beauty, and love are wrapped up in music, this one really resonates. 

How about this one, which revels in the myths (true and otherwise) and the necessity to live our own stories. 

Unfold Your Own Myth

Who gets up early to discover the moment light begins?
Who finds us here circling, bewildered, like atoms?
Who comes to a spring thirsty
And sees the moon reflected in it?
Who, like Jacob blind with grief and age,
Smells the shirt of his lost son
And can see again?
Who lets a bucket down and brings up 
A flowing prophet? Or like Moses goes for fire
And finds what burns inside the sunrise?

Jesus slips into a house to escape enemies,
And opens a door to the other world.
Solomon cuts open a fish, and there’s a gold ring.
Omar storms in to kill the prophet
And leaves with blessings.
Chase a deer and end up everywhere!
An oyster opens his mouth to swallow one drop.
Now there’s a pearl.
A vagrant wanders empty ruins.
Suddenly he’s wealthy.

But don’t be satisfied with stories, how things
Have gone with others. Unfold
Your own myth, without complicated explanation,
So everyone will understand the passage,
We have opened you.

Start walking toward Shams. Your legs will get heavy
And tired. Then comes a moment
Of feeling the wings you’ve grown,

I’ll end with this one, perhaps the most beautiful of the ones I read this time. 

The Grasses

The same wind that uproots trees
Makes the grasses shine.

The lordly wind loves the weakness
And the lowness of grasses.
Never brag of being strong.

The axe doesn’t worry how thick the branches are.
It cuts them to pieces. But not the leaves.
It leaves the leaves alone. 

A flame doesn’t consider the size of the woodpile.
A butcher doesn’t run from a flock of sheep.

What is form in the presence of reality?
Very feeble. Reality keeps the sky turned over
Like a cup above us, revolving. Who turns 
The sky wheel? The universal intelligence.

And the motion of the body comes 
From the spirit like a waterwheel
That’s held in a stream.

The inhaling-exhaling is from spirity,
Now angry, now peaceful.
Wind destroys, and wind protects.

There is no reality but God,
Says the completely surrendered sheikh,
Who is an ocean for all beings.

The levels of creation are straws in that ocean.
The movement of the straws comes from an agitation
In the water. When the ocean wants the straws calm,
It sends them close to shore. When it wants them
Back in the deep surge, it does with them
As the wind does with the grasses.
This never ends. 

There are many more I found interesting, including the longer stories, myths, and parables. Those are a bit like Aesop meets Robert Frost, with extended dialogs pushing the story forward. My biggest regret is not being able to read in the original groupings, but the topical organization is interesting in its own right. 

I look forward to reading more in the future - and perhaps I can get a competing translation/interpretation and compare them. 

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

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. However, this one was an exception, because this was my nomination. 

Little Fires Everywhere takes on some pretty complex, tricky, and controversial topics. It does so through some morally difficult - and realistic - situations faced by nuanced characters. The writing is also excellent, the plot tight and focused, and the pacing perfect. Despite the heavier themes, it doesn’t feel like a heavy book. It is literary fiction, but doesn’t feel Literary™. 

I should warn that in order to say what I want to about the book, I will have to give some spoilers. If you haven’t read the book, you might want to bookmark this page, and come back to it after you have read it. 

Before getting into the story itself, let me say a few things about the setting. Ng chose one of the most fascinating places in America to set her story: Shaker Heights, Ohio. This suburb of Cleveland was one of the first “planned communities” in the US, long before such things became the hackneyed “gated community” dystopias that dominate the middle class suburbs and exburbs surrounding most major cities. 

Shaker Heights was, at the time, a legitimately inspirational idea. It was connected to Cleveland by streetcar, making commuting easy in an era before cars became dominant. It was laid out so that children could walk to schools, parks, and grocery stores without crossing any major streets. Indeed, even today, children usually walk, rather than take a bus or car. Although Shaker Heights now is mostly home to well above median income people, it was designed to have mixed income housing. (Essentially, it is a victim of its own success. Even the apartments are desirable, while the large houses are out-of-sight expensive.) 

Later, Shaker Heights would become famous for its intentional and successful efforts to integrate - decades before the Civil Rights Act. This included not just being open to non-whites moving in, but recruiting middle-class minorities, and assisting in securing financing in an era of redlining and open discrimination - it still maintains its own housing assistance office. As a result, Shaker Heights is a fairly integrated and diverse city, and avoided the “white flight” so many places have experienced. It still has a reputation as a progressive and tolerant place to live - although it isn’t particularly affordable these days, alas. 

Ng grew up in Shaker Heights, so one might guess that she knows a thing or three about the experience. As she said about it, it was “a little bit like writing about a relative. You see all of the great things about them, you love them dearly, and yet you also know all of their quirks and their foibles.” 

Shaker Heights serves as a bit of a metaphor as well as the setting. As a carefully planned community, it parallels the life of Elena Richardson, the matriarch of the picture-perfect Richardson family. Upper middle class, progressive, and concerned with their image, the Richardsons are recognizable. They are basically decent people, who try to do the right thing. Always. Always the perfect thing. Particularly Elena, as her husband Bill is a prominent attorney, and works the sort of hours that go with that kind of job. There are four Richardson children. Lexie is the all-American girl, progressive style. She has an African-American boyfriend who is smart and intends to go far, killer looks, and a personality that makes her popular. Likewise, Trip is the handsome, blond athletic sort, who has scored with most of the girls in the school. Moody is the thoughtful and kind one, who is a bit hapless in relationships - largely because of the competition from his older siblings. Izzy is the odd kid out, misunderstood, strong willed, deeply moral, and uninterested in the middle-class facade. 

Into the lives of the Richardsons come Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl. Mia is an itinerant artist with a mysterious past. Pearl has never known stability, moving regularly, never making friends or putting down roots. When Mia rents an apartment from the Richardsons, Moody comes over to check things out and meets Pearl. He introduces her to the rest of the family, and Pearl finds herself wanting to be part of that world. 

On the other hand, Elena recognizes something in Mia that troubles her. Elena has always done the perfect thing. But that meant, in her circumstances, never following her own dreams. She grew up in Shaker Heights, went to college, met and married Bill, and brought him back to live in her hometown. This means sacrifices. Elena writes for the local-local paper. You know, the one that covers school plays and local sports and stuff. She never breaks into the big leagues - in part because of the demands of family. By the time the story opens, she knows deep down that she will never be more than she is. Not really. The perfect life, but not her career dreams. 

Mia, on the other hand, is a complete contrast. Although she never finished her degree, Mia is an artistic photographer who has followed her own path. She works menial jobs as necessary to pay the rent, plus sells a few of her photos through a New York art dealer. Just enough to get by. Everything Mia and Pearl own is second-hand, from the ancient car Mia inherited (more or less) from her late brother, to the thrift-shop clothes and discarded furniture they find whenever they more to a new place. Despite the poverty, Mia and Pearl have a close relationship, and Mia gets to live life essentially on her own terms. 

This isn’t the life Pearl would choose, however, and she wants to put down roots and build relationships. What she does have, unlike the Richardson kids, though, is a truly good relationship with her mother. (She has no idea who her dad is - that topic is essentially off the table.) 

Into this already complex situation comes a serious disruption. Mia’s coworker at a local restaurant, Chinese immigrant Bebe, has been through a horrible experience. After being impregnated, then abandoned, she loses her job and her housing in short order, and finds she can’t get enough food to keep the infant alive. She abandons her (carefully) at a fire station, but later regrets it after she is able to get on her feet again. By coincidence, Mia overhears Elena talking about her childhood friend, who is in the process of adopting an infant that must be Bebe’s daughter. Bebe challenges the adoption, and the court case roils Shaker Heights. 

Furious that her friend is going through this, Elena starts investigating Mia’s past, and makes some unexpected discoveries. The aftermath of all this includes the title of the book, when Izzy burns the family home to the ground and runs away. 

The crux of the discovery about Mia is this (spoiler alert): When in college as an art major, Mia’s scholarship is cut off due to budget cuts. Lacking support from her family, she agrees to be a surrogate for a wealthy infertile couple, using her own egg and his sperm. When she reveals this to her family, they express their strong disapproval. After her brother dies in a car crash, she realizes she can’t go through with the surrogacy, tells the couple that she miscarried, and flees to the West Coast. From there on out, she has been on the run from her past. 

These two cases - the adoption and the surrogacy - bring to light some unpleasant truths about our society. 

First, some of my own background. For the last 16 years, I have done contract work for an Indian Tribe, handling their California “juvenile dependency” cases. That is a fancy legalese term for cases where a child is removed from its parents for alleged abuse or neglect. If the parents fail to “reunify” successfully, the child will probably be adopted. Because of my work in these cases, I have seen the system up close, and, I will admit, I have some deeply conflicted feelings about the whole thing. 

In general, the system seems to do a better job of splitting up families than keeping them together, and there is a strong economic and racial disparity in which families stay together. Certainly, there are cases in which there is no reasonable way for parents and children to be reunified. Some parents have issues with mental illness and/or substance abuse that so incapacitates them that the children are truly unsafe. In a very small number, there are truly sociopathic parents (or a parent) who gets off on violence or sexual abuse. In these cases, there isn’t a good solution. 

But in a surprising number, the root issue isn’t “bad parents,” but poverty

This is the elephant in the room - and something the book really brings out. 

Here is how you can tell that money (or lack thereof) is at the root of these issues. In general, what you see in the system is the children of poor people being adopted by middle or higher class people. You will practically NEVER see a child of wealthy parents in the system at all, and it certainly wouldn’t be adopted by a poverty-level adoptive parent. Likewise, have you EVER heard of a wealthy woman agreeing to be a surrogate for a lower income infertile couple? I bet you haven’t. Because the dynamic here is all about wealth. (On a related note, you very rarely see a white baby adopted by minority parents. The opposite is often true, though…so maybe race is an issue here…)

I imagine that you are willing to grant that bad parenting exists at all socioeconomic levels. And you would be right. But the system is set up to punish poverty, not bad parenting. And, even when a wealthy parent has issue, relatives are typically able to step in and prevent things from going to court. For example, the wealthy mom on powder cocaine (as opposed to crack) will typically quietly enter rehab while a relative takes over care. And the court system never gets involved. Or, a wealthy child can miss school to avoid showing bruises - someone is there to watch him. But a poverty level parent can’t afford to miss work, and suddenly you have a CPS complaint. 

Or how about the system itself. CPS has to offer what are euphemistically termed “reunification services” to parents. But that is a terrible term. What it really means is a series of hoops for the parent to jump through if they want their kid back. Typically, these are classes (say, abuse and neglect prevention, drug rehab, or anger management.) Which are only offered at certain times on certain days, and rarely within walking distance of the parent’s home. And if the parent is working (which they are commanded to do), the classes often conflict with typical low-income job schedules. Oh, and then there are the drug tests, with little notice (for obvious reasons), but these too require leaving work - if you can even get a long enough break to go down and test on the other side of town. 

Having watched this, it is a freaking miracle any low-income parents EVER reunify successfully. And in order to do so, they have to be practically superhuman. And lucky. Particularly if, like Bebe, they lack local relatives or other social support. For that matter, unlike wealthier families, those who do have relatives able to take the kids in will often find that their homes don’t qualify...because of poverty-related issues. 

The history of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) is an interesting illustration. At the time the law was passed in 1978, fully three quarters of all Indian families living on reservations (where our racist policies put them) had lost at least one child to adoption by white families. This is basically a form of genocide: removing children from their families. (Hmm, sound like immigration policy right now?) 

In the book, this pattern is pretty clear. Bebe surrenders her baby not because she doesn’t love and want her, but because the child is starving due to Bebe’s poverty and circumstances. This whole thing could have been prevented had society noticed and addressed the poverty problems. Likewise, in the court case, the adoptive parents make the extremely universal argument that “we can provide all these things for the child that mom cannot.” Basically, “we have money.” 

This leads me to what I see as the ugly underbelly of the adoption industry. And it is sure as hell an industry. Don’t get me wrong. The adoptive parents I know are overwhelmingly wonderful, kind, generous people. In some cases, I know people who have intentionally sought out vulnerable kids less likely to be adopted because of disability, age, or other traits. I have nothing but admiration for them. Particularly the ones who have taken on teens, which are extremely difficult to find homes for. 

But. But there is a tremendous demand for certain types of kid. Namely, infants. Particularly healthy infants with blue eyes and light skin. Get one of these in the system under circumstances where a parent lacks the financial clout to fight, isn’t pretty. But infants of all sorts are like this. In super high demand. Wealthy(ish) American parents have gone all over the world seeking adoptable infants now that a combination of readily available birth control, abortion, and more parents choosing to keep children conceived out of wedlock has reduced the “supply” of adoptable infants locally. The days when teen girls would get “in trouble” and quietly disappear for a few months, while a couple got to adopt a cute little baby have largely passed. Which I think drives the adoption industry to find other “sources.” 

Wrapped up with this is a definite entitlement complex among wealthy infertile couples. The idea of accepting that they won’t be parents seems somehow unamerican or something. If you have money, of course you can buy a child from somewhere. And of course children are better off growing up with money than in poverty, right? So what if we have to destroy another family, right?

The bottom line is this: adoption is a response to a catastrophic failure - a horrible tragedy. In the natural course of things, families should stay together. Back in the old days, genuine orphans were more common. Disease killed people in their youth: it was a fact of life. But even back then, many - perhaps most - “orphans” had living parents. Who were too poor to feed them. (For more about this, I suggest reading How To Create the Perfect Wife by Wendy Moore.) This is still the pattern in much of the developing world. And all too often the case here too. 

We need to start thinking about preventing the failure first - keeping families together, even though that will cost money - rather than just removing children from their families. Yes, this will require a different approach to poverty. One less punitive. One that doesn’t criminalize poverty. One where threatening to tear children away from their parents isn’t considered a reasonable response to unpaid school lunch fees. (I really wish I were making that up.) Sure, some tragedies will not be fixable. But some are, and we don’t seem to care. And yes, this will indeed reduce the number of cute adoptable infants. Wealthy infertile couples will have to learn to accept that money can’t buy everything. 

Moving on to the surrogacy issue. Pregnancy is no joke. It has its risks, to be sure. And it can incapacitate a woman for months if something is not quite right - or even sometimes if it is. So, it should be zero surprise that people generally do not wish to endure pregnancy for no reason. For most, obviously, the goal is a child. 

But what about surrogates? If pregnancy were something people did for fun, there surely would be a long line of women offering to carry children for others for free. It turns out that isn’t the case. There are willing surrogates….for the right price. 

Let’s be honest here. Surrogates (except for the rare family member) are overwhelmingly lower income young women, for whom the financial incentive compensates for the risk and discomfort. And those who are renting wombs are overwhelmingly - probably exclusively - people with significant money to pay the price. Mia clearly would not have done so had she not felt she had few if any other options to finish school. And this is the general pattern with surrogates, if you look at the appellate cases on the issue. Womb rental is a thing because of inequality, and would largely disappear in a more equal society. 

Sorry for the rant on this, but this is something that has seriously stuck in my craw, to the point where I considered writing a post just on this issue. Probably in connection with the Abortion Wars™, which are driven in part by a desire to have a larger supply of cute white babies available for adoption. (Sorry, that’s the inconvenient truth.) 

This theme of motherhood - and what makes a person a mother - is a central theme, certainly. How much does blood matter? How much does relationship matter? Who do children truly “belong” to anyway? 

The other theme, which I also found to be highly relevant, was the question of trying to follow the perfect formula. I grew up in a subculture that was trying ever so hard to find the perfect formula to guarantee that the kids would turn out perfectly. (Which included, unfortunately, the desire that the kids turn out to be theological, political, and cultural clones.) From homeschooling to Gothard’s cult to the endless “worldview” and “apologetics” classes, everything was geared toward the formula. It’s not just Fundie Evangelicalism, of course. Ng writes the book to look at progressive liberal upper-middle-class formulae specifically. It is certainly a 21st Century American obsession - and probably a human tendency in general. 

Like Elena, though, for so many of my parents’ generation, it has come to pass that the formula didn’t work. Instead of the perfect life, there is a trail of damaged relationships, disappointed expectations, and trauma. Life happens. Children are born (like Izzy) in medically fragile states. Like Izzy, they often fail to have the compliant personalities parents crave. (For what it’s worth, I am temperamentally a cross between Moody - the guy the girls ignored, despite being intelligent and caring - and Izzy, perpetually fighting against both injustice and authoritarian expectations. Because I am like Moody, I never considered burning it all down. But because I am like Izzy, I chose to follow my own path - away from the formulae and expectations - when I was old enough to do so. I think I am a bizarre combination of rule-follower and rule-breaker. 

It is in this that the book hits on some truths. Mia and Pearl do find themselves having to reevaluate their relationship, and rebuild it on a foundation of truth. But because of the history of love and acceptance, they have something to work with. In contrast, Elena wants to find Izzy, and fix things. But sorry, that will never happen. Izzy has determined to keep running away until she no longer has to come back. And someday, she will leave and never, ever see Elena again. Because Elena has destroyed that relationship beyond repair. 

And Elena doesn’t even know (even at the end) the full truth about her kids. She has no idea that Lexie got pregnant and had an abortion. (Using Pearl’s name to avoid discovery - Elena knows an administrator at the clinic.) Elana has no idea why Moody reacted like he did, or that Trip is sleeping his way through the school. She has focused on her perfect life, at the expense of her relationships. And yes, that hits really, really close to home for me. 

One incident that really shed light on a number of interesting dynamics was the abortion. When Lexie discovers she is pregnant (having been...not as careful as she was raised to be), she doesn’t tell her boyfriend Brian outright. Rather, she uses hypotheticals to gauge his reaction. She is inclined to keep the child. After all, she has a support system, including a mom who can do child care while she goes to college locally. They can marry eventually, and, no big deal right? Money makes everything easier. (And yes, I knew quite a few middle class white kids back in my teens who did just that. And in some cases, married someone other than the father later. Money did make for options…) 

But Brian has an unexpected (for Lexie) reaction. He points out (correctly) that the consequences for him would be rather different. He may come from a middle class home, but the script for him is different because of race. He isn’t the pretty white girl who made a mistake and should be supported. He is every negative stereotype of the African American male. He knocked up a white girl. He got a girl pregnant in high school rather than focusing on his education and career. He will be the bad guy no matter what, no matter what they do. Society will judge him in a way that it will never judge Lexie. Ng gets this precisely right. 

Here is a story to illustrate it. When I was in my mid teens, we attended a multicultural charismatic church for a few years (before moving away.) There were a lot of good things there, and I have kept a number of friends from there. Because it was in a working-class neighborhood (although it was still the most economically diverse church I have attended), there were multiple cultural dynamics (for lack of a better term) at play. Like the population at large, young people had sex. And there were shotgun weddings, because that was how Christians tended to handle things. I’m sure there were plenty of abortions too, but those were kept secret. And, to be fair, some of those marriages are together today, so I don’t mean to sound judgy. Life happened. 

But I noticed an interesting dynamic in one case. A young African American man liked to date white young women. When he eventually got one pregnant and they married, the talk was just...different than it was when it was any other racial combination. (And there was a LOT of interracial marriage and dating - this was Los Angeles in the 1990s, not the 1940s.) While it wasn’t exactly said out loud, people like my parents strongly implied that this was why white girls shouldn’t date black boys. Ouch. 

So, Lexie, realizing that this pregnancy was not going to have a happy ending, goes and gets an abortion without telling her parents. She enlists Pearl to drive her, and ends up crashing for a few nights with Pearl and Mia, as she is in more pain than she expected. Unlike her own parents, Mia is sympathetic and caring - no matter what. Now, admittedly, it is generally easier to handle sensitive stuff outside the dynamic of one’s family. (One reason I believe kids should have people they love and trust other than their parents in their lives.) Some things hit too close to family dynamics. But there is no doubt why Lexie goes elsewhere when things go wrong for her. Her mistake would upset the perfect vision Elena has of the family, and Lexie won’t risk that. Izzy, on the other hand…

There is so much more one can say about this. Mia’s photography is another metaphor, I believe. As my perceptive wife pointed out, when Mia is first learning her craft, she shoots long (yet detailed) shots of her brother and his friends. Later, moving in with Pearl, she takes a mid-range shot with Pearl and a bed frame. By the end, she has taken careful photographs of close up - macro - range for each of the Richardsons, in which she captures their personality through carefully arranged objects. Amanda felt that this represented Mia (and Pearl’s) move to build relationships in Shaker Heights. 

The story has so many details that Ng gets so right, from older vehicles to thrift shopping to city planning to photographic technique. And yes, the legal stuff, which is so rare in media. Our book club has people with different areas of expertise, and all of us found that the details were correct in our realms of knowledge. Ng either draws on a wide range herself, or researched things well. Probably both. 

I know I am forgetting something I want to say, but that’s how it goes with blogging. I will end with a quote that really sums up so much. It comes from Bill’s sudden understanding of Elena, and her reasons why her wealthy friend “deserves” the baby, and Bebe - the biological mother - does not. It sounds so very much like the typical middle-to-upper-class view of poverty. It is something that transcends the liberal/conservative divide, and gets to the heart of the American myth: that karma is real, we get exactly what we deserve, and success isn’t privilege, it is fully and completely earned. 

For her it was simple: Bebe Chow had been a poor mother; Linda McCullough had been a good one. One had followed the rules, and one had not. 

Except that, as Bill, who is a good lawyer, realizes, it isn’t that simple. Often, there isn’t a “right way” and a “wrong way.” There are just different ways. And society makes its choices about which ways to punish - often brutally. And those choices aren’t made in a vacuum. Circumstances limit our choices, and society’s rules are inextricably bound up with our history of racism and oppression of minorities. Which is why there is a racial and economic element to our views of “good” and “bad” parenting - and choices in general. 

The thing with Elena is, she believes she is a good person. And to a degree, she is. She certainly isn’t the Trumpian sort, openly racist and xenophobic, intending harm to others. She goes out of her way, in many ways - just like the integrationists of Shaker Heights - to make the world a better place. But she doesn’t “get” what it is like to be poor. Or an immigrant. Or someone faced with an impossible choice like Bebe. It has always been easy for her to follow the rules. And money has had a lot to do with that. Just like that money protects Lexie in a way that it does not protect Pearl, even though Lexie is the one who actually had an abortion, not Pearl. 

Recently, I read a fascinating article by the wonderful Morgan Guyton. It is mostly about theological issues (which matter to me), but which contained a line which seemed so very appropriate here. Guyton is a Progressive Christian (although I hate that term - I think “Christian” works better, because conservative Evangelicalism these days is really just anti-Christianity) so he is concerned with political liberals. But I think it applies doubly to conservatives who fancy themselves compassionate, while seeking to brutally punish anyone who fails to completely comply with complicated and cruel rules. (See: immigration) It gets to the heart of the difference between those who truly see the impoverished and vulnerable as not just equals, but the moral superiors of those with wealth; and those who condescend to occasionally help the less fortunate, but don’t actually wish to empathize. 

“I’m always listening for whether a particular theology sounds like solidarity with the marginalized or rich liberal angst.” 

This is ultimately Elena’s problem. She has a LOT of rich liberal angst. But she is fundamentally incapable of understanding her own privilege, let alone the lives of those without it. She has no framework to understand why a parent would give up a child - because she has no experience of starvation, and can’t find it in herself to put herself in Bebe’s shoes. She has no framework to understand Mia, because she never had to make a hard choice. Her education was paid for, and she had a clear path to “follow the rules. And that is why she becomes unspeakably cruel to Mia at the end. Never mind that Mia has basically saved Elena’s ass on multiple occasions (the abortion is just one example), or that Mia has even agreed to accept that “liberal angst” motivated charity that Elena offers, because it helps Pearl make friends. Mia didn’t follow the rules, and thus she is fair game for harsh punishment. Basically, Elena is fine with uprooting Pearl, forcing Mia to move away again, and ruin the friendships her children have with Mia and Pearl, because of her misplaced view of the rules. It is her privilege and liberal angst, not any genuine interior compassion which motivates her. The “little people,” Mia, Pearl, and Bebe, are disposable. 

One kind of hopes that when her family implodes in dramatic fashion that Elena will learn something. From my own experience, I am doubtful. But that too is life. It’s messy, and you make the best of what you have. 

This was definitely a thought provoking book, and one which stirred up some emotions I wasn’t expecting, in addition to hitting on issues directly connected with my legal practice. Ng is able to put her finger on some of the unspoken biases in our society (both the worship of individualism and the punishment of those who choose that path), and bring out the complexities that we keep trying to reduce to black and white. 

Friday, August 16, 2019

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

Source of book: I own this.

I have a small hardback of this short novel, from Fall River Press, translated by Katja Pelzer. 

Siddhartha is one of those books that is considered an essential classic, but that few seem to have read. While it was published in Germany in 1922, it didn’t make an impact in America until the English language translation was published in 1951. This was ideal timing, as it was at the dawn of an era of interest in Eastern philosophy and religion. The book became one of the most influential writings during the 1960s. 

Hermann Hesse was himself a Buddhist, although he was raised by Pietist Christian parents - he later said that their genuine and humble faith - “not preached but lived” - was a tremendous influence on him. 

Siddhartha is the story of a life’s journey by the title character. Siddhartha is born into a Brahman family, and is so intelligent that his parents believe he will become a saint. This doesn’t exactly happen (or at least doesn’t happen until near the end of Siddhartha’s life.) Siddhartha leaves home to become a Samana, meets the Buddha, hooks up with a courtesan, makes a fortune, becomes disillusioned, and finally finds peace by listening to an old man and the river. 

Although translations can obscure the original a bit, I think Pelzer captured the simple and straightforward style of the original. 

A couple of quotes were interesting to me. For much of the novel, Siddhartha struggles to figure out what to do with the self. As a Samana, he is expected to punish the self, to cut the self off, so to speak. Later as he seeks pleasure, he finds the self disgusts him. A key turning point occurs as he notes that the senses (the flesh, perhaps) are not the self, but neither is the life of the mind.

But he had never really found this Self, for he had tried to capture it in the net of thoughts. Just as the Self was certainly not the body, and not the play of senses, it was also not thought, not the mind, not learned wisdom, not the learned art of drawing conclusions and spinning new thoughts out of old ones. No, even this world of thoughts was still on this side, and no goal could be reached by killing off the arbitrary Self of the senses while fattening the arbitrary Self of thoughts and scholarliness. Both were to be listened to, both were to be played with, both were neither to be condemned nor overvalued; from both, the secret voices of the innermost core were to be heard. 

This was fascinating to me, because of my own religious background. It is a Western thing, perhaps, but my religious tradition is deeply suspicious of the body and of the senses. (Particularly anything connected to sexuality, but pleasures in general.) This leads to an intellectualizing of one’s faith, making it a faith of “believing the right things,” and not a faith of a lived experience in community with the vulnerable. The other result, though, is a traumatic separation of the body and the senses from the “true self,” which is “spiritual” - meaning intellectual. For those of us who feel deeply, and experience transcendence in things like music and poetry and the beauty of nature, this was always a difficult thing - and it felt like a violation to be expected to divorce the parts of our inner being. (I imagine it is far worse for those who don’t have the advantage of being cishet, and thus literally have their nature set at war with their faith.) 

I’m not sure Siddhartha (or Hesse) ever finds a convincing answer to the nature of the self, but at least they acknowledge the question of how to live with one’s whole being. 

The second passage was fascinating for a similar reason. As an old man, Siddhartha is reunited with his childhood friend, Govinda, who left to follow Gautama. Govinda is disappointed that Siddhartha seems to have gained some insight, but can’t share it. I think, though, that Siddhartha is on the right track when he explains that words and ideas tend to get in the way - they intellectualize what must be lived. 

“You see, my Govinda, this is one of the thoughts that I have found: Wisdom cannot be conveyed. Wisdom that a wise man attempts to convey always sounds like foolishness....I am saying what I have found. One can convey knowledge, but not wisdom. One can find it, one can live it, one can be carried by it, one can do wonders with it, but one cannot speak or teach it.” 

This kind of captures the essence of the book. Wisdom (or faith, or a life well lived, or however you wish to put it) isn’t an intellectual exercise. It requires the whole self. It can be lived, it can be found, it can change your life. But you can’t reduce it to words or a set of beliefs or a formula. Likewise, one learns from others more by example than by teaching. Just like Hesse and his parents.

There were a few sour notes in the book. The main one concerns the role of women. Which is: not much, and not positive. Siddhartha’s mother gets a brief mention, but his main relationship is with his father. His best friend is Govinda - another boy and then man. The riverboat operator becomes the final path to enlightenment - and he too is male. The merchant Kamaswami, who teaches Siddhartha in the ways of commerce, is male. 

It is the courtesan, Kamala, who instructs him in the ways of love. But this isn’t presented as the most positive thing. It seems a bit like the stereotype of the wanton woman who seduces the man from his higher pursuits. And, conveniently, she dies, leaving Siddhartha with their son. She is given less character development than the male characters, and seems to be known for her beauty, and her ability to attract rich men to support her. She could have been so much more. 

I also felt that the final resolution was a bit trite. I will concede that I am reading this from a very Western point of view, that I am not particularly well versed in Buddhism so I am likely missing some of the reference points, and that the triteness is probably because Hesse has been imitated by many lesser artists in the 70 years since. It is certainly possible that the “everything is connected” insight felt fresher then. Although, come to think of it, there are plenty of people today who could use that insight. 

Siddhartha is a thoughtful book, and was pleasant to read. I think it also helps to understand the popular versions of Eastern mysticism that took off in the 60s. Like most things we Americans have appropriated from other cultures, it lacked context and got watered down a bit. But elements permeated our own culture to the point where we don’t even notice them these days. It is in elucidating these hidden bits of borrowed culture that the book is most enlightening, although Siddhartha’s journey is compelling in its own way. 


Siddhartha's quest reminds me so much of one of U2's greatest songs ever. 

Monday, August 12, 2019

Oregon as a Microcosm of our Divided Nation

Beginning with a trip to Crater Lake in 2016, followed by our eclipse trip in 2017, and ending this spring with a road trip to Portland and Seattle, I have had a bit of the grand tour of the state of Oregon. The combination of the trips gave me an interesting view of a state which is deeply politically divided, and seems in some ways to be a microcosm of the nation as a whole. I actually wrote some of this back in 2017 after the eclipse trip, but put it aside. Our trip this year really brought home to me the contrast, and I decided to write a bit about it. 

Oregon has an...interesting history with race. To be blunt, Oregon has a long history of excluding African Americans. Way back to the 1840s, Oregon had laws which prohibited blacks from living there. Oregon entered the union as the only “no-blacks” state. This racism eventually became enshrined in the state constitution. While the 14th Amendment effectively overruled it, the clause remained on the books until 1926. Oregon didn’t acknowledge the right of blacks to vote until 1959. It didn’t ratify the freaking 14th Amendment until...wait for it...1973, nearlt a decade after desegregation. Furthermore, other racist language in the constitution was not removed until...wait for it...2002. This contributed to Oregon remaining a very lily-white state to this day. Only 2% of the population is black, and Oregon remained over 90% white well into the 1990s. (The last couple of decades, this has shifted quite a bit, which I suspect has made the eastern - whiter - part of the state very uncomfortable…) Portland is by a significant margin, the whitest large city in the US, although this too is changing. 

Once you get out of the major cities, though, Oregon is painfully white. On our eclipse trip, I was really struck by just how white it was. I think we saw a few latinos working at service jobs, but just a handful. And I saw one black person. One. At the eclipse viewing site. And he drove up from another state. 

During my childhood (and even my adulthood), I have known quite a few people who moved to Oregon, typically as part of “white flight.” These days, they tend to go to Idaho, which, outside of Boise, has kind of become THE destination for white nationalists. (It isn’t an accident that Mark Fuhrman ended up there. Or that Doug Wilson has his compound there.) But a few decades ago, Oregon was that destination for conservative whites fleeing diversity. 

I have come to realize that I just feel out of place a bit in an all-white society. I have never lived in an overwhelmingly homogenous place. The neighborhoods I grew up in were mostly minority, and Bakersfield is gloriously diverse, with vibrant hispanic, Filipino, Korean, Sikh, Hindu, and Muslim communities. I take for granted that I will come in contact with a wide range of people on any given day, and they aren’t segregated into categories like Latina maid, African American janitor, etc. I’ll sit next to a Muslim American watching a Mexican American woman sing a Joe Walsh tune while an older Filipino couple dances. That’s America as I know it. So eastern Oregon just felt, well, weird. And that is before you get to the other challenge, which is finding food. It is hard to quantify it, but the presence of legitimate “foreign” food makes everyone up their game. Los Angeles isn’t just a Mecca for foods from around the world; the genres cross pollinate and mix and everything is just to a higher standard. A certain political figure or two may not realize it, but a taco truck on every corner makes for a better world. 

Contrast this with Portland, which felt much more familiar. Although Portland is pretty white for a major city, it has growing minority and immigrant populations, and a gratifyingly broad range of culture - and food. We had an absolutely fantastic meal at a Lebanese restaurant, in addition to legit Banh Mi. Go to a park, and there are kids of all ethnicities, just like in CA. 

Portland is also loudly progressive. We took a walking tour of Bevery Cleary’s neighborhood (yes, I loved the books growing up), and literally every other house had a Pride flag (it was Pride Month), a Black Lives Matter sign, or other signal of pushback against the racism and hatred of Trump and the GOP. Most common, perhaps, is a Portland phenomenon that I love: the “In Our America” sign. I have one of these as a sticker on my trailer. 

One of the houses Beverly Clearly lived in as a kid. Note the sign...

Here is the sign. We have a sticker on our trailer. If you want one, you can get them at
Nasty Women Get Shit Done. And you should.

As a Californian, this level of political activity is a bit foreign. Certainly San Francisco is more liberal than Portland, but you don’t see the same quantity of signs. And certainly not in Los Angeles either. (For what it is worth, Seattle is also aggressively liberal. At least now that “opposing racism, xenophobia, and bigotry” has come to mean “liberal.”) 

As I was contemplating this, I started to think that maybe the open activism of Portland (and Seattle) has a bit to do with the way the rural parts of Oregon (and Washington) are. In contrast to the cities, rural Oregon has a lot in common with my part of California (Kern County is known as the “Texas of California” because of our oil and redneckery.) Except, because rural Oregon is blindingly white, there isn’t the counterweight. 

For example, certain wealthy farmers in my neck of the woods have giant shrines to Trump. I mean, huge - the size of a city lot. I use the word “shrine” intentionally, because this is very much idol worship. He is their god. 

Eastern Oregon has the same thing. We drove by shrine after shrine after shrine. But there was a difference. Because central CA has a large hispanic (and east and south Asian) population, there are counterweights. Pro-immigrant signs. Anti-hate signs. Billboards for Mexican and Indian and Thai restaurants. Spanish and Punjabi language advertisements. Everywhere you go in California, you will be rubbing shoulders with people of all colors and origins. It’s a beautiful thing.

Not so much in Eastern Oregon. Instead, I saw far too many aggressively racist and xenophobic signs to go with the Trump shrines. (This is not a coincidence.) Without the counterweight to lend some shame to open bigots, they get to be as loud as they want. 

In recent years, this division has become even more stark, and even troubling. At the same time that Portland (and Seattle - while I don’t know rural Washington well, I think there are similarities) has embraced social activism, neo-Nazi groups like the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer have chosen Oregon as a sort of headquarters. (Possibly because of the relaxed gun laws.) 

Of interest to me in this context is the fact that law enforcement seems increasingly sympathetic these days to openly white supremacist ideas and groups. In the case of Portland, there is solid evidence of completely inappropriate coordination between far right groups and the police. Because left-leaning groups doubt that they will be protected by police, some are arming themselves. I don’t feel particularly great about this development - it would be much better if the Proud Boys were treated like the terrorist group they are, rather than coddled by sympathetic cops. But if you don’t have that, well…I believe this state of affairs is unsustainable, and sooner or later, there will be substantial changes in Portland. There is already significant pushback

These are basically my impressions from our three trips to Oregon. Obviously, I don’t live there, and can’t have a truly complete knowledge of the local nuances. However, I can and have observed what Oregonians themselves choose to say about themselves. There does seem to be a deep divide, more exaggerated than elsewhere perhaps, but similar to the divide in our country. In my view, the divide is exacerbated by the long history of racial exclusion, leading to large portions of the state with few non-whites. In line with human nature, we fear and hate most those we do not know. The cosmopolitan and diverse cities increasingly embrace diversity - racial, ethnic, national origin, and sexual orientation and gender identity. The rural areas continue to lose their young people, alienate minorities, and become increasingly angry and bigoted. This is what we have seen across the country, as rural whites have taken their legitimate grievances, and turned them into vicious hatred directed at immigrants and non-whites. 

It was an interesting experience visiting. While most places in California (with the exception of a few rural counties in northeastern CA that are indistinguishable from eastern Oregon - or even rural Idaho) feel like home in some way, Oregon was different. I could absolutely enjoy living in Portland, with its diversity and multiculturalism. But even Eugene was disturbingly white, at least where we were. I mean, literally, all the people at a park concert were white - you would never see that in Bakersfield. And rural Oregon, for all its natural beauty (which is considerable!) and outdoor opportunities, made California’s more conservative cities (like Bakersfield) seem like beacons of progressivism and diversity. I mean, we have our racist asshats and horrible politicians (hello, Kevin McCarthy, hands down the absolute worst representative I have ever had), but there are competing voices too. We had an “unexpectedly large” protest over immigrant detentions, our women’s march was vibrant and large, and those of us marching have seen support from our local law enforcement. We may have more than our share of Confederate Battle Flags flown by redneck dude-bros. But the other voices are louder and more organized. And, um, “demographics” are changing. Because Bakersfield (and other cities in the central valley) are affordable by California standards, young people are moving in. And they aren’t just white either. It is easy to see Kern County go the way of Orange County - and turn blue. 

In the case of Oregon, one wonders what the future will hold. It seems like the cities will continue to grow, and grow more diverse. Will the rural areas wither? Or become more and more radicalized and racist as they lose influence and power? It will be interesting to see. It is beyond the scope of this post to discuss the decline of rural America - and the ways that it is committing suicide - but I hope to make that a future post. 

Friday, August 9, 2019

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

Source of book: I own this, but we listened to it on audiobook

Years ago, in my teens, The Moonstone was the first Wilkie Collins book I read. After that came The Woman In White, because we owned it. A few years later, I was given two additional books by my violin teacher’s husband. (He had extra paperbacks he didn’t need - and introduced me to P. G. Wodehouse and Anthony Trollope as well.) Those two were Armadale, and my favorite Collins, No Name

We had a couple of long road trips planned for this year, so I got the audiobook version (narrated by Peter Jeffrey, who does a good job of making the Victorian language flow, as well as distinguishing between the different narrators and characters.) The reviews from the kids were mixed. Some found it interesting, others not so much. Win some, lose some.

First a bit about the book itself. The Moonstone is generally considered the first true detective novel. True, Poe wrote a couple of short stories which had many of the elements. And Sarah Burney’s novel, The Hermitage lent some key elements to Collins’ plot. But it really was The Moonstone that brought all the elements together, and would go on to influence detective stories from the Sherlock Holmes books on down. 

The Moonstone follows a common Collins pattern in that the story is told by multiple narrators. In this case, the story is set up by the hero, Franklin Blake, who asks the other characters to tell the part of the story they have personal knowledge of. He himself contributes a section as well. No knock on Franklin, but he is the straight man, so the other narrations are more amusing than his, although all of them serve to illuminate the plot - and eventually the mystery. 

The plot itself is a classic: a mysterious diamond, the Moonstone, is stolen from its Hindu shrine by an unscrupulous British officer. From then on, it appears to be followed by a curse, with evil (and often death) pursuing those who possess it. This history is told through the eyes of close associates of the thief as well as those who inherit the diamond. When the main story opens, the reclusive owner of the stone leaves the diamond to his niece, Rachel Verinder, and Franklin is tasked with delivering it to her. She wears the diamond at a party, and it is seen by all, including the three mysterious Indians who are undoubtedly determined to return it to India. 

That night, the diamond disappears, and the best efforts of the local police are insufficient to solve the mystery. Franklin calls in the renowned detective, Sergeant Cuff (a precursor of both Holmes and Joe Friday, so to speak), who presents his theory, but cannot completely solve the case. 

 Sergeant Cuff investigates...

Later, it becomes clear that the moonstone has been placed in a bank vault in London, pledged by an unknown person to a shady moneylender. But who? And how did he or she get the diamond? 

The story is told in turn by three main narrators. The first section is told by Gabriel Betteridge, the Verinder’s head servant, and one of the most delightful characters in Victorian fiction. He is obsessed with Robinson Crusoe, which he believes to be an oracle, a cross between the Bible and Nostradamus. It is his comfort, his guide, and his inspiration. Which he is eager to inflict on those around him. He is also a bit of a misogynist, having had a rather unpleasant marriage, and finding relief in his wife’s death. But, he is loyal, perceptive, and observant, which makes him an excellent servant and a useful narrator. He isn’t exactly a reliable narrator, as he is openly biased, but his attention to detail allows Collins to set the stage with most of the clues needed using just his story. 

The narrative next shifts to Drusilla Clack, Rachel’s impoverished cousin. Miss Clack is a puritanical sort, who pushes her religious beliefs on others with a rather assaultive fervor. 

The final narrator is Franklin Blake, who gets to explain his own investigation into the mystery. He has a particularly personal interest, as he is in love with Rachel, yet she appears to hate him - while refusing to explain why. 

There are other, shorter sections, essentially narrated by other characters: Mr. Bruff, the family attorney; Ezra Jennings, the doctor’s assistant; and Mr. Murthwaite, an adventurer who tells the epilogue. 

While it is pretty tough to spoil a 150 year old book, I will refrain from revealing the solution to the mystery. Suffice it to say that the essential elements of the British tradition of detective story are mostly in place. The “inside job,” the red herring, the bumbling local police, the celebrated investigator, the least likely suspect, and the final twist. It is in bringing all of them together - and in the skillful plotting and writing - that Collins came to be considered the first to do it. 

A couple of things only marginally related to the plot itself stood out. The most notable is the use of opium and addiction. Collins himself became an opium addict, and wrote certain sections of this book from experience. This may have contributed to its sales, as dramatic and lurid opium dreams were all the rage at the time. 

Second, although Victorian literature as a rule (and English Victorian literature in particular) tends to be colonialist and casually racist, I was struck by how little stereotyping Collins did. (For its era - obviously it would have been written very differently today.) The Indians - the three Brahmans tasked with recovering the Moonstone - may be “exotic” in some ways, but they are not savages. Rather, they are skilled at blending in, shapeshifting as necessary to accomplish their goals. Collins also portrays their goals as noble: it is the British officer who has stolen the gem, after all. Sure, the Indians may be ruthless and even murderous, but they are morally consistent and admirable in their own way. 

Third, Collins is a master of obliquely discussing female “purity” in subversive ways, even while maintaining plausible deniability. The Moonstone is a bit of an obvious stand in for virginity, and Rachel’s decision to refuse to defend her own honor is fascinating. Indeed, she feels insulted that she should have to. This is hardly the only Collins book to go there - indeed, the question of purity (and the hypocrisy and double standards of Victorian society) runs through many of his books. His heroines refuse to conform to nice submissive stereotypes. They fight for what is theirs, they pursue love - and money - as they wish. They take risks that only men were allowed to take. The decline to play the game. 

The fourth observation is that Collins had a real eye for the swindlers of his era. No Name skewers medical cons as well as financial. In The Moonstone, it is religious hucksterism in its fundamentalist form that Collins takes on. Collins was religious, but rather unorthodox in his personal life. (He eschewed marriage, choosing instead to live with a woman and raise her daughter as his own, while having a second mistress and three children with her.) He had no patience, however, for Puritans and their determination to create labyrinths of rules. To this end, he lets Miss Clack have enough leash to humiliate herself in her attempts to convert others. Here are some highlights from that. 

I sat down in the hall to wait for my answer--and having always a few tracts in my bag, I selected one which proved to be quite providentially applicable to the person who answered the door. The hall was dirty, and the chair was hard; but the blessed consciousness of returning good for evil raised me quite above any trifling considerations of that kind. The tract was one of a series addressed to young women on the sinfulness of dress. In style it was devoutly familiar. Its title was, “A Word with you on your Cap-Ribbons.”

Betteridge’s daughter, Penelope, to whom the tract was directed, gives an acid response:

She looked at the title. “Is it written by a man or a woman, Miss? If it’s written by a woman, I had rather not read it on that account. If it’s written by a man, I beg to inform him that he knows nothing about it.” 

Yep, the more things change...there is no end of the policing of female clothing. Hey, I wrote a whole series on that! It is pretty hard to disagree with Penelope’s response. MYOB. 

Later in the narrative, Miss Clack tries desperately to convert Rachel’s dying mother with more and more and more books and tracts and sermons. 

Here was a golden opportunity! I seized it on the spot. In other words, I instantly opened my bag, and took out the top publication. It proved to be an early edition--only the twenty-fifth--of the famous anonymous work (believed to be by the precious Miss Bellows), entitled The Serpent at Home. The design of the book--with which the worldly reader may not be acquainted--is to show how the Evil One lies in wait for us in all the most apparently innocent actions of our daily lives. The chapters best adapted to female perusal are “Satan in the Hair-Brush”; “Satan behind the Looking-Glass”; “Satan under the Tea-Table”; “Satan out of the Window”;--and many others. 
“Give all your attention, dear aunt, to this precious book--and you will give me all I ask.” With these words, I handed it to her open, at a marked passage--one continuous burst of burning eloquence! Subject: Satan among the Sofa Cushions.

One wonders if Bill Gothard and Jack Chick took inspiration from this. So many demons lurking in the corners of everyday life. I’d laugh a bit more heartily if I hadn’t had to live through too much of this - and hadn’t been handed the equivalent of these books to convince my wife of the joys of patriarchy. Sigh. Nothing new under the sun, though. 

One final observation. Collins has tremendous sympathy for the outcasts of society, and takes care to show that often our prejudices against people have to do with their appearances, or their socioeconomic status. Rosanna has done time for theft, but is hired by the Verinders, who look past her past. But she is never completely out of suspicion, in significant part because she is deformed. Her tragic end contrasts with the way Godfrey is assumed to be good because of his genteel birth, his charitable work, and his slick manners. Oh, and his handsome face. The lame Lucy is suspected of madness or malevolence because of her deformity as well. Ezra Jennings is a particularly good example. Jennings has a mysterious past which is hinted at, but not stated. Probably, he has an illegitimate child to support, but this is merely an educated guess. He is also of uncertain race, being apparently of mixed heritage. He also describes himself as having a “female constitution,” and being somewhere between male and female. Whether Collins means to hint at intersexuality, homosexuality, or merely some “defect” in “manliness” is unclear. Whatever the case, Jennings is ugly, and thus distrusted and hated by everyone. In each of these cases, though, appearances are deceiving. Rosanna has her demons, but she is ultimately more generous and kind than you would think. Lucy is fiercely loyal and good hearted. And Jennings turns out to be one of the most scrupulously moral and decent people in the book. Godfrey...well, you will have to read the book to find out his fate. 

You never truly know sometimes how a book you enjoyed as a kid or teen will age. There have been a few which were disappointing to re-read as an adult. (Looking at you, H. Rider Haggard…) Others turn out to be even better than remembered. (As in The Great Brain or anything by Beverly Cleary.) I can say, however, having re-read two Wilkie Collins books, that he has aged well. The plots are tight, the characters memorable, the writing good. And, while still of an era, they are less sexist and racist than I feared - Collins humanizes his characters too well for that. The Moonstone is rightly considered a classic.