Sunday, October 28, 2012

An Economist Gets Lunch by Tyler Cowen

Source of Book: Borrowed from the library

I didn’t really intend to read another food related book so soon after The American Way of Eating, but my wife already had this checked out, and liked it. I figured I might as well read it while we still had it.

Tyler Cowen is a professor of economics at George Mason University, writes for a number of publications, professional and general, and has two blogs: one about economics, and one about food.

Cowen’s concept in this book is a little unclear. The subtitle is “New Rules for Everyday Foodies,” but the book doesn’t really contain rules as much as his concepts of what makes good food and how to find it, combined with some of his ideas on the economics of food. This does not mean that the book is mediocre, exactly. On the contrary, it is interesting, informative, accurate for the most part, and is improved by its lack of a solid “point.” One of my complaints about many modern non-fiction books is the need that the publishers feel to make the book have a moral, or a solution to the problems presented, or some singular focus. Often, the best thing a book can do is present a compelling story or issue, give some information regarding the problem that is probably not familiar to the reader, and let the reader draw a conclusion.

In a book like this, where the aim of the reader is to discover something about food and economics, the last thing needed is a list of hard and fast “rules” that probably will not work for the reader in every situation. Instead, this book is full of stories and thoughts on how the writer found good food around the world, which makes for an interesting read by itself, and gave me some ideas for future travel.

I will confess that I am a foodie. I have cooked ever since I was around seven or eight, and still needed a chair to see the top of the stove. By ten or so, I was cooking an occasional meal with just a little supervision, and started cooking for my family a few times a month in my teens. I informed my wife when we were contemplating marriage that we would have to share the kitchen, and that I expected to cook regularly. As it turns out, we are both happy with an even split of the cooking - and we certainly eat well as a result. Cooking and eating are both important to my life, and I find that food draws people together.

The combination of my love for food and my inherent cheapness - I *cough* mean frugality - I have generally aimed to find food with value when I eat out. There is the occasional splurge, but I try to find out-of-the-way places with interesting and unusual food.

The author of this book has largely the same idea, and has made it his aim in this book to show how to find inexpensive but highly delicious food.

The basic rule that he sets out is this:

Food is a product of economic supply and demand, so try to figure out where the supplies are fresh, the suppliers are creative, and the demanders are informed.

The rest of his suggestions follow from this idea. If there is only one Chinese restaurant in town, and few Chinese patrons, the food is likely terrible, for example. This one is certainly true. Conversely, good seafood is typically found next to the ocean, where there is plenty of competition, and more locals than tourists.

Some of his specific suggestions were spot on. I live near enough to the Los Angeles area (where I grew up) to be able to eat in the “Thai Town” section of east Hollywood. The author recommends this area, and he is certainly right. I have never had Thai food that good anywhere - except the times I have had home made food from friends.

Also following from the basic rule is that social status in a restaurant brings a price, both monetary and culinary. Once a restaurant has a reputation of a place to meet others and hob-nob, it has less incentive to keep the food good. The patrons have a different goal than good, inexpensive food.

Along with this argument is the idea of “price subsidies.” In the “old days,” airline fares were fixed by law, so competition was on service only. Thus, the high fixed ticket prices subsidized the cost of good food. Likewise, Starbucks (and similar businesses) can be a good source of high-quality coffee, subsidized by the more expensive sugary drinks.

In addition to the sections of the book devoted to the tips for the pursuit of good food, there are also interesting sections on other areas in which economics and gastronomy intersect.

Cowen seeks to disprove the three great myths of food snobbery. First, that the best food is also the most expensive. This is related to the idea that only “slow food” is best. Second, that large agribusiness is irredeemably bad. Third, that consumers not a trusted source of innovation, but must be controlled and nudged by various “experts,” particularly those in political office. This review doesn’t have the space for Cowen’s arguments, but they are worth a read.

Some of these arguments, naturally, get a little political. Depending on one’s views, his ideas will be more or less persuasive. In any event, they are thought provoking, and are based in economic theory, so they are not particularly partisan arguments.

Two examples are particularly interesting to me. First is his argument in favor of genetically modified foods. Again, I do not have time to reiterate his arguments, but I found them to be a breath of fresh air after all of the overheated rhetoric and scare tactics. A quick example here is interesting. Most of the hype is about Mosanto’s products that are resistant to the use of herbicides, allowing them to be sprayed wholesale without being killed. This would, presumably, result in more herbicide in the plant itself. Of course, such products could not be labeled as organic anyway, so they would be easy to avoid for that reason. The author’s point, however, is that the more common reason to modify a crop is so that it needs less herbicide or pesticide use. This would be of particular benefit to poor nations unable to afford the extensive infrastructure necessary to support widespread spraying. Again, one may or may not agree with his position, but he does lay out the economics of the issue in a non-alarmist manner.

The second example involves the use of carbon taxes - a big issue right now of course - to make it easier to estimate the environmental impact of food choices. Personally, I am unconvinced that carbon usage is a big evil to be eliminated, but I do appreciate his point that this is the best economic way to reduce carbon emissions. Essentially, right now, it is pretty much impossible to determine what the energy cost of any given food or packaging is. One can see the total cost to the supplier, but not what lies behind it. Indeed, with the extended food supply chains we have, no one person has all the information at hand. By taxing energy (or carbon emissions) one adds to the cost of that element of the total cost, making it matter to the consumer more than it does now. (This is based on the well proven idea that there are two costs to everything: the direct cost, which is clear from the price; and the indirect costs, like pollution, which are not borne by the consumer, but by society at large. By charging for the indirect costs through either taxes or regulation, the consumer is made to pay an amount closer to the sum of both costs.) Again, it depends on whether you agree with the basic premise.

I want to make a gratuitous mention of the source of the Mexican cheese industry, which is used as an example of which food is better eaten in Mexico than in El Paso. It was a group of Mennonite immigrants that got the whole thing started. Since I have Mennonite ancestry on both sides of my family, I found this interesting.

As a final point, I want to mention the author’s theory as to the reasons that so much of American food is lousy, and how it got that way. The author thinks that the confluence of four factors changed American food in the 1940s and thereafter.

First was Prohibition. I have written elsewhere that I believe the two greatest scourges of the American nation were slavery and Prohibition. I believe that they were, together, the source of much of our current obesity epidemic. This book gives me even more reasons to reinforce my opinion. In essence, the author argues that most of the truly good restaurants in the larger cities were dependent on wine and beer sales for their profit margin. (This holds true today as well.) Also, much fine cuisine just goes better with alcohol. Prohibition drove the good establishments out of business, and those that defied the law had to focus on provision of booze and hiding from the law, rather good food.

The second factor was the industrialization caused by World War Two. The United States is pretty good at creating industrial processes, and the war cause a need to develop such for food preservation.

The third factor was the early Twentieth Century crackdown on immigration. Total numbers of immigrants fell dramatically with the new quotas, and therefore, our biggest source of food innovation dried up. The exception, of course, was immigrants from Mexico and further south, which have always crossed, legally or illegally, in great numbers. This explains why decent Mexican influenced food is available throughout the Southwest, but good food from most other places is only now making a comeback.

The final factor is our tendency to cater to our children’s preferences for bad food. I am happy to say that there are at least a few of us who expect our kids to eat what we eat. However, the damage was done, and there is no end of chicken strips and mac ‘n’ cheese wherever one goes in this nation.

I think in light of the thoroughly ghastly food that took hold in the 1950s, the author has a point here.

Summary: an interesting, thoughtful read, with enough food ideas to cause drooling, and enough economics to inspire a evaluation of one’s perspective.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

"Although volume upon volume is written to prove slavery a very good thing, we never hear of a man who wishes to take good of it by being slave himself."

Abraham Lincoln - Fragment of letter, July 1, 1854

"Whenever I hear anyone arguing over slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally."

Abraham Lincoln - Speech to 14th Indiana regiment, March 17, 1865

Source of book: I own this

Portrait of Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1953 (Francis Holl)

I noted in my post about Banned Books Week that I believe it is vitally important that we read banned books, particularly those which were banned for political reasons. We need to read and understand the truths that despots and others in power wish to suppress. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was my selection for this year, both because was banned by the Confederate States during the American Civil War, and because it was this month’s selection for the Reading to Know Book Club.

This book was selected by Barbara at Stray Thoughts. Her review can be found here. Other reviews by those participating in the book club:

Carrie at Reading to Know
Beth at Starrweavings

Reading to Know - Book Club

I was also reminded of another reason to read older books. Pernicious and evil ideas do not die easily, but continue to be resurrected in a new form every few years. By reading from the past, we are better able to recognize and reject such ideas.

This book also falls in the category of “books I should have read in High School,” an ongoing series on this blog. I read excerpts, and had a good idea of the plot from those days, but had never read it cover to cover.

Harriet Beecher Stowe was born in 1811, one of thirteen children of Lyman Beecher, an outspoken preacher and reformer. Lyman raised his children to understand that they had a mission in life, and that they were to practice and preach what was right. In addition, Lyman believed that his daughters should receive a “male” education: classic literature, mathematics, and foreign languages. This was rare and controversial at the time. Lyman’s approach worked well for his children. Seven of them, including Harriet, achieved national recognition for their work in their chosen fields.

Lyman had a special regard for Harriet, believing she was perhaps the most brilliant of his children. He often said that she was a genius, and that he would give a hundred dollars if she were a boy. (The implication being that as a woman, she would never be able to fulfil the promise of her talent. Marriage and babies were her future.)

Harriet would eventually marry, although her husband was more rich in intellectual than financial gifts. Her writing would eventually become necessary to provide for her growing family.

The impetus for Uncle Tom’s Cabin was, according to Stowe, the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. That law imposed criminal penalties on those (in the free states) who aided runaway slaves. Stowe and many others viewed this law as an offense against basic human decency. "I feel now that the time is come when even a woman or a child who can speak a word for freedom and humanity is bound to speak... I hope every woman who can write will not be silent." Several states passed laws countermanding the Act, and many citizens violated it as a matter of principle. Stowe and her husband also defied the law, harboring slaves at their home as part of the Underground Railroad. Thus, she put herself at risk for what she believed - hardly a case of moralizing from a safe distance.

Stowe wrote the book in installments (as was common in the era) beginning in 1851. The book was a phenomenal success, selling 300,000 copies in less than a year. (In terms of today’s population, this would be about 4 million copies.)  It also inspired some vicious hate mail: one day she received an envelope containing the severed ear of a slave.

While some abolitionists complained that the book did not denounce slavery strongly enough, the book had its effect. For all the sermons and screeds, scholarly articles, and well reasoned pamphlets that had been written and would continue to be written, it was Harriet’s book that succeeded in arousing the public outrage like no other work. She succeeded because she was able to make slavery real and slaves human to her readers, rather than an abstract political question.

There is no need to discuss the plot of the book itself. Most of us have at least a vague idea of the events recounted. Perhaps we are familiar, or think we are familiar, with Augustine St. Clare, little Eva, Topsy, Simon Legree, and Uncle Tom himself. However, I found that I had missed the most essential part of Stowe’s argument: slavery by its very nature destroys families. Children are separated from parents, husbands from wives. It is this fact, historically indisputable, that turned the tide in (Northern) public opinion.

Stowe brings out this issue from the beginning of the story by having the slave trader Haley voice a common opinion: “‘taint, you know, as if it was white folks, that’s brought up in the way of ‘spectin’ to keep their children and wifes, and all that. Niggers, you know, that’s feched up properly, ha’nt no kind of ‘spectations of no kind; so all these things comes easier.” This idea is gradually built up throughout the book by repetition. Various characters, major and minor, are separated from their families. All the while, there is a chatter, as if by the chorus, commenting on the issue from all sides.

This is hardly the only evil that Stowe tackles head-on in her book. She also unveils the prejudice of the North - an attitude which remains a problem today. (As Alfred Kazin noted in his essay on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “The record of the American government in regard to racism is far better than that of the American people.”) In the book, cousin Ophelia is initially horrified that southerners allow their children to touch slave children. While she is vehemently opposed to slavery, she has to learn to think of slaves as actual people. There still is this feeling of horror in far too many hearts today. I would have to ask of all my white friends if they would truly accept a black son-in-law. As an equal. I think many of them would not. I have a friend who ashamedly admitted that years ago, he bullied his teenaged daughter into an abortion largely because the father was black. Plenty of preachers talk about racial reconciliation, but few actually embrace the attitude changes necessary for it to occur. As I note below in my note, the trend in the most conservative Christian groups is the opposite, from the recent refusal of a Southern Baptist church to marry an African American couple to a fascination with the Antebellum South. Fortunately, I think that there is some progress being made. One in twelve marriages are now interracial. Members of my extended family have adopted children from other continents, countries, and races, as have numerous friends. Still, there is much work to be done at the level of the individual heart, including my own.

One by one, Stowe addresses each of the justifications for slavery. The supposed scriptural justification for the enslavement of the African race was popular at the time, and Stowe uses her background as a preacher’s daughter to refute misused scripture with scripture. When one preacher says, “It pleased Providence for some inscrutable reason to doom the race to bondate ages ago; and we must not set up our opinion against that,” another counters with, “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them.”

Scars of a whipped slave (1863)

There is one argument in particular that has been made from the dawn of slavery to the present that simply refuses to be killed. (See my note below.) It is the idea that slaves were better off as slaves. I first heard this idea as a kid, and I had my doubts. I think Lincoln’s quotes above pretty well dispose of the argument, but Uncle Tom himself illustrates this in a conversation with his master, St. Clare.

“Why, Tom, don’t you think, for your part, you’ve been better off than to be free?”
No, indeed, Mas’r St. Clare,” said Tom, with a flash of energy. “No, indeed!”
“Why, Tom, you couldn’t possibly have earned, by your work, such clothes and such living as I have given you.”
“Knows all that, Mas’r St. Clare; Mas’r’s been too good; but, Mas’r, I’d rather have poor clothes, poor house, poor everything, and have ‘em mine, than have the best, and have ‘em any man’s else - I had so, Mas’r; I think it’s natur, Mas’r.”

The author draws the natural parallel here between the thirst for freedom from tyranny which drove the American Revolution and the natural human desire for freedom from bondage.

To your fathers, freedom was the right of a nation to be a nation. To him [escaped slave George Harris], it is the right of a man to be a man, and not a brute; the right to call the wife of his bosom his wife, and to protect her from lawless violence; the right to protect and educate his child; the right to have a home of his own, a religion of his own, a character of his own, unsubject to the will of another.

I think that encapsulates the essence of Freedom, the human aversion to bondage, which has motivated so many of the historical heroes.

Stowe’s writing has its strong points and its flaws. I found myself thinking throughout about the difference between great writing and effective writing. Stowe shows some flashes of greatness, but it is mixed with much which is cringe-worthy. On the other hand, there is no doubt that her writing was and remains effective. It accomplished its mission, and the writing itself was a key factor in its effectiveness.

What did I dislike about the writing? First, I know that the angelic fair haired female child is a common trope of Victorian literature. I also know that the death scene with pathos and transcendance is also of its time. Still, I cannot bring myself to like them. Little Eva’s tubercular death - and her life for that matter - were irritating to me. I have three daughters, who are sweet and kind and all that, but they are not angelic. Eva is not intended to be human, but a divine emissary, of course, but I still found the whole thing cloying and distracting from the main point.

Stowe also has a tendency to preach. And by “a tendency” I mean that she does so at every possible opportunity. I find it amusing that some abolitionists criticised it as being too soft on slavery. As it is, the preaching bogs the book down in several places. I would admit, however, that she delivered some good sermons, better than many I have heard in my lifetime. Perhaps this is why her father wished she had been a man. Stowe is not unusual for her time in this respect either. Dickens also tended to preach, as did many others. And both were highly effective in ridding their nations of the evils they preached against.

Finally, the book suffers from some unfortunate racial stereotyping. As with Mark Twain, she shows the symptoms of her time in history. Both can cause discomfort with their generalizations, but both were also far ahead of their times.

On the positive side, Stowe created some memorable characters. Marie St. Clare strikes me as having a certain kinship with Austin’s Mrs. Bennett - and resembles a few people I know in real life. Cousin Ophelia is unforgettable, as are Cassie and Simon Legree. I had read the chapter on Topsy previously, but I loved her character even more now that I am a parent. My second daughter shares many of Topsy’s personality traits, not least of which are her sceptical nature and her imperviousness to most forms of punishment. As Ophelia discovers, such a one can only be won with love.

The character of Uncle Tom warrants some discussion. It is truly unfortunate that “Uncle Tom” has become an epithet used to describe a cowering, toadying sycophant. Uncle Tom as a character was the antithesis of the stereotype. If anything, Uncle Tom is unrealistic, an ideal. This was, I am sure, intentional. Tom is allowed to have his moments of doubt, but he must do what is right under all circumstances so as to serve as a stark contrast to his various masters. The reader must want Tom to live to be reunited with his family.

Tom may always be respectful and obedient to the reasonable requests of his masters, but he is not governed by them so much as he is by his own conscience. Thus, he refuses to beat other slaves, and helps Cassie and Emmeline escape, even at the cost of his own life.

There are two conversations with Legree that show Tom’s true character.

“An’t I yer master? Didn’t I pay down twelve hundred dollars, cash, for all there is inside yer old cussed black shell? An’t yer mine, now, body and soul?”

“No! no! no! my soul an’t yours, Mas’r! You haven’t bought it - ye can’t buy it! It’s been bought and paid for by one that is able to keep it; no matter, no matter, you can’t harm me!”

And later, when Legree has threatened to kill Tom unless he “gives in,” Tom stands strong.

“Mas’r Legree, as ye bought me, I’ll be a true and faithful servant to ye. I’ll give ye all the work of my hands, all my time, all my strength; but my soul I won’t give up to mortal man.”

With all those around us who seem so eager to sell their souls for so little, Tom stands as that reminder of that truth spoken in a still small voice, in the words of a songwriting friend of mine, “Don’t sell yourself for too small a price.”

As a final word on this book, Stowe had high hopes that slavery would be ended within her lifetime. History records that within a decade of the publication of the book, the nation would be involved in a great war to determine whether it would acknowledge in deed as well as word that all men are created equal. Stowe would indeed live to see the “peculiar institution” ended, at the cost of more than a half million lives. (The slave trade itself cost the lives of many times as many slaves.) It is gratifying that she accomplished her goal, and that this evil was ended. It is particularly poignant to read the following from her introduction to the book:

It is a comfort to hope, as so many of the world’s sorrows and wrongs have, from age to age been lived down, so a time shall come when sketches similar to these shall be valuable only as memorials of what has long ceased to be.

Note on the history of defending and excusing slavery:

Although the idea of racial superiority (and the inferiority of women, by the way) dates at least to the writings of Aristotle, it was not until modern times that slavery took on a truly racist nature. Previously, skin color was less important than the use of force. If your country was conquered, you became a slave, and it sucked to be you. Might proved superiority.

From the beginning of the African slave trade in the Fifteenth Century, there have been those who have sought to justify slavery on the basis of racial superiority. Sadly, the clergy were all too willing to twist scripture to provide a religious justification for a vile practice.

I find it greatly distressing that from that time to the present, there have always been those who look back on the antebellum South with nostalgia, continuing to justify - or at least sugarcoat - slavery. This, and the idea of White supremacy which is philosophically necessary to justify racial slavery, are still being promulgated today by certain religious leaders. I am embarrassed, both as a person of European descent (even though my ancestors immigrated well after the Civil War), and as a Christian that slavery ever occurred and that religious leaders used the name of Christ to justify that brutal institution.

As I noted in my review of
Sweetness and Power, slavery was the economic engine that drove the sugar and rum trades. There were great fortunes to be made on the backs of the Africans, and this greed was the original reason for the slave trade. As William Cowper put it in a memorable verse:

"I pity them greatly, but I must be mum,
for how could we do without sugar and rum?"

Many, like Cowper, had some pricks of conscience about the whole affair. “Fortunately,” there were plenty of preachers eager to step in and salve the sore conscience with a justification. The Black race was cursed, they said, as a result of an incident involving a drunk Noah, and ever since, God destined the Black man to serve the White man, who was destined to rule. The Black man could never adequately govern himself, and was therefore better off under the benign leadership of the superior White man.

The notable clergy who promoted this view and owned slaves themselves in the Puritan era are many: George Whitfield, Jonathan Edwards, Cotton Mather, among others. Later, after the Civil War, evangelist Billy Sunday also promoted the KKK.

Perhaps worst of all, the Southern Baptist Convention officially claimed in its publications that, “Negroes have ever been and must continue to be throughout time subject to the superior intellect of the white man, for the history of the race proves clearly his inferiority, and the more feeble the mind or intellect, the lower the sphere in society must he occupy.”

As late as 1935, the president of a Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod seminary wrote approvingly of a book by one Anna Hope, which stated:  “Niggers are hopelessly inferior, both in disposition and lack of intellect. To retain the respect of a Negro you must always avoid placing yourself on the same level with him. Negroes are not fit for self-government. For their own benefit they must be controlled by others. In slaveholding days flogging was unavoidable if lazy Negroes were to be disciplined. Their natural order is repellent.”

None of this is difficult to find from well-documented sources, and should be a source of distress to all of us.

Each of these ideas is noted by Stowe in
Uncle Tom’s Cabin. And she had the courage to name a few preachers of her day that defended slavery. (Such as Dr. Joel Parker of Philadelphia.) It made her a few enemies, to be sure.

Lest anyone think that this sentiment has disappeared as we have moved into the enlightened Twenty-first Century, I have one more, rather modern example. Recently, I got into a heated discussion with a friend of a friend online over a quotation by Douglas Wilson. I feel strongly that each of us should be careful who we choose to quote, as we will be judged by our choice of who to venerate. Thus, I would never quote Christopher Columbus in a positive way to a Native American. His slaughter is well known, and indefensible. Why would I try to justify it to the descendents of his victims?

I already know that I have sparked some serious controversy by calling out a popular preacher, so I am sure that I will offend some of my readers in this case.

In 1996, Wilson wrote and published a pamphlet entitled
Southern Slavery As It Was, along with Steven Wilkins, another clergyman, and a former board member of the League of the South, a group that favors the secession of the southern States, and is generally considered to be a White Supremacist hate group. The pamphlet was written with the express intent of combating the supposed lies about slavery promulgated by the Abolitionists, who are described as a godless bunch. Not at all like the godly slave owners. This vile work can be found easily online, although I will not dignify it with a link. In addition, there are many scholarly rebuttals that illustrate the utter disregard for historical fact that Wilson and Wilkins show. Among many ludicrous claims is that it was extremely rare for masters to take sexual advantage of their “property.” Wilson and Wilkins claim, and I quote directly from them:

It would have been much easier, and less risky, for owners of large plantations to keep a mistress in town than to risk the possibility of the destruction of his own family by taking up with a slave woman.”

Really? In a society where a master could beat a slave to death without repercussions? In a society where a “negro’s” testimony was inadmissible in court against a white person? That would be a higher risk than an affair with a White woman who had civil rights? Of course, they never address the fact that the vast majority of African Americans have some degree of European ancestry. This has been shown through DNA testing innumerable times. On a related note, how would the terms “mulatto,” “quadroon,” and “octoroon” have arisen? From a few consensual affairs in the northern States? Really?

This isn’t even the most outrageous claim, however. How about this one?

"Slavery produced in the South a genuine affection between the races that we believe we can say has never existed in any nation before the War or since...Slavery as it existed in the South was not an adversarial relationship with pervasive racial animosity. Because of its dominantly patriarchal character, it was a relationship based upon mutual affection and confidence. There has never been a multi-racial society which has existed with such mutual intimacy and harmony in the history of the world."

As I found out, supporters of Wilson are even willing to defend this statement as not meaning what it clearly means. In order to believe that race relations, in the entire history of the world, were best when the writer’s race enslaved the other race, one must believe that one race is superior to the other. There is no other rational explanation for writing such a statement, in a pamphlet defending slavery, with the centuries-long history of the use of this very justification for slavery.

You cannot use the words and ideas of the defenders of slavery and those who believed and believe in the supremacy of the White Man, and then claim that you are not defending slavery. You cannot claim that racial relations were at their
best when one race ruled the other, and then claim that there is a non-racist “explanation.” Your words speak for themselves.

And really, I dare those who have argued to me that Wilson has adequately “explained” himself to read the pamphlet to their African American friends. And try to keep a straight face.

I do not want to get too far off track in this note, but I do want to note that the use of the term “patriarchal” by a man prominent in the modern patriarchy movement is interesting to me. Others with better skills than I have drawn interesting parallels in the two thoughts, which are based on the idea of congenital superiority of one class of person over another. (Again, this idea dates at least to Aristotle, and influenced Greek and Roman society for centuries thereafter.)

Those who read my post earlier this year know that my wife and I each spent some time in our teens in cult-like patriarchal groups. These groups - particularly the one my wife’s family became involved with - have philosophical and personal ties to Wilson, and also strongly promote patriarchal ideals. As I have grown and distanced myself from this part of my past, I have reacted with increasing distaste for the way certain Christian groups idolise a mythical past. They revere, as a friend put it, “a quirky combination of antebellum femininity, 1950’s homemaking, and Jane Austen drama.” I would go further than that. Those like Wilson and Wilkins - and plenty of others - wish to return to their sugarcoated image of the Antebellum South: a time when men were more "manly" and godly, women were more “feminine,” before all of the corruptions of modern life, when White men ruled, and when women and “Negroes” knew their place.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Songs and Sonnets by John Donne

Source of book: I own this.

The particular selection is somewhat misnamed. Songs there are many, but nary a true sonnet. There is one poem with two fourteen line stanzas, but it is not even close to a sonnet rhyme scheme. The one poem with “sonnet” in the title is not a true sonnet. This is particularly odd since Donne wrote a number of marvelous sonnets, including the “Holy Sonnets,” of which “Death be Not Proud” is probably the most famous. Despite this omission, this collection of poems on the theme of Love is some of Donne’s best and most human work.

I have noted before that I am a hopeless romantic, and mushy to the core. Contrary to popular gender stereotypes, I have always valued long-term commitment, I love to snuggle, and I can talk into the wee hours of the night with my beloved. Donne likewise felt things deeply. His poetry is a mixture of the sacred and profane, his devotion to God matched by passion for his wife, his doubt and questioning applying equally to the ways of God and the ways of Love. He could write transcendent musings on the nature of death and the resurrection, and also some of the most creative and memorable poems on sex and bodily fluids.

Some school curriculum, particularly the conservative Christian one that I used in high school, try to divide Donne’s writings into “before” and “after” periods. The historical fact, however, is that he wrote both types of poems throughout his life. He felt deeply, loved passionately, and sought divine perfection with the same fervor. While Donne’s writings have always resonated with me, I think I understand this paradox more now that I am in my thirties and have been married for over a decade.

I was struck by the range of Donne’s emotions and his completely contrasting views expressed throughout this collection. He praises love, then turns against it in the next poem. He rails against women and their inconstancy, but then praises the purity of the one he loves. He is tormented by love, he dismisses it as a trifle, he tries to escape it, but he is captured by it, and its grip on him is relentless.

The story of Donne’s life sheds and interesting light on his works. Donne was a young rising diplomat, educated and brilliant, if a bit profligate and quick to chase women. He appeared to have his future before him, when love stepped in to wreak havoc. He fell in love with the niece of his employer. They married against her family’s wishes, which resulted in Donne, the minister, and the witness at the wedding spending time in Fleet Prison until the marriage was proved valid. Donne lost his job, and Anne was not reconciled to her father until eight years later. The Donnes suffered from poverty, exacerbated by the fact that they had twelve children in sixteen years, only seven of which lived past age ten. (Donne, in a state of despair after one of the deaths remarked that although it was one less mouth to feed, he couldn’t afford to bury the child.) Anne died soon after the birth of the last child. Donne lived another fifteen years after this, but he never completely recovered emotionally from the loss of his true love, although his material fortunes improved.

The passion and pain run through the course of the poems, particularly the more personal ones. Donne also demonstrates his mastery of the “conceit,” an exaggerated and unusual metaphor wherein two unlike things are likened to each other in a striking and sometimes uncomfortable way. It is difficult to pick just a few to quote from the collection, as there are so many good ones.

The Cannonization
For God's sake hold your tongue, and let me love,
        Or chide my palsy, or my gout,
My five gray hairs, or ruined fortune flout,
        With wealth your state, your mind with arts improve,
               Take you a course, get you a place,
               Observe his honor, or his grace,
Or the king's real, or his stampèd face
        Contemplate; what you will, approve,
        So you will let me love.

Alas, alas, who's injured by my love?
        What merchant's ships have my sighs drowned?
Who says my tears have overflowed his ground?
        When did my colds a forward spring remove?
               When did the heats which my veins fill
               Add one more to the plaguy bill?
Soldiers find wars, and lawyers find out still
        Litigious men, which quarrels move,
        Though she and I do love.

Call us what you will, we are made such by love;
        Call her one, me another fly,
We're tapers too, and at our own cost die,
        And we in us find the eagle and the dove.
               The phœnix riddle hath more wit
               By us; we two being one, are it.
So, to one neutral thing both sexes fit.
        We die and rise the same, and prove
        Mysterious by this love.

We can die by it, if not live by love,
        And if unfit for tombs and hearse
Our legend be, it will be fit for verse;
        And if no piece of chronicle we prove,
               We'll build in sonnets pretty rooms;
               As well a well-wrought urn becomes
The greatest ashes, as half-acre tombs,
        And by these hymns, all shall approve
        Us canonized for Love.

And thus invoke us: "You, whom reverend love
        Made one another's hermitage;
You, to whom love was peace, that now is rage;
        Who did the whole world's soul contract, and drove
               Into the glasses of your eyes
               (So made such mirrors, and such spies,
That they did all to you epitomize)
        Countries, towns, courts: beg from above
        A pattern of your love!"
I love the reference to the “five gray hairs,” and, of course, to lawyers. This is Donne in his triumphant mood. He can laugh at the world, content in his experience of love. This next one is a complete contrast, and uses the poet’s dilemma to exaggerated effect.

The Triple Fool

I am two fools, I know,
     For loving, and for saying so
         In whining poetry;
But where's that wiseman, that would not be I,
         If she would not deny?
Then as th' earth's inward narrow crooked lanes
    Do purge sea water's fretful salt away,
I thought, if I could draw my pains
    Through rhyme's vexation, I should them allay.
Grief brought to numbers cannot be so fierce,
For he tames it, that fetters it in verse.

     But when I have done so,
     Some man, his art and voice to show,
         Doth set and sing my pain;
And, by delighting many, frees again
         Grief, which verse did restrain.
To love and grief tribute of verse belongs,
    But not of such as pleases when 'tis read.
Both are increased by such songs,
    For both their triumphs so are published,
And I, which was two fools, do so grow three;
Who are a little wise, the best fools be.

The bitterest poem, I think, is this one. Bonus points for using legal language, and getting a dig in at, well, just about everyone.

The Will

BEFORE I sigh my last gasp, let me breathe,
   Great Love, some legacies ; I here bequeath
   Mine eyes to Argus, if mine eyes can see ;
   If they be blind, then, Love, I give them thee ;
   My tongue to Fame ; to ambassadors mine ears ;
           To women, or the sea, my tears ;
       Thou, Love, hast taught me heretofore
   By making me serve her who had twenty more,
That I should give to none, but such as had too much before.

   My constancy I to the planets give ;
   My truth to them who at the court do live ;
   My ingenuity and openness,
   To Jesuits ; to buffoons my pensiveness ;
   My silence to any, who abroad hath been ;
           My money to a Capuchin :
       Thou, Love, taught'st me, by appointing me
   To love there, where no love received can be,
Only to give to such as have an incapacity.

   My faith I give to Roman Catholics ;
   All my good works unto the Schismatics
   Of Amsterdam ; my best civility
   And courtship to an University ;
   My modesty I give to soldiers bare ;
           My patience let gamesters share :
       Thou, Love, taught'st me, by making me
   Love her that holds my love disparity,
Only to give to those that count my gifts indignity.

   I give my reputation to those
   Which were my friends ; mine industry to foes ;
   To schoolmen I bequeath my doubtfulness ;
   My sickness to physicians, or excess ;
   To nature all that I in rhyme have writ ;
           And to my company my wit :
       Thou, Love, by making me adore
   Her, who begot this love in me before,
Taught'st me to make, as though I gave, when I do but restore.

   To him for whom the passing-bell next tolls,
   I give my physic books ; my written rolls
   Of moral counsels I to Bedlam give ;
   My brazen medals unto them which live
   In want of bread ; to them which pass among
           All foreigners, mine English tongue :
       Though, Love, by making me love one
   Who thinks her friendship a fit portion
For younger lovers, dost my gifts thus disproportion.

   Therefore I'll give no more, but I'll undo
   The world by dying, because love dies too.
   Then all your beauties will be no more worth
   Than gold in mines, where none doth draw it forth ;
   And all your graces no more use shall have,
           Than a sun-dial in a grave :
       Thou, Love, taught'st me by making me
   Love her who doth neglect both me and thee,
To invent, and practise this one way, to annihilate all three.

There are a number of quotable lines from several of the poems, although the entire poems are worthwhile as well. The first stanza from “Break of Day” is memorable:

‘Tis true, ‘tis day, what though it be?
O wilt thou therefore rise from me?
Why should we rise because ‘tis light?
Did we lie down because ‘twas night?
Love, which in spite of darkness brought us hither,
Should in despite of light keep us together.

Also, the closing lines of “Love’s Growth,” a mediation on the evolution of a relationship, show that some things never change.

And though each spring do add to love new heat,
As princes do in time of action get
New taxes, and remit them not in peace,
No winter shall abate the spring’s increase.

This is one example of a conceit. After all, love isn’t much like ever-increasing taxation. But one one level, perhaps it is, and Donne leaves a memorable image.

Perhaps Donne’s best-known conceit, however, is his poem on attempted seduction, “The Flea.”

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,   
How little that which thou deniest me is;   
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;   
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,
    Yet this enjoys before it woo,
    And pampered swells with one blood made of two,
    And this, alas, is more than we would do.

Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, nay more than married are.   
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;   
Though parents grudge, and you, w'are met,   
And cloistered in these living walls of jet.
    Though use make you apt to kill me,
    Let not to that, self-murder added be,
    And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence?   
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it sucked from thee?   
Yet thou triumph’st, and say'st that thou   
Find’st not thy self, nor me the weaker now;
    ’Tis true; then learn how false, fears be:
    Just so much honor, when thou yield’st to me,
    Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.
Others that I wish I had space to quote are “Lovers' Infiniteness,” which seems to reveal further layers of meaning each time I read it; and “The Broken Heart,” lacerating and raw. “The Anniversary” is also excellent, with its simultaneous celebration of a milestone, and premonitions of separation by death.

My personal favorite of the poems Donne wrote regarding the death of his wife is this one, which captures more of the grief, if less of the hope, than the more famous sonnet, “Since she whom I loved hath paid her last debt.”

The Dissolution

She's dead; and all which die
To their first elements resolve;
And we were mutual elements to us,
And made of one another.
My body then doth hers involve,
And those things whereof I consist hereby
In me abundant grow, and burdenous,
And nourish not, but smother.
My fire of passion, sighs of air,
Water of tears, and earthly sad despair,
Which my materials be,
But near worn out by love's security,
She, to my loss, doth by her death repair.
And I might live long wretched so,
But that my fire doth with my fuel grow.
Now, as those active kings
Whose foreign conquest treasure brings,
Receive more, and spend more, and soonest break,
This —which I am amazed that I can speak—
This death, hath with my store
My use increased.
And so my soul, more earnestly released,
Will outstrip hers; as bullets flown before
A latter bullet may o'ertake, the powder being more.

Finally, and on a lighter note, this next poem speaks to my ongoing and evolving conviction that the mystery of love has been supplanted in many with a veneration of commitment. Surely true love requires commitment, but commitment isn’t love, and can never replace it. (I discussed this in more depth in my review of Sonnets from the Portuguese.)

The Token

Send me some token, that my hope may live,
Or that my easeless thoughts may sleep and rest;
Send me some honey to make sweet my hive,
That in my passions I may hope the best.
I beg no ribbon wrought with thine own hands,
To knit our loves in the fantastic strain
Of new-touched youth; nor ring to show the stands
Of our affection, that as that's round and plain,
So should our loves meet in simplicity;
No, nor the corals which thy wrist enfold,
Laced up together in congruity,
To show our thoughts should rest in the same hold;
No, nor thy picture, though most gracious,
And most desired, because best like the best;
Nor witty lines, which are most copious,
Within the writings which thou hast addressed.

Send me nor this, nor that, to increase my store,
But swear thou think'st 'I love thee,' and no more.