Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

Source of book: borrowed from the library.

Shteyngart is a youngish (ok, roughly my age) Jewish-American author. He was born in Leningrad, now thankfully returned to its historical name of Saint Petersburg, and immigrated to the United States as a child. I decided to add this book to my list because of previous experience with a few articles by Shteyngart from Slate and The New York Times, a review of the book, and my wife’s description of another of his novels, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, which she described as really bizarre.

This book is apparently much darker than his others, and dark it is indeed - particularly the last third of the book. It also contains a constant battering of sexual references, and a few (thankfully) brief and thoroughly unsexy sex scenes. I do have to say, though, that this is an important component to this book.

Lenny Abramov, who is probably a stand-in for the author in many ways, is a middle aged Jewish man, with parents from the old country. He falls in love with a much younger Korean-American girl (she is too immature to be called a woman), Eunice Park, and the “super sad” doomed love story begins. Along with this romance goes the rapid decline and failure of the United States, which is pictured in an alternate, yet familiar, scenario. Headed by a single “Bipartisan” political party dominated by a Dick Cheney-like figure, we have invaded Venezuela. Our national debt is so problematic that China eventually cuts us off, leading to chaos. So far, this is a bit of a typical left-leaning dystopic vision of the future, although to his credit, Shteyngart generally avoids making his point about left or right. Everything and everyone is in decline, and the government is fixated on eliminating dissent while promoting consumerism.

The culture in this parallel universe is also a discomforting parody of our own. In what I consider the strongest feature of the novel, the author takes our most annoying modern trends and takes them to the logical extreme. Everyone communicates primarily through devices called an “äppärät,” kind of an all encompassing Facebook/smartphone combination that streams constant information about everyone within view. Through it, one can find out everything about another person from their bank balances to their medical histories. Users are constantly rating others in the room on their “hotness” (I cleaned that one up a bit) and “personality.” The uses are so attached to these devices that some commit suicide afte the network goes down for a long period. Between the äppäräti and the network that is an obvious Facebook analogue, everyone is completely exposed to everyone else - except in any way that actually matters. The concept of a real personal relationship is lost on pretty much everyone except Lenny. Perhaps worst of all from Lenny’s point of view is that books are looked on as dirty relics. Nobody reads, even online. Words are used to convey a minimum of necessary information, but nothing of depth.

Shteyngart’s choice of name for his ubiquitous device is brilliant. The original Latin word that became our “apparatus” also drifted into Russian to become the unforgettable “apparatchik,” the term for a Communist Party functionary. The man who was a tool of the apparatus, so to speak. James Billington (our current Congressional Librarian, by the way) once described the apparatchik as “a man not of grand plans, but of a hundred carefully executed details.” The little widget that functions as a cog in the global information link thus shares the root word for both its functions.

In addition to the oversharing and obsession with image, youth, and materialism, the fictional culture is casually sex-drenched. This is perhaps the hyperbolic end result of Juicy Couture and sexual marketing. Everything - and I do mean everything - has a name that is somehow sexual, at least by innuendo. One of the more mild ones is the nightclub named the Cervix. The actual personal interactions (called “verbals,” to distinguish them from online interactions, which are the norm) consist primarily of vulgarity, innuendo completely divorced from any possible meaning or application to the situation, and absurd racial epithets. (Old Jewish guys calling each other “My NEE-gro!”)  Unsurprisingly, this leads to everything be decidedly non-sexy. Shteyngart deliberately makes all of the actual sex, which is fortunately brief and not particularly graphic compared to everything else, seriously icky. Completely the opposite of a turn-on.

As I noted above, this is why the relentless, bludgeoning vulgarity is crucial to the point. Shteyngart has pushed the worst of our sex-saturated, consumer focused, and image worshiping culture far past any boundary of good taste, revealing its true emptiness.

As if this emptiness wasn’t enough, the author adds another bleak layer. Lenny works for a company that, in addition to eventually ruling the world, sells life-extension technologies to the ultra-wealthy. The book is permeated with Lenny’s fear of death, and the tantalizing promise of immortality-on-earth. For a large price, of course. Lenny must sell the dream for a living, all while realizing he is not quite wealthy enough to afford it himself.

In my opinion, this is one of the book’s big weaknesses, though. Shteyngart is great at describing the disease, but he has no cure. There is really no relief from the constant depression, there is no real resolution, and the book just kind of ends after the calamity. I know, plenty of books share this pessimism, and many offer no hope. Somehow, though, I felt like there was nothing left worth liking or loving when he was done. Lenny may have learned something, but nothing that would actually benefit him in the future. I felt like there could have been something there, but there wasn’t. It just faded into nothingness, like Lenny’s life eventually would. Perhaps that is what the author intended.

The other weakness that bothered me was one that I also found in a (rather less serious) modern dystopia, The Eyre Affair: the book has a number of incidents and people that seem important at the beginning, but then just disappear, and nothing ever comes of them. It’s like the author started off with one plot, switched to another, but left a few characters and scenes from the old plot. In this book, several characters appear in the beginning, and are lavished with enough attention that the reader thinks they may be relevant later. Even worse than the original disappearance, they briefly reappear near the end only to be summarily whacked, with no explanation as to why. I realize that Lenny has no idea either, but it seems that the author might at least let us in on the secret. Otherwise, they just take up space without really contributing. In The Eyre Affair, there is at least the hope of a sequel that might tie up a few ends, but this book is clearly meant to stand alone.

A few other notes on the book. The format isn’t exactly original, but it does serve the plot well. The story is mostly told through Lenny’s diaries, but between chapters are brief “transcripts” from Eunice’s online interactions with her mother, sister, friend, and a few others. In comparison with Lenny’s self-reflective and rather literary musings, Eunice’s interactions are almost devoid of any emotion or personality. She kind of cares about her friends and family, but never gets past the surface. Her feelings are never allowed to show, which makes her a rather unsympathetic character. One wonders if Lenny just wants to fix her.

What Shteyngart does best in this book is observe and mock the ills of our society. Even the little things. His description of Orange County as viewed from a satellite  is superb:

I zoomed in on a series of crimson-tiled haciendas to the south of Los Angeles, rows and rows of three-thousand-square-foot rectangles, their only aerial features the tiny silver squiggles that denoted rooftop central air conditioning. These units all bowed to the semicircle of a turquoise pool guarded by the gray halos of two down-on-their-luck palm trees, the development’s only flora.

I once turned off the freeway in Irvine while on the way to San Diego to stretch the legs of my then very small children. We found a random park. Good lord! The identical new mini-vans, the thousand dollar strollers, everyone wearing the same designer yoga pants. I imagine everyone had matching Dyson vacuums and stupid dogs with sweaters too. I still get the shivers.

I also liked his description of a dive restaurant, “this spicy Sri Lankan joint, where for nine bucks you could eat an insane shrimp pancake and some kind of ethereal red fish while baby roaches tried to clamber up your trousers and drink your beer.”

This is all good fun, but Shteyngart is deadly when he takes on religion. Eunice’s parents are ultra-traditional Korean Christians, he of the abusive kind. Her mom puts up with it, because the famous and popular Reverend Cho “read to us Scripture which say woman is second to man. He say man is head and woman is arm or leg.” Do not get me started on the preachers within the modern Patriarchy movement - and even in more mainstream Christianity these days - which say that a woman should stay and take physical abuse with submission. Unless you want an extended rant. Shteyngart is also far too accurate in his description of Reverend Cho’s rallies, with the combination of traditionally dressed young women, hackneyed pseudo-classical music (surely the reference to a Mahler violin concerto is as ludicrous to the author as it is to anyone who actually knows anything about Mahler), and lots of stuff to buy. I am curious as to when Shteyngart attended one of these. Did he merely watch TBN, or did he suffer through a crusade or two? Either way, he is uncomfortably close to the mark.

Clearly, Shteyngart is opposed to religion, and Lenny himself wishes to convert the faithful, deluded masses, as he sees them. But Lenny is still faced with the quandary. He wants to live forever, particularly if he can love Eunice. But he also is haunted by his therapist’s question, “Why do you think you would be happier could live forever?” As Tolkien put it, mortality is the gift given to man: to die before one wearied of life. Lenny wearies of life, and eventually accepts, perhaps embraces, the idea of his death. And thus the book ends with the words “silence, black and complete.” The solution for the fear of death is to loathe life enough to be ready to end it. I’m not convinced this is a particularly good alternative to the Dylan Thomas approach. (“Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”) Either way, the world is without hope.

I can’t say I recommend reading this book unless you are willing to suffer through the sexual bludgeoning or the vortex of hopelessness. However, it does serve a necessary purpose by rendering naked, so to speak, the emptiness that occupies the center much of our society. It is only through that recognition that we are able to raise our eyes and look for something and someone higher than ourselves.

Gary Shteyngart. Picture by Mark Coggins. Used pursuant to the Creative Commons Attribution License.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Getting to Know You

My friend Carrie, who is a veteran blogger and the host of our online book club, proposed this topic, along with a list of potential questions. Being the free spirit that I am, I have picked a few questions, mixed up the order, and made a few up myself.

1. What is your real name, and what does it mean?

Since I am a licensed attorney, my name and professional contact information are public. In addition, I have been fingerprinted at least a dozen times. My home address - and probably yours too - is easily available on the internet. And I blog. Any illusion of privacy that I may have had is long gone. My best hope is that no one cares about me enough to cause trouble.

Timothy means “to honor God,” and comes from the Greek. The historical Timothy was the Apostle Paul’s protege and friend. Timothy was a human example of the spread of the Christian Faith from the Jew to the Gentile, as he was the product of a Greek/Jewish marriage.

Swanson is from the Swedish side of my family. It dates at least as far back as the 8th Century. Although my ancestors immigrated directly from Sweden in the 1890s, the name crossed over to England during the Viking invasions. Various forms of the name are found in the Domesday Book. Likewise, the root word “Swain,” meaning “boy,” “young man,” or “person in charge” entered the English language. We find it in the nautical terms “coxswain” and “boatswain.”

2. How long have you been married? How many kids do you have? Have you ever considered adopting?

My lovely wife and I have been married eleven years (as of the date of this post), and have five children. We had them within a 7 year period - including three in less than three years.

I am a big proponent of adoption, and would have adopted if we had not had a bunch of biological children. Right now, I think I have my hands full.

3. Follow up question: Are you guys [fill in the blank] Catholic? Mormon? Quiverfull? Crazy?

No. No. Definitely not. Probably. It’s as good an explanation as any. Actually, we both wanted a largish family. Say, four or so kids. We ended up with five. We both found parenthood - even with small babies - to be more fun than we expected.

4. Why do you home school your kids?

My kids are second generation home school students. My wife never attended a traditional school. I attended kindergarten and first grade. Ok, I attended some of those grades. I was a sickly child, and would typically come down with bronchitis by Wednesday, and miss the second half of the week. I took so much work home with me that my principal finally suggested to my parents that they keep me home. At that time, they had never heard of such a thing. As they say, the rest is history.

I loved learning at home (still do, actually). I found that I could get through my basic assignments in a couple of hours, leaving time for reading, outdoor stuff, and most of all, music.

Why do I home school? So we can go to Disneyland on winter Wednesdays. I’m serious. My dad had a rotating schedule that rarely gave him weekends off, so we always were able to dodge the crowds.

Also, I love teaching my kids stuff. I like being able to take a hike on a random day when work is slow at the office. I like that they can finish their schoolwork by noon, rather than coming home at three with two hours of homework ahead of them. I like that we aren’t so busy preparing for standardized tests that we do not have time to look up random stuff that interests them.

5. Do you attend church, and if so, what denomination are you a part of?

Anyone who reads my blog knows that I care about the deep questions of life, and that I am a Christian. During my younger years, my family attended a variety of denominations, from the Christian Missionary Alliance church that my grandparents on both sides were part of (both sets were foreign missionaries), to Assembly of God. I have also attended a Filipino church, several non-denominational churches, and a couple of home-based churches. As part of my musical life, I have participated in services from Catholic to Anglican to Methodist. There have been things I have liked and disliked about each particular flavor.

After all this peripatetic wandering, my wife and I settled on our present church as the church we would attend while dating. We have now been there thirteen years - far longer than any church either of us attended previously. It is a smallish Evangelical Free Church. The doctrinal statement is short and sweet, and the denomination is remarkably non-authoritarian, giving individual churches plenty of freedom, within the general confines of, for lack of a better term, Evangelical doctrine. The motto that our church aspires to live by is, “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, Charity.”

I have been involved in music within the church since I was able to sing alto in the choir. Violin has been my musical love since age 7, but I also fill in where needed on assorted stringed instruments.

6. What social issues are you most passionate about?

I care about a wide variety of issues, most of which have or will find their way into my blog.

What I would say is that I believe that too many of us (on both ends of the political spectrum) take the easy route and make our “social issues” either a matter of moralizing to others or of demanding that the government do this or that.

I say, put your money and your time where your mouth is. Get out and volunteer. Give of your own resources. Get to know people outside of your little socioeconomic or religious box. Spend more time helping others than whining about what they do or do not do.

(Bonus fact here. Did you know that the Law is the only profession that is expected to spend time on volunteer work? It is actually in our code of professional conduct. Others, such as doctors, and I imagine, even architects, do volunteer, but we are actively expected to do so.)

7. Are you a foodie?

Yes. Very much a foodie. Even worse, I come from a long line of foodies. My paternal grandfather was an Army cook - by all accounts a good one - and he started my paternal family’s tradition that the men do the majority of the cooking duties for holidays. Yes, most of us can do a turkey, ham, roast, stuffing from scratch (we dry our own bread), pies. My dad is an excellent cook as well. He actually had to teach my mom how to cook, since her parents never did. (She learned fast. We ate well.)

I started cooking when I was short enough to need a chair to get up to the level of the stove. By age ten, I could cook a couple of meals by myself. Even then, I messed around with my recipes, and measured spices by taste rather than teaspoons.

By my teens, I was regularly cooking about once a week, and doing much of the grocery shopping (along with my siblings - who also cook well). I informed my future wife that I expected to be an equal in the kitchen. If she was unwilling to accept that, she could look elsewhere. Fortunately, she liked my cooking. We still share the kitchen, each cooking half the time on average. She is an excellent cook in her own right, so our family eats very well indeed.

I am thoroughly enjoying sharing this love of food and cooking with my kids. (I have a higher tolerance for kid induced chaos in the kitchen than my wife.)

8. What is your favorite color?

As a kid, my unequivocal answer would have been “green.” More specifically, I loved Sea Green from the large Crayola set. But all greens were good. I probably haven’t changed that much. I love the greens of nature. All the greens from the sage green of the desert to the painful green of the rainforest. I love the way that a forest changes from one green to another with the changes in altitude. I love the way that pines, firs, cedars, and sequoias each have a different and distinct green that is visible even a mile away.

I also have a thing for red, however. I think trucks should be red. (Yes, I own a red truck.) I like red ties. I like chile peppers of all kinds. I like red roses and fresh tomatoes still warm from the summer sun.

Unsurprisingly, I like Christmas decorations. Always have, and probably always will. Also The Holly and the Ivy.

9. What other stuff do you like?

Books. Poetry. Music. Especially music. Cats. Growing stuff. Working up a good sweat. Hiking. Running. Soccer. Being alone to think. Spending time with true friends. Good metaphors. Bad puns. Acid wit. Proper use of apostrophes. Semicolons. Caves. Mythbusters. Roller coasters. Fireworks. The mountains. The smell, look, and feel of real wood. Meteor showers. Vacuum tubes. Marmots. Irises of all kinds, but particularly bearded. Manual transmissions. Cheering for the underdog - particularly a short one. Condors and other huge birds. British authors with funny names that use their initials instead. Insects, snakes, spiders, and creepy-crawlies of all kinds. Baroque musical instruments.

Speaking of things that I like...

Monday, November 26, 2012

They Thought They Were Free by Milton Mayer

Source of book: Borrowed from my political geek friend Craig. Unfortunately, it is out of print. 

As with any truly serious book about a complex historical issue, it is difficult to distill this book down to a review. Despite the efforts of historians throughout history to reduce the messiness of history and the acts of numerous individuals down to some combination of abstract ideas and forces, it defies easy analysis. Isaac Asimov wrote a series of novels based on the idea that while individual actions were unpredictable, the actions of a mob, or at least the greater mass of human groups, could be predicted. Alas, this has proven to work out better in fiction rather than reality - although one may decide - after the fact, of course - that what actually happened was inevitable.

What the author of this book does exceptionally well is to zoom in on the actions of individuals in Germany during the Nazi era and examine their lives and actions. He then is able to expand from there to look at the larger forces that influenced the individual decisions. While subsequent history has, unsurprisingly, proven the author partially wrong as to his predictions for the future (Germany has yet to become militaristic as a result of the Cold War, for example), his examination of the individual lives of “ordinary men” gives us both insight and a warning as to our own vulnerabilities.

As an American, I was repelled by the rise of National Socialism in Germany. As an American of German descent, I was ashamed. As a Jew, I was stricken. As a Newspaperman, I was fascinated.

Thus begins the introduction to the book. The entire introduction is excellent, although it is too long to quote here. The author traveled to Germany in the early 1950s to interview, over the course of an extended period, a number of ordinary Germans regarding the rise and fall of Nazism in Germany. He chose the town of Kronenburg as an average smallish town with average, ordinary residents, as his location. He and his family lived there for a period of about a year, getting to know residents personally. Although his was mostly candid with his subjects, he did lie on two accounts. First, he did not disclose that he was a Jew. Second, he did not disclose that he already knew some details about his subjects from other sources. He picked ten men of varying ages and social status, with a range of education, and also a range of genuine belief in Nazism.

What he found was disturbing. He discovered that he found it difficult to judge his subjects harshly for their actions, under the circumstances. Worse yet, he realized that even he himself would have been unlikely, as an ordinary man, to have been able to make different decisions. As he puts it, Nazism was what most Germans wanted - or at least came to want under pressure of a combined harsh reality and comforting illusion. It wasn’t so much a defect in the German man as a defect that permeates Mankind in general that makes all of us susceptible to a similar evil, under similar circumstances.

With the exception of the anti-Nazi schoolteacher, however, none of them, even after the fact, saw Nazism as evil. Their experience of it was qualitatively different than the view of those on the outside.
Rather, their experience was that of a positive economic, social, and personal good - not an experience of a tyranny, but of golden age. How could this be? After the post-war economic disaster in the 1920s and 30s, Nazism restored a semblance of normalcy. People were employed again, and times were good. The national self esteem rebounded, and people were able to feel good about themselves and their nation again. Of course, this only applied to a certain majority of the population. The Jews didn’t exactly have it as good as the “real” Germans. As the author points out, it is unusual for even an autocratic system to make the majority of the population miserable. It is impossible for a dictator to feel comfortable without a certain level of comfort in the ordinary man. The cost of maintaining order in a tumultuous society is high, and impossible to bear in the long term. One must eventually rule by default rather than fear. As Machiavelli said, politicians - even tyrants - cannot afford to be hated.

The genius, evil as it was, behind the Nazi system was that it built off of a pre-existing degree of anti-Semitism.

Ordinary people - and ordinary Germans - cannot be expected to tolerate activities which outrage the ordinary sense of ordinary decency unless the victims are, in advance, successfully stigmatized as enemies of the people, of the nation, the race, the religion. Or, if they are not enemies (that comes later), they must be an element within the community somehow extrinsic to the common bond, a decompositive ferment (be it only by the way they part their hair or tie their necktie) in the uniformity which is everywhere the condition of common quiet. The German’s innocuous acceptance and practice of social anti-Semitism before Hitlerism had undermined the resistance of their ordinary decency to the stigmatization and persecution to come.

It is this exclusion of “the other,” wherever it is found, that worries Craig and me, although sometimes for different reasons and in different circumstances. It is this that is disturbing about modern politics. The partisans of either side are unable to view the other as sharing common humanity. I am appalled at those of my friends on both sides who are convinced that one must be evil, or at least stupid beyond belief, to hold to the opposite position. Currently, my country is deeply, and fairly evenly divided. What would be even more worrisome is if one side or the other gained enough numbers to be able to silence - and perhaps eventually exterminate - the other side.

The author correctly notes that at the time the book was written (prior to the civil rights legislation), that Americans had become accustomed to the exclusion of African Americans, even in the northern States. There is little if any difference between “Jews not wanted here” and “Nigger, don’t let the sun set on you here” - a common sign in the Jim Crow South.

Not that every German wanted to exterminate the Jews. On the contrary, most probably would have opposed it, had they known about the “final solution” at the beginning. By the time the program  moved from an innocent boycott of non-German businesses to the burning of Synagogues, there was “nothing to be done about it,” as the German saying went.

This is the most disconcerting idea to those, like me, who have a certain wish to avoid trouble, whatever our non-conformist ideals may be. It is good to remember that the United States shipped thousands of Japanese-Americans (even those who had been here for generations) to camps such as Manzanar during World War II. How much protest was there then? Would we have objected had they been exterminated? A sobering thought.

With the vast majority of us interested in avoiding conflict, it was amazing how few truly doctrinaire Nazis it took to subdue a nation. That very small percentage of what we would deem truly “evil” was a miniscule portion of the population. To set up the party structure, all that was further required was to inspire the “joiners” to work at the local level. We all know some people - extroverts usually - who will join any committee, pitch in to help any cause, without really examining the underbelly. It is these who maintained the Nazis at the local level. Many of these joined in equally enthusiastically in anti-Nazi causes after the war.

In contrast to the “joiners” are those who more resemble myself - at least at my present age. During the McCarthy era of anti-Communist witch hunts, many became disgusted with “the whole thing” - with politics in general. I’ll admit, after this last election, I’m there. I’m sick of talking points, sick of the name-calling, sick of the shallow thought and slogans. I’m tired of being told that corporations just want to kill us, or that welfare recipients are bleeding us dry. I’m tired of the problem always being someone else - someone easy to blame and hate. The author does correctly note that this was the state of the Weimar Republic. While they fought over political privilege, the ship of state was sinking. In comparison to this mess, the clear light of Nazism shined, promising something higher and more noble than mere politics. Hitler would clean out the rats - and he did. I can see how the appeal would be great, even today in an era of cynicism, even to myself, a natural sceptic.

And so, Hitler was embrace by otherwise good, decent people.

Earlier this year, I read The Opium of the Intellectuals, a powerful work on the attractions of totalitarian Communism. In that book, the author makes a strong case that doctrinaire Marxism is every bit as much a religion as those which worship a personal deity. Mayer similarly shows the role that Nazism played as a religion. Originally, Hitler seemed to embrace and seek to restore the role of the church. The Weimar Republic stood for separation of Church and State, which Hitler sought to reverse. Later, however, he sought to silence the church as a voice of protest. In this way, all totalitarianism is the same, whether it is atheistic or radically religious. Neither Stalin nor the present day Ayatollahs can tolerate dissent.

Earlier in my life, I was - rightly I still think - concerned of the prospect of a totalitarian state imposed from the left. Certainly the experience of Communism in the last century is adequate proof of the risk. I still believe that it is possible that our nation may succumb to this threat. I do not want to appear as if I am discounting this side of the argument.

However, I have become increasingly aware of the risk from the right as well. My friend Craig is an endangered species - an Australian Conservative. My formative experiences - particularly in my teens and early twenties - are a bit different. As those who have read some of my more personal posts earlier this year know, I grew up very conservative, and very religious. Most of my friends and heroes tended to be in the same direction. I will say that both my faith and my politics have survived to the present time, but with some rejection of the attitudes underlying the most fanatical of each.

What I find to be most worrisome over the last decade or so is the degree to which both political and Christian conservatism have shifted emphasis. I found a number of disturbing parallels in this book.

First of all is the growing hostility toward “the other.” I do not remember such a fixation on the supposed threat and damage caused by those outside of the group. There is a story with delicious sardonic humor, which was told by and regarding the Jews in Germany during the Third Reich. A Jew was riding a streetcar, reading the propaganda newspaper published by Goebbels. An non-Jewish acquaintance sits down next to him, and asks him why he is reading it.

“Look,” says the Jew. I work in a factory all day. When I get home, my wife nags me, the children are sick, and there’s no money for food. What should I do on my way home, read the Jewish newspaper? ‘Pogrom in Roumania.’ ‘Jews Murdered in Poland.’ ‘New Laws against Jews.’ No sir, a half-hour a day, on the streetcar, I read the Beobachter. ‘Jews the World Capitalists.’ ‘Jews Control Russia.’ ‘Jews Rule in England.’ That’s me they’re talking about. A half-hour a day, I’m somebody.”

These days, the hatred of the “rich” is of course, an obvious parallel to Marxist thought. However, I have noticed a corresponding tendency on the right to blame “welfare queens in Cadillacs,” “the 47% who doesn’t pay taxes,” “illegal immigrants,” and other formulations. In certain ultra-conservative Christian circles, there is a push to reject all forms of culture post-dating the Civil War  - particularly African American culture. (I promise that I will post my research on this soon - I’m filling in a few research gaps.) Even among more mainstream conservative movements, there is a readiness to blame some exterior influence for our own failures. I don’t believe that this is just a difference of policy. At its core, I believe it is an issue of attitude. A belief that those who are different are morally inferior. Just as the Jews were - and sometimes still are - portrayed as a morally degenerate, “decadent” race.

Here are a couple of other interesting parallels with what I shall refer to as the “ultra-conservative, Christian culture movement,” for lack of a better term.

First, like the Nazis, this movement requires the destruction of academic independence. Teachers that teach truth that might conflict with the doctrine of the group cannot be tolerated. In both cases, schools were or are to be subordinated to the need to teach doctrine.

In the case of the Nazis, this meant that there was an approved book list. The author quotes from the Nazi manual for upper-school teaching:

[O]nly such selections should be chosen as point in the direction of the New Germany, help prepare the new world outlook [Weltanschauung], or give instances of its innermost will. As we recognize only the vigorous as educationally valuable, everything must be avoided that weakens or discourages manliness. The thought of race will stand out strongest with a vivid knowledge of Teutonism.

One might only add a few “Christianisms” to the above to match the language of a number of leaders in the “ultraconservative Christian” movement.

Key to both movements, in my opinion, is a glorification of a mythical past. As the author puts it, “My friends, like all people to whom the present is unpalatable, and the future unpromising, always look back.”

And later, “ After 1918 the immobile German, incapable of adjusting to the new conditions inflicted upon him, turning romantically and meaninglessly toward the hope of restoring the old, found himself bewildered and increasingly helpless.”

As I hope to point out in a later post, a key element in the ultraconservative vision is a restoration of the romanticised past, which is a natural result of a failure to adjust to changing conditions. The Nazis, quite naturally actually, blamed an outside group for this failure to adjust - and sought to impose a vision radically opposite to the status quo, exterminating all who stood in their way.

The author of this book, in his theorizing as to what went wrong, posits that an element of the problem was the concept of an “idea” that was divorced from reality. An idea that could not be challenged, no matter how grotesque or harmful it became in practice. Isaac Bashevis Singer, in his intriguing short stories, tells of a Judaism based on the Talmud and the Kabbalah that became increasingly insular, completely divorced from reality. Real people and real life were looked upon as intrusions that must be eliminated. Likewise, the Nazi doctrine (and in other circumstances, Marxist doctrine) became unimpeachable by reality. I find the same problems in the modern ultraconservative movement where doctrine has become everything, and reality cannot be allowed to intrude. If the doctrine is right, then we must ignore the damage to real people that occurs. Germany must rise, after all, and if the Jews stand in the way, too bad for them.

I particularly struck by one passage in this book, quoting a German professor:

And one day, too late, your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush upon you. The burden of self-deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident...collapses it all at once, and you see that everything, everything has changed and changed completely under your nose. The world you live in - your nation, your people - is not the world you were born in at all. The forms are all there, all untouched, all reassuring, the houses, the shops, the jobs, the holidays. But the spirit, which you never noticed because you made the lifelong mistake of identifying it with the forms, is changed. Now you life in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves; when everyone is transformed, no one is transformed.

And this is how it happens. The form is embraced rather than the spirit. The past is worshiped along with the “idea,” and people and reality become casualties in the process. And, as the author aptly notes, this isn’t a German problem, it is a human problem. This isn’t them. It’s us. It’s me, and it’s you.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Poems about Gratefulness

In honor of my favorite holiday, Thanksgiving, I present contrasting poems on the theme of gratefulness.

Thanksgiving has been my favorite holiday for years. As much as I love Christmas, Thanksgiving seems to be one of the last relatively non-commercial holidays left. The weather is usually perfect in Southern California in November. The food is spectacular if done right. (And my family has always done it right. We make the stuffing from scratch, and keep the turkey moist.)

Most of all, the holiday is about gratefulness. It is one thing to give gifts and say thanks. It is another to be grateful for the things that money cannot buy. For another year of life, love, and friendship. For the blessings that we have that we tend to take for granted.

The first poem is by George Herbert.


Thou that hast giv’n so much to me,
Give one thing more, a gratefull heart.
See how thy beggar works on thee
                                             By art.

He makes thy gifts occasion more,
And sayes, If he in this be crost,
All thou hast giv’n him heretofore
                                             Is lost.

But thou didst reckon, when at first
Thy word our hearts and hands did crave,
What it would come to at the worst
                                             To save.

Perpetuall knockings at thy doore,
Tears sullying thy transparent rooms,
Gift upon gift, much would have more,
                                             And comes.

This notwithstanding, thou wentst on,
And didst allow us all our noise:
Nay, thou hast made a sigh and grone
                                             Thy joyes.

Not that thou hast not still above
Much better tunes, then grones can make;
But that these countrey-aires thy love
                                             Did take.

Wherefore I crie, and crie again;
And in no quiet canst thou be,
Till I a thankfull heart obtain
                                             Of thee:

Not thankfull, when it pleaseth me;
As if thy blessings had spare dayes:
But such a heart, whose pulse may be
                                             Thy praise.

While Herbert often uses unusual poetic patterns for visual effect, his  form here is simple. Three lines of iambic tetrameter, followed by a two syllable final line in each stanza. The rhyme scheme is ABAB.

Herbert’s idea, however, is truly profound. Our very asking for gratefulness is in itself a form of ungratefulness. Not content to simply BE grateful, we have to ask for it. We soon forget our blessings. And yet, it is in this very weakness that are redeemed. We were not loved because we would love back, but loved in the midst of our selfish unloveableness.

I think Herbert also understands that gratefulness isn’t so much a specific action or state of mind as a state of being. It must be an innate part of us, not something we add to ourselves.

Emily Dickinson, my first poetic love, also grasped this truth. I couldn’t choose between two particular poems, so I decided to use both.
POEM 655 (circa 1862) 

Without this— there is nought—
All other Riches be
As is the Twitter of a Bird—
Heard opposite the Sea—

I could not care— to gain
A lesser than the Whole—
For did not this include themself—
As Seams— include the Ball?

I wished a way might be
My Heart to subdivide—
'Twould magnify— the Gratitude—
And not reduce— the Gold—

POEM 989 (circa 1865)

Gratitude— is not the mention
Of a Tenderness,
But it's still appreciation
Out of Plumb of Speech.

When the Sea return no Answer
By the Line and Lead
Prove it there's no Sea, or rather
A remoter Bed?

Dickinson uses the sea as a metaphor in both of these poems, but in a different way. In the first, the passing reference gives way to a second image: that of the ball as the essential (gratitude) encompassed by everything else, rather than the other way around. I think Dickinson is particularly effective in this poem by leaving the key word, gratitude, until the next-to-the-last line. Thus, we glimpse the casing: everything else, before we glimpse the center of the point, gratitude. This short poem also uses a simple, classic form. Three feet per line, with a roughly ABCB form.

The second poem also uses a four line stanza, but uses tetrameter in the first and third lines, with a feminine ending, and trimeter in the second and fourth. Like Herbert, she uses an ABAB rhyme in this poem. Like Herbert, she notes that gratitude is not just words. In fact, words and gratitude do not even run parallel; and gratitude, to her, is the most real and deep when it makes no express answer.

One of the things I love about poetry is that it speaks beyond the explicit. The meaning is to be felt and understood first, rather than understood first, and then felt. A good writer could have written these ideas out in plain and clear prose, but it would have lost the true impact.

Gratefulness itself, like a poem, cannot be separated into pieces. It must be an integral part of us - a state of being, not just an accessory to our usual outfit, an attitude we assume when it suits us.