Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings earlier this year, I heard about this book, written in 2007, in reference to its treatment of the problems of assimilation. This book explores that question, from the point of view of a successful young Pakistani who rejects the American vision and returns to Pakistan to become an anti-American professor. In a number of ways, the protagonist’s life parallels that of the Tsarnaev brothers, and the book thus seems precient.

I have mentioned before that one of the differences between good literature and poor is that a truly skilled writer doesn’t settle for easy answers. Mohsin Hamid does an unsettlingly good job of that in The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

This book is a novella in length, with a limited focus on a short time period and a very limited number of characters. The narrator, Changez, comes from a wealthy Pakistani family, and has graduated at the top of his class at Princeton. He is hired by a cutthroat business valuation firm, meets and dates a beautiful woman, and seems to have it made. The darkness that lies beneath the surface of this life is not apparent to Changez at first, but two events gradually awaken him to his ambivalent feelings about his experiences in the United States, and turn his love of his adopted country into a desire to leave and never return.

The form of the book is interesting. Changez narrates the book in the first person, unfolding his story to an unnamed American that he meets on the streets of Lahore. The two of them have a meal together, and Changez tells his story as the meal progresses. Each of the twelve chapters begins and ends with the narrator’s part of the small talk about the meal. The mysterious person on the other end never directly speaks, although his responses and statements are referred to when Changez echoes them back. The effect is one of a two-sided conversation, but we are left to guess at what the other side says - and indeed, who he is.

There are essentially two parallel stories. The first, and main one, is Changez’ personal emotional journey as he becomes disillusioned with the American dream. The second is the descent of his girlfriend, Erica, into mental illness. She lost her fiancĂ© to cancer, but is still more attached to him than to the real world. Hamid doesn’t include this subplot merely for its effect on Changez - although it does play a role in his transformation. It in many ways expresses the idea of the two worlds, the desire for the past, and the dilemma of being caught between two worlds, that Changez experiences - but with an emotional dimension more familiar to a modern American who lacks the first-hand knowledge of the immigrant experience.

Likewise, the sexual content (which is brief), serves a purpose in the narrative and particularly in the psychology of Changez and Erica. It is neither gratuitous nor particularly pleasant.

However, the most unpleasant part of this book was the recognition of some truly poisonous American attitudes. In the wake of September 11, there was an outpouring of patriotism. Not a bad thing, necessarily, but one which felt better at the time than it does now in retrospect. Changez feels as if he had stepped into a film about World War Two.

What your fellow countrymen longed for was unclear to me - a time of unquestioned dominance? of safety? of moral certainty? I did not know - but that they were scrambling to don the costumes of another era was apparent. I felt treacherous for wondering whether that era was fictitious, and whether - if it could be animated - it contained a part written  for someone like me.

Really, I think it is the last of his suggestions that makes the most sense. We long for the moral clarity of World War Two, and have never been able to re-create that. (Perhaps the threat of annihilation glosses over any ambiguities in any case.) Our subsequent wars (even the Cold War) have never been as simple as we would wish. Perhaps even on a deeper level, we can never go back to the days of naive colonialism when we could believe that we, as English speaking, white Europeans were an unmitigated force for good in the world. When we could believe that whites were an inherently superior race, and Christianity and Western culture were perceived as synonymous.

This longing for the idealized past is the central theme in this book, actually. Changez is most clear in his own mind that this applies to the newly jingoistic United States, but he also realizes that his own Pakistan also clings to the past, both on a national and personal level. Pakistan mourns the decline of its power and influence - particularly in contrast to India. (The narrowly avoided nuclear war between Pakistan and India features prominently.) On a more personal level, the glory days of the Pakistani aristocracy have passed, and Changez’ family has fallen on hard times. The paint has faded and the servants have had to depart one by one. Their wealth, and, even more importantly, their status, has declined.

What is one to do with the feeling of decline? Whether it reflects reality or not in a given situation, there is a general feeling throughout much of the world right now that things are going downhill. (It is a bit paradoxical that this malaise applies equally to the Euro-American “First World” and to the Islamic empires.) As the author notes, the usual response is to single out some facet of the past as “the reason” and attempt to re-create that portion of the past. For both the muslim world and a significant segment of Conservative America, there has been a religious element advocating a return to the culture of the past, with a focus on “traditional” gender roles, antiquated and restrictive clothing, and a deep distrust of those with whom they disagree.

I found it particularly interesting that Changez (like the Tsarnaev brothers) was not particularly religious. He initially had no beard, was not religiously observant, drank alcohol and ate pork, and was generally secular. He wasn’t pushed toward his anti-American opinions by his religion, but exactly the opposite. The distaste for American arrogance pushes him toward outward manifestations associated with Islam. (He doesn’t appear to become religious in a observant rather than cultural sense.)

As I said, this book is profoundly discomfiting. It is impossible not to identify at some level with Changez, and to recognize the unsavory side of our patriotism. It is also tough to see how easy it is to plaster a veneer of “right” and “wrong” over a longing for a time of unchallenged power.

I also am continuing to mull how to formulate an alternative to nostalgia for the (mythical) past. My children need to have a sense of hope for the future. For that matter, so do I. The future will not be identical to the past - and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We sanitize the past, ignoring the problems - particularly for the poor. We have difficulty seeing the good of the present. (Good news doesn’t tend to get press coverage...)

A few other things in this book were memorable. First, the food. Since the story is told over a meal, delectable dishes appear at regular intervals. Hamid, an immigrant from Lahore himself, delights in the cuisine, and describes it well. Here is some chicken tikka - one of the central dishes of the story. 

Also interesting was a scene in which a bearded older man is sighted staring inappropriately at some young women dressed to show their faces and necks. A brazen sight, as far as he is concerned. As Changez says, “one’s rules of propriety make one thirst for the improper.” The counterintuitive effect of the focus on making females dress “properly” turns out to be a near-pornographic obsession with the female body. (I intend to eventually address this issue in a future post. My experience with the Christian Patriarchy movement is one of a surprisingly high level of sexual misconduct - which is also well documented in the most conservative Muslim countries.)

My knowledge of history has gaps which I am trying to fill through my reading these days. I acknowledge that it is impossible to cover everything in primary school classes, and that it is probably natural to focus on the history of one’s own country, I have found that there is much of world history which was ignored in the curriculum that I studied. This book ended up introducing me to the Janissaries.

The Janissaries were a class of semi-slave soldiers in the Ottoman empire. They were non-Arabic, primarily Albanian and Greek, and were captured/selected as children, and raised specifically for their function. Changez feels that he has himself become a Janissary by helping to promote American hegemony through high finance. I can thoroughly understand his disgust at being part of a thoroughly corrupt financial system, and specifically part of a company that works to the detriment of employees and in favor of corporate raiders. I myself would have moral problems with doing his kind of work.

One particular incident turns out to be an odd coincidence of timing. Changez references Washington Irving’s short story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and the unidentified American notes that he has seen the movie. (One of my least favorite things about my fellow countrymen - they see the movie before reading the book.) Changez notes that he has only read the story, but he is sure the movie is faithful to the book. (I wonder if he is being ironic here.) This year, The Reluctant Fundamentalist was made into a movie. From my reading of the reviews, it has many changes - and not for the better - from the book. (There is an additional subplot, apparently, which seems unnecessary.)

One final note on the ending. Hamid chooses his own version of The Lady or the Tiger for his ending. Changez notes that it is as foolish to assume all Americans are CIA assassins as to assume that all anti-American Pakistanis are terrorists. We never do learn if the mysterious American is such a person or not.

This does raise an interesting question of prejudice, however. In general, my friends who have immigrated to the United States have expressed to me how surprisingly nice Americans are. Quite contrary to the portrayal in the media of their native countries. However, this niceness does not necessarily extend to those perceived to be Middle Eastern. A colleague at the Res Ipsa Loquitur (our county bar association magazine) spent a day in hijab as an experiment. She works at our local community college, so she walked around there, interacting with students and staff, who didn’t always recognize her. She also did her usual rounds to her children’s school and ate out, and generally did her normal routine. Her experience was eye-opening. (She wrote about it at length for the Magazine.) She found that, like the fictional Changez once he grows a beard, she was treated with fear and suspicion.

I had one further experience of my own that also correlates with these issues. Back in my college days, before September 11, and really before Osama bin Laden became a household name, our orchestra had a violinist from Iran. He was a quiet, normal seeming guy. No beard or other signs of being devout. Indeed, I never heard him speak of religion at all. It was a shock to us later when he was arrested and convicted of selling weapons to Iran from his garage. It is yet another example of the danger of looking at appearances as the primary indicator of character.

There is much to think about and talk about and this book is a good contribution to the conversation.

Monday, June 17, 2013

On the Map by Simon Garfield

Source of book: Borrowed from my brother.

Last year, my brother gave me a copy of Just My Type, a delightful book on typography by Simon Garfield. Imagine our delight when Garfield followed up that book with one on the history of mapmaking. This book did not disappoint.

I have loved maps as long as I can remember, whether the road atlas our family used when taking vacations, or our trusty Thomas Guide to Los Angeles County. I spent hours studying them, and planning routes. By the time I obtained my driver’s permit at age 15, I could draw out the freeway system of the northern half of Los Angeles from memory (and most of the southern half as well). I could do a credible job of the interstate highways in California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico; and the major streets of the San Fernando Valley, where I grew up. While my street-level knowledge of Los Angeles has faded a bit with time and disuse, I still carry a map in my head of many of the places I have been.

Real places weren’t enough, either. I designed my own worlds. I could be entertained for days with a ruler, paper, and pencil, drawing up imaginary cities, complete with individual houses and shops that I designed as well. (Alas, I seem to have lost all of my maps - many of which took up entire rooms of folded out. I do, however, have most of my house plans that I drew up in my junior high days. Ten feet to the inch, floor plans plus exterior elevations painstakingly drawn to scale.) So yes, I love maps.

As Robert Louis Stevenson (whose map of Treasure Island appears in the book) said about his own love for maps, “here is an inexhaustible fund of interest for any may with eyes to see or twopenceworth of imagination to understand with!”

Simon Garfield is not one of those authors who decide to write a book, and then learn about the topic. Both Just My Type and On the Map came after the author’s long standing fascination with the topic, and his (somewhat nerdy) enthusiasm is catching. In addition to recognizing a fellow map lover, I found that I shared his ambivalence about satellite navigation. We both worry that it has led to an ignorance of how to read a map, and to a lack of awareness of one’s surroundings. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to have an available navigation app available in an unfamiliar place - and have considered carrying one while hiking just in case. Still, I always get a map when I travel to a new city, or hike to a new area of the mountains, and study it in advance to know the basic features of where I will be.

(Side note: for those of us in California, I highly recommend the Tom Harrison hiking maps for their accuracy and durability.)

I knew I was going to like this book when I first cracked it open and discovered that the inside binding had a map of the world drawn to look like the iconic map of the London Tube system, by Mark Ovenden. The original Tube map is one of the finest works of practical map-making ever. During the week I spent in London, we took the Tube everywhere (except where we walked), and the map was amazing for its usefulness, clarity, and its beauty. It is instantly recognizable by anyone who loves maps. 

The history of mapmaking essentially begins with Claudius Ptolemy (the scholar, not to be confused with the mythical ruler of Thebes or any of the various Ptolemys that ruled Egypt in the 300 years before the birth of Christ), whose map of the known world (at least that known to Western Civilization), created in the Second Century AD, would remain in use for over a thousand years. Ptolemy was from Alexandria, which was the center of knowledge in the Roman world. The great library of Alexandria, created in 330 BC, aspired to contain all the knowledge in the world - and probably came remarkably close to doing so. It burned in 48 BC (probably an accident), and had subsequent damage, but kept being rebuilt until its final destruction in 641 AD by the Muslim armies of Caliph Omar. Omar, who actually studied under Muhammad himself, had no use for books. When asked about the fate of the library, he is said to have replied, “If the contents of the books are in accordance with the book of Allah, we may do without them, for in that case, the book of Allah more than suffices. If, on the other hand, they contain matter not in accordance with the book of Allah, there can be no need to preserve them. Proceed then, and destroy them.” All book lovers everywhere are now in serious pain upon hearing this. (See my note below on my personal experiences with this poisonous philosophy.)

Mapmakers subsequent to Ptolemy were faced with the difficulty of filling in the unknown areas of the globe. (The earth was known to be round and its current size long before Columbus.) Many chose to fill the gaps with mythical creatures. Although no ancient map actually said, “Here be Dragons,” many other fun creatures often appeared. Sea serpents. And, on the Hereford Mappa Mundi, what may well have been C. S. Lewis’ inspiration for the Dufflepuds. 

There are also some really peculiar errors that persisted long after they were known to be errors. Most of us who grew up in California know that it was at one time thought to be an island. (The very first maps, correctly, showed it attached to the mainland, but it drifted free around 1622.) Of course, this was eventually corrected in most maps as it became clear that we were attached to the mainland. However, believe it or not, a map made in Japan in 1865 still showed California as an island, despite the fact that it was a state - and despite the fact that the first transcontinental railroad was already under construction, and would be completed a mere four years later.

The book is just filled with interesting historical notes, such as the fact that noted atlas pioneer Willem Blaeu got his start working with astronomer Tycho Brahe. (Who, incidentally, lost his nose in a duel, and wore a metal prosthetic which he glued on.) Or the fact that a Blaeu atlas cost the equivalent of $40,000 - but still sold over 1500 copies. Or that the first real use of “limelight” was by Thomas Drummond, who did the first British “ordnance survey” in the 1820s. It would later find use on the stage, of course.

A great line by the author on the new “strip maps” that contained inns and public houses and other travel necessities:

They prepared the traveller, coachman, and prospective highwayman as never before. It was now possible to read the distances and calculate where to stop for a meal or a night robbery.

I was thrilled to find a mention of a map used in a court case. Actually, it was published during a famous British case from 1817, in which a woman was murdered, and her body discovered in a pit. The case turned in large part on whether the accused had an alibi. The map in question was made by a teacher and amateur geographer. The map did much to influence public opinion. But, the case got even weirder. The defendant decided to challenge the victim’s brother to “trial by battle,” the ancient method of settling disputes which eventually gave rise to the profession of lawyer. (One could hire someone to fight the battle on one’s behalf. Fortunately for me, size is no longer much of an asset in legal disputes.) Amazingly, the court agreed! And then, having won his point, the defendant fled to the New World and disappeared. Chicken.

The other interesting thing about this case was the casual way that the assumptions of “rape culture” were accepted. The victim’s gravestone moralizes about the terrible fate she suffered “having incautiously repaired to a scene of amusement without proper protection.” Meaning that she went to a dance without a man to protect her, which naturally lead to her rape and murder. Yep. That’s what caused it, not the acts of a violent murderer. (Sounds a little like the Taliban, no?)

Another mention of the attitudes of the time occurred in the discussion of the explorations of Henry Stanley (“Dr. Livingston, I presume?”) in Africa. He was enlisted by King Leopold II of Belgium to explore and conquer for him, with the explanation, “It is a question of creating a new state, as big as possible, and of running it. It is clearly understood that in this project there is no question of granting the slightest political power to the Negroes. That would be absurd.” Ah, yes. The good old days of European Colonialism.

I did disagree with the author on one cultural issue. In a sidebar regarding maps and women, he leans in the direction that woman read maps differently than men, focusing on landmarks rather than big picture overhead views. The research he cited does not seem convincing to me, although his general point is interesting. Just my general observation, but, I have found that many people cannot navigate by map; and men and women are equally representative of this category. I have not observed a general trend in favor of male map skills. Also, while I consider myself to be good with maps, my wife is also an excellent navigator, and defies the stereotype of women that cannot rotate objects in three dimensions. So no, I don’t think that our current map formats are geared toward men so much as that we patronize females and discourage them from learning the skills.

On a related note, I do agree with the author that the use of GPS has led to a decline in navigational skills among both men and women. I do think the author engages in a bit of alarmist hyperbole in his claim (I think he is serious, but not sure) that if the GPS system went down, society would collapse and only those that could run a plow would survive. A bit too much like the Y2K panic.

In addition to the many maps of our home planet, Garfield also mentions star maps - and the early maps of Mars. Earlier this year, I read and reviewed A Princess of Mars, which contains much of the mythology that arose during these early years, when Mars was thought to have canals and civilizations, and to be running out of water. (A key plot point in Burroughs’ book.)

One final fun note. The South American island of Trinidad (not to be confused with the better known Trinidad in the Caribbean) was once believed to be the hiding place of pirate treasure. Multiple expeditions were sent there to search for the gold, but it was never found. However, everyone complained about the crabs. Large land crabs that were as pesky as mice, but more disconcerting. Apparently the Island was a Mecca of sorts for crustaceans. While the explorers were not so thrilled, Stephen Maturin, the fictional spy and surgeon in Patrick O’Brian’s delightful series, noted the birds and the invertebrates with equal enthusiasm during his stopover. 

This is a fun book for anyone who loves maps, and even for those who are not, perhaps. As usual, Garfield mixes information with memorable anecdotes and brings the topic to life with his own love for the topic at hand.  

Note on Caliph Omar:

The fundamental education philosophy of Bill Gothard’s home schooling program is that all knowledge is contained within Scripture. Thus, rather than having separate subjects, everything was supposed to flow out of a study of the Bible. In this case, not just the Bible, but the Sermon on the Mount. Literally. The entire curriculum was based on three chapters in the New Testament. Sure, there were lots of ideas for study that grew out of each verse, but to competently teach from that “curriculum” alone would require a tremendous ability to recreate a course in each subject.

I never really did the “curriculum,” as I was nearly done with high school at the time we enrolled, and I continued with my academically rigorous courses. My parents continued to supplement my siblings’ studies with regular curriculum and made sure we were all well educated. None of us had any difficulty with college level courses later on.

That said, I do not know anyone who was educated solely by the Gothard curriculum (not supplemented by regular school books) who attained a passable knowledge of mathematics, science, history, or any other subject, really. And don’t get me started on the attitude toward literature, which is pretty much the same as Caliph Omar’s view of knowledge. Oops too late.

The fundamental idea that Gothard set forth is that the only route to truth is through Scripture, and Scripture alone. Not just the truth about God. The truth about everything. All one had to do in order to know everything one needed - and to have success in life (basic principle #7) - was to study and meditate on Scripture. If it was worth knowing, it was found in the Book of Allah the Bible, and if it wasn’t in the Book of Allah the Bible, it was probably a lie and not worth knowing. This “truth” was illustrated, like most of Gothard’s ideas, with a story. Supposedly, the division of the Secret Service that investigates counterfeiting trains their agents to detect counterfeit bills simply by having them study the real thing. Thus proving the point that to know truth, all one needs do is read the Bible.

Except that this story happens to be completely false. Examining the real thing is merely a part of the training, and agents also study clever counterfeits as well. (Um, this seems pretty obvious, but fact checking is not always a strong point these days. We need more Bereans.)

In practice, this means that books are generally looked on with suspicion, and must first prove that they agree with the particular theology of Gothard - or Douglas Phillips - in the case of those groups influenced by Vision Forum.

In the group my wife was in, the more “committed” adherents forbade nearly all fiction. (Because made up stories are lies, right?) Particularly any ones that involved magic, talking animals, or anything that wouldn’t happen in real life. Some books were forbidden because the children in them told lies or disobeyed their parents. (Even if they suffered appropriate consequences, oddly.) Skirts that were deemed too short were altered by drawing the “correct” length. It was clearly safer to limit oneself to missionary biographies. Or the Elsie Dinsmore books, which were apparently okay despite despicable racism, favorable treatment of slavery, quasi-incestuous relationships, and what I find to be a warped sense of morality. Of course, maybe the slavery thing was part of the appeal.  And they did present a view of absolute obedience by children, and the proper male-female hierarchy, which is why Vision Forum describes Elsie as the ideal representation of Christian womanhood.

Just to be clear, my wife’s parents did not agree with this teaching - and encouraged her to read literature. But she was really the only one in the group who did.

So yes, the modern version of Caliph Omar exists here close to home.

Another line by the author in On the Map puts this in perspective. “[A] less fearful religious worldview created a quest for knowledge that for centuries had been considered irrelevant to a life of modest Christian duty.”

There really is a huge contrast between the desires of Sir Isaac Newton and other early scientists to discover the creation, and the earlier focus on obedience to the Mother Church.

I have mentioned before the Reconstructionist desire to return to a mythical “Christian Past.” For most of them, this seems to be the Antebellum South, but I think Douglas Wilson is more honest about the real goal: a return to the “idyllic” times before the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment freed the search for truth from the death grip of official Church orthodoxy. To those times when the masses wouldn’t worry about finding knowledge - and indeed were largely illiterate - but would simply pursue a life of modest Christian duty as defined by those in power. And this is why it is so important to them to keep out any knowledge that runs contrary to (their particular interpretation) of Scripture. (I still really need to do a post on the problems with Theonomy and why it has cost the Church credibility - although I started in my post on Women in Old Testament times.)

I choose to stand with John Milton regarding truth: "Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and even encounter?"

If you are scared about opposing viewpoints, maybe you aren’t really sure that you have the truth. If you do not wish for others to seek knowledge that might contradict your viewpoint, are you really sure that you are right?

Further note on Reconstructionism:

I have been asked why I focus so much on Reconstructionism, and its main proponents within the Christian Patriarchy Movement. (For those keeping score, they would be Bill Gothard, Douglas Phillips, Douglas Wilson, Gary North, Jonathan Lindvall, and the Pearls.)

The reason why is that I am a product of homeschooling, and homeschool my kids, and I am deeply distressed that the Reconstructionists/Patriarchists have pretty much taken over mainstream homeschooling, and are influencing the Evangelical church in some pernicious ways. This year, Phillips was the keynote speaker at the CHEA convention, the largest homeschool convention in California. The same is true of other states. Our local homeschooling groups contain many Vision Forum acolytes, and even our local Facebook information group (which is NOT limited to Christians) was recently hijacked by a Vision Forum follower posting articles claiming that Christians should never use birth control.

I really am disturbed that this is the trend in conservative Christian circles, and I do not think it will end well.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Porgy and Bess (Libretto) by DuBose Heyward

Source of book: I own this. (It’s my wife’s book, actually, but close enough)

It is always interesting to read a controversial work, and attempt to comment in a meaningful manner, while knowing that one can never really understand all of the issues from other perspectives.

Although it was hardly the first time that a white male had written about the African-American experience, by the 1930s, it was already acknowledged to be fraught with danger of condescension and unconscious racism. Eighty years later, we are even more aware of the inherent problems of a work like this. However, like other works that are worthwhile, even while a product of their times, Porgy and Bess deserves a read - and a listen.

There are actually three versions of Porgy and Bess. DuBose Heyward originally wrote a novel, entitled Porgy in 1925. Two years later, he and his wife Dorothy adapted the story into a play, Porgy and Bess, which had some changes in the plot from the book - most notably the ending, which was more pessimistic in the novel. Composer George Gershwin latched on to Porgy, and began to collaborate with the Heywards even before the play was complete. The text of the play was further adapted into an opera libretto, and set to music by Gershwin. That version is the one best known to us today. It is also the version that I read - it is nearly impossible to find the novel, and the play and opera are substantially similar.

(l-r) George Gershwin, DuBose Heyward, Ira Gershwin

From its debut in 1935, the opera was surrounded by controversy. Virgil Thompson (a white composer) and Duke Ellington both criticised what they perceived as racial stereotyping - particularly the assumption that African Americans lived in poverty, took drugs, were sexually loose, and solved their problems with violence. (These stereotypes are alive and well today. In addition, there is the assumption that they are on welfare as well.)

Ellington, however, changed his mind later in life, and came to admire Gershwin's music in particular. The opera continues to split opinions within the African American artistic community. It is clearly an important artistic work, full of history - and still arguably the best opera composed by an American composer. The characters do suffer from some stereotyping, but are more nuanced than that. They are not played for laughs the way that the blackface of the time was, and Heyward and Gershwin intended for them to be taken seriously as complex persons.

I found it intriguing that George Gershwin insisted that the actors be African American rather than white actors in blackface. In addition, his brother Ira (who inherited the rights on George’s untimely death) absolutely refused to grant permission for the opera to be performed in South Africa using white actors.

For my part, I have decided to treat the work the same way that I would any in literature that display problematic elements. When reading Tom Sawyer to my children, I had to explain the offensive racial epithets, including why they were acceptable 150 years ago, but were not now. We discussed slavery and racism - it really was a good starting point. I had to point out that even Mark Twain, who was far ahead of his time in treating minorities as fully human, unconsciously looked down on them occasionally. I also think of the casual anti semitism and acceptance of domestic violence that are scattered throughout literature - particularly literature from Europe from the Middle Ages forward. (See my discussion of Medieval Drama, The School for Scandal, and Richard Wagner. The Merchant of Venice also comes to mind as a work that is commonly performed today, despite its thorny issues.) All of these works have merit, but one must acknowledge the problems, rather than gloss over them.

So what of the opera itself? Porgy and Bess is set in “Catfish Row,” Charleston, South Carolina. It is a poor community of fishermen, peddlers, and lowlifes. Among these is Porgy, a crippled beggar. During a clandestine craps game, Robbins wins some money off the violent Crown, who kills him. Crown flees the scene, leaving his woman Bess behind, but promising to return for her when things blow over. Bess falls in love with Porgy. Later, Bess and most of the others have a picnic on a nearby island (Porgy can’t get on the boat due to his disability), and Bess discovers that Crown is hiding out there. He forces himself on her (the line between seduction and rape is rather fine in context - one of the disturbing elements of the opera), and promises again to come from her, despite her pleas to the contrary.

Soon after, the men are out on their fishing boat when a hurricane blows in, terrifying the women. In the middle of the storm, Crown appears, having somehow swam from the island during the storm. When Crown tries to take Bess by force, Porgy intervenes, and manages to kill Crown.

Porgy is arrested, not as a suspect, but as a “material witness” necessary to identify the body. (Everyone else denies any knowledge of Crown or the murder.) The drug dealer, “Sportin’ Life,” convinces Bess that Porgy will be convicted and never return, and talks her into going to New York City with him. Porgy, instead, is held overnight for contempt of court for refusing to view the body, and manages to win a bunch of money off his cellmates. He returns looking for Bess, and eventually heads for New York to find her.

Religion and superstition are intertwined throughout the opera, with references to “faith healing,” judgment day, spirituals, and, of course, Sportin’ Life’s irreverent song, “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” I always found the sinuous tune for this song to be fascinating. It combines a chromatic descent in a triplet meter with an accompaniment in double meter. Like other Gershwin tunes, it is an odd amalgam of jazz and Jewish liturgical music. It resembles a Spiritual in its call and response, but draws as much from the blues as from the altar. Here is David Whitehead’s performance. (The scene starts with Crown hiding out in view of the picnic.

I think it instructive to note Sportin’ Life’s summary of “The Gospel:”

To get into Hebben
Don' snap for a sebben !
Live clean ! Don' have no fault !
Oh, I takes dat gospel
Whenever it's pos'ble,
But wid a grain of salt.

Not too far off from the old doggerel: “Don’t Smoke, Drink, Dance, and Chew or Date Girls Who Do.” Here’s the list of cultural “don’ts” to observe - and that’s how to get into heaven. The specifics have changed a bit with time, but all too often, this has become the mantra, the focus on easily observed externals.

Another thing that hasn’t changed nearly enough since 1935 is the casual injustice of law enforcement. After Crown murders Robbins, the police, not able to find Crown, take Peter (a poor peddler) into custody, again as a “material witness,” even though it is clear that he is not guilty of anything. Throughout the play, the (white) authorities of various sorts are completely oblivious to the damaging effect they are having on the finances and families of the main characters - and on their reputation within the community. I’ve heard far too many tales from friends and clients about their experiences being stopped and frisked for, essentially, “driving while being a young minority” to believe that this attitude has entirely gone away. I would also note here the hidden camera video (done by ABC, not some shady PAC) that has gone viral recently.

On a lighter legal note, there is one comic scene in the opera involving a shady lawyer (Frazier), who offers to get Bess divorced from Crown.

FRAZIER:    Ah ha, ah ha, Porgy's Bess, eh? Den I guess she'll be wantin' divorce.
FRAZIER: Ef de woman livin' wid you now, she got to have divorce from Crown or else it ain't legal.

(Takes document and shows it to Porgy)

PORGY: How much dat t'ing cost?
FRAZIER: One dollar. Dat is, if there ain' no complication.
PORGY: Bess, you likes to have divorce?
BESS: What you think, Porgy?
PORGY: I'm agoin' to buy you a divorce.

(Hands Frazier money)

FRAZIER: Wait a minute, it ain't legal yet. Yo' name?
ALL: Bess!
FRAZIER: Yo' age?
BESS: Twenty year.
ALL: Lord, Lord, listen what she say. Dat girl's thirty if she's a day!
FRAZIER: You desire to be divorce from dat man Crown?
ALL: Sho' she do, sho' she do, Yes suh, yes suh, sho' she do!
FRAZIER: I'm askin' you.
BESS: Yes, boss, dat's true.
FRAZIER: Address the court a "Yo' honor."
ALL: Yes, yo' honor. Yes, yo' honor.
FRAZIER: When was you an' Crown marry?
BESS: I don't rightly remember, yo' honor.
FRAZIER: One yeah, five yeah, ten yeah, what?
LILY: Dat gal ain' never marry!
FRAZIER: Ah, dat's a complication!
ALL: Dat's a complication. Dat's a complication, Lord, Lord --
is a complication.
PORGY: You can't sell her divorce, gimme back my dollah!

(Everybody laughs)

FRAZIER: 'Course I sells divorce. You got no right to laugh, but it take expert to divorce woman what ain't marry, an' it cos' you, ahem, a dollar an' a half.
BESS:  Don't pay him, Porgy. Don't let him take you in.
FRAZIER: All right, go on livin' in sin.

(Porgy counts out money and gives it to Frazier,
who signs and seals paper and hands it to Bess)

Good day to you, Missis Porgy. Only dollar an' a half to
change from woman to lady.

Creative marketing at its worst, or best...

Ultimately, the story is one of the choice that Bess faces. There is the hardworking but violent Crown, the cheap thrill of “happy dust” and Sportin’ Life, and the kind but impoverished Porgy.

The story and dialogue are interesting to read, but what makes the opera is the music. George Gershwin's composing was at its best and most creative at this time, and many of the tunes have endured as true classics. While Ira Gershwin is credited as assisting with the lyrics, most were written by DuBose Heyward, and are likewise memorable.

Sadly, George Gershwin would be dead of a brain tumor at age 38, two years after the debut of Porgy and Bess. One can only wonder what other masterworks he might have written.

While I have not had the opportunity to play the entire opera, I have played two orchestral suites arranged by Robert Russell Bennett. One is a pops oriented arrangement, which is pleasant enough. The other is better, in my opinion, as it contains more of the music, including scene music, rather than just the big tunes.

Several songs have become vocal standards, and are still a source of inspiration for artists today.

“Bess, You is My Woman Now” sung by Willard White and Cynthia Haymon, with the original orchestral accompaniment.

A modern jazz arrangement of “Summertime” by Norah Jones

Norm Lewis for I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’