Monday, April 30, 2018

English Idyls and Other Poems by Alfred, Lord Tennyson


Source of book: I own a complete collection of Tennyson’s poetry

Along with the general decline of interest in poetry has come a certain disdain for poets of the Romantic and Victorian Eras, of which Tennyson is one of the greatest. Perhaps it is the unabashed emotion, the love of beauty, the optimism? If it were merely an objection to the sexism and colonialism of the era, then other genres should have suffered too, and yet the novels are not so roundly mocked as the poetry. This is all a real shame, as some of the most beautiful, evocative, and perceptive poetry in the English language was written during the 19th Century.

Since I have the complete Tennyson (in a Modern Library hardback), I have been reading the poems roughly in order. I skipped the juvenalia, and started with the 1833 collection that made his reputation. Later, in 1842, Tennyson issued the first collection along with a new collection in a two-part Poems. It is the second half of that collection that forms the subject of this review.

As I alluded to above, reading Tennyson is, well, complicated. He was a man of his time. But also one who transcended his time. He was, perhaps by his nature, a conservative. At least in many ways. But he also was troubled by his times too, and to put him down as another jingoist and sexist Victorian is an oversimplification. In his religion too, he was...complicated. So many of his poems seem an affirmation of the typical Christian doctrines of his time and place, but he also expressed some fairly shocking sentiments about religion. I find that this actually fits well. Artists - particularly poets - live in the spaces in between. They deal with a part of life that cannot be easily divided into black and white. Poets speak of a reality that is more felt than seen, and truth that is more true because it is evoked, not stated outright. Tennyson struggled with debilitating depression for his entire life, and felt his personal tragedies deeply. It is only one who could feel and hurt as he did who could really grasp the truth in his line, “"There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds." That line comes from In Memoriam, his long lament for the death of his close friend.

So, for me, even as I wince at some of his lines, I find I am carried along in the beauty of his language, and recognize him as a true kindred spirit speaking across a century and a half.

The collection starts off with a series of what he terms “English Idyls.” These are narrative poems in blank verse, many on historical themes. After a brief introduction where the narrator (not necessarily, but possibly Tennyson himself) discusses the old versus the new with some friends. Eventually, he is coaxed into sharing his own tribute to the old days - namely, an epic poem about King Arthur. The result is “Morte D’Arthur,” which would eventually become the closing section of Idylls of the King. I still haven’t read all of Idylls yet, and it has been some years since I read any of it. (This is a shame, because I have a gorgeous hardback of Idylls. I have, however, read Malory’s version...) The language is just so gorgeous, it is hard to even describe it. It is just such that when you read it (as when you read or hear Shakespeare), you just feel the music of the poetry. I’ll quote just a bit of it - one of my favorite passages.

And slowly answer'd Arthur from the barge:
"The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfils Himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.
Comfort thyself: what comfort is in me?
I have lived my life, and that which I have done
May He within Himself make pure! but thou,
If thou shouldst never see my face again,
Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice
Rise like a fountain for me night and day.
For what are men better than sheep or goats
That nourish a blind life within the brain,
If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer
Both for themselves and those who call them friend?
For so the whole round earth is every way
Bound by gold chains about the feet of God.
But now farewell. I am going a long way
With these thou se√ęst—if indeed I go—
(For all my mind is clouded with a doubt)
To the island-valley of Avilion;
Where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow,
Nor ever wind blows loudly; but it lies
Deep-meadow'd, happy, fair with orchard-lawns
And bowery hollows crown'd with summer sea,
Where I will heal me of my grievous wound."

Read that out loud. Let the words wash over you. And then re-read it, focusing on what an epic deathbed statement it really is. Arthur accepts the changing of the world, and releases his power with that combination of faith and doubt that characterizes the best of Tennyson.

(I was also reminded that books like The Buried Giant, which I just read, or A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court) make so much more sense if you have read the original Arthurian legends.)

“Morte D’Arthur” wasn’t the only poem in this collection that I had read before. In fact, there were a good number that are familiar enough that most of us have read them before in high school, college, and I hope in the years since. (Yeah, it’s depressing how many people haven’t really read poetry after graduation.)

One of those old friends was “Locksley Hall.” I read the whole thing in High School - we had to read excerpts, but I tend to like reading things in context. The plot is pretty simple. The young man returns to Locksley Hall, his college, and muses on his life. In particular, the woman that rejected him. The poem thus combines optimism for the future with the pain and bitterness of loss. Along the way, the poet condemns the materialism and classism that led to his rejection, and yet hopes that mankind will find a better way someday.

The poem is in rhymed couplets, in rather long lines of 15 syllables - really two sets of iambic tetrameter spliced together. If one were to split the lines, there would be a feminine ending on the first half, and a masculine ending on the second.

The poem is most famous, I suppose, for the line:

In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.

And thus, the poet commences a conversation with his former beloved. He recalls the joy of their love. But boy, does it turn bitter. Tennyson doesn’t shy away from the ugly side of his nature.

Falser than all fancy fathoms, falser than all songs have sung,
Puppet to a father's threat, and servile to a shrewish tongue!

Is it well to wish thee happy?—having known me—to decline
On a range of lower feelings and a narrower heart than mine!

Yet it shall be; thou shalt lower to his level day by day,
What is fine within thee growing coarse to sympathize with clay.

As the husband is, the wife is: thou art mated with a clown,
And the grossness of his nature will have weight to drag thee down.

He will hold thee, when his passion shall have spent its novel force,
Something better than his dog, a little dearer than his horse.

What is this? his eyes are heavy; think not they are glazed with wine.
Go to him, it is thy duty, kiss him, take his hand in thine.

It may be my lord is weary, that his brain is overwrought:
Soothe him with thy finer fancies, touch him with thy lighter thought.

He will answer to the purpose, easy things to understand—
Better thou wert dead before me, tho' I slew thee with my hand!

Better thou and I were lying, hidden from the heart's disgrace,
Roll'd in one another's arms, and silent in a last embrace.

Cursed be the social wants that sin against the strength of youth!
Cursed be the social lies that warp us from the living truth!

Cursed be the sickly forms that err from honest Nature's rule!
Cursed be the gold that gilds the straiten'd forehead of the fool!

It goes on for a good while, as he imagines her life to a dull fool. Tennyson also rails at the fact that wealth is all the world cares for. He isn’t wrong, alas. But then, he turns to a more optimistic tone, speaking of his youthful idealism for the future. In his vision, he foresees a league of nations, a decline (and eventual end) of war, the triumph of reason over hate, and a more egalitarian future. Alas, he also says some condescending things about non-whites, and (in his passion against the faithless Amy) some insulting things about women. Sour notes in an otherwise beautiful and emotionally perceptive poem. Tennyson (who wasn’t that old, actually) intentionally wrote to describe youthful passions, good and bad, so perhaps one shouldn’t confuse the narrator with the poet.

One more line is so good that I have to quote it. Also, I recognized it as the source of the title from a rather good book I read last year.

Not in vain the distance beacons. Forward, forward let us range,
Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change.

Again, as I have so many times when reading Tennyson, I marveled at the music inherent in this line. It sings, it lives. Every word has both meaning in itself and in its context - it’s place in the constellation of sounds as the line rushes on.

The next poem intrigued me both because of its theme and because the person to whom it was dedicated was unnamed. Subsequent research indicated that it was probably a reference to Keats - whose scandalous (by Victorian standards) love letters were published after his death. It is even more true in our own age, when to be a celebrity of any sort means to have all one’s skeletons exposed.

To ——
After Reading a Life and Letters

‘Cursed be he that moves my bones.’
Shakespeare’s Epitaph.

YOU might have won the Poet’s name,
    If such be worth the winning now,
    And gain’d a laurel for your brow
Of sounder leaf than I can claim;

But you have made the wiser choice,
    A life that moves to gracious ends
    Thro’ troops of unrecording friends,
A deedful life, a silent voice:

And you have miss’d the irreverent doom
    Of those that wear the Poet’s crown;
    Hereafter, neither knave nor clown
Shall hold their orgies at your tomb.

For now the Poet cannot die,
    Nor leave his music as of old,
    But round him ere he scarce be cold
Begins the scandal and the cry:

‘Proclaim the faults he would not show;
    Break lock and seal: betray the trust;
    Keep nothing sacred: ’tis but just
The many-headed beast should know.’

Ah, shameless! for he did but sing
    A song that pleased us from its worth;
    No public life was his on earth,
No blazon’d statesman he, nor king.

He gave the people of his best;
    His worst he kept, his best he gave.
    My Shakespeare’s curse on clown and knave
Who will not let his ashes rest!

Who make it seem more sweet to be
    The little life of bank and brier,
    The bird that pipes his lone desire
And dies unheard within his tree,

Than he that warbles long and loud
    And drops at Glory’s temple-gates,
    For whom the carrion vulture waits
To tear his heart before the crowd!

Again, Tennyson wears his heart on his sleeve, and says exactly what he thinks. A kindred spirit indeed.

I also wanted to quote what might be Tennyson’s shortest poem. It is pretty nice - but I quote it here primarily because it was the first Tennyson poem I read to my very small kids over a decade ago. It was the perfect illustration of the poetic art, from rhyme to meter to the use of repeated sounds to evoke a picture.

The Eagle

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring'd with the azure world, he stands.
                                                
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

I want to end this with what I have to say is on my list of 10 favorite poems. I swear I have re-read this at least once a year since I started this blog. (And numerous times before that.) It really encapsulates a lot of my own feelings - and more and more as I have gone from youth to middle age. Sure, I am not burdened with a kingdom (and I definitely would prefer to have my lovely bride accompany me on any and all adventures), but I too know my time is limited. I really have no desire to waste it, particularly in trying to change people who have no incentive to change. I have indeed shaken the dust off my feet the last few years, to use another great line. Anyway, enjoy.

Ulysses

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match'd with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy'd
Greatly, have suffer'd greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when
Thro' scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour'd of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!
As tho' to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

         This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle,—
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro' soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.

         There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil'd, and wrought, and thought with me—
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

I really could analyze nearly every line. But why? A poem like that can stand without comment, as a monument to internal truth, and the drive I feel to live while I am alive. 



***

Not sure why “idylls / idyls” is spelled differently. I tried to find something online, and it appears to have been spelled both ways. If anyone has a guess, let me know…

Friday, April 27, 2018

Scurvy by Stephen Bown

Source of book: Borrowed from the Library

Scurvy: How a Surgeon, a Mariner, and a Gentleman Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail is exactly what it sounds like: a tale of the discovery and implementation of the cure for a baffling and deadly disease.

From our 21st Century perspective, it is easy to think of scurvy as a really easy disease to cure. Why didn’t people figure out how to cure it sooner? Well, lots of reasons, as this book points out. 


First, let’s look at the carnage. The Age of Sale lasted roughly from time that transoceanic voyages became practical and common through the invention of steam-powered watercraft. During that time - 400ish years - the death toll from scurvy is believed to have been in excess of two million sailors. That’s a lot. In fact, it is more than the deaths from combat, shipwreck, storms, and all other diseases. Combined. In fact, that is more than all of the combat deaths in the history of the United States - including both sides of the Civil War. That’s a lot of bodies.

As this book makes clear, there are a number of reasons why it took hundreds of years to finally understand the disease, and significant impediments to gaining definitive knowledge.

As we now know, scurvy is a disease caused by deficiency of Vitamin C - ascorbic acid. (The name itself is a contraction of “antiscorbutic” - anti-scurvy.) Most animals can create their own ascorbic acid - but humans cannot. Neither can guinea pigs, which is one reason that they became popular for animal testing. On long sea voyages, without fresh food, this deficiency would cause the breakdown of the connective tissue of the body. Basically, people fall to pieces, crumble to sludge, without this necessary nutrient.

One of the most interesting things about the history of scurvy is that the cure was actually discovered multiple times...then “forgotten” by those who came afterward. The most crazy example of this is that back in 1601, Sir James Lancaster proved that lemon juice prevented scurvy - and the British Merchant Marine believed him and adopted his recommendations. For a while. Likewise, the Dutch merchants used lemon juice as well. But the navies, which at the time tended to say near port, thought themselves above the lowly merchants. And anyway, while merchant vessels could carry a lot of supplies and stop in to port along the way, the navy had few similar options.

Eventually, the cure was forgotten, and not rediscovered until right before the Napoleonic Wars.

There were several inherent obstacles to the discovery and adoption of a cure. Some of these were problematic because of the specifics of the disease. Scurvy can mimic a lot of other diseases that were common at the time, and thus, it took a while before it was recognized as a single disease, rather than a constellation of symptoms which might have been other illnesses. Likewise, because of the generally poor nutrition of the lower classes, scurvy tended to afflict the common sailors before the officers. This meant that other factors were naturally suspected, such as the overcrowded conditions below decks, the generally poor food supplies, infectious diseases (which would come aboard the same way gaol fevers would), and other class-based causes.

There were also scientific reasons scurvy was difficult to pin down. We can test for potency these days, but that wasn’t the case back then. Different citrus fruits have differing amounts of ascorbic acid - as do other fresh fruits and vegetables. And this differs too based on freshness, preparation, and source. So there were a ton of variables which were difficult to account for. Likewise, in the human subjects, there were variables such as whether they had been at sea recently (and thus already pre-scorbutic), whether there were other health issues, how good nutrition was at home, and so on. These all tended to make it difficult to pin down the cause and the cure.

But perhaps the greatest obstacle was philosophic. The medicine of the day was in thrall to an erroneous belief: the “humour” theory of disease. There were four “humours”: blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm - and all disease was an imbalance of these fluids. This was, to put a fine point on it, utter baloney. But that wouldn’t be known for many years.

The reason that this was a problem was that it required, as the author puts it, “great philosophical backflips and other mental acrobatics in a vain attempt to reconcile common sense with their theoretical constructs.” And, on a related note, it meant that practical experimental evidence was disregarded if it couldn’t be made to fit the theory.

Yes, that is a problem. It was a problem then, and it is a problem now. (Regular readers will know that this is one of my biggest beefs with American Evangelicalism’s approach to, well, everything. The theory always trumps reality or experience. Thus, there is no way to learn anything - everything is already known.) This was a big reason that the navies didn’t listen to the mere merchants. After all, their success in preventing scurvy was merely experimental, not based on intellectual theory. It took irrefutable evidence to topple the theory, and in the meantime, millions died.

In a weird moment, I ran across another bizarre theory in this book - one that was all too familiar. It was this idea of acid and alkaline balance. Because scurvy was (in this theory) either acid or alkaline, depending on the symptom, treatments varied. While one particular acid could have cured it, not all acids are equal. Thus, advocating for vinegar, sour wine, or - I am not making this up - “oil of vitriol” - that is, sulfuric acid - as a cure wouldn’t be effective, even though lemon juice would be. I mention this because as part of my childhood, we cycled through some scientifically ludicrous “alternative medicine” approaches to nutrition. Most were pretty harmless, although annoying. But this idea of classifying foods as acid or alkaline (often in ways that were contrary to the actual facts) and using that to treat disease was neither some ancient “wisdom” nor science. It was a faddish 18th Century piece of malarkey.

One thing that really struck me in this connection was the reason that the ancient Greek and Roman writings were considered authoritative in medicine. These days, we tend to (usually correctly) assume that more recent - and better controlled and designed - studies tend to be more accurate, and that the more modern, the more likely something is to be correct. In the past, the opposite was often true. In this case, the Greeks and Romans were revered on the theory that mankind has been degenerating since the Fall, and thus the older minds were less clouded and more brilliant. Sad to say, this ridiculous idea (which flies in the face of the evidence - and that includes morality too) remains current in certain religious circles. I have literally heard stuff like “imagine what the ancients could have done with their brilliant minds and our technology” and “we should trust the superior wisdom of the past and [fill in morally abhorrent thing here.]” There is nothing magic about the past, or the people of the past. Sometimes they were right. Often not.

By the way, it wasn’t just the “science” of the day that was problematic. Then, as now, there was a tendency to blame the victims of disease. Many dismissed sailors as morally degenerate, and scurvy merely as divine disfavor displayed against them. And of course, no sense in trying to cure a disease caused by divine disfavor - particularly if it afflicts people who you consider inferior. Hmm, I can think of another disease that got this treatment.

Eventually, three persons managed to get the treatment right - and it took the efforts of all three to do so.

The first was the surgeon, James Lind. He did the first truly controlled experiment in this area, discovering that lemon juice was effective in treating and preventing scurvy. Unfortunately, Lind never did shake the “humours” explanation, and so failed to make a coherent case for why it worked. Lind’s writings, however, would eventually influence others.

Captain James Cook was the next important figure. Working off of Lind’s recommendations, he brought citrus along on his voyages, and made sure to take on fresh vegetables whenever possible. He thus kept scurvy to a minimum during his famous voyages. Alas for Cook, he became mentally erratic on his last voyage, and managed to get himself into a deadly conflict in the Hawaiian Islands, and was killed. Thus, his effective technique never had an effective advocate.

The last was the aristocrat Gilbert Blane. He took the foundation laid by Lind’s experiments and Cook’s experiences, and used his influence to make the use of citrus the official policy of the British Navy, thus saving millions of additional lives, and contributing significantly to world history. (More on this below.)

Blane was successful, in part, because he drew a seemingly obvious connection that the British bureaucrats running the navy didn’t seem to grasp:

Scurvy wasn’t just costing “expendable” lives. It was causing the loss of expensive ships, and endangering national security.

Yeah, that sounds pretty callous. And it is. Because Naval policy was darn calloused. Ships would be stuffed with twice the number of necessary men, because it was assumed that half would be lost to scurvy over the course of the voyage. That’s pretty appalling. And horribly inefficient, as Blane pointed out. The loss of skilled sailors was leading to the sinking of ships and bad results all around. Furthermore, Britain would struggle to defend her vulnerable homeland if she couldn’t keep ships in the necessary places to prevent an invasion. It was by this calculation that Blane was able to convince the Navy bosses that it was worth the expense of keeping citrus (and concentrated citrus juice) in ready supply on board their ships.

Unsurprisingly, this change paid off. Suddenly, Britain had an immediate advantage over her foes: she could stay afloat longer, and could field more experienced and skilled sailors and gunners.

The author contrasts two wars with different results as an illustration of the difference. In the American Revolution, scurvy was a significant reason why England struggled to supply its troops - and prevent the Spanish and French from lending aid and sending troops. We have this American myth that the Revolution was a bunch of farmers with pitchforks throwing off the yoke of the most powerful nation on earth. That’s not really true. We were led by our own aristocratic class, and significantly aided by other superpowers who had a vested interest in keeping England occupied.

The contrast, however, is in the wars against Napoleon a few decades later, when England’s newfound ability to avoid scurvy led to its successful blockade of French and Spanish ports. This kept those sailors unable to practice at sea. But it also kept Napoleon from being able to launch an invasion of the British Isles - which probably would have been successful if he had put his superior army on the ground. (By Waterloo, England had been able to increase and train its army - because of the delay France suffered in invading. Not unlike the Battle of Britain in World War II…)

One final quote from Gilbert Blane regarding the cure of scurvy is apropos.

“There is not probably to be found in the whole range of human affairs a finer illustration of the practical benefits of progressive knowledge in promoting the great interests of mankind: so that science, while it lends an aid, also sheds a grace and dignity over the useful arts: nor can there be a more striking proof of the maxim, that humanity, like every other virtue, is the best policy.”

Two things stand out here. First is the love for science and progressive knowledge as used to benefit mankind. The second is that “humanity,” in the sense of “being humane,” isn’t just morally good - it is good public policy too. If saving impoverished sailors from death for moral reasons wasn’t enough, one could do it because of the good it brought to the nation as a whole.

If you want to understand the frustration that many of us who think and read and learn have with the current state of the Right in America, this is a good place to start. Some of us still believe that science isn’t a vast conspiracy - but it often is and should be a benefit to mankind. We also believe that humane public policy is ultimately beneficial. We all benefit from a healthy, educated, employed population. And we all suffer when we refuse (usually with fiscal objections) to invest in education, health care - and humane policies in general.

***

I couldn’t find a place to put it in the main review, but I did have to mention that The War of Jenkins’ Ear gets a mention in this book. War usually sucks - and this one is no exception. But that is the coolest name for a war that I can think of.

Monday, April 23, 2018

The Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare


I hadn’t seen this play live in years - since before kids. My wife and I (or was she a girlfriend then? I forget) saw it at Bakersfield College, in the rare year they performed their plays indoors, with seats on most sides of the stage. I remember two things about it. First, there were a few actors who were college students then who we saw over the years in other venues - it was kind of a starting point for some local theater people behind the scenes too. The second was that the homoerotic elements were played up pretty heavily.

Seeing it again, years later, at The Empty Space was a rather different experience. In Bob Kempf’s directorial vision this time, the farcical elements came to the front, as did the viewpoints of the two central women. In addition, rather than young folks getting their start, this play featured young actors who have paid their dues in smaller parts over the past few years getting a chance to shine in lead roles.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona is one of Shakespeare’s earlier comedies - some believe it was the first one he wrote. Already, a number of Shakespeare’s devices and themes are apparent. There is the young woman who disguises herself as a boy, the conflict between the bonds of friendship and the lure of romantic love, and love making people do really silly things. In general, the language isn’t as amazing as in the mature Shakespeare works, but it has its moments - including a delightful denouement.

Valentine and Proteus are best buds, just starting off in the world. Their names are symbolic. Valentine is the faithful friend and faithful lover of Silvia, the daughter of the Duke. He goes to Milan to expand his horizons, meets Silvia, and attempts to win over the Duke, who would rather she marry the vacuous and cowardly Thurius (Brent Starrh as a ditzy cowboy.)  Proteus means “changeable” in this context, and he certainly is. Supposedly deeply in love with Julia, he falls in love with Silvia on sight, and then finds himself betraying his best friend’s plan to elope with Silvia, so he can pursue her himself. Meanwhile, Julia misses Proteus, so she disguises herself as a boy, takes her maid along, and goes to find Proteus, only to find him mooning over Silvia.

This all could end very badly, but this is a comedy, so it comes out all right in the end - but barely.

One of the things that struck me about the play the first time is the, um, strong bond between Valentine and Proteus. In some ways it is an echo (perhaps intentionally?) of the description of David and Jonathan from I Samuel, where their souls were “knit together,” and David would lament after the death of his friend that his love for Jonathan was “more wonderful than the love of a woman.” Make whatever you will of that, but it is the same with Valentine and Proteus. They are lifelong friends, and their bond is essentially greater than any other. That is why it seems that Proteus doesn’t agonize much at all about betraying Julia. No, what causes him the most agony is that he betrays Valentine for the sake of Silvia. I mean, this does kind of make sense - his love for Julia is pretty new compared with his life friendship. But still...anyway, that part wasn’t really played up in this version, but the lines themselves remain intriguing, as is the reconciliation at the end. Valentine is much more magnanimous than Julia - she accepts Proteus grudgingly and under duress.

Also interesting is the way that the two couples are matched. Valentine may be unexpectedly infatuated with Silvia, but he is a faithful lover throughout, never wavering in his affection for her, and never believing ill of Proteus until he sees the betrayal with his own eyes. Silvia is likewise faithful. And not in a “stand by your man” way either. She heaps witty opprobrium on Proteus for abandoning his own love for her, and makes it clear she will stay true to Valentine no matter what. (She even wishes herself devoured by wild beasts rather than rescued by Proteus.) The two are a match. But so are, in their own ways, Proteus and Julia. They are both too passionate for their own good, and too volatile toward others. Proteus can’t control his passions, and they lead him to betrayals. Julia abuses her loyal servant Lucetta and refuses to listen to her sensible (and witty) advice. (Surely the servants get the best lines in Shakespeare’s comedies…) You can imagine Valentine and Silvia being a power couple, seamlessly taking over for the Duke in due course, and ruling well. Julia and Proteus, on the other hand...you can just see the dishes flying.

Julia gets one of the best scenes in Shakespeare, at the end. Still disguised as “Sebastian,” she admits to never delivering a certain ring to Silvia - a ring which she gave to Proteus in pledge of her love. When Proteus asks to see it, she gives him the one he gave her as his pledge. Proteus is a bit slow in the uptake, and he doesn’t see it.

Proteus: But how cam’st thou by this ring? At my depart
I gave this unto Julia.

Julia: And Julia herself did give it me,
And Julia herself hath brought it hither.

In this production, between her two lines, Julia removes her hat and lets her hair fall. “And Julia herself hath brought it hither” is delivered with such a look of venom, the audience reacted audibly.

Immediately afterward, as Proteus is stammering for words, Julia gives a meaningful glance at Silvia - who has had her back all along - and delivers this marvelous line:

Julia: Behold her that gave aim to all thy oaths,
And entertain’d ’em deeply in her heart.
How oft hast thou with perjury cleft the root?
O Proteus, let this habit make thee blush!
Be thou asham’d that I have took upon me
Such an immodest raiment—if shame live
In a disguise of love!
It is the lesser blot, modesty finds,
Women to change their shapes than men their minds.

Mic drop right there.

 Shelbe McClain as Julia disguised as "Sebastian."

I won’t quote all of it, but there is also a series of marvelous scenes featuring Launce, Proteus’ unreliable servant, the comic relief of the play. Launce has a dog (a real dog in this production), who is, um, even less reliable than Launce. After all, when Launce attempts to give said dog to Silvia as a gift, Crab manages to stink up the place, start a dog fight, and pee on a woman’s skirt. Oh, and Launce’s discussion with Speed, Valentine’s servant, about a woman (s)he wants to marry. Shakespeare’s lowbrow moments are all too funny, I will confess.

A bit about this particular production is in order. The setting was essentially 1950s in somewhere western to midwestern. Which meant the soundtrack was predominantly Buddy Holly - I’m not complaining about that! Shakespeare’s comedies can work anywhere, as far as that goes, so the anachronism wasn’t grating. (In fact, the Utah Shakespeare Festival version of Comedy of Errors, set in the old west, was perfect - all that slapstick was right at home in a saloon town.)  

Valentine and Proteus were played by Nolan Long and Carlos Vera, respectively. Both have played a variety of bit parts over the last couple of years, but neither had played a lead in any of the productions I have seen. I have mentioned them, however, as actors to watch, because they showed promise in their limited scenes. I thought both did quite well. Long showed admirable gravitas as Valentine, but was expressive as well. Vera has always tended to play his roles with a bit of an edge, so it was interesting to see him play the lover instead. While some scenes called on his sturm and drang, he showed a softer touch in others. Both Long and Vera are young - I hope they stick around locally.

 Nolan Long (Valentine) and Mystie Peters (Silvia)
TES publicity photo

The lead female parts were also played by young actors. I know Mystie Peters has had small parts in a number of plays locally, and she is active behind the scenes as a board member. She took on the role of the more serious Silvia. In contrast, Julia was played by Shelbe McClain, who has a knack for the kind of not-quite-under-control emotionalism for this part. (See, for example, The Three Sisters earlier this year.) McClain really connected with the audience in this one, delivering her wounded pride and fury with both clear diction and razor-sharp fury. As I noted above, her reveal at the end was well played.

 Shelbe McClain (Julia) and Carlos Vera (Proteus)

Also noteworthy were the three servants. All three were played by Empty Space regulars. Cory Rickard has been in so many local productions, I have completely lost track. (Most recently, as Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet, but I know there are many more.) As the sarcastic Lucetta, she made a great foil for Julia. Speed was portrayed by Claire Rock, another regular (and personnel director for TES) - she stole her scenes last year as Tybalt. This year, she got to play straight (wo)man to the goofy Launce. Speaking of Launce, Victoria Lusk took on that role - and didn’t let the dog steal the scenes, which isn’t easy with a really cute dog. I didn’t hardly recognize her - I last saw her as a very blonde Inga in Young Frankenstein. Back to brunette, with an aviator helmet as her main costume element, she looked quite different. But no matter. As usually the shortest actor on the stage, she plays big whatever she does, and she was hilarious.

 Kiki (Crab the dog) and Victoria Lusk (Launce)

I should mention one of the challenges of modern staging of Shakespeare. Back in Shakespeare’s day, women were not permitted to act. All parts were played by men and boys. (Which makes for some pretty funny jokes, actually.) But, in our modern era (meaning after the theaters reopened once Cromwell died…), there are an abundance of talented female actors and too few parts in most Shakespeare plays. Thus, The Empty Space (and others around town) have usually made some substitutions. There are essentially two approaches to this. One can dress the women as men (in a reversal of Shakespeare’s time) and have them play “male” parts, or one can change the part itself to that of a female, and go with it.

Either works, but the second does bring another question. Do you change pronouns or not? In this production, it was done both ways.

In the case of the Duke, Angela Poncetta (another TES regular) played the Duke as a female. This meant that in one scene, when she catches Valentine in his plan to elope, she talks about wooing an eligible man the way Valentine might woo a woman. This is interesting, naturally, because it gives a full gender role reversal. The powerful woman courts the coy man, who is hidden away by his relatives. It is a great example of how sexist ideas can often be laid bare by a simple gender reversal.

 Angela Poncetta (the Duke) and Brent Starrh (Thurio)

But in the other instance, the gender was kept the same. Launce is played by a female, but dresses sort of like a man, but not so much that you can suspend disbelief. Rather, one might say, Launce is a woman, but refuses to conform. Fair enough, but then, in the scene where Launce is considering marrying a mail-order bride (more or less), you get both the hilarity of the scene - and a potential gay relationship played straight up. (But then remember they were all guys originally…) And the thing is, this isn’t really incongruent in a Shakespeare play, where plays on gender and sexuality are everywhere.

We took all the kids to this one - we take our littlest to some, but not too many of the plays we go to. Everyone enjoyed this one, which is a testimony to the way TES is able to bring the stories to life through the acting, not just Shakespeare’s wonderful language.

As I have said before many times, The Empty Space is a bargain, and part of a vibrant local theater scene. Come on out and see this play, and check out the solid lineup of productions planned for the rest of this year.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Immigration Part 5: The Openly Racist Goals of the Trump Adminstration

"The bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and Respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions, whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges, if by decency and propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment." ~ George Washington

***

This post is part of my Immigration Series.

In the first part, I introduced the topic.
In the second part, I looked at the (lack of) regulation of Immigration from the founding of our country and the easy path to citizenship for white immigrants.
In the third part, I detailed the racist history of immigration restrictions dating from the Chinese Exclusion Act to the present.
In the fourth part, I looked at the realities of current immigration law, which provides no legal path to entry for the vast majority of those who wish to immigrate.

***

Let me start by mentioning the elephant in the room:

Donald Trump campaigned and has governed on the nativist platform of the 1920s KKK.

You do realize that, right? It’s not that hard to see - just read some history. This article is a good place to start. The most consistent policy of the Trump administration has been to restrict immigration, and ethnically cleanse America from as many brown people as he legally can.

You can see it in his termination of legal status for Salvadoran immigrants. (They are here with our permission, under a portion of the law granting status to those fleeing disaster or violence in unstable countries. El Salvador is still a mess, and sending these people back would certainly end up with many of them dead.) You can see it in his “shithole countries” comment. You can see it in his termination of DACA (replacement of which he has held hostage until Democrats agree to his preferred immigration restrictions - see below.) You can see it in his decision to end legal status for Somalis here as refugees. You can see it in his claim that third world countries are sending us rapists and drug dealers. You can see it with his alarmist characterization of groups of refugees from South and Central America as caravans of invaders. And, of course, you can see it in his obsession with building a giant overcompensation for small “hand” size wall to keep the dirty brown people out.

Every time he opens his mouth (or tweets) regarding brown skinned immigrants, it is to denigrate them and stir up fear and hate against them.

So, I’m sorry, he is thoroughly racist, and bears personal animus against non-whites. It’s pretty darn obvious.

But let’s look at his policies, because there is strong evidence that his policy goals are in fact driven by racism - and would have a racist effect.

***

The bottom line of the Trump Administration's policy on immigration is this:

End the vast majority of LEGAL immigration. And end virtually ALL immigration from the third world.

When you hear references to “merit based” immigration, that is what is meant.

How about we take a test? Under the version of proposed legislation the administration endorsed last August, prospective immigrants would need to have at least 30 points in order to qualify. Time Magazine put together a nice little online test, which you can take here.

By the way, I would not qualify, despite being fluent in English, having a professional degree I earned in the United States, and being relatively young. A few years ago, I would have qualified, but I am now too old to be desirable. I would have qualified after I graduated from law school, but only if I had a solid job offer before applying. That’s not that easy - legal jobs are not an automatic. And, if I intended to come here and hang out my own shingle, then forget it.

Would you qualify?

Now here’s the thing. I am a highly qualified prospective immigrant compared to most. For example, let’s say I had a bachelor’s degree I earned (with my hard work!) in a foreign country, speak excellent English, and am in my 20s. I even have an offer of a job at the US median salary. Do I qualify? Not even close! Or what if I have a high school diploma from another country, speak good but not excellent English, and have an entry-level job offer. Do I qualify? Nope. Barely halfway there. And don’t even imagine trying to get in without a diploma, with marginal English, and a minimum wage job waiting.

It’s pretty obvious who would be let in, isn’t it? Immigration is for the rich. People from wealthy nations (mostly white), who had the economic privilege in that country to earn a graduate degree, learn perfect English, and have a job offer here paying out well above the median wage. Wow. I can’t see most people having ANY shot at immigrating legally.

And that is the point.

In fact, you can see this demonstrated by both Trump and those he surrounds himself with.


Here are (former and current) advisors Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller talking about how legal immigration - including that of skilled workers - is the real problem, and that we need to basically end all immigration.

Oh, and let’s not forget the times Steve Bannon (and fellow white supremacist Steve King from Iowa) praised the neo-Nazi novel The Camp of the Saints, which envisions the overthrow of (white) civilization by immigrants and native-born brown people. (Note too that Sessions, even though he hasn’t specifically mentioned the book, uses the same ideas in his rhetoric on immigration.)

You can see it everywhere in the rhetoric of Trump and those around him. An appeal to fear about the “Browning of America.” Kind of like Steve King and his “you can’t rebuild a civilization using other people’s babies” comment.

This leads me back to the question of DACA. A large majority of Americans believe justice and fairness require that we accept those who immigrated as children, regardless of their documented or undocumented status. Trump created the crisis in the first place by terminating DACA before a replacement was prepared. He now has refused to support a replacement unless it comes with a big appropriation for his wall, and a change to a “merit-based” immigration policy on the lines outlined above.

Basically, he’ll send the kids back unless he gets to end legal immigration from Mexico. Yeah. Classy.

And so I return to my original point: The Trump Administration policy on immigration is to end nearly all legal immigration - and essentially end the immigration of brown people.

Sorry, that’s racist. And it always has been.

The face of racism in modern America.
***

Just a note here: while anti-immigration sentiment is nothing new, it gained currency in today’s GOP initially through the Tea Party movement. Opposition to immigration - particularly by brown people - was a central plank of the movement from the beginning. Although I didn’t leave the GOP until 2013, I was already having second thoughts once the Tea Party came to prominence and begin to take out moderate Republicans in the primaries.

This worried me in part because I was a Californian during the battles over Proposition 187. (For those unaware, California allows citizens to place proposed laws on the ballot - it requires a ton of signatures - so that voters can approve or disapprove them.) Prop 187 was an anti-immigration bill that sought to cut off undocumented immigrants from public services. This included some pretty draconian stuff, such as turning undocumented immigrants (including children) away from health care, public schools, and requiring schools to ask about the immigration status of parents of US-born children. It also required government workers to turn in immigrants to the Feds when they applied for benefits, and so on. It wasn’t good.

I am embarrassed to admit that I voted for it. (My first election at 18.) I am ashamed of that vote. I knew better, but was kind of in the thrall of Rush Limbaugh at the time, and was - to put it mildly - ignorant and immature. I would never vote for such a law today. I look back on that vote as one of the times I have knowingly violated my Christian beliefs, and I deeply regret it.

Anyway, the law passed with a pretty good margin, despite warnings from the federal government that it would harm immigration and law enforcement by driving law-abiding immigrants further into the shadows, deny children health care and education, and not really accomplish anything.

The courts struck down the law soon after it was passed, so it was never enforced.

But what came after is more interesting even than that. The California Republican party went all-in on the law, making it the centerpiece of its political platform. Now, 24 years later, the Republican Party is nearly irrelevant in California state politics. With the exception of The Governator’s tenure - and he was both an immigrant and a moderate - California has been essentially a one-party state. I don’t think that is a particularly good situation, but California Republicans seem to have no interest in actually taking positions that a majority of Californians hold. The inevitable demographic changes haven’t helped the GOP, shall we say. California is majority minority - whites are less than half the population. By choosing to antagonize Latinos, the GOP guaranteed its irrelevance for at least a generation, and likely more. I believe the GOP at the national level is on the same path. Their numbers have become increasingly white - and old. Sure, the electoral college and gerrymandering may preserve their power at the national level for a while yet. But their course doesn’t seem sustainable. Also interesting is that Prop 187 appears to have shifted the attitudes of white voters away from the GOP as well. I am among those white voters who have left the GOP in its new era of xenophobia - and it seems unlikely they will woo either me or my children back.

***

Speaking of which: during the campaign, pretty much every pro-Trump evangelical I spoke with cited Trump’s immigration policy as the main reason they supported him. ‘Build the wall. We have way too many “Mexicans” here already. Stop the browning of America.’

After a year of the Trump Administration, the only promise he has consistently fulfilled is to deport and antagonize immigrants. And, hisapproval rating with white Evangelicals is 75% - far higher the general public - and the highest it has ever been. I think a reasonable conclusion to draw is that Trump’s racism and xenophobia ARE IN FACT a core value of white Evangelicalism.

Which I one reason we left. And the main reason I will never darken the door of an Evangelical church again. And I will certainly never take my children there. We don’t need to swim in that moral cesspit.  

Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro


Source of book: Borrowed from the library



It is difficult to know how to describe this hauntingly sad book. On its face, it is fantasy. The setting is post-Arthurian England, with only an ancient Gawain left of Camelot. There are fantastic creatures, a dragon, and magic. But it doesn’t really read like fantasy.

On another level, it is a parable - and a pretty chilling one at that. It is also a love story of sorts. And a story of lost and broken love. It is a quest. But one for which the goals are not revealed until the end, and even then, answers are lingering in the mist, rather than crystal clear.

Axl and Beatrice are two elderly Britons, married for a long time, but unable to remember their past. And it isn’t just them. The entire country appears lost in this mist of forgetfulness, with only the occasional memory peeking through the dark.

They set off on a modest quest: to find their son, who lives somewhere in a village...in that direction. Soon, they meet up with a mysterious Saxon warrior, Wistan, and a boy, Edwin, rejected by his village because of his dragon-bite wound. They too are on a quest, but Wistan isn’t about to disclose it. Sir Gawain too has a quest - to kill a dragon whose breath appears to be causing the mental mist.

As events unfold, it appears that, somewhere lost in memory, Gawain, Axl, and Wistan have met before, but nobody can remember why or how.

I’m hesitant to say much more, because it would spoil the twists and turns.

I do, however, want to talk about the underlying theme. Forgetfulness in this book isn’t merely personal. It is collective, and it is an intended forgetfulness. Britain is a society which has forgotten its bloody origins. The mist obscures the memories, but the bones are (literally in this book), lurking just below the surface of those beautiful green meadows.

But don’t think this is just about Britain. If we look back far enough, each and every one of us has a genocide in our background somewhere. It is the sad reality of the human race: we are vicious and violent. One of the things that has struck me about the stories in the Old Testament is just how much genocide was considered normal in those days. But then, when you think about it, when has genocide not been considered normal. Pretty much just the last couple hundred years, at least in Enlightenment theory? But our own American history starts with a genocide, and even right now, too many of my white countrymen seem all too comfortable with ethnic cleansing. This is us, alas. The human instinct toward tribalism, hatred, and violence, that we struggle to shake even as the best of us try to transcend. But even as we do, it is impossible to entirely forget the foundation of bones on which we rest.

This is the chilling core of the book. As any historian of this period could tell you, the post-Arthurian period (whether or not Arthur existed as a person is a different matter) was the beginning of a series of bloody conquests of the British Isles, in which the culture of the Britons was largely buried along with their bones. Each wave of conquerors would yield to another in time, until the island, like its language, would become a hodgepodge of its history.

Kazuo Ishiguro is best known for The Remains of the Day. I must confess, I have never read that book - or anything else by Ishiguro. I rather suspect this book is a bit uncharacteristic. However, the writing is beautiful and evocative. My one complaint is that the plot seems to meander, and the individual incidents are not always clearly related to the theme and plot - or perhaps, I missed some of the connections, which is possible. This is one haunting story, though, and I suspect it will stay with me.



Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Nightbird by Alice Hoffman


Source of book: Audiobook from the library

I can’t even remember how this book ended up on our list. I am guessing it was off an article on recent children’s books back in 2015, because it isn’t on our Newbery list. However, on the list it was, and it worked for our traveling audiobook series. 

 
The basic setup of the book is a Magic Realism sort of plot. Young “Twig” Fowler lives with her mother in the small town of Sidwell, Massachusetts. Okay, not just with her mother. Her older brother James lives with them, but nobody knows he exists. Back 200 years ago, a failed romance between one of their ancestors and a young witch named Agnes Early led to a curse put on the Fowler men: they all grow wings.

Then, the descendants of Agnes Early’s family move back to her old cottage, and Twig becomes friends with Julia. When Julia’s older sister, Agate, discovers and falls in love with James, they all decide to try to figure out how to break the curse. Oh, and there is also a forest that is habitat for endangered owls and a subplot around the attempts to develop the woods. And a bit about Johnny Appleseed.

I would characterize Nightbird as decent, but not spectacular. The plot isn’t the most compelling, and there are some holes in the resolution of various issues. The best part by far, however, was the portrayal of the friendship between Twig and Julia. Twig has been isolated for years because of the secret, and she finds herself both desperate for a friend and yet terrified of actually becoming vulnerable. Fortunately, Julia is persistent and doesn’t play catty games.

The other friendships are intriguing. There is a longstanding relationship between Twig’s aunt, the town historian, and an ornithologist. Are they just friends? Maybe a bit more? The romance between Agate and James, although only a small part of the story - we never really see it from their perspective - is also fairly believable. Finally, the friendship that develops between Colin and Twig seems promising. Alas, the book is too short to really flesh that one out, and one is left wondering how the book would have gone if less time had been spent on the curse and the mystery of its origin, and more on just the friendships.

I’m not really sold on the audiobook version, narrated by Jenna Lamia. I realize the main character is fairly young, but I guess I am used to voices with a little more heft in my 12 year olds. (My wife and daughters have always had deeper - and more assertive - voices.) Not a bad job, just not my favorite.

This book was pleasant, and had its moments, so I would say it is a worthy addition to a reading list. However, reading it back to back with Richard Peck, it seemed a little less so by comparison.  


Friday, April 13, 2018

Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte


Source of book: I own this.

Anne Bronte is the forgotten Bronte sibling. Emily (Wuthering Heights) and Charlotte (Jane Eyre) are well known for their striking and successful novels. Their brother, Branwell, is at least remembered for never amounting to much and drinking himself to death. Poor Anne is as little remembered as the two older sisters, who died of the family curse (tuberculosis) in childhood. 

 Anne Bronte as sketched by her sister Charlotte

However, Anne too was a writer and poet. Agnes Grey, her first book, is largely autobiographical, and feels like an early effort, rather than a great book. Anne took a series of jobs as a governess during her late teens and twenties - it was about the only work available to a respectable middle-class woman at that time. It was not, shall we say, a particularly enjoyable job.

In this book, she tells of the two families she worked for longest. The first involved younger children who were little sociopaths. Anne doesn’t pull any punches here, even though she writes in the style of her time. These are not nice children, and they are the product of thoroughly dysfunction wealthy parents. The son, in a telling episode, enjoys killing baby birds. Agnes objects and interferes, only to be reprimanded by the mother, who says, “You seem to have forgotten that the creatures were all created for our convenience.” To mom, the amusement of a child takes precedence over the suffering of lesser creatures.

The strong point of Anne’s writing is evident in this section, as she has a keen eye for psychological detail. I have met children - and parents - like this over the years. A good shorthand would be “trust fund babies,” and our current president is a prime example of the lack of empathy and decency that is created when children are taught to consider their inferiors to be expendable and created for their amusement.

This arrangement does not last long, for obvious reasons. The rest of the book is concerned with the second family, and with Agnes’ romance. Because you have to have a romance. (And since Anne never did, she had to write one into her book.)

The second family is also highly dysfunctional, but in a less pernicious way. The eldest daughter is a great beauty, and enjoys toying with men - at least until she gets married to a rich, but unpleasant man. She regrets this marriage, but, no help for that. The second daughter is a tomboy, given to hanging out with her father and other men, swearing like a stable hand, and being as uncouth as possible. There are two boys as well, but they are sent away to boarding school, so they really don’t come into the story much.

This second family is interesting in part because the real life Anne formed relationships with the children they are based on, and kept in contact long after she left employment. I thought the characters of the daughters were well written and complex.

Agnes Grey also serves as somewhat of a defense of Anne’s parents and their choices. In the book, a woman born to (moderate) wealth marries a poor clergyman, and is disinherited for her trouble. Agnes then follows her mother’s path and marries a poor - but kind and decent - clergyman. In real life, there is no evidence that Anne’s mother was disinherited exactly, but she died of uterine cancer a year after Anne’s birth. While her father attempted to find a second wife, he never succeeded. Instead, his late wife’s unmarried sister came and lived with the family. Upon her death, she left a modest estate to the children, permitting them to write, rather than work as governesses. So there wasn’t quite the bad blood as in the novel. However, it does appear that there was a certain amount of second-guessing their choices.

As I noted, this book feels a bit uneven, like many first attempts. Even Charlotte, writing after Anne’s untimely death, defends the book while acknowledging its weaknesses. The romance feels a bit tacked on as well, and Mr. Weston feels undeveloped as a character. (Anne, like Charles Dickens, seems to write her own sex better than the opposite.) However, there are other parts of the book that are excellent. As I noted above, she shows a keen eye for the characters of the children, and also the arrogance and contempt of the upper classes.

I probably would have read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall if I owned it. I had this one, so I chose it. It is a fairly short and quick book, and not a bad read. The second book, however, is more ambitious, and outright scandalously feminist, from what I hear. Charlotte prevented its publication after Anne’s death, so it remained relatively unknown for years afterwards. This may be one reason why Anne isn’t as well known.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

There is No Such Thing as an Objective, Clearly Correct, Interpretation of Scripture

Just a thought regarding interpretation of the Bible or any ancient text, which grew out of a conversation I had with some friends. The initial conversation was about white Evangelicalism’s inability to show basic empathy for those outside the tribe, but my friends joined in on the question of theology.

My view is that Bill Gothard was right about one thing: morality drives theology, rather than the other way around. It was a need to justify slavery and later Jim Crow that formed American Evangelical theology in the first place, which is why it seems designed to justify cruelty. In my view, thus, the cure isn’t to just try a more literalist or serious hermeneutic - we have to address the underlying evil that drives the interpretation. And that’s how we got off on the question of whether there is one “objective” way to approach scripture (and thus guarantee “correct” theology.) This is my response:


***


While some interpretations are better than others, there is no such thing as an objective, exclusively, obviously correct interpretation. Each of us must grapple with the following points at which subjectivity is inevitable:

1. Our own interpretation as we read. Each of us brings our own biases to a reading. Many of these are ones we are completely unaware of, while a few are ones we know, and can thus attempt to compensate for. Each of us, when we read, interpret certain words and phrases in light of our theological upbringing and tradition. We just assume the meaning of them to be thus and such. Not just the literal meaning of the words, but also the theological meaning of them. Furthermore, we apply the meanings that apply in our culture to our reading. Just as one example, “marriage” as we understand it – even a Victorian understanding – is so different from the understanding under the Greco-Roman Domestic Codes that a person from that era would be unable to recognize our institution as the same thing. Likewise, an observer from the Ancient Near East would be unable to recognize a Greco-Roman marriage as the same institution. So when we see “marriage” in a text, how we apply that to a vastly different situation is by definition an act of interpretation. That is just one example. We do that with pretty much everything we read. To read is to interpret.

And that is even before we get to the real challenge: how do we live in imitation of Christ in our modern world? (And in light of vast political, economic, cultural, scientific, and social changes in the last 2000 years.) Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, this crucial task has mostly been outsourced by Evangelicals to Fox News and Breitbart lately; which explains why “morality” seems to mean sexual moralism, Tribalism, and Ayn Rand economics.  

2. The interpretations of those who determined our theological tradition. For any Evangelical (or Christian of any theological tradition, for that matter) to claim that he or she is reading objectively, without depending on the specific theological and interpretive decisions made by those who founded their tradition is silly. None of us raised in that tradition (or any other) read the Bible with an open mind. We took for granted the teachings of people from Luther to Calvin to Spurgeon to…in many cases Henry Morris and Ken Ham. The interpretations these people made was also NOT objective. They were products of their own time, had their own prejudices, and so on. In many (probably most) cases, the cultural needs of their time and place drove their interpretation. (See slavery and Jim Crow, for example. Or reaction to Darwin.) Far more of what we believe the Bible says is actually what certain people our tradition follows believed it said. So our interpretations are colored by the interpretations of those who went before.

3. The interpretations of those who translated the English version we read. Anyone who thinks that this doesn’t matter displays their ignorance. Translation is an act of interpretation, even for modern texts. (Read two versions of, say Pablo Neruda, or Rainer Maria Rilke, if you have any doubts. Or check out the numerous translations of Inferno as I did in this post.) In every translation, decisions as to meaning must be made. Many of these are relatively uncontroversial, but in certain areas of doctrine, they can make a huge difference. (An example here is the KJV and the use of “deacon” when men are involved and “servant” where women are involved. Same word, different translation. And EVERY translation has some of these.) This isn’t a new problem. Research the Latin Vulgate, or the Septuagint. Each has significant differences from modern translations and the earliest manuscripts. The problem is compounded for ancient texts, because the meanings of words have been lost or obscured in many cases. Some words are unique to the Bible (including some of the ones in the New Testament.) Decisions about what these mean are a matter of interpretation – and controversy. When we read an ancient text translated into English, we are experiencing a layer of interpretation, not an objective reading of a text.

4. The interpretations of the scribes and copyists throughout history – and those who decided what to include in the collection.  This may come as a shock to those used to thinking of the Bible as a monolithic object, but there ARE no originals for the books contained in the Bible. We don’t have the original manuscript of ANY of it. That includes the New Testament, for which the oldest (small fragments) date only back to about 125 CE. Full books date back to no earlier than 200 CE, and some (like the Pastoral Epistles) do not appear until even later. And that is before you get to the question of what actually got included in our version of the NT - and what was omitted. This final process didn’t really finish until quite a bit later. In fact, determining what was “true” scripture seems not to have been a priority. Erasmus in the 16th Century CE put together the first printed Greek New Testament – and he had to make compromises between several versions. Until the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered (fairly recently…), the most modern Hebrew manuscripts we had dated to about 1000 CE. That’s the Middle Ages. We have copies dating back to various times and places. These copies are not identical, and in some cases differ on very important words and phrases. To a historian or anthropologist, this is unsurprising. But it underscores the fact that even copying stuff is an interpretive act. 

 Early fragment (c. 125 CE) from the Gospel of John

 Part of Isaiah from the Dead Sea Scrolls. 
I got to see these in person when they came to San Diego several years ago. Amazing.

And that is just for the written version. The evidence is overwhelming that the Old Testament wasn’t actually written down until centuries after most of the historical (or legendary in some cases) events would have taken place. Rather, the written documents seem to have appeared in (more or less) their current form around the time of the exile or post-exilic periods, depending on the book. Quite likely, these were edits and compilations of earlier texts (now lost) which were in turn taken from oral histories.

That’s a lot of interpretation right there. Someone (multiple someones, actually) decided to write down the stories. Many other persons edited, compiled, and selected them later. (And yes, this goes for the New Testament too – there was a lot of discussion about what was in or out, and humans made those decisions – an act of interpretation.) In essence, the whole process was a massive, long term project of interpretation. Ancient writers understood this, and, in fact, made changes for theological purposes as they went. (See, for one example, the differences in the histories in Samuel and Kings versus that in Chronicles. There are significant - and intentional - differences.)

5. The interpretations of the authors. Yeah, I know, Evangelicals will consider me a heretic for this one. Sorry. I can’t deny history and, well, the evidence of the text itself. The Bible isn’t a single book, literally dictated by God. It is a collection of books, written over a few thousand years, by humans. Yes, I believe these humans were inspired. (But the meaning of “inspired” is really loaded, isn’t it?) But there are too many disagreements and things that are not factually true for me to believe that they were a literal dictation, which would require a highly fallible God. (This ranges from math to science to history to theology. One of my epiphanies was to realize that the Bible is an argument between different theological perspectives rather than a unified systematic text.) But it should be kind of obvious that the authors themselves interpreted their inspiration based on their own culture and knowledge. Hence, the opening chapters of Genesis naturally are a retelling of an earlier Ancient Near East creation myth. Of course they assume ANE cosmology, rather than reflect a modern understanding of the universe. Of course Saint Paul assumes the fact of the Domestic Codes and the existence of slavery. Of course genocide was considered normal. In my view (and that of many others with a lot more knowledge in the area than me), God has always met us where we are. On a related note, I also don’t believe God has ceased to speak. Revelation didn’t magically end at the end of the 4th Century CE. We still have things to learn about a variety of subjects, including theology, and not all of those things will be in the Bible – any more than modern astrophysics is in there.

So before you assume that you somehow have the correct, objective reading of a text, consider that you are depending on at least five layers of interpretation. Maybe you are correct, but it isn’t inevitable. And there is nothing about your particular time in history or culture that allows you to see more clearly than either those who came before or those who will come after. We will, in my view, be wrong about many things, just as those who came before were. Likewise, by believing that some objective, unquestionably correct interpretation is possible, we make the Bible into an idol, something we worship and serve, rather than seeking to humbly follow Christ. It takes us ever further away from loving our neighbor, and ever less likely to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly.

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I understand why Evangelicals fight this so hard: they have a theological - and psychological - need for the Bible to be something it isn’t. They need it to be a literally dictated, completely perfect, instruction book; with systematic theology to be discovered, rules for every situation, and without contradiction or argument. They need proof-texts to show the correctness of their views at every turn - something unassailable to competing arguments - something that will shut down opposing viewpoints.

That’s not the Bible we have. We have a Bible written by humans over at least a thousand years, with competing theological perspectives - indeed arguments. We have horrific Ancient Near East morality - genocides, women treated as chattel, slaughter of innocent children, slavery, and more. But we also have many beautiful things: a passionate concern for justice (including economic and social justice), deeply human stories, a profound poem about the problem of evil, early existentialism, gorgeous poetry, biting satire, and - most important - Christ himself. We have a radical, completely unexpected shift from the Torah as all-important, to a suffering Messiah who renders the very signs of being God’s people rendered irrelevant. At every point, our book is obviously of its time, while retaining (as the best books written do) a timeless quality that remains relevant to us today. Above all, it is a story. A story of God’s interaction with man throughout history - written by the men (and perhaps women) who earnestly sought the Divine.

Seen in that light, the Bible works. Seen as an instruction book, or treatise on systematic theology, it just doesn’t.

But for Evangelicals, their entire theological structure - and their sense of morality - depends on their delusion that they possess the One True Interpretation of the Holy Writ™, and without that, all they really have is their sexual moralism and commitment to toxic Republican politics.

I have come to realize that this is nothing less than idolatry. Bible-olatry. The veneration of an object - and one that doesn’t really even exist.

In fact, what they really worship is their preferred interpretation of said object. They worship their beliefs about God and the Bible.

And I also have come to realize that it is in fact a distraction. If they ceased to worship their interpretation of the Bible, they might have to actually look at the way that they have ignored the teachings and example of Christ - and see how horribly cruel they are to their fellow humans. That part is too uncomfortable to bear. So they fight tooth and nail to preserve their idol.

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Just a thought here: there have been a lot of really horrid interpretations of scripture in the past. The Bible has been cited to justify the Crusades, witch burning, the Native American Genocide, slavery, the denial of rights to women, the dehumanizing of others, Jim Crow, and in our own time, the unholy political alliance of Evangelicalism and the agenda of the Ku Klux Klan.

Each and every time, many of those who did evil truly believed they had the correct interpretation. As C. S. Lewis noted, the worst form of government is theocracy, because nobody is as capable of doing horrific evil as one who believes he does it in the name of God.

Nothing wrong with theology or pursuit of better interpretations. But history casts grave doubt on the idea that becoming better, embracing good and rejecting evil, is the inevitable result of trying to read the Bible with a more literal, detailed, and hermeneutically “correct” method. If anything, the opposite is true. The more obsessed we become with getting our beliefs right in every detail, the less our faith is focused on following Christ’s example. The more we focus on our theological structure, the less time and energy we have to take Christ’s command to love our neighbor seriously. The more we think of salvation and conversion as a mental agreement with doctrine, the less we are interested in doing for the “least of these” what we would do for Christ himself. Considering that Christ taught that our eternal destiny depended on this, I would think we might at least take that part seriously - and work on figuring out how to put those words into practice in our own world, rather than spend our time arguing about the details of justification. Just saying.

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By the way, my viewpoint about subjectivity and the five layers of interpretation are hardly controversial outside the Evangelical/Fundamentalist bubble. It is actually uncontroversial among serious bible scholars, archaeologists, historians, literature scholars, and so on. Even relatively conservative bible scholars acknowledge this subjectivity. It really is only those who are wedded to their own infallibility as interpreters who need the delusion of objectivity. And, realistically, this is a particular problem for American Fundamentalists, who need this idolatrous view of the Bible as their defense mechanism against modern understandings of reality.

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So how DO I approach scripture? Well, first, I recommend reading my three part series on Christianity and Culture:


Second, Peter Enns should probably be credited with a significant role in the preservation of my faith over the last 5 years. People like him are examples of Christians who don’t suffer from the Evangelical/Fundamentalist allergy to reality and fact. This recent post gives his five principles for interpretation, and I find them persuasive.


Third, in exploring the way Christians outside the Evangelical/Fundamentalist bubble, I discovered that the literalist/theonomic approach is by no means the only way to approach scripture. In fact, it is mostly an historical anomaly. Perhaps my favorite formulation of a more balanced approach is that of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.



Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. Each of the four fit together and work together. In some areas, experience and reason provide better information than the others, and vice versa. Our knowledge of the natural world, for example, is better obtained by reading God’s world, rather than the writings of the ancients. On the other hand, scripture is the best source we have for the words of Christ as recalled and written down by his followers. Church tradition can give helpful guidance on how certain issues have been handled in the past, and what has and has not been beneficial in religious observance and Christian practice. Experience is both about our relationship with God in the present, and about how we interact with our fellow humans. Empathy should serve as a valuable source of information - we live in community, not as isolated individuals. In a global world, this means we cannot merely dehumanize others and reject their needs and experiences as irrelevant. It all works together. And each is relevant in how we interpret the other.

Note that the Wesleyan Quadrillateral is no modern, atheistic, relativistic [insert favorite Fundamentalist slur against outsiders here] idea: it came from the devout John Wesley hundreds of years ago.