The Atlantic, April 2014

In her cover story about trends in parenting styles in the US and Britain, Hanna Rosin tells several charming anecdotes contrasting her mother’s approach to raising her some years ago to her own approach to raising her daughter today.  Ms Rosin follows up with data showing that her mother’s relatively laissez-faire methods were typical of Americans in the 1970s and 1980s, while her own much more intensive style of supervision is typical of the early 21st century.  Statistics do not show that the newer approach has led to any improvement in the safety of children, and in fact support claims that such close supervision harms children in a number of ways.  Here are a couple of paragraphs from the heart of Ms Rosin’s article:

I used to puzzle over a particular statistic that routinely comes up in articles about time use: even though women work vastly more hours now than they did in the 1970s, mothers—and fathers—of all income levels spend much more time with their children than they used to. This seemed impossible to me until recently, when I began to think about my own life. My mother didn’t work all that much when I was younger, but she didn’t spend vast amounts of time with me, either. She didn’t arrange my playdates or drive me to swimming lessons or introduce me to cool music she liked. On weekdays after school she just expected me to show up for dinner; on weekends I barely saw her at all. I, on the other hand, might easily spend every waking Saturday hour with one if not all three of my children, taking one to a soccer game, the second to a theater program, the third to a friend’s house, or just hanging out with them at home. When my daughter was about 10, my husband suddenly realized that in her whole life, she had probably not spent more than 10 minutes unsupervised by an adult. Not 10 minutes in 10 years.

It’s hard to absorb how much childhood norms have shifted in just one generation. Actions that would have been considered paranoid in the ’70s—walking third-graders to school, forbidding your kid to play ball in the street, going down the slide with your child in your lap—are now routine. In fact, they are the markers of good, responsible parenting. One very thorough study of “children’s independent mobility,” conducted in urban, suburban, and rural neighborhoods in the U.K., shows that in 1971, 80 percent of third-graders walked to school alone. By 1990, that measure had dropped to 9 percent, and now it’s even lower. When you ask parents why they are more protective than their parents were, they might answer that the world is more dangerous than it was when they were growing up. But this isn’t true, or at least not in the way that we think. For example, parents now routinely tell their children never to talk to strangers, even though all available evidence suggests that children have about the same (very slim) chance of being abducted by a stranger as they did a generation ago. Maybe the real question is, how did these fears come to have such a hold over us? And what have our children lost—and gained—as we’ve succumbed to them?

Also in this issue, several authors are asked to name the best fictional character of all time.  Children’s author R. L. Stine convinced me:

Aside from being amiable, Mickey Mouse has no discernible personality of any kind, yet he has captivated the world, appeared in hundreds of films, and sold billions of dollars’ worth of merchandise. Has any other fictional character held sway over so many countries for so long?

To build an empire like that of Disney on the basis of “no discernible personality of any kind” is indeed an achievement I would have thought impossible had it not actually been done.

Michael O’Donnell reviews some recent work on the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and seems mystified at the reluctance of some writers to give President Lyndon Johnson his due in that process.

Robert D. Kaplan seems to be less prominent than he was before the 2003 Iraq War; he may be the only person in the USA whose career took a hit for supporting the war.  Not that he is backing down; his piece in this issue is called “In Defense of Empire.”  I suppose we have to salute him for his willingness to stick by his principles.

At any rate, Mr Kaplan’s argument exhibits the some of same bizarre weaknesses in reasoning that underpinned so much of the rhetoric he and his fellow warhawks deployed in favor of invading Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein.  As he and others habitually did in those days, Mr Kaplan makes a generalization and flatly refuses to analyze it, insisting on applying his glossy abstractions in several senses at once.  So, Mr Kaplan tells us in this piece that empires are more likely than homogeneous nation-states or loose confederations to “protect minorities,”  but that dysfunctional empires sometimes fail in their mission to “protect minorities.”

Now one need not be an expert in such things to realize that a statement like “empires protect minorities” needs some unpacking.  Sometimes an imperial power will align itself with an unpopular minority group, promoting the interests of that group and to some extent governing through it.  The minority’s unpopularity makes it dependent on the imperial power for protection, and therefore more likely than the majority to collaborate with whatever schemes that power may put forward.  That very collaboration exacerbates the minority’s unpopularity and vulnerability.  And of course there are many other ways in which imperial powers divide and rule their subjects, many of which involve favoring minorities as against majorities.  An sober examination of these methods might leave some people willing to tolerate imperialism from time to time, but it would hardly be likely by itself to constitute a case “In Defense of Empire.”

Derek Thompson explains “How National Basketball Association Teams Fool Themselves Into Betting Too Much on the Draft.”  Mr Thompson’s explanation identifies fallacies that distort decision-making in non-sports related organizations as well:

In most professional sports leagues, including the NBA, the worst teams are first in line to snag the most-promising amateur players in the next draft. When the ripening crop of amateurs looks especially tantalizing (this year’s is projected to be historically good), multiple teams will suddenly compete to be so uncompetitive that, through sheer awfulness, they will be blessed to inherit the top pick. One anonymous general manager told ESPN the Magazine earlier this season, “Our team isn’t good enough to win,” so the best thing is “to lose a lot.”

In a way, there is a dark genius behind the tanking epidemic. In what other industry could you persuade your customers to root for the worst possible product? But tanking puzzles academics like David Berri, the author of the 2006 book The Wages of Wins and a widely read commentator on sports economics. “Tanking simply does not work,” he told me. Nearly 30 years of data tell a crystal-clear story: a truly awful team has never once metamorphosed into a championship squad through the draft. The last team to draft No. 1 and then win a championship (at any point thereafter) was the San Antonio Spurs, which lucked into the pick (Tim Duncan) back in 1997 when the team’s star center, David Robinson, missed all but six games the previous season because of injuries. The teams with the top three picks in any given draft are almost twice as likely to never make the playoffs within four years—the term of an NBA rookie contract, before the player reaches free agency—as they are to make it past the second round.

Why are teams and their fans drawn to a strategy that reliably leads to even deeper failure? The gospel of tanking is born from three big assumptions: that mediocrity is a trap; that scouting is a science; and that bad organizations are one savior away from being great. All three assumptions are common, not only to sports, but also to business and to life. And all three assumptions are typically wrong.

All three of these ideas seem to spring from an addiction to a messianic view of life, in which the best things can come only to those who have suffered the worst things (so, never to the merely mediocre, but perhaps to those who lose every game for months,) there exists a true path to greatness that will be revealed to those who seek it by the right means(so, the fetishization of science, including the anointing of such obviously non-scientific pursuits as basketball scouting as sciences,) and a charismatic figure is destined to come to the lowly in their darkest hour and to lead them on that true path (so, sacrificing a whole season of potentially competitive play in the hopes of attracting such a savior.)  For all I know, messianism may reflect a cosmic truth, as Christians and others say that it does, but it certainly does seem misplaced in the world of professional basketball.

Jenny Xie writes about a graphic designer named Nikki Sylianteng, who received many parking tickets because she was confused by the famously complex street signs that are supposed to tell New York City’s residents where they may and may not leave their cars.  Ms Sylianteng designed some street signs according to a simpler scheme.  She tacked her signs up next to city signs giving the same information and invited the public to tell her what they thought of them.  Here’s Ms Sylianteng’s website.

Barbara Ehrenreich has written a book called Living With a Wild God.  In it, Ms Ehrenreich mentions an strange psychological break she experienced in her youth.  She was walking by herself in a desert town when all of a sudden she was transported by a wave of ecstasy and the world seemed to be a radically different place.  Ms Ehrenreich has no idea what that was all about.  Though she recognizes the feeling in descriptions that talented religious persons give of their mystical experiences, Ms Ehrenreich is herself quite sure that whatever happened to her was entirely of this world.  In a brief notice of the book in this issue, Ann Hulbert summarizes this story and quotes a remark of Ms Ehrenreich’s:

The young Barbara had been keeping a hyper-articulate journal as she puzzled over the meaning of life, but she found no coherent words for the predawn blazing onrush of … what? Was she crazy? God wasn’t in her vocabulary. In the years that followed, Ehrenreich the biology grad student, social activist, journalist, and brilliant cultural critic and historian was struck dumb, too.

Now she has come up with the words, and I’m tempted to credit Ehrenreich with managing a miracle. But she resolutely avoids rhetoric in that “blubbery vein”—which is why her book is such a rare feat. “As a rationalist, an atheist, a scientist by training,” she struggles to make sense of the epiphany without recourse to the “verbal hand-wavings about ‘mystery’ and ‘transcendence’ ” that go with the territory. There was nothing peaceful or passive about the ecstatic state that seized her: “It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once.” There is nothing pious about her reckoning with her past self, and with “a palpable Other, or Others.” Ehrenreich has no interest in conversion: “I believe nothing. Belief is intellectual surrender.” She wants, and inspires, open minds.

I don’t know whether Ms Hulbert has quoted Ms Ehrenreich fairly, but if she has I am surprised.  “Belief is intellectual surrender.”  So it is.  That’s the point, believers call for surrendering oneself altogether to the supernatural, in the case of monotheistic religions surrender to God.  Therefore, the challenge is to prove that intellectual surrender is bad, not to prove that belief is intellectual surrender.  Ms Ehrenreich is one of America’s foremost public intellectuals, and so I suspect she knows that, and that Ms Hulbert’s quotation was cut short by limitations of space.

Is the Republican Party strong enough to survive a Romney presidency?

The other day,Jack Balkin of Yale Law School posted an item on The Atlantic‘s website in which he argued that, if former Massachusetts governor Willard M. “Mitt” Romney is elected president of the United States a week from Tuesday, his administration will likely come with great cost to the Republican Party which he nominally leads.  Professor Balkin links to the Amazon listings for two books by political scientist Stephen Skowronek (The Politics Presidents Make and Presidential Leadership in Political Time.)  Professor Skowronek classifies US presidents by the relationship they and their parties have to each other and to what Professor Balkin summarizes as the “interests, assumptions, and ideologies that dominate public discussion.”  Together, these interests, assumptions, and ideologies set the boundaries of the political “regime” of the period.  Professor Skowronek asks two questions about each of the US presidents*: “Skowronek’s key insight is that a president’s ability to establish his political legitimacy depends on where he sits in “political time”: Is he allied with the dominant regime or opposed to it, and is the regime itself powerful or in decline?”  Presidents who lead strong parties that oppose declining regimes can sweep those regimes away and implement sweeping new policies.  Professor Skowronek’s label for the few presidents who have held and capitalized in this enviable position is “reconstructive president.”  If the regime that takes shape under the administration of a reconstructive president continues to thrive after his time in office, his successors can be either “affiliated presidents,” who support the  regime and try to extend it, or “preemptive presidents,” who oppose the regime and try to modify it.  When the regime goes into terminal decline, affiliated presidents go down to political defeat, as “disjunctive presidents,” while preemptive presidents can attempt to join the list of reconstructive presidents.

Professor Balkin argues that the current regime in the USA emerged when the Reagan-Bush administration cut personal income taxes and increased defense spending on big-ticket weapons systems.  These measures were intended to solve certain problems the USA faced at the beginning of the 1980s; the tax cuts did in fact precede an end to the “stagflation” that had plagued the 1970s, and the military buildup did in fact worry the Soviet Union.  These measures, apparently successful as solutions to those particular problems, have been the foundation stones of national policy for nearly a third of a century.  Thus, Professor Balkin classifies Ronald Reagan as a reconstructive president, the two George Bushes as affiliated presidents, and Bill Clinton and Barack Obama as preemptive presidents.  Like observers well to his right, Professor Balkin has come to the conclusion that lower taxes and higher spending on big-ticket weapons systems have run their course.  Our current economic woes are not an example of stagflation, and even if they were it is by no means certain that in an age of global capital further reductions in personal income tax could relieve them.  Nor does the Soviet Union, or any other potential adversary against which the weapons systems that eat up most of our military budget would be useful, exists at present.  Tied to a party that has become increasingly doctrinaire in its attachment to these anachronistic policies, a President Romney would be doomed to join the ranks of the disjunctive presidents.  He might be comfortable in their company; the last two disjunctive presidents were Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter, like Mr Romney businessmen who campaigned on their abilities as technocratic managers.  Professor Balkin goes so far as to declare that “The next Jimmy Carter will be a Republican president — a Republican who, due to circumstances beyond his control, unwittingly presides over the dissolution of the Reagan coalition.”

I’m not altogether convinced that a Romney administration would necessarily end as the Hoover and Carter administrations ended, with a landslide defeat for the president after one term and a new American regime created by his successor.  I suppose if I were a Democratic politician considering a bid for the presidency in 2016, I would find the idea irresistible, but it strikes me that an incumbent president does have some influence over his party.  If it is so obvious that the policies that carried Ronald Reagan to reelection in 1984 are no longer applicable to the problems of our day, then a President Romney might not only see this himself, but might well be able to find powerful forces in the Republican Party that will support him in an effort to reorient the party towards some new agenda.  He, not a Democratic successor of his, might then emerge as a reconstructive president who creates a new regime.

If Mr Romney is elected and rises to his historical moment in this way, I would suggest a parallel to the presidencies of William McKinley (1897-1901) and Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909.)  Those presidents together enacted an agenda of territorial expansion, commercial regulation, and political centralization that marked a significant departure from main line of post-Civil War politics, and established the regime that Herbert Hoover was trying to preserve thirty years later.  Surely we ought to would classify them as reconstructive presidents.  Yet the regime they replaced had been created during the Civil War, when their fellow Republican Abraham Lincoln had played the role of reconstructive president.  By this reckoning Democrat Grover Cleveland was at once a preemptive president ( 1885-1889 and 1893-1897) and a disjunctive president, opposing typical postbellum Republican policies of high tariffs and military pensions, and a disjunctive president, being the last to govern within the bounds set by the old regime.  Barack Obama might follow President Cleveland in this regard, with such measures as his health insurance reform and his moderate stand on social issues qualifying him as a preemptive president while his warmaking and support for Republican-devised subsidies to the financial firms would place him in the line of post-Reagan presidents.

I should add that I am not at all optimistic that a new political regime founded by Mr Romney and his associates would be desirable.  Given his platform, his background, and his associates, I suspect it would be pretty nearly intolerable, with taxes paid directly to the moneyed elite, frequent wars, and an end to civil liberties.  In these ways, such a regime could fairly be labeled fascist.  However, Professor Skowronek’s system focuses, not on what is desirable or undesirable, but on what is sustainable or unsustainable in a particular period of history.  And I suspect that fascism of that sort might very well be sustainable for quite some time.

*No, not about how they would do in a mass knife fight to the death, unfortunately.

Deep in the brain

An article about brain parasites that breed in cats and spread to creatures, possibly including humans, that then become unreasonably attracted to cats appeared in the March 2012 issue of The Atlantic.  The article triggered vast amounts of comment around the web; I’ll just mention that it appeared at about the same time Gregory Cochran argued on his “West Hunter” blog that the likeliest biological basis for homosexuality is a brain parasite.  If this strikes you as an obnoxious point to make, you are well on your way to grasping the nature of Dr Cochran’s mission.

The late Christopher Hitchens often irritated me, though not in the way that Dr Cochran sets out to irritate people.  I read his column in The Nation for many years, and always wondered what percentage of their working day that magazine’s widely praised fact-checkers spent correcting his misstatements, exaggerations, and outright falsehoods.  A few always slipped through; my personal favorite was this, from his column of 22 October 2001:

There are others who mourn September 11 because it was on that day in 1683 that the hitherto unstoppable armies of Islam were defeated by a Polish general outside the gates of Vienna. The date marks the closest that proselytizing Islam ever came to making itself a superpower by military conquest. From then on, the Muslim civilization, which once had so much to teach the Christian West, went into a protracted eclipse. I cannot of course be certain, but I think it is highly probable that this is the date that certain antimodernist forces want us to remember as painfully as they do. And if I am right, then it’s not even facile or superficial to connect the recent aggression against American civil society with any current “human rights issue.”

I agree that it is foolish to regard the attacks of 11 September 2001 as an act of political protest, but that is not because Hitchens was right in his suspicion that their perpetrators chose the date 11 September from an obsession with the events of the seventeenth century.  A correction appeared in the following issue pointing out that the Ottoman forces actually suffered their defeat on 12 September 1683, not 11 September.  Hitchens, in his next column, dug his heels in and argued that because the battle began the previous day, he shouldn’t have to give up his point.  In defense of this apparently preposterous stance, he quoted a remark in which Hilaire Belloc put the battle on 11 September, then said that Belloc’s “awful ‘Crusader’ style is just the sort of thing to get him noticed by resentful Islamists.”

The same column in which Hitchens tried to salvage his theory that 9/11 was a reprisal for Hilaire Belloc’s prose style includes a quote from G. K. Chesterton.  Chesterton and Belloc were so closely associated that in their day they were often referred to as “Chesterbelloc.”  This issue of The Atlantic includes an essay by Hitchens about Chesterton, who was apparently one of his favorite authors.  I didn’t think of it in 2001, but it explains a great deal about Hitchens to think of him as a follower of Chesterton and Belloc.  Like those men, he was a prolific writer who prided himself on a fluent style, showed significant erudition in a wide range of fields, and did not particularly trouble himself about questions of fact.  Also like Chesterton and Belloc, he was an insistent and grossly unfair apologist for his religious ideas.  Chesterton and Belloc defended the Roman Catholic church by presenting every other faith tradition in an absurdly negative light; Hitchens simply added one item to their catalogue of strawmen when he set up shop as a professional atheist.  The essay in this issue raises the possibility that Hitchens imitated at least some aspects of Chesterton and Belloc’s work deliberately, as well as exhibiting an influence that stemmed from his early and long exposure to them.

Sandra Tsing Loh describes the difficulties she faces adjusting to the idea that her father, Eugene Loh, is in a long, terminal decline, and that she is his caregiver. The article’s hook is “Why caring for my aging father has me wishing he would die.”  I shouldn’t think that would require much explanation.  It is difficult to watch a loved one suffer irretrievable losses, stressful to take care of another person, and natural to resent unfamiliar responsibilities.

I suspect that everyone who has ever occupied Ms Tsing Loh’s current position has at least momentarily wondered how much nicer things would be if the other person would just hurry up and die already.  If Ms Tsing Loh had written a short story about a fictional character in her position who couldn’t shake that thought, she would have explored a facet of the human experience* that needs acknowledgement.  By choosing to forgo the distancing mechanism of fiction and write a first person account, complete with photographs of Mr Loh, she is performing an entirely different sort of speech act.  She is not only confessing to this wholly predictable, probably well-nigh universal human response; she is also confronting her father and everyone else who loves him with a demand that they discard pretenses that have become conventional because they often make life more comfortable for people in their situation.  That demand, if met, would create a new kind of social situation, one which would be “honest” in the sense that it leaves raw emotions unconcealed.  However, that very honesty is another form of role playing, in which the members of the group play roles that might be appropriate in a therapeutic setting, though not necessarily so in the setting of a family group that is supposed to survive for many generations.  To keep people together for that long under all the stresses that come with family life, it’s necessary to develop a shared understanding of boundaries and to define ways to renegotiate boundaries.  Without those understandings, it’s impossible to predict each others behavior, which means that it is impossible to communicate without leaving the impression that one is saying more than one intends.  If Mr Loh were to recover the ability to read, I can hardly that he would not flinch when he realized that he was the theme of sentences like “if, while howling like a banshee, I tore my 91 year old father limb from limb with my own hands in the town square, I believe no jury of my peers would convict me.  Indeed, if they knew all the facts, I believe any group of sane, sensible individuals would actually roll up their shirtsleeves and pitch in.”  He might laugh, but I’m sure he would flinch.

*I’m familiar with the arguments against the phrase “the human experience”, and I still like to use it.  If you rehearse those arguments in the comments, be prepared to read long discussions of the thought of Irving Babbitt in response.

The Atlantic, October 2011

The current issue of The Atlantic contains four pieces on which I took notes.  All four of them had to do with masculinity in one way or another.

Historian Taylor Branch contributes an article about college sports in the USA.  Non-USA types may not be aware that colleges and universities in the United States operate sports franchises, some of which have a mass following and an extremely lucrative financial aspect.  The athletes are not paid for their participation in this multibillion dollar industry; they are not even compensated for injuries they receive in the course of them.  Branch outlines the story of how this preposterously unfair system came to exist, and considers several recent developments that may bring it to an end.  Athletes are symbols of masculinity in the USA, as elsewhere; the amateur ideal may once have been part of a concept of masculinity that some upper-class Americans cherished, but nowadays even volunteerism is often justified in terms of its resume-building potential.  Moneymaking has become the masculine activity par excellence.  So the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA’s) model of the unpaid “student-athlete” is a bit of an anachronism.

A piece called “Sex and the Married Politician” includes several references to the fall of New York Congressman Anthony Weiner.  Mr Weiner resigned his seat in the US House of Representatives shortly after it emerged that he had posted a picture of his genitalia on Twitter.  It strikes me as misleading to call this story a “sex scandal.”  Since everything on Twitter is public, Mr Weiner’s offense was not illicit sexual relations, but indecent exposure.  As such, he is in a league with longtime Friendsville, Maryland mayor Spencer Schlosnagle, who in the mid-1990s pled guilty to charges stemming from several incidents when he exposed himself to passersby on the highway.  Mr Schlosnagle paid a fine, went to a psychiatrist, and was reelected.  He continues in office today.  I think that the case of Mr Schlosnagle shows a community and a political system with a rational attitude towards mental illness.  Mr Schlosnagle initially tried to deny the charges against him; when the prosecution made such denials impossible, he accepted punishment and sought counseling, thus reducing the likelihood that he will reoffend.  Since his behavior was a real nuisance, the prosecution was rational.  On the other hand, it was only a nuisance, not a serious threat to anyone in particular; therefore, the voters’ decision to reelect him once he had shown that he was addressing his mental health problems was also rational.   Schlosnagle disclosed that he had suffered sexual abuse as a child, thus disowning any model of masculinity that would require him to project an image of himself as invulnerable or invincible.  The description of Weiner as the main figure in a “sex scandal,” by contrast, both obscures the fact that he doesn’t seem to have had any sexual contact with anyone and presents him as a menacingly potent figure.  I suppose it makes sense that he would have an easier time playing along with that image of himself that with presenting himself as a sick man compelled to behave in a somewhat annoying fashion.

The Library of America has finally devoted a volume to Ambrose Bierce, and this issue includes an admiring review of  Bierce’s work and of the Library’s edition.  I liked this sentence: “Bierce, after all, has always been best known for being undeservedly unknown.”  Reviewer Benjamin Schwarz also makes some good points about Bierce’s lapidary style, such as this:

Bierce’s seminal contribution to American letters is that “sharp-edged and flexible style, like the ribbon of a wound-up steel tape-measure,” as Edmund Wilson perfectly defined it. But that style emerged from Bierce’s compulsion to reveal a truth that remains unacceptable—or only selectively acceptable—today. It’s all very nice to decry the horror of war, but to Bierce its obscenity and its meaninglessness were merely integral to those of life. Bierce’s friend the editor Bailey Millard explained why all the leading publishers of the day rejected Bierce’s war fiction: they “admitted the purity of his diction and the magic of his haunting power, but the stories were regarded as revolting.” Understandably so, given what Bierce knew to be our delusional and self-serving tendencies.

Schwarz approves of Bierce’s flatly declarative style, especially as regards the US Civil War in which Bierce fought with distinction.  He quotes Walt Whitman’s remark that “The real war will never get into the books,” then says: “And in fact, excepting Bierce’s work, it didn’t.”  That’s high praise indeed; Bierce, alone among the tens of thousands of authors who have published books on that conflict, succeeded in putting “the real war” into his books.  I’ve posted previously about Bierce’s characteristic pose as The Man Without Illusions; evidently this is a pose Schwarz accepts at face value, and a form of masculinity he values highly.

B. R. Myers contributes a brief review essay on Australian crime fiction.  He quotes this exchange from one such novel:

“I hear someone punched out that cunt Derry Callahan,” he said. “Stole a can of dog food too. You blokes investigatin that?”

Cashin frowned. “That right? No complaint that I know of. When it happens, we’ll pull out all the stops. Door-to-door. Manhunt.”

“Let’s see your hand.”

“Let’s see your dick.”

“C’mon. Hiding somethin?”

“Fuck off.”

Bern laughed, delighted, punched Cashin’s upper arm. “You fuckin violent bastard.”

Upon which Myers comments “I grinned right along with that, as if I hadn’t left high school hoping never to have to hear such exchanges again.”  Indeed, talk like that is common among males of many ages and nationalities, and I can sympathize with Myers’ wish to escape from it.  As with his admiration for that rather well-crafted specimen of it.

Intimacy and humanity

A doodle by Franz Kafka, with a comment by Acilius*

Part I.  Some remarks about Franz Kafka

In the Autumn of 1921, Franz Kafka wrote a letter to his sister Elli Herrmann in which he discussed, among other things, Jonathan’s Swift’s educational ideas.  This letter, published in an English translation in The Chicago Review in 1977,** contains these passages:

This, then, is what Swift thinks***:

Every typical family represents merely an animal connection, as it were, a a single organism, a single bloodstream.  Cast back on itself, it cannot get beyond itself.  From itself it cannot create a new individual and to try to do so through the education within the family is a kind of intellectual incest. (page 49)

Kafka enlarges on this statement through two very interesting paragraphs, in the first of which he describes the family as “an organism, but an extremely complex and unbalanced one”; in the second, he attributes the unbalanced character of the family to “the monstrous superiority in power of the parents  vis-á-vis the  children for so many years.”  He then comes to the heart of the matter:

The essential difference between true education and family education is that the first is a human affair, the second a family affair.  In humanity every individual has its place or at least the possibility of being destroyed in its own fashion.  In the family, clutched in the tight embrace of the parents, there is room only for certain people who conform to certain requirements and moreover have to meet the deadlines dictated by the parents.  If they do not conform, they are not expelled- that would be very fine, but it is impossible, for we are dealing with an organism here- but accursed or consumed or both.  The consuming does not take place on the physical plane, as in the archetype of Greek mythology (Kronos, the most honest of fathers, who devoured his sons; but perhaps Kronos preferred this to the usual methods out of pity for his children.)

The selfishness of parents- the authentic parental emotion- knows no bounds.  Even the greatest parental love is, as far as education is concerned, more selfish than the smallest love of the paid educator.  It cannot be otherwise.  For parents do not stand in a free relationship with their children, as an adult stands to a child- after all, they are his own blood, with this added grave complication: the blood of both the parents.  When the father “educates” the child (it is the same for the mother) he will, of course, find things in the child that he already hates in himself and could not overcome and which he now hopes to overcome, since the weak child seems to be more in his power than he himself.  And so in a blind fury, without waiting for the child’s own development, he reaches into the depths of the growing human being to pluck out the offending element…  Or he finds things in the child that he loves in himself or longs to have and considers necessary for the family.  Then he is indifferent to the child’s other qualities.  He sees in the child only the thing he loves, he clings to that, he makes himself its slave, he consumes it out of love.  (page 50)

After this description, Kafka finds it necessary to clarify.  “I repeat: Swift does not wish to disparage parental love; on the contrary, he considers it so strong a force that under certain circumstances children should be shielded from this parental love” (page 51.)  He concludes:

What then must be done?  According to Swift, children should be taken from their parents.  That is to say, the equilibrium the family animal needs should be postponed to a time when children, independent of their parents, should become equal to them in physical and mental powers, and then the time is come for the true and loving equilibrium to take place, the very thing that you call “being saved” and that others call “the gratitude of children” and which they find so rarely.

[snip]

Of course Swift does not deny that parents under certain circumstances can be an excellent unit for educating children, but only strangers’ children.  That, then, is how I read the Swiftian passage.

If Kafka shared the view that “parents under certain circumstances can be an excellent unit for educating children, but only strangers’ children,” one may wonder what those circumstances would be.  What always comes to my mind when I read that line is the passage in The Castle when K. is told that he and Frieda are to make their home in a classroom:

You have, Land-Surveyor, to clean and heat both classrooms daily, to make any small repairs in the house, further to look after the class and gymnastic apparatus personally, to keep the garden path free of snow, run messages for me and the woman teacher, and look after all the work in the garden in the warmer seasons of the year.  In return for that you have the right to live in whichever one of the classrooms you like; but when both rooms are not being used at the same time for teaching, and you are in the room that is needed, you must of course move to the other room.  You mustn’t do any cooking in the school; in return you and your dependents will be given your meals here in the inn at the cost of the Village Council.  That you must behave in a manner consonant with the dignity of the school, and in particular that the children during school hours must never be allowed to witness any unedifying matrimonial scenes, I mention only in passing, for as an educated man you must of course know that.  In connection with that I want to say further that we must insist on your relations with Fräulein Frieda being legitimized at the earliest possible moment.  About all this and a few other trifling matters an agreement will be made out, which as soon as you move over to the school must be signed by you.”  To K. all this seemed of no importance, as if it did not concern him, or at any rate did not bind him; but the self importance of the teacher irritated him, and he said carelessly: “I know, they’re the usual duties.” ****

In this passage I suppose we see the obverse of the point Kafka finds in Swift.  As the family is an impossible setting for the education that raises a person above the animal level, so a schoolroom is an impossible setting for the animal connection that grounds the intimacies of family life.

The overall impression is of a horror of intimacy.  Kafka, or Jonathan Swift as Kafka interprets him,  recoiled from the intimacy of the bond between parent and child and dreamed of replacing that bond with the professional relationship between teacher and pupil.  Throughout his diaries, Kafka mirrors the desire to replace an urgently intimate relationship with a coolly professional one as he confesses that he is holding Felice Bauer and her successors at a distance while developing an ominous fascination with prostitutes.  Take for example this passage, which he wrote on 19 November 1913:

I intentionally walk through the streets where there are whores.  Walking past them excites me, the remote but nevertheless existent possibility of going with one.  Is that grossness?  But I know no better, and doing this seems basically innocent to me and causes me almost no regret.  I want only the stout, older ones, with outmoded clothes that have, however, a certain luxuriousness because of various adornments.  One woman probably knows me by now.  I met her this afternoon, she was not yet in her working clothes, her hair was still flat against her head, she was wearing no hat, a work blouse like a cook’s, and was carrying a bundle of some sort, perhaps to the laundress.  No one would have found anything exciting in her, only me.  We looked at each other fleetingly.  Now, in the evening, it had meanwhile grown cold, I saw her, wearing a tight-fitting, yellowish-brown coat, on the other side of the narrow street that branches off from the Zeltnerstrasse, where she has her beat.  I looked back at her twice, she caught the glance, but then I really ran away from her.

This uncertainty is surely the result of thinking about F. *****

Self-critical as he was, Kafka analyzed his behavior towards his fiancee as a series of attempts to avoid intimacy, and he felt terrible about it.  It’s with another image of streets and alleys that Kafka confesses that he has willfully kept Felice at a distance, and done her harm thereby:

Coitus as punishment for the happiness of being together.  Live as ascetically as possible, more ascetically than a bachelor, that is the only possible way to endure marriage.  But she?

And despite all this, if we, I and F., had equal rights, if we had the same prospects and possibilities, I would not marry.  But this blind alley into which I have slowly pushed her life makes it an unavoidable duty for me, although its consequences are by no means unpredictable.  Some secret law of human relationship is at work here.******

In his letter to Elli, Kafka had spoken of the relationship between parents and children as monstrously deformed by the imbalance of power between the parties, and had speculated about a way to introduce a balance between them.  Here again he is concerned about inequality in an intimate relationship, seeing his relationship with Felice as one in which he has been cast as her oppressor by the different standards to which society held men and women.  From a certain perspective we can say that Kafka speaks as a feminist in these passages; but it would be far more accurate to say that he speaks as a liberal.  To the extent that liberalism can be defined as the doctrine that society should be based on reason, the views Kafka attributes to Swift might almost be called liberalism’s reductio ad absurdum.  Perhaps this thoroughgoing liberalism reflects a side of Kafka’s sincere belief.  It is not difficult to imagine the author of the famous “Letter to His Father” speaking in this vein, and his diary entry dated 19 June 1914 suggests that Elli might have heard sentiments like those her brother here attributes to Jonathan Swift from another sibling as well:  “How the two of us, Ottla and I, explode in rage against every kind of human relationship.”*******  Perhaps, too, his willingness to believe that Swift is speaking straightforwardly when he praises the Lilliputians is in part a response to the fact that Swift, as a British subject who wrote in English, symbolized a world power that was in 1921, under the banner of liberalism, enforcing policies in Central Europe that did in fact break up families and push people into the care of impersonal institutions.

If Kafka saw families as single organisms which deformed the individuals in them, it can hardly be surprising that he was desperate to avoid forming one.  But what of other institutions that promise intimate experiences, but involve unequal power relationships that might overwhelm their individual members?  What of religion, for example?

Several times in his diaries, Kafka reflects on the intimacy of shared religious experience, often in such a way as to connect that intimacy with the sort of raw animality that he finds in the parent-child bond.   Note this account of a bris:

This morning my nephew’s circumcision.  A short, bow-legged man, Austerlitz, who already has 2800 circumcisions behind him, carried the thing out very skillfully.  It is an operation made more difficult by the fact that the boy, instead of lying on a table, lies on his grandfather’s lap, and by the fact that the person performing the operation, instead of paying close attention, must whisper prayers.  First the boy is prevented from moving by wrappings which leave only his member free, then the surface to be operated on is defined precisely by putting on a perforated metal disc, then the operation is performed with what is almost an ordinary knife, a sort of fish knife.  One sees blood and raw flesh, the moule bustles about briefly with his long-nailed, trembling fingers and pulls skin from some place or other over the wound like the finger of a glove.  At once everything is all right, the child has scarcely cried.  Now there remains only a short prayer during which the moule drinks some wine and with his fingers, not yet entirely unbloody, carries some wine to the child’s lips.  Those present pray: “As he has now achieved the covenant, so may he achieve knowledge of the Torah, a happy marriage, and the performance of good deeds.”

Today when I heard the moule‘s assistant say the grace after meals and those present, aside from the two grandfathers, spent the time in dreams or boredom with a complete lack of understanding of the prayer, I saw Western European Judaism before me in a transition whose end is clearly unpredictable and about which those most closely affected are not concerned, but, like all people truly in transition, bear what is imposed upon them.  It is so indisputable that these religious forms which have reached their final end have merely a historical character, even as they are practiced today, that only a short time was needed this very morning to interest the people present in the obsolete custom of circumcision and its half-sung prayers by describing it to them as something out of history.********

These paragraphs sit oddly together.  The opening remark that the “operation” is impeded by the traditional circumstances of its performance is belied by the lovingly detailed description of those circumstances and their profound peacefulness.  Obviously it would be missing the point entirely to turn this most intimate of rituals into an antiseptic operating room procedure.  Without the grandfather’s lap, the prayers, the wine, the hushed relatives, and the picturesque rabbi with his unassuming double-edged knife, it’s simply a medical procedure, to be recommended perhaps in rare cases.  The “operation” itself is the least defensible part of the whole thing, from the strictly rational point of view a modernizer might have been expected to adopt in 1911.  With “obsolete” in the last sentence, however, we return to the conceit that the narrator is unaware of this absurdity, that he sincerely wants to create an up-to-date circumcision, a sterilized scientific bris for the age of progress.

Undoubtedly Kafka’s irony is at work here, an irony which perhaps might have borne richer fruit in a more polished composition.  Indeed, he seems to have been dissatisfied with the entry; the next day, he wrote an account of the highly unsanitary circumcision practices allegedly prevalent among Russian Jews, which is so remarkably ugly that it reads like an antisemite’s fever dream.   I’ll quote only the last four sentences of this nauseating passage:

The circumciser, who performs his office without payment, is usually a drinker- busy as he is, he has no time for the various holiday foods and so simply pours down some brandy.  Thus they all have red noses and reeking breaths.  It is therefore not very pleasant when, after the operation has been performed, they suck the bloody member with this mouth, in the prescribed manner.  The member is then sprinkled with sawdust and heals in about three days. *********

The next paragraph is more palatable, if not exactly convincing:

A close-knit family life does not seem to be so very common among and characteristic of the Jews, especially those in Russia.  Family life is also found among Christians, after all, and the fact that women are excluded from the study of the Talmud is really destructive of Jewish family life; when the man wants to discuss learned talmudic matters- the very core of his life- with guests, the women withdraw to the next room even if they need not do so- so it is even more characteristic of the Jews that they come together at every possible opportunity, whether to pray or to study or to discuss divine matters or to eat holiday meals whose basis is usually a religious one and at which alcohol is drunk only moderately.  They flee to one another, so to speak.**********

In both of these passages, we see a similar movement from the first paragraph to the second.  The first paragraph describes in considerable detail a ritual in which people share what appear to be bonds of great intimacy, the second explains that this intimacy is mediated through something that keeps those same people from becoming too close to each other.  At his nephew’s circumcision, the ritual is lovely and tranquil; among the Russian Jews of Kafka’s Prague imagination, the ritual is an obscene Bacchanal (believe me, the passage I quoted is the printable part.)  The Prague Jews in attendance at his nephew’s circumcision only appear to be sharing a moment of the closest intimacy; in fact, their attention is focused on the distant history behind the ceremony, and only incidentally do they relate to each other at all.  The Russian Jews of Kafka’s imagination also seem to be sharing something very personal, but when we follow them home from their loathsome debauch we find that they are deeply intellectual and only too mindful of the proprieties.

Not only does Kafka see religion as a sphere in which people only appear to achieve intimacy with each other.  He also imagines the supernatural realm as a set of equally diffident relationships.  Take this diary entry, for example:

The invention of the devil.  If we are possessed by the devil, it cannot be by one, for then we should live, at least here on earth, quietly, as with God, in unity, without contradiction, without reflection, always sure of the man behind us.  His face would not frighten us, for as diabolical beings we would, if somewhat sensitive to the sight, be clever enough to prefer to sacrifice a hand in order to keep his face covered with it.  If we were possessed by only a single devil, one who had a calm, untroubled view of our whole nature, and freedom to dispose of us at any moment, then that devil would also have the power to hold us for the length of a human life high above the spirit of God in us, and even to swing us to and fro, so that we should never get to see a glimmer of it and therefore should not be troubled from that quarter.  Only a crowd of devils could account for our earthly misfortunes.  Why don’t they exterminate each other until only a single one is left, or why don’t they subordinate themselves to one great devil?  Either way would be in accord with the diabolical principle of deceiving us as completely as possible.  With unity lacking, of what use is the scrupulous attention all the devils pay us?  It simply goes without saying that the falling of a human hair must matter more to the devil than to God, since the devil really loses that hair and God does not.  But we still do not arrive at any state of well-being so long as the many devils are within us. ************

I’ve never understood the appeal of the distant, indifferent gods of Epicurus and the deists; evidently Kafka does.

Part II.  Three pieces in the May 2011 issue of The Atlantic

Kafka’s letter to Elli may also have shed some light on another English author, one born the year after he wrote it: Philip Larkin.  Larkin’s most famous lines are undoubtedly the opening of his “This Be the Verse“:

They fuck you up, your Mum and Dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.

They fill you with the faults they had,

And add some extra, just for you.

The May 2011 issue of the Atlantic includes a review of a new collection of  Philip Larkin’s letters to Monica Jones, with whom the poet had a relationship that not even Kafka’s famously frustrated girlfriends could have envied.  The reviewer, Peter Hitchens’ less interesting brother Christopher, notes that Larkin and Jones “did not cohabit until very near the end, finally forced into mutual dependence by decrepitude on his part and dementia on hers: perhaps the least romantic story ever told.”  He supports this description with numerous quotations from letters in which Larkin apologizes for the rarity and unpleasantness of their sexual encounters.

Where Kafka retreated into a fascination with prostitutes as a way of avoiding intimacy with Felice, Larkin kept his relationship with Monica arid in part by becoming “a heroic consumer of pornography and an amateur composer of sado­masochistic reveries” and amassing “the vast library of a hectically devoted masturbator.”  Larkin’s interest in sadomasochism may have helped him develop this idea:

I think—though of course I am all for free love, advanced schools, & so on—someone might do a little research on some of the inherent qualities of sex—its cruelty, its bullyingness, for instance. It seems to me that bending someone else to your will is the very stuff of sex, by force or neglect if you are male, by spitefulness or nagging or scenes if you are female. And what’s more, both sides would sooner have it that way than not at all. I wouldn’t.

People often accuse feminist thinkers Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon of holding the view to which Larkin gives voice here; I don’t actually believe they do, but perhaps some of the reason people are so fond of caricaturing their views in this way is that they suspect it is the truth and they wish someone would say it.

In the same issue, Benjamin Schwarz writes an essay about novelist James M. Cain, Cain’s novel Mildred Pierce, and a TV adaptation of the novel that was due to air when the magazine was on the stands.*************  This paragraph caught my attention:

[I]n Mildred Pierce, Cain wrote the greatest work of American fiction about small business. He made compelling the intricacies of real-estate deals and cash flow, of business planning and bank loans, and of relations with suppliers and customers. (“She had a talent for quiet flirtation,” as Cain explained Mildred’s technique, “but found that this didn’t pay. Serving a man food, apparently, was in itself an ancient intimacy; going beyond it made him uncomfortable, and sounded a trivial note in what was essentially a solemn relationship.”) He rendered the plodding method and the fundamental gamble of small-time commerce—the foundation of Los Angeles’s service-oriented economy—not just absorbing but romantic.

The quote from Cain might have intrigued both Kafka and Larkin. Each of those men managed to conduct his sex life in a way that had more of solemnity than of intimacy about it, and in each case it was through “small-time commerce” (with prostitutes in Kafka’s case and with magazine vendors in Larkin’s) that a barrier was put around sexuality to keep it from becoming too intimate.

Ta-Nehisi Coates compares Barack Obama with Malcolm X.  Here’s an important paragraph from Coates’ piece:

For all of Malcolm’s prodigious intellect, he was ultimately more an expression of black America’s heart than of its brain. Malcolm was the voice of a black America whose parents had borne the slights of second-class citizenship, who had seen protesters beaten by cops and bitten by dogs, and children bombed in churches, and could only sit at home and stew. He preferred to illuminate the bitter calculus of oppression, one in which a people had been forced to hand over their right to self-defense, a right enshrined in Western law and morality and taken as essential to American citizenship, in return for the civil rights that they had been promised a century earlier. The fact and wisdom of nonviolence may be beyond dispute—the civil-rights movement profoundly transformed the country. Yet the movement demanded of African Americans a superhuman capacity for forgiveness. Dick Gregory summed up the dilemma well. “I committed to nonviolence,” Marable quotes him as saying. “But I’m sort of embarrassed by it.”

Again, this reminds me of Kafka, in particular of his ideas about education. Parents may hand over their right to educate their children to teachers whose relationship to students is impersonal, and it may be beyond dispute that this is called for.  But it is sort of embarrassing to admit that the passionate relationships within the family must sometimes be reined in, that children have needs that are not simply outside the scope of what parents can provide, but needs that cannot be met in the presence of the parents.  That applies as well to the need for defense against physical violence as to the need for education.

Coates finds two similarities between Mr X and Mr O.  First is their common emphasis on the theme of self-invention, second their symbolic roles as powerful African American men:

For all of Malcolm’s invective, his most seductive notion was that of collective self-creation: the idea that black people could, through force of will, remake themselves… For black people who were never given much of an opportunity to create themselves apart from a mass image of shufflers and mammies, that vision had compelling appeal.

What gave it added valence was Malcolm’s own story, his incandescent transformation from an amoral wanderer to a hyper-moral zealot. “He had a brilliant mind. He was disciplined,” Louis Farrakhan said in a speech in 1990, and went on:

I never saw Malcolm smoke. I never saw Malcolm take a drink … He ate one meal a day. He got up at 5 o’clock in the morning to say his prayers … I never heard Malcolm cuss. I never saw Malcolm wink at a woman Malcolm was like a clock.Farrakhan’s sentiments are echoed by an FBI informant, one of many who, by the late 1950s, had infiltrated the Nation of Islam at the highest levels:

Brother Malcolm … is an expert organizer and an untiring worker … He is fearless and cannot be intimidated … He has most of the answers at his fingertips and should be carefully dealt with. He is not likely to violate any ordinances or laws. He neither smokes nor drinks and is of high moral character.In fact, Marable details how Malcolm was, by the end of his life, perhaps evolving away from his hyper-moral persona. He drinks a rum and Coke and allows himself a second meal a day. Marable suspects he carried out an affair or two, one with an 18-year-old convert to the Nation. But in the public mind, Malcolm rebirthed himself as a paragon of righteousness, and even in Marable’s retelling he is obsessed with the pursuit of self-creation. That pursuit ended when Malcolm was killed by the very Muslims from whom he once demanded fealty.

And:

Among organic black conservatives, this moral leadership still gives Malcolm sway. It’s his abiding advocacy for blackness, not as a reason for failure, but as a mandate for personal, and ultimately collective, improvement that makes him compelling. Always lurking among Malcolm’s condemnations of white racism was a subtler, and more inspiring, notion—“You’re better than you think you are,” he seemed to say to us. “Now act like it.”

Ossie Davis famously eulogized Malcolm X as “our living, black manhood” and “our own black shining prince.” Only one man today could bear those twin honorifics: Barack Obama. Progressives who always enjoyed Malcolm’s thundering denunciations more than his moral appeals are unimpressed by that message. But among blacks, Obama’s moral appeals are warmly received, not because the listeners believe racism has been defeated, but because cutting off your son’s PlayStation speaks to something deep and American in black people—a belief that, by their own hand, they can be made better, they can be made anew.

Like Malcolm, Obama was a wanderer who found himself in the politics of the black community, who was rooted in a nationalist church that he ultimately outgrew. Like Malcolm’s, his speeches to black audiences are filled with exhortations to self-creation, and draw deeply from his own biography. In his memoir, Barack Obama cites Malcolm’s influence on his own life:

His repeated acts of self-creation spoke to me; the blunt poetry of his words, his unadorned insistence on respect, promised a new and uncompromising order, martial in its discipline, forged through sheer force of will. All the other stuff, the talk of blue-eyed devils and apocalypse, was incidental to that program, I decided, religious baggage that Malcolm himself seemed to have safely abandoned toward the end of his life.

Kafka was no prophet of self-invention, collective or otherwise, and charismatic leaders never attracted his attention.  However, the one political cause that sometimes did inspire him was Zionism.  He even seems to have toyed with the idea of moving to Palestine himself.  He occasionally made harsh remarks about Jews as a people, such as the Russian circumcision story quoted above.   Those remarks appear in the context of an explicit longing for a new social order in which Jews will no longer be everywhere in the minority, everywhere under pressure to assimilate, everywhere humiliated and relegated either to the squalor of poverty or to the shadow world of the metropolitan bureaucracy.  So I’m sure he would have understood the appeal of the Nation of Islam quite well.  Perhaps what Kafka hoped to find in the kibbutz he dreamed of joining, and what Malcolm X hoped for during his Black Muslim period, was a new world where family relations were untroubled by the stigmas imposed on the family from without.

Coates seems to favor such an interpretation of Malcolm X.  He begins his piece by talking about his mother’s childhood, spent largely in the absorption of homemade hair-straightening product.  He commits a pun when he says that at 12, his mother was relaxed for the first time in her life.  It turns out that she had undergone a hair-straightening treatment called a “relaxer.”  He goes on to describe his own childhood, passed in the 1970s, in an atmosphere where the legacy of Malcolm X was everywhere.  He suggests that he enjoyed an easy intimacy with his parents that his grandparents had never had a chance to share with them, in part because his grandparents had felt an obligation to press the standards of white America onto their children.*************

When Kafka talks about the unreasoning animality at the heart of the relationship between parent and child, and the imbalance of power that inevitably deforms that relationship, I wonder if he might imagine a world where those qualities would be tempered.  Perhaps in a family that is not pervaded by the sense of being a guest, and not a welcome guest, in the only home available to it the parents might have emotional and intellectual resources available within themselves, and social support available from their neighbors, sufficient to reinvent the parent-child relationship in such a way that its animal character is sublimated into something as humanizing as any school.  And perhaps in such a society the family’s bonds with its neighbors would include the children in a complex enough social order that the parents’ power would be moderated.  One wishes Kafka had lived to see the establishment of the state of Israel; I wonder whether he would have advised Israeli Jewish parents to send their children to boarding schools.

*A sketch by Franz Kafka, published on page 354 of Franz Kafka, Diaries 1910-1923 (Schocken Classics, 1976); edited by Max Brod, translated by Joseph Kresh

**”Two Letters by Franz Kafka,” edited and translated by Richard Winston and Clara Winston; Chicago Review, volume 29, number 1 (Summer 1977,) pages 49-55

***Kafka is referring to chapter six of Gulliver’s Travels.  In his previous letter to Elli, he had written thus:

For myself I have (among many others) one great witness, whom I quote here, simply because he is great and because I have read this passage only yesterday, not because I presume to have the same opinion.  In describing Gulliver’s travels in Lilliput (whose institutions he praises highly), Swift says: “Their notions relating to the duties of parents and children differ extremely from ours.  For, since the conjunction of male and female is founded upon the great law of nature, in order to propagate and continue the species, the Lilliputians will needs have it that that men and women are joined together like other animals by the motives of concupiscence, and that their tenderness toward their young proceedeth from the like natural principle.  For which reason they will never allow that a child is under any obligation to his father for begetting him or to his mother for bringing him into the world, which, considering the miseries of human life, was neither a benefit on itself nor intended so by his parents, whose thoughts in their love-encounters were otherwise employed.  Upon these and the like reasonings, their opinion is that the parents are the last of all others to be trusted with the education of their own children.”  He obviously means by that, altogether in keeping with your distinction between “person” and “son,” that if a child is to become a person, he must be removed as soon as possible from the brutishness, for so he expresses it, the mere animal conjunction from which he has his being.  (from Franz Kafka, Letters to Family, Friends, and Editors, translated by Richard and Clara Winston; Schocken Books, 1977, page 293.)

It may prevent misunderstanding if I mention that in his original letter, Kafka quoted Swift in German translation, not in the original text the Winstons provide above (see pages 342-343 in Franz Kafka, Briefe 1902-1924, edited by Max Brod; Schocken Books, 1958.)

****Kafka, The Castle, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir (Schocken Books, 1982) page 123

*****Kafka, Diaries, page 238 (19 November 1913)

******Kafka, Diaries, page 228 (14 August 1913)

*******Kafka, Diaries, page 290 (19 June 1914)

********Kafka, Diaries, pages 147-148 (24 December 1911)

*********Kafka, Diaries, pages 151-152 (25 December 1911)

**********Kafka, Diaries, page 152 (25 December 1911)

***********Kafka, Diaries, pages 204-205 (9 July 1912)

************Yes, I know that was several months ago.  I’m sorry, I’ve been busy.

*************And yes, I know that “press the standards of white America onto their children” is, in the context of a story about hair straightening, also a pun.  It’s catching, I’m afraid.

Paradox of Humanism

The oldest of Irving Babbitt’s published writings is an essay called “The Rational Study of the Classics,” which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in March 1897 (in volume 79, issue 473, pages 355-365.)   Babbitt, then in his early 30s, ends this piece with this paragraph:

There was never a greater need of the Hellenic spirit than there is today, and especially in this country, if that charge of lack of measure and sense of proportion that foreigners bring against Americans is founded in fact.  As Matthew Arnold has admirably said, it is the Greek writers who best show the modern mind the path that it needs to take; for modern man cannot, like the man of the Middle Ages, live by the imagination and the religious faculty alone; on the other hand, he cannot live solely by the exercise of his reason and understanding.  It is only by the fusion of these two elements that of his nature that he can hope to attain a balanced growth, and this fusion of the reason and the imagination is found realized more perfectly than elsewhere in the Greek classics of the great Age.  Those who can receive the higher initiation into the Hellenic spirit will doubtless remain few in number, but those few will wield a potent force for good, each in his own circle, if only from the ability they will thereby have acquired to escape from contemporary illusions.  For of him who has caught the profounder teachings of Greek literature we may say, in the words of the Imitation, that he is released from a multitude of opinions.  (Quoted from pages 57-58 of Irving Babbitt: Representative Writings, edited by George A. Panichas; University of Nebraska Press, 1981.)

I find the paraphrase of Thomas á Kempis strangely telling.  Babbitt continually asserted the unity of human experience, arguing that the similarities between a properly lived human life in any one time or place and a properly lived life in any other time and place will prove to be more important than the differences between them.  To sustain this idea, it is necessary to do two apparently contradictory things at the same time.  On the one hand, one must hold as few opinions as possible and set as low a value as possible on opinions, since opinions are plainly among the things that set one person apart from another.  On the other hand, one must have an opinion ready to account for each of the differences that sort people into groups.

Babbitt himself abounded with opinions.  Sometimes the number of his opinions, the range of topics about which he had opinions, and the vehemence with which he expressed his opinions drove Babbitt to the point of self-parody.  Perhaps the most obvious example of this is chapter six of his magnum opus, Rousseau and Romanticism (1919), titled “Romantic Love.”    In this piece, Babbitt analyzes the love lives of various leading Romantic poets and novelists, arguing that the instability and eccentricity of some of their intimate attachments was the consequence of their theory of the will, and denouncing them ferociously for it.  Babbitt hands down his verdicts on Novalis, Shelley, Chateaubriand, and any number of other figures in such dizzyingly rapid succession that one cannot but smile at his gusto.  I’ve often suspected that Vladimir Nabokov had at some point read Babbitt’s withering attack on Novalis’ infatuation with the pubescent Sophie von Kühn and used it as the basis of Lolita.

I bring this up, not to beat old Babbitt when he’s down (he’s been dead since 1933, you can’t get much further down than that,) but to point out that I have fallen into the same dilemma.  In December 2009, I reviewed the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain’s performance at the Albert Hall on this blog; in that review, I wrote the following sentences about Hester Goodman’s rendition of “Teenage Dirtbag”:

When I talked about Hester’s “Teenage Dirtbag” in my review of Live in London #1,  I summarized it as a “ballad of adolescent lesbian angst”; it’s sobering to see how many visitors still come to this site having googled “hester goodman lesbian.”  At the risk of drawing more of that traffic, I’ll say that the human race would be the poorer if some among us did not go through adolescent lesbian angst.  I’d go so far as to label adolescent sexual angst in all its forms as an indispensable part of the human experience.  Hester has produced a powerful testament to that form of adolescent angst, and my hat’s off to her for it.

In that “indispensable part of the human experience” and the proclamations that surround it, we have a humanistic opinion eliding the differences of sexual identity and sexual response that often sort people into groups.  More recently, I asked here “Why do people have opinions about homosexuality?”  In that post, I wondered whether there was any need for anyone to hold an opinion about that topic.  Clearly those two posts don’t sit very comfortably together.  Perhaps their apparent contradiction, like Babbitt’s apparent self-contradiction, points up a paradox that humanists in general are hard put to escape.

The Atlantic, December 2010

Several interesting pieces this month.  I’d mention three.

Kenneth Brower is the son of environmentalist David Brower and has for decades been close to physicist and all-around genius Freeman Dyson.  In the last few years, Dyson has become the most prominent of scientists who are unconvinced that human-caused global warming represents a significant threat.  Brower’s piece in this issue asks what went wrong with Dyson.  I can’t entirely suppress a suspicion that Brower is being less than fair to Dyson, but the article is fun to read nonetheless.

James Parker wonders what the deal is with all those late-night talk shows where there’s a host who comes out, delivers a monologue, then chats with celebrities who take turns sitting on a couch next to his desk while the house band plays and the studio audience cheers.  Isn’t that an awfully tired format?  Evidently not too tired for the tastes of the American viewing public, as many such shows now command millions of eyeballs nightly.

At the end of a column about internet dating sites, Alexis Madrigal says that “It’s when people deviate from what we predict they’ll do that they prove they are individuals, set apart from all others of the human type.”  I tend to disagree.  If others are to work with us, they must be able to predict our behavior well enough to know our next move.  If we are to accomplish anything new by working together, that predictability will have to be the result of a deliberate creative process.  Indeed, I would say that the greatest of all creative challenges is the creation of predictability.

The Atlantic, June 2010

Several interesting pieces this time:

How the private sector could build railways again, and save neighborhood life in the USA in the process

Mark Bowden explains the Conficker worm and the threat it may represent to computers on and off the internet. 

A piece on the revival of some centuries-old recipes for mixed drinks at fashionable bars in London.  The “shrub” sounds alarming, but might be delicious. 

There are lots of witchcraft trials in the Central African Republic; here‘s an attempt to see the bright side of that state of affairs.

Benjamin Schwarz isn’t impressed with the “New Urbanism,” and tries to dismiss the reading of Jane Jacobs’ works that has inspired many in that movement. 

Michael Kinsley adds a column to the already enormous amount of coverage given to the political movement known as the “teabaggers.”   This paragraph contributes something of value to the discussion:

“I like what they’re saying. It’s common sense,” a random man-in-the-crowd told a Los Angeles Times reporter at a big Tea Party rally. Then he added, “They’ve got to focus on issues like keeping jobs here and lowering the cost of prescription drugs.” These, of course, are projects that can be conducted only by Big Government. If the Tea Party Patriots ever developed a coherent platform or agenda, they would lose half their supporters.

I suspect Kinsley is right and “Big Government” is needed to keep jobs in the USA and lower the cost of prescription drugs, but the big government we actually have doesn’t seem to be geared to accomplishing either of these goals.  Quite the contrary, in fact. 

James Parker tries to find something interesting to say about pop star Lady Gaga.  I don’t think he succeeds, but I do think that it’s a waste that someone who is not a drag queen has monopolized the name “Lady Gaga.”

The Wrong Man?

I continue my attempt to catch up on “Periodicals Notes” with this bit about the May issue of The Atlantic

The most widely discussed article in the issue was David Freed’s “The Wrong Man,” about Dr. Steven J. Hatfill.  When several envelopes containing anthrax were sent to American politicians and journalists in the fall of 2001, the FBI investigated Dr Hatfill.  The article makes it clear why; the anthrax in the envelopes came from Hatfill’s place of employment, the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland.  Hatfill was in Britain when one of the letters was mailed from Britain; he was in Florida when another letter was mailed from Florida.  Most intriguingly, though Hatfill is an American he served in the Rhodesian army defending white minority rule in that African country in the 1970s.  The unit in which Hatfill served, the Selous Scouts, operated in the area where a major anthrax outbreak killed more than 10,000 members of the tribes that most fiercely opposed white rule.  Freed points out that “a majority of the soldiers in the Rhodesian army, and in Hatfill’s unit, were black”; he does not pause to acknowledge that a black citizen of Rhodesia might have had a different motivation for joining the Rhodesian army than would an American.  Freed also says that “many well-respected scientists” concluded that the outbreak had an innocent explanation; this conclusion becomes a bit dubious when we see that a member of the Selous Scouts had been in the US Army’s elite Green Berets shortly before the outbreak and would wind up working at the Army’s chief bioweapons facility some years later.  Freed asserts Hatfill’s innocence throughout the article, but succeeds in showing why the FBI originally suspected him and why some might suspect that the investigation may have been short-circuited to cover up high-level misdeeds in which he was involved.

Elsewhere in the issue, Jon Zobenica recommends two books as anitdotes to the myth that American soldiers were models of chivalry during World War Two, Robert Leckie’s Helmet for My Pillow and Eugene Sledge’s With the Old Breed.  Leckie and Sledge both served in the Pacific as Marines, and neither man’s memoir gives an inch to romanticism or propaganda.  These two books formed much of the basis for a recent TV drama about the war in the Pacific.  Some commentators have praised the show for its gritty realism; having read the books, though, Zobenica can report that the producers sanitized the characters based on Sledge and Leckie in ways that the men never sanitized their own records.

Places to go when you can’t stay anywhere

None of the three pieces that I wanted to note were mentioned on the cover. 

The state of Florida has a long list of crimes that require a convict to be registered for life as a sex offender.  Registered sex offenders in the state are prohibited from being close to schools, playgrounds, and other areas where children congregate.  Some Florida towns decree that registered sex offenders must stay at least 1000 yards (914.4 meters) from such areas; most put the boundary at 2500 yards (2286m.)  Since the average town has quite a few child-friendly spaces, the consequence of these laws is that Floridian sex offenders cluster into little ghettoes.  Irina Aleksander spent some time following a man who runs a business that shepherds registered sex offenders into these ghettoes.  The man, himself a registered sex offender whose crime was watching a 19 year old girls perform a sex act on a 15 year old boy, is evidently getting pretty rich.  The neighborhoods where he send his clients tend to get very inexpensive very quickly.  He seems like a good person to know if you are a real estate developer and want to find a way to reduce startup costs for redevelopment projects in Florida…

A person who has a lot of anger might answer the question of where registered sex offenders should go by referring to another article in this issue.  A business in Switzerland has taken advantage of that country’s very lax laws on assisted suicide to offer foreigners an easy death.  Zurich has thus become the world’s capital of “suicide tourism.” 

French playwright and novelist Henry de Montherlant committed suicide in 1972.  Had he asked for assistance, one suspects he would have found no end of volunteers.  (more…)

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