The Nation, 6 April 2009

nation-6-april-2009Lorna Fox Scott reviews the new Library of America volume True Crime: An American Anthology, edited by Harold Schechter.  She quotes Americans who have tried to explain acts of extreme violence that their countrymen have committed.  Cotton Mather could say that acts of violence were symptoms of irreligion.  But what would Mather have made of a case like this?

Farmer Yates, who in 1781, as he tells his examiners in what reads like an uncensored transcript, is suddenly commanded by an unidentified “Spirit” to slaughter his beloved family for being “idols”? Vividly reliving the inner struggle of human love with mystic duty, in between enthusiastic pursuits of the victims through the snow, this text stands out as the only perpetrator’s narrative in the collection; its anonymous presenter cannot in the end decide whether Yates was stricken by “the effect of insanity” or “a strong delusion of Satan.” The old certainties are fraying.

Ambrose Bierce was less interested in explaining why people commit acts of extreme violence then in pointing out the glee with which the public receives accounts of those acts:

His “Criminal Market Review” from the late 1860s is unusual for its admission that crime is not so much a deviation as the very image of the national economy: “Robberies are looking up; Assaults, active; Forgeries, dull.” Taking a swipe at the veiled Californian relish in violence–“Our joy at the mutilation of old Hulton has been deeply unspeakable; our lively interest in the shooting and hacking of and by the Dudleys, Ingham and Miller, has been testified in a novel and interesting manner by a private scalp dance at our own apartments”–Bierce links this to the war. “It pleasantly reminds us of the time when we were a soldier.” Then, like Twain satirizing the social worship of “blackguards”: “Yosemite is a conceded fiction, and the Big Trees a screaming joke…. But we are handy with the pistol and wield a butcher-knife as deftly as an Indian or anybody.”

Twentieth century writing has shown new forms of self-consciousness.  Edna Ferber’s comments on the trial of Richard Bruno Hauptmann include not only scorn for the gawking crowd but sympathy for the accused murderer; Zora Neale Hurston’s reports on the trial of Ruby McCollum, a black woman accused of shooting a white physician, show the defendant and the crime lost to public awareness as black and white act out the rituals of race. 

Fox quotes a haunting conversation that occurred in 1949.  A man had gunned down a dozen people on the street in his New Jersey neighborhood, then gone home.  The phone rang.  He answered it.  Calling was a reporter from The Camden Evening Courier

Mr. Buxton asked how many persons Unruh had killed.
 The veteran answered. “I don’t know. I haven’t counted. Looks like a pretty good score.”
  “Why are you killing people?”
  “I don’t know,” came the frank answer. “I can’t answer that yet. I’ll have to talk to you later. I’m too busy now.”

Ange Mlinko’s essay on Fanny Howe also includes some quotable passages.  Here are two:

This is a conviction that may be grounded in Howe’s belief, with fifth-century India’s Bhartrhari, that “grammar leads to God.” She asks, “If there is no sacred text can language still be trusted to have an original gust of justice forming it, a virtuous grammar embedded in it, better meanings hidden in the white lines?” If so, believers are obliged to speak with great care: the truth of language has a supreme guarantor, and even the word “God” should be uttered with skepticism. Therefore, one does not answer questions so much as “lengthen the resonance of those questions.” Therefore, one keeps tinkering with definitions until “I realized that [belief] simply means that you are conscious of the potential for something to become new.” God, words and justice are inextricably linked. 

 That’s a bit tricky- it seems to suggest a form of quietism so extreme that it might forbid believers from practicing their faith in any way.  And “the potential for something to become new”?  Something in particular, or will anything at all do?  I think she’s onto something, but I have no idea what it is or whether it’s any good.   

I find that Howe’s essays clarify two contemporary issues. One: “The atheist is no less an inquirer than a believer,” she writes. “In living at all, she is no less a believer than an unbeliever” (emphasis mine). Hence Camus’s opening sentence in The Myth of Sisyphus, from 1942, is as pertinent as ever: “There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” We must determine for ourselves a raison d’être; in this, as in everything else about Darwinian capitalism, we are on our own. (Howe reminds us that the sign over the gate to Buchenwald reads Jedem das Seine–“to each his own,” or, as she clarifies, everyone gets what he deserves.) In rejecting suicide, we are all creatures of faith.

One of these days I might look Howe’s essays up and try to find her argument in defense of these claims.  They are the familiar stuff of liberal Christianity, and for all I know they may be in some sense true. 

There’s also a web-only feature I’d like to note, Dave Zirin’s piece on colloege athletics, which he calls “the worst labor deal since Reconstruction.”

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  1. cymast

     /  March 20, 2009

    “God, words and justice are inextricably linked.”

    I disagree. It looks like Mlinko and Howe are guilty of re-defining “god,” as so many apologists are inclinded to do.

    “The atheist is no less an inquirer than a believer . . ” . . blah, blah, blah . . “In rejecting suicide, we are all creatures of faith.”

    Again, Mlinko and Howe need to look up the definition of “atheist,” or at least ask an atheist about non-belief. It’s really not that difficult to understand if you don’t have a conversion agenda. Mlinko and Howe are doing a disservice to humanity with this crap, to put it nicely.

  2. acilius

     /  March 21, 2009

    “Redefining God”- That’s something that’s always made me skeptical of liberal Christians in particular. Fundamentalists, conservative Catholics, and others on the Christian Right do tend to tell you what they believe. They may refuse to listen to challenges to those beliefs, but at least you can tell what they are saying. While the more liberal branches tend to be awfully vague and slippery.

    On the other hand, I think they may be onto something about rejecting suicide. If we think of rationality in the narrow fashion of a Mr Spock or Sherlock Holmes, and we believe that the world is what it seems to be when we look at it rationally, then it would be very difficult to see how a decision to go on living in the world could be rational. So that gives us four options: redefine rationality; decide that the world is not what it seems; decide to live irrationally; or commit suicide.

  3. cymast

     /  March 21, 2009

    “redefine rationality; decide that the world is not what it seems; decide to live irrationally; or commit suicide”

    Those are my choices? Where do “I’m having too much fun to not be self-absorbed” and “suicide is horrible for people who are still alive” fit in? What about the instinct of self-preservation? It’s an automatic reflex.

  4. acilius

     /  March 22, 2009

    Those are interesting ideas, and old ones. The ancient Greeks took on the “too much fun” idea; they concluded that if you were living for the sake of pleasure, the luckiest people were those who dropped dead at their happiest moment. Herodotus links this with the “people still alive” point when he has Solon tell Croesus that the three luckiest men in history were Tellus the Athenian, who enjoyed a peaceful and prosperous life, and was killed as he won a great military victory for the Athenians, a victory by which his city was saved and on which his family prided itself; and Cleobis and Biton, two brothers whose mother prayed that they would be blessed with the supreme good fortune, and who died as they were being lauded for an act of great virtue. “Call no man happy until he is dead,” says Solon, because every living person is at the mercy of fortune.

    “Instinct of self-preservation”- I must admit that I’m enough of a behaviorist that the word “instinct” sounds like theology to me.

  5. cymast

     /  March 22, 2009

    “Those are . . of fortune.”

    Heavy on the death.

    “‘instinct’ sounds like theology to me”

    I find that a bizarre comparison. “Instinct” sounds like a mechanism of evolution to me.

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