Man is crystallized in the peculiar system of the book.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A Religious Orgy in Tennessee

H. L. Mencken. A Religious Orgy in Tennessee: a Reporter’s Account of the Scopes Monkey Trial. Introduction by Art Winslow. Melville House Publishing: Hoboken, 2006.

It would be reassuring to read Mencken's collected dispatches from the Scopes trial as a kind of exceptional history, the chance chronicle of a weird spasm in the American experience, knowing that the idiocy rallied around William Jennings Bryan in Dayton, Tennessee was put down once and for all. But innumerable contemporary challenges to the idea of evolution, both in the classroom and out, from the same voices that plagued us then make complacency impossible. Mencken himself foresaw it then, in 1925, saying, "it is still to early... to send the firemen home; the fire is still burning on many a far-flung hill, and it may begin to roar again at any moment."

By today's journalistic norms, Mencken would be relieved of his labors in an instant, and perhaps not entirely without cause. Nevertheless, we can take a lesson from his directness and honesty. If the man subjected his prose to any agency of self-censorship, it is hardly obvious. To whatever extent he ruffles our sensibilities, there is no denying the palpable journalistic energy of his reportage. It is invigorating to read:
The so-called religious organizations which now lead the war against the teaching of evolution are nothing more, at bottom, than conspiracies of the inferior man against his betters. They mirror very accurately his congenital hatred of knowledge, his bitter enmity to the man who knows more than he does, and so gets more out of life… What they propose to do... is to make the superior man infamous—by mere abuse if it is sufficient, and if it is not, then by law. [p. 13]
In one longer report from July 13, 1925, Mencken describes a raucous Bible meeting in the night woods near Morgantown. An excerpt:
What followed quickly reached such heights of barbaric grotesquerie that it was hard to believe it real. At a signal all the faithful crowded up the bench and began to pray—not in unison but each for himself. At another they all fell on their knees, their arms over the penitent. The leader kneeled, facing us, his head alternately thrown back dramatically or buried in his hands. Words spouted from his lips like bullets from a machine gun—appeals to God to pull the penitent back out of hell, defiances of the powers and principalities of the air, a vast impassioned jargon of apocalyptic texts. Suddenly he rose to his feet, threw back his head and began to speak in tongues—blub-blub-blub, gurgle-gurgle-gurgle. His voice rose to a higher register. The climax was a shrill, inarticulate squawk, like that of a man throttled. He fell headlong across the pyramid of supplicants. [pp. 55-56]
The book’s appendix includes a transcript of Clarence Darrow’s long examination of Bryan, which is impossible to put down. One curious exchange:
Darrow: You don’t care how old the earth is, how old man is, or how long the animals have been here?

Bryan: I am not so much interested in that.

Darrow: You have never made any investigation to find out?

Bryan: No, sir. I have never.

Darrow: All right. [p 176]
It is intriguing to imagine Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District with Mencken in the reporter pool. One thing is certain: it would have been much noisier.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Letters from America

Alexis de Tocqueville. Letters from America. Translated, and with an introduction by Frederick Brown. Yale University Press: New Haven, 2010. (forthcoming: November 1, 2010)

Excerpted in The Hudson Review, Vol. LXII, No. 3. pp. 357-397.

[Note: Because so much wonderful writing appears in journals, some of which have limited general readership, it seems a good idea occasionally to feature interesting journal pieces here to encourage readers to seek them out, to subscribe to them, to buy them off the shelf. They are definitely worth your time.]

Tocqueville came to the United States in 1831 at age 25, five years younger and eleven years earlier than Dickens, whose first U.S. trip would become the source material for his American Notes: a Journey. A mere four years after his American excursion, the thirty-year old Tocqueville would publish Democracy in America. His letters from that trip, at least those included in The Hudson Review, are wonderful. And, perhaps because they are letters—moreover, letters to his family—they are honest, open, and fresh in a way that more formal prose often is not. Dickens' travel notes are great reading, Tocqueville’s letters are marvelous literature.

Scheduled to be released on November first, it can be pre-ordered from Yale or your local bookstore. My order is in.

Many of the letters go far to enlarge Tocqueville’s humanity; he writes freely and easily, reminding us of the mostly lost art of letter writing. After reading them, you long to call him Alexis. Through these letters he lives. Three short selections follow. The first is from his initial Atlantic crossing, the second describes what he terms “the social consequences of slavery,” and the last is an observation on American eating habits.
One moonless night... water began to sparkle like an electrifying machine. It was pitch black outside, and the ship’s prow slicing through the sea spewed fiery foam twenty feet in either direction. To get a better view, I shimmied onto the bowsprit. From that vantage point, the prow looked as if it were leaping at me with a forward wall of glittering waves; it was sublime and admirable beyond my ability to evoke it.
The right [north] bank of the Ohio is a scene of animation and industry; work is honored, no one owns slaves. But cross the river and you suddenly find yourself in another universe. Gone is the spirit of enterprise. Work is considered not only onerous but shameful: whoever engages in it degrades himself. The White Man is meant to ride horseback, to hunt, to smoke all day long; using one’s hands is what a slave does. South of the Ohio, Whites form a veritable aristocracy which, like every other, marries low prejudices to lofty instincts.
At first we found the absence of wine from meals a serious deprivation, and we are still baffled by the sheer quantity of food that people somehow stuff down their gullets. Besides breakfast, dinner, and tea, with which Americans eat ham, they have very copious suppers and often a snack. So far this is the only respect in which I do not challenge their superiority…
There is much, much more. After tearing through the forty pages in The Hudson Review, I can’t help feeling that November is a very long way off.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Reading in the Digital Age

Reading in the Digital Age.” Sven Birkerts. The American Scholar, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Spring, 2010). pp. 32-44.

Birkerts’ article is only the latest of a number of similar pieces that have appeared in the last decade or so to question the ascendant digital paradigm in the context of reciprocal losses to human culture. The genre tends to pursue several now familiar themes, and Birkerts’ piece is no exception.

He makes the mandatory observations about generational differences in our use of digital technologies; he cites recent scientific findings to support the notion that we are physiologically more like computing devices than we care to admit (regardless of the fact that our understanding of brain function is extremely limited); he laments both the replacement of real experience by an invasive, hyperactive virtual one and the attendant loss of attention span; he describes our awkward cultural accommodation to increasingly ubiquitous, highly seductive technologies; and, he admits freely that he himself, though limited by his apparent generational deficiencies, is to a degree committed to his “screen.”

Birkerts’ perspective is very much a personal one, which alone makes his article worth reading; what it does best is to reveal the deep complexity of his anxiety around this issue. For some of us, it seems, the problems of the digital paradigm loom very large indeed. And, perhaps they should.

But he accomplishes something else, perhaps unintentionally, which raises troubling questions that might have remained hidden had we not charged down the digital path in the first place, questions that compel scrutiny of our assumptions about what it means to be human.

Unlike similar articles on the topic, “Reading in a Digital Age” proposes a specific corrective, or at least a possible means of resistance. Arguing that the capacity for narrative thought is exclusively human (on its own, a highly questionable assertion), he offers its richest expressive form, the novel, as an "inwardly experiential, intransitive, mode of contemplation," one whose singular demands on our attention and concentration inure us to the fragmenting effects of the digital juggernaut.

I was intrigued by Birkerts' proposal. It was quirky and promised to be compelling on elaboration. But it is precisely in making his case for the novel that his article fails. And the nature of its failure is why it seems worth commenting upon here.

What is remarkable about his argument is that, though he aligns himself with the novel rhetorically, and perhaps too purely nostalgically, he seems not to understand its significance, its genuine, enormous, transformative power. He manages only to suggest tentatively that the novel, if given the chance, will “yield experiences that are more rewarding for being singular and hard-won,” as though reading novels were merely a heightened form of diversion. And though he hints at the possibility of deeper implications and meanings, he seems irretrievably convinced that there is no more to it. One can’t help thinking that his reluctance to offer a more convincing case arises from a hobbled, reductionist grasp of the novel, one limited to, as he says, “narrative premise and the craft of realization.”

Having retreated to the more sterile (and quantifiable) corners of literary consideration, it is little wonder that he should feel so threatened by the advancing digital paradigm. Oddly, it makes perfect sense: Birkerts' anxiety seems to arise less from his concerns about digitally imposed reductionism than from the fact that it trumps his own version of it. It can only be disheartening to realize one has nothing more profound to offer, to feel one is a mere machine.

Kundera sums up the problem nicely:
Now, if the novel’s raison d’ĂȘtre is to keep the “world of life” [quoting Husserl] under a permanent light and to protect us from the “forgetting of being,” is it not more than ever necessary today that the novel should exist?

Yes, so it seems to me, but the novel too is ravaged by the termites of reduction, which reduce not only the meaning of the world but also the meaning of works of art.1
So, allow me to clarify, to defend. But first, just to open the floodgates some, a brief passage from Proust:
But it was in vain that I lingered beside the hawthorns—breathing in their invisible and unchanging odor, trying to fix it in my mind (which did not know what to do with it), losing it, recapturing it, absorbing myself in the rhythm which disposed the flowers here and there with a youthful light-heartedness and at intervals as unexpected as certain intervals in music—they went on offering me the same charm in inexhaustible profusion, but without letting me delve any more deeply, like those melodies which one can play a hundred times in succession without coming any nearer to their secret.2
Here is a taste of the novelist’s reach, his fierce strength, the sudden acceleration of mere language into an infinity of knowledge, through sensation and experience and loss. Here is a talisman for the novel itself, for the mind. Over this marvel, the digital paradigm has no reign. Nor will it ever.

The novel’s most profound achievement, the key to its greatness, is the way in which it refracts the world through so many experiential filters. I cannot be Proust (or Mann, or Woolf, or Nabokov), but some primal (primate?) connection to him through his monumental work, to his world, permits me not only to explore that world, but to regard mine with similarly tuned sensual attentiveness, through his “settings,” so to say.

One lives in a certain grace having read Proust. He has given me his world, but also mine, in parallel, heightened, enlarged, made deeper and more magnificent in the process—and I do not mean this at all metaphorically. I am being as literal as I can possibly be—the idea is essential to the understanding of what exactly a novel is. Through his writing, Proust has literally recalibrated my senses, realigned my perceptual ground, so that I am a fundamentally different being than I was before reading him. And therefore my very world has been transformed, infused with even more vitality and meaning.

These observations echo Robbe-Grillet. In his essay “From Realism to Reality,” he is more specific on this point, insisting that simplistic notions of the novel as merely a framework for plot and character mean nothing when “we realize that not only does each of us see in the world his own reality, but that the novel is precisely what creates it… it is invention, invention of the world and of man, constant invention and perpetual interrogation.”3

To end, the digital paradigm poses a threat only if those who value the life of the mind cease to engage in endeavors that require thoughtful, concentrated reflection. And what of the relative powers of these apparently competing interests? The answer is simple and needs only to be stated once clearly: The novelist's reach into the world is always superior, because it is the novel, “in inexhaustible profusion,” that makes the world fully real.

  1. Milan Kundera. The Art of the Novel. Translated by Linda Asher. Faber and Faber: London, 1999. p. 17.
  2. Marcel Proust. Swann’s Way. Translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, revised by D. J. Enright. Modern Library: New York, 1998. p. 194.
  3. Alain Robbe-Grillet. “From Realism to Reality.” For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction. Translated by Richard Howard. Northwestern University Press: Evanston, 1989. p. 161.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Memoirs of an Anti-Semite

Memoirs of an Anti-Semite. Gregor von Rezzori. Translated by Deborah Eisenberg and Joachim Neugroschel. New York Review Books: New York, 1979.

We tend to capitalize evil, make it monstrous, exceptional, Evil. Von Rezzori reminds us that it is merely another mode of human behavior, and in less revolting guises not at all exceptional. In the process he scolds us—so very gently—for our unwillingness to admit a human complexity that includes evil. In lower case it is simply a region of our morality we all visit from time to time (and in self-defense we may call on its more frightful powers, doing things we might never imagine). Most of the time it remains a benign proto-species of Arendt’s “banality.” Von Rezzori instructs us in the fine skill of observing very closely our small case evil, while insisting on the absolute necessity of doing so. Evil, capitalized, is a simple edit, one we all can make without thinking.