Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Pride, Prejudice...and Perfection

I’ve been taking a bit of a vacation recently-- taking a jaunt on one of my periodic Jane Austen love-fests. I watched the 1995 BBC version of  Pride and Prejudice—with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle—surely one of my favorite movies. Then, for good measure, I re-read the book again. I’ve read it many times. My set of Jane Austen books, a Roberts Brothers Edition, 1892, has been a part of my library since 1964—since I was a junior at Concord Academy. I think it was the best thing that happened to me from my boarding school days. At least it was a most memorable, cherished, and never-to-be-parted with addition to my life.

Pride and Prejudice is justly acclaimed an enduring and beloved work of art, an all-but-flawless comedy of manners. There hardly seems to be a word out of place, a character underdeveloped, or a scene too many. I wonder how Miss Jane wrote it. It almost seems to me “received,” as it were, entire, from the spiritual world—from a place where angels  record and converse,  filling  the gaps of human society with their longer views and superior understanding.

I write these words now because, after the movie on DVD, I watched some of the “bonus” material put out by the producers. It was an outstanding production; every character seemed to be true to Austen’s inspiration. Such excellence is rarely to be met with in the world of film. But why, then, did the director remark that the novel is about “sex and money”? Of course it’s about “sex and money.” But so much more! And that gross reduction of the moral dimensions of this work to “sex and money” is a telling symptom of modern materialism. But that such a coarse and rather dismissive judgment  of the work was made by a director who did such an outstanding job with it—such, such are the contradictions of our era.

In this reading I was struck by the forcefulness of Austen’s portrait of what happens when people persevere “in willful self-deception”—as the clergyman, Mr. Collins, is described. The passage occurs just after Mr. Collins has tendered his most unwelcome offer of marriage to Elizabeth. Her decided refusal he interprets as the  “coquetry and affectation of an elegant female.” Elizabeth finally left the room in silence, deigning no more to address a man so literally incapable of hearing.

Another passage relating to willful deception occurs a few pages later, when sister Jane remarks that  she believes that Mr. Bingley’s sister “is incapable of willfully deceiving anyone.” In this case sister Jane was  subsequently to be proved deceived in her “universal goodwill,” as Elizabeth puts it.  But the occasion of Jane’s expression of goodwill leads to Elizabeth’s finally exclaiming that “The more I see of the world the more am I dissatisfied with it; and everyday confirms my belief in the inconsistency of all human character, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of either merit or sense…”

This novel deals with appearances and reality, with social conformity and prestige; with influence and sycophancy;  with careless, immature,  unformed or ill-informed judgments—all the repertory, in fact, of life in  society. It is speech, social speech, that involves questions that might be debated in philosophy – issues of truth, perception, sincerity, cogency.  Only these are not the questions of philosophy but questions involving happiness. If taken and digested in the inward solitude that is the prerequisite for truthfulness,  there can be creative development, fruitfulness. Or if they are not so taken, if there is lacking that inward solitude and self-reflection, there can be misery, moral mistakes, bad outcomes. Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine, is worthy of that title, for she is, in a manner of speaking, a practicing philosopher: she meets with herself in the crossroads of solitude and battles not only for love, but for the truth of love, or the truth in love. Nor will she have love on any other terms. Truly this is a noble purpose.

In our time the “speech of society” has been taken up into the electronic realm—political speech, the speech of corporations, governments, journalists, the “interests.” Two things have fallen away so fully, so silently,  so completely that we are hardly aware of it: the speech on which happiness depends;  and the speech on which truth depends. For the speech of society depends on dialogue, on the inter-communication of persons. Sometimes it may be an imperative form of speech for the sake of action; at other times it may be disinterested for the sake of truth; still at other times the word may be offered like a life preserver to a drowning man.  But the speech of the television is the monotone or the monologue, "speechifying"-- the speaker versus the mass or the mob. It discourages dialogue if not makes it impossible. 

We have exchanged dialogue, the speech of society, the speech of the village, for the speech of fate. It is thus that modern societies, in periodic intervals, go marching into disaster. To read Pride and Prejudice is to immerse oneself in living speech. For us today this is rather a novelty. That this should be the case is a telling--or is it a tolling?--commentary on our society. But it does allow us a new outlook on the form of the novel--that is, not only the telling of a story but as an embodiment of living speech.    

                                  Piano music for Pride and Prejudice

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Book Review

Update February 11, 2016: "What a lost pleasure it is in our indispensable nation to be in the presence of someone who thinks, acts and speaks out of conscience and conviction. Even better, these were precisely McGovern’s topics that day three years back: The necessity of careful thought, of honoring one’s inner voice, of acting out of an idea of what is right without regard to success or failure, the win-or-lose of life." From Patrick Smith's Feb. 7 article in Salon on Ray McGovern:
[title]  “Intelligent people know that the empire is on the downhill”: A veteran CIA agent spills the goods on the Deep State and our foreign policy nightmares. Recommended.                            

Book Review: Time No Longer: Americans after the American Century
Patrick L. Smith
Yale, 2013

This is the book we have all been waiting forfor years and years. The book that articulates our deepest misgivings about this country, this nation, the United States, and yet does not cancel hope… indeed, offers us  hope—if we will but accept ourselves as historical beings who live in time. And with this hope the work of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy can be brought forward in the most  natural way possible, seamlessly, as it were, to the top of the heap. The grammatical method, the Cross of Reality, the creation of the future: these deeper meanings from the Rosenstockian language seem already to belong to Patrick Smith’s vocabulary, as if he understood without knowing. This is an experience I too have had, in discovering Rosenstock’s work. But it seems that the discovery, or rather of the mating of the knowing with the understanding, belongs to a particular historical moment and an urgent historical task. This moment and this task is the subject of Patrick’s Smith’s book.

Patrick Smith is a journalist of high repute. He lived in Asia for about eight years, reporting from there, and has published five books. He writes articles for Salon.com and other publications—articles distinguished by their truthfulness and good sense, compared to the mendacious journalism we have today from the corporate and government-fed media outlets. For example, the New York Times – which Patrick Smith  assailed in his Feb. 18 article—“Our embarrassing servile media: does the New York Times just print everything the government tells it? [1]

Time No Longer  in the largest sense explores the difference between myth and history. In a more particular sense it is dedicated to digging up  the myth of “American exceptionalism” and uprooting it—root and branch. And there is “time no longer”—the title may or may not be intentionally reminiscent of  the Book of Revelation—because the decision facing us in America is whether to pretend to go on living in myth or to accept ourselves as living in history, accepting the responsibilities that living in history entails and overcoming our “cruelty of innocence,” as Nietzsche put it. 

“American exceptionalism” is the story that began with a 1630 sermon of John Winthrop-- the  “City upon a Hill.” It is now, says Smith,  an “exhausted narrative.”   It depicts a land immune from time, and there never is  or was such a place: “exceptionalism is a national impediment America can no longer afford.”  It’s an imaginary past, and an imaginary past “requires the unceasing production of an imaginary present.”   The four essays in this book—“History Without Memory,” “A Culture of Representation,” “Cold War Man,” and “Time and Time Again”—return again and again to the theme of what time and being modern mean.  “Time is the medium of all human encounters”  says Patrick Smith, and this is as good as anything found in the pages of Rosenstock-Huessy. For Americans today,  too caught up with the latest techno-fads, the statement that “To be modern one must think historically”  should be the beginning of a new curriculum in social studies,  a field which, Smith says, divorced itself from history and thus became “sterilized.”[2]   Smith does not cite John Lukacs in this work, but surely Lukacs’ summary in his Historical Consciousness, Or the Remembered Past (1968) would be appropriate  here: “I believe that the most important developments in our civilization during the last three or four centuries include not only applications of the scientific method but also the growth of a historical consciousness; and that while we may have exaggerated the importance of the former we have not yet understood sufficiently the implications of the latter.”

Smith often remarks the strange fact that while America is a modern society, dedicated to the furtherance and works of science and belief in progress, it nevertheless possesses a strong 17th and 18th century heritage in the form of Protestant evangelism and millenarian thinking.[3] It was as if the new nation were to be an object of belief,   a kind of religion. The new republic erected many barriers against time – as well as against unbelief or dissent.  Confusing  history and myth  leads to narcissism.[4] Nobody else matters; there is no point in learning about other peoples, societies, traditions. But history that passes into myth becomes a history without memory, meaning that “it is unsusceptible to reinterpretation or change from one generation to the next. It is fixed…it leaves those producing it and living by it in a certain state of immobility. They are unable to think anew or to imagine a future that is different from the present or the past.” In order to have continuity there has to be change, a break, re-imagining, dissolution and  renewal--  death and  new life. What is so often missing in this mythologizing of history, says Smith, is “the human agency, and hence a true narrative.”

So, if society and the nation and the history we are living through is something that “just happens” and goes humming along, why worry to renew and repair its institutions, infrastructure, society’s self-understanding? The height of complacency was reached a few years ago when I read, perhaps in a neoconservative publication, that Americans didn’t really have to worry about the quality of our leaders because the institutions we received from the Founders were just so great. How easy it is to spare oneself the confrontation with conscience!

But how great the cost: and this is what Smith’s book is about. In his chapter on the Cold War he has an arresting image: America “spent 50 years staring at its own reflection.”   There was the “Cold War silence”: the inability to speak; ignorance and inflexibility in thinking; the persistence of myths. It was the beginning of the National Security state, when “Fear would be transformed from an individual emotion into a social condition.” Few people understood the relationship between science and security better than John Dewey, whose book The Quest for Certainty was “a vigorous defense of the scientific ‘arts.’” (Smith, p. 93)  Rosenstock-Huessy also  had a few words to say about John Dewey and his"... scientific silently functioning all inclusive cooperative impersonal painless order, an order in which nothing vital has to be settled by force…”
--  summarizing it as follows: "But it borders on social irresponsibility to take the timberwork of society, the beams of authority, decision, faith, love, worship, for granted while everywhere those beams crack.” [5] I feel sure that Patrick Smith would be in accord with this judgment. Everything he says in this book is a call for us to break out of the “unsayable myth” that holds American life in its icy grip. “Gods that age become demons,” I think this was from Strindberg. Never has this been more true than the present.

Although I have issues with Smith’s final chapter “Time and Time Again,” – it deals with the September 11th event – I can only agree that  it signified the end of the American Century. Smith describes the event as a “collision with history… a war between those dedicated to sustaining sacred time and national myth and those attempting to think historically and place events in a historical context such that Americans could achieve an understanding of them.” This chapter also contains interesting reflections about the increasing atomization of American life, the “de-contextualization”  which tears things out of their social and historical nexus. “To see only individuals in the foreground is to see with a mythologically defined consciousness—without context.” Another word would be—idiotic. The word ‘idiotes’ comes from the Greek, meaning private, individual—that which was not a part of the polis, the city, could not be considered  human in the full sense. It is interesting that, for us, the word has come to signify a low intelligence.[6]

Our most important, urgent task, our imperative, is to achieve the condition of history with memory. This means holding ourselves and others accountable for acts. In no other manner can we be considered responsible; in no other manner would we be able to create future—in contrast to just letting things happen. “Under no circumstances is man a spectator of history,” thunders Rosenstock-Huessy in The Christian Future (83). “We can now see why man’s life must be neither linear nor spiral but crucial.” (ibid) And “things happen not by living but by birth and death. ‘Living’ is but one half of life, the repetitive and predictable part. The other half is the agonizing creation and the creative agony of dying and being born.” (ibid, p. 57) For as Rosenstock again reminds us, “the sloughing off of old stages and the insistence on new ones distinguishes life from mechanism.” (ibid, p. 139) With politics in America reduced to mere spectacle, our social order resembles a mechanism punctuated by outbursts of  violence, leaps of passion that have no fathers and no children, so to speak—solo acts of anarchy.   

Whether or not Patrick Smith considers himself Christian is a question of minor importance. What is significant in Time No Longer is that he enunciates a view and a call for history that reveals the true meaning of Christianity – a true meaning long eviscerated by church history, sectarian squabbles and popular evangelisms. To see ourselves as others see us: this is the imperative for America to throw off, finally, the mythological spectacles that have led us to take a false view of ourselves and our place in the world. Only then can we move forward with purpose toward the creation of future.

[2] He adds: “And the absence of history—an absence that has marked off American social sciences from Europe’s ever since—would allow American social scientists to serve the exceptionalist mission.” p. 101. In other words, the social sciences in America became a kind of propaganda ministry.

[3] “America was a modern nation with features of a premodern society prominent within it. This produced an identifiably American personality. Americans were unable to understand events but by interpretation, blind to history’s course, deaf to the voices of others.” p. 133.

[4] “An inability to change is symptomatic of a people who consider themselves chosen and who cannot surrender their chosenness.” p. 193

[5] Rosenstock-Huessy, The Christian Future, p. 53.

[6] Rosenstock-Huessy expresses a kindred idea when he says the great temptation of our time is impatience: refusal to wait, undergo, suffer. “To be non-committal means to keep all relations without important consequences, to rob them of their reproductive, fruit-bearing quality.” The Christian Future, p. 19.  Historically grounded people engage in the labor of building a viable political order; wounded birds flock to New Age healers and preachers who promise quick salvation.