(I am cross-posting this from my other blog, the Distal Muse, as it relates to the theme of this one.)
There was a hardcover copy of a Mary Poppins book in my grade school library. I remember finding it and being very excited. Naturally, I’d seen the movie and I was already discovering how much better the books from which films were made could be. So I checked it out and took it home and that night opened it up and—
Took it back the next day, unfinished. To say it was nothing like the film is beside the point. To say I found no magic in it would be closer. But frankly, the Mary Poppins of P.L. Travers—of which we now are so vigorously concerned of late—I found to be a cold, humorless drudge who was obsessed with discipline. She was more like Mr. Banks from the film, who had to be saved from his stern, business-before-all attitude before he let all of life pass him by. I grant you, I was quite young—ten—and not, perhaps, the most patient of readers or the most perceptive, but the contrast was so sharp and jarring that I’ve never gone back. Travers’ Mary Poppins was no one I would have wanted anything to do with. That Walt Disney found something magical in these stories amazed me at the time.
Fast-forward to my erstwhile attempts at being a writer and the slight knowledge I’ve garnered about property rights and adaptations and so forth, and many things make much more sense now. The books were popular—not Harry Potter popular, not even close, but they sold—and there was presumably a market that could be exploited. It must have appeared to Uncle Walt to be an opportunity to do a little payback toward England, where his Peter Pan was barred by the tidy little trust Barrie had put together that guaranteed revenues for the orphanage to which the playwright was dedicated. Disney had gamed international copyright to make the film without cutting them in for anything and they successfully kept the product out of British markets (until only recently, when a new deal was cut, paving the way for, among other things, the wonderful Ridley Pearson and Dave Barry novels about Peter and the Lost Boys). Walt was snatching another British property and this time nothing would keep the film from English audiences.
And he saw something my ten-year-old self didn’t—a way to extract a Disney production from the elements of the stories.
But the result was so different from the source material, one must wonder why he didn’t just come up with something completely new on his own.
Well, at a guess, that name. Mary Poppins. (Especially the way Dick Van Dyke said it, in that exaggerated cockney accent.) And the setting. And the back story. Safer, maybe, to grab something whole from a long siege than risk opprobrium by cutting out a new set of characters and then being accused of plagiarism. Uncle Walt, after all, had an image to protect—his was part of an America trinity that included Abraham Lincoln and Santa Claus, honest, uncorrupted, generous, and pathologically well-meaning. In his calculus it must have seemed worthwhile only if he could show that everyone, from the creator to the audience, approved.
And he bloody well paid Travers enough for her work. Sixty thousand pounds, which would have worked out to roughly one hundred two thousand dollars, which, adjusted for inflation etc etc would be worth about three-quarters of a million today. Plus she got five percent of the box office gross.
She was, as they say, set.
Yet from all accounts the new film, Saving Mr. Banks, portrays Travers as just as difficult, odious, and perpetually disapproving as her signature character, granting Disney an aura of magnificent patience in dealing with this woman he seemed intent on making rich just by making Mary Poppins even more famous.
Because the fact is Travers went to her grave hating the film Disney made. He turned her work inside out, cut away large portions of it to leave in the bin, and concocted a musical mish-mash of mind-numbing magical mush which she reportedly loathed. The serious points she wanted to make in her stories got short-shrift, the “proper British household”(which she rather admired, especially being the daughter of a man who struggled for the position of Mr. Banks but lost it, only to die prematurely when Travers was six) was held up to ridicule, and Mary herself came off closer to an Edwardian jet-setter than the nanny who could fix anything Travers intended.
Mary Poppins was a creation from her childhood. She had grown up with this character, it was part of her DNA, so to speak. Disney worked at getting the rights to make the film for 20 years. Can anyone fault Travers for being protective? Indeed, obsessively so? This is something most writers understand in their bones—it is their work, no, it is their being which is, depending how you view it, either being praised or raped.
The success of the film did not hurt. She published more Mary Poppins books after it came out, among other things, but she never agreed to another Disney adaptation. At a guess, at a minimum, she must have thought Disney had trivialized her character.
(To understand what must have gone through her mind, imagine for a moment the idea of telling, say, Ibsen that one of his plays was going to be made into a new production by Gilbert and Sullivan.)
Turning things over to someone else’s control is hard. It can wrench to see your work treated differently, with apparent disregard for what you envisioned. Even if no ill intent is on hand (and surely Walt Disney had nothing nefarious in mind—he was first and foremost an entertainer, he wanted to make magic that sold well) it can be galling to watch what you have done…altered.
I find it ironic that the film has been titled Saving Mr. Banks. Disney as an institution has had more than a hefty dose of bad luck since Walt died and is often criticized for a variety of business practices which, while perfectly normal in the Hollywood milieu seem horrid and crass given the “Uncle Walt” persona the company wishes to put forward. I realize it’s a play on the Banks family from the books and that part of the story Disney put on the screen concerns saving Mr. Banks’ soul from the creeping corporatism that is stealing him from his family. But the film is about Walt Disney and his company. Saving Mr. Banks, then, is about saving an image, saving a corporation, saving…Walt?
I have met no writer of books who was ever satisfied with the job a film did with his or her work. Not one. It is a very different medium from the printed page. Those few films that have successfully (however one defines success) translated book to screen are the exceptions, not the rule. The film maker very often finds it easier or more workable to just dump large parts of a written work and start over. If everyone knows this is going on up front, then the results can be artistically fine. Take for instance Blade Runner, which is based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. There is maybe 15% of the book in the movie, but it is a brilliant film for all that it has departed from Dick’s original story.
Be that as it may, one wonders at the reasons behind putting together a hagiographic film about a relationship, while certainly important, probably few people really cared about so long after the events. Why now? Why this? And what use is there in misrepresenting so much of what happened? (Which films do all the time, this is nothing new, but for those who know better it is nevertheless aggravating.) I wasn’t aware that Walt Disney’s image needed a new coat of varnish.
For the record, I liked the film Mary Poppins. I’ve been a fan of Julie Andrews ever since. I liked it. I didn’t love it. I disliked musicals then, rather intensely, and the story seemed somewhat removed, but there were moments, magic moments, that took me out of my young head and made me marvel. Enough that I became excited when I found that book in the school library. Enough that I was disappointed at what I found on the page.
And that’s a point. It matters what we’re exposed to first. It sets out expectations. While it may not be cool to admit it among certain circles, if the film is the first thing to which we’re exposed, it sets a bar that the books then must meet or surpass, and that’s just as difficult if the relation is reversed. For me, the film remains stubbornly primary, even though I “know” better. In a time when copyright and corporate ownership of intellectual rights is coming under more and more sophisticated scrutiny, it might behoove Disney to put forth an additional bit of mythology suggesting that this primacy is the valid one, that through his almost saint-like patience and paternal good will Uncle Walt was the one with the preferred vision and Pamela Travers was just, you know, being difficult.
Even a cursory glance at Travers’ life belies this. She was an unmarried woman who had been making her way in the world of the theater and publishing for some time, who was in no way the constitutional drudge apparently being portrayed. To be successful in that kind of life at that time, she could not be without considerable experience and business savvy. It’s likely she smelled snake oil in Disney’s wooing and she reflexively recoiled. She knew well enough that such a project would make her material existence easier, even if her conscience bothered her. To personify what was a pragmatic business decision as some kind of character defect—because she was repelled by the subsequent production—is unkind, unnecessary, and more than a bit nasty.
Something Disney is not supposed to be.
I listen to music every day. Intentionally. I choose something to set my internal harmonic brainscape and listen. It was a difficult and startling revelation to me back in my youth to realize many people don’t. That is, even when they have music playing, they don’t listen. For many, it’s wallpaper, and this just struck me as sad.
But it explained what I thought of then as the execrable taste a lot of my acquaintances seemed to display in music. I have never cared for so-called Top 40 tunes, with rare exception, because in my experience such songs were either the least interesting pieces on their respective albums or they were the zenith of a mediocre musical imagination. Boring. Listen to them three or four times and their content is exhausted.
I also used to have an absolutely absurd prejudice that if I could manage to play it myself, on guitar or keyboard, with only a few practices, it was just too insignificant. This was ridiculous, but I’d been raised to appreciate technical difficulty as a sign of quality in most things. It took a long time for me to overcome this notion and I still have not completely.
For good or ill, though, it informs my taste to this day, and in the presence of the technically superb I am seduced. I have found technically accomplished work that was simply not as good as its polish, but I have more rarely ever found sloppy work that was so much better than its presentation that it didn’t matter. Technical ability, precision of execution, polish…these are not simply ancillary qualities. The guitarist may know all the notes of the Bach piece but if the timing is wrong, the chording inaccurate, the strings squeak constantly, it will be a thoroughly unenjoyable performance. Likewise, if the guitarist has composed a beautiful new piece but then can’t perform it as imagined…who will ever know how beautiful it is?
Ultimately, technical sloppiness gets in the way of the work. The better the technique, the clearer the art shows through.
Which brings me to what I wanted to talk about here.
The other day I sat down with two works that for whatever reason seemed to counterpoint each other. Put it down to my peculiar æsthetic, as I doubt anyone else would consider them complimentary. And perhaps they aren’t, but they shared a common quality, the one I’ve been going on about—technical superiority.
Ansel Adams is a byword for precision in art, especially photographic art. His images are studies in excellence, from their composition to their presentation. There is a fine-tuned carefulness in many of them, if not all, that has set the standard for decades. I have a number of his monographs on my shelf and I have been an admirer and follower since I was a boy. His set of instructional books, the Basic Photo series, were among the first I read when becoming a photographer myself. Every year I hang a new Ansel Adams calendar in my office. I have a biography of him, one signed volume of his Yosemite images, and I find myself constantly drawn to his work. These photographs are replenishing.
So when a new collection came out this past year—400 Photographs—it was a given that I would acquire it. (I do not have all his books—there’s a heavy rotation of repeats strewn throughout his œvre.) I had it for some weeks before I found time to sit down and really go through it. When I did I was surprised.
The collection is broken down in periods, beginning with some of his earliest images made when he was a boy, reprinted directly from the scrapbooks in which they were pasted, all the way up to the very early 1970s when he, according to the commentary, stopped making “important” photographs and devoted his time to the darkroom. Gathered are most if not all his iconic images, many that will be familiar to those who have more than a passing acquaintance with his work…
…but also a number of relatively unknown photographs, peppered throughout, many of which show a less than absolute control on Adams’ part. They do not come up to par. Some of them, the composition is slightly “off” or the tonal range is not fully captured.
Which is not to say they are not beautiful. Adams at his worst is equal to most others at their best. But historically it’s interesting and instructive to see the “not quites” and the “almost theres” among the otherwise perfect works we have all come to expect. But rather than detract, these works actually enhance the overall impact of the collection, because there is variation, there is evidence of “better”, there is obvious progression. The commentary between the periods by Andrea Stillman is concise, spare, and informative as to the distinctions in evidence. This is a chronicle of an artist’s evolution.
Looking at an Ansel Adams photograph, one sometimes feels that the very air was different around him, that light passed from landscape to film plane through a more pristine medium, that nature itself stood still for a few moments longer so the image could be recorded with absolute fidelity in a way given to no other photographer.
As I went through the images, I listened to a new album. New to me, at least, and in fact it was released this past year. Levin Minnemann Rudess.
Of the three, two had been known to me before this year. Tony Levin is a bassist of extraordinary range and ability. Besides his own work, he seemed for a time the player the serious groups called in when their regular bassist was unavailable. Which means he played bass for Pink Floyd in the wake of Roger Waters’ exit. He played bass for Yes. Dire Straits, Alice Cooper, Warren Zevon, and even Paul Simon and Buddy Rich.
He was also one of the most prominent members of King Crimson during one of its best periods. He is a session player in constant demand and his ability seems chameleonic. He can play anything in almost any style. He is one of those musicians who always works, is always in demand.
Given his associations, sometimes it is a surprise to hear his own work, which can either be described as a distillation of all his influences or as a complete departure from them. Such would seem to be the case here.
Jordan Rudess plays keyboards and came out of the progressive schools of Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman, UK, and others, although the first band with which he was associated was the Dixie Dregs. He later joined Dream Theater, but like Levin has been a much in demand session player whose name I’ve seen pop up many times since the early 90s.
Marco Minnemann, then, is the only name with which I am unfamiliar, but that’s changing. As a drummer, he’s played with former members of UK—Eddie Jobson and Terry Bozzio—and has been doing session work with metal groups. I learned of him just this past year in association with guitarist Guthrie Govan, with whom he has formed a trio with bassist Bryan Beller, The Aristocrats. He seems committed to that unit, so I believe the album I’m discussing may be a one-off, an experiment for these three musicians. He is an explosively complex, solid drummer.
What does this have to do with Ansel Adams?
Not much other than what I began with—precision. There is an overwhelming technical precision here that, for the duration of my study of the Adams book, formed a complimentary experience of sharp-edged landscapes and absolute control. The LMR album is largely instrumental (which has slotted it into my writing queue) but fits no particular genre exactly. Jazz? Sure. Metal? Somewhat. Fusion, certainly, but fusion of what? Rudess’s runs evoke classical associations, but no single track is identifiable with a particular Great Composer. This is experimental work, theory-in-practice, done at a high level of musicianship and compositional daring. An aural high-wire act that is constructing the landscape as it records it.
As I said earlier, it happens more often than not that technical prowess can substitute for significant content. “Too many notes” can mask as absence of substance. Too-fine a presentation can distract from the fact that an image contains nothing worthwhile.
But when substance and technique are combined at a stratospheric level of ability, when performance melds precision and depth, then we have something truly special.
All I needed that afternoon was a fine wine to complete the immersive experience.
It is completely fitting that science fiction writers should write historical fiction. Both forms deal with the same background—alien worlds.
Because we live in a story-saturated era where access to the ages is easily had with a visit to the library, the local bookstore, the internet, movies, it is easy to assume we know—that we understand—the past, with the same cordial familiarity we experience our own personal history. That people lived differently “back then” seems more a matter of fashion and technology, not a question of thought process or philosophy or world view.* People lacked central heating and air conditioning, cars, television, telephones, indoor plumbing, antibiotics…but they lived essentially the same way.
Well, one could make a case that they did, but you have to ask the question “In what ways did they live the same way?” Therein lies the heart of good historical analysis and extrapolation.
Because while we can connect with people of the past in many very broad ways—they were human, they loved, they hated, they were greedy and generous, they were driven by passions, they dreamed—the specifics can school us in the range of the possible. What does it mean to be human?
Far more than we might imagine.
But that’s where the novelist comes in, the writer who takes the time to grapple with those myriad distinctions and give us a look into those differences that are still, regardless of how remote they seem from our personal understanding of “human,” part of who we are, at least potentially.
I mention science fiction at the beginning because at a certain level, if we’re dealing with something deeper than costume drama or plot-driven adventure fiction, the exercise of finding, comprehending, and actualizing on the page an entire period from the past—Republican Rome, Hellenic Greece, the Mesopotamia of the Sumerians, the Kingdom of Chin, or post Roman England—is much the same as building a world out of logic and broad-based knowledgeable extrapolation. In some instances, extrapolation is all-important because the fact is we simply do not know enough to more or less copy a record into a fictional setting. Instead, we have to take the tantalizing scraps of what remain of that world and supply the connective tissue by imagining what must, what probably, what could have been there. And in the process we discover a new world.
If done well, that newness becomes a mirror for us to perceive what we have overlooked in ourselves. (Which is what good fiction ought to do anyway, but in the well-constructed historical it is a special kind of revelation.)
Seventh Century England is rich with the unknown, the ambiguous, the seductively out-of-reach. It existed between one deceptively homogeneous era and another, between the Roman Empire and the emergence of the Holy Roman Empire. More, it held some of the last vestiges of the once vast Celtic Empire. It was a land where shadow-pasts vied for hegemony over the mythic substrate defining meaning for the warlords, petty kings, and mystics serving them. Pagan religions found themselves competing with this new Christianity, which had been around a while but was finally beginning to make significant headway among the competing kingdoms, looking for the leverage it needed to make itself an “official” religion with the authority to shove the others aside.
Into this came a woman who eventually mattered enough, given the overwhelming patriarchal structure of the day, to deserve a mention from the Venerable Bede (who saw women much as most men of his time did, necessary creatures in need of guidance and by dint of their sex lesser beings). In Book 4 of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People we’re told of St. Hilda, who was by any measure of the era (and even ours) astonishing. “Her prudence was so great…that even kings and princes asked and received her advice.”
A good novel starts with a good question and in this case it would be: Who was this woman and how did she get to this place?
A question to which Nicola Griffith impressively supplies an answer in her new novel, Hild, (Farrar, Strauss, Giroux).
Hild, later St. Hilda of Whitby, lived from 614 to 680. She was a second daughter of minor nobility whose father died, leaving the family at the mercy of rival kingdoms. Later she founded an abbey, where she remained the rest of her life, and was a teacher of prelates and princes.
Note that. Seventh Century, at a time and in a place where women were little more than property, Hild could not only read but commanded respect. That alone would make her fit subject for a big historical novel. Certainly she would serve as the basis for a cathartic life-lesson to modern audiences about the innate power of women and the need to find and act upon one’s own identity.
But Griffith avoids this in some ways too easy path to sympathy for her character and does what superb history should—provides context and shows her character in situ, living as she would have. Hild had her own problems to face and they are not ours. Through the course of 560 pages of well-chosen and seemingly hand-polished words, Hild is given to us as a person, fully realized, of her own time. This is a different world and these people did not see it as we do.
The success of a novel is in its ability to bring the reader entirely in and hold them, enmeshed, for the duration. Griffith’s past novels have demonstrated that she can achieve this in both science fiction (Ammonite, Slow River) and noir thriller (The Blue Place, Stay, Always). But in some ways those novels presented less of a challenge in their immersive requirements—they were closer to home, nearer to our own world, and allowed for reader assumptions to come into play. (This is deceptive, of course, and is more a question of laziness on the part of the reader than on any artistic shortcuts a writer might take.) Hild represents an order of magnitude greater risk on Griffith’s part, a kind of dance through a mine field of possible failures that could cause reader disconnect or, worse, a betrayal of her characters. It is a great pleasure to note that she made no such missteps, got all the way to other side, world intact, with a character very much herself.
This is what historical fiction ought to do. Take you and put you in a world that is quantitatively and qualitatively different and still engage your sympathies. As we follow Hild from birth, through her education (under the guidance of her mother, who is herself remarkable) and into a young adulthood in which she comes into possession of some authority, we find ourselves shifting out of our comfort zones with respect to the givens of the world.
Hild is the first book of a trilogy, which will cover Hild’s whole life. If the next two books are done with as much care, diligence, and grace as this, we are all in for a remarkable experience.
And out of the richly-wrought tapestry of difference, we really do find a connection across the centuries. Just not where one might ordinarily look for one.
*World view is itself a phrase fraught with change, for to have one requires we have some notion of The World, and that has changed constantly over time. What world? How big? Who is in it? Look at the changes in the past five centuries, which some historians identify as the modern era. We have gone from a flat earth at the center of a solar system which defined the limits of space to an uneven sphere orbiting an insignificant middle range star of a small galaxy that is one out of billions and billions of galaxies, with no evident limit to what comprises the universe.
Kate Atkinson’s latest novel, Life After Life, is a remarkable achievement. It’s several hundred pages of exquisitely controlled prose contain the story of Ursula Todd, who is in the course of the story, born again and again and again. Each life, some so very brief, ends in a tragic death, accidental, malevolent, heroic, painful, and each time she starts over, comes to the point where that mistake was but is now sidestepped, turned away, avoided. She lives multiple times, each one different, and yet she remains herself.
The novel opens with a shocking scene—Ursula, a young woman living in Berlin, enters a café wherein she finds Adolf Hitler, surrounded by sycophants, enjoying his celebrity. She pulls a pistol and takes aim,
Then she is born.
It is 1910, in the English countryside, and snowing heavily. The scene is reminiscent of Dickens. She is born. First she dies from strangulation, the umbilical cord wrapped around her with no one around who knows what to do. Then in the next life that obstacle is overcome. And so it goes, as she ages, staggers through one life after another, growing a little older each time, her family battered by one damn thing after another. Ursula herself, a middle child, watches as much as participates in the homely evolution of this middle class English family, and we are treated to an almost microscopic study of its composition—its hypocrisies, its crises, it successes, its failures.
Ursula endures. As her name almost punningly suggests, she Bears Death, over and over. She never quite remembers, though. She has intense feelings of déjà vu, she knows such and such should be avoided, this and that must be manipulated, but she never quite knows why. At times she comes perilously close to recognition, but like so much in life her actions are more ideas that seemed good at the time than any deeper understanding.
Unlike the rigor of traditional time travel, the past does change, but then this is not a time travel novel, at least not in any traditional sense. You might almost say it’s a reincarnation story, but it’s not that, either, because Ursula never comes back as anyone other than herself. At one point in the novel, time is described, not as circular but as a palimpsest—layers, one atop another, compiling. The result here is a portrait more complete than most not of a life lived but of life as potential. But for this or that, there wandered the future. It is a portrait of possibility.
The big events of history are not changed, though. Nothing Ursula does in her manifold existences alters the inevitability of WWII or Hitler or the Spanish Flu or any of the mammoth occurrences that dominate each and every life she experiences.
What she does change is herself. And, by extension, her family, although all of them remain persistently themselves throughout. It is only the consequences of their self expression that become shaped and altered.
We see who are the genuine heroes, who the fools, the cowards, the victims and victors as, where in one life none of this might emerge clearly, in the repeated dramas with minor changes character comes inexorably to the fore.
Atkinson does not explain how any of this happens. It’s not important, because she isn’t doing the kind of fiction we might encounter as straight up science fiction, where the machinery matters. She’s examining ramifications of the personal in a world that is in constant flux on the day to day level even as the accumulation of all that movement builds a kind of monolithic structure against which our only real choice is to choose what to do today. Consequently, we have one of the most successful co-options of a science fiction-like conceit into a literary project of recent memory.
On a perhaps obvious level, isn’t this exactly what writers do? Reimagine the personal histories of their characters in order to show up possibility?
History, as a discipline, seems to improve the further away from events one moves. Close up, it’s “current events” rather than “history.” At some point, the possibility of objective analysis emerges and thoughtful critiques may be written.
John Lukacs, Emeritus Professor of History at Chestnut Hill College, understands this and at the outset of his new study, A Short History of the Twentieth Century, allows for the improbability of what he has attempted:
Our historical knowledge, like nearly every kind of human knowledge, is personal and participatory, since the knower and the known, while not identical, are not and cannot be entirely separate.
He then proceeds to give an overview of the twentieth century as someone—though he never claims this—living a century or more further on might. He steps back as much as possible and looks at the period under examination—he asserts that the 20th Century ran from 1914 to 1989—as a whole, the way we might now look at, say, the 14th Century or the 12th and so on. The virtue of our distance from these times is our perspective—the luxury of seeing how disparate elements interacted even as the players on the ground could not see them, how decisions taken in one year affected outcomes thirty, forty, even eighty years down the road. We can then bring an analysis and understanding of trends, group dynamics, political movements, demographics, all that go into what we term as culture or civilization, to the problem of understanding what happened and why.
Obviously, for those of us living through history, such perspective is rare if not impossible.
Yet Lukacs has done an admirable job. He shows how the outbreak and subsequent end of World War I set the stage for the collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1989, the two events he chooses as the book ends of the century. He steps back and looks at the social and political changes as the result of economic factors largely invisible to those living through those times, and how the ideologies that seemed so very important at every turn were more or less byproducts of larger, less definable components.
It is inevitable that the reader will argue with Lukacs. His reductions—and expansions—often run counter to what may be cherished beliefs in the right or wrong of this or that. But that, it seems, is exactly what he intends. This is not a history chock full of the kind of detail used in defending positions—Left, Right, East, West, etc—and is often stingy of detail. Rather, this is a broad outline with telling opinions and the kind of assertions one might otherwise not question in a history of some century long past. It is intended, I think, to spur discussion.
We need discussion. In many ways, we are trapped in the machineries constructed to deal with the problems of this century, and the machinery keeps grinding even though the problems have changed. Pulling back—or even out of—the in situ reactivity seems necessary if we are to stop running in the current Red Queen’s Race.
To be sure, Lukacs makes a few observations to set back teeth on edge. For instance, he dismisses the post World War II women’s consciousness and equality movements as byproducts of purely economic conditions and the mass movement of the middle class to the suburbs. He has almost nothing good to say about any president of the period but Franklin Roosevelt.
He is, certainly, highly critical of the major policy responses throughout the century, but explains them as the consequence of ignorance, which is probably true enough. The people at the time simply did not know what they needed to know to do otherwise.
As I say, there is ample here with which to argue.
But it is a good place to start such debates, and it is debate—discussion, interchange, conversation—that seems the ultimate goal of this very well-written assay. As long as it is debate, this could be a worthy place to begin.
He provides one very useful definition, which is not unique to Lukacs by any means, yet remains one of those difficult-to-parse distinctions for most people and leads to profound misunderstandings. He makes clear the difference between nations and states. They are not the same thing, though they are usually coincidentally overlapped. States, he shows, are artificial constructs with borders, governmental apparatus, policies. Nations, however, are simple Peoples. Hence Hitler was able to command the German nation even though he was an Austrian citizen. Austria, like Germany, was merely a state. The German People constituted the nation.
Lukacs—valuably—shows the consequences of confusing the two, something which began with Wilson and has tragically rumbled through even to this day. States rarely imposed a national identity, they always rely on one already extant—though often largely unrealized. And when things go wrong between states, quite often it is because one or the other have negotiated national issues with the wrong part.
Which leads to an intriguing speculation—the fact that nativist sympathies really do have a difficult time taking root in this country. Americans do not, by this definition, comprise a Nation. A country, a state, a polity, certainly. But not really a Nation.
And yet we often act as if we were.
Questions. Discussion. Dialogue. This is the utility and virtue of this slim volume.
Left Bank Books pays 100% of our full-time employees' health insurance premium.
I'd like you to let that sink in for a moment, because this fact is one of the reasons I decided to become an owner of this St. Louis institution.
I'll also let you in on another secret - by the end of this year, my bookstore will have paid $270,550 over the past five years for health insurance.
Left Bank Books pays 100% of our full-time employees’ health insurance premium.
I’d like you to let that sink in for a moment, because this fact is one of the reasons I decided to become an owner of this St. Louis institution.
I’ll also let you in on another secret – by the end of this year, my bookstore will have paid $270,550 over the past five years for health insurance. Our group is (obviously) small; an average of 12 people are enrolled. Each bookseller’s premium averages out to about $415 per month. We each have a $5000 deductible.
To put that into perspective, the average paperback retails at about $15. We pay about $8.25 to the publisher, leaving us $6.75 to pay all other expenses (rent, payroll, electricity and, yes, health insurance). That means that we have had to sell 40,082 paperbacks at full cost to pay for health insurance alone since 2009.
The message being blasted from the rooftops of opponents of Obamacare this week is that those figures I just gave you are precisely why Obamacare is unfair – that it will put a burden on individuals and small businesses like mine, and force us to increase what we spend on Health Care. They don’t want you to know that many small businesses like mine actually think that having health insurance is an important aspect of having a functional, happier, healthier, more productive employee.
In fact, the state of Missouri rejected the whole idea, forcing the federal government to manage the healthcare exchange here and went one step further and forbid “navigators” from even helping anyone obtain insurance from the federal exchange. That means that not only are our state’s citizens on our own, but the public servants who we pay with our taxes cannot even talk to us about this.
I’ve got to say, I’ve been worried. That’s what happens when information is censored before it reaches you. When the only message you hear is the one that frightens you, the impulse can be to dig in and resist. But now some actual facts are making it into this debate. I found this chart this morning on CNNMoney:
Take a look at the middle set of figures. The monthly premium for someone in Missouri is $220 – $195 per month less than what we currently pay.
Granted, I haven’t seen the policy or what the deductible will be. Granted, this set of figures applies to individuals, not small businesses on the SHOP Exchange. Granted, my company has bigger battles on its horizon as Amazon sucks the economy into its vortex.
But I can’t help but be hopeful today. Even if the deductible is high, it can’t be higher than the ridiculous amount we’re responsible for now. Plus, the rates for small businesses are bound to be just as good as individual rates. As for Amazon, that’s a whole other subject about which I’ve been very vocal. If you’re interested, you can look at ABA CEO Oren Teicher’s August 8 letter to the members of the organization. He sums it up nicely.
I’ll write again after October 1, when I’m able to have a look at the exchange, but for now, for this small business in the reddest of all red states – count me in.
The third book I read recently which resonated thematically with the previous two is one I have come somewhat late to given my inclinations. But a new paperback edition was recently released and I considered buying it. I hesitated as I was uncertain whether anything new or substantively unique was contained therein to make it worth having on my shelf. I have other books along similar lines and while I am fond of the author, it seemed unlikely this book would offer anything not already covered.
Christopher Hitchens was a journalist and essayist and became one of our best commentators on current events, politics, and related subjects. Even when I disagreed with him I have always found his arguments cogent and insightful and never less than solidly grounded on available fact.
So when he published a book of his views on religion, it seemed a natural addition to my library, yet I missed it when it first came out. Instead, I read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, which I found useful and well-reasoned, but pretty much a sermon to one who needed no convincing. Such books are useful for the examples they offer to underpin their arguments.
Such is the case with God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Hitchens’ extensive travels and his experiences in the face of conflict between opposing groups, often ideologically-driven, promised a surfeit of example and he did not fail to provide amply.
The title is a challenge, a gauntlet thrown at the feet of those with whom Hitchens had sizeable bones to pick. In the years since its initial publication it has acquired a reputation, developed a set of expectations, and has become something of a cause celebré sufficient for people to take sides without having read it. I found myself approaching the book with a set of expectations of my own and, with mild surprise, had those expectations undermined.
Yes, the book is a statement about the nature of religion as an abusive ideology—regardless of denomination, sect, theological origin—and offers a full range of examples of how conflicts, both between people and peoples, are generally made worse (or, more often than not, occur because of) by religious infusions into the situation. It is in many ways a depressing catalog of misuse, misinterpretation, misstatement, misunderstanding, and sometimes misanthropy born out of religious conviction. Hitchens analyzes the sources of these problems, charts some of the history, and gives us modern day examples.
But he tempers much of this by drawing a distinction between individuals and ideologies.
He also opens with a statement that in his opinion we shall never be rid of it. This is quite unlike people like Dawkins who actually seem to feel humankind can be educated out of any need of religion. Hitchens understood human nature all too well to have any hope that this was possible.
He does allow that possibly religion allows some good people to be better, but he does not believe religion makes anyone not already so inclined good.
By the end of the book, there will likely be two reactions. One, possibly the more common, will be to dismiss much of his argument as one-sided. “He overlooks all the good that has been done.” It is interesting to me that such special pleading only ever gets applied consistently when religion is at issue. In so much else, one or two missteps and trust is gone, but not so in religion, wherein an arena is offered in which not only mistakes but serious abuse can occur time and time again and yet the driving doctrine never called into question. The other reaction will be to embrace the serious critique on offer, even the condemnations, and pay no attention to the quite sincere attempt to examine human nature in the grip of what can only be described as a pathology.
Because while Hitchens was a self-proclaimed atheist, he does take pains to point out that he is not talking about any sort of actual god in this book, only the god at the heart of human-made religions. For some this may be a distinction without a difference, but for the thoughtful reader it is a telling distinction. That at the end of it all, Hitchens see all—all—manifestations of gods through the terms of their religions as artifices. And he wonders then why people continue to inflict upon themselves and each other straitjackets of behavior and ideology that, pushed to one extreme or another, seem to always result in some sort of harm, not only for the people who do not believe a given trope but for the believers themselves.
We are, being story-obsessed, caught in the amber of our narratives. Per Mr. Thompson’s analysis of myth, we are never free of those stories—even their evocation for the purposes of ridicule bring us fully within them and determine the ground upon which we move. The intractable differences over unprovable and ultimately unsubstantiated assumptions of religious dictate, per the history chronicled around the life Roger Smith, have left us upon a field of direst struggle with our fellows whose lack of belief often is perceived as a direct threat to a salvation we are unwilling ourselves to examine and question as valid, resulting in abuse and death borne out of tortured constructs of love. Christopher Hitchens put together a bestiary of precedent demonstrating that treating as real the often inarticulate longings to be “right” in the sight of a god we ourselves have invented, too often leads to heartache, madness, and butchery.
The sanest religionists, it would seem by this testament, are those with the lightest affiliation, the flimsiest of dedications to doctrine. They are the ones who can step back when the call to massacre the infidel goes out.
All of which is ultimately problematic due simply to the inexplicable nature of religion’s appeal to so many.
But it is, to my mind, an insincere devoteé who will not, in order to fairly assess the thing itself, look at all that has been wrought in the name of a stated belief. Insincere and ultimately dangerous, especially when what under any other circumstance is completely wrong can be justified by that which is supposed to redeem us.
In keeping with the previous review, we turn now to a more modern myth, specifically that of our nation’s founding. More specifically, one component which has from time to time erupted into controversy and distorted the civil landscape by its insistence on truth and right.
But first, a question: did you know that once upon a time, in Massachussetts, it was illegal to live alone?
There was a law requiring all men and women to abide with families—either their own or others—and that no one, man or woman, was permitted to build a house and inhabit it by themselves.
John M. Barry details this and much more about early America which, to my knowledge, never makes it into history classes, at least not in primary or secondary schools, in his excellent book Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty.
Discussion of the Founding—and most particularly the Founding Fathers—centers upon the Revolutionary Era collection of savants who shaped what became the United States. It is sometimes easy to forget that Europeans had been on these shores, attempting settlements, for almost two centuries by then. It’s as if that period, encapsulated as it is in quaint myths of Puritans, Pocahontas, Squanto, John Smith, and Plymouth Rock, occupies a kind of nontime, a pre-political period of social innocence in which Individuals, whose personalities loom large yet isolated, like Greek Gods, prepared the landscape for our later emergence as a nation. My own history classes I recall did little to connect the English Civil War to the Puritan settlements and even less to connect the major convulsions in English jurisprudence of that period to the the evolution of political ideas we tend to take for granted today. In fact, it seems pains are taken to sever those very connections, as if to say that once here, on North American soil, what happened in Europe was inconsequential to our national mythos.
That illusion is shattered by Barry in this biography of not only one of the most overlooked and misunderstood Founders but of that entire morass of religious and political struggle which resulted in the beginnings of our modern understanding of the wall of separation between church and state. More, he makes it viscerally real why that wall not only came into being but had to be.
If you learned about Roger Williams at all in high school, probably the extent of it was “Roger Williams was a Puritan who established the colony that became Rhode Island. He contributed to the discussion over individual liberty.” Or something like that. While true, it grossly undervalues what Williams actually did and how important he was to everything that followed.
In a way, it’s understandable why this is the case. Williams occupies a time in our history that is both chaotic and morally ambiguous. We like to think differently of those who settled here than they actually were, and any deeper examination of that period threatens to open a fractal abyss of soul searching that might cast a shadow over the period we prefer to exalt.
But the seeds of Williams’ contribution were sown in the intellectual soil which to this day has produced a troubling crop of discontent between two different conceptions of what America is.
The Puritans (whom we often refer to as The Pilgrims) were religious malcontents who opposed the English church. They had good reason to do so. King James I (1566 – 1625) and then his son, Charles I (1600 – 1649), remade the Church of England into a political institution of unprecedented intrusive power, establishing it as the sole legitimate church in England and gradually driving out, delegitimizing, and anathematizing any and all deviant sects—including and often most especially the Puritans. Loyalty oaths included mandatory attendance at Anglican services and the adoption of the Book of Common Prayer. The reason this was such a big deal at the time was because England had become a Protestant nation under Queen Elizabeth I and everything James and Charles were doing smacked of Catholicism (or Romishness), which the majority of common folk had rejected, and not without cause. The history of the religious whipsaw England endured in these years is a blood-soaked one. How people prayed, whether or not they could read the Bible themselves, and their private affiliations to their religious conceptions became the stuff of vicious street politics and uglier national power plays.
So when we hear that the Pilgrims came to America in order to worship as they saw fit, we sympathize. Naturally, we feel, everyone should be allowed to worship in their own way. We have internalized the idea of private worship and the liberty of conscience—an idea that had no currency among the Puritans.
The Puritans were no more tolerant than the high church bishops enforcing Anglican conformity in England. They thought—they believed—their view of christian worship was right and they had come to the New World to build their version of perfection. A survey of the laws and practices of those early colonies gives us a picture of ideological gulags where deviation was treated as a dire threat, a disease, which sometimes required the amputation of the infected individual: banishment.
Hence the law forbidding anyone from living alone. It was thought that in isolation, apart from people who could keep watch over you and each other, the mind’s natural proclivity to question would create nonconformity.
Conformity is sometimes a dirty word today. We pursue it but we reserve the right to distance ourselves from what we perceive as intrusiveness in the name of conformity. Among the Puritans, conformity was essential to bring closer the day of Jesus’ return. Everyone had to be on the same page for that to occur.
(Which gave them a lot of work to do. Not only did they have to establish absolute conformism among themselves, but they would at some point have to go back to England and overthrow the established—i.e. the King’s—order and convert their fellow Britons, and then invade the Continent and overthrow Catholicism, and all the while they had to go out into the wilderness of North America and convert all the Indians…but first things first, they needs must become One People within their own community—something they were finding increasingly difficult to do.)
Into this environment came Roger Williams and his family. Williams was a Puritan. But he also had a background as apprentice to one of the most formidable jurists in English history, Sir Edward Coke, the man who ultimately curtailed the power of the king and established the primacy of Parliament. Coke was no Puritan—it’s a question if he was anything in terms of religious affiliation beyond a christian—but he was one of the sharpest minds and most consistent political theorists of his day. He brought WIlliams into the fray where the boy saw first-hand how power actually worked. He saw kings be petty, injustices imposed out of avarice, vice, and vengeance in the name of nobly-stated principles. And, most importantly, he saw how the church was corrupted by direct involvement in state matters.
This is a crucial point of difference between Williams and later thinkers on this issue. Williams was a devout christian. What he objected to was the way politics poisoned the purity that was possible in religious observance. He wanted a wall of separation in order to keep the state out of the church, not the other way around. But eventually he came to see that the two, mingled for any reason, were ultimately destructive to each other.
Williams was an up-and-coming mover among the Puritans, but the situation for him and many others became untenable and he decamped to America in 1631, where he was warmly received by the governor of Massachussetts, John Winthrop. In fact, he was eagerly expected by the whole established Puritan community—his reputation was that great—and was immediately offered a post.
Which he turned down.
Already he was thinking hard about what he had witnessed and learned and soon enough he came into conflict with the Puritan regime over matters of personal conscience.
What he codified eloquently was his observation that the worst abuses of religiously-informed politics (or politically motivated religion) was the inability of people to be objective. A “monstrous partiality” inevitably emerged to distort reason in the name of sectarian partisanship and that this was destructive to communities, to conscience, to liberty.
For their part, the Puritans heard this as a trumpet call to anarchy.
The Massachussetts Puritans came very close to killing Williams. He was forced to flee his home in the midst of a snowstorm while he was still recovering from a serious illness. He was succored by the Indian friends he had made, primarily because he was one of the very few Europeans who had bothered to learn their language. They gave him land, which eventually became Providence Plantation, and he attracted the misfits from all over. Naturally, Massachussetts saw this as a danger to their entire program. If there was a place where nonconformity could flourish, what then became of their City on the Hill and the advent toward which they most fervently worked?
The next several years saw Williams travel back and forth across the Atlantic to secure the charter for his colony. He knew Cromwell and the others and wrote his most famous book, The Bloody Tenent of Persecution, for Cause of Conscience,
in 1644 right before returning to America to shepherd his new colony. In this book for the first time is clearly stated the argument for a firm wall of separation. It is the cornerstone upon which the later generation of Founders built and which today rests the history of religious freedom we take as a natural right.
But the struggle was anything but civil and the abuses to which Williams responded in his call for a “Liberty of conscience” are not the general picture we have of the quaint Pilgrims.
Barry sets this history out in vivid prose, extensively sourced research, and grounds the story in terms we can easily understand as applicable to our current dilemma. One may wonder why Williams is not more widely known, why his contributions are obscured in the shadow of what came later. Rhode Island was the first colony with a constitution that did not mention god and it was established for over fifty years before a church was built in Providence.
Williams himself was not a tolerant man. He loathed Baptists and positively hated Quakers. But he valued his principles more. Perhaps he saw in his own intolerance the very reason for adoption of what then was not merely radical but revolutionary.
I’ve read three books in tandem which are connected by subtle yet strong filaments. Choosing which one to begin with has been a bit vexatious, but in the end I’ve decided to do them in order of reading.
The first is an older book, handed me by a friend who thought I would find it very much worth my while. I did, not, possibly, for the reasons he may have thought I would. But it grounds a topic in which we’ve been engaged in occasionally vigorous debate for some time and adds a layer to it which I had not expected.
William Irwin Thompson’s The Time Falling Bodies Take To Light is about myth. It is also about history. It is also about grinding axes and challenging paradigms. The subtitle declares: Mythology, Sexuality & the Origins of Culture. This is a lot to cover in a mere 270-some pages, but Mr. Thompson tackles his subject with vigor and wrestles it almost into submission.
His thesis is twofold. The first, that Myth is not something dead and in the past, but a living thing, an aggregate form of vital memes, if you will, which recover any lost force by their simple evocation, even as satire or to be dismissed. Paying attention to myth, even as a laboratory study, brings it into play and informs our daily lives.
Which means that myth does not have a period. It is ever-present, timeless, and most subtle in its influence.
His other thesis, which goes hand in hand with this, is that culture as we know it is derived entirely from the tension within us concerning sex. Not sex as biology, although that is inextricably part of it, but sex as identifier and motivator. That the argument we’ve been having since, apparently, desire took on mythic power within us over what sex means, how it should be engaged, where it takes us has determined the shapes of our various cultural institutions, pursuits, and explications.
It all went somehow terribly wrong, however, when sex was conjoined with religious tropism and homo sapiens sapiens shifted from a goddess-centered basis to a god-centered one and elevated the male above the female. The result has been the segregation of the female, the isolation of the feminine, and the restriction of intracultural movement based on the necessity to maintain what amounts to a master-slave paradigm in male-female relationships.
Throughout all this “fallen” power play, ancient myths concerning origins and the latent meanings of mutual apprehensions between men and women (and misapprehensions) have continued to inform the dialogue, often twisted into contortions barely recognizable one generation to the next but still in force.
There is much here to consider. Thompson suggests the rise of the great monotheisms is a direct result of a kind of cultural lobotomy in which the Father-God figure must be made to account for All, subjugating if not eliminating the female force necessary for even simple continuation. The necessity of women to propagate the species, in this view, is accommodated with reluctance and they are, as they have been, shoved into cramped confines and designated foul and evil and unclean in their turn, even as they are still desired. The desire transforms the real into the ideal and takes on the aspects of a former goddess worship still latent in mythic tropes.
Certainly there is obvious force to this view.
The book is marred by two problems. I mentioned the grinding of axes. Time was published originally in 1981 and, mostly in the first third, but sprinkled throughout, is an unmasked loathing of evolutionary psychology and sociobiology. He takes especial aim at E.O. Wilson for promulgating certain reductive explanations for prehistoric cultural evolution based wholly on biological determinants. Thompson’s prejudice is clear that he wants even early homo sapiens to be special in its cultural manifestations and he derides attempts at exclusively materialist explanations. The fact that E.O,. Wilson himself has moved away from these earlier “purely” biological considerations one hopes would result in an updating.
But interestingly, part of Thompson’s rejection of such early modeling comes from an apparent belief in Race Memory. Not, as I might find plausible, race memory as deeply-entrenched memes, but apparently as some undiscovered aspect of our genome. He never quite comes out claims that such race memory is encoded in our DNA, but he leaves little room for alternative views.
Hence, he asserts, the genuine power of myth, since it is carried not only culturally, but quasi-biologically, as race memory. Which we ignore at our peril.
He does not once mention Joseph Campbell, whose work on the power of myth I think goes farther than most in explicating how myth informs our lives, how myth is essentially meaning encoded in ideas carried in the fabric of civilization. He does, however, credit Marija Gimbutas, whose work on goddess cultures extending back before the rise of Sumer and the constellation of civilizations commonly recognized as the “birth” of civilization was attacked by serious allegations of fraud in order to undermine her legitimacy and negate her thesis that early civilizations were certainly more gender equal if not outright female dominated. (Just a comment on the so-called “birth” of civilization: it has been long remarked that ancient Sumeria appeared to “come out of nowhere”, a full-blown culture with art and some form of science. But clearly common sense would tell us that such a “birth” had to be preceded by a long pregnancy, one which must have contained all the components of what emerged. The “coming out of nowhere” trope, which sounds impressive on its face, would seem to be cultural equivalent of the virgin birth myth that has informed so many civilizations and myth cycles since…)
My complaint, if there is any, is that he undervalues the work of geneticists, biologists, and sociometricians, seeking apparently to find a causation that cannot be reduced to a series of pragmatic choices taken in a dramatically changing ecosystem or evolutionary responses to local conditions. Fair enough, and as far as it goes, I agree. Imagination, wherever and whenever it sprang into being, fits badly into the kind of steady-state hypothesizing of the harder sciences when it comes to how human society has evolved. But to dismiss them as irrelevant in the face of an unverifiable and untestable proposition like Race Memory is to indulge in much the same kind of reductionist polemic that has handed us the autocratic theologies of “recorded history.”
Once Thompson moves out of the speculative field of, say, 8,000 B.C.E. and older and into the period wherein we have records, his attack on cherished paradigms acquires heft and momentum and the charm of the outsider. (His mention, however, of Erich von Daniken threatens to undo the quite solid examination of the nature of “ancient” civilizations.) It is easy enough to see, if we choose to step out of our own prejudices, how the march of civilization has been one of privileging male concerns and desires over the female and diminishing any attempt at egalitarianism in the name of power acquisition. The justification of the powerful is and probably has always been that they are powerful, and therefore it is “natural” that they command. Alternative scenarios suffer derision or oxygen deprivation until a civilization is old enough that the initial thrill and charm of conquest and dominance fades and more abstruse concerns acquire potency.
But the value of The Time Falling Bodies Take To Light may be in its relentless evocation of institutional religion as a negation of the spiritual, as if to say that since we gave up any kind of natural and sane attitude toward sexuality and ignored the latent meaning in our mythologies we have been engaged in an ongoing and evermore destructive program to capture god in a bottle and settle once and for all what it is we are and should be. When one looks around at the religious contention today, it is difficult if not impossible to say it is not all about men being in charge and women being property. Here and there, from time to time, we hear a faint voice of reason crying out that this is a truly stupid thing to kill each other over.