Friday, July 1, 2016

Time and Tide

Time and Tide, By Weare and Tyne: Twenty-Five Letters to a Working Man of Sunderland on the Laws of Work by John Ruskin, 195 pages

In this collection of his correspondence with a working class admirer, Ruskin summarizes and continues the social teaching he previously expounded in Munera Pulveris and Sesame and Lilies, while pulling in ideas he developed in works such as The Stones of Venice.  A large part of Ruskin's appeal lies in precisely this comprehensive consistency, uniting ethics, economics, and aesthetics.  Time and Tide calls for a comprehensive reform of society, beginning at the bottom.  As always, Ruskin's central concern is to guard against the emergence of a mass society, and he is equally opposed to mass production and mass democracy.

There is much in Time and Tide that is rationally prescriptive and therefore entirely inorganic and ultimately impractical - Ruskin himself concedes it is "too large to receive at present any deliberate execution" and denies that he maintains "any idea of its appearing, to our present public mind, practicable even at a remote period."  Taken at a slight distance, however, in the same light as Plato's Republic, there is a great deal of value in Ruskin's criticisms.  The epistolary nature of the book allows the author to range freely over a wide variety of topics but also results in him changing subjects haphazardly.  The end product is sometimes frustrating, often charming, and frequently insightful.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

No Country for Old Men

Cover image for No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy, 309 pages

Llewelyn Moss is a poor man living in a small Texas town who happens across a satchel containing two million dollars in drug money.  Like a fairy tale gift, the satchel is also cursed, in this case with Anton Chirguh, out to retrieve the cash and kill anyone who impedes or even inconveniences him.  Pursuing them both, and trying to make sense of it all, is the protagonist, aged Sheriff Bell.

The entire novel has an apocalyptic tint, a sense of virtues gone sour, of a world abandoned by God and running down towards some squalid, preordained end.  Both Moss and Chirguh stubbornly refuse to ever quit, and this leads directly to their respective fates, but the kindly Bell lacks that fortitude.  It is difficult to believe that the author of Blood Meridian means us to take seriously the notion that the world has become that much worse (certainly Chirguh, as terrifying as he is, is no Judge Holden), and certain revelations about the past of the Sheriff and his family reinforce the impression that Bell may be fooling himself by thinking the past was any better than the present.  There may be some hope for the future, after all, presented by the end.  Two boys headed in different directions suggest the possibility of choice, and that the path the world is on (if it is on a path, and not in a place) is perhaps not inevitable, but if that is so, it is one of the few times in the novel anyone seems to have a choice, as the logic or illogic of events push and pull them onward and downward.  Perhaps some of that is the result of the power of McCarthy's writing, which here as elsewhere has an intensity that holds the reader captive and fixes the story firmly in the memory.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Gregory the Great

Cover image for Gregory the Great: Perfection in Imperfection by Carole Straw, 260 pages

Sixth century Italy was a turbulent place.  The Gothic kingdom of Theodosius was reconquered by the Roman Empire under Justinian, but the Emperor ruled from the capital at Constantinople, never setting foot in Italy.  Much of Imperial Italy was then conquered by the Lombards, leaving only Ravenna, Rome, and a thin strip of land connecting them in Roman hands.  The Emperor's representative, the exarch, resided in Ravenna, and the Eternal City became increasingly dependent on the papacy for patronage and even basic governance.  One pope was deposed by Justinian's general Belisarius, another was imprisoned by Justinian until he gave his assent to the rulings of the Second Council of Constantinople - and the conditional assent he eventually gave led to a significant schism, with the formation of a new church in northern Italy supported by the Lombards and headed by the bishop of Aquileia.

St Gregory the Great was born into an aristocratic Roman family in the midst of this turmoil.  After years of public service, he found peace in a monastery, but his gifts resulted in him being pressed into ecclesiastical service as a papal emissary, and later elected pope himself.  During his fourteen year reign St Gregory organized the defence of Rome against the Lombards, dealt with plague outbreaks, dispatched St Augustine of Canterbury to Kent to begin the reevangelization of England, inaugurated the papal title "Servant of the Servants of God", and, most enduringly, reformed the Roman liturgy - legend would associate him with the origins of "Gregorian" chant.

Straw is only passingly concerned with this biography - her interest is in the saint's thought, as it is expressed in his extensive writings.  St Gregory is a Doctor of the Church, and is commonly identified as the figure who marks the definitive transition between the classical and medieval worlds.  His eventful life was marked by the dual search for equilibrium, found in reason, and stability, found in love of God and neighbor.  For Gregory, the cosmos is founded in harmony, a harmony which is disturbed by sin and restored by sacrifice.  Sacrifice finds its ultimate significance in the sacrifice of Christ, both on the Cross and in the Mass, which unites heaven and earth.  This distinguishes the Christian saint from the Stoic philosopher, for while the latter pursues an ultimately solitary perfection, the saint is drawn into an often painful communion with others.  As Straw explains it, Gregory's Christian worldview is marked by an understanding of the ambiguity of a fallen world and the hidden complementarity of seeming opposites - prosperity and adversity, solitude and community, sorrow and joy, fear and love, flesh and spirit, God and man.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Girls

The Girls by Emma Cline.  368 pages.

Northern California, at the end of the 1960s, seems to embody a combination of place and time where people kept finding themselves, or reinventing themselves, or just trying to figure out where and how they fit into the world.  Evie is no different.  A young teen, she thinks she's happy enough . . . until she spots a group of girls in the park who obviously seem much freer than Evie.  Soon, Evie starts hanging out with these girls and becomes especially attached to Suzanne, one of the older girls in the group.  Living in a ranch in the hills, Suzanne and the other girls are part of a larger group that are all drawn to Russell, a larger-than-life personality.  However, it's not an idyllic life and soon, it becomes clear that things are getting darker and more dangerous.  Question is: how far is Evie willing to go?

I felt the book is very well written, enough so that when I didn't really want to keep reading, I kept reading. Evie (as a character) can be very frustrating, even if you understand that she is motivated by a lack of sense of self.  It's sometimes hard to understand why she continues her connection to Suzanne and the others, although the way that those characters are written, you can grudgingly accept that Evie would have come under their spell.

This is the kind of book where when I was reading it, I could feel like I was there (and, in fact, sometimes, smell like I was there).  It's easy to become immersed in the story and the characters.  It's an insightful kind book, where there is no judgment, and no explaining things away.  Rather, it's a "this is what happened.  This is what I did and then when I looked back, I could see what was really happening" kind of story.  Evie makes some interesting observations about how society sees women and girls, and I think this made the story a more compelling read for me.

Dehumanization of Man

The Dehumanization of Man by Ashley Montagu and Floyd Matson, 220 pages

It is the argument of social scientists Montagu and Matson that the progress of the twentieth century saw an increasing threat of the reduction of human beings to machines through applied technique.  In their view, under the pressure of modernity the self shriveled into variations of the "Malevolent Robot" epitomized by Adolf Eichmann and the "Cheerful Robot" best represented by Hugh Hefner - the killing machine and the copulating machine.  The slide into anti-humanism was greased by the amateur pornography of Masters and Johnson, which clinicized sex, and the shift of the American economy from mass production to mass persuasion.

The Dehumanization of Man was published in 1983, and it is when the authors survey then-contemporary culture that the book both shifts into high gear and runs into problems.  Their rapid-fire evocation of the pop culture of the '60s and '70s is at times thrilling, at times dizzying.  Unfortunately, the authors are not immune to the occasional misstep which suggests that they are not, in fact, really that familiar with the material, as when they lump George Romero in among horror directors whose films "lack social concern" or suggest that intelligent women are more likely to be killed in slasher films (Laurie Strode disagrees).

It is also in this section that the book threatens to become a sensationalistic catalog of cultural outrages.  Obviously, this firmly dates the book, although consideration of how certain trends highlighted here have continued or fizzled in the subsequent decades is certainly worthwhile.  It may be difficult to see a picture of Alice Cooper on a golf course and consider him a symptom of dehumanization, but perhaps the damage is invisible because it has already been done.  It is similarly easy to dismiss as irrelevant Bernardine Dohrn's "terrorist chic" celebration of the Manson murders, until it is remembered that one of the world's most powerful corporations, Google, recently celebrated Yori Kochiyama, who idolizes Osama bin Laden.