Friday, August 19, 2016

Tolstoy and Sanctimony

Donald Bartheleme wrote a most amusing story titled At the Tolstoy Museum. It begins with the sentence "At the Tolstoy Museum we sat and wept."  The museum is said to display thousands of pictures of Tolstoy.  In the story, museum staff carry with them buckets filled with handkerchiefs for the use of weeping visitors.  The story contains illustrations.  One displays a colossal figure of Tolstoy next to a tiny Napoleon.  Another shows Tolstoy "tiger hunting in Siberia" a la Hemingway.

The museum is said to have, I think, three levels, each being larger than the one below, so it appears to be falling on its visitors.  This is to impress upon them the weight of Tolstoy's vast moral authority.

It seems there are many Tolstoy museums, and I wonder if there really is one similar to the one in the story.   I rather hope there is such a place.

Tolstoy is considered by many to be the greatest writer in history, or to have written the greatest novel.  That's the gargantuan War and Peace, as one might guess.  That happens to be the only work of Tolstoy I've read from start to finish.  If it's the greatest novel every written, I'm sad.  I don't think it's a novel, really; I think it's a kind of treatise in which the author uses characters, some historical and some not, to express a theory of history and opine somewhat ponderously, I think, on various human characteristics and philosophical issues.  Sometimes he doesn't even bother with characters.

The work is pervaded by a sense of rightness; or, perhaps more accurately, a sense of righteousness.  Tolstoy is throughout busy making moral points with varying degrees of subtlety, but it's difficult for someone convinced they know better--so much better--than others to be subtle in their expressions regarding what they know to be true.  So, Tolstoy is not particularly subtle in this novel, and I suspect he's not in his other works.  Nor would I expect him to be witty in them.  Holy men aren't known for their wit.

Tolstoy allowed himself to be drawn and photographed to an extraordinary extent.  This of course is indicative of the extent of his popularity, and the reverence in which he was held; a reverence in which he's still held, as spoofed by Bartheleme.  In many of them he's portrayed as farming, or praying, or generally looking wise and even holy.  He kept meticulous diaries recording his movements and thoughts.   He was a vegetarian, a pacifist, a sort of anarchist, and a Christian of the kind who know what Jesus really meant.  He was an exponent of non-violent protest and inspired Gandhi and others.  He became a kind of cult figure, and it seems was devoted to the nurturing of his cult.

George Orwell lambasted Tolstoy for his opinion of Shakespeare.  Tolstoy wrote that he couldn't understand the fame of Shakespeare or why Shakespeare was thought of so highly.   Tolstoy claimed he was repulsed by Shakespeare.  Shakespeare was not moral, he didn't address questions of real importance, he lacked the dignity required of a great artist.  As Orwell noted, Tolstoy was repulsed by Shakespeare because Shakespeare was a humanist, and Tolstoy's views were religious, for all his contempt for clergy.  Tolstoy, according to Orwell, wasn't a saint but tried very hard to become one.  I would go so far as to say he believed himself to be one, in any case.

Tolstoy was admirable in many ways, but was self-consciously good, and this I think is the problem with him and his work.  He knew himself to be good, and expected others to know that as well.  He made great efforts to show himself to be good, by his renunciation of his lands and title, for example (he was a Count).  He was a kind of exhibitionist when it came to his morality.

It's not clear to me that someone who considers himself to be uniquely moral, who is convinced that he knows what is right and what is wrong, is capable of being a great writer of fiction.  I think such a person would be too compelled to proclaim what is good and true, to lecture, to at best create morality tales and declamations in the guise of fiction.  The temptation to pontificate would be irresistible to such a person.  It would be particularly irresistible to a writer, as opposed to other artists such as a painter, composer or musician.  One might successfully create a painting or music which expressed what one thinks to be the truth without seeming to preach, but when we try to communicate by words, by prose at least, we can't avoid being obvious, even leaden, in our righteousness.  Perhaps a poet could be convinced of his/her holiness and still write great poetry, but Tolstoy was certainly not a poet.

I'm not repulsed by Tolstoy as he was repulsed by Shakespeare, but I think his sanctimony limited him in his art.  His work is overwhelming and hectoring.  He's more a moralist than a novelist.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Other Man of Steel

"Stalin" was a name chosen in the days before the so-called October Revolution; so-called as it actually took place in November according to the modern calendar subsequently adopted.  It means "steel", as all or most now know.  I suppose that makes him the first Man of Steel.  The other one, a/k/a "Superman", was created in 1933 according to the invaluable Wikipedia--by high school students in Cleveland.

Stalin was, once, something like a high school student himself.  He was once other things as well, before he became Stalin.   He wrote romantic poetry in his native Georgian about his native Georgia, which it seems was considered rather good (the poetry, I mean).  A romantic boy he may have been. He was not a romantic man, however.  He was once a Georgian patriot, and came to be against Georgian nationalism, indeed nationalism of all kinds which endangered the unity of the Soviet Union. In fact, he came to extol Russians over the members of other nationalities subsumed by the Soviet Union.  He was a seminarian who came to believe in God, if he did believe in God, as something no seminarian would recognize as God.

Whatever he was, he came to be a monster, though not a mere monster as sometimes maintained.  He was often underestimated by Lenin, by Trotsky and others in the party and out of it, it seems to their regret.  He survived them all.  Sometimes he survived them by being responsible for their deaths, sometimes their imprisonment in the Gulag, sometimes he simply rendered them harmless or made them puppets of his will.  He never forgot a sleight and rejoiced in destroying those who thought him a lesser man or lesser intellect. 

Lenin was a special case.  Stalin wouldn't hesitate to disagree with him even while he was alive.  Lenin even criticized Stalin and warned that he was inclined to accumulate power, but he criticized Stalin's great rival and enemy, Trotsky as well.  It seems Stalin admired and respected Lenin in some ways, but in any case knew that he had become a totem of Marxism, the Revolution and  Bolshevism and in that respect could not be challenged.  Lenin also conveniently died in the 1920s, while Stalin was on the rise but not yet claiming the summit of power.

All  evidence indicates that Stalin was a highly intelligent man, and I think we underestimate him still by thinking him to be "only" evil.  We tend to attribute evil to the Devil, or upbringing and environment, or psychological deficiencies.  But people do evil things not just because they're bad, or immoral, due to some inherent defect or by being influenced by a malevolent supernatural power. 

Stalin was even cultured, in his own peculiar way and patronized certain writers, again in his own peculiar way, rebuking them when he thought appropriate.  He was not known as a great political thinker, but he read extensively.  He worked very hard.  He was a very able negotiator, as became known to the Western powers during and after the Second World War.

It's an amusing exercise to compare great tyrants and despots.  Napoleon had his own romantic youth, and was an ardent Corsican patriot, but turned away from such childish things.  Corsica became as unimportant to him as Georgia became to Stalin.  Napoleon had no artistic pretensions, so far as I know, though like Stalin he had his favorite artists.  He was an enormously hard worker and read constantly.  He had a vast memory and formidable intellect.  Goethe famously said Napoleon was as intelligent as a man could be without wisdom, and as great as a man can be without virtue. 

Hitler was a failed artist, but it seems he differed from Stalin and Napoleon in various respects.  He wasn't a hard worker, and may be called lazy in comparison.  His intellect doesn't seem to have been impressive.  And yet he's credited by such as B.H. Liddell-Hart with insight into military tactics and as being behind the Blitzkrieg and an astute proponent of the "indirect approach" to strategy, for a time, at least.  Before his descent into madness or drug-induced irrationality and mania.

All three men were alike in their ruthlessness, though, in pursuit of their goals.  That much seems clear.  The ruthlessness of Stalin and Hitler is particularly striking and horrifying because in pursuing their goals they sanctioned the deliberate and coldly planned death of millions.  Napoleon's wars caused a great deal of death and suffering as well, but Stalin and Hitler inflicted death not merely in war, but even more in the pursuit of ideological ends.

There is a difference, I think, between war and the planned annihilation of millions apart from war to achieve ideological or other ends.  Stalin was responsible for the deaths of millions through starvation and by other means in the effort to modernize industry and collectivize agricultural production in the Soviet Union.  He was responsible for the deaths, incarceration, persecution of peasants, kulaks, Cossacks, professionals and intelligentsia, all of which he deemed necessary under Marxist-Leninist theory.  It seems evident that he sincerely believed what he did was required in order to make the Soviet Union a great power and in the pursuit of the goals of the October Revolution.  While he was a vengeful man, it's not the case that he killed only because of personal hate or animosity or to achieve absolute power.

The fanatical pursuit of ideological goals regardless of consequences to others is far more destructive than hate or ambition, particularly where fanaticism is combined with ability.  Stalin was a fanatic and a talented one.  There's no doubt that he hated many within the party and wanted absolute power over it and the Soviet Union itself but he is truly monstrous because he was a true believer, and as such he thought that those who didn't believe as he did should be destroyed.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Lex Lavacrum

Lex Lavacrum is my best effort to translate into Latin the words "Bathroom Law" or perhaps more appropriately "The Law of the Bathroom."  What seems silly in English acquires a certain majesty when translated into Latin, however loosely.  I confess that the idea of bathroom law as a kind of specialty practice has a certain appeal to me.  I rejoice in the silly.  But the fact is that someday soon there may be (if there are not already) courses, seminars, certifications in bathroom law thanks to the efforts of those who seek to regulate human excretion, or at least decree which humans may excrete in certain places.  Public bathrooms and who may use them now consume us, or some of us, there being little else worthy of our concern it seems.

Lex Lavacrum, Lex Dei seems to be the premise on which the laws we see cropping up these days are based, ultimately.  The law of the bathroom is the law of God, and God being concerned most of all with sex commands that only those with appropriate genitals may use public bathrooms.  If you lack the proper genitals, you may not use bathrooms designated for men or women regardless of whether you consider yourself to be a man or woman.  Regardless, in other words, of how you "identify" in the current usage of that word.

What, though, of those of us who identify as neither man nor woman?  There are those who identify themselves as cats or dogs or other creatures, presumably.  Will they demand the right to use our cats' litter boxes or squat on our lawns?  What would God have to say about that?  As noted, I rejoice in the silly.  But this would be a species identity issue, not a gender identity one, and I think we may assume--for the time being at least--that species identity doesn't create legal issues applicable to the Lex Lavacrum.

To be fair (if it's possible to speak of fairness in bathroom law), divine command isn't the sole basis on which bathroom laws are adopted or urged.  There are said to be privacy and safety concerns. 

Now whether and to what extent privacy can reasonably be expected in a public bathroom presents an interesting question.  Whether it should be a concern of the law presents an interesting question as well.  Most men urinate brazenly standing next to other men with considerable frequency.  A man demanding that he be allowed under the law to do so alone in a public bathroom for privacy reasons would probably not get far in court or in a legislature.  But it's likely that the law would recognize that there are privacy concerns at issue in some circumstances.

I'm now at an age when my need to urinate is sometimes of such urgency that urinate I will even if surrounded by nuns or while standing alone in the middle of a crowded arena.  But I admit that I'd feel somewhat uncomfortable doing so, though primarily relieved.  But are privacy concerns in a public bathroom something which demands the adoption of a law to be enforced?  Should the law protect us from embarrassment in these circumstances?

As to safety concerns, I have trouble understanding why they exist.  If it's maintained that people who identify as women or men but lack the requisite genitalia are more likely to assault other people than are others, it's not unreasonable to demand that be established before a law is adopted, and as far as I know there's been no effort to establish that's the case.  In the absence of any evidence to that effect, it would seem as likely that a man could enter a public bathroom and commit assault regardless of whether he identified as a man instead of a woman.

For my part, I see no need for such laws, and think laws should be adopted for good reason.  As Cicero wrote, "The more laws, the less justice" (Summum ius, summa iniura--sounds even better, doesn't it?).

Of course, if the use of public bathrooms isn't such a concern as to demand adoption of special laws governing their use, then may it not also be claimed that the legal system should not be used to enforce the "right" of transgender people to use any particular bathroom? That doesn't work though.  The use of the legal system in that case is to address a prohibition which already exists in the law.  There should be good reason for the prohibition.  If there is none, it should be subject to challenge.

It seems religion is the go-to basis for legal claims that people should or may be excluded from certain places or refused certain services these days.  Ingeniously if disingenuously, the argument is made that it's discrimination to prevent discrimination if the discrimination is based on some sincerely held religious belief.  But this is to maintain that the law should protect and sanction religious conduct and beliefs, though of course only of a particular kind.  The Constitutional prohibition against adopting laws prohibiting the exercise of religion is, like all other Constitutional provisions (except the Second Amendment, according to some) subject to reasonable interpretation.  If it's necessary to unreasonably limit the legal rights of others in order to exercise a religion, the exercise of that religion may be prohibited in that respect.

Regardless of these profound legal issues, though, Ciceronianus won't practice bathroom law if he can help it.

Friday, July 29, 2016

The Kingdom of Fear

The late Hunter S. Thompson described our Great Republic as "The Kingdom of Fear" in the title of a book he wrote, and also in a song he co-wrote with the equally late Warren Zevon which appeared in his fatefully titled album My Ride's Here.  More and more, we seem to become that place.  Worse yet, perhaps, we're in active search of a King of our kingdom.

It's not the first time, I suppose.  FDR's claim we have nothing to fear but fear itself was made during a fearful time for our nation.  But the fear which now seems to define us is different from that we felt during the Great Depression.  That's my speculation, of course, and nothing more.  I didn't live through the Great Depression.  My parents did, and I know of it only through what they said and what I've read.

But I think it's reasonable to say that what we fear now is different from the fear one feels when there is no money or even food to feed ourselves or those we love.  There's no question there are things to fear now, and they are serious things.  But the fear too many of us feel is of other, different, people, and too often is of difference itself, which is to say of anything with which we're unfamiliar or uncomfortable.  And in this case our "leaders" (such as they are) unlike FDR are telling us we should be afraid; they urge us to feel fear and act on that fear.

It happens that they often do so to benefit themselves.  This is unsurprising in politicians and pundits, but contemptible nonetheless.  But it's dangerous as well because as I noted in a prior post, fear is an idiot (to quote Ambrose Bierce).  Fear, in other words, makes us stupid.

We happen to have quite a few guns here in God's favorite country.  I have a couple of "long guns" myself.   I don't carry them about with me, though I've heard of some cases where men do so, brandishing them proudly in fast food places and supermarkets.  It takes a peculiar kind of person to indulge in such displays, I believe, particularly with a rifle or shotgun.  I saw a man wearing a handgun on his hip at a restaurant not long ago. 

If I speculate why someone who isn't in law enforcement or engaged in hunting or shooting sports would carry a gun of any kind in public, and particularly in public establishments where other people eat or shop or congregate for any reason, I find it hard not to conclude that it is out of unreasonable fear, or due to the fond hope that they may use it in some manner in an heroic fashion, killing or maiming one of the many bad guys who haunt our thought and, we are being told, must defend ourselves against.  It occurs to me that people who are afraid, or looking for a chance to use a gun, are best off not carrying them around in public.  At least, others are better off if they don't. 

Fear begets a number of other unpleasant things.  It of course begets fear itself--in my case, fear of those who encourage fear among us--but also hate, anger and generally a thoughtless response to circumstances.  This was of course a fairly common subject of episodes of The Twilight Zone.  Rod Serling taught us nothing, it seems.  Was Serling's time more like ours than the time of the Great Depression?  The Communist scare may be comparable.  We were afraid of commies lurking unknown among us.  But now those who should frighten us according to those who delight in telling us what to do and think are identified more easily.

It's difficult to see fear in others, except when we're face to face.  It's easier, though, to see hate and anger and conduct caused by fear.  Unfortunately, we see these things more and more, if not on our TVs, smart phones, tablets and other devices then in our daily lives.  We're all angry at something as far as I can tell, and our anger is in front of us, and related by us to others, thanks to our technology, front and center 24/7 as we've been taught to say.  The Republican National Convention, sadly, was a kind of celebration of fear and its effects, a festival of it in fact.  We'll see more as this agonizing, endless presidential campaign winds down.

Fear may motivate us to address our problems but it is useless and even destructive in solving them.  The Kingdom of Fear will be brutish, intolerant, quick to react to any slight, real or imagined, but also cautious in the extreme when it comes to change of any kind and the unfamiliar.  It will seek scapegoats.  It will shut its gates.  It will be an unhappy place, filled with people who will find no comfort, being fearful.  There are those who long for this kingdom.  "Dangerous creeps are everywhere" according to the lyrics of the song Thompson and Zevon wrote.  They were right.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Homage to Stephen Crane

He was 28 when he died, at a health spa in the Black Forest of Germany.  What had we achieved by that age, reader?  For my part, very little.  Perhaps you achieved more, or much.  But it's his age at death that makes him most remarkable, in light of what he did in his short life.

I wonder if they still make students read The Red Badge of Courage in high school.  It was during that four year--what?--that I read it.  I suppose that by making us do so at the time, it was intended in some respect to honor Crane.  I think that requiring books to be read during those years does an author a disservice.  It's difficult to enjoy or appreciate a book one is required to read.  But I suppose something else was intended as well, enjoyment and appreciation not being something to be expected by high school students in their studies, at least.

That particular work of Crane made quite a stir when published.  It was, for the time, a different depiction of war.  It's difficult to think of any other depiction in novels of the same sort up until then.  Ambrose Bierce served in the Civil War and wrote some striking short stories about it, but such as Tolstoy were too busy making grand moral points or indulging in Romantic fantasies to do it what can be called justice.  Unlike Bierce, however, Crane had never experienced war when he wrote that book.  It was entirely a work of his imagination, though considered by most to be unusual in its realism.  Crane experienced war subsequently in his capacity as a newspaper correspondent, "embedded" as we (curiously) say now with soldiers fighting the Greco-Turkish and Spanish-American wars.

I remember the words "realism" and "naturalism" associated with his works.  I read now that "impressionism" is associated with them as well.  It's difficult for a mere reader like myself to keep track of literary categorizations, let alone understand them.  But certainly he wrote of things that took place in life and that were not evidently such as it would be unlikely to encounter in life.  He's been compared, I see, with the prolix Emerson and the less prolix Thoreau among American writers.  I don't see it, really, especially the comparison with Emerson.  Crane was far too direct and spare an author to be compared with Emerson, who bloviated on many things; too many things, in fact.  One can understand why Hemingway thought well of him.  Now and then, Hemingway seems to have expressed admiration for certain writers already dead.  Hemingway thought well of Henry James and Mark Twain also.

Twain is an author I was also forced to read in high school and so neither enjoyed nor appreciated at the time.  I revisited him later, and alas was unimpressed.  That's not the case with Crane.  I confess I've paid no attention to James.  Perhaps I'm unduly concerned as it's been claimed that he wrote novels like a philosopher, while his brother William wrote philosophy like a novelist.  The thought of a philosopher writing a novel troubles me.

I think Crane was at his best writing short stories.  The Monster, The Blue Hotel, The Open Boat are certainly among the best I've read.  Short stories have an unfortunate reputation.  It seems to me that they're not taken seriously enough; all are looking to write or read The Great Novel.  Novels invite excess, however, and imprecision; or so it's seemed to me, and I've read my share of them.  Unless, that is, their chapters are written as short stories themselves, as a kind of serial or series of scenes in the life of a person or event.

With apologies to such as Chekov and others, I think it may be said that American authors have written the finest short stories, and it may also be said (by me at least) that this is to be expected.  American civilization isn't quite what Oscar Wilde claimed it to be (nonexistent) but it doesn't seem to encourage extended reflection or effort on any particular thing, and this would be a prerequisite for creating a novel. 

I'm not a fan of Crane's poetry.  His poetry makes him appear immature, while his prose does not.  His prose was innovative in a way we can't understand now, being used to Hemingway and others who succeeded in extending its precision and simplicity in description.  I'm old now, or old enough, and am astonished he wrote as he did and by what he did so young.  Certain geniuses (Mozart, Schubert come to mind in music) are at once prolific and intensely focused, and are enduringly special and unique as a result.  Crane was one of them.