Monday, October 16, 2017

Unfree Women, Unfree Men

The cartoon above is one of a series drawn by James Thurber, entitled The War Between Men and Women.  The title of this post is a modification of the title of a collection of the works of Camille Paglia, Free Women, Free Men, which I'm now listening to her read to me in the relative comfort of my car as I go about my travels.  Yes, there's almost certain to be a subtitle to the book of some kind, as seems to be the fashion, but if there is I can't remember it as I type.

I have a fondness for the incendiary Professor Paglia.  She's libertarian, which I still think of as my own position when it comes to the imposition of government power regarding what people think, say and do (within reason--I'm an aspiring Stoic, after all).  She seems to have a comforting respect for science, which is remarkable in an academic, as well as freedom of speech, and is opposed to what appears to be the attack being made on it in the hallowed halls of the Academy, and the oddly repressive and totalitarian views which are being thundered by its denizens at society in general and at the young in particular whom we hope to educate.  And she's of Italian descent, as am I, being a direct descendant of the great Marcus Tullius Cicero.  Well, not really, but I am clearly a Ciceronian and am of Italian descent.

I tend to agree with her as well that sex isn't entirely a social construction, and that there are certain biological differences between the sexes that cannot simply be disregarded, and may be disregarded only at our peril.  I tend also to agree with her that there are feminists whose hatred of men has overwhelmed their ability to reason, and who see male and female in perpetual conflict until the male disappears.  Where I disagree with her is in the emphasis to be given sex as a cause of or motivation for everything, or anything.  It strikes me that she feels it to be the basis for all we do or have done.

It's odd, to me, that although she gives sex, as biology, such emphasis, she also contends that all we do or have done of any significance is the result of our desire to escape nature's hold on us.  This is particularly true with respect to what men have done in creating society, technology, law.  Men, if I understand her correctly, strive constantly to escape the overwhelming, suffocating dominance of their mothers, and their achievements are the result of this striving.  Art, in particular, is humanity's effort to detach itself from nature, according to Paglia.

No doubt I'm putting her position poorly.  Regardless, though, I find it odd that although she refers to our opposition to nature and efforts to conquer or subdue it, and lauds it, she clearly feels we're subject to our natures, specifically our biological natures.  We are therefore, I would say, parts of nature.  We're not in battle with nature or in opposition to it because we're not in opposition to ourselves.  I think she makes the hard distinction between humanity and nature that's plagued Western thought since at least the time of Plato.  In order to make that distinction, I think she must accept the mind-body distinction as well.  Our minds are in conflict with nature, though our bodies are parts of nature, and our minds thus are in conflict with our bodies as well.

If we think of ourselves as part of nature, living creatures existing in an environment and interacting with it and other creatures, this sense of dire opposition disappears.  We do instead what every other creature does, attempt to satisfy our desires and resolve or avoid dangers.  We happen to have an intelligence which permits us to interact with other parts of the environment in a more satisfying and successful way than others (as far as our wants and needs are concerned), but that doesn't mean we're at war with the rest of nature.  It's uncertain whether we can even claim to be unique in our use of language or in the production of art, given discoveries being made in the conduct of other animals.

As for the prevalence of sex, sex as the primary if not the sole cause of all we do or think, there's no question that it fascinates and obsesses us.  But that, and the tendency to ascribe to it such causal significance, may itself be a social construction.  It's importance is obvious.  Not so obvious, to me at least, are the reasons that it is accorded even greater importance, why it is considered, in effect, all-important.  Why does it figure so completely in our art, law and religion?  Can this be said to arise solely due to biology, to our hormones, to our physical nature?  Or, might it be the result of efforts made to glorify what can in fact be considered a "simple" biological need present in all creatures, to make of it by custom or otherwise something much more of a social and cultural feature than it need be for reasons that are not simply the result of our biology?

Also, and obviously, if we are in fact so driven by sex, it's questionable to what extent we can be referred to as "free" and if we can be so described, the question arises:  Just how free are we, if what we do is so influenced by sex?  What I suspect Paglia means to say when she speaks of free women and men, is that we should be free, just as she says we should be equal, under the law. 

I'm suspicious of theories regarding human conduct, society and culture that posit a single cause for all, that envision a kind of First Mover behind what we do, to which all may be traced.  Suspicious, too, of categories, like Apollonian or Dionysian.  They may be useful generalizations, but are clumsy explanatory devices when applied to all we do and are.  Our aims should be more modest.  Totalitarianism begins with the belief that there is a single, simple answer or truth that has been found, and must be accepted by all.  That's a belief system which isn't eradicated when another single, simple answer or truth has been found, which must be accepted.

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Return of Zardoz (Guns Galore)

I last addressed the totemic status of guns in our Glorious Republic a few years ago.  Another massacre, another gun control "debate" (such as it is).  It's time for the floating head of Zardoz to appear once more and thunder its message, so dear to so many, that the gun is good.  As for the penis, it's self-evidently evil here in God's favorite country, but also self-evidently indulged regardless, particularly by those who claim most loudly that it's evil.  Much, I suppose, could be made of our quasi-religious belief in the sanctity of guns and our fascination with sex--our repressive horror of it and nervous exultation in it.  But it's a tiresome train of thought I won't board.
But our strange, compulsive regard for guns is interesting in itself, as it admits of no limits.  There are those who feel that we have the right to own (and carry) as many as we like, of whatever kind we like. Nobody seems to be struck by the oddness of the fact that the most recent killer had so very many guns, and even explosives.  The concern expressed is how he accumulated them without triggering some kind of warning.  But what kind of person would want to have so many?  He wasn't a collector, clearly.  Is it plausible to claim that he felt they were required for self-defense?  Only if he was an exceedingly fearful man, surely.  Also, it seems clear enough that defense wasn't his concern.  Is an interpretation of the Second Amendment which countenances having so many guns a reasonable one?
Where does the right to arms end, or does it end?  Do we have the legal right to arms of any kind?  Artillery?  Surface to air or surface to surface missiles?  Tanks?
Reductio ad absurdum sometimes is considered an inappropriate argument, but seems to me entirely appropriate when confronted with a belief in an absolute, unrestricted right.  One might say that there are particular arms which most cannot afford to have or maintain or possess, but still have the right to have under the Constitution.  What one claims to have the right to under the Second Amendment impacts the reasonableness on one's interpretation of it. 
One need only admit that there are limitations on rights provided by the Constitution to admit that such rights are appropriate when they're reasonable.  As Constitutional rights are subject to limitation and have been throughout our history, there is no reason to contend that the right to possess arms is without limitation.  What constitutes reasonable limitations then becomes a topic of debate.  This seems to be a debate the more avid proponents of the Second Amendment would rather avoid.
The reason for this may well be that there is no reasonable way to support the claim that people should have the right to own as many arms as they want, own automatic or semi-automatic weapons, own devices which allow them to use weapons as if they were automatic, carry about weapons with them whenever they wish, etc.   Beyond the more fantastic claims made by those who think the government is out to get them, or who think they must protect themselves from harm in a restaurant or store, there is little on which they can rely.  Fear doesn't go well with reason, and instead dispenses with it.  Fear seeks absolutes.  Fear relies on absolutes.

Monday, October 2, 2017

The War I Missed

I turned 18 in 1972.  That was the year the last draft lottery took place.  The lottery applied only to those who had been born in 1953, though, and I was born in 1954.  I duly registered for the draft, but consequently wasn't drafted.  My draft card lies somewhere among the debris I've accumulated over the years, but there is no other token of the Vietnam War among that debris, nor did I become debris of that war as many others did.  The Burns/Novick production The Vietnam War serves to remind me of the war I was fortunate enough to miss.

I didn't know when I registered that there was no chance I would be drafted, unless another lottery was held.  In fact, I knew little enough of the war itself.  Though a Boomer, I wasn't an old enough Boomer for the war to have a great deal of impact on me personally.  I knew no veterans at the time.  As far as I can recall, there wasn't much discussion of the war among my friends in high school, or even in college.  We weren't threatened by it, not really.  By the time I graduated from college, of course, the war had ended.

What I remember of the war and those times is what I saw on TV or read in the newspapers.  Like most whose exposure to the war was thus limited, I knew very little, relatively speaking.  I never participated in a protest march.  I never protested.  I was 14 at the time the 1968 Democratic convention took place in Chicago, and saw footage of the rioting, heard the speeches at the convention, or some of them, watched the now famous, or infamous, Buckley/Vidal debates with what comprehension I had as a 14 year old, which I think wasn't much.

I'm a fairly avid reader, though, and read of the war as I grew older.  I knew, for example, that in purely tactical terms the Tet offensive was a miserable failure for the North long before the work of Mr. Burns and Ms. Novick appeared on our TV sets, and knew also that our nation wasn't particularly impressed by that fact.  I knew the argument that we should have won, but could not win as the war wasn't supported by the nation.  I knew that this lack of support was sometimes blamed on liberals or the liberal media.   I tend to think that an empire failed to do justice to its soldiers, and failed even to recognize that it was an empire engaged in a war of empire, between empires.

I knew the argument we should not have been there in the first place, knew of the incursions into Laos. the troop withdrawals late in the war, the largely ineffective "peace talks", Kent State, the march on the Pentagon (I read Norman Mailer's The Armies of the Night; also Miami and the Siege of Chicago), the murders of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the campus protests.  Much is called to mind in watching Burns/Novick's version of the war.

What I didn't know, most of all, was what happened to those who fought or otherwise served in the war.  This documentary does us a great service by informing us of what happened to them, and what they thought and think about it. 

I think that if I had been drafted, I would have been one of them in some capacity or another.  I had no objections to the war which would have sufficed to prompt me to seek refuge in Canada, and didn't think of myself as a conscientious objector.  What I find most remarkable, and disturbing, is how little touched I was by a war that took the lives of many of those but a year or two older than I was; it's an unsettling fact.  Perhaps our sense of history is ultimately selfish, or perhaps mine is, in any case.
Very few of those appearing in the documentary come out looking well, outside of those who fought.  For them I find it impossible to feel anything but pity and respect.  Those objecting to the war appear small.  It's possible, of course, that objections to the war could have resulted from the belief that the war was immoral, but the protesters preening in front of the cameras hardly seem heroic or lit with the fire of righteousness.  Pity for them is appropriate when they're killed, as were those at Kent State, or beaten, or jailed if for merely expressing an opinion.  How many of them were, though?  The politicians seem even smaller, in fact despicable. 
In the end, America did what was politically expedient.  Arguably, that's what it did when it became engaged in Vietnam in the first place.  Arguably, that's what it does now and what it will always do; what is all it can do.

Monday, September 18, 2017

"Let Be Be Finale of Seem"

These are famous words from a famous poem.  No doubt they've been explained already by many, or at least analyzed; perhaps even by the poet himself.  Wallace Stevens was a poet who wrote of poetry.  Perhaps the lawyer in him, or the student of Santayana that he was, still within him, compelled him to be a critic as well as an artist.  I will give them my own interpretation, though.

The sunset is a kind of finale, though not one as final as death.  It's the finale of a day, which may indeed be remorseful as A.E. Housman wrote but need not be.  Remorse is understandable at the end of a day, or a life, to one who is thinking at the end of one or the other, because it's not uncommon to feel remorse for what was done or was not done which could have or should have been done.  Humans being what they are chances are excellent that they should have or could have done something and that something they did was wrong.

What seems to be isn't necessarily what is.  To be is to exist.  What exists may seem not to exist.  You get the picture (or at least you get what the picture seems to be).

"Let be be finale of seem."  Let the end of our efforts to determine what seems to be, be?  Let what seems to be, to us, be?  Or, let it be, in the sense of give it up, forget about it?  Give it up, this tendency we have to distinguish appearance from reality, to insist on a thing-in-itself that we cannot know?  Give up the belief that what seems to be reality isn't really reality (the really real)?

I'm impatient with metaphysical and ontological concerns, i.e. the issue of Being and, that other favorite, Nothingness.  That may be a failing on my part.  I'm unconcerned with questions regarding what it is, in all cases, to be or not to be (was Shakespeare having a bit of fun with philosophers when he wrote this speech of Hamlet?  I find myself hoping so).  The fact that we make mistakes sometimes leaves me unimpressed.  It hardly seems grounds on which to question all we interact with naturally, by living, with considerable success, much less envision some kind of place apart from the world on which all truth and beauty depends.

So, I would interpret Stevens as saying that what is, is in the end what seems to us to be.  In the end of the day, in the end of us, you and me.  Let it be so.

"Things Merely Are" is the title of a book by Simon Critchley about philosophy in the poems of Wallace Stevens.  It seems a less than hopeful phrase, but it's an assertion that renders a good deal of speculative philosophy superfluous.  And, if that was what Stevens was attempting to say, in his poetry, it's something few other poets have said, I think.  Yet there's unquestionably beauty in his poetry, just as there is unquestionably beauty in things of all kinds.

Consider sunset, especially as pictured above.  The sunset merely is, of course, but though we don't cause the Earth to revolve or the sun to exist it is what it seems to be to us, the end of a day, and though it can seem to be, to us, a splendid end or a dismal, dull one, it's nonetheless an end of something.

We're edging into Autumn, now, and in that part of our Great Republic in which I live the leaves will turn glorious and then wither and fall.  Crops will be harvested, vegetation of all kinds will stop growing, weather will turn cold.  As we've known since ancient times, we wither and die like other things in the world do.  But some of the most striking sunsets I've ever see have been winter sunsets, when the world seems, and is, dead.  Those sunsets merely are as our deaths merely are.

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Ambivalence of Henry Adams

I've tried for some years now to read The Education of Henry Adams.  I have not succeeded in doing so.  I'm trying to read it once more, and this time have read more of it than I ever have.  I'm uncertain whether I'll be successful in reading it all.

This disturbs me, as it's a work which seems to be admired by almost everyone.  Gore Vidal, whom I admire as a writer (but not necessarily as a public figure) was very fond of it indeed, and wrote that there was something of a competition on the death of a relative or friend regarding who would receive the deceased's copy of the book.

It's a curious book, often described as an autobiography but if so not one which even pretends to set forth events which took place in a more or less objective manner (to the extent that's possible).  It's instead a commentary regarding certain aspects of Adams' life and certain people he encountered while living it.  It is well written, but as a commentary, not as an effort to relate what took place.  Adams is uninterested in describing what took place.  He wants instead to tell us something of what he thought of what took place while it took place, but most of all to tell us what he thinks now about what took place and those who were there while it took place including, perhaps most of all, himself.

There's nothing wrong with the author of an autobiography being interested primarily in himself, of course.  A certain level of self-interest and self-regard is required if an autobiography is to be written.  Nor is there anything necessarily wrong with an autobiographer using the opportunity provided to opine regarding people and things in his or her past.

  What I find somewhat peculiar, though, is that Adams does nothing but opine about them.  It seems the entire purpose of the book.  What I also find striking is that Adams never seems to wholeheartedly admire, or write well of, anyone or anything.  That includes his famous grandfather and great-grandfather, and his own father.  Whenever he describes a talent or ability of a person, he invariably notes, as if to offset it, something lacking in him.  The same goes for any institution.  It has certain good qualities which he will mention, but is otherwise deficient in some sense.  The deficiencies of any person or institution, inevitably, are greater than the merits; or it seems at least that he spends more time remarking on their inadequacies than he does on their good qualities.

For example, he attended Harvard College which was good in its own way, inoffensively and efficiently preparing its students for life in the world, but provided a poor education.  His classmates included such as O.W. Holmes and the son of Robert E. Lee, but Holmes at the time was nothing to write home about and Lee, though sociable and having leadership qualities was an angry, stupid, thin-skinned drunk liable to leap at you with a knife if he thought you had offended him.  Adams' father, Charles Francis Adams, was amiable and remarkably even tempered, but dull and something of a dunce.

Life seems to have been a series of disappointments for Henry Adams, overall.  The world and all that's in it was on the whole somewhat dispiriting.  It in any case contained nothing, apparently, which Adams thinks was wholly good.  What was good wasn't quite good enough, and was in some way bad.  Nothing seemed worthy of any great effort on his part.

This perhaps is why he didn't go into public service as his ancestors on the Adams side did.  His grandfather and great-grandfather were presidents and his great grandfather was a Founding Father of his country, a revolutionary.  His father served as U.S. Ambassador of England.  He accompanied his father as a clerk, it's true, but his natural tendency seemed to have been to comment on people and things, not very approvingly, as an occasional journalist and historian.  He didn't soldier in the Civil War.

He may have been one of the first public, or even professional, full time intellectuals.  He had a kind of salon, at which he and others of like mind met and discussed significant matters.  He seems to have been especially fond of clever young women, his "nieces" as they were called.  He had an ongoing, though it seems platonic, relation with the beautiful daughter of William Tecumseh Sherman.  His wife committed suicide, and he took the trouble to destroy all her correspondence and indeed never wrote of her, even in his "autobiography", and it seems didn't speak of her after her death.  This led some to speculate that he had been unfaithful to her.

A peculiar man, then, and one given to judge others, not too kindly.  He was apparently also a notorious and savage anti-Semite.  His friend John Hay commented that he would have attributed the eruption of Vesuvius to the Jews.

It's possible his propensity to see and speak of the deficiencies in all people he knew or encountered, and any human institution he experienced, may have been the result of having a judicious mind.  But one has to wonder, reading this book, whether he was ever enthusiastic about someone or something, or whether he found fault wherever he looked, for all his life.

Intellectuals, it seems, live to criticize, and are never really content in doing anything else.  Henry Adams may have been representative of the decay of a great New England family (he never was particularly fond of Boston, either).  Or he may have been simply more astute than anyone else.  He may have relished and thrived in his disappointment and ambivalence; it may be that he wouldn't have enjoyed being content or happy, at least if it meant that he would not be inclined or able to find fault with someone, anyone.

The education of Henry Adams was apparently an education in the faults of others, and even his own faults.  These faults weren't formally taught, and so were not part of his education or that of anybody else, but simply were made evident to him as part of our existence, which he observed and wrote of, disapprovingly for the most part.