Hits and Misses

Hits and Misses

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Republican vs. Democrat: A Longer Perspective

My wife and I recently acquired an antique sideboard.  The surfaces are made of walnut, and the interior woods are yellow pine and tulip poplar.  These interior woods strongly suggest a Southern origin.  Mahogany was readily available at this time in coastal cities of the South, but the use of walnut indicates it was probably made in the "backcountry" of the South.
Hoping to find out more about the furniture from this area, I borrowed though Cornell’s library Southern Furniture 1680-1830: The Colonial Williamsburg Collection by Ronald L. Hurst and Jonathan Prown (1997).  Their book wasn't helpful in regard to our sideboard, but Prown's description of how the Southerners living in coastal cities regarded the people living inland started me thinking of the way Democrats tend to regard Republicans today and vice versa.

The longer-settled, more urban, better educated, and more mercantile inhabitants of the 18th and early 19th centuries in the South were unquestionably prejudiced about the inhabitants of the backcountry.  As Jonathan Prown comments, "Regarded by outsiders with a combination of fear, fascination, amusement, and contempt, the backcountry represented a place of cultural chaos.  Nonurban and noncommercial, the early backcountry rarely is hailed for its cultural achievements.  Instead, the region more often is cited for its cultural anomalies--whiskey stills, minimal education, family feuds, desolate living conditions, first-cousin marriages, and rowdy behavior."  It's much to the point that these aspects resonate even more strongly today.

As David Hackett Fischer has persuasively argued in Albion's Seed:  Four British Folkways in  America (1989), the settlers in the Southern backcountry were different from those who came to the colonies earlier because they came from a different part of Great Britain and determinedly kept to their own traditions.  Caricatured--think of Ma and Pa Kettle, Hee-Haw, or Justified--these anomalies soon were appropriated.  With a reversed kind of pride, "backcountry" became "country."  Jeff Foxworthy’s red-neck jokes going viral are an obvious example.  Those in the backcountry looking outward toward the coastal population probably saw themselves as embattled defenders of traditional values of hearth and home, family and kin, the Bible and the rifle.  They were the pioneers of what became known as Manifest Destiny, those who made America great.  And they are still with us as those who passionately believe that Donald Trump will indeed make America great again.

From the Republicans’ point of view, the best government is the least government (as long, of course, as reformers don't touch their Medicare benefits).  In the 18th century, this backcountry distrust of government and the governing class was rational:  North Britons wanted to escape oppressive regulation by the government; French Huguenots and German Protestants wanted freedom of religion.  They all wanted land of their own and to have like-minded people as neighbors.

But, as my son used to say as a five-year-old, "That was then and this is now."  In our time, regulation by the federal government is the only hope of preventing the excesses of 21st century capitalism, be they fraudulent investment practices, pollution of air, ground, and water, the crippling cost of medical operations, or the obscene pricing of medications.  As Trump and the Republican majority in Congress make government (except for the Defense Department) smaller, it is a near certainty that they will destroy America in order to save it.

What used to be a cultural divide in the South has gone national, and it cannot be overcome by ever more narrowly pointed political targeting of fly-over country.  We have far less to fear from terrorists from without than from fanatics within.  Cultural chaos is at hand.  Unfortunately, we need something more than "a combination of fear, fascination, amusement, and contempt" to restore a moderate balance of power.  I have no suggestions for a solution, but I can say that unless one is found quickly, we are entering the last days.  It's one thing for America's greatness to wane; it's another for it to implode.


Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Need for Revision in James' The Ambassadors

Henry James’ The Ambassadors may well be the world’s worst-written great novel.  His prose calls out for for an editor with a red pencil.  At best, a number of his sentences have to be read twice to be comprehensible; at worst, some remain incomprehensible.

Here, in a least-to-worst listing, are nine faults I see in The Ambassadors.

1.  Confusion over pronoun references.  Some of the dialogue so mixes “he” and “him” or “she” and “her” that one has to mark up the text to figure out who is saying what.

2.  Comma omissions.  The story goes that when the novel was going to be printed James systematically removed commas from the text that had been published in serial form in The North American Review.  As a result, we are faced with many unpunctuated heaps of modifiers:  Mme. de Vionnet makes a remark with a look of  “refined disguised suppressed" passion on her face (IX.1).  The similar endings in “ed” in that sentence come through strongly in another heap: “He was . . .easy and acute and deliberate—unhurried, unflurried, unworried, only at most a little less amused than usual” (VIII.i).  Here the “ed” endings chime strongly, while James’ habitual use of negatives in this novel—“un-, un-, un-” plus the internal rhymes of “hurry, flurry, worry” together form a sentence that pleads to be rewritten.

3.  Telling, not showing.  Often, James uses lists to convey information about a character.  These lists are almost like getting something down in brief, a kind of shorthand that he would come back to and expand--except he doesn't do so.  Take his description of Mamie on the balcony in IX.iii:  a second look presents her as “beautiful brilliant unconscious” Mamie, a Mamie used rather shabbily, but “absorbed interested and interesting.”  This pattern of listing reaches its extreme in James’ statement when Strether thinks about the cessation of Mrs. Newsome’s letters.  In her silence, Strether reflects, she demonstrated a greater intensity:  "deep devoted delicate sensitive noble” (VII.iii).  For this reader, his listing is unpersuasive:  we may know what James wants us to think, but there's no context to make us respond accordingly.

An even greater problem concerns Strether's characterization.  Near the end of the novel, we have character after character telling Strether how "wonderful" he is.  The problem is that saying so doesn't make it so.  James simply has other characters testify to this without providing the context for such a view.

4.  Odd locutions.  In their first meeting (I.i), Maria Gostrey remarks to Strether, “My own fate has been too many for me, and I’ve succumbed to it.”  “Too many”?  Another, Strether to Chad:  “You see therefore to what tune I’m in your family” (IV.1).

Another example:  “He [Chad] was modestly benevolent, the boy—that was at least what he had been capable of the superiority of making out his chance to be; and one had one’s self literally not had the gumption to get in ahead of him” (III.ii). 

5.  Excessive Repetition of significant words and phrases.  “Came over” in the fourth paragraph of II.i is an example.  How many times does “case” occur?  So many times it becomes a crutch.  Equally overused are “in” versus “out.”  “Save” occurs so often it becomes tedious.

6.  Mysterious allusions that remain mysterious.  Waymarsh seems to function primarily as a foil to Strether.  Rather than being open to what Europe in general and Paris in particular have to offer, Waymarsh glowers grandly at what’s before him.  This glowering is described as Waymarsh's sacred rage.  “It’s the sacred rage, Strether had had further time to say [to Maria Gostrey]; and this sacred rage was to become between them, for convenient comprehension, the description of one of his periodical necessities” (closing paragraph of I.iii).  Repeated periodically (II.i; IV.ii; VI.ii; X.ii), this phrase “sacred rage” never becomes comprehensible, let alone conveniently so.

The term “pagan” is another.  Strether realizes relatively early on that Chad must be a pagan:  “Pagan—yes, that was, wasn’t it? what Chad would logically be.  It was what he must be.  It was what he was” (IV.1). But what does this mean?  And why does James capitalize it near the end of this chapter?

7.  Excessive rhetoric.  Some extended metaphors simply expire from their own weight.  For example, in II.ii, Strether is taking a walk:  "He wasn’t there for his own profit—not, that is, the direct; he was there on some chance of feeling the brush of the wing of the stray spirit of youth.  He felt it in fact, he had it beside him; the old arcade indeed, as his inner sense listened, gave out the faint sound, as from far off, of the wild waving of wings.  They were folded now over the breasts of buried generations; but a flutter of two lived again in the turned page of shock-headed slouch-hatted loiterers . . . "[and off the sentence goes in another direction.]
Perhaps aligned with “pagan” are the sacrifices to strange gods on alien altars.  Strether comments to Bilham, “I’ve been sacrificing so to strange gods that I feel I want to put on record, somehow, my fidelity—fundamentally unchanged after all—to our own.  I feel as if my hands were embrued with the blood of monstrous alien altars—of another faith altogether” (X.i).  Are we meant to respond to such phrases with appreciation of Strether's facetious irony?  I don’t believe so.  If this is the case, James is altogether too heavy handed.  And if it’s not the case, why is James employing “embrued with blood,” the kind of heightened rhetoric derived from Senecan tragedy and delightfully parodied in the Pyramus and Thisby episode in A Midsummer Night’s Dream?

8.  Strether’s incomprehension that love can be carnal.  Strether’s realization that Chad and Mme. de Vionnet are physically intimate is set up as the climax of the novel, and he is shocked, truly shocked, by this knowledge.  But, as indeed Maria Gostrey asks in effect, What did he expect?  She herself wondered if Strether were grandly cynical or grandly vague (XII.iii).  Perhaps the most we can say to excuse Strether’s incomprehension is that he took Bilham’s reassurance that their relationship was “virtuous” to mean “chaste,” but that only ducks the question of why James chose to have Strether be so credulous.

9.  Inept portrayal of women.  James is not good at portraying women in this novel as anything other than perceptive listeners who can help a man formulate his thoughts about other issues.  Mamie Pocock is a good example.  Her role in the novel appears to be the person who can save Chad (II.i).  For Strether, she represents the best of American womanhood:  “she was handsome and portly and easy and chatty, soft and sweet and almost disconcertingly reassuring” (IX.iii).  Even her teeth are lovely.  And, unlike her sister-in-law, she turns out to be altogether on Strether's side.  But what does James make Strether reflect?  “Mamie would be fat, too fat, at thirty; but she would always be the person who, at the present sharp hour, had been disinterestedly tender” (IX.iii).  Why on earth would James include the dismissive attitude of the first half of that sentence?  Might it tell us more about James than about Strether?

Maria Gostrey starts off as someone attractive, but her function in the novel is soon reduced to being a sounding board for Strether.  Were she more, we might be bothered by Strether’s paying no attention to her  assertion,“There’s nothing, you know, I wouldn’t do for you,” and then following that with:  “There’s nothing,” she repeated, “in all the world” (XII.v).  The scheme of the novel demands that Strether finally stand on his own two feet and face an uncertain future with less than adequate financial resources, so we can understand why James has to have Strether insist on his own disinterestedness.  Whether we are persuaded that is what someone like Strether actually would do in these circumstances is a different matter.

Sarah Pocock is almost completely unrealized.  The second of the two ambassadors, she exists only as the real presence in Paris of Mrs. Newsome's unyielding will in Woollett, Massachusetts.

Mme. de Vionnet fares much better, in part because Strether has to ascertain who she is and her status.  Even when he has, however, James is careful to keep her at a remove from Strether.  When Strether meets her accidentally, it’s in the sacred precincts of Notre Dame.  Strether appears to be afraid of entanglements with her, even though he is determined to “save” her.  As I noted above, he has a less than accurate notion of how Chad relates to her until, in a pastoral scene that owes much to landscape painting, he finally sees them on the river.  After that episode, James has Strether lecture Chad on how he should treat her:  if Chad were to leave her, he would be “a brute,” “guilty of the last infamy,” “a criminal of the deepest dye” (XII.iv).  At the risk of appearing insensitive to the text, I detect no irony here on James’ part.  He appears to believe what Strether says but, unfortunately, what Strether says is not only hyperbolic but absurd.  Like saying to a child, “Don’t even think of putting string beans up your nose,” Strether's condemnation implants the very idea he means to prohibit.

This is a long list of negative aspects, I realize.  What, then, are we to make of this novel?  At moments, it is wonderful.  I daresay that no one who has read it ever forgets Strether lecturing Bilham:  “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to” (V.ii).  At its best, the novel represents a relatively cultured older American trying to come to terms with a European mode of life he doesn’t understand.  If he makes some mistakes in enlarging his comprehension, he imagines most of it correctly, and through this sustained effort of imagination he gains his own independence.  

I have never read a biography of James, so I have no idea about what was going on in his own life while he was composing The Ambassadors.  Did he write it in his own version of a hurried, flurried, worried state of mind?  If so, why didn’t he revise it when it was going to come out in novel form?  There’s no question he could write better prose:  The Beast in the Jungle was also published in 1903, and its prose is deft, direct, and to the point.  (It’s also possible, I suppose, that a good editor went over that piece before it saw print.)  As the old saying has it, writing is comparatively easy; it’s revision that’s hard.  Good as The Ambassadors is, it would have been even better if James had spent more time revising.




Friday, April 7, 2017

Michael T. Flynn's Request for Immunity: the Saga Continues

On April 3rd, Charles Blow commented in  The New York Times that Michael Flynn had offered to give testimony to the Congressional committees investigating the Trump's campaign's relationships to Russia:  "Michael T. Flynn, the former national security adviser, has offered to be interviewed by House and Senate investigators who are examining the Trump campaign's ties to Russia in exchange for immunity from prosecution, according to his lawyer and a congressional official."

Asking for immunity is permissible, of course, but it almost always raises the question of why that person is doing so.  "Immunity, for what?" becomes the question on everyone's mind.  What makes this question the more compelling is Flynn's own comment about granting immunity last fall.  As The Washington Post reported, Michael Flynn appeared on "Meet the Press" as a key campaign aide to Donald Trump.  Speaking about the reports circulating that aides to Hilary Clinton had been granted immunity so that they could be forthcoming to the FBI about Hilary's private email server, Flynn declared, "When you are given immunity, that means you have probably committed a crime."

We could call this remark of Flynn's a boomerang statement, on the grounds that after the statement hits the airwaves it returns to smack the speaker in the mouth.

One last remark about appearances:  When Trump recently called a press conference to announce two executive orders dealing with trade, reporters questioned him not about trade but about Michael Flynn and the Russian question.  According to Paul Krugman and CNN, Trump not only didn't sign the executive orders but walked out of the room, leaving Vice President Pence to gather up the documents and follow him.  It's difficult not to wonder, Why wasn't Trump willing to answer the reporters' questions?

Follow-up, May 24:  The NY Times reported two days ago that the Senate Intelligence Committee ordered Flynn to turn over emails and other records of any dealings with Russians in 2016.

Flynn formally rejected their subpoena on the grounds of the Fifth Amendment.  His lawyers reiterated, however, that Flynn was still willing to testify in exchange for immunity. But as Flynn himself said earlier, "When you are given immunity, that means you have probably committed a crime."  Given that former FBI head Mueller can bring criminal charges in his role as Special Counsel, it should be interesting to see how the saga of Michael Flynn plays out.  And, of course, the degree to which Donald Trump is involved.



Friday, March 31, 2017

An Army Flying Instructor Hoist with His Own Petard

In his memoir, Burning the Days (1997), James Salter gives a wonderful example of an action backfiring on its initiator.  A flying instructor in the Army Air Force (as it was called in WW II) had a favorite trick he'd play on students who were slow to learn how to land:

"After exhausting the usual means, above the traffic pattern somewhere he would shake the control stick from side to side, banging the student's knees--the front and rear sticks were connected--to get his attention.  He would then remove the pin holding the rear stick in place and, with the student twisting his neck to see what was happening, wave it in the air and toss it over the side, pointing at the student with the gesture You, you've got it, and pointing down.  It had always worked.  One day for still another lagging student he rattled the stick fiercely, flourished it, and tossed it away.  The student nodded numbly, bent down, unfastened his own stick, and ignoring the instructor's cries, threw it away also.  He watched as the frightened instructor bailed out and then, fame assured, reached down for the spare stick he had secretly brought along, flew back to the field, and landed."

Burning the Days has the best account I've read of what it was like fighting the Russian MIG's in the Korean "conflict."  Salter eventually left the Army to become a writer of novels and screenplays, but the second half of his memoir doesn't match the interest of his West Point and flying days.  The first half, though, is well worth reading.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Trump on health care

Speaking to the assembled governors a few days ago, Trump exclaimed, "I have to tell you, it's an unbelievably complex subject.  Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated."

Well, no, not quite:  anyone who worked on the Affordable Care Act would have known.  Anyone who actually read about the act would have known--but Trump doesn't read anything, apparently, except his teleprompter and glowing press clippings about how wonderful he is.

What I find most remarkable is that he actually said this.  Trump has little or no idea about how complex his job is.  It's much to the point that he assumes that everyone shares his own level of ignorance:  "Nobody knew."  Our only hope is that Trump will continue to learn how much he doesn't know.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Trump vs. Truth: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

On February 10th, I posted about Gregg Phillips, a self-proclaimed expert on so-called voter fraud in last November's presidential election.  It turns out he was registered to vote in three different states!

The credibility of Gregg Phillips is also one of the topics highlighted by John Oliver in his most recent show, "Trump vs. Truth:  Last Week Tonight."  If you haven't seen the show, it's well worth watching:

https://youtu.be/xecEV4dSAXE

Seen or Heard on the Street about Trump, #5