Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Moral American

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue

Let's be honest: from the beginning, everything has been arranged in such a way that Florence Thompson would one day sit in a makeshift shelter, bone-tired and hungry, nursing her daughter in a muddy field near Nipomo Mesa, off Hightway 101 outside of Watsonville, California. She and her family were lucky to find work picking peas on that day:

  The older man laughed and looked at the boy, and his silent son grinned almost in triumph. And the man said, "You ain't gonna get no steady work. Gonna scrabble for your dinner ever' day. An' you gonna do her with people lookin' mean at you,...."
  Pa asked slowly, "Ain't--ain't it nice out there at all?"
  "Sure, nice to look at, but you can't have none of it." (Grapes of Wrath, 280-281)

You can't have none of it. 

James Madison patiently explained to men just like himself  that a civic-minded elite would filter the fractious viewpoints of the mob for the good of all concerned; President Adams, in the heat of his struggles with Jefferson, passed a law that made it a crime to criticize the government. The Secretary of the Treasury pushed a bill through Congress that taxed the farmers of the Ohio Valley, and when they protested the General-President personally commanded an army to straighten them out. A few years later the Supreme Court established that--republic be damned--the Court would do the deciding...and they did, always in favor of the Land company that made sure that the Thompson's and the Joad's and Wilson's would be the ones sitting in the tent begging for work and not them.

John Steinbeck's masterpiece, an American classic worth reading once a decade, turns the Founders' "mob" into a family--not just the Joad family, but the family of the dispossessed, the family of the wretched of the earth.  Read in conjunction with James Agee's and Walker Evan's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men ("and the fathers who begot us," Sirach, 44:1) and a collection of Dorothea Lange's dust-bowl photographs, Grapes of Wrath is that rarest of literary creations--a truly subversive book that even (sometimes!) shows up on high school reading lists. Steinbeck is scathing on the subject of corporate monopolies, government ineptitude, law enforcement's bias toward the wealthy, and, even toward capitalism itself. His alternating chapters--one of documentary social criticism paired with one telling the story of the Joad's economic and moral odyssey--serve up both an intellectual and emotional critique of an economic system that rewards the few who don't work (one landowner has "a million acres"--"What in the worl' can he do with a million acres?" "I dunno. He jus' got it.") and ignores or punishes the many who do.

I've been reading Grapes of Wrath in conjunction with the latest American election cycle, watching sadly as the one-percent squabbles over the corpse (as it were). At the same time I dipped back into Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue, one of the finest books ever written on the subject of doing well, living morally, in a world where the notion of morality has been reduced to a set of preferences. MacIntyre's argument is that modern (post-Kantian, post-Nietzschean) moral philosophy is stuck between utilitarianism and emotivism--the empty notion of a "greatest good" as measured by bureaucracies and the equally empty notion of a personal good defined by individual tastes. Either way, in MacIntyre's view, we are left with no means of making moral choices; we are left without virtue (a terribly old-fashioned word nowadays).

MacIntyre is more persuasive in this dismantling of the hollowness of preferential ethics than in his remedies: he's a Roman Catholic who finds solace in the clarity and moral absolutes of Aquinas and Aristotle. My problem with Aristotle is that he too posits a formulaic morality based on preference--what's the difference between an emotivist's choice of what feels right and an Aristotelian's choice of what constitutes the mean (not, by the way, the same as Buddhism's "middle path," since the Buddha clearly establishes what the eight fundamental human qualities are, and each of them is amenable to simple moderation; Aristotle's virtues in some cases actually preclude moderation).  And with Aquinas, well, you must have God, and not just any God--it must be the providential one, the one constantly invoked by the sort of people who always tend to hear God telling them to do just what they'd do anyway. No thanks.

But MacIntyre does have one very rich idea, and it takes us right back to the Joad's and their wandering in the desert of endemic American rural poverty. Here's MacIntyre:

"In Latin, as in ancient Greek, there is no word correctly translated by our work 'moral,' or rather there is no such word until our word 'moral' is translated back into Latin.....But 'moralis,' like its Greek predecessor 'ethikos'....means 'pertaining to character' where a [person's] character is nothing other than his or her dispositions to behave systematically in one way rather than another, to lead one particular kind of life." [After Virtue, 2nd ed., 18] [my emphasis]

Here's a thought: instead of thinking about morality (one's character) or ethics (one's choices) as an unfolding process of difficult decisions made throughout a life--as a dangerous dodging of temptations, as a negotiation among sometimes equally unpleasant decisions, as the courtroom of conscience--let's think of morality and ethics together as character, as a disposition to act in certain ways that is prior to and which subsumes any particular choices. Too often morals are thought to be forged in the battleground of living an adult life, but what we now know about the moral growth of children suggests that by the time we get to make choices, it's already likely that we'll make them according to our character.  And where does character come from? Not, as we are prone to think, from individual preferences or calculations about what is good for us and others, but from our social relations, from our adaptation to the demands of families, friends, lovers, communities--from intimate daily interactions with the people around us. MacIntyre wants something like an essential character, a nub of goodness and virtue that we can refer to when we make choices. Well, we have that, but it doesn't come into existence through rational calculation in the Aristotelian or Kantian sense.

I can't not see Jane Barwell as Ma Joad when I read Grapes. For me, she is the moral center of the novel, the proof of Steinbeck's generous reading of the power of a large, if unsophisticated, human soul.  Ma is often speechless, often "intuitive" in her decisions. One of the greatest scenes of the novel comes when, having just arrived in California, Granma lies dying in the tent, whimpering in pain and loss (separation from one's place kills off the older generation). Ma and Rose of Sharon are tending to the old woman when a police officer pushes, uninvited, into the tent to ask Ma when she will be living the miserable camp where the Joad's are resting:

"Who's in here," [the policeman] demanded again.
"Ma asked, "What is it you want, mister?"
"What you think I want? I want to know who's in here."
"Why, they's jus' us three in here. Me an' Granma an' my girl."
"Where'd you come from?"
"Right near Sallisaw, Oklahoma."
"Well, you can't stay here."
"We aim to get out tonight an' cross the desert mister."
"Well you better. If you're here tomorra this time I'll run you in. We don't want none of you settlin' down here."
Ma's face blackened with anger. She got slowly to her feet, she stooped to the utensil box and picked out the iron skillet. "Mister," she said, "you got a tin button an' a gun. Where I come from, you keep your voice down."
"Well you ain't in your country now. You're in California, an' we don't want you goddamn Okies settlin' down."
Ma's advance stopped. She looked puzzled. "Okies?" she said softly. "Okies."

Note: first a question...then a puzzled statement. How best to diminish personhood and therefore rights?  Turn someone into a "terrorist" or an "immigrant" or an "Okie."

Ma Joad doesn't invoke the rules of privacy or her legal rights; she tells the cop to watch his tongue. Strangers, badge or no, haven't any right to speak rudely--"where I come from"--the spirit of place is invoked to support a moral norm, and the place isn't only Sallisaw, Oklahoma, but a place where mutuality and respect demand certain kinds of behavior. We see Ma throughout the novel as the judge of what is right and wrong--will the preacher be allowed to come along, even though he isn't family; should the holy lady speak a blessing over Granma? In every case, the foundation of Ma's judgments is based on what MacIntyre refers to as "character," a way of living one's life that is so deeply ingrained that moral choices aren't forms of problem solving--measuring behavior to an eternal standard--but simply getting on with one's life by doing what is right.  Of course we don't raise our voice, refer to people as "Okies," threaten women and children--no decent person would.

Grapes of Wrath has about it both the power of a political tract and the refinement of a meditation on morality. In scene after scene, from the sociological analysis of bureaucratic power in Chapter Five to Tom's beautiful "I'll be ever'where--wherever you look" speech at the novel's end, Steinbeck examines the confrontation of simple humanity with overweening power. Mostly, of course,  simple humanity is no match for drought, tractors, bankers, and sheriffs. In that regard, nothing much has changed. But Steinbeck stretched the possibilities of the American novel by examining the moral lives of the poorest among us, and by dissecting the mechanical nature of power, forced his readers to see how power strips even decent people of the ability to act kindly toward their neighbors.

So Florence Thompson sat in her tent and nursed her child. She still does. Not Florence, and not a tent. More like a jail cell these days. If Steinbeck were around, he'd write about it.

George Ovitt (10/23/16)

References are to the handy Penguin PB, in print since the 70's. The original appeared in 1939

Monday, October 17, 2016

Where the Light Enters You

“Love” by Clarice Lispector

There are times, when one has dropped one’s guard, that the world slips in through the cracks. Staggered suddenly, we are overwhelmed by the pain and suffering about us. We see it as if for the first time—gaudy, garish, profane. It incriminates us; it makes us feel angry and helpless; it shakes our convictions, our certainties; it fills us with longing, with dread. The triggers vary—a song, an illness, a blind man chewing gum. Even everyday exhaustion does the trick. Yet for most of us such occasions, such flashes of insight, are woefully rare. By the time we are adults we’ve become so adept at keeping the world and its agonies at bay that we are hardly aware we are doing it—and with such vigilance, such energy, reflexively numbing (with video, with drugs and alcohol, with the daily violence of routine), if not blocking altogether, those precious sensors in our brains that allow us to sympathize, even to empathize, with the people around us, to feel this life truly, to see and sense it as it is.  

W. H. Auden, in his famous poem “Musée des Beaux Arts,” writes,

About human suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along…

These lines might very well have been the prompt, the inspiration, for Brazilian author Clarice Lispector’s astonishingly trenchant short story, “Love”. While not an Old Master, she was certainly a Modern One, a writer with an exquisitely refined sense of the pain and anguish of others. The premise of the story is simple: a relatively happy, self-satisfied housewife is on her way home from buying groceries when she spots a blind man from the window of the tram, a grim, if normally prosaic detail that somehow penetrates her defenses and shakes her to her core. Suddenly the safe, cozy bubble she has made of her life is burst. She puzzles,

But what else was there about him that made Anna sit up in distrust? Something disquieting was happening. Then she discovered what it was: the blind man was chewing gum…a blind man chewing gum. Anna still had time to reflect for a second that her brothers were coming to dinner—her heart pounding at regular intervals. Leaning forward, she studied the blind man intently, as one observes something incapable of returning our gaze. Relaxed, and with open eyes, he was chewing gum in the failing light. The facial movements of his chewing made him appear to smile then suddenly stop smiling, to smile and stop smiling. Anna stared at him as if he had insulted her. And anyone watching would have received the impression  of a woman filled with hatred… A second signal from the conductor and the tram moved off with another jerk… The tram was rattling on the rails and the blind man chewing gum had remained behind for ever. But the damage had been done.

The story itself is like the blind man chewing gum; it is a perfect example of what art does best, interrupting the expected narrative of our daily lives, giving us pause, even stopping us dead in our tracks. Rumi once said that “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” Of course the ‘wound’ he speaks of is what all great literature is about—making us vulnerable to others, keeping us susceptible to the world in which we live.

“Love” is one of the many remarkable stories included in the collection, Clarice Lispector: Complete Stories, published by New Directions.

Peter Adam Nash

Sunday, October 9, 2016


The House on Boulevard St. (New and Selected Poems), David Kirby

Some Jazz a While (Collected Poems), Miller Williams

The Year They Outlawed Baseball

The year they outlawed baseball
nobody played.
The next year people said
how it used to be,
the center fielder leaping up the wall.
The next year a few men tossed a few
in backyards and basements
without the gloves.
The ball gives off a sound
hitting the leather
anyone around could recognize.
Still people talked
and that was the end of that.
For years the widows kept scarred and lopsided balls
on the top shelves of closets in back rooms
and thought of showing them to trusted friends.

--Miller Williams

Wit, in English, was an invention of the 16th century. The Romans had it too, but these days only a classicist gets their jokes. Englishmen read Horace, made a few translations, then struck out on their own. Smart people are witty, or can be; less smart people are funny; the unsmart tend to mistake vulgarity for humor. And so on down the line until you get to sit-coms that only machines find amusing.

We know that Ben Jonson had wit; Shakespeare did too, in spades, and all of those great metaphysical poets you may have read in college and forgotten. Remember John Donne's "The Flea"?  Or those double entendres that fill Shakespeare's woodsy comedies?

All of the definitions, as well as the etymology of the word, link wit to both humor and intelligence, "a pleasing aptitude for using language in such a way as to make both intelligent and humorous commentary on the human condition" is my own formulation, based on half-a-dozen respectable sources. I note, without surprise, that the use of the word "wit" has declined precipitously over the past century--soon, I imagine, "wit" will join "civility," "dapper," (a word I love), "urbane," and "sophisticated" on the scrap heap of linguistic history. After all, though we are quite comfortable using words that no longer have any meaning--"truth" for example--at a certain point the jig is up: no referent, no word. And where, I wonder, do we look for wit nowadays? In our poets and hardcore troubadours, where else? Those anachronistic beings who labor to keep the language rich in the face of its diminution.

"In the days after my first marriage collapsed, I thought
              Virtue is gone, in the words of old Sir John Mandeville,
the Clergie is in error, the Devil reigneth, Simonie beareth away,
                                          Suicide carrieth off many, and Drink taketh the rest,
one of whom was me--I was sleeping single
            and drinking doubles, oh year, for I didn't have a clue about love,

not one, only the youthful example of my parents
              and my pre-teen foray into the world of beefcake magazines,
of Grecian Pictorial, MANual, and Trim
                                   with their smiling sailors face down on beachtowels,
their Italian teenagers in posing pouches leaning against
          fake Roman walls, their latter day Houdinis in baby oil and chains....

--David Kirby, from the title poem of his New and Selected Poems

There's no "typical" David Kirby poem, except in his use of saw-toothed margins, moments of seeming gravity ("my first marriage collapsed") followed at once by wry forays into tangential scholarship ("old Sir John Mandeville"...old indeed!), utterly arcane cultural citations (when was the last time you saw the word "beefcake" in a poem?), self-mockery (a consistent feature, varying only in degrees of savagery and affection). I wish I had the patience to type out this or any other Kirby poem in its entirety--they're all a hundred or more lines long, meandering through the inner world of the author as he confronts life's little oddities, like attending the funeral of someone he didn't know ("At the Grave of Harold Goldstein") or noticing a dog with a lampshade around its neck while eating--that is while Kirby eats--a patelito ("Winter Dance Party"). The opening lines of many Kirby poems are like the opening quips of one of the older generation of great stand-up comics--a Bob Newhart, a Shelly Berman, or a Milton Berle rather than like one of those contemporary vulgarians know who they are.

[Aside: I can't help it: though he is certainly much better read (without flaunting it) and is much younger, Kirby's self-doubting inner voice constantly reminds me of Newhart, my favorite neurotic funny man. Those old comics did neurosis well--Rodney Dangerfield and Phyllis Diller, or, going back a little, Jack Benny on radio. And if not neurosis, then harmless craziness as with Jonathan Winters and his star pupil, Robin "Mork" Williams].

Here's Kirby--almost an opening monologue:

 "'Enchantee!' says Mrs. Huntington, extending her hand,
                              which I take, my jaw dropping onto my chest
and my brain going into gridlock
                as I tell myself, Think, Kirby, say something,
anything, but I'm just standing there like an idiot...."

Kirby's poems are loosely constructed, but structured; that is, they have a clearly recognizable form that is disguised by their shifts in tone and swings from formal to informal diction, as in this one, "The Ghost of Henry James," a wry meditation on Henry James and especially on Portrait of a Lady, quite a feat, given the high solemnity of almost all of James's work. Should poems make you laugh? Kirby's do, and in this as well as in the erudition, mingling of high and low diction, the rattling lines and off-beat subjects one can see the debt he has to Albert Goldbarth, perhaps our foremost poetic satirist. (See The Kitchen Sink, New and Selected Poems).

Kirby also writes prose books that amaze with their combination of deep reading, cultural savvy, total coolness and approachability. I recommend Ultra-Talk, with a very long subtitle that includes the names of Johnny Cash and Theresa of Avila. Who wouldn't want to have Kirby for a teacher?

Miller Williams mines slightly different poetic terrain. Where Kirby explores the idiosyncrasies of a Kirby-persona in a highly personal way, with a style that is perfectly suited to his off-beat subjects, Miller Williams is running around in the same world that you and I occupy. The style is quotidian, even bland--William Stafford with a rather more jaded view of the human comedy. Williams has the patient, avuncular tone of someone who has seen it all and decided that wry humor is a better deflector of stupidity than bitterness or cynicism.

One of Those Rare Occurrences on a City Bus

For exactly sixty seconds riding to work
approaching a traffic light going to green
he understands everything. I mean from the outer
curling edge of the universe to quarks,
the white geometries of time, of language,
death and God, the potted plants of love.
He sits there and looks at the truth. He laughs.
What could we want, except for him to laugh?
Understanding all, he understands
he has only sixty seconds, then he returns
to live with us in ignorance again,
and little enough to laugh at. "Do you have a pen,"
he says to the man beside him,
"that I could use?" The man pats his pockets
and shakes his head and shows his open palms
to say that he is sorry. Fifty-three. Fifty-four.

Not a perfect poem--he might have stopped at line 12--but a good one, and typical of Williams's style and voice and world-view. Over and over he takes a look around and sees what we all see--violence and friendship and love and dying--and turns them over in his mind's eye, scrutinizes them, then offers them back to us clarified, intelligently parsed and wittily presented.  There's a searching, spiritual side to Williams, the sort of questioning attitude that reminds me of the metaphysicals. The wit of poems that say something like "Hell, I can't make sense of anything, but here it is, as I see it, and just to make sure I'm seeing aright, here are half-a-dozen things I've also seen that are sort of like this, but not quite." One of the reasons why the poems of Williams and Kirby are so chock-a-block with references and ideas is that making sense of things requires a mighty big tool kit. Any old problem can be torn to shreds with reason alone, but the witty poet understands that the point isn't to analyze the world, or to change it, but to grease it up enough so that it will fit into some sort of order that we have concocted for ourselves. Borges did this with his fictions, perhaps better than anyone else, and I can't think of any writer who matches Borges for wit in the classical sense--but that's the idea: not compiling irrelevant information but recognizing that you have to sort through a great deal of debris to find a way to fit the new fact into the world you inhabit.

Let's add this to our definition of wit: the willingness to directly address our failure to come up with a story that will convince anyone that we know what we're talking about. After all, what's funnier than ambiguity?

Hu's on first?

George Ovitt (10/9/16)

David Kirby is published by Louisiana State University Press; Miller Williams by University of Illinois Press