1/9 Jane Austen: Dialogue in "Pride and Prejudice"

 Jane Austen, after Cassandra Austen, published 1870, National Portrait Gallery, London

Jane Austen, after Cassandra Austen, published 1870, National Portrait Gallery, London

“This is the first of a set of nine essays that will appear weekly to show some of Jane Austen’s complexity, her charm, her never failing realistic evaluation of the human condition, however much she may seem to be showing only the most obvious of conflicts and resolutions, although that too was a part of her irony: to show what might seem obvious to be very complicated indeed. I do so by engaging in close textual analysis of the text, which is a technique not usually applied to the novel because it is such an ungainly form, and going into detail about only two of her novels: “Pride and Prejudice” and “Mansfield Park”. That analysis is set in the context of sociological observations that will show what she has to say still bears learning. The reader of the series should come away resolute in a desire to plunge even more deeply into Jane Austen, even beyond what had been thought a sufficient understanding of her novels.”

George Saintsbury, a most neglected early Twentieth Century literary critic, ranked Jane Austen, along with Charles Dickens, as the most distinguished of the English novelists. I would go much further than that and assign to her the title of greatest novelist I have ever read. That is because, when it comes to technique, she can organize a gigantic set of characters into a plot that moves at the pace of a play, and write dialogue that both crackles with wit and complexity, revealing levels of character it takes a lifetime of study to fully appreciate, and she also evokes a social ambiance that is fully aware of the historical and economic forces at work, all this while seeming only to offer up an amusing diversion about the restricted lives of the country gentry in Regency England. Moreover, while her novels may all involve courtship as the defining feature of their plots, each novel is different, exploring different aspects of the nature of life, such as the nature of the past in “Persuasion” and, in “Pride and Prejudice”, the very difficult to access aspects of class differences that lie beneath the obvious ones, such as wealth and manners, which are so easy to ridicule-- something which Austen is by no means reluctant to do. Fun is to be had, but there are more serious issues afoot which are ubiquitous and yet amorphous. Jane Austen’s themes are universal and as deep as it gets. I sometimes wish that Jane Austen were used to train Senators and diplomats and psychoanalysts in how to do their jobs. Rereading Jane Austen shows her to be even better than we remember her to have been.

This is the first of a set of nine essays that will appear weekly to show some of Jane Austen’s complexity, her charm, her never failing realistic evaluation of the human condition, however much she may seem to be showing only the most obvious of conflicts and resolutions, although that too was a part of her irony: to show what might seem obvious to be very complicated indeed. I do so by engaging in close textual analysis of the text, which is a technique not usually applied to the novel because it is such an ungainly form, and going into detail about only two of her novels: “Pride and Prejudice” and “Mansfield Park”. That analysis is set in the context of sociological observations that will show what she has to say still bears learning. The reader of the series should come away resolute in a desire to plunge even more deeply into Jane Austen, even beyond what had been thought a sufficient understanding of her novels.

A first cut at establishing the greatness of Jane Austen as a novelist can be done by comparing her to another great Nineteenth Century novelist, Leo Tolstoy, who also describes courtships that take place at balls and large social gatherings where people who are largely strangers to one another converse, flirt, and dance with one another. Leo Tolstoy is a describer. A central moment in “Anna Karenina” occurs when Anna dances with Vronsky at the ball. They have flirted with one another, but that is all. Something happens during that dance that moves them into being potential lovers. Tolstoy decided not to let the reader hear what it is that they said to one another, like a movie director who shows an argument or some other impassioned conversation taking place behind a window or a glass door, the lips moving, but not letting the audience know exactly what is being said, only indicating its purport. So is conveyed the information of a death or other bad news or the particularly good news of the declaration of peace after a war.

Why did Tolstoy do what he did? It is not that he does not have the talent to do conversation. He does many conversations between Pierre and Andre, between Levin and Kitty. But he hides the most important conversations because they are not the active forces in moving along the narrative. The actions that would be enunciated in words are already established, predetermined, by the characters and the circumstances of the people involved. We know why Anna would fall in love with Vronsky, and we know why he would fall in love with her to the extent he could. Words do not make things happen; they only can be used, therefore, to describe feelings and thoughts that are there for otherwise established reasons. Tolstoy is less concerned to explain what happened between Anna and Vronsky then to investigate its causes and consequences, even to her humiliations and eventual suicide. Indeed, one of the few times words count in “Anna Karenina” is when Anna’s husband speaks overtly to her about what is going on and gives a cynical account of how he will hide her secret for the sake of propriety. He reveals to the reader what had not been known to the reader before: how callous a man he is, one who took out the insult to his self respect by a refusal to acknowledge even his own feelings, not even willing to tell Anna how hurt he had been in his own soul by her action. It makes the reader think about what their personal life had been and whether that had not provided reason enough for Anna to look elsewhere for male companionship.

But that pulling back of the curtain on the intimate life of a Russian Victorian couple is used only to suggest what had already happened, not what was made to happen in the words, however much words had sealed the doom of the relationship. The words made neither of them free. This strategy of Tolstoy’s, to shroud pivotal conversations, is used in “War and Peace” and in “Resurrection”, and even in “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”, where there no conversation about death but only an internal monologue. That fact suggests Tolstoy’s sense of how alone people are at the time of their deaths, as well in the lives they lived before that.

Jane Austen, for her part, is a writer of dialogue, perhaps because she was so influenced by Shakespeare and Milton, neither of whom had much time for description but a lot of time to have their characters wax on at great length about one thing or another, some of those words, amazingly many of them, crucial for the movement of the narrative. Consider some scenes from “Pride and Prejudice” that serve the same function as the dance scene in “Anna Karenina”.

Elizabeth later admits to her sister and father that it was not love at first sight between herself and Darcy. Indeed, most of her early encounters with Darcy had been contentious. But over the long run, she had so grown on him that she says to her sister, when she does not think he will ever call on her again, that she very much regrets that he may be out there in the world thinking poorly of her. That is as fine a declaration of love as there is.

The long courtship of Elizabeth and Darcy over the course of years, takes place at occasional meetings that are remarkable for the slow pace of the developing candor between them. In fact, at first they barely speak to one another. Elizabeth overhears Darcy making a disparaging comment about her looks. At subsequent occasions, he finds himself trailing her and thinking more kindly of her looks, Jane Austen catching on to the fact that men who begin to think about a woman seriously gradually find her to be more attractive than they originally thought, their sense of a woman’s character informing their perception. Elizabeth notices that he has been overhearing her conversations and calls him on it, and he does not respond, but Darcy’s sister notices what is happening, and jumps ahead to tell Darcy that he should expect Mrs. Bennet to be a mother-in-law who is constantly visiting.

The first extended contact between the two takes place when Elizabeth walks three miles through the mud to visit her ailing sister at Mr. Bingley’s estate, and the women of the family comment on how much worse for wear Elizabeth looks, Darcy keeping to himself his admiration for Elizabeth’s devotion to Jane. That evening, in response to Mr. Hurst’s platitude about how accomplished women are, Jane downplays her own education and remarks that it is not much of an accomplishment to do the things that women do (or as we might say today, are allowed to do), such as stitching screens, and when Elizabeth leaves the room, the woman think it rude for Elizabeth to have disparaged her own sex, Darcy again left to cultivate his own thought that what Elizabeth said constituted an insight, allowing himself only to say that women who do something that is cunning, which is to say, requires some mind, are thought despicable, a remark that leaves others troubled for reasons they cannot say, perhaps because it is too foreign a thought for them to consider. Both Darcy and Elizabeth are caught up in a world of philistines, men and women who are devoted only to card playing and eating and gossip when they are in one another’s company.

Next day, Mrs. Bennet, another uninvited guest, shows up to see how Jane is doing and manages to be provincial enough to defend country living over town living, which even Elizabeth thinks is going too far, but that does not keep Elizabeth from offering another original thought, which is that love poetry puts an end to love because it substitutes for it and serves as a way to end a relationship. Darcy finds this piquant observation amusing rather than just contrarian.

And so the days pass while Jane convalesces. As if to outdo herself, or merely because she cannot resist the urge, Elizabeth does indeed turn rude in dealing with her host, Mr. Bingley, when he remarks that he dashes off his own correspondence while Darcy labors over his. Elizabeth says that he claims a false modesty because, in fact, he is proud to do things quickly, even if thoughtlessly, and so to say he would leave this estate if he took a mind to, it would mean he would neglect whatever business had been left undone, and so leave his life to chance. Darcy enters the conversation to say that a friend who asked someone to leave their estate to immediately attend upon him had offered no reason and so such a request should not be honored, to which Elizabeth replies, raising the moral stakes, that a friend need have no reason to make such a request, friendship sufficient reason to honor the request. Bingley is getting hot under the collar and Elizabeth plunges the dagger in all the way when she says that being simple does not mean being of bad character, something Bingley cannot take as a compliment. Bingley will have no more of arguments, and one wonders whether Darcy has no other friends that he spends so much time consorting with a person who is so much his intellectual inferior.

It is out of such conversations that a courtship is constructed: talk that is abbreviated, elusive, about apparently more general matters such as what is the meaning of friendship, and usually in the presence of others so that Darcy and Elizabeth do not have to confront or contend with one another, especially since their obviously growing interest in one another meets with the disapproval of all those around them. That has not changed by the time Darcy makes his first proposal to Elizabeth. He blunders about it, as if there could not have been a way to refer to their difference in positions in a less insulting way, though he is so conflicted about it, so much a prisoner of convention, that it would have been difficult for him to form a better way of saying it even if he had been much more clever than he is or nearly as clever as Elizabeth, who is able to meet not just him but Lady Catherine on equal rhetorical terms.

Early on in the novel, Jane gives forth with a sententious statement, something unusual for her, as the narrator notes, but which is key to understanding the novel. Jane says that pride is a belief in one’s own powers, while vanity is a concern with what other people think of you. Darcy is guilty of both. He is so prideful that he remains mute before most of the people with whom he associates, while he is overly concerned with the prejudices of his relatives about Elizabeth as ungainly, unmannered and overly intellectual and what they will think of her should she become his bride and so someone who has risen far above her station. So he is the one who has to overcome pride and prejudice while Elizabeth is not particularly prideful, but rather dismissive of her own accomplishments, and is not vain in that she is unmindful, to a fault, of how she might come off to other people. It is up to Darcy to see the diamond in the rough and attend to it accordingly, invoking and transforming his own feelings and beliefs. That is the gravamen of the novel: it is up to the man to be up to the task, even for an Elizabeth worthy of his love.

This point is more than adequately made by the last of the conversations at Bingley’s estate, which again takes place with others in the room. Miss Bingley asks Elizabeth to stroll around the room with her and Darcy declines to draw them insisting that there are only two reasons the two woman would do that, and he is prompted by Miss Bingley to name them: either to share a confidence or else to show off their figures. Noone is shocked, however candid Darcy may be, and Elizabeth enjoins Jane’s distinction between vanity and pride to get Darcy to say that pride will get a man to control his vanity, which leads to something of a direct confrontation, Elizabeth saying that makes Darcy perfect, if he says so himself, which brings Darcy out enough to defend himself by saying that he does not trust his own temper and that a bad opinion once formed is not likely given up. Elizabeth does not give up in spite of the fact that such self-deprecation on Darcy’s part might be thought a way to make peace. She finishes him off by saying that his propensity is to hate everyone, and the best he can reply to that is that her defect is to misunderstand him, which is true enough. Darcy emerges from the encounter warning himself that he will never get the better of her and so pursuing her is a dangerous thing to do. Elizabeth and Jane return home in the next chapter. The couple, not yet a couple, know well enough what they are each about, though they have not yet learned to see what they take to be vices are also virtues.

The pace of a Jane Austen novel picks up as it reaches its end. What had been told at a leisurely pace, as we shall see again when considering “Mansfield Park”, turns feverish or even operatic. What that means in the case of “Pride and Prejudice” is that the quality of the many important conversations that take place towards the end of the book change from being stilted or out of control to being eloquent, each character coming to say exactly what they want to say, nothing more and nothing less. This happens when Lady Catherine confronts Elizabeth and tries to get her to promise never to marry Darcy, which, as Elizabeth notes in her response, must be a prospect more real than she would have thought it to be for otherwise Lady Catherine would not be here to get a denial and a promise. Elizabeth does not go further than she wants to, as she often has before, especially as she had in denying Darcy’s first proposal, because all she says is that she is not engaged to Darcy but will not promise what will happen in the future. So Elizabeth is forewarned of what will happen when Darcy does show up again, he clearly having discussed what a marriage to Elizabeth would mean for his family, his sister already thinking well of her, whatever Lady Catherine might think. So she can accept his apology for her having treated him so badly after he first proposed, even if he had very clumsily though not untruthfully put the question of the differences between their stations in life. She had over-reacted then, but not this time, accepting him for the snobbish and proud man that he is because he is also a person of depth and integrity who seeks to right wrongs, very much a knight who had embarked on a quest to save the honor of Lydia through the means appropriate in Regency England: no duels, just payoffs.

And then Elizabeth handles her father in just the way he has to be handled to give his consent to the marriage, as if he could do otherwise even if he does not want to lose the apple of his eye. Elizabeth treats his permission as something that is freely given, not just to secure a fortune that would get his family out of hock, by declaring, truthfully, what her feelings are, which is that she truly loves Darcy. A father would not be fooled by a false declaration. As Jane Austen well knew, that scene brings a tear to every reader’s eye, and is a meaty scene for whomever plays Mr. Bennet, whether it is Edward Gwenn, Benjamin Whitrow, or Donald Sutherland. Mr. Bennet is shown to have deep feelings rather than just the avoidance of feeling that might come from having been cooped up in his library to avoid the nagging wife he must have found charming twenty years before. And so the next generation embarks on its life journey, as that is always measured by the circumstances of courtship and marriage, which may seem to be and are rendered comic, but is for most people the dramatic highpoints of their life, when they themselves become heros and heroines rather than character actors who fill up the background.

I have been told that Jane Austen’s portrayal of the courting dynamics of two hundred years ago do not hold up for the present generation which is given up to a “hookup” culture where a series of one night or abbreviated sexual relationships do not provide the basis for a long term relationship because the premise of long term relationships is that there is a process of delayed gratification whereby people try to come to understand one another before they become committed to one another and so afterwards become sexual familiars. But people can engage in sex while still holding in abeyance whether they want to have a long term relationship. People can start a new relationship, as Madonna puts it, “for the very first time”. Romance is possible even after previous sexual experience. Courtship is the process of making up one’s mind about having a stable rather than a temporary relationship. The point about stable relationships is that they are stable. People know who they are sleeping with every night, what their habits are like, what they smell like. There is less tension than there is in unstable relationships. People fall into an emotional division of labor as well as a financial one that suits their personalities and capacities. Couples become codependent. The desire to do that does not seem to have changed even if circumstances present different difficulties in Jane Austen’s time, when there were not enough eligible men in the neighborhood, and so one would have expected any girl to take up the first offer, which Elizabeth does not do, though it is suggested to her that she ought to, and the circumstances in our own time, where there is a plethora of men to pick for one night stands and therefore girls have to use other criteria to decide whether one of these or a man drawn from another pool is a subject for courtship.

The insight Jane Austen has is that courtships are conducted through conversations in which people either explain who they are or give off who they are through their words. Not everyone is equally articulate. Elizabeth pays an unwarranted compliment to Jane when she says her sister always reports what she thinks, which is perhaps because Jane is so pure so as not to be able to lie, but may also be because Jane does not have the mental equipment to dissemble. Her courtship with Mr. Bingley is an easy one because they are so well suited to one another’s personality that they cannot but be candid, while the courtship between Elizabeth and Darcy is fraught with difficulty because both of them have their reasons not to be candid: he to protect his wealth and the feelings of his family a well as his own privacy, she to overcome the embarrassment of her family. But most of us communicate well enough to engage in courtship, to plight our trow, according to the customs of the time, and that is the drama of courtship that remains fascinating whether in romantic comedies or in farces or in romances or in the serio-comedies and tragedies of Jane Austen.

Unappreciated Heroism

A hero is a person who exercises a virtue to a high enough degree to place his or her self at risk either to body or soul. A warrior is a hero because he risks his life for his country or people and is rewarded with medals or trophies. A saint is a hero who exercises a fidelity to a holy virtue, such as forgiveness or charity, sometimes at the risk of life, but often as not in comfort, as is the case with the Fathers of the Church, though there are those who go so far in their pursuit of knowledge, like Abelard, that sainthood is denied to them, given that saints need not be a perfect person, and Abelard was certainly not that. There are also heroes of literature. Joyce is heroic because he spent eleven years composing “Ulysses”, a book that broke ground in how to compose or read a novel, making extraordinary demands on its readership, when Joyce could have settled for composing more conventional ones like the one that had already made him famous, “The Portrait of An Artist as a Young Man”, and so made him a renowned novelist of the sort Thomas Mann was.

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Ma and Pa Stores

When economists talk of small business, they usually mean those with fifty to five hundred employees, which means something from an auto dealership to a machine shop to an independent department store. So when economic pundits tell small business people to be creative in handling their payrolls, they mean that cash flow can be difficult in a small business but payrolls still have to be met and so owners should go back to their financial backers, which can mean family members or local banks, to help them deal with a crisis. Even a smaller business, such as a three store supermarket chain, may have to make use of this expedient. But truly small businesses, which are ones with less than ten employees, and sometimes just a delivery boy and a stockman, are in a more serious permanent crisis. They don’t have much of a payroll to meet; what they have to do is pay the rent and the bills to their suppliers just to stay open at all. These businesses are, generically speaking, mom and pop outfits, and take up storefronts all up and down a business thoroughfare. They include minimarts, bodegas, 99 cent stores, nail spas, independent pharmacies, and other places where success means that enough people have stepped over the threshold to make the small purchases that will add up to meet the bills and leave something over for the store owner who is also the store operator. A way to understand such places is to put the economics of these businesses into the context of the social structure of the lives of their owners rather than look at them only as organizations which are more or less efficient ways to convey merchandise to the public than are big box stores or franchises or e-commerce.

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Charity is an Outdated Idea

There are fewer beggars on the streets of New York than there used to be but you run into them everyday on the subway and sitting on cardboard in the streets with signs announcing what led them to beg: illness, PTSS, a dog that needed to be fed. People are likely to identify some beggars as more deserving of charity than others, and so the moral question of whether to give becomes complicated. If we are more likely to give our handouts to those beggars who look most nearly like ordinary people, and so evoke sym[athy, then charity is given for our own well being because it has become possible to identify with one of God’s less fortunate creatures by having overcome only a minimum of disgust or disquiet because this person seems capable of becoming even more like us. On the other hand, if handouts are more likely to be given to those who look most needy, then the giver is perversely catering to his sense of disgust because he rewards those who are most grotesque and so gives tacit approval to those people who maim themselves or appear maimed or drag along children to increase their take.

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The Nominal Role of the Politician

George Orwell got it all wrong in his famous essay “Shooting An Elephant” when he says that people wanted him to exercise his authority as a policeman in India and shoot an elephant. Orwell says the locals did so because they identified authority with the English. Rather, I would say, they wanted him to assume authority so that the elephant would get shot. He would make the decision, take the risk, get the job done, and take the blame should he mess up. Otherwise, there would have been no end of haggling about who should be appointed to do the job or whether it should be done by a committee. His title was an excuse to do what had to be done, and he had considerable discretion, as all bosses do, about what that title required him to do. Any boss can follow his personality and be more or less aggressive in the policies he asks his subordinates to administer or in how he responds to the demands of clientele. Orwell could have pooh-poohed the request or referred it to local game officials.

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Gender Prejudice & Sexual Harassment

Since I assume, with everyone else, and as data indicates, that women are on average smarter than men (they, for example, do better at school) and more interested in explicating personal relationships than are men, it is amazing that during the current frenzy over sexual harassment, the distinction between that and gender prejudice is obscured or neglected, which is evidence, I take it, that we are indeed in the midst of a frenzy, when an entire gender has lost its mind, something that they will recover, hopefully, before too much time has passed--say, by the end of the decade or a few years after that. So in the hope of getting things right, I will reiterate the distinction and apply it to present circumstances. But my hopes of alleviating the frenzy are dim because the basis of the frenzy is so emotionally deeply seated in the psyches of the two sexes.

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Social Problems & Role Theory

Social structures are invisible because they are, after all, nothing more than names for coordinated activities between people, and so are not available to the five senses even though they are made up of events and so are empirical. And yet people have an apperception of these structures even if they cannot give names to them because different structures do, in fact, have different “feels” to them, the job of giving specific names to distinct social structures left to professionals, the ordinary layperson knowing well enough about how the social world works so that he or she can live in it and manipulate it. Here is an example of one of those social structures, social problems, that people sense and therefore know about without needing to know about it with any precision except when a social crisis arises as happens, for instance, when there is a President of the United States who is clearly unsuited to the job and the American people have to decide how unsuited he has to be to be turned out of office.

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Old Age is a Disease

People are more interesting when they are seventeen or twenty seven than when they are seventy seven, which is the age I have just achieved. At seventeen, they wonder about what kind of person they will be and what kind of occupation they will hold when they grow up; at twenty seven they think about whether they are good husbands and wives and whether they are any good at what they do for a living. People are concerned at twenty seven with whatever project they have taken on in life, whether that is a career goal or simply a way to provide support for the family they now hold up as the dearest thing in the world to them. But at seventy seven, as I just found out at my high school’s sixtieth reunion, people want to talk about their grandchildren, as do I, and what diseases are knocking off the people you and your interlocutor may know. It is not that the younger person is still not there, deep inside, but the self has become sufficiently polished so that only externals show.

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The Fundamentals of Social Roles

Let us get through the tough and abstract part of saying why social roles are the fundamental unit of social life before getting on to some clear cut examples of social roles. A social role is any human activity that can be named, which is the same thing as to say that it is any human activity that can be typified, which means that it can serve as a model for such behavior, people comparing how they carry out an activity with the idea of the activity. Men and women are two different social roles, even if there are some cases that make this other than a binary choice, and even though it is a presumption to guess at some fundamental psychological makeup for these two (or more) roles rather than to settle for a definition of the two in terms of their overt biological characteristics.

A social role can be defined by its function or its circumstances or some combination of the two. Occupational roles usually center on functions. The job of a janitor is to clean up the floors so that other employees can use the offices, though it is also the case that janitors work at night when the rest of the employees are not there, and so share much in common with other night shift workers, like bakers, a lack of supervision and a family life that doesn’t follow the usual nine to five routine. Customary roles focus on circumstances. A priest may be someone who officiates at a liturgy, that being the essential function of a priesthood, even if it also provides other services to congregants, such as advice or consolation, but the main thing about a Catholic priest is a circumstance, his celibacy, which has for a thousand years been used as a sign of his elevation from his parishioners. Marriage is also mainly a set of circumstances: a shared bed and legal obligations one to another, whatever the state of affection between the two parties.  

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Women Are An Attractive Nuisance

We may well be entering upon the crest of the next wave of feminism, as happened when women gained the right to an abortion, or we may, instead, be in the midst of a dustup without consequences. The premise for change is that women will no longer put up with sexual harassment in the workplace, which means that they will not allow anyone to make them feel small or uncomfortable when it comes to sexual matters. They will come forward and speak up about gropes and rapes and untoward advances by male superiors, and males who have been subject to similar violations will also be able to come forward. But there are problems in the formulation of the changes in behavior that are to be undertaken as well as rhetorical and logical problems that did not befuddle the suffragettes, who were very straightforward in wanting something simple, which was the right to vote. That may be because what women have wanted over the past fifty years are changes in customary behavior even though that would result in major changes in the job market and workplace conditions, which do have to do with formal organizations. The definition of what is acceptable customary behavior is so much harder to formulate than are the rules about hiring practices or about the vote, which are matters of stipulated laws and regulations.

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Life Before Death

Nature does not get what it wants because it doesn’t want anything. Nature has no intention and so cannot be seen as an antagonist. Things just happen.

Jonathan Swift, in the Seventeenth Century, got it wrong when he described people who got their lives extended as doddering wrecks. William Hazlitt, writing at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, also got it wrong when he said most people are ready to die, look all played out, by the time they die. Modern medicine means that, to the contrary, you can live a comfortable life until you die, barring certain debilitating illnesses like cancer and ALS. Modern people want to go on as long as they can, doing the things they like to do, like reading or gardening, or taking walks and conversing with grandchildren, even though at any moment that comfortable if restricted way of life can be turned into a terminal illness by a fall, a cough that turns to pneumonia, the diagnosis of a deadly disease, and even then people want to continue as long as they can, so long as they have drugs to numb the pain and that do not render them incapable of appreciating their environment. People don’t want to give up even if they know that the burden of medical care and medical expenses takes place during the last two years of life. Their insurance companies and the government should spare no expense. After all, what do people have to look forward to once they are dead? It is an afterlife that has no substance and is therefore so far from what the present life is that it is the same thing as being dead is for a non-believer. If there is no walking on clouds or talking with angels, no sensation, then there is nothing at all. And those who cling to some substantive notion of an afterlife are merely being superstitious, having faith in eternal life because they have no reason to think there is any such thing.

I have joined the corps of people who are at age where health reverses are common rather than rare. My friends have withstood prostate surgery, multiple bypass surgery, the ravages of Parkinson’s disease, and some have died of cancer. And yet what is true of all the survivors is that they have not given up on living, have not had to combat despair because the amount of time left to them is limited, but think rather in terms of the practical things they can do to extend their comfortable lives. They go to their checkups regularly, increasing those to include podiatrists and dermatologists along with the cardiologists and neurologists they also consult. They take their medicines. They are not passive in confronting the inevitable; it is just that they are not in a war to survive. That talk is all metaphorical. The person who dies of cancer has not lost his battle; he has succumbed because nature does what it does. Nature does not get what it wants because it doesn’t want anything. Nature has no intention and so cannot be seen as an antagonist. Things just happen.

The remarkable thing is, I can report, how cheerful people can be while the sword of death hangs over them. Yes, they have their savings and pensions to live off; they have their past career successes to contemplate; they have the love of their spouses, friends and children and grandchildren to warm them. They can appreciate a sunny spring day or a chilly autumn afternoon, or the pretty, well dressed young woman who walks by. But this does not make sense to much of the literary imagination because a nemesis, such as is death, is supposed to engender fear and loathing. King Lear rails against his diminished condition of power and cognition even as he rages against the storm and his relatives, reconciled to nature only by the death of his daughter, which is heartbreaking and yet self condemning because why would it take that to pay him back for his grievances against the world and himself? Shakespeare may present Lear in this way because Shakespeare is always likely to show his tragic heroes in extreme and contrarian emotions. But, on the other hand, it may be that this view of old age is as old as the Christian tradition, which preaches that the wages of sin are death, and so suffering in old age is befitting as it harkens forward to the suffering that awaits most of us in Hell and Purgatory, given that we who all suffer from original sin deserve no better.  What I am always amazed by in Dante is that humans who have already suffered for many years the unrelenting tortures of Hell retain their most human attributes. They can conduct civil conversations during which they contemplate their lives on Earth. It makes me think that Dante did not really understand the suffering to which his characters were condemned and so his whole scheme is therefore false.

The ancients, for their part, might be thought to have seen the time before death differently. Cicero sees people as only fighting what nature has bestowed when they decry old age, when what is the case is that they can continue to exercise their powers to be wise or take political action even if they can no longer climb the riggings of ships. Old people can go on doing the important things they always did if they have the good character to do those things. The trouble with this argument, of course, is even that comes to an end, and so one can deplore the end of invention and of most pleasures, whenever that should come. It may be that we are so taken up with the Christian vision that we read life backwards, from its end to its beginning, and so insist that the final twist is the important thing, not the straightforward course of a life where one just is the kind of person one is.

But go even farther back, to “Oedipus at Colonus”. Oedipus has been beaten down and suffered from a crime which he insists was just an accident or coincidence. He is blind and weak, but he retains his verbal abilities, as those are supplemented by his daughter, and he continues to live in that he still wants and expects there to be dramatic events in his life which means that there will be reversals in the plot that are revelatory. In his case, that means that some religious and political authority will provide him with sanctuary so that he can consider himself redeemed. And Cicero was also assuming that people would go on exercising their powers to make a difference, to have change take place in their lives. And so it is with moderns, with actual oldsters, who cultivate new friendships, new loves, or a new found appreciation by others, or even just do that vicariously in that they deal with the ever unraveling and revealing world of politics that never stops having dramatic revelations take place in the lives of its leading characters and in the unfolding history of the nation. We moderns may not read life backwards, from ending to beginning, but we do read it as a never ending process of change, of new beginnings even at the end.

The difference between ancients and moderns, on the one hand, and Christians, on the other, may be this: ancients and moderns are engaged, amazingly, in a great game of denial whereby they put out of their minds that they will die. They go through this difficult process so that they do not have to experience the dread that would come from focusing on the fact of death and the simple reason for engaging in this difficult process is that to do otherwise would lead to all sorts of bad feelings: fear, paralysis, bad thoughts, Christians as a matter of fact may engage in the same sort of denial for the reason that they too don’t want to dwell on death even though they accept as true an ideology that treats death as a reward or the beginning of a punishment, rather than as an ending. Every person, Christian or secularist, just wants to get on with living as long as they can.

Sociologists were wrong to think that old people are disengaging from their lives, as if in anticipation of the fact that they will undergo the ultimate disengagement, which is from life itself. Rather, what old people do, and this is more and more true as we progress further in the age of enlightenment, is to alienate themselves from their disabilities. Those are just matters to be managed. A heart is just a pump, not the symbolic much less actual seat of emotions, and a breast is a mammary gland rather than the symbol of a woman’s femininity. People can be rid of the naturally occurring versions of these things and be fully human. To be human, what you need is the desire to manage those parts of life which are manageable, and take some cheer in that.

Desperate People

A desperate person is someone who does not have the resources to sustain either his or her own life or what might generally be considered an adequate way of life. Desperate people can be homeless, or suffering a terminal illness, or victims of a war. They do not know where to turn to help them out or else, like the people of Puerto Rico, they don't know why they have not been helped out. They are different from people who are caught up in a way of life that seems normal to them, rather than desperate, but which may have many of the same sequelae. Someone living in a gang infested neighborhood may think that is just the way things are, some people getting shot at random, however unfair that may be. Others living in the same neighborhood are truly desperate because they don’t think this is normal, not the conditions under which anyone should live, a definite privation rather than a culture. People who emphasize the idea of the culture of poverty portray gang violence in the first way, as the way life is, dysfunctional for the community as a whole, but not for the gang members who get money and excitement in exchange for their shortened lives, while people who emphasize the structure of poverty portray gang violence in the second way, as the way life doesn’t have to be except for the fact that gangs provide work (in the drug trade and other illegal ventures) as well as a sense of security to people who do not have other resources. We can begin to understand the nature of desperation better by focussing on the general phenomenon of a disaster rather than looking at the ongoing disaster that characterizes some American communities and which is confused with a normal way of life.

 

 

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Blame

Everybody blames everybody for everything. Lovers blame one another when they break up; insurance companies affix blame so as to determine how much they will have to lay out; tradesmen are blamed for not having fixed the air conditioner properly. Presidents get blamed if the economy tanks. When something goes wrong, someone gets blamed. Doing so goes back to the Old Testament, but the New Testament was particularly good at making blame incapacitating. We are all to be blamed for everything because we inherited Original Sin from the fact that Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate from the Tree of Knowledge. Ever since, all we can do is atone for that, first by accepting Jesus as our savior and then by beating our chests to proclaim our shortcomings as people. So blame eats at us. Is there any way to be rid of it?

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Immigrant Rage

A standard psychological theory of rage and anger is that it is a response to frustration at having been denied something that is very important to well being. The rage of Achilles arose because he had been denied his trophy, Brisias, which was an insult to him as a warrior, and so he raged and sulked in his tent, and the outcome of that classic legend was that his best friend was killed in battle. Rage leads to bad things and so we should do something to deal with its causes. Freud, of course, had a very different view of the matter. What happened to people when they did not get what they felt entitled to because they are drawn to it is that they became fearful of those who were enforcing the frustration, and so they turn upon themselves rather than lash out at people. Let us try to sort out the dynamics of rage by looking at both fictional and real life, large scale examples of the phenomenon: what happens to immigrants when they come to this country.

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The Damon & Pythias Paradox

The ancient story goes like this: Damon and Pythias are good friends. Pythias is sentenced to death. Damon volunteers to stand in his place while Pythias goes off to say goodbye to his family. Damon is about to be executed when Pythias returns to honor his promise. The king is so impressed that he frees both of them. The story is used as an illustration of the moral virtue of friendship. People are willing to give up their lives for a friend and friends are to be trusted even if it means they are putting their own lives in danger. Rather than search for moral meaning, however, let us look at the structural situation of the two friends in the story, what is implied about being a voluntary hostage, and what that says, if generalized, about a structural feature of social life that is ubiquitous, to wit, that people are always incrementally putting themselves into more and more threatening situations because to do so is part and parcel of taking on any number of personal and organizational roles, such as being a soldier or a doctor or even just a friend.

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The Role of Women

I do not mean to offend anyone by acknowledging this, but I am the only male I know who does not consider himself to be a Feminist. That means I do not think women have been subject to discrimination in law or in practice in the United States by and large since the end of the Second World War except in the case of abortion, which is an issue that is fraught with complexities because childbirth is one of those existential issues, one not easily comparable to any other, that just have to be managed somehow, just as is the fact that men live on average seven years less than women do, and I prefer Bill Clinton’s position that abortions should be legal, safe and rare to the view that they are just another form of birth control. I come by this position honestly in that I was told by my mother that she would have aborted me if she had had the courage to do so. There are not many survivors to speak up in the name of those who did not survive. The law and customs against abortions saved my life even as some women lost theirs because of botched kitchen table abortions and other women were saved from having a child by successful kitchen table abortions. (It can hardly be tasteless of me to mention this bit of personal information when so many women have come forward to defend abortion by pointing out that they had undergone abortions in their youth.)

Let us turn to the general issue of discrimination against women who, to make a long story short, got into medical schools and law schools in large number as soon as they requested something more than token representation. There is a more upbeat account of the advancement of the equality of women over the past one hundred years than is usually provided.

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Educational Means & Ends

So difficult and profound is the nature of education, and so uncertain its results, since education has to do with the nature of the way people think more than what they know or what they can do, that it is not surprising that the goal of education is replaced by something else. Using history to ponder the complexities of social causation is replaced by learning the chronicles and traditions of a nation so as to implant patriotism; using math to learn how to think abstractly and logically is replaced by the mastery of times tables and algorithms. More dramatically, learning is itself replaced as a goal of education, its time taken up with the variety of services that are useful to the population that attends school, such as how to drive an automobile or protect against pregnancy. Schools can therefore become schools in name only, even though they are regulated by state education departments rather than by some other agency. That is what happens when schools serve non-educational functions for reasons of convenience, such as providing vaccinations for all students, free lunches for poor children, or day care for seriously disabled children, or warnings about not to talk to strangers. These are health and safety programs, not educational programs, even if it is also the case that children who get glasses may see the blackboard better and so learn more. Many social services make it easier to educate students, and there is no reason why these services should not be provided in schools, given that children of school age can be found there en masse, but social services are not the same thing as education itself.

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A Minimalist Definition of Education

The distinctive goal of an institution is whatever is the primary goal of the institution, whatever other functions it may carry out, and even if its budget and talk seem more devoted to other activities than those that enhance that distinctive goal.  The distinctive goal of the military is to strip or counter the ability of the enemy to perpetrate organized violence through the use of its own abilities in perpetrating organized violence, never mind that the military also dallies in winning over hearts and minds and is an icon of patriotism. Other institutions, like Hollywood, also win over hearts and minds, and patriotism can be tied to vigorous, loyal dissent as well as to risking life and limb on a battlefield.

It is the same with education. Local suburban school boards may be preoccupied with making a campus shine even though their students will do well whether the campus looks good or not; local urban Parents Associations may talk a great deal about a learning environment when what they mean is that the school is safe enough for their children to attend. But a school without instruction in subject matter is a recreation program by another name, and so schools have to offer some version of the usual courses as well as the other things that motivate students to attend school so that they can be known and qualified as schools and thought to be doing the things schools are supposed to do. A college curriculum without liberal arts requirements is a training academy, and you couldn’t sell it to parents as a real college education unless you included those requirements, even if students don’t like to take those courses and even if the parents and students say that what they really want are the vocational preparation courses.

By that light, the distinctive task of education can be defined, in general, as structured instruction for the purpose of the development of disciplined thought about any subject matter. Plato thought that there was a single discipline of thought which pervades all thinking, and for which we retain the title of “logic”. Aristotle thought that there were many disciplines of thought, the rigor or “logic” of which depends on the subject matter and the audience which was to be convinced of the rightness of one or another view. This distinction between logic and logics still obtains. Some people develop large habits of thought, such as how to read texts or do statistical analysis, and some people learn particular disciplines, like economics and psychology and religious studies, and some people learn subject matters, like Southeast Asia, or mass communications, or African-American studies, and pick up smatterings of whatever disciplines seem to apply as well as a healthy dose of some particular discipline so as to provide tools for the study of the particular subject matter.

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Teaching as an Occupation

There is something peculiar about the notion that teaching is an occupation. Everybody does it: every parent and every employer tries to be calm while explaining to a child or a worker what it is they aren’t doing quite properly or how to do a task better. If explanation is provided with patience, then children and workers are likely to have a more positive attitude towards their tasks—though, on the other hand, if a lesson is reinforced with a spanking or a dressing down, then children and employees are likely to learn how important it is they learn their lesson well. Teachers are similarly divided between those who think that sticks or carrots, whether in the forms of grades, or informal praise and criticism, are the ways to advance student learning. Presumably, and contrary to the teacher unions, anyone of good will and patience and an education a little bit superior to that of their students, could be a teacher.

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Moral and Immoral Child-Rearing

I want to propose a philosophical question and then answer it with a bit of counter-intuitive sociology, and then address why people persist in availing themselves of the usual philosophical conclusion. The philosophical question is the age at which children take on moral responsibility, the so called age of consent. The usual moral answer is that children reach the age of consent when they are capable of managing their own lives, at least in the sphere in which their ability to give consent is at issue. They are supposed to be able to evaluate information and their own emotions and so give informed consent to their own action and the action of others. The law in most states sets sixteen as the age at which people can agree to sexual relations and twenty one as the age at which people can purchase alcohol. But it proves impossible to give an accurate definition to this leaping off point for adulthood. Why a particular age for one thing and a different age for another? What changes in a person that they become morally responsible or is it just that age is just a rule of thumb for developmental processes recognized to happen but not very well understood?

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