Eastman Johnson and Mary Cassatt

Here is a painting from 1859 that might still remain controversial. It is Eastman Johnson’s “Negro Life in the South”, which portrays slaves living in a house in Washington D. C., where slavery was still legal and where, indeed, freed Negros from further north were held in captivity until they could be moved south and sold to plantations in the deep south as slaves. The picture is of an urban house (there is another house immediately adjacent), people courting on the front porch, or playing on a banjo, or just looking around or resting. What could be controversial about this painting?

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18/23- Morality and Religion

There are four features of religion that apply to any person who is accurately described as religious and to any social institution that is worth calling a religion. People who are religious and the organizations they join so as to further and be inculcated with religious feelings are, first of all, god-centered in that they are taken with a sense of awe at the powers that lie “behind the veil”, as Weber would call it. Such people, secondly, may also be taken or not so much taken with a ritualized sense of how to conduct a relationship with supernatural things, whether through sacraments, prayer, or other rituals, such as making a journey to Mecca. Thirdly, religious people and religious institutions may also take the strictures of a moral code as the heart of the religion, as the way God carries on his activities within this world. Some priests and rabbis in mid-Twentieth Century America felt called upon to preach about civil rights. And, finally, religious people can sense their community, whether of fellow believers or even of the civil society beyond that, or of the ethnic group of which they are a member, as itself having a sacred dimension. In that last case, the church is the congregate consciousness of its members and so it is the congregation that makes its members holy.

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Political Careers

Democrats like me like to think that the election of Donald Trump was an aberration in that he won in the Electoral College only by some tens of thousands of vote and that it was unusual for a major party to nominate such an outlier as their standard bearer. He flummoxed his Primary opponents with his theatricals; they could figure out no way to respond. On the other hand, it is possible to think that he is just a harbinger of things to come: more and more candidates elected for their celebrity because that is what happens when nominations are driven by what happens on the debate stage rather than by the records of the politicians on the issues with which the American people are faced. Now, government by celebrity does not have to be anarchic. The United States could incorporate having mercurial and outlandish Presidents by more and more of the actual power to run the government falling on institutions like the cabinet departments which would operate in a more autonomous fashion , their actions coordinated by some chief of staff. We would then be in more of a parliamentary system with a permanent civil service answering only a little bit to appointed cabinet ministers. Before reaching that conclusion, however, let us put the main proposition to the test. Is it true that parties no longer act as checks on who their nominees will be and so the age of the celebrity has been unleashed? Let us consult, for evidence, how it is that politicians have traditionally made the careers that bring them to that circle of people who will go for the ultimate prize.

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Pragmatic Morals

There are three major theories that are used in the contemporary world to explain how to decide what a person should do when confronted with a moral dilemma such as that presented by abortion. The first is the theory of obligation that is identified with Immanuel Kant and it is the theory that people often identify as containing the essence of all moral argument. The second is the Utilitarian theory identified with Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. The third is the pragmatic theory, which has John Dewey and Richard Rorty as its standard bearers. That is to put aside the outlier moral theory of C. E. Moore, who identified moral taste as somewhat the equivalent of aesthetic taste, or the ancient theories that tried to assess moral life as the exercise of an emotion, a singular one serving as the greatest good, as in the case of Epictetus, who saw the best course in life as the cultivation of resignation, or morality consisting of the long list of emotions that Aristotle dazzlingly reduced to a formula whereby the Golden Mean between two extreme emotions was the right emotion for people to pursue. The three major theories of the modern world do not provide a way to choose between them but they do provide distinct forms of reasoning for people to choose between.

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17/23- Jesus on Forgiveness

There is much to be learned about Christian forgiveness by considering what forgiveness consists of as a feature of ordinary social life. Forgiveness is an asymmetric social relationship because the two parties to the disclosure of the secret offer different things to one another. The person asking forgiveness reveals a secret that will put that person in a bad light. The person does so because the secret in question has become too much of a burden to bear; it has too much separated the person from his friend or lover or comrades because the person in his or her own mind harps on the secret and whether to tell it or not, on what to do with it. The person who discloses a secret then awaits a response. The moment is inevitably suspenseful because there are a number of things the person whose forgiveness has been asked can do. The forgiver can decide not to do that but lambast the person asking forgiveness for being just as bad as the disclosure reveals the person to be, that the person is nothing but this lapse or is best summarized by this lapse. You cheated on me? I should have expected it. It just shows you were no damn good to begin with and that is the last straw and I will have nothing else to do with you. Or I will be very angry for a while and I will see if I can come to forgive you. Meanwhile, sleep on the couch. Or I love you so much I can even accept this deep wound you have inflicted on me. Or, as the wife of the disgraced Governor Eliot Spitzer is reported to have said, “It is a wife’s job to look after sex,” and so she was responsible, the guilty party who required forgiveness for having ruined her husband’s career.

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Minor Thomas Eakins

Thomas Eakins is best known today for his group portraits of doctors, of oarsmen, and of naked boys (though he also did some pictures of fetching naked women). He establishes himself as the figure who makes heroes of professionals and athletes, his “The Gross Clinic” and “The Agnew Clinic” tributes to the drama of medical intervention, which is a topic and a theme still familiar in television hourly drama, and his images of the heroism of sports still provides the rhetoric for sports broadcasting. His portraits of the stately, pulchritudinous, no longer young, professional is the stuff of any number of photographs of captains of industry, even if somewhat replaced by the nerdy Bill Gates and the overly slick Steve Jobs. Eakins was, in fact, a very versatile artist. He also did a number of portraits using both male and female sitters, and also scenes from the fight ring, and pictures of fishermen at work. I want to focus on three of his less known paintings to show what a craftsman he was and some of the fresh things he brought to painting that went beyond the formalism of his set scenes of graybeards in their environs, at work or at leisure. Eakins drifted into fresh ways to frame his pictures and so give them a point of view.

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What Is A Life Worth?

Adam Schiff had a great line, and I don’t mean its speaker was the head of the House Intelligence Committee, as formidable a person as he seems to be. I mean the Adam Schiff, played by Steven Hill, who is the District Attorney on “Law and Order”, the procedural NBC crime show produced by Dick Wolf which is still in reruns and to which I am addicted. The fictional Adam Schiff is a cantankerous and world weary sort. A young woman is sentenced to two years in prison for having assisted the suicide of her sick, elderly grandmother. The episode pointed out the ambivalent morality attached to assisted suicide and needed a light note on which to end. The elderly Schiff says “If I knew that I could go to jail for two years and come out twenty-five, I would take it.” As would we all, hands down. There is a lesson here that I have been trying to parse out ever since I first heard that line many years ago.

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16/23- Christian Forgiveness

It is easy enough to appreciate that the Christian formula for salvation is more complicated than is a secret handshake that gains a person entrance into a private club. A person can confess he is a sinner even if he doesn’t truly believe it because part of sinfulness is not being fully convinced of it and so it is an emotion that will have to be learned. The person who admits to being a sinner will have to accept the humiliation of knowing themselves ever afterwards as a sinner who is for the moment not sinning while knowing that a relapse is always in the offing and that you can never let up your vigilance about noticing yourself as a deeply flawed person. You take it one day at a time. Sex, greed, and all the other sins are just a temptation away. You save yourself by so luxuriating in your humiliation that sin will not turn its evil eye upon you one more time.

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A Broadened Definition of Deviance

I don't know how many people any longer read "The New York Review of Books" now that the publisher fired the editor, Ian Buruma, some months ago, because he published an article by some Italian who had been accused of sexual harassment but never convicted, apparently because of the pressure of the university publishing houses that supply the magazine with most of its advertising. The magazine never explained in its own pages what it had done even though there are now two people listed as editors. I know people who still carry around the latest issue and apologize for still reading it. But it really is a good publication because it does long essay reviews by prominent scholars who will give you a summary of a field of learning, whether it is Turkish history or Renaissance art or new insights in metaphysics, into which is tucked some remarks about new books in a field, usually also written by well established scholars.

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George Inness

George Inness was a mid Nineteenth Century landscape painter who is claimed to have been a member of the Hudson River School, but he in general avoids the craggy rocks and the majestic vistas that characterize that school from Durant through Bierstadt, and instead offers up paintings filled with color and expanses of field that make a viewer appreciate the beauty of being in the midst of a landscape, and so his paintings are a good way to enter into the question of whether what makes a landscape painting beautiful is the landscape itself or the balance of aesthetic forces as those are arranged by the painter.

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15/23- The Age of the Lachrymose

Religion is so powerful a force in social life because believers are united by the emotions they share in common as the inevitable or “natural” feelings that make up the human psyche, however much these may differ from the feelings people in other religions take as inevitable or “natural”.  Emotions are more important than the doctrines to which believers subscribe and we have known since Harnack that doctrines are themselves an unfolding of the emotional plausibility of an insight into the structure of things. The primacy of emotions accounts for the fact that even in our secular age the boundaries that divide up the world are those of religion rather than politics. North America and Europe are dominated by Protestant Christianity; the boundary between Europe and Asia is the border between Catholic Poland and the Catholic parts of Ukraine on the one side and Russian Orthodoxy on the other. The realm of Islam is engaged in a civil war of very long standing between Shiites and Sunnis. Africa and Latin America remain largely Catholic realms. And so on. So let us try to capture the distinctive emotions of Christianity, as those are exhibited by its core story of Jesus and His crucifixion and Resurrection, which make this particular religion stand out from what came before and which remain distinctive to the present day and which sustain this religion whatever the forces that buffet it about.

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Academics lament what is happening in universities and colleges. Promising young scholars cannot secure permanent, tenure bearing, lines so that they can move up the ladder and devote themselves to what brought them into the profession, which was to pursue the advancement of knowledge or, at the least, the preservation of cultural interest in the authors and genres which they care about. There may not be a need for a new biography of Napoleon, but it is a good idea to remind people of every new generation of what he was and how he altered the world for good and bad and that his times were thrilling. The same is true of Montaigne and Dickens. I have known scholars who devoted their careers to reading and rereading a particular author and publishing their reflections on the author. We all need those reference points so that we can think of ourselves as cultured, though there are those who think we need less culture and more STEM (which means “science, technology, engineering and medicine”) because those are the things that profit the world while books are the kinds of things you can buy after you have made money doing something useful. Never mind that literature and history help you understand politics and the human soul: from Jane Austen, how people flirt, and from Jane Austen and others, how people contemplate their economic circumstances. The view of STEM advocates is that the soul does not need to be cultivated, even though that is what “culture” means. But there is another explanation, a structural one rather than a cultural one, that can show why part timers and short contract assistant professors have for a generation or two now been replacing full time professors in the humanities, the part timers making their livings by covering a few sections at one college with a few sections at another and so carrying heavier class loads and making less total money than someone on a tenure track, and short contract people moving from one campus to another until they find some sort of full time employment, possibly outside of academia.  

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The Mueller Report, Finally

I have been chewing over the Mueller report for four days now and I still have trouble coming to terms with it. Journalists have been saying how pleased they are that it confirms so many of their findings. But that is part of the problem. It looks like it could have been written without the resources of a special prosecutor's office just by reviewing all the information that was available on the public record. But the Mueller report was supposed to link the dots not merely review them. To do so, it was supposed to use its subpoena powers to grab hold of Trump’s tax returns and the records of Deutsche Bank to see whether there had been a basis for blackmailing the man who would become president. The Report stays mum on whether it investigated those leads. If it had, it might have cleared the President of suspicion but instead it just leaves us with our suspicions intact: that there were too many contacts with the Russians for there not to have been something fishy going on. Not having resolved that leaves the public in limbo, not knowing more than it did before, however much the Report is declared either to exonerate or not exonerate the President. The Report was to develop the facts and leave conclusions to the Congress which could decide whether any of the offenses were impeachable, never mind whether they were criminal or not, which is a far less important question, even if the Special Prosecutor law makes that the aim of the inquiry. We want to know what the Russians were doing with and without Trump and the New York Times is a more lucid guide to that than is the Mueller Report which is boring reading, piling one fact on another but not having much narrative drive. Some commentators have taken comfort from the fact that the Report shows the White House to be a sleazy place under this President. He is out to aggrandize only himself and seems to be a woefully poor executive, unable to put his meaner or more malevolent schemes into operation. But we already knew that and those shortcomings do not constitute an impeachable offense. Moreover, Trump does do some of the things he cares about. He makes life miserable for people crossing the southern border looking for asylum and many of his supporters like him for doing that. So he did deliver on that promise even though he hasn’t been able to deport the eleven million undocumented aliens currently in the United States, something I feared he would try to do when he took office. He just can’t get a handle on his own bureaucracy.

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14/23:- Reading "Ecclesiastics": Criticism

 There is another level of analysis that can be applied to “Ecclesiastes”. That has to do with how an audience is to take a document, what it will make of it. That is not an empirical question of reader response. It is a question of what a reader who knows something about life as well as literature and criticism will say about a document that takes a particular slant on life, the reader providing the document with the context of life rather than just the context of other literature. A critic’s own sense of life stands in for the common understanding of mankind of its position in the universe. And that, of course, is what has been expected of criticism at least since Dr. Johnson: not just to look at the aesthetics of the work but to evaluate in the context of what a well schooled intellect and a well developed soul will say about whether or not it is humbug or wisdom or any of the stages in between that have been invented by humankind and characterized by critics in terms of ideologies propounded, emotions exposed, stances taken, and so on.

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Work Allegiance

Work allegiance is a concept that refers to the engagement of employees and employers in the activities they carry out while on the job so that they can go on with these activities. That is aside from the motivation to do the job that is created by its remuneration, which is the reason most people go to their jobs whether they like them or not. Work allegiance has to do with the features of the job that are satisfactory or pleasing and so lead people to be able to get through the day, however much they also count the minutes until they can line up in front of the time clock and punch out for the day. Even slaves need some measure of work allegiance so that they can work through the day and go home to their families rather than just sit down in the fields and die. Work allegiance is the concept that looks at work in the exact opposite way than does the concept of work alienation, which was so much in favor among a previous generation of sociologists,who were concerned with how workers were disengaged from their work, just measuring out the time they had to operate as if they were machines while enduring their task of servicing machines. That was the kind of work that dominated the industrial age.

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Childe Hassam

Childe Hassam was an American artist in the last part of the Nineteenth and the early part of the Twentieth Century who is best known for introducing Impressionism into this country and for a series of American flags done in an Impressionist style that was inspired by the entrance of the United States into the First World War. I would rather stake his reputation on three of his earlier paintings, all three of them realistic, rather than on the rather derivative paintings of his fully Impressionist years, when he seems to specialize in many colors of rather unremarkable flowers.

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13/23- Reading "Ecclesiastes": Genre and Translation

What does it mean for desacralization to be completed? One suggestion is that happens when all the little twinkles in the universe that betoken a god have been snuffed out. No more angels; no more miracles. In that case, the task was accomplished by Leibnitz. Another way to think about it is when the idea of cause with its attendant idea that everything needs a cause is also abolished. In that case, Spinoza can be said to have accomplished that. A third view is that desacralization is accomplished when the universe is rid of purpose because that spells the end of not only gods and causes but also of even a functional plan for the universe, a final cause for it. That situation is already described within the Bible. “Ecclesiastes” is the statement of that nihilistic situation which is to be distinguished from the usual renditions of atheism which are willing to accept that there is some wholeness to the universe, just that it does not contain a presiding deity. The difficulty of coming up or even expressing such an extreme position requires the deployment of a number of ways to read a text.

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Three Black Artists

Henry Ossawa Tanner was a late Nineteenth Century painter who trained with Thomas Eakins but moved to Paris so he could live more freely as a black man than he could in the United States. He is best known for “The Banjo Player” which critics say gives a more humane account of a black man teaching his grandchild to play the banjo than did William Sidney Mount’s painting of the same name from a half century earlier. But reading in moral messages about what a black painter might try to do with a painting that is different from what a white artist might do is beside the point, the point being what Tanner does do as an artist, how he composes and colors his painting and so gives it a distinctive life. The important thing about Tanner’s “The Banjo Player” is the white splotch of light in the right hand corner where various utilitarian objects, towels and crockery, are to be observed, and the contrast between that and the shadowy nature of the rest of the painting, it all suffused in a bluish glow. In fact, Tanner’s success as an artist is his use of blue tones, as those are set against white ones, in so many of his paintings. They are his distinctive signature as an artist.

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A profession provides expert knowledge and judgment in dealing with matters functionally important for the maintenance of society, the profession allowed by law to largely regulate itself in exchange for a probity that requires professionals to treat their customers as clients, which means professions are there to serve the best interests of those who seek their services rather than just make as much money as possible when they peddle their products and services, which is the case with non-professional enterprises. Doctors are supposed to only prescribe to you the drugs you need. According to this definition of profession, which was provided by Talcott Parsons, doctors, lawyers, professors and baseball players are all professionals rather than only workers plying a trade.

Moreover, and as a consequence, professionals are involved very deeply in the culture of their profession and regard themselves as engaging in a high calling and are also very passionate about their work. They are invested in the way of life of their professional communities, a medical student, for example, not leaving his hospital for months on end, and dating only nurses because the two lines of work share the sophistication of the health professions about how much suffering there is in human life, that patients can die, and that it may be necessary to make instantaneous decisions about medical interventions with possibly tragic consequences to follow. So a professional is suffused with the matter of his occupation, while ordinary occupations allow people to care primarily about other things, like family or culture. We do not expect butchers to have a love affair with meat even if they have a finer sense of the textures of various kinds of meat than do the rest of us, and even though, in my experience, many of those who own and operate hardware stores are infused with a great deal of knowledge about the stock they carry, from what size nail to use to what are the various kinds of tools you can use to remove paint, and so hardware people earn the title of “professional”, at least as a courtesy. Moreover, professionalism isn’t all about the money, either, even if doctors and lawyers do make out better than most butchers and hardware shop owners. A poet is also a professional, part of a community of poets, going over a phrase in the head time and time again to get it right, and earning some begrudging praise for that dedication to his calling however silly a cause it might seem to be.

There are also a set of occupations that can be called dishonorable because they earn the disdain of the general population however much they are professions in all other ways, including in that they perform functions that are essential to society. There are a number of currently admired professions, including the police and the military, that were generally regarded as dishonorable before the Nineteenth Century except for those who had risen to the higher ranks, because they drew their members from the more unsettled parts of the society. Sailors were unmarried and had girls in every port. Police were drawn from the social classes they were supposed to supervise. The establishment of orderly and professionally educated police and military helped give those professions prestige, as the growing scientific basis and professional education for doctors and lawyers in the Nineteenth Century also turned what might or might not be a useful employee into someone respected with an awe that had in previous generations been reserved for generals and high clergymen.

There is a different explanation, however, for why some professions remained and remain largely dishonorable even if the practitioners of them are wealthy and honored and famous. It has to do with the nature of the activity the profession performs rather than the social classes from which the professionals are drawn. Military people engage in killing people wholesale and that was once discrediting because once a killer always a killer, the coarseness of the calling compensated for by the fact that veterans of a largely civilian army go through a period of rehabilitation and are honored for having suffered PTSS. So professionalism compensates for the inherently gruesome nature of the tasks that a soldier undertakes. There is a lot of pomp and circumstance available to make military men think well of their calling and to supply emotional support for them when some of their number are lost in battle. These people are to be honored because they died for their country, however grueling and gruesome was the work they did on their way to death.

The same thing is true with actors and actresses, whose wealth and fame and claims to a bourgeois lifestyle does its best to make up for the fact that the kernel of an actor’s job is to feign emotions, which is a very transgressive thing to do and so makes actors a version of that equally old profession, prostitution, where practitioners feign sexual emotions, or indeed have desensitized sexual feelings, in order to provide commercially available services. Both professions engage in a dishonorable activity, the actor and actress earning the dishonorable repute in which their occupation had for long been held because they feign an even broader range of emotions in an even more public way.  So there is more to the sense that actors and actresses are prostitutes aside from the fact that they were once drawn from the same set of people. The craft of an actor or actress is not only to feign emotions but, according to one theory, the Stanislavski Method, actors use the feigning of emotions as an excuse and reason to conjure up and display emotions from their personal lives that would normally be a source of embarrassment if they were displayed to strangers. In an exact sense, play actors prostitute their emotions for cash and notoriety. It is a professional calling in the sense that play actors, for whatever reason, have a need to display themselves, whether this display earns derision or praise, as well as because they are members of a community devoted to doing so, and also because playacting has been considered a vital role in society for more than two thousand years.

The "bourgeois" sense of propriety about the display of private feelings is violated for the entertainment of strangers, and a craft is made of simulating feeling, as if the ways we appear to be honorable or sincere or loving were mechanisms to be mastered, rather than unalienable parts of ourselves.  Play actors are therefore simultaneously off putting and liberating, sacrificing themselves to provide a momentary mental liberation for the audience. This is costly to the play actor, who faces the professional hazard of the profligate use of acting skills in his or her own personal life. Emotions are schooled and so untrustworthy, the person becoming theatrical offstage as well as on.  The play actor is therefore dishonorable, even if he claims to be able to feign emotions only on the stage, without it affecting the rest of his life.  A likely story. Moreover, evidence to support this suspicion that feigning emotion is a rejection of bourgeois life comes from the supposed fact that on-screen or on-stage loves become "real" passions.  When does the feigning begin, and when does it end? Imitating immoral or licentious behavior gives not only expertise in feigning, which might be generalizable, but a kind of experience of licentious behavior that is not too far from the real thing and is difficult to segregate from it.  Play acting therefore presents an illusion of the liberation of licentious behavior, but also the illusion of being licentious in an only illusory way.

Bourgeois play actors defend the honor of their craft, whether for themselves or to win the affections of their audience, by both feigning and living otherwise bourgeois lives, though this is often stretched to mean that nude scenes made with a minimum crew or only as part of the job do not therefore violate rules of modesty.  The point is the play actors are always violating rules of modesty, of which sexual modesty is a small but significant part, because they show both respectable and unrespectable motives -- like greed or jealousy-- which are not regarded as fit emotions for public display.

Dickens, like Shakespeare before him, is acutely conscious of the way the theatre violates proprieties by its very existence --not by its message, or by its conveyance of illusions, but by what it does to its actors and directors.  Dickens associates the theatre with the circus. The travelling company in “Nicholas Nickleby” is like the travelling circus in “Hard Times”. Each is a band of wandering players, anachronistic to the commercial world, filled with peasant vices and virtues but more self-conscious about them, and so engaged in the pretense of being as noble as the nobility they mimic. They are melodramatic not because life is not melodramatic but because the melodrama of ordinary, non theatrical life arises from the circumstances of life and from the florid personalities that are the makeup of every person, while play-actors have a go at it, embellishing on melodrama when it needs no embellishing and so falsifying their own presentation of life by giving it an illusory grandeur.

And so it is sensible to think that actors and actresses are not to be trusted, so good are they at feigning feelings they do not have. They can manipulate lay people into thinking they love them or that they are to be trusted or that they are reflective people. As one actress once told me, “I am not beautiful, but I know how to act as if I am.” Most ordinary people are more given to hemming and hawing, not knowing if they expressing correctly what they want to say about themselves, or are more abrupt in their physical advances than they would be if they were schooled in how to appear to be loving. So ordinary people communicate themselves clumsily, and so can be relied upon to be authentic, to show the seams of their performances, while actors and actresses are inauthentic because, as Bert Lahr put it, “Once you learn to fake authenticity, you have it made.”

Erving Goffman claimed that everybody puts on performances so as to seem competent in the way they go about their lives. But few of us are as adroit as actors and actresses in seeming competent whether we are or not in any number of aspects of life. Teachers may have mastered their patter well enough so that they are articulate in front of groups of people other than their students, but that does not mean they can feign personal emotions or know how to be what they think a good patient would be like in front of their doctor, but actors and actresses have very generalizable skills at feigning, and that is why people are either taken in by them or don’t trust them. It isn’t easy for an actor or actress to overcome the innate dishonor of their profession, however famous the person may become.

12/23- The Ten Commandments

The giving of the law on Mount Sinai is as momentous as the parting of the Red Sea even though it might seem to be different because the people might not think they need the law while they certainly knew that they could get across the Red Sea only if there were some sort of miracle. God again solves a problem, but only in extremis and at the last minute. These people could all have perished in the desert or at least have ceased to be recognizable as a people. So some may think that the Ten Commandments are natural in the sense that they are the rules of the road that any people would come up with, the fundamentals of any legal code. But not according to “Exodus”.  They are a particular code not so much in their content as for their categorical nature that associates on a general level issues of torts (not to want someone else’s property) with matters that are criminal (such as the prohibition against murder). And they have been imposed on the Israelites rather than discovered by them, yet another indication that this god is the God of the unnatural, of what is contrary to nature. Law does not “naturally” arise out of its functionality or as a reflection of reason but, according to “Exodus”, has to be imposed on people because they will not otherwise accept it and because it will not otherwise occur to them as a necessary part of going about the business of life.

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