Free As A Bird
The following comes from an article written by Lev Grossman in Time, 23 August 2010, titled “Jonathan Franzen – The Wide Shot.” Grossman is discussing the gifted writer’s latest novel of contemporary social complexity, “Freedom“. Franzen was inducted into an exclusive club of the past century’s best writers when Time put him on their cover.
Grossman: “The weird thing about the freedom in “Freedom” is that what it doesn’t bring is happiness. For Franzen’s characters, too much freedom is an empty, dangerously entropic thing. … “If Patty and Walter divorced, they would be free, but it’s a freedom they would do almost anything to avoid. At her lowest ebb, Patty reflects that she “had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable.”
Franzen’s novel was published in 2010, and he probably isn’t old enough to know that Patty in 2010 is totally indistinguishable from Patty in 1960, a whole half century earlier. (It’s what they do.) But alas the answer to the emptiness of entropic freedom, like the situation itself, isn’t imposed; it’s voluntary. Continues Grossman: And no one is freer than a person with no moral beliefs. “One of the ways of surrendering freedom is to actually have convictions,” Franzen says. “And a way of surrendering freedom is to spend quite a bit of time acting on those convictions.” …. “There is something beyond freedom that people need: work, love, belief in something, commitment to something. Freedom is not enough. It’s necessary but not sufficient. It’s what you do with freedom – what you give it up for – that matters.”
Now that’s a pearl worth taking time to savor with a Lenox snifter of fine V.S.O.P. Courvoisier in the soft cushioned leather Oxford facing the fire in the den. Jonathan Franzen is a perceptive man. And Lev Grossman is a wise man who can see it. I write the way my mind works, and that’s not always easy for even the disciplined reader. But here in Grossman’s article we have a splendid thought beautifully expressed, and with succinct simplicity that is at once to the average reader both understandable and inviting. It seduces, begs contemplation. It competes well in the hurried instant gratification society of children.
“Freedom is not enough.” Just how can anyone experience the beauty of such wisdom from a coded tweet? Well, most, with no moral beliefs, no real convictions, don’t have to. Observes Grossman, there’s Kierkegaard’s “idea of busyness: That state of constant distraction that allows people to avoid difficult realities and maintain self deceptions. With the help of cell phones, e-mail and handheld games, it’s easier to stay busy, in the Kierkegaardian sense, than it’s ever been.” This is the freedom to hide in busyness, going nowhere. Grossmann: “The most striking fact about Franzen’s life is that, although he writes almost exclusively about families, he has not made one of his own.”
See? I told you we were dealing with perceptive and wise men here. Franzen tried marriage once; it didn’t work. “What Franzen has committed to is not life, but art. Novels are his family.” This is a guy who has been anointed the great chronicler of families in our time, yet he invents, creates, his fictional universe from the ground up, from a basis of little direct experience himself. Does he miraculously reflect reality, or do we desperately shove reality into his well-defined and carefully constructed mold? Does life, unable to find its own direction, imitate art? Still, lacking convictions, we do have freedom of choice in our busyness. Most of us fill their lives with stupefying amounts of pettiness of zero consequence. We are children born into the Garden Of Eden and, unaware of the monumental human misery that went into building it piece by piece from the ground up, thus assumed it was all a permanent gift from God just for “very special me” to milk and waste and give away. And, even in that Garden, all we can do was find fault with it, never grasping that all we are really doing is systematically destroying it – so we can have ever more self-manufactured nonsense to whine about.
One of the themes that seems to run through the articles I’ve posted here is the self-involved focus on “me”, the plethora of rights without responsibilities among self-anointed “special” groups in contemporary society. It’s a sort of busyness of self-adulation, of birthright entitlement. But a few, like Franzen, make choices of substance. It is my own firm belief that one’s moral beliefs, their convictions, must involve something beyond “me” for them to actually matter. Franzen, who’s a busy bird watcher in his off hours: ” …because my purpose on earth seems to be to write novels, I am actually freer when I’m chained to a project: freer from guilt, anxiety, boredom, anger, purposelessness.” (See Footnote #2.)
This guy is smart. He’s figured out The Secret. Marriage is for masochists. A man should marry something that gives his life actual meaning, something that enables him to decide his own destiny, something that won’t be summarily yanked away from him, twisted and trashed, after decades of investment. And here I had thought that men like me were relics of the past…. The freedom to work really hard at something of substance you do really well. The freedom to find worthwhile purpose, to accept the responsibility, and marry it.
Did you ever watch how hard birds work? They’re like soldiers. Talk about commitment….
Something’s Gotta Give
Franzen, or course, writes serious fiction. Very few Americans outside of college lit classes read such fiction these days, and most of those who do are women. With such an audience, there’s only one rule: “Tell ‘em what they want to hear, and they’ll make you a millionaire.” (Thankfully the very best writers, the best thinkers, march to their own tune.) But half of our society reads far more romance novels than serious books. The romance novel business, in fact, is the largest and most profitable part of the publishing industry, and it has only women for a customer base. Routinely Hollywood will pick one of those romance stories at random and turn it into a sure-fire “chick flick”. Of course, it must have all the requisite elements, the principal element of which is the absence of simple logic.
There was a period in my life not so long ago when every woman I met was talking about a romantic comedy with Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton titled “Something’s Gotta Give” (2003), written and directed by Nancy Meyers. The film was and remains quite popular, especially among women. Apparently a drawing point for the movie is the ages of the fictional couple – each Baby Boomers in their early 60s, played by two intelligent and respected actors. The film was also famous for a brief nude scene involving the still very attractive Woody-Allen-favorite Keaton, 57 at the film’s release. All of the women who mentioned the film to me just loved it, thought it was an excellent reflection of “real life” among America’s ‘older generation’.
I finally saw the film and was surprised by the banality of the nonsense presented in the story line, especially given the education and intelligence of the women recommending it. Much of the story takes place in the Hamptons, a set of villages and hamlets along the shore on the far east end of Long Island known for its proximity to New York City, its nice Atlantic beaches and some of the most expensive residential properties in the world, and therefore naturally enjoyed almost exclusively by some quite spoiled-rich people. Jack Nicholson plays Harry, a successful New York businessman, cheerful bon vivant and man-about-town who has a long-established public predilection for enjoying life while dating women half his age.
When he and his latest young lady companion ride in his sports car out to her mother’s Hamptons beach home for the weekend, the charming 63 year old Harry unexpectedly meets the young girl’s mother, Erica, played by Keaton. Erica, an attractive and successful playwright, got the very nice Hamptons house along with the alimony from a previous marriage and currently shares her life primarily with her sister. After an awkward dinner (mother surprises daughter with her new boyfriend, only to see that the boyfriend is old enough to be her boyfriend, etc.), the evening turns disastrous when Harry has a minor heart attack and is rushed to a local hospital. Following some non-invasive treatment and a check-up, the doctor advises Harry to remain in the area for a few days, and so Harry ends up staying at the beach house with Erica and her daughter.
Their different personalities, as well as the mother’s presence hovering over his casual relationship with the daughter, initially make for awkward living arrangements, especially for Harry, now caught in a rather uncomfortable situation not of his choosing. Soon, however, despite Harry’s better judgment, Harry and the mother are having a casual affair of their own. The daughter, suspecting the tangent affair and not wishing to be a spoiler, soon amicably parts company with Harry and returns to the city, leaving Harry alone with Erica. Harry and Erica spend more time together, and the relationship grows more involved while remaining light. Harry certainly has made no secret of his lifestyle preferences, and remains quite honest and polite with Keaton as their relationship progresses of its own volition. (Actually, since Harry is ever the proper gentleman, it’s more a matter of her volition).
Harry periodically checks in with the doctor (the younger Keanu Reeves), who is himself interested in Erica, but Harry, remaining the ever honorable gentleman, never reveals to anyone, including the doctor, that he is seeing Erica on anything other than a friendly level. Soon, however, Harry’s improved health signals that he no longer has to remain in the Hamptons with Erica, and in a rather awkward but amicable scene, departs for his home and life style in the city, grateful for the hospitality during his convalescence and satisfied that he has remained throughout above reproach in his conduct with a pleasant, mature and intelligent woman.
End of story.
Well, not quite.
It’s the end of a nice story as far as Harry is concerned, but Erica’s story hasn’t even yet begun. The daughter learns that her father is going to marry again and succeeds in getting Erica to have dinner with her daughter, Erica’s former husband and his new fiancée in the city. At dinner, Erica succeeds in keeping up appearances as not at all affected by the prospect of her former husband re-marrying – until she sees Harry at another table with another young woman. Apparently, being in the same room with two men who “rejected” her is this woman’s breaking point. A “scene” ensues, during which Harry suffers another seizure and is rushed to the hospital. At the hospital he is informed by a young woman doctor that he had suffered only a panic attack and advises him to rest if he doesn’t want to end up in the hospital every week. The doctor also tells him that, if he was her father, she would not want him out alone so soon after such a scare, clearly denigrating his age, his gender and his life style. Point taken, Harry goes home in an attempt to get some rest, primarily from women.
From this point onward the story takes total leave of reason. It’s important to keep in mind that Erica naturally sees herself as attractive, appealing, educated, intelligent, worthy, etc.. Any suitor must therefore be up to her standards; he thus must also be attractive, appealing, educated, intelligent, worthy, etc.. And, so far, Harry has definitely met those standards. He had remained honorable and discreet throughout their brief fling, not even revealing the affair to his own doctor. He, true to the man he always was, just did not stick around uncomfortably after the episode reached its conclusion – as was always entirely predictable.
Erica also returns home after the restaurant scene and soon sees the potential catharsis for herself in writing down her views of her recent experiences. Her ramblings evolve into a comedy play, full of every last detail of her relationship with Harry, warts and all, and, of course, in a manner that is not at all flattering to Harry. Harry learns of all this after the play has already found backing, producers, a director, actors and is even preparing for
opening night. Harry’s “reward” for remaining the discreet gentleman is to have the woman blab everything, and much more, to the whole world, and in a manner that will make Harry the fool of the city.
The first thing an intelligent man in such a situation would think is, “Never ever trust a woman with anything,” and immediately put as much distance between himself and this ruthlessly vindictive woman as possible. But this story is not being told by a man. It’s being told by a woman, a recently divorced woman who saw Harry also move on with his life, without her. So now Harry must become in the story everything he is not in order to get him to the place she wants to put him. Thus, Harry inexplicably goes to the rehearsal company in what was inevitably a futile effort to get Erica to change her mind about the play. After a predictable scene, she summarily dismisses him with an admonishment for him to go away and get on with his life. Suddenly this discreet, honorable and intelligent businessman is an idiotic glutton for public punishment. This woman obviously has major “issues”, to which her former husband is apparently immune (or managed to escape), so why would any sane man like Harry dive right into her revenge cauldron as the perfect stand-in patsy?
Any intelligent man would see that Erica is a child who simply cannot handle “rejection”, a child determined to engineer the perfect “get-even” scenario, at Harry’s expense. It’s incredible how effortlessly she slips into “victim” mode, on the basis of absolutely nothing, how her process (nice face, pleasant personality, smile) is a million times more “acceptable” than if a man were using a similar process to achieve the same result (totally unnecessary revenge). “Men are from Mars; women are from Venus.” Harry would invariably be viewed as a total cad, but Erica becomes the heroine. These days process always trumps results; it’s all about process. It’s in how you screw over someone, not that you do.
But it gets even worse.
Despite the successful play that made Harry the laughing-stock of New York, six months later he still has a commitment to fulfill, an agreement made earlier back in the Hamptons that the two of them would meet (where else?) in Paris to celebrate their winter birthdays over dinner. So, like a perfectly honorable gentleman idiot, Harry trots off to Paris to meet Erica for dinner. In the meantime, of course, Erica has a new suitor – a (what else?) rich, young, handsome doctor, the same Hamptons doctor with whom Harry was so discreet about his fling with Erica. While the two are enjoying a pleasant meal in the Paris restaurant, voila!, in walks the doctor, obviously previously invited to intrude on the dinner so as to rub Harry’s nose in her grand victory. So what does Harry do? Why the moron sits there and wallows in his uncomfortable “fifth wheel” embarrassment. He even sits there like a completely oblivious buffoon after the doctor presents Erica with (of course) a big diamond engagement ring – right in front of Harry! The klutz doesn’t even have enough sense to excuse himself from someone else’s important private moment. Harry, the suave successful businessman, bon vivant and man-about-town gentleman, has inexplicably become the densest cretin in western civilization.
It’s all a grotesquely contrived finale full of all the silly clichés only found in the very dumbest of self-serving romance novels. Erica has successfully manipulated everyone beyond belief in order to achieve her “revenge”, in spades. All it required was for everyone else, including the audience, to totally suspend even a modicum of reason. And what about the “happy ever after” part? Later after dinner, the now “totally defeated” Harry is gazing over a canal in the Paris night, apparently despondent about having “lost” Erica, when, presto!, Erica pulls up in a taxi. She explains to Harry that the doctor figured out that Erica and Harry were in love and graciously backed out of his own relationship with Erica. Presto! Like magic! The doctor simply picked up his marbles and went home. So naturally Harry and Erica kiss in the night by the Paris canal, complete with violins in the background.
A year later at a New York restaurant Erica and Harry are dining with the daughter who originally brought them together along with (presto!) her new husband and their baby daughter. The “perfect ending”. I found myself looking for Harry’s leash, Erica’s whip. This stuff could exist only in a delusional mind totally ruled by emotion devoid of rationality. Life is just a child’s fairy tale. This pathetic movie-by-and-for-women is one long string of totally illogical double standard absurdities that have the guy doing things that no actually intelligent man would ever do. And women loved it! The movie, a total fantasy, made trainloads of money. Was Erica’s standard all along just a “man” without a mind? “How to make a perfectly good man a stupid idiot following you around like a puppy.” Pathetically juvenile. The only way that’s possible is if the guy was a total moronic loser to begin with, and THEN you have to wonder what it is about HER that would be of interest to such a twit.
It’s porn for women, which plays the exact same role in fantasy that a different kind of porn plays for men — while generating the same level of revenue. But one is “good”, while the other is “bad”. These are the same women who believe that “everyone thinks just like me”, who “teach” our boys, who dominate our social sciences, who ruthlessly enforce school “uni-sex” dogma from birth through college, who “treat” the minds of men, “counsel” our marriages, decide and judge our trials, select our political representatives. Is it any wonder we keep running backwards, become ever more twisted and stupid? Reality, truth, is irrelevant; perception is everything. It’s ALL “the world according to very special me.” Reality is nothing more than fantasy, in your own mind. The most amazing, and frightening, thing, to me, is that very few younger men, proud possessors of mush for brains, even recognize the gross incongruities in the film.
“Freedom is not enough.”
But first you have to know how to think. Just where does Harry fit in Franzen’s world? The useful toy? Just which “art” does life really imitate? Is this why so many American women are so miserable with all their power and choices, with all their freedom? Because it’s so difficult getting boys and men to fit into the mold for them that exists only in the minds of these arrogant women? Because they just can’t leave well enough alone?
“Patty reflects that she “had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable.” And a principal reason for that misery is that her husband just won’t obediently jump into her fantasy world, and stay there until she decides to switch to a different fantasy. Ever wonder how far men would get forcing women into their porn fantasies? One is emotional, and one is visual, and the chances of them finding middle ground is almost zero, because they are both just fake and stupid. These are delusional women who cling to their illusions long after they’ve destroyed the premises. What happens when you add reality to silly fantasies floating in space long after women have kicked out the legs? The natural law of gravity takes over. You have miserable women blaming men for the consequences of the choices women make. Who needs that? “This is what you wanted, so you go girl. Just leave me out of your nonsense. It’s bad enough I have to exist in a thoroughly twisted society you created to suit yourself.”
Check out the life of Aldo Leopold (1887-1948). He was an American author, scientist, ecologist, forester, conservationist, and environmentalist best known for his best-selling book “A Sand County Almanac” (published in 1949 after his death at age 61). The grandson of German immigrants who settled in Iowa, Leopold followed then-unique interests nurtured as a boy and became influential in the development of modern environmental ethics and wilderness conservation and was a founder of the science of wildlife management. Leopold was fortunate to find a partner who shared his vision and sense of responsibility. He married a school teacher he met in New Mexico, and their five children (three boys, two girls) all followed in fields their father opened. (His wife Estella died in 1975 at age 84.) In America you don’t have to get rich to pursue a worthwhile purpose and make a positive mark on human history, but it definitely is becoming nearly impossible that you will find a partner willing to go the distance with you equitably. The past is gone. My best advice is to not waste the time looking, and don’t ever get bogged down in petty nonsense. Almost all American women have a sense of responsibility only to themselves; to these eternally whining empty shells, it’s all about their rights, quotas and entitlement – on the basis of absolutely nothing. Their purpose is “Me”.
P.S. A far better story was written by Robert James Waller about a wandering Irish-American photographer and an isolated Italian-American housewife. Clint Eastwood made the wordy novel into an even better movie with himself and Meryl Streep playing the lead roles. Eastwood astutely reduced the novel to its essential elements which shown the spotlight on the critical essence of the narrative. “The Bridges Of Madison County” recounts a romantic four-day affair that takes place in 1965 in the farmland of central Iowa. I know that farmland, its dusty dirt roads, its small towns, its isolated farm houses, and some of its people well; I first experienced them all during the 1960s, but I later discovered similar settings all over the globe. Everything about the story rings true, and rich. The two characters are reserved members of the Greatest Generation, one a drifter named Robert fascinated with capturing the visual beauty of human endeavor, the other a perceptive woman named Francesca originally from a small town in eastern Italy. Both are people of considerable substance and intellect, but still rather uncomplicated humans who just happen to meet mid-way along the road of life. The thing that made the movie was the truly gifted actress playing Francesca, but the thing that made the story was the character of Robert. Each remained true to the person they were, and Eastwood’s sparse telling of the story achieved universal appeal because it could have taken place anywhere at any time. Francesca: “We are the choices we have made.” There was nothing at all contrived in this simple but memorable adult story, a story worth telling well.
Footnote #1. I’ve noticed that, like me, Franzen studied German (1978-82) in the US, Munich and Berlin, and is fluent in the language. Some of the High German structure reveals itself in his prose, as does the language’s influence on his disciplined approach to his craft. He also likes to summer in Santa Cruz and visit Moss Landing, a special area I discovered years earlier … while learning German in Monterey before moving on to Berlin. We both seem to have a certain curiosity, from a respectful distance, of contemporary American society. I often wonder if Rome had men like us in, say, the fifth century, right before the abyss, when it all disintegrated into fading history. Grossman’s reference to Kierkegaard in Franzen is where I get my own personal mental image of herds of infantile bobble-heads hypnotized by bouncing baubles and nifty toys, all seeking quick fixes, short cuts and easy answers. These are whole armies of people afraid to contemplate the blank reality of their own existence, and probably wouldn’t understand how to ask the right questions anyway, who thus bury themselves in meaningless busyness solely to fill up the immense empty spaces and make the time go by. These are empty shells of humans who don’t really stand for anything; they just say they do in order to gain and secure membership in their herd. These are those who toil diligently with process, while totally ignoring the results. These are the very voters who go to the polls and decide which popular icons will rule the world, using “someone else” to do the hard stuff, pay the bills, take the blame … for “special me”.
Without really understanding why, I committed to memory a lengthy paragraph in Hemingway’s “A Farewell To Arms” very early in my college years, and it was this one paragraph that led me into the study of philosophy. Most students know that paragraph as the “Ants On A Log” analogy, and some can tie it to the Hemingway Code, but fewer still can take it deep into Sartre, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. And that’s probably for the better.
Footnote #2. In between his early-1970s works “Boxcar Bertha”, “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver”, Martin Scorsese made a small film called “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” (1974), about a widowed 35-year old mother on the road with her 11-year old son and trying to eke out some sort of existence as bar singer and waitress. Scorsese has always been at his best when dealing with men in the ugly underbelly of big eastern cities, and often with a heavy Italian heritage flavor, but here he toys with a rather simple story in the American southwest. Ellen Burstyn plays Alice, whose only fault seems to be her very poor judgment of men, and thus she repeatedly makes the wrong choices. It had the makings of a good story, with some good scenes, but it missed the mark, probably because the star actress had total creative control over the production, and the director had told her in advance that he knew nothing about women. So it ends up being a story about a woman who knows nothing about men, made by a director who knows nothing about women. And the boy, even though he has a major role in the story, ends up being a prop, so neither Burstyn or Scorsese understood boys, either. (This is also evident in the boy being allowed to rather clumsily make up some of his own lines.) Apparently women like the movie because it shows a woman dealing with a tough life, but how much of that life is the result of the poor choices she makes with men and the effect it all has on the boy are, seemingly, irrelevant. All that’s really relevant is that the woman is another “victim” of loser men. (I kept wondering how such a woman could get herself involved with such men.) The film ends up being a brief slice of a woman’s life, a slice that will continue repeating itself until the boy is just another one of those loser men who came in and out of his mother’s world. I often wonder what a gifted man who does understand boys, say a Steven Spielberg or a Ron Howard, would have done with “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”, a film that still managed to win Burstyn the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1975. I guess that was the main purpose all along. I guess the boy was, as usual, just road kill. Of course, no one ever forced Alice to do anything, so, despite all the wallowing in “victimhood”, her life is solely the product of her own behavior.
(For another angle on this theme see Footnote #3 to “America’s Greatest Social Shame – Boys“, which discusses a 2014 film titled “Boyhood“.)
Footnote #3. Today most books are sold to women, so if you want to make a lot of money, write emotional romance stuff, female victimhood or “empowerment” tripe, or self-help nonsense – a certain recipe that’s been running very well for a century. (“Always tell ‘em whatever they want to hear.”) Beyond that, I’d advise a certain degree of caution that your work actually appeals to your intended audience. I know a guy who writes about golf, which, to me, is akin to watching grass grow, but apparently there are enough airheads out there who are willing to waste enough time to read such stuff. I can actually get nauseous trying to read all the way through an article authored by Joel Stein, who writes a completely useless (supposedly satirical) column each week in Time, a column I presume is intended to appeal to the ladies. Frequently writing in the first person, this worthless specimen of a man is actually married and has even, allegedly, fathered children, too. But you’d be hard pressed to find a more effeminate zero of masculinity in written work anywhere. If it wasn’t Time, I’d swear that the column was actually written by his wife, but then she’d probably produce a product that was much more masculine simply because it’s so difficult to top her husband in that arena. This guy bends all the way over backwards trying to prove his femininity. It’s actually tragic to behold a person who has been taught so well to so despise his own gender. But Time seems willing to pay for it.
Footnote #4. The Humanities. Education in America, of course, is the key to economic opportunity. Those who make the best strategic choices in the fields they pursue usually end up reaping the greatest financial rewards, and vice versa. This is so even if you use perverted government manipulation to reap your rewards – an increasingly popular path. But a true education is very much more than a ticket to an income. In many of my articles the reader may notice a certain disdain for what now passes as social “science” (sociology, psychology, journalism, communication, marketing, politics, plus “special” subgroup-focused “studies”, etc.) in an American liberal arts education. I purposefully avoid including the broad civilization-focused humanities (languages, literature, history, logic, philosophy, religion) in that characterization because I believe the humanities play a quite different role in society, and thus in education. The humanities also have not been so co-opted by special interest groups for their own purposes, usually under a government umbrella. The former serve to fragment society, while the latter serve to unite civilizations. One of my favorite American societal commentators explains part of the humanities role by recalling a former teacher:
The Humanist Vocation
By DAVID BROOKS, Op-Ed Columnist, New York Times, June 20, 2013
A half-century ago, 14 percent of college degrees were awarded to people who majored in the humanities. Today, only 7 percent of graduates in the country are humanities majors. Even over the last decade alone, the number of incoming students at Harvard who express interest in becoming humanities majors has dropped by a third.*
Most people give an economic explanation for this decline. Accounting majors get jobs. Lit majors don’t. And there’s obviously some truth to this. But the humanities are not only being bulldozed by an unforgiving job market. They are committing suicide because many humanists have lost faith in their own enterprise.
Back when the humanities were thriving, the leading figures had a clear definition of their mission and a fervent passion for it. The job of the humanities was to cultivate the human core, the part of a person we might call the spirit, the soul, or, in D.H. Lawrence’s phrase, “the dark vast forest.”
This was the most inward and elemental part of a person. When you go to a funeral and hear a eulogy, this is usually the part they are talking about. Eulogies aren’t résumés. They describe the person’s care, wisdom, truthfulness and courage. They describe the million little moral judgments that emanate from that inner region.
The humanist’s job was to cultivate this ground — imposing intellectual order upon it, educating the emotions with art in order to refine it, offering inspiring exemplars to get it properly oriented.
Somewhere along the way, many people in the humanities lost faith in this uplifting mission. The humanities turned from an inward to an outward focus. They were less about the old notions of truth, beauty and goodness and more about political and social categories like race, class and gender. Liberal arts professors grew more moralistic when talking about politics but more tentative about private morality because they didn’t want to offend anybody. ((Judge only others, never yourself.))
To the earnest 19-year-old with lofty dreams of self-understanding and moral greatness, the humanities in this guise were bound to seem less consequential and more boring.
So now the humanities are in crisis. Rescuers are stepping forth. On Thursday, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences released a report called “The Heart of the Matter,” making the case for the humanities and social sciences. (I was a member of this large commission, though I certainly can’t take any credit for the result.)
The report is important, and you should read it. It focuses not only on the external goods the humanities can produce (creative thinking, good writing), but also the internal transformation (spiritual depth, personal integrity). It does lack some missionary zeal that hit me powerfully as a college freshman when the humanities were in better shape.
One of the great history teachers in those days was a University of Chicago professor named Karl Weintraub. He poured his soul into transforming his students’ lives, but, even then, he sometimes wondered if they were really listening. Late in life, he wrote a note to my classmate Carol Quillen, who now helps carry on this legacy as president of Davidson College.
Teaching Western Civ, Weintraub wrote, “seems to confront me all too often with moments when I feel like screaming suddenly: ‘Oh, God, my dear student, why CANNOT you see that this matter is a real, real matter, often a matter of the very being, for the person, for the historical men and women you are looking at — or are supposed to be looking at!’
“I hear these answers and statements that sound like mere words, mere verbal formulations to me, but that do not have the sense of pain or joy or accomplishment or worry about them that they ought to have if they were TRULY informed by the live problems and situations of the human beings back there for whom these matters were real. The way these disembodied words come forth can make me cry, and the failure of the speaker to probe for the open wounds and such behind the text makes me increasingly furious.
“If I do not come to feel any of the love which Pericles feels for his city, how can I understand the Funeral Oration? If I cannot fathom anything of the power of the drive derived from thinking that he has a special mission, what can I understand of Socrates? … How can one grasp anything about the problem of the Galatian community without sensing in one’s bones the problem of worrying about God’s acceptance?
“Sometimes when I have spent an hour or more, pouring all my enthusiasm and sensitivities into an effort to tell these stories in the fullness in which I see and experience them, I feel drained and exhausted. I think it works on the student, but I do not really know.”
Teachers like that were zealous for the humanities. A few years in that company leaves a lifelong mark.
+++ (end article)
(It’s not about memorizing the right answers for the tests; it’s about fully understanding ‘why’. As an example of American short-sightedness, in 2001, the year America was attacked inside its borders by Islamic militant extremism, all of the vast American education industry together had managed to award just three (3) post-graduate degrees in Muslim studies. Now Muslim studies is a solid field in American humanities education, primarily, I suppose, because of the government jobs it brings.
(Like many brilliant others from Europe who found their way to the University of Chicago during the period 1935-1955, Karl Weintraub became a long-serving professor of history whose courses on Western Civilization were among the most popular on campus. Especially interested in the “history of the self”, he excited the comprehension, imagination and horizons of many of the best of the Greatest and Silent generations and taught them how to think on grand scales when contemplating the human species – by first understanding their own role in society. Of German and Russian-Jewish ancestry, Weintraub was born in Germany in 1924, took refuge in the Netherlands during the Nazi era, and emigrated to America with his sister in 1948 at age 24 – and immediately found a permanent home at the University of Chicago, at that time a mecca for similar gifted minds cast adrift by events in Europe. Weintraub wrote his lament (above) many years ago, when people actually understood what he was saying; today his words would ring hallow. The only “notions of truth, beauty and goodness” today seem transparent stabs of the sanctimonious to elevate vain “me” to delusional positions of “superiority”, or calculated emotional tactics to get “someone else” to pay the bills, take the blame and do the hard stuff for perpetually whining “me” and my group. The psychology of the self has drowned out any philosophy of “us”, and any real sense of where “we” are going. Those who know how to think, and why, are a rapidly vanishing breed.) (See the separately posted article, “Walt Kowalski – An American Man”.)
Footnote # 5. Friend me. Please. (I’m pathetic.)
December 2013: Viewpoint: Lisa Wade, Salon.com:
“Of all people in America, adult, white, heterosexual men have the fewest friends. To be close friends, men need to be willing to confess their insecurities, be kind to others, have empathy, and sometimes sacrifice their own self-interest. ‘Real men,’ though, are not supposed to do these things. They are supposed to be self-interested, competitive, non-emotional, strong (with no insecurities at all), and able to deal with their emotional problems without help. Being a good friend, then, as well as needing a good friend, is the equivalent of being girly. [But] people with friends are healthier. Friendship is strongly correlated with a more joyful life. Guys, it’s time. Man up and make some friends.”
Insecure American women have been playing this game for as long as I can remember. It’s part of their “World According To Me” construct; women who can’t begin to understand themselves are experts on men. It’s the way they systematically denigrate men so as to make themselves look better in their own eyes. “If you can’t beat ‘em, then just destroy ‘em. Make them all just like perfect me!” And the more screwed up they get, the better. It’s all part of their relentless campaign to pound males into the tightly confined mold they have created for them. If you really want to see this emotional self-serving misandry in action, just watch what American women do with boys at home and in school, from birth onward. Then later their daughters (and the rest of us, too) just love to hate the “men” their mothers created in their own image. Brilliant!
“Of all people in America, adult, white, heterosexual men have the fewest friends.” In this age of childish Facebook herds, I suppose this ridiculous observation may have some relevance to exceedingly superficial twits eager to flaunt their latest designer dresses and shoes to as wide an imagined adoring audience as possible. But I’d rather have just one mutually reliable friend than 600 who mean nothing to me or me to them. For any actual adult man, one such friend, even if met only rarely, is more than sufficient, and is certainly far preferable to suffering such arrogantly offensive women ever eager to impose their self-serving views on everyone else.
Just consider: Why in the world would any intelligent man, who knows who and what he is and is just not ashamed of it, ever want to be friends with someone who simply hates him for who he is? It’s just stupid. A man perfectly content and secure in his own skin would be an idiot to try changing himself just to meet some jealous weirdo’s image of who she wants him to be.
Can anyone image what this shallow women would be screaming had a male writer taken the same approach with her gender? Misogyny or misandry – it’s all the same despicable game. It’s just that no one ever calls women on it, so it’s inevitable that one never challenged is certain to become comfortable in the delusion that “my truth” is “the truth”.
Of course, the group she safely delineates – white heterosexual males – is the only minority group in America that has not had very powerful lobbies championing them everywhere for the past half century, which has made them everyone else’s favorite sitting duck bogyman. And sadly it’s easy to see the tattered results of that everywhere you look these days. That alone is almost enough to make me, and especially my sons, ashamed of our own once reasonably exemplary identity.
To paraphrase Ms Wade: Ladies, it’s time. Grow up and make some sense. YOU are now “The Man”.
P.S. There’s nothing new here, folks. For forty years prior to Ms Wade, the American women’s demand was for men to “get in touch with their feminine side”. Some guys paid lip service to this silly demand, mainly just to get past first base. So when that approach didn’t work so well, women turned their attention, with a vengeance, to the sons of such men. (American women and their lobbies just love to attack vulnerable targets that don’t have lobbies representing their best interests, to sort of balance things out fairly.) So today we have a nation of dumb screwed-up girly men playing macho video games in mom’s basement, and the women have more balls than the guys simply because no one has ever challenged them – which makes them fair targets for guys like me. We never could find our feminine sides, probably because American women never demonstrated traits actually worthy of imitation. Still, it’s odd that men never demanded that women “get in touch with their masculine sides.” In hindsight, probably they should have. It’s that “equality” thing….
Just so you know: Men are made between the ages of 7 and 12. These are when their core life values are formed. Throughout their teens they will test the limits as far as they can, but eventually during their twenties they’ll return to the basic values they learned from the role model examples around them during about five years after they reached the “age of reason” (7). American women take full advantage of this to create men in their own image, usually by their own example, and especially if there’s no stable father around to provide an appropriate role model.