Edmund Wilson (photo to left), the great 20th century critic and writer, was close friends with F. Scott Fitzgerald. Yet of his close friend he said, in 1922, when Fitzgerald was only 26:
Fitzgerald has been left with a jewel which he doesn’t know quite what to do with. For he has been given imagination without intellectual control of it; he has been given the desire for beauty without an aesthetic ideal; and he has been given a gift for expression without very many ideas to express.
I wonder if this line from Tender is the Night is a gentle jab from Fitzgerald at Wilson: “Like so many men he had found that he only had one or two ideas…” [book two, part xi, Tender Is the Night, page 165 of the 2003 Scribner trade paperback edition].
My new word for the week is ‘chiasmus.’ It means, according to the trusty though ragged Merriam-Webster’s New Collegiate I got when I went to college, “an inverted relationship between the syntactic elements of parallel phrases (as in Goldsmith’s to stop too fearful, and too faint to go).” Or, as it was used this week in my American Novel course, to describe how “Tender Is the Night’s” Dick Diver loses his mental stability as his wife Nicole regains hers.
My invented word is “applaudience,” and came from my son Aedan. He wanted appreciation for having finished a piece. “No applaudience?” he said, plaintively.
Shakespeare’s use of language is so beautiful, his scope so fraught with meaning that we miss the brutality of his tragedies. Hamlet, for instance, is a highbrow slasher flick. If Hamlet isn’t inflicting death on somebody, he’s thinking about it. Perhaps strangely, in Stephen Greenblatt’s course last term, we got into the issue of whether Hamlet’s actions at the end of the play suggest something about Elizabethan attitudes towards God’s role in life. Hamlet is a man of faith who has faith in nothing, least of all himself. He prefers murder to turning the other cheek, and suicide to hope. We discussed in class what the idea of ’special providence’ meant to Shakespeare, based on these lines from Act V, Scene ii, where Horatio is trying to talk his friend Hamlet out of a duel meant to leave Hamlet dead.
[T]here’s a special providence in
the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be
not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come:
the readiness is all. Since no man knows aught of what he leaves,
what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.
First, a word on providence. Providence is God’s pre-ordaining, setting the course, of the way the world works, as opposed to predestination, which is God’s pre-ordaining whether a human will be saved. Providence comes in two forms: general providence is God’s ordinary way of working — crops growing, for instance. Special providence is God doing something special (it may or may not look like a miracle), setting up a chance meeting that changes a life, for instance. [Thanks to Ward Holder for this discussion of providence and predestination]
In class we discussed this scene and what it may have said about Elizabethan religious attitudes. Shakespeare was born in 1564 (the year John Calvin died). While England had not only broken away from the Catholic Church but banned the practice of Catholicism, religious tension was rife in the country. Was Hamlet’s sparrow Shakespeare expressing something about his own ideas of predestination? Hamlet does seem to be saying his fate was predetermined and he should not avoid the duel, even though it looked like a set-up. To Hamlet, either God had determined he would live despite the set-up, or it was his time to go, and he should be ready.
One site I found sees Horatio’s reaction as a sign of truest friendship and Hamlet as noble in his readiness, instead of holding a death wish. A different site offers a religious interpretation of Hamlet’s sparrow, arguing that he merely accepts Providence for what it is, making him an acolyte of Christ, in the sense of Matthew 10:39 and Mark 8:35, “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
I think John Calvin would disagree, for reasons worth thinking about.
Calvin makes two specific references to the sparrow as part of his discussion of God’s general providence in The Institutes of the Christian Religion (Book I chapter xvi 1 and 5, in the final 1559 edition). It isn’t merely sparrows that attract God’s attention, either. Calvin cites David in I xvi 5 that God gives food to the young of the ravens. Calvin goes on to say “Surely if the flight of birds is governed by God’s definite plan, we must confess with the prophet that he so dwells on high as to humble himself to behold whatever happens in heaven and in earth.”
In Book I ch. xvii 3 of The Institutes, Calvin says believers “will not, as if carried off by the fates, out of desperation cast themselves to destruction like that youth of Plautus: ‘Unstable is the loss of things, the fates drive men according to their own pleasure. I will betake myself to the precipice, that there I may lose my goods with my life.’ And they will not ….cover up their own evil deeds with the name “God.”
Calvin then attacks a sect of “profane men” known as Libertines, who apparently said that all crimes are virtues, because they are subject to God’s ordinance. Calvin says that God sets our limits but also trusts us to care for ourselves, to take precautions, to foresee dangers, to use remedies God has given. In particular, God does not want us to suffer fatal acts, Calvin says.
It is a subtle argument on Calvin’s part. But it strongly suggests that Horatio, not Hamlet, followed the truer path according to Calvin. Calvin would likely argue that Hamlet was obviously not among the remnant predestinated to salvation (I found no references to sparrows in Calvin’s discussion of predestination). He would certainly be appalled at those who supported Hamlet’s foolishness in accepting the duel. There are many reasons to disagree with Calvin on predestination, not least the twisting of his words into instruments of judgment by many Puritan sects, including historically my own Presbyterians. But his view on Hamlet suggests that if Shakespeare wanted us to see Hamlet as something other than a Stoic taking his medicine in due course.
Shakespeare would have known of the life and death of Sir (and Catholic Saint) Thomas More, martyred in 1535 for his belief that Henry VIII should not get a divorce. I read “A Man For All Seasons” this term and Robert Bolt’s More represents a truer Catholic than Hamlet. In Bolt’s play, Thomas More takes every precaution he can to adhere to his principles without having to die for them. He dies because Henry cheats. In the end, though Bolt leaves this unspoken, More seems to go to his death with readiness.
Here’s the only version of Hamlet Act V Scene 2 I could find on Youtube:
The new issue of Harvard Business Review focuses on failure. That’s not a topic you’ll typically see taught at Harvard Business School, by the way — nobody wants to pay $50,000 a year to get told how to fail. I read a good, brief article by Roger McNamee, who co-founded Elevation Partners (We blew our opportunity to change the world). He writes about how the firm’s initial success led to more money coming its way, which led to financial engineering and its ultimate failure of vision, and his departure. He ends with this grouse:
America has enormous creative energy, but its industries are dominated by lawyers and accountants, not product people. Thirty years of financial engineering and short-term profit optimization has impaired the ability of American companies to innovate. Silver Lake had a chance to change that. We were succeeding. Then we gave up.
There’s the whiff of sour grapes here, but also the scent of truth. It’s hard to know how to read fresh disappointment. I hope we see more on Silver Lake, its promise and its path.
I took a class with Peter Galison last term, in which we studied the writing of Thomas Pynchon, particularly “Gravity’s Rainbow.” The book inspires many reactions at once. I found it obscene and sublime and beautiful and disgusting and engrossing and boring. The New York Times review in 1973 far outstripped me. It said:
Despite that, it won the National Book Award in 1973. It continues to amaze people. The artist Zak Smith was inspired in 2004 to make an illustration for every single page. Here is his take on Slothrop’s beach wear:
I don’t claim to get all of what’s going on in GR, and I don’t actually recommend it to people unless they’re willing to put a lot of work into it, including buying one of the guides to the novel, which run close to as long as the book itself. In my naive way, I don’t agree with some of Pynchon’s narrative choices. I think the book would not have suffered a bit if he’d axed certain scenes, or left them unsaid. But postmodern narrative is about as far from journalistic narrative as you can get, so who cares what I think?
The novel surfaced again in a class on the Bible in literature that I’m taking this term, which is focused on “Paradise Lost,” “Moby Dick” and “King Lear.” That last is there because the course actually covers the books the professor considers the most tremendous works in the English language, only he didn’t want to give the course that name. The professor, Gordon Teskey, made the comment in the first class that the other candidate for the reading list was “Gravity’s Rainbow.” (Teskey pointedly said that he was not calling these ‘the best’ works in the English language, but ‘the most tremendous’). You can certainly see Melville’s influence on Pynchon. Funnily enough to the modern reader, many reviewers in Melville’s day found Moby Dick a shocking and even obscene novel.
Galison came to speak to the Niemans not long ago, and he’s not unlike GR in his individual complexity (I should clarify that I find him neither disgusting nor openly obscene). He’s a physicist and historian of science who writes about fundamental practices of science. He also makes documentaries about visually challenging topics like storing nuclear waste and secrets. Here’s a lengthy piece profiling his work (and his somewhat legendary ability to go without sleep).
Lehrer did a straight piece, not delving into the criticism she’s received, which has mostly focused on why she double-checked with the spokesperson, P.J. Crowley, whether he was on the record. The comments highlight a tension within journalism, especially news reporting in all its forms. On the one hand, we present an ‘official’ record of events, thus establishing ourselves as part of the status quo. We want people to say things on the record, as a sign of its truth-with-a-small-t. On the other hand, the record often hides that truth-with-a-small-t. It can prevent us from carrying out one of the essential functions of journalism, preventing those in power and prominence from abusing their positions.
Why would a journalist check to make sure something was on the record? Not all journalists do. But there is a sense of fairness that governs journalism and our reaction to it. Had Philippa not asked, someone would have taken her to task for ambushing this poor Crowley fellow and causing him to be fired. Snarky things would have been said about the press’s insatiable and indecent lust for something sensational, the way it callously destroys lives in pursuit of gossip. Media has power. We see that when someone uses clandestine videotaping to entrap an NPR executive (I won’t call that activism - activism combats perceived societal ills). Some journalists, perhaps most, but by no means all, do not want to entrap people. So you identify yourself as a journalist and you may go further and warn people that you plan to report what they say. A journalist may reasonably and ethically think it important that in the context of an informal discussion, it is not enough to identify yourself as a journalist. You must also ensure that someone who has said something newsworthy recognizes that you intend to report it.
There will still be people who think it is absurd not to report the comment regardless. On the other hand, a beat reporter might actually wish that it was off the record. After all, Crowley is just a spokesperson, and almost certainly is saying what someone in actual power thinks. That story might be harder to get at now.
Of course, Philippa was not in a position where she would need to interact with Crowley again on stories, nor could she report on dissension at State. She had little incentive to protect him from himself. I’m taking a behavioral economics course, and economists would say what she did was thus not rational. But economists and psychologists note that in the Ultimatum game, some 15 percent to 20 percent of players still contribute money in the last round of the game, exactly the opposite of behavior economists would think ‘rational.’ Please note that economists call ‘rational’ what everyone else calls ’selfish.’ (That may say more about economists than it does about the rest of the world.) Such people model a better side of human nature.
But while I take Philippa’s request as a sign that she is modeling a better side of journalistic nature, I can’t avoid the critic who accused her of being a typical media suck-up. That gets us back to the tension of journalism: to be the ‘official’ voice for a community means not getting cut out by the various groups within the community, including its government. That creates a tension of, at the least, familiarity. It does challenge journalists and news organizations. It always will, and we who practice journalism must be on guard against giving favor to the powerful and prominent in order for them to speak to us. Happily, I was earlier this year a screener for a major journalism prize, the Worth Bingham Award for investigative reporting in newspapers. In a time when newspapers are widely acknowledged to be in decline, the depth of the submissions was incredible. It was agonizing to have to winnow down the field for the final round of judging. There was no sucking-up going on in those stories. There were more than 100 submissions, most of them with multiple parts. Looks like sucking-up isn’t so typical, after all.
Will Americans decide it’s time to borrow again? The Wall Street Journal thinks so. Its top story recently said U.S. families debt levels have fallen to below what they were in early 2005 (see Families slice debt to lowest in 6 years). The drop in debt, the paper told readers, means we consumers now are “in position to start spending more.”
I boggled at that statement, in part because it came in the same sentence that told us that families lowered their (our) debt “by defaulting on their loans and scrimping on expenses.” But mostly because the same story notes that debt levels still sit at 116 percent of disposable income. Just ten years ago it was below 100 percent of disposable income. There was little in the story that suggested that Americans were in much of a mood to spend. How do we derive this desperately hopeful first sentence from such an article?
Worse, on the jump page of this article (in the print edition), there is an article on China’s growth (see China Trade Rise Prompts Shifts Around the Globe). It features prominently a comment from Larry Summers, who predicts no one will remember the ‘Great Recession’ of 2008. We have pretty short memories, since we have short memories. Who remembers all the depressions and recession from before the Great one? For that matter, it’s almost certain that Summers will fade into obscurity. He was nowhere near as powerful as Andrew Mellon, and Mellon is largely forgotten today. But that same article featured this interesting comment from Robert Lawrence, a Harvard economist:
“The U.S. economy has become so specialized that less-skilled U.S. workers no longer compete head to head with emerging-economy workers.”
A lot of Americans probably feel like they’re not as skilled as they need to be. So why would they start borrowing now? This takes me back to the Journal’s top story, which seems to me to be muddle-headed, or at least based on wishful thinking.
There’s a lot of talk about America’s failing schools. Here at Harvard, there are flyers on bulletin boards blaring that U.S. students, versus those of other developed nations, place 15th in reading, 24th in science, 30th in math (I will not reproduce it, because the information on it will then stick in your minds as true). This morning I was flipping through Christian Century, which highlighted a contrarian blurb about these international test scores from something called Dissent. I went to look up the article in Dissent, which turns out to be a left-leaning magazine. In an article entitled “Got Dough? How Billionaires Rule Our Schools, it says:
Two of the three major international tests—the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study and the Trends in International Math and Science Study—break down student scores according to the poverty rate in each school. The tests are given every five years. The most recent results (2006) showed the following: students in U.S. schools where the poverty rate was less than 10 percent ranked first in reading, first in science, and third in math. When the poverty rate was 10 percent to 25 percent, U.S. students still ranked first in reading and science. But as the poverty rate rose still higher, students ranked lower and lower. Twenty percent of all U.S. schools have poverty rates over 75 percent. The average ranking of American students reflects this. The problem is not public schools; it is poverty. And as dozens of studies have shown, the gap in cognitive, physical, and social development between children in poverty and middle-class children is set by age three.
I found the data striking. A quick look at OECD data on income inequality suggests that the U.S. overall outperforms other countries that are less rich overall, but have similar poverty rates, such as Mexico and Turkey, the exception being Korea, which has some of the top scores in the world. On the TIMSS test (math and science for 8th graders), city-states like Hong Kong and Singapore and relatively small nations like Hungary (population about 10 million) do well. The only large nations that outperformed U.S. 8th graders in 2007 (the latest test) were Japan, England, and Russia. But remember that the U.S. is the world’s third-largest country by population, with 310 million citizens. Russia’s population is less than half that of America’s, Japan’s closer to one-third.
I may take some time to play with data on poverty levels and income, and compare it to test scores. I wish Dissent had done this, but it really wanted to whack big foundations like Gates and Broad and their growing influence on education policy.
It’s Ash Wednesday. Over breakfast, my children looked blankly at me as I attempted to explain to my children why people impose ashes on their heads. “Can we just get to Easter?” said one, looking for the pot of gold at the start of the rainbow.
In honor of which, I offer this link to Hot Tuna performing Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning. I also offer someone singing a rendition of T.S. Eliot’s The Hippopotamus (in which the hippo, though merely flesh and blood, among the saints shall be seen performing on a harp of gold).
Not sure why I can’t get the embed feature to work this a.m., but I can’t.
It puzzles me that Harvard offers no courses on non-fiction narrative. I like novels, but why the English department offers nothing on non-fiction as literature (except in the context of writing courses) seems a travesty of judgment.
If I were to pick five non-fiction narratives to build a course around, I think I would choose these:
“History of Standard Oil,” Ida Tarbell. Published in 1904, it established trusts as a thing that needed beating down by nothing less than the federal government. It made John D. Rockefeller infamous (and richer than ever), and established journalism that brooked power.
“Hiroshima,” John Hersey. A narrative from 1946 that still evokes awe amongst journalists, and chronicles the human effect of perhaps the most impactful technology of the 20th century.
The “Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamlined Baby,” by Tom Wolfe, 1965. I’m tempted to put Joan Didon’s excellent “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” instead, because of its connected narrative threads. But Wolfe’s style provoked more imitators (perhaps because it was easier to imitate than Didion) and I think a non-fiction narrative class needs to look at something by Wolfe. The nonfiction novel trend of the ’60s also merits mention, notably Wolfe’s “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” Mailer’s “Army of the Night” and Capote’s “In Cold Blood.”
“All The Presidents’ Men,” Woodward and Bernstein, 1974. Sparked the end of trusting in the powerful, and inspired a generation. Maybe two.
“The Perfect Storm,” Sebastian Junger. The book that confirmed narrative non-fiction as the most important kind of long-form writing at the end of the 20th century.
All of them electrified readers and writers alike, and I think established important cultural markers just like great novels. I’d take this class.