On the Absurd, Wearying AMERICAN SNIPER/Umix Controversy

When your university makes national news, and your freshmen are asking you what you think about it all, you should probably go ahead and say something.

1. Universities are, first and foremost, places to learn, and learning hurts. It destabilizes. It can drive you insane. That’s just part of the ball game. If a film professor wants to show American Sniper and discuss its qualities as a work of art, she should do so. If a propaganda historian wants to show American Sniper and discuss its ideological implications, she should do so. If a support group for student-veterans wants to show the film for its cathartic and therapeutic qualities, they should do so. If a student wants to watch the film in his room, he should do so. All of that is Freedom of Speech 101 and I condemn any view that would water it down.

(PS: Insofar as a little-read Twitter account is “public,” I’ve already publicly opposed trigger exemptions on syllabi; scroll down).

2. Campuses are also social spaces. Umix is, my students tell me, the “dry” alternative to another bar-crawling Friday night. In addition to scheduling, canceling, and then rescheduling American Sniper, its recent activities include “Build-A-Bear, Massages, Bingo…Karaoke, Asian Food Buffet, DYO Picture Frames, Inflatable Laser Tag and more!” Umix is not a film society. Umix is not, from the sound of things, particularly educational. It’s the equivalent of the pool table in the dorm basement.

3. Throwing an all-ages, PG-rated, for-the-entire-student-body event, a dry event (which religion forbids alcohol again?), at a school located near Dearborn, and then showing a movie that praises the courage of those who fought in a war of choice against Arabs, is, at best, like inviting all your Japanese friends to go see Bataan with you. It’s a like using church funds to throw a Sunday school class party where everyone watches Irreversible followed by Cannibal Holocaust. It’s just a weird move.

4. Canceling all campus screenings of American Sniper would be censorship and no sensible person should stand for it. Canceling this screening, and replacing it with an inoffensive and surprisingly well-made kids’ movie, is effective event planning.

5. I am not sure how far I want to enter into the controversy around Chris Kyle himself. I certainly do not condemn him. Had he adopted any other attitude than “they were animals” toward the people he shot, he may not have survived deployment. That is no justification of the war itself, but since Chris Kyle is not the architect of the war—that distinction belongs not only to the Bush Administration, but to many, many liberals and even some leftists—it would be unfeeling to blame him for getting through it on whatever terms were available to him. Certainly Michael Moore’s comments regarding his “cowardice” were absurd; just about anyone who signs up to fight in an army is brave. (It is unfortunate that our culture celebrates this form of bravery so much more, and more officially, than other forms of bravery, but that doesn’t make soldiers less brave.) Of course courage is no guarantee of the rightness of one’s cause; I’m sure Confederate soldiers had brass balls, and they were fighting for slavocracy. Our soldiers in Iraq were fighting—on pain of imprisonment, or death, or the death of their fellow-soldiers—for the lies of our foreign-policy establishment, which those soldiers had no hand in creating. Ideally we’d find a way to honor their selfless courage while regretting the purposes to which it was put, but that doesn’t make a good bumper sticker.

6. But while I’m on the subject, there is one argument that I heard regarding American Sniper and Chris Kyle that I will go ahead and grump about. I heard again and again, when the film was first released, that critics of the film or Kyle are attacking someone who “fought for them.” This would be totally admissible if we were talking about the Revolutionary War. It would be totally admissible if we were talking about the Union side in the Civil War. (If you’re white and Southern, you could also apply it to the Confederate Army.) When we come to Vietnam and Iraq and Grenada it’s not admissible at all. Who seriously believes that the average American’s safety was protected, their rights advanced by those wars? And I have heard enough disgruntled talk about civilians from veterans—one of whom once said, in front of me, “`Thank you for your service,’ they say. I didn’t do it for your lazy ass,” thus implying that every non-veteran in the room was a bad, lazy person—that I feel pretty skeptical regarding the claim “Chris Kyle fought for you.”

7. This touches on the meaning of patriotism. Of course it does. Members of my own family have more than once called me “unpatriotic” for voicing opinions like this. But I believe in an America that Chris Kyle can live in, and where every veteran comes home to a safe job, decent pay, and all the help they need, at whatever expense. I believe in an America that asks him (and all able-bodied adult citizens, including me) to defend, but never to invade. Meanwhile, during the Iraq War, I heard proponents of the war say, again and again, without any qualification, that everyone who protested the war was committing treason. Treason is a capital offense. This doctrine was a more immediate threat to the liberties and lives of millions of actually existing Americans than any Iraqi. So is the national security state that that war helped bring into being (and that Obama has continued to nurture). So is the assumption that black men are inherently criminal. There’s more than one way to threaten American rights, and more than one way to fight for them.

8. You should go see Paddington, seriously. It’s way funnier than the trailers.

“I am Taking a Religious View of a Form That Is Very Earthly”: What Do These Words Mean to James Wood?

James Wood is a vexed subject. Like Jonathan Franzen, he inspires such polarized reactions that I can’t even begin to recognize the writer I read—who does some great work and some bad work, some beautiful pieces with dumb moments in them and some dumb pieces with the occasional sentence that brings you up short—in the reputation that billows around him. And again like Franzen, he seems to have gotten cast as the figurehead of various ideas and tendencies to a degree that completely overshadows anything I find on the page. In the mid-2000s, he was decried as a proponent of Biedermeier novels, a latter-day John Updike; the term “social realism” was, rather bizarrely, redefined from its original meaning (Soviet-era boy-meets-tractor stories) and used to describe the kind of fiction he was supposed to prefer. When he proved to have a larger and more flexible view of fiction than this stereotype allowed for, and championed writers outside his supposed bailiwick, this was taken as further evidence of his perfidy. When people hate you for being a way, and then also for being any other way, the problem is not you. This is prosecutor logic, or gameplaying.

All of this should not be taken to mean that I invariably agree with him, love him, or even read everything he writes. I am an adult with a job, and I have sat out at least a few Wood-related Twitter cycles. Yesterday this interview came to my attention, especially this bit:

Could there, I asked Wood, be such a thing as a religious novel– a book that is positively for God, not against him?

“Probably not,” he replied. “I can only think of bad Christian novels, like Graham Greene’s. There are mystical novels—To the Lighthouse, Mrs Dalloway—and in The Brothers Karamazov you have something like the iconostasis in a Russian Orthodox cathedral: certain panels, like those about Father Zossima or the parable of the grand inquisitor, uphold the faith that Dostoevsky undermines elsewhere. Maybe Moby-Dick qualifies too, though at the cost of being undramatic or essayistic or poetic. Perhaps narrative is inherently secular. It corrugates things, bends them too much to stay religious, as Dostoevsky wisely feared. Among contemporaries, Marilynne Robinson comes closest in Gilead, which is about a Congregationalist pastor in Iowa who’s dying—though she has to sacrifice a lot of the novel’s innate comedy and dynamism on the altar of high thought. The novel is a comic form, because it’s about our absurdities and failings. We’re told that Jesus wept, but never that he laughed.”

My first thought is that, on this reading, the Bible itself is not good religious writing at all. The OT patriarchs are notoriously corrugated. (This was one of the French Enlightenment’s big problems with the OT.) Jesus’ disciples are corrugated; the New Testament goes out of its way to portray them as clueless and intermittently treacherous. (“Get thee behind me, Satan.”) Wood seems to think that a “properly” religious novel would call no attention to the fact that religious people have feet of clay. It seems to me that such a fiction, if it could even exist, would be incredibly dangerous, to that religion most of all. What an inducement to self-righteousness.

The more I think about it, the less I understand what Wood thinks a properly religious or, since that’s what he’s really talking about here, properly Christian fiction might be. Does he think The Brothers Karamazov, which actually kept me in the fold when I was eighteen, would be even more “Christian” of a novel if we edited out Father Ferapont, the sudden rotting of Zossima’s body, or the great confrontation between Ivan and Alyosha? These are what make the book work as a piece of fiction, and also as a work of Christian art. They allow the reader to entertain other possible ways of life seriously, and make it possible for Alyosha’s continued belief (and mine, the first time I read it) to demonstrate, not its Final Triumph over those alternatives, but its durability against them, and its ability to survive change. Since I take it that Final Triumph isn’t on the table right now, for anyone—nobody really knows what the hell is going on here, and we don’t find out till we’re dead—a book that shows how Christian faith can sustain, deepen, fortify, and provoke growth in the character of a thinking adult is doing all the work a Christian novel would need to do. Flaws and ridiculousness are very much to the point.

It occurs to me that Wood’s comments make sense if we swap out one word: wherever he says “religious,” read “fanatical.” And I’d agree that there are no good fanatic novels. Left Behind, Walden Two, Atlas Shrugged, The Celestine Prophecy: they all have their fans, but what those people love is the clarifying and simplifying power of having only one answer to every question. (Talk about lifehacking!) Truth in these novels is something suddenly announced to the world from without, rather than messily lived through, and with, and toward. If that’s Christianity, or religion more generally, or the novel, you can keep them all. I will keep attending to whatever it is that Robinson is doing in Gilead, or Dostoevsky in Karamazov, or for that matter what Al Green is doing in his music. And what James Wood does, intermittently, in the best of his criticism, when he’s not falsely pitting the two great, tortured loves of his life, God and the novel, against each other.

23 More People You Meet at a Christian College

Candace Lowry, a writer for Buzzfeed, just posted a list of “23 People You Meet at a Christian College.” I was impressed by her accuracy (I could still give you #19’s name and major, fourteen years after Calvin) but, on Twitter, found myself adding a bit to the record… and getting, toward the end, a little mushy in the process. 

1. The Professor Who Cannot Get Out of Bed Without Quoting Walker Percy About It

2. The Bros For Whom Bible Study, Accountability Partnership, and Powerlifting Fuse Into One XTreme Activity

3. The Guy Who Writes Into the Christian Feminism Listserv To Talk About “Modesty”

4. The Person Who Has a Weird Dream About Marrying a Near-Stranger and Figures It’s a Divine Message

5. The Worship Leader Who Clings Pathetically To Any Scrap of Evidence That Bono Still Believes

6. The Incredibly and Justifiably Frustrated Diversity Coordinator

7. The Chaplain Who You Can Tell Kinda Wants to Give Gay People a Break, Already, But Can’t Quite Manage

8. The Protestant Who Wants To Be Catholic So Bad It Hurts

9. The Horny, Guilty Demivierge

10. The Person Who Quotes Paul on Church Unity To Win Every Single Argument

11. The Person Who Quotes Marilynne Robinson Way Too Much (Oh, Shit, That’s Me)

12. The Person Who Just Came Back from Guatemala And Gets Mad When You Run the Hot Water

13. The Woman Who Kissed Dating Goodbye

14. The Couple That Reads Elizabeth Elliott Together

15. The Dormful of Guys Who Play Weirdly Homoerotic Tackling-Based Games At Night

16. The Biblical and Systematic Theologians Who Get Along Like the Jets and the Sharks

(…And, switching gears a bit):

17. The Lit Professor Who Has Tons of Work To Do But Instead Spends the Whole Afternoon Saving Your Life

18. The Missionary Kid Who Patiently Explains To You Why American Hegemony Sucks

19. The Math Prof Who Starts Every Class With Prayer, and It’s Actually Really Sweet

20. The Philosophy Prof Who is Smarter Than Every Snarky Atheist On the Internet

21. The Econ Prof Who Lives On Sixty Percent of His Income and Gives the Rest to Charity

22. The Lone Feminist In Every Department Who Patiently Endures in Well Doing

23. The Professoriate That Views You as a Whole Person and Not an “Education Consumer”

“I Have Been the Witch and I Have Been the Hunted”: My Time in an Internet Mob

Jon Ronson has written a very powerful story for the New York Times on what happens to non-famous people whose moments of shame go viral. In particular, he focuses on Justine Sacco, who tweeted an offensive joke about AIDS in Africa, became internationally notorious, and got fired, within a matter of hours.

The article is powerful and alarming, and you should read it. Equally, you should read Tressie’s thoughts on the same issue, which are rather good even by her standards:

Once, I applied for a crappy job. Despite my credentials and experience, the owner of the company told me that he had hired “a black” before and she quit without giving two weeks notice. The owner was “understandably” anxious about hiring another black. Understandably. When you have “a race” you are always standing in the gap for all the people with a race. 

But since white people do not think of ourselves as belonging to a “race” in the same sense—when a white guy cuts you off in traffic you think “What an asshole that individual is,” while when a black guy does it, you think, “What assholes those people are”—and since we have the numbers and power to impose our delusive race categories on others while rarely being forced into one ourselves, we are rarely forced to stand in for all white people in this manner. (Nor should we be.) The public shaming of a Justine Sacco, or an Elizabeth Lauten, represents a rare opportunity for people of color to turn this particular table. “Being stripped of your personhood to stand in the gap for a group of people against your will is rage inducing. It simmers through your veins,” Tressie writes (and she would know, since this is her daily and hourly experience). “It is horrible to lose a job for that. It is a privilege to have never before lost a job for that.”

I love many things about Tressie’s piece. For one thing, I’m glad to see a prominent thinker who’s out on the farther-left-than-“The Daily Show” end of the spectrum actually acknowledge that there may be something wrong with treating people in this fashion even if they are racist. (In Justine Sacco’s case, even that much isn’t clear—the point of her joke may have been, as she insists, misunderstood due to its sloppy construction, and her South African family does have a history of support for Nelson Mandela.) On Left Twitter, it often seems as if decisions about whether mere common decency or sense or proportionality even apply are debated solely in terms of a) what’s strategically effective and b) who’s on what end of a power differential. “There is no good or evil, only power,” said Voldemort to Harry Potter, and there will always be a slice of both the left and right that agrees.

But Tressie’s piece is, far more importantly, a reminder to those of us who feel sorry for Justine Sacco that we’d better not stop there. The internet’s power to humiliate is rarely levied against so privileged and resilient a target. More often it’s used against white women who say the wrong thing about a video game, or black women who argue for explicit-verbal-consent laws and always-believe-the-accuser-in-a-rape-case policies. (Note: I have serious reservations about that whole movement. For reasons. But I do think you should get to make the argument without having your fucking life ruined. Also, obviously, I think men should stop committing rape, threatening rape, and treating rape as a joke.) More often the internet’s shaming power is used against poor people whose crime was looking funny and poor and shopping at Wal-Mart. (Haw! It’s funny because human frailty!) More often it’s used against black people who are guilty of just standing around. Quite often it’s used against black people who are guilty of having just had something horrible done to them. Within hours of his death, we had all seen the photos of Michael Brown smoking pot. Meanwhile, his killer, Darren Wilson, a man who shot a child, a man who would later tell the grand jury a hilariously melodramatic story about his fears that Brown (who had already taken multiple shots) would “bulk up” and charge through a hail of bullets like goddamn Juggernaut, a man whose main supporting witness was almost certainly a fraud—that man went on enjoying his anonymity for considerably longer.

So, yeah. It’s not that you shouldn’t feel sorry for Justine Sacco, or even mad on her behalf. But please don’t stop there.

One time, a few years ago, I found myself closer than usual to the heart of one of these incidents. The victim was not a powerless person of color, but a relatively powerful white woman, a tenured professor, a well-regarded novelist. In fact she was my thesis advisor. I had had a good experience at the MFA program at University of South Carolina-Columbia, on the whole, and I had had a friendly relationship with Janette Turner Hospital, my adviser. I also mostly liked or loved my colleagues, and I liked the other faculty. Nothing I’m about to say should be taken as critical of any of them. I intend to criticize me, and Gawker, but mostly me.

As I say, I had no particular reason to complain about JTH, but I heard some stories from colleagues—people I found credible (and a few I didn’t)—whom she’d treated rudely, and I’d even witnessed one or two interactions where it seemed to me that she was unnecessarily harsh. In particular, students in the cohort behind me were hurt and alarmed to learn that she had accepted a visiting professorship at Columbia University, which, as any graduate student knows, is a serious disruption to a person’s life. It wasn’t entirely surprising when, a few months after I left and a few weeks after she did, she sent our listserv an email back from Columbia, “a very different MFA planet,” that came off airily condescending. “[T]here’s only one other place I’ve ever taught where there was a comparable atmosphere, and that was MIT, where I taught for 3 years,” ran one typical passage. It was hard not to see the omission of USC as a rather cruelly pointed one.

That wasn’t surprising, and it wasn’t surprising when my old colleagues were livid. To the (unavoidable) injury of having to find a new thesis advisor or committee member, she had certainly added some insult. I felt they had valid grounds for anger.

It was a little more surprising when the thing got picked up by Gawker. (You can do the googling yourself.)

It seems to me that Gawker could serve, and occasionally has served, a real social function. I like some of the writers. The site has begun to move into genuine journalism, with occasionally brilliant results. And they used to sign the paychecks of one of the country’s most necessary political commentators, Maureen Tkacik. But, I mean, the site is literally called Gawker. It feasts on the private shames and embarrassments (or even the mere misfortunes) of people unlucky enough to have names that generate pageviews. It is a Murdoch tabloid for people who wear black-plastic-framed glasses. No one should be surprised that the site is owned and run by a rich Tory snob; Gawker’s entire M.O. is Tory. It appeals to the part of us that likes a good public flogging. No matter how often its writers attack homophobes, sexists, Republicans, et cetera, the basic workings of the site are as conservative as the Coliseum.

I don’t think anybody deserves the kind of massive humiliation and free indirect scorn they dish out.

That’s not strictly true. I think war criminals deserve it. I think Henry Kissinger deserves it. I think the people who wrecked our economy deserve it. I think Jamie Dimon deserves it. I think in the case of people so powerful and so corrupt that they can’t be gotten by any other means, it’s probably OK to go ahead and tell the world about their weird private problems. RT their weirdly worded household Post-It missives till they’re confined to bed with a panic attack. JTH? Even her worst enemies wouldn’t put her in that category. And she was not my enemy at all.

But, as the shaming unfolded, I didn’t venture even the mildest word in her defense. Worse, I followed the entire mini-scandal with the kind of, well, gawking avidity that I usually consider myself above. There were a couple of reasons for my silence. One is that her apparent attitude toward her old students had made me question our relationship. Were her kind comments on my thesis just a case of damning with fake praise, like the things you say in a recommendation letter for an employee you’re dying to be rid of? Another is that, as I’ve said, I saw genuine anguish in my colleagues’ reactions to her behavior, particularly the email, and I didn’t want to risk sounding even mildly critical of people in pain. I can defend both of those reactions. What I can’t defend is that the whole painful spectacle entertained me.

Most of the people who tweeted their “shock” and “anger” about Justine Sacco were of course feeling neither emotion. They were deeply amused. Ronson touches on this in his story.

The anger soon turned to excitement: “All I want for Christmas is to see @JustineSacco’s face when her plane lands and she checks her inbox/voicemail” and “Oh man, @JustineSacco is going to have the most painful phone-turning-on moment ever when her plane lands” and “We are about to watch this @JustineSacco bitch get fired. In REAL time. Before she even KNOWS she’s getting fired.”

The furor over Sacco’s tweet had become not just an ideological crusade against her perceived bigotry but also a form of idle entertainment. Her complete ignorance of her predicament for those 11 hours lent the episode both dramatic irony and a pleasing narrative arc. As Sacco’s flight traversed the length of Africa, a hashtag began to trend worldwide: #HasJustineLandedYet. “Seriously. I just want to go home to go to bed, but everyone at the bar is SO into #HasJustineLandedYet. Can’t look away. Can’t leave” and “Right, is there no one in Cape Town going to the airport to tweet her arrival? Come on, Twitter! I’d like pictures #HasJustineLandedYet.”

It’s often remarked that the Internet is making it harder for our society to find a way to ensure that artists and writers are paid for their work. Usually this conversation has to do with the ease with which we can steal and pirate intellectual property, but it’s also true that novelists, songwriters, and filmmakers must struggle to compete with the free spectacle offered by other peoples’ Googleable misjudgments. It is so easy to watch; it requires even less emotional and intellectual commitment than does TV (which has gone serialized and insists on being enjoyed in rigid sequence, like a prix-fixe dinner.) It takes willpower not to join in, especially if the victim seems racist, or cluelessly privileged, or (as in my old advisor’s case) unaware of the rule of American life that says we must hate a condescender even more than we hate a site that professionally traffics in gossip. To the obvious reasons any moralist might present for exerting that bit of willpower—because it’s not fair; because, with that measure ye mete …; because hearsay and rumor could make criminals of any of us; because any abuse we condone in our dealings with the powerful will be used tenfold on those without power—I can make one small addition: because you’ll feel like such an asshole later.

Penelope Fitzgerald’s Novels, Ranked

9. The Golden Child (1976)
The last person I ranked in this manner was Muriel Spark, whose first novel is so freakishly well-realized that it just made me want to subside into nonexistence, like that book’s villain, Mrs. Hogg. Accordingly, then, I must thank Fitzgerald from the bottom of my heart for writing an OK first book that does not read as if it descended from heaven on a throw pillow made of angel pubes. It’s really discouraging when people do that, and the ho-hum quality of this mock-mystery novel about a fake museum exhibit gives the struggling would-be writer some hope.

Don’t bother with The Golden Child unless you’re crazily devoted, is what I’m saying.

8. Innocence (1986)
Don’t be fooled by the low ranking; from here on, pretty much the entire Fitzgerald canon is indispensable. This one is famous for a) initiating her “historical novels” phase and b) containing a beautifully-felt cameo by Antonio Gramsci. It is an utterly fresh romantic comedy with shadows around the edges. But every writer has that weapon she or he is prone to overusing, and for Fitzgerald, funnily enough, it’s understatement. The description of an episode in the (fictitious) history of the Ridolfi family at the beginning, which casts a symbolic shadow over the whole book, is always mentioned by critics as an example of Fitzgerald’s cleverness and subtlety; I think they actually talk about it because they’re proud they figured it out.

7-6. At Freddie’s (1982) and Human Voices (1980)
A toss-up, I love them both so much. They’re both among Fitzgerald’s early “autobiographical” novels (the others are The Bookshop and Offshore) and they’re both notable for not reading anything at all like novels involving “autobiographical material” are supposed to read. The narrator is almost inhumanly impartial to the characters most similar to the author, and wonderfully generous to everyone else. (Penelope Fitzgerald must have been a hell of a fun officemate, at least before life wore her down.) The happy endings are deeply equivocal, as earthly happiness must always be.

At Freddie‘s builds a wonderfully satisfying conflict between a woman of the theatre, running a perpetually down-at-the-heels acting school in London, all of whose personal power and influence come from her immense and classically theatrical denial of all the actual circumstances of her life, and her employee, a guy so morbidly honest that he makes Samuel Johnson look evasive. Dreams, meet Reality. This is a beautiful “Nobody gets what they want” novel, and finds its place this low on the list because it’s outshone, not because it isn’t, on its own terms, awfully bright.

Human Voices (and the title alone gives it a slight edge over At Freddie’s: at once an Eliotic allusion just right for the characters and mood, a description of the BBC Radio milieu in which the characters work, and a reference to the rumor-heavy hubbub of wartime) is perhaps the novel of Fitzgerald’s that pushes furthest her notion of erotic love as a beautiful and necessary catastrophe. You root for this book’s central couple, knowing that they’re going to bring each other misery. It’s the theme Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind wanted to have, but the characters weren’t fully realized enough to embody it the way this book does. (Fitzgerald’s Innocence also treats of this sort of relationship, in a way that looks a little broad only when you compare it to the infinite subtlety of Human Voices.)  To bring Eliot back into the conversation, Fitzgerald writes about love the way Eliot’s Magi speak of the birth of Christ. And I think she writes truly.

5. The Beginning of Spring (1988)
Bears in the dining room. Prerevolutionary Russian mystics. A sexy au pair. And an image so spooky and lovely that I won’t say a word about it, even though one of Fitzgerald’s stupider paperback publishers has chosen to spoil the whole thing with a cover illustration.

4. The Gate of Angels (1990)
Readers of Hermione Lee’s Fitzgerald biography are oppressed by the knowledge that Fitzgerald began a book about the Inklings that she didn’t live to finish. It’s a foregone conclusion that this would have been the greatest novel of all time. On the day of its publication, bells would have rung, Lycidas would have returned from the sea’s bosom, ISIS would melt down their guns and declare war on frowning, the snow would have mounted on its frozen feet and commenced shoveling itself with a “Terribly sorry for the mess,” and “Hey Ya” would have sounded fresh again. However, if I had to pick any other period in the history of Oxbridge life for Fitzgerald to finish her book about, as consolation, it would be Cambridge at the dawn of modern physics, among handwringing men with apologetic faces and eccentric social habits who, half unmeaning (Eliot again!), disturbed the Newtonian universe. Anyone paying attention at this point could have seen that Fitzgerald had long since gathered to a greatness.

3. The Bookshop (1978)
(But what is “greatness,” anyway? Are we more in need of small portraits perfectly realized or large, difficult things brought off right? B: Yes. A: This book.)

2. The Blue Flower (1995)
And having gathered to a greatness, Fitzgerald flames out, like shining from shook foil.

I am tempted to accede to consensus here and put Blue Flower at number one. It is certainly the book that forced even the most dismissive old sexists in the British bookchat industry to admit that the dowdy lady comedian-of-manners was a genius. It is the most obviously innovative of her books, Cubist in its use of point of view (you often have no idea who is narrating or from where). It is, at least, a great choice to read if you don’t plan to read any other Fitzgerald. You’ll be moved (as much by the delicate beauty of the book’s structure, the sense it constantly creates of sudden affinities between widely-separated details, as by the pitiable lives narrated), and you’ll get why German Romanticism is a major literature ill-served by the English language.

1. Offshore (1979)
If there’s a distinction to be made between “early” and “late” Fitzgerald, it is radically not one of quality. Nor does it have to do with emotional force. I am not sure a novel has ever left me sadder.

New essay on Penelope Fitzgerald

This piece appeared about a month ago in the Christian Courier, a ragtag fugitive Canadian Reformed newspaper on a lonely quest to stay in business without dumbing down. I reprint it here with their kind permission. If for some reason you have Protestant leanings and/or like my work, consider subscribing. They are really cool people.

Historical novels generally work by immersion. Like Pixar movies or the better sort of video game, they bludgeon you with detail, distracting you with endless small sensible facts from any thought of the present-day world. This is a perfectly sensible method, yet the layers and layers of explanation—President Lincoln lifted the yellowed, battered envelope from the desk. Like most mail, it took months getting anywhere, and arrived travel-stained, smelling of gin…—implicitly acknowledge, and thus reinforce, the reader’s sense of distance from the very world into which these details initiate us.

For a few chapters, Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower (1995) pretends to be this kind of book. Jacob Dietmahler, a German student, arrives at the estate of his friend Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg, AKA Fritz, AKA Novalis, who we know (if for no other reason than that we’ve read the blurb) will become a major German Romantic poet and, through his impact on George MacDonald and C.S. Lewis, a formative influence on modern fantasy literature. It’s laundry day when they arrive, so we pick up a few details about what minor German nobility of the late eighteenth century wore, and how often it got cleaned (only once a year, in the Hardenbergs’ case: a massive, daylong operation). One by one, conveniently, the Hardenburgs introduce themselves to Dietmahler, who will be, it seems, our point-of-view character.

Sixteen pages in, the bottom drops out. Dietmahler disappears—we don’t see him again for over half the book. Orderly sequence of event gives way to potted biographies, short out-of-context conversations, poetic asides, scene-setting details for scenes that barely arrive, all of this cheek-a-jowl on the page, sometimes together in the same paragraph. Constantly, Fitzgerald plays with our distance from the time period, at times speaking of the characters with great and easy intimacy, and at times turning essayist or intellectual historian, throwing details over her shoulder that none of the characters could possibly know: “It was at this time, when Fritz was emptying the sick room chamberpots, and later … that he was first described in a letter by the critic Friedrich Schlegel.” Who in the story knows this? Where is this narrator talking from? By the end of the book, we have, in this way, been Fritz’s friend, his fiancee, his protective and confused mother, his eventual readers, his intellectual heirs. He exists for us on many levels at once, as does—we realize with a gasp—the mystical, neoplatonic world that his works describe: a world in which brokenness and perfection somehow live together in a companionable, elderly-German-couple silence. In other words, the book enacts, in its structure, the world Novalis imagined, and tried to live in: a world in which Fritz’s short, disappointing life and Novalis’s long literary triumph coinhere.

The Blue Flower is the most obviously experimental of Fitzgerald’s nine novels, but it shares with its predecessors her amazing subtlety, her humor, and her predilection for meditative rather than chronologically linear structure. Most of all, it shares those books’ attachment to the sorts of characters that Hermione Lee, in her excellent new biography of Fitzgerald, describes as follows: “‘[D]ecent chaps’ who struggled and did not succeed…women who were always interrupted…vulnerable children…people who loved silently and without much hope.” She writes of defeats so small, so decorous, and so final that at least some of the characters barely register them as such. The hero of The Bookshop (1978) opens a bookshop in a provincial English town, and is ruined by the aspersions of an obnoxious blueblood. Offshore (1979) concerns a romantic relationship that never quite gets around to existing except in the minds of its two principals. Human Voices (1980) and At Freddie’s (1981) concern themselves with requited and unrequited love affairs, respectively, both equally doomed. And so on, through the series of historical novels that capped her career—Innocence (1986), The Beginning of Spring (1988), The Gate of Angels (1990), and The Blue Flower, her recognized masterpiece. Only God could lavish more loving attention on losers than Penelope Fitzgerald does.

There are two things about Lee’s biography, meticulously researched and marvelously organized as it is, that make the book hard to finish. First, it shows, in pitiless detail, that Fitzgerald loved, and was, these people in life, not only in art. Her husband was a well-intentioned failure, an ineffectual drunk with whom she’d stopped sleeping by the early ‘60s, a period that she spent too busy to write (!), cadging a living from ill-paying jobs, raising too-thin children on a leaky houseboat. Which sank. I would not wish Fitzgerald’s midlife on a bank robber, let alone on one of the great postwar English novelists. (The other is Muriel Spark. There is no third.) Secondly, when Fitzgerald does at last “succeed,” she is still subject to the most appalling male condescension this side of Mad Men. Her first publisher refers to his backlist of woman-written novels as “a branch of gynecology.” Literary journalists call her “shy Penelope.” After she wins the Booker Prize for Offshore, she sits, bemused, through a BBC panel discussion devoted to the proposition that the judges picked the wrong book. (They didn’t.)

Such is often the fate of the smart, compassionate, epigrammatic novel that nobody describes as “sprawling,” that doesn’t lend itself to panel discussions of The Contemporary Situation, that takes up more space in the memory than on the bookshelf. It is only partial compensation to see these books enjoy the sort of gradual triumph that culminates in the sort of fat, loving, judicious biography that Hermione Lee has written. But the lateness of Fitzgerald’s reward only reinforces the insight, ultimately theological, to which this quietly devoted Anglican writer’s novels bear witness: Humans are too hopelessly ill-adapted to this life for it to be the only one.

What are Extremists? A Follow-Up Post, In Which I Leave Myself More Confused Than Ever

Matt Lind, an old college friend, and the person whose Facebook comment I was partially taking off from in my last post, left a comment that I couldn’t help replying to. Because I found that comment growing into a monstrous tumor of opinion, and because I also found myself going into greater detail about philosophical stances of mine that have confused some readers in the past, I thought I’d just let this comment spread its wings and fly… fly! … [CRASH]

Matt writes: 

Phil, I like that you made this a critique of language policing generally. I agree that my comments were sloppy. I think that when I think of extremism, though, what I mean is someone, whether left or right, who does not believe in evidence and mathematics. If your argument is purely and lazily anecdotal, or worse, counterfactual (read, American Sniper), then you meet my definition of an extremist.

My main point of disagreement with you here is that I no longer find any virtues in moral certitude. What I think unites extremists is their opposition to reason, i.e., recognizing that perfect is not an option or real. Rather there is merely better or worse. Also, in my mind, supporting gay marriage because you think the Bible supports it is just as dangerous as opposing gay marriage because you think the Bible opposes it.

Well, Matt, first of all, thanks for playing along gracefully. I felt almost a little mean using a Facebook status as an example of The Problems With This Debate. Social media posts are revealing because they show the language closest-to-hand in any situation, the issue-framings we almost can’t help using. But there’s also something uncharitable about treating them as if they are well-thought-out statements (like, say, a BLOG COMMENT, amirite?). But your comment stuck in my head and I kept mentally arguing with it, and that is where my essays tend to come from, for better or worse. Thank you for not taking offense at being thus used. I hope you’ll excuse these further liberties.

When I know that yours is the definition of “extremist” that’s in play—uninterested in evidence, dismissive of facts and logic—then I, too, reject extremism. I don’t know whether that’s the meaning the word has in most peoples’ minds. Maybe it is. I could be inferring a different meaning than a lot of people here; I honestly don’t know. I also wonder whether “extremist” may be like “pretentious,” “elitist,” “condescending,” “hipster,” “moderate,” “cool,” “it is what it is,” etc. in not having much determinable meaning anymore. (In that case, I’m not blaming you; that’s just language.)

Re your second paragraph: Hmm. I bet there are strong (i.e., reasonable) philosophical arguments that “reason” does not equal “recognizing that perfect is not an option” (and also that “not an option” does not equal “real”), but I’ll leave that aside, because I don’t feel like doing that research, let alone deciding whether I agree with those arguments today right now this minute. I’m just sticking a Post-It on something that I think may be a harder problem than it looks.

When it comes to politics, I share—deeply—the belief that it is definitely best to think in terms of “better and worse.” Many folks who are labeled extremists do so, though, including the folks under discussion in Chait’s essay, so I’m not sure that’s exactly where your (our) issue with them lies. In fact, I can definitely think of a reading of “language policing” in which it’s seen as a giant left-wing throwing-in of the towel, an abandonment of the struggle for perfection. We can’t get a living wage; we can’t get folks to think seriously about the humanity of black people in prison; we can’t get people to see why it’s good for health insurance plans to deliver a suffering soul from the horror that is gender dysphoria (seriously, I’ve heard it described as feeling like you’re looking at your own body after a massive car accident, twenty-four-seven, for years. That sense of sickening wrongness. No wonder trans folks find themselves committing suicide at wildly disproportionate rates.). We can’t get people to believe that “common good” is a thing. We’ve given up on persuading the broader society of any left-wing vision whatsoever. So instead we’ll pester people already more or less in our circle about what they call other people until at least that is “fixed.” That’s not aiming at perfect. I’m not sure what it is.

But notice that I’ve already contradicted myself a bit: I say it is “best” not to think in terms of “best.” How would I know? I thought there was no “best”?

I also would quibble with the language “supporting gay marriage because you think the Bible supports it.” The kind of Christian I was describing there is somebody who already maybe has abandoned simplistic statements about what the Bible “supports,” given that it was written by multiple hands over a long time period and changes position blatantly on several things (“Eeeewww, eunuchs! Aaaaahhh hates eunuchs!”/”Nevermind, I love eunuchs! They’re my special little guys!”). You believe enough of it to want a relationship with the God it is talking about, in its wildly varying ways. You like the glimpses you see there (in the feeding of the five thousand, in Mark’s subversive resurrection account, in Joseph’s reunion with his brothers, in Paul wishing himself damned if that would save other people) of a being, a personality, enough that you’re willing to stake your life on the questionable possibility that that person even exists. Because to be human is to stake yourself on things that can be questioned. (I’ll get back to this in a minute.)

So it’s not the painting but the person painted.

But even if I DID accept that description of how I believe, I’m not sure why “I think the Bible says this, and I find the Bible reliable, so…” would be more dangerous than…whatever you’re proposing I base my conduct on instead. I could make some guesses about what this is—human rights, democracy, Enlightenment goodness, whatever—but I don’t want to put any more words in your mouth than I have to. Certainly these discourses, much as I admire them and use them, are a) awfully indebted to Christianity and b) perfectly liable, like Christianity, to abuse and fanaticism. The Iraq War was sold far more in terms of “spreading democracy” than in the explicitly religious “crusade” language that Bush also used, for example. (And Bush’s people were also wont to explain themselves in terms of a pomo relativism straight out of a graduate seminar room, something else I always want to point out when people talk about that White House’s noxiousness as the sole product of fanatical Christianism. Cards on the table: I think if George W. Bush were actually gripped by the conviction that Iraqis were made in the image of God, which is basic Christian doctrine, we wouldn’t have heard word one about that God-damned monstrosity.)

Maybe the thing that you find less dangerous as a basis for conduct is something else. That’s fine. My God is a debatable God (that’s kind of part of the point) and I have a pretty ready sympathy for people who can’t swallow those convictions—or who have never even given them a second thought. (I think that’s charity, which is something else I find in my religion.) I do hope, though, Matt, that you’re not going to come back at me with some version of “I think you should get your values from Science.” I hope you won’t do that, because I’ve always been enormously fond of you and I hate it when people I’m fond of lapse into word salad. Every few years a pundit writes a book about how science can replace philosophy and religion, how we can cross the Is-Ought gap; I still haven’t heard a version of the argument that I can even laugh at. I honestly find “Palestinian peasant gets pregnant with God” easier to swallow.

We’ve all got our little black box of convictions, even if yours is just “convictions are dangerous.” (I’d like to see the math formula that gets a person all the way to that one without any element of the arbitrarily believed-in.) We get to all of them by a leap of faith, a decision. (I’m not saying that to demean logic and math; I’m just saying they operate within one of many structures they don’t themselves make.) We change them the same way. Personally, I think most people get theirs partly from their environment, partly from disposition, partly from acting on them and viewing the results, and only partly from reflection of an abstract kind. They’re all probably potentially dangerous, too. We’re bumping around in the dark here, doing the best we can, trying not to trample anyone. We hear rumors of light. Presumably some of those rumors are true. But which?

As to your comments on “moral certainty.” I’m not sure I want to fight about that. (Though, again, I can’t resist pointing out the paradox that this conviction against certainty is one you seem fairly certain about.) I find moral certainty unattractive. But even as I say that, I think of five or six morally certain people that I find very attractive indeed. We’re back where we started: is it certainty that’s off-putting, or is it the content of the certainty? Or is it that some morally certain people are also dickfaces, but that their dickfaceness is unrelated to their ideas (because, again, ideas are simply not the sole influence on human conduct)?

Lastly, Matt, you may continue posting Jon Chait pieces to my wall to your heart’s content. I am not morally certain that every last word he writes is bad. In fact, I downright enjoyed this. He needs to leave Jeet Heer alone, though.