How We Got Here: A Theory

The United States is a mess right now. Beset by a corrupt president and his corporate cronies, plagued by a — um — plague, Americans are experiencing an attack on democracy from within. So just how did we get to this point in history?

I’ve given it a bit of thought, and I’ve come up with a theory. Like many theories, it’s built on a certain amount of critical observation and a large degree of personal experience. Marry those things to each other, and you can often explain even the most puzzling enigmas. Here, then, is my stab at explaining how American society became so divisive that agreement on any political topic has become virtually impossible, leaving a vaccuum so large and so empty that corruption and the will to power can ensure political victory.

I maintain that this ideological binarism in the United States is caused by two things: prejudice (racism has, in many ways, always determined our political reality), and lack of critical thinking skills (how else could so many people fail to see Trump for what he really is and what he really represents?) Both of these problems result from poor education. For example, prejudice certainly exists in all societies, but the job of a proper education in a free society is to eradicate, or at least to combat, prejudice and flawed beliefs. Similarly, critical thinking skills, while amorphous and hard to define, can be acquired through years of education, whether by conducting experiements in chemistry lab or by explicating Shakespeare’s sonnets. It follows, then, that something must be radically wrong with our educational system for close to half of the population of the United States to be fooled into thinking that Donald Trump can actually be good for this country, much less for the world at large.

In short, there has always been a possibility that a monster like Trump would appear on the political scene. Education should have saved us from having to watch him for the last four years, and the last month in particular, as he tried to dismantle our democracy. Yet it didn’t. So the question we have to ask is this: Where does the failure in education lie?

The trendy answer would be that this failure is a feature, not a bug, in American education, which was always designed to mis-educate the population in order to make it more pliable, more willing to follow demogogues such as Trump. But I’m not satisfied with this answer. It’s too easy, and more important, it doesn’t help us get back on track by addressing the failure (if that’s even possible at this point). So I kept searching for an explanation.

I’ve come up with the following premises. First, the divisions in the country are caused by a lack of shared values–this much is clear. For nearly half the American people, Trump is the apotheosis of greedy egotism, a malignant narcissist who is willing to betray, even to destroy, his country in order to get what he wants, so that he can “win” at the system. For the other half, Trump is a breath of fresh air, a non-politician who was willing to stride into the morass of Washington in order to clean it up and set American business back on its feet. These two factions will never be able to agree–not on the subject of Trump, and very likely, not on any other subject of importance to Americans.

It follows that these two views are irreconcilable precisely because they reflect a dichotomy in values. Values are the intrinsic beliefs that an individual holds about what’s right and wrong; when those beliefs are shared by a large enough group, they become an ethical system. Ethics, the shared sense of right and wrong, seems to be important in a society; as we watch ours disintegrate, we can see that without a sense of ethics, society splinters into factions. Other countries teach ethics as a required subject in high school classes; in the United States, however, only philosophy majors in universities ever take classes on ethics. Most Americans, we might once have said, don’t need such classes, since they experience their ethics every day. If that ever was true, it certainly isn’t so any more.

Yet I would argue that Americans used to have an ethical belief system. We certainly didn’t live up to it, and it was flawed in many ways, but it did exist, and that’s very different from having no ethical system at all. It makes sense to postulate that some time back around the turn of the 21st century, ethics began to disappear from society. I’m not saying that people became unethical, but rather that ethics ceased to matter, and as it faded away, it ceased to exist as a kind of social glue that could hold Americans together.

I think I know how this happened, but be warned: my view is pretty far-fetched. Here goes. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, literary theory poached upon the realm of philosophy, resulting in a collection of theories that insisted a literary text could be read in any number of ways, and that no single reading of a text was the authoritative one. This kind of reading and interpretation amounted to an attack on the authority of the writer and the dominant ideology that produced him or her, as it destabilized the way texts were written, read, and understood. I now see that just as the text became destabilized with this new way of reading, so did everything else. In other words, if an English professor could argue that Shakespeare didn’t belong in the literary canon any longer, that all texts are equally valid and valuable (I’ve argued this myself at times), the result is an attack not only on authority (which was the intention), but also on communality, by which I mean society’s shared sense of what it values, whether it’s Hamlet or Gilligan’s Island. This splintering of values was exacerbated by the advent of cable television and internet music sources; no one was watching or listening to the same things any more, and it became increasingly harder to find any shared ideological place to begin discussions. In other words, the flip side of diversity and multiplicity–noble goals in and of themselves–is a dark one, and now, forty years on, we are witnessing the social danger inherent in dismantling not only the canon, but any system of judgment to assess its contents as well.

Here’s a personal illustration. A couple of years ago, I taught a college Shakespeare class, and on a whim I asked my students to help me define characters from Coriolanus using Dungeons and Dragons character alignment patterns. It was the kind of exercise that would have been a smashing success in my earlier teaching career, the very thing that garnered me three teaching awards within five years. But this time it didn’t work. No one was watching the same television shows, reading the same books, or remembering the same historical events, and so there was no way to come up with good examples that worked for the entire class to illustrate character types. I began to see then that a splintered society might be freeing, but at what cost if we had ceased to be able to communicate effectively?

It’s not a huge leap to get from that Shakespeare class to the fragmentation of a political ideology that leaves, in the wreckage it’s produced, the door wide open to oligarchy, kleptocracy, and fascism. There are doubtless many things to blame, but surely one of them is the kind of socially irresponsible literary theory that we played around with back in the 1980s. I distinctly remember one theorist saying something to the effect that no one has ever been shot for being a deconstructionist, and while that may be true, it is not to say that deconstructionist theory, or any kind of theory that regards its work as mere play, is safe for the society it inhabits. Indeed, we may well be witnessing how very dangerous unprincipled theoretical play can turn out to be, even decades after it has held sway.

Some Thoughts on Anna Karenina

Image from Wikimedia
Image from Wikimedia

One thing I’m looking forward to doing as a retiree is reading anything I like, whenever I like. I do a good deal of reading, and to be honest, I began this free-wheeling practice in my reading several years ago: in this way, I have made some very rewarding discoveries. I’ve read several of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels, and I am particularly grateful for this discovery, since I consider him a very fine novelist. I’ve read some of Jane Gardam’s works, and Laurie Lee’s memoir Cider with Rosie, and, in an effort not to focus exclusively on British writers, I picked up Mind of Winter by Laura Kasischke, and was disappointed in its narrative trickery. All of these books are firmly outside the realm of 18th and 19th century British novels (my area of specialization), which is the point–now I have the time to read indiscriminately, pointlessly. It’s the readerly equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet, and, before I settle into a routine in my retirement, I intend to gorge myself with shameless abandon.

Even before the end of the semester several weeks ago, I began Anna Karenina, a serious undertaking. I am not sure I would have had the heart to begin the task if I had read a hard copy of the book, but I read it on my Kindle, which mercifully disguises the real length of a work, and instead provides you with a virtual pep talk by showing you how much of the novel  you have read. At any rate, I was 73% of the way through the novel before I decided that it was, indeed, a great novel, perhaps one of the ten greatest novels (a list that will undoubtedly become a future post). Here are a few disjointed thoughts about the work, in a format that proves that Buzzfeed and Clickhole have corrupted even those of us who are trying to create serious criticism.

  • The novel is misnamed. Like many of Shakespeare’s plays (another future post), the novel is not primarily about Anna Karenina; it is just as much about, and in my view, much more about, Konstantin Levin. Perhaps this is a result of Tolstoy’s manner of writing the novel: like Dickens’s great works, it was published as a serial novel in a magazine. I have often compared this form of writing to jazz improvisation. There is a fundamental line of melody, a basic story or plot, but the musician/writer is allowed, even expected, to riff on this line. In some cases–Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop is a good example–the basic plot becomes much less interesting than one of the improvised riffs (yet another future post). I would argue that Anna becomes somewhat less interesting than Levin, perhaps because her trajectory is more predictable.
  • Why is Anna’s path so much more predictable than Levin’s? It’s because Tolstoy is heavy-handed on the symbolism. From the moment Vronsky and Anna meet, there are clues to what will happen: the death of the worker who is crushed by the train occurs at their first, sexually charged meeting, after all, and the race in which Vronsky loses his favorite horse is rife with foreshadowing. This lacks subtlety, of course, but I can forgive Tolstoy because of the time in which he wrote, since subtlety is clearly an acquired taste and will wait for post-modernism to develop fully. At any rate, we can see where Anna is going–there is only one outcome for her, after all–but Levin’s story is full of questions. Will he marry Kitty after all? Will their marriage survive the early days of learning to live with each other? Will Kitty die in childbirth? How will he react to being a parent? All of these questions drive us forward in the novel, wanting to know the answers. With Anna, on the other hand, we know that disaster awaits her, and we cannot resist watching it unfold, waiting for the train wreck (forgive the pun) to happen.
  • The link between the two plot lines is the story of Stepan Oblonsky’s infidelities. Tolstoy is able to create a round character out of Stepan, however, and he becomes more than a simple plot link. This is a testament to his ability to tell the story in an artistic, yet natural, way. Perhaps this is what I admire most about Anna Karenina: the ease with which Tolstoy connects his stories, the balance he creates between them, allowing him to hold up Anna’s final view of the world as the opposite of Levin’s. She sees the world as hateful and dark, while Levin, in the final chapters of the novel, sees it as bright with possibility, with a  spiritual  and philosophical generosity that outshines the darkness of Anna’s end.
  • The portraits of marriage and relationships that Tolstoy creates in the novel are excellent. From Kitty and Kostya’s difficulties in the first months of marriage to Vronsky and Anna’s descent into something like hatred for each other, Tolstoy works from life. I last read this novel when I was a teenager, some forty years ago, before marriage. I wish now that I had read it several times since then, because I think it might have helped me. Somewhere I once heard about a person–I forget who–who reads Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa every year. I don’t think I could handle reading Anna Karenina on a yearly basis, but maybe reading it every decade would have been a good idea.
  • Finally, one last note: I admire the deft way in which Tolstoy can express contemporary views and existential questions through the internal discourse of his characters. This is something that Hemingway tries to do in For Whom the Bell Tolls with much less success; in fact, that novel basically fails, in my view, at the point when Robert Jordan muses on the political questions and disharmonies he’s witnessed. Hemingway just cannot pull it off, but Tolstoy can. For this reason alone, Anna Karenina is worth reading. While it may not be subtle as far as the use of foreshadowing goes, it is quite subtle in its representation of the universal and local questions of the day.

These are just a few thoughts about the novel as I adjust to retirement. All of which just goes to show you: old teachers don’t stop lecturing. They just start writing.

 

My new feline friend, named Leo Tolstoy
My new feline friend, named Leo Tolstoy

 

The Educated Imagination, part 2

I’m doing a lot of what I call “little writing” these days, probably as a diversion from the bigger task that I should be engaged in–revising an early novel in order to make it publishable. This revision is something that I used to think would happen, if it happened at all, at the request of a publisher/editor. But in light of the decision I’ve made to use Kindle and CreateSpace publishing and sell through Amazon, I need to submit all my work to rigorous self-editing. And so, instead of buckling down and doing this work, which is daunting even to me, a hardened writing teacher, I’m pretty much wasting time by playing around with literary theory–and not even current literary theory, but decades-old theory that no one reads anymore.

It’s the writerly equivalent of cleaning the refrigerator: tumblr_l6ooy56juF1qctkclit takes up time, it’s not completely self-indulgent, and it postpones the moment that you have to sit down and actually write. Like cleaning the refrigerator, no one ever thanks you for what you’re doing, but you feel good about it afterwards.

So here’s the second part of my analysis/review of Northrop Frye’s excellent little book The Educated Imagination, which I put in the same category as C.S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism. I have only a couple of things to point out, the first of which is based on this statement by Frye:

“The fundamental job of the imagination in ordinary life, then, is to produce, out of the society we have to live in, a vision of the society we want to live in. Obviously that can’t be a separated society, so we have to understand how to relate the two.”

This is a rich statement, one which could be examined in the light of desire (for example, “I don’t want to live in 21st-century America; I would rather live in Georgian England, which is why I’m reading this Regency romance”). It could also be examined with a view towards social change (what might have been called, in Frye’s day, “social improvement”), in which we readers are charged with the task of identifying problems in our society or culture and addressing them. But I think the key phrase is this: “we have to understand how to relate the two.” So let me focus on this for a moment in the next paragraph, because I think this is where our society–anti-intellectual as it is–falls very short in the way it addresses literature.

Let’s take a topically popular example of literature: the Game of Thrones series. Many people find it entertaining. I won’t discuss its relative merits or shortfalls, but I will point out that the problem with our consumer culture is that we simply imbibe the story, then file it away. Oh, we might talk about the “Red Wedding” episode at the water cooler (read: Facebook) on Monday morning, but we don’t really stop to figure out how this story, with these characters, and this particular plot, actually fits into the lives we have to lead. My theory is this: when literature is separated from its intrinsic value, when it exists purely as commodity (how many people can we get to buy this book?), it becomes separated from the question of how to relate what we read into how we live. Thus our activity becomes purely escapist reading, which I am not entirely condemning. However, I’d argue that anything we read in this way–be it The Hunger Games or Othello, will lose a great deal of its value. When we consume works simply to be entertained, it’s much like putting filet mignon into a smoothie solely for its protein value or mixing a Taittinger champagne in a wine spritzer. In other words, we lose the real value of the thing in by failing to give it the proper attention. Our culture today encourages this kind of activity, however, and it’s up to us, the serious readers out there, to guard against this tendency.

Frye saves his best statement for the final few pages of the book, a statement that must have sounded as conservative when it was written in the 1960s as it does today, but one which really bears some close consideration:

You see, freedom has nothing to do with lack of training; it can only be the product of training. You’re not free to move unless you’ve learned to walk, and not free to play the piano unless you practice. Nobody is capable of free speech unless he knows how to use language, and such knowledge is not a gift; it has to be learned and worked at…. For most of us, free speech is cultivated speech, but cultivating speech is not just a skill, like playing chess. You can’t cultivate speech, beyond a certain point, unless you have something to say, and the basis of what you have to say is your vision of society.

Frye has got it exactly right: too many people claim their right to free speech without adding anything valuable to our culture and our society. We see this in the political world all the time; pundits, politicians, and, in recent years, media commentators insist on their right to free speech while saying nothing of value. We know this, because no real dialogue ever takes place. In 25 years of being involved in higher education, I’ve never seen a better explanation for the value of education. Frye’s point is this: in order to participate fully in our grand experiment of democracy, we must train ourselves to the task. Yet this training takes time, dedication, and a sense of responsibility, which are things we seem to be short of these days.

So we’ve reached the end of my brief analysis of Northrop Frye’s The Educated Imagination. Next week, I’ll take a look a break from this heavy intellectual stuff and discuss a few films that, despite my best intentions, I was unable to get through. Please check back then!