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Wednesday, November 7, 2018

How Are Things in Stinking Creek?

Northport Creek does NOT stink!
Election Day — both long anticipated and long dreaded. It will be so good to have the landscape cleared of campaign signs, won’t it? However things turn out, we have all (I trust!) done our civic duty. Not that it’s “over,” by any means. The work goes on. But at least we can put this decisive aspect of it behind us for a while. 

Both the day before and the day of voting, I did what I had to do but also found time to immers myself in other worlds, that of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, seeking some organization for themes and corresponding page numbers before our reading circle gets together on Wednesday, and also re-reading a little sociological treatise (from back when sociology was qualitative, i.e., interesting, rather than quantitative, i.e., boring), namely, Stinking Creek: The Portrait of a Small Mountain Community in Appalachia, by John Fetterman. Stinking Creek the book (the place is in Kentucky, and it’s a real place) was first published in 1970, the author having copyrighted it in 1967, so descriptions of people and place are outdated, but you know I am hardly averse to slipping the bonds of time, especially in times of mental crisis (see first paragraph of this post).
There were several things I noted in the Appalachia of the 1960s. People had lost jobs in the coal mine already back then — not because coal wasn’t being mined. The locals hadn’t lost their jobs to immigrants providing cheaper labor or to newer alternative energy sources, either. No, it was machinery doing the work previously done by men. Bulldozers, power shovels, augers. “Automation has made the miner jobless.” Lumbering jobs were nearly nonexistent by the 1960s, too, because good timber had all been removed. Living off the land was no longer possible, either, as creeks in which fish had formerly been plentiful were now so polluted by acid from old coal mines that even traditional baptizing holes had been abandoned. With trees gone and soil washing away comes also flooding — yet another hardship for those at the bottom of life’s heap.
To reach the coal seams now, a bulldozer strips the earth from the seam…. Power shovels scoop up the coal that lies exposed. Augers … bore into the mountain to bring out the remainder of the seam….
The resulting tons of waste — earth, slate, and slag — are hurled over the mountainside in an orgy of monstrous ruin. 
Sulfur, associated with coal-bearing formations, enters the streams, and a solution of sulfuric acid results. This silt washes down the mountainsides to fill the stream beds, and during heavy rains the valleys act as huge funnels, hurling the unchecked waters along to inundate town after town.

Timber, fish, game gone, along with mining jobs and logging jobs — their homes periodically flooded out — nothing was as good as it had been for the earliest settlers. “‘There ain’t even a crawdad around here,’ an old-timer observed.” There were jobs in Cincinnati, Chicago, and Detroit, but who wanted to leave the freedom and quiet of the mountains for noisy, expensive, hemmed-in city life? Stinking Creek folk much preferred to stay where they were, if they possibly could.

Distrustful of the “govmint” as most of them were, those disabled by accident or illness were happy to “draw” welfare checks and receive free “commodities” — and let’s remember that those free commodities were as much subsidies to overproducing farmers as they were benefit to the hungry poor, something people who rail against “handouts” often forget — while the chance of “project work” gave hope to young men, hope that they could stay on the mountain and get paying work, rather than having either to leave home or stay and “draw” [welfare checks]. 

Farming had never been a path to prosperity in this hard, rocky country of thin, poor soil, but in the 1960s most families still had their own garden plots and raised corn, beans, tomatoes and such for their families, while those who could afford to keep a cow had fresh milk. The boys hanging out at Ellis Messner’s store drank much more “pop” than a dietician would recommend, and boys and girls both took to chewing tobacco at a young age. There was, however, no “opioid crisis” back then. Church attendance might not be regular among all residents of the various hollows, but religion had a hold on many, nonetheless, and even adolescents who quit school before the eighth grade showed respect for their elders, Fetterman observed. Although there was almost nothing in the way of recreation for young people, Fetterman says this of the community where he spent time getting to know the inhabitants one by one and family by family:
On Stinking Creek there are no muggings, robberies, stabbings, rapes. Yet every boy carries a pocket knife — not as a weapon, but as a symbol of responsible manhood. On Stinking Creek you can leave your car unlocked with its load of cameras, typewriter, and personal belongings without fear. Where else can you do this?
This is certainly not the Appalachia one encounters in recent books. It was poor then, too, most families living in two rooms, the young not all that optimistic, and yet —?

What makes the difference between then and now? Not unemployment, my liberal friends, because jobs had already been long lost. Nor welfare, my conservative friends, because they already had that, too. Intrusion from the outside world, however, was still minimal: Television sets were just reaching Stinking Creek but were not in every home, and the one fuzzy channel pulled in would not have brought anything like the mayhem available on cable today. Moonshine could be a tempting danger, but it wasn’t cheap, and international pharmaceutical companies had not yet realized what a lucrative, captive market the poor could be. Degraded popular culture and aggressive marketing? You tell me. 

Thinking now of the dusty road in front of my grandmother’s little house outside Springfield, Ohio — barefoot children, lack of indoor plumbing, but neighborly, with plenty of room and freedom for those barefoot children at play — I realize my grandmother’s neighborhood was a suburban version of Stinking Creek. Some of her neighbors might even have come from those very Kentucky hollows. There was a kind of dignity to poverty in those times, in those places. If such exists yet today, it must be where the poor are fortunate enough not to be victims of addiction or famine or war.

One final note from Stinking Creek in the Sixties, relevant this week when Americans are going to the polls once again: Though many were illiterate and almost no one trusted politicians, residents of Stinking Creek were still eager to vote. On the fourth Tuesday in May, the author tells us, there was no school, because the school building served that day as the polling place for the Sixth Precinct.
The crowds came early. They stood on a rocky point up on the road and looked solemnly down at the ancient school; they gathered in knots in the few shady places down by the creek and stared up at the school…
Democrats and Republicans alike were determined that the fiasco of four years ago would not be repeated. In that earlier election, Democrats were elected, then unseated after a court battle. It all came about over a Kentucky law that decrees that voters who cannot read and who require assistance to flip the levers of the voting machine must sign an oath that “by inability to read English … he is unable to vote without assistance.”
In that election four years before, half of all Stinking Creek voters had been assisted, and 68 of them had “signed” the oath only with an X. And because their precinct could turn the entire county one way or another, on this fateful Tuesday evryone is watching Stinking Creek. And Stinking Creek people knew they were being watched.
Voter after voter cautiously approached the door, as though fully expecting to be turned away. Every eye was on that door, and each voter came out into the blazing glare of the sun and the more penetrating glare of his fellow citizens. And each voter shielded his own reactions from this intense scrutiny with an expressionless mask he draws over his face at such times.  

The linking of the ability to read and the right to vote is an annoyance of great proportion to the people of Stinking Creek. The ability to read has little to do with a man’s ability to fell a tree, move a stone, or decide whom he wants to dabble in the public funds as his duly elected servant.

Over the past year, 2018, gerrymandering (on the ballot in Michigan) and accusations of voter suppression have been big topics across the United States. What faith even those skeptical, suspicious Appalachian voters had to have to get out and cast their votes! For most of us today it is so easy! Most, that is, not all, and the attempts to make voting more difficult for whole blocks of Americans is nothing short of shameful. But we keep trying to figure out this democratic process, and God forbid we should ever stop trying!

And now, back to The Magic Mountain I go.

P.S. the day after drafting post: Election results are mostly in by now, and the only thing I’ll say here is that in Leelanau County 65% of eligible voters cast votes in this election. Sadly, 65% is considered a “massive” turnout. Too many Americans are still all too prone to take rights and freedoms for granted or think one person can’t possibly make a difference, when the truth is that every election (leaving out presidential races and the Electoral College) is won and lost by an aggregate of individual votes. So whether your preferred candidates won or lost in this midterm, f you voted yesterday — or earlier — you counted. 

Saturday, November 3, 2018

“Life Was Simpler Then.” Was It?

A book with a title like Sylvia’s Lovers, especially when the author’s name is given as “Mrs. Gaskell,” no first name whatsoever, seems to promise escape from our contemporary social strife, and all the more so as the story is set in another country, England, and well over 200 years ago. The setting is a small village called Monkshaven and the nearby northeastern shoreline. The local economy at that time was solidly based on whaling, though farming also went on in a small way, and naturally there was buying and selling. The River Dee divided the little town in have-littles and have-mores, the latter having made their fortunes in the whaling trade, while remnants of hereditary aristocrats kept aloof in their estates on the “wild bleak moors” outside town and inland from the sea cliffs. The novel opens just after the close of “the American war,” that is to say, our own successful Revolution.

But times are seldom simple to those in the midst of them, and the end of the eighteen century was no exception. England was still at war, this time with France, and troubled with a shortage of manpower for its navy. Where were men to be found to sail and fight? The military solution was press-gangs.

The sea-coast was divided into districts, under the charge of a captain in the navy, who again delegated subdistricts to lieutenants; and in this manner all homeward-bound vessels were watched and waited for, all ports were under supervision; and in a day, if need were, a large number of men could be added to the forces of his Majesty’s navy. … Men were kidnapped, literally disappeared and nothing was heard of them again. The street of a busy town was not safe from such press-gang captures…. Nor yet were lonely inland dwellers more secure; many a rustic went to a statute fair or “mop” [hiring fair], and never came home to tell of his hiring; many a stout young farmer vanished from his place by the hearth of his father, and was no more heard of by mother or lover; so great was the press for men to serve in the navy during the early years of the war with France, and after every great naval victory of that war. 

While a strong young farmer might be grabbed by the navy and pressed into service, however, it will be quickly understood that experienced sailors taken from returning whaling vessels were the more highly sought catch. And so these ships, having been off to Greenland waters for all half the year, were particularly vulnerable as they returned home “laden with rich cargo,” for the press gangs awaited them “within a day’s distance of land” as they neared the end of their journey. The Americans got off easy, it looks like, compared to the way the English treated their own people! 

Press gangs are introduced early into the story of Sylvia’s Lovers, shortly after we have learned that Monkshaven’s economy is based on whaling, and the first dramatic sequence related, though taking place “offstage,” tells of a returning whaler boarded by a press gang … the resistance of the sailors to being taken … the bravery of one young local man and violent death of another … and by the time of Darley’s funeral we have met all the principals of the story and gotten a good idea of local sentiment concerning government seizure of their men. Generally law-abiding and conservative as they are, yet the locals must live, and they live primarily by whaling and — surprise! — smuggling.

And then there was politics….

Politics in those days were tickle subjects to meddle with, even in the most private company. The nation was in a state of terror against France, and against any at home who might be supposed to sympathized with the enormities she had just been committing. The oppressive act against seditious meetings had been passed the year before…. Even the law authorities forgot to be impartial, but either their alarms or their interests made too many of them vehement partisans instead of calm arbiters, and thus destroyed the popular confidence in what should have been considered the supreme tribunal of justice.

Opinions on the war and on government policies and how justice was or was not served ran high. Thus while conversation might occasionally touch on topics of history of government, all involved "took care to be very sure of their listeners before such arguments touched on anything of the present day" and more often confined themselves to how many Frenchmen a single Englishman could “lick” or what name should be given to the royal baby soon expected.

On the matter of impressment, York’s fiercely independent residents were not bothered for a while after Darley’s death, but eventually the navy’s need, plus a desire for vengeance after humiliating treatment of a press gang by local merchant sailors, resulted in an inescapable cordon being drawn tight around the town of North Shields, where two hundred and fifty men were taken forcibly into the navy. The results reached as far as Monkshaven, such that when the whalers returned in autumn there was none of the usual festive gaiety and spending. Instead a mood of “gloomy anxiety” filled the town.

The shops were almost deserted; there was no unnecessary expenditure by the men; they dared not venture out to buy lavish presents for the wife or sweetheart or little children. 

… Indeed, all along the coast of Yorkshire, it seemed as if a blight hung over the land and the people. Men dodged about their daily business with hatred and suspicion in their eyes….

Such is the situation halfway through the novel. I should also mention that by this point one of Sylvia’s “lovers,” a sailor on a whaling ship, has been taken by a press gang but is thought by all but the single man who knows better to have been drowned, that man being her other “lover,” a shopkeeper who has worked his way into a position of prosperity but who can neither win the heart of Sylvia nor see the more eager, willing heart right by his side in the shop. The plot is thick, with individual, social, and political conflict where I had to set it aside this morning.

An 18th-century Unitarian, Elizabeth Gaskell herself — because yes, she did have a first name — is interesting enough that you may want to read more about her. 
And I should also give a plug for Everyman’s Library, a series similar to Modern Library. On the back of the dust jacket of my copy of Sylvia’s Lovers is this 1928 rave from Raymond Mortimer of the Sunday Times

A cosmic convulsion might utterly destroy all the other printed works in the world, and still if a complete set of Everyman’s Library floated upon the waters enough would be preserved to carry on the unbroken tradition of literature. 

There’s a reason modern classics are called classics and are always worth reading, no matter how many years go by.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Tragedy and Comedy in the Life and Writings of Thomas Mann

I came across something interesting the other day in a biography of Thomas Mann that I picked up to read alongside one of Mann's novels. Well, naturally, there were interesting facts on every page, but a couple of passages in Chapter 25 jumped out at me, perhaps all the more since the ideas addressed there were not elaborated on or discussed at length.

Ten years after the end of the war [WWI], French troops were still occupying the Rhineland, and reparations payments were still outstanding. In August 1928, Stresemann [German chancellor] finally persuaded France to consider early withdrawal and to authorize a new review of reparations. In February 1929 an American banker, Owen Young, headed an international board which in August submitted its assessment to a conference at The Hague. The plan was to give the German economy a chance to expand by allowing reparations to be spread over the next thirty years, and the date settled for the evacuation of the Rhineland was June 30, 1930. [Hayman, p. 391. Italics are my emphases.]

I was always told — and maybe you learned it this way, too — that Germany’s motives in supporting Hitler and launching a Second World War stemmed from the burden of reparations exacted on them from the First World War. And I’m not saying that isn’t part of the story. But what of this plan to ease the burden? Further down on the same page of the Mann biography came another event from the same year that seems to have exacerbated greatly economic conditions in Germany. 

Streseman died early in October 1929, and at the end of the month the Wall Street crash precipitated an international crisis. During the winter, unemployment in Germany reached the point at which the state’s insurance scheme could no longer pay benefits. …Mein Kampf was selling a steady fifty thousand copies a year. With unemployment rising, morale sinking, extremist demagogues and uniformed thugs active in the streets with truncheons and collecting boxes, membership in the Nazi party rose from 120,000 in 1929 to 800,000 in 1931. Members were contributing 300,000 marks a month, which few of them could afford, to a party that was acting less in their interests than in those of the large-scale capitalists, some of whom were helping to finance it. [pp. 381-382]

I draw no general but at least two minor conclusions and questions from this story. First, perhaps it was not necessarily reparations alone that broke Germany’s spirit and drove its people to desire revenge. Had an international financial crisis not been set off by the crash of Wall Street, who is to say that the new terms for payment of reparations would not have been a solution, allowing time, as the international board in The Hague hoped, for the recovery of the postwar (post-WWI, that is) German economy? In addition, note that the National Socialist party, while “socialist” in name, was not a grass-roots workers’ movement but was largely financed by “large-scale capitalists.” The object of their support, of course, was to hold communism at bay.

Long after Thomas Mann and his wife had moved to the U.S. and taken American citizenship, and after World War II finally came to a close, the novelist had this to say about his native country: 

‘There are not two Germanies, a bad one and a good one, but only one, in which the best qualities have been corrupted with diabolical cunning into evil. . . . The evil Germany is the good one in misfortune and guilt, the good Germany perverted and overthrown.’

Hayman, his biographer, notes Mann’s undying resentment over what Germany had allowed itself — and been allowed by others — to become: 

His biggest grudge against humanity was that the civilized countries hadn’t merely failed to scotch the growth of Nazism but had encouraged it. ‘My resentment about this I shall take with me to the grave.’

Our reading circle, initiated back in 20xx to read and study James Joyce’s Ulysses together, is meeting soon to discuss Mann’s The Magic Mountain — hardly a book to be absorbed on first reading or adequately considered in a single evening’s conversation, but 2018 is running out, so we’ll do what we can now and maybe come back to Mann later. He is a fascinating writer, not only for his novels but also for the way he wrote (longhand, about a page and a half a day), the time he spent on a work (The Magic Mountain was begun before World War I and not finished and published until 1924), and the way his beliefs and commitments altered with the passage of time and events in Europe. A “reactionary” in the First War, a man who declared he “hated democracy,” he came around to working for the survival of democracy and freedom and doing all he could to support refugees from the nightmare of Hitler’s Germany. Initially, worried that his novels might be banned in Germany and that he might lose his German citizenship (fears that were, unsurprisingly, eventually realized), he hesitated for a long time to speak out against the Nazis. What to say, when to speak, and how -- these were questions that tormented him. He finally made a public statement against Hitler after six years of living “in exile,” and his biographer comments, “A braver man than Thomas might have come out into the open sooner, but Hesse never came out.” 

The Magic Mountain, however, begun before the First World War, was finished and published in 1926, some time before the rise of Hitler. The Magic Mountain is the first work of Thomas Mann’s that I have ever read, and coming to it with little idea of what I would find, I was surprised to find myself laughing out loud in later chapters, even given some of the book's heavy themes of death, decay, and corruption. When you look at a portrait of Mann, he hardly looks like a humorist (and I don’t mean to suggest that he was some kind of German Mark Twain — hardly!), but he found much in human life and civilization ridiculous. When spiritualism overtakes the residents of the Sanitorium Berghof, for example, or when the charismatic Dutchman Mynheer Pieter Peeperkorn (modeled in part, at least physically, on the author’s friend Gerhart Hauptman) holds forth at a picnic by a thundering waterfall, declaiming and gesturing to an audience that can’t hear a word he is saying, a reader feels that Thomas Mann was having a wonderful time poking fun. If you’re a traveler, you may be interested in this New Yorker piece about other travelers making a pilgrimage to find the setting of the novel.

All in all, I’m very glad to have read this novel by Thomas Mann and expect to take his advice and read it a second time. It also occurs to me to mention, in light of current world events, that Mann and his German-Jewish wife were immigrants to the United States. 

The Magic Mountain
by Thomas Mann

Thomas Mann: A Biography
by Ronald Hayman
NY: Scribner, 1995

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Book Asks: What Is the Life Span of Friendship?

Not all fall days are bright-colored
Recently I set aside a book I’d started reading, marking my place in Frederick Jackson Turner’s The Frontier in American History on page 93, to get busy reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, our challenging reading circle choice for November. A week later, over halfway through the Mann novel, I set it aside to devote an evening to an intriguing modern nonfiction book, The Friend Who Got Away: Twenty Women’s True-Life Tales of Friendships That Blew Up, Burned Out, or Faded Away. Jenny Offill and Elissa Schappell were the editors of the volume, with introduction by Francine Prose. Twenty women’s true-life stories of lost friends! What woman could resist?

The little mini-bios at the back of the book don’t give the ages of the women who wrote their stories for the collection, but often there are clues in the essays themselves — popular songs or groups mentioned, national events, even descriptions of clothing — and sometimes the writer says of an event that it took place “thirty years ago” or something like that. In short, I deduced that while some of the women were clearly younger than I am, a few others are part of my cohort. (Older? No. And what does that tell you?) Some accounts describe friendships that went on for decades, others for only part of a year. Most stories are about girl friendships, but a couple tell of close friendships girls had -- or thought they had -- with boys. 

The theme that emerges is the complicated nature of friendship — the excitement of finding a friend and the anguish of losing one.

“Maybe,” someone remarked to me a few weeks back, “some friendships are by their very nature time-limited, not meant to last forever.” Every time I hear about a dog needing a “forever” home, I think, Nothing is forever. With a dog, of course, what we mean is for the rest of the dog’s life, and doesn't the shorthand of the whole 'BFF' thing suggest that our friends, too, might last our lifetime? 

Sadly, like dogs, many friends leave life before we do, and “No one replaces anyone,” as my friend Helene said to me years ago. (Certainly, no one has ever replaced her in my life.) Other friends move far away (or even not so terribly far) and fail to stay in touch. The “break-up” of a friendship, topic of so many of the essays in The Friend Who Got Away, can leave the kind of pain one might imagine only comes with divorce, along with questions, regrets, and confusion that, like divorce, can also last a lifetime when the friendship does not. 

No wonder, I’m thinking more and more these days, older people fortunate enough to have them turn increasingly to siblings, children, and grandchildren. They may or may not be close friends in the sense that they welcome our confidences. TMI, Grandma! On the other hand, they’re kind of stuck with us. For life. Thank heaven!

Friday, October 19, 2018

An Inflammatory Question: How's That Working For You?

People have many different reasons for reading fiction. Can this diversity of reasons be subsumed under a general heading of intensification — the deepening and/or broadening — of experience? Of escaping the limitations of one’s own experience? Is that escape good or bad? Is it always possible? Bear with me. I’ll get to the inflammatory question, all right.

Some books we read to be with kindred spirits that can be difficult to find for ourselves in daily life. For a young reader, to find a girl or boy in a book who shares our own feelings and desires, someone we understand in the way we so fervently wish to be understood ourselves, can give us hope that we are not doomed to feel like freaks forever. And if that sympathetic character in a book manages to make his or her dreams come true, our own hope is strengthened. The world of possibilities, constrained as it too often seems in schoolroom or home, grows limitless and filled with light. To see oneself in a story of success can be empowering.

The world of possibilities is also made greater, though, when we encounter in our reading characters very unlike ourselves or people we know. Some fictional characters lead lives we would dismiss as easy and privileged, if we were to meet them socially, but meeting them in the pages of a book we enter into their private thoughts, fears, hopes and dreams, and we see that their lives are as complicated as lives more familiar to us. In a novel where characters struggle with poverty or physical handicap or terrible illness or political oppression — if we are fortunate enough not to have those challenges ourselves — the imaginative vicarious experience of taking on those characters’ inner lives also gives insights otherwise difficult to obtain in the routine of daily life, encouraging empathy.

And so, whether characters are like us or unlike us, more or less fortunate, people we meet in books can help us grow and expand in empathy and courage. We can try on other selves and have at least some small inkling of how they might feel from the inside.

Slipping the bonds of time and place is another reading pleasure. In the pages of a book, I can be off to the Canadian Arctic, New South Wales, medieval China, or I can dwell for a few hours in my own country as it was a hundred or two hundred years ago. Here, too, as a reader I try on another self and another way of life.

Does this sound familiar? In your own reading life, have you turned to fiction for some of these reasons? I would not reduce escaping our limitations to simple “escape,” as that word is commonly used in the phrase “escape reading.” There is undeniably some commonality, but I would not put reading fiction in the same category of escape with hard drugs or alcoholism -- although Cervantes might argue with me. Either way, though, whether you view escaping limitations as a flight from reality or an enlargement of empathy and possibility, I want to ask now: How is it working out for you these days?

I haven't taken a survey. My “sample size” so far is only two. But I’m wondering….

One writer on the radio and another I talked in person both said that they have noticed, with their most recent novels, audiences at their events not very focused on the books. What people are finding in their books, these writers say, is — and while this is always true to a certain extent for any readers at any time, they both emphasized a different now — only what they bring to them from their own lives. “It isn’t about the book at all!” my writer friend confided, a look of astonishment on her face. “It’s all about how they’re feeling!” The writer on the radio (my writer friend had not heard the interview, either, so the agreement was coincidental) said pretty much the same thing. Her latest book had been characterized by reviewers and other readers in wildly conflicting language that could only explain by her belief that they found in it what they brought to it. If angry, they interpreted the characters -- or the author! -- as angry; if sad, sad; if amused, etc., etc.

So what I’m wondering now is if we are so deeply caught up in our own emotions these days that we are foisting them off onto the characters and writers we encounter in our reading, and I wonder if, instead of taking on other viewpoints — seeing the world through the eyes of fictional characters — we are investing others with our own perspectives. Or seeing them as alien to us, as our “enemies.” 

I don’t want this to be true.

For most of humanity, this world has never been easy. And we need all the help we can get to understand one another. So if we can’t let fiction help us that way, what hope is there for us in books, and why should we even bother to keep reading?

The novel in my hands these days is Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. What pages are you turning? Or aren't you?

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Born This Day in 1859

October 18 is the birthday is French philosopher Henri Bergson, who believed, even after the Great War, the one we now call World War I, in the moral evolution of mankind. 

Henri Bergson believed that over the course of history human beings had evolved and were continuing to evolve not only physiologically but also spiritually and morally. Born in 1859, he died in Paris during the Nazi Occupation, and I always think he must have died of a broken heart, although he was already quite ill when he went to stand in line for his yellow star, the yellow star Jews were required to wear under Nazi rule as visible identification of their ancestry.

Bergson’s story, however, is more complicated yet. 

Member of the Académie Française since 1915, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1927. When he lectured at the Sorbonne, a section of the auditorium had to be roped off for his students, or else Parisian high society would have filled every seat. It is true that his star did not shine as brightly in 1941 as it had in previous decades — a media-stoked “rivalry” between Bergson and Einstein did not do him any favors -- but he remained a European cultural icon. So if the Nazis could only co-opt Bergson…. 

They were eager to make him an exception to their odious racial laws. They went further: they wanted to give him their honors. And remember that Nazi favors, even the smallest, were not to be lightly dismissed: in Germany and the occupied countries at that time, they could mean the difference between life and death. Accepting their recognition, however, would give legitimacy to a loathsome regime, so although Henri Bergson had not been brought up in a religious household and was a member of no synagogue, he refused all exceptional treatment. He was not a man to save his life by turning against others, to profit at their expense by siding with oppressors. He did not hold himself that cheap.

Because we are alive, Bergson had argued throughout his life, which means we are spirit as well as matter, we cannot understand ourselves simply by laws that govern the purely physical world. When we deliberate between courses of action, that very deliberation changes us: “…[T]he self is changing and is consequently modifying…. A dynamic series of states … permeate and strengthen one another, and … lead by a natural evolution to a free act.” In fact, because the self is undergoing modification as it deliberates, saying that we have “two choices” before us oversimplifies the question. 

Most of the time, we react to situations according to our habits, as “conscious automatons." This makes for efficient action — most of the time. Only in circumstances calling for an important choice do we stop to deliberate, and then —
It is at the great and solemn crisis, decisive of our reputation with others, and yet more with ourselves, that we choose in defiance of what is conventionally called a motive, and this absence of any tangible reason is the more striking the deeper our freedom goes.
Henri Bergson had nothing to gain by obeying a racist law and wearing a yellow star. Neither could he claim as a “reason” that his wearing the star would do anything to help his fellow Jews in France. 
We wish to know the reason why we have made up our mind, and we find that we have decided without any reason, and perhaps even against every reason. But, in certain cases, that is the best of reasons.
Quotations above are from Time and Free Will, the English translation of Essai sur les Donnés Immédiates de la Conscience. For more about the life and work of Henry Bergson, follow this link. What he wrote about character is, for me, the elucidation of his choice. Resisting evil was essential to his character.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Spinning Off From Turner’s Frontier Theory of American History

Only four pages into Wilbur R. Jacobs’s foreword to a modern edition of Frederick Jackson Turner’s The Frontier in American History, I am struck by an implication of his frontier theory for our time in history. I'll have to see how my thinking and questions play out as I continue reading, but I thought going on record with some initial impressions and wonderings would be a place to start.

Turner saw history (I'm going now by what Jacobs writes) as the self-consciousness of society, the latter an evolving organism. The particular biological organism that constituted in Turner's view American society, he argued, evolved from the country’s frontier beginnings and a continually westward-moving frontier, the American frontier offering escape from old bondages -- first the bondages and habits of Europe, later those of the Eastern colonies-become-states. Moving ever-westward also, he believed, unified Americans as Americans, moderating sectional differences that had been so important in the East they left behind. 

One obvious fact (but I will state it anyway) is that Turner’s theory concerned the movement of white American pioneers of European origin. The fates of free or enslaved black peoples and of Native Americans “concentrated" by government policy onto smaller and smaller areas of marginal land were only tangential aspects in his story of the evolving America, rather than part and parcel of it. I state this obvious fact for two reasons. First, it is not only true but important when examining any history or historical theory about our country. Furthermore, however, I see it as the crucially overlooked seed to the implications of his theory that cry out at me as I prepare to read Turner in 2018. -- Implications of his theory, mind you, which I may accept, reject, or seek to modify after reading in in its entirety.

But let us accept for a moment, provisionally, Turner’s thesis about the frontier as that temporary boundary moves progressively west: 

(1) As each successive “frontier” became settled, would it not become a new “section,” with its own settled habits and prejudices and rivalries with other “sections”? 

(2) If Turner were right about sectionalism being left behind on the frontier, what did he imagine would happen when the frontier vanished, when pioneers reached the Pacific Ocean and could go no further to escape the bonds of habit? Is this where we are today?

(3) With the “safety valve” of “free land” [appropriated or conquered] no longer available, would social pressure build to the point of explosion?

After I read this book, I’ll turn to what other historians have said in response to the themes Turner hammered away on over 100 years ago.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Now Is the Time For Northern Michigan Apples

Colorful fruit
Are they wild?
Fall leaf color in northern Michigan is lovely, no denying, but the perfume and flavor of the season come with apples. This year’s crop looks bountiful from where I stand and walk, my two little home trees weighed down with fruit more than matched by what I call wild apples, those at the edges of cherry orchards and along old farm lanes, trees that may not be strictly wild at all but remnants of earlier orchards and homesteads. I hedge on calling them wild because the Artist reported to me a conversation with local farmers who referred to wild apples as “spitters,” i.e., uneatable, but I certainly wouldn’t classify ones I’ve harvested in that category. One apparently wild apple’s taste pleased me so much I hoped to identify it as a specific variety so I could procure a tree of my own — because other people’s trees, I’ve learned, have a sometimes tragic way of disappearing, chopped down or bulldozed for what I can only call mercurial reasons, no one ever having asked my opinion, let alone my permission. Let wary deer feast while they can!

Come, browsing deer
I brought a basket of apples from my home trees to the bookstore (I’ll never get all of them dried or made into sauce this year), initially thinking that a gift apple should accompany each copy sold of Barbara Stark-Nemon’s novel, Hard Cider. My second thought was that any purchase merits an apple, and ultimately I decided that even people wandering in and claiming they have “no time to read” should not leave empty-handed but take at least an apple from their bookstore visit. 

Bookstore bounty
My current reading is a sort of farm and family memoir, Cidermaster of Rio Oscuro, set in northern New Mexico. Author Harvey Frauenglass has set me to dreaming of an old French apple he found listed in a Michigan nursery catalogue, Calville Blanc d’hover, a delicately sweet dessert apple beloved of Louis XIII and Thomas Jefferson and still served, Frauenglass says, “in the finest restaurants of Paris.” I read the description to my husband, the Artist (stressing the idea that this particular apple contains twice the vitamin C of an orange, my enthusiasm amusing him no end), and he immediately proposes a road trip. When I finally locate the nursery online, however, they don’t have the desired cultivar listed at present. And the Artist and I were talking at cross-purposes, anyway: he had in mind buying a peck of apples, while my plan was to buy a tree. Having time to read means making the time, giving a priority to reading. Having time to harvest fruit from a newly planted tree is different. 
The apple has been in the patrimony of the human race longer than any written historical record we have. We can trace the origin of the apple to western Asia, and we have evidence of its wide cultivation by prehistoric people. The apple is as close to being a universal fruit as any we have. Perhaps that’s what makes it a good choice for the object lesson in the Garden of Eden. - from Harvey Frauenglass, Cidermaster of Rio Oscuro
How many years did I wait for apples from the trees I have now, and how many more years will we have in our home to enjoy future harvests? Then there was the second plum tree, the one that died — and the first, I remind myself, that still flowers but stopped bearing after showing early promise.

Apples I have, however, in abundance. Apples at home and apples abroad. The glorious sight of apples, their heady aroma, the juice released as the skin is pierced by knife or teeth. Maybe Eve made the right decision, after all, yielding to the apple’s temptation. And then she and Adam became farmers — and cultivated apples?

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Dark Thoughts

"It was a dark and stormy night...."
Dark Thoughts: what a dreadful title! Who among you would choose to read about dark thoughts? I can hear the sounds of rapidly clicking mice as readers flee in droves without pausing to investigate, since even someone in the grip of “dark thoughts” would hardly need more, would — if thinking clearly — seek out instead bright thoughts, light, messages of hope and optimism, no?

Darkness, though, comes with varying intensity and in different moods. The dark of a star-pricked sky is nothing like that of a cave or the bottom of an old well, and the quiet of natural darkness can bring reassuring comfort when its welcome, repetitious coming follows the relentless clamor of days filled with loud, angry voices of a world too much with us. My usage of the phrase today, however, is neither a metaphorical reference to despair nor literally intended to evoke nighttime darkness enveloping a country farmhouse. My first thought for today’s title would have named its subject directly: Going Dark

Let me start somewhere else, though. Please keep in mind that where I begin is not my subject but only the background for my subject.

Let me begin with the “darkness of the soul” that comes often in the dark of night but can linger through a series of days, especially rainy days when the very heavens seem to cry unceasingly. A parent’s death, followed closely by that of a friend. Most awful, painful revelations  of personal experiences from dear ones. Political horrors invading the privacy of sleep. When a household crisis as mundane as the breakdown of a clothes dryer strikes, it only seems fitting. “What next?” one asks, and there is always a next, it seems, in a season when no one we know and no corner of the globe seems at peace. Oh, there are small bright spots, and there are the brave, sweet souls who share joy and encourage others to hope, but is there anything approaching balance in the world’s moods encroaching on our personal lives from one day to the next?

Okay, that's the background. And then, one gloomy, wet morning “What next?” is answered by another unexpected breakdown. A voice announcing “malicious malware,” followed by a dark and unresponsive screen. As we all were reminded by Monty Python, no one ever expects the Spanish Inquisition, and yet sometimes it arrives!

The Artist and I were at a coffee shop not too many miles from home, taking a morning errand break, and I was still dressed for floor scrubbing, not having planned to go very far in my home county that morning, much less to “town” for anything, but now a visit to the gurus suddenly becomes Priority #1. On our way into town, more and more worries crowd in. Losing stored files would not be the end of the world, but what of business transactions? Thankful for the many online possibilities I had always eschewed with stubborn determination, I nevertheless thought of half a dozen causes for concern. Not the end of the world, by a long shot, but a big mess. 

“Here’s my prediction,” announced the Artist, doing all he could by driving me to the gurus’ lair and entertaining me along the way. “Someday the invention of the Internet will be seen as the apple in the Garden of Eden, and no one will want to do anything online any more. They'll look back on the Digital Age with horror.” (We love to concoct believable futures we will never live to see tested. One of my own favorite predictions -- "You heard it here first!" we tell one another -- is the eventual future merging of the historical persons of Jesus and Elvis.) The Artist elaborated, we discussed, and then we imagined a “disconnected” world of the future — which is to say, a world similar to the one we had known in years past, a world where “long distance” calls were rare and used only on special occasions, with ordinary correspondence conducted on paper and sent through the postal service. A world of manuscripts literally that, pages covered with handwriting — or, for those with racing minds, sheets of individual paper impressed with typed letters. A world with fifteen minutes of evening television news.

I was reminded of a long-ago evening on our porch with friends who had lived very adventurous lives before settling down to raise their children. Over dinner the wife recounted their return one year from a family vacation. Nearing home at the end of a long journey, they had heard sirens and seen smoke, and her first reaction was one of panic: What if it were their house on fire? But she and her husband and their children were all together, safe in their car, she realized instantly, and so her next surprising response — it surprised her at the time and sent us all into gales of laughter there on the porch as she told the tale — was one of relief, thinking of all their accumulated stuff gone up in smoke, no longer weighing them down. “We could start all over with nothing!” she realized happily, and the thought of having nothing again thrilled her!

Without e-mail, without my blogs, without Facebook, without an electronic keyboard, I thought, I could go dark, and it would not be the worst thing that had ever happened to me. I could disappear from the world online. Perhaps no one would even notice. I could liberate myself!

I'm still here
In former times, disappearance had to be physical. One left one’s country or hid out in the countryside or simply stopped answering one’s telephone and door. I would need to do nothing that drastic. I could continue to open my bookstore for business hours, continue to shop locally for groceries and write letters to friends. I would still have conversations with friends and customers in my bookstore. The Artist and I would not need to alter our winter travel plans. The stack of yellow legal pads we bought last winter and then never filled, perfect for quiet mornings and evenings in the high desert (exactly what we had in mind when buying them), would accompany us again to the West, this time to be filled. And we would still have our books … books on paper, a book tucked into a bag, books beside us on tables … books whose text was fixed when printed, not to be subsequently altered by some evil genius at a distance. 

Going dark, I realized, if that were what lay ahead in my future, might be returning into light, into a slower, saner, more personal way of existence, one to which I am much more suited, anyway. 

Well, the crisis was quickly resolved by the first guru approached. They are amazing, those young techies! So competent, so confident and reassuring. And so now, for the foreseeable future (which, in truth, is always moment-to-moment for any of us, though we so easily forget the contingent nature of our technological reality), my screen and online life continue. Also, we had a sunny afternoon yesterday and are having a sunny morning today, a reminder that even days with 50% chance of precipitation can bring brightly colored hours. 

One value of envisioning a worst-case scenario is seeing how one might cope with it, but another value in yesterday's imagined scenario of darkness was equally important to me. In recent weeks, you see, I had allowed myself to be wound tighter and tighter, “keeping up” with events I could little hope to influence and with many “friends” who find no time to drop by in person or put a note in the mail. Way too much ineffectual “reaching out”! If my blog were to go dark, I realized, there would be few to mourn its passing, so what have I been trying to do with all these years of online “self-expression”? And why do we all fondly imagine we might change each other's opinions by broadcasting our own on a daily basis?

Better -- for me, anyway -- to concentrate here on books, and, as for Facebook, to return to checking in there no oftener than once a day, with frequent holidays from checking in at all. To reading a newspaper maybe three times a week and listening to evening radio news but keeping the radio silent in my car. Because when Sarah and I leave the house in the morning and again when we return home at the end of the day (as well as the time at the bookstore in between), I need to be where I am -- and with her -- and to see the beauty and complexity of the world in front of my eyes. And when our little family threesome is together, we need to focus on each other.

In closing, in the spirit of refocusing on books, here are some sketchy thoughts (no more) about a novel I read this past weekend, Rumer Godden’s Kingfishers Catch Fire, set in Kashmir, where the author lived for three years, and published by Viking in 1953, and since I hardly expect to set off a stampede of readers eager for this book from over half a century ago, what I say will be in essence, though not in detail, in the nature of a “spoiler.” As a reader, you think you know early on the outlines of what will happen as a result of Sophia’s many blundering cultural faux pas. She does not belong. She is in the wrong place. She does not and never will fit in, and it was a mistake for her to have come. You foresee devastation ahead for many. You foresee her return to conventional English life, settling down to a safe, conventional marriage. All this seems obvious for most of the novel, the course of the story accelerating in later chapters until the metaphorical train wreck and Sophia’s chastening and repentance seem all but inevitable in the pages remaining. And yet — your expectations are overturned! No one dies! The main character leaves Kashmir, but the dénouement is hardly conventional. What relief! What delight! To reach the last page and be given such a gift, to see that even in the 1950s America a writer of fiction published by a major house could imagine something more for a female character than to have her “saved” by a retreat from adventure!

Old books! I find new books to love, as well, but I could never give up the world of old books. Bill Mauldin’s A Sort of Saga — how my late friend Chris would have delighted in that book! How many happy, book-filled hours we shared in Northport! And I am still here for my loyal customer-friends, as well as for anyone wandering up to Leelanau Township for a first visit. "I'm a lucky man," the Artist said to me not long ago. "Sarah's a lucky dog!" And I'm a lucky woman!