Search This Blog

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

A Perfect Storm of Reading

We drove toward and right into a low-lying cloud
After three solid days of rain, a day of blue sky and enormous, slowly drifting cumulus clouds arrived. Maybe it was the clearing weather that gave me the impetus to finish, on one morning, three books I’d begun reading over two weeks before, going back and forth among the three for day after day. Our Sunday was primarily a day of rest, with only a short expedition to Willcox and a visit to Twin Ponds to look for sandhill cranes. For the second time this winter, we could hear cranes in the distance but caught only the briefest glimpse of one small group high in the sky. 

They were lighting on the ground too far from us to be seen. Still, the dancing wind, beautiful sky, golden grasses, distant mountains, and the unusual sight of an expanse of water at our feet lifted our spirits. 

Back at the cabin once more, after a late lunch, I picked up a novel I’d happened on by chance in a thrift shop in Safford. I was not familiar with Yonnondio From the Thirties, by Tillie Olsen, but something about the dust jacket caught my eye, and the text on the flyleaf sealed the deal.

I’ve never read a book like this. To begin with, Olsen began the writing of her novel when she was only nineteen years old and worked on it intermittently for four or five years while moving around the country from one city to another. Somewhere along the way, though, it disappeared from her sight, and for years she thought the work was “lost or destroyed.” Subsequently, for twenty years, while raising four children and working a series of non-writing jobs, her creativity was also “lost” — but it was not destroyed. Tell Me a Riddle, a novel published in 1969, gave her a place in American literature, and her subsequent life was that of a minor literary star, with awards and fellowships and all the rest. 

Then one day, looking for another manuscript in what must have been voluminous papers, the author turned up some pages of her youthful beginning. 
A later, more thorough, search turned up additional makings: odd tattered pages, lines in yellowed notebooks, scraps. Other parts, evidently once in existence, seem irrevocably lost. 
From fourteen different versions of fragments, “penciled over scrawls” written 38-41 years earlier, Olsen did what she could to combine and reconstruct the pieces — with, however, “no rewriting, no new writing.” The result is an unfinished masterpiece in American literature, one that deserves being retrieved yet again from obscurity. 

We cannot know what the author at age 19 had in mind for the end of the story of Maizie and her family, and on the last page of this book published by Delacorte Press in 1974 we leave them still in the hell of an urban slum in August. They had moved from a mining town to a tenant farm to “packingtown,” the parents always hoping to make a better life for themselves and their children. But it is not the story line alone, much less the way it came together, in bits, over an interval of decades that makes Yonnondio memorable. Rather, it is the writing itself, writing so immediate and poetic and natural on the page, as it seems to race along with the breathing and heartbeats of the characters, that even to call it “style” seems all wrong. For example, although the family’s happiest times came when they lived on the farm, that life too was one of hardship, especially in winter:
Days were dim and short. Snow lay on the earth continually—blinding white at noon, yellow and old at dusk, ghost white at night. Life ceased beyond the kitchen. In the circle of warmth around the stove, everything moved and revolved. Distance was enormously magnified by the cold. Far and far it seemed to the woodpile; to the henhouse, where the hens gathered in drooping ovals of dejection, their cheeps coming out in little frozen spears; to the stable, where the sweet rotting smell of hay and the great cloud of warmth from the cow stained the air. They scarcely moved from the stove. 
And this is one of the more prosaic passages in the book. Here is an earlier passage, addressed to a young man newly gone down to work in the mine, where his brother has already died:
Breathe and breathe, Andy, turn your eyes to the stars. Their beauty, never known before, pricks like tears. You belong to a starless night now, unimaginably black, without light, like death. Perhaps the sweat glistening on the roof rock seen for an instant will seem like stars. 

And no more can you stand erect. You lose that heritage of man, too. You are brought now to fit earth’s intestines, stoop like a hunchback underneath, crawl like a child, do your man’s work lying on your side, stretched and tense as a corpse. The rats shall be your birds, and the rocks plopping in the water your music….
Often I have heard — and understood — the complaint that literary classics are generally “depressing.” Yonnondio, in common with finished and widely recognized giants in American literature, gives us human beings with ordinary hopes and dreams who must pit themselves against social and historical circumstances of huge, impersonal, and crushing power. The family’s dream of the farm was crushed by the tenant system. The horrors of coal mine and slaughterhouse have been told in other novels, but never from the point of view of a child whose limited understanding confuses reality and nightmare so thoroughly in a perspective that captures reality as no other book has done.

Once again, serendipity guided me to a book I would never have been looking for. The title and the author’s name were on no “wanted” list of mine, mental or written, and I cannot recall seeing them on other people’s must-read lists, either, although my unfamiliarity may have led me to slide over the book’s title without pause. It isn’t bad to look for particular books. I’m not saying that. What I am saying is that it is always good to be open to the book not looked for, the book stumbled on by chance, the unknown book that one day calls out from a shelf, saying, “Pick me up!”

There was no strong connection between Yonnondio and Sky Island or Old Southwest New Southwest, but for me Olsen’s novel bore a definite connection to William H. McNeill’s The Global Condition. Although McNeill’s lectures look at American history in the wider context of world events and processes, leaving aside details to focus on broad, sweeping currents of change, the detailed picture is there between the lines. In the story of the ever-expanding role of improved transportation and the substitution of market pricing for imperial command, McNeill is very much aware that there always continue to be winners and losers and that the big winners are always those on top of the economic power pyramid. In fact, when he pulls back even further to expand this global view, adding in the role of microparasitism and disease in the transformation of human societies, he also throws in macroparasitism, using the term metaphorically but arguing that he is not doing injustice to the term.
Certainly, most peasants who see someone else eat what they have produced or find themselves conscripted to work for another’s benefit find that access to resources required for their own personal well-being has been reduced in proportion to the quantity of goods and services transferred by such transactions. When armed raiders break in upon a village of farmers, resemblance to the macroparasitism of one animal species on another is obvious enough. When it is tax or rent collectors who come to seize their share of the harvest, the resemblance is less obvious, since sudden death is not normally at stake in such situations. Still, if one thinks not of individuals but of biological populations, the dependence of a macroparasite on the survival of the plants or animals whose tissues it eats is similar to the dependence of the tax and rent consumer on the survival of tax and rent payers. Accordingly, customs and institutions that regulate the amount of tax and rent payments so as to allow the survival of the payers are analogous to the balance of nature that keep predators relatively few and their prey comparatively numerous—as, for instance, is true of lions and antelopes in the African game preserves.
In this sense, then, McNeil feels justified in using the term macroparasitism to apply to and describe “exploitative relations among groups and classes of human beings.” 

I want to pause here and look at Tillie Olsen’s characters and their situations through McNeill’s lens. In the first part of the novel, the mine owners and managers, who never went down into the mine themselves, were the obvious predators on site. Others, of course, are so far removed from the scene that they never appear, either in the story or in the imaginations of the mine workers, but whether we look at the mining town itself, the nation as a whole, or owners and investors and workers the world over, we see that the prey are much more numerous. And while “sudden death” is not the given that it is when a lion runs down an antelope, it does occasionally come into play, and only large numbers of new workers available to replace those who die in the mines make continuation of the system possible.

When Olsen’s fictional family moves to the farm, that brief, bucolic, sometimes-idyllic, sometimes-hellish life (its character depending on the season), we see the family’s hard work taken from them in the very way McNeill describes peasants being preyed upon in earlier centuries. 
Coming to the kitchen, she heard her father’s angry voice: “They’re taking all of it, every damn thing. The whole year slaved to nothing. I owe them—some joke if it wasnt so bloody—I owin them after workin like a team of mules for a year. They’re wanting the cow and Nellie . . . takin Fred Benson’s farm and Eldridge’s. Batten on us like hogs. The bastards. A whole year—now I’m owin them.”

In the third phase of the family’s life, the farm left behind, the hell of the mining world is replaced by the hell even worse, if that is possible, of the slaughterhouse and meat-packing life. Here it is not coal dust but an ever-present stench that pervades the air they breathe. But with no land of their own, they are dependent on jobs provided by others, and since those seeking jobs always outnumber the jobs themselves, there is no bargaining for better wages or conditions. Some will not survive, but enough will….

McNeill is not carrying a socialist (or even a union) banner and certainly is not arguing against the free market system. Far from it. He believes in progress and in civilization. At the same time, he recognizes it as a double-edged sword and sees that every advance in civilization, every technological or market advance, comes with a cost — and that the cost is paid by those at the bottom, time and time again. Nor does he think this problem (for those of us who see it as a problem, which not everyone does) or any other will ever be finally solved for all time, because — if you will allow me to put one of McNeill’s themes into my own language — every solution to a previous problem creates new problems. It is not a question, then, of how to eliminate all problems: it is, rather, a question of which set of problems humanity can tolerate and survive.
Humanity, in short, is not likely to run out of problems to confront nor of changes needing to be made in prevailing practices…. Action and reaction within a complex ecological web will not cease, and efforts to understand its functioning fully and to foresee future side effects will continue to elude human beings for some time to come, and perhaps forever.

I used to look at this solution-creating-new-problems truth as a choice, but I am coming more and more to see it as McNeill does. Since in any given case and for any particular problem, we may choose one “solution” over another, but since we cannot see all the future effects of that solution, all the new problems it will create, we are as much in charge of our future as a herd of antelopes, swerving this way and that across the grassy plains. Our individual, group, and national purposes, that is, may well be lost in the swirl of global processes, economic and otherwise, beyond our ken.

That scarf of cloud above became a fog that lasted all the way to town.

I finished reading Olsen’s and McNeill’s books in the course of the same morning, and that afternoon I took from the shelf my big, fat, hardcover copy of Adam Smith’s An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. This particular edition includes the “classic” introduction (so the cover announces it) by Ludwig von Mises. Well, far be it from me to put myself on the same level as a “classic” economist, but the brief introduction by von Mises failed to overwhelm me. Perhaps it was in part because I was just coming off the larger, longer view of William McNeill, but it seemed that all von Mises had to say was that Adam Smith was right about everything, that capitalism was responsible for every bit of improvement ever made in human life, and that anyone who disagreed could only be guilty of indulging in a shallow, barbarian smear. (Yes, he used those terms.) He cites no particular arguments of Smith’s opponents, and so he is under no necessity to refute them. Instead, after tossing them into the dustbin, he trots out the praise of various “authorities” for Smith’s work. 

Prepared as I am to find much wisdom and food for thought in Smith’s work — certainly a Western classic for good reason — my philosopher’s soul rebels at an introduction that substitutes informal logical fallacies for serious analysis. Surely von Mises was capable of better? Moving on, I limited my first sitting’s reading of Smith to his own introduction and his first chapter, “Of the Division of Labor,” and what I propose is to read a chapter and set the book aside for a while, taking time to reflect on the chapter read.

Adam Smith’s “division of labor” has little, if anything to do with a household in which the husband goes out to work for pay while the wife remains behind to cook and clean and raise children. No, he is interested in industrial production, the manufacture of goods for sale. He begins with the simplest of manufactured goods, pins and nails, and shows that one person making such an item by himself can never make anywhere near the number produced by a group of workers when the process is broken down into simple steps and each worker performs only one step, over and over. With division of labor, ten persons may make 48,000 pins a day, where one man working by himself would be hard pressed to make twenty.

Irrefutable, no? And yet, in just the short seven pages of this first chapter, I found myself pausing over a couple of claims. 

One was Smith’s argument that with the division of labor workers are more apt to discover “easier and readier methods” to make their work easier. His example is that of a boy adding a string to a valve handle to “save his own labor.” The boy’s job had been to open and close the valve, but now — has he not put himself out of a job? This result Smith does not discuss, let alone pursue. And in McNeill’s perspective, certainly a technological advance has been made, civilization has been nudged forward, and the job of one now-unnecessary worker counts for nothing in the great scheme of things. 

Well, that is the way of technology. I paused much longer over an earlier point, one made just previous to that of the labor-saving invention. Smith claims that in passing from one kind of work to another, say from one aspect of production to a different aspect, both time and focus are lost. Let me quote directly here, because what I have to say about this claim needs the particularity of an example.
…A man commonly saunters a little in turning his hand from one sort of employment to another. When he first begins the new work he is seldom very keen and hearty; his mind, as they say, does not go to it, and for some time he trifles rather than applies to good purpose. The habit of sauntering and indolent careless application, which is naturally or necessarily acquired by every country workman who is obliged to change his work and his tools every half hour, and to apply his hand in twenty different ways almost every day of his life; renders him almost always slothful and lazy, and incapable of any vigorous application even on the most pressing occasions. Independent, therefore, of his deficiency in the point of dexterity, this cause alone must always reduce considerably the quantity of work which he is capable of performing. 

In Smith’s picture, the country worker (note the urban sophisticate’s denigration of the “country workman”) “saunters” and “trifles.” He is “slothful and lazy,” “incapable of … vigorous application,” and, we are asked to take as a given, deficient of dexterity. The worker's mind, we see, cannot refocus quickly enough on the new task. He is almost necessarily “indolent” and “careless,” simply by the circumstance of moving from one task to another. 

Oh, my, where to begin? Adam Smith was the son of a customs official, not a workman. Smith himself began studying philosophy at Glasgow University at the age of 15. Anything he knew of manual labor, therefore, he did not know first-hand, and his claims about the workman’s mind can only be speculative. 

As for a mind’s focus on one small task, repeated minute after minute, hour after hour, does not Smith assume too much? Perhaps because it is not part of his experience? Does not the very repetition dull a mind’s focus and allow it to wander? Perhaps lead it irresistibly away from the familiar (and therefore contemptible) task? 

Finally, I would argue that in moving from one task to another — let us imagine a farmer, taking feed to his animals, then turning his attention to a fence that needs mending, and moving on to clean and sharpen and oil the tools upon which his livelihood depends — a worker’s mind will be all the more active. Or we might look to the examples of a carpenter or a seamstress, workers more immediately producing goods. Here, also, I would argue, the man or woman who sees the “big picture” also sees the interrelated nature of various tasks, the necessity of each, and ways in which each task as well as their interrelationship might be better and more expeditiously — and even more beautifully —accomplished. 

In short, my speculations on the minds of a single-task workman and a workman moving from one task to another lead me to a conclusion opposite that of Smith’s. I think of work done with what Wendell Berry would call "affection" as work more likely to be done well.

But here is the clincher, the single word that gives Smith the victory over me: quantity. In evaluating the industrial work force, his concern is exclusively on the quantity of goods produced. It is not important that Smith’s factory worker see the “big picture,” and he does not address even the quality of the goods produced. It is only quantity that counts, with resultant cheapness to buyers. In Smith's picture, therefore, it is all to the good if the worker himself becomes almost literally a cog in the machine, because the more machinelike the work process, the more efficient, the greater the mass of goods cranked out, and the greater the mass of goods, the lower the price and therefore the larger the market for the goods. 

Again, in McNeill’s objective global calculation, this makes sense. It is civilization that moves forward, the human species that advances. Any individual is of little account, especially the antelopes put to work as machine parts for the greater good. 


What kind of world do we want? What kind of lives do we want, for ourselves and for our fellow human beings? Is the accumulation of wealth and the continual increase of material production more humanly valuable than individual lives? Is, for example, the financial health of the weapons and armaments industry and the profits it makes so indicative of the progress of civilization that the deaths of a few schoolchildren weigh nothing in the balance?

Such are my own thoughts and questions and pondering after reading Adam Smith’s first seven-page chapter.

Another day, another set of clouds

Postscript 2/25

First, in relation to the novel by Tillie Olsen discussed in this post, I since read this of Helen Levitt’s photography in the 2/22/2018 issue of the New York Review of Books: “Right up until her death in 2009, Levitt was continually revisiting the exposures she had made on the streets sixty or seventy years earlier…. She had every right, of course, to remain engaged with her early negatives, but it is sensible to distinguish between the young artist doing her first street work, the middle-aged one shaping it into book form, and the nonagenarian approaching it with a lifetime’s experience.” 

As to William McNeill’s metaphorical application of the term “macroparasitism” to describe relationships between different human groups, I think it fair to extrapolate from his usage to distinguish not only a simple predator-prey relationship but also to see a “food chain” of parasitism, as it were. Children, unfortunately for the modern liberal perspective that sees human young as deserving of protection, must be seen as the largest, most readily available group of “prey.” Every layer of predators moving up the chain feeds on the layer beneath it, and thus every level of social parasitism, at bottom, is parasitic on the world’s children. They are not yet contributing members of society; moreover, they can easily be replaced. I hope it is crystal-clear that I am not advocating the metaphorical parasitism on children, any more than McNeil was advocating metaphorical parasitism between any two groups of human beings. He was merely describing what he saw. Looking through his lens, then, I see children at the bottom of the pyramid. They are the oceanic plankton of the parasitic human “food chain.” 

There were no comments in response to my questions ending this post as it originally appeared, so I will repeat here the last question in that paragraph. I asked if the deaths of a few schoolchildren were outweighed by profits to a global weapons and armaments industry. What I have come back to say now is that the picture of an industry as predator and children as prey was vastly oversimplified. In truth, there are many layers of parasitism, many layers of predators between the bottom and top of the metaphorical food chain. My question, however, still stands, as does the first in the paragraph, namely, What kind of world do we want? 


Mr G said...

I wonder. Do workers have any rights in Adam Smith's system? Read Jeremy Brecher’s "Strike!" as an antidote. Workers had to organize to survive. Gaining the right to bargain over "wages, hours and working conditions" transformed society. Though the union movement is skimpy today workers owe much to those brave men and women who fought the early and successful battles (literally) for basic benefits that we now take for granted.

Greg said...

Pamela: my, my, my. I long ago gained an appreciation for your ability to distill complexity and transfer it from thought to word. This essay however, made me realize you have raised your skill to high art. I was irrevocably hooked on your musings regarding the brilliant Yonnondio and Olsen’s fictional epic and then you link to McNeill and his well supported notion that those at “the bottom” of virtually any economic endeavor pay dearly for their efforts. You are skilled at unraveling primary and secondary literary themes and providing a nuanced lens for rational consideration. I value such skill and recognize it’s scarcity. Don’t stop.

Greg said...

Pamela....I had created a witty and oh-so relevant response to this post last evening but failed in my attempt to publish it. It seems that I am awash in passwords and after several attempts to recall the appropriate one to publish my thoughts, I was summarily locked from comment. So I will try again.

My, my, my.... I long ago recognized your talents at converting thought to word. I had considered your analytical skills at all things literary to be the best i have seen...and then you publish this blog post. You seem to have now raised the previously thought of skill of literary comment to Art...i am not shitting you. This description of Olsen's "Yonnondio" and the relationship to McNeills "Global Condition" was simply brilliant. I have read it 3 times, each prompting a pause to consider another set of conclusions. Most significant to me is the notion that the predatory motives of the mine bosses, farm and business owners, in it's simplest form, is a direct corollary to the larger biological imperative: the hard-wired need to perpetuate ourselves and gain territory in any and all it's forms: financial, physical and psychological.
I don't for a moment claim the intellectual prowess to comprehend all the linkages you outline but am grateful for your commentary. I suspect simply reading your post and processing through my thoughts on it have fired synapses that would otherwise remain dormant and perhaps will stave off my dementia an additional day or i need a nap. Say Hi to David.

P. J. Grath said...

Hey, Steve! Adam Smith's work is simply descriptive, as far as I can see. He observes, generalizes, and systematizes what he sees has gone on and is going on the world. If I get to anything like a prescription as I work through the book, I'll let you know. For now, you know I agree with you about the great significance and importance of workers organizing!

Greg, your compliments overwhelm me! You are far too kind. But I think you would find all of these books stimulating and fascinating -- far beyond my brief account of them.

P. J. Grath said...

I meant to include this explanation in my comment the other day, following Greg’s, so that everyone new to the process would understand how leaving comments works. I have chosen to “moderate” all incoming comments on my blog. This means they come to me by e-mail before they appear in the comments section of the blog, and I then have three options: (1) Publish, (2) Delete, or (3) Mark as Spam. Moderating does NOT include editing of any kind, and I have never censored anyone’s comments by deleting them. The ONLY reason I moderate is to keep out the spam. Spam usually takes the form of a generic pseudo-comment, e.g., “This blog contains really good information,” followed by a link to the spammer’s business, which can be anything from an ocean cruise company to buying drugs from overseas and worse. To a blogger, spam is super-annoying and can really take the fun out of blogging. The real offense, in my eyes, is that spam masquerading as comment has nothing whatsoever to do with anything I’ve written: it is simply some automated bot using me as a free billboard for whatever someone wants to sell.

When you leave a comment, if it was left successfully, you should get a message (I can’t remember if it’s right then, online, or if you get it as e-mail) saying that your comment indeed registered and will appear after moderation. Since I am often online only once a day — and some days not at all — moderating slows down the commenting process, and that’s not something I like. But I like the spam even less! I do it for the sake of real conversation.

Thanks for your patience! I appreciate all comments, questions, reflections, challenges, etc. that come from real people and real readers!