A J o u r n a l of L i t e r a t e
a n d L i t e r a r y A n a l y s i s
2.3 (Summer 2002)
A quarterly publication of The Center for Moral Reason
Board of Directors:
John R. Harris, Ph.D. (President)
Thomas F. Bertonneau, Ph.D. (Secretary)
Helen R. Andretta, Ph.D.; York College-CUNY
Ralph S. Carlson, Ph.D.; Azusa Pacific University
Kelly Ann Hampton
Michael H. Lythgoe, Lt. Col. USAF (Rtd.)
The previous issue of Praesidium (Spring 2002) may be viewed by
© All contents of this journal (including poems, articles, fictional works, and short pieces by staff) are copyrighted by The Center for Moral Reason of Tyler, Texas (2002), and may not be cited at length or reproduced without The Center's express permission.
Special Issue: The Decline and Fall of Literacy
Johnny hasn’t been able to read for decades: now he’s making video games for Generation Omega.
Thomas F. Bertonneau
In this issue’s centerpiece, Professor Bertonneau not only reviews convincing theoretical connections between our "educated" youth and the denizens of pre-literate cultures: he shares unequivocal evidence retrieved from the battleground of Freshman English.
Peter T. Singleton
The trump card in all formal discussions on the future of libraries is saved space… but what wastes of psychic vacancy will accompany these closets full of disks?
John R. Harris
Current times in the United States are receiving credit for midwifing a religious revival. Yet by any measure involving depth, quiet, sobriety, maturity, and dignity, these same times are far more credibly an obscene beadle burying faith in keyword phrases.
Three extraordinary short stories pause to look over the shattered guard rails of life in the fast lane.
To argue a position’s moral superiority by showing that it leaves polled respondents happier is more like biting on a sugar pill than a bullet.
Storm wreaks havoc on diction: details at bottom!
Regularly featured poet Ralph Carlson combines wry humor with a sense of the neglected and forgotten.
Michael H. Lythgoe
Images of an Arcadian simplicity can convey complex human truths, as they do here.
A Few Words from the Editor
In my capacity of small publisher (very small), I keep receiving e-mails, brochures, and newsletters assuring me that the industry has never been more vibrant. Of course, this is true in a way. Not only are hundreds of thousands of people publishing in quantity on the Internet whose work would not have seen the light of day by conventional means: the paper, print, and paste grind is also churning out titles faster than Books in Print can list them all. To those who value such superficial measurements, the proposition that literacy is in full decline deserves a hearty laugh in the face.
The sound of that laugh would be the shrill, giddy, untuned warble of a fool. The decline of freedom is often signaled by outbreaks of extreme license; genuine religious faith tends to waste away beneath deceptive bursts of cultic hysteria. They say a dying man sometimes enjoys a surge of vigor right before his final plunge. Metaphors and analogies aside, the proliferation of printed matter which we see today is precisely what any serious student of culture would expect during the last days of literacy. It isn’t volume that counts: it’s quality. For about a millennium, northwestern Europe saw a production of manuscripts in monastic scriptoria whose tally far surpassed the copies of the Aeneid or the Metamorphoses put into circulation around ancient Rome. Yet medieval "literate" Europe failed to nurture Vergils and Ovids in record numbers. In fact, its audiences were at least as fond of native oral traditions committed to writing for ready performance on demand as they were of antiquity’s high-literate masters. What scribal labor was not devoted simply to copying sacred texts and important official documents was as apt to be lavished upon the Táin Bó Cúalnge or the Chanson de Roland as upon the Thebaid—or maybe, for that matter, upon a folksy rendition of the Thebaid wherein monsters, witches, and the Wut of battle fury would play a more prominent part. In some very significant sense, was this not an extension of the oral age rather than an inauguration of the literate age?
By that reasoning, you may respond, the literate age may be expected to linger well into the twenty-fifth century, comfortably integrated with screens and keyboards. But you should then be missing the point: to wit, that true, full literacy isolates the individual with his thoughts, and is hence always resisted by human indolence. Speaking is easier than writing, and button-pressing is easier than writing. The last is indeed a sterile imitation of the first in its sad lack of genuine sociability, yet an imitation thereof it surely is. The screened images chatter away like warm bodies, and the clicked mouse shoots out responses almost as casually as the loose tongue. As orality dominated the cultural landscape for centuries wherein scribal literacy scratched and squinted, so electronic transmission of prefabricated images and clichés has within two generations suborned literacy to be its lowly handmaid. Our fellow citizens now read in order to study TV Guide or stock prices or Web directions to the great Nike online shoe sale. Even now, after just a decade or so, many such instrumental lective chores have been replaced by visual cues which light up when touched by a manual arrow. Reading fills in the gaps where graphics remain ambiguous.
As for those tens of thousands of titles unleashed upon the public annually, do not be deceived. Most are financial disasters. Of these many, all too few fail in a noble endeavor to stir deep thought. Like the best-sellers they emulate, the majority are ancillary to the new crypto-oral culture of the screen. They peddle gossip about the rich and famous; they spin visually lurid tales of epic slaughter whose degree of psychological sophistication recalls a fifth-grade writing assignment of thirty years ago; they pass along secrets about how to stuff a pepper, fill a pie, and dice a salad that would have been whispered by grandmother to granddaughter in the days when families still existed. And yes, such documents will probably linger for a great many decades to come. How would archaic Rome’s leadership have curbed mass hysteria without a book of Sibylline prophecies which practically no one could read?
So read our issue and weep! Or better yet, read it and enjoy, with that special, vanishing enjoyment of frequent pauses to review an argument, to ponder an image—to go deeper. Tom Bertonneau’s essay was the material cause of my decision to gather a special issue on this subject; but, of course, the plight of literacy has vaguely concerned the pages of every Praesidium ever published. Our creative work may offer something of a relief to the considering of so many grim realities. Quite without design, however, I happen to have emerged with a delightful poem by Ralph Carlson about Internet courtship and a unique short story by Fiona MacAlister about telemarketing. Coincidence? To some degree… but I hasten to add that the artists among us can hardly be impervious to the transformation of our psychic world. Indeed, I suspect they know better than the rest of us what a rough ride awaits Western civilization.
The Irish proverb illustrated fetchingly on our cover, by the way, is well suited to pre- and post-universalist tribalism, is it not? Brace yourselves for more "survivalist" ethics.
Thinking is Hard: How a Damaged Literacy Hinders Students from Coming to Grips With Ideas
Thomas F. Bertonneau
Tom Bertonneau has contributed regularly to Praesidium since its inaugural days, and is known in many of what few honest corners of the academy remain as an invincible exponent of sound pedagogy and common sense. He currently teaches English at SUNY Oswego.
It is not merely Oswald Spengler, but many another among more recent thinkers, who has divined the indissoluble bond between high culture or civilization and an historical alteration in consciousness brought about by the written word, most particularly by alphabetic writing.
Eric Havelock, in Preface to Plato (1963), describes the consequences of alphabetic literacy as a veritable intellectual revolution, which, in the period between the eighth and the fourth centuries B.C., transformed the tribal, the reactionary, the superstitious into the philosophically inquisitive, the skeptical, and the empirical—and so established the foundations for all subsequent systematically conceptual endeavors. From the orally based customs of their tenth and ninth century B.C. Dark Age, the Greeks of the Archaic Period had inherited a paideia, or educational regimen, based on memorization of fixed, rhythmically structured patterns, designed to be spoken and heard. The human subject fostered by such a paideia is by no means autonomous or rational in a modern sense but depends, rather, on rote learning in rigid imitation of another who personally incarnates the authority of the community. This regime of strictly mimetic education will leave room neither for skepticism nor for analysis. Assuming that such things were possible in an oral society (they appear not to be), they would be antithetic to its fundamental organizing principle of dogmatic conformism. If writing, as Spengler says, is "a grand symbol of the Far" that has to do with "distance", then its antitype —what Walter J. Ong Jr. has dubbed orality—is an index of and has to do with closeness, and especially with the somatic and personal nearness of other people and of the concrete features of the immediate lifeworld. Havelock notes that "at some time towards the end of the fifth century before Christ, it became possible for a few Greeks to talk about their ‘souls’ as though they had selves or personalities which were autonomous and not fragments of the atmosphere nor of a cosmic life force, but what we might call entities or real substances" (197). The salient marker of this development was a shift in the valor of the term psyche, which indeed had previously signified something like a mute "life force":
Havelock elsewhere describes the same metamorphosis in slightly different terms: "Another and more correct way of stating the effect of the revolution… would be to say that it now becomes possible to identify the ‘subject’ in relation to that ‘object’ which the ‘subject’ knows" (201). One might further modify the formula to state that the species of literacy innovated by the Greeks (alphabetic literacy together with prose) is the foundation of all objective cognition. Descartes’s radical dichotomy of the res cogitans (the thoughts we have) as against the res extensa (the things about which we have thoughts) is thus already implicit in the "syntax", as Havelock styles it, of Socrates and Plato. Where the Archaic paideia trades in the figures-in-action and emotional states of oral epic, on which it was based, and is participatory (mimetic) in an almost gymnastic manner, the new prosaic philosophia, or the literate education, emphasizes concepts, definitions, syllogisms—in other words, it distances itself from persons and the lifeworld by asking the subject to suppress his emotional reaction to a topic in favor of detached assessment according to set criteria. It also creates topics that are "not necessarily agents, that is, persons" but, rather, "entities" (The Muse Learns to Write 101). The attitude appears as early as Heraclitus (fifth century B.C.), when he asserts that "of the Logos which is as I describe it men always prove to be uncomprehending… for although all things happen according to the Logos men are like people of no experience" (qtd. in Kirk, Raven, and Schofield 187); and later when he urges that "listening not to me but to the Logos it is wise to agree that all things are one" (187 [emphasis added]).
Appealing to his external criterion, the Logos, Heraclitus at the same time complains that the many of his day have not yet come to terms with it; they do not examine the thing in itself according to its intrinsic character—the thing per se (κατα φυσιν)— but by implication only under the received, and by no means guaranteed, opinion. The "not to me" is extraordinarily important, as it brackets the ego in an unprecedented way. It suspends, rather more accurately, the plural egos of contending, relativistic dispute, in which no subject succeeds in separating affect from proposition. The enduring battle in the sequence of the Platonic dialogues between the Socratic passion for truth and the sophistic dedication to mere opinion stems from the same scheme, which is why Havelock makes Plato’s oeuvre the armature of his discussion.
Ong’s rehearsal of these same events and facts demands attention on its own. In his indispensable Orality and Literacy (1983), he describes how pre-literate communities "conceptualize and verbalize all their knowledge with more or less close reference to the human lifeworld, assimilating the alien, objective world to the more immediate, familiar interaction of human beings" (42). By contrast, "words are alone in a text" (101), where "they lack their full phonetic qualities" (101) and so tend toward impartiality and abstraction. The spoken word, confined to "situational, operational frames of reference" (49), lacks literacy’s "consciously contrived [and] articulable rules" (82), which, precisely because they are "completely artificial" (81), force the subject to reduce the otherwise seamless flow of events into its analytical constituent elements. Just this suspension of the lifeworld, and of its confrontation of personalities and subjective orientation, however, is what exposes the mind "as never before not only to the external objective world quite distinct from itself but also to the interior self against whom the world is set" (105). In a discussion of print, Ong notes:
While the image of "inert mental space" might irritate the vestigial Romantic in us all, we should remember that Ong intends the phrase positively, for only when one can represent himself neutrally can he submit himself to rigorous assessment and correction; prior to that he can only conform. The transition from orality to literacy therefore has not merely an intellectual implication in the restricted sense, but a moral one as well. Furthermore, while the assertion that "print encouraged the mind to think" in a new way about its own contents might appear as a concession to contemporary relativism (there is oral thinking and literate thinking and one is as good as the other), the opposite is in fact the case: for only when the contents of observation can be stored and evaluated as if apart from the observer does an empirically verifiable objective knowledge at last appear. The epistemological advance thus underpins the ethical one; and the ethical one in turn reinforces the epistemological one. Havelock shows, in The Greek Concept of Justice (1978), how the sense of what is right in, say, The Iliad, remains subjective and ego-driven. Without a concept of objective moral reference, might tends to make right, as the old saying cynically insists. In Plato’s Socratic dialogues, which benefit from later developments in a literacy still quite incipient when The Iliad was written, we can by contrast already see the result of the mental distancing spurred by writing: the whole point of Protagoras or Gorgias is to define, as carefully as possible, ethical ideas (virtue or justice) and to separate them from the rancor and selfishness of personal claims.
Literacy—as Spengler or Havelock or Ong sees it —is a momentous and yet tenuous achievement largely of the West. Vast areas of the globe have been but little altered by the phenomenon of the alphabetization of consciousness, or they have changed only superficially without yielding a tenacious orality in their basic adjustment to life. There is no particular reason to suppose, for example, that the regions of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan visited by cognitive science researcher Alexander Luria in the 1920s and 30s would show any greater influence of literacy today than they did seven or eight decades ago when he studied their peoples. But we should not imagine that literacy is guaranteed where it has historically taken root, that it is permanent or inalterable on its "home ground". It is assuredly not. Ong’s somewhat troubling coinage of "secondary orality" addresses the vulnerability of high literacy to erosion and subversion. The term refers particularly to the reappearance in literate cultures of essentially oral types of communication, such as radio and television; these technologies bypass and increasingly replace the written word as the medium of public discourse. Ong claims that: "secondary orality" is "essentially a more deliberate and self-conscious orality, based permanently on the use of writing and print, which are essential for the manufacture and operation of the equipment and for its use as well" (136). This might be the case for the first generation of radio and television audiences, but as broadcasting permeates a society—as it has American society for more than half a century—the subtlety and objectivity of literate discourse retreats before a resurgence of ego assertion, opinion, gesture, and image; the near displaces what Spengler calls the Far. The advertisement-driven, visual style of "internet" communications (with cartoon-like sound effects and flashing rebuses) no doubt also veers away from literacy, as such, and reinforces habits, which are essentially oral.
Complaints about the politics of the "sound-bite" indicate the character and direction of the overall development; so do steadily dropping verbal SAT scores and the "dumbing down", as it is denominated, of the schools and of the culture generally. In her essay on "The Question of our Speech: the Return to Aural Culture" (1989), Cynthia Ozick urges that while "pragmatic reading cannot die," literate culture "is already close to moribund" (Washburn and Thornton 86). She notes the primacy of a visual-oral style (television, movies, commercial music) and spells out its default: "The job of sitting in a theater or in a movie house or at home in front of a television set is not so reciprocally complex as the wheels-within-wheels job of reading almost anything (including the comics)" (86). Reading books entails "an act of imaginative conversion" (86). The moral and the intellectual are again connected. I quote from Ozick’s rather Spenglerian assessment of the current situation:
The "new aural culture" that Ozick describes resembles Ong’s "orality" or Havelock’s "acoustic-mimetic culture" part by part, with the exception that it is less competent because less purposeful than either. The salient common feature is the lack of a literature to serve as intellectual model and orientation. Archaic Greek culture had not yet invented literature; twenty-first century "aural culture" has given it up.
The written and oral contributions of the students in my college composition and literature courses substantiate Ozick’s thesis, which is my own as well: three or four decades of affective—often outright anti-literate—education in the public schools have created cohort after cohort of high school graduates whose intellectual capacities remain largely undeveloped and are perhaps no longer amenable to development by the time that they reach eighteen and show up in the state colleges. I shall only state here for the first time what I shall repeat as my exposition unfolds: while the students suffer intellectually from the effects of this default in their education, they themselves are not responsible for it. When I note the intransigency of their untutored mental habits, it is not for the sake of charging them with their own shortcomings; it is, rather, to show the manner in which bad schools and thoughtless schooling have cheated them out of a birthright.
Student "orality" betrays itself in a number of guises: a childish prose, full of technical defects, depending heavily on the transcription of oral formulas based on the first and second persons, as though what one writes were merely a graphic version of what one says; a reliance on paratactic utterances pointing to a concomitant unfamiliarity with hypotactic procedures; a nearly perfect lack of analysis, either grammatical or logical; only the dimmest notion of causality; a lack of even the narrowest repertory of allusions and references, such as to an historical chronology or to scientific or belletristic knowledge; a crude rhetoric of ego-assertion and resentment; a subjectivity that exploits a ready-made vocabulary of simplistic relativism, often expressing itself in a sweepingly judgmental condemnation of judgments; and a penchant for emotional posturing and what might be called affective argument (except that it is not really argument). Contemporary student writing is, as Ong might put it, close to the human lifeworld, agonistic, egotistical, aggregative, and formulaic.
Consider the responses of first-year composition students, on the first day of the semester, to the following dictum by Heraclitus, chosen for its self-contained rationale: "All men should speak clearly and logically, and thus share a rational discourse and have a body of thought in common, just as the people of a city should be under the same laws" (Davenport’s translation, Fragment 81). The dictum is a modal, counterfactual one describing the necessary (ideal) state for transparent civic discourse in a community, its point being underscored by a simile in reference to law. The dictum’s level of abstraction is high and its grammatical structure of moderate complexity; in its simile, however, it makes an effort to analyze and clarify itself, and this should be a help to readers of modest accomplishment. Yet freshmen typically misread it, often failing to grasp it as a counterfactual plea for greater deliberation and clarity in the forum while mistaking it for an erroneous report on the empirical situation. Here is an example:
The paragraph shows a number of interesting features, which it will be profitable to detail. Let me start where the writer does, with his assertion about the alleged difficulty of getting people to abide by "the same set of laws". The sentence is not true, but it is not true in a particular way: of course, most people do obey the law or follow the rules; the writer finds this generalization unsettling because, empirically speaking, not everyone is law abiding or rule following—hence his tautology that not everyone toes the line because not everyone toes the line. Generalization is a form of abstraction. We generalize, as the theoreticians tell us, by first gaining some distance from the empirical situation, what Ong would call the sensorium. The writer’s discomfort with the generalization appears to come from, or to be bound up with, his unwillingness to reconcile the exceptions with the rules. His inability to assert a perfectly valid generalization is thus the reverse of his incomprehension of the modal counterfactual grammar in the sentence to which he responds. Heraclitus has uttered a formula for ideal communications in a society; he has not described the empirical situation, which no doubt differs quite radically from the ideal (in his day, as in our own). It might well be the case, as the writer says, that Heraclitus’ best possible outcome "is… not going to happen," but modal counterfactuals are not predictions; they are speculations—hypotheses, as it were—which deal the probable consequences of projected causes. As before, the writer does not understand the tense of Heraclitus’ verbs, and once again he confuses the factual with the counterfactual. Note the only partially assimilated phrases of the second sentence, the "in comparison" and the "in principle". These come from written discourse, but the writer is unsure of their function and seems to employ them for effect only, in the naïve faith that they will add something to his iteration. The next sentence reverts to a widespread topos of contemporary classroom propaganda—the jejune notion that everyone is so different from everyone else that set criteria for measurement do not apply. The plausible aim for the writer in asserting that "we, as humans, express ourselves in different ways" would be to defend people in general, and most especially to guard himself, from the application of such criteria. There are "different ways", the writer claims, of following "the same set of standards". Here, too, the function appears to be prophylactic. The final sentence, the one that supplies this armory of defensive anticipation, trails off into a semi-coherent phrase that seems to contradict what has gone before: it suggests that there is indeed something inherently confusing in expressive anarchy, hence the notion that in insisting on private modes of argument "we outwit ourselves".
Even when respondents appear to agree with Heraclitus, it is often without fully understanding the formula’s import, as in the case of the student who writes: "Not only should we stand for what we believe in but also stand together and disgard [sic] what we don’t believe in." This sentence confuses the requirement for rules to which all submit with conformist solidarity as a desideratum; its images of assembling en masse and collectively expelling "what we don’t believe in" originate in communal action and suggest an ego still heavily indebted to peer pressure. In his description of Greek orality prior to the dissemination of alphabetic literacy, Havelock stresses the mimetic character of its education: "Tradition… is taught by action, not by idea or principle", and learning occurs largely through the sharing of "common feelings" in a "collective association" (The Muse Learns to Write 77). To explain what he thinks Heraclitus means, the writer imagines such an occasion, with a crowd of people standing together. His disgard is an interesting conflation of disregard and discard and is facilitated, so to speak, by a lack of visual acquaintance with the two terms.
A second student trades Heraclitus’ theme of clear and logical speech for his own theme of "equality" and offers this gloss: "Equality is some[thing] that can be stressed in this quote… All people should respect each other and everyone should be treated the same." Another student agrees: "In the quote by Heraclitus of Ephesus, it states how all men should be equal." The same student adds this: "There is no reason why people should not be treated equally. I believe that no one should be labeled as better than someone else, and should be treated the same… I believe that equality and respect should be brought upon everyone." This demand for "respect" for everyone fits well with the defensive claim that universal criteria pose a threat of some kind to the individual because, after all, "we… express ourselves in different ways." Yet another student opines how "in my opinion, the quote by Heraclitus of Ephesus is discussing how everybody should be treated equally." Of course, Heraclitus says nothing at all about "equality."
Why then do the respondents insist in such a convergent way that he does? It begins with what must be the opacity, to them, of the text; when the terms defy translation one seeks out some other, familiar term as if one term were freely exchangeable with another. The theme of "equality" is currently widespread and is one of the few Latinate abstractions to which students can readily attach a brief gloss. Everyone in the contemporary scholastic and academic milieu talks endlessly about equality. It follows that Heraclitus, too, must have been talking about it, even if his asseveration makes no mention of it. The appeal to equal shares in "respect" for everyone belongs to the same vein of free-floating egalitarian discourse.
A related but resolutely programmatic response to Heraclitus is this one, the vocabulary of which suggests a rather thorough assimilation of the reigning sectarian ideology:
In comparison with some, this response shows a modicum of grammar and syntax; yet the competency is a reflection, it seems to me, of the writer’s reliance on stock formulas of a rudimentary sort close to oral slogans—the sort of pronouncements that freshmen now routinely hear during summer orientation. Like the obligatory events in an epic sequence, everything turns on a preexisting collective knowledge of what actions and emotions go with the topos of "diversity". As do many respondents, this one reacts with indignity to the misperception, by no means unique to him, that Heraclitus is calling for a lock-step type of non-thinking—"uniformity… of thought… does not breed diversity"—to condense the affront to its essential form. The next sentence is de rigueur: "Diversity… leads to advancement in the arts and in culture." This unites "diversity" with a version of progress ("advancement") in the standard yoking. Note how the next sentence, which displays a bit of real and perhaps independent analysis, has an entirely non sequitur relation to the previous one; for it is quite true, as Heraclitus implies, that it is only the sharing of concepts and rules that "fosters", in the student’s surprisingly apt diction, "the exchange of ideas." The terms "enforcement" and "creation", however, are not in their proper order; a law cannot be enforced until it is first created. I am tempted to characterize the concluding sentence of the response as schizophrenic, since its first half states the analytically undeniable case, while the second half reverts arbitrarily to the cliché. It is not clinically schizophrenic, of course; it is merely contradictory in a confusing and irresolvable way. The weight of the writer’s moral opprobrium expresses itself through the awkward coinage, "undiverse", which is close to a manifestation of Newspeak. Other respondents echo the politically correct indignation without employing the prêt-à-porter vocabulary. For example: "if we all had similar thoughts, there could be no creativity in the world" and "we could be a society of mindless drones with no individuality"; or: "if this was how things were [run,] then where would you ever get individuality"; or: "not everyone should vote or go for something if they don’t like the outcome"; or: "if this were true, we would still be living in caves." The students persistently and widely identify the call to speak clearly and logically with the demand to think alike. The paradox is that in making this error, the students demonstrate that they cogitate in a manner remarkably similar—and quite predictable, as well.
Luria’s meditations in The Meaning of Mind (1979) can help us to summarize the mental operations revealed in the student responses to Heraclitus. "New experiences and new ideas," Luria writes, "change the way people use language so that words become the principal agent of abstraction and generalization" (73). Prior to this development, which stems from exposure to literacy, language remains oriented to the "concrete situation" (72), and exhibits a rather tenacious antipathy to "abstractions or generalizations about categorical relations" (72). Even the notion of a human being is an abstraction. Poignantly, the respondents to Heraclitus in my class exercise rarely refer to human beings or humanity; they are obsessed, on the other hand, by what they call individuality. This "individuality", as in the phrases quoted at the end of the previous paragraph, does not seem to be an abstract—an ethical or philosophical—category. On the contrary, it seems to mean people whom I know, my friends, me, the cohabitants of my lifeworld; indeed, those who share my tastes and typical behaviors. The aggressive speculation in Heraclitus’ words, which creates a categorical imperative ("all men should…"), must strike the students as incompatible with, even a threat to, their concrete and affective sense of themselves and their acquaintances. That their usage of individuality is not abstract, but situational in Luria’s sense, is indicated by its unresolved tension with the ideas of equality and equal respect. Logically, individuals will differ; the degree of their difference will correlate with the development of their individuality. Superb singers will not be "equal" with bad ones; the best basketball players will earn more than "equal respect" in comparison to those who do not make the team. But these are precisely the "logical schemas" (75), in Luria’s term, which the students do not have available, so that the question of resolving them does not arise.
When interviewing his subjects, Luria noted "a mistrust of initial premises" (79) when he tried to lead them through logical or abstract discussions. Ong writes about the "agonistically toned" character of oral societies (Orality and Literacy 43). "Writing fosters abstractions that disengage knowledge from the arena where human beings struggle with one another," but by contrast "orality situates knowledge within a context of struggle" (42-43). All of the student utterances previously quoted show traits of oral antagonism and of non-literate situational, as opposed to abstract or categorical, thinking. Of course, all of the responses originate with people who are, in some degree, literate. One occasionally even finds among them vocabulary and syntax that verges on the sophisticated. But we should remember Ozick’s observation that pragmatic literacy should not be misidentified with the literacy of cognitively competent and richly educated individuals.
The adolescents who show up at college in today’s freshman classes are not illiterates, but they are also not readers or thinkers; they resemble the middle tier among Luria’s Central Asian subjects: "Women who attended short-term courses in the teaching of kindergarteners [who] as a rule had no formal schooling and almost no training in literacy" and "active… collective farm workers and young people who had taken short courses" (61). The acculturation of modern American young people is primarily oral-acoustic, with the imagery of motion pictures and television added on. The tendency in elementary and secondary schools has been to concede to this situation and to lower the standards for reading, writing and literary studies all along the line in the K-12 curriculum. Sandra Stotsky has noted, in Losing our Language (1999), how the literary offerings in widely used textbooks have changed since the early twentieth century. Of the contents of a third and fourth grade reader from 1900, Stotsky says that its "vocabulary and sentence constructions… would be an extraordinary challenge to students in the sixth grade today" (18), who have been brought up on reading programs "that may actually be decelerating children’s rate of language learning as they move through the grades" (15). Of an essay by Joseph Addison offered in a McGuffy Eclectic Reader, Stotsky says that, "it required much more of the reader than well-developed reading vocabulary" (19). The Eclectic Reader’s selections from Addison, Poe, and others "require—and reward—considerable reflective thought" (19).
Heraclitus on the advisability of clear and logical language is one sentence—of some grammatical subtlety, it is true, but by no means opaque or intractable for someone who has been exposed meaningfully to the Lincoln-Douglas debates or who, in the sixth or seventh grade, has lived up to the demands of H. G. Wells or Jules Verne or Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. My advanced composition students (freshmen who have tested out of the "developmental" writing course) recently experienced considerable difficulty with the following passage on the character of scientific research in a collectivist context from Simone Weil’s "Sketch of Contemporary Social Life" (1934), which I had assigned them to read:
Their bafflement stemmed from a number of proximate causes—from having almost no discernible sense of the activity of scientific research, from not knowing what the phrase a fortiori means and so ceasing to read beyond the point in the passage where it appears, and from not knowing the import of the adjective "collective." Yet the scheme of Weil’s statement is neither complex nor elusive: in a welter of activity where one researcher cannot possibly know of the endeavors of all other researchers, the results of experimentation quickly escape from the discoverer, who remains powerless to influence further developments or practical applications. One student, on being asked about the meaning of Weil’s words, said hesitantly that "life is full of mystery." I wanted to know whether that was good or bad. "It’s good," she said; "people need mystery in their lives." I asked where the idea of a "mystery" appears in the passage. She had associated the term, as it happened, with Weil’s enigma, which however belongs to the metaphor of diminished clarity, as of "too thick glass", and does not boast a positive valence in the context. Later on in the passage, Weil develops the "thick glass" metaphor under the figure of impenetrable obscurity. The young woman gave no sign of registering any of this. Another student reacted this way: "People should mind their own business and not go poking around." He added that Weil seemed to him "a grumpy sort of person who likes to complain." Yet another student said, "Most of the people I know are happy."
As do the brief compositions on Heraclitus (which come from the same group of eighteen students), these oral ripostes to Weil reveal a restriction to the immediate situation or lifeworld. If my friends and I are happy, why should we worry whether "blind collectives" (whatever they are) cancel or otherwise disturb our individual aspirations? The students do not reject a particular bit of social analysis (Weil’s) in preference for another on the basis of a real assessment; they simply do not enter into critical interpretation of overarching social phenomena. Nor is it exactly a refusal; it is more like some kind of incapacity. They fall back on bits of folklore, like the sententious advice that "people need mystery in their lives," or the admonition not to go poking around. These sententiae are the functional equivalents of the declaration that "diversity… leads to advancement in the arts and culture." They mean little but serve rather as reassurances of the affective status quo. A notion, on the other hand, like the one stating that "a complex set of interrelations" now mediates all knowledge, is as it were too complex and too interrelated with other notions in the same passage for the students to come to grips with it. Does this odd combination of bafflement and hostility with complacency represent, as Stotsky and others argue, a decline in cognitive achievement from past decades? Or have first-year college students always operated linguistically and intellectually at this wanting level? Jeanne S. Chall, in "Should We Worry", summarizes a number of studies that strongly indicate a real decline in freshman literacy. For example:
Another possible indication that reading achievement has been declining is the great increase in remedial reading courses at colleges—both at two- and four-year colleges. This may well be a reflection of the increase in first generation college students. But it might also be that they are not, as a group, as proficient in reading and writing as those of similar background who attended college in previous years (Research in the Teaching of English, October 1996, 267).
Stotsky would probably correlate the comparatively poor performance of the Michigan students in the 1980s with a shift away from phonics and from intensive-quality reading in K-12 in the 1960s; as things in K-12 have gotten no better since then—according to Stotsky they have gotten progressively worse—we would expect a comparable decline over the twenty year period from 1980 to the present. The starting ability of the writers in my current (Spring 2002) freshmen composition class is evidence for a continuation of the decline noted by Chall; so are the reading and writing skills of the sophomores and juniors in my "Western Heritage I" course, essentially a survey of ancient and early medieval literature in translation.
The class has an enrollment of twenty-five students. On a mid-term examination given in the second week of March, or about half way through the semester, essay writers made the following basic-language errors (among many others):
These simple errors tell us a good deal about the intellectual habits of the students. The misspelling of proper names is particularly interesting given that "Euripides" and "Medea", for example, appear boldly on the front cover of the Dover edition that I ordered for the course. When the ears and the eyes work together, matching repeatedly what they hear and see, then unfamiliar but easy spellings are swiftly mastered; when the ears do the work and fail to coordinate what they hear with what the eyes see, the default produces orthographic oddities like "Euricles" and "Media". In the second case, the partial homophony of the proper name "Medea" (where the accent, however, lies on the second syllable) with the plural noun "media" results in the substitution of the latter for the former, because it is known and "Medea" is not. Someone habituated to the optics of careful reading would not make such a mistake, especially given that "Medea" is a mere five characters. The erroneous "disgussion" resembles another item of confused diction that we encountered earlier: the quasi-portmanteau coinage "disgard", which conflates disregard and discard, while putting g for c in the vowel-consonant pattern of the latter. The explanation is the same—a lack of visual familiarity with the word. "Enstill", too, probably results from hearing the word but not seeing it. "Dionystic" and "epidmy" require some background for their implication to become clear. I make full use of classroom technology in my teaching; I create detailed outlines of my lectures on transparencies and project them the screen while I speak. This serves exactly the purpose of making novel terms as plain as possible, right down to their spelling. In this manner, during the sessions about tragedy, students had the opportunity to learn the term D-I-O-N-Y-S-I-A-C along with its Nietzschean pair, "Apollonian"; in a session on Homer’s Odyssey, I made reference to Apollodorus’ E-P-I-T-O-M-E of the journey back to Ithaca (for which two students wrote "Ithica"). In "Dionystic" and "epidmy", then, we once again encounter the supremacy of the ear over the eye. The aural/oral aspect of the word overwhelms the graphic representation of it, so we get a quasi-phonetic transcription of what "Dionysiac" and "epitome" merely sound like to the student, who then ignores the template that is set before his eyes.
"Focus" for focused is a related error, one that indicates a class of misspellings that appear to be occurring more frequently than ever before in student writing. Many students seem never to have consciously encountered written representations of the past participle and are therefore unfamiliar with it (they show no sign of ever having been exposed to systematic grammar); and because they do not have a visual sense of the terminal –ed that marks the inflection, they do not hear it when it is spoken. I have also encountered, among other instances of the same phenomenon, "discuss" for discussed, "force" for forced, and "prejudice" for prejudiced. Now "sence" for scenes also indicates a flawed visual familiarity with the word, the written pattern of which the writer has insufficiently noted; the writer knows that both s and c are involved, but not how the pattern juxtaposes them. "Tail" for tale shows unfamiliarity with the latter form and assumes an orthographic identity in the homophonic convergence of the two semantically quite different nouns. A really inexplicable item is "atuziurs", which refers to something in one of the reading assignments covered by the examination. The closest thing to it phonologically, perhaps, is suitors, as in Homer’s Odyssey, about whom I lectured at length; but the item’s context—a sentence from an essay reading, "order was kept by the atuziurs who had great respect for the gods and one another"—would seem to eliminate Messieurs Antinoüs, Eurymachus, Amphinomus, et alia, from consideration.
The apparent triviality of these gaffs might lead one to dismiss them as mere sloppiness. This is not so: they belong in a larger pattern with the oral traits in the responses to Heraclitus and with the inability to render transparent the passage in Weil’s essay. The representative contemporary college freshman—the one who is likely to show up in a typical state college —operates mentally in a realm with some resemblance to Ong’s "secondary orality", but without the literate formation that Ong supposes for the phenomenon.
What Luria writes about his Uzbek subjects describes students fairly well:
In the terms that I am using in the present essay, contemporary college students have a hard time coming to grips with ideas. Just how difficult will be further illustrated by their responses to the examination question that asked them to comment on the theme of order in three out of the six works that they had read (or were supposed to have read) prior to the halfway point of the semester. Of course, there is much dereliction in fulfilling the reading requirement, but wherever a student has commented on a text, I assume him actually to have read, or to have tried to read, it. The works were The Odyssey by Homer, Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, Medea by Euripides, The Symposium by Plato, and The Voyage of Argo by Apollonius of Rhodes. They also had exposure to some characteristic pronouncements of the Pre-Socratic philosophers, with the emphasis on Heraclitus. They read The Odyssey in Palmer’s Victorian translation, quite elegant in its prose and several degrees de-archaized; they also read The Voyage of Argo in prose, in E. V. Rieu’s translation, likewise fluent and modern.
I conduct the course systematically, as I have earlier hinted, doing a good deal of story summary in my lectures, supplying a visible outline of major points, and approaching from two or three angles any feature of the text or incident in the tale that strikes me as important. I articulate lectures around a number of themes that unify the reading and among these the theme of order is foremost. In Homer, for example, I carefully set out the details of the laws of hospitality and explain their centrality in the social pattern of the saga; I guide students through the patterns that inform relations between mortals and immortals and that dictate right behavior or else, by their disruption, indicate its default. In the case of Oedipus Rex and Medea, I pointed out not only the assumptions about order and disorder internal to the action but also the Aristotelian unities of form imposed on the action from without by the poets. When dealing with Plato, I analyzed the speeches in their sequence and spoke about the interior, spiritual order embodied by Socrates and so casually despised and violated by Alcibiades—who therefore strongly resembles Homer’s suitors. I place every work in its historical context and have brought maps and chronologies and other graphic and artistic material into appropriate convenience with the works under discussion. I regularly ask students to think, and to talk, about patterns that appear in more than one work. Odyssey and The Voyage of Argo are quests; so, in its way, is Symposium, although there the search is not a topographical, but a spiritual, one. Apollonius gives us the beginning of Medea’s marriage with Jason, Euripides its end. In other words, precisely on the assumption that they will have difficulties, I do my utmost to establish clarity in what is, for them, opaque because utterly unfamiliar. Given these clues, the students might have been expected to have an easy time with the essay, which did not require them to make an argument but merely to "comment". How did they do and what do their responses reveal?
The struggle simply "to comment" is often moving. Writing about The Odyssey, a student whom I shall call "Warfield" produces the following paragraph, which ranks among the most coherent in the batch:
The writer has read the material and recollects some significant detail from his reading; not surprisingly, he best remembers what in his reading coincides with pronouncements made by me during lecture about and discussion of the poem. "Order" is an abstraction, however, and Warfield does not quite sort it out. Like a number of other respondents, he takes the phrase the theme of order as a unit, failing to separate out the final element as the independent general term. Nevertheless, he is able to work with both order and its antithesis, and his implied scheme of order and chaos does indicate the internalization of a rudimentary dichotomy, something few other students demonstrate. Warfield recognizes in the tumult in Odysseus’ household, vividly described by Homer in Books I through IV in a set of concrete images and stock actions, the principle of disorder and thus, by definitional contrast, of order. The taking advantage that he correctly ascribes to the suitors is, moreover, a type of ethical disorder, so that we may justly say that Warfield is not, as many of his classmates are, thoroughly bound to concrete and operational definitions. To see order in Telemachus’ calling of the assembly is also admirably non-concrete. In the discussion of "values", on the other hand, the analysis breaks down: not only is the sentence cluttered with terms whose interrelation is unclear, but the idea of "values", which is essentially abstract, collapses back into its concrete meaning of property or chattel; thus the suitors "take advantage" of the absent king’s "herd" and of "his kingdom in general". That the suitors have eaten Odysseus’ swine, that they have drunk his vintage, is clear to Warfield; that they have violated reciprocity, an idea one or two levels up on the ladder of abstraction, is not. The discussion acquires a bit of sophistication again when Warfield adduces the lawlessness and lack of social organization of the Cyclopes as an example of disorder. This is not an original discovery, however, but a report based on one of my lectures. Warfield misidentifies Odysseus’ Cyclopean nemesis as "Prometheus". The correct name, of course, is Polyphemus.
Another exam-taker who cannot break through to genuine abstraction is "Katherine." "In the Odyssey," she writes, "the theme of order was destroyed because the king was not there... The city was in chaos until the king came back. Because Odysseus was gone for so long the rule of hospitality somewhat diminished & the respect for others was also lost." Katherine treats "the theme of order" as a palpable thing, which like a vase or a mechanism can be physically destroyed, and yet the passive voice omits to specify who perpetrated the destruction. Katherine has only the most vague idea of cause and effect in Homer’s story. Events happen, sort of, but without agency. Thus: "the rule of hospitality somewhat diminished" and this has something to do with the absence of Odysseus.
A more representative sample than Warfield’s is "Xenophon’s": "I feel The Odyssey
Students consistently confuse the lecture with the reading. Homer does not tell of Odysseus’ attempt to feign madness when Agamemnon came to recruit him for the Trojan campaign; I recited the episode in my introductory remarks on Homer and his poem. "Gwen" is not sure where the lecture ends and the poem begins. She writes that:
Ong remarks on the "aggregative" (38) character of oral language, its tendency to string things together in no particular strategic sequence, and on its copiousness and repetitiousness. Whereas, in the written language, the possibility of "backlooping" always exists, yet in spoken language, "there is nothing to backloop into outside of the mind, for the oral utterance had vanished as soon as it is uttered" (38). Luria has noted that the syntagmatic structures of oral language tend to be paratactic: "The simplest form of parataxis is simple joining of individual sentences by means of the conjunction ‘and’" (Language and Cognition 130). The first of Gwen’s sentences illustrates both points. Her initial "well" is the functional equivalent of a conjunction; Gwen takes up the topic in medias res, as if she were in on-going conversation with someone, without grappling with the need to make her written presentation self-sufficient. Like Warfield and Katherine, she treats the phrase "the theme of order" as an indissoluble unit; she uses it grammatically, and must therefore imagine it, as a thing or, rather more generously, as a concatenation, which inchoately and evanescently happens ("the theme of order was when…"). On the positive side, Gwen’s aggregative iteration does bring together elements of the Homeric narrative that really are causally related to one another, but it cannot reveal the causality. The causal chain would entail that Paris eloped with Helen, that Agamemnon convened his barons to make war, that the siege at Troy lasted ten years, and that Odysseus spent an additional ten years trying to sail home, impeded on his way by the wrath of Poseidon. The initial "but" of the second sentence is another conjunction. The oral "anyways" tells us that Gwen, in writing her comments, has paused to think what she might put next, and as in a conversation she has vocalized (or, maybe, graphed) the interstice. Nor is she clear about who, exactly, the suitors are or on whom they press their suit; she writes of "his suitors" as though they had been pressing their cause to Odysseus rather than to Penelope. She does not quite grasp why Odysseus must resort to violence, either, positing that the suitors have betrayed him. The real point is that they have consistently violated every law and custom governing the peace of the Homeric world.
Another writer, "Jackson", cannot universalize the premise that order is necessary for a society, any society. For Jackson, order is peculiarly a desideratum in Homer but remains confined there without transferability: "The ancient Greek world is very different than the one we live in today. In those times the theme of order was very important to their way of life." Ozick says that real reading pivots on "imaginative conversion." Taking Xenophon and Jackson together, we see that, in a few instances, contemporary late-adolescents can experience momentary emotional identification with fictional characters; what they do rarely and with great reluctance is to universalize the concepts compactly present in those fleeting episodes of identification. No "imaginative conversion" or "reflective thinking", to borrow terms from Ozick and Stotsky, occurs. The Greeks needed order but we apparently do not: or rather the question of whether the requirements of ancient people might have some contact with those of modern people does not emerge.
Tragedy turns on outsized figures and enormities. Students notice these in Oedipus Rex. "Tillinghast" delivers one of the most coherent responses:
Tillinghast has successfully traced the origin of the crisis in Thebes to the murder of Laius, king in the city before the arrival of Oedipus. He falls short, even so, and despite at least two lectures devoted to the phenomenon, of grasping the relation in the drama between civic order and personal restraint. The deep-seated cause of the Theban plight lies in the aggressiveness of both Laius and Oedipus, neither of whom, when they meet at the fateful trivium, can set pride aside to make way for the other. Tillinghast’s longish, unpunctuated run-on sentence once again brings to mind the tendency of oral language to string items together as though pure sequence sufficed to give an account of why and how something has fallen out in a particular way.
The one I dub "Strether" similarly tries to put an analytical cause in proper relation to its effect, yet with something less than success: "When [Oedipus] realizes what he has done, total chaos breaks out and Jacosta (his wife) kills herself, while Oedipus gouges his eyes, blinding himself. So in this work order turns into disorder." In fact, "chaos" already reigns as the tragedy begins, as Oedipus’ speech makes evident and as the speech of the Elder affirms. Strether, identifying properly with the protagonist, nevertheless cannot get beyond the incestuous-parricidal horror to the problem of the Theban people, which is that the city is in a state resembling the worst of a plague and a civil war. Strether indeed believes that "there is mostly order throughout the poem until Oedipus starts questioning whether or not he killed his own father." What Strether calls "chaos" finds its relief in the discovery of Oedipus as Laius’ murderer and in the solidarity inspired by the horror over his grotesque transgressions; the city is saved only as Oedipus is destroyed.
The respondent named "Indiana" also reduces the enormity to something simplistic and banal: "Oedipus must find Laus’ murderer, so he can restore order and society can flourish once again." This, too, as in the cases of Xenophon and Jackson, betokens an imaginative default. Indiana’s expectation probably derives from the self-contained television and motion picture stories that have seen to his acculturation: at the end of thirty or one hundred and twenty minutes, all disruptions of the consumer dispensation must have been addressed and the placidity of the right clothes and the pretty girlfriend and the nifty sports car restored. Gwen, whom we have encountered through her comments on Homer, says of Oedipus that "he is so ashamed that he tells Creon to banish him, this caused chaos & shame for Oedipus & disorder." Calamity, for Gwen, means personal calamity, so that the starting mark for "chaos", which is affiliated with "shame", is Creon’s banishment of Oedipus; the status or the fate of those who surround Oedipus does not enter into her assessment of the story, nor do the events that happen before and issue in Creon’s mercy of expulsion. What accounts for these failures of analysis?
The answer is bound up with the paratactic character of the utterances. As Luria notes, parataxis works well for storytelling, for stringing images in a sequence, but for the setting forth of "relationships", as when one analyzes or explains a story, it is insufficient:
One cannot account for the relation, in Homer, between the laws of hospitality—which epic poetry represents in action but never explains—and the maintenance of peace merely by retelling the story. Because one must shift between orders of abstraction, one requires a grammar of subordination. The laws themselves, because they are not a discrete entity in the Homer’s verses, must first all be inferred from the imagery. I did that in lecture, which is why a sense of it appears in most of the student essays. In writing about order in The Odyssey, then, "Vendela" produces the following string of sentences: "In the Odyssey, by Homer, Odysseus has been away from his home for many years. Due to this the suitors have violated the laws of hospitality. Disorder came about because of Odysseus’s absence. When Odysseus returns order is restored when he slaughters the suitors for their violation of the laws." Vendela’s first sentence deals with Odysseus’ absence, her fourth with his return. The second sentence attempts to derive causality ("due to…"), but confuses the occasion with the cause: the suitors lack restraint, as do all those in the story on whom disaster, of their own making, falls; they are thus the authors of their own demise. The third sentence repeats the second with a slight variation of the terms. "Milburn" also attempts analysis using the "due to…" construction: "The Odyssey is plagued with chaos due to the suitors and it is Oddysseus’ mission to return home and restore order to his family which is in turmoil." Milburn confuses Homer’s poem, however, with what it depicts; he mistakes the turmoil in Ithaka, moreover, for turmoil in Odysseus’ family, who are threatened but maintain decorum (continue to provide the model of order) under threat. The static character of the passive mode ("order is restored" and Homer’s poem "is plagued with chaos") suggests what the students have not succeeding in overcoming in these utterances—the parataxis of emotionally toned images in a string.
Plato’s Symposium, because it tells only the most minimal of stories and otherwise deals in fairly high-order abstractions, poses a real test for the limits of student understanding. What "order" do students find in the speeches of the famous drinking party? We have met Milburn before:
Most of this, in its topsy-turvy way, reflects the lecture. What one tells the students about The Symposium makes more of an impression on them, however small it is, than what they read of it. This is just what we would expect from people who are more oral/aural in their mental orientation than literate. This is the limitation with which the best students, who are often also the most frustrated, struggle. The phrase "moral hero", for example, comes from lecture, as does the ascription to Socrates of "self control" and knowledge of his own limits. There is confusion about the definition of a symposium, a word denoting a convivial gathering for serious discussion lubricated by moderate drinking. What really happens in the dialogue is that the drinking party degenerates into a competitive binge. To Milburn’s credit, only three other students out of twenty-five taking the exam chose to look for order in Plato. We must acknowledge his intellectual courage, but we must also see the restrictions within which he operates. The most interesting sentence is the final one, where Milburn wants to make a generalization about Socrates, but cannot: instead he lapses into a deficient passive construction leaving out the prepositional tag that would tell us who makes the assessment. Milburn cannot produce a simple third-person predication about Socrates; rather, he imagines a group who makes the assessment, which he then reports. This is what his phrase, "is looked at", implies. He remembers a few details of the dialogue, such as Socrates’ cleansing himself on the morning after the famous occasion. In Plato’s text, Socrates’ dignity is indeed connected with his embodiment of spiritual order. Milburn leaves the two words unlinked; one of them languishes in the penultimate, and the other in the ultimate, sentence.
Xenophon, like Milburn, achieves predication only through the roundabout of imagining other people who see something: "Love [the theme of the dialogue] was seen in various ways different [sic] and discussed with the aspect during the drinking party" (emphasis added). "Aspect" is one of the semi-abstract nouns favored by undergraduates; none can define it. Like Milburn, Xenophon omits the prepositional tag, leaving the passive construction in grammatical abeyance.
Given the homoerotic atmosphere of the dinner in honor of Agathon’s victory in the dramatic competition, we may be forgiven for winking at Katherine’s declaration: "The discussion of love brought a rise out of some of the men." In a minimally hypotactic sentence referring to Socrates, whom she misidentifies as "Sophocles"—"it seemed no one wanted to disagree with him, which would probably ruin the theme of order"—Katherine hints at the beginnings of a tenuous analysis yet pushes it no further. To what does Katherine refer? True enough, the characters in the dialogue would rather not argue ("disagree") with Socrates, but this by no means indicates their agreement with him. On the contrary, with the exception of Aristophanes, Socrates’ speech about love repudiates those of all the other speakers; their behavior indicates that his lesson has not moved them. How much farther in grasping the difficult concepts might Katherine have gone had she been put under stronger discipline earlier in her education? It is a shame for her; it is a real human loss that neither she nor we will likely ever know.
The fourth respondent to Plato is "Linley," who reports as follows:
Linley misses entirely the self-serving character of the speeches by Phaedrus and Pausanias (who argue that teachers are perfectly justified in sleeping with their students—that it’s an honor for the students); she notes not the drunken party-crashing of Alcibiades, which is violent without making a metaphor of the notion. I have already remarked the opacity of "atuziurs". The last two sentences instantiate a typical gesture of student prose—the lapse into sentimental cliché.
I have myself tried throughout to be resolutely unsentimental. According to Ozick, the culture of "mass literacy" endured "in its narrow period from 1830 to 1930" (Washburn and Thornton 83); during this century, "the almost universal habit of reading for recreation or excitement conferred the greatest complexity on the greatest number… The world of the VCR is closer to pre-literate society of traveling mummers than it is to that of the young F. Scott Fitzgerald’s readership in 1920" (83). Ozick’s references are not to Havelock or Ong, but they might well be: "Where once the Odyssey was read in the schools, in a jeweled and mandarin translation, Holden Caulfield takes his stand" (82). Caulfield, Ozick writes, "is winning and truthful, but he is not demanding" (82). By "the schools", she does not mean college. Ozick’s analysis converges with Stotsky’s when she tells what demanding reading did when it still held a place in the public school curriculum. The century-old classroom readers that Ozick has before her as she writes are full of rich selections, whose vocabulary and syntax are of a high order:
What did these demanding sentences do in and for society? First, they demanded to be studied. Second, they demanded sharpness and cadence in writing. They promoted, in short, literacy—and not merely literacy, but a vigorous and manifold recognition of literature as a force. They promoted an educated class. Not a hereditarily educated class, but one that had been introduced to the initiating and shaping texts early in life, almost like the hereditarily educated class itself. (Ozick 83).
Stotsky says the same thing, exactly, about the selections in the Eclectic Reader. I put the question whether such ascriptions as "sharpness" or "cadence" could possibly apply to a sentence such as Linley’s, "The Symposium seemed different in violence than the other books because there wasn’t any"; or Fortheringay’s, "The suitors were made to move in b/c they should have went to Penelope’s oldest surviving relative asking him for Penelope’s hand in marriage." If Linley or Fortheringay represented an exception rather than the rule, then we might be reconciled to the occasional dullness of student writing. In the sample on which I draw in this essay, and in others that I have collected for similar purposes, Linley and Fortheringay are, sadly, typical. Let me repeat here, however, what I have already stated once in my text and have repeated in a footnote: I do not blame students. Although they themselves would almost certainly not understand it were I to offer them the explanation, I in fact commiserate with them—or is it for them? "For them", because I take their expression as an index of their thinking; and muddled thinking, the incapacity before the most rudimentary of concepts and relations, is all at once chaos and misery. Nor are students, to say it again, the primary authors of their condition. Stotsky not only records the reduction in intellectual and artistic value of what K-12 students are nowadays asked to read; she also quotes a specimen of contemporary English education theory from English Leadership Quarterly, a publication of the National Council of Teachers of English, spelling out (so to speak) how teachers will instruct students in K-12 how to write:
I draw a line directly from the semi-literate passage above (and from the arrogant derailment of education that it represents) to the wretched reading and writing performance of my composition and Western Heritage students. Stotsky adds that "only thirteen of the twenty-eight documents that [she] examined in a review of standards for the English language arts expect students to demonstrate competence in using Standard English orally and in writing" (213).
With some effort, one can reconstruct the mental world of contemporary first-year college students on the basis of their prose and with reference to their behavior and to what they say. We can make our own "imaginative conversion", experimentally casting off our own intellectual achievements, and in so doing understand how tragically short-changed students are by their passage through the K-12 curriculum. In the first place, they are massively social creatures—"other-directed", I believe, is the phrase; yet at the same time they show remarkably little self-awareness in an ethical sense. Linguistically and cognitively they live in the continuing seamless buzz of conversation that fills their lives: this shows up in their writing, which amounts to a transcription of what they would say to someone in a verbal exchange over a topic, and in their reliance on, if it is not outright confinement within, the I-You axis of conversation. Virtually everything that they utter, when asked to do so in writing, comes filtered through the first-person pronoun, with the result that they rarely predicate anything about objects per se but rather report on them indirectly by making them an occasion for divulgences of personal sentiment of one kind or another. There is, as in Havelock’s formula, no separation of the knower from the known. "Like" and "dislike" are the two most powerful categories. The range of objects denoted by what one doesn’t like is largely coincident with the range of objects that are unfamiliar, and the range is large. The range of objects denoted positively by what one likes is limited and has a commercial flavor. Students are extremely sensitive and vulnerable to the market and to fads. At the same time, they are convinced that they are highly individual ("unique" is their word for it) in their tastes and hobbies. This, of course, is exactly what the market that caters to them wants them to believe.
Students find reducing large patterns to their elements difficult; it is extremely hard for them to see existing phenomena as effects that analysis and research can derive from a cause. Things merely are. The world is one for them, seamless and contiguous in all its segments. Wholes of any kind rarely resolve into their constituent parts, from the student perspective. For example, while displaying a drawing by the Dutch graphic artist M. C. Escher, I asked my composition students, what are the main parts of the scene? "It’s a town," they said. They struggled to see that Escher’s town sat amid climbing terraces surrounded by steep mountains and that it contained prominent and distinct architectural structures, such as a bell tower and a multi-storied house, arranged around a piazza. By "the whole", I also mean the situation: for the "I" who apprehends a thing under some emotional color is not separated out from the thing; nor is the emotional color, either from the thing or the perceiver. These restrictions in how students are able to view the world stem in part from their being young; but youth cannot be the sole, or even the primary, reason for their comparatively impoverished intellectual range. Younger people in other circumstances have been much more strongly focused than they on the world, more perceptive of what they are seeing.
Rather, indeed, than call them childish (as tempting as the adjective is), it is truer to see them as closely resembling the adult persons whom Luria studied in Uzbekistan. "Their mental processes [are] closely connected with their practical activity and their life [is] characterized by the predominance of concrete practical forms of activity" (Language and Cognition 207). The words that students use, to quote Ong on Luria’s subjects, "acquire their meanings only from their always insistent actual habitat" (Orality and Literacy 47), and they are not aware of "semantic discrepancies" (46) or of formal definitions apart from the obvious assumed or ostensive meanings of words in usage. I have earlier made notation of their struggles with abstract vocabulary, mentioning that they rarely talk or write about human nature and express bafflement when they encounter written discussion of it. All of this is linked to their lack of interior formation by the model of the written text. In the flux of practical activity and fleeting I-You exchanges, no backlooping occurs. Backlooping is required for the formation of high-order concepts and for ethical self-assessment, in which one must treat oneself as an object for analysis. Although the words text and textualize have been appropriated for both silly and corrosive purposes by deconstructionists and other "postmodern" types, it would not be implausible (it is really only Havelock’s theory) to say that rigorous, systematic self-correction requires a permanent, accessible archive of one’s words and deeds over a considerable period of time. One must textualize oneself. Such self-assessments find an additional aid in books, especially in poetry and fiction of a sophisticated species, which offer models against which one can compare oneself. Detecting semantic discrepancies in a text is akin to detecting moral slips in the record of one’s conduct. To imagine the student mentality, then, one must imagine an inner world without these assimilated structures.
What impinges on student consciousness? Of what are students chiefly aware? We can glean some idea from their first-person prose—the kind that they always produce when left to their own devices. For the men, two realms of the sensorium loom large (their identity will surprise no one): organized sport and commercial music, especially the "grunge" and "heavy metal" styles of rock and roll. The references to sport usually show an element of braggadocio: "Tough is not throwing an elbow at someone, being a bully or even fighting. Never complaining, diving on the floor for loose balls, beating everyone up the court, taking charge of someone twice your size, now that’s tough." The writer tells how "during my freshman year in high school I was the same as the rest of society"; but he later became "tough". These insights might be true; what I wish to emphasize in them is their confinement within a young adolescent worldview articulated entirely around the sportive "verbomotor" sensorium.
On music, one encounters passages such as this one:
The models lie in Rolling Stone, CD booklets, and most importantly in the banter of a Music Television "rockumentary": from these sources come the jargon of "glam-rock", "obscenely loud guitars solos", and "incredibly long hair", and the hyperbole of "changing the face of the music industry" in a "grunge rock revolution". We are back in the oral world, as described by Ong, of outsized figures and agonistic side taking. Our writer is heavily for "grunge rock" and heavily against "glam-rock". The phrase "Nirvana led the way" reminds me of the Soviet marching song, "Gaidar leads the Way", sung about one of the Revolutionary heroes. Ong remarked in 1981 that "one of the many indications of a high, if subsiding oral residue in the culture of the Soviet Union is (or was a few years ago, when I last encountered it) the insistence on speaking there always of ‘the Glorious Revolution of October 26’—the epithetic formula [being an] obligatory stabilization" (38-39), just as in Homer. That the cynosure of public discourse in the USA is MTV rather than the Komsomol accounts for the replacement of Gaidar by Kurt Cobain.
Women students work within the same parochial intellectual circle as the men but have different references: they report about "love" and related matters in Hallmark card banalities. On the positive side, they seem largely untouched by feminism, although the effusions about diversity quoted in Section II have women authors. Given students’ wide-open receptivity to commercialized group thinking and their inability to form independent analysis, it is worth quoting Havelock again on the literate mind and psychic autonomy: "at some time towards the end of the fifth century before Christ," Havelock reminds us, "it became possible for a few Greeks to talk about their ‘souls’ as though they had selves or personalities which were autonomous and not fragments of the atmosphere nor of a cosmic life force, but what we might call entities or real substances." Most of my students have not decisively experienced at the ontogenetic level what Attic civilization experienced at the phylogenetic level "towards the end of the fifth century before Christ."
A final important component in the lifeworld of students is pain, of a psychic sort, which they refer to as "boredom". They experience this pain when they come up against their limits, which they are reluctant to test or surpass. The passage from Weil’s essay struck a number of students as "boring", and they said so, after blinking at it without result for some minutes. The paradox of their situation is that the very thing that they resist—a conjoint reading and writing, with its alteration of the oral state of mind—is the thing that might salvage them from their ennui. They resist it because no one has insisted to them that they should assimilate it. In effect, vast libraries have been snatched away from them, a whole codified itinerary of humanity. These are gone for them just as if they had vanished in the smoke of incendiary vandalism and looting. My experience of teaching teachers through Central Michigan University’s master’s degree in humanities program in the 1990s suggests to me that, in fact, many instructors of today’s secondary students are hardly more literate than the students whom they instruct. Writing, as Spengler puts it (with none of the reluctance that holds back Ong), "is an entirely new kind of language, and implies a complete change in the relation of man’s waking-consciousness, in that it liberates from the tyranny of the present" (The Decline, Vol. II 149). Writing, asserts Spengler, "is one of the first distinguishing remarks of the historical endowment" (150). Yet Spengler is assuredly wrong, he has it backward, when he says that "the peasantry is without history and therefore without writing" (152).
My students are basketball players and "grunge-rock" enthusiasts, and not much beyond those things, because they have no real writing, no real reading, and no real literacy. We live in the aftermath of a cultural calamity—the disappearance of mass literacy, as lamented by Ozick. It is actually much worse than a natural extinction, because, as Stotsky shows, it was a disappearance by design, and it is also a continued absence by design. At some point, it will no longer be possible to live on the residue of past accomplishments, and we will begin to experience the sorrows of our condition.
Bertonneau, Thomas F. "Epistemological Correct-ness in English 101." Academic Questions 10:1 (Winter 1996-97): 67-78.
---. "We All Have Our Own Brains: The Price Students Pay For Cutting Edge Instruction." The Montana Professor 11:2 (Spring 2001): 1-9.
---. "Orality, Literacy, and the Tradition." The Montana Professor 10:2 (Spring 2000): 3-7.
Chall, Jeanne S. "American Reading Achieve-ment: Should We Worry?" Research in the Teaching of English 30:3 (October 1996): 303-311.
Dodds, E. R. The Greeks and the Irrational Berkeley: U of California P, 1951.
Havelock, Eric A. The Muse Learns to Write: Reflections on Orality and Literacy from Antiquity to the Present. New Haven and London: Yale, 1986.
---. Preface to Plato. Cambridge: Belknap Press (of Harvard UP), 1963.
Kirk, G.S., J. E. Raven, and M. Schofield. The Presocratic Philosophers. 2nd Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990. Luria, Alexander. Language and Cognition. Ed. J. V. Wertsch. Washington DC: V. H. Vinston and Sons, 1981.
---. The Making of Mind: A Personal Account of Soviet Psychology. Ed. M. Cole and S. Cole. Cambridge MA: Harvard UP, 1979.
Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London and New York: Methuen, 1986.
Ozick, Cynthia. "The Question of Our Speech: The Return to Aural Culture." In Washburn and Thornton, Dumbing Down: Essays on the Strip-Mining of American Culture. New York: Norton, 1997.
Spengler, Oswald. The Decline of the West, Vol. I, Form and Actuality. Trans. C. F. Atkinson. New York: Knopf, 1926.
---. The Decline of the West, Vol. II, Perspectives of World History. Trans. C. F. Atkinson. New York: Knopf, 1926.
Stotsky, Sandra. Losing our Language: How Multicultural Classroom Instruction is Undermining Our Children’s Ability to Read, Write, and Reason. New York: Free Press, 1999.
Weil, Simone. Simone Weil Reader. Ed. G. Panichas Wakefield, RI: Moyer Bell, 1977.
The Dusty, Dog-Eared Book:
Space Well Wasted
Peter T. Singleton
Peter Singleton’s Return to Chivalry: How Contemporary Men Can Recover the Dignity of Living for a Higher Purpose, was published last year by Arcturus Press.
Arguments for the existence of a vast degeneracy, I suspect, are often left unmade because they are too true. If a whole culture is losing its ability to concatenate reasons and to use a rich variety of words with precision, then where are the intellectual castaways to be found who will build this case; and, assuming that a few may be found (the spring tide of barbarism always leaves a philosopher or two in a skiff here and there, shepherding his victuals), who will listen? Certainly there’s no money in publishing or broadcasting complex tales with unhappy endings for giddy masquers who cannot so much as estimate their grocery bill.
If I dare, therefore, to defend in these few words the old-fashioned book, proofread and printed and bound, I do so with no illusions. I know well, to begin with, that others much brighter than I have entertained such thoughts as I shall express, and that none of us sees these thoughts purveyed far and wide simply because, taken all together, we who understand remain too few to attract a capital investment. I realize, too, that the abandonment of books and literacy is unlikely to be arrested in the least by anything that so few may do. My tone will no doubt seem wistful for these reasons, if not nostalgic. So be it. Nostalgia as a genre is not without its pleasures: our age, in its very debasement, is beginning to rediscover (or invent) the charm of the past, if only through the debased means of poorly scripted movies. Personally, I prefer to think of my endeavor as a brief exercise in speaking out, in saying my say. The inferiority of printed, bound books to computer disks (the wretchedly denominated "e-book") is being so widely alleged that it now lays an illegitimate claim to self-evidence. In fact (according to my view of the facts), e-books are miserable substitutes for those bulky tomes which once collected dust on the study’s shelves.
Let me count the ways. It has been proposed to me by some very energetic young people whom I do not suspect of illiteracy that laptops are cozy. You can read from them in bed without dedicating a hand to propping them open. You can read from them over breakfast without worrying about coffee spills or having to anchor down their sides with marmalade jars. I may say at once that I remain skeptical of the resistance to coffee. If my elementary physics still serves me, water and electricity don’t mix. I’m not sure what one does with two free hands in bed while reading, or what one might be reading which would require two free hands: I am sure only that I don’t wish to pursue the matter here. As for certain tautly bound books having a tendency to upset the cream and sugar when pinned dubiously open before one’s plate, this is indeed one of the great unsolved problems of literate culture—and laptop computers are growing far too light to be of any help. I recently retrieved a rusted fragment of coupling from a railroad track (at the instigation of my son). A little steel wool should render this quaint relic of the Industrial Age invaluable for my purposes.
Speaking of water and electricity, consider the dark and stormy night so affected of bibliophiles for curling up in a favorite chair before the centrally heated study’s dormant gas logs. Would you wish to be cradling a laptop (and doing God knows what with your two hands) as lightning cracked just beyond your window? If holding a cell phone to one’s ear during an electrical storm is inadvisable in these circumstances, can cuddling a laptop be much less so? My information is that the e-book requires rather more than a couple of flashlight batteries to operate. This superior voltage surely makes for risky business. I prefer to shudder deliciously around my dusty old tome, keeping both hands well in view, as the thunderbolt rives the lordly oak.
And a word now on behalf of dusty old tomes. As far as dust goes, a shelf of books is vastly easier to dust than a desk encumbered with hardware projecting two dozen wires and cords into unreachable places from all possible angles. Spiders are undoubtedly in love with the latter arrangement, and seem to send their own nunciative kind of web-mail to others of their tribe whenever they find it. Furthermore, there is clearly a magnetically attractive relation between electrical currents and dust (though here my elementary physics carries me few steps down the path). Television and computer monitors must surely rank among the dustiest things on earth. If you wiped one of them clean yesterday, it will have collected another thick film by tomorrow. A dusty screen, of course, is extremely hard to read. Books, in contrast, are divested of five years’ worth of negligence with one brisk blow, and perhaps the ensuing brush of a pinky. Inside, they are usually as immaculate as on the occasion when they were first opened (though the paper of European publishers is less likely to weather decades un-yellowed; what unpromising genus of trees, I wonder, have our cramped cousins been reduced to harvesting?). Bookcases sometimes come hinged with protective doors. At worst, the book shelf’s neat, tight platoons minimize surface exposure to dust and are eminently dustable. The argument ex pulvere, therefore, I find littered with flies.
But what about space? We are constantly treated to extravagant assurances that e-books will reduce libraries to the size of closets, just as we have so often heard that other electronic technology will shrink reality’s coordinates in time. The perceptive observer will have noticed that shrinkage is always an unquestionable improvement. Faster and smaller… less time, less space… time saved, space saved… and for what, then, are we saving all this time and space, I am forever doomed to wonder? We can scarcely store either commodity. An hour saved today is not an hour you can pull from your hand like a trump card when the Grim Reaper knocks, and space trimmed from one room of a house or one sector of a township confers no benefit except as space added elsewhere. I will admit that smaller libraries might mean bigger parks. I will even admit that a closet with half a million titles would in most ways better serve erudite patrons than an expensively air-conditioned children’s summer holding tank whose fifty thousand titles must be supplemented by the snail express called Interlibrary Loan. Libraries may well have become too many things to too many people. Vagrants can even splash about in their basins with little fear of prosecution, and the pillage-and-pilfer rate among paperbacks and children’s books is so high that serious adult acquisitions are virtually elbowed out of the budget.
The libraries I hold in nostalgic retrospective here, however, are not of the public variety. The public library is only about a century old. Before the positivist ascent of the common man upon the wings of bourgeois progress, even the most permissively accessible libraries were affiliated with religious institutions (as "reading rooms") or colleges (all of which were private, and hence also of religious provenance). Far more often still, of course, libraries were entirely personal. People were bequeathed sets by their friends and relatives, they added volumes according to their taste, and they frequently loaned books—or gave the run of the whole collection—to their intimates. It would be worse than banal to say that such libraries reflected the personality of their owners: it would be somewhat inaccurate. Such a collection, rather, would reflect the taste of an entire family, in a sense which that much-battered word no longer conveys. For as often as families themselves reflect their socio-economic milieu, in the days of "high literacy" they also frequently fought back against their milieu. They might well have concealed an "eccentric" vein. Old Man Smith was always citing Thucydides: his son Raphael wandered into Herodotus and ended up (in that decadent fashion to which the young are ever prone) reading Pindar. The Joneses down the road had a suspiciously French turn of mind, and the youngest son, after his European excursion, was rumored to have brought back certain Catholic tendencies. The Browns devoured works of science; the Whites, in contrast, immersed themselves in inspirational texts.
Sometimes little wars arose, not just within neighborhoods, but within families, on the basis of reading matter. A close parallel in contemporary society might appear to exist with the home-schooling movement, where entire curricula are composed (or rejected) on the basis of a few central ideas. The crucial difference, I fear, is that too many home-schoolers regard books as an essential threat to their ideas—ideas whose roots, alas, have not strayed through a rich tradition of reading, reflecting, and discussing. The books in these cases are not a point of origin, but an afterthought, a concession to legal strictures. Hence we have, not amusing feuds between the Smiths and the Joneses ("But Henrietta, you can’t let him marry her—don’t you know her father is a free-thinker?"), but full-scale Waterloos concerning iron-clad ethical and epistemological prejudices. "Culture wars", we call them. While the well-read household of yesteryear was indeed the paradigm for home-schooling, it was significantly pre- rather than post-bureaucratic. Tutelage under those steep gables was not styled "home-schooling" or anything of the sort simply because the term would have been redundant. Schooling was what happened as you grew up in a good home. To leave the home and the family for another, more formal kind of school often occurred at more or less the college stage. By that time, you had become a Smith or a Jones intellectually just as you were born with blue or brown eyes. It was the books: they had gotten into your blood.
I need hardly say that the space-saving CD library can produce nothing remotely akin to this phenomenon. What always seems to escape notice is the true role of space in the distinction. Let us take for granted that Jack Hammersmith, direct descendant of a Boston parson or a Virginia statesman, has substantially the same library on disk as his illustrious great-great-grandfather possessed. It’s an absurd proposition, but let us grant it for the moment. Young Jack’s collection is on display to no one who doesn’t wish to open closets and cabinets and squint at lettering within plastic cases. Even then, the inquisitive guest could not flip indiscriminately and idly to page 257 of The Betrothed or Varieties of Religious Experience and begin reading. As I understand them, CD-players have no "indiscriminate" option. They advance only from one band to the next, and at their fastest they still require more of that precious time (and energy) for such a maneuver than would be involved in allowing a book to flop open. Of course, a CD-Rom in your computer could be randomly scanned by toying with the mouse if Jack’s volumes are actually meant to be read on screen rather than heard from the recliner, and Jack would no doubt have his lifeline to the globe booted up and purring twenty-four hours a day. Still… can you imagine the conversation? "I say, Jack, I just happened to slip Schopenhauer into your D-drive while you were relieving yourself… and look at what he says here in Part Three!"
Come on, now! Disks are made to save room, and the room is dedicated to something "more valuable" than ancient reading matter. In many dens and studies, that inflated presence would be bestowed upon an "entertainment center" or a television whose screen rivals a movie theater’s. But a person who so valorizes our thought-starved film productions that he devotes entire walls of his house’s largest rooms to their broadcast is hardly likely to be a reader of Manzoni or James or Schopenhauer—or of any author who satisfies thought-hungry minds. This raises the further point that e-books replicating Parson Hammersmith’s personal library simply do not, will not, and in a sense cannot exist. Such books were written for literate people, to put it bluntly. They were often produced in very small runs and at very low cost, an enterprise which was made possible by the practice of selling subscriptions as we do now for magazines. (That is, an author would have to compile a list of several hundred willing buyers before the publisher would proceed.) Despite all we hear about the incomparably thrifty costs of burning a CD, typing out a text remains labor-intensive. How many antiquarians are likely to undertake that labor without the promise of a paying public? We may presume that they already possess a print copy of the classic if they contemplate digitalizing it; do we suppose, then, that they would spend weeks keying the text into the computer just for the joy of reading it from a laptop?
The connection is inescapable: space is indexed to value. When space is viewed as "wasted" upon books, books are held in low esteem. Indeed, what e-books are successfully published inevitably cater to the new tastes (or the declining taste) of a computer-savvy audience, which may be briefly characterized as restless, thrill-seeking, and impatient with reality. To return to young Jack more soberly, we all know that most of his library will consist of games and business-ware. At best, he may own a few disks which lead us through the digs at Chaco Canyon or zap us along the spiraling corridors of our galaxy. The subjugation to visual dazzle is implicit in e-books: it is responsible for the continued failure of pure literature as a commodity on disk. No formerly page-bound industry has so profited from the Internet as pornography—which, I needn’t say, is not about reading. I foresee the day when Jack’s books will have "photo files" attached to highlighted words. (Click on Vanessa and see what Manning saw as the bath towel dropped to the floor.) Extravagantly graphic and absurdly staged books about star wars, dino-humanoids, and Armageddon are already popular, though usually in movie form at the same time as or before they hit the mall’s shelves and stalls. Why Jack should invest in any of these when he might simply acquire the movie-CD is a mystery to me. I suspect that there is no demand for such tomes except as bound paper, in which form they can be endlessly hauled out in waiting room and under hair drier to re-evoke the film. Committing them to disk would be like creating an airtight cabinet to preserve each year’s first item of junk mail.
The mere notion of placing such matter on semi-public display would have sent Jack’s great-great-grandfather into cardiac arrest. (How many of us have consigned to drawer or box a trashy little novel which we couldn’t quite throw away?) Of course, no e-book is ever on semi-public display. It is a match in a matchbox. Exponents of e-life will contend that the viability of the closet as a great warehouse for thought merely allows our true nature to "come out of the closet". Old Parson Hammersmith was a hypocrite. He advertised his lofty interests and refined tastes to all who gained admittance to his study; yet the secrets of his heart, if posted on the Web, would be filtered to the point of annihilation by any child-friendly "shield". Now (so the argument goes) we are not so pompous, nor remotely embarrassed by our quirks and kinks. We can be ourselves in the new privacy of ultra-compressed space. Personally, I find this aversion to hypocrisy insufferably hypocritical. Yes, we can well afford to be "honest" about our perverted "fantasies" when a) all of our thoughts have been reduced to plastic wafers, and b) we simply "consume" the wafers, in any case, whose very composers simply responded to general patterns of consumption. On a Web of infinite strands, any set of coordinates is ever harder to locate, and no loop or arc looks convincingly original. In our renunciation of the paper library’s observable soul, our inner life paradoxically becomes the property of our broadcast media more every day.
Why the common assumption, by the way, that vast personal libraries are mere ostentation? They are often so now, perhaps. I have known more than one chair of a college English department whose office walls were decked entirely with old texts from graduate school and rather newer texts (purchased at the school’s expense) from courses taught. The same person may well have virtually nothing literary at home: a magazine or two (maybe The New Yorker or The Atlantic Monthly), a rather pasty set of Harvard Classics inherited from the wife’s father and posed along the built-in book shelf beside the mantel-piece… otherwise, computer equipment and an eye-popping collection of movies pirated off the cable. In truth, such a person’s puny gestures toward erudition scarcely seem to qualify as ostentation. They resemble, instead, the costly "camp" of ancient gum-ball machines, antique wall-phones, split-rail fence sections at the curbside, and the rest—more so every year, it seems, as our new "honesty" about the obsolescence of books feeds a new, hi-tech kind of condescension to all such large-boned fossils.
In contrast, the literato of centuries past was putting his interests and convictions on the line when he put his books on shelves. He fully expected, even welcomed, a stimulating conversation as soon as a visitor noticed David Hume on his reading table. This is hardly ostentation, which is a kind of fraud based on appearances of a deliberately exaggerated brilliance. An ignorant man trapped among the many learned authors in his possession would have no place to hide, and his vanity would most certainly stand unmasked in the course of a month unless all his visitors were as foppish and null as he.
For the sheer space sacrificed to a good print library thrusts it into any visiting eye: the hundreds of volumes weigh upon the room and insist upon being noticed. That much is quite true. Plato and Aristotle and Marcus Aurelius insist upon the upper shelves, Fielding and Richardson and Thackery insist beside the window. Even when quite alone in this room, perhaps pacing back and forth with crisis at his shoulder, the friend of books feels himself in the company of great minds. Perhaps he runs his eye across the bulky spines, seeking counsel from Spinoza or Kant; and perhaps he finds it, or perhaps he merely discovers the poise and perspective of recollecting how many great minds have confronted how many crises in the history of civilization. That "mere" discovery is itself no small gift. If he should also happen to pull down a favorite volume, or perhaps an unfamiliar one, and open it distractedly, whatever his gaze falls upon can scarcely help but be more edifying than any television station that a satellite dish may offer.
Is it from this "waste of space", then, that we need to deliver ourselves and our families? I confess that I always seek out a room heavy with the wasted space of many books when I need to compose a thoughtful letter or paper, or when I simply need to think a problem through very carefully. The silence of book-lined walls, where a sneeze or the chink of tea cup against saucer is quickly muffled, concentrates my ideas far better than a walk in the park, where rustling breezes and birdsong and the playing of children inspire a diffuse rambling rather than a rigorous progress to a strong conclusion. Even as I sit before a screen (somewhat traitorously) composing these words—and who knows how effectively, compared to what I might have done with pen and paper?—I have become aware of my frequent glances away from the insipid Microsoft square with its rulers and Help Menus to the only bookcase visible from my chair. There sits the Decameron, Epictetus, All Quiet on the Western Front… here, at the click of a mouse, awaits the great wide world of slogans, come-ons, and an infinity of strident trash.
I’ll take a book, thank you—printed and bound, perhaps dog-eared, always and inevitably nuanced by its time in some manner of which its publishers were wholly unaware. What sense of mission, I wonder, charged the offices of Arnoldo Mondadori in Milan of 1960, when that house bound hardbacks as squarely as little soldiers? Why are Taschenbüche of the German house Reclam so incredibly minute, as if made by and for Black Forest elves? Book-of-the-Month gave my Selected Kipling a gaudy cover busy with melodramatic poses which I can well imagine belonging to the early years of cinematic Techno-color and the television soap opera. How appropriate is such decor to its subject—were the mid-nineteenth-century Victorian and the mid-twentieth-century American publics moved by a kindred spirit? In an age when literary theory is forever reminding us that all art is driven by cultural circumstance, what fascinating time-capsules are these instances of literary packaging! I need not like them or agree with their implications. They will not allow me to forget, however, that my author passed through others’ hands before reaching mine. They bring me to reflect upon the energetic, petulant, feuding family of Western culture as it seeks (or has sought) its place among the immeasurable family of mankind.
The e-book gives me quick, unreferenced access to a specific thrill or two which might have much to do with me if I were nothing but a thrill-seeking bundle of nerves. The print book, even when its specific contents disappoint me, draws me back to a cultural past and outward to a global community—where, it turns out, I seem to see myself in a much more revealing and (ironically) independent light. Pondering my volume’s bulk, I belong and do not belong in its vision: I am of this author and not of this author. Part of my place in his or her tradition is my right, and indeed my duty, to judge that tradition.
To the e-marketer, I am a set of jaws waiting to be fed. To the book with covers, I am a visitor at the door, and we have much to talk about.
Post-Literacy, Biblicism, and the Death of Christianity:
Big Party in the Wading Pool
John R. Harris
Les vertues se perdent dans l’intérêt comme les fleuves se perdent dans la mer.
One really must admire that Internet’s flare for bringing out the worst in people. Nowhere else is the oppressive truth so palpable that few human beings have much to say worth hearing, and that those who say most have perhaps the least. I have often been urged by marketing advisors, promotional specialists, and other wizards of insincerity to secure admittance to discussion groups, also known as e-groups. Here (the argument goes) I would write warmly and fluidly on my favorite subjects, winning over e-friends and creating a stock of good repute for myself in the e-community. Then, like a mole who has performed diligently in his assumed capacity for years, I would suddenly begin distilling allusions to my publishing endeavor, transforming my "friends" into buyers and contributors.
I hasten to say, with pride, that I am spectacularly bad at the game. I tend to let everyone know at once just who I am and with what mission my e-gurus have released me into the universe of "groups". At the same time, I tend to nudge aside that mission, for the opportunity of corresponding with various parties sincerely concerned about great literature or good schools or (as in the occasion of this essay) true faith excites me more than the evasive specter of a few bucks. Yet disillusionment soon cures me of this rare thrill. Entry after entry on the message board will read, "I’ve been assigned this Poe story for lit class, it’s so cool!" or, "Does anyone know if the Marquee de Sade [sic] liked cats?" Most participants do not even pretend to be pregnant with insight: they are the least pompous beings who have ever been disembodied. They run to the keyboard (or do they carry it everywhere they go—the ever-encroaching laptop?) with comments which a Maine farmer or an Arizona rancher would impart du bout des lèvres to no one in particular: "No rain tomorrow… summer’ll get that tree." They bring to the public forum no sense of going public, no shame of offering nothing to justify the waste of time and space. Or is it that they have lost all sense of privacy—that they don’t give a damn if we see them using the syntax and diction they would spray upon a seatbelt stuck in the car door? As usual, the immediate practical consequence of intimacy is disgust. People who spend not the slightest effort dressing up anything soon convince you that clothes are a civilized necessity.
It’s bad enough to see one’s most revered classic authors given a patronizing pat on the back by some cerebrally dormant sophomore for whom "cool" is just half a step from "hot". What happens, though, when one takes the most direct entrance into the most basic questions of existence? Even though the great writers and philosophers should be just this entrance, we all know that they have been bricked up from both sides. Students get to know them very late in academic life—at the tail end of their core courses, occupying in severe abridgement some corner of a Norton anthology—while professors will discuss them only among other professors initiated into the mysteries of jargon and critical trend. The last good literary discussion I recall having was with an African about the novelists of his region. Unfortunately, even in Africa, there will soon be few people left who are a) capable of reading novels and b) did not grow up in front of a screen.
So I return to the basic subjects at their most basic level: God—his reality or illusion, his essential nature. Life and death. What we should do, what we mustn’t do, what we can do. In pursuit of an exchange upon such weighty matters (and—who knows?—perhaps a connection advantageous to my professional enterprise), I began to sort through "Yahoo e-groups" once again this spring. I can never escape being a little stupefied at the cultural bankruptcy indicated by Yahoo’s broader categorizations. All things literary are hidden away in "Books", which itself trails the subheadings "Movies" and "TV" under "Entertainment & Arts". Similarly, major debates whose fault lines run through the desiccated foundation of our moribund culture have been thickly layered over by "Cultures [sic] & Community", subheading "Issues" (right beside "Cooking"). Here one finds "Genetic Engineering" and "Death Penalty" sharing a list with "Confederate Flag" and "Road Rage". The contempt of hierarchy is not merely skin-deep, either. Keyword phrases like "academic nihilism" and "campus propaganda" might as well be typed in transliterated Greek: they register no "hits" where the two words are actually side-by-side, leaving one to feel that one has ingenuously violated the savvy chatter of e-land. I would scarcely be surprised someday to see a little gray box adorned with exclamation points pop up: "Third hitless search! Further access denied! Please exit this program!"
But "Religion & Belief", at any rate, enjoys its own primary category, and Christianity is listed prominently beneath it alongside Islam, Buddhism, and "Paganism". The groups number in the tens of thousands, besides. One cannot help but be sanguine about the possibility of a mature discussion.
One filters out the eudemonist entries with the most cursory reading, and quite without the dubious help of electronic sieves and screens. Even a brain on auto-pilot can quickly spot the signs: "make friends", "feel the love", "hi!", misspellings like "prase" and "charish". These are young people (though not as young, alas, as their orthography makes them appear) who want desperately to be happy. They mean no harm; and they may, indeed, be groping after the fresh air of facile optimism through a miasma of adult-inflicted harms (sexual abuse, broken homes, lifelong psychological neglect) as suffocating as the atmosphere of Dickens’s London. No, they have nothing much to say—but leave them to their triviality. A convalescing patient needs quiet torpor before he is whole enough to confront vigorous exercise. For the answer to why so many tender shoots are so etiolated, let us proceed soberly to the more mature offerings.
Mature, indeed! I have now used that word twice to describe the level of exchange where hard facts can be stared in the face: the fact that babies sometimes contract incurable diseases, the fact that innocent people sometimes spend years in jail, the fact that large organizations—even ecclesiastical ones—sometimes reprimand or dismiss employees who tell too much truth too openly.2 No mature faith can maintain in the teeth of such evidence that God does not allow believers to suffer. Try seeking out maturity, however, with more keyword phrases which seem sure to lead to its doorstep, and you enter the Net’s insane Hall of Mirrors, where the origin of words is irretrievably remote and where countless inept associations have effected the most grotesque caricatures. We are already aware that "mature" in post-sixties America (i.e., since every vestige of censorship was lifted from film-making and since offbeat television channels began to proliferate) commonly means "characterized by an adolescent obsession with sex". No need to waste time running a search on that word in any combination. What about "moral reason", though? It turns out that the invocation of reason dredges up groups of deviants who regard every conceivable inhibition upon any pleasure whatever to be irrational! Apparently, to outrage decorum is in itself a mark of lofty genius, of thinking outside bourgeois boundaries. There are e-groups serving Christian sado-masochists, Christian fetishists, Christian pedophiles… all of these, so they claim, are somehow engaged in the practice of moral reason. Never mind: try another search. "Intelligent faith"? After a mere two or three twists, one ends up in the electronic labyrinth’s most cryptic cul-de-sacs. The furrow-browed Faustian "reasoners" who share their favorite porn are indeed an almost wholesome lot beside the various neoteric Round Tables whose paladins believe implicitly in dragons and magic (or Magick, as they style their fantasy of northern European blood-sport). Is it "intelligent" or "faith", then, which feeds this rancid strain of mold? All I know is that any attempt to marry the concept of purposeful reflection with that of active faith is a passport, not to yesteryear’s Christian mainstream (the discipline of reason, the exempla of tradition, the counsel of holy writ), but to today’s fringe.
To hunt for "maturity" from a negative direction casts an even darker pall over one’s screen-time. Phrases like "moral chaos" and "cultural meltdown" have the same effect upon the open Internet as blood has upon sharks or a lamb’s bleating upon a tiger. One raises cheers where one had expected to draw long, knowing sighs. Images which should haunt us to this day, which should continue to haunt our children’s children—the Nazi swastika, the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima, Charles Manson’s blood-scrawled "helter skelter"—have become what are now called "cultural icons". They are the stuff of t-shirts and Web pages. "Total meltdown, man!" At this point, "hi!" and "make friends" are beginning to look good—and are beginning, even, to look less intellectually crippled. If the Net brings out the worst in people, it also enjoys the doubtful virtue of always possessing a lower trough than the one whose clammy oblivion you have just plumbed in disbelief.
So we come, at last, to the mainstream as it exists here, in electronic currents—in a space without dimension whose occupants appropriate outlandish pseudonyms. The gullible adolescents and the ring-eyed sociopaths could be brought into perspective, no doubt, as two shores of the major current. A case could be made that the children have always been with us, liberally flashing their winsome smiles and passing out flowers in furtherance of "a nice day"; they seem to me not always to have been so abundant or so purged of self-consciousness—but it is, and always was, natural enough that the naïve should suppose their rosy horizons a triumph of will power. Likewise, the lurid dusk of strained sanity has always limned our world. Every era has surely harbored a certain small percentage of exhibitionists, pyromaniacs, antinomians, and warped planks left out in the rain at a very early age (though, again, the abundance and assertiveness of these bravos among us now strikes me as alarming and symptomatic). Even if the Net could be held responsible for multiplying both silliness and depravity, it cannot be charged with having invented either one.
But the mainstream is another thing. By definition, it characterizes eras, cultures, systems, and faiths. As a subscriber to "intelligent faith", besides (and by that I mean simply an oft-applied conviction that intense thought leads us toward rather than away from God), I believe in a "mainstream of mainstreams". That is, cultural oddities having been factored out and historical juggernauts having been given time to annihilate themselves, I believe that people of all times and places tend to converge upon a few basic realizations—or perhaps to fight against them tragically, which is really the same thing. The "things realized", furthermore, are overwhelmingly of a moral nature. Beauty has its own kind of perdurability, to be sure; but the most insistent classic is but a murmur beside the moral imperative to stay one’s hand from harming innocents or to keep one’s solemn word.
Is this the mainstream, then, into which Internet discussion groups carry one? Having easily navigated past the happy frivolity of finger-deep rivulets and, more laboriously, rafted clear of deathly whirlpools, does one find oneself delivered into something like the common sense of a maturely mature humanity?
I actually joined several groups this spring on the assumption that, indeed, the human condition’s inescapable force field—the limits of life, of possible knowledge, of possible meaning—must overtake a large portion of these wayfarers, even though my keyworded hails had drawn no automatic response from their published self-descriptions. What I soon discovered, therefore, left me aghast. E-groups—and now I mean mainstream e-groups—do not discuss matters of faith, or matters mundane inviting the insights of faith, with any notable regard for reason or Western tradition. They have no sense of philosophical rigor and integrity nor any of the generations of thoughtful people who have gone before them. None whatever—absolutely none. They have precisely one approach to every question: they throw Bible verses at it. Participants who refuse to heave more verses into the fray are disqualified from the exchange, often very overtly and with an imperious manner well within the boundaries of boorishness. I recall one "discussion" where a party dared to suggest that the lessons of the Garden of Eden were less about gender than about human nature. This author was trying to argue, in other words, that our gender is irrelevant to sin, whose roots are spiritual rather than glandular. Punishment was quick and decisive. Under a pelting of biblical citations—single lines (the same two or three, mostly) wrenched from context and tagged with the declaration that their few translated words were self-evident in intent—the unhappy moralist retired. The victors monopolized the message board throughout the next week with scripturally inflected war-whoops.
This, I repeat, soon emerged as the pattern in the vast majority of "responsible" e-groups. I am not in a position to maintain that there are categorically no Yahoo e-groups devoted to reflective discussion of ethical issues, Christian morality, or faith and works. I may surely hazard the remark, however, based on my experience, that these are not readily turned up by keyword searches; and I may surely extend that point, as well, to observe that the mainstream Christian by the Internet’s tabulation primarily worships the Bible rather than the God who became incarnate in Christ. After all, every search on the Net is an opinion survey. The results irresistibly advance the thesis that the Christian presence on the Web is not properly Christian at all, but "biblicist" or "bibliolatrous" (in James Barr’s apt coinage). This body of faithful judges heretical any questioning (let alone denying) of the Bible’s utter, literal inerrancy in all matters—not just moral matters, but matters historical, geographical, geological, meteorological, anthropological, political, and nutritional—all matters. "Heresy" is the precise diction favored at such prickly moments. I have seen it used of several authors excluded from the inner e-circles at issue. It was aimed explicitly at me on one occasion, and more implicitly at another venue which refused to publish my comments (and which warned up front that rudeness, vulgarity, and "heresy" would not be tolerated).
In this essay, I wish to push the point still further in a somewhat daring thesis: that the Internet has fueled the malignant growth of bibliolatry. Precisely because the Net bestows the freedom of invincible laterality, it also and inevitably leads to the most tyrannical kind of hierarchy. I mean, of course, the tyranny of mass whimsy. Uninformed by any particular knowledge of the past or submission to reason or even obedience to a common etiquette, chatters and surfers exchange jokes, insults, imprecations, and propositions far and wide. The electronic forum simply monitors and then prioritizes these by frequency of repetition. A lot of people are buying Graia’s fish: a lot more want to hear Viterbo’s dirty ditties about Julia. Meanwhile, Pompilius is trying to read his treatise on fortune to Laertius… but they can hardly hear themselves think over all the shouting, spewing, guffawing, and finagling.
So it is with "biblical" e-groups: their poverty of thought, rich only in citations of a text whose complex history most of their members scarcely imagine, is the ignorant voice of an ignorant mass. The Net has amplified this voice until no other is audible. Its speed-of-light exchanges are exquisitely designed to solicit the bandying of biblical verses back and forth like volleyed tennis balls. Long, subtle arguments, thrice proofread and edited even after weeks or months of preparation, don’t belong here. They are a relic of the literate universe. E-argumentation, rather, is guerilla warfare: snipe, hit and run, slit throats from behind. It all leaves one ringing and smarting, desirous of firing back a shot or two in kind yet chagrined that the words tingling between fingertips and keyboard are the shallow, childish sort which occupy the tongue’s tip, as well. The very "study guides" of many denominations which are printed, bound, and distributed by the thousand (there is one before me at this moment) have acquired a "Q&A" or "FAQ" format from the ubiquitous Web page. That is, biblical commentators now routinely reject sustained argument and amass, instead, a battery of statistically common but logically unrelated questions which they address in first-come-first-served order, often with little more than a Bible verse.
For in religious discussions, scriptural citation is the quick kill par excellence. Televangelists had already discovered as much thirty years ago, when they renounced Bishop Sheen’s sober, civil reasoning to "electrify" audiences with one-liners. On the Net, scriptural one-upmanship’s stiff-wristed thrust through the throat is very nearly the exclusive means of forensic triumph in "Christian" exchanges. "You didn’t cite a single scriptural passage. What about Philippians? What about Galatians? What about Second Corinthians?" These are lone verses, most often, pulled from modern English translations without any regard for their immediate context in the document and with little awareness of historical/cultural circumstance.3 They are sentences (at least in English: not always in Greek) in which a certain word appears (at least in English: not always in Greek) which has been listed in a concordance. That is, they are the result in clipped, massed congeries of a keyword search done with paper and ink. Long before the Internet (or even print) was ever dreamt of, rhetors already knew the utility of rapid iteratio for inciting a crowd. Rabble-rousers of old, however, had to allow that the habit of listening might readmit the better argument.
Yet while I grant that the Internet did not create The Myth of the Quotable and Inerrant Text (nor even televangelism), I am convinced that biblical citation itself has fundamentally changed in the electronic age. Take Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptaméron—which, despite its immersion in medieval Catholicism, extols Bible-reading over seeking priestly counsel more than once. Marguerite’s manner of scriptural study is a truly devotional exercise, often solitary and never, when communal, attended by shouting down of one’s adversary. The emphasis was one finding the way through a moral quandary, not on grabbing one verse and running off with it in struck-it-rich exultation. By the late Renaissance, of course, such intense Bible study was fairly common among Protestants (as well as certain marginal groups of Catholics like the Jansenists). Significantly, these same sects and denominations were often fractured from within by more charismatic believers who found the prevailing studious habits "uninspired". That is, those worrisome few who equated hysteria with holy rapture were almost always opponents of Bible-study. The Quakers, for instance, originated in a European Pietist tradition which very much aspired to a spare, minimalist, "scriptural" manner of living, and which sought to secure itself in that manner by quietly reading and meditating upon holy writ. By the early nineteenth century, however, congregations in the frontier states viewed Bible-reading as ostentatious and insincere.4
Surely it is significant that the electronic phenomenon has here reversed the tempo of "reading", turning it into a search-and-seize operation. Between preemptive applications of The Word, we seldom find lingering moral benefits on message boards and in discussion groups. That is, when no one is trumping the flux of commentary with a scriptural verse, participants may write in with the most digressive and ill-focused babble, not always stopping short of vindictive gossip. Wasn’t this entirely predictable? So truculent and arbitrary are recurrences to scripture that, the verse du jour having been descanted, nothing remains to talk about—not, that is, with regard to the verse, which must rest as venerated and unscrutinized as the Arc of the Covenant. The faithful therefore fall to chattering in mindless fashion about what (to any shrewd analyst) might seem the least appropriate subjects. The chirping continues until one of the group protests the absence of biblical verses. Then the cycle begins again—having consumed, however, not two or three generations, but two or three days. I offer the ensuing plaintive ramble in evidence, which I gleaned from a "Christian writers" site:
I shall not waste space pummeling the painful solecisms of this algarade. We all know that our young writers cannot write. Worthy of emphasis, though, is the fusion of a whimsical mysticism with a determined biblicism. This author has so lost the literate habit of keen self-analysis that she cannot in any way picture how her own (obviously considerable) yearnings and frustrations may have influenced her reading of scripture. When she reads the Bible, she brings nothing to it: the flow of insight comes utterly, mystically from the other direction. She is fully persuaded, besides, that her very intimate consolation and rapture await others in precisely the same measure who may agree to read with her. Her encounter, as far as she is concerned, has absolutely nothing subjective about it. One can pass a very gloomy hour pondering whether this young woman’s inevitable failure to reach and sustain perfect beatitude, with or without a support-group of other Bible-browsers, will wreak lasting damage upon her fragile soul.
Many such e-groups, of course, would insist that they are conducting patently ethical business, not vetting slogans and forging sound bites. They want a better world—that is, a world where people behave better. Nevertheless, something about their means to this objective is profoundly, alarmingly anti-ethical; or lest I stumble upon the ambiguities of the word "ethical" (which, in its literal sense, merely signifies the habitual), I see something here which is wrong, bad, and surely displeasing to the God of goodness. For does not goodness require choice, and choice require deliberation, and deliberation require a collecting of all relevant facts and a sensitive assessing of them against general principles? How could anyone be pleasing to God who has no zeal for goodness, and how could willful ignorance of details in any situation be called zealous? How could blind acceptance of how another has applied principle to circumstance be deemed a devotion to principle—are we afraid, then, that our principles will shatter into pieces if we notice that certain predicaments bring two or three of them to strain upon each other? And in view of the complexity involved in serving God thus faithfully, why would one not prominently display words like "ethical" or "moral" or "goodness" in one’s Internet invitation to discuss God and humankind? Why would the very name of one’s group—of a single lonely group, out of thousands—not be "God All Good" or "Deeds of Mercy" or "Moral Duty"?
The result of electronic haste upon genuine spirituality has been devastating, and may well prove catastrophic. To be a Christian is primarily to believe in a supernatural power which is supremely and eternally good. That power may be other things, as well. Specifically, it may be materially preemptive in some way or ways, ranging from meteorological effects to spontaneous influence upon tires or roof tiles or ballistic nylon in proximity to the protected persons of the elect. Yet this god, before he is a rainmaker or body-guard or engineer, is a Father: he is God, benign, loving, and merciful. To the extent that this "omnibenevolence" may enter into conflict with other divine attributes, it trumps them. If an all-good creator and sustainer could not have arranged murderous events in any comprehensible fashion, he did not arrange them in any comprehensible fashion. If this means that he is not in full control to our manner of understanding, then he is not in full control to our manner of understanding. And when such an event is ascribed to his will by a document included (perhaps after long oral transmission, and certainly after frequent translation) in the solid citizen’s Revised Standard Bible, then… then the Bible gets it wrong.5 The Christian God may well cause things in ways that no human being can understand; but when a human being clearly understands ethnic annihilation or the joy of flexing muscle as a cause of events—when such is God’s biblically stated motive—then the Christian shakes his head and declares with conviction, "No."6 Christians cannot know why God does everything, but they well ought to know that he never does anything for certain reasons.
This is "mere Christianity": it is mandatory. One cannot not believe that God is supremely good and still be a Christian. Now, I do not say that all those who insist upon the strict, literal inerrancy of the Bible in all matters are not true Christians, though many of them would say as much of me for daring to raise the possibility of scriptural misstatement. Rather, I contend that most inerrantists are not true inerrantists, having never thought through the position in all that it implies. But let me forestall a host of vexed questions and probable quibbles about matters chronological, historical, and empirical. Let us allow for the moment, even, that there’s something we must be missing when God is said to exhort Israel’s kings to wholesale slaughter of civilian populations. Let us take a body of moral teaching as irreproachably sound as any which has ever passed through human hands or before human eye: the Sermon on the Mount, for instance. Here is authority made manifest! Who could resist such words? Yes, but therein lies the very undoing of the inerrantist position. That pang of conviction, that spring of "enthusiasm" (literally, "being in the god")—these are movements of the human heart, not dance steps learned from a diagram. Words of moral persuasion are true when they sound true, when they vanquish our own considerable capacity to serve our selfish interest and to represent our motives in flattering fraud. We do not know their truth from the authority of the book wherein they appear; we know the book’s authority, instead, from the fact that such words appear within it.
The inerrantist is precluded from believing this. He is forced by his intractable system to locate authority within the document, not within the heart which reads or hears the document. God spoke, the prophet repeated, the scribe wrote, and we obey. Were we to maintain that God continues speaking—and to us personally, through our heart and mind and conscience—then we would short-circuit the chain of command. The God of goodness might speak things to us which are not even in the book, or he might say with greater clarity to us things which seem somewhat garbled in the book. Then we would all be so many little prophets walking about and claiming each to have his own truth. What a horrid carnival of relativism would result!
But relativism is already weaving quite comfortable nests where idolaters of the written word willfully craft tortured interpretations into "literal" declarations. And it is relativism à l’enchère, surcharged with the highly dangerous assurance that it is not relative to the reader’s will. La Rochefoucauld’s cynical warning, cited in epigraph at this essay’s beginning, is a necessary corrective to our most zealous moments. We dare not take a moral crisis lightly, yet we dare not take our response to it too seriously. No arrogance is less pious or more lethal than the self-willed obstinacy of someone who insists that God has full possession of his will.
I cannot overemphasize that I am not presently challenging the Bible’s reliability as a moral assessment of God’s purposes, or even as a historical or scientific record. Though I believe one must in conscience and in reason do so at times, I have suspended that degree of rigor here merely to make a point about authority.7 Were the Bible impeccable in honoring God’s perfect goodness and in stating historical chronology and detail, to accept all of its contents without question purely because they belong to the Bible would contradict the essence of the Christian faith. On what basis might this book, this collection of books drawing upon disparate cultural stages (from nomadic to urban, from oral to literate, from Eastern to Greek), deserve such abject acceptance? Because it comes from God? But that argument is transparently circular: we must worship God because the Bible tells us to, and we must do what the Bible tells us because it is God’s word. Or are we fearful of eternal punishment, perhaps, or awed by biblical miracles adduced as evidence? But a moral system cannot be constructed out of fear—not fear of physical reprisal, at any rate. To be sure, the genuine fear of God is a dread of being called to a strict accounting for our half-hearted acts and tainted motives; but such fear bears the signs of inner conviction—of moral understanding and active conscience—all over it. As for awe, one plays Russian roulette with one’s soul in granting supreme authority to special effects. Modern science, too, can virtually bring people back from the dead or make rivers run backward. Should we, then, surrender our moral will to the scientist’s reality? Much of Christendom had done precisely that by the end of the nineteenth century, and we are still reaping the bitter harvest therefrom—apparently without having learned our lesson.
For there is nowhere, ultimately, for the voice of God to draw its authority except from without or from within. If from without, whether from revered texts or perceived menaces and miracles, then our faith rests upon our senses, and therefore upon material phenomena, and therefore upon things perishable, misapprehensible, and unworthy of faith. If from within, then we must take constant care, undoubtedly, to sort the true voices from the innumerable whispers, wheedles, and whines of egotism. Hence the special role of humility in the Christian faith.
But some will say that my rationalizing exposes an unregenerate heart—that I would recognize, if I were "saved", how the voice mystically commands obedience from without and thereby transforms the individual within. At the risk of persisting in the unpardonable sin of rational coherence, I must remark two grave errors in this view. The first is moral: it is the full repeal licensed in the newly recruited Christian soldier of that precious humility just mentioned. Now invaded utterly by God’s will, he has no moral lapses, thinks no selfish thoughts.8 I have already stressed that no position could be more repugnant to the true practice of Christianity.9 As for the second error, it is the simple logical embarrassment of circular reasoning again. If God does not speak to us within the limits of our human understanding, then he can only impose his will from without in a fashion doomed to appear arbitrary. If acceptance of this arbitrary force somehow reveals to us, however, that it is rooted in our nature, then it was never really arbitrary to start with, and the thunder and fireworks were indeed distractions rather than revelations. There is no third alternative.
When the bibliolater removes the very possibility of moral enlightenment from the mechanism of God’s love, he repudiates the Christian faith and does the work of darkness. This, if I may sadly resume my main strand, is clearly just what awaits us as a culture: "e-faith". Allegiance to a protocol: sub-allegiance to a community within the protocol, to a group within the community, to a topic within the group. Bible Worship > Make Friends > Youth Groups > Bowling for Jesus. Laterality applied to the nth degree—or, at least, to that degree where available hours of the non-negotiable twenty-four are pleasantly consumed. The refinement of human relationships and intellectual commitments once supplied by reading, reflecting, qualifying, compromising—in a word, by thought—has now been supplanted by an etiquette of sidestepping which brings one eventually to whatever inner circles are desired. Definition of sloppy terms sidestepped, mitigation of crude generalities sidestepped, contradiction by hard experience sidestepped, dissension among rough fellow-travelers sidestepped. Result: your very own e-sculpted prayer group! But do these circles really consist of friends and spiritual brothers? Do their celebrants enjoy sufficient common ground to deserve such a distinction merely after having made the same four or five choices off a menu? The bibliolater is incapable of protesting the shallowness of it all (unless, of course, he is a defector at heart). Keywords are the foundation of his universe. He points and clicks: his duty is to follow prompts, not to analyze options for what may be missing among them. Even if he has never owned a computer, he has created a robotically linear faith which the computer-generation recognizes at first glance as "user-friendly". All reflection has been anticipated: "other" has been nudged off all menus with the addition of a few more links.
The most graphic illustration of e-faith’s rigor mortis must surely be the proliferation of fellatious sex among girls wishing to preserve their virginity. The role of biblicist evangelism in winning young people away from the carnivorous vortex of the sexual revolution is to be praised—or would be, if the battle were really won. Unfortunately, this effort has only wrested adolescents from the watery clutches of Charybdis to deliver them into the talons of Scylla; for being biblicist, it refuses to define carnality or to explain the essential sinfulness of carnal living. It simply cites scripture. I do not say that sin is difficult to explain, and that the Bible-worshiper makes a hash of it.10 I say—for this point deserves heavy emphasis—that the bibliolater disdains any style of counter-argument which is not mired in his peculiarly out-of-context scriptural nuggets. Reason is positively to be shunned. All that the newly recruited footsoldier of True Love Waits has in her arsenal is three or four scriptural verses rather vaguely addressing lust (for St. Paul, in his good taste, always shied away from dissecting lust) and the camaraderie of other platoons flanking her, leading her, and following her. Which of these supports is more likely to influence her behavior significantly? Hardly scripture. She has been carefully drilled in the evils of analyzing scriptural passages. The very attempt would perhaps be a far greater evil than mindlessly violating any particular passage: it would be the unpardonable sin against the Holy Spirit. Instead, she will look to her sisters. Where they march, she marches. If they supply fellatio to their boyfriends (after all, Jesus is love—how’s that for literal reading?), then she, too, falls on her knees. A kind of self-degradation so patent and so outrageous to any healthy moral acumen that St. Paul must have waved it with disgust into the legions of "impurities" and "bestialities" has turned invisible on the Bible’s pages for these letter-addicted legionnaires, and… vexilla regis prodeunt Inferni.
Click "Bible". Click "Love". Click "Virginity". Click "Local Organizations". Click "Sign On". Congratulations: your submission has been received!
It is no doubt possible to be too hard on the electronic sources of this zealous hostility toward analysis. If Western culture will turn incurious tomorrow, it was also incurious yesterday. In the United States, "Bible-thumping" is inevitably associated with Appalachia, where illiterate or proto-literate populations of poor farmers once blended their faith with heavy doses of hoary superstition and hard-nosed proverbial wisdom.11 At the same time, however, to equate the chapter-and-verse hailstorms which rage in e-Christian chatrooms with the hillbilly’s downtrodden hard-headedness is grossly unfair to the hillbilly. There is good reason for this careworn, sun-baked churl to cling to the past and the familiar. The newfangled has always parted him from his pennies, and the snake oil he has received in exchange grows no magic beanstalk leading to Jack’s pot of gold. In contrast, the post-Christian Bible-believer, while he may play up a connection with rustic simplicity, is wholly unconvincing in this role. He is quite as heavily represented among prosperous Mid-westerners in burgeoning urban areas as among poor Southerners inhabiting miserable mill villages. His house has Internet hook-up, his children prefer Web-surfing to TV, and his daily life is meticulously scheduled with church outings and soccer practice rather than inscrutably ravaged by flood and drouth. He could well afford a little time to meditate: he freely chooses to search out "family-friendly" Hollywoodiana. He could well afford to stock a personal library: he freely chooses to invest in DVD’s. He could well afford to buy new tires for his aging Buick: he freely chooses to spring for a minivan with all the trimmings. Nothing about this habit of existence indicates the slightest interest in keeping tradition alive.
More often than not, this man or woman is indeed materially invested in post-literacy. He owns stock in it. He most certainly consumes "cultural progress", if not e-culture, and he very likely sells it in some way or measure. My comment above regarding the purchase of lavishly accoutered minivans was not a pompous crypto-Marxist sneer of the sort so common in academic writing. It is based on blunt observation. The concurrent embracing of "car culture" and of biblical fundamentalism may be remarked in any part of the United States that I have ever inhabited (and, as an ex-professor with no talent for politics, I have moved around quite a bit). Many such congregations will announce of a Sunday that auto forays have been arranged over the coming week to the mall, to the lake, to the amusement park. I have yet to hear of one organizing a hiking or biking or walking club. Generous contributions from car dealerships are routine: at this instant, I could name two owners of such dealerships in my neck of the woods who are aldermen. A merely cursory reconnoitre of the church’s parking lot when services are in session will reveal some interesting disparities between one of these congregations and (for instance) the local Catholic church. Even the young single members seem to have secured a loan for some respectable wheels. Fifteen-year-old models are nowhere in evidence here.
My point is this. If ever a modern habit of living were antithetical to the Bible’s paradigm—not morally so much as culturally, where biblicists insist that the paradigm be applied—"auto-mania" is that habit. The automobile disrupts families, neighbor-hoods, and communities. Its relation to the post-World War II skyrocketing in teen pregnancy, though little studied, cannot be seriously disputed. Its implication in zoning laws which undermined urban solidarity has been just as overlooked, yet is equally transparent. Its participation in the business culture of long commutes and sudden transfers is more discussed, and has clearly shattered extended family structures beyond repair. Nevertheless, faced with a technology which has nourished illegitimacy, abortion, incivility, fragmentation of social units, toxification of the air supply, and a murderous frivolity especially notable among adolescents, the biblicist can find no contradiction herein with any of his beloved single-verse formulas. There were no cars in antiquity. Hence the noxious presence of the car in our own existence is wholly unarbitrated by anything to be found in The Book. On the contrary, The Book says that God wants prosperity for "his people" (who are, of course, the Bible-idolaters—for who could be more deserving of the letter’s promises than one who adores the letter?). In the modern world, the only way to prosper (and we all know what "prosper" means, don’t we?) is to ride the wave of technological progress: to sell cars, to connect cables, to hawk the Internet. God’s people, therefore—always following the strict letter of the law—are fully intended to immerse themselves in trends which raze the literate Western heritage left and right, and may God’s blessing be upon them!
Despite a theatrical hugging of the Bible before every possible audience, post-Christian biblicists are not only not particularly atavistic: they are not even notably conservative. Here lies the crux of the matter. At the heart of our Western tradition lies our Christian faith, and at the heart of our Christian faith rests immovably the all-goodness of God. Goodness is not defined by drawing lines in the sand and declaring, "Cross or be damned!" The boundaries must cut profoundly through our souls, even though, in every human soul, there lives an almost-as-profound inclination to defy the boundaries. When the letters and print and translations and adaptations of The Book are deprived of this inner elucidation, they become the mute prisoners of whimsy which Socrates foresaw in writing.12
Of course, Socrates’s teaching anticipated Jesus’s—and neither could have awakened thousands of hearts, no doubt, had writing itself not already begun to rouse oral tradition from its deep tribal slumber. As usual in human affairs, there are enough ironies here to keep one musing all day long. Our culture’s early beacons of inner life could not but grieve that loss of traditional innocence which would leave some snared in their own egotism and folly even as it freed others to approach the true God. As the Hebraic tradition longed after Eden, so the classical tradition longed after Arcadia. Yet at last, one must grow up to grow toward God. One must grow into the second childhood—the child-like moral idealism—of refusing to dwell comfortably in the dark cracks between "appearances". The bibliolater has not relinquished his first childhood: he clings, childishly, to his first responses as if the very simplicity of declaring them objective could make them so. In this letter-idolater’s pharisaically petulant attachment to "what it says", we see the prophet’s strange pity for the hordes he has just enlightened turned inside-out; for here sits the supreme irony of one who murders literate inquiry and its highest virtue, self-deprecating humility, all for a self-professed love of holy writ.13
Make no mistake, then. Literacy’s single most precious gift is squandered in the banishment of moral authority (and hence the very possibility of morality) from an internal source. Duty no longer says, "I must step forward, though I be killed"; conscience no longer says, "I must step back, though the crowd turn on me"; inspiration no longer says, "In those words speaks the voice of God." The Book now represents the group, the clique, the ethnos: and, not very deep down but so loud as to make all else inaudible, the only inner utterance laments, "What will they say if I don’t go along?"14
To be sure, written words may energize duty, conscience, and inspiration. Parts of the Bible teem with such words. So do parts of Shakespeare, parts of Dante, and even parts of Vergil. To maintain that these most critical moments of individual humanity, however—of the soul’s wrestling match with itself—are objectively in the words, which in turn pull duty and conscience and inspiration about like marionettes on a string… this, I urge, is fatally obtuse. It is the Janus twin (if you haven’t yet had enough of irony) to postmodern theory’s charge that words have no meaning. For if all the meaning is in the word and none in the reader’s heart, the reader can only make up meanings as he reads: he can possess no key to the bolted door. By no accident, the inevitable outcome of post-structuralism was PC fascism, the intractable idolatry of certain words, certain codes, which is commonly known as ideology. The strict Bible-worshiper is an idolater of the code for the very same reason. Indeed, he will visibly, publicly agree with his leftist utopian counterpart on this point alone: that the valorization of inner life—of deep reflection, of rational seeking after universals—is absolutely to be despised and categorically to be rejected.
So the Right Wing biblicist and the Left Wing relativist alike end up in the starless midnight of Pyrrho, from which both emerge with a triumphantly unexplained and inexplicable program of action. No wonder they loathe each other—they are competing for precisely the same patch of turf! What those of us who remain unrepentantly thoughtful, though, must understand about this paradox is its foundation in post-literacy—not illiteracy or pre-literacy, but in the moribund phase wherein thought itself is thoughtlessly blamed for the Fall, for the Bomb, for Mortality. Traditional audiences are not especially resistant to novelty, insight, or moral appeal. They are taken aback at such moments, but not stirred to violence.15 Our present malaise involves an outright hostility to inner revelation. You may protest that literate-scientific culture was most eloquent in advocating the early stages of its suicide. Post-structuralist theorists were often stunningly well-read within their narrow areas of interest, and were much given, besides, to the late-literate vices of sophistry and facetiae. This is all quite true—but it is also now painfully after-the-fact.
At present, we are well into the metastatic stage. Today’s advocates of stoning classicism, the Enlightenment, and quiet meditation generally are not suicidal. They are already solidly on the outside of the culture which some of them appallingly claim to be protecting. They do not read literature, and they do not comprehend science. Their internal depth has been successfully back-filled by semantic bulldozing and linear link-hopping.16
Our choices for "therapeutic invasion", then, are two: shut down the e-system through whose arteries the malignancy spreads apace, or inject large doses of literacy into victims from whose eyes and ears wires are practically trailing. Now, to suppose that millions of young Internet addicts, alerted to an absence of depth in their lives by literary scholars and moral philosophers, will create a run on used copies of Conrad, Tolstoy, and Jane Austen is to traffic in the inanities of the educational system’s career bureaucrats (not that many of these latter would ever think to recommend Conrad, Tolstoy, or Jane Austen). Our nation shows few signs of disaffection with its electronic thought-suppressants; and until it wearies of swimming endless laps around the wading pool, it will naturally have no time for reading. The second option, that is, suffers the misfortune of depending on the first. Without a general turning away from the screen, there can be no general turning toward the printed page.
So there is no chemotherapy or surgery indicated for this Stage 2 progression, only surrender to ever-increasing malfunction and pain… is that the prognosis? Actually, in this instance, it may also be the cure. Pain is a great motivator: people sometimes seem incapable of action without it. In the days of high literacy, a bright person typically needed relatively little pain to inaugurate a productive chain of reflections. A single chagrin d’amour, perhaps, or a single rude encounter with social inequality might suffice. People felt more deeply then, for they had more time to feel as well as the habit of quietly, doggedly teasing out their soul’s secrets. Today a lover requires multiple hook-ups and break-ups, with their attendant baggage of alcohol-fueled parties, illegal anti-depressants, nagging social diseases, physical abuse, stalking, unwanted pregnancy, and the rest to figure out that the road to happiness doesn’t lead through such jungles and deserts. An aspiring young professional sacrifices two decades to specialized degrees and licenses, conferences, and colloquia, training films and tutorials, interviews and introductions, probational stints and menial assignments before realizing that the system is rigged to advance only children of certain parents or graduates of certain schools. Our culture peddles dreams. We are raised now to believe that each obstacle may be sidestepped even as a deftly wielded mouse circumnavigates a website’s broken links. We are a long time learning that there is no way through certain cliff faces, and an even longer time getting over it. Our initial response is to hire an attorney.
How long, then, does a desensitized e-citizen have to absorb pain before he begins to measure his short span on earth and his own responsibility in affecting the few precious days of others? How many friends will die a-partying, how many relatives will be blown out of the sky, before he grasps that this sort of stuff isn’t just filler for action movies and video games?17 E-man will be a long time figuring it all out. He will pray many e-prayers to his fanciful deity—the one who never lets friends and neighbors perish in cars or airplanes without a cosmically urgent reason—before he begins to suspect his spiritual nullity. Then, his electronically calloused hide showing raw nerves in places at long last, he will begin to understand. He will be ready to read Conrad, Tolstoy, and Jane Austen—and to seek God.
In the meantime… bring on the select verses whose tendentiously translated and culturally misappropriated promises never lie, bring on the ubiquitous background of amplified Soft Rock to which overfed bodies ritually sway through their day, bring on the speed and ease of air-conditioned lethal weapons and supersonic death traps, bring on instant access to imaginative substitutes—e-images of everything from sex to murder to the Taj Mahal (with filters available to personalize the menu).
What a monumental waste of time… what a long, hard way to grow up.
1 "Virtues gradually vanish in self-interest as rivers gradually vanish into the sea."
2 Not only are the realities of political "pecking order" and sycophancy among the most soul-withering discoveries which young people make upon entering adulthood—they are also sometimes very poorly identified in the Epistles. Surely no sane human being over the age of thirty would award the same moral authority and "truth value" to St. Paul’s confidence in government (cf. Romans 13) as he would to the Beatitudes. Paul could not more patently be expressing an opinion, and that opinion could not be more transparently arguable. I stress this in passing because what follows is intricately concerned with the matter of biblical inerrancy. St. Peter reveals a similar naiveté, perhaps, when he proposes (like Blake’s tender chimney-sweep) that no one will harm us if we do good (1 Peter 3.13); yet the assertion is advanced as a rhetorical question, then re-framed in a slightly less confident afterthought. What, then, is the literal, inerrant pronouncement behind this utterance’s intelligent vacillation?
3 James G. Barr, in The Bible in the Modern World (Philadelphia: Trinity P International, 1990), aptly notes the irregularities in the "strict interpretationist’s" handling of history. "The point of conflict between fundamentalists and others is not over literality but over inerrancy. The typical fundamentalist insistence is not that the Bible must be interpreted literally but that it must be so interpreted as not to admit that it contains error. In order to avoid imputing error to the Bible, fundamentalists twist and turn back and forward between literal and non-literal (symbolic, metaphorical, transferred) exegesis" (168). Of course, such "method" is entirely disingenuous, especially since it so often scorns other methods as devious.
4 Cf. Thomas D. Hamm, The Transformation of American Quakerism (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1992), 30.
5 Cf. 1 Samuel 15.3, where God is said to have commanded Saul to put to the sword all of the Amalekites, "both man and woman, infant and suckling." Others of His servants to conduct similar campaigns of ethnic cleansing (cf. Joshua 11, and next footnote). More vexed, perhaps, is God’s reported command that Abraham immolate his young son Isaac. Since divine intervention arrests this atrocity, one may argue that God wished to discover if Abraham primarily worshiped his power or his goodness (and received a disappointing answer, of course). Yet from the days of Kierkegaard, anti-rational hysteria has chosen to interpret the incident in the opposite fashion, lauding Abraham for his willingness to desecrate the most solemn moral obligations of the human heart because he hears a voice in thin air—in external thin air. The defense attorney of Andrea Yates should no doubt be chided for having overlooked such a promising strategy. If she had belonged to a commune and the group had stoned her children to death for misbehavior, Deuteronomy 21.18-21 would fully have sanctioned the deed.
6 C.S. Lewis once wrote to a friend that he would choose God’s goodness before scriptural inerrancy wherever the two were in conflict. The passage is cited by Joe Edward Barnhart in The Southern Baptist Holy War (Austin: Texas Monthly P, 1986), 177. Lewis, of course, is a darling of Bible Bookstores, whose patrons evidently make of him what they will rather than what he declares himself to be. After citing this foremost Christian apologist of the twentieth century, Professor Barnhart immediately appends his own worthy reflection on the biblical account of Joshua’s ethnic purges: "If the wholesale slaughter of an entire people, including children, can be justified in the name of God, then anything can be justified. Joshua’s exploits are situation ethics gone berserk."
7 I devote two chapters to "the question of authority" in A Body Without Breath: How Right and Left Have Both Stifled Moral Reason Within the Christian Faith (Tyler, TX: Arcturus, 2002). The biblicist concentration of all authority in the Bible as a written revelation, complete and inerrant, is addressed therein at length.
8 Louis B. Smedes reproduces the following hybristic sentiments from Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics in his own Mere Morality (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 9: "The command of God as it is given for us at each moment… wills us precisely the one thing and nothing else, and measures and judges us precisely by whether we do or do not do with the same precision the one thing that he so precisely wills." Though Smedes mollifies the tone in his comments, he remains in basic agreement.
9 Cf. this eloquently simple passage in Earl H. Brill, The Christian Moral Vision (New York: Seabury, 1979): "It may be right and just… for me to kill an enemy in wartime. But in doing so, I cannot afford the luxury of believing that my action has no evil in it. The death of a fellow human can never be other than evil, no matter how necessary it might have been. If we lose sight of the evil involved in our own right choices, we will develop a callous attitude that will make love more restrictive rather than more universal in its application" (37). One could write such words as these two decades ago under the aegis of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. They expressed at that time what I would call the "mainstream" Christian view.
10 In fact, a thumbnail version of the argument against surrender to carnal passion is easy to find in the classical tradition. Since actions can be neither good nor bad if they are not chosen, the good person must seek to maximize the scope of his or her choice. Since impulse and passion are by definition unchosen forces which assert the dominance of species over individual, they are inveterate enemies of free will. (The intellectual vacuity of campus clichés like "sexual expression" is, of course, perfect.) Therefore, all surrender to pure impulse is inherently wrong. Impulse can only be redeemed when the will has already approved its inclination along rational and moral lines—as, for instance, when concupiscence is elevated to love by the will’s affirming a profound and permanent commitment.
11 For a fascinating summary of superstitions about the Bible as a physical object—where and how to lay it down, how to exorcise with it, etc.—in the traditional American backwoods community, see Kevin J. Hayes, Folklore and Book Culture (Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1997), 28-35.
12 "Every word, once it has been written down, is rolled around in all directions by careful listeners and those who hear without profit alike. It does not know how to address itself to whom it ought and to ignore the others" (Phaedrus 275e).
13 In his introduction to Literacy in Traditional Societies (ed. John Rankin Goody and Ian Watt [Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1968], 1-26), Jack Goody comments upon proto-literacy’s highly conservative, even reactionary qualities. Like Havelock and Ong, he observes that "literate religions tend to be more `salvationist'; they place greater emphasis on individual paths to righteousness" (3); yet he is perhaps more sensitive than other scholars to the pharisaical paradox of a literate élite's attempting to block off these same paths once they have become entrusted to the mysteries of manuscript. "Under these conditions book-learning takes on an inflexibility that is the antithesis of the spirit of enquiry which literacy has elsewhere fostered" (14). Apparently, the recrudescence of books into objects revered because of their arcane distance from daily life is also a feature of post-literate existence.
14 The ubiquitous "What Would Jesus Do?" line of trinkets reflects little more than this longing after a clique, a tribe in whose badges and tokens one may adorn oneself. Taken at a less frivolous level, it would become intolerably schizophrenic. On the one hand, the simple question (often ciphered by the four letters, "WWJD") is already a repudiation of verse-brandishing bibliolatry, for it clearly recommends such complex deliberative exercises as comparison and contrast. On the other hand, Jesus Christ is ultimately not a model either for the moral philosopher or for the strict bibliolater, since the former knows that people are far too imperfect ever to resemble Jesus, and the latter (in his enthusiasm for the Bible as a whole) sees Jesus’s moral teaching as insignificant beside his fulfillment of the prophesied scapegoat sacrifice. Awash in a near-chaos where church authorities shout Bible verses at them from one bank and infidel peers sneer mockery at them from the other, our post-literate children primarily want someone to stand at the head of their fragile column. Their bracelets are perhaps a tribute to their natural admiration for goodness—but most certainly an indictment, as well, of adult betrayal.
15 Despite the cliché of the missionary ending up in the cannibal’s pot, most proponents of the Western literate gospel of individualism (each soul’s immeasurable value to the one god of goodness, each person’s obligation to remain pure and to treat others as ends in themselves) has historically played rather well when auditioned in oral-traditional quarters. Of course, elements of tradition are often fused seamlessly with the new faith (a tendency dubbed homeostasis by Jack Goody), and the results have often vexed the intruders. Friction rarely erupts into violence, however, unless traditions are treated with open contempt. The more common kind of peaceful reception is charmingly illustrated in Book Four of T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, when Lawrence gives the Bedouin their first taste of epic parody. "The Howeitat sat silent as death, twisting their full bodies inside their sweat-stiffened shirts for joy, and staring hungrily at Auda; for they all recognized the original, and parody was a new art to them and to him" (278 in the Anchor Books edition for Doubleday [New York and London], 1991). After an initial stupefaction, the group bursts in laughter.
16 During this year’s Fourth of July fireworks celebrations, which were unusually extravagant due to the sense of la patrie en danger, major networks naturally broadcast shows in Washington, DC, and New York City. I am not a yearly consumer of such productions, so I was quite bewildered to find that both "shows" were complete audio-visual productions, with blaring music every bit as explosive as the cherry bombs. Almost as astonishing was the degree to which the crowds appeared to lend themselves to the musical suggestion, swaying and singing en masse. I made a point of studying similar (though, of course, much smaller) celebrations as they were reported on the local news. More stentorian music: it has clearly become part of such scenes now. That people no longer want to enjoy a certain privacy as they contemplate a sublime spectacle raises grave questions about the "freedom" which they will all praise—in almost identical formulas—at any wandering reporter’s cue. It has occurred to me, besides, that the more "fundamentalist" church-goers of these crowds must already have been very familiar with the association of sublime moment and cranked-up amplifiers from their weekly order of worship.
17 That a great many onlookers at first assimilated the attack upon the World Trade Towers as a scene from a movie was evident from several on-camera interviews at the time. Witnesses of our all-too-frequent public massacres (e.g., at the Wedgwood Baptist Church and at Columbine High School) are also on record as saying—in a clearly reflexive chain of associations—that they first supposed some kind of movie to be in the filming before their eyes.
Three Sketches of Post-Social Society
New to these pages, Ms. MacAlister teaches junior college, raises her children, and meditates literarily upon the spiritual bankruptcy of what life in our "free" society has become from her lofty perch in the Denver area.
"Hello. Hello? Oh, hell—"
"Hello, this is a telemarketer. If you’re like me, you really hate telemarketers, especially when they call at this hour. So why don’t I just shut up and hang up?"
"Is… that it?"
"Unless you really want to hear about the rip-off that I’m peddling at the moment for people who are too cheap to put an ad in the Sunday paper. Why do you think they hire us, anyway? Because we basically get paid on commission. No sale, no pay. With an ad, they’d be stuck for the cost whether or not it generated any revenue."
"So… why do you do it?"
"You mean why do I debase myself by harassing people in their homes at dinner time to chatter about a piece of garbage that they don’t need and can’t afford? Why don’t I do something respectable, something where I can have a modicum of self-respect?"
"No, I… well, yes. Why don’t you do something else… where you can have some… where you can have a sense of fulfillment?"
"Fulfillment? Ah, bella donna—che non la dispiacqua la mia spavalderia, ma sento della sua voce suavissima che sia una donna bellissima… you have a nice voice. A beautiful voice. A person like you… when I’m moved, especially over the phone, I disguise my thoughts in Italian. It’s hard for me, very hard—it’s always been very hard—to tell people things in English like that I love the sound of their voice, that they’re very gentle and that I appreciate… well, that, you see, is the extent of my education’s usefulness. I studied Renaissance Italian literature for four years. I was going to do doctoral work, but… what’s the point? Universities don’t teach Italian any more. Just get a teacher’s certificate, maybe—but what’s the point? High schools don’t teach Italian any more. Did they ever? So what could I do? Work for the CIA as a translator? What’s the point—we’re not at war with Italy! Work for some federal relief agency, go into the ghettos to help Italian mama mia’s figure out how to get their welfare checks? What’s the point? The Italians all learned English a long time ago, the fools! They could have had everyone eating out of their hand by now, they could have had ballots printed in Italian, they could have had Italian newscasts and Italian baseball piped in—they could have produced lots and lots of jobs for people like me, and there would be Italian departments on every campus and Italian bilingual education at every high school. But no, they had to learn English! I’m sorry, I’m… I’m just being boring."
"But, so what am I supposed to do? Go back to school and study accounting? I’m no good with figures. Play ball? I’m not an athlete, I’m a clumsy near-sighted punk. Ah, computers! Bill Gates! Go on the Internet and sell people virus screens for the viruses I invent and release, one after another, each one with a screen just waiting for it—you didn’t know they do that? Or maybe I could market e-lists for guaranteed customers or guaranteed soulmates pulled randomly from worldpages-dot-com—a thousand on the basic list, ten thousand on the platinum—as soon as they give me their credit card numbers. Is that what I should do? To avoid being a bum, I mean? Or, worse, a telemarketer?"
"I had a little money stashed away, which I promptly blew trying to set up an Internet business, funnily enough. An honest Internet business, one that tracked down old books for people. I paid for a book-hunting program, I paid for Web hosting, I paid for a software package to design the site, I paid a consultant to pick the best keywords and put me on top of the rankings, I paid a specialist to submit my site to the search engines, I paid another specialist to design a banner ad, I paid for an e-mail list of potential customers… when it was all over with, I’d paid everyone and his Aunt Claire, and there went my little nest egg. But that was okay. I was all fixed up. I was going to get it all back and then some. In my zeal to make an honest living over the Internet, though, I had forgotten one thing—and, what do you know, none of my paid consultants ever thought to tell me about it before taking my money. You know what I forgot? Would you like to know what I forgot?"
"No… I mean, yes."
"I forgot that people don’t read any more! There I was, at the car show selling buggy whips. The Internet does that real well, you know. It separates fools like me from their money. And fast. Well, so maybe I should just give up my intellectual pretensions and humble myself. Maybe I should get down on my knees and sell shoes. But they don’t sell shoes that way any more. The Internet sells shoes. My father’s father sold shoes. In fact, he made shoes and sold them. That was back in the days of the Mom-and-Pop stores. You know what’s happened to all the Mom-and-Pop stores? Well, between the death tax and the property tax and OSHA inspections and lawsuits for not having a crippled bathroom… sometimes I get angry at my dad, God rest his soul, for not seeing it all coming. But then, he did see it all coming. He said, ‘Son, you gotta go to college.’ What was he supposed to say? Son, flip hamburgers at McDonald’s? Son, become a truck driver? Son, buy a bunch of cheap housing on credit and charge your tenants extortionate rates? But whatever you do, son, don’t do anything where you can use your brain and still respect yourself, because you’ll starve! Would you tell your son something like that?"
"No… no, I don’t think so."
"Like the Bible says, would a man give his son a snake to eat? The Bible! Wait’ll I tell you this! I went to this local seminar thing—it was a series of breakfasts being given by the biggest church in town, and the minister was telling us all about how we could pick ourselves up off the deck and make it. That was after the employment agency had told me I was overqualified to wait tables and stuff envelopes and shelve books. I could have done all that when I was in grad school, but now that I’m closing in on forty, I’m overqualified. Well, so I go to these job seminars—and I respect the man for doing them, but… well, here’s this parishioner of his that I’m put in touch with who sells these blanket-spreads."
"THE Blanket-Spread. The One and Only. Patented. You want me to read the thing off the little card? I shouldn’t do this to you—not if you’re in the middle of your supper. It’ll make you sick to your stomach."
"I… I can take it."
"Well, here goes. ‘The one-and-only Blanket-Spread is not available in stores. It’s yours only through this special offer. The Blanket-Spread is both blanket and bedspread. It comes in assorted colors and patterns. No more having to make your bed when you’re late for work, no more having to unmake your bed when you’re ready to plunge into sleepy-land….’ I’m not making this up. ‘But that’s not all. Blanket-Spread’s patented design is ready to give you a massage!’ It’s spelled ‘message’, but I’m sure they mean ‘massage’. ‘Just click the palm-sized control to low, medium, or high. Instantly Blanket-Spread sends soothing vibrations all over your body. It’s the most delectable experience you’ve ever had! You will feel like you’re riding on clouds of glory! Lie under Blanket-Spread on cold winter nights, lie on top of it during the summer. Massage your back, your neck, your muscle groups. Ball up the Blanket-Spread to concentrate the effect on any part of your body. It won’t wrinkle or crease, and it’s easily washable. No intruding coils or wires.’ I think they mean ‘protruding’, but who am I to question the Master? Oh, the Master! This is the good part! Except… I just… I can’t do this to you. You might think I’m just making this up, and it’s too embarrassing…"
"Aw, come on!"
"Well, on the Blanket-Spread’s box in three places, and on its instructions, and on the actual Blanket-Spread itself, both top and bottom, there’s this logo. Hmm."
"The logo shows a fish hook made into a cross up at the top. You know, a Christian cross?"
"And wrapped around this logo, like the emblem on a medieval coat of arms, there’s this… it says… oh, man!"
"Come on, now!"
"It says, ‘The Master baits His hook in many ways."
"Don’t you get it?"
"The Master Baits? All that stuff about balling up the Blanket-Spread and—"
"Oh, yes! And this guy is a big wheel in the church! He was a major sponsor of the seminars!"
"But… do you think he… maybe he just didn’t… people can be pretty thick sometimes, you know. You wouldn’t believe the ads people send into us…"
"Oh, he knew! I went to him once and hummed and hawed around it. He knew right away, and he wasn’t happy with me. He almost fired me on the spot. And, of course, nothing changed after that. He knew exactly what he was doing—he knows exactly what he’s doing. The next time I go in to see him, I’m going to take the patented Blanket-Spread and tie it around his neck! I’d rather starve to death than… you know what this reminds me of? I keep thinking of when I was in grad school, living in some rat-run apartment complex. I’d have to walk through street after street of panhandlers and pickpockets just to get to school—the low-income hippies, you know, the new crop of drug addicts. Sometimes you’d see some guy in a long coat, and he’d flash you, and he’d have all these pictures pinned inside his coat. That’s what I do, over the phone. That’s what I do for this guy. I thrust myself into people’s dining rooms at the hour of rest and flash them with the B-S’s luscious promise of sex on demand. That’s what I do to pay the bills. That’s why I got out of the store and went to college. That’s why I studied Renaissance literature. That’s what I am. I’m a piece of garbage who sells garbage."
"Look… look, now..."
"No, I know what I’ve become, and I’m going to go bait his hook with his patented B-S tomorrow! Talking to you has given me just about enough guts to do it. I’ll probably end up in jail, but at least for once in my life—"
"I can’t tell you how much it’s meant to me to talk to someone like you. I think it’s the most important thing that’s happened to me in years. I just… I don’t know how to thank you for… for giving me back a little of my self-respect."
"Look, please! You don’t want to do anything… I mean, you’re talking crazy now."
"Maybe I am crazy."
"No, you’re not. Look. Send me the damn Blanket-Spread."
"Yes, I mean it! I could always use another blanket… or a bedspread. If you can pass it off as either one... well, I’m one of those people who never has time to make up the bed."
"No. I won’t do it. I don’t need your money—I don’t need another sale. I’m already the leading seller this month."
"The leading seller, that’s right. Me."
"You mean… you have this conversation with everyone?"
"No, of course not! But the opening part about, ‘I’m a telemarketer, and you don’t want to talk to me’—I have people wanting to order before they even know what I’m selling."
"Well, then? Then I’m the best panhandler on the block, that’s what I am!"
"But… you said yourself, you have to make a living."
"Why? Is it so important to stay alive? Why? So I can sell more of the Master’s bait?"
"No, I won’t let you do it. You’ve been… this has been too important to me. You mean too much to me. I’m not letting the Master soil the one good thing that’s happened in my life for… for years. I… I’d better let you get back to your supper."
"No, wait. You live in this area, don’t you? I mean, you’d have to, you couldn’t be dialing long distance and stay in business. Why don’t we… how about a cup of coffee one morning? Or maybe lunch? Are you still there? Hello?"
"I can’t. No."
"I can’t because… because this has meant so much to me. I’d rather remember this evening just as it happened, and not ruin it by… you wouldn’t go for me, I can tell you right now. Besides, if you did it would be because I’m a loser. I can’t do that to you. Why are you even alone, a person as wonderful as you? You don’t make a habit of collecting losers, do you? You should do something about that. You deserve more. A lot more."
"Oh, come on, come on. Please don’t—"
"Vi amo… te amo."
"What? What did you say? Hello?"
She was the first thing he noticed—really noticed—after slipping past the door’s frosted glass, mincing his way through the polite flails around the coat rack, and navigating the sweet-and-sour gauntlet of strong spirits and smoke along the bar. She would have been noticeable even without her glorious hair let down, even had she not been sitting all alone at a booth; but with the same instinct as carried his own footsteps to the farthest reach of the bar, his gaze ran over the dim room’s edges and corners… and there she was. She, on the other hand, might never have noticed him, or only long enough to stare down his stare. But he yielded so quickly, hanging his head as if caught with a hand in the cash register, that he became a curiosity.
If she noticed how hastily he dropped upon a corner stool and slumped into the mass of shoulders, she might have been less vaguely interested. She might have suspected that one of the men who had once done her wrong had recognized her before she had him. And maybe she would have wondered when that number had grown so large that she could no longer remember faces.
He did not remain well hidden, however—and most men who want to know how to remain hidden.
It happened somewhere halfway into his second Rusty Nail. He wasn’t drinking fast. In fact, it was the other who had been growing louder and louder. The game was in the seventh inning now, and the other man had demanded that it be turned up. He and his buddies, who had been faintly milling up and down the bar for the last half-hour, settled in before the screen, which just chanced to be at the bar’s far end. (Or maybe it wasn’t chance: maybe the electronic depressant had been expertly judged most appropriate for the bar’s inner sanctum, where people expected less horseplay and more tranquillity.) And it chanced that this game mattered just enough to the other man for him to watch three successive pitches. When the third, low and away, was called a strike, even heads near the door, near the coat rack, spun around to see who had been knifed.
"Hey, don’t spill your drink," grumbled the bartender adroitly when the other man had to gasp for air. (He had measured the opening perfectly, and he knew better than to wave the "we have ladies in here" red flag.)
"What’s to spill, it’s empty! Fill it up. Did you see that—did you see that?"
"Too close to take," said Rusty Nail, in a much milder grumble but with more red in meaning.
"What did you say?"
"He had two strikes, it was too close to take."
"Nobody throws a strike on 0-and-2."
"He does. Why waste it when they expect you to waste it? When it’s that close, you gotta foul it off."
"… my ass. What are you, some kind of… ex-represen-ative of the umpires’ union? What are you laughing at?"
"You oughta try it."
"Umpiring. Try it sometime. It’s not as easy as you think."
"Oh, really? Hey, guys, ex-umpire on board. Tell us about the time you did the All-Star Game."
"I did a few Little League games, okay?"
"Ooooh, Little League!"
"The point being, a fast-moving object that you have to call one way or the other in an instant—that’s not easy to do. Whether at the All-Star Game or in Little League."
The situation deteriorated from there. The other man had his next drink down before the inning was over. At every close call, he appealed loudly to his neighbor (even though his buddies showed no interest in the game-within-a-game: one of them even walked off). Rusty Nail never looked up from nursing his second order until the raillery finally went one sneer too far.
"Don’t say another word to me," he announced. "Not one more word."
The other man smacked down his glass and sauntered around two remaining buddies, running his tongue over his swollen lips.
"Sure you don’t want some help with that call? Maybe an appeal to the third-base umpire."
"That was one more word. Now you’re out of here. Shut up and walk away."
The other man swung his right so loosely that Rusty Nail intercepted it with ease in his left palm. More impressive was the pain he wrung from the man’s face simply by squeezing on his wrist.
"Break it up now, boys," grumbled the bartender in his characteristic register.
His wrist released, the other man melted back into the crowd toward the doorway, scowling over his shoulder, muttering taunts which emerged only as slurred "s’s", both his stares and his defiances rather effectively interrupted by the figures of various buddies which discreetly congealed around him.
This incident left him entirely alone at his end of the bar.
"Next one’s on me," murmured the bartender in something miraculously less than a grumble.
"Ah… thanks. Buy yourself one at closing time."
He failed fully to disguise his amazement when she suddenly appeared in the vacated space at his side. Again, his initial reflex was to mute his interest, as if he had accidentally peeked into someone’s bedroom window. But the last of his fleeting glance must have caught the first of her nervous smile, for his second look held no apologies.
"I like the way you handled that."
"You do? Why?"
"I dunno. He had it coming, didn’t he? Take it from me, he started sounding off as soon as he got here. It wasn’t the booze."
"And when was that?"
"That he got here?"
Her moist teeth feigned biting her lower lip, and she played at stirring her glass of rounded ice cubes. "A little after I did. Are you asking how long I’ve been here?"
"There I go again, opening my mouth too wide!"
"A little, maybe. But I guess that can be viewed as… kind of flattering. Like you were sizing me up, maybe."
"You like being sized up?"
"Hardly! But it’s a necessary evil. I mean, it’s a step beyond being completely ignored."
He laughed—spontaneously, convincingly, even a bit over his far shoulder, as if to stifle the effect. "What would you know about being completely ignored! You’re not going to persuade me you were ever overlooked in any roomful of people, so don’t try."
"All right, I won’t." Her murmur was almost inaudible, but its very faintness supplied the blush which the dim light concealed. "So… you think you shouldn’t have said anything to him, is that what you meant? When you said, ‘There I go again,’ it sounded like you thought you should have just said nothing when that guy started in on you."
"There was no need to say anything. Maybe later… but I never should have said anything about the third strike. No need for that."
"There’s no need for… for anybody to say anything in a bar. But what do people come in here for?"
"Jeez, is that kind of a bar this is? I hadn’t realized how low I’d sunk!"
"Well, okay, they come here for two things: to be alone and to find somebody else."
"So how do you find somebody else if you don’t talk?"
"I guess you don’t. But I guess I must have come in for the other thing."
"Oh." At last she noticed that her glass was empty. She straightened up. "It’s getting late—I could have gotten served faster at the table."
"Look, I didn’t mean that the way it came out. Don’t run off. Hey, keeper, can we have another here, whatever the lady was drinking? What were you drinking?"
He deftly dug into his left breast pocket with his free hand—his left hand, which coiled easily for the difficult maneuver and emerged with a bill. Though his right was merely toying with a glass, she noticed that it never left the bar. Yet he volunteered a few more words to sell the polite illusion that he was flustered.
"I… you gotta take it easy on me, I still haven’t recovered from my first fight."
"Maybe I do come here to… you know, meet people," she yielded. "I usually don’t come alone, though—I usually bring my office mate."
"Yeah, that’s right."
"So the guys won’t hit on you… only they do, anyway, don’t they?"
"Like clockwork—and that’s not what I meant by meeting people."
"Yeah, I know. But they draw their own conclusions. If your office mate is good-looking, too, they just figure that you’re team-hunting."
"Team-hunting?" she smiled, perhaps covering her pleasure at the "too".
"Yeah. Or if she’s not, they figure that she’s clinging to you in hopes of getting fixed up."
"God, this male vanity you guys have!" she laughed. " Everything we do has to be a snare to get you somehow!"
"I was talking about what other guys must think."
"I know, I know. Sad thing is, you’re probably right—I mean, the egotistical male version was probably the right one. I should have known better, but Janet took me completely by surprise. I guess I did get her fixed up. Really fixed up. At least it wasn’t at this bar. I’ll never go back to that place again."
"Something went wrong, I take it."
"Something always goes wrong."
"She blames you for it?"
"I wish! She doesn’t blame me for anything—she doesn’t even see that anything’s gone wrong."
"I see. No judgment."
"Nope. And I thought I had bad judgment!"
"So here you are, basically wanting to be alone after… after that miserable experience."
"After a lot of miserable experiences. Janet was just my… you know."
"Your way to keep some of the creeps at bay."
"I was using her, wasn’t I?"
"She was using you, too."
"Apparently. And now I come elbowing up to you for my refill. Not very subtle, am I? Kind of blows my credibility. Only… only, I really did want to be alone. I just wanted to talk a little, maybe."
"It’s the same thing, you know—the two things I said, wanting to be alone and wanting to meet someone. It’s because you’re afraid to be alone all alone that you come to a place like this."
"So we can all be alone together!"
"Yeah. So we can all be alone together."
They passed the night in his apartment. It hadn’t been planned that way (at least, both of them seemed to accept that nothing about it was scripted, though everything turned out to fit a script). She had simply talked too long. By the time she had noticed how empty the bar had become, the streets were no longer particularly safe… and he, of course, had volunteered to walk her to her car. The two crowded blocks which she had been forced to measure earlier in the evening from her parking space were now so much vacant curb and silent sidewalk. When she had stood paralyzed before her streamlined door, key in hand, the thunderbolt which had found her among the tall buildings, blanching her face even beyond the pallor of streetlights, had every appearance of being instantaneous. He was right beside her, and she had actually leaned on his half-extended arm—but not to finesse a kiss.
"Are you going to be sick?"
And there, at about three in the morning, with a drunk or junkie calling someone’s name from his nightmare among the trash cans, she had been forced to tell him about the restraining order. What if her "ex" were waiting for her now, in the shadows beside her garage? She was braver earlier in the evening these days (she said), but as lights turned off and streets grew quiet, she entered another world. Now it was too late to wait for some couple before she approached the elevator. It was too late even to set the gun out beside her lamp table—not too late, but… but she was too tired to get it all ready.
"There’s a lot to get ready. I have to do every bit of it before I can relax enough to go to sleep. I sound crazy, don’t I?"
"Maybe I am. But I’m too tired tonight to be crazy. I might as well park at some big shopping center and let the seat back and… and grab some z’s."
So they had ended up at his place, which was only another few blocks. They had begun making love as soon as he had bolted the door behind them. It had been the most prosaic, the most reflexive of movements, that sliding home of the deadbolt; yet the metallic pop had seemed to surprise them both, or perhaps (like the proverbial turning key on the prisoner’s cell) to make them face the inevitable. Their eyes had met in a kind of weary fear or a kind of child-like resignation, wide eyes rising through a flow-tide of slumber, and their fingers had touched over the doorknob. They had kissed and groped as if in a dream, waltzing in progressive undress toward his bed while (in their dream, or in a sedated memory) a lone saxophone played the blues in some ancient Bogart film, their only haste to outstrip sleep—the sleep of physical and spiritual exhaustion. And their climax was so perfectly timed with the moment when they passed away, away from each other and themselves into a dreamless black plunge through outer darkness, that they awoke on the other’s shoulder, dull and sticky and unrested and half-covered, long after the curtains were silvered with murky daylight.
They would be late for work. Or she would be late, she announced (and then paused as if coaxing the same admission from him: it never came). She said something about wishing it was Saturday, but she spoke without conviction. (Saturdays posed so many ambiguities, offered so many deathly kisses: at least on a weekday, a quick departure was objectively necessary. On Saturday mornings, what might have seemed un-quick could turn out to be the same old throw-away.) He waved her into the bathroom while he deftly arranged a twosome of clean, shiny things on the kitchen table. When he cracked the door to ask toast or cereal, coffee or tea, orange juice… he had the laconic efficiency of a trained waiter.
The vapor which followed her half-clad figure from the bathroom had an indifferent scent, except for what it dissolved from her body and her dress (which he had hung from a ceiling vent so as to submit it to a "poor man’s steam-cleaning": he claimed not to own an iron). There had been no woman’s shampoo, no feminine soap or fragrance or moisturizer, in the medicine cabinet or in any tiled niche. He bade her take the hair-drier with her (a lackluster unisex hair-drier) while he showered, and he promised to give the dress another strong application of steam. (It was the second whisper of a joke he had uttered that morning, both about cleaning her dress: was he, then, in a good mood?) She first hastened to the phone, however—towel-bound hair and all—to call the office, even though the answering service would still pick up for another twenty minutes. She spoke loudly about car trouble, and about having to spend the night in a hotel (not that the overnight operator would know if she were to wear the same dress all year).
"That’ll settle some of the gossip about me wearing yesterday’s dress," she laughed at the yet cracked bathroom door, just to make sure that he understood the ploy (or just to make sure, perhaps, that he understood how rarely she used such ploys: for it was a card which could only be played once in a blue moon).
An inarticulate but sympathetic sound came from the crack, which then disappeared. (He must have turned the knob to keep the mechanism from clicking.) A moment later, the shower began to sigh again. She plugged the drier in next to the can-opener and bowed beneath a new uproar which shouted out all thumps and rumbles from the bathroom. Yet her eyes dwelt, brightly mesmerized, upon something of his presence, perhaps, in the impeccable place settings at the table. The tines and folds and right angles might have spelled a message for one who knew the code. So formal an invitation to break bread might just be far more flattering than a spontaneous invitation to risk creating life. But it might be, just as well, the most subtle of solid barriers. Would pot-luck from the refrigerator not have been more promising—stools touching at the counter (as they had ended up touching last night at the bar) while the two of them divided a pitcher of juice and ate from the same cup of yogurt?
But was promise more desirable than it was intimidating? Who needed another promise? How many cozy breakfasts with leg twined around leg could one endure before coziness itself became a pack of lies?
Suddenly she switched off the drier, though her hair was still dark with moisture and compelled her to chase through it with the towel. The gentle rush of the shower had stopped, and she eyed the bathroom door warily and she continued toweling and faded into the living room. There her arms fell slack, and she gazed about as if seeking something in particular. At a muffled rap from beyond several walls now (a brush falling on a tiled floor, perhaps), she made a feint back toward the kitchen and held her breath. When no further sound came from the bathroom’s quarter, she slid quickly away in the opposite direction, the towel trailing forgotten from her shoulders. There was a kind of second bedroom off the living room, apparently. The door was open, and she peeked in. Desk, computer, file cabinets, books… a few framed diplomas or certificates jammed between the rows of books as if to keep them upended….
"I work in here."
She actually gave a frightened squeal. The towel slipped to the carpet before she could grab it.
"I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to sneak up…"
"No, I’m sorry! I shouldn’t be snooping. I didn’t mean to…"
"Don’t be ridiculous." He had retrieved the towel just before her fingers could close on it, his cheek brushing her damp hair. Now he stood offering it to her as her hands fluttered about too busily to take it.
"It’s just that… well, I don’t really know anything about you. I seem to have done all the talking last night, and… and I want to know something about you. I want to know everything. I mean, I want to know everything you want to tell me."
Finally her hands could settle upon the towel. Yet she made no effort to lift it from him, and their crimped fingers grazed through the warm terrycloth.
"There’s nothing much to tell. Most of my work is freelance, or temporary. Pretty dull stuff… but it’s over pretty soon, and I move on to the next dull stuff."
"No benefits, huh?" she smiled breathlessly. "No health insurance? What if you got really sick?" She laughed nervously. "I’m not trying to sell you a policy. But… you should take care of yourself!"
"Cling to life, huh?"
"What? Yeah. Yes, of course."
He stared at the window for so long that he seemed to watch the morning migrate through another shade of silver. "So that’s what you mean by a benefit?"
It was not spoken as a joke. She began to panic, and fled into blunt honesty.
"I was looking for photographs—on the counters, on the walls—you don’t have any photographs, Rick! And that thing you said last night at the bar… to that big jerk, you know… about Little League, about umpiring Little League…."
His face was melting before her eyes as he continued to stare toward the curtained window, the only interruption on the bare walls. His strong chin which had at once attracted her wrinkled impossibly. Even his ears quivered, and they strained at his forehead and the roots of his hair. Only his eyes remained fixed in the meltdown; and, in the effort of doing so, they bored through his flesh like torches. They could not more haggardly have watched the new day descend into the high-rises if the sun had looped from its path and turned blood red.
She wrung the towel in her hands until she could feel water oozing between her fingers. Then she flung it far away and hid his face between her breasts, perhaps as much to spare herself its sight as to offer comfort. A long animal groan accompanied a blast of heat which seared her straight through her maladjusted bra. The sob that followed almost toppled them over together, sending his hair abruptly against her chin, into her open mouth. She turned aside like a swimmer gasping for air, raked her tongue over her teeth, and then settled around him (one eye wincing in his wet hair, one hand shielding his ear from the world). Each new start of a sob she quickly smothered in her hold as she herself gaped in concentration, scarcely daring to breathe, registering every tremor of the cataclysm in her struggle to wrestle it into a rhythm.
She said not a word, and he said not a word. A rhythm surfaced, submerged, and rose back up to her lure. Their silence triumphed over the sobs, which finally vanished into regular breathing—a breathing whose regularity, in turn, became his and hers rather than one’s or the other’s. Somehow it grew increasingly clear that the longer this silence lasted, the closer their lives would become. And as long minutes saw sunlight begin to work its way across the carpet and up to a shelf where the towel had lodged, neither of them made the slightest effort to change anything.
At first the house-hunting was almost enjoyable. How could it have been otherwise? They had saved for so long, waited for so long upon interest rates, suspiciously screened their job evaluations for hidden signals. Now every indicator was pointing upward. The two-bedroom apartment, besides, no longer offered arguable advantages as it had when they were running back and forth to Larissa’s crib and cradle. Now she had collected a roomful of playthings, and they… they themselves were not getting any younger. If Larissa was to have a playmate as she grew through childhood, they should not postpone the attempt. They had had to try for a full year (much to their surprise) just to bring her into the world, and now they were three years closer to nature’s dry well.
So the act of house-hunting, all by itself, was a valve which released mounting pressures and a ceremony which crowned mounting successes. Even when the day’s quarry turned out to be a miserable disappointment, it felt good to go a-hunting. She would usually go first, since her schedule was more flexible. Sometimes she would take Larissa, but more often she would leave her at day care. (It didn’t seem fair to expose a stranger’s home, tidied up and temporarily abandoned, to a curious two-year-old.) That way, too, she could linger over the dining room, the master bathroom, the closets, the garden, and talk it all out with Ann Callender. She quickly began to like Ann, or (more importantly) to trust her. There was no hard sell with Ann, no warbles of lavish praise. Ann sized up properties as critically as if she were shopping for herself. The chats they had beside her Lincoln in the driveway after turning the premises upside-down often took on a delicious note of conspiracy. The decision about whether or not to bother Kenneth and arrange a second appointment imperceptibly became a final decision on the house’s merits, out of which a dutiful invitation to Kenneth very rarely emerged.
It wasn’t that the houses were all hopelessly flawed, or that the flawless ones were all hopelessly overpriced. Perhaps that eventually summarized the overall experience in a formal sort of way—but fatal flaws and high prices were not what she discovered getting to her after five months. It was the lives. Lives like hers and Kenneth’s, like their life together—only all of these lives were broken or unraveling. At best, when she asked Ann why this or that attractive house was up for sale (and Ann always knew, for her curiosity was insatiable and her snoopiness irrepressible), she was told about a transfer or a "move up". These responses should have made her thank her lucky stars. "The company will buy the house from them and cut its losses on a quick resale," Ann would say, or, "They can’t close in Willow Glen till they’ve got this one off their back." Three or four chances like that came drifting by. Kenneth was actually pressing her on one, less because the tiny back yard didn’t much bother him than because it was such a sweet deal.
How long, though, would they be able to live with the roar of traffic a stone’s throw away? Were they choosing a dream home, or just taking another step up the ladder? How many steps did the ladder have? How many moving vans could her grandmother’s antique hutch survive? And what if the ladder really didn’t have a last step? What if everyone finally just slipped off, or got acrophobic at some point and had to spend the rest of their days fighting back nausea? How many of these people who were taking a better job in Chicago or moving up across town were scaling closer to divorce—and how far had she and Kenneth been drawn toward the same fatal flame?
Divorce. She had always secretly sworn to herself that she would never, never divorce. Especially now that Larissa had arrived, she would have murdered Kenneth and faced prison before signing papers to let him walk away. Her parents had divorced relatively late, while she was in high school, and she had never forgiven either of them. The house, she began to realize, was supposed to be part of the cure, and maybe even part of the revenge. A place so nice that it would forestall Larissa’s growing attachment to "Mimi’s" swank suburban demi-mansion and silence Dad’s wisecracks about Kenneth’s career… so nice that it would comfort her, too, for the modest luxury which she had renounced as soon as she was old enough to escape to college.
And now she was discovering that divorce was as subtly embedded in the properties she most loved as the sprinkler system in the carpet-smooth lawn or the sheathes of wiring between the studs. The climax came on a beautiful late-autumn morning. She had just found it on her lunch break: the house of her dreams. It was set comfortably back from the curbside and "nestled" (as the real estate booklet had promised) among mature oak trees, whose leaves were now mostly red and gold. The shallow litter of blushing foliage on the slightly neglected lawn made the impression more nostalgic than ever. The garage was tastefully secreted well to the rear of a magnificent wrap-around porch, whose light-gray railing modestly accented the blondly olive vinyl and the sandy brick veneer. The two unpretentious dormers in the steep roofline were not a ruse, but filtered real sunlight over window-seats into real bedrooms. This final detail she appreciated only after having taken the inside tour: she had already fallen in love before she crossed the threshold.
Ann had remained almost speechless throughout the showing. She would be hanging back a little more than usual, perhaps mumbling, "Did you see this closet?" or, "The window trim stays… I’m sure that told me that." No doubt, she must have sensed that her client had instantly started to fall under a spell. Their eyes never met until they had rendezvoused back in front of the shimmering Lincoln. She was trembling too much to speak: it was Ann who had smiled behind the shades clipped on her glasses and said, "Let’s knock off a couple of thousand and write it up."
Then the silver minivan had wheeled in like a hawk out of the oaks, borne on wings so silent that its sleek alighting on the driveway sent a startled shudder through her. A young woman popped out and hailed Ann. Her brooding oranged lips tragically reconciled the strawberry blond of her cropped hair with the sleek sag of her impenetrable sunglasses. What a smile! The lips were able to curl amply around it, even to lavish an impish imbalance upon it, without entirely erasing their sad question mark at the corners. The cutest of soccer moms… even her Docker shorts had plenty of room to hold their crease along her thighs.
"Oh, that’s okay," Ann had waved back, finally understanding a message sent more in gestures than words. "We’re done—"
But the woman had interrupted, suddenly chattering away in an attack of apologies. "I was going to drive around again, but my youngest—he was just starting to eat when we got the call! Bless his heart, he’s starting to cry he’s so hungry! If I could just grab some crackers and applesauce—"
"No, no, it’s okay, really," Ann had insisted. "Lindy, aren’t we through here?"
"Oh, yes, we’re…"
And then the woman, who had so far clung to the van’s open door as if she feared falling into the russet leaves washing about the driveway, seemed to fling herself into the abyss. Her long, thin fingers interlaced in a prayer. (Lindy noticed that they were bare except for a wedding ring.)
"Please don’t let me chase you off! Please take another look—I mean, if you want to! Please just take your time, because… it’s really such a beautiful house, you know. Did you see the closet in the master bathroom? The dining room chandelier stays, you know. We just fell in love with it when we were… and the kids just love the back yard! And the fireplace at Christmas! Did she tell you the sky fort stays? Do you have kids?"
She had somehow come within reaching distance of Lindy, though she had never appeared to move more than her hands. She seemed horrified at the discovery, and backed off as if she had trespassed across some sacrosanct boundary.
"We’ve been so happy here! These were the happiest days of our lives… the kids and mine. I’m sorry about the leaves. I tried to get out yesterday and… but Philip is teething, and Jason isn’t really old enough to be out front all alone. That’s his little rake! He wants to help mommy, but… it, it’s a very safe neighborhood, you know! I didn’t mean that it wasn’t, I didn’t mean anything like that. It’s just… you never know when kids are going to wander off, you know. Do you have kids?"
Lindy had gaped. She had found wet lines starting to glisten in the wine-sweet autumn sun, running from the sunglasses to those lips, now convulsed and constantly betraying each awkward emotion on their pliant, splendid surface. She had reached out as if to comfort the woman, to hug her—at least to stop her. And stop her she had. The sunglasses had clattered to the driveway as the woman turned away with her face in her hands. That sob became the ghost in the house of her dreams, and in all her later dreams of houses.
So Kenneth had assumed the onerous duties of the hunt after that. She had at first told him that the re-design of the courthouse was forcing everyone at her office to put in overtime. He had needed little more convincing—probably not even as much as was contained in that lie; for he had registered his opinion more than once lately that things were dragging with Ann, and had once suggested that they find another realtor. Her secret, however, turned out not to survive twenty-four hours of shifted responsibilities. For, having made a few adjustments to his schedule that next day, Kenneth came home and announced that he wanted to pick up where she had left off: the house with the wrap-around porch.
"Looks awfully good on paper," he declared with a flatness which, she knew, always coated over his excitement. "You weren’t very specific about what you didn’t like, Lindy. I think maybe you were just tired after Larissa’s measles."
Her cards came flying down on the table between them, almost faster than he could read them. And, after all, maybe he was right. Maybe she was just stressed out. She was vaguely aware that her final posture, face buried in hands, was a sister of that hysteria to which she had reduced the bright, cute, stylish young woman left high and dry (as Ann had footnoted) by a rotter husband.
"I just can’t live in that house!" she had cried out in pain.
"But," pursued Kenneth, almost inaudibly, half-peeking between her fingertips, "the nicest thing you could do for her would be to—"
"To buy the place where she had the best years of her life, where her children were born and had their first Christmases and birthdays! Please, Kenneth, not the ‘tough love’ speech!"
"But it’s true."
"And someone will! But not me… not us."
As her hands lowered, she vaguely extended one to him across the table. He didn’t see it: he had turned his gaze out the dining room/den/living room window, whose panorama was filled by a cement balcony/sliding door/gray eave just like theirs. Her eyes followed his.
"I’d sooner buy up the mortgage and rent the house to her for whatever she could afford," she mumbled.
"Well," Kenneth sighed without malice, "we can’t do that."
At least from then on, Kenneth made no more derogatory remarks about Ann. In fact, he soon developed an appreciation for her tight-lipped, arm’s-length manner—the same skepticism as had won Lindy’s trust. He would often meet her at a property during lunch break (eating behind the wheel as he navigated empty suburbs) or just after work (turning up the radio to keep himself alert in the rush-hour traffic). Ann would be punctual and punctilious. No homeowners would be malingering on porch or driveway, and the updated computer print-out would be lodged in her multi-listing guide. She never spoke of Lindy except to ask after her health. A tacit understanding seemed to evolve quickly between them that Lindy was under great stress, that she had been taking too much upon herself and shouldn’t be needlessly bothered now. Kenneth liked Ann for that, since—somehow—he divined that Ann didn’t really believe it, any more than he did. But what was the alternative? To confess that they, all three of them, were lewdly sticking their noses through people’s bedroom windows? You just couldn’t admit some things and function: you had to lie to survive, sometimes. In Ann, Kenneth recognized the reticence of the hunter who knows full well that the quarry sometimes screams like a human baby before dying—who knows, but who will never tell.
Only once had Ann ever alluded to the incident of the house with the wrap-around porch. A homeowner had not yet decamped when they arrived on the scene, and Ann insisted that Kenneth wait in his pick-up until the coast was clear. Finishing he granola bar while pretending to read the paper, he had vaguely heard her lecturing at the grandiose brass-plated front door, "If you want this house sold, you’ll have to follow the rules." As if aware, too late, that she had staged a bit of a show for him, she murmured to begin their tour, "I wasn’t going to let that happen again!" Afterward, the incident of the wrap-around-porch house must have loomed large before both of them; for they silently did their rounds, plodding down hallways and opening closets, like jaded security guards. Kenneth was gazing distantly from the front stoup (far beyond the bland and barren lawn, and even beyond the roofline of the house across the street) as Ann locked up. The first words out of her mouth were, "The house on Mayfield is still for sale," pronounced just airily enough to reach the level of his daydream.
"The house with the wrap-around porch."
"Yes. You haven’t seen it, have you?"
"Actually, I have. I drove by there Friday afternoon. Alone."
"And what did you think?"
Kenneth sighed heavily, turned entirely around, and stared at Ann straight through her tinted lenses. "It doesn’t matter what I think."
Ann’s head bowed, and he heard the ghost of a hiss. Was it an obscenity? He watched Ann’s mouth labor after speakable words.
"I’ve never in my career… I’ve been doing this twenty-five years, and I’ve never seen anyone go to pieces like that Duval woman. God, how could any woman—but especially a smart woman, Kenneth, an educated woman—let any man get away with doing all that to her?"
Kenneth remained a little shocked at this indignation, which he mulled over in his truck’s cab all the way back to work. That was one way, no doubt, to deal with the cry like a baby’s scream, especially when you hunted for a living: blame it on the quarry. Stupid animal, why did you twitch at the last second? What were you even doing in a clearing as open as this?
In the weeks that followed, Kenneth cruised down Mayfield Lane (whose trees were now long divested of their last leaves) one more time on his own. He had expected to see the sign gone, had anticipated the final blow to the gut. Only when he saw the gaudy blue-and-red rectangle, bigger and bolder than ever in the unshaded, sun-swept yard, did he realize that his little jaunt was all about the closure of finding it taken down. Still for sale: instead of a blow to the gut, a slap in the face. He felt his face genuinely flush hot to the ears. The property bore no trace of having housed another Christmas for the toddlers. There were no toys on the lawn, no wreath lingering from the holidays, no vehicle in the driveway. The place was probably vacant. He would have it out with Lindy tonight and get past all this silliness.
Instead, he discovered three or four major reasons why he didn’t like the house as he steered his way back into city traffic. The cruel full light of dead winter had been revealing. Needed a new roof, new gutters. Probably water damage… probably why it wouldn’t sell. He said nothing that night.
His own great test as a hunter came two months later. It was an unseasonably warm late-winter morning. The air was as crisp and invigorating as a frosty drink. He felt optimistic as he left half an hour early for lunch. (He had renounced all after-work viewings as well as all viewings on rainy days: the circumstances were too prejudicial.) Ann had come to know his likes and dislikes so exactly that she wouldn’t have bothered him over a non-starter. (She had even said, "This is a little more your style than Lindy’s," and amazed him by explaining—much to his own enlightenment—just where his tastes veered from his wife’s. Amazing, too, was Ann’s unvoiced perception that Lindy would fall in line if he were satisfied: that the fight for Lindy had become, not against dark hardwood paneling or steep staircases, but against the very horror of occupying the decayed nautilus’s shell.)
Kenneth was already working down a mental list as he pulled up. Not sitting at curbside: check. Not overgrown with scraggly shrubs: check. Straight, sharp roofline with no sags: check. He and Ann scarcely exchanged greetings. She must have sensed that this could be the big one, for he noticed that she held back more than usual and respected the silence of his introspective tabulations. Foyer not immediately tripping over stairs or spilling into den: check. Built-in bookcases: check. Plenty of window light in breakfast nook: check.
It was an immaculate house, too. It seemed scarcely to have been lived in. Though there were three bedrooms (and a possible fourth), only one closet had any clothes: men’s clothes all, a couple of nice suits, tie rack, black wing-tipped shoes. On the other hand, the dresser in this one bedroom was littered with framed photos (as the mantelpiece had been in the den). Kenneth grew curious. He studied the smiling or grimacing faces and quickly sketched out the development of a young family. Wedding shots (couldn’t be a divorce—this guy had his wedding photos front-and-center), little girl taking first steps, little girl held by much older girl (her aunt?), little boy in baseball uniform… dad playing catch with boy, mom pushing girl in swing, dad taking mom and kids’ picture at ski resort (had to be dad: mom took his picture with the girl in the same snow outfit)…. A history in portraits spanning six years, perhaps eight.
"I’ll bet you get to be something of a homicide detective on this job," he mused aloud, knowing that Ann had watched him pause at the dresser.
"It’s a separation," she said gravely. "The divorce is pending."
"Ah?" He stiffened, and could find no more to say. That was not at all the kind of homicide he had in mind. The absence of women’s clothes and kids’ playthings had puzzled him, but… but why had he resisted to obvious conclusion? Because the children looked so young and healthy in the pictures, and their parents so devoted? Because the house was so bright and unworn?
He did the rounds of the house a second time, being far more leisurely. Yes, he liked it, and yes, he wished to examine the door frames and the caulking around the sinks before deciding if he really liked it. But something in him was also alert to more clues about the marriage’s murder. The children’s things had not been moved out lock, stock, and barrel, after all. He sneaked a peek into one of two huge cardboard boxes and found it filled with yellow and red plastic trucks and ducks and play stations. He caught a glimpse of a half-closed dresser drawer and noticed a pile of tiny white sox. The evacuation of mother and children was recent, and remained incomplete. The elaborate tree house in the back yard (together with the storage shed beside it arrayed in state-of-the-art gardening equipment) hardly suggested a father who stayed on the road or a husband who lounged from bed to sofa. As he wandered back toward the house, he avoided the French doors of the den (leaving a vigilant Ann to shut them) and entered, instead, through the breezeway from the garage. He sensed that he had left Ann scurrying after him like an orderly after a brigadier general, but he didn’t care. Suddenly, he was consumed by a desire to revisit this room off the breezeway. It held the key to everything.
"What a… what an incredible room," he gaped upon hearing Ann’s panting at his shoulders. "This… this was his office."
"It could be a fourth bedroom, too," he heard Ann murmur.
Yet he took no notice of her. Rather, his arms outspreading to measure some invisible scene, he approached an interior wall.
"Look! Here’s his college diploma. His B.A. in… accounting. My God, it’s dated only five years ago! They got married when they were in college—in their junior year, maybe. Maybe they were high school sweethearts!"
He wheeled upon Ann triumphantly, so astonished at his own deduction that he apparently took her open-mouthed bewilderment for a sympathetic wonder. Immediately he turned away again.
"And over here—look, her knitting things! Her craft magazines in this basket. She’s got an artistic side, and she wouldn’t just give that up. She left in a hurry, taking all the bare essentials for herself and the kids, but she left one of the most important parts of herself right here, in this room. The same room where he had his office. They used to work in here, together, he doing his accounts, she doing her knitting and quilting. Especially when the kids were toddlers—just put ’em down in the carpet to crawl around with rattles. They didn’t even have a TV in here."
"Maybe she took it," said Ann almost inaudibly.
"No, no!" Kenneth turned sharply on her. "Look around. There’s no place for one on any of the existing furniture, and the carpet isn’t marked by anything heavy that’s been moved."
Shortly after that, they were done. Kenneth drifted back down the driveway, his lips parted as if he were recalling the words to an old song. Ann eyed him without blinking, then locked up and followed his footsteps at about the same uncertain pace. Eventually she caught up, for he had stopped.
"Well," she volunteered from his elbow, "what do you think?"
Kenneth studied ciphers in thin air for another second or two, then nodded slowly, firmly. His mind was made up.
"I think they really, really need to get back together."
That night, Larissa safely asleep, they stared at their reflections in the living room/den/dining room window. The night was pitch black, and the cheap chandelier’s five bulbs blazed down with little coy obstruction on the closed, shuffled realty books between them. Yet neither had risen to pull the drapes.
"What if we buy a lot and build?" said Lindy.
"What if we get together a wagon train?" said Kenneth.
If It Keeps Them Quiet, Is It True?
Over the last decade or so, educated people have finally begun to show alarm over the fallout of the sixties and seventies. Bright women are writing books about the miseries of waiting until thirty-eight to marry and attempt healthy childbirth. Perceptive sociologists are noticing (and, more importantly, daring to declare) the connection between sexual liberation, broken families, and catastrophic effects like youthful suicide or violent adolescent crime. Some of us may want to say, "What took you so long?"… but better late than never.
Except that "late" is going to have to be "later" if we expect of these new analyses a high degree of moral subtlety. In many cases, the tail is wagging the dog. That is, long-term results are tallied up and used as arguments for why a rival agenda would have been healthier or might yet lead back to health. All that matters is getting the "desired outcome". But material outcomes are not necessarily proof of a position’s virtue—or only to a complete materialist. Good people can die young (Menander claimed that they routinely do), while bad people can so successfully monitor their calories, sodium, and cholesterol that they hang around for a century to torture the rest of us. Doctors have recently warned us in their pragmatic fashion that we should sleep eight hours a day, as if none of us was waiting for anything but their announcement to reset the alarm. The body is healthier with more sleep, so... so what’s stopping us all? Insomnia aside, allowance is never made for the possibility that the ultimate purpose of human life isn’t simply to live long and well. What if there are things in pursuit of which fifteen-hour work days are sometimes morally compelling?
Lest we be misunderstood, a medical doctor is not expected to answer such questions, and most good ones would instantly disqualify themselves from the final calculation. But isn’t that calculation supposed to be the business a fortiori of scholars in the Humanities? Why, then, are so many of these latter still so unwilling to speak out on "values" matters? Why, rather, do they either ignore moral issues in favor of the physically healthy antidote (where goodness equals good health) or else defer judgment to the healthiest groups on the scene? If the group most likely to survive an outbreak of the plague practiced burning convicted criminals at the stake to assuage the Plague God, would its order of worship, then, be a prescription for moral recovery?
Judith Reisman has paid her dues. With a moral will which no one could impeach, she transformed herself from a doting mother and occasional performer on the old Captain Kangaroo show to an academic of solid credentials and, specifically, a whistle-blower on the infamous Albert Kinsey. Her Kinsey: Crimes and Consequences (Arlington: Inst. for Media Ed. 1998) is generously supplied with revealing photographs of the Kinsey mob and the slick propaganda which it fed the media. Reisman proves not only that Kinsey cooked the books to validate extravagant conclusions flattering his personal kinks; she also indicts such criminal horrors as "Kinsey’s scientific collaboration with pedophiles" (176). Anyone curious about the extremes to which an ivory-tower revolutionary will go to make the world over in his image should read this book.
Yet to our praise, we must append a caution. Reisman assumes throughout her book that Kinsey caused the sexual revolution. A contributing factor he certainly was—but only inasmuch as he provided a generation with the illusory objectivity it needed to justify publicly how it would no doubt have lived, in any case. If right conduct were simply a result of right "input", then people would be robots, and "right" would be relative to the decree of the prevailing authority: the very view of morality which Reisman’s critics purvey. Perhaps her most deterministic moment is the following passage:
Besides showing that Reisman’s publisher should have engaged the services of an English major (preferably well over the age of forty), this passage reduces us to thanking our lucky stars that we have not been subjected to SAR: otherwise, we, too, should be slavering sex-aholics. But if the only thing keeping us sober is the alternate brainwashing of bourgeois decorum, then Kinsey was right, and morality is just a question of who’s piping what into your headphones.
Enter Gertrude Himmelfarb, grande dame of historical studies as a discipline and apologist extraordinaire for the much-maligned Victorians. Like Reisman, Himmelfarb has taken enough slaps from academe’s Gestapo to qualify for canonization —though, for that matter, both are Jewish. Indeed, one must wonder if a deep respect for external codifications of The Law may have rendered these two insightful and courageous scholars strangely insensitive to the highly intimate roots of morality. In her latest book, One Nation, Two Cultures (New York: Knopf, 2001), Himmelfarb argues the superiority of bourgeois conditioning on the basis of social health. The post-Kinseyan world has seen more broken families, more mental disease, more violent crime, more depression and suicide, more abortion and reproductive dysfunction, etc. Pockets of society which have resisted the sexual revolution, however, scoot along at a comfortable low ebb across these graphs of misery. Ergo, keeping The Law (in any rigorous fashion, whether Jewish or Baptist or Catholic) is better than being free of it. Ergo… is there another ergo? Not as far as Himmelfarb is concerned. At this point, she stamps her QED.
Of course, it is precisely those religious groups most rigidly committed to strictures which would reject such reasoning. For them, the resting point must not be social stability, but a belief in their specific faith. In evading this crucial matter, Himmelfarb has clumsily (if not cynically) contradicted the universal verities whose champion she fancies herself to be. She has answered the question, "Is it socially salutary?", not the question, "Is it true?" A condemned soul herded into a box car for the death camp would no doubt be less likely to die of heart attack along the way if he thought himself bound for a comfortable penal colony. Should we envy him his peace of mind?
The most legalistic versions of faith are themselves often painfully inept at grounding truth. They tend to waffle back in the direction of Himmelfarb’s healthy social unit (leaving her, perhaps, in the winning position of having snipped an otiose loop from the chain). Yet Himmelfarb is careful not to highlight the incoherence of her devout social hygienists. (The egregious incompetence of most Christians to rule upon the Bible’s textual accuracy receives one small footnote .) Though she acknowledges that "as morality has been defined downward for public figures, so it has been for the public as well" (121), she considers legalistic religion a remedy to this complaint rather than one of its causes. This is a grievous oversight. How many of our sexual and social rebels are reacting against a stringency which was never put before them in moral terms? How many young people, bright but ignorant and undisciplined, would have "said no" to the antinomian showboats which cruise college English and History departments if an adult had once appealed to their reason and their honor rather than beating their head with a heavy, lightly read book?
Moral philosophy is this puzzle’s missing piece. Don’t look for it on the PC campus: good philosophy programs died in the eighties. But don’t look for it, either, in a New Awakening which is as exciting to thirsty minds as a double dose of Sominex.
Dr. Palaver, Word Therapist
De omnibus pauca, de nullo omnia.
I was amused (and also annoyed) to read the following sentences in a story about hurricanes which was attributed to the AP Wire Service: "Allison’s first iteration in 1989 drenched Houston"; and, "Only notorious storm names are relegated to history." Is this the proper way to use "iteration" and "relegate"? I’ve pondered the dictionary definitions, as usual, without finding much enlightenment. At the very least, I would say that this article is straining the envelope—and all within the space of a paragraph!
Dear Connoisseur of Parades,
Whether or not you are right to anticipate showers (and who are we to begrudge such anxiety?), your suspicions of this demotic Demosthenes are well founded. The Latin noun iter simply means "journey" or "route of travel", so a first appearance might be called a first iteration (as opposed to a reiteration) without too much dissonance. The Romans, in fact, used the phrase iter facere ("to make way") to describe progress on a journey. All the same, the noun iteratio—without the re prefix—is used by classical orators of deliberate and artful repetition. That is, when a Roman spoke of "waying" instead of "way", he understood that the trail had already been blazed.
As for "relegate", the problem here seems to be more in the overall metaphor. To relegate is literally to constrain with rules. An employee submitted to disciplinary measures might be relegated to half-pay or to a period of probation. One may presume that these storms are "bad boys" in the metaphor since they are called "notorious". Be thankful that your reporter does not subscribe to the journalistic equation of "notoriety" with "fame"! To my ear, the word "history" is what creates the clank in the tropological machine. Are bad storms punished, then, by consignment to the Meteorological Hall of Fame? Isn’t the idea of "retiring" the name to commemorate a stunning catastrophe rather than to exorcise its return? Like so many failed metaphors, this one reverses its polarities at a very awkward moment. Perhaps your aspirant Whitman of the Wires doesn’t understand notoriety, after all.
And, really… is a news story the proper place to trot out tortured metaphors and resurrect long-forgotten words? All of us around here are certainly in favor of a strong vocabulary, and to possess such a vocabulary is to use it fully and fearlessly. Yet part of such confident and knowledgeable usage is setting. Cicero and Demosthenes would never have used their highest style to relate a rather silly incident meant to cajole the audience. This misguided youth, however (for his trespasses indict his inexperience), not only abuses words; he is using the wrong caliber of word for the circumstances. In attempting the tongue-in-cheek, one finds that a little polysyllabification goes a long way in an article about the weather
I have noticed in one or two of Praesidium’s essays that the word "suit" (as in "follow suit") was spelled with an "e" at the end. Now, we all make typo’s once in a while… but there appears to be a method in this madness of yours. May I ask what it is?
Not Suited to Following
Dear Free Thinker,
With regard to our methodical nature and our madness, you are surely twice correct. There seems little point to fighting out this particular battle: it’s like insisting upon the "t" which should be at the end of "relict". Like Hotspur’s starling trained to cackle "Mortimer" in the king’s ear, however, we simply relish (in our mad way) irritating people with orthographical reminders. In this case, the French word suite, which actually means a "following", is clearly the source of the term used in card-playing. There is a progression from the two-card to the ace in spades, in hearts… and so on. That this French borrowing should be mutilated in order to achieve conformity with other English "suits" is not a proposition of transparent merit. The "suit" which some Western males still wear on formal occasions is of course "suited" to those occasions: it is fitting, appropriate, decorous, and decent. It is, in short, the embodiment of what the English verb suit intends to convey. To be sure, our verb is also derived from the French suivre: to be fitting is to follow set standards. Nevertheless, the noun so familiar to haberdashers is patterned after the English cast of the French word with an immediacy that the noun so familiar to gamblers is not; or, to say it from the other direction, the array of cards hearkens directly back to French in a way that the penstripes and lapels do not.
How odd, that one should have to assert such independence in looking after decorum!
Three Poems: R.S. Carlson
Ralph Carlson, Professor of English at Azusa Pacific University, teaches writing, undertakes frequent missionary jaunts to Southeast Asia, and contributes regularly to Praesidium. Like Lt. Col. Lythgoe (whose poems follow), he is a member of our Board of Directors.
Clearing Her Room
Now that she is gone, we rummage through
brown bags of cards, old and new.
She would leave the house at ten-fifteen
and take Bus 22 to Fifth and Main.
Who would notice? Sales clerks would see
nothing but "a little old lady",
wrinkled, grey-haired, all too slow
to count her change, close her purse, and go
away so better customers could buy
more items more quickly.
did she keep her circuit every week day,
buying greeting cards, and on the way,
stopping at a careworn coffee shop
for a sweet roll and a single cup
of coffee with half a spoon of sugar? Hot,
sweet, and black was how she liked it, not
bothered with milk or cream or half-and-half.
She used to take cream she skimmed herself
back on the farm, but then she knew for sure
it was fresh and poured from clean stone ware.
These days, in the city, who cared
if the cream sat on the table till it curdled?
How many people smirked along her route
at her bulky wraps—scarf, beret, and coat
better meant for deep winter snow
she used to watch fall years ago,
years away from here, where she bought
so many greeting cards that she forgot
to which old friends she really meant to send
a reminder of their continued bond,
the "Happy Birthday" or "Just Thinking of You"
with a flower-embroidered handkerchief, too,
as old friends had done in those decades
now rained into snapshots in shades
of grey or sepia tones.
Now we scan
the names of those who wrote her. If we can
track relationships, we may find
family or some surviving friend
to write to, reporting her one last trek
wondering who, if any, will write us back.
Jack dot Doe
and Jill dot Too
e-met among a chat-dot-crew.
They e-mailed cards
till they both knew
each other’s e-ddress by rote, and few
were the days
before the hours
of e-mail turned to grand e-flowers.
Next, Jack’s e-bucks
graced Jill’s front door
with dot-com chocolates and more.
Then Jack’s e-praise
of Jill’s e-charms
led to e-calling her into his arms.
that it sounded I-keen
but she was still just thirteen.
her youth was fine.
Their I-contact would be divine!
Jack dug deep
into his pocket
and gifted Jill an air e-ticket.
Jack sent a limo
so Jill could tell
their whole weekend would just be swell.
Then came the knock
on the motel door.
Jack was ready for his e-score.
He couldn’t believe
that Jill’s sweet love
had come from FBI-dot-gov!
In the years I wrote these checks
and reconciled these statements
only spies and crooked politicians
worried about shredding documents.
But by now, drug addicts with a few solvents
and somebody’s signature on paper
can play wonderland for tens of thousands a week
with what they can pull out of the trash intact—
as long as they keep a step ahead
of insurance investigators and cops.
So I feed three to five old checks at a time
into the shredder, wary of clumps
that choke and overheat
this light-duty plastic confetti-maker.
The thrashing blades consume
our past lives in small rectangles—
Week by month, the promises of the past
pass through my hands.
Names change and names stay the same
month after month, year after year
Envelope after envelope
empties through my hands.
I decide to keep a few checks
as tokens in family history—
The desk drawer now has room for current truths:
The garbage can has five more sacks of confetti
all thrashed out to confute any counterfeiters,
but the hours have taught more than these hands
that, deposit by debit, even a heart
may be drawn by the numbers.
Three Poems: Michael H. Lythgoe
Rondeau for Black & White Photos
Their eyes find mine—four bituminous burns.
The Jerusalem stone is white. Sun turns
The bright stone brighter; holy land—we learn—
Is hard, hard to film; black & white places:
The Wailing Wall prays, eyes darken lit faces.
Picture Jerusalem—stone walls, two children—
One eating bread—sitting as in a cavern mouth,
Emerging from shadows: two lit faces.
Their eyes touch my mind.
White laundry on a line—behind, light turns
Stones white-on-white; blinding perspective learns,
Sees mystics’ black diamond eyes—mysterious
Portals, coal dust shade, anthracite spaces,
Tank traps; Golan Heights, shimmering light, burns.
Their eyes touch mine.
Black Snake in Cherry Tree
The season receives new words like new seeds,
As a serpent emerges from a hollow tree.
This is the season for ploughs and planting.
Take time to atone for an apple’s misdeeds.
The Saharan season floods—a wash-out—
Unpredictable is spring’s renewal;
The winter’s discontent is breaking camp.
Immigrant clouds clash in thunderous shouts.
We believe in April’s sepulcher, lost
Paradise, fertile air, heavy oak pollen.
Blue grass is fresh; Kentucky foals frolic.
New nests give wing to fleeing frost.
The Midas-touched shrub ignites the margins.
Patio is awash with cherry rain.
The cherry tree muscles dogwood—shedding
Pinks like a snake losing last season’s skin.
Cinco de Mayo lilac’s scent is free,
Celebrating Our Lady’s sky of blues,
Treading on the serpent tempting Eden.
Yet, a black snake suns in the cherry tree.
Forbidden fruit is the taste of the day;
Banished from a garden, we are like weeds,
So we leave remembering Lucifer—
Languorous in the shade—winning the day.
The tattered remnants stain; fallen blossoms
Are like fallen angels losing their wings,
Wind-blown, burned by heat-lightning, grounded.
Cancer cells spread like crazy weeds: Lessons
To learn of hot flashes and earthy speeds.
Our bodies burn with nuclear wild fires.
This season holds a burning in the bones.
Radioactive seeds will kill the weeds.
But once we have fallen in our garden,
Our task is to live among the dying.
Azaleas lose their colors; the fallen
Angels are the tainted leaves of Eden.
As the seasons move the body decays.
The fruit in the orchard ripens and falls.
Autumn turns brown, dooms summer’s goldenrods.
A split trunk parts, reaching for sunny days,
Stretches a cherry limb from wounded bole;
The rough bark on aging cherry tree
Feels the coils slide out of the hollow dark.
The snake suns out on a limb, stalks a soul.
Whistles Along Kettle Run
Kettle Run overflows its banks.
Keep in mind the dry times this fall,
The dead end of summer’s drought: minks
And fox attacked the farmyard fowl--
Creeping under a hidden moon;
Their prey heard only the crickets;
Geese failed to guard or warn black swan
Carted off, buried in woods without a trace.
In hard times, the mangy survive
By stealing in to strike sweet wings.
Three bitten quail buried, alive
Duck stashed in snow: a treasure cache.
We reap the ruin of our crop;
The ravaged covey of cooped quail,
All two hundred hearts—in fright—stop.
The fox flurry, the assault, is quelled.
This ritual wash, this seasonal patter sluices away
stains of shocked-still bobwhites.
Ghosts whistle along Kettle Run. Bird-seller
Replenishes his brood—targets—for shooters.
The Center for Literate Values