What Goodness Knows: Ed Simon’s “Furnace of this World; or, 36 Observations About Goodness”

When Mark Twain’s Huck decides to help Jim, an illegal immigrant of his time, a runaway slave, Huck believes he’ll go to hell for his goodness. Huck knows that by helping Jim escape he’ll be breaking the law. He’ll bring the wrath of local public opinion so forcefully down upon his head, this time it’ll probably fall off. He feels good, though, having sat down and thought it out and making his decision to help Jim with deliberation and good reason. Huck does not argue that he should not go to hell for helping Jim.

Central to Ed Simon’s 100 page immersion in goodness is a discussion of Judas, who betrayed Jesus. It’s a little forced, but the idea is that without the betrayal, Jesus can’t save the world. One would think the Grand Master of Plots would come up with a work-around if Judas doesn’t cooperate, but we get the idea. Out of this betrayal, for which Judas knows he’ll go to hell, where his 30 pieces of silver won’t buy him much of anything, comes the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. So why has Judas, over time, been treated as such a heel?

For Simon, goodness is no easy matter. When Jesus said, “Come, follow me,” you knew you were not going to a party. Is goodness even possible for an embodied, fallen soul? Where along the spectrum from doing good to doing nothing to breaking bad does empathy require altruistic behavior? In other words, what good is it if you don’t have some skin in the game? Simon clarifies the question in his introduction:

“Looming over my concerns is clearly the current political climate in both Europe and the United States, particularly the increasing economic disparity, the emboldening of extremism and zealotry, and especially the casual cruelty. The desire to reflect on what goodness might mean and how to be an embodied individual implicated in systems of oppression who nonetheless wishes to stand against those systems is hopefully underscored through the entire book” (8).

from Intro. to “Furnace of This World; Or, 36 Observations About Goodness,” by Ed Simon, Zero Books, 2019.

Why does it sometimes seem easier to follow evil than good? Easier to describe and to write. Good comedy is much harder to write, and more rare, than good tragedy. And why does comedy so often rely on someone else’s pain? Any discussion of good and evil falls quickly into the Western dichotomy zone, where so much bad would not have befallen you had you simply been more good. It’s not as easy as choosing right over wrong when any choice implicates others and sets forth what might quickly become a random course of events over which you just as quickly lose control. You make a good shot, but unfortunately you end up sinking the 8 ball and give away the match. Simon is aware of that, and handles it carefully:

“I neither know what is right or wrong, nor how to prove which one a given action is, but I do know fear, anxiety, pain, relief, peace, love, and the visceral, physical, psychological experience of those states, and that must be the basis for any ethic of goodness to our fellow humans” (14).

Goodness begins, for Simon, with compassion. But can the good one does redeem one who does not? Is there a quorum of good necessary to save those not in attendance? Why does the Black Christ keep getting whitewashed over? Simon does not go it alone in navigating his theme. What good would a totalitarian good be? What does it mean to sin for good? As Dylan sang, “There’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all.” A little kindness for those who fail might be a good place to begin a path toward goodness.

While his Judas discussion might seem a bit forced, so too do some of Simon’s examples of evil seem extreme. They are the tabloid stories that have gone historically viral. But they are carefully placed to support the claim that evil is not a mistake. Depravity does not necessarily follow from deprivation, contrary to social studies myth:

“My Daddy beats my Mommy
My Mommy clobbers me
My Grandpa is a Commie
My Grandma pushes tea
My sister wears a mustache
My brother wears a dress
Goodness Gracious, that’s why I’m a mess!

from “Gee, Officer Krupke,” lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, “West Side Story,” 1957.

In fact, goodness might come from poverty, the road of excess not leading to Blake’s “palace of wisdom,” but to a white house of exploitation and gluttony, avarice and vainglory. The swamp might be a necessary mess.

“I apologize for the macabre nature of my observations,” Simon begins observation XXIV, “but any discussion of good implies a consideration of evil” (60). Apology accepted as we read on, for by the end of his observations, I was gobsmacked by this book. It is perfectly paced and accessible to the common reader. It’s full of researched materials from antiquity to modern times, but it’s scholarly without being pedantic or smugly academic. It does not pander to a peer group. Yet it could be used as a guide toward further reading, study, caring. It contains both the sacred and the profane. It does not preach nor profess nor confess nor hide.

Is happiness necessary to goodness? Studies over the last two decades have shown Americans are not a happy bunch. Could it be that’s because we are not sufficiently good to be really happy? Simon anticipates rebuttal. Each observation carries forward naturally and thematically. He’s not without contradictions. We learn of Margery Kempe and her autobiography. We meet, if we’ve not already, the poet Jack Gilbert. Kempe says, “Wheresoever God is, heaven is; and God is in your soul, and many an angel is round about your soul to guard it both night and day” (80). But if God is in your soul, why does it need protecting, protection from what? Protection from the world He created for you? Is that how religion came to be such a protection racket? Meanwhile, we’ve Jack Gilbert telling us “we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants” (78). Then why didn’t God make life more enjoyable, the cynic responds. But Simon stops the merry-go-round: “We laugh and enjoy and smile not in spite of the suffering implicit in all life, we laugh and enjoy and smile because of that suffering. We laugh and enjoy and smile not because we are inhuman, we laugh and enjoy and smile because we are human” (78).

Simon’s human examples of goodness are not so tabloid as his examples of evil. From Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Flannery O’Connor, from Augustine through Judas to Margaret Edson’s W;t, to Kempe and Nietzsche and on to Fr Mychal, 911’s “Victim 0001,” whose last act of love signalled that God does not hate us, we learn, if nothing else, why we are given goodness.

Simon has written a good book. We learn about the things that make poetry: kindness, fellowship, pencils. “Such is the kernel of resistance, the ethic of kindness and delight, to ‘accept our gladness in the ruthless / furnace of this world,'” Simon says, the “ruthless furnace” bit coming from Jack Gilbert (79). Simon’s last observation, number XXXVI, is a brilliant, modern version of the Lord’s Prayer, a way to think about goodness.

p-1: The Evil Hill on Mariposa

n+1 vs The BelieverIf print does disappear, I will be only partially responsible. I’m doing my part to keep a few print publications healthy. But I can’t subscribe to everything. The question is always the same: what to read and how. A loyal subscriber to The Believer, alas, my subscription has lapsed, and just prior to the 2013 music issue, which turned out to be jazz inspired. Bummer.

I’ve been comparing the cover changes over time of the New Yorker with the cover changes of the Rolling Stone. “Time is real,” Cornel West reminds us. But a few weeks ago, finding myself reading, with interest, no less, in the New Yorker, a “Tables for Two” eatery review of a restaurant I’ll never eat at, I decided I’d better augment the New Yorker and replace The Believer with something new. Meantime, I had discovered Kirill Medvedev, and noticed that n+1, which I follow, sporadically, on-line, was giving away the Medvedev “It’s No Good” book with a new subscription, so I went for it. And last week, the Fall 2013 n+1 print issue arrived, red dressed, calling itself the Evil Issue. Evil? Really? I felt the proverbial wince of buyer’s remorse.

I sat down and opened my n+1. I glanced guardedly through the table of contents, not one for haunted houses, horror films, that sort of thing. Something here by Marco Roth on politics, on drones – ok, that’s evil. A drama piece titled “sixsixsix.” Why do folks think Satan evil? Consider Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”: “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at Uberty [a lot] when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true poet, and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” Still perusing the evil issue’s table of contents and glancing through the articles to see what I might want to start with, I came to something from the Stanford Literary Lab, titled “Style at the Scale of the Sentence.” I haven’t finished it yet, but I’ve decided it’s at the heart of the evil issue for a reason. Then I saw this, which took me by surprise: Alice Gregory’s article titled “Mavericks: Life and death surfing,” and soon found myself into the evil issue in earnest.

If the entire evil issue was instead titled “Mavericks” and filled with Alice’s writing about surfing I would be a happy reader. The only problem with the article is it’s only ten pages, which means back to the Literary Lab’s “Sentence” article too soon. Maybe I should have renewed The Believer, after all, seen if they’d send me the music issue I missed. On jazz! Jazz in the evening can turn an evil day good. Wondering about the etymology of the word evil, I found this in Wiktionary: “from Proto-Indo-European *upo, *up, *eup (“down, up, over”).” Ah ha! That’s a definition of surfing. One of the best pieces of journalistic writing on surfing I’ve ever read came in the New Yorker, back in 1992, written by William Finnegan, himself a surfer. “Surfing is not a spectator sport,” he says in the second of the two-week, long article. In the first week, Finnegan had said, describing the surf at Ocean Beach, off San Francisco, “The waves were big, ragged, relentless, with no visible channels for getting through the surf from the shore.” Conditions in the water, often fast changing, are difficult to read from the shore. Waves always seem bigger to the surfer in them than to the spectator watching from the beach or from a cliff high above the water. I read the long Finnegan piece twice before mailing my two copies with the articles to an old surfing buddy, not much of a reader, who later called me, totally stoked.

Preparatory to surfing, back in the day, hey-hey, kids growing up in South Santa Monica Bay rode skateboards: literally, the wheels removed from old roller skates and nailed to the bottom of a two by four, crude vehicles compared to today’s boards. I lived on Mariposa, at the bottom of a long, steep hill, followed by a short straightaway, then an easy hill ending at my house on the corner. The houses on Mariposa backed up to railroad tracks (since removed). Between the railroad tracks and the back fences was a path the local kids called “Devil’s Path” or “Devil’s Pass,” a shortcut toward downtown. We regularly rode skateboards up and down the mild Mariposa hill, but to ride a board from the top of Mariposa was considered a daredevil feat.

One day, my friend Pete Ponopsko, a few years older than me, took a skateboard to the top of upper Mariposa. He was going to ride down the big hill and would pick up enough momentum to carry him through the straightaway and down the lower hill all the way to the bottom. A small crowd of skateboard aficionados positioned themselves mid straightaway, where we could watch Pete whiz by on his way to the lower hill.

One of the problems with early skateboard technology was shakiness. At fast speeds, the boards wobbled side to side. Another problem had to do with the metal, roller skate wheels. A pebble might catch under a wheel and brake it, stopping the board and throwing the rider forward. We never knew for sure what went wrong with Pete’s ride down the upper hill. Some said the board shimmied so severely he simply could not keep his balance. Others said he hit a rock and pearled. Still others said Pete chickened out and tried to jump off. Whatever the cause, the effects included a startling array of raspberry red scrapes and bruises along one side of Pete’s body, from his ankle to his ear. It was said Pete slid on the sidewalk a distance equal to the length of a 1956 Ford station wagon. It was an evil wipe out, and it was a long time before anyone tried to ride upper Mariposa again, but by then skateboards were wider and thinner and longer and fitted with smooth rubber wheels and stable wheel bearings, and Pete was already an old-timer.

Joe at the top of an evil wave. Well, an evil photo, anyway.
Joe at the top of an evil wave. Well, an evil photo, anyway.

Follow Up: n+1 has put the Alice Gregory Mavericks piece on-line, 9 Oct 13.