Born to Read

Born to read. How boring is that? You could have been:

Born to Be Wild
Born to Be Bad
Born to Lose
Born in a Trunk
Born Again
Born Before the Wind
Born to Run

Rock and roll is the universal elixir the alchemists sought. Most US kids know the formula, share autobiographical characteristics, the cultural DNA of the mid twentieth century: the disappointed father who in the economic growth following World War II can’t seem to turn anything into gold; his solitude, his drinking, his passive or active aggressive tendencies; his criticism of life in general, of his home and family in particular; his anger, controlled or not, his anger; his hatred of the jobs and loans and duns they’re able to squeak by with. His depressions. His relationship with his company store. The sixteen tons he loads at work, and the sixteen tons he brings home every day. His wife, your mother, if they stay together, and if they don’t. His loner kid who wants a guitar. The only sports the kid is into are surfing or the pool hall or guitar. The chaos of alienation, isolation, and depression stirs the dull dust of discontent.

Many of the working class guys I grew up with could tell this story, have told this story, do tell this story. Up to the point where they don’t turn into gold. Then the story breaks, and they’re forced to contend with a present silence. Where did the existential choice to turn to rock and roll fail them? Bruce Springsteen was born to rock and roll. His autobiography, “Born to Run” ( 2016), tells the story most guys could tell, until, of course, he turns to gold. But whether we turned to gold, silver, bronze, or lead, the story will sound familiar to those born around 1950, in the heart of rock and roll, in a US small town.

Small towns can be deceiving. Freehold, New Jersey, for example, is only a couple of hours drive to Brooklyn. What defines a small town though isn’t necessarily its proximity to the big city, but the local high school, where family values are tested in a melting pot and loners come of age, and the local churches, which, while professing belief in the same big bang book, remain at odds over how to read it. A local factory or refinery will help define a small town, or a mill, or a nearby ocean beach. A rail or main street might separate two sides of the town, and the one high school maintains the same resulting socioeconomic distinctions. The promise of high school is the get out of Dodge free card. But then there’s a draft, and the cycle repeats.

The voice of “Born to Run” seems to have been edited the way a song might be mixed and remixed, filtered and sifted, until it’s as close to the pure gold style of a bestseller it’s gonna get. It’s clear and articulate, unfettered by literary or personal idiosyncrasies, professionally orchestrated and well organized. Which is to say, it sounds written, not spoken, something seemingly at odds with the roots of rock and roll. But the book itself is not rock and roll, nor was it intended to be. It’s about a working man who as a kid makes an existential decision to turn himself into a musician, a songwriter, an artist. And then turn the musician into gold. And then to sum it all up, to talk about the alchemy of his life.

I especially liked the way the changing relationship with his father unfolds in non-contiguous chapters as Bruce and his father age, learn, change, yet remain the same, yet change again. Just so, the book balances a lot of balls in the air simultaneously, moving in turns from family to songs to concerts to the business of popular music and back to family again. Readers won’t doubt the veracity of the story, no matter how exaggerated or played down its various parts might be, for they will have lived much of it themselves.

But rock and roll is a circus, and the circus can’t stay in any one small town. It must move on. And when it leaves town, it’ll take one or two loners with it, every time. The circus is a road show, a tour. And the circus is always looking for a new act, something to refresh its atmosphere and surprise its audiences. A new song. The same song, but a new song. Or, a new song that creates a similar feeling the old song made. That’s part of the alchemy. Does it really need all the spectacle? How big does the circus need to get? How many rings before you lose track of the center. What happens when the quintessential, archetypal circus outgrows the small town?

Springsteen seems a kid who runs not for the sake of running, but because he can’t keep still. His book is not tabloid. It’s respectful, aims for honesty and transparency while steering clear of details that might only smear the message in further misunderstandings or too quickly satisfy the reader who comes on with preconceived notions and unquestioned assumptions. Springsteen admits to the frailties and insecurities that plague most of us, the depressions and anxieties that drop by out of nowhere to say their hellos and pay their respects every now and then, and the doubts about what we might be doing or how we are doing it at any given moment, including in the spotlight. If he sounds egotistical, narcissistic, self-centered, lonely, at times, it’s because he is, which he freely admits and tries to explain, but he’s also funny and full of fun, balanced, humble when he knows he needs to be. He seeks help when he realizes he can’t go it alone, or his understanding of what’s happening to him is incomplete. He’s critical of things he loves, the people and places and circumstances that help make him who he is; which is to say, he’s not cynical. He’s realistic. His book provides lesson after lesson of songwriting, concert making, of being a son and husband and father and businessman and citizen – lessons about working, about blue collar commitment to tools, about respect for others as well as how to build your own stage.

There’s a scene late in the book where Springsteen takes his then teenage son to see a new, young band the kid’s been following. Backstage after the show, the bass player shows father and son a tattoo he has of the father on his arm. His son is gobsmacked, but later finds it funny, while Bruce realizes the tattoo says much more about the bass player than it does about him. That’s not him in the tattoo; it’s an image. An image of what? For that, you’ll have to read “Born to Run.”

Entertainment is circus. Circus is defined by its boundaries, the circle, the entrance, enchantment in a spotlight (a smaller circle), the victorious exit amid applause. Though real life is also circular, boundaries are more fluid, and spectators get mixed up with the clowns and acrobats and the freaks. What goes around might come around, or not, might come around and slap you upside the head or whiff on by. Performers come and go, tents get moved, the circus goes on. Send in the clowns.

“Born to Run” is about identity, finding one’s own, wanting it to be authentic and hoping to stay true to it, and what it takes over time to fuel that identity, its costs, and what it takes to forge an identity in a cold deck stacked against it. But you can’t just choose any identity. The existential question that involves defining the meaning of your own life can’t ignore whatever privileges or handicaps you are born into, regardless of how relatively light or heavy those appear to be. And one’s identity changes over the years. People change, even if the proximate cause of change is a world that won’t stay still. Being born to run turns out to be an advantage in a society that moves about like a circus. And the work is never over, the existential self-identity crisis. It’s a life long work. And one struggles against the identities others may try to insist upon, impose, brand: failure and loser; hero and savior; outcast and outlier; man of the hour or woman of the year; runner up or has been; employee of the month or slacker.

But to say one is born to anything, however seemingly noble or rotten, is to concede, to acquiesce to chance, to renounce the birthright of being human, which is to choose. It’s not enough to be born once. One must be born again. But it’s not enough to be born again once, either. One must be born again every day. That’s the cycle. Every day there is a choice to be made. It’s no good saying, as some do, simply, I am what I am. One is born to nothing. Birth is hard work. But it’s the only thing we really have to do, to give birth to ourselves. Born to choose.

Body of Christ and Body Politic: Notes on Luke J. Goble’s “Worshiping Politics: Problems and Practices for a Public Faith”

In one of the early scenes of H. G. Wells’s “The Time Machine,” the Time Traveler discovers a group of Eloi lounging in the sun by a small river, bathing in the shallows. One of them, Weena, cramps and is caught in a rapid, and is in danger of drowning, but her screams are ignored. None of the other Eloi help her. They don’t even seem interested. They don’t seem to care. The Time Traveler saves Weena and learns the Eloi live lives of elite, privileged pleasure. But they pay a price. Each evening, the Eloi are summoned by a kind of futuristic church siren, a pair of giant doors slide open, and one by one the Eloi enter, walking slowly and devoutly into the underground home of the Morlocks, where the chosen Eloi are cooked and eaten. The remaining Eloi, after the siren stops and the doors close, without protest wander back to their pleasure dome to a dinner of luscious fruit and vegetables, never missing their lost ones. The Eloi have no religion and no politics.

What do today’s Christians want, and why? And why would what today’s Christians want be any different from what anyone else wants? And what should Christians want, since they don’t all seem to want the same things?

“Worshiping Politics: Problems and Practices for a Public Faith” (2017) is an even-tempered argument exploring the place and practice of politics as a consequence of religion. Definitions (what is politics, what is justice) are patiently unpacked and assumptions and predispositions brought to light and questioned within an academic shell (researched citations, references, extensive bibliography), but the text is written in an accessible, at times almost conversational, style. Written in the first person throughout, the book is carefully organized to include discussion of multiple opposing, diverse, or varying viewpoints. Each chapter closes with personal reflections and concrete examples of practices of political importance showing politics as a necessary, wanted, and useful element of daily life. The target audience is probably the thinking Christian, but as in Kwame Anthony Appiah’s “Cosmopolitanism,” which argues for a citizen of the world, a more diverse, broader audience is implied and addressed. The tone of “Worshiping Politics” is not arrogant or preachy. The occasion is not knocking door to door, evangelical Bible in hand. The book’s claims are challenging and their opposition anticipated, acknowledged, and handled respectfully.

The author of “Worshiping Politics,” Luke J. Goble[1], a Harvard graduate, professor of history, and adoptive parent, does not simply break with the old convention of etiquette that advises one not to talk about politics or religion. He argues that religion is politics. To ignore talking about either is to miss the point in a vapid exercise of politeness. But to talk about politics and religion in a qualified academic argument is not to rant and rave, attack or scare, browbeat or arm-twist, inflict guilt or wish perdition. In any case, that’s not Luke’s style. Militant atheists might be surprised by this book, as might many militant Christians. We should not ignore, or worse, scorn, those in need of help, and, arguably, our politics and religion need help, separately and together. But how do we help a drowning victim if we don’t recognize a call for help when we hear one, or we can’t swim either, or we just don’t want to get wet, or when we do jump in and reach them they are in such a panic they drown us with them?

Common words and terms are carefully qualified: “Based on my emerging definition – that politics means engaging in the process of debating, negotiating, and pursuing the good of a particular community – and by almost any definition of church (other than a building), it should not be difficult to grasp the political nature of church. If church is a kind of community with a common call, goal, or good, then participating in that community is inherently political.” That is what effective argument does – defines, specifies, draws a field of play. Goble references the Bible, but his book is not simply a collection of biblical quotes selected to create a convenient credibility. Whatever else it might be, the Bible is a historical artifact, and Goble uses it for proof and backing of claims in a historian’s voice. For some readers, Christian and non-Christian, this might come as a kind of revelation, that the Bible is not necessarily read literally, that there are insider questions regarding how and when its books were written, and why, and how some writings came to be included and others left out, while at the same time the Bible does provide historical evidence. The Bible is history, or at least a part of history. That the Bible is interpreted in various ways and often used for what might seem cross-purposes should come as no surprise; the US Supreme Court interprets the US constitution – no one questions the historical fact of that constitution, but what any part of it might mean today is backlogged with case reviews.

Early in Goble’s text, five foundational claims are examined: “1. The Bible is political 2. Jesus was political 3. The gospel is political 4. The church is political 5. Christians are called to be political.” But if everything is political, what remains? If “Come follow me” is a political invitation to vote one’s religion, how authentic are the called who only vote, or vote their conscience, as the saying goes? Of what is the conscience made? But Goble isn’t talking about simply voting, or voting at all. He’s talking about living a political life as an outgrowth of the religious life, what he calls a formative life, which, in one sense, means making an existential decision to break from one’s learned, emotional reasoning to reach a more clear understanding of why and how one thinks and behaves and what one wants to do and how to go about doing it. Formation is not an easy process. We are easily and naturally formed, but our formation does not necessarily inform us. We are rather like the Eloi. When the siren goes off, we get in line and follow. We don’t always choose what is good for us or for others. We may not know what is good for ourselves or for others.

“When it comes to negotiating power and pursuing the good of a community beyond ourselves (i.e., politics), we are deceived about our capacity to be fair, honest, and objective. So, while most of us tend to represent our political views and activity as what is best for the community (or country) overall, we are not very good judges of what is good for others” (30).

Central to his argument about how we think and behave (what informs decisions such as how we vote or who we help or who we scorn), Goble closely examines Jonathan Haidt’s work on decision making informed by rationalizations and justifications that suit us comfortably, that make us comfortable with our decisions and behaviors. Conscience is a deeply embedded magician performing sleight of hand tricks we come to believe are real.

“We are not as good as we think we are. Our behavior is conditioned by factors like 1) our natural propensity to want to be liked by those around us, 2) our need to protect the group(s) that comprise our core identity, 3) our desire to preserve our current self and path unless otherwise forced, and 4) our need to be ‘ok’ with our existing behavioral patterns and our ability to find ways to do so. In the studies referenced by Haidt, these conditioning factors all take on a negative light. But the same propensities can also make us the kind of human beings that can live well in community – to seek compromise, to build commonality, to operate according to convictions. What they show most of all is that we are creatures whose deep feelings drive our behavior even though we think it is our reason” (42).

Or we don’t think about it at all. We behave first, then we create a reason that seems to give that behavior some kind of sense. We do something similar when judging or trying to explain someone else’s behavior. What were they thinking? Likely they weren’t thinking at all. Their siren went off and they behaved accordingly, according to assumptions and predispositions so deeply rooted they are not thought out at all. This may be particularly true of religious behavior, which presupposes and assumes good. If we behave a certain way for what we or others take to be a religious reason, that behavior must be good.

“Does that mean people of faith operate under an illusion of moral superiority? Does it mean that religious convictions do not have anything significant to contribute to public justice or cultural mores? I would say yes and no. Yes, sometimes people of faith operate under an illusion of moral superiority. Research in moral psychology seems to defy any claim that beliefs or religious identity labels are accurate predictors of behavior. But perhaps convictions that come by way of belief also have something significant to contribute to the ways in which our deep feelings are formed, and subsequently the kinds of actions that emanate from those ways of being formed” (43).

Goble’s book, an argument that religion is politics and politics means caring for others, “opening up to the interests and circumstances of others” (57), takes turns that lead down paths of psychological work; historical precedent and interpretation; practical applications for regular community exercise; works of classic and contemporary philosophy; popular expressions of contemporary life (for example, scenes with dialog from the television series The West Wing); scripture and the history and practice of reading, studying, and passing down scripture, his discussion of Talmudic study compared to contemporary Christian reading of the Bible, for example: “…when we read the Bible, we don’t typically read the most important interpretations or debates alongside” (57); and his own personal reflections from his experience of “living in the world,” of “being in the world.”

How does one be in the world, working outward from nature to self to family to community to state to a world where one feels safe, and why does being in the world often seem so fraught with conflict that all we can think to do is run and hide to the supposed safety of our own affective emotional constructs? Or, as Appiah puts it in “Examined Life”: “There’s a certain kind of philosophical universalism, which is often associated with evangelizing religions, where, yeah, we love everybody but we want them to become like us in order to love them properly. There’s a great German proverb, which says, ‘If you don’t want to be my brother, I’ll bash your skull in’…And that’s the opposite of cosmopolitanism. It’s the universalist who says, ‘Yeah, I want you to be my brother, but on my terms,’ whereas the cosmopolitan says, ‘I want to be your brother figuratively, your fellow citizen, but I don’t make it a condition of that that we come to be the same’” (p. 92 of the text of the film). And “but the Bible says,” regardless of what we might think it might say (i.e. how we interpret and determine what’s most important in the Bible), is an inadequate response.

“Once certain connections between guiding narratives and political dispositions are made explicit, it is easy to see how political biases shape interpretive choices…the tendency to interpret Scripture according to intuitive frameworks of meaning but to see and declare our own interpretations true, absolute, and unchanging. Our intuitions lead us to choose different narratives to emphasize. This approach leads to deadlock and disunity among Christians, not to mention a confusing and compromising witness to those who put little or no authority in Scripture to begin with” (back to “Worshiping Politics,” 56).

At least one reason some citizens may give no authority to Scripture might be found in the history of the Church. One is tempted to take the metaphor to its rhetorical end, its reductio ad absurdum, the body of Christ so infected by the worms of heresy and hypocrisy it is now a skeleton hanging in the closet of a high school biology class, a dried up framework that without muscle supports nothing. Goble recognizes the fickleness of the Church though the centuries: its WASP-ish table settings; its compromises, treaties, or concessions; its contradictions; its inquisitions – in short, how for many of the world’s people, the body of Christ has been either a turned back or an experience of acculturation. That history though is fascinating reading. Goble’s book includes a survey of changing church paradigms over the centuries, including “the early church, the early Roman Church, the medieval church, the Lutheran ‘Two Kingdoms’ model, Puritan Theocracy, Kuyperian Calvinism, Christian Realism, Amish/Anabaptist Sectarianism, Christian Anarchy, Liberation Theology, Yoder’s Middle Axiom Model.” Readers may begin to wonder what held the body of Christ together throughout time and the world, the good news continually subsumed by the bad.

“Not only has theology excluded voices, but like other forms of dominant discourse, it has participated in constructing and maintaining structures of power. A huge blind spot in each of the previous paradigms is in the conception of the social body or society itself. Taking society or ‘the world’ for granted without thinking about the political implications for those who do not wield dominant power, essentially multiple societies or social bodies, is a gap in the paradigms that come after the Middle Ages” (116).

It seems ordinary members of the faithful may have over time held more sway than Church leaders in restoring what health we might find currently in the body of Christ.

“Corresponding with the cultural and national liberation movements that came about after World War Two, new spaces of reception opened up for previously marginalized voices in theology. One of the most important developments out of that milieu has been liberation theology. In short, liberation theology grew out of the struggle for justice by Latin American peasants who had long experienced marginalization in all aspects of society – politically, economically, and spiritually by the (mostly Roman Catholic) church. Many Catholic priests, already living and working in solidarity with the poor also recognized the contradiction that the gospel should be ‘good news’ for the poor, yet the institutionalized church and other forms of power in society that it reinforced were not good news at all” (116).

Who were these Catholic priests (and nuns), where did they come from, and from what were they formed and how were they informed?

“Our political behavior is not thought or even taught but ‘caught’ – meaning it is shaped affectively and, at least to some degree, out of our control” (31).

At the end of Wells’s “The Time Machine,” the Time Traveler, having returned to his present and met with some friends and told his story of the future, decides to return to the future: “I came back through the corridor. The Time Traveler met me in the smoking room. He was coming from the house. He had a small camera under one arm and a knapsack under the other.” Wells did not tell his reader what was in the knapsack. In the 1960 film version of “The Time Machine,” staring Rod Taylor and Yvette Mimieux, it’s suggested that the Time Traveler takes with him back to the future two books. In the film, the Morlocks are destroyed in their underground caverns by a giant fire fed by the Time Traveler assisted by the Eloi. The Eloi will now no longer be food for the Morlocks, but they will now have to care for themselves, take care of one another, work, worry. The addition of the question of what books the Time Traveler selects is an interesting Hollywood edit to the Wells text.

The Time Traveler wants to help the Eloi. But then why would he take anything in his knapsack from his own time, his own time having proven to be such a disaster? If there is good in the world, where and what is it? Is what’s good for Christians also good for non-Christians? Goble explores good and justice and explains why we should be careful imposing our own values of what is good or just on others. How do individuals influence the future, their own or that of others? What is the extent of an individual’s influence over religion or politics? How can we be sure our actions in the present are good for the future?

“Belief in the lordship of Christ allows for patience, peacefulness, hope, and sacrifice now. It allows for Christians not to try to force peace through violence, justice by imposition, or well-being through coercion” (129).

There is in Goble’s book a dichotomy at work that readers may find puzzling or problematic. That isn’t Goble’s fault; it comes with the territory. In one sense, the dichotomy is shown in Augustine’s “two cities,” the City of God and the City of Earth. In another sense, the dichotomy might be seen in the insistence that Christians maintain a distinction from other entities also working toward good and justice. And here not that their ideas of good and justice might be different than secular ones, but that the impetus to work toward them “should flow out of our [Christian] identity and not our ambition” (128). That, because the Christian’s identity presumably includes the idea of a happy ending for the good. Phrases like, “…the last thing, the end event, when the Lordship of Christ is full realized” (129) may sound a bit mystical or esoteric to the general reader. Metaphor is always at work. Words like kingdom and lordship suggest a state and subservience to that state as well as class distinctions, from peasant to knight. These are images that enable views. Goble wants to make sure his reader understands he is “not a biblical scholar” (129). (Had me fooled.) Readers might also feel a dichotomy between the old and new testaments. Thomas Merton said that God is un-seeable, unknowable, almost unthinkable – that we can only approach an understanding of God through our human images or symbols or rituals – but those images are human images. They’re not wrong, but they are human-made and serve only a human purpose. Yet there are times the word God appears in Goble’s text as if God’s a go-to-guy. Goble acknowledges that language translations and cultural contexts add to our confusion. Is God’s love for his people a human love or divine love? Does God love everyone, or only his chosen ones? Another dichotomy. We can add love and God to our list of difficult concepts to unpack: good, justice, love, God. God so loved the world that he sacrificed his only son. What the hell kind of love is that? I have seen many sons sacrificed by their fathers, beginning with Vietnam, some on the battlefield, others at the kitchen table. But I digress. Onward, Christian soldier.

The last chapters of Goble’s book are the most difficult, not to read, but to reflect upon, to perhaps put some new way of being or thinking into practice. The arc of the book is threaded. We see how we are predisposed to think and behave and we learn to self-justify our dispositions. We then see examples of that at work in history, philosophy, popular culture, psychology. We then discover how we might work to change our dispositions, change ourselves from being driven by emotional affective design toward being more intentional about how we think and behave, about who we are. Here is an example of the book’s arc. This is just one thread. Goble talks about how we self-deceive: “We are self-justifying creatures who construct narratives about the world necessary to maintain the views of ourselves that we hold” (41). We might think the more educational experience we gain the less likely we would be to self-deceive and be forced to self-justify, but Goble cites research that shows “IQ and education levels do not markedly improve one’s ability to see an issue more objectively, but they do increase one’s capacity to support and defend one’s initial judgment. In other words, greater intelligence or education can help us defend our ideas better, but they do not necessarily result in better thinking” (39). Those quotes are from Chapter 3: “The Problem of Self-Deception.” In Chapter 10, “The Problem of Practice,” the thread of how we think is picked up again, under the sub-heading “Against Closed-Mindedness”: “Intellectual humility describes perfectly rational, disinterested truth-seeking, involving openness and willingness to accept information because it is true…involves an established sense of one’s self and worth apart from how one’s intellect, accomplishments, or legacy are viewed, and a genuine intrinsic concern for knowledge and truth” (165). Since most of us are probably not intellectually humble, but we might agree such humility might make us more effective working and being with others, the question becomes how do we intentionally change our dispositions. Related threads that form the arc include “self-promotion, tribalism, self-justification, self-deception” that “are [not] easily overcome by the cultivation of counter-virtues through material practices” (166).

Goble’s book concludes with an existential examination of formation. Existentialism suggests that existence precedes essence. That means we are born into a circumstance and predicament not of our choosing, but we do have a choice – to decide for ourselves what the essence of that existence might be. For cradle Christians (those born into a Christian circumstance and predicament), that choice can be profoundly difficult. A Franciscan Friar once told me Catholicism was not a religion for children. I thought, then I might want to stay a child forever. As an existentialist, I might successfully make that choice. But Goble suggests the Christian’s choice is not existential, because “Desire for God is not willed, it is a gift” (172). “How [then] does [intentional] formation happen?” (172).

Goble’s idea of formation does seem to share with the existentialists the idea of freedom. It might seem paradoxical, but he seems to think that belonging to God differentiates in a way that creates a freedom from the world that continually works its formation of us without our approval or even awareness. Borrowing from Jesus’s prayer for his disciples, Goble says Jesus is saying something like don’t mix up me with “where you live, who you are with, or the trappings of religiosity or culture that you might mistake for me” (190). In other words, we might want to be very careful with the alliances and treaties we make with the powers that be, because we will be formed and reformed by whatever accommodations we might make. It’s not enough to be born again once. If you really want to be a Christian, you must be born again every day. The existentialist also renews the choice of essence, of existence preceding essence, on a daily basis. The Body of Christ must be very careful not to get too cozy and fall into bed with the Body Politic. Goble summarizes this problem: “How can the church faithfully engage the world while still being set apart? Being in the world makes being formed by the world inescapable. Withdrawing from the world makes engagement impossible. Wherein lies the balance?” (193).

That’s an important question, because one wants to maintain one’s freedom. In the last chapter, Goble provides an example, what he calls a “Model for the Moment,” of a possible balance. The example involves Embrace Oregon, a coalition of diverse forces attempting to care for the needs of orphaned, vulnerable children. “Real relational knowing is mutually formative, and only by being formed by significant relationships with those who are ‘other’ in multiple intersectional ways (race, class, gender, socioeconomic, class, education, nationality, language, sexual orientation, religion) can we live out a culture forming faith. There is always a dynamic movement between formation and culture creation” (200).

The text of “The Time Machine” suggests a characteristic of the Eloi not seen in the film version referenced above. In the text, the Eloi are little people. In a sense, they are children, or they are like children in that they are completely vulnerable. Their caretakers, the Morlocks, care for them. It might be said that the Morlocks may even love the Eloi, but the Eloi are not free.

In Goble’s very last “Practice,” he says, “Cultivate and struggle for relationship in the face of rules that remove, economics that exclude, addictions that alienate” (207).

I don’t know if H. G. Wells, in naming the Morlocks, had in mind the biblical Moloch, but it seems likely he did. Goble recognizes the need for Christians to work with the Morlocks to free the Eloi, without themselves becoming coopted by the Morlocks, becoming a new Moloch, or putting the Eloi at risk of a new captivation.

 

 

 

[1] Disclosure: Luke teaches at Warner Pacific College, where I’ve done work as an adjunct instructor.

 

 

Janet Groth’s The Receptionist: A Reflection

The receptionist receives. Receives what? An education, a memoir. One purpose of a memoir, a narrative of memory, might be to raise eyebrows, for it’s a tool to talk back, to reflect not only on what was taken in but to evaluate and tell on the givers, the repellers, those who dismiss, to give back some sass. One may also be received, received into, into the club; but not in Janet Groth’s case. Miss Groth, to use the New Yorker office convention of the time, was the receptionist on the writer’s floor for a little over two decades, and, never having been promoted or published or even encouraged, finally left, graduating on her own terms, storing the education for a later memoir, much later – 30 years later. Groth’s memoir has already been discussed by those in the know, but here’s a view from a different coast.

Why was Miss Groth never given “a better job” (224) at the magazine? She offers four possibilities: 1, nepotism; 2, lack of Ivy League connections; 3, lack of submissions (only three in twenty-one years, an output Joe Mitchell would however have understood); and 4, she was kept a receptionist because she was a kept receptionist – she was good and that’s where they wanted her. None of these explanations by themselves sound all that convincing, but maybe all taken together they amount to a decision deferred that becomes the dream deferred. And receptionist, in the world of business, is a feminine noun, while what’s needed to push the business forward is a masculine verb.

For a memoir to be successful, the main character must be a dynamic character; she must change from the beginning to the end. Throwing her change into relief are all the static characters she receives over time, characters that don’t change, but that remain their dismissive selves throughout, and the photos of static characters are rarely charming or lovely, and may even offer unflattering profiles.

When I think of memoir, of the self-important profile it proclaims, I also think of P. G. Wodehouse’s “Heavy Weather,” wherein “…the Hon. Galahad Threepwood, brother of the Earl of Emsworth and as sprightly an old gentleman as was ever thrown out of a Victorian music-hall, was engaged in writing the recollections of his colourful career as a man about town in the nineties, the shock to the many now highly respectable members of the governing classes who in their hot youth had shared it was severe. All over the country decorous Dukes and steady Viscounts, who had once sown wild oats in the society of the young Galahad, sat quivering in their slippers at the thought of what long-cuboarded skeletons those Reminiscences might disclose.”

Not to worry in the Wodehouse world, for Galahad has already sent a note to his publisher:  “Dear Sir, Enclosed find cheque for the advance you paid me on those Reminiscences of mine. I have been thinking it over, and have decided not to publish them after all.” But what then develops is indeed a bit of nepotism in the publishing world as the memoir in question becomes a pig to nobble, even as there are real pigs to nobble as the plot unfolds.

We don’t know what Groth has held back, of course, but she wants to persuade us she’s told most of the story. That story is not only about a receptionist, but about an existential (she confides she once wanted to be a female Camus) question: shall we be defined by the roles received from our parents, where we come from, or from our employers, our tribe or our set, or will we, like Huckleberry Finn, “light out for the territory” and define for ourself what it means to be ourself, refusing to receive any other’s limiting or corralled view of us? Yet what of the receptionist who can’t stop receiving? Who will tell her memoir?

The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker,” by Janet Groth. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2012. 229 pages.

Related Posts: Women Under the Glass Ceiling: Parity and Power in the Pipeline

The Glass Guitar Ceiling: Rolling Stone’s “The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time”

 

On Shoes: A Barefoot Existentialism

Another summer unfolded like a dirty sock, stiff and hot. Baseball fell to football, and I kicked off the boat shoes. What to put on? If you’re a ballplayer, you may have uncommon shoe choice, as evidenced by reports of a Fall skirmish, in a bar down in Louisiana, which resulted in the police confiscating 49 pairs of shoes belonging to one of the college athletes allegedly involved in the melee. I’m still a surfer at heart, and a minimalist when it comes to shoes, so I look askance at that number, 49, but one must be a barefoot existentialist to throw the first block.

The idea of the shoe is really old. In 2008, archeologists found what is thought to be the oldest surviving leather shoe in Eurasia. The shoe, found stuffed with grass, presumably to maintain its shape during the off-season, was radiocarbon dated to the 4th millennium BC (1). Other types of shoes have been found that are even older, shoes made of fibers, sewn or woven, or made from animal skin, and sandals made with different kinds of technology and apparently for different purposes (2, 3). One study suggests that the idea for the shoe may have come from basketry, the shoe conceived as a basket for the foot, the shoe made with basket weaving technique (4).

An inventory of my own shoes harbors the story out of Louisiana from a sea of hyperbole. Maybe the athlete had never thrown out an old pair – a youthful hoarder of shoes. Still, we might argue that access to more shoes than we need suggests overindulgence, but is this a case of moral relativism? And no doubt athletes are not the only shoe collectors. Besides, in shoes begin responsibilities, to improvise on the Delmore Schwartz theme.

Perhaps my parents tried to prepare me for athletic success requiring extra closet space by ensuring an early shoeful habit, but it seems unlikely. I’ve two old photos in which I appear to be wearing the same formidable Buster Browns, and if my parents were trying to prepare me for anything, they must have been thinking of circus lion taming. In any case, assuming one new pair of shoes per year, I went from shoeless to ten pairs of shoes by the time I reached Little League.

The Buster Browns were worn at Churchill Downs; Little League was a mile from the Pacific. I don’t know how many shoes my parents packed, with everything else they owned, into their Plymouth sedan with their four children for the move out west, and no doubt what shoes we had comforted our Westward Ho! feet, but the adventure must have been riskier for our having no spares in the trunk.

In Little League I preferred sneakers to cleats. I spent three years playing ball for the El Segundo Major League Red Sox. Add another three pairs of shoes, but I’m sure I still owned only one pair at a time, and wore that pair everywhere, to school, church, baseball. I also wore rubber go-aheads, wore them down to the skin of my heels before tossing. Should these be counted as shoes? If so, add a pair every year, from the age of ten, when I started Little League, to 18, when I left home for the Army.

In boot camp, at Fort Bliss, Texas, we were issued two pairs of Army boots, comfortable and substantial, and we wore them for every purpose save the few, formal occasions when we wore our dress greens with low quarters. Add another three pairs of shoes. I wore those same Army boots for six years, in and out of uniform. In barracks, we displayed our surplus shoes on our footlockers at the end of our bunks. The South Central boys displayed their spit shined cowboy boots along with their G. I. shoes. I put out my Jack Purcells, wiping clean the blue stripe.

I left my low quarters in my usher’s locker at the Paradise Theatre one Saturday morning, soon after my military discharge. I had reflected too long on my chore of the day: chipping the gum off the bottoms of all the theatre seats. I couldn’t recall a detail as absurd from my Army experience. I snuck out of the dark theatre into a solid gold South Bay weekend, not my first existential decision, nor my last, wearing my Purcells, leaving my low quarters to an unknown successor, heedless of the shoe choices in my future.

In college and in my early teaching assignments, I wore sneakers or the old Army boots, still wearing well. Few judgments, in those days, seemed shoe-based. It wasn’t until I abandoned teaching for the corporate world that I purchased a pair of wingtips, ignoring Thoreau’s advice to “beware of all enterprises that require new clothes” (5). I wore the wingtips stiffly into the office on my first day, spit shined; I was the only guy in the office wearing wingtips.

Twenty-five years in a carpeted corporate world doesn’t wear out many shoes. Add another six or seven pairs. The story of my corporate career might be told in cordovan loafers, some with tassels, or boat shoes. Add a few golf shoes, slippers under the tree most years, then suddenly some cranky Dr. Martens, shoes I wore in the yard, on walks, and to work; and perhaps it was the insidious Martens that put me on the track to an Indie early-retiree lifestyle. I began to wear, like Eliot’s Prufrock, “the bottoms of my trousers rolled,” but with little regret (6).

So I have owned more than 49 pairs of shoes, but never that many at once. I recently purchased some new Dr. Martens, made in China; my original pair, which I finally wore out, was made in England. One can’t fully appreciate new shoes until one has worn out old ones. For an athlete in sneakers, the shoe precedes the foot, and wearing the shoe out is not the essence of the game. Whatever legal tackles our contemporary athletes end up breaking, no shoes will be worn out, and any thoughts about going existential must wait for the off-season.

Shakespeare’s bumbling Polonius might have offered another aphorism for Laertes’s consideration, though probably not putting the Western world on a new footing: treat each new pair of shoes as your last; perhaps then they might be worn more wisely, and one may more fully realize one’s barefoot potential, for the more shoes we have, the more schemed and distracted our purposes, but the closer we go to barefoot, the more deliberate and sure-footed our steps.

Footnotes:

1. Pinhasi R, Gasparian B, Areshian G, Zardaryan D, Smith A, et al. (2010). First Direct Evidence of Chalcolithic Footwear from the Near Eastern Highlands. PLoS ONE 5(6): e10984. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0010984
2. Ravilious, Kate. (June 9, 2010). World’s Oldest Leather Shoe Found—Stunningly Preserved: “Astonishingly modern” shoe preserved by sheep dung and dryness. National Geographic News: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/06/100609-worlds-oldest-leather-shoe-armenia-science/
3. Connolly, T. & Cannon, W. (1999). Comments on “America’s Oldest Basketry.” Radiocarbon, Vol 41, Nr 3, 1999, pp. 309-313.
4. Berger, R., Bendat, M., & Parker, A. (AMERICA’S OLDEST BASKETRY: RAINER BERGER, MILLIE BENDAT and ANDREA PARKER) Isotope and Archaeometry Laboratory, Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics. University of California, Los Angeles, California 90095-1567 USA. ABSTRACT: We have determined the earliest calibrated dates on three types of basketry from the Great Basin & Proceedings of the 16th International 14C Conference, edited by W. G. Mook and J. van der Plicht RADIOCARBON, Vol. 40, No. 2, 1998, P. 615-620. This is publication number 5084 of the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics, UCLA.
5. Henry David Thoreau, Walden, (New York: New American Library, 1960), chap. 1.
6. T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” poem.

Excerpt from a Conversation with Jean-Paul Sartre and B. F. Skinner

BFS: “Man is perhaps unique in being a moral animal, but not in the sense that he possesses morality; he has constructed a social environment in which he behaves with respect to himself and others in moral ways.”

JPS: “I can bring moral judgment to bear.”

BFS: “The essential issue is autonomy. Is man in control of his own destiny or is he not?”

JPS: “Man makes himself. He isn’t ready made at the start. Before you come alive, life is nothing; it’s up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing else but the meaning that you choose. In that way, you see, there is a possibility of creating a human community.”

BFS: “Behaviorism does not reduce morality to certain features of the social environment; it simply insists that those features have always been responsible for moral behavior. Man continues to build machines which dehumanize him. He can remedy these mistakes and build a world in which he will feel freer than ever before and achieve greater things.”

JPS: “We do not believe in progress. Man is always the same. I am responsible for myself and for everyone else.”

BFS: “Why do people behave as they do? It became a matter of understanding and explaining behavior. It could always be reduced to a question about causes.”

JPS: “It’s all quite simple. He can’t start making excuses for himself. There is no determinism, man is free, man is freedom. We have no excuse behind us, nor justification before us. We are alone, with no excuses. Man is condemned to be free. There are no omens in the world. No general ethics can show you what is to be done. This theory is the only one which gives man dignity.”

BFS: “Control is another matter. Refusing to look at causes exacts its price. The behaviorist has a simpler answer. What has evolved is an organism, part of the behavior of which has been tentatively explained by the invention of the concept of mind. No special evolutionary process is needed when the facts are considered in their own right.”

JPS: “There is no human nature. Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself. Man is responsible for what he is. And when we say that a man is responsible for himself, we do not only mean that he is responsible for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men. It is impossible for man to transcend human subjectivity.”

BFS: “A scientific analysis of behavior must assume that a person’s behavior is controlled by his genetic and environmental histories rather than by the person himself as an initiating, creative agent.”

JPS: “In order to get any truth about myself, I must have contact with another person. There does exist a universal human condition.”

BFS: “We often overlook the fact that human behavior is also a form of control. No mystic or ascetic has ever ceased to control the world around him; he controls it in order to control himself. We cannot choose a way of life in which there is no control.”

JPS: “Existentialism isn’t so atheistic that it wears itself out showing that God doesn’t exist. Rather, it declares that even if God did exist, that would change nothing. What complicates matters is that there are two kinds of existentialist; first, those who are Christian, and on the other hand the atheistic existentialists, and then the French existentialists and myself. What they have in common is that they think that existence precedes essence, or, if you prefer, that subjectivity must be the starting point.”

BFS: “The major difficulties are practical. In any case we seem to be no worse off for ignoring philosophical problems.”

(This invented converstation was created with quotes blended from Sartre’s “Existentialism is a Humanism” with Skinner’s “About Behaviorism.”)

Honor and Shame: Born Again Off Maggie’s Farm

When Huck decides to help Jim at the end of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he really does believe he’ll go to hell for his actions. Yet he’s awakening from a cultured sleep; he’s being reborn. First, he’s accepted the responsibility of a decision; he must act: “I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell.’” Huck was born into a culture that passed on as a value the idea that to help a runaway slave was a crime and a sin. It’s a culture informed by codes of honor and shame. “It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming.” And at the end of the book, when Huck decides to “light out for the territory,” he’s saying that he ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more. The orphaned Huck has been born again.

This same sense of honor and shame opens Crossan’s discussion of Mediterranean cultures in his “The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. Honor and shame are cultural core values, but more, they become the very persona of the culture: “Honor and shame, then, could be defined as the ideology of small, discrete, and unstable groups competing permanently for basic resources that are attained insecurely and maintained precariously but where conflict must be reluctantly transposed into cooperation for the most precious resource of all, marriageable women” (p. 15). But like Huck, Jesus ain’t gonna work on this Maggie’s farm no more, either. It’s clear that honor and shame, as enculturated values, become emotions enabling control, and one must be born again to escape the enculturated entrapments.

We see both examples come together in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, where the culture described in Huck Finn finally plays itself out, and Quentin’s suicide, prompted, among other things, by his worrying over his sister Caddy’s reputation, will continue forever his argument with his father who has told him that virginity as a value is a man-made tool to control women, the same explanation Crossan argues: “Boys. Men. They lie about it. Because it means less to women, Father said. He said it was men invented virginity not women” (p. 96). But Quentin can’t stomach the irony: “And Father said it’s because you are a virgin: don’t you see? Women are never virgins. Purity is a negative state and therefore contrary to nature. It’s nature is hurting you not Caddy and I said That’s just words and he said So is virginity and I said you dont know. You cant know and he said Yes. On the instant when we come to realise that tragedy is second-hand” (p. 143).

An example of the controls at work can be seen in Joseph Campbell’s “Tales of Love and Marriage,” from his The Power of Myth. We’re now in medieval Catholic culture, where marriages are arranged, but Tristan and Isolde decide they are, absurdly, in love, in romantic love. Isolde’s nurse delivers the warning, but Tristan, too, has had enough of Maggie’s farm: “And if by my death, you mean the eternal punishment in the fires of hell, I accept that, too” (p. 190).

A culture’s core values, what it desires, finds expression not necessarily in ideology but in personality, in the masks individuals wear to get along with their neighbors. The existential decision to be born again shucks the mask. James Joyce leaves Ireland and the oppression of the church’s values of honor and shame, its sanctioned hierarchy of rich and poor, ecclesiastical and secular, its discriminations of right and wrong. And Samuel Beckett ain’t gonna work for the text, no more, ripping off the mask with the inside out eyes, the mask that conditions us to see ourselves as others see us, and to find there outside acceptance and respect. Everyone working on Maggie’s farm must wear the same mask.

How we vote is also probably an enculturated core value. Louis Menand, in “The Unpolitical Animal: How political science understands voters (New Yorker, August 30, 2004), argues that “Voters go into the booth carrying the imprint of the hopes and fears, the prejudices and assumptions of their family, their friends, and their neighbors. For most people, voting may be more meaningful and more understandable as a social act than as a political act.”

“I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm, no more” is an existential decision, like Huck’s, and announces a rebirth, affirming that one’s existence precedes one’s essence, and that one has taken individual responsibility for one’s own essence.

The Myth of Adolescence: James Woods on Jean-Christophe Valtat

Reading James Woods’s review of Valtat’s “03” (New Yorker, September 6), when a comment pops up like the pea in the mattress he opens with, keeping us awake: “He [Camus] proposed four roles…: the conqueror, the seducer, the actor, and the writer. (One notes the convenient glamour of Camus’s chosen roles: not, say, the policeman, the bus conductor, the bureaucrat, and the shopkeeper).” But Wood’s comment might say more about Woods than about Camus, for Woods can’t seem to imagine a hero who is a plumber, a gardener, a clerk, a waitress. Besides, it’s not entirely accurate, as we find if we take a look at Camus’s actual heroes. But in context, Woods wants Camus to lead the way into Valtat’s four-types Camus imitation: “The exile, the rock musician, the eccentric, the suicide,” which, in turn, permits Woods to introduce his own, fifth role, that of the “…arrest[ed], of helpless delay, of simply coming to a stop while continuing to live,” the condition most adolescents find themselves consigned to once reaching adulthood.

It was some time ago, in an issue of Reed Magazine, we read with interest an article by a Reed English professor about what jobs an English major might aspire to. The breadth of the suggestions was anemic and seemed to reflect an academically enculturated world view: law school, teaching – that was about it, no mention of Wallace Stevens, the great American poet who (albeit trained as a lawyer) enjoyed a career as Claims V. P. with the Hartford; of Ted Kooser, US poet laureate who spent his adult working life at Lincoln Life, in Nebraska; of Kafka, who spent time employed by two European insurers.

Not that it matters, for the question in point is what bearing one’s occupation has on one’s role. When Sartre says that the existentialist’s existence precedes his essence, is he talking about finding a job? When Jesus said “follow me,” was he talking about joining a laborer’s union?

I’m not sure if Woods intends to dis Camus, adolescents, or both: “’03’ is indeed a moralist’s novel: I was often reminded of ‘The Myth of Sisyphus,’ that great outburst so loved by adolescents,” as if adolescents can’t fully know what it means to live, to suffer, to read, to write, to have to decide who to follow, and what book to take along. Alas, the current generation of adolescents will certainly have plenty of time on their hands thinking about it, as they go about applying for jobs that don’t exist.

Love and the Age of Democracy

Imagine life as a serf in an empire. Your father wants to give you to a neighboring monastery in exchange for a pig. But this is actually better than his first proposal, in which he promised your hand in marriage to an old man in a neighboring village. Fortunately, the old man died before the deal could be sealed.

In The Power of Myth Joseph Campbell argues that the emergence in the middle ages of romantic love as expressed by the troubadours created individual consciousness. “Campbell: But with Amor we have a purely personal ideal. The kind of seizure that comes from the meeting of the eyes, as they say in the troubadour tradition, is a person-to-person experience. That’s completely contrary to everything the Church stood for. It’s a personal, individual experience, and I think it’s the essential thing that’s great about the West and that makes it different from all other traditions I know. It was important in that it gave the West this accent on the individual, that one should have faith in his experience and not simply mouth terms handed down to him by others. It stresses the validity of the individual’s experience of what humanity is, what life is, what values are, against the monolithic system. The monolithic system is a machine system: every machine works like every other machine that comes out of the same shop” (p. 187).

Campbell is talking about consensual marriage, as opposed to arranged marriage. Even today, the price paid for consensual marriages, in that they often go against the grain of the parents’ wishes for their children, as in the Tristan romance, and again in Romeo and Juliet, is personal freedom and existentialism. You’re on your own. This is the same price Jesus paid, but the Church did not follow Jesus, instead creating a new monolithic system. “Come follow me,” Jesus said; we’ll make our own way, against tradition. This is the creation of the individual as an entity separate from the earthly lord who gets his authority from the state or church or both. In consensual marriage we find the roots of egalitarianism and democracy. What’s love got to do with it? All you need is love, and the courage to, as Campbell says, “follow your bliss.”

Modern corporations are not democracies, nor is the Church a democracy. Men who marry their jobs or the Church can not live an existential life. They are not free. They have no individual consciousness, and they pay no price, as long as they stick with the arrangement. But these marriages are not based on Amor, which is freedom and personal identity for which one pays own’s own freedom and assumes responsibility for oneself. To become one with a desk? Come, follow me. Sit here. Break is at 10:15.

The weightlessness of existentialism

Early yesterday, reading Nick Paumgarten on “The lives of elevators” (New Yorker, April 21), about a person stuck in one for forty-one hours, we were reminded of the weightlessness of reading and writing. The video, from the Kafkaesque security tape, is a work of art Warhol could have made; or Becket might have written a one-act play, but would have omitted the piano score, though the tempo is perfectly counterpointed to the Chaplinesque speed of the fast forwarded film. Of course, we also thought of John Cage: “It is not irritating to be where one is. It is only irritating to think one would like to be somewhere else” (“Lecture on Nothing,” Silence, p. 119).

Later, at the Triple-A baseball game in a cold, near empty ballpark, a woman in the row in front of us turned around and asked if we had a pen. She seemed surprised when we said yes, and pulled the pen out of our jacket pocket, handing it out to her. She was a few seats away, down the row in front of us. There was no one else around. She was bundled up for the cold day of the game, in wool cap, and she had brought a full pack of incidentals to the game, to help pass the time, the way some people do at a ballgame, but no pen. She got up and walked over, smiling, and took the pen.

The person stuck alone in the elevator is essentially weightless, can neither rise nor fall, cannot change seats. There is no exit. He pries open the doors to find a cement wall. He is a character in Sartre’s No Exit, sans the other people.  

Take a piece of blank typing paper. Fold it in half, then in thirds. Place the folded paper in a pocket with a pen. You never know when you might get stuck – in a station at the metro, waiting anywhere – and it will not be nearly so irritating thinking you might like to be somewhere else. Pen and paper provide one with a play against the angst of any existential waiting game.