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.

On Setting and Narration

Life on the Mississippi
Life on the Mississippi – Reading the Waves

In the middle of Adam Gopnik’s explanation of Lawrence Buell’s reading preferences informed by historical setting (New Yorker, “Go Giants: A new survey of the Great American Novel,” 21 Apr, 104), there’s an ambiguity, whether caused by Buell, Adam Gopnik, or both, I’m not sure, but Gopnik says Buell thinks Huck helping Jim escape is a less radical act in the eighteen-eighties, after slavery has already been abolished. The argument is made in the context of a comparison to Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” published in 1852, an inferior work, according to Buell, but one, the argument continues, that Mark Twain must have read in order to write his better book. That’s probable, but while “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was published in the US in 1885, Twain set Huck and Jim’s story in “The Mississippi Valley. Time: Forty to fifty years ago,” before the Civil War and before Stowe’s book. Would a common reader in 1885 have understood the costs to a kid of deciding against the values of his immediate, local culture “forty to fifty years ago”? The answer to that question seems vital to Buell’s method of reading literature.

A common mishap reading any text occurs when readers confuse the author with the narrator. And often, indeed, writers struggle separating themselves from their narrator, trying to turn memoir into fiction, unwittingly revealing more about themselves than they intend. But crafty authors often deliberately create unreliable narrators. The lying or self-deluded narrator is most easily detected in the first person, but hidden behind the credible screen of the third person omniscient narrator, an author may still turn deceitful, sleight of hand tricks. And authors, too, often suffer from self-delusions. This isn’t so much about how literature works as how the making of literature works. But either way, readers may be easily confused. But how does that confusion matter to the reading of a text open to multiple possibilities?

Buell thinks it’s important that readers understand something of the times of the author; or does he mean the times of the character the author created? Either way, a reader who knows something of the setting of a novel will no doubt read it differently than a reader unfamiliar with the novel’s setting. But there’s another problem: how does a reader come to know settings of the past? Through narratives, some of which may be unreliable, even if cast in the non-fiction mode. And even if reliable, history is constantly undergoing revision. How does historical revisionism impact the reading of literature?

But the question of whether or not readers in 1885 understood Huck’s predicament given the novel’s setting is an important one. It’s a question we might ask of any number of literary works. Kerouac’s “On the Road” (1957), for example, gets a new reading with each new generation of readers, but the further we get from the so called Beat Generation, the more we might need other works surveying the period of the work’s setting – a good companion piece to “On the Road” is “Go” (1952) by John Clellon Holmes. How readers respond to a narrative is dependent on many variables. Non-Catholics, for example, are likely to read Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” differently than Catholics, and Catholics who actually attended Catholic schools will read it differently again.

Where is the reader who brings no experience or expectation whatsoever to a text? They just might be the author’s best target audience. And likewise, why wouldn’t readers search for that very book, the experience about which they know nothing?

Waltzing with a Loon to the Tune of a Whippoorwill

Moondance 1Henry’s loon waltzed into the room laughing
laughing laughing at the phony moon
rising over the pond-like screen
laughing at Henry, at me, and at you too
who scorned the whippoorwilled
who loon-waltzed our way across the fall season

who tweeted twitted twisted and tallyhoed on
but what stilled the waters the antithesis of laughter
came the calm call of the whippoorwill
calling up to the ballooning moon
to Henry, Huck, Hank, and all of us who
waltzing across a lightbox screen

click click click the path of the reen
and fail to see the turn of the season
while flashes YouTube and you too
laughing laughing laughing
at the simple simple single moon
who waltzes with the whippoorwill

to the epizeuxises of the whippoorwill
the yoke on me preening for the screening
in a full no half no quarter no moon
in the turning turning turning of the seasons
as the lone loon laughs
at Henry, Huck, Hank, me, and you too

yes at you too you too you too
whistles the only whippoorwill
as the moon falls fades the laugh
and across the pond fills the screen
white going going gone the season
of the wry loon waltzing with the moon

with the dry improbably wry moon
then on the far shore you too
out of rhyme out of sync out of season
running running running for the whippoorwill
and across the pond comes a single scream
that echoes epizootically laughing

out of season the waltzing singing loon
laughing woo hoo! woo hoo! woo hoo!
the poor loon waltz in a pale fall screen

“…and so there ain’t nothing more to write about, and I am rotten glad of it, because if I’d ‘a’ knowed what a trouble it was to make a book I wouldn’t ‘a’ tackled it, and ain’t a-going to no more. But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before” (Huckleberry Finn, last sentences).

Check out the Toads post at berfrois: “…what happens to Huck when he winds up in a research paper writing class? Tom skates through while Huck suffers the fantods.”