“I mean that there is a shadow of something colossal and menacing that even now is beginning to fall across the land. Call it the shadow of an oligarchy, if you will; It is the nearest I dare approximate it.” Jack London, The Iron Heel (1907)
“Be your Rubicon big or small, clear or foul, it is the same: you shall not return.”
I hate to bad-mouth modern culture—that’s not true, I spend half my time doing exactly that.
Anyway, here’s a thought: the more I enjoy a work of “classic” literature, the sadder I feel when I think about the general deterioration of modern literary taste and talent. And I very much enjoyed the book I just read: The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, by George Meredith. I had wanted to read one of Meredith’s novels for a long time. Published in 1859, Richard Feverel was one of his earliest novels. Do you know, the Los Angeles County Library system, which is an excellent library system with millions of books, doesn’t have a single copy of any of Meredith’s novels. And he was one of the foremost Victorian authors. I ended up ordering a used paperback copy online.
Richard Feverel was a young, spoiled aristocrat who inherited his father’s bull-headed stubbornness. The book is a romance, a social commentary on parental methods, and an exploration of society’s losing struggle with Nature. It achieves all these goals through a rich, dramatic plot and finely-drawn characters. These basic elements are brought to life through prose that is pure and dialogue that is varied and lifelike, all sharpened to a keen brilliance.
Meredith’s style is not radically distinguishable from Dickens or Eliot, but it does demand more thought and concentration than most Victorian romance. Richard Feverel is laced with allusions to both Christianity and ancient classical mythology and literature. Most of the main characters are well educated and tend to converse at an impressively-high intellectual level. Moreover, Meredith is prone to metaphor. Not all readers appreciate metaphor, but he uses the device so artfully and so faithfully that it forms a distinct layer of meaning in the novel. The sum result is a novel that kept me interested from start to finish, introduced me to a whole cast of unforgettable characters, and gave my brain some much-needed exercise.
So why does this make me sad? It makes me sad because nobody writes like that today. Some people might say that’s a good thing. That’s like saying it’s a good thing that today’s furniture is made of plywood and plastic instead of solid handcrafted hardwood. A lot of novels come and go in my house and I open them and start to read, in good faith. Of these, if they were written in the last thirty years, they almost always prove disappointing, in style, in character development, in originality, and life is too short to spend it reading things that don’t measure up to even the basic standards of earlier eras. There are some exceptions, thankfully. But when most people, and that includes most fiction writers, are raised on a steady diet of mass-produced popular literature, we can’t expect anything better when they, in turn, sit down to write the great American novel. Libraries and book stores with shelves full of glossy best-sellers and not a single George Meredith will not tend to produce great writers. They will produce writers of glossy best-sellers.
“Gambling!” she murmured.
“They call it buying and selling,” he went on, “down there in La Salle Street. But it is simply betting. Betting on the condition of the market weeks, even months, in advance. You bet wheat goes up. I bet it goes down. Those fellows in the Pit don’t own the wheat; never even see it. Wou’dn’t know what to do with it if they had it. They don’t care in the least about the grain. But there are thousands upon thousands of farmers out here in Iowa and Kansas or Dakota who do, and hundreds of thousand of poor devils in Europe who care even more than the farmer. I mean the fellows who raise the grain, and the other fellows who eat it. It’s life or death for either of them. And right between these two comes the Chicago speculator, who raises or lowers the price out of all reason, for the benefit of his pocket. You see Laura, here is what I mean.” Cressler had suddenly become very earnest. Absorbed, interested, Laura listened intently. “Here is what I mean,” pursued Cressler. “It’s like this: If we send the price of wheat down too far, the farmer suffers, the fellow who raises it if we send it up too far, the poor man in Europe suffers, the fellow who eats it. And food to the peasant on the continent is bread—not meat or potatoes, as it is with us. The only way to do so that neither the American farmer nor the European peasant suffers, is to keep wheat at an average, legitimate value. The moment you inflate or depress that, somebody suffers right away. And that is just what these gamblers are doing all the time, booming it up or booming it down. Think of it, the food of hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people just at the mercy of a few men down there on the Board of Trade. They make the price. They say just how much the peasant shall pay for his loaf of bread. If he can’t pay the price he simply starves. And as for the farmer, why it’s ludicrous. If I build a house and offer it for sale, I put my own price on it, and if the price offered don’t suit me I don’t sell. But if I go out here in Iowa and raise a crop of wheat, I’ve got to sell it, whether I want to or not at the figure named by some fellows in Chicago. And to make themselves rich, they may make me sell it at a price that bankrupts me.”
Frank Norris was born in Chicago. When he grew up he wrote “The Pit”, about the greed and speculation at the Chicago grain markets. It’s a powerful, epic novel. And just as wheat was an exploited and sought-after commodity, so was Laura, the protagonist of the novel, bid upon by the male speculators who knew her . . .
And ’tis most evident and plain, that simple Nature is the most harmless, inoffensive and virtuous Mistress. ’Tis she alone, if she were permitted, that better instructs the World, than all the Inventions of Man.
Aphra Behn, Oroonoko (1688)
“For Fear he arms, and is of Arms afraid;”
John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester (1679)
OATH TO BE A CHAMPION FOR TRUTH
I solemnly swear that I will not accept or share irrelevant, self-serving, uncorroborated, isolated, cherry-picked, out-of-context, irrational, false, misleading, hateful or inflammatory statements of any kind. Before relying upon or sharing information, I will make sure that reputable sources corroborate the information. I am familiar with various methods of searching and reviewing all forms of media, government, academic and NGO resources.
I understand that the above sources may vary greatly in terms of potential bias or interest. I know that information sources are not all equally committed to accuracy or truth. I will be mindful of these subjective factors when I evaluate the information they publish. I also understand the difference between fact and opinion.
I therefore swear that I will be a Champion for Truth to the best of my ability, and will hold others to the same standards of honesty and integrity.
Thus whilst against false Reas’ning I inveigh,I own right Reason, which I would obey;That Reason which distinguishes by Sense,And gives us Rules of Good and Ill from thence;That bounds Desires with a reforming Will,To keep them more in Vigour, not to kill.
Excerpt from A Satire Against Mankind (1679) by John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester
Prosecutorial discretion can be a complicated thing. It can get really complicated when the suspect is a person by the name of Donald Trump.
In the wake of Trump’s Impeachment trial, state and federal prosecutors are now in the spotlight. They need to weigh all kinds of factors, including the nature and gravity of the offenses, and various policy considerations. Prosecutors decide whether charges should be filed and what particular charges should be included. Once charges are filed, there are myriad discretionary decisions that will be made about how to conduct the case.
Today, the Senate failed to convict him of the Impeachment charge, but Donald Trump is still suspected of committing a wide range of criminal offenses, from Tax Fraud, to Conspiracy to Interfere with an Election, to Seditious Conspiracy Against the United States, and even aiding and abetting the Murder of a Capitol Hill police officer. So he is still subject to criminal prosecution in the courts, and the crimes themselves are about as serious as serious gets.
Mitigating circumstances? It is hard to imagine that Donald Trump, rich, powerful, Commander-in-Chief, had any mitigating excuses for these crimes that are under investigation.
How about policy considerations. This is where it gets really complicated. At first glance, that is. Prosecutors have the simultaneous duties to enforce the criminal laws and see that justice is done. But they have the inherent discretion to take other factors into account. So, when Donald Trump is the potential criminal defendant, the policy factors they need to take into account have national and international significance. On the one hand, they might worry that trying Donald Trump for serious crimes could cause a violent backlash. They might conclude that prosecuting him would somehow lead to more human suffering than it would prevent.
On the other hand, they must consider what effect it would have if Trump were never held accountable, what would that do to our principle that no one is above the law. How would such impunity affect our democracy, how might it embolden other would-be tyrants? How would it influence the opinions or actions of other nations? If Trump is able to escape justice through his personal status or his connections, could it have possibly devastating effects on our nation’s morale? Our country is already suffering from inequalities based on race, religion, gender, and other social factors.
If Trump evades prosecution and punishment, will he not continue to pose a threat to our democratic political system, and to our national security? Those are concerns which the House Impeachment Managers emphasized zealously.
Can Donald Trump get a fair trial in the criminal courts? That is a policy question that has to be looked at as well. But the Courts provide due process, including procedures for selecting an appropriate venue and a fair jury. He will enjoy all the constitutional rights of any criminal defendant.
Finally, prosecutors can and should consider humanitarian factors. Has the suspect already suffered enough? Is he remorseful, has he demonstrated that he is motivated to atone for his crimes, to repay society for the harm he has done? Is he using his words, actions, or resources to make the world a better, safer place? Did he appear at his Impeachment trial and admit what he had done and show that he has learned from his mistakes? Were there ever questions that deserved a more resounding “No” than these crucial questions in the context of Donald Trump’s behavior?
Prosecutors will have to make their own discretionary choices. We hope that they will exercise their authority wisely. It is not easy being a prosecutor and figuring out what is the right thing to do, in every case. I don’t envy them dealing with the pressure of having to sort out all the positives and negatives of prosecuting Donald Trump. But I think we will see them do the right thing. I think we will see some degree of justice achieved. That is an achievement that all rational Americans should desire and support. And rational thinking is what this country needs right now, more than anything, from all its citizens.
“Is he the only man that hath set his life against a stake which may be not worth the winning? Another risks his life (and his honor, too, sometimes,) against a bundle of bank-notes, or a yard of blue ribbon, or a seat in Parliament; and some for the mere pleasure and excitement of the sport;”
From Henry Esmond, by Thackeray
“And now, having seen a great military march through a friendly country; the pomps and festivities of more than one German court; the severe struggle of a hotly contested battle, and the triumph of victory, Mr. Esmond beheld another part of military duty: our troops entering the enemy’s territory, and putting all around them to fire and sword; burning farms, wasted fields, shrieking women, slaughtered sons and fathers, and drunken soldiery, cursing and carousing in the midst of tears, terror, and murder. Why does the stately Muse of History, that delights in describing the valor of heroes and the grandeur of conquest, leave out these scenes, so brutal, mean, and degrading, that yet form by far the greater part of the drama of war?”
From Henry Esmond by Thackerary
“Similarity, a virtue in peas, is a vice in books.”
BOOK? . . . The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade (1861)
WHAT KIND? . . . Novel
BE MORE SPECIFIC . . . Historical Fiction/Adventure/Romance
ABOUT WHAT? . . . Set in the late 15th Century, The Cloister and the Hearth is a kind of English Three Musketeers. Following the travels and adventures of Gerard, the hero and lover, from his home in Holland to various parts of Europe and back, it is a swashbuckling epic weaving historical background with fictional family saga. Charles Reade was thoroughly English, but the story itself is steeped in the culture and history of the Continent, and, if nothing else, is an encyclopedic travelogue of Renaissance Holland, Germany, France and Italy. But, the book is a great deal more than that. There is gallantry, there is villainy. There is suspense, there is intrigue. There is humor, there is irony. There is insight into Christianity as well as Greek and Roman thought.
SIGNIFICANCE? . . . I call it a masterpiece. Cloister is 900 pages of unparalleled adventure, cleverly constructed and brimming with memorable characters drawn with an artist’s eye. The book is rich in factual detail; Reade was known for his painstaking research, he is said to have amassed thousands of notes and documents for many of his works. And what sets this work apart, also, is Reade’s style: he is a master of Renaissance-style prose. The book is almost Shakespearian in its wit and charm, in the lyrical quality of its language.
SO SHOULD I READ IT OR WHAT? . . . It takes a mighty good book to keep me reading for 900 pages. If you like anything written by Alexander Dumas, then you would like this. If you don’t, you won’t.
YOU GOT ANYTHING ELSE TO ADD? . . . . I would like to read some of Reade’s other works, just to see how they compare to his historical masterpiece.
“Mr. Doe, you’re a U.S. Senator and a loyal Trump supporter, is that correct?”
“I stand with the President 100%.”
“And you agree with Mr. Trump that the election was somehow rigged against him?”
“It most certainly was.”
“What would it take to satisfy you that the election was free and fair?”
“Well, there would have to be a full investigation of every allegation of fraud.”
“Well, Sir, state election officials have done those investigations and found no fraud. The U.S. Departments of Justice and Homeland Security have also found no fraud. And the Courts have reviewed Mr. Trump’s claims and found no evidence of fraud. So doesn’t that address all your concerns, Senator?”
“No, it doesn’t.”
“I see. So what WOULD satisfy you that the election was free and fair?”
“Well I don’t know, there has to be proof that there wasn’t any hanky-panky going on.”
“What kind of proof?”
“How should I know, I don’t work in the election office. I’m a Senator.”
“So you’re saying that the people running the election are the ones who would know the actual facts.”
“Of course, that’s just basic horse sense.”
“And those officials have all confirmed the accuracy and fairness of the election, correct?”
“They said it, but they could be wrong.”
“All the state and local election officials across the country could be wrong? And you think you and Mr. Trump are right.”
“Yes I do.”
“And that’s based on . . ?”
“I told you, the election was rigged, there was fraud everywhere.”
“Senator, you’re up for re-election in 2022. Why should the people of your state send you back to Washington in two years?”
“The people of my state know I have always done everything humanly possible to improve their lives in every way.”
“Uh-huh. How much Covid relief for families, workers and small businesses are you voting for, Senator?”
“Well, we’ll have to see about that. This Covid thing has been way overblown. Very few people have died, it’s nowhere near as bad as what the . . .”
“Are you all right, Senator?”
“Yeah I just got a little dizzy there. Feels like there’s a weight or something on my chest, all of a sudden.”
“Gee that’s a deep cough you have there, Senator. How long have you had that?”
“Just the last couple hours, I . . .”
“Senator, the video output of your computer is a little blurry, but you don’t look so good. Do you have someone there who could take your temperature?”
“My wife Elaine is here but she’s in bed. She’s had the worst cold all day, can barely breathe.”
“Senator, my network is gonna call 9-1-1 for you. Okay?”
“Yes, you know. One of those public services that you’re always saying will take us down the road to socialism.”
“Upon which the other observed, that since the unfortunate man’s alleged experience could not be deemed very conciliatory towards a view of human nature better than human nature was, it largely redounded to his fair-mindedness, as well as piety, that under the alleged dissuasives, apparently so, from philanthropy, he had not, in a moment of excitement, been warped over to the ranks of the misanthropes.”
This is an actual sentence from the book I’m reading – The Confidence Man by Herman Melville. As you can see, the writing is complex, highly-punctuated, and awkward. It is also a very clever and witty book, full of social commentary and dramatic irony. I am about halfway through. I do not, in truth, expect to finish the book, which is not of inordinate length, anytime soon, given the limitations and, circumstances being what they are, stultification of my brain as the months flow by with no foreseeable deceleration of the aging process, inevitable as it tends to be despite our best efforts to hinder that implacable, albeit invisible, adversary.
Until the federal government takes responsibility . . . states, counties and cities need to enact EMERGENCY laws PROHIBITING GUNS IN PUBLIC. Starting now. No guns in public. Big guns, little guns, pretty guns, ugly guns, manly guns, silly guns. Guns.
Otherwise, we are held hostage by angry armed thugs. We know that without their guns they’re cowards. With their guns they’re self-righteous bullies. I like them better without their guns.
A high fog covered the sky, and behind it the moon shone, so that the forest was filled with a gauzelike light. There was none of the sharp outline we think of as reality. [Tortilla Flat]
They are novels in that each one is a series of connected stories, occurring chronologically. Put together they only equal the length of one shorter-than-average novel. But in Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row, there’s more heart, and soul, than just about anything before or since.
Light in tone and small in scope, these short works capture everyday humanity, its strengths and weaknesses, to a T, because that’s what Steinbeck did better than anyone. Together they paint a true to life picture of the Monterey that Steinbeck knew as a young man.
They should be read consecutively, Tortilla Flat and then Cannery Row. Tortilla Flat, set in the squalid outskirts of Monterey, charts the friendship and fates of a group of young men bonded by their mutual lack of opportunity and ambition. Cannery Row is the industrial shoreline of Monterey, and its inhabitants reflect all the earthiness of any Depression-era factory town or village. The reader begins to feel like Monterey is a place they know and understand.
The stories should be read with appreciation for Steinbeck’s language: spare, vivid, poetic, every word a key to something. The characters’ speech is unadorned, natural to the place, time and class of the speaker:
“He ain’t going to be what you’d call tender,” said Hazel. “You’d have to cook him about two weeks to get him tender. How old about do you judge he was, Mack?”
“I’m forty-eight and I ain’t as tough as he is,” said Mack.
Eddie said “How old can a chicken get, do you think—that’s if nobody pushes him around or he don’t get sick?”
“That’s something nobody isn’t ever going to find out,” said Jones. [Cannery Row]
Steinbeck wrote some weightier books, far more serious and larger in scope. But these two short works are American gems, they say so much so sweetly about what we’re capable of as simple human beings.
Apparently, when Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962 there was criticism of the choice. I will never understand how that could be. While taste is a subjective matter, when you weigh the stories, the strength of the characters and their lives, along with the richness of the prose, I cannot see another writer more deserving of the award. In my school of thought, Steinbeck is the Dean of American writers.
An election is really a big, powerful march. A march through the streets of Everytown. A march for truth and justice.
Every ballot is a giant protest sign.
Every vote is a clear, deafening shout.
Every trip to a polling place is a proud fist in the air.
Every decision in a voting booth is an impassioned speech from the courthouse steps.
Every mail-in ballot is a cheer from a crowd filled with hope and solidarity.
Every election is a march to a better world.
First I read The Plutocrat (see prior post), and now The Magnificent Ambersons. I have spent my whole life (until recently) ignorant of the genius of Booth Tarkington. Am I solely to blame? Why didn’t English teachers and professors lecture me upon his deeply American (and Midwestern) wit and wisdom? Why didn’t friends or family members fold his books into my eager little hands? Why didn’t kindly librarians lead me to the correct shelf midway between Steinbeck and Twain and tell me that Tarkington is the third and central pillar of American letters?
Why? I don’t have time to worry about why, I have thirty-three Tarkington novels to read before my body or my brain turn to mold. Maybe reading them will work like an antiseptic and delay the moldering process.
The row is broken only at the perpendicular, identical crossroads, leaving just room enough to slip between the piles of ledgers and adding machines.
BOOK? . . . The Erasers, by Alain Robbe-Grillet (1953)
WHAT KIND? . . . Novel
BE MORE SPECIFIC . . . Nouveau Roman. Absurdist and/or realist mystery
ABOUT WHAT? . . . This is a murder mystery. But IS IT a murder mystery? And if it IS a murder mystery, WHY is it a murder mystery? And eventually, finding no answers, you die of frustration. When you read a story by Robbe-Grillet there will be things that you will never quite be sure of. He will tell you things and show you things and you will want to believe them, even if they don’t make sense because he never actually explains the things that he shows and tells. But if you find yourself believing certain things other things will make you think that you were a fool to believe the first set of things and that there are an infinite number of sets of things that you might want to believe in except that there could only be one set of things. Or could there?
On a slightly more literal level, the story is about a political murder in a port city of post-war Flanders. A government agent arrives in the city and investigates the murder. At least he SEEMS to be investigating the murder. And he SEEMS to be a government agent. Or does he? Sorry, strike that. Force of habit. Anyway, one thing is definite: he’s not a very efficient investigator. He spends a whole day wandering the streets of the port city, which are like a labyrinth (in college we read Robbe-Grillet’s In the Labyrinth. I remember liking it because of its mysterious strangeness. That’s all I remember). He finally manages to track down all the witnesses but the manner in which he does that leads to an illogical, nerve-racking climax. Or does it? Now cut that out, Chuck! Okay, you’re right, strike that, too.
SIGNIFICANCE? . . . Uhhhhh. Life is a mystery? Yeah, the book is absurdist and questions reality. It uses experimental style and structure. He creates a cold bleak mechanical world. Even the people are strange and mechanical, going about their lives as though they have no personal will. This was his first novel, the beginning of a groundbreaking career in literature and film.
SO SHOULD I READ IT OR WHAT? . . . Uhhhhh. Depends on your mood and your personality. Maybe not. But I’m glad I read it.
YOU GOT ANYTHING ELSE TO ADD? . . . The universe is expanding. In case you need something to make you feel less lost after reading Robbe-Grillet.
Almost one hundred years ago, this was the young Englishman’s declaration of independence from The Mater:
“I don’t really want to have my bed choked with hot-water bottles whenever I sneeze, and be given whiskies and lemon last thing; or to have my suits forever reft away to be cleaned, and all that. If I want a whisky I can ask the butler for it . . .”
Ann Bridge, Illyrian Spring (1935)
There’s a vaccine for racism. It’s called raising your children to be colorblind and loving.
There’s also an antibody test for racism. It’s called listening.
There’s no cure for racism, but there’s a treatment. It’s called dialogue.