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May 2013

Winesburg, Ohio

Winesburg, OhioWinesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was completely mesmerized by this collection of stories. Though I have seen it listed at times as an American classic, it was not one on my radar screen (or that long virtual list we all keep) to read. I've probably even passed it by before. But last week, on a cold, rainy day at Lake Okoboji I came across a Modern Library edition in an antique store for only $5 and decided to give it a try.

And since I began it on Monday, I've devoured it.

Published in 1915 these stories are set in Winesburg, Ohio, a small town of around 1500, situated on a railroad line and sixteen miles south of Lake Erie. It is in a valley of farms, including orchards and berry farms. The time is just after the turn of the last century -- Civil War vets are still alive.

I thought it would be quaint images of small town life in a previous era. It is not. Elements of that are there, but this book is so much more and different than that.

The prologue is entitled "The Book of the Grotesque." In it a writer imagines that truths used to lie about and were beautiful, but then people came along and picked them up and distorted them. "It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood."

Reading the prologue I was both confused and intrigued about what I had gotten myself into.

What follows is a series of stories about the people of Winesburg, and each one is odd in his or her own way. Queer would actually be a great description, in its original English meaning of odd or different -- it is also a word that appears in that way in one chapter of the book, as one character doesn't want to be queer and goes insane maybe because he doesn't realize everyone else is as well.

Though there is a clear influence of the Gothic, this is realist fiction. I realized that this novel is the link between Hawthorne and Steinbeck. I caught shades of Poe and Melville (many of the characters seem as obsessed with one thing as Ahab was with the white whale) and precedence for Updike (one chapter is an early Rabbit, Run), Roth (one chapter suggests Portnoy), and more. The style of writing is closest to Steinbeck -- I kept thinking of In Dubious Battle, for instance. Realizing these connections, I contend that this is an essential American classic -- essential to understanding our literary history.

But what really struck me was the realistic appraisal of small town, Midwestern life. No sentimentality here. Anderson reveals that our quaint images are a facade for incredible violence, repressed desires, miserable lives, and mental illness. Lots of mental illness. This life seems to drive almost every character either insane or to violence and sometimes both.

But I couldn't escape the idea that there was even more in this book than everything I had yet realized. It is probably not enough to contend that this reveals the reality of Midwestern life a century ago. I think there is still great truth in it for our contemporary context. Midwesterners are very reserved and don't like talking about issues and concerns. There is some healthy understanding of boundaries in this, but it can also verge into its own unhealthiness, refusing to deal openly and honestly with problems. Midwesterners are less demonstrative and physical, indicating that levels of repression still exist. And there is a strange provincialism.

Thinking of grotesque characters calls to mind the racist, homophobic, and otherwise strange sheriff's deputy we encountered in Western Nebraska in January 2011.

I wondered if anyone is writing exactly this kind of fiction. Television, I decided. Episodic, realistic stories which present the queer and grotesque characters in American life. The best television shows, things like Six Feet Under, would seem to descendants of Anderson's book.

So, even with all of that, I feel that there is even more to this book. That I was on the cusp of some great revelation. This is definitely one which will live with me and to which I will have to turn again some years hence.

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The case against empathy

Last night I read an interesitng essay in The New Yorker entitled "The Baby in the Well: The case against empathy" by Paul Bloom.  It discussed much of the recent work on empathy and how it has been discussed in the public sphere.  Many believe that we require an increase in empathy to solve our problems.  Bloom, and others disagree.  While they believe that empathy is important for developing a moral consciense, it is not the best moral guide.  

Empathy is what makes us human; it’s what makes us both subjects and objects of moral concern. Empathy betrays us only when we take it as a moral guide.

Rather, we need to develop our rational skills.  Currently we respond overwhelming to immediate disasters, particularly those that are easily covered by the media, but don't respond well to long term, large scale problems which usually harm and kill more people -- e. g. gun violence, lack of access to health care, global warming.

“The decline of violence may owe something to an expansion of empathy,” the psychologist Steven Pinker has written, “but it also owes much to harder-boiled faculties like prudence, reason, fairness, self-control, norms and taboos, and conceptions of human rights.” A reasoned, even counter-empathetic analysis of moral obligation and likely consequences is a better guide to planning for the future than the gut wrench of empathy.

In fact, sometimes empathy gets in the way of moral judgement, as we react in a way that is protective of those closest to us, but in a way that harms more people.  

Overall, it is a fascinating discussion, and one I recommend to you.

Augustine on suicide

I haven't been able to progress very far in The City of God.  I'm only about twenty (small) chapters into book one (or about 30 pages).  In the last bit I read he discussed suicide, which he was very against.  I am intrigued by how the last three philosophy books I read by Augustine, Marcus Aurelius, and Lucretius are so concerned with death.

In my last reading, what disturbed me was his discussion of some virgins who were raped and then killed themselves.  He says that one can't judge them (even though he is against suicide) because their shame was just too great.  Gosh.  Why not question the social mores that created that shame?  Is it only modern to ask those sorts of questions?

State Violence: The Moscow Census of 1937

I'm reading the book Moscow 1937 by German historian Karl Schlogel.  It is about Stalin's purges and the terror unleashed upon Soviet society, which cannabilized those who had participated in the Revolution and were part of creating the new socialist dream.  The overall book is demonstrating the irrationality of the terror.

One chapter is on the census of 1937.  When the total population figures ended up being below what the government thought they would be -- by around 8 million -- they reacted by arresting and executing the people in charge of the census.  The numbers were low because the five year plans, the civil war, and other purges had resulted in millions dead, but rather than face reality, they eliminated those in charge of the census and accused them of being Trotskyist traitors.  

Here is a revealing section of Schlogel's analysis:

Since the census was the most ambitious, most complex and expensive attempt to draw up a balance sheet of society and to conduct a process of self-diagnosis twenty years after the Revolution--'The census was a pioneering enterprise intended to provide the fullest possible picture of Soviet life'--the suppression of its findings and the murder of those who organized it was noting less than the obliteration of the capacity for social self-analysis.  An authoritarian society, however, that is unable to form an idea of itself, whatever social engineering its leadership may have in mind, is doomed to the blind exercise of state violence.  Blindness resulting from the destruction of a society's knowledge of itself inevitably turns into blind terror.

Kung on Francis

Great theologian Hans Kung writes about Pope Francis and the paradox of a pope taking the name and what it might mean for the possible transformation of the Roman Catholic Church.

Thus, the early Christian basic concerns of Francis of Assisi remain even today questions for the Catholic church and now for a pope who, indicating his intentions, has called himself Francis. It is above all about the three basic concerns of the Franciscan ideal that have to be taken seriously today: It is about poverty, humility and simplicity. This probably explains why no previous pope has dared to take the name of Francis: The expectations seem to be too high.

Garden: Bloomsdale Longstanding Spinach

I received this much more detailed information from Tim McCollum on Facebook:

That's Bloomsdale Long Standing Spinach, a large semi-upright variety that was introduced to the U.S. in the early to mid-1820s. It is the most popular non-hybrid variety used among gardeners. It handles hot weather better than most and is slow bolting - which the plant in the image is doing (i.e. the plant is now focused on putting on a stalk and producing flowers for reproduction, rather than producing foliage). But you and Michael should sow some more, as Bloomsdale can be sown, grown, and picked well into the summer. High in vitamins A, C and the B-complex, its is a prolific producer. Its large crumpled leaves can be cooked as greens and its smaller leaves used fresh in salads. Since you asked.