Thursday, November 12, 2009

Desmond Tutu and the Christian "Yes" to Life

As an anecdote to the melancholy musings of Simone Weil, I looked up some speeches and interviews of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Aside from being extremely moved by his commitment to forgiveness and reconciliation, with which we are all familiar, I was especially struck by his manners, affect and humor as the pure embodiment of joy. Indeed, one has to ask the question, what is Desmond Tutu laughing about? Born and raised in the evil regime of apartheid, Desmond Tutu watched his people experience daily humiliation, imprisonment, torture and abuse. Even after the extraordinary moment of liberation for black South Americans and the initiative of peace and reconciliation, South Africa is still plagued with corruption, the AIDS epidemic, and violence. But it is clear from the speech he gave at UC Santa Barbara that Archbishop Tutu laughs, tells jokes and dances - in fact, much more than the average white Americans who have not come even close to experiencing the evils that he has witnessed in his lifetime.

Christians so often fall into trap of warm-bath pseudo-theology (how nice it is to be told once again by some feeble-minded preacher that "God loves us all!" "Jesus loves us all!") that it would be easy to mistake Desmond Tutu's radical Christian rhetoric of hope as one of false optimism. But there is nothing easy about Archbishop Tutu's claim that God loves Bin Laden and George W. Bush, too. It is not easy because he is not saying that they are not guilty. Nothing can be farther from the truth than the claim that Desmond Tutu is indulging the brutal white oppressors. He makes it clear that he is far from granting them innocence. In fact, the concept of forgiveness would have no meaning if the forgiven person were to be found innocent. Responsibility being an urgent question in modernity (nowadays it seems that every criminal has the right to his or her crime based on his or her childhood traumas and adolescent misadventures), Desmond Tutu is holding the criminals responsible yet holding open the door.

Desmond Tutu's feat lies in his application in the political realm of two Christian notions that on the surface look like the most a-political notions of all: forgiveness and confession. These two notions do not sound as political as "the first will be last, the last will be first," the notion that makes the Christian roots of socialist revolutions unmistakable. Both forgiveness and confession are about surrendering power and rights. To forgive, as Desmond Tutu puts it beautifully, is to jettison one's rights to revenge. To confess, one admits one is wrong: both in the confessional booth or in mass, one is asked to kneel in order to display a physical sign of humility. Both confession and forgiveness give away power, which is why they are much more unpopular than their weaker kin, namely justice.

The word "justice" holds much more power in secular society, both as a name for our legal apparatus and for our so-called humanitarian activities, which often has "social justice" written all over their brochures. One wonders if the enormous satisfaction we get out of watching television shows about the court or the police has also to do with the momentary exhilaration of watching the bad guys get caught, prosecuted, etc. What is radical about Desmond Tutu's theology and political action is that he wants to go beyond justice, because he knows that justice does not restore equilibrium and harmony. There is almost something ecological about his way of handling human affairs: the issue is not so much who are the evil-doers, who threw the poison into the river, but how do we get the poison out of our community so that we all may drink good water again.

Without in any way disagreeing with Hannah Arendt's assessment of Adolf Eichmann as a buffoon, I wonder how the 1200 or so pages of his testimony (the inanity of which made Arendt laugh out loud instead of cry) would have been different if he were asked not to defend himself but to confess. I wonder if Arendt could have been spared her enormous irritation with the sob stories of victims (the very irritation that got her in trouble with the Jewish community all over), if they were not asked to perform their victimhood, if it was acknowledged as the premise of the trial that they had been hurt. Obviously this would not have been a conceivable model for the Jerusalem court, but is there any surprise that the defendant should always be someone who closes oneself off to the accusing party, for defense means no other than closing one's fortress, closing one to truth? Is there any surprise that a system based on justice and retribution would require that the accusing party to demonstrate their grievances?

Desmond Tutu's radicality lies in his transformation of the system of justice from the defendant-plaintiff model to the confessor-forgiver model, whose political value lies in its openness. What is interesting is that Archbishop Tutu's "political ecology" is only possible with a notion of evil that is not attached to a person but is something that takes a person hostage. It is a system that assumes that all human beings strive for life and the good the way plants strive for the sun and water. Nietzsche famously accuses Christianity of slave mentality, and whether he is right or not, he is calling attention to the inherent pessimism and perhaps masochism in a religion that is based on the idea of turning the other cheek. But in Desmond Tutu, we are reminded that if the good is on the side of the oppressed, it is also on the side of joy, harmony and peace. While the image of Eden might be a dangerous trap for the kind of utopian thinking that leads to bloody revolutions, it can easily be mobilized in Desmond Tutu's ecological ethics as the imaginary in comparison to which oppression and evil cannot but appear as an aberration. Eden, as an image of flourishing, of life, of harmony, is not so much our dream but "God's dream for us." Maybe the image of Eden is the secret to Desmond Tutu's seemingly perpetual smile, a smile that is as warm and genuine as it is enigmatic.

In listening to Desmond Tutu, one is struck by the sense of exaltation that permeates all his speeches and interviews. The use of metaphors such as an eagle being let free off the cliff, to "fly, fly, fly" certainly presents a very different image of Christianity than the "no to life." If only Nietzsche could have seen, instead of depressed, myoptic, crouching German Protestants of the 19th century, this African elder who laughs, who tells jokes, who shouts "Ubuntu! Ubuntu!" who leads his people away from violence, revenge and destruction and into the joy of life. No doubt, Nietzsche is right that Christianity as a tradition is itself largely responsible for secularism, disenchantment and the nihilism that ensues in the west. But it is perhaps not so much the presence of Christianity but the absence of "Ubuntu," the being of person through other persons, that made the white man so depressed, alone and full of resentment. Perhaps this is all the more reason that the white man needs the man of color to bring him back his humanity. The individualist white man needs the black man to teach him once again that life is joy only when it is not simply "my life" but the life principle itself that every being shares.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Peasants and Beggars

Jackie asked me about articles on beauty in urban neighborhoods, so my mind wandered as I thought to myself, "But what do we really mean by beauty? Whose beauty? The Anglo-Saxon ideal or the African-American ideal?" (The recent exchange on music in the church included a comment by Jackie that some folks can't get beyond the 19th century, which I assume to be Victorian, Edwardian culture, etc.) I then started to think about why the contemporary discourse on poverty, illness, old age and death is so insufficient in this era of speed, beauty and health. We have no patience for melancholy (psychiatric over-prescription is a real problem), for old people who walk and talk slowly, and needless to say, for the poor.

Beauty is indeed the question; I have been advocating it in my last posts as part of elite Episcopalian social responsibility. I am not taking those thoughts back, but I wonder if we should also think about representations of the socially marginalized. I did a quick search for images of the beggar in the history of western art, and intriguingly I found that pre-modern depictions of beggars and cripples are usually absent of any psychologism or sentimentality. More importantly, as demonstrated by the great northern painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder's painting, Peasant Wedding, there is no fetishization of the poor as the "other." Where are the "poor" in this painting? The decor of the room is bare and simple; the celebrants of the feast are in humble peasant attires and their manners naive and rough; the food looks like soup. By our standards, these northern European peasants of the 16th century would be poor. But in this painting, they are the hosts of a feast; moreover, they're letting the beggars into the party in the upper left hand corner. The beggars, for that matter, don't seem to look as miserable as the modern bourgeois would like. We are more used to romanticized depictions of near naked children, bare-footed yet doe-eyed, sitting on the road. If they happen to be dark-skinned, it sets them even farther away from our comfortable lives and allow us to shed even more tears of pity. But this painting presents a raucous scene of festivity that is completed by the entry of the beggars. If they are taking away resources, the beggars also add joy and merriment.

Pieter Bruegel represents a school of painting that is relatively indifferent to the aesthetic standards of the art academies, which in Italy and France began to flourish based on a systematization of artistic achievements of southern Renaissance. Instead, Bruegel is known for enigmatic, ludic scenes that derive from the vernacular, the folkloric. He is the painter of the peasants and their non-ideal faces: crooked noses, fat chins, missing teeth. Yet no one who has spent some time looking at Bruegel's paintings could remain untouched by the unruly tenderness that he gives to these figures. They are paradoxically both ugly and beautiful: they occupy the ambiguous zone between the real world and the fairy tale. In this strange way, this painting does not separate the world into the rich and poor, the beautiful and the ugly. Instead, it divides the world into the hosts and the guests, both of whom have a right to fill the house where food abounds. I wonder if there aren't some things to be learned from such a view of the world.

The need for beauty is human, but it is also essentially fascist and totalitarian (there are hundreds of books and articles about fascism as the aesthetization of the world), unless we commit ourselves to loving only what is both beautiful and good, and what is good must be real. Crooked nose and missing teeth are real; the uncouth manners of the peasants are real; the bare benches and pots of brown-ish soups are real; and the disruption of the party by the hungry beggars is real. But Bruegel seems to be charmed by such realities; he muses on them; he transforms the beggars and the peasants, not by idealizing them as 19th-century bourgeois novelists would do, but by distancing himself just enough to give us a totalistic view of how the world is composed.

I think this painting is the perfect image for Jackie's community kitchen, because it includes the beggars into the world. Ultimately, homeless people and bourgeois people still belong to one world, they still tread the same ground on God's earth - this is the greatest mystery of all.

Monday, November 2, 2009

"Elation. Elegance. Exaltation."

This past Sunday, All Saints Sunday, Christ Church Cathedral in Houston hosted a jazz mass featuring an improvisational piece called The Gospel According to John Coltrane (based on "A Love Supreme") in lieu of the sermon. The composer's jazz quartet performed the majority of the service music gleaned from African American spirituals and Americana: "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands," "Let Us Break Bread Together," and a rousing "When the Saints Go Marching In" at the end of the service. The composer of the Love Supreme piece also arranged the music for the Gloria, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei.

As I glanced through the bulletin while listening to the bassist tune his instrument and the saxophonist warm up, I had my doubts. Not only had I had my own personal spirituality-and-Coltrane horror story (imagine a seminar on African American religion in which the students had to lie down on the floor and listen to "A Love Supreme"). I also got the sense that the cathedral's highbrow choir and congregation are much more notable for their appreciation of exquisite traditional song settings than improvisational music paired with Coltrane's psychedelic lyrical musings about how all thoughts and vibrations trace back to God. They might appreciate Coltrane in the abstract, but this was a different animal.

Early on, it became clear that the cathedral was getting pretty full - almost to Christmas and Easter numbers - and that it was a mix of people, including a good number who aren't the usual Sunday crowd. The opening hymn was a traditional Ralph Vaughan Williams accompanied by the organ, and then came the Gloria. An upbeat gospel tune. The presiding priest continued with the Collect, adding in some extra phrases (oh yes we do!) as she prayed in her Texas accent, and the congregation chuckled and then laughed loudly as we all sat for the first lesson. Clearly the jarring presence of this kind of music, the fullness of the church, and the awareness that we were mostly white folks had created a level of nervous energy that needed some release. Charismatic we are not.

Things settled down after that, and then, instead of the sermon, the Love Supreme piece began. Like the original Coltrane recording, it was a four-part piece that combined spoken word (a choir member reading of the words of Coltrane's poem from the liner notes - words that are also "spoken" through the saxophone), the choir singing certain phrases, and, of course, the quartet's music. The most jarring part: the extended drum solo. The most moving for me: the duet between the saxophone (moved to the rear of the church), and the trumpet, still in the front. From wailing and mournful to ecstatic, the two instruments played off one another, filling the entire building with their plaintive cries. All throughout, Coltrane's four beats (the part where he softly sings "a love supreme") continued, driving the music forward underneath all of the improvisation - the choir softly sang "we thank you God" from time to time as well.

I was sitting next to an elderly woman and a visitor there for the jazz (he didn't take communion), and I realized that this is what church should be. This is what Episcopalians can offer: openness and experimentation some Sundays, Anglican plainsong on other Sundays - a whole range of voices and experiences that speak to a whole range of people. If anything, I felt a strong and stirring sense of community with everyone who was in the cathedral experiencing this unusual and striking mixture, and all of this came together even more poignantly when the presiding priest proclaimed that All Saints Day was for mourning and for celebrating life - she listed all of the names of those who had died in the past year, and we renewed our baptismal vows.

The service ended perfectly with a very New Orleans version of "The Saints Go Marching In" - the choir, instead of processing, gathered at the front of the church, next to the jazz quartet, and clapped, as did we all. Somehow reconciled with this uncharacteristic display of joy in church, everyone burst into extended applause at the service's end.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Le style c'est l'homme meme

Quoted in Peter Novick's That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession:

Style is, above all, a system of forms with a quality and a meaningful expression through which the personality of the artist and the broad outlook of a group are visible. It is also the vehicle of expression within the group, communicating and fixing certain values . . . . It is, besides, a common ground against which innovations and the individuality of particular works may be measured.

From Meyer Schapiro (an art historian), "Style" in Anthropology Today, (Chicago, 1953).

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Episcopalianism and A Sense of Style

This is following up on multiple conversations on the front of the Episcopal church, beauty, art and style with Jackie and Gale. Jackie would love to have hipsters at her church; Gale teaches her students (sometimes in vain) that a sense of style is important in the White House and the American identity. These are fruit for thoughts. Lots of blue-blooded Episcopalians have a profound sense of beauty and culture - though, curiously, this is not the same as being hip. Are English hymnals and William Morris hip? Probably not - it's probably considered old-fashioned. After all, IKEA made this rather vicious campaign against English "chintz," urging the English to throw out their Victorian furniture in return for Billy bookcases and Paong chairs. But what English hymnals and William Morris have is a sense of coherence: they are linked by tradition and a set of values.

Jeremy and Gale came to the conclusion long ago that one of things that make us and our group of friends not so "bobo" is that we went to church. Most church people are not exactly hip. (And what is the sociological makeup of hipsters anyway? Gale, any thoughts? Do they not come from Episcopalian families?) Being cultivated is not the same as looking glamorous - there aren't many dandys around in this country. But the value of hipsters is perhaps their youth and their glam. If everyone thought that it was so "cool" to help out at St. Paul's soup kitchen, then social justice might be advanced. So how do we make social justice hip? (Why isn't it? Eating organic surely is.)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Bread & Roses in Massachusetts

Jackie, is this organization anywhere near you? They have the right idea - and I think the Episcopal church is in the position to broaden this to the arts, because it's what the Episcopalians have more than any other Christians in this country.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Right to Beauty (In Response to Jackie)

I had to post because my comment got too long.

I am preparing for my spring course on the *History of Design* and have been relatively unmotivated because I know little about the subject or how it's important to students. But this exchange between us is very inspiring. You're absolutely right to fight for the right of Ralph Adams Cram's church; I incidentally looked him up and found out that he's totally the arch-gay Anglo-Catholic aesthete that our friend Eric would surely appreciate. (Yes, Eric's music program in such a church would indeed bring a glimpse of beauty and love into the mills.)

Too often, Episcopalians don't connect their own love for the arts with social justice, you are the exception, and the other is a lay parishioner at St. Paul in Hyde Park who gave this ravishing sermon one year on Good Friday. She asked us to reflect on the true meaning of beauty: is it just for us to consume and feel good about ourselves as privileged Christians who could afford fresh flowers and professional musicians at our services? No, she said, it's so that we could feel the miseries of the world in a even more profound way.

I remember watching a Chicago elementary school teacher receive the Golden Apple Award last year, a young Hispanic woman who took her Hispanic students to have high tea at the Four Season's, with the reason that "I want them to know that they are good enough for this, that they have the right to this." The Dominican priest Alain-Marie Couturier also told the workers of Vance that they deserve the Matisse chapel that they helped build: "Don't ever resort to the false humility that you are too simple to understand this art, because it's below your dignity as Christian, nothing is too high for you..."

Idealism of the fool? No - I was in Gary, Indiana last November canvassing for the Obama campaign, and it was a spiritual illumination to listen to the steel workers, who told us how dejected they feel because their city lacks beauty. No one cleans the sidewalk, there's trash and weed everywhere. How can you not become depressed, how can you not gradually lose pride (pronounced "prad" which means in African-American idiom a kind of dignity, strength, resilience) in yourself, how can you resist from slowly identifying with your own unhappiness, if everything in your immediate physical environment spells "misery"?

The poor and the miserable need beauty more than any of us. We've been in it for so long that we have the power of the imagination, but they depend on beauty's physical, earthly manifestations, in the lovely chapel, in the music, in people who believe that "they are good enough for this." I am very sensitive to food not only because I like to eat, but because it is often food that divides the rich and the poor. Any mystery why Christ used the bread, the wine and the table to unite his people? At least once a day, people need to be reminded that EVERYONE, the poor above all, deserves to eat and drink, and not only that, at a table covered in white table cloth.

As Episcopalians, we need to turn our love for the arts and beauty into a form of productive outrage: we cannot morally acquiesce to a world where some people are led to believe that they don't deserve the white table cloth. To think that we've done Christ's work just by feeding the poor - as if they were just animals, as if they should be grateful to us just because we gave them soup in plastic cups in some dim, fluorescent-lit church basement - is simply bourgeois false consciousness and un-Christian.

A lot of people criticized the Arts & Crafts movement and the likes of Morris, Mackintosh and Ruskin because their socialist ideals did not prevent their decor and furniture from becoming commodities for the rich. But your case about Ralph Adams Cram's church proves that this is not entirely true. The poor too can enjoy the legacies of the Aesthetic Movement in interior design - no one has to pay to come to this chapel. Culture is there to be shared, because it is like bread, it is organic and vital. It provides a sense of wholeness without which no human being can live a meaningful life. This sense of wholeness should not be the privilege of the rich, unfortunately, it is increasingly the case in our capitalist society, where the poor are deprived of even spiritual resources to create their own culture. When we lose our sense of connected-ness, we become vulnerable and we fall prey to fanatic ideologies and political demagogy. This is what happened to the poor Muslims in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is also what happens to the American working class and farmers.

Very few of us can really go be with the poor the way Mother Theresa or Simone Weil did. But the very least we can do as elite Christians is to fight for the preservation and sharing of beauty, which is nothing other than the material manifestation of God's hope for us.

Episcopalians, know thyself!

I had a nice evening out with a colleague of mine, a young Latin Americanist in my department. She turned out to be a southern Californian and, unsurprisingly, episcopalian by upbringing. We had a conversation about Episcopalianism not as a religion but as a community, a culture, a tradition, and yes, as a set of weird ticks shared by a paradoxically privileged yet discrete group of Americans. My colleague was very amused by my observations and she said, "I've never thought of it like that, but now my entire life makes sense!" It amuses me too, that so many of the cradle Episcopalians I have met never looked at themselves as an "ethnic group," precisely because they are so "liberal." Race theorists might well be right to say that being "white" and "privilege" somehow makes you "normal" and "colorless," namely, cultural diversity includes you being surrounded by other colors that are not white.

The truth is that Episcopalians, when scrutinized closely with an anthropological lens, betray all the signs of being a very distinct community, with a basis in Anglo-American culture. They usually drive beat-up cars (Toyotas or Suburus) and spend lots of money on wine. They have dog-eared books at home on anything from Hannah Arendt to Baudelaire to Franz Boas (Jackie, your copy of "Primitive Art" is on my shelf!), but they haven't read them for a long, long time. Many of them are very progressive but have a bizarre idealization of history, which distinguishes them from the European left-wing. They might not advocate return to pre-Revolutionary time, but they can't give up their grandparents' Queen Anne furniture even if they don't manage getting them re-upholstered. Many of them also don't consider "Jingle Bell" a proper Christmas song. They support women's liberation and the use of contraceptives, but are often closeted papists who get very excited about visiting St. Peter's and getting a glimpse of the pope. Nature and culture in their unadulterated form are what Episcopalians love: so they either have a cabin in the mountains, a cottage by the lake, or spend that money on family vacations in Europe. (Italy is top on the list - I suspect that it's thanks to English Romanticism, Ruskin, Keats, etc.) Little reproductions or actual Byzantine/orthodox icons may be spotted in their living rooms. Episcopalian men are often one of the rare species of American males who can be both very macho and love Titian. Episcopalian women are often very good at writing "Thank You" notes and organizing potlucks and auctions; they apply such skills to areas as diverse as art history departmental social hours and Hyde Park Jazz Society fundraising. Aesthetically, they are contradictory: their personal manners are very restrained, but they love the exaltation of the arabesque (look at the legs of their furniture). Politically, they are both Republicans and Democrats (which is why they're interesting). And, as pointed out by Gale a long time ago, their are united by having cocktail hour at 5pm, no matter what name they might grant to the occasion.

These are quirky observations but I think that Episcopalians should realize more that they are a kind of ethnic-religious group much like the Jews. This might permit them to be more self-aware as a large constituency of the American elite. They should be more courageous in promoting a socially responsible and culturally intelligent form of Christianity in the US, and dare I say, in the world. I find it insidious that Episcopalians are so powerful and discrete about their identity - the American Jews at least have a very visible role in public life due to their strong identity. The advantage of coming to terms with your religio-ethnic identity is that you can better see what your contribution to the world can be.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Amira Hass, Guardian of Truth

The left-wing Israeli journalist Amira Hass won the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Women in Media Foundation this week, and for days now I have been in a kind of elation. I was spellbound by her 2003 interview at UC Berkeley, where she spoke with the relentless energy, impatience and honesty of someone who loved truth and justice more than herself. (I admit I cried through half of it.)

In Amira Hass I saw the ghosts of Hannah Arendt and Simone Weil, two of my heroines. I think about what unite these three women: their gender, their Jewish background, but more importantly, their incorruptible search for truth, their tireless efforts to share that truth even when no one hears or believes it, and their willingness to expose themselves. Arendt went to Jerusalem to report on Eichmann's trial, subsequently exposing herself to the attacks of Jews and Germans alike. Weil went to work in the vineyards and the factories, exposing herself to harsh physical labor and dangerous working conditions. Hass went to live in Gaza as well as Romania under Ceausescu in order to report on oppression with lived experiences and observations. What strikes me about all of them was how little they seem to be concerned with themselves, their reputation, their career, even their influences. When Amira Hass spoke of her "lifelong achievement" as "lifelong failure," she is dismissing the opportunity to glorify herself and risking the favors of those who honored her. When she says that she has not made an impact (because Israeli colonization of Palestine continues to justify Palestinian self-destruction), she is not complaining that people are not listening to her; she is complaining that people do not listen to truth.

Once, Hannah Arendt was asked by a journalist what kind of influences she had hoped to have on others. Her response is perhaps the only feminist moment in Arendt: "But it's so masculine, to always want to be influential! I just want to understand, and if I can help other people understand along the way, then I am happy." I wonder if Arendt has touched on something that she, Weil and Hass all have in common, namely, a voluntarism animated by a love for the world, a love that does not ask for any returns. These women remind me of why women have a place in public life; more specifically, they show why some women are particularly suited to be guardian angels of truth. Perhaps part of the problem with patriarchy is that it was a system of pride and delusions of grandeur, which prevents people from seeing the truth. What blocks truth more powerfully than anything is the attachment of the self to illusions.

It gives me such satisfaction to know that, in the 20th century and perhaps the next, it is female geniuses like Arendt, Weil and Hass who reveal the true meaning of philosophy: the love of wisdom that overpowers the love that the rest of us give too much to ourselves.

America: Home for the Brave – and the Unfeeling?

I had a small dinner party last night at my house, gathering old and new friends. At one point during the evening, we touched upon a subject that came up often in my interactions with non-American friends: why (white) Americans (in their view) do not seem to valorize human relationships. One of my guests mentioned that Mexican restaurants and supermarkets are so much friendlier than the white American establishments. When she visited the Mexican deli shop in her neighborhood the second time, the people immediately recognized her and asked if she had enjoyed the guacamole that she bought the last time (her first visit). Any white American establishment, however, would never betray their recognition even if they did remember you from the fifty times that you had bought coffee there. Another of my guests used a stronger term: she said that the Americans seem de-eroticized (ent-erotisiert), since they almost never express sympathies (distinct from the friendliness) with strangers. She also told me that I am thus far her only social contact in Eugene whom she feels comfortable calling and inviting; the colleagues in her department kept saying that they ought to “do lunch” – but only in two weeks, because they are too busy now. Her comment reminded me of an Israeli friend who once said that Americans pencil friendship into their work schedule. “What do you mean you have to look at your calendar? If I am your friend, I’m calling you and knocking on your door all the time, and you’d do the same to me,” he said, completely baffled by what he perceived as the lack of spontaneity in American social mores.

As someone who has several great (white) American friends, I am slightly defensive of this perception of Americans as unfeeling, professional-minded robots, but this perception has been put to me so often that I feel like there has got to be some reason behind it all. It is true that friends in Paris handled social relationships in a different way, and people in the same neighborhood solidarized much more than in the United States. In Paris, the butcher flirts, the boutique owner tells the trouble with her business, the professional cook invites me to lunch in his workshop, and the bookseller stays until 1 o’clock in the morning in the shop because we spent three hours talking about religion and politics. This bookseller in particular, who owns Tschann Libraire in Montparnasse, remembered me from 2001 when I first spent four months in Paris; I was 22 then, and when I came back to Paris again I was 27. I told him that his hair had turned gray during those five years. Once, I got locked out of my apartment, and instead of paying 200 euros to get a locksmith, I had the owner of the brasserie across the street come up to save me: His trick involved a radiogram and 15 minutes of nonstop banging on the door.

These memories are now particularly poignant to me because I find that the “friendly Oregonians” can sometimes be so cold to strangers. This morning, the bus driver turned away a whole station full of students, carrying heavy backpacks in the chilly fog, on the basis that the bus was full. It was not true at all: by the standards of Chicago or Paris, we could have easily fit 15 passengers more into the bus. (In India, perhaps another 50.) But that would require strangers to stand shoulder to shoulder, which is perhaps too much contact for them. Later, on the same bus, an old lady struggles to get up from her seat in order to get off the bus, and the student standing in front of her did not have bother to lend her a hand. Instead, she simply moved her body slightly to be out of the old lady’s way. Everything is so calculated and utterly absent of spontaneity.

I don’t know why civic life in Oregon here seems cold, but I do think that professional life in America forces people to turn off a large part of their affective needs in order to be perceived as self-sufficient and invulnerable. I noticed that almost all of my American friends were made during college, with one or two exceptions. College was the romantic time of our lives: we stayed up all night listening to jazz records and had useless intellectual debates about literature, existentialism and other such things. I am not nostalgic about college, but I do wonder what happened to that spontaneity after we became professionals. I strongly suspect that American professionals are often circumspect in their approach to friendship because the risk of exposing one’s humanity (that is, weaknesses and imperfections) in a professional context is too great. At the same time, I find it hard to believe that anyone would not want friends. Wasn’t there a theory that TV shows such as “Friends” and “Sex in the City” owe their success to the yuppies’ unfulfilled longing for close friendships, which were out of reach for them in real lives?

What disturbs me about the foreigner’s perception of American social relationships is its oblique but real link to our attitude toward social welfare and above all healthcare. David Brooks has long pointed out that the Republican party is especially successful in reinforcing a false version of American optimism, which has little tolerance for discourses about failure and needs. But what about the liberals? I don’t find them personally warmer than the selfish, unfeeling Republicans who deprive us of healthcare. Is it because they also don’t like weakness, and the need for human contact is considered a weakness in professional America?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Youth Springs Eternal, for good or for ill.

In reading last week's New Yorker (the one with the books on the cover), I was surprised and fascinated by the review of picture books, and Rebecca Mead's article on the YA-lit factory, Alloy Entertainment. It's also interesting to think about these things in relation to the success of the movie version of Where the Wild Things Are.

The picture books article shows how contemporary parenting styles trickle into children's books, and how children in today's picture books run all over their passive and bedraggled parents who insist that their children "use their nice words" and get played by their tyrannical three-year-olds. I'm not sure what this says about my personality, but when I was little, I liked orderly books - these disorderly and disobedient children would have made me anxious. I distinctly remember getting stressed out reading the Cat in the Hat. I completely supported the fish, urging the Cat to stop making such a mess. I was better with Dr. Seuss's other books - the Lorax. Speaking of autocratic books, my family also read a lot of Bernstein Bears - it's all about order, decorum, and self-control. Maybe this stifled my rebellious streak early on, but I think that it was already embedded in my personality, even as a six-year-old.

The Alloy Entertainment article ("The Gossip Mill") is very interesting for other reasons. The translation of news, political scandals, and adult novels into young adult novels, and the mode of presentation is fascinating. I rarely read these sorts of books when I was a young adult - the Christopher Pike horror/thrillers, VC Andrews' romance novels, Sweet Valley High (the Gossip Girl of the 80s?) - and so on some level, I don't understand the appeal. I've just gotten to the part in the article when Twilight enters into the picture - and I wonder if the unexpected and surprising popularity of the series throws a kink into the YA factory. I feel like teenagers' likes and dislikes seem easy to decipher, but they can also turn on a dime and embrace the least expected trend. They're also quick to sniff out when they're the targets of marketing campaigns, and I wonder what this means for Alloy's future success.

Along those lines, I also just read this Times article on Sherman Alexie whose long career took off when he published an autobiographical young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I want to read it and see how it compares to written-for-adults coming-of-age fiction (Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep, Lev Grossman's The Magicians), and if there is a distinction. Is it all in the marketing? Probably. And I also wonder if teenagers drove the sales of Alexie's book (I do know that it's a popular summer reading assignment), or if adults are behind its success?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Open

I am reporting back to the common fire after months (years?) of silence, this time from Eugene, Oregon, a small university town with a very visible aging hippie population and, as I am slowly discovering, real money hidden in discrete quarters. Having come from Chicago and Hyde Park, I am used to the company of Democrats. A long-time member of American liberal academia, I am used to things like feminism, post-colonial studies, race theories, Marxism, Frankfurt School, etc and etc. None of these things seems to suffice in describing the climate in Eugene, however.

In Hyde Park, being liberal means supporting Barak and pledging to the Hyde Park Jazz Society. In Eugene, it seems to imply buying locally grown heirloom tomatoes and organic tampons. This town has no shortage of fancy organic grocery stores, cooking boutiques and bike shops. All things are ecological and green. The most peculiar thing is that everyone disappears into the mountains at the end of the day. Every upper middle-class professional seems to own a house somewhere on the hills in south Eugene. When the sun goes down, they retreat from civilization into their private garden and palace, often spectacular. In their private kingdom, they need not deal with the ugliness of the American society.

A colleague told me that this town went mad last November during the presidential campaign. People had 20 Obama signs in their yard and entered into fierce fights with their neighbors across the Williamette River, Springfield, which is a predominantly working class town of Republican persuasion. (A colleague at the university whom I met at a reception referred to my town Covina in Los Angeles County as a place for "rednecks"; I corrected her by saying that it was inhabited by the working-class and immigrants.) Springfield is far from being a charming town; it looks just like the kind of town for the Simpsons' and has lots of strip malls and large retail shops. At the same time, I felt indignant as I started to discover that liberal Eugenians speak of the "redneck" Springfielders with contempt. I realized that they are liberal but not exactly Marxist. The boys at the Social Theory workshop at the University of Chicago might wear nice shirts (some of them), but at least they make a point of drinking beer and eating Doritos. The liberal Eugenians don't even pretend to solidarize with the workers, who are white, overweight and anti-Obama.

Religion is not exactly popular here, especially the ones that involve Jesus. (My colleague who teaches colonial Latin American art got hostile student evaluations expressing anger that she was trying to convert them to Catholicism by teaching them about Catholic art.) However, they do have three Episcopal parishes. I went to two: one was smug and had an ugly chapel, the other was low church and does folk mass once a month, but it has an interesting female priest who is visibly concerned with social justice. I decided to stay in the second one for now (while avoiding the guitars on the third Sunday of the month). The congregation is still very white; they don't lift every voice and sing either. (Interlude: I know that I will forever miss Sunday mornings in Hyde Park, when Hispanic and black families all come out in their best clothes for church. The black grandmas at St. Paul the Redeemer would sit in the pews with their fantastic hats, with little lace trims and flowers on top; sometimes they wore white gloves like my own grandmother used to do. I would pretend to follow along the hymnal while checking out my professors amongst the faithful: Rob Nelson the Byzantinst from my department who is always at the front, David Wellbery the Germanist who is always at the back, and my friend the Islamicist Fred Donner who sings in the choir.) But at least here, in the Church of Resurrection, I can see elite white people being open. Here, they are quiet and listening, instead of complacently advertising themselves as they do at receptions and potlucks. They have a very interesting priest, a younger woman who reminds them that being well-t0-do and content is not enough, that the world is filled with people who are treated as non-persons, and the obligation for every Christian is to not be content with what is but to imagine what may be. Here, they confront their own frailty and finitude, and for that reason, I can share their company. More importantly on a social level, they are taking responsibility for their own spiritual tradition, not becoming consumers of exotic occultism (there are many shops here where they could purchase paraphernalia of various kinds) or aggrandizing their ego with popular forms of atheism.

As time goes on, I hope to find other people in Eugene to whom I can talk about the plight of the American working class, and who will not speak of the religious right as if they were the devil. Maybe I will even find one or two people who could understand why I put U2's *Rattle and Hum* on the same level as Bach's kantatas, Latin plain songs and Negro spirituals. But before then, I think the progressive Episcopal church here in Eugene is my best bet in finding the intermediary ground of openness without which I would suffocate.

In many worlds, including the world of the English gentry in Evelyn Waugh's novels or of the French noblesse in Proust, church-going was the sign of respectability. In Eugene, respectability is marked by shopping at the right stores, eating at the right restaurants, etc. This makes the church-goers somewhat non-conformists. After all, they didn't have to go. (Many of them are also old and very frail.) If they did go, it must mean that they, too, understand that eating organic vegetables alone does not suffice in making one a good person. At least I have that in common with them.

Monday, September 14, 2009


This is an unusual posting, to be sure.

This morning, I awoke to the sound of circling helicopters, and soon after, heard on the radio that there was a fire in a residence two blocks away from my house. This was the ninth fire in the past couple of months, all only several blocks from my house (I live between 8th and 9th streets, the fires are two streets over, between 10th and 11th.) There's an arsonist at large who targets residential buildings (this morning's was a garage apartment, fortunately uninhabited at the moment) in the very early hours of the morning. No one has been hurt, so far.

I don't have a great deal to say about this, except it's disturbing. And I know there are psychological disorders involved, but I still wonder what motivates a person to become a serial arsonist. I understand insurance fraud and revenge, but this is clearly something else.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Reading List

The New York Times reminded me today of one thing I will very much miss about New York City: reading on the subway. Lately I've had the unusual luxury not only of having stumbled upon two remarkable and compelling books, but also of possessing broad swaths of time unoccupied by things legal in which to enjoy them. I expect this time of luxury to end next week, as the school year sets in for real and I return to the academic doldrums. But, as the Times points out, we in New York all have to get where we're going, and the subway is blessedly free of internet and cell reception, which means I get a good hour every day to burrow into some good fiction. I'm taking recommendations, and I'd love to hear what people are reading on this blog. Here's my list.

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman. Thanks to the tip from NPR via Gale, which billed this book as Harry Potter for grownups. Actually, it's a good deal better than that. Grossman writes beautifully, takes seriously our lonely childish longing for fantasy, and, unlike JKR, is unafraid to give his characters' flaws real and irrevocable consequences. Anyone who read C.S. Lewis and T.H. White as a kid and harbors mixed feeling about HP should read this. Plus, Grossman himself is a Yale CompLit PhD drop out like yours truly, so I feel a special affinity.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson. Thanks again to Gale. I was skeptical of the title, the bestseller-y-ness, and the sexual violence, but you got to give to these Scandinavians, who really know how to write dark, quasi-philosophical, and incredibly satisfying mysteries. I couldn't put it down AND it made me think, which is more than I can say for most of what I read these days.

Next on my list: Motherless Brooklyn, the fourth Twilight book, and The Girl Who Played with Fire (next book in Larsson's triology). Anything else I should add?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Storm King

From Storm King, a sculpture park north of Manhattan.


This morning I was working on a chapter about how black Jamaicans ignored the American missionaries' attempts to control their family lives. The doorbell rang, and lo, a young woman Jehovah Witness was at my door. Wearing a nice sun dress and holding her well-worn Bible, she nervously asked me if I read self-help books, and if I ever thought of the Bible as a self-help book. I answered: well, no, but I can see how some people would see it that way. She then opened to read a verse from Timothy, her hands and voice shaking. I politely told her that I wasn't interested, then returned to my own missionaries, imbued with a new sense of empathy for black Jamaican "sinners" who politely listened, most of the time, to the Americans from Oberlin, and then went about doing things as they saw fit. Maybe they even felt a little sorry for the white Ohioans in their midst.

I also wished the young Witness "good luck" as she left - is that the proper response to a missionary with whom I disagree? I suppose I also have sympathy for missionaries as well as the would-be converts.

When I was home from college one summer, I invited a door-to-door missionary named Gwen into my parents' house, and we talked for a long time about religion, mostly because I was curious about what she was trying to do. We didn't agree, needless to say. She did follow up with a number of phone calls and mailings, so I suppose she viewed the conversation as a success, a potential conversion. I read somewhere that Mormon missionaries rarely convert more than a handful of people in their two-year missions, and I wonder what the conversion rate is for Jehovah Witnesses going around my parents' neighborhood in the mid-morning of a weekday. Not many people are home; and those that are don't, I imagine, convert. But they still go out, even when they're so nervous that their voices are shaking.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Hill Country

From the trip Laura and I made a few weeks ago . . . it was very dry out in Central Texas, but Spring was in the air, nonetheless.

Friday, March 20, 2009

An apt metaphor

A picture of the AIG Building, a towering presence to the west of downtown Houston. I can see it from my office window. This week it was buried in the fog . . . see more pictures here.

In other blog-postings related to economic matters, I find the Planet Money discussion about the AIG bonuses to be especially lucid at a time when a pitchfork populism rages.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Lenten Thoughts

It's been awhile since posting. I read this in David Chappell's A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow, and I thought I would share.

It comes from an Easter greeting written by Bayard Rustin in 1952:

"Everyone saw Jesus as a lot of trouble, but even crucifixion could not get rid of Him. 'Easter in every age . . . recalls the imminence of the impossible victory, the power of the impotent weak.' Rustin took the opportunity to note that Jesus' followers 'need to be reminded that Easter is the reality, and that the awesome structures of pomp and power are in the process of disintegration at the moment of their greatest strength.' He was surely aware that he was echoing the Prophets' scorn for human institutions. But he could not have known that he was prophetically anticipating a key phrase in a new prophet's greatest speech: 'Easter is the symbol of hope resurrected out of a tomb of hopelessness.'"