Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Understanding Barack Obama

People we know well often remain mysteries to us, just as we can sometimes be mysteries to ourselves. So it is not surprising that complex public figures we think we know are (and may remain) enigmas.

So it is with Barack Obama. All the photos and interviews and press conferences and speeches in the world only give us facets of this unusual man.

I notice that Maureen Dowd in the NYTimes, along with many other pundits and politicians who are able to observe the president up close, have been trying for the past four years to psychoanalyze him or understand what makes him tick. Dowd found the Bushes easy to skewer with that father-son rivalry, but Obama is a frustrating puzzle for her, elusive, hard to satirize because he is not simple.

Without analyzing Obama's policies, I decided to sort out for myself how I understand this complex man because I see history as a record of people and how they have shaped events, rather than of economic forces or military decisions. What is history but the human story?

Obama first impressed me as an Un-politician back in 2008 as he thoughtfully responded to interviewers' questions with an intelligence rarely found in pols. So I became intrigued with the man, his books, his family, the way his bi-racial past made him the cautious, cool outsider even while functioning as the ultimate insider.

In reading a recent piece in The New Yorker by Jane Mayer on Obama's distaste for fundraising and the belief of those around him that "big money is corrupt," a light bulb went on for me: he started to make sense. Obama is wary of the strings attached to big donations and keeps his distance from big donors, even at the risk of insulting them. I applaud his ethical standards, even though he knows he has to attend a Beverly Hills or Park Avenue bash and play the game he finds morally tainted. But he won't have his picture taken with the big donors, won't send thank you notes to them or invite them over. His parameters are clear just as his private time is private. Good for him.

The insight I had into the real Obama, as far as this can be discerned, comes from David Maraniss in his recent biography; he describes Obama as a man "with a moviegoer's or writer's sensibility, where he is both participating and observing himself participating": he sees much of the political circus that surrounds him as ridiculous, even as he is deep in the center of it.

What interests me is the ambivalence of such a man and the kinship I can identify with as a writer and teacher (as he was), one who likes the life of the mind probably as much as his family. I am intrigued by his ability to distance himself from his own life.

This will make him a superb future autobiographer, after all the hoopla is over, as he looks back on what he has achieved. Whether it will translate into political success with a hostile Congress is quite another matter. Somehow I think his eye is really on what history will say about him.

I think it will say he was a highly disciplined man who, without much background as a leader, has done fairly well in uncommonly difficult times because he pays meticulous attention to details; this often results in delays in announcing decisions that have disappointed many, but it also results in an almost gaffe-free spoken record. Contrast this with his VP.

Obama has a quality I greatly admire: he is a patient listener who can skillfully think through complex issues as well as a speaker who can rise to great oratorical heights because, I think, he is, as Maraniss says, a writer (and reader) at heart, with a respect for language, thought and precision.

To his liberal supporters and many others, he has proven himself a disappointment because he has never fully revealed how essentially conservative he is at heart, which means in today's world of extremes that he is what moderate Republicans once were. With a touch of intellectual arrogance, he has not fully explained his policies as he should nor defended them with the vigor that comes with old-style politics.

But he has the historical good sense to know something important: that the founding fathers cared as much about discussing ways to advance the common good as they did about ensuring freedom. This concern with the common good, which he shares with the Catholic tradition of social teaching, says that we measure our success in the public sphere by how the working class and the poor are doing. This means that the government must in some ways be caring; Obama understands this and often references this. His policies may be called liberal, but his philosophy is more traditional and more difficult to categorize.

Obama is the postmodern politician, wary of the very process he has tried to re-fashion, as he re-defines his role as a national and world leader while also responding to the daily crises that arise. He has done so with admirable poise and dignity, much to the dismay of his many critics, even though he has made mistakes; at the same time he has raised many unanswerable questions about who he really is.

As frustrating as it may be to the pundits, he will doubtless remain, as all complex personalities are, forever interesting in his ambivalent responses to a world that is not (and never has been) black and white.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Violet Hour

Much has been written about the various meanings of the color blue, none as memorable as the recent introduction to the book Blue Nights. There Joan Didion has a lyrical two-page reflection on expectation and anticipation, a kind of timeless waiting, during certain evenings of the year when "you think the end of day will never come."

In certain latitudes, she says, there is a span of time in late May when the long twilight turns blue. The French call it 'l'heure bleue,' the name of my mother's favorite perfume. Didion has seen the blue hour in New York; I can't recall experiencing any such intensely blue twilight. I remember the singer Sissel in her video "Northern Lights" referring to the magical blue hour in Norway, but this seemed to describe something quite different, a winter spectacle of the northern lights.

All of this suggests something a bit mysterious and romantic, a state of mind as much as an actual light. I recall the "violet hour" of T. S. Eliot, which to me means
a time of anxiety, anticipation, even suffering as night brings its terrors to those in the Wasteland of modern civilization. It's the dying of the light and the arrival, finally, of dreaded darkness.

Didion often analyzes anxiety and finds the blue night a useful metaphor for her memoir about the "dwindling of the days" and other recollections of sad beauty.

I was reminded of the blue hour again last night when watching a fine sleeper of a movie by Terence Davies, The Deep Blue Sea, set in foggy London town in 1950when literal blue nights would be impossible. But the somber atmosphere and slow pace of this film capture a sense of dread and depression that is turned into art. It unfolds in soft-focus episodes like impressionist paintings.

Rachel Weisz is the superbly rendered main character in this adaptation of a Terence Rattigan play on an old theme, older than Anna Karenina: a beautiful married woman finds doomed love with a younger man; but in this case, he is immature and incapable of giving her the full love she longs for. Her intense feelings, restricted by social custom in 1950s England, and by her class, take us almost into the realm of melodrama except that the emotions are convincingly real.

The film moves slowly backward and forward in time, aided by the intense violin concerto of Samuel Barber, as an otherwise predictable story becomes an original look at romantic despair. Like the blue hour that almost never seems to end, leading finally to the dying of the light, we watch the drama unfold, knowing that the darkness will eventually descend, the couple must part, and her life will somehow go on even as we are reluctant to have the movie end.

Such works of art interest me because in them we seem to experience moments "in and out of time," in Eliot's words. In reading or watching such fiction, we are aware of the unreality of the artifice but become totally engaged with the story, as our own intense feelings become one with those of the characters. In such cases, we as readers or viewers can enter a timeless present that lasts briefly, then vanishes as soon as the story ends. This, for me, is a spiritual dimension in art that is hard to articulate, and we have to be grateful to gifted filmmakers like Davies for allowing us to experience it.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Ryan ,Religion, and Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand (1905-82), the Russian-born high priestess of "rational self-interest," as she called her philosophy, has always struck me as the kind of thinker non-intellectuals think of as cool. She's the kind of novelist who appeals to adolescent males of various ages who also flock to Nietzsche and his power of the will. At least, Nietzsche is taken seriously by other philosophers.

Flannery O'Connor, a gifted writer of fiction with a sharp eye for the fraudulent, once called Rand's fiction "as low as you can get" and recommended throwing it "in the nearest garbage pail." The critics and academics have not been kind to The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged, which even The National Review called "sophomoric," silly, and shrill.

Rand uses fiction to promote her ideas of radical individualism, always popular in libertarian circles and obviously in favor in the anti-Communist heyday when Rand was a star to her followers, just as she is being revived today. Her strong support of laissez-faire capitalism has endeared her to Wall Street types (Alan Greenspan among many others) who know something about money but not much about good literature.

So it was no surprise recently to find that this heroine of the Tea Party was a major influence on Paul D. Ryan, the vice presidential GOP nominee, a man who has been called a "good Catholic." Old Flannery would have a chuckle at that: Rand, who hated religion and altruism of any kind, who promoted an ethical egoism, being hailed by the former altar boy from Wisconsin. When told that Rand was an atheist, Ryan quickly did his best political about-face and said he really preferred Thomas Aquinas (a safe choice, even if I doubt he ever dipped too deeply into the Summa Theologica).

It is understandable that an adolescent Paul Ryan would find in Ayn Rand a kindred spirit, but, with maturity and wider reading and a genuine education, including a fuller understanding of Christianity, he should be expected to put aside the passions of his boyhood. But for many people, the simplistic is always preferable to the complex, and the basic appeal of egoism and individualism, while contrary to the Gospels ("love thy neighbor"), is understandable among the impressionable.

Paul Ryan, as best I can tell, is an earnest, hard-working, decent man, no doubt a faithful church-goer and so a "good Catholic" in that sense. He is like far too many Americans, however, in not reading more widely or thinking more deeply, who knows that the ideology of self-interest fits well with the Republican mindset in the 21st century. And so he sees no reason to be embarrassed by his strong association with Ayn Rand.

Does he know that his one-time idol Ayn Rand once told Mike Wallace, "I am the most creative thinker alive"? She was delighted in the 1940s to be called the "most courageous man in America" since she detested weakness (associated with the feminine, at least in her time); she called the poor losers and hated social programs but was persuaded to sign up for Social Security and Medicare--like so many on the right today who attack what they called socialism in America while fiercely defending their own Social Security.

Rand had a cult-like following (depicted in the 1999 film The Passion of Ayn Rand with Helen Mirren) and still has her readers and followers who seem happy that their heroine has long been rejected by the academic and literary establishment (elites); they don't seem to mind the inconvenient fact that she hated Christianity and any belief that stood in the way of the self (greed, pleasure, money, power).

But then these are the type of people who would respond to Flannery O'Connor's dismissal--Rand's fiction "makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoyevsky"--with a loud WHO??

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Memoirs Revisited: Nabokov

Last month I considered what makes a good memoir. This month I have been reading a few notable memoirs, one (by Vladimir Nabokov) with great delight, and with some new insights.

Gore Vidal, who died recently, did a memoir in 1992 called Palimpsest, which, in its gossipy, meandering, self-serving way, is a reflection of the author. Although I found it finally unreadable, I found several of Vidal's observations valuable: "A memoir is how you remember you own life," he says, whereas an autobiography is history, requiring facts and research. A memoir, then, uses the details of daily life to trigger the memory about people and events long buried.

"A memoir is set off by a thousand associations, often by objects in the given room." So proclaims Vidal. A master of this idiosynratic method who nevertheless follows a roughly chronologically order is Nabokov in Speak, Memory, one of his great works because of its poetic style and originality. He looks at a sofa or a hand and is transported to his youth in pre-revolutionary Russia where, cosseted and comfortable, he was raised in what he calls a "perfect childhood."

What emerges from these sensory recollections is not the dramatic story of the man himself--forced to flee the Russian Revolution in 1918, forced to flee the Nazis in 1940 because of his marriage to a Russian Jew, etc.--but his memories of people, the impressions that reveal certain things about the writer while concealing many personal(autobiographical) facts.

What emerge are reflections on time and memory. Nabokov intended to call his book "Conclusive Evidence" --evidence that he had indeed lived--but the change was wise. The fact that he was composing most of it in the American West while writing the celebrated and controversial novel Lolita in the back seat of his Buick while in search of butterflies-- Nabokov being a noted lepidopterist as well as writer--is all the more remarkable when you find several pages of the book devoted to his French governess and very little on his own family. He even includes several sentences on some troubling mosquitoes that he recalled from a trip to the Riviera in 1937. Only a trained entomologist, I suppose, with a sense of humor, would do so.

The result is a richly detailed, elegiac narrative of a creative mind at work, the work of a gifted, cultivated man in exile from his native land who finds contentment nearly everywhere he lands: Cambridge (where he gets a degree at Trinity College), Berlin, Prague, Paris, New York, Boston, and finally Montreux, Switzerland, where he spends his last 20 years, having finally earned enough money to return to the style in which he was raised.

And quite a style it was: the Nabokovs, wealthy and aristocratic, had a permanent staff of 50 on two estates in and near St. Petersburg. He was raised in a trilingual household, learning to write English before he wrote in Russian or French. He had English and French governnesses, described memorably, with hilarious attention to detail, and tutors. He never learned to drive, to type, to use the telephone: his was a pampered upbringing.

Anyone who wants to learn about descriptive writing, about writing that uses memorable details, would be well to study Nabokov's memoir, with its lapidary style, the product of his scientific interests. He later wrote about chess and did crosswords in Russian; throughout his life, wherever he was, he wrote poems in Russian. He later translated his earlier Russian fiction into English. All this linguistic background gives him material for puns and alliteration and wit, some say too much stylistic attention at the expense of content. But I have not read much of his other work.

From his cultivated mother, young Vladimir learned to feel the beauty of intangible things, which he calls "unreal estate." There are times when his style becomes overripe, and it is certainly more European than American, but he has a perfect ear and above all an eye for details that bring places, people, and his own early years to life. Consider this sentence on the mosquitoes, for example: "Hardly had I extingished the light in my room than it would come, that ominous whine whose unhurried, doleful, and wary rhythm contrasted so oddly with the actual mad speed of the satanic insect's gyrations." He is having fun with language, and the wit consists of some playful exaggeration.

He wrote such carefully wrought sentences by hand, usually standing up at a lecturn, where he also wrote out lectures given at Wellesley and Cornell on European literature to large classes in the late 1940s. I have saved a number of my favorite passages in which the author is lost in a timeless reverie, surrounded by words or butterflies, conveying his love of nature in hypnotic prose. He conveys emotions intensely but not sentimentally.

Whether his style can inspire today's American writer is doubtful, but his approach to the memoir, and his eye for descrptive detail, are of great value.

Of course, a basic question in any such memoir arises, as it certainly did with Vidal's book: who cares about all this detail, about this life (exotic and privileged though it was)? Presumably the reader's attention is held by the author's power of memory and imagination as well as by reflections on other issues of time and exile. And, of course, what is personal is said to be universal; certainly, we get, or I do, vicarious pleasure about being taken back with such clarity to an amazing world a hundred years ago in places I have been or, more likely, would like to have been.

Having spent a summer in Cambridge, for example, I can identify with Nabokov's description of the colleges where he, too, was mindful of all the great writers who have lived in that place: "Nothing one looked at was shut off in terms of time, everything was a natural opening into it, so that one's mind grew accustomed to work in a particularly pure space..." As he learns to distance himself as an outsider in England from his foreign fellow students, he is constantly aware of "the untrammeled extension of time" he felt: it was the source of much writing when he was supposed to be attending lectures.

But the emphasis is not on what he studied or what happened but on the mental furniture that shaped his extraordinary life. The emphasis is not on telling us the facts of his life, which he is relucant to do. Rather something of a game is going on, an ambivalent tease in which much is revealed while even more is concealed. One critic has said that Nabokov's style combines passionate lyricism with dispassionate precision: an admirable, almost unique achievement. His approach to his life is similar, the style reflecting the man.

Enough of the inner life of the man emerges, as it should in a great memoir, which Speak, Memory is.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Good News, Bad News

Some good news on the literacy front: the biggest innovation since Gutenberg--the e-book--is creating more books and a bigger audience for them. So reading is up, whether in pixels or print.

This insight, from Timothy Egan of the New York Times, came as a great surprise to me as I read with sadness of bookstores closing and publishing in the old sense apparently dying, as my wife, Lynn, struggling to get her stories or poems published, keeps finding out.

Apparently, according to Egan, the popularity of Kindle and other such devices has resulted in an increase in sales of printed books as well. Without all the e-books being consumed, publishing in America would be flat or comatose.

One fifth of Americans say they have read an e-book in the past year, and digital readers buy more print books. Why this is the case is not clear to me. But it is good news to a fan of the old technology who believes that nothing can replace the pleasure of holding a book and turning the pages.

Less heartening is the news that Twitter users are being upset by Autocorrect, which unnecessarily and misleadingly changes words in an effort to correct spelling. Are writers no longer responsible for their own typos?

Apparently, a kid in a Georgia school typed "gunna be at west hall today." This was changed to "gunman be at west hall today," as if we don't have enough terrors. The school was locked down for two hours. Most of the "corrections" have been much more minor, just annoying to those involved. Annoying to me is the use of "gunna" and such shorthand terms in any communication. The use of standard English would have prevented this miscommunication.

Errors can cause serious problems, but when they are non-human errors, the effect is alarming. I am glad to say I am not and never will be a Twitterer.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The ideology of self-absorption

I was glad to see that Frank Bruni, writing last month in the New York Times, agrees with me (just kidding). His article, "Individualism in Overdrive," complements nicely some of the remarks about the new narcissism I have written about here as the pervasive evil underlying our culture and political life.

I refer to the Tea Party belief that taxes are not needed because each of us is meant to help ourselves rather than ours. This, after all, is the basis of the extreme indidivualism that has moved the country so dangerously to the right, even in the name of Christianity, which is about loving thy neighbor.

Bruni describes the new Johnny Appleseed of Hypernarcissism, the personal improvement guru Tim Ferris, who suggests putting an unloaded starter pistol in your luggage to make sure that the TSA people at the airport won't lose it. You get peace of mind that way; no matter that government time and money is wasted, which is our (collective) money.

I hope Ferris, a best-selling author, is only joking. Bruni is not when he zeroes in those who try to "game the system" to advance their own cause at the expense of the common good. "Selfishness run amok is a national disease," he writes; too many people act as if they live in a civic vacuum, with no responsibilities to others.

Consider the huge increase in Social Security disability applications, many by people who don't need such assistance, based on the view that the federal treasury is too big to be affected. But isn't that treasury the sum of us? And cheating it is to cheat your neighbor. Looking out for No. 1 may sell books and get you on TV, but it is immoral and destructive of the social fabric.

How many fundamentalist Christians, voting for Republicans, subscribe to the anti-government, me-first principle without seeing that it contradics the Gospel? There is no reason to be surprised by this since there is nothing new under the sun. Selfishness, sometimes called pride, has been, for about 2,000 years, the chief of the deadly sins, and anyone who has read Dante or other earlier authors knows that the avarice of earlier times is little different from that of today. It is always rooted in the self at the expense of the other.

This brings me back to selfishness as the essence of evil--and to its opposite, love, which brings compassion and whatever justice we deserve on this earth.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Religion and the Media

Is it my imagination, or is the portrayal of religion in fiction and film distorted?
The fact that it is included at all in a secular age wary of religion is itself noteworthy, but it is unfortunate to see that what gives people meaning and hope depicted as fanatical or absurd.

This is especially true of movies produced in Britain, yet I have a hard time remembering any realistic portrayal of clergy in an American movie since the priest made a brief (meaningful) appearance in Kenneth Lonergan's "You Can Count on Me" some years ago.

In the murder mysteries my wife and I enjoy, from "Morse" to "Midsommer Murders," the church (mostly Anglican) is sensationalized. People visit priests not in quiet offices but in fully lit churches with lighted candles and crucifixes filmed at odd angles, and what the priests say is either hypocritically pious, given what we later learn about them, or silly.

Hypocrisy is the running theme of many of these portrayals, and Christianity is the religion of choice: and why not? The material is so rich for parody, its history so rife with intrigue and abuse. Yet the daily experience of prayer and church going for most of the faithful is overlooked in these depictions of fantaticism.

It's no wonder religion in the conventional, organized sense is a turn-off for so many. Nuns, who do the real work of the church despite what some in the Vatican may think, are often portrayed as comic figures, hopelessly naive or out of touch with reality. And priests are not real people but thwarted individuals caught up in bizarre, incense-filled rituals that look spooky rather than inspiring.

Intelligent script writers who create good characters like Inspector Morse and Lewis do not seem to know how to handle religion. Lewis's sidekick Hathaway is an ex-seminarian and an intellectual and therefore odd, even when he explains things that dull Lewis cannot fathom about Oxford or history. Yet even Hathaway was not surprised, as I was, to find in one episode a Jesuit living alone in a private chapel on an aristocrat's estate and prostrating himself daily in prayer. This is not what Jesuits (or other normal clergy) do!

I almost expected self-flagellation as well. The more sensational the better. Morse found churches creepy and couldn't wait to get out of them. Barnaby in Midsommer finds them odd, places to find hypocrites or child molesters.

The writers of these shows ignore the important value that religion has always played in human culture as a bridge to the unknowable yet mysterious reality that gives meaning to life. That non-logical myths and religious truths affect our so-called rational choices in ways we can only surmise is beyond the scope of most writers. I wish I could recall a recent movie in any language that depicts faith in a positive light or churchgoing as a fulfilling experience.

I have given up looking for honest religion (Christianity) as part of the fictional reality of contemporary novels. Maybe I should give up looking at so many movies from the U.K., where the clergy seem to exist only to be lampooned as fools or hypocrites.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Escaping all the Noise

Our crowded planet is also an increasingly noisy one. When electronic beepers are not sounding, people are sounding off at great length on various media and in person. I find that going to lunch is sometimes an endurance test: the restaurant noise makes hearing many conversations a strain (and my hearing is fairly good).

A recent article in Parade magazine talks about what it is to live surrounded by a constant bath of noise: living in loud areas can raise the blood pressure. The word noise, we are told, is related to the Latin word for sickness: nausea.

A longer article in the Guardian by George Michelson Foy recalls his own experiment in searching for the quietest place on earth. Trying to escape the dull roar of Manhattan's ceaseless sounds, he visited a monastery, an Indian sweat lodge, and a nickel mine. None was quiet enough. Finally, he discovered the quietest place on earth: the anechoic chamber at Orfield Laboratories in Minnesota.

Whereas some visitors to this small room, thoroughly insulated to absorb every imaginable whisper, find it unbearable, he enjoyed the experience. Most people would experience claustrophia or other problems being sealed in such a room, cut off from the comforting sounds of human life, but his record 45-minute stay in the room was (he says) calming and peaceful, as he listened to the blood rushing in his veins and other bodily functions.

I remember reading a few years ago about a man visiting the bottom of the Grand Canyon and finding the silence there frightening. I doubt if he would head for Minnesota's Orfield with its 99.9% sound-absorbent chamber.

Realizing to his disappointment that total and complete silence is possible only in death, Foy was sorry to end his 45-minute submersion in solitude and silence. Being comfortable with the feeling of absolute calm, he felt rested and peaceful, sorry to leave after only 45 minutes of what many would see as sensory deprivation akin to torture.

Like Foy, who associates silence with happiness, I have been a seeker of silence-- but not the physical absence of sound. I enjoy reading, contemplation, meditation and writing with only the half-conscious sounds of modern life (air conditioning) or birdsong in the background.

I doubt if I would be happy in an anechoic chamber, but I know that the quest for silence is important and profound in mysterious ways. I don't see it as a source of happiness, although a period of silent meditation produces a calmness of mind and a serenity much needed in a too-loud world.

Mostly, I follow the lead of Thomas Merton, who wrote extensively about the silence of contemplative prayer during his 27 years as a Trappist monk in Kentucky. As a result, he could really hear the rain beat down (a wonderful passage in Raids on the Unspeakble) in what he calls a welcome kind of speech. He was fully attuned to the world of nature outside his hermitage and felt connected to people around the world, many of them his readers. In writing, he felt close to God and saw in silence a "friendly communion" with millions of others able to take time out from the constant distractions of everyday life to experience a brief moment in the timeless present.

"The real journey of life is within," Merton wrote. He did not need to seek the quietest place on earth. As to happiness, he would probably understand what the woman, asked by Inspector Maigret in one of Simenon's stories, says when he asks her, "Have you found happiness?"

She responds, in an Old World way that would seem totally foreign to today's Americans, "as much as anyone is entitled to."