The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Friday, July 31, 2015

Whaddaya Want Me to Do, Capture it and Rehabilitate It?

I always laugh at this scene, because la Caterina and I are a bit like this. Now that our cats are getting older, and less inclined to hunt, we occasionally get a mouse, which just becomes ridiculous now that our one mouser is gone. So la C tries to shame the cats into action, I flail into action with all the panache of Alvy Singer, and the mouse. . . well, he probably just goes to another room and waits for less noise.

So when I saw a story on a friend's site that made me think about the whole "Pit Bull debate" that periodically breaks out, I had to laugh at my own thought processes. Now, let me preface this by saying that I have no settled conviction on the matter. I have two friends who have had pit bulls, one whose pit has been a source of joy from puppyhood to old age, who's a big mush (bullied by the Chihuahua!), and just a gentle lamb. The other had a bad experience. Both were, as far as I know, equally good dog owners.

But the thought that flashed through my mind was "Never mind a pit bull, who wants to go to sleep in a room with any animal that has a fair shot of killing you while you're out cold?"

I mean, maybe this is why I'm a cat guy. If one of my feline friends goes for my throat, I kinda like my odds. A dobie, or a mastiff, somewhat less so.

I could probably take a dachshund if I had to, and they're cute, too...

Delilah, the Wanderer

Calico cat (Felis silvestris catus)
"Calico cat - Phoebe" by User:Howcheng - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

So, this morning I was delayed on my path between the subway and the office by running into a cat who looked very like the above-pictured calico cat, except she wore a pink collar with a tag. She was mewing pitiably, and I assumed she had gotten out of her home.

I knelt down, petted her, and looked at her name tag: DELILAH, it read.

I was about to turn it over to get her peoples' phone number, but she wandered off. A woman saw me, and asked "Is she ok?"

I knelt by the friendly little thing, who head-butted me amicably.

"Come on, Delilah," I said, "let me see your tag…"

"Oh," lady inter jetted, "it's Delilah?"

"That's the name on her tag," I replied.

"Oh, I texted her owner a while back. They let her out. She wanders."

So, I pet the nice little creature, and head to the office. No good deed for the day, just an earworm.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Ooh, That Was brilliant!

Well, descending from a cloud, not unlike a certain dark Mary Poppins figure, Camille Paglia is back:
In most of these cases, like the Bill Clinton and Bill Cosby stories, there’s been a complete neglect of psychology. We’re in a period right now where nobody asks any questions about psychology. No one has any feeling for human motivation. No one talks about sexuality in terms of emotional needs and symbolism and the legacy of childhood. Sexuality has been politicized–“Don’t ask any questions!” “No discussion!” “Gay is exactly equivalent to straight!” And thus in this period of psychological blindness or inertness, our art has become dull. There’s nothing interesting being written–in fiction or plays or movies. Everything is boring because of our failure to ask psychological questions.

So I say there is a big parallel between Bill Cosby and Bill Clinton–aside from their initials! Young feminists need to understand that this abusive behavior by powerful men signifies their sense that female power is much bigger than they are! These two people, Clinton and Cosby, are emotionally infantile–they’re engaged in a war with female power. It has something to do with their early sense of being smothered by female power–and this pathetic, abusive and criminal behavior is the result of their sense of inadequacy.

Now, in order to understand that, people would have to read my first book, “Sexual Personae”–which of course is far too complex for the ordinary feminist or academic mind! It’s too complex because it requires a sense of the ambivalence of human life. Everything is not black and white, for heaven’s sake! We are formed by all kinds of strange or vague memories from childhood. That kind of understanding is needed to see that Cosby was involved in a symbiotic, push-pull thing with his wife, where he went out and did these awful things to assert his own independence. But for that, he required the women to be inert. He needed them to be dead! Cosby is actually a necrophiliac–a style that was popular in the late Victorian period in the nineteenth-century.

It’s hard to believe now, but you had men digging up corpses from graveyards, stealing the bodies, hiding them under their beds, and then having sex with them. So that’s exactly what’s happening here: to give a woman a drug, to make her inert, to make her dead is the man saying that I need her to be dead for me to function. She’s too powerful for me as a living woman. And this is what is also going on in those barbaric fraternity orgies, where women are sexually assaulted while lying unconscious. And women don’t understand this! They have no idea why any men would find it arousing to have sex with a young woman who’s passed out at a fraternity house. But it’s necrophilia–this fear and envy of a woman’s power.
Oh, as usual, dear. This is the sort of stuff that has deflated Paglia's once-high standing, and, quite frankly, that's a shame.

Paglia's Sexual Personae is an interesting melange, a series of genuinely provocative close readings of classic literary texts to bring out transgressive and sexually laden content that all too often was lost under a heavy coat of academic varnish, but tied to an overarching thesis that welded genuine insights into a proposed Unified Field Theory of Culture. The book's macro theory doesn't hold, to put it kindly, but along the way Paglia shines a spotlight onto the underside of cultural icons (her chapter on Emily Dickinson alone is worth the price of the book).

But, re above: Oy.

Paglia excels at the long-form, deeply steeped, literary analysis that uncovers lost darkness, and its value, in literary eras and genres that are too often sanitized, and taken at the surface of their starchy self-images. I once asked her to be an expert witness in a case, and she turned me down, with some kind words for the quality of my analysis. (Pity, she would have been superb in the role. Still, we landed the late, great, Arthur Danto, who in fact was superb, so I can't complain). Her punditry is the worst of her--quickly sketched off the cuff reactions of the political-social world as observed by a cranky contrarian. Her literary analysis is sometimes like that in some ways, but is far better thought out, and the work of a scholar who is, for all of her quick-draw superficial takes on Salon, capable of so much more.

What really made me think of Missy and her Poppins moment? Because, unlike her rather statements about politics, I think Paglia could have a field day doing an exegesis of Moffat's use of victorian iconography, especially that surrounding death and sexuality, in Season 8 of Doctor Who. Someone's got to give Philip Sandifer a run for his money, after all.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Memory Jag

A long time ago-so long ago, I'm not exactly sure when, but I think it was no later than summer 1977,because my maternal grandmother was still alive, I was caught by a sequence in a moment on film seen on television. It depicted a young man studying. The music in the background, an orchestral version of Bach's Little Fugue in G Minor seized me, as it chased itself, twisted around, and came to a satisfying climax.

That was my introduction to Johann Sebastian Bach. There was a sense of something I couldn't name then in the music, something I don't even yet have the right word for. The closest I've ever come to it is that the fugue is a process--the theme's repetitions, overlapping, and build up all rise to a conclusion that is, somehow, inevitable. The sense is even stronger in a good organ version:

That's a 1960s version played by Marie-Claire Alain, and is the very one my other grandmother, the former opera singer and classical musician, gave me. I have very few vinyl records left, but I have that one.

I ran across the clip above, which was recommended to me by YouTube. It does not use John Williams's arrangement from The Paper Chase; it's Leopold Stokowski's, though, and captures the aspects of the fugue that hooked me for life.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Anglocat at the Forum Part II

So this past Sunday I was the guest at St. Barts Forum. I never know how these things go--and the recording starts about 3 minutes before the actual forum does, so you get a little informal off-the-record chat between myself and my good friend,the Rev. Edward Sunderland.

It was a genuine pleasure to share a stage with Edward, who has given me much support over the years as I've pursued my call to ordained ministry, and has given me the benefit of his experience as head of Community Ministry at St. Barts and as a social worker to provide some very valuable pointers on how to direct my ministry and to recruit skilled volunteers.

If you follow the link, you can listen to us in conversation. Hope you enjoy!

Edited to Add: A couple of verbal slips, most seriously my early remark on the pre-Smith case law measured the sincerity of the religious conviction being asserted to justify a requested accommodation. Not really, and I later correct it.

Also, the acoustics of the room mean you don't hear the laughs at my jokes. Which is a pity. I really wasn't suffering from flop sweat, I promise. . .

Finally, when I say St. Barts has not historically not restricted its hiring to Episcopalians, I mean in the broad definition used by the Court in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church v EEOC, which includes educators (such as Rabbi Leonard Schoolman, who headed up the Center for Religious Inquiry, or even church musicians.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Time for Another Book Gloat!

So yesterday I had the chance to go book shopping in Saratoga Springs, and found myself rummaging through the holdings of Lyrical Ballad Bookstore. I was sorely tempted, I admit, by the four volume Nonesuch Blake set (all of Blake in three volumes, and a biography by Mona Wilson in a uniform volume)(oh, was I--have the one volume Nonesuch from 1927, and it's a very nice reading copy, but this was sodding gorgeous.)

But I did fill a long-ached for need: At last, I found a good copy of Goethe's Faust, both parts in two volumes. For decades, I've only had the 1980s paperback Norton Critical Edition I bought in college, a stolid translation by Walter Kaufman (the modern Norton is not the same edition as I had). Now, as I've previously written, I have been fascinated by the Faust legend since seeing my cousin Robert Stattel in a superb, coruscating performance of the role. Despite this, I admit that Kaufman's serviceable but stolid translation left me languishing in the swamp of blasé.

So when I ran upon this little item, my interest was piqued:

A little water stained at the bottom of the spine, but crisp and nice copies from 1879 with beveled board, nice rich paper and big friendly print. I'm starting to appreciate that last.

I opened up the first volume:

I dipped into the text, and, although it was in poem form, it was not highfaluting. On fact, its failings lim, as far as I could see, the other way--a bit louche, almost chatty. My Personal Book Shopper (tm) --who just scored me a near complete set of Barbara Pym, with three reference volumes--and self-proclaimed Domineditrix tut-tutted a little.

"Not the best translation," she sniffed, continuing: "some of the English isn't the best reflection of the German." She looked at me with the solemn air of someone who has kept up her fluency, gazing at one who--alas!--has not.

I didn't, but could have replied, "Ah, but this one looks much more fun than poor old Kaufmann." I'd have been right too. But, fair dos, I'm sure she's right on the flaws of the translation. She knows her German, and her German literature. I was reduced to the simple, "but I like this one!" and in la Caterina's absence, prevailed. I have often regretted not yielding to the book buying impetus, but cannot remember having ever regretted yielding to it.

And, a little research found the translator Bayard Taylor to be of some interest; as recently as 1972, a Master's Thesis could say of Taylor::
A man of no small ego or ambition, Taylor aspired to greatness as a poet and produced a considerable quantity of lyrical verse characterized by technical proficiency and the sort of liberal ideas which were considered safe in the New England of his time. Today most critics agree with Richard Henry Stoddard's assessment that Taylor was a versemaker and not a poet, and he is remembered chiefly for his 1871 translation of Goethe's Faust, which even now is considered by many the most accurate English translation of the great German epic. Taylor has often been given the dubious title of poet laureate of the Gilded Age, for he reflected in his work the homely sentiments, the common goals, and the self- satisfaction of his readers.
A recent study of Taylor's life and work highlights the translation's basis in a strong identification with Goethe and his themes, and a strong desire to replicate his poetic meter faithfully.

So, in all, an interesting copy, no?

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The "Classic" Had it Coming

So, the first time that I saw the above sketch, I was nonplussed for the first portion of it, not understanding what, purportedly, what the point of this thing was until, suddenly the penny dropped.

It's D.H. Lawrence to the life--stilted, artificial dialogue, prurience masquerading as poetry, deliciously humorless and without nuance, writing lines no human being could say aloud without cracking up.

As witness the actors, who go up one after the other.

Really, Ferrell's beard should have tipped me off right away.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Anglocat at the Forum

If you're in New York City on Sunday, c'mon by:
The Forum

LOCATION: The Church
TIME: 10:05 am
Sunday, July 26, 2015
The Rev. John Wirenius, lawyer and constitutional scholar, newly ordained Deacon, novelist, and long-time active St. Bartian, comments on theological and legal facets of the Supreme Court’s June 26 decision on same-sex marriage and its intersection with “religious liberty.”

Each Sunday at 10:05 a.m., we gather for a forum that helps us further connect faith with life. Programs range from clergy teaching; expository Bible study; explorations of theology, social concerns, philosophical questions; and very occasionally matters of St. Bart's ministry and mission.
There's coffee and lemonade on offer, too...

Monday, July 20, 2015

St Barts in Literature

St. Bartholomew's Church Summer Streets.jpg
"St. Bartholomew's Church Summer Streets" by Beyond My Ken - Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons.

Well, that trailer's dated, I admit, but the Clarence Day stories are still pretty amusing. (The trailer dips the sole thing into a glutinous sentimentality lacking in Day's prose.) The movie scores 91% with critics and 79 % with audiences on Rotten Tomatoes

Still, Clarence Day had his vogue, and his day--he's still in print, mind--but it was rather a surprise to run across my parish in his God and My Father (1935):
In the City at this same later period Father went to St. Bartholomew's, and there too the various clergyman suited him though not so well [as in the country parish]. The church itself was comfortable, and the congregation were of the right sort. There was Mr. Edward J. Stuyvesant, who was president of three different coal mines, and Admiral Prentice who had commanded the fleet, and old Mr. Johns of the Times; and bank directors and doctors and judges--solid men of affairs. The place was like a good club. And the sermon was like a strong editorial in a conservative newspaper. It did not nag at Father, it attacked the opposition instead; it gave all wrong-headed persons a sound trouncing, just the way Father would have.

Mother didn't enjoy these attacks. Denunciations upset her. She took almost all denouncing personally, as directed at her, and made it feel so full faults that she trembled inside, though she looked straight at the preacher, round-eyed and scared but defiant. She preferred something healing, and restful; some dear old tale from the Bible. But denunciations satisfied Father. He liked something vigorous. And in general he took to the Established Church pattern--a church managed like a department of a gentleman's Government. He liked such a church's strong tory flavor and its recognition of castes.
My, how things have changed! And you know what they say about the more things change--
But nothing is perfect. After Father had made himself at home in this reliable temple, he discovered too late that even here a man wasn't safe. The rector began talking about the need for what he called a New Edifice. . . .
(Pp. 21-22). There's more--Father's horror on discovering he was expected to contribute to the Edifice ("He said he might have known it was just a damn scheme to get money"), his horror at the amount he was expected to contribute, and his speculations on the pew market.

But as one of those who glory in the New Edifice, I'm glad Vinnie made Clare ante up.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Watchman: The Shadow Side of a Classic

Well, I've read Go Set a Watchman, and I see what all the angst is about.

The novel is in its first half sweet without being cloying--Jean Louise Finch, 26 years old, living in New York, makes her fifth annual return to Maycomb to see her ailing father Atticus. He's icing from severe rheumatoid arthritis, and some days he's in such pain, he needs his sister (Aunt Alexandra, as starchy as in To Kill a Mockingbird, has, rather surprisingly, spared Jean Louise moving back home by moving in herself with Atticus) to help him dress. His brother, Dr. Jack, has fashioned specially large-handles utensils to help Atticus eat.

Jem has been dead for two years.

It's the characters you know, for the most part--we get a visit from Dill in a flashback, even--and they're mostly the same.

Certainly in that sunlit first half, with flashbacks to Scout and Jem and Dill playing together, Uncle Jack being amusing, and Atticus facing disability and mortality pretty much as you'd expect him to.

--And then Harper Lee shatters the cozy little world of Maycomb. Jean Louise stumbles on a racist pamphlet among her father's books and papers, and blames Aunt Alexandra for it. Aunt Alexandra holds her tongue, but is innocent. Jean Louise follows her father to an unusual gathering in the courthouse--the same place where he heroically defended Tom Robinson--and finds that he's a leader of the Maycomb Citizen's Council.

It hits Scout hard, and the reader, too. Lee has done such a grand job of evoking the Atticus that lives in our hearts (extraordinary, really, because Go Set a Watchman was written before Mockingbird) that we are hit as hard as Scout.

I won't spoil the book for you; the first half has all the magic of the innocent comic scenes in Mockingbird, and yet virtually no overlap. The Robinson trial is portrayed in a quick two pages, and is less heroic, and less tragic than in the first-published book.

The "back 9" of the book depicts Jean Louise's reaction, her anger and sense of betrayal. She finds an unlikely ally, has a wrenching confrontation with her father, and one with her uncle.

Scout dies, but Jean Louise lives.

Any more, and I'll end up spoiling the book.

But let me say, if Mockingbird is important to you, read this book.

Harper Lee is saying something important about racism (oh, Calpurnia!), about growing up, about fathers and daughters--and about human frailty.

It is an extraordinary achievement, even though you can see the seams, as the editorial process led to the abandonment of Watchman and the creation of Mockingbird--one critical scene is too talky, though most of the talk is good talk. Most of it.

Atticus is not, at the end of the book, a hero. He's a man. Flawed, loving, wrong-headed, passionately just-- a mass of contradictions.

Like many of us. I'm reminded of my favorite passage from C.P. Snow, with his protagonist, Lewis Eliot, engaged in a debate with a young Nazi official in 1938:
"No one is fit to be trusted with power," I said..."No one. I should not like to see any group of men in charge--not me or my friends or anyone else. Any man who has lived at all knows the follies and wickedness he's capable of. If he does not know it, he is not fit to govern others. And if he does know it, he knows also that neither he nor any man ought to be allowed to decide a single human fate, I am not speaking of you specially, you understand; I should say exactly the same of myself."

Our eyes met. I was certain, as one can be certain in a duel across the table, that for the first time he took me seriously.

"You do not think highly of men, Mr. Eliot."

"I am one."
Atticus, in either novel, would, I think, understand and approve.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Rest is Silence: End of An Era

It's often forgotten that the iconic '60s anthem is, in Milos Forman's 1979 telling, as well as in the original, in fact a dirge.

A dirge that sees the good-natured hippie, Claude, swept into the mincing machine of the Vietnam War, and then a dirge for all the lost, and then, only then, the outbreak of high-spirited, but ultimately serious protest we know. Shorn of this context, it becomes anodyne, even trite.

The film was released, of course, just at the time the 60s movement--the "Long Sixties" if you will--was about to expire. Hair was released on May 9, 1979; six months later, almost to the day, November 4, 1979, the Iranian Hostage Crisis began.

The Age of Reagan had begun with it.

For all its comedy, liveliness, and spirit, Hair was a dirge for itself, and its era.


We starve, look at one another, short of breath
Walking proudly in our winter coats
Wearing smells from laboratories
Facing a dying nation of moving paper fantasy
Listening for the new told lies
With supreme visions of lonely tunes
Singing our space songs on a spider web sitar
Life is around you and in you
Answer for Timothy Leary, dearie


I thought of this because we have taken a first step away from the Reagan Era status quo--the outsize importance our politics give Iran, and the seething hatred for that autocratic and theocratic regime that was inbred into so many of my generation and our elders. Vietnam was a national trauma, but it unspooled over a decade. The hostage crisis was concentrated and my 13 year old self was swept up in the emotion swirling around the hostages. My friends will be surprised to know that I, then an apolitical youth, rooted for Reagan, as did my parents, in that first election.

It was only living in the Age of Reagan that turned me into the liberal I became in my high school years, and that I remain today.

I became a dissenter from the Long Island conservatism that surrounded me, and in which I was formed, if only by opposing it.

And so I wonder what the generation will become that has been raised in the sclerotic years of the Long Age of Reagan, which, I think, is finally setting at last. We have battled against each other in a time dominated by an absolutist idealized vision of Reagan that lacks the occasional pragmatism that was the Gipper's saving grace.

It has been, I think, the Obama Presidency's burden to try to maneuver through the interstices of the now long-stale battle between orthodoxies of the Right and Left that no longer address the conditions or issues of the day--the felt necessities of the time are not summed up in the 1980s anymore. The battles between Democrats and Republicans these last years have a weirdly formulaic resonance--we know what each side will say before they say it, and it's done with so much less conviction than before. The generations of Reagan and Carter, of Clinton and McCain, have battled themselves to exhaustion. (And what of Hilary Clinton? Will she, if she ever takes the stage, fit either or neither?)

Whatever else one may say of him, Obama has, in one way, succeeded; he has modeled a role for government that does not fit the post World War II, High Cold War paradigm of Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson, nor the late Cold War "shrink it" paradigm of Reagan. We've been so caught up in the stale old kabuki drama that we haven't noticed it, but something new has been done, whether for weal or woe.

Yes, I think it's more for weal--but I would, wouldn't I, as Mandy Rice-Davies might remind me.

Whatever. The long 80s are coming to an end. On their way out, we're all winning and losing the battles that defined the era. Marriage Equality? Chalk one up for the liberals. Austerity in Europe, and only a partially Keynesian response in the US? Tie. The Right to Bear Arms sacralized? Conservatives on the board. You get the idea.

But somewhere under the ice, again, whether for weal or woe, is stirring a new Era to replace the long 80s.


Somewhere, inside something there is a rush of
Greatness, who knows what stands in front of
Our lives, I fashion my future on films in space
Silence tells me secretly

(Quotes from Let the Sunshine In (Lyrics by James Rado and Gerome Ragni and music by Galt MacDermot.)

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

"You don't make peace with your friends, you make peace with your enemies. . . "

I've seen that statement attributed to Desmond Tutu, to Moshe Dayan, and to Mac Maharaj. Whoever said it simply stated a critical truth.

The P-5 + 1 (that's the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, to you and me) have reached an agreement with Iran:
Iran and a group of six nations led by the United States reached a historic accord on Tuesday to significantly limit Tehran’s nuclear ability for more than a decade in return for lifting international oil and financial sanctions.

The deal culminates 20 months of negotiations on an agreement that President Obama had long sought as the biggest diplomatic achievement of his presidency. Whether it portends a new relationship between the United States and Iran — after decades of coups, hostage-taking, terrorism and sanctions — remains a bigger question.

Mr. Obama, in an early morning appearance at the White House that was broadcast live in Iran, began what promised to be an arduous effort to sell the deal to Congress and the American public, saying the agreement is “not built on trust — it is built on verification.”

He made it abundantly clear he would fight to preserve the deal from critics in Congress who are beginning a 60-day review, declaring, “I will veto any legislation that prevents the successful implementation of this deal.”

Almost as soon as the agreement was announced, to cheers in Vienna and on the streets of Tehran, its harshest critics said it would ultimately empower Iran rather than limit its capability. Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, called it a “historic mistake” that would create a “terrorist nuclear superpower.”

A review of the 109-page text of the agreement, which includes five annexes, showed that the United States preserved — and in some cases extended — the nuclear restrictions it sketched out with Iran in early April in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Yet, it left open areas that are sure to raise fierce objections in Congress. It preserves Iran’s ability to produce as much nuclear fuel as it wishes after year 15 of the agreement, and allows it to conduct research on advanced centrifuges after the eighth year. Moreover, the Iranians won the eventual lifting of an embargo on the import and export of conventional arms and ballistic missiles — a step the departing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, warned about just last week.
So what to make of the agreement?

First, let's be frank: the USA could refuse to sign the deal, although it's very unclear that the votes are there to override the President's veto. More to the point, what was the option? As the President said:
In an interview Tuesday with Thomas L. Friedman, an Op-Ed columnist with The New York Times, Mr. Obama also answered Mr. Netanyahu and other critics who, he said, would prefer that the Iranians “don’t even have any nuclear capacity.” Mr. Obama said, “But really, what that involves is eliminating the presence of knowledge inside of Iran.” Since that is not realistic, the president added, “The question is, Do we have the kind of inspection regime and safeguards and international consensus whereby it’s not worth it for them to do it? We have accomplished that.”
According to the Times, Secretary of State John Kerry managed to negotiate real inspections with teeth. Indeed, he appears to have obtained a way to reimpose sanctions if Iran doesn't comply:
Mr. Kerry appeared to secure another commitment that was not part of a preliminary agreement negotiated in Lausanne. Iranian officials agreed here on a multiyear ban on designing warheads and conducting tests, including with detonators and nuclear triggers, that would contribute to the design and manufacture of a nuclear weapon. Accusations that Tehran conducted that kind of research in the past led to a standoff with inspectors.
So, it's a knotty one, isn't it. Do we make peace with Iran, whose seizure of 52 hostages in 1979 ended the Carter Era, inaugurated that of Reagan, and led to decades of seething hatred on both sides?

If the deal is workable, do we make peace with our enemies?

Well, we know we don't do it with our friends.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Watching for the Watchman...

So, the benefit of pre-ordering is that my copy of Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman is arriving tomorrow. There's been more commentary about the novel, including thisinteresting piece about Tay Hohoff, who edited the book that became To Kill a Mockingbird. But then there's this, from CNN: "But now, some fans are saying they might not even read Lee's new book because of the racist revelation. They say ignorance can be bliss."

On Saturday, I pushed back against this a bit, on purely literary grounds. I stand by those, but let me add a little more.

Atticus Finch is a hero, no matter what he's like in decline. In the CNN piece linked above, filmmaker Mary Murphy points out that much of the Atticus we know is still there, including the warm, loving relationship with Jean Louise (no longer called Scout). But all the best heroes are real. Which means that they err, they sin, they fall.

That's what makes them, whether fictional or real-life, inspiring. If Theodore Roosevelt, the sickly, timid, boy, can grow up to be a great President--that gives us hope. Someone for whom courage comes easily--well, we can admire him or her, but what hope do they give? Samuel Clemens had to become a better man--he was born with the racism of his time and place, and learned to see it and call it out for the evil that it was; the resultant creation, Mark Twain, embodied that better man. John Donne, the coruscating witty love poet, developed to become one of the best devotional poets in the English language. William O. Douglas was one of the most passionate defenders of the rights of minorities and the marginalized in the history of American law. He was, quite often, not a very nice man. Holmes's faith in humanity was shot out of him on the battlefields of the Civil War. And yet he tried to honor the ideas he had once held in his life.

The list goes on. I'll add one, known to me personally. My late friend Bud was a difficult man. Certainly not a hero, Bud was tetchy, disappointed in life, and had to struggle to maintain the lines of communication with the members of my family, whom I know he loved. Maybe more of a hero than we gave him credit for, thug, because, despite his drive to isolate himself--he never quite managed it. He found reservoirs of warmth in himself, and, scowling to hide his amusement, would trade quips with me.

I think we all do that to some extent, try to recreate ourselves with the virtues we lack, and overcome our baser selves. Sometimes we relapse. And, so I'm glad I'll get to make the acquaintance of the shadow side of Atticus Finch, that rare lawyer of virtue.

He gives me hope.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Return to Macomb: Atticus Finch's Dark Side

The release of Go Set a Watchman isn't until next week (July 14, to be precise), and it's already controversial. From the New York Times review:
We remember Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s 1960 classic, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” as that novel’s moral conscience: kind, wise, honorable, an avatar of integrity who used his gifts as a lawyer to defend a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman in a small Alabama town filled with prejudice and hatred in the 1930s. As indelibly played by Gregory Peck in the 1962 movie, he was the perfect man — the ideal father and a principled idealist, an enlightened, almost saintly believer in justice and fairness. In real life, people named their children after Atticus. People went to law school and became lawyers because of Atticus.

Shockingly, in Ms. Lee’s long-awaited novel, “Go Set a Watchman” (due out Tuesday), Atticus is a racist who once attended a Klan meeting, who says things like “The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.” Or asks his daughter: “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”

"Go Set A Watchman," a follow-up to Harper Lee's "To Kill A Mockingbird." Credit HarperCollins
In “Mockingbird,” a book once described by Oprah Winfrey as “our national novel,” Atticus praised American courts as “the great levelers,” dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal.” In “Watchman,” set in the 1950s in the era of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, he denounces the Supreme Court, says he wants his home state “to be left alone to keep house without advice from the N.A.A.C.P.” and describes N.A.A.C.P.-paid lawyers as “standing around like buzzards.”

In “Mockingbird,” Atticus was a role model for his children, Scout and Jem — their North Star, their hero, the most potent moral force in their lives. In “Watchman,” he becomes the source of grievous pain and disillusionment for the 26-year-old Scout (or Jean Louise, as she’s now known).
Cue the consternation of the legion of Atticus admirers, some of whom speak of boycotting the new book to escape disillusionment. No, really. I'm not kidding.

The story is news--big enough that it has the prime real estate in this morning's paper:

I am going to push back against my fellow Atticus admirers, here. Historically, a great many of those who championed legal equality reflected in their lives the racism of their times--Hugo L. Black was a member of the Ku Klux Klan in his youth; Abraham Lincoln was, as Frederick Douglass said, by turns "emphatically, the black man’s President,” in fact, “the first to show any respect for their rights as men,” and, alternately,“preeminently the white man’s President.” Douglass noted that both views were true.

Harper Lee struggles with this in Go Set a Watchman, and I'm glad of it. It adds a layer of nuance, of realism that the child's eye view of To Kill a Mockingbird can allow us to obscure. It's easy, but facile, to treat Atticus as a plaster saint among sinners. But hold on. In Mockingbird itself, most of the characters are flawed--Miss Dubose (the "wicked old hell-cat" as Scout calls her, before weeping for her), Uncle Jack, Aunt Alexandra, and, yes, Atticus himself. The noble lawyer portrayed by Gregory Peck is there, but there are indications of depression, of bewilderment in his widowed status, in the younger Atticus. And yes, he can be patronizing toward his social inferiors. Just ask Bob Ewell. Or Mayella.

My copy of the book hasn't arrived yet, and I look forward to reading it. But I don't start off from the place that a depiction of a flawed, even morally tainted, older Atticus is by its nature a bad thing. If it is done well, it can enrich the character of Atticus profoundly, allowing us to see him more in the round. A very Trollopian view, frankly. As I said at the Trollope Society's Annual Dinner this year:
Trollope influenced my own view of human nature more than his more pyrotechnical peers, more than the writers of my own era, who all too often seemed to me to oversimplify, to not quite get it.

From him I learned that we are none of us just our worst moments, and that we cannot live on the summit of our best moments, either.

Phineas at Bay is a thank you to the great psychologist who taught me about human nature, who gave me the understanding to endure the myriad small betrayals and wounds we experience from those who love us both before and after they hurt us--and to forgive them, and accept forgiveness for the hurts we have inflicted in our own turn.

And people surprise for good as well as for bad.

People are complicated.

Life isn't safe.

We cannot be reduced to our worst moments. Or even our best.
Add Atticus Finch to the roll of Trollopean heroes--too complex to reduce to a cardboard figure of nobility, more alive than that.

Good on Harper Lee for challenging us to look the complexity of human nature in the eye--to risk her "brand" and offer us a more complex, difficult reality.

Monday, July 6, 2015

All for One...

So, when The Musketeers first premiered, I enjoyed the first episode so much that I foreswore my purism, until I reverted to it two days later.

Then, as perhaps the oddest of ordination gifts, I received a DVD set of the first two seasons, and got around to watching Season 1.

I admit it, I found myself quite enjoying the thing on its own terms. Not unlike my grudging respect for the wildly unfaithful 2002-2003 Forsyte Saga, but with more actual pleasure in the viewing.

Some of it was the performances--Peter Capaldi's Richelieu is by turns hilarious, menacing and engaging. Flitting from a bit of Malcolm Tucker to chilling, the Scottish version of Richelieu pulls the camera with him whence he wishes:

Capaldi is, as you can see, having a whale of a time, and its great to watch him.

But it's not just him--the musketeers themselves, and their friends and allies, and enemies, are all great fun.

So, my purism lapses once again. Ah, well.

While the books and the definitive adaptation still has my first allegiance, I like d'Artagnan, am capable of flirting with this rival without losing my heart.