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Two Three By Chandler

Between trying to get settled in a new house, the Thanksgiving gathering and feast, and a bad cold, I haven't had any time and not much inclination for writing over the past four or five days. The cold is a bigger factor than perhaps it should be, as it's been accompanied by a fairly bad headache which makes me want to avoid exercise of both mind and eyes. But it's better today, enough for a brief post, at least.

The term "cozy mystery," or simply "cozy," refers to a species of detective fiction in the Agatha Christie mold: low in violence and other sensationalism, set in a small community, with an amateur detective. If you've read any Christie at all, or similar others (and who hasn't?) you'll understand the term (and probably already know it). The cozy usually depicts a decent and orderly world, and the killer or killers is/are not terrifying psychopaths or habitually violent. It doesn't usually give you the feeling that you're looking into the abyss; the orderly world is not deeply shaken by the crime, and order returns.

I'm not particularly drawn to the cozy mystery, but I get the appeal. And the detective stories I like most serve a similar purpose for me. It sounds absurd to suggest that there is anything cozy about the worlds of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald's work, but there is something in my attraction to it that's similar to the appeal of the cozy. In Chandler especially it's a dark and violent world, and there isn't so much a breakdown of order as an established and conquering disorder into which the detective forces a very limited and often unwelcomed ordered space. And in both writers there's a pervasive melancholy with a romantic streak, a sense of the world as a fundamentally sad but beautiful place. That's the cozy-ness of it for me, and it's enabled by the knowledge that, unlike some contemporary crime fiction, there is not going to be a sudden injection of truly sickening violence, the kind of thing that will disturb me to the point of not wanting to read further. (That's probably a sad testimony to our culture's increased tolerance for realistic depictions of violence in books and film--and to mine.)

When we were packing up books to move a few weeks ago I held back The Midnight Raymond Chandler because I wanted, in the midst of all the stress, the kind of "comfort reading" I'm talking about. It's a collection containing several novellas and two full novels. I read the first piece, "Red Wind," a fairly early novella which, I just realized, is a Marlowe story which preceded Marlowe--that is, he first appears by name in The Big Sleep in 1939, which was after "Red Wind." But he's essentially the same character. 

"Red Wind" begins memorably:

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen.

Crypto-Marlowe goes to a bar where the only other customer is a man who seems to have been drinking there for some time. A well-dressed man walks in and asks if anyone has seen a woman, whom he describes. The drunk...well, I'll let Chandler describe it:

[The newcomer] took three or four steps and stopped, facing the drunk. The drunk was grinning. He swept a gun from somewhere so fast that it was just a blur coming out. He held it steady and he didn't look any drunker than I was.... The drunk's gun was a .22 target automatic, with a large front sight. It made a couple of hard snaps and a little smoke curled--very little.

"So long, Waldo," the drunk said.

That's how they wrote 'em for Black Mask, where the story appeared. The story that unfolds from there involves a woman who is still pining for her first love, and who talks of him and that love in almost mystical terms which it is possible that they do not entirely merit. 

Then I skipped to the last work in the volume, The Long Goodbye, which is also the last novel Chandler wrote, published in 1953, and was a little surprised to find in it another woman speaking in much the same way of the same sort of lost lover. It's a big part of the plot in both works, and it makes me think that there was something in Chandler's life that made it an especially powerful device for him.

As far as I can remember I read The Long Goodbye once long ago, probably the early 1980s or maybe late '70s, and not since. It's as good as I remembered, though I can't say that this reading confirmed my opinion from back then that it's my favorite, since it's been more or less as long since I read the others. Suffice to say that it has all the vivid California color, romance, sleaze, and sadness that one expects of a Chandler work. 

The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers.... There was a girl beside him. Her hair was a lovely shade of dark red and she had a distant smile on her lips and over her shoulders she had a blue mink that almost made the Rolls-Royce look like just another automobile.

I don't recall that Marlowe explains what he was doing at such a ritzy club. The "girl" with Terry Lennox is his wife, who disdains him and, when he slides out of the Rolls onto the pavement, drives away without him. Marlowe rescues him, gets to know him a bit, likes him a bit, and they have a sort of friendship that mainly involves meeting now and then for a drink. Then Lennox's wife, who, not surprisingly, was chronically unfaithful to him, is murdered, and he, the obvious suspect, disappears. And it seems for a while as if that little story is over and apparently unrelated to what comes after, in which Marlowe gets mixed up with an alcoholic novelist and his wife, but of course it isn't.

I'm quoting this passage not because it's important to the story but because I like it so much; it's a good instance of Chandler's skill:

I hit the office about ten, picked up some odds and ends of mail, slit the envelopes and let the stuff lie on the desk. I opened the windows wide to let out the smell of dust and dinginess that collected in the night and hung in the still air, in the corners of the room, in the slats of the venetian blinds. A dead moth was spread-eagled on a corner of the desk. On the window sill a bee with tattered wings was crawling along the woodwork, buzzing in a tired remote sort of way, as if she knew it wasn't any use, she was finished, she had flown too many missions and would never get back to the hive again.

There is a twist in the denouement which struck me as implausible. Very implausible. In fact there are several incidents in the plot which struck me that way, but only the last one broke through the suspension-of-disbelief threshold. You might suppose--at least I did--that the title is just a way of referring to death, like calling it "the big sleep." It doesn't, though, at least not primarily; it's more poignant than that. 

The Blue Dahlia is a 1946 movie for which Chandler wrote the screen play. It's Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, and William Bendix again, this time Bendix playing a good guy but still a somewhat unbalanced one, due to a brain injury in the war. 

Three newly discharged veterans return home--to Los Angeles, of course. One of them is married, and after a couple of farewell drinks he leaves the others and seeks out his wife. She is not at all glad to see him; she has been living a life of partying, drinking, and infidelity. (That kind of betrayal was apparently not as rare as one would like to think.) He leaves, determined to have nothing more to do with her. Sometime in the following hours she is murdered, and of course he is the prime suspect. (As this pattern occurs in The Long Goodbye, it's worth noting that the film came first.)

As a whodunit puzzle, and just in general as a movie, it's very good, definitely one to see if you like this type of thing. Somehow, though, it didn't engage me as strongly as some others in this vein; not as strongly, for instance, as Detour, maybe because it isn't as noir. And it isn't a Philip Marlowe story; the hero is somewhat on the vague and ordinary side in comparison, but then he's not a detective, either, just a good man with a bad wife. 

Maybe it should have been in color. The effect of the blue dahlia is rather lost in black-and-white.


Goodreaders on The Summerhouse Trilogy; More Noir

Lat week when I wanted to check certain details about The Summerhouse Trilogy but didn't have access to the book, I looked around on the web a bit for reviews or summaries which might help. I didn't find any, but I ended up looking through all the reader comments at Goodreads. Most were positive, and at least one reader says that she reads the book every year. But the negatives...well, they say much more about the reviewer than the reviewed.

Some seem not to have paid very close attention, as the full story is not "retold" in the three sections, but rather revealed gradually and cumulatively. Unless my memory is wrong, which it could be, or I missed something, the most startling bit is not revealed until the third section. But these folks didn't get it. Or maybe they're just that jaded:

I could have done without the third re-telling of the story.

I had hoped this final chapter would shed some light on things, but it really didn't. I wish I had given up after the first chapter spent time with a book I enjoyed.

And these two people, especially the second, seem to be the sort for whom anything not of the present day and culture is for precisely that reason dull and irrelevant:

Depressing first section in a supposedly funny British satire on trite callous middle class values.

Gah. This book did not age well at all. It was awful and prehistoric.

I don't see exactly how "callous" comes into it. I do have some sympathy for those who found the book dull, as much of it is subtle and without visible drama. Several readers complained about Margaret, the miserable girl of the first section--"a dishrag," one said. That's not unjustified, but it's an aspect of Margaret's problem. Still, these three apparently would have preferred a romance or thriller: 

A perfectly adequate, well written, thoroughly dull book. Not even hashish, sex and suicide could save this book from the monotony of the characters.

I am still reading this book, which is a book club nomination. It is awful! The characters are extremely unlikeable (except for Aunt Lily, and that is only because she is intoxicated most of the time and wears garish clothes). Even the dog has no name. It is the most uninspiring, slow moving, non-interesting book I have read.

Blecchhhh! I can't believe I finished reading this book, or that anyone would think it was interesting enough to make a movie out of! I hated it to the very last page.

At least that last one did push through every hated page.

This one I rather liked, and would suggest to the reader that she keep thinking about the book:

The author is an English Catholic whose work I’ve seen compared to that of Flannery O'Connor. She does not provide a nice, tidy, Christian ending or even tidy Christian answers. If I had read this book in my youth, I think I might even have interpreted it as anti-Christian.

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Detour is an excellent example of the noir genre, apparently considered one of the classics. It has a pretty simple plot, which makes it different from many of its type. A famous story has it that William Faulkner and another writer working on the script for The Big Sleep were puzzled by a plot point and asked Raymond Chandler for clarification--and he didn't know, either. 

A young man and a young woman are working together as a night club act in New York. They plan to be married, but the young woman leaves for Hollywood, hoping to become a star, and the young man stays behind. (It isn't entirely clear to me why he didn't go with her, but never mind.) Later he decides to follow her after all, and begins hitchhiking across the country. He gets as far as Arizona when he gets a ride from a man in a big expensive car. Thus begins the detour. 

Detour

It's a low budget movie, starring people I hadn't heard of before (Tom Neal and Ann Savage), and it's not much more than an hour long, but it really works. 

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I'm often struck in these older films by little things indicative of the degree to which many things have changed since the films were made. Many big things are striking, too, of course, but I mean the almost trivial ones. When was the last time you heard someone say "Give me change for a dime"? Or one which I think I may have heard as a child or a teenager, but which has disappeared for very good reason: "That's white of you." I mean that it's disappeared as a compliment. You may still hear it today, but if you do it will be  as an insult. 

Before the young man leaves for California, he calls his girlfriend. Remember long-distance calls? His brief New York-Los Angeles call costs him five dollars. That's eighty-two dollars in today's money, according to this site, which says that the dollar has lost 94% of its value since 1945. That sounds like a catastrophe, doesn't it? 

Another phrase you don't hear anymore: "sound as a dollar."


Alice Thomas Ellis: The Summerhouse Trilogy; A Couple of Noirs

I'm going to be more brief than this book deserves, because it's been several months since I read it and I want to refresh my memory about certain things, but I've just moved to a new house and almost all my books are still in boxes awaiting the resolution of questions about bookshelves. And I have no idea which box this book is in.

I think it was Charlotte Bronte who said of her sister Emily's creation, Heathcliff, that she was not sure that the creation of such a being was morally justified. I had a somewhat similar thought about Lili, the central character in this book. When I say that she is central I don't mean that she is what we usually call "the protagonist," that it is her fate which mostly concerns and engages the reader. But she is central in that she is the agent whose powers of action cause so much else to happen, or, more importantly in this case, not to happen: this is the story of a wedding that does not take place. And she is in a sense more than the others: not only her human self, but the expression, at least, of a powerful, mysterious, and fundamentally unholy force. If "strong female character" is one of your criteria for value in fiction, you'll certainly get your money's worth from this novel. 

In fact it is effectively an all-female cast of characters, though not all are strong. There are men present, but they're more or less stupid, unfortunate necessities. The book is not so much a trilogy as a trio of novellas (or three very long chapters) telling one basic story from the point of view of three different women. The three narrators are all very much a part of each other's lives, and the contrast between what each sees and assumes about the others, and the others' inner life, is striking--as striking as it probably would be in life. It's a technical tour de force, the points of contact among the narratives polished and precisely fitted. I recall one brief incident in particular, involving a dog's attention to a woman's foot, which is very different and rather more significant when seen for the second time and from a different point of view. 

The first section, The Clothes in the Wardrobe, takes us into the mind of Margaret, a young woman who is about to be married. The marriage would be against her will except that she doesn't seem to have much of a will. She has suffered a romantic and religious trauma which has sent her into despair, including the specifically theological sense of that word, resigned and indifferent to the pressures exerted by her mother and the suitor, a boorish older man, Syl. Significantly, Margaret's narration begins with a description of Lili. 

The second book, The Skeleton in the Closet, is the viewpoint of Syl's mother, Mrs. Munro, a somewhat embittered older woman who doesn't think a great deal more of Syl than does Margaret. Alice Thomas Ellis is not the only novelist to give us strikingly different views of a character from outside and inside, but the movement from the first section to this one is a particularly effective turn. Margaret has had much to say about her future mother-in-law, most of it negative and also inaccurate, and we are a little surprised--well, at least I was--to find her so different, and so much more sympathetic. She thinks Margaret is making a mistake. But she is as weary of and resigned toward the troubles of others as she is of her own.

The Fly in the Ointment gives us Lili as she really is and not as we have been seeing her through the eyes of Margaret and Mrs. Munro. She is among other things the sort of person who is often described, with a touch of envy, as a free spirit, or, with a touch of dread, as a force of nature. She is also more or less amoral in many ways. But it is she who not only sees the disaster into which Margaret is sleepwalking but acts to prevent it. I think I can promise you that you won't forget what she does.

When I finished this book I made this comment in an email to a couple of friends:

My reaction is a kind of astonishment, not 100% positive. I read the last paragraph, closed the book, and said "Golly, what a book." Not "golly" but "gah-LEE," the "golly" of someone coming out of a storm shelter after a tornado and taking a look around. 

This was a reaction not only to the closing incident but to the whole thing, superbly executed by an intelligence that sometimes seems a little malicious. The atmosphere is so full of feminine resentment, suspicion, and struggle that I found myself wondering if this sort of thing is what goes on in the minds of most women most of the time. There is an almost cold, almost merciless quality about Ellis's intelligence and wit (there is a fair amount of humor here). I keep the word "almost" because there is more than cold clinical skill at work. The quality which makes me think "merciless" is an unflinching willingness to see these people as they truly are, to let them, so to speak, get away with nothing. And in the end there is mercy, though it comes in such a manner as to lead one to the old question about good coming from evil. This is a religiously grounded work, but, like Flannery O'Connor's and in some ways even more so, hardly comforting. At least two reviews that I came across used the words "witch" and "witchy" of the author, and I can see why. 

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For various reasons, none especially good but some better than others, I've gotten almost entirely out of the habit of watching serious movies. My Criterion Channel subscription has gone mostly unused for months, and I've wondered whether I should keep it. But they're calling this month "Noir November" and are running a number of noir titles which piqued my interest. 

The 1942 adaption of Dashiell Hammett's The Glass Key is a good one, starring Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd. I admit that I have a thing for Veronica Lake. After watching it I would have immediately picked up the novel, because I want to know whether the somewhat happy ending is Hammett's or not; I suspect not. But that book is also packed away.

The plot is complex, as one expects of Hammett, and the film is more genuinely dark than some of its kindred, especially in the sequence where the hero, Ed Beaumont, is held captive and beaten repeatedly by thugs. It's rare in these movies to see a depiction of the effects of violence that's remotely plausible. Beaumont is beaten almost to death, and we believe it. Far from bouncing back with a band-aid or two on his face, he spends a significant amount of time in the hospital. I have a vague childhood memory of William Bendix as a likeable cloddish sort of guy in a TV series called The Life of Riley, so it was a bit of a surprise to see him as a malicious brute. 

I also watched Call Northside 777 and This Gun for Hire. The former is not really noir, but it features Jimmy Stewart as a reporter trying to exonerate a man convicted of a murder he didn't commit. The latter stars Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake again, so is automatically appealing to me. It's based on a Graham Greene novel, modified for an American audience in the midst of World War II, and maybe a notch below The Glass Key as a film--less plausible on the whole, for one thing--but still very worthwhile for those who like this sort of thing. And anyway, Veronica Lake. 

VeronicaLakeImage swiped from this site which sells prints. I'm not usually drawn to the Hollywood Blonde types, but there is something about her that charms me. 


Wright Thompson: Pappyland

Subtitle: "A Story of Family, Fine Bourbon, and the Things That Last"

If you have any contact at all with whiskey and the many types and brands of it, you've probably heard of a bourbon called Pappy Van Winkle. When someone gave me this book for Christmas of 2020, "heard of it" was all I could say--I recognized the name, and was aware that it is absurdly expensive, running into the thousands of dollars per bottle. I assume that bottle is at most a liter, maybe only 750 milliliters. (I would prefer that it still be quarts and pints. That's not a view that I can defend rationally, but I like the old quirky measures.)

That's not the manufacturer's price, which is high but not really out of line with other top-shelf brands--from $70 to $300. But the distillery doesn't make very much of it, and there is an insane secondary market, in which those same bottles go for multiple thousands.

I don't believe "insane" is an exaggeration. To object that it can't be worth that much is irrelevant. Where money is concerned, "worth" is purely a matter of what someone is willing to pay, and that is probably not, or not only, a direct correlative of anything that could be considered an objective quality. Whether the taste of this whiskey is vastly better than that of other similar ones is probably not the determiner of that number. There are clearly elements of status, conspicuous consumption, and Rene Girard's "mimetic desire" involved.

But anyway: this book is the story of the family that produces Pappy Van Winkle, and it's an interesting one. The family have been making whiskey for generations, and they are actually named Van Winkle: this is no bogus corporate personality invented by marketers. In 1893 "Pappy" himself, Julian Proctor Van Winkle Sr., went to work for a distillery which he eventually bought. The enterprise had a hard time of it for part of the 20th century when big corporations started buying out all the smaller distilleries. There was an interim when the family had been defeated and were out of the business altogether, but the third generation, Julian III, got back into it and took it to its present place in the sun.

It's a story of craft, tradition, and family, not necessarily in that order, and especially appealing to anyone who cares about the effort to preserve the integrity and quality of a craft against commercial profit-above-all pressure. It's not a dry narrative, but a personal and almost memoir-ish picture of the Van Winkle family, especially Julian III, the culture surrounding Kentucky whiskey, and the author's own story, his family and their troubles. (It won't surprise anyone that I did not recognize his name, but Wright Thompson is a well-known sports writer.) I won't claim that it's great literature, but it's well-written, and I think even someone with little interest in the subject of whiskey would find it enjoyable.

And naturally it has a good bit to say about the nature and pleasures of good bourbon. Along with the book, I was given a bottle of very good bourbon called Larceny. Coincidentally, someone else gave me another good bourbon, this one having another crime-related name: Conviction, because the distillery is housed in a former prison. These gifts--the whiskeys themselves, and the lore in the book--caused me to pay attention to bourbon in a way that I never had before. I've been pretty much indifferent to the quality of whiskey, and in fact for many years the only one I kept on hand was Old Crow, which is near, though not at, the bottom of the list of quality in bourbon. That was partly for sentimental reasons, as my father drank it.

Well, now I know that there really is a difference, and that I really like the good stuff. Here's what I've learned to do: pour a small amount, a shot glass or so, of bourbon, and dilute it with a little water: a splash, as they say, or, if you want to be more precise, maybe a tablespoon. You want just enough water to reduce the immediate burning sensation, which gets in the way of the taste. It doesn't take much water, and too much will ruin it. Well, ok, maybe "ruin" is overstating it, but the result will be...watery. Puny. It won't work in the way I'm about to describe. Take a sip and just let it sit there in your mouth. Swish it around a bit. The flavor sort of blooms into this delicious golden vaguely sweet, vaguely spicy sensation--I always think of vanilla--and when you breath that flavor floats all the way up into your sinuses, deliciously. I can't go into the kind of detail about the taste that connoisseurs do--notes of this and that, finish, etc.; my palate is not that refined, nor is my vocabulary. Suffice to say that it's very pleasurable, and not all bourbons give the same pleasure.

I never could decide whether I liked Larceny or Conviction better, but both did far better in the above procedure than Old Crow or even Jim Beam. After Maker's Mark was discussed here a few weeks ago, I decided to try it, and bought a 375ml bottle, which represented a fairly small investment. I still have a little of the Larceny left, so I did a comparison. I like Larceny better, and it's around the same price as Maker's. But I don't think it's as widely distributed. It's only been intermittently available here.

And by the way: maybe the best whiskey I've ever had, certainly that I've had recently, is Jameson Black Barrel. Jameson is Irish whiskey, one of the two big names, along with Bushmills. I've heard that Jameson is favored by Catholics, Bushmills by Protestants. I don't know if that's true or not, and I don't care. I tried both a while back and wasn't enthusiastic about either. Jameson Black Barrel, though, is a higher-quality Jameson, too expensive for everyday, but my wife gave me a bottle last Christmas. It's really something--even richer than the good bourbons I mentioned, and with a quality that my wife, not a whiskey enthusiast, described accurately as "buttery."

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That was only meant to be 500 words or so, and then I was going to say more about the Vatican II question (failure or not?). But I'll have to postpone that again.

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It was the week after Thanksgiving when I saw him again. The stores along Hollywood Boulevard were already beginning to fill up with overpriced Christmas junk....

--Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye, 1953

I sure wish they still waited that long.

 


Carl Trueman: The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self

Subtitle: "Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution"

It's always true of human societies that serious and seemingly, perhaps actually, insoluble problems exist, but there are degrees, and it's more the case now than ordinarily. It's not always the case that an entire civilization plunges, as ours has done, into ideas and behavior that are obviously self-destructive and can only result in decline, possibly collapse. In some ways these are even manifestly crazy, in the sense of being fundamentally at odds with reality.

Those who recognize and are properly alarmed by this are frequently engaged in a somewhat desperate search for a solution, usually at least partly political, because our culture is now very heavily politicized. But I don't think our problems can be solved in any decisive way. I don't see how the plunge can be stopped, because the most powerful elements of society are passionately committed to it. We'll just have to ride it out and hope that it won't be fatal (whatever that might mean).

Obviously there is much that can be done here and now to slow it down, at least, and to ameliorate the harm being done. And I admire those doing the difficult work of--to choose one example--resisting the teaching of sick ideologies to school children. Nor is the organized political opposition insignificant or (entirely) ineffective, flawed though much of it is. More power to all of them.

But I've lost much if not all of my interest in talking about solutions. What interests me more now is the question of how we got here. Or, more accurately and importantly: where the hell are we? What exactly is going on? Philip Rieff's Triumph of the Therapeutic shed a great deal of light on those questions. In this book, Carl Trueman brings Rieff's insights, published almost sixty years ago, and those of others into the present. The others are, principally, Alisdair Macintyre and Charles Taylor. And now I'm going to have to read them, too.

If you want to understand why this thing that we call the culture war is so intractable, you might read part 1 of Trueman's book. (It's probably in your local library, as it's in mine and I live in a fairly small town.) There he lays out the situation: the fundamental difference is between those who view the human situation as fundamentally a matter of finding and accepting one's place in an objective external order, usually (maybe necessarily?) a sacred order, and those--the more representatively modern school--who see the individual as more or less creating or inventing himself, and, as a natural corollary, wishing or demanding that the world accommodate, or be subjected to, the self. When the two parties disagree, as they now do

...there is no real argument taking place. There is no common authority on which they might agree to the terms of debate in order to determine exactly what it is they are debating. The one looks to a sacred order, the other to matters that do not rise above the concerns of the immanent order.

If there is no reasoned debate, there can be no reasoned compromise, only a stalemate of warring armies. And that's probably the best we can hope for in the near future.

The rest of the book traces the development of this contemporary concept of the self, and the social and political implications of it. First came Rousseau's assertion that man is "born free but everywhere in chains," the chains being or at least beginning with the degrading and corruption influence of Society. From there to the sexual revolution and its current phase is a grimly fascinating story, running through Freud, Marx, and 20th century figures such as William Reich and Herbert Marcuse, and summarized in these two passages:

...the rise of the sexual revolution was predicated on fundamental changes in how the self is understood. The self must first be psychologized; psychology must then be sexualized; and sex must be politicized.

To follow Rousseau is to make identity psychological. to follow Freud is to make psychology, and thus identity, sexual. To mesh this combination with Marx is to make identity--and therefore sex--political.... To transform society politically, then, one must transform society sexually and psychologically....

"The personal is the political," said the feminists. I always took this to mean that, for instance, when a husband leaves his socks on the floor, and his wife picks them up, a significant political event has occurred. And I think they did mean that. But Trueman demonstrates that it also means something much larger, something absolute, something bigger than anything else in the minds of the sexual revolutionaries (a category which includes a large subset of progressives but not all). This is the long-developing revolution which became a truly mass movement in the late 1960s, and is now, as is often observed, in effect a militant religion. Its strictures were foreshadowed by Reich, who believed

...that the state must be used to coerce families and, where necessary, actively punish those who dissent from the sexual liberation being proposed. In short, the state has the right to intervene in family matters because the family is potentially the primary opponent of political liberation through its cultivation and policing of traditional sexual codes.

All this seems to me essential for understanding what's happening, which is to say that this is an essential book if you want that understanding. It is not the only pathology at work, though. Trueman does not deal with directly political problems, chief of which in my opinion is the mysterious apparent death wish of a large segment of Western culture, the hatred and repudiation of its own past and ferocious denunciation of those who persist in valuing its traditions, especially of course its religious tradition, and who refuse to make the expected acts of repudiation. There is probably a connection between this and the hypertrophied narcissism described by Truman, but I'm not sure what it is.

Trueman-RiseAndTriumpOfTheModernSelf

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I was going to say more about Vatican II and the article by Larry Chapp to which Marianne linked in the comments on the previous post, but I'm in the process of moving (not far, still same locale) and both time and internet access are limited. Next week....


The Son Avenger, and Other Things

One of the blog-related matters I've been wrestling with is that I've gotten way behind on discussing recently-read books. Part of the reason for that is plain old procrastination, with my own personal twist: anything, especially a writing task, that seems likely to take more than, say, fifteen or twenty minutes keeps getting put off: I don't have time to do that right now, I'll do it later. I'll have more time after I get [random thing] out of the way. And pretty soon half a dozen or so such tasks have piled up, while I attend to a series of things that at least in theory should only have taken a few minutes each. Here, I think, is the one that's been in that backlog the longest.

I finished The Son Avenger, the fourth book in Sigrid Undset's Olav Audunsson tetralogy, several months ago. It is very much a worthy finale to Olav's biography. The title I'm using is the one chosen for the Chater translation, which is the one I read, and I don't know whether it originated with Undset or was approved by her. In any case, it (the title) is very apt. I'm not giving away very much if I say that the heart of the story is a murder committed by Olav early in his life, kept secret and unconfessed out of concern for the effect its revelation would have on those whom he loves and for whom he feels responsible. The title suggests the way that dilemma is finally resolved, and what I think of as the holy irony of it.

I'll repeat what I've said before: this is a great novel, and Undset is a great novelist. I don't use the word "great" in the casual sense in which I would say, for example, that Revolver is a great album. I mean a kind of greatness that should stand for centuries, and probably will.

I don't now what the title of this volume will be in the Nunnally translation. It appears that the third volume was (or is to be) released only this month, and I can't find any mention of the fourth on the publisher's web site. It will probably be a single word, in line with the titles of the other three: VowsProvidenceCrossroads. These are defensible titles, but I prefer those of the old translation: The AxeThe Snake Pit; In the Wilderness. The difference is a good instance of my reasons for preferring the older translation: to my taste it is, to pick one of several possible words, richer. A post from November of last year, "Olav Audunsson and Undset Translations," goes into more detail on that question. 

Still, I don't think the new translation (or that of Kristin) is bad, and it seems to have brought new readers to Undset's work, which is a very good thing. And what very great deal of hard labor it must involve.

(Yet I cringe when I recall Nunnally's use of "fetus" when a character feels an unborn child kicking in her womb. There is a phrase used by people in the book to refer to the unborn, presumably an idiom of the time or at least appropriate to it, which a translator can hardly avoid: "the one under my [or her] heart." Or, when a character is suspected but not known to be pregnant, someone says that "she does not go alone." I'm not mentioning this as a political complaint; it's a literary one. "Fetus" jars. It's out of place. It would be like Olav riding off to a council of landholders saying that he's going to "network" with others.)

Here are links to posts about the second and third books: The Snake PitIn the Wilderness. If I wrote about the first one, I can't locate the post now.

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I promise I am not going to give in to the temptation to talk about politics regularly, but I am getting this off my chest:

Let's stipulate that Donald Trump is a bad man and was a bad president. I think the opposition to him, which has aptly been called deranged, and the four-year-long refusal to accept the results of the 2016 election did more harm to the country than Trump himself did. Still, I believe what I said in 2015: I think he has a screw loose. And I think that without all the frenzy on the part of the opposition his presidency would still have been, overall, a mess. 

Granting that, I cannot take seriously the political judgment of anyone who doesn't see that Biden is at least as bad, as a man and as president. The blogger Neoneocon summed him up some time ago: not very smart, not very honest, not very nice. That's clear, has been for most of his career, and continues to be demonstrated at least once a week. 

I'm not going to bother laying out the evidence. I've pretty much given up trying to argue about things that are a matter of simple observation. From the moment he took office, Biden has been maliciously, dishonestly, divisive, slandering the very large number of Americans who don't support him, and engaging in the most inflammatory rhetoric of racial hostility since George Wallace. And unlike Trump, who had most of the ruling class and the federal government in particular against him, Biden has them on his side, giving him a degree of power, official and unofficial, that Trump never came close to possessing. 

At this point, anyone who doesn't see this is either a very partisan Democrat or just not looking, perhaps too embubbled in the media environment designed and maintained to suppress everything that doesn't serve the progressive cause, or maybe just too appalled by Trump to see things clearly. I have a certain amount of sympathy for that last one--Trump often was and is, so to speak objectively appalling. But it still constitutes a failure of judgment. 

Just this past week Biden was caught, when he didn't know he was near an active microphone, saying "Nobody f***s with a Biden." That sounds like the voice of a long-successful criminal, suggesting a long history of misdeeds. That's the real Joe Biden. Kindly old Uncle Joe is as much a public relations creation as Ronald McDonald. 

And what did he, and/or the staffers who set it up, believe his Sith Lord speech would accomplish? If Trump had engaged in this kind of authoritarian theater the shock and horror might have produced actual fatalities among those suffering from Trump Derangement Syndrome. 

BidenAsDarthSith

This complaint is prompted in part by the evidence of serious corruption involving the Biden family, and the almost complete ignoring of it by the mainstream press. See this National Review story, which ends:

The evidence is that we’re living in an age of deep, dangerous, and pervasive corruption, and most of our institutions are either silent, indifferent, or complicit. This cannot end well.

*Journalism2


Nietzsche, The Atheist Who Didn't Flinch

...the Enlightenment effectively tore out the foundations from under the polite bourgeois morality that it wished to maintain. You cannot do this, says Nietzsche. You have unchained the earth from the sun, a move of incalculable significance. By doing so, you have taken away any basis for a metaphysics that might ground either knowledge or ethics.... The cheerful and chipper atheism of a Richard Dawkins or a Daniel Dennett is not for Nietzsche because it fails to see the radical consequences of its rejection of God. To hope that, say evolution will make us moral would be to assume a meaning and order to nature that can only really be justified on a prior metaphysical basis that itself transcends nature, or simply to declare by fiat and with no objective justification that certain things we like or of which we approve are intrinsically good. 

--Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self

I haven't finished this book yet, and will probably have more to say about it. But it's actually better than I expected--not that I didn't expect it to be good, but it's both wider and deeper than I thought it would be. 


More Rieff (3)

A brief but telling few paragraphs on the situation of Christianity in the new culture:

What, then, should churchmen do? The answer returns clearly: become, avowedly, therapists, administrating a therapeutic institution--under the justificatory mandate that Jesus himself was the first therapeutic. For the next culture needs therapeutic institutions.

After quoting a writer of the time, John Wren-Lewis, who dismisses all the actually religious aspects of religion, Rieff continues:

[Wren-Lewis] understands that churchmen will be able to become professional therapeutics "only if they break away radically from almost all, if not all, of their traditional religious pursuits." Here speaks the therapeutic, calmly confident that community life no longer needs "some supposed plan underlying experience," that is, no longer needs doctrinal integrations of self into communal purposes, elaborated, heretofore, precisely through such "supposed plans."....

Both East and West are now committed, culturally as well as economically, to the gospel of self-fulfillment. Yet neither the American nor the Russian translations of the gospel can be transformed into a spiritual perception.

Nor does the present ferment in the Roman Catholic Church seem so much like a renewal of spiritual perception as a move toward more sophisticated accommodations with the negative communities of the therapeutics. Grudgingly, the Roman churchmen must give way to their Western laity and translate their sacramental rituals into comprehensible terms as therapeutic devices. (p. 215)

That was 1966. The so-called "spirit of Vatican II" and many other developments would soon prove Rieff's prophetic insight. Clearly a great many Christians, clergy and other, have taken this path toward the therapeutic, not so much by a conscious decision as by having absorbed the view of the surrounding culture, that Christianity is essentially a sort of local  or specific implementation of a presumed general drive toward self-enrichment. 

Wren-Lewis took an interesting turn later in life after a near-death experience, becoming a believer in a kind of transcendent consciousness. 


More Rieff (2)

To end the spiritual impoverishment of Western culture, Jung recommends the following: that the rationalist suppression of myth and of other manifestations of the unconscious need mitigation, but not by a new theology or new dogmas; rather, by a therapeutic release of the myth components from the collective unconscious. The neurosis of modernity is defined by Jung as the suppression of precisely those irrational components. Therefore, Jung is recommending an essentially private religiosity without institutional reference or communal membership for the individual in need of an integrated symbolism....

In other words, "spiritual but not religious." In essence, this is a fairly common observation, though we usually hear it praised rather than viewed with Rieff's dry skepticism, and where it's criticized, not so precisely. What follows, though, is a little surprising:

This, then, is a religion for heretics in an age where orthodoxy no longer serves the sense of well-being. Jung's is a literary religion that demands more imagination than faith, more magic than science, more creativity than morality. Jung never analyzes the social structures within which all creative symbolisms occur. Indeed, he seems unaware of social structure. His psychology of the creative unconscious is remarkably old-fashioned, a secular version of the theology of the Creative Person which forms the central pillar of the huge and variegated growth we know today as Protestant theology. (p. 114)

My emphasis. I assume he's referring there to liberal Protestantism. It certainly doesn't seem to describe fundamentalist-evangelical Protestantism, at least not of Rieff's time. But I have the impression that the therapeutic mentality has made great inroads there in recent years, in what's been called "moral therapeutic deism." 

Oh look: MTD has a Wikipedia page


More From Rieff (1)

...the kind of man I see emerging, as our culture fades into the next, resembles the kind once called "spiritual"--because such a man desires to preserve the inherited morality freed from its hard external crust of institutional discipline. Yet a culture survives principally, I think, by the power of its institutions to bind and loose men in the conduct of their affairs with reasons which sink so deep into the self that they become commonly and implicitly understood--with that understanding of which explicit belief and precise knowledge of externals would show outwardly like the tip of an iceberg....  Having broken the outward forms so as to liberate, allegedly, the inner meaning of the good, the beautiful, and the true, the spiritualizers, who set the pace of Western cultural life from just before the beginning to a short time after the end of the nineteenth century, have given way now to their logical and historical successors, the psychologizers, inheritors of that dualist tradition which pits human nature against social order. (p. 2)

The systematic hunting down of all settled convictions represents the anti-cultural predicate upon which modern personality is being reorganized.... (p. 10)

Not only our Western culture but every system of integrative moral demand, the generative principle of culture, expressed itself in positive deprivations--in a character ideal that functioned to commit the individual to the group. Culture was thus the establishment and organization of restrictive motives. Men engaged in disciplines of interdiction. The dialectic of deprivation and remission from deprivation was in the service of those particular interdicts by which a culture constituted itself. The analytic attitude does contain a certain time-element of asceticism, but it points toward a character ideal that is in principle anti-ascetic and therefore revolutionary if viewed from perspectives formed in the inherited moral demand system. The dialectic of perfection, based on a deprivational mode, is being succeeded by a dialectic of fulfillment, based on the appetitive mode. (p. 40)

That last sentence is an adequate summary of the condition(s) analyzed in the book.

The "spiritualizers" in the first quotation appear to be the Romantics in particular, though the general cultural drift they represented was not confined to them. One might think, in argument to that general point, of the many instances in Christian scripture and thought in which we are admonished to attend to the spirit and not the letter. And the "spiritualizers" do, too. But their mistake is to suppose that the spirit need not be, in fact should not be, embodied, that to give it a body is an unacceptable limitation. Jesus himself tells us that the law is to be made alive, not done away with. 

What immediately strikes the reader of our time is the apparent paradox in which the destruction of all settled convictions has turned into an extremely rigid heresy-hunting orthodoxy. But it's only apparent. What we call "society" is as intrinsic a part of being human as is the individual. And every society has, also intrinsically, its expectations of conduct, its standards by the light of which some things are acceptable and some are not. Or, to use Reiff's terms, its controls, or interdicts, and remissions.