Jesus and the Ants

The Smithsonian’s “A Fire in my Belly” video exhibit, which depicts Jesus on the cross being eaten by ants, at least has the virtue of accurately reflecting what the Institution has become and the nature of the people who run it. Bill Quick’s take at Daily Pundit:

You think you’re so “transgressive,” so “daring,” so “cutting edge,” you cheap-ass poseur pieces of shit?

I’ll show you daring. I’ll show you cutting edge.

Switch out your ant-drenched Jesus for an ant-riddled Mohammed.

Go ahead, you gutless, cowardly pussies calling yourselves artists. I dare you.

I’d say that’s about right, although expressed in somewhat intemperate language.

“Stoner” by John Williams

John Edward Williams
You might want to have a look at the novel Stoner by John Williams.  It’s the real article.  It’s not really a well known work.  I found it somehow by clicking around on Amazon.  Someone had written an interesting review, and aroused my curiosity.  A lot of great literature is preserved that way.  Someone reads it, understands, and spreads the word.  Investigate a little and you’ll find that’s been happening with Stoner since it appeared in 1965.  A recent (2007) example is Morris Dickfield’s review in the New York Times.

What’s great about Stoner?  The same thing that’s great about any great novel.  It gives you an intimate glimpse into the mind of another human being, telling you what they experienced, and how they reacted to it.  In the process, you always recognize yourself; your own thoughts and feelings.

Works like this are written with a simple clarity that’s often missing from the works of philosophy and psychology with which they have much in common.  There’s nothing obscure about them, because the author is unconcerned about impressing you with how smart he is.  Rather, he has an intense desire to make you understand.  Stoner is not only clear, but beautiful.  Many passages in the book read like poetry. 

Look and spread the word.

The Case of Margaret Mead: Icon of the Blank Slate

Margaret Mead

I wonder how many of the people who have been furious detractors or avid supporters of Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa have actually read the book. Very few, if the comments I’ve seen about it are any guide. The book is supposed to be one of the holy Gospels of the Blank Slate, or the theory that there is, for all practical purposes, no such thing as innate human nature, a palpably false notion that somehow managed to mesmerize the practitioners of the sciences of human behavior through much of the 20th century. How such a seemingly innocuous little book could have risen to such prominence and been accorded such ideological significance is a subject that may well busy future generations of psychologists.

On the face of it, the book seems to be a collection of observations concerning the natives of Samoa written by a talented and intelligent young anthropologist who had visited the islands for a period of something under a year. A student of the noted psychologist Frank Boas, she was particularly interested in finding if the apparent stress and strain of adolescence for girls growing up in western societies was really unavoidable, or merely the reflection of a dysfunctional culture. I find no intent to deceive in the book, no excessive confirmation bias, and no evidence that Mead was a person easily duped by the individuals she was studying into believing something that she wanted to believe, but that was actually false.

Boas did Mead no favor by writing in a foreword to the book:

The results of the painstaking investigation confirm the suspicion long held by anthropologists, that much of what we ascribe to human nature is no more than a reaction to the restraints put upon us by our civilization.

The statement is both crudely unscientific (a brief study like Mead’s could “confirm” no such sweeping conclusion one way or the other), and self-contradictory (why would human beings “react to restraints” if it is not their nature to do so?). Such inflammatory nonsense amounted to putting a target on Mead’s back. I am not familiar enough with her work to know if she ever made such a sweeping claim herself in some other work, but nothing like it appears in Coming of Age. In Dilthey’s Dream, a collection of essays by Mead’s great foe, Derek Freeman, he makes the claim,

In the thirteenth chapter of Coming of Age in Samoa, Margaret Mead went even further, claiming on the basis of her enquiries into adolescence in Samoa, that explanations other than in terms of environmental factors could not be made.

I have carefully parsed the chapter in question, and can only conclude that Freeman had a lively imagination. Mead did constantly stress the importance of culture in the book, but I find nothing, in the thirteenth chapter or elsewhere, that positively excludes other than cultural influences on human behavior. What she actually did say was consistent with a comment that appeared in a preface she wrote for the 1973 edition of the book:

But the renascence of racism among some scientists and the pleas for a harsh, manipulative behavioralism among some psychologists make me wonder whether the modern world understands much more about the significance of culture – the interplay between individual endowment and cultural style, the limits set by biology and the way in which human imagination can transcend those limits – than was known in 1928.

Here Mead is wearing her well-known political activism on her sleeve, but she clearly distances herself from the extreme versions of the Blank Slate that were prevalent in 1973 and explicitly acknowledges that there are “limits set by biology.” This statement, written near the end of her career, seems to position her closer to modern theories of human nature than to the extreme “nurture vs. nature” orthodoxy of the mid-20th century.

Freeman isn’t the only one who has transformed Coming of Age to an ideological icon in his imagination, attributing extreme claims to it that one searches for in vain in the actual book. In rounding up the usual suspects, we find that Steven Pinker, that master chef of philosopher soup, has done the same thing. In his book The Blank Slate, he cites Coming of Age as a prime example of the “noble savage” fallacy, claiming in particular that Mead portrays Samoan society as egalitarian. She does no such thing. Her book is full of descriptions of the hierarchical traditions of the culture, and the consciousness and importance of rank and status. As far as the “noble savage” is concerned, Mead explicitly rejected some aspects of Samoan culture as inimical to those values of Western civilization that she believed should be preserved.

As for Freeman, he was a strange bird. Like Sam Harris, he had the notion that his understanding of human nature was so acute that he could use it to cobble together a new morality. For example, again from Dilthey’s Dream:

One of my main conclusions then is that there is a need for a critical anthropology of human values. Human cultures being value systems are “experiments in living,” and a critical anthropology would be concerned with assessing the consequences of these “experiments in living” in the hope that we might gradually learn to select our values with greater wisdom.

He seems to have elevated Mead to the role of quintessential representative of the Blank Slate in his imagination, and was obsessed with the bizarre notion that, if he could only prove that her claims about sexuality in Samoan adolescents were wrong, he would not only debunk Mead, but single-handedly demolish the Blank Slate itself. In fact, whether adolescent Samoan girls in the 1920s were as chaste as the most straight-laced Victorians, or just as Mead described them, it would “prove” nothing at all about human nature. Factual or not, Mead’s version of Samoan sexuality was well within the parameters already observed in other societies by observers both modern and ancient.

The question remains of whether Mead’s findings about the relative sexual freedom of women and girls in Samoan society were true or, as Freeman claimed, a figment of her imagination based on the claims of Samoan girls who told her what she seemed to want to hear as something of a practical joke. It happens that there is much of relevance to this question in a book entitled An Account of the Natives of the Tonga Islands by an Englishman who had lived among them for many years published in 1817. Thanks to Google books, this account, a wonderful anthropological study in its own right, can be read online. In includes a section on sexual behavior, noting that married women tended to be true to their husbands, but that marriage bonds were weak, and many of them were married multiple times. Unmarried women, on the other hand, enjoyed virtually untrammeled sexual freedom. Quoting from the book (page 173):

If a man divorces his wife, which is attended with no other ceremony than just telling her that she may go, she becomes perfect mistress of her own conduct, and may marry again, which is often done a few days afterwards, without the least disparagement to her character: or if she chooses, she may remain single and admit a lover occasionally, or may cohabit with her lover for a time, and remain at his house without being considered his wife, having no particular charge of his domestic concerns, and may leave him when she pleases, and this she may also do without the least reproach or secrecy.

…once divorced, they can remain single if they please, and enjoy all the liberty that the most libertine heart can desire.

…As to those women who are not actually married, they may bestow their favours upon whomsoever they please, without any opprobrium.

Remarkably, the author claimed that, in spite of this, the women were relatively chaste, if not compared to Europe, than at least compared to other island groups in the region, including Samoa, to which the natives occasionally traveled in their ocean-going canoes. In a review of the book that appeared in the April 1817 edition of the British Quarterly Review we learn, for example:

The women are much less immodest than in the other islands, and maternal affection exists as strongly among them as among the nations where the instincts of nature are fostered and strengthened by the sense of duty.

In a word, score one for Mead. It would seem that Freeman was the one who had his leg pulled.

If there’s a lesson here, perhaps it is that, before becoming firmly convinced about what an author said, it is useful to actually read her book beforehand.  Paul Shankman has written an account of the Mead – Freeman controversy entitled The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy. An interesting review of the book may be found here.

H. L. Mencken’s Prejudices

The Sage of Baltimore has been honored with a new edition of the complete set of his “Prejudices.” The best review I’ve found so far is by Damon Root at Reason. He must have looked beyond the pages of Prejudices, because he knows of Mencken the editor as well as Mencken the writer. It was in that role, primarily for his “American Mercury,” that he did the country a service he is little honored or remembered for today. As Root puts it,

Similarly, at a time when most leading Progressives (including Wilson) supported racial segregation and turned a blind eye to the horrors of the Jim Crow South, Mencken attacked the lawlessness of “Klu Kluxry” and routinely praised (and published) the work of black writers, including W.E.B. Du Bois, Walter White, and George Schuyler. Indeed, White later said that Mencken pushed him to write his first novel, The Fire in the Flint, and then helped him secure a publisher. Zora Neale Hurston was a major Mencken fan. And according to the Harlem Renaissance giant James Weldon Johnson, “Mencken had made a sharper impression on my mind than any other American then writing.”

Indeed, Mencken did more for social justice at that crucial time than any of his contemporaries, not because he pitied African Americans or because he loved to imagine himself as their noble savior, but because he admired the work of black writers and considered it worthy of being published. He gave them a much greater gift than condescending patronage. He gave them respect. The Mercury set the tone for many of the intellectuals of the day, and they, too, learned to recognize and respect the talent Mencken set before them. As Root points out, he hated the Klan and everything it stood for, and fought it with scorn and ridicule in every issue of his journal. In spite of all this, he has actually been called a “racist” because he spoke of blacks as he spoke of everyone else in his world, without the fine sense of political correctness expected of writers in the 21st century. No good deed goes unpunished.

R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. is not so complimentary as Root in the review he wrote for the Wall Street Journal.  For example,

But the vast majority of the pieces in “Prejudices” are tedious and ephemeral, even terrible at times.

Anyone seeking the reasons for Mencken’s high reputation would do better by turning to Huntington Cairns’s “The American Scene” (1965), an anthology that judiciously selects from Mencken’s autobiographical works, his writings on the American language and his various superb efforts at reportage, including his famous account of the 1925 Scopes Trail, in which fundamentalist religion famously butted heads with evolutionary theory.

There are no dates included in the Library of America volumes and no contextual introductions to the pieces offered. Much of the time we have no idea what Mencken is shouting about. He comes off as a gasbag.

Mencken continued such rewrites and regurgitations for an additional four “Prejudices.” He is at his worst when he writes on what he considers important topics: the South, farmers, the national letters, the American character.

I understand what Tyrrell is talking about.  Mencken was scornful of his enemies, and he wrote about them in a style that was repetitive to the point that it could become tiresome.  Perhaps he does come off as a gasbag in some of the worst of the Prejudices.  However, if you’re interested in learning something about the human condition, the Prejudices are not ephemeral, nor is it difficult to gather what he is shouting about if you take the time to learn a little of the history of the time.  I suspect the reviewer’s blanket judgment that the sage is “at his worst” when writing about the South, farmers, the national letters, the American character,” is more a reflection of his own opinions than of Mencken.  He occasionally had strong praise for southerners and southern letters, and as far as the national letters are concerned, I owe the discovery of several authors I greatly admire to his reviews.  He had a fine eye for literary talent, and put it to good use in the Mercury.  His first encounter with Sinclair Lewis is a case in point.  He was put off by Lewis typical antics, wonderfully described in Thomas Wolfe’s “Of Time and the River.”  However, when he got around to reading Lewis’ work, it didn’t matter.  He knew he had found a first rate talent.  He did not dislike farmers because they farmed, but because they were the source of political power for his bete noires such as William Jennings Bryan and “dry boss” Wayne B. Wheeler.  Tyrrell comes closer to the truth when he writes,

He flourished in the first quarter of the century, but I doubt there would be room in America for him now. His prose style aside, he was an independent mind. There are only two camps today, and he would be in neither.

That’s exactly what I admire about him, and why it’s well worth the effort to read his Prejudices, in spite of their blemishes.  There have never been many like him in any age, and in our own, they are almost non-existent.  Most of the stuff one reads today is so predictable, so orthodox in its conformity to some ideological dogma, so processed like the food we eat, so often regurgitated in blogs and the “news,” that one despairs of finding anything original enough to be worth thinking about.  Mencken is constantly holding little baubles of insights in front of your nose, turning them this way and that, shoving your imagination out of familiar ruts, even if they are sometimes in the rough, just as he dug them up.

Katherine Powers wrote another review for Barnes and Noble.  She bowdlerizes Mencken as an original “east coast intellectual:”

H. L. Mencken’s Prejudices is an extended Bronx cheer from the smarty-boots side of the culture war and the first full-bore expression of the animus of East coast intellectuals toward the South and fly-over country.

If you prefer feeding your confirmation bias about east coast intellectuals over according Mencken the respect he deserves as an individual, you will certainly find many tidbits that will serve the purpose before reaching the end of Prejudices.   However, the main problem with this pigeon-hole version of Mencken is that it isn’t true.  Anyone who takes the time to read his work will notice that he found a great deal to admire and respect in “the South and fly-over country.”  The rest of Powers’ review is more of the same wooden caricature.  For example,

In “The Cult of Hope” (Second Series) he calls the idea that criticism should be constructive a “messianic delusion”; on the contrary, its object is destruction.

If Powers’ object here is to give the reader an example of one of Mencken’s bombastic phrases, well and good.  If, on the other hand, she sets any value on informing her readers who and what Mencken was as a critic, its a complete distortion.  Mencken had a fine eye for separating the wheat from the chaff, and while he may not have been charitable to the chaff, he often had enthusiastic (and constructive) praise for authors he liked, many times before their reputation had already been established elsewhere.  Other than that, Powers can’t resist the urge to draw our attention to the fact that her personal piety meets the most up-to-date standards by means of the politically correct peck-sniffery familiar to modern readers.  This sort of thing may be forgivable as an inherited weakness in her case, as we learn that her “great-grandfather was an ardent supporter of William Jennings Bryan.”

It’s hard to capture a writer as original and thought-provoking as Mencken by trying to mount him on a pin in a review limited to a couple of webpages.  The most you can hope to do is pique the readers interest enough to get them to look for themselves.  Mencken is worth the effort.

Stendhal on Romanticism and Classicism

In his little book, Racine and Shakespeare, Stendhal defined romanticism and classicism as follows:

Romanticism is the art of presenting to different peoples those literary works which, in the existing state of their habits and beliefs, are capable of giving them the greatest possible pleasure.

Classicism, on the contrary, presents to them that literature which gave the greatest pleasure to their great-grandfathers.

To which Victor Hugo replied,

…he is profoundly unaware of what the classical genre is or what the romantic genre is.

Perhaps. Stendhal’s definitions aren’t like anything I’ve ever heard in an English class. On the other hand, they’re as clear and understandable now as they were when he wrote them down nearly 200 years ago. I suspect they’re also a great deal more useful for actually communicating an idea than anything Hugo might have come up with. For example, as Stendhal put it,

It requires courage to be a romantic (his definition), because one must take a chance. The prudent classicist, on the contrary, never takes a step without being supported secretly, by a line from Homer or by a philosophical comment made by Cicero in his treatise De Senectate.

If you look at what passes for “culture” in Europe in our time, it’s obvious that not many artists are taking chances. They’re mostly content with repackaging the work that pleased their great-grandfathers.

Stendhal