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Monday, February 24, 2014

Spark, Memento Mori

Another excellent Muriel Spark book, gifted to me by Cheryl, that I will review for you long after Emily Hale already has, and so long after it was written as to be wholly redundant. Memento Mori is about old age, which is a very foreign country to Miss Self-Important, so it lacked the same charms of immediate recognition of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but it was still wickedly funny and Catholicly critical of all non-Catholic efforts to make sense of human life.

In all three of the Spark novels I've read so far (the other was The Girls of Slender Means, which I didn't like as much), only the Catholic vantage offers the possibility of un-deceiving yourself about other people, so that only the Catholic characters really understand human motivation because, in part, only they can bring themselves to forgive its sinfulness. This was the case with Sandy in Miss Jean Brodie, but it is more the case here with Charmian and Jean Taylor. Taylor, like Sandy, is the heroine of the novel insofar as it has one, and is, also like Sandy, a kind of nun - never-married, living in the confinement of a nursing home which she refuses to leave even when offered the opportunity because she views her residence there as the will of God so that she may be a kind of witness to human suffering - "employing her pain to magnify the Lord," as Spark says with surprising bluntness on the last page. (I think Spark generally tries to conceal the Catholicism underlying her novels so that it emerges quietly at the end as the only remaining reasonable way to live, given the failures and derangements of the alternatives that she depicts.) Because the Catholic characters are able to clearly detect and forgive the other characters' failings, they attain sufficient magnanimity (something more than "resignation," a secular platitude that Spark dismisses) to accept death.

The other characters, a set of petty and vindictive high society geezers, are all variously and comically deluded about themselves and especially about the nearness of their deaths. They deflect their fears into a competition to out-live one another, gloating about their own (very relative) fitness whenever they discover some new frailty in one of their friends, not realizing how rapidly - within the year, for most of them - death is going to overtake them, and how insignificant a victory it is to abjure a hearing aid or retain most of one's "faculties" in light of that. (None of them seem to possess very many faculties in the first place, but they all assume that faculties are solely a function of age rather than underlying sense.) They also constantly amend their wills to write one another out of them, and go to great lengths to wrest bits of money away from each other, believing money to be the due "reward," as they repeatedly describe bequests, for all the sacrifices and sufferings of their earlier lives. The test of character (and most of the humor) in the novel is how each of them reacts to receiving mysterious phone calls instructing them to, "Remember that you must die." Some of them find this to be a friendly or at least helpful reminder - merely a statement of the truth - and others become outraged and paranoid and try to hunt down and punish the caller. The latter die venal and gruesome deaths, but with their revered "faculties" intact. ("A good death doesn't reside in the dignity of bearing but in the disposition of the soul," says Taylor, the would-be nun.)

The other route, besides Catholicism, to a reasonable acceptance of death seems to be to have a large family and nurture it - many children, then many grandchildren - as the wife of the retired Chief Inspector does, since childhood is close to old age in its frequent reminders of human weakness. Thus, when the troop of vicious geezers visits to confer with her husband about the mysterious phone calls, she is "troubled, in the first place, by the sight of all these infirm and agitated people arriving with such difficulty at her door. Where are their children? she had thought, or their nieces and nephews? Why are they left to their own resources like this?" But her own calm and contentedness is not really intentional; it's just an unforeseen byproduct of having children and nieces and nephews to support and occupy her old age.The retired Chief Inspector himself is also relatively sanguine about death and proportionally less vile than the other characters, apparently as a result of "philosophizing" about it (tellingly, he is described as giving "philosophical sermons"). But you will quickly realize how closely parallel to Catholicism these approaches - family and philosophy - are and, since they fall short of full self-understanding for both characters, how both are completed by faith.

Maybe after Miss Jean Brodie and Brideshead Revisited and Memento Mori - all these modern Catholic converts heaping their criticism and disdain on our post-Protestant self-satisfaction - Miss Self-Important should start a series devoted tracing the irritatingly persistent and persuasive shadow-life of Catholicism in Anglo-American thought, like my equally implausible series on the ancient Greek influence on country music. Fortunately, I think this will not happen.

"We were, for the winter term, 'barbs' -that is, 'barbarians,' since 'all who are not Greeks are barbarians.'"

Well, Caitlin Flanagan's good but odd anti-fraternity piece starts with butt bombs, and I am left wondering (somewhat against my will), what happened to the butt bomber? Did his endeavor cause lasting injury of some sort? But we will never know, because Flanagan quickly moves on to Serious Things - the history of frats, their legal organization and clout, and then what I think is the real source of her outrage, the harm they inflict on women. I'm not sure about this, because there do seem to be points where she worries about the fate of the boys, but her tone in those sections remains even, whereas the final discussion of Wesleyan's handling of its fraternity rape cases is a kind of crescendo of anger. She is also oddly silent on the question of sororities, which may simply be because they're less physically dangerous and people aren't serially falling out of their windows, but also I suspect because whatever harms they may cause their members, the main point is that they don't perpetrate sexual violence.

Being an unsociable dweeb myself, I don't have too much native sympathy for Greek organizations, so it's easy enough for me to accept Flanagan's point that fraternities should be reined in by universities. There is a darkly comic irony in this imperative for places like Wesleyan, which are so progressive in their rhetoric and yet so dependent on the support of a few fraternity alumni that they can't bring themselves to cut ties with the frats that flout all their progressive commitments. Well, too bad for Wesleyan. What I was more interested in, however, was Flanagan's history of fraternities, which suggests that far from some kind of arch-conservative tradition, contemporary Greek life is actually some kind of perfect storm of all the worst elements of 1960s political radicalism fused with '70s/'80s individualist consumerism (something very like David Brooks's bourgeois bohemians as college students):
American colleges began to regard their students not as dependents whose private lives they must shape and monitor, but as adult consumers whose contract was solely for an education, not an upbringing. The doctrine of in loco parentis was abolished at school after school. Through it all, fraternities—for so long the repositories of the most outrageous behavior—moldered, all but forgotten. Membership fell sharply, fraternity houses slid into increasing states of disrepair, and hundreds of chapters closed.
Animal House, released in 1978, at once predicted and to no small extent occasioned the roaring return of fraternity life that began in the early ’80s and that gave birth to today’s vital Greek scene. The casting of John Belushi was essential to the movie’s influence: no one had greater credibility in the post-’60s youth culture. If something as fundamentally reactionary as fraternity membership was going to replace something as fundamentally radical as student unrest, it would need to align itself with someone whose bona fides among young, white, middle-class males were unassailable. In this newly forming culture, the drugs and personal liberation of the ’60s would be paired with the self-serving materialism of the ’80s, all of which made partying for its own sake—and not as a philosophical adjunct to solving some complicated problem in Southeast Asia—a righteous activity for the pampered young collegian. Fraternity life was reborn with a vengeance. 
I wonder if this is accurate? It would explain why Greek organizations are one of those rare objects of mutual disdain on the left and the right, but which nonetheless manage to evade suppression by a united political front since everyone finds a little shred to sympathize with in them. The left finds that it can't paternalistically condemn their unrestrained drinking and sex (which may, after all, be empowering to some), while the right can't bring itself to deny that freedom of association extends to their activities (for where then would the PC Police not be permitted to intervene?), and so the Greeks carry on. This history would also explain why this piece will find favor with conservatives and liberals alike, but result in no action.

At least one aspect of Flanagan's argument is questionable:
That pursuing a bachelor’s degree might be something other than a deeply ascetic and generally miserable experience was once a preposterous idea. American colleges came into being with the express purpose of training young men for the ministry, a preparation that was marked by a chilly round of early risings, Greek and Latin recitations, religious study, and strict discipline meted out by a dour faculty—along with expectations of both temperance and chastity. 
It's true that colleges used to have narrower aims, but bad behavior of the "fun" variety long precedes the inception of fraternities. Consider, for example, this 1808 letter from a Yale tutor to his friend, detailing the student situation at the college (the "war"):
To be very brief, Mr. __ has been rusticated, (for rolling barrels down my stairs,) for the term of two months. Sophomore __ has received the darts of Dr. Dwight's quiver, until they were exhausted, for cutting bell-ropes and blasphemy, but without any harm; he yet stands unhurt "amidst the war, &c." Freshman __ has been suspended for crimes of almost every name. Many others stand trembling in "fearful looking for of fiery indignation." In short, there appear to be more devils in college at present than were cast out of Mary Magdalene. I have been honored by a broadside at one of my windows, which popped off without ceremony six squares of glass. No matter; you were honored in the same way. I congratulate myself on having obtained the honor. "Fiat justitia ruat coelum," is my maxim. But the devil does not extend his dominion over students alone. The august body of tutors have occasionally acknowledged his power. Last evening they met at the "Luxembourg" to read "Dialogues" for the January exhibition. 
As to college affairs, they go on much in the old way. We had many convulsions last quarter, many furious "spasms of infuriated" Sophomores and Freshmen... Mr. Fowler's door almost split to pieces with stones; my windows broken; Freshman __ publicly dismissed; Sophomore __ and __ sent home; T , Sophomore, rusticated three months; and W, Freshman, sent off. Nothing but wars and rumors of wars. This term there appears to be some disposition to enter into a treaty of peace; at least, a cessation of hostilities is agreed upon.
The difference here seems only partly that the college may act in loco parentis with respect to these "devils," but more prominently that it could afford to be quite liberal in its expulsions and "rustications." In principle, modern colleges could be so punitive without being simultaneously paternalistic, but they choose not to be.

Friday, February 21, 2014

First World Problems: Pity the poor Harvard TFs

Harvard has so much money that it now has even more money. It may be that having a lot of money actually makes it harder to spend the money on anything useful because more regulation gets attached to this money, but I'm not at all sure how this works, so if you know, enlighten me. Surely though, some of this ever-expanding pot of gold can be used to improve the sad lot of Harvard's poor TFs.

First World Problems, I know. It's fine to point out that every Harvard (grad) student rests his head every night on a soft pillow embroidered with gold and sprinkled with myrrh, compared with the poor serfs at Berkeley and SUNY-Somewhere, who must chop their own firewood and huddle together in stone huts with dirt floors to stay warm, so Harvard students should never complain about anything. Ok. But until Harvard starts sub-donating its donations to these needy places, it's going to use its money for its own purposes, and I see nothing wrong with trying to improve its judgment in selecting these purposes. What I don't see though is how capping sections at 12 students per is a solution to any problem. What's magical about 12 students? In a particularly shallow course, 12 can be a problem b/c few people do the reading. (Even at places with gold-embroidered myrrh pillows!) Above 18, they tend not to fit in a single room, so that's no good. But while smaller may be generally better, it seems odd for the GSC to seize on this magical number of 12 for its main goal.

The real problem is not the difference between 12 and, say, 15 students in a section, but the weird precariousness of teaching assignments. Out of some deeply-ingrained habit, Harvard does not have course pre-registration, which means that no one knows how many students will register for any given course until two weeks into the semester. This in turn means that no one knows how many TFs the course will require until the same time. So grad students are left uncertain about what they're teaching until pretty much the day they have to show up to teach it, if not later. There is some consistency in course enrollments over the years of course, but less than you'd expect, and a fluctuation of even 25 students is all it takes to either fire someone who'd been counting on that course or necessitate an extra (unprepared) TF at the last minute. This is a much bigger problem than having a 13th student wander in.

But, good news: this problem is easily solved! By pre-registration! Earth to GSC! Every other school does it. It benefits not only the grad students who have to plan their entire semester's housing and living around the current tenuous non-guarantee of teaching income, but also the faculty who presumably would also like to know whether they will be lecturing to 20 or 200 students next term. Since I don't know that pre-registration would even require dipping into the heaving Harvard money pot to hand out some dregs to grad students, if there are dregs still left to allocate after it's implemented, Harvard might consider addressing the problem of Cambridge's extremely high rent by either giving grad students more moneyz to pay it, or subsidizing more neighborhood buildings for grad student housing.

Or, you know, they could throw all the money into building this totally redundant new "student center" which, according to the survey I was sent, may feature such amenities as video games and chiropractors. I frankly can't understand how university students have survived so long without the essential educational services of chiropractors. In what was surely an accidental oversight soon to be corrected, however, no "nap space" was proposed.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

On the prospects for Catholics who want to divorce America

I'm obviously no Catholic, but I read the non-theological parts of First Things, and - as is now no longer PC to say - "I have some Catholic friends." So, as a naive occasional observer of these things, permit me to ask a suitably naive question about Deneen's declaration of war against five(?) out of the 10(?) American Catholics who know what he's talking about in this essay:
The relationship of Catholicism to America, and America to Catholicism, began with rancor and hostility, but became a comfortable partnership forged in the cauldron of World War II and the Cold War. Was that period one of “ordinary time,” or an aberration which is now passing, returning us to the inescapably hostile relationship? A growing body of evidence suggests that the latter possibility can’t simply be dismissed out of hand...Whether the marriage between the (Catholic) Church and the (American) State can be rescued, or whether a divorce is in the offing, depends in large part on the outcome of this burgeoning debate about which most Americans are wholly unaware, but to which those with interests in the fate of the imperial Republic should to be paying attention.
My question is, according to the Catholic Church, isn't divorce impermissible? Or, at least, a bar to subsequent remarriage? Is Deneen proposing to become permanently stateless?

"Should I stay or should I go? If I go there will be trouble and if I stay it will be double": In which I offer important policy suggestions to the GOP

I thought the lament in the '90s and '00s was that the yoof were too mobile, too rootless, too dismissive of small-town and local treasures like used food stores in favor of soulless corporate franchises like new food stores. Now the problem is that they don't move enough? Since when?

I was really on-board with the previous too-much-moving lament, because it I could, like, totally relate to this problem, having moved enough times in the past 10 years that I can no longer access my own credit report because I can't correctly answer those security questions that ask you, "At which of the following addresses did you live/not live in the past five years?" People are still moving a lot, because I am moving a lot. And if they're not moving, maybe it's because they've already found their way to one of America's several yoga studio/cupcake bakery meccas and are now satisfied to stay there? Maybe the bipartisan pro-localism mantra of the past decade was actually effective? Maybe the Big Sort...sorted? Anyway, how would we know how much mobility is enough?

(Side note: The standard "list all your previous addresses" demand for security clearances and background checks seems really outdated. Who can even do this anymore? When a friend was doing this last year, she not only had too many American addresses to list, but also faced the problem of multiple foreign addresses. "I don't think my room in Cambodia even had an address. Maybe one of the buildings down the street had an address?")

If yoof non-mobility is any kind of problem, which I am not convinced that it is, I have a better policy proposal than giving vouchers to unemployed New Yorkers to move to the greener pastures of North Dakota (!!). The long-term unemployed do not necessarily or even primarily overlap with the yoof. One of the big impediments to my own moving is the cost of pet transportation. You have to buy a separate airline ticket for a cat! (Ok, it is a steeply discounted ticket, granted, but it's still a lot of money.) Plus a trip to the vet, cat sedatives, an airline-approved carrier, and cleaning supplies to deal with the cat's angry peeing in your shoes after arrival. And cats at least fit under airline seats. Think of the dogs that have to fly in cargo! The yoof do not want to move to North Dakota, despite its marginally lower unemployment rate (which seems like it would immediately increase once they arrived there unemployed, but what do I know about this?). But the yoof do own pets and they don't want to leave them behind. Ergo, to facilitate greater national mobility of the yoof and others, I propose government-issued vouchers for pet transport.

Suitcase Cat says, "Dear GOP, please send money so I can travel too!"

This post has been brought to you by the department of bad ideas.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

On buying Chinese cat clothes online

Following up on my previous post about buying super cheap clothes from China via eBay, I went ahead and did it. Reader Ponder Stibbons recommended YesStyle instead, and that was nicer and more thorough than eBay in terms of garment details and photos, but the exact same items (namely, leggings with angry cats) were available for much less on Ebay, so I decided to try that instead. But I note YesStyle here for my fellow petite readers who may have (or soon develop) an interest in East Asian fast fashion (ahem, Phoebe). For the non-petite, most of the items only come in one size, and that size is pretty small all around, so beware.

For a first go, I did not buy cat clothes, although I was sorely tempted. Instead, I bought this asymmetrical sweater tunic thing:


(I thought it looked cool in the picture; don't hate.) It was $9 with free shipping, so no huge loss if it didn't work out. Anyway, three weeks later, it came. It has no tags, no care instructions, no indications about which side is the back and which the front. True, one may suppose that back-front questions have intuitive answers for most items of clothing, but given that this sweater is intended to look as though it was put together by a first-time sewing machine user, intuitions are less reliable. So I made an executive decision about which way it's suppose to be worn, and on the whole, it's pretty good. Not as good as it looks on the model, but I think wearable in public. No idea what it's made of because, again, no tags. I think it's probably a poly blend, and not, say, radioactive cheese, which I was sort of worried about. It's true that you can easily find a decent $9 sweater at a thrift store without the uncertainty and three-week delay of Chinese online shopping, but can you find angry cat leggings? No. No you cannot. Therefore, more Chinese online shopping will likely occur soon.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

On canons, smaller munitions, and the targets at which they are aimed

Here is a lesson from the internet: when someone writes an article criticizing academia, academia's best defense is to call him a conservative. This allows the writer to be absorbed into a broader caricature of the conservative critic: uninformed outsider (or, if improbably an academic, then probably an out-of-touch octogenarian), blindly worshipful of The Canon of Great Books, blindly disdainful of The Troika of Great Oppressions, certain of his own profound intellect and dubious of his students' basic literacy, and probably sexually repressed at that. If the critic at hand doesn't indulge all these sins in this particular article, we can at least know he has them in mind. So, discreditable, if not already discredited.

But, I don't see much evidence that Mark Edmundson is conservative. Judging by his CV, he's just a nondescript English lit prof who's written on Freud, Romanticism, the very cultural flotsam he now decries, and - mainly - himself. Many books and essays about himself. This is justified because he believes one ought to take to heart "the Platonic injunction" to "know thyself", which is probably decent advice, but I would add that the subsequent Platonic injunction of Delphi is, "Nothing too much," and the third (partially effaced and only recently uncovered, which is why you may not have heard of it) is, "And don't feel obliged to share it all." The Chronicle plea for anger management is just more about the important subject of his self suggesting no particularly conservative sympathies except a belated realization that he loves old people, who studies show are statistically more likely to be conservatives. But maybe we're confusing him with Mark Bauerlein, different English prof/critic of academia who actually is conservative? Or does anyone who takes a swing at deconstruction turn conservative from the exertion?